Those tasting room tap lists can be confusing or mysterious, as can the language and info printed on beer labels, but I’m here to help so that you clearly understand it from top to bottom.
Ever since the Coronavirus stopped the world from spinning, not only have most or all of your favorite beer bars been (temporarily) canceled, but so as The Beer Class at UC, Santa Barbara. But when one door closes, one window or browser opens. From intimate gatherings to larger groups of friends, coworkers, or extended family, both my beer and cider tastings are now virtually available by Zoom. I pick the best possible beverages and you pick them up at your local retailer. I’ve done this for folks from here the Valley to over in Virginia (not just alliteration). Together, we’ll come up with the right theme such as style, region, cheese or other food pairing, or just bottles or cans that scratch your fermented itch.
Please get in touch to begin your journey toward not-simplifying but easily-understanding what makes beer &/or cider so complex as well as so delicious.
This past April, Tom Jones—sorry…Sir Tom Jones (but I like to call him ToJo) who just turned 81—released yet another stunning album. Surrounded By Timeis, quite simply, a masterpiece. Which you’d expect me to say since I’m the guy who ironically went to see him in concert in 1995 (tickets were $7.50), but has since seen him nearly a dozen more times unironically because that first show converted me into a TJ stan. The album he was supporting back then had the massive hit single “If I Only Knew,” or at least it was in Europe, which is why I heard it in heavy rotation in my dorm room during part of my junior year abroad.
He has released eight albums since then and with the exception of 2002’s Wyclef Jean-produced hip hop inflected album (no foolin’), Mr. Jones, each subsequent record surpasses its predecessor and likewise, each subsequent concert I proclaim the best one I’ve seen. (Well, his set at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in 2011 was my favorite set list.) OK, Surrounded By Time isn’t better, per se, than its trilogy of prior discs—Praise & Blame’s bluesygospel, Spirit in the Room’s bluesy folk, and Long Lost Suitcase’s blue-eyed blues—but these last four were produced by Ethan Johns who, it can be said, has done for ToJo what Rick Rubin did for Tom’s old friend Johnny Cash with their American series that saw the Man in Black covering the eclectic likes of Beck, Bono, Danzig, and Depeche.
“Singers are like actors,” said the Welsh Wonder recently. “You don’t have to write the script…in order to make it great or to give it your own interpretation.” This is why I struggle to call Tom’s songs covers. And almost every song he has ever recorded was written by someone else, from his early hit “What’s New Pussycat” by Burt Bacharach to his golden comeback, “Kiss.” Incidentally, June 7 wasn’t just Tom’s 81st birthday; it would’ve been Prince’s 61.
Treatments, reimaginations, recreations, interpretations, or, though it’s a dirty word, appropriations. And in many cases, augmentations. I have two concrete theories about “covers.” Firstly, it’s impossible to cover a Beatles song poorly because at their base they’re perfectly structured pop songs. And secondly, Jones can make even the worst song great; his reimaginations are habitually ameliorations. Take “The Reason” by Hoobastank, written by their then-28-year-old-singer. I hated that song largely because the kid had no life experience so I didn’t believe him. But when I heard Sir Tom sing it (the one and only time I saw him in Vegas, baby), the lyrics rang true. “I’m sorry that I hurt you/ It’s something I must live with everyday/ And all the pain I put you through/ I wish that I could take it all away/ And be the one who catches all your tears/ That’s why I need you to hear/ I’ve found a reason for me/ To change who I used to be.” It’s no secret that the man who’s had more knickers tossed at him than Victoria’s Secret has ever sold wasn’t faithful to his wife, Linda, who he married when the 16-year-olds had their first kid.
Decades later, when Linda was dying of lung cancer, Tom proclaimed he doubted he’d ever be able to perform or record again. According to his account, from her deathbed in 2016 she insisted he find the strength. The first track on his first album since then is “I Won’t Crumble With You if You Fall” by Bernice Johnson Reagon. While Reagon is a Civil Rights activist and was lead vocalist behind the a cappella folk group The Freedom Singers, the song becomes an homage to Tom’s now-late wife, almost as if it were a sequel to the uber-rare Jones-penned original, “The Road” from 2008’s 24 Hours.
The largest departure on this album is that in lieu of a big, tight, brassy band (like his co-headlined disc with Jools Holland), many of the tracks are sparse, avant garde, and atmospheric, yet still theatrical (“The Windmills of Your Mind,” “Ol’ Mother Earth,” “Lazarus Man.”). Several cuts are trance-like electronica. In some ways, it harkens back to his collab with the Art of Noise, absent that bombasticness. And if I think back to the last time I saw him in 2019, he hinted at this with his performance of his compulsory chestnut, “What’s New Pussycat.” It basically it sounded like the organ music you hear on a merry-go-round. It was just such an oddball curveball (Thunderball) type of delivery. It was, like this entire album, transportive.
His best offerings are indeed the songs that seem autobiographical. A staple of his late-era live show has become Howlin’ Wolf’s “Two Hundred Pounds,” altered only slightly since, to hear Tom intone and baritone it, “See? Howlin’ Wolf wrote it as Three Hundred Pounds. Because he was 300 pounds. But I sing Two Hundred Pounds because I am 200 pounds.” And then he goes bass, “Of heavenly joy.” When he sings Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” I simply refuse to accept that Cohen didn’t pen it FOR Tom with lyrics like, “I was born like this/ I had no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice/ And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond/ They tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song.”
On Surrounded, Tom takes mostly-unknown tracks by well-known artists as well as wholly-unknown tracks by little-known artists. I’d only caught wind of The Waterboys because I like a lot of the pan-UK-folk/rock bands that followed in their wake a la Flogging Molly. Their original, “This is the Sea,” is a fine, even rousing bar-room sing-a-long. In ToJo’s hands, it’s an organic, organ-fueled ballad with a one-man Gospel Tabernacle choir. Churchy!
Tom takes Cat Stevens’ 1970-song “Popstar” and makes it his 2021-own.
Same with Todd Snider’s “Talking Reality TV Blues” from 2019. Said Snider, “Snider says, “Tom Jones is as great as a singer as there has ever been,” adding, “I prefer his version of the song to my own.” Regardless of who’s singing, the lyrics are a think-piece set to a talking blues. It’s a parable, really. At first it warns of the early dangers of television and how video killed the radio star. Wait til you hear the part about the video star. But the gut-punch is the last verse. “Then a show called The Apprentice came on and pretty soon/ An old man with a comb-over came along and sold us the moon/ And we stayed tuned in now here we are/ Reality killed by a reality star.”
It’s the first time I can conjure up where Tom gets political. But then he does it a beat later, or five tracks later, with “Ol’ Mother Earth.” The song was originally written and recorded by a dude named Tony Joe White in 1973. “And now the ones that you have loved/ Are taking you for granted/ Here they’re so enchanted/ By the progress they can make/ They never stop to think/ Just how much that you can take.” It’s like if Greta Thunberg just wrote it.
He takes Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” and does with it, well, much like he did with “What Good Am I?” in 2010 and “When the Deal Goes Down” in 2012 (making this his third Dylan cover over his last four albums). Dylan gave these songs a voice. Jones gives them vocals.
But the show-stopper is actually the disc’s penultimate track, a melancholic yet candid song called “I’m Growing Old” with only a pensive piano as accompaniment. A funny story I just heard is that its writer, Bobby Cole, tried to get the 26-year-old Jones to sing it the year he received a Grammy for Best New Artist! It’d have been like Hoobastank singing about learning the life lessons of a wizened showman. But today, 55 years later, Jones delivers the dark ballad’s lines as if he’s telling Linda to get ready for him. “I’m growing fonder of the fire/ I’m growing mindful of the cold/ I’m growing wise/ I’m growing, yes/ I’m growing old.”
Regardless of the music, his entire oeuvre has been a showcase for his deep, rich voice. The stuff of Mahogany and Corinthian leather. What Surrounded lacks in range it has a deluge of gravitas. With the added storytelling, it makes Surrounded damn near a concept album, The tracking or sequencing is amazing. It harkens back to his early days (his first #1 single, “It’s Not Unusual,” came out in 1964). It also transforms some older material and makes it sound new but also takes new material and gives it a Greenwich Village art house touch where I feel like I should snap to show my appreciation. Then it ends with a retro-futuristic song called “Lazarus Man” by the late soul/jazz musician Terry Callier that simultaneously places Jones in decades past, in biblical times, and in Max Headroom’s 20 minutes in the future.. It paints a portrait of an artist who’s at once past time, show time, surrounded by time, and external to it. On the very sad day of his eventual passing, when the media and most people will want to memorialize him by playing “She’s a Lady,” we ought to put on headphones and realize his music will never die because He’s a Lazarus Man.
Preface/Foreword: I have no idea when I wrote the following! It’s mid-June, 2021 and I just found a mini trove of unpublished blog posts in a newly-found Drafts folder. I don’t remember writing it but I DO know I’ve voiced my hatred for the word “nice” countless times. The post is woefully unfinished; woulda loved to know where I was going with it. But for posterity’s sake, I’m hitting the publish button now. Noice!!
Oh really, you like a nice hoppy IPA or a nice jammy Pinot, do ya? That street dog’s gotta nice snap? That Penang curry’s got some nice heat? Do you flipping hear yourself?? For one thing, when and why did the word “nice” become a substitute for very? (Which is very much one of the dumbest words one can utter and it’s no coincidence that Trumpy uses it… very much.) And more importantly, who Wouldn’t want whatever it is they’re enjoying to be nice? Who the hell would want a so-so beer or a meh wine? Perhaps you think it sounds more polished or hip than saying “good,” but if so, you’re damn wrong. It’s vapid. It’s meaningless. Nice is nasty
Hell, while watching a video about Chinese street food Jianbing by Eater, the eater used the following phrases: “a nice crunch, a nice texture, a nice variant.” He then said, “nice, bright purple cabbage…there’s a nice, sharp ginger flavor.”
I’m a big fan of the new direction in wine-beer hybrids, in one tiny circle called oenobeers. So while writing a few stories about these beers co-fermented with wine grapes, a few examples from New Braunfels, TX-based New Braunfels Brewing were shipped my way. One beer, Very Seldom Naughty, employed Chenin Blanc and Viognier pomace and was aged in white wine barrels yet still was stashed in the cellar for later enjoyment.
Now IS later. And just as no wine before its time, it seems two years is the right amount of time to lay down this release. When I open these, I always offer Wifey a taste (and her own glass if she likes it). And since she tends to not pull her weight when the bottle contains a big, bourbony behemoth of a beer, I wish that tart, fruity mixed-culture beers like this would roll into her wheelhouse, but she deemed it “too funky.” Which is to show how subjective this stuff is because I found this beer quite approachable. In the vein of a sour witbier or grapey gose, it had moderate tannins and effervescence and generally tasted like something both champagne and lambic fans would both enjoy.
If you’ve never had anything from this Central Texas brewery, this is as good a place as any to start exploring. Oh sure, they’ve got some sour Pickle Juice beers, but if in a contest of funky vs approachability, my money’s on Very Seldom Naughty over the brine.
I’m shit with names. Faces, too. But I’m usually elephant-like when it comes to beers. Not just if I’ve had it, but how much I liked it, where I got it, if my son was with me or not. But this bottle? I have no freaking idea how it came to exist in my beer fridge! But I know this: I’m glad it did.
By the time I’d reached for a fourth bottle out of the beer fridge, I needed something diametrically counter to the big-booze, big-barrel, big-malt bombs of the eves before. For starters, it’s a cider. For secondly, it was bottled in 2016, not nearly a decade old. For thirdsies, instead of something syrupy sweet like many modern ciders are, it was billed by its maker, Reverend Nat’s, I asked of its contents, won’t you take me to a different place than nights past? Won’t you take me to… Fuzzytown?
The funky Fuzzytown is an imperial sour cider aged in red wine barrels with kiwi and Mosaic hops. If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s twice as true literally as it is figuratively/nominally. The serious acid lets you know from the get-go that this is no SOS cider. It’s exceptionally bright, and the combo of the sourness and the carbonation presents like Pop Rocks merged with Warheads. But this is no kiddy cider; it’s like a complex cocktail from outer space. Those 122 pounds of fresh kiwi fruit ride high, followed by those hops that hit like 122 pounds of fresh mango.
As much as I lean toward classic cider styles of older countries (and autonomous regions in the Fresh-Spanish Pyrenees), Rev Nat’s ciders are always an exhilarating ride straddling the future and the now of cidermaking. They never do what I feel most flavored ciders do which is hide from the fact that it’s supposed to still taste like apples. And this being made with Newtown Pippins, a favorite of the supermarket eater varieties that still serves cidermakers well, this one made me appreciative of the forgetful impulse buy I made before moving out of Portland.
The third beer is the very definition of a cellar-dweller. I’ve never once bought an entire case of a single beer. Except for one time I did and dropped, if I recall, $300 on it. No less.
Why’d I buy a case of Hair of the Dog‘s Cherry Adam From the Wood (Ftw)? It was a favor to a guy I very much doubt is reading this, but a guy who I felt I owed a beer-debt to when he’d provided a memorable (and simultaneously immemorable) experience in Kentucky a few years earlier). By that point in late 2011, I’d been living in Portland, OR for a couple years, attended my first FredFest, and fell in love with brewmaster Alan Sprints’ FTW series. These weren’t sour beers and they weren’t using every obscure fruit under the sun. They were the same strong ales HotD had become known for–beers with big personalities named for (often-four-letter)-named people who’d had a big impact on Sprints. Fred. Otto. Not that the pale ale named for his gramma Ruth was a Belgian Strong Ale, but as someone who had a Grandma Ruth myself, I could relate to his naming convention.
So I went to the dock sale early one morning, I don’t recall much of a line having formed, and dutifully bought the case for my friend. And a year later, when that case was still fully in tact in a dark, cool, crawlspace beneath our basement stairs, I asked the Kentuckian about his plans to procure his favor, which I wasn’t even going to charge interest or the increased market value since this one-of-100 case had developed quite a cult following. CAFTW became the ISO-acronym around beertrader sites.
That email thread was quite short. And fruitless. And I began treating myself to the occasional 12-ounce bottle of CAFTW.
Soon, I started popping ’em at bottle-shares. It made frequent appearance at my themed cellar-clearings, like all cherry beers. (Note: I did start an entire beer festival devoted specifically to barrel-aged sour cherry beers called Kriekfest, so you can believe I’ve gottta lotta cherry beers in my stash.)
But 24 bottles is a lot. And I still had 5 left at the start of this isolation. Not that ISO any more lation at this moment!
When I popped the top, a semi-fart of autolysed air leaked out. The liquid is less bubbly than Mike Pence on Ash Wednesday. But at the cost of roll of March-2020 Charmin per bottle, I wasn’t going to drink a fair amount without trying to pixilate out all but the silver lining: Nice, bourbon-soaked black cherry flavor.
The next day, I gave a bottle to a friend with the suggestion that he try to re-carb it first and with some life breathed into it, I think Adam could make it through another eve. But that still leaves me with 3 bottles.
Yesterday’s bottle (Fifty/Fifty Eclipse) wasn’t the only bottle I’m still holding dating back to 2009. This is from Placentia, CA’s The bRUEry and the name, Papier, kicked off its ongoing series of bbl-aged anniversary beers named for traditional anniversary gifts (but in French, like the name Rue itself).
I’d discovered The Bruery right after they debuted when my friend and roommate at that year’s Great American Beer Festival, Jesse Friedman (who was still a couple years from co-founding Almanac Brewing), dragged my then-girlfriend and I to their booth on the GABF floor. Patrick Rue and his wife, Rachel, tasted me on their offerings which were pretty mind-blowing at the time. I mean, Black Orchard, a Belgian White Ale but black!? And a Belgian trippel with Thai basil in it!? Not to mention, a saison. Saison was the 2014 gose of 2008. Oh yeah, I also tried a beer the brewery would soon be bottling, a near-20% ABV bourbon-aged imperial stout called Black Tuesday.
Papier is the only beer in the ongoing anniversary series that isn’t made in the solera method (of blending newer stock into the older). Chiefly, because there was nothing older with which to blend (although it is a blend of 25% bourbon-aged Old Ale and 75% “oak-aged” though I’m not clear on whether that means old ale aged on oak chips or in some non-bourbon cask or whatnot. Papier, at this point, is an apt word since, yes, the 14.5-percenter has gone a bit papery. This is, after all, the 11th anniversary of this 1st anniversary beer and oxidation–even in a wax-dipped bottle–will do that. Still, the malt makes for a decadent after-supper sipper and the booziness does likewise. Once again, I was unable to polish off the bottle by myself and the chalice I’d rested on my nightstand perfumed my dreams. It literally made me wake up and think about last night’s beer first thing this morning.
The journey of The Bruery over the last dozen years has been, as Paul McCartney put it, a long and winding road. First the Rue family tree grew by a daughter. Then the Bruery family started selling sour beers under the Bruery Terreux label, and then non-Belgian, non-aged beers under the Offshoot imprint. Then, of course, the Rues sold a majority share to private equity, which enabled them to move from Orange County to Grape Country, Napa, where they just launched Erosion Wines. Pretty bad time to start a new business, but hey, if anything’s gonna get us through this pandemic and quarantine, it’s wine and beer.
Of course, seeing as Bruery bottles occupied an entire shelf in the beer cooler, this means I’ve got 11 more including my now-last Papier, Cuir-Bois (2nd-5th anniversaries), a couple from the 12 Days of Christmas series dating back to ’09’s Two Turtle Doves, several sours, and, of course, some variants of Black Tuesday. If the quarantine warrants a second 19-day cellar-clearning (and sadly it probably will) look for The Bruery to be featured again.
So I raised this glass to that nice young couple who branched out from beers that were the norm of the mid-aughts craft beer scene and started to make the kinds of beers they wanted to see and became quite influential in the process.
Projects. If there’s one good thing that comes out of this Novel Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is that it’ll be remembered as that time we all GSD. All the home repairs we always vowed to do “someday,” the books we’d bought but never read, the bingeable shows we meant to watch, the time we wished we had to spend with our kids, the longer walks we pretended were around the corner, now is the moment we’re actually Getting Shit Done.
One of those, for me and many a beer geek I know, is finally drinking down our beer cellars.
The bottles we’d held off for some celebration that didn’t seem to come (5 or 9 years back). The bottles that got pushed to the back and since out of sight means out of mind we’d just forgotten we even had that amazing looking thing. Whatever the reason, it’s dusty and forlorn and yet it may be brilliant still so since if there’s another thing a pandemic is good for it’s reminding us that we’re here for a good time, not a long time.
I kinda doubt this extended isolation will only last 19 days, but in honor of this COVID-19 virus that’s stopped the Earth from spinning, I’m gonna drink/document 19. Starting with this purple-wax-dipped bottle of Eclipse Imperial Stout from 2009, emanating from Fifty/Fifty Brewing in Truckee, CA in Lake Tahoe.
I bought this while living not too far from there in San Francisco, probably at City Beer Store. Furthermore, I never would’ve bought it if it wasn’t for something my then-girlfriend did for me just a year earlier. She busted through my self-imposed price ceiling on any given bottle of beer which had been $20. But, while in Chicago on my cross-country book tour promoting Red, White, & Brew, which was her last stop before flying home, we went to an awesome wine shop across the street from Barbara’s Books where I’d done my reading/signing and she bought me a bottle of Naughty Goose, a bourbon-aged imperial brown ale from the local, independent brewery Goose Island. It cost her $30. Outrageous. And also, permission to move my own cap up that high when necessitated. I don’t recall for sure, but I think I dropped $25 for this 22oz’er in ’09 and kept buying a couple bottles each year until the price tags reached over $30. And now, there are so many such barrel-aged beers in my cellar that I’ve stopped amassing them altogether. I noticed that Fifty/Fifty switched from bombers to 500ml packages, which is smart. I confess in advance I didn’t even finish this bottle, but think I got 16 ounces down.
And this barrel-aged number from Fifty/Fifty felt so necessary. In an era when next to no craft breweries had yet developed a barrel program of any note, Eclipse had debuted a couple years earlier. What I didn’t know at the time was that I’d get to write about it a year later and, more interestingly, the man-behind-the-scenes who made it possible. This profile of Tom Griffin, a man known to select brewmasters from coast-to-coast as The Barrel Guy, remains one of my most favorite stories I’ve ever written. (And frankly, since Draft Mag is long gone, I can’t believe the link still works.)
So Eclipse is in the pantheon of bourbon barrel aged beers but back in 2009, it was the first year the brewery even released various versions and used the wax color to denote which specific barrels were used for maturation. There were 3 in ’09. Last year they released 17 editions and, being ’19, one’s aged in Yaegermeister barrels while one’s a pastry stout emulating banana fritters. But this bottle I’d saved to kick off the 2020 Quarantine was aged in Elijah Craig barrels, one of my fave bourbons.
Either despite or because of the 11 years that have come and gone, the beer was a little languid but a lot lovely. Viscous and semi-flat, it oozed with a richness messieurs Penzzoil and Valvoline could only dream of and I do mean the sense of being rich, not of being crude and oily. Lava cake, Little League catcher’s mitt, and damp tobacco leaves rounded out the heady brew. It cast a shadow over most such BBA-RIS libations I’ve had in its wake.
I’m now on the lookout for some sub-$20, 500-ml variants of Eclipse 2020… if we’re around by the time it comes out.
Today is the 61st birthday of beer writer Jay Brooks. His guidebook, California Breweries – North (Stackpole Books), came out last year (even though we started our respective tomes around the same time.) Jay is a veteran beer writer (Celebrator Beer News, All About Beer, BeerAdvocate, etcetera etcetera) whose column Brooks on Beer appears in the San Jose Mercury News. He has contributed to the Oxford Companion to Beer as well as Playboy Magazine. He is the co-founder of SF Beer Week (and it breaks my heart missing it even if it was because I live in a foreign territory now). To anyone who follows the brewing industry, none of this is news. But for years, a convivial component of his Brookston Beer Blog has been celebrating brewers and those in the beer community on their birthdays. So please…join me in wishing Jay a very happy birthday.
Outdoor Speakeasy: Me, Brian Lenzo from Blue Palms, Jay Brooks (whose blog I copied this from), and Meg Gill before starting Golden Road Brewing.
Brewmaster Craig Cauwels, yours truly, the Beer Chef Bruce Patton, the birthday boy
Also at MT, when a beer has the word “dessert” in the description, you should usually expect a beer that’s terribly rich and wonderfully sweet. A barrel-aged imperial stout brewed with some combination of vanilla beans, coffee grinds, coconuts, cinnamon sticks, cacao nibs, and macadamia nuts that tops 13 percent alcohol is the Modern Times normal.
So with the fact that Nectarnomicon is billed as an “ultra-fruited dessert sour,” there are a host of surprises to unpack in the beer, starting with the fact that it tiptoes in the tulip glass at 3.6 percent ABV. But Nectarnomicon, with the present keg on at the taproom being the Maui Wowie Edition, is no subtle session ale. It’s more accurately a glass of pineapple and mango juice with a hefty dose of coconut and nutmeg (remember, this is a dessert sour ale) with some fermented malt juice blended in. And it’s delish — morning, noon, or night.