Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 Advent Beers: Part III

Ah, what the heck, I'm on a roll and Glory hasn't made her way downstairs so we can start work on the jigsaw puzzle yet - let's squeeze in another six-pack of advent beers!

Day 13: Saison

As a brewery name, Yankee & Kraut is hard to top, as is their logo, a rodeo cowboy riding an enormous pig while raising a goblet of beer in his free hand.  The label to this farmhouse-style saison is likewise delightful in its homage to Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks, except with animated suits of clothes replacing the figures we are used to. Brilliant floral aromas, crisp citrus flavours and malt-forward body make this strong (8%) yet light-tasting beer a real winner.

Day 14: Stout

Somehow managed to avoid taking a photo of this one, which is a shame, because it is another very creative label. As the art implies, this 5.4% stout is a feast for the senses, with bitter chocolate rising up over the roasted malts and returning as a lingering aftertaste to every sip.

Day 15: Ambra

Red and amber ales are a preferred style of mine, but normally clock in well below the 9.3% in this version from Italy's White Pony. Sweet, strong and malty, with herbal aromatics and afternotes.

Day 16: JeFe

Hefeweizen are a wheat-based ale suited for hot days and multiple glasses, but the addition of passionfruit to this one, as well as the hints of cloves and spices, make it appropriately festive.

Day 17: Morpheus 

A saison from Brouwerij Alvinne in Belgium, this strongish (6%), yeasty beer is light, fruity and refreshing, but I still can't fathom going back out into the midday sun to plow a field after drinking a pint of it!

Day 18: Un Belle Histoire

This porter is 5.6% and the normal coffee flavours are almost overpowered by an oakey sourness - not tremendously unpleasant but certainly unexpected!

2018 Advent Beers: Part II

Wow, that holiday season blew by pretty quickly, didn't it? Looks like some of my advent beers won't hit my blog until 2019...but at least these six snuck in under the wire!

Day7: Fruit Salad

In lesser hands, the idea of an India Pale Ale flavoured with grapefruit, passionfruit, mango, raspberry and blueberry might be a bit offputting, but Denmark's Evil Twin Brewing can always be counted on to bring creativity and balance to the table. Extremely fresh tasting and crisp thanks to the hops you normally associate with IPAs.

Day 8: The Check Please

This Black IPA from Evil Twin is made with Cascadian dark hops. I've had a few beers in this style now, and although they will never be my favourite, they are a delightful variation on regular IPAs, with a bit of roast-taste making its way through the hops.

Day 9: Galaxy Hoppy Blonde

Huh, apparently I neglected to log this one in on Untappd...well, my recollections are of a strong (6.5%), hoppy, Belgian-style beer brewed in Denmark by Ugly Duck, with added tartness brought forward by Galaxy hops. Lots of subtle fruit aromas from the yeast esters, I presume. I seem to recall that their bottle copy reflects the sort of mindset that keeps many women away from beer, but in the glass I had no complaints.

Day 10: Export Lager

I associate lagers with a time in my life when practically every beer you were offered was a lager (including some labelled as IPAs...yes, I am looking at you Alexander Keith!), most weren't very good, and as a result I hardly ever drank any. There are plenty of good examples of the style now, but the association remains. Ugly Duck's Dortmunder lager (as opposed to Pilsner) is a solid example, with a great malt/hops balance and clean, rich taste. A great entry point into craft beer for those who mightn't have taken the plunge yet.

Day 11: Can You Pass Me the Milk?

Milk stouts are one of my favourite subsets of my favourite style of beer. This Dutch one from Brouwerij Frontaal is surprisingly light at 4.5%, but still rich, smooth, and a little sweet, with hints of chocolate. Plus a fantastic label design.

Day 12: Ceres

The other half of Brouwerij Frontaal's advent offerings, Ceres is a lighter (5.3%) Scottish Ale with lots of body and hint of smoke, to my palate at least.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Nativities Studies

Our house does not lack for Christmas decorations, but my sister-in-law’s place has just as much if not more, and is focused particularly on nativities.

They run the range from kitschy to classical, folksy to refined, abstract to realistic. Looking at them this afternoon, I slowly moved from bemused to genuinely curious, and found their diversity compelling and reflective. 

I’ve always resented the depiction of baby Jesus as blond, blue-eyed and cherubic, as opposed to someone who might actually have lived in first-century Palestine. 

And Nebraska Jesus is here, to be sure, but he is joined by Royal Families with African, Indigenous and South American faces, wisemen of metal, stone and sticks, families of forest animals and snow-people.

The beginning of one of history’s oldest and most famous blended families is reflected lovingly and imperfectly an astonishing 176 Times in Betty’s house (and that’s not counting the ones in the Christmas tree). Here are just a few of them. Let these families remind us how no two families are alike, how every one probably looks a little weird from the outside, and how each of them is at least a little bit miraculous.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

2018 Advent Beers: Part I

As some of you have observed, I am no longer continuing my long-running daily blog for the Craft Beer Advent Calendar. I can't say whether it is the result of complacency, familiarity or a simple lack of human capacity, but last year's entries became a bit of a chore, I'm saddened to say, and I resolved on the 24th that I wouldn't follow through this year.

Besides, now that I am tracking my beers on Untappd, it feels a bit superfluous to do so again here, in a format that demands I struggle to come up with new synonyms for "effervescent", "resinous", or "pungent."

Still, there have a been a couple of notable entries in this year's calendar, and some of the labels have been quite striking, so I will be doing a summary of this year's offerings in four parts -  a series of "six-packs", if you will (or even if you won't).

This is the first time I can recall the advent beer calendar having a discernible pattern, but thus far each brewery has had two selections proferred on successive days. In the first six days I've had the good fortune to try beers from England, Mexico, and the Yukon Territories.

Day 1: FUBAR

Tiny Rebel Brewing in Wales kicks it off with a session Pale Ale. Hoppy beers will never be my favourite, but this was a nice one, crisp and light.

Day 2: Orange Mocha Frapp Stout

The latter half of the Tiny Rebel dyad, and worth the wait. This milk stout is thick, rich and creamy, without being cloyingly sweet. At 7% ABV it is either a poor or brilliant choice for a breakfast beer.

Day 3: Mexican IPA

The best label thus far, courtesy of Mexico's Baja Brewing, this is another well-balanced India Pale Ale that is both strong and refreshing.

Day 4: Ay Ay Ay PA

From the best label to the best name, this 4.5% session IPA was not really my style sadly. But maybe it's because I only had one of them? More research may be required.

Day 5:  Imperial Stout

From Yukon Brewing in Whitehorse, our first heavyweight at 9.5%. One of my favourite styles, and this one was fine. Higher marks may be from people who can actually taste all ten different malts, but I was just glad to have them all there. Disappointingly named though, I have to say.

Day 6: Tamarack and Spruce Tip IPA

The other Yukon beer is far more creative and distinct. Not overpoweringly piney, thankfully, but still enough woodsy, resiny aromatics to be a hophead's delight.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

(Not the) Same Old Song and Dance

I suppose the onset of midwinter has always been a bit disorienting.

For the earliest humans, the absence of vegetation and shortening of days probably felt like the end of the world. Meanwhile, their far more secure descendants scurry to and fro amidst a maelstrom of competing plans, frantically trying to get everything where they need it to be before an arbitrary calendrical eschaton.

Our Christmas commitments have lightened in some ways and become complicated, but not enough to completely distract us from the beauty of the season. Case in point: last Sunday we had two separate cultural engagements, which both turned out to be a delight.

In the morning, Fenya and Austin agreed to sing during our advent service. For a couple with choral music on one side and modern rock sensibilities on the other, they did a fine job together.

It was also very well received, and it took Glory and I quite a while to get out of our aisle while congregants hemmed the performers in, proferring thanks and praise while slipping in requests for future performances.

But we had to expedite our departure, because Glory was due to perform at the Festival of Trees that very afternoon. The dancing was fine but I was actually proudest of Glory for something else.

During their team dance, one of the girls began feeling unwell. Glory asked if she was all right, and her teammate clearly wanted to continue. A moment later though, her knees buckled, and Glory, standing beside her, quickly took her arm and led her offstage almost immediately, the other dancers following closely behind.

It didn't feel immediate to her at the time; in Glory's mind she reeled, wondering if cutting the dance short was the right thing to do, before finally deciding it was. When I showed her the video, she was astonished at how little time actually elapsed between the collapse and her leading the team offstage.

The other dancer is feeling much better now, but wasn't able to make it onstage for the finale. Luckily I had just enough battery life in the camera to catch the performance in its entirety, albeit from a bad angle.

The crowds at the Festival of Trees can be bit much for me, but the array of decorations coupled with lively performances make it a visual treat, for a while at least. It made for a long day in some ways, but having so many opportunities to take pride in my girls made that easy to bear.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Return to Fireball Island - For the First Time!

The most recent manifestation of my boardgame Kickstarter addiction is heavy with half-remembered nostalgia -  a lovingly remastered version of Fireball Island from 1986.

Restoration Games, a company that includes my favourite games designer, Rob Daviau, is not only dusting off forgotten treasures like this, but taking the opportunity to improve them as well.

Both the original and new version of the game has players moving their pawns around a contoured map, with the ever-present threat of a marble knocking you over. This is, of course, the gimmick that drew me to the game in the first place.

Look, games with a kinetic element are just that much cooler than games without them. I have spent a lot of enjoyable hours playing D&D and tabletop wargames, but had almost as much fun in a single night playing Weapons & Warriors a quarter-century ago with Jeff. He'd brought a Castle Combat set from the toy store he was working at as part of their product familiarization program, and although two grown-ass men had no business playing we had a whale of a time using the tiny catapults to fling plastic boulders at each other's fortifications. Outside of spinners and dice, very few of the games I play now have moving parts, and ever since Mousetrap, that's been a big draw for me.

(As was Mousetrap itself, which I never played as a child, since every time I spied a box on someone else's shelf and pointed it out, it was unplayable due to missing pieces, without exception,. Honestly, why keep it then?!)

Anyhow,Restoration games made a number of significant improvements to the original, from the components to the gameplay.

  • A much larger, vacu-formed, three part playing board, with full colour throughout.
  • Trees with pointable 'roots' which can be used to redirect the embers and fireballs.
  • Card-based movement instead of dice-based (who hasn't wanted to quit a game after three consecutive rolls of 1 or 2 on a single die?).
  • Multiple paths to success instead of a single goal.
  • A 'ticking clock' mechanic to keep things moving briskly.

Instead of portraying adventurers racing for a single treasure, the players are now all tourists on a remarkably dangerous island, using their turns to gather treasures scatted about (including the fabled gemstone, the Heart of Vul-Kar) as well as a limited number of snapshots at specific points on the island.

Periodically players have the opportunity to launch one of two different types of marbles: ember marbles, perched precariously at points along the paths, represents lava bursts, flame geysers and the like. Fireball marbles are the result of Cataclysm cards which causing a fireball marble (1 initially, 2, 3, and even 4 later on) to be launched from Vul-Kar, the volcanic idol at the highest point on the board. There are three different apertures from Vul-Kar, so it is almost impossible to anticipate precisely where the fireballs will go.

Knocking pawn over forces that player to surrender one of their treasures to you (or to a pool called The Maw if you do it to yourself), but then they (or you) draw a Souvenir card for their troubles. I mean, honestly, I would probably knock over the pawns of other players simply because I could, but incentivizing it with treasure is a grand idea. They also resume play from their new position, which can play hob with their plans, especially at the end of the game.

Souvenirs let players do a number of things, from navigating the island's caves, to soaring along with a jet pack, but timing their usage can be critical. Souvenirs from one of the expansion packs (the "hangry" souvenirs) are "a-ha!" cards played to provide comeuppance to the other players.

The final countdown begins after the 4th fireball marble gets added to the Cataclysm pool, or when a player returns to the helipad with all three types of snapshot. First into the "hello-copter", a 3d punchboard prop, gets the "lucky penny" token, an unstealable treasure worth almost as much as the Heart of Vul-Kar. Once the hello-copter is summoned, players have only two turns to make their way to the helipad, or else their snapshots aren't worth any points at all, which makes it an inopportune time to be pushed into a river or down a path.

The game has a limited amount of strategy, but it's more than none, and the card-based movement keeps the game from being excessively random. On the other hand, the marbles are about as chaotic an element as you can have in such an activity. They keep everyone on their toes and provide tremendous amounts of drama and vicarious entertainment, especially if you are safely ensconced in the hello-copter.

It's a great-looking game, to be sure: colourful, three-dimensional, dynamic, and fun, - maybe one of the most impressive non-miniature games I own. The printing on the island, though inconsistent from set to set, is clear and largely easy to follow, and the components look great, especially the painted pawns I ponied up for, and the deluxe marbles they threw in as a stretch goal. But all those aesthetics are for naught if the game is no fun, right? Well, no worries on that front.

We played the game twice over the weekend, and had tremendous fun each time. My Kickstarter package came with all the expansions, but I am trying to leaven them somewhat gingerly, as I a) want to understand the base game before adding too much into it, b) want to build anticipation for them, but most importantly c) I don't want to overcomplicate a game whose mechanics are so elegant and simple out of the gate.

Having said that, I look forward to the addition of an Indiana Jones-type explorer along with smaller marble snakes, a gold idol and extra-large foam boulder in "The Last Adventurer", as well as a tiddly-wink-style tiger you launch at other players from the tabletop and a hive full of marble bees in the aptly named "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Bees". Only after we have a few games with those under our belts will be break open "The Wreck of the Crimson Cutlass", a pirate ship just offshore of Fireball Island. They are also working on an app with scoring and sound effect functions, as well as a co-op mode and a D&D adventure.

The game's 5-player limit means it is a poor fit for G&G, but I may bring it along as a sidebar game anyhow due to its novelty and its nostalgia. In the meantime, Restoration Games is working on another 80s boardgame with a novelty element: Dark Tower! But I'll let someone else Kickstart that one; I'm taking a break for a while.