Good pubs, Good Beer, Good People

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A Day on the Charlotte Brew Trail

Alixandra and Brett
A visit to Charlotte, NC and my eldest son--who still needs a kidney, by the way--gave the missus and me an opportunity to hit some of the spots in an area where good beer is simply exploding in popularity.

I had visited some great spots, like Ass Clown and Crafty Beer Guys last summer during a visit, but here was an opportunity to do more serious exploring.

Yet, our noontime adventure had a rather inauspicious beginning in Cornelius, NC. The first brewery we stopped at was not open at all from Monday through Wednesday, and the second didn't open until 4 PM. I began to think that these Tar Heels were not all that serious about their beer after all.

Turns out they are. En route to a third destination, my son's lovely lady Alixandra, a beer nut in her own right, smartly suggested that we turn into a joint named Bottled & Tapped, a smallish looking little establishment on West Catawba toward I-77. It didn't look very promising from the highway, but I learned the "Books vs. Covers" lesson long ago. Se we pulled around back and went in.

A pleasant lass named Shelly welcomed us into an interior that was, at best, spare. But the bottled collections and the Tap List were anything but, hence the name Bottled & Tapped. There was a preponderance of Sour Beer in the bottle section, many from Wicked Weed in Asheville, another ground zero in the nuclear beer map. Shelly allowed that sours were indeed taking off, and that fact was corroborated by every brewery we visited that day. Beyond Rodenbach Red and Grand Cru, The PubScout is not a devotee of sour beers. But any who are (are you reading this Natalie Lay?) would be in beer heaven at Bottled & Tapped.

Shelly and son...
And the seventeen tapped offerings were nothing short of  incredible, with stouts, porters, wits, IPA's (Imperial and otherwise), gose and even one from Evil Twin which was described as "soft dookie." And no, that's not a typo.

I had a New Belgium Hop Kitchen Botanical Imperial IPA (8.5%), and it was absolutely phenomenal. As it turned out, we had come on on $4 pint Tuesday, a promo, among others, that Shelly said has made business pretty good for the place, which opened only this past September. 

Of course, she and husband Dan are doing the right things to keep the beer interest high, like running home-brew classes right in the shop. Participants drink whatever they make for free. Shelly gave us a sample of the Belgian Golden Ale, and it was darned good, indicating that the instructors knew their business. In sum, Bottled & Tapped turned out to be a hidden gem that will not likely stay hidden for long, especially for people "coming off the lake." (Norman, that is.)

Then, still in Cornelius it was off to D-9, a brewery which specializes in "fanatical ales." A very affable and knowledgeable Bree (like the cheese) was our bar mistress and served us beers and a raft of information about each one. The missus enjoyed a Twelve, a citrusy, medium malty pale ale, and I had a Hakuna Matata, a delicious, medium-bodied golden IPA with an explosion of citrusy notes. 

I did have a tasty sample of something called Black Ice, a 10% Imperial Black Ale, and you can believe the statement that it's "not for the faint of heart." Nor is it for those whose stomachs are empty, except for the beers we had already tasted. I'd go back and try it after having a good meal, for sure. Like Bottled & Tapped, no food is available at D-9, though you can bring your own in.

Alix enjoyed a flight of beers, including Viking Fraoch, a 4,000 year old Scottish Sour recipe that she said was incredibly delicious. She had similar praise for D-9 Systema Naturae, a 6.3% sour/mild ale. Then again, she's a sour beer fancier, and I am not, so I'll take her word for it. After all, she was the one who turned me on to Saw-Whet Saison from Highland Brewing in Asheville, and that beer is hands-down awesome.

After a much-needed, belly-filling late lunch at the iconic Lupie's Cafe in Huntersville, we headed over to Primal Brewing, just a short jaunt away. Primal operates a three barrel system with ten barrel fermenters, churning out about five hundred barrels per year. Giant, hand-carved and painted handles--including one with light-up eyes-- adorn the taps, pulling beers made by Brewer Scott like Grim Creeper, MOHK Hazelnut Stout, Lawn Boy and an interesting Pumpernickel beer called Devil's Gas. 

It's worth inserting at this point that two of my long-held beliefs, and ones I have shared countless times, were shattered this day. The first was pointed out to me by Master Chef Alix when I told her that sweetbreads were calves' brains. Nope, she said, it's a pancreas. She was right, the whippersnapper. Damned chefs.

The second was in my flawed etymology of the term pumpernickel. I was taught that it derived from a lower quality brown bread fed to Napoloeon's horse, Nicole. Pain Pour Nicole, as it were. 
But it ain't as it were. It actually refers to anal gas expelled by the devil. Learn something new every day, I guess. I so loved my authentic, impressive French accent when I said pain pour Nicole. Devil's Gas just doesn't have quite the same Continental ring to it. But despite the name, the beer is good, with nary a flatulent note to be found. 

But the Grim Creeper was a keeper. 8.1% ABV, gorgeous color, malty and extraordinarily smooth, it went down very easily--which might be a warning if you're driving to and from Primal. With a lovely outdoor seating section, it's a great spot to enjoy some good beers and maybe even play a spirited game of Cornhole like we did--though, being in a geezer's time-warp, I do wish they gave that game another name.

And, speaking of names, what about the name Primal? The story I got was that Owners Jim, Dave and Ray, three guys with very divergent life outlooks,  finally agreed on one definition they found for the word: Primal: Essential, required for living.
Of course, the Urban Dictionary says that it can also mean to "lose all self control." Which, after a few Grim Creepers or some Devil's Gas, also applies.

In all, it was a wonderful day despite its inauspicious start, and we capped it off by heading to the NoDa district and the famous Tex-Mex restaurant called Cabo Fish Taco, which also has a decent beer list. But by that time, even I was "beered out," so I had two Margaritas with my spicy Tex-Mex food.

The Devil's Gas came later.

The PubScout

A Heist Where You Don't Get Robbed

WAZE told us "turn left here." 

But the Missus said, "We can't go in here! This is a factory." Thirty-two years of marriage advised me as to which woman's voice to obey,  and I drove past our "destination" but saw that we had indeed arrived at it. Defying our digital guide, we just went in another way. 

But it sure looked like a factory, perhaps because at one time back in the early 1900's, it was. A mill, in fact, which made the interior of Heist Brewing rather cavernous. 

The bar at Heist Brewing
Situated in the NoDa section just north of the center of Charlotte, NC, the interestingly-named Heist Brewing is the progeny of Kurt Hogan, a one-time bio-tech engineer who decided to turn his skills to the somewhat risky business of opening a taproom/restaurant. Turns out that the name came from a chap on Hogan's family tree named "Baby Face Nelson," a name probably recognizable to geezers, yet unfamiliar to most millennials. But given the frequent connection of Mr. Nelson (a "banker" of sorts) to the word "heist," the name stuck and the brewery was born in 2012. 

Original plans for Heist was this bar only
The plan was for a much smaller facility, but expansion "just kind of happened," according to GM Spencer Farrell, "once we rented a jackhammer without the slightest idea as to how to operate it."

Despite its 340-person capacity, there is at once a welcoming and eclectic feel to said interior (which includes a loft), composed of various building materials, but the effect is dedicated to producing beer the way the "monks of old" did it. Hence, dubbels, triples, quads and saisons are prominently featured, but not to the exclusion of beers for the many "lupulin lovers" who patronize the place; and weekly small batch releases tempt those who who are even more "adventurous."

The food menu, under the direction of Chef Matt Wenrich, changes every six weeks, replacing items that don't move with ones that do. One of the offerings that never changes, however, is the Beer Cheese Platter, a tray of house-made pretzels from a brick oven, accompanied by a melted cheese concoction that utilizes beer made especially for the kitchen. Our party could have made a meal out of a few trays of this amazing creation alone, and it came as no surprise to learn that the dish is responsible for 10% of the entire food sales of Heist Brewing.

But the menu has even more to offer, and every staff member is trained as a professional beer server--some en route to Cicerone status-- so as to allow the proper recommendation of a Heist Beer to accompany whatever the menu offers

And the beers that I sampled were kick-ass. I was somewhat disappointed to learn that three I had researched prior to my visit had kicked, but that made for a very neat red "Kicked" stamp on the menu, which obviates the need to ask a server, who then comes back with the bad news. Not that it's any less bad news, but at least you know before you ask.

That little hiccup didn't bother me, however, considering the flight I ordered had some damned fine beers on it. My Window Smasher, Concentrate, Succession and Blundus were all deliciously complex and flavorful. The Pater Tots is Heist's transition beer for "canoe beer" drinkers, and the missus, a Stella Lover, enjoyed hers immensely. 

But the beer that made me sit upright was called Hive Five, a dry-hopped honey blonde made with locally sourced honey. It was a perfectly balanced American blonde that incorporated Australian Summer hops. Nowhere near a mouth/cheek/eyeball puckerer, it was just a damned good beer and a credit to Brewer Eric Mitchell's skill. And it paired exceptionally well with my Monster Cobb Salad, an order necessitated after bingeing on the Beer Cheese pretzels. Heist even makes its own root beer for those who don't imbibe, like Barbara. She did allow that it was excellent, however. I'll take her word for it. 

Hive Five and The "Monster" Cobb

In fact, "excellent" is completely applicable to my entire visit to Heist Brewing. As my logo above says, "Good Beer, Good Pubs, Good People."

And nobody got robbed.
At Heist, you walk out with the "loot."

L-R: Brewer Eric, Owner Kurt, Baby Face Nelson, GM Spencer

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The "Secret" Pub on W. 33rd

When the stars align, you have to capitalize, especially when the venue is New York City.

Today--tonight, actually--is the final night of March Matness, and that's not a typo. Because to those of us who love the oldest sport in the world--wrestling, it's the only NCAA Tournament in March that matters. I mean, you only need one ball to play basketball.

Add to that the fact that this year it was held in the "World's Most Famous Arena," Madison Square Garden, and the knowledge that there were a slew of local Jersey high school kids on the mats, and almost all the stars have aligned, especially if you hail from the region. It was time to add the final star. 

So, after hearing various complaints about the price of a mainstream beer in MSG, I and some wrestling intelligentsia decided to meet at Foley's Pub just two blocks from the arena. Foley's has great food, amazing atmosphere and one hundred twenty-eight beers on the menu. I jumped on the North Jersey Coast Line train and, after paying a paltry $5.70 (Senior Citizen, you know), I headed into the Apple. We had arranged to meet in-between sessions at 3PM, which would give us some time to unwind and enjoy the special camaraderie and accompanying jargon that only wrestling fanatics understand before heading back for the semifinals at 7 PM.

Amy, Bill and Kevin
Considering that one of those Jersey kids in the semis was a Rutgers kid, it was a time of great prognostication and analysis among the men at the table, who included his high school coaches, his father and a famous comedian named Rob Rego, who I happened to meet at the bar. 

We enjoyed outstanding victuals, some amazing beers, brilliant banter and excellent company as we sat alongside wrestling nuts from Iowa, Penn State, Cornell and others. And the longer we stayed, the more crowded it got. Even Rutgers Prep's Coach Kacy and his lady Emily magically appeared, stealing half my bar pie before scurrying away to the bar.

Rob Rego, Emily and Coach Kacy
 What I had suggested to my crew was a "secret" pub turned out to be clearly on every wrestling maniac's radar, and it packed out by 4:30 PM, which made Proprietor Shaun Clancy and our waitress Amy very happy.

I stuck with Ommegang's Nirvana (an excellent IPA), and my mates had an array of beers which included Dark Truth and the obligatory Guinness among others. (Hey, it was an Irish pub on the day after St. Paddy's Day after all.) And after about two and a half hours, we made our way back to MSG, bellies full, to settle in for the night's wrestling.

The Foley's Wrestling Crew
Hoping another star would align, I had planned to gain access to the arena on my press pass, but was informed by the guard that "there ain't no beer-tasting event here tonight, Mac!" I almost said, "And with beers like you got at prices like that, there ain't gonna be many beer events here ever, Jack."

But I resisted the urge, and got my senior citizen ticket from the machine for the ride back to the Bay City. As the ticket popped out, I noticed that my train was now boarding on the track next to me, so I went down and jumped on. 

The last star had aligned. And home I rode with the fond memories of Foley's Pub, my favorite all-around Irish pub in NYC flashing through my mind, especially when Shaun Clancy reminded me not to make any spelling errors in the story.

Shaun Clancy and Jim Koch

I tolled hime I haddn't had enuff beirs for that.
Mebbe nexed tiem.

The PubScout

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

May The DVD Rise Up To Meet Me

I know, I know.

We're forty-eight hours away from what many consider to be the Highest of Holy Days in pubs--especially Irish pubs-- throughout the fruited plain.

And I have many "favorite" Irish pubs in the area which I frequent. Hailey's Harp & Pub in Metuchen, The Kilkenny House in Cranford  Foley's Pub and McSorley's in NYC, McGillin's in Philly, The Irish Pub in Atlantic City, Harrigan's in Sea Girt,  even my old college hangout--Tierney's Tavern in Montclair--which hasn't changed a bit in nearly fifty years.

The Elders of Gamma Delta Chi at Tierney's Tavern

And I love the real Irish food that many of these places offer, from Shepherd's Pie to "boxty" or "coddle." I also love watching mini-Michael Flatleys and Jean Butlers doing Irish Step-Dancing properly, although I admit to once cringing in disgust at the horribly disfigured and mangled toes of a world-famous, step-dancing and otherwise gorgeous Irish woman I met once. As bad as a ballet dancer's, they were.

But it's time for The PubScout to come clean about something else. Besides eschewing typically "Irish" fare like corned beef, which no authentic Irishmen consume, and Irish Soda bread, which tastes horrible and nothing like it sounds, my confession before St. Patrick is simple: I never frequent these great Irish establishments on the "High Holy Day."

The reason is simply explained by an old Yogi Berra quote: "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

I do not want to wait in lines to get my beer--if they even have my beer of choice available. And if I don't drink Guinness (not that there's anything wrong with that) when there are no lines and crowds, why would I do so amidst a crush of green-clad revelers? Add to that the fact that few of these partiers walked to the pubs at which they celebrate, and that means they are on the road, which also means parking is always a PITA and driving can be dangerous.

Nope. I stay home on St. Patrick's Day. I grab a Beamish, a Murphy's  or preferably a Black Rock Stout, pop in my trusty DVD of Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People and settle in for the evening. And I've been doing that for decades, since my own lads were babes. The upside to this is that they know most of the lines by heart, and can actually sing "My Pretty Irish Girl" better than Sean Connery dubs--er, does. They know all the characters, from Darby to King Brian; from His Lordship to the proprietor of the Rathcullen Arms; and from Pony Sugrue to The Banshee.

Of course, these days I usually watch alone, since the lads are all out of the house (probably at the pubs); and the missus has ceased marveling at the young Sean Connery. And like a child who loves to hear his parent tell the same bedtime story over and over again, I come away smiling and singing, "Have you ever seen the seagulls ...."

The smile is generated by the movie and the memories; the singing, by the stout.
Because, in the final analysis, no matter where you are and what your ethnicity, St. Patrick's Day is about smiling, hoisting a glass and singing like an Irishman. Click this link to join the fun.

Darby hoists one with King Brian of Knocknasheega

The PubScout

Friday, March 11, 2016

Ask A Beer Question and the Weather Gods Answer

The irony wasn’t lost on anyone at the Stirling Hotel.

One of the featured beers offered by Manager Dan Schneider and Rep Rob Muscatello at the Southern Tier Tap Takeover was called “Where The Helles Summer?”

Record temps were the order of the day in NJ on March 10. The “little” hotel with the big back yard was brimming with patrons when I arrived at 5 PM, and the place got even busier as the summer-like evening wore on, though not all of them were there to partake of the Southern Tier event.

Where The Helles Summer?
 Too bad, because if they didn’t, they missed some outstanding beers, with various ABV’s ranging from 4.6% for the Helles up to 11% for the Four Headed Woolly Mammoth. Sandwiched between them were a 5.5% American Pale called “Live” and an 8.1% single hop, single malt called 2XSMaSH.

Following the beerdrinker’s rule, I started with the lightest and the brightest—the Helles. Perfectly true to style, this “beerdrinker’s beer” is an outstanding transitional for those who are wetting their “better” beer feet. I say “better” because these days, “craft” is such an arbitrary term. If you’re already a BB Nut, this Helles would whet your appetite for more, as well.

Voo Doo Wings
 I called “Hoss” Schneider over to my seat at the bar (where I chatted with a delightful lass named Danielle) to inquire about a menu item. The takeover event offered a prix fixe special menu designed by Chef Brandon Campney to accompany the ST offerings. But as it had Red Snapper as the main course (I’m not a Red Snapper fan), I decided that the Voo Doo Wings on the regular menu looked good. But I wanted to be sure they wouldn’t cause lingual/laryngeal blisters before ordering. Hoss told me it was a special House dry rub that was somewhere between sweet and spicy, so I ordered a batch to pair with my second beer, the “Live.”

 Lucky me on both counts. The wings were fabulous and relatively flameless, and the beer made them even better. Or it might have been the other way around—the wings enhanced the taste of the beer. Either way, the pairing was a winner.

Then it came time for a glass of 2XSMaSH, a single malt and single hop IPA brewed with Mosaic hops and Special Malt. The marriage was wonderful, producing a beer that was as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. It carried that 8.1% ABV, however, or I would have ordered another; but I still had to face an 11% Monster in the quad called Four Headed Woolly Mammoth. 

It was described as being “Brewed with Dark Belgian Candi Syrup [with] notes of anise, dark chocolate, caramel and toasted bread; fermented with Belgian Abbey yeast.”

Which sounds delicious enough, but I wanted to try it with a special dessert Chef Brandon made—a Chocolate Cherry Pot du Crème With Vanilla whipped cream and Brownie crumbs.


I usually reserve a special word for those dishes that exceed my highest expectations, and the word looks and sounds a bit like “organic.” But as young college students may be reading this, I’ve no wish to send them squealing and scurrying to a “safe space” by using it, so I’ll just say, “What a dessert! What a pairing!” That should be safe enough.

Chocolate Cherry Pot du Creme
 Upon finishing the four featured beers, I sauntered out into the Patron-Packed “Ponderosa Patio,” and there, plying his trade and proffering even more samples of Southern Tier delights, was the affable ST Rep Rob Muscatello holding court. Like pupils enrapt before Socrates, aspiring beer nuts hung on his every word, relishing the chance to engage in beer talk with a pro. I was among them, waiting for a scoop.

"Socrates" Muscatello Holds Court
 And I got one. I learned that my friends at Hailey’s Harp and Pub in Metuchen will be the first to acquire a new and very rare ST offering called Rhine Cabal, a beer which should make sour beer fan Natalie Lay’s day.

In all, just another positive experience at this great venue, and due mostly to Dan Schneider’s ceaseless efforts to expand the beer footprint.
Just to be fair, he had nothing to do with the Summer weather in March.

Rob and Dan
 He’s only human, after all.
But for beer nuts, a good human to know.

The PubScout

Suds and Scholarships Event Coming to JJ Bittings

My friends in the Perth Amboy Kiwanis Club are holding this wonderful event to help deserving students with the ever-rising cost of college.

It's a most worthwhile cause, and you get to enjoy the wonderful beers of JJ Bittings, along with a healthy portion of food. And meet the exceptional folks whose mission is to give back to their community!

Don't wait--save the date! And come on out! Helping kids in need never tasted so good!

The PubScout

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Are You Drinking "Craft" Beer--Or Not?

Jim Koch and The PubScout
I was hoisting a few awhile back at Foley's Pub in NYC with Jim Koch, CEO of the Boston Beer Company--aka Sam Adams--and naturally, beer was the subject of the conversation.  I asked him, apart from his own products, which beers on tap he considered to be "good." He  told me, "All beer is good." Then he added, with a sly smile,  "But some beer is better."

Hard to argue with diplomatic logic like that, though I've definitely had beers that would not qualify as "good" unless they were being compared to Mountain Dew or Diet Coke.

All beer may be "good," but is all beer "craft" beer?  How is "craft beer" defined? To determine that answer, I checked out how the Brewer's Association defines a craft brewer. In three words, that means small, traditional and independent. And even those words are more thoroughly defined here.

Why does it matter? Simple. Because some of the beers you may currently drink are being kicked out of the craft beer category by the prestigious Brewers' Association. As Jason Notte's excellent piece indicates, "This year, a whopping seven breweries punched their tickets out of craft beer, thanks to acquisitions by larger breweries. Drinkers may still consider them craft and their new owners certainly think they're craft beer, but the Brewers Association thinks differently at this point..."

He also correctly points out that Jim Koch's Boston Beer Company is still a craft beer, because it falls short of that six million barrel per year mark. But Notte also suggests Jim's beer will exceed that eventually. And that means Sam Adams will no longer be considered a "craft" beer, at least by the Brewers' Association.

But again, why does it matter? Do you drink your beer because it's "craft" or because it's good? Does that "craft" tag matter to the average better beer lover? I doubt it. When you belly up to the bar, do you ask the barkeep," What kind of CRAFT beer do you have?" Or simply, "What kind of BEER do you have?"

I do the latter. Because, truth be told, the making of beer is a craft, and a time-honored one at that. Some, indeed, are better at that than others, and considering the decisions of the Brewers' Association, I am led to steal Koch's classic dictum: All beers are craft beer, but some beers are "craftier." 

Just tell me the names, barkeep, and I'll decide.

Because, as Jim correctly says,"... some beer is better."


The PubScout