Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Great Race, and Recovering from It

Perhaps the best gauge of success of The Great Race is that nobody notices how highly immodest its name is. The race organization is great, the race has a long, great history, and everyone is so chatty at the start and finish line you know everyone is having a great time. And if you like running through old money neighborhoods, this race is for you, as it starts in downtown Saratogo, runs through Monte Sereno, before finishing in downtown Los Gatos.

But the greatest thing about The Great Race course is that it's only four miles, and most of that is down hill.

Of course, running is a lot about taking on challenges, putting in the hard work day by day, building up for race day you've circled on the calender for weeks. But fighting through the valley of death doesn't work for me most mornings, and you gotta love a race where you can show up, run around for a bit, finish, and then get on with the rest of your life without limping around for the next day or two.

So it seemed fitting that Linda and I spent part of our "recovery" at the curiously named Sonoma Chicken Coop in nearby Campbell, CA. Most craft beer drinkers will not be challenged by their beer, but many will find it enjoyable. Since I favor the maltier styles, I went for the Scottish Ale, while Linda, true to her hop-head nature, started out with their IPA. ( The Sonoma Chicken Coop evidently has no interest in giving their beers the typical clever or goofy names you find at most brewpubs.) The Scottish Ale was a solid example of the style, being a little smokey, a little caramelly, with a decent amount of complexity to the malt and a nice, easy sipping character. It won't blow you away, but went quite well with my barbecue chicken pizza, thank you very much. And their IPA was a nice blast of straightforward, piney hops with just a smidgen of malt to hold it back, which worked for us. And perhaps my favorite Sonoma Chicken Coop brew is their ESB, a simple combination of nutty and well roasted malts with a slight earthy hop finish.

Nothing I've had at the Sonoma Chicken Coop ever challenged me, or changed my perception of beer, but was all something easily enjoyed. Sometimes, that's a great thing.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Goose Island's Matilda: A Little Bit of Chicago Heads West

I spent my high school years in the Chicago area, and returned many times since. I miss everything about the city, except the weather. For many, the city of Chicago is largely known for its colorful mafia history, bare knuckle politics, and those big guys on Saturday Night Live clinking their beer mugs in fanatical devotion to Da' Bears over a deep dish pizza. And yes, these things are definitely a part of Chicago's culture. But Chicago also has broad performing arts tradition spanning the spectrum from the world renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra to countless jazz, blues and gospel greats. The University of Chicago is affiliated with no fewer than 85 Nobel Laureates, and many examples of ground breaking architecture is found all over the city. This is a side of Chicago many people outside the city do not appreciate.

This more sophisticated side of Chicago is what Goose Island's Matilda Belgian Ale seems to be speaking to. The brew has a nice aromatic, cinnamon and clove spiciness to it, with some nice banana-like fruity esters becoming more apparent as it warms. And despite all these flavors going on, it's crisp and uncluttered. Goose Island's is now distributing this beer starting in April to the West Coast, and tells us that brewmaster Greg Hall "developed Matilda for seasoned craft beer and wine drinkers to enjoy at the dining table or for casual socializing at the bar".

At 7% abv, it's not quite a session beer, but it definitely stands up on it's own. I can also see this pairing with a lot of foods, mostly lighter foods like salads, cheese, fish or poultry. It might even go well with a deep dish pizza while cheering on the Bears.

(Goose Island provided a sample Matilda for this reveiw.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Pliny the Elder Comes to the South Bay

I suppose if you wanted to make a case that the South Bay is a beer wasteland, Exhibit A would be that arguably, the best South Bay Beer Bar is called Wine Affairs. But Wine Affairs is the first bar to find a way to bring the Russian River's rare and highly coveted Pliny the Elder on tap to the South Bay. And trust me, it took a lot of tenacity and effort by Wine Affairs to make this happen.

So the first night they had Pliny on tap, I rewarded Wine Affairs's investment of their hard earned money by spending some of my hard earned money by ordering a couple. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. And the good news is that the Pliny was pouring fast and furious the first night. Maybe the South Bay isn't such a craft beer wasteland after all.

A Blustery Day in Santa Cruz

The Santa Cruz Half-Marathon must be a picturesque course on good days. It starts by the Beach Boardwalk, heads out along the Pacific Coastline, traversing along roads and trails on high cliffs above the ocean. But these great vantage points also leave you exposed when a storm rolls in from the ocean. So when a late spring storm crept across the Santa Cruz coastline the same morning as the race, gusty winds and rain was thrown into the half-marathon mix.

It's one of the things I love about running. The very complexion of the course changes dramatically by uncontrollable whims of weather. You have to be prepared on race day for whatever is thrown at you, and you never quite know what will happen. While I don't like running in the wind and rain, there's a heightened sense of accomplishment at the end when you've overcome these additional barriers. When you think about it, life's personal and professional struggles are rarely carried out in pristine, clinical conditions. Many times, the things we deal with come are messy, complicated, and sometimes down right chaotic. Running isn't any different.

And so after Linda and I finished the race with two T-shirts, two finisher's medals, and a nice, plump and purple blood blister on my right index toe to show for it, we headed over to Seabright Brewing for some post-race recovery. It's located in a blocky, two-story, white retail building a short drive from the Beach Boardwalk. Plenty of other finishers had the same idea, and the place was pretty full of people in a celebratory mood, but at the same time too tired to get very boisterous. Linda and I were not eager to go back outside in the rain, or even get up once we sat down, so took our time checking out what Seabright had to offer.

Stouts are one of my favorite styles, so decided to start off with their Oatmeal Stout, while Linda, ever the hop-head, went for their Blur IPA. As stouts go, the Oatmeal Stout was rather smooth and light for the style, with a light milk chocolately-ness to the roasted malt. A stout is not the sort of beer one would usually call refreshing, but after a day at the beach, this might be something I'd reach for. Their Blur IPA was the classic West Coast IPA, with a whisper of light malt and lots of citrussy, grapefruity hop flavor, and give them credit for easing off the hop throttle a bit and delivering something flavorful, not assaulting.

The Salmon Fish and Chips I ordered was a nice Asian riff on the classic pub dish, complete with a couple spicy dipping sauces, and enjoyed a Loose Lucy Scotch Ale with it. If memory serves me right, no less than nine malts were used in this one, which gave it really easy sipping, bourbon and toffee character to it. Good that one of those malts was a peat malt, which added a nice little woodsy note to the whole thing. Linda had an enormous tuna melt with Uncommon Brewer's Serendipity Sour Ale, which has a great sour, lemony tang to go with a tingly carbonation. Come to think of it, a tuna melt with Belgian Sour Ale, or salmon and Scotch Ale are hardly ideal beer and food pairings, but when you're just tired and want to get out of the rain, good beer with anything is perfect.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Race Tapering and Fermentation: Get Out of the Way

All the planning, hard work, and execution is over. While some things worked out better than expected, some other things didn't. There's nothing left to do but let nature take it's course. I could be talking about tapering for The Santa Cruz Half-Marathon this weekend. Or, I could be talking about the collaborative Biscuits and Honey Amber Ale I brewed up with a friend.

Everything in my limited home brewing experience tells me once the yeast is pitched, best get out of the yeasts' way and let them do their thing. Maybe some subtle additions can be made, but the yeasts are really calling the shots, and as long as you take good care of them, they will reward you.

Tapering in the final days before a half-marathon, the only thing to do now in is allow the muscles heal and get stronger from weeks of training, so the mind has the most strength to call upon on race day. Of course, there is the temptation to get in one last big workout to take things to a higher level a few days before race day. Too often, this backfires into a tired performance on the big day. Trust me, I know.

Successful racing and brewing is a lot about getting out of the way of nature, so it will take the best course.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Session #38: You Ought to Know about El Toro!

For this month's Session, Beer Search Party asks "what beer have you tasted recently (say, the last six months or so) that is worthy of their own day in the media sun?".

The small California town of Morgan Hill, located just fifteen miles south of San Jose is remarkable by just how unremarkable it is. I hear it's a good place to live, and plenty of people move there to escape the chaos of the San Francisco Bay Area. But for most people, it's a small town they whiz by driving down Highway 101 on the way to someplace else.

It's not the place you'd expect to find one of the best breweries in the Northern California. And Morgan Hill's El Toro doesn't make a lot of people lists of the top breweries in Northern California, but it ought to. El Toro normally has twenty four of their house beers on tap. Now most brewpubs have fewer than that, realizing that quality is more important than quantity. I'm fine with that, but the thing is, any random beer on tap at El Toro is way better than most brewery's flagship. I have to believe if El Toro was in San Francisco, everyone would be talking about it. But being way down in Morgan Hill, not too many people venture out to it. Especially since there's not a lot else in Morgan Hill to see, and trust me, I've looked hard.

It's not like the place is completely unknown. Geno and Cindy Acevedo started the place in March of 1994, so it's been around a while. And they've won a few awards, including two Great American Beer Festival medals, so other people have come to realize how good their beer is. But for this months session, I decided that my favorite Bay Area brewery was that deserved its day in the media sun. Yes, I know, we're supposed to write about one beer for this session instead of a whole brewery. Well, just take your pick from one of my favorite El Toro beers described below.

Poppy Jasper Amber Ale
One of their flagship beers, named after a type of quartz found only around the Morgan Hill area. Just a great combination of flavors, as it's a little roasty, a little nutty, with a slight apricot fruity note, and a nice earthy hop finish. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts as it all adds up to something unique and memorable. Winner of the 1995 California Beer Festival Gold Medal; 1996 Great American Beer Festival Silver Medal.

Awesome IPA
Here's to truth in advertising. El Toro uses Columbus, Centennial, Cascade and Amarillo hops to give this the classic citrus, slightly floral West Coast IPA style. The slight sweetness in what little malt there is works well here.

Duece Double IPA
A very citrusy double IPA, with a strong aroma of tangerine. The brew itself tastes of tangerine and grapefruit, with a little bit of sweetness and decent malt heft, and finishes with a grapefruit peel-like astringency.

Black Raspberry Ale
This ain't no chick beer. Instead, this aromatic brew has none of the cloying sweetness found in most fruit beers, and the black raspberry melds seemlessly into the underlying dark ale. Well crafted and composed beer has a nice, earthy hop finish. One of the many things El Toro does a great job at is infusing fruit into their beers, as their lighter Peach Ale has many of the same great aromatic qualities as this one. Speaking of El Toro fruit beers, you might want to try....

Raspberry Wheat
OK, it's a chick beer. And as such, I am not secure enough in my manhood to order it when I'm at El Toro. But I will steal sips of it from my fiance' Linda when she isn't looking. Once again, a skillful blend of the raspberry harmonizing with the slight tartness of underlying wheat beer. Actually gives chick beers a good name.

El Conejo Red IPA
Not your usual IPA. There's a little sweetness in this red IPA, and plenty of roasted malt. Centennial and Amarillo hops give it a tropical fruit, pineapple character to it. The bitterness of the roasted malt coupled with a healthy dose of hops gives this brew a very strong bitterness and astringency. Unique and different, there's just a little too much bitterness for my taste, but my fiance' Linda, a true hop-head, can't get enough of this.

El Negro Oatmeal Stout
This jet black brew pours with a sturdy brown head you could almost walk across. It's a very rich oatmeal stout, with plenty of roasted malt goodness, with a little chocolate note and a noticeable oat character. For all that roasted malt, it's quite smooth and not all that bitter, creating a highly drinkable, yet substantial stout.

So many great beers, I can't wait to see what El Toro does next.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Talking About Beer with My Autistic Son

(With April as National Autism Awareness Month, I start the month by showing how autism affects a simple conversation about beer.)

My son Brandon doesn't talk much. He doesn't look me in the eye all that often, either. He's been diagnosed with autism, and doesn't act like most nine year old kids. A lot of smart people have worked hard for decades trying to understand why autistics are the way they are, and they still don't have a lot of answers. What they say is it's likely Brandon cannot organize sensory information very well, and so experiences everything a lot differently than you and I. This affects his ability to make sense of things in his world, and may be why speech is difficult for him.

Even though Brandon and I don't talk much, we've had a few conversations about beer. Four years ago, he learned the words "yummy" and "yucky", and so a few times I dipped my finger in a beer, gave him a taste, and asked him whether he thought the beer was "yummy" or "yucky". I got back a definitive, high pitched "Yucky" every time. More recently, he's been learning to divide flavors into categories such as "sweet", "sour", "salty", "savory", and "bitter". And so now when I give him a small taste of beer and ask him how it tastes, he will correctly describe it as "bitter".

When you consider that discussions about beer is a big part of the social glue holding the craft beer community together, you'll realize what an important step Brandon has taken. Talking about how each beer tastes, the favorite beers we've had, and why we like certain beers, is a big way in how connect with each other. It brings us into a larger community, with all he warm fuzzy feelings we get when we feel part of something larger than ourselves. Who wants to drink beer all alone and not talk to anyone about it?

There was a time when Brandon was pretty happy spending hours sitting in a corner, rolling a toy car back and forth. Maybe it was a sense a order it provided, or a certain predictability he couldn't find any other way. I know very little about what is going on in my son's world, as he experiences things I can't possibly imagine, which he certainly can't tell me about. But through therapy and education, Brandon is starting to join our world, as his brain goes through essentially a re-wiring process, neuron by neuron, where the repetitive motions and sensations he used to crave are being slowly replaced by social stimulation like an emphatic "Good job!" or high fives. Brandon can now be prompted to talk about his favorite foods, TV shows, games, and books rather than looking at me with a blank stare and retreating into his own quiet corner. Through simple discussions like those we have about beer, our worlds begin to overlap.

Will Brandon and I discuss the fruity esters or the malt-hop balance of our favorite beer someday? Probably not. But I believe our small talks give Brandon the will to reach for this.