Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Learning Patience in Running and Home Brewing

I'm not a patient man.

This has unfortunately worked to my disadvantage in races, where patience is pretty important. Everyone knows it's important to pace themselves, to not go out too fast. And of course, once the gun goes off, there's all the usual chaos at the start, then the adrenaline starts flowing, patience goes out the window, and before you know it, you're at the first mile 20 seconds sooner than you wanted to be, and in big trouble. At least that's the way a lot of my races started out.

One of the ways I learned to developed a better sense of running patience was through tempo runs. These are workouts of about 20 minutes duration, typically run at a "comfortably hard" pace. A simple rule of thumb is to simply add about 15 seconds to your 10 k race pace. This is around the lactic acid threshold, where lactic acid starts accumulating in the muscles because of chemical reactions required to generate enough energy to maintain this comfortably hard pace. Too much lactic acid in the legs makes them feel rubbery, makes harder to keep up the pace, and is often what forces you to slow down if you've gone out too fast.

A track is a good place for a tempo run, because you want to concentrate knocking out the same pace over that 20 minutes. Of course, you could go faster, but a goal of a tempo run is to training the mind to learn pace sense and develop a certain patience to keep knocking out the same time, lap after lap around the track. (If you can't find a track, a reasonably flat running trail with few variations or interruptions due to traffic works pretty well.) Since lactic acid is accumulating in your legs, the body learns to buffer this acid, and so over time, you can run faster without producing as much lactic acid in the legs.

Learning to be more patient in home brewing? Home brewing workouts seem to be an oxymoron. Instead, patience in home brewing seems to simply come from experience. I'm finding I'm way to eager to bottle and drink my finished brews, where an extra week or two in the carboy or bottle conditioning would give it that extra edge. I recently brewed a coffee porter, and while I originally wrote in my blog post that it was flat, found giving it another week in the bottle allowed the carbonation to fully develop. Probably another week of secondary fermentation would give the yeast a little more time to do their thing and give the flavor a little something extra, but I still think it turned out to be a pretty good brew once I gave it time. I suppose the more I brew, the necessary patience will start to develop.

I need to be a more patient man.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Early Spring Optimism

There's something about a sense of optimism surrounding the first race of the year. You have some idea what kind of shape you're in, but until tested by the unforgiving stop watch, you never quite know. If you're faster than you expect, you're off to a good start. If you're slower than you expect, you learned something valuable and there's still plenty of time to catch up in your training if need be. But of course, it's just great to be out there running with lots of other folks again.

And so it was with Linda and I running the Going Green St. Patrick's Day 10 k Run last Sunday. For a first time race, it was pretty successful and everyone seem to have a good time, even if the mile markers were a bit off. I just hope the course was long, judging by my time. It was a good tune up for the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon next April, and good to know your fitness level four weeks before the race, rather than finding out the hard way at mile seven of a half marathon.

While January is often the traditional time to make plans for the upcoming year, it's people often early spring when people look hard at what they want to accomplish for the year. Whether family, career, money, or fitness and recreational goals, early spring is often when we look at what we want to accomplish for the year with a sense of optimism.

So after battling injuries and dealing with the associated frustration for nearly two years before getting things literally straightened out with a chiropractor, I've set very general goals for the year of to run with less pain and work on needed core strength, balance and flexibility to make this happen. My 42 year old body does not take as pounding around the track for the morning interval workouts, and so will focus less on finishing time and place than in years past. Given that there's a lot I'd like to accomplish outside of running this year that will require time, effort, and mental focus, this seems to be the way to go.

I'll take a similar attitude with home brewing. There was a time late last year I was all gung ho about getting into homebrewing competitions. Then, I began to realize there was this small issue that I barely had the foggiest idea about how to take care of yeast, impart the hop flavors into the brew, get rid of off flavors, and the other "little" things required to make a good brew. So I'm going to take the time to learn some of these things while making enjoying the brewing process and the results. And I'll be homebrewing with a friend of mine I don't see often enough this year who's been looking to get back into home brewing again.

That evening, Linda and I went to our favorite brewpub El Toro, a small celebration of sorts for a job reasonably well done that morning at the races. We have a lot of plans for the year together and there's lots of hard work to be done after a tough 2009, but we're looking forward to the upcoming year. These are good times.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Brewing up a batch of Verona's Coffee Porter

My daughter Verona was not named after the classic Italian city of Romeo and Juliet fame, but a small road in San Jose. Her mom and I were struggling to come up with a name after my mother-in-law at the time shot down the first two we decided on. Driving around aimlessly one weekend in San Jose, CA, we found ourselves on Verona Drive and figured that would be a pretty and unique name for our daughter to be. It's one of the few things my ex-wife and I agreed on.

My seven year old daughter is smart, pretty, makes new friends in seconds flat, and handled the turmoil and challenges of experiencing a divorce and having a autistic brother with the understanding and maturity decades beyond her years. I'm very proud of her.

So whenever buying coffee, I pick up a pack of Starbuck's Verona Coffee blend. And deciding to get a little experimental with my fourth home brew, a coffee porter seemed a good direction to go. It only seemed natural to name the brew Verona's Coffee Porter and use Starbuck's Verona Coffee to add an extra dimension to the roasted malt character of a porter, one of my favorite beer styles.

For the recipe, I took the London Porter recipe from page 151 of The Brewmasters Bible by Stephen Snyder, and used a technique outlined in Randy Mosher's wonderful book Radical Brewing to add cold filtered coffee to the brew. Both books have become great additions to my culinary library.

Verona's Coffee Porter
5 gallons distilled water
5 lbs. Dry Amber Malt Extract
1 lb. 60L Crystal Malt
4 ounces Maltodextrin
4 ounces Black Malt
4 ounces Chocolate Malt
2 ounces Willamette Hops (bittering, added 60 minutes to the boil)
1 ounce Kent Golding Hops (finishing, added 1 to the boil for one minute)

One test tube sized vial of White Labs Dry English Ale Yeast WLP007

Original gravity: 1.044

Ferment in the primary for two weeks at approximately 68 degree Fahrenheit.

Transfer to a secondary fermenter, and add 1/2 liter of cold filtered coffee, produced by grinding 4 ounces of Starbuck's Verona blend, adding 1/2 liter of water, and letting sit covered in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Bottle after one week.

Final gravity: 1.018

For those keeping score at home, the original and final gravities correspond to a 3.4% abv brew, rather low for a porter. In my first three home brews, it was clear from my original gravity readings I wasn't extracting enough malt from the grain, and solved this problem by simply using larger steeping bags for the grains, allowing more water flow through the mash. That problem solved, I encountered another one. Not enough yeast. Hardly any fermentation occurred in the secondary fermentation judging by the activity of the carboy airlock, and the final brew's carbonation was rather flat. The original gravity was a tad low, as the recipe gave an estimated original gravity of 1.046-1.048. But the fact that the final gravity of this recipe is expected to be 1.012-1.014 and this brew ended up at 1.018 strongly suggests incomplete fermentation.

Of course, the classic English porter is a little flat, but have to concede the extreme the flatness of this brew is a stylistic defect. The single vial of Dry English Ale yeast I used seemed a little clumpy, so maybe it was old or didn't get incorporated into the wort very well. Whatever the reason, I'm going to use at least one extra vial for my next brew.

As for the flavor, the coffee blended really well with the roasted malts, not overpowering them, and everything seems in the right balance. It also seems I've eliminated the harsh grainy undertones noticeable in my previous brewing. I'd rather brew great beers than learning experiences, but then home brewing is a lot like running a race. There's a lot of satisfaction from taking on the challenge, and you learn from the successes and failures in both the preparation and the final result, and build from it. So I'm eager to give it another go with my next home brew.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Session #37: Homicide Investigations and Wedding Engagements

For this month's Session on we're asked by The Ferm about when to open up the really good stuff from our beer cellars.

Writing on this subject was a bit of a struggle at first. My beer "cellar" is whatever room I can find in the refrigerator and right now, only two beers are being aged. Many nights, my girlfriend Linda and I will select something like Deschutes Brewing's Hop Henge IPA or Oskar Blues Ten Fidy Imperial Stout before curling up on the couch to watch TV for the remainder of the evening, usually watching one of those homicide investigation shows like Forensic Files or The First 48. We don't think too hard about what to have, just peering into the fridge and picking one that just seems right for the mood we're in. So it didn't seem I could really contribute much to a session topic about the decision making process of choosing beer for special occasions.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this month's Session. I decided to give married life one more shot. I mean after all, Linda's smart, attractive, good for my kids, and my life started turning around after I met her four years ago. She doesn't complain about all my sweaty running clothes, and she thought going to the Celebrator Beer Festival was a great way to spend Valentine's Day. (I did make her dinner the next evening, sort of as an insurance policy.) If I screw this one up, just put me in the "Shouldn't Get Married" category for good.

We recently invited some friends over for dinner who brought Champagne to celebrate the engagement, and so it seemed right to bring out the Malheur Dark Brut from the fridge. It's a dark Belgian Ale made with the same technique as Champagne, where the bottle is rotated over time so the active yeast is at top end of the bottle, and then the yeast plug is frozen and removed. Our guests really appreciated how the toasty yeastiness melded with the dark, complex roasted malts, the tingly carbonation keeping it all light and airy. Of course, a great way to show people how well important occasions can be celebrated with beer is to let them experience this for themselves.

If you came looking for a detailed calculus about how beers are paired to food and the moment, I'm afraid you came to the wrong place. But the best thing about being with good friends and family is that you don't have to think very hard about things, and it all just flows.