Good pubs, Good Beer, Good People

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Pizza, pop and PALM

By Kurt Epps—The PubScout


It's time for me to come clean. I love good beer, and I love good pizza.

I do not, however, mix the two. There's just something about pizza that matches up perfectly (for me) with "pop" like Coke, Pepsi or Sprite—and NEVER the diet kind. I mean what's the sense in that? Diet sodas all have that greasy aftertaste that conflicts with the greasy aftertaste I seek in my pizza. It may be sacrilege, but I've always felt that beer and pizza just don't make a good match.

At least, I felt that way until yesterday. That's when I was introduced to a new (to the US, anyway) beer from Belgium called PALM. I arranged a meeting at The Sun Tavern—renowned for its pizza-- in Roselle Park, NJ with one of the youthful, energetic co-founders of Latis Imports named Anthony Giardina. He and partner David van Wees joined forces with an idea to introduce Belgium's best selling ale to us Yankees. For the uninitiated (which of course, doesn't include YOU, dear reader) Belgium is to beer what France is to wine. So the title of Belgium's best selling ale is not one to be, um, sniftered at. Giardina and van Wees introduced PALM to the NY region only last November, and according to Connecticut native Giardina, "PALM is taking off!"

Anthony has a respectable beer pedigree, having worked for many years at InBev. You might recognize that Belgian corporation as the one that just yesterday laid down a $46 billion dollar bid for a small St. Louis brewery named Anheuser-Busch, offering the company $65 a share when its current high is about $56. But I digress.

Like InBev knows acquisitions, it's clear Giardina knows his beer, and more importantly, he knows what his game plan is. Currently, he said, “15 markets make up approximately 80% of the Euro import draught business and we will focus our efforts on PALM in these markets over the next 4 or 5 years.”

PALM isn't available except in draft form, and in Jersey, 16 of the 17 bars that are permitted to carry it (The Sun in Roselle Park being the southernmost) are in "North" North Jersey—like around Jon Corzine's hometown of Hoboken. Proximity to NYC and its upscale market is neither accident nor happenstance.

Nor are the training sessions required of wait staff in businesses who would sell this eminently drinkable, surprisingly versatile and very satisfying brew. To be most appreciated, PALM must be served in its own special glass—a snifter-style, logo-emblazoned one provided by the brewery, which obviously also understands the importance of branding. It's the same glass you'd be served in Belgium, so the theme of authenticity is always present.

The head should be about two-fingers high and devoid of the bigger bubbles that might affect the nose; a nose, by the way which is delightfully floral. According to Giardina, the Kent-Golding hopped PALM is crafted to act like a pilsner/lager but remain true to Belgian ale style. It does that with an exceptionally smooth mouthfeel—and more.

Properly poured, PALM is a beautiful beer to behold (despite the fact that beauty is always in the eye of the beerholder, which may account for the old saw that says "no one's ugly at closing time"). Still with an ABV of just 5.4% and 18 BU's, PALM can serve respectably as a session beer. Bear in mind that it's going to cost you more per snifter than Natty Light, but there are few Belgian beers not worth what they cost.

I asked Giardina how he viewed the Ommegang Brewery, which, in this writer's opinion, makes outstanding Belgian-style beers, and other potential competitors like Blue Moon (Coors) and Shock Top (AB). He had nothing but praise for what those breweries are doing, stating that if they can assist in tuning in the American market's palate to Belgian-style beers, they might just be curious enough to want to see what a real Belgian tastes like.

Giardina and Van Wees are patiently pacing their first progeny—whose symbol is not of a palm tree, but of a Belgian Draft horse—hoping that American tastes will come around to PALM. That should come to pass once beer lovers savor a PALM. Currently, PALM is available in NY, NJ, CT and San Diego, with plans to expand into a few other key European import markets. If PALM takes off the way they expect, there are more PALM varieties waiting in the wings to take flight across the pond to the US.

But don't get the idea that this is a snooty beer—we ain't talking wine or Flemish sours here, dude. In fact, my biggest surprise of the afternoon came when Giardina ordered up two of the Sun's outstanding pizzas—a White Clam Pizza and a regular Sausage. He ordered two because Pat Rafter and sidekick Bill Laverty of Peerless Beverage Co. were in the house (all these beer dudes, like realtors, insurance guys and wrestling coaches, run in a pretty tight circle).

I hesitated to join the feasting, due to my previous aversion to coupling pizza—especially White Clam—with beer. But lo and behold, the PALM worked magnificently with both pizza styles! And it would very likely perform as admirably with many dishes, from chicken and chops to game meat, to fish and shellfish. But probably not White Castles.

However, with a rap sheet like that, PALM could well do what Giardina expects—bridge the gap between craft beer geek and Joe Six-Pack. That would serve to propel Latis Imports to another long-term goal: to seek other small European breweries that might want to test the American market.

After all, if an American icon like Bud can go Belgian, why couldn't the guys who drink it do likewise?

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