St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: May 2012

You are browsing the site archives by month.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Past – Stephen King’s 11/22/63

I like Stephen King.

I do.

I keep reading his books even though they frequently take on weird turns. He has his strengths. His dialogue seems a little hokey until you realize that he tries to mirror actual human dialogue and most of what we say on a daily basis is piffle. I greeted someone the other day with “What up, Sasquatch.” Stephen King’s dialogue is not outside of the realm of possibility.

His characterization is usually better with minor characters. I don’t know what it is that falls apart in his main characters. I think that possibly the level of doubt and uncertainty that exist in all of our decisions on a day to day basis end up making us confused, but in a lot of cases, I think he tends to stretch chapters with that. There are inevitably scenes that stretch out character decisions in such a way as to render characters unlikeable. I do not know if he is doing this on purpose, but it may be forgiven in some cases.

Recently, he’s been getting better. I think that when he was hit by a car, it was preoccupying. It would be. Try to imagine being hit by a car. Maybe your femur gets shattered by a bumper. Maybe you hit your head so hard on the pavement that you lose everything for a while. It would be a terrible thing.

I almost gave up on him when he inserted himself into the Dark Tower series.  I don’t find the ending of the series particularly glaring. I figure if a man writes 7000 pages, he gets to do what he wants with the ending. Good for him. The problem was that it seemed like he was going to go permanently metafictional.

Cell was not a great outing. Duma Key was better. Under The Dome practically measured up to The Stand. I think he has problems getting outside his own frame of reference. Subculture seems to be foreign to him. I think he also has issues assuming science fiction paradigms created by others. Also, the Simpsons did it.

11/22/63 is amiable enough. I read it recently and continued turning the pages. He has that knack.  He can make you flip pages.

I learned something from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 when I was watching the episode where they riff on Overdrawn At The Memory Bank. It’s a bad movie starring Raul Julia. In the movie, they show the opening sequence from Casablanca on a monitor in an immediate and obvious fashion. The comment one of the robots make is, I think “Never show a better movie in your movie.”

Throughout 11/22/63, they make reference to the Butterfly Effect.

Do you know why the Butterfly Effect is called the Butterfly Effect?

I only know this because I was a Ray Bradbury fan growing up. I have the issue of Weird Science Fantasy from EC Comics in a polybag somewhere that has the first printing of that story. My favourite Ray Bradbury story is probably The Scythe followed by The Veldt. Somewhere, not too far down the list is A Sound of Thunder.

A Sound of Thunder deals with a Time Safari Company. They offer you the chance to go back in time and hunt a T-Rex. It  is heavily implied that the T-Rex is probably on its last legs when you start shooting. If it dies where it’s supposed to, nothing bad will happen.

Oh hell, I’m not going to explain it. Read the thing.

See? The dumb bastard stepped on a butterfly and the difference was enough to change the future in an unpredictable way.  I particularly like Bradbury’s treatment of it.

Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.

“Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!” cried Eckels.

It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time. Eckels’ mind whirled. It couldn’t change things. Killing one butterfly couldn’t be that important! Could it?

So, look. The problem with 11/22/63 is one of scale. If, as you know if you’ve read time travel fiction, a small change can make a big one, then 11/22/63 is guaranteed to be a loser. The protagonist emerges in 1958 and has to live in the past for five years in order to attempt to stop the Kennedy assassination. That the protagonist is an English teacher is just embarrassing. I have to assume that any English teacher would have read A Sound of Thunder.  It is one of the most heavily reprinted science fiction stories of all time. It was the most widely reprinted science fiction story in the world from its publication in 1953 up until 1984.

Bradbury must be happy with that.

The problem with the novel is that King expects us to believe that an otherwise intelligent man who is an ENGLISH TEACHER not to have ever read or viewed any of the works that deal with time travel. Like…. I don’t know….

The Time Machine, A Sound of Thunder, anything by Jasper Fforde in the Tuesday Next series, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Terminators 1-3, Back To The Future, 12 Monkeys, The Hitchhikers Guide, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Any episode of Dr. Who, Slaughterhouse Five, Time and Again, Time after Time (which is sort of insufferable because of Malcolm McDowell), Timequake, Harry Potter, The FRIGGIN Langoliers (which King actually wrote and is a better thing than 11/22/63), Planet of the Apes, Time Bandits, Star Trek IV, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Army of Darkness, Groundhog Day, Austin Powers, an actual movie CALLED The Butterfly Effect, Futurama, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (which is excellent), Hot Tub Time Machine and Midnight in Paris.

Consider that the protagonist is meant to be 35 and living in 2011. Much of this stuff would have been obvious pop culture fodder for a character’s background.

Let’s give him a pass. Let’s say that Jake Epping, the hero, is a nice fellow but that he doesn’t get out much. Let’s give him that and say he doesn’t know Michael J. Fox from Christoper Lloyd.

King actually lampshades A Sound Of Thunder in the closing chapters of the book. Not through the protagonist, but through his girlfriend. She comes out and says that she knows what the Butterfly Effect is because of the Bradbury story.

Clearly, this is King messing with us. He must be, right? No one would be that glaringly obtuse.

The worst part is this: He attempts a framework to explain the alternate timelines. He gives us the card men. It is never explained what they actually do. We know they are human, but that means nothing. Where are they from? This could have been explained in a damn chapter. Six pages. Who are the time police? What do they do? He never explains this.  Oh, sure, he shows us the consequences of the changed past, but do they all stem from the circumstances surrounding the assassination of JFK? We never find out what changed what. Anything could change anything. Any character spending thousands of dollars in the past could change a huge amount without realizing it. The assumption that the big change is the only one that matters is tantamount to a slap in the brain.

It’s unforgivable. If you are unwilling to deal with the omission of any sort of pop culture knowledge from the protagonist and also unwilling to create a defacto system of rules for time travel within your own work, then you have nothing in terms of cogent information upon which to decide whether anything that transpires is valid.

I’ll give him one thing: His portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald is probably fairly accurate. He did his research at length and it shows.

I can’t really recommend 11/22/63. Its flaws are too glaring. It could have been paired down by two hundred pages. I’m a nerd, but not really a time travel nerd and even I thought this was weak. It’s so weak that it makes me angry hours after finishing it. Good characterization of the villain of the piece and a classy ending earn it a 2/5. Maybe you should read it if you like Stephen King.

Actually, if you like Stephen King, go read Blockade Billy instead. It’s a better indication of what he’s still capable of. I have no doubt that at some point in the near future he’s going to hit on a winner. This wasn’t it.

Bellwoods Brewery

People have already written about Bellwoods Brewery. I sort of suspected that would happen out of the gate. It seems like everyone in beer in Toronto has been there. I knew it was going to be a big deal when my next door neighbour, Dave, mentioned in passing that he had heard really good things about it. Dave isn’t a beer guy. When the hype gets to the point that people I barely know are suggesting story ideas for the paper, that’s a pretty good sign that the thing is going to take off.

I wanted to wait a month before going in. I figured that they’d have everything just so before opening, and that turned out to be correct. When their regular operations started in April, they had already been brewing for two months. That’s enough time to make sure that all of the beer is in the right shape. I wanted to see what it looked like on a regular day.

I managed to wait almost exactly a month.

The main impression that I’ve come away with, having had a day or so to think about it, is how modular everything is. I suppose that the closest approximation I can come up with is LEGO. Everything is designed to fit together in a way that belies the simplicity of the concept. You can do just about anything with a modular design, and it feels to me like they may have approached the problem this way.

I’ll give you an example. The brewery itself is actually smaller than my apartment. I’m not aware of many operating breweries on a smaller footprint in Toronto. There are some that are smaller in terms of the volume that they produce, but in terms of sheer ability to condense a brewery into the space, Bellwoods is impressive.

They have somehow managed to fit a 7BBL brewing system, 3 14BBL fermenters, one 7 BBL fermenter and two 7 BBL bright tanks into that space. The bright tanks are actually stacked on top of each other. This is not a solution that a lot of people would have gone with, but it needed to work in the space. Not only do they have this equipment, but a pilot system. The keg washer is mobile. The bottle filler will eventually be mobile. A barrel aging area has been set up on racks. This is clearly a case of brewers having had to find a solution to work with the building, but somehow it doesn’t feel cramped.

I stepped off the bus directly in front of the brewery and one of the brewers was outside cutting molding for the blackboards with a mitre saw. To me, this explains a lot. Mike Clark and Luke Pestl are clearly DIY types. The fact that I unwittingly showed up early allowed me to see a little bit of this. If you own a brewery, you’re going to end up fixing things. The relative ease with which Luke was gliding around fixing things is not something I’ve come across frequently. Molding. Ladder. Nailgun. Done.

In point of fact, I was sitting at the bar, watching him install a glass rinsing station when they started serving drinks. I think it took something like ten minutes. This happened between brewing and setting up for the day.

The design is spare, favouring form over function. There is restraint and taste at work here. Brewpubs accumulate bric-a-brac over the course of their existence, but Bellwoods has kept it basic. Rough hewn wooden shelves hold the simply branded glassware. The walls are white, featuring photographs and sketches. The original print that was used for logo design hangs over the bar.

The approach to the beer list is modular as well. I tried samples of all of the beers being offered, and they’re all very well made. There’s no timidity here. I think that the Berliner Weisse was my least favorite of the available beers, but this is because I was expecting a slightly more tart yeast character. For the iron brewers competition last year, Luke had produced a Berliner Weisse with yeast he had caught himself. If this minute quibble is the best I can muster regarding their lineup, then they must be doing something right.

The tap list hangs together well. I think Mike and Luke are aware that not all of the beers on offer can be directed at beer nerds, but they’re still finding a balance on the tap list. While the Witch Shark Double IPA has been much lauded, there are relatively few beers on the list lighter in alcohol than 6.0%. The Common Pale Ale, which survived the launch of the brewery, looks to be on the chopping block as they experiment with finding sessionable beers that will fit in with the rest of the lineup. Why? Because it doesn’t thrill them.

There’s no such thing as a flagship brand at Bellwoods. Everything is changeable. Every beer can be replaced.

The same sense of modularity carries through to the food menu. There is enough variety to make sure that everyone is happy, but it’s a seasonal list. The list will change as the chef is inspired or as the seasons dictate. Personally, I was happy to see a cheese list that included not only local Canadian cheeses, but a Brie de Meaux, which is something of an old school favorite. There is a sense that things can be swapped out. Even the more esoteric offerings, like the skewer of Duck Hearts in Charred Jalapeno Oil are a great deal more accessible than I would have thought.

While I was there, I talked with Luke and Mike about their patio. “So when are you going to buy chairs?” was my question. It doesn’t work like that at Bellwoods. They’re going to build their own patio furniture. And a pergola. And railings. And they’re going to open a bottle shop. And they’re going to knock through to next door and add more fermenters. And they’re going to fill growlers. And they’re going to get more barrels going. And they’re going to take over the world.

I get the feeling that this is as much a brewery as an ongoing renovation. It’s DIY heaven. It will grow and expand and the offerings will probably become more elaborate. Mike and Luke don’t seem to me to be the kind of guys who will settle for having a set taplist or a set menu. These are guys who enjoy a project. I don’t know what Bellwoods will look like a year from now, but I can guarantee you that the shadow they cast will be a great deal larger than the 350 square feet their brewery takes up.

Green Flash OR At Least I Learned Something

Sometimes, you’ll have one of those moments where the things that you have learned suddenly snap into place and you’re left talking competently about a subject that you thought you didn’t care about. The second semester at Niagara College was based largely around the scientific aspects of brewing. Of course there’s all manner of information available about the ingredients that go into making beer, but the equipment being used in order to facilitate all of that action is important too.

The difficulty is that I wasn’t there for the first month or so of the second semester and never really caught up. The thing you have to understand about Niagara College is that if you’re going to go there to learn about beer, you have to move there. Well, St. Catharines, anyway. There were a couple of students in first year who were commuting from Toronto, but they fared rather better than I did because they were on the same schedule and had the ability to carpool. A sense of camaraderie is important in a situation like this.

In my case, I would get up at about 5:30, drink several cups of coffee, get to the Bay/Dundas bus terminal by 7:00 (leaving the house at 6:30), get on the bus, get to St. Catharines about 8:25, get on the bus to Niagara College and then get to school no earlier than 8:43. I would go to whatever classes there were and then get back on the bus and commute the two and a half hours to my apartment. If you consider the cost of the return trip including the TTC fare… well, don’t.

People ask why I didn’t just drive: I don’t drive. I know how in a vague “I’ve played a lot of Need For Speed Underground” kind of way, although I suspect that I would probably confuse the windshield wiper lever for the nitro booster jets in a real car. What do you mean they don’t have nitro booster jets in real cars? Friend, I think you’re mistaken. Next, you’ll be telling me that carbon fiber doesn’t make it go faster.

For about five months I was doing really well. I made honor roll the first semester, which was good. Then I got offered a book to write and I had to do that and the technical stuff fell aside. Deadlines would crop up, or I’d have to write a column (for which the deadline is usually Thursday. So much for that afternoon class.) Eventually, with the number of tasks to perform, commuting 4-5 hours a day was impossible.

People ask why I didn’t just work on the bus. I did. Sometimes. Initially. Eventually you just get run down and tired. I slept for three days after first semester. You get sick because you’re on a bus with people sneezing and coughing. Also, brewing technology is a pretty hands on kind of thing. The driver frowns on dismantling a pump on the bus.

Essentially what happened was that I started writing about beer in order to get into brewing school and by the time I was in brewing school it was more or less the main source of income and therefore the thing to prioritize. I more or less inadvertently succeeded my way out of the original plan.

The thing is this: You can write about anything. You can’t bloody well brew about anything. Try brewing a treatise on Keynesian economics. Probably, people will not get past the first paragraph.

I was pleased to learn, while I was in San Diego, that I have picked up enough technical brewing information to tell you the following:

Even the outside is fancy.

Green Flash is the most wonderful brewery I have ever seen. A lot of the time when we talked about brewery tech in Gord Slater’s class at Niagara, we were tailoring the information to making things fit together. Most breweries don’t have the luxury of getting everything brand new. A lot of the equipment is bought second hand or jury rigged together or improvised.

In the time before forklifts, the tricyclist’s union was a very powerful political lobby in California. For more on this see Steinbeck’s Of Trikes and Men.

Green Flash is what happens when you have the opportunity to start over from scratch at a new location when you’re in the middle of your life as a brewery. The fermenters are 250BBL behemoths and their layout is such that they maximize the space in the brewery. Green Flash has nearly doubled in production in the last year, up to 45000BBL. Chuck Silva has managed somehow to design a walkway that sits between the tops of the fermenters making it easier to dry hop the fermenting beers. There’s talk of doubling production in the next couple of years.

2000 barrels of beer ticking merrily along.

The fermenters are next to the CIP system. I would not have thought that a CIP system would be remotely interesting to me, but this sucker is flat out sexy. It has dual 10HP pumps. It’s got a sleek touchscreen interface. I was floored by it. I guess if you’re going to significantly dry hop your beers, you need that kind of power in order to wash away residue.

I feel like I should be making Tim Allen style noises and/or talking like Jeremy Clarkson about power.

The brewhouse is similarly impressive. It has two 50 BBL kettles that run simultaneously and the biggest hopback I’ve ever seen. I would guess it’s a 2 BBL hopback. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it allows you to run wort from the kettle through a vessel filled with hops to whatever system you’re using to cool beer. It lets you maximize the amount of aroma retention. I have seen industrial boilers smaller than this hopback. Great googily moogily.

See the hopback? See the dude next to it who’s really small? That’s how big the hopback is.

I was unable to ascertain the information from looking at it, but I think they’re working with a 72 head filler. I cannot really imagine this. I have worked with a single head filler and I’ve packaged off a six head filler. For craft beer, this is a production.

There’s the barrel aging program, just off the tasting room. While we were there, there was a display that showed the DNA structures of the various yeasts being used in the barrel aging process. If I understand correctly, there were also captures of brewmaster Chuck Silva’s DNA. This is a good reminder that the processes going on here are biological and not completely artistic. How much DNA do we share with yeast? Probably not as much as we share with dolphins.

DNA. It’s all sciencey and whatnot.

The tasting room is 4000 sq ft. It is five times as large as my apartment. Actually, if the tasting room had Wi-fi and a coffee maker, I could happily live there. They had a large number of beers on tap and even more for sale. They had a food truck outside. Merchandising takes up an entire wall. I wasn’t kidding in the paper when I said I liked it so much that I bought the t-shirt.

All tasting events, no matter the location, involve hanging around near where the beer is poured.

Now, Green Flash has only been around since 2002. I know that this kind of success doesn’t come overnight, and I can’t tell you how many untold hours of financial planning and design and experimentation went in to giving them the facility they have now, but this is a dream brewery. It’s a marvel. More than that, it finally allowed me to understand how all of this technology fits together and the implications of that information.

I said as much to Chuck Silva. He had the good grace not to beam too proudly.