Thursday, April 24, 2014

Five Years of Rambling

Photo from Wikipedia Commons
When I started this blog five years ago, I figured one of  two things would happen.  Either I'd get sick of doing it in six months and quit, or I'd be writing about beer and running for a very long time.   There were times within that first six months I thought about quitting this thing, but as we all know, that didn't happen.   So far it's been five years and I've had a blast and will keep doing this as long as it's still fun.  If the past and present is any prediction of the future, that's going to be for a long time.

Wow, what a ride it's been so far!  It was certainly awkward starting out at first but I got a lot of great early support from Better Beer Blogger Peter Estaniel and beer writer Brian Yaeger. Since that time, this blog enabled me to talk with so many great brewers, a few book authors and meet lots of friendly runners and beer drinkers over the past five years. There's been some rough patches to be sure. Plenty of times I spent hours on a post that no one, even my mom seemed to read.  I still cringe at some of the clumsy things I wrote those first couple years.   Despite all the difficulties, the good moments far out weighed the bad.   Some of my work has even made it to the print publications Adventure Sports Journal and Edible Silicon Valley.    Getting the chance to interview my running hero Frank Shorter who emotionally unloaded about his experiences with terrorism at both at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 2013 Boston Marathon was a powerful experience I'll never forget and easily the highlight of this blog to date.

So hope you'll forgive the self indulgent post but for all you readers out there and the great people I've met along the way, thanks so much for making it all so enjoyable.  I hope to keep making it worth your while to stop at my little corner of cyberspace for years to come.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Beer of the Month: Buzzerkeley from Calicraft Brewing

There are beers that simply taste amazing. There are beers that are novel and unique. And then there are beers that cause one to re-think what beer is. Buzzerkeley is one of those rare beers that is all three.

It's the flagship beer of Calicraft, a relative newcomer to the Bay Area brewing scene, that hails from Berkeley. Brewmaster Blain Landberg started brewing in his UC-Berkeley dorm room, which almost got him kicked out of college, if the Calicraft website can be believed.  But enough about the brewmaster's youthful indiscretions, let's talk about his beer.

Buzzerkeley, a light golden ale, brewed with copious amounts of California Starthistle honey and fermented with Champagne yeast, is a study in subtlety.  There's that yeasty toastiness and tingly carbonation one finds in a good Champagne.  A light spicy and fruity character with a bit of a sour tang and floral notes from the honey complete the experience.  It's extremely dry due to the Champagne yeast, giving it a crispness and allowing all the muted flavors to shine through.

It's subtle and restrained, yet somehow, there's plenty going on.   It's not wine, but arguably isn't beer either. It's light and refreshing, yet deep and complex.  It pushes the envelope, but retains a familiarity within its uniqueness.  For every yin, there's a harmonizing yang.

I suppose that's what you might expect from something out of Berkeley.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Exploring the Mysterious Marin County Half-Marathon

There are races to run because everyone you know has run them and they become a shared and familiar experience.  Then there are races to run because no one you know runs them which become slightly mysterious explorations.  Such was the case when I signed up for the Marin County Half-Marathon, a smallish half-marathon run on the roads and trails in China Camp State Park just east of San Rafael held yesterday.  A few people I know had heard about this race, but no one knew had actually run it.  I hadn't been to China Camp State Park in nearly eight years and hadn't been on any of the trails there, so didn't know much of what to expect.
The view of San Francisco Bay from China Camp State Park
(Photo Credit Wikipedia Commons)
My fitness seemed pretty good.  A couple of 4 mile tempo runs in the last month at 5:50-5:55 per mile pace range, 7-12 seconds faster than last fall, were encouraging.  Plenty of 14 mile runs, with 15 and 16 mile runs thrown made the 13.1 mile half-marathon distances seem pretty manageable.  Coming off a 1:25:57 in last November's Monterey Half-Marathon, which corresponds to a 6:32 per mile pace, the plan was to go out in 6:25 mile pace for the  Marin County race.  Especially since the last six miles of the Marin County Half-Marathon covered moderately rugged trails through the State Park, including the dreaded "Hammer Hill" mentioned on the race website around mile 11. My wife and I drove the road part of the course the evening before to scout out the course ahead of time, but we had no idea what awaited us for the last six mile once we got off the roads and onto the trails for the second half of the race.  So I kept telling myself, take it easy, keep the pace conservative at 6:25 in order to take on what the course was going to dish out on the trails. 

Of course, when the starting horn sounded, I blew out the first mile in 5:56.  I did my best to ease off the throttle, trying to relax and take in all the great views of the San Francisco Bay off to my right.  But I didn't slow down much and came through first seven miles over rolling hills at 43:50, a little over 6:15 pace.   At this point, I'm in fifth place, maybe 45 seconds behind the first female runner.  The guys in front of me all look under 40 years old, so I figured at this point, I'm the top masters runner. That's looking good if I can hold onto that, I'm thinking.

At this point, the course changes dramatically from a rolling paved road to a trail through the woods.  I look up and the first thing I see are switch backs ascending up a hill ahead and my legs are beginning to really feel those first seven miles.  I work through the switchbacks and come through the uphill mile 8 at 7:46.  I'm hanging in there but wishing I held back a little more at the beginning.  The next mile is downhill, but rocks, ruts, and sharp turns force my gaze to the ground to find good footing.  I come through mile 9 at 6:46 and look up to see glimpses of the top female runner ahead through the trees and underbrush.  "Let's try and catch her", I say to myself.

Every time I pick up the pace and pull her in, I start going heavier into oxygen debt, can't sustain the pace, and fall back.  The hills aren't getting any easier, and the next miles are all well over 7 minute pace.  I make it to mile 10, and around 10 1/2 miles, the course starts going uphill, and I figure that's the vaunted "Hammer Hill".  I keep working up the hill for another quarter mile before the trail descends.   That wasn't so bad, and I'm thinking  "So much for Hammer Hill."

Then I get to mile 11 and there's a sign saying "Start of Hammer Hill".  Hammer Hill is a series of three or four steep switch backs leading to a more gradual upgrade that lasts for another half mile.  Not a killer hill, but at this point, I'm pretty fried.  Getting over the top, it's all down hill to the finish line along the San Francisco Bay shore at McNear's Beach.  I've got a good stride going and can see I'm reeling in the top female runner ahead of me, but it's clear I'm not going to catch her by the time she gets to the finish line.  The finish line clock says 1:26:03, but my Garmin watch says 1:26:59 and says "12.95 miles", so it looks like the course is a little short.  I maintained fifth place overall, and finished first in the male master's division.  Mission accomplished!

Enjoying an Alter Boy Belgian Pale Ale
at Marin Brewing
I tend to over analyze things, so instead of kicking myself for going out a little too fast, I'll just say this effort was clearly better than the Monterey Half-Marathon where I ran a 1:25:57 last November over a much less challenging course.  And that race was definitely better than the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon I covered in 1:28:26 in April of 2013.  So over the past year, it's clear my training is going in the right direction. 

So with the Marin County Half-Marathon in the books, it was time to enjoy some post-race beers at Marin Brewing, rest up for a few days, and start getting ready for Bay to Breakers next month.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review of Grossman's "Beyond the Pale" in Adventure Sports Journal

Back in November, I reviewed Ken Grossman's Beyond the Pale, his book about his creation of Sierra Nevada Brewing.   For the current issue of Adventure Sports Journal, I reworked it, giving it a more environmental emphasis, and you can read it here.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A couple of awesome autism events coming up

April is Autism Awareness Month and there's a couple of great looking beer related fundraisers coming up for to support those with autism.

Lagunitas Craft Beer Tasting and Beer Writer's Summit for #BeerAutismHope
This April 16th, join beer historian with autism Lance Rice, Lance's Brewery Tour and some of California's best beer writers at Lagunitas Brewing Co for an exclusive night of celebrating craft beer and #BeerAutismHope! 

Lance and Lance's Brewery Tour director Aaron Rice will be speaking withKim's Bay Brews, Jay Brooks and other notable beer writers at Lagunitas in a one-of-a-kind craft beer lover's event. The event will include and bottomless beer tasting, hors d' oeuvres and raffles for incredible #beer prizes. 

You can buy tickets at this link.

3rd Annual Ales For Autism Summer Beer Release Party
WhenSaturday, April 26 from 1:00pm-4:00pm
Where: Pyramid Alehouse, 901 Gilman Street, Berkeley, CA.
What: April is Autism Awareness Month and Pyramid is releasing several new brews so we are throwing a party to fundraise and celebrate. One hundred percent of the event ticket sales benefit Ales for Autism, a local North Bay organization supporting autism research.

·         Tickets are $20 in advance and include: Five beers for unlimited tasting during the event, food pairings by our chef, live music from the Smokin’ J’s, a photobooth & more.  You can buy tickets here.
·         Beers being released: Curve Ball Blonde Ale, Pyramid Wheaten Ale, Oregon Honey Beer, Imperial Mac’s Amber Ale, H7 Imperial IPA, and India Pale Lager. *
·         Sample food pairings: *
Sesame crusted ahi tuna, avocado, sprouts, scallion oil paired with Curve Ball

Spinach and goat cheese frittata paired with Wheaten Ale

Bananas Flambe paired with Oregon Honey Beer

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Checking out Pyramid Brewing's new release IPL and a chat with their head brewer Ryan Pappe

It's no secret craft brewers enjoy playing around with hops and hoppy beers are some the most coveted brews around.  This has led to an effective arms race between brewers, pushing  bitterness levels to extreme heights with massive hop additions to their IPAs, resulting in plenty of hop bombs full of hop flavors and bitterness, with plenty of the malt and associated alcohol required balance all those hops.  Plenty of those brews were amazingly flavorful creations, but more than a few were about as tasty as chewing on an old bicycle tire.  I enjoy a good IPA or Double IPA, but when just looking for a flavorful pint or two to quaff, these heavy, hop and alcohol monsters aren't always a good option.

Thankfully, plenty of breweries these days are doing creative things with hops without engaging on a full frontal assault of beer drinkers' palates.  Pyramid Brewing's IPL, just released by Pyramid, is a good example.  IPL stands for India Pale Lager, a riff on the popular India Pale Ale style.   An IPL uses lager yeast instead of ale yeast, resulting in a less cluttered brew, since lager yeasts produce crisper flavors during fermentation that ale yeasts, which produce more complex flavor esters.   Pyramid contacted me asking if I'd like to sample the beer and also offered the chance to speak with Pyramid Head Brewer Ryan Pappe about this new release.  This seemed like a good opportunity to try another hop innovation and talk with the brewer behind it, so I took Pyramid up on their offer.

The beer itself was quite enjoyable.  It's got a crisp, clean bitterness with a slight floral, citrus and some earthy character that matches nicely with the toasted malts.  Dry hopping with Amarillo, Sterling, and Centennial creates all sorts of pleasant hop aromas.    At 60 ibu's, there's plenty of hop punch in this drinkable brew.   Those who like their hops without all the alcohol buzz will appreciate the 6.0% abv, lower than most India Pale Ales.

After enjoying a few of these, I spoke with Ryan Pappe about his latest creation and what brewers are doing with hops these days.
Pyramid Head Brewer Ryan Pappe with IPL  (Photo courtesy of Pyramid Brewing)

Q:  How did you end up releasing IPL?

A: It evolved after playing around in the brewery.  On the spur of the moment, we decided to add a strain of lager yeast to a portion of wort we set aside.  All the brewers really enjoyed the beer.  Once we knew this experiment tasted good, it eventually evolved into IPL.

Q: Describe the process in coming up with the recipe.

A: It started first as an experimental release.   To brew it all year around, we had to make some changes.   We use our standard lager yeast strain we always have available.  Our team tried the early batches, gave us their feedback and we tweaked the hops and bitterness levels based on what they said to get a beer everyone was happy with.

Q: What’s the difference between an India Pale Lager and a hoppy lager?

A: I don’t know, honestly.  Brewers are brewing more and more hoppy beers and part of the impetus behind this trend is that hoppier beers are more likely to sell and brewers are always pushing the envelope and trying to find something that highlights the hops.  Hops are a new area for brewers to play in.  A hoppy lager is traditionally more of a pilsner.  India Pale Lager suggests more of a Northwestern United States direction with citrusy hops.

Q: Sam Adams released Double Agent IPL.  Lagunitas had a lot of success with Day Time IPA.  Firestone Walker released the hoppy Pivo Pilsner last summer which was a big seller for them.  I realize you’re a brewer and not always involved in all business decisions but how much of the release of IPL was driven by the success of beers like these?

A: I don’t know how breweries think and make their decisions.  We don’t look at what other breweries are coming out with.   There are so many different breweries and some of them will explore in the the same direction.  If enough breweries seem to head in the same direction, it looks like a trend.

I Googled “India Pale Lager” 2 ½ years ago and a bunch of beers came up so I know we weren’t the first to come up with this by any means.  Trends in some ways are more of a coincidence then everyone moving in the same direction.   As brewers, we don’t want to just copy each other and there’s plenty of variety in what we do.

Q:  What’s been the most surprising reaction to IPL so far?

A: Unfortunately as a brewer, I’m one of the last to hear that stuff.  Sometimes I’ll go on RateBeer and see what people say about it.  From what I see it's been pretty well received.  Some people will say it’s a nice, easy drinking lager.  Then the next person says that since it’s an India Pale Lager, they were expecting a lot more hops and were disappointed.  I’m happy a lot of people thought it was a well-made beer.  I’m optimistic it will stick around for at least another year and if it does, that would be a pretty good success.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: There are a lot of hoppy beers coming out because brewers are trying to find new ways to make hoppy beers.  Brewers get together a lot and bounce ideas off each other and play off each other’s ideas.  That’s the cool thing about it.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Strike Brewery Pitches Local Beer in San Jose" in Edible Silicon Valley

Strike CEO Jenny Lewis and Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich in an empty
corner that not too long from now will be their brewery
As the local Silicon Valley foodie culture sits up and takes notice of the small yet thriving craft beer scene in the South Bay, hopefully I've given them a little push with an article I wrote for Edible Silicon Valley on Strike Brewing's pending brewery opening.  The full version is in the print version as well as a digital version on the Edible Silicon Valley website, and a abbreviated can be found here.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Session #86: Is it just about beer?

When I began getting seriously drawn into craft beer six or seven years ago, I naturally began reading a lot about it.  The late beer writer Bill Brand was my favorite beer writer, drawing me into this world with his warm, engaging articles on various breweries and beers, sprinkling in stories about the people, economics and political side of the industry. While I recall reading other interesting beer writers during that time, I also remember finding a lot of beer writing disappointing.

Plenty of articles were written in a heavy, plodding style that made high school textbooks seem like page turning novels.   Some writers clearly knew a lot of esoteric stuff about beer but didn't have the foggiest understanding of how businesses actually work or what the typical beer drinker cares about, resulting in maddeningly naive articles on the craft beer industry. A few writers came across as loud angry drunks who were no fun to share a pint with. There were way too many simple minded "craft beer good, mass market lager evil" articles that failed to capture the real fascination of the craft beer revolution, other than to say "Budweiser sucks".  And if I have to read another "Beer is for Sharing" article reducing beer's awesome social lubrication powers down to this tired schmaltzy cliche', I'm going to strangle somebody.

 Bill Brand shortly before being hit by a
street car that ultimately ended his life.
 (Photo by Jesse Friedman )
I actually thought I could write about beer a lot better than a fair amount of the stuff I was reading, which was one of my motivations to start this blog nearly five years ago.  If there was anything I learned over those five years, it's that writing is a lot harder than it looks.  A lot of hard work goes into doing the research, working out the phasing, wording and composition to write even an average article on beer.  So when Heather Vandenengle asks for this month's Session, "What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer?  Are we advocates, critics, or story tellers?" I found myself thinking hard about the question.

For starters, I'm all in favor of deep philosophical analysis and intense intellectual discussion about anything, but let's not too carried away.   We're talking about beer here.  Not politics, economics, health, science, or technology that affect our lives far more deeply.  Bad governments, poor economic times, inadequate health care, and scientific illiteracy are serious problems with catastrophic consequences.  We've had several decades of bad beer and got through it all right.

Beer is worth writing about because business, economics, science, culture and most importantly people all have a connection to that liquid in the glass.  The best beer journalism seeks to describe these connections, whether that be in the form of advocation, criticism or story telling.  I've found this is often difficult to do myself, but it makes writing about beer most relevant.

As for examples of people I think get it right, I found Tom Acitelli's book "The Audacity of Hops" provided a much needed historical perspective on the craft brewing revolution.  I'm a big fan of Stan Hieronymus's blog  "Appellation Beer" as well as Jeff Alworth's "Beervana".  I've also enjoyed  Brian Yeager's enthusiasm for all things and places beer.  I appreciate Jay Brook's tireless efforts chronicling beer's history, as well as his ability to make the San Francisco Bay Area craft beer community he knows so well completely accessible to the general public in his newspaper columns.   Can a great brewer also be a great beer writer?  I don't know how much outside help Ken Grossman had writing his book "Beyond the Pale" but I've found no better source on the history and business of craft beer, as well as what it really takes to build a great brewery.

There are plenty of other writers beyond the world of beer I have long enjoyed and which I hope in some way have inspired my writing on these pages.  These include non-fiction writers Nate SilverJames GleickCarl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell who tell fascinating stories emerging from the data.   I've always been impressed how pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman finds the insights of our culture from its trivial details while being riotously funny at the same time.   When Tony Bourndain isn't causing me to cringe with his aging hipster act, I enjoy his blunt, gritty commentary on food from all over the world, whether five star Michelin restaurants in Europe or some noodle shack on a river bank in Vietnam. Novelist Russell Banks has dazzled me with this flowing, complex descriptive sentences and I've always appreciated the deep, brooding conflicts within Cormac McCarthy's novels as well as the way he creates drama by what is said, as well as what is left unsaid. Growing up in Chicago, I always appreciated the smart, snarky, and sometimes coarse writing of Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko and film critic Roger Ebert. Interestingly enough, Mike Royko was an unlikely early advocate of craft beer.

Reading and learning about things unrelated to beer has helped me be a better writer about beer. If there's one thing I'd like to change about the current state of beer journalism, it would be a better awareness of the world beyond beer.  Beer in itself is a pretty limited topic.  What beer brings to the world is what makes it really worth writing about.