Remembering Michael.

Michael Jackson left us seven years ago today, leaving a gaping hole in craft beer culture that is yet to be filled. I have marked this sad anniversary a couple of times in the past by posting my story of the last time I saw MJ, a brunch at Iron Hill Phoenixville with local brewing legend  Bill Moeller and Carolyn Smagalski, with whom Michael was staying. Today I’ll do the same and I’ve dug into the archives and found a couple of previously unpublished photos I took that day. I’ll lead off with those…

MoellerAndMJBooBill brought with him a book that Michael had given him as gift back in the ’80s when he visited him at work (Schmidt’s) and had him sign it.

MoellerAndJacksonTalkListening to the two of them talk about the old days was great fun. I tried to capture it all on tape but much of it came through distorted.

And this is the story I wrote about that day when I learned that Michael had died…


An afternoon with Michael Jackson.

By Jack Curtin

If I had known it was to be our final time together, that bright and sunny March Sunday, would I have wanted it to be any different? I’ve thought a lot about that. The answer is “probably not,” except perhaps for a longer, warmer handshake at the end, and maybe a gentle squeeze of his shoulder, although that might have been an unwanted affront to his always obvious sense of personal space.

In retrospect, my last day in the company of Michael Jackson was nearly perfect just the way it was.

Michael was in the Philadelphia area for most of last March, ostensibly for his 18th straight year appearing at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Architecture and Anthropology. That happened on the weekend of March 9-11—a fancy dinner Friday night and three sold-out tasting sessions Saturday—and was followed by yet another sold-out dinner Sunday night at Monk’s Café, a smaller, less stressful event which he’d been doing for the past decade or so. Before and after meeting those obligations, he was visiting with Carolyn Smagalski, BellaOnline’s “Beer Fox,” out in the western suburbs. I suspect that those private days were of much more importance to him than maintaining his impressive streak in a city he clearly appreciated and whose beer culture he praised in venues around the world. In light of his recent open acknowledgement of a 20-year struggle with Parkinson’s Disease, Michael was, from all evidence, focusing a bit more on the personal side of his life, on seizing the day. Carolyn was most definitely a large part of that.

I also live west of the city, not far from Carolyn. And just up the road from me resides Bill Moeller, the legendary master brewer who was, among other things, instrumental in the start-up of Brooklyn Brewing Co. and Dock Street Brewing Co. I knew that Michael and Bill were long-time friends, stretching back to the latter’s stints in the ‘70s and ‘80s at the last of Philadelphia’s mainstream breweries, Ortlieb’s and Schmidt’s. Having learned from Bill in a recent interview that they had not seen one another for several years, I decided to arrange for the four of us to share brunch at the Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant in Phoenixville on March 25, a week before Michael would return to London.

We arrived, exchanged greetings and settled in to order beer and food. Michael asked for a sampler and was presented with a huge tray of every beer in the house. He of course made notes of each as he sipped it—that is what he did, after all. Within minutes, the broader conversation became a matter of Carolyn and I listening in fascination as two still mentally vital giants filled in the blanks that one or the other had about this or that recollection and recalled earlier meetings and earlier beers. Michael and Bill had last seen one another roughly five years earlier in a brief and accidental encounter at a coffee shop across the street from The Algonquin, a favorite New York hotel of each, so this was their first chance to sit down and seriously chat in nearly a decade.

Much of their talk was of old friends, old times. Bill brought with him a thick folder of various memorabilia, including ancient brewing records from Schmidt’s which inspired some exchanges of a technical nature. He also brought along a treasured book about one of their shared passions, John Doxat’s “Stirred Not Shaken: The Dry Martini.” It was an autographed copy which Michael had presented to him more than a quarter of a century earlier. That too “stirred” up some memories. I recall that McSorley’s Ale, which Moeller brewed at Schmidt’s and which Michael came to Philadelphia (possibly for the first time ever) to learn more about, definitely was discussed.

I wish I could tell you all the specifics of their conversation. Perhaps someday I will. I do have an audio tape, but the quality is poor and my attempts to decipher it so far have been nothing but serious exercises in frustration. Rather than a standard tape recorder, I used a small Sony unit designed for dictation, one I normally employ for furtive notes in situations where it isn’t convenient or feasible to pull out a notepad and pen. I figured that it would be unobtrusive and not hinder their chatter in any way. Unobtrusive it was; up to the task of clearly and cleanly recording their words, it was not. We are rarely as clever as we think we are.

Along with the inveterate note-taking, there were two other quintessential Michael Jackson moments. When our meals were finished and the talk winding down, Iron Hill brewer Tim Stumpf approached the table with a bottle of Cannibal, the Gold Medal winning Belgian-style Golden Ale brewed by his colleague Chris LaPierre at Iron Hill’s West Chester pub, offering it as a take-away gift for Michael. But he wouldn’t hear of it. Nothing would do but that we slightly chill and open it right there and then, sample it, talk about it. Beer was not to be sanctified or hoarded, it was for sharing with friends. Similarly, as we were leaving, Michael began to pepper our gracious hostess, general manager Toby Jarmon, with his trademark questions about the town of Phoenixville, its history, the people who lived there. For him, place—in the broad sense of culture and history as well as geography—was always a major part of the tales of beers and brewers which he wrote so well.

At approximately 2:15 that afternoon, I shook Michael Jackson’s hand, said “see you soon” and walked out into the bright sunshine of a perfect early spring day which seemed filled, as perfect days should, with hope and promise. The temptation now, of course, is to convince myself, and you, that I knew in my heart even then that I had just experienced what I would look back upon as a near-mythic moment in my life.

In fact, it didn’t cross my mind for even an instant that my promised “soon” would never come. It wasn’t like that at all.

It never is.


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This guy is not happy at all about the session IPA cash gouge. Or you Untappd robots, who are worser than worse.

I can’t resist a momentary return to the topic of my last column, session IPAs. I decried their lack of balance and malt flavor, though I admit there is a bit of personal preference involved. However, what is inexcusable is that they are more expensive than the corresponding brewery’s real IPA. It takes less of every ingredient other than water to make them. Why, then, are they not cheaper? I really hope that this is not the beginning of Big Beer marketing nonsense invading craft beer.

That’s from a very good column by San Antonio Express-News beer columnist Markus Haas, and he’s not the first to have noted this “phenomenon.”

The whole column is well worth a read as Haas takes on “the folly and foibles around America’s favorite adult beverage.” This is my favorite of the other topics:

Onward to something that makes me shake my head whenever I’m sampling beers in a bigger group. Each time a new bottle gets opened, someone is sure to excitedly pull out his phone and take a picture of the label instead of pouring beer into his glass. It’s the curse of the Untappd user…

If you have no idea what Untappd is (and, yes, that spelling is correct), do not even think about clicking on that link, congratulate yourself on having  a sense of decorum and desirable social skills and imagine large middle-aged men acting like teen-age girls who’ve come across a rock star.

You can thank me later.

Posted in Opinion, Other Voices | 3 Comments

Hey, brewers, you want to know what I don’t like?


These sixpack holders are annoying and frustrating because they are difficult to detach to the point where the can gets shaken enough to foam over on opening in some instances. I wanted to drink my beer, not wrestle with it. This is a bad idea. Please stop. Thank you.

Posted in Beer Cans, Deep Thoughts, Dumbass Stuff by Dumbass People, Entirely Too Much Time on my Hands | 4 Comments

As we have been surmising…’s either Ohio or Virginia for the new Stone Brewing East Coast plant. At least, that’s the word from today’s Craft Business Daily:

On Friday, Stone winnowed the scope of speculation surrounding its imminent second location. “We have narrowed the focus of our search for an Eastern U.S. brewery to Columbus, Ohio, Norfolk, Virginia and Richmond, Virginia,” it said via Facebook. But they’re still “at least several weeks away” from announcing their decision.

Later in the CBD story, South Carolina Brewers Association counsel Brook Bristow speculates that lower excise taxes in the two chosen states were what ruined SC’s chances.

The final decision is still “at least several weeks away.

Posted in Breweries | 1 Comment

Here’s a Bill for your weekend pleasure.

Bill Covaleski, that is, co-founder of Victory Brewing Co, (with Ron Barchet).

Dell Poncet, Managing Editor of Philadelphia Business Journal, did this long and interesting interview with Bill back in July. I’ve linked to the single-page view to make it easier ’cause that’s the kinda guy I am. Here’s a sample:

Our plans for Victory are great, but all within the realm of possibility. Interest in new American beers is growing steadily across the world and we are in the thick of those export possibilities. Closer to home, we never lose focus on who we are — innovative manufacturers — and who pays us for our work — enlightened consumers. They will guide us to growing Victory to its natural size. That will be a size that supplies endless streams of exciting beers and supports countless careers and the families of those who have driven this company forward from within. This extended community of consumers and collaborators will be our legacy.

As it happens, I am Victory-bound tomorrow afternoon and this has made me very thirsty.

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Which one of the five beers mentioned in this post does not belong?

This is likely to be a hilarious  fiasco, but who knows?

Now Pabst Brewing, which has 30 beers including Old Style, Schlitz and Lone Star in its lineup, hopes to make a hit out of the revived beer at a time when flagship Pabst Blue Ribbon, or PBR, has been adopted by hipsters as cheap, cool and nostalgic.

When Ballantine IPA arrives in stores in six packs and 750-milliliter bottles next month, “We are hoping that the current (Pabst Blue Ribbon) consumers will embrace the Ballantine IPA,” said Pabst master brewer Greg Deuhs.

Back in ancient times, before most of you reading this were born and the world was a much nicer place all in all (not that I would ever suggest there is some relationship between those two conditions), I came back to my dingy apartment on 21st St. in Philadelphia to find two, count ‘em, two, cases of Ballantine IPA on my doorstep (amazing in itself, since the doorstep was right out there on the street and nobody had considered them a gift from the gods and therefore set them free) shortly after I had written two very excellent (if I may say so, and who is here to deny it?) stories about Ballantine, the company, one for employees and the other for agents of the major insurance company which employed my young self to turn out magazines for those audiences ten times each a year.

Those were the golden days. I thought they’d never end (except for the working for a major insurance company thing, which I abandoned as soon as the opportunity presented itself, for a worse job, then a much better one but not quite the answer I needed, all part of my relatively short journey into a lifetime as a near-poverty level freelance writer).

Posted in New Releases, News, Nostalgia | 4 Comments

What was I thinking? Here is some belated love for Summer Love.

I am embarrassed and verklempt to have to reveal that we are this far into the summer and I have just consumed my first bottle of Victory Summer Love Ale. What the hell is wrong with me?

This is one of the best summer beers this region has ever given birth to and is an ideal warm weather brew. Not to mention that it  fits nicely into my “session beer” standards at a mere 5.2%. I am aware that there are surely out there a few loud, large persons who may find this heresy, but when we allow loud, large persons to tell us what is acceptable, do we not open the door to acknowledging Chris Christie as a viable Presidential candidate? That way lies madness, not to mention disaster.

Just thinking about it, I think I need another bottle. Gotta run…

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As usual, Foobooz and Art Etchells get there first.

He introduces us to the new owners of what will one day soon no longer be Resurrection Ale House:

We told you last month that Leigh Maida and Brendan Hartranft were selling Resurrection Ale House. Today, we have some news on the new owners, Andrew Wagner and Marcus Versace.

Wagner is the chef and has worked for the Starr Restaurant Organization for the last twelve years, mainly as executive chef at Jones and now at Continental Midtown. Versace is a bartender, working at Las Vegas Lounge and since 2004 at Coco’s on 8th Street.

No new name revealed at this point and the site will retain the Resurrection name and identity until at least Sept. 21, the fifth anniversary of its opening.

Posted in Cafes, Restaurants, Taverns, News, Philly | Leave a comment

This guy.

You know how so many makers and distributors and importers of Really Good Beer (looking at you, Shelton Bros.) tell horror stories of dealing with the TTB on label approvals? Well, as always, the problem is the man behind the curtain.

Meet Kent ‘Battle’ Martin.

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All that time you were gnashing your teeth and bitching about my incompetence, you were (maybe) way out of line.

From it’s very earliest days way back in the dark ages of the last century (remember then, oh so long gone?), this blog has been plagued by a raft of often embarrassing typographical errors. It appears that might actually have been a really good thing.

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