The end of December is traditionally the time for "thumb suckers." In the writing game, that is a name given to so-called big-picture pieces. The author spends a lot of time fretting and sucking on his thumb. In my case, I have spent a lot of time sucking down beers. Here is my look at the year in beer.
For me the highlight of the year in beer was Oct. 8 when Boog Powell started off Baltimore Beer Week. Wielding a specially crafted wooden mallet called the Star-Spangled Banger, the former Oriole slugger tapped a cask of Clipper City Loose Cannon. As the crowd gathered on the deck of the Constellation in the Inner Harbor cheered on Boog, he announced: "It's Tapped, Hon!"
Following Boog's blow, there were 10 days of beer tastings, talks and events celebrating the region's yeasty roots. For instance, in White Marsh a handful of home-brewers worked for a day with Mike McDonald at the Red Brick Station. At Max's Taphouse in Fells Point, Casey Hard hollowed out a giant pumpkin and filled it with Cape Ann Fisherman's Pumpkin Stout. And in downtown Baltimore, some 600 real ale lovers jammed into the renovated Pratt Street Ale House to taste brews, such as Olivers Bishops Breakfast and Victory Yakima Twilight, drawn from dozens of firkins. The region's first beer week was a frothy success and another is planned.
I should point out that I sat on the committee that ran beer week and I might be biased. But, hey, beer is personal. Moreover, I got to spend an evening drinking beer with Boog; life doesn't get much better.
Taking a more professional perspective, here, in my considered opinion, are some trends and other significant beery happenings in 2009.
Beer aged in wood : I think Dogfish's Sam Calagione gets credit for starting this one, with his Palo Santo Marron brew. Now every brewer with access to an ax seems to be trying it. Some are taking the extra step and added expense of aging their beers in bourbon-flavored wood.
Kinder, gentler beers : Yes, I know the extreme, high-alcohol beers are out there. I had some remarkable ones, including a 2000 Samuel Adams Millennium that was 20 percent alcohol by volume, at a tasting this fall at Max's Taphouse organized by Sandy Mitchell, columnist for the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. But this year, I also detected a move to calmer beers, so-called session beers. I take heart that, for instance, the winner of this year's prestigious British Beer Festival was Rudgate Ruby Mild of York, mild ale at 4.4 percent ABV. Moreover, the Exile ESB, a lower-alcohol (5.8 percent ABV) brew from Evolution Craft Brewing Company, a new operation in Delmar, Del., is a welcome arrival.
Births : In addition to the arrival of Evolution, we welcomed 16 Mile Brewing Company in Georgetown, Del., into the ranks of area brewers. And there was a notable rebirth. The defunct old American Brewery on Gay Street, a sizable player in the city's brewing history, came back to life this summer, albeit as office space.
Honors : We are blessed to live near skilled brewers, a fact reinforced by the judges of this year's Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Flying Dog in Frederick won three gold medals there for Horn Dog Dogtoberfest and Imperial Porter plus silver for Gonzo. It also garnered honors for the nation's best midsize brewery. Clipper City MarzHon - soon to be renamed Heavy Seas Marzen (in February Clipper City is changing its labels to read Heavy Seas, but the beers do not change) - won a bronze, as did Dog Brewing's Pub Dog Black Dog and Brewer's Alley's IPA.
Significant shindigs : The most publicized was the beer summit at the White House in July. President Barack Obama (Bud Light) sat down with Professor Henry Louis Gates (Samuel Adams Light) and Cambridge, Mass., police officer James Crowley (Blue Moon) to smooth over ill feelings after Crowley's arrest of Gates. It was not great beer, but I think serving beer at White House gatherings is a step in the right direction.
Another notable soiree was the Savor event May 30 in Washington, where brewers from around the nation matched their beers with fine foods. The culinary matchups were impressive, as was the fact that the tickets at $95 a pop were a hot item. Beer-drinking is moving upscale.
Beer and the arts: There were two major beer films in 2009. "Beer Wars" was a documentary about the marketing fight between craft brewers (Samuel Adams, Stone, Dogfish) and the big brewers such as Budweiser and Miller for shelf space. The other film, "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell," had more to do with the behavior of Tucker Max, who wrote a book by the same name, than with beer.
The most instructive beer book I read last year was Randy Mosher's "Tasting Beer." He suggests that the art of pouring a beer is a two-step operation. First pour a small amount straight into the center of a clean glass, and then allow it to settle. Next, you repeat the process until you have a full glass. This method he said, creates dense, creamy foam, and gets rid of excess gas in the brew. My New Year's resolution is to pour my beers using the two-step style.
Finally, I got a lot of heat last football season when I told how food coloring can make beer purple, the color of the Baltimore Ravens. To the purists who were alarmed that I was advocating altering the true color of beer, I say go suck your thumb. To the artistically inclined, I remind them that five drops of blue and two drops of red food coloring in the bottom of a glass will do the trick.