Friday, October 30, 2009

Hops/Malt Balance

The title of this post is a term I use often when I'm describing and/or rating beer. Usually I shorten it by just referring to a beer's "balance." I know Joey Pants understands what I'm talking about, but maybe I take for granted that everyone else does. So, I thought I'd explain the term by sharing a conversation I had with a co-worker yesterday afternoon.

Somehow a question about what my plans are for Halloween evolved into an explanation of the meaning of hops/malt balance. In addition to telling said co-worker about KJ's Halloween party and my costume ideas, I also mentioned that I might pick up some Pumpkin-spiced beer for the gathering. I talked about how rare it is, in my opinion, that this particular style of beer is any good, but that I really want to try Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale.

My tangential nature turned this into a discussion of Dogfish's most well-known offerings: 60 Minute, 90 Minute and 120 Minute IPA. My co-worker asked me about the meaning of the names of these brews. I explained that they represent the amount of time that the hops are in the boil during the brewing process, and that the longer the time, the more bitter the beer. To offset the bitterness, higher quantities of malt are added.

Hops are bitter, malt is sweet. Increasing malt content to sweeten a highly bitter beer is the key to good hops/malt balance. Obviously, the concept also works in reverse. It just so happens that high malt content translates to high alcohol content. Although people tend to associate bitterness with strong beer, bitter brews are not necessarily strong, at least not directly as a result of what makes them bitter. But, if they're well-balanced, they are.

Pretty simple concept, really.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sorry Mets Fans

This year's World Series matchup, the realization of every Mets fan's worst nightmare, gave me an idea for an interesting list. Since the teams involved include one of their biggest division rivals, and their hated crosstown rivals, fans of New York's junior team are left with nothing to root for except injuries.

So, the list, of course, is of World Series showdowns involving two teams so despised by the fans of a third team. I decided to only go back as far as the beginning of the division play era (1969), as we all know there would be a very familiar theme if I went back further. Here's what I came up with, in reverse chronological order:

2004 (Boston Red Sox vs. St. Louis Cardinals): OK, so they don't hate the Red Sox, but Cubs fans had nothing to gain when these two teams faced off. They were either going to lose their partners in misery, or see their least favorite team win it all. I have to say that I'm happy for Chicago's north-siders that there's never been a Cardinals-White Sox World Series.

2002 (Anaheim Angels vs. San Francisco Giants): The Giants-Dodgers rivalry was so strong that it traveled 3,000 miles with them as both teams moved across the country in the late '50s. So, it certainly couldn't have made Dodgers fans happy when the Giants matched up with the team they battle with for Southern California supremacy.

1999 & 1996 (Atlanta Braves vs. New York Yankees): Lately, it seems that the Phillies are the team most hated by the Mets, but it used to be the Braves. So, these two teams squaring off in the '90s had to be at least as bad, if not worse, for Mets fans as this year's Phillies-Yankees series.

1988 & 1974 (Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Oakland Athletics): Giants fans probably didn't watch a second of either World Series in which their Bay area rivals opposed the hated Dodgers.

1986 (Boston Red Sox vs. New York Mets): This was to Yankees fans what White Sox-Cardinals would be to Cubs fans. I know from personal experience that the former group wasn't too enthusiastic about this one.

1981, 1978 & 1977 (Los Angeles Dodgers vs. New York Yankees): Back in the days when there were three teams in New York, it seems that just about every year it was either Dodgers fans or Giants fans who were miserable. Thankfully for the Yankees, a Dodgers-Giants World Series matchup was an impossibility.

If I'm missing any, feel free to let me know via comments. Unconventional criteria are encouraged.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Year in Music

It's getting close to the time of year that I start to re-evaluate the albums I really liked and try to rank them relative to each other. That is, I begin piecing together my "Best Music of 2009" list. I've alluded to this before, but I feel that this year has been the weakest year for new releases in recent memory. It's not that there weren't a lot of good albums this year. In fact, I should have little problem coming up with a top 40, despite listening to considerably fewer 2009 releases than I did 2008 releases. But, it's just that, there's really not a strong contender for album of the year. Or, in other words, unless my album of the year is one I haven't heard yet, this year's #1 record is going to be a little less-than-worthy of the honor.

Taking a look at the Metacritic Upcoming Release Calendar, my primary source for hopeful anticipation of what I have to look forward to, it doesn't seem likely that my personal chart-topper is yet to be released. Of course, there's really only a few more weeks left until that time of year when very few record companies would dare release anything they weren't willing to risk relegating to instant obscurity.

Other than the realistic possibility that 2009 was, in fact a weak year for new music, I'm not sure what explanation there is for the lack of one album that I really feel strongly about. As I said, I listened to fewer new releases this year than last. That could be at least part of the reason, but it also means that I was more selective with what I listened to, ignoring most of one particular friend's recommendations that, with rare exception, I end up filing under the category of "not my thing."

Or, maybe it's that my taste has become too fickle, and that I need to start branching out a little more by paying closer attention to said friend's suggestions. I definitely grow tired of music a lot quicker than I used to, so it's certainly possible that what I'm listening to is too derivative of what I've enjoyed that's come before. Regardless, if you've been able to trust my opinions in the past, I'm confident that you can continue to do so.

It's almost that time of year again. That is, the time of year that I get to begin working on my favorite list of all.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Breweries Per Capita

As I was planning our recent trip to Bar Harbor, I got to thinking about what areas have the greatest number of breweries per capita. Of course, I assumed that, among major U.S. cities, Portland, Oregon would rank #1. But, what about New England? With Boston, as the largest city in the region, being pretty poorly represented, my focus was on smaller areas. So, I started trying to determine what county in New England has the highest rate of breweries per capita, believing that Hancock County, Maine—with three breweries and a population of just over 50,000—would top the list.

Hancock, of course, is the county that Bar Harbor is in. The process of trying to figure this out proved to be fairly tedious, and I have yet to finish it, but I'm pretty certain I'm correct about Hancock County. I'll get back to that little project eventually.

KJ and I were in Vermont this past weekend, checking out a potential venue for a pretty big party we're throwing next year. While there, we stopped in at a little place called Pleasant Valley Brewing in Saxtons River. We were a little unclear as to the reason—something license-related—but they're not yet serving their own beer. Still, we really liked the place.

Quite often, brew pubs are too posh, with more of a focus on atmosphere and dining experience than quality beer. Pleasant Valley was a no-nonsense blue collar place with a really friendly vibe. While conversing with the owner, he told us that Vermont has the most breweries per capita in the country. KJ was quick to defend her home state, but he stood his ground, claiming that while Portland has the most breweries, Vermont tops the list of states.

A little post-trip research confirmed that he was right. According to statistics released by the Brewers Association in 2008, Vermont—with 19 breweries and a population of just over 620,000—has one brewery per 32,698 people. Oregon has a population over six times that of Vermont, but their 93 breweries translates to one per 40,753 people, the third highest rate in the nation. Here are the top five:
  1. Vermont
  2. Montana
  3. Oregon
  4. Maine
  5. Colorado
When we weren't discussing brewery statistics, we were tasting some of the local flavor. First up was Switchback Ale, described by Pleasant Valley's owner as the hottest beer in Vermont. It wasn't difficult to understand why. It's simply a very solid ale, hazy and pale to copper colored, slightly hoppy but excellently balanced. It wasn't advertised as overly strong, but both KJ and I felt a little buzzed after only one pint.

Later in the evening, while dining at the Old Tavern in Grafton, I enjoyed a McNeill's Dead Horse IPA, another excellent choice. True to the style, it's nicely hopped, but well balanced, although a tad higher on the hops side of the equation. To close out the night, we shared a 22 oz. bottle of McNeill's Firehouse Amber Ale, while watching game two of the ALCS at the Old Tavern's cozy Phelps Barn.

The Firehouse Amber is bottle-conditioned, which places it in the real ale category with Gritty McDuff's cask-conditioned Best Bitter. However, while low in carbonation, it didn't taste flat like Gritty's cask offering did. It was only slightly hoppy, but with some really tasty, caramel malt character.

This trip left me wondering what I was thinking when I called Maine the state that puts all others in New England to shame. Clearly, Vermont has something to say about that. Based on my recent experiences, I'm feeling partial to the Green Mountain State.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Since it's the playoffs, and there was a controversial call this past weekend that wasn't strictly about the umpire's judgment, I thought I should chime in on the issue. Saturday night's ALCS game two call by umpire Jerry Layne on Erick Aybar's double-play-that-wasn't had the potential to result in serious controversy. Well, since the call went in favor of the hated Yankees, there probably will still be a lot of conspiracy theory discussion, but fortunately, it turned out to have no noticeable effect on the outcome of the game.

Layne was roundly criticized by FOX commentators Joe Buck and Tim McCarver for not allowing the "neighborhood play" on a potential 10th inning double play. The problem with the so-called neighborhood play is that, since there's no specific definition, the amount of leeway each umpire is willing to give would have to vary. To illustrate this by exaggeration, if Aybar had caught the flip from second baseman Maicer Izturis two feet from the bag, and clearly did not touch the base as he followed through to make the throw, I don't think any umpire would have given him the call. However, is it possible that one umpire would give a few more inches margin for error than another? Of course it is.

If we asked them, no major league umpire would admit that such a neighborhood play exists, but it may very well be that Layne gives the call as long as he doesn't see daylight between the foot and the bag. Of course, we'll never know. But, what we do know is that "in the neighborhood of the base" is not as easily defined as "touching the base."

Due to these potentially significant inconsistencies, I contend that the neighborhood play is a myth. The origin of the term is likely unknown, but its use certainly has been perpetuated by the sports media. Having been to professional baseball umpire school myself, I honestly don't recall how we were instructed to handle these calls. What I do know is that a major philosophy of umpiring is self-preservation.

Self-preservation, in this context, means not going out on a limb when it's unnecessary. Could Layne have gotten away with calling the runner out in this particular circumstance? Probably. So, did he go further out on the limb than he had to? Most likely. Did he properly define the unwritten rule that is commonly referred to as the neighborhood play? There's really no answer to that question.

The call that went against the Angels in last year's ALDS probably wasn't as controversial as I contended it should have been. Ironically, this call was much more controversial than it had the right to be, particularly considering it technically was the correct call. Fortunately, though, the call didn't result in a second consecutive year that this Angels team was potentially robbed by a strangely controversial call.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Frequent Spins (2009.7)

Anders Parker - Skyscraper Crow
Upon first listen, I thought this album would probably make my year-end list, but not necessarily near the top. But, then I listened to the electronic half of this two-disc set on my iPod, and it won me over. Skyscraper, as the first disc is called, is "the computer record," according to Anders, and so far it's my favorite of the two. The second disc, Crow, is a nice little acoustic affair, but with fewer really catchy songs than the first. Apparently, there are two more completed records waiting to be released, as Anders has been doing his best Ryan Adams impersonation of late.

Discovery - LP
I certainly don't profess to know all that much about this genre—let's call it electro-pop—but this collaboration between Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles is delightfully cheesy throughout, including an enjoyable cover version of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."

Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs - Under the Covers Vol. 2
Cover songs present an interesting dilemma. Should they remain true to the original, or does an artist need to add a personal touch to a song to make it worthwhile? While taking the former route can produce some pretty boring results, a lot of listeners want their covers to at least remind them of the version they're most familiar with. Personally, I look for a happy medium. I don't want to hear a completely recycled, straight-up cover, but I generally don't take to those that stray so far from the original that they're unrecognizable. While this album is far from earth-shattering, Sid and Susie—as they’re calling themselves—do a nice job on their second covers album, which handles the territory of the 1970s. The songs that really stand out here are those on which they're so different from the original artists that their fairly straightforward versions still sound fresh. One particular highlight for me is Sweet’s clear enunciation of the lyrics, “Yeah man, when I got that little girl standing right by my side, you know, I can tell the whole wide world to shove it!” on “Here Comes My Girl.”

Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk
I really like supergroups, especially when they get it right, and singer-songwriter M. Ward, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, and Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst and his frequent sidekick Mike Mogis do just that. Back in the mid-90s, I recall Golden Smog being referred to as the alternative Traveling Wilburys, but I'd have to say that these guys better fit that description. Of course, I mean that in the best possible way.

Those Darlins - Those Darlins
This country/punk/rock/pop girl group consists of Kelley, Jessi and Nikki Darlin. They're not sisters, so if you want to fantasize that they're in some kind of triad relationship, I can't say that I blame you. The only problem with that theory is, they live in Tennessee. More importantly, though, they write infectious songs with charming lyrics, such as "You're too, too, too much fun, and when you're gone, clouds cover the sun," on "222," and "I may be a little darling gal of yours, that's when i'm straight and sober, and both feet are on the floor," on their ode to recalcitrance, "Wild One."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sara & Kate's NuptuAle

In late August, KJ and I teamed up to brew a batch of beer as a wedding gift for a couple friends. Other than our attempt at brewing root beer a few months ago, this was the first time we brewed together. Of course, I couldn't write about it until after the wedding, as we wanted it to be a surprise.

Since theirs was an October wedding, we decided to go the Oktoberfest route. As I wrote recently, I've always been a bigger fan of the American microbrewed style over the more authentic German varieties, but I honestly have yet to figure out what the difference is in terms of ingredients. I do know that the good American Oktoberfests are a little more malty and full-bodied, so that's what we were shooting for.

Regardless of my personal preference, it is a German style, so we developed a recipe that remained true to the origins of the style, while trying to add a little something to make it a little heartier.

For specialty grains, we used Munich and Vienna malts, while adding a little chocolate malt—an ingredient not foreign to some Oktoberfests—in an effort to make it a little more flavorful and full-bodied. We went with the German varieties of Hallertau hops for bittering, and Tettnang for aroma, while adding the Oregon-indigenous Mt. Hood hops—as a little KJ personal touch—for flavoring. Oktoberfests are usually brewed with lager yeast, but many home brewers utilize ale yeast with this style, since they can be fermented at room temperature. We went this route, opting for German Ale/Kölsch yeast. Here's the full recipe:

1.5 lbs. Munich malt (steeped for 20 mins.)
1.5 lbs. Vienna malt (steeped 20 mins.)
0.25 lbs. chocolate malt (steeped 20 mins.)
6.6 lbs. light malt extract (boiled for 60 mins.)
1.5 oz. Hallertau hops - 3.8% alpha (boiled 60 mins.)
1 oz. Mt. Hood hops - 5.2% alpha (boiled 30 mins.)
1 oz. Tettnang hops - 4.7% alpha (boiled 15 mins.)
0.5 tsp. Irish moss (boiled 15 mins.)
1.5 oz. German Ale/Kölsch yeast

Sara & Kate's NuptuAleWe also took liberties with the name, going with a derivation of a common mispelling of nuptial. We wanted it to be pronounced nup-shu-ale, as we thought trying to say nuptiale (nup-shale?) would be awkward and even a little confusing.

So, at yesterday's wedding, we delivered 36 12-oz. bottles and one 64-oz. growler of Sara & Kate's NuptuAle. KJ and I were quite pleased with our gift, and we have every reason to believe that it was, and will continue to be, quite the hit.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Unemployed in Vacationland, Part 2

Bar Harbor is a little port town on the eastern shore of Mount Desert Island, the second largest island on the eastern seaboard, with New York's Long Island being the first. Acadia National Park comprises 47 of Mount Desert Island's 108 square miles, although it seems to me that it takes up more like two-thirds of the island's acreage. I first visited the area in the mid-90s, and fell in love with the combination of Bar Harbor's quaintness and Acadia's spectacular mix of rocky shorelines and mountainous terrain.

Rocky shoreline of Mount Desert Island
Our Maine weekend's primary destination is the easternmost point in the United States that both KJ and I have ventured. In fact, I realized recently that it's the furthest east that I've ever been. Yes, it's true. I've never been to Europe, but I have a feeling that my relatively new traveling companion will play a major role in rectifying that situation.

Our first evening on the island, we stopped by Bar Harbor Brewing Company's in-town location for a free tasting. The small brewery was recently purchased by the Bar Harbor and Portland-based Atlantic Brewing Company, so the actual brewing now takes place at Atlantic's Town Hill location, on the outskirts of Bar Harbor.

We sampled four of their products: Harbor Lighthouse Ale, True Blue Wheat Ale, Thunder Hole Ale, and Cadillac Mountain Stout. Of course, free tastings are an excellent marketing concept, as I felt compelled to take home a mixed six-pack, which included two bottles each of my two favorites. This also gave me the idea, when I travel to an area known for beer, to take home some of the local flavors that I can't purchase elsewhere.

In total, I brought home two mixed six-packs of beers from Maine brewers. What follows are my impressions of those from the eastern portion of the state.

Thunder Hole Ale - Brown ales are an enigma. Those that fall into this category run the gamut from some of the most bland beers in existence—see Newcastle and those that try to emulate it—to others that are very complex and flavorful. Thunder Hole Ale definitely fits the latter description. It has a slightly nutty aroma, is malty and full-bodied, with just enough hop bitterness to keep it from being too sweet. Grade: B+

Cadillac Mountain Stout - Cadillac Mountain is the highest peak on Mount Desert Island. In my opinion, Thunder Hole Ale is actually the pinnacle of Bar Harbor Brewing Company's offerings, but their stout is also very good. It's full-bodied and complex, with hints of chocolate and coffee, very well-balanced, and smooth and creamy going down. Grade: B

Eastern Maine beer lineup
Bar Harbor Real Ale - Atlantic Brewing Company's brown ale offering is only slightly less tasty than Bar Harbor's. It's a little more nutty, and a little less robust, but is nicely hopped. Up front, you can't help but smell its nutty maltyness as you tilt the glass towards your mouth. On the tongue, it starts off lively, but ends smoothly. Grade: B

Coal Porter - When it comes to darker ales, I'm generally partial to stouts versus porters, but Atlantic's version of this style is solid. It's rich but smooth and slightly smokey, the latter of which is a quality I like in a porter. Grade: B-

Belfast Bay Lobster Ale - According to Belfast Bay Brewing Company's web site, they decided to brew a red ale because the style was so popular with their neighbors to the north. Red ale isn't necessarily a Canadian style, but my fairly recent experience north of the border certainly reinforced this Maine brewer's contention that it's quite prevalent there. The aptly named Lobster Ale is a slightly caramely, medium-bodied beer that's nicely balanced with medium hop bitterness. It's not fantastic, but is very drinkable. Grade: B-

Newport CoveOf course, we didn't spend our entire weekend drinking beer. In fact, I've spent more time tasting and reviewing these brews in the few days I've had off since returning home earlier this week than I did in Bar Harbor. But, since I'm no Henry David Thoreau, and since that part of Maine is not known for baseball or music, I choose to write about the beer rather than the beautiful scenery we witnessed. Just in case you don't believe me, here's a little more evidence of the latter.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Unemployed in Vacationland, Part 1

As KJ and I headed to Maine this past weekend, I realized that I'm in the unique situation of being literally "between jobs." That's a funny phrase, in that it's most commonly used by people who are unemployed. In that situation, using the phrase kind of implies that you need to tell your audience that you do expect to, in fact, work again. In my case, my last job ended on October 2 and my new gig begins on October 13. So, it also occurred to me that, right now, I'm technically unemployed.

It's also somewhat analogous to when I used to respond, "not right now," when people asked me if I had a girlfriend. Did I feel that it was necessary to point out that I'd been in a relationship before, and that I hadn't resigned myself to a life of celibacy? I don't think so, although I will say that not being in a relationship is a little easier than not having a job. Of course, I have more experience with the former than the latter.

But, I digress. Since I generally try not to divulge too much information about my personal life here, I'll just say that this weekend was quite special and that I'm no longer concerned with having to answer such questions about my love life.

A stop-off for lunch at Gritty McDuff's in Portland got our weekend started. I'd been to Maine's oldest brewpub before, but it was over ten years ago. I recall being not all that impressed, and this visit did nothing but reinforce that. The food was solid, but the beer was a disappointment.

Gritty McDuff'sOn Gritty's web site, they refer to their Halloween Ale as a robust brew, with a "...deep amber color, a bold, malty palate and a well-rounded hop finish." This got me excited to try it, especially considering my recent interest in fall beer styles. But, in all honesty, I'm puzzled by the use of the words robust and bold to describe this one. It's very much a semi-sweet, light bodied offering that's hoppy up front, but then the bitterness fades. I really had high hopes for it, but rating it above average is as high as I'm willing to go.

I thought that the Portland brewer's signature beer, Gritty's Best Bitter, would be their saving grace, but it was not to be. I apologize to Gritty's if I wasn't aware that this was their cask offering, but it was kind of flat. If it was cask-conditioned, I would have been nice if their menu indicated as such. Regardless, my opinion is that it just isn't assertive enough to serve that way. Cask beer shouldn't taste flat, as other qualities in the beer should compensate for its relative lack of carbonation.

On the plus side for Gritty's, I loved the rustic atmosphere, particularly the brick-walled interior and long communal tables. Additionally, the fact that it was very crowded at 12:30 pm, on a dreary Saturday with no great college football on television, tells me that my less-than-enthusiastic evaluation of the place leaves me in the minority.

After a brief visit with some friends in Freeport, it was on to Bar Harbor, a small touristy hot spot that can boast two small breweries and a brewpub. But, you'll have to wait for "Unemployed in Vacationland, Part 2" to hear what I have to say about one of my favorite New England towns.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Going-Away Presents

Today was my last day at the job I've held for the past three years. After a little time off, on October 13, I begin a new and exciting endeavor that I'm really looking forward to. But, my point isn't to discuss my recent career move. Rather, it's to talk about going-away presents.

My co-workers gave me a couple of gifts yesterday to send me on my way. Those gifts were a t-shirt of the college I work(ed) at, and a generous gift certificate to the local home brew store. Also, a couple months ago, my (former) boss gave me a bottle of Unibroue's La Fin Du Monde as a thank you for stepping in to do a presentation for her at the spur of the moment.

A little over three years ago, when I left my previous job for this one, my boss organized a going-away party at which everyone contributed beer to the cause. Since there was quite the international contingent there, I was given beer from Japan, China, Germany, Belgium, Brazil, England and many other countries. I calculated that the gift totalled approximately seven cases. A year later, I still hadn't finished it all, although I can assure you that what was left were the less desirable options.

So, what is my point? Apparently, I've earned quite the reputation as either a beer connoisseur or a serious drinker...or both. Either way, I'm pretty pleased, and thinking it's just about time to start thinking about my next home brewing venture. Or, I just might decide to revisit what I consider to be the best batch of beer I've ever made, which was back in 1995. Stay tuned.