Sunday, January 24, 2016

Beer reviews. Six of 'em.

The current Beer Camp offering from Sierra Nevada is Tropical IPA. It pours a bright, clear, light orange color with a ton of carbonation and a mountain of foam that lasts forever. The aroma has all the tropical notes that the name implies; every kind of citrus, pineapple, etc. The sweetness on the nose is understated in the flavor, in favor of a sharp, dry, hoppy bitterness. The malt on the back end is where the sweetness comes back, but not in a strong way. This is pretty good. Not the outstanding surprise of last year's Hoppy Lager, but still a good beer.

Apocalypse Ale Works Wrath of the Lamb is an imperial stout. This beer pours very dark brown to black with a tan head that leaves a stubborn lace. The aroma is sweet, rich coffee, vanilla, and a little tingle, too. The flavor is absolutely delicious. Sweet, but not so sweet that I get tired of it. As it warms there is something like caramel malt and bread on the back end. Mouth-feel is thick and chewey. Sometimes, very strong, high-ABV imperial stouts can grow medicinal toward the end. This beer isn't bashful (10.2% ABV), but it was delicious until the last drop. I enjoyed it a lot and hope to try some of the variants I've heard about.

Ballast Point has become one of my reliable, favorite breweries. Their Tongue Buckler is an American strong ale, and it's good stuff. This beer is amber brown, like pekoe iced tea. The sudsy head hangs around for a while. The aroma is very mild, but there are notes of brown sugar on the nose. The flavor is much stronger than the aroma gives away. There’s molasses and rich, woody, whiskey-like malt. Strong hops on the back of the tongue, but the finish is really clean. This is an aggressive, tasty beer.

DuClaw's For Pete's Sake! Imperial Porter is kind of an industrial strength version of that brewery's popular Sweet Baby Jesus! porter (a chocolate-peanut-butter flavored beer). I wasn’t wild about SBJ the first time I tried it, but it’s grown on me some over the last couple of years, and I think I like this beer a little more. It’s dark brown with a light head, and it has the same peanut butter Cap’n Crunch smell as SBJ. The flavor isn’t that distinct from SBJ ... in fact, I didn’t notice much difference at all when I first tried this beer. On the second sample I did pick up on more alcohol and a slightly more oaky character than is really present in the regular porter. This is pretty good.

Anastasia's Chocolate Fantasy is an imperial stout by Charlottesville's South Street Brewery. It's a strong, sweet, rich stout that is never so strong, nor so sweet, that I quite get tired of it. I had a glass at the brewery restaurant and I liked it enough to bring home a 32 oz. growler full of the stuff... but, admittedly, that growler never made it past the hotel room that night. This beer pours black with a tan head, and the aroma is sweet chocolate and a little coffee. The flavor is chocolate and more chocolate, but it’s crisp and bright rather than syrupy or cloying. A little tingle at the end keeps each sip enjoyable.

Because of the name, I was worried that 21st Amendment's Toaster Pastry (a red IPA) would be too sweet for my liking. It isn't. This beer pours a dark but very clean burnt-amber color with an average head. The aroma is citrus, bready malts, lemon, sugar. The flavor is rich, sweet, and spicy. Strong, bitter finish. I liked this.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Today I ran my first official half marathon, the seventh annual Sandman Extreme Half Marathon in Wytheville, Virginia (pronounced With-ville). Promoters promised a thousand feet of elevation gain in the first five miles of this half marathon, as it climbs Sand Mountain. Over the course of the race there's about 1,700 feet of gain (according to the final numbers on MapMyFitness). So this is a half marathon, and a hike, and a little bit of a winter-tolerance test all rolled into one.

The field for the Sandman Extreme is limited, only 100 runners are allowed to sign up each year, and I don't think the race has yet hit that cap in any of the seven runnings. I'm not surprised by that. The conditions of the race are daunting. Not only that, but Wytheville is a tiny country town without a reputation as a "destination location." I spent a couple of days in Wytheville during the weekend of the race, and I liked the town. I had a tasty dinner at a nice little hotel restaurant, and felt at home strolling around and shopping. I'd have no reservations about going back. Still, I understand that very tough races in remote locations aren't attractive to everyone. Not everyone wants a combination of tranquility and physical pain, in a pastoral setting, mixed thoroughly and applied liberally.

I went to Wytheville the day before the race and drove the course of the Sandman Extreme. It was beautiful. It was also imposing. The road up Sand Mountain isn't insanely steep, but it is a steady, constant upward grade. And a long one. Those five miles to the top of the mountain are steady and consistent, but not ridiculous. At least, that's how it seemed in the car. I began to wonder as I drove if the comfort of car travel was lulling me into a false sense of security. I wondered if I would perceive this winding mountain road very differently on foot. Maybe, on foot, I'd think of this road as relentless rather than constant.

The race begins and ends inside the town limits of Wytheville, at the town's old recreation center on fourth street. On the morning of the race the temperature was in the mid-thirties, and the previous day's rain had stopped. I got to the rec center early to talk to local folks about the course. After all, nothing is ever quite what it seems to an out-of-towner. An older gentleman told me with a grin that the course is tough. Steep. Lots of climbing. But the long section after the mountain is flat, winding country road. Piece of cake. Just be prepared for the demanding last mile back up into town. That last mile is "somewhat difficult," he said. During my previous day's drive, the last bit coming back into town hadn't seemed noteworthy to me, but I thanked him for the information. 

I talked to a couple of other runners who, like me, had not run the Sandman before. One was a friendly, happy runner named Rob, a guy I'd guess was in his early 50's. He told me that he had only done a couple of half marathons, and he hoped those runs had at least somewhat prepared him for what was ahead today. He had friends who'd finished the Sandman in previous years, and they'd boasted of its rigors. Rob asked me if I had run the Sandman before.

"No," I said. "In fact, this is my first half marathon."

"You picked this race for your first half?" he asked, with good natured incredulity.

"Yeah," I said, looking for words that wouldn't make me seem crazy or stupid, or both. "Uh, I run hills a lot. I live in a hilly town and run on the hills. And, I, um... I like a challenge."

"Oh, you're gonna get a 'challenge,'" Rob said. And we both laughed, and I held back the urge to curse a little bit. Instead of cursing, I just told Rob that I wanted to complete the race in less than two hours. We laughed again, but this time his laugh seemed more genuine than mine.

The next thing I knew, the horn sounded and the race started, and we were on our way. About 50 able-bodied racers jogged into a slight fog, toward Sand Mountain, which stood indifferent in the distance.

That's something about mountains that has always struck me, whether I'm running or hiking, or simply driving past them. I'm always impressed by their indifference. We are moved by them, of course. By their beauty, by their size. We feel like we've done something when we climb a mountain, we congratulate ourselves and we make a lot of noise and take pictures. But ... and I hate to break this to my hippy friends ... this is not an act of communion with the mountain. The mountain just stands there, unmoved. It tells us nothing. A group of humans, traveling on foot, isn't even capable of annoying a mountain. You can't even say that a mountain ignores us. To ignore something, you have to choose not to acknowledge it. The mountain's indifference is absolute. It stands, silent, oblivious, just as it did hundreds of years before we were born. Just as it will hundreds of years from now. Mountains aren't interested in our fleeting victories. They are unsympathetic to our petty pains and our losses. Mountains traffic in the eternal. They simply have bigger fish to fry. (This, by the way, is not the most encouraging thought to have at the foot of a mountain you intend to try to climb.)

Early on in the Sandman Extreme, I found myself running solidly in the middle of the pack, and trying to remember to hold something back for the tough stuff coming up. And, an hour and fifty seven minutes after the start, I crossed the finish line exhausted and elated. I'd crossed Sand Mountain, I'd done it in just under two hours, and for a moment I had transcended the eternal. If Sand Mountain was indifferent to what I felt at the end of this race, that was Sand Mountain's loss.

In short, yes, the Sandman is a hard race. But it's also a great one, and I would say unequivocally that it is the most fun I have had in this first year as a runner. The first five miles to the top of Sand mountain are tough, indeed. During each of the last three of those miles I allowed myself to slow to a "power hike" pace for what felt like 100 yards at a time. That strategy worked; I found that I had plenty of energy left for the trip back down the mountain. Running downhill can be as exhausting as running uphill. It requires a certain amount of effort to not build up too much steam and end up going end over end. But the winding road that had been a tough jog up seemed to be just the perfect grade for an easy run down. My middle miles were my fastest of the race, and the cruise through the flat country roads back toward Wytheville was blissful.

I do have to say that calling the last mile of the Sandman Extreme "somewhat difficult" is the understatement of the year. The last mile of that race is the hardest mile I have run in my life. After climbing the mountain it is easy to forget that there is still some uphill to come at the end of the race. I know I wasn't the only runner who dropped the hammer during the race's long middle section. I couldn't have been the only runner in agony as we worked our way back into town, up what seemed like the steepest and meanest mile of the day. I have very rarely felt the kind of relief that I felt as I crossed the finish line of the Sandman Extreme. And most of that sense of relief was because of that brutal, final mile.

Again, my thoughts toward the end of the Sandman Extreme veered toward the eternal. The transcendent lyrics of the bluegrass classic, "Angel Band", came into my head. "My latest sun is sinking fast, my race is nearly run. My strongest trials now are past, my triumph has begun." If our most honest prayers are offered in fear, surely they are rivaled by the prayers we offer in gratitude.

I finished the race and ran straight to my car before I even checked my official time. In the glove-box there was a shiny new car magnet that reads 13.1.  I'd been waiting to apply that magnet to my car's trunk since I got it a month ago. Now, absent of the pride with which I'd first purchased the magnet, I stuck it on the car as a simple expression of gratitude. Gratitude for the moment, for the race, and for the mountain. 

The magnet, of course, is a transitory and meaningless token of the experience itself. And the experience itself is less than a micro-blip in the history of Sand Mountain (a mountain that was ancient before some European decided to call it Sand Mountain in the first place). But there is something to be said for the transitory. Our victories aren't diminished by the provisional nature of our lives. It's their brilliant, short spark that gives these moments their beauty. It was a bone-deep joy that I felt when I crossed that finish line, aware that I can now do more than I'd have thought a year ago, and wondering what I might be able to do a year from now, and realizing that I know as little about myself as I do about Sand Mountain.

(But wait, there's more! I ran the Sandman Extreme again one year later, and this time I kept my summary mercifully brief. In comparison to this one. You can read that summary of the following year's race at this link.)

Here's another mixed six-pack of beer reviews.

Great Lakes Eliot Ness Amber Lager pours bright bronze in color with a fair amount of head. The aroma is bread and butter and slight spice. The flavor is rich and slightly sweet before a hoppy tingle hits in the finish. I very often think, reflexively, that I don't like lager beer. Great Lakes has shown me with yet another delicious lager that I have no idea what I like.

I thought that the most interesting thing about Saranac S’more porter was that it’s dirt cheap and comes in a 32 ounce growler. I figured it would probably be worth the five dollar asking price at my local beer store just for the little growler. S’more Porter pours dark brown with average head, and the aroma actually smells like s’mores. Graham crackers, vanilla, and chocolate all show up strong on the nose. The flavor is the same, but not overly strong. Not strong enough to get old after a pint, anyway. I wouldn’t buy a beer this sweet normally, but this one is absolutely worth the incredibly low price. It’s tasty and has a great utilitarian value ... that little growler will be put to work for sure.

The peppermint variant of Ballast Point's outstanding Victory At Sea porter is not quite as good as the original Victory At Sea. The peppermint is too strong, kind of synthetic, and it distracts from a beer that’s pretty complete without anything extra. The color of this beer is deep brown, like original Victory at Sea. There is a huge amount of foam, and the aroma has the coffee and chocolate and spice of the original. The peppermint over the aroma is a distraction. It’s strong over the flavor, too. The strong coffee and sweet malt are dominated by the vaguely toothpaste-like peppermint. It isn’t enough to ruin the beer, it’s still actually very good. But the peppermint detracts rather than adds.

Sierra Nevada's Otra Vez gose style beer pours a light, pale, clear yellow. There isn’t a lot of foam. The aroma is tart; citrus and grass. The flavor is very tart on the front, but the malt comes through clean and rich on the finish. Overall, very light and just delicious. I enjoyed this quite a bit.

Starr Hill's Snow Blind is a doppelbock, which is not my favorite beer style. This beer doesn’t change that. Snow Blind pours a cherry-brown color with little head. The aroma is sweet, candied fruit, cinnamon. The flavor isn’t bad. It has a quality that reminds me of Dr. Pepper, which isn’t unusual for doppelbock, but with that slight sulpher aftertaste I also associate with the style.

Troeg's Hop Knife IPA pours a clear, pale orange with average head. Smells wonderful, like clementines. The sweet, citrus aroma is just great. The flavor isn’t quite as good. The sweetness is cut with a grassy hop character that’s good, but not as good as the smell. I can’t remember the last time a beer smelled this sweet and then wasn’t quite sweet enough on the tongue to suit me. That never happens. Still, it is good.

Friday, January 1, 2016

My first mixed-six beer review set of the new year.

One of the many reasons to love Stone Brewing is the collaborative beers they do with smaller, little-known breweries who might not otherwise receive attention beyond their local areas. NxS is an imperial IPA That Stone has brewed with some outfit called Sierra Nevada (OK, so sometimes Stone works with brewers who aren't desperate for a helping hand.) NxS pours a very bright, clear, pale orange color. There’s a ton of foam on top, and it hangs around for ages. The aroma is sweet, citrus hops and a hint of rye. The flavor is dry, bright, and rich. It reminds me very much of Stone's Enjoy By, which is certainly not a bad thing. I would happy make this a regular purchase if it became a regular release.

Grainiac is a specialty grain beer from Stone's Stochasticity Project. This beer is amber/copper color with a lot of foam. The aroma is very mild. There’s some caramel and rye and a little bit of floral hops. The rye come through loud and clear in the flavor. The wheat is there, too, and the hops are huge in the finish. This tastes, to my palate, like an American strong ale brewed with rye. I don’t taste the buckwheat and millet, but probably wouldn’t know what to look for even if I did.

Ballast Point bills The Commodore as an American Stout. As you might guess, given the taste preference of the average American craft beer fan, this is a hoppy stout. It has a strong coffee quality and a bitter finish. This is a nice alternative to some of the sweeter stouts. The Commodore pours brown to black with average head. The aroma is coffee and roasted malt, and the flavor brings mildly bitter punch in on the finish. Pretty darn good.

South Street's Hop Gothic is a strong, dry IPA with a slightly acerbic finish. It pours a cloudy orange with average head. The nose is lemons and grass, a little garlic. The flavor is bright and bitter on the back end, but without the candied citrus or butter or complexity that I enjoy in the best double IPAs.

Higher Math is one of Dogfish Head's big, attention getting, high-end brews. These gargantuan beers from this brewery are always worth sampling, even if only to reference what the brewery is doing on the extreme side. Higher Math pours deep brown with a thin, creamy head. The aroma is boozy, like cherry brandy, with only a little bit of chocolate and candy sweetness. The flavor is a sledgehammer. The cherries come through strong, and dominate the flavor. There is a little caramel malt and the finish is overstated to say the least. There is no hiding the 17% ABV. Nonetheless, it’s more drinkable than World Wide Stout, and smoother than 120 Minute "IPA."

Third Coast Old Ale, by Bell's Brewing, is a solid, aggressive barley wine. It pours deep copper color with a thin head but a lot of lace. The aroma is candied fruit and nuts and dark liquor; raisins, figs, something like bourbon. The taste packs a lot of kick on the back end. Rich flavor, dense mouth feel.