May 23, 2012

Boxes full of memories

Your house is on fire.

Fortunately, your spouse, roomie, dog, cat, houseplant and pet Goldfish are all on a field trip to the zoo. Everything alive is already safe. You have 30 seconds. What do you grab?

The answer for most people, is pictures. They are the record of your life, a visual diary, the moments that make up the whole. My Mom would have to have a large cart to haul out all of her photo books, but now for most of us, that would mean grabbing our computers. Pictures are digital bits rather than squares of paper sitting under a protective sheet of plastic. This usually keeps them better protected, but at the same time, they are locked away, rarely seen or shared.

Of course storing them digitally is not a perfect solution. Computers crash, hard drives fail, and they are just as vulnerable to heat, water and other methods of destruction. My housemates recently lost several years of their (photo) life when the backup drive stopped working. Gone were several years of photos, including the ones during the first year of their daughter's life.

For more than a year, there was this hole. They tried to access the photos in multiple ways to no avail. They put off a trip to a computer shop, delaying what they felt was the inevitable judgment that all was lost. When they finally enlisted the help of an expert, they learned the external drive was indeed toast.

I have felt something similar the past three years. The photos from the first few years of my marriage were pre-digital, and the only copies were those we had developed. Camping trips, cruises, parties, random moments, and of course our wedding - they all sat in a box a thousand miles away in J's storage unit. When things were split up, it was understood that I wanted copies, but actually making that happen kept getting put off. I don't know if I would have gone through them soon after our divorce, but the fact that they were missing made the hole in my past even larger.

The scanning of copies was a big project for her, but I think the delay was more related to not wanting to go through them. I can't know what they meant to her, but I am sure she anticipated some sort of pain during the walk through the past. I understood her hesitance, but would bring up the subject every six months or so. I think after three years, the lines of diminishing pain and increasing insistence crossed on the graph, and she sent them to me last month.

We exchanged some friendly emails in the process, and she remarked that the job she had been dreading ended up being somewhat enjoyable. Two large boxes were soon on my doorstep. My housemates were going to be out of town for a few days, so I set them aside for a week until I could go through them in privacy. I wasn't sure how they would hit me, and it was something I needed to do alone. The first night they were gone, I opened a nice bottle of wine and broke the seal on the box of memories.

One box had the wedding photos, and the other everything else. Not knowing which was which, I opened the wedding photos first, but immediately set them aside. For a couple of hours, I went through piles of photos, loosely grouped by event, but with a little bit of random chaos mixed in.

She had initially separated out photos of herself in some hopes sparing me painful surprises.While I appreciated the sentiment, I told her it was unnecessary. I didn't go camping or take those trips alone. This was the time we were together, and there is no magic eraser to take her out of my memory, or the pictures that hold them so tightly. Even if there was, it would be just one more hole in my past.

I looked through them with a mix of feelings, of course. Smiles, regret, surprise, wistfulness and warmth. Even with the photos filling back in the hole in my life's timeline, there was still a lingering vacancy. The feelings behind those captured moments are now different, but it was still a blessing to look through them. Although nothing is clearer than it was three years ago, time has done some of its work nonetheless.

After going through the first box, I hesitated over the second. It was getting late, and I debated saving the wedding for another day, but decided to press on. More regret, but still more beauty. We had put out disposable cameras on the tables, and there were some good candid shots, but oddly the staged, professional ones seemed to capture the day best. As much as I had wanted to see them a couple of years ago, it probably would have been a semi-masochistic exercise. They still grabbed me looking through them now, but with a gentler hand. I imagine the next time I go back to them, they will look different all over again.

Fortunately, my housemates were able to recover most, if not all of their photos a couple of weeks ago. The other Sean had made copies of the photos when he was setting up their Apple TV and creating some slide shows. Before he arrived with a stack of DVDs, I had burned some as well with pictures that I had from that era. Going through those sort of prepped me for the boxes on my doorstep, and made the walk through the past a little easier.

I am glad to have the pictures back, for all they represent. I will still stumble over it, but the hole is filled in a little bit.

Just a few moments in time, starting with a couple of old ones that were mixed in.

A much younger me

My brother during our 1992 Japan trip

 A couple of kisses on my first Caribbean cruise

Some good friends

Camping goodness

(I had just eaten dirt-encrusted Jello off the ground)

Wedding day

  And to finish, Sierra in her younger days

With Holly

With young Carson

And in the chair where she waited for us to come home

There are more photos from even farther back, languishing in my own storage unit. I need to dig them out before anything can happen to them. I can only imagine what I might find, and anyway, they shouldn't be locked away, never to be seen. These moments are who we are, and once in a while it does some good to remember.

May 16, 2012

May 8, 2012

Relax. Don't Worry. Have a homebrew

So after learning more about quality beer, I finally decided to take the plunge on brewing my own. Homebrewing has been clanging around in the back of my brain for a decade or two, but I never pulled the trigger. The other Sean has been back to homebrewing for more than a year now, so along with the inspiration of the brewery tour, I had been hearing about his first hand experience. I had also been sampling his homebrews, including the excellent porter he created in honor of my birthday last year.

I found a good brewing kit on Craigslist for about a third of the price of what it was at the local shop. The kit was actually sent out as a prize from a Sam Adams contest, but the winner passed it along to her son, who then sold it to me. I had nearly everything to brew all in one big box, including a book and DVD on how to do it.

I watched the DVD, read the beginners section of the book, and then helped (watched) Sean brew a batch of his own. Seeing him in action made it less intimidating. At its core, brewing beer is remarkably simple - you prepare a sugary mixture, add some yeast, and the yeast converts the sugars to alcohol and CO2. There are only four basic ingredients (water, malted grain, yeast, and hops), but of course you can make it as complicated as you want.

With thousands of recipes in books and online, each with variations on types and amounts of grains and hops, you can get overwhelmed by the choices. My kit included the ingredients for a basic ale for the first batch, but from the shipping label it looked like it had been sitting around for 9 months. I decided not to risk it, and planned to get fresh ingredients.

But what to brew? I decided on a recipe that said it was a clone of Red Hook ESB, one of the early craft brews and a staple back in Seattle. Recipe in hand, I walked into the local brew shop and fessed up that I was a newbie. The guy was happy to help me out, locating the appropriate grains, and showing me the proper way to measure and grind them. He chatted me up about my approaching first attempt, and even gave me a 10% discount on ingredients and tools. Here we go.

The Complete Joy of Homebrewing describes in great detail all the things that you need to focus on to make a good homebrew. You need to pay close attention to time, temperature, and most of all, to sanitation. He emphasizes the importance of each step, but then puts you at ease by saying, "Relax. Don't Worry. Have a homebrew." Although these things are important to the beer coming out right, it is forgiving of a little variance. Relax, it is just beer.

So the basic process is to steep the grains, much like making a large cup of tea.

Add in extra sugary goodness (unless you are only using grains)

  Measure out some hops for bitterness and aroma.

Then boil it all for 60 to 90 minutes.

(You are encouraged to have a beer, while you are brewing beer. Preferably it would be similar to the one you are brewing, but the store was out of Red Hook. Since it was originally a Sam Adams brew kit, I thought it was a good second choice.)

After the boiling, the mixture has to be cooled (preferably quickly) to about 70 degrees. Each yeast strain is a little different, but if the water is too cool, the yeast won't activate as well. If the water is too hot, you risk killing the yeast before it ever had a chance to do its thing. Things have to be just right, more or less (relax, have a homebrew).

Once the yeast is in, the soon-to-be-beer is sealed up. A one-way valve is attached so the CO2 can get out, but no contaminants can get in. It perks along for a couple of weeks until a majority of the sugars are used up.

You can transfer it to a new container half way through to get it away from some of the sediment, which is what I did this weekend.

In another week or so, it will be time for bottling. The beer conditions and carbonates in the bottles for two weeks, and then it is ready to enjoy and share with your friends.I am excited to see how the first batch turns out, and I am already searching for the next recipe.

This could turn out to be a fun hobby. Similar to cooking, it combines the structure of a recipe, with the freedom to modify and be creative when you get more confident (or when you make a happy mistake). There is lots of measuring equipment reminiscent of a chemistry set, and lots of numbers to track if you are so inclined (which I am). And like so many other hobbies, there is a passionate community ready to nerd out with you. Again, you can make it as complicated as you want, or you can simply relax, and have a homebrew.

Stop by in three weeks, and I will have a cold one waiting for you.

May 7, 2012

I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I'm usually standing on a concrete floor

"Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza."
~ Dave Barry

San Diego has a large, and growing number of craft breweries. Some have made it big, like Stone Brewery that now sells its beers across the nation, and has grounds worthy of a state park. However, most are probably not known much outside the area, and are typically housed in an industrial warehouse looking something like this

With big fermenting pots on one side of the room

And tap handles drilled into the wall of a refrigerator on the other side.

As indicated by medals earned in the world competition this past week, their humble settings are not an indication of the quality of their brews.

Most all of the San Diego breweries have banned together to form a guild to help increase the visibility of these hidden gems. Since most of them are tucked away in industrial business parks, they are difficult to just stumble upon. The guild put out a flier, complete with a map, and Sean and I have been doing a little tour over the past couple of years.

While one warehouse room looks much like the next, and though many of them put out similar styles of beer, each brewery approaches them from a slightly different angle. Most are open only a few hours a week (adding to the "speak-easy" feel), and are restricted to serving 4oz tasters. While I can't afford to drink really good wine anymore, I can spend a couple of hours sampling really good beer, and walk out for under $10 most of the time.

Most have chalkboards similar to this one from Ballast Point

Each beer listed has information not only on style and alcohol content, but also more detailed information on the grains used, their original & finishing gravities, and a a measurement of bitterness called an IBU. You begin to learn that there is a lot more to beer than "Rocky Mountain water", half-time commercials, and bottles that change color when the beer is cold. (Not that there is anything wrong with a nice macro-brew once in a while).

After tasting all of these fine beers, my palate is improving a bit. I won't claim to be a connoisseur, but all the chalkboard information and chats with the brewers have been educational. I have learned that Belgian style beers are not my favorite, that I prefer Pales and IPAs with an IBU at 70 or below, and though I don't care for scotch, Scotch Ales are quite tasty. Of course, nothing can beat a good stout or porter.

In a couple of the breweries, you will see something like this

What are these you ask? Why, they are bins filled with grains you can buy to brew your own beer. And that is just what I have started doing...