Sunday, June 27, 2010

Back to Beer

Today we are talking with Randy Thiel. When I met Randy he was the brew master at Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY, several valleys over from the Butternut where I live. He has moved on to New Glarus Brewing in New Glarus, Wisconsin.

Welcome, Randy. I guess e-mail is the only way I can talk with you now that you moved half way across the country!

Could you tell us about your background in brewing?

I have a B.Sc. in Microbiology from UW-Madison. Attended the Siebel Institute & UC-Davis for specific training in Brewing Science & Technology. My interest in brewing started by being an avid fan of beer (!) and also homebrewing. I was searching for a tangible craft that had a strong heritage.

What is your position at New Glarus?

I am the team leader for Quality Control/Quality Assurance. That may sound dry to some folks, but I love it! Besides running the lab, I get to be involved with all aspects & departments at the brewery. Kind of like playing the safety position in football.

New Glarus is a very diverse operation with respect to its brews. Tell us about them.

New Glarus puts out a wide range of beer styles. Last year, we produced 19 different beer styles. We have the same dedication, enthusiasm, and attention-to-detail making a Belgian-style Quadrupel as we do making an American-style lager. We honestly love all beer styles.

Clear up for us the distinction between microbrews and craft beers.

Our beers can be referred to as either microbrews or craft beers. Craft beer is more appropriate, though. 'Microbrewed' beer implies a smaller operation; we will produce 90,000 barrels this year, which is on the larger end of the microbrew spectrum.

I know our readers would like to know more about the difference between lagers and ales.

Ales usually have more complex (and just 'more') flavor than lagers. Lagers tend to be neutral in the flavors contributed by the yeast; so, just the hops and malt play the major roles. Ales have many flavors contributed by the yeast (think variations of fruity & spicy).

Beer can be quite complex which many Americans who drink only lagers are astonished to discover.

I believe the Brewers Association categorizes over 70 different beer styles, some traditional and some modern. Porters, stouts, and pale ales are all traditional British styles. These were/are popular amongst craft brewers in America, although American brewers tend to add more bitterness and hop aroma to the styles (thus you have categories like "American-style Pale Ale", etc.).
Porters: Dark ruby-red to black color. Soft roasted character. Medium bitterness.
Stouts: Very similar to porters, although darker and more roasted flavors.
Pale Ale: Deep golden to amber color. Assertive bitterness & hop aroma.
Pilsners: Traditional German and Czech beer style (originated in Pilsn, Czechoslovakia). Lager w/ pronounced malty character and assertive bitterness. Note: Miller Lite is NOT a pilsner, even though it is marketed as such.

Is there a proper temperature for drinking beer?

'Proper temperature' is too severe a topic. Typically, lagers should be colder (refrigerator temp) and ales slightly warmer (let the bottle sit out for 10 minutes before pouring). I encourage people to try different beers at different temperatures and notice what happens to the flavors. Rules are no fun. Experimentation and thinking about flavor is fun.

I like your philosophy, Randy. I’ve been researching food and beer pairing to see how I can incorporate this into my next book about Hera. There are some guidelines I’ve found for such pairings, but, you’re right, rules are no fun. The fun comes with trying different foods paired with different beers.

Thanks for visiting with us, Randy. Now all of us are ready to go out there and try different microbrews or craft beers, knowing that our own palates are the best rule book we can carry with us.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Water, Water Everywhere . . .

These pictures are of the Butternut which borders my property. Hera's brewery is also on this beautiful stream.
Hera has become increasingly alarmed by the gulf oil spill and the parallels between off-shore drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a drilling approach to obtaining natural gas. I thought I’d let her speak about her concerns as one of the residents of her valley who understands the dilemma of the people sitting on this underground wealth of gas. Getting caught in the middle of this controversy is part of Hera’s next challenge as I write the second in the Hera Knightsbridge, Master Brewer, Mystery Series.

In Hera’s words:

Seeing the globs of red crude floating in the ocean and washing ashore onto once pristine white beaches, killing wildlife and destroying wetlands got me thinking and worrying about this valley. In some ways, we could be confronting the same issues here because of energy needs. The Marcellus Shale region runs through half of New York State, western Pennsylvania, and eastern Ohio. The valley where I brew beer is located here. Within the shale layers lies trapped natural gas which can only be extracted through a process called hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, accomplished by horizontal drilling into the shale layer, then forcing water, sand, and other chemicals (the exact mixture is an industry secret) under pressure to release the gas. The run-off water contains these chemicals. Not only will this toxic cocktail poison wells should it get into ground water, but also wildlife. Gas seeping into wells can sometimes explode, as recently witnessed in West Virginia, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Is this beginning to sound familiar?

My valley is poor and has been hit hard by the recent recession. Farmers are paying more money to produce milk than they get selling it. Companies have moved their operations to other places, other countries. It is understandable that people here see the gas companies’ sign-on bonuses and the promise of a monthly check as the solution to their economic woes. In addition, many see gas drilling as a way to end independence on foreign oil. Does this sound familiar, too?

What if something goes wrong as it did in Dimock, Pennsylvania where one woman’s well blew up on New Years’ day? In this community, the State Environmental Protection Agency has shut down drilling in some areas, finding over 14 wells with well water contaminated by the process. For those who signed contracts with the gas companies, the idle wells mean no monthly checks. Individuals dependent upon money from drilling now find themselves without an income. Folks in the gulf who worked in industries related to oil can surely see the parallels here.

Why would a microbrewer be concerned about fracking? We buy all our yeast and malt from outside sources. Our hops come from as far away as New Zealand or the Pacific Northwest. But our water, the most plentiful ingredient in craft beers? It comes from our wells. Contaminated wells mean we must either buy water from somewhere else or go broke, another dent in the economic health of this community. I don’t have to sign a contract with a gas company, have something go wrong, and it ruin my water supply. My neighbor can sign on while I hold out. Ground water in a large region could be affected by my neighbor’s drilling.

This is the perfect storm—the desperate need for energy and an economic recession making jobs scarce. People without jobs, small farmers whose costs may outweigh their incomes, both are sitting atop one of the richest natural gas sources in the world. We must weigh the alternatives carefully because we may be seeing our future in the frightened eyes of gulf coast residents, in the oil-covered birds and turtles, and in the dying vegetation of the wetlands.

I just want tightened oversight in the gas and oil industries, not complicity between governmental agencies and private enterprise. People’s lives and our earth are at stake, not just my brewery.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I go back to high school for an afternoon

My garden changes daily, weekly. This was last week. this week these flowers are gone and have been replaced by lilies, hydrangeas, late blooming iris, and peonies. Who knows what will be there in a few days. But this beauty makes it difficult to sit in front of my computer and write. Or go to school.

Genre Literature in High School?

This week I had the opportunity to visit a local high school English class made up of graduating seniors. The instructor asked me to talk about writing because she said some of her students were interested in writing and getting published. I usually believe adolescents would rather win the lottery and, if they did, would give up the book thing altogether.

It’s been many years since I’ve been in front of a class of young adults, but this one seemed not unlike those freshman classes I taught about ten years ago. The setting was not ideal for talking about the publishing enterprise or any other subject for that matter. These were, as I said before, graduating seniors, and their minds seemed to be more attuned to the summer ahead than to the woman sitting at the front of the room yammering away about writing, research, and the difficulty of getting work published. The room was in the new section of the school, the section the builders goofed on when putting in the air circulation system. The air conditioning did not work well (not at all), and the windows didn’t open. It was hot in there. If I had been one of the students in that room, I would have been asleep after the first five minutes, but to their credit, no one dropped off.

They were polite, but not intensely interested in what I had to say. But their questions were telling. One young man said he liked to read and where could he buy my book. His tone conveyed a sense of impatience, implying that I could have come into the room and said, “Buy this at blank store.” I don’t think he was one of those who had aspirations to write, but I was darn glad to hear he read.

Another guy asked the bottom line question. “Can you make any money at this?” I told him Stephan King did, but I didn’t. Then I doubly disappointed him by saying I didn’t think I ever would get rich off my cozy mysteries, but that I continued to write because I loved it.

When I related stories about researching my topic, microbrewing, I stirred a certain admiration among the guys sitting in the back corner. “Cool,” they said or some contemporary equivalent of that phrase in teen talk.

I asked them a few questions also, and I want to share the answers with you because their replies tell us something about how we are educating the readers of the future.

Who knew the name Agatha Christie garnered a negative response from everyone in the room with the exception of the teacher. When I asked what literature they read in class, I was told they read mainstream literature and the classics. That translated into an abundance of work by men over women even factoring in sensitivity to the gender issue in contemporary work. I was pleased to hear they had just finished The Life of Bees, which the young women liked and the young men were lukewarm about. They had read no genre literature at all, yet I suspect that some of them did read it on their own. The popularity of Harry Potter and Vampire themes is not because their parents have these under their pillows.

Do I think genre literature should be part of what seniors read in their classes? Well, of course, but I’m biased because that’s what I write. Yet we all know that’s often what we read. The other night a woman of my generation said, “I love mysteries. Always have. For me it began with Nancy Drew.”

What I’m curious about is how students today think of their private choices in literature in comparison with their assigned reading in English classes. It may help explain the attitude I encountered in one of my early writing groups. The leader told the group and me that she’d “never read a mystery.” The disdainful curling of her lips was a precursor to the attitude she displayed at each meeting when I read from my first cozy manuscript.
As an academic, I was used to the snobbery practiced by some of my colleagues. I think of genre literature as literature with guidelines or writing habits specific to the individual genre.

I hope I successfully communicated my love of the mystery genre and its particular characteristics to that class, so that its members never are made to feel defensive in choice of book to read. Or to write.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Writing groups: What's your opinion?

This week I invited my writing partner, Jan Day, to talk about her experiences with writing groups. She's been in a number of them, so I thought she was a good resource to begin a discussion about what writers can and can't get out of them.

Jan's writing credentials are impressive. She is the author of five children's picture books with Pelican Publishing Company and is a feature writer for Okeechobee, The Magazine. She has published poetry and was co-winnerof the Hawaii Film Festival of her original teleplay All's Fair. I met Jan when I moved to Okeechobee, Florida for the winter and was looking for a writing group, so we founded one together. Jan is currently at work on a mystery set on the Kissimmee River.

I've asked her to begin this discussion abut writing groups and hope all of you will chime in with your views.

Welcome to my blog, Jan.

I’ve moved around a fair amount and have had great experiences with writers’groups in Kauai, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Stuart, and Okeechobee, FL. They all were different but they all helped me improve my writing, stay motivated, and offered camaraderie of a shared passion.

The most unique group was in Kauai, where the majority of members were artists as well as writers. Our facilitator did not allow direct criticism. This would have been considered rude in that culture. But we still found ways to be instructive to each other. In Phoenix we had a group of ten writing everything from poetry to romance to literary fiction to memoir. Writing and critiquing in various genres can make you a stronger writer.

In my experience the group should be committed to their craft and of a similar level of skill or it will lose its focus. Setting your goals and standards in the beginning helps clarify your goals. A group becomes destructive when they tear down a work or try to rewrite the piece for the author. I think that sort of group rewrite happens most often when you bring writing that is in its beginning stages.

I’m a big fan of writers’ groups, not only for the help with writing but for the deadlines they provide, and the opportunity to network. If you don’t have a writers’ group near you, don’t be afraid to start one yourself. When Lesley came to Okeechobee, she found me through the library and then we put an announcement in the paper for an Open Reading. From there we eventually formed a group of six accomplished writers and have published an anthology. If we can do it in the wilds of central Florida, you can do it anywhere.

That's very upbeat, Jan. But I think she's right about being able to put together a writing group anywhere. I think the best source for beginning the process with your local library. That's where we began. The library has been generous enough to continue their support of our group by providing us meeting space and sponsoring writer's programs at the library.