Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Summer of My Re-Content:

The sun is going aslant again, yellow and red are creeping into the green, and the hop harvest is in. Let us welcome back the best time of the year to enjoy beer and its close companion-- running up a monster appetite in pursuit of new performance horizons from 5k, to XC, to the marathon! But also, as an adieu to summer, let me tell you about my seasonal pilgrimages to the some of the continent's holiest sites, beer-wise.

You already know why late summer and fall are the best and most exciting season of the year to train and race-- perfect temperatures in which to enjoy your hard-won summer blood volume bounty, and a weekly cornucopia of great race opportunities at all distances, and on all surfaces, to test your mettle. But what, you may be wondering, is the beer angle? The answer is that fall, at most North American latitudes, is really the only true "all-styles" season. Until early October, most of us are still enjoying summer warmth in the day time, making Goses and other sours a great post-run choice. But the earlier sunsets and cooler evening temps make the thought of after-dinner desert stouts and Belgian quadrupels seem appealing again too (see my other posts for style notes). Then, of course, there are the lovely pale ales*, enjoyable all year round-- but all the more so when you are hitting your highest training volumes of the year. And, with the completion of the hop harvest, brewers have the full palate of flavour-colours with which to paint their masterpieces.

*When it comes to the pales, I suggest starting the fall with those hazy, juicy, astringent, mid-ABV offerings now going under the name of NEIPA-- North East/New England IPA-- and seeking out some of the maltlier, higher ABV IPAs of the "West Coast" or "American" IPA varieties as we move in to autumn-proper.

Hopping Along-- Summer 2019:

I left you with rapturous praise of Portland, Ore-- equally of its beers and its lovely running nooks and crannies. From the west coast, I went straight to Winnipeg, MB, where I had among the pleasantest beer and running travel surprises ever, I am pleased to report. Knowing I would be spending an entire week in this prairie town-- and right after having luxuriated in the bounty of west coast beer and trails-- it was with mild panic that I searched for some retail and tap options, my worst fear being that I would be arriving in a mid-continental beer desert, drier than the summer soil itself. But if proof were ever needed that the ongoing craft beer revolution has cadres everywhere, this capital-of-cold was it. Not only did I find a retailer with quality and freshness surpassing most of Ontario's government-run outlets (a low bar, but still), I found a couple of local micros offering 30/35min competitors. The best place to get fresh pours in the 'Peg turned out to be fancy little mall in the famous Forks area of downtown, a couple  hundred meters from Manitoba's famous Human Rights Museum-- and , as it happened, not far from a decent running trail running along the Assiniboine River, whose split from the famous Red River gives the Forks its name (I did not end up running this trail, but I walked it as far as I could in the direction of Assiniboine Park). The Winnipeg beer of the week turned out to be a hazy pale called Juicii, courtesy of Kilter Brewing. (My verdict was confirmed by veteran elite and low-key hopster Dylan Wykes and a couple of beer/run aficionados who were, like me, in town for the National Half Marathon Championships). Juicii was just that-- juicy, in the mode of the aforementioned NEIPA, which is to say thin and astringent on the palate, but not unpleasantly so, with prominent notes of grapefruit and lime, with a subtle malt undertow to maintain balance. This was a mid-summer beer to be sure; so if you're Winnipegger and haven't tried it, or are planning to visit, get it into you well before the snow flies!

The running revelation of trip was a conservation area in the south of the city called Assiniboine Forest-- as ideal an urban running location as I have seen anywhere in North America! The Forest is a preserve of native flora and prairie wildlife with a pond in the middle. It is, of course, very flat, with a grid of wide, well groomed trails, perfect for both easy running and serious workouts. And it has a rail-trail along its southern border that seems to go on for as many more miles as you'd need for even the longest of long runs. The Winnipeg climate being what it is, I'm sure this space is not runnable for much of the year. But, from April till the prairie winter begins to turn her screws, the running denizens of this hardiest of Canadian towns have themselves a proper oasis-- a quiet place to watch the trees fill in, then change colour, and a green shelter from the punishing mid-summer sun.

From here it was off to three of beer's most revered sites of worship and enjoyment, which just happen to be pretty great for running too!

The first was Waterbury, Vermont, the unassuming Northeast capital of the Revolutionary Republic of Beer. What is Waterbury, and what is the strategic nature of it geographical location, beer-wise? At a glance, it is nothing but a long-forgotten whistle-stop on a North-South rail-line near a bend in the serpentine Winooski River (which flooded it completely in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy back in 2012). But, in beer terms, it is the birthplace of the Alchemist Brewery and its most famous product, the American Double IPA known as Heady Topper, the longest running #1 ranked beer on BeerAdvocate's famous Top 250. Today, Waterbury sits equidistant between the new Alchemist facility, 10 miles away in Stowe (relocated from it modest original site-- the Prohibition Pig pub and restaurant-- as a result of the flood of 2012), and the new Lawson's facility in Wakefield. A few miles to the north sits the Frost Beer Works, and, to the south, the River Roost Brewery, both newish purveyors of some of the finest examples of the style that has made the region famous-- the NEIPA. But there is perhaps nowhere better than Waterbury itself to actually drink all these fine concoctions, thanks to the existence of the Blackback Pub, situated near the town's principal corner. The Blackback is one of the best places I have ever been to drink and discuss beer. Serious patrons will sit at its rectangular bar, in order to confer with their voluminously informed servers over pour choices, or to perhaps chat about all things Vermont Beer (e.g. whether there is any Double Sunshine left at Lawson's, or the best way to get to Hill Farmstead) with fellow enthusiasts from all over the USA. To avoid the necessity of driving, I would recommend staying in Waterbury itself, with the best option being the reasonably priced (but often booked) Stagecoach Inn, one of the country's famous 19th C historic hoteliers. The Stagecoach serves a brilliant breakfast featuring Vermont farm products, as well as cans of the best known Alchemist and Lawson's brews-- Heady Topper, Focal Banger, and Sip of Sunshine-- any time of day (and I saw patrons quietly drinking these brews at breakfast). For your running needs, Waterbury has a recreation park out of which some lovely grass trails extend, and there are many miles of fairly quiet dirt or tarred roads within easy reach. And if you fancy a 2-3 hour moderate hike instead, the Camel's Hump Mountain trailhead is only 5 miles from the center of town. (Nursing a calf-strain, I hit this trail hard for two hours before hitting the Blackback equally hard!).

After Waterbury, it was off to Montreal. I love drinking beer and running in MTL, particularly in the summer, but this time the reason for the trip was the Canadian Track and Field Championships at the Claude Robilliard Centre in the city's north end, a little further north of which I found a very cool 5k gravel loop around what looked like an old open-pit mine site. My Strava friends told me it's well trod, with the loop record held by none other that Quebec's homegrown Olympian Charles Philibert-Thiboutot! I did a few turns out there, but also did my obligatory run up Mount Royal-- a must-do any time of year, even in the winter, when the feet of many strolling Montrealers frequently flatten the snow into runability (provided there is no underlying ice). For beer, where else in the city but the Dieu du Ciel! Brassierie, maker of Canada's highest rated beer across styles-- the coffee infused stout know as Pèchè Mortel? But its the ambience of DdC! and Le Plateau de Montrèal/Mile End neighbourhood  where it is located that is at least half of the experience. DdC! beer is world class by any measure, but the pub itself is pure Montrèal-- cool, confident, and unassuming, even blasè, in its brilliance. The patrons know that their neighborhood bar makes killer beer, but they are not precious about it. On a given weekend night, you will see couples on dates, singles reading or working on laptops, and groups of locals, their tables festooned with the brilliant colours of the many varieties of beer (usually 10-15) on tap. Often, I feel like the only "beer tourist" in the place! On this visit, I made sure to have one of their seasonal classics, Solstice D'ètè, a sour wheat ale infused with raspberries, along with their plucky little pale ale Ultra Mosaika and, of course, the aforementioned Pèchè Mortel!

I capped the summer by making the second of my two annual visits to the Treehouse Brewery in unassuming Sturbridge, MA, a colonial-era town about an hour west of Boston best known for "antiquing", if it's known for anything much at all. For those very new to craft beer, Treehouse is the font of no fewer than 8 of Beer Advocate's top 50 and at least a dozen more in the top 250. Its flagship brew, Julius, is arguably the original template for the hazy, oat-infused, NEIPA. I had made stops (pilgrimages?) to Tree House several times, but this would be my first time since the completion of the major renovation of its astounding facility, and the regular availability of pours from its gorgeously appointed tasting room. The attraction for me on this trip was an opportunity to enjoy a glass or two al fresco, in one of its dozens of Adirondack chairs, situated on terraces overlooking the facility and valley below (and be sure to click the link above for a photo of exactly what I'm talking about!). I did this two evenings in row, just to confirm it as the sublime beer-drinking experience I drove all that way expecting to have. It did not disappoint! (Beers had were Very Hazy, Julius, Green, and Eureka! w/Citra). And a special gustatory shout-out to BT's Smoke House, which may have been established with Treehouse beer in mind (and they let you bring your cans in!).

The running highlight was the discovery of the beautiful Wells State Park and its network of well groomed trails a mere 5 minute drive from the centre of town. I logged a couple of hours total over several rolling loops and never felt like leaving!

Happy Thanksgiving, hoofers and hopsters!          

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Keep Portland Beered

The TV show Portlandia-- an oft brilliant comedic study of Portand, Oregon's cultural eccentricities-- proudly announced Portland's "weirdness' to the rest of the continent. It said nothing, however, about city's centrality to the sub-cultures of both distance running and craft beer-- an oversight I am here to correct, as per my mandate as interlocutor between the worlds of hops and hopping.

The nearby Nike campus and the essentially Nike-owned (as far as athletics are concerned) University of Oregon, along with the congenially temperate climate and consequent leafyness of Portland, have made the city and environs synonymous with serious distance running since the 1970s (around the time nearby Eugene was dubbed Track Town, USA). Each spring the region plays host to three important gatherings of the sport's faithful: the NCAA Track and Field Championships (except for this year, during which the iconic Hayward Field at the U of O is undergoing a major facelift); the Prefontaine Classic (named for American distance running's James Dean, the late Steve Prefontaine, a former multiple American Record-holder and Oregonian); and last (and, to be fair, least), Portland Track Festival.  I was in town last week for the latter.

Running in the city of Portland can be summarized in two words: Forest Park. Central Park in NYC is a well established-- and great-- place to run. It is central, and it is a park. But Forest Park is a park within a forest that is also very central (to Portland proper). Forest Park wins!

I managed to squeeze in two runs of an hour or so during my short visit this year (to go with several similar runs over the past three years) and was once again gobsmacked by the beauty of the place. If you've ever wondered how many shades of green there are in nature, visit Forest Park at high noon on a sunny day and start counting. You will finish sometime in the year 2050. I would strongly suggest starting from the Ridge Trail Trailhead, starting just north of the St. John's bridge (about the 11 mile mark) and heading south. The trail is hard-packed and wide, though studded with smooth rocks here and there. In other words, it is not a "running trail" in the "trail-running" sense; it is a trail in the plain old running sense. As per its name, it follows a ridge on the escarpment overlooking the city from the west. It seems to slope downward in the middle (I ran between mile markers 6.5 and 11.5), making for a net flat runs with some 3-4% undulations throughout. As I say, the highlight of the place is the play of light on vegetation; every variety of Pacific Northwest flora filters and patterns the sunlight in a billion permutations per minute. Views off of the edge of the trail are vertiginously stunning; you are among the tops of trees whose trunks ascend out of the Jurassic green far below. At times you wish you were a walker, so that you could behold the phytogenetic riot around you a little more lovingly. In short, if you truly appreciate your own existence, do NOT go to Portland Oregon and NOT run this trail.

And then there is the beer. And here, a special tip of the hat to the tiny corner tap house Hoplandia, situated in the village of St. John's, at the west end of the aforementioned St. John's bridge, a very convenient 5 minute drive from the trailhead. Upon entry, hip beermen will expertly guide your search for the top west coast brews, according to your personal style-fancy. You can pay top dollar for a rare barrel-aged sour or stout, which you are free to crack and imbibe in-store, to test your guide's acumen; or, you can pay five dollars for a pride-of-Oregon IPA (say, a Block 15 Sticky Hands or Fresh Flow). My pleasure this visit, however, was a draft glass of Hill Farmstead (Vermont) Florence, a mixed wheat saison-- a zesty, bitter/sour concoction perfect for immediate post-run enjoyment. Hill Farmstead beer-- among the best in the country, nay, the world-- is almost never seen outside of central Vermont, so this was a rare treat (about whose appearance so far from home our host was cryptic-- something about a "favour" from allegedly very eccentric owner Sean Hill). But, thanks to a lead from fellow beerster/runner Evan Andrin-- he of Western/Queen's XC and message board (in)fame--, I discovered what would be the trip's winning beer: Mandala, a New England style juice-bomb put together by Portland's Great Notion Brewery. This IPA, were it a runner, would have won the Portland Track Festival men's 10k in a handy 27:55. Unfortunately, other GN ales-- a couple of high ABV IPAs-- were not of the same caliber (due, we surmised, to subtle quality control issues), and, according to our guide at Hoplandia, GN's best efforts are its one-off experimental offerings-- hopped sours and fruity stouts. Still, if Mandala was an example of GN on it's best day, it is definitely in the running for the PNW A-list of breweries. With our time and daily alcohol quota under pressure, we did not get a chance to sample any of these beers, which were available in abundance at their downtown brew pub. But, our targets for next year are squarely in our sights!

Check back next week for legs 2-4 of my ongoing four-city tour, featuring one likely beer/hoofing locale (Vancouver BC) and a couple of less likely ones (Winnipeg MB and Duluth MN).

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Stouts: Not Just for Breakfast Anymore (they're also for dessert)!

In the early, heady days of my craft beer explorations, I thought the concept of a "breakfast" stout was a beer advertising and marketing gimmick meant to conjure images and sensations of rich, hearty, healthfulness. This suspicion was reinforced when I saw the label for Founders Brewery's very fine Breakfast Stout, which featured a Norman Rockwellian baby, bibbed and perched in its high chair, devouring its morning oatmeal. Surely no one, least of all infants, drank this darkest, bitterest, and often most alcoholic of beers before the sun made it over the yardarm!? I was later to learn, upon visiting the Beer Advocate website's famous message board-- and its iconic "What beer are you drinking now" thread in particular-- that the hard-core will indeed drink beer, and stouts in particular, in the am. (No posts appeared to have been made by babies, but then how would we know for sure?)

The habitual drinking of alcohol in the morning marks what would seem to me to be one clear line of division between the worlds whose intersection this blog is meant to explore-- those of serious running and craft beer. Runners may occasionally drink a beer or two following a morning road race-- with the Boilermaker 15k, which ends near Utica NY's famous Matt Brewing Company, and features heavy consumption during its awards ceremony, held within the historic confines of the brewery, being a famous example-- but we almost universally will not drink before our daily training labours are complete. Today's stout beers, and especially the many "breakfast" varieties, are, however, a uniquely adapted mealtime style for runners. And, you guessed it, I am here to explain exactly how and why!

I won't waste any time explaining exactly what a stout is, and how it differs from a "porter" (it doesn't, as regards fundamentals), except to say that it is: a very dark (often impenetrably so), owing to the use of roasted rather than malted grains; lightly hopped; and, bitter/roasy in taste, similar to premium black coffee. Many beer novices will be familiar with this style, thanks to the ubiquity of its most famous exemplar, the macro behemoth Guinness Irish Dry Stout. These elements offer a firm foundation for the addition of numerous, complimentary flavour variations-- variations that frequently succeed in turning this sometimes thin and very bitter style (and many experience their first Guinness as "ashy" tasting) into something much more comfortable, like a hearty breakfast... or, a rich dessert!

Today's top stouts-- and they are often the top beers across style, with no fewer than 18 different offerings in Beer Advocate's top 50 brews-- are about as far from Guinness as Nescafe instant is from a cup of Shenandoah Joe's finest. Using very heavy grain bills, complimentary adjuncts like coffee and dark chocolate, and barrel-aging (typically Bourbon, but also rum), brewers have ramped up the richness (and, in most cases, the ABV) to levels undreamt of by the workaday stout-fancier of 20 years ago. The result has been the advent of the "dessert beer"-- a style that happens to be an ideal replacement for the dessert-proper so often craved by calorie starved runners following their last meal of the day, or while relaxing in the later evening, following a full day or work/study and training. Why ideal? Because, contrary to popular belief, even the richest imperial stout has fewer calories per typical serving (and 5-6 ounces of the best stouts is easily enough) than a sugary dessert , with most of the beer's calories accounted for by the alcohol and carbs, versus the dessert's simple sugars and fat-- meaning you get a little relaxation with your beer calories AND your preserve your precious beer-palate (for use on the many other beer styles I have lovingly discussed in this space!).

If you are Canadian you will, I'm afraid, have a harder time getting your hands on the sub-30/35 level imperial stouts to which I refer. Canada has steadily advanced its IPA ranks over the past few years, but its imperial stout forces have become a distinct reverse salient. In my Canadian travels, I have yet to find dark offerings at all comparable to those available in most US states-- beers like Prairie Artisan Ales' (Tulsa OK) Bomb!, Westbrook Brewing Co.'s (Mount Pleasant SC) Mexican Cake, or even the much more widely available Ten Fidy , out of the Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons CO. The lone exception to this rule is Dieu De Ciel! of Montreal's sublime Pèchè Mortel (which is annually offered in its other-level Bourbon Barrel iteration). While not as chewably rich as some of the aforementioned American heavies, Pèchè is an elegantly balanced coffee stout with a slightly sharp mouthfeel and subtle sweetness. I have had dozens of them in my life and they never fail to delight. As per the above, they are best enjoyed following an evening meal, after sunset, and in the cooler seasons of the year. And they are enjoyed best of all in the ineffably cool confines of the Brasserie Dieu Du Ciel! itself (special note to those attending this year's Athletics Canada National Track and Field Championships in Laval QC!).

Hopping Along in...Ottawa, Ontario:

Speaking of National Championships, I spent an exciting weekend at our (Canada's) 10k showdown in Ottawa, Ontario-- which, while culturally staid, is lovely for running and, perhaps surprisingly to many, drinking quality beer! Originally set to run the thing myself, I was reduced by an injury concern to covering the gorgeous Rideau Canal-side course at an easy pace, taking in the action along the way. Highlights of the weekend were watching (and later drinking beer with) friend and former athlete Dylan Wykes-- a beer-fancier whose palate I helped out of infancy many years ago-- win the men's championship, and spending time with current athlete (and top Canadian masters runner) Colin Fewer, along with former Queen's athletes Alex Wilkie and Jeff Archer, all beersters of note. Colin, not so coincidentally, is a home brewer with a sterling beer palate, and yet another runner whose beer-love I am proud to have instigated. The beers consumed were: Beyond the Pale (Ottawa)'s flagship IPA Aromatherapy (had young and fresh at BTP itself); a couple of new offerings from Ottawa's very fine young brewery Dominion City (the DIPA No Secrets, black IPA Mèlodie Noire, and go-to single IPA Sunsplit); and, some of Bicycle Brewery's On the Lam IPA. Bicycle is a new (to me) Ottawa brewery suggested by Dylan, a newly located resident familiar with the top brews of his former home, Vancouver BC, soon to be featured in this space! Like the top athletes on the road that weekend, all beers were very low or sub-30/35 performers, with the championship going this time to Dom City's No Secrets, an exquisitely bright, citrusy, and slightly astringent little offering that ranks just below their now discontinued superstar Null and Void



Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Sour You Doing? Try This Pucker After Your Summer Workouts!

The first and most enduring beer/run link was forged when hot, tired athletes reached for a "cold one" following a hot summer race or workout, thus combining three of the things we crave after such efforts: Thirst quenchment; a few calories to kick off the recovery process; and, a little brain-relief. The post-race keg was not permitted in the jurisdiction in which I started road racing (Ontario, the Canadian province founded and politically dominated by Scottish Presbyterians), but it was a staple of the post-race repose just south of the border in "upstate" New York. Even the tiny town of Cape Vincent, which hosted a late summer 5 mile race whose start had to be delayed so as not to interfere with Sunday church comings and goings (thus making it even hotter!), tapped a keg of lager for its 100 or so sweaty finishers (then also offered river access, for a slightly tipsy, and almost certainly un-insureable, dive into the cool August flow.) Like everyone else, I loved this ritual, right down to the drowsy ferry ride back to Canada and the mild late-Sunday afternoon hangover. What I recognized even then, however, was that the beer served was barely palatable, no matter how tired, hot, hungry, or in need of release you might have felt. A favourite offering at "North Country" road races in those days was Genesee Cream Ale (vile, even when ice cold), but you could also find yourself subjected to an Old Milwaukee or a Bud Light.

Inexplicably, and probably out of sheer habit, many runners still reach for beers like this on a post-run summer day. And, when challenged by runners like me to broaden their post-run beer horizons, some will reply that the don't want their run/beer relationship "complicated" by concerns about brew quality. As the Globe and Mail editorialist I referenced last week-- the guy who wrote that abject "defense of crappy beer"--, they will say: "Sometimes I just want a cold beer! Away with your beer snobbery!

Since the mandate of Hop Along is not mere beer snobbery (although a pinch of beer snobbery does go into every batch of Hop Along!), but also to offer constructive suggestions to help the serious runner raise his/her been fancying to a similar level, I now present you with a thrilling alternative to your post-summer run problem-- one that involves little or know extra expense or hassle (assuming you aren't too geographically isolated): The sour ale.

When someone says "sometimes I just want a cold beer" what I hear is: "Sometimes I want a malt-based, lower alcohol beverage that tastes refreshing when served cold-- that "sometimes" being when I am hot and thirsty, such as after a run or workout in summer temperatures, and want to drink such a beverage relatively quickly." There was a time when there was indeed only one solution to this problem-- the macro lager, pilsner, or pale ale. For at least the past 10 years, however, the only excuses for such a sad resort have been complacency, not having discovered Hop Along, or perhaps a latent adolescent palate (and there's your pinch of snobbery for this edition!). Today, the hot runner is easily extricated from his/her predicament by one of many excellent pale and blond ales, and by my favourite hot weather style-- the Gose, a variant of the now almost ubiquitous "sour beer".

As the link above explains, not all sour beers are like the Gose or "Berliner Weiss". Lambics, for instances, while tart, are also often heavy and pretty complex flavour-wise. They thus demand slower imbibation and a little more time and attention to fully appreciate. The lighter, more carbonated sours are often brewed with wheat malt and, increasingly, fruit adjuncts for secondary fermentation (i.e. when the yeast dines on the added fructose). The sourness in the style is created by these fruit adjuncts, by the introduction of the same kind of bacteria that creates yoghurt (lactobacillus), and/or by the use of wild yeasts (formerly an unwanted by-product of the brewing process, now "tamed" to great effect by expert brewers). The Gose, a German style so popular 800 years ago that entire drinking establishments were dedicated to its enjoyment (or so claims the can blurb on my favourite brand, made by South Carolina's Westbrook Brewery), is the best version of the sour for post-run quaffing, and it is now available from dozens of breweries. The classic version includes no fruit adjuncts, just the original coriander and salt, producing the intriguing interplay of spice, dank sourness, and savoriness that is its signature. Weighing in at 4-5% abv, at typical can of Gose is a 3-4 sipper at best; lacking the hop bitterness characteristic of ales, even your lower alcohol variants, this beer goes down quickly and deliciously. Even the fruitier, higher alcohol varieties goes down quickly and very pleasantly. So delightful are the sour beers on a post-run summer afternoon that I have single-handedly created new beer lovers by offering or suggesting one. Next time you are hot, sweaty, tired, and hungry from your summer exertions, reach not for your wretched lager! Instead, retrieve one of the sours you have purchased from your local retailer after having read this blog. Widely available brands (in Canada) include Collective Art's rotating line-up of Goses and Berliner Weisses and Nicklebrook's sometimes very fruity renditions. But, if you're looking for something above the recreational level-- something sub-30/35 speed-- get thee to the Bellwoods Brewery in Toronto (or to a more discerning bar in your area) or to Montreal's Dieu du Ceil! (their Summer Solstice sour is one of the highlights of summer, and one of the highest rated beers in Canada across all styles).

What am I Drinking this Week?

On a tip from fellow runner and beer-man Kurtis Marlowe, also our massage guy at Queen's and Physi-Kult, I broke down and tried Flying Monkey's audacious triple IPA, Sparkle Puff (I say "broke down" because, generally speaking, Flying Monkey has not lived up to its early promise as regards IPAs. Their offerings have been generally under-hopped or poorly executed, leaving them with a mouth full of dust, courtesy of regional rival Collective Arts in particular). Sparkle Puff is decidedly NOT the kind of post-run thirst quencher described above, nor was it brewed to be. It is a 10% abv monster that is not afraid to show its particulate (and it is visibly laden with sediment), and that needs to be imbibed slowly and deliberately. I was initially unimpressed, but certainly not put off. It was pleasantly peachy in smell and presentation, with bitterness only in somewhat boozy finish (less boozy than the 10% would lead one to expect, however). When it warmed, and after I poured the remaining sediment into the glass, however, it jumped a level, gaining some weight and complexity (other fruit flavour notes and some dankness appeared). This beer ultimately earned its relatively high BA rating, but I would recommend it strictly to more experienced IPA fanciers. For anyone else, it may come off as stuntishly incomprehensible (what's with all that sediment!?). And, of course, go easy, or consider splitting with a friend, lest you get knocked on your skinny runner's ass by the abv!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Beer, Running, and Why We Need Them-- Now More than Ever

Allow me to be a little earnest-- maybe even somewhat existential--about the foci of this blog. Poo-poo-ers of the entire enterprise of writing about beer, running, and their synergy-- not least my own tee totaling, sugar-addicted, assistant coach/occasional designated driver-- are most likely to wax dismissive about the beer side of the thing. Beer, they're inclined to say, is just beer; and that, while "fine", beer is not worth talking about, let alone caring about as regards how it tastes, or who made it for us, and how. As for the running part, most people are willing to tolerate its serious treatment, but only insofar as they see it as physically healthy on an individual level. For many people, including people who run, any interest beyond that is strictly a sub-cultural matter, or else just another element of the white noise of narcissism hissing in the background of our daily lives. I am here to make the modest but serious case for why craft beer (i.e. beer made for you with vision and purpose) and running are, for similar reasons, deeply important for modern life today.

Let start with the fact that making great beer and training to cover long distances as fast as possible are both gratuitously difficult.

It is, of course, very easy to make beer that hundreds of millions of people will find "acceptable", and that will disappear into the basic, taken-for-granted functionality of daily life-- the kind of product people will refer to when they say, as this Globe and Mail editorialist did last weekend, in a weak defense of "crappy beer": "sometimes I just want a cold beer". And, of course, running has been almost completely gratuitous since at least the time of Phidippides, being one of the slowest and least efficient ways to cover long distances, as good as we human animals happen to be at it.

But when it comes to craft beer and training to race long distances on foot, the extra difficulty is the point of the whole business. Life of the kind human beings are uniquely capable of living-- life beyond the realm of instinct and mere physical necessity-- begins with activities that are freely chosen because their performance makes us reflect on what it means to be alive at all. These activities are by definition going to be challenging of our uniquely human capacities, whether physical, mental, or creative/spiritual. Because the age in which we live is characterized by the increasingly unfashionability of anything that is difficult, or that requires our undivided, unmediated attention, many of these humanizing activities-- e.g. reading serious fiction, quilting, learning a new language, or to play a musical instrument-- are also going to seem earnestly old-fashioned, even fusty. And if/when the value of their pursuit is defended, it will often be in terms of their functionality for some other, more important, undertaking, such as training "the brain" to be better at a "job" (i.e. something that pays money that will enable more distracted consumption), or simply living longer without becoming demented or infirm-- in other words, rarely as ends-in-themselves.

Then, alongside the actual devaluing of difficult and authentically human pursuits, we see the attempts of marketing and advertising to appropriate the language of authentic meaning in order to sell mere consumption-- the easiest and least authentically human thing there is-- as a means to achieve them, or at least their pastiche. And all without a trace of irony!

Thus we have the words "artisanal", "local", "small batch", "hand-crafted" attached to products that may or may not be any of these things, or may not actually need to be in order to serve their functional purpose (and often mass-produced things from far away-- things like grain, furniture, and even fruits and vegetables-- get their basic job done as well, and more cheaply, thus affordably, than their "local", "artisanal" alternatives.) Often, the marketing of something as one of the above things is just an excuse to charge gullible, well-heeled customers more money for a product that is no different or better than its mass-produced alternative. Think, here, of Whole Foods.  

Craft beer and running, on the other hand, are two examples of the real, human deal. Beer, like a good meal, is something that really does benefit from smaller batch and local production (though not when it comes to the sourcing of ingredients). The "crafty-ness" of craft beer is distinctly NOT a marketing gimmick. What makes it difficult to produce well, and what limits its scale-ability, is also what makes it special. And whether a stunning craft beer is "good for you", in some hygienic sense, is completely irrelevant. Like many things, it will end you prematurely if misused (and maybe even slightly prematurely even if used properly-- the jury is out on that one). But its value can't be measured in these terms; its value in the experiencing and in the reflecting upon (not to mention in the making, for those with the skill). It is only "good for you" in the way that anything that makes you authentically enjoy the life you are living is "good for you". The rewards of serious running are likewise strictly in the doing-- in the overcoming, and in the reflecting on the experience of being a creature that needs to struggle to overcome things in order to be truly alive. After all, even the most health-conscious, hypochondriac runner knows that it can't all be about living longer or warding off dementia. Deep down, we all register the truth of the old t-shirt meme about eating right, living well, and dying anyway. We run because it lights us up in ways that we can't quite understand, but that go straight to something deep and very old within us.

But perhaps most importantly, and unlike those things in life that are mere means to some other end-- like getting "physically healthy"-- or that exist to distract us, craft beer and running are two things that promote authentic sociability-- that, in other words, bring us together in friendly and open ways. Things that are pitched as making us "healthier/better" are always addressed to our lone, individual selves, pitted against one another in competition for scarce resources, or against natural decline itself. Likewise for things meant to distract  or merely "amuse" us; they tend to be isolating. Like many other odd, difficult, or increasingly old-fashioned pursuits, craft beer and running have the capacity to create communities. Anyone who inhabits the worlds of both beer and serious running will know how much aficionados love to gather-- online or in person-- and talk about the finer points of the thing they love. Just as often, they will enjoy, in silent reflection and wonder, the community of people who understand, even if they can't clearly say it, what's great, even profound, about the thing they love. When it comes to craft beer, we reflect on and talk about the thing as a product ingeniously made to delight us with its creativity and sensory brilliance. We think about the beer's creator, and his/her hybrid technical/culinary virtuosity-- but also generosity in having devoted him/herself so completely to something so tricky and, for most, so relatively unremunerative (because even the best beer is almost always priced modestly when compared with wine and spirits of similar caliber). When it comes to running, we talk about the joy of a plan well executed-- and rewarded-- or of the heartbreak of unexpected failure, and we think about how many many other runners, at all levels, and at any given time, are experiencing one or the other. And we support each other by listening, complimenting, celebrating, or commiserating.

Increasingly, and brilliantly, these two worlds come together, when runners, freshly exercised, assemble to enjoy the growing abundance of good beer that the craft brewing revolution has bestowed. And what, pray tell, do we need more of these days than authentic sociability?

Hopping Along in... London, Ontario:

Last week's running travel took me to the "other" London (Ontario), which shares with its namesake...very little! One thing the two do have in common, however, is a lovely river running through them (London-the-lesser's is much smaller, and nowhere near the sea, but probably cleaner, for what that's worth). And along that river is a very nice running and biking trail-- the Thames River Trail. The trail is gently rolling and paved, but you can get onto the grass alongside the asphalt here and there if you want to. It is generally leafy, but with several open views of the downtown skyline. The times I have run on it it has been lightly trafficked and thus blissfully quiet and free of distraction. If there are interesting or historically notable landmarks along it, I have yet to see them. You would have to ask a member of the thriving running community there, such as marathon star Leslie Sexton, who undoubtedly knows this trail the way veteran swimmers know the black line at the bottom of a pool! I accessed the trail very quickly and easily from the Western University campus, so check it out if you are in the vicinity for business or pleasure. For quiet, convivial running in the immediate environs of mid-sized Canadian city, it is hard to do better.

The beer highlight of my London excursions is always dinner and pours at the outstanding Milos Craft Beer Emporium, a bit of a curiosity in a downtown otherwise catering to a distinctly macro, sports-bar palate. Milos consistently offers the all-star line-up of Ontario crafts, with a particular fondness for the very fine Bellwoods Brewery stable of IPAs, pales, and sours, of which I partook (in running terms, compare Bellwoods  to the the new men's London Western TC distance group-- lots of sub-30s). But proprietor Milos (a Czech transplant, I am told) went whole-other-level on this occasion by listing a bottle of the vanishingly rare-- indeed, all but unavailable in Canada-- Westvleteren 12, a Belgian abbey ale of world renown. "Westy" 12 is a quadrupel ale weighing in at 10.3 abv. Despite the scandalous price, I split one with friend and local elite Chris Ballestrini, seen below with the prize! As Chris, experiencing his first taste of the beer could--and exuberantly did--attest, Westy 12 is a divine mystery. It smells like the grape flavouring familiar to drinkers of children's pop beverages and/or young adult "alco-pops", but the cloying aroma instantly gives way on the palate to the familiar nut and dark, sweet fruit flavour notes of the quadrupel, along with the bitter yeastiness that is a feature of all belgian strong ales. The combined effect of the sweet, faux fruit smell and heavy malt middle was one of baffling lightness. Until it actually hit the brain, there was no hint of the 10.3% within. I have sampled many quads, and this one is very close to sui generis, like many of the best of other styles (e.g. Heady Topper, among IPAs). How fast is a Westy 12? As a long established 26:49 performer, it could be the Sammy Kipketer of beers!


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Features: Philly; Running Fast and Drinking Well with Connor Black; and, What I'm Drinking This Week

Now that I've confirmed and explained what you probably always suspected about the profound complimentarity of good  beer and running, and have given you a fun new way to rate your beers, I will, as promised, and without further adieu, kick off the features that will be Hop Along's foundations.

Hopping Along in...Philly PA:

Philadelphia PA, one of the oldest cities in North America, was an epicenter of political ferment in the late colonial period. Later, it was an important site of Civil Rights/African American liberation struggles in the Northeast. And where there is political discussion, there are the beverages that sustain and enliven it-- coffee* (for the daytime) and beer (for the evening). In fact, as Thomas Pychon's brilliantly colourful historical novel of the late Revolutionary period, Mason and Dixon, depicts it, Philly has been a great place to drink and talk since at least its late 18C heyday, when its most famous citizen-- the world historic polymath, diplomat, and eventual Founding Father, Ben Franklin-- could be regularly encountered, late-of-an-evening, drinking beer and regaling patrons with his "electricity tricks".

Philly also has an interesting geography-- one that happens to be pretty ideal for running. A city of rivers (the Schuylkill and Delaware) and tributary creeks that create natural interstices in the built environment, Philadelphia sports several cool and unbroken waterside running trails. The one I chose to hit was the Wissahickon Trail in Wissahickon Park, situated near our Airbnb in the northwest corner of the city. Sadly, a tight timeline prevented me from running on the gravel section of the trail, but, the paved southern portion was sufficiently stunning-- a bike and foot path that followed the twists of the creek, traversing it with small bridges when necessary. Traffic was light and temperatures were ideal in the shade of the ravine, and with the creek, swollen with recent spring rains, rolling alongside at a good clip.

The reason for the trip was the 2019 Penn Relays, so the venue of choice for beers was UPenn's University City Tap House. I've been to the Tap House several times now, but never in weather sufficiently benign to take full advantage of its spectacular 2nd story patio. (Definitely get outside if you visit in the later spring, summer, or early fall). The tap list was good, as usual, but not quite up to the standard of the past few years. I'm speculating, but I fear dead hand of Big Beer may be establishing its grip on the place. I noted two or three Anheuser-Busch/InBev products among the taps, with the bottle list exclusively ABIB swill.Time will tell, I guess. Holding the craft fort on the menu were a couple of lesser known regional IPAs-- Funk's Silent Disco out of Emmanus PA and the inelegantly named (and hemp infused) 420 Strain G13 IPA, courtesy of the Sweetwater Brewery in Atlanta GA. The more conventional of the two, Silent Disco, was also the better, but both were very good examples of the style-- the American IPA, N/E variant-- in other words citrusy, cloudy, and a little dank. As very high 29:50/34:50 brews, these could handily win your local road race, but would struggle to distinguish themselves from the pack at the regional level, particularly if that region was the northeast of the USA-- the Rift Valley of beer, x100.  

*Speaking of Philly coffee and politics, I am compelled to offer a shout-out to Uncle Bobby's Coffee and Books, a place we very luckily stumbled upon on our way out of town. The coffee and snacks were top notch, as was the ambience. The owner is Philadelphia writer and activist Marc Lamont Hill and the shop is located in the famous Germantown section of town.

Run Fast, Drink Well:

Our feature athlete in this installment of RFDW is none other than 2018 CIS XC Champ, and new post-collegiate journeyman Connor Black. We we were lucky enough to have Connor along with us on the trip to Philly-- and Conner, a regular craft consumer whose go-to is Muskoka's Twice and Mad Tom, was lucky enough to land himself a Lawson's Sip or Sunshine , courtesy of my all-time favourite beer store Sam the Beer Man, in Binghamton NY enroute. Originating in Vermont in early 2010s, SOS is classic example of the N/E style, and one that still easily ranks among the best ever brewed. Like its gorgeous yellow can, it is bright, floral, and citrusy. But, at 8% abv, it also has a very sturdy malt backbone and lingering, complex finish that becomes more pronounced as it warms. On the 10k scale, SOS is a rare sub-27 beer, but just barely. In fact, its circa 2010 origin and stature make it the Chris Solinsky of beers!

Here is Connor's take on SOS:

sweet followed by a mix of the bitter tropical fruits (orange peel, and grapefruit?), but isn’t too bitter. nice hoppy finish: isn’t overpowering and doesn’t leave you like your sucking on dandelion, like some other 8%ers. tastes like you’re drinking a really good tropical juice you’d get at a resort, but without the sweetness and it’s tart instead. you could probably have it w breakfast. It’s an 'orange juice’ that is analogous to the American Iced Tea, not Sweet tea, where it is void of the sugar and just busting with citrus.
the can is pretty. but, if you pour it in a glass the colour of the brew is happy like the sun.. so, just keep the can nearby. 
Best time to drink: no brainer —> post-workout while you prep dinner. You’re hungry, so you notice the blend better. You’re depleted, so you get a nice ‘heady’ and unwind from the run… mental recovery, folks. Beauty start to the evening.
P.S: best served with company. Hit me up if you enjoy crushing miles and celebrating them with an ice cold craft* Crispy Boy.

And here he is finishing it up:

 What I'm drinking this week:

 This week, I am being delighted by two very fit beers, perfect for early spring-- Dominion City's Null and Void and Equilibrium's Laboratory Waves.

Null and Void--the best new Canadian beer I've tried this year-- is a burly yet superbly balanced double IPA (10% abv). It is dank with ripe tropical fruit aromas and taste notes, and its mouthfeel and finish are smooth. sticky, and complex. (A newish beer of low 28min calibre, this beer awaits its Canadian running counterpart-- Justyn Knight? Evan Esselink!?). I would urge anyone doing Ottawa Race Weekend to be sure to get some of this brew into your mouth post-haste post-race!

Lab Waves is a truly massive, yet mesmerizingly complex triple IPA (10.4% abv). Its aroma is subdued for a beer this massively hopped (Citra, predominantly), and its flavour presentation is mostly ripe tropical fruit, with a hint of tartness (lime?). The addition of lactose, which makes the mouth-feel soft and the finish almost creamy, is likely responsible for the profound complexity extant throughout. Sip after sip, your palate will try in vain to solve this one, then simply surrender to the ineffable beauty of a superbly crafted, state of the art, ale. This beer is too inexperienced to have run a 10k yet, but it's already breaking 13:00/14:30 for 5k. Call it the Letensenbet Gidey/Selemon Barega of beers!

Note: Equilibrium Brewery is in Middletown NY, home of the legendary Classic 10k , held in early June. Hard to think of a better beer/running combo!

Monday, April 22, 2019

How Fast Is Your Beer?

As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. In the 1990s, the hammer we had was an arcane knowledge of distance running, including where our own performances placed us in the vast hierarchy of this old, global sport. And in these years before the great polarization of racing distances-- i.e. between the 5k and anything with the word "marathon" in it-- the 10k performance was the standard measure of running ability. For peak-age male athletes like us, 30mins was (and still is, really), the dividing line between good and very good (the Mercier performance tables say 30:00 is roughly equivalent to 35:00 for women). So handy was this metric that we would begin applying it by analogy to things otherwise completely unrelated to running. You have a friend who is a pretty good figure skater? How good is he in 10k terms? You have another one who's making his way in music or journalism? Is he sub-30 yet, or still in the 32:30 range? And on it went. The quality of anything and everything could be reduced to the thing we knew best--  the 10k personal best-- never mind the accuracy. 

With the ascendance the website and its famous beer-rating function, it has become standard practice to evaluate beers on a 5 point system, with anything over 4 registering as from "very good" to "world class" (as of today, for instance, the top 250 rated beers on BA range in score from 4.46 to 4.84, with the top rated Canadian beer, Dieu du Ciel!'s Barrel Aged Pèchè Mortel, coming in at 4.45). This rating system is fine, but also boring. For this blog, I therefore propose a new metric-- you guessed it, the 10k equivalent! For the beers I discuss in the blog, of which there will eventually be many, I will be employing the following scale:

Sub-28 (women's sub 32)-- For the truly world class. Here, the aforementioned Pèchè Mortel would be the Mohamed Ahmed or Cam Levins of beers-- not quite at the very top, but in the conversation when it comes to the best all-time domestic drinking experiences, and certainly known to the serious beer drinker globally. Of course, this category would also include the Kenenisa Bekeles and Eliud Kipchoges of the beer world-- your Heady Toppers and Westvletern 12s-- beers you may never get to try, but have heard tales of. For me, the hallmark of the sub-28 level beer is its ability to induce a mild shock of surprise at its quality, not once, but on a consistent basis. These are the beers you know are going to be good when you crack them, but that forcibly remind you of their superiority to the main beer pack every time you are fortunate enough to return to them. They are superbly balanced, but also bursting with unique character. The very best are utterly sui generis-- instantly recognizable and impossible to mistake for anything else.

Note: If you are very new to beer, you will probably lack the palate perspective to register the full power of the beers in this category. In other words, you may find yourself feeling like the beer drinking equivalent of that NARP relative of yours, the one whose mind is blown by the thought of any 10k performance under 40mins. So, do try these beers if you get the opportunity, but understand that you may not fully "get" them until you've tried a few dozen of examples from the category below.

Sub-30 (women's sub 35)-- For the best of the hardworking and more readily available brews found anywhere there is serious crafting going on. This category will include most of the beers we go to on a weekly basis, if we're lucky enough to have good suppliers. Off the top of my head, and using an example local to me, this category would include the best offerings from a brewery like Hamilton's Collective Arts. Sub-30 beers are excellent exemplars of their style; they are flavourful, well balanced, and highly drinkable, but lacking the above-mentioned capacity to stop the drinker in his/her gustatory tracks.

+30-- For the vast majority of beers available, including beers that make an honest effort but fall just below their top local and national competitors (but also some beers that, sadly, aren't really even trying to challenge anyone's palate). It would include most of the beer coming out of the many new craft breweries now springing up almost by the month-- beverages that are sometimes good for training the palates of hop virgins, but are typically not worthy of the daily alcohol quotient of the aficionado (except in a serious pinch, or when graciously offered by a friendly host). These beers are at least recognizable by style, and often easily drinkable, but are just a shade off in at least one key area (balance, weight, mouth feel) compared with the sub-30 brew.

For the worst beers out there (about which I will try to say as little as possible) I will, with apologies to Dom Mazetti, reserve the category "Do You Even Run?". In beer parlance, this category would include "drain pours" (serious but colossally failed crafts) and ubiquitous macro-brewed schizen. If you are drinking any of these beers (and, yet, have still found your way to this blog) you will be advised to proceed directly to the +30 category for remediation.These days, there is no excuse for drinking bad beer.

In some cases, I will be giving down-to-the-second scores in the sub-28 and sub-30 categories, but these will be the main groupings. And apologies in advance to masters' age competitors like me. Unfortunately, there is no beer equivalent of "age-grading". I will therefore be sticking with the peak-age performance measure.

Finally, a note on beer tasting and subjectivity. Those relatively new to beer may be inclined to scoff at my certainty, broadly speaking, when it comes to ranking beers. They may say "Come on. Taste is completely subjective. My Tankhouse or Mad Tom is completely fine. There is no way any beer is THAT much better. It's all pretentious hype!". And they would be dead-wrong. There is a remarkable consensus among the mass of serious beer drinkers concerning what constitutes top notch beer, and so on down the pecking order. We all have our preferred styles, but we very rarely deviate by more than a couple of BA basis-points (.1-2) when it comes to identifying the top brews. Once you have refined your palate, play the game yourself: Try a new beer, rate it 1-5 in your head, then check said beer's BA score (the result of often thousands of serious drinker's impressions, all registered in relative isolation from one another) and be amazed at how close your own evaluation comes!

Return next week for the first of my beer and running travel reviews-- this one on the city of Philadelphia, where I will attending this year's edition of the Penn Relays. I may also include my first "Run Fast, Drink Well" featured athlete, if I can secure a volunteer! 

Summer of My Re-Content:

The sun is going aslant again, yellow and red are creeping into the green, and the hop harvest is in. Let us welcome back the best time of t...