On drinking less

It was a saturating summer.

Between some early afternoon starts and late-night carousing, I experienced a fair bit of over-indulgence in the beer department, especially while on vacation down at the Jersey Shore. I was not bathing suit-ready to begin with, and kept my modesty, so further filling my gut with carbs was for the most part a victimless crime. I never drove while drinking, so the damage was primarily to my already bloated physique.

 

There were a lot of good times. I’m not apologizing for a single sip. However, reality beckoned and for the past month I’ve dried out considerably, keeping my beer enjoyment to Friday early evenings and Saturday nights.

This coincided with my reading the book Genius Foods (2018, HarperCollins) by Max Lugavere.  It’s a wonderful guide I can’t recommend enough. It describes the best foods to eat and when to eat them for optimal brain health. A big side benefit has been the pounds shed, maybe five (although for a 5-foot-3 frame, that’s enough). I’ve cut out all grains and get my carbohydrates primarily from beer. I’ve incorporated more leafy greens, “good fats” from olive oil and avocado, wild salmon, nuts, dark chocolate. These are some of the “genius foods.”

I’ve also taken to eating as late as I can in the morning and finishing dinner as early as I can at night. That fasting period (ideally 16 hours) is helpful for cutting down on that which would cloud your thinking and bloat your gut.

Lugavere’s only words on the subject of beer are predictably negative (although, like him, kind and supportive):

“Avoid gluten-containing beverages, which may be a one-two punch. Gluten increases gut permeability, which may compound the same effect from alcohol. Beer drinkers, I’m looking at you.” (p. 313)

He goes on to make a controversial recommendation to drink on an empty stomach, which “may allow the liver to more efficiently process the alcohol without impeding digestive processes.”

Pick up the book and put down the extra beer. When you’re drinking better, you won’t need the volume anyway.

Charter Oak Puts Down Roots

[A version of this column was published in the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American on Aug. 10, 2018.]

There’s a question I’ve asked every new brewery owner, and from P. Scott Vallely of Charter Oak Brewing, I got the most unexpected answer.

Q: What’s surprised you most about starting a brewery?

A: There weren’t any surprises.

Coming from another owner, I’d have done a spit-take that covered the bar. But from Vallely, who started homebrewing more than 30 years ago and brewed Charter Oak at the former Paper City Brewing in Holyoke, Mass., for five, it made sense.

“I’ve been asking, ‘What keeps you up at night’ to owners so many times that there really wasn’t anything I didn’t expect,” he said, smiling through a bohemian beard as cool and relaxed as he is.

Vallely, who keeps his age a secret from the nosy press, sold his business Paper.com and transitioned to professional beer-making in 2012. After years of logging miles to and from Holyoke, Vallely was close to having his own brewery in South Norwalk, before that deal fell through. He said he’s received a much warmer welcome in Danbury.

The 10,000-square-foot former distribution site had its share of “rats and spiders” when Vallely was first able to enter, he said. By the June 28 grand opening, it had been scraped, sanded, scoured and reborn with a 70-seat gray and tan tasting room, 13-seat concrete bar, and a brewhouse with a 20-barrel system and a 5-barrel for pilot batches. Vallely employs Mike Granoth as his brewer, but continues to take a hands-on approach to everything.

Charter Oak treats all of its city water and puts it through a three-part filtration system to remove chemicals, including chlorine. “I’ve done everything I can to ensure quality here,” he said.

During a brewhouse tour, he let me try one of his upcoming India pale ales made with Equinox hops. It was delightful right off of the brite tank, a stainless steel vessel used to store and carbonate beer before it’s distributed to kegs and cans.

Tasting room as home

From the rotating 10-tap line, I enjoyed a flight of the Easy Riding Kolsch, which was smooth with a hint of tart; a gently malty King’s Extra Special Bitter; the bright and expressive Brewbury I IPA, featuring Citra and Mosaic hops; and a roasty Midnight Ride Porter.

So far no one beer has emerged as the most popular, sai Vallely, who was surprised that even the beers Vallely cans are as popular as the draft-only offerings.

During my visit, there was a group of friends gathered at a few four-person tables pushed together. That happens quite a bit, Vallely explained. His wife Michelle would separate the tables at closing time each night, only to notice that people would pull them back together again. They decided to keep a community table in the center of the tasting room.

The Vallelys had a bit of a rough start in one department: collecting payments from customers. Scott said he thought he’d set up new payment system properly for opening day for credit card purchases, but he did not. He ended up asking folks to come back and pay on the honor system. They did, he said.

While he’s settled into his own brewery, Vallely hasn’t stopped moving. He and Michelle were constantly on the go as new customers arrived, welcoming them and answering questions.

Michelle, who works as a secretary at an elementary school full-time, said she feels like she’s with family at the brewery.

“It’s like hosting a party every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” she said.

Michelle was the one who added a poignant bit of decoration behind the bar. She took a greeting card she had given to her husband and framed it.

It says, “Never never never give up.”

Until next time, sip well.

never give up

Jersey Pour

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Jake Stablein of Ship Bottom Brewing

[A similar version of the following was published in the Waterbury Republican-American on July 27, 2018.]

Family visits to Long Beach Island on the Jersey shore in the 70s and 80s imprinted memories I’ll always cherish. Along with the sunsets over the bay and waves on a scratchy float, there were the tastes, like pancakes at Uncle Will’s and sweet scoops at the Skipper Dipper.  

Over the decades, my preferences have evolved from funnel cakes to pale ales, and LBI has evolved with me. In 2016, the island’s first brewery started pouring: Ship Bottom Brewery.

The brewery is named for a town on LBI, where in 1995 owner Robert Zarko homebrewed his first batches. After building his passion into a small professional brewery out of his Pennsylvania garage, Zarko decided to make LBI the brewery’s home.

This year my Aunt Christine and Uncle John organized a weeklong return to LBI for a new generation to have their Jersey shore experience. While my nieces and nephews headed to Fantasy Island Amusement Park, I climbed the welcoming stairs to Ship Bottom.

Bottoms up

During my first trip, the brewery was beset by strollers: I counted six infants enjoying a day out while their folks enjoyed it more in the airy tasting room, with four-seater table tops, picnic tables and a small bar. Ship Bottom doesn’t serve food, so I brought along a panini and salad from Spice It Up, a store next door.

I sipped my way through a “wave”: a flight of four beers placed in a hard-carved, wooden surfboard. From left to right, there was the gentle Barnegat Lager, named for the lighthouse at LBI’s northern tip; a biting low-alcohol IPA named Stupid Paddle Boat; a pungent coconut porter; and a stout on nitro that made the world spin a little more slowly at 8.4-percent alcohol by volume.

I decided to give myself an excuse to sail back to Ship Bottom by arranging an interview with the head brewer, Jake Stablein.

Wanderlust

Stablein met me on a sweltering Friday afternoon; the 31-year-old had just finished up an impromptu tour of the brewhouse, which along with the tasting room and gift shop is housed on the second floor of a busy shopping district called Bay Village.

The upbeat brewer had near shoulder-length wavy dark hair, black tortoise-shell glasses and something between stubble and beard. He emitted a beach vibe that was more genuine bliss than laid back guise.

Despite being from Denver, Stablein’s future in beer was far from being pre-ordained. In fact, wanderlust inspired him to go abroad instead of sticking around for college. Early dreams of becoming a chef were doused after negative experiences in kitchens where he worked the summer jobs that got him enough cash to head to Prague. There, he landed some jobs teaching English.

The beer Stablein had drunk up to this point was forgettable, and it wasn’t until he turned 21 and convinced his Czech friends to join him in Belgium that he grew to appreciate beer. “Over there it was no big deal to turn 21, but I told them it was important to me,” he said. Dubbels, tripels and saisons sparked something the culinary world could not.

Upon returning to Denver, Stablein made his own Belgian-style beers, and landed a gig at one of the city’s many homebrew stores. When a plan to create another such business in Delaware fell through, Stablein started working as an assistant brewer at Twin Lakes Brewing in Newport, Delaware.

That’s where he first crossed paths with Zarko, whose Ship Bottom Brewery was a small venture in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. Stablein used Twin Lakes’ equipment to wash Zarko’s kegs, and joined Zarko for some brew days. A few years later, after Stablein had left the state to work at Duck Rabbit Brewing in North Carolina, Zarko asked him to be his head brewer in Beach Haven.

“He was pretty smart and knew more about beer than I did,” Zarko, 50, said in a phone interview. “I talked to him about moving to the beach… With Duck Rabbit, I knew he was strong in stouts and IPAs. He had a lot to bring to the table and we talked about making interesting beers and making them the best we could. We’re striving to get better and better.”

 

Lure of the beach

Brewing in seasonal paradise has its obvious advantages, but some come in unexpected places. For example, the brewery’s soft water lends itself particularly well to lagers, which Stablein and an assistant brewer make. “Lagers are near and dear to my heart,” Stablein said.

Stablein doesn’t believe in playing with water’s mineral content, so he creates recipes to work around it for IPAs as well, including a New England IPA that emphasizes hops that produce a tropical fruit flavor. “Right now the soft and juicy thing is in, but I’ve always liked it,” he said.

Being central to foot traffic and thirsty tourists puts a spotlight on Stablein’s work. “We get blasted in the summer,” he said. “We get a lot of people who don’t normally drink beer, so we’re on the education part of it too. … People just end up walking in that would normally never come to a brewery.”

Stablein enjoys giving tours of the 15-barrel brewhouse; these tours used to be mandatory by state law, until lawmakers changed their minds this year, finding that it unfairly hamstrung the breweries.

Creations

Not wanting to be seagull-holed into one category of beers, Stablein makes sure to create a wide variety: 18 different brands in cans so far, and another four in bottles. Two of his best beers are dissimilar: Peach Cobbler is made with extract and is light and refreshing. The Shorty’s Copo Coconut Porter benefits from Stablein’s trial and error; the latest version incorporates coconut puree and extract to perfect the aroma and taste.

He makes use of sea salt from Barnegat Bay harvested by local restaurant Black Eyed Susan’s for his Mexican Cerveza with lime zest, and a Mango Gose, a collaboration with a Pennsylvania brewery.

For a spicy twist on IPA, Stablein uses a honey-habanero hot sauce from The Chicken or the Egg, another local restaurant. “It’s hard to explain,” Stablein said, then did what every beer writer dreams of: got us some samples. The “Chegg IPA” starts with a wave of honey sweetness that recedes and leaves behind a slight tongue burn.

Pairing beer with food is part of Stablein’s passion, working with local chefs and arranging for meaningful mixes. His top recommendation: Shack IPA and clam pot.

Ship Bottom is available on tap at local restaurants, in four-packs, by to-go crowler (beer poured from a tap into a can), and sometimes by bottle. One bottle was the Wooden Jetty Whiskey Barrel Stout; it’s intense, even for experienced drinkers, but for lovers of spirits, this 11.4 percent alcohol-by-volume might be exactly what you crave.

Brewery for all seasons

After Labor Day and Chowderfest in late September, it gets very quiet on the 18-mile-long, narrow barrier island, which has only about 20,000 winter residents, as opposed to the tourist season, when more than 150,000 inhabit LBI. Unlike many local businesses, Ship Bottom stays open all year, even the quietest months of January and February.

“In the winter it’s easier to get here, but no one wants to have a few beers, then run the gauntlet of bored cops,” Stablein noted.

While there are more than 100 breweries in New Jersey, Ship Bottom remains the only one on LBI. “I’d like to see another brewery open on the island, actually,” he said. “Business attracts business.”

In general, Stablein wants the good folks of Connecticut to know that Ship Bottom is no tourist trap, and that as a year-round resident himself, he pours a bit of himself into every beer.

“I work hard to make great beer, and I work really hard to make sure that it’s an experience in a glass, whether you’re on vacation or drinking it at home,” he said. “And you gotta come for the sunset. It’s amazing. Even after living here for two years, I still stop and watch the sun go down. You look over and it wows you every time.”

Until next time, sip well.

You can contact Beer Snob at beer.snob@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter: @beersnobwrites.com.

 

IF YOU GO

Ship Bottom Brewing

830 North Bay Avenue, Store 23

Beach Haven, NJ 08008

Shipbottombrewery.com

One last pour: Farewell, Backstage

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Backstage, Torrington, Conn. Last night: Jan. 7, 2018.

Backstage Bistro, a bar in Torrington that has grown to be my local during the past seven years, has announced that it will serve its last beer tonight. The rangy, high-ceilinged pub was a beacon for beer geeks in Litchfield County. Rising from the ashes of the failed Torrington arm of Cambridge House Brewpub, and prior to that the site of a much-revered department store, Backstage was aligned with Warner Theater. It was known by most patrons as the restaurant to grab a bite before a show at the Warner. For the rest of us, it was a thoughtfully managed beer bar with knowledgeable staff and some fun Thursday night tap takeovers.

I stopped by Backstage tonight to say goodbye, and it was bittersweet. I remembered my 40th birthday party held in the front room almost exactly five years ago. There was the night the bar expanded to 42 taps, and I lined up with 41 of my physically closest friends to pour 42 pints all at once.

I remembered the night I held my first book signing — a quiet night, if I remember — where I sat and hoped for someone to ask for my autograph and buy my book, two years ago. And then there were the many Friday late afternoons when I would perch myself on a stool to read a New Yorker and decompress over a porter and wings after a week of work. I would end up talking to someone I knew there every single time.

It was a busy tonight at 5:30 or so, and I decided not to interrupt the owner, who appeared to be eating with family, to get the scoop on why Backstage was closing. Maybe I’ll get the information later. “Our employees were well aware for months that we were doing all possible to prevent this from happening,” the Facebook representative for Backstage wrote tonight in response to the predictably hostile fringe. “For seven years, everyone that worked here got a good paycheck every week, and will next week as well.”

corner crew at backstage

The corner crew at Backstage.

I decided, instead, to interview a few barflies: the hardcore beer enthusiasts who were there whenever I stopped by.

“I’ve been a part of this group of people who have been coming here since Cambridge House left,” loyal customer Paul Griffin said. “We’ve met a lot of great people who like beer and like to commiserate down here. It’ll be a real loss to the city. I just hope something will come out of this.”

Don Garrigan agreed. “It has been a gathering place for friends at the end of a hard week. We’re going to miss it greatly. But we’ll see. Life goes on.”

“We’re perennial optimists,” Paul said from his corner stool. “We just hope a new place comes and takes this over.”

Holding court near the bar was Al Corpus, celebrating his birthday. Al and I met at Backstage years ago, and he and his girlfriend continued to be friends with my wife and me. Al is a bear of a man who has a gruff appearance but a warm heart. Any bartender who had the pleasure of serving or drinking with Al knew the depth of his love for well-crafted beer.

“The crew and the staff were very inviting,” Al recalled of his first visits, when Backstage opened its doors. “They made me feel like I was welcomed. I’m a big guy and I sort of scare people. But they made me feel like I was home. It still feels like home.”

Over the years, Al said, he met a lot of great people.

“It’s so sad that they’re closing on my birthday,” he said, taking a sip. “I don’t want them to close. I was hoping last night that I would have won PowerBall so I could keep them open.”  

Cheers, Backstage. Thank you for the pints and the memories.

al at backstage

Cheers, Al. Happy birthday.

READ MORE: Last call at The Old Corner Cafe

Relic Owns the Dark

srelic beersI feel an undeserved jolt of pride knowing that my small state has a really small brewery that cans two uncompromising dark beers. Relic Brewing of Plainville, Conn., has out now its Black Dawn stout and Spectral Beast Baltic porter, two aggressive, weighty contributions. I recommend them both, for different occasions.

Black Dawn (7% ABV) is a fine main dish beer — steak or pork, in particular — that won’t interfere with roasted greens or any side with sweetness. It’s the stout that coats just enough to deliver a burnt coffee blast without overwhelming what’s on your plate.

Spectral Beast (10%) is a robust dessert or post-dessert boozer. Raisiny without being too tart, it doesn’t try to hide its warming alcohol. On a cold night, it’s puts a life-affirming arm around you and says, “You’ll get through the year alright, I promise.”

California impressions

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If I lived here a month, I’d be in much better shape.

At least that’s what I tell myself as I’m scrambling over a low, flat rock on the bank of the lazy but insistent Kaweah River. I’m out of breath and my singed feet and knees are crying, but I’m happy to be out in nature, under a cloudless sky, and with family.

I’m in the first half of my weeklong trip to southern California, at the beautiful home that my aunt and uncle maintain and offer up to guests looking for a romantic, peaceful getaway. It’s tucked into the hills about 3 hours northeast of Los Angeles and quite close to the Sequoia National Forest.

Of course, I’m not hear merely to breathe deep the glory of nature. I’m here for the beer.

Bottles

My uncle is a recent convert, so he was happy to procure some local craft beer to sample while the sun set on each dry day. We enjoyed Bear Republic‘s Apex Special IPA, which delighted with an apricot/pineapple nose and featured a bright, crisp citrus mix. It’s from Sonoma County, about 70 miles north of San Francisco. We followed this with a breather: the easy drinking Taco Truck Lager from Dust Bowl Brewing of Turlock in north central California, not too far from Modesto.

Over the next several days we tucked into more West Coast IPAs, including Plunder from San Diego’s Mission Brewery. After months of New England IPAs and their aggressive, soupy, throw-every-alpha-acid-into-the-bathwater approach, it was nice to experience some subtlety.

This reached its zenith with my favorite beer of the trip (so far): The Denogginizer by Drake’s Brewing Company of San Leandro, which is near Oakland. This double IPA was so smooth and inviting with its hints of overripe apricot and pineapple juice; with a solid malt backbone it was still hard to tell that this clocked in at 9.75% ABV. Stunning. I’m still remembering every luxurious sip.

We veered off into what for me was an unfortunate direction: Joaquin Murrieta Chile Pepper Beer from Tioga-Sequoia Brewing in relatively nearby Fresno. It was an assault on the senses, and my senses could not compute what was taking over. But that’s me. My uncle liked it a bit better after stashing the opened bottle in the freezer for about an hour.

The unifying quality of the beers I’ve liked best here is the bursting hops that still leave room for accompanying dishes, most of which seem to feature avocado. As I continue my week in Los Angeles, I plan to focus on the breweries themselves.

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Hard to keep up, but worth it

Consider this one a place-holder: I’ve been so caught up with my “real life” that I’ve placed my beer writing life in a dusty corner, where it certainly does not belong. I’ve been able to squeeze out a column per month (except for June…), but I’ll forgive myself if you will too.

So many breweries have opened up recently that I’m having trouble keeping up. I’ve made it to Counter Weight in Hamden, which I liked very much, for the beer and the two floors of tap rooms. I’ve missed the openings of New Park Brewing in West Hartford and Alvarium in New Britain, but enjoyed the early entries from Kinsmen Brewing in Southington. There are plenty to venture toward this summer, and this weekend is as good as any to start.

Too Legitimus II Quitimus

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There’s something about a communal table that stirs an ancient drive in the socially needy. The prospect of having a real conversation, albeit brief, with an insightful stranger has real value in an era when an emoji counts as reasoned debate.

So when a brewer whose work I’ve come to enjoy opened up a brewery 20 minutes from my house with communal tables, my esteem for him rose. When I saw that Brewery Legitimus in New Hartford also boasts a communal sectional COUCH, I learned the true meaning of respect.

While I’ve only had one visit since the brewery opened late last month, I can with confidence say that it is off to a fine start. I enjoyed Brewery Legitimus’ Counter Surfer Brown Ale and Ovation Session IPA, but went particularly gaga over its Chelson Stout. Named for a traditional first name of brewer/owner Chris Sayer’s family, this chocolatey, lightly carbonated, rich-and-sweetish ale came home with me in a growler and is fueling this very post.

I plan to write more about BL in the future, but wanted the world to know now that I’m a fan and look forward to many chats with strangers at the tables and on the couch.

Hartford mayor big on beer

Luke Bronin

lukebronin.com

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin would like to see more breweries in Connecticut’s capital, where two recently opened this summer, joining City Steam Brewing.

“We want as many breweries as we can get,” Bronin said in a phone interview Friday. “We see breweries as catalysts for economic growth, and also as places that add to the livability and fun.”

This summer saw the openings of Hanging Hills Brewing on Ledyard Street and Hog River Brewing on Park Street, just a few miles northwest. Bronin attended both openings.

“Breweries are not just manufacturers of beer, but they are centers of community,” Bronin said.

Bronin alluded to zoning code changes that came into effect recently that allowed for Hanging Hills to serve beer relatively close to an elementary school. He said that such “overhauls” are necessary to continue economic growth.

“It’s important to me that we focus on…not just the big shiny development, but also the things that change the day to day,” he said.

In terms of where new breweries in Hartford might go, Bronin said he’s not biased.  He said he’s open to “any breweries who want to come and be part of the revitalization.”

Statewide, with more than 40 breweries, there’s been talk of a Connecticut beer trail, much like its wine trail, complete with signage. It only exists virtually — you can learn more at CTBeerTrail.net —  but Bronin said he loves the idea.

“For now,” he said, “we’ll focus on the Hartford beer circuit.”

Read my story about the opening of Hanging Hills and Hog River at the Republican-American: BIG TOWN, SMALL BEER.