Thursday, October 1, 2015

Inspired By Reading Book Club: Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore

This month I again took part in Andrew Thornton's Inspired By Reading Book Group.  Each month a group of artists (mostly jewelry designers), including my wife Sj of Sj Designs Jewelry, read a book and then do something "arty" inspired by the book.  I took part last month with some of my photos and based on Sj's excitement over this book I decided to try again.  Check out the rest of this month's entries at Andrew's blog HERE.

The book is Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.  Published in 2012 this one made it to the New York Times Bestseller list.  The main character, Clay, is a somewhat nerdy young man who ends up almost randomly working for a strange 24 hour bookstore in San Francisco.  With a history of growing up playing the equivalent of D&D and reading sci-fi/fantasy novels, the character hits close to home for me!

Throughout the book we discover that something more complex than book-buying is going on at this strangest of bookstores.  We eventually discover that (like a nerdier version of something by Dan Brown), there is an ancient society of bibliophiles all secretly trying to learn the secrets of life.

The cast of characters is really what makes this book fun to read for me.  Quirky, slightly odd-ball, without being caricatures, the people are all somewhat believable.  I was struck by the description of Clay's room mate Matt--"He works with crazy intensity, feeding hours like dry twigs into the fire, just absolutely consuming them, burning them up.  He sleeps lightly and briefly, often sitting up straight in a chair or lying pharaoh-like on the couch.  He's like a storybook spirit, a little djinn or something, except instead of air or water his element is imagination."  Now that is a description!  And even better, it seems to describe our very own Andrew Thornton adequately as well!

This book touches a lot on the difference between books and Internet/computer/tablets.  The parallels and discrepancies are scattered through-out the pages.  However the book itself isn't truly about books.  I think it's real focus on being human and what we want or expect out of life--and how we go about it.  While the story is mostly light and fantastical, this book's under-text is also deeper, leaving one with a new appreciation for friends and family.  I liked this one a lot!

Here's my entry for "art" this month!  I took some of my fancier leather-bound books and placed them into an area where they would get more light.  I used my plain leather mead journal (far right) for this shot as well.  In post production I added Aldus Manutius' name to the binding.  I also took a macro shot of the book-hands symbol from the intro page of Mr. Penumbra and then added that into my shot.  Then I did an emboss filter to those to make it look like the writing was printed into the leather.  Not stopping there, I added a painterly effect to make this a little more dreamy and unusual...

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Whale A Week: Firestone Walker 16th Anniversary

This time on A Whale A Week, we break out a special Anniversary beer from California's Firestone Walker Brewery.  I've been a huge fan of this brewery for years, but alas, distribution into Minnesota is still a no-go.  I've really liked every beer I've tried from the brewery.

In 2006 the brewery put out their 10th anniversary beer, a strong ale aged in barrels.  Since then, taking a cue from the local wine makers, they've started a program of blending several different batches of their strong ales into a special anniversary release.  The bottle I had was from their 16th anniversary and was brought back for me by Rob Wengler when he went to the release event.  For this batch they blended 226 barrels of 8 different beers into the final blend.  The brewery hosts a small group of local winemakers in to help them out with the beer blending!  The final product for this year is 13% ABV.  It has a rating of 95 on Beer Advocate and 100 on Rate Beer.  Here is the very complete info from the website:

The following are descriptions of key components with their original code names:
Velvet Merkin (8.7% ABV)  - Aged in Bourbon barrels 
 -Traditional Oatmeal Stout (23% of final blend)
 OG= 15P FG=5.5 IBU=32.5 Color= Black / 15% Oats / Hopped with 100% US grown Fuggles

Stickee Monkee (12.5% ABV) - Aged in Bourbon and Brandy barrels
 -English Barley Wine (22.5% of final blend)
OG=27P FG=5.4P IBU=45  Color=28 / Brewed with Mexican Turbinado (Brown) sugar

Double Double Barrel Ale (14.2% ABV) - Aged 100% in retired Firestone Union barrels
-Double strength English Pale Ale (20.3% of final blend)
OG=25.0P FG=5.1P IBU=30 Color=16 / A Double version of our flagship created by Ali Razi

Parabola (13% ABV) - Aged in Bourbon barrels
-Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout (10.8% of final blend)                                                                                                
OG=31P FG=8.5P IBU=80  Color=Black / Hopped with Simcoe, Bravo, Styrian Golding and East Kent Golding

PNC (13.0% ABV) - Aged in Tequila barrels 
-American Strong Buckwheat Stout (8.1% of final blend)
OG = 25P FG = 5.0P IBU = 80 Color = 100 / Brewed with Buckwheat

Helldorado (11.5% ABV) - Aged in Bourbon Barrels and Brandy barrels
-Blonde Barley Wine (5.4% of final blend)
 OG=24.7P FG=4.5P IBU=24 Color = 8 / Brewed with buckwheat honey & 100% El Dorado hops

Bravo (13.4% ABV) - Aged in Bourbon and Brandy barrels
-Imperial Brown Ale (5.4% of final blend)
OG=26.5 FG=7.7 IBU=35 Color=32 / Hopped with 100% US grown Fuggles

Wookey Jack (8.3% ABV)- 100% Fresh, Dank & Hoppy 100% Stainless Steel 
-Black Rye India Pale Ale (4.5% of final blend)
OG= 18P FG = 3.0P IBU = 80 Color =black  / Extremely hoppy double dry hopped BIPA

For this tasting I had over Toby Schneider, a local craft beer enthusiast previously of the beer-crazy Pacific Northwest.  He is also the owner of LocalBrewSwag, a new company aimed at partnering with local breweries to produce brand-related swag using a co-op model, as well as social media marketing.  As always, my wife Sj was in the background making jewelry, drinking the beer, and making salty comments.

Firestone Walker 16th Anniversary

Aroma: (In which Toby tries his hand at describing beer aroma.)

Eric: Deep toffee and caramelized sugars (dark brown, demerara, molasses).  Sweet alcohol leading to a nasal tingle.  Mild oxidation (paper/wood).  Very little hop aroma.
Toby: Coffee.  High alcohol.

Appearance: (In which Toby sees a disturbing vision of Jason's mask in his bubbles...)

Eric: Deep brown in color--darker than copper.  Very fine off-white head that fades rapidly to almost nothing.  Slightly murky.
Toby: Iced coffee.  Hazy, clearer at top.  Looks dense.  Mahogany color.  Looks like Jason...

Flavor: (In which Toby gets more stout and I get more barleywine.)

Eric: Much like aroma--sweet toffee and crust from a nice creme brulee.  Vanilla is strong at first as well.  Has some bitterness and roast to balance the sweetness though.  Hint of licorice root.  Mouthfeel medium--not as thick as expected.  Mild oxidation flavors as it warms up of oak, paper, raisins.  Alcohol warming is pleasant.  Has a dry, almost chalky finish.  Minimal hop flavors.
Toby: Stout.  Chocolate, coffee.  Sweet.  Chalky.


Eric: Very different from previous tasting over a year ago.  At that time this reminded me more of a complex DIPA and now much more like an aged English Barleywine. Very complex and tasty! 4.5
Toby: 4
Sj: Licorice flavors don't belong in beer.  3.75

Overall Rating: 4.083

It was interesting looking at the blend information after tasting the beer.  I got much more of the Barleywine (Stickee Monkee, Helldorado) when I was tasting this, while Toby picked up much more stout character (Merkin, Parabola, PNC.)

Photo details: For this picture I took a shot of the empty bottle label, then cropped most of the rest of the shot out.  I struggled with what to do in this photo since anniversary numbers weren't very exciting to me, then I realized I could play off the lion and bear Firestone Walker seal.  I superimposed a picture of a stone lion to the upper left.  Next step I took a macro shot of a toy bear and superimposed that on the right upper side.  Done!

Monday, September 28, 2015

J. Carver Distillery Review

Way back in August of 2014 I wrote up a short piece in this blog about J. Carver Distillery that you can check out HERE.  At the time I got a short tour from Bill Miller and Gina Holman, and was very excited about what they had planned.  They had just put in the dark wood bar, and had received their fermenters, but still had a lot of work to do on the place.

Fast forward to now and they've been up and running for some time, with spirits for sale around the Twin Cities.  There was some delay in having taproom hours due to some complicated old national and local laws about samples of spirits and I had wondered if they would ever get to open it!  Happily though, they just recently opened up the tasting room to the public and it was finally time for my wife (Sj) and I to get out there to check it out.  The distillery building is in an old auto dealership just a short mile from my house, making this an easy commute!

The industrial front of the building certainly hearkens back to its previous life, but now you can see the coppery glow of the stills through the large glass windows, beckoning one in to see what wonders lurk within.  The new taproom is well-lit but still intimate.  The long bar is immaculate with rows of shiny beautiful bottles and mirrors on the walls behind.  Gina was at the bar when we arrived and greeted us warmly as always, making us feel immediately at home.  The feel of the place is very different from the other local bars and watering holes, with the upscale and classy look of a cocktail bar.  We had signed up online for one of the tours, which costs $10 per person and takes about 35-40 minutes.  Part of the tour price includes either a taster of three spirits or a cocktail.  Gina quickly built some fancy cocktails for us to have in hand during our tour around the building, crafting them with speed, grace, and skill.  I ended up with a tasty Gin Old Fashioned (made with their barrel aged gin, rosemary scented honey, and vanilla cherry bark bitters.)

Cocktails in hand, we met up with Dan Niesen (one of the distillers) who took us all over the distillery to explore the nooks and crannies.  It was fun to see the whole process from local grains to the glass in my hand.  They do truly try to source most of their ingredients as local as possible--Dan seemed needlessly apologetic that some of their rye came from a little farther away (but still in Minnesota!)  They're also making good contacts with suppliers of local produce for some of their other products like grappa in collaboration with Waconia's Sovereign Estate Winery.  I'll admit I didn't love the grappa, but I'm more of a bourbon or Scotch kind of guy.

J. Carver's pot still

During the tour we got to ogle the three stills that they have for different projects.  I especially like the tiny experimental still that they use to do smaller batches without risking a much larger batch not turning out.  This can also come in handy if they get access to a smaller amount of a local fruit or other fermentable.  Dan took us through the whole process and really gave us a great tour!

We also got to check out the growing barrel room where whiskeys and gins are aging in climate controlled hibernation, becoming much more than the base spirits they began life as.  I'm excited about when those whiskeys come to fruition!  Already, the barrel aged J. Carver Gin is a treat--mixing the herbal spicing of a gin with the tannin, structure, and complexity of time in a barrel.

Tour over and drinks empty, we returned to the tasting room.  The place had filled in a lot since we left, now bustling with other folks dropping in for a drink or tour.  We found a high-top table in a corner where we would sample the other spirits.  Each of us had three coming, so by sharing we got to try most of the available products.  It was cool getting to test these, but other than bourbons, I'm not used to sipping hard liquor straight, so this was a little challenging.  Our favorites were the Barrel Gin and Grimm's Farm Gin.  The vodkas were OK, but like I said, I'm not used to straight up vodka, so this was difficult to judge.

One can buy a 375 ML bottle at the distillery, or they can send you with a one-day-only coupon for a discount at one of our local liquor stores.  Sj and I ended up taking our coupon to Legacy Wine & Spirits in Waconia to buy bottles of the Barrel Gin and the Grimm Farm Ultra-Premium Gin.  Time to get working on some cocktails at home!

I'm excited about what these guys are doing right in my own backyard.  With the addition of three wineries, two breweries (Waconia and Schram), and now a distillery, Waconia is really starting to become a destination for craft alcoholic beverages.  No longer do I need to drive to Northeast Minneapolis to try out something unique and local!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Whale A Week: Toppling Goliath Assassin

This time on A Whale A Week we take a look at one of the most popular breweries in the country. The rapid rise of Toppling Goliath, a small brewery in the equally small Iowa town of Decorah, has been nothing less than amazing over the past few years.  They have become the poster child for the Midwest craft beer explosion.  Known initially for their Pseudo Sue Pale Ale (really a tropical fruit bomb IPA) they have continued to innovate and gain traction in the beer scene.  I'll admit that was one of the best beers I tried last year and was sold on their brewing chops.

Earlier this year there was some controversy around the brewery when the head brewer left and the brewery moved a large portion of it's production out of Iowa and into Florida. They ran several one-off beers during that time that some of us viewed as being possible mistakes in trying to reproduce their core beers.  The brewer has since returned and things seem back on track.  However, I will say that the Pseudo Sue I've tried from Florida is not as good as that I had in the past.  I'd take a Surly Todd The Axe Man over it for sure.

Toppling Goliath Assassin 2013

Moving on to the beer in question. Per the website information:
After endless hours of scorching in heat, brewing in turmoil, fermenting in angst, the Assassin’s journey has just begun. In the shadow of the temple, he lies in wait, maturing his plot to perfection. He emerges merciless, dominated by darkness, his bite laced with the charred remnants of his victims. No man dares to cross his path. They will forever sleep with one eye open, in fear of the Assassin’s hot kiss of death.

I believe the first version of this beer released in 2012, with 2013 being the second in the series.  I've seen this going on the black market for upwards of $200.  The beer is a Russian Imperial Stout aged in rye whiskey barrels.  Beer Advocate gives this a 99 and 100 on RateBeer.  I got my bottle from good friend Jason Tuttle, who went to the special release at the brewery to pick up the bottles.  Thanks man!

For this tasting I had over the BeerDust crew.  The bottle is wax dipped, ABV 12.8%.  Poured into Steel Toe and Surly snifter glasses.
Me: BJCP judge, beer geek, amateur photographer.
Keith Brady: Our resident scientist, brewer and winner of MN State Fair Blue Ribbon in IPA this year! An Iowan native.
Mike Lebben: Brewer, small business enthusiast.
Sj: My wife and beer-taster.

Aroma: (In which we are transported to a place where s'mores are made over a warm fire.)

Eric: Thick malty sweetness.  Chocolate--dark and rich.  Mild vanilla and cinnamon.  Roastiness present but more subtle than expected--more like a coffee and espresso aroma.  Whiskey notes for sure and some alcohol.  No hops.  Has a red wine or fortified wine character as it warms up.  Aromas blend nicely.
Mike: Bourbon, vanilla, raisin, chocolate.  Smells like it will be awesome.
Keith: Dark chocolate, prunes, port.  Subtle bourbon barrel.  Slight cherry.

Appearance: (In which we gaze into the Abyss.)

Eric: Black as anything.  Completely opaque.  Very very small deep tan head that fades to nothing quickly.  Looks like oil.  Black Blood of the Earth.  Small legs on edge of glass.
Mike: Dark roasted coffee color with lacy brown head.
Keith: Black hole-ish.  Low lace carbonation.

Flavor:  (In which we taste a range of dessert-like flavors.)

Eric: Powerful prune and raisin oatmeal cookie flavors.  Vanilla strong right away.  Mild tart zing like a sour dried cherry.  Dark chocolate covered pomegranate seeds!  Tannic bite at end that dries out the beer slightly.  Mouthfeel creamy and thick like a milkshake.  Alcohol present and warming but a mellow glow rather than a burn.  No real hop flavors.  Gets sweeter as it warms.  Carbonation higher than expected from appearance.  Complex and well-aged.
Mike: Warm chocolate taste with marshmallow fluff mouthfeel.
Keith: Tastes like diet Utopias.  Chocolate syrup.  Big mouthfeel.  Roasted marshmallow.  Medium hop bitterness.

Overall: (Where we lament not drinking this sooner...)

Eric: Well aged beer.  Some oxidation resulting in dark fruit.  Pleasant and easy drinking high alcohol beer.  Wonderful right now, but I would hesitate to age it longer. It's glory has faded a bit since I tried it last year. 4.5
Mike: I typically share bottles of barrel aged Imperial stouts because of next-day headaches.  I could drink this whole bottle and look forward to the headache as a reminder of how great this beer is. 5
Keith: Hoppier/more bitter than I remember, but in a good way.  Massive chocolate, bourbon, syrup.  A sipper.  Dried fruit with cream.  It is a great beer but not as good as the last time we tried it.  Not like it was brewed in Florida or anything...4.5
Sj: Super sweet--like someone just poured a little Hershey's syrup into it. 4.5

Overall Score: 4.625

I do love this beer and hope to try another vintage at some point.  I'm also jonesing to try their Mornin' Delight coffee RIS if anyone would like to share!

Photo Details: For this shot I set up in a dark area of the basement with only a small side light.  I set a long 15 second exposure and then slowly moved a sword through the shot. I had to try this many times to get it looking good.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Photo Challenge Week 38: S-Curve

A short one this week--but I'm getting this out in time for once!  The weekly mission was to take a photo utilizing or showcasing the S-Curve.  So far I've seen folks use terrain (twisty roads, rivers, etc) and also s-shaped items.

This week I took down my trusty saber and made good use of it's S shaped hilt and guard.  I'll be wearing this around in a couple of weeks when I'm at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival judging beers for Byggvir's Big Beer Cup!

I went dark and contrasty on this shot.  I wanted the reflective curve of the guard to be highlighted against a darker background.  Initially I took this directly on the floor but the angle wasn't right and I added my copy of Lord Of The Rings as a prop.  The color photo shows off the bright red leather of the book well, but it draws attention from sword itself. I took this in a ray of afternoon sun coming into the dining room (I had to roust my lovely cat Willow from this choice spot).  I added a bit of vignette around the edges as well to focus attention into the center.  I'm just learning so any feedback is helpful!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Photo Challenge: Macro Plastic

This week's challenge is to take macro (close up) pictures of something made of plastic.  The idea is to take something common-place that we would normally not notice and see what it looks like blown up and close.

I took a little walk-through of my home and discovered that I have many plastic toys, trinkets, etc. sitting around on my copious shelves.  So I gathered a handful of these pocket-sized models and got to work taking some portraits!

First up was my model of Brandon Lee as The Crow.  This was one of my favorite movies (and graphic novels as well) during my college years and I've been hanging onto this little trinket since then.   I did my best to get his face in some shadow during the shoot.  I changed the tint to a blue cast to match that of the movie, then added a vignette to focus more on the face.  I think it turned out pretty good considering it this guy's face is about a half-inch in size.

Next up is a plastic miniature of a mummy.  I painted this little inch-tall fellow when I was about 15 years old.  Mostly these old miniatures were for playing Warhammer tabletop battles, and they now sit in boxes or in a small display case on my study wall.  I miss the days when I had time to do this intricate work and then spend 8 hours with friends trying to get through a whole game...

Here's a size reference picture...

Next I pulled out my old dice bag from decades of playing Dungeons & Dragons and many more role-playing games.  I don't get much use for these anymore, but can't get rid of them.  This was a good excuse to put them on display again!  These little bits of plastic and I have been through many a vicious battle with dragons, werewolves, and more…

And last but not least was to showcase the new meeples I ordered for the amazing board game Lords Of Waterdeep.  The game was designed in part by my old schoolmate Peter Lee and is one of the most fun games I've played in years.  You should buy it now.  In an attempt to be a little more like the European board games, the player's hirelings (wizards, clerics, rogues, fighters) are represented by different colored wooden tokens--usually called "meeples" by gamers.  Nothing says "fighter" like an orange block!  My wife refuses to call them by name and instead calls them carrots.  So I purchased a pack of tiny meeples shaped like the characters!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Whale A Week: The Bruery's Chocolate Rain 2013

The Bruery has been bringing amazing craft beer to Orange County, California (known as a beer wasteland for years compared to the Bay area and San Diego) since 2008.  They are known for smaller batch and experimental beers and are much sought-out in the beer trading community.  The Bruery is probably known most for their annual release Black Tuesday, a barrel aged Russian Imperial stout that is destined for a future A Whale A Week entry of its own.  Chocolate Rain began (I think) in 2009 at the brewery as a one-off version of Black Tuesday with vanilla beans and San Francisco based TCHO Chocolate cocoa nibs. The beer first released in bottle 2011 after it had already gained a huge cult following by beer geeks.  Currently they take a select few of their barrels of bourbon aged Imperial stout, age them with the above ingredients for several months, and then blend them to get the final Chocolate Rain.  The beer has a rating of 96 on Beer Advocate and a solid 100 on RateBeer.  The 2013 vintage has an ABV of a whopping 18%!

My memory is hazy of when I first tried this beer (perhaps because of the 18%) was either with Andrew Gieseke or Rob Wengler--I know we tried it with both of them at some point. My wife and I both fell in love with the beer immediately.  The Bruery is not distributed here in Minnesota, but Andrew was a member of their Reserve Society--allowing members to get first crack at their rare beers--however that requires that you have a mule to pick them up and send them to you!  I later accumulated a couple of bottles in a bulk cellar buy from a cool local guy with a crazy amount of rare beers that he had to pare down.

Sj and I did a chance to get to The Bruery's taproom in Placentia (not placenta) California when we went on our anniversary trip to Disneyland last year.  That place is insane with at least 20-30 of their own beers on tap and even more in bottle.  We were glad we took a cab so we didn't have to drive back.  Though apparently none of the local cab companies could find us, since it took about an hour to finally get out of that place!  There are worse places to be stuck.  We brought back a whole case of bottles for later use...  It pays to travel with an empty wine shipper!

For this particular A Whale A Week tasting I finally had my friend Garret Davis over to the bar.  This one was on his list of untasted whales and I felt it was time to share the wonder that is Chocolate Rain--as it was once shared with us.  Garret is a homebrewer and Jack Of All Brews member, known for his love of IPA.  He was kind enough to share a Sixpoint Resin double IPA with me that was stellar!  Sj wanted no part of that hoppy beast.  Breaking open the thick wax easily with my Hopsecutioner opener (thanks Martin!), I then poured this into snifter glasses.

Chocolate Rain 2013


Eric: High alcohol, vanilla, and chocolate are all right up front and in your face!  Light wood char.  Very sweet smelling.  Notes of wood or oxidation as it warms (paper, oak.)  Lots and lots of bourbon.
Garret: Chocolate.  Rubbing alcohol.  Bourbon.  Vanilla.


Eric: Very dark brown, but not black.  Fine light tan head that fades quickly.  Slight copper glow when held to light.
Garret: Reddish/black.


Eric: Crazy powerful sweetness!  Vanilla is very strong and amazing--accentuating the sweet flavors.  Not much malt flavor to this--more like a honey and booze sweetness.  Strong bourbon notes.  Lots of alcohol warming, but not quite a full burn.  Chocolate comes in after a few sips when the palate gets used to the vanilla and bourbon but is subtle.  Raisin as it warms up.  Almond or cherry pit flavors at finish.  Mouthfeel is thick and almost syrupy, but carbonation is high enough to even it out a bit.
Garret: Cinnamon, brown sugar.  Very sweet, sticky.  Thick and oily mouthfeel.


Eric: Incredibly sweet and boozy.  Not as chocolate-forward as I remember it.  Complex beer and borders on cloying but just barely misses that spot.  I feel a bit like going to bed now.  Would love to sip this under a starry night by a fire pit in the fall.  4.5
Garret: Delicious!  Very boozy, but I would not change a thing! 4.75
Sarajo: Sooo super sweet and delicious.  I love to drink dessert.  4.5

Overall Score: 4.58

Yup, this one is tasty!  This is a beer to share for sure, since I can't imagine drinking more than a snifter of it.

And for an added Easter egg here is your moment of Chocolate Rain by Tay Zonday:

Photo details:  For this shot I took a photo of the bottle label, then another shot of a cluster of packaged chocolates, then superimposed them using Photoshop Elements.