Thursday, May 26, 2011

We All Need a Crew to Run With

There's something about living the romantic ideal of the lonely distance runner that wears thin after a while. Yes, there's a certain feeling of accomplishment waking up in the wee hours of the morning to grind out a few miles all by yourself before going to work each day. But over time, toiling in obscurity day after day gets monotonous and boring, no matter how hard you try to shake things up.

Back in my high school and college days on the track and cross-country teams, there was a whole bunch of people to run with. Running together and pushing each other to greater heights was a big part of what made running on a team great. After my school days were over, there would be times I'd join up with a group of runners on regular basis, usually meeting on the track or on the trails for some pretty hard work-outs. These small training groups were pretty fragile. What kept them together was everyone was at roughly the same ability and dedication level. Inevitably when there'd be injuries, changes in jobs or family life, or some would decide to back off of running for while, a few months later we'd all start going our separate ways and the workouts would fall apart.

But during those brief fleeting moments, some pretty strong bonds were forged between us silently as pushed each other on the track, with little more than a breathless "Nice job" when the workout was over before we'd to jump back into our cars and drive off to rejoin for the real world. As much as I miss those days, getting up really early in the morning to bash out a bunch of intervals on the track or storm up a bunch of hills on the trails no longer sounds all the inviting. Strangely, a morning spent with my wife and kids eating pancakes and sausage for breakfast sounds a lot better. But the day I stop running is the day I die, so I still keep at it, going it alone most mornings.

But now, I've found a good crew to run with, having recently joined the Palo Alto Run Club. It's a little more casual than the harder core training groups I've run with, and we meet during the evenings, which I appreciate since having my alarm clock waking me up 5:15 am to go running is not something I'm going to miss. But lest you think these guys are soft, I've met some of the nicest, friendliest guys who can grind me into a pulp on the roads. Of course, before and after hitting the roads, we talk about races and runs, not to mention other random subjects that come up when a bunch of people get together. Running with others helps push you to great heights you couldn't reach running by yourself. Running all by yourself with no one else around will eventually drive you insane.

One of the things I enjoy about running is in a race, you're on an island fighting the masses to the finish line, only relying on yourself to get the job done. Of course, this is why a lot of people hate running. But thankfully, we don't live on islands alone in this world. There are others to pick us up when we need it, to share experiences, and even exchange in odd inane banter that is part of being human. Which is why we all need a crew to run with. I'm thankful I've found one.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Session 51.5: It's An Aged Wisconsin Cheddar Battle Royale

For this special Session, Jay Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin fame has asked us to try the beer and cheese pairings selections from the great Session beer and cheese pair-off and pick a winner.

Now it gets intense. After giving it their best shot, some great beers have fallen by the wayside. Only the surviving champions remain to fight this epic battle. A lifetime of drinking beer and eating cheese has prepared me for this very moment, so stand back because I'm about to announce the Ramblings of a Beer Runner Session Beer and Cheese Pairing Intergalactic Champions!

Well, sort of. I cannot possibly buy all the beers selected in the Session's first rounds. Even if I could find and purchase all the beer listed for all three cheeses, my wife Linda and I didn't think it was a wise career move to call in sick two weeks straight working our way through all the cheese pairings, and then gleefully posting the results on the Internet for everyone, including our bosses, to see. We tried to pair up with some of our friends to help us out with the final decision, but unfortunately our schedules didn't match so well, and those plans fell through. So Linda and I soldiered on, focusing on the aged cheddar cheese pairings, since we thought these were the most intriguing variety of beers selected by Session participants. So with our leftover slab of 3-Year Aged Wisconsin Cheddar cheese, and yes, I know this isn't the "official" Aged Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese for The Session, we picked three beers selected by other bloggers to rumble with the beer we picked in The Session's first round. After an evening drinking beer and eating cheese, we picked our winner . So without further ado, here is the line-up for The Aged Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese Battle Royale.

The Combatants

Speakeasy Brewing's Payback Porter
The tall, dark, mysterious stranger hiding in the shadows was Jay Brooks's pick. Would his shady underworld connections strike fear in the hearts of his opponents, giving him the edge?

Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA
This precocious IPA from the rustic bucolic wine town of Paso Robles, CA was the choice of Sean at Beer Search Party. Union Jack might play well in the sticks, but how would this country boy do when it got to the big city?

Paulaner Hefeweizen
The Thirsty Pilgram declared this beer a cheese slut. Could she overcome her much stronger flavored competitors through crafty seduction and allure to take victory back to the beer fatherland of Munich?

Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
Our champion we picked in the first round, fresh off its victory over a furious Bear Republic Racer 5. This big bad strong brew from the East Coast was primed and ready for fresh blood to take the title!

Let's get ready to rumble!

The first thing Linda and I noticed is that Paulaner Hefeweizen goes with cheese the way a wheat cracker goes with cheese. Sure it works, but it just isn't all that exciting. Its banana fruit esters likely blend well with many cheeses, but they weren't working all that well with the cheddar. Linda and I appreciated the pairing, but found it a bit underwhelming. As this point, I am tempted to try and write a clever and witty sentence combining the words "my wife and I" and "cheese slut" but common sense tells me this isn't a good idea. So instead I'll just declare Paulaner Hefeweizen will have to shack up somewhere else!

Next up was Speakeasy's Payback Porter. Porter is one of my favorite styles, and Payback Porter is one of my favorite porters, so I was quite curious how it would pair with cheddar. One sip of all those intense, roasty coffee flavors reminded me why I like this beer so much. Problem was, all those great strong flavors overwhelmed the cheese, and clashed with its tanginess. As much as we appreciated the great beer, the pairing just didn't work for us. Payback Porter gets whacked!

So it came down to Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and Firestone Walker's Union Jack. Two muscular IPA's going mano a mano in a hop fueled death match! We liked both pairings and it was really close, with both of going back and forth about which one we preferred. In the end, it was the sweet malty goodness of the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA that was its undoing. The pairing seemed a little heavy, the cheese feeling a little flabby in the mouth. On the other hand, the bright, intensely floral hops of the Union Jack coupled with its light malt character really blended well certain elements of the cheese, but each maintained its own unique character. Each seemed to do its own riff on a common flavor theme like an experienced jazz duo. Union Jack takes the title!

We learned a lot from this little exercise. The little nuances and characters of each beer is really enhanced when paired with cheese, and we often chose a beer over one we normally like better, the lesser beer creating a better flavor experience when mingling with the cheese in our mouths. For all the IPA's we tried, the flavor profile of the hops made a huge difference on how the beer paired, and sometimes, the flavors clashed badly. I wouldn't be surprised to find a slightly different tasting cheese resulting in a completely different set of pairing results.

But most important, we learned that when it comes to beer and cheese pairings in the relaxed and open spirited beer community, where culinary elitism is rare, just have fun with it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Beer of the Month: Tilted Smile by Uinta Brewing

Haven't we had enough Imperial somethings? The thought certainly crossed my mind as I stood there in a liquor store, looking at a bottle of Uinta Brewing Tilted Smile standing there in the upright cooler, which advertises itself as an Imperial Pilsner. I'm trying to figure out what an Imperial Pilsner would taste like. Budweiser on steroids? That doesn't sound so good.

But I was intrigued enough to try it. Uinta was a brewery I was familiar from a few trips to its home state of Utah, and their Belgian Ale was a slick, nifty brew. I tried garlic ice cream once, never to do it again, but thankful I can tell the tale of the day I tasted it. Maybe trying an Imperial Pilsner would be the same experience.

To my pleasant surprise it was actually a great, unique change of pace beer. It's got a slight heftiness from the malt, with light peach or grape flavors, that's well balanced by savory, sage-like herbal hops. It tastes like white wine that's been dry-hopped, even though that veers into garlic ice cream territory.

Tilted Smile, which checks in a 9% abv, is part of Uinta's Crooked Line series of stronger, experimental beers. It's a bit of a business risk for Uinta, as this Utah brewery can only sell these beers in its home state through the highly regulated Utah State Liquor Stores.

I like breweries that take risks. Just as long as they don't make a Garlic Imperial Pilsner.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Session #51: Stumbling Through the Session Beer and Cheese Pair-Off

For this month's Session, Jay Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin fame has asked us to find our best beer pairings for three different cheeses in the great Session beer and cheese pair-off.

Asking my opinion about beer and cheese pairings is like asking a blind man about sculpture. I just don't have the senses and faculties to describe the complete artistic experience, only bits and pieces of it. Beer has never really interested me for its culinary value. Instead, it's the history, economics, geography, and sociology surrounding beer drives me to write about it, not to mention I like to drink it. But of course, plenty of people write authoritatively on stuff like history or economics despite barely understanding those subjects, so I probably shouldn't hesitate to write about beer and cheese pairings, even while hardly knowing what the hell I'm doing. And this Session seems to embody the egalitarian nature of beer, where everyone can contribute and there's none of the negative elitism that seems to surround other beverages, most notably wine. (Which I also like to drink.)

So here goes. And I've enlisted my wife Linda to help with these pairings who often provides helpful advice when my thoughts go astray. In fact, she often advises me on all sorts of subjects, whether or not I've actually asked her for help. So what I did was pick two similar beers to pair with each cheese. I read a little about what the "experts" had to say about what beers pair well with the cheeses Jay selected for the Session. Then I picked a couple beers in the recommended style, and then Linda and I spent three evenings trying each cheese with their respective beer pairings, picking the winning beer in a head to head comparison. Here's the results.

Maytag Blue: Anchor Brewing Old Foghorn vs. Lagunitas Gnarleywine

The general wisdom seemed to be that blue cheese pairs well with barleywines. So it seemed obvious to pair Maytag Blue Cheese with Anchor Brewing's Old Foghorn. After all, if there was no Maytag family, there would be no Fritz Maytag, and if there was no Fritz Maytag, Anchor Brewing would likely be out of business decades ago. And it fairly safe to say if there was no Fritz Maytag to rescue Anchor Brewing, there probably wouldn't be Lagunitas Brewing either.

I couldn't taste much of a difference between the two pairings until Linda noticed the Gnarleywine being sweeter, contrasted better with the tang of the blue cheese. Then I began to notice that the more intense tasting Lagunitas barleywine held up better to intense flavors of the Maytag Blue than the Old Foghorn, where both the beer and the cheese just tasted flatter by comparison. So I had to admit my wife had a good point. I just hope that doesn't go to her head.

The verdict: Lagunitas Gnarleywine

Three Year Old Aged Wisconsin Cheddar: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA vs. Bear Republic Racer 5

I went to at least five high end grocery stores looking for Widmer One Year Aged Wisconsin Chedder and came up empty, so finally settled for something from my neighborhood grocery store cheese section labelled "Three Year Old Aged Wisconsin Cheddar". Choosing two beers to pair with an aged Wisconsin cheddar was even a bigger challenge. It only seemed logical to pair a Wisconsin cheese with beer from Wisconsin, but it is not easy to find Wisconsin beers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since the Green Bay Packers won this year's Super Bowl, I contemplated some sort of football pairing, but really couldn't come up with anything that made sense. Then I figured since Wisconsin is in the center of the United States, it would only be logical to test how cheese from the center of the country would pair from beer on the East and West Coasts. And least logical to me.

Since a few great beer culinary minds suggested IPA's go well with cheddar cheese, I picked an IPA from each coast. While the IPA is a hoppy beer style, East Coast IPA's tend to be more balanced, with the malt contributing to the flavor and the beer having a more rounded bitterness, while IPA's brewed on the West Coast tend to be unbalanced, with less malt and more hops with intense floral and citrus flavors. And thus over time, IPA's from the East Coast and West Coast gained reputations for their distinctive styles. It's a lot like East Coast and West Coast rap music, except no brewers have gotten shot over it.

Speaking of rap, Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione is known to grab the mike and bust a few rhymes. And yes, his awkward raps on beer, which take unfunkiness to stratospheric levels are amusing when taken in extremely small doses. Thankfully, he's a lot better at brewing, and Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA is one our favorites, a great example of the East Coast style with rich, slightly sweet maltiness balancing plenty of smooth bitterness. Challenging from the West Coast is Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA, brewed with whisper of malt that's no match for all its piney, grapefruity hoppy goodness. So who wins?

We both found the sweetness of the Dogfish Head IPA contrasted well with the tang of the cheddar cheese, and while the cheese also blended well with the beer's rich, smooth character. One the other hand, the intense hop character of the Racer 5 clashed against the cheddar's tanginess, the resulting conbination not working particularly well. The East Coast and bad rap prevails!

The Verdict: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA

Cypress Grove Humbolt Fog Goat Cheese: Anderson Valley Brewing Brother David's Tripel vs. 21st Amendment Monk's Blood

I suppose Humbolt County should be known for its towering redwoods, breath taking coastal vistas, and vibrant artisan community. But mostly, it's known as a place that grows some pretty good dope. So it seemed natural to pair cheese from this region with a beer from a place also known for good dope, Mendocino County, and a beer from where a lot of dope is consumed, San Francisco. And since fruity Belgian Ales are often recommended beers to pair with goat cheese, Brother David's Tripel from Anderson Valley Brewing and 21st Amendment's Monk's Blood figured to be good choices.

At first, I found the Brother David's Tripel to be the better pairing, as its aromatic crispness really seemed to intensify with the goat cheese. But while Linda preferred the Brother David's Triple over the Monk's Blood straight up as a beer, so found the Tripel overwhelming the cheese, while the fruitier Monk's Blood matched the cheese's intensity, and created the classic fruit and cheese combination. She declared the Monk's Blood to be the better pairing. And you know, after further consideration, my wife was right. Admitting that in writing can be dangerous.

The Verdict: 21st Amendment's Monk's Blood

Even though I barely knew what I was doing, this was a lot of fun. I might even stick around for Session 51.5.