Sunday, December 29, 2013

Yuletide 2013

The run-up to Christmas this year was as busy as any I can remember; it seemed there was always a rehearsal to be driving to, a concert to watch, or something else. I was so grateful when Audrey and I were able to escape to The Underground for our anniversary outing the Saturday before last, but even after that, if you had asked me if I was looking forward to Christmas, I wouldn't have said no, but I would have told you I was more looking forward to the first empty day after Christmas.

Then I got more family around me and things improved pretty dramatically pretty quickly.

We visited Bryce and Sara and the family earlier this month with Oma and Opa, and that was grand, as it always is. When 2/3 of the cousins from Rocky Mountain House arrived, things got even more festive as we visited, played games, attended the Christmas Eve service together and exchanged gifts.

Audrey did a great job getting the house looking great, and my small contribution was curating her Christmas music onto the upstairs computer, resulting in a Christmas playlist over 22 hours long, with no repeats. Sure, there are 11 different versions of Silent Night, but none by the same artist, and we can add another three albums to the mix that don't shuffle up so well, like Trans Siberian Orchestra and Fenya's choir CD, The Time of Snow (available on iTunes!). This was also our first time hiding a Christmas pickle in the tree, and Glory was the one who found it, and won a movie (Ghostbusters!) for doing so.
We watched The Grinch and Charlie Brown, and feasted on turkey and yams and potatoes and a brilliant raspberry, apple and almond pie Audrey's sister had brought up. The next day, the ladies went out shopping for Boxing Day while the guys stayed home to watch The Godfather, since Mark had never seen it.

Tara, Jerry and Jason came to church with us Christmas Eve, and Jerry proposed to her Christmas morning (!), so I get a new brother-in-law and nephew out of the deal, and couldn't be happier. We overnighted with them in Leduc on the 27th, seeing The Hobbit that evening and going for breakfast at Cora's the next day.

Sometimes it seems the best way to escape your fate is to embrace it, like Han Solo getting closer to the asteroids in The Empire Strikes Back; I am far happier having gotten in some much needed family time with our out of town relations than I would have been having had the time to myself. Now, if I can just reconnect with more of my friends before returning to work January 2nd, things will be perfect!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Morn

With the rest of the household asleep, the four of us quietly opened our stockings in the bedroom. A nice start to a busy day!


Merry Christmas to all!


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

2013 Advent Beer 24: Brasserie Dunham Black IPA

The final beer for Christmas Eve is a Black India Pale Ale from Dunham, Quebec, and appropriately enough, it is both a treat and a surprise.


Highly hopped like an IPA but featuring darkly roasted malts like a Stout, the black IPA must balance these distinctive elements; truly a beer of two solitudes.


It took almost ten minutes to pour this beer; the foam is energetic and persistent, and there is still a finger left as I near the bottom third of the glass. Not a lot of nose, which is surprising given the amount of hopping, but there is as much nut as citrus or pine in the aroma.


The first taste overwhelmed me with hops, but subsequent sips make a nutty sweetness discernible, and bready tones from the malts become apparent. Make no mistake, this is still a hoppy number, to which the bittersweet finish will attest, but extraordinarily well balanced. A great finish to a great calendar,and I Am counting down the days til the next one!



Baby Jesus, the reason for the season (to hear some tell it) has arrived and is resting in his manger. For years, I thought the manger was a other word for stable or the building he was in, not a feed trough. I don't think I clued in until I realized it comes from the French word to eat.


A lot of what we associate with Christmas bears a surprising resemblance to Saturnalia, a mid-winter Roman festival that featured celebrations honouring the return of longer days after the solstice, gift giving and masters serving their slaves. Sometime after Constantine converted to Christianity, the festival became a celebration of the birth of Christ, and that was that. This is part of the reason that when my Ismaili co-worker talks about taking her kids to see Santa Claus, I say,"That's the spirit!" A good chunk of the holiday was stolen anyways, so take the elements you like, and let's use it as common ground to share some joy at a bleak time of year.


In the end, whether Christmas matters to you because of the arrival of Jesus and a new way of looking at the world, or simply a time to get together with friends and family, or even just a day off of work and a change of routine, or even if it doesn't matter to you at all, I hope you have a merry one.


Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 Advent Beer 23: Low Life Pilsner

Ironically, considering its level of carbonation, the penultimate beer from this year's Advent Calendar left me a little flat. Some of that may be due to the style, since I have never been that big a fan of pilsners, but I am also vulnerable to suggestion, so it is possible that Evil Twin Brewing's copy on the side of the bottle simply set the stage for disappointment:


At any rate, Low Life pours a cloudy straw-gold with a tremendous head and a nose full full of grains and a trace of skunkiness (not that unusual in this style). A smooth drink, but a distinctly bitter bite at the end overshadows the rest, at least for me. Not something I would go too far to have again, but if I am being completely honest, I would be unlikely to surreptitiously pour it into a potted plant if my host happened to pour me a glassful at a party either. I will definitely need to try something else from Evil Twin before too long, as they have an excellent reputation.


With a star showing up in the Bethlehem sky today, it doesn't take a lot of deductive reasoning or intuitive insight to determine what is missing from this nativity scene. This is not happenstance; Baby Jesus is the only predetermined element of this particular calendar, and he is the last thing brought out, despite the narrative inconsistency.


We had a pretty lively discussion about what order the various elements should enter the scene in order to present an orderly narrative, but it's my blog, so I said: The Star should be first (to give the magi time to leave Babylon so they are at the manger by the Epiphany), then the other stars, the innkeeper (showing the royal family to the stable), the cows (who were already there), Joseph, the donkey, and Mary, then Baby Jesus. After him, presumably the angels, shepherds and sheep, and lastly, the magi and their camels.


But if you have a predetermined order, you defeat the entire purpose of this type of calendar. For that matter, I certainly look forward to being surprised by whatever comes out of the beer calendar tomorrow!


Sunday, December 22, 2013

2013 Advent Beer 22: American Standard Ale

Tap It proposes their American Standard Ale as a 'session pale ale'; it brings to mind the ancient jingle of Schaefer's: "the one beer to have when you're having more than one". What a delightful proposition! There are so many quality beers whose appeal has an inverse relationship with the volume consumed, so I am glad the brewing craftsmen are taking this into account.


The beer pours a pleasant, clear golden colour, with about a finger of decent head. You can definitely scent the hops, but we aren't into double IPA or stunt beer territory here; more citrus than pine. A good swallow showcases a very decent body for such a pale ale, and goes down tremendously smooth, with just a bit of hoppy bite at the finish, and a hint of nut in the aftertaste. Extremely well balanced, and for the first time, a beer causes me to question the wisdom of those who curate this marvelous calendar; presenting an almost ideal session beer for those inclined to hops, but only one of them? An oversight at best, a cruel jape at worst!


The final wise man showed up today, throwing a monkey wrench into my interpretation of the gifts: this one carries a...rod? (Scepter? Bat?) of gold, meaning the apples previously are more likely to be a representation of frankincense. It's probably just as well; the whole golden apples thing was just a touch too Discordian to suit me, despite the amusement it provided for The Rare Hipster and I.


Frankincense is another aromatic resin, like myrrh, and probably would have been called levonah by Hebrews at the time. Unlike myrrh, which has associations with burial and preservation, frankincense was commonly used in religious ceremonies. Gold, frankincense and myrrh cover kingly, godly and mortal aspects of Jesus' birth and eventual death; the last gift establishes his bona fides while foreshadowing his fate. Sometimes this Christmas story has some dark underpinnings, doesn't it?


Fenya sang, 'In The Bleak Midwinter' in church today, and it was well received despite being much more somber in tone than a lot of other seasonal music. Rather in keeping with the gifts of the magi, if you think about it; bittersweet like baker's chocolate.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 Advent Beer 21: Hop Noir (Black IPA)

Audrey and I went to The Underground Tap & Grill tonight for our anniversary outing; 72 taps (two of which are cider, so Audrey is happy), 24 rotational. I had the opportunity to try 4 different beers, so Peak Organic's black IPA Hop Noir will be the 5th, and I have no idea if this is a good thing or bad.


"But Stephen," I hear you ask, "if the P in IPA stands for pale, how can it be black at the same time?!"


It's a valid question. My understanding is that the use of American hops (commonly Cascade) and roasted malts result in a beer as dark as most porters but much more highly hopped, like an IPA.


True to its name, Hop Noir pours an almost inky black, with a persistent head of off-white foam. The nose carries dramatic levels of pine and a bit of citrus, similar to many double IPAs I've had.


This beer has a moderate mouthfeel, somewhere in the midst of a watery lager and soupy stout, which suits it well and the hop characteristics dominate the initial taste, and give the beer almost a pucker factor. At 8.2% ABV, there are definitely some sweeter notes and high alcohol to counteract it though, and the overall effect, though challenging, is remarkable and enjoyable. Would I have more than one of them? Well, probably not on my own, but depending on the company and occasion, who knows? I can say with certainty that, despite my not being a dyed in the wool hophead, I would definitely have Hop Noir again.


Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, I believe the final sheep has joined the rest of the flock.


My Chinese zodiac sign is the ram, which I think eloquently captures my ambivalence between leading and following. The motto of my alma mater, Augustana University College (now Augustana Faculty) is "ducere et servire" which translates as "to lead and to serve". In the end, I think it is important to have the strength to lead, as well as the humility to follow, and this applies to faith as much as it does to anything. Even in first century Palestine, shepherds were outsiders; how notable is it that they were the first ones to know about the birth of Christ?


Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 Advent Beer 20: Lighthouse Winter Ale

A welcome return to the darkness after many delightful lighter drinks; how appropriate on the longest night of the year! Lighthouse is a brewery from Victoria, a city notable in that it has more craft breweries than all of Alberta put together. While this does make me a little jealous, it has also made me favourably disposed towards quite a few B.C. brewers like Phillips, Tin Whistle and Dead Frog. Will Lighthouse bring glory or ignominy to their province?


This Winter Ale, as previously mentioned, pours a luscious dark with perhaps a hint of red, like an aged port or old-school cola. About a finger of tannish foam lingers for a minute before dissipating. The nose is almost musty, with hints of treacly molasses and dark, dried fruits. A robust mouthfeel fills the palate, and the fruit (dried cherries or prunes maybe?) is more discernible. There is a bit of sweetness, but a bitter finish, reminiscent of baker's chocolate, brings a balanced finish to each swig.


In short, I quite like it; at 6.5% it is a civilized winter warmer with a lot of character, but the combination of flavours reminds me of something, and it took me a while to sort it out: dark fruitcake. This beer is the liquid equivalent of dark, boozy,Christmas fruitcake, cut into small slices as finger food, and served at a holiday gathering for friends and relatives, and more so than the taste of it, that is a feeling I can always use more of in my life. Lighthouse's Winter Ale does the Left Coast proud!

The final camel arrived today, sporting a typist surcoat with a vaguely pentagonal design of polka dots. His magi master can't be too far behind with his gift of frankincense for the boy king.

I am digging for more insight, but this is the third camel after all, and frankly, his pose is making me crave animal crackers...


Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013 Advent Beer 19: Rhode Island Blueberry Beer

I, for one, have no problem at all with fruit beers, be they lambics, wheat ales, stouts or lagers. Blueberries are a great choice for addition to an ale because they have more nose than flavour, and are not as sweet as many other berries.


RI Blueberry pours a clear gold, with a small amount of head, and the aroma of blueberries is powerful, but it doesn't overwhelm the hoppy maltiness you expect from, well, a beer. A rich, full, mouthfeel with not too much bitterness, and a strong blueberry flavour that doesn't make you hunt for it in the aftertaste. A very well balanced beer that is just a shade too sweet to be a session ale, but would be good for a lot of other purposes, such as an after-dinner treat. Highly recommended!


The second angel showed up in the City of David today, presumably doubling the hallelujah output for that region. It's amusing to me how beatifically angels are often portrayed, especially in nativity scenes like this one. It's hard to imagine this winged singer from Abba chasing Adam and Eve from The Garden with a flaming sword while wearing Laura Ingall's pyjamas.


As God's intercessionaries, angels have a diverse range of duties, ranging from the slaying of the firstborn back in Egypt, to essentially serving as Jesus' valets after his resurrection. Some type of hierarchical arrangement is assumed, and others have imagined orders, species and all manner or explanation for the variations in cherubim, seraphim and the like.


Still, if the same actor can play Magneto and Gandalf, maybe it's just a matter of costume and deportment?


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 Advent Beer 18: Cameron's Cream Ale

Our second beer from this Ontario brewery is a cream ale; I've enjoyed the Sleeman's version of this style a few times, but not enough to call myself a fan.


It pours an elegant gold with just enough carbonation to raise an ephemeral bit of head, and smells of growing things, grass and wheat, with a slight aroma of fruit and maybe vanilla. It is smooth tasting, if a little thin in the mouthfeel, with a somewhat bitter finish that only improves its drinkability and refreshes the entire enterprise.


All in all, a very respectable beer which does nothing to really distinguish itself enough that I might seek it out again. I wouldn't mind trying it on tap sometime if the opportunity presented itself though.


You may by chance have spied

Our second magi's ride

And see him here abide

(As he is not allowed inside)

Though his treatment may seem curt

The camel's feelings are not hurt

To stand near in cooling dirt

Suits well a ship of the desert


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

2013 Advent Beer 17: Hedonism Red Ale

The word hedonism tends to conjure up images of carnal debauchery, probably overseen by a corpulent toga-wearer with gold laurels holding his combover in place. Imagine my surprise to discover that I might be a crypto-hedonist!


Hedonism is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life". So long as we work towards each other's happiness as well as our own, and don't shortchange all of our long term prosperity for immediate gratification, this is a philosophy I have very little trouble getting behind. So to speak.

As to the beer itself, the first thing you need to know is that Hedonism brings a lot of head to the party. Wait, that sounds...oh, never mind, it's true; even a moderate side-pour gave me a glass with more foam than liquid for quite some time. When I poured the last ounce or two out into the glass, the result was uncontainable, and regrettably, some beer was lost to the tabletop as a result.

Once things had simmered down, the first sip of this 7% gives a bit of almost metallic tang, maybe the result of the ABV rather than the hops. There are notes of fruit, but not citrusy, more like pear or white cranberry. There is not too much sweetness, but not nearly as much flavour as I would like from a red or amber ale.

Don't get me wrong, they apparently have this on tap down at The Sugarbowl, and after a couple of pints, I'm sure it would taste exemplary, but while the bottle does not disappoint, there is nothing here to compel a return to Hedonism. But perhaps I am just jealous that I am not enjoying myself nearly as much as Soul-brother Ace Frehley is on the label.


More livestock arrived at the crèche today, with the third sheep making its appearance. The shepherd makes a great leadership lesson in some ways; the first step in so many endeavours will often begin with simply getting the flock out there...


Speaking of animals, Nitti took advantage of our gathering on the couch to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas tonight to snuggle up behind Audrey. He singlehandedly rendered her completely immobile until it was time to pick up Fenya from her rehearsal at the Winspear with Cantilon and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. This dog's ability to dampen momentum and increase inertia to practically infinite levels for short periods of time is a perverse misapplication of Newtonian assumptions, but he is good company, and warm.


Monday, December 16, 2013

2013 Advent Beer 16: Crosswind Pale Ale

Returning to Baysville, Ontario for today's selection and yet another elegant and minimalist bottle design from Lake of Bays Brewing. I drank this beer with supper several hours ago, but was unable to write about it until returning from an evening meeting at church.


In some ways, this beer was tailor-made for a busy night such as this: no high alcohol content or complex flavouring, just a smooth tasting, crisp, fresh ale with a decent amount of hoppiness to complement the pizza so commonplace on Monday nights at our house. Nothing fancy, but admirably executed, not unlike landing a small plane in a crosswind.

Bethlehem sees its cow population double today as a second bovine appears on the scene. I can't quite fathom why a cow would be hanging around a stable instead of a barn or field, but perhaps it was just in the neighbourhood and wanted to see what all the commotion was about. Or saw the other cow and wandered over for some species-specific company.


At any rate, I'm sure they are just as confused by us humans; I know I certainly am at times.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

2013 Advent Beer 15: Hollow Point Quadruple Ale

It appears there is more than one beer by this particular sobriquet out there: one from Belgium, which is totally apropos for a Belgian-style quad, and this one, from Stratford, Connecticut. Full marks for a captivating label and great copy, but in the end, I'm going to drink it, not frame it.


It pours a rich,caramel-amber, with a wispy head that soon dissipates except for a telltale trace around the rim. Traces of apple and perhaps citrus fruits, as well as bread in the nose.


A yeasty, bready taste, still with hints of apple and spice and dark bread, like most good Belgian ales. The 10% ABV means you are going to have a fair amount of sweetness, and very little bitterness to speak of. I've always found the tripels and quads to be heading out of beer country and into barleywine territory, not that this is necessarily a bad thing.


With wine for supper, I am not likely to have another beer this evening, which is good, because Hollow Point would be a tough act to follow. The Belgian styles are not usually the first place I go when looking for strong beer (as yesterday's IRS will attest to), but this beer would make a great conversation starter.


Manger-wise, our second wise man has arrived, and is, thankfully, a gentleman of colour. With gold assumedly out of the way, we can presume he is carrying either myrrh or frankincense, so since he has a jar, let's call it the former, which brings a little creepiness into the scene.


You see, myrrh is an aromatic gift, a sweet smelling resin extracted from certain varieties of tree. It has ritualistic properties going back to the ancient Egyptians, but in 1st century Palestine, it was most commonly used in the treatment of bodies for burial; a grim bit of foreshadowing that alludes to this child's eventual journey to Golgotha. Even the carol "We Three Kings" references this:

Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume

Breaths a life of gathering gloom.

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,

Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

2013 Advent Beer 14: Bolshevik Bastard Imperial Russian Stout

As previously mentioned, I am already a big fan of stouts, from big players like Guinness to Alberta Crude from Calgary. Imperial Russian Stouts, extra dark, extra boozy renditions originally crafted in Britain for export to the court of Catherine the Great, are a nice departure from your more commonplace varieties, and are one of my favourite styles, especially in the depths of winter.

Bolshevik Bastard, from Burlington's Nickel Brook breweries, keeps a lot of balls in the air with this 8.5% beer. It pours an oily black, one of the darkest I've ever encountered, with a modest caramel-brown head that quickly shrinks to a perimeter around the edge of the glass. A lot of IRSs have strong coffee aromas, but this one is a bit more malty, with maybe a hint of chocolate.

The taste has the coffee notes you would normally expect, but perhaps not as prevalent as you might anticipate. Like a lot of high-alcohol beers, there is no small degree of sweetness in the taste, but it is not cloying, more of a caramelized sugar or toffee. Part of the balance comes from what Nickel Brook describes as "aggressive" hopping of 70 IBUs, but you would never know it from the taste; there is no tartness or bitter aftertaste, just one of the smoothest finishing Imperial Russian Stouts I've ever had.

Bolshevik Bastard can take its place proudly next to Alley Kat's KGB and Howe Sound's Imperial Megadestroyer (which has become so hard to find I may have to put out a bounty on it...). If you are looking for a distinctive way to cap off an evening, or the perfect brew to have a protracted after-dinner chat over, I can recommend Bolshevik Bastard without reservation, and since it is a seasonal, will be looking for a six-pack or two of this to squirrel away over the winter for guests.

Plus, antiquated looking Russian stuff with Cyrillic or pseudo-Cyrillic lettering has always played well in our household...

In the nativity, the donkey has vacated the stable in order to make room for the Holy Mother, Mary herself.

Despite reservations I may have about the way she is venerated by other denominations, I have a lot of love and respect for Mary, but I have to say, I take considerable exception to the way she is portrayed in this particular set.

First, a gentle reminder that the Christmas story (and the Easter story, for that matter) takes place in the Middle East of nigh on two thousand years ago, and not the Nebraska of three decades ago. Seeing Mary done up as a thirty something Midwesterner soccer mom instead of someone with darker skin and hair seems to bother me more and more the older I get. I've made my peace with it, saying that the nativity is not documenting history, but an interpretation of history. Perhaps a school pageant of yesteryear; yeah, that works...

Mary was a frightened girl, probably no more than 14 years old (don't look so shocked, this was more than a thousand years before Romeo & Juliet, and they were teenagers too) with no real rights or power, who was told about the honor of carrying the Son of God after he was conceived. Like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, she is primarily a passive player in the larger drama.

Presenting herself to Joseph in an arranged marriage when she was already pregnant is about as risky a proposition at that time as playing blindfolded pick-up-sticks in an aquarium full of scorpions. Joseph was was not only able to send her back to her family, but was probably expected to, at which point, having shamed the clan, she ran a very good chance of being stoned to death. Remember, these Bible families had way more in common with the Taliban than they do with you or I, and years of seeing cute kids dressed up with teatowels on their heads this time of year has done a great job of glossing that over.

But like I said when Joseph arrived, he is a stand up guy, and he takes Mary as his wife, and Jesus as his son. How much of that was his choice, versus Mary's influence, versus the will of the Almighty, I don't want to get into. In the end, I'm glad Mary made it to Bethlehem and history's most famous improvised birthing suite.