09 October 2005

Beer Tasting or Getting Lost in Birmingham sucks!

There was a Free the Hops beer tasting last night. It was held in Birmingham and started at 8:00. I was planning on being there, well, right at 8:00, or maybe a few minutes after. We didn't actually get there until about 9:30 or 9:45.

Getting lost in Birmingham is not a fun way to spend an evening. Especially when you're in the "not so nice" parts of town.

So here's the thing. The invite specified an address (2301 1st Ave N, Birmingham, AL) and a landmark (at the Liberty House). Now, apparently, if I was native to Birmingham, those directions are about as clear as can be, since the Liberty House is a local landmark of sorts, and the numbered streets are laid out in a pretty decent grid that makes it easy to find these sorts of locations.

Unfortunately, I'm not from Birmingham and know nothing about the geography, so I punched the address into www.mapsonus.com and got what looked like really decent directions for how to get there. And, to be fair to mapsonus.com, it got me to a 2301 1st Ave N, Birmingham, just not the 2301 1st Ave N, Birmingham. Turns out that there are two, apparently completely unconnected, sets of numbered streets in Birmingham, one of which is in the downtown area, and the other of which is in the ghetto.

Guess which one mapsonus.com sent me to? Yeah. The error was so non-obvious that even when I called Danner Kline (president of FTH) to get more specific directions, he had no idea that I was way off and figured I was within walking distance of the location. So we circled. And circled. And circled.

Finally, after about an hour of trying to find the place, we said, "Screw it, let's just find something to eat (we were starving at the time, having eaten lunch about six hours before) and forget the tasting." But Birmingham had surprises for us yet -- would you believe that we simply could not even find a place to eat, we were so far from anything resembling the city of Birmingham's retail/cultural/business areas? Beth and I drove around the city, miserable and irritable, looking for some place, anyplace, to eat that we could actually catch our breath in, when my cellphone rang again.

It was Danner, calling to check on me. "Dude, where are you?"

"I don't know if we're gonna make it. It's so late already (it was about 9:20 at this point) and we're probably just going to get a bite to eat and call it a night."

"Well, where are you?" I described to him the basic layout of the streets, landmarks we had recently passed, street names. By this time we had been driving so long that absent a trail of breadcrumbs we were never going to find our way back the way we came -- we were just looking for an interstate or some other readily identifiable major landmark. But Danner said, "Hey, you're really only about ten minutes from here. We're still going strong. Are you sure you can't make it?"

I told Beth, "He says we're just a few minutes away," and she agreed to try to take me there. I got directions from Danner (basically, turn around and go the other way, then turn right at 1st Street N), and hung up. And lo and behold, the place seemed to magically appear in front of us; once we were in the right section of town, it turns out that the location was pretty damned easy to find.

So we climbed four flights of stairs (not fun for Beth or myself, as worn out and irritable as we were) carrying the sixer of mixed beers plus two nitro cans, and made it to the roof of the Liberty House, where the tasting was obviously in full swing. It was a really nice, cool temperature out -- thankfully I'd worn a long-sleeve button down over my T-shirt, but even with her jacket Beth was freezing all night. We split up, me heading for the beer table where I meeted and greeted for a bit (and handed out bottles of the stuff I brought from home to share) and Beth skedaddled to the back to drink the two Mike's Hard Lemonades we purchased at Wayne's Package Store on the way down, and chatted with some of the other people who had either already done all their tasting for the night, or were not tasting at all.

The two nitro cans I brought were a couple of Young's Double Chocolate Stouts, and those came open pretty immediately, given that no one else had brought any Young's and they were already at the stouts when I got there. (Honestly, I was happy that others liked them so much -- I had brought them really as an afterthought, figuring that since I had them leftover from a previous trip to Nashville, I might as well share them with others.) Nice to get that kind of welcome from the crowd, even having been so late, but I guess when you bring some good beer, everybody likes you.

After that, I had a chance to try Old Engine Oil, which lived up to its name and then some, but was actually a very nice full-bodied stout. Only 6.2% alcohol, but it had the flavorful complexity and the mouthfeel of an Imperial Stout. Very nice, and something I'd like to get a full bottle of, although I'm not sure how well it would pair with a meal.

Here's where the thing got really interesting -- as I was tasting and enjoying the Old Engine Oil, a voice says, "Daniel? Daniel Harper?"

I look up at the face from which my name is coming, and recognize it as vaguely familiar. "I know you...." I stammer, before the visage says, "Joseph."

"From ASMS?"

"Yeah, wow, how have you been?"

(A bit of explanation, but only a bit, so that this post doesn't grow as long as the list of admonishments in Leviticus. ASMS is a magnet school in Mobile, AL, where Joseph and I attended -- I was a year older than he, so I was a senior while he was a junior, but he also happened to live in Prattville, AL, at the time, and so I got to visit his parents' apartment once or twice since my family lived in Millbrook, less than five miles away. To keep it simple, Joseph and I hadn't seen each other in about seven years, so to run into one another at a tasting was pretty much the highlight of the evening for me -- despite how nice it was to get a chance to taste some of those really good beers.)

We chatted for a bit, tasting on this and that, nothing too special. (Most of the beers at the tasting I'd had before and was simply getting a chance to enjoy, so I didn't take detailed notes. I know I had some Mackeson XXX at one point, and I believe I was sipping on a Rogue American Amber for most of this period.) Danner came up to me, apologized for my getting lost (he really is a nice guy, despite Beth and my desire to strangle him earlier), and made sure I was all right. And by, "made sure I was all right," what I mean is he said, "Down that. I got one for you."

I finished off that American Amber taster in about two swallows (a good beer, but a little hoppy to chug, at least for me) and Danner poured me a taste of something out of the smallest beer bottle I saw that night. It was Thomas Hardy's, and this stuff poured like hot maple syrup. The aroma was really nice, thickly inviting, and the taste -- oh my God, heavenly. (Of course, Danner told me the things were going for something like $25 for four of those tiny bottles, so I guess I understand why it tasted so good.) Easily the best beer I tried for the first time that night, and one that I am definitely looking forward to being able to get in Alabama once we get these stupid laws changed.

We talked about the Thomas Hardy's for a bit, all of us (I think) in awe of its flavor, complexity, and 11.7% ABV, and I think at that moment, seeing an old friend I hadn't seen in years and drinking some of the finest beer on Earth, I decided that the immense driving time and confusion was probably worth it.

And then the really good stuff showed up. Yeah, that's right -- better than Thomas Hardy's, better than Mackeson XXX or Young's Double Chocolate, better even than that rank amateur Ommegang -- nope, I'm talking about Colt 45. And PBR. And a dab of Schlitz. This stuff is what we all come to these beer tastings for, a touch of the old-school quality brews that just can't be matched by any microbrew.

(Okay, I think my tongue is shoved so far into my cheek it's threatening to break through the skin at this point. A couple of people brought some "joke beers" to the tasting and, good sports --and drunkards-- all of us, we popped a couple of cans and tasted them like pros. Purely for the science, y'see?)

By this point, much of the structure of the thing was going out the window anyway and I, being pretty much behind the tasting table anyway, started getting requests for different beers as if I was running the thing. Always an adaptable sort (well, not really, but I do like giving people beers that I think they'll like) and armed with my trusty bottle opener (I carry a Bridgeport keychain bottle opener wherever I go) I started popping open brews and giving latecomers a taste of stuff they missed, or stuff they just wanted to try again. I opened maybe a half-dozen beers, passing around a few bottles to let people get some tasting done, including one of the two Rogue Mocha Porters I brought, and one of the two Olde Towne Ambers. The Mocha Porter was a hit, unfortunately the Huntsville-brewed Olde Towne was not. Hey, Olde Towne's still working the kinks out of their brewing process, so I'm willing to cut the local boys a little slack, but I still wish that I had had some of their hefeweizen (which really is good) to showcase the brewery.

Around this time Danner came up to me again and we chatted for a bit, about FTH, driving in Birmingham, and the like. He pointed out a beer that I hadn't tried yet, called something like Knoxville IPA. (A little help here on the name, Danner?) "Is it any good?" I asked.

Danner shook his head and smiled. "Not really. Tastes like somebody's homebrew that's just a little bit off."

"Is it worth trying?"

"Well, you should try it to try it, but it's not that great."

Good enough for me. I popped the cap and poured a couple of ounces into the plastic cup. Yep, pretty much exactly as Danner described it -- worth a chance, but certainly not a very good IPA. I finished off the small sample size, but probably wouldn't want a full bottle.

Around this time, the guy who actually lived in the building where this was going on, Wes, showed up with his Mom, fresh in from California. I'd never met him, so we shook hands and all, and it turned out that his mom had gotten some beers from California to share with us. This included some 12oz bottles of Young's Double Chocolate, so I tried it from the bottle, and I think I like it better that way -- the nitro cans give the beer a sort of astringent texture that I don't much care for. (Now that the beer's in 12oz bottles, it should be possible to get these in Alabama -- hint, hint, Alabama distributors and beer stores.)

Wes also had a couple of bottles of Brooklyn Brown Ale, which I'd heard nice things about but never had. I'm not the biggest fan of browns, but the Brooklyn had a complexity and hop bite that made it much more pleasant than most other beers of the style -- particularly Newcastle. Brooklyn isn't distributed in Alabama, but I think that's more due to the regional nature of the brewery than anything else -- so far as I know their Brown Ale is below 6% alcohol.

Time passed, Danner excused himself and left (apologizing again that I got so lost and promising me some Imperial Stout for the next one) and, well, all the beer that I had consumed suddenly started to catch up with me. Not in terms of the alcohol, but in terms of the bladder -- I excused myself, ran down those four flights of stairs about as fast as I could without shaking anything loose, and just barely made it to the restroom in time. A quick sigh of relief and thoroughly washed hands later, and I'm back to the roof.

Okay, so the tasting was pretty much dying by this time. I took back up my location behind the table, couldn't find my tasting glass (I believe Lee Winnige, a sort of unofficial second-in-command at FTH if I read it right, had been throwing some of the trash away and my cup got tossed along with it), so I started just drinking some of the leftovers from half-empty bottles behind the table. I finished off the Brooklyn Brown and some of the Olde Towne Amber, and Wes and I shared some Anchor Porter (he's a huge fan of porters, whereas I find the raisiny sweetness a bit much) while we chatted about dark beers in general. I swapped email addresses with Joseph and a couple of other people, and Beth and I decided to hit the road.

On the way out, we started asking if there was anyplace around to eat. It was past midnight at this point, and neither of us had eaten since about 2:00 pm, so we were pretty famished. Joseph, Wes, and a couple of other locals gave us some decent ideas of where to go that was open late, so we hopped in the car (she drove, having finished her two Mike's Hards hours before) and started down the path.

And got lost again. Who designed this city?

Fed up, exhausted, and ready to get out of town, we finally just settled on finding an interstate (which still took us about twenty minutes of false turns and stops) and hopped on I-65 heading north at right about exit 260 or so. Turns out she met some interesting people, one of whom is actually from the Huntsville area, so maybe we've enlarged our tiny social circle just a bit. Beth re-iterated that I owed her big time for this, and I agreed, apologized, and we chatted off and on as we came back to Huntsville along that pitch black interstate.

We stopped in Decatur for a quick Waffle House dinner. (Past 2:00 at the time, I guess it was breakfast, really.) We both had hasbrowns, mine a triple order, scattered, covered, smothered, and chunked, and she got a single order without the ham but with a side of pie. With tax and tip, the meal was still under fifteen dollars, and the comfort-food nature of the joint made a nice respite from the pain of driving around Birmingham, completely lost, for something like two hours.

We came home, I went to the bathroom, she went to bed. I checked my email, found an email from my mother that I decided to just answer tomorrow, and climbed into bed myself.

The moral of the story is: never plan a city with multiple locations with the same street address. And if you do, make sure that online mapping software knows that.


brianallen said...

Hey Daniel,
I talked with you and your wife just when you arrived. My wife, Karen, enjoyed talking with Beth.

I really enjoyed your Double Chocolate Stouts from Young.

You can check out my blog post on the tasting which includes a sample of the pictures I was taking and a link to all the pictures.

danielharper said...

Thanks, Brian -- it was nice meeting and chatting with you as well. Have to give me a call or an email sometime so we can get together at some point.

Great pictures. None of me, though -- I might have broken the camera if you'd tried.

brianallen said...

Yes, there are pictures of you. Follow the link at the bottom of the blog entry to see all of the pictures taken.

Here is a direct link to my pictures web site. Follow the instructions to login on the site. I have a picture of you with your old friend that you reunioned with that night. I made sure to that one of you together.

danielharper said...

Oh, that picture of me!

Somehow, the link at the top of the page directing me to the last fifty or so shots didn't make itself apparent enough for me to catch it.

I'm the guy on the left side of the photograph in IMG_9851 and I'm also in IMG_9852, in case anyone is interested in what I look like.

Brian, Danner was saying that there was talk of doing one of these in Huntsville -- do you know anything more about it?