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Friday, July 29, 2011

New Beer Friday - July 29 Edition

One hell of a six pack
Apparently GR is in for another steamy weekend. What better way to stay cool than with Night Stalker, a huge imperial stout from Goose Island (detailed below). Okay, so maybe a beer like this doesn't pair naturally with high heat and humidity. But wasn't it an imperial stout that inspired the invention of air conditioning in the first place, way back in 1987? That's what we heard. And, of course, at Siciliano's, we believe everything we hear.

New (and Returning) Beers

    • Flying Dog Raging Bitch Belgian-style IPA, $1.69/12oz - This is the infamous beer heretofore banned from the Michigan market, a decision only just now overturned. Why the ban at all? It's the name, of course: Flying Dog Raging Bitch. Everybody knows that dogs can't fly. To contend otherwise is just plain offensive. 
    • Short's Bludgeon Yer Eye India Black Ale, $1.99/12oz - "This India Black Ale is a shining example of stylistic guidelines. Intense fruity and floral aromas abound with a subtle malty fragrance reluctantly piercing through. A deep black color attunes the pallet for rich, dark, roasted malt flavors. The unexpected twist comes when high hop bitterness takes over and resonates profoundly" (source).
    • Goose Island Night Stalker, $9.99/22oz - You might not crave this beer when the it's 90+ degrees outside. That's okay, it keeps! Put it in your cellar now and enjoy it later, when the chilly nights of October roll around.  
    • Cuvee des Trolls, 10th Anniversary Cuvee Speciale, $12.89/750ml - "Brewed in limited qualities, Trolls' 10th Anniversary Special Edition accentuates the delicate qualities and fruity aroma of Cuvee des Trolls thanks to it its second fermentation in the bottle" (from the label).
    • Brewmater's Collabroation Broederlijke Liefde Saison, $17.69/750ml - "Brian O'Reilly of Sly Fox Brewing Company joins Dirk Naudts to create the fifth brew in the De Proef Brewmaster's Collaboration series. This year's collaboration celebrates the great brewing cultures of both Philadelphia and Gent" (from the label).
    • Hop Ruiter Belgian Golden Ale, $10.99/750ml - This beer has "a full, almost rustic, malt body--dry hopped with two noble varieties that add complexity, delicacy and a bit of funk" (from the label).
Cheetah's Choice

Manon Tempronillo, 2009 (Spain), $8.99/750ml - Cheetah claims that, because of its intensely smokey character, this wine is a backyard grill-master's dream. According to the label, the "three-month aging in oak barrels gives this wine a unique bouquet, a mix of berries, sweet spices, coconut and cinnamon. It's fresh and immediately appealing in the mouth, with a balanced expression and intense flavors." A great buy!

Quote of the Week

"There can't be good living where there is not good drinking."
~Benjamin Franklin

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The mystique of Fat Tire and Yeungling

An alternative to Yuengling
By Steve Siciliano

Even though we carry a lot of different beers here at Siciliano's there are times when we have to inform folks that the suds they’re searching for are not available locally. Sometimes the sought-after beers are discovered while traveling abroad. Other times the beer hunters are from foreign countries and they are pining for a favorite brew from their homeland. I wish we could have helped the young man who came into the store looking for Bahia from El Salvador, the young lady who had her heart set some on some Castle Lager from South Africa, the Chinese exchange student who was homesick for his Harbin, the Aussie who was dying for a Toohey and the ex-serviceman who had fallen in love with an obscure regional brewery while stationed in Germany.

Then there are the futile requests for the highly regarded products from domestic breweries such as Russian River, New Glarus, Surley and Three Floyds that will probably never be distributed in the Michigan market. These are small, regional breweries that have a hard time supplying their local markets and have no plans (that we know of) to further expand their distribution. But with the nationwide interest in craft beer growing, with more beer-devoted magazines being published, with hand-crafted beer constantly being written and talked about in the mainstream media, and with the hype for these beers being generated and kept alive on internet sites such as Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, it’s no mystery that highly informed beer aficionados would seek out these highly rated beers in a highly regarded beer store.

It is a mystery, however, as to why we get so many people looking for two beers that are not distributed in our state, that are not from exotic or foreign lands and that, relatively speaking, are not that highly regarded in the craft beer community—Fat Tire and Yuengling. While these are both solid products from established and successful breweries, they are, in my humble and subjective opinion, no better and perhaps even worse than the beers in the same style that can easily be found on the shelves of any Michigan beer store.

The first time I had Yuengling was on a brutally hot June afternoon in Columbia, South Carolina. Barb and I and the Perch were doing some downtown bar hopping when I spied a decrepit looking oyster bar that was advertising Yuengling with a neon sign in the front window. Inside it was cool, dark and dingy—my type of bar—and I washed down two dozen oysters on the half shell with a number of the icy-cold, green-bottled lagers. It was an altogether pleasant experience. But when back in our Yuengling-barren state, had I found myself craving an American amber lager, I would have been more than content with a Brooklyn Lager, a Leinenkugel Classic Amber or even a Killian’s Irish Red.

It must have been ten years ago when I first heard about the glories of Fat Tire spoken in hushed, almost reverential tones from folks who had recently returned from a skiing trip to Colorado. When I was finally able to procure a couple of bottles, I concluded that it was a solid beer but was left wondering why I would choose it over a Bells Amber.

Why is it, then, that these two beers are so fanatically sought after? I believe there a number of factors involved here. The most obvious, of course, is that there is always a mystique associated with a product you can’t get. If you are old enough you might recall the time when some people would do almost anything to get their hands on a case of Coors. But that’s only part of the equation. There are many other beers that you can’t find in Michigan that don’t have the almost mythical appeal of Yuengling and Fat Tire. Perhaps it's the fact that both these beers are ubiquitous in vacation destinations in their respective markets—the ski slopes of Colorado for Fat Tire, the resorts of Florida for Yuengling—and when you’re sitting in a hot tub after a day of skiing enjoying a Fat Tire or at a beach bar swilling Yuengling, even an average beer tastes wonderful and the hype grows because it becomes identified with the experience. And then, of course, there are those cool sounding names and the interesting labels.

Whatever the reasons might be, the discussion as it pertains to Yuengling and Fat Tire will probably cease to have any relevance for beer consumers in Michigan in the-not-too distant future. The word on the streets is that both these beers will soon make their way into the Michigan market and when that happens I have little doubt that they will lose their legendary status. I'm sure that there are one or two regional beers out there that are poised to flow into the mythical vacuum.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Save money - build your own immersion wort chiller

Attention Homebrewers!

In the video below, Siciliano's staffer Greg 'Swig' Johnson demonstrates how easy it can be to bend copper for a homemade 50-ft immersion wort chiller. Why build your own? Short of stealing your brother-in-law's*, it's probably the most economical way to secure a chiller of this length.

Tips on building your own

    • For good directions, have a look at this link
    • Copper tubing is available at most hardware stores
    • Look for soft, bendable 3/8" copper tubing, 50' in length, like this
    • Hose, clamps, and fittings are available at Siciliano's
    • Including copper and additional parts, the total cost to you should be $65 to $75 (much depends on how cheap you find the copper)
    • Pricing may vary due to changes in the copper market
If you don't care to go through the trouble of building your own, we sell prefabricated 20-ft Brewers Best immersion wort chillers at Siciliano's. Ask to see one the next time you stop in!

*Editor's note: Siciliano's Market does not advocate stealing, not even from your in-laws.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Tracking our cultural roots: What's behind our turn towards home production?

By Wes Eaton

A version of this post is scheduled to appear in the August 2011 edition of Recoil Magazine.

Today’s rise in beer-attuned culture is part of a much wider movement pertaining to home production of food and beverages. My interest here is in beginning to trace this movement’s roots. Doing so might get us closer to understanding not only why it is people choose to expend precious time and undertake the technical and artistic challenge of producing common commodities at home rather than simply buying them, but also, we might find that the attempt to capture good beer, wine and food in our own kitchens and cellars is part of a larger yearning to fill a veiled yet nagging void some of us attribute to modern lifestyles.

While craft activities such as brewing beer and wine, making cheese and bread, and fermenting pickles and cabbage at home have similar culinary and process attributes - they each rely on natural bacteria (yeast) and we imbibe them - the more important element that binds them together is the fact that, when making stuff at home, you are the one doing the work. The independence inherent in these activities can be seen in other ‘back-to-the-land‘ practices - heating with wood, raising chickens for eggs, a cow for milk, gardening. Inherent then is a sense of self-reliance in these and other home but also community and regional practices (take localized renewable energy proposals for instance). Home brewers tell us “I brew the beer I drink” while bread makers and chicken owners express similar feelings of pride and accomplishment. We proudly pour out a pint, hand off a dozen eggs or pass on a hot loaf to our friends and loved ones, giddy in our anticipation of their enjoyment. I propose then that the attractiveness to undertaking these culinary and other feats, despite the required investment of time, money and energy, is perhaps spurred by feelings of control, independence and satisfaction that accompany home production.

This proposal begs at least three questions: Control of what? Independence from whom? What exactly was so unsatisfying? These are some real meaty questions, and I’m definitely not the first to pose them in regards to food. The new angle here, however, comes from linking them together with the home production of commonly available goods, such as craft beer. To do so, let’s take a look at craft beer more historically. Doing so will help tie together today’s home production movement with larger societal changes such as technology, agriculture and rural life.

As some of you keener beer geeks may already be thinking, people (re)turned to homebrewing because the alternatives were so poor. Prohibition, technological development and aggressive capitalism after WWII resulted in a monopoly of homogenous beer where before there was diversity. Innovative Americans, such as Charlie Papazian, had a taste for the beers of Europe - Blonds, Ambers, Bocks, Belgians, Hefeweizens - beers which veterans had grown accustomed to during their time overseas. Despite the complete lack of home brew shops, ingredients or even knowledge of brewing processes, the desire for good beer triumphed in the U.S.-born craft beer revolution.

Today’s story is different. In the last few years, craft beer, inspired by home brewers later turned entrepreneurs, has become a mainstay. In the massive U.S. beer market, craft beer (a relatively small segment still) is the only one posting consistent and continual growth. Once common only in urban centers, even the most remote of locations now appeases us beer geeks. My point then is to demonstrate that despite the availability of a legitimized commodity, the number of people getting into homebrewing continues to rise exponentially. In other words, beer is no longer brewed at home to fill a void in the market. Instead, a cultural void is being filled.

With this example in mind, let’s now go back and take a look at how this lines up with our three questions about control, independence and satisfaction.

Control of what?
While in the past, homebrewing was undertaken to re-instill flavor, variety and culinary integrity, today’s market supplies those needs. Control then is not sought over flavor alone, but over participation in the process of creation, regardless now of the need for a specific end.

Independence from whom?
Antagonism between ‘70s and ‘80s home brewing ‘back-to-the-landers’ and industrial lager moguls was once a political act. The same cannot be said about today’s breweries. In a sweeping generality, it can be said that U.S. craft beer is, at a minimum, diverse to the extent that ‘50’s beer was homogenous. Independence therefore is not from corporate overlords. Rather, today’s home producers are seeking independence from a more malicious encroachment: the non-stop reliance on the expertise of others, which is the hallmark of advanced, technical society.

What was so unsatisfying?
Contemporary home production infiltrates the cultural and social dissatisfaction arising from the slow transformation from an agricultural, production-based society to one defined by consumerism. Buying a finished product does not yield the same satisfaction as creating one’s own. So while it is necessary to purchase ingredients for recipes, tools and seeds for gardening, or materials for setting up your very own ‘off-the-grid‘ bug-out cabin, the experience of doing so is often very different from obtaining widely available commodity goods.

My point then is that home production may very well provide some of the social needs previously supplied but now lacking in everyday modern life.

Former Siciliano's staffer Weston Eaton is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Michigan State University. He lives with his wife and dogs in Grand Rapids, MI, where, a little more each day, homebrewers gain control.

Friday, July 22, 2011

New Beer Friday - July 22 Edition

In terms of new beer acquisitions, it's been a relatively slow week here at Siciliano's: only four beers on this week's list (and one interesting new package design). The big news is the arrival of 15+ varieties of whole leaf hops from Hopunion, a happening you can read about here. All is not lost for you non-brewing beer enthusiasts, however, as the beers that did come in are most definitely good ones. Check 'em out below!

New (and Returning) Beers

    • Stone Russian Imperial Stout, 2011 "Classic" Release, $7.59/22oz - "Brewed in the authentic historical style of an Imperial Russian Stout, this beer is massive. Intensely aromatic (notes of anise, black currants, coffee, roastiness and alcohol) and heavy on the palate, this brew goes where few can - and fewer dare even try. The style originated from Czarist Russia's demand for ever thicker English stouts. Expect our version of this mysterious brew to pour like Siberian crude and taste even heavier!" (source).
    • Stone Belgo Anise Russian Imperial Stout, 2011 "Odd Year" Release, $7.59/22oz - "This 2011 'Odd Year' release pours pitch black with a deep tan head, with aromatic notes of anise, coffee, and cocoa jumping from the glass. Coffee and dark-roasted malt flavors dominate, with a robust complement of anise and oak, which leave a lingering blend of vanilla, licorice, and dark malt on the palate. This one will age nicely for several years" (source).
    • Avery Eighteen, $8.19/22oz - A dry-hopped rye saison brewed to celebrate Avery's 18 years in business. Avery also celebrated its 18th birthday with a pack a cigarettes, a Playboy, and by registering for the draft.
    • Short's Beach Wheat, $1.69/12oz - "A light, clean, easy-drinking hefeweizen" (source). Nothin' better on a hot summer day!
    • Red Hook Long Hammer IPA, $1.49/12oz - By no means a new edition to Siciliano's beer inventory, but the redesigned packaging is sort of interesting. Hey, we told you, it terms of new beer, it's been a slow week around here.
Cheetah's Choice - Wine of the Week

El Castro de Valtuille Joven, 2006 Castro Ventosa Mencia, $10.99/750ml - "This purple-colored 2006 El Castro de Valtuille is 100% Mencia sourced from vines with an average age of 60 years. It offers up a classy bouquet of cherry, raspberry, mineral, and incense. Layered and dense of the palate, it has complex flavors, excellent concentration, plenty of spice, and a lengthy finish. Drink it from 2011 to 2021." ~Wine Advocate #183, June 2009

Quote of Week

"Once, during prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water."

~WC Fields

One pound bags of whole leaf hops - now available!

By Greg 'Swig' Johnson

One of our suppliers recently established a partnership with Hopunion in order to provide a larger hop variety for homebrewers. What this means is that Siciliano's now has access to a wider selection of leaf hops in the Hopunion nitrogen-flushed, sealed bags. We also expect that when this year's harvest comes in, we will have an even greater selection of hops in both leaf and pellet form. Right now the available 1-lb bags of leaf hops are as follows:

    • Ahtanum™YCR1, $14.89/lb.
    • Amarillo®VGXP01, $21.49/lb.

Cascade, $12.19/lb.

Centennial, $15.69/lb

Chinook, $15.69/lb

Cluster, $12.69/lb

Columbus, $12.69/lb

Crystal, $14.89/lb

Saaz (Czech), $17.99/lb

Fuggle, $16.69/lb

German Hallertau, $15.39/lb

Northern Brewer, $13.99 /lb

    • Sorachi Ace, $21.49/lb
Summit™, $13.99/lb

Tettnang, $17.49/lb

UK Kent Golding, $19.19/lb

Willamette, $11.89/lb
Bottom line, buying hops in bulk will help frequent brewers save money. For example, one pound of Cascade hops is $12.19, which equates to about $0.76 per ounce. Compare that to $1.69 per ounce when bought individually. We also have a couple long sought-after hop varieties which are now available after an extended absence such as Crystal & Summit, plus a few returning favorites including Amarillo, Ahtanum, and Northern Brewer. So come check out our ever-expanding inventory of homebrewing ingredients and supplies!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Siciliano's Beat-the-Heat Summer Swelter 6pk

By Staff

In response to the blistering heat wave settling this week on Michigan, your friends at Siciliano's have put together a relief package, something we're calling the Beat-the-Heat Summer Swelter Six Pack (original, we know).

These six beverages, not all beer, are Siciliano's-certified to cool you down and pick you up despite a heat index expected to climb into triple digits.

Pic of our Picks

    • Brewery Vivant Farmhand Farmhouse-style Ale, $2.69/16oz - At Siciliano's, we consider Farmhand the Gatorade of Michigan craft beer, and by that we mean, it's all we drink after running 10k.
    • Sierra Nevada Kellerweis, $1.59/12oz - This hazy-golden hefeweizen is deeply flavorful, refreshing and perfect for a sunny day (source).
    • Victory Prima Pils, $1.99/12oz - When it's too hot for Devil Dancer, "heaps of hops" make this the hop head's beer of choice. Then again, the true hop head will contend it's never too hot for Devil Dancer.
    • Paulaner Hefeweizen, $1.99/12oz - A classic German hefeweizen, too-often overlooked in the search for perfect summer beers.
    • Boxed Water, $1.49/32oz - Stay hydrated with water in a carton; good for your kidneys, good for the environment.
    • Faygo Red Pop, $1.19/12oz - If you can't drink Michigan beer (or beer in general), drink the next best thing, original Michigan red pop.
Of course, by limiting our picks, we have most certainly overlooked any number of well-deserving thirst quenchers. So let us know, what's your pick to beat the heat? Add it to the comment section below, then do your best to...

Stay cool, Grand Rapids!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The first, most important rule of homebrewing

By Steve Siciliano

This is a post for guys whose “significant others” don’t share their passion for beer. More specifically, it is for the aforementioned males who also homebrew and who might have been guilty of trashing the kitchen, who might have been scolded for leaving Designing Great Beer on the bathroom floor, who have argued the necessity of putting a raging fermenter in a clothes closet and who are quite capable of responding to the question “Honey, what shall we do this Saturday?”, with some version of the following: “Uh, five of the guys are coming over and we’re having an all-day brew session.”

If you fall into the above category and have been guilty of any of those transgressions or are quite capable of committing them in the future, I put to you this question: What is the first and most important rule in homebrewing?

Sanitation, you say?


Pitching the proper amount of healthy yeast?


Maintaining proper fermentation temperatures?

Wrong again.

Here it is gentlemen—the first rule for guys like you is keeping that non beer-loving, significant other happy.

Let's get right to the point. If the woman in your life is not, for whatever reason, happy about your hobby, there's a good chance that you won't be happy either. In fact, there's a distinct possibility that your homebrewing days are numbered and that your fermenters, carboys, bottles, hydrometers, stir plates, cappers and corny kegs will someday end up on the front lawn with hand-written price stickers on them. But don't despair—there's something you can do to make your beloved hobby more palatable to your beloved, especially if your wives and girlfriends love wine just as much as you love beer.

What I'm suggesting, of course, is that you keep your better halfs supplied with batches of delicious wine made from the ingredient kits available at our store. Much of the same equipment used to brew beer can also be used to make wine. You might have to add another primary fermenter, a six gallon carboy and a corker to your inventory, but, I think you'll agree, it's a relatively small price to pay if it helps maintain a blissful relationship and the continuation of a blissful hobby.

Come to think of it, I have no doubt that it would also work wonders with mother-in-laws.

Siciliano's offers an extensive selection of Wine Expert ingredient kits, ranging in price from $60 to $150. All kits make about 30 bottles of wine (6 gallons).

Friday, July 15, 2011

New Beer Friday - July 15 Edition

Shoulders are overrated
Imagine. Four or five thousand years from now some digital archeologist will stumble across The Buzz while sifting through a heap of ancient data which includes things like this, this, and this. Scary to think what all these "artifacts" might reveal about us to future peoples. Well, at least our taste in beer is good.

New (and Returning) Beer

    • Short's Strawberry Short's Cake, $2.19/12oz - Short's calls this "one of their most popular concept beers" (source). We call it like we see it, delicious!  Limit one 6 pack per customer, please.
    • Left Hand Good Juju, $2.09/12oz - From the Left Hand website: "Fresh ginger kisses the lithe malty body, copulating with the hop in this pale ale ancestor." Don't know about you, but this description makes us feel dirty (and not in the good way either).
    • Lagunitas Lucky No. 13, $4.79/22oz - Legend has it that if you drink this beer on the 13th floor of any hotel, you will find your lost lucky rabbit's foot. As for your missing car keys, that's anybody's guess.
    • Lagunitas Little Sumpin Wild, $1.99/12oz - "Wild" means it's harvested directly from the forests near Petaluma, California, not raised on a farm like the other Lagunitas offerings.
    • Coney Island Summer Sampler, $21.49/12pk, includes three of each:
      • Coney Island Lager - a dry-hopped amber lager
      • Sword Swallower - an IPA-style lager
      • Albino Lager - a white lager
      • Mermaid Pilsner - dolphin safe
    • St Martin Belgian Ales, $5.09/12oz, various offerings, all descriptions hail from their website:
      • Tripel - "Three varieties of malt and three of hops create the robust character of this triple-strength 9% pale beer."
      • Brune - "With its aroma of caramel and liquorice, this dark beer of 8% is drunk at room temperature." (Who isn't drunk at room temperature?)
      • Blonde - "Hazy gold with a creamy white head. A yeasty and slightly spicy and fruity blond beer of 7%."
    • Viru Premium Estonian Beer, $2.49/12oz - This beer is going straight-up viru, ya'll. We think because the bottle is so cool (see above).
(Introducing) Cheetah's Choice

Lest one get the idea that Siciliano's cares only about beer, here's Cheetah's pick for wine of the week: Borealis, The Northern Whites (Willamette Valley 2010), $11.99/bottle. A blend of Muller-Thurgau, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer. "In this bottle you'll discover the vivid flavors of Montinore Estate's best cool-climate grape varietals. Borealis opens with a shimmering array of aroma and flavor followed by a crisp and almost-dry finish" (from the label). Cheetah says: "It's the perfect answer to the hot weather about to hit us!"

Cheetah, choosing

Quote of the Week

They speak of my drinking, but never think of my thirst.
~Scottish Proverb

Thursday, July 14, 2011

To err is human, to folly is divine

Kati's folly
By Steve Siciliano

If you shop at our store, you know you can approach any one of our employees and get sound advice on how to make beer, wine, cider, mead, bread and cheese, on what wine would go best with a certain dish, information on the relative strengths and subtleties of our coffees and bulk teas, help with choosing a book, a selection of cigars, a pouch of cigarette or pipe tobacco, an expensive briar pipe or a utilitarian corn cob, a bottle of liquor, a Frisbee golf disc, and last but certainly not least, a mixed six-pack, twelve-pack or case of hand-crafted beer. What you might not know is that these same employees also order much of the extensive and eclectic inventory that is stuffed on our shelves.

There once was a time when I did the bulk of the ordering. But as the store grew and as we continued to add more products, it became necessary that I relinquish some ordering responsibility and I soon found the staff more than willing to help spend my money. I still do orders for liquor, cigars, the tobacco and tobacco-related products, and a portion of the beer- and wine-making, but it is now Kati who orders much of the beer, Sarah who orders the books, coffee and tea, cheese-making supplies, specialty foods and wine. Greg orders the remainder of the beer- and wine-making, the Perch orders bread-making supplies, and Doug orders Frisbee golf discs and Chemex coffe makers. We are currently exploring the possibility of adding mushroom growing kits and John has been given the responsibility of doing the groundwork for this.

Swig's folly - 28mm caps
Because of the sheer number of products we offer, it is inevitable that ordering mistakes will be made. Sometimes these mistakes are due to operator error—transcribing a number wrong for instance. Other times they are the result of poor or clouded judgement. Still other times they result from falling prey to a sweet-talking sales person. In all cases they may be relatively minor and innocuous or they might end up being a major waste of money. If they turn out to be the latter we call them “Follies”.

Everyone has had a folly or two and we at the store delight in needling the appropriate person about their respective follies. The inordinate amount of Sherwood Forest taking up valuable space on the beer shelves is “Kati's Folly”. The twelve bags of 100 count 28mm caps in back stock is “Greg's Folly”. The fact that we have enough granola to last us until 2015 is “Doug's Folly” and—perhaps the greatest folly of all—the cheeseboard & processed-cheese sets, made famous at this year's homebrew party, were “Sarah's Folly”. ("Whatever you do, don't eat the cheese!")

Sarah's folly? Only time will tell.
We recently began carrying bags of gummi candy and this definitely is not a folly. The candy is, as we like to say in retail, flying off the shelves. Carrying the candy was Sarah's idea and perhaps it was because she was flushed with the success of this venture that she decided to order bags of imported German cookies from the same vendor. When I saw her unpacking and pricing the cookies I gave her a hard look.

“They'll sell,” she asssured me.

“Right,” I said as I examined the product. “Looks to me like another folly.”

“No way,” she insisted. "The whole bag is only $1.89."

“We'll see,” I said as I opened a bag and popped one of the small cookies into my mouth. It was so good that I ate another, and then another. “I'm predicting a folly,” I said as I wiped crumbs off my chin. I guess time will tell.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I've also had my share of follies but lack of space and time prohibits me from going into detail. If you like, you can ask the staff. I'm sure that they'll be more than happy to talk about them.

[Note: This editor lacks neither time nor space. Steve's follies include, but are not limited to, the five hundred Humi Pouches he ordered recently. Unlike the gummi candy, these are decidedly not "flying off the shelves".]

Steve's folly (one of several)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Cob oven, part II - the first bake (prototype)

Fruits of the mud oven
By Chris Siciliano

Regular Buzz readers might remember this post in which I document the building of a wood-fired mud oven on family property north of Baldwin, Michigan. That was back in June. More than a month later I'm pleased to report that the small test oven, nicknamed Mini Oven ("MO" for short), is still standing and, more importantly, that it actually works!

Two Saturdays ago I fired it up for the first time with intentions of using it for bread (previous firings were intended solely to drive remaining moisture from the thick mud walls). After allowing the oven to reach what seemed an appropriate temperature -- it took about an hour -- I raked out the fire and coals and in their place I slid a small square of focaccia (flat bread) dressed to the nines with hot peppers and oil. Much to my delight the oil on top soon began to spit and sizzle just as it would in a conventional oven -- a sure sign that MO was capturing and retaining heat with the efficiency needed for thorough cooking and baking.

I didn't think to record how long I left the focaccia in the oven to bake. Fifteen minutes? Twenty? At any rate, it was long enough for the dough to plump up nicely and then develop a crackly, golden-colored crust on the bottom; it was also longer than the short time it took the finished focaccia to disappear from the cutting board and into the mouths of hungry on-lookers, all of whom assured me my first attempt with MO was a success.

Decent flavor, the crust was lacking

When the focaccia was done I maneuvered two small loaves of simple white bread into the still-hot oven. Like the focaccia, these baked thoroughly and with satisfactory taste, though neither achieved the kind of crust I look for in a top-notch loaf of bread. Rather than a dark chestnut color the bread came out far too yellow for how long it baked, almost 50 minutes (this time I did pay attention to the clock). I attribute the poor color and crust to a premature loss of heat, probably resulting from several fixable inefficiencies, including:

    • A poorly fitting wood door which allows heat to escape too quickly - a better fit should help retain heat longer, leading to better crust development and color.
    • A lack of insulation - this being a test oven, not intended for repeated use, I decided against adding more, separate layers of mud/cob to the basic structure. A layer of insulation would ensure the oven stays hotter for longer.
    • An insufficient firing - knowing how long to fire the oven will only come with experience apparently; maybe I fired long enough, maybe the oven could have used another hour under flame. I won't know for sure until I try again (and again).
It could be too that substandard dough led to inadequate crust color. How can dough be substandard? Simple. Spike it like I did with entirely too much yeast in order to get it to rise as fast as possible. The fast rise meant the dough never fully developed, which in turn meant that, outside of burning it, a good, dark color became impossible (along with really excellent flavor)*. Normally I wouldn't think of doing such a thing, but since this was an experiment with a new mud oven, and not an experiment with bread, I figured the bread gods would forgive me the transgression just this once.

Substandard or not, the dough did not go to waste. The bread it became disappeared almost as fast as the focaccia did. Maybe cooking outside just makes everything taste better. These brats and veggies (pictured below) were certainly flavorful!

Does it get any better?
Stay tuned for future installments in our cob oven series. Next up, we build the foundation of "BO" (a.k.a. Big Oven).

* Typically I prefer a very slow, cool rise during which time all sorts of natural sugars develop in the dough. In a hot oven, these sugars caramelize and undergo certain chemical reactions, all of which contribute to the color of the crust.

Friday, July 8, 2011

New Beer Friday - July 8 Edition

To whomever invented picnic coolers, ice, beer, camp fires, and outlaw country music (Johnny Cash, etc) -- you sir or madam are a genius. To show our appreciation for all your hard work, past and present, The Buzz editorial staff dedicates the July 8, 2011 edition of New Beer Friday to you. Keep up the good work; it does not go unnoticed.

New (and Returning) Beers

  • Short's Imperial Spruce Pilsner, $1.99/12oz - According to the Short's website, the "enormous" spruce presence in this beer gives it "a refreshing quality reminiscent of gin." In related news, uber-popular 90s band The Gin Blossoms are now referring to themselves as The Shorts Imperial Spruce Pilsner Blossoms, an obvious improvement over their original name. 
  • Big Sky Moose Drool Brown & Scapegoat Pale, $1.69/12oz - Nothing extra-ordinary about these two fine beers, except the fact that they are now available in cans. Cans, ya'll. Cans.
  • Abita Satsuma Harvest Wit, $1.69/12oz - Wikipedia defines the satsuma as a "seedless and easy-peeling citrus mutant." Just the other day we were complaining about the absence in the market place of citrus-mutant-beer hybrids. Thanks to Abita, problem solved.
  • O'Fallon Brewing Co., $1.79/12oz, various and sundry offerings, including:
    • 5 Day IPA - the 5 in "5 Day IPA" refers to either (1) the number of days the beer is dry hopped; or (2) the number of days you stay drunk from drinking just one bottle. Since this beer is only 6.1% abv, we think the former is more likely.
    • Smoked Porter - Random facts: smoked German malt constitutes 63% of the total grain bill; in 2004, this beer won gold at the Great American Beer Festival; the king of hearts is the only king without a moustache; the plastic things on the end of shoelaces are called aglets (hey, random facts are random facts).
    • Hemp Hop Rye - Brewed with toasted hemp seeds, the only way to smoke this beer is to mix in equal parts O'Fallon Smoked Porter. Psychotropic effects as yet unknown.
    • Wheach - Some people like fruit beers and some people don't. To wheach his own, that's the Siciliano's motto.
Quote of the Week

"Sometimes when I reflect back on all the beer I drink I feel ashamed. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the brewery and all of their hopes and dreams. If I didn't drink this beer, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. Then I say to myself, 'It is better that I drink this beer and let their dreams come true than be selfish and worry about my liver.'" ~Jack Handy

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Today's post is triple hopped, turns blue when cold

Sometime yesterday the most infallible of all Buzz contributors, Sagnessagiel the Angel, appeared at the home of Steve "the boss man" Siciliano. This time the angel brought a large stone tablet into which he had carved his latest contribution, a meditation on two subjects: (1) the volatile nature of certain famous/dead writers; and (2) the stupidity of macro beer marketing. Not knowing how to email a stone tablet, Steve transcribed the message on his laptop and then sent it off to The Buzz editors, who received it without questioning its origin at all. To read Sagnessagiel's first contribution, please click here.

Dear Buzz readers:

There’s a pretty complex angelic hierarchy up here in heaven. I won’t bore you with the details (if you want the complete skinny, Google “angels”—I guarantee you’ll get so much information it’ll make your head explode). I will tell you that we angels are divided into three Triads with each Triad separated into three Choirs. I’m in the third Triad (the lowest) in the third Choir (also the lowest) and to be quite honest, (of course I’m being honest, I’m a fricking angel for God’s sake) I’m perfectly happy with my lowly status. Some of my fellow third Triad, third Choir compadres (I’ve always liked the word “compadre”) would sell their souls to get to the top. Me, I have no desire to be a Seraph (the highest level of angel). All Seraphs do is chant the Trisagion (“Holy, Holy, Holy”), they have four heads and six wings, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that if I came across one in a dark alley it would scare the living hell out of me.

I realize that I’m using a lot of parentheses but I just had a long talk with Virginia Woolf and she was the one who suggested that I incorporate them into my writing. I’m pretty new at this writing thing, and while I’ve been told I have a modicum of raw talent (by Shakespeare no less) I’m not hubristic enough (pride, after all, is frowned upon up here) to blow off advice, even when it comes from someone as goofy as Virginia. Ms. Woolf is a piece of work. Come to think of it, most of the writers up here are a little wacky. Turns out that Hemingway was eavesdropping on my conversation with Virginia and he just went totally berserk. He stopped just short of calling her a devil and probably would have if Faulkner didn’t rush up and tell him to shut the F up. (Bill didn’t really say “F”, but if I wrote out the expletive it would never get past the censors.) Well, as you can imagine, old Papa didn’t like that much and he and Faulkner began shoving each other and before you knew it there was an all out brawl—Dos Passos duking it out with James Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald on the floor wrestling with e. e. cummings, Virginia and Gertrude Stein pulling each other’s hair—and while all this was going on Shakespeare hopped up on a table and kept bellowing “oh what fools these mortals be” until a couple of other angels and I could finally restore order. It was quite a show.

After things calmed back down I went off by myself and mulled over what William kept shouting. (Is “mulled over” the right wording? Perhaps contemplated would be better? Or how about deliberated? Ruminated? Reflected? Considered? Pondered? God, so many choices.) You humans can be quite foolish. (That’s not meant to be a criticism…it’s just a statement of fact. I've got to call 'em the way I see 'em.) Now I'm not talking about wars, or mass murders or the destruction of your planet. In my humble opinion those types of things transcend foolishness and enter into the realm of idiocy. What I'm talking about here is your relatively innocent, garden-variety foolishness like watching reality TV shows, being obsessed with the lives of Lindsay Lohan and Britanny Spears and, in my opinion, one of the worst types of foolishness, putting up with those ridiculous beer advertisements.

You know what I'm talking about. Are you really going to drink a beer because some Madison Avenue schmuck tells you it's triple hopped? Are you going to buy a beer because the stripe on the can turns blue? Arrgh! Stuff like that drives me crazy.

That's enough ranting. As you may recall, I'm in charge of the section of heaven where professional baseball players are sent and later today the boys are throwing a surprise party for Sparky Anderson to celebrate the fact that the Tigers finally got around to retiring his number. After that I have a (private) meeting with Faulkner. He's going to coach me on the intricacies of constructing a fifteen-page sentence.

Peace & Love,


Saturday, July 2, 2011

The metaphysics of enjoying craft beer

By Weston Eaton

A version of this post is scheduled to appear in the July, 2011 issue of Recoil Magazine.

People who know me say that I suffer from a bit of tunnel vision. I get an ideal in my mind and then expect the world to match my desire. Beer, food, and the wilds of Michigan make up much of my world, so often I’m in luck. Covered in black flies a few weeks ago along the Sturgeon River, I was struck with both the ubiquitousness as well as the fault of this not-so-unique personality trait. The day was hot, the trails were wet (when there were trails), the river was high and, unlike the insects, the fish were not biting - for me at least. (My dad of course did quite well for himself, staying much nearer to the truck and doing more fishing than cedar swamp roaming.) Cutting my frustration however was the sudden insight that while my own personal mental expectation for the day was not being met, in reality, the day was absolutely glorious.

Here’s the story: Whenever I plan a trip north to camp, fish, enjoy beers and to cook meals exclusively in cast-iron Dutch Ovens over low coal beds, I spend weeks thinking about where it is I want to be. I seldom pick the same spot twice. Not that where I had been previously lacked luster; rather, I’m usually thinking there’s someplace even better that I might miss - summer is short, especially in Michigan! Admittedly I have the ‘grass is always greener’ syndrome. Such high expectations, of course, cannot always be met. So while in my mind I had on this particular trip pictured the perfect campsite, an early sunrise, enticing cool banks, deep holes, dark tea-colored water, long gravel runs, and Brook Trout, the reality of waking well after sun-up, getting lost in a bramble, sloshing through uncharted wetlands, fishing in clear water with a sandy bottom and making longer hikes than casts deflated my spirits. My point of course is that my mind was not focused on what I was doing, but instead on what I thought I should be doing, a major no-no for one learning to enjoy himself.

Cast iron: the ideal way to cook

Years ago I learned a similar lesson with beer. As enthusiasts know, beer is as much a mental state as it is physical. In fact, where you drink a beer, who you are with, and what you are doing are important components of your personal beer experience. Then, of course, there’s the beer. Yes, many ‘factual’ and ‘physical’ components are required too for great beer. The brewing, fermenting, packaging, distributing, retailing, home care, decanting and glass tipping are all important, as are the ingredients. This we know. But my point here is to call attention what some call the ‘conjoint-constitution‘ of what we take as ‘reality’. For beer, the social desires of beer appreciators - the ranks of acceptability for accuracy of style as well as appropriate hoppiness of IPAs or mellowness of English Milds for dilettantes, judges, and enthusiasts alike - are determined not only by the skill of the brewer but by the mindset of the consumer at the moment of imbibing. In turn, what the brewer tries hard to create in physical form is itself the product of nonmaterial aspirations, while the tenuous fantasies of the most hooked beer geeks are embedded and fulfilled only in solid form - or in this case liquid. Essentially then we are creating not only what it is we want to be drinking but what we in fact are drinking, irrespective of whether or not we actually brew beer.

To put this idea into practice, realize that the standard you hold for a beer before you drink it has at least two effects on your qualitative, subjective experience. One: Beers that do not match with your preconceived expectations will be judged in comparison first and foremost to what it is you expected. This happens all the time with lots of things. Ever hear somebody say “this isn’t what I expected?” Two: Beers that are supposed to be good can mistakenly be taken as just that, when in ‘reality’ - think conjoint constitution here - the beer is poor (the lines need to be cleaned, the bottle sat in the sun, the beer is contaminated, and so on).

I therefore propose embracing an alternative approach to beer - and to life. Throw down your ideals, or at least learn how to put them on hold. Ask yourself, when did I settle on this perspective in the first place? When I sulked over my empty creel and apparently fruitless day along the muddy river banks, I was upset not at what I experienced, but at what I thought I should have been experiencing. Same with beer. Recently I ordered an unfamiliar IPA while out of state. As I quaffed I caught myself revving up for the taste of Two Hearted. After all, that’s really what I wanted - my ideal in physical form. What I got was nowhere close. Where Bell’s IPA smells sweet, round, citrusy, and two dimensional, this beer was malt, sharp, herbal and less homogenous. Better, however, than ‘what I wanted’ was what I got, something exceeding my own sensory system’s conjoint-constitution, something beyond my immediate recognition. By letting go of my own pretext, I was able to do something essentially new and embrace it with a blank mind. Doing so allowed me, eventually, to see that particular pint, my spring fishing trip, and possibly other things as well as if for the first time.

Former Siciliano's staffer Weston Eaton is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Michigan State University. He lives with his wife and dog in Grand Rapids, MI, where, at least in theory, the fish are always biting.

Friday, July 1, 2011

New Beer Friday - July 1 Edition

This week marks the return of several exciting beers, some of which have long been absent from Siciliano's shelves. As for new, never-before-seen labels, we have two good ones to introduce -- a Flemish Red, which has everyone excited, and a Belgian Trippel, with (completely fabricated) ties to classic American cinema. For details, see below!

Beer, brand-spanking-new ones

Belgo beauties
  • Ichtegems Grand Cru Flemish Red, $5.19/12oz - A blend of two beers, one old, one young. The old is aged for two years in Bordeaux wine barrels; the young is designed specifically to compliment the character of the old. Sounds to us a little like a witty sit-com, a la Mr. Belvedere or Punky Brewster. Click here to read more about this "nutty, malty" brew with its "subtle dark cherry tang" and "beautiful" balance.
  • Gouden Carolus Tripel, $4.69/12oz - Draft Magazine scores this beer a solid 96. That correlates to exactly one point for every ounce of steak John Candy eats in the movie, The Great Outdoors. What do this beer and John Candy have in common? Unless you believe that the actor's great-great grandfather invented Belgian (John) candi sugar, then absolutely nothing.
Returning Beer

  • Hitachino Nest Weizen, $4.79/12oz - "From Japan's most prestigious brewery, [this beer] is a German-style hefeweizen with flavors of banana, clove, and vanilla. A touch of toasty wheat malt, hops, and orange are also evident. Brewed with Chinook & Tettnang hops" (source).
  • Founders Devil Dancer Triple IPA, $5.09/12oz - For when a double IPA just won't cut it. While supplies last. Limit four bottles/person.
  • Shipyard Brew Co. Old Thumper ESB, $1.79/12oz - Though this is an American brew, both the recipe and yeast strain hail from the Ringwood Brewery in merry old England. Ringwood apparently produces the exact same beer, only theirs has an English accent.
  • Alba Scots Pine Ale, $2.99/12oz - Brewed with spruce and pine sprigs.
  • Harviestoun Old Engine Oil, $3.79/12oz - According to the brewery website, this is "a delicious post-prandial beer with a bittersweet aftertaste". Post-prandial. Now there's a word you don't often see employed in beer descriptions. We had to look it up. It means after eating a meal. Thanks Wikipedia!
  • Thirsty Dog Twisted Kilt, $1.99/12oz - "Caramelized sugars lend a unique flavor and aroma to this lightly hopped, malty smooth, Scottish Export Ale" (source).
  • Belzebuth Belgian Blonde Ale, $4.69/12oz - At 13% ABV, what could go wrong?
  • Duchesse De Bourgogne Flemish Red/Sour, $5.89/12oz - Being (1) an excellent beer, and (2) in such short supply, a certain unnamed Siciliano's staffer (Chug Dorda) pleaded with me not to include mention of the Duchesse on this week's list of new beer. Sorry Chug, duty calls.
  • Sterkens Dubbel Ale, $2.69/12oz - With 126 reviews, this beer currently boasts a solid "B" average on Beer Advocate. Not bad for a sub-$3 Belgian double.
  • Achel Bruin Ale, $6.49/12oz - Brewed by Trappist monks, enjoyed by everyone.
  • St. Bernardus Prior 8, $4.39/12oz - Richard Pryor's favorite Belgian (unverified).
  • Pierre Celis Signature Selection Grotten Brown Ale, $10.79/750ml - According to the label, this beer is "delicious when fresh, but when aged in a cool, dark place it develops a full, complex character like no other Belgian ale."
  • Tripel Karmeliet, $11.39/750ml - "Blond, robust, smooth, and fruity, with a delicate spicy flavor."
  • Val-Dieu Belgian Abbey/Brown Ale, $9.09/750ml -  Described as "garnet" in color, with "lively aromas and flavors of bitter chocolate, coffee, nougat, passion fruit and raisins".
  • Einbecker, $2.69/12oz - Styles available include pils, ur-bock dunkel, mai-ur-bock, and schwarzbier.
Quote of the Week

If you drink, don't drive.  Don't even putt. 
~Dean Martin

Have a safe holiday weekend, everyone!