Posts in On The Road Reports

The Barrel Beer Festival That Rules Them All

September 18th, 2017 Posted by Feature, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

Barrel-aging beer is a bit of a mystical science – there’s something alluring about putting beer into a barrel and let the wood infusion generate a result. One never quite knows what the flavour is going to be like when a beer is put into a barrel, which is all part of the charm of this brewing art. In recent years, the popularity of barrel-aged beers has exploded. Whether it is bourbon barrels, whisky barrels, gin barrels, tequila barrels or wine barrels – if there’s a barrel that contained some kind of alcohol there will be a brewery that’ll put beer into it.

FoBaB at the UIC Forum

The main hall of FoBaB at the UIC Forum in Chicago.

Barrel-aging beer has been happening in Ontario for a number of years now (Ken Woods from Black Oak was the first to barrel in Ontario way back in 2005), but in recent years its popularity has taken off, with many established and new breweries having regular “barrel programs” featuring numerous barrel-aged beer releases throughout the year. Events such as Volo’s Cask Days, Sawdust City’s Funkfest and other festivals have celebrated local barrel-aged beers, and there’s even dedicated barrel brewery projects emerging, with Halcyon Barrel House within Beau’s and Amsterdam opening up a ‘Barrelhouse’ this fall.

But for those who are truly barrel-aged beer fanatics, there is an event that towers above the rest. The Festival of Wood & Barrel-Aged Beer, commonly known as “FoBAB”, held annually in Chicago is a pioneer in celebrating barrel-aged beer. 2016 marked its 14th annual event (it was started in 2003 by Pete Crowley of Haymarket), making it one of, if not the oldest, festival of its kind in the world.

If you thought barrel-aged beer was just bourbon barrel stouts, think again. FoBAB brings together just about every beer style imaginable aged within just about every kind of barrel available. It’s a marriage of style and barrel that is staggering in its scope – there were over 400 beers and ciders available at the 2016 festival representing 25 different states in the U.S.A.

FoBaB Barrel Wall

Just try and make a dent in this lineup.

Consider the types of wood and alcohol barrels used to age beer at last year’s festival: Oak (American, French), Cedar, Palo Santo, Hickory, Sassafras, Rum, Whiskey (Bourbon, Scotch, Rye), Wine (Red, White, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cab Sauv, Pinot), Brandy, Apple Brandy, Gin, Port, Cognac, Fernet, Absinthe, Tequila, Sherry and Calvados. Things have certainly come a long way from the early days of barrel aging in a used whiskey barrel.

Paired with the barrels of course the liquid that goes into them, and at FoBAB there’s a staggering diversity of styles, much more than the traditional stout. At FoBAB different styles are grouped into major categories including: Classic Beer, Barleywine/Wheatwine, Strong Porter/Stout, Specialty Strong Porter/Stout, Strong Pale Beer, Strong Dark Beer, Fruit Beer, Specialty/Experimental, Wild Beer/Brett, Wild Beer (Acidic) Sours, Wild Beer (Acidic) Sours with Fruit and Cider/Perry/Mead. And within those categories you can find just about every kind of sub-style imaginable. No longer are barrels used simply for a narrow set of styles – all beer can be barreled nowadays, often with delicious results.

As the popularity of barrel-aged beers has grown, so has FoBAB. It is held at the UIC Forum, a large auditorium hall on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus, southwest of the Loop. The event is held over the course of a weekend, with an evening session on Friday and two sessions on Saturday. Tickets are always in high demand, but with the move a couple of years ago to the UIC Forum, they are generally easy to get on the first day of sales. Tickets for two of the three weekend sessions are still available for this year’s edition, taking place on November 10th and 11th, here.

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The “Food Program” at FoBaB.

The festival is a well-organized one, and is most certainly beer-focused, which is refreshing. You will not find a food truck program at FoBAB, nor any kind of entertainment. The experience here is barrel-aged beer, plain and simple. One is here to drink beer, not get distracted by other things.  And with so many kinds of beers available, it is good to stay focused on the task at hand. It is great to have a festival where it is “all-in” on its mission and fully delivers on the goal. Sometimes I feel like festivals try to be too many things, and in the case of FoBAB, the thing they want to be they do extremely well.

The majority of the festival takes place in the main hall of the UIC Forum, with large banks of beer serving tables running up and down the space. Beer styles are colour coded and beers are numbered, making it fairly easy to find the beer you’re looking for. A nice addition to last year’s festival was the addition of a massive poster listing all the beers available, which helped to not have to fumble around with the program guide. Beers are served in a small glass, but with the strength of many of the beers and the variety available, small samples are appropriate for general enjoyment and selection.

Sometimes there comes a point when your taste buds just need a break from barrel and wood flavours. Luckily FoBAB has a solve for that too, a “beer break station” in partnership with Chicago’s Revolution Brewing, where a number of their main lineup of beers (all non-barrelled) are available. A nice touch to get an IPA palate cleanser.

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Many a beer lover’s dream is fulfilled with pitchers of BCBS.

One of the more interesting aspects of FoBAB is the presence of Goose Island. They always have a significant presence at the festival, and with the timing of the event being a couple of weeks before Black Friday (their annual release of Bourbon County Brand Stout), it acts as a preview for what’s to come. And Goose goes all out for FoBAB. At the event they were constantly tapping different beers over the course of the sessions, tweeting out each new beer – making their beer lineup ever changing. Whereas most breweries may only have a couple of beers, Goose brings a huge slate from their Bourbon County and Sour Sisters lineups. Around the craft beer world, there’s always some grousing and hand-wringing with Goose Island due to its ownership by Anheuser Busch. However, in Chicago the love is strong – the lineup for Goose Island was by far the longest of anything else, wrapping around the perimeter of the auditorium.

A further unique aspect of FoBAB is it is also a competition where awards are given out across the style categories. Due to that, they do not release the lineup of beers in advance – the general public only finds out when they walk in the venue and receive their program. It adds an element of mystery to the event itself, with online speculation common in advance to discuss what might be pouring. But breweries bring their “A” game in an effort to win – so drinkers are always guaranteed great brews.

This is my favourite festival of the calendar, and it has been since my first visit back in 2013. With such a great beer scene in Chicago it doesn’t take much to spark a visit, but FoBAB certainly makes a weekend in the city extra special. It you want to take your barrel beer game to the next level, you would not be disappointed in this.

A Beer At…La Quinta Brewing Co.

May 9th, 2017 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, Feature, On The Road Reports No Comment yet
La Quinta Brewing Co.

The La Quinta Brewing Co., and palm trees.

The Bar Towel continues our series entitled “A Beer At…”, where we feature a single bar or restaurant, have a beer or two and get a feel for what makes it special. This visit is to the La Quinta Brewing Co., located in the Coachella Valley of California.

Good beer is everywhere. From big city to small village, it seems nowadays that there’s a small brewery there now, and thriving. This is no different in the desert region of California, where although the heat can be unlike anything we see this side of the border, plenty of good beer is available to help cool things down.

In the Coachella Valley, probably most well known around these parts for the music festival named after it, contains a row of small cities including Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta and Indio, about 130 miles inland from Los Angeles. It was here recently where I spent a few days in La Quinta, a golfer’s haven and home to the La Quinta Brewing Co. which I was able to visit.

La Quinta Old Town Taproom draught lineup

The draught lineup at the Old Town Taproom.

La Quinta Brewing Co. is actually comprised of two locations, the actual brewery which includes a taproom, and a second, non-brewing taproom. The brewery is located in an industrial area just off Interstate 10 in Palm Desert, with the views of the Joshua Tree mountains in the distance. The brewery’s taproom has about a dozen beers available – during my visit there was a wide range of styles including a blonde, amber, honey wheat, brown, American IPA, coffee porter (plus the bourbon barrel aged version, which won the gold medal in the Wood and Barrel Aged Beer category of the 2016 World Beer Cup), session IPA, blood orange ale, maibock and Irish red. The brewery taproom was a cozy spot with samples, flights, glasses and merchandise available.

Their second location is in an area of La Quinta called Old Town, a quaint little walkable area with shops and restaurants. Walking into the Old Town Taproom is a respite from the usual heat that is common in the region, with a direct line right to the bar, where the orders are taken. Similar to the brewery taproom plenty of beer options abound here, as La Quinta eschews traditional seasonal choices for a wide range of styles, as it’s always hot here. There was much overlap from the offerings at the brewery taproom, but with the additional of eight guest taps accompanying the house beers, including offerings from Pizza Port, Anderson Valley, Hangar 24 and others.

La Quinta Old Town Taproom.

The Old Town Taproom.

It’s a simple place, made for drinking. It’s a fairly stark interior, marked by a concrete floor and metal tables and chairs. But it’s a warm spot, where’s a long bar around the taps, communal high top tables, TVs and board games. It has the definite feel of a locals place, with folks at the bar on a weekday afternoon chatting about happenings about town, tales from working at the local resorts and previous nights at the taproom.

A side door access leads to a nice patio facing some of the other shops of Old Town, where you can sit at a table and get occasionally misted with overhanging mist ropes. It’s a nice touch when you’d like a little heat and sunshine but with some relief from time to time.

While I was at the brewery I was fortunate to have a quick chat with Mychal Renteria, Sales Representative from La Quinta Brewing about the history of the brewery, what it’s like to have a brewery in the desert and other great craft beer spots in the area. Give a listen to this episode of Bar Towel Radio below or on iTunes or Google Play:


The Coachella Valley area is a great destination – quite literally unlike anything in Canada. It’s a resort community built up from the desert, where it is easy to spend the days taking in the perpetual warmth. But with La Quinta Brewing and the area’s emerging scene, there is now some great beer to savour in the sunshine.

The La Quinta Brewery Taproom is located at 77917 Wildcat Drive in Palm Desert, CA and is open Sunday-Thursday from 2pm-8pm, and Friday-Saturday from 2pm-9pm. The Old Town Taproom is located at 78-065 Main Street #100 in La Quinta, CA and is open Sunday-Thursday 12pm-10pm, and Friday-Saturday 12pm-12am. Note that minors (under 21 years of age) are not permitted, and food is not served at either location.

Pizza Port in Ocean Beach, San Diego.

San Diego’s Beer Paradise

September 10th, 2016 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, Feature, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

San Diego is one of my favourite beer drinking cities, and generally just an amazing place to visit all-around. Recently I was able to spend a couple of days there enjoying the always delicious beer, and was fortunate to be able to chat with Jill Davidson, President of the San Diego Brewers Guild about the region’s dynamic and thriving beer scene.

In this podcast we chat about the early days of San Diego beer, where the local beer scene is headed, some of the great breweries and neighbourhoods to check out, San Diego Beer Week, and all about Pizza Port, where Jill works full-time and one my most loved beer spots anywhere.

Give it a listen below or on iTunes:

Father's Office, Los Angeles

A Torontoian Beer Lover in Los Angeles

September 1st, 2016 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, Feature, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

Recently I was fortunate to spend a couple of days checking out the beer scene in Los Angeles, California. Although it’s one of the largest cities in North America, the beer scene does not have a long history compared to other beer spots around the continent. But that’s changing quickly, with the emergence and rise of numerous new craft brewers in L.A. making waves with delicious and interesting beers.

While I was in there, I recorded a podcast with Aaron Champion, a former Toronto resident who moved to L.A. a few years ago, launched the excellent craft beer website Cask Ale LA and has been helping Cask Days coordinate some of the American beers available at the festival.  On the podcast we chat about Aaron’s move to L.A., the local beer scene and some of the great spots and great beers to check out, and a little bit of the Ontario beer scene and Bar Towel Forum reminiscing. Plus, he gives us some inside information about what to expect from California at this year’s Cask Days.

Please give it a listen below or via iTunes:


This episode was recorded live at the awesome bar Father’s Office, at the  1018 Montana Avenue location in Santa Monica. To find out the latest that’s on tap at FO, text ‘Beer’ to 424-234-2337. Also, have the burger.


Warm Smiles and Cold Beers at Cruz Blanca

July 19th, 2016 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, Feature, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

The bar on the main floor of Cruz Blanca.With so many breweries opening up nowadays (620 did in 2015 according to the Brewers Association), it is sometimes hard to get excited for a specific one to debut.  But there was much excitement this summer when Cruz Blanca, the new brewery from Rick Bayless, the restaurateur behind Chicago’s Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco, opened its doors.  Mr. Bayless is a legend in the Mexican cuisine world, a Michelin-starred chef known for creativity, accessibility, authenticity and passion.  And when we learned that he and his team were going to get into the brewing world, we began tracking the progress of his new venture with great anticipation.

Cruz Blanca is located in the West Loop neighbourhood of Chicago, an incredibly lively food and drink haven already home to The Publican, brewpub Haymarket, famed restaurant Girl and the Goat and its sister Little Goat Diner, the Three Floyds-focused pub Lone Wolf and the delicious Green Street Smoked Meats.  The area has transformed from a meatpacking district to a day and night playground for the senses with no indication of slowing down.  And with the simultaneous openings of Cruz Blanca and its adjoining neighbour Leña Brava (also by Rick Bayless), the area became even more of a magnet for food and drink lovers.

2nd floor taproom is usually open.Upon entering the attractively designed space one is immediately greeted with two options: the Cruz Blanca “Cervecería” or “Taquería”.  Beers are available directly from the 10-seat-long bar located on the left hand side of the room, and tacos are available from the counter located to the right.  Numerous communal tables (no reservations here) fill the space along with a front patio on Randolph Street.  A second taproom sits above the main room, featuring another long bar adorned with TV screens, although the large windows overlooking Randolph are equally if not more interesting.  Bar or counter service is the rule of the house, which means less waiting for a delicious beer which is very much appreciated.

There’s a story to this new brewery, one rooted in Mexican brewing history.  Emil Dercher was a European who left France to Mexico City in the 1860s and opened one of the first breweries there, naming it Cruz Blanca.  With this inspiration, the new Cruz Blanca brews interpretations of German, French and Austrian styles as would have been present in Mexico City during the original incarnation, but with a modern twist and featuring unique ingredients from the present day.

A view from Cruz Blanca's brewhouse.The three-level establishment integrates the brewery throughout the space.  On the upper floor lies the grain mill, feeding the 10 barrel Newlands brewhouse located behind the bar on the ground level.  From there bright tanks live in the basement directly feeding the main bar, as do a few more behind the bar on the top floor.  A immaculate cold room is also present on the lower level for kegs and guest brews.  Coming soon to the brewery is a bottle filler and a barrel program to even further the capability of this impressive new operation.

Cruz Blanca’s house brews are anchored by a trio of bière de garde styles under the La Guardia banner: Rubia, Ambar and Morena.  With consistent yeast and hops across all three brews, each beer has a unique malt bill and featured ingredient.  The Rubia, the lightest of the three clocking in at 6.8% is a sweet, orange coloured brew with local Illinois honey; Ambar features Mexican hominy at 7.5%; and the boozy Morena packs a punch at 9% with Mexican Piloncillo sugar resulting in a lingering sweetness.  A common theme amongst Rick Bayless’ restaurants is their commitment to local farms, and their beers follow this philosophy, as malts in their beers are from the Sugar Creek Malt Co. in northern Indiana.

Communal seating on the main floor of Cruz Blanca.Other beers in the house lineup include Smoke Alley, a 4% delicately smoked wheat ale inspired by Oaxaca’s taco corridor of the same name, Winnow, a rich and delicious 6.9% American porter made with cocoa bean husks from sister restaurant Xoco, and Básica, the hoppiest beer of the bunch, a crisp 6% wheat lager made with Chinook and Cascade hops.  The beers of Cruz Blanca are unique and interesting, accessible but flavourful.  It is clear that they do not follow the traditional pattern of new brewpubs today, but have carved their own path of originality with stories behind each recipe and the quality to match.  The remaining taps featured guest brews from local breweries that helped with the pilot batches as Cruz Blanca was getting up and running, including Perennial, Penrose, Revolution, Half Acre and Metropolitan, but in recent days more house brews have been coming on the line (a Vienna Lager and Hoppy Kolsch were in the works during our visit).  After only a few short weeks from visiting there is already more new to try.

Cruz Blanca's taco counter for delicious bites.

Cruz Blanca also features a daily radler, with a rotating agua fresca flavour mixed with Smoke Alley (and a mezcal option to turbocharge that), along with beer-to-go in freshly-poured growler (64 oz.) or howler (32 oz.) form.  And what would a Rick Bayless restaurant be without Mexican cuisine, and Cruz Blanca delivers with an all-fire kitchen (no gas lines in the building) featuring steak, pork, chicken, chorizo and mushroom tacos, alongside other snacks and sides.  As Todd White, Lead Bartender and Assistant Manager put it, “Come in, find a spot and make it your own”.  This encouraging rule is evident at Cruz Blanca: it is a welcoming spot to try many delicious varieties of beer and food where one could easily settle in for an entire day exploring the many tastes of this dynamic new brewery and taqueria.

After the visit, I was thrilled to be able to chat with Jacob Sembrano, Head Brewer of Cruz Blanca about his beers and brewery.  Please give it a listen below or via iTunes:


Cruz Blanca is an excellent addition to the already dynamic beer scene of Chicago.  Its beer list breaks the mold for most new breweries with a lineup full of unique beers made with interesting stories and ingredients.  The design is top notch, the beers are delicious and the experience is friendly and memorable.  As complex of an operation as Cruz Blanca is, their mantra was described to us as “warm smiles, cold beer.”  And here, there’s nothing else we’d rather have.

Cruz Blanca is located at 904 W. Randolph Street in Chicago, Illinois.  The brewery and taqueria is open from 11am until 11pm from Tuesday-Thursday, until midnight on Friday and Saturday, until 9pm on Sunday, and closed Monday.  Special thanks to Head Brewer Jacob Sembrano and Lead Bartender and Assistant Manager Todd White for their generous participation in this feature.

Crack into a Homebrew in Baltimore

June 8th, 2016 Posted by Beer Events, Feature, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

The Bar Towel is proud to present our annual preview of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) National Homebrewers Conference, now known as Homebrew Con, taking place from June 9th to 11th, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. This article will cover highlights of the conference as well as recommended beer destinations in Baltimore. The photo above is courtesy Visit Baltimore.

Baltimore is a city that you’re probably quite familiar with, but perhaps one you don’t know a great detail about.  You surely know it as a port city, located on the east coast of the U.S., a harbour town on the Patapsco River, which connects to the Chesapeake Bay and onto the Atlantic Ocean.  You likely know that people here love Maryland Blue Crabs from those waters, amongst other great foods, from both sea and land.  You probably know that the famous show The Wire was set in Baltimore, and potentially that the equally famous film The Silence of the Lambs was too.  You likely know a bit about Baltimore’s sports history, such as being the hometown of baseball legend Babe Ruth, the career home team for Hall of Famer and Toronto Blue Jay nemesis Cal Ripken, or the only U.S. city to win the CFL’s Grey Cup.  You might know about its famous residents including writer Edgar Allan Poe or filmmaker John Waters.  And you possibly know that the Star Spangled Banner flag was created here (in a brewery no less), and that the anthem was written here thanks to inspiration from the aforementioned flag.

While you’re most certainly familiar with these interesting facts about Baltimore, something you might not be familiar with is the city’s beer scene.  But for homebrewers in North America, that’s about to change.

Baltimore is the host city for this year’s National Homebrewers Conference, organized by the American Homebrewers Association from June 9th to 11th.  Similar to its sister event the Craft Brewers Conference, the Homebrew Con (as it’s now nicknamed, although the National Homebrewers Conference remains an official name) is the largest of its kind in North America, attracting amateur brewers to mingle, learn and more importantly taste beers made right in the homes of the continent by some of the most passionate beer people out there.

Baltimore at night. Photo courtesy Visit Baltimore.

Baltimore at night. Photo courtesy Visit Baltimore.

The Homebrew Con returns to Baltimore for the first time since 2005 (it also hosted in 1995), but demonstrating the growth of the conference, it is being held this year at the Baltimore Convention Center versus at a hotel like previous years in other cities.  But similar to previous years, the conference is acts not only gathering of homebrewers, but a showcase for a local beer scene.  Although Baltimore may not spring to mind as one of the top beer cities in the U.S., the Homebrew Con does a nice job of showcasing some of the smaller markets in the country, as in recent years Bellevue, Washington, Cincinnati, Ohio and Grand Rapids, Michigan amongst others have played host.

Let’s start with the conference and then we’ll talk about the beer scene in Baltimore.  The conference itself is comprised of education, competition and sociability.  There is the National Homebrew Competition, a large scale event whereby the finalists are judged at the conference, and announced during the Grand Banquet and Awards Ceremony to close out the weekend.  Informative seminars line each day of the conference, hosted by both amateur and professional brewers alike.  Throughout each day there is the Homebrew Expo and Social Club, a trade show of sorts for brewing equipment and other homebrew gear and gadgets, paired with numerous beers from across the country.  And then there’s the evening events, including a professional brewer festival and Club Night, a homebrew gathering, drink-up and immersive beer entertainment experience that needs to be seen to be believed.

One of the most unique aspects of the Homebrew Con (at least to those familiar with the rigid rules of Ontario), is the presence of homebrew beer at the conference.  So not only can an attendee of Homebrew Con imbibe in the beers of the local professional brewers (and beyond), they can sample the efforts of fellow amateur brewers.  This gives the conference a true air of authenticity and celebration, as you can stand side-by-side with brewers from all levels of beer experience and enjoy some delicious concoctions.

I truly recommend everything at the Homebrew Con – if you’re a fan of beer and brewing you can’t go wrong with anything that’s happening.  But there’s a lot of seminars that take place during the conference, and it’s impossible to see everything.  So, herewith are my picks for the seminars of the conference worth checking out, ones that I find particularly interesting, and you might too.

Thursday, June 9th

  • 9:00am: 2016 State of the Homebrew Industry.  Brewers Association beer economist Bart Watson is a smart and knowledgeable fellow, and like his seminar of the same topic for the professional industry during the CBC, this one will be a great overview of what’s happening in the homebrew scene from a data analysis perspective.  Speaking alongside Bart will be Jake Keeler and Steve Parr from the AHA.
  • 2:00pm: How to Brew Like and All-Star.  Speakers Denny Conn and Drew Beechum are well-known in the homebrew scene, are a genuinely entertaining pair and definitely worth sitting in on their talk.  They reprise this seminar at 2pm on Saturday if you can’t make it for this one.
  • 5:00pm: Keynote Address. It is admirable to see so many well known professional brewers staying close to the amateur brewing community, passing on their knowledge and experience and keeping their street cred in tact.  In fact, I’ve noticed in the past more ‘celebrity’ professional brewers roaming about the Homebrew Con than the CBC itself.  To that end, this year’s Keynote Address is being delivered by someone who definitely embodies the ideal of staying close to the community, Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione.

Friday, June 10th

  • 10:15am: History of Baltimore Brewing.  You’re in Baltimore, so you might as well learn about the local beer scene outside of Colt 45 and Natty Boh.  Speaker Rob Kasper, longtime columnist for the Baltimore Sun and founding member of Baltimore Beer Week, will certainly have some interesting tales and stories.
  • 10:15am: Return of the Mead Panel.  Shout out to Canadian homebrewer Ryan Chaytor, who’s on this panel about mead alongside Ken Schramm, Curt Stock, Michael Fairbrother and Steve Platz.
  • 10:15am: Unlocking the Genetic Code of Brewing Strains.  Chris White is a smart dude.  He’s the founder of White Labs, where many homebrewers saw up close in San Diego at last year’s conference what they are all about, which is the ultra science behind beer.  Listen to him and learn.
  • 2:00pm: Homebrewing History: A Photographic Tour with Charlie.  If you say the name “Charlie” to any homebrewer who knows the difference between hops and malts, a last name won’t be necessary.  Charlie Papazian is a legend in the homebrewing scene and helped popularize it to a generation of brewers.  A walk down memory lane with him will certainly be entertaining and informative.
  • 2:00pm: Brewing up a Perfect Pairing: Research-Backed Food Pairing Principles.  Randy Mosher is well-known in the scene as a brewer and author, and alongside Pat Fahey this will certainly be a good session about beer and food pairing.

Saturday, June 11th

  • 10:15am: Modern Homebrew Recipes. Gordon Strong knows his stuff as president of BJCP, author and award-winning brewer.  If he’s got a recipe to share or a secret about how to do them right, I’d like to hear it.
  • 2:00pm: Wild Alaska, Wild Ingredients.  Alaska Brewing co-founder Geoff Larson presents a talk about the wild ingredients of Alaska and their usage in beer.  Although for most Canadians Alaska is quite a ways away, many of us can relate to the frozen tundra, so learning about how cold-weather goodies could be a part of beer would be good knowledge to have.
  • 2:00pm: Hoppy Sour Beers: Taking the Bitter of of IPA.  There’s a number of sour sessions this year (including ‘Launching a Communal Sours Program’, Saturday 10:15am; ‘A Timeline for Sour Beer: How to get the Flavors you Want, When you Want them’, Friday 2:00pm; and ‘Trouble-Free Tart Beers: Alternative Souring Methods’, Thursday 3:15pm) but this talk by Michael Tonsmeire about the growing hoppy sour style should be a good one.

Baltimore has a lot of neighbourhoods. Over 200 of them.  With a neighbourhood culture like Baltimore’s it’s worth doing some exploring, so let’s talk about some of the good beer places that you can take in some local flavour outside of the conference (see at the end of this article a map of all the spots referred to to help you navigate around).

Heavy Seas Alehouse. Picture courtesy Visit Baltimore.

Heavy Seas Alehouse. Photo courtesy Visit Baltimore.

The Homebrew Con itself is at the Baltimore Convention Center, which is right in the heart of the city, in the Inner Harbor and close to the waterfront.  Kitty-corner to the convention center is the Pratt Street Ale House, featuring house beers from Oliver Brewing (the longest running brewpub in Baltimore) alongside about a half-dozen guest taps.  For baseball and beer fans, nearby is Dempsey’s Brew Pub, named after the famous catcher of the Baltimore Orioles.  And just up on N Eataw St lies Alewife Baltimore, an impressive spot with nearly 40 craft beers on tap.

To the south of downtown is Federal Hill, where folks  of days past watched the bombs bursting in air.  You can find bars bursting with beer here, such as the dozen house-brewed beers and pizza at Pub Dog, and 20 draughts from the local region and beyond at tavern Brewer’s Cask.

Around the harbor leads to the historic, waterfront neighbourhood Fell’s Point, and the long-standing Baltimore beer institution Max’s Taphouse.  Max’s was here before everyone else (or so it seems to an outsider), and they still top them all.  With over 100 taps available, Max’s has a beast of a beer menu, and one hell of a draught lineup to celebrate the homebrewers this week.  Undoubtedly and deservedly so, Max’s will be a hotspot for Hawaiian shirt wearing homebrewers in the days to come.  Also worth checking out closeby is the well-known Heavy Seas Alehouse, featuring a wide range of house brewed beers.

A bit farther east in formerly-blue-collar-turned-condo neighbourhood of Canton is Of Love and Regret, a pub with 25 taps and the home of Stillwater Artisanal Ales.  Find a great collection of Stillwater and some other goodies here.  Nearby you could also check out the Baltimore Taphouse with about a dozen or so craft taps, and Mahaffey’s Pub with over 20 taps and a good skew towards local brews.

Union Craft Brewing. Picture courtesy Visit Baltimore.

Union Craft Brewing. Photo courtesy Visit Baltimore.

Head north through Mount Vernon and check out The Brewer’s Art, a brewpub with a large rotating selection of house-made beers, and onward further north and a bit west to the neighbourhoods of Hampden (hipsters!), Roosevelt Park and Woodberry for a cluster of interesting spots.  If you like reading while you drink, the indie Atomic Books has Eightbar in the back with craft beer available. Birroteca Baltimore focuses on pizza and craft beer, with 20+ taps available with good local representation. For some local brewery taproom action, check out Waverly Brewing with around eight brews going, and Union Craft Brewing with a range of their diverse lineup available.

The Homebrew Con is always a good time. I tell people that it’s the best money they will ever spend on a beer event, in part due to the sheer amount of styles, tastes and sampling that one can do at it.  But it’s also just a great down-to-earth celebration of beer, by some of the most passionate beer folks out there.  It’s friendly, often a little bit crazy, sometimes inappropriate, but always enjoyable.  Connect with us on Twitter and let’s have a homebrew this week!

A Beer At…The Publican

May 15th, 2016 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, Feature, On The Road Reports 1 comment

The Bar Towel is proud to present a new series entitled “A Beer At…”, where we feature a single bar or restaurant, have a beer there and get a feel for what makes them special. Our first visit is to Chicago’s famed The Publican, a shrine to beer and pork in the city’s hot Fulton Market/West Loop area.


The Publican’s European beer hall feel is unmistakeable.

The Publican in Chicago is a beer destination in every sense. It is grand, it is unique, and the beers are always interesting, delicious and selected with an evident sense of great care and appreciation. It’s a place where I make it a point to stop in for a beer every time I’m in Chicago, so it’s a fitting to be the first feature of our new “A Beer At…” series, where we visit special beer spots and find out what makes them great. And in this first feature we are also fortunate to have a live chat with Adam Vavrick, Beer Director of The Publican for a complementary Bar Towel Radio podcast.

Upon entering The Publican you know you’re somewhere different. It’s a large, open space with numerous large communal tables lining the floor and rows of grand, bulbous lights hanging from the ceiling, reminiscent of a European beer hall. You can’t help but notice the massive murals of pig artwork adorning the walls – they love their pork (and more) here and aren’t shy to feature this fine animal throughout.

The Publican can be a place of juxtaposition. Although meticulously designed and refined, there is a definite casual and fun air to the place, with classic cheese rock jams from Journey, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi emanating through the bar on an early evening on Saturday. It’s a place where fun and fine come together seamlessly.

Local food is important to The Publican, and across their menu highlights of pork, oysters, fish and cheese, farmers or location are identified to provide provenance. And local beer is also important, but a wider reach is featured on the beer menu. Within their twelve draught taps alone five states are featured from the U.S.A., alongside Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands. Breweries represented on tap at my visit included The Bruery, Stone, Left Hand, Half Acre, Allagash, Lindemans, Krombach, Andechs, Hirt and Koningshoeven. An extensive bottle list also includes the U.K., Japan, Canada and vintage offerings such at Aventinus, JW Lees and Orval. The beer list changes regularly, and every visit will provide a new experience when browsing the excellent menu.


The delicious Lambic Doux, served in a clay pitcher.

Now we’re here to have a beer, and the beer we’re having is Lambic Doux. This is one of the most unique beers you’ll find in Chicago, as it is literally one-of-a-kind at the Publican. The Lambic Doux is The Publican’s house blend lambic that features a unique mix of added flavours in small batch quantities. Served in a clay pitcher, having the Lambic Doux is a delicious and special treat, almost a sensory teleportation taking you from the bustle of the city to the farm table of Belgium. At this visit the Lambic Doux was flavoured with blackberry, mint and lemongrass, an orangey-pink hued beer with a light head and a rich sourness, with the added flavours evident. It’s simply delicious and a beer I find time for during every Chicago visit – and so should you.

The Publican is a dynamite place for a beer, and luckily during my visit I was able to have a quick chat with Adam Vavrick, the newly hired Beer Director of The Publican, which we are happy to present as as Bar Towel Radio podcast here. The podcast complements this feature, as you’ll hear from Adam about his background, The Publican’s beer philosophy and other interesting tidbits about this wonderful place. Give a listen below, on our Podcasts page, or via iTunes:


The Publican is located at 837 W. Fulton Market in the Fulton Market / West Loop area of Chicago. Formerly an industrial and meatpacking district, this area has transformed in recent years to house some of the city’s most renowned restaurants and bars. Across N. Green Street facing The Publican is their offshoot Publican Quality Meats, a delicious casual spot with sandwiches, beer and meat and food to go. The Publican will also be opening a location at O’Hare Airport in the near future.  The Publican is open afternoons and evenings seven days a week, with daytime brunch on weekends.

Our Philadelphia CBC Seminar Picks

May 3rd, 2016 Posted by Feature, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

The Bar Towel is proud to once again present our annual preview of the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America (CBC), taking place from May 3rd to 6th, 2016 at the Philadelphia Convention Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Part One of the preview covered our highlights of breweries, bars and other sights of the city, and Part Two covers our picks for the conference seminars.

The Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia is here, and now’s the time get ready to take away some juicy beer knowledge alongside the delicious beer itself.  With the massive growth of the CBC in the past number of years, it the conference is almost overwhelming nowadays, with non-stop panels, seminars, demonstrations, hospitality events, meetings and vendor showcases. So let’s break it down!

The core schedule format of the CBC is consistent from recent years past, with hosted seminars and sponsored demonstrations occurring throughout the day, and the BrewExpo America trade show running simultaneously, along with various other group meetings, hospitality suites and events taking place. (See Part One of our preview for a rundown of a bar scene in Philadelphia, with links to the dozens of events happening in the city.)

BrewExpo America, a massive brewing trade show with 800 vendors offering everything a prospective or current brewery, brewpub or bar owner could need, is once again running for three days during the conference, from 9am Wednesday until 12pm on Friday.

Outside of the trade show, the CBC is heavily focused on seminars, hosted panels, talks and presentations about a wide series of topics relevant to the brewing industry. As is in years past, the seminars are divided up into streams based upon their topics: brewery operations, brewpubs, export development, government affairs, packaging breweries, quality, safety, selling craft beer, start-ups, sustainability and technical brewing.

Now let’s talk about our picks. As in the past, our picks below represent the seminars that we find the most interesting in the context of today’s craft brewing world, with a Canadian skew. Lots of quality seminars overlap, so it’s challenging to see everything. But get yourself a beer and enjoy, there’s something for everyone in the industry at the CBC. (For some handy tools to plan out your schedule, see the CBC’s online planner, mobile app and pocket PDF guide.)

Wednesday, 9:15-10:30: Welcome keynote.  In recent years the CBC has welcomed keynote speakers from outside of brewing to provide unique perspectives on business.  Last year’s by Simon Sinek was very memorable and informative, as should this year’s, from baseball executive Billy Beane. There’s parallels that have been drawn between Billy’s story of success as a small fish in a big pond which should be very relevant to today’s brewing community.

Wednesday, 1:20-2:20: The future of craft depends on quality.  It’s fitting that the CBC seminars kick off with Dick Cantwell, a craft beer hero of sorts through his dissenting opinion against the sale of Elysian, the brewery he co-founded, to Anheuser-Busch in 2015.  Now a “quality ambassador” for the Brewers Association, it is always entertaining to hear Dick talk and this subject should continue to stoke the fires of our craft beer passion.

Wednesday, 2:40-3:40: Fruit refermentation in a production brewery.  Fruit beers have been and continue to be a hot, just as the Jester King brewery of Austin, Texas is.  Head brewer Garrett Crowell will be talking tips about how to best use fruit in what should be a juicy talk.

Wednesday, 2:40-3:40: Transitioning from nano to micro: a how-to.  Growth is something most breweries strive for, and this talk from Mike Hess, owner of the impressive San Diego brewery of the same name, should be an interesting perspective of getting big in a competitive landscape.

Thursday, 1:20-2:20: A reasonable approach to trademark enforcement. Lessons from craft brewers.  Managing a trademark in a sea of beer names can be a challenging and heated task, and this subject has been present for a few years now.  But there’s no easy solution, and will be tackled by representatives from Smuttynose, Rock Art and Old Ox.

Thursday, 1:20-2:20: The cost of opening a brewery: 3 perspectives.  It seems that there’s a new brewery opening up every week around here, but it’s not a cheap endeavour.  This chat features Jeremy Cowan of Shmaltz about how he transformed from contract to production, and Sean Lawson of the famed Lawson’s Finest Liquids, who recently announced a new brewery planned in his home state of Vermont.

Thursday, 2:40-3:40: The science, art and mystery of sour beer production. Sour beer can be delicious, but it’s not exactly a walk in the park to do it right and well.  In this talk representatives from Avery Brewing and New Belgium Brewing, two quality sour beer brewers from Colorado discuss their techniques.

Friday, 12:30-1:30: Hiring and brewer retention: A brewer’s perspective.  In a growing and competitive industry like craft beer, keeping your best talent will become an increasingly important business issue.  This all-star lineup will discuss their perspectives of hiring and holding onto good people, including Mitch Steele, brewmaster of Stone, alongside representatives from Victory, New Belgium and Karl Strauss.

Friday, 12:30-1:30: Sustainable design and build strategies for craft brewers.  Craft beer is expanding rapidly, so sustainability will be of increasing importance as the industry continues to grow.  Hear from the Founder and Brewmaster of Hopworks Urban Brewery of Portland, Christian Ettinger, plus the Sustainability Manager of Sierra Nevada at this panel.

Friday, 3:20-4:20: Spontaneous fermentation in a production brewery.  Making spontaneously fermented beers can be delightful and produce delicious results.  This panel features some of the most well-known brewers in this field, including Vinnie Curlizo of Russian River, Jason Perkins, Brewmaster of Allagash, and Jeremy Stuffings, Founder and Chase Healey, Brewmaster and Co-Founder of Jester King.

Friday, 3:20-4:20: The Return of the Gourdians.  The Gourdians, a semi-regularly featured collection of craft beer personalities are back once again to tell what is surely to be a sprawling and interesting range of beery tales.  This year the panel comprises of Stone Co-Founder Greg Koch, Canada’s own Steve Beauchesne of Beau’s and beer promoter Marty Jones.

The CBC seminars always cover a wide range of interesting and informative topics and this year is no exception.  If you are heading to Philadelphia, please reach out to us @bartowel and let us know what you’re up to at the conference. We’d love to hear about the experiences of the Canadian beer world in attendance this year!

Craft Brewers Conference 2016 Preview: The Bars of Philadelphia

May 2nd, 2016 Posted by Feature, On The Road Reports 1 comment

The Bar Towel is proud to once again present our annual preview of the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America (CBC), taking place from May 3rd to 6th, 2016 at the Philadelphia Convention Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Part One of the preview covers our highlights of breweries, bars and other sights of the city, and Part Two covers our picks for the conference seminars.

Philadelphia is a city of firsts.  I say that because there always seems to be a plaque wherever you turn in Philadelphia – be it for the America’s First Lager or America’s oldest street. However, it’s not always the first city that comes to mind when one thinks of top beer destinations in the United States.  Portland, San Diego, Denver and others often percolate to the top of ‘must-visit’ beer cities, but Philadelphia should be on that list, and due to that it is unsurprisingly the host city for this year’s Craft Brewers Conference, the largest conference of its kind in the world.

Philadelphia has been a beer city for centuries.  Beer is in the blood of Philadelphia, and a visit here will not only quench your thirst for delicious brew but give you a great history lesson and cultural experience to boot.

Getting to Philadelphia is relatively easy.  It’s location on the east coast is a short flight (about 90 minutes), and Philadelphia’s transit system SEPTA runs a train to the city centre for $8. Philadelphia is about 800km by drive to Philadelphia, making it about a similar distance to Chicago or New York.  The downtown area of Philly is easy to navigate and walking friendly. It’s laid out as a logical grid so finding things is very easy. Exploring Philly is fantastic – lots of little residential alleys to wander down and interesting old buildings to look at.  So it makes for a great city for a beer tour during CBC week.  

As with all CBCs, the host city is transformed during the week, with local beer bars and breweries hosting numerous special events to celebrate, and this year is no exception.  So let’s explore!

In the downtown area you will most likely hear one name more than anyone else: Monk’s Cafe.  Monk’s is likely Philly’s most well-known destination, a haven for Belgian food, beer and culture.  And there’s a reason Monk’s is so well known – it simply doesn’t disappoint. The space is comprised two areas – a front bar and back bar with varying tap selections in each section. There’s great food, friendly staff and excellent beer.  It’s an essential stop and will likely be even more perpetually jammed than it usually is during CBC week.

IMG_4416Other spots worth checking out downtown include McGillins Olde Ale House (the oldest pub in Philly, dating back to 1860), the Mexican themed craft beer bar Jose Pistola’s, brewpub Nodding Head, pin-up themed Varga Bar, the vast multi-tap bar City Tap House and the upscale chain Tria with the Tria Taproom, and two locations of the Tria Cafe (on Walnut St. and Spruce St.).  A wander around downtown wouldn’t be complete with a visit to the great Reading Terminal Market, a vast and delectable food market.  Have a bite at The Dutch Eating Place or a hoagie at Carmen’s.

It’s worth wandering down to the Old City and through historic Independence Park, home of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. It’s free to check out the bell so it’s worth poking your head in.  While in the area check out the fun, neighbhourhood spot Khyber Pass Pub, international themed Eulogy Belgian Tavern, the Ben Franklin-era period recreation yet sleepy City Tavern and brewpub 2nd Story Brewing.  Also, the aforementioned oldest street in America, Elfreth’s Alley, isn’t too far away.  If you’re willing to take your chances in getting an impossible table, I guarantee a visit to Zahav will delight your tastebuds. This renowned modern Israeli restaurant was one of the best meals I ever had at a recent visit.

IMG_4845The Italian Market on 9th Street is a dynamic and interesting street market, one of the oldest around.  Here you’ll find the duelling, gawdy and tasty Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks battling it out for Philly Cheesesteak supremacy.  Personally I like a sandwich from Paesano’s while in the market but you need to have a local cheesesteak for the full Philadelphia experience.  While in the area just a couple of blocks away is The Pub on Passyunk East, a nice pub with a good selection of American draughts, along with the craft and import focused Devil’s Den.  While in the area don’t miss the Philadelphia Magic Gardens, a truly one-of-a-kind immersive experience, a walk-in art environment by artist Isaiah Zagar that you won’t forget.

Back on the north side of downtown lies the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a wide divided avenue that houses a row of dynamite museums, including the Barnes Foundation, a museum with not only one of the best collection of Impressionist artwork you’ll find, but one with an equally interesting and controversial history to match.  Continuing along the parkway will lead you to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which you will likely recognize as the iconic steps from the film Rocky.  Jog up the stairs to work off some of those ales during CBC week.  While in the area, head along Fairmount and check out the brewpub Bar Hygge, or up to Brewerytown and have a stop in Crime and Punishment Brewing.

IMG_1543The Northern Liberties is a cool, no-longer-in-transition neighbourhood with lots of interesting things to check out.  On the beer front you can’t go wrong with craft beer stalwarts Yards Brewing, the awesome Standard Tap, the old school, rock and beer bar Johnny Brenda’s, the Philadelphia outpost of Brooklyn’s Fette Sau and nearby, the cozy and lively Memphis Taproom and Philadelphia Brewing Co.

If you’re willing to venture further afield, there’s even more beer to seek out and enjoy.  The adventurous beer seeking travellers might want to check out the delicious Earth Bread + Brewery in Mt. Airy, the fun, cask friendly Grey Lodge Pub in Northeast Philadelphia, one of Philly’s beer originals Dock Street in West Philadelphia, Manayunk Brewing in Manayunk, Tired Hands Brewing in Ardmore, Round Guys in Lansdale, Forest & Main in Ambler or the well-known and successful Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown.

If you are going to the CBC then you are most certainly a fan of beer.  And because of this, Philadelphia will not disappoint.  But Philadelphia is a city not just beer, but of urban adventures, friendly people, rich history and interesting sites.  You’ll find a pub to suit your tastes and it’ll have great beer for you.  Philadelphia is a bit of an overlooked destination compared to other beer cities in the U.S., but it’s a gem.  Enjoy the CBC and all the beer the city has to offer!

Stay tuned for Part Two of our CBC preview where we’ll offer our seminar picks for the conference.  In the meantime, stay on top of what’s happening in the city during CBC week with great events listings from Joe Sixpack, Brew Lounge and the CBC, plus great local resources Philly Tap Finder, Philly Mag’s Foobooz and Joe Sixpack.  Please find below a map with all of the bars, breweries and sights pinned, and more.