Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Firkin Around

As writers, we face prejudice every day. (Yeah! People assume we're all literate, unemployed bums with drug and alcohol problems. But that's not fair! Unemployed is NOT the same as underpaid!) Here we are, hard-working Americans, our pens working full time and our brains triple-time, and all sorts of other people have the gall, the nerve, the audacity! to presume that we live on permanent holiday. (...he says, pulling his robe tighter over his pajamas several hours past lunch time...)

As beer-drinkers, we must lament that this is not the case. In fact, we find in our lives a distinct lack of holidays. (Er, wait. What about those three hours each night when we close our eyes?) We love what we do, and we love the writing life. But whatever Hemingway and Hollywood might have you believe, we do not get to enjoy pint-sized libations whenever we please.

For Frigg's sake, we've lived in Durango nearly two years, and alas, not one single month have we made our way to Steamworks for Firkin Friday!

Firkin Friday is a beautiful holiday (even more so than Talk Like a Pirate Day). Or so we heard. On every first Friday, the brewery taps a single cask of a unique small-batch concoction. We've seen tell of Bailey's liqueur stouts, and pumpkin pie lagers, and peach blossom cream stouts, and rum'n'IPAs.*

*All combinations are probably original creations of this blog, but in lock step with the spirit of Firkin Friday drafts.

But then... on a magical day at the beginning of May, we were out running errands and happened to walk by Steamworks. It could have been any day. For us, it was just another day. But then we spotted the flier for Firkin Friday. That day. 3:00. And right then was 2:00. (Jumpin Jack Flash, what a gasp gasp gasp!)

We had shit to get done. But then we shouted, "Screw it all! All of it, anyway, that we can't do at the pub!" We dashed home, dropped some stuff, picked up other stuff, and skedaddled back to the bar, where we straight away ordered two of the very first pints of Berliner Weisse brewed with wild cherry.

Berliner Weisses are strange members of the beer family. (Oh, you mean like those cousin-grandmas and uncle-daddies that sprout off of twisted family trees?)  They come -- shockingly -- from Berlin, and are often sour and nearly always flavored. In Berlin, you either order your Weisse "rot" or "grun" (sounds sooo medieval), which means red or green (ohhh) and makes a New Mexican feel weirdly right at home. Except that red = raspberry, and green = Waldbeere, or "wood berry," whatever the eff that is. (Ah, my dad's a carpenter, so I should know what that is. Lemme' think. Wood berries.... Trunk burls! Uh...wood chips! Plank knots?) So although I often shy away from additives in my beer, the wild cherries went right along with the Berliner Weisse style -- and promised to taste more natural than a shot of flavored syrup.

And my oh my, was this beer tangy (and also a bit watery, like well, Tang). Not the least bit over sweet like the flavor-injected beers in Berlin (and not like Otter Pops in the summer). This beer, the warm color of apricot jam, felt as zingy as fresh lemonade. (Unfortunately it had about as much cherry as thirteen-year-old Lindsay Lohan.) Berliner Weisses are notoriously light in alcohol -- often under 3% (shame on them) -- and I couldn't honestly tell if this beer was that light, or if the zippy flavors simply masked the alcohol. Either way, on the first warm day of summer, it enabled us to have another.

Evening rolled around, and Jenny had to leave for aikido practice (hiccup-hi-yaw!). What was a boy to do but stay, have dinner, read his book, and try another brew? From Steamworks' extensive menu on any given day, I couldn't decide between the Irish Red and the Tax Alement ESB. So I sampled them both. The Irish Red was good -- smooth in malty caramel flavor as well as texture. (It was nitrogenated, which explains the silky suds.) The ESB ran higher in alcohol, with greater interaction between the spiced hops and lightly roasted malt.

I chose the ESB for my full pint, but got an Irish Red instead... ah well, there's worse in life than mistakenly receiving an excellent beer. (And it's not like I needed the extra alcohol anyway, what with an Iron Horse training ride the next day!)

All in all, what a jolly holiday. We really ought to firk around more often. (I'll drink to that! Cheers!)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Steamworks: Not Just Blowing Smoke

A year of living in Durango (a year? really? no way it's been that long! we moved here October 2012 and now it's...uh...wait, what day is it?) has given us plenty of reasons to celebrate, and in retrospect, I realize that many of those celebrations ended up at Steamworks Brewing Co. on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 8th Street. (How could we not, though? The Steamer's master brewers, Spencer and Ken, are Certified Cicerones! And no, that does not have anything to do with Italian food. It means they are to craft beer what a sommeliers are to fine wine! E.x.p.e.r.t.s. And they've got their beertenders and servers training to be experts, too! In short, these guys know what they're doing.)

The day we moved in, the Steamer was our first stop after dropping off the U-Haul. We capped a celebration of life and beauty and random happenstance in the dead of winter by being adventurous in our beer choices. Two of our dear friends escaped Albuquerque in order to raise Steamworks glasses to their new endeavor, the New Mexico Mercury, and to our own contributions to the online meeting-of-the-minds. And we've gone there to celebrate a year of supporting ourselves as writers, editors, and teachers, which is to say, to a year of working in our pajamas any time we so choose (like right now).

Also, when crispness is in the air, and it's both autumn and winter at the same time (you mean like in our apartment...cuz you keep the thermostat set at "Antarctica" while I crank the space heater up to "Bahamas"?), you just have to get out and enjoy it. (Y-y-yeah, g-g-get out-t-t there, f-f-f-folks!)

Outside our front door last Thursday.

So today, we escaped for an autumnal walk around the residential side of downtown and a bite n' sip at Steamworks.

The obvious choice of brew was the Slam Dunkel, which took home the gold medal for German-style wheat ales from the Great American Beer Festival. Alas, the Slam Dunkel had already won the gold medal that counts: it was so popular with locals that Steamworks ran it dry two days before it won the Brew-lympics. (The poor bartender had to wait around a while as we collapsed prostrate on the peanut-shelled floor and cry out: Noooooooo! Not fair! Waaaaahhhh!)

Our secondary choices were hardly consolation prizes. This barfly buzzed around a pint of Colorado Proud, which earns my personal gold medal, as just about the most drinkable IPA ever. (Like Ever ever? In the history of ever? Wow.) 

Imagine if you could eat your whole sack of Halloween candy without puking, and then tackle your little sister's, too. It tastes floral but not sweet, sharp but not bitter. I'm sure some self-proclaimed hopheads would scoff at its wimpiness, but I would point the finger right back and say they are insecure in their masculinity. (Even the lady hopheads.) (I pretty much agree on this one. The Colorado Proud is the most gentlemanly I.P.A. I've ever come across. The kind that holds doors open, or drapes its coat over puddles so ladies may ambulate without soiling their slippers! It is pride without prejudice. It is genteel. Rather than bitter, tongue-walloping hop, I tasted a bit of buttery tang. And I liked it!) 

See? The most dapper gentleman can wear a flower in his lapel without feeling threatened.

Oh, and the Colorado Proud is made of all locally grown ingredients. Chalk one up for the home team!

(Although I liked my sample of CO Proud, I did not order it because there was a barleywine on the menu! So, I ordered the "17," which tasted deliciously thick with quenching, succulent plums, but rich like a good fall cider. Its scent was slightly oak-y, like an old forest just after a drenching rain. And that is probably why I will always like barleywines. They a transportational beverages, capable of whisking back in time or through the portals between dimensions. One moment you're in Durango's Steamworks, and the next, you're basking in Sherwood Forest!) 

We sipped our steam-beers, while an employee brought out the Slam Dunkel's gold medal. He hung it off some pipe near the cash register, but I hollered that we couldn't see it from there. So, he draped it across the chalkboard beer menu. Applause bubbled up, boisterous enough to embarrass the fellow, then that was it. No ceremony or fuss. Back to beers-ness as usual. Which, honestly, is enough to celebrate right there.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Over the River and Through the Woods...A Drinkin' We Will Go

As seasoned brew-hunters, Zach and I know full well that not every beer we try is going to be awesome, or blow-your-hair-back, or taste bud-dazzling, or even just delicious. We know that brewers are artisans. They experiment with recipes and take risks with ingredients. It's a different take on experimental substances. Their aim is not to craft a reasonable beer that everyone can chug, because beers like that often lack anything approaching "taste."

Writing is a lot like that, too. Not every book on the shelf will blow your hair back and, often enough, the ones advertisers tell you that everyone likes are too watered down to be worth the read. Some writers experiment to the point of incomprehension (think James Joyce), while others push the boundaries only enough to make them zing (think Raymond Chandler).

So, when we find a beer that doesn't quite delight (but tries), we don't slam it. We tell you potential tasters what we tasted (as accurately as possible) so you'll know what to expect when the barkeep slides the suds your way. In other words, we seek the malty high ground. Sometimes quite literally. Like when our drink expectations fell a little flat in Burlington, we took off to tromp the peaks of the Green Mountains, where they intersect with the Appalachian Trail!

Hiking (a very small segment of) the AT had become a bit of an obsession for us after reading Bill Bryson's hysterical narrative A Walk in the Woods. Bryson's misadventures just prep-shopping for a hike on the AT were as side-splitting as his written renderings of the forests were startling and vivid. He made us want to be there.

And suddenly, we were. Old wood forests dense with ragged trunks, fractal branches, and coil-coy ferns. Shadows splotched everywhere, shrouding the sources of tick-and-bibble noises.

We moved through the woods and pressed into a reverent silence. Our path broke at a pond. Once again, language proved muddy, because what are evidently ponds in New England, we know as lakes in the Southwest. We snacked on a simple lunch and listened to the trees applaud the coming rainstorm.

Sheets of silver slickness surrounded us. Protected by our Irish-weather-proof coats, we splunch-and-squished our way back to the trail head. While maneuvering across a tumble-down patch of boulders, I slipped and fell, turning my backside biscuits to pancakes. No severe injuries, save for the bruising that would surface later, but I was definitely "bummed" to end our trek that way. Zach resolved to get me back to town and to a beer.

We returned to Burlington and cleaned up. Then we struck out for downtown's pedestrian-only Church Street. This delightful, brick-paved path was a quarter-mile facsimile of most downtown districts in Europe, where cars are curbed far away and only the fortified-footers may roam.

Since it was still too early to eat, we stopped in at the Church St. Tavern and ordered a pair of Otter Creek Lager. Otter Creek hails from Middlebury, Vermont, and makes plenty of beers I enjoyed on past visits to Vermont. We'd passed the turn-off to the Otter Creek Brewery while driving back from the AT, far too stinky and sodden to enjoy a beer properly. So this stop made up for the earlier miss. This particular mellow-gold liquid fits the light-bright, clean and refreshing mold of its European Pislner forbears, but adds an odd and enjoyable twist. The sniffer picks up on malty, bready, sweet aromas while the tongue -- marigolds. Then the brain says, "Hey, dummy, were you eating marigolds while I wasn't looking?"

But that's the quirk of this particular beer. It's floral-bitter and citrus-sweet. It's like dining on marmalade-glazed toast next to a big bouquet of flowers. And then you take another drink because your senses are so tangled, you think another sip will untie the knot. But it doesn't. The second sip goes like like the first: yum!

When the sun set, we set off  in search of food. We came upon Ken's Pizza & Sub which had a busy, traditional Italian-styled patio dining area up front and an oddly configured tiki lounge off the side. Opting for the tiki lounge -- opting, in that the tiki lounge is where the available tables were -- we sidled up to a tall table and ordered a pizza and -- what else -- beer. While we waited for our order to arrive, we noticed the tiki lounge played nothing but Jimmy Buffet. And I realized that I somehow know ALL THE WORDS TO ALL THE SONGS. What subliminal mind-warping did my parents put me through?

About the time we started worrying we were gonna catch a bad case of crabs (there are no virgin margaritas in Margaritaville, and you know what they say about what goes around), our drinks arrived. We shared a Rockart Ridgerunner Barleywine and a Switchback Ale. I've posted on the Ridgerunner before, so I'll let Zach have a crack at it here.


Oy, you want more of a crack than that? Well, this beer is done right -- it's not one of those "A for effort" beers Jenny talks about above. Aside from the out-of-place Kokopelli on the bottle, everything in this beer hits your senses where it counts. It bore its sweetness on a litter of complex hop and malt flavors that some might call "bitter" but I found intriguing. I can't say this brew is balanced, because that would discredit its richness, its not-quite-smokiness, and its evolving character as it warms. Kokopelli is the god of fertility, and I would believe that the Ridgerunner has begot more than one young Vermonter.

As for the Switchback, I will say that it was good. It comes cloudy and unfiltered and blushing like a virgin. The Switchback brewers mix a lot of malts into this recipe, resulting in a taste that some might call "complex," but I would say is more like "multiple-personality-disorder." First taste sweet-wheaty, next taste bitter-rye, with a bland, white bread wash-down. Texturally, this beer makes an impression on your mouth. Dry like a wine, it almost peels the paint, so swallow fast.

Whazzat? I's still sipping my... my... balls, who drank all 'e Ridgenunner?

When our bellies were full and our pint glasses were empty, we left Jimmy Buffet in Margaritaville. We took a stroll down to the waterfront and drank in more of the nighttime breezes blowing in off Lake Champlain. We watched the metallic slither of light on the water surface and thought back on own amazing walk in the woods. Then we thought forward on our future path as writers, a trail we hike every day.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Swampy Sippins

Well, I finally did it!

I finally graduated and got my MFA! All it took was two years, [more than we care to admit] in student loans, 20 packets of work consisting of 750,000 words written, and over 250 books read.

And what better way to celebrate the culmination of all that work than to take a hike with my beloved Zach and my parents through a boggy, bug-filled swamp! It was *almost* Canada!

Okay, we didn't set out to hike through a swamp. We looked at a map of Vermont (where my grad program is located) and saw there was a wild bird preserve about two hours north of our B&B. Two hours is a no-time drive for desert dwellers like us, who are used to driving two hours or more to work every day -- not to mention 4 hours to a dentist or go bulk-shopping at the nearest wholesale store. I, Zach, am not included in this "us." To me, a place as close as Rio Rancho is too far to drive for ANYTHING. And it's only four hours away during rush hour.

As it turns out, "wild bird preserve" in Vermont actually translates into "mosquito-infested bog land."

No problem. Zach and I had already stopped by a pharmacy to pick up some bug spray. Mom and Dad said to get something with DEET in it. But I'm not into salving aerosol poison on my skin. No, sirree. Instead, we found a brand sporting a natural pheromone guaranteed to make the bugs pinch their noses and fly far away.

With our pest-repellent force field applied, we bravely forged the puddles forming the hiking loop around the preserve. We swatted bugs until our arms were sore. We doused each other with more and more bug spray, but it was no good. That pheromone must have been some kind of hubba-hubba bug perfume because those mosquitoes and black flies harassed us until hour skin looked like bubble wrap! Mine didn't. Not that I'm saying neener-neener. 

Okay, I am saying neener-neener. 

After surviving swamplandia, Mom, Dad, Zach and I sought refuge at the Vermont Pub & Brewery. We were super excited to visit this particular brewpub because its founder, Greg Noonan, is a kind of godfather to American microbrewing. His 1986 book, Brewing Lager Beers, was one of the early textbooks for home brewers. He opened the VPB in 1988 and ran it until his death in 2009.

The day was sunny and the humidity was mild, so when we arrived at the large, brick-slathered corner building, we asked to sit on the patio. Lucky us: a local jazz band was setting up for a gig. Unluckily for us, we got the waitress who felt serving up grub 'n' suds was beneath her ambitions.

When lil' miss I-hate-my-bar-apron finally stopped by the table, Mom and Dad got some local hard ciders and Zach ordered the Grand Slam Baseball Beer. Just seeing it on the menu made us think of Isoptopes Amber -- the best ballpark beer in the world! And I was feeling in quite the baseball mood, let me tell you. I had just watched three Kansas City Royals in the same All-Star game for the first time since the late '80s -- and they were all on the diamond at the same time. This, not entirely coincidentally, has led to my first taste of a pennant race since I was old enough to understand that I would never understand the infield fly rule.

The menu touts the Grand Slam as a light-bodied American pale ale. I took that to mean: not quite as in-your-face as a strong IPA, but a foundation of flavor you could build your stadium on. And... well, the emphasis was on "light-bodied." The brew didn't do anything special; it wasn't watery, but it wasn't rich. It had all the right components, but not in any way that made you sit back and sigh. Like watching a Little League contest: the love of the game was there, the know-how was mostly present, but it just wasn't executed as beautifully as a major-league double play. I'm glad I tasted it, but I wouldn't go back for the second half of a doubleheader. 

I ordered the house Weissebier: the Beetlejuice. (I guess I hadn't had enough bugs out on the trail). Honestly, I was attracted to the menu description of the Beetle where its subtle banana and clove flavors were touted. Just thinking about that odd yet magical combination whisked me nostalgically away to the Franciscan Well in Co. Cork, Ireland, with its banana-y...clove-y...bubblegummy...Friar Weisse! Ssssttthhooo delissshhhuttthhh!

Oopsstthhh! Ssstthhhorry, I'm drooling again. Well, one sip of the Beetlejuice was enough for me to know that "subtle" in Vermont translates about as well as "wild bird preserve." This beer was a banana-bananza! It unified all banana splits around the world! By the time I finished it, I had Gwen Stefani's Ain't No Holla Back Girl stuck in my head (It's bananas! B-AN-AN-AS!) Too bad the waitress weren't no holla back girl, either. I might have been able to try another of VPB's beers. But our meal was done and the jazz band had played their last song of the afternoon. So we departed from Vermont Pub & Brewery a bit disappointed and underwhelmed by the overall experience. Cheers to the jazz band for elevating our time as high as they did!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Royal Loggers

"Everyone to the Palace!"

And so it was that the merry revelers sallied forth to yon Palace for much mirth and festivity.

No, you have not just stumbled on to some weird fairy tale blog. That's actually what happened a few nights ago after my friend successfully passed his 1st kyu test in aikido. On a technical scale, the test was darn-near perfect. Well, on all other scales, it was darn-near perfect, too. There was extra high praise for the paired weapons demos involving none other than yours truly.

Test participants and audience members all made their way to The Palace for some late-night drinks, appetizers, and general good times. If I ever join the military, I want to be in HIS platoon.

Now, The Palace is probably the third restaurant Zach and I have been to in Durango. We're often a.) too frugal to eat out, b.) too busy, or c.) too pragmatic to go anywhere other than one or another favorite suds-sippin or food-munchin' spot (like Steamworks or Home Slice). d) We make some rockin' food ourselves, and e) we know how to cook it without inducing nasty crease-crinklers afterwards.

The Palace was not as palatial as the name suggested. It looked more like a good-time saloon, with dark wood paneling, stained glass hanging lamp shades, and sturdy, basic chairs and tables. But the juxtaposition of name and setting did not prevent the ensuing hootenanny!

Along with a shared plate of gnocci (no-chi? no-ki? nyo-gki?), Zach and I asked to hear a rundown of the local beers on tap. The waitress responded: Ska. We're not trying to curry favor with only the one brewer, honest. The Palace simply didn't have any other local choices. Not that we're complaining. We are NOT complaining. Ska's beers are yummerlicious! Remaining your staunch artisan advocates (avid craftbeer "sipporters"), we both went for a pint of seasonal Mexican Logger.

Yes, you read that right. Logger instead of lager. It had to be the cleverest pun I had ever seen. That's saying something because I'm a devoted pun-master who had never once made that whimsical, linguistical flip. Liar. We came up with at least a dozen better puns that night we stayed up, punning all fifty state names.

We toasted (and roasted) the successful, new 1st kyu seated at the head of the table, and then we took our first slurps of the logger lager. My tongue's first thought was: bashful beer, but then as the liquid spread through my mouth, I got a big yummy dose of lager toasty nuttiness.

This beer reminded me that Mexican-style lagers really are the children of European-style pilsners. Tingly and zingy, with rich yeastiness. A whiff of nuttiness on the exhale. I have to agree with Jenny that the taste here is a bit timid up front. The rest of the Logger experience makes you quickly view that first encounter with friendly remembrance, though. This is a quality summer brew. Inferior beers require a lime to add some pizzazz, but this one? Not so much. It's become my crusade to teach local waitstaff and barkeeps to ditch the fruit.

In the end, Zach and I wound up giving the Mexican Logger a five-chain, top rating! Sure, we risk looking like a couple of kiss-axes, always praising Ska. But can we help it if those west slope brewers "saw" the right way to craft the perfect summer sipper? Caution: reader should wear protective eyewear. Such sharp wit may become dislodged and sent airborne!