My Big Beer Day
How good can a beer writer's day be? Let me tell
One of my favorite, most impressive beers ever
is...okay, was Belle Dock Barleywine. The beer was only ever
brewed by New Haven Brewing twice; once by Blair Potts in 1993, and once
by Ron Page and Scott Morrison in 1994. I saw it around that time for
$4.10 a bottle. That was a lot of money for a single 12 oz. bottle of
American beer at the time; pretty much the most expensive such bottle on
the market. It was a couple months before I finally took the plunge and
bought it. Astounding. This beer was up there with Bigfoot, Dominion
Millennium, Old Nick, Old Foghorn. And as it got older, it just got
better, developing this beautiful rich cashew aroma and mellowing into a
wonder on the tongue. I unashamedly hoarded the stuff, and I still have
four bottles left.
But like the A.H. Hirsch 16 Year Old bourbon, there
will be no more. New Haven crashed and burned, in a big way, and Belle
Dock was gone forever.
Or so I thought. Until Scott Morrison started
brewing at the McKenzie Brewhouse in Glen Mills, PA. When I learned
that, I immediately started bugging Scott to brew Belle Dock, because I
knew he had the recipe. It took almost a year, but finally, in March,
Scott sent me an e-mail, asking me if I'd like to help brew a batch of
Belle Dock. Would I?! Hell, yeah!
Well, didn't June 26 come with a prediction of record
heat! It was already about 85°
when I got there at 7:30 in the morning. No worries: it was hotter than
that in the brewhouse. Scott greeted me all kitted out in his New Haven
Brewing t-shirt. "What else was I going to wear, dude?" Scott
quickly got me set up to stir the hydrating mash. There was about 600
lbs. of pale malt going into the mash tun: my job was to stir it and
spread it around in the 140° water to get the mash swampy but not
soupy, mainly trying to get it evenly wet down.
Monkey work, but an opportunity to smell the malt
as it came in (a rich, nutty aroma, kind of like a sweet loaf of
fresh-baked whole wheat bread), feel the pull of the malt on the paddle,
smell the specialty grains as they poured in, and breathe the steamy heat
of it all. I'm nursing a pinched nerve in my right elbow, but stirring
that mash in the steamy heat of the tun made my elbow feel fine. Every
hair on my left forearm stood up, lightly brushed with moist malt dust:
my arm looked like it belonged to a blonde werewolf.
With the malt mashed in, we worked on cleaning.
Then a colleague, Dale
Van Wieren, showed up. This was a little touchy, as Dale had
given Scott's beers so-so reviews in a piece he'd done for Mid-Atlantic
Brewing News. Scott was looking forward to the chance to show him more
interesting beers. Dale hung out for most of the rest of the brew day,
and seemed to like the beers, so all was cool.
The mash was about done and we started pulling
off the wort to the brewkettle. Scott was nervous. He had the numbers
from his 1994 brew (all good brewers keep a notebook), and we weren't
hitting the extract numbers he'd gotten then. Why not was a question
I'll leave to him, but what to do was a pressing problem. We were around
20°Plato on the wort samples he was pulling (°Plato being a way of
measuring the specific gravity of the pre-beer liquid, and thus, how
much fermentable sugar was in it), and we needed to be up around 24°.
Scott gets on the blower to Phil
Markowski, celebrated brewer at the Southampton Publick House
on Long Island, and told him the story. Not to worry, says Phil, who was
interested in the whole Belle Dock re-creation idea. Dump in dry light malt
extract (which Scott had) to bring up the gravity; you can add up to 10%
extract without any effect on the taste. Bingo, says Scott, we only need
5%, we're golden! Once the wort was all in the kettle (we only took the
first runnings from the malt) and the wort was at a boil, he dumped in
the dry extract.
We relaxed a bit, stepped outside into the 94°
heat...to cool down. Damn, it was hot in there! Scott
laughed, said wait till the afternoon sun came over the building and
started shining in through the glass front on the brewhouse. "Just
like a greenhouse," he said. Brew faster, I begged!
To help pass the time, and keep our focus, Dale
had brought along a bottle of Belle Dock from his home stash. Scott
examined it for mung, pronounced it clear, and we opened. it. Yes!
The richness was still there, the absolutely sophisticated aroma,
flavor, and feel. Scott was grinning from ear to ear.
The kettle was heating up to a boil, so Dale and
I went and had lunch. I had a really good shrimp-cake, and drank a LOT
of water and Coke, I was feeling a bit dehydrated. We chatted a bit,
then went back to take a look at the boil. Looked good, I dumped in the
hops, and then Dale and I started raking out the spent grain into
garbage cans. Stuff smelled GREAT. After we'd raked almost all of it
out, Scott went in to clean it completely.
So I'm hanging out, shooting the breeze with Dale
and the somewhat echoing-in-the-tank Scott, when this guy walks by and I do a
double-take. It's Volker Stewart, of The
Brewer's Art, the outstanding Belgian-style brewpub in
Baltimore. He was dropping beer off at Friedland's in Philly, and
stopped out at McKenzies for lunch. We had a nice little chat, and he
Time came to rack and roll. About 3:00 we dumped
in the last hops, waited a minute, and started transferring the hot wort
through the grant and the heat exchanger and into the tank. I think we
got about 5 barrels. Scott's planning on bottling all of it for a late
December release. Good thing we were done, because I was starting to
roast in there. Scott gave me some samples of his big bottle stuff, and
we left for his place. I grabbed a quick shower, put on a coat and tie
(honest), thanked Scott most sincerely for the opportunity to brew with
him, and headed for Philly.
I was going to the Ritz-Carlton for a Rogue Ales
event. Rogue has "teamed up with" (pronounced
"paid") Iron Chef Morimoto to promote two of their beers, the
Hazelnut Brown and the Buckwheat (now called Soba, I think). This was
largely a wholesale/retail event (which meant we had Matt Guyer from the
Beer Yard and the whole crew from KClinger's (long drive, but these guys
are Rogue fanatics), a "charge 'em up" kind of thing, but some
of us writer types were there, too: Jack Curtin, Priscilla Estes, and
writer/brewer Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery.
Rogue Leader Jack Joyce made a brief speech, then
we watched Chef Morimoto saber the cap off a bottle of beer (eventually
-- it took him about 8 tries, maybe more). Then we stood around eating
really good little bits of food, waiting for him to sign bottles. That's
when Garrett let us know he was doing a beer-food tasting at Monk's in
support of his Brewmaster's Table book. Good excuse to keep the
Jack and I hoofed it down to Nodding Head. We
plopped down at the bar, and got Spanky to pour us a pair of 700
Level Ales, Brandon Greenwood's tribute to the rowdy bastards at
soon-to-be-leveled Vets Stadium. The 700s were damned good, a very
flavorful light ale, so I had another. Spanky went off shift right after
tapping our beers, and we tried to get him to stay for one on us, but he
was on a hot date and had to run. That was okay, because our next victim
showed up: Dave Wilby, owner of the wholly excellent Dawson
Street Pub. Dave had a quick one with us, then led us downstairs to
the Sansom Street Oyster House, where he was entertaining some young
artists. Hubba-hubba, I gotta start entertaining some young artists!
We headed off for Monk's and Garrett's impromptu
kind of tasting. Priscilla was already there, so I sat with her, while
Jack went off to sit with some loud boys at the corner table. Priscilla
and I were sitting with two excited young black women who had seen
Garrett at his earlier bookstore signing and had been talked into coming
along to Monk's. They were not beer people at all, and so the way
they took to the beers was very exciting for me. They loved the whole
idea, and kept exclaiming "I didn't know beer was like this!"
Get it in ya, honey!
Here's what we had, in selected pairings at $3 each
(great price, BTW). First was Brooklyner Weisse with grilled
octopus, which I have got to have again: delicious stuff. Next
was 3 Monts with Brillat Savarin cheese, another excellent
pairing. Then it was DeKonninck Cuvee with some really good
chicken and apple sausage, followed by Orval with Orval cheese
(still not happy with Orval, don't know if it's a beer issue or a
freshness issue). The end was a powerful one-two: Optimator w/Sottocenere
truffled cheese (and by the way...I get truffles now, just not sure it's
a happy thing!) and the knockout of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout with
Stilton cheese -- and as everyone kept saying, "Stilton with stout,
who woulda guessed?" An excellent little tour de force by
But now...the beautiful day was over. I retrieved
the car, went home, and spent half an hour telling Cathy all the
marvelous stuff. What a day!
Fun With Jack
You all have heard of Jack
Curtin by now. His gray head pops up here pretty frequently,
just as my name is dragged through the mud regularly over on his
page. Things like that happen when you've got two guys doing the
same kind of thing with roughly the same kind of personal style in the
same area (I'm doing it better, of course). It's not
journalistically sound, but that describes a lot of what I do, so who
Point is, I got an invite from Mary Beth Pastorius
to come to this year's Penn Microbrewery Festival and sell books. I
really like Mary Beth and Tom, and I like this fest, I love to drink Penn
Brewery's beers, and I love Pittsburgh. It is, like
Syracuse, one of the great underestimated beer towns in America.
Hey, I thought, what a great opportunity to show this town to Jack!
So I e-mailed him and said, why don't you get Tom Dalldorf to let you
write about the Penn Festival for Celebrator, and you and I get a
cheap weekend in Pittsburgh to drink beer?
Contrary to common wisdom, Jack's no dummy, so I
met him at Sly Fox late Friday morning on June 6, grabbed a growler of
Brian O'Reilly's St. George Pils (very crisply hopped, an
impressive smack in the chops and not overly bodied), thanked Brian for
filling our cooler with ice, and we hit the road. I think Jack
stopped talking once or twice on the way to Mechanicsburg, but I could
be mistaken. It was all pretty interesting, so it doesn't really matter.
I stopped at Stackpole to
pick up books to sell, and we got back on the Turnpike.
It was a great day for driving, and we made
excellent time. Jack whimpered occasionally when I was a bit assertive;
he's not at his best on the road. But when we
got off at the Monroeville exit and headed down the Parkway (I-376) we
were presented with big orange signs telling us the Fort Pitt bridge and
tunnels were under construction. Ugh. It
really screws up the whole damned town when The Tubes are closed;
traffic is affected all over. My solution was to get off in Squirrel
Hill and head for the Squirrel Cage (the Squirrel Hill Cafe). This was
Before we got there, we spotted a familiar sign:
Gullifty's. We both wondered if it was like the Gullifty's near
Villanova; which is to say, hopping, stylish, and extremely beer-aware.
What happened then was a good sign for the weekend. We walked in, looked
at the pathetic beer offerings, and said, "Nah, no thanks, we're
looking for better beer." We left. No sense wasting time on crap!
The Squirrel Cage is not as micro-savvy as it
once was, but it's still pretty good. As was the Penn Dark (especially
at 2 pints for $5). We sat at the bar and relaxed after the long trip
and the intense traffic we'd encountered after getting off the Turnpike.
Nice, relaxing place, though it gets busy at night, just as it did when
I went there regularly twenty years ago. We had our beer and left. We
had a lot of city to see!
I've been meaning to get to D's Sixpacks & Dogz
for quite a while, about three years. We took a short spin down Forbes
to Braddock, turned right, and in a few blocks we were in a mixed
residential/light commercial neighborhood. We stashed the Jetta on a
shady side street and entered D's. Wow! What a great
idea! D's ain't big, just a counter with a grill behind it, and a couple
tables, but the beer! Six excellent rotating taps (Jack and I both chose
the Anderson Valley Hop Ottin', and man, was it crackling fresh;
they even had a Heavyweight
Perkuno's Hammer tap!),
a big bank of stuffed coolers opposite the counter full of an
outstanding selection of bottles (and I really mean
"outstanding," too), and The Beer Cave in the back, a room
temperature selection of about 750 different bottled beers.
"There are more in the winter, with the
seasonals." That's Jesse Seager, the manager. We met Jesse
while we were scarfing our chili cheese dogs (they really do mostly sell
hot dogs, Vienna Beef
hot dogs, but there's also kielbasi, hot sausage (mutant dogs), the
ubiquitous Pittsburgh fish sandwich, and chicken strips), and he showed
us around. Okay, he showed us the Beer Cave, there's not much else
that isn't right in front of you. We were very impressed, and wondered
why no one had done this in Philly (don't say 'The Foodery;' has anyone
ever bought a sandwich there?).
Over the Mon
We left, reluctantly, and got jammed in traffic
on the way to Homestead. I dragged a protesting Jack into a nearly empty
Chiodo's, where we grabbed seats at the bar down by the coolers.
Turned out Jack had never had Great Lakes' Edmund Fitzgerald Porter,
so I ordered two of them, a plate of fries (Pittsburgh is one of the
best towns for overall quality of french fries anywhere), and two
"You want halves, right?" the bartender
"Yeah, halves," I confirmed. No one
gets wholes; no one civilized. The Mystery Sandwich is an oblong burger
on a stout club roll with lightly fried chipped ham, sauerkraut, and a
sauce. What's the mystery? Why it's popular? Why someone thought of
something like that? I dunno, but they're great for laying in a base.
Jack bitched about them (a cholesterol thing, I think), but he left no
bite behind. He was quite taken with the Edmund Fitz, and rightly so:
this is one of the best porters in the world. Period. We were not as
pleased with draft Erie Railbenders: rather sweet, and they always were,
but this was a thin, body-less sweetness. Hope it was a fluke.
Back in the car! We tried to go on down Carson
St., but a cop had the ramp blocked off. What can we do, we asked him,
and he gave us directions: back into Pittsburgh, skirt the Monongahela,
come across the Hot Metal Bridge. Okay, we did that, arguing about tax
plans all the way (I tried not to argue politics with Jack, but
he's very insistent), and came out on Carson near Smokin' Joe's. Parking
sucked (duh), but we managed to find a spot.
Smokin' Joe's has an excellent bottle selection
and 44 taps. Things were hopping here, and the bartenders were their
usual beer-literate, slightly smartassed selves. I like it that way,
which is why I like to come back here. After a quick beer, we walked
down to Fat Head's, where Tony Knipling of Vecenie's
Distributing had tipped me off to a firkin of Victory ESB that would be
on that night.
Wellie, wellie, wellie, Fat Head's was a lot fatter
than I remembered it. The place has been seriously expanded, has a whole
new look, and it's great. Greater, that is. High ceilings in the
bar area, with a backwall going waaaaay up...and it has to, because
that's where they hang very legible signs that tell you what's currently
on tap. And the "firken" was right there in front (see the
picture; I've since gotten the joke, thanks to e-mail from concerned
parties: it's firken because Vecenie's got them the cask -- as in
Ken Vecenie. Ahhhh...).
Piper's Pub is on the other side of Carson, and
that's where our bliss led us. Piper's was quiet, the rush hadn't hit
here yet. I thought this more contemplative time was right for a whisky,
so I got myself a dram of Scapa. Nice, relaxing, we got our breath back.
And that's when I discovered I'd crushed the screen on my Palm. The Palm
that had all the phone numbers and addresses I needed to hook up with
people in Da Burgh. Dammit.
That kind of put a damper on things for me. For a
while, that is. Jack wanted to check in to our motel and go out for more
drinking, but I pointed out that Brian O'Reilly had given us a bottle of
his thumping big Ichor to gift to Jeff Walewski at Sharp Edge,
Pittsburgh's Belgian beer bar. Back in the Jetta, and over the Mon, and
into my old neighborhood, Shadyside. I showed Jack my old apartment
building, and then we parked outside Sharp Edge. Things were about to
take a sharp turn.
The Downward Spiral
The draw of the taps at Sharp Edge is so strong
that I actually got in the door and was looking at taps for a good half
a minute before realizing that the loud people behind me at the
table were Curt Decker and Brendan "Spanky"
Hartranft of Nodding Head
brewpub. Well, nothing like a little hometown joie de whatever
to make a pubcrawl even better. Curt and Spanky were hooked up with a
local beer lover, who I believe was named Ranjiv (I'd stopped taking
notes entirely by now, sorry if I got it wrong (Okay, I took a few notes
about Curt, but I must have been taking dictation from Spanky, I can't
believe I'd have said things like that about him)).
As he always does, God bless him, Curt
magnanimously bought Jack and I beers (I had a cask Stoudt's IPA, and it
was excellent), then proceeded to harangue us because we never give
Nodding Head enough mention. I fulminated a bit, Curt responded by
saying they were selling as much beer as they could make anyway and who
the hell needs you?
I was just starting to fulminate even more, when
Jack pointed out that Curt was in serious danger of flying up his own
butt and disappearing: he's peeved because Nodding Head don't get no
press, and Nodding Head don't need no press. Who needs the press at all? asked
Jack. Curt got a big smile on his face, I ordered a big bottle of Cuvee
Rene lambic and put it on Curt's tab, and everyone was happy again.
Except everyone else in Sharp Edge, because we
were really loud. So we left. Kelly's, said Spanky, we gotta go
to Kelly's, so off we went. Kelly's was a real good time: decent beer
(we started with a round of Anchor Porters, followed by Franziskaners),
cool retro look, and a tall, engagingly goofy waitress who tended to us
out back in the beer garden. Ah, beer and gentle conversation under the
stars. Thank God, as I told Curt later, Kelly's didn't have a better
selection of bourbon, or it might have gotten altogether ugly.
Dee's! screamed Spanky, naming another bar he and
Curt wanted to go to, and we bolted Kelly's. Jack and I hopped in the
Jetta. I had no intention of going to Dee's, though, and aimed the
Faithful Deutschmobile's nose towards Church Brew Works. We got
in just in time for last call, 12:45. I ordered a Dunkel, Jack had
water, I think. As we muttered about the unfairness of 1:00 closing
times, the bartender took pity on us.
"Gooski's is still open," she said,
mentioning a Polish Hill bar Pubcrawler maven Paris Lundis had
recommended to me. Quick directions were given, and we were off. Up a
steep hill, down another, up the next, a hard left, down and up again
(which is classic Pittsburgh, by the way; this town rivals San Francisco
for vertical drop, and gets snow to boot), and there it was.
I took pictures of Jack standing in front (mainly
so he'd be flash-blind when we went in the dark bar) and we entered.
Gooski's was rocking, and why not? A fantastic jukebox, plenty of
strapping blonde Polish girls, and pints of delicious HopDevil for
$2.50! Hot damn.
Just as we were getting stuck into our pints,
the bartender comes over with two nice black Gooski T-shirts and gives
them to us. They were even the right sizes: XXL for me and Old
Guy for Jack. What the hell? Someone explained it was because we were
taking pictures and "must be reporters, right?" Yeah!
That's right! Oh, boy. I took some quick notes on taps: Railbender, Penn
Dark, Yuengling, HopDevil, SNPA, Guinness.... Hmm. No Bud. There's a
surprise. Hey, bartender! So... Why no Bud? "Bud sux!" came
the grinning reply. Gooski's.
We finally had to go; it was quitting time. Up
the hill, down into downtown and around the bizarre circumlocutions
imposed by the closed Tubes, and to our room at the Hawthorn Suites. It
was raining by this time, and Jack and I had a bit of a walk through the
rain to the room we'd been told was ours. I tried the keycard: nothing.
Try it again. Nope. Again, and again, and again -- The door
opened, and there was a guy with a towel wrapped around him. What?
"What are you doing to me door?" comes
out in purest Strine. Gawd, an Ozzie! Sure enough, he'd flown in from
Australia, and needed sleep, but he just couldn't help being a mate.
Once we'd established that it was indeed his room and that the clerk had
indeed written the same number on our card folder, he wished us well,
and... Well, I had to!
"Ahh... Do you mind if I use your
bathroom?" And by God, he let me! I love Australians. In, out,
back to the front desk, and wouldn't you know that the only room they
had left was a double! By this time Jack was dragging badly and would
remember little of this in the morning (aside from me using the
Australian's bathroom), so I let him have the bottom room. We crashed
hard, and slept till about 10:30 Saturday morning.
June 8: The Fest
After dragging our aging butts out of bed, we got
ready and headed out. Jack kept saying "I don't remember this"
and "We're in the back of the motel?" I think he was cleverly
painting a picture of himself as out of it so I'd take up the slack and
do the work. Fiend.
After an unsuccessful search for breakfast, we
wound up at a damned Denny's on McKnight Road, and it was a by-God carnival
of human perversity: screeching kids, ignorant adults, and clueless
waitstaff, not to mention the resurrection men working in the kitchen.
If only we'd known about Bobs then...ah, well. You'll learn about Bobs
We were running a bit late when we got to the
Fest, but no problem: we got the last parking spot in the vendor lot,
grabbed books and such, and hustled into the garage. Penn holds their
Fests in a parking garage, with about 1/3 of the space open to the air,
the rest in under the concrete.
I've been out in the air and light before at
these Fests, but today I was back in the darkest, dampest corner,
sharing a meager corner of a table with Jack Babin of Ale Street again,
an arrangement he was becoming less and less happy with. Quite
reasonably so, I might add, and I hold no animosity towards him
for this at all, especially since being at his table rewards you with a
constant stream of women eager to buy his Beer
Goddess line of clothing.
Jack quickly left to sample, and I set up my books.
The first session was a slow one: I sold one book in 2.5 hours. Oh, my.
Fifteen minutes later, the second session started. AAAAAAAAA!!!!
I took the opportunity and did a little sampling.
Penn's Dark, Weizen, and Kaiser Pils are, I'm happy to say, all completely
up to snuff, wonderful stuff that I was happy to suck up. Had some
delicious Biere d'Art and Perkuno's from Heavyweight
in the new glassware. Old Dominion's Oak Barrel Stout, aged in
whiskey barrels, was fantastic. I can see why Jerry Bailey says
"If I could make enough of it, I'd be rich." Still liking
Weyerbacher Triple (okay, Merry Monk's Ale), damned nice
stuff, and the Blithering Idiot caused a big line to form when it
was about to tap.
I also took the opportunity to talk to Charlie
Schnabel about my visit to Otto's (see the notes
above), and to meet the new brewer at Erie Brewing, Matt Allyn.
Matt's been there since September. He's coming in from 8 years of
brewing in breweries in Michigan, and this guy's got plans. He's
working on a brewpub in Titusville, PA, that he hopes will open in
August: "Four Suns Brewing." He'll be managing brewing at both
places. "We are at 23% growth over last year," he told me
about Erie's progress, "and we're at capacity now. I'm looking to
double our fermenter tankage." Railbender is still the biggest
seller...but the hordes arrived before I got a chance to ask him about
the one I'd had at Chiodo's the night before.
Kids, I'd tell you more about the Fest, but... It
was a lot of work. I did sell quite a few more books at the other
sessions (Danke, Herr Gott!), and Jack did bring me samples of Dogfish
Head's 120 Minute IPA and Prescription Pils. I have to be
honest: I didn't like them. I found them blunt and without interest,
heavy and dull. Haven't had them since, though I've heard better things
about them, and look forward to trying them again. The big Dogfish Head
beers are always works in progress, and they do stir strong feelings.
The Fest was great, people loved it. The brewers
worked REALLY hard, though Penn does throw a good feed for them after
the second session. Jack and I started thinking about after, and filled
up some growlers for a party at our room: OD Oak Barrel, Merry Monk's,
Troegs Hopback, and we had that growler of Sly Fox pilsner, too. Oh, and
we actually invited some brewers!
Face it, though: Jack and I just aren't the draw that
the strippers apparently provided at another room in the complex...
Honest! So we wound up with Dan Weirback, John Trogner, and Ed Yashinsky
(Ed's working for Troegs, and is an old friend from the early days of Pennsylvania
Breweries). It wasn't raucous, but it was amusing, and by God, the
beer was good. Dan stuck to the OD Oak Barrel, I was sucking pretty hard
on the Hopback, and no one drank any of the Merry Monk's (which means I
got to drink ALL of it at home, and MAN, was it good!).
The conversation was amusing as John and Ed told
one zany brewery story after another. Though when John kept referring
to one brewery worker as having "an anal-retentive attention to
detail" I had to wonder: I always thought John was kind of... Then
John starts talking about how he was never a homebrewer, he wasn't
"one of them!" Two minutes later he's talking about roasting
his own coffeebeans and making his own cheese! I started howling that if
he wasn't a homebrewer, he was missing one hell of a bet. Dan waited for
a moment of silence and laid one in: "John, I think you've got
latent homebrewing tendencies." That brought us all to tears of
laughter, and finally closed things down for the night.
June 9: The Long Road Home...through
I'd had an invitation to go to a breweriana show
Sunday morning at Pittsburgh Brewing to sell books, and seriously
considered it, but after Friday and Saturday, decided I just wanted to
go home. I got up, got showered and dressed, and went out to scout for
breakfast, a real breakfast this time. I went north-ish and wound up on
Noblestown Rd., where I spotted a place called Bobs
(No apostrophe: just Bobs).
Stuck in a strip mall, but there were lots of cars parked there. Better
than that hellhole of a Denny's on McKnight Rd., I thought. Just to be
safe, I stopped at the front desk of the motel. "Where's a good
place for breakfast," I asked the (obvious trainee) girl. As she
sputtered pathetically, the extremely urbane young man behind her
touched her shoulder to silence her, than said, "There's a place
"Saw it," I said with a grin,
"just wanted to check." He smiled back and assured me it was
the genuine article. Jack was all ready to go, so we packed what was
left of the beer into the car and took off. Bobs
was hopping, but about eight minutes after we posted ourselves at the
door, two seats opened up at the counter. Bobs were everywhere:
pictures, signatures, goofy cartoons, this place had a lot of fun with
itself, but the food that was passing by looked great, and the cook, a
slender young black man who never stopped moving, really made things
happen on the grill. No menus appeared, no coffee, so we read a
left-behind paper. Then an older woman who seemed to be in charge
stopped in front of us and looked at Jack. He said, "Two eggs over
She gave him a hell of a look, and asked sharply
"Do I look like a waitress to you?" Hmmm...she's in whites,
she's behind the counter, and she's holding a pad and a pen. Was
this a test? I looked at her, then looked at Jack, who returned the look
with his familiar half-raised eyebrow that says "Oh Christ, more
stupid people?" She broke the suspense with "Oh, all right,
I'll take your order." I think she actually fancied Jack, who is a
good-looking guy for his advanced age. I got a breakfast sandwich that
I'd seen passing by (we never did get menus, BTW), by asking "Ah,
that breakfast sandwich, what's that?"
"It's a breakfast sandwich." She eyed
me like a gull eyeing a dead herring, so I quickly said "Well,
okay, then, that's what I want. With coffee and homefries."
She nodded abruptly and went to talk to the cook. When she came back
with the coffee, Jack asked her, "So, is there a Bob?"
She finally cracked a smile and said "Oh,
yeah, we bobbed his ass on out of here a long time ago." Her name,
it developed, was Wendy, and she was definitely in charge. She kept
coming back to talk to Jack, who absolutely glowed in the attention. The
breakfast sandwich was great, two toasted slices of locally-baked and
hand-sliced bread with eggs, cheese, and fried ham with a surprising
addition of romaine lettuce that really made the thing great. Jack had
raisin toast that he raved about, and the coffee was so good I had way
too much and was jittering the rest of the day. We tipped lavishly and
paid Wendy at the register. "Welcome to Bobs," she said with a
grin, "now get the hell out of here." A great stop, and one
I'll be making again when I'm in Da Burgh.
Jack was crying for home, but I managed to talk
him into a little recon run to Johnstown. I had heard rumors of a
brewpub in Johnstown for years, and they were intensifying recently, so
I'd tracked down an address. I wanted to find the booger real bad,
because some of the rumors listed it as having been open since 1995, and
that would mean both editions of Pennsylvania
Breweries were incomplete...which was making me nuts. I aimed
the Jetta out the Parkway and kept going on Rt. 22; Jack was asleep in
about twenty minutes.
It was still a nice day, with the sun pouring
through clerestory windows in towering cloudbanks. Traffic was light and
I spurred the Jetta over hills and swollen rivers. A lot of swollen
rivers. Jeez, and we're headed for Johnstown? Smart.
Jack woke up when I made the turn south off Rt.
22, and started pestering me about finding the brewpub. "You're
never going to find this place, Bryson," was his continuing
refrain. "How are you going to find it, have you ever been to
Johnstown?" he asked. "Watch and learn," I taunted him.
When we got into the outskirts of town, I stopped
at the first convenience store I saw. I got a drink, took it to the
counter, and while the girl was ringing it up, I asked her, "I'm
looking for a brewpub in town, do you know where that is, have you heard
of it?" She had, paydirt! She started to tell me where it was, then
a guy said, no, he won't find it that way, try this... He and I walked
out to the parking lot, he gave me directions and wished me luck.
"Ha, Jack, I got directions!"
"You'll never find it," was Jack's reply.
What I didn't realize at the time was that Johnstown was split up into
several sections by the steep river valleys, and I did indeed get lost
pretty quickly. We wound up on the Johnstown Expressway, leaving town at
a high rate of speed. Somewhere up around the Richland Mall I admitted
that this couldn't be right, and got off. Luck was with me: there was a
firehall, and they were cleaning the trucks. By God, they'd know! Yup: I
got directions, back into town and out to the west a different way
(damned near a full circle, actually).
We came tooling around the big bend on Menoher Blvd.
and there was Johnstown Brewing Company. I was ecstatic, Jack was
impressed, and we pulled into the lot of what actually looked like an
old private hunting lodge, a big one. Close: it turned out to have been
the old Executive Club of the Bethlehem Steel works in town, a building
that will be 100 years old next year. I couldn't believe my luck: this
wasn't the brewpub I was looking for. I later learned that the
brewery from 1995 was misinformation; that had been a short-lived
contract beer made at Jones Brewing. So I'd blown into town, asked for
the "brewpub," and this one just happened to be opening. It
pays to be lucky, I guess.
We followed a number of senior types (real blue
hairs) into the restaurant, then took a hard left into the bar.
"Johnstown Brewing Company," the signage all said, and there
was talk of beer, but...the taps were all Newcastle, SNPA, and Guinness.
Were we had? What's going on here? Well, out the window was a block
addition going up that looked like it could be a brewhouse. We called
the bartender over and asked her what the story was.
The bartender was one of the partners! Susan
Lovette was pleased at our interest, and told us that we needed to talk
to the guy sitting right beside us, her brother-in-law, Ralph Lovette.
Ralph turned out to be a very personable and savvy guy, who explained
that after 30 years in local broadcasting (he never said exactly what,
but he must have done pretty well, and his wife, Karen, the other
partner, is an executive with a local bank, which never hurts) he
wandered into Weeping Radish
brewpub in the Outer Banks. He liked the idea, and retired, cashed out,
and the brewpub was born.
They've been open since May (or so, my notes are
a little shaky...) as a restaurant. The initial menu was printed on
blueprint paper with some intentional typos and hand-made corrections:
stylish. The brewhouse construction was delayed by the abnormally heavy
rains ("And we're a little touchy about heavy rain in
Johnstown," Ralph said, with a hitch in his voice that implied he
wasn't completely kidding), so they decided to get the locals up to
speed by running guest beers. This is largely unplowed land for the
micro-revolution, where Corona is considered a racy dare in beer
exploration, but the spectrum of specialty imports and micros they
managed to field has done so well that Ralph told us his wholesalers are
about half-heartedly trying to talk him out of firing up the brewhouse.
Gee, even wholesalers can understand the lure of higher margins,
imagine. For myself, if I were a salesman at one of those wholesalers,
I'd see the opportunity and open a beer bar in Johnstown right quick.
Ralph hired a pro: Brian Neville, who's the
executive brewer for Spanish Peaks. Why would he come to Johnstown? He's
an avid hunter and fisherman, and there's a piece of the action, and
he's keeping most of his job at Spanish Peaks (when we left, the
traditional pint glasses and T-shirt largesse was Spanish Peaks stuff,
out of the back of Brian's Jeep). He's hoping to have the brewery online
in August with a lineup of Flood Light, South Fork Dam Golden, 1889
Amber, White Hat IPA, Steelworker Stout, and Stone Bridge Brown,
"color beers," as Ralph said.
We had to get going, but I'm looking forward to
seeing what happens. Spanish Peaks has never blown me away, but the
beers have always been well-made. I'm curious to find out what Neville
will do in a brewpub.
Not much else to tell. We cruised over the
mountains, had a brief spell of excitement when I dove off the road,
lured by a "Fresh Horseradish" sign (and it was, believe me),
but otherwise...we drove back on the Turnpike. I dropped Jack off, and I
went home, and man...I slept.
Yeah, it's Friday the Firkinteenth. "This
was the best one yet!" Scoats told me. Scoats (Michael Scotese) is
the owner of the Grey Lodge Pub,
where this eccentric real ale event takes place. If you're not hip to
it, every Friday the Thirteenth is "Friday the Firkinteenth"
at the G-Lodge: Scoats puts up casks of unfiltered real ale on the bar,
and they pour by gravity until they're kicked. Simple, delicious, no
tickets, no band, just beer and people.
This was the tenth, and we've been conditioned to
expect something great for milestones like that. What did we get? Well,
we got cafe-style drinking: when my wife and friends and I rounded the
corner of Harbison and Frankford there was a crowd of people on on the
sidewalk. What's up, we asked each other: too full, cops bust it, was
there a fire? No, just a nice night (i.e., it wasn't pouring rain) and
people were out on the sidewalk digging it. "Stay behind this
line," Scoats asked, the chiropractor next door had complained.
Okay, we stayed, and it was very cool. Kind of a taste of what it's like
to live in a state where liquor laws make sense!!
I had a great time at this one because a lot of
old friends showed up, people I'd worked with ten years ago. Jen Lata,
who just barely likes good beer, but is an old and dear friend; Kevin
Pelin, who started a beer club where he works and credits me for
inspiration (God bless him); Sean Johnston, a beer-drinking Irishman
who's ready to try bourbon after my appearance last week on Jim
Coleman's radio show; and Les Gibbs, a Wild Hunt veteran who's been on
many a beer jaunt with me. They came and brought their friends, and...
well, it was a perfect Grey Lodge night. Everyone getting along with
pints of excellent beer in their paws.
What did I have? I had Nodding Head's Old
Willy's Ghost, an excellent barleywine (as always, smooth and malty and
powerful); Sly Fox's bourbon barrel-aged Scotch Ale (power, vanilla,
heavy beauty), Manayunk's Vienna Lager (clean, malty, gutsy to do a cask
lager!), Weyerbacher Hefe (very yeasty, plenty of sharp fruity
notes), John Harvard's Imperial Stout (big, complex, fruity), and
General Lafayette's IPA (pretty yeasty; bottom of the cask for me). The
rest were gone, all drunk up by the time I got there at 8:50! And
that's why it was the best one yet for Scoats: everything will be done
That's the Firkinteenth. The only one this year.
Sigh... We'll have to go somewhere else for our cask ale fun till next