Ramble On

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Recapping 2014: Those Brewing Adventures

Brewing a batch of Black Widow IPA with fresh hops.
When I started this little recap series, I mentioned how the topics in my blog posts have evolved since I started Hawksbill Cabin in 2007 – from the projects renovating the place in the early days, to getting to know SNP through a series of hikes and research, up to now, when my posts are dominated by brewing and other beer related subjects.  This morning I did a quick scan of the posts in 2014, and there was not a month that went by when I didn’t write something on the topic, so I guess it is fitting to close out the year with one more post about brewing.

A glass of the finished product.
I started brewing with one gallon kits in 2011 – I’d grown interested in it over the years as friends and acquaintances would break out fresh brews they’d made for the holidays, dinner parties, or for no reason except friends getting together.  My friend Stan has been brewing for more than 20 years, and so has neighbor Dan – they both invited me to help them on a brew day, as did Brendan, and that’s all it took.  My formative beer-drinking experiences were spent in my 20’s in Berlin (the base I was stationed at was near a brewery, in fact!) and Western Europe, so I suppose that only added to my interest.

Dan at the start of his harvest in July.
Starting from those three basic ingredients outlined in the Reinheitsgebot – the German purity law – which were water, hops, and barley (yeast isn’t listed but is at least as important as the others), there is plenty of room to create something new and special.  I guess that is what I like about it: in addition to the styles to try and master – saisons, farmhouse ales, porters, stouts, IPAs, bitters, and (someday) lagers – you can vary the ingredients to produce a craft that ranges from honey lavender kolsch to whiskey barrel porter (I’ve made or I'm making both!)…there’s simply a lot left to try and do.

Some of Dan's Cascade hops in the dryer.
Looking back on the year as a brewer – I’d have to rate the experience of picking Bill’s hops and then brewing those IPAs (here and here) as one of the biggest successes of the year.  Not only did I get to extensively use a locally produced ingredient (and I still have enough left for two more batches), but the black IPA recipe was adopted and customized for my equipment.  I went as far as to dry hop some commercial hops at the end for aroma in order to be sure I had a well-rounded product I could be proud of – and it was that.

Hops picking with Bill and John, maybe one
of my favorite photos of the year, too.
In 2015 there are going to be a number of opportunities to create beers with local ingredients again – there’ll be the hops, of course, and there is a crop of Page County grown barley that was recently malted for brewing by my friends at the Blue Ridge Brewers Association.  We used that barley recently for a batch at Dan's brewery.  Plus, there are local ingredients that we can add to make unique beers:  honey, lavender, cucumbers, watermelon, and pumpkins – not to mention the rye whiskey they’re distilling around these parts!  It will be a good year for brewing, building on all that I’ve learned in 2014.

A portion of the fresh Cascade hops from
Bill's hop yard.

One of the vendors I buy a lot of my ingredients from has a motto:  “Brew, share, enjoy.” That’s probably the part of the experience that is most important to me, especially the “good friends” part of sharing and enjoying.  So here’s to all of you, readers – have a great 2015, and most importantly, enjoy the journey!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Recapping 2014: Backyard Hops

Homebrew and home grown hops.  What's not to like?
Not long after we bought Hawksbill Cabin, we met our neighbors Dan and Sally just up the hill.  They have what is probably the oldest house in the neighborhood – and one that probably has been the scene of many summer parties.  Along with everything else they are famous for, these days, Dan has a small hop yard and brews some delicious beer out in the barn, which we call Beaver Run Brewery.

Certainly the beer is a worthy topic, but I have posted on it plenty of times in the past.  Today I want to write a recap about home grown hops, which Dan introduced me to last year, (and I've learned a lot more about it through the Virginia hops growing community).  Now I've got a couple of plants going on, and some other friends and neighbors do, too – some of them growing second generation plants off of Dan’s rhizomes.
Dan, adding home grown hops at Beaver Run Brewery.

In Dan’s backyard, he has about a tenth of an acre set up with around two dozen plants, representing five or six varieties of hops - see the harvest post here.  The Cascade plants have been the most successful, but he also has Fuggles, Goldings, Centennials, and others.  I think one I am forgetting is Willamettes, but they haven’t done so well.

I frequently benefit from his production, and I’ve used the dried hops in several different brews – Cascades in ales, and the Fuggles in porters.  One thing leads to another, and I decided to put a couple of rhizomes in at the house in Alexandria.
My Willamette bine in Alexandria.

First I tried Goldings, which did produce in the first year, but not so much in the second; I also have a Willamette plant that produced a small harvest in the first year, so I used the hops during secondary fermentation of a recent batch of honey porter.
John and Bill picking Cascades.

Bill's fresh picked Cascade hops.
One of the highlights of the hops season for me this year, however, was the opportunity to help our friend Bill with his harvest of Cascade hops.  He got the rhizomes from Dan – I think there are six – and they were prolific, ready to harvest in the July-August time frame.  I was out for the weekend Bill decided to pick them, and invited myself along to help.

It’s hard to describe how rewarding it was, sweating profusely while picking those herbs, all of which we knew would be going to use to flavor and preserve some delicious home brews.  Only, who would be the brewer?  I was very surprised when Bill offered them to me.

I mentioned that his plants were prolific – we probably picked six pounds of wet hops.  If we were dehydrating them, that would come down to about a pound and a half – enough for thirty gallons of craft beer. 

Black Widow IPA - the first batch from Bill's Cascades.

So far I’ve used the hops in two five-gallon batches of what I am calling “Black Widow IPA” – it’s an adapted IPA recipe that comes out at around 7.5% ABV.  I’ve shared some with Bill, obviously, to acknowledge his green thumb, and with John, seen in the picture above helping with the harvest. 

I’ve even enjoyed a glass or two with Dan, so that this hop growing thing has come full circle.

This part of the brewing adventure still has a way to go.  I’m looking forward to the 2015 season to see what we get – and I still have a couple of batches to make with last year’s Cascades!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Recapping 2014 - All Those Brewery Tours

A taproom highlight: beer pairings at Boulevard.
Since I first wrote the title for this post, I’ve come to realize that it’s technically inaccurate: although I count the total as 8 for the number of breweries I visited during 2014, only three of these stops included brewery tours – and clarifying further, since I usually visit Beaver Run Brewery (Dan’s homebrew operation) to help out with brewing chores, that one can’t really be counted as a brewery tour either.

What I’m saying here is that the post should be renamed “All Those Taproom Visits” or some such, and it definitely should make note of Mary’s patience for the five stops we made during the Bay Area vacation last spring.  But I will footnote that there were two or three more on that list that we should have added, and would have – if the point of the vacation had been to get me to taprooms.  That is a good idea that I will keep in mind for future trips back to California.
An old favorite - North Coast,
in Fort Bragg, CA.

The opportunity to make all those stops at the breweries in Northern California was good loop closure for me – back when we first made the trip from Cloverdale to Mendocino on California Highway 128, there were still only a few vineyards and breweries along the way.  Most famously there was Anderson ValleyBrewing Company in Boonville – a place that has really grown over the years.

Hop yards at AVBC.
We were there early enough in the day to have a lot of privacy to check out the grounds – it was pretty clear how popular the place must be from all the indoor and outdoor seating near the tasting room.  A couple of other highlights for me was the strings of hops planted randomly around the operation, and their commitment to sustainable operations. 

Home of Pliny.
We also visited the North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg – another favorite from our earliest visits, and a place that has really grown since then.  Besides the opportunity to taste “Pliny the Elder” in person at Russian River, a final highlight was our stop at 21st Amendment during one of the touring days in San Francisco (thanks Brian!).

Brian, enjoying Hell or High Watermelon
at the 21st Amendment Tap Room.
As if all of this brewery fun wasn’t enough, in October I visited Cocoran Brewery in Purcellville, Virginia, as part of my ongoing research about hop farming in Virginia.  I got there early enough to have a good look around at the operation, then there was a big meeting with the Old Dominion Hops Cooperative.  After the informative talks, the brewery was opened for some tastings…and I indulged.
The barrels at Cocoran.

Finally, though, the Boulevard Smokestack Tour in Kansas City earlier this month was, without question, the best brewery visit of the 2014 lot.  I was in conversation with them all of Monday morning via Twitter, as my colleague Eric and I made our way from DC on different flights.  We managed to arrive with plenty of time to visit the tasting room, and conveniently, we were able to join the tour. 

Their hospitality was endless, it seems – they welcomed us with a couple of pours once we figured out we had some time on our hands.  Plus, there was a glass of “Tank 7” to enjoy during the tour itself, and of course, it ended with paired tastings of some of the beers on tap. 

The sign at Boulevard.
I’m fortunate that my friends at Bethesda Market carry a number of these beers so I have convenient access to them – it’s so convenient, I like to call the place “my local” – so, once I’d had a few of these choices right there at the brewery, I was delighted to find them right there on the shelves in Bethesda!

My homebrewing hobby is only three years old at the moment, but I like to think that these experiences provide a framework for some innovation in 2015 – not only in my mastery of new techniques and recipes, but also in my quest to maximize the types of local ingredients in the beers I make.  That’s the topic I’ll take on tomorrow when I post about my own experiments growing backyard hops – and those of some friends and neighbors in the Shenandoah Valley.    

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Recapping 2014: Our Bay Area Vacation

Bay Bridge pano from the Oakland ferry.
Mary at the Mendocino Headlands.
In the early and mid-90’s, Mary and I started going to the Bay Area on vacations.  My interest in the area dated back a few years to when I went to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey; we made some day trips up to San Francisco and I quickly agreed it was “everybody’s second home town.”  We’d had a few friends who ended up settling there, so the area became a natural destination for us once we began to seriously think about getaways.

Picnic lunch at Roederer Estates.
Eventually, we had a great string going, using San Francisco as the base for trips down to Monterrey and Carmel, out to Yosemite, and north to Mendocino (with day trips to Napa and Sonoma thrown in, of course).  So this year, we decided on a trip to Mendocino for the third time – our last trip there was in 2002, I think – with quick visits to a few friends as time permitted.

The Glass Beach at Fort Bragg.

Looking at all the posts with the label “Vacation 2014” – I ended up posting about our activities quite a bit.  But in addition to catching up with some friends, there were some highlights, for sure:

There was a whole lot more to the Bay Area trip, such as the two excellent touring days we had in San Francisco proper, wonderful meals just about everywhere we went – and of course, all the brewery tours that coincidentally made their way into our itinerary…and those will be part of the basis for tomorrow’s post, which will focus on the brewery tours!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Blogging 2014 - A Year In Review

A view of the Point Cabrillo Light from Caspar.
By way of closing out the year, I thought I might do a series of posts looking back on the activities and events I blogged about in 2014.  I’d made a strategic decision about blogging in general, to reduce the pace that I’ve kept up since starting Hawksbill Cabin back in 2007 – settling in at around 12 posts per month, down from the 16-20 I’ve been doing. I needed to do this, since I have been periodically making posts for my company's blog, and I keep a second one called Rescue My IRA, posting five or six times a month there.

I was glad to see that the lower level of production hasn’t really affected the number of views on any given post, typically from 30-40 on each, although some generate a lot more.  Those highly viewed ones are the ones I want to revisit in the retrospective, although I am going to add one additional one to the series…so here are the topics, in order:
Our hostess in Mountain View.

·         Our vacation to the Bay Area and Mendocino
·         Brewery tours in 2014
·         Backyard hops
·         Brewing with fresh hops

It’s amusing that in the life of the blog my typical topics have evolved this way…from the home repairs of the early posts (Big Projects), to all the outdoor activities (Easy and Moderate day hikes, for example) of those intervening years, so that now I find myself writing about beer a lot.  Brewing – and drinking – good beer is a great hobby and creative outlet, one that has introduced me to quite a few new friends and enthusiasts. 

Fresh cascade hops - Luray grown!
I think I’ll keep it up for 2015 – and hopefully will have some news of grand new brewing adventures along the way.  Also, I do hope to get out for more hikes in my beloved Shenandoah National Park and the Shenandoah Valley this year as well, in fact I have resolved to do that and will make a post about it early in January.  

First, though, let’s get the retrospective started with some recap posts, beginning tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sunday Greenway

By Sunday morning at Hawksbill Cabin, the little border collie can barely contain herself, she wants to get out for a walk and adventure so badly.  So, blessed with a sunny winter morning, she and I decided to take in Luray's Hawksbill Greenway - and better yet, since we had time to spare between errands, we took in the whole 3.5 mile loop.

There are a couple of fun things about this.

First off, the Greenway is the place where Tessie and I first took a long walk and I let her off leash for a little romp.  In fact, it was very near the place with the bees and buttercups painting shown here in the photo.  We obviously go back often, it's such a great asset to the town.

Second, this year I am hoping to keep better track of walks like this.  I've started to track our daily walks and finding it very motivating - we only go about .80 miles and it takes about 20 minutes, but since I have been keeping an eye on it, I'm already trying to figure out how I might add that little bit more to round it out to a mile...and possibly how we might add to the route and make it 1.5 miles someday.

I'm using the Map My Walk app for tracking this activity right now.  We have an initiative at work with challenges, and I am thinking about signing up with a commitment to do 300 miles this year with the dog walks - a stretch would be to take it up to 500 miles; to do that I would add in some hikes in Shenandoah National Park.  That doesn't seem hard to imagine at all, so I'll see what I can do.  In the meantime, Sunday's walk is documented here.

The third and final fun thing about this walk? I stopped to take a look at some of the paintings that people have added along the way.  Luray already has a number of murals around town - some lovely, some whimsical.  The ones on the Greenway have a folk art quality to them because they are often done by scout troops, but I did like the butterfly on the cone flower because of how it reminded me of summer days that are still a long way off.

Soon enough our little walk was over, and we got back to business.  I had some work and errands to take care of...and I needed to make some time to relax on the brick terrace.

Friday, December 19, 2014

I Brought the Swag

Just a quick post this morning to wrap up the series on my recent trip to Kansas City.  My team was there for a trade show, which was part of one of our big promotional initiatives for the year.  We ended up in Baltimore, San Francisco, and Kansas City - a tally of three shows.

Thinking about it over the history of this blog since 2007, I've probably been to at least one trade show every year since then - mostly it is the NFMT show in Baltimore, where I have spoken frequently, but there is also the sister show in Las Vegas, which I have been to three times, always to speak as well.

So this year it was a new thing to go with a booth set up to do marketing and outreach - at least with the current company.  Somewhere along the way there are some past posts about trips to San Antonio and Orlando for trade shows with one of my previous employers.

You can imagine that I have collected some pretty good squishee toys from all of this, and you would be correct.  That is the indulgence that I have for this kind of trip - whether it is the little hard hats that we got for ourselves (paired with carpenter pencils, which have been a surprise hit), or these two surprises my friends helped me find in Kansas City.  I think I have around thirty of these objects in my collection.

I have to admit, when we found the squishee hand grenade, it brought a tear to my eye.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Kansas City's Boulevard Brewery

When we got news that we would be heading to Kansas City, my colleague Eric and I began working on our travel plans, hoping that we would be able to squeeze in a visit to the famous Boulevard Brewery there.  Our flights into town were set to arrive on Monday afternoon, but we also knew that the tasting room was open from 11 to 4, so there was a good chance we might arrive too late to catch them at all.

I even tweeted them early in the day to let them know we were traveling in and hoped to get there in time to experience a tasting.  As it turned out, not only did we get there in plenty of time, but they invited us to join the 3:15 version of their premium Smokestack Tour.  We were early, so we took a walk to a nearby strip of Mexican restaurants for lunch before the tour began.

This tour is led by some of the more experienced brewery employees, and they offer plenty of insight into the brewing process and the brewery's history along the way.  Boulevard was started by a home brew enthusiast who decided to make the leap to professional - and has since captured most of the market in Kansas City, with distribution across the county.  We can even get it at the local near our office.

The founder has decided to retire, and began a fairly extensive search on how to transition the business.  He settled on a sale to the Belgian brewer Duvel, figuring there was a good cultural match that would ensure the longevity of what he built.

It's tradition to offer a glass of beer during a tour of a brewery.  At Boulevard we were offered Tank 7 - a beer I've come to enjoy via some friends who grew up in Kansas City, and one that I can easily find locally.  That generous pour sustained us about 3/4 of the way through the tour.

Our tour led us through a lot of the original spaces as well as the newly expanded areas.  It was clear the brewery is a locally popular place to not only visit and taste, but to hold events.  There were a couple of events just ending while we there, and another, quite large one, just setting up as our tour ended.

We had a moment to step into a cooler where they stored the hops supply for a week.  Some recent posts here on Hawksbill Cabin were about the prospect of growing hops - so I had a moment there in the cooler to enjoy the scent of these fine herbs and check out the varieties they use.  I even had a minute to pass around photos of the hopyards back home in Luray!

Now, I have visited at least two dozen breweries in my time (check out the Brewery Tours label for details of some recent tours), including a couple of Anheiser Busch facilities - I've seen big operations.  Having been to Port City here in Alexandria, I've also seen a rapidly expanding regional brewing.  That's pretty much what I expected from Boulevard - but when we passed by the bottling line, I knew we were seeing something much bigger.

The photo only shows about half of the line.  They can really turn it out here!

Yet another highlight of the Smokestack Tour is the prospect of a paired flight of beers from the tap.  When we got back to the tasting room, they had our flights waiting along with a few little snacks to taste them with.  We worked our way through a series of Belgian, IPA, and Stout style beers, with ample tasting notes, and had some complementary foods.

They were all good, but I'd guess at this time and place, I liked the stout the best - it was paired with a smoked gouda that was lightly dusted with smoked paprika.

Now, if you're counting, you can see that we were at two pints so far - not counting the pint that they had poured for us when we first got in and were milling about deciding on the tour.  So three pints, sure.

Well, that's not all.  There was still  time before the next event in the place, so we were able to enjoy a few more samples from the tap list - I had the 80-acre hoppy wheat, and the Single-wide IPA.

Then, on a final note, they pulled out a specially bottled reserve-style stout.  I've lost my notes on this beer, but it was tasty, with a solid ABV.  For a brewery that has something of a specialty in Belgian styles, this didn't surprise me.

And it was a fine one to end the experience on.

So, Boulevard Brewery in Kansas City?  Put that one on your to-do list if you find yourself out there!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Road Trip: Kansas City

Earlier in my career as a management consultant, I traveled (a lot) more.  It's tapered off over the last few years - I don't mind this, although maybe I'm nostalgic for a few more trips per year.  However, last week's trip to Kansas City reminded me of some of the better ones - in fact, I'd go as far as to say that this trip matched up to the Seattle trip I took in 1999 from a "knife and fork" perspective!

It wasn't my first trip to Kansas City - I'd passed through on the way to and from business school in LA in the late 1990's, and there was a business trip to Topeka at some point.  But none of those trips involved a stay in the city itself - we were headed out for a three-day small business conference and trade show.  The trip turned out to be productive and fun.

I have three or four posts to make in total - so we'll start with this one about the restaurants.  I have a couple of friends from there who sent along some recommendations, reminding me that KC is not just about barbecue - although it certainly knows how to do that well.

Still - a barbecue place was our first stop:  http://www.jackstackbbq.com/jack-stack-plaza.aspx.  We were seated fast and those plates were huge.  It made for a good start to our trip.

On our second night, we met up with some business partners who wanted to go to Novel,  The restaurant name is a commentary on current American cuisine, meant to emphasize an evolution from "New American" by emphasizing the basic ingredients in a dish and enhancing their taste with complementary ingredients.

What we find in parallel is an emphasis on foods that a few years ago would have been very hard to find - the pork bellies, the face meat, etc. - it's something you'll pretty much encounter coast to coast, but I was also pleasantly surprised to encounter it in Kansas City.

The final place we went to was the  http://www.theriegerkc.com/.  This may well have been my best ever business trip meal, and the most happening business trip restaurant as well.  Although the photo doesn't do it justice, I snapped an Instagram of the striped bass plated with spaghetti squash and bok choy.  I started with a fantastic smoked trout appetizer...taking a break out there in the midwest from all the pork and beef.

Afterwards, we went downstairs for a cocktail at the speakeasy, where they have an extensive menu and knowledgeable staff to steer you in the right direction for some libations.  The web page offers its own friendly advice, which I've taken to heart:  "Civility is not a sign of weakness.  Be kind to each other, and be strong in your convictions.

I guess for as long as I remember it, that will be my motto for the Kansas City trip.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Sunny Wisteria

Mary and I decided to take advantage of the sunny day and warm temperatures last weekend to make a stop over at our neighbors', Wisteria Vineyard.  We thought we might take in a walk back to Little Hawksbill Creek to enjoy the stream as it swelled with snow melting off of Hawksbill Mountain over in Shenandoah National Park, and of course we could pick up our fall wine selections from Wisteria's wine club.

The sunny day had tempted the sheep out into their pasture as well.  It turned out that as we walked along the little road to the stream, we interrupted a couple of them headed over to graze.  They stood by, indignant, and watched us pass, with a couple of hens also standing by.

Turns out the sheep and chickens are featured in a new video about Wisteria, embedded below:

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Beaver Dam in Snow

Last month I wrote a post about the beaver dam across the road from Hawksbill Cabin, since it had come into view after the leaves fell.  When-ever there is snow on the ground up there, we have a good view of it from the yard - we can easily see how big it is...how it really fills up the hollow.  It actually covers an acre or two, between Beaver Run itself and a small tributary that merges in from the right side.

Then on Sunday morning, as Tessie and I were taking our little walk around the property and up the road, I happened to look out and see the beaver out and about, making his rounds in the pond.  The main portion of the stream goes off to the left in this photo, and back in there is where the beavers typically build their lodge.

Here's a link to a Wikipedia article about beaver dams, should you wish to read more about them.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

You Know You Want a Minibob

When Mary and I headed out for Hawksbill Cabin last weekend, we knew we were headed into some snow.  We'd seen reports that Skyline Drive was closed, and expected that we might find as much as six inches of snow on the ground in the hollow.  As it was, there wasn't as much and it had begun to melt already, but it still made for a pretty scene.
Fantastic thoughts of our good times sledding last winter filled my imagination as I was driving through the horse farms on the east approach to the Blue Ridge.  We have two of these Zipfy Minibobs that we bring out whenever there is enough snow on the ground, and our sloping front yard makes for a good hill. Here's a video of me sledding down the hill: 

While I found our two at an outdoors store in Arlington, I've been trying to find another place to buy them that I could share on the blog, and I finally did:  Amazon.  Here's a link back to one of the vendors there, should this be an item you want to put on your holiday gift list.