New Beers and New Friends

This post will be a little different, since circumstances this week took some of my focus (most of it in fact) away from beer to professional matters. Because of this, and because I don’t have pictures, I will instead tie the different beers I tried to the activities of my week, which included some intense work but also the opportunity to re-connect with some professional acquaintances and to forge some new connections that I hope to renew at this time next year.

My week was spent in Louisville, KY, where I joined a corps of about 250 chemists (and over 1000 historians) in the process of “reading” (otherwise known as grading) the AP exams of high school students from all over the country. This is my third year of participating in this project, which I alluded to in the previous post as “chemistry teacher boot camp.” What this really means is an intense, seven-day work week in which the free-response portion of nearly 150,000 chemistry exams is scored by experienced AP teachers and college professors who adhere to a tightly scripted rubric in order to make all the students’ grades as uniform as humanly possible. This is done by getting all the bodies together in large convention center rooms, which necessitates travel from all over the country. I flew through Atlanta on a Saturday with a layover long enough for dinner at the Sam Adams location on the C concourse (I think), where I was discouraged to find that the only draft beers were both familiar (the flagship lager and the Rebel IPA).  I soldiered on bravely, however, and enjoyed the Rebel with my pulled pork BBQ sandwich before heading to the gate for my flight and a late evening arrival at my hotel in Louisville.

The pool of readers reported on Sunday morning at 8:00 for a brief welcoming orientation and then dispersed to learn about the specific multi-part question to which each of us was assigned. The remainder of the morning was then spent looking at sample student responses, carefully selected and scrutinized over the preceding couple of days by a small group of seasoned “table leaders,” to point out some of the pitfalls a reader was likely to encounter during the week ahead. (Aside: my general description will be describing the way things work for the vast majority of readers. This year I was actually part of a small subset of readers who worked on one of the alternative exams given to students who missed the main exam and which included questions that might be re-used in the future, so I’m sworn to secrecy about the questions I actually worked on.) Our workday is tightly scheduled around breaks for lunch and for mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks, so we all emerge from our little groups to congregate around coffee and munchies to reflect on the challenges we have been facing and share war stories before returning to the hushed rooms full of waiting exams.

During the first day, after the leaders are satisfied that we are beginning to understand the rubric, we start by reading with a buddy to make sure that we agree and are watching for the little tricky points we were warned about. In addition, for the first couple of days the leaders spend most of their time “back-reading” to spot-check our work and discuss any discrepancies which they note. Thus the first day goes slowly as we get to know our table-mates and begin to get inside the heads of the range of typical students.

By the end of a busy first day, then, we have reached the point where we need to talk about what we are doing, welcome new readers (“acorns” since they will eventually become great oaks and because an acorn is the College Board’s corporate logo), and connect with our former acquaintances over an adult beverage. I’m not sure if it’s because of geography (far away from the “elitist” coasts), venue (a large convention center), or economics (since the first drink was on the College Board) but the selection of adult beverages was pretty discouraging and I decided to go with the theory that cheap distilled spirits would be more palatable than cheap beer or cheap wine and had a bourbon rather than a beer on Sunday night. The verdict was inconclusive, aside from confirming the general rule that “You get what you pay for”: cheap booze of any variety isn’t very satisfying.

Every night has some sort of social or professional activity once we are off the clock in order to keep us sane, and since the grading gets pretty routine (other than anxiously watching the progress on each question and the occasional adjustment of moving readers between questions to even out the reading rates) I will mostly focus on the evenings, since that’s where the beer comes in. (We were warned in no uncertain terms at the opening meeting that illegal drugs and the consequences of legal drugs, a.k.a. hangovers, were not professional conduct and would not be tolerated.)

Monday night’s activity was a presentation by a representative from the College Board about the ongoing changes both to the general aspects of the AP program and to the specifics of AP Chemistry. The beverage selection wasn’t any better than Sunday, but having discovered that bad booze is still bad booze, and in the interest of further reserach, I went for a Budweiser (the only non-“light” beer available). My beer wasn’t unpleasant, but all the flavor was up front and there wasn’t anything interesting about the finish. That might be fine as a “cool you off on a hot summer day” drink, but that’s not why I drink beer, so I will continue my lifelong avoidance of Bud when there are other options available.

Tuesday night was a presentation by one of the primary architects of the actual chemistry test on how to write multiple choice items (for which the College Board does pay some people). You may be amazed to learn that the College Board actively discourage questions that include prompts that involve negatives (…all of the following except…) or answers that include “all (or none) of the above,” since these are the proverbial bane of test-takers everywhere. I don’t know that I’m feeling inspired to start writing my own multiple choice items, but it was interesting to learn about the philosophy behind how the multiple choice part of the exam is constructed.

After the presentation, I met up with my roommate (also Dr. Dave, a college professor from Long Island and an acquaintance through Dr. Mrs. Dr. Dave who has spent time with him at several biochemistry education conferences) and some other relatively new readers he had become acquainted with. Our new friends (including Jen from North Carolina, Cindy from Arkansas, Dusty from New Jersey, and Dick from Chicago) were on a mission to collect enough stamps in their “Bourbon Trail Passport” to earn a T-shirt from the local tourism office, so we headed out in search of interesting bourbon drinks and to enjoy some camaraderie. In the end, I decided the beer selection was intriguing and went with the bartender’s recommendation of Dale’s Pale Ale, a product of the Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado, which was a nice English-style Pale Ale (reminiscent of Bass Ale, let’s say) with relatively little carbonation but a pleasant flavor.

Wednesday was the first of our two “dine-out nights” when the cafeteria is closed and College Board gives each reader a budget of up to $25 to pump up the local economy and try some local cuisine. As I had done the previous two years, I ended up (with most of my new friends and a couple of other hangers-on) at the Bluegrass Brewing Company, a local brewpub with three locations around the city. Like the brewpubs I reviewed previously, the food is pretty simple–burgers, sandwiches, and “comfort food”–and the focus is on the beer. This night’s selection was the IPA which was pretty standard with more pine than citrus. I had debated trying their double IPA after dinner, but we did get a late start on dinner (which allowed me to get in my daily 30-40 minutes on the stationary bike at the hotel fitness center) and still had several long days of work ahead, so discretion was probably the right call this time around. We also missed karaoke night at a bar up the street, which was fun the last two years–I guess I’ll have to wait until next year to reprise my performance of Elton John’s Rocket Man.

Thursday is tough because you begin to worry that all the reading might not get done–since the pace accelerates through the first couple of days it’s hard to make accurate projections until the week has progressed pretty far. We ended up working a couple of extra-long shifts by taking 15 minutes out of lunch and adding on 15 minutes to the end of the day just to insure adequate progress was being made, so we were ready for another night of pub-hopping, but we began with a presentation on the history and chemistry of bourbon. The presenter for this “professional night” was a local scientist whose primary vocation is as a consultant to industrial-scale fermentation and distilling operations, primarily in the area of ethanol for fuel. However, if you live in Kentucky and know something about fermentation and distillation, it’s almost natural to try your hand at bourbon production as well. Thus, our presenter has recently begun moonlighting as the operator of Wilderness Trace Distillery which is getting ready to release its first commercial bourbon in a few months, using their expertise to fashion a product with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients from corn to water to yeast.  We learned about the important role of whiskey in the colonization and westward expansion of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the collapse of the industry during Prohibition, and the current resurgence after a decline during the 1970s, and also about the distinctive chemistry of bourbon relative to other types of whiskey and distilled spirits.

After processing all that information, when we went out afterwards several of us felt obliged to try at least one bourbon drink, though the females had learned to ask, only slightly apologetically, for recommendations along the lines of “girlie” bourbon drinks.  Our first stop was a relatively quiet bar where I let the bartender choose for me and ended up with Rowan’s Creek bourbon, which was sweeter than the scotch I usually prefer, but smoother than the call brand I had tried on Sunday, and I also took a taste of a couple of the other cocktails that my new friends were trying (the Rusty Horseshoe was my favorite, substituting bourbon for the usual combination of scotch with Drambuie in a Rusty Nail).  Then, because my friends were behind schedule on their passport stamps, we wandered up the street to a much livelier place for a nightcap.  Here I chose to go with beer instead of whiskey, settling (in the absence of draft selections) on a bottle of the Brooklyn Summer Ale, which had a more body than I was expecting and a nice lemony citrus bite, confirming my general faith in the quality of Brooklyn Brewery.  The cocktails here got mixed reviews, but the atmosphere was lively and the fries with truffle oil that we shared were exceptional.

Friday the end is in sight, and though most readers have reached the point where they can no longer accelerate, we do reach the point where we are getting disillusioned by the sheer volume of bad chemistry we have to wade through.  A couple more long shifts had us ready for our second dine-out night.  My friends had made plans to visit Churchill Downs, but I stuck to my resolution to hit the fitness center and arranged to meet them for dinner after their tourist diversion.  Dinner was at a place called Doc Crow’s which was set up nicely for large groups (we numbered seven for dinner that night) and which featured a range of traditional Southern cooking.  I enjoyed my Louisiana-style blackened tilapia and dirty rice, accompanied by a couple of local beers (the brewers of which I didn’t write down).  The first was a blonde ale which was OK as a summer beer and the second was an English Brown Ale.  Service was a little chaotic on a busy Friday night, so this one arrived close to the end of the meal, but that actually turned out OK since it was sweet with notes of what I would describe as brown sugar and vanilla, so it helped to think of it as if it were dessert (as if the “hot and gooey” chocolate chip cookies that we shared weren’t enough of a dessert).

Saturday, the only real question was when we were going to finish.  In the spirit of camaraderie, nobody is dismissed until the last folder full of exams has been marked and recorded, so there is a fair amount of time spent sitting around, checking phones, reading, or tidying up eraser crumbs, candy wrappers, and other detritus from a week of sitting at the same table.  This year was later than the previous two and we were finally released late in the afternoon, but still with enough time for me to get in my stationary bike ride back at the hotel before returning to the convention center for cafeteria dinner and a final de-briefing.  Each of the question leaders talked about the pitfalls of their question and sometimes offered a few words of advice for teachers and/or future question writers and then we adjourned downstairs for a final celebration.

Surprisingly, Bombay Sapphire gin was among the other rather ordinary offerings behind the bar, so I sipped a gin and tonic as people began the process of saying good-bye to both old acquaintances and new friends.  Our little group then adjourned up the block to the pedestrian mall known as Fourth Street Live where we ended up at an outside table at Gordon Biersch to enjoy what felt like the official start of summer. Gordon Biersch is another sort of “in between” operation–they have the attitude of a craft brewery but they are pretty widely franchised so they don’t have the local feel of a more independent brew pub.  Since it was a lovely summer evening, I went with the kölsch-style Sommerbrau which went down nicely as we sat and exchanged contact information while  talking about the kind of things you can talk about with people who you have really just met but who somehow feel like old friends.

I have found that feeling does tend to develop when you take people with a common purpose and put them into a situation of intense side-by-side work.  It also helps that we all share the belief that high-school age students are sometimes capable of learning college-level material and that it is worth our time and effort to help sort those who can from those who, for whatever reason (and the reasons are many), aren’t ready yet.  The AP program has changed over the years, but to the extent that it is trying to get students ready for the rigor of college it is a useful program and I’m glad that I have been able to participate.  Making new friends (and having the chance to enjoy some down time with them over an adult beverage or two) is a wonderful added bonus.

And now I’m back home, graduations have happened, and summer starts in earnest with yard work, preparations for the next school year, hopefully some vacation time, and also plenty of occasions to seek out more new beers.  Seven new beers from this week brings the tally up to 69 as we head into summer break.  Cheers!

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