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Have liver, will travel

Thursday, May 04, 2006

TAP New York

This past weekend, the Alcotourist and I made our way up the winding roads to Hunter Mountain ski resort in the Catskills. The ingenious folks at Hunter Mountain have figured out a way to bring us out of our city experience when there is nary a snowflake in sight: TAP New York, a beer and (supposed) food tasting weekend featuring some of the best breweries in the state. A mere two hour drive from the city (at Alcotourist speed), the beauty of the Catskills on a late-April day, a proffered fold-out in a friend's suite--how could we refuse?

Tasting began at noon, and the first thing the Alcotourist wanted to taste was an advertised "wasabi veggie dog." A little something to slow the alcohol and keep us standing for more tastings. But after several rounds in all rooms, tents, porches of the festival, we found no such veggie dogs. There were mystery meat hot dogs, foot long hot dogs, and "pizza" that was really a triangle of flour tortilla with some sort of cheese-like substance melted on top. The food protion of TAP New York was truly leaving much to be desired. Finally, I found some warm and salty pretzels and the Alcotourist and I had a quick snack before trying the beer.

I must confess that, unlike the ever-ambitious alcotourist, I did not try a beer at every station. The fourteen or so I tasted (mind you, I only drank the whole glass if it was worthy of such attention) were enough to leave me passed out on the aforementioned fold-out by nine thirty. That said, there were some fine beers to be had at the festival, and I will report a few of my findings here, leaving the "awards" and definitive judgement to he who tasted from all.

My few additions to his fine list:
  • I am in wholehearted agreement of with the Alcotourist's praise for the beers of Sixpoint and Chelsea. In fact, I had 2 from each of them, in lieu of a single beer from some of the brewers whose swill made the Alcotourist grimace. I have no regrets.
  • I'm always glad to see Lake Placid Pub & Brewery--I've enjoyed far better pub grub in their glorious lakeside dining room than was to be found anywhere at TAP. In fact, the Alcotourist and I enjoyed an Ubu from Lake Placid Pub & Brewery at Easter dinner with my family, courtesy of my Ubu-loving cousin, Justin.
  • Unibroue is overrated, and the Porkslap Pale Ale from Butternuts is lucky to have an intriguing name to lure folks into trying a sip.
  • I was pleasantly surprised by Duncan Kincaid's "Dacker" from Davidson Brothers. It isn't to my usual dark and bitter taste, but it was perfectly balanced and refreshing--a great summer treat on a hot day.

I hope we will have more to report soon on our forays to Chelsea and Sixpoint and Brooklyn where they (and we) live. I for one will pass on any "gourmet" hot dogs.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Alcotourism Awards—TAP NY Edition

click to enlarge

The 2003 Best Supporting Actress Oscar® shall always be a monument to the meaninglessness of awards. Awards are the amalgamation of the ephemeral inclinations, pertaining to whatever objects they have taxonomically curated, by a group that deems itself an authority. Some award-making authorities may fadge with your own inclinations, while others may not, which is the only inherent value of awards in a consumer sense. For example, you may be inclined to agree more with Film Independent or the Screen Actors' Guild's assessment of a performance than, say, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences's.

Marketing and politics (the very vampire parents of every award ever bestowed) usually serve to confuse our picture of reality. The 2003 Best Supporting Actress Oscar®, awarded to the balefully inept Renée Zellweger, is just such an example. The golden statue on Ms. Zellweger's mantle is actually an affront—a desecration if you will—to the very craft that the Academy was attempting to honor.

So why do we like awards so much? Awards ceremonies are uniformly boring and insipid. The awards themselves mean little, except to the gaping, reptilian life forms known as publicists and marketers. The act of ordering a group of objects from worst to best is a wholly unproductive exercise. And yet, we long to see the things we like recognized—especially if that comes at a cost to the things we don't like.

Aha, you may be thinking that this is a rant against the awards given at TAP New York at Hunter Mountain a couple of weekends ago. Well, sort of.

First of all, they have two awards, or "cups." According to TAP,
The F.X. Matt Memorial Cup will recognize the Best Craft Beer Brewery in New York State and The Matthew Vassar Cup will recognize the Best Craft Beer Brewery in the Hudson Valley.
Huh? Isn't the Hudson Valley entirely within the state of New York, except the little stretch at the end that tepidly touches New Jersey? This geographic nit really didn't open the field up that much—only one brewery from Jersey, High Point Wheat Beer Co, attended. In fact, they awarded both Gold Medals (for best individual beer in New York and Hudson Valley) to the same beer. The TAP organizers further added to the geographical confusion by inviting Legacy Brewing, from Reading PA (fortunately, this was a happy geographical aberration—see below) and Unibroue, from Chambly, Quebec.

The F.X. Matt Cup (best brewery in New York State) went to Black Forest Brew Haus & Restaurant. The Matthew Vassar Cup (best brewery in the Hudson Valley) went to Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. Black Forest brews a nonplussing list of Teutonic beers. I deigned to taste their Black Forest Amber, which I would use to slake a house fire, but not my thirst. The Captain Lawrence was better—they had a Reserve Imperial India Pale Ale that was good, but it didn't attain the soaring achievements of some of my favorites at the Festival. The other individual medalists were good, particularly Lake Placid's Frost Bite Pale and Blue Point Brewing's Hoptical Illusion IPA, but how did the judges single out those particular beers as medal-worthy when there were, in-my-not-so-humble-opinion, way better contenders?

Once again, awards are meaningless...

...Unless given by me.

I am an authority after all—I write this blog. Furthermore, I'm very diligent. In fact, I made a point of tasting brews from every contestant. My taste is, as you dear readers know, impeccable. Additionally, I have no interest in selling tickets or appeasing my invited brewers (as a beer festival would be), nor am I constrained by time, season, or an events calendar. And since the topic is alcotourism, I am also not constrained by location, or space. In effect, the laws of relativity do not apply to me, and I am free to bestow meaningless awards on whomever I want, whenever I want, and for no particular reason other than my appreciation of the imbibe in front of me. It will be everything we love about awards, without the anxiety and obnoxious red carpet couture.

Therefore, to christen the Alcotourism awards, I shall bestow these four laurels to breweries at TAP NY that were passed over this year by the official judges:

Best Beer at the Festival: Hop Angel IPA, Chelsea Brewing Company, Manhattan. Perfect hop balance with a floral, esterous nose, and a satisfying body. One of the best IPAs I've ever tasted, it belongs in the IPA Valhalla with Bear Republic's Racer 5.

Best Brewery at the Festival: Sixpoint Craft Ales, Brooklyn. I tasted every one of the beers from this brewery and all were excellent. Furthermore, I think the Sixpoint crew could take the Black Forest crew in any dark alley up and down the Hudson. When the official cups were awarded, everyone lined up to taste Black Forest again, and there was plenty left in the kegs. Sixpoint was dry as a bone. I briefly considered wringing their bar rag into my glass for one last sip. Of particular merit was their Brownstone (Brown Ale), SMP (Smoked Porter), Encore (Belgian Dubbel), and Righteous Rye, a beer that doesn't appear on their regular list. I still dream of that Brownstone, though. It is the perfect brown ale, unlike the lackluster and syrupy Wickeds of the world. The Alcotouristess may object that Lost Coast's Downtown Brown is the best brown ever, but I disagree, and therefore crown Brownstone the new champ.

Conversion Award for Changing My Mind About A Style I Usually Don't Prefer: Legacy Brewing, for their Hedonism Red Ale. This is the second red ale/IPA hybrid I've tasted, the first being Red Rocket from Bear Republic. I'd like to taste them both together, because I actually think that Hedonism may exceed Red Rocket. The sweetness and texture of this red are perfectly balanced by the unapologetic dry-hopping.

Honorable Mention for a Big Brewery That's Still Not Afraid to Make a Kick-Ass Smoked Porter: Brooklyn Brewery. Almost as good as Stone Smoked Porter, this one was a surprise from Garrett Oliver's crew only inasmuch as it proves that success doesn't have to make you boring.

We were very happy that our favorites were all very close to our new digs. In fact, Brooklyn Brewing's tasting room is just across the street from where we board our dog. We can't wait to visit all the award winners and enjoy these beers again.

Thomas Jefferson: OG Alcotourist

Well, this is hardly a review, since the book came out in 1995, but I recently took a trip to my local library and dug up Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson by the very meticulous James M. Gabler. I really dig this period of history, and always knew that this particular founding father was an oenophile. It was an interesting read, though a bit repetitive and bogged down in minutae at times. More than anything, I was startled at the sheer volume of wines purchased by Mr. Jefferson. He was given to purchasing hundreds and hundreds of bottles in a single outing.

Another interesting theme in the book was the French Revolution. Jefferson took his wine tours just before the butchery began, and I found it interesting and inexplicable that he could hold France's nobility in contempt for the abject poverty of the third estate, while living a lifestyle hardly less aristocratic—upon the backs of the human beings he himself held in captivity.

Hubert de Montille declares in Mondovino, "Where there is wine, there is civilization." But very often, there are savage social realities that bring the juice to the table. The documentary pointed that out brilliantly when the filmmakers went to Napa to interview the Mondavis. There is a fantastic scene in which the filmmakers spontaneously begin interviewing a Mexican laborer about working conditions during a conversation with the winemakers. The laborer said little, as it was so poignantly obvious that he was expected to pick, and not speak. Such are the lives of those who trod the thin line between worker and slave post-abolition America.

So here's an open question—can wine exist without exploited labor? Or is this product of civilization dependent on a caste system where no harvester could ever hope to afford the product he's picking off the vine? I personally think that wine can and should be a pleasure that can be enjoyed by everyone, and that it can be made in a way that is fair to everyone involved on the supply side. We've seen the advent of "fair trade" coffees, and I'd like to see the same thing in the wine industry—some kind of official committment to a living wage for workers in every step of the process.

This isn't just the ranting of a bleeding heart liberal—this proposal makes business sense to an industry that is steeped in pretense and snootiness. Invest a little in human capital on the supply side, and watch the demand side grow.

One last note, I watched the Merchant Ivory production of Jefferson in Paris to accompany the Gabler book. What a mess that movie was! Without knowing the history, I never would have lasted all the way through. But it was fun to see nevertheless—the costumes and production design were a great visual complement to a rather dry book.