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What I Was Up To

June 2003

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(if I have any; these are thumbnails, click for larger images) 

What I Was Drinking


June 26

My Big Beer Day

How good can a beer writer's day be? Let me tell you. 

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° 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 headed south.

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 party going! 

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 Mr. Oliver.

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!


June 6-8

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 cares?

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 around 4:00.

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 Mystery Sandwiches. 

"You want halves, right?" the bartender asked.

"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 soon enough.

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 Johnstown

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 called Bobs..." 

"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 lightly, toast--"

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.

June 13

Firkinteenth X

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 sooner! 

That's the Firkinteenth. The only one this year. Sigh... We'll have to go somewhere else for our cask ale fun till next year.  
















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6/26/03: McKenzie Brewhouse's Scott Morrison (late of New Haven Brewing)
















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6/26/03: Mung check!


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6/26/03: Yo, Scott's inna tank!

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6/26/03: Volker Stewart of Brewer's Art, Dale, and Scott



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6/26/03: Looks natural, but...he's a little wild with the blade!

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6/26/03: Matt Guyer, Mr. Smooth


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6/26/03: Dave Wilby gives us a big grin at Nodding Head.



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6/26/03: Garrett gets emotional about beer & food.

































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6/6/03: One happy Jack at D's (that's Jesse, 1st to the left).


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6/6/03: Four happy Jacks at D's 





















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6/6/03: Firken Fryday? 





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6/6/03: Whisky! All you want! The bar at Piper's. 















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6/6/03: Curt Decker, Man of Mystery, out back at Kelly's 






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6/6/03 (technically, it was 6/7 by now): The pictures with Jack all looked terrible. Unless it was him that was out of focus...



























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6/6/03: Idiots line up!









































































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6/9/03: "We followed a number of senior types...into the restaurant..."





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6/8/03: Ralph Lovette, proud brewpub owner



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6/8/03: "It's 11:30; how about a beer?" Brian Neville is a pro!

















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6/13/03: Jen & Kevin, personal friends of mine...


June 30 : Old Weller. I got two bottles of excellent whiskey recently. This is the first: W.L. Weller 19 Year Old. Done up in Buffalo Trace's snazzy long-neck specialty bottles (that look really cool but are too damned tall for my liquor shelves!), the Weller is a beauty, a gorgeous amber fire. The smell is smooth and a bit leathery, though the sweetness still comes through. The taste is intense, with some wood coming through. But I've tasted 12 year olds that tasted woodier and dryer. There's caramel here, and a lean slice of vanilla, and a drop of spring water brings out some surprising fruitiness behind the 90 proof wall. It's a sipper, and you wouldn't want to take it too fast, but the reward's there. 

June 30: George T. Stagg bourbon. There's a name from the past. Buffalo Trace resurrected the name for this singular, barrel proof, unfiltered and uncut whiskey. Booker's is no longer alone, though with only 300 bottles released, Stagg is hardly a big presence. It's a deep garnet in the light, with the years in the oak showing through. At 137.6 proof, I'm a little trepidacious about putting my tongue to this stuff! Not much getting past the fuel in the nose except a touch of burnt caramel. Oh my God, the taste! This stuff spreads on the tongue like gentle syrup, it's hard to believe that it's so strong that if you touched a match to it this stuff would burn with a bright blue flame. This has weight, a density that only unfiltered whiskies attain. But I've got to tame it a bit: water. The nose opens up with a rush of vanilla and burnt sugar, and the whiskey's smooth fire fills the mouth. The layers of flavor are pronounced: there's spice, wood, caramel, and an elegant touch of toffee. But the effect, the enveloping, is the beauty of this stuff. I've never had a whiskey like it, and I can feel hoarding coming on...

June 30 : One of my favorites, though I can't really say why: Blue Heron, from BridgePort Brewing of Portland, OR. Lots of great beer in that town, and BridgePort is best known for their excellent IPA, but Blue Heron is just a nice, easy drink that I'm real happy to see when a friend of mine sends me some. It's bright copper, with a tenacious white head, has a spicy hop nose with some sweet ale fruitiness, and a smoothly malty flavor balanced by just enough hop bitterness. It's a real pint-after-pinter that goes equally well with food and conversation. 

 June 11 (May 24): Little late on this one (I'm sure you're shocked, by now). I went up to Hyde Park with my bro-in-law Chris to pick up an unfinished headboard at North Park Woodcraft (neat place, we have three nice pieces from there). We did so well getting the sucker in the back of the minivan (there was about 1" total clearance, I kid you not) that we decided to celebrate with a beer (or two) at Hyde Park Brewing. John Eccles wasn't in (probably just as well, or we'd have needed to get a room), so we just plonked down at the bar and had ordered up. I got the Von Schtuppen Schwarzbier: almost completely black (duh), slightly sweet, just a hair roasty, and damned drinkable. Chris pulled an S.O.B. (Special Old Bitter) that was pretty hoppy, but not abusively bitter. "Spicy, piney, brisk, in a light to medium body." Also quite drinkable. I got a Barrel 9, John's rotating experimental tap; this time it was a 'pale bitter,' and it was a little perfumy; we liked the S.O.B. much better. I also had a bowl of gumbo that was delicious and just the thing for the kind of not-quite-rainy day it was.

June 11: I promised you I'd catch up with Charlie Schnabel at Otto's and find out what was up with the beers I had there in February. Well, Charlie was pouring at the Penn Fest, and I went up to him and admitted I'd dissed his beers in February. Charlie being the kind of guy he is, he didn't yell at me, we just talked about what might have been going on. He's changed yeasts since then, he's even changed his mill ("We had a lot of problems with that mill."), and he said the Double IPA took a lot of tweaking till it came out right. So okay, things are different. I tried his Pilsner, and it was quite good, clean and brisk with hops. The Weizenbock was okay, but had some odd phenols in it (even for a weizen); heavy weizens can be tough. I'd still like to get up for another try, but I'm encouraged by the pilsner.

June 11: It's time to taste the beers I got from Chris Ericson at TAP New York. The big Lake Placid Craft brewery is up and running in Plattsburgh, and he brought me a sixer each of the attractively-labeled 46'er IPA and Ubu Ale. Let's do Ubu first; it's bigger, but not as hoppy.
Ubu is big. You can tell as soon as the top pops and a rush of malt pours out into the air. It pours with a creamy tan head forming over a solidly brown beer with a hint of orange. The inch above the beer is full of malt and fruits and a bit of chocolate, very appetizing! It's fairly rich, comfortingly full, and there's a nice bit of bitterness at the end to dry things up. How's it compare to draft? This two month-old sample is starting to show a little bit of age, but when I had them back in March, they were remarkably close. 
Let's get the 46'er out. It's got a classic look: white foam over slightly ruddy dark gold beer. There's almost more fruit than hop in the nose. The beer's good, with a brisk bitterness, but it's no tongue-shriveling IPA (look to Lake Placid's Frostbite Pale Ale for that, and you might see it in bottles this winter!). There is a slight chalkiness to it, but that's dissipating as the beer sits and breathes a bit. In fact, the longer it sits, the nicer this one gets. If I had to pick between the two, I'd take Ubu, but the 46'er obviously has its merits, and some of it would depend on the situation: food, length of session (Ubu's 7% ABV weight is both a lure and a warning), and heat of the day. A nice pair of beers.

June 5: Time to start tasting again, now that I can smell again. First up: a "whoops" beer, one I was supposed to taste and just rediscovered in the back of the fridge: Tripel Krullekop, part of the Imagination Series from Bottleworks. This beer filled the area with aroma as soon as I opened it: classic orange-honey-spice tripel aromas. It pours clear and bright gold with a frothy white head. I'm looking forward to this. No disappointment! Luscious beer, this: classic tripel, fizzy, rich, but wait a minute...there's an almost Orvalish bitterness in the finish. What a surprise. Great stuff, this, sorry I lost it in the fridge!

Next, Magic Hat sent me a bottle of Hocus Pocus to sample. It pours surprisingly similarly to the Krullekop, actually: white cap, clear golden beer underneath. The resemblance ends there. I can smell delicate nutty notes and a faintly earthy smell of hops as it approaches my nose. The taste is quite light, floral, with a touch of that nuttiness. House Magic Hat character, and I like it, but with a distinct summery lightness to it. Nice job.

How about some Moose Drool? Big Sky Brewing's flagship is a classic brown ale: darker than Newcastle, a nice tan cap of foam, and a cookie-sweet flavor with a bit of depth to it. Easy to drink, easy to like, reminds me a bit of Fat Tire in character. I think craft brewing's dream of a 10% share may lie in beers like these.

When The Lion's brewmaster Leo Orlandini told me he was sending me a sixer of his new Pocono Summer Wheat, I was politely grateful, but...American wheats suck, in my book. I was just not excited. Well, that opinion changed about two seconds after I popped the cap on the first bottle. First, the beer has a lot more color than most Amwheaties, and an interesting toffee/butterscotch aroma. Second, the booger actually has some body! It's not going to knock HopDevil out of your mind, or even stand up to well to the Pocono Pale Ale, but this is a decent beer that might just pass muster with your stoopid friends who are still drinking light beer. Hell, you might like it yourself: I did. Great job with a tough style, Leo! 

June 4: My local has re-opened! And it's nice, too. My local is Isaac Newton's, in Newtown, PA. They've been closed since February, 2002, when they had a fire. After extensive remodeling, they're open again, and damn, I like it! 20 taps, over 150 choice bottles, an expanded bar, the same extensive menu of apps, salads, soups, and entrees, and even a better bourbon selection (though it could still use work). I joined my friends Pat and George for an evening session tonight. It took a long time to get the first beer (ten minutes: too long, guys!), so I started big with a North Coast Old Stock Ale: delicious and deceptive, as the big Belgian character disguised 11.4% ABV. This was the fave of the night. Pat, a recent lover of Blue Moon Belgian-style White, got to taste La Vraie Blanche, Hoegaarden, and wisely pronounced it good. Damn straight: this is Da Wit. I had a clean but not overwhelming Sierra Nevada Summerfest, a truly odd Bell's Oberon (imagine an American wheat ale that someone poured some IPA into), and a kick-ass Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. I'm looking forward to more sessions, though I'll have to sell some writing: Isaac's ain't cheap. 

Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: November 04, 2003