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!