Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities

There’s beer. And then there’s great beer.

There’s run of the mill. And then there’s compelling.

There’s the Atlantic City Beer Festival, and then there’s the Philly Craft Beer Festival (just a week apart from each other).

Sorry to be a buzz kill, but judging from its Website, the AC beerfest -- the 2007 Celebration of the Suds (March 10th and 11th at the Convention Center) -- looks like it will be the yawner the inaugural version was last year: a frat party with a pumped up beer menu.

The inaugural Philly fest (March 3rd at the old Naval Yard), well it looks like the best bet for your hard-earned beer dollar.

Let's cut through the foam and take a look.

Suds 2.0 boasts some changes for '07. Notably, it’s now three sessions instead of the long, twin sessions that marked the two-day ’06 fest. It also claims a bigger hall at the Convention Center, so the parallel bottlenecks that choked the main aisles last year may be resolved.

But that’s just logistics. There’s a deeper ache that nags this young festival.

For instance, take the list of beers (not participating brewers, as the Website claims). It’s like browsing the import and domestic cold boxes at the big discount liquor stores. A been-there-tasted-that feel comes on. Sam Adams and a four-pack of Guinness anyone? Some Young’s? And we like those beers (ditto for a lot of the list). We even once toured Young’s brewery outside London. But notice the near absence of Jersey beers.

Now browse the lineup at the Philly Craft Beer Festival (it’s also a charity event, while AC is not). There's some overlap, sure, but Philly can claim loads of small microbreweries and brewpubs, as opposed to mostly beers from a distributor’s portfolio. And it says something that Philly landed Jersey brewers (five), while Suds 2.0, like last year, is Jersey largely by geography (an exception: The Tun Tavern, whose brewpub and restaurant stands in the Convention Center's shadow; recommendation for any AC fest-goers: do a whirlwind tasting, but settle in at the Tun Tavern for the real drinking).

We do give the AC fest appropriate points for promoting the culture of beer (and we hope they try again next year). And AC gets points for the 2006 keepsake sampling glass -- it was glass while everything these days is plastic. It’s just that this fest has the trappings of a monster truck rally or indoor motocross.

(Last year’s sideshow featured twin-sister Playboy Playmates from the 1990s. But the two sisters pouring at the Guinness booth were younger and hotter, especially the one in the halter top, pleated leather skirt and spiky boots. The Playmates were like Teri Hatcher trying to out-dazzle Sienna Miller.)

It pains us to grouse and be so brutal. We champion all things Brew Jersey. But giving folks more elbowroom to taste beers that can be had by the six at the liquor store is not value-added.

The tale of the two cities?

In Philly, the breweries and their beer are the entertainment. In AC, the beer’s just there.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Window On The Past

Even the simplest homebrewing setup features a few innocuous -- but still sophisticated -- tools that keep you from brewing by the seat of your pants.

Take the hydrometer, for instance.

This baby tells you when the yeast that feast on your wort have a bellyful and are ready to call it a night, settling on the bottom of your fermenter.

The device looks simple enough -- a weighted glass bulb with a graduated stem. But its sophistication lies in the physics of its job: floating in a cylinder filled with wort, indicating the liquid's density. That, science fans, is called specific gravity. And, specifically, it’s not much of hot conversation topic, but trust us, there’s a point to be made here.

Malt sugar solution is denser than alcohol, so your hydrometer will float higher in wort. (Photo taken at Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Cherry Hill) A week later -- after that big yeast feast -- the hydrometer sinks deeper into the beer, so you’ll see less of the stem (the graduated part you check and record numbers from like 1.052 etc., depending on the units you use). With some simple math, the before and after numbers you read from your hydrometer let you calculate the beer’s alcohol content. Commercial breweries do this (if you’re in Britain, that’s rather important, since alcohol content determines the excise taxes paid on the beer brewed in the UK). Lots of homebrewers take a gravity reading, too, especially ones who journal just about every batch.

And here’s the point (finally!):

Imagine just winging it, not only with specific gravity, but with just about everything in the brewing process: no measuring guides, timers or gauges to say when the water’s hot enough, how long the mash has gone or how long the wort has boiled.

Brewer Rich Wagner does this, walks the high wire without a safety net. Not because he wants to be daring or throw science to the wind. Rich is a beer historian; his niche is Colonial brewing -- you know waistcoats, breeches, tricorn hats, coopered casks and barrels, oak fires and taverns where you caught up on the news of the day (and blew off steam about how you were getting reamed by taxes; some things never change).

So if you see Rich decked out in period garb and joined by his wife, Anna, he’s making beer, demonstrating how Samuel Adams (the Samuel Adams, not Jim Koch’s incarnation) would have made a righteous and rebellious batch of ale to fill the tankard. Ditto for Washington, Franklin, William Paterson, Gouverneur Morris, or anyone else who would call the 1700s “back in the day.”

His stomping ground is eastern Pennsylvania, where he takes his act on the road a lot. (Look for him on April 17th at Tria Cafe's Fermentation School in Philadelphia for a talk on the Drinks They Served in Colonial Philadelphia.) We caught up with Rich last fall at the Camden County Historical Society (he returns there in September).

Rich has brewed like a forefather long enough (and perhaps partied like it’s 1799 with the finished product) that much of his technique is on autopilot. Call it more than a decade's worth of experience at the cauldron, and more than two decades of research. But whether he’s checking time by the sun’s position in the sky or eyeballing a measure of homegrown hops and a pour of grain, his methods have been time-tested and have proved worthy. And he swears by the flavor of some of the throwback ales he has made, although he has some advantages -- better yeast, for one -- that Washington (who brewed a porter) would probably have crossed the Delaware all over again for.

The point of Rich's demonstration: Beer's our heritage, a part of what we are.