The Session #34: Recovering from Family Stumbles at the Sonoma Chicken Coup

The month’s Session, “Stumbling Home” by Two Parts Rye, we’re asked to write about our experiences at a brew pub or bar within a short distance from our homes.

Learning something the hard way is the often best way to really understand it. Unfortunately, I’ve learned the hard way that families are fragile things. I went through a divorce five years ago, and now see my six-year daughter Verona and eight-year old son Brandon only about 20% of the time. During these moments, I do what I can to put a few of the pieces of a broken family back together. And while families are often torn apart by unforeseen events and complex psychological forces hardly anyone really understands, it is often the simple things that keep families together. And for this reason, I value the weekends walks my girlfriend Linda and I take with Brandon and Verona to Almaden Lake Park, before we all go to lunch at the Sonoma Chicken Coop. The Sonoma Chicken Coop seems to be best described casual restaurant that brews its own beers than simply a brewpub, and we started frequenting one of its locations near the southwestern edge of the Almaden Lake Park over the past year.

This journey involves a few rituals. Once we walk out the front door, Verona starts keeping a meticulous running tally of dead snails she finds on the side walks of our condominium complex, proudly announcing “There’s another one!” soon as she make yet another of these important finds. Brandon will sometimes say, “Tag, you’re it!” and run away for a few yards in hopes that we’ll chase him, and sometimes we do. After covering making our about 400 yards to the park entrance, we follow the bike trail running along its eastern edge. When we get to the “balance beam”, actually a small barrier fence built out of old telephone pole, the kids will always takes their turns walking down it, refusing to go any further until this is completed. Verona always goes turn first, and then Brandon quietly follows.

We take the bridge over Los Alamitos Creek, which feeds into Almaden Lake in the center of the park, and work our way along the trail along the western edge of the lake until we reach the playground at the park’s Northwest corner. It sometimes takes Verona as long as five seconds to meet a new friend once she gets to the playground. She also enjoys testing her climbing skills on the rope jungle gym, and or playing pirate on one of the playground structures designed to look like a ship.

I know Verona enjoys these times, because we about them, and she tells me about the friends she makes. When Brandon hears we’re going to the playground and Sonoma Chicken Coop, he’ll smile and sometimes bang his wrists together rapidly in excitement, so I know he’s excited about going, but otherwise, he hardly talks to me going to the playground besides a simple “yes playground” or “yes Sonoma Chicken Coop”. Brandon hardly talks about anything to anyone. You see, Brandon has autism.

Autism is a psychological condition which makes it very difficult for Brandon to organize sensory inputs, and restricted his social and language skills. There is actually a broad spectrum of autistic behaviors, from children who may spend all day silently rocking back and forth, to the high functioning people with Asperger’s Syndrome, who may be highly successful in society despite odd, somewhat anti-social and eccentric behaviors. Brandon’s pretty much smack dab in the middle of the autistic spectrum of behaviors. The best estimates are that 1 in 150 children are born with autism, so there’s a reasonably good chance someone you know is has a family member with autism.

When I first took Brandon to this playground two years ago, he would aimlessly walk around the edges of it, muttering quiet gibberish, often banging his wrists together. Sometimes when highly overstimulated, he would slam his chin with the top of his right wrist over and over again with enough force to producing an audible thud-thud-thud, a slightly mutilating self-stimulating behavior. (When this happens, we divert Brandon to a less dangerous self-stimulating behavior by asking him to “clap hands”, which he obediently follows.) After maybe ten or twenty minutes of this, he would develop a comfort level to the sensory overload that a playground full of children would creates, and could be prompted to go over to the swing or go down the slide. On the swing, I would push him a few times on the swing and then stop. As gravity brought Brandon to a stop, we would ask, “Do you want a push, yes or no?” If he said “yes”, he got a push. Later, once his language skills improves, we’d require him to use longer sentences like “More swinging” or “Can you push me, please?” in order to get us to give him the desired pushes on the swing. Inducing to use language in this manner involves principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and Brandon has responded quite well to this type of therapy, which has proven to very successful helping many overcome their autistic silence.

Brandon’s ABA therapists have worked with him to act more appropriately at play, and he now needs little or no prompting to play on the playground equipment on his own, simply blending in with all the other kids. It is a quiet, reassuring small victory when for a just a few moments, we’re no longer battling Brandon’s autism and he’s simply acting like a normal kid. Verona tells me she hopes Brandon will talk normally when he’s ten. Verona is arguably Brandon’s best therapist, as she understands him well, and has picked up many speech therapy and ABA strategies and uses them often with Brandon. Linda, who is a professional speech therapist, has been great using her professional training and experience to help Brandon develop his language skills.

Once the kids have worn themselves out on the playground, we all head over to the Sonoma Chicken Coop. Many brew pubs have children’s menus, which is reassuring for the future of craft beer. I cannot think of a better way to encourage the next generation to “respect beer” or “support their local brewer” than giving them as many opportunities as possible to watch their parents do just that. Linda and I enjoy the Sonoma Chicken Coop’s Kolsch, which is light and refreshing and has a bit of a lemon-pepper zip to it. Their IPA is more balanced than most brewed in Northern California, and has sharp grassy bitterness to it. And they’ve recently released a Scotch Ale, which has a light smokey flavor and in their with all the caramel malt. The beers are nothing to rave about, but they’re solid.

But going to the Sonoma Chicken Coop isn’t about the beer. It’s about Linda and I enjoying a beer while Verona tells us all about her new friends at school and boasting “I know minuses!”. It’s about Brandon no longer meekly saying “ketchup” when he wants us to pass him the ketchup for his fries, but know spontaneously asking “Do you have ketchup, please?” when there’s no ketchup on the table. These are moments that at one point in my life, I could have totally lost. Knowing too well how families fall apart, I realize it’s these times that keep us together.

The Session #33: Framed by 33

This month’s Session, by Andrew Couch, of I’ll Have a Beer is on framing beers, with the topic loosely summed up as “write about how the context the beer is presented affects the drinking experience”.

Psychologists have long known that our choices are biased by the way each choice is framed. To illustrate this, suppose you are the head of a disease control agency, and are presented with two options to combat a disease which is expected to kill six hundred people unless something is done to stop it. A team of doctors have determined the outcomes of two possible options.

Option A: 200 people will be saved.

Option B: There is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved, and a two-thirds probability that no one will be saved.

What do you do?

In a psychological experiment where subjects were presented with these options, 72% choose Option A. In the same experiment, subjects were also presented with the same options, simply worded differently.

Option C: 400 people will die.

Option D: There is a one-third probability that nobody will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.

When presented with the same options framed differently, the same participants who picked Option A 72% of the time, instead choose Option D 78% of the time. Of course, we would rather save people than let them die, and so the options framed positively are favored over those framed negatively, known as positive frame bias. (1)

Psychologists have found numerous other framing effects, which I won’t go into here. But clearly, the beer we chose and our experience drinking it is framed by things like the beer label, word of mouth, the advertising, the reputation of the brewer, and numerous other sensory inputs that are quite difficult to separate from the actual liquid in the glass. Beer judges have known this for years as most beer competitions are judged blind, where beer is presented to judges in unmarked glasses, and judges are not allowed to influence each other.

I find myself struggling with framing effects explaining craft beer to family and friends who are not craft beer drinkers. Often, they actually would like to drink something from their local brewer, but their perception of craft beer is that it is “too strong”, overly bitter, hops run amok, and simply not enjoyable to them to drink. Beer names like “Arrogant Bastard”, “Damnation” or “Hop Stoopid” tend to reinforce this notion. I’ve responded telling them that many craft brewers release lighter styles they might find more enjoyable. More than once, I been told, “Well, I really enjoy Blue Moon, from some small brewery in Colorado”. They are usually pretty disappointed to learn that Blue Moon is actually made by Coors, a massive industrial brewery. Coors sells Blue Moon by framing it as a product of some quaint Colorado brewery, and the fact that once people get past the deception, they often lose interest in the beer seems to validate this strategy.

One brewery it took a while to warm up to was Flying Dog Brewery. So many times in a bottle shop, gazing at a wide array of beers in from of me, I simply moved past the frenzied, graffiti-style art Flying Dog uses on their label, and picked up something from a different brewery. In this Session, we’ve been asked to try beers we wouldn’t normally drink, so I decided to try a couple Flying Dog brews, just to see what the beer is like.

As is often the case, stretching my beer horizons was rewarded, as I found the beer to be excellent. The Flying Dog Kerberos Triple had a light toasty yeast flavors with a little apricot, and a clean, clear character to it. Flying Dog’s Double Dog Imperial Pale hooked with a great creamy mouth feel, toffee-like malty flavors coupled with a little tangerine and an orange peel bitterness. I can’t help wondering why was the beer label art, designed to attract me to the beer, was actually pushing me away.

I think the answer to this question originates in the way beer was initially framed to me. I spent my childhood during the 70’s in the small Midwestern college town of Bowling Green, OH, located about 15 miles south of Toledo. My dad exclusively drank “33”, Rolling Rock, and would carefully allow me a sip of his Saturday afternoon beer. My father later told me he did this to prevent me from abusing alcohol, to demystify beer at an early age. These were also early lessons to respect beer, that it wasn’t a beverage to be carelessly guzzled, but to be savored and enjoyed at special times. I also remember Dad proudly informing me Rolling Rock was brewed “in the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe” in Western Pennsylvania. Latrobe is about 300 miles from Bowling Green, but in those days, drinking exclusively Rolling Rock was supporting your local brewer, and from this I learned the place the beer was brewed was just as important as the beer itself. These experiences, burned into the neurons of my young brain, still guide me today.

I find it sad and ironic that InBev bought Rolling Rock, shut down the Latrobe brewery, and moved production to Newark, NJ in a cost cutting move, priming the pump of their plans for world wide beer domination. Yet, InBev still has the audacity to market Rolling Rock with the grammatically deficient slogan “Born Small Town”, trying to sell the beer by framing it as from a tradition bound, small town brewery. I guess the corporate folks at InBev figured out a more accurate grammatically deficient slogan like “Born small town, multi-national corporation bought brewery, laid off workers, bean-counters rule day” would not be a good way to frame Rolling Rock if they wanted to sell lots of it.

But going back to my earliest framing of beer, I believe my earliest experiences of beer explains my initial aversion to Flying Dog beers, framed in chaotic, modern artwork. I’ve come to realize my favorite breweries like Anderson Valley, El Toro, and Deschutes are favorites of mine in part because these breweries evoke their unique local geography into their marketing, and are relatively close to where I live. This new understanding about how my beer preferences are shaped will allow me to make more informed decisions on the beer I choose to drink. There’s nothing wrong with psychological warm fuzziness guiding what we drink. But of course, craft beer drinking is a lot about exploration and expanding beyond your comfort zone. And if you’re going to expand beyond your comfort zone, it’s helpful to know where the discomfort is coming from.

(1) Positive framing example from The Mind of the Market, Micheal Shermer, Henry Holt and Company, copyright 2008, pages 84-85.

The Session #32: I cannot run like a Kenyan, but at least I can drink like one

For this months Session, Girl Likes Beer asks everyone to “..pick your favorite beer made east from your hometown but east enough that it is already in a different country. It can be from the closest country or from the furthest. Explain why do you like this beer. What is the coolest stereotype associated with the country the beer comes from (of course according to you)?”

For runners, “Kenyan” is an adjective to describe how distance running performances relate to world class levels. For example, “John Smith’s 10,000 meter time was so fast, it was almost Kenyan.” This started happening in the 80’s, when Kenya started regularly sending distance runners to international track meets. The rest of the world, except for Ethiopia, didn’t have a chance, and Kenyan distance runners quickly dominated the world scene. Major marathons like the Boston and New York marathon often resemble Kenyan inter-squad competitions, rather than the the international marathons that they are.

While Kenya is known for great distance running, it is barely known for beer. However, Kenya does have is a brewing history I recently learned about. Kenya Breweries was founded in the early 1920’s by two brothers, and by the 50’s, Tusker Golden Lager became their flagship beer using Kenyan grown barley. I discovered Tusker this summer, and upon learning it was from Kenya, was intrigued enough to give it a try.

And I’m here to say, Tusker satisfies this Mzungo. (Mzungo is Swahili for “white man”.) It’s a bit of a change of pace for the lagers I’m used to, very clear tasting with a light hoppy bitter crispness. Yes, there’s a little skunkiness in there, that somehow adds to the flavor complexity, rather than detracting from it. It has this tingly fizziness to it, like mineral water, and the beer has a refreshing palate cleansing mouth feel to it.

Back in the day, I dreamt about running as fast as the Kenyans, blazing across the rolling African countryside. Today, I’m content to plod around my suburban neighborhood, and knock back a couple Tuskers after a run.

The Session #31: Summer Beers

This month’s Session, Summer Beers is hosted by Peter Estaniel over at the BetterBeerBlog.

This month’s Session, Summer Beers, is a great topic, since I have little interest in jumping on another bandwagon of beer geeks raving about the latest hyper-malty, barrel aged, hop bomb where the brewer actually did throw in the kitchen sink. The lighter beer styles we normally associate with summer require much skill and talent to brew, with no places to hide off flavors. Having had so many great summer beers, it’s hard to pick a favorite. For me, a “favorite beer” is largely determined in the context of which it is consumed, as well as how and where the beer is produced. That’s why my favorite beer this summer is from a brewer you never heard of, and I haven’t even swallowed a drop of it yet. I’ll get to my favorite summer beer at the end of this post, so allow me to celebrate a number of my summer favorites before then.

Favorite Summer Beer with Lime In It
Summer beers with lime in them are typically some hideous product from big industrial breweries that are barely recognizable as beer. That wasn’t the case with Coronado Brewing’s Lime Wit that I enjoyed this summer at my favorite beer bar in San Diego, Downtown Johnny Brown’s. Sour lime dominates the slight yeasty flavors of this Wit beer, and there’s a bitter lime peel finish to it. I’ve enjoyed other wits more than this one, but this unique San Diego-inspired beer deserves a mention.

Favorite Summer Beer to Drink After a Summer Run
It’s only natural to expect the writer of blog called Bay Area Beer Runner to cite a favorite summer beer for drinking after a run. The problem is that during summer, my runs are exclusively in the early morning when the air is coolest, which is when many runners train. Knocking down a couple pints of beer after a morning run before heading off to work is a pretty risky career strategy. Not being a fan of those foul-tasting, over priced sports drinks, I just have water after a run.

Favorite Summer Beer to Witness Another Disappointing Chicago Cubs Baseball Season
I’ve been a Cub fan for thirty years, and each year, the Cubs find a new and creative way to build up expectations and then deflate them over the course of a baseball season. The other constant over that time is that Heileman’s Old Style has been strongly associated with Cubs’ baseball. If you’ve ever had this light lager, you’ll begin to understand why Cub fans have such a high tolerance for pain and misery.

Favorite Summer Beer to Get Ready for The Ohio State University’s Football Season
Keeping on the topic of sports, as a graduate of The Ohio State University, I’ve spent many a summer chatting away with other Buckeye fans in anticipation of the upcoming fall football season. And there’s no better beer for this than Buckeye Beer from Maumee Bay Brewing in Toledo, OH. It’s a beer with a long history that ceased production in 1972, only to be recently revived with a retro-marketing campaign. But it’s no weak, gimmicky pilsner. This refreshing beer’s malt is a little biscuit-like, and the hops crisp and grassy. It’s also good in winter time for Buckeye fans recovering from a crushing Bowl game defeat.

Favorite Summer Beer to Experience a 60’s Flashback
Last month, my girlfriend and I checked out Magnolia Pub and Brewery, merely a block away from the storied Haight-Ashbury intersection in San Francisco. We were both really impressed with their Kalifornia Kolsch. It’s a hazy yellow brew, with a strong peppery flavor and we also noted some notes of lemon. Despite the strong flavors, there was a feathery lightness to it. It’s so good, it actually caused me to admit The Grateful Dead had some redeeming qualities.

Favorite Summer Beer That I Couldn’t Come Up with a Category For, But Wanted to Mention Anyway
I’ve long been a fan of Victory Brewing in Downing, PA, but it’s hard to find their beers in the Bay Area. In San Diego last month, I found Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils on tap. Like any good pilsner, it’s got a crisp grassy hops finish, but I also picked up some savory herbal character with all that hoppy goodness, giving it a rare complexity and dimension for a pilsner.

Before revealing my Favorite Beer of the Summer, I should start by saying why I think running is a great activity and for those of a competitive nature, a great sport. All you need is a good pair of shoes, lace ’em up, and go out the front door. The equipment is very affordable, and the best places to run are public areas available to all. There are road races held all over the United States where for a reasonable fee, anyone can enter to run with the best runners in the nation, or even the world. The stop watch does not discriminate on the basis of race, income, sex, religion, origin, good looks, or anything else.

The same egalitarian qualities that makes running great, makes beer great. It is most commonly consumed in informal public gatherings. Even the finest beers are affordable to most. And with a small investment, anyone can start brewing beer for themselves. That now includes me, as I’ve home brewed up my first batch of beer of what I expect to be the first of many home brews. Perhaps someday, my brewing skills will progress to the point where I’ll compete in home brewing competitions, but for now, I’ll settle for brewing up something that just tastes good.

I didn’t muck around in the kitchen that badly brewing it up, so fingers crossed, it will taste OK. Since it was bottled a week ago and needs two weeks of bottle conditioning, I haven’t even tasted the final product. But sampling the brew as it went into the bottles didn’t reveal any obvious off-flavors, and it tasted like a decent beer to me. Having only the slightest idea of how to brew beer, but with plans to keep at it, I call it Blind Ambition Amber Ale, and it’s my favorite summer beer.

The Session #30 : Raspberry Lambic Gelatin in a Brain Shaped Mold

For this months session, Beer Desserts, David Jensen of Beer47 , asks “What beer desserts have you tried and liked? Disliked? What beer styles work well with dessert and which ones do not? Do you have any beer dessert recipes that you enjoyed and would like to share?”

Back in my beer swilling college days, I had some grasp of the concept of beer and desserts. One evening after knocking back a few cans of Busch beer, I filled a plastic tumbler with a couple more cans of the stuff, and then plopped in a couple scoops of mint chocolate chip ice cream. After showing everyone on my dorm floor this beer float, and taking a few chugs on a couple dares, somehow, this dreadful concoction ended up in an out of the way corner of my dorm room, and was forgotten. When I discovered it a few days later, some sort of mold was growing in it, the ice cream had morphed into sort some of crust, and the whole thing smelled rather nasty. Since my roommate was also a runner, funky smells in our living space were rather common, a likely explanation for why it went undetected for so long.

Twenty some odd years later, the death of my grandmother in early 2007 provided an unlikely catalyst for new experimentation with desserts. After she was buried in Springfield, Illinois, her church provided a potluck lunch for family and friends of the departed, which included a few jello salads. At this difficult time, we all expressed our surprise that this traditional Midwestern comfort food seemed to be, well, quite comforting. We couldn’t quite understand why this culinary relic of the 50’s, with strange combinations like grated carrots mixed into orange jello had this effect on us. Perhaps, like any good comfort food it brought us to a simpler time of our youth.

After the service, Dad brought us to his mother’s apartment, and asked my sister, Leigh, and I to take one thing back home with us. I took Grandma’s Harry Cary beer coaster. Leigh took Grandma’s recipe box sitting on the kitchen counter, with several jello salad recipes inside. My sister mailed me photo copies of all the recipes, and Grandma’s Cherry Cola Jello Salad has become a popular dessert I’ve brought to many gatherings.

Seeing my interest in jello molds, a couple friends of mine gave me a brain shaped gelatin mold as a birthday gift, inspiring me to create a couple original deserts. First, I developed a Red Hot Russian Gelatin Brain, made with vodka and flavored with cayenne and cinnamon. And I put together a kid-friendly Blue Hawaii Jello Brain, using a package of Blueberry Jello, some crushed pineapple, and then my kids garnish it with gummy sharks.

So with this session topic, I decided to find the old brain gelatin mold and work up a new creation. I decided to use Lindemans’ Raspberry Lambic for this mold, thinking its sweet, fruity, and tart flavor combination would work well in gelatin.

I experimented twice with the recipe and technique, and settled on a formula which uses a 750 ml bottle of Lindemans’ Raspberry Lambic, which is about three cups of liquid, and 1/4 cup of water. The Knox gelatin powder directions call for one packet of powder per cup of liquid, but I found this made the mold a little stiff, so I used approximately 2 1/2 packets of powder for the 3 cups of liquid. I heated the 1/4 of water in a sauce pan and dissolved as much of the Knox gelatin as I could into it, about 2 packets worth. The idea here is avoid exposure of the lambic to the heat, which I feared could change its flavor. I had to pour in about a half cup of the lambic to dissolve the remaining powder, and then added the rest of the lambic in, slowly stirring it evenly distribute the gelatin, and then transferred it into the brain mold. The lambic foamed up a bit, so I let the foam subside before putting it into the refrigerator to set.

As for the taste, I found this technique did a good job preserving the lambic flavor in the gelatin. On the first try, I used a full cup of water and three cups of the lambic to dissolve four packets of gelatin, but I found this created a very stiff mold, that had a bit of a “washed out” flavor. Both times, I noticed the lambic gelatin picked up a slightly earthy bitterness, but the second run with less water, this bitterness was a lot less pronounced, and the lambic kept more of its tart, acidic character. Actually, I might add a little lemon juice on the third go around to replace some of lost acidity. I could also cut back on the gelatin powder a bit more.

Of course, since the carbonation and liquid sensation on the tongue is totally lost when the lambic is made into gelatin, the mouth feel and overall taste is unavoidably modified. I found it very instructive to drink the lambic while sampling the lambic gelatin to best understand how this process transforms the overall flavor and sensation of the lambic. I think the final result makes a decent dessert, although I’d recommend adding something like whipped cream, or some sort of chocolate sauce or ice cream, to give the dessert a little depth and contrast. Some sort of mint infusion into the lambic gelatin might also work.

Another beer I thought about using for a gelatin mold was a sweet barleywine like Lagunitas Brown Shugga. Any ideas for beers that might work well in a gelatin mold?

The Session #29: Beer in a Land where the Gun has Long Ruled

(In this month’s Session, Will Travel for Beer, hosted by BeerByBART, we’re asked to either write about beer trip we’ve taken, or beer related things we do when travelling.)

Last March, I went with Linda to visit her home town of Las Cruces, New Mexico for a few days. Las Cruces is not far from the border towns of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. It lies at the northern end of the large Chihuahuan Desert, which extends far south across the border deep into Mexico, and westward into Texas. I had never been to this part of the country before, but was well acquainted with recent news stories about violent drug wars, and gruesome discoveries of mass graves full of victims of these wars.

This is nothing new for this region of the country, which has a rich history of outlaws, marauding bandits, and violent clashes for well over a century. The reason for this perpetual state of violent struggle becomes apparent simply looking over the landscape. There’s almost nothing to fight for. Food, water, and good land are in precious little supply in the high desert. With the vast distances between towns and historically high levels of government corruption, guns were often used to settle disputes and keep order. Dying of natural causes was no small accomplishment in this region, where many died trying to protect what little they had, or were killed in an unsuccessful attempt to steal from someone else. Perhaps the most infamous person in these struggles was Henry McCarty.

Henry McCarty is better known as William Bonney, and even better known as Billy the Kid. He was born in an Irish slum on Manhattan Island, and his somewhat dysfunctional family continued to move westward across the country looking for better places to live until they arrived in New Mexico in 1874 when he was in his early teens. Like many young men in this time and place, he turned to a life of crime, and later joined a gang of horse thieves. Around the age of 20, he was recruited into an armed conflict between rival ranching interests, known as the Lincoln County War. Since McCarty’s side lost, the winners vilified him in sensationalistic stories, describing him as sadistic killer of over twenty innocent victims. From all personal accounts, he was actually quite literate, articulate, highly sociable, and a good dancer, who most historians believe was only responsible for a more modest number of about five killings. To the local Mexican population, he was a folk hero who fought a ranching syndicate which actively kept Mexicans near the bottom of the pecking order, and one of few whites in the region who adapted the language, customs, and dress of the local Mexican population. Eventually captured, Billy the Kid was tried and convicted of murder in a small courthouse in the New Mexico town of Mesilla, which is adjacent to Las Cruces. The court house still stands today, but is now a souvenir shop, where you can buy a postcard, T-shirt, or other trinkets with Billy the Kid’s picture on it.

About a half mile from this courthouse turned souvenir shop is the High Desert Brewery, which Linda and I visited one afternoon. Pulling into the dusty parking lot, full of beat up pick-up trucks parked on the hot asphalt, I was a little leery of what sort of clientele we might find inside. The whole low-slung adobe building looked a bit worse for wear, with the small High Desert Brewing sign a bit faded. Most small brewpubs like this one are full of locals, and I was not sure how well two out-of-towners would be received moseying into some strange brew pub.

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Like most brewpubs all over the country, everyone was there to relax and have a good time over a good pint of beer. The bartender and a customer were chatting about the news story CNN was reporting on the small TV near the bar. Linda and I took a seat and soon our waitress appeared, who looked and acted more like a librarian than a bar waitress. She told us they don’t offer a tasting flight when we asked for one, so we opted for a “super-sized” tasting flight by sharing a few eight-once glasses of the various house beers.

As one might expect from a desert brewpub, the strongest offerings were of the lighter, thirst quenching beer styles. My favorites were their crisp Bohemian Pilsner, and an excellent Amber Lager, which had a slightly nutty and sweet malt taste and crisp grassy hops finish. All of the beers were on the light tasting side of each particular style, and the hop level was dialed down compared to typical breweries in the western United States. But despite this, the beer seemed flavorful and vibrant, not thin and watery, and I never found any of their offerings worse than “good”. As for the food, let’s just say if you like New Mexico Green Chile’s sprinkled liberally into your bar food, you’re going to be pretty happy here.

One cannot discuss High Desert Brewing without mentioning all the postcards, beer paraphernalia, and other artifacts covering the walls and ceiling. It’s all sent in and donated by various visitors and patrons, and creates a unique and organic connection between the brewpub and its customers. So many places try to manufacture this type of environment, but when you see it here, it’s very genuine. Back by the restrooms is one of the finest collections of Elvis paintings on black velvet you can find West of the Mississippi. It makes waiting your turn a great cultural experience.

The last day, Linda and I went with her parents to White Sands National Monument. On the way there, we drove past White Sands National Missile Range, a US Army base full of people who specialize and train in the art of blowing up things. White Sands National Monument is basically a vast series of white sand dunes composed of powdered gypsum. We took a couple snow disks with us, and sledded down the dunes as if they were hills covered with snow.

Travel gives me the opportunity to discover the history and geography of a place, which is often reflected in its local beer. It’s why I seek out local breweries and brewpubs wherever I travel.

The Erie Canal Trail and Rohrbach’s in Rochester

This months Session is about the furthest distance travelled to a brewery or brewpub and the best beer found there.

Being a salesman for a small electronics company gives me a number of opportunities to explore new places each year. And while sometimes the schedule is too hectic to do much of anything outside of work, I am fortunate to get some good runs in and try out some local beers and beer establishments. The furthest brewery I’ve been to is Rohrbach’s in Rochester, NY, which is 2,750 miles from my home in San Jose, CA.

I usually stay near the airport. Most people don’t realize it, but the Erie Canal runs near the airport, and there’s a nifty running trail on along its banks. The first time I found it, I stumbled upon it by accident in a rather ordinary industrial area. Turning onto the wooded trail was a welcome change of pace from the industrial surrounding. But soon, it seemed like running through a glorified drainage ditch with not a soul around, and just train tracks to keep me company. Another mile or two down the trail, and it empties into a wooded park area, where people were having picnics, generally having a good time, and yes, a few were out on a run. For about an hour or so, I’m part of the community before turning around and heading back on a great run in that started out as a boring trudge.

The Erie Canal was built in the early 1800’s, an audacious plan at the time to connect the Great Lakes to New York City via the Erie Canal and Hudson River. Far from the expensive failure many predicted, it opened up trade in Western New York and helped create the cities of Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester.
So if it weren’t for the Eric Canal, Rohrbach Brewery may never have existed. And wouldn’t you know, John Urlaub, the owner of Rohrbach’s is a runner, too! The brewpub less than a 10 mile drive west of the airport. Like any good brew pub, there’s a neighborhood vibe upon entry. Everyone seems to be from the neighborhood and knows each other, but somehow, you don’t feel like a stranger. I take my seat and once again, for an hour or so, I’m part of the community.

As for the beers, I had a sampler flight, which is what I usually have when at a new brewpub. Rohrbach’s had a number of good to great beers over a range of styles. I always hesitate to pick a “favorite” beer, since I feel that depends a lot on the context the beer is enjoyed in. I really liked the Belgian Blonde, which my old notes say had “caramel malt with some snappy hops”. I also liked their Scotch Ale, which had a “sweet, peat malt taste with some toffee”. But if I had to pick my favorite, it’s their Sam Patch Porter. Porter is one of my favorite styles, and I found this one to have a “strong, bitter, roasted coffee flavor”. These are old notes, and part of this exercise is to either crack open a brew from the brewpub, or crack open something to compare it to. You can’t get Rohrbach’s in San Jose, so it looks like I’m going to find a substitute for Sam Patch Porter. And so to compare the Sam Patch Porter from the brewery I’ve travelled the furthest to visit, I’ll compare it to a brewery close to where I live. And that would be El Toro in Morgan Hill, CA. So it’s off to El Toro with my girlfriend Linda for some of their porter.

Morgan Hill is a small city just south of San Jose, the first place you come to when exiting the San Francisco Bay Area to the south. The place is an airy, two-level pub with a light brown wood interior. Behind the bar is colorful array of about twenty taps offering their very wide varieties of beer. The NHL and NBA playoffs are in full swing on the flat screen TVs scattered about the place. We take a seat, and a young waiter comes over. I ask for the Porter, while Linda is intrigued by the description of their El Canejo IPA, so orders that.

El Toro’s Porter is different than Rorhbach’s . Both have plenty of roasty malt goodness, but El Toro Porter is dominated by bitter chocolate notes with little detectable sweetness, instead of the coffee with some sweetness route of Rohrbach’s. Both are mighty fine porters.

We were also impressed with the El Canejo IPA. It’s highly unique, red IPA with good amount slightly sweet, roasted red malt, and plenty of slightly resinous, astringent hops bitterness. I found it well balanced, and much more so than El Toro’s regular IPA. We order a couple more pints, and looking over the beer list, see plenty others we’d like to try someday.

One of the many great things about beer is that if you go far away or stay close to home, it provides a great opportunity to explore.
(Rohrbach’s logo used with permission.)