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Friday, September 30, 2011

New Beer Friday - September 30 Edition

Jacob at Vivant
This week, Vivant's head brewer Jacob Derylo wrote his first blog post and had it published over on the brewery's website. While it's not at all surprising to hear that professional brewers embody the same passion as their homebrewing counterparts, it is rare to hear one of the pros describe it so eloquently, as is the case in the excerpt below. (To read the complete post click here.)

"There is no greater satisfaction than nurturing a beer from grain to pint glass. This is probably why craft brewers are a tight knit community. We all get that same feeling when we see someone out drinking our beer, that all the headaches and heartaches, the stuck fermentations and stuck mashes, it's all worth it. We are in the business of giving you, the craft beer drinker, something a little more. We take this trust in us very seriously. Every beer we make is a reflection of who we are and what we believe. The belief that the local, little guy can carve out their niche in an industry mainly dominated by just a handful of large breweries and make a difference. There's a reason I do what I do. I love making beer, it's almost as much fun as drinking it." Well said, Jacob. Keep the good writing coming!

New (and Returning) Beers

  • Short's Bloody Beer, $2.19/12oz - "A lighter bodied beer with an appealing ruby red glow and aromas of spicy tomato juice. Fermented with Roma tomatoes and spiced with dill, horseradish, peppercorns, and celery seed lead to an astounding initial tomato flavor, followed by a lingering finish that allows each additional ingredient a chance to resonate on the palate" (source).
  • Great Lakes Nosferatu, $3.29/12oz - "Highly hopped imperial red ale rich with flavor, yet remarkably balanced. 8% ABV." (source).
  • Bardic Wells Clurichaun Bru Clu, $10.39/22oz - A coffee-flavored, hopped & carbonated mead. How awesome does that sound? To learn more about the Clurichaun series, see the August 12 edition of NBF.
  • Lagunitas Doppel Weizen, $4.79/22oz - Take a "virtual taste" of this Bavarian-inspired double wheat beer with a video from Lagunitas. 
  • Breckenridge Autumn Ale, $1.79/12oz - "Breckenridge Brewery's fall seasonal combines the malty goodness of a German lager with the clean crispness of an American ale. Brewed with Munich malts and a delicate blend of Bavarian hops, Autumn Ale is a full-bodied treat with a nutty-sweet middle, a warming alcohol level and notes of toasted grains. A pre-winter winner" (source).
  • Big Sky Slow Elk Oatmeal Stout, $1.69/12oz - The folks at Big Sky want you to "enjoy the creamy texture, great malt complexity and the unequaled smoothness of this Northern Rockies Oatmeal Stout" (source).
  • Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, $2.19/12oz - Brooklyn uses "three mashes to brew each batch of this beer, achieving a luscious deep dark chocolate flavor through a blend of specially roasted malts. [They] brew it every year for the winter season. It is delicious when newly bottled, but also ages beautifully for years" (source).
  • Arcadia Hop Rocket, $3.89/12oz - "At 111 IBUs, this huge ale rockets off the charts with a massive nose of sticky resinous hops and flavors of grapefruit, lemon peel, spruce, earthy mushrooms and dew-covered grass" (source).
  • St. Peter's Grapefruit, $4.79/16.9oz - An award-winning (source) grapefruit-flavored beer from the chaps who use those great old-timey oval bottles.

Fictional Acronym of the Week

Grand Rapids Association of Pinot Enthusiasts
Meetings start every day at five...and sometimes earlier.

Picture of the Week

Versluis Orchards Farm Stand
Lake Michigan Drive - Just west of Siciliano's

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Gone to grape

Several varieties of wine grapes are still available for purchase from Taylor Ridge Vineyards. Trust us, it's worth the trip.

By Steve Siciliano

Yesterday afternoon Barb and I made a quick trip to Taylor Ridge Vineyards in Allegan to pick up a load of grapes. I always enjoy our annual September visits down to the heart of southwest Michigan’s wine country. The leaves on the trees lining the two-lane roads are on the cusp of their fall foliage and the expanses of brown-turning corn fields surrounding the faded red barns and old farm houses are still pretty to look at. Yesterday’s sky added another dimension to the experience. It was an interesting sky—low banks of purple clouds moving fast under their high-billowing cumulus counterparts. There were occasional bursts of sunlight and brief glimpses of the blue sky. Every so often a brief downpour necessitated turning the windshield wipers on high. A minute and mile later the pavement would be dry.

One of those rain showers hit while we were loading up the grapes. Brian Taylor, the seventy-three-year-old farmer who owns the vineyard with his wife, Carol, looked up at the sky and grimaced. Rain is never good during the harvest—it can water down the juice and lower acidity. But many years of harvesting have taught Brian that since the weather can’t be controlled, it's best to go with the flow.

Brian told me that he still has some Foch, Dechaunac, Frontenac, Seyval and Lacrosse available for purchase and that he will offer a discount to anyone who mentions that they are a Siciliano’s customer. I picked up ninety pounds each of hybrids that grow well in Michigan—Noiret and Leon Millot. The ninety pounds of each will translate into six gallons of wine, twelve gallons total. I have no experience with the latter but according to Brian it will produce a wine with a distinct berry aroma.

On the way home I thought briefly about stopping at a couple of bars in Allegan’s quaint and historic downtown. But there was pressing business waiting for me at the store and Barb had to get to her stained glass class. Maybe we’ll come back during one of Allegan’s infamous lake-effect snow storms. I’m sure wine country is also beautiful in the winter.

*Unfortunately Taylor Ridge is sold out of Chardonnay for the year. The grapes pictured belong to Buzz contributor Wes Eaton, a talented winemaker in his own right, who had the boss pick them up on his recent trip to Allegan.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Crushing grapes on the back forty - Week 1

Whether a seasoned pro or complete novice, when it comes to winemaking (or anything else for that matter), all are welcome at Siciliano's.

By Steve Siciliano

There was a lot of activity in the store’s back parking lot this past Saturday. At nine o’clock sharp folks began rolling in with cars and pickups packed full of grapes to take advantage of the free use of our winemaking equipment. The seasoned winemakers who had used the equipment in the past needed no guidance in operating the crusher/de-stemmer and basket presses. While they crushed and pressed their grapes I chatted with them about the quality of this year’s harvest and about how the wines that our equipment had helped produce in prior years were developing today. Many others, however, were winemaking novices who had never experienced the pleasure of watching a hydrometer bob in a test tube of freshly squeezed grape juice.

I love working with new wine makers. They all seem to have a tinge of doubt that they will actually be able to make wine out of the green and purple bunches they hauled to the store in five-gallon buckets, bushels and laundry baskets. But after we show them how to crush and de-stem the grapes, how to use the presses, and how to take hydrometer and acid readings, they leave confident knowing that they too can be winemakers, and good ones at that.

Just a reminder, folks, our winemaking equipment will be available free of charge between the hours of 9am and 4pm on the first four Saturdays in October. In addition to the crusher/de-stemmer and basket presses, the equipment also includes an apple/pear crusher in case anyone wants to make cider or perry. And, as always, members of our staff will be happy to assist you in any way we can.

Just imagine the good times that lie within

Monday, September 26, 2011

Brewing with oak barrels at Vivant: Revisiting funky tensions in craft brewing

Why old, bacteria-laden wood barrels still enjoy positions of privilege in modern, state-of-the-art brewing operations.

A little age on it
By Weston Eaton

In anticipation of Brewery Vivant’s upcoming Wood-Aged Beer Celebration (October 22, 1-9pm), I spent an afternoon visiting brewers Jacob Derylo and Brian Kuszynski and their beloved Jack Daniels oak barrels. While sampling and discussing the features of Vivant wood-aged and especially oak-aged beers, it soon became apparent that along with the brewers, the barrels too were living entities capable of deciding the fate of future batches of beer. Like people, and unlike stainless steel fermenters, oak barrels breath and are alive. Literally, they are full of bacteria. Living organisms such as Brettanomyces and a multitude of others impart unique qualities when beer is aged inside. Further animating the barrels, the brewers, particularly Kuszynski, names each in alphabetical order after both real and imagined women. (Their first barrel, Angelina, is still in use today.) Also like other sentient beings, barrels show resistance. They refuse to be quantified and controlled as their processes happen on their own terms. Barrels, then, have their own agency, despite attempts by the brewers to wield control.

Brewing with wood is labor intensive. Holding 55 gallons of beer, oak barrels are bulky, difficult to get beer into and out of, and must be stored with beer in them at all times lest they dry out. Taking a walk around Vivant’s brand new production facility, I am startled by the contrast between shiny, mechanical, industrial equipment and sweaty, earthy, old-world oak barrels. While the large fermenters, tanks, and brewhouse all fit nicely, the barrels are stacked tightly in the few spaces that remain, evidence of their ongoing struggle for priority and legitimacy in the production facility. Essential to quality control in a brewery is cleanliness, which calls for seemingly endless bouts of sanitation procedures. Working with wood therefore requires its own approach. To allow porous, living barrels into the brewery makes this task increasingly challenging, demonstrating the strain between craft and more intensive production methods.

As Derylo explains, if using wood to produce a beer, one must work on the barrel’s schedule and be prepared to concede a little human authority: “We taste [the beer] every week; that way we can control it a little bit more. When its ready to go its ready to go. We listen to the beer, the beer tells us when its just trust your barrels, see what happens with them.”

Derylo, explaining
This raised a couple questions in my mind. Why allow such unpredictability, such uncertainty into the brewery? Why would a brewer intentionally yield technical and scientific advancement to unpredictable natural processes? How does a barrel gain a brewers trust? The answer, I believe, is tied to the dialectical tension between control and creativity found within the essential nature of the craft brewing endeavor.

In one sense, we might say that brewing a craft beer on any marketable scale is a bit paradoxical. The word "craft" implies uniqueness, individuality, distinctiveness, and also one-of-a-kind-like rarity, exclusivity, and even luxury, as in things produced under a guild program where from start to finish, each product is produced by a single artisan. A crucial element here too is time. Under a guild regime, individual artisans decide when they need to work, as opposed to prescribed and disciplined work schedules. The word craft therefore implies a lack of standardization, for both beers and brewers, as standardization is a process of duplication, not creation.

In reality, the closest thing to pre-capitalist beer production practices is home brewing, where the only constraints on beer production are skill, knowledge, access to resources, and creativity. The result of course is an infinite range of products, none of which make it to the formal market. While home brewing provides inspiration, in the professional market brewery success necessarily parallels increases in rational efficiency. Yet while the efficiency of a truly craft production model is unrealistic today, it is the ideals associated with craft production that drive hype, craze, and beer-geekyness in consumers, but also brewer innovation and ingenuity in recipe development and marketing. For instance, while there are other measures of success in the world of craft brewing (consistency and sales being strong contenders), those who succeed in producing beers that are (or appear to be) rare, exclusive, single-batch, and unstandardized often receive high recognition from beer fans and provide the highest notoriety for brewers and breweries.

Jake & Brian, with barrels
While this might help illustrate the undergirding drive for craft authenticity that sends ingenious brewers back through the annuls of fermentation history to find an overlooked muse, or into related fields, such as culinary arts, for untapped inspiration, Derylo explains his attraction to oak barrels as derived from personal taste as well as from the nature of Vivant itself. Why does he choose to brew with oak? “Because we love wood-aged beer. It fits into what we’re trying to do down here. We’re a strictly Belgian brewery, so sours, Geuzes [an un-fruited lambic blend] fit right into that category. We’re trying to be small enough so we can do stuff like this.”

Vivant’s wood-aged beers can be divided into two categories, one featuring the dry, vanilla-like character of oak, and the other featuring the astringent funk of Brettanomyces. When added directly to a used whiskey barrel, the beer absorbs the booze from the wood as well as the wood's character, providing a complex depth that’s constantly changing over time but also on your palate. While I was treated to many samples straight from the barrel, my favorite from this category was already on tap, a barrel-aged Triumph, a truly global Belgian/English/American IPA hybrid.

Used once to impart its oaky essence, the brewers then reuse the barrel for another batch, this time inoculating the barrel with an extra dose of Brettanomyces. Cassandra Rose (from their third barrel), a dark brown Brune with rosehips, was my favorite beer from this second category--it resembled a classic funky Flanders sour ale. This beer, the aforementioned oak-aged IPA, and several oak-aged porters, Saisons, Abby Ales, spiced ales, ciders, fruit beers and special blends will all be on tap October 22nd. Come on over to Vivant and taste for yourself the fuzzy line between consistency and uniqueness, standardization and craft.

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, the great beer city of the great beer state.

Friday, September 23, 2011

New Beer Friday - September 23 Edition

It's here, ya'll, the first official day of Autumn. We suggest you celebrate by participating in one of the many area activities that make the season so incredible--ArtPrize, college football, color tours, trips to ye olde pumpkin patch, cider mill, farm market, or beer store. Beside these general, ongoing events, which you should take advantage of early and often (especially trips to the beer store), here's a link to Oktoberfest West Michigan, a great fall festival taking place this weekend down at John Ball Park.

Though Siciliano's has no direct affiliation with this or any other Oktoberfest, don't be surprised to see one, many, or even all members of our staff in attendance at this or any other Oktoberfest. It's never been our style to pass on a good party.

New (and Returning) Beers

  • Southern Tier Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale, $7.89/22oz - Serving suggestions for one of the season's most anticipated pumpkin ales: "Pour Pumking into a goblet and allow it’s alluring spirit to overflow. As spicy aromas present themselves, let its deep copper color entrance you as your journey into this mystical brew has just begun. As the first drops touch your tongue a magical spell will bewitch your taste buds making it difficult to escape" (source). And remember, before journeying into any mystical brew, be sure to tell someone where you're going. It's only common sense.
  • Victory Moonglow Weizenbock, $2.69/12oz - Siciliano's staffer & certified cicerone Kati Spayde reviewed last year's version of this beer. The review (available here) should give some insight into this year's version.
  • Rince Cochon, $8.99/750ml - From what we understand, the name of this 8.5% ABV Belgian Strong Pale Ale is "rinsed pig" (source). Best to not think too deeply on that one.
  • Maumee Bay Brewing IPA, $6.19/22oz - Toledo-based Maumee Bay Brewing calls this beer a "nicely balanced flavorful ale, made bitter with copious amounts of Centennial hops and a long fascinating history." As far as we can tell, Maumee never reveals what in the aforementioned "long fascinating history" contributes so much to bitterness. Our guess is that it has something to do with the great Michigan-Ohio War of 1835.
  • Vander Mill Totally Roasted Cider, $11.49/750ml - Our friends at Vander Mill have this to say about their limited-release, pecan-flavored cider: "This cider was specially made for a draft customer in Grand Rapids, MI. We are using over 4lbs of homemade cinnamon roasted pecans in a 30-gallon batch of this limited edition cider to bring you 'Totally Roasted'. You will notice that soaking pecans in cider brings a unique texture and taste to the drink. We use cinnamon and vanilla during the roasting process and follow that up by adding whole cut vanilla beans to the cider. These subtle tastes certainly make this a cider all its own" (source).
Picture of the Week

In the picture above, Chef Andy from Charlie's Crab
and Steve from Siciliano's are (again) engaged in mortal combat.
As always, their preferred weapon of choice is the wooden cane.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Raw cider for sale, one day only at Siciliano's

Cider, Vintage 2010
Vander Mill, a local cider mill and winery, will be selling raw cider in Siciliano's back parking lot on Sunday, October 2nd, between 2 and 4pm. The cider is available on a pre-order basis for $3.50 per gallon. To reserve yours, contact us by phone or email before 12pm noon on Friday, September 30, and provide your name, phone, and the number of gallons you'd like to purchase. The cider will be pressed on Saturday night and filled from bulk containers the next day. Interested parties will need to bring or purchase their own containers for transport.

After filling your containers, be sure to stop in to Siciliano's for the other supplies you'll need to produce your own hard cider. Whether it be buckets, carboys, chemicals, or yeast we will be more than happy to help you find what you need and also provide instruction. Please bear in mind, however, that neither Siciliano's nor its credit card machines will be involved in monetary transactions between Vander Mill and interested cider makers. This is to say, be prepared to pay cash for your raw cider.

For more information on basic cider making, please click here. For directions on making "New England style cider", please click here. General questions regarding the cider-making process may be directed to any Siciliano's employee at any time. Just stop in and see us!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The complete joy of crossword puzzles

By Steve Siciliano

As a result of having to look for ways to occupy my down time during my recent convalescence after hip replacement surgery, I rediscovered a hobby/passion/obsession that I had gotten away from some seven or eight years ago. Back when the store was much less busy, I had ample time to work on the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle that appears daily in the Grand Rapids Press. For those who are unfamiliar with these particular crosswords, they get harder as the week progresses—Mondays and Tuesdays are fairly easy, Wednesdays can be a bit more challenging, Thursdays are hard but with persistence can usually be solved, Fridays are very difficult and Saturdays—well for me anyway—Saturdays are nearly impossible.

As with any activity, whether it is brewing, winemaking, bread-making or crossword-puzzle solving, the more you do it the better you get. Crossword aficionados become familiar with the subtleties—the devious misdirections, the play on words, the abbreviated clues which indicate that the answer is also abbreviated, etc. Then there are the oft repeated clue and answer combos, what the diehards call “crosswordese”, that show up on a fairly regular basis—Some Olympians’ tools (epees), Old Persian poet (Omar), and Yemen’s chief port (Aden) are typical examples. Once you acquire a backlog of crosswordese knowledge the puzzle solving gets easier. And then every so often a puzzle will have a clue that is a gimmee for a beer and wine merchant—Like Cabernets, e.g. (reds), Ale hue (brown).

I don’t know why I’m so fascinated with crosswords. Perhaps it’s because one of my avocations is writing and I love working with words. I also love trivia—what some, including my wife, would call useless knowledge—and it’s nice to be able to retrieve that “useless” information and apply it toward the solving of a puzzle. Kind of gives you a weird sense of satisfaction.

Of course the added benefit of working crosswords is that it keeps the mind sharp, probably helping mitigate the effects of years of exposure to brain cell destroying (though tasty) beverages. Anyway, lets hope that's the case.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Morgan Vineyard grapes for sale

The Buzz editorial staff received this email from a local grape grower today. We thought we'd pass along the information in case anyone was interested.


This is Heath from Morgan Vineyard. We spoke Saturday about mentioning our grape sales on your blog. If it is not too late, I will be harvesting Frontenac Gris grapes this Wednesday, September 21, which will be available that same day, and if customers would like juice it will be available Monday, September 26. These grapes are best used for dessert or ice wines. The cost of grapes is 70 cents per pound and the juice is $12.00 per gallon. We are located in Coopersville just off the highway, twenty minutes from Siciliano's. The address is 15907 40th Avenue. Contact Heath at 616-638-9353 or Anita 616-648-3025 for more information. Thank you.


Thanks again to all our great customers!

A thing of beauty
By Steve Siciliano

Another customer appreciation sale has come and gone and by the looks of our bare shelves and decimated warehouse the wonderful hobby of making home-produced beverages is showing no signs of fading in the West Michigan area.

While we were rockin' and rollin' all week, business just exploded on Saturday. There was a prolonged stretch during the afternoon when I was amazed at how many customers were shopping throughout our now-not-so-little store and I kept thinking how crowded it would have been if we hadn’t expanded. Out the back door of the 900-square-foot expansion Barb was busy cooking up the incomparable German wieners from Frank’s Market that many folks enjoyed with healthy doses of my father’s now-famous homemade sauerkraut. The cold draught root beer was, as usual, also a hit.

Fritz from Franks

Grandpa Sam's famous Sauerkraut

Now that all the busyness involving the sale week is over we will be turning our attention to upcoming activities. Starting next Saturday the 24th and for the next four Saturdays after that we will be in the back parking lot helping folks make wine and cider. Interested enthusiasts may use our crusher/destemmer free of charge during the hours of 9am and 4pm on those days. We will also be launching our on-line store sometime during the next two weeks.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to everyone who stopped by during the sale week. We are truly blessed to have such wonderful customers.

Fresh Cascades from MI Hop Alliance

Friday, September 16, 2011

New Beer Friday - September 16 Edition

The polls are closed, the votes are in, and we at Siciliano's are pleased to announce the grand prize winner of the first ever DIY Kegerator Contest. Congrats to Jackson Payer and his slick-looking vintage refrigerator-turned-beer-dispenser. Jackson's 1952 Philco collected nearly 300 votes, not only taking top prize but also eliciting pangs of envy from homebrewers everywhere. (To see more pictures of the winner and finalists, please follow this link.)

While Jackson took top honors by narrowly edging out first runner up David Butler, a special thanks should go to all contestants, and to the voters especially, without whom there would have been no contest. Have yourself a beer, everyone, you deserve it. And speaking of beer, here's what's new at Siciliano's.

New (and Returning) Beers

  • Stone 15th Anniversary Escondidian Imperial Black IPA, $7.59/22oz - "We believed that America was ready to embrace things made with artistry and passion" (source). Wait. Is Stone talking about their beer or Siciliano's kegerator contest? Either way, the statement rings true. (Limit one bottle/customer.)
  • Magic Hat Hex, $1.49/12oz - One of the more interesting grain bills you'll see in an Octoberfest; in addition to pale, vienna, and crystal malt, it includes cherry wood smoked malt and malted rye (source). Definitely worth checking out.
  • Ommegang Aphrodite, $14.99/750ml - A dry fruit beer brewed with raspberries, pear, grains of paradise, and a combination of Ommegang's house yeast and the infamous brettanomyces (source). We want the funk. Gotta have that funk!
  • St. Ambroise The Great Pumpkin Ale, $2.59/12oz - "Brewed just once a year, The Great St-Ambroise Pumpkin Ale returns this fall to captivate aficionados with a savvy blend of pale and caramel malt, hops and spices. If you enjoy original taste sensations, this seasonal specialty is certain to appeal" (source). The Great Pumpkin Ale? Is that Peanuts reference?
  • Short's Noble Chaos, $1.69/12oz - "A subtle hop bouquet and toasted caramel malt flavors create a well balanced beer that finishes fresh and clean. With a pleasant nose and medium body, this brew is a taste of the season" (source). Noble chaos trumps ignoble chaos every time. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
  • Great Lakes Octoberfest, $1.79/12oz - "An amber lager with rich malt flavor balanced by fragrant noble hops" (source). Noble hops trumps ignoble hops every time. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
  • Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ale, $5.69/22oz - "Like our Celebration Ale, the fresh hops in this beer are dried right after being picked then shipped immediately to Chico for brewing so that they retain their peak aromatics and flavors. To ensure the freshest hops possible, we went to the added expense of flying these hops from New Zealand to Chico so we could brew with them the week after they were picked" (source). Limit two bottles per customer.
  • Bell's Best Brown, $1.69/12oz - Anybody who attended WMU will have fond memories of this beer. To read more about it, click here.
  • Dark Horse Scotty Karate, $1.99/12oz - The man this beer is named after apparently wrote its description for the Dark Horse website: "Tastes like a smokey chocolate chip cookie, wild roadside cherry-asparagus, woody, crispy leaf on a fall day" (source).
  • New Holland Charkoota Rye Smoked Dopplebock, $8.19/22oz - "An homage to all things Pig, including Porkapalooza and the age-old tradition of Charcuterie, Charkoota Rye’s malty backbone is derived from a blend of rye and four other malts, including malted barley smoked over cherry wood" (source).
  • Guinness Black Lager, $1.89/12oz - Guinness "describes the new taste as light and crisp with a subtle hint of malt, and a slight hop finish" (source).
  • August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesotta - Four new beers from the second oldest family owned brewery in the country. Welcome back to Michigan, Schell! Varieties include...
    • Premium Grainbelt, $1.49/12oz - "With its crisp, unique flavor, Premium quickly became the flagship of the Grain Belt brand. And still is to this day" (source).
    • Grainbelt Nordeast, $1.49/12oz - "Light maltiness and hop aroma with a mild bitterness. Smooth taste with an excellent drinkability" (source).
    • Schell's Octoberfest, $1.49/12oz - "Brewed with the perfect balance of pale, munich, and cara pils malt with liberty and perle hops to create a rich, smooth taste" (source).
    • Schell's Firebrick, $1.49/12oz - "A refreshing all-malt lager with an amber-red hue that reflects the feeling of the brewery itself" (source).
Picture of the Week

Siciliano's staffer Kati Spayde poses with Ted Marti, President of Schell Brewing and fifth-generation descendant of August Schell, the brewery's founder, pictured here with the awesome facial hair apparently required of all brewers.  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Winter approaches, and with it opportunities

Riverside Park, January 2011
By Steve Siciliano

I have never been someone who slides into a funk because of the weather but as I get older the idea of wintering in a warm climate has become more appealing. When the weather turns colder, a small, heretofore unheard voice in my head begins suggesting that it would be nice not to have to endure the vicissitudes of another West Michigan winter—the seemingly endless stretches of sunless days, the bone-chilling cold, the times when I have to use a broom to brush off the lake effect snow that buried my Chevy Blazer while I was at work; the icy streets, the slush, the breath-sapping, eye-hurting, nostril-freezing north wind that accompanies the occasional artic cold front. Maybe it’s an instinctual thing. Perhaps that annual, resurfacing voice is Nature telling me that sun and warmth is physically better for a sixty-year-old body and psychologically better for an aging mind. Perhaps it’s the same voice that tells the monarch butterflies, the geese and the hummingbirds that it’s time to get out of Dodge. Perhaps animals are, in some ways, more advanced because they are smart enough to listen.

The other night I was sitting on the deck while the mid-September sun slowly slipped behind our backyard’s western stand of trees. There was a chill in the air—not the transitory chill brought on by a passing front but rather a more permanent, portending chill arising from the sun’s steady progression towards the southern horizon. The light from that southward marching sun filtered through the leaves on the drooping branches of the walnut tree; it reflected off the dying hostas and seemed to magnify the fading greenness of the tomato plants and basil. I thought of how in three months the sun would be a low, unseen speck behind a shroud of clouds, how the ground would be covered with a heavy blanket of snow, and how the branches of the walnut tree would be a tangle of black against a slate-grey sky.

But perhaps we benefit from being immersed in and exposed to the seasons. Perhaps it is change itself that makes us more attuned to the rhythms of life. The animals have no choice but to follow their instincts, but unlike an animal I can throw on warm clothes that will protect me from the elements. A cold wind against my face gives me a better appreciation of the sun’s warmth. Exposure to whites, blacks and greys heightens an admiration for blues and greens. Ultimately it may be better to embrace change rather than succumb to a nagging desire to escape from it.

Winter can present some wonderful opportunities if one learns how to accept it—the thrill of watching snowflakes the size of silver dollars drifting slowly down from the heavens, the stark beauty of a bare branch against a vacant sky, a comforting bottle or two of red wine with a meal on a blustery Sunday afternoon, a hearty stout on a cold night, a bone-warming Belgian…

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Aging gracefully with Michigan whiskey

By Tim Chilcote

A version this post first appeared Thursday, April 7th, 2011 on The Great Lakes Guru. Tim was good enough to lend it to us so that we might begin remedying the problem of our embarrassing lack of spirit coverage. Thanks Tim!

Cheers to growing up and growing old with Michigan whiskey. New Holland Brewing was one of the first Michigan microbreweries I came to love. Then just when I was ready to test the waters of Michigan’s burgeoning distilling industry, lo and behold, New Holland Artisan Spirits was right there with Zeppelin Bend, a straight-malt whiskey.

Zeppelin Bend, as New Holland explains, “begins with a brewer’s mash coaxing sugars from malted barley into a liquid wash. This wash is twice distilled and aged in new American oak with a heavy char...” for a “... classic American-oak finish.” The whiskey has no age statement, though my guess is that it’s quite young.

I purchased bottle number 112 of 360, from barrel number 7.8. At Siciliano's, the 375ml bottle costs right around $35—the fifth is $65 even—so I’m not likely to make Zeppelin Bend a staple of my liquor cabinet—yet. Zeppelin Bend is well worth it for the novelty or for a Michigan-themed tasting, or simply to nurture the young industry.

Here’s what this whiskey novice thought:

Color: Pale copper, with hints of red almost like a summer sunset.

Nose: Sweet vanilla, faint pine and juniper, and a little bit of oak. There’s also an intimidating alcohol smell.

Palate: Thankfully, the strong alcohol smell dims into a subtle flavor of vanilla, syrup, and oak. Sharp.

Finish: Licorice and mint, and a maple syrup flavor that is light, sweet, and surprisingly refreshing.

Overall: A nice starting point for Michigan whiskey. Zeppelin Bend is a bit “boozy” but not nearly as violent as your nostrils tell you. Good for a rainy fall afternoon spent on a covered porch.

With age, we all learn to relax.

Friday, September 9, 2011

New Beer Friday - September 9 Edition

Considering the large number of new beers arriving in-store in recent weeks, it's no surprise that we'd eventually see a week where relatively few new labels hit the shelves. Such is the case with this edition of New Beer Friday. No matter. There's plenty of other exciting things happening these days at Siciliano's. For instance...

  • Voting has begun in the first-ever Siciliano's DIY Kegerator Contest. We're already very pleased with voter turnout, but if you haven't locked in your vote, be sure to visit this page to read all about the finalists. Winners will be announced on next week's edition of New Beer Friday (September 16). You can only vote once, so choose your favorite kegerator wisely!
  • Speaking of next week (Sept 12-18), you know it's our big sale week, right? There's no better time to pull the trigger on that mash tun you've been eying.
  • Speaking of mash tuns, the next/first time yours is full, and you and your buds are standing around it, admiring the glory within, you should take a picture of the scene and and post it on Siciliano's Facebook page. Who knows, you might just see it re-featured on the next edition of New Beer Friday (no guarantees).
New (and Returning) Beers

  • Thirsty Dog Barktoberfest, $1.99/12oz - Thirsty Dog Brewing offers up this very pragmatic description of their autumn seasonal: "A traditional old world German Oktoberfest made with German grains, yeast and hops" (source). We always appreciate the "just the facts, ma'am" approach, but here's a couple of good reviews (here and here) to shed a little more light on the merits of this beer. A word of caution for you office folk: the second link is to a YouTube video; you might want to turn the sound down so your boss can't hear.
  • Ayinger Oktoberfest, $3.79/550ml - One of the most anticipated of all Oktoberfest beers, it boasts a B+ (very good) rating at Beer Advocate, and a score of 96 at Ratebeer. An excellent addition to any seasonally themed six pack.
  • Vander Mill Cider Masala, $11.49/750ml - "This cider was specially made for an English/Indian restaurant and bar in Grand Rapids, MI. Using a local spice merchant, we decided on a blend of Chai black tea spices and whole cut vanilla beans to create [this cider]." Our guess is that the bar in question is Graydon's Crossing. Can anybody confirm our theory?
  • Vander Mill Apple Raspberry Cider, $11.49/750ml - Michigan apples. Michigan raspberries. Michigan deliciousness.
Picture of the Week

Still Life with Russ
This week's featured pic comes from longtime customers/friends Russ and Karin Chudy, who spent their Labor Day Weekend camping in an old apple orchard near Empire, MI. Pictured next to Russ are the self-same hops so many of us have lately driven by while exploring the back-country near Sleeping Bear Dunes in Northern Michigan. Man. Just think of all the beer you could make.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Siciliano's Kegerator Contest - Vote Now!

Update: Voting is now closed. Okay, folks, here's how to vote. First, study the five kegerators below. Second, choose the one you feel is the most creative, best designed, and most technically impressive. Third, vote for your favorite by clicking the corresponding bubble in the Buzz poll located in the upper right-hand corner of this blog. Fourth, celebrate your vote by drinking a tasty homebrew. Fifth, continue the celebration. Remember, voting closes Friday, September 16, at 12pm sharp. Good luck to all finalists!

Kegerator #1
David Butler's Chest Freezer

Greetings, I am submitting my entry for your DIY Kegerator Contest. I got my inspiration from my friend and brew mentor Eric Mis. I started with a 20 cubic foot freezer and purchased a Johnson Digital Thermostat Control #A419. I took the cover off of the freezer, glued 2x4’s down on top of the freezer and put the cover back on. I caulked both inside and outside the 2x4’s to save energy. I received a lot of technical assistance from Siciliano’s as well as various parts and pieces and several kegs.

My mother-in-law also gave me several kegs and the CO2 cylinder. I purchased a twin body CO2 regulator and 2 four valve distributors, this way I can regulate two pressures and have a keg charged and ready to go if needed. I had the luxury of building a new house and the ability to set up my home bar. I have two towers, each with three taps mounted on the bar. The tubing runs from the Kegerator in the mechanical room to the taps, about 4’. I have a 19” recessed drain tray that is connected to a floor drain.

Currently on tap I have four of my home brews (watermelon ale, mocha-java porter, very berry ale, Belgian triple with vanilla bean), two kegs of hard cider (Blueberry and Cherry) from Vander Mill that I alternate depending on my wife’s taste. I subscribe to the happy wife happy life theory. I also have a keg of Berghoff’s root beer, family and friends love the old A & W style root beer floats (you have to keep lots of vanilla ice cream on hand). I have been a “kit” brewer but with the help of my mentor I am going to move up to whole grain.


Kegerator #2 
Jackson Payer's 1952 Philco Kegerator

Built on the same premises as the ale it was designed to contain, my kegerator is not about size, production, or mass consumption. It proudly stands for the principles for quality, passion, craft, beauty and hard work.

Touting two Perlick Perl faucets, CO2 manifold, and a custom stainless steel drip tray; my kegerator project did not always have such high aspirations. The spring of 2008 I had decided to start brewing all grain batches and kegging, no more bottling for me. But with a total budget of around $160.00, I was looking for a cheap fridge and minimal setup. I picked up a ‘vintage’ GE fridge on Craigslist for a mere $15.00. Shortly thereafter my buddy acquired a small Philco refrigerator, which I soon convinced him to part with. Having the same internal dimensions as the large GE, but much smaller external dimensions, it had potential for a great kegerator.

Since winter was fast approaching, the Philco sat till the spring of 2009 before the start of its restoration journey. In the meantime the GE fridge took on its current role of cellaring homebrew and countless ales from Siciliano’s.

When spring arrived, I dismantled the fridge and started sanding. The chrome was sent off to George Iverson, an automotive trim restoration specialist in Minnesota. Tired of the way typical drip trays looked with their crooked drains, exposed screws, and non-conforming shape, I set off to design my own. With a curve to match the shape of the fridge, an internal drain, hidden studs and bullnose corners, it’s one of a kind. It has an internal sprayer to rinse the tray clean on each use. The refrigerator was completely restored from the ground up with all original parts, and high R-Value insulation. I settled on a 1956 Chevy color scheme of Adobe White and Sierra Gold. The summer of 2010 my buddy Russ over at Kenowa Body Shop painted it up for me.

The only thing left was to top it off with homebrew, which I did for the first time this spring. I eventually intend to create some custom chrome tap handles, but in the meantime my homebrewed, all-grain IPA tastes just fine on tap.


Kegerator #3
Joe Burdick's Port-O-Party

I had just completed my converted freezer kegerator and I wanted an easier way to bring my libation creations to the masses (family, friends, neighbors, etc.). Bottling became a pain in the ass and it was difficult to ask my hosts to clear out half their family fridge for a keg and CO2 tank for the evening. Upon much online research, the “Port-O-Party” idea started to form. I wanted something portable, flexible (i.e. more than one tap), and relatively easy to build and set up. I looked at other “trash can” set-ups and also jockey boxes, but this general design I found while browsing the HomeBrewTalk forums.

I especially liked the idea of having a smaller portable CO2 dispensing system and not having to buy a new 5lb tank or keep switching mine out. That was going to be the deal breaker for me. So I set out online to purchase a portable CO2 “system” at a good price. I finally found a JacPac CO2 regulator kit for a pneumatic nail gun that used a 9oz canister on eBay. And as it turned out the seller was local here in GR.

Now came time to assemble the apparatus. Three 5gal corny kegs fit very snugly in the can so I knew that 3 taps would be the limit. I also wanted to make it family friendly, a selling point to my wife and kids, so one of the taps was going to be for soda. I drilled the holes for the taps and decided that a facing would help stabilize the shanks, so I found an old cabinet facing from our kitchen and used that. To insulate the can I wrapped 1/4inch foam insulation in plastic and cut to fit the inside area. The tubing and ball locks came next. I used a stainless cross to distribute the CO2 to all three kegs and used a piece of PVC pipe to hold the CO2 canister and balance the regulator.

After getting the canister filled at a paintball facility I was ready to roll. Now I needed something to display what was in each tap. I usually make up some kind of label just for kicks for each beer so I decided to use baseball card sleeves attached to the lid with Velcro tape. This way I can easily slip the label in for each new creation. The maiden voyage of the “Port-O-Party” was a tremendous success with a Friday evening neighborhood happy hour. I next decided that I needed a drip tray so I added that. It is attached to brackets by Velcro tape so it is easily removed for cleaning. I chose to decorate the can with all the different labels I have created in a “ring of fame” around the top. I am thrilled with how this turned out and plan to use it as often as I “can.”


Kegerator #4
Josh Chilcote & Ryan Hanna's Converted Chest Freezer

A winter project that my friend and brewing partner undertook to better show case our hard work. We rescued a small chest freezer from and friends garage and quickly began research on how to construct the kegerator. We removed the lid and a made a collar out of 2X8's and then we use a 1X12 to create an over hang around the perimeter of the 2X8 collar. We then put tape foam insulation on both the chest freezer and the collar. Thus began the search for a manifold, taps, shanks, tubing, and thermostat overrides. We also included a small computer fan and an indoor/outdoor thermometer to monitor and even out the temperature in the kegerator. The entire collar is removable to allow for adding and removing half barrel sanke kegs and for ease of cleaning. The 2x8 collar also allows for the soda kegs to stand comfortably on the ledge inside the freezer, because of this we were able to fit six soda kegs and one half barrel sanke keg totaling about 45 gallons and 7 different beers being available! There is currently 4 taps on the collar now with plans to add 2 more since there is a six spot manifold. There is also a quick disconnect for the CO2 line.


Kegerator #5
Jason Locascio's 1948 Leonard Refrigerator

Here are a few pics of my vintage kegerator. I made this myself using a 1948 Leonard refrigerator that was made right here in Grand Rapids! Hope you like it!


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Siciliano's DIY Kegerator Contest - The Finalists

Thanks to everyone who entered Siciliano's "Did It Yourself" Kegerator Contest. Let's just say, there were a lot of great entries; narrowing it down to just five was no easy task! But here they are, in no particular order, the finalists:

    • David Butler
    • Jackson Payer
    • Jason Locascio
    • Ryan Hanna & Josh Chilote
    • Joe Burdick
Special thanks to our honorable mentions:

    • Drew Zimmerman
    • Elliot Zinderman
    • Greg Masck
    • Phat Phux Brew Club
    • Sean & Laura Miller
    • Todd Huizingh
    • Matt DeVries
Voting will begin this Thursday (9/8) at 12pm sharp, at which time the five finalists' kegerator pictures & descriptions will be posted right here on The Buzz. Voting will continue for one week, ending next Friday (9/16), again at 12pm sharp. Winners will be announced on the September 16th Edition of New Beer Friday.

First- and second-place winners may collect their awards ($50 & $20 gift cards, respectively) from Siciliano's anytime starting Saturday, September 17. All contestants and voters are encouraged to stop in that same day to take advantage of the excellent sale prices offered during Siciliano's Annual Customer Appreciation Week.

Please direct all questions regarding voting and/or finalist selection to Kati Spayde. And remember, voting starts tomorrow!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Even in heaven they got the blues

In which the holiest--and most crotchety--of all Buzz contributors upends further mistruths about his kind (angels), but first accuses The Buzz managing editor of being a 'tyrant with a god complex'. Yup, it's a pretty standard Tuesday around here.

By Sagnessagiel

Lately the esteemed editor of The Buzz, a person who I have the upmost respect for despite our frequent spats over syntax, grammar and punctuation, someone who, I’m sure, is very nice outside the office and who, I’m willing to admit, I might have wrongly accused of being a tyrant with a god complex, has been demanding that I provide some details as to what we typical, rank and file, overworked and underappreciated worker bee angels look like. The editor feels that since I had no qualms about busting his eighty-year-old grandmother’s belief that angels have wings, that I should be equally unhesitant to let it be known that I and the vast majority of my compadres bear no resemblance to strapping young men with broad shoulders and flowing manes of curly golden hair. 

If it makes him happy, I have no problem admitting that I wish I had a case of Two Hearted for every time I was told that I’m the spitting image of Yogi Berra, that my buddy Cameal bears an uncanny resemblance to Don Mossi and that Manakel is a carbon copy of Gates Brown. I could give more examples but I think you get the picture. Obviously back when the Old Man was designing His angelic legions, he didn’t feel that we common angels, the ones who get dirty in the trenches, the ones who draw all the crummy assignments and who tirelessly perform their duties without ever getting so much as an atta-boy or a thank you, needed to be blessed with good looks. The archangels on the other hand…well, I’m sure you‘ve seen those shirtless, taut-muscled, dreamy young lads with bedroom eyes and pouting lips who grace the pages of Calvin Klein magazine advertisements. 

I realize I’m being a bit snarky but I just got back from music practice where I was again berated in front of the entire choir for my “lack of enthusiasm” and for my “ghastly, stone-fingered” harp playing. While I’ve never been a virtuoso on the concert harp, (it’s hard to hit the right notes when you have fingers the size and general thickness of sausages), my inherent honesty forces me to admit that my enthusiasm for playing that horrid instrument has indeed been on the wane ever since Sonny Boy Williamson began teaching me how to play the blues harp.

I ran into Sonny Boy quite by accident. I was on my way to get some pointers from Mozart when I took a wrong turn and instead of arriving in the eighth hall of the twelfth heaven, the residence of the classical composers, I ended up in eighth/thirteenth, the section of heaven where all the great blues and jazz legends are spending eternity. The eighth/thirteenth is unlike any other section of heaven. It might best be described as a cross between the World Showcase section of Disney World and a Hollywood back lot. One minute you’re walking down an exact replica of Beal Street in Memphis and the next you’re hanging out with Charlie Parker on a street corner in Old Chicago. There’s even a reconstruction of the famous crossroads of Routes 61 and 49, the place where, legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the blues. (Robert plays in a juke joint up here every third Sunday so that’s another myth can finally be put to rest. Hopefully the editor’s grandmother won’t have an issue with that.)

Lately I’ve been going to the eighth/thirteenth whenever my ungodly busy schedule permits and I’ve been fortunate to have met and jammed with a number of the great ones. When I’m blowing hot on that blues harp I forget all about my cares and woes. My problems with editors and music instructors magically disappear, and I couldn’t care less that I look more like a Notre Dame gargoyle than a Reuben’s cherub, or that the Old Man rarely calls me by the right name.

Come to think of it I think it would probably do me a world of good right now if I pulled that harpoon out of my dirty red bandanna.

Play the blues, Sagnessagiel. Play the blues.

Friday, September 2, 2011

New Beer Friday - September 2 Edition

From Michigan's Little Bavaria
It's Labor Day Weekend, folks, the official close of summer. We at Siciliano's hope you had a good one, and we hope too that you're looking forward to fall just as much as we are. Wine and cider season is just around the corner, and every brewer knows that the best days to brew outside are those wonderful, mild Saturdays in September & October. Orange leaves against a bright blue sky, the sweet smell of malt in the air, the gentle whir of your brand new 72,000-BTU Blichmann Top Tier Burner, purchased for a song at Siciliano's Annual Homebrew Sale--what could be more pleasing? To help get you into the autumnal spirit, here's a list of this week's new arrivals. Enjoy!

New (and Returning) Beers

  • Short's Autumn Ale, $1.99/12oz - "This beer exhibits a wonderful balance of initial malty sweetness with subtle lingering floral hop bitterness, resulting in an ideal bridge between malty and hoppy beer styles. It is a silver medal winner at the 2006 GABF" (source).
  • Frankenmuth Oktoberfest, $1.79/12oz - "An authentic German Oktoberfest beer. Its trademarked copper color is achieved by 4 different malts thus giving it its barley flavor. Adding German noble hops brews the perfect balance and tops with a nice finish" (source). Apparently colors are trademarkable. I call ochre!
  • Shiner Oktoberfest, $1.49/12oz - "Made with the highest quality Two-Row Barley, Munich and Caramel malts, along with German-grown Hallertau Tradition and Hersbrucker hops. Best when served with meaty dishes like sausage and roasted chicken, fresh, creamy cheeses, pasta with white sauces and seafood" (source).
  • Schmohz Octoberfest, $1.69/12oz - "Dark ale brewed for harvest festivals from dark wheat and pilsner malts. Lightly hopped and left sweet but never too sweet. Just in time for the fall colors" (source).
  • Southern Tier Harvest Ale, $1.69/12oz - Tell me this doesn't sound good: "We usher in the fall with a classic English style Extra Special Bitter of the highest order. Deep ruby in color with an even deeper hop flavor… in fact, we throw fresh English hops into every brewing vessel, then dry hop after fermentation to impart a zesty kick. This beer has real hop character that mingles with fresh malted barley for an experience that will make you wish it were fall year ‘round" (source).
  • Shipyard Pumpkinhead, $1.79/12oz - A pumpkin beer from Maine. We're waiting on them to come up with a Lobster beer. That's right. Lobster.
  • Michigan Brewing Company Screamin' Pumpkin, $1.89/12oz - One of the highest rated pumpkin beers you're going to find this season. A solid offering from MBC.
  • Bells Oracle DIPA, $2.99/12oz - A case arrived today unexpectedly. Even with a 2-bottle limit, it won't last long. Better get here quick!
Pic of the Week

Amarillo Gold, Brewery Vivant

Have a safe & happy holiday, everyone!