Saturday, March 27, 2010

Brewers' Dirty Little Secret

I just returned from the cask-conditioned ale tasting at Cigar City Brewery, sponsored by Whole Foods as a charitable event designed to save some portion of the world from some sort of deprivation.  The event was well-conceived, well-run, and well-attended. Beers served from the cask included::

Cigar City Brewing Cubano Espresso Maduro Brown Ale
Dunedin Brewery Red Dog Ale
Saint Somewhere (Something)
He'Brew Bittersweet Lenny's RIPA on Rye
Wintercoat Double Hop

There were others on cask, plus a bunch of beers in more conventional keg presentations, all of them tasty, some outstanding.  More on that later.

For newbies, cask conditioned ales are beers that are sealed in kegs after fermentation.  Ideally, oak casks are used, but steel kegs are far more common and easier to pull off.  Residual yeast carbonates the beer, and the result is a much finer carbonation - tiny bubbles that feel very different on the palate than the bigger bubbles produced by forced CO2 carbonation, which is how most kegged or bottled beers are carbonated today.  Cask ales are served directly from the cask with no additional carbonation added, and the beer is drained into your glass via gravity or, in the classical presentation, a mechanical pump.  (Think buxom beer lassies heaving on these great beer engines to pour you the finest possible beer straight from the cellar.  It's a happy tradition indeed.)

Anyway, the result of cask conditioning is a lower-carbonation beer, traditionally served at "cellar" temperature - 50F or so.  Flavors develop beautifully and the beers routinely have a smooth-as-silk finish to them.  To entrenched American (read:  Bud Light) tastes, the beer is warm and flat.  To beer sophisticates, the beer is liquid gold.

But I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

All of the beers at the cask festival were huge examples of their various sorts:  big Double and Imperial IPA's and Stouts and Old Ales, IPA's with hop bitterness over 100 IBU's (newbies:  that's a lot of hops) and alcohol levels of 8 and 10 percent by volume.  (Compare Bud Light at 4.2%, Guinness Stout at 4.0% and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at 5.25% ABV.)  Drink three pints of this stuff and hand your car keys over to someone more responsible.  (I have a very accommodating bride, who tolerates more than her share of beer-related nonsense.  God bless her.)

So, what's the dirty little secret?  It's this:  big, alcoholic, hoppy, chewy beers with all that fruity flavor are easy to make.  Just put lots of grain - some of it more heavily roasted than usual -  in the mash tun and lots of hops in the boiler and let 'er rip.  Add yeast - maybe some funky Belgian or exotic old English ale yeast- to the mix and ferment at a temperature that is a little higher than it should be, and you create a monster beer that would-be beer snobs swoon over.  They wax eloquent on the subtle or not-so-subtle flavors of chocolate and whiskey and toffee and smoke and coffee and plum and raisin and kumquat.  They note the biblical levels of hop bitterness that - truth be known - utterly swamp the malt flavor that is the root of all good beer.

The brewing process that produces these beers is completely out of control because all of the fruity flavors embedded in the brew are uncontrolled and uncontrollable byproducts of a fermentation process gone wild.  Really huge beers in this tradition are usually presented as one-of-a-kind brews.  That's because the brewer cannot possibly recreate this same out-of-control fermentation in a subsequent brew. 

Folks, all the fruity flavors, the bananas and green apples and cherries and chocolate are brewing defects.  They are the result of a fermentation process that spawns random chemicals - acetaldehydes and diacetyls and the like - that don't belong in well-crafted beers. It is beyond me how these defects came to be viewed as virtues, when at best they are barely controlled failures of the brewer's art. 

In the final analysis, these enormous beers lack the subtlety and nuance of truly great beers.  Sierra Nevada Pale Ale leaps immediately to mind:  balanced, consistent, reliable and drinkable. Drink SNPA and you taste pure clean malted barley and the essence of Cascades hops.  No French toast or cranberry overtones, no bitterness or astringency that puckers the mouth and makes it shrink from the next sip.  No junk in the trunk. Sierra Nevada's seasonal beers are usually - but not always - similarly well conceived.  Celebration Ale, for instance, varies little from year to year.  These beers are great examples of the brewer's art.

Let's look for a minute at the ultimate junk beer: Budweiser.  As we all know, drinking Bud is like making love in a canoe:  it's fucking close to water.  But Bud is a remarkable example of the brewer's craft - and maybe his art, as well.  The beer has no fruity funkiness or oddball yeastiness or mountainous levels of hops to mask an out-of-control fermentation. For all its lack of good beer flavor, it is amazingly clean, crisp and refreshing - in other words, exactly what it pretends to be.  If Budweiser screws up a batch of beer, you know it instantly (assuming, of course, that you actually drink the stuff).  Bud is infinitely more difficult to brew - as a technical undertaking - than your local Double Secret Hops IPA.  That doesn't make it better, just more difficult to produce day after day.

So what do I want in a good beer?  Drinkability, for starters.  Give me a well-balanced beer that has proportionate levels of hops and malt for the style, with an alcohol level I can live with and still drive home after a couple of pints.  Give me a well-crafted pale ale or even a proper lager that I can enjoy without a constant barrage of sensory pyrotechnics.  If you are going to make me an IPA or an Old Ale, show me you can make it the same way time after time - that the flavors in your beer are the result of design and craft rather than a chemical crap-shoot.  Show me the pure malt and hop flavors that are the essence of good beer, no matter what the specific style.

Don't get me wrong - I love well-made big beers, the Dogfish Head 90's and 120's of the world.  But "good beer" is not synonymous with the crushing levels of hops and alcohol and funky flavors, haphazardly applied, that are so commonly mistaken for "great" beer.  Subtlety and balance, that's the ticket.


Erik's Corvette

 I promised Giff a picture of Erik's Corvette in my recent post, so here it is. 

Does this look like a happy man?


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kellan's Favorite Word

I raised my kids in the liberal faith, and have since stood largely aside to see what happens.  Erik was easy and predictable – he went in the Army and bought a Corvette.  Kristin, however, who is my favorite and only daughter, grew up to marry a Methodist and to consort with lots of Methodist people, mostly, but not exclusively, on Sunday.  Her spouse is one of the head Methodists, but has overcome this defect in his upbringing and now makes a living by teaching music to impressionable youth.  In fact, he is pursuing an advanced degree in waving a stick at small children.

Anyway, in the midst of all this Methodism and such, Kris and Scott have managed to clone off two children who are like grandchildren to me.  I will call them Kathryn and Kellan, which is what everyone else calls them.

I personally was raised in a sort of Yankee-Puritan-Catholic tradition, which means we laughed at fart jokes but generally did not repeat them in the company of adults.  Kathryn and Kellan, alas, know no such boundaries.  So not only do they look at me askance when asked to pull my finger, they revel in the freedom to say “fart” pretty much at will.  Kellan, the younger at five-nearly-six does so with reckless abandon.  Discussions with Kellan are generally frank.

That brings me to the topic of this essay, which is Kellan’s penis.

Didn’t see that coming, did you?

Lodged at the intersection of liberalism and Methodism lies the art of calling things by their proper names, and Kellan, who always got on famously with his favorite organ, as all five-nearly-six year-olds do, learned early that “penis" is a proper noun.  And he just as quickly discovered that not everyone agrees with that assessment.  Kellan uses the word as a sort of psychological probe to learn, first of all, who’s paying attention, and second, who has the right stuff and who does not.  He gauges people by the depth of the resulting jaw drop.  We, as a family, are hoping that he outgrows this, but there are no certainties in life. 

No one on either the Methodist side of the family or on the liberal-Puritan-Yankee-usedtobeCatholic side would ever express dismay out loud when Kellan expresses his admiration for his penis, but there is undeniably some chemistry or instinct or maybe just lizard-brain fear that breaks free when this gorgeously innocent little blond tyke speaks the magic word in a group that includes strangers.   Folks, the word has undeniable power, and Kellan understands that power like Tiger Woods understands his, um, putter.  Following a recent and unfortunate pants-dampening incident, for instance, Kellan was heard to exclaim, "I couldn't control my penis."  Come to think of it, that pretty aptly describes Tiger's issue as well.

I am going to launch a campaign to teach Kellan that he can get an even greater response from the ladies in the church if he follows in the Robin Williams tradition from now on and refers to his penis as “Mr. Happy.”   I don’t know if the Methodists have made excommunication a sacrament like the Catholics, but I’m looking to find out.

In the meantime, should you encounter my grandson, steel yourself.  At some point the conversation WILL become anatomical, and the unprepared or faint of heart may experience momentary appallment and jaw dislocation.


Monday, March 15, 2010

A Rainy Day in Connecticut

I was foolish enough to make yet a third pilgrimage from Tampa Bay to Connecticut during the winter season now concluding, and so an outing with the boy seemed a good idea.  Accordingly, Les and I ventured out with Kellan to Kid City, a museum-cum-jungle gym in Middletown.  Two grandfathers and one five-year-old boy: hardly a fair fight.

Picture a hundred over-adrenalized kids under six, swapping mucous and microbes while creating memorable experiences of a sort.  Athletic-looking dads of another generation (X, maybe Y) were dropping in their traces trying to track the little darlings from venue to venue within Kid City itself: the pirate ship, the music room, the alien spaceship, that sort of thing.  Kellan promptly lit out for the fish processing plant.

What does it take to mesmerize dozens of kids of mixed ages, races, cultures and stages of potty training?  About a thousand rubber fish, baskets sufficient to contain more fish than one kid can carry, and a network of quasi-industrial conveyor belts, slides, sorting tables and black holes, that’s what.  In twenty minutes of merry mayhem, Kellan hauled more fish than Ishmael ever did on the Pequod.  Les and I stood aside.

The strategy at these places is to set them loose and observe from as far away as will allow you to effect a rescue should one of the little darlings, yours especially, clothesline himself on a safety railing or take a bad fish hit.  (Overheard – “Latasha, don’t throw that fish; you could put someone’s eye out.”)  Kid City is cleverly partitioned so budding Great-Escapers are throttled through a parent orifice before they can achieve effective freedom.  Responsible parents and the occasional unsuspecting grandparent move from one strategic orifice to the next at a leisurely pace, while the objects of their affection bounce around in each venue like so many smiling, snotty-nosed pinballs.

Les and I differ in some basic philosophies of grandfathering.  I am content to see Kellan have fun and have him associate the experience in some nebular way with my presence.  I think of this as threshold bonding.  Do it often enough, and you enter the kingdom of the beloved.  An unscheduled ice cream stop has a similar effect and is a lot more direct.  When my own children were children I sometimes bonded using a simple five-dollar bill: Want the money?  Express some sincere filial affection and it’s yours. (That still works, by the way.)  I’ve never felt any guilt over that.

Les, God bless him, wants to actually observe the little guy in his bliss.  So while I angle for the strategic orifices, Les ventures fearlessly (or at least he looks fearless) into the fray, putting himself in the trajectory of the rubber fishes, peering – sometimes actually crawling – into low-ceilinged igloos and alien vessels, and darting under mainsails and bronze gongs.  Les, I think from my safe strategic orifice, can I get you an aspirin? 

Kellan is in five-year-old Nirvana.  Having fun here in the open-heart surgery room, buddy?  Oh yeah.  Let’s go back to the fish room.

Even with one’s energy conservation stratagem operating perfectly, 45 minutes of Kid City is about all mortal man would be able to tolerate on his own. Mortal mothers are somewhat more durable, in my experience. Luckily, Les doubles the coverage and lowers the stakes a little.  But after an hour-plus, I see him flagging dangerously.  Serves him right for climbing onto that poopdeck.

Whoever designed this place had his head securely attached.  It turns out an hour and a half is time enough for any kid to see everything, handle every germ-laden plastic fish twice, and begin to grasp the concept of diminishing returns.  The attractions are not powerful enough to drive most little ones – with some stunningly noisy exceptions – to floor-flopping exhaustion before the frenzy runs down.  And so, as Kellan begins to pinball a bit more slowly, I nod to Les and whisper the magic word.  “McDonald’s?”


Monday, March 8, 2010

The Drill

I see that the proprietor of Willard's Tap House has signed up to follow this blog, so I suppose I should say something nice about his place.  I did an initial article a couple of weeks back, but now I'm angling for a bar stool with my name on it.

For so many months I wandered lost in this beer desert called Florida.  The Cajun Cafe offered an oasis, but somehow I longed for more.  That's where Willard's comes in.  I now have a new routine for Bingo night. 

No, I don't play Bingo, and neither, so far as I can discern, does anyone at Willard's; it's just not that kind of place.  But the lady I have lived with these past 41 years plays Bingo with her mom.  On Thursday nights.  Now, mind you, I am a daring and resourceful cook: I can make gumbo - damn good gumbo, BTW - and I can even turn a bag of barley and some hops into drinkable beer, so I could fend for myself on Thursday nights if need be, but Florida has made me a lazy layabout.

So here's the Thursday drill.  Wait impatiently for Judy to light out for Bingo, then hop in the car and drive in the general direction of the Cajun, which lies five miles south-southeast of my door.  After two miles, the first frisson (it's French; I'm trying to be literary here - look it up) of thirst overcomes me and - whoa! - there on the right - it's Willard's, dead ahead.  So I enjoy my appetizer beer at Willard's, where Blaine and Chrissie and Blair and Jim and a lot of regulars provide their own hop-based society. God is good.  (Not translated from the Arabic.)

I pick one out of 40 available great beers (well, 37 or so great beers and some cider and fruity junk for Bud Light drinkers).  I'm on a bit of a Belgian kick at the moment, and Willard's just happens to have several on tap.  Sweet.

Then it's on to the Cajun for a couple pounds of crawfish.  And a good beer.  The Bruery is making a Belgian IPA called Mischief that is superb and right now is on tap at the Cajun.  Sit on the bayou with crawfish - let me show you that picture again -

and some amazing beer.  Could life be better than this?  Damn right.

Eventually it is time to go home.

So I head north-northwest the five miles home, and - damn - there on the left is Willard's Tap House once again.  So - one more couldn't hurt.  I pull in.

Once in a while, something special happens at Willard's.  Tonight, for instance (it's Saturday as I type this; I didn't say Thursday if the only time I go there), one of the Willard's regulars, Chris, springs for a $15 bottle of Hoppin' Frog Hop Dam Triple IPA (22 ounces or so).  After a round-robin of eloquent waxings on the merits of this syrupy, well-balanced, highly hopped example of the high end of IPA's - think Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA plus some je ne sais quoi (more French; sorry) - Chris spreads tasting glasses around the bar.  I am in your debt, Chris - thanks. We all nod in appreciation.

Well, that's my limit to drive home, so - off till next time.

If you're in Largo sometime - Erik, I mean you, in particular, but others are invited - we'll check this drill out together.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Pilgrimage to Winter

There were reasons, damn pressing reasons or I would have stayed home, why I motored from sunny Florida to nasty Connecticut in February.  We drove Judy’s 13-year-old Acura.  (You didn’t think I was going to drive MY car up there did you?  Those people spread salt everywhere.)  Thirteen hundred miles in two days.  I hate to pay for motels when I can crash at my daughter-in-law’s place for free.  We Floridians are cheap and damn proud of it.  Not like northerners, who have no pride at all.

The first thing you notice is the appalling conditions in which Connecticut folks live.  I understand snow, a fluffy white concept I learned in my youth, but folks in Connecticut don’t even keep their snow clean.  Wherever I looked, the snow was crap-colored and offensive to the eye.  My mother taught me that there was no excuse for dirty.  (I assume she was speaking literally, not metaphorically, since I can think of many excuses for metaphoric dirt.  Besides, with mom, linguistic gymnastics were limited to gently taking the Lord’s name in vain and some classic motherly sarcasm.  “Did you wash your ears?  You could plant potatoes in them.”)  Anyway, the damn snow was filthy.

Connecticut is full of beautiful women.  (I know – I changed the subject.  Stay with me.)  Not like Clearwater Beach during Spring Break, but beautiful in a strong, liberal, Scandinavian and Irish sort of way.  The problem is that all the women in Connecticut were swaddled in polyester and down, head to toe, with just their strong, liberal, etc. noses sticking out.  What’s the point of that?

Another thing is the darkness.  It’s freakin’ DARK up there in February.  The sun goes down before it comes up, so you have to feel your way around like teenagers in the back seat of dad’s Chevy.  That’s probably why the women dress defensively.  It was so dark I spent the whole week wearing eyeglasses with plain, see-through glass, no tinting or Mylar or anything.  It was primitive, like rubbing sticks together or drinking beer from a plastic cup.

All this time, sunny Florida was, well, sunny.  People were frolicking on the beaches.  (Okay, Canadian people were frolicking on the beaches, but it’s good to know your COULD frolic if you wanted to.) 

Bad as Connecticut was in February, it did not prepare us for driving home through New York and New Jersey.  That’s where the blizzard struck.  It snowed sideways from the GW Bridge to the Delaware River.  It can’t snow sideways in Delaware itself, which is too small – all the snow lands in Pennsylvania, where it piles up on the Turnpike in front of TV cameras.

By shear grit and steering in the direction of the skid, we made it to North Carolina, where the sun came out and people started saying “y’all.”  We stopped in Rocky Mount, which turns out not to be a real town at all, but a collection of highway intersections.  No one lives there; everyone commutes from Raleigh to work at Shoney’s and the Bass Pro Shop on I-95. 

If you go into a restaurant in North Carolina and ask for a non-smoking table, there’s only one.  The best strategy is to ask for a table next to that one.

We haven’t become Florida natives yet – you have to speak Seminole to achieve that status – but we are starting to feel like foreigners in Connecticut.  Sometimes I think that’s a little sad.  Then I go to the beach.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Shaking the Foundations of Decent Writing

Sugar Creek, which is the mobile home community (read: trailer park) in which I reside, has a salutary rule that the nether regions of one’s trailer, like the nether regions of one’s person, be modestly obscured by some appropriate skirting, which for this trailer park means white bricks measuring 4 inches square by 16 inches long, laid in a pattern that resembles an open basket-weave having congress with a checkerboard, but that rule is so old that no one sells the requisite bricks anymore; so those of us neurotic enough to want to obey the rule must either glue together crumbling old bricks or scrounge not-too-badly-used bricks from some other trailer park whose management has been struck by more modern ideas, which is the strategy I adopted when I recently undertook to fill a sizable gap in my modesty skirting that opened up when I removed an elderly and misshapen oak tree that had grown too close to the trailer, but the leftover stump got in the way and, being made out of oak, could not be removed using conventional tools such as axes or dynamite, so I leveled the area as best I could using a trowel and a bucket of sweat and purchased a couple of long aluminum angle irons – if angle irons can be made of aluminum – and used them to bridge the affected area, allowing me to complete the visually attractive brick-weave that fits in so well with the neighborhood and has helped me create the longest sentence I have written so far this week, although I would appreciate it if you did not tell this to the guy who writes Shaking the Writing Tree.