Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Beer Cocktails

I can't be the only one who enjoys walking into my local facsimile of a traditional pub and ordering a Black Velvet, Black and Tan, Snake Bite, or what-have-you. In fact, this is pretty much the only reason I'd venture to one of these pubs.

Well, that's not totally true. In a small town, usually you have your choice of two bars: the Sports Bar and the Faux Pub. The Faux Pub will usually have the better beer.

Have you ever wondered about these "Beer Cocktails", as they're called? I know I have. And with St. Patrick's Day right around the corner, the season is upon us for drinks from across the pond.

Some History

The reason you only see the beer cocktail is because they're a very British innovation. It is almost impossible to trace the origins of individual blended ale drinks due to a wide variety of regional differences but we do know that, "consumers in England have ordered blends of ales in pubs and alehouses since at least the early 1700s..." (The Oxford Companion to Beer)

The earliest recorded mention of the Black and Tan specifically came from a slang dictionary in 1889 (Ibid).

What is it even?

Now that we know that beer cocktails are at least as old as the Queen, let's look at what they are.

At their core, a beer cocktail is just like a spirit cocktail but with beer at its base instead of hard alcohol. This can include the blended ale drinks we've been referring to this whole time, or it can refer to beer with another liquid added to it, like booze. (Garnishes don't count.)

  • Blended ale drinks are popular because the bartender doesn't simply pour two beers into the same glass, he or she will pour half a beer and then layer the second half on top. This creates a two-toned layer effect which is actually quite cool. 
  • Sake bombs are known for creating quite a mess.
  • Bomb drinks are a thoroughly modern invention that you'll often see assholes ordering. (I'll make the clarification that assholes aren't the only ones to order these drinks, just most often.) They involve dropping a shot of some such booze into a glass of beer and then chugged. I have no problem with this, except when yelling and the slamming of tables is involved. That's when the aforementioned assholery comes in.

There are probably more, but those are certainly the most common.

How does the blended ale work?

This part is actually cool. It all breaks down to density, or, specific gravity. As any homebrewer could tell you, diferent beers have different densities. This accounts for all sorts of things like ABV and yeast attenuation (basically how efficient the yeast is at converting sugar to alcohol).

What density also does it let one beer float on top of another without mixing. Guinness is particularly good at this because it is such a low-gravity or 'non-dense' beer. The trick is to use an upside-down spoon (typically) as a method of dispersing the second beer into smaller drops that don't hit the first beer quite so hard and end up resting on top.

A quick Guinness fact!

Despite the stout's reputation as being "filling" and "big", the Guinness Draught is neither and indeed this is a common misconception about stouts. A much better way to tell how filling your beer is going to be is to look at the ABV. Interestingly, higher ABV also means more calories too.

The primary reason Guinness feels thicker and creamier than it is, is because it is poured using Nitro. I don't have time to get into it all today but if you're interested, check out this article on all about nitro. An incomplete but handy way of thinking about it is that nitro means smaller bubbles which impart a "creamy" texture to the body of your beer.

Now for some of my favorites

Poor Man's Black Velvet
  • Poor Man's Black Velvet - Also known just as a Black Velvet, I've even seen it called a Snake Bite (which is something else), is a sweet cider and Guinness pour. The best part is those first couple of sips when they haven't mixed yet and you can get just a taste of cider in your stout.
  • Snake Bite - The same as above, but instead of Guinness you use a lager.
  • Boilermaker - The American Boilermaker is a shot of whiskey poured into a beer. Preferably, use shitty beer and shitty whiskey. Dropping the shot glass into the beer will result in a depth charge, which is a bomb drink, and drinking the whiskey on the side is called a shot and a beer.
(All sources Wikipedia)

Conspicuously left out may be the most famous American bomb drink, the Irish Car Bomb. I find it hard to promote a drink which so callously trivializes one of the worst and longest-running sectarian conflicts of the 20th century. That being said, the drink itself is great. We just need to call it something else. I'm thinking the "something something reunification handshake...bomb". It'll catch on soon.

Another one down

As luck, or just the turning seasons, would have it, I'l be heading back to archaeology work soon. It's been a nice run here in Minnesota drinking good beer but pretty soon I'll have to give that all up and move back to North Dakota. Fortunately, there's always the Laughing Sun...

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Way Cool Tools for Brews

This past holiday season I was gifted with the most rad of gifts - a gift, without which, I would be sorely lacking in the home domestic acquisition field (not to mention the cool, gizmo-gadget field). Yes, I of course am talking about.. The Inanimate Carbon Rod.

Joking Aside

I've actually come here to talk about picking up an Infrared Thermometer. This thermometer drastically upped my homebrewing and celleraing game. 

I can't quite remember how I got the idea to snag one of these for my kitchen, but it was probably Alton Brown. Let's be honest. I'm not here to hawk any specific product or company, but I'll mention I got the ThermoWorks IR-GUN-S

It basically looks like this, not Mr. Burns. This is a pretty standard model, they're available for around $30 or $40 and it does everything I need it to. I've looked into other, more expensive models and found that much of the difference comes in attachments. Several hundred-dollar-plus-models feature inputs for secondary thermometers (such as a meat probe) and monitors several temps at once. Also there are the Fluke models, which are serious, engineer-grade thermometers. 

Homebrewing Reasons

As the Minnesota winter wrapped its icy, hellscape of an embrace around the state my roommate (and fellow homebrewer) and I started to notice some problems cropping up in our homebrews. Namely, they weren't fermenting or carbonating right. Once we realized our issues were not isolated incidents we hypothesized the cold temps must be the culprit (Ale yeast needs to be around room temp to do well, especially in the initial primary fermentation) so we moved them from the basement to the main floor and, more or less, problem solved.
There was still this nagging feeling in the back of my mind - I wasn't in control of the temperature of my beer. Getting a thermometer didn't solve the problem of a cold basement, but it helped me collect the necessary data to figure out where to keep my fermenting brew. With the ambient room temperatures, I realized the laundry room where my RyePA was was a chilly 47.8 degrees F. What the hell? That's on the chilly end even for a lager. I then had to move that carboy upstairs and let the yeast come back to life. It only took three extra weeks to reach my target FG than I expected... I shouldn't've needed a thermometer to tell that the basement was too damn cold, but I like data.
During the actual brewing process too, the infrared thermometer is awesome. Think about it, you can easily check the temp of your wort at any time and it's one less piece of equipment to sanitize. You don't have to keep re-cleaning it every time you want to check on the temp!
When you're homebrewing temperature and specific gravity are probably the two most important pieces of data to check throughout the process and the infrared thermometer makes it easy to check the temperature any time you want.
Cellaring reasons

The plus side of having a cool basement is realizing you can effectively cellar your beer! Since I started renting a storage unit back in 2012 to hold my life while I'm off doing archaeology, I realized I had a de facto beer cellar. It was even climate controlled and everything. Thus I started collecting. Well, I've since moved my stuff from Chicago to Minnesota and needed a new cellar. The basement of my current place seemed to offer the best environment and I started taking readings. Whether it was -20, -9, 0 or even a warm 30 degrees out, the basement stayed right around the same temperature, right around 50 degrees. I suspect the summer it'll warm up a bit, but not too much (I hope). Either way, I can monitor it.

For those of you interested in starting your own cellar, Beer Advocate has a great primer on the topic, as they do all things beer. 

Being away from home so much makes it easy to pick up beer while I'm gone and drop it off in my cellar when I'm back, forgetting about it for the rest of the year. For others though, not drinking your cellar is definitely the hard part.

And Other Things

Of course there are normal kitchen things, like checking oil temperature or the temperature of your wok. Not to mention other home repair things, like checking your vents and pipes.

Though, the best odd-job this thermometer can preform is probably that game you and your friends play where you stick something in the freezer for 10 minutes and take bets on how cold it'll be. Seriously, it'll entertain you for hours. If you have weird enough friends.

That's why we here at Pint Problems can't recommend this little do-dad highly enough for keeping control of your next brewing endeavor.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Craft Your Beer

My work life has become pretty hectic recently. We're nearing the end of our field season for another year and things always get a bit turned upside down - between moving and taking on more responsibility it's been busy. When I heard about this cool experiment though, well, I had to admit more than just a passing curiosity.

Such Beer, Such Amaze

My friends in Chicago may be familiar with the completely rad website, Brewed in Chicago. This website is a great resource for all beer goings-on in Chicago. Just a cursory glance reveals no fewer than five awesome events I'd love to go to in the next few months.

Recently, I discovered that these dudes are currently in the process of developing something... quite revolutionary.

It's called Craft Your Beer, an online game that, "will give players the chance to get creative by developing their very own virtual brew." Which is pretty slick.

Has anyone heard of Fiz? It's a brewery simulation game for Android/iOS. When I first heard of Craft Your Beer, this game came to mind and I got quite excited. I'll have you know I once spent nearly 20 hours one weekend playing Lemonade Tycoon. And I won. Nevertheless, Craft Your Beer immediately struck me as a real-life version of Fiz.

It's still a game, but it also has the added feature of actually making players' beers. There's also a social component to this game:

"The public will be able to vote for their favorite beer ideas online and taste some of the most popular brews at Empirical Brewery’s tap room, with plans to brew and distribute the overall winning beer ideas on a seasonal basis."

Oh yes, I may have forgotten. These cats are partnering with Chicago's own Empirical Brewery, up off Foster and Ravenswood. Empirical is one of the most aptly named breweries I've come across recently, as they're big proponents of the empirical method. It's a fitting partnership.

Homebrewing Incubator

When I'm not working, or drinking beer, I'm often fantasizing about making beer (oftentimes when I'm working, and drinking beer too). Craft Your Beer strikes me as a fantastic platform from which to hatch nefarious homebrewed concoctions. When selecting what style you're trying to make, Craft Your Beer will show you many of the most common ingredients in that style. From there, go nuts.

The platform itself will be a great way to brainstorm ideas for new homebrews. I'm most intrigued as to how the layout of the site will actually look - I've never seen beer ingredients laid out in such a graphical way, as they intend on doing. This may reveal hidden relationships hitherto untapped by many a hobbyist brewer.

Not to mention it can be a great way to learn about beer too. Inviting the wider craft community into the fold of the brewing process will be a great way for people to understand and appreciate what they're drinking - much like brewery tours.


If this idea strikes your fancy, you should definitely check out their Indie Go Go page for more information. I'm not really big on the, "go out and give these guys your money!!!"approach, but the page definitely explains the project better than I do and was totally sufficient at getting me jazzed for the release of this game. I for one am quite curious what the folks from Brewed in Chicago can pull off.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ciders of Madison County

The Story

One of my favorite parts about my job as a traveling archaeologist is meeting people from all over the country. In my time doing this I've met good friends from all over the United States; we've shared tales, and more often, beer. A brilliant fact about this craft beer renaissance we're in is the promotion of local and regional beers. We all have a lot to be excited about and we love to share our favorites with folks from elsewhere -- ostensibly because we like sharing, but maybe we just love to brag.

It is just such an occurrence which brings us together today. We had a beer-share the other week on our one day off  from our project and my friend from New York brought an unforeseen delight - dry hopped cider from a little farm in Cazenovia, NY.

The Farm

Critz Farms has been around since 1985 and is well-known regionally as a beautiful destination for picnics, family outings, and farm tours. It wasn't until 2011, however, that they opened the Harvest Moon Cidery. (As an aside, I couldn't help but like these guys. Harvest Moon is one of my all-time favorite albums by the great Neil Young, the title track of which is undoubtedly the best song to ever feature the broom as an instrument.) They specialize in small-batch, traditionally pressed ciders made with apples from their antique cider press (circa 1890s) which are then fermented with champagne yeast and then flavored in multiple ways.

The Cider

One of these varieties of ciders is their "dry hopped" cider. As a fervent beer drinker and hop-jock, I
couldn't help but be intrigued. They use a dry, lightly carbonated cider as their base and then age it a bit with local hops. I'm not sure, but I'd guess they use an earthier, old-world style hop in the process because the aroma was definitely more herby.

Ciders are of course following closely at the heels of the craft beer resurgence, but most of the ciders popular today taste a bit like Angry Orchard. Which is to say, ungodly sweet. I was pleasantly surprised then, that the Heritage Hops hard cider was dryer and more tart. The earthy hop they chose was thus a smart (and tasty) decision.

The History

Before the Pacific Northwest became the epicenter of American hop production, Madison County, NY (between Syracuse and Utica) was producing the vast majority of hops in the United States.
This was a tradition many Central New Yorkers took a deal of pride in. That is, until the early 20th century when a mold wiped out the majority of hops in the state. The blight, followed by prohibition and the decline of the beer industry, effectively killed hop growth in New York. When prohibition was repealed, the Pacific Northwest took the helm of U.S. hop production due to its longer growing season and dryer climate.

The revival of this tradition has been spearheaded by Foothill Hops which was opened in 2001 by Kate and Larry Fisher and now provide hops to four regional breweries. If you're interested in learning more about the history of hops in Madison County or Foothill Hops, Tom Wanamaker wrote an excellent article for New York State of Mind last year - and is the primary source for this section.

The End

This year my life has seemed inexplicably tied to the East Coast, a region I hitherto knew quite little about. This article was quite fun because I got to correct that situation a bit. I likely won't see any Harvest Moon Cider or Madison County hops anytime in my future but I'll remember my Heritage Hops cider quite fondly. And if any of you find yourself in the state of New York with a bottle of Harvest Moon Cider, let me know. I'd love to hear about your experience.

As always, you can reach me at:
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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A History of Owltober

I can assure my loyal readers that this post, has next to nothing to do with beer. Instead, it has everything to do with Owltober. That being said, I urge you to pull up a seat and listen to, A History of Owltober.

There are many variants of the history of the Unholy Month of Owltober - from the earliest accounts of Norse Death Cults to the Eastern European peasants, who revered and looked upon with dread the yearly flight of the birds. Lo, there is but one origin that has been documented by verifiable, if macabre, sources.

In the early 1970s, an Abbey in East Germany was burnt to the ground. According to the Soviet
Government, lightning had struck a nearby stable and the flame carried over, burning the five-hundred year old structures to the ground in mere hours. However, most local sources point to a more sinister origin of the fire. There is recorded testimony from a Midwife in a nearby village who adamantly attests the monks had struck a deal with The Dark Lord Satan in order to operate away from prying Soviet eyes. On this particular night, a summoning ritual had been ill prepared and sparked the blaze, thus consuming the monks and their home.

There may yet be an element of truth to both tellings. By the next morning, reportedly three trucks had pulled up and began carting off crates of books, religious imagery, along with the charred corpses of the holy men. Legend has it that among these books was a tome belonging to the founder of the Order with the title, "Die Eule und Das Biest" or, "The Owl and the Beast." The book went missing for over 20 years.

Stories from this period have surfaced but they are unverifiable and most likely fiction. Some say the book was in the possession of the chief scientists at Chernobyl only weeks before the infamous catastrophe. Three of these men were later found in their homes with their eyes clawed out, talon marks on their faces, and their intestines disemboweled.

Whatever may have happened in the intermittent period, the book resurfaced in the United States after the fall of the USSR. It is unclear how the book made it across the oceans but once here it was put up for auction in California and acquired by an anonymous buyer. He apparently surfaced only the day before the event and was seen at the hotel bar wiling away the night with fellow collectors of occult artifacts, buying everyone drinks and demonstrating his virtuosity at the violin. None of the other collectors were present the next day and the man walked away with the majority of the day's lots, including the lost tome of the Owl. No one knows if he left that night or the next but there were no further sightings of the unknown Collector.

Since that day, the book has been sighted no fewer than six separate times throughout the United States. The most famous of which happened in 1993, known colloquially as "The Pine Affair". One night in New Jersey, on the outskirts of the Pine Barrens there was reported a low hum and eerie glow emanating from the Pines. The sound grew and grew until a flash of light burst forth, lighting the forest as if it were day. Then, quickly as it spread, the light retreated and the Barrens fell to silence. The next morning a hunter found a clearing of trees that hadn't been there the day before. The pines had been blasted back centrifugally around a center point whereupon an altar stood. There before the hunter lay a book. The hunter, fearing a demonic incursion, left to form a party to search for the culprits. When they returned the book was gone and an owl's nest was there in its place. The nest had a single, perfect egg inside. The priest among them attempted performing an exorcism but at the final stage, the egg started pulsating and cracking. Without another moment, a fully-formed owl emerged and began circling the party. It let out the most deafening crack from its beak. The priest was immediately thrown back from where he stood and came to rest twenty feet away with trees jabbing their way through most every extremity. The hunter, seeing this, gathered up his courage and raised his shotgun. He put two shots into the bird before it finally managed to wrap its massive talons around his skull and fly away with it, leaving the body where it stood. The few remaining members managed to flee to safety as the creature enjoyed its prize.

These monstrous tales spread far and wide and soon Owltober was more well-known than its other ghost-tale contemporaries. Small bands of Owl Fanatics began popping up all across the country, owl kitch and apparel was as common in households as a glass of milk. All of it was centered around the Unholy Month of Owltober -- the culmination of a year's preparation for the coming fury.

Some say these stories are mere myth and hold no water in our Rational Western Mindset but the shear numbers of those who revel in the dark powers of Satan and His raptor companions is enough to lend credence to the tales. Humankind has always looked to higher powers for wisdom and guidance. These tales lack none of the qualities of other thought systems from around the globe and brings with it the unexplained depths which is the Mystery of Owltober.

I assure you, my friends and detractors, Satan is alive and well in the ancient Owl-beings. Hail Satan and happy Owltober.

Benjamin A. Gappa
1 Owltober, 2011

This piece has only recently been translated from its original, titled, "A Histore ov Owltobre". This document was singular in that despite being scrawled on lambskin and professed in blood, it showed no signs of age. In fact, every attempt to destroy the document proved unsuccessful and ultimately it was this fact which ended up proving its authenticity. It was kept hidden from the light of day for many years before finally surfacing in a remote hotel room in Oklahoma. Not much is known of the author. Most assume he went mad from his sheer Exultation over Owltober.