Latest Posts, Non-fiction

A Heretical Guide to Classifying Beer

Growing up in a household in which beer and wine were never served, or even kept in the house, I never acquired an appreciation of beer. To me, there was one kind of beer – very light in color, served out of dirty, plastic coolers, and consumed by very distant and strange relatives at picnics. In high school, this beer was also consumed by a certain crowd: those who played baseball and lacrosse and talked about the kegger at which this straw, light amber, highly carbonated beverage was served in abundance. The lack of a model at home, the exhibition of poor behavior by those who consumed beer, and the general smell and color of the beer was enough to make me turn my nose up at the idea of drinking beer altogether. That is, until I tried my first beer almost an entire year after I turned 21.

My friend and I were at a Mexican-themed restaurant chain near the college. It was here that I bought my first drink. Deciding to commit all the way, I ordered one that came in a 25 ounce can. This, a pilsner lager I would later learn, had a light golden amber hue and gave off a mild malty aroma. As I drank it, it had just a hint of sweetness with just enough bitter to categorize it as beer. Of course, being my first drink ever and having nothing to eat prior to drinking, I received the full force of its 4% alcohol per volume and felt the buzz almost immediately. This, of course faded as my friend and I ate. Later we would go back to this restaurant and partake of the same food and beverage again.

I didn’t know much about beer then, and I can’t say that I know a lot about it now. But if I did know more, I could talk to you about how beer has been ingrained in cultures throughout the world since Noah’s Ark with the most earliest recorded recipes dating back to 4300 BC. I could talk to you about how the ancient Egyptians brewed beer commercially and had various social traditions associated with beer, such as an Egyptian gentleman offering a lady a sip of his beer, thus announcing their betrothal. I could also talk to you about how the early brewers used balsam, hay, dandelion, and even crab claws for flavoring. I could even go into detail about beer’s various uses during the Medieval period beyond its use for nutrition and celebration. These include tithing, trading, payment, and even taxing. Furthermore, I could go into some depth about how hops were added to the brewing process in 1000 AD, and how 200 years later it became a substantial commercial enterprise in Eastern Europe. I could even share with you some very fun facts like how kings used beer to toast victories and how Queen Elizabeth I of England drank strong ale for breakfast. Furthermore, in the colonial period, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had their own private brewhouses. Then, as the discussion looms upon modern history, I could even go into some depth about how prior to the 1800s, most beer was really just some variation of Ale. And, of course, Louis Pasteur’s discovery of yeast in 1876 significantly impacted the fermentation process for beer (as well as wine), thus leading to over 2300 breweries in the U.S. in 1880 and Pabst’s ability, alone, to brew 1 million barrels in a year. But, I won’t go into these fun historical facts because this information is easily accessible on beerhistory.com where, in addition to a concise timeline, one can find a list of well over twenty books and articles on this very topic.

If beer were a religion, it would probably the oldest religion in the world with various offshoots and sects preferring barley over wheat, hoppier beers versus sweeter beers, light beers over dark beers, stouts or porters over ales and lagers, and so forth. If beer were a religion, then the prophets of this religion, who describe their beers with terms like “sessionable” and “malt-driven” or “having a balanced interplay between malt and hop bitterness” would cry heresy and burn me at the stake for refusing to adhere to their strict standards of description, all of which can be found on the Beer Style Guide at crafrbeer.com.

Now, in my earlier years as a beer novice, I would have given a person a blank stare at the mention of such phrases. Though I don’t anymore, not because I lay claim to any real expert knowledge on the matter, but because I’ve experimented with various beers over the years, mostly at parties that are just as much about trying new and interesting beers as they are about meeting new and interesting people. Here I’ve come to conclude that beers, regardless of the family in which they fall (i.e. lager, pale ale, brown ale, stout, porter, and so forth), all of them, like people, can fit into the following categories: The Eccentric, The Nice Guy/Gal, The Life of the Party, and The Asshole. Hence the almost heretical way in which I intend to set out to describe beer, purposefully moving away from any terminology that demands some technical expertise into this world and choosing instead to describe beer in terms that would be more accessible to the common individual who, like myself, enjoy a good beer and tend to further categorize their beer as follows: Another Round, I’ll Drink it if There’s Nothing Else, or Hell no!

For the purpose of demonstrating this thesis, I chose Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Across the World, a collection of collaborative projects containing twelve different kinds of beers. For the sake of brevity and to eliminate redundancy, I have chosen four of these twelve beers to illustrate exactly how these categories might work for the average beer drinker.

The Eccentric. Simultaneously intriguing and off putting, the West Coast Style DIPA gives off an aroma almost identical to peeling a grapefruit. However, upon taking your first sip, you experience bursts of sweet citrus in the same way you would if you were biting into a slice of tangerine. The sweetness lingers for a brief moment before it’s overwhelmed by the taste of a sour grapefruit, causing your eyes to squint and your lips to pucker. Upon swallowing, the aftertaste is bitter, but not unbearable. Like meeting an eccentric person at a party who holds your attention until the conversation begins to lag or veers into topics in which you have no interest, you wonder whether this West Coast Style DIPA, boasting of 8.3% alcohol, is something you can, or even should, actually finish. But finish it you do because it feels like such a waste, this far into the pint, to stop. Not only that, but you have no one else to pass it off to and you just feel bad about leaving it alone. To this beer, you might say, “Eh… I’ll drink it again if there is nothing else around.”

The Nice Guy/Gal. The Dunkle Weiss, a German-Bavarian style beer, tries very hard to be well-liked. It is neither inoffensive, nor off-putting. With 5.7% alcohol, this beer smells like a cool spring breeze across a field of grass sprinkled with patches of newly blossoming flowers. Upon your first sip, you are greeted by the familiar taste of cherry candies, like the ones that the old ladies at church carry in their purse. Molasses, mild and watered down, are also noticeable within your first few sips. As you continue to drink this beer, you will also notice hints of cocoa powder, like the air you breathe in through your mouth while pouring hot cocoa mix into a dry mug. This is the mild chocolaty finish you get upon swallowing your first sip, and everyone thereafter. Like the Nice Guy or Gal at the party, everyone spends some time with this beer. Some, like myself, will ask for another round, while others are content with the experience of the single round. However, at some point, you will go back to this beer because it is just perfectly sweet.

The Life of the Party. If the nice guy or gal should suddenly develop charisma, this person would become the one who makes everyone laugh, yet does so in a way that offends no one at all. The Atlantic Style Vintage Ale is one such beer. Upon giving it an introductory sniff, a faint plummy aroma wafts through your nostrils, much like the mist of body spray from five feet away. Upon your first sip, you are greeted by fruit punch and you are taken back to your childhood, sitting on the back stoop in the hot sun, sipping a straw stuffed into a box of juice. It’s pleasant. Yet there is a mild bitterness to this fruit punch taste that enhances, rather than overwhelms the experience. It is much like the taste of tonic water added to the bowl of fruit punch for the purposes of livening up the drink at a dry party. This beer, with its 8.5% alcohol per volume, is a beer that everyone at the party will likely want to drink because the taste is truly something to be experience. The harbinger of this experience – the one who encourages everyone to have a sip – will also be elevated to the same exalted level of “Life of the Party”, even if he or she didn’t even bring the beer. Because of the higher alcohol content and the taste, to this beer I would say, “Another round!”

The Asshole. The Dry Hopped Barley Wine Style Ale clothes itself with the appearance of The Eccentric. The asshole has opinions and makes various and unfounded claims all of which are initially intriguing, but the more you are around the asshole, the more uncomfortable you feel because the asshole has complete disregard for anyone but himself. This beer gives off the sweet, citrusy aroma of orange blossoms and you think, “Yeah! This is gonna be great!” However, when you sip it for the first time, you are reminded of that one time when you insufficiently peeled an orange and suffered the bitter consequences of chewing the remnants of said peel. However, the bitterness is initially offset by a sweet citrus taste and leaves you with the aftertaste you get when you eat a sour grapefruit. Oddly, there is a mild toffee, almost caramel flavor within each sip, but it’s more like someone decided to further compound the taste by stuffing a Werther’s Original (the chewing kind) inside a slice of the most sour grapefruit they could find. Then, after all of this, you realize how much this beer mimics The Asshole Personality. It boasts a whopping 9.4% alcohol per volume that is guaranteed to turn any well-intentioned person into an asshole as well, should said person decide to have another round. I, for one, never want to put anything even remotely resembling this to my lips and therefore say, “Hell no!”

So from one novice to another, the preceding is a simple way of categorizing your beer. You don’t have to be an acolyte, a beer connoisseur, or even a master-beer craftsman to fluently discuss why you prefer one beer over another. Simply take a sip, take mental notes of its affect on your senses, and categorize the experience accordingly. But I’d recommend trying it at home first with a beer sampler pack and a notebook so as to avoid the distraction of a pesky party filled with assholes who would be delighted to lord over you their claims that they know exactly what a well balanced beverage of malt and hops actually tastes like. Because, you know everyone can go to the produce section of their grocery store and buy hops (whatever that is) so that they can sprinkle it on their salad, toss it into their smoothie, or just eat it raw. But malt, in all serious, can easily be picked up. Go down the Ethnic aisle of your grocery store and pick up a few bottles labeled “malt beverage” and you will know exactly what malt tastes like. But, as for everything else, simply stick to food associations that are familiar to you. Even if some eccentric looks at you like your head is filled with barley, the nice guy or gal and the life of the party will smile with appreciation that you even dared to describe the taste of beer in simple, plain language.

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Latest Posts, Non-fiction

My Grandfather and One Hundred Words

We spoke no more than 100 words to each other over the course of twenty years and the time we spent together amounted to no more than a few days. It should come as no surprise that I have very few vivid memories of my grandfather, and the ones I have are like the edges of an old photograph, frayed and stained by age – an uneven yellow, almost brown tinge like someone dipped it in cold black coffee and left it out to dry in the sun.

When he died, my grandfather left his material legacy behind – a two story house and a two car garage, both with matching blue paint fading and peeling, along with one of those fifteen foot contractor vans with the two windows in the rear. This van, brown with gaping rusty holes, rattled as he drove it from neighborhood to neighborhood picking up from the side of the road broken washing machines, old computers, scrap metal, and anything he thought might be of use or value to him one day. These he would stash, stack, or stuff in his garage or house until his garage spewed forth his treasures or the stacks within his house threatened to topple over. I know this because I rode in the front seat of the van while he made one stop before dropping me off at home.

It was a hot August day. My mother told my brother and I that she had arranged for my grandfather, her father, to pick us from soccer practice that afternoon. When the time came, all of our teammates and our coaches left us alone, baking, sweating, and thirsty in the green desert of our high school’s sports complex. We waited, deciding that this man we both barely knew had forgotten about us. At this point, we walked until we reached the crest of the hill leading out to the surrounding neighborhood where we saw the van.

I recognized the van and its driver before my brother did. Or, more accurately, I chose to recognize my grandfather, whereas my brother bluntly refused to get in the vehicle. He walked home and I rode with my grandfather. The van shook and rattled metallically while an old microwave, caked with dust and grease, crashed across the floor as we bounced over potholes until my grandfather spotted a pile of garbage sparkling in the afternoon sun. Without asking if I minded, he stopped the van, cranked the emergency brake, and got out without closing his door. The rear door creaked open and one, two, three pieces of scrap metal slid in, along with another microwave and a filthy computer. The rear door creaked shut with a slam and my grandfather was back in the van. He looked at me, chuckled gruffly, and said, “That’s a good find.”

Years later, long after my grandfather died, my parents were getting rid of their surplus of coffee mugs. I took the two that belonged to my grandfather, a matching set with a cartoon picture of two gloved hands holding a porter cable grinder applying pressure to a pile of coffee beans. The image is captioned in bold lettering: “FRESH GROUND COFFEE”. When company comes, I serve them coffee in these mugs. They chuckle. And I tell them, these belonged to my grandfather, a man who truly saw treasure in what others would dismiss as junk.

Though I never really knew the man, I am fascinated nonetheless. He was a man who I believe had a reason for everything he did. He loved the wild, or so I heard. Though I don’t remember the details, I am told he went camping with us. Attached to this experience is a memory, cloudy and faded with time, of learning how to fish. We were set up beneath a shade of trees upon a lake. He showed my brother and I how to wrap a worm and apply pressure to the squirming muscle until the spear-like end pierced through with a pop. Then we cast off our rods and he let us alone. When we needed help, he came to us, gently showing us again how to set and cast our line and wait a silent eternity until we felt a tug. And there, beneath the shade, he would help us gently real in our line, inspect our catch, then toss it back in. It was not about catching fish, so much as it was about being there as one generation passed on a legacy to another. Just one lesson in what I imagine to be potentially countless others in learning how to survive for days, if not weeks, with just a pocket knife, a fishing rod, and a frugal use of words.

Latest Posts, Non-fiction

You’ve Been Buttoned

Growing up, we all had a small collection of buttons. Some of us wore our buttons proudly for a day. Some pinned our buttons to our bags. At school you might remember the one kid who had plastered her bag with a monumental medley of colors and images which caused you to wonder whether a bag even existed beneath the collage of pins strapped to the kid’s back.

Buttons were a great way to dress up the faded bag handed down to you by your older brother or sister when the bag had long passed its expiration date. You would hide the bag’s blemishes with smiley faces and peace signs. Then, to personalize your bag , you would include buttons of your favorite bands. Maybe KISS, Green Day, or even the New Kids on the Block were included in your envied array of buttons.

Whatever you had, your buttons represented the places you visited and the things you loved. Each button was a timeless memento printed on a thin paper disc, shrink-wrapped on a cheap piece of tin and lovingly pinned to your bag. Until a few days ago, I thought these cheap, but fun little trinkets, had passed their prime in favor of their modern counterparts, the meme. But a meme you cannot hold. A meme, existing only in digital format, does not possess the palpable immortality inherent within a button.

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a Foundations of Technology (FOT) Class to observe critical thinking in instruction. Apparently I was supposed to see how the instructor fostered an environment in which a high level of critical thinking could occur. The intended result of this peer walk-through would be to create a continuum of conversation around the topic of increasing levels of critical thinking in our school-wide instruction. So I chose FOT because it fit two requirements: it was outside of my content area and it was taking place during my planning period.

During this class, tenth grade students were to create buttons using a template on Microsoft Word. The template was already populated with images the instructor had previously inserted as examples of what the students were supposed to do. Basically, the students were to find images on the web or through clip-art and replace the instructor’s images with the images they found on the internet, which they then carelessly copied without giving credit to the original source. Not much critical thinking was happening here, unless you count the times when students screwed up the template and had to figure out how to fix it, or simply gave up (or didn’t try) and opted instead to ask the instructor or a friend for help.

As I walked around the room, I went through the motions of putting tally marks on various and vague descriptions of behaviors I observed being demonstrated by the teacher and the students. Did the students identify a problem and try to solve it using more than one method? Did the students persevere until the problem was solved? Did the teacher ask open ended questions? Did the teacher give students a real world problem to which they had to apply real world skills? To be honest, I thought it was a stretch, but I did my best to find the critical thinking, however minute, in everything the students were doing.

For about ten minutes, I continued my rounds of observation and note taking and managed to apply a great deal more critical thinking than some of the kids in the room were applying to their projects as they chose pictures that they pasted into the template, then chose an appropriate color for the accent ring around the picture. Maybe that was the point. Maybe it was I who was supposed to think critically in my mission to discover critical thinking which I could implement into my own teaching practice.

Scouting out and endeavoring to discover active critical thinking, I came across a student from my English class. He managed to find several pictures of myself on the Internet, which is really not that hard to do with a quick name search. If you’d like, you can search my name and you will find numerous pictures of myself which you can also download, but I’m not sure why you would want to. But this kid did. He copied the picture and pasted it into the template then looked up to see that I was looking at his work.

“Sure,” I said, “if you really want to use my face, you can. No need to ask my permission.”

He got the hint, then asked for permission. I obliged his request because I really didn’t care one way or the other. When I left after doing my rounds of critical thinking observation, I headed to my office, then reflected upon my findings. When I was finished, I dropped the peer observation on a pile somewhere in my office knowing that it would be one more thing that we were told we had to do but there would be no follow up, and, like the paper, I completely forgot about my picture potentially being used on a button project for FOT.

I forgot, that is, until this week when the creator of the button walked into my classroom and sat down next to his friend. Because of their banter throughout most of my classes and their various antics, I refer to these students as Waldorf and Statler (the two crotchety old critics from the Muppets). At the start of the class period, I began class with my usual overview of my expectation for the day before launching into the lesson. Then I paused to take notice of the button worn by Waldorf, the creator of the buttons, then noticed that his buddy, Statler, wore a different button.

“I see you found a second picture,” I said to Waldorf.

“Yes,” he said, “And I made one for Statler. I figured he’d want one once he saw mine.”
Looking at the two buttons pinned to their t-shirts, I noticed Waldorf’s button had a caption below my face:

“PONDER”

And so I did. And in my pondering, I concluded that I have certainly made quite the lasting impression on these two students. I imagine they will have those buttons for years to come and they will one day, maybe in twenty years, be cleaning out a junk drawer and each will find his button respectively. They will ponder and, in their pondering, they will tell their kids about me and my class. And so, I too will be an immortal memento simply because I allowed a picture of my face to be used for a FOT project.