Here’s some fun shots from my year and half on the road reporting the book. Shaky handheld camera work? Check. Obligatory funk soundtrack? Check check! Enjoy!
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Publication Month: September 2011
“A roadmap for taste-bud adventure…anyone who prizes good beer need never go thirsty again.”
—Jane & Michael Stern, authors of Roadfood
From crab shacks and copper-lined brewpubs to farmhouse startups and elegant New York restaurants, THE GREAT AMERICAN ALE TRAIL by Christian DeBenedetti (Running Press; September 2011; Paperback; $20.00 US) leads readers on the ultimate, coast-to-coast road trip of craft beer. This ambitious project is the first definitive guide to the worthiest places to discover and drink craft beer across the entire United States. With over 400 destinations and suggestions for what to order in each one, it also maps out how those beers relate to the local, national, and international beer cultures and profiles the interesting characters behind all the great beers. By celebrating the places craft beer culture thrives—breweries, beer bars, bottle shops, festivals and restaurants including some of the country’s highest rated eateries—this groundbreaking new book will show readers where and how to make their own beer journeys, and what to watch out for along the way. The big question behind this book, and the one it will answer, is: to find the best craft beer in the land, where to go, and what to discover? What inspires these artisans, and what do they know about beer—and life—that the intrepid author didn’t?
About the Author:
Raised on a working hazelnut farm in the Willamette Valley outside of Portland, Oregon, adventure travel and food & drink writer Christian DeBenedetti, has worked on the staffs of Outside, National Geographic Adventure, and Men’s Journal magazines. A dedicated beer and travel writer who was mentored by the late British beer writer Michael Jackson, he regularly contributes to the above publications as well as The New York Times, Food & Wine, Esquire, Departures, and many others. A 1996 graduate of Whitman College, he was the recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which he used to study traditional methods of making beer in 14 European and West African nations in 1996 – 1997. Currently he is Beer Correspondent for Food & Wine, Contributing Editor to National Geographic Adventure, and Correspondent for Outside Magazine. He has appeared on ABC’s World News Tonight, and ABC Nightline.
The Great American Ale Trail: The Craft Beer Lover’s Guide to the Best Watering Holes in the Nation
by Christian DeBenedetti
Price: $20.00; Format: Trade Paperback Original, 363 pages w/index
ISBN: 9780762443758; September 2011
On Twitter: @AleTrail
Germany’s secret to summer has taken over America.
by Christian DeBenedetti
When it comes to summer beer, habit usually dictates plunging your hand into an ice-filled cooler for a bottle of the watery domestic swill you drink all season. There’s no reason to do away with this tradition — it is the perfect, pleasurable barbecue and poolside brew — but there are other, more refined approaches. Of course, it’s the Germans we look to for guidance. Their answer: Kölsch, a light ale from the northern German city of Cologne, which will fast become part of your warm-weather drinking.
Kölsch is the ultimate summer beer because it is layered with faintly sweet, soft malt character and a finish that is crisp, grassy, and a bit floral. Light in body, it’s ideal with grilled meats, fairly low in alcohol — generally under 5 percent, like a PBR — and is technically a pale ale, meaning its yeasts work from the top of the tanks, giving it a touch of the fruity mojo that brewers refer to as esters.
Not surprisingly, the best way to drink Kölsch is, like in Cologne, at a Kölsch Kneipe, or corner bar, where the beer is poured into the straight-sided, 7-ounce glasses built for quick drinking — so the beer doesn’t warm in your hand — and mandated by the Kölsch Konvention (we’re not kidding), an agreement brewers signed in Cologne in 1985. It’s then served on doughnut-shaped trays, which will be restocked again and again and again without asking.
There are a few American pubs exacting enough to re-create this experience, right down to the serving trays, but you can do it just as easily at home. Simply buy a crate of the thin, straight glasses ($13.95 per dozen; leevalley.com), and get a few cases of the beer. You can purchase imported German Kölsch, like Gaffel and Reissdorf, but freshness is essential for this beer, and so a domestic brew will likely be better.
Insurgent American brewers are reinventing Old World classics all over the country on draft, in bottles, and even in cans. One of the most widely available on draft and in bottles for Westerners, especially, isAlaskan Summer Ale, brewed in Juneau using water from nearby glaciers. It’s got the perfect mix of bready flavor and lightly lip-smacking hops. And because we love nothing more than a cold-canned beer (they can’t break and won’t skunk out in sunlight), Rocky Mountain mainstay Steamworks of Durango offers up the cracker-crisp Colorado Kölsch in cans. From the Midwest, we suggest the bright, goldenGoose Island Summertime. Easterners: Harpoon’s uber-refreshing Summer Beer is an ale made for those long summer days and nights if ever there was one.
This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Men’s Journal.
Here’s a report I put together for Food & Wine’s Mouthing Off site—CDB
American craft beer’s surge into the spotlight has taken many forms, but until relatively recently, beer dinners in ultra fine dining settings were generally considered oddities, one-offs, or experiments rather than the norm. No longer: American brewers from the likes of Allagash in Maine, Oregon’s Deschutes, and Deleware’s Dogfish Head are working with top tier chefs from Thomas Keller of Per Se to Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns to present beers and foods well-matched—and fun—to try together.
Recently the beer dinner concept hit a new zenith with a collaboration between New York’s Brooklyn Brewery and Eleven Madison Park, this year’s James Beard Foundation Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant – 2011. For the event, held on June 26 at the restaurant, Brewmaster Garrett Oliver worked with Chef Daniel Humm, General Manager Will Guidara, and Dining Room Manager/beer coordinator Kirk Kelewae to create a menu almost entirely from scratch, including a beer never before tasted outside the brewery, Local 11.
Made by aging the dark, abbey-style ale Brooklyn Local 2 in 20-year old Pappy Van Winkle whiskey barrels, it had bever been tasted outside the brewery before the dinner. “He [Garrett] really opened my eyes in a big way,” said Humm. “It [craft beer] works really well with food, and there’s so much to it,” said Humm, speaking of how beer pairs with the kind of rarified techniques and ingredients that make Eleven Madison Park number 24 on the list of the world’s top 50 restaurants. “And it’s not just rustic food the way you always think of it…sausages and stuff like that…but it works with really refined food, because the beers are really refined.”
Unlike most beer dinners—perhaps any other beer dinner that has ever taken place—the collaboration started with the beers, not the menu. “We’re getting a chance to show the real creative evolution of the brewery,” Oliver told me as guests sipped on an aperitif beer called The Concoction, inspired by the classic Penicillin cocktail and redolent of whisky, ginger, lemon, and honey. “Usually these things are done by email,” Oliver continued.”The chef sends me a menu, I send back the pairings, and then I’ll go do the dinner. And it often turns out wonderfully. This time, the Chef [Humm], Sous Chef, General Manager [Guidara], Dining Room Manager [Kelewae] and six people [restaurant cooks and servers] came out to the brewery and spent three and a half hours tasting with us, and then went back with the beers, and developed the menu in the other direction. This is a whole new way to do things.”
The event was entirely sold out and attended by numerous critics (including GQ’s Alan Richman) and guests who drove from as far away as Boston. Highlights included a foie gras terrine with strawberry, yuzu, and black pepper paired with Wild 1, a beer brewed in 2008 and aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels and then refermented with Brettanomyces, the earthy, fickle yeast strain prized by Belgian brewers, and Pennsylvania’s Four Story Hill Farm suckling pig with apricot and cardamom, paired with the Local 11. Oliver, for his part, was ecstatic. “I’ve done 700 beer dinners, but this is the ultimate.” What’s more, the evening felt relaxed and light, not uptight. Humm was enormously pleased as well. “It was really fun—we just really enjoyed it.” The diners did, too.
Ray Deter was the heart and soul of D.B.A., and the original D.B.A. was the first beer bar—or bar of any kind, for that matter—I visited in New York City.
I’d heard of D.B.A. spoken of with the reverential tones reserved for Gotham landmarks like C.B.G.B.’s and Siberia (the old one, of course), and so on a hot July night in 1999 I piled in a cab with a couple of high school friends living in a ramshackle office building in Little Korea and headed South to find it. We did and we stayed later than we should have, which is usually the case with a visit to 41 1st Avenue. I found this reverence entirely justified—look at that beer list! The whisky, the Kentucky Bourbon!—and in all seriousness D.B.A. became one of the reasons I moved to New York City. But unlike the punk clubs and gutter dives D.B.A. was about sharing knowledge, not posing on a stage or getting wasted. I knew that no matter what else happened, I could at least count on one really good place where I might find common cause, a decent beer, a good conversation. That hasn’t changed, of course, but it will never be the same, because Ray Deter won’t be standing down at the end of the bar, with his steady attention to the main thing—the beer.
I didn’t meet Ray until many years later, around 2004. A writer friend, Seth, had gotten to know Ray, who invited us both in for some beer tasting. That tasting led to many more; Ray was deeply passionate about craft beer, and like us, lived in a city almost entirely oblivious to its charms. The fact is that were it not for Ray Deter and D.B.A., the good beer renaissance that has transformed Manhattan into an isle of beery joy may never have happened at all, or at least not for many years. A trip to the candle-lit, copper topped tables and those chalkboards was a golden promise every time.
That first night I met Ray he blew us away by pulling dozens upon dozens of beers out for us to try from his cellar, and there would be many other such nights when his generosity flowed like the East River. There was the photo shoot when he kept running back up and down from his stash with new treats, regardless of their value and rarity, making the work light and laughter-filled.
And there was another fine early summer evening, after a party at The Blind Tiger Alehouse, when it was time to relocate. Deter, along for the ride at his friends’ bar, invited the revelers to reconvene at D.B.A., which was, naturally, packed. Ducking inside, Ray reemerged with bags and bottles under each arm, and began handing them out until he’d supplied the whole lot, and then led us all, Peter Pan-like, to his own roof top apartment in the East Village.
It was 2005. I recall the limpid quality of the air and the orange-teal-grey-blue views we took in from that spot, looking West. Soon were listening to a series of hilarious stories from a German brewmaster wearing lederhosen (he’d flown that day from Munich for the party carrying only bottles of beer as luggage). Seth and I and a girl I was falling for and everybody stayed too late and talked too loud. Herr Lederhosen recounted his affinity for heavy rock (“especially The Slipknot!”) and trundled off into the night at about 3:30AM, looking for life, and then we left Ray’s place too, weary with laughter. The promise of everything I had come to seek in New York hovered in my hands like fireflies.
And there was the night about a two years later when Ray and a few close friends gathered in the back garden of D.B.A. to toast another very special person making what would be his last visit to the city: the late beer writer Michael Jackson. Just as he had always loved to do, Ray shuttled back and forth making sure we were all comfortable and well-supplied. Of course we were. And a few months later when Jackson died, there was a nationwide toast being organized by Monk’s Cafe owner Tom Peters, beer importer Dan Shelton, and others. I headed to D.B.A. to find Ray and a friend of his, and there the three of us stood for a couple of hours trying to make a measure of things. We did a lot of looking down into our beers.
Ray’s death this week was needless and random and many decades too early. My sincere condolences to his family and friends.
One mutual friend of Ray’s I called when I heard the news said a Belgian brewer friend had thought of Ray as the ultimate incarnation of American freedom. Idealistic, forgiving, a bit reckless at times, joyful, and more than anything else, generous. Ray was all those things. This July 4th, instead of tanks, keep a tankard in mind, and toast Ray, for all he did.
Last week I debuted a new weekly column on craft beer with Eater.com, Craft Course, with a slideshow on the home site. Here the text of week #1…
Ah, sweet, delicious beer: it’s the U.S.’s—and the world’s!—most popular alcoholic drink. From straw-gold pilseners to thick roasty black stouts, there are over 100 distinct brewing styles in the world and counting. With its array of food-friendly flavors and pleasing, moderate buzz, no drink satisfies in quite the same way.
What Exactly Is Craft Beer?
The late British beer writer Michael Jackson once said, “You wouldn’t walk into a restaurant and order ‘a plate of food’, so why would you do the same with your beer?” In other words, if we are what we eat, then shouldn’t we drink the best stuff that humans and nature can conspire to make? Would you rather eat Spam, or a good steak? So it is with beer, but the difference is—unlike wines, whiskeys, and other alcohols—the best beers in the world are rarely all that expensive. Beer is always going to be the drink of the people.
And the people have spoken! The U.S. now has about 1600 breweries; some 60% of Americans now live within ten miles of a brewery, most of them “craft.” According to the Brewers Association, a craft brewer is “Small — Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels,” and “Independent — Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.” In other words, when it comes to beer, craft is the opposite of industrial.