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The Return of the Keg

Let’s hear it for small victories!

This blog has been somewhat neglected for the last year, and in fact, the last several years. No, not neglected; just back-burnered, like a few quarts of extra wort run out from a mash tun into a saucepan to boil in case it’s needed for something, only to be forgotten until the brewer smells evaporated malt syrup burning on the stove seven hours later.

It’s been an adventure for me for the past few years, gradually adjusting, then unadjusting and readjusting to rapid changes in life. As I’ve continually tried to balance the demands of fatherhood, my career, the never-ending project that is my new house (it’s still “my new house” after two years, and I don’t see that changing soon) and now a podcast about the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, something had to fall by the wayside. That something was brewing, because it’s hard to set aside an entire day to brew a batch from all grain, and it’s hard to commit to dry hopping, kegging, and all the rest on schedule to make the best possible beer.

No brewing means no blogging about brewing, and because I don’t want to turn this blog into just a bunch of reviews on commercial beers I’m drinking, I haven’t had much to write about here. But that did change recently. (Woohoo!) I’m not quite certain that I’ve turned the corner and will be brewing regularly again, but it’s worth reporting that I’ve made some progress.

I just kegged for the first time in several months. Almost a year ago, I came up with two new recipes inspired by my family’s growing obsession with Walt Disney World, including a Star Wars-inspired black IPA with Galaxy and Mosaic hops. After months of thinking “By Yoda, that sounds good,” I carved out some time five weeks ago to pull the Grainfather out of the garage and brew the beer I’d been thinking about.

I’m proud (and a bit shocked) to say that I still seem to know what I’m doing. I had no major mishaps on brew day; the biggest speed bump was a half-hour delay caused by me forgetting where I had put away a couple of the many small metal and rubber bits that make up the Grainfather’s pump filter system. After I located them, it was smooth sailing. I missed my target OG by a few points (1.065 instead of my target 1.071) but I’ve never been one to get too upset by missing gravity targets. My FG was on target at 1.017, so I ended up with a more quaffable 6.3% ABV beer than the seven-percenter I was expecting. Even kegging went smoothly. It helped that I had a nice shiny new keg in a box with no leaks ready to receive the brew.

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The hoppy black elixir transitions gently to its final resting place. In hindsight, maybe my hose was too long.

It was nice to have three beers on tap in my three-tap kegerator for about 24 hours. The following day, though, I emptied one of those three kegs, so I once again have an empty slot. Fortunately, I have a plan for that tap: the light, crisp honey wheat with floral East Kent Goldings hops I planned last year will be a wonderful beverage for spring in Texas. I hope to carve out time for another brew day for that recipe in early April.

But for now it’s back to fatherhood, work, and podcasting about Tolkien. So while this isn’t quite the story-ending “Well, I’m back,” of Sam Gamgee in the final chapter of The Return of the King, I can honestly quote Bilbo Baggins in the same chapter by saying, “And now I think I am quite ready to go on another journey.”1

Now if I can just find the time to clean all this equipment.


1 Quote taken from the book, not the Peter Jackson film.

Thoughts on San Diego Comic-Con from a safe distance: Of Beer and Geek Culture

In what has become an annual ritual for the worldwide geekosphere, all eyes are on the West Coast this weekend for San Diego Comic-Con 2016. I’ve never actually been to SDCC personally, having always preferred smaller conventions (such as SDCC’s little sister WonderCon, which I used to attend every year in San Francisco before it moved to Anaheim in 2012). Most of my geekier friends say SDCC has gotten too big for its own good: it’s been taken over by mainstream entertainment, the lines are too long, the space too tight, the “leet” swag and events too hard to get. But it’s the con everyone knows about, so it’s the one I’m often asked about by casual acquaintances: Am I going? Have I been? Would I be going if I didn’t have small children? No, no, and no … cons this big are a young man’s game, and unless they shrink it down for an old fogey like me, I probably won’t brave the travel or the crowds until the day my children beg me to.

But even though I’m not in San Diego for the con, I was in San Diego last week for something a bit less exciting: a business meeting (ooh. ahh.). While I was there, I stopped into a couple of local tap rooms, and I managed to get an early taste of SDCC at the Stone Brewing Tap Room at Petco Park, by tasting this year’s Stone Farking Wheaton W00tstout, an annual collaboration between the brewery’s Greg Koch, FARK.com founder Drew Curtis, and beer-geek-cum-regular-geek-icon Wil Wheaton.

The service at Stone was fantastic; the bartenders were friendly and had real conversations with me, and they let me taste whatever I wanted. And perhaps seeing my hipster glasses and the look in my eyes that said “I can’t wait to go back to my hotel and read,” one bartender recommended I try the W00tstout.

Stone’s website panderingly calls this beer a “whopping, complex superhero version of an imperial stout with a profound complexity” and panderingly states that “we can’t say this beer bestows jedi powers”. Wow! It’s like it’s made just for me … a geek! And of course it must be perfect for a guy like me, because it’s got Wil Wheaton’s name on it!

So I ordered it, and what I got was a half-pint of a pretty ordinary bourbon-tinged imperial stout with a little bit of pecan and a lot of booziness. It was fine, but it was only “fine”. And it wasn’t very different from any other  bourbon imperial stout I’ve ever had (and there are hundreds of them), except that it was a lot harder to drink.

Again, I cannot stress enough how great the bartenders were at Stone, and I’m not knocking them at all. The guy who poured me the W00tstout asked me how I liked it, and I noncommittally said it was “good” … but a little boozy. His response was knowing and apologetic: “Yeah,  but we’re gonna sell a ton of it next week at Comic-Con.” His tone was clear. He wasn’t the biggest fan himself, but he knew that it would sell on the basis of its geek cred alone. Geek cred, I might add, which extended no further than the names attached to it and the word w00t on the tap handle.

I much preferred Stone Mocha IPA, an odd but delicious little IPA with mocha (exactly what it says on the tin, really … but such a surprising combination that a Lyft driver who talked to me about craft beer the next morning refused to believe it existed). I much preferred Ballast Point’s Orange Vanilla Fathom India Pale Lager, a refreshing bit of creamsicle in a glass I drank at the Ballast Point Tasting Room with my dinner earlier that evening (though my wife and friends made funny, good-natured “yuck” comments when I bragged about it on Facebook). I even preferred the smooth, rich Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk Stout I drank at the airport the next day, which was served to me through tap lines that probably hadn’t been cleaned since the Bush administration by a waitress in her sixties who didn’t know the difference between milk stout and cream ale.

And so I wonder, what gives one beer more geek cred than another? What makes one beer … or one anything … “geekier” than any other?

Being a geek used to mean being obsessively passionate about something weird, some oddity of pop culture that mainstream culture didn’t really get. We all know comic book geeks, sci-fi geeks, fantasy geeks, gamer geeks. But a couple of things have happened to that word that have changed its meaning. One is good, one is bad.

The good: The term “geek”now can apply to an extreme or even alienating obsession with other pursuits outside of that general sci-fi/fantasy/comic continuum. I’ve heard friends describe themselves as snake geeks, football geeks, bike geeks, and yes … beer geeks. Some of these things would have been unheard of when I was a kid and first began to identify myself with the “geek” label. Football geeks? Weren’t football people the guys who used to beat us up and rip the covers off our Robert Heinlein paperbacks? But there are those guys who love football so much – with their fantasy leagues and their stats – that casual sports fans like myself can’t begin to understand. Those people are football geeks, and I’m cool with that.

The bad: The original brand of geek culture has become commoditized. The sci-fi and fantasy properties that used to get us ostracized have gone mainstream. And as that has happened, the little divisions between geek cultures have started to erode. It’s not enough anymore to be geeky about Star Wars, or Marvel Comics, or Tolkien. Geek is truly an identity now, and if you’re a “geek”, you’re supposed to be geeky about everything from video games to Game of Thrones. That’s a big expanse of a lot of different kinds of popular entertainment, and so while it seems obvious to me that no one is going to like everything in that category, still it’s shocking to so many people when (for example) I say I hate The Walking Dead, or I complain that there are too many comic book movies. “Aren’t you a geek?” the unspoken question goes, “Aren’t you supposed to love all that stuff?”

This also seems to me to be the same mentality that says that hordes of SDCC attendees should float keg after keg of a mediocre imperial stout just because it’s got Wil Wheaton’s name on it.

Any one of the beers I drank in San Diego that I actually liked seems more “geeky” to me than the W00tstout. Being a geek used to mean knowing more than others about a mysterious topic (like the vast difference between a cream ale and a peanut butter milk stout). It used to mean even people who tried to understand you didn’t always understand you (like the Lyft driver who swore there was no such thing as a mocha IPA, and it must have been a mocha stout). It used to mean loving something so much that even your friends thought you were a little weird (creamsicle IPL).

It used to mean being misunderstood, a little uncool. It didn’t mean talking about the one movie or TV show that everyone else was talking about. It didn’t mean drinking the same thing as everyone else, whether they were “geeks” also or not. W00tstout, I have to say, is commoditized geek beer. It’s geek-pandering beer. It’s the Walking Dead of beers. It’s a beer for SDCC, which has gotten too big, and consequently appeals primarily to the most identity-conscious geeks, and to the corporations who want to sell them things.

Again, no offense to Stone. I loved every other beer I had at their tap room that day, and again their bartenders are the best I met in San Diego. They have a business to run, and that means brewing beers that will sell. The best thing I can say about Stone is that they are still doing the really geeky stuff, and doing it well.

But they also are doing the other thing, and for some reason, that other thing is getting all the attention.

 

 

“Chill Bill” avenged

Well, happy Father’s Day to me!

Finally, two months after ordering a new kegerator to replace the late, great “Chill Bill”* which passed away while my family was on vacation in April, the replacement has been installed. If you happen to follow me on Twitter (@shawnbou21), you’ve already seen the pictures and you know it’s glorious.

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Glorious!

I certainly waited long enough. Not for the shipment, though. The kegerator was here a long time ago, sitting in a cardboard box for something like five weeks waiting for me to find the time to open and assemble it.

A travesty, you say? Certainly. But May was a pretty hectic month that kept me busy with my day job, my family and my other life-consuming hobby of Tolkien podcasting, so I had to do what I had to do. And what I had to do was … nothing with the kegerator.

But I finally got that sucker up, and did I mention it’s glorious? The exterior is all stainless steel, not that black plastic top I had on my old one. The industrial look of the stainless steel is accentuated by a T-shaped three-tap draft tower that I ordered separately to install in place of the tower that came with the fridge unit.

Now all I have to do is:

  1. give it a name, and
  2. fill it with beer.

The first task should be easy. I’m going to try farming the name out to the social media sphere and see what we come up with. If you have any ideas, please post them here or find me on Twitter or Facebook (My Brew Home). Any play on the old kegerator’s name “Chill Bill” would be welcome (such as “Chill Gill,” “Chilly Willy,” etc. – but those are all now disqualified!) but I’m not setting any real rules. If you’ve got any ideas, let me know. This could be disastrous, either because I’ll get a barrage of responses along the lines of “Keggy McKegface” or worse, I’ll get no responses at all … but I’m feeling confident. Ready to roll the bones. Bring on your best ideas, if there’s anyone reading this at all.

The second task is already in progress. Tap #1 is already flowing with the remains of Belfast Breakfast Oatmeal Stout, and I’ve got a batch of session IPA fermented, dry hopped, and ready to be kegged any day now. Getting that third tap flowing is going to be a little harder, because I’ll need to brew another batch soon and of course that’s an investment of eight hours on a weekend (after I had trouble stringing two hours together to assemble the As-Yet-Unnamed Kegerator). But summer is here, and it seems like the perfect time to brew, so I’m going to make it happen. The weather is perfect for the honey wheat I’ve been dreaming of.

More to come as the kegerator gets filled … look for an update in the coming weeks as the session IPA gets kegged and Tap #2 starts flowing. After that I’m going to need something to write about, so that will be two good excuses to make time to brew.

So stay tuned, and until then, cheers from myBrewHome to yours.

*Note: Never actually referred to as “Chill Bill” until after its death.

Just when things were getting back to normal …

We’re back from vacation. I’ve got a couple of recipes queued up to brew soon. This blog is back up and running, and there’s a session IPA in the fermentation chamber awaiting a dose of dry hops.

Everything was just getting back to normal at myBrewHome when my kegerator broke.

It still runs, but it doesn’t cool. So I’ve got three kegs of beer sitting in a hot box at 77°F right now (that’s 25°C for my overseas readers, and too bloody hot for craft beer fans worldwide).

I’m not nearly handy enough to fix it. I got into the homebrewing hobby to make beer, not gear, and the only household appliance I know how to take apart and rebuild is a desktop computer (a skill I doubt will help me here). I’m sure it’s going to need a new compressor or something, and any repair guy will tell me to replace the whole thing. So I’m just shopping for a replacement now.

I’ve got a beer fridge stocked with commercial bottles and cans, so I won’t go thirsty, concerned readers. And replacing the kegerator will give me an excuse to finally install the fancy new draft tower I ordered a while ago but haven’t had the time to unpack. But in the meantime, my bar area seems tragically quiet and dark without the hum of the kegerator or the faint blue glow of its temperature readout.

I’ll post an update as soon as I have one. Have strength. We’ll get through this.

Until then, a memorial for my first kegerator, complete with the white-on-dark Monotype Corsiva Italic font I always see in memorials on rear windshields:

I've never called my kegerator "Chill Bill" before today. But I figured that in death, like a member of Project Mayhem, a kegerator should have a name (H/T to Fight Club).

I’ve never called my kegerator “Chill Bill” before today. But in death, just like a member of Project Mayhem, a kegerator should have a name (H/T to Fight Club).

Farewell, gentle appliance. I will always remember the joy you brought me, my family and my friends. May Ninkasi receive you into her arms.

2015 is the new 2014

New year, new beginning. 2014 was a good year, but an intense one; with my son Lucian celebrating his first birthday in spring, major changes at my day job in summer, my wife’s pregnancy, and then our baby daughter Vesper being born the first week of December.

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Behold the cooing, grunting adorable radiance of the newest sun at the center of my universe.

Mother and baby are doing great, and my son adores his little sister. I have no complaints. But now that all four of us have had some time to settle into our new family routine, I’m looking ahead to what’s next. And there’s nothing like a new year to start a new chapter in one’s life.

I love the idea of new year’s resolutions, but it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to instantly change a bad habit or adopt a good one – and keep it consistently – just because there’s a new calendar on the wall. So I approach my resolutions as habits to develop in the coming year, not all-or-nothing life changes to succeed at instantly. I like to spend the first week of the year reflecting on my resolutions before committing to them. So believe me when I say that by my schedule, this list of new year’s resolutions is timely.

My New Year’s Resolutions, 2015 Edition:

Write More. The need should be obvious to regular followers of this blog (if I still have any after publishing only one new post in the last eight months). I did spend time – not enough – on other writing projects not related to beer, but this blog hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. I’ve been so busy just being a dad that I haven’t been doing much brewing or beer-geeking, so there wasn’t much for me to write about here … unless I want to start writing general parenting stuff. But I refuse to do that, primarily as a public service to advice-seekers on the Internet, because when it comes to parenting I have absolutely no idea what the hell I’m doing.

Read More. I have a tall stack of beer-related books I want to read. I have an even taller stack of non-beer-related books I want to read. I also have a thick folder of books on my Kindle I want to read. I won’t get through all of them in the next 360-odd days, but if I can hold myself to reading new things instead of revisiting old favorites, I’ll be off to a good start. So maybe now’s not the time to be rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion for the seventh time, which is exactly what I’m doing. But remember, these are habits to develop over the coming year.

Brew More. This was the first resolution I came up with, and the question I immediately asked myself was “More than what?” The answer: more than I think I can brew with two little ones in my life. Scraping together eight hours on the patio for a five-gallon all-grain brew session is not going to be easy. Anything I can do on the kitchen stove in 2-4 hours while keeping one eye open for little hands and feet going where they shouldn’t will be more feasible. So small batches may be the key to keeping my brewing skills up in 2015 while also providing ample fodder for these pages. Maybe I’ll work my way through the new 2014 BJCP Style Guidelines in small-batch brew-in-a-bag sessions. Maybe I’ll experiment with small-batch meads. And when the kegerator needs a restocking, if I can’t find the time for an all-grain brew session, I won’t be afraid to brew a partial mash batch with extract.

Drink More. Perhaps the first time these two words have ever shown up on someone’s new year’s resolution list; but I mean variety, not quantity. Like reading, I want to spend more time tasting new beers and less time drinking my old standbys. Even with kids in tow, there are many family-friendly brewpubs, restaurants, and tasting rooms open to me. And with my wife no longer expecting, it’ll be that much easier to pop open and share a 10% ABV bomber on a Tuesday night. So I’ll be catching up with some of the latest hot craft brews in 2015 (If you’d like to follow my progress, friend me on Untappd … my username is shawnbou).

Worry Less. Not all of my plans will come to fruition. Having two small children around means lot of variables out of my control. I won’t always get to brew when I want to. I won’t meet every self-imposed writing deadline. When I do brew or write, there will be lots on my mind and things won’t necessarily come out the way I want them to. But that’s okay. Plans are just plans. Target gravities are just targets. And deadlines are – for me, at this point in my writing career – more like guidelines. It’s time to learn to roll with the punches, do whatever I can whenever I can, and not worry about whatever falls outside the lines.

Enjoy the Little Things. I’ve emerged from two years of continual upheaval in my life with two beautiful, healthy children and a wife who is gorgeous, happy and spirited as the day I met her. My kids are getting bigger every day. It’s time to enjoy what’s in front of me. I’ll crack open a special beer when the occasion calls for it, and I won’t when it doesn’t. I’ll put down my electronic devices and interact more with the faces in the room around me. I’ll talk boldly and laugh loudly and not be afraid to be vibrantly, joyously alive right here, today, with the people I call my family and friends. After all, 2015 will only come once.

In praise of the debilitating stomach virus that made me sick yesterday afternoon

I was just getting going again. After taking a break from brewing for four months to enjoy the summer being a toddler daddy – not to mention to avoid the hottest brew days of the year – I started brewing again Labor Day weekend with a nice simple pale ale to restock the kegerator. I followed that a week later with a lavender mead I brewed to honor the birth of my daughter who’s due at the beginning of December. Two brews in one month. I had momentum, and I was all set to take the hat trick by brewing again today.

Today’s brew was going to be an ESB to serve later this fall at a party to celebrate our new baby. Whatever we don’t drink at the party, we’d save to be our “coming home” beer, and my wife’s first drink after her pregnancy.

The timing was great. The pale ale was ready to keg yesterday, so all I had to do was get it in the keg and I could soak the fermenter overnight, have it clean and ready to receive a malty delicious new ESB wort today. It was all so perfectly planned …

Then, inexplicably, yesterday morning I came down with a stomach bug that left me pretty much unable to even sit up straight, let alone be on my feet. I was back in bed before noon, and woke up three hours later parched and needing a drink. The water kind, not the alcohol kind.

I’ll breeze through this next part for your sake. All I’ll say is that as soon as the water found its way to my stomach, it decided it wanted to be out again. And it wanted to take everything else in there with it. There’s nothing like a four-round toilet-hugging session in the afternoon to leave you feeling bruised and abused … I pretty much gave up on trying to get anything done that day. I had a vague sense of that screwing up my plans somehow, but I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time.

It was only later that I realized that I hadn’t gotten the pale ale kegged, and I wasn’t going to with my energy sapped. Not to mention a number of other chores and errands I hadn’t gotten done that needed to be done before Monday. There was no way I was going to brew this weekend!

This morning, getting dressed to do the stuff I was supposed to do yesterday, I felt sad and disappointed at missing a brew day I was really looking forward to. But I quickly realized something that I should have realized a lot sooner.

The beer I planned to brew is to celebrate the birth of my baby girl! My first daughter, second child, and if everything goes according to plan, probably my last. Doesn’t she deserve something a little more special than an Extra Special Bitter? I know it’s got “extra special” in the name, but surely we can do better. And then an idea hit me. November party, late November/early December birth … we need to get some sweet potato in there!

So after some research and careful consideration, I’ve adjusted my ESB recipe into a Sweet Potato ESB recipe that I will brew next Sunday. It’ll be made from a mix of Maris Otter and Golden Promise malts, Kent Goldings hops, organic sweet potatoes from our CSA, whole cinnamon and nutmeg. It’ll still be low-to-medium alcohol – a necessity if I want to turn it around in five weeks, but always a good idea for a party beer or for momma’s first beer after coming home from the hospital.

So thank you, stomach virus, for making me unable to get anything done yesterday, and forcing me to take the extra time to realize how to turn my recipe into a perfect tribute to autumn and a much more fitting welcome to my new baby. I appreciate your contribution to my craft, stomach virus. And I think it’s safe to say that I will always remember you.

A craft beer for every palate … and a palate for every craft beer?

Great news for craft beer lovers earlier this week: NPR reported that craft beer sales jumped 20 percent in 2013, and now make up almost 8 percent of beer sales in America, according to numbers released by the Brewers Association.

The characterization of craft brewers as “bearded hipsters who brew their IPAs with chamomile and white sage or age their lagers in 30-year-old whiskey barrels” is hilariously close to home. But it was this sentence later in the article that really got me thinking:

These days, there’s a craft beer for practically every palate — and price range.

It got me wondering. What does “a craft beer for practically every palate” mean? Is craft beer growing because consumers are finding their favorite among a wide range of options and then drinking only that beer from then on out? Or because consumers are more adventurous and willing to try new things? Or some combination of the two?

In my day job, I work with marketing and product development people enough to know that modern businesses position themselves for success by offering a diverse portfolio of products. Today’s consumers demand customization. An electronics company won’t just make smartphones; they’ll make tablets, TVs, or laptops, or all of the above. A company that makes messenger bags offers a variety of similar bags with different colors, patterns, and compartments. Companies that make chewing gum make four thousand varieties of chewing gum. The idea is simple: no matter who you are, we have a product for you.

But most people only need one smartphone, or tablet, or messenger bag – at least one at a time. As consumable commodities, beers are something you always go back to buy more of. Still, craft breweries follow a similar model by offering a variety of beers: a stout, a wheat, a pale ale or two, etc. On the surface, the idea seems to be the same: no matter what kind of beer you like, we brew one for you. And I’m sure that accounts for the growing popularity of craft beer among most beer consumers. There are “Sierra Nevada Pale Ale men” out there the way there used to be “Bud men”, and that’s a great thing.

But there are other craft beer consumers, and I’ve mentioned them once already: the chamomile-and-white-sage-IPA hipsters. Hardcore beer geeks. Bearded and/or bespectacled, wearing shirts emblazoned with zymurgic shibboleths like “OG/FG” in the AC/DC font or with the logos of obscure breweries. Using words no one else uses, like Brett, goaty and attenuated, and otherwise talking about discontinued seasonals like some people talk about vintage comic books (“No, Tyler, you’re thinking of the Great Divide 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA, not the 18th.”)

These folks – maybe you know one, maybe you are one (guilty as charged here) – but the point is that we don’t just drink one kind of beer, no matter how good we think it is. We approach the beer aisle of our favorite store like entomologists on a hunt for some rare insect. We buy things we haven’t seen before. We may be disappointed or nonchalant. We may not buy it again. But we know it’s worth it to slog through nine six-packs of mediocre beer to find that tenth beer that absolutely wows us. And we buy a lot of beer.

For us, variety and innovation are the whole point. That’s probably why many of us homebrew. And we would be no happier in a world with only one beer even if that one beer was Pliny the Elder instead of Bud Light. (Okay, maybe we’d be a little happier.) But where do our palates fit in with the concept of “practically every palate”? Or is there a line on the spectrum for us whose palates are motivated by the love of all beer and are excited by beers that are both innovative and exceptionally brewed?

It’s not that I’m questioning the wording of the NPR article, far from it. It’s a great article shedding light on an issue that’s very important to me, and I appreciate NPR devoting space to it. I’m just wondering.

I’d love to see statistics on how much of craft beer’s growth is due to brand allegiance from consumers buying one kind of beer, and how much is due to consumers buying a lot of different beers. Someone must have a graph.

What do you think, Internet? Does anyone out there know?

Shamrock the house

Sláinte! It’s Saint Patrick’s Day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may know that March 17 is one of the three days of the year I proudly proclaim myself Irish by bullshit, the other two being February 2 (James Joyce’s birthday) and June 16 (Bloomsday).

It may seem I’m trying too hard, but my wife claims a slice of Irish heritage and therefore of course so does my son. I’m outnumbered and I have to try this hard just to keep up. So we’ve got a lot planned in the Zyme Lord house. Here’s how we’re celebrating this year, aside from the obvious ways (i.e., wearing green and drinking something fermented):

My wife is preparing a beef-and-stout stew with turnips, rutabagas and carrots, served alongside cabbage sautéed with bacon and garlic. Props to the slow cooker – and the wife – for making it happen.

As an appetizer, we’ll make our way through at least one of the two loaves of stout soda bread I baked last night. I stayed up late to do it, but judging by the way the kitchen smells today it will be worth the loss of sleep. We’ve also got some aged Irish cheddar cheese with Oscar Wilde’s face on it (on the label, not on the cheese) to go with it.

We’re rapidly approaching the end of the current keg of Anna Livia Irish Stout. We’ll either empty it today or have fun trying.

Just before bed, I’ll toast to my faux Irish heritage with a dram of Jameson Distillery Reserve. It’s only available from the Jameson visitor’s center in Dublin, so I’ve been saving mine for special occasions. My eleven-month-old son’s first Saint Patrick’s Day certainly qualifies.

Speaking of the little leprechaun, he’s sporting his shamrock onesie and learning how to rock out to the Pogues.

And the Gaelic fun won’t end at midnight.  Yesterday I bottled entry samples of Anna Livia Irish Stout and another Celtic-inspired beer (Thane McCrundle’s Wee Heavy) for the Celtic Brew Off homebrew competition in Arlington, Texas in April. I’m filling out the entry paperwork today. Anyone got a four-leaf clover to send me for good luck?

Finally, because the Anna Livia stout is almost gone and the wife has expressed some trepidation about facing an entire month without it, I’m already making plans for the next batch. Fortunately I have all the ingredients on hand except the yeast, so I’ll work it into the pipeline as soon as I can.

After all this is over – though the soda bread may well last through the week – I’ll go back to being Italian until June 16.

Well, okay, I might let myself be Scottish by bullshit for a weekend in early May for the Texas Scottish Festival and Highland Games, but other than that …

To 2014 and beyond

I’m one of a kind. I buck the trend. I’m, uh … I don’t know … a Pepper.

But isn’t that why you come here? To catch every pearl of unconventional wisdom that rolls through my fingertips into the WordPress text editor? Okay, maybe not. But what would the Internet be without hyperbole?

Today I’m exercising my individuality by starting my New Year’s resolution at the end of January. How, you ask? You’re reading it, babe.

Studies have shown that 88% of all New Year’s resolutions end in failure. Those same studies offer reasons why, but my belief is that it has to do with expecting ourselves to be perfect from Day One, i.e. New Year’s Day. If we lapse early on – say a week in – it’s easy to give up.

Well I don’t know about you, but on January 1 I’m not exactly at the top of my game for self-improvement. I’m usually juggling the task of coordinating my wife’s birthday festivities (did I say “task”? I meant “delightful activity I look forward to all year” …) with sleep deprivation and a soul-draining hangover. I can’t even begin working off the post-Christmas beer belly until the birthday cake is gone on the 3rd or 4th, let alone chart a path to any successful new habits. If I gave up at the first sign of trouble, I’d never get off the ground. So I always set my goal for “some time this year”. I try to start in January to get momentum going, but if it doesn’t stick, I keep trying. Hopefully by mid-year it’s second nature. If by December 31 I find my goal has become a habit, I consider myself successful.

And it seems I may be right to look at it that way. A popular myth making the rounds online and in corporate America suggests that it takes only 21 days to form a habit. But according to actual, y’know, science, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days depending on the individual and the goal, with an average of 66. I’ve only recently learned this, but it helps explain why my approach tends to work.

My resolution this year is to get back to updating this site regularly. 2013 was an eventful year, good and bad: the birth of my child, my story in the October issue of Brew Your Own, new developments at my day job leading to longer hours and a bit more stress. It was sort of a vacation – new excitement, new stress and all – from my routine, and part of that routine I left behind was writing. Now it’s time to come back. And as I mentioned, I don’t think January 31 (which also happens to be the start of the Lunar New Year in 2014) is too late to start down the road of a successful New Year’s resolution.

The good news is that during my hiatus, Bousiris Bouery – the brewing operation of Last of the Zyme Lords – has been operational. Christmas brought some much-needed equipment upgrades in the form of a new Blichmann Floor Burner and a 10-gallon kettle, a small but important upgrade from my boilover-prone 9-gallon pot which is now a hot liquor tank.

I even managed to brew a few batches of beer. For Thanksgiving I made a SMaSH that turned out to be a crowd-pleasing English “dirty blonde” ale whose keg my visiting relations from the UK obligingly floated around the first of the year. I brewed a second batch of Anna Livia Irish Stout; the jury may be out on whether stout is good for nursing moms, but the one in my house sure loves it. I even fulfilled a 3-year-old promise to a friend by getting a wee heavy on tap for Hogmanay.

As usual, every one of these batches had a story behind it and I’ll share all of them in the coming weeks, along with updates on brews in the pipeline. For now, know that I am alive and brewing. Next week, I’ll truly get LotZL going for 2014 with the story of how I resurrected a couple of lost small-batch apple ciders for a tart holiday treat.

Until then, Happy (Lunar) New Year.

The World’s End, and my lifelong love affair with beer

We’re going to see this through to the bitter end. Or … lager end. – Gary King, The World’s End

Now in theaters is The World’s End, the latest from writer/director Edgar Wright and his frequent collaborators, co-writer/star Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost. I’ve seen it twice – including a fantastic beer dinner at the Alamo Drafthouse – and it’s my favorite film of the year. In it, five childhood friends facing middle age are brought together by ringleader Gary King (Pegg) to relive their most epic teenage memory: a night out attempting the “Golden Mile”, a 12-pint/12-pub crawl in their tiny English hometown. They aim to succeed now where they once failed, and complete the Golden Mile in all its bitter, boozy glory.

As a white male approaching 40 with a wife, child, and lots of 90’s music in heavy rotation on my iPod, I’m squarely in this film’s target demographic. I’ve also been a fan of this team’s work for years. They have a knack for parodying a genre while simultaneously making an exemplary film of that genre. What Shaun of the Dead did for zombies, and Hot Fuzz did for buddy-cop action flicks, The World’s End does for sci-fi, but I won’t spoil it. If you’ve seen the trailers, you may know what to expect.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that beer is a recurring motif in the movie. The twelve pints of the Golden Mile stand as a powerful metaphor for the childhood dreams and lost youth of the characters. That metaphor works well for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who was ever a teenager. Not sure about you, but when I was in my teens I spent a lot of time obsessing over things I couldn’t easily get. Alcoholic beverages were pretty high on that list … right behind, you know, sex.

But unlike sex, which I assumed I would spend a lot of time and effort trying to get for the rest of my life, I knew I was more or less guaranteed easy access to alcohol as soon as I was old enough. So booze was a symbol, in a sense, of my impending adulthood in general, a taste of the future; and that gave it a mystique that always attracted me. I suspect Wright and Pegg felt the same way I did – and apparently one of them wore the same trenchcoat I did, too.

But if alcohol in general held a mystique for me, beer always had a special place in my heart. Maybe because it’s cheap and sessionable (a word I didn’t know then). Maybe because it was cooler than wine and less of a “big deal” than spirits. I know that I can’t remember exactly when I had my first drink of wine or spirits … Catholic communion? A drive-through daiquiri shop in the New Orleans suburb I grew up in? Very likely, but I don’t have any real memory of it.

On the other hand, I can remember every major beer milestone of my childhood and young adulthood:

  • First Taste of Beer – age 5, Budweiser, thanks to an uncle by marriage (he was probably in your family too)
  • First Whole Serving of Beer – age 14, Miller Lite, at a low-key Halloween party
  • First Beer I Bought in a Store – age 17, Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, from a corner store in the French Quarter
  • First Beer at a Bar – age 17, a 20-oz $2 plastic cup of whatever rotgut draft was on tap at the shitty Decatur Street dive bar I was hanging out at
  • First Craft Beer – age 18, a 20-oz $3 plastic cup of Abita Turbodog, at the same shitty Decatur Street dive bar I was still hanging out at

It was kind of all downhill from there (or uphill, I guess): a progression of gradually more interesting discoveries about how much more there was to beer besides just canned lager, forties, and rotgut draft. Okay, I had a brief Rolling Rock-curious phase in college, but we don’t have to talk about that.

Now that I speak beer as a second language, one might think the power it held over me as a younger man would be lessened. I no longer have to wait for a friend’s brother to come through with a case of Milwaukee’s Best or maintain a mental list of stores and bars that won’t look too closely at my fake I.D.. If I want beer – good beer, brewed a mile away in Austin or halfway across the world in Belgium, I just have to go to the supermarket. Or I can make beer myself, five gallons at a time. Surely what unattainability made magical in my youth, familiarity would render mundane as an adult?

But it hasn’t. The mystique is still there, just changed. Beer is still tied to my hopes and dreams. When I wish I could travel but I’m stuck at my nine-to-five job, an English bitter or a Belgian saison helps me through. When my child was born, I commemorated his birth with two different batches of homebrew, one of which I hope to age until he’s old enough to drink it. And when the hectic pace of adult life makes it hard to find the time to write fiction – after all these years, one childhood dream I’m still chasing – I write about beer.

And thanks to the breadth and depth of beers available in the world today, there are still some unattainables. My indoctrination into the world of beer has only taught me how much I have yet to experience. I’ve never been to Northern California in February to try Russian River’s Pliny the Younger (I can’t even get the less legendary Pliny the Elder easily here in Texas). I’ve never sipped Trappist ale from a chalice at a Belgian bistro across the street from the medieval abbey that brews it, nor kvass from a street cart in some town in Eastern Europe whose name I can’t spell.

When I started this blog, I set out with the goal of finding the places where brewing and storytelling intersect, to show how beer – for millennia, a mystical beverage credited with inspiring great works of art – can still inspire great stories and be a form of storytelling in itself. It seems Edgar Wright and Company beat me to the finish line. I’d be jealous if I wasn’t so blown away by the movie they made, and humbled by what I’ve realized since seeing it: that beer is, and has always been, an inspiration and an aspiration for me. That getting older means sacrificing some of what it once meant for me, and the reward for that sacrifice is realizing how much more meaning there is to find.