Saturday, December 31, 2011

Beer of the Month - December

The beer of the month for December is Bundaberg Brewed Drinks Root Beer {0.0% abv}. This is the perfect drink for December as for one, my sister got me this very bottle of fine root beer as a Christmas gift. She actually got me two from a local international food market, but the first one I happily imbibed during our family's dinner. The second reason is that my wife Beth is late and can't drink adult beverages for another seven months or so! I'm sure many of you have found yourselves or spouses in this predicament and rather than drinking a non-alcoholic brew that tastes like severely watered down domestic light beer, why not focus on enjoying some great flavor?

Bundaberg Brewed Drinks was a great candidate for BOTM as they take softdrink brewing as seriously as most microbreweries take their beer brewing. They're an Australian company based in Bundaberg (if you couldn't tell by the kangaroo on the label) that started life in 1960 making the best ginger beer in the area. Thankfully for us, after focusing on the local market for a few decades, they made their way to exporting their products around the globe in 1987. The drink range grew from just ginger beer to now having eight varieties (not including diet variants), including apple, peach and lemon-lime based soft drinks. More importantly though they make an authentic-recipe brew of root beer, which I had the pleasure of drinking a few days ago.

Bundaberg Root Beer is a classic sarsaparilla, vanilla and licorice root recipe that is everything you want in a root beer. It's got great flavor, it's sweet without being sugary, it has great carbonation and lastly it has a lovely bite that burns your nose if you drink a bit faster than you should. Getting into the nuances of flavor profile of this root beer versus a Barq's or A&W product isn't my aim here, but I can say that if you like root beer and happen to get your hands on one of Bundaberg's lovely 4-packs of 375ml palm-fillers, you'll thank me for it. 3 stars.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Beer of the Month - November

The beer of the month for November is Newcastle Brown Ale (NBA) {4.7% abv}. I crossed paths with NBA in college, not really knowing what to expect but knowing what I didn't want from the other available beers on tap. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised and would typically seek out some of this lovely beer, annually, over the next decade or so. This is one of those beers that I always enjoy, but forget about for months at a time due to availability and other excuses. I went to dinner with an old friend, a week before Thanksgiving, and NBA was on tap at the restaurant. I got a glass and was reunited with another old friend; the BOTM was decided there on the spot. When Thanksgiving came around, I brought a couple to my parents house to enjoy among other delectables.

Newcastle Brown Ale has history going back to 1925 in North-Eastern England. It was created by a third generation brewer named Lt. Col. James ('Jim') Herbert Porter, after serving his country in WWI. After the war was over, Lt. Col. Porter moved to Newcastle and refined this latest beer recipe. According to various records, NBA was a failed attempt to recreate another UK legend, Bass Ale. Regardless of the original goal, the distinctive flavor of NBA set itself apart from others, immediately, and later led to it getting the nickname of 'dog' - as in 'I'm going to walk the dog', which became the universal excuse for men leaving the house to grab a pint at a local pub. The brewing companies responsible for NBA getting to the USA have fluctuated quite a bit in the last decade or so, but thankfully the formula hasn't changed under the current ownership of Heineken USA.

While not many beers use clear bottles, primarily to maintain the integrity of the product, NBA takes this challenge on and thrives with it. The color of this ale is almost red shade of brown and is pleasing to drink. NBA is moderate on head froth, and froth that does come from a freshly opened bottle is typically gone half a glass in. Typical UK serving etiquette involves a 12oz Newcastle glass and a pint bottle, so you can keep the froth going through completion. This beer has nice carbonation yet is easy to drink. While a dark brew, it's surprisingly light on the palette, so food parings can include poultry, pork and beef. 3 stars.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Eurotrip 2011: A sunny morning in Crete

The stint of our time on the boat was now coming to a close and due to our distance from our returning port in Italy, Civitavecchia, we'd be setting off to sea pretty early. This meant that the excursions for today were all short enough to end by 1pm or so. What we decided on was a beach day in Crete, consisting of a round-trip bus transfer to a small beach west of our port in Chania (Souda). This trip would allow us not only to relax for once on this journey, but also take a first time dip in the Mediterranean Sea. This beach cove was named after a church atop a small mountain along the coast called Agioi Apostoloi; please don't ask me to pronounce it.

We woke to another lovely July morning, breakfast and got on the bus. We wound our way through Chania, and visually comparing this part of Crete to Athens (both Greek) was quite hard to do. The alphabet and signs were similar, but the buildings were rarely over four stories high. The orange trees didn't make an appearance on this part of the island, but other vegetation was very familiar. There were plenty of odd sights, including a Lamborghini repair shop and cafe combo which I didn't get a great shot of. The houses were small but all had driveways with medium to small cars in them. Further in from port, it began looking like most other beach towns; high-rise hotels and smaller niche motels for foreigners looking to spend their holiday at on the shores in Crete. It all makes sense why Europeans we met during the trip knew two or more languages, even if it was just basic understanding, because if you want to 'get away' you're just a short jump flight or drive from another country. Want to enjoy summer on the Mediterranean, but Monaco is too expensive for you? There are literally thousands of other countries with real estate equally as beautiful for any budget.

We pulled up beside a small park which looked like the playground of an elementary school in Anytown, USA, and were let out. Through the trees we could see blue water in the background, blond sand and chairs and umbrellas. There was a small snack bar on the right with a small sprinkling of customers already there. It was about 9:30am when we arrived and it was a pleasantly empty canvas. We grabbed a chair and we were greeted by the guy who managed the rentals; ten euros for the both of us. They were worth the price of admission as it was just about impossible to walk barefoot not more than an hour later.

After an hour of laying around with our kindle and car magazines, Beth made her way to the water. I started wandering to see what I could get from this location. I walked around barefoot, which wasn't the smartest, but there were plenty of odd nooks around this cove which were pretty cool to see. There was even a decent view of the city we left behind to get there.

After I was done here, I burned my feet getting back to my camera bag, then joined Beth in the sea. I tried to touch the bottom from about eight feet without much success. The sea water was cool and extremely salty, but it made staying afloat that much easier to do; you just need to make sure you keep your eyes shut while submerged. After some pruning we got back to the chairs to lay back a bit more before leaving. There was no special service being provided by our transfer bus, if we missed it we'd have to try wrangling some transport to make the departure cutoff. Strangely enough, even though it was mid July, this part of Crete had little to no taxi's at all.

Once back on the ship we washed up and hit the buffet-zone for lunch. I mentioned that the ships buffet hall was a madhouse in my last post; I'll elaborate now. The buffet hall was designed much like every buffet you've been to in Vegas. One long wall with every variety of food you can think of, drink stations, toothpicks that are too big to get between your teeth and be useful and way too many people wandering aimlessly like deer on a dark winter highway. I mean, this was afternoon traffic in Rome, but with people instead of cars. Much like when I drive in real life, I was purposeful, direct, and had no wasted movements while weaving through the ragtag gathering of Mediterranean cruise participants. There were parentless children that I side stepped, seniors I dodged with spin moves and after about a minute and change of effort, I was back at the seats Beth and I had locked down upon entering the building. Soon afterwards, Beth returned with her trayed bounty, thankfully unscathed by the melee. We ate quick and got the hell out of there.

This was an impressive vessel.
Land ho! One of the many islands we passed on our westward path to Italy.

I made my way onto the deck to get a nap in under the sun later that afternoon and enjoyed a pretty hot sunset as the ship made its way west. The next 35 hours or so would be nothing but travelling on the boat. We'd have to find some daytime entertainment tomorrow.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Beer of the Month - October

The beer of the month for October is Dogfish Head Craft Brewery's Punkin Ale {7.0% abv}. What can I say more about Dogfish Head that I haven't addressed with previous entries? I enjoy Dogfish Head microbrews greatly, and since my last Dogfish BOTM I managed to watch all five US-released episodes of Brewmasters. While watching the series, the seasonal brew Punkin became subject matter and I realized I've never tried it. Fast forward to this past September when Punkin came into season. I used the fish-finder to find that one my favorite beer stores stocked it, with about a case and change worth in the back. I immediately had them put a case on hold. The following day I picked it up for my house stash and a few weeks later I finally had some downtime to enjoy a bottle of Punkin without rushing. This beer is a beautifully deep copper in the glass, and smells like Thanksgiving at your parent's house.

The surprising thing about this brew is that the pumpkin doesn't jump out at you when you take your first sip. If you've had pumpkin pie, or a 'sweet' pumpkin themed beer, just know this is not that. The flavor and aroma that immediately hits you are the spicy notes synonymous with Fall; nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. While this full-bodied beer is made with big chunks of pumpkin, added during the boil/mash process, you only get the pumpkin you expect on the finish. The next few sips leave you realizing real pumpkin doesn't take like pie and this is as good a representation as there is. Punkin has relatively light head after pouring, which reduces quickly. Organic brown sugar provides added character, but is more responsible for the alcohol content than overall sweetness. Long story short, this beer is fantastic. This ale could have easily been the BOTM for November, as it pairs well with poultry and other Thanksgiving fare. 4 stars. This beer is sold between September and Halloween annually, so make sure to mark your smart-phone calendars for 2012.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Eurotrip 2011: Ephesus and rug sales

The views from the bus were great.

After regrouping with our tour guide, we got back on the bus and headed down to ancient Ephesus. More winding mountain roads and I took some pictures out of the window this time around. After about ten minutes of driving we found ourselfs in a valley with small shops on either side of the road. Merchants were out and hungry for business, looking to sell their faux-lex watches and other replica items. Little did we know the local people selling goods here, at the archeological site of Ephesus, were some of the less aggressive salesmen we'd meet before the day was done ha. After our group was collected and entrance tickets were handed out, we made our way inside the gate to the ruins of ancient Ephesus.

By this time in the morning it was about 10:30am or so. The sun was strong, but I was toughing it out in the sun and not taking refuge under trees when our guide found opportunities to get shade to tell us the history of what we were seeing all around us. I had a half empty one liter water bottle on my person, that Beth and I passed back and forth, and the two (now one) bottle of water supplied by the tour. Since large bags were discouraged, I just brought my camera (with a sock to act as my lens cap thanks to the mistep in the Vatican Museum a week before) and stuffed my cargo shorts with spare batteries, memory and what not.

What all the smart tour groups did.
Pre-plumbing. I'd bet it was a much smellier place in 100 AD.

We worked our way through the grounds and I slowly started to mentally check out. I shot my surroundings and signs explaining what was in front of us for later reference as I found myself getting a little bit sun drunk before the ruins cleared and a magificent structure appeared. This was the Library of Celcius (Celsus). It was ironically named as by the time we were inside of it I was holding on for dear life ha. The good thing about getting inside of the library was that it had plenty of shade. I took another swig off the big bottle we had which was down to about 8oz of liquid nurishment and recovered before our next stop.


And the next stop you ask? It was a demonstration by some local actors, giving us all a glimps of what life used to be like when our surroundings weren't ruins, but were in full use. What you see here is a royal procession for Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. I made sure to find a large tree shadow to hide my head behind and had a seat; this is the only reason my shots here weren't better and free of tourist interference.

Don't get caught looking.
Milli Vanilli-esque horn playing.
Gladiators fighting for the entertainment of royalty.

After the presentation, which was pretty good btw, we walked back to the entrance to the grounds. On either side there was merchandise for sale, but more importantly beverages for the weary. One of the good things about Turkey was that they would accept any currency, including the Euro or US Dollar, so the $40 bucks that I cursed having on me thus far came in handy. As usual the drinks were expensive ($5USD for 20oz), but I negotiated a couple bucks off three powerades and flavored slushy; haggling was the way of the world here. After we made our way to the bus we were given a local snack. I downed my powerades and recovered a good deal. The excursion was now coming to a close and they proceeded to return us to the port of Kusadasi to get a tour of one of the biggest carpet makers in the area.

On the way back to port.
Turkmen Carpets presentation.

While on the bus earlier that morning, our tour guide told us about one of Turkeys biggest exports, handmade carpets. She explained that the women of Turkey typically make the carpets, but due to times changing and most women not wanting to deal with the typical tradition of arranged marriages and the like, they are leaving the country in significant numbers. The solution? The Turkish government knows how important handmaking carpets is to the culture of Turkey, so they've invested in carpet making by subsidising carpet makers so that the tradition can stay alive. One of the demonstrations we'd receive in the carpeteer we visited on this afternoon was by a Turkish woman in her early 20's. The process is tedius and depending on materials used and how elaborate the design is, the price of these carpets fluctuate wildly to say the least. We were schmoozed by the prioprietor as his employees rolled out carpet after carpet, from simple to amazing. 5-digit prices were quoted (for amazing), eyebrows raised, ooo's and ahh's made up the background music and then we were led outside. One the way outside, conveniently enough, we walked through the attached jewelry store which drew most of the female excursioners in once more. The salesmen were friendly and outgoing, but we managed to escape out of the frying pan into the fire of the bazaar outside.

From the amazing side of the Turkmen Carpets collection, this one changed colors depending on the angle from which it was viewed.

Bazaar alley.

We emerged into an alley-way full of people immediately exclaiming to us that they could beat every price we heard just minutes before. I don't know what most people who don't know me think when they see me, but I never thought I had 'carpet sale' written on my forehead ha. I took pictures between telling aggressive salemen 'no thank you' to offers and random ice-breaking jokes that many of them obviously have used with some success prior my arrival (and presumably after my departure). Loosing track of how many people I turned away within 10 yards in this bazaar, we made our way out of the lions den and into the coastal area of Kusadasi. It was absolutely stunning.

There were multiple restaurants lining the street and by this time it was around 1pm. While we had intensions of eating some local cuisine, it never happened on this day. The week was moving along, we were spending money on a daily basis within the ship and on excursions, and my spidey senses were telling me the available credit left for this journey was shrinking. I double checked my spidey senses online later and decided we'd have to take it easy so we'd make it through the Germany leg of this two-person Amazing Race episode. We wandered for a few more minutes before heading back to the ship and then found ourselves in one more forced buying opportunity. Much like walking through IKEA or Toys "R" Us, there's no simple walking in and out; you have to walk past some quick buy items first and in this case it took the form of a Burger King (there were a suprisingly large amount of these overseas), Starbucks, duty-free shopping outlets with candy, watches (real ones) and clothing stores. After this final tourist gauntlet we had the great joy of going through security again.

The tourist maze.
Another vacation day gone.
Back in the room and air conditioning, my mind and body was rejuvenated. More fluids absorbed, we made our way upstairs for the buffet madhouse. There was only one more stop on this cruise before heading back to Civitaveccia, and that was Crete. We'd be going to the beach tomorrow. As the ship was leaving port I shot more wall decoration quality shots of the beautiful coastline. I grabbed my camera again for sunset. On our way home the heavenly bodies would be on the opposite side of the ship, so I made sure to take full advantage.

Capturing Life's Fabric with Technology.