Save the Skull Splitter

Thorfinn Hausakluif, a.k.a. the Skull Splitter, seventh Viking earl of Orkney, was by all accounts a badass, at least until he converted to Christianity and presumably ceased splitting so many skulls. Yet now, more than 1,000 years after his death, old Thorfinn might face his final defeat at the hands of a bunch of nannying busybodies:

A Scottish brewery has jumped to the defence of its ale called Skull Splitter amid claims its Viking-branded bottles have an aggressive theme.

The Orkney Brewery fears Skull Splitter could be withdrawn from sale following a report commissioned by alcohol watchdog the Portman Group…

It was highlighted in a report by management consultancy PIPC on the grounds its name could imply violence and also the impact the strength may have on the drinker…

A Portman Group spokesman confirmed: “A complaint has been made by PIPC about this product to the Independent Complaints Panel.”

The name of this beer is less an inducement to drink than a warning — a warning I failed to heed at the end of one particularly memorable night at Birreria Paradiso with Crispy on the Outside blogger Baylen Linnekin that left me sleeping on the floor of the coffee shop and with a raging headache the next morning. Skull Splitter indeed.

It’s a wonderfully strong ale. At 8.5% abv, it’s rich, dark, and malty with distinctive sweetness and notes of dark fruit. Not an everyday beer by any means, but absolutely perfect on a cold winter night. It’s got 20 years of brand value behind it that could all be lost if the Portman paternalists get their way. Here’s hoping the complaints panel sends them packing.

Previous label nannyism from the US:
No such thing as legal weed


Brewers behaving badly

Jason Kuznicki catches this story about microbrewers in California lobbying against a bill that would raise the value limit on the swag given away by beer companies from 25 cents to 5 dollars. They’re afraid that allowing Budweiser to give away more valuable stuff will eat into their sales:

“We don’t think California should give big companies the ability to grab even more of the market share, (when) they have most of the market anyway,” said Kellie Jacobs, president of Stockton’s Valley Brew, saying most microbreweries can’t afford to give away 25-cent items, let alone $5 swag.

Wah wah, cry me a river of IPA. If brewer’s can’t make beer good enough to overcome the appeal of macrobrewed yellow fizzy water and five dollar trinkets I don’t have any sympathy for them.

This isn’t the first time microbrewers have gone whining to the statehouse to fight the liberalization of alcohol laws. This past spring in Pennsylvania, Troegs and others opposed a proposal to increase the number of beers consumers could buy at retail from 12 to 18. Troegs objected because microbrewers don’t have the equipment to make 18-packs. And in California last year, microbrewers also opposed a new law that gave breweries the right to offer free tastings in bars and restaurants. They lost, but they succeeded in limiting how much free beer consumers can enjoy:

The new law allows beer tastings at bars and restaurants. It limits the amount to no more than 8 ounces per person a day and requires the beer to be served in a glass. Tastings cannot last more than an hour and there are also annual limits on the number of tastings a single manufacturer, importer or wholesaler can offer at a particular establishment.

It’s rare that I side with the big players over the microbreweries, but in these cases I wish a pox of brettanomyces upon their houses.


MxMo New Orleans

Green devil

This week’s Mixology Monday was supposed to happen last week, the day after dozens of cocktail bloggers descended on New Orleans for a long weekend of drinking and socializing at Tales of the Cocktail. The idea was that we’d all write about one of favorite drinks from the weekend, or about a cocktail inspired by New Orleans. A great plan, except that by Monday the lot of us were traveling, recovering, or shaking in fear at the smell of alcohol. So our fearless leader and MxMo founder Paul Clarke pushed things back to today, giving us all a week to catch up.

My cocktail for the month is Stephen Beaumont’s Green Devil, from his seminar on “How to View Beer as an Ingredient Rather than as the Drink Unto Itself.” Since I love beer possibly even more than cocktails (as do most other Americans), this was one of my favorite events of the weekend. The Green Devil’s also an apt drink for this MxMo. It uses absinthe, a classic New Orleans cocktail ingredient. The star of the show is the Belgian ale Duvel, which would have been perfect for our original MxMo date of July 21, Belgian independence day. And most importantly, Duvel threw in a free glass, and I’m a sucker for glassware giveaways.

Anyway, time is short as I have a ton of packing to do, so let’s go straight to the ingredients:

rinse of absinthe
1 oz gin (Beaumont recommends Martin Miller’s)
1 bottle Duvel

Rinse your glass with the absinthe and add the gin. Pour in the Duvel, aiming for a big, foamy head. The absinthe adds a nice anise aroma, just don’t add too much. It’s big, it’s tasty, it’s good — perfect for when an 8.5% abv ale just isn’t strong enough on its own.

[Gallup link via Sullivan]


Spirited stigma

Now that I’m off employer-provided health insurance I’ve had to apply for individual coverage. The application understandably asks if I consume alcohol. Weirdly, it also asks what kind of alcohol: beer, wine, or liquor. I don’t know how to answer that. How many people who drink limit themselves to just one category? Oddly enough, as I was completing the application I was experimenting with a cocktail made with spirits and beer; even at that very moment I couldn’t answer the question accurately.

A more interesting question is why they were asking that. The health benefits of moderate wine consumption are well known, but they appear to accrue equally from consuming beer and liquor, and the application specifically notes the equivalence among 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1 ounce of liquor. I suspect that the question might be a kind of profiling, reflecting an assumption that people who admit to predominately drinking liquor are more likely to have problems with excessive drinking. Statistically, this might be true, but it doesn’t apply in my case. So I answered beer on the form, given that I enjoy it about as often as I do harder spirits.

Is there some other reason for the question of which I’m unaware?


The Belgian buyout

The InBev buyout of Budweiser is going through. Paul Krugman catches my favorite observation in a story from the WSJ:

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said the 21-year-old concrete worker during his lunch break at The Brick of St. Louis bar, in the shadow of this city’s storied Anheuser-Busch Cos. brewery, “if Budweiser is made by a different country, I don’t drink Budweiser anymore. I’ll go back to Wild Turkey.” (Wild Turkey, a Kentucky bourbon, is owned by French drinks giant Pernod Ricard SA.)

Dan Mitchell looks sees in the buyout a lesson for the US tax code:

Rather than engage in demagoguery against foreign investment, maybe Senator Obama and his colleagues should fix the tax code so that U.S. companies are not disadvantaged in global markets. America’s high corporate tax rate, combined with a pernicious policy of taxing worldwide income of American-based firms, makes it very difficult for those companies to compete.

Belgium, by contrast, has a lower corporate tax rate. More important, it has a territorial tax system — the common-sense notion of taxing only income earned inside national borders. As such, it makes sense — from the perspective of all shareholders — for Anheuser-Busch to be taken over by InBev rather than the other way around. Indeed, that is why American companies almost always become the subsidiary rather than the parent when there is a cross-border merger.

Fans of real Belgian beer should plan to knock a few back this Monday, July 21, Belgium’s Independence Day. Brasserie Beck in DC is celebrating with half-price drafts all day on 18 different beers. The list is online at the restaurant’s stupid, unlinkable Flash site.


Hops and humanity

In his column today, George Will takes issue with the claim that beer is a non-essential good. What didn’t kill us made us stronger:

[Alcohol], although it is a poison, and an addictive one, became, especially in beer, a driver of a species-strengthening selection process.

[Steven] Johnson notes that historians interested in genetics believe that the roughly simultaneous emergence of urban living and the manufacturing of alcohol set the stage for a survival-of-the-fittest sorting-out among the people who abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and, literally and figuratively speaking, went to town.

To avoid dangerous water, people had to drink large quantities of, say, beer. But to digest that beer, individuals needed a genetic advantage that not everyone had — what Johnson describes as the body’s ability to respond to the intake of alcohol by increasing the production of particular enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases. This ability is controlled by certain genes on chromosome four in human DNA, genes not evenly distributed to everyone. Those who lacked this trait could not, as the saying goes, “hold their liquor.” So, many died early and childless, either of alcohol’s toxicity or from waterborne diseases.

The gene pools of human settlements became progressively dominated by the survivors — by those genetically disposed to, well, drink beer. “Most of the world’s population today,” Johnson writes, “is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol.”

Incidentally, Will is speaking at Cato about his new book on July 24.

[Via Mike.]


The case for Portland

I already knew Portland boasts the most breweries per capita in the United States, but this is even more appealing:

The small craft distillery scene has hit Portland, reminiscent of the microbrewery boom two decades ago. Young microbrewers and winemakers are now distilling whiskey, brandy, grappa and even absinthe. And taking a page from Kentucky’s iconic whiskey distillers, they are beginning to host tours and tastings. With 17 microdistilleries in Oregon, and eight more startups expected across the state by year’s end, spirits aficionados haven’t seen anything like this in recent memory.

Sure, boutique distilleries also dot the landscapes in Michigan and Northern California, but only in Oregon do most artisan distilleries concentrate around a city. Collectively, the distillers help shape the bar and culinary scene in Portland. The Rose City is now seeing a renaissance of classic cocktails, and some high-end restaurants are trying experimental pairings of food with spirits.

“The distillery scene here is where the wine industry in California was in the 1960s,” said Steve McCarthy, owner of Clear Creek Distillery, one of the nation’s first microdistilleries. “We are rewriting all the rules. The artisan distilleries are making up a whole new industry.”

Congrats also to Lance Mayhew, whom the article calls one of the “city’s best bartenders.”

One of the next steps I’d like to take in my drinks education is getting to know more about the production process for spirits, beer, and coffee. By that measure, Portland is hard to beat.

[Via Slashfood.]

One year


Drinks links

Long-time readers know about Dublin Dr Pepper, the only version of the drink still made with sugar cane. Tariffs and corn subsidies drove the switch to high-fructose corn syrup in the 1970s. Unfortunately the Dublin plant has just a tiny distribution plant, making it a rarity outside of northern Texas. My friend Chad Wilcox introduced me to it a few years ago, and it definitely has a better taste. Chad notes that Dr Pepper week is coming up in Dublin, leading to this lengthy piece in the Dallas Observer.

In other drinks news, the Belgian company InBev is bidding for American brewery Anheuser-Busch. I can’t imagine how letting A-B getting taken over by Belgians could possibly make the company’s brews any worse, but nostalgic Americans are up in arms — including Missouri governor Matt Blunt, who’s looking for ways to legally block the deal.

It’s a big week for raw milk coverage, with stories this week from Marketplace and the Associated Press.

And finally, these seven deadly sins wine glasses spotted by BoingBoing are fantastic. Just don’t be the guy at the party who gets stuck with the envy stem.


No such thing as legal weed

Our government, unfortunately, has decided that paying humorless drones to evaluate alcohol labels is a worthwhile use of taxpayer money. They’re the reason why Lagunitas’ “Chronic” ale now bears a big “Censored” label and why St. George Absinthe Verte features a contemplative monkey rather than a monkey playing drums. The regulators have struck again:

Vaune Dillmann thought the wording on his bottle caps was just a clever play on the name of the Northern California town where he brews his beer — Weed.

Federal alcohol regulators thought differently. They have ordered Dillmann to stop selling beer bottles with caps that read “Try Legal Weed.” …

But illegal drugs are no joke to the federal agency, which maintains meticulous rules about labeling. Drug references on alcoholic beverages were banned in 1994, agency spokesman Art Resnick said.

“We protect consumers of alcohol beverages against misleading advertising and labeling. That’s one of our primary functions. That’s what we do, as well as collect taxes,” he said.

The ruling is not so amusing to Dillman, who just dropped $10,000 on 400,000 bottle caps he can no longer use. And the man’s got a good point:

[The] native of Milwaukee said he wonders how some other brewers have gotten away with the names for their products, such as Hemp Ale or Dead Guy Ale. And he can’t understand how his label has run afoul of federal alcohol regulators who must surely be aware of one of the most famous advertising slogans in American marketing: “This Bud’s for you.”

[Via Slashfood.]


Those kids and their barley wines

Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen an underage kid enjoying a rich, malty barley wine ale. No one? Didn’t think so. But a bill in Vermont that would raise the alcohol limit on beers sold in grocery stores is being held up by legislators who think that teens aiming to get drunk would choose expensive craft brews over the usual cheap beer and mass market wine:

State officials, however, are actively fighting passage of H.94 because they worry that consumers, particularly underage drinkers, will imbibe the more potent craft brews as they would mass-produced, low-alcohol content beers. This potentiality, they say, poses a threat to public health and safety…

Michael Hogan, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Liquor Control, opposes the bill. He is concerned that most people, particularly teenagers, are unaware of “the potency of these products,” which he says would be increasing from a low of 5 percent to as high as 16 percent.

Is Hogan so insanely devoted to his mission that he actually believes this, or is this just a convenient excuse for maintaining the state liquor stores’ current monopoly on high-alcohol beers? Regardless, these brews are an acquired taste, especially for a neophyte beer drinker on a teenager’s budget. Allowing their sale in grocery stores is unlikely to have much of an impact on teenage drinking, but it would make things a lot easier for the adults who want to buy them and the many Vermont breweries who’d like to make them.

(That said, if we actually could get high schoolers hooked on Belgian-style trippels instead of Bud and Miller, the world would become a much better place for beer lovers.)


Bud responds

Pat Lynch, the Budweiser representative in Birmingham, has responded to Free the Hops’ call for a boycott on his products. In his defense, he notes that he does support a statewide bill lifting ABV limits, and only opposes local changes in the law. Seems like a weak excuse, but ok. But then he says this:

Lynch said he continues to support a statewide bill raising the ABV limit. He said he might still be willing to discuss that and perhaps a local bill with FTH, but that the call for a boycott wouldn’t help.

“A boycott’s not going to endear me into negotiations,” he said.

People shouldn’t have to endear themselves to the local Bud rep for the right to drink beer that doesn’t suck.


Boycott Budweiser?

Don’t mind if I do! I’ve been “boycotting” Bud products for as long as I’ve been drinking beer, but Tom Pearson reports that there’s a reason besides taste to do so: In Birmingham, the local distributor is actively opposing legislation that would lift the state’s ban on beers that are high in alcohol or served in bottles larger than a pint — in other words, lots of really, really good beers.

Just brewing Budweiser is crime enough, but actively preventing Alabamans from having the option of something better is even worse. I feel your pain, Tom. Luckily I can soothe mine with a big bottle of Allagash. I’ll be thinking of you.

Get the details at Free the Hops.


Calvados times two

It’s a good thing this month’s Mixology Monday closes at midnight Pacific Standard Time, because otherwise I’d never have made it in under the wire. First a plugin I installed to make my site faster completely backfired, then literally minutes after that was fixed DreamHost ran into tons of database problems. Now everything is finally working… for the moment. It’s a enough to make a guy hit the brandy.

Luckily, that’s the theme for this MxMo, hosted by Marleigh at Sloshed! (Thanks, Marleigh!)

At Open City, the bar where I work, we have a tea called Chaucer’s Cup from Serendipitea. It’s a tisane made from dried apples and mangos, cloves, cardamom, ginger, and various other fruits and spices. It’s popularly served here infused into hot apple cider.

Chaucer’s Toddy

It’s a tea I rarely drink, but it struck me that the tea and the bottle of calvados (French apple brandy) I’ve been enjoying at home would naturally go together. And so Chaucer’s Toddy was born:

6 oz Chaucer’s cup tea
2 oz calvados
1 cinnamon stick

Chaucer’s Toddy

This one came together on the first try. It’s very basic, with no sweetener or lemon added as is done in many toddies. Either addition could be alright, but the apple in the tea and the apple in the brandy go together so well that there’s no reason to add distractions. Simple, but it works.

This MxMo also gave me the reason I needed to open up a beer I’ve been holding on to for about a year, J. W. Lees Harvest Ale Calvados Cask, brewed in 2005. It’s an English barley wine at 11.5% abv, a serious ale. It pours with a lot of sediment, has just a little carbonation, and is richly sweet, malty, and well-balanced. The hint of the brandy is subtle. I don’t often get to drink Lees’ Harvest Ales, and if I did I might have been able to pick out more of the barrel’s contribution. Even so, it’s a great beer, perfect for capping a winter weekend and following a hot calvados toddy.

[Cross-posted at Eatfoo.]

Update 1/19/08: Marleigh’s got the complete round-up here.


Saturday night Dog’s Nose

It’s Saturday night and before going out I’m feeling like tinkering in the home bar, so I start browsing through Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology to find something new I can make with the ingredients I have on hand. Eventually I hit on the Dog’s Nose:

12 ounces porter or stout, microwaved to luke warm
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 ounces gin
freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish

The Dog’s Nose is mentioned in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, in which a character named Mr. Walker blames his habit for taking the drink for losing the use of his right hand. Not exactly a strong endorsement for a cocktail that combines warm stout with gin…

Even so, I try it out. It’s actually pretty good! A weird combination, but it works, and makes a nice drink for a winter night. The kind of drink I’ll enjoy just on occasion, rarely enough that I expect I’ll be using my right hand for a long time to come. (No jokes about my dating life, please!)

I hated reading A Tale of Two Cities in high school, but this concoction evens the score between Dickens and me.