Where’s the Fire? Fireman’s Brew hits NYC.

BrunetteI really dislike the term “gateway beer.” There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, I think there’s room in the craft beer world for all types of brews. I’m not particularly fond of barleywines, for example (one day I am going to go to the Alaska festival where—under layers of furs and surrounded by huskies and malamutes—I will, no doubt, thoroughly enjoy a big beer in the right environs… but I digress). The point is, some people like to drink (or make) beers that are not particularly challenging on the palate. That’s just the kind of beer they like.

However, the other reason why I don’t like this term is it can let a brewer off the hook, quality wise. If all you’re trying to do is cut into Anheuser-Busch’s clientele, I don’t really count you as a craft brewer. You’re just a charlatan making shitty beer that only shitty beer drinkers will ever want to buy. Good luck to you, now be on your way!

Fireman’s Brew out of Woodland Hills, CA, has a cool story. Or a hot one. Back in 2000 after working on putting out a particularly nasty brushfire, two Los Angeles firefighters were thinking of what any sane—and slightly scorched—individual would be thinking: Where can I get a nice cold beer after a day like today? The slightly ironic joke of “extinguish your thirst” became the impetus for starting a brewery. Now, 13 years later they’re available in 12 states including NY. They’ve recently made their way into the Brooklyn, Queens and, now, Manhattan markets.

Last night local rep Rob Keiley (himself a proud member of the FDNY) was pouring the company’s three flagship brews: The Blonde (a 5% ABV Pilsner), The Brunette (an 8% ABV Dopplebock), and The Redhead (a 5.5% Amber Ale). None of these beers was remarkable, but all were decent. They were being offered at The Mason Jar, which has a long row of sticks featuring the aforementioned A-B offerings along with various Sam Adams (or SA affiliates). In other words, not a craft beer bar.

Jeanne Beach and Rob Keiley of Fireman's Brew.

Jeanne Beach and Rob Keiley of Fireman’s Brew.

But Rob told me that the beer is also at Salty Dog in Williamsburg, along with a few other traditional craft beer bars. And I can see why. Their story is just too good to dis on this beer. With five percent of proceeds going to the Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Fireman’s Brew plays right into the craft beer ethos.

And, honestly, the beers are reasonable offerings, along the lines of what you’d find in many brewpubs. While the Pilsner wasn’t as crisp or hoppy as I would like, both the Doppleboch and the Amber were solid entries. The latter in particular was full bodied without too much alcohol, and reminded me of what I would typically drink at Heartland Brewery. Certainly the beers were better than any mass produced lager being poured at The Mason Jar.

Another aspect to Fireman’s Brew is their “on duty drinks”: coffee and sodas that they market directly to firehouses (you can also buy their non-alcoholic drinks online). These are brewers who are selling to their own kind: hardworking men and women who risk their lives every day. And just want a nice cool one at the end of a shift to wash the soot out of their mouths.

If I had a bone to pick with this beer, it wouldn’t be its quality (which is fine) but the hesitance to be forthcoming about their brewing process. They are some hybrid of contract brewer working with an unnamed brewmaster from an undisclosed facility. I have no issues with gypsy brewers or contract brewers, but you either name the brewmaster or the brewery where the beer is being made. I think that concern—far more than taste—is what will cause craft beer drinkers to shy away from the brand.

UPDATED; Jeanne wanted me to know that Fireman’s has a partnership brewing arrangement with their Mendocino brewing facility where brewmaster Don Tubbs creates beers from their own recipes. Fireman’s Brew used to brew in Los Angeles before outgrowing their previous facility. Thanks to Jeanne for reaching out about this! And looking forward to more of Don’s beers.

So go ahead and do your heart a favor and try a Fireman’s Brew if you happen to see it at a craft beer bar near you. It may not be the best craft beer you have this year, but you’ll feel good drinking it all the same. Or buy one for your buddy who only likes Coors. Just don’t let The Bitch hear you telling him it’s a “gateway beer.” Cheers!


NYC Hot Sauce Expo: Feeling the Heat Despite the Chill

hotsauce2You had to be pretty damn brave this weekend to venture out and partake of the 1st Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo (it was amazing, so I’m pretty sure that “1st Annual” is not just wishful thinking). First off, it was eff-ing freezing! Stationed along the banks of the East River in Williamsburg, the Expo offered no cover from the elements (including intense sun; memo to self: don’t forget the sunscreen even when it’s 37 degrees). The only respite from the windchill on Saturday and the plummeting temps on Sunday was for VIP ticket holders who were able to access the indoor amenities of 110 Kent Avenue, a super cool space adjacent to East River State Park.

Second, you had to be prepared to be scorched and burned by the end of the eight-hour event. More than 40 hot sauce vendors from Portland (Oregon) to Chicago to Dallas to Vermont and everywhere in between were there to seer you with Scoville levels that were off the charts for guyanka casual hot sauce eater.

I tried to pace myself on the spicy. When I want to be in pain, well, let’s just say I have a different avenue over ingesting hot sauce. And there were plenty of mild, medium and hot options to please. Among my favorites were the offerings of NW Elixirs  (Andrew—who is as hot as his sauces—won four Screamin’ MiMi Awards, including first place in the Jalapeno Hot Sauce category), Guyank (who only had to drive down from Queens), and Defcon Sauces, although there were so many great and varied offerings, it’s almost impossible to pick among them.

doughThere was a lot of food to sample from. In addition to brisket and sausage for sale, samples of cookies (yes, hot sauce laced macarons!), taffy (the spicy peanut butter from Peppers was my favorite, along with the colorful Chip Hearn, who kept changing hats as the day progressed; at one point he wore what looked like a stuffed chicken on his head), jalapeno chips dusted with ranch, the seasoning of NYC Hot Sauce Company (Jon Bratton was sprinkling cucumber with a dried out pepper pulp spice that soon may be replacing Old Bay in many a cupboard), pepper jams and jellies, and peanut brittle, which apparently was so spicy it made at least one writer covering the event physically ill.

When it came tMicheladao the beer, there was a nice, albeit small, variety of craft from which to choose, including a recent addition to the NYC market from Texas, Shiner Beer. New York was represented well by Captain Lawrence and Empire, with the Coney Island Pilsner rounding out the Brooklyn vibe. Other cool Brooklyn offerings came courtesy of the VIP area, where Widow Jane Rye was being served. Bartenders competed for title of best beer cocktail in a  Corona/Modelo Michelada (beer Bloody Mary) Competition, while the real thing was served up courtesy of Tito’s Vodka. In the latter category, bragging rights go to Tony of Bushwick’s Pine Box Rock Shop. At one point I took my scorpion sauce (rated 1,000,000 on the Scoville Scale) and added an artisanal vodka from Berkshire Mountain Distillers (expect to hear more from them in the news soon – the Bitch has the scoop, so stay tuned!).

EvilSeedAll the capsaicin aside, the coolest part of the Expo was the personalities. I’m not a hot sauce insider, but these people really know their stuff. Some of them were rock stars of the hot sauce scene (literally in the case of the heavy metal guys out in force, autographing their bottles). And when Tom of Tom’s Roid Rippin hot sauce won first place in the Novelty category, he literally had tears in his eyes, having for the first time been officially acknowledged by his peers (the hot sauce judging had taken place several weeks in advance of the Expo). And these guys and gals really seem to have a good time and are characters in and of themselves. It was not for nothing that one of the Screamin MiMi Awards went for Best Label Artwork.

These hot sauces are culinary works of art, and I look forward to enjoying the products I bought at the Expo. Just as soon as my tastebuds get back to normal. The Bitch is orgasmic about the 1st Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo. I give it five ghost peppers!