baltimore_Movers & Shakers_dec11

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Blast from the past

If you didn’t foresee National Premium Beer ever returning to bars in your lifetime, you’re not alone. Neither did its new owner, Tim Miller. Miller, an Easton-based realtor whose previous claim to fame was selling Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti a farm on the Eastern Shore, attended an auction of old trademarks last December at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. He passed on familiar but long-dead brands like Kiddie City, Colliers Magazine and Handi-Wrap, but when the chance to bid on National Premium came up, the beer memorabilia lover snatched it up— at a bargain price of “less than five figures,” he says.

That gave Miller the rights to the trademark and the Web domain, nationalpremiumbeer.com, but on the way back from New York, he realized he wasn’t completely sure what he was going to do with it. “I figured, hey, even if I just make and sell some T-shirts, it’ll be worth it,” he says. 

Miller has already printed (and sold out) those T-shirts, and now he’s working on the beer. If all goes according to plan, Miller hopes to have National Premium back at local watering holes by Orioles opening day.

But the logistics of resurrecting a dead beer brand has proved more difficult than Miller anticipated. Finding a local brewery to take on production has been a challenge, as microbreweries either lack the capacity or the equipment needed for pasteurizing a lager beer. Currently, he’s working with Fordham & Old Dominion Brewery in Dover,  Del., which he hopes will produce the first batch. Eventually, Miller wants to open his own brewery— back in Maryland.

Tracking down the formula for the beer was another hurdle. Miller posted inquiries on beer message boards and on the company’s website seeking help, eventually finding a brew master who worked at the National Brewing Co. plant in the mid-’70s. After consulting with other brewers, the brew master, Ray Klimovitz, was able to reconstruct the recipe. “The formula changed several times over the years, but this will hopefully be the one that most people remember,” says Miller.

At 43 years old, Miller admits he’s too young to remember the glory days of National Premium, but he hopes to solicit feedback from as many “experienced” National Premium drinkers as possible— something he likely won’t have trouble doing. “There are a lot of folks out there that promised me they remember the taste,” he says. “We’ll have a big tasting at some point. Oh, yeah, we’re going to have some fun.”
—Joe Sugarman

You must remember this…

Brendan DorrSloe Sling. Dainty Lady. Pigtown Punch. Absinthe Smash. Blind Tiger.
These were the drinks on offer at the first gathering of the Forgotten Cocktail Club, a pop-up event held on a Friday night in October at Maisy’s restaurant in Mount Vernon. Taking the stairs to the lower level led visitors to a bouncer decked out in pinstripes and a fedora. Ragtime jazz played and a slide show of black-and-white photos from the temperance movement flickered on the TV screens as 21st-century folks sipped early 20th-century cocktails.

The club, which will sporadically pop up in various Baltimore bars and venues for one night only, is the brainchild of Brendan Dorr, the renowned head bartender and mixologist at B&O American Brasserie whose mission is to pay homage to the pre-Prohibition era and reinvigorate the cocktail as a drink of choice. “Pre-Prohibition is a bartender’s roots,” says Dorr. “It was an ever-growing, learning, changing and expanding time, as is today.”

Dorr enlisted Jon Blair— bartender at Ryleigh’s Oyster and production manager of Blackwater Distilling— to co-host the club. Together, the men create the drink menu and preside over the bar, each wearing a white button-down and black necktie. “Creating cocktails is an art form, just like creating a dish,” says Dorr. “There is definitely a skill side to developing a cocktail, but there is also the art side— using boutique spirits and making your own ingredients… A cocktail, just like food, should look as good as it tastes.”

Because the location varies with each meeting, the club offers the fleeting thrill of antique saloons and secret speakeasies. But thanks to the fact that we live in the age of social media, you no longer have to stand outside on a street corner hoping to overhear the password to get in. Just check out the club’s Facebook page. http://www.facebook.com/forgottencocktailclub
—Gina Moffa 

The gypsy brewer

Brian StrumkeIn 2004, Brian Strumke left behind his life as an international techno DJ and bought his grandfather’s house in a neighborhood formerly considered Highlandtown. The name had been changed, prophetically in Strumke’s case, to Brewer’s Hill.

Without music to turn to, Strumke began home brewing as his creative outlet. Four years later, a friend introduced him to New York-based beer distributor Brian Ewing, who helped Strumke take the first steps to becoming one of the world’s first, and best, gypsy brewers.

Gypsy brewing isn’t much older than Strumke’s brewing career. It is a subset of contract brewing. In contract brewing, a buyer hires a brewery to produce a beer, which the buyer then puts his label on. It’s an old and common way of making beer. Like these buyers, gypsy brewers rent industrial brewing equipment. Unlike some contract brewers, gypsy brewers exercise strong creative control of their beer, and as the name suggests, travel the world in search of places to brew.

“I wanted to be in the beer industry, I wanted to make awesome beer, but I also wanted this freedom,” says Strumke. “Now I’m constantly on tour, promoting beer. I’m back to my original lifestyle that I once missed.”

Before inking his first deal to brew his Stillwater Artisanal Ales at Pub Dog brewery in Frederick, Strumke, 35, had not worked a day in the food and beverage industry. He approaches brewing much as he did making music and views the brewery as a studio. The brewers at the breweries he works with, then, are like sound engineers who help Strumke understand the equipment. “He will bounce ideas off us from a production feasibility standpoint, but otherwise he’s in control,” says George Humbert, who owns Pub Dog. “Recipe-wise, he’s a Zen master.”

Strumke’s beers receive consistently high ratings on rating sites online, he’s been featured in The Washington Post and on NPR, and in 2011 Ratebeer.com named him one of the top new brewers in the world.

Though he is still headquartered in Baltimore, Strumke has brewed in Belgium and Denmark, and has brews planned in Germany, Sweden, Italy and the U.K. This season, some of Stillwater’s newest imports will hit the shelves: The Rauchstar is a smoke barley wine Strumke says tastes like “a barbecue in a pine forest,” while Debauched is a Scandinavian farmhouse ale. 

“Beer is finally becoming epicurean, an artisanal product, and it’s gaining respect, which is what a lot of beer aficionados have been pushing for,” Strumke says. Best of all, “it’s the affordable luxury. You can buy one of the best beers in the world for under $30 a bottle. You try to do that with wine or liquor? Not even close.”
—Michael Lee Cook

Cider house rules

Rob MillerAsk Rob Miller how Distillery Lane Ciderworks, Maryland’s first commercial hard cidery, came about, and he’ll tell you a story about pumpkins— not apples. In 1998, a family outing to a pumpkin patch led the financial analyst and his wife, Patty Power, to fantasize about moving their family from Montgomery County to the country. “We just thought, like everybody does, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to live here?’” says Miller. A month later, Miller and Power bought at auction a historic Civil War-era property outside of Burkittsville known as The Encampment, which is a mere five miles from the pumpkin patch. The 95-acre property already had a few established apple trees on it. Making and selling cider occurred to the couple as a way for them to create a value-added product from their investment— despite the fact that neither of them had ever farmed, brewed beer or made cider before.

In 2001, Miller and his family (including his father, now in his 80s, and 26 uncles and cousins) planted 10 acres with 1,300 custom-grafted trees, a mixture of eating and cider apples. Five years passed before the trees produced fruit, giving Miller the necessary time to apply for and be approved as a “licensed food processing facility,” since cider is considered by the state to be a food product. The eating apples Miller sold at a local roadside stand (cider apples are generally too bitter for eating out of hand). The cider apples went into sweet (non-alcoholic) cider Miller sold both to South Mountain Creamery for re-sale and to home hard cider-making enthusiasts, who visited the cidery to buy 5-gallon carboys of the juice. Tim Rose, a geologist for the Smithsonian, was one of those home cider makers before Miller asked him to be Distillery Lane’s cider maker.

Rose’s assiduous note-taking and attention to detail coupled with Miller’s growing expertise in the orchard led to their first commercial batches of hard cider in 2010: 400 cases of three kinds of cider, a dry carbonated style, a sweet carbonated and a cider fermented in oak. This year, the cidery will double production, making 800 cases of 10 blends of hard ciders, including single variety bottlings made from apples like Kingston Black. They also will produce 6,000 to 7,000 gallons of sweet cider.

Earlier this year, the Mount Vernon Ladies Auxiliary purchased 650 gallons of hard cider made from Newtown Pippins to use to make apple brandy in George Washington’s resuscitated still at Mount Vernon. Miller had planted the apples because they were Washington’s favorite, he says, not realizing that the first president didn’t grow them for eating.  “They [the apples] always tasted terrible,” Miller confides. “I wondered, ‘What the hell was he [Washington] thinking?’” Turns out he was thinking what Miller was thinking.
—Mary K. Zajac
[ Distillery Lane hosts cider tastings, orchard tours and monthly half-day hard cider workshops. Its cider is sold on the premises and at 7th Street Liquors in Frederick. Distillery Lane Ciderworks, 5533 Gapland Road, Jefferson, Md., 301-834-8920, http://www.ciderapples.com ]

Shaking it up

Josh SullivanJosh Sullivan is attempting to do away with the saccharin, falsely flavored “tini” cocktails that are common in restaurants and bars these days.

His homemade drink recipes, which he features on his website http://www.PostProhibition.com, hearken back to a time of high quality, simple ingredients. Sullivan creates his own custom bitters, grows herbs in his backyard garden, and uses fresh seasonal juices in his cocktails. “A lot of the inspiration comes from old classics, but I put my own twist on in my recipes,” says Sullivan, 29, whose “day job” is as a bartender at The Maryland Club.

http://www.PostProhibtion.com, which Sullivan started in fall 2010, features drink recipes and video tutorials, and spotlights lesser-known liquors. Sullivan shares his knowledge of uncommon ingredients for cocktails, like fresh beet and cucumber juice, and routinely answers questions about making ingredients and drinks. Inspired by his 19th-century hero, Jeremiah Thomas, the nation’s first professional bartender, and Dale Degoff, a legendary mixologist, Sullivan wants to reintroduce Baltimore to the art of handcrafted mixed drinks.

“San Francisco, Chicago and Portland are all places where the cocktail scene is very big,” he says. “So we are trying to pick things up in Baltimore, where there isn’t really a large speakeasy presence.”

Every month Sullivan helps to host the Libation Lounge, a party held at the Gin Mill in Canton. Modeled after the speakeasies of the early 20th century, participants are encouraged to dress up in period-appropriate garb. As guests sip, retro jazz and soul music plays in the background. The 10 to 12 different cocktails served at the Libation Lounge are seasonal, and in Decembers past have featured house-made eggnog and hot buttered rum.

So what’s Sullivan’s favorite drink? “Years ago I went to New Orleans and tried my first sazerac,” he says of the drink made from sugar, a splash of water, bitters, cognac and absinthe. “That really opened my mind to the possibilities of how cocktail making can become almost art-like.”

One day soon, Sullivan hopes to open his own speakeasy-style bar. “People are expecting more from their bar experience,” he says, “and we want to give it to them, to capture that magic they had back in the day.” 
—Jewel Edwards

Maryland made

Ed Boyce and Sarah O'HerronIn 2008, Black Ankle Vineyards won the highest award granted in the Maryland Wineries Association’s Governor’s Cup com- petition before it even opened for business.

Three years later, the Mount Airy winery has won two more Best in Shows, added 20 new acres of vines and continued to set the bar for Maryland wine.

“We have been just delighted by the reception we have gotten,” says Sarah O’Herron, who with her husband, Ed Boyce, owns and farms Black Ankle. “People are realizing you can really make great wine in Maryland. It’s not just a fluke or good luck or a great vintage.”

Al Spoler, co-host of WYPR’s “Cellar Notes” and organizer of the Governor’s Cup, agrees. “It’s their consistency year in and year out that really impresses me,” says Spoler, who includes wines from Black Ankle in his personal wine cellar. Other Maryland wineries have made good wines in the past, he explains, but Black Ankle impressed by “making concentrated, well-extracted wines better than anything we had seen in Maryland. And they do it on a yearly basis.”

O’Herron, 39, and Boyce, 48, former management consultants based in Washington, D.C., who had no formal training in winemaking, purchased their 146-acre property in Frederick County in 2002, but their research began long before that.

The couple “read everything we could get our hands on,” says O’Herron, visited vineyards in the United States and abroad and talked endlessly with growers and winemakers. O’Herron even worked harvests as part of three mini-internships at wineries. For a year, they drove around Maryland with an infant son in tow to find “a property that would be great grape land with big hillsides, low fertility and all the things conducive to fine wine grapes, though not necessarily conducive to other farming,” explains O’Herron.

The couple plants grape varieties grown in Bordeaux— Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec— as well as Syrah. They were the first in Maryland to plant white wine grapes like Gruner Veltliner, grown primarily in Austria, and Albariño, a Spanish grape. Black Ankle now has 42 acres of grapes that are farmed as close to organically as possible. (The couple hopes to be 100 percent organic in the future.)

“We are absolute maniacs for taking care of the vineyard,” says O’Herron. “We are out there hand tending every vine eight to 10 times a year, pruning vines, tying them back to the trellis, thinning fruit, pulling leaves, adjusting grapes, just trying to get the most out of these little guys.” The work is paying off in reds that are full bodied and silky, without the astringency that can sometimes crop up in local wines, and whites that boast both crispness and ripe fruit.

There are still some local wine drinkers, O’Herron admits, that hew to the perception that Maryland wine is second rate. But, she says, there are plenty of consumers who subscribe to the “eat and drink local” movement who are thrilled to find a wine grown not too far from their backyard that they can get excited about.           
—Mary K. Zajac
{ 14463 Black Ankle Road, Mt. Airy, Md., 301-829-3338, http://www.blackankle.com }

Good woods

John GasparineJohn Gasparine is passionate about two things: wood and beer. For a time, they were separate passions.

Then, one day in 2006, he was in a truck bumping along a road in Paraguay on the way to meet contacts for his sustainable wood flooring import business. The driver of the truck shared some maté in a metal cup lined with the exotic native wood species palo santo.

When Gasparine took a sip, he realized the sandalwood and vanilla flavors in the wood had infused the maté, and the proverbial light bulb went off: If palo santo flavored the maté then perhaps it could flavor beer, too.
When he returned to Baltimore, where he’s lived since graduating from Goucher College in 2001, Gasparine contacted Sam Calagione, owner of Dogfish Head Brewery in Rehoboth, Del., who said he was game to brew a batch with palo santo. “He thought of it as a fun experiment and I thought of it as a fun experiment,” says Gasparine, 32.

A few months later, Gasparine tasted Dogfish’s first batch of Palo Santo Marron. “It was the most exquisite beer I had ever tasted,” he says. Others agreed, and Dogfish decided to build a 10,000-gallon tank from palo santo in which they would age Palo Santo Marron, and make the beer one of its regular offerings.

Since then, Gasparine’s wood flooring business has fallen victim to the recession. But the good news is he’s merged his two passions into a single mission: to spread the word about wood. An autodidact with the zeal of an evangelist, he can expound widely on the history of beer and barrel making— he’s read about it in Old English, no less— and argue convincingly that wood is the most versatile natural resource on the planet, and as yet underutilized in the food and wine industry. “There’s estimated to be more than 100,000 wood species on this planet,” says Gasparine. “It’s uncharted territory.”

For the past three years, Gasparine has been working with Steve Marsh, the cellarmaster at Heavy Seas Beer in Baltimore, to study how various woods— and various wood treatment processes— affect the flavor of beer during the brewing process (as opposed to after the brewing process, as with Dogfish’s Palo Santo Marron).

“He’s just got this enormous body of knowledge and incredible enthusiasm for the possibilities and nuances of using wood in the preparation of beverages,” says Hugh Sisson, founder of Heavy Seas Beer. “And he’s very methodical, which is good because we want to continue experimental, fun projects, but we don’t want to do them without any trial and error.”

The first result of the collaboration is Plank I, a beer based on an old ale recipe that’s been flavored with poplar wood that underwent a thermal treatment. “There’s a smoky, dry, toffee flavor that wasn’t in the beer before the poplar was introduced,” says Gasparine. He and Marsh are working on Plank II now, testing cherry, eucalyptus and poplar that have undergone the same thermal treatment. “Whatever tastes the best is what will go to market in March,” says Gasparine.

Gasparine is also spending a lot of time in a chemistry lab at his alma mater, where he and Goucher organic chemistry professor Kevin Schultz are studying the chemistry of wood and alcoholic beverages. “We are looking at what types of compounds, on a chemical level, come out of toasted poplar, when it’s subjected to alcohol, and what kind of compounds, on a chemical level, come out of Spanish cedar,” he says.

That’s just one of thousands of experiments Gasparine has planned. He wants to take what he’s learned and publish it in food sciences journals. He wants to write a book. But mainly he wants to keep experimenting— and persuading others to experiment— with the effects of wood on food and drink.
—Laura Wexler

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