New Summer Beers

Part of the motivation for starting to blog was to come up with a list of reliable beers that I could turn to when confronted with the wide selection at my usual beer stores.  The fact that I’ve been successful in that project means that the number of new beers worth writing about has slowed to a trickle and left blog posts few and far between, a situation compounded by family members again scattering to the four winds over the course of the summer which makes finding time to sit down and write somewhat scarce.

Anyway, one method I’ve settled on for reliable novelty is to stick with the breweries I like but remain on the lookout for their new offerings.  Sierra Nevada makes this easy with their Beer Camp series, which this year made a tour of beer festivals across the country at which they indulged in collaborations with  a lot of unfamiliar brewers and came up with a lot of interesting names for the varied styles.  Among my favorites:

  • Moxee-Moron Imperial Session IPA–this oxymoron was brewed in conjunction with several breweries from the Pacific Northwest and wasn’t really a session beer at 7.5% ABV, but maybe had less alcohol than a typical “imperial” while making up for any lack in that area with an abundance of hops
  • Pat-Rye-Ot Pale Ale–created by brewers from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, including Dogfish Head, the brewers used rye but also apple cider as part of the fermentation mix
  • Family Values Imperial Brown Ale with cocoa–Midwest brewers used a wide range of local ingredients including wild rice, oats, and honey

Stony Creek Black Water Pils was another example of an unexpectedly light-bodied beer given the dark color in the glass.  I will continue to look for some of the creative seasonal beers that are promised on their web site.

Long Trail Brewery in addition to their regular offerings also has a “Farmhouse” series that I enjoyed toward the later part of the summer.  These beers are crafted in smaller batches and a more creative range of styles than their standard beers.  The selection has changed since I bought my mix pack– the Rye ESB and Session IPA aren’t currently listed on their web site.  It’s worth noting that these beers were not noticeably pricier than their usual offerings (whereas the Beer Camp mix pack was close to double the usual price point).

Early fall also has the promise of some unfamiliar beers from my favorite breweries, but those will have to wait until sometime after all of us chez Dr. Dave are back to school.  Yours truly has been undergoing some intensive physical therapy for a bum achilles tendon, but I’m slowly getting back to my normal level of physical activity and will also hopefully be able to drop some stubborn excess pounds from last winter as I work out with my cross country team.  Looking forward to the rituals of changing seasons and autumn activities.  Cheers!

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Late Spring/Early Summer Smorgasbeers

The end of the school year is always a busy time, and this year June was busier than usual due to a combination of work obligations and family choices, with the result that I spent three out of the four weeks of June away from home.  That meant not much time for blogging and beers from a wide range of locales and in a variety of styles, so this post will be mostly a quick rundown rather than a thoughtful essay.

At home, I worked on the Sam Adams “Adventures in Lager” mix pack for most of the month of May. A nice change from the ubiquitous IPA, all of these beers were relatively light and fizzy, though they ranged in color from very pale yellow (the Noble Pils) to a quite dark brown (the Double Bock and Double Black).  lageradventuresThe label art struck me as an illustrational style influenced perhaps by DC Comics, each beer paired with a semi-heroic figure that somebody thought represented the personality of the beer.  (Rather than inflict my poor-quality photographs on you readers, I snagged the one at right from somebody else’s beer web site–hooray for the Internet and fair use!)

There were a couple of unusual IPAs in the current seasonal mix from Sierra Nevada: an “experimental” Five Hop IPA (no details on the web site) and the Hop Hunter IPA that was brewed with distilled hop oil.  These were complemented by the familiar Torpedo IPA and Ruthless Rye, both of which are favorites at chez Dr. Dave.

IMG_0807The AP Chemistry reading was again held in Salt Lake City during the first week of June, which provides an opportunity for sampling beers unavailable here on the East Coast.  “Dine out night” found several of us at a New Orleans themed restaurant (in Utah—go figure!) called the Bayou that featured an immense beer list.  IMG_0808I had already been drinking a variety of draft beers from Utah-based Epic and Uinta breweries in the bar at our hotel, but I was tempted by a couple of bottled beers on this particular night: the appetizers were accompanied by Ninkasi Total Domination IPA and my dinner companion was the Epic Brewing Hop Syndrome lager.  (In case it’s not obvious, both the bottle and the glass are definitely on the large side for the latter.)

After a week at home, the whole family piled into the car for this year’s vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine.  We enjoyed a week of hiking, biking, a tour of the Jackson Biological Lab (biologists might recognize the name as the source of mice bred for biology research), and relaxing evenings for board and card games in our rental house.  Beers in the fridge for late afternoon and evening were the Green Blaze IPA from Long Trail and the Latitude 48 IPA from Sam Adams—neither one particularly adventurous, but both worthy choices.  IMG_0812On a night out at our favorite local restaurant, I tried an unusual white stout that went by the name Albino and brewed, I believe, by Liquid Riot brewing and distilling from Portland, ME.  (Yes, the beer in the picture at left is supposed to be a stout!) I couldn’t find much in terms of how to make a white stout, but the flavor profile gave lots of vanilla and the web site does indicate that oats and cocoa are also part of the mix.

Upon returning from our vacation, I had to quickly do my laundry and re-pack for another week of professional development.  This trip was necessitated by a combination of retirements, new hires, and other personnel juggling at work that has me picking up the calculus-based AP Physics C class next year and in need of a refresher on some more advanced aspects of physics than I have been teaching for the last couple of decades.  Fortunately, the Taft School in Watertown, CT, runs a summer institute that includes teacher instruction for almost the entire gamut of AP courses, so I could sign up for a week of physics fun and games (no, that’s not an oxymoron!) and also enjoy some social time with teachers in the other subjects, including a couple of AP Chemistry readers and the new colleague to whom I will be passing the torch for AP Chem.

At the daily social hour, the beer selection was a bit limited, so I found myself mostly alternating between Heineken and Corona. (The social hour was actually a pleasant surprise, as it meant I didn’t have to break into the cooler of emergency beer that I had brought just in case, so I’m saving that one for the next post.)   I’m old enough to remember when Heineken was considered exotic and Corona was unheard of, and though I hadn’t tried either one for several years I can report that they are both still better than a typical inexpensive American beer.  On the one night when both of those were in short supply, I went with an adequate Amstel Light (same brewery as Heineken and maybe my first light beer in years, if not decades), and the organizers apparently splurged and offered Sam Adams (the best of the lot) on the final evening.

So now with June over, I’m thankfully home for most of the rest of the summer, though there will be a weekend trip to Ithaca, NY, coming up in the not-too-distant future and hopefully a few summer parties, ball games, or other excuses to enjoy a cold brew.  Happy start of summer, everyone—cheers!

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Irish Interlude

There can be little doubt that one of the hugest perquisites of the academic lifestyle is the sabbatical—the opportunity to take a literal Sabbath once every seven years and re-invigorate one’s professional life through time away from one’s usual responsibilities. Dr. Mrs. Dr. Dave has been back home from her sojourn in Pittsburgh since the end of February, but is still taking advantage of her lack of teaching responsibilities to do some professional and personal growth. Most of her month of March was spent chained to a computer to meet a publishing deadline, and the first week of April was a major professional meeting in San Diego, but that still left some time later in the month for an unusual travel opportunity, spending a week-and-a-half on a semi-religiously-themed tourist trip to Ireland in the company of a half-dozen other members of our church.

Like me, she likes to blog as a way of sharing her travels, so here’s a link to her Irish travel blog. There are, however, a couple of connections between her adventures in Ireland and my adventures with booze. One connection is that their group made a stop at the Guinness brewery at St. James’s Gate in Dublin, during which DMDD learned how to pull a pint of Guinness and claimed to actually enjoy the final product. (I can affirm from a trip to Belfast many years ago that the closer you are to the brewery, the more enjoyable a pint of Guinness becomes.) The other connection is that they also visited the Kilbeggan distillery where they produce several styles of Irish whiskey, a sampler of which came home for me to enjoy.IMG_0796

The packaging describes the four whiskeys in the sampler as either fruity, sweet, smoky, or smooth, and that’s actually a pretty accurate summary. The ones labeled as sweet (the house label) and fruity (Tyrconnell Single Malt) were fine but not particularly memorable—if you’re a scotch drinker, think of something like Johnny Walker Red or Cutty Sark. The smooth one was an 8 Year Old single malt that was more flavorful but that was not in the same league as my favorite 12 year old single malt scotches (Macallan, Glenmorangie, and that ilk). The smoky one, known as Coonemara, was more along the lines of an Islay with the distinct peaty notes that a scotch drinker would associate with Jura or Laphroaig. This isn’t my usual choice for flavor profile in scotch, so in the end I would rate the 8 Year Old single malt as my favorite from this selection. (I have no idea how widely any of these are available in the U.S., so the point may be moot anyway unless you’re planning to travel to the Republic of Ireland in the near future.)

The most interesting souvenir that DMDD brought back may have been the bonus Dark Chocolate Whiskey Bar featured in the picture here. IMG_0794Every once in awhile I find myself amused at the stark contrast between the somewhat uptight attitude about alcohol in this country (as evidenced by our state-by-state patchwork liquor laws and the disastrous national experiment of Prohibition) as compared with the attitude throughout most of Europe. Ireland, however, may have taken the cake here by going beyond the decadence of Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur and explicitly combining alcohol and dessert in a single package. The whiskey wasn’t actually all that noticeable, but it was more enjoyable than your average American candy bar, so maybe there was something subliminal going on.
At our local Irish-style pub we did the experiment of trying a draft Guinness a couple of weeks ago and reaffirmed that DMDD isn’t actually going to start drinking beer on a regular basis and that the beer doesn’t taste the same here as it does in Dublin. That’s OK, since a big part of the travel experience is to live in the moment and create memories of what things are like in their native environment. Both of us would agree that we have had experiences that we won’t ever re-create and probably shouldn’t even try. DMDD also told me that we should travel to Ireland together sometime (and not as part of a group tour). Since that probably won’t happen for awhile, I will have to settle for the vicarious experience of her trip and the relics that she was able to bring home to share.

We’ve had a cold and damp spring so far, so the beer menu hasn’t fully transitioned to summer yet, but there are some novel choices in the fridge (along with a couple of familiar favorites) that will be reviewed in a forthcoming post. Cheers!

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Scrambled Seasons

IMG_0025The last couple of months have been a challenging time period for figuring out what beer is most suitable for a particular occasion. Part of that has been the result of some weird weather swings here in southern New England. One three-day span in February saw us go from a low of 9 below on Sunday morning to a high of 53 by Tuesday afternoon, and a bunch of days in the 60s and even low 70s in March were succeeded by some significant snowfall on April 3 and 4. (If you look closely you can see the yellow forsythia blossoms peaking out from under the snow in this photograph from my back yard.)

As a result, I found myself trying to keep a variety of beers in stock, ranging from the smoky Velvet Merlin oatmeal stout from Firestone Walker to the flavor-packed King of the Yahd imperial IPA from local brewer Foolproof to the citrusy Tropical IPA from Sierra Nevada, with a lot of variety in between.IMG_0793

The Tropical IPA first came across my radar at our local Irish pub, and the hints of pineapple that I got along with the usual grapefruit notes from the hops were intriguing enough that I picked up a six-pack to enjoy at home.

IMG_0790The Velvet Merlin was on sale at the shop trying hard to build a reputation as the purveyor of choice for craft brews. The sale was probably in large part because we seemed to be approaching the end of what I think of as “beer as food season,” a situation that connects to my other theme for this post, which is “Why and how does beer go bad?”

This was a potentially important question that came up when I tried to follow up on my Pittsburgh exposure to a beer from Tröegs Independent Brewing of Hershey, PA. Tröegs apparently doesn’t have a distribution arrangement in Rhode Island, but I venture across the state line to nearby Massachusetts frequently enough that it wasn’t too much trouble to track down a mix pack. What I failed to notice, however, was that even though I was shopping in midwinter, this mix pack was actually the autumn seasonal sampler and thus was well on its way to the “best before” data stamped on the carton, leading me to be concerned about whether I would actually be trying a representative sample of the quality of their product.

A little bit of internet research turned up what it usually does: a mix of accurate information and plausible-sounding or conflicting misinformation on the ways in which beer might or might not age well, so here are the conclusions I’ve come to after scanning through the first half-dozen or so Google hits on “Why does beer spoil?”

There is pretty near universal agreement that exposure to UV and even short-wavelength visible light is the prime culprit that causes a beer to turn “skunky” by initiating a photochemical reaction in some of the sulfur-containing compounds (thiols) that are released by the hops. The easy way to prevent this is by using dark-colored or opaque packaging: cans are obviously great here, with brown glass a not-too-distant competitor, while green glass is less good (it still absorbs most of the UV and a significant fraction of the blue/violet visible light) and clear glass (which lets in essentially all the visible spectrum) is the worst. I saw some claims that leaving your Corona out in the sun for even a few minutes was detrimental to the flavor, though no data to back up that assertion.

There was some disputation about whether repeatedly cycling the temperature up and down could contribute to a shorter shelf-life, but I was more persuaded by the writers that considered this a myth and noted that there is no clear mechanism as long as the temperature swings weren’t particularly extreme.

There was greater agreement that beer rarely goes bad due to any kind of biochemical activity, since the alcohol usually does a pretty good job of discouraging micro-organisms. It’s worth remembering that we call alcoholic beverages intoxicating because alcohol is, in fact, toxic in high doses. (We had some vivid reminders of that unpleasant fact at my place of employment this week as several teenagers—thankfully none related to me–made the poor decision to explore the boundaries of that toxicity over the weekend and subsequently discovered way too many of the drawbacks of crossing that boundary. It was a challenging week at work.)

A final contributor to long-term degradation of a beer’s flavor is the slow but inexorable encroachment of oxygen into the bottle or can where it can react with pretty much the whole spectrum of flavor components. I suspect that the unpredictability of the rate of this process is the reason that brewers tend to be conservative in suggesting a “best before” date that is typically around six months after bottling, while reputable food experts indicate you can usually safely double that time frame.

IMG_0786For what it’s worth, all of the beers in the Tröegs mix pack were fine, despite coming closer to the expiration date than I might have chosen. The beers in this pack included a seasonal (the Hop Knife deep amber harvest ale), two of their year-round beers (a double bock and another amber ale), plus a pale ale that no longer appears on their web site (unless they have changed the name and packaging since I bought mine). I was probably most impressed by the double bock, though that might also be linked to the weird seasonal patterns and my desire for what they refer to as “liquid bread.”

Two more installments in this crazy mix of seasons. Another sale purchase (at a different shop) was the Snow Hole double red ale from Stony Creek Brewery (outside New Haven, CT). They seem to be a pretty small operation, but based on this initial exposure they would be worth keeping track of. (I’m especially intrigued by the autumn seasonal listed on their web site as an apple cinnamon oatmeal amber ale, but I doubt the seasons are so scrambled that I will be able to find this for another several months.) IMG_0784And beer buddy Philip and I shared a big bottle of Gnomegang, a Belgian-style blonde ale from Ommegang Brewery with a mix of yeast and fruit in the flavor profile which impressed me enough that I bought a bottle to keep at home for some future special occasion.

With any luck, the weather will be settling into a more typical seasonal pattern—warm enough that I can put away the wool sweaters but cool enough to keep the teenagers out of trouble until school is out for the summer.  One mix pack of IPAs and another of lagers are currently in the cellar, and us usual I will be keeping my eyes out for other beers of interest.  Cheers!

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Gone Over to the Dark Side

Okay, I haven’t actually seen the latest installment in the Star Wars universe, so I’m merely assuming that the Dark Side of the Force is still an operative concept, but that’s not really what this post is about, anyway. What I’ve actually been pondering is the significance of the logarithmic function to the world of consumer goods, using some recently purchased dark beers as my example.

As a teacher of physical science, I have more than a passing acquaintance with mathematical functions and their relevance to the natural world, and part of my job is to point out to students the ways in which the various functions that they learn about in their Algebra II and Pre-Calculus classes can be used as the solution to specific types of problems. A decaying exponential function, for example, can be used to represent a system that is governed by a well-defined probability, but is only one of a number of functions that has a horizontal asymptote–you can’t just throw out the word “exponential” when the actual mathematical relationship is an inverse proportion, since the numerical predictions will not be in exact agreement.

A logarithmic function, like the one shown in the graph at right, logrithmhas the property that the output value (on the vertical axis) is a continuously increasing function of the input value (on the horizontal axis). The specific property of the log function is that the output goes up by the same amount (say by one unit of whatever is being measured) when the input is increased by multiplying by a constant factor. (It happens to be a factor of two on this particular graph that I lifted from images.tutorcircle.com.) As a result, the increase in output value gets smaller and smaller for the same additive increase in the input value. Put another way, the amount you need to add to the input gets larger and larger for the same increase in output.

Where I’m going with this is to put the quality of some consumer good (admittedly a subjective measurement) on the vertical axis as a function of cost on the horizontal axis. In very broad terms, it seems to me that this relationship holds up pretty well for a wide range of products: spend x dollars and you get a certain level of quality; spend 2x dollars and you get a clear increase; however, to get the same kind of increase again, you need to go to 4x dollars, and so on from there.

What this also means is that for most of us there is some point of diminishing returns, either because of our spending priorities or because we don’t pay close enough attention to really be aware of the difference. If I try to really push this analysis, the log function indicates both an absolute minimum cost and an absolute minimum quality at the point where the graph crosses the horizontal axis. The graph goes up pretty rapidly for that first factor of two, but after that the gains quickly moderate, so it’s almost always worthwhile, if you can afford it, to spend something around two to three times the absolute minimum cost in order to get the best “bang for your buck.”  (I can’t believe that I’m the first person to think about this relationship, but a quick Google search didn’t turn up anything obvious using the keywords cost, quality, and logarithmic, so I may have to speak to an economist to explore the idea further.)

My case in point here is a series of three imperial stouts. In this post from a couple years ago, I noted that a mass market American lager can retail as low as $0.75 for a 12 oz. serving, whereas the price point for a craft brew at your neighborhood liquor store typically starts at around $1.25 – $1.50 per serving. All of the beers I’m considering in this post are imperial stouts, which tends to push the price point even a little higher since their production involves extra ingredients and a higher alcohol content (typically somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% ABV).

IMG_0760The first and least expensive was an old favorite, the Black Chocolate Stout from Brooklyn Brewery. This is one of my favorite seasonal beers and it was on sale at around $8.00 for a four-pack at one of my usual stores, so I picked up a couple to get me through the winter. At $2.00 per serving this is a small extravagance, but definitely worth it to have around the house when I’m in the mood for something chewy and flavorful on a cold winter evening.

Moving up the cost ladder, we have Oskar Blues Ten Fidy, IMG_0761the name referring to the 10.50% ABV for what their website describes as a “titanic, immensely viscous stout.” This one came in at something around $12 for a four-pack of cans, so we’re now up to around $3.00 per serving, which is getting close to the point of diminishing returns. Definitely a very nice beer, but aside from the entertainment value of the label on the can, I’m not really sure that I can appreciate the difference enough to make it worth the expense for an everyday beer.

The final beer for this exercise is another Brooklyn product, a big bottle called Black Ops. IMG_0027In keeping with the name’s allusion to deep, dark secrets, any mentions of this beer on the Brooklyn web site are cryptic and humorously deny the existence of any such bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout, but this was a feature offering at one of my local stores so I swallowed hard and forked over something in excess of $20 for a 750 mL bottle to share over dinner with my beer buddy Philip during an evening that also included board games with the teenagers. If we’re being generous we could say that 750 mL counts as three servings, but even stretching it that far we have more than doubled the price per serving again, and although this was a really fascinating mix of flavors, I wouldn’t choose to spend this much on a regular basis. I may watch for it rolling around again, but I’m not going to stock up and would only save a bottle for another special occasion.

But that’s alright, since we seem to have gotten past the season for heavy, dark beers, and just like in the movies, the light eventually wins out over the forces of darkness. So with the equinox and warmer weather rapidly approaching, it’s time to start looking for some spring seasonal beers, though there are a still a couple of prior season interlopers waiting for attention in the cellar that might see daylight before the end of Spring Break. Cheers!

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Jack’s Abby

No clever post title or deep theme this time, just a review of a brewery with a particular slant on what they like to do.

Jack’s Abby is based in Framingham, MA, and at the heart of the operation are the three Hendler brothers: Jack (brewing), Eric (finances), and Sam (sales). (Note: I really want to spell their name “Abbey” based on the assumption that they are referring to a building that would provide somewhat secluded housing for a religious order. That would be consistent with the medieval theme that seems to come through in their label art. The first page of searches for “define Abby” either gives me the diminutive form of “Abigail” or else tries to re-direct me to “Abbey” which doesn’t help. Not sure why this bugs me so much, but I also subscribe to the principle that you can’t tell people how to spell or pronounce their own name, so I just have to get over it.) Jack and his brothers are strongly committed to producing lagers rather than ales, so although they are often pushing the boundaries of lager, they have made a commitment to the colder and more lengthy fermentation process that I described in an earlier post that discussed the distinction between lagers and ales.

I was inspired to give Jack’s Abby a try on the basis of a recommendation from loyal readers Elizabeth and Alan who had one of their beers during a visit from their South County home to the Boston area, and as usual when trying something unfamiliar I went for a mix pack with four of their beers.

IMG_0752The one that was recommended was the Smoke & Dagger black lager.  The web site describes this as somewhere between a schwarzbier and a smoked porter, so a little lighter than a stout but with lots of smoky and chocolatey flavor notes–a nice beer for a winter night, though it’s available year-round.  And even though it’s a lager, I felt like it ought to be served in a glass that provided more surface area to release the flavors, as pictured at left.

If Jack’s has a flagship beer (at least it comes up first on their web page), it might be their Hopounius Union, a lager that uses citrusy West coast IPA-style hops, so they describe it as an India Pale Lager. IMG_0753 The accompanying photo shows that this one has a little darker color than a typical lager, and I thought it had a nice flavor profile.

The other two beers in this mix pack were a lower alcohol session lager called Jabby Brau and their take on a Blue Moon style wheat beer with spices that they call Leisure Time.  The former was fine but nothing special, and the latter is still not my favorite style, but this was better than some, and the web site says they use lemongrass and chamomile in addition to the usual orange and coriander in this style, so something a little different at least.

Next up are a couple of interesting specialty dark beers and then I will be diving into the Tröegs mix pack to see what they have to offer.  Cheers!

 

 

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Expect the Unexpected

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.  IMG_0729After 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.

IMG_0745The 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.  IMG_0744What 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 IMG_0747beer 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!

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