Barker, Beer, and Bourbon

February 21-23, 2003

Cathy and I drove up to Fredonia, NY to join Joe Rogers and his wild crew at Barker Brew Company for their second annual Brews & Blues Festival on February 22. I can't tell you much about the Blues part, but I can tell you what went on in the brewery basement...I'm getting ahead of myself.

Barker PR guy Matt Capogreco invited me to come up and help judge the homebrews in their contest/festival. I'd help judge, I'd sell some books, I'd take part in the panel discussion. Cathy and I hopped in the Jetta and took off, leaving the kids with my parents. We left about 6:15 Friday morning: up I-476 North to I-80 west, then up PA Rt. 219 to NY Rt. 17, and then up two-lane to Fredonia. We went ahead and checked into our lakeside room in Dunkirk at the Ramada. The view of the lake was frozen and bleak; we shivered and left. 

We drove to the White Inn in Fredonia, a place that's been well-known for food and lodgings since the 1930s. It was ... stately, and quite warm inside. I told the woman at the desk that I was there for the beer judging, which threw her a bit, but as she bustled about, Matt Capogreco walked in with a box of glassware. We greeted each other, and he led me upstairs to the tasting room. Everyone else was going to be late, so Cathy and I strolled down to the brewpub for a "calibration" beer. 

Things were pretty much as when I'd last been there: quiet, comfortable, the Scotch and ESB on tap. We got one of each: delicious. The Scotch was malty and wildly fruity, the ESB more restrained and trenchantly bitter.

People filtered in, and eventually there was Joe and his assistant Loran Peterson. We sampled a just-about-to-come-on porter (not quite fermented out -- "I know that," Joe said, "I told you it wasn't ready!" And he had), laughed a lot, and headed back. We stopped in at Edleez Tobacco West on the way, where Joe and Loran bought cigars and I got a new corncob and some house blend tobacco. 

When we got up to the tasting room, there was Tim Herzog of Flying Bison and Paul Koehler of Pearl Street Grille, who were judging with us. Tim has a lot more experience with homebrew judging, so he pretty much ran things. The homebrew competition was part of the festival, though the turnout was lower than last years': only thirteen entries...not that I'm complaining!

To be honest, I was very pleasantly surprised: no infected beers, no madly hopped out-of-style beers. There were some out of style beers, like the "Australian Lager" that was about the color of Salvator, and there was an over-the-top ginger beer, but nothing that was horrible. The surprise best of show beer was a spiced Christmas ale, which pretty much shocked us all. The brewer put together nutmeg, ginger, and juniper, of all things, but managed to not only keep them under control, but actually made them harmonious. One of the best spiced beers I've ever had, pro or amateur.

We were at that for over 2 hours, and when we got back to the brewpub, we had a four course paired beer dinner, an excellent repast that concluded with a rich chocolate cake topped with hazelnuts. Conversation was great, and we were joined by Joe's partner and wife, Bobbi Pike, who kept apologizing for hopping up to take care of things. 

It was an early night, though. After finishing up dinner around 9:30, we hit the bar for a valedictory beer and headed back to Dunkirk for the sleep of the just...the just plain tired.

The Fest: Having a Few 

Saturday: Cathy and I got up and went down to the pool, swam a few laps to get going, then got dressed and had a leisurely breakfast at the Ramada's restaurant, overlooking the bleakness of the lake. We drove over to Barker and got set up on the second floor between Paul's Pearl Street table and the new guys from Southern Tier Brewing Company. Southern Tier is the brainchild of Phin DeMink, who used to be at Goose Island. They're outside of Jamestown, NY, and had just opened the week before. These guys are very experienced and hit the ground running (with the brewhouse out of failed Massachusetts brewery Old Saddleback): I tried their IPA and Porter and found both good, particularly the IPA, which was balanced at a powerful level and full of good hop flavor.

lnr_barker.jpg (241517 bytes)Here we are, set up to hawk PA Breweries (note the last-minute hand-made banner: laser printer and contact paper to the rescue). Paul Koehler took the picture; I returned the favor (see below).
The fest never got huge: maybe 150 people all told. They could have fit about 225, I think. But Joe said he's not interested in making it bigger. "I want it to be get more exclusive," he said. "Better beers, better brewers. I want to get Marsden over here with cask ales." Aim high, I always other people. I did meet a bunch of new people and sold some Pennsylvania Breweries books. There was a LOT of interest in New York Breweries, not surprisingly: that's why I went out there, after all, to show face and let people know I was serious. 

paulimp.JPG (44352 bytes)I was also there to drink beer: Paul's cask-conditioned Imperial Stout was killer, a deep black secret of a beer in the rich style of an Old Rasputin (That's Paul in his unique "sit-down, pull-down" beer engine position, pulling me an imperial). I got some Wagner Valley Sled Dog Doublebock and was pleased to do so: some people were running it down as being "too sweet." Eh? Maybe it could have been more maltily dry, but that's not what they're aiming for. I love that stuff. The Ellicottville Porter was good, but not as good as I remembered it: didn't stop me from having another. 


timwood.JPG (34478 bytes)Here's Mr. Dashing, Tim Herzog, of Flying Bison. He did an experimental IPA that was aged in oak and served from a wooden cask; good beer, but the wood made it rather musty: much better after I let it sit and air off for a bit. I had some of Joe's Amber, which I chided him for calling an amber; it was clearly a bitter. But customers being what they are, "Bitter" is the kiss of death for a beer in America, so he grits his teeth and calls it Amber and it sells like crazy. Finally, I got some of Rohrbach's Scotch, which wasn't a very good Scotch Ale...but it WAS actually a damned good Amber. I didn't say anything, just grinned and kept enjoying it.

When the fest was over I carted everything out to the car, and went back to the bar for a few of Joe's "Ambers." We had dinner with Tim and his wife Betsy, and his pleasant college-age son Colin. I had the "Berzerk Burrito," chockfull of delicious chunks of grilled steak and surrounded by a tasty white chili covered with cheese. I washed it down with a glass of cask Scotch ale. Tim thought this was on the high side of diacetyl, a flavor compound that tastes like butterscotch...I have to admit that I apparently have a high threshold for diacetyl, always have. I drank the stuff down with glee. We had a great dinner; Tim and Betsy were excellent company.

Then it was back downstairs to the bar, another beer, and the gathering of the bourbon drinkers. One of the Barker regulars, Ted, brought a fine selection of uncommon bourbons in to sample, so about 9:00 we all went down to the basement to smoke and drink bourbon: Joe, me, Loran, Paul, Bobbi, Ted, and Cathy, who just watched. Matt joined us later. I fired up the corncob, took a hit off Ted's excellent Eagle Rare 17 Year Old, and we all started swapping stories.  

joesfish.JPG (33304 bytes)Ahhh... You don't really want to hear these stories. Suffice to say I did manage to settle a question that has bothered me for years: women don't really enjoy peeing the way men do. See what I mean? You don't really want to hear them. We drank some fine whiskey, we had a good time, Joe got out the infamous frozen muskie (that's Paul, admiring it in the foreground), and we laughed ourselves sore. Cathy took me back to the motel, and I slept. A lot. Guess I snored, too.

A Long, Long Drive Home 

Sunday: Cathy left me snoring and went down to hit the Nordic track. But to my surprise (and yours, I'm sure), I woke up clear-headed. We got ready, packed, and checked out, to find a quarter-inch of ice all over everything, and snow whipping ahead of a cruel wind. The car locks were frozen, hell, the door was frozen! I managed to get my coat out of the trunk, and we stuffed our bags in. I ran back to the motel -- okay, I walked swiftly back to the motel with our coffee thermos and filled it with hot water. I melted the locks, and we got inside and read for about fifteen minutes while the heater roared and melted us out of our crystal prison.

We carefully drove over to Fredonia, where it was quite a bit better, less ice. We had a nice breakfast at the White Inn (though my home fries tasted kind of fishy) and wound up at Barker around noon for the round-table discussion with the homebrewers. We scarfed some delicious beef stew, had some leftover apps from the day before, and drank more Amber (more shots at Joe, which made the homebrewers giggle). We had a good talk about styles (guide or straitjacket), the industry, and brewing. The awards were handed out, and then the judging which time I decided it was a good time to leave.

We said goodbye all around. We had a great time at this festival, really felt like one of the gang, and we left reluctantly, thinking how nice it would be to have a brewpub like Barker down the road from our home.

God, if only we were down the road from our home. The secondary roads were slippery and a bit scary, so we took the Throughway almost to Erie, then headed west on I-86/NY 17. It was one lane and snow-covered all the way past Jamestown, and somewhat dicey at times. But by the time we reached Bradford, things had pretty much cleared up. We decided to duck down to State College to visit Otto's as planned. 

Otto's was a nice place, pretty inside in a German way, and cozy, though they need an airlock on the front door in the worst way; the wind roared in every time someone entered. The food was good: I had a burger with crisp onion straws and big chunks of Gorgonzola, Cathy had a vegetable focaccia sandwich, we each had some of the deliciously bittered cheddar ale soup. But the beer was not up to what I was expecting. (See my notes here.) I mean to call and find out what might be the problem; I don't think it's me.

Anyway, we pulled back out and hit the road, and were home 3.5 hours later. A long drive, to be sure, but a good event and a lot of fun, with some excellent beers. 

Copyright 2003 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: April 23, 2003