IN a year when those sticky, sweet pseudo-beers known as malternatives swamped the market like a swarm of West Nile-infested mosquitoes, this year’s Great American Beer Festival was shaping up like a case of the Rocky Mountain Plague.
Skyy Blue, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice – whatever,
they’re alcohol-delivery systems for the Pepsi Generation, sugary booze substitutes for kiddies who don’t like the taste of real beer.
Tastewise, malternatives are to lager and ale what Kenny G is to music. But because they’re ostensibly brewed with malt, they are widely classified as some mutant form of beer.
Thus, they’re crowding out the real stuff at your friendly neighborhood takeout shop.
And, equally troublesome, they’ve been showing up at beer festivals.
Last spring, hundreds of brew freaks listened to beer hunter Michael Jackson rail against malternatives at his annual The Book and the Cook tutored tasting at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania – only to be assaulted 10 minutes later by a cooler full of saccharine samples from Miller Brewing. Irony, of course, is well beyond the grasp of corporate pimps, but I’d have imagined they’d be at least ashamed to pour glasses of their chemically enhanced dreck in the company of so many beer aficionados.
It was with dread, then, that I stepped onto the Colorado Convention Center floor last weekend, to face 300 brewers offering samples of 1,200 beers. Pale ales, stouts and hefeweizens I could handle; what worried me was the idea of actually trying to stomach a mouthful of Jack Daniel’s Original Hard Cola.
Though this festival, now in its 21st year, has traditionally celebrated the diversity of America’s small craft-brewers, the heavyweights – Miller, Anheuser-Busch, Coors – have crashed the party, as well. (Indeed, Bud is one of the official sponsors.)
The big rigs, not surprisingly, muck up the joint with their roadkill.
Over the years, they’ve defiled the festival with dry beer, infected it with ice beer, and inflicted attendees with non-alcoholic beer.
The trends have come and gone, and now, I feared, malternatives would pollute the festival.
Surprisingly, though, the sweet stuff was largely AWOL. Other than Zima, from Coors, and Bacardi Silver, from A-B, no others were to be found.
Naturally, I sank my claws into the A-B rep who was pouring B.S.
Me: Why the hell are you serving this crap?
Him: Flavored alcoholic beverages are the fastest growing segment in the industry right now.
Me: Is anybody here actually swallowing this stuff?
Him: We look at it as an excellent sampling opportunity because the festival attracts our target market, the 21- to 27-year-old adult consumer, especially females.
He went on to blather about “taste profiles” and “branding” – hooey that had me looking for a nice, strong ale to cleanse the palate and numb the nerves.
Instead, I found Charlie Papazian, the affable founder of the festival and president of the Association of Brewers.
Papazian seemed relieved that more of the malternatives hadn’t appeared.
“I don’t think most brewers are appreciative of them,” he said. “Maybe they didn’t have the nerve to show up.”
Or maybe the Association of Brewing’s judging guidelines tripped them up. This year’s festival included an experimental category for “flavored malt-fermented beverages” that would have seemingly welcomed the likes of hard lemonade and other malternatives.
But Papazian stressed that the beverages must derive 100 percent of their alcohol from malt fermentation – not distilled spirits.
As I reported earlier this year, it turns out that almost all the alcohol in malternatives is from spirits, splashed into the bottle under the guise of flavoring (think vanilla extract). Far from being the product of the fine art of brewing, malternatives are processed in factories with artificial ingredients and chemicals. They are devoid of any complex taste. They are designed entirely to deliver alcohol to the bloodstream as painlessly as possible.
That’s why I call them pseudo-beers.
A-B and Coors were permitted to pour their malternatives at the festival, but the sweet booze was banned from the medals competition. (A Berliner-Weisse from Southampton Publick House on Long Island, N.Y., won the experimental category this year.)
Papazian said their absence at the festival might be an indication of a downward trend in malternative sales.
I hope so.
We’ve got winners
The happiest guy at the festival had to be Brandon Greenwood, the perennially growling brewer at Nodding Head (1516 Samson St., Center City). On Saturday afternoon, Greenwood was wearing a gold medal for his Grog (English-style brown ale) and bronze for BoHo Pilsner.
“We couldn’t ask for anything more,” Greenwood said, cracking what witnesses confirmed to be a faint smile. But then he regained his composure and grumbled with tongue in cheek, “But what about our Berliner Weisse?”
That one finished out of medal competition.
Nodding Head partner Curt Decker chided his cantankerous brewer, advising, “For the record, we still object to the entire judging process.”
Other local medalists:
* Iron Hill (West Chester) Tripel (Belgian-style abbey ale), bronze.
* Iron Hill (Media) Pig Iron Porter (robust porter), bronze.
* Sly Fox (Phoenixville) French Creek Helles (Munchner-style Helles), bronze.
* John Harvard (Springfield) Schwarzbier (German-Style Schwarzbier), bronze.
Cuvee Notredame is closed. The Belgian beer restaurant at 17th and Green streets might re-open, but co-owner Michel Notredame is outta here…Eulogy, a new Belgian bar at 136 Chestnut St., Old City, looks close to opening. It boasts 100 Belgian bottles…Down the block, Buffalo Billiards, 116 Chestnut St., opened last night. Decent beer selection and 9-ball till 2 a.m… .
J.P. MacGrady’s, a new mega-tap, opened last month on Bethlehem’s south side. I counted about 40 spigots, including out-of-towners Hofbrauhaus Oktoberfest, La Chouffe and Red Seal Ale…The Pottstown Mercury reports Henry Ortlieb, of Philadelphia brewing fame, is back on the scene, at Sunnybrook Brewpub in Pottstown. Ortlieb’s last brewpub, Poor Henry Brewery & Restaurant in Northern Liberties, was a spectacular failure…
New on area shelves: Victory Golden Monkey, in corked 25-ounce bottles, Bert Grant’s Fresh Hop Ale, Kronenbourg 1664, Troegs Oatmeal Stout and Flying Fish Oktoberfish.
Tomorrow: Real Ale Rendezvous, Independence Brew Pub (Filbert Street, Reading Terminal). Over the past eight years, this Beer Philadelphia event has featured some of tastiest cask-conditioned ales in the world. This year’s headliner: Dogfish Head Old School Barleywine, the world’s strongest cask-conditioned ale (15.5 percent alcohol), refermented with figs and dates. These brews are not carbonated, and they’re not freezing cold. It’s real ale with a host of complex flavors. In other words, no cask-conditioned Bacardi Silver. Times: 1-5 p.m. Tix: $25. Info: 215-922-4292.
Oct. 18 – Brewers’ Reserve Night, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant (3 W. Gay St., West Chester), with vintage ales. Among the featured brews: a 3-year-old barleywine and Bourbon Wee Heavy, a Scotch ale aged in a whisky barrel.
Oct. 19 – The 11th Great Eastern Invitational Microbrewery Festival, Stoudt’s Brewing, Adamstown, Pa. Times: noon to 4 p.m., 7-11 p.m. Unfortunately, this one ‘s sold out already, but you might find scalped tix near the door.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of New Belgium La Folie.