Oh the difficult life of a beer blogger. Always tasting for a new story, a new angle. Here’s my year in beer for 2015.
I began the year in Florida, spending most of January in Pinellas County. January in the Tampa Bay area was often grey, damp, and cool. I barely saw the sun for weeks.
While it wasn’t the greatest outdoor weather, it did give me plenty of face time with my friends at 7venth Sun Brewing in Dunedin. If you’ve ever been around me and the topic of Florida beer has come up, you know how much I love 7venth Sun. Great beer, great people, fun customers, great taproom scene.
Just a bit north of 7venth Sun I had a good time one evening at Stilt House brewery in Palm Harbor. I also enjoyed spending time at two breweries in my general Pinellas County neighborhood: Barley Mow (in Largo) and Rapp (in Pinellas Park). They are both solid examples of the top-notch beer scene found today in the Tampa Bay region.
At Rapp, I’m partial to his more-uncommon European styles, like the totally excellent Gose, Berliner, Lichtenhainer, and Kolsch. At Barley Mow, I fed my hunger for Belgian-style rye pale ale with their Selkie. That beer just suits me. Sessional, great mouthfeel, pleasant aromas from the yeast and hops, a bit cloudy, and rye-spicy in a good way.
In late January, I headed north to Asheville’s Winter Warmer Festival. If you’d like to get a real feel for the small brewery scene around western North Carolina (and not just Asheville), I can highly recommend this festival. A number of the small breweries there impressed me. I blogged about this festival on BrilliantStream.com.
Of course no visit to Asheville is complete for me anymore without a visit to the Wicked Weed Funkatorium. If you have a tolerance/passion for sour and funky beer styles—maybe a bit experimental—it’s worth every penny. A taste of Serenity Wild Ale is like wining the lottery.
A stop into Burial Beer Company’s anything-goes taproom turned up some crazy stuff that I really enjoyed. Their Skillet Donut Stout made a killer breakfast. A guest tap of Fonta Flora’s Beet, Rhymes and Life Beet Saison was a walk in the Garden of Eden.
I returned to Charleston at the end of January just in time to help the importer and distributor kickoff the a new line of Belgian beer entering the state. the folks at B&D Gastropub did a great job with the party.
For February I got a good dose of snowy horrible weather. But we didn’t let it keep us from a little Cincinnati road trip with fellow-beer-traveler Rich Ireland. We especially enjoyed our visit to Rhinegeist Brewery in Over-the-Rhine.
The good thing about February is that the legislative session was seeing some action on both the brewery and distillery fronts. While visiting one day found Chad Bishop of Hatfield & McCoy distillery displaying his wares and supporting the legislation to lower state fees/taxes on distillery tasting rooms. (That bill passed and has really helped out several of our small distillers.)
At the West Virginia Small Farm Conference I enjoyed meeting a guy (Steven Settimi) who was starting a new farm-to-bottle distillery operation in the state’s Eastern Panhandle called Flying Squirrel Ranch & Farm.
My year in beer: Spring
In March, it was back to Florida for some Tampa Bay Beer Week, baseball, sunshine, and beer festivals. Tampa Bay Beer Week has really developed into a very good one. I began at the kickoff party in downtown St. Pete and ended 9 days later at the Hunahpu’s Hangover Party.
While attending a Pittsburgh Pirates spring training game in Bradenton, it was so nice having Darwin Brewing Company directly across the street from the stadium. They excel at lagers and tropical IPAs.
I worked the Florida Brewers Ball festival in Tampa and saw my friends at 7venth Sun Brewing take home several beer medals and the top prize as Small Brewery of the Year in the Best of Florida Beer championships.
I also really got a kick out of the passion-fruit flavored beer that took best-of-show that day. It was the reddest-colored beer I’ve ever seen.
The next weekend I had the pleasure to work Hunahpu’s Day at the Cigar City brewery. I poured for a Eugene, Oregon, brewery called Oakshire that couldn’t be there in person because they had their big annual festival that same day in Oregon. My table happened to be right next Jackie O’s and Crooked Stave’s taps. That was cool, right?
Beyond the outlandishly awesome beers available at the festival, my highlight was spending time with Ron Gansburg, brewmaster at Cascade Brewing (a.k.a. The House of Sours) in Portland, OR. After he graciously helped me get my tap set-up adjusted, he invited me over to his Cascade tent for some special sampling prior to the event getting started. I might have been briefly in heaven.
Retuned to West Virginia in mid March in time to celebrate the passage of the small brewery legislation that among other things allowed restaurants and retailers to fill growlers. Rob Absten, father of the growler bill language, had a right to be happy with the legislation, which more than any other thing in 2015, expanded the market for and visibility of craft beer in the state.
By late March it was back on the road again, this time to Raleigh, North Carolina to visit friends and attend the Cardinal direction Beeriest (a.k.a. NC Saison/Farmhouse Ale Festival). I didn’t think NC would likely have enough good saisons to make this much of a festival. I was wrong. The stuff from Haw River, Fonta Flora, Steel String, Burial and Pisgah, among others, was tremendous.
Back to Charleston in April, it was fun attending the inaugural Charlie West Brew Fest at Appalachian Power Park. The local beer stands were soon overrun and mostly empty. I hoped this outpouring of support for local beer would help the ballpark’s management promote more local beer throughout the summer.
In May, I ventured over to Lewisburg to check out the new in-brewery taproom at Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company. I found a lot to my liking, including a tank sample of Devil Anse IPA and their new Wild & Wonderful series.
Another May road trip found me at the Chesterfield produce auction in Athens County, Ohio. Of course, no trip in that direction would be complete without a refreshment stop at Deanna and Kelly’s West End Ciderhouse. It’s the classiest bar in the region.
My year in beer: Summer
To celebrate my birthday weekend in early June, I treated myself to a trip to Washington, DC, to attend the SAVOR craft beer even put on by the Brewers Association. Since I was driving, I took my times on the way up, making several overnight stops along the way.
The first day, I visited with Lincoln Wilkins of Blackwater Brewing Company in Davis and heard his plans for brewery expansion. I also sampled his excellent European-style session ales. Lincoln has quite an interesting background that I wrote about in BrilliantStream.
Next, came a stop to meet new brewery owner Jon Robeson and see his Stumptown Ales operation also in Davis. I was excited by his in-your-face hoppy beers. They were better than I expected. This place has much promise, I thought—so I wrote a piece about it.
I made a stop in Thomas, WV, to check on the canning operation at West Virginia’s most popular brewery, Mountain State. I found everyone in the brewery busting their tails trying to keep up with demand since they moved all production back to Thomas from a contract brewer in Maryland.
Rolling into Berkeley Springs, WV, I found Karl Wagenbrenner busy getting his new Berkeley Springs Brewing company ready to open. Karl’s a great guy with a real passion for brewing. Since he’s now opened, his brewery has become a real asset to the area.
The next day, a stop in Hagerstown, Maryland found me meeting with former West Virginia brewer Dan Mearzluft. Busy at work that day, Dan is now the head guy at Antietam Brewery. He’s also likely the most experienced and award-winning brewer in our region. I did a feature on him later for BrilliantStream.
For my birthday lunch I splurged on the Brewers Brunch at Birch & Barley. I couldn’t have been happier. A bunch of brewery folks were there too. Steve Grossman, Ken’s brother, sat at my table. The beer pairing were oh so good, if a bit tilted toward the 10% range. What a way to celebrate a birthday.
I got back to Charleston in time to help celebrate the new growler law. The folks at local restaurant Black Sheep Burrito and Brews were busy filling growlers on the first day it was legal.
In mid-June I went back to North Carolina for the State of Origin Festival in Morganton. Hosted by one of my favorite breweries, Fonta Flora, the festival is a smorgasbord of North Carolina terrior. The festival requires that breweries bring beers with at least one North Carolina-grown/produced ingredient.
When I returned to Charleston, I went over to see Ted Armbrecht and get his take on the new growler filling station he installed at his Wine Shop at Capitol Market. He couldn’t have been happier. Beer sales were going through the roof, he said.
The second half of June had me busy tracking down more local craft beer activities. On a rainy June 20th, I dropped into Ashland, Ky., for its first ever downtown beer festival: The Firkin Fest. It was a great time.
The next day, I caught up with Greenbrier Valley Brewing’s Wil Laska pouring Mothman Black IPA at the first ever FestivALL craft beer festival in Charleston.
Taking a short break from beer, I took time to attend the Wine and All that Jazz Festival at the University of Charleston. I discovered some pretty good meads and melomels, including a pretty red one from KENCO Farms in Sutton, WV.
Late in the day, the setting sun put on a beautiful show for us festival goers as it reflected off the state capitol building across the river.
As July rolled around, so did some more excellent beer outings. This one to Summit Beer Center, Huntington’s premier craft beer bar, showed me and my friends a good time. I love visiting with Jeff McKay, the proprietor there.
With growler sales rapidly growing in WV, I went to see the owner of a specialty meat market, who had recently gotten into craft beer. Ron Cole said installing his growler filling station at T & M Meats was the best investment he had made.
In the middle of July, Ohio Brew Week took over Athens. Getting over there was a must. I to ok the 90 minute drive just in time to get in on the special Brew Week tour at Little Fish Brewing Company, which had only opened for business three days earlier. I’m excited about these guys. They are specializing in a mix of funky, barrel-aged saisons and sours along with several very session-oriented ales and lagers. That mix is right up my alley.
While head brewer Brad Clark was showing us around Jackie O’s, I learned that the brewery had put a hold on brewing my favorite of their canned beers (Hop Ryot). Seems they had to make more runs of the popular Mystic Mama IPA to keep up with demandand. With the brewery at full capacity, something had to give, and it was Hop Ryot. Good news is, they’ve since resumed production of Hop Ryot.
Athens’ other new brewery was just a mile or so out of downtown, so I went over to see it too. Devil’s Kettle Brewing focuses more on standard, traditional styles, with nothing too outlandish to start. Owner-brewer Cameron Fuller told up all about the automated systems that run and clean his brewhouse.
Leaving Ohio, I headed back to Asheville—this time for the American Beer Bloggers Conference. As much party as it is conference, I love the time spent with bloggers from all over the country. It’s great camaraderie, with loads of useful information. There were also lots of craft beer highlights.
I took a tour there, but I don’t remember much other than the two-year-old brewery had already outgrown its space, and an expansion was under way. Outside in the Oskar Blues picnic-table courtyard, there was tons of beer waiting for us on that hot day. That brewery doesn’t make a bad beer.
All us beer bloggers were invited to a release party for Sierra Nevada’s new Oktoberfest Beer, which was a collaboration with Brauhaus Riegele of Augsburg, Germany. That was one special event with wonderful German-style food and lots of fresh fest beer. SNBC really nailed this Oktoberfest. About as good any you’d ever find.
After a couple of beers, I gained the confidence to approach one of the brewery owners from Augsburg and say something in my best German. He smiled and answered me in English. Not sure how to take that exactly.
Back at the conference hotel we had plenty of beer tastings and hospitality areas. I really like what Katie from Highland Brewing was offering that night. This Kinsman Project was their St. Terese’sPale Ale aged in small batches on blackberries and raspberries. Great flavor.
Maybe because most of the attendees were from far away, but the Hop Drop ‘N Roll was cherished at the bloggers conference. People from out of the region kept trying to smuggle it back to their rooms and into their suitcases. We had to fight to keep some for our tasting tables.
While in Asheville, there were more boring repeat stops at places like Burial, Funkatorium, Green Man and the like. I did make my first visit to Catawba Brewing Company’s new South Slope tasting room . My friends and I enjoyed our flights.
Before leaving town, I got a look at Hi-Wire Brewing Company’s new production facility and taproom while it was still under construction. It’s now open and in operating.
On the way back home, I took a little drive around southwest Virginia and discovered Ken Monyak and his brand new Bristol Brewery. He has a great realistic attitude, good brewing skills, and a sweet location in the old Greyhound bus terminal.
Full Steam Brewery out of Durham, NC, made what might have been my favorite hot-weather beer. Sean Lilly Wilson is one of the most creative plow-to-pint brewers I know, and his Summer Basil Farmhouse Ale really hit the spot on a steamy late July afternoon.
I’m always willing to try a beer offered by my friend Yogi Dean. That day in August, he was pouring for Bridge Brew Works out of Fayetteville, WV. we were all Huntington at the Rails & Ales Craft Beer Festival.
In its third year, this festival has moved up from local to regional in status. Undoubtedly the greatest beer variety and best-run beer festival in the state. Set in a park along the banks of the Ohio River, the festival does about everything right.
Starting back in the summer, I’ve been enjoying visits to Bricks and Barrels in Charleston. It has undoubtedly the best beer selection of any fine dining restaurant in the city, and possibly the state. In this photo they were doing an all-West-Virginia beer tap takeover.
When Oskar Blues finally hit West Virginia in late August, the state celebrated for weeks. I had fun with my friends Chris and Lynette attending the Oskar Blues launch party at Sam’s Cafe in Charleston.
My year in beer: Autumn
In early September, I was so happy to see Bridge Brew Works open their tasting room at the brewery in Fayetteville. They have this cool counter pressure growler filler.
At the mid-September WV Distilled Spirits Trade Show in Charleston, I enjoyed working with about ten of my state’s small distillery operators. They have a wide range of product and they’re getting real good at it.
While wandering around the back lot of Heston Farm Winery in Fairmont, I spotted these three beer serving tanks. Yes, they did purchase them in hopes of adding a brewery in 2016. See more here.
Well, its October and what good would it be without an Oktoberfest or two. Bramwell Oktoberfest celebrated its 20th anniversary and I was glad to write about it in BrilliantStrea.com. Our friends from Sunken City Brewing in Smith Mountain Lake, Va., were there.
One of my fall hobbies was stopping by Jackie O’s in Athens, Ohio every few weeks to monitor the construction progress on their brewery expansion.
At the end of October, we helped welcome Devils Backbone Brewing family of award-winning beers to West Virginia.
I discovered that Devils Backbone head brewer, Jason Oliver has a strong West Virginia connection and I wrote about it.
Late October through the mid-November always finds me in Florida, to, among other things, attend the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival.I get lots of great food and drink. It was the festival’s 20th year. I’ve only been going for 10.
With so much wine at the festival, I usually look elsewhere for my beer fix. This year, I visited the new Crooked Can Brewery in Winter Garden, It had just opened last spring. I loved their crowler machine. It was a really neat location with an adjoining food court. Good beer too. They took me in and showed me around the brewery. They have already begun a barrel program.
I also managed to slip away from the wine festival for a few days to find a good Florida beer festival and hang out with my Tampa Bay area craft beer friends. The Cajun Cafe on the Bayou in Pinellas Park has about two of these festivals a year.
My year in beer: Holiday Season
On Thanksgiving week, I joined my sister’s family for a few days of family time in the Great Smoky Mountains. Instead of beer, moonshine whisky is the star here. I visited five distilleries in the Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge areas. I also made my first ever visit to Dollywood.
Leaving Tennessee, it was time for one more stop in the mountains of North Carolina before going home for the Christmas season. I couldn’t resist visiting the Funkatorium where I tried some newer things, including Silence, a coffee-flavored sour.
I had to hurry back to WV so I wouldn’t miss the Bourbon County Stout vertical tasting with some beer enthusiast friends. They did a great job pulling together so many years of Bourbon Counties. That day, the 2011 was my favorite.
In mid-December, I helped promote the grand opening of Hawk Knob Cidery and enjoyed their dry, traditional-style products.
At the very end of the year, I had a great time announcing the BrilliantStream.com annual WV brewery and beer of the year awards. It’s helping create a healthy dialog around the craft beer community.
Well, that’s it. Looking back over all that stuff helps me understand that I had a busy and productive year. I hope my 2016 will be equally good.
Happy New Year to the West Virginia craft beer community. Best wishes for a healthy and prosperous 2016.