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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dogfish Head Chateau Jiahu: A Tuesday Review

Dogfish Head Chateau Jiahu
By Doug Dorda

Atop the end-cap I hoisted the peculiarly shaped bottles and thought very little of doing so. However, I found myself stricken by the simple, yet beautiful, artwork that adorns the package for Chateau Jiahu, the ancient ale meant to mimic a beverage of yesteryear as presented by Dogfish Head. I twirled the bottle in my hand and reminded myself that it must have been at least three years since this libation has passed my lips, and I thought that I might play into the archaeological theme of the “beer” by digging into my own past and daring myself to compare a fresh taste with the dusty recollections of days gone by.

For those readers that may find themselves unaware of what Dogfish Head has done with their lineup of Arachaeo ales, a primer on the subject can be found here. As with most fermented beverages that pre-date the practiced use of hops, or may be considered merely a cousin to what we now consider beer, honey and fruit are the prominent source of fermentable sugar in the Chateau, and as such the beer pours a brilliant pale golden color that suggests muscat grapes dangling from sun drenched vines on a summer day. High levels of carbonation offer a large, though fleeting, stark white head that is a fragile though beautiful crown atop the ale. A wave of enchanting melon, honey, and caramel flow from the glass and find the nose well, if not begging to be entirely inundated with the intoxicating aroma.

As the golden glass is tilted toward the mouth there is an immediately recognizable presence of honey that haunts the palate before any liquid has even met the tongue, a sensation that I am sure most who regularly consume honey are all too aware of. The prelude does not disappoint, as barely peppered honey mingles with delicate melon and crisp white grapes on the palate. The sensation is in danger of becoming just too sweet when the highly carbonic ale meets the mid palate and completely cuts what may have otherwise been a cloying aperitif. Indulging in Chateau Jiahu is a bit like biting into a marshmallow speckled fruit salad that has been drizzled with honey while a scant amount of finely ground peppercorn provides a welcome contrast to the richly sweet surroundings.

I, and those who helped me to enjoy the ale, were wholeheartedly pleased to discover that though we had most definitely had the beer before, within its depths we were able to unearth entirely new reasons to fall in love with it all over again. Perhaps there is a beer on a shelf somewhere that you have not coerced into the light of day for quite some time? Should that be the case, I’ll wager that regardless of how you find the beer, you will find yourself entirely intrigued by the assessment of it. Should you choose to try Chateau Jiahu again—or for the first time—it is available on our shelves for $14.39.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Scorpion Six-Manifold Chilling Station, Trial Run

By Steve Siciliano

We have been busy making the final preparations for what is shaping up to be the largest American Homebrewers Association Big Brew in the thirteen-year history of this annual spring celebration. I was recently informed that Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell will stop by the Calder Plaza this Saturday and will join us in the simultaneous, country-wide toast to the enriching hobby of home brewing.

Yesterday Greg Masck, Boyd Culver and I did an on-site test run for the custom-built, six-manifold chilling station that Boyd, the owner of Coldbreak Brewing, designed and fabricated. We tapped into a fire hydrant on Monroe, ran a fire hose up a twenty foot wall to the plaza and ran the hose another 250 feet to the chilling station. I am happy to report that the Scorpion worked perfectly. See below for pictures of the setup.

Tapping a hydrant on Monroe 

From the hydrant to the wall

Climbing the 20-ft wall

Behold, the Scorpion!

Craft Beer Culture in Michigan

The craft beer culture is thriving in Michigan. But how exactly is that culture defined? Among other things, with pretzel necklaces.

Pretzel bandolier
By Wes Eaton

We often hear allusions to “beer culture,” but what exactly does this mean and why is this important? We all know what beer is: fermented malt beverage. But of course, to different people in many different ways, beer is so much more. In West Michigan, beer is increasingly important to the broader do-it-yourself as well as economic growth agendas, which contributes to heightened visibility through media coverage as well as everyday discussions. We are often asked, ‘have you been to the new brewery?’ to which we now reply, ‘which one?’

The Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Fest is big discussion not just for beer geeks but for everyday people who increasingly find craft beer to provide opportunities for community, livelihoods, and a good time. Here is the link to culture that I want to explore. If beer is more than malt beverage, how can the concept of ‘culture’ help us understand its importance and increasing prominence in everyday life? To answer this, I’ll first discuss why culture is important and provide two ways culture has been conceptualized. I’ll then provide some examples from this past winter’s Winter Beer Festival to illustrate the importance and power of culture.

Why is culture important and what does it mean to say culture is “powerful”? Essentially, culture is important as it provides a way for us to make a link between the realms of symbols/meaning-making and social action. In other words, culture is powerful as it is the bridge between ideas and the things we do. How does this bridge work?

Cultural theorist Ann Swidler tells us that there are two dominant ways people think about the concept of culture. The first she calls culture from the “inside out” in reference to what is imagined to be going on inside people’s heads. In this model, people are constrained by the ideas they find out there in the world. Swidler tells us that, from this perspective, “culture shapes action by defining what people want and how they imagine they can get it.” This perspective comes from the famous social theorist Max Weber who tells us world views and ideas are the “switchmen” on train tracks that determine which paths we will take in life. Swidler argues that this perspective is not very helpful as clearly we do not know what is going on in people’s minds.

Swidler labels the second perspective culture from the “outside in,” which argues culture should not be studied as something that is only inside people’s heads. Rather, culture can be thought of as “publicly available symbols—rituals, aesthetic objects,” and other physical manifestations. From this perspective, culture is not useful for explaining individual actions or ideas, values, dogmas, or other meanings, but instead represents the “symbolic vocabularies, expressive symbols, and emotional repertoire” of everyday life. The essential point Swidler tells us is that culture is not the ends that people seek, but the tools people use to seek out anything that they wish. In other words, culture is a “tool kit” of habits, skills, and styles that people use to construct their strategies of action in life. By thinking about culture as a tool kit, we can better investigate shared collective and public meanings and symbols and how these are meaningful to people.

Let’s give this a try by looking at examples from this past winter’s Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival held in Grand Rapids. The event is a spectacular menagerie of experimental beers and experimental people. Culture is on display, from the way brewers and breweries present themselves and their beers to the hats, outfits, and especially pretzel and other edible necklaces of the beer culture elites. Short’s brewery, for instance, is consistently a crowd favorite not only for their beer but for their outrageous, inventive, and provocative displays of beer culture. In years past, Short’s crew built their serving booth from blocks of ice cut from a northern Michigan lake and added marshmallows that were toasted with a handheld torch on site to their S’more Stout. Such acts are deemed provocative as they violate the boundaries purists envision for what constitutes “true” beer, much in the same way that the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) works to “differentiate between the bland processed beers being pushed by the big brewers and the traditional beers whose very existence was under threat.”

For me, the most striking and powerful example of beer culture, however, is the pretzel necklace, or at least what started as a pretzel necklace and has now grown to include snacks not usually strewn around one’s neck. As you can see from the photos, cheese sticks, meats sticks, popcorn, and even chicken legs were not off limits for innovative beer fans. What is important here is the power these necklaces afford their wearers. Much in the same vein as a tribal warrior with a rope of bear or tiger teeth around their neck, the beer fans whose necks are weighted down with meats and sweets are respected and even feared in the sense that they are displaying their experience and intensity. These are fans to be reckoned with. Clearly one who took the time or had the foresight to construct such a badge of courage and tenacity knows why they are there and that they belong. Moreover, seeing such powerful symbolic displays leads one to ask ‘do I belong here? These people are the real thing!’

To pull this all together then, I suggest that we think about beer culture as the collective and symbolic expressions of a group or collective identity. Beer culture is something we display, and the importance of that display is only ever meaningful within this group. Wearing a pretzel necklace in the classroom or the office, for instance, is less likely to imbue one with power as it is to incite suspicion and mild anxiety. Moreover, beer culture does not move us around like pieces on a chess board, it does not determine or even guide the actions of people. Instead, we draw on the shared elements of beer culture—e.g. our knowledge of styles or the history of India Pale Ales, the difference between a stout and a porter, number of batches brewed, the Imperial Stouts or out-of-state beers in our cellar, number of MI beers on tap, being rated as “Beer City USA” and so on—like tools in a tool kit to accomplish what it is we hope to do. And in the realm of craft beer, this often has to do with building a specific collective identity that is opposed to the main mainstream elements of both beer brewing and life in general.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

New Beer Friday, Homebrew Seminar Update Edition (4/26)

This week the bossman kicks off New Beer Friday with a reminder that celebrated beer writer Stan Hieronymus will be the keynote speaker at the May 10 homebrew seminars.

Photo from Stan's Twitter homepage
By Steve Siciliano

According to For the Love of Hops author Stan Hieronymus, there are many more adjectives used to characterize hop aroma and flavor in beers today than there were in the early years of homebrewing.

In a recent email, Hieronymus stated that nowadays, "You might prefer using pine, pineapple, grapefruit, tangerine, melon, mango, lychee, passion fruit, gooseberries, blueberries, stone fruits . . . even Lifesavers and sauvignon blanc. This raises a few questions. Which particular hops do these flavor and aromas come from? What can we expect next? Can these hops be successfully grown in Michigan?”

The intricacies of hop flavors and aromas will be among the subjects that the popular author of three books on homebrewing will be addressing during a presentation at the Siciliano’s Homebrew Seminars on Friday, May 10, at the enclosed pavilion at Johnson Park. Besides his recently published book on hops, Hieronymus has also written Brewing with Wheat and Brew like a Monk. All three of his books can be purchased at Siciliano’s Market. In addition to speaking at the seminars, Hieronymus will be holding a book signing at the store on Friday, May 10 from 3 to 5 p.m.

Also speaking at the seminars is Walter Catton who is in the process of opening a distillery in the Holland, Michigan area. A Belgian beer tasting will follow the speakers’ presentations. The May 10 seminars will run from 6 to 10 pm. The $5 entrance fee is payable at the door.

New (and Returning) Craft Beer at Siciliano's

  • New Belgium Shift Pale Lager, $1.59/12oz - "New Belgium employee-owners work in shifts to brew to life world-class beers. Those efforts are rewarded daily with a shared end-of-shift beer. We’re passing that welcomed occasion onto consumers in this lightly-hopped Shift Pale Lager. From work to play, from bottle to can, from bold and heavy to refreshing and sessionable; Shift salutes the shift in occasion, package and beer. So, go ahead and get your Shift beer, you’ve earned it!" (source)
  • MillKing It Productions Axl Pale Ale, $1.99/16oz - "In this classic style American pale ale the hops grab center stage and carry the flavor with a light, drying, citrusy palate. Although hoppy, this beer is easy drinking and contains mid-range alcohol" (source).
  • Saugatuck Serrano Pepper Amber Ale, $2.59/12oz - "An amber ale spiced with fresh serrano peppers. Spicy but not overwhelming in both the nose and the palate" (source).
  • Point Nude Beach, $1.19/12oz - "Point Nude Beach is the perfect summer pleasure. Available only during the warm months of summer, this lively and unfiltered wheat ale is well balanced using "au naturel" raw and red wheat, then delicately finished with Yakima hops. With a refreshing light flavor, Point Nude Beach is perfect while enjoying summer activities or just hanging out with friends. Clothing optional" (source).
  • Point Cascade Pale Ale, $1.09/12oz - "Point Cascade Pale Ale is handcrafted combining special top-fermenting yeast and a dry hopping process to create this truly classic American Pale Ale. The intriguing character is derived from generous quantities of the choicest Yakima Valley Cascade hops and the finest crystal, 2-row pale, and Munich malts. The result is a delicious American Pale Ale with a signature fragrant hop bouquet and soft malt palate" (source).
  • Bass IPA, $1.59/12oz - "Brewed at Anheuser-Busch’s Baldwinsville plant. Bass brings its rich English brewing heritage to an all new, intensely satisfying India Pale Ale. Bass IPA is a 6% ABV English- style beer. Launched nationally on November 19, 2012. Profile: 6% ABV, 49 IBUs, a full flavored India Pale Ale brewed with a mix of English style hops, including Hallertau, Saaz, Cascade and Fuggle" (source).
  • Thistly Cross 'Whiskey Cask' Cider, $6.69/16oz - "Matured in ex-Glengassaugh whisky casks this is a dry & subtle cider. Infused with mellow, vanilla oak of the cask. A refreshing, complex drink to be savoured" (source).
  • Crown Valley Barrel Select Big Bison Ale, $4.59/22oz - "The Barrel Select Big Bison Ale is 7.2 percent ALC by volume and brewed using two different American hop varieties. This beer is a robust Belgian style Dubbel with intense nutty, spice and dried fruit notes in the aromatic profile. The Big Bison Ale was barrel aged in red wine casks for two months, thus producing a buttery sensation on the palette with a body and consistence thicker than the average Ale" (source).

Epic Glutenator | Featured Beer of the Week

  • Epic Glutenator, $6.69/22oz - "You won’t find any astringent sorghum in this beer. Instead we use light-bodied millet, brown rice, sweet potatoes and molasses along with plenty of American hops. This beer has a golden color, aromas of hops and sweet potatoes with a sweet grain flavor and a clean, sorghum-free finish" (source).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Siciliano's '13 Hombrew Competition: Judging Complete!

By Steve Siciliano

The 229 entries in the 2013 edition of the Siciliano’s Homebrew Competition were judged this past Sunday at the Community Cabin in beautiful downtown Rockford by BJCP certified judges, award-winning homebrewers and craft beer professionals. Nine of those entries were deemed worthy of being included in the judging for this year’s Best of Show.

One of the many judges' tables
The announcement of the Best of Show winner and the presentation of the prestigious Siciliano’s Cup will take place at the Tenth Annual Siciliano’s Homebrew Party on Saturday, May 11th at the enclosed pavilion at Johnson Park. Medals and/or feedback forms will also be available for pickup at that time. Those not attending the party may pick up medals and feedback forms at Siciliano’s Market beginning on Sunday, May 12th.

A steward preparing entries for the judges
I would like to thank everyone who participated in this year’s judging. Special thanks to Siciliano’s staffer Greg Johnson for once again organizing and running this annual competition. Special thanks also to Prime Time Brewers member Mike Johnson for helping us to obtain the Rockford location.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Monday Musings: Homebrewers Are a Hardy Bunch

The question is, what will
 this look like 10 days from now?
By Steve Siciliano

Yesterday I watched a pair of mallards happily paddling around on a pond in my backyard that wasn’t there just a week ago. In downtown Grand Rapids over the past few days the river has gotten dangerously close to the top of the flood walls, Riverside Park is now under water and swollen creeks in Kent County have washed roads and two-lane bridges away. We’ve certainly had a lot of rain lately.

I usually don’t take Michigan’s roller coaster weather personally. Normally I stoically cope with the breath-sapping humidity of summer, the grey gloom of late November and early December and the unrelenting, bone-chilling temperatures of winter. But I have been taking the incessant rain this spring personally because, you see, the Big Brew on the Calder is now less than two weeks away.

But so what if these ceaseless April monsoons continue into May? We west Michigan homebrewers are a hardy bunch. If it’s still raining two weeks from now we’ll don the appropriate gear and fire up the burners. We won’t let a little inclement weather deter us from gathering May 4 on the Calder Plaza to be part of the largest AHA Big Brew Day in history. And at one p.m. EST on that day, whether it’s raining or shining, we will join in a simultaneous, country-wide toast to the enriching hobby of homebrewing.

Friday, April 19, 2013

New Beer Friday, Next Generation Edition (April 19)

Staffer Luke Horning admiring new product
This week's NBF preamble is penned by the bossman, Steve Siciliano, who waxes philosophic on an interesting subject: the growing multigenerational-ness of craft beer appreciation.

By Steve Siciliano

Every so often when checking the IDs of customers who place mixed six packs of craft beer on the counter, I discover that it’s their twenty-first birthday. On those occasions I smile, congratulate them on their good taste and welcome them to the craft beer community. While the welcome is always sincere, it’s also delivered with just a touch of playful sarcasm.

It would be naïve to think that young folks who are buying oak-aged imperial stouts, double IPAs and intense robust porters never tasted them before their attainment of the legal drinking age. Obviously they had been previously exposed to the complexities of hand-crafted beer, and a percentage of them undoubtedly received that exposure from homebrewing parents.

One evening Barb and I were at a local brew pub when a group from a party bus came into the tap room. They were celebrating a young man’s twenty-first birthday and I chatted for awhile with his father, one of our long time homebrew customers. The young man was obviously enjoying himself, but after an all day birthday party involving a number of brew pubs he still was remarkably sober.

I have no idea how I celebrated my own twenty-first birthday, but I’m reasonably confident it wasn’t with my father, I'm positive that craft beer was not involved, and I'm one hundred percent certain that I got plastered on way too many watery lagers. My father wasn’t a homebrewer—hardly anyone was back then—but if he had been I’m sure I would have watched him brewing up a batch in the kitchen. I would have been captivated by the aroma of boiling malt and fascinated by gurgling airlocks. I probably would have helped him crimp caps onto bottles. I’m quite sure I would have been allowed to taste what he brewed. Chances are that when suddenly I attained the age that allowed me to legally consume beer, I wouldn’t have done so with such overt foolishness.

Today there are tens of thousands of homebrewers which translates into tens of thousands of children growing up in a culture that has a healthy respect for beer. Perhaps when the children of homebrewing parents attain the legal drinking age, there’s less possibility that they will abuse the privilege.

New & Returning Beers at Siciliano's Market

  • Brewery Vivant Zaison, $3.39/16oz - "Imperial saison ale. Beer brewed with Tellicherry black peppercorns and orange peel" (source).
  • Greenbush Sunspot, $1.79/12oz - "A hot way to cool down Hot. Drenched. Delightfully blinding. Right. We’re not talking about that ball of fire in the sky, but our refreshing hefewiezen. Skip the shade and down a glass or two and be cool" (source).
  • MillKing It Productions BrikRed Ale, $1.99/16oz - "Whereas hops are the star in AXL, the complex harmony of malt dominates this easy drinking Red Ale. Five different malts are skillfully blended to create a medium bodied, crowd-pleasing ale. The nose breathes caramel, malt and complexity. The beer is medium bodied, has the appropriate alcohol of 4.8% and is definitely a beer deserving the title session beer" (source).
  • MillKing It Productions Sno Belgian White Ale, $1.99/16oz - "SNO is a traditional Belgian style white ale. It is a light, yeast-infused beer with orange peel and spices to make this ale thirst quenching and refreshing. The lower alcohol content and light body ensure ultimate drinkability" (source).
  • Dogfish Head Positive Contact, $11.99/750ml - "Positive Contact is a cider-beer-hybrid veeeeeery loosely based on a Belgian-style Wit beer brewed with a bunch of unconventional ingredients for the style. Typically, Wits are brewed using bitter orange peel and coriander, but we went a different route. Inspired by one of Sams trips to Eataly in New York City, Sam and Ben brewed this beer with organic Fuji apple cider, fresh organic cilantro, and dried cayenne pepper. The cider was pressed in house from 200 lbs of apples with our very own fruit press. These wonderful fresh ingredients were delivered to us a couple of days before the brew by Sams friend Zeke of Washingtons Green Grocer. The grain bill for this brew was about 50/50 wheat and barley but a small portion of Anson Mills Slow-Roasted Farro was also added. To make this awesome product, the folks at Anson Millsuse a unique ancient heirloom variety of grain which imparts a delicate aromatic quality (Farrois traditionally used in soups and similar dishes). On top of that, a new hop variety was used, named Calypso, which lends notes of pear and apple that perfectly compliment the other ingredients in the brew. It was then fermented with a Belgian Wit yeast strain, adding both fruity and spicy complexity. This beer was made with a number if ingredients more traditionally used in the culinary world and we designed it to be a dazzling nimble food-pairing brew." (source).
  • Big Sky Brush Trail Saison, $1.69/12oz - "Our take on a classic style" (source).
  • New Belgium Hoppy Bock Lager, $4.99/22oz - "Meet the first in our new Hop Kitchen series: A German-style springtime lager brewed with rye then loaded with Hallertauer, Perle and Fuggle hops for a spicy, earthy aroma. This Hoppy Bock Lager offers a medium body and slightly sweet malt character perfect for your spring hop-fling" (source).
  • Four Horseman Pale Ale, $1.69/12oz - "This Pale Ale is rich and full in character with earthy hop tones and a crisp finish" (source).
  • Four Horseman Irish Red Ale, $1.69/12oz - "This Irish Red Ale offers a fine balance between six types of malt and two types of hops" (source).
  • Four Horseman Hop Rush IPA, $1.99/12oz - "This IPA features American citrus hops on top of a cool refreshing American Pale Ale" (source).

Mittenbrew Beer 101 | Ale vs. Lager with Doug Dorda

Our friends at Mittenbrew produced a Beer 101 video staring our own Doug Dorda.
 Share this with your pals who might be new to the homebrew/craft beer scene.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Spring IPA Review: Great Lakes, Abita, Anderson Valley

By Kati Spayde

Springtime just screams IPA to me. With the reawakening of the senses after the long Michigan hibernation, we all deserve some fresh, crisp flavors. Three IPAs that deserve consideration this spring are Abita Spring IPA, Great Lakes Rye of the Tiger and Anderson Valley Heelch O' Hops. All three of these beers tempt the palate without overpowering your taste buds.

  • Abita Spring IPA, $1.69/12oz - At 6.5%, this citrusy IPA has a has a nice blend of Amarillo and Centennial hops, with a bit of spicy-ness and resin. Medium bodied, it has a little bit of malt sweetness and a nice, clean bitter finish.
  • Great Lakes Rye of the Tiger, $1.69/12oz - A nice balance of citrus and pine go into this IPA. The addition of rye to this beer gives it a clean, dryer than usual finish and a bit of spice.
  • Anderson Valley Heelch O' Hops, $3.09/12oz - This is one double IPA that doesn't go over the top. All elements of this are balanced, from the citrus and pine resin of the hops to the sweetness and biscuit notes of the malt. And at only 8.6%, you can put back a couple without hurting in the morning.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Siciliano's Homebrew Contest Update: Record Entries, Newly Designed Medals

Alexa Seychel from Imperial Brands
posing with redesigned contest medal 
By Steve Siciliano

This past Sunday, April 14, was the deadline for submitting beers into the 2013 Siciliano’s Homebrew Contest. We are pleased to report that we have received 229 entries, the highest total ever submitted in our annual homebrew competition. This was the first year that registration was conducted online and we would like to extend a special thanks to Dan Frechette for graciously allowing us the use of the Beers To Fear competition center and online registration website.

The job of sorting the entries and organizing the judging now goes to Siciliano’s staff member Greg Johnson. Judging will be held Sunday, April 21, at the Rockford Community Cabin in Rockford, Michigan. Anyone wishing to participate either as a judge or steward may still contact Greg at

The winner of Best in Show will be announced at the 10th Annual Siciliano’s Homebrew Party on Saturday, May 11, at the enclosed shelter at Johnson Park. The best-in-show winner will have his/her name etched on the prestigious Siciliano’s Cup and will receive a $500.00 gift certificate to spend at Siciliano's. Also, as in years past, the winner will have the chance to brew the winning recipe at a local brewery—this year that brewery is Perrin.

The newly designed Siciliano’s Homebrew Contest medals (see picture) will also be awarded at the party and feedback forms will be available for pick up. Those not attending the May 11 festivities may pick up their medals and/or feedback forms at Siciliano’s Market beginning on Sunday, May 12.

Good luck to all who submitted homebrew to the competition!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ardmore Single Malt & Teachers Highland | Tuesday Review

By John Barecki

While searching for a handful of whiskies that are more on the affordable side, I stumbled upon a blended whisky and a very interesting single malt at the same time. The blend actually utilizes the single malt as its main flavor component, almost like a symbiotic relationship. The two whiskies in question are the Ardmore Single Malt and Teachers Highland Cream.

The Ardmore is a special kind of single malt. Being distilled in the Highland/Speyside region of Scotland, it is first aged in second-fill bourbon barrels and then a portion is placed into a quarter cask, which is a quarter the size of a full cask. Doing so creates more substantial wood contact thus contributing a higher amount of wood tones in the final product. I call this one special because it uses a higher percentage of peat than most highland malts. The peat comes from the Highland region itself and creates a smokey flavor reminiscent of hickory, having more savory qualities opposed to the medicinal notes that tend to come with peat from the Islay region.

This malt is also bottled at 46% (92 proof) and as I continue tasting different malts, I find those that have a higher proof usually have a more well-rounded flavor compared to the traditional 80 proof bottling. On the nose this malt has a full succulent aroma, rich with spicy and woody tones. The flavors burst on the palate, oily and full of savory delights. Honeyed barley gives way to an almost olive like taste which is surrounded by a smoky and peaty tang, followed by fine vanilla notes. The finish is full of peat and long lingering. This is a very complex oddity in the single malt range and does not disappoint.

My second review is the blended malt that uses the Ardmore as its "fingerprint malt": Teachers Highland Cream. This blend uses 45% single malt in its blend, making it one of the highest malt to grain whisky ratios on the blended market, the reason being so the character of the whisky is more well rounded. The mouthfeel is full and malt driven, lots of barley and honey followed by a well-rounded smoke. Wood tones run softly throughout the middle and culminate with a gathering of apple and pear notes on the finish. This whisky utilizes the highland malt characteristics from the Ardmore single malt, as well as its huge complexities to create a truly wonderful experience at a great price point as well.

Ardmore Single Malt ($36.99/750ml) and Teachers Highland Cream ($16.99/750ml) are both available at Siciliano's Market.

Friday, April 12, 2013

New Beer Friday, Nostalgia Edition No. 1 (April 12)

Beer & baseball cards have more in common
that you might imagine, says staffer Doug Dorda
This week we're letting staffer Doug Dorda take a shot at the NBF preamble. Enjoy!

By Doug Dorda

The dust flew into the beam of sunlight that streaked through the window as I breathed a slow and hearty “wow.” The hairs on the back of my hand stood straight and I found that I could not close my mouth, though not for lack of trying. I held a time capsule of sorts, a portal to days gone by and ticket to a single seating of theatrical reminiscences: it was my old collection of baseball trading cards. A smile of yesteryear played upon my lips as I held the cards close to my nose and wafted that old familiar scent of synthetic dyes imbued into composite paper material. The effect left me dizzy with memory.

Suddenly, I was no longer standing in my boyhood closet; rather, I was was witnessing the spirited conversation I’d had years ago with Andy Bird about why Cecil Fielder was the greatest baseball player of all time. In a sort of ethereal experience I hovered above two youngsters who sat amidst a mass of trading cards splayed in disarray across the floor. What struck me most about peeking down memory lane was the feeling of camaraderie and joy that I felt surrounding those cards. There was a group of us at school that would get together, discuss the cards, baseball, and possible trades. I remember having once ridden my bike 10 miles to Billy’s house because he supposedly had a Babe Ruth rookie card. (I later discovered that this was not true, of course, but we had a hell of a time watching the game that night.) It struck me that many of the friends I had were the directly result of my love for collecting trading cards, and that many of the fond memories I have from childhood could in fact be linked, in one way or another, to the act of discussing or trading them. One particularly fond memory centered myself and all of my friends around a table as we lavishly drank soda and ate cracker jacks while we quoted lines from our then favorite movie, The Sandlot (I still love the movie).

Back in present time, I found myself on the phone with old friends I knew would be thrilled by my find. One friend was able to tell that I was drinking a beer while on the phone and inquired as to which it might be. The conversation quickly shifted from baseball cards to beer, and I found myself promising this friend a tour of the beer destinations in Grand Rapids should he come and visit. Hanging up the phone I realized that I had never stopped collecting commonalities with people. In truth, it wasn't the cards that created the memories I covet from childhood, it was the flesh-and-blood fellow human beings that made each moment so special. In fact, I now posit that what we collect as humans is actually a set of happy experiences that are often tied or linked to something. In the case of childhood it was cards, and into my adulthood it has become the appreciation and tasting of beer.

I still sit on floors with friends and discuss the issues of the day, oftentimes surrounded by a selection of libations meant for us to enjoy with one another. In place of riding my bike 10 miles I have planned road-trips with multiple breweries as my only destinations, and I have attended beer festivals that feel exactly like “the big game.” Each memory, though rooted in the common interest in beer, is colored by the faces of my friends and family that have and will continue to make each and every experience as valuable to me as a Babe Ruth rookie card...or a bottle of Westvleteran 12. It struck me that no matter what we collect at any given point in our lives, the effect will always be that we end up closer to those in our lives who collect similar things and in so doing become connected to one another in a way that lasts longer than paper or a favorite beer. May we never stop collecting one another. Cheers.

New and Returning Beer at Siciliano's

  • Hitachino Next XH , $5.89/12oz - "Strong Belgian Brown Ale matured in distilled Sake barrels.the final Maturation takes place in Shochu casks {distilled sake} for 3 months" (source).
  • J.W. Lees Harvest Ale (Port), $10.09/12oz - "Only available filtered and pasteurised in bottles. Matured in wooden casks of Willoughbys Crusted Port to impart sweetness and a heavy vinous characteristic. The tradition of port is very English and many of the port houses proudly trace their ancestry back to the U.K. Portuguese wines were fortified with brandy to improve their keeping properties during shipment. This fully fermented ale has been brewed by JW Lees as a celebration of the brewers’ art. Harvest Ale can be enjoyed now or laid down like a fine wine for enjoyment to come" (source).
  • Sierra Nevada Summerfest, $1.59/12oz - "Summerfest is a delightfully refreshing example of a traditional style lager beer. While lighter in body than our ales, Summerfest displays significant hop aroma and a tangy hop bite. The long lagering period adds a smoothness that makes this beer a great summertime treat" (source).
  • Harpoon Summer Beer, 1.49/12oz - "Harpoon Summer Beer is a light-bodied, golden ale that is brewed in the Kolsch style. It originated centuries ago in the German city of Cologne. Clean, clear, and crisp - it makes an ideal summer beer. Available April thru August" (source).
  • Harpoon UFO White, $1.409/12oz - "Light, crisp, refreshing UFO White follows in the tradition of spiced wheat beers that have been brewed in Belgium for well over 300 years. Brewed with orange peel and a unique blend of spices, UFO White is the perfect choice for a summer’s barbecue, a night out with friends or any time you¹re thirsting for something a little different. Like UFO Hefeweizen and UFO Raspberry Hefeweizen, we leave UFO White UnFiltered for a more natural taste and appearance" (source).
  • Leipziger Gose, $4.79/12oz - "Leipziger Gose is a top-fermenting wheat beer {60% wheat, 40% barley malt} with coriander, salt, and lactic acid bacteria added in the boil. It is a 4.6% alc/vol eclectic beer whose name evokes a close relationship to the renowned Lambic/Geuze breweries in the Valley Senne nearby Brussels, Belgium" (source).
  • Dark Horse Plead the Fifth, $3.29/12oz (4 bottle/customer limit) - "It's big and full bodied with lots of roasted malts and balanced with heavy hops to put this imperial in a league of its own" (source).
  • Tommyknocker Nice Saison, $1.89/12oz - "A bright golden effervescent brew that is slightly tart with a spicy aroma. This light bodied ale combines a blend of 4 Belgian Yeast strains with an addition of Perle hops. Golden Saison is brewed for summer refreshment in the traditional Belgian Saison fashion" (source).
  • Sierra Nevada Ovila Quad, $3.49/375ml - "A collaboration between Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and the monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, Ovila Abbey Quad brings the centuries-old monastery brewing tradition to America. Ovila Abbey Quad is rich and complex with layers of flavor including notes of intense dark fruits, and caramel-like maltiness. Rich and complex, this ale should be shared among friends in the true spirit of the season. A portion of the proceeds from this ale goes toward the restoration of the historic Santa Maria de Ovila chapter house on the grounds of the Abbey of New Clairvaux. This medieval building stood for nearly eight centuries in Spain. William Randolph Hearst purchased the monastery in 1931 and planned to use the stones for a castle even grander than his famous San Simeon. Although Hearst’s plans crumbled, these historic stones will rise again in a California Cistercian abbey" (source).
  • Great Lakes Rye of the Tiger IPA, $1.69/12oz - "India Pale Ale brewed with rye malt and loaded with hops" (source).
  • Blue Point Spring Fling, $1.69/12oz - "When the Winter is over, Spring is nature’s way of saying “hey, let’s party!” Spring Fling is how we welcome the warmer weather and spirits. Spring Fling Copper Ale strikes a perfect balance between the malty flavor of special German barley and the zesty spice of fresh American hops that results in a delicious, extremely easy to drink brew. The exquisite blend creates a harbinger of the new season with a delicate hop aroma which delivers a perfect pairing for your Spring Fever. Handcrafted from a unique blend of malts, Spring Fling Ale is a perfectly balanced copper ale that delivers a crisp and refreshing taste with subtle hints of nuts and honey. The arrival of Spring Fling means Winter has passed and Summer is right around the corner" (source).
  • Arcadia Thunder Trail ESB, $1.79/12oz - "Thunder Trail ESB (6.0% ABV): stays true to our English Brewing Heritage. With a strong backbone of Maris Otter and Crystal malts, this Extra Special Bitter is balanced by earthy, spicy, English hops. Our Ringwood yeast strain imparts a dis-tinctly fruity character that is accented by dry-hopping with a modest amount if Palisade hops. We hope you enjoy this quality session ale—wherever the Trail may take you" (source).
  • Shorts Ginger in the Rye, $1.99/12oz (6 bottle/customer limit) - "A most distinguished effervescent potable of total consciousness" (source).
  • He'brew Rejewvenator, $5.79/22oz - "How better to celebrate the evolution of the year than with recipes inspired by generations of the original craft beer warriors, the Monks! Top with a healthy dose of Shmaltz and witness the rebirth of Rejewvenator! "The winter of bondage has passed, the deluge of suffering is gone, the Fig tree has formed its first fruits, declaring all ready for libation." -Song of Solomon. Dates were used to sweeten beer in Ancient Egypt as early as 3500 BCE. Genesis 3:7: "Their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked; they sewed fig leaves and made themselves aprons." Queen Vic commissioned an 18" plaster fig leaf for her cast of Michelangelo's David. "The statue that advertises its modesty with a fig leaf brings its modesty under suspicion." -Mark Twain. Under a fig tree, Romulus and Remus, mythical founders of Rome, were nursed by a she-wolf and worlds away Buddha found enlightenment. Zechariah: "Nations shall beat their swords into plowshares - all will sit with their neighbor under a fig tree, never afraid." Mohammed: "Whoever eats seven Tamr (dates) at breakfast shall rise above magic and poison that day." The Hebrew word for Date palm "Tamar" connotes a woman's grace. "The only difference between a first date and a job interview is not many job interviews have a chance you'll end up naked." ÐJerry Seinfeld. Psalm 92:12: "The righteous shall flourish like the Date palm." Thankfully all we need to do is pop open a bottle and rejoice... L'Chaim!" (source).
  • Dogfish Head Chateau Jiahu, $14.39/22oz - "Similar to a beer brewed in China some 9,000 years ago, Chateau Jiahu used a recipe that included rice, honey, and grape and hawthorn fruits. The formula was obtained from archaeologists who derived it from the residues of pottery jars found in the late Stone Age village of Jiahu in northern China. The residues are the earliest direct evidence of brewed beverages in ancient China" (source).

Great Lakes Eye of the Tiger IPA | Selected New Beer of the Week

Great Lakes Eye of the Tiger IPA, $1.69/12oz
"India Pale Ale brewed with rye malt and loaded with hops" (source). 


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Recollections in Wine: A Short Course in Chianti

2007 San Leonino Castellina
Chianti Classico, $14.39/750ml
By Steve Siciliano

Sometimes I can’t remember where I put my car keys, but when it comes to a few select experiences from my distant past involving wine, I have wonderful recall. After thirty years I can still remember exactly where I was when I first tasted a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s been ten years since Barb and I had a wonderful dinner at Hattie’s Restaurant in Suttons Bay (now closed), yet I distinctly recollect the flavors and aromas of the velvety smooth Beaulieu Vineyards pinot noir that we drank with grilled pork chops smothered in a cherry barbecue sauce.

I can also vividly recall my first experience with Chianti. It was in the mid 1970s in a quaint Italian restaurant in the Bronx. Pictures of the Coliseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Michelangelo’s David were on the walls, Dean Martin was crooning on a cassette player and there were red and white checkered tablecloths. In the middle of our table sat an empty, straw-covered wine bottle holding a candle. I asked the old, broken-English-speaking waiter to bring out a full one. While the restaurant’s veal parmesan was magnificent, the wine that came in that whicker basket bottle was atrocious.

Twenty years later in an Italian restaurant on Rush Street in Chicago, another old waiter persuaded me to give Chianti another try. I remember being surprised that the bottle he brought to the table wasn’t one of those whicker fiascos. The gnocchi in that restaurant rivaled my grandmother’s, and that bottle of Ruffino Chianti Classico Reserva Ducale, with its flavors of dried orange, earth and dark chocolate, was so good that I ordered another.

For a wine to be legally called Chianti it must be produced in one of seven demarcated regions in Tuscany and consist of a blend that strictly adheres to Italian wine laws. The blend was once comprised solely of grapes indigenous to the Tuscan region—sangiovese and canailo for the reds, malvasi and/or trebianno for the whites. As Chianti became more popular after World War II, vineyards were planted in areas that produced inferior fruit and winemakers began using the maximum percentage allowed of the less expensive white grapes in the blend. As a result, the quality of Chianti gradually declined. By the late 1960s, it had become thin, unbalanced and acidic, and was probably purchased more for the quaint fiasco than for the wine inside.

Faced with tarnished reputations and declining sales, Tuscan winemakers began taking steps in the mid 1970s to improve the quality of Chianti—less white wine was used in the blend and inferior vineyards were torn up. A few of the more innovative makers even began experimenting with non-indigenous varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc with impressive results. But since these new wines didn’t follow the traditional Chianti formula, they couldn’t legally be called Chianti. Wine writers nicknamed them the Super Tuscans, a moniker that is still used today. Prompted by the international success of the Super Tuscans, the Italian government revised the traditional formula and winemakers are now allowed to use non-indigenous grapes to produce Chianti.

Today Chianti has reclaimed its position as one of Italy’s most important wines. While it will probably always be associated with quaint Italian restaurants and traditional Italian cuisine, thankfully those once ubiquitous, straw-covered bottles, and the inferior wine they contained, no longer are producing unpleasant memories.

To start making your own memories with Chianti, try San Leonino Castellina Chianti Classico, pictured above and currently available at Siciliano's Market.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tuesday Review: Manon Tempranillo

Manon Tempranillo
By Doug Dorda

Here is a wine that is as bold in color as it is in the rest of its rich and haunting characteristics. This particular vino pours a haughty purple that is only slightly offset by a hue of lavender as it thins toward the rim (research into the Spanish grape varietal reveals that the grape itself brandishes the same deep hues boldly on the vine). Intrigued by its color and the premise for tasting, that being a plate rife with cheeses and cured meats, I sunk my nose into the glass.

Bursting forth from the beautiful, albeit gloomy purple vintage is a whisp of smoke, like pipe tobacco that clings to a well-worn tweed coat. Peppercorn and savory ancho chili lend complexity to the smoke, and contrast is found in the way of dried strawberry that dances with molasses among the backdrop of a mild ethyl alcohol note.

The taste brings a powerful, though balanced presence of smoke to the forefront of the tongue. One can not help but think of moist applewood being added to a barbecue. Tart cherries and molasses along with other dried fruits become the focus of the mid palate and allow the drinker to ponder the complexity of the wine for at least a moment. The finish is a cascade of peppercorn, grain leather, cardamom and tannins that work to make the full bodied wine intensely quaffable.

As I tasted I shook my head in mild disbelief, slowly breathing a “whoa.” Not only did it pair perfectly with the food on the tray in front of me, I longed to drink this vintage with everything from barbecue to fruit salad and beyond. The sun sank lower across the lake and I closed my eyes to dream of spring. I thought to myself, I’ll have to have this wine quite often. At a modest price point of less than $8 a bottle, you may find yourself saying the same.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Scorpion: Custom Six-Manifold Wort Chilling Station

Boyd Culver with the Scorpion
By Steve Siciliano

In the process of planning and organizing an event with the size and scope as May 4th’s Big Brew at the Calder, it’s inevitable that there would be administrative barriers that had to be hurdled, kinks that needed to be straightened out and logistical challenges that had to be overcome. I’m pleased to report that so far we have successfully negotiated every major and minor obstacle and that things are progressing nicely.

Perhaps the biggest problem that needed to be addressed and solved was how we were going to efficiently manage the chilling of forty-eight kettles of hot wort. After much pondering, head scratching and brainstorming, we decided that this would best be accomplished by a custom built, six-manifold chilling station.

We assigned the task of building the wort chilling station to a local company that manufactures the immersion wort chillers that we sell at Siciliano’s. Boyd Culver, the owner of Coldbreak Brewing, has named the chilling station “The Scorpion” and he designed it to simultaneously and efficiently chill six kettles of hot wort with water that will be sourced from an on-site fire hydrant. Boyd and his employees will be manning the chilling station during the event.

I would like to recognize and thank longtime Siciliano’s customer, avid home brewer and good friend Greg Masck for his valuable insights, legwork and help with this project.

How the Scorpion got its name

Friday, April 5, 2013

New Beer Friday, Post-KBS Edition (April 5)

By Chris Siciliano

Well, KBS has come and gone for another year—from a retail perspective, that is. We here at Siciliano's wish you all good luck securing a snifter or two at your favorite watering hole. If we catch wind that anyone has tapped a keg, we'll pass along the information. In fact, if you don't already, be sure to follow us on Facebook. We often post news relevant to the larger beer scene in Grand Rapids, not just the news from Siciliano's.

But I digress. Do you know what I like most about KBS (besides drinking it, that is)? I like the fact that for 12 months, give or take, the beer ages in gypsum mines below Grand Rapids. That might seem an odd thing to celebrate, especially when conditions in the mines can theoretically be reproduced elsewhere on the planet, whereas the skill and experience of Founders brewers, not to mention the "house flavors" of Founders brewery itself, cannot be recreated anywhere.

Nevertheless, something about the story of the gypsum mines appeals to me. It's partly because my own great grandfather helped dig those mines, just as I'm sure many of your grandparents and great grandparents did. It also has something to do with the idea that all year long we go about our business, traveling back and forth across the city, (mostly) ignorant to the fact that somewhere below us, barrel upon barrel of imperial stout is aging in the most geologic of conditions.

But most important, I feel like the gypsum mines physically tie Founders KBS to the city of Grand Rapids. I believe—or maybe I just hope—that KBS is a product of its environment, and the way you can never truly replicate a Czech pils outside of Plzen, or a true Lambic outside of Brussels, is how it is for KBS. Despite having access to all the same ingredients, and even the exact recipe, a brewery in Texas or Colorado could never 100% accurately reproduce KBS. The beer is a direct result of its unique place in the world, just as we are, and I think that's something to be proud of.

New and Returning Beers at Siciliano's

  • Detroit Brewing Co Raddler, $1.69/12oz - "Radler beer is the German version of the English Shandy style, which is a blend of light ale and lemonade. In order to honor our brewing roots, we followed the German method of mixing natural Lemon & Lime flavors into a blend of our Bohemian pilsener and specially crafted Bavarian lager. These methods create a perfectly refreshing summer beverage which has a strong, slightly tart citrus aroma and flavor. This is the best summer brew we have ever made, and we hope that it becomes a part of all your summer traditions" (source).
  • Anderson Valley Heelch O' Hops, $3.09/12oz - "Robust. Brewed with a “heelch” (that means “a lot” in Boontling) of Columbus, Chinook, and Cascade hops, our double IPA has a palate pleasing bitterness that is artfully balanced with a full-bodied malt foundation. With a deep color of polished brass and a nose that sings of pink grapefruit and redwood needles, the rich biscuit-like malt flavors are intertwined with hints of vanilla, mangoes, and peppercorns leading to a deep, warming finish" (source).
  • Southern Tier Hop Sun, 1.69/12oz - "Pour Hop Sun Summer Wheat Beer into a pint glass, give it a long whiff and you’ll realize that this isn’t your average wheat beer. Filtered to a golden clarity and dry-hopped to perfection, Hop Sun is a fantastic session ale in which flavors of wheat, barley and hops co-mingle to a refreshing and zesty conclusion. Hints of lemon and sweet malts waft to the fore as a touch of bitterness contributes to Hop Sun’s bright finish. Enjoy Hop Sun all summer long as a perfect balance to your outdoor recreation. Summer never tasted so good" (source).
  • Abita Spring IPA, $1.69/12oz - "Spring IPA (March-May) is a West Coast-style IPA with an up-front intense hop flavor and aroma. Amarillo and Centennial hops give the brew a rich and resinous flavor of citrus and spice. This bright pale ale has a malt sweetness that will give way to a pleasant bitter. It pairs well with Mexican or spicy Szechwan Chinese food. Spring IPA is a nice accompaniment for cheeses with strong flavors, like sharp cheddar or goat cheese" (source).
  • Sprecher Imperial Stout, $2.09/12oz - "This tremendously rich and thick stout uses a profusion of burnt and caramel malts. A massive mouthful of dark roasted malt and coffee flavors finishes with hints of licorice, fig and currant" (source).
  • Shorts Prolonged Enjoyment, $1.69/12oz (limit one 6-pack/person) - "A session pale ale with huge amounts of earthy hop fragrances of green grass that are complimented by a wildly dry finish" (source).
  • Chitown Lakeshore Lager, $1.79/12oz - "Lake Shore Lager is an excellent example of the dedication and persistence in reaching the fundamentals of producing a great premium hand-crafted lager" (source).
  • Chitown Windy City Wheat, $1.79/12oz - "A Belgian-style wheat ale brewed with honey and spices" (source).
  • Chitown Pier Pale, $1.79/12oz - "Pier Pale Ale has been carefully formulated and zealously taste-tested to surpass even the highest of expectations" (source).
  • Trout River Boneyard Barley Wine, $2.49/12oz - No commercial description available.
  • Trout River Hoppin' Mad Trout, $1.59/12oz - "Our Pale Ale has toasted malt flavors dominated by hops. A fragrant, flowery aroma complements the clean, dry finish" (source).
  • Trout River Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, $1.59/12oz - "A dark, deliciously roasty brew with hints of chocolate in flavor and aroma. Velvety smooth with a dry, roasted finish" (source).
  • Blue Mountain Barrel House Uber Pils, $8.39/750ml - "Behold the subtle power of a beer whose simplicity of elements belies its complex spirit. Pilsener malt, noble Hallertau hops, lager yeast, and deep well water. By scaling up these simple ingredients we’ve turned the German pilsener "imperial" and made one of the world’s most refreshing styles of beer bigger, rounder and even more enjoyable" (source).
  • Blue Mountain Barrel House Steel Wheels, $10.79/750ml - "The music of The Steel Wheels and the beer from Blue Mountain are both original and handcrafted, with inspired Americana flavors from the heart of Virginia. Our collaboration E.S.B. draws from the past with British crystal malts and Scottish yeast, but uses American hops to put our own stamp on the creation. Like this beer, The Steel Wheels draw you in from the first sip … not because their music is loud or in your face, but because it's surprising and original, and because its inspirations – a story, a character, a memory – have been brewed with just the right ingredients. Take time to drink slowly and listen truly. Wherever you are, get ready to sing along, to harmonize. Maybe even get up and dance" (source).
  • Blue Mountain Barrel House Mandolin, $12.19/750ml - "A deep golden beer born of a single malt. Balance derived from whole-flower hops. Created from water drawn deep beneath the feet of the world's oldest mountains. Flavor driven by a faithful dedication to excess. All brought to life by yeast from a holy place. Great beer is a riddle that does not need to be solved! (source).
  • Blue Mountain Barrel House Dark Hollow, $12.19/750ml, $7.09/375ml - "The mystery of great beer challenges the spirit of adventure in all who seek a higher level to this ancient brew. Dark Hollow blends the miracle of two crafts—brewing and distillation—to create a work greater than the sum of its parts. Our imperial stout has been aged in charred American oak bourbon barrels, patiently breathing in and out of the wood, gaining complexity, depth and character" (source).
  • Blue Mountain Barrel House Local Species, $10.99/750, $6.49/375ml - "Different. Secret. Native. A creation of deep-drawn well water, special barley malts, American hops and Belgian yeast. Aged in charred American White Oak bourbon barrels. A beer as original and beautiful as our native Brookie" (source).

St. Bernardus Tokyo | Selected New Beer of the Week

St. Bernardus Tokyo, $12.39/750ml
"A unique, single batch created for the opening
 of the St Bernardus pub in Tokyo" (source).


Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bell's Oberon: A Symbol of Summer and So Much More

Bell's Oberon was released this year on March 25, 2013. In the post below, staffer Greg 'Swig' Johnson reflects on what he believes this annual event—Oberon Day—has come to mean for craft beer enthusiasts and casual fans alike.

By Greg "Swig" Johnson

Ramble (Ober)on.

Now that another Oberon Day has come and gone, I've been reflecting on the significance of this day in West Michigan. The way I see it, Oberon has done one thing no other beer in West Michigan, the whole of Michigan, and possibly even the whole country has been able to do—Oberon has become a symbol for an entire season, and one of the best seasons at that: summer.

In a way, I'm indifferent to Oberon. That doesn't mean I think Oberon is a bad beer, not by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, it's quite the opposite. Oberon is consistently produced in high quantities and with high quality. My preference in beer styles has simply shifted over the years to where I don't reach for an Oberon when I might have in the past. Oberon has a different meaning to me now and this is where I feel justified in saying this beer has become a symbol.

The arrival of Oberon means that the end to winter is near and the seemingly endless reaches of summer are now within reach. Also, as a symbol, Oberon does not appeal only to the craft beer centric masses—year after year I see more and more BMC drinkers also reach for a six pack of Oberon when a Saturday summer BBQ is at hand. It has reached a scale of identifiability in Michigan that is unsurpassed by probably any other craft beer, which further confirms its place as a symbol more than any other seasonal craft beer offering.

This past Oberon Day, I embarked on a Michigan mini-adventure that was not Oberon centric. I wasn't seeking any of the countless Oberon release parties or blow-out pint specials that happen every year. However, as my afternoon travels turned into the evening, they brought me to Pints & Quarts in Norton Shores where, if anyone could guess, Oberon was on special for $2 a pint.

While hemming and hawing over the great beer list, thoughts of Oberon wouldn't leave my mind. I'm not sure if it had to do with the recent thawing of Lake Michigan, or seeing the cases and cases of Oberon walk into Siciliano's that morning, or maybe it was the $2 pint special. Whatever the case, I saddled up to a pint of Oberon, orange and all, and you know what? It was everything I thought it could be.

Now that the cold dark depths of winter have passed, I for one am happy to see that golden orange orb atop Bell's tap handles (even though I love winter). With Daylight Savings now behind us and wisps of sunlight reaching above the horizon well past 8pm, not to mention the dwindling snowpack, do as a recent and clever meme so aptly put it: Keep Calm and Oberon.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Making Maple Syrup and the Growing DIY Movement

Making syrup from sap takes time and effort
By Weston Eaton

As the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement continues to grow in popularity in West Michigan, especially in the arena of homebrewing, I would like to contribute this story in the attempt to increase the visibility of another craft practice with a rich history: making maple syrup. First, let me explain the essential basics in an effort to demystify how syrup is made. Second, I want to talk about my own experiences making syrup with friends at my family’s “cabin” more closely to make some points in regards to scale of production as well as why it is we choose to engage in DIY practices.

As any nature center will tell you, the watery sap of sugar maples contains about 3 - 4 percent sugar. Sap flows through the outer cambium, just behind the bark, from roots up to branches in the spring, or more specifically, when the freezing days give way to sunny, warm afternoons but the temperature again drops below 32F at night. Last year you will recall this happened early, but this syrup making season has been ideal—a lengthy streak of warm days and cold nights. Once the nights cease to freeze, the sap is no longer suited for syrup making. Sap collecting is therefore a highly seasonal activity, completely contingent on the weather.

To collect sap, syrup makers drill small, shallow holes and snugly tap in “spiles,” small spigots on which buckets are hung or hoses attached. Trees are tapped at a slight upward angle to encourage flow and on the south-eastern portion of the trunk, only a few feet above the forest floor. Trees may be tapped more than once, depending on their size, and a single tap can produce gallons of sap a day depending on the weather conditions. Once sap is collected, it is boiled down to a concentration of 66 percent sugar. Fifty gallons of sap will boil down to about one gallon of pure maple syrup.

While the above description covers the basics, it;s all still a bit vague. I want to use my own experience to unpack some lingering questions, mainly, how many trees are tapped and gallons collected? And how is sap boiled into syrup? I use my own experience because there are no universally right answers to these questions. In other words, there is no better or worse way to make syrup. Instead, like with other DIY practices, one needs to develop a practice that suits his or her personal and collective goals, while at the same time recognizing that one’s goals are not static but instead emerge and change in conjunction with their experiences. Let me provide some illustrations.

How many trees to tap and gallons to collect? The production plans we use at our cabin are by now so worn and familiar that I rarely give it a thought. This was not the case, however, nine years ago when we first began tapping. Back then, we adjusted our plans to our resources—to the trees within proximity, the tools we had access to, the number of buckets we had, and the time we could spend. In other words, these resources set the scale of our production.

How is sap boiled into syrup? Here our story is similar: what resources were at hand? As a homebrewer, propane burners made the most sense. We fabricated a small stainless syrup pan and holding tank and these resources constrained how it was we converted sap to syrup.

Over the years, however, resources have increased as has accumulated knowledge and lived experience. Mistakes made early on (tapping oak trees, boiling over or burning batches, buckets with frozen sap) were now much less likely to happen. There were now opportunities—bigger pans, moving to wood heat, vacation days from work—that offered the possibilities of significant change, mainly growth.

And here we come to the insight that I would like to add to DIY discussions. As resources and capacities are increased, how do we balance growth with our personal and collective goals for DIY practices? The point I want to make is a simple observation: it is possible to let projects get too big, and in doing so, overshadow the spirit of DIY. In my experience this happens in two non-exclusive ways. First, it's possible to upgrade one’s syrup making operation to the point where the complexity of the practice overtakes its original enjoyability. At a certain point, boiling down syrup can become a chore, this is especially so if lots of equipment needs to be operated and maintained (i.e., reverse osmosis systems, vacuum lines, hundreds of taps). Second, one may make two, four, ten, or a hundred times as much syrup as a small producer, but how much syrup is really necessary? I’ve met folks who only make syrup once every few years at the most due to their gigantic stock pile.

On the other hand, if the production system grows, so might our goals. Perhaps folks might choose to go into business with their sugar bush in the same way that homebrewers start their own breweries. This is common theme, and one that’s highly encouraged in our entrepreneurial culture. My argument, however, is different. We do not need to be professional brewers to enjoy making beer, nor turn our uncle’s back forty into a productive and marketable sugarbush to enjoy making syrup. In fact, it might just be the opposite! The brewers I know certainly love their jobs, but their work is very different from the late nights spent over boiling kettles in their apartment kitchens. The difference, I am arguing, is a matter of scale that becomes salient when we make a conscious decision to identify the threshold where enjoyment and enchantment can morph into chores and obligations. In other words, at a certain point creativity can dip into drudgery.

In conclusion, I want to suggest that DIY practices occupy a distinct space in our lives. For most of us, we engage in DIY activities not for reasons of efficiency—like saving time and money—but for personal, family, and collective creative enrichment and enjoyment. DIY activities create a space between the more rational obligations of life where our personal and collective creative identities can flourish. DIY practices therefore emerge more from communitarian inspirations than individual success. This flummoxes the entrepreneurial culture that can only calculate in terms of the individual and rational efficiency.