Spring is finally here, and that means it's time for another Charleston RiverDogs season. The team has had a solid run over the past few years under the guidance of veteran leader John Schumacher, and they've been hard at work during the off-season. A couple of exciting new rookies have joined the lineup, and though the home opener is still a week away, they've already got the press buzzing.
I'm talking, of course, about the concession stands. I've heard that the RiverDogs have a few baseball players hanging around the place, too, but they tend not to get in front of me in the concession stand lines, so I don't pay them much attention.
To everyone's surprise, the hot rookies this season are a trio of beer milkshakes. There's a Strawberry Sweetwater 420, Guinness Caramel, and Palmetto Espresso Porter. And they're getting a ton of attention not just locally but nationally and internationally, too.
That buzz caught the RiverDogs front office napping. In a routine mid-March press release announcing the new concession offerings, the shakes received second billing to a new taco stand which is also being introduced this season. But it was the beer poured into a milkshake blender that snagged the internet's fickle attention.
"The whole thing went viral," says John Schumacher, the director of food and beverage for The Goldklang Group, which owns the RiverDogs. The press release bunted its way to first, getting picked up by the usual minor league blogs, but when it hit the front page of Yahoo! Sports, the shakes were catapulted across an electronic firmament of tweets and blogs.
"It's been insane," Schumacher says. "I've never seen anything like it." Since then, he's been deluged with e-mails and has been interviewed by a radio station in Canada. The shakes are about to be featured on CNBC's new Chew & Brew online show. They even made it all the way down under to the SportDay blog for the Sydney Morning Herald, though the Aussie writer seemed to think they were a new product that "American company RiverDogs" was introducing to compete with protein shakes at "sporting clubs."
Despite the hubbub, no one in the general public has actually tasted one of the these beer milkshakes before.
Steinbeck's cautionary tale echoed in the back of my brain as I stepped through the side door of the Doghouse concession stand for a preview of the beershakes and a few other new items. John Schumacher broke out a big blender and started lining up bottles of beer and tubs of ice cream on the long stainless steel prep tables, while John Shea, the RiverDogs' new food and beverage director, got one of the big flat-top griddles heating.
Of the shakes, I was most leery of the Strawberry Sweetwater 420, since it uses an extra pale ale along with strawberry ice cream and strawberry syrup. As it turns out, the strawberry gives it a big burst of sweet fruit and, to my surprise, apart from a little fizz from the hops, you can't even taste the beer at first. After the sweetness dissipates, though, you're left with a flat, somewhat bitter final taste as the beer powers its way forward.
The other two variations work better because the beer's flavors are more tightly incorporated into the overall shake. The Guinness Caramel features the ubiquitous Irish stout along with vanilla ice cream and caramel syrup. It's very rich, and that unmistakable dark Guinness flavor steps right up and blends nicely with the sweet caramel and vanilla.
The Guinness version, Schumacher says, was the favorite of in-house tasters, but I give the nod to the Espresso Porter shake, which combines locally made Palmetto Espresso Porter with chocolate ice cream and chocolate syrup. The key is the strong coffee flavor from the porter, which dovetails seamlessly with the chocolate and results in a shake that would make a perfect dessert right before the 7th-inning stretch.
As it turns out, the problem with Doc's beer milkshake in Cannery Row is that he instructed the waitress to put milk in it. That's not how the RiverDogs do it. "It's basic culinary science," Schumacher told me. "Beer doesn't bond with milk." Instead, they use a tablespoon of malted milk powder in each shake, which binds everything together and keeps it thick and consistent.
Six ounces of beer, six ounces of ice cream along with flavoring syrup and a spoonful of malted milk powder go into the blender, then the concoction gets swirled for a fast five seconds. "If you overblend it, you'll make it too watery," Schumacher explains.
Crazy concession offerings like beer milkshakes are part and parcel of the whole RiverDogs experience. In the South Atlantic League standings, the baseball team may have finished in the middle of the pack the last few seasons, but on the culinary front they consistently crush the competition.
A cursory review of the offerings at other South Atlantic League parks turns up nothing edgier than fried chicken tenders and barbecue sandwiches. (I don't consider the "Crab Dip" sold at the Delmarva Shorebirds' Bird's Eye Cafe to be particularly innovative, since all food service establishments in the state of Maryland appear to be required by law to serve at least one product containing blue crab.)
But there is one worthy competitor out there, if you're open to intra-league play. The RiverDogs have a friendly, long-standing rivalry with the West Michigan Whitecaps, a Class A Detroit Tigers affiliate out of Grand Rapids, to come up with the most bizarre concessions each season.
This year the Michiganders have a viral internet sensation of their own: "The Baco." It's a bacon taco composed of a half-dozen strips of bacon fried into a shell shape and filled with lettuce and tomato. Predictably, since bacon mania shows no sign of subsiding, this one's making the rounds with breathless bloggers and bemused local TV newscasters, though most miss the fact that it's really just a BLT without the bread.
Also new for the Whitecaps is the "Squeelin' Pig," a pulled pork sandwich laced with giardiniera and ghost pepper sauce. They make fans sign a waiver before they're allowed to order the thing to attest, I imagine, that they have the palate of a mule.
I should be careful, though, when wallowing in other teams' embarrassments. Like RiverDogs owner Mike Veeck's notorious promotions — remember free vasectomy night? — not all of the Charleston team's concession experiments have been home runs.
The Pickle Dog was introduced in 2010 to much fanfare. Instead of a bun, there's a massive dill pickle, sliced lengthwise so it can hold a hotdog and coleslaw. Like beer milkshakes, it seemed like the kind of thing that could turn out to be brilliant or just utterly awful. It was the latter. "Slimy and gross," is how one friend described it, and I think she was being charitable.
Miraculously, the Pickle Dog's contract was picked up for 2011 and 2012, and Schumacher confirmed that they would offer it again this season at the Dogworld concession stand. Incredulous, I grilled him on the Pickle Dog's performance almost as ruthlessly as they grill the invariably charred wieners served inside the big dills. He admitted that the Pickle Dog was by no means the most popular of the ballpark's offerings.
Isn't it time, I pressed, to put the Pickle Dog on waivers, maybe trade it to the Whitecaps? We might not be able to get the Baco in exchange, but surely we could pick up the Fried Mac & Jack Cheese Bites?
Schumacher wouldn't comment, but Josh Shea spilled the beans, revealing that Sabermetrics is as much at play in the concession stand as it is in the front office. "It turns a profit," he said with a shrug. The Pickle Dog will be back for 2013.
But, the RiverDogs do make roster adjustments when necessary. The Nacho House got its walking papers during the off-season, and it's been replaced by Wacko Taco. It offers chipotle chicken, ground beef, and pulled-pork tacos, plus, in an interesting twist, a pair of hard-shell veggie tacos, which will be filled with vegetables and herbs picked fresh from MUSC's Urban Farm.
It's got a little stunt food, too. The RiverDogs have a rule that they must serve a hotdog at every concession stand, which meant they had to come up with something suitable for Wacko Taco. "We just figured, why not a taco dog?" Shea says.
The result is the "Charlie T(aco) Dog," which wraps a hotdog first in a hard corn shell then in a soft flour tortilla and tops it with coleslaw and mustard-based barbecue sauce. The soft-hard combo works: you sink your teeth into the soft flour tortilla then get a satisfying crunch from the corn shell before hitting the salty dog and creamy slaw filling. Thanks to the resiliency of the outer tortilla, there's actually a sporting chance that you could eat the entire thing without dumping a gob of mustard-tinged coleslaw down the front of your shirt.
I approached the new Peanut Butter & Pepper Jelly Jalapeño-Bacon Burger with the same trepidation as the beer milkshakes, since it sounds like a combination of about a half-dozen flavors that don't need to be served anywhere near each other. The jalapeño-infused bacon, though, actually pulls the whole thing together, tempering the sharpness of the peanut butter and the sweetness of the jelly and melding them into the seared beef patty.
In the end though, "it's not nearly as bad as it sounds" is hardly a ringing endorsement, so I'm not buying futures in the PB&PJ&JB Burger. I would go long on the taco dog, though, which is tasty enough to stand on its own even after the novelty passes. I suspect that has less to do with the whole shell-inside-a-tortilla rigamarole than the fact that coleslaw and good old South Carolina mustard-based barbecue are the perfect toppings for hotdogs.
Minor league baseball parks are well suited for producing such creative culinary advancements. Unlike most food businesses, when you run the concession stands at a ballpark there's a long offseason. "It's like opening a new restaurant every year," Schumacher says. "We spend the offseason brainstorming. Some ideas are crazy, some stick to the wall."
This is Schumacher's 14th season with the RiverDogs, and he says he first started bringing a little novelty to the team's concession offering about a decade ago. "You have to do hotdogs and nachos," he says. "But sporting arenas are missing the point. There's so much more we can do." For such experimentation, he adds, "Charleston is a perfect fit, being a foodie town."
This year, Josh Shea joined the RiverDogs as their new food and beverage director. Shea was formerly catering chef for Tidewater Catering and did stints at local restaurants like Hall's Chophouse before that. He has a culinary degree and can make a bearnaise sauce and everything, but don't expect to see too many high-falutin' touches coming to the concession menus.
"We're not trying to be FIG," Schumacher says. "All the food we serve is street food. It's fun food."
They are, however, starting to put a little more of a local slant on things. For years, boiled peanuts and pimento burgers have added a few Southern accents amid more traditional American ballpark fare. The RiverDog, topped with coleslaw, mustard-based barbecue sauce, and a whole spear of pickled okra, remains a pioneering local ballpark classic.
The RiverDogs have been serving mixed drinks made with Wadmalaw Island's Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka for several seasons, and this year they've added two moonshine margaritas made with Firefly's new peach- and cherry-flavored moonshines. I snagged a sample in between beer shakes and predict the sweet, slushy margaritas — particularly the brightly-flavored peach one — will be a big hit once the heat of June rolls around.
Schumacher and Shea say they intend to keep changing things up with the beershakes, too. They plan to introduce varieties using beers from other local breweries like Westbrook and Holy City, perhaps with a Twitter contest to let fans choose the beer varieties and the flavors to pair with them.
Will beer milkshakes and taco dogs prove to be hits and join the half-pound, foot-long Homewrecker hotdog as Charleston concession stand classics? Or will they fizzle and fall flat once the internet hype-machine moves on to the next titillating topic?
That will be decided by the fans themselves as the season stretches out into the summer. They'll get their first taste on April 11, when the RiverDogs take on the Augusta GreenJackets at the home opener at the Joe.