“Drink Local” does not mean settling for inferior beer, wine, or liquor.
Case in Point: Our darlin’ daughter, Naomi, and her fiancee, Tricia, took a little day trip out to Vashon Island last Saturday. For those not in Sea-patch, Vashon is a small, sleepy chunk of scruffy rurality that lies just across Elliott Bay and just a couple of miles south of downtown Seattle. It’s famous only, really, as the home of Chris Camarda and his universally celebrated winery, Andrew Will. I had a bad experience at the local burger joint a couple of years back and haven’t been back since. So, when I heard Naomi was there, I asked her to BOLO for breweries, as I knew of exactly zero Vashon folks brewing anything besides coffee.
About two hours later, we got a frantic phone call with news that there is, indeed, such a thing as Cliff’s Beers, Vashon Brewing Company and that Cliff was eager to have me try his beers. We didn’t hook up with her until the next evening and wound up bringing home Cliff’s “Aroma Therapy” IPA. According to Naomi, Cliff’s brewery is about 10′ x 10′ and it was hard to even fit Cliff and his two guests in there.
Now, understand that A) I love nano-breweries, but that B), they are rarely any more than just very good.
Cliff’s IPA was STUNNING…No, let me rephrase that: EFFIN’ STUNNING. Big, luminous amber, just about the most aromatic IPA I have ever experienced, and body for days. It’s not heavy and ponderous but has that sort of intensity and, unlike many, MANY IPAs that I taste with such numbing regularity, it is actually refreshing and would be a killer beer for summer picnics and a ridiculous variety of foods. The flavors are absolutely haunting. Judye and I debated what exactly we were tasting for a solid twenty minutes: Graham cracker? Something herbal but not herbs; more like a savory/sweet leaf of some sort? What in wine would be called “cigar box”? Caramel apple? Apricots? Check, check, check, check, and check – and more. This was a beer that any one of the larger craft breweries would proudly slap a label on, and NO, I am not exaggerating this one molecule. Don’t believe me? Get your fanny on the ferry and go see Cliff. Tell him you want the Aroma Therapy and then find a good water view (not difficult, on Vashon) and drink the stuff.
In a year which is not even half over but has already been one of the best beer years of my ridiculously long life, this was nothing short of a revelation. With the sole exceptions of the original Slippery Pig (a Poulsbo, WA, brewery that used to be run out of a garden shed) and John Julum’s Big Block Brewing (which may be a nano but, if it is, is to most nanos what a suitcase nuke is to a cherry bomb), this was easily the best nano-brewery ale I’ve ever tasted. Cliff, old pal, MAKE MORE. Don’t tweak a damned thing and at least try to place some kegs somewhere besides Vashon, ’cause I don’t want to have to watch my back for that burger guy while enjoying your shocking beer. 95 Points…Really.
I mentioned this because I really do think Cliff has done something that deserves attention but also to make a larger point.
“Drink Local” should be more than one of those contemporary axioms that we all pay lip service to but treat casually. I’ve watched for better than a decade, now, as huge roving hoards of what I regretfully must describe as “chumps” dashed around to beer shops and bars and grocery stores and probably even Linens ‘N’ Things, in search of bottles of Pliny the Elder, the bombastic, hugely-overrated thing that put Russian River Brewing Company on the map. I’ve also watched many of those same obsessives chase around after Bourbon County and Hunahpu’s and Parabola and Westvleteren and, basically, anything that’s gotten some pub and is hard to get. I said what I said about Pliny not because I hate the stuff. It’s a pretty good beer, really, if you like the sensation of licking a pine tree – which I do, in certain moods. But, because of the irrational cult which has sprouted around it, Pliny, at this point, represents everything that’s wrong with the Craft Beer Culture, circa 2015. I can’t even look at the label, anymore. As I’ve written before here, I’ve held seven different IPA tastings in the past ten years, in which the only common beer was Pliny, and surrounded it with between five and eight other Imperial-Double IPAs. The attendees were mostly (about 70%) beverage industry professionals,with a smattering of average beer geeks, many of whom were professed Pliny fans. In NONE of these blind tastings was Pliny chosen as the best ale on the table. In two, it finished dead last and no better than fourth in any of them. It “lost” to beers which Include Ninkasi “Tricerahops”, Deschutes “Hop Henge”, Boundary Bay IPA, Old Schoolhouse Imperial IPA, Moylan’s “Hopsickle”, Midnight Sun “Cohoho”, Dogfish 90 Minute, Green Flash “West Coast”, Bell’s “Hopslam”, Victory “DirtWolf”, and Bear Republic “Racer X”, among many others.
In NONE of these tastings, in which everyone was asked to write down any beer they felt they could name, did anybody identify it as Pliny. And three people were absolutely convinced that it was Oskar Blues “Gubna”.
Because of our national character (“More is More”, “Bigger Is Better!”) and the natural human tendency to compete, we spawn these legends surrounding things of all types that we find hard to get. If RRBC suddenly decided to contract Firestone Walker and Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas and a few other of their brewer buddies to brew more Pliny, so that the mammoth demand could finally be satisfied, you’d watch Pliny become just another really good beer, overnight.
The point of this post – and that “brief” business is now exposed for the fantasy it was – is that, if you let go of that fixation on The Hottest New Wine and The Shiny New Brewery and That Must-Have Scotch, just by maybe 50%, you’ll suddenly find time to visit all of the places in your area that are making beer, wine, and liquor. If you taste without expectations, stay open to surprises, and don’t obsess on how your friends will judge your choices or whether people will think you’re Cool, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll find something that leaves you weak-kneed and swooning. Given the rather stunning uptick in quality of everything in the adult beverage realm, lately, I betcha you’re gonna find an IPA that stacks up strongly with Pliny. Beer is now being brewed and brewed beautifully in all 50 states. Two of my own personal Top Twenty beers of 2014 were made in Nebraska; one more in Iowa! The chances that somebody within a few hours drive of you is making a great Vodka or Bourbon are actually pretty good. The distilling business is booming in much the same way wine boomed in the 90s and beer is exploding now. And almost every state is now making wine. Estates wines from Arizona and Missouri made my Top Twenty Wines list for 2014. And finding those gems like Nebraska Brewing’s “Fathead” or Toppling Goliath “Assassin” or Mount Pleasant Winery NV Tawny Library Vol. XIV Port or Stein’s Distillery “Big Buck” Bourbon…and, yes, Cliff’s Beer, Vashon Brewing Company “Aroma Therapy”, is becoming almost routine. That thing we all came to love about America’s independent brewing culture – the spirit of co-operation and community that has distinguished Craft Beer from almost every other business class – is breeding serious, world-class accomplishment at warp speed. That lesson has not been lost on artisan distilling and has even come to be an article of faith in wine, a discipline in which secrets used to be closely guarded but which is becoming far more collaborative and open.
“Drink Local” is NOT just a slogan used as a bow to Small Business. It is a literal, practical buying strategy for astute drinkers of beverages with octane content. At some point in the futures of all these folks who chase around after The Next Big Thing, they’ll find the influence of their peer groups waning and discover that making their own minds up about what they like to drink is actually preferable to spending a week and $85 in gas to chase down the latest Bourbon County sighting. If many of those reading this are not, in fact, situated in a hometown which offers the embarrassment of riches that we have to choose from here, in and around Seattle, here’s a great piece of advice…
The way you help grow that sort of target-rich environment of possible beer/wine/spirits is to SUPPORT – with $$$, not just with empty talk – those people around you, those brave and resourceful folks who have hung their asses out there over the financial Abyss to pursue their Dream . If “Drink Local”, in your case, means expanding the definition of “Local” to include your entire state, drink that version of Local. And don’t just limit it to booze. Buy local ice cream, sodas, cheese, movies, tools, cars, books…everything. As your hometown economy prospers, YOU win: better products, rising property values, more venture capital…the works.
“Drink Local” Is…Smart.
DON’T be a Chump.
IF YOU OWN A BREWERY, WINERY, OR DISTILLERY IN ANOTHER PART OF THE U.S., THE POUR FOOL WOULD LOVE TO REVIEW YOUR WARES. IF YOU’RE INTERESTED, PLEASE SEND SAMPLES TO THIS ADDRESS…AND THANKS!: