Saturday, April 26, 2008

Brothers, Take Arms

How do you feel about sticking it to The Man? About artful wordsmiths who wield the brute force of rationality and wit to pull back the curtain on nanny-state heavy handedness?

Like those things?

Then head on over to "Why The PLCB Should Be Abolished," the fine new blog from Pennsylvania drinks writer Lew Bryson. The target of Bryson's scorn is the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, the state-run wine and liquor monopoly that Bryson, in no uncertain terms, wishes to see go the way of the dodo.

You don't have to be a Keystone Stater to appreciate Bryson's compelling arguments and irreverence. The blog, though it only recently launched, is imbued with a sense of urgent frustration at a system that Bryson has for decades failed to see purpose in.

I've often considered myself something of an armchair champion of sensible alcohol policy. The State newspaper even saw fit to indulge my ramblings on the subject not long ago. Perhaps I'm spoiled, having lived in New Orleans for several years -- I've yet to encounter a more liberal (or liberated) approach to booze regulations. And, in fairness to the Crescent City and this here cause, I believe NOLA's reputation as a pitiable town of lushes has its roots elsewhere.

Here's hoping Pennsylvanians take to Bryson's call to arms against their antiquated system and father-knows-best posture on booze. I may not have a dog in this fight, but I wish them all the best still.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The New Belgium Glass

If I had to name, right now, the most versatile beer glass I've encountered, it would have to be this reliable friend of mine from New Belgium Brewing Company.

Designed by Germany's Rastal (check out this page for more of their designs), this 0.4-liter bundle of joy enjoys a regular place in this blogger's rotation, because it's just so dang flexible.

Its height and width are in perfect proportions -- not as squat as a snifter, not as lean as the tulip pint, or the Dogfish Head glass, say. The bottom of the bowl continues almost seamlessly into a lovely stem atop a wide, flat base.

By virtue of its design, this glass gathers aromas and head efficiently inside the mouth, and its volume is ample enough to allow a strong swirl, not to mention a generous serving.

As you can see, the New Belgium Glass bears the bicycle logo of Fat Tire, New Belgium's flagship beer and biggest seller. That particular beer, an amber ale with a toasty, biscuity nose, wouldn't be a bad choice for this glass, of course, but she can handle beers that pack a little more wallop in the aroma (and flavor) department.

Certainly, plenty of beer styles have their own unique glasses, many of which look little like the New Belgium glass. Still, few beers would be ill-served by this vessel's design. As an everyday, go-to glass, I like it for Pale Ales, IPAs, Porters... really, the list can be quite comprehensive. This glass can even stand up to some higher-gravity styles. How about Bock or Saison? Double IPA? The stronger you get, of course, the more you may want to reach for something along the lines of a snifter, but lacking that ... well, you almost can't go wrong with this here beauty.

Update: Perhaps taking a cue from the Boston Beer Co., who not long ago began touting the drinking benefits of their new Sam Adams glass, New Belgium is now making a case for their own fine glass as the beer-lover's best friend. You'll note the similarities between BBC's and NB's respective arguments for their glasses. On top of the attributes I've already gushed about above, New Belgium's case appears bolstered by improvements they've made to the glass: a beaded rim, interior etching for carbonation release, and sturdier construction (this is good news – I've broken one of the old ones, myself). I have to give props to Colorado beer blogger Chipper Dave at Fermentedly Challenged, where I caught a whiff of this item.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Finally, Some Good News

Growers in the Pacific Northwest have responded to The Great Hop Shortage by pulling out non-hop acreage to expand hop production.

The result could be as many as 8,000 new acres in the Northwest, a 25 percent increase over last year.

Hop plants typically take 2-3 years to reach meaningful levels of productivity, so it's likely brewers will continue to grapple with high prices and low supplies for a couple more years.

Friday, April 11, 2008

On the Rights of Boozers, V. 2.0

Last week, I discussed the need to continue the progress begun by Columbians in voting to allow Sunday beer and wine sales.

Here's a slightly -- slightly -- tweaked version of that dictum, which ran as an editorial in today's The State newspaper:

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Allow Me to Vent

You may have seen the new Coors Light TV commercial featuring two guys who get together and “vent” (translation: “drink beer”) all day. The release of this ad has coincided with the arrival of Coors’ latest gimmick ... er, innovation.

Coors Light cans now come with a wider mouth and an indentation (“vent”) near the opening. The result, claims Coors, is a “smooth, refreshing pour.” That, and a secret, guys-only codeword that lets you and your pals booze the day away while your gullible girlfriends are none the wiser.

The Vent is only the latest in a long series of Coors Light marketing absurdities. This is the company that brought us such non sequiturs as “frost-brewed” (there is no such thing; all beer is brewed by boiling) and “the coldest-tasting beer on the planet” (what does “cold” taste like? Coors may be surprised to learn this is not in fact a flavor – infuse your beer with spearmint and get back to us). This time around, The Vent leaves us to wonder, what exactly is a “refreshing pour”? Perhaps a non-refreshing pour would be one that, say, deposits beer at your feet rather than down your throat.

In recent years, it hasn’t been hard to figure out what Coors Light’s marketing strategy is (“Our Beer is Cold”); it’s just been a little difficult to figure out why the Coors marketing gurus have pegged their company’s fortunes on convincing us Coors Light somehow benefits more than any other brew from that marvel known as refrigeration. And given what we know about the relationship between low temperatures and flavor suppression, what should it tell us that the folks at Coors urge us to drink their beer as close to freezing as possible? Actually, make that below freezing – a special system called “Coors Light Super Cold Draft” serves up pints with a layer of ice crystals on top. They were going to call it the “Coors Light Snow Cone Machine,” but parents groups complained.

But now, The Vent represents a wrinkle in Coors Light’s marketing scheme, for it does not, alas, have any effect upon the beer’s temperature. So what gives? It seems Coors has identified a second component to refresh-ability: sending beer down your gullet with maximum expediency.

This move could backfire. Consumers may begin to wonder whether Coors is starting to waver from their previously hard-line commitment to all things cold. They risk muddying those pristine, so-deliciously-icy Rocky Mountain waters.

Yet as laughable as it is, the most amazing thing about The Vent is that it’s probably the most meaningful of Coors’ recent marketing contrivances. There is validity to the notion of generating a smoother pour by letting air in to displace those draining suds. Ever heard of shotgunning? Still, whether or not the overeager beer drinker can seal off and thus neutralize The Vent by applying just a little too much pressure with those thirsty lips remains to be seen.

But here’s a less novel suggestion for anyone who wants to let air in while drinking Coors Light, and one that wouldn’t require untold dollars in R&D and marketing: Try a damn glass.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Victory for Beer -- But What's the Rest of the Story?

On Tuesday, residents of Columbia, S.C., voted to allow Sunday beer and wine retail sales -- a small but significant step away from the antiquated and unabashedly religiously inspired "blue laws" that still hold sway over many aspects of life in South Carolina and elsewhere.

Columbians (or, I should say, the small percentage who showed up to the polls) approved the ballot initiative by a roughly 7-3 margin -- surprisingly comfortable for a state whose legislators have expressed recent interest in outlawing lap dances and creating an extra tax on nudie magazines, the latter ostensibly to help offset the cost of supervising the sex offenders those publications supposedly create.

But while the vote means city residents will no longer have to plan ahead to avoid NFL-gameday or backyard-barbecue droughts, it also needs to place a focus on the larger issue of how South Carolina has chosen to regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol within its borders.

First, we should note that in the wake of Tuesday's vote, seven-day-a-week liquor sales remain strictly off limits. This shouldn't necessarily surprise us. South Carolina has a history of treating hard alcohol differently -- booze retailers have to erect physical walls between their liquor and beer/wine departments, and it was only in 2005 that voters kicked aside the state's odd law requiring all on-premise liquor to be poured from airplane-style mini bottles. Yet you don't have to be a chemist (or maybe you do...) to realize that ethanol is ethanol, and the notion that a person can somehow get more sodden off two shots of liquor than he can from a case of Bud Light is, well, all wet.

Given that the heavy hand of South Carolina government enjoys keeping booze firmly in its grasp, how did Columbians even get the opportunity to have their say in the first place? What we find is, at the end of the day, morality only holds partial sway in the Palmetto State. It's that other "M" word that really reigns supreme: money.

It so happens tourism is among South Carolina's major industries. The state is mighty proud of its popular beach destinations, which attract countless visitors and dollars from all along the eastern seaboard. And it also happens that, over the years, those out-of-towners have had some beefs with coastal bar, restaurant and hotel owners who found themselves having to break the news of South Carolina's unfortunate alcohol laws.

The state was in an uncomfortable position: how to honor our Puritanical moral piety while also indulging those thirsty beachgoers? The solution (if you want to call it that) was to allow -- nay, require -- local jurisdictions to hold elections in order to overturn Sunday sales restrictions. Not surprisingly, such votes were held years ago up and down the South Carolina coast well before Columbia got the idea.

Coastal counties also dominate the list of those that have voted to allow Sunday sales of alcohol in bars and restaurants. Lexington and Richland (home of Columbia) are the only two landlocked counties that have done the same. In total, only six of South Carolina's 46 counties have greenlighted on-premise drinking seven days a week. Meanwhile, 15 municipalities are on board, even if their county is not (as is the case with Greenville).

Questions fly into mind rapidly and without obvious, consoling answers: What is the grave public risk stemming from Sunday retail sales that exists in Florence County but not in Charleston County? Why have fewer towns (11) allowed off-premise sales than on-premise sales? Has that anything to do with the larger fees for on-premise Sunday permits versus retail permits? How is it a better idea to let Lexington County residents drive to a bar on Sunday and get loaded than it is for them to drive to the store and get sauced in the privacy -- and safety -- of their own home?

For the state lawmakers who engineered such let-the-locals-decide "compromises," it amounts to simple political cowardice in letting one backward-thinking county or town restrict the activities of its inhabitants when citizens elsewhere have rejected such dogmatic governance as being morally flimsy and fiscally unwise. If anything, should not citizens of each and every jurisdiction be required to jump through endless bureaucratic hoops in order to impose arbitrary and unreasonable restrictions on behaviors and liberties, not in order to remove them?

The march of progress can sometimes feel like more of a crawl, especially where traditions of moral high-handedness have deep roots in culture and government. Let's hope Columbians and all South Carolinians continue to demand, with increasing fervor, that their leaders bring the state's alcohol policies into the 21st century. A win in this fight would be nothing less than a victory for common sense itself.
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