is a member of the North
American Guild of Beer
Writers and a two time
winner of their Quil &
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Vince's column is now a
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|Some people remember beers the way others remember birthdays, or phone numbers, or hernia operations. Those
eidetic beer folks can tell you where they drank it, the glass size, the beer’s flavor profile, and what it cost even if it
was decades ago. My BeerNexus colleague, Dan Hodge, is one of those gifted individuals. He professes to
remember more than 6,000 different beers he has had reaching back over half a century. Perhaps the most
renowned exhibition of his amazing memory occurred a few years back when our favorite watering hole, The
Libertine, brought in a keg of a recreated classic beer from Ballantine (now owned by Pabst) called Burton Ale. If you
know beer history then you know this is no ordinary beer. Ballantine Burton Ale was first brewed in Newark, NJ in the
1930s and aged for up to 20 years in American oak. It was never sold to the public and in fact was designated a
“Special Brew” by Ballantine and given as a gift to prestigious friends of the brewery, including the White House.
The last batch made was in 1946 which means that today an original bottle is truly rare, the Holy Grail of bottle
collecting. However it was not so special in the mid-1950s when Dan split a bottle with a friend. Although he hasn’t
tasted it since, the memory of that day has, according to Dan, became etched in his mind. And his is no ordinary
mind. Ask him about the 1949 classic movie Mighty Joe Young and he can identify each of the ten men in the famous
tug of war scene. If you press him on it Dan will not only tell you their names but explain that nine of them were
professional wrestlers and one a former heavyweight champion of the world. On occasion, if you buy him a beer or
two, Dan will give you each of wrestlers ring records and their home town (my personal favorite is “Parts Unkown”).
With credentials like that it’s no wonder that when we all ordered the new, recreated Burton Ale we turned to Dan to
ask him if it has changed much from the original.
Dan, after giving it due thought, went on to point out the differences and similarities, expounding on their respective
levels of sweetness, strength, hop character, oak and vanilla flavors. It was a virtuoso performance. All but one of
what was now a large admiring throng stood and applauded. The lone holdout was the bar’s resident cynic who
simply said, “he could be making it up. It’s impossible to contradict him. Who knows what it tasted like back then.”
Those words hung in the air as the crowd slowly melted away. I began to wonder what, if anything, could a person,
even a beer savant like Dan, really remember about a beer he enjoyed over 50 years ago? I tested my own memory
to see what was possible. As a warm up I tried to think of what I had for lunch that day. It wasn’t easy. I got as far
as maybe - a very big maybe- it was a sandwich. I knew better than to try to remember what kind of sandwich, if it
was one at all.
Once activated however those little grey cells between my ears took over and began to conjure up some of my
favorite bars of the past that now reside in the Pub Hall of Fame in the sky. First, as in longest gone, came The
Hornets Nest. It was a neat, two story, stand alone building; a warm, inviting local bar and pizza place. The upstairs
was nicely appointed but only used for the weekend overflow from the main dining area. The main floor featured a
large circular bar to the left as you walked in. It was classic in shape and style with a with a family feel (as long as all
in the family were over 21).
For its day, the Hornet's Nest had a cutting edge beer menu led by Michelob (not the Light mind you), Newcastle
Brown (before it became watered down to beige), and Brooklyn Lager (only in bottles). It of course also had the
mainstay of beer royalty – the King of Beers – along with the many pretenders to its throne.
In the corner of the long back side of the Nest’s bar were two putters and a box of golf balls. The entire area behind
the bar stools, had been transformed into an exact replica of the 14th green at Pebble Beach by Tim the owner.
Correction - it might have been a replica of the 9th green at Augusta National or maybe the 4th at the Royal St.
George Course. Well, to be honest, “exact replica” is a bit of a stretch unless you consider a well worn green carpet
with a tin cup inside a small hole at its end to be exact.
Many a night saw more than loose change being wagered on which beer soused player could make a 18 ft. putt. The
general rule was you needed at least a foursome to play with each of the contestants putting $5 in the pot and
another $1 for every miss. First one to make the shot would win the entire amount. Some “tournaments” went on for
hours. The struggling contestants never blamed the gallons of beer they were drinking for all their misses. To a man
they cited the shoddy equipment the bar supplied which according to House rules, you had to use. One time the
House mistakenly supplied drivers instead of putters but rules are rules so the matches continued. There may be
pressure in a PGA tournament but you don’t know what pressure is until you’ve had multiple beers before trying to
sink a putt with a driver as hundreds of dollars sat on the bar waiting for the winner.
Next in the parade of great bars past came The Copper Mine. The sole owner, bartender, glass washer, manager,
maintenance man, jack and master of all things, was Vito. He was the Copper Mine and the Copper Mine was Vito.
His trademark was a worn, faded baseball cap. No one was quite sure which team (or perhaps brewery name) was
on the cap since it had become indecipherable over the years. That vagueness, aided and abetted by numerous
rips and tears, gave the cap a mystique and grander that perfectly suited its wearer.
The Copper Mine was a no frills establishment. The bar, tables, and seats were well worn. The plain, tired brown
walls were adorned with less than pristine brewery signs, the tap beers were listed on two large chalk boards that
were refugees from a 19th Century one room school house. In the rear there was a large stove hood without a
stove. It seems Vito had thought about putting in a small cooking station but abandoned the idea. It really wasn’t
needed anyway since he encouraged people to bring in their own food and often simply ordered pizza to give away
The Copper Mine had a full liquor license but the dust and cobwebs on the back shelf bottles of vodka, gin, scotch,
and rye were silent testimony to the fact that 99% of all sales were for beer. Indeed, the place had become a
legitimate destination stop for any craft beer lover despite its dive bar, blue collar persona. With experience working
for a liquor distributor Vito knew the ins and outs of getting the best beers, special releases, and one offs that set his
bar apart. He believed that if you pour the good stuff people will come. He was right and he was wrong.
Sadly there was no easy way to get there which meant craft beer people generally made the journey on weekends.
For the other five days Vito relied on neighborhood regulars for income. In this economically struggling small town
that meant Bud drinkers who expected a bottle for $3, the price they would pay just about anywhere else in the area.
The bar’s income barely covered expenses (on a good week) and then the landlord decided to nearly double the
rent. That was it. The Copper Mine was forced closed. As for Vito, he had put up the good fight for craft beer and
lost but his adventure continued as he went on to his second love. He moved to Vermont to become a professional
at doing what he was already a skilled amateur. He became a cheese maker. Really.
The last gone but not forgotten bastion of beer that to me remains unforgettable in every way was Nicole’s Ten. I don’
t know if it was preceded by 9 others but it wouldn’t matter since it’s impossible to improve on what was a perfect 10.
As you entered the building the modestly upscale bar was to the left of the entrance, the restaurant to the right. And
for the record, I’m proud to say after countless visits to Nicole’s’ Ten I never once turned right.
Take two small steps down, walk along a short ramp, and you were face to face with a warm, polished, circular, wood
bar. Above it was a chandelier made of at least 100 beer bottles whose gentle illumination cast a hypnotizing spell
that seemed to whisper “Nicole loves you, have a beer.”
Nicole’s specialized in local breweries along with some little seen brands. Not a single one of their 25 taps was
wasted on swill or even a craft usual suspect. With apologies to Meat Loaf, it was paradise by the draft board light.
And those drafts rotated quickly thanks to thirsty customers and the willingness of management to dump a slow
No one was quite sure why Nicole’s closed. Some said it was their terrible location – on the west bound side of a
busy divided highway where it seemed traffic mainly went east during the morning, east during the afternoon, and
east again in the evening. Others blamed Nicole who rumors said, simply got tired of running the business.
Yes, there was a real Nicole though I never saw her and as far as I know, no one else did either except for the bar's
most personable and extremely competent manager, Nell.
Nell said it was just coincidence that both their began with “ N”.
I don’t know what happened to Nicole or Nell for that matter but I like to think they are now happily resettled in
Vermont making cheese with Vito.
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