Friday, July 12, 2013

A Loss of Words

( A salsa judge at the World Championship
Chili Cook-off in 2010. )

There are fewer words here than there used to be. I'd bet on that continuing. And this is not a surprise to me.

In April of 2010 when I gave my 18 month old winemaker's journal (blog) a shot in the arm I was full of ideas and energy. It was a birthday present to myself. "Go do something", was the idea. And I did. Over three plus years I have achieved some of what I initially set out to do. I tasted, sampled, wrote, took photos, networked, laughed, sighed, sponged up information, provided education to others and did a fair bit of traveling. I changed courses many times and for many different reasons. I still do most of these things and with gusto! The early goals I didn't achieve have been superseded by so many others, some I have nailed, some I haven't; and some just not yet. Some weeks I wrote a lot and some weeks I wrote less. I wrote, shared, read, shared, commented, debated (argued), shared and along the way I have learned so much!

I continue to enjoy all of the experiences this journey affords me, and most of all I genuinely appreciate the many people I continue to "meet" along the way. I have never met some of these people in person (yet), but there are things we have in common so we get each other enough that we have a great dynamic in a networking context. I continue to carry on relationships with some of the people I've met while others are more often a friendly face in the more business-y realm of food & beverage events. All of them are part of the "family" however weird that ends up being in one city or another. I still look forward to these days.

But I just don't write about this stuff anymore and I don't spend much time on social media plugging my work and keeping tabs on the beverage media. Why? Well, it's complicated I guess.

Late last year (2012) I felt my drive to write about and share my experiences waning. I reformulated my approach, a natural and not unexpected reaction given the 2+ prior years, and kept plugging away. But I wasn't digging it. The idea of throwing a bunch of words together, using a euphemism here, and sharing them as a way of expressing my experiences secondhand just wasn't resonating anymore. Things change and I know myself well enough to know that when I lose interest in something there is nothing good in trying to keep it going. So I won't.

From some reflection I came to realize that my goal of "go do something" was never intended solely to mean blog about my life nor that it should necessarily create something new and permanent. So setting aside some of the activities I picked up while out "doing something" when they no longer interest me is not a crime. It isn't even failure. It is quite the opposite actually. Here is what I am keeping:
  • I have more time for dates with friends (yes this is you Margot) where we get to sit around the table eating, drinking and socializing. We all want to do this and we all love it.
  • I still make a shit-ton (I saw a joke this week that in the UK that is shite-tonne, he he!) of beer, mead, cider and wine and I share it with friends, all the time!
  • When I travel I can strike a better balance of food/beverage visits with other things of interest. Some of it is just baked in. Portland, Oregon and the Oregon Brewer's Festival anyone? Week after next.
  • With other aspects of my life (work, family, community) being as dynamic as they are for anyone else my life isn't as harried. I know I can't do everything and I can balance all of what I am doing better now.
  • I am less structured and more open to just exploring things. That is what I get out of bed for.
  • When I see you I'll have stories. They weren't on the blog so we'll have something to talk about for sure!
It is OK to miss the words. I'll miss my words too, but not because I regret changing my priorities but because when blogging was my priority I really had fun sharing my days with all of you. It is good to have memories that make you smile. I have fun doing lots of different things and following my interests is keeping things plenty exciting so I am sure to keep racking up good memories. See you on the trail!



Friday, June 14, 2013

Now Hear This – Sony Walkman W & The Grateful Dead

When I share product reviews they are exclusively food & beverage related. This week I will depart from that truth to tell you about the experience I've had with the Sony Walkman W Meb Keflezighi Edition.

I received my Sony Walkman W as a perk from I’m not a runner, one of the intended audiences, but I do walk a lot, hike and work out in the yard & gardens quite a bit. And working out in the yard is where I found the Walkman W to be a fantastic product.

I've been on a binge with the yard-work in the last couple of weeks. Between getting the existing gardens prepped & planted, clearing for new gardens, new landscaping in the front yard and some spot seeding I’ve probably spent almost an entire work week out there since Memorial Day weekend. Margot has helped with the work quite a bit, but during the times where we have worked in separate parts of the yard or when she was working elsewhere I've enjoyed taking my music with me as a work.

The Sony Walkman W is a about the side of a normal pair of headsets, with small modules at each ear for the electronics and a rubber coated cable connected the two. It has a USB plug for charging and to transfer music. It is designed to be water resistant, not swimming waterproof though, but more so sweat and rain-proof. I've tested both of those scenarios successfully.

The sound quality of the unit is exceptional. My music of choice the last couple of weeks has been live recordings of The Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band. Some of the audience recordings have good sound quality on their own and others have a bit more of the ambient noise. Even at the max volume the Sony Walkman W does a great job of making the music sound great. I don’t know exactly what the battery life is in practice (the web site says 8 hours), but I haven’t run out in between chargings which have been sporadic since I have been using it.

( A glimpse of what some of all the hard work has been about. )

I'll take a quick detour to share an observation specifically about my choice of music. The pairing of audience recordings of the Grateful Dead and yard work turned out to be superb, bordering on ethereal. The Dead never played the same show twice so the improvisational and organic quality to any collection of live recordings is part of the allure. Working in the garden is connective exercise, human with earth, and that activity and the music seemed linked in a spiritual way.  I prefer to listen to live music outdoors, it just feels better, and I think the experiences I have had in the yard these last few weeks are an extension of those feelings. With the added rush of the physical labor I was genuinely happy even after long, hard days of labor.  

I would highly recommend the Sony Walkman W to anyone who I active and would like to take their music on the go. It is light, comfortable, powerful and has enough storage (2GB) to listen to unique tracks for at least a few hours. The product retails for $69 at Sony's web site. Don’t worry about it getting sweaty or wet, it will keep on truckin'!



Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Keeping a Garden

I've helped with or have kept my own gardens since early childhood. Something about working with the soil, the living plants and then eating like a king has always resonated with me because of those experiences. A big thank you goes out to my mom & dad for exposing me to the activity. Those were good times!

Last year (2012) was the first good year using our original gardening plan when we moved in 11 years prior. Why didn't it work early on? We had too many trees. We got dozens of them cut down in 2011 & 2012, resulting in lots of sun. The tree removals, roof replacement and re-siding projects in those same years also collectively exposed and/or destroyed lawn, gardens and spaces with plenty of biomass and mess to deal with. Yay! 

Clearing and re-purposing those areas has allowed us to expand our gardens, both for eating and sensory enjoyment. We picked a few more areas to clean up recently and as of the time of this writing we weren't yet done with this years' enhancements. Margot was epic in loading and moving the topsoil, but don't expect her to be announcing a change in career to landscaping any time soon! Between the two of us we have spent about a work week out in the yard so far this year, but based on the way it looks it has definitely been worth it.

( This is the herb garden cleaned up, soil spread and ready to plant. May 26, 2013 )

Salad vegetables and herbs are the most important food plants for me to grow on my own property. I love fresh, raw tomatoes; they just scream summer to me! The kitchen herbs basil, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme are so easy to grow, smell fantastic and liven up all our summer meals. Estate grown hot peppers go into lots of summer dishes and in back to back years I expect a large harvest as well the creation of a new special fermented beverage to honor the crop. The sweet and spicy mead last year was really out of sight! This year we also decided to try potatoes, garlic, onions and leeks. Margot calls it our "hash brown" garden. Makes sense, so just go with it!

We kept the number of herb plants constant (I lied, we added orange mint but planted it elsewhere), but a couple perennials that didn't come back gave us better space to work with. We'll be eating basil already for dinner tonight. The sage wintered like a champ and we've already steeped some in lemonade for the house cooler for the summer season. Eating from the garden right out back is a true joy!

( Ready to plant vegetables. May 26, 2013 )

I also planted hops and strawberries from a friend in 2012. They did very well during the first season and this year are really off to a great start. I hope to get a small crop of each when their seasons come. 

( Hallertauer hops, year two. May 28, 2013)

We also decided to pluck out some small ornamental trees and replace the area with a rose garden. That is one of the plans that hasn't been completed yet, so I don't have photos to share!

And with that let's get to the rest of the photos. The captions will guide you along this year's projects.

( Getting the herbs planted is always fun! May 30, 2013 )

( The "infamous" hash brown garden. From the left, front to back. 
Potatoes, onions, garlic, leeks.  The hops are on the far right. May 31, 2013 )

( The tomatoes and peppers are really happy a few days after planting. June 5, 2013 )

( There is activity in the potato bed as of today. June 5, 2013 )

( The strawberries are going to be made into a drink. 
Cute idea to have a "cocktail garden". June 5, 2013 )

( After a few days of sun and water, the herbs are really happy! June 5, 2013 )

This year we also cleaned up the area where we removed our front hedges. Some fill and crushed stone made for a nice clean look. Margot found rustic planters to put annuals in along the front. Looks smashing!

( Front of the house. The grass seed is already down by now. May 30, 2013 )

( The back of our house is finally worth looking at! May 30, 2013 ) 

So that's where I have been lately, and with a few more projects and hours to go, it's where I will be for a few for weekends. 



Tuesday, May 21, 2013

WineMaker Magazine International Amateur Wine Competition 2013 Results

So the first order of business was to update the awards page. I posted the link on FB with the following:

Shameless, yes. Boastful and proud, yes. The guy I am, yes. But make no mistake, this is serious business.

80 total awards. 28 for mead of which 26 have come in only the last 12 months!!! More career stats: 40% win rate. And that is with an average of 8 entries per contest. I've missed placing in a contest 1 time in 7 years. I work like crazy to keep my unruly mad science in check, but I also seem to get results. I am happy to be here learning these crafts as well as having the opportunity to share it all with you. Thank you for propelling me day after day!

Ancient Fire Awards Page

The 2013 WineMaker Magazine Competition boasted 4,564 entries, the most ever. Entries came from 50 US states, 8 Canadian provinces and 9 countries.

The full PDF results are available at WineMaker Magazine International Amateur Wine Competition 2013 Results

For anyone who might have missed our weekend Twitter & FB updates, we took home 7 medals (out of 12 entries) including 3 - Gold, 3 - Silver and a Bronze. 6 were for mead.



Tuesday, May 14, 2013

My Half Full Glass - May 14th, 2013

This is actually last week's HFG, but shit happens. I also had a bottle of wine on deck to include this installment, but with allergy season in full swing my nose just wasn't gonna do it. And now I'm on to the next thing, so here it is!

Ommegang Three Philosophers

Three Philosophers is a Belgian Quad, a high ABV Belgian beer for which there is also a growing number of domestic examples worth drinking. The most recent release of Gravitation from Smuttynose caught my attention earlier this year and I've wondered how it compared to the offering from Ommegang.

Ommegang is known for their true-to-style Belgian beers as well as paving some new ground, and I can't say I have ever been disappointed with one of their beers. This Quad was not what I expected however, but in fairness there isn't anything wrong or off about it. It is just much drier than I expected. All of the aromatic and flavor notes are representative, dried fruits, dark sweet fruits, a breadiness and some spices. The alcohol is moderate at 9.7%, and is not a detractor. In the mouth it's all there, but it is very subtle because of the low residual sugar.

Having had a few homebrewed versions that are sweet and viscous I checked the BJCP Style Guide to see what the ranges in the different attribute categories might be. Category 18E, Belgian Dark Strong Ale is where a Quad could be classified. The alcohol is expected to be between 8 and 11% and the bitterness low. As for the sweetness, there are two sub-styles, Trappist & Abbey, that differ greatly in this aspect, while retaining considerable similarities otherwise. OK, glad I checked. The BJCP style guide is one of the ways I have been learning about beer styles and the two different versions (based on dryness) of Belgian Dark Strong Ales was something new to me!

At the end of the day this is a sweet style of beer for me, which is a good thing to know. I haven't ventured to make a Quad yet, but I do like Belgian beer so after trying a few more who knows!



Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Now Hear This – Kid Rock Helped Me Make Better Beer

( Us from the night in question. )

Where: Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean onboard the Carnival Destiny cruise ship
When: April 2012,  late at night
What: Me joking that I could create a lime-infused ale that is better than Bud Light Lime, not that that is really that hard…

I’ll be honest, I struggled to find what I personally consider worthy beer options at the bars while on the Kid Rock Cruise. If you are a Chillin’ The Most cruiser and are reading this, take no offense. I make my own beer and over the years I have lost my taste for the big three brands (Bud, Miller, Coors), but I believe people should drink what they like. Drink freely my friends.

During one of the evenings on the cruise Margot and I sat outside enjoying both the warm night air and the people watching. The people watching on the cruise was epic by the way. I hit the bar and decided on a couple of Bud Light Limes. As I was drinking my beer I remarked “hey this isn’t so bad” and began talking about how I might craft something similar at home. Margot was goading me on, asking me to express how I really felt about Budweiser and got it all on video, but the video isn’t SFTB (safe for the blog) so you’ll just have to imagine it.

As I thought about it over the remainder of the weekend I figured a basic American ale containing both wheat and corn would be a solid blank slate to layer on some lime. Having worked with citrus flavors in my home fermentations before I knew that a multi-phased approach would work best. I added dried lime peel to the hot wort just before I chilled and strained it, and then fresh lime zest after I transferred the beer to the secondary fermentation container. Finally, lime juice was added at bottling to help bring it all together and lock a solid zip of lime into each bottle.

My plan worked. The beer was brewed on July 4th, 2012 and we set about enjoying it about a month later. We actually used the same beer base to make a lemon shandy, a beer that went on to take a first place in a brewing competition later in the year. But I digress.

Everyone who tried the lime ale had positive words for it, and some people drank every bit of it in sight each time I chilled some down. It is a light-bodied beer and early on the effect of the corn was not very apparent. We just drank the last of the batch this past weekend and just like when I’ve brewed with corn in the past a rounded, sweetness developed with age. In the first few months after the beer was brewed the lime complex in the beer was potent, adding considerable tartness and crispness to each sip. Nearly a year later the lime was much mellowed, but still present.

Skip to the current day. I brewed a fresh batch of lime ale on my birthday last month, nearly one year to the day I hatched the plan in the first place. The recipe for the beer (provided below) has been slightly modified, but the first dose of lime (dried peel) was added at the same time and the fresh lime zest will be as well. At bottling however I will be using more lime juice, and all of it freshly squeezed rather than bottled. 

Getting an earlier start on the second batch means it will be conditioned and ready to go for the summer drinking season, where I expect it will be consumed even more quickly, meaning I won’t be able to say I finished the last of it ten months later.

As for Kid Rock, he needs to get his ass to my house to try the creation he inspired. If you are reading this Bob (I’m dreaming, but one has to do that now and again) the invitation is open and we can retreat to the basement with openers and straws and see what comes of it!

And with that I’ll leave you with a video from the sail away show from the Kid Rock Chillin’ The Most Cruise #3. I can still hear my favorite Kid Rock songs reverberating across the sand and sea while I stood in the sun enjoying the simple things in life, like when and where.

 ( This video is not my own, but it kicks ass so I shared it! )



Ancient Fire Lime Ale 2013

SRM: 4.6
OG: 1.050
IBU: 14.5
Mash time: 30 min
Boil time: 45min

4lb Pilsner Dry Malt Extract
1lb CaraPils
1lb Flaked Wheat
1lb Flaked Corn
1oz Hallertauer hops (45 min)
0.5oz Cascade hops (5 min)
0.0oz Cascade hops (post boil, 5 min)
1oz dried lime peel (post boil, 15 min)
Zest of 6 limes (secondary, until bottling)
Lime juice (amount TBD, at bottling)
Maurivin brewing yeast, 1 liter starter

Friday, May 3, 2013

My Half Full Glass - May 2nd, 2013

Finger Lakes Reds with Grilled Steak Tips

The producers of the Finger Lakes are sharing their wines through a series of virtual tastings again this year including several in the month of May which is Finger Lakes Wine Month. If you are curious about the wines from the region these tastings go a long way to help you understand what is possible.

In the past I have participated in the Riesling and White Wine tastings so for this most recent series I selected reds. The sample kit included the following wines:
Prior to the 8PM virtual tasting I opened each of the bottles and gave them a taste. As I considered the sensory feedback I fired up the grill and got the steak tips going. A summary of our initial impressions goes a little something like this:
  • The first taste of the Fox Run 2010 Lemberger set high expectations for the flight. Earthy & spicy in the nose with tart currants, dark berries and a healthy dose of black pepper.  Upon returning to this wine for a second taste both my wife and I found the nose to be a bit funky and there was also a prickle on the tongue that was not there previously. Neither was profound enough for us to think the wine was flawed, just noticeable different between tastes. I came back to this wine today and the nose was the same but the prickle on the tongue was gone. I'm not going to knock this wine for a subtle funkiness that doesn't detract from the rest of its attributes.
  • The Goose Watch 2010 Lemberger is a different style from the Fox Run, softer and more fruit forward. It is medium to full in body and smells like a dark berry jam with a restrained spicy component. Very quaffable.
  • The Rooster Hill Cab 2011 Franc/Lemberger blend is a bit floral in the nose with a healthy dose spiciness. In the mouth it is very peppery and the combination of spice, acidity and presence of fine tannins creates quite an experience.  On its own this wine was my favorite of the six.
  • The Wagner 2010 Reserve Pinot Noir leads off with crushed red fruits both in the nose and mouth. It has enough tartness to keep everything lively and has a subtle tannic profile. This is a very straightforward, smooth and eminently drinkable Pinot.
  • The Heron Hill Ingle Vineyard 2009 Pinot Noir was off to us. Some volatile elements in the nose came off as a chemical in nature. The flavors were unblemished and the balance of acidity/tannins was good.  I also returned to this wine today and found the odd elements in the nose to be subdued, but the wine was very acidic and tart compared to the tasting the night before.
  • The McGregor 2008 Black Russian Red was a new-to-us wine and producer from the region. The grapes are also nearly new to us as well. It pours very purple and has a nose that blends dark fruits, dried flowers (even sweet tobacco), spices and wet earth.  The wine is tart and dry with dark berry flavors, balanced acidity and fine tannins. I look forward to finishing this bottle!
Once dinner was ready we got down to round two. In addition to grilled steak tips we also had a pine nut couscous and Brussels sprouts on our plates.

We brought wines in to try two at a time. The two that paired best were the Rooster Hill and McGregor Vineyard wines.  The Fox Run Lemberger paired nicely as well, but we were giving it some air (see the notes above) and thought it might do even better overall on day two. The Goose Watch wine was too fruity for the pairing. Yes, the Pinots were overrun by the beef and marinade, but I didn't have any salmon on hand! The spice notes and acidity of both of these wines were the assets that made them work with the steak. The marinade on the steak was both sweet and spicy so a wine with some body and spice character of its own would be destined to work best.

After dinner I headed to the computer to watch the live stream from the tasting event, listen to Q&A from participants and interact with folks in Twitter who were tasting and sharing notes on the same wines. The most important message I heard producers relating to those participating is that their region is distinct from others and they need to continue to work to figure out which grapes work best and on which sites in order to continue to improve the wines. The specific questions about how Lemberger does in the region affirm this notion. Peter Bell from Fox Run indicated that while Pinot Noir is hard to grow anywhere in the world, including the Finger Lakes, Lemberger is proving to less fussy and produces quality wines when sited in a number of places around the region. Eschewing comparisons to other wine-making regions all of the winemakers assembled kept the focus on what their regional experiences are telling them and what work they are doing to continue to grow given the conditions they find in their vineyards.

This event was, as they always has been, a great way to learn more about what the producers are doing in the Finger Lakes region. Thank you to all the producers who participated and the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance for organizing the tasting series again in 2013. Being able to celebrate Spring and Finger Lakes Wine Month with delicious wines and seasonal grilling definitely made me smile!



Wednesday, May 1, 2013

I'm Ten Years Cancer Free!!!

( Me and my team in 2011 kicking some cancer ass! )

In the last week or so plenty of people have asked me what it felt like to turn 40. Well, it really didn't matter to me in the stereotypical way people think of it. Let me illustrate.

Then: I was diagnosed/treated for cancer and turned 30 in the midst of it. Yuck!

Now: I turned 40 on Monday and was given the good word just today that I am free of cancer for 10 years running. Hot damn!

Which one would you choose? See why turning 40 is so awesome for me? I'm better now than when I was 30 and so happy to be here to say that!

This is cause for celebration, and trust me I'll be doing plenty of that; so should you if only because celebrating a great story even when it isn't your own makes us human. But there is more to this than hoots, hollers and cheering.

The war on cancer has not been won. We've barely advanced our pieces on the board. My cause for celebration is a reminder of the battle we wage and why all of us need to get involved. It's a fight for life, and none of us are safe.

Fight back for Hannah, Bill, Pete, Rhonda and Noah who carry on their own personal battles. Celebrate all the survivors who remind us that hope is not lost. Fight back for your children, spouse, mother, father, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, co-workers and yourself. Remember those we've lost and whose presence at our side as we fight propels us forward to victory. Get involved for any reason you want, but get involved.

Click below to make a donation to the American Cancer Society Relay For Life.

Thank you!


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Now Hear This - Music with Soul

This is the inaugural column of Now Hear This, a weekly music-themed article that will showcase the strange interplay between music and beverages which may only exist in my own mind. Maybe it will make sense, maybe it won't. Maybe you will be inspired to check out new-to-you music and beverages as a result of reading it, or maybe you will dismiss me as crazy. Fine by me! Either way each week I get to share something of the inspiration that propels me onwards with only the hope that I might entertain you.

This week's topic is music that have soul. What does this mean exactly? When I was mulling this new column over I remembered a piece by Steve Heimoff in 2012 that touched on the topic of soul in wine and used a music analogy, hearing Marvin Gaye’s "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" as a kid, to set the tone. Heimoff was riffing on the thoughts of another writer (Lisa Airy for the Baltimore Sun) after having read their treatment of the question "What does it take to be great?" in the context of wine. There are two points from the original author that Heimoff specifically crafted his piece around that to me answer the question I asked above. They are “A …wine [that] is a very real combination of scent, flavor and texture that is seamless, multi-faceted, and unending from first sip to swallow, from first sip to last sip.” and “The experience [of a soulful wine] should be such a sensorial onslaught as to capture your complete and undivided attention.” Whether it is wine or music those two statements sum up the concept of soul I am hinting at, multi-faceted, intensely textured, sensorially captivating; demanding complete and undivided attention.

I'm late jumping on the Ben Harper train. He's already been underground and indie, has already gone big and  won awards, been the "it" musician and best I can tell has now settled into his unique stride entertaining loyal fans with performances worldwide, producing for others and giving time & resources to the many global causes he is outspoken about and supports. Ben Harper's music has a vibrant soul, and based on what I've read about him personally, so does he.

I recently caught "I'm In I'm Out And I'm Gone: The Making of Get Up!"on Palladia. The show is part making of and part studio performance for the new Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite collaboration, "Get Up!" At the time I first watched it I knew next to nothing about Harper and absolutely nothing about Musselwhite, and technically I still don't. But the music commanded my attention. Harper on slide guitar (his signature style which of course I would learn more about after downloading more of his music) and Musselwhite on harmonica is a real sensorial onslaught. "I Don't Believe a Word You Say" is my favorite track from the "Get Up!" disc.

The video above is a the performance of "I Don't Believe a Word You Say"  from the Get Up! special. Turn it up loud and listen to the different layers from the musicians. It may be stripped down musically, but is isn't simple and has plenty of soul.

During the special on the making of Get Up! Both Musselwhite and Harper talked about how they met (at a session with John Lee Hooker no less) and that they were “following a feeling” and “letting the music lead them” which brought them to where they were right then. Talk about tuned in, switched on and paying attention!

After the special was over I headed to the cloud. I have been 13 year member of and once I found the Ben Harper page I bounced around the artist bio and album pages to get a feel for what was available and downloaded a cross section of studio and live tunes that I could chew on. Amongst the songs I downloaded there is one I keep coming back to, "The Will To Live". I specifically like the live version of it from the "The Will To Live: Live EP" originally recorded during the 1997 world tour. With lyrics like those below I don't think it is very hard to expect the song to have a bit of soul.

"I met a girl whose heart was on the right hand side
And upon the left an angel did reside
They told her mother that she never would survive
But she kept the rhythm and is still alive, she's still alive
And we must all have the will to live
Oh, you got to have the will to live
Oh, the will, oh, the will
The will to live

I couldn't find that particular version online but this one is similar and should provide context. After listening to the song I immediately stopped to think about what it really means to have the will to live and why don't more people live life to the fullest without having to have experienced calamity for perspective? I've been lucky enough to gain perspective after personal health problems, but I don't think that is required to be able to grasp the soul of this song.

The slide guitar on this track (the live one I specifically like) initially comes across as just behind the bass in the texture stack, then it jumps forward and for the rest of the track they trade places with the guitar also bouncing from right to left and back. It takes focus to absorb it all. Another stylistic facet for Harper is a soulful whisper in his vocals, which is clearly evident on this track. At about four and half minutes (or so depending on version) into the track a group of vocalists, Harper included, create a lullaby type medley that Harper stretches out to nearly the close of the track. There is something so human and soulful there. I'm profoundly touched by it. Examples of this soul exist throughout Ben Harper's collection. If you aren't familiar with Harper and dig an eclectic mix of blues, folk, soul, rock and plenty of energetic guitar playing find this music and stick it in your brain!

So what about the beverages? I am going to go with a pairing rather than deconstruct the soul of a particular drink this week. The music on the Get Up! record offers a lot to take in with its mix of both mellow and up-tempo blues. It immediately made me think of Bourbon, a great example of the harmony of mellow and lively elements in a glass. I watched the special a second time with a glass of Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon in hand and it was a fine pairing indeed. The Bourbon is complex in its own right, with a nice balance of sweet and smoky elements which played off the music very well. It occurred to me that a cigar might have been a nice addition, but I’ll save that for another day.

Sane or crazy, you decide. Hopefully it was entertaining!



Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Half Full Glass - April 25th, 2013

White Birch Ol' Catty Flemish Sour

Hanging out at the Cask & Vine bar can be dangerous. Four beer flights help you experience what's been newly tapped and then a full glass of something that catches your fancy can make for a dangerous night!
Last weekend the Ol' Catty Sour from White Birch (a soured version of their Ol' Cattywhompus Barleywine) was on tap. I will say that I am developing a taste for sour beers and with the experience I do have I know what I like and don't in this style. Beers that are sour for sour's sake and don't have a lot of character in their own right just don't do it for me.

The White Birch Ol' Catty Sour is NOT one of those beers. It's actually sweet, and sour! Brown in color with a wonderfully rich & malty full body and earthy hops you'd be good enough there. The sour, but not too sour, tangent adds depth to this drink. Because it is also sweet the sour profile doesn't taste forced or out of balance. My Facebook message on this beer finished with "damn, I love this beer!" I guess I was having a good time.

Meinklang Burgenland White 2012

Last night (April 24, 2013) the topics of bio-dynamics and Austrian wine were showcased on #winechat. I received the sample kit and popped the bottles open earlier in the day to do my tasting and note taking. The first wine I tasted was the Meinklang Burgenland White 2012 a blend of Welschriesling, Gruener Veltliner and Muskat Ottonel. I'm a sucker for fresh & fruity white blends and this one definitely drew me in. Bottled with some of its own carbonation the wine is a bit prickly which adds a surprising but very workable dimension all of its own. This wine makes a perfect summer sipper. It does need to be chilled to be best.

Aromas of white flowers, crushed herbs and tart, white fleshed fruits (tart apples, pears) blend together nicely in the nose and mouth. The finish is crisp and prickly but does have just a little sweetness left before it exits. There was plenty of conversation about this wine during #winechat and having enjoyed it on the first really warm Spring day we've had in New Hampshire made it easy to consider how this wine might pair well with the inevitable backyard parties of Summer.

Thank you to Austrian Wine USA for hosting #winechat and for the producers who participated. Not having a lot of Gruner experience I was taking in a lot of the feedback from others to help put these wines in context. I purposely decided to make an Asian-inspired salad for dinner tonight so that I can return to the Sepp Moser and Nikolaihof Gruners to experience more of what they offer!



Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Half Full Glass - April 16th, 2013

Cider Rules

Last Wednesday night I had the honor of talking about cider as a guest for #winechat. Prior to the event I tasted through several styles to remind myself of the incredible diversity in cider-making traditions around the world.  I also wrote two posts (Cider Tales and More From The Orchard) on the topic of cider to help those unfamiliar with it learn more about a beverage that I both make and frequently enjoy.

One bottle I had on hand that didn't open was the Newtown Pippin from Original Sin. The Newtown Pippin apple has a great American story, originating in Long Island, NY and spreading to many locations including Virginia where both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew it. In modern times it is considered an heirloom apple variety and is largely used in cider-making, although it can be found at farm stands in the Eastern part of the United States. I've never actually eaten one, but have had it in cider form several times.

The Original Sin Newtown Pippin is a dry, sparkling cider that pours a light gold color. The aromas are tart apple, crab apple and apple blossom to me. In the mouth it is dry, but not bone dry, with very straightforward tart apple flavors. What I like about this cider is the balance. Dry, tart ciders can often create a sour sensation pretty quickly. This one is more gentle, not creating a big mouth pucker until late in the finish.

Aged Homemade Wine

I've only been making wine for nine years and for the first several of those years I made small enough quantities that most of it was consumed within the first year of its life. More recently I've made wine in higher volumes as well as have branched off into other beverages (cider and mead) so more of my wine has been able to age.

I recently uncorked a bottle of a Cabernet blend (Cab Sauv & Ruby Cab) made in the Spring of 2008 from buckets of juice. The wine drank well early on and I had hoped it would age. It has aged and well enough to be drinkable, but it has not really improved at all with age; not that I expected it to. When I made this wine I still had minimal experience with the process, and the ingredients I used were good, but not the best out there.

The wine is drinkable on its own, but comes off a little sweet and a bit candy-ish. The candy / bubblegum nose is a dead give-away for methyl sorbate in homemade wine, a chemical byproduct from the use of Potassium Sorbate as a stabilizer, and potentially in a larger than necessary amount. Lesson learned. I've rarely come across this attribute in my wines so for this to be found in wines I made nearly 5 years ago shouldn't be a surprise. So what to do with the wine?

Cut it with Coca-Cola, add some ice and enjoy a wine cocktail!



Wednesday, April 10, 2013

More From The Orchard

( Apple blossoms right down the street from me in the Spring. )

Yesterday I offered up a bit of a primer on cider. A little bit of historical context, characteristics & regional variations, how it's made and producers you should know. It was a lot of information but I hadn't covered all the topics that I wanted to. Today I'm back with reviews of recent tastings, some tips on pairing cider with food and a little bit about my own experience making cider at home.

Cider Reviews

I try new ciders whenever and wherever I find them. I developed a taste for cider growing up in New England. Occasionally the fresh pressed cider from a local farm had gone a little hard and while I don't think I knew about the potential alcohol in it, I did like the tartness and minor carbonation. I never got to drink much of it, it was usually spirited away upon detection that it had gone "hard", but I enjoyed it nonetheless. When I did begin to drink alcohol, legally of course, I consumed cider frequently. For me it was a much better alternative to light beer when I had the funds to buy just for myself.

Samuel Smith Organic Hard Cider

Samuel Smith Organic Hard Cider is medium dry with plenty of sweet & tart apple to go around this is a very enjoyable cider. There is a floral element to this that you will also see mentioned in quite a number of other reviews. Knowing what apple blossoms smell like, I have orchards on my street, I do agree that is what the aroma is most like. At 5% ABV this cider won't do a lot of damage in moderation. To me this is a classic commercial version of English cider.

Angry Orchard Ciders

The ciders from Angry Orchard are relatively new and until recently I hadn't tried all the varieties available in 12oz bottles.  I haven't yet tried Ice Man or Straw Man from the Cider House Collection. Both the Crisp and Traditional ciders are straightforward with the Traditional being the drier, sharper and more tart of the two. The Crisp tasted too juicy and fruity to me, but it isn't a bad cider to sit back and enjoy. The Ginger version is more interesting still, but I found the ginger flavor to be somewhat hidden by the apple aromas and sweetness. I found the Elderflower to have a skunky nose and it just wasn't a combination that I enjoyed well enough to want to drink it again.

Sarasola Basque Cider

Pours hazy and with an orange tint. The aromas are tart and sour which follows through in the mouth. The cider is funky, earthy, acetic, sour and much more interesting that I expected. The apple aromas and flavors are there but are very much masked by the Brett and sour elements. This reminds me of some of the sour Belgian ales and lambics I have had. The reviews at several of the craft beer sites for this cider were decidedly not positive. It left me wondering if the reviewers didn't know that Basque cider isn't like American cider.

Woodchuck Ginger

I've been drinking Woodchuck ciders for as long as I can remember them being available (1991) but I had never had the ginger which has only been out less than a year. This is the best ginger flavor I have had in a cider, and something I hope to replicate in a cider of my own in the next season. The cider itself is dry so the ginger stands out with a potent spicy character and apples as the backdrop.

Bantam Wunderkind

Bantam Cider Wunderkind is the best new cider I have had in some time. It pours pale straw in color and crystal clear. The tart apple and floral notes in the nose drew me in. Flavor wise this cider offers a spectrum and tart and sweet apple flavors and hints of ginger.  I would highly recommend this to anyone who can find it in or around Massachusetts where it is made.

Etienne Dupont Organic Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie 2009

Ciders made in Normandy, like Etienne Dupont, are a real treat. In the traditional style there are unfiltered, barrel aged (fermented in part with native yeasts and sometimes Brett) and massively carbonated. This one was no slouch on any of those points. It poured and orange gold color and threw up apples, yeast funk and barnyard right away. In the mouth the cider apples reign and hints of spices come and go. There is some residual sweetness but it is kept in check by the acidity and carbonation. I bought a small bottle of this particular producer and now I know to buy the big one the next time.

Links to Older Reviews

Crispin Cider (Review #1, Review #2, Review #3)

Pairing Cider with Food

Food & beverage pairing has become somewhat of a sport in the United State media, and I’m not sure that has been entirely beneficial. Matching food & beverages has an immense amount of subjective quality to it, and while most of the basic rules are valid, the focus on “perfect pairings” is driving people nuts.

Cider is an old beverage, a rustic beverage, and thus consumers of it anywhere there is a healthy cider-making tradition have tried it with absolutely every food-stuff available. This means there should be lots of experience pairing cider but it also serves to stoke the fires of subjective judgments of which regional foods & ciders go together best. We've lost a lot of the cider tradition in the US so our experience with it on the table isn't as tangible as it could be. It's coming back though. Let’s take a look at some of the basic rules in terms of cider & food pairing. No matter whether you are new to cider or not some of these suggestions will open up exciting possibilities for you to try.

( Up close with some apple blossoms. The smell is so wonderful! )

Dry, highly carbonated ciders can be paired much like Champagne and sparkling wine. The most significant difference is that the aromas and flavors are more focused around apples, but in versions that have balanced flavors it shouldn't cause pairing problems. So this means pairings with lots of different appetizers, especially fried ones, tapas, oysters and shellfish.

Cheese is the ultimate pairing tool for me, but I am a sucker for cheese! Cheddar, especially aged types, pairs well with cider. Dubliner, an Irish import, is particularly nice with both dry and medium dry ciders. Goat cheese pairs nicely as well, and even better with added fruit or a chutney. Funky cheeses can pair well with cider, and if you match some funk with funk (French & Spanish ciders) you might make magic! Blue cheese is a good match for sweeter ciders.

Poultry and cider can be paired very well, and I've often found cider to be the best match for something like Thanksgiving dinner and the convergence of all those textures and flavors. Roasted chicken with herbs and a medium dry to dry cider is a combination that I've enjoyed many times.

Desserts and any sweet treats containing apple can be paired with cider, and the basic rule of matching sweet with sweet does apply. Fresh baked apple pie with a glass of ice cider is a combination sure to please!

Making Cider At Home

Making cider at home is a straightforward act. I recently wrote a post about "scrumpy" and I presented a countertop version of it that only takes a couple weeks to ferment and is consumed before the fermentation is complete and without any fining or filtering. Check out Adventures in Fermentation - Scrumpy to see how it's done.

Cider-making at home can be much more elaborate, and if you ask my wife she'll tell you I've gone there and will likely go even bigger the next time. I made my first hard cider in 2005. I have access to fresh pressed cider from several local farms so getting the ingredients has never been a problem.  I've made hard cider from varietal juice, Mutsu in particular, as well as the "house blends" from five area farms. The only consideration about the starting product that I have made up to this point is that it can only be UV treated, but NOT pasteurized. Living sweet cider makes the best hard cider. The results have spanned a broad range, from really tart, sour & dry to gently sweet with a beautiful nose of apples and apple blossoms. Duplicating the best outcomes has been hard because each new season of apples is different.

In 2009 I embarked on a big cider project. I was interested in making several different styles of cider from the same source. I started with 35 gallons of fresh cider. I used different yeasts and finished some of the ciders with homemade fruit syrups. All of the cider I made for this project was still. I had lost a fair bit of cider in 2007 to overcharged bottles and I was loathe to see that happen again.

( The seven carboys around the outer ring are from the 2009 project. )

The outcome was very educational. The unflavored cider made with the traditional cider yeast was good, but the least interesting. The ciders made with a Sweet Mead yeast were naturally a bit sweeter and had a more complex nose. The ciders made with cherry, strawberry and raspberry fruit syrups ranged in sweetness with the raspberry one tasting like raspberry/apple candy. The best outcome was the unflavored cider fermented with Rudesheimer yeast which is actually a yeast used to make German Riesling wines. The complexity of the cider was beyond all of my wildest imagination. I named it "Rudy" and coveted each bottle that I pulled from the cellar to enjoy. That cider went on to win a first place at a regional homebrew competition and the feedback from everyone who tried it was overwhelming. If there is ever a cider I would like to recreate, it would be this one.

( Open apple blossoms. They are nice, but boy do they create a lot of pollen in the neighborhood! )

With the exception of pressing the fruit myself everything else about cider-making at home has been the same as it would be for a commercial producer, albeit on a smaller scale. In 2013 I do plan to make a larger volume than I have made in the past. I plan to blend ciders from multiple sources, use several different yeasts and even barrel age some. I've also considered using cryo-extraction to create the base for an ice cider, but that has to wait until winter comes again in New Hampshire, something I am not thinking about at all right now! I will likely get the chance to crush and press my own apples this year too. One of my brew club friends has access to lots of fruit from a family orchard and with a little bit of elbow grease I hope to bring home my hand pressed cider and make something delicious with it.

Onward to #ciderchat!

Once again there is a lot of information here. To me cider is really exciting and sharing all of this information was an exciting task. I look forward to answering questions and sharing experiences during #winechat tonight.

So what I am going to be drinking tonight during the cider conversation #winechat? I have some homemade scrumpy that I will start off with then I am going to open a bottle from the Dooryard series made by Farnum Hill and maybe a bottle of Newtown Pippin from Original Sin Ciders.



Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Cider Tales

The apple tree is considered by some as the oldest cultivated tree in the world, but with its exact origins both unknown and hotly debated we can really only go so far back before what we know about how apples were grown and used gets pretty sketchy.  The flipside is that the hot debate confirms that apples were grown all over the Old World and migrated to New World locations with explorers and settlers. I led off with this because I wanted to the following statement to be as believable as possible. Where there are apples there is hard cider.

I will let the reader discover the numerous perspectives on the history of cider, some of which can be explored via the links below.
With the identification of the mysterious process of fermentation some eight to ten thousand years ago (Pasteur only documented the science in the mid 19th century), anything that had sugar in it was fair game to have been used to make drink. This includes fruits, honey, cereals (grains, rice) and other sources of sugar like cane. And apples weren't excluded. We don't have to travel forward in history too far to find the evidence that where there were apples there was cider.  SO, what else do you need to know?

There is a lot to know about cider both old and new. "But Jason what's the most important information to know about cider?" Well, that really depends on two things. First of, because cider is made all over the world, it is going to take time to experience enough of it firsthand to really worry about all the particulars. Second, and to me most important, is figuring out what you like. When seeking out and sampling ciders it pays to have a sense of how they work on your palate. And that is where the different style elements or characteristics come in to play.

Cider Characteristics 
  • Carbonation - Ciders come in sparkling AND still styles. The range of carbonation can be from Champagne-like to soda that is going flat.  Still cider will rarely present any carbonation at all, but some versions maybe pettilent, much like some bottlings of mead.
  • Aroma/Flavor - Traditional ciders, those made with heirloom or cider-making apples, are much more likely to have tart apple driving both the nose and palate, and may often be sour. Ciders made with dessert or sweet apples will be much more juicy and sweet smelling/tasting. The choice can be born of tradition or cider-maker choice, and every cider house may make different choices based on the types and quality of apples available each new season.
  • Texture/Body - Cider can be bone dry and very light, but it can also be sweet and viscous with just enough acidity to manage a reasonable level of tartness. Some cider-makers filter their ciders and other do not. Some bottle conditioned ciders may pour hazy from the bottle re-fermentation, while most high-volume commercial ciders are crystal clear and are force-carbonated during the bottling process.
  • Additional Ingredients - Cider-makers can be very creative and most often when they are, we all benefit. Added fruits (cherries, pears, etc), spices, maple syrup, honey, unique yeasts and barrel aging all influence the finished cider differently.
Regional cider traditions can be broadly classified in terms of the different characteristics , and here are some of the most common regional variations:
  • English (West) – Traditionally are farmhouse style ciders that are most often cloudy and made from tart cider apples.
  • English (East) – More often made dessert apples, filtered for clarity with an overall light & dry profile.
  • France (Normandy/Brittany) – Most of the cider produced in France is made in the northwest regions where cider-making has been ongoing for hundreds of years. A range of ciders, dry to sweet and most often sparkling are produced.
  • Canada (Quebec) – several styles of cider are produced in Quebec, but most notably is the Cidre de Glace, or ice cider. The production of these ciders is much like ice wine, frozen fruit is pressed to extract concentrated sugars. These ciders are exquisite and are well worth seeking out.
  • Canada (Outside Quebec) – Traditional dry, sparkling ciders are produced in several Canadian provinces. I recall enjoying some BC-made cider in a pub on Victoria Island, but sadly I enjoyed that night so much that I forgot to find out who the producer was.
  • United States (New England) – along with the Mid-Atlantic states New England is where ciders were first produced in what would later become the United States. Styles vary and the availability of both traditional cider AND dessert apples means that versions resembling old English styles as well as modern styles can be found readily. Several large and many small producers exist in the region.  Ice cider, having migrated over the northern border with Quebec is notable in Vermont.
  • United States (New York & Mid-Atlantic) – Has a similar cider making history to New England. Several small to medium sized producers making both traditional and modern styles of cider.
  • United States (Upper Midwest) – Michigan and Minnesota are home to a number of cider producers making a range of styles.
  • United States (West Coast) – Cider is made by a growing list of producers from Washington to California. I’ll be seeking out more West Coast cider on several upcoming trips.
  • Germany – Called Apfelwien this is a variation I have yet to try. Research suggests it is tart and sour, but that variations do exist.
  • Ireland – Typically medium dry, filtered and force carbonated.
  • Spain – Several styles exist both in the regions of Asturia and Basque Country. Traditional versions are tart and sour. I don’t have much experience with these but have read about the long cider-making tradition and included the reference to peek curiosity for those travelling to Spain or looking for Spanish food & drink.
Cider is produced and consumed in quite a few other countries, but at smaller volumes than the countries/ regions listed above. We have to remember that where there are apples there is cider, but sometimes just not that much.

Production Process

Cider at its simplest is the juice of crushed and pressed apples that is fermented with either ambient or cultured yeasts.

Apples must be prepared before they can be fermented and this involves crushing them, often called scratting, and then pressing the pomace to release the juice. The pressed juice is then transferred into barrels or tanks for primary fermentation. (The photo on the below on the right is from a brew club purchase of cider from 2011. I made a couple of nice ciders from the 20 gallons I purchased!)

The primary fermentation proceeds until almost all the sugars are consumed by the yeast. At this point the nearly complete cider is racked (transferred) to clean vessels for the completion of the fermentation and aging. Typically ciders will complete fermentation in about 8-12 weeks and are ready to consume in the un-finished form shortly thereafter.

What happens next is very much a cider house choice. Some ciders are aged in old barrels for years, while some ciders are bottled and released young. As mentioned above some ciders have added flavors which may require additional fermentation and aging time as well filtration depending the type and texture of the added ingredients.

Bottling takes one of two paths, a Champagne-like secondary fermentation in the bottle (sometimes called charging or bottle conditioning) or the forced carbonation of sterile filtered ciders. Enclosures range from corks & cages (again like Champagne) to traditional crown caps used for beer. Bottle size ranges from 12 oz to 22oz or 750ml containers.

Ciders You Might Find at the Store

Cider is produced all over the United States and is also imported from other countries. Many of the domestic producers are small in scale and have limited distribution so unless they are local to you it is unlikely you will easily find their products. Cider is inherently a local beverage, and the best ones are made close to the apple source, making them hyper-local. There are several major domestic and imported brands that you should be familiar with. This brings me to a rule that I use to guide my beverage explorations. As a producer’s volume increases the number of human hours per ounce of beverage drops and if you experience this growth curve first-hand you will notice a point when the quality and character of their flagship products plateaus or even drops off. If you experience these products later in the producers’ evolution you may be underwhelmed. Looking back to their history might help contextualize these experiences for what they are. This isn’t a hard and fast rule and the threshold for different beverages and producers isn’t the same. For producers who have a diverse lineup of products, those that remain in small production might not suffer this fate.

How does the guidance above apply to cider? Well, the big brands have volume and distribute their product as far as they can to support that volume as well as future growth. Their products are worth trying and will help you understand the breadth of options available. That said, it is an absolute surety that well-made versions from local producers will be more interesting, more creative and elicit a much more joyful response from people who experience them. The major brands are viewed as a benchmark for the cider industry broadly, but only because much of the remaining production is made “under the radar” of the public at-large. Traditionally products may not bear any resemblance to the "big" commercial products, and we have to take care not to overlook them.

Major Brands You Should Know
  • Magners (Ireland) – available in bottles and on draft in many locations. This is bottled under the Bulmer’s name in Ireland where cider is quite popular.
  • Strongbow (England) – available in bottles and on draft in pubs with a more English profile to the drink selection.
  • Woodchuck (US, VT) – available in bottles nationwide, and on draft in some locations
  • Angry Orchard (US, OH) – available in bottles nationwide. I have yet to run into it on draft, but I don’t know that it isn’t available that way.
Regional/Imported Brands You Might Find Nationwide
  • Devil's Bit (Ireland) – a delicious import that is available here and there.
  • Crispin (US, MN) - Although Crispin is now owned by MillerCoors, the products continue to be to made to the brand standards and are very enjoyable. Their standard offerings are delicious but some of their specialty versions include adjunct sweeteners (maple, honey) and are fermented with beer yeasts. The added character is well worth seeking out.
  • Farnum Hill (US, NH) – a gold standard for cider in my opinion. Both dry and sweeter styles are made, including varietal versions from heirloom or cider apples like Kingston Black.
  • Samuel Smith (England) – another import worth seeking out. Should be found more easily, especially in craft beer shops.
Local Brands You Should Seek Out
  • Foggy Ridge Cider (US, VA)
  • Albermarle CiderWorks (US, VA)
  • Bellwether (Finger Lakes, NY)
  • Peconic Bay (Long Island, NY)
  • Eden Cider (US, VT - Iced Cider & Aperitif styles)
  • Silver Mountain Ciders (US, NH)
  • Champlain Orchards (US, VT)
  • Bantam Ciders (US, MA)
I have enjoyed ciders from all of the "local" producers immediately above and would highly recommend them. Finding them will most likely require a trip to the region of origin, but that is changing slowly.

Phew, that's a lot of information on cider. But I'm really just getting started. Tomorrow I will share information on three more topics including reviews from recent tastings, cider & food pairing and my experiences making cider at home.