Friday, May 29, 2015

Old Town Beer Exchange: Huntsville, Alabama

Why am I, a Minnesotan beer blogger, writing about a beer store in Alabama?  Why, I'm glad you asked!

My story begins way back in college at Emory in Atlanta.  There I met the woman who would eventually become my wonderful wife.  Her hometown was Huntsville, Alabama--home of Space Camp, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Redstone Arsenal, and a whole slew of Southerners.  As a larger city with so many technological jobs available, Huntsville has accumulated a fair number of folks from other states and countries (post WWII German scientists...) and as a result is a bit more metropolitan than a lot of other cities in the Deep South.  Also with all those scientists and engineers around, the geeky hobby of homebrewing has been popular for some time.  However, only in 2013 did the state legalize homebrewing, sneaking in just under the wire to get the hobby legalized and active before neighboring Mississippi.  Take that Mississippi!

When I first visited Huntsville, there was really no craft beer culture to speak of at all.  Nothing.  Several years later, (around 2005) I was excited to find Olde Towne Brewing had started up as the first craft brewery in the city.  Laws were still pretty strict, and brewery taprooms were not allowed.   In 2010 that brewery shut down, but they opened the door for several more craft breweries in town.  Since then Straight To Ale, Yellowhammer, Salty Nut, Blue Pants, and more have arrived on the scene.  Much like all of the USA, craft beer has arrived!  However, the caveat here is that the craft beer drinker is still much in the minority in the area, and the scene is still a bit fledgling compared to many other states and cities.

On a recent trip to Asheville, NC, my wife Sarajo and I decided to tack a few days onto our road trip and visit her mom in Huntsville.  We were excited to discover that one of Sj's high school class-mates, Bill Fowler, had just that week opened a beverage store specializing in craft beer.  We made sure to swing by the shop and he took some time to talk with us about his new venture.

The Old Town Beer Exchange is located, shockingly, in Olde Town, virtually across the street from Below the Radar Brewpub.  In a modern looking, somewhat understated building, a glass door with the OTBX logo emblazoned upon it welcomes one to the shop.  Inside, the place is cozy without being small.  Directly across from the entrance is a beautiful bar constructed of light-colored bricks from the old Coca-Cola Bottling plant in town, and topped with a ruggedly solid wooden bar top.  A large screen behind the bar lists all of the 32 craft beers they have on tap, with up to the minute information on how much beer is left in the keg!

To the left of the bar is the main store space, including refrigerated cases and copious shelf space for beers.  Windows are darkly tinted to discourage sunlight from injuring the beers on the shelves.  Some beers are organized by country (Belgium, Germany, Europ-ish), while American beers are organized by region rather than by style.  Bill tells me that he hopes this method of shelving will encourage people to discover other styles of beers by breweries they already enjoy, rather than automatically going to the IPA section and ignoring all the other good products to be found.  I like it!  They had a great selection of imports, larger regional breweries like Stone and Lagunitas, as well as a good amount of beers from Alabama and The South. So many of these beers are not available where I live, that I was like a kid in a candy store while exploring!  Oh, and they have a selection of wines in the center of the store if you are not a huge beer fan.

Bill sat down with us at one of the sturdy tables along the outside edge of the place.  I could tell he was busy--putting out small fires (not literal ones), greeting new and returning customers, organizing for the upcoming Rocket City Brewfest, etc.  I really appreciate him taking the time to hang out with us and tell his story.

Bill and three local friends had been planning this venture since the spring of 2014, combining backgrounds of medical sales, software CEO, law, and marketing into a cohesive whole.  The one thing the group shared was a love of craft beer and the desire to see a higher quality and availability of craft beer in Huntsville.  The company's tag line is "Southern, Craft, Culture".  After talking to Bill I truly feel that this is not just a clever marketing tool, but a credo that the owners live by.  Bill talked extensively about his desire to create a better craft beer environment in Huntsville, but in a way that embraces the deep (and sometimes shunned or ignored) history of the area.  As a start to this, they sourced as many things from the local area as possible for the building itself--from that amazing bar, to the reclaimed barn wood for tables, to the local craftsmen who fashioned them into usable furniture.  We did get to meet the talented carpenter, Ben Niemitz, and I could feel the pride in his work radiating out of him as he watched all the folks clustered around that bar.

While we talked, Sj and I shared some Minnesota beers with the staff, including Surly Pentagram and Schells Black Forest.  Bill shared a couple of local beers with us as well, including Straight To Ale's 5th Anniversary Belgian Quad that was lovely.  Meanwhile people continued to flow through the place at a steady clip--ordering a beer at the bar, wandering about eyeing the shelves of beer, and just plain enjoying themselves.  All of the folks working at OTBX were incredibly friendly, excited about what they were doing, and Bill hopes to have everyone properly Ciccerone (basically a beer sommelier) trained to improve and maintain their beer knowledge.

Some interesting notes as a Minnesotan visiting a beer store in Alabama before I wind down.  Despite being slow to legalize homebrewing and still having dry counties, Alabama has been rapidly improving its beer-related blue laws in the past few years.  A lot of that push has come from grassroots groups like Free The Hops.  Now breweries can sell on-premise and have taprooms.  As of 2012 Alabamanians can buy 750 ML bottles (now that one was a dinosaur!).  And you can buy beer on Sunday.  Oh, and you can get growlers filled with commercial beer at beer stores!  There are a few onerous restrictions remaining like brewpubs only being allowed in a county that had a brewery prior to Prohibition (seriously, what?) and not being able to bottle beers.  Still, considering how far behind this state was, they have made up time quickly, resulting in a new and vibrant craft beer scene in the area.  Here in Minnesota, we mainly struggle these days with being one of the few states to still outlaw Sunday liquor sales (resulting in a mass migration into Wisconsin every weekend), and our beer/liquor stores can't serve pints or fill growlers.  Strange but impressive that the traditionally conservative Deep South is lapping us on some of these issues!

Beyond just sharing his valuable time, Bill also went above and beyond the fabled Southern Hospitality by giving the two of us tickets to the next evening's Brewfest.  Getting to a brewfest in my wife's home town?  Amazing!  Oh, I'll be writing that experience up as well since it had some interesting differences from such fests back home...We had a fantastic time visiting the Old Town Beer Exchange and wish them much prosperity in the days to come.  I also hope that Bill and his partners can really have an impact on continuing to improve the craft beer scene in Huntsville for the future.  I know I'm more excited about heading back to town next time!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Whale A Week: Surly Darkness 2008

Ok, we are back to weekly posts about crazy rare beers with A Whale A Week!  This is my excuse to stop hoarding these beers and share them with friends who will appreciate them.  The catch?  Everyone taking part has to help me critique each beer.  I've enjoyed seeing the differences between these write-ups from BJCP judges, seasoned homebrewers, and craft beer fans.

Surly Darkness 2008

This week we return to my stomping grounds of Minnesota, with a look at Surly Brewing's Darkness.  This beer is Surly's take on the Russian Imperial Stout, and was first brewed in 2006, in a very small batch and released in growlers.  I never got to try that first year's release, but at the time it was pretty "ballsy" to put out an expensive-to-brew RIS for a very young upstart craft brewery.  They are called Surly after all.

The second year they released a limited run of bottles (under 500) that they released in the very first Darkness Day event at the brewery in Brooklyn Center.  The event went well and the beer met with high praise.  The bottle for 2007 Darkness featured a Grim Reaper, and while I have held an unopened bottle in my hand, I have yet to taste that batch.  Anyone still have one of these gathering dust in a cellar?

And that catches us up to the chilly morning of October 25, 2008.  2008's Darkness Day was much more organized as well as publicized and by 10 in the morning, a line snaked all through the neighborhood around the brewery.  I arrived there around 9:30 or so and was able to get a spot fairly close to the front of the line.  A few folks from out of state had camped out overnight and shared some epic beers the night before.  They were feeling no pain.  That year Surly increased production of Darkness to around 5000 bottles, a big increase from the previous year, but still a small run.  If you were in the first 700 people in line you got a wrist-band allowing you up to 6 bottles for a total of $100, about $16.67 a bottle.  The bottle art for this year was done by local tattoo artist Nik Skrade featuring a demon with an upside-down skull in his palm.  The bottle was wax dipped and the label was actually a sticker placed on the glass bottle.  The next year they began screen printing the bottles and scrapped the sticker.  Darkness Day itself featured live metal music, various Surly beers, and limited food options.  I had a great time!

So I have been hoarding (like I do) my 6 bottles of 2008 Darkness over the years since, drinking one every so often on a special occasion.  Now, over 6 years later, I dusted off this beauty for a last bow. I've stored it in the dark in my mid-60 degree basement.  I invited a couple of friends over for the tasting, since we decided to try a couple of rare beers in one day and spread the wealth.  We poured into Surly Darkness glasses and some Steel Toe Snifters for this particular tasting.  Here is our cast of characters: Me (Eric)--homebrewer for over 25 years, beer judge, beer geek.  Sj--my wife who inexplicably is a woman of few words when it comes to reviewing beer.  Sean Kampshoff--Winner of National Homebrew Competition medals, beer judge, cool guy.  Jim & Cindy Moldenhauer--a very fun couple of craft beer geeks we got to know at several McCoy's Public House beer dinners.

98.7 % of demons enjoy a Surly Darkness...

Eric: Prune, raisin, dark dried cherries.  Sherry cask tannin and woody aroma from oxidation.  Slight dark chocolate notes.  There is a slight sharp tinge that seems almost minty--hops?  Some roast malts but not as roasty as I expected.
Sean: Super roasty, sherry notes, and toffee.  Minty/herbal hop aroma--menthol cigarettes?
Cindy: Chocolate, sherry.
Jim: Chocolate

Jet black (Sean)  Black as Sin (Eric).  Sexy Dark (Cindy) Dark and lovely (Jim)  Also Opaque.  Off-white to tan head that fades quickly. Fine bubbles easy to rouse with swirling.

Eric: Very sweet and malty up front--bordering on cloying at first.  Strong sherry notes after the initial burst of sweet, almost cardboard but not quite.  Deep blackberry (almost tart) and prunes.  Earthy hints, not vegetal, but more herbal or minty.  Moderate roastiness.  Burnt/dark candy sugar.  Mouthfeel thick and syrupy, coating the mouth.  Finish fairly sweet but not overly so.  Not as boozy as I remember, but light warming.
Sean: Thick roastiness with dark fruit character and deep toffee notes.  Finishes slightly sweet, but lingering hop bitterness helps dry it out.  Mouthfeel medium-high body, medium-low carbonation.  Slight creaminess and alcohol warmth.
Cindy: Toffee, chocolate.  Thicker mouthfeel, smooth.  Nice bourbon finish.
Jim: Chocolate magic.

Eric: Still a very good beer!  This tastes a lot different from previous tastings, mainly due to increased oxidation.  This oxidation is still more sherry than wet cardboard, but is right on the edge of turning.  Complexity of the beer is fading in favor of the oxidation.  Could use just a touch more Satan. 4.25
Sean: Fantastically aged Imperial stout.  Big, bold roastiness but not overdone and the sherry notes from its age add a great depth to an already complex beer. 4.25
Cindy: 5
Jim: Hello Darkness my old friend.  More please!  Ages very well. 4.5
Sj: "Withstands the test of time".  4.25

Overall average score: 4.45

Interesting to try such an old version of this famous and rare beer.  Sean and I ended up at the same score overall, but he felt there was more roastiness than I did, perhaps because I've tried the beer before and found it faded this round.  We all enjoyed the beer a lot.  I have another bottle and feel that I want to drink it soon before it goes over the precipice.  I've got another from each year since and will work my way through those this year as well...tune in and play along!  If you have tried this vintage recently, feel free to comment--I'd love to see what other folks get from this beer.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Beer Dust! Water Science Made Easy

Hey faithful blog readers!  Today I'm taking a quick break from my usual beer reviews, photography, and brewery visits.

Those who know me, are probably well aware that I've been a homebrewer for about 25 years.  Doing the math, I've been homebrewing for more than half of my life!  Over the past 10 years or so, the knowledge of the craft as well as the ability to share that knowledge has risen exponentially, and the overall quality of homebrew has risen with it.  We are in a great time for the hobby!

Since I moved to Waconia, Minnesota I have had one major problem with my brewing: the water.  Our water here tastes funky--musty swimming pool, mildew, hints of decomposing flesh at times.  Yuck!  The water is also hard as sin.  I can drop an ice cube into a glass of water and watch the flakes of sediment literally rain down through the glass.  England's Burton On Trent is known for hard water with plenty of calcium and magnesium, but if their water is a 10, my local water goes to 11.  (Hey we were talking England, so I had to quote Spinal Tap!)  I quickly discovered that using this water resulted in decent stouts and porters, but everything else had strange flavors and lacked the balance I was looking for.  Based on things from the Internet I tried using Five Star's 5.2 Mash Stabilizer, but didn't see much positive effect on things.  Looking back, this is because I was actually adding more salts to my already mineral-laden water.  Besides, that product is more for mash pH.  I have tried to get water reports from the city but with mixed results and much variation season to season, resulting in more variables for handling this.

I tried cutting our local water with reverse osmosis (RO) or distilled water that had all the nutrients/salts stripped from it.  This helped a bit, but was less than reproducible.   Then I worked on strait RO and building it up using mad-scientist powders and my tiny gram scale.  This resulted in better final beer, but still left me with a lot of questions.  For instance: "So I'm using the water profile of a certain region in Germany--but do the Germans do anything to their water, or take it as is?"

I read the Water book by John Palmer.  OK, I tried to read the Water book.  Three times.  I have a medical degree and have taken plenty of chemistry classes in the past, but that was a long time ago, and this was just hard to follow.  And frankly, I find water chemistry boring and not as "fun" as recipe formulation and the actual brewing process.  I know I'm not alone in this!

My brew system in action!

Enter, my good friend Keith Brady.  Keith is a molecular biologist and actually likes the whole water chemistry aspect of brewing!  I had been blown away by his IPA's and Pale Ales over the past several years at brewclub meetings and was very excited when I discovered that water profile tweaking was a major part of his success.  Keith continued to win awards both small scale (our Jack Of All Brews monthly Golden Mash Paddle) and larger scale (Minnesota State Fair, and many more).   I continued to struggle a bit with those hoppy beers, but continued to do well with my dark beers.

Next up comes fellow club-mate Mike Lebben, also an award winning homebrewer, who actually has a business background.  Mike, Keith, and I talked over some beers and decided to combine our knowledge bases and come out with a pre-measured packet of water salts to be added to RO or distilled water.  These are based on a specific beer style profile and aim to improve the taste and balance of those beers.  With a year of testing under our belts, and lots of work on getting our logo and packaging arranged, we just opened up our new business: Beer Dust was born!

Beer Dust won't be for everyone.  Those hardcore homebrewers already messing with their water are not necessarily going to want to invest in our packets, and that's just fine.  Though I admit, I'd like to see some advanced brewers try Beer Dust and give us feedback on how well it works for them.  Mainly our goal is to help the beginner and intermediate brewers to get a better result in their finished beers.  We have been testing the formulas in all-grain and extract brews, and the IPA works great for both versions.  Will Beer Dust guarantee a perfect beer?  No way!  Much depends on the individual brewer's skills in recipe formulation, temperature control, and especially sanitation and cleaning.  This is just a way to take some of the guess-work out of the brewing process and add a level of control to the process.

For the first run, we have our IPA packet ready to order.  As our sales grow, we plan to put that money back into Beer Dust so we can keep putting out new profiles.  We already have the recipe hammered out for Pale Ale, and are still doing test batches for Brown Ales (both English and American versions eventually!)

We're all excited to see where this venture takes us, and hope that the growing homebrew community will want to give Beer Dust a try for themselves.  I'm sure that we will certainly spark some good discussions out there on the Interwebs, but hope that folks will actually try us out before making too many judgements.  We are certainly open to hearing constructive feedback, as well as ideas about future styles people want to see from us!

Please check out our website for more information and to order HERE.  Also like our page on Facebook HERE and share it with your friends if you can.  At this point we are really trying to get the word out about Beer Dust and could use all the help we can get!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Eating and Drinking Through Asheville, NC: Part 6 the Finale!

In which we wrap up our epic trip to Beer City Asheville, NC.

Day 7

Waking up late and slowly returning to humanity after eating and drinking wayyyyy too much the previous day, we were ready for one more day of this before moving on to the next leg of our journey.  We started the day with visits to some local galleries, then to get some Indian street food at Chai Pani with our friends Andrew and William who happened to be in town that week.  We caught up on events since our trip to visit them in Pennsylvania last Fall and ate some amazing spicy Indian foods.  This was by far the best Indian food I've had and I can see why this place usually has a line to get in.  With a limited beer list, I was happy to find the Pisgah Saison, which went with my food remarkably well.

Next we bought a painting we had been eyeing all week, deciding to bite the bullet and take home some fancy art for our house.

In order to say we went to the mountains, we drove the 20 minutes to the town of Black Mountain, because I really wanted to find Pisgah Brewing, who had made two very good beers I'd discovered over the week.  OK, the town isn't really in the mountains, but it sounded good!  We discovered Pisgah brewing hidden away in an industrial area outside the main downtown.  The brewery itself is located (like most) in an old warehouse.  They have a medium sized bar serving a good number of beers (10+) including cider and rootbeer.  An outside patio area is just outside the large (open) garage doors of the brewery itself.  The place was crowded when we arrived, since there was a Leaf Festival of some type starting up in the town proper a few hours later and folks wanted to get a head start on the festivities.  Our bartender was very busy, but gave us enough of her time to make us feel welcome.

We sampled almost all the beers, and I have to say that I was impressed.  Having had the previous good beers in Asheville, I did have high hopes and they were not dashed after this visit!  Not every beer was amazing, but all were respectable.  I think the GreyBeard IPA was my least favorite, but I was not overwhelmed by any IPA on this trip, and this one was still better than many others.  My favorite was Valdez, a stout made with Dynamite Coffee (roasted just a couple doors down from the brewery) and was full of fresh roasted coffee flavors.  We lucked out and bought one of their last 6 packs to take home and I've been slowly drinking through it since getting back.  Yum!  Juan Valdez would be proud!  I also enjoyed the Red Devil, a cherry and raspberry Belgian ale quite a bit.  I guess these guys are celebrating their 10 year anniversary so they have been doing this a long time now.

Satan sets up his den of iniquity right next to the Tabernacle...

And lo and behold: right next door in the same complex is Black Mountain Ciderworks!  The cidery itself is hidden away behind a curtained doorway, like the Wizard keeping out of sight.  The taproom is beyond tiny, with just a very cute but tall bar and a couple small tables to fill the minescule store-front.  Our bartender was a very nice ex-teacher from New York and seemed happy to discuss ciders with us.  We sampled though the entire lot and enjoyed most of the ciders quite a bit.  Most of the ciders were pretty dry and featured names like The Saxon, The Puritan, Charlemagne, and Zephyrus. It seems that they really are trying to recreate some classic and long-lost cider styles, while mixing things up a bit with new things as well. The Puritan was a great English cider fermented with wild yeast from raisins.  The Golden Hind, a mead with light addition of lemongrass, had just been tapped and we were some of the first to get to try it.  That was our favorite of the day.  One of the cidermakers came out to the bar for a bit for a pint and to work on hand peeling fresh ginger for a new batch.  Sorry I'm going to miss that one!  A cool place, but I think I liked the overall cider range at Urban Orchard slightly more.

Mr. Poe loves some Black Mountain Cider!

Looking at my list of breweries, there was one more to visit in Black Mountain: Lookout Brewing.  This is one of the smaller breweries we visited on our trip, using a glorified homebrew system to supply the taproom.  A tiny yellow sign on the door was the only indicator we had found the right place.  Doors were open to let some breeze blow through the place.  A petite bar in the corner supplied beers to about a dozen locals.  I got the sampler (as always!) to try the lot, and really thought the taster set was cool: a wooden triangle with a labeled poker chip in each glass slot to tell you what the beer was.  Now there wasn't much information about the beers (styles) on the chalk board behind the bar, so I did have to ask a few questions.  The Spicy Hippy and the Session IPA were both very pleasant beers, but I have to be honest I really didn't like most of the rest.  I hate to be too critical of a new brewery, but I wasn't a huge fan of the beers overall.  On the other hand, I think the locals were having a great time and seemed to really love this place, a feeling that can improve the overall vibe of a brewery. Hopefully they can get some more consistency in their brewing over time, since there are hints of potential there.  Still a fun little stop.

We drove back to Asheville and parked the car.  Getting hungry, we had thought about bookending our trip with a dinner at Wicked Weed Brewing again.  In the elevator down, we met a nice stranger named Art who was also planning on going Wicked Weed.  Small world!  Once we realized he had never been to the Funkatorium, we hijacked him and made him come with us for one last glass of the insanely good Red Angel.  Then we forced him at beer-point to go with us to Burial for one last Bolo Coconut Brown.  And then we all went to Wicked Weed for a great dinner and more beers.  I'm really glad we ran into him, since he gave us an excuse to visit all three of our favorite Asheville breweries one last time before heading out.  A great and epic finish to a an epic trip.

Hopefully folks have enjoyed my travelogue and perhaps will get a chance to try out some of these mystical places.  I hopefully have not upset anyone by disrespecting their favorite brewery, but I just call it like I see it!  As at Lookout (above), I know everyone has different tastes in food and beer, and if you love a beer that I think is terrible, I don't want to ruin your enjoyment!  Here is a little wrap-up from our trip:

Favorite Beer--Wicked Wee Funkatorium's Red Angel
Favorite Cider--Urban Orchard's Sidra Del Diablo
Best Wine--I can't remember because who cares about wine when there is that much great beer!
Best Brewery--Burial (Simply because Wicked Week split the vote by having two awesome places.)
Least Favorite Brewery Experience--One World (might be better without the terrible DJ)
Best Restaurant--The Admiral

I'll be back soon posting about some beer events in Huntsville, AL and some other more local brewery and beer reviews!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Eating and Drinking Through Asheville: Part 5

In which our intrepid explorers experience Art!  Beer!  Ciders!  And The Admiral!

Day 6

OK, so Asheville has been good to us so far this trip, with pleasant weather, great food and great beers.  Hm, what should we do on day 6?  How about more of the same?  Sounds like a plan!

Sj ready to get messy with BBQ!
We started out the day a little late with lunch at 12 Bones, a local BBQ joint known for its line outside the door and amazing North Carolina BBQ.  Located right in the midst of the Asheville River Arts District, this was a good excuse to get in the car and explore the city a bit more.  We got there shortly after they opened and didn't have to stand outside longer than about 10 minutes.  Pretty much everyone I talked to about the area had suggested this place, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed.  My ribs were dry, tough and hard to eat with little bone fragments in several bites.  The pulled pork came out in a bowl filled with watery juice and was quite bland on its own.  They did have several BBQ, mustard, and vinegar sauces to try with the meats, but none really wowed me.  We did get very quick counter service though.  I also tried the pale ale from local Pisgah Brewing and this prompted me to visit that brewery the following day.  The best BBQ I had on this trip was actually Black Dog Smokehouse in Urbana, IL of all places!  Oh well, you can't win them all.

From 12 Bones we walked across the road to a cluster of warehouses that had been converted to artist studios.  There were many such places in the area, and they offered a cool way to check out some of the local art and explore a bit.  The map of the River Arts District made it look easy to walk from studio to studio, but we discovered that there was no sidewalk and that places were farther apart than they looked on the map!  No problem, we foraged over high grass, braved narrow roads, and went cross-country across train tracks and through crumbled buildings.  I enjoyed the derelict nature of the area and had plenty of things to take pictures of.  Seriously though, the city should invest in some sidewalks to encourage more traffic to these places.

Coolest art studio ever?

We visited cool studios with pottery, woodworking, glass blowing, painting, metal smithing, and more.  Many of the old buildings were a treat to examine as well.  We did pick up some jewelry for Sj and also an amazing painting on tin from old Asheville.

Not far from here, we met up with an old friend of Sj's from Alabama, Amy Pike.  Amy has been in Asheville for some time and seemed to know just about everyone we ran into!  We met at Urban Orchard, a local cidery with 8 ciders on tap.  The place was new, spare, and comfortable, with the windows open to a warm breeze.  Our server was very attentive and seemed to actually know a lot about the different ciders, and didn't hesitate to tell us her favorites.  We ended up getting two samplers so we could try them all!  It was great to meet Amy, and I'm really glad that she and Sj had a chance to catch up on quite a bit of time.

The ciders at Urban Orchard were surprisingly good.  So many ciders I try these days are overly sweet, and none of these had that issue.  I gave pretty much all the ciders a 4 out of 5 star rating, except the Wit which really didn't have the right balance.  My favorites were the Black Hole (Blackberry!) and the Sidra Del Diablo (Habenero!) but I really also enjoyed their flagship Dry Ridge dry cider.  They do also offer some snacks for those who work up a hunger while drinking cider.  We had a great time hanging out in this comfy tap room and I would highly recommend stopping in if you are interested in trying some unique cider options.

After saying our goodbyes, we headed back to the Arts District to visit Wedge Brewing, which had just opened at 4 PM that day.  Nestled in among the art galleries, in a three story building originally used for livestock distribution, this place has some serious character.  Outside, railings, tables, chairs are all made of welded "found" metal tools and items.  Just wandering around the place is a treat!  It was getting pretty hot and sunny by the time we visited so we didn't want to sit out in the open patio with most of the crowd.  We headed in to the small taproom proper, where there was really just space to line up and order, with only a couple stools inside.  We got two samplers, going to a second alternate serving station outside to fill up one of the beers we ordered.  I like the chalkboard sides of the samplers--something I haven't seen before.  They also have bowls of peanuts and buckets for shells...something I haven't seen at a bar for years!  So if you have a serious peanut allergy, you may want to stay away from Wedge.

Just one of many cool metal sculptures outside Wedge

We ended up sitting outside on cool rotating and moving chair sculptures, out of the brightest of the hot sun.  I drank through the samplers and enjoyed many of the beers.  The Julian Price Pilsner was well made and very refreshing!  A hemp ale was actually tasty and will probably make me test positive on the next drug test I take.  And the Iron Rail IPA was classic and well balanced.  My least favorite was, much like Urban Orchard, the Wit.  Overall, a very cool space, vibe, and a good collection of solid beers.  I'm glad we went back to this place instead of heading back into downtown.

Parking our car quasi-legally outside Hi-Wire Brewing, we had one more stop before dinner.  I mean what else were we going to do?  Our server at Sierra Nevada had mentioned that her husband was a brewer at Hi-Wire, a brewery that had not really been on my radar before that, but I added it to the list after talking to her.  This is a small working brewery, with a tiny bar and a few high top tables for seating.  Not the most glamorous, but very "real".  I quickly tasted through the sampler and found all of the beers to be well crafted and good examples of their styles.  Nothing crazy, but all good.  My favorite double IPA of the trip was their Man Eater, and they happened to have just bottled them, so I took a few home with me.  Second favorite was the very nice ESB.  We also briefly got to say hi to one of the owners there who seemed appreciative of our business.  Getting back to our car to avoid towing, we headed on to our next destination.

Next we headed over to a place in West Asheville that had been suggested by our niece Anna as well as friends of Sj's: The Admiral!  This is the restaurant for the foodies.  The building is pretty tiny and unassuming, made of ugly cinderblock, with minimal signage.  Entering through a small door, the restaurant is small, close, and dark with booth seating along one side and tables in the center.  The small kitchen is visible from the seating area, and chefs bustled around throwing flames and tasty foods around like circus performers.  The place has the feel of an only slightly revamped dive bar or 1950's diner.  Our server was great, and very attentive.  With a menu changing daily based on local and available foods, the options are limited but all interesting.  We started with the Sweet Breads in spicy honey sauce and buttermilk ranch and my heart skipped a beat or two.  For those who don't know what sweet breads are: they are thymus glands, usually tossed as trash, but in the right hands can be a flavorful, buttery textured, culinary heaven.  And these were perfect.  We split some other dishes to get a good mix of things and everything we tried was stellar.  This place is a gem hidden in a tarnished base metal setting. This was by far the best meal we had on our trip to Asheville.  And yes, we had more sweet breads for "dessert".  Because they were just that good.

Back alley speakeasy entrance to One World
Not to be finished after two breweries, a cidery, and one of the best meals ever, we were ready for more!  Back to the hotel to drop off the car and back out to downtown.  One World Brewing was very close to the hotel and I had been saving it for just such an occasion.  Hidden down an alley right next to Farm Burger restaurant, the entrance is through a large metal framed portal (manned by a bouncer), down some stairs past a door with sliding peep-hole (speakeasy?) and into a dark and minimalist basement space.  The space itself is fairly relaxed looking with a small bar near the entrance.  When we arrived they had the World's Most Terrible DJ (TM) playing awful, bone jarring house music from hell.  Sj gave me "the look" saying silently, "Get your beers, drink them, and get me out of this place."  Which I promptly did.  The bartender was cheerful and quick, getting me the sampler without fuss.  I'll be honest here, the beers were not very good.  Not infected or unintentionally-sour-bad, but just not very good and not well balanced.  The exception was the Citra Bomb that I gave a 3.5 star rating since I'm a whore for Citra hops.  Looking at the homebrew sized brew system in the corner of the basement, I can see why they probably have some variability in batches, but these guys need to step it up if they want to compete in Asheville!  I didn't finish my beers and we escaped the hellish racket to the free air above ground. Your results may vary.

Our desire for a relaxing night-cap foiled, we continued to walk around for a bit.  Passing the famous French Broad Chocolates building and seeing no line out the door we at first thought that it must be closed.  But no!  It was actually open, so we finally had a chance to get some chocolates.  We both got decadent sipping chocolates that have to be the richest thing I've ever put in my mouth.  We also stocked up on Mother's Day presents.

OK, now that is the way to finish the day!  Only one more left in Asheville...What to do tomorrow?  Perhaps eat and drink some more?  Sure!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Eating and Drinking Through Asheville, NC: Part 4

In which Sj and I continue to loosen our belts in order to make room for some amazing food and drink! If you want more info on our previous days check out HERE, HERE, HERE.

Day 5

Day 5 of our trip really started by meeting up with one of Sj's jewelry-making friends, Barb, and her husband Bob for a lunch at the renowned Tupelo Honey Cafe.  While getting acquainted we broke our fast with a very filling and tasty meal.  I got my "South" on and had classic fried green tomatoes and buttermilk fried chicken and biscuits.  Yum!  Of course I was full for the rest of the day, but well worth the indulgence.

Next we headed to a Cherry Tree Beads, a local bead store that mainly does on-line business but has a physical shop nestled in a warehouse outside of town.  My jewelry making wife finally got to sate her bead addiction by rolling around in beads like Scrooge McDuck in his pools of money.  I can't complain as she let me pack much of our car with beers to mule home, while her beads took up very little space...

Our friends then drove us a bit further to the new Sierra Nevada Brewery complex.  Since the "real" Sierra Nevada is California, I hadn't really planned on visiting this new expansion project, but I'm very glad that we did get out there!  We didn't make a tour, but I wandered around a little bit with my camera.  As we pulled into the large parking lot, I was struck by the sheer immensity of the place.  This makes the new Surly Brewery look like a children's playground!  Solar power cells on large poles gather in light from above the parking to channel into green use for the brewery.  Reclaimed kegs on poles form a line of bike racks.  And copper, wood, and huge stainless tanks finish the picture.  Wow!  A we entered the taproom, three large burnished copper kettles off to the right make you know that you are in a brewery.  The taproom itself is large with long high tables and solid stools.

Our server was very helpful and helped us navigate the list of over 20 tap beers available.  They did do samplers, but they were very tiny (2 oz)--more to help decide what to get a pint of than as a drink unto themselves.  I have been drinking Sierra Nevada beers for ages and thought I had tried most of them.  I was wrong.  Not all of these make it to Minnesota, and some seem to be taproom only, so there were plenty to pick from.  Sj was happy with her Ovila Quad with Plums, and I settled for a Barrel Aged Bigfoot snifter. OK, I didn't settle, I was psyched to find that on tap!  Talking more to our server, she was not a local, and had moved to Asheville when her husband took a brewer job with Hi-Wire.  Based on her recommendation, we ended up heading there the next day.  The food looked great, much of it incorporating Sierra Nevada beers into the recipes, but we were too full after out Brunch to have any room.  We also dropped a fair amount of money in the huge and varied swag shop, loading up on tap handles, bar mirrors, Ovila, and shirts.  Great merchandising!

By the time we got back into Asheville proper, it was time for our early dinner reservations at Curate.  Pronounced Cure-Ah-Teh, this is an upscale Spanish tapas restaurant that was suggested by our wonderful niece, Anna.  Still not incredibly hungry, we ordered a few plates to share and were very happy with everything we ordered.  I'm a sucker for Jamon Iberico (the thinly shaved Spanish ham that is much like prosciutto.  Tasty black footed pigs!  I forgot to take pictures of the amazing food, but did get a pic of this strange Spanish ale that I drank with it.

From Curate, it being early evening and sun still shining, we headed back to the brewery district.  Because that is what you do in Asheville!  Wanting a nice desert beer, we headed back to one of our favorite local breweries, Burial, for their Bolo Coconut Brown Ale.  I really did love that beer and that place!

After our quick stop, light fading fast, we headed back into the downtown area to visit one more brewery.  This time we tried out Lexington Avenue Brewery, also called The LAB.  We had passed this place several times on our wanders through town, but had saved it for a later evening as it was closer to our hotel.  Even on a Tuesday night the place was fairly busy, but we found some seating fronting the sidewalk.  The day had been warm and the inside of the brewery was a bit stuffy, but our seat allowed some nice cool evening air to circulate around us, as well as some great people watching as folks walked past.  The place is fairly big, with an extensive bar.  I liked the feel of it, and can tell there was some decent money put into the business.

Our server at LAB was very good and helpful, always a plus in my book.  We ordered a sampler so we could try all the beers and some truffled fries that were tasty but difficult to eat as they were shaved so thin.  The beers were pretty good overall, with only the cream ale really striking me as not great.  My favorites were the light and refreshing Belgian table beer, and the Three Threads Porter, both very respectable.  This place is worth a visit while you are wandering around Asheville.

With just one more quick stop at Sovereign Remedies for another impromptu cocktail, we headed off to the Hotel Indigo for bed!

Coming up next: Art!  Admiral! Apples!  And Beer!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Whale A Week: Churchill's Finest Hour 2013

A Whale A Week is my attempt to share a rare beer with friends every week for the whole year of 2015, often accompanied by funky photo tricks.  This helps me get through my dragon's hoard of cellared beers as well as practice with beer photography.  This week we do another Bourbon Barrel aged Imperial Stout...

Churchill's Finest Hour 2013

Most folks have heard of Port Brewing in California, co-run with Lost Abbey and the Pizza Port brewpubs.  We still can't get those beers here in Minnesota, but I've got a few lurking in my cellar!  I have really liked Old Viscosity when I've had it in the past.  Every year since 2010 the brewery has released a special beer for Churchill's Pub and Grille in San Marcos, California.  The beer is a blend of up to three different beers to make a special and changing product each year.  The pub has a special Renaissance Day celebration each year which includes a ton of rare beers on tap and the release of this special beer.  Like a lot of these limited release events, folks have started showing up the night before and waiting in line for their entry and beers.

Knowing that a lot of effort went into getting this particular beer, I was excited to try it!  This week I had my good friend Rob Wengler share the beer with me.  Rob is known for his web based show Limited Release where he, Ron Johnson, (and occasionally me) travel to these special beer release parties and document the ensuing chaos.  And as usual, my wife Sarajo helped us to drink this beer.

I couldn't find much information about this specific beer, but I do know that it is 11% ABV and at least some of it is barrel aged.  The dark brown wax dipped top indicates that it is from 2013.  BeerAdvocate has a rating of 97 for this vintage, and RateBeer has a combined vintage score of 100.  I served this beer slightly warmer than I wanted to (60 degrees F.)

Fun with smoke effects!  I put some serious time into getting this just right, so enjoy it!

Eric: A mix of milk and semi-sweet chocolates.  Some strong nose-stinging alcohol and bourbon.  Vanilla and oak tannin.  No hop aroma.  There is a burnt coffee or overly roasted malt aroma as it is swirled.  Alcohol is very overpowering.
Rob: Dark cherries.  Dark toasted oak, vanilla and lots of tannin.  Alcohol heat. Candy, caramel/burnt sugar.  Slightly smoky.

Eric & Rob: Opaque black, no light is getting through this beer!  Large head with deep brown color.  Large bubbles that fade fairly quickly but are easily roused back again.

Eric: Semi-sweet chocolate like in the aroma.  Following that is very firm alcohol warming, bordering on burning.  Hints of vanilla and oak tannins.  There is sweetness here, but more like a dry Belgian beer than a sticky RIS.  Molasses and prune flavors as I get past the strong alcohol.  Body only medium, probably from the dry boozy finish, tannins and abundant roasted/burnt malt.  As it warms I pick up on some smoke.  Carbonation higher than expected from appearance.
Rob: Smooth/harmonious, very even.  Slightly smoky-makes me think of Scotch more than bourbon.  Just sweet enough.  Subtle spices, maybe a touch of cinnamon?  Hot and effervescent.  Carbonation makes it seem lighter bodied.

Eric: Very tasty overall.  The alcohol is so strong that it covers a lot of the other flavors lurking under the hood.  Pleasant and fun to try, but lacks complexity.  Feeling the burn!  I would be interested in trying other vintages to see what those are like.  4
Rob: Not as heavy as I'd expect for 11%.  Main flavor for me is Scotch.  This might be subdued more if we drank this colder. 4
Sarajo: It's OK. 4

A cool and rare beer to try with an interesting back story.  We all liked it, but serving it warm may have hurt this a bit.  That being said, I've had my share of RIS beers served warm that I gave higher ratings to.  I'd love to know if they actually used Scotch barrels for this batch.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Eating and Drinking Through Asheville, NC: Part 3

In which Sj and I manage to wander over miles of property and a million stairs at the Biltmore Estate and drink more beers.

Day 4

Day 4 of our Asheville trip dawned bright and sunny, leading us to decide on this as our perfect day for the Biltmore Estate.  I'm not going to get into much historic detail here since it doesn't revolve directly around beer or food.  And hence is lower on my priority list.  They were having a special costumes of Downton Abbey exhibit that Sj enjoyed quite a bit.  We did the rooftop tour of the estate which was pretty cool.  While you couldn't take pictures inside the house, you could do so from the roof.

Once we were done with our house tours, we drove to the Biltmore Village for lunch at Cedric's Tavern, named after the Vanderbilt family Saint Bernard.  Looking online it was unclear if this was an actual brewpub or just a pub that served some beers, but by 1 PM we were starving and it was close.  The food was very good though somewhat pricey.  The beer sampler featured three house beers that were all decent but not stellar--the ESB being the best of the three.  On further evaluation they have beers brewed for them by Highland Brewing, so not a real brewpub.

After a late lunch we wandered the expansive gardens and grounds around the manor.  Having come from Minnesota where I struggled to find anything blooming at all, this place was a riot of flowers, leaves, and strange southern plant life.  I switched to my macro lens and took lots of pictures.  During our trek, we kept going just a little further, or taking the next fork in the trail, until we had been out walking for hours.  We started the visit at around 11 and left the grounds close to 7 PM.

Hot, dehydrated, leg muscles jumping and spasming from unaccustomed activity, we headed straight for the Wicked Weed Funkatorium.  Priorities!  Mainly we did this since we had the car out already and didn't want to drag a case of bottles through the streets of Asheville on foot.  We each guzzled several glasses of water (thank you kind bartender!) and sipped at another glass of the Red Angel sour raspberry beer.  Seriously that beer was amazing!  We also shared the charcuterie plate for some early evening sustenance.

After loading up our car with bottles of sour beer, we walked over to Tasty Beverage Co. a block away and shared a glass of a very bright and tart Italian lambic while buying a few bottles there to take home with us.  We met a few locals there, who ended up trailing behind us at our next stop.

Not quite ready to leave the "brewing district" we went right next door to Twin Leaf Brewery.  I liked the feel of this little taproom.  The wide open building has a nice wooden bar with some other table seating, with full view of the small brewing system along one edge.  Our server, like many in Asheville, was not a local.  We shared a sampler to try most of the available beers.  None of the beers were bad, but most were fairly middle of the road.  They did have a lot of beers to choose from though!  I imagine you have to really up your game to succeed in a city with this much competition for the craft beer dollar.  My favorite of the beers was a fine oatmeal stout that I would easily put up against Samuel Smith.  No food here other than some snacks, so it was time to move on.

By the time we got our car back to the hotel and beers unloaded it was pretty late and dark.  And Sj was getting Hangry.  That is Hungry-Angry and you do NOT want to witness it first hand!  We couldn't decide on where to eat and many places were already closing down for the night (this was Monday night after all.)  We ended up walking past a place (OK, maybe Sj led us to a place) called The Twisted Laurel and being happy that they had a late-night menu.  They had mostly Mediterranean and American fusion food, that was good, quick, and filling.  They also had a pretty good beer list including Alagash and New Belgium La Folie--unfortunately these were the only two that weren't on special.  Typical that we have expensive tastes!

With just a little bit of energy left in us, we decided to visit one of the stops from our Eating Asheville tour: Sovereign Remedies.  This bar appeals to those who love unusual drinks and has a frequently changing list of cocktails and smart staff of mixologists willing to improvise based on your own suggestions.  They have a limited food menu that really appeals after a long night of debauchery as well as an herbal "Pre-Hangover Tonic" that you can drink prior to indulging.  I ended up with some kind of strange citrus-laden Scotch concoction that was very different from what I normally drink, but I liked it!

Not bad for a day full of wandering!  By the end of the evening we were dog tired, but ready to get going again the next morning!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Eating and Drinking Through Asheville, NC: Part 2

In this episode my wife and I continue to stretch our waist bands by eating and drinking our way through Asheville!  Please check out the previous days HERE.

Day 3

Day 3 began like most others on our trip--coffee drinks made lovingly by Cat, our wonderful local barista at the Hotel Indigo.  Once the caffeine had a chance to kick in, we headed out for the day's festivities.  Being a Sunday, the city was a little less crowded than the previous two days, but still plenty of activity going on.

Hungry yet?

We had an early lunch at The Gourmet Chip Company, a place we discovered on our Eating Asheville tour the day before.  This place makes hand cut potato chips to order with a huge array of toppings, making this place very unique in my experience.  Chips range from simple to complex with Cuban, Asian, Belgian, and Californian inspired toppings.  They have a small list of panini sandwiches, so we had these with some amazing fresh chips.  Chip-wise Sj had the Parisian which was topped with rosemary thyme goat cheese and truffle oil, while I had the Buffalo sauce and blue cheese chips.  Yum!  They also sell some of their more portable versions on-line...

After our nice lunch we went out in search of a brewery.  Many of the breweries did not open before 2 but we discovered a relative newcomer to the local beer scene that had a jazz brunch so was open earlier.  This brewery quickly became one of our favorites and was a small enough place that many locals we met had never heard of it.  With the unlikely name of Burial Beer Company, these guys started out with a tiny 1 barrel system, and have just recently upgraded to a 10 barrel system.  An industrial building just a few blocks from Green Man and the Funkatorium, this place has a cool rusted metal roof and walls lined with old bladed farm implements.  The place has a relaxed, slightly ghetto feel that is truly unique among the plethora of taprooms I've been to in my travels.  Along the patio side of the building a huge mural of Sloth from the Goonies and Magnum PI bring some wacky color to the otherwise somber space.  Folks were cooking up New Orleans style food for the jazz brunch out back when we first arrived, but we sat ourselves at the bar inside to escape the noise (Jazz).

Our first beer was the Skillet Donut Stout--a beautiful and complex black ale served with a donut hole sticking out on a skewer.  Realizing that they did indeed do samplers, we tasted through most of their beers, talking to other bar patrons as we did so.  The serving staff was very busy, but did a good job keeping us plied with beer.  They had a very respectable West Coast Surf Wax IPA that probably the best IPA I had on this trip.  (While nearly every brewery had an IPA, most were less than stellar.)  Our favorite of the lot was the Bolo Coconut Brown Ale which rivaled Town Hall Brewery's Three Hour Tour for our favorite coconut beer of all time.  Supposedly the brewery will be canning some of these soon and I can only hope that we will eventually get some here in Minnesota.

We actually returned to Burial two more times during our trip and were never disappointed.  Our server Travis Floan, the second time we were there, looked nearly exactly like Jason Lee, and was incredibly knowledgeable and pleasant--one of the best servers we had on the whole trip.

After an amazing group of beers at Burial, we walked a block away to the much touted Green Man Brewery. Having grown up reading fantasy novels and fairy tales, I have long known about the fabled Green Man, and have loved seeing his leafy visage gazing down from buildings across the world.  So needless to say, I love the brewery logo.  Several friends and many locals had told us that this was one of their favorite breweries in Asheville so I had high hopes for this stop.  

Located, like most of these breweries, in an older converted warehouse, the place has a small patio and a larger high-ceilinged roof inside.  The bar itself is quite small--perhaps smaller than my own basement bar.  The backsplash area behind the bar was covered in ceramic green men, silly signs, fridge magnets, and assorted other random bric-a-brac.  Kermit the frog and Yoda gazed down upon us from above the bar.

Despite us sitting right at the bar and having only about four other patrons to deal with, our server was quite inattentive and even downright surly when I ordered a samplers to try some of the beers.  I always like to chat up the bartenders to get more information about the place and their favorites, but this was like talking to an inexpressive brick wall.  Slapping down my sampler (with the beers in the incorrect order) and slopping beer all over our area of bar, she continued to not impress.  This did not bode well for a good experience and I could feel Sj seething a bit next to me.  Moving on to the beers:  I did enjoy the not-over-the-top Rainmaker Double IPA, but it didn't stand up to some of my other favorite commercial examples.  Spring Bock was a pretty well balanced Maibock style as well.  The Forester Winter Stout was pretty bland and watery and we didn't even finish the sample.  Overall, I'd give this place a pretty mediocre score based on vibe, service, and beer quality.  Not my favorite stop in Asheville, but not the worst by any means.  I did notice that right next door they are building a huge facility to expand Green Man, and hope this works out well for them.

Right next door to Green Man is the factory for French Broad Chocolates, an incredibly popular local chocolatier.  They have a small selection of truffles and chocolates for sale at the factory, and you can see the chocolates being made by hand.  The bonus is that there is no line out the door at this location!

Tell me this doesn't look tasty!

Service at Tasty
On the way to our next stop, we discovered Tasty Beverage Co. nestled unobtrusively in another warehouse building.  We stopped in to see what they had in bottles and were excited to discover that (unlike in Minnesota) they were also able to sell pints and growlers of commercial beer at a little bar inside the store.  With beers ranging from Italian lambics to IPA's we had several options to try.  We ended up sharing a Haw River's St. Benedict's Breakfast Dubbel that was nice, but not the best coffee beer we had tried that day.  We earmarked a couple of cans and bottles for a future stop when we had wheels.  As with most places we ended up talking with some of the locals at the bar and getting some inside information about what other places in the area to try. Beer folk are friendly and talkative as a general rule...

From Tasty, we walked over the Funkatorium (now open) to try some of the beers we had missed the previous day, and to get another glass of the stellar Red Angel raspberry sour.  Our service was great and the place was less nutty than our visit on Saturday.  This would still not be the last time we returned here...

By now we were happy not to be driving anywhere.  We swung by our hotel the refresh and went back out for our dinner reservations at Rhubarb.  The restaurant is built around southern style home cooking, and chef John Fleer was actually out of town during our visit due to being a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award.  Every week they do a Sunday Supper which is seated family style with folks sharing heaping platters of amazing comfort food.  We ended up sitting with four other strangers, but really had a great time talking to them over our dinner.  This style of eating used to be entirely foreign to me, but all the beer and wine dinners I've been to over the recent years have helped me shed my cautious Nordic stoicism and embrace it!  The fried chicken was heavenly.  Almost beer-ed out I did have one final drink at the dinner--a rhubarb saison from England of all places.

Off to bed and a much needed rest.

Day 4 to follow!  Honestly I'm dragging this out so I can slowly relive the experience and it gives me an excuse to share pictures...Hopefully someone will see something cool and decide to try it (or not) based on my reviews.