June

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“Language Alters Our Experience of Time” by Panos Athanasopoulos (The Conversation) [contains Arrival spoilers]

This is a fascinating explanation of how language shapes our conception of time. Athanasopoulos categorizes languages into “future-in-front” or “future-is-behind” patterns. These patterns, which employ a vertical time axis, are further juxtaposed with languages like Mandarin Chinese, which employs a horizontal time axis (such that “last week” is expressed “up one week” and “next week” is expressed “down week”). Subtle differences in linguistic conventions can even influence the way we experience the passage of time (for instance, whether we judge time as a distance–a long or short period–or volume–a big or small period).

Athanasopoulos claims that our individual conceptualizations of time are flexible; hence, learning a new language with a different temporal construct enables an individual to perceive the passage of time in a novel manner. This, of course, has wider implications, suggesting that learning a new language may grant access to an entire new set of mental models.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross

From The New Yorker’s music critic, this is an account of the composers and musicians who defined twentieth century music and an exploration of the cultural and historical contexts that inspired them. This is not a musicology of the bestsellers of the century per se, but of the mavericks who defied conventional composition. The Rest Is Noise is particularly compelling in how it juxtaposes these composers with major societal factors of their time (like totalitarianism in World War II or racial inequality in the United States at the turn of the century).

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Science Solved It (Motherboard)

Motherboard’s newest podcast explores mysterious and once-unsolved phenomena that have since been explained scientifically. The inaugural episode features “the bloop,” a mysterious and incomprehensibly loud sound captured by underwater microphones in the Pacific in 1997. I was fascinated by the bloop as a child.

My favorite episode of this season features the Marfa lights, a pattern of mysterious glowing lights visible (and frequently spectated) in the desert east of Marfa, Texas.

Dawes and Anchor Steam

It’s a mistake to talk about California musical tradition without acknowledging Laurel Canyon, the secluded Hollywood Hills neighborhood that once housed a countercultural music community often compared to the Greenwich Village scene.

Laurel Canyon had previously been a sort of getaway destination for silent movie stars. Later, in the mid-1960s, it became known for the abundance of rock and folk songwriters who either lived in the Canyon or were associated with somebody who did. (Think: Frank Zappa. The Doors. The Byrds. Joni Mitchell. The Mamas and the Papas. Jackson Browne. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The Eagles. Carole King. James Taylor.)

Laurel Canyon essentially became a creative hub for late-1960s and early-1970s musicians in the newly minted folk rock canon. According to producer Lou Adler, it’s where rock made its transition from cool to mellow. Vanity Fair, in a video that’s only slightly tongue-in-cheek, suggests Carole King’s album art for Tapestry embodies the spirit of Laurel Canyon: pop’s natural woman, in her Laurel Canyon home on Wonderland Avenue, sitting beside her cat, Telemachus, who is sitting on an exotically upholstered pillow. (Compare this to the Greenwich Village scene’s album art paragon, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which reflects a more urban and arguably less mellow bohemianism.)

As Laurel Canyon mellowed out, many of its artists gradually fell out of vogue while hard rock took over elsewhere. While the canyon itself isn’t a nexus of folk rock today, a number of artists have recently emerged that draw influence from what has been called the Laurel Canyon sound.

Nobody has captured this sound with as much purity as Dawes, who debuted in 2009 with the appropriately Angeleno album title North Hills. Dawes, whose lyrics routinely acknowledge their “Californian side,” are a quintessential contemporary example of Californian folk rock. To hear Jackson Browne’s influence in Taylor Goldsmith’s songwriting would be perfectly astute: early in their career, Dawes supported him on tour, and he sang backing vocals on their song “Fire Away,” which would be perfectly in place on Browne’s 1977 album Running On Empty.

 

I wanted to find a somewhat approachable beer that reflects Angeleno brewing as well as Dawes embodies the city’s musical tradition. This, it turns out, isn’t an easy task.

According to an article by KCET in Los Angeles, beginning in the 1880s, several factors converged that shaped L.A.’s pre-prohibition beer economy. The arrival of German immigrants brought skilled brewers into the area while advancements in transportation and refrigeration allowed those brewers to make lagers–bottom-fermenting beers which require colder fermentation temperatures. Lagers, which are largely associated with German brewing, were popular in the American Northeast but previously difficult to brew somewhere with a consistently warm climate like L.A.’s.

Elsewhere in the United States in the 19th century, brewing was dominated by top-fermenting ales. This is can be attributed to a lack of refrigeration, limited access to ice (which at that point had to be imported from Canada in massive blocks), and preferences for beer inherited from the ale-loving British. Thus, it was unusual (and perhaps a product of the later settlement of the American West) that L.A.’s early brewing scene would be dominated by lagers. (Although it is conceivable that Angelenos, of whatever descent, would prefer the light, refreshing qualities associated with lagers.)

Joseph Maier and George Zobelein were among the city’s first wave of brewers. The two partnered in 1882 but eventually parted ways and oversaw Maier Brewing Company and Los Angeles Brewing Company respectively. For years, these breweries dominated L.A.’s young market, but, like all of the nation’s breweries, they were stymied by prohibition. Maier Brewing Company in particular was devastated: federal agents seized the brewery’s equipment after it was found to be operating illegally, selling beer containing alcohol well above the 0.5% cap imposed by the Volstead Act (possibly against then-owner Edward Maier’s knowledge). It took Edward Maier another seven years after prohibition ended to regain control of his company.

After the ratification of the 21st amendment formally ended prohibition, both Maier and Los Angeles Brewing Company prospered. This continued through the end of World War II, but in the post-war period both companies faced insurmountable competition from national brands. Maier was acquired and relocated by a San Francisco businessman, who continued to produce its flagship beer for another fourteen years. Los Angeles Brewing Company was purchased by Pabst, who rebranded its Eastside beer as a cheaper alternative to Pabst Blue Ribbon. In 1979, out-competed by Anheuser-Busch and Miller, Pabst ceased its L.A. operations and discontinued the Eastside brand.

Despite the craft beer revival of the 1990s and 2000s, L.A. was slow to open new breweries. (According to an LA Times article on the resurgence of microbrewing in the city, Eagle Rock Brewery, which opened in 2009, was the first brewery to open in L.A. since the 1950s.) That being the case, no contemporary beer nor brewery has emerged that strikes me as quintessentially Angeleno. Even while a small handful of breweries have opened, none are especially recognized for brewing the lagers for which L.A. was once known.

Instead, I want to suggest a beer that isn’t produced in L.A. In fact, Anchor Steam is produced a few hundred miles north in San Francisco but shares some similarities with the earliest beers produced in L.A.

A German immigrant named Gottlieb Brekle arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and promptly established a brewery, which was soon purchased by another German brewer, Ernst Baruth, and his son-in-law, Otto Schnikel, Jr. They renamed the brewery Anchor in 1896.

Anchor, or the brewery that would become Anchor, produced a style of lager known as steam beer, which was common across California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Essentially, steam beers were lagers brewed without refrigeration. This was necessary to keep the beer inexpensive: at the time, mechanical refrigeration wasn’t widespread, and ice wasn’t produced locally.

While there are conflicting explanations for the origin of the term “steam beer,” it is likely derived from steam created by the unconventional methods by which brewers were forced to chill the beer. Without access to ice or mechanical refrigeration, brewers still needed a way to chill the wort quickly after boiling. Anchor’s solution involved pumping the hot wort to the brewery’s roof. There, it would sit in a shallow, open top bin called a coolship (which was traditionally used by Belgian lambic brewers) where it would be chilled by the cool Pacific air. As the wort chilled, steam would rise from its surface and therefore appear to rise from the roof of the brewery.

Anchor was beset by a number of tragedies and inconveniences in the early 20th century (including the San Francisco earthquake, prohibition, and a fire) and later struggled to compete with larger national brands. That said, despite several moves and a short closure, it remains open today and is recognized as one of the nation’s oldest breweries and in modern times as one of the nation’s first craft breweries.

Anchor holds a trademark on “Steam” beer, but that trademark is more reflective of the brand than the style. Today’s Anchor Steam isn’t a traditional steam beer at all (that style being effectively extinct due to the advent of mechanical refrigeration) but is instead a style known as California common beer. The California common style resembles, in some ways, steam beer for a modern palate: it essentially incorporates hops more prominently and is fermented by a special lager yeast that performs well at slightly higher temperatures. Essentially, it’s a controlled way of producing a good lager at a warm temperature.

In many ways Anchor Steam is a fresh and novel product of California’s sesquicentennial brewing history. Steam, and the California Common style of beer, are distinctly Californian. In that way, Anchor Steam strikes me as a suitable companion to Dawes. I suggest enjoying it with either of the band’s first two albums, North Hills and Nothing Is Wrong.

May

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Kids In The Street by Justin Townes Earle (Bandcamp)

Of Justin Townes Earle’s recent releases, I may prefer Single Mothers and Absent Fathers, but Kids In The Street remains my favorite album released this month. It strikes me as more sanguine and even more cheerful than the several albums that preceded it, which is presumably reflective of Earle’s maturity, sobriety, and marriage. My favorite track is “Maybe a Moment,” which he calls his “best Bruce Springsteen impersonation.”

 

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“Watch the Hands, Not the Cards–The Magic of Megabrew” by Chris Herron (Good Beer Hunting)

Chris Herron (of Creature Comforts in Athens, GA) explains why Wicked Weed was a smart and important acquisition for AB InBev, whose focus currently is to mitigate the threat of craft beer to its legacy brands (think Budweiser, Bud Light, and so on).

(Thanks, Will.)

Imbibe: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar by David Wondrich

This is a James Beard Award-winning exploration of 19th century American cocktails through the lens of Jerry Thomas, considered the father of the American bar. Wondrich establishes that cocktails are largely an American invention and consequently are among the first crafts in which Americans could claim international excellence. Imbibe includes a somewhat chronological reproduction of Thomas’s recipes which reflect the evolution of early American cocktails.

Proof: The Science of Booze by Adam Rogers

From Wired’s articles editor, this is an entertaining investigation into the basic science behind fermented and distilled drinks, explaining the roles of yeast and sugar, the processes of fermentation, distillation, and aging, and the physiological effects of alcohol. It’s particularly interesting that Rogers chose to emphasize the disparity between Eastern and Western fermentation strategies.

April

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“Chris Schooley of Troubadour Maltings” (Good Beer Hunting)

This Good Beer Hunting episode features Chris Schooley, a maltster and former coffee roaster attempting to establish a niche market for malts. Schooley’s hope is that brewers will approach malts with the same excitement and intrigue that are often reserved for hop varieties.

I had the pleasure of meeting Chris Schooley at this year’s Global Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle (I’ve known of him from his Firestarters column in Roast, a favorite source of inspiration to me as a coffee professional). This interview is fantastic and I’d recommend it to anybody with more than a casual interest in beer or coffee.

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Regarding Cocktails by Sasha Petraske and Georgette Moger-Petraske

This is a collection of cocktail recipes and wisdom from the late Sasha Petraske, the famed New York City bartender behind the legendary cocktail bar Milk & Honey. Each recipe follows a short anecdote from friends, bartenders, and business partners of Petraske’s plus stunning minimalist illustrations by Studio Lin.

I can’t publish the recipe here, but my favorite drink from this collection so far has been the Bicycle Thief, a slightly bitter and very refreshing fizz inspired by the film of the same name and containing gin, Campari, grapefruit, lemon, simple syrup, and club soda.

Something to Food About: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs by Questlove

I admire Questlove for reasons that have as much to do with his writing as his skill as a musician. (See his series in Vulture on the recent history of hip hop, beginning with “How Hip Hop Failed Black  America.”) This beautifully designed book is a compilation of interviews with world renowned chefs exploring creativity in cooking and culinary philosophy.

John Hartford, Wendell Berry, Ettore Sottsass, and Terroir in Brewing

Among my favorite folk songs is John Hartford’s “In Tall Buildings,” a short lament for the worldly beauty and joy forfeited while its narrator works an unwanted career. It concludes with this narrator looking towards the future, when his debts are paid and his retirement allows leisure once again, wondering what lovely things he missed while working in offices in the city.

“In Tall Buildings

Someday my baby
when I am a man
and others have taught me
the best they can
they’ll sell me a suit
and cut off my hair
and send me to work in tall buildings

So its goodbye to the sunshine
goodbye to the dew
goodbye to flowers
and goodbye to you
I’m off to the subway
I must not be late
I’m going to work in tall buildings

And when I’m retired
my life is my own
I’ve made all my payments
it’s time to go home
and wonder what happened
betwixt and between
when I went to work in tall buildings

John Hartford, 1973

For good measure, here’s Gregory Alan Isakov’s rendition:

 

I can’t help thinking of Wendell Berry when hearing “In Tall Buildings.” I find relevance in Berry’s Mad Farmer poems, including “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” written in the same year. (Regrettably, I haven’t yet gotten the line breaks to format correctly on mobile.) Berry’s poem reads:

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion–put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice Resurrection.

Wendell Berry, 1973

The Mad Farmer suggests contrariness as a path to truth. Initially, he warns that the allure of profit, consumption, and privacy undermine individual agency and therefore limit each person’s capacity to recognize and prioritize other values. Contrarianism is his means of subversion: to truly worship God, conserve nature, celebrate freedom, and practice community, one must habitually “do something that won’t compute” within the context of modern society. In some ways the Mad Farmer’s economic philosophy appears to echo Paul, who wrote in Philippians 3:7 “…whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Seeking profit competes with seeking truth, and so “the quick profit” is at odds with the practice of resurrection. (Hear Berry read “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer,” another poem in the series, here.)

Embracing the Mad Farmer’s manifesto has certain tacit implications for the artist, who is not immune to such a misdirection of values. Berry’s attitude echoes in an essay by the Austrian artist and designer Ettore Sottsass entitled “When I Was a Very Small Boy.” Writing in the same year as Berry, Sottsass rebukes the influence of consumerism over design and the commodification of art in general.

Sottsass’s abbreviated essay is poignant and worthy of reading in its entirety. In summary, he writes that as a child, he felt it natural to draw and to build things and felt autonomous in that creativity. “Everything we did was entirely absorbed in the act of doing it, in wanting to do it,” he writes, “and everything we did stayed ultimately inside a single extraordinary sphere of life. The design was life itself… it was an awareness of the world around us, of materials and lights, distances and weights, resistance, fragilities, use and consumption, birth and death.”

Aging, for Sottsass, meant succumbing to an apparently necessary economy of art and design. Where he was once motivated to create by a rich and beautiful life, at the time of his writing he was being urged to make designs that catered to demand–demand for functional, affordable consumer products.

In some ways the sorrow in his reaction echoes that expressed in Hartford’s lyrics: Sottsass writes, “…goodbye bright Blue planet, goodbye melodious seasons, goodbye stones, dust, leaves, ponds, and dragon flies, goodbye boiling-hot days, dead dogs by the roadside, shadows in the wood like prehistoric dragons, goodbye Planet, by now I feel as if I do the things I do sitting in a bunker of damp artificial light and conditioned air, sitting at this white laminate table, sitting in this silver plastic chair, captain of a spaceship traveling at thousands of miles an hour, squashed against this seat–immobile in the sky.”

“I would like to think that the old happy state that I once knew could somehow be brought back; the happy state in which “design” or art–so called art–was life, in which life was art, I mean creativity, I mean it was the awareness of belonging to the Planet and to the pulsing history of the people that are with us.”

Hartford, Berry, and Sottsass all graze a similar theme. Hartford sings of a world in which one loses touch with the natural beauty of the world upon entering the workforce. Berry warns of a world in which profit and privacy supplant truthseeking and community. Sottsass recounts a harmony of art and life unsupportive of a commodification of design. Each finds industry at ends with joy and beauty.

Beer isn’t a perfect analogue, but I think we’re seeing a relevant and related dichotomy in brewing. The past several years have seen a rapid increase in the demand for craft beer–a segment of the market experiencing double digit growth in 2014 and 2015–and an influx of new capital available to craft breweries. Long term growth strategies usually orient around meeting this demand–adding more tanks, building a larger facility, and so on. But beer distribution laws complicate expansion: to prevent some of the aggressive anti-competitive strategies employed by large breweries before Prohibition, most states have adopted some form of what is called the three tier system. In the three tier system, breweries are required to use an independent distributor to bring their beers to market. So in most states distributors, not breweries, are responsible for bringing beers to bars and bottle shops. Because the 21st Amendment established that alcohol would be regulated at the state level, significant time and money are generally required before a brewery can expand distribution to a new, out-of-state market.

In result, “growth” for most craft breweries involves brewing more beer and selling that beer over a larger and larger geographic area. Hubbub is made over this expansion: a brewery launches in a new state, and instantaneously its beers occupy shelves and tap handles statewide, and soon they repeat the same launch in another state.

You can expect this sort of expansion out of most successful breweries because, frankly, that’s how they make more money, expose their brand, and hedge against competitive forces in an economy in which new breweries open at a mind-blowing rate. Once a brewery has sufficiently occupied its local market, growth is heavily focused on the task of increasing distribution.

A handful of exceptional breweries exist that brew incredibly coveted beers, but haven’t made haste to expand distribution. In an extreme case, I’ll point to Brouwerij Westvleteren, the Belgian Trappist brewery that only produces enough beer to adequately fund their monastery and philanthropy (despite their Westvleteren 12 Quad being likely the most coveted beer in the world).

A less extreme case can be made of Hill Farmstead, a small Vermont farmhouse brewery that exemplifies what it means to have a broad understanding of terroir. Shaun Hill opened the brewery at the site of his grandfather’s dairy farm and recently decided to cap production indefinitely at 150,000 gallons–a paltry volume for a production brewery. As he told the New York Times, this decision supports his philosophy that beer is perishable and should be consumed fresh, and therefore that beer should be consumed locally. Traditional expansion is the antithesis of this philosophy: success is predicated on increasing sales, and therefore eventually involves diminishing the locality of the product in some manner. For Hill Farmstead, increasing production would require adding a water source–currently every beer is brewed with water from the farmstead’s well–and that’s to say nothing of the need for a larger industrial facility. Furthermore, it would limit the brewery’s ability to ensure that bottles are consumed quickly and kegs are tapped upon arrival–objectives Hill Farmstead has caused controversy in pursuing in past years.

I think there is also also room to argue that Hill Farmstead’s philosophy on brewing contributes as much to terroir as do well water from the farmstead itself and local malts and local hops and local yeast cultures. If terroir is defined such as it is in wine–that terroir is the taste attributed to a particular place at a particular time–then Shaun Hill’s radical commitment to staying small has as much to do with the unique flavor of his beers as do the resultant locality of the ingredients he uses as do the names of his beers–many of which pay homage to the generations of his family who lived on and worked the same land where he now produces their namesake beers.

Because Hill Farmstead’s beers are extremely hard to find outside of northern Vermont, I want to offer another, more available brewery that practices this ethos in Jester King. While Jester King upholds the importance of locale and terroir–emphasizing their use of well water, locally grown and malted grains, and wild yeast from the Texas Hill Country–their beers are certainly more accessible in many places.

This relative accessibility is perhaps consistent with Jester King’s vision. Ron Extract, a founding and former brewer at Jester King, cites his love of imported European beers as an inspiration. “The results,” he says, “…justify the cost of shipping [European beers] halfway around the world so we can enjoy them closer to home. At the same time, I also felt that if there were more authentic artisan brewers closer to home who embraced the European approach, importing would no longer be quite as necessary.”

Jester King’s focus on old world brewing methods–especially spontaneous fermentation, which involves the use of wild yeast and bacteria–coincides with this focus on locality and terroir. Founder Jeffrey Stuffings writes, “A world wide resurgence of spontaneous fermentation, if anything, is a reversion back to how much of beer was fermented centuries ago. It also helps create regional distinctions, terroir, and a sense of place in beer.”

I highly recommend trying anything from Jester King if available–though their distribution has expanded, they’re still relatively difficult to find outside of Austin. Many of their beers are sour, tart, or funky due to the effects of spontaneous fermentation. I recommend Le Petit Prince (a dry, tart table beer) and Ol Oi (a barrel aged sour brown ale), but have yet to be disappointed in anything I’ve been able to find of theirs.