I have been away.* Again, as it turns out. In the last weeks of winter, I drove home alone to Nova Scotia for the funeral of a close pal. I drove the sixteen hours there and sixteen back to think about what he meant to me as I headed east and to decompress on the return. It was a heavy time but the fabulous views of the lower St Lawrence River at Kamouraska and passing by rural high schools where he and I played on the sports fields put things in their place. But it was heavy.
So, last weekend I did it again. College reunion. And a couple of pals getting married. The same views got me there and back. The same round domed worn volcano cores pretending to be islands and near shore hills near the corner, the point where the drive north up through northern New Brunswick and across Gaspe becomes the drive southwest from the mouth to the source of the river that made Canada. The sun was out for long stretches. This time the stereo wasn’t as loud. I didn’t need the Foo Fighters’ anger as much. As Friday morning drizzled, I took time to listen to the old guys at the gas station coffee shop explain how the St.John valley had been in drought, so the rain was good. I even thought on the way home to try out mumbling in half French to the waitress at the Exit 177 chicken BBQ place. 690 AM sports radio taught me about the Montreal Canadiens from Edmundston to Brockville. I drove as you do on long familiar roads, slightly glazed.
When I got to my small university at the sea and checked into the dorm I had lived in 35 years before, there were friends – all in makeup, pretending to be themselves in middle age. Within minutes I had been called old, fat, and an idiot in a bunch of ways by a bunch of pals. I was back home. I jumped in someone’s new red SUV and headed to a hotel with a gang to meet up with another gang. We laughed, told each other about our jobs and our hobbies, our kids, our spouses past and present. We talked about our dead friends. Not too much but enough.
One pal walked in the room with a case of Oland Ex, a plain old Nova Scotian pale ale. Undergrad beer made by a regional brewery generations old. Now owned by a company owned by a company but still brewed in town. Hadn’t had one in decades. Bread crusty, not quite as light as a macro lager. A little sweet and a jag of rough hop hinting at nothing German, British, Belgian or American. A perfectly fine Maritimer pale ale. I actually said “God, that’s good” out loud. A friend asked, given I was a beer nerd, what made it so good. I said the bread crust malt but I meant the company as much as anything.
*This month’s edition of The Session is hosted by All the Brews Fit to Pint.
When I was a kid thirty years ago, maybe 22 or 23, I got in an elevator to find myself moving upward with the folk singer Ed McCurdy. I was likely a bit worse for wear. He looked at me and proclaimed just that – it’s a shopping mall for alcoholics out there. Meaning downtown Halifax. My old hometown. Haven’t been here for 15 years, since playing in an alumni soccer game in 2002. He was right, too. It can be a blur out there.
I drove across a third of North America to get here. 1600 km of highway up along the St. Lawrence and then, once past Maine, south through the forests to the sea. All to be at the funeral for a friend, one of the best loved pals in my broad gang of undergrad pals. Gone far too young. Kept in touch on the phone when I had a business question he could help with. We played on the law school team, too. Once made a sweet long looping pass from my spot in the rear at sweeper that he took off on, scoring on the breakaway. Told me with a grin as he ran back “hey, you don’t suck as much as I thought you did.”
We may well gather after the service to share stories. Friends flying in from across the country. Friends I haven’t seen for maybe 30 years. Halifax will still be ready. Ready aye ready. I was out with my brothers for a bit of dinner last night and then had a beer later with a newer pal who moved here a year ago from where I’ve lived in Ontario for that decade and a half. We walked around, me telling him what used to be in the empty store front or the bustling bar, him being somewhere between patient or interested.
Actually looks much the same. The pubs are still full. And are actual pubs. Lights higher, music lower. Big tables of people talking, shouting, laughing. I had New Ross cider at one place, Hell Bay oatmeal pale ale at another. Ate a good bit of haddock at the Henry House. Ate a big plate of Brussels sprouts and bacon later at a place on Argyle near where The Graduate used to sit. Cheery chatting waiters working at a busy clip.
Fog is starting to lift. Might go find some breakfast. Schooner Books is still there. So is Taz Records. Good old town.
Twelve years ago… seriously…
Ah, the pub lunch. It’s Feb Fest, our municipal winter carnival so we got out of the house and downtown for a pub lunch – well, after watching a bunch of seven year olds playing hockey on the outdoor rink behind City Hall. Surprisingly good game. Yellow against red. A butterfly save was made. Back checking even. The lad we know scored a goal for team red. Knuckle punches given. Goodbyes shared after dinner plans made.
We marched over at the Kingston Brew Pub right after the final whistle. The oldest continuing brew pub in Ontario, they have a newish menu focused around their own smoker out back – and are carrying about twenty Ontario made good beers in addition to their own. Kale and bacon soup. Veggie tacos. Big burgers. Good to see the owners of another great good beer bar in town having their family lunch in the next booth over. Yellow teamers. I still said hello. We got a front window booth, one of the best spots to sit and have a beer anywhere.
I had a Junction Hey Porter! as well as Nickelbrook’s Headstock, two beers that ask you to explain the point of beer hunting into the States. The exchange rate is enough of an argument now for most but Ontario has done much to stop the grumbling. I think I need to admit that the KBP is my pub. This is at least my 25th year of going there even if we’ve only lived here for fourteen years. We watched Canada lose to the USA in the final of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. My children have grown up eating there. I am not sure what that means to me but it means something.
I do know a pub man in town, a cheery snappy grumbly Welshman prof now in his eighties, who may now not be so able to get around. He’d have at least double my time in the local pubs. I saw him last in the KBP, holding court. Great guy. He must have seen and amazing shift in the scene given he was here for two decades before the brew pub opened. But the recent news is pretty amazing and now coming at a rapid pace. Just three years ago the nearest breweries were an hour’s car drive away – at least. By the end of this year, we may have eight in town or within a half hour’s drive. And they are good. I have an excellent brewer from western Lake Ontario asking me to introduce him to the guys I know at Stone City. I get a bit frustrated that I can’t get any of the excellent black lager or Belgian pale ale made by Napanee Beer Co. because its all of a 22 km hike away. They opened last spring. I am consoling myself with Kings Town Brewing GPA at the moment. They’ve only open for about six weeks.
I am not sure what that all means to me either but I have planned in better weather how on a Friday I can take the 701 bus from downtown, hit KTB for a growler, then plant myself at a favourite sports bar and wait for a drive home. That’s good. And new.
It’s funny being stuck in the lower atmosphere. I am at a week long training course in Toronto in a concrete tower learning how to build concrete towers and it is very odd. The other night I wandered around downtown and found little by way of an attractive door to walk through for a pint. The night before i went to the Yonge St 3 Brewers chain restopub place – which was quite fine but I didn’t want a repeat. To be fair to Bartle, his place Batch was closed for a private event. Looked like young lawyers. I was tempted to rattle the door and hammer a window to explain I was once a young lawyer. I didn’t. I just walked on to later console myself with Eaton Center shopping mall sushi. I did not die from the experience.
I am heading out with Jordan tonight and will need to take a taxi. As I have noted before, there are great established places hereabouts to walk to: BeerBistro, C’est What, Batch. But most newer spots seem to be two to three miles to the west of the downtown. Rents must just be too horrific among these towers. Or folk in suits are happy enough with restaurant and lounge life. Maybe good pubs are there nearby and I can’t see them. Once a pal from northern NY told me he found it confusing in Ontario to understand what an establishment was from the outside: restaurant, bar, pub, tavern, dive, club… Apparently a bar somewhere on the dive to pub continuum needs a neon light proclaiming “BEER!!!” in a front window. We are known for being a bit more shy than that.
OK, so I posted this on Facebook on Saturday:
A bit of news about the blog. It will be gone by the end of the year. Seems like the dedicated server I have been living off for 13 1/2 years without paying a cent is going to be unplugged as it is a fire hazard… or a security risk… or just old junk. My servers masters are the best there are. And they likely know when time is up. I think I’ll back up all the content on a nice hard drive and put it all in a drawer. Not sure I actually need a dedicated website any more – you know, emotionally. Have to decide if I bother with a new site. ‘Cause Snapchat is where it’s at. And this space. It’s free. Maybe I’ll start a knitting blog. Or get better at the banjo. Or learn Finnish. All the things I might have done.
As it turns out I have been freeloading on an aging server. Once upon a time the artist Feist‘s website sat right next to my two blogs in the file folder tree. But now the code is old, the server creaky and reality has struck. I have been mooching on a private server. So… and with utter gratitude for 13 1/2 years of a great gift… it’s now time to move on and, so, we have A Good Beer Blog v.2 on WordPress. It’ll all be OK.
Soon, I will get the export of the archives and I expect everything will repopulate tickity-boo. But there will be link rot. Of two sorts. All the internal links to other posts on the old beer blog will fail. And all the photos will need re-identification. So I need some priorities over the next wee while:
1. Christmas is cancelled. It’d be right about now that I would announce the rules for the impending Yuletide photo contest. I will now have other things to do in the allotted blog time in my life so it’s suspended for 2016-17;
2. Some classes of beer blog post are going to get more attention. The history posts over the last few years hopefully will be as good or better. That 2004 review of some tripel that I didn’t know was really a stout might look like hell.
3. I am going to bring over certain archives from my non-beer blog, genx40.com. Much of what I wrote there was about news of the day and whether I had a cold or not but some is worth keeping so it will find a home deep in the archives.
I hope this all goes well but it will take time. This place is pretty spare but it’ll be a while before I can turn to the problem of smartening it up. Any helpful household hints are most welcome. The funny ha ha URL was Craig‘s idea, by the way.
Twenty-four bucks? What was I doing last decade? I have only a few of these aged big bottles left. I gave up a long time ago on trying to keep the cellar up. One of the few beers left from the days of glory, the era of beer blog ad revenue. I was throwing around the cash like a madman. Pretending that I mattered like some current era communicator. Stan actually mocked me about this beer in particular. But that was back in the day when folk weren’t questioning the fleece. Or at least when 2000 brewers weren’t making something good and sour for half the price. You know, the 75 comments under that post from some pretty interesting names are all… pretty interesting – but it’s as if they thought we would all be drinking $60 beers by now. Really? How did that turn out? Market forces thought otherwise. Bulk fine craft FTW!
It’s 40º C out there. Seven week drought might end tomorrow. Worst summer for rain since 1888. Nutty. I just need a reasonably interesting beer. I just need it not to suck. I pulled it out of the cellar, stuck it in the fridge by the orange juice and the milk bags. [Canada. Go figure.] Hey… it doesn’t. It’s good. Still and a bit thick but in no sense off. Fresh with a lighter lingering finish than expected. The colour of aged varnished pine. An orange hue at the edge. On the nose, warm whisky sweet with autumn fruit, brown sugar and grain as well as a fresh Worchestershired yogurty hum. Pear and fig. The baked fruit crisp you dream of. The second half pint pour generates a lovely subdued tang when rinsed about the gums. Like 90% barley wine with maybe 10% old gueuze. Or less. Just a hint. And all those whispers of rich deep malty grain huskiness still there. Lovely.
Am I glad I spent $24 for this nine years ago? I’m sure I don’t care. Do you know how much I have spent on diapers and winter tires since then? It makes me want. And I just want a thick bacon sandwich. I have asked a child younger than this beer to bring me a chunk of the slab of Vermont cheddar we are working on. Fabulous. Rewarding. The espresso of a grain field. Big BAer love and deservedly so.
We always seem to get lucky with the conditions at baseball games. Well, except for the condition of the guy nearby in the crowd at Blue Jays games. Always the drunk idiot. Otherwise, it’s been swell. Like last Sunday. Hoffman coneys. Empire Amber. I’ve cream for the kids just as a decade ago. An attentive crowd. Knew when to ooh and when to ahh. I am now rooting for Rochester’s Jorge Polanco. He looked like he had it all going. Their first baseman is already gone. Kennys Vargas is already back up in the show. Afterwards there were fireworks and patriotic songs. Is that what sets them apart from us? Patriotic songs? Maybe. Even at the mall the next day Ray Charles was singing about America as I shopped for shoes.
Not just Albany. Delmar, too. Delmar! Land of Craig’s youth. We sat at Real McCoy with owner and sign maker Mike Bellini and his pal Jay, a pro ciderman. I like a one-person brewery. Ron said it was the set up he dreamed of for himself. He was preaching the double brown gospel. Research. Comparing notes. Overly precious hipster nano failure v. single hop and malt explorations. The height of barley stalks and why. Maybe. Local hops were passed around. Forgot to mention the spruce beer idea, that coniferous flavouring predates DIPAs in the repetior.
Everywhere we go Canadian malt is the backbone of NY craft brewing. Good to see. It’s good to be helpful. Definitely some sort of brown ale revival going on. And local ciders everywhere. 2014’s fruit salad obsession may just be history. Wouldn’t that be nice. Yesterday, Gerry L. was with us for a couple of hours and was corroborating and filling in gaps in 1700s NYC. And backdating schenck and lager. Was it just a new word layered on existing practice before the Panic of 1837? Maybe.
More nerdism this evening. Trains, canals and marketplace expectations. You don’t advertise in a paper to the neghbourhood customers. Not in the 1790s. No way.
Something very odd has happened to me over these last two months, August and September. I am reading novels. Rebus novels. I haven’t read novels for years. Decades. For some reason, I was driven off fiction by being an usher at a playhouse in undergrad. Perhaps watching plays repeatedly had the same effect as watching sausages getting made. Don’t know. Then a career in reading and writing masses of pages every week put me off pleasure reading of any sort for a long time. I’d browse through histories, graze upon articles and essays and write plenty. Hunting for clues in newspapers of the Georgians to Edwardians took a big part of my time. But undisrupted cover to cover novel reading? Never.
Then we traveled to Scotland twice in a year, spending time with family, looking out the windows of pubs. I’ve since added BBC Scotland to the regular radio playing in the background as life goes on around the house. Followed the news. And then one of the Rebus books came as a gift. Detective fiction set near to the Firth of Forth. I was little worried about it when I unwrapped it. I work with police so I was thinking it wouldn’t be much of a break from working life so it sat from spring to summer. I am now on my sixth novel in seven weeks. Consider this:
In a large pub near the tube station, a barn of a place with walls painted torrid red, Rebus remembered that he had not tried the local brews since coming south. He’d gone for a drink with George Flight, but had stuck to whisky. He looked at the row of pumps, while the barman watched him, a proprietorial hand resting on one pump. Rebus nodded towards this resting hand.
‘Is it any good.’
The man snorted. ‘It’s bloody Fuller’s, mate, of course it’s good.’
‘A pint of that then, please.’
The stuff turned out to have a watery look, like cold tea, but tasted smooth and malty. The barman was still watching him, so Rebus nodded approval, then took his glass to a distant corner where the public telephone stood.
That passage up there is from an early novel, 1992’s Tooth and Nail. Even though it’s from the one book in England, it’s typical of the tone. Plain. Observational. Often a dark corner. Always menace. Always drink. My cousins kept telling me to get to the Oxford Bar when I was in Edinburgh, the favourite of the stories’ main character. Haven’t made it there yet. Plenty of other good pubs saw me crossing the doorstep. Plenty that show up in the Rebus stories, too, both high and low. Well written recognizable realistic descriptions of unadorned pub life. Not always pretty.
It’s the sort of writing that gives you hope. So much that is written about the ordinary course of things – and especially about beer and pubs – is either pumped and puffed up or made stark to attract an audience. And certainly the Rebus stories do the latter through their narrative and pace. But not the setting. The fresh baked baps glow warm in the hands of the officer returning home after a night shift. The pubs have smells. The streets chatter. One hint. I’ve spent reasonable lengths of time in Edinburgh on five or six occasions so far in life so I have a sense of some of its parts. But not others. Bob Steel’s Edinburgh Pub Walks – with its photos, maps and pub descriptions – places a lot of the action in the Rebus novels directly into context. As good a companion guide as I might want even if unintentional.