Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What is a Grisette?

When I find a topic interesting there is a part of my brain that turns on and drives me to consume every piece of information possible about that subject. As a kid it wasn’t enough for me to know that Michael Jordan, my favorite athlete, once had to wear a number 12 jersey after his 23 was taken before a game. No, I had to know the team they were playing against (Orlando Magic) that game, and later learn which basketball card MJ showed up on wearing the 12 jersey (Sam Vincent). It’s why I can tell you (even though I’m sure you’ll never ask) that Elgin Baylor was hired by the Clippers as GM the day before the Bulls started their 1986 series with the Celtics in which Jordan famously scored 63 points during Game 2. I tell you this not to impress you with how much time I spent as kid reading about MJ, but to illustrate what should now be pretty obvious.  I need to know everything related to the topic of my obsession, tangential and pointless though it may be.

As I've grown older my adolescent obsession with MJ has been replaced with beer. For health reasons and due to my aforementioned tendency to consume information, I now consume beer knowledge at a frequency that greatly outpaces my actual beer consumption.  I read as much as I can stand, and while I don’t consider myself an expert by any means, I do like to think I know the basics. In other words, if I see a beer listing on a menu I don’t expect to see a style I don’t recognize.

Well, that happened to me recently and it made me quite happy because of the opportunity it provided. Tasty beers find their way to me fairly often, but it’s not common for them to be paired with the chance to learn something new. A collaboration Strawberry Rhubarb Grisette brewed by QuestBrewing and Burial Beer Co. provided such an opportunity. I’m familiar with Strawberry and Rhubarb, but a Grisette? That was a new one for me.  What is it? Naturally, I googled as soon as I had an opportunity but I was let down as there was almost no information available on the web. About the only detail I could find was the fact that a grisette is considered a miner’s version of the saisons famously brewed for farmhands. Not satisfied with so little information, I decided to reach out to the people at Quest Brewing and Sly Fox (another brewer of grisette) to see if they could help me fill in the details. Here is what I learned.

In the late 1800’s, the Hainaut province in Belgium started transforming into a mining region. Brewers, eager to satiate the locals, began producing recipes of a light gold ale aimed to quench the thirst of the miners. At the end of a shift, women adorning gray dresses commonly referred to as grisettes, greeted the miners with trays of the ale. At the peak of the Belgian mining industry there were upwards of 30 different grisettes made in the region. Today, only one brewery in Belgium, Brasserie Fraiart, markets a grisette. However, according to Phil Markowski, author of Farmhouse Ales, this is more of a pseudo brand name used for marketing than an actual representation of grisette as a traditional style.

The recipe of a grisette, much like their cousin the saison, is difficult to nail down traditionally speaking. When asked for specifics about the style, Sly Fox’s brewmaster Brian O’Reilly, thought that trying to throw grisette into a style was similar to attempting to classify free form jazz music inside a specific genre. Hard though it may be for the modern beer connoisseur to accept, Belgians by nature aren’t typically into defining styles in the same neat and tidy way an American or German brewer would. What I can tell you is that grisettes were most likely somewhere between 3-5% ABV, light bodied saisonesque beers, gold/blonde in color, and intended to be dry and refreshing.

As you can see, there isn't a ton of information available but even the short description of grisette I was able to hunt down makes me thirsty for one. Are the grisettes you'll run across traditional? Maybe, maybe not. But I can confirm that the quest the original brewers of grisette set out on, to deliver a thirst quenching ale, is alive and well even if it's a parched traveler and not tired miner on the receiving end of the pint.  

A special thanks goes to Brian O’Reilly from Sly Fox and Joe Burriss of Quest Brewing for taking the time to satisfy not only my thirst for good beer, but more importantly my thirst for beer knowledge. Cheers! Now to find a job where trays of beer are waiting for me at the end of the day.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Asheville, NC and Aspiring to become Beer City, USA

In 2009 Charlie Papazian started the Beer City USA Poll, a popular vote allowing beer drinkers to express their collective voice via an html radio button on a webpage long since gone. The goal of the poll was basic, simply giving beer drinkers an easy way to let the world know which city they thought represented craft beer the best. Asheville, North Carolina came out on top, winning or sharing the title from 2009-2012 before finally being unseated in 2013 by Grand Rapids, Michigan in what turned out to be the final running of the Beer City USA poll.

Knowing how well regarded Asheville is amongst beer drinkers, I bet it wouldn’t surprise you to hear I was ecstatic upon hearing the Beer Bloggers Conference would be held there in 2015. I was determined to attend no matter where it was located, but knowing I would get a chance to visit Asheville was icing on the cake. To call upon my inner Yoda, disappointed, I was not, and the trip down south for the conference this past July was one to remember. Rather than tell you all of the gory details of the beers I tried at each brewery and how great it was, I’m going to attempt to put together a list of key elements I saw in Asheville that helped make them Beer City USA.  And since I’m from Baltimore it only makes sense to do a little compare and contrast to see where we’re holding our own or dropping the ball in our own effort to become a countrywide beer lover’s destination. We’ll start with the proximity of breweries.

Proximity of Breweries

Wakeup in your hotel in downtown Asheville, roll out of bed, and find yourself surrounded by dozens of brewpubs and breweries. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. There are so many options, in fact, that within 20 minutes of my initial venture into the city I found myself starting to feel guilty about walking by multiple breweries simply because I had another destination in mind.  What kind of beer fan does that? I guess one lucky enough to find themselves in Asheville.

All of these small breweries and brewpubs clustered in such a small area is what truly separates Asheville from the average beer scene in most parts of the country. Variety is the spice of life and you just can’t put a price on knowing you have the opportunity to taste high quality beers everywhere you go. And you know what? It’s pretty damn nice knowing you can get your fill without worrying about you or your cohorts operating a vehicle.

How does Baltimore measure up?

We simply don’t have this. No two breweries are within a reasonable walking distance from one another. In fact, Baltimore City doesn’t have the biggest brewery representation in general. If we ever wanted to be considered a beer lovers destination, getting a few more breweries should be goal number one and ideally a fair number of them should be accessible by foot.

Quality & Variety

It goes without saying (SO NOW I MUST SAY IT), but without a wide variety of local beer for customers to pick from a city will never legitimately be considered a beer destination. Even more important than having any array of beer, though, is the quality with which it’s made.  Asheville had both of these facets on lock. I’ve already alluded to all of the breweries within city limits, but it’s the quality that really matters. Breweries with Belgian backgrounds, sour programs, or what I’m calling “American craft style breweries” are sprinkled about town as far as the eye can see. And what’s most impressive is how they all come together to function as a unit while still maintaining a healthy competitive individual presence.

Of course, all breweries want to stand out individually and do the best business they can, but understanding that the Asheville beer product is just as important as anything else, established brewers have been known to offer the new guys in town a helping hand to make sure the quality level stays as high as it currently is. That’s impressive and one of the biggest things I took away from the weekend I spent there. Everyone is in business for themselves, but there is strength in numbers and you’re only as strong as your weakest link. It might be cliché but it’s also true in this case.

How does Baltimore measure up?

Baltimore has some work to do if it hopes to find itself with a starring role in the major leagues of good beer. There’s obvious promise here. Union Craft Brewing owns a couple impressive medals and there are a few other breweries consistently pushing the envelope locally, but in my estimation there are few options that are standouts nationally to draw out of towners to our great city. If you’re a beer fan travelling through Asheville, you’d be absolutely crazy to leave without visiting the Wicked Weed Funkatorium. After all, stacks upon stacks of barrels aging and souring can’t be found just anywhere. Regrettably, there is no such place in Baltimore with that kind of appeal but that doesn’t mean there never will be.


So you’ve got a plethora of beers to select from and a surfeit of breweries in which to visit. The hotel leaves only a short walk to the good stuff and nobody is driving which leaves only one question; how much money is it going to cost to get a good feel for the beer scene with only a short time in this city? And the answer is, if you’re in Asheville, not very much.

I was blown away by the cheap price of beer during my visit. I’m used to paying anywhere from $6 - $8 for a typical beer, but in Asheville the average was running around $4 for a full pint. In fact, the only time I paid more than $5 for a beer was when I visited the Wicked Weed Funkatorium and got a sour beer for $6. These types of price points found everywhere in Asheville make beer approachable for any type of budget.

As great as the affordable price of beer was, my absolute favorite part of the Asheville beer scene was the availability of half pints at nearly every establishment. Yes, I know “taster flights” are pretty prevalent, but let’s be honest, those little sample glasses suck. I don’t want to taste a beer; I want to drink a beer. Half pints give you just enough to make you feel like you’re truly enjoying a beer and at $2 -$2.50 it’s easy to try a variety but still get value for your dollar. I wholeheartedly believe half pints should become a staple in every American bar/brewpub/brewery.

How does Baltimore measure up?

As I hinted at above, we don’t measure up here. It’s as simple as that. Prices for pints in Baltimore, whether at the bar or the brewery itself can be somewhat prohibitive depending upon your budget. There are reasons for that I won’t get into here, but I’ve got to think there is something that can change to allow local beer fans a little more bang for their buck.  And half pints? Make them available. If you make good beer and you’re proud it, let me have a drink because a sample just won’t do. As far as I know Pratt Street Alehouse is the only place offering half pints and I’d love it if we could have them on offer at more establishments across the area.


We all want to taste as many types of beer as we can, but at some point you’re going to need eat. Every brewpub I ate at on our trip showed the same care with food as they did with beer. That’s the way it should be. People that like good beer and care enough to travel for it are going to care about their food in the same way. Don’t just throw together a menu for the sake of having food. Wow us with your culinary skills and people will remember. Great food and great beer coming together is just smart business.

How does Baltimore measure up?

Ehh, our local food and beer options are okay. A few places such as Of Love and Regret really get it, a few miss the mark completely, and most fall somewhere in between. If we step up our food game, the beer scene becomes that much better by default. It’s a simple but often overlooked part of the beer experience and I’d like to see Baltimore do better.

Attractions Outside of Beer

What? You mean there are things to do for fun that don’t revolve around stainless steel fermentation tanks? I guess if you look hard enough you can find a few. In the case of Asheville you’ve got an excellent “shop local” small boutique kind of vibe to take in while you’re meandering from one bar to the next brewpub. You’ve also got the world famous Biltmore to check out where a day can easily be lost taking in the magnificent house and gardens. And, uh, I know I’m supposed to be talking about non-alcohol related entertainment but the Biltmore does boast their own wine and beer on the property as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to take in the outdoor activities found throughout the area but seeing people tubing down the river while on a bus ride to Sierra Nevada (oh yeah, they have a world class brewery a short drive away too) and Oskar Blues, I know exactly what I’ll be making time for should I return to in Asheville during the warm months in the future.

How does Baltimore measure up?

This is where Baltimore can stand toe to toe with Asheville. It’s beautiful here. We’ve got the Harbor, professional sports teams, different neighborhoods with their own individual personalities, history for the history buffs, and a city that makes it easy to just enjoy being outside. The draw is there. We’ve got a great city and with a few tweaks to the beer landscape Baltimore could be a huge draw.

Now it may seem as if I was bit hard on Baltimore in various parts of this post, but that’s only because I care. I want to see our beer scene expand, improve, and ultimately become a beer lover’s destination. The foundation is here for us to become Beer City USA, but it's going to take a strong desire to keep moving the ball forward. A lot of collaboration among the beer community is going to be needed.  Most importantly, breweries need to come to a realization that selling beer and representing your own brand becomes much easier when you combine great beer with the power of selling the beautiful city of Baltimore. Cheers to Baltimore – Beer City USA in the making.  And Cheers to Asheville for showing me what all other beer loving cities should aspire to become.