Sunday, April 13, 2008

Union Pizzeria - Not Your Usual Pie Place

Had some nice victuals with friends at Union Pizzeria in Evanston this past Friday night. As anticipated from the Yelp reviews, the drink list is longer than the food list, both are very nice though. Overall, much more interesting and elevated than a usual pizza place, with slightly higher prices to boot.

This is a new place, 2 months old, but very busy on a Friday eve. It was packed on our arrival near 6:45pm. Big trendy warehouse space, somewhat noisy but talk-able. Lots of spaces at the bar or in front with couches, which is good because the wait for our table was 45 minutes.

We ordered a pizza and drinks in the waiting area, and they came fast and the pizza was very good, lamb with lots of good cheese. They have a big brick oven behind the bar and from there you can see the fire blazing, very good crust and a nice pizza, lots of options too. When we finally sat down we ordered all of the cold appetizers (there are about 6) and one hot one, the kale, unusual but well done. We shared them and were almost full after these small plates, around $5 each. We did order the whole fish, a sea bass, which came full with the head and eyes, so one of us de-boned it and pulled off the meat, and it was great, baked on a wooden board, with lemons, lots of herbs including thyme, very nice, sweet and tasty. We also shared a sold burger, meaty and tasty. Full bloat afterwards, oh, oh, shared a very nice chocolate flan and a nice pound-cake with polenta in it, unusually good.

As for the beer and drinks list, this place was announced as a new massive beer location, but in reality they had 20 or so bottles of good choice, from IPA's to stouts and all in between. No drafts. Full back page of wine, with half a dozen reds by the glass, solid.

I had a Three Floyds Pride and Joy, a hoppy mild ale, and Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout, great beer. No fruit beer selection, disappointing. This list should be typical of what decent restaurants should have in this day and age, and I'm happy to say it is happening more now. Down with Macros, out with the Bud.

Anyway, I'd give the restaurant an A-, a definite return for us, neat place to take out of towners, and the beer list rates a solid B.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Interview with Ed McDevitt, Beer Aficionado

This is my discussion with a longtime beer aficionado (by the way aficionado is defined not as a snob but "an ardent devotee; fan, enthusiast"), and my introducer to good beers. I am happy to call him a friend and he has successively ramped up my taste for good beer since our friendship began in 1998. At that time if you asked me the best beer I drank was a black and tan. Ed McDevitt has been a good taste seeker since the 60's, was a home brewer in the early days when it became legal, an adviser and tag writer for local liquor stores, online reviewer of beers, and has a son who is a bartender and aspiring beer bar owner. It also happens to be his birthday today, so keep up the good drinking Ed, quality not quantity, and Happy Birthday!

We compiled this discussion over the past few days -

Q: So what did a good beer bar have in the pre-micro days?

"The only good ones were overseas lagers, like Lowenbrau (which before the 1980's was in its original receipe), other german beers, the local exception (when I was living in Massachusetts)- a brew by Narragansett, was it a black horse ale?, that was it. I was looking for beers with more hops, more flavor than macrobeers had. I remember the first micro I had was Anchor Steam, first had it in the early 80's, and after moving to Illinois I also remember the Christmas beer from Baderbrau ("Winterfest"), the Elmhurst, IL brewery (now gone) and one from the Eau Claire, WI Walter brewery, an all malt lager called Eau Claire All Malt Lager."

Q: When did you realize there were better imported beers from other than Germany?

"Not until a Chimay first tasted at an event in the mid-90's."

Q: When did you get your first piece of glass wear?

"Got a Point Brewery Glass in the 80's."

Q: Recall a few of the best tasting events you've attended?

"At the Village Tap in Chicago, there was a tasting held in the mid-90's by the new representative of B. United Importers, which included Aventinus, Schneider Weiss, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, one of the kellerbiers, a kölsch and a few others. Another was the first Midwest International Beer Exposition in 1996 at the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago. It had a big main floor, and there I had my first taste of Unibroue beers, some beers from Estes Park Brewery (Colorado), and many others. In the center of the room Vanberg and Dewulf introduced me to Rodenbach and invited me to a separate Belgian tasting, something I hadn't expected, held upstairs in a 1/2 ball room where I met Peter Celis. In 1997 the second MIBE was held at a big drafty old building, the Morgan St. Market. This was a quieter affair, topped by our getting ready to leave and finding the Duvel table, where there sat several of Duvel's 0.33 liter bottles. So I started to take several of them, when the Duvel rep informed me that we could not leave the premises with beer (other than inside us!), so he opened 4 bottles for us to drink. We had only a few minutes, so we each drank 2 - quickly. Bad mistake."

"Also in the '90s a wine store opened in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I lived at the time. Cabernet & Co. hired a guy who had worked as a rep for Anchor Brewing to manage the store. He and I "bonded" and I became a sort of outside consultant for the store. I had put together a beer review database, with lots of descriptive info. I printed it out and the store hung a copy of it in the beer section for customer reference. It was at this store that I first began to be very interested in Christmas and Winter beers, starting with items like Youngs Winter warmer, Samuel Smiths Winter warmer, Scaldis Noël and many of the American micro winters too - Anderson Valley, Anchor, and many others. This was probably around 1995."

"I hosted a memorable backyard Belgian tasting in Lagrange, with 12-13 beers. I had wanted to pair the beers with Belgian cheeses, but could only find one in the area, and it was mild. So to get the idea of pungency, I decided to include Limburger, a big error. All people did was complain about the rotten socks smell!! As for the tasting, after about the 4th beer, tastings went out the door, people just said, "gimme more of that"."

Q: Describe your history with home brewing.

"I brewed from 1976 to 1979 eclectically, tried to buy good malts, with unknown hops, "brewers yeast", no options here. There wasn't much variety available for the home brewer. My brewing partner and I often used additional sugar to spike it, blew up some bottles this way, had to boil the hops, etc. Our beers were bad, all but one. This was, unexpectedly, a very strong beer. I had a particular guest come by when I was at my workbench in the basement of my house. We sat up on the workbench and I broke out the first bottles of this batch. He drank two bottles. Upon discovering that he had to get back across the street, he launched himself off the workbench and his legs buckled beneath him. He was, unfortunately for the project he was doing, hammered. Overall, I made maybe 6 different beers and haven't brewed since."

Q: What do you look for in a beer now?

"In one word, balance. I really prefer malty, complex, not overly hoppy, beers. I love to see experiments with yeast, the flavors they give off - good balanced but highly flavorful beer."

Q: So that is why dark Belgian's are your favorite style?

"Yes. The good ones have enormous flavor profiles generally."

Q: What do you look for going forward for the American beer consumer? How do you expect the industry to evolve?

"Macros are under pressure, AB has made a lot of micro investments, they see the writing on the wall, mass market lagers are diminishing. In my experience in the '90s you'd bring good beers to parties, and people would say no thanks. Now they try them, might say "hmm, that's interesting", and ask for more. There is a growing market for more interesting beers. And these drinkers are now younger, more diverse crowd, and it's good to see more women appreciating complex beer - and not being condescended to by brewers who used to brew their "chick" beers, usually raspberry wheats."

Thanks, Ed, and keep up the pursuit.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Ann Arbor goodies, a Midwest Detour Worth Taking

Ann Arbor - home of the University of Michigan, and a solid food/beer location. Musings from our recent trip to a neighboring Midwest town.

We stayed west of town in a non-descript, Best Western hotel, it did have a pool, a fridge, and free breakfast.

On arrival mid-day, we were looking for lunch - and right by the hotel we found a great surprise place - the Zingerman's Roadhouse. Now, I knew about their original store, the great deli in downtown Ann Arbor. Asked the waitress, she said the Roadhouse has been around for about 4 years. Anyway, they have great above normal roadhouse type food, including burgers of course, but also home smoked pulled pork and brisket, fresh fish, salads, and a long cheese list from their own creamery. They even had some on-tap locals, with sm/med/large glass prices - I enjoyed a nice pale ale (forget the brewer) with pulled pork, and all we had was enjoyed. Now that said the prices here are steep, considering the portions are modest (actually what they should be everywhere not so over the top). The burgers start at $10 and go up fast with additions, my pork platter with sides was ok at $11.50, but overall a pricey place for lunch. Rate it a solid B, very good quality offset by once a month prices (if you were a local).

In the afternoon stops included Bello Vino and the Main Street Party Store. BV is a specialty grocery store with an extensive wine collection and in the far back a very good beer area. Heavy on Michigan beers (why I was there, including Dark Horse, Bells, Jolly Pumpkin, Stoudts), and a good representation of others including Belgians, the best part was the singles rack with fill your own six pack cardboards. Found the last (apparently) Bells Batch 8000, as well as a few others I just wanted to try. A- for this store, great selection, good pricing. The MSPS was equally impressive with some singles as well. A- here. Overall, the only beer maker I couldn't find was Kuhnhenn's, one of my targets.

For dinner we located the local branch of Cottage Inn, famous for Ann Arbor pizza. We shared a sausage/onion regular crust combo, very good. The atmosphere here was just ok, no liquor service, try the original Cottage Inn if you want the full experience, for this branch by the hotel a B-.

After our college tour and meeting with the diving coach at UM, I made the 8 mile run to Dexter to visit Jolly Pumpkin. Their brewery is in a tiny off-road location near downtown Dexter, I was guided in by Laurie Jeffries, the brewer's spouse and head of marketing I believe. They are only open noon - 6pm on Fridays, and were serving on tap both Bam Biere and E.S. Bam. They were selling five different styles of their bomber bottles at wholesale pricing! As it is cash or check only, I ran out of money buying my big format favorites as well as a few Biere de Mars Grand Reserve's, a special offering which is barrel aged for 27 months! I wasn't able to question Ron, but Laurie confirmed that all of their offerings are ales. I've read that all production here uses open (read wild) fermentation, but this traditional method does not impart sourness. The sourness (prevalent in most of their beers) is produced by barrel aging. The barrels harbor both wild yeasts and Lactobacillus among other bacterias. This is why they can't share barrels with "normal" producers. Because of barrel variation, some beers are blended, and they post a bottle log on the website so you can track your particular bottle. Do they use Brettanomyces? Not sure, but whatever they use keep it up. Now ranked the 8th best brewery in the US by BeerAdvocate. Thanks to Laurie for great service, and to Ron for keeping this great brewery running, solid A.

For dinner we tried the noisy Ashley's, self-described as Michigan's best multi-tap. With 70 beers on tap, 15 rotating regularly, and decent bar food with good burgers for the price, I couldn't complain. And the back area wasn't even smoky (we are getting spoiled here in IL). Kids (under 21) allowed until 9pm. You can find to your liking on the tap list, overall a great college bar, comparable to sticking a combination Maproom/Clark Street/Twisted Spoke together in Evanston at NU. Solid A.