Pulling Up Roots: Last Call at Roots Organic Brewing

July 18, 2010

According to The Oregonian, Roots Organic Brewing has closed its doors.

I’ve twice attempted to visit this organic brewpub. But my timing was always bad. Each attempt was met with closed doors. Maybe this bad luck was a sign of things to come. There were actually people in the brewhouse both times but they would not talk to me or let me in. So I never got to experience what one Portland, Oregon local described as the place where he met the best friends of his life.

In 2005, owner and brewer Craig Nicholls opened what the company website claims was Oregon’s first all-organic brewpub. (Strangely the website homepage still says “Now Open for Lunch Weekdays 11:30-2:00″). After five years of producing organic and herbally-inspired brews, the small brewery and pub has decided “it was time to stop the bleeding and cut our losses.”

The Oregonian article says the demise was caused by a combination of problems typical to small businesses, including the recession, under-capitalization and bad weather. However, Roots seems to be an outlier in this regard. Although the restaurant business is certainly struggling in this economy, craft beer overall continues to show double digit growth, and brewpubs in particular are still one of the strongest elements within the restaurant industry.

Nicholls also runs the North American Organic Brewers Festival, which he reportedly intends to continue. Seven Bridges, the organic brewing supply company I part own, made the trip for the festival last year to display our organic brewing kits and meet some of the homebrewers and commercial brewers that buy our goods. Let’s hope this great spotlight on organic brewing doesn’t suffer the same fate as Roots.


Hook and Ladder – A Burn Victim Recovers

July 3, 2009

As any craft brewer knows, first impressions mean a lot. With craft beer you might get just one chance at convincing a consumer that your beer merits their bucks. So when you contract brew your beer at an ever-changing number of breweries and you have distributors and retailers all across the eastern United States, it is very hard to control that first impression. If poor quality control or bad handling ruins the experience of a new customer, it takes a lot of work to get that customer to give your beer a second chance. But doing so can be worth the effort, especially when that customer is a know-it-all beer geek.

————

A couple years ago we celebrated my father’s 75th birthday with a big family reunion. I wanted to bring beer that upped the ante from the usual BudMillerCoors but could please a very mixed crowd. Hook and Ladder seemed perfect, some lighter beers that wouldn’t be too challenging but were probably a lot more flavorful than light industrial lagers, plus they have a cool story about donating money to burn victims. So I picked up a couple cases of Lighter and Golden Ale and hit the road for the reunion.

Socializing with the extended family, we opened a few beers. They gushed. We opened a few more. They gushed. We let them settle out in a pitcher and then tasted them. They were as undrinkable as they were unpourable. We abandoned them and sought out a local beer store for replacements. Being the beer-know-it-all of the family, I was embarrassed about my beer faux pas.

In retrospect, I’m not sure if the problem was over-carbonation, oxidation, infection, or a combination thereof. Suffice to say my first impression was bad – a contract brewed-beer company that was all firefighting hype and apparently paid no attention to making beer. There are many tales of  contract beers that were all marketing and no beer, so I quickly judged Hook and Ladder as one such case and never drank their beers again – even though their offices are literally up the street from my home.

As it happens, one of my sisters has a friend who works for Hook and Ladder. They were having dinner together recently and my name came up due to our mutual interests in beer. As a result, John Timson, VP of Marketing and Sales, contacted me and last night I sat down with him for a tasting at their Silver Spring, Maryland digs.

John Timson, VP of Marketing and Sales, points to Hook and Ladder Brewing Company's "World Domination Plan"

John Timson, VP of Marketing and Sales, points to Hook and Ladder Brewing Company's "World Domination Plan."

It’s kind of funny. I travel all over the world for beer and here’s a beer company literally four blocks away from my home that I’ve never visited. So I was happy for the invitation and eager to give these beers a second try in hopes that my first impression might have been a fluke.

The good news is that fresh beer on draft did make a much better impression than the family reunion snafu. The Golden Ale (5.5% ABV) is a medium-bodied table beer on the sweeter side of malty. It’s understated, not particularly wild or exciting, but flavorful and easy to drink for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The new Irish Red Ale, called Pipe and Drum (5.1% ABV), is also malt-forward with pronounced caramel, and lightly toasty undertones. When they are packaged, stored and served properly these are both good sessionable ales and after last night’s tasting I am happy to drink them again.

Hook and Ladder has moved their contracts through several different breweries and I suspect this is the root cause of the quality control issue I encountered back at the family reunion. At the moment, they are brewed by High Falls Brewing Company in Rochester, New York, makers of Genesee Cream Ale and Dundee’s Honey Brown, among several other beers. This kind of brewery-hopping is one of the potential pitfalls of contract-brewed beers. But as long as the beers taste like they did last night, I’ll be happy to support my neighborhood contract-brewed beer company.

Speaking of beer in the neighborhood, for close to two years now Hook and Ladder has been planning to open a brewpub in an old firehouse on Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. Ever since, I’ve been fantasizing about being able to roll home from a brewpub located just up the hill from me! But alas, delays have been interminable. John tells me they are now aiming to break ground in mid-July with hopes of being open by Christmas. The bad news is that its not planned to be a brewpub afterall, but rather a taphouse with Hook and Ladder beers. If all goes well, they might eventually buy an additional property next door to the firehouse and install a brewing system there.

I’m disappointed that they are not planning to brew on premise any time soon, but this fits with the contract-brewed approach. In essence, Hook and Ladder is not a brewery but a beer marketing company. As long as the beers are good, I’m perfectly okay with contract beers. Actually, two of my all-time favorite beers, Tuppers Hop Pocket Ale and Pils, are contract brewed. Coincidentally, they both have a charity hook as well, Tuppers gives a percentage of proceeds to the Childrens Hospital, and Hook and Ladder gives “a penny in every pint” and a “quarter in every case” to the Hook and Ladder Foundation in support of fire burn victims.

Luckily, my first impression of Hook and Ladder was not my last and now I’m looking forward to trying their new pale ale scheduled for release this fall.

As any craft brewer knows, first impressions mean a lot. With craft beer you often get one chance at convincing a consumer that your beer merits their bucks. Unfortunately, my first impression of Hook and Ladder was bad. A couple years ago we celebrated my father’s 75th birthday with a big family reunion. I wanted to bring beer that upped the ante from the usual BudMillerCoors but could please a very mixed crowd. Hook and Ladder seemed perfect, some lighter beers that wouldn’t be too challenging but were probably a lot more flavorful than light industrial lagers, plus they have a cool story about donating to burn victims. So I picked up a couple cases of Lighter and Golden Ale and hit the road for the reunion.

Socializing with the extended family, we opened a few beers. They gushed. We opened a few more. They gushed. We tasted them. They were undrinkable. We had to abandon them and seek out a local beer store. Being the beer-know-it-all of the family, I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t think straight.

In retrospect, I’m not sure if the problem was over-carbonation, oxidation, infection, or a combination thereof. Suffice to say my first impression was bad – a contract brewed-beer company that was all firefighting hype that paid no attention to making beer. The contract beer that’s all marketing is a tale that’s unfolded before, so I made my judgment and never drank their beers again – even though their offices are literally up the street from my home.

As it happens, one of my sisters has a friend who works for Hook and Ladder. They were having dinner together recently and my name came up due to our mutual interests in beer. As a result, John Timson, VP of Marketing and Sales, contacted me and last night I sat down with him for a tasting at their Silver Spring, Maryland digs.


Saison Kicks off Capitol City’s New Organic Series

June 9, 2009

On Monday I met a colleague for lunch at Capitol City Brewing on Capitol Hill. This is my favorite of Cap City’s three locations because it is housed in the historic Federal City Post Office and it has a wonderful veranda with tables that have a view of the U.S. Capitol.

So my Monday afternoon was looking bright as I joined my colleague on the veranda where he was already on beer number two. I wasn’t certain we’d be having a beer at lunch, so it was nice to see this question was already answered before I even arrived.

Mike McCarthy, Head of Brewing at Capitol City Brewing Co., shows off his tats in front of a gleaming copper tank.

Mike McCarthy, Director of Brewing Operations at Capitol City Brewing Co., shows off his tats in front of a gleaming copper tank.

The news only got better when the server told me their seasonal beer was an organic saison. Not only is saison one of my favorite beers, especially for a warm spring day, but it was organic!

Two hours and I won’t say how many beers later, we were heading back to the office feeling pretty good.

At 6% ABV, it’s not a huge beer but it’s not really meant for a lunch session either except for the fact that it is so damn drinkable. Slightly sweet medium body with a peppery spiciness and a dry finish — all characteristic of a good saison (though I could have taken a tad more tartness).

I emailed Mike McCarthy, the Director of Brewing Operations, to congratulate him on the new beer and to thank him for brewing organic. Then I recalled that we had actually spoken about organic beer on a couple occasions and I had tried to encourage his interest in trying out some organic ingredients (I recall one particularly wobbly late night at the Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego last year…). And sure enough, he emailed back confirming that he bought the organic hops for this beer from Seven Bridges (and organic malt from Gambrinus and Weyermann).

What’s more is that this is the first in an ongoing organic series. Once the saison runs dry at the end of June, he’ll put on an organic wit, which will also include some organic coriander, and should pour from July to September. Then it’s an organic trippel from October through December.

It’s hard to convey how excited I am to have a local brewpub serving organic beers on a regular basis. The fact that Mike has chosen three of my favorite beers styles for the organic line must just be the luck of the Irish. I see myself  enjoying many a happy hour on the Cap City veranda in the coming months.


Devils Backbone: Virginia’s new ‘green’ brewpub opening soon!

November 9, 2008

devils-backbone

Jason Oliver, former Mid-Atlantic regional brewing director at Gordon Biersch, recently moved to Roseland, Virginia to become head brewer at a new brewpub called Devils Backbone. He emailed me today with some cool updates about some ‘green’ elements being incorporated into the new facility. Here’s the update in his own words:

You will love this place . . . We will open to the public the weekend of November 21, 2008 . . . We have done some neat things with the building.  All of our chairs and tables are made from re-conditioned barn wood by a local company in the Shenandoah Valley.  Our floors are recycled barn wood.  On the upper walls of the restaurant is rusty tin roofing taken from an old chicken coop (it looks really cool).  The roof on the restaurant is a new product that is made from recycled metal that rusts immediately and then seals itself against further oxidation.  We contracted with a local blacksmith for some custom chandeliers and wall sconces.  The chandeliers have hops and hop leafs around the sides with stalks of barley reaching upwards.  The wall sconces have hop leafs and hops. They are really beautiful. The outside siding of the restaurant is local poplar that has been cut especially for us. We are using a local farm for some meat products and it is the farm that picks up my spent grain. I always wanted to be in a position where I could give my spent grain to a farmer who would feed it to his cows which would be served on our food menu.  Neat stuff.

I will have at least 5 beers to open with with and several more coming as they reach maturity. I will have an American IPA, a Hefeweizen, Oatmeal Stout, a Scottish-style 60 Schilling, and an American session beer (low gravity but with a nice hop character). My Vienna Lager, Helles Lager, and Saison will come soon after opening.

Alright! Can anyone say roadtrip?


Chesapeake Real Ale Festival – Last Chance to Get Tickets!

October 17, 2008

Unlimited samples of cask-conditioned Real Ale from over 20 breweries, served up in a cozy English pub environment where the proprietors also make their own beer.

That’s what the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood has cooked up for us tomorrow at the annual Chesapeake Real Ale Festival. Casks pour from 1-6pm, Saturday, October 18th, at Baltimore’s Wharf Rat brewpub, right across from the Inner Harbor.

Chesapeake Real Ale Festival

Chesapeake Real Ale Festival

Here are a few of the breweries who will be pouring that smooth stuff:

  • Brewer’s Art
  • Clipper City
  • Dogfish Head
  • Flying Dog
  • Lancaster Brewing Co.
  • Smuttynose
  • Stoudt’s
  • Troegs
  • Victory
  • Weyerbacher
  • and of source, the hosts at the Wharf Rat!

I’ll be there early. Come on out and say hello if you see me. What better way to spend a crisp autumn afternoon than drinking real ale in the company of friends?


Washingtonian Beer Blogger Beat

September 3, 2008
Chris Leaman.

Hoisting a mild at Franklin's. Photo: Chris Leaman.

I met up with Emily Leaman, who pens the Blogger Beat for the Washingtonian, and her husband/photographer Chris Leaman, at the Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store in Hyattsville, MD.

Today her interview with the Beer Activist (hey, that’s me!) appeared in the Washingtonian.com I think it turned out pretty nicely. The intro is below. Just click at the bottom to have a look-see at the whole story.

This week, for our Wednesday blogger fix, we knock back a few cold ones with beer blogger Chris O’Brien, local author and beer activist.

Silver Spring author and blogger Chris O’Brien started the Beer Activist blog five years ago when he was living in Ethiopia and working on his book, Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World. He wanted a way to organize his thoughts about the environmental and social impacts of the corporate beer industry.

For his book, published in 2006, Chris traveled all over the world researching local brewing traditions, even working for a time as a brewer at the Zululand Brewing Company in Eshowe, South Africa. His conclusion: You can change the world by having a (locally brewed, organic) beer. He explains how and why below.

Read the whole story right here.


The Ultimate in Green Beer Packaging

July 18, 2008

(This originally appeared as the Guest Editorial in the June/July 2008 issue of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.)

the ultimate in green beer packaging?

Growlers: the ultimate in green beer packaging?

Editor’s Note [Greg Kitsock]: It might seem like hyperbole to call brewpubs an “endangered species,” inasmuch as their numbers and output are still increasing. But with the economy tanking and the price or raw ingredients soaring, brewpubs are very vulnerable. Many restaurateurs are going to take a look at all that stainless steel equipment and wonder if it’s worth the investment.

Selling it off would open up space for more tables and chairs, increasing the revenue stream. Ceasing to brew would mean a lot less red tape when it comes to licensing, as well as eliminating a source of liability in the event a customer tripped over a hose or got sprayed with hot water.

And there are so many production breweries making great beer. Why not sell the tanks and be content to sell other people’s brands?

It would be a shame, however, if a large number of brewpub owners reached that conclusion. Beer Activist Chris O’Brien, author of Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World tells us why:

Fight climate change. Conserve resources. Reduce waste.

These are ambitious goals being pursued by scientists, government agencies, businesses, environmental advocates, and concerned citizens everywhere. But is it possible for craft beer drinkers to make a difference too?

Consider a few of the environmental impacts from beer. New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado recently conducted a study to quantify how a six pack of Fat Tire ale contributes to climate change. They discovered that over fifty percent of the greenhouse gases related to Fat Tire was emitted as a result of the energy consumed by the refrigerators at beer retailers. Another big chunk was emitted during the production and transport of the glass bottles used to package the beer. The third biggest carbon impact came from the agro-chemicals and energy used to grow and malt barley.

The good news is that New Belgium is already taking great strides to limit their contribution to climate change. For example, they source renewable energy to power their brewery. They are also considering packaging some beer in aluminum cans, a lighter and more compact packaging that requires far less energy to recycle than glass. New Belgium is also brewing their Mothership Wit with organic ingredients grown without petroleum-derived fertilizers and pesticides, another small step that helps to slow the climate crisis.

But the fact remains that most of the greenhouse gas emissions occur at the point of retail. That’s a tough issue for brewers to tackle but is there anything a climate-conscious beer drinker can do about it? Could the answer be as simple as visiting the nearest brewpub?

Brewpubs utilize a couple environmentally preferable packaging options: reusable kegs and refillable growlers. Most kegs are made of stainless steel or aluminum, both of which are materials that have relatively high recycling rates in the U.S. Kegs are also more optimally shaped so they take less space in coolers so the coolers can be smaller and use less energy.

Now dispense that keg beer into a growler that will generally be emptied within one day, requiring little or no refrigeration. Growlers are made of glass just like standard 12 and 22 ounce beer bottles but every time a growler is refilled, its ‘embodied energy’ is spread out over a longer and more useful lifecycle, making it less energy intensive with every reuse.

A true lifecycle assessment comparing the environmental benefits of a beer served in a brewpub to a glass bottle of beer would account for a variety of other factors that complicate the equation, such as how the customer arrived at the pub. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that customers drive cars whether they are buying beer at a grocery store or a brewpub, so there is no net additional expense or reduction of energy during that part of the formula. On the other hand, with very few exceptions, the glass beer bottles arrived at the grocery or beer store in a truck fueled with petroleum, whereas the beer in the brewpub was merely piped from a storage vessel to a serving vessel within the same building.

Based on these packaging and dispensing options and the lower levels of energy needed for refrigeration, brewpubs are starting to look like a better bet for someone concerned about reducing the environmental footprint associated with their beer drinking. Now consider one additional factor: fresh flavor. It’s hard to get a fresher beer than one served at the point of production. Since quality suffers when beer is exposed to light, heat, and oxygen, foreshortening a beer’s lifespan from fermentation tank to beer drinker has the benefit of improved freshness and flavor. Score one for brewpubs.

Unfortunately, not many brewpubs in the Mid-Atlantic region are using organic ingredients yet. But now that Clipper City has converted their Oxford line to be certified organic, local craft connoisseurs have the option of locally produced bottled organic beer. What are the environmental trade-offs of a non-organic draft beer compared to an organic bottled beer? The complexity of the issue is almost mind-numbing. But I do know one thing. As the number of brewpubs in America continues to grow, and more brewers shift to organic ingredients, life keeps getting better for beer drinkers.


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