Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Running not to the drama, but from it

Most of the time, I need a little more drama. And running is often where I find it. Earlier this year, with my training going well, I started to press harder in my training hoping to pop a good time at the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon. Instead, I popped the bursa sac in my right hip, and watched the race instead. It was frustrating, but I have few regrets. Injuries are an unfortunate part of running, and the high and lows of running provide a certain drama often missing in the humdrum of normal life.

But lately, life has become too dramatic. Let me count the ways. A large public held company announced it will buy the company I work currently for, which last year bought my previous employer. (Are you following this? Sorry, it probably isn't wise to mention names here.) Days later, several of my co-workers were effectively laid off. Oh, they got offers to relocate hundreds of miles away to new jobs, but I don't think anyone will take the offer. While my boss assures me that my job is safe and I think he's right with my position pretty solid, its hard not to go around with my ears wide open listening for the next shoe to drop. My brother-in-law has not been so lucky and lost his job in these difficult and uncertain times.

Adding to that is that I'm involved in a child custody with my first wife. It isn't wise to discuss these things in detail on the internet, but suffice to say, I wanted more time with our kids, and she opposes that, and she is trying to move the kids significantly further away from me. We aren't agreeing about any of this, which is why we are in litigation. These things are typically ugly and complicated, and since our ten year old son has autism, that doesn't make it any easier. I've had enough of this drama.

So surprisingly, running has become a source of stability and predictability from all that. The morning routine of going out the door and getting a few miles is a source of solace from all the external stresses outside my control. My wife and I are running the Water to Wine Half-Marathon on August 14th in Healdsburg, an easy course which starts at Lake Sonoma and drops 200 feet with no major hills along the way to finish in Healdsburg, CA, home of Bear Republic Brewery. And while it's course meant for running fast, I have no ambitions to run the best time possible. Well, at least I'm trying to keep my competitive juices and impatience in check for the race which for me is no small accomplishment. A successful race for me will be just knocking out the first few miles at a very easy pace, maybe picking it up a little in the middle, finish strong, cheering my wife in, and then savoring the moment with a Bear Republic Racer 5.

We all need a little drama, and sometimes running often provides it, sometimes it shelters us from it. Funny thing about drama, it always seems to work out in the end, often in ways we don't expect.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The San Jose Giants are now my favorite baseball team

When my wife and I took our kids to the first base ball game to see the San Jose Giant's beat the Visalia Rawhide last night, I found my a new favorite baseball team. Can any baseball team in the majors or minors boast a better beer selection than San Jose Giants serve at their stadium? Seriously, you can find Sierra Nevada (Pale Ale and Summer Fest), Gordon-Biersch (Czech Pilsner and Marzen), Lagunitas IPA, Heineken, and the ever ubiquitous Budweiser and Bud Light at a stadium that seats maybe 5,000 people.

And in their own unique way, Lagunitas actually makes stadium restroom advertising a welcome sight.

My favorite baseball team used to be the Chicago Cubs. My high school years in the early 80's were spent in the Chicago area, and I learned at that young age that being a Cubs fan isn't as bad as it sounds, since the team keeps your expectations so low they cannot logically disappoint you. But somehow, the Cubs always find a way. The Cubs are always bad, but this year they're really bad, and having lived 2,000 miles away from Chicago for over eleven years now, it just time to give up the long suffering Cub fan thing. (My wife claims this long suffering Cub thing is in my blood and I'll never get rid of it. I hate to admit she's probably right.)

Before I moved to Chicago in 1980, my favorite baseball team was the Toledo Mud Hens, who played near my home town of Bowling Green, OH where I grew up in the 70's. The great Mud Hen's of the 70's like Joe Lis, Cardell Camper, and Vassie Gardner mean little to even the most knowledgeable baseball fans, but they were my heroes as a boy. Vassie Gardner even taught me how to field a ground ball in a Little League clinic. The times Dad would take me to see the Mud Hens game were were memories any kid growing up should have.

And so it was time to pass on that favor to my kids yesterday, and my wife and I took them to their first game hoping to create the same great memories for them. And I learned something. These are memories any father should have, too.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Beer of the Month: Hop Juice from Two Brothers Brewing

The Beer of the Month is Hop Juice, a Double IPA from Two Brothers Brewing I discovered on vacation taking my wife and kids to visit my parents where I grew up in Oak Park, IL, located just outside of Chicago. We also visited my brother and sister in-law in nearby Naperville. While a family trip is not an ideal time to go beer hunting, I did have a moment of male bonding with my brother-in-law at a Binny's. Binny's is a big box chain of beverage stores, the Midwestern equivalent of BevMo!. I heard a lot of good things about Two Brothers from my dad and brother-in-law, so when seeing their Double IPA through the windows of one of Binny's upright fridges, I grabbed one curious to see how it would compare to all the West Coast hop monsters back home.

Pretty damn well if you ask me. It's a blitz of fresh, intense hops flavors dominated by grapefruit peel, with a little tangerine in the mix that's well balanced by a slightly sweet malt. What really distinguishes this one was all the bright hop flavors that go done smooth, unlike a lot of hop bombs which can be rather harsh and astringent. I'd be willing to bet if you got a bunch of Pliny the Elder bottles, filled them up with this beer, capped them, and gave them out, no one would catch on. It really is that good.

Two Brother's Brewing was founded by, you guessed it, two brothers Jim and Jason Ebel who founded the brewery in 1996 following their home brewing aspirations. Located outside of Chicago in Warrenville, IL, I had a few of their other beers during the vacation, and every one of them was at least "pretty good" or better so you definitely want to check these guys out if you have a chance. The care and passion you expect from a family business really shows in their beers.

Speaking of families, my ten year old son Brandon built those Lego models of the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building in the picture. Give him a Lego model and he gets very quiet and focused following the directions to build it, a certain strength drawn from his autism. My eight year old daughter Verona is more into art, and became an expert in identifying Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture in my home town of Oak Park, where Wright designed several houses. My new wife Linda has been great for the kids, and for me. Brewing or otherwise, families are precious.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Advice to California Brewers: Get Your Beer into a California Cafe Beer Dinner

Anyone who's tasted my homebrews lately knows I have little advice to give to California Brewers, so I just have one thing to say them: Give California Cafe in Palo Alto a call. They'll further elevate your beer by creating a great dinner out of it. Last nights beer dinner featuring Drake's Brewing was yet another hit in their recent series of dinners.

I've been to other beer dinners held at California Cafe, but just haven't written much about them. I rarely write about beer from a culinary angle since I generally don't know what the hell I'm talking about. Of course, ignorance rarely stops most people from talking authoritatively about things and that's not going to stop me here either. So here's a brief recap of last night's event.

As in the usual format, California Cafe's Executive Chef Mark Pettyjohn created a four course menu with a dessert, each course pairing with one of Drake's Beers for about 35 of us that evening. Dow Tunis, Drake's Sales Manager and twenty-five year veteran of the Bay Area craft brewing scene, talked about each beer, drifting around to each table over the course of the evening to chat, answer questions and hear what we all had to say about his beers. Turns out Dale used to hang out at one of my favorite watering holes on the Peninsula, Marvin Gardens, an unassuming little shack next to the train tracks in the industrial part of Belmont that always has a nifty little tap list.

Anyway, back to the dinner. Since I saw Peter Estaniel of the BetterBeerBlog across the room furiously scribbling down notes and taking a bunch of pictures with his phone, it's a good bet a full deconstruction and in-depth analysis of the evening on his blog is imminent, so if you want to get the culinary low-down from someone who actually knows what he's talking about, check out his blog.

I'll just rave a little about the lively course of Pan Seared Alaskan Cod, pancetta and fingerling potato ragout, and a sweet corn-port sauce served with the unlikely pairing of Drake's super intense Denogginizer Double IPA.
I expected the Double IPA to totally blow away a light fish like cod. Somehow, that didn't happen. Instead, the sweetness from creamy corn-port sauce, the saltiness from the pancetta, and the hoppy bitterness from the Denogginizer all were highlighted by the mildness of the cod, creating an energetic mix where each bite tasted differently and all the different flavors found a way to get along.

The following course took a completely opposite approach. A House Cured and Smoked Pork Loin with coffee risotto and spiced cherry sauce was full of smokey, earthy flavors, and blended seamlessly with the roasty coffee flavors of Drake's Drakonic Imperial Stout. What a great warm and cozy course this turned out to be.
True to the name of California Cafe, only breweries from California are celebrated in this dinner series. Next up is 21st Amendment on August 25th. I'll see you there.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Check out this new running blog......

I discovered the running blog Science Based Running a couple weeks ago written especially for training junkies like myself. With so many sources of running advice of there, some of it I find highly dubious or driven by some hidden agenda, it's reassuring to find a source based on peer reviewed research. So I highly recommend you check it out, even if my world was turned upside down by one of their recent posts.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

My Latest Home Brew is Barely Drinkable!

There's a saying that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. I can brew pretty badly. Even worse, I malign my own kids while doing so, as my latest versions of Verona's Coffee Porter and Brandon's Brown Ale had all sorts of odd, sour tastes most likely due to some lax sanitation practices. One of the things about home brewing is that you learn that the art of brewing is not so much about romantic ideals of developing great recipes or creative use of ingredients, but mostly about just keeping the damn brewing equipment clean. And if you've ever seen my desk or closet, you know that's going to be a big challenge for me.

So I attempted to clean the bejesus out of everything to make my last brew, a simple Pale Ale, and was just hoping for something drinkable. And the good news, the sour taste the plagued the last couple batches is gone! The bad news is, the brew tasted rather muddled, and most likely some residual cleaning solution and chlorine got into the beer which likely contributed to its muddled, murky taste, which could best be described as malted ice tea. That's a small victory, if you want to even call it a victory, but I'll take it at this point.

All this effort to brew something that I might actually enjoy is creating a new found appreciation for the talents of all the great brewers out there. I began to fully appreciate the amazing accomplishments of world class distance runners after years and years of hard work still left me hopelessly behind runners that world class runners left hopelessly behind. Of course, finishing a race well back in the pack has its own rewards. Drinking crappy beer is pretty horrible.

Running teaches the value of persistence, so I'll just keep at it, and eventually, the hard work will pay off. Drinking your own bad beer is pretty hard work.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Session #53: Epiphany Redemption

For this Session, John Holl of Beer Briefing tells of a long, negative experience with a brewery only to find out later in life, the brewery wasn't directly at fault, and actually made some great beer. From this experience he asks us to write about a beer or brewery that in our minds, has some how earned beer redemption.

If pressed to give the time of my craft beer epiphany, I would have to say it was a Memorial Day Weekend trip to Mendocino in 2007 I took it with my girlfriend Linda. She suggested we go to Mendocino County as a compromise of sorts, since it was a good region for wine, her libation of choice, as well as craft beer, which I was starting to discover. We visited Anderson Valley Brewing in Booneville, and then North Coast Brewing up in Fort Bragg the next day, and from then on, I realized beer was not simply some beverage sold by businesses, but it its highest form was a complex concoction brewed in a multitude of styles and a natural extension of the place and people it comes from. From those days onward, the beer really mattered.

That was not the only epiphany that weekend. Linda and I had such an effortlessly enjoyable time on our first vacation that there was obviously something pretty special between us, and today we’re married.

There was yet third epiphany that trip, one I don’t have very good memories about, and it is this: Some craft breweries make bad beer. I’m afraid our visit to Ukiah Brewing that weekend was one downer of the trip, the downer part of the trip that made the rest of it seem so special.

Maybe because the brewpub seemed to try so hard, yet fail so spectacularly was what made the whole experience so memorable. The service was both friendly and forgetful, the food both creative and clunky. As for their organic beers, you could tell they had their heart in the right place, trying to make honest, earth friendly beers from simple organic ingredients, but the best ones were well below average. An organic lager tasted like it was filtered through a bale of hay. The other brews were either watery or had odd tastes, nothing like the wonderful sounding descriptions on the menu.

Since then, I haven’t seen much of Ukiah Brewing, and the place faded into an odd memory of that time, until Linda and I took a day trip to the Santa Rosa Beer Festival a month ago since we wanted to check out some of the great breweries to the north of the San Francisco Bay. As we got into the cramped and maze-like exhibit hall, who should we notice peeking out from one of the out of the way corners but Ukiah Brewing.

I suppose they have been doing something right, or they simply wouldn’t have stayed in business. And since the festival format was one of unlimited pours into our tasting glasses, Linda and I figured we’d give Ukiah another try, at least for nostalgic reasons. If the beer was like we remembered it, we could simply nod, smile, wander away, and once we were out of their eye sight, simply dump the beer into the trash someplace.

We cautiously approached their stand, and asked for the young rustic looking blonde serve for a taste of something called Navarro Yellow, and of course, she just had to ask, “Have you heard of Ukiah Brewing?”

We carefully told her that we had been Ukiah Brewing before, without going into the awkward details, and we started asking questions about her since there wasn’t anyone else in line, hoping to change the subject. Turns out she hadn’t working at Ukiah Brewing that long long, maybe a year after moving to Ukiah from Montana, which was a bit of a relief since she couldn’t have been one of the guilty parties that night.

And then Linda and I both first tasted, if my memory is correct, a gruit of all things called Navarro Yellow. What a wonderful light, refreshing brew with some sort of floral herb in it, a great antidote for all the heavily hopped barrel aged monsters lurking around the festival. Their other sample was a their Doppel Dunkel Weizen, a great blend of roasty, chocolate flavors and banana esters. At least that the way I remembered them, since scribbling down tasting notes would just spoil the moment. Perhaps we are giving them too much benefit of the doubt, but we honestly thought those were two of the best beers of the festival.

Finally, I just had to ask, “Have you gotten new brewer recently?”

“Why yes, we have. He started four months ago and he’s a lot better than our last one.” With that, Linda and I felt comfortable to spill the whole story about the time we went to Ukiah and thought the beers were pretty bad. And as you might expect, she had already heard different variations on our story several times. I should add that our friend from Ukiah (neither Linda or I remember her name) told us the new Ukiah brew master is named Mitch Parent, and either Ukiah Brewing hasn't put his name up on the website, or something else is going on.

At any rate, we chatted for a few minutes long after we finished our beers, and told her as we finally left that we looked forward to visiting the brewpub again. And we actually meant it.

And so for this Session, I ask you to raise a glass to Ukiah Brewing, who has earned some badly needed and well deserved redemption.