Friday, June 25, 2010

SoCal Vacation Day 5: The Long Ride to Home

The worst part about any vacation always seems to be the drive back. All the fun stuff is over, and now comes something tedious, monotonous and long. Being in the car for hours and hours with everyone else, so better find a way to get along during the difficult trip.

Sort of like family itself. Every one's in it together, so you make the extra effort to make it work. Of course, if it's too unbearable being trapped in that car with everyone, you can get out and find your way back home by yourself. Even if that results in everyone being in a better place, it is a long, difficult journey filled with a few harrowing moments. Trust me, I know.

So on the last day, I was confined to a car with a 7 year old emotional drama queen, a nine year old quirky, autistic boy totally lacking in almost all social skills, and a women who is as incredibly stubborn and combative as I am. Can't imagine any other three people I'd would rather be trapped in a car all day with.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

SoCal Vacation Day 4: Where the Wild Things Aren't and Stone World Bistro

The San Diego Zoo near the city's downtown, and its accompanying Wild Animal Park about 30 miles away in Escondido, are world renowned zoos, earning acclaim for educating millions, while successfully saving several key endangered species in the animal kingdom from certain extinction. But what most animal lovers and environmentalists fail to appreciate is that the San Diego Wild Animal Park easily boasts of the best beer selection of any zoo in the United States, if not the world. I mean, how many zoos give you a choice between Stone Brewing's IPA or Karl Strauss Amber Lager, two topflight local craft brews, as well as the usual safe Corona and Budweiser choices?

Of course, we really weren't there for the beer, but that was a nice bonus. Some people actually go to zoos to see animals, and for the two days we spent, one at each park, they all seemed quite happy, jumping or running around. A few were taking a nap when we strolled by, but right in front, rather than some far off corner where we could barely see them. There's an odd feeling, not of of danger but more of intrusion, when standing only a couple feet away from a sleeping carnivore, with an inch of Plexiglas separating you from a peacefully observing an animal at rest that would likely maul you otherwise.

And so after our day at the Wild Animal Park, we went over to Stone World Bistro in Escondido. Stone Brewing prides itself on angry beer. I can vouch for that, but they also make an angry looking deep fried grill cheese sandwich, which both kids enjoyed. But I was less than enamored of their angry session beer Levitation, which tasted like their Arrogant Bastard with the malt dialed down, but with the resiny, piny hop punch as strong as ever, resulting in an unbalanced brew that was difficult to drink down. I give them credit for taking risks, but not all risks pay off, and this didn't one just didn't work for me.

Their Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale I sampled next was more down Stone's alley, and it showed. Originally their 11th anniversary release, I found it one of those hard to describe beers with intrigue that draws me in. I'm getting flavors of raisins and other dried fruit, some woody and smokiness, and smoothly astringent hop finish. But Linda and my favorite beer of the evening was the Green Flash Imperial Red Ale, which was not an angry brew, but one with a smooth, slightly creamy and lively roasty malt with only the barest of hop bitterness at the finish. Very vibrant and drinkable, and gave us the warm fuzzies in contrast to the Stone brews which virtually dare you to like them. But as we found out for dessert, Stone Smoked Porter makes for a great beer float with vanilla ice cream.

There's a neat little garden where one run around and jump off and on rocks after dinner. Or, one can just relax.

On the way out, I picked up a few 22 ounce bottles of Stone Ale's on the way out, mostly brews I can't get in the Bay Area. Why I picked up a bottle of Stone's Ruination Double IPA, which I can find back home rather easily is a bit of a mystery. Of course, making a few impulse buys that make no logical sense is part of being on vacation.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

SoCal Vacation Day 3: Trying to Score Some Alesmith at a 7-Eleven

San Diego County is one of the world's best locations for craft beer. But of course, on a family vacation, there are plenty of reasons not to be spending it at bottle shops looking for the local beer finds. But the third night, with the kids safely to bed and with Linda's blessing, I drive one exit from our hotel up Interstate 5 to a 7-11 just off the Palomar Airport Road exit hoping to score some Alesmith.

Sounds like a fool's errand. One of San Diego county's finest of the many fine breweries, Alesmith, at a 7-11? Well, a little over a year ago, I wondered into that same 7-11 on a business trip looking for a diet Coke, and to my astonishment sitting behind the glass windows of the beer coolers but a few bottles of Alesmith Pale Ale and IPA. I picked them up immediately, and stuffed the bottles in some running socks I had in my luggage to keep them from breaking on the trip back home. I guess San Diego County is such a great craft brewing location that even the 7-11's have better beer selections that most liquor stores throughout the country.

Unfortunately, I wasn't lucky this night, as no Alesmith was in sight. Instead, I picked up a 22 ounce bottle of Stone Brewing's Arrogant Bastard which Linda and I shared for the evening out of the hotel water glasses. Maybe next time.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

SoCal Vacation Day 2: Tense Moments at Legoland and Pizza Port Carlsbad

Of all the moments of capitalist history, is there anything more improbable than an amusement park devoted entirely to interlocking little pieces of plastic? Funny thing, the concept works. My kids like building things with Lego, so figured figured they'd enjoy a whole theme park devoted to it, at Legoland Californina in Carlsbad. I figured on seeing plenty of Lego animals, Lego cities, and Lego dinosaurs, but never expected to be entertained by a Lego Mariachi Band.

Unfortunately, crisis hit in the afternoon when a big long sliver lodged in Verona's right big toe as she played on an enormous castle playground, one of the few things in the park not made of Lego. It took no fewer than 30 minutes for the staff nurse to pull out the stubborn sliver stuck deep in her toe. Verona experienced an extended period of agony that hopefully will not be exceeded until she delivers her first child. Most nine year old brothers would be whining to go back on the rides as their sister writhes in pain, but Brandon, who has autism, isn't like most older brothers. The hour at the first aid station seemed a welcome break from all the noise and disorder of the park, and he happily played with Legos in the waiting room while happily singing Frosty the Snowman, of all tunes.

Once the splinter was removed, a boat ride around a small lake full of Lego animals and Lego world monuments, and Verona was recovered and running around the park like nothing happened.

After our day at Legoland, we headed over to nearby Pizza Port Carlsbad. I figured on a Tuesday night, normally a slow one for restaurants, it couldn't be that crowded. It just so happened that Tuesday evening was Game Six of the NBA Finals, and they were also holding an Italian beer tasting, so the brewpub packed full of LA Laker fans and Italian Beer Aficionados created the perfect storm to throw a hand grenade into my well laid plans, excuse my mixed metaphors. A few other families were struggling to feed their kids, and the only space I could find in the place a bench half filled with high school aged Laker fans. Verona refused to sit with them, and started to cry, being very insecure about sitting with strangers. It took a lot of coaxing, but finally, Verona reluctantly agreed to sit with three very accommodating young Laker fans, and found out over time, that sitting with strangers wasn't so bad. Brandon on the other hand, has little social skills, and so no real social insecurities, and eagerly responded to simple commands of "Brandon, time to sit here!" which provided much needed structure he needs when he's confronted with a chaotic scene. Brandon's autism provides many challenges, but the flip side is that sometimes, the autism makes him far easier to work with than "normal" kids.

As for the beer, I had their Good Grief Brown Ale, an excellent brown ale with a smooth coffee flavors from the roasted malt. Linda had some special release Pale Ale, with some funky name she couldn't remember which had this nifty complex hoppy character to it. I realize that's a pretty vague description, but when trying to manage a couple kids eating sloppy pizza in a loud crowded place, I'm not going to sit quietly taking meticulous beer tasting notes. Linda and I also shared a glass of their Revelations Belgian Golden Ale, a delightful composed brew with a slight creamy mouthfeel, a light spicy Belgian yeast character, that just seemed to hit all the right notes. It seemed like this beer would pair well with lots of foods, and heck, it even paired well with our pepperoni and mushroom pizza.

The evening finished a lot better than it started.

Monday, June 21, 2010

SoCal Vacation Day 1: After Much Ado, Downtown Brewing in Paso Robles

Last week Linda, my wife to be, and I took the kids Brandon and Verona, ages 9 and 7 respectively, on a vacation to Southern California. Like craft beer drinking and running, vacations are a lot about discovery. Discovering new places of course, but also discovering something about ourselves as a family as we pursue common destinations. Many people associate Southern California with vacations, but it's also a great region for craft beer, so I scouted out a few brewpubs I thought we could all enjoy together during the trip.

As vacations lead to discovery, one thing I first discovered as we were getting ready for the trip is that Linda and I both stress over the little trip details, and be quite particular about them. But we often have very different points of view on these details, which we don't back down from very easily. And so as you might expect, getting ready for the trip led to plenty of little bickering firefights between us the day before. Of course, when you see something of yourself in your partner, that can be a good thing, even if it leads to friction. And understanding how this conflict arises allowed us to check my emotions, let logic take over, and allowed ourselves to take control and stop these silly arguments. For five minutes anyway, before we found something else to bicker about. And please don't ask us what all the fuss was about that day, Linda and I still can't remember.

I suppose all that effort into planning the trip was worth it, since got the car picked in record time and it was smooth sailing out of the Bay Area to small rustic town of Paso Robles for lunch. While Firestone Walker is the best known brewery there, their brewpub isn't open for lunch on Mondays, according to their websites, and brewery tours aren't the most kid friendly activities in the world. So instead, lunch was at Downtown Brewing, located in, you guessed it, downtown Paso Robles.

For some odd reason, I decided to start off with the "chick beer" they have on the menu, their Blueberry Ale. Maybe because I was thirsty and it wasn't even noon yet, and the Golden Ale and Wheat Ale on their beer list just didn't seem all that appealing at the time. Or perhaps I am simply becoming more comfortable in my manhood as I get older, and can order a chick beer with a "you gotta problem with that?" attitude. Or maybe I am just a wuss. Whatever my motivations were, it was actually pretty nice. Maybe it was the dozen or so blueberries added to the brew, but there was a very noticeable blueberry flavor to the light ale. But a light fresh blueberry taste, with very light sweetness. Hey, it worked for Linda and me. I also tried their Reggae Red Ale. Soft, rich and with smooth caramel and roasted malt flavors ending with a light earthy hop touch, it was rather quite smooth and drinkable. Another good beer find.

We spent some time in the town small park in the center of Paso Robles before getting back in the car. We had places to go, but I've often found the effort in reaching the big destination is only worth taking on if you can periodically enjoy the small things along the way. But soon, it was time to head back in the car to head for Santa Barbara to meet an old friend from grad school, before heading to points further south.

Friday, June 11, 2010

New Blog Name, No New Tattoo

Everyone I've consulted with about getting a tattoo advised me to consider it for weeks if not months, given its personal intimacy and permanence. I suppose a blog name is not quite a tattoo, but "Bay Area Beer Runner" has seemed like a tattoo I picked up on a drunken whim at 2am in the morning. It was chosen under some duress, and I've never been quite comfortable with the contrived, slightly cartoonish name.

So after weeks of consideration, I've decided to change the blog name again, hopefully for the last time, to Ramblings of a Beer Runner. Can't say if the new name is like getting a tattoo I'm really proud of, since I've never actually gotten a tattoo.

Forced analogies aside, hope you'll come to read and enjoy my ramblings.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Buying Local Before and During the Devil's Canyon Brewing Beer Dinner

Having moved up the San Francisco peninsula to Belmont about a month ago from the South Bay, Linda and I have been looking for a way to get acquainted with our new local brewery, Devil's Canyon. In one of life's small ironies, the first chance we had was a beer dinner last week at the California Cafe in the South Bay town of Los Gatos. I've enjoyed their Hades Habanero in Santa Cruz and had the Deadicated Amber Ale a few times, but I hadn't had their Scotch Ale and California Rye IPA yet, and both were on this tasty looking and rather carnivorous evening's menu:

First course: Amber Ale Battered Jumbo Shrimp, jicama aioli, and and frisee salad paired with Deadicated Amber Ale.

Second course: Grilled Beef Tri-tip with cashew sweet potato croquet, watercress, and spiked steak sauce pair with California Sunshine Rye IPA

Third course: Smoked rack of wild boar ribs, house made Worcestershire sauce, fried onion strings pair with Full Boar Scotch Ale

Dessert course: Root beer float with banana ginger ice cream chocolate ginger snap cookies, toasted marshmallow chantilly cream with Devil's Canyon Root Beer.
Before the beer dinner started, I needed to pop into my old running haunt, The Athletics Performance, and replace my worn out running shoes. Just a couple blocks down the street from the California Cafe, I've bought all my shoes over the past five years here, and I go through a lot of running shoes. I know the owners well, and since they're runners too, we always chat a bit about upcoming races, and our training is going. Athletic Performance founder Brad Armstrong holds track work-outs to all comers Tuesday and Saturday mornings on the Los Gatos High School track which many runners in the South Bay take advantage of. The Athletic Performance also sponsors a few local running races each year.

That evening, Christine Kennedy was minding the store, who remembered which running shoe model I normally wear. I'm glad she did, since I had forgotten. Christine's doesn't look a day over 35, and finishes first place in the 50 and older woman's age group in races all over the nation. It's not every day you meet some 50 year old woman who'll kick your ass in a road race. (I know she's kicked mine a few times.)

I pay a little more for my shoes at The Athletics Perform than at some big box retail outlet store, but there's no way you'll find me at one of those soulless, cavernous places. It takes ten minutes to find anyone working there who'll give you a confused stare to a simple question. The profits go to some far removed corporate headquarters, and are rarely reinvested in the local running community. I may save a little of my money, but get far less value for what I spend. And running shoe stores like The Athletics Performance are surviving, and in fact thriving all over the country in the face of deep pocketed corporate retailing competition. Most runners easily recognize the extra service and community involvement they get from a good local running store and spend their dollars there, proving that well run local businesses can be a powerful economic forces.

And that brings me back to the Devil's Canyon Beer Dinner that evening, where instead of simply drinking beer from some far removed brewery, Linda and I actually got to talk with people from Devil's Canyon who actually create the beer, and are passionate about what they make.

Of course, interacting with your local brewer may lead to disappointing results. Inquiring about when they would add Hades Habanero to their regular line-up, I learned they would likely be phasing out that beer, citing a need to focus on a few beers and not getting over extended. Damn! I'm all for quality over quantity, and understand and respect the business decision. I just don't have to like it.

But things got better from there. As the first course was being served, Dan Curren of Devil Canyon's explained the optimal temperature to serve their Deadicated Amber Ale was much warmer than most places serve their beer. At around 55 degree Fahrenheit, the malt flavors definitely become more pronounced, and the hop finish more noticeable than the colder pints of this brew it I've had elsewhere.

During the second course, Linda and I got to chat with Head Brewer Jason Beck about our favorite beer of the evening, their California Sunshine Rye IPA. Linda and I both noted a little bright flavors of apricot and light citrus in this unusual IPA, brewed with Centennial hops, which gave it a smooth earthy and grassy bitter finish. Jason explained he doesn't like going for aggressive hop bitterness in his IPA, unlike most California brewers who go around socking people in the mouth with bags of hops with no hesitation. As much we like beers like that, we really enjoyed the restraint with the hops coupled with the unique and lively blend of flavors of this memorable IPA with the feel good name.

The best food and beer pairing for the evening in my opinion was the third course, where the smokey and savory flavors of the wild boar and Worcestershire sauce harmonized well with the bitter chocolate and smoky flavors of the Full Boar Scotch Ale. And while we appreciated California Cafe chef Bobby Logan's innovative use of ingredients to create layers of flavors in all of his dishes, we couldn't help wonder if the Devil's Canyon Root Beer, with it's complex sweetness derived with cane sugar, agave nectar, and local honey, would go better in a root beer float with good old vanilla ice cream, rather than the kitchen sink of ingredients in his ambitious take on the classic. No matter, it was pretty good anyway.

And so when as people get to know their local brewer, understand their commitment and care to the brewing craft, and taste the final product, is it at all surprising that the 1,500 craft brewery Davids in this country are slowly but surely taking market share away from the the few mega-brewing Goliaths? As an unrepentant capitalist, I'll say it again that well executed local businesses are a powerful economic forces. I just need to keep pestering those guys about putting Hades Habanero back in their line-up.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Session #40 Session Beers: It's About Time We Had This Conversation

For this month's Session, Erik Myers of Top Fermented asks us to discuss Session Beers.

What a novel idea. Let's talk about Session beers this month. I consider a Session beer to be any beer around 5% alcohol by volume or less, and has a drinkable character to it so you can have two or three in a social atmosphere and still keep your wits about you, so to speak. I realize that's a little higher alcohol level than most Session beer definitions. That's because I attempt to keep a two beer a day limit when in training for a race, so try to get the most bang for the Session beer buck.

Good Session beer is like great background music during an evening out with friends, unlike going to the symphony or the mosh pit, where the music takes center stage . I'm so glad the Beer Blogging Session got around to this topic, since Session beers, by my definition, constitutes well over 95% of the beer consumed all over the world. OK, that includes a lot of industrial mega-brew the general craft brew community might question as "drinkable". But drinkability is really in the eyes of the beer holder.

So much of the beer blogosphere seems fixated on finding the latest collaboratively brewed, barrel aged quadruple IPA made with black current and licorice, and fermented with Belgian Ale yeast. Most of the world's population would rather drink something more simple, straightforward, and drinkable, which they can enjoy without thinking too hard about it, thank you very much.

I understand this "beer hunter" mentality, to search for the latest and greatest, as brewers strive to create original, bold, and unexpected beer drinking experiences. Craft beer drinking is a lot about discovery. But it's always great to rediscover life's simple pleasures in a well executed Lager, Porter, or Hefeweizen. And it's a pleasure to find a beer that's a great composition of simple flavors that really pop, like Mammoth Brewing's Real McCoy Amber Ale. Or to find something refreshing, yet with all sorts of subtle complexity if one desires to concentrate on the flavors, like El Toro Brewing's Poppy Jasper. Or encounter a beer with a surprising twist, like Devil's Canyon Brewing's Hades Habenero, that gives a much needed dignity to the chile beer style.

It's great to enjoy the intense experience at the top of the mountain, but there's plenty of wonder and enjoyment along the trail to the top.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Beer of the Month : Firestone Walker's Solace

When I started this blog slightly over a year ago, I made two promises to myself. I wouldn't let it become a chore where I felt obligated to have to post things at specific times, and I didn't want it to become yet another beer blog posting beer reviews. In one fell swoop, I'm breaking both of these promises to start a Beer of the Month series of postings.

I've written beer reviews before, and enjoy reading them on other blogs, so it seemed like a monthly focus on a particular beer seemed like a good idea. I've been kicking this idea around for a couple months, and it's been increasingly appealing over time, so it's time to start. So starting this month, I'll be posting a Beer of the Month review within the first couple weeks of each month. I hope you'll enjoy my perspective on interesting beers to try.

The first beer of the month is FireStone Walker's Solace, their recently released summer seasonal. I was intrigued this unusual, somewhat complex, wheat beer for reasons I couldn't quite put my finger on. There were some light fruity banana esters, as well as nice clove spiciness, along the lines of a classic German Hefeweizen. But there's also a little melon-like fruitiness and a slight peppery character as well. It's quite refreshing, and liked the subtle complexity to the brew, which could be easily ignored if one is just in the mood for "lawn-mower", thirst quenching beer.

Not that I get too bent out of shape over styles, but I remained curious. What was this? A Hefeweizen, or something else. After doing a little research, I found the answer to this little puzzle in an announcement on, which states:

While Solace is somewhat devoid of style, Brewmaster Matt Brynildson said it will be a sort of unfiltered fusion of a Hefeweizen and a Belgian Saison. Subtle hints of banana and clove aroma will merge with sweet fruit flavor, a medium body and tangy finish. This combination will result in drinkable spring/summer beer with about 6% alcohol by volume.

"Style guidelines are definitely being stretched and exaggerated with the rise of craft beers in the U.S.,” Brynildson said. “I call it a Summertime Belgo-Bavarian Zwickle Saison,” he added jokingly.

OK, so that clears things up. A hybrid beer like this one could end up as a muddled, confused wierd homebrew experiment gone amok. But thankfully, that's far from the case here. So kudos to Firestone Walker for coming up with something innovative and unique, that makes for a nifty summer seasonal. It's available on the West Coast through August.