Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Race Recap: The Vermont City Marathon

On the way into Burlington I saw my first camel. At least I think it was my first camel. I can't recall ever seeing a camel before Friday afternoon. It was your classic camel; two humps, mangy, kind of lopsided except it was by itself on a farm in the middle of Vermont without any of its camel friends. Now, you should know marijuana is legal in Vermont. However, none of us in the car had partaken in the state’s liberties and we all saw the same camel. When Jason arrived the next day, he too mentioned seeing the camel on Vermont State Route 7. Certain that we could rule out hallucination, we Googled “Vermont Camel” and found this. So, if you are ever driving to Burlington and see a camel on the side of the road, that’s the story.

Other than that, the trip from Manhattan to Burlington was pleasantly uneventful. At the last minute, I took the day off work so we could beat the Memorial Day traffic. We made more pit stops than usual not because my very pregnant wife needed to pee, but because I needed to pee from downing so much water to stay hydrated. We didn’t have our first crisis until midway through dinner Friday night. We had picked a touristy burger and beer joint out of convenience and the conversation turned to our elite water bottles which Josh and I planned to share. That’s when I realized I had left the carefully selected bottles in the cabinet above the kitchen fridge. I went into panic mode. I called Jason hoping he was still in NYC and could swing by the apartment. He was not. I called the manufacturer of the bottles, a science supply company in New Jersey (they were technically meant to clean chemistry beakers, but we found they worked really well for taking fluid on the run) but they were closed. I called the University of Vermont Chemistry Department, which was also closed. Our best bet was the City Sports down the street. We jogged over and found they had clear plastic bottles that would do the trick. Crisis averted.

Checking out the start at the scenery on the shakeout
Saturday was spent trying to relax, but as is the day before any marathon there was too much nervous energy to sit still. Josh and I went for a 30-minute shakeout run and checked out the finish area. We stocked up on good local beer. Attempts at a nap were futile. In the afternoon, we sat in the living room of our rented apartment listening to My Morning Jacket records decorating our back-up water bottles with pictures of our families, wives and dogs that Josh had thoughtfully printed out. It was anxiety-relief through rudimentary arts and crafts. Honestly, if there was an award for best decorated elite water bottles it wouldn’t have even been a contest. One of the photos we were going to tape to a bottle was a quote from professional runner/movie maker Alexi Pappas. When I read it, it caused me to reflect on the 15-week training cycle that got us to Vermont.

“Racing is not about how you feel. It’s about how you feel about how you feel.”

I felt pretty good about how I felt. The build up to Burlington was nearly perfect. Josh and I built a flexible training plan that worked great with our schedules and included a perfect balance of speed and stamina. I missed zero days to illness or injury. I did have a nasty cold in April that caused me to skip a 10k race and left me less than 100% for my half marathon, but getting sick once during a training block is pretty typical. We nailed all of the key workouts most notably our marathon simulation; a 26.2K effort meant to mimic race day in every way. We ran the 16.3 miles at an average pace of 5:44 and it felt comfortably hard. Mentally, I was in a much better place than my last marathon in Boston of 2013. I was sleeping again and eating right. Most importantly, I was truly having fun and loving running. There was no doubt we were both in shape for a great race.

Elite bottles ready to go. This was Josh's idea and it was awesome!
Saturday evening, we went to the expo. I tried and failed to win an eight-pack of Heady Topper. I tried and succeeded at changing the age on my bib from 34 to my actual age of 31. Josh dropped off our water bottles, four filled with lemon lime electrolyte powder mixed with water, two filled with a chocolate cherry Clif Shot caffeine gel mixed vigorously with water. Along with the photos on each bottle were instructions on at which mile they should be placed.

Saturday night was a smorgasbord of pre-race feasts. For Josh it was pasta and meatballs brought in from Zabar’s in Manhattan. Jason pan seared some chicken and roasted some potatoes. I ordered sushi and green salad and followed it with a dessert of fresh cut mango and a couple spoonfuls of Ben and Jerry’s Banana Peanut Butter Greek Frozen Yogurt. Our families all stopped by to wish us luck and then we all turned in early. I was surprised to fall asleep pretty quickly.

The alarm was set for 6am, but I was up at 5:45 and ready to roll. I went into the kitchen and made two frozen chia waffles – the same waffles I ate before every big workout – and topped them with peanut butter and jam. I washed them down with a cup of coffee and water with a Nuun tablet. I put on my race costume and the appropriate amount of Body Glide and made multiple trips to the bathroom to ensure I’d make zero trips to the bathroom during the actual race. Just before stepping out the door, I ate half of a Smooth Caffeinator Picky Bar for an extra boost.

Just before heading out the door
Our apartment was less than 800 meters from the starting line, so we jogged over around 7:20am, 43 minutes before the scheduled start of the race. It was 55 degrees and partly cloudy, a little warm but nothing race-altering. Jason and Josh were both allowed access to the elite bathrooms. I was not, but that was not an issue. We stood side-by-side as they gave the final race instructions. And then we were off.

Our race plan called for the early miles to be run in the 5:50-5:55 range with a faster split allowed in the first mile. We were right on pace through mile one, but picked it up a bit as we went a long. The race begins by winding through city streets for three miles before heading onto a highway. Just after mile three, we saw the first elite aid station approaching and Josh instinctively grabbed our bottle from the table. We both immediately knew something was wrong. First of all, we weren’t supposed to see our first bottle until just after mile four. Secondly, it was the caffeine mixture we had not planned on until mile nine. Clearly, we were going to pass by this spot again in six miles, which is when we were meant to grab the bottle. I don’t know what, if any, effect the early caffeine had on us. We had both taken caffeine prior to the race so it ended up being a lot of caffeine in a short amount of time.

Waving to my family
The crowds disappear when the race enters the highway for a five-mile out-and-back stretch. There, we found ourselves in a pack with a trio of runners from Boston who refused to take over pacing duties. Josh, Jason and I set the pace for them the entire stretch. We went through the 10k at 36:07 which was a little fast, but not suicidal. I know those tracking me online got an alert saying I went through the 10k in 34:12. That on the other hand, would have been suicidal. I have no idea where that data came from. We skipped the elite fluids at mile four knowing we’d pass by it again at mile eight and could grab it then to make up for the missing bottle at mile nine.

Mile nine brought the first surprise of the course for me. I knew there was a hill there, but I did not expect it to be so steep. When we got to the top, I made a comment to Josh and Jason about how much it sucked but neither responded. We followed that mile with an unusually quick mile 10 (5:38); a nice downhill reprieve during which we were all able to give a wave to our cheering families. It wasn’t long after this as we wound our way through some neighborhoods that I realized Jason had dropped off the back of our trio. I knew he hadn’t been able to train for the race as well as he had hoped and that he might just try to run a time that allowed him to run Boston next year. I could also tell Josh wasn’t feeling great at this point, but put off asking for another two miles because I knew the answer was one I didn’t want to hear.

We went through the halfway point in 1:16:44, right on pace for our goal of 2:34-2:36, but Josh had told me his breathing felt off and he had started to slow. I slowed down through the elite fueling station hoping the rough patch would pass. I, on the other hand, had just come out of a rough patch and was feeling the best I had since the start of the race. It was really hard to make the decision to set out on my own even after Josh told me to go. This was not in the plan. We trained together and we were supposed to finish together. Still, I knew it was the right thing to do. He said, “Go after it. Be smart!” and I was on my own. On my own like that damn camel without any camel friends.

I entered “No Man’s Land” at mile 14 on the south side of the Burlington bike path. 5:50s were coming with little effort at this point and I was able to pass some runners without even trying. At mile 15, the course climbs the steepest hill of the race. I knew it was coming and allowed myself to back off a bit and not worry about the split. I made it to the top without losing too much steam and hoped to myself that it would be an 11 mile cruise to the finish from there.

The thing about 11 miles is that it’s a long way. Think about going on 11 mile run at a relatively easy pace. It’s a substantial day’s work. Now think about going on an 11 mile run after running 15 miles. When you look at it that way, it’s pretty daunting. But I felt good and that’s not how I was thinking. My pace had settled into the high 5:50s, but I was OK with that. As I hit the mile 16 marker, I knew all I had to do was maintain a 6:00-6:05 pace to run 2:35:xx and a PR was probable.

Once Josh and I separated, I no longer had access to our elite fluids. Only Josh could grab them. I had planned for this scenario and was carrying two back-up gels. Of course, there were water and Gatorade stations all over the course. The problem was, I didn’t practice with these fluids or gels. I tried to take a Gu at mile 17 and I barely got a taste before spitting it right back out. There was no way I was going to be able to choke it down. I knew I needed electrolytes, so I grabbed a Gatorade from the next table. I don’t know how long it had been since I drank full-sugar Gatorade but it sure was a shock to the system. It tasted like someone had melted down a cheap lollipop and put it in a cup. These issues aside, I still felt pretty good and foolishly thought if I could make it mile 20 I was in the clear.

I hit mile 20 in 1:58:51. My pace had only dropped a few seconds. Since we were winding through cul-de-sacs and quaint neighborhoods, I attributed the slight slowdown to the huge amount of turns. I passed at least three people during this stretch. I was feeling tired, but another 10k did not seem too daunting. Then, somewhere right before mile 22 my quads decided to stop working. It was like someone flipped the “off” switch. All of the sudden, they were done for the day.

Josh's dad got this great shot of the final turn
What followed was an agonizing four mile ride on the caboose of the pain train. If you are still feeling strong, the final stretch of the marathon course is a lovely finish. It’s a flat if not slightly downhill jaunt through a tree-lined bike path along Lake Champlain. I appreciated none of that. I just wanted it to be over. With three miles to go, I took a popsicle from a child. As each mile got slower, my hopes of a PR slipped away and I knew there was no way to salvage it. I was actually running just under 7:00 pace but it felt so much slower. Runners would pass me and I would try to feed off their speed and hang on but I couldn’t. With less than two miles to go, a guy with long hair passed me and said, “You’ll have to run harder than that if you want to break 2:40.” I wanted to punch him, but wasn’t sure I could afford the energy.

With less than 400 meters to go, I turned onto the grassy finishing stretch and saw my family again – my mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, niece and aunt - all cheering wildly. Lauren started running along the fence that separated the spectators from the runners and even though she’s eight months pregnant she was keeping up with me just fine. A guy wearing goggles and basketball shorts sprinted past me which would have been devastating if I couldn’t tell from his bib that he was a relay runner. Pictures from this stretch show just how weak my quads were by the end of this race. It appears as I’m heavily favoring my right side; lopsided again like the camel. As I crossed the line, the announcer said something about me smiling which certainly wasn’t true. 2:40:35. My immediate feeling wasn’t relief. It was disappointment.

I’d had a better day than Josh and Jason. After we split, Josh thrice vomited a substance the resembled the stuff that dinosaur spit on Newman in Jurassic Park. The fact that he finished under those conditions is a testament to the size of his huevos. Jason dropped out at mile eighteen and subsequently had to walk up and then back down a hill to get home. When we all met back up again we were a battered bunch in need of beers.

my niece Halle made it hard not to smile even after that race

I have nothing but good things to say about the Vermont City Marathon. Everything about it is first class. I was admittedly initially bitter about not being included in the elite field, but I respect how they stuck to their rules. In the end it worked out just fine. The race staff was helpful and approachable and it was obvious the volunteers were having a good time. The course was well-marked and well-staffed. It’s incredibly spectator-friendly. I saw my family four times including at the finish. On top of all that, Burlington is a really cool town. It reminded me a lot of Oswego with its size, proximity to the lake, and youthful vibe, not to mention the ice cream and beer.

I don’t know what went wrong in the race and I haven’t spent a lot of time dwelling on it. I won’t second guess our training or preparation in any way. I won’t blame the weather. There’s a chance we went out a little fast, but there’s a better chance that it just wasn’t our day. That happens with the marathon. It’s not worth beating myself up over and honestly, I’m surprisingly OK with it all.

And here’s why: It wasn’t a great race. But it was a great weekend. It started with a great road trip – camel, and all – with two of our best friends. When we got to Vermont, we all got to see the people we love the most. I am so grateful my family made the trip just to watch me run. Lauren and I got to spend one last weekend away together before our family becomes a trio. Now, it’s on to our next marathon. Baby Lentil (temporary name). The race is scheduled to start sometime around June 28th.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Race Recap: The Unite Rutgers Half Marathon

Brace yourselves. This is an entry about running.

Yeah, I’m still doing it on a fairly regular and serious basis. A co-worker asked me yesterday if I just drank beer now which was simultaneously flattering and concerning. I've actually been training for the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington (May 24th) since February, but have spared everyone the (boring) details of speed workouts and long runs. To sum it up as briefly as possible: Things are going frighteningly well. Workouts, sleep, overall health: A+ for all three. Ok, maybe B+ for sleep, but that’s as good as it gets for me. I’m choosing not to over-analyze that and just keep on keeping on as they say.

Sunday was my first chance to see how all the miles and tough efforts translated to a race setting. My best bud/training partner Josh and I signed up for the Unite Rutgers Half Marathon for a couple of reasons:

1. It’s 6 weeks out from the marathon which leaves maximum time for recovery and to               work on any weak spots.
2. It’s a fairly big race (6,000) with a top three finishers historically somewhere in                         the 1:10-1:12 range.                             
3. The course has a lot of turns, but looks flat.
4.  It’s free (if you have run 1:11 or faster)
5.  Finisher’s medal that has a spinny-thing in the middle. 

The original goal was to run together, PR and possibly go 1-2. But the best laid plans...well, you know the rest. Josh got sick the week of the race and couldn't run although he did still drive me to New Brunswick and provide invaluable moral and logistical support before, during and after the race. I adjusted my goals accordingly. I ran my half-marathon PR (1:11:19) under perfect conditions in the 2012 NYC Half Marathon. I had one of the best runners I know pacing me. The weather was ideal and the course was fast. Not to mention I was in really good shape. The stars will probably never align like that again. That’s not defeatist. It’s realistic. I’m cool with that PR. Regardless, a much smaller race that would likely be a solo effort was not exactly the best setting to even attempt breaking it.
On the starting line. Photo Credit: Josh Lerch

Based on workouts, I toed the line hoping to run somewhere in the 1:12s and finish in the top 3. The night before the race I came up with a simple race plan.

1. Go out at 5:30 pace – no faster. Don’t freak out         about 5:35. If 5:25s feel possible in the latter                 half of the race, go with it.
2. Run perfect tangents. The course has many             turns, some of them very sharp.
3. Do what it takes not to end up no-man’s land.

As soon as the race started, I took the lead which would have been a mistake if I weren't right on pace. By the end of the first mile, I was in a pack with three guys. This lasted until mile three when one of the guys picked up the pace and another fell off. Going with the guy in first would have been a suicide mission. I thought about it briefly, picking up the pace to 5:20 for mile 3. Then, I made a decision that goal number one trumps goal number three and there I was in no man’s land. The next six miles were near perfect. In fact, miles 1-9 were right on pace ranging from 5:28-5:34 with the exception of the 5:20. I was 34:00 at 10k and 36:02 at the halfway point. The course was not nearly as flat as I expected. There were no major hills, just several small climbs that added up. I was running perfect tangents with my GPS watch beeping at each mile marker. The course was a bit unorthodox. It was mostly within the Rutgers campus and utilized service roads and even a greenway. There were three spots where you had to turn around at a cone. I also found it odd there was not a single clock on the course.

Thumbs up still at mile 6
After passing mile 9 in 5:28 I was pretty confident my average pace wouldn't drop too dramatically over the last four miles and 1:12:xx was in the bag. I was feeling tired and lonely, but I was mentally still in the game. My watched clicked over to mile 10 before I saw the mile marker, but I figured I’d see it soon. Another minute went by before I got to the official marker. Had I really just run a 6:42 mile? While Garmins are certainly not 100% accurate, I was certain I hadn't and things would sort themselves out. At this point, I could see the guy in third was closing the gap on me. I must not have been thinking straight because my reaction was one of relief. I figured when he caught me I could just stay with him. We hit mile 11 (still way off) and he was right on my shoulder. We stayed stride for stride for the next 1.75 miles, our pace at a steady 5:40 with both a new headwind and exhaustion contribute to the slowdown.

With just over a quarter mile to go (on my watch – I was still hoping the course would even out), I made a move and pulled away by two strides. It was all I had left and in my head, I knew if he came back, I’d be a sitting duck. I couldn't see the finish line, but imagined it was right around the next turn. I made the turn and was staring up at a hill. The finish line was at least 400 yards away. I had gambled and lost. I held on to 5:30 pace for the next quarter mile even as I got passed and fell to third place. I crossed the line in 1:13:55 well short of any primary, secondary or even tertiary goals I had set for myself.

1, 2 & 3 
I hate when runners complain a course is long or short. When I ran the Runners World Half Marathon in October, I didn't get a perfect 13.1 on my watch either, but it was within what I would call the normal range. In fact, I don’t think I've ever run a race of any distance that measures perfectly on the GPS. That’s a given. But .20-.25 is pretty significant. In the 24 hours after the race it was hard not to think about it. I needed some sort of validation. I emailed the race director who confirmed that Rutgers campus security made them change the course just one hour before the race. They had to move mile 10 at 7:05am. She said it had been hastily re-marked and re-measured, but obviously not re-certified.

Despite how it might sound, I really enjoyed this race. It was well-organized and well-attended. The parking situation was convenient. There were ample porta-potties. The water stations were well-staffed and evenly-placed. The t-shirts were dri-fit and decent quality. And get this: The awards were early! The trophies were big enough to pour a beer in which is also a plus. The long course appears to have been because of circumstances outside the race director’s control and they responded to my inquiry almost immediately. In a time where road races have been turned into big-corporate money makers where runners pay absurd amounts of money to literally be a faceless number, it’s nice to run a race with 6,000 runners that has all the amenities of a big event but still feels like the people in charge are approachable.

The time on the clock may not have said what I had hoped, but I can walk away from this one feeling like I’m still on track. On to Burlington!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Week 7 & A Recap: 40 Beers 40 Nights

When I decided to drink 40 beers over the course of the 40 nights of lent, I sort of poked fun at the idea of sacrificing something. "I'm giving up not drinking a delicious beer every night." I said. For the first 36 days it was hardly a sacrifice. It was a joy. At some points I worried I might not be able to return to NOT drinking a beer after work. Then I got the worst cold of my life.

I've had a lot of colds. I come down with one roughly twice a year. I'm always a big baby about it.  I'm not exaggerating when I say this thing was a monster. It was concentrated evil. It came on quickly, lasted for three horrible days and then suddenly as it came it disappeared. At its apex I couldn't get out of bed or even open my eyes because of the pressure. Beer was out of the question. Joke was on me. I could have been a trooper and drank right through the cold, but I crumbled. It was just one night. Still, it took me off course and perhaps proved I'm not as tough as I set out to be.

It became 40 Beers 41 Nights which certainly doesn't have the same ring to it. Here are the final four.

Wednesday - Hotter than Helles - Cigar City Brewing (Helles Lager 5%) - I picked this beer because I could feel the cold coming on and I didn't want to waste something hoppy and flavorful on weakened taste buds. The guy who writes Drunkspin recently described Helles Lager as the kind of beer you would serve to your buddy who prefers a Bud to a craft beer. It's a very malty, generic tasting style. It's neither offensive or remarkable. I don't particularly like it, but if I am going to drink a Helles Lager, it's going to be from Tampa's excellent Cigar City Brewing.

Thursday - Nyquil - Proctor and Gamble (Cough Syrup 10%) - As a person with a life long aversion to liquid medicine, I had never cracked a bottle of a Nyquil. That's how bad this cold was. Nyquil pours a dark, creamy green. It has aromas of melted down Vicks Vapor Rub and unrecognizable chemicals. The initial taste is mint and nail polish remover with hints of tears. It finishes with the taste of regurgitation. Seriously. How did kids drink this stuff to get wasted? I tried to do more than one shot one night and spit it right back out. I do not recommend this drink,

Friday - Trou Ble Some - Off Color Brewing (Gose 4.3%) -        
I wasn't quite ready to start drinking serious beer yet. When I saw this at Whole Foods on a cough drop and Kleenex run, I remembered Lauren buying a bottle at one of our favorite beer bars and thought it would be light enough to drink while ill. It's a Gose which means it's unfiltered with a low ABV and devoid of any hop taste. This particular beer contains coriander. I didn't look it up myself, but I am sure if you Google "is coriander good for a cold?" someone on the internet will tell you it is. This beer reminds me a lot of Dogfish Head's Namaste. It's very light, but full of spice and citrus flavors. It's not something I gravitate toward, but a great representation of its style.

Saturday - Wookey Jack - Firestone Walker Brewing Company (Black Ale 8.3%) - I couldn't finish his list without something from California's stellar Firestone Walker. Wookey Jack is a heavier, darker version of its signature Union Jack IPA. Wookey is hard to nail down. While technically a black ale, it has characteristics of a stout/porter and a double IPA the latter of which I think it most resembles. This is a very hoppy beer with a lot of different tastes classically found in darker IPAs. There's some chocolate and coffee and at the end there is a nice bitterness. This beer isn't available year round, so I am glad I got my hands on a bottle.

Sunday - Flower Power - Ithaca Beer Company (IPA 7.5%) - I wanted to end with a beer that had some sentimental meaning behind it. As I mentioned earlier, my go-to beers used to be Sam Adams Boston Lager and Guinness. These are still beers I will happily drink today. But, when I was drinking them on a regular basis, the concept of a hoppy beer was foreign and something I had little appetite for. I grew up in the Finger Lakes and Flower Power was the beer that changed my mind. It was widely available and at first it didn't taste good to me at all. After I tried it a few times, I developed a real taste for it. This beer has still got it. It's a consistently good IPA with a bit of a sweet malty taste and an incredibly refreshing finish. This is what an IPA should be.

Alright, here's the hard part. Ranking the beers. If I made this list tomorrow everything from 6 on would probably be a in a different order. I would enthusiastically drink beers 1-33 on this list any day. I love the breweries from 34-39, but those beers are ranked low because of the style. I would rather not drink beer than drink number 40 again.

1. Lawson's Finest Liquids - Sip of Sunshine
2. Russian River Brewing - Pliny the Elder
3. Bear Republic - Big Bear Black Stout
4. Ballast Point - Grapefruit Sculpin
5. Fiddlehead - Second Fiddle
6. The Alchemist - Heady Topper
7. Gun Hill Brewery - Void of Light
8. Founders Brewing Company - Breakfast Stout
9. Singlecut Beersmiths - Bon Bon 2x TNT
10. Lagunitas Brewing Company - Cappuccino Stout
11. Green Flash Brewing Company - West Coast IPA
12. Maine Beer Company - Weez
13. Ithaca Beer Company - Flower Power
14. Schlafly Beer - Tasmanian Style IPA
15. NoDa Brewing - Hop Drop & Roll
16. Sam Adams Beer Company - Rebel IPA
17. Brooklyn Brewery - Blast!
18. Oskar Blues Brewery - Ten Fidy
19. Firestone Walker Brewing Company - Wookey Jack
20. Andean Brewing Company - Kuka Coffee & Cream Stout
21. Sixpoint Brewery - Sweet Action
22. Stone Brewing Company - Smoked Porter with Vanilla Bean
23. Triple C Brewing - Baby Maker
24. Alphabet City Brewing Company - Alpha Male
25. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company - Big Foot Ale
26. Troegs Brewery - Nugget Nectar
27. Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Also - Palo Santo Marron
28. Otter Creek Brewing Company - Citra Mantra
29. Green Flash Brewing Company - Palate Wrecker
30. New Glarus Brewing Company - Spotted Cow
31. Flying Dog Beer - Gonzo
32. Great Lakes Brewing Company - Commodore Perry IPA
33. Southern Tier Brewing Company - 2x Stour
34. Off Color Brewery - Trou Ble Some
35. Boulevard Brewing Company - Tank 7
36. Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project - Jack D'Or
37. Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales - Calabaza Blanca
38. Evil Twin Brewing - Low Life
39. Cigar City Brewing - Hotter Than Helles
40. Cricket Hill Brewery - East Coast Lager 

Let's break it down.
Breweries: 39 (I regret drinking 2 Green Flash beers. Even though they were both delicious)
Number of states represented on list:  17
New York - 9 
California - 9
Vermont - 4
Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina - 2
Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania,
Wisconsin - 1

Boroughs of New York City: 4. Get it together Staten Island!

Styles of Beer
Double IPA - 10
IPA - 7
Stout - 7
Cream Ale, Saison, Black Ale, Porter, Helles/Pale Lager - 2
Amber Ale, Pilsner, Brown Ale, Barleywine, Witbier, Gose - 1


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Week 6: 40 Beers 40 Nights

The more hoppy beer you drink, the harder it is to enjoy the lighter stuff. It’s not that all lighter stuff is bad. It’s just that it stops tasting like beer and therefore doesn't satisfy that beer fix I find myself jonesing for at the end of a long night. Then again, maybe it’s just that it hasn't been warm yet this year and once the temperature spikes, witbiers and session lagers will be refreshing.

36 beers into this thing, I’m realizing something else. I’m running out of beers to try. There are way more than 36 beers out there, but I’m trying not to do the same brewery twice and I've nearly exhausted the beer stores most convenient to my home and office. I might have to get on a bus or a train to make the final week work.
Wednesday – Ten Fidy – Oskar Blues Brewery – (Russian Imperial Stout 10.5%) – I've always avoided purchasing this despite my curiosity because a 4-pack sells for $19. And this is not the kind of beer you are going to drink more than one of in a single sitting. I finally caved this week figuring what I didn't drink would age gracefully. Perhaps it costs so much because it looks and feels like crude oil. Ten Fidy pours a deep black and comes out of the can (stouts are best in a can) thick. You can smell the alcohol. Its taste is very creamy with a hint of chocolate and it’s not as boozy as a beer with such a high ABV could be. This is a great beer to sit and sip and I don’t think I’ll have a problem finishing off the other three.

ThursdayCalabaza Blanca – Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales (Witbier 4.8%) – See preamble. This is the polar opposite of the beer I drank last night. I've really enjoyed this beer in the past. This time, it went down like a cold glass of apple juice. I love a cold glass of apple juice, but not as a substitute for beer. This is a very citrusy, lightly carbonated beer that you could easily drink multiple bottles of on a hot day. I’ll come back to it when it’s 90 degrees.
That's Lauren's belly in the background

Friday – Alpha Male – Alphabet City Beer Company (IPA 7.2%) – After two nights of going to the extremes, it’s time to go back to the basic IPA. This one is from a small and relatively new brewery in Lower Manhattan, but it appears to have been contract brewed up in Clifton, NY (near Albany). I had heard good things, so I was happy to see it on the shelf at the Whole Foods on Columbus Avenue. This beer sets out to be hoppy, but is not meant to dominate your taste buds. It goes for subtle and it achieves that. Nothing about this beer was overly exciting, but it tasted nice and went down easy. At its current price, I’d buy it again.

Saturday – East Coast Lager Cricket Hill Brewing Company (American Pale Lager 4.0%) – I don’t know what possessed me to buy a beer with a 4% ABV and then to drink it on a Saturday night. I think I just saw that it was local and put it in my mix and match six pack. Listen, I don’t want to sound cruel, but I also don’t want to mince words. This beer is awful. It tasted like Miller Lite. Miller Lite is a fine taste if you bought a bunch of Miller Lites to pound during the NCAA Tournament. It’s not a fine taste when you aren't expecting it. I was drinking this with a buddy who’s reaction was “What is that taste?” That’s not a good first impression. Fortunately, I also drank a Stone Enjoy By 4.20.15 and a Boulevard Brewing The Calling on this night, both of which were delicious.
Monday – T IPA – The Schalfly Taproom (IPA 7.2%) – Today I started to come down with a cold. When your throat is scratchy and you have just a little bit of post-nasal drip, beer just doesn't sound as appealing. It doesn't taste as good either. I guess that’s where this really becomes a Lenten sacrifice. Saturday’s beer would have worked better today. Fortunately, my judgment wasn't too skewed to recognize that this Schlafly (which I had never heard of) selection is another excellent, drinkable IPA. It was very crisp and drinkable with no bitterness. When I think of beer from St. Louis, Missouri, I think of Budweiser. Now, I’ll think of this instead.

Tuesday – Kuka Coffee & Cream Stout – Andean Brewing Company (Sweet Stout       5.5%) – Before I cracked this beer, I googled “do coffee stouts contain caffeine?” Still not feeling well, I didn't want to lose precious sleep. I got distracted before I found a definitive answer and poured it anyways. It looked perfectly delicious in a coffee mug which I thought was appropriate. This beer is very new. I can’t find a whole lot about it on the beer internets. It’s local (Rockland County, NY) and is probably just now getting distributed. I’m always excited when I really enjoy a local beer. Of course, coffee stouts are my sweet spot, so unless you put battery acid in it, I’ll probably lap it up like a dog. This one features more of a coffee taste than a sweet taste. It’s smooth and low carbonation and would taste great with a slice of cake. 

Next Week: The Final Four Brews

Friday, March 27, 2015

Week 5: 40 Beers 40 Nights (Pioneer Week)

There’s an attitude among beer nerds (snobs?) that big equals bad. If I can get your beer at the 7-11, it’s just toilet water with a pretty label. This is often true and that’s why beers from evil, giant multi-national beer conglomerates were not included in the 40 Beers 40 Nights list. That gets tougher as big companies dress up brands to fool you and InBev (Anheuser Busch) buys breweries like Goose Island and Elysian. However, it’s not always true. Some of the breweries that started the “craft beer movement” have become major independent corporations with huge distribution arms while still brewing delicious beverages.

I live in New York City and that makes it easy for me to find a wide variety of beers. I've learned that if there is something I want a store in some hipster neighborhood or some weirdo on the internet will have it. Not everyone is so lucky. In some places Sierra Nevada is as crafty as it gets and that’s just fine because Sierra Nevada still makes really good beer.

That’s what this week is about. It’s about the breweries a lot of people have written off for being too big when instead we should be thanking them for reminding us that not all beer has to be Coors. It’s about the breweries that are putting quality beers in stores across the country that everyone can buy. For each brewery, I tried to pick a beer that shows these breweries are still trying new things and still have something to offer beside the flagship style for those who like to be a little more adventurous.

WednesdaySmoked Porter With Vanilla BeanStone Brewing Company (Porter 5.9%) – You can buy Stone’s Arrogant Bastard at a gas station on the interstate and if the situation presents itself you should seize the opportunity. This "limited edition" (whatever that means) winter porter was picked out for me by a friend and it’s been sitting in my cabinet since December. But with two days left in the season, now seemed like a good time to drink it. If I have learned one thing during this experiment, it’s that I like porters more than I thought.The smoke and vanilla tastes in this beer came through well and even though it was a 22 ounce, I had no problem finishing it all since it is relatively low ABV. I probably would have never picked this out on my own, so I’m glad I someone else did.

Thursday – Bigfoot Ale – Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (Barleywine 9.6%) – This is another “winter” beer and it definitely warms your core. Barleywine is always strong and intense so no surprise that one bottle of this beer left me asleep on the couch with Netflix cycling through episodes of “Parks and Recreation”. Bigfoot Ale starts off sweet and hoppy then hits you with a pretty boozy finish. I am just starting to get into this style. So far, I like it and am curious to try some other examples. I wish I had bought two bottles so I could age one for a couple of years.

Friday – Breakfast Stout Founders Brewing Company (Stout 8.3%) – Perhaps Founders doesn't
belong on this list. I can always find this beer and several other Founders styles in any store I walk into. Maybe that’s because I am actively looking for it. It didn't crack the top 25 on the American Brewers’ Association list of biggest craft breweries by volume. In retrospect, I wish I had given this spot to Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale which is also from Michigan and comes from a brewery that is 7th on that very same list. Not that I regret drinking the Breakfast Stout which is absolutely on my top 10 list of favorite beers. It is simply the best representation of the style I have ever had. The coffee and chocolate flavors come through so nicely that I can see myself actually drinking this with breakfast. Maybe I will.

Saturday – Palo Santo Marron Dogfish Head Brewery (Brown Ale 12%) – Breweries like Sam
Adams and Seirra Nevada started the craft beer movement. Dogfish Head took it to the next level. 60 Minute IPA is the beer everyone has had. I went with one I had never even heard of. It wasn't until I got home that I realized this brown ale has a 12% ABV. Good thing it was a Saturday night. Aged in some sort of rare Paraguayan wood, Palo Santo Marron (Translation: Holy Tree Brown) pours very dark and thick. It has a smoky, sweet, almost caramel taste combined with the obvious alcohol taste. It’s hard to mask 12%. It tastes and feels much more like a strong stout than a brown ale. This is a sipping beer and I’m not really sure how I will finish my four-pack.

Monday – Brooklyn Blast!Brooklyn Brewery (Double IPA 8.4%) – In New York City, parties with an open bar have Bud Light, Heinekin and then a Brooklyn selection for those who want something good or for those who want to hold something that says “Brooklyn” on it. Nothing from Brooklyn belongs in the same sentence as those other two beers, but their flagship selections aren't anything to go crazy over either. In fact, Brooklyn Brewery lags far behind it’s younger Brooklyn neighbor Six Point when it comes to the quality of its year-round offerings. Still, when Brooklyn is on, it’s on. Local 1, Local 2 and Cuvee’ Noir are spectacular. I had never tried Brooklyn Blast! This is in part due to the fact that its name contains an exclamation point. That aside, this is a surprisingly solid Double IPA. It’s a little bitter, but it belongs in the conversation with other widely-available top notch DIPAs.(!)

Tuesday – Rebel Rouser – Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams) (Double IPA 8.4%) – Sam Adams epitomizes everything I said about breweries getting too big to be considered good. To be fair, it deserves a lot of the heat it takes. Boston Lager is like Starbucks coffee. It’s fine but you’ll find something better and more interesting across the street. But like Starbucks it was groundbreaking. Starbucks was mass-produced good coffee in a time of Folgers. Boston Lager was mass-produced good beer in a time where options were limited. Sam Adams was the first brewery I felt any loyalty toward. In the early 2000s, I’d always go back to college with a 12 pack of their seasonal lager. I still buy Summer Ale if only for nostalgia. As the industry boomed, Sam Adams stayed stagnant. Every once in a while, they put out a winner, but why mess with what’s working? Sam Adams is the top selling craft beer in the country by a mile. They don’t have to get creative to make money. But the Rebel series launched last year shows they still have a couple of tricks up their sleeve. The Rebel IPA is a solid every day IPA. The Rebel Rouser is a very solid second-tier Double IPA. It's crisp with a pleasantly bitter finish that lingers a bit. I have a list of beers that I’ll buy six packs of just to have when I’m looking for something satisfying and refreshing, but not overly fancy. I'm happy to discover this belongs on that list.

Lagunitas, my favorite of the “too big to be cool” breweries is not on this list only because I drank its Cappuccino Stout last week. It pained me not to include Goose Island, but now that it’s owned by InBev, I just can’t get excited about it.

Next Week: Is it too early for witbier? 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Week 4: 40 Beers 40 Nights

If you follow me on Instagram (I'm sorry), you know I am attempting to get creative with my nightly beer photos. I've included a screen shot of “Better Call Saul”, babies and even videos that always show poor pouring technique because I’m holding the camera with one hand and pouring with the other. But, I’m running out of ideas. This is partly because there are only so many ways to photograph beer in my living room or kitchen and partly because I’m not at my most creative after a full day at work. Oh, and also because I don’t think about it until the last possible second. So, if you have any ideas let me know.

Wednesday – Second FiddleFiddlehead Brewing (Double IPA 8%) – As you know, I bought a
bunch of Vermont beer from a guy on Craigslist. I wasn’t going to buy Fiddlehead because I had never heard of it and really just wanted Heady Topper. The guy ended up talking me into getting two cans of Second Fiddle and I am glad I did. All three beers I bought from him (Sip of Sunshine, Heady Topper and Second Fiddle) were double IPAs and all three were fantastic. I paid $90 for eight cans and I will tell you it was worth every penny. Seeing as how they were all the same style of beer, they were easy to compare. Sip of Sunshine was the clear winner, but Second Fiddle was a respectably distant second. It’s less citrusy and more hoppy than the Sip of Sunshine, but equally as refreshing. Actually, Second Fiddle is a lot more like Heady than Sip of Sunshine in presentation, smell and taste however I think it hides the ABV better making it a bit more drinkable.

Bfo seen in this file photo
Thursday – Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale – Boulevard Brewing (Saison 8.5%) – For months, I have patiently awaited the NYC arrival of Boulevard beers. My buddy Bfo who lives in Kansas City raves about them and the rest of the beer-drinking internet seems to agree with his assessment. They finally arrived last week and since Tank 7 is their flagship brew, I thought I would try it first even though it’s a saison. It definitely has the Belgian spice taste which is the taste I don’t enjoy in saisons, but it’s not overwhelming and it’s not the only thing happening with this beer. It’s pretty full-bodied for a saison and it’s grapefruit and orange flavors come through nicely. It’s still a saison and thus, not something I would order off a menu, but for folks who like this style it’s a must try. I also picked up a Boulevard IPA (The Calling) so I could try a style I actually enjoy, and it was very solid.

Friday – Bon Bon 2x TNT Single Cut Beersmiths (Double IPA 8.2%) – You can’t really say you've tried a beer if it’s your 6th or 7th beer of the night. The only other time I tasted Single Cut was at the end of a Christmas party that turned into a massive beer tasting. I remembered absolutely nothing about it. So, when I saw it was on tap at Amsterdam Alehouse on the Upper West Side I was eager to give it a second go. Single Cut is in Astoria, Queens which gave it a boost before I even tried it. At 143 IBUs, it could pack a real punch. Instead it’s a very balanced mix of bitter and tropical. I’m starting to think I’m a Double IPA guy.

Saturday – Cappuccino Stout – Lagunitas Brewing Company (Stout
9.2%) – There are a couple craft breweries that I think of as patriarchs of the industry and so far, none of them are on the list. This is the first. Sure, they may be a big, widely-available brand, but I have never been disappointed with their stuff. Plus, Lagunitas sponsors “This American Life” (Keeping the ‘pub’ in ‘public radio) and that earns huge bonus points with me. I put a 22 ounce bottle of Cappuccino Stout in the fridge before heading out for an 18 mile workout thinking it would be the perfect recovery drink on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I was right. My two go-to post-run drinks are beer and coffee. This combines the two perfectly. The coffee taste is immediate and lasts throughout. It's creamy and smooth. This is also a super-affordable beer, so I’ll be buying it again.

You can and should cry over spilled beer.
Monday – Citra Mantra Otter Creek Brewing (IPA 5.75%) – Plain old IPAs have sort of become the least-exciting style of beer. What? No jalapenos, coffee or grapefruits in this brew? That said, I love drinking a basic, no-frills IPA. That’s what this is. Sadly, I spilled half of this bottle trying to open it with one hand. What I was able to salvage was very nice and refreshing. It wasn't amazing like a Ballast Point Sculpin or a Bells Two-Hearted Ale, but it has a solid spot among second-tier IPAs like Lagunitas and Great Lakes. If I see it again, I’ll buy it and try not to spill it.

Tuesday Low Life  -- Evil Twin Brewing Company (Pilsner 5.5%) – There was a time in my life where St. Patrick’s Day was a day on which I’d drink Guinness until I couldn't stand up straight. Then, I’d do some shots. To show how far behind me those days are, I chose a Pilsner (a PILSNER!) as my St. Patrick’s evening beer. I don’t like to generalize, but Pilsners suck.  I don’t know if it’s that American breweries are bad at brewing them, or it’s just a crappy style. Even Evil Twin, which is a great brewery, makes a Pilsner that conjured up all sorts of memories of beer pong, bars with sticky floors and drinking in the back of a $1 cab. When I think of the gross last sip of warm cheap beer no one wants, I think of pilsners.  No matter who’s dressing it up, I’m always going to feel like I’m drinking Beck’s and no one likes Beck’s. No one. Afterthought: Six Point makes a pilsner called “The Crisp”. It’s not bad, but drink it fast because a warm pilsner is not your friend.

Next week: A nod to some trail-blazing breweries.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Week 3: 40 Beers 40 Nights

It dawned on me this week just how many beers I’m going to be drinking. Am I going to be sick of beer by Easter? Am I going to be able to go back to NOT drinking a beer when I come home from work? Am I going to grow a beer belly? Will I have trouble finding new beers? The answer to all of these questions is probably “no”. So far, I have not had to force myself to drink a beer at night. I’m pretty much always in the mood after a long work day. However, some nights it tastes better than others. A friend told me this week that he never drinks alone. Without an ounce of shame and perhaps a bit of pride, I was able to tell him that I drink alone every night.

Wednesday - Sip of SunshineLawson’s Finest Liquids (Double IPA 8%) – I’m ready to say this is the best beer I have ever had. Maybe I got an extremely fresh batch. Maybe I was particularly thirsty every time I have had it, but it goes down easier than any beer I've ever poured. Sip of Sunshine gets overshadowed by its Vermont neighbor, Heady Topper. It doesn't have the cult status or the adoring fans. However, people who know beer better than I do (which is to say a lot of people) will tell you that if you had a choice between the two, this is the one you choose. I drank my last can of Sip of Sunshine on a cold night and was immediately whisked away to summer. It has a citrusy taste (although it’s not as citrusy as it smells) that is both refreshing and hoppy. Trying to taste sunshine? Mission accomplished.

Thursday – Sweet Action, Sixpoint Brewery (Cream Ale 5.2%) – I made a rather disparaging comment in week one about the low potential of cream ales. When I made the comment I had clearly forgotten about the delicious cream ale made by Brooklyn's Sixpoint. Sixpoint is available at any place that sells beer in New York City, but I have been told it is not readily available outside this area. That’s a shame, because they have an excellent line up. Sweet Action has a nice cream taste and sessionable qualities (you could drink a couple and not get drunk/full). I had it on tap at the new bar in my neighborhood, but I've had it in a can too and it’s equally as good.

Friday – West Coast IPAGreen Flash Brewing Company (Double IPA 8.1%) – I've mentioned this beer two weeks in a row, so it’s time I put it on the list. From a brewery that prides itself on powerful, hoppy beers, this is their best brew. It goes down pretty easy for an 8% beer. First you taste the malt, then you taste the hops and a nice flavor lingers. When it comes to widely-available double IPAs, this is your best bet.

Saturday – Hop Drop and Roll, NoDa Brewing Company (IPA 7.2%) – We moved out of Charlotte nearly four years ago. Since then, approximately 150 breweries have opened up in the Queen City. When we lived there, it was Old Mecklenburg and that was it (Try their Copper if you’re ever down south). Like any city with a pop-up brewing scene, there are hits and misses. Hop, Drop and Roll is a hit. There a lot of really good IPAs out there, but this one stood out to me especially for an IPA that is a little on the sweeter side. I’d love to see this distributed outside of North Carolina.

Monday – Baby Maker, Triple C Brewing (Double IPA 8.0%) – I had the t-shirt for this beer before I ever actually tasted the beer. That felt wrong to me. It’s like wearing the t-shirt for a race you didn't run. It’s not for lack of trying. Once I tried to ship myself a bottle of this and it shattered in transit. Instead I ended up getting a beer-soaked shoebox full of glass in the mail. A name like Baby Maker implies the beer is so potent it is going to make you contribute to an unplanned pregnancy. But, I don’t get that vibe from this beer. This beer is unremarkable in the sense that nothing about it really stands out. That said, it’s a fine choice and one I would drink again. It goes down easy, doesn't offend and hides its ABV pretty well. Now that I write that, I see where this beer could get dangerous. It comes in 22 ounce bottles and I could see polishing off one or two of them solo without even noticing.

Tuesday – 2X Stout, Southern Tier Brewing Company (Milk Stout 7.5%) – I believe it’s impossible to make a bad stout. The style itself, especially the texture, makes it inherently good. Nothing has proven me wrong yet. As I said last week, I’ll still happily drink a Guinness if given the choice between that and some fancy pants saison. Of course, some stouts are better than others and Southern Tier’s 2X Stout falls into the “others” category. Stouts are often lower-ABV or mask their ABV. This tastes like every bit of a 7.5% beer. When I drink a milk stout, I want a sweet, milky finish, not a boozy finish. There’s a really good coffee taste with this beer that I wish stuck around a little longer.

Next week: Another saison tries to change my  mind about saisons.