Archive for October, 2010

Network Meets Bartleby

October 31, 2010

with thanks to Christine Gaites

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The Creative Writer in the Schools

October 30, 2010

Yes, yes, I know we’ve been there, and it’s humorous because it’s pretty accurate of beginning writers. But this whole series also seems kind of mean to me. I mean I think most writers exhibit at least some of these characteristics when they’re young and starting out. And, more importantly, if this is how a writer feels about teaching (oh, the burden of having to grade intro composition papers!) then I have to wonder why do it. Teaching is not necessarily the best place for a writer to be anyway, so why not just find another profession? (frankly, I was a much more productive writer when I was a cook, but I shifted professions because I valued the chance to work with young writers).  Yet, year after year, MFA programs churn out an overload of writers who will never find a job in academia (yes, most writers say they get that MFA to improve their writing, but the reality is we then expect a teaching job–even publishing is far too often seen as a step towards that job) and the result is an insular community that supports such cynicism–“yes, we know how overburdened the poet is, how no one appreciates the work we do, etc.” Yes, I speak from the “inside”–I have a very nice tenure-track job. But the issue in this video seems to be that it’s about the visitor, perhaps the teacher that hasn’t landed the TT job yet. But I’ve had this conversation far too many times, seen it on search committees too many times–a cynical and superior view of students that is really just the result of being overworked as an adjunct or visitor and would somehow disappear if only the teacher could land that TT job.  Hmmm, really?

Theobroma

October 18, 2010

Last night I fixed one of my favorite sandwiches, blackened tofu. Yes, all you meat-lovers out there, don’t laugh–I’ve actually converted a few folks with this one (slabs of tofu with chef paul’s on it blackened on the cast iron, topped with caramelized sweet onion and poblano peppers, melted mango-habanero cheddar cheese, and a datil pepper mustard and mayo on a homemade kaiser roll. The inspiration is from the Top in Gainesville, but my version is much better if I do say so myself. Throw some sweet potato fries on the side and it’s a killer dinner). Anyway, the point of this entry isn’t the sandwich but the fact that the sandwich begs for a good beer on the side. It was also our first fire of the season, first fire in our new house, so we were celebrating a bit. I thought it was a perfect evening to open up the Dogfish Theobroma I picked up on a recent trip to Maryland. So this is really a follow-up to my last post.

I was looking forward to this beer and it certainly started off well–a different color and body beer than I expected, a fairly light color, small white head, and pretty effervescent. A slightly sour aroma and the flavor had a nice bit of honey flavor with just a bit of dusty cocoa to it. Unique. As it warmed it went downhill, though, and in the end I’d say it was an interesting but disappointing beer (I always have high hopes for Dogfish Head’s beers). Worth trying, glad I experienced it, but the thing is that in the brewpub it was going for $24 a bottle. I picked it up in a store for $12 a bottle. This makes it a really disappointing beer to me, a unique but average beer going for these kinds of prices?

In my last post I was troubled by beer venturing into wine territory. The problem is not increasing prices, nor increasing experimentation by brewers (even though I wasn’t really thrilled with the Theobroma, I certainly respect Dogfish for attempting beers like this and want them to keep pushing on). But with wine, I can at least comprehend some of the pricing. I know that some grape varieties and harder to come by, and some vintages are going to demand a greater price, and some wines are much better able to stand up to cellaring, etc. (and I know this is also becoming more so true with beer but still…)  I generally know beer ingredients, too. Yeast costs are slightly variable between strains, but not that much. Malt and other grains can vary year to year as grapes do, but here, too, the difference is negligible–and grain can be stored in ways that grapes can not (the big difference is the amount of grain used in a beer, but there doesn’t seem to be anything extravagant about Theobroma’s grain profile). The real price variable is hops which in the case of Theobroma is negligible since there is almost no hop character to the beer whatsoever (the dearth of hops in recent years and the resulting price increases are the understandable reason for the expense of styles like double IPAs). This beer does make use of ingredients I know less about such as cocoa nibs.  Here, too, though, the flavor of these ingredients is slight enough that I can’t believe they were a huge component of the beer. I found myself asking what makes this beer worth $24 a bottle (again, I did get it for less, but DFH certainly feels it’s worth that price). Is there anything really that different in the cost of production–I can’t see it.  Is it just the “exotic” quotient and the fact that beer hunters will pay that amount?I have to believe this is the case and as much as I love new, interesting beers, I see this as a troubling trend. I’m not sure who to blame here or what to do about it (I mean, am I going to stop spending good bucks for, say, Lost Abbey’s? I don’t think so) but I certainly don’t want to see us become a culture of collectors who tout the value of mediocre beers simply in the name of uniqueness.

I guess that’s enough–I sound like a crotchety old man who simply doesn’t want to pay for his beer. Not so. I do want some correlation between a beer’s ingredients and production costs and its price, but that’s not my point. I just expect a lot of my beer I guess. So this evening I’ll dip into my stash of Founder’s Breakfast Stout and remember why I hunt beer in the first place.

Has Beer Become Wine?

October 16, 2010

Recently, I had the pleasure of sampling Mikkeller’s Single Hop Amarillo IPA. It’s a wonderful beer, incredibly smooth with a nice spectrum of  citrus hop flavors and aromas–a remarkable range for a beer using only one variety of hop.   My problem was that it was $7 a 12 oz bottle retail–over 3 times more than what I consider to be some equally fine IPA’s (for instance, Bear Republic’s “Racer 5”, a beer I’d generally put in the same league as the Mikkeller, was going for $1.95 a bottle at the same store).

Now, I don’t begrudge brewers making expensive beers and charging what they’re worth, and I will certainly pay for them (and I want them to experiment and make bold beers. For instance, I just shelled out for Dogfish Head’s expensive “Theobroma”–brewed with Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs from Askinosie Chocolate, honey, ancho chilies, and annatto00–and I’m anxiously looking forward to trying it). But it seems that the beer culture is now falling into the trap of wine culture:  if Robert Parker or Wine Spectator rate two wines 93, how can it be possible for one to go for $15 and one to go for $75?  Is it that one is a 93 in the $75 league and one is a 93 in the $15 league and the ratings are skewed? Is that $15 wine that’s rated 93 is well crafted for a certain palate, but that $75 wine rated 93 is rated for a superior palate, a drinker who can discern the finer subtleties of a great wine? To some extent, the wine rating becomes meaningless. Or are wine prices really  just a question of what we’ll pay for them (and merely a status symbol and not directly related to the quality of the wine)? I’ve always been baffled by this, no matter how much I love good wine. How do I know what’s really worth paying good money for?  Without someone I trust to make recommendations (like movies, you don’t listen to everyone’s recommendations equally) I can feel pretty lost. And if I talk to someone for recommendations, the thing we talk about is value–not some rating, but how good is it for how much you’re spending.

Beer, of course, has never been beyond this problem, but it was certainly less so. It used to at least be easier to know what level a beer was in. And the more moderate price differential made the issue negligible–you weren’t going to seriously overspend. With the increase in differential between beers, though, we’re forced to reconsider how we evaluate beers and their worth.  Again, this blog entry is not a knock on the Mikkeller beer; it’s very well crafted and I’m glad I tried it. But if it’s going for $7 a small bottle and I can get Bear Republic at a third of that, I’m going to get Bear Republic. And it’s not a question of breweries–for instance, the Mikkeller “Beer Geek Breakfast” I recently tasted was incredible and unique and worth every penny.  But what I see on sites such as Ratebeer and Beer Advocate is an increasing acceptance that the more expensive beers are inherently worth it. Sites such as these are pushing this culture toward more expensive beers and become less helpful to me in terms of evaluating what’s really worth spending the money on. I know, I know, the answer is to go ahead and buy some, try it, and make the decision myself whether to buy it again and add my own rating. The culture seems to be pointing exclusively toward the bigger, the more “exotic,” the bolder beer. And this is a trend I’d confess that in general I like. I really want that bigger, bolder, more exotic beer.  But the result seems to be  that we begin to equate price with quality. More and more, it seems that more expensive = more exotic, and this just isn’t the case, just as it isn’t with wine.

I can hear some of you saying that if I can’t really taste the difference in value in the Mikkeller and the Bear Republic, then my palate just isn’t good enough to taste the nuance; I’m just not ready to appreciate the Mikkeller. And that may be true. My palate is nowhere near as good as some of my friends’. But that’s also the problem: where beer culture used to avoid the elitism of wine culture, it is now beginning to embrace it. (there’s a big difference I see between educating someone’s palate so they can appreciate more flavors and considering the ability to taste nuance to be some kind of judgment of character). At all levels, there are good beers and bad beers (and as beer guru Michael Jackson, may he rest in peace, used to say, there is a time and a place for Budweiser).  It may be heresy to some, but I’d like to have value become a more standard part of the ratings of beers (yes, yes, I know that value is a very loaded word and we can have a long theoretical debate about this, yes some beer hunters value the discovery, but the term as I mean it here is quite simply how does its quality correspond to its price).  I love reading Beer Advocate’s ratings (and generally agree, but quite often am baffled by their response to a beer), but nowhere do they discuss the price of a beer (and, yes, I know that prices vary radically from area to area, but we can point to what range a beer is in). It may be good, but is it worth the price? Likewise, I wish that ratebeer.com would add a category for value (as is, we rate on aroma, appearance, taste, palate, and “overall.” Yes, I know that I can factor the price into the overall, but why not add a section of value? I am more and more inclined to consider price in the overall category and I think many of my ratings will start to go down. I don’t know if this is true for other beer hunters or not, but I certainly think it would helpful for both drinkers and brewers to find out. And ironically, this is something that has become more standard in wine ratings. It’s now easy to find articles in wine magazines or newspapers that are basically a list of, say, ten recommended wines of a certain variety for $15. Not a bad idea for beer lovers either.  Why not a list of the ten best-value stouts? or considering the current fad, a list of the expensive pumpkin ales that are actually worth it, a beer style that can be excellent but is far too often quite horrible–he says opening a bottle of Southern Tier Pumking Ale and pouring expectantly…..

RIP Solomon Burke

October 12, 2010

MB and I were driving home from the East Coast yesterday, and stopped to celebrate our anniversary and 10-10-10 at the halfway point, Columbus Ohio. After a stop at a brewpub and a wonderful meal at a fusion restaurant, we were wandering downtown and both looked up at the same instant at a scrolling newswire as it announced the death of Soul and Rhythm & Blues legend Solomon Burke.  Burke apparently died of natural causes at the far-too-young age of 70 in the Amsterdam airport.

There has been enough written about Burke elsewhere over the years that I don’t feel the need or the ability to really eulogize him here. I’ll just say that you either know his work or you don’t. If you do, then you know what the world has lost. If you don’t, then I’d say it’s past time for you to discover his work. The easy place to start is to go to his website where they’re playing his recent work, as strong as he ever was: http://www.thekingsolomonburke.com/. Then, once you’re hooked as I know you will be, then go through his long and illustrious catalog and enjoy. One of the all time great voices of soul music. His work has been an important part of my life and I’m deeply saddened by his passing.

RIP Solomon Burke
March 21, 1940 – October 10, 2010
Ever and always, the “King” of Soul