Thursday, September 26, 2013

Smoke Eaters in Santa Clara: Further evidence the good guys have more work to do

I finally got a chance to check out Smoke Eaters, which recently opened a location in Santa Clara near where I work.  Located pretty much at ground zero of Silicon Valley tech industry, it's a place seemingly designed to capture the busy tech lunch crowd as well as being strategically located near the new San Francisco 49'ers Stadium to be completed next year.

Inside, it's a pretty typical sports bar with lots of flatscreen TV's and sports memorabilia on the walls with a pretty standard menu of wings, burgers and sandwiches.  But wow, there's got to be over 20 taps running across the back wall, with great local selections like Santa Clara Valley Brewing's Peralta Porter, some hard to find Stone Brewing selections, and lot's of other good brews from places like Ballast Point and Port Brewing.
There's just one problem.  The beer menu on a chalk board over the bar has, shall I say, some rather curious mistakes.  Now I can forgive Calicraft's Oaktown Brown Ale listed under the "Stouts/Porters" column.  But Redd's Apple Ale listed as a "Sour Ale"?  Ballast Point Longfin Lager listed under the generic heading of "Ales"?   I won't bore you with 2-3 other questionable menu listings I noticed.

Should I be thrilled that yet another establishment is bringing more great beer to the masses and simply overlook these grievous errors on the beer menu?  Well, perhaps.  But to this beer geek, these laughable misclassifications on the chalk board menu were as irritating as someone dragging their fingernails across it.    Maybe it's because not too many years ago, places with a tap list as extensive as Smoke Eaters were pretty dedicated to craft beer and a big part of their mission was educating the masses to look beyond light lagers.  Now Smoke Eaters could have simply listed their beers without any mention of style, and I'd be fine with that.  But calling a mass market cider a "Sour Ale" and other glaring mistakes shows all when it comes to beer, they really don't get it despite the impressive array of tap handles.

Beer deserves more respect than being a simple gimmick to bring in the crowds.   Here, beer seems  like window dressing like the framed autographed uniform of Howie Long hanging on the wall.  Perhaps there's someone in the Smoke Eaters organization who has a vision of what a good beer bar is supposed to be, but that vision isn't being executed very well on the restaurant floor.  I spoke to the bartender about the Redd's Apple Ale listed as a "Sour Ale", and he was pretty good natured about my admittedly snarky comments, but clearly didn't know what I was talking about.  The food was good, the staff was friendly, but no one seemed to know much about beer there.

Don't worry Smoke Eaters, someday I'll be back.  But is it possible you can fix the beer menu and get the staff up to speed on what beer is all about before then?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Little Lou's BBQ: Further Evidence the Good Guys are Winning

Sitting in a comfortably worn strip mall in Campbell between a frozen yogurt shop and a hair salon is Little Lou's BBQ.  From the outside, this modest and assuming place looks like one of those places you'd enter thinking "God, I hope they at least have Sam Adam's or Anchor Steam on tap".  Enter the place and surprise, they have a tap list of about 15 beers most hard core beer geeks have tried already, but it's solid with stuff like Calicraft's Buzzerkely, Allagash Black and Ballast Point Sculpin IPA.

It wasn't always this way.  When I first moved just a block away from the place about a year ago, they had maybe 4-5 selections including the obligatory Coors Light, Budweiser and yes, Anchor Steam.  As if they knew I had just moved in, they quickly added several taps and transformed into a pretty good place for this beer geek to hang out in.   The beer seems to have energized the place as they now have live music most evenings and crowds most evenings seem larger than I remembered when I first stepped into more tired looking place a year ago.   As for the food, where else besides California would traditional barbecue peacefully coexist with Vietnamese Pho' and Vermicelli dishes on the menu?  And I'm here to tell you the barbecue sandwiches are solid.

If I had my druthers, I'd prefer Little Lou's have a couple South Bay selections from Strike, Hermitage or Santa Clara Valley Brewing on tap.  That quibbling aside, if you'd want to witness the power of good beer, join me for a pint at Little Lou's.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

One of my Favorite Workouts: The Four Mile Track Tempo Run

These runners would be even faster if they did Four Mile Track Tempo Runs.
Today I'm going to tell you about one of my favorite workouts, the Four Mile Track Tempo Run. I started doing these runs over eight years ago with a loose collection of runners that gather at the Los Gatos High School Track Saturday mornings to do this workout with Brad Armstrong, Los Gatos running coach and owner of The Athletic Performance. The workout is pretty self explanatory. You run around the 400 meter track 16 times for a four mile run at tempo pace.

Now if running 16 laps around a track sounds a little tedious, that's partly the point of doing this. I find one of the hidden advantages of this workout is developing the mental focus and discipline required to keep knocking out lap after lap while keeping on a comfortably hard tempo run pace. And what's a good tempo pace for these workouts? You can use the Fancy schmancy tables established by coach Jack Daniel's. Daniels is the revolutionary coach who popularized the tempo run concept to increase the lactate threshold pace, the running speed at which the body starts producing energy anaerobically and generating leg-deadening lactic acid as a by-product of this anaerobic energy production.

Instead of using the tables, you can just do what I do and run at "hard to talk at more than a couple sentences pace". That's right, when I'm doing this workout, I can probably say a couple quick sentences to the person running next to me, but no more than that or I'd starting going into oxygen debt. I want to go out comfortably hard so I'm not gasping for breath the whole way, but if I could carry on a conversation with the person running next to me, I'm running too slow and missing out on the full training benefit.

The last six laps should be challenging to maintain pace, but not so challenging that it feels like a race effort. At the end, you should feel as if you could run at least another 2-3 laps if you had too. It takes a while to find the right pace, and the first couple times you do this workout, you may find yourself going out too fast and really struggling to maintain pace the last few laps. That's OK, since part of the workout is finding the right pace, and it's better to maintain pace for the whole four miles going a little slower than running the first couple miles fast and then dragging the rest of the way. The key to this workout is doing all four miles at the same comfortably hard pace and still being reasonably fresh the next day so your able to do at least a moderate workout the next day with no drop-off. If a four mile tempo run leaves you too tired to do anything but a few easy miles the next day, you've done it too hard.

I'll add that you'll want to be running at least 35 miles a week consistently before doing these workouts. If you're doing a little less weekly mileage that that, feel free to cut these runs back to 3 1/2 or 3 miles. Of course, you can also do these workouts on a running trail or other course other than a 400 meter track. Personally, I like doing this workout on a track because it's easier to make sure I'm keeping an even pace and while there is a certain monotony running 16 times around in a circle, part of the workout is developing the mental tenacity to overcome this monotony.

Of course, as your fitness level improves, you'll naturally find yourself running faster. Typically, you don't want to increase your pace more than about 5 seconds a mile every couple of weeks. It can be tempting to turn these workouts into race-like efforts, but avoid this temptation. Slow and gradual improvement as you keep an even pace over four miles for each tempo run provides best results.

The best thing about this workout is that I find it is great for preparing for a wide range of distances from 10k to the full marathon.   Currently, I'm doing these tempo runs bi-weekly with a training group on the Los Gatos Track Saturday mornings in training for the Monterey Bay Half-Marathon this coming November 17th. So far, these workouts are part of a steady weekly improvement as I ramp up my training for the big day. You never really know how things will go on race day, but by then I'll have several Four Mile Track Tempo Workouts under my belt, so I like my chances.

Los Gatos High School Track where I run the Four Mile Track
Tempo Runs. Of course, there aren't a bunch of people milling about
on the Saturday mornings when I do this workout.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Answering the Burning Fall Racing Questions

No doubt you're all tossing and turning each night, unable to sleep wondering what races I'll be running this fall.  Well let me break that awesome suspense and tell you I've signed up for the Let's Go 510k, a 10k in Berkeley October 19th as a tune-up for the big "circle the calendar race", the Big Sur Half-Marathon on Monterey Bay this November 17th.  The Let's Go 510k runs around the Berkeley Marina and has a unique finish on the Golden Gate Fields Horse Race Track, the Big Sur Half-Marathon runs mostly along the Monterey Bay coastline, offering plenty of views of waves crashing into rocks in spectacular fashion.

I'm looking forward to the Let's Go 510k because I'm a big believer in a tune-up race 2-4 weeks before the big goal race.  Tune-up races serve as a reality check of how the training is really going,  and the Berkeley 10k should provide a means to establish a sensible opening pace for the Big Sur Half-Marathon.

So far, training for the Monterey Bay Half-Marathon is going well.  I'm up to about 45 miles a week, more than I was doing weekly in preparation for the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon I ran last April.   I'm still doing the Eric Orton core and form workouts and they continue to pay off in improved running efficiency and injury prevention.  I'm also doing a lot of tempo running, including the long distance tempo runs I wrote about previously to get ready.  Stay tuned, because I'll be writing about one of my favorite work-outs, the four mile track tempo run shortly.

Sure, I'll admit this is a pretty self-centered post with a very high density of self-referencing links.  But if I can't write about myself at least once in a while, what's the point of writing a blog?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Beer of the Month: Sante Adairius's Nonna's #4 Sour Brown Ale

Yes, I'm still on this Santa Cruz brewery kick.  Maybe I just have a fascination with that quirky city over the hill.  Or maybe it's because they make a lot of damn good beer down there.  Whatever the reason, our Beer of the Month hails from Sante Adairius Rustic Ales in Capitola. 

There's been enough buzz about Sainte Adairius since it was founded last year that it was getting increasingly embarrassing to admit I hadn't been there yet.  Of course, given that few breweries could live up to considerable hype over Sante Adairius, there was the fear the beer would be a let down when I finally got to taste what everyone's been raving about. 

The good news is that wasn't the case a couple weeks ago on a warm late summer afternoon when my wife and I strolled over to Sante Adairius tap room to find the place overflowing into the parking lot outside.  Everything we tried was pretty good to excellent and it's hard to pick a favorite when more than a couple of their beers made our eyes open real wide and made us exclaim "Wow!" 

But forced to choose, I'll take Nonna's #4 Sour Brown Ale.  A sour brown sounds like a bad batch of homebrew I once made, but the idea makes a lot of sense when you think about a Flander's Red Ale.  I loved the crisp, clean sourness with an underlying nuttiness to it.  It's a struggle to define how it tastes, but often great beers are the ones that aren't neatly broken down into flavor components. 

You can't go wrong with any of Sante Adairius's beers, but their 831 IPA is worth seeking out as well.  It's a balanced, dry, musty and herbaceous brew that's undeniably a tribute to the hop but it an way you've never tasted before.  And if you want to learn more about the brewery, check out this great interview from Beer Samizdat.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Is there a "Santa Cruz Brewing Style"? Observations on the Breweries of Santa Cruz County

Seabright Brewmaster Justin Chavez
The upcoming October-November issue of Adventure Sports Journal will include an article I've written on the Breweries of Santa Cruz County.  I've enjoyed many beers from "over the hill" from my home in South San Francisco Bay, and spent a recent Saturday visiting some of the county's breweries to do research for the article.  Yes, it's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.  A few thoughts and observations of this quietly thriving brewing region.

If there is a brewery that's come a long way, it's Santa Cruz Ale Works.    About five years ago when their beers first started coming out, I found them marred by a one-note bitterness, and not a particularly interesting note, either.   That's clearly not the case any more and you'd have to figure brewmaster Marc Rosenbloom would figure things out given all his GABF medals from his days at Seabright Brewing.  The brewery sticks to traditional German and English style  and the flavors in the ones I tried clearly popped.   If I had to pick a favorite, it would be their Kolsch, with a light lemon note and refreshing mineral-like finish.  Their rich and smooth Dark Knight Oatmeal Stout is a close second.  They opened a tasting room at the brewery four months ago, serving up some pretty solid sandwiches to go with the beer.  Plenty of home brewing discussion was in the air when I stopped by the taproom.

If you want to know what's going on in Santa Cruz, talk to Seabright Brewing's Jason Chavez.  The guy's been brewing since he was seventeen and has been with Seabright since 1999, a long time in the craft beer world.  He seems quite eager to share a pint and talk beer with anyone.  A genuinely engaging guy, he provided a lot of good background information for the article.  I like his Blur IPA, a very flavorful, balanced and drinkable concoction with bright citrus and light floral notes.

Sante Adairius Lives Up to the Hype I've been dying to visit Sante Adairius after seeing plenty of internet raves like this.  The secret of Sante Adairius is definitely out as their small tap room was overflowing out of the parking lot, and everything I tried ranged from pretty good to excellent.  I caught a few words with Brewmaster Tim Clifford as he was working the sizeable crowd, his last words he to me were "I hope this works out, since I don't want to do anything else".  It seems unlikely he'll have that problem.

Is there a "Santa Cruz Brewing Style"?  I happen to think a brewing style distinct to the Santa Cruz region is emerging.  All of the counties breweries, save for Uncommon Brewers, follow rather traditional styles, but freely riff on those styles.  The region's beers fall towards the "sessionable" side of the beer/alcohol spectrum, which I think is a function of the considerable outdoor oriented community.  Who wants a barleywine after a long day on the beach or cycling in the mountains?  I'd also add that the IPA's from Santa Cruz are more balanced than one finds on the West Coast.  So if I had to describe the "Santa Cruz Beer Style", it would be traditionally driven, but undeniably creative beers of the more sessionable variety with restrained usage of hops.  Given the region's strong home brewing community and support for local breweries, it's a sure bet another brewery will pop up in Santa Cruz County within another year or two and I can't wait to see what it will be like.

The crowd at Sante Adairius