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Beer!

Note: This guest post is written by my husband, Josh. He regularly blogs about beer and restaurant events at the Craftsman Table & Tap Beer Blog.

 

It was 7:00 in the morning, Saturday October 12th. Michelle and I were heading north, after a quick stop at Starbucks for much-needed black coffee and egg-and-cheese sandwiches, towards Amherst, WI, for the Lettie’s River Run, a 5-mile race that would culminate in the Great Amherst Beer Festival at the Central Waters Brewery. Behind the wheel, my enthusiasm was stoked by the promise of rare beer, and by caffeine. We’d both registered for the race—the $27 registration fee included not only the ubiquitous long-sleeve T-shirt, but a bottle of Central Waters’ La Riviere Coule, a Belgian golden ale aged on French red wine barrels for 14 months, bottled and distributed exclusively for this event—but Michelle tore her meniscus the previous week in a freak kickboxing accident (the title of her forthcoming memoir), and was unable to compete. She still got her beer and shirt, though, which I think softened the blow a little bit.

 

I’m generally a pretty chill person, but big beer events—festivals, special releases—turn me into kind of a nervous wreck. Mainly it’s because I know that the craft beer community, while its ranks have been forthcoming and generous to me, have a tendency to be a pretty rabid lot; I waited in line for five hours this past year for tickets to the Great Taste of the Midwest, but devoted Surly acolytes have been known to wait upwards of 24 hours for entrance into Darkness Day. Though their beers are extraordinary, Central Waters hasn’t quite developed that sort of cult following, but it can’t be far off. Fortunately, we arrived in plenty of time to find a good parking spot, use the shockingly clean facilities, and head inside to register. We even got some of the first pre-sale tickets for Black Gold, a special beer released in conjunction with the day’s festivities.

 

Spoiler Alert: We got three bottles.

Spoiler Alert: We got three bottles.

 

This was only my fourth competitive race, and the longest; at five miles, it wasn’t the farthest I’d ever run (I sometimes crack seven miles during training), but the pace was a concern. Simply put, I’m not good at holding back. That served me well in the last 5K I ran, as I finished first in my age group and second overall, but I felt like death by the end. Fortunately, Michelle is far more pragmatic than I am, and kept reminding me that I don’t have to pass everyone, or anyone. The former, I heeded. The latter, not so much.

 

About fifteen minutes before the start, it began to rain, a drizzle at first, but soon escalating into an early autumn shower. It certainly helped wake me up, but I didn’t sign on for a mud run; this was not how I wanted to break in the compression tights season! It settled back into a light drizzle, however, by about 9:58 (two minutes to go-time), and the runners all began to mill around in a semi-coordinated fashion up near the line.

Ready to run!

Ready to run!

 

The competitor demographics at these races are endlessly fascinating to me for several reasons, not least of which because of the way in which they/we seem to unconsciously arrange themselves: semi-pros and hardcores up front, followed by competitive amateurs, then the just-to-stay-in-shapers. I’m a decent runner, but I know my limitations, to a point; I got in the middle.

 

The gun sounded, and we were off. True to form, I started off quick, near the head of the pack but, heeding Michelle’s advice, slowed down to a brisk clip after a few hundred yards. The route took us into the town of Amherst, the brewery at our backs. It was a beautiful, clearly mapped course, with enthusiastic, helpful volunteers, one of whom yelled encouragement at me as I entered the final half-mile, and even slapped me on the rear with his flag as I rounded a corner in a residential neighborhood.

 

My early measured pace began to pay dividends around the third mile, as I passed about half a dozen racers who had themselves passed me a few minutes before. After that, I began to target individual competitors ahead of me, slightly but gradually increasing my pace until I caught and exceeded them. I’ve heard this technique referred to as “reeling in,” and it was immensely satisfying.

 

After the butt-slapping corner, there were only two more racers in front of me who were conceivably catchable. I inched past one, a late 30s gentleman who had blown by me around the first mile, and entered the 400-yard final stretch. There was one racer, a young woman in her late twenties, in between me and the finish line. My legs, though not about to give out or anything, were burning, aching, and just on the verge of numbing. Still, my inner six-year-old spoke to me: “You are NOT going to let a girl beat you!” So I powered through and eventually passed her about fifty yards before the finish, and just as my feet began to lose all feeling, giving me a strange sensation not unlike floating.

 

I slowed down out of the chute, keeping up a steady walk, hands behind my head and slowly reclaiming my bearings. The brewery was in front of me, with aid stations to the left and the festivities already beginning. I headed over and grabbed a bottle of water and couple of chocolate chip cookies—sorry, I just can’t do bananas—for a quick replenish. Baked goods certainly do wonders, and I snagged an extra cookie for Michelle. She seemed to limp a little more sprightly thereafter.

 

All things considered, this was an encouraging race. I’m trying to gradually increase distance—the endgame being the 2014 Madison Marathon—while getting a feel for a competitive, comfortable pace, and this was a good start. I was certainly a bit fatigued by the end, but didn’t have to wait long to get my wind back, and a few good minutes of stretching worked out all the kinks. After downing the bottle of water, I walked with Michelle over to the brewery entrance, where their taproom had opened to accommodate the thirsty runners (our race numbers included a tear-away tab for a free tap beer). For a more thorough recap of beer-related proceedings, you can head over to the Craftsman Table & Tap website and read her guest post on my blog, but I have to say that Central Waters’ Exodus—an oak-aged sour ale brewed with Door County cherries and weighing in at barely 5% ABV—hit the spot.

Post-race beer

Post-race beer

 

I now return you to your regularly scheduled Michelle.

 

 

 

Bikes and Beer Torn Meniscus:

Today I was supposed to be participating in the Tour de Dane, a bike ride to three different Great Dane locations. I was really looking forward to it, mostly because of the vaguely scavenger hunt aspect to the event. Granted, the routes between the three pubs are determined in advance, and there’s not really any question of where to go, but at each location you could pick up a raffle ticket and a coupon for a free beer (for after).

But, instead, I’m sitting on the couch with ice on my knee. See, in that last post I was going on and on about all the fears that are a part of triathlon for me (and how awesome triathlon is as an outlet to work through and overcome my fears). It turns out that what I really should have been afraid of was injuring myself.

It was a normal Monday when it happened. I rushed from work to the gym to make it to one of my favorite activities, a 5:25 PM kick-boxing class. I have been kick-boxing since college, for probably about 12 years. I know what I’m doing and I have (generally) quite good form. But I was running late, the class was starting, I didn’t stretch as much as I should have, and I got all excited and into the music and the energy, and threw a roundhouse kick with poor form and tight muscles. And as my triumphant kick flew through the air, I felt my knee pop and rip, and I knew I had royally screwed up.

However, I am an idiot, so I finished the class. I took a few days off and it felt slightly better, so I went on a bike ride, and because I was feeling great, went for a run as well, marveling at how great it felt to brick in the off-season. That flared everything up again, so I took more days off, and then decided, “You know what? Swimming is low-impact, let’s give that a try.” Despite using a pull buoy (so I wasn’t, in theory, using my legs at all) and despite pushing off from the wall with only my right leg, and even though I was killing some 200s, that was the final straw. That evening it was obvious something was really wrong with my knee, and a doctor’s appointment the next day confirmed that I had torn the meniscus.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not the worst thing that could happen (or so I keep telling myself). The initial treatment is conservative. I’m ordered, in no uncertain terms, to do absolutely no exercise for two weeks. I’m allowed to walk (no crutches needed) to get around, but nothing else. Ice and Advil daily, plus some low-key rehab exercises complete the picture. After two weeks, I’ll need to be re-assessed, and if it’s not healing well, then I will likely need an MRI to see the extent of the damage and determine a game plan.

One further wrinkle is that I’m starting a new job tomorrow, which means different health insurance, which means I need to change doctors by the end of the month. It would be so much simpler if we all just had single payer healthcare! One of the (fake) laments I’ve heard from the GOP about the Affordable Care Act is that somehow we’re all going to have to leave our doctors. (a) That makes no sense if you actually pay attention to what the act is, and (b) I’m going to have to leave my doctor anyway, because healthcare in our country is bafflingly tied to employment.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to have good healthcare, both from my previous job and my new one. I cherish that fact. More than I can put into words, really. But I also was pretty happy to have a doctor who understood how important my triathlon training is to me, who was actually interested in it, and who worked with me to be in the best shape I could for it.

I also keep telling myself that if I have to get injured, this is a good time of year for it. I would be devastated if something like this happened right in the middle of the summer and triathlon’s peak moments. So I am working hard at staying positive and embracing that if nothing else, I picked a good time to suddenly forget how to do a roundhouse kick.

And although I’m not on my bike today picking up raffle tickets and beer coupons, I do not mind at all that I already paid the registration fee for the event. The whole point of the ride was not to try to win t-shirts and have a Crop Circle Wheat at the end, but was to benefit Dream Bikes, a non-profit bike shop in Madison that gives teenagers a safe and professional place to work and helps those who may not otherwise have the means obtain a quality bike. A bicycle can provide reliable and safe transportation, enjoyment, and an opportunity for fitness, and Dream Bikes is a terrific organization doing some great work. So I’m glad to have made a donation to them, even though I’m not out riding in the event.

Next weekend, Josh will be running in a race we were supposed to be doing together, and I’ll be practicing my cheering skills. I’ll need them to be in full force by next summer when he does his first marathon! Stay tuned next week for his recap from a unique racing/beer expo combination event.

Icing my knee with a feline overseer.

Icing my knee with a feline overseer.

My husband Josh and I started this blog together, and at the beginning we were both writing posts. But as I’ve become more and more obsessed with triathlons and his professional beer blogging has taken off, we’ve both decided that this blog is “mine.” So, just to avoid confusion, I’ve gone back and labeled his previous posts “Guest posts” and if/when he contributes from here on out, they’ll be labeled as such.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for awesome beer info, check out his blog over here: The Greatest Beer Blog Ever (in his wife’s opinion).

One of the primary facets of the beer geek culture–as opposed to wine, whisky, or toilet hooch geeks–is the stocking of bottles for aging. See, beer evolves as it sits around in the bottle. Some age quite well, some not so well, and a few can yield interesting, unsettling results.

This guy, for instance, spilled a Milwaukee’s Best on his shirt and didn’t get to the ER in time.

It’s difficult for me to keep stuff around for this long because A) I don’t have a lot of money, and can’t really afford to buy large quantities the usually top-shelf brews that age especially well, and B) I’m impatient. I’ve tasted aged beers before, and been pretty blown away by some: a nine-year-old Thomas Hardy ale and a four-year-old Old Rasputin imperial stout were highlights.

Yes.

Hell yes.

It’s just a coincidence that, in past two nights, we drank two beers that are perfect for aging: Scuttlebutt Old No. 1 Barleywine, and New Glarus Thumbprint Enigma. The former is nearly four years old, the latter is extremely fresh. Eventually we hope to blog about tasting different vintages of the same beer side by side, but this’ll do until we have the capital and the cabinet space.

So, there’s a story behind this one.

In the background are books about a gay bishop, a storyteller who went off his rocker, and the Higgs-Boson. Fun facts.

Michelle bought this for us almost a year ago during a trip to Madison, just a day or so after I proposed to her. It was $12.99 for a single 12 oz. bottle, and I’d like to thank her for riding the post-proposal high for so long.

It was the last one at Brennan’s, a 2009 bottle. I’d never heard of Scuttlebutt before, and I’m not sure that they have much in the way of distribution. Rate Beer lists the bottling, tap availability, and distribution as “unknown” which is about as sinister as you can get with beer.

This, on the other hand, is about as adorable as you can get with beer.

We did well in aging it for about another year, but last night was chilly, stormy, and it just felt right. After a few minutes in the fridge to lightly chill, we poured it up.

It’s a barrel-aged beer, so one of the first notes you get is a big oaky vanilla character. This thing has had nearly four years to mellow and the bourbon notes are still pretty prominent, so I can’t imagine what it must have smelled like when it was first bottled. There’s big plum, raisin, and apricot notes, expected in a barleywine, but this one had a nice caramel presence, and even a hint of chocolate, with a sharp hop bitterness on the finish. At 13.3% ABV, there’s almost no heat, which, even after four years in the bottle, is impressive.

So, verdict. Not the best we’ve had–Three Floyds Behemoth or Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Barleywine probably takes it–but definitely a great surprise. The brewery is based in Everett, Washington, but some of their stuff obviously makes it halfway across the country. Give it a shot, if you don’t mind the price tag.

Now this…this, I’m excited about.

The cats in the picture on the door are even looking at it. They knew this day would come.

Anytime New Glarus puts out a new seasonal or Thumbprint–their limited run series–is cause for celebration. This year they’ve kept it reasonably simple, releasing a barleywine, a saison, and a cherry stout that was really more of a cherry brown ale. They were all great. But this is something of an event. New Glarus brewed Enigma on two other occasions only, in 2006 and 2010. It’s a sour wild ale, which means it was spontaneously fermented with random, wild yeast strains. To further play up the moniker, the brewers released it with little warning. It just showed up on shelves last night, magically.

The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter. It’s not always clear wh–oh hey, is that a Kohl’s gift card?

I love sour ales. They’re an interesting beer to age, because they tend to be rather low in alcohol (5-7% or so); higher booze content typically helps stuff like imperial stouts and old ales develop in the bottle. Here, the wild yeast strain does the work. The best ones typically come from Belgium, but some American brewers are really starting to step it up; New Belgium’s La Folie is a ridiculously good beer, and this one ain’t too shabby either. Brilliantly red with an off-pink head, the nose on Enigma is just rife with tart cherries, a bit of Granny Smith apple, and a touch of vinegar. Bracingly sour only up front, it mellows out into tart-sweet cherry, along with hints of vanilla from the oak vat.

We’ve got two bottles sitting in our cabinet, alongside a New Glarus R & D Ale that we’re holding onto till the wedding, and we’re determined to make them last. Unless it rains again.

In the craft beer world, the term “seasonal” means less and less each year. Mostly, this is due to each brewery’s obsession with being the first to get their particular seasonal out on shelves. This afternoon, we went to the Steve’s on University Avenue, and they already have Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve (a hoppy, piney amber ale) in stock. It’s a good beer, but when it’s still hovering around 85 degrees in Madison, WI, it might be a little early for getting into the yuletide spirit. And this is coming from someone who will watch the HELL out of A Christmas Story year-round.

 

Mickey Rourke plays Santa in the gritty reboot.

 

But man, do I mark out for fall and winter beers. Oktoberfests are okay, but honestly, if you’ve had a decent one, you’ve had them all (for the record, Paulaner and Ayinger make the best ones). What really gets me going, though, is pumpkin ales.

 

“Now it is well-known throughout the Midwest that this man is a pumpkin JUNKIE…”

 

New Holland Ichabod, Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin, Post Road Pumpkin, I drink ’em all. This year, I’ve bought two so far, one a mainstay (Southern Tier’s Pumking) and the other a brand new one (Samuel Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin). Despite the common pumpkin element, these beers can vary wildly in flavor profile, so I thought it’d be nice to try these two side by side. We’ll start with Samuel Adams:

 

Mmmmmmm…

 

Samuel Adams is most famous for being the beer you buy in college when you feel like splurging. They get a lot of flack for being as big as they are (nationwide distribution and then some), but they’ve stepped up their game recently. Fat Jack is just the newest in their Batch One series, which also includes some pretty great brews in their Tasman Red IPA, Dark Voyage Baltic IPA, and Griffin’s Bow Blonde Barley Wine.

 

4X Mmmmmm…

 

 

 

As expected, it’s a damn good beer. It pours almost like a brown ale, with some nice russet highlights and a giant khaki head. Aromas of fresh, creamy pumpkin pie, prominent cinnamon and nutmeg. Big, bready mouthfeel, with fresh pumpkin peel, sweet cream, brown sugar and tons of mashed pumpkin. The alcohol (8.5% ABV) is well-hidden, and it’s a steal at $6.99 for a 22 oz bottle.

 

This, my friends, is the Pumking.

 

And yes, he’s totally singing The Darkness’ “Black Shuck.”

 

It’s been around for years now, and is one of the more divisive pumpkin beers out there. Southern Tier has a tendency for generating that kind of buzz; their imperial stouts, particularly Creme Brulee, are knocked as overly sweet as much as they’re praised for big, bold flavors. Pumking is no different. This is my second time having it, and there’s a reason for that.

 

Daddy like.

 

Michelle had this on tap about a year ago at the Brick Store Pub in Decatur, GA. I loved it, all the way. Michelle, though, tired of it about halfway through, and I can see why. At 9% ABV, and with a huge focus on the spice characteristics, it was a big, pumpkin-y beast.

 

Yes, this is EXACTLY what I’m talking about.

 

Southern Tier must have mic’d our booth, because this year’s batch takes everything good about the beer and evens it out. The slightly lower alcohol content (8.6%) makes for a less bracing finish, while the big, bold pumpkin spices still cut through nicely. The carbonation is suitably prickly, which accentuates the bite of nutmeg and cinnamon. It’s a little pricier at $8.99 per 22 oz bottle, but it’s definitely worth it.

 

So yeah, get these beers, and any other pumpkin brews, while you can. By the time Halloween rolls around, we’ll be getting all kinds of big, crazy Christmas beers. Which is not a bad thing.

 

Wheech is wheen you shoot eye out. Also, drone is better.