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‘Connecticut Beer’ book update

Connecticut Beer cover

I’m very excited to say that things are getting real here in terms of Connecticut Beer (The History Press). My contact at Arcadia Publishing, which owns The History Press, has contacted me about getting media exposure and planning book signings and other events. All that’s left is to sign off on some copyedits that I (and some dedicated friends) made.

The publishing target date remains April 27th, and the book is already available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

I’ll share more details as they come, including book signing parties, collaborations with other authors, and any coverage of the book. Thank you for your support, and I hope you consider buying Connecticut Beer!

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Beer containers of the near future (a listicle)

In the cyclical world of beer, it was inevitable that cans would be the popular vessel again. Everyone’s aware of their ability to economically shield beer from dreaded, skunking light. Everyone loves to take them to picnics and ballgames. Everyone loves to pop a top.

It seems as if the future of beer containers is not at all returning to tradition. The question is: which of these will enter the regular rotation with bottles and cans and glasses?

1. The bladder

You’re at a party and enjoying a great conversation. In one hand you’ve got a paper plate of pasta salad and in the other… a pint of a freshly poured double IPA. You’re trying to concentrate on what the woman with the smoky eye shadow is saying, but all the time you’re thinking, “This conversation would be going so much better if I could drink this beer, eat this food, and listen to this woman talk about ottomans, in that order.” Alas, you’re living in the present, and that’s not going to happen.

Clearly, you are not alone, and there’s a movement afoot to follow in the footsteps of cyclists when it comes to refreshment. Breweries are already road testing the bladder at bike shops from Santa Monica to San Diego. Marketing the bladder  — it’s basically a cold temp-controlled, kidney shaped sack that you wear over your shoulder like a backpack — has been a bit of a challenge. First of all, there’s the name (Mango Brewing keeps calls it “the sack” without much additional popularity). Continue reading

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Pouring it forward

Steve and Eileen Maynard, behind Tess Szamatulski, at Maltose Express in Monroe, Conn.

Steve and Eileen Maynard, behind Tess Szamatulski, at Maltose Express in Monroe, Conn.

The couple with the bag of beer bottles beamed as they bounced into the hombrew store.

Steve and Eileen Maynard were just beginning their annual tour, visiting friends to distribute their Christmas beer. They let me tag along as they handed out whimsically wrapped bottles, which they called their Jolly Good Christmas Ale. From sitting in on the brewing to witnessing the deliveries, I had a chance to see what real appreciation looks like.

They’ve just entered Maltose Express in Monroe, where the employees have walked Steve through crises small and big since he started brewing almost 10 years ago. Steve’s hobby began with an extract kit that he lobbied for as a Father’s Day gift. In five years he graduated from turning pre-fabricated syrup into beer on his stovetop to brewing with raw ingredients on a small, open-flame set-up on his deck that overlooks a wooded backyard in Cheshire. It was there in August that I had a chance to watch as Steve, Eileen and Eileen’s brother Peter poured the nascent beer into its fermentation bottle in hopes that months later it would serve as a small thank you for a year of inspiration and guidance. Continue reading

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Does it matter where a beer is made?

Simon Dack-Alamy, published

Simon Dack-Alamy, published

One enduring question for many craft beer drinkers is, “Where is it brewed?” This is a loaded question. For some, if it wasn’t brewed within 50 yards of where they are sitting, they aren’t interested. For others, it better have been brewed in a brewery that’s capable of brewing only 7 barrels at a time or else it’s “Big Beer, No Thanks.” Another reason to ask where a beer is brewed is to learn whether a beer is brewed at the brewery on the label or contract brewed (brewed at another brewery, usually because of capacity reasons).

In his recent piece in Time.com, “5 ‘Imported’ Beers That Are Really Brewed in the U.S.A.,” Brad Tuttle looks at how Anheuser-Busch InBev recently had to open up about how it makes Kirin Beer, which is not actually imported from Japan. I think for a small craft brewery, making a “Japanese-style lager” would go over well. But the AB folks were going for the appearance of authenticity, apparently, which is not their strong suit.

The piece goes on to talk about beers that appear to come from one country, when they actually are made in the U.S. Killian’s Irish Red is not from Ireland, nor is Red Stripe made in Jamaica.

The question I’m posing is: does it matter?

When I studied English as an undergraduate, the question would often come up when we were dissecting a short story or novel of the author’s life, and whether that should be considered in the analysis of a piece. Should you consider an author’s gender or sexuality? Should the fact that the writer was an insurance salesman for 30 years or was adopted matter when thinking about the plot?

I fell into the camp that it did matter, mostly because I liked adding that extra wrinkle to the discussion. The fact that Ralph Ellison was African-American, was a classically trained musician, and grew up in Oklahoma of all places made a difference to me when I thought about his messages in Invisible Man (1952).

So now that I analyze beer the way I did literature, I do believe where a beer is made makes a difference, but not a critical one. There’s freedom in drinking a beer blindly and enjoying it for what it is, without worrying about whether the brewer lives in Connecticut but brews his beer in Massachusetts. Or whether the brewery is part of a giant corporation versus a collective of scruffy 20-somethings. If I like a particular wheat ale that happens to be made by a company that’s owned by a bigger company and co-owned by another one, why should that color my view of the product?

But it does, and that’s something I resolve to not let matter this year. How do you feel?

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Surprisingly decent beer selection at burger chain

burgerfi

Not to shill for a hamburger chain, but I have to give credit where it’s due. I had a quick bite to eat tonight before fruitless rug shopping, and my wife and I ended up at BurgerFi in Avon, Conn. This member of a national chain had “craft beer” listed as one of its attributes, along with burgers, hot dogs, and custard. I was pleasantly surprised to find Long Trail Sick Day IPA, Thomas Hooker Nor’easter, Magic Hat Snow Roller, and Lindeman’s Kriek Lambic.

I went with the Magic Hat because it advertised itself as a “hoppy brown.” I was less-than-impressed with this offering, but it was much better than getting an average, wimpy American big-brand beer. The malt backbone brought out the sweetness in the burger, which was savory and juicy.

The chain has restaurants in Manchester, Conn., as well, in case you’re in the state and want to try them out.

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Free speech, outrage, and beer

Gandi-Bot label

It’s been a wild week for New England Brewing Company and its double IPA, Gandhi-Bot. After a lawyer in Hyderabad, India, filed a petition against the Woodbridge, Connnecticut, company over the use of the name and image of Mahatma Gandhi, news coverage around the world has put the brewery in the spotlight. After a Facebook apology to those it offended, New England Brewing has issued another update as of today. In part, it read:

After threats and some truly hurtful assumptions about the incredibly caring people that work for New England Brewing Company we are working on finding the best way to amend this situation in a manner that both is respectful to those who are offended as well as a way that is manageable for our small company.

What follows, in the comment section, is just as big a part of the story. I was not in the mood to read all 345 comments (and counting), but from what I gleaned, the majority of responses read sounded a lot like:

“Screw those guys! Don’t change the name! Hindus don’t drink beer anyway! Stupid political correctness!”

So there are fans of the difficult-to-get beer voicing their opinion. Their hearts are in the right place, and I’m sure they’ll still buy Gandhi-Bot even if it’s rebranded. But this all comes a day after an attack on a French satirical magazine that insulted the Muslim religion; I don’t believe that there would be an attack on the brewery over the beer, especially because offense seems to stem from the other side of the world (although local liquor store owners have expressed their personal distaste for the imagery). However, religious and moral leaders matter to people in a way that goes deeper than rational behavior dictates.

Besides, NEBCO wants to be known for its beer, not for threats against its labels. This comes after George Lucas threatened action against the brewery’s Imperial Stout Trooper label, which featured what was obviously a storm trooper. They covered that image up with Groucho Marx glasses, and already there have been suggestions that NEBCO do the same with Gandhi-Bot.

NEBCO had to know that the image could possibly offend people; you’re talking about a beloved civil rights leader. You don’t have to be “politically correct” to sympathize with that. Would people balk at a Martin Luther King Jr.-inspired beer? I’m going to say yes. So now that NEBCO feels as if this decision is something worth reversing, I believe that’s worth honoring. If you want to take this as an opportunity to stand up for the right for free speech, there are other realities at stake here. NEBCO deserves to be known for it’s beer, not just its beer names.

There are so many comments to NEBCO’s post calling into question what offends someone else. It’s silly for others to be offended, they say. I’m not offended, so why should you be? This is just flat out confusing to me: just because you don’t want someone to be offended doesn’t mean it’s going to be so. “The world has become too sensitive,” they say, displaying just the same kind of sensitivity they’re mocking.

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The novelty of familiarity

back east porter

Many craft beer lovers, myself included, are drawn to the new. I cannot remember the last time I ordered the same thing twice at a bar on the same night, for example. I am constantly trying out the latest collaboration and relishing in some obscure style made by a brewery whose name I can’t even pronounce. So it’s a novelty, in a way, that I have a beer I frankly don’t ever see myself not having in my fridge.

The plainly named Porter from Back East Brewing of Bloomfield, Conn., is nothing flashy. By American standards, it’s probably a little mild. By British standards, it’s maybe a bit too hoppy. But chemically, psychologically, and spiritually, it fits me like a glove. I’m not a shill for Back East — I like their co-owners and enjoy some of their other beers — but really, the Porter is the only one I’m crazy about. Luckily for me, it’s a year-round offering. I could see a brewery putting these out only in the wintertime, and so it’s a delight that I can find those silver cans waiting for me pretty much whenever I’m in the mood for them.

The Porter has hints of burnt coffee and dark chocolate, but those are subtle. There’s a tiny glimmer of bitterness in the finish, but nothing that lingers. I’ve had it with sharp cheese, chocolate cake, gingerbread, hamburgers, and Girl Scout cookies of all kinds.

I just felt it necessary to share with you that while I hunt down whatever’s the flavor of the minute (which usually means some double IPA that’ll leave you swimming in Citra hops), there’s still a go-to beer that in case you’re wondering, you can offer me any time and I’ll grab gratefully.

RELATED POST: Cask warriors: Half Full vs. Back East

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Shebeen Brewing focuses on expansion and image

Shebeen Rich Visco

Rich Visco of Shebeen Brewing Company

The Connecticut beer community is a small but passionate one. I’m not talking about the occasional drinker or brewery tour-taker. I’m talking about the geeks like me who obsessively rate local beer, thrive on news of opening breweries and new releases, and taste the beer with the attention some people devote to batting averages and brain surgery.

This community is also very chatty and web-savvy, so when a newspaper article (remember those?) comes out about a local brewery, we’re there to digest it and offer commentary on it. That was the case on Dec. 31 when the newspaper for which I write my column published “Brewer Slows Down: Wolcott Company Seeking Wider Market Out of State” by Andrew Larson. In it, Larson describes how owner Rich Visco is distributing his beer in South Carolina, and makes mention that sales in Connecticut package stores are not keeping up with supply. The brewery recently expanded to a 30-barrel system and is only operating at a quarter of its capacity, Larson writes.

What caught the brewery community’s attention was what Visco had to say in the article. Larson paraphrases Visco thusly: “It’s frustrating, [Visco] said, that more people in Connecticut don’t support their local breweries. There’s a beer for everyone at Shebeen, he said, but many consumers prefer national brands.”

Referring to frustration Visco expressed with bars not serving as many local beers as he would like, Larson quotes Visco as saying, “We’re all fighting for the same taps… If you want all of us to be here and to succeed, you’ve got to put more of our stuff on tap.”

Shebeen tasting room

Shebeen Brewing Company tasting room

Readers took this as Visco showing disrespect to drinkers in the state, and took the opportunity — on Reddit and BeerAdvocate.com, among other sites — to voice their primarily negative views of Shebeen’s beer.

I decided to check in with Larson and Visco a few days after the story had its chance to germinate within the community. By this time Visco had personally gone onto Reddit to address concerns, and apologized for past beers that were not to the drinkers’ liking. He said he’s brought on a new brewer and was ready for their business.

While Larson said he stood by his story and wishes Shebeen the best, Visco had a little more to say to me about the situation.

Visco said that his brewery had its strongest months in November and December, but that he was slowing down production to distribute beer in Connecticut “due to many factors some of which are our own fault.”

He said that he was trying to make the point to Larson that there were only a few dozen craft bars that “really support the CT model,” such as Eli Cannon’s in Middletown, J. Timothy’s in Plainville, and Pies & Pints (for whom he helps brew beer) in Waterbury. “The rest are hard to crack and if they do have CT beer, it’s usually only a few taps and they are usually dominated by New England [Brewing Company of Woodbridge].”

Visco said he’s seen “nastiness” in feedback for his brewery. I can attest to this; it’s a bit out of control.

“As for South Carolina,” he wrote in an email, “we saw it as an opening in a state that embraces beer. It’s 16th in the country and has a high number of transplants and vacationers.”

Visco said Shebeen is trying to “improve quality and consistency, do a better job of marketing and sales, [and] simplify our beers to distribution.”

I hope Visco continues to improve the quality of beer at Shebeen; that will go a lot further than any positive or negative press. But there’s little good that comes out of bashing a brewery online outside of the initial spark of satisfaction.

I’m all for free speech, and don’t plan on telling anyone to censor these remarks. I hope people continue to support the Connecticut breweries whose beer they enjoy.

RELATED POST: Shebeen Brewing: The Art of Confusion

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The pain of “killing your darlings”

In creative writing, to “kill your darlings” means to cut out some of the prose you’ve fallen in love with but ultimately does not serve the work. It’s something clever to you… maybe something that made you giggle when you wrote it or sounded particularly witty, but in the big picture is merely a distraction.

I bring this up because as I finished up my indexing and photo caption-writing for Connecticut Beer, to be published in May by The History Press, I found myself to be about 3,000 words over my limit. That’s a lot. With the 29 breweries I’m profiling, plus profiles of beer bars, and a history section, acknowledgements, etc., there are plenty of places to pluck. But now that I’m at my deadline, these are tough choices to make.

I’m not in love with every word I’ve written; indeed, some words that I wrote more than a year ago sound a little stale to me now, and I’m grateful for a chance to revise. In the big picture, I’d rather have to remove 3,000 words than scramble to add 3,000. It’s just a hurdle for which I was not prepared. I have to wait until tomorrow to do that, though. I’m beat.

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Indexing “Connecticut Beer”

One of the elements of writing “Connecticut Beer” (due out in May from the History Press) that I did not count on was creating an index. I somehow thought that indexes came out of the air, maybe. Or at the very least that an editor somewhere in the intricacies of a publishing company would handle it. But, as it turns out, it’s my job.

I’m actually very grateful to have the job, since it gives me a chance to see my book in a whole new way. It’s really about breaking down the key nouns, which means brewery names, brewery owners’ names, and styles of beer. I’m also including town names in the index, so that if someone wanted to search for a place near them, that might be helpful.

Going through the Word document and creating the index is really just busy work, but you have to keep a sharp eye nonetheless. You basically find the word you’re searching to index, then scroll over it, and give it the old “shift-alt-X” treatment. Making sure you hit the necessary words without repeating too many (you can’t just index the word “beer” every time it comes up, for example) is important.

One interesting element was how many times “homebrewing” was indexed. In almost every chapter I’ve got a reference to homebrewing. In the history section, I refer to homebrewing. It’s really a book about amateur beer makers as much as it’s about professional brewing.

So the next time you pick up a nonfiction book, about beer or anything else, consider the index and the choices that some hard-working editor (or writer) had to make. Then raise a glass to him or her.