Thursday, December 24, 2015

A New Tradition

Last night, Dr. Wife and I adopted a wonderful Icelandic tradition.

Jólabókaflóð refers to the flood of new books published in Iceland at the end of the year. Books are very popular gifts in Iceland, and are exchanged on the 24th. Folks then spend the night reading, usually with chocolate.

Dr. Wife and I loved this idea, but we're usually out quite late on the 24th, visiting family. Thus, we decided to adopt Jólabókaflóð as a December 23 tradition, where we will exchange gifts both literary and confectionery. I also added a bottle of very good beer, to tie it all together.



and the beer

This, my friends, is a great tradition. We each selected one of our books and spent the night reading it, accompanied by the delicious flavors of chocolate and beer. This is a tradition that I expect to maintain for a very long time.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

2016 - The Beer Ahead

The 2015 beerfest season has come to a close, so it's clearly time to start planning for 2016. Personally, I've already got plans in place for two festivals:

Pittsburgh Brew N Chew 2016

June 18, 2016

This one made #4 on our 2015 Beer in Review, so you know it's good. I'll be sipping beers and nibbling snacks alongside Dr. Wife and the mysterious J.

You can buy tickets here, but only if you're interested in good beer, tasty snacks, and a good time.

The 3rd Annual Pittsburgh Winter Beerfest

February 26 and 27, 2016

Although it didn't make the 2015 Beer in Review, this festival is a lot of fun. On one hand, this festival can get a little crowded and is quite popular among the "Woohoo! Let's get drunk!" fraternity. On the other hand, the sheer quantity of fine beer available goes a long way toward hampering the crowd's effect. Especially if you spring for the connoisseurs' ticket (a worthwhile investment, I assure you).

I'll be pouring beers in the connoisseurs' room both nights (along with Dr. Wife and J, of course).

If you love beer more than you dislike crowds, get yourself a ticket here.

Of course, this is just the start. Between attending festivals and volunteering to pour, we're going to maintain our reputation as "The Deadheads of Beerfests."

Friday, November 27, 2015

Turnings of the Wheel

The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the first age by some, an Age yet to come, an age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Appalachia. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

Born below the cloud-capped peaks, the wind blew north, deep into the foothills. Down it flailed toward the Three Rivers, into the sprawling towns called the South Hills, and beat at two boys standing in the grass between their homes. Gusts tore at a tattered book, bound by rubber bands, that was being exchanged.

It will come as no surprise to the cognoscenti that the book being exchanged was The Eye of the World - book one in Robert Jordan's sprawling The Wheel of Time series. My friend and neighbor was the owner of the book, and he was insisting that I needed to read it.

I'd heard of The Wheel of Time, of course. I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club (it still exists!), and I'd seen the books featured from time to time. I'd been intrigued, but never remembered to look into the series when I was actually at a bookstore (this was long before Google).

I took that tattered paperback home, removed the rubber bands, and started to read. Within a day or two, I'd bought my own copy. I soon bought copies of the second and third books and before much longer, I owned and had read the first six paperbacks.

Earlier, I referred to The Wheel of Time as sprawling, and I meant it. The story spanned an entire world, and featured an ever-expanding cast of characters. It was sufficiently complex that I needed to go back and re-read the previous books every time another one came out. With each new book, this re-read became more unwieldy, and I eventually decided that it was time to let Mr. Jordan finish the series, then go back and read the whole thing in one long run.

Soon after I made that decision, Mr. Jordan became gravely ill. He soon passed away, but not before naming Brandon Sanderson to complete his epic tale. The series is now complete at 15 books, with a total of 11,916 pages (10,173 in hardcover), and the final book has been out long enough that I should have no trouble borrowing a copy from the library. The time has come.

I've borrowed the first 12 audiobooks (the ones I've previously read) from a friend, and plan to begin laying siege to the complete tale in early 2016. Will they still hold up after all these years? Will the series' end be satisfying enough to justify the wait? I'll soon find out, and I hope to report back here as I complete each book.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

2015 Beer in Review

As the 2015 beerfest season draws to a close, it's time to look back.

Alongside Dr. Wife and another beer-loving friend (hereinafter known as J), I attended 14 beerfests this year. We braved dudebros, hipsters, and the looming spectre of indigestion to sample hundreds of (mostly) delicious brews.

Often (moreso as the year progressed), we found ourselves comparing whatever festival we were currently attending to other festivals that we'd previously attended. Eventually, I decided that we needed to determine which were the "shining stars" of Pittsburgh's beer festivals - the ones that really set the bar in terms of beerfest excellence.

To this end, I created a 2015 beerfest survey. Each of us ranked our top 5 festivals, and I tallied the results. A #1 vote was worth 5 points, a #2 vote was worth 4 points, and so on. I've compiled the votes, and these are the Best Beerfests of 2015 (Pittsburgh Edition):

#5: Beers of the Burgh Winter Warmer - 3 pts

Local beer and local food. It's a winning combination.

This festival filled a Southside warehouse with dozens of tables and parked several food trucks just outside. The beers were all local, brewed anywhere from 5 to 125 miles from the festival site. Trending toward the darker, maltier styles (my favorite direction), the draft list was just the thing to keep one warm in a large, drafty warehouse.

As for the food, Beers of the Burgh provided an excellent sampling of what one should exect from Pittsburgh food trucks. German street food, BBQ, and even brick oven pizza were available to fill revelers' bellies.

#4: Pittsburgh Brew N' Chew 2015 - 7 pts

The Pittsburgh Brew N' Chew brought together beer samples and food vendors in a convention center that used to be a furniture store (everything in Pittsburgh used to be something else). The beer was good, the food was good, and the layout and atmosphere were nearly perfect. Heck, this is the festival that introduced me to one of my absolute favorite Pittsburgh breweries.

The only downside is that they scheduled two sessions in one day, and I assume that there was fairly little time between them to clean up. As soon as the scheduled time ended, we were rather abruptly herded out the door.

#3: 2015 Zoo Brew Spring Hops & Oktoberfest - 9 pts

A beer festival at the zoo? You're kidding, right?

It's no joke, Zoo Brew is a twice-annual beer festival held at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. Festivities, which include live music, a DJ, and as much food as you can eat, are held in the Village and Education Complex areas of the zoo, so there's no accidental mingling of revelers and animals.

One of the best parts of Zoo Brew is the fact that food is included in the ticket price. This is a very good idea, as the last thing you want at a beerfest is a lack of food.

#2: Hop Farm Hoptoberfest II - 11 pts

This festival did something that none of the others did.

There was delicious craft beer.

There was food from local restaurants.

The clever bit is that they were paired up - each beer had a small plate to enjoy alongside it. This little plot twist really made a difference - it took the experience from "food and drink samples" to "miniature meals."

#1: The 19th Annual Great European Beer Festival - 14 pts

Full disclosure: we attended the connoisseur's night, not the regular festival. The experience is quite different.

Standing in stark contrast to the noisy, crowded affair that is the "regular" festival, Connoisseur's night was a calm, reserved gathering of beer connoisseurs. We sampled and compared notes on many of Europe's finest beers, including several that had been pulled from the proprietor's beer cellar just for the occasion.

These fantastic beers were accompanied by food from the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium, served right to the tables. At Sharp Edge Connoisseur's Night, food comes to you!

It should also be noted that this event included the opportunity to sample Sam Adams Utopias. This is a brew that no beer enthusiast should ever pass up.

Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh Real Ale Festival 2015

Real Ale (n) - beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide. source

Flavorful and complex, Real Ale is a style that I've really grown to like over the years, so when I learned of a beerfest devoted to the style, I got excited. When I learned that the festival was being held in a soccer stadium and that there would be matches played, I became ecstatic.

The reason this festival is merely an Honorable Mention is that we made the mistake of buying tickets to two festivals on the same day. This is the sort of decision that only sounds good until you've done it.

By the time we arrived at the Real Ale Festival, all three of us were in a state of taste bud exhaustion (spending the morning sipping pumpkin beers will do that to you). Try as we might, we simply couldn't properly appreciate everything that we were sipping.

Lesson learned - only one festival per day. We're going to appreciate the hell out of the 2016 Real Ale Festival.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

It Started With A Cocktail

Dr. Wife and I were having drinks with some Professional Geeks from across the pond. We were in the bar in an upscale hotel, and I had ordered a Manhattan. At the bottom of my glass there was a cherry, but it was quite different from the bright red fruit that I was used to. This cherry was a darker shade of red, and packed considerably more flavor than I was accustomed to. My new friends quickly identified it as an Amarena cherry, something I'd never before heard of.

Fast forward a few weeks, and Dr. Wife and I are having dinner at a very nice steakhouse. Again I've ordered a Manhattan, and again I find myself enjoying an Amarena cherry (this time confirmed by the drinks menu). I took a picture of the menu with my phone, intending to look up these wonderful new cocktail cherries and acquire a jar or three.

In my research, I uncovered an unpleasant fact about the “maraschino” cherries that I'd been enjoying all these years. From Wikipedia:

In their modern form, the cherries are first preserved in a brine solution usually containing sulfur dioxide and calcium chloride to bleach the fruit, then soaked in a suspension of food coloring (common red food dye, FD&C Red 40), sugar syrup, and other components.
The brine solution completely removes all of the cherry's color and flavor. These colorless, flavorless orbs are then dyed and artificially flavored. Yum.

Suddenly, I understood why I'd enjoyed those Amarena cherries – they actually tasted like cherries.

As I looked over the good cherries, I began to wonder if I could make my own. I perused several recipes and they all boiled down to a simple process: Create a flavored syrup, pour it over your cherries, add your choice of liquor, and let it sit for a while (usually about a month).

Suddenly, inspiration struck. I would attempt to craft the ultimate cocktail cherry – a cherry that brings with it the flavor of a nice bitters. I looked up my favorite bitters and eventually located a recipe that purported to be the original. I adapted it a bit, and soon had a jar of cherries in my refrigerator, slowly becoming more awesome.

My experiment was a qualified success. What I ended up creating was, essentially, cherries soaked in bitters. They're too strong to be used as a sundae topping, but they make a fabulous addition to a cocktail.

Jerry Thomas's Cocktail Cherries

1 cup water
1 cup molasses
1 lemon, zest and juice
1 orange, zest and juice
1 stick cinnamon (approx 4 inches)
1 ounce cloves
1 ounce allspice
1 lb Bing cherries, stemmed and pitted
Dark rum

In a 1 quart saucepan, combine all ingredients except the cherries and rum and bring to a boil. Continue boiling until the syrup thickens enough to evenly coat the back of a spoon. Remove the syrup from heat and strain out the solids. Allow the syrup to cool.

Place the cherries in a 32 oz. Mason jar and pour the cooled syrup over them. Fill the remaining space with dark rum. Close the jar and shake to combine the liquids.

Store in your refrigerator for a month, agitating regularly.

I'm currently brainstorming a sweeter recipe for general use – maybe something made with brandy and honey instead of rum and molasses. I'm still not entirely sure what else I want to add to the syrup (suggestions are very welcome).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shocktoberfest Is Nigh

October...a time of pumpkin flavored foods, colorful leaves, and creepy crawlies. It's also time for the second annual Shocktoberfest, wherein I challenge myself to watch 31 horror movies in 31 days.

This can be quite a challenge, as I have to work around game night, dartball night, and an annual weekend camping trip. Adding to the challenge this year is the fact that Dr Wife is planning to participate. Trying to hit a one movie per day average is going to be an interesting, yet worthy challenge.

At minimum, I want to top last year's 19 movies. That should be doable, right?

I've already asked for suggestions via Tumblr and Facebook (thanks to those who replied - you know who you are), and Dr. Wife and I have looked over the horror movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime to create a "foundation" on which to build Shocktoberfest 2014. Here's a sample:

Cabin in the Woods (I know, this was on last year's list, but Dr. Wife hasn't seen it.)
Dead Silence
Creepshow 2
Black Death
The Ward
The Tall Man
Troll Hunter
Donovan's Brain
White Zombie
The Stuff
The Re-Animator

Additional suggestions are, of course, welcome.

Note 1:
Letterboxd won't let me create an empty list, so I'll come back and post a link to the Shocktoberfest 2014 page once I've stated the challenge.

Note 2:
As promised, here is the Letterboxd list to track Shocktoberfest 2014.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Hero's Quest

By 1991, I had decided that I wanted to get into fantasy roleplaying (especially D&D). This idea, planted by Choose Your Own Adventure and Lone Wolf books, had been reinforced by video games like Ultima and Dragon Warrior. I wanted a game where I could embark upon epic quests, slay mighty evils, and acquire great treasures, and I wanted to play it with my friends.

You can imagine what went through my head when I saw this commercial:

It will be mine.

I remember HeroQuest being hard to find in 1991. After we found no trace of the game at several stores, my parents started calling stores to ask if they had the game in stock (remember, there was no internet). Eventually, they found a store that had copies in stock. Unfortunately, the store was located on Mckinght Road, known to locals as McKnightmare Road. In order to fulfill this quest, we would have to brave its legendarily terrible traffic during the holiday shopping season. Undaunted, we fought our way through the traffic, made our way to the store, and claimed our prize. Because my parents are awesome.

The game was everything I'd hoped. Assuming the role of the evil wizard Zargon (the gamemaster), I challenged my family and friends to brave my various dungeons, defeat my chaos armies, and foil my evil plots. Enormous fun ensued, and I was soon designing my own dungeons.

Unfortunately, years later, that hard-won HeroQuest game was destroyed by a leaking pipe. I couldn't simply go to Target for a replacement game, as it had long since gone out of print. Ebay seemed like a good idea, but HeroQuest had become something of a collector's item, and the going price was a little rich for my wallet.

Eventually, a friend found an incomplete copy of HeroQuest at a flea market, and gave it to me as a birthday present. It was like being reunited with an old friend.

Upon closer inspection, the box that my friend had given me contained not only most of the basic HeroQuest game, but parts from three of the expansion packs (I hadn't even realized that there were more than two)! After a bit of careful Ebayng, I've managed to fill in most of the gaps in the basic set (I haven't started on the expansions yet).

It is in this situation that I find myself when I learn of a Kickstarter project to create a 25th anniversary edition of this great game. At first, I was excited. A chance not only to get a complete HeroQuest game, but to get a commemorative, possibly expanded edition? Awesome!

Unfortunately, I once again find my desire for HeroQuest at odds with my wallet. The lowest tier that gets the complete game costs US$89.00. Add to this the unpleasant fact of international shipping (another $40-50), and I'm left wondering: Is it really worth it, or should I continue on my Quest for HeroQuest Classic?