Friday, December 2, 2016

The Session #118: Who's Coming to My Ultimate Fantasy Beer Dinner?

This month's Session topic from Stan Hieronymus is a fiendishly clever idea to get us to think about how beer relates to our personal lives through the simple question:

If you could invite four people dead or live to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?

Which four people would I invite to spend the evening over a beer dinner? Well, I could invite four very talented, accomplished brewers, but a couple hours into a wonkish evening devoted to the fine details brewing techniques, I'd start looking at my watch. Talking endlessly into the night with a bunch of beer writers and historians would be an evening well spent, but I could think of better ways. The four people who I'd  want to spend the evening mean a lot to me in some way, and all undeniably understood the power of beer. So without further ado, let me roll out the guest and beer list for my ultimate fantasy beer dinner.
Mike Royko
(AP Photo/Charles Knoblock)

1) Mike Royko, Writer (1932-1997)
Every morning growing up in suburban Chicago, I'd start my day reading Mike Royko's column on page 2 of the newspaper. Sadly, writers like Royko no longer exist. His crusty, hard-boiled prose covered politics, sports, food, culture, music, and whatever else might be on his mind, an unthinkable breadth in today's modern hyper-segmented media. Some of his best columns captured the hopeful futility of Cubs fans, and with all the retrospective Cubs lore surrounding their run to capture their first World Series in 108 years, surprisingly Royko has been left out of that conversation.

What few realize what that Royko was one of the earliest American crusaders for better beer. Writing for the Chicago Daily News in 1973, Royko declared "America's beer tastes as if it were brewed through a horse". Backing up his assertion, he organized what was quite possibly the first blind beer tasting competition in the United States between twenty-two National brands, imports, and a smattering of small Midwestern regional breweries that existed at the time. Despite taking a lot of heat for slamming America's national breweries, the results supported Royko, as no national brewery finished in the top five. The winner was an imported West German Pilsner followed by England's Bass Ale. The leading American beer was Point Special from Point Brewery, a small brewery in nearby Steven's Point Wisconsin which you can still purchase today.

Royko never lived to see his beloved Cubs win the World Series and American brewing hadn't yet shifted into overdrive when he passed away in 1997. I can only imagine what he'd think about Cubs finally winning the World Series or how America's brewers have transformed beer. I suspect he might not a fan of uber-hoppy IPA's and he'd have plenty of snarky and deadly accurate things to say about craft beer's hipsters and pretentiousness. It's too bad we'll never get to read them.

The Beer: 2016 Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.  The antithesis of beers Royko railed against, yet old school enough to warrant his approval.

2) My wife
No one has shaped my appreciation for beer greater than my wife. People talk about their personal craft beer epiphany. My wife had a big hand in mine. We had only been dating a few months when we took a trek to California's Mendocino County. I was already familiar with a few small breweries, but it wasn't until we stopped at Anderson Valley Brewing and North Coast Brewing that I began to really appreciate the real possibilities and dimensions of beer. She also introduced me to some fine wines in Anderson Valley, but I don't hold that against her.

Together we've shared and discussed the contents of so many 22 ounce bottles. She's not only been a great reality check on my taste buds ("Are you tasting apricot?"), but picks up certain characters from a brews that I didn't quite get the first time around. While we've had our share of passionate arguments over stuff other than beer, sharing a good beer is often the best way to diffuse our stresses at the end of a difficult day.

Of course, there's a whole lot more to her than being my best drinking buddy. She helped me turn around my life ten years ago when it nearly went off the rails, restored a sense of family with my kids I lost with my first wife, still laughs at jokes I've told over a thousand times, and does an unbelievable job of putting up with my crap. I love her.

The Beer: Her favorite beers are Belgian Ales and IPA's, so a good Belgian IPA like Stone's Cali-Belgique is the choice.

Ken Grossman (photo credit)
3) Ken Grossman, Founder and CEO of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
When new brewers these days call themselves pioneers, I just have to laugh. While there's nothing simple about building a brewery, today's brewers can order ready made equipment from any number of suppliers. Grossman had no such luxury back in the day. He literally built his first brewery from discarded junk. New brewers talk about educating themselves to understand the nuances of how beer pairs with food, or how to use new hop varietals. Grossman took welding classes just so he could build a functioning brewery.

Fast forward from those meager scratch beginnings to today and there's simply no one more experienced or knowledgeable about all thing brewing in America, period.  Whether building a brewery, understanding the business of beer, using barley and hops, or finding more environmentally sustainable ways to brew, Grossman's the expert. He also knows a lot about pairing beer with stuff like fois gras and using fancy schmancy hops varietals. Oh yeah, he's also a self-made billionaire.

What I find most impressive about Grossman is that he's handled his transformation from a humble brewer to a brewing mogul with far great humility and grace than many of his contemporaries. Jim Koch's still irrationally clings to struggling Sam Adam's Boston Lager as the savior to his Boston Beer Company, while the company he built pointlessly churns out a steady stream of alcopops. Greg Koch's edgy aggression deteriorated into clumsy corporate punk posing once Stone Brewing became an international brand. Lagunitas's Tony Magee has become just like the corporate bullies he's long railed against. Yet Grossman has remained Grossman: smart, industrious, generous, and knowledgeable. Just like his flagship Pale Ale, even though he hails from craft beers dark ages, Grossman's arguably more relevant than ever. He's still ahead of everyone else on the marketing curve with things like Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp. There's always a seat at my house for Grossman anytime he wants to talk about all things beer.

The Beer: What else? Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

4) Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States
If you've studied how our nation's Presidents related to beer over the past 100 years, and I have, it's clear no President has come anywhere close to Barack Obama at elevating the status of beer in our country. Beer was brewed for the first time in the White House under his Presidency. But home brewing in the White House is pretty minor compared to Obama's Beer Summit, where beer was used for its power as a social lubricant to ease racial tensions. Obama's done a great job serving two terms as our President and it would be my privilege to buy him a beer as a thank you for everything he's done for our country.

Yes, I'm one of those damn liberals and I do my best to avoid politics on my blog, but in these turbulent times as we contemplate a Trump Presidency, I'm finding that difficult. Of the many wonderful things about beer, it's a welcome escape from the critical economic, social, and environmental challenges we face. I'd rather have a hobby writing about something as inconsequential as beer than the stuff that really matters. But given the deep divisions the recent election exposed in our country, often along racial lines, I'm finding it hard to concentrate on beer. They say "Politics divides, beer unites". For that reason alone, we need "beer" more than ever.

The Beer: I would be honored to brew an all grain version of Ale to the Chief  Honey Brown Ale or Porter to serve our outgoing President.

President Barack Obama using the power of beer to heal racial divisions in the Beer Summit

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Giving Thanks After a Tough Running Year

When I was a was a twenty-something runner, I figured my knees would be totally shot by the time I reached age 40, and could no longer run. I was wrong on two counts. First, my knees weren't shot when I turned 40, and now at age 49, I've been running a lot since. But while my knees have been mostly fine in my 40's, it's my hips that have given me problems. The upshot from thinking long ago I'd be done by age 40 is that every race is now is a gift. That's still true, even though this year I've spent most of the time either battling hip injuries or recovering from them.

It was with this mindset that entered the Applied Materials Silicon Valley Turkey Trot this past Thanksgiving with a slightly bad wheel. My right hip which gave me problems in October's Healdsburg Wine Country Half-Marathon had recovered some, but was still sore. The goal was just to go out, find a good pace, hold on, stay competitive, and finish strong. I wore a watch to monitor pace, but went in with no time goal. A well run race, getting the most out of your fitness level, is it's own reward.

Even with a bad hip and reduced expectations, the morning reminded me about everything I still love about racing. The nervous anticipation building up to the start. Being a part of the surge of humanity released by the "Boom!" of the starting pistol. Running in the tightly packed herd, punctuated by foot strikes and heavy breathing, in the early miles. Finding ways to overcome the doubt as fatigue sets in around the halfway point. The battle towards the end and the fight all the way through to the finish line. The post-race comrade of strangers who all just experienced their own personal journeys through the course.  The feeling of accomplishment after giving just about everything I had. All of that happened one more time.

I figure I've run well over 350 races over 36 years in my life, and while a lot has changed over that time, a lot has also stayed the same. I've never grown tired of it. In fact, as I get older, I appreciate it even more. So this past Thanksgiving was time for giving thanks for a lot of things, and being able to race once again was a big part of that.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Calicraft Brewing in Edible East Bay

Calicraft's Blaine Landberg
(Calicraft photon)
Calicraft's Buzzerkeley made me rethink beer when I first tried it three years ago. And Calicraft's Blaine Landberg has a far greater agenda than selling beer with his new taproom, showcasing local food, artists and environmental sustainability. So I feel a little privileged I got the chance to sit down with Blaine and tell his story. You can read it here at Edible East Bay:

Calicraft Creativity Bubbles up in Walnut Creek

This is the last you'll hear from my until the holidays, so I wish you all the best for Thanksgiving and see you next week!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Remember those grilling posts I said you'll be seeing...

A third and perhaps final attempt at grilled guacamole
You may recall my enthusiastic announcement last August about adding a grilling dimension to this blog. And yes, a couple posts on grilling followed.  But since then, it's been rather quiet on the grilling front. No doubt, you've been spending sleepless nights, tossing and turning in bed wondering what happened. Well, let me try to ease your mind: This grilling thing, like most everything else, is a little more complicated than it initially looks.

Take for example, my attempt at grilled guacamole. The idea is pretty simple. Instead of chopping and mashing fresh vegetables, I put some grill char on them and caramelized the onions a bit, to give the guacamole some extra depth and smokiness. My first attempt at this was pretty promising, but needed some refinement. However, a couple subsequent efforts foisted on my friends on college football weekends were steps backwards. At least my friends were polite enough to say "Well, it's good". There's also the small matter of the darkening char on the vegetables giving the final product the look of....well, guacamole barf.

I smoked some salmon on the grill for dinner a week ago and it tasted awesome. I'd love to show you pictures, but problem is, all you'd see is a night time photo of a faint pink monolith perched on the grill, looming in the darkness. As the days get shorter, I'm finding myself doing more and more grilling at night, and my camera either doesn't have a flash, or I haven't figured out how to activate it. There wasn't much to the smoked salmon, I just sprinkled salt and pepper on top and used apple wood, then spent the evening playing around with the heat controls all night controls until I got it done. A post that goes like "I didn't do a lot to prepare it, I don't remember exactly how I made it, and I can't even show it to you, but that smoked salmon really tasted awesome" is rather pointless.

And then there's something else I learned about gas grills: They're not as predictable as you might think. When the propane tank is full, the heat level is noticeably lower, too low to get good grill marks on the food. When roughly half the tank is full, there's plenty of good heat which I can control using the grill knobs. When the tank is nearly empty, the heat level starts to decline again. None of this is rather surprising, but of course, it's something I need to get a better handle on with more experience. It's led to a couple grilling efforts being moved to the stove top in order to get dinner on the table before everyone starved.

It has been said "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly".  So I'll be keeping at it. The good news for you is that I won't bore you with my grilling failures. Unless they're funny, like creating "guacamole barf".  I'll deal with the failures, you'll just read the good stuff.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Rambling Reviews 11.14.2016:Long Root Ale, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ale, and El Camino (Un) Real

Well, we survived the election. Sort of.

I suspect you, like me, have had enough of Hillary's e-mails, building walls, groping accusations, Russian hackers and all the other nonsense of this year's election. There was plenty of twists, turns, salacious details and wild accusations but precious little actual policy discussion. I try to avoid getting political on this site and just stick to beer. But as one of those environmentalists alarmed at President Trump's plans to roll back environmental regulations, slash alternative energy funding, and opening up previously protected federal land for coal mining, oil drilling, and fracking, I decided this latest round of reviews would feature beers from breweries which support environmental sustainability as an integral part of their business.

We'll start with Long Root Ale from Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland. Long Root Ale is brewed using Kernza, a little known grain that was likely never used for human consumption until very recently. Kernza has long roots that grow deep into the ground, and unlike most grains, grows perennially rather than annually. That means it's a net sink of carbon from the atmosphere, as annually grown crop like barley or wheat create a net carbon increase due to the energy required for plowing the soil each year. As for the beer itself, it's comforting. The soft, light earthy character feels like an old jacket. It's a little light in the body, maybe from the 15% Kernza in the mix.  There's a light savory coriander spiciness to the brew, with grapefruit notes emerging at the finish. I just love beers that are effortlessly unique and complex like this.

Next, we come to Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ale, a collaboration between New Belgium Brewing and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. Now if you ask me, a chocolate chip cookie dough beer doesn't sound like such a good idea. But these guys pull it off. It's brewed with chocolate, vanilla and brown sugar with a Blonde Ale base. And yes, it does taste like a Blonde Ale with a barely noticeable cookie dough note, with the chocolate rather absent. Thankfully, there's not much sweetness, as I can imagine a beer like this could quickly deteriorate in a heavy syrupy monstrosity without the right balance. It's not a flavor explosion, but it does a good job of replicating cookie dough in liquid form in this light golden brown ale. New Belgium and Ben & Jerry's brewed it as part of a partnership with Protect our Winters, an outdoor sports organization devoted to raising awareness of climate change, which will receive a portion of the sales proceeds.

Finally, we'll end with El Camino (Un)Real, a collaboration release between 21st Amendment, Stone Brewing and Firestone Walker, three breweries that have long supported various environmental causes. It's a strong, dark ale brewed gobs of hops (75 ibu), dried mission figs, pink peppercorns, fennel, chia seeds and quite possibly the kitchen sink. I wasn't so sure about this one, there's always a risk with a long list of different ingredients that they don't play nice together. The idea behind this eclectic blend of ingredients is that they all grow along the El Camino Real, a historic mission trail that linked California's 21 Spanish Missions which became California's Highway 101.  But does it all work?  Mostly, yes.  It's a rich, dark complex beer, the figs complementing the dark malt nicely, with all those hops finding their voice under the heavy layers of malt to add their herbal earthiness, with peppery accent to the whole affair. Maybe they could've just stopped at the mission figs, but what's the fun of that?

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Session #117: That barley malt IPA with Pacific Northwest hops is so 21st Century.

It's another crystal ball gazing Session, this time Csasaba Babek at Beer Means Business asking us to predict the one thing we will see more of in beer's future.

I'm going to resist the temptation to write about industry consolidation coupled with the proliferation of very small, neighborhood breweries. I do expect to see more of that, but at this point in my not very humble opinion, that's not really a prediction but an observation. The economic wheels of beer are turning firmly turning in this direction for all to see.

But that more competitive landscape will be a driver for a lot more diversity of beer ingredients, where breweries strive for innovation and distinctiveness to separate themselves in a crowded industry.

I don't think I need to tell you that new hop varietals with unique and  unprecedented flavors are being cultivated each year.  But in my mind, a more interesting development are the nascent hop growing regions in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, California and Colorado taking root, establishing their own identities and quite possibly their own flavors and character. It's still an open question as to how successful these efforts will be, and if the average beer drinker will really tell the difference between Yakima Valley, Michigan, and New York Cascade hops. Will there be a day where bar patrons sip different IPAs from a series tiny glasses, comparing and contrasting the character of different regional hop varieties? This may be a dystopian future for certain people, but no longer seems far-fetched.

On the fermentables side, barley and wheat currently dominate in addition to corn and rice, which are viewed, rightly or wrongly, as cheap fillers. Rye and oats pop up here and there. Historically, it wasn't always that way. For centuries, beer has been brewed with fermentables like millet, sorghum, yams, buckwheat, grapes, apples, cranberries, molasses, honey and whatever else might be lying around. I've noticed breweries slowly re-discovering these other sources or starches and sugar, and the results have been unexpected pleasures. Brown rice added a light, nutty flavor to a light ale, while buckwheat imparted a rich heartiness to a brew roasted barley malt can't possibly replicate. Portland's Hopworks Urban Brewery is playing around with Kernza, a rare grain which most likely had never been cultivated for human consumption, which imparts a light spiciness to the brew. And is it just me, or are rye beers becoming more common, as brewers play around with the interplay of grain and hops. I'm just going more with my gut here, and say brewers moving forward are going to start throwing different stuff into their mash tuns.

Will our barley malt IPA's brewed with Pacific Northwest hops some day look as monochromatic as the industrial light lagers of the 20th Century?  Let's hope so!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Cubs Win!

I hope you allow this brief diversion from our usual content....I've been a Cubs fan for forty years since the days of Manny Trillo, Rick Reuschel and Ivan DeJesus in the late 70's.  That means I've seen plenty of bad  baseball over long periods, interspersed with fleeting success, ultimately led to disappointment in a losing playoff series. As a Cub fan, you either learn to embrace the frustration and failure, or take the easy way out and follow the White Sox. The times during this World Series run when the Cubs were badly flailing away at pitches way outside the strike zone, stranding base runners in scoring position seemed oddly comforting, as if the universe was reverting to its natural order. But yet, the Cubs persevered and won Game Seven of the World Series last night, in a game that will undeniably go down as one of the greatest games in baseball history.  I still can't quite believe the Cubs are World Series Champions.