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?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

You Never Forget Your First

As I've discussed elsewhere, G.I. Joe was an important part of my childhood. One action figure became two. Soon, I was watching the cartoon on a daily basis while playing with my Killer W.H.A.L.E.

G.I. Joe was also my initiation to comic books.

One fine afternoon in 1987, I was out with my family at a (now closed) mall when I noticed a comic book store. Perusing their brightly colored wares, my attention was quickly caught by a familiar red, white, and blue logo. There was a G.I. Joe comic book? Even more intriguing was the as-yet unfamiliar character on the cover, with the tag line "Cobra Commander Reborn!"

Was this a new Cobra Commander? What did they mean by "Reborn"? Was the old Cobra Commander dead? Was this guy the new Cobra leader? Was it just a clever way to say "Check out the new design we came up with for Cobra Commander"? Could I live with myself if I didn't buy this comic book RIGHT NOW?

I'm fairly certain I read it twice on the way home. There was a covert mission to hack into a Terror Drome. Cobra Commander was trying, with the help of a Cobra operative, to save his comatose son. These were not the stories I'd been watching on TV. They were better.

I was hooked. My brother was hooked. Over the next year, we bought as many issues of G.I. Joe as we could get out hands on. Unfortunately, the allure of new action figures and vehicles soon re-directed our allowance flow away from the comics.

Fast forward a couple decades, and we're at my parents' house for the annual Thanksgiving Feast. My brother hands me a plastic bag, telling me that he was cleaning out his attic and found a few things I might be interested in. I look in the bag. There'a my old teddy bear, there's most of the Karameikos AD&D campaign setting, there's...

Holy crap. I never thought I'd see it again.

It's pretty battered, but there it is. The first comic book that I ever bought.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Kids Say the Metalest Things

On a recent camping trip, I found myself pushing a friend's son on a swing.  The air was filled with laughter and cries of 'Higher!  Push me higher!"  It was in this idyllic, Norman Rockwell-esque moment that the boy said the most metal thing I've ever heard in a playground.

"I want to go higher than the gods!"

Friday, March 22, 2013

Take the Money and Run

Until January of this year, I was a regular customer of Comixology. As I've never been one to collect comic books as an investment, I quite liked the idea of a digital comic collection. I wouldn't have to buy bags and longboxes to prevent my comics from deteriorating, and I could carry my entire collection (or at least a significant portion of it) on my iPad.

It wasn't long before I noticed something else that was different with digital comics: there was no way for me to share them with my friends. If I was telling my friend about a particularly good issue of The Tick, I could lend that issue to my friend so that he could share in my joy. If, however, I was telling my friend about a good issue of The Amory Wars, I had no such option.

It's clear that this is a DRM issue. Fears surrounding digital piracy had prompted Comixology to "lock down" their comics. "My" digital comics could only be accessed by logging into Comixology's website or via their iOS/Android apps (which hide the downloaded comics where you can't get at them). Surely, this would prevent those nefarious ne'er-do-wells from pirating digital comics. (spoiler alert: it didn't)

Over time, this came to bother me more and more. A particularly troubling thought was "What would happen to my digital comics if Comixology folded? If I'm completely dependent on Comixology for access to my digital comics, would I lose that access?"

This led me to try to read through Comixology's Terms of Use. After wading through several paragraphs of legalese, I found what I was looking for in section 6:

Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by comiXology. ComiXology reserves the right to revoke your license to Digital Content at any time for any reason.

Translated into English, this states that Comixology never sold me any digital comics. What they sold me were rights to read said comics though their service - rights that could be revoked at any time and for any reason. If Comixology were to shut down, there's no reason to believe that I would retain any of these rights - my digital comics would simply vanish in a puff of illogic.

My response was immediate:

It didn't take long for my concerns to be proven correct.

JManga, a digital comic service focused on Japanese comics, is shutting down. Their sales services are in mid-termination, and they plan to shut down entirely on May 30. All of the details can be found here.

Two statements in this announcement are of particular relevance:

As of May 30th 2013 at 11:59pm (US Pacific Time) users will no longer be able to view digital manga content on At this time all purchased and free digital manga content will be erased from all JManga Member’s accounts.
It is not possible to download manga from My Page. All digital manga content will no longer be viewable after May 30th 2013 at 11:59pm (US Pacific Time)

In other words, if you bought digital comics from JManga, they're bring taken away from you at the end of May. There will be no refunds, your money is simply gone. There is no legal way to retain or re-acquire the comics that these folks paid for.

XKCD said it best: