Tuesday, September 29, 2009

BEER Trekkin Chicago ~ The Dregs

Now that I’m home from my Chicago trip for the Professional Beer Tasting & Styles course at the Siebel Institute of Technology and World Brewing Academy, it’s time to gather my thoughts. Besides being an educational trip, the first of many I plan on taking at Seibel, it was also a mini beer vacation which I wholly exploited.

I flew into Chicago on Wednesday, September 9th and flew back home to Florida Sunday afternoon, September 13th. Both flights were one way because I’ll be darned if I’m switching airplanes for a 2.5 hour flight. The less chance I have of losing luggage and having flight delays, the happier I am.

Taking the rails from Midway to the Homewood Suites by Hilton on Grand Avenue was an experience, to say the least. By the time Sunday rolled around though, I was much more comfortable with how the rail lines work. I’ll definitely be using them to my advantage next year. The taxis in Chicago don’t need any more of my money; they got plenty that’s for sure. I will say though that everyone I rode with was not necessarily talkative, but altogether pleasant. A couple days and a couple trips around the block, I can honestly say that I never felt taken advantage of unlike a previous experience in Atlanta.

But I digress.

The weather was a balmy and dry mid 70s for the entirety of my stay. I say dry, but according to the locals it was more humid than usual. Paging Chicago: I’m from Florida, and it was most certainly not humid. My skin does not lie.

Upon arriving, my room wasn’t ready so I left my bag with the hotel clerk and wandered across the street to PF Changs. Chain restaurants don’t exactly thrill me, but Changs is still better than most. As an added bonus they were close and I was thirsty and hungry.

I spent my first afternoon at The Publican which I have concluded was my favorite gastropub of this trip. I went twice, though the second time was Thursday night and it was CRAZY busy; not my favorite scene. Wednesday afternoon was more enjoyable because there were patrons but the atmosphere was leisurely pleasant, allowing me to converse with the head bartender and his assistant the entire time. Good food and good beer. Be prepared to pay for both, but it’s well worth the money. Quality and not quantity is their mission.

I unwisely diverged to Goose Island Wrigley later Wednesday night where upon arriving I hit the JET LAG brick wall. Ok, so an hour’s difference doesn’t necessarily equate massive jet lag, but between getting up early, the stress of flying, and dragging my luggage from the airport to the hotel via the tramline that is definitely NOT luggage friendly, I was beat. Lugging my suitcase up and down numerous flights of stairs thanks to the sparsely available escalators and elevators left my arm sore and built to Popeye standards. After sitting down at Goose Island Wrigley, I was thoroughly exhausted which ruined any chance of enjoying my time there. After savoring some coffee to pry the eyes open and buffalo wings to silence the tummy, I grabbed my leftovers and hailed a cab home to the hotel.

Locating the building where Siebel resides was an interesting Thursday morning adventure. Considering the long history of this vaunted establishment of beery education, her unassuming outside appearance makes perfect sense. Quaint brick and mortar perfectly welcomes one into a 4 story building with its own draft bar upstairs. Nice. It’s always a good sign when your beer school has beer on draft to slake parched throats at any given time. It’s beer-o-thirty somewhere.

Randy Mosher was our class instructor and after a few moments of geeky adoration, I embraced Randy as just another beer geek like myself, albeit with more experience. He’s just one of the guys (or gals) so to speak. Randy has an excellent book on Tasting Beer which is a must read for professionals, amateurs, and everyone inbetween. There is always something new to be learned about beer.

Class was educational and fun; the best of both worlds. Beer tasting aside and we did a lot of that, Randy was an excellent teacher and speaker. He covered quite a bit that I already knew, along with a lot that I didn’t. I especially enjoyed clearing the air on some common myths/legends/stories/histories that surround beer. Very little is concretely certain when considering the fluid history of beer, especially when considering how little of that history is documented and of what was documented, that which has lasted the ages.

There is a lot to understand about tasting beer, beer styles, and so forth. For me, one particularly beneficial session was the time spent addressing and tasting various aspects of bad beer. There are a lot of variables that will ruin a beer, though certain “bad” aspects of beer are acceptable in small proportions. Many times when I am tasting a beer, I can tell if something is off, but being able to pin down what is off and why is another story. This part of the class brought me closer to being able to clearly define what specifically went wrong. I made sure to purchase one of their Sensory Analysis kits that contain vials of the various control substances that are found in beer both bad and good.

To digress a bit, there are instances where the beer hasn’t gone bad, and instead that particular aspect is an acceptable and expected attribute. For example, German hefeweizens enjoy a large proportion of phenolics which produce very specific banana/clove aromas and taste in their beer. Without these specific phenolics, the beer cannot be said to follow the accepted attributes of that beer style. On the flip side, there are certain beers where a heavy banana/clove presence is not appropriate. Being able to detect and to know when something is appropriate and when it is not requires a knowledged awareness. That awareness and practical experience Siebel and Randy highlighted was extremely valuable to me. Not liking a beer doesn’t make it bad, but not liking a beer because it IS bad does make it so.

All of my classmates were truly a blast and easy to get along with. I was especially pleased to see a large proportion of women in attendance. Almost 2/3 of the class was beer geeks of the estrogen variety from all walks of life and work. Some of my classmates included two ladies from Sierra Nevada, two gentlemen from Southern Eagle (Budweiser), a young couple looking to set up a beer website, a restaurant manager from the heart of California wine country, two Chicago restaurateurs, a distributor, a goat farm owner, and more. Delightfully eclectic which just proves what I have known and believed all along:

Beer is for everybody of all walks of life and gender because beer is about diversity, quality, and fairness of mind despite what mass-marketing would like you to believe. I don’t need nor want a scantily clad model to “sell” me a beer. If the beer is good, the beer will “sell” itself with just a little bit of help from beery education and lots of fun.

For lunch Thursday and Friday, a small group went to the main Goose Island brewpub where we savored excellent beer and excellent food. Friday, or was it Thursday…anyway, after class I and two others went across the street to Sam’s Wine & Spirits where I scored 6 bottles of beervana. As I was checking out and pondering the dilemma of how and where to get the bottles shipped home to Florida, I looked up and voila! Hanging down from the ceiling right in front me was a sign advertising “You buy it. We ship it.” Don’t quote me on that exactly, but it was something pretty similarly catchy.

Kristyn: So, you guys also ship?
Cashier: Yes, we do.
Kristyn: To Florida?
Cashier (after looking at her list of shipping states) Yes, we ship to Florida.
Kristyn: Sweet! Done and done.

The beer arrived safe and sound a week ago (thank you UPS) with nary a scratch, dent, or “mysterious” damage to said product inside:

  • North Coast Bourbon Barrel Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout
  • Schneider-Sohn Vintage 2003 Aventinus
  • Baladin Birrifico Xyuayu Copper 2005
  • Abbay de St. Bon Chien 2007
  • Harvieston Ola Dubh 30 year
  • Harvieston Ola Dubh 40 year

Kristyn Lier, Beer Ambassador Extraordinaire, made out like a bandit!

Class ended Friday afternoon with a decadent beer and cheese pairing where one of my classmates generously shared his bottle of 2009 Three Floyds Dark Lord (white wax). Bonus! Some of the pairings were heaven descended and a few fell short. Without a doubt though, separately the beer and cheese were delicious. I’m talking real cheese too, fresh from the local whole foods store where, just like the beers we savored, quality and origin matters. Everyone received Certificates of Completion along with a packet containing current class information for the rest of this year and most of next year.

To digress once more, one of my fellow classmates had just completed the Beer Server Certification from Cicerone. Apparently, I should have no problem. Seeing as I can take it online, I’ll be making it a point to get my Cicerone Beer Server Certification in November. Seeing as it is almost October, that’s not too far away.

Friday night I didn’t feel like going too far from home, aka the hotel, which worked out wonderfully because just one block away was the Rock Bottom Brewery. I had some tasty morsels there, though the highlight of the evening was my massive flight of beers. All in all, I tasted 12 beers that night, once more increasing my backlog of beer reviews to write. Oh well. I can’t think of a better problem to have, personally. The beers were all good with a few highlights that were borderline great. The evening almost ended in tragedy though when I left to use the ladies room. Upon my return a couple minutes later, I stumbled across one of the servers picking up my few remaining glasses of un-tasted beer. I GASPED loudly and cried a woeful “Noooooooooo” which immediately caught her attention. I don’t think her face could have turned a brighter shade of red, so whilst chuckling I told her not to worry about it. Really, I would have gotten new samples if the worse came to completion. My waiter came by a couple minutes later and apologized which was appreciated, and we chatted for a few more minutes. Upon leaving I scoped out their t-shirts, but none of them caught my fancy.

I had all of Saturday to myself so I slept in and worked out later in the morning. Yes, even on vacation, I make sure to get my 45 minutes or so of cardio in every day. If only I was so diligent back home. But again, I digress. After freshening up, I meandered across the street to hit PF Changs for some lunch and a cocktail…or two. I wanted to gallivant wildly about Saturday, but I also wanted to spend the better part of my day at the main Goose Island Brewpub so I hedged my bets and the few…many places I didn’t get to visit this time around, I will next year.

Just as planned and promised, I spent the better part of the afternoon and evening at Goose Island tasting flights and chatting with their bartender, a rather eccentric chap who takes a bit of warming up to, but you will and I did. I sampled ten separate 5oz samples which barely scratched the surface of the beers on tap, all of which sounded and tasted lipsmackingtastic. Yes, one word. Don’t argue with me, I know what I’m talking about.

The t-shirt gods must have been on vacation during this trip because I also had slim-to-none pickings at Goose Island. After my previous disappointment, I was determined to leave with two t-shirts: one for myself and one for a dear friend. I also scored a pair of really nice glasses for my sister and her husband Josh. Goose Island’s food was equally delicious; their slider/individual portion part of the menu was exactly what this beer geek craved. I am seeing more of this food trend in various eating establishments which is an occasion to celebrate.

I finally had to call it quits around 10pm, and as I bid good night to the windy city, I slept in sound satisfaction. Did I get to go everywhere I wanted to? No. Did I get to drink all the beers I wanted to? No. Did I get to bring home as many beers as I wanted? No. What I did get to do was exactly what I wanted to each and every minute I was there. I came. I conquered. I drank. I bought. I lived. And I left. There is no way I could have done everything because everything is, well, just another way of saying never-ending. There will always be something else and somewhere else.

Overall, I’d give myself a B for my first ever trip to Chicago. Business or pleasure or both, I didn’t freak out and I didn’t get lost, mugged, stressed, or anything else counterproductive to BEER Trekkin. I’m already looking forward to next year’s class and enjoying more of Chicago’s beery delights.

(original written work by Kristyn Lier. plagiarism is not tolerated)

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