Peter Estaniel: Better Beer Blogging Biker

Peter Estaniel made good impression with me when I first met him, since he was handing me a beer. He was serving up some of his homebrew to start off a beer and dessert pairing event he was hosting at Wine Affairs that Linda and I attended. Peter writes the Better Beer Blog, his effort to “raise the status of beer” and I was looking forward to what he had in store for us. Peter looked a little uncomfortable in front of roughly thirty people attending that night explaining what he had in store for us. Beer and dessert are not obvious pairings, and Peter raised the degree of difficulty for himself by serving up unlikely pairings like pineapple flan with the aggressively bitter Green Flash West Coast IPA. It was pretty impressive that with all the risks he took that night, every beer and dessert pairing worked quite well.

One pairing that didn’t work out that night was the couple sharing a table with us who were quietly feuding all night. Linda and I never quite figured out what the problem was, but it appeared that it was early in the couple’s relationship, and things were burning up on the launch pad. They tried gamely to explain their points of view on things, but the “when you do X, I feel Y” statements didn’t seem to be getting the points across. I considered providing this young couple helpful pointers on how to more effectively argue in public learned from my divorce, but Linda firmly quashed this idea, and politely suggested I pay attention to Peter instead. As intrigued as I was with beer and dessert pairings, with this tense psychological drama playing out right in front of me, I didn’t think a discussion of the harmonizing elements of a wheat beer paired with fruit filled crepe’s would hold my interest. But the fact that Peter held most of my attention that night is a credit to his considerable skills and enthusiasm as a beer ambassador.

Four months later, there’s a smaller tasting event at Wine Affairs and have a chance to strike up a conversation with him. I reach for an organic Hefeweizen, and Peter quickly rattles off the flavor profile of this beer and how it contrasts with another Hefeweizen on the tasting list before I even realize what he just said. The whole evening, I’m struggling to find words to describe each beer, and Peter quickly comes up with a succinct and accessible description. There are plenty of people with a suspicious talent of describing any beer, even warm Budweiser, with eleven different flavor components of odd fruits and spices, but thankfully, Peter isn’t one of them. But if you read his Better Beer Blog or have met him at a beer event, you probably know all this.

What you may not know is that Peter recently started biking. He’ll ride routes around his neighborhood each day, and aims to find a way to bike to his job about thirty miles away. For Peter, biking is “…a disconnect. I don’t feel my legs on fire, I don’t feel my lungs straining or the dryness in my mouth and throat. It’s like the world goes quiet and I can hear all the little things going on around me, like the wind rustling through the trees, the cows mooing and my wheels on the pavement.” Interesting for a guy who is pretty plugged in, he enjoys an outlet to unplug.

Peter cites a lot of good memories growing up with family and friends growing up associated with bike riding. In high school, he would race the school bus to see if he could beat it to school. I find a lot of people’s choice of recreation is often shaped by early childhood memories burned into our brains that we carry around for the rest of our lives, and it looks like Peter may be another example of that.

Almost as soon as Peter told me he was starting biking, he told me he hated running. I’ve met plenty of people who hate running, and usually it’s because it’s something like it hurts their knees, or they find the activity boring and tedious. Peter gave me a reason I’ve never heard before. He doesn’t like running because when he runs, he doesn’t think he is running fast enough. That actually makes sense. You do not attend an exhaustive schedule of beer events, become a certified beer judge, post articles almost daily on a blog, and regularly homebrew by leisurely going from point A to point B.

Does Peter find biking to be like homebrewing or beer judging? Not really. For Peter, homebrewing “..while very peaceful and relaxing, doesn’t give me that disconnect. I am very much in the moment because if you don’t pay attention to certain things, you’ll miss key things in the process” while beer judging is “…a very cerebral endeavor, it’s mentally tiring at times.”

Beer Running Baltimore: The Brewer’s Art

My last day in Baltimore, and I’m in a thoughtful, contemplative mood. I’ve spent the week representing my company at a trade show. Talking to industry colleagues, customers, and potential customers always gives me plenty to think about. In addition, sluggish economies often force companies into periods of self examination, and this is certainly happening where I work. The morning run takes me along routes established earlier this week, and I spend it reflecting on the past week.

In this contemplative mood, it makes sense that my last night in Baltimore is spent in one of the intellectual hubs of the city, the Mount Vernon Cultural District, located just north of downtown. It’s home to several theaters, art museums, music and art schools, not to mention the classic looking Washington Monument in the neighborhood center. It is also home of a small brewpub called The Brewers Art, where I’m headed for the evening.

After walking up the outside stairs through Roman columns and entering the establishment, there are two choices. Either find a place in the crowded bars in either the first floor or basement for bar food, or go to the back where it’s much quieter for various beer inspired dishes at $25-$35 a plate. All by myself, I prefer to be among all the ruckus in the basement bar than the solitude of a quiet restaurant, and eventually find a place down there.

The whole place seems to be full of twenty-somethings enjoying each others company over various Brewer’s Art beers. It’s a re-assuring scene for the future of beer. There’s a chalk board behind the basement bar where the various house beers are listed. For a brewpub with seemingly artistic pretensions, many beers have cartoonish names like Sluggo, Ozzy, and Tiny Tim. I get the bartender’s attention and start with the Beacon Pale Ale.

It’s an interesting one. A bit on the strong side, it’s reasonably balanced with toasty malt and a good amount of earthy hops. It has a bit of a fruity, yeasty character, almost like there’s a Belgian beer struggling to get out of this quintessential British style ale. I also order a sausage platter with a side order of rosemary garlic fries.

Polishing the off the Beacon Pale Ale, I next try the Monument Ale, a seasonal Belgian Ale they’ve recently brewed up. It’s pretty smooth for the style, a decent amount of malt, some light fruity notes and a similar earthy hop character found in the Beacon Pale Ale. The sausage platter and rosemary garlic fries arrive. They’ve created a nice medley of different sausages, from spicy to highly savory, with some tangy sauerkraut and pickles on the side as a good counterpoint. The fries are a little limp, but otherwise, very flavorful.

Pssst…..are you starting to get a little bored reading this as I am starting to writing it? I mean, nothing is spectacular here, it’s all just very well executed. At some point, all this “goodness” starts to get a bit tedious. Couldn’t they serve up a clunker brew here, just to change things up a little bit? I’m also straining to gracefully insert a dated, 70’s pop culture reference to “tip toeing through the tulips” into this post, having concluded the evening with a pint of their Tiny Tim Ale. Can I just say this was an interesting, slightly sweet and spicy Belgian Ale and wrap things up? Thanks.

On the way back to my hotel, I stopped at a store front liquor store in Mount Vernon. By luck, they happened to have bottles of The Brewer’s Art Ozzy Ale, which was sold out back at the brewpub, so I pick up a bottle to take home. Browsing the refrigerators, I saw plenty of local craft brews I hadn’t had a chance to sample, and unfortunately, there was no further room in my luggage to take any of them home. I expect to be back in Baltimore someday, and looks like they’ll be lots more beer to explore when that time comes.

(Washington Monument photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Beer Running Baltimore: Running Up Federal Hill and Mick O’Shea’s

Day two in Baltimore, and decide to run a different route. I head down towards the Inner Harbor as before, but once there, still proceed south to Federal Hill, which overlooks the Inner Harbor district. Hill running is a great way to get a hard work-out in the middle of a run. It’s also a great way to experience the land topology, as you actually feel the ups and downs of what you are running through. There’s a small municipal park at the top of the hill, with great views of the city. It turns out this location high up above the harbor with all the great scenery was used as a tactical military location during a difficult moment in our nation’s history, the Civil War.

The first casualties of the Civil War are believed to have occurred during the Baltimore Riot of 1861 on April 19. Union troops travelling through Baltimore on their way to Washington, DC needed to transfer to a different train to complete the trip, since no direct rail route through Baltimore to Washington, DC existed at the time. Mobs of secessionists and Southern sympathizers attempted to block the troops changing trains, which escalated as the mobs started throwing large rocks and objects. Finally, panicked Union soldiers opened fire. Twelve civilians and four Union soldiers died before the Union troops made it to their destination.

That night, Union troops under the cover of darkness lead by General Benjamin Butler quietly occupied the hill, and set up a cannon aimed at the heart of the city. The city of Baltimore had long been a city sympathetic to the Southern cause, and a city so close to Washington falling under Confederate control was a major Union concern. The occupation of Federal Hill was a Union success, as Baltimore remained in Union hands throughout the entire war. So the hill I ran up that morning played a small role holding this country together.

That night, I stopped in at Mick O’Shea’s, just a couple blocks from my hotel in downtown Baltimore. As you might expect from the name, it’s an Irish bar, with plenty of dark wood fixtures, Guinness signs, and brick and mortar walls. There’s a couple of TVs inside so patrons can follow the Orioles or Ravens. Trish, the bartender greets everyone walking through the door by their first name and pours their favorite drink in a single motion. I’ve never been there before, so tell her I’ll have a Yuengling lager.

I order a Yuengling (pronounced “Ying Ling”) not because it is the oldest brewery in the United States, but because it is a great lager. Sometimes, I hear beer geeks talk about getting into lagers. Why did they get out of them? To me, Yuengling lager is a study in simplicity, with a crisp caramel malt and earthy hop finish. That’s it. It isn’t a beer that requires nine different fruits and spices to describe, and that’s why I like it.

I had a few Yuenglings over that week at O’Shea’s. There’s really no neighborhood bar where I live, and so when on the road, I sometimes adopt one for a few days. You can easily beat O’Shea’s beer selection, but you can’t beat O’Shea’s as a place for people to get together. One night, I struck up a conversation with the person next to me and turns out, he was a Chicago Cubs fan just like me, and grew up in Holland, MI. I had actually been to Holland, MI for a collegiate cross-country race so we talked a little about the town, and what it was like for him to grow up there. One of the many great things about beer is that it brings strangers together.

Mick O’Shea’s had another tasty brew on tap called Resurrection by a local brewery called The Brewer’s Art. I enjoyed this smooth Belgian style beer with a cherry-like tartness, and wondered where it came from. I ask the bartender,”I’m from out of town. Can you tell me where The Brewer’s Art is located?”, figuring it is somewhere around Baltimore, but miles away.

To my surprise, she replies,”It’s a brewpub about eight blocks up the road, you ought to go sometime.”

Just eight blocks away? Looks like I need to check this place out.

Beer Running Baltimore: Max’s Taphouse

Baltimore is one of those cities that typically elicits shoulder shrugs. Nobody seems to really know or say much about the place. It’s the weak East Coast sister to splashier Boston, New York, and Washington. Having been there before, I understand some of the ambivalence. But spending the past week at a trade show, and making a special effort to get to know the place, I’ve got to say, Baltimore doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

One of the best ways to get to know a place is to run around in it, so Monday morning, I’m out the door of my downtown hotel room to go for a run. I’m part of the morning downtown hustle and bustle, dodging and weaving through pedestrians and cars, making my way down to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor district, where I know clearer running paths await. I’m also planning to scout out Max’s Taphouse in the Fell’s Point neighborhood, which brags about having Maryland’s largest beer selection, and has drawn raves from various online beer review sites.

I get down to the Inner Harbor and follow the running path eastward past an enormous building with towering smokestacks. This imposing building was once a power plant for the city, but now houses an ESPN Sports Zone, Barnes and Noble, and Hard Rock Cafe. Baltimore is a city that has come around to embrace its traditional brick and mortar, port city roots. While it may not be flashy, it gives Baltimore an unmistakable character. Working my way through the Little Italy neighborhood behind the former power plant, I finally make my way to the Fell’s Point neighborhood, and find Max’s Taphouse.

I stop, take a quick glance inside, and see plenty of taps. The menu lists some pretty basic brewpub fare, but I doubt many people go there for the food. Well, I’ve scouted out the place and know how to get there. So I finish up the run, set up for the trade show at the convention center in the afternoon, and then make the 40 minute walk from the hotel to Max’s for dinner.

I cannot independently verify Max’s claim of Maryland’s largest beer selection. But after looking at a list of no less than 74 taps, and a bottle list that’s really an eight page pamphlet, it’s a good bet that no other place in Maryland, or in most other states, can top what Max’s has to offer. I decide to start off with the Aecht Schlenkerla Helles, a German Smoked Helles.

Smoke is a very dangerous flavor because it gives such a great dimension to food and drink, but just a little too much smoke can easily destroy everything. The brewer’s touch here is simply outstanding with such a light style. You can sense the smoke, but the brew remains light, refreshing, and nuanced.

Now on a smoked beer kick, I decide to give Victory Rauchbier Porter a try. I’ve been a fan of Victory Brewing, and always make a point to have their beer when I’m on the East Coast. Victory Hop Devil is one of my favorite IPA’s, so have high expectations for the Rauchbier Porter. I’m not disappointed, as once again, the brewer’s touch is excellent. The smoke really adds the right dimension to the rich roasted malty goodness going on here. Smoked porters go well with barbecue, so I order the pulled pork sandwich

I finish the smoked porter before the sandwich arrives. I could order another one to pair with the sandwich, but that would deprive me an opportunity to try something else, so order a pint of Smuttynose IPA. Not a great pairing with a pulled pork sandwich in my opinion, but Smuttynose is a brewery I’ve heard a lot of good things about. I also appreciate the East Coast style of maltier, more balanced IPA’s, in contrast to the blitzing West Coast style, which hit you over the head with a bunch of hops. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The Smuttynose IPA tap handle has a picture of two friendly old men sitting next to each other in rickety lawn chairs, apparently about to commence shooting the shit about something or rather over a beer. This IPA is like those old guys, just hanging out and in no hurry to go anywhere. It starts out welcoming, with a malty, a little fruity and slightly floral taste, and then the hops start picking up steam at a leisurely pace with a warm bitter goodness. I feel like pulling up a lawn chair and joining those guys. The pulled pork sandwich arrives as I work my way through the Smuttynose IPA. For a place where the food is an afterthought, this is a well done barbecue sandwich. Nice tangy sauce, and not too much spice so the pork flavor comes through.

Polishing off the sandwich, it is time for dessert. And yes, the right beer makes a great dessert. And it’s hard to beat Southern Tier Mokah as a dessert beer. It’s a sweet, creamy beer milk shake with plenty of rich and well blended chocolate and coffee flavors. I’ve had beers with coffee in them that taste like someone just dumped some strong, leftover coffee into the brewing vat, so really appreciate the skillful brewing here.

What else can I say? A great end to a great day of exploration through beer and running.

Time for a Name Change

I went through about 3-4 names before settling on “Beer Runner” for the incarnation of this blog. I liked the simplicity of the name, and thought it was a pretty good idea. The problem with good ideas is that if you have one, it’s pretty likely someone else had the idea first.

And I’ve learned that for at least nine months, Tim Cigelski has been writing an entertaining and informative blog called Beer Runner for Draft Magazine. Tim also writes about many other forms of exercise besides running. I’m actually rather thrilled learn about it, because it somewhat validates what I’m trying to accomplish here. But there’s no way I can top writing about beer, cycling, and pole dancing.

The world could use more beer runners, but one blog called Beer Runner is enough, and it only makes sense to change the name of this one. Of course, I went through about 2-3 more names in my mind during a morning run. One of the working titles was “Beer Runner Ramblings”, but that seemed a little too folksy. I ended up going with the slightly alliterative “Bay Area Beer Runner”. Perhaps every municipality should have a resident Beer Runner.

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.)

Taking the folks to Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery

My parents were in town for an extended Memorial Day weekend. So the Tuesday after Memorial Day, Linda and I decided to spend a day with them in Santa Cruz. First stop, Natural Bridges State Beach. There is something restorative about standing on the beach in cold, ankle deep water as the waves crash and recede in front of you. Periodically, squadrons of pelicans glided overhead, looking for fish. A sea lion would poke its head out to look around now and then. And the Natural Bridge rock formation loomed over the entire scene.

Afterwards, we headed over to Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, (SCMB) about a five minute drive from the beach. In addition to their small brewery where they make exclusively organic beer, they have a tap room where one can go in and enjoy some of their beer. I was hoping for the best, and slightly fearing the worst. I’ve enjoyed their beer many times, but have noticed some batch to batch variation in their product. And sometimes, this results in off-flavors in the beer. In fairness to SCMB, organic barley and hops are usually inferior to the non-organic kind, and its a testament to the skill of the brewers at SCMB that they produce plenty of good batches of beer. Still, I was hoping we’d spend the time in the SCMB tap room talking about the good times we just had at Natural Bridges, rather than talking about strange flavors lurking in our brew.

Mom tends to favor lagers, with her favorites being Heineken and Stella Artois. SCMB wasn’t offering a lager, so I asked the bartender to pour a sample glass of their Wilder Wheat. I braced myself and took a small sip. Good news! I tasted a really soft tasting beer with warm clove and vanilla notes in it. Really nice, and none of the sour, off-notes I had detected in a previous batch of this beer. I handed the glass over for Mom to try. She liked it, being so sure that this was the beer for her, she had no choice but to order it, end of story.

Well, not exactly. Mom looked hard at the descriptions of the beers and the wall, and started looking confused. Walking up to the bartender, she asked him what would be comparable to her favorites. The bartender was a lot more patient with Mom than me. Actually, just about everyone is more patient with Mom than me. Mom ended up ordering their Pale Ale on the bartender’s recommendation and really enjoyed it.

Dad and I decided to get the spring seasonal, a dry hopped Pale Ale. I forget what hops they used, but the dry-hopping gave the Pale Ale an extra fresh, bitter, and slightly astringent dimension. Falling back upon absolutely zero beer judging and culinary descriptive experience, I’d say it made the beer taste “springy”.

Linda decided to get a sampler flight, which she shared with me. SCMB beers tend to be on the lighter side for each style, but don’t seem watery. They’re just the sort of refreshing, yet substantial beer you’d want to drink after a day of surfing. (Or running, because I can’t really speak for surfers, having never surfed.) I’ve been a fan of their Devout Stout, Dread Brown Ale, and People’s Porter for a while now. And every beer on the sampler flight was solid to good. Really pleased to see a local brewery get it so right.

And since Mother’s Day just past, and Father’s Day is around the corner, let me take this opportunity to give a Beer Runner toast to my parents.

Growing up in Bowling Green, Ohio in the 70’s, Dad would carefully dole out sips of Rolling Rock to me from his glass on hot summer days, teaching me to “respect beer” at an early age. (This was back when Rolling Rock was a respectable regional brewery, not the soul-less InBev product it is today.) And my running career started out back in 1980, when Dad and I trained for a 10 kilometer race. Dad’s been running well into his 60’s, but it looks like some foot surgeries he’s had to undergo will cause him to hang up the running shoes.

Mom also played her part in bringing up her little Beer Runner, and has always been active walking, biking and swimming. Often, Mom would be out swimming in the freezing cold lake or ocean water on family vacations, teaching me that you can have a lot of fun if you develop a high enough pain threshold. And she taught me to put good stuff inside my body, telling me to eat my vegetables because they say “Hi” to my insides.

Good beer says “Hi” to your insides.