Archive for May, 2011

Vermont Studio, Part II: some pictures

May 10, 2011

Awhile back, I wrote a long blog post about my experience at Vermont Studio Center. Thought I’d give a little photo tour of the center and some other odds and ends.

Here’s the heart of the center, the Red Mill. All of the offices are here, a lounge, the dining hall. It stays open 24 hours and you can always get coffee here, and while the dining hall closes down you can always at least get some cereal if you’ve been working at three in the morning:

Here is the Maverick Writing Studios. This wasn’t here when I came to the Center a decade ago (hard to believe how long it’s been). Back then you had a desk in your room and kind of lived all in one room for weeks. The Maverick was opened about 4 years ago and is the only building that was actually built by the Center. All other buildings were already standing in the town (VSC has basically bought much of Johnson, Vermont and converted it to its own ends). There are 16 writing studios here, each with a view of the Gihon River (yes, it does flow out of Eden, VT for all of you up on your old testament) and they are generally filled with a waiting list:

Here is the Gihon River during spring thaw:

Hmmm, what else have I got? Oh yeah, a little fuzzy, but here’s a shot of Stephen Dunn meeting with the writers, giving a talk on the “turn” in poetry. Good stuff:

Here’s Pogo, the VSC mascot, waiting patiently for someone to throw a tidbit out the kitchen window after lunch:

Campfires are a necessity. Here I learn that Peeps (it was Easter time afterall) will not only roast like marshmallows over the fire, they turn really pretty psychedelic colors when they do:

Here’s my good friend Tim/Spleen getting ready to interview me at WMRW in Warren, VT:

Here’s the board at Threepenny in Montpelier, also disappointingly blurry (it’s the lighting folks, not the beer). It also doesn’t do justice to the bottle list they have on hand:

And finally here is a scene that still makes me homesick for Vermont. How I love those mountain streams and rivers, those endless swimming holes and beautiful waterfalls and cascades. I didn’t get out in the woods nearly as much as I would have in different circumstances (as in, other than mud season) but it still felt great to get out and see the landscape again.

I have much more, but I’ll call it a night for now. Maybe more later, maybe not. Who knows.

Brewing Furious or Furious Brewing

May 6, 2011

You gotta love May. The apple and plum trees in our yard are in bloom. Spinach is coming up. Orioles, Grosbeaks, and Hummingbirds are all at the feeders. And the temperature’s warm enough to move the brewery outside. So, I’m sitting here with my laptop in the sun as today’s beer boils away.

Northern Brewer in Saint Paul (where I generally get my ingredients) has a “Pro Series” beer that is supposedly THE Surly Furious recipe, straight from Surly. So rather than concoct my own beer, I figured I had to give this a try. The recipe seemed fairly straightforward, a medium body IPA with plenty of hops, bordering on what CBD referred to with one of his recent beers, an “irresponsible” amount of hops. But it wasn’t until I really got into the brewing that I realized what pushed this over the edge into true Surly territory (you’ll see). Here’s the recipe:

4.1 gallons of water at 164 degrees in preheated cooler/mash tun.
8.5 lbs Canada malting pale ale malt (this is bumped a little bit higher than the recipe since I’m using a batch sparge)
3.25 lbs Simpsons Golden Promise
.88 lbs Simpsons medium crystal
.63 lbs Belgian aromatic malt
.125 Simpsons roasted barley

Target rest was 153 degrees. I was at about 156 so I added some cool water which lowered it to about 151, not perfect but certainly OK. Note to self: be a little more patient with the mash before adjusting the temperature. I think if I had waited just a little more that 156 would probably have settled out to a perfect 153 or 154 degrees.  At 30 minutes, I heated up about 2 quarts of the mash and added it back which raised the temp to about 155.

4.25 gallons 170 degree water in 2 batches.
Batch 1, added and let sit as a mash out for about 10 minutes.
Proceeded to sparge at full speed until I collected 6 gallons of wort.
I Tbsp of gypsum added to each batch of sparge water.

.5 oz Amarillo 8.2%, 60 minutes
1.75 oz Warrior 17.2% 60 minutes
1 oz Amarillo, 8.2% 10 minutes
1 0z Amarillow, end of boil
1 c. malto-dextrin, 10 minutes
1 Tbsp irish moss, 10 minutes

I added 1 Tbsp of calcium carbonate for yeast and pitched a quart starter of Wyeast 1335, British Ale Yeast (this surprised me for an American style IPA, but I’ll do what they say).

O.G. 1.060 (a little light for the recipe, but respectable)

Dry Hop:
Here’s where it gets a little insane. When I read the recipe it simply said dry hop with “furious hop blend” for 7-14 days and I figured this was the part they kept secret. OK, I’ll add an ounce or two of whatever mystery hop they give me. But the package of hops actually lists the ingredients and amounts. This is crazy:

5 oz Simcoe!!
2.5 oz Ahtanum
.5 oz Warrior
.5 oz Amarillo

Are you kidding me?! 8.5 oz of strong hops as a dry hop addition? If it wasn’t listed as Surly’s own recipe, I’d think Northern Brewer had gone crazy. Really. This is a scary amount of dry hops, but then again, Surly is not your everyday beer so it will be fun to see how this goes. I’ll add it to my secondary in about a week.

I’ve previously mentioned the wonders of batch sparging. I did this brew as a batch sparge and it went really well. The gravity is slightly under the recipe, but not bad. Just a slight loss of efficiency. But the gain in time and flexibility is amazing. The traditional sparging used to mean I’d spend almost 6 hours for an all-grain brew. This one took me less than 4 hours. More importantly, I spent far less time with the beer. Traditional sparging demands a lot of attention; with this beer I spent most of my time writing as the beer did its thing. A few flurries of activity and then it would sit some more. Brewing beer and writing, isn’t that what sabbatical should be about?

Thoughts on New England Beer

May 1, 2011

I grew into beer in Vermont, drinking New England beers. One of my first real beer loves was Catamount Ale, which used to be brewed in White River Junction but is now defunct. Long Trail was emerging on the scene about the time I was leaving Vermont, and it was a good brew we really enjoyed, but it wasn’t Catamount. McNeill’s brewery was also starting production about the time we left. McNeill’s, formerly Three Dollar Dewey’s, was the bar that really turned my beer world around (and Ray originally brewed with Catamount before he began brewing his own) and opened my eyes to the big wonderful world of malt and hops. So I’ve always had a soft spot for New England brewers.

Fact is, though, they didn’t really hold up once I moved away and my beer horizons expanded. For instance, most of the beers I loved in Vermont really didn’t hold up once I started tasting those amazing west coast ales. I moved away in 1990 as the beer world was quickly expanding, and my awareness was also expanding (thanks in large part to the Saturday Night beer club at Cafe Brenda in Minneapolis where I worked for many years–the perfect way to relax after long busy nights at the restaurant). My love of Vermont beers became more nostalgic than anything (although nostalgia plays an important part in the beers we love). After I moved away, I did get back to Vermont pretty regularly through the 90s and it was always a pleasure, say, to revisit McNeill’s brewery or have a Long Trail but on the whole the New England beer scene seemed to be losing ground. Then I barely visited during the ’00s.

So it was interesting to be back in Vermont recently to both see what was happening in the scene in general, and to revisit some of my old favorite beers. I sensed a world divided. As I mentioned, Catamount is no more. Long Trail seems to be fluorishing, but the beers are pretty uninspired. Otter Creek, which was also emerging about the time I left, falls into the same camp–decent but uninspired beers. In fact, during my first week in Vermont, that was my sense of New England beer in general: Long Trail, Otter Creek, Smuttynose, Harpoon were all fairly disappointing. I went to the Vermont Pub in Burlington which opened about the time I left as well–it wasn’t great at that point but I thought I’d see where it had gone, and it had gone from mediocre to worse. I really thought the beer here was pretty bad and the ambience even worse. Flat Street Brewery in Brattleboro was really pretty bad. My visit to McNeill’s (which I blogged about earlier) was good, some of his beers were quite wonderful, some less so, but that quirky Brattleboro charm had kind of run off the place at least on that Friday night. I found a few newer local brewers, Rock Art, Trout River, Lake Placid, Shipyardbut the first beers I had from any of these places were mediocre as well.

After a fairly disappointing first week, though, things did get much better the second week. First, I spent a day in Montpelier and had some beers and lunch at the Threepenny Taproom. This place is a real find, and I really wish it had been there when I was at Vermont College (how life would have been different to hang out here instead of Julio’s or Charlie-O’s). A great draft list and an even better list and a small but creative daily menu. The staff knew their shit and were really pleasant. I had previously had a few Allagash beers from Maine, and they’d generally left me lukewarm, but I sampled their barrel-aged Curieux–holy crap that was good! This is also where I discovered Hill Farmstead, a small but really creative brewery doing some amazing work. I sampled two fabulous IPA’s. After Threepenny, I also found some of the better beers in some of the local portfolios. For instance, I found some very good Rock Art beers: Rock Art brews: their Vermonster is a really nice malty barleywine and their Belvidere and their ESB2 are both excellent imperials; Lake Placid’s Ubu is a solid English Strong Ale; Long Trail’s Double Bag is a much stronger IPA than their regular IPA. My last find in Vermont was Burlington’s Flat Bread/Zero Gravity brewery. I had lunch there my last day in Vermont and was really happy to end that way, a really good IPA, an  even better Imperial, and a good belgian tripel.

My sense, then, is that in general New England breweries are a little behind other areas of the country, but there are some exciting things going on. It’s a little harder to find the gems here than other areas of the country, but they’re out there, and I’m looking forward to seeing what creative brewers like Hill Farmstead will end up doing. I think I need to go back, this time with MB in the summer so we can do some hiking, visit the old swimming holes, and do some serious beer research.