Beer Notebook: My First Growler

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Good beer, fresh from the tap, just sings. But short of a slightly expensive renovation job to install a keg stand and tap, getting that just-poured beer requires a trip out, and sometimes you want to sit at home and enjoy a pint. So how to get that fresh beer in a comfortable setting of your own choosing?

Dogfish Head Growler

Enter the growler, an old concept made new again with the rise of microbreweries and their associated brewpubs. At heart, a growler is just a glass jug with a tight-sealing cap, filled with your favorite brew at your friendly local tavern for consumption off-premises, and almost every microbrewery will fill them, in 32 and 64 ounce sizes. Most microbreweries sell their own glass growlers, with brand logo (and the all-important government warning) printed on the glass; further, as long as that warning is on the growler (and if the growler is clean), most will fill other breweries’ growlers as well.

Growlers, at least as shorthand for large containers for beer, have been around a long time. Joseph Mitchell, in his collection Up in the Old Hotel, recounts their use before Prohibition, quoting a butcher preparing for a massive beefsteak feast:

“In the old days they didn’t even use tables and chairs. They sat on beer crates and ate off the tops of beer barrels. You’d be surprised how much fun that was. Somehow it made old men feel young again. And they’d drink beer out of cans, or growlers. Those beefsteaks were run in halls or the cellars or back rooms of big saloons.”

The emphasis seems to be on excess, and yet the modern iteration of the growler centers on freshness and the ability to take that liquid ambrosia home.

I acquired my first growler on a recent trip to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, home of the Dogfish Head Brewpub. In addition to sampling their brewpub-only offerings—Wet Hop After Dark, a fresh hop dark IPA that sadly managed to hide the fresh hop taste, and a very fine cask version of their 75 Minute IPA—I availed myself of their growler selection and went with a classic, the stellar 60 Minute IPA. I didn’t even mind that the waitress who brought me the growler called my 32 ounce version “a cute little baby growler,” as I had acquired what I came for: fresh beer the next day at home.

And it was fresh. The gasket-sealed cap kept the carbonation going, resulting in a near-tap pour with a generous and creamy head. I’m sure purists could taste the difference between my growler beer and beer right out of the tap, but it was more than close enough for me. I had one of my favorite beers, at the peak of freshness, in the comfort of my home.

So long live the growler! I’m lucky enough to live someplace with several microbreweries nearby that fill growlers, and I look forward to walking in there with my Dogfish Head jug asking for a fill.

Road Bites: Taco Bell's Crunchy Taco

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Life might not have been simpler in the 1970s, but the menu at Taco Bell certainly was. Perhaps six or seven items populated the Mexican-inspired fast food chain’s list of offerings then, and of those, very few can be found on the contemporary menu, stuffed as it is with Doritos-this and Extreme Baja-that, all festooned with “crunchy red strips” of uncertain provenance.

Back then, you ordered a taco. You got a taco. No need to specify “crunchy” or soft, no need to ask for it to be glued to another shell with refried beans or smothered in odd sauces. It was a taco: spiced beef mixture, lettuce, and cheddar cheese inside a hard corn tortilla shell. Perhaps not a taco in the sense anyone versed in Mexican cuisine would recognize, but the taco of my and many Americans’ youth.

Upon a recent visit to a Taco Bell in Frederick, Maryland, I ordered a meal composed of items you would have found way back when: crunchy taco, bean burrito, and pintos and cheese (frijoles, once upon a time).

Crunchy Taco and Pintos and Cheese from Taco Bell

For all the changes, the taco brought back memories of those originals from the ’70s. The timeless construction of spiced meat at the bottom, then shredded lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese at top, comforted me for some reason. Unlike my sandwich rule of proper ingredient distribution, a good fast-food taco needs variety—a bit of lettuce and cheese (with hot sauce added) this time, a bit of meat and lettuce next, with the cracking shell adding texture to each bite. Sure, the cheddar was industrially shredded three hundred miles (and who knows how many weeks) away, and the shell was hardly just-fried, but the experience was simple, filling, and just a bit nostalgic.

I tend to eat better (or at least more proper) tacos now, filled with al pastor and barbacoa, but you’re not always going to find a taco truck or taqueria on the road. My Taco Bell stop proved to be an inexpensive, interesting, and well-prepared meal, enough to get me back on the road to my destination, like a good road bite should.

And if Taco Bell would ever bring back the classic enchirito and tostado, well, I’d be stopping by quite a bit more often.

Road Bites: Jimmy John's Vito Italian Sub

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When I’m on the road and in dire need of an Italian sub—surely I’m not the only one with this recurring dilemma?—I’m not looking for world-beating fresh prosciutto or hand cut mozzarella or rolls sourced from a hundred year-old bakery passed down through successive generations. Those would be proper hoagies, which I take trips specifically to eat. You can find real hoagies on the road, but most times, that’s just not happening in a fast-food/fast-casual setting. I’m talking about subs, those meat and veg and cheese combos placed in usually indifferent bread, satisfying and yet not remarkable. You get, as they say, what you pay for.

So it’s worth noting the existence of the Vito, an Italian sub from the (very) fast-casual sandwich chain Jimmy John’s. The ingredients are fresh and plentiful, with a nice amount of fairly decent Genoa salami and capicola, acceptable provolone, and a vinaigrette that, while not a more traditional straight oil and vinegar, still provides a nice mouthfeel. Plus they offer bean sprouts as an option, and the slight crunch makes for an interesting contrast.

Jimmy John's Vito

The ingredients alone, though, don’t make the Vito noteworthy. It’s the construction. I’ve long held that a sandwich with amazing ingredients can be let down by poor sandwich assembly. A good sub has every ingredient in every bite without the food being a jumble or a hacked-up mess. The Vito I had came from a location in Greensboro, North Carolina, which put together a textbook sub, with proper portions and careful ingredient layering.

This careful structure comes about by scooping out part of the bread, creating a managed space for the ingredients inside the roll. Were the bread better, I would complain about losing it, but here, the attention to detail makes a good sub even better. It’s optional, but I can’t imagine getting a Jimmy John’s sub without asking for the roll to be hollowed out.

For a fresh Italian sub on the road, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a Jimmy John’s location. They’ll get you back on your way fast and fed.

Beer Notebook: 21st Amendment's Down to Earth

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I feared the worst when 21st Amendment Brewery‘s superlative session Pale Ale, Bitter American, started becoming harder and harder to find on store shelves. Even the specialty shops that pride themselves on deep selections stopped carrying it. And then, I learned the bitter (only slight pun intended) truth. Cancelled. Discontinued. Sent to the big recycling bin in the sky.

21st Amendment's Down to Earth

But you can’t be a modern craft brewery without a session Pale Ale, without that hoppy yet infinitely drinkable beer that you can enjoy over the course of an afternoon or evening of socializing. So, enter Down to Earth, the sequel beer, if you will, to Bitter American.

Down to Earth follows its predecessor with a low alcohol content of 4.4 ABV and a similar bitterness at 42 IBU, but changes style from an American Pale Ale to an India Pale Ale. Neither Bitter American nor Down to Earth could be considered excessively hoppy, so the switch in style manifests mostly in increased floral and citrus notes. There’s still the same easy drinkability and clean finish that makes for a social pint (or a social 12 ounces, I guess, since it’s only available in standard cans), but I don’t find myself as drawn to this version.

Now, I’m a confirmed IPA drinker, an unreformed hophead, even, but I don’t know that the IPA style really works for a session beer. I like to savor an IPA and its complexity, with a higher hop concentration helping to balance the florals. Down to Earth is a good beer, make no mistake, and it’s a great beer to share with friends, but it’s not a great IPA.

With Bitter American, I never questioned what my session ale would be; with Down to Earth, I’m not going to automatically pick it over other session ales. It’ll always be in the running, but like the monkey on the can, I’m going to explore my options.

The G-Man Revisited: Mangialardo & Sons

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Back in early 2011, I reviewed the iconic G-Man sub from revered Washington, DC, sandwich shop Mangialardo & Sons on Capitol Hill. My experience wasn’t the greatest, but I have a respect for sandwich places that have managed to survive for decades with essentially the same menu the whole time, so I vowed to go back.

It took me a few years, but I’ve recently been twice more, getting the G-Man each time. This time around, I was in gustatory revels. Where the initial sandwich in 2011 was indifferently constructed, these recent subs were crafted with care, down to the tight wrapping in butcher’s paper, a dying art form in its own right.

The G-Man from Mangialardo & Sons

At $6.50, this sub was loaded with salami, ham, mortadella, and mozzarella, all of high quality. The roll was decent, though not spectacular, and the toppings were fine and applied judiciously. I’m almost pleased that it’s a thirty-five minute round trip walk to the store from my place, as I could see making this place a habit.

My boon companion speaks highly of both the tuna salad and the meatball subs, so they’re not just a cold cut establishment. The menu isn’t extensive, but they focus on what they do best—putting meat in a roll.

Besides, you have to love a sub shop whose scanned paper take out menu (.pdf) appears to have grease stains on it.

Road Bites: Steak 'n Shake Burgers and Chili

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Unquestionably, burgers represent the quintessential American road bite, ideal for eating on the go. You can’t travel down a byway or highway without passing a burger joint. If you’re unlucky, you wind up stopping at a national chain with its predictable (often comfortingly so) national burger; it’s the regional chains that provide the perfect melding of franchise familiarity with local sensibilities. On a recent trip to Greensboro, NC, I stopped at a chain that hails from the midwest, venerable Steak ‘n Shake, famous, as they say, for steakburgers.

Steak 'n Shake Double 'n Cheese

The double steakburger with cheese didn’t quite match the beauty shot from the menu, but there’s no ignoring the smashed ground beef patty with those great crisped edges. The meat was moist and flavorful, the vegetable toppings reasonably fresh as well. I’m not a burger connoisseur, but amongst fast food offerings, Steak ‘n Shake wins the prize, and at $4 for the burger and a side of thin (though somewhat wan) fries, well, I’m glad that there isn’t one within easy driving distance of home base, else I’d be eating there quite a bit.

I spent several youthful years in the midwest, and my childhood memories of Steak ‘n Shake revolve mostly around the chili five-way. That’s all I would eat when I went there as a kid, and the thought of having it again drove me to stop here.

Steak 'n Shake Chili Five Way

Sampling it as an adult, I realize how much difference nostalgia makes. Steak ‘n Shake chili five way isn’t my beloved Cincinnati five-way — the meat here is coarser ground and on the bland side, without much spice or flavor. My dish didn’t have much in the way of onion or cheese, either. I wasn’t anticipating a Skyline abundance of cheese and ground beef, but for the price, I was hoping for a larger portion (and I thought there would be packets of oyster crackers and chili sauce in the Takhomasack). It was fine, tasty enough, but not up to the madeline of my expectations.

I’ll still stop at a Steak ‘n Shake over, well, any other regional or national burger chain, but I’ll stick with the justly famous steakburger. Certainly easier to eat on the road than the chili. Oh, and the shakes. Those are pretty damn good, too.