Monday, November 17, 2014

Big Sur Half-Marathon at Monterey Bay: Not exactly what I had in mind

My running stuff ready to go Sunday morning
Well, it's over.  After twelve weeks of work directed towards this race, it came and went in just under and hour and a half.  I could give you a blow by blow of how the race went, but I doubt you'd want to read it, and I can remember too much about it anyway.  I vaguely remember something about going out in 6:15-6:20 per mile pace for the first few mile as planned.  Then, around mile 8 on the rolling hills and fighting the slight breeze off the ocean, I seem to recall slowing to 6:30 pace and then it started getting worse.  I dragged my butt through the last couple miles to finish 1:26:11 which isn't really that bad a time, since I finished 1:25:57 last year.  But obviously, I would have run a faster time with a slightly slower start and better pacing and

For the past couple years, I been training pretty seriously for a spring half-marathon and then a fall half-marathon and I'm ready for a break.  I'll still be running, but I'm looking forward to running a few shorter races rather than one big one.

No more big deep thoughts today, I'm still pretty tired.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Beer of the Month: Hops of Wrath from Dust Bowl Brewing

The Beer is of the Month is Hops of Wrath from Dust Bowl Brewing.   I've enjoyed a few over the past three years while visiting my kids since the time my ex-wife took the kids to Modesto.

When that happened, I wanted to hate Modesto. Before then, I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula and the kids were only a short five minute drive away. When I started seeking ways to spend additional time with my kids, my ex-wife resisted, so I started pursuing legal channels.   Shortly thereafter, my ex-wife announced her husband just got a job near Modesto and she was taking the kids with her.  That seemed too much of a coincidence to me.  It is not wise to discuss these things in great detail on blogs but let's just say things got pretty messy and some lawyers made good money over the deal.  In the end, an independent arbitrator allowed my ex-wife to take the kids to Modesto, but also allowed me to spend more time with them.

Part of that additional time was spending Wednesday evening in Modesto with my kids. Having never been there before, I figured Modesto was some dusty Central Valley town out in the middle of nowhere.  And indeed, I discovered Modesto to be this dusty Central Valley town out in the middle of nowhere.  But somehow, the place grew on me.  Modesto has this unassuming humbleness and unstated pride in its normalcy, an exotic ordinariness few places posses. Everyone seems to like being in Modesto a lot more than they have any reason to.

Or maybe Modesto simply represents an important time and place where festering family discord finally healed and the kids and I had some great times.   Helping my kids with their homework in Modesto's library, going on a stroll with them through Scenic Oaks Park, and taking the kids bowling at McHenry Bowl are some of the many great memories I'll take away from Modesto. Sometimes when we'd go out to dinner, I'd enjoy a Pint of Hops of Wrath.  A couple times we even made it to Dust Bowl Brewing's brew pub just down the road in Turlock.

When people talk about the great California IPA's, Hops of Wrath usually isn't in the discussion.  It ought to be, standing up to the best California IPA's from far sexier places like San Francisco, Santa Rosa or San Diego.  Its hop flavors are sharp, clear, and very directed with lots of pine and grapefruit peel character.   It's a pretty dry IPA with a little caramel malt to round out the flavors, resulting in a rather unbalanced IPA, which in this case is a very good thing.  More than a beer, Hops of Wrath represents the fact that good things happen in unlikely places.

My ex-wife and I get along a lot better these days and she just moved back into the Bay Area to San Rafael.  My kids are closer now so I'm pretty happy about this, but it means I won't be going to Modesto anymore.  I'm going to miss that place.

PS - I won't be going to Modesto but maybe I won't have to get Hops of Wrath.  Dust Bowl Brewing recently announced a major brewery expansion.  Here's hoping Hops of Wrath and some of the other excellent Dust Bowl brews start showing up in the Bay Area.

The Modesto Arch.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Six days to the Big Sur Monterey Bay Half-Marathon

"I've had as many doubts as everyone else.  Standing on the starting line, we're all cowards."

-Alberto Salazar, three-time New York City Marathon Champion

Every run I've done since August was motivated primarily for the race this coming Sunday, the Big Sur Half-Marathon in Monterey Bay. Despite eleven solid weeks of training with thankfully no injuries along the way, there will certainly be some doubt in my mind as I stand on the finish line.

However, doubt and confidence are not completely mutually exclusive.  I've put in a lot of work, and know I'm definitely ready to take on the 13.1 miles and run a faster pace than last year, when I ran 1:25:57.  Of course, in the final week before a half-marathon, there's nothing you can do to make you faster, you can only screw things up.  This is the week for "active rest", a tenuous balance between easy running to let the legs recover while avoiding taking so much rest that you lose your fitness.   Many weeks of hard training have been undermined by an ill-advised "one last hard workout" that saps all your energy just before the race when you need it most.  It's a also a good time to watch my food intake and yes, go easy on the beer, as it can be easy to quickly pick up five pounds of "dead weight" this week from the reduced activity.

Even if I find the perfect taper, twelve weeks of hard work can go right down the drain on race day by simply tripping over a rock, getting sick the night before, tangling up with another runner at the starting line or some other random event.    You can be diligent and careful to avoid this stuff, but sometimes bad luck still finds you.  There's no guarantees in running, just like with everything else. But most of the time, running rewards preparation.   Understanding this is the partial antidote to doubt.

The original goal when I started last August was to finish just under 1:22, which is 6:15 per mile pace.  I thought that would be possible thought pretty challenging when I first set this goal. Evaluating all my training since then, I still going to be pretty challenging, but possible.  So the plan is to go out the first four miles in 6:15-6:20 per mile per pace.  Faster than that and there becomes a real risk of crashing and burning, turning the last miles into a death march.  If everything comes together and that pace feels ridiculously easy, I can start pushing the pace in the middle miles. Otherwise, I'll just hang onto that pace.  Sub-6:20 pace (which equates to a sub-1:23 half-marathon) would still be a pretty good performance.

Who knows what will happen on race day?  Finding out is the fun part, even if it is a little scary.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Session #93: Why are we drawn to where beer is made?

Opening my refrigerator and looking around inside, I have no idea where most of the food come from. A gallon of milk most likely comes for California dairy farms from thousands of square miles from California's Central Valley. On the door rack are condiments, pickles, salad dressings and sauces from anonymous factories scattered all over the globe.  The lunch meat could be from, well anywhere.  The orange juice from someplace in Southern California or Mexico but it might have come all the way from Florida.  Even the fresh, locally grown organic strawberries come from a wide swatch of land covering thousands of acres.  But the Sierra Nevada Coffee Stout or the Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale?  I know where these beers came from to almost the exact foot.

So when Brian and Maria at the Roaming Pint ask why we are drawn to visit breweries for this month's Session, I'd have to say a big part of this attraction is because beer is one of the few things we ingest where we know almost exactly where it comes from.  Beer is rare, coming from somewhere rather being from "out there".  So given beer's unique attribute, it's not surprising we take advantage to connect with beer by visiting the exact location where it's from.  At the brewery, you can often see the beer being made right there, transforming you from a passive drinker to an actual participant in the entire brewing process.  At least that's the way I feel whenever I'm at a brewery, even though I'm not actually shoveling hops into the brew kettle.

I know where the stuff on the right comes from,
but not the stuff on the left
Are there other reasons we visit breweries?  I think so.  For the past forty years, beer has been the focus of a cultural war between deeply entrenched, corporate near-monopolies producing high volume mass market product and smaller, regional entrepreneurs forging their own unique brewing identities. While this war has been fought in the shelves of liquor and grocery stores, and in bars and restaurants, it's the breweries which has become the virtual battlefields of this struggle.

A trip to Sierra Nevada or Anchor Brewing has become a pilgrimage to a craft beer mecca, a place where key events occurred to launch the craft brewing revolution in the United States. Never mind that the current locations of both these breweries aren't the actual places where Fritz Maytag and Ken Grossman first transformed beer. These new brewery locations still somehow hold onto those symbolic distinctions from the past.

At least that's the way I see it.  Do we really know why we're drawn to breweries?  I suppose we can make some good guesses, but sooner or later we find ourselves again at a brewery, whether or not we understand why.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Photographic Ode to the Los Gatos Creek Trail

It's just a thin ribbon of asphalt running up from Los Gatos, winding through Campbell and San Jose for eight miles before ending abruptly in a random location in San Jose's classy Willow Glen neighborhood. I spend of my mornings either leisurely striding upon it or pounding out mile after hard fought mile upon it, joining other runners, bikers, dog walkers and a few of the areas homeless in our morning rituals.  It's a refuge from the South Bay's urban landscape and a place for recreation. It's also glorified drainage ditch and a patch work of civil engineering projects.  It's peaceful, picturesque, gritty and industrial.  It's the Los Creek Trail and I leave a piece of myself out there almost every day.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Is Craft Beer Coming to a Farmer's Market near you?

There's been anticipation and questions in the past few days over the passage of AB 2004, a bill recently signed by California Governor Jerry Brown, which allows any California brewery to apply for a permit to sell packaged beer at farmers markets starting January 1st, 2015.   Online discussions over the new bill show plenty are eager for the chance to pick up their favorite local craft beers along with locally grown fruits and vegetables. People are asking questions like "Will breweries be giving out samples?" or "Could breweries like Coors and Budweiser muscle their way into farmers markets?"

Being intrigued myself, I called Tom McCormick, Executive Director of the California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA) to discuss the details of AB 2004.  "This bill was at least a couple years in the making, with interest at multiple levels," described McCormick of the new legislation.  "We worked with farmers markets and breweries to get this bill passed and seek parity with the wine industry," alluding to the fact that wineries presently are allowed to sell wine at farmers markets.  It's important to note that AB 2004 allows breweries to sell packaged beer in the form of bottles, cans, or growlers only.  That means you won't be able to walk up to a brewery stand at a farmers market and get a pint on draft or tasting sample. (Actually, it's possible now for breweries to serve  beer on draft at farmers markets, but involves an elaborate process to get a permit to support a non-profit organization and is rarely done.)  Also, AB 2004 allows breweries to sell packaged beer at a farmers market only in the county in which it was brewed or an adjacent county. That means you won't be seeing beer from the likes of Russian River, Sierra Nevada, or Stone Brewing showing up in Bay Area farmer's markets. And yes, since Budweiser is brewed at two breweries in Northern and Southern California, Budweiser could possibly be sold at farmers markets in the areas surrounding these breweries.

While the CCBA has trumpeted this new legislation creating eager anticipation among craft beer drinkers, many craft breweries have responded to this new opportunity with ambivalent shrugs. "Truthfully, there hasn't been much discussion at the brewery regarding the new ruling," was the response from one Bay Area brewery I contacted.  "I haven't really researched the new law yet.  Right now, we don't have any plans to sell at farmers markets", replied another.  Another brewery owner, citing concerns over getting permits, resources required to staff a booth, and the modest volume of typical farmers market sales told me, "it isn't worth the hassle".

In many ways, this response is not surprising.  Despite craft breweries emphasis on "hand crafted beers" and "brewing quality and innovation", craft breweries have a lot in common with Budweiser in that they need to sell in large volume to be profitable.  Of course, not in Budweiser-esque, hundreds of truckloads kind of volumes but even for the smallest craft breweries, their business is a lot about capturing lots of tap handles and plum retail accounts to quickly move product.  The leisurely sales activity at a typical farmers markets makes it hard to justify the use of some of their modest sales resources.  This isn't lost on the CCBA, as Tom McCormick concedes AB 2004 will most likely be used by small or start-up breweries looking for new opportunities and was not intended for larger breweries.  "We didn't want this (AB 2004) to be broadly used to sell a lot of product."

One brewery planning to take advantage of AB 2004 is Bison Brewing, one of the few organic breweries in California.  Daniel Del Grande, owner and brewmaster at Bison first tried to sell beer at farmer's markets back in 2004.  "We were told beer wasn't an agricultural product, so we couldn't get a permit to sell it," he recalls from his earliest attempts.  "The problem with selling at farmers markets is that most people don't want to carry bottles home.  And if two brewers show up at the same market, it ruins things for both of them since they end up splitting the business."  Despite this, Del Grande still plans to move forward.  "My idea is selling growler refills and one-off bottled specialty releases." When I asked about the business justification of being at farmers markets, given the fact that Bison already has higher volume retail outlets at stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts, Del Grande explains, "I look at it as a marketing expense to gain exposure to those who regularly go to farmers markets.  For an organic brewer like me, those are my people."

So if you're expecting to pick up some brews with your organic vegetables at your local farmers market next year, you're likely to be disappointed.   While AB 2004 undeniably is a step forward to give small breweries more opportunities, my take on things is that most likely just a few small and specialty breweries will take advantage of it at scattered farmers markets across California.    

Monday, October 20, 2014

Beer of the Month: Dead Drop from Clandestine Brewing

Our Beer of the Month comes from a relative newcomer to the Bay Area craft brewing scene, San Jose's Clandestine Brewing.  Clandestine is really more of a home brewing collective with a tap room that a commercial brewery, part of the larger trend of nanobrewing within the craft beer revolution. Perhaps my favorite thing about Clandestine Brewing is that unlike other nanobreweries, their tap list isn't dominated with a bunch of wild and crazy thermo-nuclear IPA's. Instead it contains a lot of traditional styles although they Clandestine does make their fair share of interesting experiments. Sure it's great tasting something made with lots of hops, but thankfully, Clandestine hasn't forgotten you can be just as innovative with yeast and malt as you can with hops.  The result is that going to Clandestine is always fun, because you'll find both the familiar and the novel, and there's a lot more to their idea of innovation than just hitting you over the head with a bunch of hops.

A good example of this is their Dead Drop Munich Dunkel, a traditional German style.  A Dunkel is best described as a dark lager, and Dead Drop has a nice drinkable depth to it.  It's got a little caramel, a little bitter chocolate and a nice crispness.  It's one of those beers like Anchor Steam, where you can either simply drink it to quench a thirst on a hot day, or contemplate all its subtle complexities.