The Brooklyn Growler

"Life is all skittles and beer." — Tom Lehrer

Prohibition Ale: Speakeasies and Craft Beer

Before Prohibition, American brewery companies often purchased saloons in order to ensure that their beers were on tap. Saloons in the nineteenth century could be rowdy, unlawful places. Gambling, prostitution, grifting, crime – you name it, it probably went down in one of these wretched hives of villainy.

So after the first World War, as the Anti-Saloon League and temperance movement grew, these organizations could point to saloons as examples of how alcohol caused depravity, thus placing brewers at fault and eventually helping to cause the sale of alcoholic beverages to be prohibited by law. (The now-defunct Brewing Techniques has a great history of Prohibition that’s worth a read.)

But, Prohibition (also known as the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act) didn’t prevent people from drinking. If anything, it made them drink more. Speakeasies opened up around the U.S. in the early-20th century to serve alcohol made at illegal distilleries and breweries. Weirdly, a lot of the illegal booze came from Canada and was shipped to the Midwest, specifically to Detroit and Chicago, two cities where the gangster Al Capone controlled liquor distribution.

Before Prohibition many lagers and bocks were popular both with brewers and drinkers. These beers were known for their rich flavors and high ABVs. But during the thirteen dark years of Prohibition, a new generation of beer drinkers grew up on soda and other sugary drinks.

So when beer production kicked back into business, the breweries that had toughed out Prohibition were confronted with people who didn’t want the old hoppy bitters of yesteryear and instead wanted something lighter. Much less, once free to produce and distribute beer again, the large industrial brewers still in existence flooded the market with their beers. Hence, the industrialized, mass marketed, watery domestic that we all know and love to bash. (For more info on the history of industrial brewing in America, I highly recommend reading Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.)

A beer that has happily pounced on the notion of Prohibition and the edgy glamor of the speakeasy is Prohibition Ale brewed by San Francisco’s Speakeasy Ales & Lager. The bottle even has some shifty eyes on its neck. It’s a cute presentation. Prohibition Ale

Other beers from Speakeasy (past and present) have included a Bootlegger Black Lager, Public Enemy Pils, Molls Mild, the Mickey Finn Imperial Red Ale, and the Untouchable.

This is a nice and smoky beer, with an amber color and a really thick head. It’s definitely made by some hop fanatics as there are some nice floral and bitter notes going on as well. It reminded me somewhat of a Bass Ale, except with more bite. It’s still very smooth and drinkable.

After Prohibition many breweries were forced to shut down and their recipes were thus lost. That why whenever a craft brewer comes across a pre-Prohibition recipe, they are quick to recreate the beer using traditional techniques. As near as I can tell, Prohibition Ale is not one of these beers. It’s a new recipe, made in a contemporary style but one that looks back to the sweet and flavorful American lagers that went extinct during Prohibition.

The result is a really nice beer – very drinkable, very refreshing, very complex flavor profile – and it’s worth tracking down. The marketing is a little silly.

Speakeasy’s beers can be found in some select locations in New York. You can find bottles at saloons like the Fourth Avenue Pub, the Keg and Lantern, Toast, and at Tom Colicchio’s Craftbar. The Prohibition Ale is also available at retailers, such as Grab Specialty Foods.

Pictured at the top of this post is the Anti-Saloon League in San Francisco. Historically, the Anti-Saloon League was one of the organizations that led the way for Prohibition. Pay no attention to the sign, though. This is actually the location of the faux-speakeasy Bourbon & Branch. We’ve come a long way.

Filed under: beer history, beer reviews, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Brewing Up a Stout With the Brooklyn Brew Shop

In the last few years, two homebrew shops have opened in Brooklyn. Both have confusingly similar names. The Brooklyn Brew Shop maintains a stand at the year-round Brooklyn Flea and retails all of its kits online, while Brooklyn Homebrew opened up a physical location in Gowanus.

Brooklyn Homebrew is the brew shop for the person who has had some experience. You can follow one of their recipes or buy what you need to assemble your own. The shop sells yeast, hops, and grain. There are also kits for the first-timer that are complete with everything you need to get started. You can also pick up books on beer and lots of other cool swag. It’s a much-needed homebrew supply store.

The Brooklyn Brew Shop, founded by Erica Shea and Stephen Valand, assembles starter kits with all of the requisite ingredients. You can purchase your kits at both the one-gallon and five-gallon size. The idea is to brew beer with a kit that is scaled for an apartment. It’s Brooklyn, right? Why didn’t someone think of that before?

A one-gallon kit like the one I bought costs $40 and yields about twelve beers.

The kit comes with a one-gallon glass jug, a racking cane, tubing, a thermometer, sanitizer, some hops, and grain. That’s it. You can buy more expensive kits with more stuff – bottle cappers, carboys, hydrometers, etc.

I’d been reluctant to get into homebrewing, solely because of the space issue in my apartment but decided it was time. So what follows is a play-by-play review of a Brooklyn Brew Shop kit. I invited over my friend Dave, who is an experienced homebrewer, to help.

Let me now bombard you with more disclaimers.

Dave is a far more experienced homebrewer than I am. His home-made wort chillers and soda tanks converted into kegs built into beer fridges make my one-gallon kit look puny.

Also, I find nothing more asinine than reading comments on Epicurious recipes where the home cook changed the recipe and was then surprised with the outcome. When it comes down to homebrewing, no recipe or kit or tutorial can guarantee that the beer you produce will be perfect. That comes from trial and error, years of practice, and whether or not you know what you’re doing. The best cookbook in the world can’t help a dunce in the kitchen. So any screw ups with the beer were mine and not the Brooklyn Brew Shop’s fault.

So, that said, on one rainy March day, my friend Dave and I got to work brewing up a batch of beer.

First step, boiling the grain to get out its sugars, color, and flavor. Since this was a stout, the boiling mash resembled a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. This is my favorite part of brewing – the smell of the grain being cooked down as it begins to release all of its sugars into the liquid that will eventually become the wort (pronounced wert).

After boiling down the mash, we made our first deviation from the Brew Shop’s instructions. They advise you to pour the mash through a strainer, separating the liquid from the spent grain and then pushing down on the grain to get as much of the liquid out as possible. Then, before discarding the grain, they say to run hot water through the grain to collect more of the sugars.

We collected the mash in a cheesecloth and squeezed it as dry as possible over another pot. We continued at this until as much liquid as possible had collected in the new container (my wife’s canning pot). The grain was done. I ran some hot water through the grain as a test but didn’t see much appreciable malt coming out. We moved on to boiling the wort.

In an email conversation, I asked Erica and Stephen for their reasoning behind straining water through the grain.

“Straining more water through pulls more fermentable sugars, flavor and color from the grain,” they say. “An easy way to tell the difference is to taste the grain after you strain it once, if it is still sweet then there are still sugars you can be getting out of it. You only want to strain it a couple times though because you can go to the other end of the spectrum and start pulling out proteins and tannins.”

At the beginning of the boil, the instructions advised us to add the Challenger hops. (Challenger hops are an English hop variety that are most often used in ales.) We decided against just tossing them into the boil. Instead, we made some hop bags out of cheesecloth.

“As for a hop bag it’s a matter of preference – you just want to make sure there is enough space for your hops to float freely in it,” say the Brew Shop folks.

We repeated this maneuver fifty minutes into the boil when we added the Fuggle hops (another English hop). I’m going to skip over most of the play-by-play with the instructions. (Rather than bundle up a sheet of instructions with your kit, the Brew Shop very cleverly publishes all of its instructions as downloadable PDFs. Reading stuff on the internet is still mostly free – get to it.)

We assembled a make-shift chiller to bring the temp on the wort down by placing the pot of wort into a larger pot that was full of ice-cold water. We then ran a constant stream of cold water into the chiller pot until the wort fell down to the appropriate temperature.

The instructions called for us to add the entire packet of the yeast, and the packet is more than enough to produce five gallons of beer. I was only doing one gallon. I’d had a problem with a previous brew where every bottle I opened exploded like I was at a champagne jam on New Year’s Eve. A friend who had experimented with a similar brew had the same experience.

For some specificity on how much yeast should go into a one-gallon mix, I went to Erica and Stephen again. “For yeast the dried yeast packets are automatically measured for 5 gallon batches,” they say. “We generally recommend using half the packet although 1/5 would clearly do but is harder to eyeball. Extra yeast mean a bit more sediment and give the beer a bit more of a yeasty flavor.”

When I did the brew back in March, I checked online for a calculation of how much yeast I would need to produce one gallon of beer and then measured it out using a digital scale.

From there Dave and I added some honey and dumped the result into the jug, setting it up so it could burp for a few days before being locked down for two weeks.

After a few days, I sealed the airlock and put the beer in my closet to finish up. From there I moved on to siphoning it into bottles. I won’t say too much about that, except if you’ve ever gotten a beer siphon going with little more than a racking cane and some tubing, then the moment the beer begins to pour into that first bottle – you feel like a god.

The beer turned out nice (pictured at the right). Like a good stout, it had elements of coffee and chocolate to it. The head was sticky and died down after a few seconds of resting. The hops offered a nice compliment of bitterness. So – an easy-to-drink stout. After polishing off a bottle or two, I put back a few to age in my beer cellar (i.e., my hall closet).

Five months later, I cracked a bottle open and took a taste. It aged well. The yeast was certainly feisty as it foamed over the top of the bottle a bit. The early ones hadn’t been that fussy. The yeast had still been busy in there. After some aging, I noticed more of a floral aroma from the hops. Truthfully, though rough around the edges, it reminded me quite a bit of a Casadian Dark Ale, though nowhere near as strong as the ABV was about 4 percent.

The Brooklyn Brew Shop assembles together a fine kit for the aspiring homebrewer. It has certainly inspired me to scale up my homebrewing operations. A one-gallon yield is OK, but for the time and effort you’re putting into it, you might as well just go for the five-gallon kit. Even if the beer turns out to suck, you learned something. If your apartment is too small, then move to a bigger apartment. Problem solved.

As other sites have noted, the homebrewing kit makes a great gift idea. A mighty glass jug makes Mr. Beer and his stupid plastic bottles that will eventually leak toxins into your brew look like Mr. Jerk indeed.

Kits and mixes can be purchased from the Brooklyn Brew Shop online, or every weekend at the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene.

Filed under: homebrewing, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Pretty Things Jack D’Or Saison: From a Farmhouse to Your House

The Jack D’Or Saison from the Cambridge, Mass.-based Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project is one of those beers comes as near to perfection as possible. I had my first three days ago and have been lusting for another since.

Brewed by the self-proclaimed gypsy brewing company Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, the Jack D’Or is a golden Saison that pours with a creamy head. The smell is yeasty and lemony, while the taste is crisp and hoppy, yet spicy. The beer itself is thick and, though best served cold, gains some complexity as it warms up.

Pretty Things is headed up by the husband and wife team of Dann and Martha Paquette. Dann was formerly brewing beer at a family-owned brewery in Harrogate, England. Because the Pretty Things brewery doesn’t have a physical location, Paquette is free to move around to other breweries where he can develop whatever style suits his fancy. The Jack D’Or is being continually refined. You can see that the bottle I’m reviewing is noted as Batch 16 on the label on its neck (see picture above).

Anyway, Jack D’Or is named after the mustachioed grain of malted barley on the bottle’s label. Jack D’Or is also something of a talisman for the brewery. (You can read more about the inspiration of Jack D’Or on the Pretty Things site.)

Pretty Things refers to the beer as a “Saison Americain.” It’s an American take on beers like Saison DuPont and many Wallonian beers. Saisons are beers that are bottle conditioned and top fermented, which means the yeast gets to work once the brew has been contained in its bottle.

Saisons originated in Wallonia originally, a French-speaking region of Belgium. Like many beers of Belgium, the Saison owes a lot to the ethos of winemaking. The Belgians perfected re-fermentation in the bottle. It’s the same process as champagne (or sparkling wine if you make the bubbly somewhere that isn’t in the Champagne region of France).

Saisons are often described as summer beers. But today they can be enjoyed in any month of the year. The theory is that before refrigeration, brewing often stopped during the warmer months of the year, which meant that there needed to beers available that could retain their flavor over a few months.

In Great Beers of Belgium, beer guru Michael Jackson suggests that “a beer in that tradition would have to be sturdy enough to last the summer, and sufficiently satisfying to reward the farm-workers when the harvest was completed. Or were Saisons simply a brow-cooling aid to the gathering of the grain, vegetables or fruit: both a refresher and a restorative; a pick-me-up for the pickers? That view seems to be gaining currency.”

From the bottle to the beer itself, I just love everything about the Jack D’Or. It has a taste that reminds me a lot of a pilsner, but it’s thick like a stout. This is a heavy, golden brew that has the body of red wine. Bottle conditioning creates some really intense flavors that are pulled purely out of the simple ingredients of grain, yeast, hops, and sugar. The page for Jack D’Or mentions that no spices go into the beer. Yet there is a distinct spicy taste.

Other beers available from Pretty Things include a quadruple Baby Tree, a rustic dark ale called St. Botolph’s Town, and American Darling, which is an American Lager. (More on American Darling in a future post.)

If you’re in Brooklyn, Pretty Things beers are available at the Bell House and Barcade, or for take-away at fine merchants such as Grab and Bierkraft in Park Slope.

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Cruzcampo Is Spanish for Cerveza

If you’re in Spain, munching your way through one tapas bar after another, and say to the bartender, “Una cerveza, por favor.” Chances are he’s going to pour you a Cruzcampo.

While not the greatest beer in the world, the taste of this golden pilsner is forever associated with Spain to me. It’s light and crisp and when served in a half-pint glass, goes down fast.

The Spanish love this beer. It is quite literally everywhere. To beer snobs, the taste can be a little bit of nothingness and some corn with an aftertaste of skunkiness, and I certainly had one or two glasses that made me change my drink order to a glass of txacolina.

But for the most part, feeling pleasantly fried by the sun and full of jamón, a cold Cruzcampo hit the spot in a most heavenly sort of way.

The Cruzcampo brewery was founded in 1904 in Sevilla, Spain (pictured at the tippy top of this post) by brothers Roberto Osborne and Agustin Osborne. Next to the brewery stands La Cruz del Campo (The Cross of the Field), which is a small temple that stands in view of the brewery. Cruzcampo was the first brewery in the province of Andalusia (more info here). The brewery is now owned by the Heineken Corp. Its previous owner was Guinness.

One last note, the Cruzcampo logo depicts King Gambrinus, the patron saint of beer. Hail to the king, baby.

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Cascadian Dark Ales: East Coast Style Meets West Coast Hops

There are times when you have to get away from it all to discover something that’s been staring at you without your notice for far too long. For me, that was rediscovering the glories of an IPA, while tasting beers in Montana.

American IPAs can be some heady brews with bold and bitter flavors offset by strong citric acids. The high alcohol by volume (ABV) means these beers often pack more than just a flavor punch.

Maybe it’s my East Coast-centric worldview, but it’s easy to forget how the Pacific Northwest is such a fertile bed for hop production – hence the proliferation of so many West Coast IPAs. The Pacific Northwest’s Cascades range is one such region, which is thick in hop production. And, ahem, not that IPAs haven’t spread throughout the U.S. and not that I don’t have something to say about it, just that I’m trying to wind my way to a point without mentioning how New York State used to be one of the largest U.S. producers of hops or that Brooklyn’s Six Point Craft Ale‘s Sweet Action is an IPA to inspire.

My point, and I suppose I might have one, is that with so many hops grown in Washington and Oregon – and with craft brewers excited to experiment with new varieties – a trip out West should be one where myriad IPAs are consumed.

Enter the Bozeman Brewing Co.

Bozeman Brewing was founded by Todd Scott, former employee of Spanish Peaks Brewing Co., around 2001. The brewery, a former pea cannery, produces three basic beers and five seasonal varieties. Its logo (pictured above) features elements from historic Montana beers (see New West for a detailed profile of the brewery). Scott has added a tasting room to the front of the business where about five beers are on tap and growler refills are in quick supply. The Bozone Select Amber Ale is its flagship beer.

We tried all of the beers on tap that afternoon. There were four of us in my party, so we were able to spread the beers around to get a full sampling (worth noting because Montana breweries not only have to close by 8 p.m. but also must limit each patron’s sampling to a total of three beers).

Hop-heavy beers dominated the Bozeman Brewing menu, with one hefeweizen thrown in for good measure (in tasting, the IPAs knocked it sadly into submission). Among the beers on tap were:

  • Hopzone IPA (7 percent ABV)
  • Hefeweizen (6 percent ABV)
  • Imperial IPA (9.6 percent ABV)
  • Belgian-Style Wit Beer (5 percent ABV)
  • Cascadian Dark Ale (7.5 percent ABV)

I was impressed by all of them, although, the Hopzone was a little too astringent in its bitterness to me. I can be sensitive to overly bitter flavors at times, which means that after one IPA, I’m usually done and ready to move on to an ale. I’m not into this drive of late to push the alcohol envelope in beers. Give me flavor and I’ll keep coming back.

It was with this in mindset that I dipped my beak into the Imperial IPA (everyone’s gotta have a high-ABV IPA that costs a few sheckels more) and, though enjoyable, didn’t blow me away. I liked the Belgian-Style Wit Beer and have to side with Tim Webb who noted that “American imitations [knock] the socks off certain freshly imported ‘real’ Trappist ales,” in his introduction to Stan Hieronymus’s must-read Brew Like a Monk.

But I’d yet to find “the one” to rule them all. That’s when I had my first taste of a Cascadian Dark Ale.

Cascadian Dark Ales are a relatively new variety of IPA, originated by Shaun Hill at Vermont’s Shed Brewery. Speaking to Imbibe Magazine, Hill described this new style of beer as one that can “drink like an IPA but look like a stout.”

The style was picked up by San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co. with the brewery’s Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale, which is a double IPA (see this Beer Advocate article on American double IPAs for more info; in America, we go big with everything, y’know). The style has spread like a hop vine from there.

I’d not had the pleasure of drinking a Cascadian Dark Ale until I hit Bozeman Brewing. It was fantastic. Not too bracingly bitter, easy to drink, distinctively stout with a rich roasty malty taste and an IPA’s carbonation. I didn’t take it for an IPA at all at first. I thought it was a just a stout. My initial ignorance made me overlook the complexity going on with this beer. Further sips brought out the hoppy crispness of an IPA.

There’s a lot going on in these Cascadian Dark Ales. Though the style originated on the East Coast, it took a trip out West for me to discover this amazing beer. Expect more on these beauties in the future.

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Why Limes Don’t Chase Away Flies

This was the scene on my kitchen island after a trip to Trader Joe’s and an Associated. I’m back from Montana, though I’ve been playing catch-up with what’s left of the week and feel satisfyingly tired, which is the sign of a nice vacation, I think. There will be another post on some Montana beers in the next few days and then back to whatever it is we do here.

Anyway, so I dropped $3.99 on a two-four of Cerveza La Playa, est. 1968, at ye olde Trader Joe’s. Then for fun, I put it in a fancy Sam Adams pint glass with a slice of lime. Why the lime? Common wisdom (i.e., the crypto-racist ramblings of lazy Americans), says it’s because when you’re drinking a beer in Mexico, the lime wedged in the mouth of the bottle chases away flies.

I’d believe it if I heard the same said about a slice of orange in a hefeweizen.

The reason is just style. Perhaps also to mask the not-so-greatness of the beer. Also, a lime is most commonly seen in a bottle of the Mexican pilsner-style Corona. Y’know, the imported beer that is sold in a clear, glass bottle. There’s a reason why most beers are bottled in dark brown or green bottles – it keeps the sun and other ambient light out while it sits on the shelf.

I’m a big fan of Mexican beers, in general. Never been much for Corona, although the Grupo Modelo Brewery (which brews Corona) makes some of my favorites – Pacifico, Negra Modelo, and Modelo. Cans of Modelo are frequent visitors to my fridge. Dos Equis is also a welcomed guest to my tummy.


One of the greatest beers I ever drank was a Tecate. I was on a bus in Mexico heading back from a day spent touring the ruins of Chichen Itza, a Mayan pyramid. It was a very humid, sunny day in early March. After a day spent in such a hot environment with very little shade – I was all tuckered out. So then about forty minutes into the ride back, the tour bus driver opened up a cooler and started passing out cans of Tecate. No limes. “This is the best beer in Mexico,” he said. I cracked mine open and took a long pull. He was right. He was so right. He was also the greatest tour guide ever. What’s even better, is that I could crack open a Tecate right now and feel the same. I just love that beer.

Right, so, La Playa.

It’s a little sweet. Very drinkable. The head up there in the picture is what was left after thirty seconds of snapping bad pictures, thirty seconds more of bad photography, and the head was gone entirely. Definitely some corn or corn-syrup flavors. Aftertaste can be a little soapy. It’s much improved by a wedge of freshly cut lime.

Unlike other Trader Joe’s beers (Red Oval; Simpler Times), La Playa doesn’t create as much tummy rumbling. Granted, I stopped after two, which isn’t really getting in the spirit of pounding cheap beers and such. But still. This beer is similar to a Corona Light in that it also has a certain staleness of flavor that some watery light beers can acquire – sitting around absorbing too much sunlight.

Cerveza La Playa tastes better in the can, honestly. It’s not one you’ll crave later. So – go fast; go hard.

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August 2010