Another Pause in My California Reportage: Vietnam!

Courtesy of the National Restaurant Association’s “SmartBrief” newsletter, I direct you to an upcoming New York Times Travel section story on the surprisingly robust beer scene in Vietnam. The author, Russ Juskalian, tells a fascinating tale of a beer trip through the “long slender” land, centering on Hanoi and revelling all the way at the sheer “unexpectedness” of it all.

While Mr. Juskalian’s interpretation of the brewing process may be a little less than spot on – beer that is “made before the sun rises, and often imbibed before the sun sets”? – what I found most remarkable about this mainstream story was the way he writes about the beer he samples on his journey. Can anyone here imagine even five years ago a major media story describing a beer as having a “bitter hops flavor somewhere between a typical Czech pilsner and a Munich-style lager”? Or mentioning for context the “double I.P.A.’s, imperial stouts and other high-alcohol, high-impact beers popular with American craft brewers”?

As Uncle Jack – who found this story apparently moments before I did – notes, “how the world do change over time.”

More California

After Russian River and a head-clearing stroll around the SOMA district of San Francisco, I would up at the SF Beer Week opening gala beer fest for a few hours, tasking and talking. Mostly talking, actually.

This happens every time I visit the Bay Area, which in the case of this visit had been a couple of years since the last time. I want to taste beer and focus on what’s been going on since my last time through, but there are so many people I know and friends I haven’t seen for a while that I wind up chatting more than drinking. (Socializing while drinking is never a problem with pints at a pub, but with smaller samples at a crowded fest, it can be a challenge.) As a result, I did far more catching up with people that night than I did sampling beer, which given that I had woken up at 4:15 am eastern time – 1:15 am west coast time! – and hadn’t had more than an airplane catnap or two since, was probably not that bad a thing.

Nevertheless, I did manage to make one remarkable discovery at the gala, that being a more than intriguing beer from Valley Brewing of Stockton, California. Called Calambic, aka Bill Brand-bic, in honour of the late beer writer, it starts with a base of 60% Freaky Kriek, which is a pomegranate and cherry ale aged and exposed to resident bacteria in a six-year-old white wine barrel, which is then blended with 40% other “assorted” ales, according to Valley brewer Steve Altimari.

Officially, Calambic wasn’t on the program for the night, but I got word that Altimari was pouring a bit “under the table,” as it were, and rushed over for a taste. Glad I was that I did, too, as this beer demonstrates the best balance a soured ale could hope for, with the fruitiness holding the tartness in check but never growing dominant, much in the fashion of Cantillon’s Lou Pepe fruit lambics. Certainly the highlight of a most enjoyable if somewhat exhausting evening.

After sharing a bit of ice cider and foie gras with Jay Brooks back at his place, I retired to my air mattress and slept like the dead until morning.

California – Where to Begin?

The observant blog subscriber will have noticed little in the way of posting here over the last week. This is because I have been on the road, from SF Beer week in the San Francisco Bay area to the Stone World Bistro’s “Winter Storm” week in Escondido to Hamiltons Tavern in the renewed 30th Street district of San Diego. With that much drinking – erm, tasting – and running around, I’ve had precious little time in which to keep up with my paid work, much less the unpaid stuff.

But I’m back now, and in answer to my headline question, I suppose the best place to begin is at the beginning.

My colleague and good friend Jay Brooks picked me up at the airport and we headed straight for Santa Rosa and the launch of Pliny the Younger at Russian River Brewing.

For those not familiar with P the Y, it is the younger but much stronger brother of the renown Pliny the Elder, and a 10.75% alcohol golden ale colossus it certainly is! Also deceptive, and in more ways than one.

First, there’s the strength of P the Y, which drinks as a beer of 3 to 4 percent less than what it is, or in other words, still strong but not quite that strong. Then there is the hoppiness, which first appears as an assault on the senses, both in the nose and on the tongue. On closer examination, however, it is the bold aroma and bitter finish of the beer that make it appear a tongue ripper when, in fact, an undercurrent of tropical fruitiness and honey-ish malt keep everything on track from beginning to end. True, the finish packs a punch, but it’s a soft smack from a velvet-lined glove rather than a chain mail fist upside the head.

If there is any of this beer left – Vinnie at Russian River brews it but once a year, and I’m told the brewpub sold through its supply by mid-afternoon! – I suggest going out of your way to try it. Far better than it’s been in years past, to my experience, at least, this is definitely a beer for the books.

More later…

October 11 Beer Cruise Filling Up Fast!

The wonderful Beer Cruise that I will be hosting with Scenic Tours and is, I am told, filling up fast! If you missed mention of it in this space earlier, it will be a 13 day “Brew on the Rhine” tour, departing Amsterdam October 11 and sailing 13 days to Basel, Switzerland, with lots of beery interest along the way.

The reason it’s getting busy this early is the remarkable two-for-one pricing being offered at present, which makes the trip a bargain almost beyond compare. In fact, at present 5 of the 9 room classes are completely sold out, so if you’ve been thinking about it, now is the time to contact get your name in. Reach them at 416 962-7447 or 1 866 355-7447, or via email at

More details and further links can be found here.

Cruising, Baby!

Almost since I started reporting on the global beer beat, I’ve thought it would be a great idea to organize a European beer cruise, sailing down one of the continent’s great rivers and stopping and sampling terrific beer from a multitude of countries along the way. And now, finally, I’m very happy to say that I’ve done it!

Announcing Scenic Tours’ 13 day “Brew on the Rhine” tour, departing Amsterdam on October 11 and hosted by yours truly!

The beer portion of the trip is all very new – so new it hasn’t yet been included in any of the promotional materials for the trip – and so several details are still being worked out, but I can guarantee that the beer highlights will be many, from a visit to Amsterdam’s terrific Brouwerij ‘t Ij to tastings at Belgian, German, French, Luxembourg and Swiss breweries, a pub crawl through Köln, and even floating tutored beer tastings. Coupled with the Scenic Tours “Space Ship,” (pictured above) which features balconies attached to almost every suite and plenty of room in both the public and private areas, and lots of additional tourism time, I think it all looks like a pretty amazing time!

Even better still, Scenic Tours is offering two-for-one pricing for this itinerary!

For a basic outline of the cruise, stop by the Scenic Tours website and have a look at the itinerary departing October 11 from Amsterdam and sailing for 13 days to Basel. And if you like that idea, give CruiseShipCenters Rosedale a call at 866-355-7447 or 416-962-7447 for more info and booking details.

More Looking Back

I travelled quite a bit in 2009, although as ever, not as much as I would have missed. I made some fests – GBBF, Zythos, GABF (sort of) – and missed others, but overall had a blast on the road, also as ever. Through it all, however, one memory rings true as my Beer Travel Moment of the Year, and it is…

Rooming at the Fox & Anchor (115 Charterhouse Street, EC1; 020 7250 1300)!

This Smithfield Market pub in central London has it all: spacious, comfortable and quiet rooms, an excellent pub downstairs, reasonable rates and easy proximity to any number of tremendous pubs and restaurants. If I hadn’t had an agenda while I was in town, I might have just stayed within walking distance of the place the entire time.

Non-Beer Travel Moment: Staying at the Grand Velas Resort on the Riviera Maya. If you think all-inclusives mean bad food and wristbands, you owe it to yourself to experience this place.

Hall of Shame: Sure, it was no fun getting shellfish poisoning at the GABF, but that was just one of those things. Far different was the positively disdainful service Jay Brooks and I received at the otherwise terrific St. JOHN Bar & Restaurant (26 St John Street, EC1; 020 7251 0848) in London, after we had decided to order beer rather than wine with our food. I really thought those days and those attitudes were behind us, and they should be!

Beer & Food in Portland, Oregon

(A quick gander at today’s stats page showed a significant number of visitors arriving from this story at CNN. So for them, I’ll delay my discourse on gin for still one more day and present instead a story I wrote a few years back for Nation’s Restaurant News on a great beer city, Portland, Oregon.)

You hear a lot about beer and food pairing these days, usually in the context of a brewery-sponsored tasting or perhaps the occasional beer dinner. But the question which remains is: Is anyone doing anything about it?

Well, no, not really.

As any frequent diner who is fond of grain as well as grape will attest, there is an unquestionable tendency among restaurateurs to offer measly beer selections as almost second thought “add-ons” to exhaustive wine cellars. Ask for the wine list at your favorite restaurant and you’ll be handed a page, a pamphlet or a book. Ask for the beer list and your request will all-too-often be met by blank stares, or a poorly recited list of a half-dozen or fewer choices.

Exceptions do exist, of course – the Belgian-oriented Monk’s Café in Philadelphia, Francophile destination Fourquet Fourchette in Montreal, San Francisco’s beer-and-tapas brewpub, The Thirsty Bear, and Toronto’s beerbistro, the beer cuisine restaurant in which I serve as junior partner and beer consultant, all spring to mind – but in general, beer gets short shrift at the North American dinner table.

Except in Portland, Oregon.

An unabashed beer town, Portland supports more breweries than does any other urban area in North America, both per capita and in total, with 34 operating within the metro limits at last count. Equally, the Rose City is a foodie paradise, boasting no end of smart restaurants serving up the regional bounty in innovative form, from local heirloom tomatoes in a Calabrese salad to tapas of fresh northwest seafood. And if the customer so desires, most of it may be accompanied by beer.

Greg Higgins of Higgins Restaurant is a pioneer in both the promotion of local produce and the partnering of food and beer, offering at his twelve year old restaurant both a stellar wine list thick with Pacific Northwest possibilities and a beer selection ranging from eight taps (plus one British-style handpump) to an impressive array of local and international beers. In the latter, beer steward Warren Steenson affords special consideration to Belgian ales, they being among the most food-friendly of beers.

Noting that there are some foods that simple go better with beer, Higgins singles out cheese as just one example, casting his gaze upon the humble white cheddar. “I can’t think of any wine that complements a piece of cheddar as well as ale does,” he notes, adding that he doesn’t understand why people would want to limit themselves to strictly wine or beer at the table, when you can have so much fun with both.

Troll the restaurants of Portland and you will find, time and again, that such limitations are rarely necessary in this food-obsessed city. No matter if you dine at the four diamond London Grill in Portland’s grande dame hotel, The Benson, the funky Le Bistro Montage, known for its late hours and macaroni and cheese variations, or the venerable Jake’s Famous Crawfish, over a century old and still going strong, you can rest assured that beer as well as wine will be available to complement your food.

Even downtown’s Stumptown Coffee, arguably the best of the city’s ubiquitous caffeination stations, offers a quartet of imported drafts and sundry bottled beers from German, British and Belgian brewers for those who prefer their brew cold and quenching to hot and steaming.

So whether it’s a grilled Black Angus rib eye accompanied by a glass of rich and roasty porter, macaroni spiked with jalapenos and served alongside a pint of fruity, hoppy India pale ale or local summer squash fritters complemented by a bottle of spiced Belgian ale, Portland has the beer and food pairing that everyone else is still just talking about.

Coming Back Home From New Orleans

Whew, what a five days that was! As the title says, I’m just back from living it up in the Big Easy, sipping and savoring at Tales of the Cocktail, the numero uno cocktail event in the United States, the Americas and quite possibly the world. I had on my beverage and cocktail guy hat, of course, but there were still a few fine occasions for beer, like these:

  • I got a taste of the Abita Satsuma Harvest Wit my first day in town and found it interesting but not overly exciting. Part of the problem was that, like almost every beer served in New Orleans, it arrived far too cold for its own damn good, thus muting its evident spiciness.
  • My wife and I enjoyed a lunch at the Crescent City Brewhouse, a French Quarter brewpub that’s been there long enough to now be considered an institution, I’d say. (Actually, I enjoyed mine, but she left half her chicken wings behind.) As usual, I found their Pilsner to be pretty tasty, although thought it had lost some crispness from when I last had it a couple of years ago.
  • On the other end of the Abita scale, I once again thoroughly liked the Restoration Ale, this time at Coops on Decateur. It’s not hop bomb by any means, but there’s still a lot to be said for a beautifully balanced and gently hopped pale ale, especially one as fragrant and inviting as the Restoration.
  • Guesting on a local radio show called Kiss My Gumbo, I offered the hosts tastes of Palo Santo Marron from Dogfish Head – in retrospect, perhaps a bit too big a beer for 9:45 a.m. – and fixed each a Green Devil beer cocktail, too.
  • The last event of Tales was Sunday’s Beer Market, where I sampled the Blond and Brown of NOLA Brewing. Although I had just come from a sensory experience seminar featuring the irrepressible Francesco Lafranconi and the brilliant olfactory expert Dr. Rachel Herz – more about that another day – and was nursing a palate freshly washed with quality tequila, I was still able to taste enough of the (served too cold) Brown to recognize that this fledging brewery could well have a hit on its hands. Styled after a British mild, with just under 4% of alcohol to it, it boasted great flavour and just enough roasted malt character to make it all interesting.
  • And finally, while I didn’t visit much in the way of beer destinations, I was able to drop by d.b.a. for a couple of pints and found it well-settled into its location and style. The beer list would be embarrassed to be seen in the same room as those of its sister bars in the East Village of New York and Brooklyn, but for the Big Easy it’s pretty good and the Bear Republic Racer 5 on tap was pretty tasty. (I know, I should have been drinking local, but after the long, hot walk to Frenchman Street, nothing on the list looked like it would go down quite the was a good IPA would.)


If I Were a Dad in Cleveland…

…this is where I’d want to be on Father’s Day.

The Renaissance Cleveland Hotel is offering a “Beer Connoisseur Experience” in its pre- Father’s Day promotions, which for rates starting from $209 per room per night, seems like a pretty good deal to me. Here’s what you get:

What’s more, the package is available Thursday to Sunday for the balance of the year, save for New Year’s Eve.