Monday, February 18, 2013

Night-Flying Fire

Nothing cheers away the doldrums of winter like power saw racing. Or street bowling. Or build-and-race-your-own-sled competitions. Basically, any of the zany events held during Durango's infamous Snowdown celebration are more than capable of taking the chill from your cockles. Snowdown has been running (hobbling, sashaying, and prancing) for thirty-five years. Like many snowbound civilians, Durangoans turn spring fever into a tradition of getting wild in order to shake off the many layers of winter snow.

This meant Zach and I had over a week's worth of festivities to enjoy. Trivia nights. Doggie and kitty fashion shows. Broom ball. A drag show (which Zach could have won, and not just cuz he would have shaved his slender legs!). No, I would have won because I would NOT have dressed as an overweight Princess Leia. In a bikini. I still can't sleep. A light parade that packed the sidewalks like New Year's in Time Square.

Every bar and every restaurant participated. And all events this year were geek-themed. Audience members and competitors all had to don their best (and worst) nerd-garb. Locals (young, old, sober, and otherwise) took this year's theme very seriously. On any given night, Zach and I saw more knee-high socks, mismatched striped shirts, sweater vests, cow-licks, and thick-rimmed glasses than we care to describe -- and that was before we'd stepped out the front door. She'd never admit it, but Jenny really gets into the spirit of the season.

On the last night of Snowdown, we made our way to what we thought would be the perfect spot to watch the fireworks display. According to the information in the Snowdown calendar -- a professionally printed and bound chunk of paper thick enough to masquerade as a Bible -- the fireworks show was shooting off of a "West Rim Road." Google maps pinpointed this road as the road wrapping around Fort Lewis College, which made perfect sense to us. The college sits on a high plateau overlooking the town. That seemed like a reasonable place to launch a fireworks display. We should have known nothing about Snowdown was "reasonable."

Zach and I parked the car just under the rim, opened the sunroof and waited for the show to start.

Boom! Boom-fizz!

We could hear the fireworks, but we could not see them. The dark sky before us was blank as a chalkboard. Then I spotted a bright flash in the rearview mirror. The firework show was located behind us, somewhere on the other end of town. We debated for a moment about racing across town to get a better view, but after seeing how all other Snowdown events packed in spectators, we sensed that we wouldn't find an adequate parking/viewing spot until well after the show was over.

From where we stood, we could at least see the the tops of the brilliant explosions. And half was better than none. Then the sight of what I thought was a wayward glowing ember drew my attention away from the fireworks. I turned and saw a ball of glowing yellow light drifting above the trees. Zach and I marveled at the flickering little orb, trying to figure out what it was. Then we saw another one waft up out of a nearby backyard. Someone was releasing candle-fed hot air balloons -- something I had not seen since elementary school when a science teacher had students sew up the delicate silk balloons and launch them from the quad.

The fireballs floated gently away, like little stars looking for a home in the sky. When we could no longer tell which balls of light in the sky were man-made or god-made, Zach and I retired to Steamworks, just a few blocks down.

Sheets of corrugated metal jut across the ceiling. Piles of peanut shells carpet the floor. Its seating areas mingle with multiple bars, indoor and outdoor. And from open until close, Steamworks is chockablock full of people. Families drift in for leisurely meals. Coworkers gather, no doubt to blow off steam. Friends flock to watch the game on the flat screens mounted under the rafters.

On this night (like previous visits), I got lost in the maze of gangways and raucous hordes. Zach often has to navigate by nudging my shoulders this way or that. I began to wonder if Steamworks is always full because people can't find their way out.

Truly, though, why would they bother? Steamworks has it all. Great location. Stupendous atmosphere. And of course, an expansive list of masterful craft brews to boot. After a week of splendid geekery capped off with the rarity of observing night-flying fire, we decided to be adventurous with our beer selections.

I picked out the Lizard Head Red, even though I tend to not like reds. I went with a Backside Stout, even though I'm more of a boob man myself. The first sip of the Lizard Head did not pack the bitter punch I expected. Instead, I got a splash of caramel. Zingy. Tangy. Like hearing fireworks while not actually seeing them. The Lizard Head swung like a pendulum. As soon as my taste buds registered "mmmm malty" the Lizard wiggled and wriggled its way over to "zzzinnnggg hops!" Sip after sip, I admired how this beer could balance the scales without ever tipping them.

The Backside Stout, as it turns out, is named for the backside of a mountain, NOT a lady. In either case, it's the stout Guinness could be if it were made with care, attention, quality, and just a pinch of boldness. Instead, Arthur's ale falters in trying to appeal to every palate. Not the Backside. Steamworks' version of the black stuff is velvety smooth and rich in maltiness, with just enough roasted tones to draw your attention. These tones grow as the beer warms, but that's about the only change -- the creaminess sustains itself, and the beer never tastes flat or bland. (Well, maybe not never. But not in the time you'll take to enjoy it.) Just as everyone has different taste in derrieres, not everyone would pick this stout off the roster. That's the risk with going bold. But I believe that this is a brew most people, regardless of personal taste, could at least appreciate.

We leaned back in our high chairs, feeling very satisfied with Snowdown, our beers, and a wintry week of nerdy revelry. Outside, overhead, the fire in the sky showed Mother Nature we were there and ready for spring already.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Hibernating with Grape Juice, or Enter the Eden of Beer

In January, we at Al"brew"querque (are forced to) continue our tradition of sipping beers in different locations. Jenny undertook her semiannual abandonment trip to Vermont for her graduate program, while I (refused to come along) stayed home. "Home sweet home" was, to be exact, our third place of residence in four semesters, which at least mixes up the beer selection.

And what a selection it is! We've had no problem waxing prosaic about the Durango brewing culture, with four microbreweries within fifteen minutes of our door. With all these choices, deciding on a six-pack to take home should be difficult. Right? (Right!)

Wrong. (Oh. Frown. I hate being wrong. Meh!) After the razzmatazz performance of MolĂ© Stout on our taste buds, I seized the plastic handles on Ska Brewing's latest seasonal, Hibernal Vinifera Stout. This stout is best summed up by Ska's own website:

"Who the fu*k put grapes in my beer?"

I wish I hadn't read the can first, because now I'll never know if I would have discerned grape flavors without the aluminum cheat sheet (a lesson for all would-be cheaters). But I swear to all things that grow on vines (pumpkins... cucumbers...), this beer really does have a sense of grapes about it (you mean like how Natalie Portman has a sense of swans about her in Black Swan?). I don't taste the fruit in the liquid itself, which has the delightful fullness of being cask-aged without tasting like you just licked the inside of a barrel -- a feat rarer than finding spare barrels to lick. (This is why I can't leave you alone.) But in the air that fills the bubbles of this brew, I found the scent of grape juice or a hint of grape soda. Hibernal Vinifera tastes like grape juice smells.

It's good the whole way through, too (like Burl Ives), unlike so many gimmicky beers that intrigue on first sip and gag by the end. Ska has got this additive concept down. Hibernal Vinifera wows at the start (like a stripper), maintains its virtues throughout (like a virgin), dances the tango and the waltz with any food you pair it with (I tried it with a green chile burrito and with cookies), and polishes off just this side of sweet. (Folks, he was home alone, so please feel free to picture him literally cutting the rug with a beer in hand and a burrito snapped between his teeth like a long-stem rose.)

This brew made the lonely cold Colorado evenings bearable, until my darling could steal away from the oppressive regime heavy scheduling in Vermont and sign in to video chat. Then, I was pleased to tip my can to her and enjoy Ska's latest with the best company around.

While Zach was in our living room waltzing around with a six pack, I was trudging through several feet of snow in subzero temperatures down the steep hill separating Vermont College's campus from the groovy Victorian town of Montpelier. (Swinging 1860s, here we come!)

That's right, groovy Victorian. Montpelier, also the state capitol of Vermont, is what would have happened to the real Victorians if left in isolation -- like the marsupials of Australia. Some features go untouched, while others undergo bizarre-yet-inevitable mutations. Meticulous layers of fancy clothing with lots of buttons, fasteners, and hooks are replaced by North Face outerwear (with lots of clasps, buttons, and fasteners). Buggies turn to Subarus. And the old religious snobbery which would have disdained alcoholic beverages transforms into elitist snobbery for locally microbrewed. 

That said, I should also point out that Durango and Montpelier share this marsupial Victorianism.  

Down the hill I journeyed, taking my roommate, Jenn, with me. (Yes, they dared to room two Jenns together. Oh the hijinx that ensue...) We were on our way to the Three Penny Taproom, a vast menagerie of microbrews from around the state and around the country.

I was particularly excited to visit the Taproom because all the previous residencies proved too jam-packed with events and lectures to allow me enough time to go and enjoy a drink there. (Okay, there had been time to drink, but never enough time to sober up before my brains were needed again.) Also, I had promised to perform my famous flavor-profile test on Jenn so that she could drink a beer that wouldn't make her gag. It had been a while since I could profile anyone who said they didn't like beer, and I was a little nervous that maybe I'd lost my knack for it.

Into the Taproom we went, and there we froze. The Taproom was loaded with real plants. Compared to the barren, icy streets, the Taproom felt like a blooming garden or a thriving greenhouse. Crossing the threshold was an almost Biblical experience -- I had unwittingly sauntered into the Eden of Beer.

And besides the thick fronds and plentiful vines chewing into the cramped quarters, Jenn and I had to maneuver around all the jolly people, mostly men whose quasi-Saxon facial hair bristled out into the remaining scant snips of elbow room.  

Shuffle-stepping up to the bar, Jenn and I studied the chalkboard with a super-long and super-detailed list of beers, including who brewed them, their ABV figures, and the states they hailed from. I first asked Jenn if any of the titles caught her fancy. When she put up her hands and shook her head, saying she did not know a brown ale from a lager, I quickly performed my flavor profile wherein I ask a very short list of comparative questions. What do you like better, chocolate or coffee? Bread or pastries? Nuts or berries? And so on. 

In a matter of seconds, I determined that Jenn would love a warm, aromatic Belgian beer. So I ordered the Vermont-made McChouffe "blushing" Belgian brown ale. To her delight, it came in a wine-like glass and looked and smelled much like a wine. The ruby tint was seductive and when she gave me a sip, I delighted in the cozy, brandy-like flavor. Jenn enjoyed her beer and remarked (as many do) that she had no idea beer could taste like that.

I settled on the Hill Farmstead Earl oatmeal coffee stout, also local out of Vermont. It was strong and roasty. The presence of oats was boisterous and delicious, tinged with a bitter coffee aftertaste. The stout finished off kind of mellow, like a rockin' Metallica song that just fades out for the next track -- which is not a fault. A stout like that is just being polite to your palate, clearing the way and settling down so you can enjoy the next drink.

And enjoy we did, squeezed in between the beards, fronds, and vines. I kicked back knowing my flavor profile skills had not faded, and in a few days, I would be going home to rescue my love from his solo hibernation and lonely malt-waltzing.