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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Me Lyke Bree Beer

No matter how you measure, Ms. Slab is the tops. But sometimes her will is so unbending, her reserve so steely, that I can't help but wonder if an iron “heart” pumps cold, cold mercury thru her machine-crafted “veins.” Plus, she's big on what the Germans call schadenfreude. Case in point: Sunday morning when, awash in unsympathy, she flat-out refused to get out of bed and grab me a few Excedrin and an ice pack. Why all the head-pain? One word, curious reader: Brewtopia.
Two for the cause: Brewtopia volunteers are all smiles

In case you haven't heard or can't guess, Brewtopia World Beer Festival is a festival. Of beer. From around the world. As to what this means, well... I drew my own conclusions. Something along the lines of “Garden of Eden” meets “Cheers,” a candy-drop meadow of dewey green fields where mermaids and elves pour ale, lager and stout into giant fruit horns and everyone knows your name.

Now to be honest, I don't drink a whole lot of beer. Nor do I know much about the stuff (great with nachos, fizzier than moonshine). But this event seemed like it had flavor education potential. So The Porkchop Express bit the bullet and hit the road early Saturday, to see just what kind of Utopia the world of brew had built.

Sadly, there wasn't a dewey meadow in sight. Far from it, Brewtopia was held at Manhattan's Javits Center in a giant subterranean room with stadium-style lighting, grey industrial floors, and what looked like a three-story garbage bag making unholy love to a cement column. I think there was some music playing too, maybe Creed or Godsmack.

The first thing that came to mind? This wasn't the fancy food show. There were more similarities than you might imagine: same location and similar idea (a cosmopolitan assortment of 300+ beers from 100+ brewers, in what was labeled a “United Nations”-like atmosphere of friendship and good cheer). But this felt less like a world tour, and more like a half-assed frat party.

Still, appearances often deceive. And we were pretty optimistic because, atmosphere or no, there were a lot of folks (from brewers and sales reps to volunteers and enthusiasts) passionate about these products. So The Porkchop Express geared up to taste some beers, pick some brains, and share the findings with you, thirsty reader. What are folks offering, and enjoying, these days? What's tasty, what's innovative, and what's flat-out non-potable? We left our preconceptions at the door and vowed to find out.
So here's how it works: you have four hours in the room to do as you please. The only “requirement”? Trade in your ticket for a 4-ounce plastic cup, then hit the pavement...
Beware of fakes: when it comes to Pilsner Urquell, there is only one Real Deal

To get in the swing of things we started with something familiar: a few European drafts, including Pilsner Urquell (Czechoslovakia) and Stella Artois (Belgium). It turns out Stella is now The Most Popular Draft Beer in New York City and San Francisco. This was surprising. I used to drink it in Paris, but only because it was the cheapest non-French beer at my local Monoprix. Which made me realize there's a thin line between bi-coastal “urbanite” and French “hobo.”

Other first-quarter observations? Leffe, a flavorful amber Belgian Trappist Ale with an oaky finish, is great if you want something a little stronger and richer. (As one guy put it, “the monks know how to do it right.”) By contrast, avoid Brahma like the plague. This “unusual” Brazilian lager (backed by the mighty InBev conglomerate) has a slick bottle that curves something comfortable in the palm. But ultimately, it's all about taste. And on that front, well... when the reps labeled the finish “papaya” it sounded more apologetic than descriptive. I'm not buying it, figuratively and literally.
Another sunny day at the Aguila booth

The same cannot be said for Aguila. This light, refreshing beer went down Billy Dee Williams-smooth. Number 1 in its native Colombia (with a 67% market share) and perfect for the daylong backyard barbeque, Aguila is making inroads in the US thanks to the day's Shrewdest Marketing Campaign Directed at 21-thru-98 year-old Men. It's hard to accurately convey the intricacies of their approach, but the bi-cultural polycentric thrust of their 28-tiered strategy boils down to this: three spandex-clad women handing out ridiculous Colombian-flag colored “racing hats” to guys, while telling them how “great” they look. It's as close as most people will get to living in one of those “dontcha wanta” Fanta ads. And judging from the crowds, they were on to something: Destapa la Alegria, indeed!
Julliard-trained Ale Blazer Lindsay Kane, pulling one for the team

Nearly as savvy and no less discreet were the good people from Newcastle. First tapped in Jolly 'Ole back in 1927, this reddish-brown ale is a personal favorite. It possesses that rare combination of flavoracity and heavydrinakability that should please both self-styled “aficionados” and PBR-styled “drunkards.” For that reason, it earned a nod as The Beer Mostly Likely to Bridge the Gap Between Snobs and Slobs.

Newcastle seems to know it, too. Hence their goofy army of “Ale Blazers” set loose upon the unsuspecting Brewtopia masses, handing out promotional whatnots (the best of which was the eye-grabbing “lingerie beer cozy”). 3 nights a week, the Blazers also hit nightspots and hawk their product.

This combo of really good beer and thuggish entrepreneurialism got us wondering: is there anything the English can't do these days? Maybe it was the ale talking, but I was starting to revise my impressions (marmite, dentistry) of our Last Ally In The World. If Newcastle is any measure, the Brits are blazing into the new millennium with a can-do, take-no-prisoners attitude!

Innit.

But I was starting to get homesick. What were the Yanks up to? According to a few dozen half-drunk total strangers, quite a lot. The three beers with the biggest patron buzz were all from the U.S. and A.: Magic Hat, Bluepoint, and Dogfish Head.

If one of these three was the belle of the Brewtopia ball, it was Dogfish. Without a doubt, this won out as The Most Hyped Beer at the Festival. So we went to see what all the fuss was about.

Dogfish strikes a popular American chord: old-school craftsmanship paired with bold innovation. Hence their mantra “off-centered beers for off-centered people,” and their status as America's fastest growing brewery.

This double threat (uniqueness and tradition) was evident in the four beers I sampled: the popular 90 Minute IPA (boiled for 90 minutes); the Midas Touch Golden Elixir (a recipe from King Midas' tomb); the limited release Imperial Pilsner; and something I only remember as having a brain-crushing 18% alcohol content.

These aren't shy beers. The IPA is big and bold and hoppy, the Midas syrupy-smooth and sweet and fragrant. And at around 9% alcohol content, both meant business. Our favorite was probably the limited edition Imperial Pilsner, a deceptively strong mix that, unlike (say) Arrogant Bastard, doesn't flaunt its alcohol with reckless abandon. It had great piquant flavor yet remained eminently drinkable, and wasn't like any of the other pilsners I remember trying that day.

According to a rival brewer, the man behind Dogfish Head–Sam Calagione–is a “beer porn star.” Come again? Dogfish NY rep Elizabeth clarified: “he's got some wild beers.” And some experience to boot. Sam started brewing in high school, made his first beer-recliner (to keep bottles cold) in college, and now owns this brewery-on-the-rise. While my personal tastes admittedly run a little lighter, if you fancy yourself a “real” beer enthusiast, Sam's “concoctions” will no doubt “spruce your pooch” and “whet your whistle.”
Good People Make Good Cider: Doc's with the trifecta

After so much beer we started to branch out, and quite literally stumbled across our pick for The Best Hard Cider of the day: Doc's Draft. Doc's has a good thing going: they extract their juice from whole fruit (no concentrates here); use all-natural ingredients; never add sugars (unlike most US market ciders); and ferment with an effervescent champagne yeast. What does this amount to? Some mighty tasty alternatives.

We started with the Apple, a light, sweet, bubbly mix of 7 fruits, and a big hit with random tasters. We found the Pear, a 4-fruit, apple-based mix, a bit more tart and even more refreshing. But our favorite might have been the Raspberry. I'm not big on sweets, but this was a pretty unique cider, dry like a Bretagne but not as musky and way sassier. And, as the good folks at Doc's revealed, it also goes great with a scoop of sorbet. Could this herald a new age of fine American Cider?
Mead Men: Getting Medieval, y'heard!

If your interested in something more retro, the entertaining lads from the Long Island Meadery have you covered. In 2004, homebrewer Paul Holm got his start selling bottles at The Society for Creative Anachronism (jousting, wenching, getting medieval on datazz). He has since expanded, and now offers a variety of highly regarded meads–fermented honeywines often flavored with fruits or herbs. LIM pourer Tom's enthusiasm was infectious enough to earn their Blueberry Mead a nod as The Best Brew to Drink with Mutton.
Chuck Williamson, sampling the fruits of his labors

And last, but by no means least... let's just say, right at the closing bell The Porkchop Express found some kindred spirits: Butternuts Beer & Ale.

We liked everything about this Garratsville, New York-based crew: genuine passion for brewing, unpretentious vibe, good sense of humor. They stick to the basics (producing only two beers), use strategic cans (environmentally friendly, legal on boats and golf courses), and have some clever names. All of which is well and good, but co-Brewer/Owner Chuck Williamson is the first to point out the obvious: the proof lies ultimately in the taste. And this stuff tastes good.

Butternuts' offerings–Heinnieweisse Hefeweizen and Porkslap Pale Ale–and both are eminently drinkable. Which is really their guiding principle: craft fresh beers with quality ingredients that folks can drink every day. It's an idea just crazy enough to work. And it does, in the form of a cloudy, cleansing wheat and versatile, malty, smooth-sipping dark amber farmhouse ale.

As for the business itself, less than a year old? Chuck put it best: “I'm living the dream.” The dream? “Drinking beer every day.” Dream on, brother. Porkslaps all around.

And in that spirit, we present Butternuts with our final award. On a day filled with fine folks and beverages, they took home The Porkchop Express Most Likeable Beer of 2006.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab
Howard Stern's TV Crew busting multiple moves
A Six-Pack for the road...
  • A final, hearty toast to the man with the plan: Keith Reichenbach, President & Founder of Brewtopia World Beer Festival.
  • Tickets are between $45-$60, depending upon how early you buy. And yes, they're worth it.
  • If you're near the Catskills, check out the Buternuts Brew Pub and put back a fresh Porkslap.
  • Other crowd-pleasers included Saranac Pumpkin Ale and Abita Turbo Dog (Louisiana). A New Orleans chef recommended using the Turbo in a butter sauce with shrimp.
  • All things being equal, I'd probably drink Chimay. (And by “things” I mean “prices.”) It's also great for braising shortribs.
  • The only thing I would add next year? Team up with food vendors, to a) soften the kind of splitting headache I woke up with on Sunday, and b) showcase the versatility of beer when paired with food. Just a thought.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Beer Bro 1 said...

Good call porkchop. We are already working on the next Great World Beer Festival and food pairing is going to be a key part of the event. Don't forget to drink a lot of water when consuming your beers. Double fist: one hand Poland Spring, the other Rogue Chocolate Stout. It'll save your head the next day.

Keith Reichenbach

12:48 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

Keith-

great news. and thanks for clearing up the H2O mystery, was wondering what those mysterious clear bottles were for.

again, great job... & thanks for stopping by.

8:29 PM  

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