Monday, December 21, 2015

Happy Holidays!

It's that time of year again. Time to spend time with the family rather than staring intently at the computer screen, furiously typing away. So I'll be checking out of this blog for a couple weeks before starting up again at the beginning of the year.

But before I go, allow me a brief reflection on the Rambling year that was. I'm glad to say I think my writing took a noticeable step forward while I posted less often than before. Intentionally striving for quality over quantity, I think it paid off with a greater depth of posts in 2015. It's always interesting talking to brewers and others that make the beer industry the vibrant hub of activity it is today, and thankfully I got to talk to plenty of those people and tell their stories here.  And hopefully, I bored you less with posts on my running than usual.

For 2016, I'm just shooting to do that again and then some. So thanks stopping by and reading and I look forward to rambling on again next year.

Wishing you all the best for the Holidays and New Year!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Reviews of two beer and food books: "Craft Beer Bites" by Jacquelyn Dodd and "Beer, Food and Flavor" by Schuyler Schultz

And now friends, it's time to share my thoughts on a couple of beer and food books by two leading innovators of putting beer and food together, Jacquelyn Dodd and Schuyler Shultz.

"The Craft Beer Bites Cookbook" by Jacquelyn Dodd is a follow-up to her highly successful first effort "The Craft Beer Cook Book", which I  highly recommended a couple years ago. Here, the emphasis is on using beer as an ingredient to enhance the flavor of appetizers, dips and other small bites. In her accessible and conversational writing style, Dodd lays out a wide range of recipes which all include beer. While they seemed easy enough to follow, there was a bit of a devil in the details.

For example, the "Belgian Ale-Marinated Grill Steak Crostini with IPA Chimichurri" recipe calls for marinating flank steak in a mixture of Worcestershire sauce and Belgian ale. Hmmmm.....what Belgian ale to use?  I mean, what constitutes a "Belgian ale" is awfully wide open. In the "Choosing the Right Brew!" sidebar accompanying the dish, Dodd recommends using "a sweet Belgian ale" so the malt caramelizes on the grill.  That really doesn't narrow down the expansive Belgian ale category much, but I ended up using Allegash Dubbel and lucky me, the marinade imparted an excellent flavor to the steak. The lively IPA Chimichurri sauce worked fantastically with the flavorful marinated meat, the results being spectacular.

A few days later, I made the "Parsley White Bean Beer Cheese Dip" for some friends who invited our family over to watch a football game. Could I make the dip the night before and serve it for the game the next day without the flavors going bad?  Unfortunately, there's no mention about how long the recipes keep for, good information many other cook books include. The recipe called for one can of Great Northern White Beans.  Should I drain the beans, or dump the whole can in? The recipe didn't say what to do here either. I decided to drain half the liquid from the beans and the resulting dip was a little watery.  Adding some extra Parmesan and cream cheese fixed that. (Note to self, drain the beans next time.) The resulting bean dip was excellent, the IPA adding a nice bitter counter point to the fresh parsley and bean flavors.

I could probably pick a few more nits with the recipes, but that would be missing the point. I've made several of Dodd's recipes from both of her books, and the worst ones turned out pretty good.  Many were simply excellent. Next time youre invited to a party, bring something made from Craft Beer Bites and chances are pretty high you'll be a hero for the evening.

Then there is "Beer, Food and Flavor" by San Diego chef Shuyler Schultz. As you might expect from the title, much of the book is devoted to beer and food pairings. I must confess to find most beer and food pairing discussions either hopelessly clinical or so technical only a hard core foodie can understand it, both approaches taking all the fun out of the whole deal. As far as I'm concerned, all beer pairs with pizza, and a good beer with any meal makes it better.  When early in the book, Schultz declares, "The nature of beer is adaptable enough so that you're likely to come across only a few truly disastrous pairings. Most often a pairing of random food A and random food B will yield an adequate, enjoyable experience," I realized Schultz was my kind of guy.

Schultz does his best to make his treatment of beer and food pairing accessible and fun. Most of the time he pulls it off.  Examples from various beer tasting menus he's prepared are used to good effect. Schultz has travelled all over the country meeting brewers and tasting beers and it shows on the pages. You feel the presence of a true culinary expert happily sharing his vast experience in an unintimidating fashion.  Still, he sometimes can't help using sentences like,"Deeper analysis reveals notes of yuzu, pine needles, and eucalyptus leaf" as he does in describing Pliny the Elder.

Is this book a beer and food pairing guide, an introduction to craft beer to the culinary inclined, or a guide for restaurateurs to develop their own beer paring menus? It's all of this and more with the dense, somewhat unfocused nature of the book coming across as a great big data dump.  But it's a data dump from the mind of someone who's spent his career thinking deeply on how beer affects our perceptions of food and has worked with some of the greatest brewers in the country.  More importantly, there's a genuine love for craft beer and all that it stands for which creates a lightness that overcomes the heavily worded pages. The road Shultz takes us on in an interesting trip worth exploring.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Rambling Reviews 12.7.2015 : Anchor Barrel Ale, Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat, and New Belgium/Ben and Jerry's Salted Caramel Brownie Ale

It's that time again! More ramblings about some new and unique beers I've imbibed lately for your reading pleasure.

First up, Anchor Brewing's Barrel Ale, a new release that's part of Anchor's Argonaut Series. In a press release, Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter described how they made it. "We took four well-loved Anchor beers and aged them separately in our used Old Potrero® Whiskey barrels. The beers don¹t undergo fermentation, though, so the aging process focuses on picking up flavors and aromas from the barrels. Next we blended the aged beers in a cellar tank with charred barrel staves for a secondary fermentation, allowing the beer to naturally carbonate, pick up characteristics from the staves, and let the flavors marry."  

What's impressive here is that it's very balanced despite all the strong flavors of charred oak, whiskey, some vanilla, dark caramel and toffee. Nothing dominates, the flavors melding effortlessly to create one nice harmonious brew. It's one of those beers where new flavors reveal themselves as you slowly sip through it. I also totally appreciate a dark, complex sipping beer that isn't an alcohol bomb at 7.5% abv. Just a delight to drink.

And then there was Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat. Shock Top is a Anheuser-Busch brand that's fascinated me for some time. Shock Top offered me a sample of this special release, and I jumped at the chance. It's drinkable...but I didn't find it particular convincing as a pretzel inspired beer. It's not bad, but Twisted Pretzel Wheat suffers from a disconnect between its created expectations and what it actually delivers. It pours a reddish brown, without bready or toasty flavors one would expect from the color.  There's an artificial butter flavor that threatens to overwhelm the brew. And where's the salt? I found the lack of any discernible salt took away from the pretzel experience. I can see how Shock Top fans would find this to be a delightful twist on the Shock Top line. For me, it was an interesting experiment, unoffensive enough to drink, but the flavors really never came together to create something very enjoyable, never really succeeding in what it set out to do.

Another beer attempting replicate something else is the collaboration brew between New Belgium and Ben and Jerry's, Salted Caramel Brownie Brown Ale. True the progressive politics of the collaborators, proceeds from the sales of this beer go to Protect our Winters, a group devoted to fighting climate change. It's got something in common with Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat in that I wasn't getting any salt here either, although I suppose they put some in there. There's some nice caramel and dark chocolate flavors, but thankfully those flavors don't feel heavy and there's very little sweetness. It's a humble brown ale jazzed up a little to be caramel brownie-like, creating a decadent drinkability. Well done.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Session #106: Anchor Brewing's Mark Carpenter Talks about the Transformation of the Anchor Christmas Beer

This month's Session on Holiday Beers got me thinking about the early holiday beers in the United States. While plenty of pre-prohibition holiday ales existed in the United States, the first modern holiday beer is widely credited to Anchor Brewing's Christmas Ale, released in 1975. This beer was based heavily on Anchor's Liberty Ale, a hop-monster by 1970's standards that bears little resemblance to Anchor's Christmas Ale today. Arguably the next significant holiday beer release was Sierra Nevada's Celebration, an IPA Sierra Nevada still brews to this day.

Given the first two major modern holiday beer releases in the United State were IPA's, why aren't most American holiday beers hop-forward IPAs?  Why are dark, roasty, malt-dominated spiced ales largely dominate America's holiday beer landscape? And how did the iconic Anchor Christmas Ale transform from a ground breaking hop monster to the rich, roasty, spiced ale that in many ways has defined the modern version of this tradition?

Seeking answers to these questions, I recently spoke with Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter, who's been brewing at Anchor at 1973 about the transformation of Anchor's Christmas Ale from a minor variation of the hoppy Libery Ale to it's current form today.

Recalling Anchor's initial Christmas beer in 1975, Mark explained, "Fritz (Maytag) though it would be fun to brew a Christmas beer. We're thinking, we're a tiny brewery, so we'll brew 400-500 cases, mostly for gifts. We were just trying something and see how it would work out."

Anchor Brewing's Mark Carpenter 
Then in 1983, things changed.  "We finally had enough ale brewing capacity to brew Liberty Ale all year around," explained Carpenter. (Anchor's flagship Steam Beer is cold fermented.) So with Liberty Ale added to the line-up, Anchor decided to brew something different for the holidays. "We asked ourselves what our Christmas beer would be," explained Carpenter. "We had all traveled to England to research breweries, so a few of us wanted to brew a brown ale since we really liked the brown ales we had there. So we brewed a brown ale for the Christmas Ale, and modified it each year for three years."

Then came that fateful Christmas of 1987 when Anchor's Christmas Ale transformed into what we recognize it today.  "That year, we decided to do a Wassail, a traditionally spiced beer for the holidays. Traditionally, the spices are added to the beer either at people's homes or in the pubs, but we added to the beer as it was brewed. I thought we'd do that for maybe a year or two."

Of course, that's not what happened.  "Once you start putting spices in beer, it opens up a whole new world and we never went back. We could do all kinds of things. Everyone had all kinds of ideas and it really gave us a lot of opportunities to do a lot of spiced ales." As it does to this day, Anchor changes up the spice mix and recipe for each year's Christmas Ale.

I asked Mark if he was surprised that many craft breweries holiday beers resemble the dark roasted spiced ales that Anchor's Christmas Ale became rather than the IPA's of Anchor's Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada's Celebration which initially started the trend.  Laughing, he answered "It doesn't surprise me, and I don't mean to sound arrogant, but so many breweries just copied what we were doing."

Whether you believe Carpenter that Anchor's Christmas Ale of 1987 was widely copied, it's worth noting that two other influential Holiday Beers, Deschutes's Jubelale and Full Sail's Wassail, were first released within a couple years of the ground breaking 1987 Anchor version, and both are dark roasted spiced ales similar to Anchor's. So it seems fair to say that the transformation of Anchor's Christmas Beer through the 1980's still strongly reverberates today in craft breweries releases all over the United States.

Mark Carpenter wanted to include one final comment.  "Fritz always insisted having "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" on the labels. It shortens the selling time and our distributors wanted us to change it for that reason, but I think it's a great tradition.  The new owners of Anchor insist on this as well."

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Finally checking out Fieldwork Brewing

Having enjoyed the two brews from Berkeley's Fieldwork Brewing I could get my hands on in the South Bay over the past year, I decided it was high time to check out the place one Sunday afternoon with no particular place to go. Fieldwork is one of those neighborhood hang-outs you wish was in your own neighborhood. The place has no TV's so conservation fills the air. Despite being pretty crowded, it was surprisingly easy to find a seat to do some reading and work through a taster flight.

Wow. What more to say about the Fieldwork beer I sampled? They're innovative, but in a effortlessly innovative "why wasn't everyone doing this before" kind of way, rather than a forced, contrived effort where you can practically hear the brewer screaming in the background "LOOK HOW FREAKIN' INNOVATIVE I AM!" The "Citraweisse" was a study of Asian style balance, the light ale's sour yin balancing a nuanced Citra-hopped bitter yang. The "Sour Diesel" was mighty sour with a citrus and dank hop undertones, if one cared to notice this subtle action playing out under the sour dominance.  I tried an IPA called Sea Farmer made with sea salt and grapefruit. Reading the description, I figured I'd either love it or hate it. The briny grapefruit melding with the underlying hop flavors created an absolutely wonderful, flavorful tropical brew. I also thoroughly enjoyed my sample of Coconut Milk Double IPA, the coconut flavors just poking through the fruity hoppy flavors to create another excellent tropical-esque brew.

Sorry, no highly detailed tasting notes, as if you were expecting some detailed culinary breakdown from your truly, who recently described a coffee milk stout as "tastes like coffee and milk poured into a stout."  I was just whiling away the afternoon, reading a few pages out of my book and losing myself in a few excellent brews. I'll say this about Fieldwork, all six beers I sampled displayed a tremendous command of the ingredients and the brewing process. Take six random beers from some of the greatest breweries I highly respect and there's liable to be some slight off-note somewhere, or some place where the flavors just don't quite come together. It happens, even to the best of them. Not a thing seemed out of place with anything I tried at Fieldwork.

I'll add that Fieldwork strives for flavor in their IPA's instead of the usual alpha-acid assault so many brewers resort to. While I'm all for a hoppy punch in the mouth now and then, all the Fieldwork IPA's I tried showed an impressive flavor range achieved with hops that would impress the most jaded hop-geek, while being totally accessible to those who normally reach for something like BlueMoon. The brews really are that uniquely universal.

I'll be back.

(Some obligatory brewery photos follow.)

Monday, November 30, 2015

Dan Gordon talks about his new cider venture WILDCIDE

Craft beer is hot. Lately, cider has been even hotter. The Beer Institute reported US cider production more than tripled between 2011 and 2013, from 9.4 to 32 million gallons. In 2014, Nielsen reported off-premise cider sales grew by 71% in 2014. While cider sales among the nation's largest brands have slowed in 2015, cider has firmly established itself in our nation's beverage landscape with many new cideries both large and small getting into the action.

So perhaps it's no surprise the Gordon Biersch stepped into the cider area with their newly released WILDCIDE. Of course, most people aren't all that interested about a brewery diversifying its beverage portfolio, they just want something good to drink.

On that score, I found WILDCIDE successful. It's quite refreshingly dry, full of crisp apple flavors with a pleasant residual tartness. WILDCIDE takes fresh pressed juice of four different apples: Fuji, Granny Smith, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious.  Fuji and Golden Apples create aroma and sweetness, while Red Delicious apples create body.  Granny Smith apples provide the tart tang at the finish.

So exactly how did WILDCIDE come about and what else can we expect from Gordon Biersch's cider venture? I asked Dan Gordon, Gordon Biersch's Co-founder and Brewmaster about the genesis and his future plans for WILDCIDE in an e-mail. Here's what he had to say.

BR: Why did you decide to start producing cider?

DG: I made the decision when the laws changed a couple years ago allowing me to get a winery license. Also, after reading the back labels of the major producers and seeing there wasn’t a 100% all-natural hard cider I could find made from fresh pressed juice without additives.

BR:Take us through the process to blend the different apples to get the flavor you were looking for. How many test batches did it take?

GD:The most important element was using fresh pressed apple juice. That was the key to capturing the aromatic qualities of the apple. By using fresh pressed juice, we were able to achieve a very aromatic flavor profile and fruitiness while keeping it dry with a crisp body. Many of the large producers are using concentrate and nearly everyone uses sulfates. We don’t use either.  

The blend of apples was designed to have the right amount of fermentable sugars, acidity and aroma.It wasn’t rocket science. The magic comes in how we control the fermentation rate and dialing in the residual sugar to 1.15%. That’s the challenge. Selecting the apple formulation was the easiest part.  

BR: What's the biggest challenge in brewing a consistent high quality cider?  

DG: It is all about controlled fermentation to get it consistent. It is a different approach than beer but equally satisfying.  
BR: Cider doesn't exactly meet the Reinheitsgebot. Is brewing WILDCIDE a departure from your German traditional brewing roots?

DG: To the contrary, I think we’re applying the spirit of the Reinheitsgebot philospohy to cider. We use one ingredient: just fresh pressed apple juice. Making a great cider as pure as possible is exactly what the Reinheitsgebot is to brewing.  

BR: Did brewing something like WILDCIDE involve a lot of soul searching or was it more a "let's go for it" thing?

DG: No soul searching was necessary. We needed to broaden our horizons and it has been a blast. I really am a fan of our hard cider and have it on tap at home.

BR: Do you have plans for other cider versions (pear?) or other projects in the works you can talk about?  

DG: We will be doing some flavored ciders but not really flavors you would expect. The philosophy is to make it delicious and not try to make statement with esoteric flavors.  

BR: Anything further you'd like to add?

DG: I am drinking one as I answer all of these questions.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

21st Amendment helps build a San Leandro neighborhood....the story in Edible East Bay

It's the story of how 21st Amendment's new brewery in San Leandro, CA is revitalizing a tired, industrial neighborhood. I've written a lot of things I've been proud of, but this article ranks of one of the highest because this story is about how beer truly matters.  You can read it on the Edible East Bay website here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Rambling Reviews 11.17.2015: Sierra Nevada's Hop Harvest #3, Lucky Buddha, and Half Moon Bay's Calf-eine

One again, it's time to ramble on various beers I've had lately.

First up, none other than the 3rd batch of Sierra Nevada's Hop Harvest Series made with newly developed hops. In fact, they're so new, they're only known by the numbers 472, 05256, 431, and 06300. Hopefully someone will give these hops some sexy names, as they coalesce to create unique pear-like flavors, with some melon and pine for good measure. It's a wonderfully soft tasting IPA, which like others in this series, redefine what can be accomplished with hops.

This next review presents a serious challenge to maintaining my beer karma. It's Lucky Buddha, a beer from China (*) sold in cool looking green bottles shaped like the laughing Buddha. Only recently could you find this beer in the United States. The nice Lucky Buddha PR person offered me a sample for review and I said "yes". Without going into a long story, this remarkable persistent and determined PR person finally got a six-pack of Lucky Buddha delivered after weeks of effort and when anyone works that hard to get me some free beer, it would seriously damage my beer karma to say anything bad about the beer she represents.

But of course dear reader, it's also bad beer karma to going around saying great things about a beer just because someone gave me a free six-pack, hence the dilemma. Now it's a pretty safe bet the small segment of beer geekdom that reads this blog is probably not breathlessly awaiting the next lager from China sold in green bottles. And no, my expectations were not the greatest either. However, both my wife and I liked Lucky Buddha on it's own terms. Sneer all you want at the rice adjuncts, they gave the beer a clear freshness in between the initial light striked skunkiness and a slightly muddled grassy hop note at the finish. It's not one of those "nothing" lagers totally devoid of flavors, there's actually something going on in this brew. It's an easy drinking beer if I say so myself and works well with Asian food. OK, beer karma remains intact.

Finally, when it comes to beer karma, you can't go wrong drinking a beer that combats human trafficking. It's Calf-iene from Half Moon Bay Brewing, sales of which supports Not For Sale a charity fighting human trafficking. Calf-iene is a coffee, milk stout, that tastes like coffee and milk in a stout. Yes, that's the brilliant culinary commentary you've come to know and love from this blog. Seriously, the flavors really come together nicely, with a light sweetness and low level of carbonation. It's a little grainy going down with just a faint whisper of hops that stays out of the way of those wonderful roasty, creamy flavors. Packs a lot of flavors for just 6.3% abv. Just a really nifty sipping beer.

(*) OK, Lucky Buddha is actually brewed in Australia.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Scenes from last Saturday's Bacon and Beer Classic in San Jose's Municipal Stadium

Who's afraid of a little bacon? The Bacon and Beer Classic was a pretty fun festival this past March, and made an encore appearance at San Jose's Municipal Stadium. Like most festivals, the concept is rather simple. You roam around the stadium with a taster cup sampling beer and eating various things cooked with bacon in them, or in some cases, bacon all by itself. It's a great way to discover local eateries as well as some new breweries and the second edition had an even greater array of food and brews than the previous version.

A couple places pouring at the festival popped up on my radar screen. If you haven't heard of the San Francisco Mead Company or Oakland's Federation Brewing yet, you probably want to check them out. The San Francisco Mead Company had a some sweet apple cyser (that's fermented honey and apple juice) which when mixed with their dry mead, resulted in a wonderfully floral and complex sipper.  Federation Brewing's Brown IPA sounded little like a tired gimmick, but it's really more of a traditional British Bitter, with wonderfully soft, rounded hop flavors that made for an excellent brew. Federation's Chocolate Stout with noticeable vanilla additions was also a pretty strong effort.

I'll leave you with some photos of the evening.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why are tap rooms popping up in Bay Area Whole Foods Markets?

The Tap Room at the Blossom Hill Whole Foods
Why is Whole Foods Market putting craft beer tap rooms at selected Bay Area locations?

A grocery store isn't exactly the first place that comes to mind for grabbing a pint or two. Especially since no other area grocery stores are opening up tap rooms. With the grand opening of the tap room at  the Blossom Hill Whole Foods in San Jose last October 30th, I stopped by to get a pint and talk with Nate Kaufman, the Marketing and Communications lead for Whole Foods in the South Bay to check the new place out and find out why Whole Foods is getting into the tap room game.

"The tap room part of a larger effort to foster a spirit of education," he explained.  "Whole Foods is known as a place to find the best quality food and a place to learn. The tap room creates a relaxing time where people can talk about beer in a laid back atmosphere."  Nate further explained that Whole Foods wants to create community hubs within their stores featuring local breweries and wineries. "Of course, we'll feature larger regional and even national breweries doing really cool things," he adds.

In addition to beer and wine, the tap room currently serves sushi platters and edamame. A full food menu including made-to-order burgers starts in 2016.

The Tap Room's Beer Specialist Brien
(Whole Foods photo)
It's part of an overall plan at Whole Foods to create tap rooms where ever possible and the local alcohol regulations allow. Last year, Whole Foods opened up the Mission Creek Brewery at their location on The Alameda in San Jose. Since Whole Foods is in the business of selling beer, the tap rooms provide obvious marketing opportunities. "The tap room gives local partners an opportunity to introduce themselves. Our shoppers are inclined to try new things and this place is where they can try new things in a place that isn’t intimidating."

I'll have to agree with that last part. As I sat at the bar, quietly sipping a lovely Almanac Citra Sour Ale, the couple next to me asked the bar tender for something "like Stella Artois". He fielded their inquiry far more patiently than I ever could. The tap list that evening had something for everyone, whether those looking for something eclectic, or those just looking to expand their horizons past Stella Artois

While we can all applaud the mission to create community hubs, let's not forget Whole Foods is a publicly traded company. While I believe hard core capitalism can peacefully coexist with grass roots community development, Whole Foods isn't opening up tap rooms out of the goodness of their hearts, but ultimately to strengthen their bottom line. It's an open question whether a large corporation like Whole Food can create authentic local meeting places, or even if people want grocery stores to be those meeting places, but give them credit for trying to pull it off.

As for me, I'm glad there's one more craft beer option in the South Bay. If big corporations are using locally brewed beer to bring people together, even if is to strengthen their bottom line, it's further proof the good guys are winning

Tap Room at Blossom Hill Whole Foods Vital Statistics

Address: 1146 Blossom Hill Road, San Jose, CA 95118
Regular Hours: 11a-10p daily
Happy Hour: M-F 4-6 p.m., $1 off all draft beers and wines on tap
Seats: 100+ total, with 60-70 on the outdoor patio
Things to do: The venue will be outfitted with Shuffleboard and Cornhole
Food: Artisan cheese and charcuterie, sushi, hot pretzels, gourmet mac and cheese. A full food menu including made to order burgers arrives in January.
Drink: Eight beer taps, two cask ales, and two wines on tap. 90% local beers including brews from Faction (Alameda) and Lagunitas (Petaluma), as well as limited edition craft brews from folks like Fort Point Beer Company (SF) and Santa Clara Valley Brewing (San Jose). Local wines represented as well.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Milestone Pod : Some good running data to be had from this little gizmo

It just sits there laced into my shoe, dormant and barely noticeable, until a few rapid shocks spring it into action. It's the Milestone Pod, one of these new wearable fitness gadgets the Milestone folks asked me to try out for review. You don't need to do a thing to get a good running data from it. That's exactly the way Milestone CEO Jason Kaplan wants it, who says "We're trying to create an experience for runners while doing nothing." It retails for about 25 bucks and doesn't require the hassle of carrying a smart phone around on your run, making it one of the better running gadget values out there.

Milestone Pod App Interface
Here's how the pod works. You simply lace it into your shoes, and the pod starts counting any small shocks as foot strikes and when it counts 100 or more foot strikes a minute for six minutes, it figures I've started my run and captures those last six minutes of accelerometer data. If my running cadence drops below 100, the pod thinks I must stuck at a traffic light, taking a quick drink, or otherwise stopped running for a spell and doesn't include that data into the run. Once my cadence falls below 100 strikes a minute for six minutes, the pod considers the run over.

Once all that run data is captured, I upload it wirelessly to my phone using the Milestone Pod app which crunches the numbers and displays various metrics related to running speed and form. The app displays running form metrics including cadence, stride length, how long my foot is in contact with the ground (stance time), rate of impact, and leg swing as a function of running pace. It also calculates the overall distance covered in the run.

I've found these results most useful as a reality check on recovery/maintenance runs as well as long runs. The pod tells me a lot about these slower paced runs like how fast I actually went and what my form was like. If I feel ragged the day after a hard workout, the pod usually picks that up by measuring longer stance time and reduced leg swing. There's a "Runficiency" metric the biomechanical engineers at Milestone cooked up to determine an overall level of running efficiency that seems to do a good job in telling me when I'm having a good day form wise, or when I need to be working on lifting my knee a little higher.
Towards the end of this run, my stance time went
down and my paced quickened

Having an all knowing pod on my foot has caused me to be more conscious about form, and have found myself thinking "Reduce that stance time"  or "Keep your knees up" during a run rather than simply thinking "Run faster".  Wouldn't you know, once I get home and download the data, I invariably find that when these form modifications results in running faster with little or no perceptible change in effort. Success!

The pod also generates good results for track workouts or tempo runs where my pace reaches or exceeds race pace, which for me is in the 6:00-7:00 per mile range. Of course for this kind of fast running, you really need real time feedback from a watch, so the pod is more of an additional, "after the fact" tool to see how the workout went. One thing I noticed on these workouts was the pod always calculated a shorter distance than I actually covered at these faster paces. A test with a couple runs at 6:10 / mile pace and 7:00 / mile pace on a track confirmed this.  While the pod's distance calculations when I ran at 8:00 / mile or slower pace were pretty accurate, at 7:00 / mile pace the pod calculates a distance about 8%  shorter than I actually ran, and at 6:10 / mile pace, it under counts distance by 15%.

I shared these results with Milestone Pod CEO Jason Kaplan, who acknowledged this could be a limitation of the pod.  As he explains, "Out of the box, the Milestone Pod is more accurate at moderate to lower speeds than high speeds. We offer calibration which makes the Pod accurate for runners at any speed. However, because we calculate distance based on footstrike and gait characteristics, if your form changes as you increase of decrease speed, then we may lose some accuracy. For some, the Pod will remain accurate at any speed if their gait characteristics remain relatively stable even thought their speed changes."

It should be noted my gait is not typical as I run almost exclusively on my toes. At any rate, this wasn't a deal breaker for me even though many important workouts are run at varying speeds, which the pod won't measure completely accurately, no matter how I calibrate it. Thus, it will require more interpretation of the data as I look over the graphs to see how my form was during these workouts.

As running gadgets go, I'm a lot like the Amish. I adapt pretty slowly to the latest running technology. Having run for 35 years, running success is mostly about hard work and effort, and you're not going to get that from any gadget. However, the right tools provide the information to expend that hard work in the right direction. I'm training for the Napa Valley Marathon this coming March and the Milestone Pod will undeniably help me get to the finish line.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Session #105 : First Foray into Cider Double Feature

Kudos to Mark Ciocco, not only for his efforts at reviving The Session but coming up with a great topic, Double Feature, where the basic idea is to compare and contrast two consecutively consumed beers. Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for crystal ball gazing, thinking deeply on esoteric beer concepts, or waxing philosophical on beer culture. But I love his Session topic harks back to an earlier, simpler time of The Session, where the idea was let's all drink a beer and talk about it. Maybe too many topics only a hard core beer geek could possibly care about, let alone write about, was a big part of why The Session was almost no more.

OK, back to today's topic. Indeed, tasting two beers consecutively reveals the minute details otherwise lost on the brain through the fog of time. As a homebrewer, seeing how my brews measure up to the best examples the professional brewing world is both a great way to learn and often a deeply humbling experience.

Mark calls himself "a big tent guy" so I'll put that to the test for this session with a post about cider rather than beer. I've had a had a few ciders here and there, some I've enjoyed, others not so much. Ciders remain hot, growing in popularity to the point where it's time for me to figure out what all the fuss is about. I'll be exploring this new world over the next couple months and exploration is a big part of what craft beer is all about. I suppose that is a bit of tenuous connection to this month's topic, but hope you'll all work with me here.

San Jose's Gordon Biersch Brewing, sent me a couple bottles of their new cider line Wildcide to sample which seemed like a good place to start. I figured Gordon Biersch would be putting out a good product, but thought it would be good to compare Wildcide to Samuel Smith's Organic Cider, which won a few awards over its time.

I tried the Wildcide first, hoping it wouldn't taste like carbonated apple juice. It didn't. I liked that it was rather dry, giving the apple flavors crispness and had a nice residual tartness. Then I tried to the Samuel Smith's.  Compared to Wildcide, it was a little sweeter, a little more complex, heavier, and also had a slight tartness at the end. I found both refreshing and pleasantly sessionable. And yes, it's doubtful I'd have picked up the slightly noticeable, but significant differences without sampling these ciders consecutively. As for which one I preferred, I'd be fine with either of them, but I liked the dryness of the Wildcide, so that's my pick.

One thing learned from this exercise is that ciders are a study in subtleties, without the booming hop and roasted malt flavors you get with beer. But perhaps more importantly for the long term health of blogging, simply drinking a beer, cider, or whatever and telling the world from our own corners of cyberspace may be pretty simplistic, but still has its rewards.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Descent into Madness? Entering the 2016 Napa Valley Marathon

"You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can't know what's coming."

 - Frank Shorter
Start of the 2015 Napa Valley Marathon
(photo from Napa Valley Marathon Facebook page)

It's been over 20 years since my last marathon. Now, jumping back into the marathon waters, I've registered for the 2016 Napa Valley Marathon on March 6th.

Those marathons I ran over twenty years are fleeting memories, so what's in store for me in the Napa Marathon is a bit of a mystery. I remember after my last marathon telling my girlfriend, "If I ever think about running a marathon again, talk me out of it". That woman is now my ex-wife and needless to say, she's no longer around to talk me out of it. Indeed, if I told her I was contemplating an act well known for causing insufferable pain, her immediate response would be "Go for it!".

I have vague recollections of the 1994 Boston Marathon. I trained for it through a particularly harsh Ohio winter, badly overestimated my fitness, went out too fast and crashed well before Heartbreak Hill. Gasping at the finish line in exhausted delirium, barely gripping an open can of grape juice hanging upside down from my limp arm, I was too disoriented to even notice the steady stream of purple juice pouring out the can down my leg. It took a full two months to recover.

I remember even less of the 1995 Columbus Marathon. It is the only race of  the hundreds I've entered in my life I didn't finish. Coming through mile 23 having a particularly bad race, I was tired but certainly had enough left to finish. At that point, I was only a block from the finish line, the course looping back out a final three miles before the end. I didn't feel like fighting those last three miles. So I stopped, walked over to the finish area, picked up my sweats bag and went home. I'll take few regrets to my deathbed, but that is one of them. Running is about finding a ways to overcome barriers, developing personal growth through the struggle, so quitting that race just because I didn't feel like doing it anymore goes completely against what running is all about.

You might say the marathon and I have some unfinished business. The was a time where I envisioned myself a full time marathoner back when I was in my twenties. My first two marathons were in fact, fun and encouraging. But I also discovered the human body was not really meant to run 26.2 miles, and the after struggling through the marathons at Boston in 1994 and Columbus in 1995, I was done with marathons.

Still, thoughts of one day returning to the marathon never died. I've always regretted never fully embraced or enjoying the Boston Marathon experience, and for decades, I've had thoughts of coming back to Boston, maybe when I get to be in my 50's, to run it again and just enjoy the experience of being part of the historic race.

Well, I'm 48. If that dream's going to happen, it's about time to start getting busy. After a few half-marathons over the past years, I'v gotten antsy to scratch that marathon itch. Maybe I'll find the marathon was just never right for me, and the dream will be like a lot of dreams, nice to think about, but something particularly problematic to actually do. But it's worth noting back in the day I was young, overly ambitious, physically strong but mentally weak in certain ways and perhaps just couldn't handle the whole gravity of a marathon. Back then, almost every race lead to disappointment from over estimation of my abilities fueled by definition of self-worth dictated by finishing time and place. Today both older and wiser, I go into races with more realistic expectations, enjoying the competition and the whole running experience, grateful to be still at it after all these years. Maybe a more mature mind piloting my body through all 26.2 miles will make all the difference.

As I begin to embark on four months of training focused for one morning in March, there is certainly the risk hope and optimism will end up being eclipsed by the inevitable tedium and discomfort inseparable from that training. Of course, life has a way of getting in the way of running for good reasons. If there's one thing I've learned in 35 years of running, how you take the journey is more important than whether or not you take the goal. Success will be sweet, but never assured, and it's going to require a lot time running alone in the pitch black of early winter mornings and plenty of days spent dragging around tired legs. Is willingly entering into such a strange bargain madness? Perhaps. But that's what runners do.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Cashing out at the Folsom Blues Breakout Half-Marathon

No, I didn't have a breakout performance at the Folsom Blues Breakout Half-Marathon. It was more like early parole.

As you might guess, this race starts near Folsom Prison on the Johnny Cash Bridge. After a couple downhill miles, it winds along the American River bike trail and finishes in historic down Folsom. Any race featuring the music of Johnny Cash with a finisher's medal that doubles as a bottle opener is my kind of race.

I had mixed thoughts going into it, as my preparation was a little cobbled together around a fair amount of personal and professional travel and a bit of lingering fatigue that I chalked up to over training to compensate for missed time. Or maybe it was just old age. The plan was to shoot for 6:40 mile pace through 10 miles and assuming I got to the 10 mile mark at that speed, I figured one of the following would happen:

a) I'd feel great and blitz the last 3.1 miles
b) I'd hang on and hold pace to the end
c) I'd fall apart and crawl to the finish

The first couple down hill miles did indeed feel easy at 6:25-6:30 pace. By the time I got to mile 4, back around 6:40 mile pace as the course flattened, my legs felt OK, but started dropping subtle hints the last few miles were not going to be fun.

At mile five, a couple young whippersnappers caught up to me. One sported winged tattoos on his legs and sleek looking sunglasses perched on his closely cropped blond hair while the other guy had long, wavy black hair tied back and was huffing and puffing like a steam train. I didn't think anyone sounding like a steam train at mile 5 was going to last very long in a half-marathon race, so I moved ahead him, got right behind the guy with the sunglasses and held on. I was right, and didn't see the huffing and puffing steam train guy much after that. I just kept looking squarely at the back of the other guy's red singlet for the next few miles that I covered in the 6:30-6:40 range. 

So I hung on and used him as a wind blocker for the moderately strong breeze blowing off the American River under an overcast sky. Sometimes he'd pull away, but I'd reel him back in. I thought he'd finally lost me on the windy uphill portion just before the bridge to cross the river at mile 7, but worked myself back within striking distance on the next down hill mile. At this point, I had this idea about catching up to him so I could turn to say to him "I'm not that old".  Such ideas were not to be as he started pulling away. Yes, I did get to mile 10 slightly under 6:40 mile pace and while I didn't have crawl to the finish line, it took plenty of scratching and clawing to get there in 1:27:57, at an overall 6:42 mile pace. So I guess you could say after getting to mile 10 just under a 6:40 mile clip, I accomplished (b) and still clung to the pace. Well, sort of.

Special mention mention goes to my wife Linda, who endured a hip injury training for the half-marathon. Battling through it she recovered to enough run 5k run instead of the half-marathon and ended up winning her age group in the 5! She worked hard through some pain and really deserved it. Yay Linda!

The post-race beers at Folsom's Lockdown Brewing tasted particularly sweet.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Santa Clara Valley Brewing in Edible Silicon Valley

Tom Clark (left) and Steve Donohue (right) of Santa Clara Valley Brewing
It's a short piece, but now Silicon Valley foodies have been introduced to Santa Clara Valley Brewing in Edible Silicon Valley magazine. Both Santa Clara Valley Brewing's Tom Clark and Steve Donohue were fun and engaging to work with for the article.  You can read the online version here.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Rambling Reviews 10.12.2015 : Mammoth Brewing Wild Sierra Farmhouse Saison, Ninkasi Noir Milk Stout, and Cucapa Runaway IPA

Time once again to review some of the more intriguing brews which crossed my path.

First up, Wild Sierra Farmhouse Saison from Mammoth Brewing Company.  Our family's fall annual camping trip to Yosemite is not complete with picking up a few Mammoth brews at the Yosemite Valley store, since in and around Yosemite National Park is the only place you can find Mammoth's beers. In this one, the fruity esters with plenty of apricot character blend well with the moderately toasty malt. Mammoth Brewing adds local pine needles to the brew, literally injecting the piney breezes of Yosemite into the mix, creating a clean freshness in the brew to bring it all together. Be forewarned, packs a bit of a punch for the style at 7.5% abv, yet I found it wondrously stimulating and refreshing sipping this on my front porch.

For our next beer, we turn to the dark side. It's Ninkasi's Noir Milk Stout with Coffee, part of Ninkasi's Special Release series which the brewery sent over for a sample. Upon first sip, I detected the usual rich, creamy, and roasty characteristics of this style. But as the beer warmed and the flavors opened up, dark under currents began to emerge. Buried deep beneath the strong dark chocolate and coffee flavors, came the faint sounds of hops, scratching and clawing to break free. This is no easy sipper, it's a compelling conflict in a glass as the characters struggle for flavor dominance in the darkness. An arresting experience.

Finally, beer karma compels me to write some nice things about Cucapa Cerveza since they apparently sent me some of their beers to sample. I say "apparently" because one day coming home from work, I find this big box on my porch and inside are 20 bottles of their different beers. No one wrote me from the brewery ahead of time asking me to try a sample, nor was there any letter in the box. For the most part, I enjoyed all the different beers from this Mexican brewery, which all had their own soft earthy quality to them. Of the bunch, I found their Runaway IPA highly exotic in its unabashed malt-forwardness. You can tell it's an IPA with its noticeable floral, earthy bitterness poking through the slightly sweet malt background.  Maybe that's just the way they do IPA's south of the border, but I really appreciated how they resisted the temptation to smack you in the face with a bunch of hops like only 27 zillion other IPA's do. Refreshing in both its restraint and soft edges, while it's not mind blowing, this IPA's may well force you rethink the possibilities of the style.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Session #104: It's not you, it's me. Well maybe it's you.

I struggle to find the words, Session, but maybe this thing just isn't working out anymore. I mean, when I met you, it was great. Some many wonderful conversations, so many new experiences. And yes, trying new things and just goofing around with you was fun, and at times, wonderfully intense. But these days, it feels like work. We don't seem to know what to do any more. It seems forced, like you always want to talk about some deep complex subject or do something wildly experimental, like you need to top last month's topic. Can't we have a quiet night and just review some beer? I know, it's not all that original, but hey, I still find that fun even if you don't.

You know, people change and sometimes you don't seem so interested. I mean, this thing seems old fashioned, the way people Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook these days. We used to plan so many things in advance and you were so full ideas about what to do. Now you never tell me what you want to do until almost the last minute. I mean, it seems forced. If you aren't really into this, maybe it's time to, you know, end things?

Yeah, I have to admit, there's evenings where I rather curl up with a good book or go out with some of my friends, but if it's that first Friday of the month, I put my best foot forward to make it work. I've started meeting other writing projects, just being friends of course, and have been totally open with you about this, and I really appreciate your understanding about giving me some space. I've really tried not to miss our special Fridays.  But yes, I've started missing our day here and there, so you're right, I'm not always there for you.

You know we had a wonderful run. I met so many great people through you and had so many good times. You really challenged me, forced me to think differently, made me a better person in your odd way. Those memories will last forever.  OK, that's corny, but I'm trying to put this in the best light. How's this: Nothing truly lasts forever, but things that endure for a long time are really special. Well, that's kinda corny too.  Forgive me for using cliche's, I just can't find the right words.  Even though things don't look good between us, for a while, it really meant something.  That made it all worth doing.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Rambling Reviews 9.28.2015: Three Wild Wheat Beers

For this latest edition of Rambling Reviews, we delve into the unexpectedly wild world of wheat beers. And like the best wheat beers, the reviews are simple and direct.  Let's get right to it.

First up, "Fierce" from Chicago's Off Color Brewing, a Berliner Weisse.  It's cracker crisp, with a zippy, light lemony sour tang. They use the old "lactobacillus in the kettle overnight" trick for the sour part, but don't let the "Fierce" name fool you, it's really not THAT sour. Tastes like a Lemonade Radler, except they don't use any lemonade. "Fierce" packs a simplicity punch and I enjoyed sipping a few of these on my front porch.

Next up, Blue Moon Cinnamon Horchata Ale. That's right, Blue Moon Cinnamon Horchata. After passing this beer sitting in the beer cooler at my local Safeway day after day, always wondering "Exactly how does that taste?" I finally broke down and picked up a six-pack to satisfy this itching curiosity. It tastes like a wheat beer with a little sweetness, a little cinnamon, with some lightness that might come from the long grain rice its brewed with. Yes, I kind of liked it. My wife's reaction to this was a far less charitable. "Bleech!" OK, cross Blue Moon Cinnamon Horchata off my bucket list.

Last, but certainly not least, it's Pizza Orgasmica's 4 Grain Hefeweizen. I'm in San Rafael a lot since I have close family there, so we often head on over to Pizza Orgasmica in downtown San Rafael. I've grown fond of this Hefeweizer of theirs, which probably sends old world German brewmasters spinning in their graves. Brewed with barley, wheat, oats and rye, it's grainy, with a thick mouthfeel and lots of underlying clove-like, spicy aromatics, missing the traditional style in a good way. Weird enough to be wonderful and oddly refreshing.
Pizza Orgasmica's one and only 4 Grain Hefeweizen

Friday, September 25, 2015

Road Trip to Bend: Final Thoughts

You'll find this arresting sculpture along Bend's Deschutes River Walk
In Bend, beer truly is everywhere. With at least fifteen breweries crammed within, Bend seems like some sort of economic experiment to determine just how many breweries a town of about 80,000 people can actually support. Starbucks competes for with quiet reading spots with beer bars. You can get your growler filled at a gas station. One wonders just how much more locally brewed beer Bend can soak up.

Standing in line at the seafood counter at a Bend grocery store to get clams and mussels for Sunday evening's paella, I notice shopping cart after shopping cart being pushed by holding six-packs of Coors Light and Budweiser. Even in Bend, craft beer still has plenty more worlds to conquer.
The High Desert Museum south of Bend has an excellent bird of prey exhibit

You call fill your growler with over 20 beers to choose from at this gas station
The Deschutes River rolling through Bend

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Road Trip to Bend: Boneyard Beer

From all appearances, you'd think Boneyard Beer started when a bunch of guys fixing motorcycles one day decided to brew beer instead. We roll into Boneyard around noon Sunday and people are already coming and going, getting their growlers filled for the day. There's no place to sit, so we stand around sipping from our little sampler glasses in a sparse empty space that mostly likely was once a waiting room for a repair shop.  For all the thrash/metal inspiration, the beers are the brewing equivalent of a collection of Barry Manilow tunes: well crafted, hitting all the right notes, though not particularly daring or breaking any new ground.