Drinking too locally

Which state has the most breweries per capita? I thought it might be Oregon, my new home state, but the honor goes elsewhere [via Rob Kasper]:

The great state of Vermont tops the list of U.S. state breweries per capita based on the Brewers Association’s count of operating breweries and the 2008 population estimates found at www.census.gov. The fortunate citizens of Vermont have a brewery for every 32,698 people. There are 19 breweries and 621,270 citizens in Vermont. Additionally, every Vermont brewery is a craft brewery according the Brewers Association’s craft brewer definition, from small start-up microbrewery Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Warren to the revered Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington to regional craft brewer Magic Hat Brewing Co. and Performing Arts Center also in Burlington. The top 5 states in breweries per capita are rounded out by Montana, Oregon, Maine and Colorado.

Well, at least we’re in the top five. But what does this mean for the consumer, anyway? Is this really Beervana?

It certainly seemed to be when I first arrived here. Locally brewed ales were available at every pub I went to. And they were so cheap! $2.50 wouldn’t buy a pint of Bud Light in DC, much less a quality craft brew. Portland seemed like heaven.

But as time went on, the initial euphoria wore off and all the beers started to run together in my memory. They were good, but often failed to stand out from one another.

And that’s when I started getting nostalgic about the DC beer scene. The beer selection at an average DC bar is terrible, the prices are too high, and there are no good local brewers that I’m aware of. But the bars that try a little harder offer some of the best beers from throughout the Eastern US. Dogfish Head in Delaware, Brooklyn in New York, Allagash in Maine, and Bell’s in Michigan stand out particularly as innovative, relatively large craft brewers who make consistently good beer in a wide variety of styles, and they’re all distributed fairly well within the city.

On top of this DC went though a welcome Belgian invasion over the past few years. Newcomers Birreria Paradiso, Brasserie Beck, Granville Moore’s, and Rustico in Alexandria are amazing, offering a wide array of imports and some of the best American craft brews (Marvin too, apparently, though I haven’t been there). DC has become a fantastic city for beer drinkers despite having very little beer culture of its own.

To some extent, I think DC’s poverty of local brewers has been an advantage, freeing local bars to open their taps to the best brewers they can find, no matter where they come from. In this respect it is a surprisingly good beer city and I often miss its best destinations and my favorite eastern brews. (A similar dynamic is at work in New York City’s coffee scene, which in just a few years has gone from dismal to one of the best in the country. In addition to there being a few local players, NYC consumers benefit from competition among Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture to get into the top cafes.)

Oregonians, in contrast, take pride in drinking locally. And while there are many great local brews, my outsider’s impression is that this allows some good but unremarkable beers to skate by. There are benefits from showing tough love and a willingness to abandon the home team that don’t show up in a measure of breweries per capita.

None of which is to say that this isn’t an incredible city for beer drinkers. It’s certainly better than the District; even the place I get my haircut in Portland offers better beer than what’s found in many DC bars. There are more Oregon beers to try than I could possibly handle (though it’s fun to attempt it). So while at the margin I’d like to see a little less local dominance of the taps here, I’m more interested in finding out what I should sample next. Ninkasi and Caldera are especially good breweries that I’d never encountered before moving here, and Belmont Station’s unbelievable retail selection takes care of a lot of hard to find bottles. What else am I missing? What are the Oregon beers I should seek out immediately?


More ban blowback

This time in Nevada:

A bill that would ease the terms of a voter-approved measure that banned smoking in many Nevada bars and other public places was approved on a 14-5 vote Friday in the state Senate.

SB372, which softens the 2006 Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act, would allow smoking in bars that serve food as long as minors are restricted from entry. Also, businesses could wall off separately ventilated smoking rooms.

If this blog was The New York Times, I’d be ready to write a trend piece.


No smoking on Mondays

This is one of the most absurd smoking regulations I’ve come across yet. In Maryland, bars that can prove financial hardship from the statewide smoking ban can receive an exemption until January 31, 2011. The Crossroads, profiled in this article, is one of the few bars in the state that can allow smoking, and its business is booming… most days:

In fact, the only day that the bar isn’t bustling is on Mondays, when the Crossroads must comply with the smoking ban. The one-day prohibition was enacted at the start of the year, part of the state’s plan to phase out smoking at places with waivers. Next year, such venues must designate two or three nonsmoking days.

[Owner Tim Brandenburg] cringes at the thought of losing another smoking day, and on Mondays he gets a glimpse of what might become of his bar when the waiver expires.

Last Monday afternoon, the Crossroads was as quiet as a morgue. At a time when many people usually pour in after work, only three patrons were present.

On a smoking day, Brandenburg says, his bar can ring up as much as $1,000 in sales. On Monday, receipts totaled $138. […]

It will be up to [Carroll County Health Officer Larry Leitch] to decide whether the Crossroads must add one or two more nonsmoking days in 2010.

“I’ll have to address that when the time comes up to make the next decision,” Leitch said. “The thing that [Brandenburg] has to realize is that, as of Feb. 1, 2011, he has to be totally smoke-free.”

It’s stupid for legislators and regulators to decide bars’ and restaurants’ smoking policies in the first place; no one knows what patrons want better than the business owners themselves. But this is a whole new level of ridiculous. The question of whether Brandenburg’s bar will be unprofitable two nights a week or three is left entirely in the hands of this random bureaucrat, Larry Leitch. What on Earth is Leitch’s decision supposed to be based on? The bar’s financial situation? Patrons’ health? Whether or not he likes Brandenburg? Whether he happens to be in a good mood from having sex the night before? This is rule by one man’s whim, not by law.


Smoking hysteria blowback

It’s beginning in Nebraska, where legislators have successfully weakened the upcoming statewide smoking ban:

Cigar smokers would be able light up in designated cigar bars sometime in early September under a bill given final approval by the Nebraska Legislature this morning.

State lawmakers voted 27-22 to approve the cigar bar exemption, which had been pushed by Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh.

The vote came after Lautenbaugh fell five votes short of allowing the exemption to go into effect immediately.

Legislative Bill 355 now goes to Gov. Heineman. If Heineman signs it into law, as expected, the exemption would take effect three months after the 2009 session ends, which is tentatively set for June 4.

While opponents decried the cigar bar exemption as endangering people’s health, Lautenbaugh portrayed it as a common-sense change. Cigar bars were created for people to smoke cigars. The statewide smoking ban, which takes effect in June, would put them out of business, he argued.

“Given the hysteria surrounding smoking issues in general, it is nice to preserve a little bit of freedom for adults in Nebraska,” Lautenbaugh said.

Oddly enough, this comes at the same time that a judge ruled against Omaha’s existing smoking exemptions. It will be interesting to see how this plays out once the statewide ban takes effect.


Among the pipemen

This essay by Andrew Martin in Granta has some wonderful insights into the appeal of pipe smoking:

My Uncle Sid smoked a pipe. He maximized the soothing, ritualistic aspects of the process in that he not only wielded the pipe cleaners, the various prodding instruments of a pipe tool and the weathered, old-faithful tobacco pouch, but he also rubbed his own tobacco, which came out of the tin solid, like a little piece of card. When these preliminaries were complete, and the flame was lowered on to the tobacco, there was what seemed like a crisis (not that Uncle Sid was remotely unsettled) as he discharged great clouds of smoke in the opening moments of combustion. This, to me, was as time-hallowed, as wholly masculine and right, as seeing a steam locomotive getting going. And in fact Uncle Sid was a train driver, and it was the contrast between his man of action persona – he was also a keen gardener – and the state he fell into with the pipe properly lit that I found particularly attractive. When Uncle Sid’s pipe was up and running, so to speak, then the smoke streams issuing from him were almost invisible, and he seemed to exist in a different dimension. He might be referred to by those present (especially, and in rather aggrieved tones, by his own wife), but he hardly ever participated in the conversation himself. Well, he didn’t need to: he had his pipe.

On those occasions when my father took me into pubs, I would focus on the Uncle Sid types, with their pipes in their mouths and their pipe paraphernalia on the table before them, forming a barricade between them and the outside world. The pipe was so obviously the priority with these men that I would wonder how those in their company could put up with being marginalized in that way. But I was on the side of the pipemen. Objectively, you might say they were under-weaned, but to me their pipes symbolized maturity and achievement. Pipes were not dashing or rakish, as cigars were in the nineteenth century and cigarettes in the twentieth; they were for men who’d graduated beyond trying to be ‘cool’, and I admired that, perhaps because I stood on the foothills of trying to be cool myself, and I knew it was going to be a hard slog.

Read the whole thing for a lovely description of the remaining embers of pipe culture in Great Britain.

Pipe up!


Tax me baby one more time

The folks at Blue Oregon love love love paying taxes. “It’s an honor and a privilege to do so,” wrote Carla Axtman on Monday. Today Steve Novick goes even farther and willingly pays more than he is required to:

In completing my tax forms, I decided to make a symbolic statement of concern about what’s going to happen to our state: I didn’t take the $50 tax credit for political contributions, even though I made several times that amount in political contributions. I’m not exactly rolling in dough these days – I made a little over $40,000 last year – but I figured the state needs the $50 more than I need to be subsidized for making political contributions I would have made anyway.

As a libertarian I’m glad to see Steve spending his income however he sees fit. I’ll also give him credit for putting his money where is mouth is and voluntarily raising his own tax bill; I wish other tax advocates were equally consistent.

But that said, this is a very weird thing to do. Steve wants to see children educated, the elderly cared for, addicts treated, and the sick provided with health care. These are all noble goals. They’re not, however, goals that only the government can achieve. Charities address these needs too, and by contributing $50 to them Steve could ensure that his donation is directed to the right ends.

Instead he donates to politicians who share some, but perhaps not all of his views, who might get elected and who might succeed in putting his agenda into action. Then he gives them even more money that might or might not get spent wisely. At the end of this process, I wonder how much of his political contributions actually end up benefiting the people he wants to help?

Steve gets near the truth when he says that the Oregon tax credit for campaign contributions is “subsidizing the political contributions of the relatively wealthy.” It’s a subsidy for the politicians too, transferring money from the state treasury to their own campaigns. It’s a neat trick: the relatively wealthy get to feel good about donating to their favored politicians and the politicians get more money to crow about the good things they’ll accomplish in office.

The downside of having such an active government is that we tend to forget about civil society’s private solutions to public problems; the importance of people wielding the levers of power looms too large in our view. Steve’s extra $50 in taxes is, as he says, a “small symbolic gesture.” I’d humbly suggest that a more effective gesture would be cutting out the political middlemen and donating that money to a cause that directly addresses his concerns.


The big government cheeseburger

If you’re looking for some relevant reading on this Tax Day, you could do much worse than Charlotte Twight’s essay on the history of income tax withholding in the United States. The topic is featured prominently in her excellent book Dependent on D.C. and I’m glad to see her work is now online as well.

She reports that prior to World War II income taxes were generally paid in quarterly installments in the year following the earnings to which they applied. For example, at the end of 1938 a person would calculate what he owed for the year and pay it gradually throughout 1939. This left taxpayers fully aware of what they were paying and allowed them to plan their payments in advance.

In 1943 the law was changed to implement withholding. This greatly advantaged the Treasury by obscuring the true magnitude of taxation:

We have seen that, on many levels, income tax withholding increases transaction costs to the public of understanding the magnitude of the income tax and of opposing it politically. Government officials always have regarded withholding as a seemingly “painless alternative” (U.S. House Hearings 1980: 35). Lacking an understanding of the concept of present value, many taxpayers do not perceive that withholding causes the real burden of their tax liability to be greater. Indeed, the common practice of overwithholding associates the payment of taxes with an apparent financial benefit rather than cost, distorting taxpayers’ assessments of the actual costs and benefits of government activity. Consistent with a transaction-cost-manipulation model, the expected return of such overpayments makes people feel “happier'” about sending in their tax returns on April 15. The very mechanism of withholding deflects blame from the government by requiring employers to initiate and bear the cost of the forcible extraction of people’s income. Piecemeal collection each payday from income the taxpayer never sees obscures the magnitude of the annual tax. And, because it is a forcible extraction, it raises the transaction costs to the public of expressing political resistance to taxes by not paying them. […]

After 50 years of comprehensive withholding at the source of American workers’ salaries, people are used to wage withholding; most no longer question it. The relevant institutional machinery is entrenched, both through its administrative apparatus and through its acceptance in the minds of most taxpayers.

Many readers of this blog favor mandatory disclosure of things like nutritional information. You don’t think that it’s enough for the number of calories in a fast food cheeseburger to be merely available to consumers. You say the information must be placed prominently on the menu, forcing diners into the frame of mind to consider the health consequences of their actions. Should not the same be true of government? When citizens are tempted by the big government cheeseburger, shouldn’t they be reminded of its true cost?

It’s true that they could look it up on their pay stubs or tax returns, but that’s not the same as having it forcefully presented in a quarterly payment. By taking their money before they ever receive it, withholding obscures the link between bigger government and higher taxes. Throw in the exciting possibility of an annual refund and it’s no wonder voters say, “Super size me.”

So here’s the question for left-leaning readers: Do you think it’s legitimate for the government to distort voter preferences via income tax withholding? Or should withholding be abolished at the risk of decreased support for government spending you favor?

Update: Barzelay makes an excellent point in the comments:

… there is no reason why the government should handle withholding. This is an area that I think the private sector would unquestionably be better at.

Imagine going to H&R Block and sitting down for a brief meeting to describe your financial situation. The tax experts there estimate how much your taxes will be for the following year, considering such factors as other anticipated income, anticipated life changes, etc., and recommend a particular withholding percentage. You then have your workplace automatically deposit that percentage of your paycheck into a special H&R Block account. H&R Block then invests your funds for you (conservatively), guaranteeing that they will pay you back at least what you have put in. At the end of the year, they pay you back your withheld money, plus interest, having taken out a cut (say, .25%) for H&R Block. You then pay your taxes. As long as H&R Block can make more than .25% interest, they make money and you make money.

This would address two problems. By making people write a check from their own private account it would help raise awareness of the actual tax burden. And if people withhold excessively, they keep the extra funds and any interest that is earned on them. The difficulty is in transitioning to this idea from our current pay-as-you go system; I don’t know how to get there from here without causing significant cash flow problems for the government.


Criminal composting

Oregon’s recently implemented indoor smoking ban has had the predictable unintended consequence of causing more cigarette butts to be dropped on the ground. Littering butts is already against the law, but the Oregon legislature is considering singling out smokers once again for special treatment:

The environmental consequences are much serious than I realized. Still, the answer isn’t House Bill 2676, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie. It’s already illegal to litter in Oregon. The new law would make it a Class B misdemeanor to toss a cigarette, cigarette butt or cigar. Anyone found guilty would have to pay a fine or do community service neatly in symmetry with the offense (Learn called it “karmically consistent”):

Pick up litter, of course.

Like the author of the piece quoted, I think a new law is overkill here. But as long as we’re taking the idiots in Salem seriously, it’s worth pointing out that the legislation’s logic should exclude cigars. Unlike filtered cigarettes, cigars consist of entirely of leaves and a tiny bit of pectin or other natural glue to hold them together. They’re entirely biodegradable as long as the band is removed. If a cigar butt is litter, a single tree litters several hundred times more than any stogie smoker.

Being a cigar smoker in Oregon is hard enough as is. Let’s not make it an even more criminal past time.


MxMo MexMar

MexMartinez 016

That’s short for Mixology Monday Mexican Martinez… obviously. This month’s theme as chosen by Tristan at The Wild Drink Blog:

This month’s Mixology Monday is all about twists on classic cocktails, that for one reason or another do an even better job than the drinks upon which they are based.

This could be as simple as a classic Margarita with a dash with a special touch that completes it, or maybe as complicated as a deconstructed Hemingway Daiquiri with a homemade rum foam/caviar/jus/trifle. It might be taking a classic like a Manhattan and using Tequila instead of Bourbon?

Substituting tequila into a classic cocktail is exactly what I’m up to this month. A while ago I mentioned that the pairing of tequila and rhubarb bitters had potential, but I wasn’t quite sure what do with it. Lately I’ve been playing with these ingredients in a variation on the classic Martinez cocktail. Covered in greater detail here, the Martinez is made with gin or Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters. Making a few substitutions, I’ve lately been enjoying this variation I call a Mexican Martinez:

2.25 oz reposado tequila (Chamucos)
.5 oz Dolin Blanc vermouth
1 bar spoon maraschino
2 dashes Fee Bros.’ rhubarb bitters

Stir over ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a slice of orange zest expressed over and dropped into the drink.

The Dolin line of vermouths is suddenly readily available here in Portland and I couldn’t be happier. The Blanc is a sweet, floral, melony vermouth that’s absolutely delicious on its own. It works well in cocktails too, rounding out the tequila in this one while letting a little bit of lingering heat to show through. The Dolin Blanc complements tequila better than other vermouths I’ve tried, but if you can’t find it in your area experiment with other sweet vermouths. I expect you’ll find tequila makes an intriguing twist on the venerable old Martinez.

Update: What madness is this, two tequila and rhubarb cocktails in one Mixology Monday? It’s true. Michael Dietsch at A Dash of Bitters posts a Margarita variation working in Cynar, rhubarb bitters, and orange flower water. I’m sipping on one right now and can vouch for its tastiness. Check it out here.


Denied again

It took them two months to get back to me, but I finally got a response to my letter asking for stimulus money to open a crappy vodka bar from Senator Ron Wyden’s office. Just like Earl Blumenauer, Wyden completely ignores the substance of my arguments to launch into some standard chatter about the economy. He stresses that he does not “take spending $787 billion of taxpayer dollars lightly.” Whew, that’s a relief! I’m glad to know the burden of spending other people’s money weighs so heavily on his shoulders.

I’m still waiting to hear from Jeff Merkley. Don’t let me down, Jeff! You’re my last hope for making Crazy Jake’s Discount Cocktail Barn a reality.

Full text of the boring letter below the break.
Continue reading “Denied again”


What is the New York Times smoking?

Today’s New York Times devotes a long editorial to questioning the ethics of new senator Kirsten Gillibrand. The main thrust of the editors’ argument is that Gillibrand represented Philip Morris when she worked as an attorney and, inexcusably, advocated fiercely on behalf of her client. In short, she was a good lawyer.

Even so, it’s reasonable to bring up that relationship when evaluating a new senator, especially with major tobacco bills currently working their way through Congress. What’s not reasonable is failing to mention that the bill giving regulatory power to the FDA that is headed to the Senate right now is backed enthusiastically by Philip Morris. The editors strive to give the opposite impression:

She was privy to unsuccessful efforts to dissuade a smaller tobacco company, the Liggett Group, from breaking ranks and cooperating with prosecutors — a move, it was feared, that could result in the release of incriminating internal documents and a strengthening of Food and Drug Administration efforts to regulate the marketing and sale of cigarettes, including to children.

That was prior to the Master Settlement Agreement. As anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the industry knows, the MSA marked a sea change in big tobacco companies’ strategy for dealing with the government, especially with regard to Philip Morris/Altria. Pre-MSA they generally opposed unrelentingly every regulatory encroachment. Post-MSA their strategy has been to partner with regulators to preserve the Big Tobacco oligopoly. The FDA bill is an especially egregious attempt to secure Philip Morris’ market share and eliminate competitors.

The Times’ understanding of contemporary tobacco policy strikes me as superficial at best and deliberately misleading at worst. They support the FDA bill because it represents “real power to regulate tobacco products,” but I’m not convinced they’ve really thought through its unintended consequences. They believe Philip Morris is a villain but refuse to acknowledge that the villain and the government have been teaming up for years now. They do their readers a disservice by ignoring this changed regulatory landscape.


Links for 4/10/09

Patri Friedman on folk activism

Americans like “free markets” but not “capitalism”

Evolution of purpose

“Good food needs to be written about. Great food speaks for itself.”

GW considers campus-wide smoking ban

Every guy has them: The Awkward Boners blog

Vid: A surreal interview with the Easter Bunny… or something

Vid for magicians: What to do with your Jerry’s Nugget cards