AT THE END of the bar, with a frosty glass of beer in hand, few of us ever look beyond the frothy head of suds.
We sit around, trade lies and gulp pitchers with rarely a thought about where our favorite adult beverage fits into the grand scheme of things. It’s a time to relax, not worry. So we rarely wonder:
Who made that beer?
Where were the ingredients grown?
Were the workers treated fairly?
Lately, though, I’ve been chatting with brewers and beer drinkers who do care about the answers. They’re part of the Slow Food movement – a small but growing political and cultural protest against fast food and industrial agriculture.
Indeed, craft brewers are becoming a vital part of the movement, and not just because they come to meetings armed with kegs of free beer.
Not long ago, a contingent of about two dozen American craft brewers traveled to Turin, Italy, for Terra Madre, the international conference on Slow Food.
Among them was Chris Leonard, proprietor of Gen. Lafayette Brewery & Restaurant, accompanied by a couple of kegs of imperial porter and India pale ale from his tiny brewpub.
This week, I checked in on Leonard with a sixpack of questions. Here’s our conversation:
1. What is slow food?
Slow food is really a concept, founded upon the anti-fast-food movement. It’s a cultural way of life in which, instead of just picking up a pizza, you embrace food as part of your life, and look to someone local for your food.
You know, we used to go to the neighborhood butcher, the neighborhood baker. Today, a cheeseburger in New York tastes the same as it does in Paris. That strikes fear among people who take pride in their local cuisine. It’s a world where everyone serves Applebee’s baby back ribs.
2. But fast food isn’t all bad, is it?
Well, it’s easier to go to chains. And it’s easier to buy frozen chicken fingers and drop them into a fryer at your bar.
But what’s so hard about spicing them yourselves, making your own beer batter? It’s unique and it’s local.
3. Where does beer fit into the slow-food movement?
From the international standpoint, the big guys like Anheuser-Busch are seen as a bad thing. And craft brewers are seen as an antidote.
In America, we’re definintely seen as the small, local, regional producer of a food product.
We’re making individual products, not necessarily from all-local ingredients. But we’re producing specific styles by region, whether it’s the West Coast and its very hoppy beers, or the East Coast and its English-style, maltier flavors.
4. Why did you go to Turin?
It was an exchange of ideas more than anything else. It was a chance to learn how the rest of the world gets its food.
Looking at it from a brewer’s standpoint, it was a chance to see how the big breweries are getting bigger, and how some of the family breweries are getting wiped out.
For instance, not long ago, Dewolf-Cosyns, a small maltster in Belgium, was purchased by a big conglomerate, and then they turned around and closed it when it wasn’t financially viable for them. That was a blow to diversity; it cut the availability of ingredients.
A lot of American craft brewers felt it immediately. Their Special B malt was known for giving Belgian-style dubbel that raisin-y, plum flavor.
5. How is slow food reflected at Gen. Lafayette?
Aside from the beer, our chef, Bill Falcone, and I try to do everything that we can to use local products. It’s impractical to do everything from scratch. But seasonally, whatever we can get locally, we do.
All our pork is from a farm in Lancaster County. The vegetables are local. We use local venison and serve it with chutney made with locally grown cranberries.
Our bread is from Chestnut Hill; our ice cream is from Mount Airy.
6. Why go to all the bother?
I think the quality, more than anything else. Fresher is always better, and that includes the beer.
And I think the building we’re in [a pre-Revolutionary War inn on Germantown Pike in Lafayette Hill] lends itself historically to trying to do things the way they were done 250 years ago.
To me, it wouldn’t feel right if we weren’t trying to make everything fresh. If we converted to pub grub and made more of a profit on that, I’d feel that I’d be doing a disservice to the building. I feel like I’m responsible for the legacy of this land and this building. “
Phoenixville will get its second brewpub in early 2006, when Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant opens its sixth location. The new joint will be constructed on Bridge Street, the burg’s main thoroughfare. With nearby Sly Fox Brewing, the new Iron Hill means Phoenixville (pop. 14,788) will have as many brewpubs as Center City . . .
Raise a glass to Brandon Greenwood, the lovably cantankerous brewmaster at Nodding Head Restaurant & Brewery. Greenwood, the brewpub’s original brewer, was named brewmaster at the Lion Brewing Co., the contract brewer (Stegmaier, Pocono, Christian Moerlein) in Wilkes-Barre. Assistant Gordon Grubb will take over on Sansom Street . . .
Deadline for entry in Wynkoop Brewing’s 2005 Beer Drinker of the Year contest is Dec. 31. Finalists win a weekend trip to Denver, where they’ll face a panel of wigged judges who will test them on the vastness of their beer knowledge. The winner gets free beer for life at Wynkoop’s brewpub in Denver, and $100 in beer at their local brewpub. More info at www.wynkoop.com . . .
Fans of De Dolle Oerbier rejoice: The next batch of the Belgian specialty to be imported here will be the “old” version of the famously tart ale.
When the brewery was forced a couple of years ago to switch its traditional yeast strain, the flavor faltered. But its importer, B. United International, swears the newest version – to arrive in mid-February – will be taste as good as the old . . .
Other new labels appearing on local shelves: New Holland the Poet stout, Mahr’s Brau Christmas Bock, Schell’s Caramel Bock and Atlantic Coal Porter.
“What can the Brits tell us Czechs about the quality of beer? It’s as if we Czechs went to France and told them how to make champagne.” – Jan Vesely, chairman of the Czech Brewing and Malthouse Association, after British beer enthusiasts griped about the quality of some Czech beers, as reported by Realbeer.Com.
Joe Sixpack, by staff writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Jenlain Noel.