Best beers are headed here this weekend


THIS WILL BE AN exceptionally good weekend to drink beer in Baltimore. Some of the nation's best beers will be in town as a traveling version of the annual Great American Beer Festival, an event that until now has been confined to Denver, shows up in the Baltimore Convention Center.

In sessions running from Friday evening until Saturday night, beer enthusiasts will be able to sample from among 400 beers made by 125 North American breweries. The sips being offered are only one ounce, so the idea behind the event is to sample - not guzzle. (There are three sessions running from Friday evening to Saturday night. Advance tickets are $25 at area breweries or $30 at the Convention Center door.)

Unlike the Denver version of the beer festival, the Baltimore sessions will not award any medals for best brews. However, many of the beers that won medals in last summer's festival will be on tap.

In a telephone interview from his Colorado office, Bob Pease of the Association of Brewers told me there were several reasons he and other festival organizers picked Baltimore as the place to hold a shindig celebrating American beers. There was geography. Baltimore's East Coast location made it close to a large number of beer drinkers.

There was history. Back in 1995 when the association picked Baltimore as the site for its annual conference for home brewers, the convention drew record crowds, he said.

There was loyalty. The area's craft brewers - especially the folks at the Baltimore Brewing Co., Sisson's and the Wharf Rat - were willing to help organize the event. "Baltimore is a strong beer town," Pease said. "On the East Coast, Baltimore and Boston are the real hot spots for craft beers," he said.

There was one other factor, at least in Pease's mind, to land the beer festival in Baltimore. There was the home-boy factor. "I am from Ellicott City, Mount Hebron High School, class of 1979," Pease said.

The beers of Coors, Miller and Stroh - among the nation's largest brewers - will be at the festival, along with the beers from small operations like DuClaw Brewing Co. of Bel Air.

"That is what the festival is all about, showing the wide variety of styles in American beer," said Pete Slosberg. Founder of Pete's Brewing Co. in Palo Alto, Calif., Slosberg will be at the Baltimore festival on Friday signing copies of his new book, "Beer for Pete's Sake" (Siris Books, 1998). Slosberg began brewing Pete's Wicked Ale in his home in the mid-1980s, and now his line of nine beers is sold in 49 states. No longer a brewer, Slosberg is a goodwill ambassador for American beer, traveling the country giving speeches.

When I asked Slosberg to comment on the state of the average American beer drinker, he gave me a quick reply. "Confused," he said, explaining that so many kinds of beer are showing up on store shelves that the average beer drinker is overloaded with choices. Rather than experimenting with something new, the average beer drinker is, in Slosberg's view, "sticking with something tried-and-true, with a beer he knows." Eventually, he predicted, there will be a consolidation and there will be fewer brands on the shelves.

He also mentioned a sign of trouble on the American beer scene: the growth of sales of imports. In recent years America's super-premium beers - beers made in brewpubs, microbreweries and the slightly larger outfits known as craft breweries - have been the shining star of the American beer market. Even though their sales were small - a drop in the bucket compared to the sales of mainstream beers like Budweiser and Miller Lite - the sales of these handcrafted beers were growing while sales of other beers were flat. Last year, however, according to Slosberg, the super-premium beers lost some of their luster. For the first time in years, their sales remained flat. At the same time, sales of imports grew.

Taking a swipe at the imports, the so-called "green bottle" beers, Slosberg said American beer drinkers needed to be told "that beer doesn't travel across the ocean that well." On a more positive note, he said American brewers could help their cause by telling customers how beers can be happily matched with food.

Stephen Beaumont will also be at the American festival this weekend, promoting the idea of matching food and beer, and signing copies of his new book, "Stephen Beaumont's Brewpub Cooking." In a telephone interview from his home in Toronto, Beaumont told me what beers he recommended sipping while eating Baltimore's favorite food, crab meat. For a crab cake, Beaumont recommended a cream ale. And, for steamed crabs covered with pepper, he recommended an "IPA" or India Pale Ale. The hops, he explained, would cut the heat of the pepper, while still preserving the peppery flavor.

Maybe, but if I asked a crab house waitress for that kind of beer, I would be sure to say "Gimme an IPA, Hon."

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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