Discover more from Hugging the Bar
105. Cheers to the Beers Consumers Just Don't *Get*--But That Are Still Great
Talking about underappreciated passion-project beers; cocktails and beer in London; plus tarot for telling ourselves more productive stories.
A Week of Cocktails & Cask Pours
Greetings from London! I hope the beginning of September has been bringing you some great Oktoberfest beers, and that maybe you’ve got a few fresh hop beer releases marked on your mental (or physical, idk your life!) calendar.
So far, I actually have not been drinking a ton of beer—criminal, I know! I’m planning on visiting some breweries before leaving town. The beer I have had, though, has been excellent. Quality absolutely trumps quantity in this case, right?
The very first beer I had after landing Friday morning was an absolutely perfect West Coast IPA from 3 Locks Brewing Company. When I red-eye overseas, I can’t nap, even though I’m never able to sleep on the plane. So, I just sort of push myself into an adrenaline-fueled flow state. While I waited for my friend to finish work for the day, I wandered around Camden Market because it was so close to her apartment—Camden Market is a wild place to wander if you’re a temporary member of the living dead community, by the way. Right when I weirdly felt like I was about to start crying from…nothing but exhaustion, I guess? I spotted 3 Locks like a port in the storm. And the bright, bracing bitterness of that crystal clear IPA truly woke me up. Oh, the power of a really good beer!, I thought, not at all over-dramatically, as I forged on with the rest of the day.
Also due to proximity, I returned to Camden Town Brewery. I know, I know, this is not a craft brewery. But the taproom is such an easy hang, and the lagers are good. Not outstanding, but reliably good. The unfiltered helles-style lager and their take on a Czech pilsner were honestly still enough to keep me awake and content, which is a bigger compliment than it sounds like. Somewhere in the haze of this day, I also drank my first cask pour of the trip, a St. Austell Tribute Pale Ale in the serene back garden of a cozy pub.
The biggest beer-related headline of this London visit so far, though, is that I listened to the many recommendations I received and got myself to The Southampton Arms. And I instantly understood the love for this place. There are plenty of pubs in England where I think a cocky enough American could walk in and think, “I’ve seen places like this at home, we’ve got English-style pubs, what’s the big deal?” I mean, they’d be wrong, of course, but you know, I could see it happening. A place like Southampton Arms, that feels like it’s transported you back hundreds of years with its atmosphere while also managing to feel fresher than most pubs with its lineup of beers and ciders from small independent UK breweries, is so immediately and obviously special. I drank a delicious dry-hopped pale ale on cask and people-watched—this spot is obviously a beloved gathering place for everyone from young friends to older couples to families.
I’ve been focusing slightly more on cocktails this week, so let me hit you with some takeaways: Yes, it’s worth it to go get a martini at the American Bar at the Savoy. This was the first time I got a gin martini, a little dirty, as I’m normally put off by the salty brine with gin’s botanicals. But this one worked a charm and now I’m sold on the combo. You should also plan for having two cocktails here, because the classic martini is essential but the rest of their cocktail list is really intriguing. I had a stellar cocktail with arrack and strawberry sake.
If you want to do afternoon tea, you can combine that tradition with both a fresh spin and getting to experience a cutting-edge cocktail bar that’s won both World’s Best Bar and Best International Hotel Bar, at Tales of the Cocktail. We did the Sri Lankan high tea at Lyaness, and it was coursed out with three smaller cocktails, alongside tea. Every single thing was fantastic, tbh.
If you find yourself in London but you wish you had time for a jaunt to Italy, you can scratch the itch at Bar Termini. I’m talking tiny spot, marble bar where people stand to throw back an espresso or mini-pour of a negroni, more people speaking Italian than English authentic. A man was shaving flower petal-thin ribbons of prosciutto for their satisfyingly simply menu item of prosciutto and chunks of focaccia, and immediately held some out for us to enjoy gratis upon our stepping up to the bar. Here, I had a martini with gin, marsala wine, dry vermouth, and almost bitters—a dream.
The Connaught Bar is really next-level, though. This very posh, old-school, and special-feeling hotel bar greets you with a little welcome drink, and of course your complimentary snacks. When you order the Connaught Martini, they wheel over a trolley to mix it at your table. You customize it with the bitters of your choosing, and they walk you through options like coriander, cardamom, lavender, and tonka bean with just enough information before dropping each onto a perfume sample-like card for you to smell. It was so up my alley in terms of accessibility and engaging, fun education about flavors and aromas. I went with coriander and watched the whole flashy pouring performance, wondering if I should Instagram it but instead choosing to just savor the show.
Next issue, expect a few more London updates, but then, I’m off to Dubrovnik, Kotor, and Split, so looking forward to sending dispatches from there.
The Passion-Project Beers That Go All Too Unnoticed
Earlier this year, I strongly considered finally attending my first GABF. But then this month ended up being the only time that made sense for me to get overseas to visit some friends, and I also came out of CBC thinking…one behemoth beer to-do per year is probably enough. After running into a few people doing this in Nashville around CBC, though, it did occur to me that maybe the least stressful, most fun approach to going to GABF is to not go to GABF—but instead just head to Denver the same week to take advantage of all the external events put on by individual breweries. It’s not all that unrealistic to think that the best thing about the country’s biggest beer festival is not the beer festival, jam-packed indoors, but the way that the host city’s beer scene gets to really strut its stuff and break out their best beers, projects, collaborations, and creative ideas, especially as breweries from all over the rest of the country and beyond touch down in town. You absolutely have a leg to stand on if you argue I don’t know what I’m talking about having never actually been to GABF. But it’s just my theory based on other big fests that it’s easier for growth and meetings of the minds and potentially impactful conversations to take place in the smaller, more nimble and scrappy settings of individual taprooms rather than possibly stodgy festival formats.
Case in point: TRVE Brewing’s GABF week lineup. It features “Haunting the Monastery,” a Belgian beer celebration; “Iron Maidens,” a tap takeover of women-owned and women-run breweries; a battle of the (brewery) bands; and “Bottom Feeders,” a lager party. All of these sound like a legitimately good time, fostering creativity and inclusivity, and they’re all also cleverly named. One other event jumped out at me, though: “Cellar Dwellers & Under Sellers,” which is “a celebration of under-the-radar and under-loved passion project beers.”
This, I told the breweries I emailed for this little newsletter feature, reminded me of a question always asked on one of my favorite podcasts, Good One. Every episode, a different stand-up comedian is interviewed breaking down one of their best jokes, and the conversation branches out into different aspects of their entire writing style and creative process from there. One of the lightning-round inquiries is about a joke this comedian has continuously tried on stage, never gotten a great reaction from the crowd on, but will go to their grave believing is funny. Every guest instantly has an example from their own career.
You can find a version of this in any art form; it’s actually a lovely reminder of the art part of the equation that is necessary alongside the science for brewing. Ideally, there’s some inspiration, creativity, and passion driving every beer, motivating the pursuit of science to continuously improve on the outcome. But if we divide American craft beer history into B.H.—before hazies—and A.H.—after hazies, here in our A.H. reality guided too heavy-handedly by Untappd ratings, creativity and passion are sadly too often not rewarded. Not in music, not in film, not in craft beer. And it has fuck-all to do with quality. The artistic creation can be a masterpiece, excellent in every way. But it’s not what the masses want at that moment, and it can get barreled over as the hordes run right past it for something either as good but more mainstream, or even something less good but more mainstream. Film directors make popcorn flicks for the cash to fund their mumblecore noir riffs; brewers make triple dry-hopped IPAs to fund their mixed-fermentation, foeder-aged grisettes. In both industries, the latter categories exist to perpetuate the cycle of passion for the creators, and stir up die-hard fans’ excitement for the film or beer equivalent of previously unreleased demo tracks.
We know by now that this situation, in many—big—ways, sucks, frankly. It’s a bummer how quickly commercialized different art (or art-plus-science) forms get, and it’s a bummer how fickle consumers are. An idealized alternate reality of craft beer perhaps exists somewhere, driven entirely by brewers’ mad-scientist visions or commitments to purist brewing traditions, and not by sweeping flavor trends and crushing competition. The altbier lovers among us are always sad there are not more altbiers out there. But, to find a silver lining, the relative rarity of these less commercially demanded beers makes them more special for the true enthusiasts, and, again, in every arena of creativity that exists, there’s that element of community-building around the under-appreciated gems. People who are excited about them find other people who are excited about them, and it really only fuels the dedication fire among both the makers and the drinkers.
Because of that, a gathering of brewers who make these passion-project beers, results with consumers be damned, and examples of those passion projects, stands to paint a lovely picture of the dedicated creativity of brewers, the art underneath the science, let alone the marketing and economics, and what craft beer can be when allowed to simply be a celebration of beloved styles and flavors. It is also bound to get brewers and beer fans fired up, ready to geek out on underrated, too little explored styles, and to get people thinking and talking about what these beers are and why they end up in this category. So, on that note, I let TRVE’s event inspire me to do some of that thinking myself. I reached out to a few favorite brewers to find out what these beers are for them—what beers did they brew out of passion, and that they loved, but just did not take off with consumers for whatever reason? To start, I heard from TRVE on the spirit behind this event.
EJ Nunns, co-owner and COO of TRVE Brewing (Denver, CO):
“I think, less than dying on a hill, that this event is about remembering that no single brewery should ever be beholden to the styles they are popular for. All of the breweries at this specific event—Burial, Other Half, Weldwerks, Monkish, Finback and Trillium—became known for producing the best examples of styles that they made popular, but it isn't what most of them started out as or necessarily intended to become. If you are a smart beer drinker, you should be asking ‘Well, if they are capable of trend setting excellence in IPA, then what else are they capable of?’
“We've known forever that our friends are also quietly making some of the best saisons, lagers, and mixed culture sours, and we wanted to highlight that in a way that is reverentially tongue and cheek.
“For TRVE we have a reputation for being a ‘sour brewery’ but in truth those beers are the smallest fraction of our beer portfolio. We make every beer style that interests us and try to listen to what our fans like and want. I think people would be surprised how many IPA's we crank out alongside lagers, and saisons.
Brett Taylor, cofounder and brewer at Wild East Brewing (Brooklyn, NY):
“We totally felt that way about our dark saisons, Contour Obscura and Dulcet Noir. They were nice, delicate, dark farmhouse beers, fermented with our house culture and foeder-aged. Noir took an additional barrel-aging on tart cherries. Both clocked in around 7% ABV. Both were bottle-conditioned and offered in kegs. But for whatever reason they took forever to sell through. We really like those beers, but won't make them again any time soon.”
Aadam Soorma, head of marketing and guest experience at Trace Brewing (Pittsburgh, PA)
“Here's a funny story about a beer that we thought was great but for some reason just sat for a WHILE. It was our first (and only) ever coffee porter.
“Way back when we first opened Trace for *actual* onsite service, we were actually *just* doing beer. The cafe was a concept we were excited about, but we just felt like we weren't quite ready to turnkey open for BOTH beverages. We wanted to get coffee right and had not yet met (our now head of coffee) Joe Burns. We were just gonna stick to our strong suit in the early days and focus on beer.
“At the time, our coffee partner was Redhawk Coffee (Pittsburgh). They are fantastic and to this day remain one of my favorite coffee shops in the city. (As of 2023, we have switched our coffee provider to Ghost Coffee Collab, which is run in-house by Joe Burns).
“So, coming out of the anxious, perilous times of COVID—and our staff first getting vaccinated—we open the doors and start limited service (onsite) and one of our early dark beers was called The Sun is Up (Oatmeal Porter, 7.7%). It was an Oatmeal Porter with Minas Gerais coffee from Jatoba Farm in Brazil, roasted by our friends at Redhawk Coffee. Notes of caramel, toffee and chocolate.
“And right as we got started, a really lovely warm front settled in (during spring 2021) in Pittsburgh and people were totally drinking IPA, lager, etc. and really enjoying our new beer garden. That porter sat for literally weeks, lol. I think we still had cans of it as late as July 2021.”
Rob Day, VP of marketing for Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers (Framingham, MA)
“[Our] ORIGINAL Raycatcher...and then Revised Raycatcher 🤔 We brewed this lemongrass light lager that was absolutely incredible for two years, but not enough people ever cared. It was one of my top beers we've ever made and it had a fun name...and no one cared! We revised it going into this summer and made a straightforward rice lager and took out the lemongrass...and yet people still did not get excited. Just those of us at the brewery.
“[And] FIRE IN THE HAM—this comes with a caveat. We brew this every year for sure. Sometimes twice. There is a fan club for sure, but it is small. This is a super smokey rauchbier with a silly name, and it will never be a big deal for us, but we love it and just enough other people do too.
Saram Kazmer, cofounder of Elsewhere Brewing (Atlanta, GA)
“For us it's our Belgian pale ale. Brewed as an homage to our favorite Belgian pale ale, Taras Boulba, it is one of our desert island beers. We wanted to make it a flagship, and immediately built it into our Core lineup. There were no other beers in our local market like it, so we thought it would hit well as a unique product! We sent out a ton to distro and a few months later—it all came back! Distributors didn't know how to sell it to retailers, and customers didn't understand what it was so they remained unopened. [It was] an homage to our favorite Belgian pale ale—part German Lager, part UK ESB, and part Belgian Single. It’s a light blonde ale that is generously hopped with aromatic hops, providing a very refreshing character and a bouquet reminiscent of fresh-cut grass and dried mint. Soft, subtle, but with a noticeably unique savory facet; it's a super approachable beer that most beer drinkers enjoy once they give it a try.
“Since it was not able to survive as part of our Core lineup, we hope to have a BPA on draft at least once a year, so this has become our ‘collaboration’ beer style. People tend to reach for our collab brews, so it's a way to make it a little more approachable in trying if they know the partnering brewery.”
This week, I pulled the Eight of Swords.
Swords is the suit of intellect and decisions; the Eight of Swords deals with negative thoughts and a sort of self-restriction or imprisonment, usually by one’s own hand—or, well, mind. You might feel trapped, but the only bars really holding you back are the ones of your making.
Whether it’s actually in therapy or just in the conversations (thankfully) being more openly had everywhere from social media to podcasts to newsletters about concepts pertaining to therapy, and emotional and mental health, I feel we’re getting more acquainted with the idea of “stories we tell ourselves.” These stories can be powerful, sometimes originating when we’re kids and stubbornly lasting for decades. We tell ourselves we can’t do X, we can’t be Y; that we’re too Z. We don’t deserve A because A is for A people and we’re a B person. We tell ourselves there’s no way out of this dead-end job, or that we can’t do better than this unhealthy relationship. We tell ourselves there’s no changing our current status.
There are plenty of very real obstacles blocking our paths to what we want and/or change coming from outside sources beyond our control. Men who won’t hire women or treat them equitably and with respect, banks who won’t extend business loans to People of Color, systems of government and religion built to foster discrimination and hate rather than openness, safety, support, and encouragement. It’s crucial you don’t let your own inner voice join the list of roadblocks. The negative stories you’re telling yourself are almost definitely not true. You can do it or make it or get out or make a change, and you do deserve what you want or need or believe in, so very much. It will certainly take many people changing that inner narrative in order to stand together and take action toward dismantling those aforementioned systems, right? But even if the current goal you’re working on or situation you’d love to change is something that seems smaller and more personal, it is worth you working on flipping your mind’s own script so that you believe in yourself and work toward that finish line. If your current inner monologue is telling you can’t do X, Y, or Z, well, tell that inner monologue to STFU. Because hell, yes, you can.
Wouldn’t you know, there’s a brewery called Inner Voice? It’s in Decatur, Georgia, and it’s really embracing this whole Eight of Swords mood. Because the inner voice is powerful for better or worse, and we’re going to work on making it for the better, right? They even have a couple of beers with names that feel fortuitously tied to the work required to make that inner voice a positive force, like the Memory Farm IPA and the Quality Time kölsch.
This Week’s Boozy Media Rec
I was pretty bummed to hear Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider is closing up shop. I’m not a huge cider enthusiast nor expert (though maybe Beth Demmon’s new book will change that!), but I appreciate what Nat West did for contemporary American cider. Tons of experimentation, innovation, creativity; proving all the category could be and inspiring others. In fact, based on my interview with West for a Craft Beer & Brewing piece on hopped cider, I could tell he is quite generous with his knowledge and findings. Jeff Alworth’s story on the closure over at Beervana is a lovely look at not only what Reverend Nat’s accomplished, but also the very fact that West does see his 12 years of business as an accomplishment. It’s a refreshing spin that I think we need to see more in this industry, especially with the current climate—closing is not always a failure, and any years in business doing interesting things and making people happy is a success.
Ex-BEER-ience of the Week
After writing the beers-in-London-so-far chronicles above, I squeezed in one more beer experience that happened to be of special note. I was lucky to be able to meeet up with the brilliant Claire Bullen at Caps and Taps, a bottle shop + beer bar in Tufnell Park. Obviously the conversation was lovely, but I also really loved this shop—it would absolutely be my local if I was, well, local. I got to enjoy a witbier from Queer Brewing and even take home some Saint Mars of the Desert cans(!).
Until next time, here’s Darby at Big aLICe Brewing on Labor Day weekend.