Fall Beer Frustration


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 on Fall Beer Frustration  
Tags: , , , ,

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.


Photo: Jason Ukman/Washington Post

Published in: on October 1, 2013 at 10:53 pm  Comments Off on Shutdown Rundown  
Tags: , , ,

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 on Field Research  
Tags: , , , ,

Blood and Bravery

I enjoy history and geography, particularly of Eastern Europe.  My graduate studies focused on Soviet/Russian history and politics, but I’ve always been drawn to the Polish experience of World War II.  Perhaps it’s because I’m part Polish myself, or because of the uniquely crushing experience Poland received from both East and West.

My interest has grown in recent months thanks to several books that have brought the war – beginning on September 1, 1939, 74 years ago today – into a whole new light.  This history of Poland and World War II is marked most deeply by utter destruction and mass death.  Yet amidst such horror, there were displays of unfathomable bravery, patriotism, and selflessness.  Here I’ll focus on two extraordinary Poles: Witold Pilecki and Kystyna Skarbek.


Pilecki was a Polish army officer who was integral in supporting the underground Home Army as an intelligence officer and resistance fighter under joint German-Soviet occupation.  As the Nazis rounded up political prisoners and suspected enemies following their September 1 invasion, Pilecki volunteered for an astoundingly dangerous mission: to be purposefully captured by the Germans for incarceration in Auschwitz and report on German activities there.  Additionally, he was to organize secret resistance cells among the camp’s inmates.

Prior to 1942, the Auschwitz camp mostly held Polish prisoners and Soviet POWs and was used as a labor camp; as Pilecki reported, summary executions were certainly commonplace.  The mass exterminations of Jews, Roma, and others for which Auschwitz is today synonymous occurred primarily at an expansion camp nearby, known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz II.

For nearly three years Pilecki witnessed near constant violence and death of all manners – beatings, exhaustion, exposure, and a number of forms of execution – yet he persevered in his mission to not only survive, but to organize his fellow Poles into independent, autonomous cells to rise up and fight should the opportunity arise.  By assisting his compatriots in hoarding food, obtaining indoor work details, and dodging relocation orders to other camps (for execution), Pilecki saved countless lives, including his own.  In the spring of 1943, with his false identity nearly compromised, Pilecki escaped with two other inmates, taking a bullet in the shoulder in the process.

While most would consider this endeavor enough danger for a lifetime, Pilecki remained in occupied Poland and played a notable role in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.  Pilecki not only survived the uprising, but the remainder of the war, and in 1945 wrote a long-form military report (recently published as a book) of his years in Auschwitz.  Following the Allied victory in Europe, Pilecki reported to Soviet-occupied Poland to gather intelligence on Polish communism.  A few short years later, he was captured, given a show trial, and executed by his fellow Poles as a foreign spy.


Krystyna Skarbek, better known by her adopted English name, Christine Granville, was another Pole of amazing bravery, wit, and fortitude.  While fortunate to be traveling abroad when the Germans invaded in September 1939, Christine quickly set course for London to volunteer her services as a British spy.

Granville was assigned to the British Army’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was almost immediately sent abroad to Hungary and assigned missions to collect information, stockpile weapons, and devise smuggling routes to move people and intelligence out of the Nazi-occupied territory, sometimes over dangerous, mountainous terrain.

After her arrest and interrogation in Budapest, Granville and Andrej Kowerski – her colleague and occasional lover – relocated to Cairo, Egypt in early 1941.  Yet this was no ordinary excursion.  Using false passports, lies, and more than a little luck, Christine and Andrej drove 4,000-plus miles – through the Balkans, Turkey, and the Levant – in a stolen German Opel.  Although they arrived safely in Cairo, Christine’s time there was filled with frustration.  Not only was she far from the action, but her past service in Hungary put her under a cloud of suspicion by both British and Polish counterintelligence authorities.  No one seemed to know where her true allegiances laid.

After several years enduring the occasional training course (parachuting in Palestine) or infrequent backwater missions (conducting surveillance in Syria), Christine was selected  in the summer of 1944 for parachute insertion into occupied France to assist in organizing French resistance fighters (known as maquis) in southeastern France.  Alongside a new colleague and lover, Francis Cammaerts, she was assigned the mission of couriering weapons and military intelligence during the fateful days later to be known as the Battle of Vercors.  Following the Allied landings in southern France (Operation Dragoon), Christine spent a brief time making contact with and aiding Italian partisans attacking German rear positions as Allied forces swept north from Rome.

After returning to London from the Franco-Italian border, she awaited orders to be parachuted into Poland, but those orders never came.  The war’s end and the Soviet consolidation of authority over the new “Eastern Bloc” countries brought an abrupt end to Christine’s wartime service.  Her transition to ordinary civilian life – life without adventure or danger – was particularly difficult.  Living alone in London, she was a foreigner and a woman, and despised office work; job offers were not plentiful.

After some years away living in Kenya, Christine found employment as a steward aboard a British-based cruise line and made the acquaintance with a co-worker named Dennis Muldowney.  Although they fast became friends while at sea, Christine quickly grew bored with Dennis, who was growing increasingly obsessed with her.  Christine took steps to avoid him – living with friends and avoiding service on the same ship – yet it was not enough.  On a rainy summer night in 1952, Muldowney stalked Christine to her hotel room and plunged a knife in her heart.


The simple fact both Pilecki and Granville survived the war’s chaos and doom is no small feat.  But the preceding stories are only of individuals and do not capture the conflict’s grand scale of slaughter and destruction.  To understand the trauma of Poland’s national experience, the macro-level view, turn to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

Between 1933 and 1945, civilians living in the land between Berlin and Moscow suffered a supremely horrifying experience.  No fewer than 14 million souls perished at the hands of national policies exactly by either Hitler or Stalin “as the result of deliberate policies of mass murder, such as executions, deliberate famine and in death camps.”

Sadly, this ghastly number of deaths does not include those who died fighting during World War II, only the civilians subjected to the horrors of industrialized communism and National Socialism.  Poles and Ukrainians fared the worst, as they were targeted by both Germany and the Soviet Union because of their nationality.  The Polish cultural elite – its intelligentsia, made of activists, intellectuals, writers, and political leaders, not to mention its historic Jewish populace, were systematically erased from existence.  Warsaw’s population in particular felt the Nazi’s wrath following the 1944 Warsaw Uprising: approximately 700,000 civilians were murdered in retribution.

Taken together, the experiences of Captain Pilecki and Christine Granville, as well as the greater suffering of the Polish civilian population, paint a bleak portrait of a people and nation utterly destroyed.  Yet Poland persevered.  Although beaten by the war and then broken by the imposition of communism, it rose from Eastern Europe’s ashes when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  Currently, Poland stands proudly as an EU member state, having undergone one of the most successful transitions to democracy of the former Soviet satellite states.

So today, on this most solemn of anniversaries, take the time to remember two Polish heroes and raise your glass to toast their bravery.


They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I’ve written quite a few here.  It stands to reason then that a few photos will assist the reader in grasping Poland’s tragic experience by looking back in time, to see a nation in the early days of the war, before the widespread and unimaginable terror and incomprehensible human toll.

Here are two galleries depicting the 1939 invasion as well as of Polish life in the early years under German occupation.

“World War II: The Invasion of Poland and the Winter War,” courtesy of The Atlantic (Part 2 of their 20-part retrospective on World War II)

“On the Brink of Oblivion: Inside Nazi Occupied Poland, 1939-1940,” courtesy of Time & Life Pictures

 And for the interested reader, here are the books from which I drew inspiration for this post:

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, by Captain Witold Pilecki

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, by Clare Mulley

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Professor Timothy Snyder

Published in: on September 1, 2013 at 10:11 am  Comments Off on Blood and Bravery  
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Devils Backbone Vienna Lager

devils backbone vienna lager

Every so often I find a beer so delicious, it magically disappears. I open one and perhaps another, then amazingly they’re gone! Where did they go – I certainly didn’t drink them all myself!

Devils Backbone Vienna Lager is one such beer – two six packs have managed to vanish in as many weeks. I think my fridge may have been burglarized.

I have a soft spot for Vienna lager, as it sits nicely beside other Central European beers I enjoy – Czech pilsner, German lager, even lager variations such as schwartzbier and märzen. Vienna lager, amber or light red in color, is slightly sweeter and softer than its Bavarian or Bohemian brethren. Honestly, it’s hard for me to choose a favorite style of beer originating from Germany, Austria, or the Czech Republic.

Oddly enough, the number of U.S.-brewed Vienna style lagers seems to outnumber the actual number of lagers exported from Austria. Domestic microbrewers have capitalized on the American thirst for these lagers by producing their own versions. A quick search on Beer Advocate easily shows the few European imports among the vast American selections. (This list of course says nothing about what is actually available here in the states.)

This brings us to Devils Backbone, the Virginian microbrewer producing the beer I’ve struggled to keep stocked. The beer itself is lighter than ordinary ambers, but is nonetheless complex on the tongue, finishing clean and crisp – yet not so abruptly as to confuse it with a German lager. Vienna lager is also rounded and comforting, without the filling quality of a hefeweizen or the sharp snappiness of a pilsner.

The lager’s characteristics are reminiscent of Vienna itself: similar to its regional neighbors of Prague and Munich, yet approachable and navigable. Vienna is simultaneously Eastern and Western European (if such a distinction still exists). It is inviting and expansive, seated at the crossroads of western luxuries and eastern functionality. Both decadent and conservative.

My visit to Vienna was all too brief – a few days during a nearly month-long journey through Europe almost 10 years ago. Still, the lager brings fond memories of a few days spent casually walking the city, enjoying its cafes and cuisine, relaxing in palace gardens between meals and museums. To this day, it still ranks as one of my favorite cities.

How nice to be reminded of such a wonderful place by such a wonderful, easily available American microbrew. All I have to do is open the refrigerator – if there’s any left.

Published in: on August 19, 2013 at 9:03 pm  Comments Off on Devils Backbone Vienna Lager  
Tags: , , , , ,