Saturday, January 29, 2011

Running can't be bottled. This home brew shouldn't be.

One of my biggest mistakes was making a really good home brew. Well, actually my mistake was making a pretty good home brew, and then sharing it with a few other people. Now I have way too high expectations to meet as for the all subsequent brews I make. Even worse, there's no real way I could ever reproduce that home brew ever again since brewing involved about five "oh shit" moments during a rather chaotic afternoon in the kitchen. The beer was from a recipe from Randy Mosher's book Radical Brewing called Black Ship Pirate's Stout, and for Randy Mosher's sake, it's probably good he didn't actually witness me brewing his beer. But somehow, all the flavors came together wonderfully and upon my first taste, I had my first "Damn, did I just brew this?" moment in home brewing. And since a few friends really enjoyed it, there were plenty of requests for my next home brew.

My next home brew I decided to call Brandon's Maple Brown Ale, a tribute to my son and his love for pancakes with maple syrup. And indeed, this home brew involved the requisite five "oh shit" moments and was yet another chaotic day in the kitchen. I used way too little water for the grain mash, creating a brown, jiggly, gelatinous gunk and zero malt extraction. So I poured pot after pot of water at 180 degrees over it to release the malt, sparging the beejeesus out of this mess in order to get something the yeast could feast on. Something weird happened when I poured the maple syrup into the secondary fermenter, the fermentation never really got going, and I had to shake the carboy a week later to jump start the fermentation again. The good news is that I will never be able to reproduce it, since my first reaction upon tasting it was "Damn, did I just brew this crap?". The beer has grown on me a little since, and I now call it an acquired taste, which is what brewers say about their beers when multiple consumption of the beer is required to build up a tolerance to it.

Perhaps in a brutally logically way, this is a fitting tribute to my son Brandon, since he has autism, and something didn't go quite right in his brewing process. But he's suffered enough, and brewing an odd-tasting beer in his name to add insult to his injury was certainly not my intention. I am dutifully distributing bottles of Brandon's Maple Brown Ale to all my friends who asked for it, with a gentle warning of what is in for them if they try it, and that they won't be hurting my feelings if they pour it down the drain. But there will be other home brews which will be better, and one of the best things about home brewing is that you can share your brewing success with others quite directly.

On the other hand, running success can be difficult to share with others, and certainly cannot be bottled. There's no way to distill my best races and runs and give them to others. But since these moments involved gastro-intestinal distress, burning sensations in both the lungs and legs, and I smelled rather awful afterwords, it's doubtful these bottled running moments would be particularly popular or welcome. There's a reason more people like drinking beer than running.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Beer of the Month: Full Boar Scotch Ale from Devil's Canyon Brewing

I thought about featuring a winter seasonal for this January's Beer of the Month, but plenty of craft breweries have pulled their winter seasonals from the shelves, replacing them with their spring seasonals. It's bad enough when I go to K-Mart in the middle of October looking for Halloween costumes for my kids and they already already have the Christmas trees and decorations up, but here in the middle of winter, it's getting awfully hard to find a winter seasonal. Craft breweries alway claiming to be so much better than big corporate breweries often by the sole virtue of being smaller local companies, and if they stopped imitating the annoying habit big corporations have of releasing seasonal products months before the actual season they are intended for, this superiority they claim over big corporation would gain additional credibility.

Thankfully, Devil's Canyon Brewing Full Boar Scotch Ale, is available all year around, even if it seems ideal for winter. So ideal in fact, that I got myself a growler of it for the holidays, sipping out of port glass on cold winter nights. OK, it rarely gets below 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night in the Bay Area, but having gotten soft living here for ten years after moving here from the midwest, at least 40 degrees feels cold. It's a damp cold.

I quite enjoy all the flavors from the dark malts which combine with buttery, toffee-like notes with light molasses, and savory umami flavors. Try as I might, I couldn't detect any hops, even though I figure there's some in there. It's complex, but not heavy, making it very versatile beer that's both very drinkable and great sipping beer.

Devil's Canyon Full Boar Scotch Ale can be found in multiple locations up and down the San Francisco peninsula, or you can pick up a growler from the brewery in my hometown of Belmont. Enjoy it this month after a day shopping for Easter decorations.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Brewing Network's Winter Brews Festival

The Brewing Network is holding it's 2nd Annual Winter Brews Festival on January 29th in Berkeley from noon to 4 pm in Berkeley at The Martin Luther King Center in Berkeley. I went to the 1st Winter Brews Festival last year, and for a first time event, I thought they did a great job. So if you want to tune up your beer festival skills before SF Beer Week, or would like to try out some great beers from local breweries, check it out. You can find out more at

Friday, January 14, 2011

The 2nd Annual SF Beer Week Beer Run is on!

I could wax philosophically about the egalitarian nature of both the sport of running and the beverage of beer. Or elucidate how a beer run fits into the California cultural ethic of work hard, play hard. But if I did, I'd probably start putting you all to sleep. So instead, I'll simply invite you to the 2nd Annual SF Beer Week Beer Run this February 13th at 11 am in front of Social Kitchen and Brewery that I'm organizing with fellow beer runners Brian Yaeger and Bryan Kolesar, as part of SF Beer Week. I'm also grateful Rich Higgins of Social Kitchen and Brewery agreed to participate, but his arm probably didn't need to be twisted very hard to support an event that would involve several thirsty people stopping on his doorstep before before noon. But he did agree to take a buck off our beers. You can find more details here.

Hope to see you there, and to help us figure out how many people will show up, please leave a comment to this post if you plan to be there.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Tongue Survived an IPA Tasting

One thing I've learned from running is that the human body is capable of remarkable adaptation from repeated stress. While an IPA tasting of this hop heavy beer style normally results in my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth and my lips left paralyzed in a permanent pucker, it looks like all those California hop monsters I've withstood over the years have conditioned my taste buds so that I can actually taste the subtle flavor components of beers that once upon a time tasted like chewing on an old bicycle tire.

The best beer bar in the South Bay is ironically called Wine Affairs, and they put on beer tasting events once a month. This month, it was an IPA tasting event consisting of no fewer than ten different examples of the IPA style, and with my wife Linda being a closet hop head, it seemed like I could talk her into going with me and putting off doing the laundry another day. Thankfully, she took me up on it.

My usual "brilliant" comments on an IPA typically consist of "this tastes pretty bitter" or "it's rather hoppy" but once you begin to taste them in series, even I could start tasting the differences. We started out with Meantime IPA ("fruity and citrus like, biscuity malt") progressing to Deschutes Hop Henge ("sweet, piney and grapefruity"), Ballast Point Sculpin ("light body, strong floral bitterness"), and then Duvel Triple Hop ("aromatic, coriander flavors with grassy and herbal hops") before my taste buds gave out after about the sixth beer, and all I could say "Yeah, that's bitter all right". Linda, on the other hand, had no problem getting through the whole flight.

Maybe I should ramp up my training by sucking on hop pellets to keep up with her.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Session #47: Sharp Knives, Boiling Liquids, and a Good Beer Buzz

For this month's Session, Dave Jensen of Beer47 asks us to write about cooking with beer .

Drinking and driving is well recognized as being dangerous and illegal. Drinking and cooking isn't illegal, but maybe it ought to be. After all, the tools and techniques used in cooking to slice, dismember, shred, char, and otherwise irreversibly modify meats and vegetables are also quite effective when inadvertently applied to living human tissue. Credit dumb luck to the fact that my worst kitchen accidents occurred when I was stone cold sober.

I prefer to use booze to set the stage for the meal while preparing it, rather than using it as an actual ingredient. Tuscan cooking is greatly enhanced with a good glass of Chianti. In my book, you are not actually barbecuing unless you're holding a beer in your hand while tending the smoker. When cooking, drinking a beer that pairs well with what's on the menu helps me to focus better on what I'm preparing. Often, I partake in an additional beer or two for stronger focus. A side benefit of consuming all these beers while cooking is that once the meal is served, they help bring out the sharp, sarcastic side of my personality which in my mind, makes me a highly witty and engaging dinner conversationalist, although my friends and family would characterize this a little differently.

When I'm with my kids and cooking for the whole family, I keep a strict limit of one beer. Of the many great things about being with my kids, they force me to be more responsible. They can learn enough bad habits without my help.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Bare Foot Reflections on "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall

After thirty years of running, I've discovered plenty of people who have a hard time understanding why I find it so enjoyable. Maybe this skepticism isn't too difficult to understand, since running is basically a continuous, repetitive motion which in the short term leads to shortness of breath, muscle soreness, and makes one smell rather nasty. Maybe I should simply be more tolerant of well intentioned, curious questions I get about running that seem motivated by a barely concealed incredulousness that someone could actually enjoy it, while simultaneously trying to unlock dark, elusive running secrets. While my mind registers snide answers to the usual questions like "What electrolytic rehydration drink do you use?" ("Water"), or "What advice do you have about running gadgets?" ("Throw them away"), and "What do you do when it rains?" ("I get wet"), to the ever popular, "Don't you get bored running?" ("No, am I missing something?"), my rational side generally shapes these answers into something more diplomatic, unless I happen to be in a very bad, or very good mood.

In recently months, I found myself being asked "What do you think about barefoot running?", so it seemed time to read the book often cited as a catalyst to this recent movement, "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. And while much to my dismay, this book did not inspire any smart-ass answers to questions about barefoot running, it was a fascinating read, weaving a lot of interesting research about running as it told an intriguing story about McDougall arranging an ultramarathon super-race between an elusive Indian tribe in Mexico and quirky menagerie of American endurance athletes.

The book itself started with McDougall asking himself a simple question, "Why does my foot hurt?". The search for the answer lead him to the barren Copper Canyons of Mexico hunting for the elusive Tarahumara Indians, a tribe where members run hundreds of miles in rugged terrain and sun drenched conditions, fueled by a corn beer they brew, making them the most hard core beer runners on the planet. McDougall begins to investigate the history and secrets of the shadowy group, who display amazing feats of running endurance wearing light weight sandals, instead of modern running shoes.

McDougall finds plenty of biomechanical research to suggest modern running shoes have been a lot of the cause of running injuries, rather than the prevention. Extra cushiony shoes actually require more force to push off the ground with, forcing runners to modify their natural running gait to a more inefficient heel-toe stride, causing injuries as a result. At one point McDougall writes "running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot", and he gives plenty of space in the book for an ultramarathoner known as Barefoot Ted, who's running endurance is only exceeded by his tenacity to preach for hours on the virtues of running barefoot to anyone with the strength to listen to him. It's this part of the book that he helped spark a bit of a barefoot running revolution, where barefoot running advocates claim we can break the shackles of running injuries and big nasty shoe companies, by simply taking off our running shoes, run barefoot, and reach a certain running nirvana.

The problem I have with these barefoot running advocates is that they take some perfectly good research and drive it right off a cliff that flies in the face of some actual historical facts about barefoot runners. For example, barefoot running advocates often mention that Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Olympic Marathon while running barefoot. I find it both highly amusing and highly suspicious that barefoot running advocates conveniently don't mention Abebe Bikila came back four years later to win the 1964 Olympic Marathon wearing shoes on his feet. (In fact, Bikila decided to run the 1960 Marathon in his bare feet because the only available shoes for him didn't fit.) We often hear so much about African children running miles to and from school each day in their bare feet, and indeed, this is probably a major reason why these African children grow up to be world class runners. What we don't hear is that once these African children reach a certain level of running success, they start putting on running shoes and reach even greater heights. Now I ask you: Why do these runners, who fully appreciate the apparent advantages of running barefoot, choose to put on shoes once they have the opportunity to do so and continue to run even faster, rather than continue to run in their bare feet? Barefoot running advocates have absolutely no answer to this inconvenient question.

But McDougall makes a rather convincing case that with running shoes, less is often more. I never cease to be amazed of the performances of athletes in the 50's, 60's and 70's who ran in flimsy slipper-like shoes. And over time, I've found that the best running shoes are the stripped down models, with less overall cushioning. I considered running in lighter and thinner soled racing flats, but found they simply don't provide enough support, and my legs feel pretty beat up if I wear them for too long. Understanding that running without shoes is less than a hindrance one might think, simply taking off your shoes can expose you to more injuries, and it is interesting to note that at the end of the book, Barefoot Ted nurses sore, bandaged feet after the end of the big ultramarathon showdown, while the rest of the athletes, even those that raced in lightweight sandals, were relatively injury free. Sure, the running shoe companies would love to sell everyone their high-end shoes with overhyped and overpriced gadgets, (as if that were a shocking revelation), but the main thing to take away from "Born to Run" is that simple running shoes are the best shoes.

I also found McDougall's writing on benefits running form to be some most valuable information on running I've ever read. From the various passages on running form McDougall wrote, I've modified my running form to have a slight forward lean, with the ball of my foot landing directly below the hips, and my arms swinging either forward or backward without any wasteful side-to- side motion. Running with this form was a little awkward at first, creating the sensation of a continuous fall, with each foot plant catching me from landing smack on my face. But over time, it became natural and lead to an overall faster running pace, and less wear and tear on the body.

But perhaps the most notable chapter in the book describes research by University of Utah evolutionary biologist David Carrier and Dennis Bramble, who teamed up with Harvard evolutionary anthropologist Dan Lieberman, to discover the big evolutionary advantage early Homo sapiens had over Neanderthals because Homo sapiens were better adapted to distance running. It took South African Louis Lienberg, who spent a few years living with Kalahari Desert bushmen and joining them in hunts as they chased antelope until the tired animal collapsed from exhaustion after 3-5 hours. These hunts are a more efficient means of hunting than using crude arrows and other weapons available when both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals roamed the earth. So while Neanderthals had a number of physiological advantages over Homo sapiens, their inability to run down prey in packs is cited as a major reason why the Neanderthals eventually vanished from the face of the earth.

Which explains why the odd, modern day tribe of runners continue their strange habit. We're only human.