Buffalo Bill’s Black Pumpkin

Pumpkin beers and I parted ways years ago, shortly after being introduced. Almost immediately, frankly. I’m trying to think of beers I don’t like: malt liquor, Newcastle Nut Brown Ale, Boddingtons, and pumpkin beers… possibly one or two others. I like beer, I like mace, I like nutmeg, cinnamon, and I love pumpkin pie. But I don’t like pumpkin beers. I fully understand the historical significance of pumpkin used in brewing, and if I were a professional brewer, I’d be tempted to put my spin on it. Pumpkin flavored beers have been brewed for over 300 years, likely not long after the first Pilgrims set up shop. Still not my thing. I remember one of my other beer drinking friends having pretty much the same reaction and gave this blanket statement of all pumpkin beers: “Get them out of my face.” Because that reaffirmed that it wasn’t just me, I’ve left pumpkin beers alone for at least 15 years.

But, now that I have started a blog that includes showcasing beers, and because it is October, this was as good a time as any to check back in and re-commit my dislike of pumpkin beers.

I went to Bevmo which had no shortage of options this time of year. One choice in the chilled section stood out above all others as having the best chance of swaying my prejudice. Brewed by Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, the description on the label seemed to be an obvious choice.  Here before me was an oatmeal stout brewed with pumpkin with natural spice flavors added. That struck me as the perfect marriage of style and flavor. Maybe I just never looked hard enough before, but I wondered why all the other pumpkin beers I had ever seen were in the mold of a pale ale or Märzen. I mean, if you’re absolutely dead set on throwing gourds into your mash tun and no one is going to be able to change your mind, then do it with a style that has that potential of matching with desserts.dsc_0095

My decision was easily made based on style plus a pretty cool label if you asked me–reversing the orange pumpkin and black with a black, sunken pumpkin with a gnarled stem on orange background. Buffalo Bill’s is located in Hayward, CA, a Bay Area City.dsc_0097 I had completely forgotten that I had once been there, but as it turns out, on my way home from graduating college at San Francisco State, I did a little bit of a microbrewery tour on my drive back down to San Diego. This was in 1991. Something about the name and the location prompted me to check my coaster collection, and sure enough, I still have their old coaster from that visit 25 years ago.

So, about the actual beer contained in the bottle. Deep black, thick slightly tan head. What you taste is mace/cinnamon/nutmeg, pumpkin, and then stout, a smooooth oatmeal stout, in approximately that order. Very low bitterness and virtually no hop presence, which are probably the two core reasons why my perception of past pumpkin beers in general don’t work for me. Pumpkin, especially with the commonly paired spices, is most often associated with dessert or sweetness, not with something that has a bitterness component like hops. Buffalo Bill’s Black Pumpkin is like a pumpkin pie that has been carefully infused with stout, an oatmeal stout which is going to add an extra soft creaminess to it. The spices compliment the slight sweetness but don’t overpower. I guess for me pumpkin with spices is still a jarring flavor profile to experience in a beer. But it did get me thinking, “Maybe I should go buy another bottle.” I suppose this means pumpkin beers and I are on the mend.


A Short Prost Between Posts – Paulaner Hefeweizen

September and October are great months for German beer for obvious reasons. There’s something to be said about eating and drinking certain foods at certain times of the year. For whatever reason, probably simply conditioned this way, good German Hefeweizens and lagers take on an extra special quality when consumed out in the open air of September and October afternoons. Let’s be real, you’re probably not drinking Hefeweizen in January just as you’re not drinking a spiced pumpkin latte in May. You can if you want, but it can’t possibly taste quite as good then, right?dsc_0011-2

Although it may seem like Fall in most of the country, in Southern California we can have summer-like days deep into October (currently it’s 90 and way too warm!) At any rate, I bought a bottle of Paulaner Hefeweizen and enjoyed it while sitting out on patio in our Adirondack chairs. My wife stole a taste and loved it, likely because as a Hefeweizen it’s soft on the banana-clove profile, mild, smooth, yet rich and murky with yeast. It’s a very drinkable beer. I like banana & clove in my German Hefeweizens and for that reason I probably prefer Franziskaner and Weihenstephaner. But Paulaner is a very enjoyable German Hefe and its creamy, pillowy head fit wonderfully with my warm weekend afternoon. There isn’t much else to say about it, and I wasn’t really reading any literature at the moment to inspire any connection with what I was reading, but it reaffirmed my belief that every beer has its place and moment. Paulaner’s moment happened to be then and there in my chair. Since my wife kept grabbing my glass and helping herself, I regret that I didn’t buy two. I’ll just have to remember that next year.


I was a 31 year old single male living in San Diego, walking the tables of Border’s Bookstore when I encountered a book cover that I was so immediately and hopelessly drawn to, I had probably made up my mind to buy it in a second or two. It is unlikely the marketing folks at Anchor Books had me in their demographic when they published Out of the Girls Room and Into the Night–a collection of short stories by a new female New York writer. Yet I bought it without thinking twice. dsc_0469 It’s also probable that I read half the stories late at night in bed after another night spent bracing the walls of my favorite bars drinking a pint. Those were days of searching for contact with other human beings, contact that either never seemed to happen, or never got very far when it did. We all have those periods in life, right?

It wasn’t just any connection I was after, but that this is the one who is looking for me too kind of connection. That’s what the cover spoke to me—a girl in a hat with the brim covering her eyes suggested an inner life separated from the rest of the world, intelligent, self-aware, introspective, perhaps a little lost or numbed by the modern world. Even with her face half covered, I saw something uniquely beautiful—I was drawn in and connected, yet simultaneously separated by a vast gulf. This is a theme that appears in some of the stories within the pages, primarily in the first story, “Mushroom Girl.”

If the cover snagged me, the fantastic title set the hook, and the combined jealousy and sense of competition I felt reading the author bio that Thisbe got her MFA at Iowa—that landed me in the boat.

Having read the book 17 years ago, to be honest only one story really had stuck in my memory, “819 Walnut” about a group of girls living in a house during their last semester of college that culminates in a wild blow-out night of pent tension, “There were twenty-two years of our daily lives, then there was a the weirdness, then the scream, then there was nothing Blank. Nothing. And then we awoke to daylight…” to the aftermath. A birth of graduating into the world, another common theme where characters experience an event or condition that will set them off into a new realm.

Despite only one story sticking to memory (which really is not saying much) the book as a whole never left me. I re-introduced myself to the book over the last couple weeks. The first story mirrors the angst of loneliness and seeking connections in a modern world. In “Mushroom Girl” a wanna be dancer in New York City captures the fascination of a video store clerk when he sees her on her stoop eating mushrooms from a carton. In “Way Back When in the Now Before Now” a 15 year old with the dragging-on presence of a mother dying of cancer in their apartment seeks the warm living comfort of her best friend’s brother upstairs. “Accidental Love” is about revisiting a best friend male companion following previous group camping trips. “Flowers in the Dustbin, Poison in the Human Machine” is about grade school-age friendships and the cruel games children can conduct on each other. Other stories tackle bulimia, sexual identity, soul-searching after bad relationships, the physical and mental afflictions we (particularly if you are female) experience.

The title story, the last in the collection is about a girl, Silver, who lives in Houston but attends a prom in New York with an old family friend Fernanda—set up of bad dates and the universally bad high school prom (be it Houston or NYC). At the dance a teacher comes around to make his stalking presence known to Fernanda. The two are clearly past teacher student formalities. Fernanda later brings Silver into the bathroom and tells her she has had an affair with the teacher. Now Fernanda can’t shake the doting teacher and that’s the problem. As the story wraps up, Silver observes all the girls in their prom dresses going in and out of the bathroom stalls, “out of the girls’ room and into the night.” In that image of girls coming and going she observes “the tragedy of it all right there—is that they may be saying you piece of shit bastard you think you can fuck me. But at the same time, they’re saying I’ll let you. In the same breath they’re saying, you can.” It’s the inherent societal conflict requiring females to appear simultaneously available and unavailable, a facade of being in control while internally being out of it. Another theme that is struck in many of the stories.

Since most of the stories are set in New York City it’s impossible not to draw comparisons to Hanna Horvath, the main character of “GIRLS” played by Lena Dunham. Out of the Girls Room and Into the Night is a more literary, pre-millennial “Girls”. My wife and I have been catching up on “Girls” via Netflix the past couple months so the connections are fresh. Thisbe Nissen graduated from Oberlin College, which is where the girls of “Girls”went to college. Thisbe Nissen went on to the Iowa Workshop to get an MFA—so does Hanna Horvath. Thisbe’s stories in this collection often echo the same sort of alt-educational background and left-leaning environment that Hannah was likely to have with her parents in “Girls.”

I can’t say that as I lay upon my deathbed I’ll be summoning this book to be brought bedside to take with me as Charon poles me across river. But books serve different purposes for different periods of our lives. These are good stories that read like a time capsule of pre-9/11 New York girls coming into womanhood. Yet they are universal as well, and have a life of their own in the context of my own twenty-something San Diego bachelorhood.

They are stories of youth, occasionally of childhood, but primarily of that early twenty-somethings separating from upbringing, forging their way into the nightscape of the adult world to claim a piece of it for themselves.

Thisbe Nissen has written two other novels, The Good People of New York and Osprey Island. She now teaches English at Western Michigan University. Because during that searching time in my life Thisbe worked to put Out of the Girls Room… out onto those Border’s Bookstore tables, I thought I’d take the time to give her a shout out. God, I miss Borders.

Threatened Species Alert: Porter (plus Halloween ghost story pairing)

Sierra Nevada Porter. There it was on the shelf standing naked with the sole descriptive word “Porter”. No other qualifiers, no bourbon barrels, waffles and syrup, or Madagascar vanilla. Just plain old porter. It begged the question, “should porter once again be placed on the endangered beer styles list?”


My apologies to Sierra Nevada– a 12oz pour in a pint glass does no beer any justice.

Case in point: I was recently at one of my favorite beer bars, Hamilton’s in San Diego. It’s a great beer bar. The location, environment, the hundreds of tap handles hanging from the rafters, great bartenders and an extensive tap and bottle list, I knew I was at home the first time I stepped in 10 years ago (they were playing Fellini’s “8 ½” so I was sold). But even in such a great beer bar like Hamilton’s, on my last visit out of 28 beers on tap, I counted a whopping 14 of them of the pale ale, IPA, or double IPA category.

Back in the early boom of microbreweries in the early 1990’s, Porter was a relatively unknown style to Americans. Possibly you had found Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter or Fuller’s London Porter in a good liquor store. But commercially it had been virtually extinct during the Dark Ages of the standard American Lager (or Golden Age depending on your preference). Microbreweries in those early 1990’s reintroduced us to Stout’s baby brother, Porter. It’s a mildly dark low-alcohol beer that fueled the might of the English Industrial Revolution, the kind of beer prescribed by doctors to bring the milk into nursing mothers’ breasts. Porter as a style maybe isn’t the most diverse style out there, but traditionally it was a base beer for many herbal additions such as spruce tips and juniper berries (especially in the Nordic countries’ version: Baltic Porter).

As porter is not a hoppy beer, when the pale ale/India Pale Ale thing really rocketed, porter’s habitat in the lines of tap handles once again began to shrink. While far from extinct, it probably at least deserves to be on the extinction watch list. Most microbreweries still have one they trot out, but it’s unlikely to be anybody’s flagship beer. When they are brewed and on tap you typically see some sexy-come-hither ingredient like vanilla or cocoa added in a sort of sad attempt to entice a sale away from an IPA customer.

Out of support, I saw Sierra Nevada’s Porter on the shelves and decided to give it a go. I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought a commercial porter. I like just about every beer Sierra Nevada makes, but this just isn’t a porter I can get super excited about. That means very little since 80% of that feeling is directed at the style itself. If I want coffee I generally drink espresso. If I want something dark and roasty, I’m gonna buy a stout. With Sierra Nevada Porter, I get a one note in the beer: roast. Roasted malt bitterness, semi-dry, and somewhat creamy. In fairness, that is true to style.

The thing is, maybe it is that singular simple note that is what makes Sierra Nevada’s Porter a good beer. It’s not here to dominate the world, and species that do dominate eventually throw everything out of balance. In terms of the animal kingdom, porter is a style that under the best conditions can reproduce once every five years, and requires a special habitat to do so. It’s a style built to just barely survive, while living out a quiet yet vital purpose: keep the beer ecosystem running smoothly.

On the back bottle label it is noted that “Before Sierra Nevada was a reality, our nights were spent perfecting homebrews and dreaming of starting a brewery. Back then, one of our favorites was a porter made with homemade malt roasted in our kitchen.” In those words you do get a sense of the love and appreciation for the style, and that does come through into the beer. They specifically chose to keep it simple, as precise to the base style as possible, and so for that reason, I have to tip my hat to them.

Specific to the English porter style, there are plenty of good matching novels that go along with a good porter. George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Herman Melville’s Redburn, any Dickens (haven’t read), Arnold Bennet The Old Wives Tale etc. But as it is October, I recommend to you a ghost story I once read in my Modern Library An Anthology of Famous British Stories. The story is by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “The House and the Brain.” First published in 1859, “‘The House and the Brain’ has been called by many critics the most powerful and appalling story of the supernatural ever printed in the English Language.”

In short it’s the oft repeated (possibly the original?) tale that tests one’s endurance in staying in a haunted house. The occupant is warned beforehand that the strange supernatural phenomena has driven out every other occupant who has tried, usually in less than a night. The remarkable thing I remember about this story was the vivid, fantastic descriptions of the strange things that were seen. Bulwer-Lytton’s solidly British writing style placed in that old London house, along for the ride. Obviously this will all be Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood compared to the “Paranormal Activity” movie franchise, but if you’re into that, you’re possibly not reading 19th century lit anyway, and if you are, this is a great story to see “where it all started.”

I was going to do a quick read through to refresh my memory so that I could sell you on it better, but just reading the first couple pages reminded me that this is one to curl up in bed with under a lamp, with a nice tall drought of porter, and savor.


I look at it this way. I could look at a 1,000 page Anna Karenina and pass it up thinking it’ll be boring or too difficult to read. What do the lives of Russian aristocrats that lived almost 150 years ago have anything to do with me and my life? I could play some computer game, watch TV, pull weeds… or I can challenge myself to be a part of the conversation of some of the greatest writers who ever lived. In doing so I can get the closest thing possible to living an entirely different life. Leo Tolstoy is undeniably a titan in literature, and books written by titans are the most comprehensive way to have a conversation with a genius—albeit a one-way conversation, and transport oneself into the experiences of others. Books like Anna Karenina don’t become “classics” by chance. There’s a reason why this book continues to live, and that’s why I read it. I also happen to like Russian lit. Yes, this is pleasure reading to me.

Like many of the books I read, this edition is a Modern Library edition published in 1950. The translation by Constance Garnett who translated many Russian novels into English for Modern Library. I’ll call it an excellent translation, but what do I really know about that? All I know is that it reads as though a brilliant writer in English wrote it. The inside flap of the jacket states, “…As a writer, he towers above all the literary figures of his time, and his two great novels—War and Peace (Modern Library Giant G-1) and Anna Karenina—are universally acclaimed as classics. I collect Modern Library—I love the size, the covers, the affordability of a used hardback—usually around $7.50, and the title list is a great start if you want to read the best of the best literature from the Western World (up until about 1950).dsc_0022

I admit it took me a long time to get through this book, but primarily because I had recently gotten married, was trying to go running 3-4 nights a week, not to mention fit everything else in that I wanted/needed to do. It was one of those things where the book seemed to be a permanent decoration on my nightstand for months. I wasn’t reading much at a time then, so it took a while to get through, but the fancy shmancy book cover became a welcome fixture under my night lamp for a long time. But no need to be intimidated, this is a very reading EASY book for hectic lives as the chapters are generally very short, so there are plenty of stopping places, and aside from the Russian names, the language is not particularly challenging.

I also believe, and I’ll likely repeat myself on this point, that great books sometimes require patience of the reader. I don’t want a 20 page version of Anna Karenina. Patience is what you pay into it, and in reward you get not only the experience of absorbing the characters, but the experience of living with something over a long period of time. A novel, especially a long one, is the most comprehensive portrait of a life other than your own that you can possibly get.

And what experience do you get reading Anna Karenina? You experience the lives of many Russians from different walks of life—of womanizing men, married women carrying out an affair and shunned because of it, lovesick young women, farmers… it is both a sprawling and yet personal novel of fully fleshed characters.

The Introduction by Henri Troyat right away describes a real event that is central to the novel—that of an autopsy witnessed by Leo Tolstoy in 1872, of a woman in central Russia who committed suicide by throwing herself under a freight train. Consider the horror of that for just a moment! “There in the low, smoky room, besides the doctor and the police representative, stood a solid, stocky individual…This was none other than Leo Tolstoy…to witness the performance…. He studied with painful intensity the body of this attractive woman as she lay, bloody and mutilated, on the table.”

This suicide by train, committed because her lover had deserted her for another mistress, is a tragedy that appears twice in Anna Karenina, although the first occurrence is accidental, and involves a man. Still, it leaves a lasting impression on Anna Karenina, the central figure, a stunning married society woman who attracts the attention of a young officer, Vronsky, who has already snagged the heart of Kitty, a young beautiful girl. Boiled down: Levin loves Kitty, Kitty loves Vronsky, Vronsky falls for the older, married Anna. 90% of college term papers will say it is about the societal double standard of men getting away with infidelity with almost no repercussion, while women with extramarital lovers will pay a much dearer (read “ultimate”) price. There is that, but ultimately it is about life and the thing we concern ourselves most with in our young life: matchmaking, love, love-lost, broken promises, in a word…relationships.dsc_0403

The novel is primarily centered on Anna’s affair with Vronsky, and how they flee and try to make a go of it. Anna’s husband is hesitant about granting a divorce, and then there’s Anna’s son to consider. Anna’s husband forces the choice—granting a divorce will also mean Anna can never seeing her child again. But so much more fleshes out the world immediately around them. Beautiful girls, infidelity, Russian high society, balls, unrequited loves, being shunned by society because of your scandalous life choices.… Anna Karenina is all of that, but it’s the steady pace of great realist writing that was the star of the show for me.dsc_0460

As a counterbalance to the world of balls and high society, there is the connected story of Levin, an admirer of Kitty who loses her to Vronsky early on. Levin retreats to his estate to build up his farm and so there is a very pastoral storyline in this book, and I found myself gravitating to this natural world. A couple highlights for me were Chapter 13 of Part II, where Levin works alongside his serfs for the experience of working the land (something his serfs find very peculiar). Chapter 13 is rich in sentences like, “The cowherd girls, picking up their petticoats, ran splashing through the mud with bare legs, still white, not yet brown from the sun, waving brush-wood in their hands, chasing the calves that frolicked in the mirth of spring.” And while riding “through the slush of farmyard” making plans to “plant all his fields with hedges” and later observing the “crop of clover coming up in the stubble.”

Part III Chapter V As someone who spends his day working at a computer processing insurance transactions, Levin mowing the grass with a scythe along with his laborers, was especially impressionable and escapist.


Part VI chapter XVI, some very tough, universal words of marriage, raising children , “The birth, the agony, the hideous agonies, that last moment… then the nursing, the sleepless nights, the fearful pains…” “Then the children’s illnesses, that everlasting apprehension; then bringing them up; evil propensities… And on the top of it all, the death of these children.”

Was I 100% engaged the entire novel through? Unlikely, but the depth of the life in the characters, the context of their lives, Anna’s experience as being a woman in society, the high Russian-ness of it… it is a lasting experience. In spending the time refreshing my memory of this novel, I realize how much I do recall of it, of how great the writing is. If I ever again find the time, it is certainly something I would enjoy re-reading. Admittedly that is not saying much as I love re-reading most books.

I recall too one particular night reading in bed, the pillow between the wall and my back, and a big bottle of Brother Thelonius on my nightstand.dsc_0034 The Belgian Dark Strong by North Coast brewery, like a classic book, is something I come back to at least once a year to enjoy. This is a great style for a heavy themed, refined work like Tolstoy. The big bottle lends itself for a nice long cozy read. As a Belgian Dark Strong, it is more of a deep amber, but in a fall fruit with a tiny handful of chocolate malt kind of way. Personally I think of fresh pressed and unfiltered fall apple cider, raisins, and Belgian candy sugar. Frankly, I thought it was a Belgian Dubbel, but Lost Coast is calling it otherwise—fair enough, lots of grey area between those two styles anyway. This is one of North Coast’s American Artist series, but I believe I’ve only come across one other artist featured in the series. Regardless, money from every bottle sold helps support the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz. I love Monk. I love jazz. I love the beer… win win win.  North Coast is also the Brewer of Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, so that is another obvious choice when picking up any Russian lit.

One last note, as a point of comparison. I have also read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. dsc_0029While also an exercise in patience, let’s put it this way… see that bookmark and where it’s at near the end but not AT the end?  It says a lot about a book that I would read 1,408 out of 1,443 pages and then give up. Granted, I gave up because it was the book’s Epilogue which is a 100 page essay that would interest philosophy wonks only. I do recall liking say the first 200 pages—there’s some really great war writing in there, particularly of a kind of warfare you don’t often encounter. dsc_0030After that it became more or less a chore and a challenge to get through. Tolstoy himself in Henri Troyat’s Anna Karenina introduction mentions that Tolstoy didn’t see War and Peace as a novel, and looking back, it makes sense. In short, if you’re going to try and tackle Tolstoy, Anna Karenina is your book.