Wednesday, August 31, 2011

San Diego Truth in Advertising Part 3: The Beer Company

Walking around downtown San Diego one night last week, looking for a place for, I spot a place on the corner called The Beer Company. It must have opened less than a year ago, since I didn't remember it being there last year. Intrigued, I walk in, sit down at the bar, and look at the list beer selections written on a chalk board, which consist of the usual Blond Ale/Pale Ale/IPA/Stout/Lager/Belgian Ale/ ect. tick list of styles. The interior is perfectly manicured light brown brick and mortar look, with fancy brass fixtures and an impressive looking stone bar table. I can't help notice all the young slender waitresses zipping around in tight black skirts with lacy trim.

One of the black skirts stops in front of me and asks "What'll you have?" Seeing me struggling to come to a decision, she tells me "You should get the sampler, that's what everyone gets."

I can't remember the last time I had a sampler flight at a brewpub, but it somehow makes sense and so order that. I then look around and see that nobody else is having a sampler flight.

I work through the sampler flight drinking one maddeningly competently brewed beer after another. Each beer is true to its style, and is creative and imaginative as The Beer Company's name. I silently hope one beer actually tastes bad just to break the monotony, but no such luck. Now I could see myself enjoying a pint of any of these beers, but just can't remember any of them. I order the grilled salmon, and when it arrives, it has this dill sauce on top that tastes great. Finally.

If anyone asks me about The Beer Company, I will say "They make beer."

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

San Diego Truth in Advertising Part 2: The Best Damn Beer Shop

The Best Damn Beer Shop isn’t actually a stand alone beer shop, but simply the beer section in an otherwise slightly worn, nondescript grocery store on a quiet downtown street called Super Junior Market. But then, the beer section takes up one whole third of the grocery store.

I figured on finding plenty of great examples of San Diego County’s great brewing scene I can't get in Northern California after finding this place on an internet search. What I didn’t count was finding stuff from Oregon or even New Zealand I can't find anywhere else.

How this indescribeably expansive beer selection got here seemingly defies the laws of economics and even physics. I now have some idea how the people who first stumbled upon the Grand Canyon must have felt.

Monday, August 29, 2011

San Diego Truth in Advertising Part 1: Stone Brewing's Punishment

I spent last week in San Diego at a trade show that I’ve been going to for years so by now I pretty much have the whole week's drill down. Monday is set-up day, and I fly in and help get things set-up in our booth at the exhibit hall and then go back to my hotel. Apparently, the beer gods were smiling on me when I made me hotel reservation on Priceline since of all the places that could have accepted my bid, it was at the Comfort Inn in the Gaslamp District almost directly across the street from one of the best beer bars in America, The Neighborhood, a bar full of artsy, counter culture d├ęcor including its trademark portrait of dreamily reverent of Jesus Christ about to bite into a hamburger.

I make my way to the Neighborhood in the early evening and they just starting to pour a new release from Stone Brewing called Punishment. Punishment is made with Stone's Double Bastard, their Imperial version of Arrogant Bastard which they then age in Oak Barrels, and then finally add a bunch of different chili peppers straight from owner Greg Koch’s backyard garden to it. My first reaction upon hearing how it was made was to completely avoid it, but as I quietly sipped a sweet and malty Hair of the Dog Adam, a nagging curiosity overcame my better judgment and I ordered it next.

At first sip, the beer has a wonderfully heavy, luxurious, apricot fruitiness mellowed by the smooth oak and then POW! the chili peppers kick in and overwhelm everything before slowly dissipating as the beer slides down the throat so you can repeat the same experience for the next sip.

This is not a beer you can really enjoy with food, or drink to unwind, but seems brewed merely for brewing sake. It is not a beer to be enjoyed, but to experience Stone masterfully manipulating strong flavors to simply to tease and trick you.

The next night, curiosity gets the better of me again, and I have another Punishment just to reaffirm my thoughts on this whole brewing exercise. I don’t want to have this beer a third time.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Power of Pace on a Beer Run in Sonoma Wine Country

The big question in last weekend's Water to Wine Half Marathon held in Healdsburg, CA is "Was it worth it for Alderbrook Winery?". That's because Alderbrook hosted the post-race festivities which included free wine tasting, presumably to encourage many of the runners to actually purchase some of their wine. Perhaps this is news to Alder Brook, but most half-marathon finishers are fighting dehydration, have at least one body part hurting pretty bad, and often feel like puking. This is not an ideal time to be sipping a Chardonnay and appreciating its various subtle nuances and complexities, so you have to wonder how successful this little marketing idea was.

But hey, I've got to hand it to Alder Brook for putting on a good post-race show, with some tasty rice and beans on hand and a reggae singer so cool, polished and smooth, he could probably turn a Megadeath cover into a feel-good song you could grove to. And since my wife Linda and I wanted to help a race sponsor out and we liked Alderbrook's wines, we picked up three bottles the day before the race with our race packets. (I must admit to having an alter-ego that likes a good glass of wine from time to time.)

As for the race, it started at the base of Lake Sonoma dam and wound through picturesque country roads over gently rolling hills past several vineyards and wineries before finishing at Alderbrook just outside of Healdsburg, with a net elevation drop of 100 feet. After recovering from a bout with bursitis in April that knocked me out of the Santa Cruz Half Marathon, then going through a personally stressful period in June and July that affected my training. Having completed a number of runs of 7-12 miles around 7:00-7:10 minute per mile pace that were pretty challenging, I was just hoping to break 1:30, about 6:52 per mile pace.

The correct pace for a half-marathon based on fitness level is a deceptively comfortable one, and my biggest fear going into the race was going out at "only 6:40" pace, and then staggering in the last few miles. So the day before, I drove over my local high school track, and ran a 6:48 to get a get a good feel for target pace. At one point, I ever close my eyes while running, just to focus on rhythm and cadence. Then, I also did a few 40 yard stride-outs in my bare feet, which as I found out in a recent tempo work-out helped focus to form and kept my feet feeling fresh.

And wouldn't you know on race day, every time I looked down at my watch at each mile marker, I had just knocked out the last mile in 6:45-6:50 pace. By mile four, it was a little unreal, and I wondered if the mile markers were somehow wrong. No big hills certainly helped for uniform pacing, and I slowly marched through the field through miles 2 through 7, but after passing a guy struggling up a small incline, I could see no one ahead of me. I blitzed through downhill ninth mile in 6:36, but otherwise kept ticking off each mile in 6:45-6:50 even with no one in sight to run with. But since the course always went one way or another, or gradually up or down, the course itself gave me something to focus on.

I finally saw a couple runners way ahead of me at mile 11, and was reeling them in, but not fast enough before the race ended. I crossed the finish line in 1:28:41, which is 6:46 pace. One of the best paced races in my life and also one of the best times relative to my fitness. It's not a coincidence.

But the really big news was that Linda set her PR in 2:16:49, just under 10:30 mile pace, a pace not too long ago she couldn't maintain for a 10k. Was her PR due to good pacing as well? We'll never know for sure, since she can't exactly recall her mile split times, but she remembers her early miles just under 10:30 which is right where she should be. She undeniably earned her PR for all the hard work she put in weeks before the race, and she should be proud of what she accomplished, even if she keeps saying she runs like a turtle.

And with all due respect to all the excellent wineries in the area, the only proper way to celebrate Linda's half-marathon PR was with a few good beers. So we headed on over to Healdsburg's Bear Republic Brewing.
Bear Republic is best known for their Racer 5 IPA, the classic West Coast IPA where the hops dominate with the malt mostly an after thought. But go to the brewpub, and you'll get a much different appreciation for Bear Republic, where believe or not, the malt often takes center stage.

This was certainly evident in the first beer I tried, the Peter Brown Tribute Ale, named after a former sales manager for the brewery who passed away nine years ago. It was impressively clean and smooth, brewed with molasses and brown sugar that blended seemlessly with the light coffee flavors and nuttiness of the malt. And who says Bear Republic cannot make a balanced IPA, as Linda enjoyed their Endeavor IPA, with "only" 65 IBU's which had a lovely soft, biscuit-like, and lightly fruity hop character, which Linda and I prefer over Racer 5.

Speaking of Racer 5, they serve a Black IPA version of it here, called Black Racer, where the coffee-like like bitterness of the malt melds with the bitter hops creating a very bitter, yet mellow and easy drinking experience. Finally, Linda and I split a Racer 10, a Imperial IPA version of Racer 5 for "dessert". I'm beginning to appreciate why so many West Coast style IPA's taste even better in Imperial form, as the extra malt and associated sweetness just seemed to give the hops an extra juiciness and fullness.

So remember for your next race, conservatively figure out the right pace you should run, keep the mental discipline in the early miles to keep that pace, and fight like hell at the end. The beer will taste even better.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Beer of the Month: Summer 2010 by Almanac

This review is really a sham, because I just don't have the guts to trash this beer. That's because Jesse Friedman, one of the co-founders of Almanac is such a revered figure in the Bay Area Beer Blogging world. He created the highly influential Beer & Nosh, full of gorgeous photography, clever yet economical prose, and plenty of hip culinary insight before becoming an honest to goodness professional brewer by founding Alamanac Beer with Damian Fagen. I would face likely beer blogger banishment and excommunication if I even dared whisper a bad thing about Alamanac's inaugural release, called simply Summer 2010, for the time of its inception.

It's a citra hopped, golden ale, aged for months in oak red wine barrel with four, count 'em, four varieties of Sonoma County blackberries thrown in for good measure. To me, this all sounds dangerously like too much is going on, and I expected this either to be something really good, or turn into some horribly over done monstrosity.

And so it was an awkward moment when I first tasted Summer 2010, and was rather underwhelmed by it, as all I could really taste was a lot of toasty malt and little else. But there lies the beauty of this beer, as my first sips were of it chilled, right out of the refrigerator. As it warmed, all sorts of new flavors started to emerge. First some punchy red wine flavors, then a little bit of oak, and then some very delicate notes of blackberry could be teased out of each sip as it gradually warmed. While the conventional wisdom is that beer should be brought to temperature before serving, I found it more fun drinking it this way.

So while saying bad things about this beer could be dangerous to this blog's survival, you'll just have to believe me when I tell you all the layers of subtle flavors really work together to produce something unique and intriguing. Trust me on this one.

The label suggests that this beer pairs well triple-cream cheeses, roast pork, and grilled stone fruit. I guess so. Frankly, I find beer pairing to be a black art, so I'd take their word for it. Like all beer, it also goes well with pizza.

Have they inspired me to take my homebrewing professional? Uh, no. Given my rather modest and sometimes undrinkable homebrews, I'll stick to blogging and running, and let the guys who actually know how to brew go pro. And I honestly can't wait to see what they do next. Their first act is a tough one to follow. Whether or not they can meet or exceed the high standards they've set for themselves, it seems every one's curiosity is peaked just to watch them try.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Water to Wine Half Marathon This Weekend

This weekend my wife and I venture into the wine and beer country of Sonoma County to run the Water to Wine Half-Marathon, which starts at Sonoma Lake and finishes in Healdsburg, CA, a net elevation drop of about 100 feet. I'm not in bad shape, I'm not in good shape for it, but since overtraining earlier this year in preparation for the Santa Cruz Half Marathon, my goals for this race are rather modest: Get to the starting line in decent shape, go out in a manageable pace, and leave enough to fight like hell for the last three miles.

I may be older and a lot slower than back in the day, and my goals and motivations for running and racing have changed. But one thing I've come to realize is the day I stop getting hyped for a race is the day I die.

And while I appreciate Alderbrook Winery sponsoring this race, I just don't think I'll be in the mood to sip a glass of wine after crossing the finish line. Instead there'll be a Racer 5 from Healdsburg's Bear Republic Brewing with my name on it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Almost barefoot running.....and living to tell about it

OK, so after this morning's tempo workout on my neighborhood high school track, I got this wild idea to take off my shoes and run a few 40 yard accelerations on the football field in my socks. It was an AstroTurf field, so it wasn't exactly running barefoot through the woods. But I thought it might be a good way to wind down a three miles of tempo running to help recover, and dare I say it, it really worked.

My feet felt refreshed, getting lots of cool air without running shoes getting in the way. And without shoes, I could really focus in on form and stride as I gradually increased my foot speed over the 40 yards. I did this only four times, but I felt a lot better after ending the tempo workout this way than if I just trudged home.

I've gone on the record as opposing barefoot running, and while this doesn't actually count as barefoot running, it is making me go "hhhhmmmmmmm".

Is this the beginning of a transformation into becoming a bare foot running?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cultural Destruction and Discovery on the High Desert of New Mexico

I have a word of advice for anyone planning to go running in Las Cruces, NM in late July. Head out early. Or really late. If you don’t hit the roads before 8 am, expect to be running in 90+ degree temperatures until late into the evening.

While in New Mexico visiting the in-laws, these morning runs turned out to be an ideal opportunity to get what my high school coaches call ‘climatized” for an upcoming half-marathon in Sonoma County. I don’t expect half marathon conditions to be anything like the furnaces of Las Cruces at 8 in the morning, so banging out some miles on the hot roads seems like an ideal way to be prepared on race day.

What I wasn’t ready for were all the changes long time Las Cruces establishment High Desert Brewing. I had last been to High Desert Brewing 2 ½ years earlier and back then in the back adorning the restroom entrances was the finest collection of Elvis portraits on black velvet West or East of the Mississippi. And now they were gone. It is no exaggeration to say that this loss of this critical artwork was the brewpub cultural equivalent of The Louvre being nuked. I finally got an explanation from High Desert's sympathetic dishwasher, who told me the velvet Elvis’s were removed when the walls were recently painted, and for some unexplained reason, were not returned to their places. In fact, all the walls were white and largely barren. I remember the walls and even the ceiling of the place covered with snapshots of smiling people, either on vacation or happily drinking a beer, and now these were gone with the exception of one small corner of the ceiling.

Somehow, these barren walls didn’t affect the neighborhood vibe of the place I remembered from the last time, or the high quality of the beer either. Linda and my favorite was the rich and roasty red ale which High Desert calls appropriately enough "Red Ale". We also recommend their tasty IPA and Dark Bock beer, which High Desert apparently sees no point in giving a name to either.

I’m willing to bet snapshots will start creeping along the walls, covering them in an organically ad hoc fashion again. On can only hope the Elvis paintings will be restored. Our dishwasher friend gave us one last word of advice before we walked out the door: "Give Marble Brewing a try." Since he selected a Cramps CD for the evenings background music, I carefully heeded his words, as his taste was clearly impeccable.

And try Marble Brewing we did. It turns out this brewery in nearby Albequerque makes a pretty good IPA, with its bready malt standing up to the strong, slightly fruity and grassy hop goodness which hit the spot after an afternoon cooling off in the backyard pool. Marble Brewing apparently sees no reason to give their IPA a name, either.

A day at White Sands National Monument sliding down bleach white sand dunes in snow disks and grilling burgers went even better with Marble Brewings Red Ale. It's pretty hop forward red ale, with the caramel malts coupling with a decent amount of Crystal, Cascade, and Simco hops to create a favourable and slightly astringent brew.

I have no reason why brewers in New Mexico simply call their beers "IPA" or "Red Ale" and seem to have no interest in naming their particular interpretation of each style with the goofy puns or alliterative place names favored by most breweries. But then an cooling off with an "Illegal Alien Ale" or "White Sands Wit" does seem rather out of place here. It's a beautiful, but harsh and unforgiving land and not a place to start getting cute and fancy.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Session #54: You say it's sour like it's a good thing

This month, Jon Abernathy of The Brew Site takes The Session into the surprisingly uncharted territory of sour beers.

I’ve brewed a couple sour ales. Problem is, they were not supposed to taste sour. Some unwanted bug landed into some of my recent home brews making them taste like somebody poured a bottle of vinegar into the carboy, a rather harsh reminder that successful brewing is a lot more about maintaining clinical sanitation practices than it is about creatively crafting a killer recipe. Sourness is something I try to keep out of my home brews.

Sourness also seems to have a bit of an image problem. Having sour grapes is not a good thing, and it generally not nice to tell someone to “go suck on a lemon”. We do not usually call our loved ones “vinegar” or “citric acid” and instead use words like “honey” and “sugar”. And so it must be no simple trick for brewers to harness the often unpleasant taste of sourness and turn it into something drinkable, even enjoyable, let alone convince paying customers to actually try it.

I hadn’t ventured into sour ale territory much until a few months ago when my wife and I went out with some friends to a sour ale tasting night at the Rose & Crown, a small pub shoe horned into a stone building just off the main drag in downtown Palo Alto, CA. All four of us ordered seven glasses, each of different sour ales and past them around for everyone to try. We enjoyed most of the selections, but curiously enough, each of us had a different favorite that was often the least favorite of someone else. Perhaps injecting sourness into a brew not only requires a difficult balancing act, but any brewer going to that trouble isn’t going to please everyone, no matter how skillfully done. But then, what do I know about sour ale since I generally avoid anything with the word “sour” in it.

So for this month’s Session, I decided to once again to brave the world of sour ales. The first one I tried was Ichtegam’s Grand Cru Flemish Red Ale I picked up at my local grocery store. Perhaps what drew me to this sour ale was that it came in a small bottle, so if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be pouring all that much of it down the drain. The good news is that didn’t happen, as I enjoyed the flavors of dried fruit, figs, a light malty toastiness, and only a light sourness which combined to produce an enjoyable brew. This was no flavor explosion, but a pleasant, easily quaffed beverage that would go well with any simple dinner. (Don’t ask me to get all culinary here and give you a bunch of foods to pair this with, as I would simply be making a bunch of wild guesses.)

Having survived that, it was time to move on to another one, and I courageously selected one that came in a larger bottle, Echt Kriekenbier from Belgium’s Brouwerij Verhaeghe, a Belgian ale aged in oak barrels flavored with cherries. Simply pouring this beer in the glass was worth the considerable price of the bottle, as this simple act created all sorts of great cherry aromas. As for the taste, there’s nothing really complicated about it. It’s mostly just lots of sour cherries and lots of oak, which is pretty good if you ask me. This was a great find.

So thanks to Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site and for further broadening my horizons to realize that sourness is not always a bad thing. Just as long as it doesn’t creep its way back in my home brews.