Chasing Reindeer

December is a hectic time of the year.  The sudden realization of how many days left before Christmas makes us a desperate lot, and then there’s all the great traditions of the season which must be carried out.  One, the annual hauling up out of the basement of the lights, ornaments, tree stand, fake garlands of spruce and pine, the statue of Father Christmas looking resplendent in fur collar and slightly scraggly white beard, sleigh bells to hang on the front door, and the stockings to hang over the fireplace.  I always seem to miss the mild days of opportunity to hang the lights outside, and wind up trying to get my hands to work on a cold, windy day, dangling dangerously under the eave of the porch to string the icicle lights.  First is the challenge of untangling the strings, which I was sure I put away last year in an orderly coil, but somehow, I suppose due to their boredom in the basement, become intricately woven together in a free=form, almost spiteful, version of macrame.  Having laid them out, finally, on the porch, tested them to be sure I have a live string, I pick out the working strands to hang.  Of course, I’ll spend thirty minutes with a strand that won’t work, trying to figure out which of the one thousand bulbs is out and needs replacing, only to fail completely, throw out that strand, and move on.  The “icicles” of the new replacement strand, fresh out of the box, are contracted up and won’t hang down naturally no matter how much I tug on them.  Hmmm…., anyway, I proceed to get them up on last years’ nails, starting at one side of the porch and making my way around the perimeter.  Then, there’s the moment I bring them to life, ala Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation, with a little drum roll in my head, as I plug in the extension cord.  Yes!, I say to myself, they’re all working!  Not to last, though, as sure as reindeer can fly, one or more of those strands will fail, creating a dark space in the icicle light line up, giving the house a certain trailer park chic appeal.  Of special note, this year my son and daughter did the work, and somehow, they managed to get the lights up and working better than I’ve ever  been able.

The next major task involves finding a tree.  We can usually find a tree to our liking at any one of many spots selling them in our area.  We like  a nice, full spruce, tall to look proportional in our old house with the high ceilings.  I am amazed at how that tree can be forced through the chute with branches held in by the web of plastic around it, but it makes for easy transport.  We prepare a space for the tree in our parlor, rearranging the furniture to allow for this gargantuan icon of the season.  Getting it up in it’s stand is a bit of difficulty, although not too hard.  We then cut open the binding web and watch as the branches unfurl.  Hopefully, we’ve given adequate space to those branches, and they don’t take out any eyes or things hanging on the wall.  My wife is particularly good at taking out branches and trimming up the edges, to make it look just right without having been obviously altered.  If I were to try that, I know it would come out looking like a victim.  Putting up the lights and ornaments is certainly one of the most pleasurable things to do, although it doesn’t hurt to have some Christmas music playing and a steady flow of beer or enhanced eggnog to allow us to appreciate the moment.

Our gift buying is a combination of guesswork and direct grilling of the subject to see what we should wrap and put under the tree.  I’ve certainly turned to more on-line buying these last few years.  Nothing satisfies me more than to be able to avoid the mall parking lot.  I had the opportunity to visit a high-end purveyor of home goods a week ago, in Philadelphia, to return an unfortunate on-line purchase.  I thought I was getting a steal, paying $40 for a coffee maker of good name, good pedigree.  It turned out it made weak coffee much less flavorful than our old, ugly Mr. Coffee, so I took it to the “bricks and mortar” store to return it.  The store was filled with high-end Christmas shoppers, examining carefully a $35 set of ice tongs, or listening to a slick presentation of why they really need to spend upwards of $1200 to get that perfect cup of coffee Christmas morning.  No wonder my purchase was so incredibly wrong.  I misplaced the decimal point by two positions.  Regardless, and without shame, I brought that machine to the counter asked to return it.  “Had it been used?” the woman behind the counter asked.  “Yes, that’s how I know it makes bad coffee,” I replied.  With a dour look, and without even asking if everything was in the box, she took it back and gave me a refund.  I suspect it is going in the trash, as it can’t possibly be worthy of repackaging.  My favorite real shopping experience at Christmas time, though, is visiting Barnes and Noble.  It’s busy, but not so busy one can’t move about in the store, see what the new novels and biographies look like, pick up a real book and thumb through it, get a few laughs in the humor section, examine the games and puzzles, and look through the calendars.  I went yesterday, and was quite pleased to not only find the books I was looking for, but to have had an uplifting time doing so.

Another tradition is the annual office gift carousel.  I always give my secretary a nice, large spiral cut ham.  While this may seem a throwback to some industrial age era of Dickensian mindset, I see it as a true thank you for all she’s done for me this year.  She has my back, so to speak, and anticipates my daily struggles.  She fends off attacks from the flanks and calms worried callers.  There are a thousand things she does to make my life better, and I’d like her and her family to have a nice, tasty meal to show for it.  Perhaps originating with the writer Dorothy Parker, the definition of eternity is two people and a ham.  So that’s the best part of office gift giving.  We also give the rest of the office staff home-baked small cakes, lemon-poppy, pumpkin, pecan and apple, and they all seem to like them very much.  This year my daughter did the baking, and word at the office was, they couldn’t tell the difference from the ones my wife made in years past, so that is high praise.  For my partners, there is a tradition of trading wine bottles.  Not fancy wine, not special wine, just whatever is convenient to grab a case of at the moment.  It has become an obligatory, drab exercise, made slightly better by the underlying humor of seeing your name on a sticky note attached to the bottle in place of a real gift card.  Personally, I can’t just buy a cheap, mass produced bottle with a kangaroo on the label, so I do look for something unique and special, without spending a lot, but I’m not sure whether that translates to appreciation of the wine.

With all the rushing around trying to get things done in time to settle down and truly enjoy the holiday season, when do we run?  Well, there’s nothing wrong with backing off some of the intensity of training at this time of year to let the old bones and joints recover.  Yet, we still need to keep up with the base.  Running in the dark is challenging and dangerous, but there’s little daylight when one can run, especially since work doesn’t stop.  Dressed up for a run, I look like a miner, with my headlamp and reflective chest-wear.  When I see the rest of the runners in our Wednesday night run heading down the street, and see the reflection off the gear from a car’s headlight, they do stand out, though, as they should.

As this year closes, I’d like to thank my family for all their support in keeping me going in running and all my pursuits.  I’d like to thank the members of my running  club, South Jersey Athletic Club, for their terrific motivational support and companionship.  And, I’d like to thank my fellow bloggers, whose blogs I have been following, for their posts with clever writing, beautiful photos, and inspiration.  I hope you all have a wonderful holiday and we’ll catch up in the new year, when plans for our next marathon adventure will be laid out.

Frank

Rudolph’s Red Nose Ale

“To alcohol!  The cause of–and solution to–of all of life’s problems”  Homer Simpson

I did a quick check on Google, asking the question, “Why do runners like beer?”  Not too surprisingly, there are plenty of comments, articles and pseudo-scientific research about how running and beer go together.  There is an entry in a Runner’s World forum asking why runners like Craft (Craft is capitalized in the entry) beers more than the general populace.  This query, posted in March, 2012, got answers ranging from “that’s because runners are snobs” (I’m paraphrasing here), to runners are craft beer fans who like the quality over the Bud/Miller/Coors brews.  There were a few comments on why Michelob Ultra might be marketed to athletes, or at least, to sedentary slugs who see drinking that beer as a first step towards fitness.  Little mention though, at least in the first several pages of hits on Google, on home brewing and running.  So, that’s where I step in.

Last spring I made a beer of my own recipe which I called “Long Run Ale”.  The idea was to make a beer dedicated to my running friends about to run the Boston Marathon.  In order to make it special for runners, I investigated how to make home-made energy gel.  It turned out that two primary ingredients were honey and molasses.  I made the brew as a very hoppy American pale ale, with Cascade and Willamette hops, and honey and molasses as part of the sugar source.  It turned out it was a real hit.  My running friends loved it.

When I wanted to make a Christmas Spiced Ale this winter, I decided to include the “Gu” in the recipe in order to keep it runner oriented.  Not that including honey and molasses makes it sweet.  The yeast convert all the sugar to alcohol and CO2, and the honey and molasses add to the color and impart a bit of flavor.  This is my version of a Christmas or Winter seasonal ale.  It is a partial mash recipe, which means part of the sugar for fermenting comes directly from steeped grains, and partly from malt extract.

Partial Mash:

  • Belgian 2-Row Pale Malt  5 lbs.
  • Caramel 80    0.5 lbs. (for the red color)

Boil 60 minutes

  • Grain extract from partial mash
  • Amber Dry Malt Extract   4 lbs
  • Honey  1 lb
  • Molasses  0.5 lbs
  • Spices:  Nutmeg, Ginger and Clove (I intended to use Allspice, too, but the stores were all out, every one I tried).

Hops:

  • Centennial                0.5 oz. at 60 min.
  • Northern Brewer     0.5 oz. at 30 min.
  • Sterling                      0.5 oz. at 10 min.

Yeast:  Wyeast 1214 Belgian Abbey

The first step in the brewing is the partial mash. The crushed Belgian 2-Row malt and the Crystal malt are put in a nylon bag and suspended in water heated to 154 degrees Fahrenheit. This extracts the sugar from the crushed grain, dissolving it in the water. The grain is then sparged (rinsed) a couple of times with hot water to extract as much sugar as possible. The grains are then discarded, although they can be saved and used as an addition to bread, for animal feed, or as mulch.

Malted crushed barley

Combined and crushed malted barley and caramel 80 grains.

Partial Mash

The crushed grains being steeped in 154º F water for one hour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sweet liquid which is left is called the wort, not yet beer, but that is its destiny.  Water is added to bring the volume to about 2.5 gallons, and the wort is brought to a boil.  The additional malt extract, which is sugar extracted from malted grain, just like in the mash, above, but prepared and pre-packaged either in liquid (LME) or dry (DME) form, is added to the boil.  Now, all the wort needs is the hops.  Hops are a wonderful aromatic flower which grows on vines, and add bitterness and aroma to beer.  Hops added early in the boil are the bittering hops, in the middle, flavoring, and those added at the end are the aromatic hops.

Wort on the stove.

The wort is boiled and the hops added according to a time schedule.

Once the boil is finished, the wort must be cooled to approximately 70 degrees F as quickly as possible.  There is equipment for this, but I use a very basic method known as putting the brew pot in the sink and swirling cold water around it.  It takes about 30 minutes to bring the temperature down this way.

Brew pot being cooled with cold water.

At the end of the boil, the wort is chilled as quickly as possible to 70ºF.

After the wort is chilled to room temperature, it is ready to pour in to the fermenter.  This is done fairly vigorously, to aerate the wort in preparation for the yeast.  Water is added to bring the volume up to five gallons, and the mix is again aerated to supply oxygen.  Also, a measurement of the specific gravity of the wort is taken, which will be used later to estimate the percent alcohol in the beer.  For this recipe, the O.G. (original gravity) was 1.066.

Package of yeast

The yeast comes packaged with nutrients, and is activated before adding to the fermenter.

Then comes the almost ceremonial “pitching” of the yeast.  This is truly how the magic happens.  In the days before the microscope, beer was made with barley, water and hops (or other spices before hops were used).  The yeast was there, but no one knew it.  Then, Louis Pasteur discovered what was happening at the microbe level.  Now, we have the remarkable choice of numerous strains of yeast, each with their own behavior, which is how beers get certain fruity, spicy or caramel flavors, achieve higher alcohol levels if provided enough sugar from the malt, and may also contribute undesirable flavors.  I chose this particular yeast because it is often used for Belgian style spiced seasonal ales.  Once the yeast is pitched in, the fermenter carboy is sealed with a lid with an escape airlock.  As the yeast go to work, producing alcohol, carbon dioxide is also created which is released through the airlock.  It takes a day or so for the yeast to start converting the sugar to alcohol, and there is nothing more satisfying at this stage than seeing the bubbles merrily making their way through the air lock.  Ales are fermented between 65 and 75 degrees F.  Lagers are fermented at lower temperatures (45-55 degrees F) for longer times (weeks to months) using yeast which are active at those temperatures.

Fermenter.

The fermenter, with lid on and airlock up and ready.

There’s nothing left to do at this point except wait for those marvelous little yeasts to do their job.  After about a week, the beer is transferred, this time with a siphon to prevent aeration, to a secondary fermenter.  The first week is for the major conversion of sugar to alcohol.  The secondary phase is for conditioning, when the yeast are still active, but taking on more complex sugars and initial byproducts of fermentation.

After another week or two in the secondary fermenter, the beer is ready to be bottled.  Bottling day can be busy.  One needs all the bottles cleaned, sterilized and ready to go.  The bottling equipment, including a bottling carboy, siphon and tubing, bottle filler and tubing, and bottle caps all need sterilizing.  I find the first step in this process is to pour a homebrew from the last batch, and then set about tackling all these steps.

Bottle of beer and glass.

A bottle of my last brew, a German Hefeweizen.

IMG_1895

Nice head, nice color, this should augment the bottling day activities nicely.

Bottling is best done with a helper.  It is possible to do it by yourself, but a whole lot tougher, and it is not easy to keep all those parts I mentioned clean and sterile without an extra pair of hands.

The beer is decanted into the carboy used for bottling, which has a spigot at the bottom, and doesn’t require a lid.  Priming sugar, which has been dissolved in boiling water to sterilize it, then cooled, is added to the mix.  This provides the additional amount of sugar needed to allow carbonation to occur in the bottle.  The yeast are still there, and will convert this small amount of sugar to additional alcohol and carbon dioxide, not enough to change the alcohol content significantly, and just enough to provide carbonation in the sealed bottle.  Many tales of exploding bottles are told by home brewers of their early attempts at getting this right.  The amount of sugar needed is readily available in homebrewing books and online.  A final gravity (F.G.) measurement is taken, with my brew having a F.G. of 1.010, which indicates the yeast did their job.  This should be about 7.3 percent A.B.V.   The spigot is then opened and the bottling begins.

Filling the bottles

Filling the bottles takes a bit of concentration and assistance.

Finally, the bottles need to be capped.  My son and I worked together on this, with him holding the bottles so they wouldn’t tilt, and with me working the capping device.

Bottle capping.

Capping the bottles.

The yield from five gallons of beer is about 50 twelve ounce bottles, plus or minus a bottle.  We eked out forty eight and three quarters.  The beer is now ready to be bottle conditioned, which means storing it in the cellar for about four weeks.

Two cases of beer.

The beer is in the bottles, and they are capped and ready to go to the cellar.

IMG_1901

On the shelf in the basement, they will sit and condition, adding flavor and carbonation over the next several weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At this stage I just need to forget they are down in the cellar, and let the weeks roll by.  While I can get an idea of how the finished product will taste, from various whiffs and sips of the dregs, I won’t really know the outcome until it is ready to drink.  We’ll probably uncap a bottle at Christmas time, since the family will be around, but it will be a bit early yet.  Also, higher alcohol beers like this can use a much longer bottle conditioning time before they reach their best flavor, mouth feel and overall presentation.  It is mentioned, the time a homebrew is ready to drink is when you are opening the last remaining bottle from the batch.

Is beer good for runners?  That’s not an easy question to answer.  I do believe in the relaxing and socializing qualities of beer, and nearly all of my running friends like it.  It turns out Ben Franklin was speaking of wine, not beer, in the quote attributed to him about how god loves us and wants us to be happy, but it applies to beer, too.   Pro-temperance zealots have their own reasons for disliking all alcohol, and some trainers will come out strongly against it for their athletes.  On the other hand, there is tremendous support in the running community for beer.  It’s freely distributed at the end of many marathons.  The international group known as the Hash House Harriers is based on the combination of beer and running, and they admit that they are a drinking club with a running problem.  Our neighbor, Philadelphia, has a great group of runners known as the Fishtown Beer Runners, who hold weekly runs which end at the selected pub of the week.  I think the combination of running and beer is here to stay, and I couldn’t be happier.

Frank

Sweat

Sweat: it is a natural product of running. In the summer we ran in such warm and humid conditions, the sweat would not dry, but flowed down into our socks and running shoes, causing a squishing noise to emanate with every footfall. At the end of our runs, especially the long Sunday runs, I could wring a cup of sweat out of my socks and shorts.

Sweat has great symbolism. It is the symbol of hard work. Picture a steelworker, sweat dripping from his face and staining his shirt as he moves a plate of steel destined for the side plating on a tanker ship. There is the sweat of the farmer as he runs his tractor up and down rows of sorghum, the sun unobstructed by clouds in the summer in Oklahoma. In the stifling air of a clothing factory in Bangladesh, the sweat of the woman in the tenth hour of a twelve hour day threatens to ruin her work.

Sweat represents fear. This is the sweat fueled by a flood of adrenaline. It is triggered by the flight or fight response which, somewhere in our past got built into our DNA to give us a jolt of strength to fight off an attacker. The alternative, running away, I imagine was an even better survival plan. Now, though, this sweat comes out in awkward ways, discoloring the armpits of a nervous lecturer, or both of a couple out on a first date. It comes from apocrine glands, different from the eccrine glands of the sweat that drips off our foreheads which is mainly water with a bit of salt in it. The sweat of fear is thicker and has in it protein and debris which bacteria seem to like. They are what cause this sweat to smell. Interesting, though, that this odor is thought to have strong pheromone effects for the opposite sex. Makes sense, one’s nervousness about that first date might be just the thing to get her strangely attracted without really knowing why.

Sweat can be cleansing. Who doesn’t like the idea of sitting in a sauna, allowing the pores to open up and be an exit for stress? For the ultimate experience of sweating out the bad stuff, try a hot mud bath. I had the opportunity to do this with my wife in Calistoga, at the upper end of the Napa Valley.  Water from a natural hot spring, full of minerals, is pumped into a large tub containing a peat-like substance. The tub looks like a relic from ancient Rome. My wife and I got the couple’s room, with two tubs, which I suppose you could share with a stranger, but you would really need to stow your inhibitions in the bag they give you for your clothes.  In an interesting maneuver, we both shimmied ourselves into the peat, with naturally prominent parts still peaking above the level of the mud. It’s hard to get deep into the mud as your body’s buoyancy keeps you close to the surface. Good thing, too, since it gets hotter the deeper you go. You can only take about ten minutes of this immersion before you would start to get cooked like an egg. But, the pores open and the sweat flows. From the tubs, we stepped into a very powerful and hot shower, to get rid of the peat, which clings particularly well to hairy parts. From there, it’s into the Jacuzzi, for another sweat fest. Then, finally, donning striped terry robes we were escorted to the cool-down room, a dark place with cots where we were wrapped in clean white sheets and allowed to recover under the glow of a five watt bulb, listening to “ambient” music.

Frank, in the Hot Mud Bath in Calistoga.

Frank, in the Hot Mud Bath in Calistoga.

Frank and Kat in the couples room at the mud baths.  Note the Romanesque tubs.

Frank and Kat in the couples room at the mud baths. Note the Romanesque tubs.

 

Now that the cold weather is here, we still sweat. Running just turns up the heat in our bodies, which try to get rid of it by sweating. Starting out in sub-freezing temperatures, we need the warmth of tights and, for me, usually two layers on top, plus gloves and a hat. Soon, the gloves are off and I’m turning up the sides on my knit hat so my ears can radiate away some of the heat. At the end of the run, my face is streaked with salt from the sweat which dried as I ran, and my two shirts are wet. If I don’t change to a dry shirt rather quickly, the sweat starts to cool and I start to shiver. At the finish of the Philly marathon, a friend pointed out that I had a “bit of salt” on my face. When I got to the hotel and looked in the bathroom mirror, I looked like I was being preserved, the salt was so thick.

This is my homage to sweat. I know what it can mean, and I don’t pretend my recreation has the seriousness of what sweat can symbolize. But, I’ve experienced all those types of sweat, from hard work, to fear, to sheer indulgence, (and that pheromone thing, too!). I like the sweat of running. At times, it can be all of these.

Frank K.

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