Beer Running Baltimore: Max’s Taphouse

Baltimore is one of those cities that typically elicits shoulder shrugs. Nobody seems to really know or say much about the place. It’s the weak East Coast sister to splashier Boston, New York, and Washington. Having been there before, I understand some of the ambivalence. But spending the past week at a trade show, and making a special effort to get to know the place, I’ve got to say, Baltimore doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

One of the best ways to get to know a place is to run around in it, so Monday morning, I’m out the door of my downtown hotel room to go for a run. I’m part of the morning downtown hustle and bustle, dodging and weaving through pedestrians and cars, making my way down to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor district, where I know clearer running paths await. I’m also planning to scout out Max’s Taphouse in the Fell’s Point neighborhood, which brags about having Maryland’s largest beer selection, and has drawn raves from various online beer review sites.

I get down to the Inner Harbor and follow the running path eastward past an enormous building with towering smokestacks. This imposing building was once a power plant for the city, but now houses an ESPN Sports Zone, Barnes and Noble, and Hard Rock Cafe. Baltimore is a city that has come around to embrace its traditional brick and mortar, port city roots. While it may not be flashy, it gives Baltimore an unmistakable character. Working my way through the Little Italy neighborhood behind the former power plant, I finally make my way to the Fell’s Point neighborhood, and find Max’s Taphouse.

I stop, take a quick glance inside, and see plenty of taps. The menu lists some pretty basic brewpub fare, but I doubt many people go there for the food. Well, I’ve scouted out the place and know how to get there. So I finish up the run, set up for the trade show at the convention center in the afternoon, and then make the 40 minute walk from the hotel to Max’s for dinner.

I cannot independently verify Max’s claim of Maryland’s largest beer selection. But after looking at a list of no less than 74 taps, and a bottle list that’s really an eight page pamphlet, it’s a good bet that no other place in Maryland, or in most other states, can top what Max’s has to offer. I decide to start off with the Aecht Schlenkerla Helles, a German Smoked Helles.

Smoke is a very dangerous flavor because it gives such a great dimension to food and drink, but just a little too much smoke can easily destroy everything. The brewer’s touch here is simply outstanding with such a light style. You can sense the smoke, but the brew remains light, refreshing, and nuanced.

Now on a smoked beer kick, I decide to give Victory Rauchbier Porter a try. I’ve been a fan of Victory Brewing, and always make a point to have their beer when I’m on the East Coast. Victory Hop Devil is one of my favorite IPA’s, so have high expectations for the Rauchbier Porter. I’m not disappointed, as once again, the brewer’s touch is excellent. The smoke really adds the right dimension to the rich roasted malty goodness going on here. Smoked porters go well with barbecue, so I order the pulled pork sandwich

I finish the smoked porter before the sandwich arrives. I could order another one to pair with the sandwich, but that would deprive me an opportunity to try something else, so order a pint of Smuttynose IPA. Not a great pairing with a pulled pork sandwich in my opinion, but Smuttynose is a brewery I’ve heard a lot of good things about. I also appreciate the East Coast style of maltier, more balanced IPA’s, in contrast to the blitzing West Coast style, which hit you over the head with a bunch of hops. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The Smuttynose IPA tap handle has a picture of two friendly old men sitting next to each other in rickety lawn chairs, apparently about to commence shooting the shit about something or rather over a beer. This IPA is like those old guys, just hanging out and in no hurry to go anywhere. It starts out welcoming, with a malty, a little fruity and slightly floral taste, and then the hops start picking up steam at a leisurely pace with a warm bitter goodness. I feel like pulling up a lawn chair and joining those guys. The pulled pork sandwich arrives as I work my way through the Smuttynose IPA. For a place where the food is an afterthought, this is a well done barbecue sandwich. Nice tangy sauce, and not too much spice so the pork flavor comes through.

Polishing off the sandwich, it is time for dessert. And yes, the right beer makes a great dessert. And it’s hard to beat Southern Tier Mokah as a dessert beer. It’s a sweet, creamy beer milk shake with plenty of rich and well blended chocolate and coffee flavors. I’ve had beers with coffee in them that taste like someone just dumped some strong, leftover coffee into the brewing vat, so really appreciate the skillful brewing here.

What else can I say? A great end to a great day of exploration through beer and running.

Time for a Name Change

I went through about 3-4 names before settling on “Beer Runner” for the incarnation of this blog. I liked the simplicity of the name, and thought it was a pretty good idea. The problem with good ideas is that if you have one, it’s pretty likely someone else had the idea first.

And I’ve learned that for at least nine months, Tim Cigelski has been writing an entertaining and informative blog called Beer Runner for Draft Magazine. Tim also writes about many other forms of exercise besides running. I’m actually rather thrilled learn about it, because it somewhat validates what I’m trying to accomplish here. But there’s no way I can top writing about beer, cycling, and pole dancing.

The world could use more beer runners, but one blog called Beer Runner is enough, and it only makes sense to change the name of this one. Of course, I went through about 2-3 more names in my mind during a morning run. One of the working titles was “Beer Runner Ramblings”, but that seemed a little too folksy. I ended up going with the slightly alliterative “Bay Area Beer Runner”. Perhaps every municipality should have a resident Beer Runner.

The Erie Canal Trail and Rohrbach’s in Rochester

This months Session is about the furthest distance travelled to a brewery or brewpub and the best beer found there.

Being a salesman for a small electronics company gives me a number of opportunities to explore new places each year. And while sometimes the schedule is too hectic to do much of anything outside of work, I am fortunate to get some good runs in and try out some local beers and beer establishments. The furthest brewery I’ve been to is Rohrbach’s in Rochester, NY, which is 2,750 miles from my home in San Jose, CA.

I usually stay near the airport. Most people don’t realize it, but the Erie Canal runs near the airport, and there’s a nifty running trail on along its banks. The first time I found it, I stumbled upon it by accident in a rather ordinary industrial area. Turning onto the wooded trail was a welcome change of pace from the industrial surrounding. But soon, it seemed like running through a glorified drainage ditch with not a soul around, and just train tracks to keep me company. Another mile or two down the trail, and it empties into a wooded park area, where people were having picnics, generally having a good time, and yes, a few were out on a run. For about an hour or so, I’m part of the community before turning around and heading back on a great run in that started out as a boring trudge.

The Erie Canal was built in the early 1800’s, an audacious plan at the time to connect the Great Lakes to New York City via the Erie Canal and Hudson River. Far from the expensive failure many predicted, it opened up trade in Western New York and helped create the cities of Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester.
So if it weren’t for the Eric Canal, Rohrbach Brewery may never have existed. And wouldn’t you know, John Urlaub, the owner of Rohrbach’s is a runner, too! The brewpub less than a 10 mile drive west of the airport. Like any good brew pub, there’s a neighborhood vibe upon entry. Everyone seems to be from the neighborhood and knows each other, but somehow, you don’t feel like a stranger. I take my seat and once again, for an hour or so, I’m part of the community.

As for the beers, I had a sampler flight, which is what I usually have when at a new brewpub. Rohrbach’s had a number of good to great beers over a range of styles. I always hesitate to pick a “favorite” beer, since I feel that depends a lot on the context the beer is enjoyed in. I really liked the Belgian Blonde, which my old notes say had “caramel malt with some snappy hops”. I also liked their Scotch Ale, which had a “sweet, peat malt taste with some toffee”. But if I had to pick my favorite, it’s their Sam Patch Porter. Porter is one of my favorite styles, and I found this one to have a “strong, bitter, roasted coffee flavor”. These are old notes, and part of this exercise is to either crack open a brew from the brewpub, or crack open something to compare it to. You can’t get Rohrbach’s in San Jose, so it looks like I’m going to find a substitute for Sam Patch Porter. And so to compare the Sam Patch Porter from the brewery I’ve travelled the furthest to visit, I’ll compare it to a brewery close to where I live. And that would be El Toro in Morgan Hill, CA. So it’s off to El Toro with my girlfriend Linda for some of their porter.

Morgan Hill is a small city just south of San Jose, the first place you come to when exiting the San Francisco Bay Area to the south. The place is an airy, two-level pub with a light brown wood interior. Behind the bar is colorful array of about twenty taps offering their very wide varieties of beer. The NHL and NBA playoffs are in full swing on the flat screen TVs scattered about the place. We take a seat, and a young waiter comes over. I ask for the Porter, while Linda is intrigued by the description of their El Canejo IPA, so orders that.

El Toro’s Porter is different than Rorhbach’s . Both have plenty of roasty malt goodness, but El Toro Porter is dominated by bitter chocolate notes with little detectable sweetness, instead of the coffee with some sweetness route of Rohrbach’s. Both are mighty fine porters.

We were also impressed with the El Canejo IPA. It’s highly unique, red IPA with good amount slightly sweet, roasted red malt, and plenty of slightly resinous, astringent hops bitterness. I found it well balanced, and much more so than El Toro’s regular IPA. We order a couple more pints, and looking over the beer list, see plenty others we’d like to try someday.

One of the many great things about beer is that if you go far away or stay close to home, it provides a great opportunity to explore.
(Rohrbach’s logo used with permission.)

Taking the folks to Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery

My parents were in town for an extended Memorial Day weekend. So the Tuesday after Memorial Day, Linda and I decided to spend a day with them in Santa Cruz. First stop, Natural Bridges State Beach. There is something restorative about standing on the beach in cold, ankle deep water as the waves crash and recede in front of you. Periodically, squadrons of pelicans glided overhead, looking for fish. A sea lion would poke its head out to look around now and then. And the Natural Bridge rock formation loomed over the entire scene.

Afterwards, we headed over to Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, (SCMB) about a five minute drive from the beach. In addition to their small brewery where they make exclusively organic beer, they have a tap room where one can go in and enjoy some of their beer. I was hoping for the best, and slightly fearing the worst. I’ve enjoyed their beer many times, but have noticed some batch to batch variation in their product. And sometimes, this results in off-flavors in the beer. In fairness to SCMB, organic barley and hops are usually inferior to the non-organic kind, and its a testament to the skill of the brewers at SCMB that they produce plenty of good batches of beer. Still, I was hoping we’d spend the time in the SCMB tap room talking about the good times we just had at Natural Bridges, rather than talking about strange flavors lurking in our brew.

Mom tends to favor lagers, with her favorites being Heineken and Stella Artois. SCMB wasn’t offering a lager, so I asked the bartender to pour a sample glass of their Wilder Wheat. I braced myself and took a small sip. Good news! I tasted a really soft tasting beer with warm clove and vanilla notes in it. Really nice, and none of the sour, off-notes I had detected in a previous batch of this beer. I handed the glass over for Mom to try. She liked it, being so sure that this was the beer for her, she had no choice but to order it, end of story.

Well, not exactly. Mom looked hard at the descriptions of the beers and the wall, and started looking confused. Walking up to the bartender, she asked him what would be comparable to her favorites. The bartender was a lot more patient with Mom than me. Actually, just about everyone is more patient with Mom than me. Mom ended up ordering their Pale Ale on the bartender’s recommendation and really enjoyed it.

Dad and I decided to get the spring seasonal, a dry hopped Pale Ale. I forget what hops they used, but the dry-hopping gave the Pale Ale an extra fresh, bitter, and slightly astringent dimension. Falling back upon absolutely zero beer judging and culinary descriptive experience, I’d say it made the beer taste “springy”.

Linda decided to get a sampler flight, which she shared with me. SCMB beers tend to be on the lighter side for each style, but don’t seem watery. They’re just the sort of refreshing, yet substantial beer you’d want to drink after a day of surfing. (Or running, because I can’t really speak for surfers, having never surfed.) I’ve been a fan of their Devout Stout, Dread Brown Ale, and People’s Porter for a while now. And every beer on the sampler flight was solid to good. Really pleased to see a local brewery get it so right.

And since Mother’s Day just past, and Father’s Day is around the corner, let me take this opportunity to give a Beer Runner toast to my parents.

Growing up in Bowling Green, Ohio in the 70’s, Dad would carefully dole out sips of Rolling Rock to me from his glass on hot summer days, teaching me to “respect beer” at an early age. (This was back when Rolling Rock was a respectable regional brewery, not the soul-less InBev product it is today.) And my running career started out back in 1980, when Dad and I trained for a 10 kilometer race. Dad’s been running well into his 60’s, but it looks like some foot surgeries he’s had to undergo will cause him to hang up the running shoes.

Mom also played her part in bringing up her little Beer Runner, and has always been active walking, biking and swimming. Often, Mom would be out swimming in the freezing cold lake or ocean water on family vacations, teaching me that you can have a lot of fun if you develop a high enough pain threshold. And she taught me to put good stuff inside my body, telling me to eat my vegetables because they say “Hi” to my insides.

Good beer says “Hi” to your insides.

My Luggage Met Its Waterloo

I spend a few weeks a year travelling for my job selling optical test and measurement equipment, and take time out when I can to get some runs in and sample some of the local beers. This sometimes creates an awkward travelling road show consisting of sweaty clothes, bottles of beer, and delicate optical test equipment I carry around from city to city in my luggage. I have a system to wrap socks around bottles of beer to protect them from damage for the plane trip home. And yes, sometimes fine bottles of craft beer are tucked away in particularly noxious socks worn previously in a long run. But the system works, and I’ve brought home over a case of beer this way with no problems. I often place the sock entombed bottles in a zip lock bag, just in case they break open. Since that’s never happened, I didn’t bother with the zip lock bags for the return trip home last week with the beer I picked up in Canada.

I bet you figured out what happened. I get home, and half of my luggage is drenched with a bottle that popped open on the way back. Luckily the damage wasn’t so bad, and surprisingly few clothes were wet, and all of them look like they will be salvaged.

The bottle that drenched my luggage was a Special Pale Ale, from Wellington County Brewery in Guelph, Ontario Canada. Wellington Brewery is named after Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, who is best known for defeating Napoleon’s French forces in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Less well known that as Prime Minister of England 15 years later, his government passed the Beerhouse Act, which greatly relaxed government restrictions on production and sales of beer. For a small fee, any residence could start brewing and selling beer, leading to an explosion of small pubs taverns popping up all over England. So you might say, the First Duke of Wellington was an early champion of beer.

Well, not exactly. The Beerhouse Act of 1830 was actually a back handed attempt to suppress English gin houses, which were viewed at the time as hot beds of sin. In the early 1800’s, beer was considered a healthful drink. Children were often served small beer, or beer with low alcohol levels (usually about 3%), which actually was a good alternative to most local water supplies of the era, which were generally not potable. The Duke of Wellington was more interested in weaning the public off of the demon gin, than promoting diversity of beer production.

Approximately 25,000 licenses were granted under this act, but over time, the English Government either repealed provision of the Beerhouse Act, or passed additional regulations on beer. The last remnants of the Act were repealed in 1993. You can still find pubs in the middle of residential neighborhoods in England, products of the Beerhouse Act of 1830 which have survived to this day.

I’m glad the other five bottles of the six-pack survived, because I’m enjoying this one. It’s a slightly rich, caramel brew with an slight, earthy hop background. A little creamy mouthfeel, and at 4.5% ABV, it’s not going to slow you down too much. Just a good, smooth easy drinking beer with some character. Good for celebrating major decisive battles, or little things, like when everything in your luggage gets home all in one piece.

Moosehead Memories, Creemore Springs Discovery

I don’t know about you, but I have this thing for certain Canadian lagers.

One of my favorite beers in my early twenties was Moosehead. So many good times and memories associated with that beer when I was back home near Chicago. I remember sharing a few pitchers of Moosehead hanging out with good friends I haven’t seen in a couple years. Or some friends and I nearly getting kicked out of a bowling alley because we sneaked in a few of bottles of Moosehead under our coats on a cold winter night.

I don’t know how it tasted then, but tried it recently, having not had one in about ten years. Sampling the easy drinking, but forgettable slightly skunky lager was not unlike meeting a high school girlfriend many years afterword. You understand the attraction, but are left with the overwhelming feeling of “what did I see in her?”.

This week in Ottawa, I met Moosehead’s smart, athletic older sister. It’s Creemore Springs Premium Lager, and it’s a good one. As soon as I saw the bartender pour the copper color liquid into the shaker, I knew I had a keeper. Nothing complex here, just fresh tasty malt and a crisp, bitter hop finish. Sharp, simple flavors are good in a lager. Perhaps the best lager I’ve ever had.

Creemore Springs is a small brewery in Creemore Ontario, about 50 miles north of Toronto. Unfortunately, it probably isn’t available in the Bay Area. But next time you’re in Canada, I suggest you check her out.

Running to the End of the World in Quebec City

It’s a whirlwind business trip through Eastern Canada this week, and checked into my hotel in Quebec City early enough to get a pretty decent run in before dinner. I’m in the southern part of the city, no where near the historic old section where I was hoping to visit. Even so, it’s good to get out into the surrounding neighborhoods, and saw many other people out on the road getting a run in as well. Always good to see others out there running.

Later that evening with dinner, I had some La Fin Du Monde from Unibrou. La Fin Du Monde translates in English to “The End of the World”, and if this is the end of the world, then I feel fine. It’s a great example of the Belgian triple style. This brew has a wonderful complexity, with a zippy clove-like spiciness, some yeasty notes, and a tart fruitiness that I had trouble quite putting my finger on, so I’ll just say it was cherry-like.

Unibrou Brewing is in Chambly, Quebec, a few miles east of Montreal. Sure, I could get La Fin Du Monde at my local BevMo! down the street in San Jose, but it tastes that much better close to the source.