Closing the Book on 2013

Each year, every year, December comes and goes too quickly to be fully appreciated.  This year, it felt especially blurry: finding the time for all the holiday cheer, travel, and glad tidings, before the 25th arrives and before plunging into the cornucopia quivering with desire and ecstasy of unbridled avarice (thanks Jean Shepherd).  Not to mention the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in our front window (yes, we have a nearly four-foot tall replica).

Christmas flashes by, then it’s New Year’s, which for me has never caused much of a to-do.  Sure, I used to go out and drink and actually care about doing something.  Yet it was never as much fun as hoped and always absurdly expensive.  Even the most epic eventualities cannot reduce the annoyance of waiting 10 minutes for a cocktail,  delivered weak and in a plastic cup while skinny girls step on your toes to get faster service.  Such is hell.

But I won’t get ahead of myself.  December, even with its hurry and bustle, still remains and was indeed enjoyable.  I spent time off from work, with family near and far, and poured a fine drink or two.  So before the clock strikes midnight and 2013 concludes, here are a few late year discoveries and favorites.  To you and yours, Happy New Year.

- Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter.  Difficult to find a bad brew from this old, traditional English brewery.  Much like their Oatmeal Stout, the porter is another fantastic cold weather beer – perfect for sipping in front of a fire.

- Devils Backbone Kilt Flasher Scottish Ale.  This wee heavy ale is another hit from this new-ish craft brewery located near Shenandoah National Park, a few hours southwest of Washington, D.C.  (Read my take on their Vienna Lager here.)

- Barrel Trolley Amber Ale.  Brewed by the Genesee Brewing Company, in Rochester, N.Y., this amber is fairly sweet and light bodied, especially considering the range of amber ales these days.  Decent overall, but finishes too weakly.

As per usual, here are a few additional selections, for the interested reader and drinker.  Not all booze related, but mostly.

- PUNCH.  This new online wine and spirits magazine (punchdrink.com) seeks to “bring the worlds of wine and cocktails together,” as stated in a Wall Street Journal feature earlier this month.  The site is a creation of Brooklyn-based writers Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau and is backed by a small division of Random House Publishing.  I particularly enjoy the site’s long-form writing, a format similar to my own.

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary, by Tim Federle.  2013 saw much writing published on the intersection of literature and drinking.  Here it continues, but with a more lighthearted touch (a Christmas gift from the wife).  Mr. Federle’s short text proffers literary-inspired cocktail recipes: impress your friends the next time you host book club.

Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II, by David Stafford.  Professor Stafford shines a bright light on several often overlooked months following the Allied victory in Europe.  Although formal hostilities with Nazi Germany ended, chaos, uncertainty, and death did not.

Recommende​d Reading: The Widow Clicquot

widow clicquot

The story behind the founding of one of the world’s foremost champagne houses is a curious mix of individual personality, international business, and French society.  The story centers on one Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the famous widow of Reims, and is told in Tilar Mazzeo’s bestselling book, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.

Mazzeo, a professor and self-admitted oenophile, expertly weaves the tale of the widow’s business acumen, professional drive, and competitive nature, not to mention her luck and amazing timing when it came to European geopolitics and the fluid nature of the early champagne market.  All this creates a rich fabric of the widow and her times.  Amidst these themes are nestled captive descriptions of French country estates and dank, ancient wine cellars, as well as informative summaries of the winemaking process and its progress between the 1790s and 1860s.

Simple explanations – such as distinguishing levels of champagne’s dryness or a brief overview of grape varietals (which determine the style of champagne) – might be missed, but for careful reading.  The book’s brevity betrays the wealth of knowledge it offers to the introductory champagne drinker or wine trivia buffs.  One of my favorite quotes, from the prologue: “According to legend, the shallow goblet-style champagne glasses known as coupes were modeled after this lady’s [Madame de Pompadour, mistress to the King of France] much admired breasts.”

Even unexciting topics – the process of fermentation or how champagne’s age affects the bubbles – come alive alongside the overarching story of the widow’s life.  Intertwining the two, historical narration and technical explanations, so effortlessly and seamlessly is one of Mazzeo’s most notable talents.

Yet the widow’s world, so often looked at through grainy and colorless photos, comes bursting alive via the author’s words.  Even in death, Barbe-Nicole is painted in lushly descriptive imagery: “In the last days of July…1866, when the gardens at Boursault were sending forth their intoxicating blooms and the grapes were beginning to grow heavy on the vines that clung to the hillside below the château, the Widow Clicquot breathed her last.”

This book – from vivid settings throughout pre-industrial Europe, early wine-making tutorials, and insight into the “Grand Dame of Champagne’s” ahead-of-her-time management and entrepreneurial methods – is much like champagne itself: a carefully crafted and leisurely savored luxury item.

Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm  Comments Off  
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Fall Beer Frustration

hazelnuts

It seems Daniel Fromson is feeling somewhat frustrated with fall beers lately.  Pumpkin beer seems to be the cause.  I too noticed a significant increase in pumpkin ales in the last few weeks, but came to a different conclusion than Fromson.  Whereas he steered away from the season beer landslide, I dove right into it.

Writing in the Washington Post earlier this week, Fromson (along with one of his interviewees) had few kind words to say for the increasingly ubiquitous autumn brews.  For Fromson, it’s a matter of taste: “…it is a reminder that coolers will soon contain orange-and-brown Pantone spectrums of sweeter, maltier, spicier beers, which — despite their popularity — I usually don’t like to drink.”  For Shane Welch, president of Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery, it’s something a bit more.  “I can’t stand these [expletive] beers,” he told Fromson.  “What started out as genuinely creative has turned into a total farce.”

Instead of pumpkin beers, Fromson suggests brown ales, which “are diverse in flavor if not appearance: some are nutty and raisiny, others bitter like India pale ales, still others so roasty that they almost taste like stouts.  They are generally divided between lighter, sweeter ‘English brown ales’ and bolder, hoppier ‘American brown ales.’”

Fromson provides several solid recommendations in his Post article, a few of which I’ve tried and enjoyed.  Yet it didn’t include my favorite brown ale, a nearly black beer from the Czech Republic called Krušovice černé.  I first learned of Krušovice (černé meaning “dark” in Czech) back in February from a New York Times article by Rosie Schaap, where she named as it one of her “Best Beers of Winter.”  Unfortunately, picking up some was not as easy as a run to the grocery – no one in the DC metro region sold it.

I reached out to Rosie via email for ideas on tracking down a few bottles and she was more than helpful in sharing information.  Research proved particularly helpful as I eventually contacted both Krušovice’s importer and Mid-Atlantic region distributor to locate a seller from whom I could order.  A specialty liquor store in northwest DC agreed to order a case (the minimum amount) and a few days later I first tasted the malty Czech brew.

I’m still working on the case of Krušovice, which in part has helped me avoid this year’s onslaught of pumpkin ales.  Also, pumpkin ales are now mainstream; so this year, what new flavors are at the cutting edge of autumn seasonal brewing?  Rather than avoiding the seasonals like Fromson, I decided to completely embrace it.

Brews with nuts, berries, and coffee beans appear on the shelves this year, which I presume fall outside of Fromson’s ordinary enjoyment.  And that’s ok – we drink what we like.  But I believe they deserve at least some consideration.  Experimental brews made with nontraditional elements are oftentimes more successful than not.  And innovation and experimentation are factors that have driven the so-called American craft beer renaissance.  Pushing the brewing envelope (including re-discovering ancient recipes) encourages innovation, even becoming the stock-and-trade for some microbreweries altogether (Dogfish Head Brewery comes to mind).

Here then, are a few interesting bottles I’ve enjoyed so far this fall:

- Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar Ale

- Anchor Brewing Big Leaf Maple Autumn Ale

- Dark Horse Brewing Perkulator Coffee Dopplebock

- Laughing Dog Brewing Huckleberry Cream Ale

Taken together, Fromson’s brown ales, Rosies Best Brews of last winter, Krušovice černé, and the beers named above (totaling over a dozen) will ensure you’ll be satisfied as autumn and winter arrive.  Not to mention all those pumpkin ales, which you shouldn’t dismiss out of hand.  As Fromson deftly observes, “Better, I think, for consumers to drink what they like than to always accept what the industry pushes.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Of further note:

Rosie Schaap’s New York Times article also included a cocktail recipe, the Brown Corduroy, made with Bulleit bourbon, Krušovice černé, orange bitters, and nutmeg.  She is also the author of Drinking With Men: A Memoir.

Daniel Fromson is the author of Finding Shakespeare, an e-book recently published by Atavist.

Published in: on October 4, 2013 at 10:09 pm  Comments Off  
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Shutdown Rundown

survive shutdown

The big to-do today in Washington, DC centered on the U.S. federal government shutting down.  I won’t bore you with the details and politics of it all - it’ll drive you to drink.  Go watch CNN, BBC, C-SPAN, or whatever news channel you prefer to your heart’s content.  What I want to focus on instead are a few fun facts and tips for having a little boozy and pocketbook-friendly fun during Shutdown.

First, for the locals, is the Washington City Paper’s epically comprehensive list of Washington area bars and restaurants  with food and drink “shutdown specials.”  (Please note showing a federal government ID badge is required in most cases.)  Coincidentally, the Shutdown has overlapped with some Oktoberfest celebrations, so consider this the perfect excuse to enjoy your favorite Bavarian treats for a little less cash.

Second, for everyone else, here are two pictorials, courtesy of Atlantic Cities and its sister site, the Atlantic Wire, of the Shutdown’s affect on everyday Washington – from the monuments, memorials, office buildings, even the Metro system.  Although Shutdown (in the form of a few wooden barricades) wasn’t enough to prevent some Greatest Generation veterans from visiting the World War II Memorial.  Perhaps afterwards they could have done us all a favor and marched up Capitol Hill and kicked a little ass before returning home.

Third and finally is proof  that all this Shutdown budget nonsense will in fact drive you to drink: reports (from Huffington Post) of what sounded like some serious Congressional boozing  yesterday evening, the night before Shutdown.  I thought it’d be more enjoyable to think about in the form of a Christmas carol.  So I came up with this:

‘Twas the night before Shutdown,

and all through the House,

not a creature was stirring,

all the Members were soused.

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Photo: Jason Ukman/Washington Post

Published in: on October 1, 2013 at 10:53 pm  Comments Off  
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Field Research

grocery beer

Every so often I’ll post a story discussing the recent mass proliferation of American craft breweries.  These days, you can’t go more than a day or two without reading a story somewhere on the internet discussing which state has the most or which state has the best.  Ordinarily, these stories are accompanied by some whiz-bang interactive graphic, or at minimum, a nicely color-coded map depicting the story’s analysis.

Oftentimes, stories about such breweries are more subjective than objective when it comes to naming the best brewery or state.  Hard numbers are difficult to find and most data is unreliable or unhelpful longer than a couple of years back (before the so-called American craft beer renaissance).  So opinions and preferences are included, which is all fine and good in the grand scheme.  A controversial and strongly opinionated article will create a bigger stir, that in turn results in more web traffic and more comments, which are all good for online business.

These thoughts were bouncing around inside my head the other day as I wandered through my neighborhood grocery store, which my wife and I affectionately named “Emergency Giant.”  You see, this Giant is unlike others: it’s much smaller than most groceries today and more importantly, its décor appears to date from the early 1970s.  So we only go there for emergency necessities.  Yet this Giant, for whatever reason, takes its beer seriously, especially the microbrews.  In the short time I’ve lived in the neighborhood, the beer section has slowly expanded onto the floors and in the center of several other aisles.  Beer has slowly taken over an entire corner of the store.

On a recent trip, the emergency in question was a gallon of milk for my son, who just transitioned from formula to whole milk (also known as the best milk ever).  As my grocery list was short, I casually perused the beer, just because.  And it was here where my mind wandered freely about all those microbrew stories I’ve recently read.

I didn’t purchase anything that day – I’m still working through a half case of Fat Tire.  But I did pick up some gummy worms along with the milk and decided to conduct some impromptu field research: how was craft beer selling in my neighborhood?  With what kind of beer were shoppers leaving?

My snack in hand, I sat on a bench outside the store and spent ten minutes or so enjoying a light breeze in the waning afternoon sun’s warmth.  Sunlight was just beginning to filter through the treetops and shadows were long.  And I, watching neighbors come and go, took note of their beer preferences.

A few minutes spent researching led to a few simple observations.  First, I finished my bag of gummy worms shamefully fast.  Terrifyingly so.  I think the bags must be smaller now than when I was a kid.  Second, micro and craft brews were the clear preference of those leaving the store with beer.  One pair of guys bought a 12 pack of Bud Light and I saw some Guinness too.  But by and large, it was six packs of craft brews folks were purchasing.

My observations complete and snack long finished, I grabbed the milk and headed toward the car.  Dusk was settling over the suburbs and it was time for dinner.  If only I were hungry for it.  Damn worms.

Published in: on September 30, 2013 at 9:21 pm  Comments Off  
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