This is the final interview we recorded at Balticon back in May. We were joined by Dr. John Cmar, another contributor to The Secret Lair and a recognizable voice within the podcast community, especially podcast fiction. We cracked open a Firestone Walker Double Jack as Dr. Cmar has been known to enjoy the odd hoppy beer. We lamented how few of our guests share our love of the hoppy beers. Dr. Cmar pointed out one aspect of hoppy beers that may be responsible, that some brewers approach hoppy beers as a stunt or a challenge rather than crafting the various flavors available from the great selection of hops with care.
Cmar asked us about Dogfish Head‘s marketing of a randall, something we discussed in the last episode. Cmar was skeptical in terms of it being at odds with the craft and intent of the brewer. I suggested it may be worth trying just as an experiment, rather than viewing it as necessary for a given beer or series of beers. I also thought that at a brewpub, where the randall is part of the presentation and the product, may be more of that intent and craft that Cmar mentioned. John agreed with Cmar that his preference is for the beer as it is made, that a randall is another variable that may make it harder to quantify what it is that appeals, inherent in the beer itself. John mentioned comparative tasting, with which I agreed and think that limited use of a randall makes sense vs. using it all the time.
Camr’s mention, jokingly, of putting dandelion in a randall, reminded John of his first taste of alcohol. The woman one farm over used to make dandelion wine, steeping it almost like a sun tea. That was his first fermentable as a youth.
I mentioned having the Double Jack for the first time at Meridian Pint. Cmar has been there, as well, and spoke very well of it. We talked about Churchkey, another venue we enjoy. It was suggested we should drag Cmar along for our next visit to Churchkey. We compared these better outlets to RFD, which has a good variety and quantity of beer, but wants for the same sort of knowledgeable staff that you find at both The Pint and Churchkey. The renamed Bier Baron, that used to be the Brickskellar, is now somewhere in between with a reduce menu but better odds of getting what you order. It used to be a real gamble as to whether the Brickskellar would be out of any given beer.
We asked Cmar about his favorite places for getting beer where he lives, in Columbia, Maryland. He likes The Perfect Pour, which is the number 1 independent seller of Woodchuck, which gave Cmar an inside track on the release timing and quantities for their interesting sounding pumpkin cider. Another reason Cmar and even Laura, his wife, enjoy the place is its unusual air of class. As for restaurants, Cmar likes Frisco Taphouse and Brewery and shared the story behind it, inspired by the Frisco burrito. To what sounds like a great foundation, when successful the owner started to build a distinct offering of beers, mostly cask ales. Fueled by further success, the restaurant now hosts beer related events and has brought in even more craft beers in.
Cmar’s mention of Frisco trying to get one-off kegs and casks from recognized craft brewers made me think of recent offerings from Flying Dog. Especially in the last year, they have put out a good number of impressive limited run beers. My jealousy for our friends out West has declined a bit thanks to these new, local offerings. At its core, though, what seems competitive in terms of offerings really is about camaraderie and experience, down to the food, about which Cmar shared some quick impressions from the Stone World Bistro, out in San Diego.
We poured out a second beer, one given to us by friend of the show and recent guest Chris Miller, the Hoppin’ Frog Wild Frog Wheat. Based on the Boris we shared with Chip on mic before, we answered to Chris’ question of what to bring to Balticon this year that anything from this brewery would be more than acceptable. In talking about Ohio brews, we discovered that Cmar was originally from this same area. He admitted to not having had a Hopping Frog in a while. Appropriately enough, this wheat beer proved to be entirely delightful, with more flavor and complexity than the style and ABV would suggest.
John guessed that this beer might be the result of a suspended fermentation. I asked how you would accomplish that without imparting an unusual taste like with sulfide in wine and mead making. John said he had a compound useful for this purpose, what I guessed might be a flocculating agent. Cmar spotted a mention on the label of a special fermentation process, bolstering our hypothesis.
We diverted a bit on the subject of the show notes. I explained a bit of my rationale in assembling them the way I do.
John brought us back to the subject of Ohio, reminding us of the story from episode one, of his first real gourmet experience of beer. The place, at least where John studied, is clearly a draw for many amazing people and hence a fertile soil from which quality experiences flourish. Cmar expanded on that, emphasizing the attention to detail as part of the overall enjoyment of beer, understanding what informs all the different elements of the beer quest, rather than obsessing about the minutiae for their own sake.
Cmar mentioned going to Savor last year and, at the time of the recording, was looking to get tickets for Savor this year. He told us about his favorite salon from last year, a pairing between Ommegang with various desserts. This was led by Greg Engert, from Churchkey which we’d mentioned earlier. Cmar was impressed by the more complex, evocative tastes Engert came up with, exhibiting that very attention to how the components all combine in the unexpected but delightful resulting experience. John waxed philosophical about the importance of appreciating these life lessons.
This made Cmar think about an unusual music fest he attended, in particular a t-shirt he picked up, one that encapsulated one of the headlining band’s, Turisas’, philosophy. It had the motto that is the title of this episode and a list of how to give cheers in many, many languages. The idea really spoke to him, of traveling broadly but enjoying what the locals do. In the spirit of travel and experience, John mentioned going to ren fests for the music and the deeper touchstones through it, like seeking out bands like Wolgemut. Cmar told us about a band he likes, in a similar vein, Arkona, that evinces both amazing technical skill and very deeply considered mythology and story telling in their music.
We chatted a bit more about simpler but well made beers as we finished out the wheat beer. Cmar mentioned the Dortmunder Gold Lager as a modest but excellent favorite. I agreed, pointing out how our favorite local brewers, Bret and Eric of Growlers of Gaithersburg, very much embody this idea. The mention of an Ohio beer made Cmar a bit wistful for the experiences he missed while there and put us back on the idea of local offerings, selecting the Sea Nymph, again, to round out our tasting and conversation.
Cmar mentioned missing out on trying the Sea Nymph earlier in the weekend because of some investissement locatif offered by Chris Miller. That reminded John of the cocktails he had been making to share throughout the weekend and Cmar of the stories of Auchentoshans past. John thankfully brought us back to the present, explaining for Cmar’s benefit Scott Roche’s sense of the hint of sea air in our final beer selection. This beer, as John put it, was like the mouse that roared; a light but incredibly well crafted beer that stood up really well to the bigger beers we’d been drinking all weekend.
An off hand joke about filling a randall with marshmallows put me on my idea, perhaps the time has come to make it, of a marshmallow stout where all the complexity comes from the crafting of the grain bill. The Willoughby peanut butter cup beer and the Growlers of Gaithersburg peanut butter and jelly wit beer both of which stood out as excellent examples of how technique can yield amazingly unlikely but delicious results. Cmar was floored by the mint julep beer that we mentioned in a series of similarly off the wall but great beers made by Bret and Eric.
Cmar shared one of the first beer experiences that really pulled him into the enjoyment of beer. He drove to Milton, Delaware to get two 750ml of a beer made to commemorate the 375th anniversary of the state. Called Zwaanend’ale, it was a honey, rye beer that worked as well as you’d hope based on the label. Cmar, as a consequence, still harbors a particular fondness for rye beers from all brewers.
Cmar finished with two excellent professional points, that alcohol kills everything and that microbiology makes beer.
Our fourth interview, on the 3rd day of Balticon, was with Scott Roche, who is a writer, editor, podcaster, and homebrewer. We cracked open the Duclaw Exile Series X-1, an imperial chocolate rye porter, which reminded us very strongly of the coffee stout Scott shared with us last year. That homebrew had a very strong, distinctive coffee flavor, recognizably Eight O’Clock Coffee. Scott generously explained in his own words how he created this beer, a technique that turned out to be surprisingly simple. He described how he intends to approach this beer differently next time, most notably adding a measure of cold brew coffee right before the bottling.
Scott is clearly a research geek whose inclination serves him well in homebrewing. He also credited his home state, North Carolina, as being a wonderful place for home and craft brewing right now. In particular he talked about how and why several craft brewers are moving into Asheville in particular. As the craft brewers have moved in, they have been directly helping smaller businesses and investing in the community, moves that are hardly surprising especially given the ecological consciousness of New Belgium and Sierra Nevada in particular.
We continued to follow Scott on a talk through of the great breweries in his state, starting with Wedge and continuing with Foothills, in Winston-Salem. The latter bought Carolina Brewing Company mostly for the marriage of that added capacity with Foothills’ wonderful recipes, like a strawberry beer Scott mentioned.. John admired the skill it takes to produce beers that work well with strawberry and banana. We had a banana beer later in the con and Chooch shared a banana bread beer with us some time ago, one that it sounds like Scott has also had. Bananas put us in mind of chimps, monkeys and civets, perhaps not the best combination with beer. Maybe a civet coffee beer but let’s stay away from other notorious monkey habits.
As the beer we were drinking warmed, it reminded me of the 2X Milk Stout from Southern Tier. Scott has enjoyed many of the same Southern Tier beers, including Creme Brulee and Pumking. He had the latter on draft in a little hole in the wall local pub. John recommended Unearthly and Hoppe and the unfiltered blend of those two, Gemini. I explained the amazing mouth feel that Gemini has, something in common with Dogfish Head Squall.
Scott then mentioned something I had not heard of before but John had, a randall. Foot Hills has offered their People’s Porter that they randalled through cocoa nibs. If you want an over the top treat, apparently you can then take this version of the beer two doors down and get a scoop of Wolfie’s Custard to drop in it. Asheville sounds like even a more magical place than this would let on as Scott explained some of the businesses that combine other services with a little brew pub or tap house, like a gas station. We speculated on why this would be the case versus other areas. Scott revealed how surprisingly diverse this area is with several strong, recognizable sub-populations that lead to a weird nexus of awesome. The example he offered was Pisgah, which offers The Dancing Hobo, the creation story of which is also a unique admixture, literally; they won’t be able to re-create this odd mix of flavors made over time.
The story behind this beer reminded me of the one behind the infused beers that Bret and Eric at Growlers of Gaithersburg made over the course of last Summer. We had talked about these beers before but were sharing for the benefit of Scott who we have not yet been able to take to our home brewpub. We described another talent Bret and Eric possess as epitomized by the Thai One On, beers that shouldn’t work based on the description but totally do in the tasting. We mentioned the Pappy van Warhammer that we brought to the con to share, so we at least were able to offer Scott a taste later on.
Scott was at the Green Man, speaking of cask aged beers. The had their ESB both kegged and casked. He was amazed at the different this one change makes. I was reminded of Thirsty Bear, one of my favorite spots in San Francisco well known for its cask beer. The mention of an ESB took me back to another casked beer, one that Heavy Seas tapped at a fun event at the brewery a few years back. John and I talked a bit about the history of Heavy Seas, another of our local breweries, and I shared some news I’d heard of them moving into a larger facility. Scott did have a chance to try Heavy Seas Loose Cannon, not entirely to his taste as a stout and porter drinker, but recognizable for being well crafted.
Scott has been getting into fruit beers more lately. Fruit beers are the only kind that John and Scott can share with their wives consistently. Most recently Scott and his wife had what sounded like an amazing fresh peach beer. Scott recommended ciders for those who like fruit beers. This reminded John of one he has enjoyed recently, Fox Barrel pear cider. Scott recommended a recent sort of beer concoction he had in a little pub in The Woodlands in Texas, a Guiness and pear cider. John asked and Scott confirmed that a pairing like that is consistent with his love of cooking. Passion for good food we are finding to be a very common trait among beer lovers and home brewers.
Scott talked a bit about his experience of the con. As an author it was really busy but he and some fellows went in jointly on a table in the dealer room affording them all a bit more flexibility rather than being tied to the table the whole time. The opportunities for him as a writer are what keep bringing Scott back to Balticon, for which we are grateful, as he then has the opportunity to share beer with us and stories of the Big Rock Candy Mountain that is Asheville. But with beer. Or both. Or rock candy beer.
We next cracked open another local Maryland beer, the Sea Nymph from Heavy Seas which was a light, Summer beer. A palate cleanser if you will. I was the only one who had this beer previously. I picked some up at D’vines in Columbia Heights. I grabbed some Curiosity Cola there too for a coworker who doesn’t drink, though the rest of us enjoy them largely as mixers. On first taste, this beer took Scott immediately back to the sea air where he grew up, on the Outer Banks. All three of us have a shared love of the Outer Banks, unlike any other. John in particular enjoys eating at Blue Point that takes pains to hire on the same crew year after year. Scott recommended Mama Kwan’s, especially the garbage plate. It is a generous helping of jasmine rice with vegetables, having a heavy Caribbean influence fused with Asian flavors.
This beer put me in mind of another new seasonal from a favorite local brewery, Atlantic Lager from Flying Dog. Nuanced and subtle beers like these two brought to John’s mind an article, one that’s rather debatable, noting that some brewers are making beers specifically for each gender. We normally tend to reject that any particular beer is narrow to any particular palate, gender based or note. Case in point is how well all of us were able to appreciate the light, delicate flavors of the Sea Nymph after the much stronger flavors of the previous beer. The mention of strong flavors brought up the stinky weasel juice, Fernet Branca, again. Scott suggested it might fit in well with the odd Victorian flavors he was reading about in Steam Drunk, including interesting punches. John and Mia were at a Victorian dance class in the last couple of days where the instructor was talking about the strong drink in which people at that time indulged. An excellent resource for more information is the video series, The Supersizers Go… which had a Victorian episode among others.
The talk of food, drink and parties put us in mind of the need for a brew day, soon. Green Grass and High Tide is next up, a beer that Scott had a chance to taste. This made Scott think of an odd beer a musician friend of his made, one of his first, a mint tea beer. It took three years but on recently tasting, the friend apparently remarked it finally tasted good. We then got onto odd flavors, in particular on the sour end, like guezes that Chooch and Scott were discussing when they shared the stale vatted IPA. As bad a job as we often do in explaining why to try beers that require a more tolerant palate, it is worth trying just to see, not like a tazer to the tender bits which we all agree need not be experienced to know it isn’t worth it.
From there we got into our shared interest in cocktails, in particular how today we have more access to more tastes and experiences from all across the range of the past. As a writer, Scott has been especially interested in the stories and context around these flavors. John tied it to something that is probably hard wired into our nervous system and Scott offered another example about the human response to the pentatonic scale. That universality of experience was an excellent note on which to end the wonderful, far ranging chat.
Our third interview, in the 3rd day of Balticon, was with Randy Chertkow, co-founder of Beatnik Turtle, author, teacher and a good friend of mine. We led off with a discussion of musical geekery arising from pulling Randy onto a panel the day before and having to share a mic. The panel went so well, I received a compliment from a woman who worked at the Library of Congress. That and even though the copyright panel was in a larger room, we still manage to fill it despite the very technical topic. Randy shared some of his thoughts on the two classes of questions that drive the discussion part of the panel, the portion for which I as a moderator prefer to allow the most time. I mentioned a couple of the acronyms, SOPA and PIPA, for which I am often called out when discussing down in the weeds activity around fraught laws. (In a post, as I promised in the recording, I can link to terms of art.)
To bring us on topic, I described the Idiot Sauvin from Elysian that we were sharing with Randy. Appropriately enough there is a monkey, always fun, on the label but in goggles which is highly appropriate for a con. As a single hop beer, this beer serves its purpose, letting us compare the Sauvin to other single hop varietals we’ve tried recently. John liked how the simplicity of the recipe avoids the problems that can arise from a beer with too many different hops in the mix.
Randy and I shared an encounter from the previous evening, one that had us a bit gobsmacked. Can you imagine someone who is allergic to hops? We met a man whose wife has this affliction. None of us felt we could sacrifice beer for kisses.
We chatted a bit about single malt as all three of us are enthusiasts. I mentioned the A’bunadh, which I had picked up for the con. Randy received a new to him malt, Highland Park, at his small gaming con, RandyCon. He found this Scotch to be a bit smoky, I admitted my palate has acclimated so I tend to like the smokey malts a bit better. We dug into some other malts we like, comparing as we do the elements in them that recommend them, like the Balvenie Carribean Cask, the Bunnahabain, the Lagavulin, the Macallan, and more.
Not surprisingly we moved from there to chatting about rye. John brought a full bar, including the titular dirty weasel juice and three different ryes. Sadly, Randy is allergic to rye making us feel lucky we didn’t choose the rye beer to share. As strong as it may be, the Fernet Branca has no rye and John tried to convince us of its other appeals. John suggested some other herbal liqueurs that may be easier to get into. He also offered some recipes for interesting cocktails that he is always ready to prepare.
John gave a bit of the history of this interesting liquors. We were delighted at the commonalities with beer, that monks were often involved in collecting and preparing the herbs. Given the strong self sufficiency and investment in craft and cultivation common to monastic life, this is hardly surprising. Speaking of the craft, John also got into the very meticulous aspects of distilling and how the right exercise of skill and technique yields so many different products from the same inputs.
We discussed a surprising counter-intuition, how great skill can produce beers we might not choose to drink. John insists that the mass market barley pops are just as demanding in their design and execution, arguably more so than homebrew. I mentioned the book we had been discussing with Chris Miller, Designing Great Beers.
We wandered from their into regionalism, talking about the environs in St. Louis around the macros and how the talent tends to flow more freely than expected between the big and the craft breweries. This put us in mind of the home brew and food scene in Chicago. I admitted to being a deep dish convert thanks to District of Pi. This DC pizzeria is a delightful intersection of Chicago, for the pizza, and St. Louis for the custom beer designed and brewed for them by Schlafly’s. Randy clarified that Uno’s outside of downtown Chicago is distinctly not the same as Uno’s and Due’s to which Randy took John when he visited.
This was Randy’s first Balticon. We chatted a bit about why this was so and his experiences. Many of the regular podcasting crew have been asking Randy to come to our hometown con for years and he admitted we were right to do so.
Speaking of Worldcon being in his hometown, we got into a discussion of the forthcoming next edition of Randy’s book, the Indie Band Survival Guide. He gave us the back story about the first edition, how it evolved from Randy and his bandmate, Jason Feehan, writing up a free e-book that was the sort of material they would have liked to have when starting their band, Beatnik Turtle. Their success is a testament to living the open media ethos, a rebuttal of claims that Creative Commons erodes the marketability of works–seven printings of the first book and a second edition when a lot of authors are not getting the chance at a follow up edition.
Randy is justifiably proud of the fact that the name of the book has gotten out. He explained how he continues to take care in shepherding this brand and ensuring that he is being respectful of his audience, rewarding them for supporting his success. Expect some more news around September around what sounds like a great set of plans for celebrating the new edition.
We talked a bit more about what is new and different in the forthcoming edition. The original version definitely was the sort of book you threw in your music case and dog-eared the useful bits. They really expanded that, making it far more of a reference, like a Hitchhiker’s Guide to indie music production. Randy explained how it is now much more step-by-step, covering in a concise way what the labels used to do for musicians and updated to cover developments in the last couple of years. They interviewed a lot of folks to improve the new version including the Gregory Brothers, the guys behind Epic Rap Battles of History, and George Hrab. He mentioned trying to interview POGO but how that was at the time he was dealing with visa problems.
We hope to have Randy back on, soon. Better yet, we invited him to join us at our next brew day when he is in town, as he sometimes gets out to the DC area throughout the year.
This is the second of five interviews we recorded at Balticon. In this one, we were joined by good friend of the show, Chris Miller. From the first it should be pretty apparent this was the second interview on the same day, recorded pretty soon after we talked with Nate so the first beer of this episode was our fourth or fifth of the day. That beer was a bourbon barrel aged Devil’s Milk from Duclaw. We are both immense fans of the regular version of this beer, the barrel aging did all kind of wonderful things to it.
This was the first local beer we shared on mic at Balticon. It was a new brewery to Chris. He definitely was thinking of picking up some more local beers like this to try during the weekend or possibly even to take home with him. We talked a bit about regionalism, a favorite topic, and how many of the originally local beers have been becoming more available more broadly. This also put us in mind of travel, especially some of the TSA inspired insanity we have to endure.
Speaking of local flavors (all jokes aside), Chris enjoyed some crabs the evening before the con got under way. As much as he might have enjoyed the flavor, he simply couldn’t see the effort picking them as being worth it. John strongly disagreed, explaining how when crabs are boiled right, they are well nigh addictive inducing a haze of shelling and eating that can be highly satisfying.
Chris talked about how much he enjoyed socializing with friends he doesn’t see but once or twice a year. Sadly, the early gatherings, not even proper room parties, were not well received by the hotel staff and security. By the time we caught up with Chris, he had shifted more into the working portion of the con, presenting, participating, attending and networking.
We turned to the subject of steampunk after John revealed his belief in time travel, largely because of the fun he has at Steampunk World’s Fair. Chris has largely been skeptical of the genre but has found some reasons to start to coming around. He mentioned Stephenson’s “Innovation Starvation” as the kernel of his new thought, that the optimism lacking elsewhere has perhaps moved into the retro-futurism of steampunk. He admitted he may not have read widely enough, that he did enjoy “Clockwork Fagin” and seemed willing to try “Steampunk“, edited by the Vandermeers.
John related steampunk and the ethos of the Enlightenment that informs some parts of it to the modern maker movement. Chris articulated the second artist affect as the basis of his quibble, that as much as he may enjoy the aesthetic and some of the deeper inspirations, like the stories and essays n the Steampunk magazine series, it is the derivative work for the sake of being derivative that perhaps makes him grumpy in general on the subject.
Speaking of those deeper themes, I mentioned a conversation I had with Chris’ collaborator on The Secret Lair, Dr. Pamela Gay. She tracked this trajectory of how technology goes through epicycles of being accessible and understandable to seamless and sealed and back again. The maker movement and steampunk represent the same urge back towards hands on technology after decades of increasingly miniaturized and unrepairable commodity electronics.
Speaking of Dr. Gay, Chris explained this astronomical phenomenon, one that looks like a dancing Kermit the Frog, some apparent effect from light rejected by black holes and only recently perceived and understood. More than just the astronomy that is her day job, she has gotten creative in pulling together story tellers to help explain this work and make it accessible. Chris explained how this feeds into the distribution of information, the inspiration and collaboration that gets him excited. It isn’t computer or network technology but how it supports and enables hands on work. John attributed a lot of this to native curiosity, the desire to look below the surface.
Chris touched again on why he comes to Balticon, to take water from the well, to delve into such deep ideas. John agreed, how despite being tired coming into the weekend, how much he delighted in the whirlwind of ideas around him. I expanded on how as much as there may be similarities with the stream of ideas at the day job, a convention is still a very difference, renewing experience since it is much more free form, arising spontaneously from people’s passions.
Chris related this to his plans and ideas for his podcast, The Secret Lair. He is trying to intentionally cultivate the same intelligence and depth rather than producing just another lightweight entertainment cast. I realized a strong parallel between the New America podcast and Chris’ goal, that these are both about what is behind and informs the more readily apparent news and events, whether that be from the world of public policy or from geekdom. John suggested that The Secret Lair is also a smart filter, an excellent effort at taste making and curating in a sea of entertainment on the net.
We returned to the subject a beer, touching on how the Devil’s Milk warmed and anticipation of the tasting of one of Chris’ earliest brewing efforts, one we made with him, a clone of Midas Touch, his old 2700. As great as this beer was, Chris was very open about his instructive failure beer. As we were challenged by the black rum stout we made, and have discussed before, the Rassilon’s Emphatic Spittle ultimately ended up being useful as a learning moment but not so much for the sharing. Chris gave a rundown of the recipes he’s made, good and maybe not ready for primetime, he has made since.
We expanded on the learning experience. Chris has picked up a copy of “Designing Great Beers” and John mentioned again his love of Randy Mosher’s writing, especially “Radical Brewing.” That same spirit of learning and experimentation also had John yearning to get into micro distillation. Well, working on getting it legalized for a starter. In the meantime, we chatted about infusions as a legal way to express the same creativity with spirits. The Austin episode of the TV show, Drinking Made Easy, included some great material on infusions. All three of us love the zaniness of Zane Lamprey and crew. Chris did suggest that we could express some of the same silliness by advocating the drinking game rules for Evil Overlord Dice, a game he and his collaborators are working on.
Chris bridged from there into how he as a brewing dad is being open with his kids. We agreed that doing so demystifies alcohol and hopefully encourages a more responsible balance when they are old enough to partake on their own. Even if they don’t enjoy the end product, many of our kids have in common the enjoyment of the science, the craft and the sensory experience of brewing.
We took a turn to the silly towards the end. Chris mentioned some new recipes his resident artist at the Lair, Natalie, has come up with. He explained quickly the reference behind the name for the banana stout he is thinking of making soon. It reminded us of the peanut butter cup, coffee stout from Willoughby we had earlier in the con. To complete that thought about beers that shouldn’t work but do, we mentioned the peanut butter and jelly witte beer Eric and Bret at Growler’s made that we had at the beer dinner many months ago.
This is the first of five interviews we recorded at Balticon. In this one, we were joined by good friend of the show, our sole interview from last year, Nathan Lowell. Nate is one of our very favorite authors not in the least because of his incredible reading voice, his devotion to and engagement with his readers, and the love of craft beer we helped kindle in him this time last year.
Nathan really put his thumb on why we enjoyed this year’s Balticon so much. He shared the impression of a first time attendee, Monica from Galileo Games‘ “Have Blaster, Will Travel” that the crowd is so intelligent. John concurred, describing the typical sorts of conversations we encountered all weekend long, leaving us a bit wall eyed. Many of these great chats were aided in no small part by a greater than average taste for beer.
Speaking of beer, the one we cracked to pour out with Nathan was the 2X from Southern Tier, their double imperial milk stout. We mentioned some of the other beers we had collected by this point in the con including Victory’s Dark Intrigue and DuClaw’s X1. The owl eyes on the label of the former made John think of a particular table Mia spotted in the dealer room, intriguing art pieces who materials are best not dwelled on any more than we already did.
Nate was under a time constraint, we caught him before what sounded like a great panel. He explained it was a hot seat panel, one where the audience got to ask the writers why they did what they did in particular works. Speaking of participating with other authors, larger market and small, led Nate to contemplate a bit of inside baseball within the publishing industry. As a full time author now, it is clear he takes the business of cons, as well as all the other work needed to grow an audience, very seriously whether he is recognized for it or not.
John compared this experience with the time he spent in the music business. While the shape that the creative industries will take on into the future is far from clear, hearing these two talk makes it clear the old ways simply aren’t working any more. For the opportunist, for the go-getter, there are obviously ways to not only survive but to thrive. Nate really put his finger on some of the aspects of how e-books and online channels are offering new openings for those with the desire and ability to exploit them.
For the reader, Nate offered some ideas of how best to tackle discovery in this changing landscape. There are still taste makers, ways to find the interesting peaks and abiding values within the long tail.
Taking a brief break, we cracked open a second beer, the Heller-bock Saphir. The hop note in this beer was very intriguing, reminiscent of hallertau. The flavor was so interesting, it had Nate re-thinking his usual attitude towards hoppy beers. This reminded me of how much Nate’s view on beer in general has changed in the last year. When we first interviewed him, he was certain he could not enjoy beer but had really only ever partaken of macro brews. The fact that he enjoys any craft beers, hoppy or not, is pretty phenomenal.
In just that short time, Nate clearly has developed a sense that is guiding him well through his beer quest. He explained his request of the staff at Calvert Wine & Spirits, our local Balticon treasure. His taste was well bolstered by his experience, knowing how to articulate the flavors he likes. One of the things he picked up was DuClaw’s Euoria, one we like that reminded me of a story I have around it relating to my first trip overseas.
The amazing flavor DuClaw gets out of the grain bill in the brown ale Nate picked up made us think of some of our recent brewing experience, getting unexpected flavors from grain alone. We are convinced that much of the candy sweet in many Belgians is not candy sugar but actually from the local malt. The sweetness and attention to craft made John think of Ayinger Blonde, another light and well made beer. Nate mentioned the summer ale, the Sea Nymph from Heavy Seas, that sounds similar. I brought us back to brown ales, suggesting that the Brooklyn Brown is another flavorful beer in the same class as Euforia.
John took the discussion into cooking, asking Nate his thoughts on the commonalities between it and brewing and beer. Nate felt a bit differently about beer because of all the years he has not been able to partake. It sounds like even without that perceived former barrier, he finds more to uncover, discover and enjoy than in wine by comparison. We chatted for a bit the one offs, like we are starting to see here from Flying Dog. We also reminisced fondly about the year round and seasonals that don’t travel as far, that we go back to again and again when we have access, like the Great Divide Claymore that I recently got to try.
The desire for a hammock after a nice beer and a sandwich brought us around to Nate’s years in the Coast Guard. We love any excuse to hear Nate’s stories growing up near and working on the sea. So much of his fiction is informed by these experiences, the deep dark of space travel having so much viscerally in common with the real life perils and thrills of the deep blue. He so clearly teased out the shared experiences, quotidian and terrifying, that inform the ship board rhythm and dynamic.
Nate tied his reflections on his early life with his work later on in education. John and I both admire what Nate has done to teach teachers and were delighted to here him share so much of that work with our listeners, too. There are clearly parallels in how he approaches that profession as his current one, as a writer, that what we take for granted warrants re-visiting and re-thinking constantly to find better ways forward. The challenges inherent in distance learning resonate with just the basic challenges in education, that any number of barriers can form a distance between students and engagement. The ones we normally think of, in terms of network access, overlap strongly with the work I do, the policy work to which John is now routinely exposed in his media work at New America.
Nate distilled down from these questions, ideas and challenges the core need for a teacher to pursue their calling, just a student. Well, that and some content to teach. Really, though, this informs the thought we wound up on, that all learning is distance learning. It is the comfort of the teachers with their tools, not the measurable span from them to the student, that requires constant improvement and evolution of a teacher’s skills.
Once again we ended up recording after work as a concession to both of our insane schedules. This did allow me to see the rather nice selection at the convenient to work Barmy’s. We settled on two big bottles to share, both beers new to us which was especially important to John who was three beers away from an average of one unique beer a day for the past year, since he started using Untappd.
The first beer we opened was the first new Dogfish Head for either of us in a while, the very cola-like Urkontinent. Reading through the notes on this beer at the brewery site, we guessed correctly that the spices come each from different continents. Further it was a collaboration between folks at the brewery and tech loving fans as a celebration of entrepreneurs around the world. John though the base style was a new one, a Cascadian dark ale, one of our recent favorites. According to the site, it is actually a dark, Belgium dubbel. The notes you’d expect from that type of beer are almost entirely missing.
Despite the 8% ABV, the beer was not terribly boozy. The cola impression lasted from first pour through the taste, no doubt aided by the cola colored head and the residual sweetness of the honey. The herbal complexity was a little harder to pin down but pleasantly so.
John was disappointed to note this beer is in a new style of bottle, an embossed one that is off putting to home brewers wanting to re-use the glass. John favored them especially which lends to an equitable split when we divvy up our empties I tend to prefer the 22 oz bombers, the more traditional long neck like shaped bottles. The shape of the bottle also seemed a little last graceful than the old, unmarked glass.
Something roasty did emerge as the beer warmed but I didn’t think it was all from the malt. I suggested it might be the combination of herbs. Regardless, it put me in mind of the Palo Santo Marron. John agreed, noting that the Palo Santo seems to be getting more mellow with each successive batch. We theorized that the custom barrels used in this beer are being leeched of their volatiles, making them less palate crushing as John put it. John had Palo Santo at Magnolia’s out in Percyville on draft right when the beer came out.
We gave cheers to our semi-regular audio engineer, Ray. We enjoyed his excellent work supporting this recording and the change in environment, being able to sit across from the same table. We mentioned that we hope Ray will be joining us again to help field recording at the marathon that is Balticon, or more accurately Balti-thon.
This provided a nice segue to our main topic, to chat about our past experiences at Balti-thon and what we anticipate for the upcoming one. John explained we intend to use all the social media to share our experience at the con.
One of the folks we hope to pull on mic is Randy Chertkow, of Beatnik Turtle, who I’ve had on my other podcast many times and to whom I’ve introduced John, when he headed out to Chicago. John shared some more of their beer questing experiences while John was on that trip where he first met Randy. Goose Island sounds like it was quite an experience, getting to see some of the inside fun the brewers clearly enjoy. John and I have both enjoyed really smart, wide ranging conversations with Randy and look forward to where we will end up, starting with beer as our spring board. We indulged in a thought very much inspired by our recollection of discussions past with Randy, about the relationship between truth, beauty and science.
We promoted one of Randy’s books, The Indie Band Survival Guide, which is coming out in a second edition, soon. John made an excellent comparison, to the actual tome in the Douglas Adams classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The IBSG is immensely pactrical, meant to be used, read and re-read, dog eared, and carried in an instrument case from gig to gig.
We re-visited our first beer before moving on. The root beer and licorice notes definitely emerged more as the beer warmed. There was something in the mouth feel, too, that was similar to high quality licorice candies from Europe that are smoother and less sweet. John called it a powder coat of licorice herb, which reminded him of certain herbal liqueurs.
Before we cracked open the second beer, we chatted a bit about some attention from a friend of both of ours, Cory, brought to my other podcast. This spurred a conversation about the episode in question, the roles of various people in all kinds of change.
I manged to tie this discuss our next beer, as a sort of spur to power, especially given the mention of kinds on the label text of the Moylan’s Hopsickle. It reminded us both of the thumbprint of Oskar Blues but different, not a sweet or oily. All the higher gravity pale ales from that brewery, Gubna and Deviant Dale’s, have a certain something that is an amazing consequence of the insane hop regime. Even the imperial red, G’Knight has it. It also put us in mind of our past discussions of the 120 Minute with friend of the podcast, Evo, who we hope to have back on at Balti-thon.
We finished up by speculating on which beer John might choose for number 365, the 120 Minute being a natural idea. I also put forward the Worldwide Stout as I shared that with some friends recently. It is one of my favorite three beers from the brewer along with Burton Baton and Olde School. John got us on a reflection on time, place and rare treats, mentioning the Utopias and talking about asking after the Pappy van Winkle earlier in the day.
Another unusual set of recording circumstances, we recording in the New America studio space so we could fit in this week’s show around a particularly crazy schedule on John’s part. The focus of the show was equal parts old and new, doing our first vertical tasting of one of our homebrews and a 2-for-2 since each of the bottles of my oatmeal stout, the Sun-dial in the Shade, were 22 ounce bombers.
Thankfully, the first bottle, from the very tail end of 2010, was still more than adequately carbonated. We both noticed how much hotter the older beer was, being 7.7% ABV versus the batch after it, at 5.5%. That particular difference is a strong endorsement for using a refractometer as it would have helped us catch and prevent over diluting the batch from January of this year.
John compared the 2010 Sun-dial to a Port City Porter he enjoyed recently. I was grateful for the comparison considering how nervous I was making this stout. It was the first beer I brewed after putting my brewing kit back together, getting much more into beer than the months before this beer where I was just assisting John in brewing in his kitchen. I shared some of my thoughts on why a stout as a first beer, resonating with Andy Sparks recent suggestion on Basic Brewing Radio that every brewer should have a stout recipe to go to.
John’s first beer brewed was a brown ale, one of the recipes he considers a go to recipe. He expanded on the idea, really en joying the notion of having a set of recipes in hand that a brewer knows well and can make again and again. For me, this was the first of three beers that chart out a stronger push into designing my own beers. Even though this beer started as a clone, as did my dubbel, I have happily been evolving them on my own.
John offered that clone recipes are a good place to start, that imitation can be instructive without getting in the way of making something uniquely our own. I thought that this evoked a strong parallel in other pursuits of craft, such as painting. Our good friend, Bret the brewmaster at Growlers, has shared a thought from the other side of cloning beers that is encouraging. He freely shares his recipes because he very well understands that any given brewer can start with the same instructions and ingredients but end up with a very distinct end product. This suggested another parallel to me, of my wife’s cooking. Andrea may start with a recipe from whatever source but if it is something she enjoys making, she rapidly moves beyond referring to the recipe, opening up to experimentation and creative play with stock dishes she makes week after week.
John was curious about my sort of studied approach to some aspects of brewing, whether it is of a piece with my interest in programming. I explained that I think it has less to do with technology and more to do with the investment in practice required to improve at any demanding craft or pursuit. I related it to my study of Tai Chi and also to our protest beer from last Summer. I also suggested that a certain amount of competence in a given recipe supports a different sort and level of play in its making.
John described a model of how creative mess and considered contemplation, a sort of notional cleaning up of the mess, form a fruitful interplay. He felt you need to indulge both chaos and stepping back to edit and polish, relating it to the art of writing. I strongly agreed, digging more into the advantages of these two complementary aspects of creative work. Further I explained how ignoring the technical fundamentals can lead to frustration. Building a certain body of core technique helps cement and support progress and exploration on the purely creative side.
John brought us back to the beer, asking for impressions on it after it has warmed. We both agreed that it had a certain astringency, a tang, that was not unpleasant but perhaps a little surprising for the style. It certainly held its carbonation very well, one of the things I was most concerned with when making this first batch. I filled in some of the history around that anxiety and the improvements on my approach to charging I’ve made since. John contrasted that to his technique for charging, that we both now use the approach we each used on our very first beers. He dug into how the different sugars may also play a role in the resulting head formation and retention.
We next opened the 2012 version of the Sun-dial oatmeal stout. I explained some of the differences in the making of this beer, intentional and unintentional. For starters, we used far more grain in the making of this beer. The grain bill was supposed to have the same proportions of specialty malts but I was distracted and ended up adding up to four times the amount of dark malts. Despite that difference, I was surprised at how close this batch was in flavor to the previous year’s version.
John felt that the bigger roast notes and the more vigorous carbonation helped make up for the lower amount of alcohol in this batch. Even though the head subsided relatively quickly in John’s glass, we could see it was still fizzing pretty vigorously. I was more interested in how the differences evolved in the warmed, opened up beers as well as in how they both follow their own trajectories in the aging.
Speaking of aging, we talked about how patience can pay off. John shared again one of his favorite stories about how beer and mead makers differ in this respect. My own store of patience made this vertical tasting possible. John leaned a little more on the other end, that beer can be enjoyed relatively quickly. I thought it actually offers a good balance, that you can enjoy beer soon and you can set some aside to age and enjoy as it mellows. John said that he increasingly is thinking of making larger batches, which would help serve both aspects as well as offsetting the squeeze on our time these days to brew. I agreed that this is worth considering, especially considering how generously we share our beers.
I speculated on some further tweaks I might like to try with the next batch of this beer. I thought I might like to get a bit more sweetness, maybe using a short multi-rest, reverse mash but not to the same extent as that we used on our more recent brews, the porter and the dubbel. I shared some of my original thinking in selecting this recipe and building up some expectations of what I wanted to get out of this beer. Dogfish Head Worldwide Stout is one of the clones I also considered. While I am not entirely up to the challenge of an 18% ABV beer, there are still qualities in that beer I want to try to merge into my stout.
John dug a bit more into the challenge of making such a high gravity beer. Specifically they require more careful balancing of the much larger amount of malt involved. I agreed that making such a beer would be a fun design challenge as well as in the making. If we have the time, I think we could have a lot of fun with not just using hops, but all the sorts of elements that help here. We both have been meaning to get a barrel for experimenting with oak aging beer.
We diverted from beer, for a bit, to discuss the studio in which we recorded this episode. John shared his very earliest roots in multimedia. I waxed rhapsodic about how John’s hard work brings so much value to all of the work that goes on at New America. John agreed, expanding on the opportunities for digging into the news of the day with so many great voices, as exemplified by the new podcast, The Sidebar, that John has such a strong hand in. Just earlier in the day when we recorded, John was working with Rebecca MacKinnon, a colleague of mine who wrote “Consent of the Networked” and has done and continues to do such amazing, in-depth work. All of this was really a first hand way of explaining why both John and I have been so crushed for time, lately, for brewing and beer questing.
John offered another invitation to come and find us at Balticon where we’ll be on many panels and have a gathering where we’ll be sharing beers and more stories, including the very beer we tasted on this episode.
This episode was an experimental Friday night recording. Whether you choose to believe it or not, John only edited this episode once. He explained he wasn’t going to edit at all but we couldn’t make it all the way through the recording without losing our train of thought at least once.
While John struggled to uncork his beer, I foreshadowed the idea at the core of our topic, by describing my Friday after a doozy of a week. I was able to indulge a taste for dubbels that no doubt arises from the anticipation of bottling my next homebrew. I did manage to enjoy a new to me beer, Ommegang’s Abbey Ale Dubbel. This continued into the beer I selected to pour out for the recording, Flying Dog’s Disobedience. As it happens, my description of the beer from earlier in the week inspired John to pick up the very same beer for this podcast. This beer reminded both of us of some of the first beers we really enjoyed, that opened us up to the beer quest, from Chimay.
John set up our main topic, inspired by our unusual recording day. He explained his upcoming milestone on the beer quest, since he started using Untappd around last Balticon. Not that he drank one unique beer a day, but on average, by the upcoming Balticon, he will have done so on average. He then dug into the role ritual serves in marking key demarcations, even as simple and humble as the end of the week. I observed how it is natural given our deep history with beer, wine and spirits that they would natural play a role in at least these kinds of rituals. That says nothing about the mildly mind altering properties of alcohol, how it can have a direct physiological contribution to our experience of important times and processes.
The initial take on the topic made me think of the god of doorways, Janus. John expanded on that point, about how the forward looking and backward looking figure is a clever, useful, even ironic trick. John recently read and was discussing an article about drinking and creativity, continuing in the vein of elevated or altered states. I interjected a cautionary note, that ritual in this context may serve a responsible purpose, to respect the intoxicating potential of alcohol and help avoid abuse. It made me think too of writerly advice from our friend Cory Doctorow when asked how he is so prolific, that you must avoid using alcohol, or any substance, as a crutch, something without which you cannot do creative work.
John pointed to another excellent example, the spiritualization of steel and sword making in Japan. He explained how this parallels my thought about success, that ritual helps maintain process and rhythm for consistent outcomes. This ability can be related even to homebrewing, to the same end in terms of helping us consistently exercise our craft.
He leapt from there to the writings of John Shirley who wrote about gray zones. These are areas where usual laws have no hold which provides a release for societal stress, like the safety valve on a pressure cooker. Ritualizing these needs in a social context, he suggested, can help exercise them safely. There are many examples easy to find, from tail gating to the sharing of any number of beverages other than the alcoholic ones on which we tend to focus, like tea or mate mate.
John touched on an idea I had been considering since we settled on this day appropriate topic. Rituals, in my experience, have to be alive, subject to adaptation and change as our lives progress and the factors in them which inform ritual also change. I offered an example from my life, from a job past, where we had a tradition of sharing single malt Scotch regularly on Fridays. When I left that job, even before I left, I moved on to other ways to observe the end of my week. There is a continuity in my persistent desire to share and explore, as well as mark a boundary in time at the personal scale.
John dug a little more into my current tradition, of indulging in a big bottle of beer now on Fridays since it allows me to explore a wider variety of beers than if I limit myself to small bottles. I had been limiting myself to buying big bottles only to share, occasions that occur much less frequently. John explore a bit of a tangent around his experiences returning to Roots Market rather than going to his usual Pinky’s and Pepe’s. We cannot say enough good thinks about Roots and what they represent. They even had a great suggestion to John, that we leave out some fliers near their beer cases about the podcast.
A verbal flub of mine, welcoming all the different dietary approaches led a further tangent about artificial DNA. We are both fascinated by the potential of this technology. In retrospect, something that didn’t even occur to either of us while recording, beer itself could be described as one of the earliest forms of biotech. The robustness of synthetic DNA and the possibility of debugging biological systems are tantalizing, especially how it may feed back into the science of yeast cultivation.
I finally managed to lead the conversation back to our discussion of how the size of a bottling impacts variety. Finding ways to indulge in large bottles as well as small is a boon, especially at places like Roots that have an especially good selection of big bottles, many of which figured into our earliest episodes. The idea of pleasing variety made me think, of course of Calvert Wine and Spirits which we love to visit while at Balticon. Speaking of, in many ways that event typifies a lot of the state of mind we’ve been circling around, in terms of memorializing changes in context, surrounding and socialization as well as the opportunities to share experiences, especially of beer, in new ways.
John related the increased variety to how older norms of modesty, much like the constraints of our county’s wacky distribution system, mean that we are more easily thrilled, like glimpsing a flash of ankle. He reminded me of a similar discovery Andrea, my wife made, while out of the county, an hour or more away visiting a friend. The suboptimal selection in the county and how we struggle to find new and tasty brews to try made us both think about the role of sacrifice.
Mentioning Balticon several times, it finally sunk in what an excellent example in many ways this event is of what we’ve been discussing. It only comes once a year. We work there on familiar things in new surroundings, with different people, and learn entirely new things. So many of the friends whose acquaintance we renew almost exclusively at this convention are also such epicureans, affording us the opportunity for example to enjoy new shared experiences. John described a story we wish we had managed to record with Nathan Lowell (whose story telling prowess you can enjoy for yourself at Podiobooks) of the simple, traditional joy of making beans. That story made me think too of how many of these foods and experiences around them involve a lot of what we had been discussing throughout the episode.
We wrapped up by coming back to our impressions of the beer, especially as it has opened and warmed throughout our discussion. John compared it to a recent experience with his cousin, Kat Scratch Beaver of the Rage City Roller Girls, at Tuscaroro Mills. Her husband shared a thoughtful, small ritual that invites the yeast and other sediment in bottle conditioned beers, abbeys and others, into the taste.
I opened a Mendocino Seasonal Bock since it was part of the six pack I was drinking this past week to earn the ridiculously hard to acquire Six Pack Badge on Untappd. In addition to being a great Spring beer, it is from a brewer whose other offerings, including their Imperial barley wine, I have very much enjoyed. John’s beer choice was informed more by our topic, Batch 666 from Appalachian Brewing Company. Both beers may have been different points of a similar and very tasty continuum. John’s favorite, the Ayinger Celebrator, also falls on this same spectrum of malty, sweet beers.
John set up our topic based both on his recent TV viewing of prepper shows and a conversation we had some time ago with friend of the podcast, Chris Miller. The idea is that being a home brewer may be of great advantage should we reach the end of civilization. I added that even barring a complete collapse, there are some advantages during more run of the mill disasters. That was certainly the case during the spate of storms we’ve had over the last couple of years in the greater DC area.
As home brewers, it isn’t just our equipment that is useful. I explained how home brewing really cultivates a strong spirit of ingenuity. The sort of invention that helps save a beer can also be well applied in normal disasters as well as the end of the world. That includes both the use of what we have to odd ends but that the product of our efforts has value beyond just a tasty drink. John suggested fuel is a nature next step and that reminded me of the conversation I had right before the show with Andrea, my wife, about how she’d prefer spirits. Without a government, during the apocalypse, there wouldn’t be any barrier to home distilling right along with brewing.
John expanded on the even greater breadth of values that distillants would have, not just for fuel but also for medicinal purposes, for barter and more. I suggested that having a still as well as a setup for brewing would grant the survivalist a lot of flexibility. You could push your various kinds of sugars to different applications depending on what you have and what you need.
Teasing out something John said about recipes for disaster, I posed to him the question of what sorts of beers, specifically, would be best in primitive surroundings. He immediately thought of wet hopped, harvest beers. That plays into the limitations that would apply in terms of the ability to properly dry hops for long storage. Big beers, of course, also naturally fit the bill as the alcohol helps keep the brews stable. John also wondered what we might end up trying if hops weren’t available.
Speaking of alternatives begged by the situation, John then thought about perhaps harnessing solar power as that would allow you to save your fuel for other purposes. There is a huge resonance between that idea and a story I saw a while ago of an artist/researcher who built a solar powered laser cutter and a 3D printer that fuses sand. Really, though, the input into mashing and boiling is agnostic of fuel or energy source. We are lucky that in extremes, we are only limited by the amount of heat we need. John mentioned Growlers‘ stein beer as an example, wood fired and using stones for thermal transfer. There was also a very old story we shared on the blog, of early Celtic trench beers, also wood fired but not even as sophisticated as stein beers.
We finally hit on one of the best understand advantages of brewing in uncertain circumstances, that it is a good way to handle water that isn’t entirely potable. Boiling is of course a requirement of brewing but the conversion to even low alcohol, small beers helps with keep those liquids safe to consume for a long time. The storage isn’t just limited to the finished product or the larger vessels we have, John shared a great idea of using cleaned long necks and a capper to easily make safe water more portable. That parallels a story he shared about macro brewers using their production lines in past disasters as a means of making safe drinking water more accessible.
This whole turn of the discussion made me think of the way many craft brewers are greening their endeavors. That sustainability works now for lessening environmental impact but in a resource constraint situation, means they are that much more efficient and self sufficient. The idea of such a brewery as a stable effort made me think of how a well established one, even at the end of the world. could act as an anchor to rebuilding societies. John expanded on that in terms of many more of the inputs and outputs of a brewery can help with reviving a collapsed community, whether that be to improve soil, help with water management or even contribute to the basic food supply by enriching the breads that can be made.
Chooch interrupted us to share how to give cheers in Estonia.
John’s before the break point about maximizing energy made me think about Vernor Vinge’s recently updated series in his Zones of Thought universe. The new sequel to Fire Upon the Deep, The Children of the Sky, deals with with a collapsed human society on an upcoming alien society and their partnership, rebuilding and improving. In that instance they combined some high tech, a microwave gun, with some ancient tech comparable to the way Romans heated their homes. New Belgium, as another eco brewer, is part of an amazing tradition, past and on into the speculative future.
John then shared one particular prepper technique to capitalize on the high energy density of rice. It made him wonder about the applications of that well preserved packet of 5 gallons of rice but also what benefit might be derived from carefully storage of whatever grain is available. That made me think of how good storage can make the minimum level sustenance so much more affordable for a good amount of time. I did wonder if malting and storage would be affected by the lack of technology, that we might naturally end up making darker beer and spirits. John reminded us how the lightest of beers, pilsner, was originally an accident that introduced an alternative to the previously much more dark, rich beers before then.
We hadn’t touched on yeast but my wife had that question of how brewers at the end of the world would get ingredients. Hops, water and grains are fairly obvious but so long as you can get a bottle conditioned beer, you can krausen yeast from that, much like cultivating a mother sponge for sourdough. This made John think of the close relation between baking and brewing. I suggested that started with a single yeast variety that may not be best for beer, it would not take long to evolve that strain and improve it. A single strain useful initially to beer and bread could very rapidly produce two or more that work better for each specific end product.
John reminded us how the short generation time of yeast leads to a quick domestication even of wild bugs in the environment. Many brewers moving into second hand breweries face a challenge of eradicating the old brewers strains so their own particular strains can stand a chance and contribute as desired to the new house style. Yeast has clearly been co-evolving with us as long as the more obvious domesticated animals we think of. What Sam Calagione was able to do to produce Ta Henket is a testament to how much the cultivated yeasts stick around in the environment. It serves to remind us that the deep history of brewing, the modern abundance we enjoy, and the far future really are all tied together.
John then thought of the various yeast varieties he has really enjoyed using. In particular he has been thinking about lagering, something I may be able to offer up my sub-cellar for. We then transitioned into a quick brewing update on our latest, the second iteration of my dubbel recipe. Since we were speaking of yeast, this beer provided an appropriate update given the strong yeast contribution to the recipe. I suggested anything from New Belgium as a bottled example of this anyone should now be able to try.
John closed with a great philosophical thought that ties together so much of what we talked about throughout this whole episode.
We were joined this time, after our latest brew day, by Chooch. We explained how we believe that math and beer may be the source of profound insights and applications, such as the secrets of super luminal travel. Really it is our humorous justification for being so bad at bistro math, especially after sharing a few rounds.
The beer we brewed was the next iteration of my dubbel, the Dye-Cast Dubbel. As random as our sampling was during the day, we tried to tease out a common theme for an accidental St. Patrick’s Day episode. We started off with Brooklyn Brown Ale though a Guiness or Murphy’s might have been more appropriate for the day. Chooch had a great quote from his nephew who is of Irish decent that to drink like the Irish, if your beer is light enough to dye green, you are doing it wrong.
We recounted some of the beers we had while brewing, starting with the Val Dieu Grand Cru, a beer I had been hoping to share for some time. I was gratified that everyone enjoyed it as I had hoped. We dug a bit into what it means for a beer to be a grand cru and how this results in such a wonderful diversity within the class, like the difference between this one and the North Coast Grand Cru. The Val Dieu is a Winter grand cru and that is clearly one way grand crus can vary. Small wonder we like what brewers have borrowed from vintners that represents their best offering, a high selective and variable group rather than a style.
The second beer we enjoyed was the last one that John brewed, his Jinx-proof vanilla porter. It was wonderfully chocolately, with subtly interwoven vanilla notes. As Chooch said, John knocked it out of the park with this recipe. I explained what was a little bit different in the grain bill, the lack of black malt which in no way detracts from the resulting beer. In fact, I suggested that the absence of black malt lets the amazing character of the chocolate malt to come out from first pour rather than on warming as is often the case with dark beers. John figured that the use of a multi-rest mash for this beer helped leave some complex, unfermentable sugars that work well on the palate. John described some of the tweaks he may try the next time he makes this, include just a dash of black malt, some bourbon barrel oak chips, and a very small measure of cocoa nibs.
Chooch told the story of how he discovered Viv, his wife, is a bourbon lover. They sampled some beers at Mad Fox when Chooch realized their bourbon barrel wee heavy was overpoweringly boozey. Chooch was put off by the heat and the straight bourbon flavor but Viv finished the beer. John suggested that Viv’s enjoyment of barrel aged, sipping rums may well dispose her to a good bourbon, too. This inspired a bit of reverie by John about Cherry Tree Cola with a good spiced rum.
We turned our attention back to the beer we were drinking, the Brooklyn Brown. Chooch offered that it may be a good gateway beer, being very accessible. I countered that it might be better as a second step after an uber pils or some other craft quality lighter beer. The very drinkability of this beer is why I got it, as part of my still ongoing beer diet. It was a good contrast to more flavorful beers like the Great Divide Claymore and the Flying Dog Gonzo Porter. We dwelled a bit on how my brew diet has been working since we last discussed it.
I mentioned cheating a bit on my diet last weekend for Chooch’s birthday and how quickly I now bounce back. Speaking of that party, we described the intensely strong Colossus from Duclaw. Chooch and I were both surprised at how balanced an almost stunt beer at 21% was. John wondered if our recent inclusion of a refractometer in our brewing along with the multi-rest technique for mashing with which we’ve been experimenting may be key to this kind of balance.
Another discovery John thought we made through our experimentation was the under appreciated contribution of the base malt in many Belgian beers. I said that this would be entirely consistent with their secretive and sneaky practices. I reminded everyone of the story John has told before, about how many Belgian brew masters used a different yeast to prime their beers to hide the primary yeast.
On the flip side, we clearly were able to appreciate how judiciously the specialty grains can be used. I compared them to spices and other strong flavored ingredients that are best used sparingly. The multi-rest also revealed some very interesting color interactions that I don’t think we saw with the prior version of the Dye-cast. John gave the last version of the beer mad props, comparing it to his 2nd favor beer, Brother Thelonious (ranking right behind Celebrator.) I took the opportunity to fill in the origin of what started as a clone of Pranqster, that my desire to try a new grain provided a point of departure that ultimately has proved very rewarding. Needless to say, we are all eager to taste the finished Dye-cast 2.0.
Since we had been talking so much about North Coast, the next beer we opened, after taking a break, was their grand cru. I believe it is based on a strong golden, a tripel, versus the other grand cru we discussed early in the episode. We’ve talked about house styles, with hops and grains, and John’s first thoughts on this pour were about the almost maple sugar syrup note that is so common to many North Coast beers. Even though this beer was not brown, I thought it was a good book end with the winter grand cru as the weather the day we recorded was so Spring-like.
Chooch saw a Sam Adams Spring sampler on the shelves, speaking of the change of seasons. That got us talking a bit about Sam Adams, including what we thought was a recent acquisition of theirs, Angry Orchard. As much as they are right on that blurry line between craft and commercial brewing, they still honor their playful spirit, like Due North and Tasman even though the latter doesn’t compare as well as we’d like to other red ales, like G’Knight. Chooch asked if we’d tried any of their imperial series, which we have.
We turned our attention back to the grand cru. Chooch definitely picked up on fruit notes, more apple than banana or red berry. I pointed out that this ability to coax such flavors from the yeast makes for the natural pairing often seen in beers like Unibroue’s Ephemere. Unibroue is another brewer, very much in the Belgian vein, that doesn’t spare much worry about categorizing their various offerings. John clarified that tripel is a relative term, referring to three fold more sugar of the regular version of a beer so the starting point remains variable. Chooch wondered if imperial was comparable though initially thinking that referred to just hops. John and I have had imperial beers that aren’t just big on hops, more a subjective label the brewer applies that is again only really relative to the base versions of a given style.
We discussed how this looseness could be confusing. Conversely, even fuzzy classification offers provide relative mileposts for those cultivating their palate and exploring. John pointed out the other side, that brewers can feel constrained by labels. Certainly a good deal of creativity flourishes with this sort of limitation but that shouldn’t curtail the adventurous who want to try something bigger, more different or entirely new in terms of beer style.
John mentioned how he’d struggling judging beer because of his receptivity to defying convention. I countered that I think there is still benefit to judging, in terms of getting some expert input into cultivating a craft. John agreed, offering an example from Cory Doctorow‘s podcast in terms of tightening up feedback loops and how that accelerates the development of skill. He further related that to our recent experiences with my new refractometer.
Chooch wondered if there were pillars, certain invariants despite the looseness in categories that we just rambled on about. I answered that perhaps in the context of some brewing cultures, there are clear recognizable notes and elements that are reliably there. It was one idea I found interesting in Charlie Bamforth’s latest book. On the other hand, there are clearly brewer’s, like many Belgians and most American craft brewers, who clearly just enjoy playing too much to be pinned down. John felt that even the formal style definitions, like BJCP, do in fact evolve, allowing some flex. John also offered an insight from his reading of Randy Mosher’s “Radical Brewing” that what some of us have taken for granted as recognizably Belgian, the lambics, are in fact relatively modern developments. John so well explained how brewing is constantly in flux due to socio-historic influences.
I asked Chooch what he considered to be a milestone. The definition he gave was personal, that he could always reliably identify and enjoy wheat beers, like hefeweizens. This topic overall reminded John that he had an interesting discussion with Eric at Growlers of how malted wheat has seen an interesting diversification, that there are now wheat malts suitable for brewing that are almost as varied as barley. I didn’t find this too surprising given the other examples we’ve seen of unusual grains, like the gluten free beers and Hitachino Nest Red-Rice. (Yes, I know I completely flubbed the beer’s name.)
I thought that each person’s pillars, then, may hinge on that individual recognition, especially rooted in their first experiences. We discussed this idea a bit further, about how especially early on, may inform tasting, the cycling between trying new tastes at the edge of one’s palate then returning to known enjoyable flavors.