“I’m going through changes…”

Last week, an unexpected (yet anticipated) announcement hit me like a ton of bricks. And this week, months of expectation will morph into reality. I’m not having a child, and nobody died.

In fact, these are good changes, and related in some ways. My role at Northwest Brewing News is changing from “Columnist” to “Editor.” I’m movin’ on up, which I see not so much as an authoritative position than as a chance to get to know my fellow writers and put more connective lines on my own atlas of skills and creativity. I get to grow into. I get to learn a new language.

And now, the public news that my long term employers are selling the fruit of a dozen years of their lives (to a local individual with the best intentions for the business) means a new face, a new personality at the top of our strange totem pole. It means that I’ll be the third-longest employee, and that realization gave me pause (yesterday, in the car, leaving a brewery). Has it been that long? I still feel like a kid; the semi-unserious, easily distracted kid I’ve always been, I suppose. The best way I’ve been able to spin it for myself and other co-workers is the model of opportunity. A new rock is hurtling down towards our little pond, and it’s going to make waves. In some companies, people may say “shore up,” and prepare for a hard impact. That’s reactionary. If you can’t float on the waves, you’ll sink. Now is the time to put on our floaties. Flap those water wings.

I’m grateful for the changes. I can’t draw a straight line, nor can I live one. When new things don’t come my way, I go looking. Dip my toe in different ponds and see what nibbles.


Beer Eats Wine

A bunch of beer heads sit astride each other, all wagging on about combining clusters and casks. A cloud of information forms a pinkish mass above the seated cluster of glass clinkers who sip, listen, sip. The representatives are Mademoiselle Muscat, Mister Muller Thurgau, Madame Meunier, and Sir Syrah-Grenache. The tenor in the bottles is rowdier than the crowd, being wild and all. The only remaining question is jammed in between all the answers, trampled.

Muscat led off; Alesong 2016 Saison du Vin. Despite only meeting the grape upon its imprisonment in glass, the wily fruit presents itself in a poof, like you’ve unknowingly stepped on a patch of lemon balm in the woods: Where did that come from?

Muller Thurgau is a stand-in for a comically common distribution muck-up; we were supposed to receive Venetian shades of Pinot Noir, but Mr. Magoo will do. At three years in the bottle, Oakshire Hermanne 2014 has some wrinkles; closeted bottles are now turning into shag carpet, so keep it cool. The grape is all tied up in Brett, a tangle of rough twine, out there in the vineyard. Nevertheless, with a warm hand, the beer opens up, releases some of its prickle, and begs for peppery greens coated in perfect fat.

Meunier is a mystery. A blonde tart, some base humor. In fact, a rippling chuckle happens compulsively when the first whiff of Block 15 7th Anniversary hits the ol’ nostrils. This is the locomotive of the bunch, and it’s pulling off the rails. Multi-acidic stereo citrus with an off-disco backbeat and a high-pitched Hammond organ-ism turn the whole crowd on. The finish makes you go “hoo-whee!”

The G and the S of the GSM. Beer-GSM. Holy grapes, Batman. It looks and smells like a red wine, but Shilpi assures us that there’s protein in them thar bottles. Logsdon Sn4 Cuvee, brewed for Tin Bucket and available there at a high high price, is the sparkling lambiGSini of your dreams. Purple highlights and undertones underscore more purple; the prom dress that never was. It’s soda if you like dry, complex, expensive sodas with identity crises. It’s bubbly. It’s fun.

Encore! Surprise entrance by the nearly-ready-for-the-public Alesong Pinot Spontanee. It was rushed from the dressing room onto the stage, but it’s clear that this one can dance.

Beer and Vine Symposium is over, you may find cocktails at Le Bar. Pinkies up!


The Session #93: Beer Travel

This is my first foray into group blogging (kinky). The Session has been going on for many years; I have been reading them for just a couple; now I find the opportunity to contribute. Excellent. Here is the topic, presented by The Roaming Pint (and my scattered response):

Why is it important for us to visit the place the where our beers are made? Why does drinking from source always seem like a better and more valuable experience? Is it simply a matter of getting the beer at its freshest or is it more akin to pilgrimage to pay respect and understand the circumstances of the beer better?

It so happens that I recently returned from just such a mission. It dawned upon me while writing an entry for The Bier Stein’s newsletter that travelling great distances to try beer is like going to my neighborhood brewpub, but with more history, culture, and canals.

I had made a Google map of all the breweries I wanted to hit, and brought along CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium, ever hopeful to meet my goals. Before leaving, I thought of the trip like a hajj, and was excited to step through so many old brewery doors, to feel the cobwebs brush my cheeks, and to proselytize to people about where I work in hopes of a deeper connection.

As it turned out, the act of getting to the beer was just as valuable as drinking the stuff. Our poetic limitations were transportation and communication: no car, no cell/smart phone– just an iPad with wifi. We relied on trains and trams, bicycles and our feet, paper maps and handwritten directions. The Guide was employed several times a day, and proved to be a sherpa worth its salt. Navigating the contoured streets and alleys of Belgian cities and towns broke us down; you have to get lost to find your way. Randomly spotting a good beer bar was satisfying; I felt like I did it myself.

“I made it!” I thought, and it showed on my face, as Liz would point out. In my head, walking through a door was like walking out of an Arctic blizzard; the hasp clicks and the screaming wind dies. Every pour was a new acquaintance, every acquaintance a new friend.

Tromping around the Belgian countryside, past fields of Brussels sprouts, cows, and hop trellises, you might imagine absorbing the local terroir and commiserating with your beer that way. Or breathing the air in Beersel, perhaps, would give you a preview of the flavors to come out of Drie Fonteinen’s barrels a few years down the road. It’s all in the mind, you know, so make the most of it.

Of course the beer is fresher; it is absolutely delicious, especially at a place like Het Waterhuis in Ghent, where they clearly take care of their draught system and glassware, or De Garre in Bruges where the owner is the bartender and pours beers like they were his kids. I got to admire a method of pouring that was not business-savvy, but made the beer better: from a height greater than 4 inches, plenty of foam that spills over; just before the foaming action peaks, it is scraped off the top with a flat knife so that the final bit billows and creates a lovely aromatic pillow for your upper lip. Dip the bottom of the glass in water to rinse, serve with a coaster and a nod.

Economically speaking, going to the source versus drinking at home is the same as going to the show versus buying the CD; the closer you are, the more your support counts. Personally, I feel more enriched having visited. I can attach memories of places to beers, which helps me in a number of ways:

-I sell beer as part of my job, and stories sell.
-I brew beer as a hobby, and now have a new challenge to brew a beer I feel is “legit” Belgian, to work the yeast the right way.
-Ray Daniels and the Cicerone website said it would boost my Ciccy cred to visit a famous beer brewing country. Oregon does not count as a beer brewing country yet.
-Time away from the drinking culture at home showed me just how ingrained beer is, and can be, in culture.
-I got to experience some flavors and textures I never had before. Nothing like a good old fashioned palate expansion.

[On the flip side, I’ve come back home with a renewed distaste for American IPA. I was slipping there for a bit (I actually enjoyed a can of Heady Topper from the mail!), but after that two week reset I’ve come to realize that the amount of hops being put into beer out here crosses the line from an entertainment dose to a medicinal dose (the subject of future rants, I’m sure). Somehow the general craft-swilling populace has adapted to the sedative quality of these beers, which are served by the entire pint rather than the moderate glass pours of the strong beers in Belgium. Or I’m just a sensitive little butterfly, I don’t know, I just don’t have the hop fetish that seems to grip the nation right now.]

Now I get to share stories with friends, to pass on the mystique. I get to open bottles and think “I was there!” How cool.

The Beer & Cheese Biz

How do you tell a story about pairing food? “Oh, you should have been there, in my mouth, as the Abbaye de St. Bon Chien broke holes like caul fat through the stinkiest cheese, so stinky you could smell it in your eyes, and it melted together like the Steadfast Tin Soldier and his parchment girlfriend…” Right.

I led my first beer & cheese pairing a couple weeks ago, so I’ve had a lot to process about the… process. As my own worst critic, I lose points for not filling all the seats (next time it will be pre-paid rather than COD), and for not being entirely prepared with a spiel about the nuances of eating and drinking simultaneously. (I’m not used to public speaking; when everybody’s quiet and starting at me, I wonder if they’re bored; and when they’re all talking I figure I may as well shut up.)

I tried to incite a sense of game– a solitaire or personal challenge– by using a scoring method I gleaned from pairings at Oakshire a few years ago. A grid was laid out with rows of beer and columns of cheese; each beer had a chance to be paired with each cheese, and a score of -2 to +2 filled in the corresponding boxes. Three elements of learning at work: deep thought about each pairing to develop a score; the best individual pairings would be readily apparent; and the total scores from each cheese and each beer would illuminate the most adaptable beer and cheese.


My success at getting the point across was in the B- range; the audience was 90% younger than I (20s), and largely inexperienced with pairing (obviously no fault of theirs; heck, I’m happy to have exposed them to the concept). I felt my job was to explain the intricacies of perception; how to taste food & beer at the same time, and how to look for resonance, contrast, and intensity levels in each item. Due to a spotty arrival rate, a 15 minute delay seemed to have made everybody hungry, so by the time I got started talking I felt rushed to get food in mouths. It was loud and hard to hear myself, so I moved it along, skimmed and stumbled over my bullet points, and didn’t get any real story in.

But everybody talked, about this and that; most utilized their grids– some even made artwork of them– and seemed generally satisfied at the end. The most well-received cheeses were , naturally, the most expensive. Ancient Heritage’s Valentine was a personal favorite, with rich creaminess and subtle funk; it brought some cream to the coffee of Pelican’s Tsunami Stout. The Full Circle Raw Sharp Cheddar was perhaps best at backing up the beers– I only chose one (Oakshire Amber) without a particularly strong flavor or set of flavors; perhaps a predilection to assume that other folks don’t enjoy subtlety as much as I.

In the meantime, I have discovered that Biere de Garde (at least my homebrewed version, which matches fairly well the flavors I recall from Tres Mont’s and Sans Culottes) goes well with a variety of cheeses, and so that style will make an appearance on a pairing list soon.

Of course, “If at first you have nominal success, do better next time!” as my inner old man says. Next time I’ll tell you a true story.






















Ritual Without Sacrifice

There is a brewer who stops by, uses us as an oasis on his trip back home to Oakland from Portland, where he drops off his beer. Sometimes we talk shop, occasionally the conversation meanders into beer ephemera.

To use the phrase “the joy of drinking” may sound strange, but our discussion turned to just that. Somehow we got into a small argument about how glass shape affects beer aroma. He very staunchly explained that it’s a myth, and cited an actual experiment in which somebody is blindfolded and different glasses of the same beer are wafted under his nose and he can’t tell the shaker glass from the tulip from that newfangled, hard-to-wash Sierra Nevada glass. OK, I guess I concede (and would like to try this myself). But it leads into further examination of how those glasses DO work. Because they do; it’s just not about the physics.

It’s all in the mind, you know and the mind loves a good ritual. I first heard about “ritualling” from my uncle, who seems to have invented a term called “qualiadelia,” which represents the practice of conscious ritualling as a way to learn about yourself and enjoy life. So of course I’d apply this to beer.

Hopefully you have a beer at hand. Think of how you opened the bottle, or pulled the tap; which hand do you use to lift the glass, and what is the first thing you do when it reaches your face? How do you hold different drinking vessels? Now, do you grip or sip differently in different contexts? Do you take more time to analyze your beer when you’re alone, at the bar, or at a party?

Whenever I see a picture of myself with a pint, my pinky is wedged across the bottom of the glass; they get slippery, and I’ve been distracted and accidentally let go before, so the pinky is security. As soon as there’s enough room, I start swirling to drive off carbonation (most beers are just a tad too bubbly for me) and send the aroma skyward. These rituals would probably happen whether or not I was aware; the fact that I am helps me enjoy the experience that much more.

Thinking hard about this one...
Thinking hard about this one…

Most beer lovers have a cupboard full of glasses, and can probably recount the acquisition of each (with varying degrees of detail). The act of drinking beer from a new or different glass changes the way we think about its contents. This is why the standard shaker glass has become a one-trick vessel; it’s so ubiquitous it’s no longer special, though you might drink saison from one in Belgium.

Of course, the shape of the glass affects the way a beer acts; long, tall glasses show off a beer’s head and rising bubbles, while wide chalices and goblets allow for more swirling to release aromas; all that adds to the ritual of drinking beer.

My brewer friend followed up his point with the fact that most beer judging is done out of small, thin plastic cups. Now I wonder whether or not beer would be scored better (and if judges would be happier) if it was all served in glass tulips.