As a teacher of students who are being prepared to go on to do great things, I see part of my mission as making sure that they are comfortable facing new challenges and applying their knowledge in unfamiliar settings. Sometimes students complain that asking them to perform at this level is “unfair”, since much of our education system is set up (and necessarily so) for having students practice a skill until they become good at it and then demonstrating the skill they have practiced. Young students get a list of a dozen spelling words and have to spell them correctly on a quiz. Older students carry out dozens of long division problems in class and for homework and then have to do the same thing (albeit with new numbers) on a math test. Still older students learn how to conjugate verbs in a language class and then have to complete sentences orally or in writing using the correct verb tense.
At some point in life, however, this changes, at least for professionals at the levels my students aspire to. Engineers don’t just copy existing bridges; architects have to design buildings to fit new requirements using new materials; physicians have to treat patients whose symptoms don’t necessarily fit everything that’s in the med school textbooks; even teachers like me have to adapt to a changing student population that is accustomed to getting and sharing their information in little snippets on a screen rather than big chunks from a paper text. So though you can’t ever anticipate all the things that might happen, you can still practice the skill of bringing everything you already know into a new situation and trying to solve a problem you haven’t even thought about previously.
“What does all this have to do with beer?” you might be asking. Well, in several loosely booze-related corners of my life I have come across something unexpected over the last month or so, and though the unexpected isn’t always good, I think that with the right attitude it more often than not turns out just fine.
I do have to admit that I was a little disappointed when most of the bottles in a pack of Ellen’s Coffee Stout from Atlantic Brewing foamed up like the one pictured here upon opening. After the foam settled, the beer was as good as usual, but it was tedious and unsatisfying to pour only a few mL at a time into the glass, and to have to be extra cautious in order to avoid foaming over. It seems like at least one bottle didn’t foam like this, so I’m not sure if the phenomenon is due to something about the brewing or if something happened during transportation or storage to create this unexpected event.
Nothing prepares you for the occasional major disruption to your familiar lifestyle–these are situations where you have to consider your options and weigh costs and benefits in order to make a decision that feels right for you and those around you. In our family, we might be a little more used to this process since it comes up every seven years when Dr. Mrs. Dr. Dave comes up for sabbatical leave from her position as a professor of biochemistry. Last time out, yours truly took a leave of absence for a semester and the whole family picked up stakes and moved several hundred miles away so that DMDD could spend time observing the discussion-based teaching of a professional acquaintance. Though not without its stresses, the process was generally OK for 3rd graders, but it clearly wasn’t going to work this time around for teenagers who have friends, co-curricular activities, and a need for continuity in their education as they prepare to apply for college in a couple of years. After some deliberation, we decided that DMDD would try to find a lab where she could visit on a short-term basis and pick up some new research skills, while the rest of us would stay in our usual surroundings. If some families can manage long-distance commuter relationships for years, it didn’t seem like it would be impossible for us to manage it for a few months. A visiting position was eventually secured at the University of Pittsburgh for a two month period in the dead of winter, an apartment rented, and the time finally arrived when the two of us were to drive to Pittsburgh and get DMDD settled into her temporary home.
To allow us to arrive in daylight without my missing any time at work, we left town on a Friday evening and drove about halfway, stopping for a visit with my grad school buddy Chris in northeast PA. He and his wife Lisa have spent the last roughly 30 years raising their fraternal twins (now both successfully launched into careers) and fixing up their big old house in a core urban neighborhood. Chris is the one who gifted us with a bottle of Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin on a visit earlier this summer, an offshoot of their latest home improvement project which is an elaborate bar setup in the basement. With Chris you can always expect something unexpected, and we were not disappointed during this visit.
The basement bar was elaborately furnished and decorated using cast-off lab equipment–some of it purely for decoration but some also functional. (I was particularly amused by the reagent bottle with a ground glass stopper and the word “alcohol” along with the chemical formula for ethanol etched onto the side.) The bar towels from Brown University (where their daughter attended undergraduate) helped us feel at home, and Chris got to work assembling the ingredients for an elaborate cocktail that I think he called a “fox in the hole.” I couldn’t find a recipe online, but I know that the main ingredients were rye whiskey, some kind of bitters, and (as the final unexpected twist) absinthe, which makes it similar to the sazerac cocktail popular in New Orleans. (Here’s a link to a sazerac recipe at Epicurious.com, which is a website I trust for food-related ideas.) Absinthe has a reputation, probably not deserved, for all sorts of bad things and was prohibited in several countries at various times. Since I’m a scientist, here’s what appears to be some pretty solid science debunking the alleged toxicity and hallucinogenic properties of absinthe. What absinthe absolutely does do is impart some remarkable complexity in the form of anise/fennel/licorice flavor and aroma to a cocktail. Watching Chris prepare and dispense the drink using an organic chemist’s separatory funnel was the crowning touch on an evening full of surprises.
Saturday was much more mundane. We arrived with plenty of daylight which allowed us to explore the neighborhood a bit, purchase several weeks’ worth of non-perishables (since the car and I came back home and shopping was no longer going to be convenient) and then meet up with my brother and his wife for dinner. Since they live well outside town, DMDD and I solicited suggestions from the checkout clerk at Trader Joe’s (with input from the couple behind us in line) and ended up at a charming little pizza place about a mile from her apartment. My beer that night was the Blizzard of Hops, a winter IPA with a bit of wheat added to the mash from Tröegs Independent Brewing of Hershey. (I’m not sure why the name has both an umlaut and an “e” after the “o”, but that’s the way they spell it on their web site, so I’m not going to tell them they are spelling their name incorrectly.) This is a brewery I’ve heard of but didn’t remember seeing back home, and the surprise here is that through some odd distributor arrangement, Tröegs is available in nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut, but not in Rhode Island. I did seek some out at one of the MA liquor stores, so I’ll have a more comprehensive review of them sometime soon.
At the conclusion of our evening, another unexpected surprise was a bundle of homemade, belated Christmas gifts of various treats for DMDD and I to share as we parted ways for the next two months. Most of the loot was divided evenly, but since she is pretty strictly a white wine drinker, I got to bring home the six-pack of my brother’s latest home-brewed beer. I’ve been teasing it out over the last several weeks, interspersing with some of my perennial favorite winter brews (Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, which was on sale a couple of weeks ago, and Sierra Nevada Celebration) and another mix pack based on a recommendation from loyal readers Alan and Elizabeth which I will write up eventually, but I had one with dinner tonight as I sit at home on a rainy and unseasonably warm February evening. (We must be making up for last year’s prolonged sub-freezing spell and weekly heavy snowfalls.) He named this beer “Golden Sharknado” (my brother’s cultural reference points often fall outside the mainstream) and the recipe includes Munich and Golden Light malts, with equal parts Centennial and New Zealand Halertau hops. The beer has a slightly creamy head and a nice sort-of-but-not-quite-molasses note in the finish–I continue to be impressed with any home brew that isn’t obviously a home brew.
The boys and I are now at about the halfway point in our two months of bachelor living and nothing particularly unexpected so far, though that’s mostly a function of my choice to not attempt much more than the basics whenever I’m the solo parent. The weather has been mild, and there’s plenty of beer in the cellar, so we should muddle through until DMDD gets home at the end of the month. Who knows, there may even be some quiet time on the weekends for another blog post or two–unexpected things happen all the time! Cheers!