24 February, 2021

A Brace of Blondes: Local Buzz by Driftless Brewing Co. & Golden Ale by Potosi Brewing Co.

After tasting a golden ale from the Wisconsin brewing company that has "Hillsboro" in the name, I found myself in the mood for the style. Something tasty to drink after shoveling as opposed to a big, heady brew to fend off the cold. I proceeded to stumble across Potosi's Golden Ale and Local Buzz, a blonde ale made honey from Driftless Brewing Company. Both breweries are in Wisconsin's Driftless Area in the southwest part of the state. "Driftless Area" refers to how the region was left unscathed by glaciation during the last ice age and so we're left with a beautiful landscape full of valleys, ridges, and streams full of trout.

I recently had one of those heady brews from Potosi – their doppelbock – and have enjoyed their beers for years. Despite having been around since 2013, Driftless is still a newcomer to me. A couple months or so ago I had their Driftless Lager and was disappointed to find that it was an American pilsner/macro lager or whatever you call the style that is Miller, Bud, and Coors. Does this happen in any other sector of the food industry?

Microbrews emerged to some degree or another as a response to macrobrews, i.e. - Miller, Bud, and Coors. They were made (crafted, even!) in small batches with less or no automation and didn't cut corners with adjuncts. These beers had more flavor than Miller and associates. Microbrewers became craft brewers and changed the beer landscape in not only this country but worldwide. And now some of them are making the equivalent of High Life.

I went shopping yesterday and realized that coffee seems to have undergone a similar transformation, at least here in the States. It used to be that coffee was coffee. Packaging didn't tell you anything about how it was prepared. Juan Valdez did his magic behind the scenes and you just bought a tin of a ground brown powder. But Starbucks and small roasters have changed things so that Folgers now offers gourmet coffees. Folgers even now admits that you can roast beans to varying degrees instead of having just one generic product that is ground coffee.

Do small, independent coffee roasters offer bags just labeled "Coffee"? And when you go home and brew some, do you find it tastes just like Maxwell House or Sanka? Do "craft" coffee roasters try to mimic the mass-produced stuff their coffees exist in opposition to in the same way "craft" brewers brew Bud-like swill?

Huh. I had meant to discourse on the tastiness of a relatively simple un-barrel aged, non-double dry hopped blonde ale but ended up with a mini screed. Ooops. Let's get to the beers.

Driftless' Local Buzz describes itself as a blonde ale while Potosi refers to their Golden Ale as a golden ale. I am not sure if "golden ale" is a marketing term or a distinct style recognized by the brewing clerisy. I took it to be a synonym for blonde ale. Whatever the case, it was funny to see that Local Buzz was a clear gold color while Golden Ale was more yellow and quite hazy. When I raised the latter to a light, I saw a little vortex of what I presumed were proteins doing a slow swirl. It was oddly mesmerizing and reminded me of the creation of the universe scene in The Tree of Life. All I needed then was a sylphlike woman to stroll through a field of barley, her lithe hands brushing the tops of the plants.

Neither beer produced much of a head, at first, anyway, so they didn't look great. But a second and more rigorous pour of Potosi yielded a lovely white bit of foam that improved the visuals immensely.

The Buzz had a honey smell to it along with caramel. I'd also swear there was just a hint of banana. GA smelled like cracker, a little bit of grass, and corn. Honestly, it smelled like Miller High Life.

The honey served Local Buzz well. It had a nice earthy honey taste to it along with a little bread. While there was some fizz, it was quite smooth and medium-bodied. The finish was slightly bitter and just a tad dry. GA, on the other hand, had a really nice finish which started on a creamy note before ending with more bitterness than Local Buzz that tasted grassy and spicy. Prior to that I tasted a fairly light-bodied brew with a little cracker flavor along with a touch of sweetness. Plus, it tasted like corn to me. Honestly, this stuff was a lot like Miller in flavor in addition to aroma.

Golden Ale impressed me with how well it mimicked an American macro lager and a Terrence Malick film. Otherwise, it is not a beer for me. Local Buzz fared better in my mouth. Although I feel it needs a little more grain flavor (and more fizz too), I really liked the honey here, both in strength and quality, with its earthy, floral qualities.

Junk food pairing: Lighter beers fare well with lighter fare so grab yourself a bag of Honey Mustard & Onion Pretzel Crisps.

Into the Abyss: From Hell by the Hughes Brothers and Peter Deming


After a recent and highly ill-advised trip to the DVD store, I returned home having spent much more than I had intended. One of the movies I procured was a Blu-ray copy of From Hell, the 2001 film directed by The Hughes Brothers, photographed by Peter Deming, and starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. (Ms. Graham is a Cheesehead, by the way – she hails from Milwaukee.)

It was not well-received upon release, as I recall, but I thoroughly enjoyed it when I saw it in the cinema and on subsequent viewings at home. It's based on the superb graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell which I started reading in 1994 or '95 and I adore Deming's cinematography as it's full of rich colors that are set next to the blackest of shadows.

Prior to this, The Hughes Brothers, who are African-American, had directed two films with focusing on black protagonists. MenaceII Society was a violent story of young black man in early 90s Watts, Los Angeles. They followed that up with Dead Presidents, about another young black man but this time it was set in 1970s New York and he is a Vietnam veteran who turns to a life of crime. And so it seemed rather odd at first blush that they should tackle a story set in London in 1888.

But upon due consideration, it really wasn't quite so strange. Now, I haven't seen either Menace II Society or Dead Presidents in ages so I cannot draw many parallels, but From Hell takes place in a large city and deals with the poor and marginalized even if they are white.

The poor and marginalized here are the denizens of the London district of Whitechapel in 1888 when Jack the Ripper was on the loose. Both the graphic novel and the film contain elements straight out of the history books but even more conjecture and fabrications all done in the name of a good tale.

Johnny Depp plays Frederick Abberline, a police inspector investigating the Whitechapel murders. Abberline did exist and did indeed investigate the murders at the time. His trusty companion here is the avuncular Sgt. Peter Godley, portrayed by the affable Robbie Coltrane. A George Godley was, in fact, a police officer involved in the case. They're up against, not only The Ripper himself, but also a Masonic conspiracy that goes right up to Queen Victoria herself!

The film strips away most of the strange and the cerebral that was present in the graphic novel, leaving a fairly straightforward who dunnit. But it's a fun murder mystery and a beautiful looking one as well.

I saw From Hell in the theater once so my subsequent viewings have all been on DVD. Until now.

Even though nothing can truly replace seeing From Hell on the big screen, the Blu-ray picture surpasses that of the DVD by miles and miles. While a new OLED TV would render the blacks blacker, they were still much better than on DVD here and the colors even richer with the whole picture ever so much sharper. Simply gorgeous. Sadly, I cannot take screen captures from Blu-ray so we shall have to suffer with ones from the DVD.

There are three main colors in the film's palette. Overall, the colors look a little oversaturated giving the movie a patina of the surreal, almost dreamlike. The first color is red.

Aside from being the color of blood, it is also the color of passion, of activity, and of anger. It fills the London sky at the opening of the film and lets us know that things are afoot. Later we see that the curtains of Jack's carriage are red and they're used to great effect, indicating danger, that the killer's anger, his passions are about to be loosed.

Abberline is blessed/cursed with precognitive dreams and visions which are cast in a richly saturated green that often intermingles with the red of blood. (Interestingly, his visions of his deceased wife are not tinted in green.) The absinthe Abberline drinks to accompany his opium is green too. As are the lights on The Ripper's carriage and the scenes of him using his knife on the poor women. Green is associated with dreams and madness.

Speaking of dreams, their use here is one of the big faults of the film. Abberline is almost a Phildickian precog a la Minority Report. But instead of floating in a pool with wires attached to his head, he drinks absinthe laced with laudanum in his bathtub. With the film having a wonderful hallucinatory look, it's a shame that Abberline's visions are relatively few and usually limited to seeing The Ripper's victims, not really producing much that is helpful to the investigation or couldn’t have been ascertained via non-oneiric means. (The opening vision being an exception.)

There are a couple more in the Deleted Scenes on the disc. One has him following his wife down an alley and she rounds a corner. When Abberline does, he sees Annie Chapman staggering as blood drips from her slit throat. In the other scene, the camera moves in as The Ripper gleefully stabs at a body lying on the ground. He turns and we see the face is that of Ben Kidney, a member of the Special Branch who is helping cover up the true nature of the murders.

The inclusion of these scenes would have helped, but ultimately, Abberline's abilities at prophecy are woefully underdeveloped in the story.

Black is the third primary color. It symbolizes mystery and the unknown as well as evil. Black are the shadows where the killer hides awaiting his victims and it shrouds his face concealing his identity. When Netley is having serious second thoughts about aiding and abetting Sir William Gull, he confesses, "I just don't know where I am anymore." Gull replies, "We're in the darkest region of the human brain, a radiant abyss where men go to find themselves." Note how Gull's eyes become black after Abberline reveals that he knows that he's the killer.

On this viewing, I found From Hell to be surprisingly ambivalent towards the people of Whitechapel, mired in poverty and it may perhaps be misanthropic. It certainly paints the upper classes as being indifferent as well as hostile to those beneath them on the social ladder. Aside from the murders and the conspiracy surrounding them, there is the scene where Abberline approaches Dr. Ferral seeking medical expertise. Ferral rebuffs the entreaty and replies, "I don't see how a reputable surgeon could know anything about it. This country is overrun with foreigners, Orientals, Jews. Socialists trying to stir things up against our monarchy." Gull pulls Abberline away from the situation and says of Ferral, "He knows all about Anatomy and nothing about the soul."

But The Hughes brothers refuse to portray the denizens of Whitechapel as the salt of the earth who suffer under the tyranny and control of the aristocracy. Our introduction to Whitechapel begins with a crane shot that allows us voyeuristic peeks through windows into the apartments of various families. From one we hear a man angrily say, "Get out of here!" which is followed by a woman pleading, "I beg of you!" Out on the street a drunkard urinates against a wall as an unconscious man is being dragged across the street.

The men who use the services of the prostitutes are invariably complete assholes. Mary and her friends are kicked out of a bedsit by the landlord who wields what looks like a small shovel used to empty the ashes from a hearth or stove. He calls them "bitches" and clocks Annie Chapman with it. As they leave, he mocks Mary by calling her "Your Grace" and her friends her ladies-in-waiting. Elsewhere, when Abberline and Godley are at the spot where Annie's body lay after The Ripper has done his work, voices from surrounding windows yell, "Let us see the body!" prompting Godley to comment, "There's your typical Londoner, imbued of the Christian spirit of sympathy for his fellow man. Or fellow whore, in this case." Here, the middle class shows some disdain for the poor.

On a side note, the film likes to use offscreen voices to reveal character. In addition to the onlookers wanting a glimpse of Annie's corpse, a woman can be heard saying, "He should have been killed at birth!" when Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. – the Elephant Man, is unveiled to be gawked at by the great and the good of London.

Amongst the deleted scenes is one featuring the funeral procession of one of the prostitutes, Polly Nichols. I think it's the only scene deleted or not that doesn't show the inhabitants of Whitechapel bickering or at one another's throat, no pun intended. They mourn collectively and throw flowers at the casket. The inclusion of this scene and perhaps other would have gone a long way to convince me that the film completely takes the side of the poor instead of indicting them too along with the rich. One can argue that poverty debases the soul and deforms character and so you get the behavior seen onscreen. Fair enough. But the film doesn't endeavor to make that argument, to my mind. It assumes that you'll find the aristocracy so abhorrent because of their attitudes and ability to literally get away with murder that you'll give the poor a pass.

Abberline and Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) develop affections for one another because, I guess, you need a love story. Personally, I find dreams and visions a more interesting route to take than the feelings they develop for one another but what can you do? Given this, they seemed to fall in love rather quickly and I feel that the movie needed to show more of their budding relationship. The deleted scenes offer a little something with one featuring the couple going to the apartment of Mary's friend Ann whom she witnessed being whisked away by some well-dressed gentlemen. It turns out that a bunch of crude laborers now occupy the space.

There's no doubt the film tries to do a lot but it can only do so much. An extended sequence in the graphic novel features a tour of the buildings designed by 17th/18th century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. In the film this has been reduced to putting some of the buildings he helped design in establishing shots or shown briefly as a carriage whisks by. I am thinking of St. Paul's Cathedral and the Christ Church Spitalfields. Now that I have read it, I cannot but help think that Peter Ackroyd's novel Hawksmoor was an influence on Moore.

From Hell the film is surely missing many elements that made the graphic novel such a great read. But it has its own virtues. (Depp and Graham's accents are, admittedly, not amongst them.) Eddie Campbell gave the novel stark black and white illustrations while Peter Deming weaves a rich tapestry of colors with a hallucinatory sheen. While the film generally stripped the novel down to its murder mystery elements, there is a lot about class going on as well. Sometimes you have to listen carefully or move beyond the visual spectacle of a dream or vicious murder but it's all there. And there are, in my opinion, no easy answers. Are the poor complicit, however much or however little, in their poverty? Are they simply puppets at the ends of strings wielded by the rich and powerful? Is there anything good to be teased out of the aristocracy?

I don't think From Hell answers these questions but it makes it hard for viewers not to think of class and the problems surround it.

22 February, 2021

The Corona Diaries Vol. 10: My God, It's Full of Stars!

December 2020

How we socially distance here in Wisconsin.

The other day the Frau and I were lounging around when she mentioned that she had been listening to an old radio drama called Suspense or some such thing starring one Angus Moorehead. "Angus Moorehead?" I asked.

"Yes. Angus Moorehead, the old actress," she replied.

"ANGUS Moorehead?" I asked again.

"Ooops. Did I say 'Angus'? Agnes Moorehead," she corrected herself.


Back in October we had some fairly warm, dry weather in the middle of the month so some friends and I availed ourselves of the opportunity to make one last camping trip for the season. Our destination was the Black River State Forest about 120 miles northwest of Madison.

Back in the aughts I worked for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. While running around up north to work on computers at various ranger stations, I collected the Wisconsin Wildcards. They're like baseball cards but for the state's natural resources such as plants, fish, etc.

The card for the Black River State Forest says that it was established in 1957 and covers 67,000 acres that had once been logged and cleared for farming. The area suffered a large forest fire in the spring of '77 and I recall my family driving through it on I-94. It was quite harrowing to be surrounded by flames reaching 80 feet into the sky on both sides.

Before heading to the campsite, I visited the hiking trails in the southeast part of the forest. The Internet had said it was peak fall colors up there in Jackson County and it wasn't lying. I think I walked about 5 miles that morning and the woods were simply gorgeous – full of yellow, orange, and red (Oh, and some green too.) set against a brilliant blue sky.

While there were several cars in the lot at the trailhead, I saw only 1 or 2 people on the trails. Or perhaps they were simply smart enough not to attempt the most difficult trail like I did. It wasn't too bad, really, just a slightly steeper climb up the ridge than the other trails. The path was a bit rougher as well with more furrows so I had to be a extra vigilant about where I was stepping.

As my card notes, some of the forest is former farmland and there were some ruins to visit. For instance, here is an old root cellar.

Plus there was an old well.

The foundations of the buildings were supposedly to be found near the stairs to the root cellar but I never found them. I'm not sure if they had become completely camouflaged with leaves and grass over the years or if I was just incompetent.

At one point I veered off onto a different trail which took me up a ridge. As I ascended, I was treated to a lovely view of the forest in addition to the sight of a couple of hawks circling overhead. Then I saw a sign for a scenic overlook and hastily took this detour.

I really wish I had a better camera outfitted with a wide angle lens to catch scenic vistas but, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you take photographs with the camera you have, not the camera you might want.

(I am looking to upgrade my camera to something with a better contrast ratio and a bayonet connector so, if anyone can recommend one, please do.)

So, while you won't mistake my photo for something by Ansel Adams, you can at least get an idea of the wonderful view of the forest this spot afforded.

At some point in the early afternoon, I received notice that the camping spot was open so I headed north to the east fork of the Black River. Our camp was just across an access road from the river itself. Unsurprisingly, the campground was just about full as many others had the same idea we had.

It had been about 6 months (at minimum) since I'd seen any of these folks so it was a real treat to be in the company of my friends once more. We got a fire going and immediately an argument broke out over the best way to stack wood for a fire with the teepee proponents vociferously defending their preference against a small contingent of adherents to the log cabin/Lincoln log method. The fussin' and feudin' ended in a draw and so we turned our attention to prepping dinner as the beer and whiskey flowed freely.

After night had descended, we walked down the road to the parking lot by the boat launch in search of a more open area. One of my friends, who had consumed a fair amount of whiskey by this point, was leading us on a little stargazing venture. As we were gazing upwards, he went on about the marvels of the night sky in the country and just how much light pollution even a moderately sized city like Madison has. As we spied the Milky Way, he proceeded to discourse on the sheer size of the universe and how insignificant we are here in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy. I believe that his teenage daughter hurt herself at this point from rolling her eyes too much.

For my part, I was admiring the sky and wishing I had brought my telescope when I started laughing to myself because this came to mind:

The next morning I went down to the boat launch. It was right where the Black River flows into Lake Arbutus. While the sky was full of clouds, it was still a beautiful and colorful sight.

After bidding my friends farewell and safe travels, I took off in the late morning as I had a 50-mile drive up to Eau Claire ahead of me. I was going to meet my Frau and visit my youngest stepson who had moved there back in late August. What could make him leave civilization and move up nort? Cherchez la femme. He followed his girlfriend, a student at the university, up to the land of clear water and Paul Bunyan. The Frau had bought some clothes online for him but, rather than have them shipped directly to the kid, she brought them with her and had him try them on. She misses him quite a bit. I do too.

His apartment was much cleaner than I expected. The empty pizza boxes and beer cans were confined to one corner of one room. While his bedroom was neat and orderly, his girlfriend copped to having cleaned it recently. She is too good to him.

Eau Claire was much like it was when I lived in the area. Some new stores and new apartments, but no drastic changes that I could discern. I look forward to the spring and another visit up north.

The bonus photo this time is a Goethe mosaic I found on one of my last bike rides for the season.

20 February, 2021

Gotta Keep Those Salt & Vinegar Vibrations A-happenin': Sea Salt and Vinegar Vibes by Late July Snacks

With a few feet of snow on either side of my driveway apron, late July feels like it's aeons away rather than just five months. But anytime is a good time for the folks at Late July Snacks to appeal to all of your positive feelings about the month of July which it describes as "the sweet spot of summer…when life is simple, pure & good." These people are obviously not from Wisconsin because they appear to be blissfully unaware that late July here means hot, humid weather and skies infested with swarms of mosquitoes determined to feast on our blood and make us look carbuncular.

Local climate and fauna aside, Late July sells snacks that are made with organic ingredients so their chips cost a bit more than conventional varieties. In an ingenious marketing gambit, they package their potato chips in these (cardinal?) red bags which really makes them stand out on supermarket shelf. Red, of course, is the same color as blood, the mosquito's food of choice. Coincidence? Red is also the color of passion and desire, qualities I bring when approaching a bag of salt and vinegar chips.

Late July must be run by a bunch of hippies or California ex-pats because these chips are "Sea Salt and Vinegar Vibes". Their other chips too are given groovy descriptors. The BBQ flavored chips are "Laid Back" while the sour cream and onion ones are "Serene". Far out, man!

Any salt experts out there? Does sea salt have any noticeable difference in taste to salt obtained from rocks? Do they leave in bits of jellyfish tentacles or sea turtle poop for a little something extra? Is sea salt cheaper? It just seems to me that sea salt is or, at least, usually is a marketing gimmick. As in, it comes from water, the basis of all life, thusly it's good and pure and natural as opposed to coming from a dark, satanic mill where children labor with bare feet instead of going to school and watching TikTok videos on iPads.

The Sea Salt and Vinegar Vibes chips had a nice roasty spud aroma to them. They were thin – as in your stereotypical potato chip thickness – with a wonderful delicate crispness to them. Late July went easy on that sea salt as I found there was just enough to enhance flavor but they never tasted salty. They also went easy on the vinegar as there was only a touch of tartness to be had.

There was also a kind of smoothness to them which I attribute to other seasoning agents: dried cane syrup, molasses, and tomato powder. My hypothesis is that these ingredients dulled the zippy tang of the vinegar. It's a similar situation that you find with many hot sauces that use extremely hot peppers i.e. – habanero and deadlier. The chili is added to a base of things like carrots, tomatoes, and fruits so that the extreme burn is made more palatable. It's like these chips were made by folks from Minnesota.

And that is my lone knock on these chips. They simply need a stronger vinegar vibe. Otherwise they perfectly cromulent. If you like a milder vinegar taste on your chips, these are the way to go.

17 February, 2021

The Dawning of a New Age: Essential Pilsner by City Lights Brewing Co.

Just how many breweries opened in Milwaukee during 2015-2018? I've sampled Gathering Place, Good City, and 1840, and now it's City Lights' turn. I wouldn't doubt that there are even more.

As was the case with Good City, I've seen the beers of City Lights around for a while. But it has usually been their IPAs or another style that holds little to no interest for my tastebuds. And so I basically put them out of mind. Until recently when I decided to try their Essential Pilsner because, well, it's essential, right?

I had a little flashback upon inspecting the can. The label notes that it uses a traditional Noble hop, Saaz, plus a newer German variety, Saphir, that imparts – quelle surprise – fruity flavors. For whatever reason my mind was cast back several years when I approached a national beer writer on Twitter about, if my memory serves, Goose Island's 4 Star Pils. He had mentioned it was not a traditional pils but fruity and, I guess, more IPL-like. I asked him if the label indicated it was a nouveau/American type of pils.

Big, big mistake.

Out of the gate this guy – I don't remember his name so I'll call him Asshole - starts insulting me, basically saying, "Stop being a retrograde pussy and enjoy the fruitiness." Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting joined in with the insults. A couple of exchanges later Asshole then changed the parameters of the argument and I replied that he had just moved the goalposts. Asshole replied that he can move whatever goalposts, whenever he wants to. Cue more har-hars from Kiser.

"What's wrong with wanting ingredients lists on food products?" I asked at one point. Well, I was just stoopid for wanting to be able to look at a beer's packaging and get some relevant info from it before laying down my luchre.

I felt a bit like the guy from 2112 confronting the craft beer priests and being told "Don’t annoy us further!"

Despite the bad social media memories, I proceeded to try Essential Pilsner anyway.

City Lights began pouring their beers in 2017. The brewing happens in an old building that once belonged to Milwaukee Gas Light Co. and so the name. Reading the company's bio, I discovered that City Lights grew out of 4 Brothers Blended Beer Company which I believe was in Waukesha. (So that's what happened to them.) The idea with 4 Brothers was that they offered beer admixtures. Sand Creek up in Black River Falls brewed beers and a "blendmaster" mixed them together. I had their Whipper Snapper, a blend of American wheat, helles, and amber brews, and thought it was good.

Above I noted that City Lights is a newer Milwaukee brewery like Good City. Their pilsners have something in common as well. If beers were hair styles, these would be mullets. Some traditional malts and a traditional hop variety (short in the front) and then some fruity flavors courtesy of Saphir hops (long in back). While I am not ideologically opposed to a pilsner with a little citrus here or some melon there, the brewer must be judicious in the use of such hops. Someday the novelty of certain hop flavors will wear off.

Essential Pilsner poured a slightly hazy straw color. (I am unsure why my phone's camera decided to focus on a computer in the background instead of the can and glass in the foreground.) A loose, white head dissipated rather quickly.

Taking a whiff, I was a bit surprised at the fruity aroma emanating from my glass. A prominent pineapple and melon scent wasn't off-putting, just a bit stronger than expected. There was also a little something grassy with a hoppy hint of the floral. Lastly, I caught something like honey. The label noted the use of Saaz and Saphir but it seemed that the latter won the olfactory race.

The first thing I have been noticing lately when drinking beer is the carbonation. My notes say "nicely carbonated" which is a highly unspecific way of saying that it's somewhere between flat and champagne levels of fizz. A little bite comes through in the medium-light body but nothing more. I tasted a little cracker, maybe a little breadiness, and (for the trifecta) a little honey-like sweetness. There's rice in this brew so I shouldn't be surprised at the lack of grain flavors. From the hops there was that pineapple/melon-like taste along with a floral flavor.

It finished dryly with some bitterness and grass taste.

Despite not being a big fan of blatantly fruity hops, I liked Essential Pilsner. Yeah, I wish it had more matiness, but the pineapple-melon taste was fine. What I really liked was the floral flavor and wish it had stepped up from the background. I am not a beer taxonomist but, to my mind, "pilsner" is a bit misleading here. Absent is that sharp, sprightly Noble hop spiciness and in its stead is fruit. I guess this is why the brewery refers to it as a "new-age pils". At least the drinker is given fair warning from the label.

Junk food pairing: Pair your Essential Pilsner with something light such as a bag of Quaker Cheddar Rice Crisps.

16 February, 2021

Local Flavor: Slide Sea Salt & Malt Vinegar

I'd been living here in Madison for well over 20 years before I learned that our fair burg used to be home to the third largest maker of potato chips in the nation, Red Dot. When I told my mother-in-law of my discovery, she revealed that she had worked there as a teenager. Founded in 1938 by Frederick J. Meyer, Red Dot lasted until 1973. The Madison factory building still stands at 1435 East Washington.

I think the Mullins Group owns it today and uses it for storage although it seems like items are put on display occasionally in the windowed room on the southeast side of the building. It is prime real estate and wouldn't be surprised to see it get the wrecking ball soon. You can get the Red Dot story from the Wisconsin Historical Society site here.

Forty-two years after the final Red Dot chip rolled out of the fryer, it was finally time once again for Madison to be home to a maker of potato chips. (Is there a term for these people? "Spudsmith"? "Taterwright"?) In 2015, Christine Ameigh was looking for a way to earn a few bucks during the winter months when her Slide Food Cart was out of action. The homemade potato chips available from the cart were popular and so she decided to scale up production for distribution to stores and thus was born Slide Gourmet Potato Chips. The spudsmithery kitchen where all the action takes place is, ironically, on East Washington. (The 2800 block.)

Ameigh has wisely thrown her hat into the salt & vinegar ring and chosen to go with malt vinegar. I have no issue with this as A) malt vinegar is extremely tasty and B) malt vinegar is vinegar.

The first thing I noticed about Slide's chips is that they are thicker than other brands. Nearly twice as thick as other chips, although I have admittedly not put a set of calipers to work in order to get specific numbers. These slices of spud are also darker than you normally see.

It's funny I should type those words because in the process of seeking information about Red Dot, I learned that they "worked closely with the University of Wisconsin's agricultural department to create the perfect potato for chips. The University continued to do research in this area after Red Dot folded and in 1990 introduced the Snowden potato, now considered the ultimate chipping potato." The Snowden was bred at the UW-Lelah Starks Potato Breeding Farm up in Rhinelander which is also responsible for the Wischip potato variety, by the way. We in Wisconsin may be known for cheese but we apparently also have researchers that take potato chips quite seriously.

In trying to find out a bit more about Snowden spuds, I found nothing but technical papers meant for agronomists or food chemists. But I got the impression that one of the reasons Snowdens are so good for chipping is that they require less reconditioning, something I was not familiar with. So I asked a friend of mine who was a food scientist in a former life about this. He replied:

"Temperature causes conversion of sugars to starch and vice versa so reconditioning takes the sugars, mostly sucrose, and converts them to starch which for chips will prevent them from caramelizing or [getting] deep dark brown.  The opposite process is great for vodka production (traditional Russian process)."

I never knew there was so much chemistry involved in potato storage.

Now, does Ameigh use unreconditioned potatoes? I have no idea. Slide is a small operation, not a big mechanized, Taylorized one like Frito Lay so perhaps she can't adhere to industry standard storage practices. Regardless, it is interesting that the Platonic ideal of a potato chip includes very little caramelization and browning which are so tasty. If you want to get an idea of how all of this reconditioning and whatnot affects the flavor of a potato chip, get some Dark Chips from Mrs. Fisher's down in Rockford, IL. They use a variety of potato with more sugar so you get a chip that emerges from the fryer quite browned. Then contrast them against your normal chips.

I found the Slide chips to have a slightly richer, roastier flavor than other chips (besides Dark ones) and I attribute this to the caramelization. The malt vinegar tasted great. It wasn't mouth-puckeringly strong but simply very flavorful. Ameigh showed restraint with the salt shaker. Just enough to enhance the taste but not enough to be intrusive and make the chips taste salty. Because these were thicker than average, the chips lacked a delicate crispness, they lacked that sharp snap when you break them. But they were very crunchy. Heavy but not mealy.

My only complaint is that the magic malt vinegar dust was not evenly distributed amongst the chips. While some could have used more, none had clumps of dust on them. For me, this lack of uniformity is not a big deal. These are great potato chips and they're local for me as well. (I believe they also use Wisconsin-grown potatoes.) Highly recommended.

14 February, 2021

When they eat the Old Dutch, that's them crunching

Old Dutch chips come courtesy of our Mud Duck neighbors to the west in Minnesota. Suburban Twin Cities, to be more specific. Roseville to be exact. And the friendly folks offer salt and vinegar chips, of the kettle variety. As I get older, it seems that more and more things trigger memories and I have good ones of eating Old Dutch chips as a kid. And this despite growing up in Chicago where Jay's were my local favorite. (And still are, truth be told.) I also have more melancholy ones as my father bought me a bag of their dill pickle chips for our drive when moving him down south not too long before his death. Who'd have thunk that humble pieces of fried potatoes could be so fraught with memories?

Speaking of memories, you might recall that in my previous S&V chip review I learned that the kettle preparation involves frying oil temperature, namely, starting on the cooler side and gradually turning it up just like in the Tale of the Boiling Frog. This method causes starch to get into the potato cell walls making them rigid and your chips extra crispy.

Shortly after writing that review, I heard about a scientific experiment involving how potato chip crunch affects our perceptions of tastiness done by a gastrophysicist named Charles Spence.

In 2003, Spence decided to investigate the sonic appeal of chips in a formal setting. To keep a semblance of control, he selected Pringles, which are baked uniformly—a single Pringle doesn't offer any significant difference in size, thickness, or crunch from another. He asked 20 research subjects to bite into 180 Pringles (about two cans) while seated in a soundproof booth in front of a microphone. The sound of their crunching was looped back into a pair of headphones.

After consuming the cans, they were asked if they perceived any difference in freshness or crispness from one Pringle to another. What they didn’t know was that Spence had been playing with the feedback in their headphones, raising or lowering the volume of their noisy crunching [PDF]. At loud volumes, the chips were reported to be fresher; chips ingested while listening at low volume were thought to have been sitting out longer and seemed softer. The duplicitous sounds resulted in a radical difference in chip perception. It may have been a small study, but in the virtually non-existent field of sonic chip research, it was groundbreaking.

Now there's a career!

Mr. McGuire: I want to say three words to you. Just three words.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Sonic chip research.

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in potato chips. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Now, I haven't exact tried to replicate Spence's research but think about it. How do you perceive soggy potato chips? As defective? Will you think about it?

As one would expect with a kettle chip these Dutch Crunchers were indeed very crunchy. The label says they were fried in sunflower and/or canola oil, which both seem to be common oils for potato chips. It's also common for chip makers to not have the ability to tell you what kind of oil was actually used. I wonder why this is. Whichever variety is cheaper at a certain time? Can Redditors mess with canola oil futures and push the price of potato chips up to $10/bag?

I found these to be light and crisp and to have a pleasant middle of the road vinegar tang. This means that it is considered an extreme food in its native Minnesota where Norwegian-Americans recoil from anything spicier than melted butter. The chips registered a bit less on the saltiness scale and they had a nice potato flavor - earthy and a little sweet.

These were very tasty chips.

13 February, 2021

Exeunt, Pursued by a Beer: The Winter's Ale by Summit Brewing Company

When I get to the Minnesota section of the beer coolers at my local liquor repository, there's usually a lot of Surly, a little Schell, and a selection of Summit beers that falls between the two. Almost without fail there are six-packs of their Sága IPA and, because I've watched a surfeit of Nordic noir TV shows, I always think of a scene from the Swedish/Danish program The Bridge when I see them. In the show, two cops seek a killer and one of them is named Saga. Upon seeing that IPA I always hear her partner, Martin, yell "Saga!" - pronounced "say-guh" and not like the term for a Viking tale of derring-do.

Summit Brewing Company opened in 1986, a member of what I suppose is the second wave of microbrewery openings. Or does the mid-80s still count as first wave? Regardless, it's the grandpappy of Minnesota craft breweries. Yeah, August Schell opened around the time the Civil War was getting underway but that makes it a legacy brewery, not a product of the late 20th century microbrewing trend. If you look at Wikipedia's list of Minnesota breweries, most of them have opened in the past 10 years and all except 4 opened this century. Were Minnesotans just hidebound in their love for Hamm's? Or maybe the Gopher State was saddled with some restrictive beer laws until fairly recently.

While Summit brews enough beer to be in the top 25 craft breweries nationally, I rarely see it mentioned. Perhaps this is simply because I don't follow many Minnesotans on Twitter. But, if they are brewing somewhere in the vicinity of 120,000 barrels a year, somebody is drinking it. This humility is typical of the Upper Midwest where braggadocio and ostentatiousness are left to coasties.

Truth be known, I don't drink a lot of Summit but I have some every few months. Their Dakota Soul and Keller Pils are both great beers. Feeling like it had been too long since their beer had graced my refrigerator, I picked up their Winter Ale, it being winter and all. Minnesota is just next door and they feel the brunt of Old Man Winter just like we do so it should hit the spot.

A small off-white head sat atop a sea of deep, dark reddish brown. Sadly, the foam dissipated rather quickly. Still, it looked like a heady brew. Overall, it had a rather sweet aroma full of raisin and toffee. "Very bock-like thus far," I thought to myself. "Nice."

And it tasted not totally unlike a bock too. There was a moderate malt sweetness with a little raisin in there as well as some bread. Maybe even a hint of tobacco somewhere in the background as well. It was well carbonated with a nice fizzy bite. But, unlike bocks generally, it was oddly light-bodied. The finish was pleasantly dry with hops giving a lasting peppery/minty zing that really lingered.

I cannot honestly say this was a bad beer, because it wasn't. However, it was rather thin to my taste. The flavors were all quite good but I was expecting a bit more of them to build something headier for a winter seasonal. Very much on the plus side was the minty burst after I swallowed. It left a burning sensation on my tongue that was truly bracing, though not excessive. It was wonderful.

This was my first taste of Winter Ale so I cannot compare it to batches from years past. Maybe it was lighter than usual this year. Until next winter, I will stick with Dakota Soul or Keller Pils.

Junk food pairing: To compensate for the lack of body, get yourself a bag of cinnamon sugar lefse chips and consume liberally.