Reviewed: Gardening for the Homebrewer

Gardening for the HomebrewerGardening for the Homebrewer

By Wendy Tweten & Debbie Teashon

Voyageur Press

I’ve made frail attempts at gardening over the years, and in some cases, those attempts were pointed directly in the direction of my longtime homebrewing hobby. But I’ve not really found much success. Gardening for the Homebrewer by Wendy Tweten and Debbie Teashon has the potential to change that.

After covering gardening basics like tools, USDA Hardiness Zones, soil amendment, planting, care, and more, the book dives right into the plants, fruits, and herbs that would be specifically of interest to the homebrewer. Not only does it approach ingredients that might accent beer, but it also covers, wine, cider, perry, and spirits.

Within the discussion of each ingredient, the authors offer all the pertinent gardening details: soil type, light preference, water needs, spacing, pruning, harvesting, and more. There’s a lot of good advice. They list the appropriate use of the ingredient, whether in a gruit, wine, liqueur, or beer. While this usage suggestion might be helpful to a novice brewer/gardener for identifying a starting point, it’s done in a very broad way (advising use in “craft beer” rather than a specific style such as stout, tripel, Pilsner, or whatever). Moreover, there’s no indication of how (or how much) to use it.

Because, really, I’ve been wanting to make a beer with lemon verbena for quite some time. I’d be willing to grow it. But what next? I’d like this book to help with that. I might figure out how to grow that verbena, but I still have no idea about sorting my recipe. I’ll need to ask around…

While this is a gardening book and not a homebrewing book, I feel as though it would be a better book if it worked harder to connect these two hobbies. What beer would this herb work well in? How much do I use? How/when do I add it? Do you have a recipe to share to get me started on the right track? These, I believe, are legitimate questions a reader in search of a book of this ilk might ask.

This is a fun book to inspire ideas and maybe even reawaken my gumption for getting out and playing in the soil to further my hobby. It’s well written and packs beautiful photos and helpful gardening guidance, but I would like to see a little more meat on the brewing angle. If you brew and are looking to elevate your hobby by growing some of your own ingredients, you may find this book a good addition to your library. But know this, it doesn’t give you all the answers.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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Vertical Tasting: 5 years of Bigfoot

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It took a while, but I finally piled up five vintages of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot. Generous, I sidestepped pounding all five of these 9.6 percenters on my own by gathering up a gang of friends from my local homebrew club, the Adams County Brew Crew (AC/BC). Together we sat down with this batch of barley wines for a lesson in age’s impact on beer.

A quick look at the BJCP guidelines for a primer on the American barleywine style, which is one of few that really lends itself to aging:

“A well-hopped American interpretation of the richest and strongest of the English ales. The hop character should be evident throughout, but does not have to be unbalanced. The alcohol strength and hop bitterness often combine to leave a very long finish.”

Appearing in a range of strengths from eight to 12 percent alcohol by volume, the style is made for sipping, and is particularly suitable for a cold winter night. At 9.6%, Bigfoot isn’t the biggest of them all, but it is a classic in the style from a classic American brewery.

So how’d they taste?

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2016: Of course, this one was the hop forward pour of the day. Purchased the day before the tasting and dosed with 90 IBUs of Chinook, Cascade and Centennial hops, the aroma was gorgeous. I picked up a strong, green hop flavor here and the bittering charge held the malt in check. This was Pete’s favorite of the bunch.

2015: The hops really fell of the cliff after one year. Some caramel came up like a warm-stored or six-month-old IPA that really turns you off and makes you kick yourself for not checking the bottled-on date. Here, it’s fine, and part of the process. While this landed in the number five slot on my list, Kyle picked this as his favorite.

2014: After two years in the bottle, the second big change burst forth: oxidation. A vinous character emerged. To me the elements were a little disjointed at this point, but both Mat and Mont picked this as their number one beer.

2013: Now the changes become more subtle. The melding of the vinous notes were softened into the malt-and-hop pocket, like a baseball into a perfectly broken-in glove. Though this was the only hazy offering of the bunch (in an identically beautiful lineup of amber-leaning-toward-mahogany pours), it was my favorite of the vintages.

2012: The changes were very subtle between 2012 and 2013, with the ’12 feeling just a touch flat. No one picked this at the top of their list, but I honestly had trouble deciding where to place it. To me, ’14 and ’15 were clearly at the bottom of my list, but how to place the hoppy ’16 and this one? I put ’16 in second place for the sake of variety and for a statement on how good the brewery-fresh offering is. But I also enjoyed the ’12.

Our gang of five certainly agreed in the changes we detected in each vintage, which we tasted from youngest to oldest, but our actual preferences underscored that each person’s palate is unique. We were all over the place with our top five lists. Give a project like this a try and decide for yourself what’s right for you.

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A Day in the Life of a Successful Beer Blogger

Screenshot from C-SPAN's coverage. Click the photo to view the full 2-hour hearing.

Screenshot from C-SPAN’s coverage. Click the photo to view the full 2-hour hearing.

I had an interesting day earlier this week. Actually, it was a series of interesting days. Actually, that series of interesting days was an intense couple of weeks.

Along with Anheuser-Busch InBev CEO Carlos Brito, Brewers Association CEO Bob Pease, National Beer Wholesalers Association CEO Craig Purser, American Antitrust President Dr. Diana Moss, and Molson Coors CEO Mark Hunter, I was asked to testify in the United States Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competitive Policy, and Consumer Rights hearing entitled “Ensuring Competition Remains on Tap: The ABInBev/SABMiller Merger and the State of Competition in the Beer Industry,” which was held on December 8.

WTF?

On the surface of things, many would reasonably ponder the question: Why the hell is J. Wilson among this panel weighing in on the rightness or wrongness of the largest beer merger of all time?

I know I asked myself this question a few times. But for me, the answer was easier to find. Yes, I’ve volunteered, judged, written, and worked in the industry for many years, though many others have done the same, and to higher levels of success. Many others could have ably taken my seat at the table yesterday. The answer is simple: for the last year and a half, I’ve served as Minister of Iowa Beer for the Iowa Brewers Guild. In that time, I’ve pursued legislative agendas at both the state and federal levels. In so doing, I’ve gotten to know my congressman and senators. And Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. My work has harvested the desired effect: when a beer issue came up, and Grassley needed to gain insight into this industry, he called me.

The issue that came up was a hundred billion dollars’ worth of huge, drawing media attention all around the globe. And so there would be a hearing. And so would I please come testify on behalf of brewers?

Yes, of course. Because I’m a good soldier. Because I believe in the craft brewing industry. And because it would be a great way to honor my junior high social studies teacher, Mr. Jones, who passed away a few years ago.

Boots on the ground

Bob Pease, Brewers Association CEO, in his final moments of preparation before the Senate subcommittee hearing on Dec. 8.

Bob Pease, Brewers Association CEO, in his final moments of preparation before the Senate subcommittee hearing on Dec. 8.

So what’s the behind the scenes look like? What did I do?

I read. I consulted with the IBG Board for guidance on their perspective. I read. I wrote. I had conversations with wholesalers in Iowa and at the national level, brewers around the country, brewers guild colleagues from other states, senate staffers, and Bob Pease of the Brewers Association.

Many phone calls. Many emails. Many keystrokes. I read, researched, and I wrote.

My tasks were these: submit a written testimony, deliver a five-minute oral testimony, and be prepared to field questions from the committee members. I read. I wrote. I read. I’d been laying some minor groundwork for myself (or some Iowa brewer/brewery owner if that’s who the staffers preferred to have) on and off for a week or so, but the laser became more focused once the schedule solidified on last Tuesday, rather than sometime in January, which had been a possibility. During that final week, I put in 10 or 12 hours a day, knocked out finishing touches over the weekend, and let me tell you, it was fun as hell.

My testimony was due 24 hours before the hearing, but as my flight left at 5 a.m. on Monday, I made a final push last weekend (and leaned on my awesome proofreader of a wife), and hit “send” on that email Sunday night so I could turn in early. (But not before sorting out which clothes I could/should wear—that was the hard part for this t-shirt-and-jeans guy.)

I hardly slept. I felt a little bit of pressure, but honestly, I can’t go to sleep at 7 p.m., and I worried that my alarm wouldn’t do its job at 2 a.m., as was necessary because of my distance to the airport. I tossed and turned, and just as I fell asleep, I was jarred awake by the “quack, quack, quack” of my alarm. But it worked! I would be on time! And I could simply sleep on the plane.

I did. Bob, the BA’s team of lawyers (Dave, Art, and Mark), and I convened for our preparation on Monday afternoon. We read our testimonies aloud. The lawyers pelted us with potential questions. We read our testimonies aloud. The lawyers pelted us with potential questions.

Prior to the meeting, I met briefly with the Senate Judiciary Chair, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa.

Prior to the meeting, I met briefly with the Senate Judiciary Chair, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa.

And then we went to Right Proper Brewing Company for dinner and some beers. I went to bed early. And I slept like a rock.

The next morning, the day of the hearing, I read my testimony a few more times for good measure and confined my coffee intake to one cup so I wouldn’t have to pee during the hearing. (Success!) And then Bob and I met briefly with Senator Grassley, who had requested a short conversation before the hearing. And then the gavel fell.

Introductions. A swearing in. Opening statements. Questions. Questions. Questions.

Understandably, most of the questions were directed at Brito, but I fielded a few and felt good about my performance. And then it was done. A media interview or two. A tweet or two. A text message or two. And then the airport and two and a half hours of delays in Chicago.

Thank you, O’Hare International Airport! Had you been running smoothly, it would have taken me weeks to get this post up.

This was a rare and delightful experience, and I appreciate the opportunity to have been a part of it. I am thankful to Grassley, for my job, for my wife, and the many, many others who contributed to my final testimony. It was a lot of work, but made for an interesting day in the life of a beer blogger, and a career highlight that I don’t imagine will be repeated. Is it all downhill from here? No, I’d get bored if I let that happen. I’ll figure out something else cool to do. And, as always, you’re invited to come along…

One more thing, follow me on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more photos, links and tacos.

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I should drink in KC more often

IMG_2327In an absurd point of fact, I’ve lived about two and a half hours from Kansas City for nearly eight years but have only showed up a few times. Two of those were trips to the airport (which full-blown don’t count), one was to spend a (really awesome) day at Boulevard Brewing Company for a piece I was writing, one was for some barbecue, and just last week I finally dragged myself to the home of the World Champion Royals for a little recreation.

Which includes beer. In preparation for an Eilen Jewell concert (she’s awesome, by the way) at Knuckleheads, Michelle and I tracked down a little art before heading over to Torn Label Brewing Company. Located in a desolate warehouse district, the 15-barrel brewhouse welcomes you with a non-descript sign (pretty sure you show up here on purpose) and a small taproom and patio area. Windows in the taproom offer a view of the brewery, and it’s all rather beautifully shabby in a “this is what my house looks like when I’m not expecting company” sort of way. So it felt like home.

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I tried a flight of five beers: House Brew (a coffee wheat stout), Monk & Honey (a sorta honey patersbier, I suppose), Oscar (a German Pilsner), Quadjillo (a Belgian quad with guajillo chilis), and Quadquila (that same quad aged in tequila barrels). All were excellent, and if I lived around here, I’d sit on that patio drinking Oscar in the summer months and focus on House Brew in the colder months. Good stuff, and while they don’t serve food, you’re welcome to bring your own.

IMG_2328For phase one of our two-part food plan, we headed over to Cinder Block Brewing Company, not because they serve food, but because the Back Rack Grill food truck sets up out front on Friday and Saturday nights. We went for their burnt ends, which, you know, tastes great with beer.

Cinder Block’s taproom is quite a bit bigger and a little more put together than Torn Label’s. It’s like Thanksgiving was a day or two away and the mom had been cleaning for a week. Here, I tried several beers: Paver’s Porter, Prime Extra Pale Ale, Rivet Rye Wheat, Weathered Wit, Block IPA and Wily Mild. All were excellent. After, I went for a pint of KC Weiss, a solid Berliner Weiss I’d sampled at a beer fest this past summer while my gluten-free wife concentrated on the Cider Block, an English cherry cider, which was also quite tasty.

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Part two of our food plan was to hit Local Pig near the music venue. Which really meant we ate outside at Pigwich after using the LP bathroom, ogling at the meat counter, and buying some pickled miscellany. I had a Boulevard KC Pils at the show. It was out of date like mad, but was still in good nick.

It’s a shame that I haven’t made it to Kansas City for beers sooner than now, but no sense in beating myself up over it. I’ll do better from this point forward. If you’re anywhere near Kansas City and have some time to kill with beers, you could do worse that the three places I’ve been: Boulevard, Torn Label and Cinder Block.

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Reviewed: A Visual Guide to Drink

1 a visual guide to drink coverA Visual Guide to Drink

By Ben Gibson & Patrick Mulligan

Avery

Look, I got rid of my (really cool looking) coffee table for two reasons: 1) it was somewhat oversized for my current TV room, and 2) if there’s a horizontal surface in my house, my wife and children put sundry crap all over it. I was trying to combat clutter, but this book, Pop Chart Lab’s A Visual Guide to Drink, makes me think I made a mistake.

I want my coffee table back. Because I want to put this book on it.

The visually masterful work of Ben Gibson, Patrick Mulligan, and their Pop Chart Lab crew, A Visual Guide to Drink unleashes a pile of research into beer, wine, and spirits around the world and puts this information on display with engaging graphic after engaging graphic. Warning: it’s thorough, and in some places, readers beyond a certain age might need to pull out their reading glasses.

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Am I a full-blown expert on every factoid included? No. But I scrutinized a few beer elements, and found some instances of lore-over-fact worth pointing out. Researchers have proved false the widely told origin story of IPA (India Pale Ale) as having first been brewed with higher hop levels and alcohol content to survive the long boat ride to satiate British soldiers in India. Not true. Beers of this ilk were being brewed “pre-India” in England’s timeline. On IPA, this book helps to spread myth. There is another error with regard to mild ale. Mild doesn’t mean mild, as in the low alcohol, easy-going, perhaps lower-hopped way that we might expect (and which actually describes this beer). Back in the day, mild was fresh beer. The opposite, aged beer, would have been called stale beer. It’s me being anal, but mild meant fresh, not mellow.

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That said, I’ve really enjoyed spending time with this amazingly tedious tome. It jumps from statistics to styles of glassware to hop-ular beer names to vine training to grape genealogy to sake cocktail recipes to the distillation process to agave plant harvesting to which celebrities are attached to which beverage companies. There’s more.

Lots and lots more, and you’ll be satisfied with the time you spend poring over this cool looking book. If you’ve got one, put it on your coffee table so all your visitors can check it out too.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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Reviewed: Cooking with Coffee

1 cooking w coffeeCooking with Coffee

By Brandi Evans

Skyhorse Publishing

If you like coffee like I like coffee, food blogger-turned-cookbook author Brandi Evans’ new book, Cooking with Coffee: Brewing up Sweet and Savory Everyday Dishes, might be for you.

This offering lays out a basic history of the tasty bean, as well as roasting, brewing, and flavor pairing information before shifting into the lion’s share of the book: the recipes. Evans offers a number of recipes for breakfast items, coffee creamers, drinks/smoothies, sauces, savories, and snacks.

The tone of the writing and the cursive fonts used for the introductions to each recipe section are not targeted to an aging, tattooed curmudgeon like me, but others will enjoy its bounce as much as the recipes.

The photography is inconsistent (some are dark and not particularly flattering for the food while other photos are quite good). This has been my discovery with other Skyhorse offerings of late, and I’ll blame the publisher on this. Cooking with Coffee doesn’t get too deep into the world of coffee, but it does offer a collection of appetizing recipes and may be worth a look for the coffee drinker looking to experiment with this ingredient elsewhere in their kithen.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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Reviewed: Beer, Food, and Flavor

1 Schuyler SchultzBeer, Food, and Flavor

By Schuyler Schultz

Skyhorse Publishing

If there are two things I love alongside my wife, two boys, dog, coffee, hiking, music, bacon, beer, traveling, and photography, they are beer and food, and Schuyler Schultz’s expanded second edition of Beer, Food, and Flavor does a great job of making the case for these two (okay, three–I like flavor as well) elements of my quality world.

Schultz offers a Beer 101 course on beer styles, tasting, and glassware before delving deeper into pairing beer with fine cuisine. The book offers a series of well-conceived menus from past beer dinners, and explains their working components. A few selected recipes are included, but these seemed superfluous to the meat of the book. All or none, I would recommend.

Schultz took his time with a solid, photo-laden chapter on beer and cheese before offering a series of profiles on notable breweries around the country. Honestly, I thought the latter strayed from the stated purpose of the book, and those included were largely the “usual suspects,” but then the book’s subtitle was, “A Guide to Tasting, Pairing, and the Culture of Craft Beer,” so the inclusion of the profiles and the preceding chapter on the philosophy of craft brewing must have been meant for the “culture” piece of the puzzle. To me, it got off topic, and since Schultz’s strength as a chef is in the realm of food, I’d rather have seen more on this side of the coin.

The foreword was written by AleSmith Brewing Company Brewmaster/Owner Peter Zien, who praises Schuyler’s work for good reason. Schultz is a true talent within this subject matter, and the book is well written, to boot. But… this book was saturated with AleSmith beers, menus, and (beautiful) photographs to the point of reader burden. I’m sure it was convenient to snag these photos and consider the flavors of this familiar and terrific brewery from the author’s own stomping grounds, but given the broad strength of this book and the growing beer culture across the United States, I’d like to have seen a little brewery expansion beyond the well-worn path to AleSmith’s doorstep for this second edition release.

If you’ve got a beer-and-food lover in your midst (or are one yourself) looking to explore some of the notable figures in the American craft beer scene while absorbing a little food knowledge in the process, Beer, Food, and Flavor is probably worth a look.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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Reviewed: Praise the Pig

1praise the pigPraise the Pig

By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall

Skyhorse Publishing

Though the title of the book is Praise the Pig, page 34 revealed that bacon blogger turned cookbook author Jennifer Pearsall isn’t a fan of the whole animal. While loin, shoulder, ham, bacon, and sausage are all well covered, you’ll only find a couple hint of rib recipes. As Pearsall has little praise for ribs, they are largely omitted.

You’ll also not find a delving into charcuterie or instructions for making bacon, sausage, or ham from the ground up. While Pearsall understandably outlined her reasoning for skipping instructions on the likes of head cheese or tripe, I really think that paving an avenue for readers to explore their own bacon, sausage, ham (not to mention ribs) should have been included.

Pearsall does offer advice on working with a butcher, navigating cooking temperatures, and considering flavoring and cooking methods for shoulder and bacon, two elements of the pig that warrant quite a bit of real estate in the recipe section of the book.

While the exterior of the book (don’t judge) is inviting, the photographs on the inside are dark and lackluster. I feel that the publisher could have asked for or provided more visually (and should have steered Pearsall away from citing Wikipedia as a source when discussing Trichinella in the introduction). Surely there’s a stronger source out there worth mentioning.

If you’re a pig lover looking to elevate your porcine mastery to a higher level, this might not be the book for you, but if you or someone you know is looking to acquire some basic pork recipes, Praise the Pig might be a worthy investment.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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Reviewed: Beer Pairing

Beer Pairing by Julia Herz and Gwen ConleyBeer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros

By Julia Herz & Gwen Conley

Voyageur Press

A lot of books position themselves as the “essential guide” to this or that, and while some disappoint, the upcoming Voyageur Press offering from the team of Julia Herz and Gwen Conley, Beer Pairing, does not. Along with a select few other beer titles (especially beer-and-food titles), this one really should find its way onto your shelf.

Beer Pairing covers the basics of beer and food flavor and aroma and other characteristics as well as offering guidance to pairing principles. It teaches the reader how to taste beer. It tracks down expertise from notable figures within the beer, food, and even wine realms. It offers solid beer style information and go-to pairing suggestions.

But drawing from a deep well of expertise and experience, Herz and Conley also dig deeper. They push the search for sensory and vocabulary information further. They delve into science. They remind us of the bioindividuality of hedonics–all too many casual tasters (and self-proclaimed beer experts) don’t realize or forget that not everyone’s taste buds are the same. To me, this is so terribly important, and Beer Pairing reinforces this more than once.

While Herz and Conley take pains to escort our taste buds and brains further down the beer-and-food trail than many have gone, it’s done so in a clear writing style and unpretentious tone. One needn’t graduate from Siebel or CIA to keep up.

Scheduled for release just in time for the holidays on December 1, 2015, Beer Pairing offers a wealth of technical and practical information for the beer and food lover looking to elevate their skills in the pairing department. Along with Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer (he wrote the foreword of this book) and Garrett Oliver’s Brewmaster’s Table (he’s featured within the pages of this book) Beer Pairing lands on a short list of what I would consider essentials for the beer and food enthusiast’s library. Buy it.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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Reviewed: Brew Better Beer

Brew Better BeerBrew Better Beer

By Emma Christensen

Ten Speed Press

From the earliest days of my homebrewing obsession, I’ve constantly sought to brew better beer. To that end, I’ve read books, tasted beers, and asked a lot of questions. If you’re new to the homebrewing hobby, Emma Christensen’s Brew Better Beer proves an unintimidating yet useful guide into the world of producing quality beer.

As one might expect, Christensen offers a rundown of ingredients, process, and equipment. It lays out recipes (from extract to all-grain) from a wide array of styles. And it includes many tips on stepping up your game once you’ve been at it for a while.

That said, I’d argue that some of the recipes could stand tweaking (I’d approach IPAs more aggressively, especially in today’s world, and I’d adjust the Pilsner recipe as well–to offer but a pair of examples).

Christensen’s tome breaks no new ground in the how-to heavy world of brewing books, but the author brings forth useful know-how in an easy-to-understand manner. For those new to the hobby, Brewing Better Beer will help you do just that.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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