Friday, May 29, 2009

Taking the folks to Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery

My parents were in town for an extended Memorial Day weekend. So the Tuesday after Memorial Day, Linda and I decided to spend a day with them in Santa Cruz. First stop, Natural Bridges State Beach. There is something restorative about standing on the beach in cold, ankle deep water as the waves crash and recede in front of you. Periodically, squadrons of pelicans glided overhead, looking for fish. A sea lion would poke its head out to look around now and then. And the Natural Bridge rock formation loomed over the entire scene.

Afterwards, we headed over to Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, (SCMB) about a five minute drive from the beach. In addition to their small brewery where they make exclusively organic beer, they have a tap room where one can go in and enjoy some of their beer. I was hoping for the best, and slightly fearing the worst. I've enjoyed their beer many times, but have noticed some batch to batch variation in their product. And sometimes, this results in off-flavors in the beer. In fairness to SCMB, organic barley and hops are usually inferior to the non-organic kind, and its a testament to the skill of the brewers at SCMB that they produce plenty of good batches of beer. Still, I was hoping we'd spend the time in the SCMB tap room talking about the good times we just had at Natural Bridges, rather than talking about strange flavors lurking in our brew.

Mom tends to favor lagers, with her favorites being Heineken and Stella Artois. SCMB wasn't offering a lager, so I asked the bartender to pour a sample glass of their Wilder Wheat. I braced myself and took a small sip. Good news! I tasted a really soft tasting beer with warm clove and vanilla notes in it. Really nice, and none of the sour, off-notes I had detected in a previous batch of this beer. I handed the glass over for Mom to try. She liked it, being so sure that this was the beer for her, she had no choice but to order it, end of story.

Well, not exactly. Mom looked hard at the descriptions of the beers and the wall, and started looking confused. Walking up to the bartender, she asked him what would be comparable to her favorites. The bartender was a lot more patient with Mom than me. Actually, just about everyone is more patient with Mom than me. Mom ended up ordering their Pale Ale on the bartender's recommendation and really enjoyed it.

Dad and I decided to get the spring seasonal, a dry hopped Pale Ale. I forget what hops they used, but the dry-hopping gave the Pale Ale an extra fresh, bitter, and slightly astringent dimension. Falling back upon absolutely zero beer judging and culinary descriptive experience, I'd say it made the beer taste "springy".

Linda decided to get a sampler flight, which she shared with me. SCMB beers tend to be on the lighter side for each style, but don't seem watery. They're just the sort of refreshing, yet substantial beer you'd want to drink after a day of surfing. (Or running, because I can't really speak for surfers, having never surfed.) I've been a fan of their Devout Stout, Dread Brown Ale, and People's Porter for a while now. And every beer on the sampler flight was solid to good. Really pleased to see a local brewery get it so right.

And since Mother's Day just past, and Father's Day is around the corner, let me take this opportunity to give a Beer Runner toast to my parents.

Growing up in Bowling Green, Ohio in the 70's, Dad would carefully dole out sips of Rolling Rock to me from his glass on hot summer days, teaching me to "respect beer" at an early age. (This was back when Rolling Rock was a respectable regional brewery, not the soul-less InBev product it is today.) And my running career started out back in 1980, when Dad and I trained for a 10 kilometer race. Dad's been running well into his 60's, but it looks like some foot surgeries he's had to undergo will cause him to hang up the running shoes.

Mom also played her part in bringing up her little Beer Runner, and has always been active walking, biking and swimming. Often, Mom would be out swimming in the freezing cold lake or ocean water on family vacations, teaching me that you can have a lot of fun if you develop a high enough pain threshold. And she taught me to put good stuff inside my body, telling me to eat my vegetables because they say "Hi" to my insides.

Good beer says "Hi" to your insides.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My Luggage Met Its Waterloo

I spend a few weeks a year travelling for my job selling optical test and measurement equipment, and take time out when I can to get some runs in and sample some of the local beers. This sometimes creates an awkward travelling road show consisting of sweaty clothes, bottles of beer, and delicate optical test equipment I carry around from city to city in my luggage. I have a system to wrap socks around bottles of beer to protect them from damage for the plane trip home. And yes, sometimes fine bottles of craft beer are tucked away in particularly noxious socks worn previously in a long run. But the system works, and I've brought home over a case of beer this way with no problems. I often place the sock entombed bottles in a zip lock bag, just in case they break open. Since that's never happened, I didn't bother with the zip lock bags for the return trip home last week with the beer I picked up in Canada.

I bet you figured out what happened. I get home, and half of my luggage is drenched with a bottle that popped open on the way back. Luckily the damage wasn't so bad, and surprisingly few clothes were wet, and all of them look like they will be salvaged.

The bottle that drenched my luggage was a Special Pale Ale, from Wellington County Brewery in Guelph, Ontario Canada. Wellington Brewery is named after Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, who is best known for defeating Napoleon's French forces in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Less well known that as Prime Minister of England 15 years later, his government passed the Beerhouse Act, which greatly relaxed government restrictions on production and sales of beer. For a small fee, any residence could start brewing and selling beer, leading to an explosion of small pubs taverns popping up all over England. So you might say, the First Duke of Wellington was an early champion of beer.

Well, not exactly. The Beerhouse Act of 1830 was actually a back handed attempt to suppress English gin houses, which were viewed at the time as hot beds of sin. In the early 1800's, beer was considered a healthful drink. Children were often served small beer, or beer with low alcohol levels (usually about 3%), which actually was a good alternative to most local water supplies of the era, which were generally not potable. The Duke of Wellington was more interested in weaning the public off of the demon gin, than promoting diversity of beer production.

Approximately 25,000 licenses were granted under this act, but over time, the English Government either repealed provision of the Beerhouse Act, or passed additional regulations on beer. The last remnants of the Act were repealed in 1993. You can still find pubs in the middle of residential neighborhoods in England, products of the Beerhouse Act of 1830 which have survived to this day.

I'm glad the other five bottles of the six-pack survived, because I'm enjoying this one. It's a slightly rich, caramel brew with an slight, earthy hop background. A little creamy mouthfeel, and at 4.5% ABV, it's not going to slow you down too much. Just a good, smooth easy drinking beer with some character. Good for celebrating major decisive battles, or little things, like when everything in your luggage gets home all in one piece.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Moosehead Memories, Creemore Springs Discovery

I don't know about you, but I have this thing for certain Canadian lagers.

One of my favorite beers in my early twenties was Moosehead. So many good times and memories associated with that beer when I was back home near Chicago. I remember sharing a few pitchers of Moosehead hanging out with good friends I haven't seen in a couple years. Or some friends and I nearly getting kicked out of a bowling alley because we sneaked in a few of bottles of Moosehead under our coats on a cold winter night.

I don't know how it tasted then, but tried it recently, having not had one in about ten years. Sampling the easy drinking, but forgettable slightly skunky lager was not unlike meeting a high school girlfriend many years afterword. You understand the attraction, but are left with the overwhelming feeling of "what did I see in her?".

This week in Ottawa, I met Moosehead's smart, athletic older sister. It's Creemore Springs Premium Lager, and it's a good one. As soon as I saw the bartender pour the copper color liquid into the shaker, I knew I had a keeper. Nothing complex here, just fresh tasty malt and a crisp, bitter hop finish. Sharp, simple flavors are good in a lager. Perhaps the best lager I've ever had.

Creemore Springs is a small brewery in Creemore Ontario, about 50 miles north of Toronto. Unfortunately, it probably isn't available in the Bay Area. But next time you're in Canada, I suggest you check her out.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Running to the End of the World in Quebec City

It's a whirlwind business trip through Eastern Canada this week, and checked into my hotel in Quebec City early enough to get a pretty decent run in before dinner. I'm in the southern part of the city, no where near the historic old section where I was hoping to visit. Even so, it's good to get out into the surrounding neighborhoods, and saw many other people out on the road getting a run in as well. Always good to see others out there running.

Later that evening with dinner, I had some La Fin Du Monde from Unibrou. La Fin Du Monde translates in English to "The End of the World", and if this is the end of the world, then I feel fine. It's a great example of the Belgian triple style. This brew has a wonderful complexity, with a zippy clove-like spiciness, some yeasty notes, and a tart fruitiness that I had trouble quite putting my finger on, so I'll just say it was cherry-like.

Unibrou Brewing is in Chambly, Quebec, a few miles east of Montreal. Sure, I could get La Fin Du Monde at my local BevMo! down the street in San Jose, but it tastes that much better close to the source.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Modest Proposal: More Beer and Running at Weddings

Last weekend, I was at a wedding of some friends of mine. It was a great wedding, and I find weddings are often introspective events. Everyone rallies around the couple, and also think of the important events in their lives as well. The wedding was in Livermore, and that morning, I ran a 10 kilometer race in nearby Pleasanton. Warming up, I realized that a race is a lot like a marriage.

There's all sorts of nervous anticipation, hope, and apprehension before the start. Then the gun goes off, and there's a lot of excitement, but you really need to stay in control and pace yourself. Too many runners and couples have crashed and burned getting too caught up in the early moments. The early parts are relatively easy, but sooner or later, there are hills to climb, unexpected conditions to deal with, and the pace can become relentless. And if couples make it to the finish line of retirement, they often end up like most runners after crossing the finish line: Too tired and worn out to do much of anything. But looking back, all the preparation, effort, and sacrifice is rewarded in the end.

Maybe couples would be better prepared for marriage if a running race for the bridge and groom was held the morning of the wedding? What better way for the couple to prepare for the discipline, determination, and effort required for a successful marriage? I can't imagine why this hasn't become a tradition already.

And like most wedding receptions, beer was de-emphasized in favor of wine. Why is that? Beer is a wonderfully diverse beverage, and is more representative of the twists and turns the couple is about to embark on their marriage than wine. There will be zippy, spicy, and boozy times, like a good Belgian Triple. Children come with funky smells but are ultimately a highly rewarding experience, just like an ale made with funky smelling Brettanomyces yeast. There are care free, easy times where a good lager or Hefeweizen hits the spot. There will be bitter, complicated times, like a Double IPA. And we hope the couple finds the right work-family right balance, much like the malt-hop balance of any good Pale Ale. Instead of just red or white wine, a full compliment of beer styles should be served at all weddings, to better prepared the couple for what they're about to get into.

I dare say, if there were more running and beer at weddings, there would be more successful marriages, and a lower divorce rate. Some might ask, since I am divorced and have no professional wedding planning or marriage counselling experience, why do I feel qualified to tell people what they should and shouldn't do on their wedding day?

Having experienced the up and downs in my only marriage, I think I have a pretty good idea what it takes, but I'm not going to go into the trials and tribulations of that marriage, especially since I already paid a lot of money to a therapist for that. And I moved in with my girlfriend six months ago, and so far, so good, and that ought to count for something.

There was little beer or running in my first wedding. Could that have been the problem? Unfortunately, my first wife and I had far more differences and conflicts that could be solved by beer and running. She really wasn't into either of those things. My girlfriend and I both enjoy running, and while wine is her drink of choice, she is a closet hop-head. I have a pretty good feeling about this go around.

Friday, May 1, 2009

If you hike to Berry Creek Falls slowly, you'll miss things

Last week, I hiked to Berry Creek Falls with my girlfriend Linda. Berry Creek Falls is located in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It's about a five mile hike to Berry Creek Falls, and then you can hike up another trail to Silver Falls, and finally a little further to the Golden Cascades, another series of falls. Then, it's another five miles back through the redwood forest to the trail head.

Linda and I stopped many times along the way to capture it all in. We'd stop and gaze up at the massive redwood trees, or look at various hidden wildflowers along the way. When we got the the falls, we'd stop, take a seat on one of the benches provided, and take in the view. We set up a little picnic at the foot of Silver Creek and had lunch before making our way back.

I had actually run a half marathon race on these very trails once before. Then, these scenic waterfalls were a basically a blip in a sea of redwoods as I motored on by. Instead of the looking around the scenery, my eyes were fixed along the ground, searching for each spot to plant my foot for the next step. A meandering, down hill trail with a rocks and roots sticking out isn't a pleasure stroll in a trail race, but a face-plant waiting to happen.

At one point in the trail, the terrain becomes very barren, rocky, and highly exposed to sunlight on a mountain ridge. On our hike, we took off our jackets to enjoy the sunlight and get out of the cool forest air, and enjoy the diversion from the redwood forests. I remembered this spot on the half marathon. The sun beating down on me here was a dehydration concern on a trail run where there are no water stops, and I was relieved during the race when the trail dipped back down into the monotonous line of redwoods and brought back the cool air.

Some might say I missed a lot running a race on these trails. But aren't the waterfalls simply an anomaly in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and by lingering about them, we distort their significance in the forest? If we focus on the tall trees and pretty flowers, do we ignore the ground and topography which is very much a part of the forest as well? I'm not suggesting people run through the forest instead of hiking at their own pace. But our speed and purpose in the forest creates a unique lens that creates our experience. And each lens has its own focus and distortions.

When we finished our hike, we drove through the nearby town of Boulder Creek. It's a small town of about 4,000, rather isolated in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I've never stopped their before, having passed through a few times on my way to Santa Cruz. This time, Linda and I stopped at the Boulder Creek Brewing Company at the edge of town.

It's in an old, rustic looking building that indeed looks like in belongs in the middle of the mountains somewhere. Like any good brewpub, it has a great neighborhood vibe, where everyone seems to know each other and is there to relax and have a good time. The bar was full of maybe ten locals who all seemed to be on a first name basis, but Linda and I never really felt like outsiders.

If you can imagine a cross between a hunting lodge, a brewpub, and a vegan co-op, that would describe the atmosphere and the menu. It seems as if the hippie culture of Santa Cruz has splashed 15 miles northward into the mountains here. We asked about the various beers and the dread-locked bartender seemed happy to explain them to us. There was only one house beer available, their Big Basin Brown Ale, since the brewing equipment was being renovated. I generally like nut brown ales, and this was a solid one, with a decent amount of nutty malt and a little grassy hops underneath.

I couldn't tell much about Boulder Creek looking through the car window on my previous trips through, but I now have a lot better feel for the place now that I've stopped here. I hope to drop by Boulder Creek Brewing again the next time my travels take me this way. I wouldn't want to miss it.