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Notes from the road December 1998

Belgian styles, refreshing lagers and plenty more from small breweries

Maine

The Allagash micro, in Portland, Maine, has a complex Double, brewed from seven malts plus pale candy sugar; hopped with Perle and Saaz; and fermented with a Belgian yeast. It has the color of dark oak; a smooth texture; and flavors reminiscent of mint tea, cinnamon and cream. My thanks to Allagash brewer Rob Todd for a sampling of this hearty potion.

Massachusetts

I tasted the above beer cask-conditioned at Redbones, the justifiably famous ribs-and-beer cellar (55 Chester St.) in Somerville, a suburb of Boston. After the formal tasting, I sampled Fat Cat E.S.B. With a dense head (thanks in part to the use of about five per cent torrefied wheat), and a full amber color, this is an excellent example of the English style, though there are also typical American notes in the specifications, notably the use of crystal malt - and Chinook and Cascade hops. I especially liked the balance of soft, smooth, maltiness; hop flavour, bitterness (East Kent Goldings are also used) and fruitiness. That balance is to my mind a key element in an E.S.B., though this one intentionally avoids the honeyish yeast character of examples more closely modelled on the original from Fuller's of London. Fat Cat was created by a small company with the odd name of Modern Brewer. This enterprise began life as a homebrew supply store. It later became a brew-on-premise, in which role it was asked to produce beers for local restaurants. As this business outgrew the equipment, the b-o-p was closed and the beer made elsewhere under contract. The sample I enjoyed was made at the Ipswich Brewing Company, but the contract has since moved to Catamount. That current choice seems a happy coincidence, given the beer's name. Why Fat Cat? That was inspired by a copy of a church gargoyle, an ornament in the home of Jeff Pzena, who founded Modern Brewer after leaving the University of Chicago. My thanks to his colleague Eric Alsager for bringing me a sample.

Connecticut

On the road, Warren Hammer brought me two samples from the brewery started by his brother Peter and friend Kit Nagel. The two founders, neighbors in Connecticut for more than a decade, picked up a taste for flavorful beers in Vienna, Austria, and London, England, respectively. One day over a beer, they decided to quit their jobs and start a brewery. Peter had been a marketing man with IBM and Kit was in the dairy business. They found a 1920s building that had previously housed a manufacturer of garden tools, in Watertown, Connecticut. This is a suburb of Waterbury, a town historically known for brass buttons, buckles and eyelets. So why is their brewery called Hammer and Nail? Because partner Nagel's name means "Nail" in German. I sampled two beers that poured with attractively rocky, well-retained, heads and expressed a notably good malt character, in both aroma and flavor. One was a smooth, dryish Brown Ale, with touched of chocolate and vanilla and a good earthy balance of Brewer's Gold hops. The other was a nuttier, oilier, Scotch Ale, with a pleasant hit of peat in the finish. Based on this tasting (at 8 in the morning in my hotel room), I look forward to sampling their other styles, including an Extra Special Bitter and several lagers.

New York

For the last three years, I have presented an annual beer dinner at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, and a lecture at the Danny Kaye Theater there. Hyde Park, north of Poughkeepsie, was also the birthplace of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and has a museum and library devoted to him. Opposite the Roosevelt Estate is the Hyde Park Brewing Company. This brewpub is itself in an historic site: a classic1940s Howard Johnson ice-cream parlor. I found the beers in general light but lively, clean, flavoursome, with a crisp finish. Hyde Park's brewer John Eccles brought a malty, rooty, licorice-ish Munich Dunkel to the dinner. At the pub later, I also enjoyed the S.O.B. (Special Old Bitter), with a bronze color; good lacework; firm malt background; and lemony dryness. Connoisseurs of memorabilia will appreciate Hyde Park's collection of 100 beer trays, 400-500 cans, and a neon for Ruppert's Knickerbocker beer, the latter suspended above the brewhouse.

Elsewhere in the Empire State, the Southampton Publick House, on Long Island, has been making some highly-distinctive specialities. I had Southampton's Double Ice Bock, at 18 per cent, among my props on the Conan O'Brien show, as interested viewers may have noticed. My first tasting was with Conan "live" on the show. Perhaps the grainy aroma reminded Conan of a cone (a wafer - we're still on the subject of ice-cream). Or was it the malty creaminess and apricot fruitiness? I would have happily poured this beer over an ice cream, as though the brew were a liqueur like Galliano or Strega. Conan thought the beer itself tasted like ice-cream. Not a bad call for someone tasting while conducting a talk-show. The beer was made by the Eisbock procedure. It was based on a less strong brew of 17 degrees Plato, fermented with the yeast of a famous German Bock brewery (Andechs would be my guess).

Brooklyn Brewery invited me to speak at a beer-dinner to raise funds for the Michael Jackson Scholarship. This helps young brewers seeking technical education, and was established by the New York Chapter of the American Institute for Wine and Food. A beer I tasted offstage was a fresh, clean, rummy, raisiny, abbey-style ale at about 7.1 per cent alcohol by volume. Among the many place-names in and around New York that are of Belgian or Dutch origin, "Brooklyn" is owed to the village of Breukelen, near Amsterdam. Brooklyn Brewery's neat name for this beer blends French and Flemish/Dutch: Abbaye de Breukelen. So is the beer French, Belgian, Flemish, Dutch or American? That rummy, cane-sugar, note reminded me of a wood-aged Brazilian cachaŤa...

Maryland

An emphatically German-accented range of lagers is being produced in the small town of Ellicott City, between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Today, it is a town of art galleries and antique shops, but its location on the Patapsco river once made it a major port. In the old town, an 1890s lumber mill has become a brewpub, with an adjoining former firehouse and police station serving as lagering cellars. The brewpub is called Ellicott Mills. Beers include a refreshing, dryish, Hell, with a good balance of spicy hop and light but firm maltiness; a flowery Pils; a nutty Märzen; a complex Dunkel (my favorite); and, at the time of my recent visit, a Holiday Bock with a suggestion of sambuca. Owning partners are chef Rick Winter, a CIA graduate, and brewer Martin Virga, who studied biology in his native Los Angeles before learning his craft at Doemens, in Germany.

Outside town, in a strip mall, a rib restaurant called Bare Bones produces a more Anglo-American range. These beers are closer to the mainstream, but more flavorful than many made in such venues. I particularly enjoyed a relatively hoppy Red and a dry, fruity, rounded, Bitter. Clean, well-made, beers from Brendan Fleming, who studied at the American Brewers' Guild.

While in Maryland, I took the opportunity to revisit Brewers' Alley, a pub in the town of Frederick. This brewpub is in the former city hall, built in the 1870s. I was there a couple of years ago with fellow-writer and occasional collaborator Jim Dorsch and enjoyed the whole range, especially a freshly bitter Pils and a smooth, chocolatey, Oatmeal Stout. This time, there was no Pils, but a a beautifully balanced, appetising, Dunkel Weizen (cloves, bubblegum, banana, toffee); the Oatmeal Stout had gained in complexity, with a touch of cinnamon-like dryness; and a Barley Wine that started as malty-sweet and creamy as condensed milk, developed a molasses smokiness and bitterness, and finished with a hit like rye whiskey.

I also visited the Frederick micro's new location. In the days when the micro movement was growing like a young teenager, the Frederick Brewing Company invested in this beautiful new brewery, on a green field site just outside the city. Since then, its own Blue Ridge range of beers has been augmented through the acquisition of smaller Maryland breweries Brimstone and Wild Goose. Frederick still has capacity to spare. It has worked hard to succeed, and I hope it does. I enjoyed Blue Ridge Snowball, a strongish (around 6.0 alcohol by volume) ale so malty as to be almost crunchy; the hoppy, grassy, medicinal Wild Goose IPA on cask; and the very fruity, sweetish, Brimstone Big Ale.

Virginia

My travels in Maryland were in the company of Virginia brewer Nick Funnell. Being myself based in London, England, I first knew Nick when he was a brewer there, but neither of us originate from that city. England has 40-odd counties, but we were both born and raised in the same one, Yorkshire (northerly home to Samuel Smith's, Timothy Taylor's, Tetley's, Theakston's and Black Sheep, among others).

Nick now brews at the two Sweetwaters pubs in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.. In the current edition of my Pocket Guide, I give three stars to his Oscura, at the Sweetwaters in Centreville (behind the Multiplex Theater). On a more recent visit to the second location, in Merrifield, I particularly enjoyed a praline-like cask stout.

Kentucky

I was glad to see a local beer on offer when I visited Lexington for a beer buffet at the Liquor Barn and a dinner and signing at the Joseph-Beth bookshop, both of them lavishly-stocked stores.

The first Lexington Brewing Company was destroyed in the Civil War. The second, founded in 1856, was for a time one of the half-dozen biggest breweries in the U.S., and had a beer called Dixie. Its magnificent 1890s brewery produced a soft-drink called Bourbonola during Prohibition, but closed in 1928. Some of its memorabilia can be seen in today's Lexington Brewery Company, which started production in 1996. This micro is on the site of city's first ice-house. The brewery has a rustic-looking, clapboard facade, but is a combination of new building and a former tool warehouse. A man with an interest in the property, Mike Hart, found himself in conversation with his banker, Bill Ambrose, on the topic of breweries. Ambrose left the bank and they started this new Lexington Brewing Company.

One of their popular products has been the light-bodied, lemony, Kentucky Hemp Beer (the eponymous ingredient replaces a third of the hops). The rest of the range carries the name Limestone, celebrating the Kentucky bedrock that helps produce great whiskey, blue grass and racehorses. I tasted a malty, slightly chocolatey, Amber Ale; a lightly hoppy, cedary, Pale Ale; a beautifully balanced, lightly dry, Porter; a nutty, spicy, Winter Brew, flavored with vanilla, cinnamon and a light touch of cherry purée; and a rummy, fudgy, Bavarian-style Bock that had been released the best part of a year earlier. Brewer Brian Miller studied the craft at the Siebel Institute, in Chicago. He has previously brewed at at Prairie Rock, in Schaumburg, Illinois, and at Market Street, in

Nashville, Tennessee.

Tennessee

On various visits to Nashville, I have enjoyed the brews at Market Street, and at Blackstone, but this time I was renewing my acquaintance with Boscos, where I presented a beer dinner. In addition to the Famous Flaming Stone Beer, I particularly enjoyed the Isle of Skye Scottish Ale, with an extremely complex malt character, a touch of smoke and oily vanilla, and a hint of black chocolate. Why Skye? What connection between that Scottish island and a brewery in Tennessee? There is much Scottish infuence in the Old South, but in this instance the name has more to do with a brewer called Chuck Skypeck.

Next day, at Boscos' original site in Germantown, a suburb of Memphis, I found the beers yet maltier, and perhaps fruitier. This may be due to the softer water in Memphis.

Refreshingly, this brace of brewpubs seem to relish each having their own character, rather than seeking to impose some corporate wisdom on the drinkers and diners of two quite different cities.


Published: JAN 30, 1999
In: Beer Hunter Online

Brew Travel - Beer Review

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