The Power of Conversation

quote2First I direct your attention to a recent blog post entitled “It’s so typical of me to talk about myself, I’m sorry.

Full disclosure: this is my daughter’s blog and she works as a children’s librarian in a community just south of Albuquerque. She raises some interesting points and voices some frustration with the current state of social conversation.

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Conversation is a lost art…lost long ago…and it is becoming a lost personal skill. Human evolution on the mega time scale and personal development of individuals in a micro scale, from the cradle to the grave, depends on meaningful human interaction. We have to be able to carry on a rational conversation with our doctor when we are sick or having a check-up. That is just one example but we have maybe a dozen events during a typical  day when we have to speak with and listen to another person and communicate in a rational manner.

I recently went to a meet-up — one of those scheduled social get-togethers where strangers introduce themselves and converse over drinks or a meal or maybe engage in a common activity, like photography or dominoes or whatever. There were twenty people there and several were attending for the first time — like me. Some were familiar with each other and they fell into a friendly and joking evening of conversation. I was sitting next to and across from people who were not familiar with the group so we just talked among ourselves. The young guy next to me was a zookeeper at the city zoo. He was a bird man but at other zoos where he worked he had different assignments with different animals. The retired woman across the table recently returned to the US from a thirty year career abroad, mostly in Germany. She was a civilian employee of the military. Our conversation, over about two hours covered travel in Europe and specific countries (Portugal in particular), various foods, zoo operations in different cities, zoo emergencies and emergency preparations.

It turned out that the zookeeper was the guy on call to drop a rogue or escaped animal before it attacked too many visitors. Too many, he said…it seems to be a given that someone is likely to get hurt before the situation is under control. This was, to me, a very peculiar aspect of zoo management…one I had never considered. He said that the chimpanzees might be the most dangerous of animals if they escaped. Most animals would try to run away and not intentionally hurt anyone but the chimpanzees can become very aggressive. They apparently have a plan at the zoo as to what caliber bullet will take down what animal. This was news to me and this fellow was very serious.

The lady across the table was very fond of Portugal but not very complementary regarding Italy. To her way of thinking, the Italians are too ego-centric and can’t see beyond their borders. If something wasn’t Italian it was unworthy. I was surprised at that perception because it didn’t agree with my own experience. On the other hand, she was very impressed with the little towns and villages of Bavaria where she spent several years on assignment. Never having been to Bavaria or Portugal, I was interested in her experiences.

I personally didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation other than to ask questions  and follow along. The zookeeper wasn’t much interested in Europe and the retired woman wasn’t much interested in the zoo or animals escaping. Somehow, I became the glue that held the conversation together by asking questions and giving an account of a few experiences I had in Italy or at the zoo. We had a fairly enjoyable evening.

Another night this week I went to my local brew pub. This is something of a regular Tuesday night event with me and a friend spending a couple hours mostly talking about music or our past careers…we are both retired but had very different jobs. I was a little late this week but when I got there my friend was engaged in a conversation with another patron, I’ll call him Al, who we see from time to time at the brew pub. Al is a force of nature as far as conversation goes. He has the broadest range of interests and is fairly knowledgeable  on all sorts of topics. He is a retired mechanical engineer. He can talk for hours but he has a special skill in drawing others into the conversation. You can’t sit on the sidelines. I knew when I walked in it was going to be a wild ride.

The topic, when I arrived, was the various pros and cons of brewery and brew pub business plans. This morphed  into how the craft brewing industry seemed to be falling into several different categories and how some were “selling out” to big brewing conglomerates while others were intentionally staying small and flying under the radar.

Before we were finished that evening the topics went from the initial subject to the Theory of Relativity, E = mc 2, and string theory; laser technology in several forms; Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines; the future of Chinese economics and consumerism; my home brewing prowess and home brewing in general;  gravity and mag-lev technology; migratory bird perception and sensing of the earth’s magnetic field; variations of time on different planets and in space travel in general; the Doppler Effect and the properties of sound under different atmospheric conditions; and a half dozen other topics I don’t even recall now. Granted that this was a brew pub but we were so engaged in conversation that not a great deal of beer was consumed. This was about a three hour conversation and we were exhausted when Al left but energized at the same time. He has a way of stretching your engagement and keeping your interest. My friend and I have had these types of conversations with Al a few times before and sometimes we try to go off on a parallel or tangent topic and he will go along for a minute or two but then circles back to the course that we were on.  I haven’t had conversations like this since graduate school and only a few back then came close or equaled our discussion that night.

quote1I have had similar long conversations with fellow passengers on Amtrak travelling cross-country although the topics usually were not so wide ranging. Actual face-to-face prolonged conversation is invigorating. There are some topics that can get people enflamed and angry but over these two recent evenings and about five hours of talk we never touched on politics or religion or immigration or anything that normally gets people enraged.  I will go to a popular chat forum about once a day and just look at the topics and some of the comments. People are very willing to stick their thumb in your eye in a verbal sense on these forums. Civility is the first victim in many of these forum conversations because the parties are anonymous and feel they can say anything and not suffer the consequences. In real live conversations that isn’t the case and people measure and filter their words and their topics seem to keep some civility if not cordiality.

Social interaction doesn’t have to be prolonged or deep. Two people talking about the weather at a bus stop could turn out to be the bright spot of your day. I have become somewhat chatty over the last few years and people will usually be happy to talk. I can recall only one occasion in the last year where someone refused to be at least cordial and respond to a simple verbal encounter.

So, your assignment is to go out there and talk to strangers or engage your friends in a substantial conversation. Report back on how it went.

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The End of Summer – New Mexico

We only have a few days of summer left. Fall officially starts on September 23. Can flu season be far behind?  They are already playing football. Baseball is in the late season frenzy.  I thought I’d reminisce a little about summer here in our neck of the woods. (OK– you have to look closely for the woods but it’s there.)

Summer here in the Rio Grande valley is most often viewed as monsoon season and I’ve already written about that a while back  Thanks to El Nino we have had quite a bit of rain. I’ve never seen the desert so green. The rain comes and goes and usually lasts maybe a half hour. Sometimes it goes crazy…like when it washed out the railroad bridge and stopped the RailRunner for a weekend.  Flash floods are dangerous — there have been a lot of them lately and some fatalities. We have had some serious forest fires during our recent drought and heavy rain after a forest fire is devastating.  I found a video of a flood destroying Dixon’s Orchard following a forest fire up in the Jemez Mountains…this is from 2011.

I didn’t have to contend with a flash flood. My only problem was the rain-out of an Isotopes minor league baseball game. I was pretty lucky, I guess.   I got a rain check and was able to see a game on a dryer day. We still lost.  The Isotopes did not have a good season this year and attendance was down due to the many rain-outs.

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We still have the best green chile race in all of baseball.

I am sometimes critical of Albuquerque’s city administration and the way they do things but I must say that they seem to know how to put on a street festival. The city had four Summerfests scheduled around town and I made it to two of them…Route 66 on Central Avenue and the Westside on Ellison. The crowds were quite large and well behaved. There was good food and good music. I took a bunch of pictures but I missed having my camera ready when the topless women paraded down Central Avenue…dang.

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Labor Day weekend snuck up on us pretty quick. For the past 27 years the city of Bernalillo has hosted the New Mexico State Wine Festival and it has been pretty popular. It’s not just about wine…there are crafts and lots of food and music. I went last year and enjoyed it — so you can imagine my surprise and disappointment when they announced that they would no longer be holding the annual wine festival.  Accounts vary but it seems that attendance has been dropping and there are other wine festivals in the area. Isleta Casino picked it up and hosted an indoor wine and jazz festival — which I went to. It was very nice but I like outdoor events if the weather is good.  I did buy some wine and tasted my share.

Meanwhile, Bernalillo decided to replace the wine festival with the Mountain West Brew Fest…going from wine to craft beer. I was skeptical — we have a lot of craft beer festivals all year long. Almost every other weekend you can find a beer festival somewhere nearby. I didn’t quite know how this was going to turn out….but it was great. Unlike some places, Bernalillo is very laid back and has a very casual vibe and that set the tone for the Mountain West Beer Festival. I really didn’t know we had so many breweries. I admit that I’ve not been able to keep up with the two or more that open each month…Albuquerque is awash with craft beer. This was a chance to get a taste from over thirty local breweries and a bunch from out of state. Now, I’m a home brewer and I know something about making good beer. I have a medal and a trophy to prove it. I did not have a bad beer during the many tasting booths that I stopped at. I had some that were not to my liking…style-wise…but they were still good at what they were trying to do. Of course I took some pictures…  It was another beautiful day.

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The Monks at Christ in the Desert monastery have been very busy

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Nothing wrong with the camera — friend Stu was getting blurry

The Monks at Christ in the Desert are the makers of a line of beer called Monks’ Ales. They are in a pretty isolated place up on the Chama River so some of the actual brewing has been contracted out closer to town but they are very much involved. They have been propagating and growing native Neomexicanus hops.  New Mexico has it’s own variety of wild hops and the monks are pretty much it as far as acquiring any…unless you want to scour the mountains on your own looking for hops…which people do.  I finally got to taste a beer made with Neomexicanus hops and I have to say that I liked it but it was a little unique….mostly in the lingering finish.  These are not bittering hops — they have low acid levels, I think — so they are finishing hops, I think.  I also think that there is a lot of mythology out there on these wild hops because not many people have any experience with them.  I’d like to get my hands on some but the monks are pretty stingy.

By now you might have the impression that I drank my way through the summer.  I can see how that might have happened but, I assure you, I was sober and righteous most of the time.  Well, with the exception of Tuesday nights. Tuesday is Vinyl Night at Kaktus Brewing in Bernalillo and Stu (you’ve seen his blurry picture above) and I try to keep some music going — mostly music that is on vinyl records or first appeared on vinyl. We make some exceptions. The range of music has gone from surfer music to The Doors to lots of Jazz to The Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, The Who and a little bit of Donovan. We were able to squeeze in Mark Knopfler’s Shangri La CD (not vinyl) this week. We are heading toward a western swing night before too long.

But — I’ve done other stuff. The Volcanoes and the BioPark show up in this blog pretty often as does Sandia Peak.  I really, REALLY, want to go fishing so I’m hoping that happens soon.

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Albuquerque Beer Week

Once a year the city is pretty much taken over by craft beer enthusiasts. We are in the middle of the storm right now. I can’t begin to keep up with the craft breweries and brew-pubs that are opening here each month so I try to follow a few of the postings by local groups and occasionally attend one of the craft beer meet-up group’s get-togethers. I live fifteen miles north of Albuquerque so I’m not inclined to spend too much time in a brewery and then try to get home….it’s an occasional thing.

A large part of the Beer Week experience is the “tap take-over” where an out of town brewery brings their beer and offers it at a local brewpub. Throughout the week we’ve had Ballast Point Brewery, Deshutes, Mother Road, Ska, Lagunitas, New Belgium and about a dozen others in addition to special releases from the many local breweries.

Mother Road’s Sour Beer (Flagstaff, AZ)
Ska Brewing – Modus Hoperandi (Durango, CO)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Battle of the Beer Geeks” is a brewing competition where five groups brew a special beer back about six weeks ago and then face off in an afternoon contest.  The beers tend to be a little bit unusual. This year there was a Saison, a Breakfast Stout, a Ginger-spiced Ale, an Oak Aged Farmhouse Bret, and a Sage and Lemon Pale Ale. My group brewed the Farmhouse Bret. As it turned out, I’m not sure I could have more than a pint of any of the five but my choice was the Sage and Lemon Ale. It had an IBU of 19 and ABV of 9 but it tasted bigger — with a definite sage and herbal flavor.  Each participant had to sample all five beers and then vote and they got a pint of their favorite. At the end of the day the Sage and Lemon Pale Ale ran away with the vote. Out beer was a distant second.

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The winner — Sage-Lemon Pale Ale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are about five or six events every day and I have no intention of attending more than a handful. Today there was an interesting event at Marble Brewing’s westside brewpub. the brewery teamed up with Whole Foods and had a pairing of five of Marble’s beers with five distinctive styles of cheese. I like beer and I like cheese — so this was up my alley.

IMG_0254 The selections and pairings were interesting….I’m not sure who did the pairing selections. A smoky Rauchbier was paired with Jasper Hills Landaff Holstein – a nice cheese from Vermont. A Maibock was paired with Uniekaas Truffle Gouda…a Dutch cheese with Italian black truffles. A Double White (wheat beer with some spice) was paired with Wensleydale cheese with Cranberries — from the UK (eat your heart out Wallace and Gromit – their favorite cheese). A Brett IPA was paired with Igor Gorgonzola — from Italy. An Oatmeal Stout was paired with Piave Vecchio — a hard and dry cheese from Italy. There were some Spanish almonds, Sicilian olives and some sweet Peruvian peppers along with some water crackers on the tray to help with the tastings.

IMG_0256I can only speak for myself but the Brett and the Gorgonzola should not be allowed in the same room together. I liked the cheese but the beer was not anything I would want. It was drinkable paired with the sweet peppers but only barely. I liked all of the cheeses and most were new to me. The Rauchbier and Vermont cheese was my favorite pairing. The Stout paired with the hard and flaky Italian cheese was my second choice. The Gorgonzola was a strong cheese and needed a beefy beer so it went better with the Rauchbier and the Stout than the Brett. Third and fourth place was really a tie in my selection. I was puzzled about the Maibock because it didn’t resemble what I thought the style should be. The Maibock went okay with the Truffle Gouda but the cheese really overpowered the beer. The Double White was an unusual beer (sweet wheat with spices) for me and the pairing with the creamy English cheese with cranberries was an improvement but it was an okay pairing. I was drinking a Wildflower Wheat on the side and some of the milder cheese went well with that.

As an added treat, Le Chat Lunatique performed as the beer/cheese pairings were winding down. I wasn’t familiar with the band but they were outstanding. I’ll be looking for them in the future. (http://www.lechatlunatique.com/)

Le Chat Lunatique
Doing a bang-up version of Caravan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beer Week continues for another few days. if I go to any other events I might post an update.

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The Brewer’s Lament

A few months ago I was visiting my cousin out in the Bay Area and we both are interested in craft brewing.  He is a well-informed patron of some of the best local craft breweries and can talk at length on the history and styles of beer – lagers and ales. I’m reasonably acquainted with the local craft brewing scene in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and I’m a long-time award winning home brewer. We had lengthy and good natured discussions and a couple serious debates over various pints at various places. Often the topic was regional styles and tastes in beer. If you travel the country you will notice different places have acquired different tastes in beer. We sampled a number of local beers and took a drive up to Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa to see what was on tap. Russian River Brewing is a widely recognized Mecca for beer lovers thanks to the hopped up (hyped up?) Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger brews. Pliny the Younger is triple hopped and has a 10.25% alcohol (abv) content and is only available once a year. Pliny the Elder is a double hopped IPA and is always available on tap. The brewery has maybe twenty or more brews on tap of various styles. Much of what we had as we made the rounds was very good. Some of the North Bay breweries are arguably among  the best in the country. We’ll come back to Russian River in a minute.

I’m an experienced brewer and little bit of a beer snob — I admit it — and I have a beef with some craft brewers because they excessively use certain hop varieties or simply over-hop their beer. Why bother making a wheat beer or a rye beer or use a toasted chocolate malt if you are going to put too much hop bitterness in the beer? There seems to be a contest to see how hoppy they can make their beer.  India Pale Ale (IPA) is a hoppy beer style. Hops serve as a preservative in beer and IPA was a British brew sent to the soldiers in India so it was always heavily hopped to make the long sea voyage. The bitterness scale used in brewing is International Bitterness Units-IBUs and the traditional IBU range for IPA brews is around 60 units. For comparison, Bud Light might have 10 IBUs and Blue Moon might be around 18 IBUs. Some brewers are making what they call ”Imperial” IPAs with bitterness units of 90 or even 110. I’ve had conversations with brewmasters at several craft breweries about the trend to over-hop craft beers. They recognize the issue and agree that many beers are too heavily hopped but they say they must brew what the patons want.  The usual patron knows the hop taste and equates that with craft beers and the hoppy beers are selling. I don’have a problem with hops, per se — just the excessive use that seems to be common in many craft beers.

My second complaint is that there is also a tendency to over use certain hop varieties, which give the brew a heavily citrus flavor. The Citra hop is a new variety of hops (2009) that everyone is going crazy over. Centennial, Cascade, Columbus and Amarillo hop varieties are also very citrus-y and if over used can make beer resemble grapefruit juice. I participated in a brew-off contest among five local brew clubs. Four of the five competing beers contained Citra hops. The fifth beer was a traditional stout that was hopped with traditional English hop varieties and at an appropriate level of bitterness. In an open taste test with several hundred patrons voting, the traditional stout won the contest. The Citra hopped beers were mostly okay but were citrus flavored and over powered.

Okay,  so…I left my cousin at Russian River Brewing so I have to go back to rescue him. We were having a great time drinking pints and enjoying the place. We decided to share a full flight of the Belgian style brews they had on tap and when it came there were eleven different samples….yikes. Belgians have a knack for doing some unusual things with beer. They are big into flavoring beer with fruit so you will find cherry or peach or raspberry additions to beer. The abbey beers in Belgium were fermented using wild yeast strains in open vats, often up in the attic or somewhere with little or no control over fermentation conditions. Some yeast strains were localized and eventually permeated the fermentation areas and wooden vats and they became the standard yeast for a particular abbey’s beer. These are Lambic beers and many fall into the category of sour beers.  I’ve had sour beer before and it is an acquired taste, I guess. We plowed into the eleven samples and each one was more sour than the last. My cousin was in heaven….he loved the stuff. There was maybe one or two that I would be willing to drink a full pint of…maybe. Most were undrinkable. A truly open fermented beer in northern California might have yeast strains that are visiting from the neighbor’s vineyard or possibly blown in from a fish carcass on the beach or the road kill we passed a while back. Instead, thankfully, Russian River uses wine barrels from California wineries (a yeast source) and introduces other isolated strains of yeast from different Belgian brew styles….what once were wild yeasts. They use different wine barrels (Pinot, Chardonnay, etc.) for different brews. That’s all very interesting to me but the end product tastes awful. When I brew beer I work very hard not to have those flavors in my beer because that is what I would consider infected beer and I’d throw out the whole batch. Needless to say, we had some spirited discussions on the merits of sour beer. We agreed to disagree.

My cousin is an artist and a poet when he isn’t in beer mode. He is a good artist – I like his stuff – and has a couple published books of poetry. He writes in a form that he developed called “Boxes”, which are poems of ten lines with each line having ten syllables. There is more to it than that but you get the idea. Each poem has 100 syllables. In his honor I decided to write the following poem, reflecting on our brewery experiences.

The Brewer’s Lament

Your beer conforms to the sour persuasion.

It seems so wrong on the few occasions

that I’ve given it my full attention.

If I brewed a batch that took on that taste

I’d know my effort had all gone to waste.

So what is the deal with regional beer?

There’s Belgian and Baltic and Irish but

Mexican beer has an Austrian root.

So drink what you will, I won’t call it swill.

Don’t over think it – pour it and drink it.

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 I know folks will disagree but that is part of the enjoyment of the current enthusiasm with craft brewing.