Latest Ramblings

Wildcrafted Cider

by Michael J. DeLuca | September 5th, 2014 | No Comments

(Or, How to Drink Well After the End)

Wild apples, late October 2013

Wild apples, late October 2013

Herein will I tell how I made really delicious alcoholic cider using only time, sweat, $2 worth of yeast, $18 worth of rented local cider mill, and a small mountain of fruit I wild-harvested entirely within biking distance of my house in Southeastern Michigan in the fall of 2013.

The result is in the running for the most delicious fermented beverage I’ve ever made. It has by far the lowest carbon footprint of any fermented beverage I’ve ever made. And it has the lowest cost of any fermented beverage I’ve ever made or tasted ($2 a gallon). It was also fun. And it filled me with profound satisfaction akin to nothing so much as seeing a piece of fiction I wrote appear in print.

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Drink Local! A Detcon1 Beer Guide

by Michael J. DeLuca | July 9th, 2014 | No Comments

Detcon1, this year’s NASFIC convention in Detroit, happens in a few weeks, July 17 – 20, 2014. Along with fellow Fermented Adventurer Scott H. Andrews, I’m on a panel about beer in fiction that Saturday afternoon, whereat, or perhaps immediately thereafter, I may or may not happen to have a very few bottles of homebrew available for sampling. I’ve also been scheduled to take part in a group reading of Michigan writers–the implication being, I suppose, that I speak for the region. Which–though Detroit does feature briefly in my story in this month’s Ideomancer–I am really not trying to do in my fiction; I’ve only lived here four years, after all.

I am, however, rather more prepared to take up that banner for Michigan beer. I have traveled, I have tasted, I have brewed. So, for those of you making the trip maybe for the first time, I thought I might be of help and interest with a brief beer guide to Detroit.

Michigan, Southeast Michigan and Detroit, you’ve heard, have suffered; jobs evaporate, populations dwindle, infrastructure crumbles. But beer is one of the bright spots. Ever hear what recession does to alcohol sales? Here, too. Our state now has more breweries than any other east of the Rockies, more every year, including some of the best: Founders, Bell’s, Short’s, New Holland, Greenbush, Griffin Claw, Right Brain, Kuenhenn, Jolly Pumpkin. And a surprising amount of what’s brewed here stays within state lines. If you’ve never been to Michigan, you’ve likely never heard of half those I just named. So while you’re here, why not drink local? It contributes to the local economy (which sure could use the help), it cuts down on the carbon footprint of your visit, and it ensures you’re drinking fresh, and drinking different! No downsides, as far as I can see.

First, a couple of local beer bars to which I’m partial (and I see whoever wrote the Detcon Restaurant Guide doesn’t disagree), in order of proximity to the con hotel:

  1. grand-trunkForan’s Grand Trunk Pub – The former offices of the Grand Trunk Railroad, which was not, as you may have thought, fictional, Grand Trunk Pub has beautiful old wood, vaulted ceilings, a really well-curated tap list with something for everyone, and pastrami sandwiches to die for (and potentially of, everything in moderation), an easy 10 minute walk from the con hotel: go west on Jefferson, then north on Woodward.
  2. Cliff Bell’s/Park Bar – Get on the People Mover, Detroit’s tiny, laughably underused public transit loop, take it to Grand Circus Park, then follow Park Ave northwest for a block and a half. First, check out Cliff Bell’s for the ambiance–it’s an old 30s jazz club, beautifully restored, with a few very solid local drafts. Then go next door to the Park Bar, a dive with 20+ taps, local color to spare, and really good, astoundingly cheap Mediterranean food served out of a hole in the wall in the back.
  3. Slow’s – If you’ve got a car, get on Michigan Ave and go west about a mile and a quarter to Slow’s, a fine barbecue joint located across from the beautiful, long-derelict Detroit Central Station building where may be found the only hand-pulled cask ale in the city, plus dozens of other drafts from all over Michigan. The place will likely be packed; either elbow up to the bar or get a beeper, then wander over and gawk at the ruins while you wait. You won’t be disappointed, even if eating slow-roasted dead beasts isn’t your thing.

Methinks that’s good enough to get you started–after all, you’ve only got a weekend. Next, a couple of delicious, localest-of-the-local beers to try while you’re in town. I’m limiting myself to stuff you might actually have a chance of getting in Detroit in July, but aside from that, no particular order.

  • ghettoblaster-300x366Motor City Brewing Works Ghettoblaster – Billed as a “mild ale”, though not a whole lot like the English style that goes by that name. A cloudy, biscuity, low alcohol amber ale beloved of Detroit hipsters, brewed within city limits.
  • Motor City Brewing Works Cider – A cloudy, funky, not-too-sweet cider. I’m a big fan. Get it at their taproom in Midtown for peak freshness, you won’t regret it.
  • B. Nektar Necromangocon – A mango-infused mead from the largest mead producer in the US, brewed in nearby Ferndale. A gateway mead if I’ve ever tasted one, quaffable and refreshing despite high alcohol content.
  • Right Brain Northern Hawk Owl – A fine, balanced, easy drinking, almost-authentic ESB from far-northern Traverse City. Sometimes they have it on cask at Slow’s
  • Right Brain CEO Stout – Perhaps the Platonic ideal coffee stout.
  • Founders Backwoods Bastard – A rich, malty, high-alcohol Scotch Ale aged in bourbon barrels–legend has it in secret caves under Grand Rapids. Consider yourself lucky if you see it on tap–made only in very limited quantity, generally unavailable except at special events and in highbrow beer bars like the above.
  • backwoodAnything from Greenbush Brewing – Based in southwestern MI near the Indiana border, Greenbush is IMO the best brewery in Michigan. Be prepared for heady hops. “Closure”, a malty, hop-resiny pale ale, has quickly risen to among my current favorite beers in the world.
  • Anything from Griffin Claw Brewing – Based in nearby, swanky Birmingham, Griffin Claw’s head brewer purportedly taught a lot of other MI head brewers everything they know. If you’re of the über-IPA-loving bent, Norm’s Raggedy Ass IPA will not disappoint.
  • Anything from Brewery Vivant – A French/Belgian-influenced brewery in Grand Rapids. Try “Big Red Coq”, a double red ale, if you can get over the stupid name. If not, go for their Farmhouse Ale.

Why don’t I stop myself there before I bore you. Just how much drinking were you planning to do in a weekend, anyhow? :) I tell you what: if you want to hear the other 500 beers on this list (or the other 25 bars), come find me at Detcon, and I’ll rattle them off to you over several pints.

Cheers!

Quick Sip: Omegang Game of Thrones “Take the Black” Stout

by Scott H. Andrews | November 6th, 2013 | No Comments

As a fantasy & science fiction writer and reader, I’ve loved George R.R. Martin’s work going back over a decade.  Even in his short fiction from 35 years ago, you can feel that same vividness and tangible realness that his current huge fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire has.

That ongoing saga has now hit the mainstream with the success of its HBO show Game of Thrones.  And with that, although Martin has seemingly been licensing tons of products already (swords, miniature figures, RPGs), HBO has licensed a series of beers.

Which might seem a face-palming recipe for disaster, but the brewery they’re doing it with is Omegang, the Belgian-beer specialists from Cooperstown NY.  I missed their first Game of Thrones limited offering, a blonde, but I’m not a big Belgian fan.  But two days before a party for some fellow fantasy writers, I came across a whole palette of the next GOT beer in my local store, a stout, so I snagged it.

Enter “Take the Black Stout,” named for the order of black-clad, service-sworn soldiers who guard the Hadrian’s Wall-like wall at the frozen north of Martin’s fantasy realm. The bottle artwork is a gorgeous and impressionistic rendering of a weirwood tree with its sacred carving of a face in the bark, an old religious practice of the people from those northlands.

Is “Belgian stout” a real thing?  Or is it as real as Martin’s dragons and Otherses.  In this age of “Imperial IPAs” and “Belgian Pilsners” and countless other such invented styles, I suspect the latter.

The head of this Take the Black poured quite nice and frothy.  The flavor had a definite Belgian yeastiness underneath.  The body was solid but a bit on the weaker side, but then again, I prefer stouts with so much body and punch that they coat your tongue.

The overall flavor however was a pronounced bitterness, tasting more of sharp hoppiness than burnt malts.  Especially combined with the somewhat lacking stout body, that bitterness stuck out to me, in a way that bitterness never does in an aged stout with more solid body.

I respect Omegang, even though I’m not a big Belgian fan.  I have a second bottle of this Take the Black, and I don’t regret that.  It’ll give solid enjoyment while I wait to drink something else, but I won’t be in a hurry to Take the Black again.

Rating:  nice to try, but likely just another (gorgeous) bottle for my collection.

Cheers: Gilly’s Craft Beer & Fine Wine, Rockville MD

by Scott H. Andrews | November 1st, 2013 | No Comments

Imagine a great, small beer store in a strip mall; narrow aisles but stacked high and a short wall of refrigerated coolers, with a small but good regional and national selection.

Then a deli counter, making fresh sandwiches right there behind the cooler.  With tables and standing-room stools.  Plus a couple taps and, with a corking fee, they’ll open whatever bottle you just bought so you can drink it with your sandwich!

Mix in Shine On You Crazy Diamond over the stereo, and that’s Gilly’s Craft Beer & Fine Wine in Rockville, Maryland.  I knew they were a cool place; I’d called and driven up there a few years ago on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving to score some Brooklyn Winter Ale before its limited shipment sold out, and they were great.

So last week I called ahead again, before driving up to Maryland for a convention, and swung by Gilly’s to score several bottles of Ballast Point Victory at Sea coffee vanilla Imperial Porter.

The Ballast Point porters and stouts that I had in Seattle and Boston this summer were amazing, especially the Victory at Sea, so I’d been on the hunt for them in the DC area, but they’re extremely difficult to find here.  I’d scored a few bottles of the Sea Monster Imperial Stout but had struck out on the Victory at Sea.

Enter Gilly’s!  I bought all three bottles of Victory at Sea they had.

I’ll make sure to call ahead again, the next time I’m headed that way.  Cheers, Gilly’s.

Quick Sips: Great Divide Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout & Espresso Oak Aged Imperial Stout

by Scott H. Andrews | October 23rd, 2013 | No Comments

I’ve had Colorado brewery Great Divide’s Yeti Imperial Stout before, in its ordinary incarnation, and found it solid but not as good as old Rasputin or some others.  (Check out this guy’s cute animated gif of the label!)

Apparently now they have Yeti in three other seasonal variants:  regular oak-aged, Espresso Oak Aged, and Chocolate Oak Aged.  My local beer mart had the Espresso and the Chocolate, so I have them a try.

YetiImeprialStouts-Jun2013The Chocolate Oak Aged, Great Divide’s website informs, has the hops toned down a bit to allow cocoa nibs to contribute some pleasing bitterness, plus a dash of cayenne.  I love peppered chocolate stouts, although no commercial one has come near my drinking buddy Mike’s homebrewed cocoa pepper stout brewed with fresh cocoa nibs and aged with super-hot tiny peppers that he both smuggled back from Guatemala.

This Yeti had good chocolate body, not too sweet (I prefer dry chocolate) but not as strong as say Harpoon’s Chocolate Stout or Southern Tier’s Chocolat.  The pepper in it didn’t come through for me much at all, although that might have been the fault of the hops.  More on that in a moment.

The Espresso Oak Aged, apparently generously infused with Denver’s own Pablo’s espresso, had a strong and pleasantly tangy coffee flavor mixed in with the stout body.

Both tasted thoroughly and pleasantly of oak; that round tannin flavor that goes so well with heavy beers.  According to the label, the oak flavor is imparted by aging “on oak chips”, not in actual oak barrels.  Aging in barrels is of course more expensive.  I’ve heard of some breweries using the oak chips, which just amounts to throwing them inside the aging tank.  It’s hard not to think of that as a short cut, but the oak flavor in these beers tasted great.

Neither had that strong ‘medicinal’ taste that many high-ABV beers and imperial stouts have, when the strong ABV isn’t melded well with the flavors or overall strength and the alcohol dominates.  Given that both these stouts clock in at 9.5%, that’s a fine achievement.

But both of these stouts were significantly more hoppily bitter than I prefer in a stout.  In an ale, strong hops taste florally acidic to me (no surprise, since hop oils are organic carboxylic acids), but in stouts, on my palate they seem to boost the natural burnt maltiness from caramelized malts toward the bitterness of cheap coffee.  Great Divide champions Yeti’s “bold hop profile,” but both of these Yetis were too bitter for me, and in the Chocolate Oak Aged, it swamped out the cayenne completely.

Rating:  nice to try, and I’m temped to try them again (I’ve seen 12 oz bottles of them lately), but likely just another bottle(s) for my collection.

Cheers: Michigan, for Going After the “13 oz Restaurant Pint”

by Scott H. Andrews | October 10th, 2013 | 2 Comments

14oz-pint-fullI’ll understand if Michiganders prefer that their state legislators be tackling more important issues, but since Michigan has one of the best craft brew scenes in the country, and alcohol consumption always goes up in hard economic times…

I’ve long grumbled about those ubiquitous vertical “pint” glasses that many bars and restaurants use.  I’m a scientist, so I have a pretty good handle on what rough quantitative volumes look like.  Especially when pouring a 12 oz bottle into one of the many of those glasses that I own.

Sure enough, years ago I measured one of them, and it came up well short of 16 oz.  As you can see in my demonstration here (I’m also a college science teacher; can you tell?), even if you fill it to the top, those glasses only hold a max of 14 oz.  Mix in a sloppy barkeep who leaves the top inch full of head, and you’re down to 13 oz or even 12.  Hence, what I’ve long called the “13 oz restaurant pint.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with 13 oz or 12 oz of good beer.  But if it’s being sold as a pint, shouldn’t it be 16 oz?  2 oz difference might not seem much, but that’s 15%.  In Britain (home of the 20 oz Imperial pint–cheers!), beer glass volume is regulated, and only glasses that have been calibrated to be a pint or half-pint can display that little crown logo and “Fill to Pint” line.

Enter several Michigan state legislators!  Who after getting complains from constituents about “cheater pints,” are sponsoring a bill that would make it illegal to advertise or sell as a pint any glass of beer that doesn’t contains at least 16 oz.

Hey, the government already regulates the hell out of alcohol, so why not.  Make all those bars change their listings to “lesser pint” or something.

Maybe we can even invent the “Colonial pint,” which instead of 20 oz or 16 will be 13 oz.  There were 13 colonies, after all…

Quick Sip: Evil Twin Brewing ‘The Cowboy’ Smoked Pilsner

by Scott H. Andrews | October 9th, 2013 | No Comments

Evil Twin Brewing is apparently the brainchild of a Danish brewer, with offices in Denmark and Brooklyn, who develops recipis and has them contract-brewed by rotating partners wherever there is room on the bottling line.

TheCowbody-Jun2013Their ethos seems embodied by the artsy paragraph on The Cowboy smoked pilsner label, which starts “I need to know what kind of beer cowboys drink, as I have recently become one.”  Ohhhkay.  With no information about the beer itself or the recopied or the brewing.

Beyond the ethos and to the beer itself.  The Cowboy tasted a medium-bodied pilsner, which is to say that it was quite light overall but not as light as weaker or thinner pilsners.  (We will not speak of American pseudo “pilsners”, as the commercial breweries label their mass-produced flagship brands.)  The smoky flavor was prominent yet complimentary; strong but only barely seeming so strong as to overpower the lighter pilsner taste.

Which is all well and good, but aside from a nice meld of complimentary flavors, this smoked pilsner didn’t answer the question that for me any new or unusual pairing or artistic fusion needs to do:  why is it necessary?  Why does the world need it; what new greater sum than its parts does it bring.

The Cowboy was a fine enough beer, but it wasn’t so amazing in either its own flavor or in the new pairing or fusion that it presents to make an impact for me.  As I told my drinking buddy Mike, this was the best smoked pilsner I’ve ever had!  Because, as he immediately figured out, I’ve never had one before.  And I don’t feel the need to seek this one out again.

I’ll certainly keep an eye out for Evil Twin, in case they have other interesting pairings, although I do prefer a less artsy and more craft-based ethos.  Perhaps some of their other fusions will be more than the sum of their unusual pairing parts.

Rating:  nice to try; another bottle for my collection.

Quick Sip: Slumbrew Rising Sun Ale

by Scott H. Andrews | October 2nd, 2013 | No Comments

SlumbrewRisingSun-May2013I first heard of Slumbrew a few years ago in Boston.  It was apparently started by three local guys who homebrewed (as many nascent brewers do); originally only making draft beers, then branching out into bottling.

I’ve had some good ales from them.  I believe they’ve done a collaboration with Cambridge Brewing Co, a great brewpub that is one of my first stops every time I go to Boston.  They’ve also done a Porter Square Porter, named for that Boston locale, that is laagering in my cellar.

This Rising Sun, the label asserts, is a lesser-known German style called dampfbier–an all-barley malt fermented with wheat-beer yeast.  They proclaim unique malty flavors and a subtle hop spice from German varietal hops.

Maybe something happened to my bottle–which is not unheard-of for things from my beer mart, as slowly as their stock moves.  Or maybe I have merely discovered why dampfbier is such a lesser-known style!  It has some malt body and a murky red-brown color, but the flavor is odd.

Maybe some readers have tasted some of the new trend of sour ales, inoculated with lactobacillus for a uniquely mouth-puckering flavor?  (Jolly Pumpkin brewery in Michigan does many great flavors with this feel.)  This Rising Sun tastes a bit as though the brewery had made a batch of a really great sour ale, then forgot to rinse out the pipes before they ran an average red or lighter brown ale through and bottled it.

The sourness is slight, which is what makes me wonder if this bottle was left out too long, but other than the sourness, there really isn’t much flavor.  I’m not getting much maltiness or hop spice or aroma.  The murky red-brown color isn’t helping my subconscious impression either, although I will happily drink mud-water if it has a great stout taste.

It’s rare that it’s a chore for me to finish a beer, but this one falls in that category.  I’m not swearing off Slumbrew by any means, but this one I won’t need to try again.

Rating:  merely another bottle for my collection.

Quick Sip: Three Heads Brewing Java Sutra Coffee Porter

by Scott H. Andrews | September 24th, 2013 | No Comments

I hadn’t heard of Three Heads Brewing before scoring this coffee porter at my local beer mart.  The bottle info suggests that they are contract-brewed in New York state and gives no indication where Three Heads itself (all three heads of it?) might be located.

JavaSutra-Jun2013The label has artwork in a cool almost Dali-esque palette, but upon closer look it’s depicting a bedroom scene with ladies’ pumps and a bra and boxers scattered about, and a coffee bean in bed with what looks like an agave plant.  I’m all for any sort of relationship that consenting adults want to have, but that artwork feels a bit sleazy to me.

The coffee porter itself feels similarly cool and not that cool.  It has a nicely assertive coffee taste, up-front on the tongue.  But after or around that coffee flavor, I don’t taste much other body going on. The mounthfeel or consistency of the liquid feels a bit watery or thin, not unlike the Shipyard Imperial Porter that I Quick-Sipped last week.

(I’m not sure what’s with getting two successive porters that taste watery or thin to me.  I thought porter as a style was always supposed to have some muscle to it; some brawn, like those dockside loading and carting fellows of yore from whom it got its name. I do have a bottle of Slumbrew’s Porter Square Porter, from Boston.  I’ll try that soon and see if it stakes up.)

Not to blather about Ballast Point Victory at Sea Coffee Porter and how utterly awesome it is (ratebeer.com gives it 100 out of 100, and I agree), but compared to that, this Three Heads Java Sutra is just a coffee-flavored dark ale. Fine, but not enough body for me.

I’ll take the high road and not blame any of this on the fact that it appears to be contract-brewed.  Sam Adams of course did lots of contract brewing back in the 90s, and a lot of their choices in flavor are pretty mundane, but I don’t automatically believe that contract-brewed beers can’t be great. This one just isn’t.  Ah well–it’s another tasting experience and another bottle for my collection.

Rating:  nice to try; another bottle for my collection.

Quick Sip: Shipyard Imperial Porter

by Scott H. Andrews | September 18th, 2013 | No Comments

I know of Shipyard, a brewery out of Portland, Maine, from my annual time in New England every summer.  Their regular brews have never floored me, but their Smashed blueberry porter has a wonderful bright blueberry taste, when you get it fresh, and their Blue Fin Stout is a great powerful dark stout, with a great jumping-fish label logo.

ShipyardImperialPorter-Jun2013This Imperial Porter is apparently from their Pugsley’s Signature Series, named after Shipyard’s master brewer, a fellow from England.  I haven’t had any other beers from this series (unless that Smashed blueberry porter is one of them).

This Imperial Porter, frankly, is neither imperial nor much of a porter.  It has nice solid porter flavor, but not much of it, and not enough to balance the thin consistency or watery taste.  The label calls it full-bodied and very dark, but I didn’t find those to be the case.

Admittedly, my taste in porters runs toward the very dark, like Yards from Philadelphia, my old classic Anchor Porter, and my new unobtainable favorite Ballast Point Victory at Sea.  Compared to those, this Shipyard feels like porter thinned with a bit of water, the way that a glass of Coke with ice in it ends up tasting a bit watery or thin after the ice has melted.

So if you like really dark and really bold porters, you might leave this Imperial Porter toward the bottom of your list.

Rating:  nice to try; another bottle for my collection.

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