Out of Town

A Trip to St. Michaels: Local Beer and Wine on Maryland's Eastern Shore

BREWERYFRONT1 After a long and arduous summer of work and family obligations, Eliza and I found ourselves with an oh-so-rare free weekend recently. On an only moderately planned "whim" (which is as whimmy as we get these days), we took a trip to St. Michaels, a small resort community on Maryland's Eastern Shore, or, the Riviera of the Chesapeake! Or something! Located about an hour's drive down the shore from Annapolis, St. Michaels has all the trappings of your usual sleepy bay-side tourist town; antique shops, cafes, purveyors of $200 critter pants and... a winery and a microbrewery? Hells yes, they do.

BREWERYFRONT2 On Route 33, right at the beginning of town in the "Old Mill Complex" reside St. Michaels Winery and Eastern Shore Brewing. Though unaffiliated, the two work in tandem as the perfect one-stop-shop for the vacationing lover of local fermented treats. Sticking by the old axiom "Beer before Wine, your Feeling Fine; Wine before Beer, towards This you Shouldn't Steer," we visited the latter first.

BREWERYPADDLE1 It's no coincidence that these two establishments find themselves so close together; Adrian and Lori Moritz, avid homebrewers from upstate NY, founded the Eastern Shore Brewing right next door to the young winery in 2008, rightfully thinking it a perfect complement. Using their two sizable fermenters, Eastern Shore puts out about 450 gallons of beer every 10 days, according to The Star Democrat.

BREWERYBAR3 The tasting room is an unpretentious, sparsely furnished space featuring an eclectic selection of tables and seats, and, why not, a number of trophy animal heads. The wood and marble bar featured five brews on draught for sampling: The Lighthause Ale, Duck Duck Goose Porter, Magic Hefeweizen, St. Michaels Ale, and Knot-So Pale Ale IPA. $8.95 gets you a five ounce pour of each of the beers, which equates to a little over two full beers, which ain't too shabby.

BREWERYBEERS1 All in all, the beers tasted of pretty high quality, with a propensity towards cleaner, crisper, dryer flavors. The St. Michaels Ale (which, unbeknownst to me, I had sampled earlier at a local crab smashery) is a fantastic session beer with low alcohol (5.2%), and just a hint of hops. The Magic Hefe, though not my bushel of BREWERYBAR2 crabs, is a great example of the style, with just the right amount of banana and yeasty flavors. Far and away the best of the bunch was the Porter, which had a classic British porter texture, a hint of hops, a slight note of burnt coffee, and a pleasing, dry finish. This is just the perfect local brew to have in oyster country.

Unfortunately, licensing does not allow Eastern Shore to sell by the pint -- they do, however, sell all their beers by the six-pack, and will gladly let you pick and choose your sampler, even to include 5 pours of the same. Though production on this stuff is far too low to make it to this area, the barman told me they sell heavily up and down the shore and have recently made inroads across the bridge, so who knows what the future holds?

MICHAELSSIGN1 A quick stumble behind the brewery is St. Michaels Winery. Founded in 2005, the winery uses a combination of local and Cali grown grapes, which they vinify on premise into a staggering number of wines -- 19 in total were available the day we visited!

MIACHELSOUTSIDE1 The big, barn-like structure houses a small four-seater bar and a half dozen or so tables, situated in a quaint, high-ceilinged, nautically themed room. Though it took a bit longer than we would have liked to be seated, the staff was lovely, and the wait gave us plenty of time to plan our tastings. As I said before, St. Michaels has almost 20 wines available to try, ranging from well-known French varietals like Pinot Grigio and Syrah, to more obscure native varietals and hybrids like Niagra, Seyval and Concord. Unlike some wineries I have visited, they make it pretty simple for you, offering up everything for $1 a taste.

MICHAELSBAR2 My experience with Maryland wines, previously limited to a handful of fruit wines, was greatly expanded that day, and what I found was generally pleasant. The 2007 Chenin Blanc -- made from grapes from Lodi, California -- had some nice floral notes, and ample acidity. The Sangiovese, made from local grapes, was also amply acidic, with the high MICHAELSAWARDS1 cherry notes of a light Chianti. We brought home a bottle of 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, which had great balance, and pleasing, tropical fruit notes. I wish I had had a chance to try more of the native grape wines, but what we had were generally quite good. Prices were pretty high at $16 to $35 a bottle, but that is not unexpected of a small winery that, because of Maryland's draconian wine-shipping laws, must rely almost exclusively on on-site purchases.

MICHALESFERMENTERS1 An interesting side note on both locations is that they were MUCH more free and open with their production space that any other brewery or winery I have ever visited. Eastern Shore's brewing tanks are right there to see and touch, and the winery staff were more than happy for their patrons to wander about their facilities, completely unsupervised! Maybe its a function of looser health codes, but I like to believe it is indicative of the laid back, relaxed atmosphere of the place. The Eastern Shore is a beautiful place to spend a long weekend, particularly for that leisurely attitude. Though I don't think Eastern Shore Brewery and St. Michaels constitute in and of themselves enough to draw a visit, they certainly make for a fun stop while you're there.

Eastern Shore Brewing Company
605 S Talbot St
St Michaels, MD 21663
(410) 745-8010

St. Michaels Winery
605 South Talbot Street, #6
St. Michaels, MD 21663
(410) 745-0808



Maryland brewery tour: Baltimore, Brewer's Art and Clipper City


What do we know about Baltimore?

It's our charming northern neighbor. It has a decent football team. It has a crappy baseball team. It's the setting for gritty, true-to-life crime dramas. It's the setting for Food Network shows about Gen-X bakers. Apparently crabs -- caked and steamed -- and diners are a big deal, as are overrated directors and literary giants.

What I didn't know until a few years ago was that Baltimore is a town for beer lovers (yeah, take that Virginia.). There's Max's Taphouse and Mahaffey's Pub with their wonderfully long beer lineups. There's The Raven Special Lager, which is the only style of beer Baltimore-Washington Beer Works makes - and may be the only style of beer Stephen Demczuk needs to make. It's good stuff.

And then there's Clipper City and The Brewer's Art; one a brewery and one a brewpub, and either reason enough to suffer the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

BALT8 To go on a Clipper City brewery tour is to follow a wandering performance. Hugh Sisson, founder of Clipper City, has done a bit of acting in his day, which becomes immediately evident when he kicks off the tour with a dramatic reading. The man's a showman.

For a mere $5, you get a glass and stack of wooden nickels good for a few pints of Clipper City or Heavy Seas beers on draft in the brewery's tasting room. As for the tour and one-man show, that's free.

Clipper City is smaller than you think. At 13,000 barrels per year, the brewery produces less than half the amount of beer as craft brewing heavyweights like Dogfish Head, Stone and fellow Maryland-based craft brewery Flying Dog. But being Charm City's southern neighbor, we don't lack for access to Hugh Sisson's beer. Good thing. I like Hugh Sisson's beer.

As is the case with many craft breweries, Clipper City began as a brewpub, sort of. In 1989, Sisson and his father Al gave Baltimore its first brewpub since Prohibition when they began brewing house beers in the back of the family restaurant, Sisson's. Looking to get into commercial beer making, Hugh left the Federal Hill brewpub in 1995 to start Clipper City. Eight years later the Heavy Seas line set sail.

The Heavy Seas beers have taken over Clipper City. Touring the brewery with Sisson, you can't miss the Jolly Roger hung over the bottling machine, the stacks upon stacks of Heavy Seas beer boxes ready to be shipped, the labeling machine loaded with labels of the upcoming Yule Tide Christmas ale (It's a Belgian triple!), or the pallets loaded with kegs full of the fantastically delicious Big DIPA double IPA. Sisson still brews beers under the Clipper City and Oxford labels, but Heavy Seas is clearly his primary line (so much so that the company will soon switch names from Clipper City to Heavy Seas).

BALT5 Throughout the tour, you get a history lesson of Clipper City beer, craft brewing in Maryland and how Hugh is intimately involved with both. Hugh works the crowd, offers samples of malt and hops, and eventually leads the crowd back into the tasting room to finish cashing in their nickels. (During the week, the tasting room serves as the office for Sisson and his staff. On one side of the room is Hugh's desk, on the other side is where marketing director Kelly Zimmerman and the other staff work. Wearing a bright red cowgirl hat and pouring beers for the tour takers, Kelly told me that taps, bar and benches in between the desks stay right where they are Monday through Friday. My office sucks.)

If Sisson's was Baltimore's first brewpub, The Brewer's Art is its best. Hell, it's one of the city's best bars. I was introduced to The Brewer's Art years ago by some friends who lived around the corner. I've loved it since. The bright front bar and white-table cloth upstairs dining room and lounge serve as dramatic contrast to the catacomb bar downstairs.

BALT6 Every bar should feel like the downstairs bar at The Brewer's Art. With its mixture of nooks and low lighting, it's not hard to disappear into the space. If you're feeling a bit more communal, you can grab a seat at the V-shaped bar and order one of The Brewer's Art's many house beers, or order up a sample of the lot.

Although the cave-like basement would seem like the appropriate place to stick the brewing operation, the tanks are actually tucked into a room behind the first-floor dining room. Co-owners Volker Stewart and Tom Creegan clearly have an affinity for Belgian-style beers and a knack for brewing them. From the Ozzy to the Proletary Ale, these beers could be served in Brussels or alongside a plate of moules frites at Dr. Granville Moore's (In fact, Dr. Granville Moore's could serve The Brewer's Art's beers. The brewpub's Ozzy and Resurrection are brewed and bottled off-site, and available in the D.C. area, so ... you know, get on with it.).

BALT7 Whether you're upstairs or down, the brewpub's kitchen is there for you. In keeping with the nattier theme, the menu upstairs is upscale, featuring sweetbreads, Kobe pot roast and pan-seared skate. Downstairs, the menu offerings are more pub fare, including a reuben flatbread pizza, pork belly and a respectable portabella sandwich (Tip: You can order anything off the upstairs menu while enjoying your evening downstairs.)

Regardless of whether you go in for the skate or a burger, don't skip the rosemary and garlic fries. Those salty, garlic funky fries just make you want to order another Ozzy, and there's nothing wrong with that (especially when a pint will set you back about $3).

Clipper City is a great craft brewery and Hugh gives a lively tour, but to be honest, an evening at The Brewer's Art is all I need to know about Baltimore to make the trip north.

Want to see more pictures of Clipper City and The Brewer's Art? Check them out here.

Urbanna Oyster Festival

TrishThe lengths I'll go to for food. Two and a half hours and 134 miles, it turns out.

The lure of raw, roasted, fried and stewed oysters drew me, my wife and a friend down to Urbanna, Va. The tiny town along the Virginia coast is home of the annual Urbanna Oyster Festival.

It was a hike down there, but we weren't the only ones making the trip. Urbanna was overrun with tourists and bivalves. At one point, I overheard a girl say, "This is town has 600 people and there are more than that along this street." She was right, the place was packed.

And why not? There was fried, roasted and raw oysters for sale up and down the main drag. The main event -- the oyster shucking competition -- was crowded despite a downpour. Those of us willing to brave the rain to watch the shucking were rewarded with trays of free oysters passed out by local kids.

The free oysters were great, but the crowd was there to see Deborah Pratt (wearing purple) and her sister Clementine Macon (wearing red) go to work. The pair have dominated the women's competition for years. They were even featured on Food Network's Glutton for Punishment teaching Bob Blumer how to open oysters at a competition pace.Image023_3

The amateurs who opened the competition had six minutes to shuck 12 oysters. Most of them needed most of the time. The pros had six minutes to shuck 24 oysters. Deborah and Clementine needed about four minutes. And although Clementine was faster, Deborah was cleaner, which proved to be the difference in her latest win.

If you haven't shucked oysters before, trust me, 24 oysters in four minutes is damn impressive. I taught myself how to shuck oysters last year when I got to bright idea to serve them as an appetizer for Thanksgiving. I'm an idiot. It is a lot harder than it looks. All the time I've spent sitting at oyster bars watching professionals do it convinced me that I could do it, too. I can, but I'm really slow and I swear a lot more than Deborah and Clementine.

Once the rain let up, we made our way to the food vendors and ate our way through the festival. There  was the enormous seafood fritter sandwich (scallops, oysters, shrimp and crab), two dozen raw oysters, one dozen roasted oysters, a dozen fried oysters, half a bottle of White Fences wine, a basket of clam strips, and a couple ham and biscuits (it was a dinner roll, actually. Disappointing).

A moment for the oysters. Virginia oysters are fat, sweet, sweet and slightly briny. And in Urbanna, they don't cost $2 a piece. What's not to love?

There was also barbecue. God, I love barbecue. Honestly, the Carolina pork barbecue needed sugar, but Image043 it was pretty damn good. The farther away from Carolina I get, the harder it is to find true Carolina barbecue. Beach Bully's barbecue wasn't perfect, but it wasn't bad.

Our day (not the festival) wrapped up watching the Oyster Festival Parade, replete with high school marching bands and an army of Shriners. If you've ever lived in or grew up in a small town, these parades are great. Old men in strange hats and tiny cars, celebrities you've never heard of and badly made floats ridden by local beauty queens. Urbanna also had an oyster mascot waving to the crowd (it worked, somehow).

It was a long drive for cheap oysters, fast shucking and Americana, but it was worth every mile.

Oak Spring Dairy's Bay Derby at Three Fox Vineyards

Img_2803 Every fall, my wife and I get together with a group of friends and drive out to Markham, Virginia, for an afternoon of apple picking and wine tasting.  We've settled on Markham because it's less than an hour's drive from Washington, it offers two orchards to choose from, and there are at least three wineries in the nearby area.

This year, we started our day at Stribling Orchard, where we spent a couple of hours wandering through the trees and picking some beautiful looking apples - mostly York and Rome.  We've learned from past experience that it's far too easy to pick more apples than you can ever reasonably hope to use, so we were careful not to pick too many too quickly.  But we readily filled three grocery bags with the help of our friends (a good amount when divided among 8 or 9 people) and then moved on to the second part of our trip - the vineyard.Winencheese_3

In the past, we've visited Naked Mountain Winery, a Markham winery which offers indoor and   outdoor tasting areas that boast a massive fireplace and a breathtaking valley view, respectively, but this year we opted to visit Three Fox Vineyards in nearby Delaplane, Virginia.  Three Fox is a labor of love for John and Holli Todhunter, who have worked to give their small vineyard a Mediterranean feel.  Guests can sit at tables right near the vines, or they can picnic on the bank of Crooked Run.  We set up camp at one of the tables near the tasting room, where we proceeded to unpack a spread of meats and cheeses, chips and dips.

While in the tasting room buying a bottle of Viognier (a varietal that most Virginia wineries seem to do really well with), I noticed that they carried cheeses from Oak Spring Dairy, a producer from Upperville, Virginia.  I'd love to be able to provide you with a link, but Oak Spring does not have a website - in fact, the only way you'll be able to enjoy their cheeses is if you sample them at one of several northern Virginia wineries, purchase them from farm stores like the one at Stribling Orchard, or visit the dairy itself.

Frontandback I purchased a wedge of Oak Spring's Bay Derby, a cheese that immediately reminded me of the Crab Spice Cheddar I sampled from Chapel's Country Creamery.  No surprise: the 'bay' in Bay Derby refers to a spice blend that is very similar to that of Old Bay seasoning, and Derby is a semi-firm cheese whose taste and texture are close to those of cheddar.  At $6.63 for a .39 lb piece, this cheese would run $17/lb if you could purchase it by weight.

The label identified this as a fresh raw cows milk cheese that is "aged naturally on the farm" for 16 months.  The bay seasoning gave the derby a slightly sharp, almost peppery flavor, though the natural butteriness was not overwhelmed by the spice.  As the cheese warmed over the course of the afternoon, it even started to give off a faint aroma reminscent of steamed crabs.  And it paired wonderfully with the Viognier I bought - the creaminess and the spice both complemented the dry fruitiness of the wine and made for a great combination of flavors.

I'm going to be looking for other Oak Spring Dairy offerings at wineries throughout the area next year, and I'll keep you posted about my findings.  For now, this one experience will have to suffice as my introduction to a local producer that definitely warrants further exploration. 

DCFoodies - Travel Edition

I have decided that I'm going to start posting about the food I eat while I'm traveling. A couple weekends ago, Amy and I went to VT to go skiing. YES skiing. For those of you who a dumbfounded that I was skiing in April, well, there is a reason they call it spring skiing. My brother has a condo at Killington, VT and they have skiing sometimes till June 1st. Anyhoo, we went to a few interesting places to eat up there that I wanted to write about here.

Continue reading "DCFoodies - Travel Edition" »