Sunday, May 1, 2016

PhotoChallenge 2016 Week 17: Steadfast


At the end of last year I discovered Photochallenge.org.  This is a small group of photographers who set forth a weekly challenge to other professional and amateur photographers.  What I was drawn to with this weekly assignment is that is pushes you to try new techniques and get out and take pictures on a weekly basis.  I'm taking part again this year and will also do a quick blog post about each of them.  The rules of the challenge do require that these are new pictures, not from your back catalog.  With my busy work schedule, I may not be able to get out each week and do this, so I will likely add a few of my older photos on the blog--taking the opportunity to look at the plethora of pictures I've taken and actually do some processing and weeding.

Week 17: Steadfast 

The challenge for this week was to be a black and white photo inspired by the word steadfast.  The definition of steadfast is: 1) Firmly fixed in place  2) Not subject to change 3) Firm in belief, determination, or adherence.  

This is a tough concept for going out and picking a subject.  But found two that I though worked!



1) The Last:  This little farm sits right outside my neighborhood of cookie-cutter homes, steadfast in its perseverance.  I usually shoot this farm facing the other direction--looking at some trees rather than the clone homes popping up next to it--but this time I changed vantage points.  





2) Guardian:  What is more steadfast that the bald eagle?  Repopulated after being endangered most most of my childhood, now a common vision of beauty in rural Minnesota.  And hey, 'Merica!  I took this shot at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum at a raptor photography class this weekend and figured it fit the theme!


That's it for this week!  

Friday, April 22, 2016

A Whale A Week: Side Project Blueberry Flanders


Now in my second year, A Whale A Week is my challenge to try (with an array of beer loving friends) a rare beer for every week of the year.  Last year I had a great time with this and have continued it for 2016.  Not every beer will be a truly "white whale" beer, but all are hard to find and a treat to try!  This week we try something different.  Tired of just trying out one beer (and lets be honest how can I really shrink my cellar at this rate) each week, we're going to break out a bunch of them!






Side Project Blueberry Flanders


I've reviewed one of Side Project's beers before (Saison du Fermier) HERE, so check it out for more background on the brewery and the super friendly wizard that creates such amazing beers for both Perennial Brewing and his own Side Project Brewing. For this tasting, Rob Wengler (one of my old high school friends, homebrewer, beer video journalist with Limited Release) shared this little bottle.  Along with us was my wife Sarajo--professed lover of sour beers.  The Blueberry Flanders is based on the Flanders red sour mixed fermentation style made most famous by Rodenbach in Belgium.  Obviously blueberries were used in the process, but I'm not sure how.  And the beer was aged in wine barrels to add complexity.  The 7% ABV beer has a 96 score on Ratebeer and a 91 on Beer Advocate.  


Aroma:

Eric: Just taking a whiff of this beer my salivary glands freaked out and caused me to gleek all over the place.  Very tart and tannic.  Blueberry skins.  Mix of acid, brett funkiness, and maybe some pediococcus.  Fruity and bright.  Eye opening.
Rob: Smells sour.  I do get a hint of mellow blueberry pie--but the tartest blueberry pie ever.

Appearance:

Eric: Highly carbonated and deep amber with pink highlights.  Looks like fruit soda.  Very fine white head fades to the glass edge quickly.  Excellent clarity with bubbles coalescing on the sides of the glass. 
Rob: Looks like Canadian grape/raisin soda.  Purple with a twinge of brown.  Lots of tiny bubbles like Champagne.
Sarajo: Can't see for the bubbles!

Flavor:

Eric:  As I take my first sip shivers go up and down my neck and spine.  So tart it almost hurts--like biting into a raw cranberry.  Has a hint of sweetness at the center, but is quite fleeting.  Blueberry is subtle and comes off more as the tannic skin of the berry rather than the sweet flesh.  Hint of pie cherry and lemon rind.  Stays with you after finished with a strong tart end.
Rob: Not mind-bendingly tart like I thought it would be.  I wouldn't say it was and overwhelming blueberry flavor, but think it comes through as a "rounding of the corners" of the sour ale.  Still makes me drool like a 2 year old (REDACTED) with a tooth coming in.
Sarajo: Mouthpuckeringly tart.

Overall:

Eric: A wonderfully sour beer, but really at the extreme edge of drinkability.  Glad this comes in a small bottle!  Much more tart and acidic than the typical blended Flanders style.  Despite all this, I still love it.  4.5
Rob: Light, crisp, of course effervescent.  I'm not a big sour guy but this is still pretty good.  4
Sarajo: 4.5

Overall Score: 4.42


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Sake On A Hot Tin Roof--Moto-i Review!


Last fall I won a few prizes at Byggvir's Big Beer Cup (the Renaissance Festival competition) for my homebrews and one of them was a tour for 10 at Moto-i. Now that the ice and snow has faded from our streets and people have suddenly appeared from their deep hibernation, it seemed like a good time to dust this thing off and have some fun!  Our group included several homebrewers and a couple of other beer journalists, so we were all intrigued about what we were to soon see.  We turned this event into a little pub crawl with visits to Lynlake Brewing and The Herkimer before our scheduled tour time.



With the same ownership as nearby (two doors down) Herkimer brewery, this place has been doing something very unique for the past 8 years!  I've visited a few times in the past--about once a year--just to keep abreast of any changes.  The brewer Blake Richardson fell in love with sake when frequenting a local Japanese restaurant and decided to try doing something outrageous in Minnesota--open the first sake brewpub anywhere in America.

Lets talk about sake a bit.  I'd tried warm sake at a shady Japanese steak house once in the far distant past and had not been impressed.  Moto-i is really the first place I had legitimately tried it and paid attention.  Sake is made through a somewhat complicated process that is similar to brewing beer but with some significant differences.  As a homebrewer I was able to follow most of the steps, but there were still some interesting things to learn about.  The whole process starts with the rice--only certain types work for sake making.  In general the type of rice used has most of the pure carbohydrate in the center.  The rice is milled (or polished) locally, getting rid of the layers of proteins, lipids and fatty acids, leaving that fermentable sugar core available.  The less milled the rice is, the more earthy/umami flavors in the finished product.  And apparently, the highly milled versions result in less hangovers!


Once the rice is milled it comes to the brewery--a tiny cold room off the back of the restaurant.  Our party (in two groups of 5) huddled in here for warmth during our tours from Blake.  The next step we learned of is to wash off the rice powder dust and soak the rice.  This is a laborious process requiring close supervision to not over-soak the rice.  Once the rice is to the proper consistency, its dried overnight.  The next step is to run steam though the rice.  Once this is done the rice can move on.

Koji.  One of the more unusual steps in sake making is the use of Koji--a type of mold--that helps break down the complex carbohydrates in the rice to simple sugars that the sake yeast can convert into alcohol.  A portion of the batch is inoculated with Koji and kept in a warmer room to get that going.  More of the rice is given a shot of yeast, water, and some of the Koji and allowed to ferment for several days as a yeast starter.  When ready, this will be put into a larger tank and slowly "fed" more rice and water over the coming weeks.

Once things are done fermenting, the result is a product of a strong 18-20% ABV.  From here the resulting white mess is pressed--either in a mechanical press or hung in cloth bags and allowed to drain naturally.  Bottled sake will undergo pasteurization for shelf stability, but Moto-i keeps theirs cold and served fresh.

The tour was cool, nerdy, and I could sense Blake's passion for this unusual project.  He's mostly self-taught, but has made something like 12 trips to Japan to visit sake makers there and learn from the masters.  While most of the recipes he uses follow the same steps as above, many different variations are possible to get different types of finished sake.  The type of rice, the percentage milled, the time in the fermentation tank, and the yeast type, all have an impact on the final product.  I was excited to discover that they've even done some experimentation with wild yeast inoculation by leaving some of the rice slurry upstairs on the deck overnight!


Most impressive chalk art that deserved a picture....

We ended our tour by heading upstairs to said rooftop seating area, taking full advantage of our beautiful spring day.  We ordered some sake samplers and got to try all of the 6 offerings available.  We also ordered some really good dishes including miso popcorn, several sticky buns, and more!

I took some notes on some of these sakes like I would do for beers, but found myself struggling for the right terms to describe what I was smelling and tasting.  While I'm a seasoned beer judge, I just haven't had the training in this!  I did my best and here's a few including my score on a 0-5 scale.



1) Junmai Ginjo ak12 Nama:  Aroma is redolent of apple and pear, but subtle, along with some fruity ester I just can't put my finger on.  Smells a bit hot.  Flavor is similarly fruity with some apple peel type tannin on the dry finish.  The driest of the bunch.  4

2) Goya/Genshu: Genshu is indiluted making it stronger than most sakes.  Smells bright, like a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  Flavor is a bit sharp, young seeming.  Crisp.  Ends spicy with notes of black pepper and some hot esters.  3

3) Hanyauku/Shiboritate: Fresh.  Very young with lots of green apple--almost cidery.  A bit hot.  Not my favorite of them.  3

4) Junmai Ginjo Nigori Nama:  Nigori is roughly pressed resulting in a cloudy appearance.  This is the sweetest of the bunch, but not overly so.  Fruity and bright with a more rounded mouthfeel.  My favorite.  4.25

5) Junmai Kimoto Nama: Earthier than the others.  Sweet but not as much as the Nogori.  Grows on me as I sip it.  3.75

Overall this was a very fun and informative visit.  It was great hanging out with a bunch of different friends trying an unusual fermented beverage with about 1000 years of history behind it.  The service was good (especially the manager who gave us a quick primer on the types of sake we were sampling) and the food excellent. I think the only thing that would have improved our tour would have been a directed sake tasting either prior to or just after so we could learn how to properly evaluate the beverage.  Oh, and Moto-i also has a good selection of Minnesota craft beers for those who aren't brave enough to face the sake!



Wednesday, April 20, 2016

2016 Photochallenge Week 15: Environmental Portrait


At the end of last year I discovered Photochallenge.org.  This is a small group of photographers who set forth a weekly challenge to other professional and amateur photographers.  What I was drawn to with this weekly assignment is that is pushes you to try new techniques and get out and take pictures on a weekly basis.  I'm taking part again this year and will also do a quick blog post about each of them.  The rules of the challenge do require that these are new pictures, not from your back catalog.  With my busy work schedule, I may not be able to get out each week and do this, so I will likely add a few of my older photos on the blog--taking the opportunity to look at the plethora of pictures I've taken and actually do some processing and weeding.

Week 15 Environmental Portrait

This past week's challenge was to take a portrait of someone in their own environs.  This would be work or a hobby for instance.  Ideally you would see either some of the background or perhaps a uniform to clue you into the broader environment and not just a head-shot. 

I struggled a bit with this challenge--mainly due to my Minnesotan nature of not wanting to talk to strangers and bother folks at work.  



1) Herkimer:  This pleasant and knowledgeable server at The Herkimer brewpub in Uptown was kind enough to pose for my while bringing out our big tray of beers.  The light wasn't great but I did my best!  And hey, I completed the challenge!



2) Raptor Handler:  This is a really old one taken with my iPhone in Belgium.  This was at a castle in the mountains near the French border where they had a raptor show several times a day.  The rain kept falling on us during the show but the birds didn't seem to mind too much.  While this shot isn't amazing it shows the subject in action and handling the huge eagle with ease.




3) Northbound:  This one is also an old shot--but one of my first posed Environment portrait shots so felt like adding it here.  This was our wonderful server at Northbound Smokehouse in Minneapolis--a brewpub with decent beers and great smoked meats.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Photochallenge Week 14: Death in Nature




At the end of last year I discovered Photochallenge.org.  This is a small group of photographers who set forth a weekly challenge to other professional and amateur photographers.  What I was drawn to with this weekly assignment is that is pushes you to try new techniques and get out and take pictures on a weekly basis.  I'm taking part again this year and will also do a quick blog post about each of them.  The rules of the challenge do require that these are new pictures, not from your back catalog.  With my busy work schedule, I may not be able to get out each week and do this, so I will likely add a few of my older photos on the blog--taking the opportunity to look at the plethora of pictures I've taken and actually do some processing and weeding.

2016 Photochallenge Week 14: Death In Nature

This week's challenge is an interesting one: to document the normal death/life cycle in nature.  I've recently been taking more nature shots so I was excited about this one.  However, being in the right place at the right time has a lot to do with this subject.  With spring only now starting (it snowed this morning here in Minnesota) there isn't a ton of animal/insect action out there yet.  I did look through my back catalog for some shots that fit the bill as well.  




1) Remnants:  I had despaired that I would not find anything appropriate for this challenge during the week.  On the way out of the clinic for lunch I discovered the remains of a bird that had probably been buried in a snowbank until the spring thaw.  Not having my trusty Canon with me, I had to use my iPhone for this shot.  I went with black and white on this to accentuate the stark white bone against the charcoal colored rocks and to bring out the detail in the feathers.  This may not be the most appetizing of photos, but I think it brings across the theme.



2) Entangled:  This one was from last fall. An enormous spider had set up a web on my deck and I went out several days to take some macro shots of it.  On this particular day it had snared a big yellow-jacket wasp.  I kept the spider around despite its freakish size since it was keeping down the wasp population!  

Monday, April 11, 2016

A Whale A Week: Bent Paddle Double Shot Double Black



Now in my second year, A Whale A Week is my challenge to try (with an array of beer loving friends) a rare beer for every week of the year.  Last year I had a great time with this and have continued it for 2016.  Not every beer will be a truly "white whale" beer, but all are hard to find and a treat to try!  This week we try something different.  Tired of just trying out one beer (and lets be honest how can I really shrink my cellar at this rate) each week, we're going to break out a bunch of them!



This week one of my old friends Rob Wengler invited my wife Sarajo and I over to his place for a couple of rare beers.  Rob had discovered this little treasure at an out-of-the-way liquor store that somehow fell off the beer hoarders' radar this past month.  Bent Paddle Brewery in Duluth is one of my very favorites in Minnesota--and frankly one of my favorites in the nation.  I've met brewers Bryon Tonnis, Collin Mullen, and Peter Mack many times over the years--before Bent Paddle was even formed.  When Tonnis and Mullen (and their wonderful wives who are much involved in the business aspects of the brewery) formed Bent Paddle I was incredibly excited.  Here were two of my favorite under-rated brewers--who both put out amazingly balanced and consistent beers--forming a super-group of sorts.  I've been to the brewery several times (usually our first stop as we roll into Duluth for All Pints North beer festival each summer) and the offerings just keep getting more varied and more impressive.  Currently Bent Paddle has been involved in some controversy up north due to their stance on opening a new mine in the area.  Apparently the municipal (owned by the government) liquor stores have boycotted their beers in response.  To me this is fine for a personally owned business to decide, but for the city government to do so (and encourage other businesses to do it as well) seems like stepping over the line.  Check HERE for a link to a really impressive statement from the brewery that was published in The Growler.  That's as political as I get on this blog...

A few years back Bent Paddle did their first barrel aged beer--Double Black--an Imperial version of their Black Ale aged in bourbon barrels.  We had it at All Pints and were blown away.  The next year we tried the coffee infused version (Double Shot) and had found a new favorite beer.  This year they released that version in bottles and they went like hot-cakes in the Twin Cities market.  Sarajo and I searched but did not score any bottles at all for our dragon's-hoard.  Luckily Rob was willing to share!  This is a 11.2% ABV stout with cold press locally roasted coffee and whole bean Madagascar vanilla beans.  We had to hack at the thick wax on the bottle with a dangerously sharp knife to get
into it!  


Bent Paddle Double Shot Double Black

Aroma:

Eric: Powerful strong cold press coffee!  Hints of vanilla.  Mild alcohol zippiness.  As it warms I get tons of rich dark chocolate.  Mild oak tannins.  No hops to speak of.  The aroma complex and like a chameleon seems to change with each sniff.  I spent several minutes just smelling this beer before actually going in for a taste.  Impressive.
Rob: Coffee grounds.
Sarajo: Smells like chocolate.

Appearance:

Eric: Nearly pitch black and opaque.  Very fine dark tan head is pretty persistent for such a strong beer.
Rob: "So black it sweats oil..."

Flavor:

Eric: Sweet at first, but quickly drops to an almost chalky dry dark chocolate finish.  Coffee is very present--seems like a freshly brewed medium roast with some earthy character.  Vanilla comes across at the tail end--adding a hint of sweetness to even out the dry almost bitter chocolate aftertaste.  Mouthfeel is mouth coating and thick and creamy--but finish is off-dry.  Mild tannic oak or coffee grounds.  Balance is pretty even between bitter and sweet.  
Rob: Like a plain biscotti soaked in a sweet espresso 'til its soft--then sucking the juice out of the biscotti.  
Sarajo: The vanilla is strong in this one...but not cloying--perfect balance.

Overall:

Eric: Wonderful complexity in both the aroma and the flavor.  Strong coffee, even-handed vanilla, chocolate. Barrel is subtle.  Masterfully crafted beer.  One of the best I've had so far this year.  4.75
Rob: 4.5
Sarajo: Goes well with chocolate chip cookies!  :)  4.75
Overall Score: 4.67

Friday, April 8, 2016

2016 Photochallenge Week 13: B&W Street Photography


At the end of last year I discovered Photochallenge.org.  This is a small group of photographers who set forth a weekly challenge to other professional and amateur photographers.  What I was drawn to with this weekly assignment is that is pushes you to try new techniques and get out and take pictures on a weekly basis.  I'm taking part again this year and will also do a quick blog post about each of them.  The rules of the challenge do require that these are new pictures, not from your back catalogue.  With my busy work schedule, I may not be able to get out each week and do this, so I will likely add a few of my older photos on the blog--taking the opportunity to look at the plethora of pictures I've taken and actually do some processing and weeding.


Photochallenge.org Week 13: Black & White Street Photography

This week's challenge was to try out street photography.  Strangely this does not mean taking pictures of a street or curb!  The idea here is to take photo's of everyday life going on around you.  Most classic street photography is done on-the-sly without the subjects knowing they are on film--getting more candid and less posed shots.  This one was a tough challenge for me to do.  I'm naturally very shy (and Minnesotan) and taking pictures of unsuspecting people threw me off a bit--while doing so is not illegal here in the USA, it is still potentially invading someone's personal space.  The other issue I had was that I live out in a pretty rural town where street scenes during the day are pretty quiet.  Add on the rain and even snow most of the week and I struggled.  I'll be heading downtown soon and will make up for it.  In the mean time--here are a couple of older shots.



1) Rainy alley: I went back into my older photos and looked for some pics that would fit the bill.  I found this one from our trip to Belgium a few years back that I took with my iPhone.  Rain was dripping on us and my friends Chris and Hassan were walking ahead of us, followed by my rain-drenched wife off to the left.  I don't think they noticed me falling back to take photos, so this was very much unposed.  




2) Ghent:  This one was taken from a tour boat on the canal.  While the subject is really the amazing architecture along the street and canal, the folks sitting along the side of the canal relaxing during the day were a happy bonus to the shot.  Rain came out and drenched us about 5 minutes after I took this photo.



3) Sunset in Bruges:  This one was also from my iPhone on our first trip to Bruges, Belgium.  My group had walked ahead of me and I was struck by the long shadows they were leaving on the shiny cobblestones.