How I learned to love craft beer

True story: I didn’t begin regularly drinking until I was 29 years old. Not at all coincidentally, that was my foray into the world of professional writing.

Also a true story: At age 14 or so, some friends and I managed to purchase a crate of beer from a location in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn that shall remain nameless. We downed so many brews on a scorching summer day that the resulting hangover made me vow to never drink again. Hence, the age 29 thing above.

Founders Nitro Oatmeal Stout

Pictured: Founders Nitro Oatmeal Stout, a remarkably smooth craft beer.

So, yes, my relationship with beer was a complicated one until very recently. It was a devil’s brew that brought teen me to a condition that I considered near death. But even after giving beer a second chance in 2003, I still didn’t love it. Or even like it. Everyone around me downed Budweiser, St. Ides, Michelob, or some other swill. But I kept at it, sampling things here, sampling things there, because I figured that there was a reason otherwise sane adults returned to the stuff.

Thankfully, living in New York City gave me the opportunity to discover liquid gems. Frequent visits to beer halls, such as Brooklyn Brewery and Paulaner NYC, introduced me to quality beer. I had yet to learn the term “craft beer,” but I knew those establishments carried suds that were above the common ones you’d find in your local corner store. And they had cool names! Ale! Bitters! Lager! Pilsner! Porter! Stout! I tried them all, and slowly eliminated the awful ones (usually the  hop monsters) from my taste catalog. I became literally and figuratively intoxicated with the discovery of new beers and breweries. In fact, whenever I step into to a bar, the first thing that I order is something unfamiliar. Listen, I’m about that beer life.

It wasn’t until I cracked Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible that I discovered why I became so enamored by craft beer. As I sat reading, often late at night, I found myself hanging on his every word as he walked me through the history of beer. Alworth’s descriptions of the brewing process, ingredients, colors, flavors, and heads made me realize something: beer drinking is a truly sensual experience. Your eyes react to the color as it’s poured, and the resulting head. Your nose catches scents as they rise from the glass. Your tongue snares the taste and aftertaste. Your tongue registers the feel.

That may sound odd, but when you down something as silky as Southern Tier’s Imperial Pumking, the liquid glides over the tongue with a richness that you just won’t get from a lower-class beer. It’s a “mouth feel” that once experienced, takes beer drinking to another plane of existence. There’s no other consumable that dazzles those four senses as sexily as craft beer. Pizza, one of my former favorite edibles, doesn’t come close.

I must admit that I’m a borderline beer snob, and I see myself traveling that road as I discover new breweries, styles, and flavors. I even went so far as to order a set of beer glasses, because I read that drink wares’ shapes can enhance aroma and taste. It may or may not be true, but I’ll take the chance with the beer glasses, as I simply want the best possible pour.

And, lastly, I can’t discount the freshness factor. Though I genuinely enjoy exquisitely made beers based on the brews’ merits, I must acknowledge the joy that comes with participating in any new, exciting activity. A craft beer aficionado, at least this one, enjoys the deliciousness and the thrill of the hunt.

And as a New Yorker, with access to hundreds of bars, it’s a splendid chase.

R.I.P. Harpoon Chocolate Stout

The Barcade chain receives a heap of well-earned attention for keeping the arcade scene alive in a world where home video game consoles produce graphics, sound, and gameplay that we couldn’t have imagined in the 1980s and 1990s, but it doesn’t get enough props for the other part of its portmanteau-powered moniker. Barcades, as a whole, are rather impressive bars that boast a surprisingly robust craft beer selection.

A week ago, a friend and I visited the St. Marks Place Barcade, because I had a hankering for a cold one after reading Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible.  The establishment’s beer menu read as quite delicious, but it was Harpoon Brewery’s Chocolate Stout that caught my eye. The brew’s official description is one that no person of drinking age could resist.

A chocolate stout is a beer with a noticeable dark chocolate flavor. This flavor is created from the use of darker, more aromatic malt that has been roasted or kilned until it acquires a chocolate color. Harpoon Chocolate Stout is brewed with an abundance of chocolate malt and a touch of chocolate.

I had to try it. And after downing a sample served by a perky barkeep, I ordered a glass. And after ordering a glass, I was in love.

I’ve had the opportunity to taste just three chocolate beers in my lifetime, and Harpoon’s joint is easily the best of the lot. The first chocolate beer was so bad that I should  remember its name, but I don’t. The second was DuClaw Brewing Company’s Big Baby Jesus, a tasty 6.2% chocolate-and-peanut butter porter that fell just short of greatness. And now this.

I thoroughly enjoyed Harpoon Chocolate Stout. It’s one of those beers that dazzle the senses with its inky flow, chocolate scent, smooth feel, and, of course, rich taste. The cocoa beans-and-roasted-malt combo is potent one that hits the tongue with a jab and cross—there’s no question that you’re drinking a chocolate-based beer. The chocolate flavor is an immediate one, unlike Big Baby Jesus’, which has a flavor that sneaks up on you. Still, it’s not overwhelming. Harpoon Chocolate Stout isn’t a liquefied candy bar; it’s a beer through and through. Sadly, Harpoon Chocolate Stout is no longer with us.

Maybe the beer is simply too good for this world.

I intend to make my return to St. Marks Barcade sooner than expected to salute a wonderful beer. I would pour out my next sip for the gone-too-soon brew, but that would simply be a waste of valuable drops.

The official rules for remaking movies

The 2016 Ghostbusters remake did many things of note, including highlighting gender diversity, enraging the “get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich” squad, and showcasing why Kate McKinnon is an absolute wonder. Remove those factors, however, and the film is a highly forgettable affair that, like The Force Awakens, adheres too closely to what came before it.

Ghostbusters, as well as Kong: Skull Island, The Rocketeers, and the long-rumored Beetlejuice 2, showcase Hollywood’s incredible willingness to return to the cinematic well again and again to sip from its potentially money-giving waters. Sometimes remakes are worthwhile projects, such as Ocean’s Eleven and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Others are quite bland and/or horrid; think Arthur and Robocop. This isn’t a new occurrence; Grandma Wilson saw good/bad versions of The Fly and Out of the Past before she exited the world.

That said, it certainly feels like contemporary Hollywood double dips now more than ever before. I, admittedly, don’t have definitive numbers, but Den of Geek has attempted to chronicle every upcoming remake. The situation is daunting, frightening, and frustrating. Hollywood needs a rule set to determine when it should ponder dipping into its vaults to resurrect a brand. Fortunately, I have one that I freely offer to any director, screenwriter, producer, or executive! Pass it along.

DO NOT REMAKE A MOVIE IF:

  1. It is widely considered the progenitor, or a definitive work, in its genre. So, no Citizen Kane or Die Hard.
  2. It has already been remade. That means Cape Fear and The Thing are off the table.
  3. It’s one of an acclaimed filmmaker’s first five theatrical releases. Therefore, Jaws and Taxi Driver cannot be touched.
  4. It pushed visual effects forward. Think The Matrix or Star Wars.
  5. It stars at least two of the following: Shane Black, Bill Duke, John McTiernan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Carl Weathers. Yes, I love Predator. And Commando.
  6. It has David Patrick Kelly playing a weaselly little character who either delivers, or receives, a classic line.
  7. It is Beverly Hills Cop or The Goonies. Show some respect.

Okay, I admit that a few of those rules are made in jest. That’s because I’m not adamantly against movie remakes; they simply should be judiciously made. Flicks that flopped (The Rocketeer) and or didn’t live up to their potential (Drop Dead Fred) are perfect remake fodder. Everything else? Leave it alone, Hollywood. You have other things to do, such as spam sequels, soft reboots, and cinematic universes.

Image courtesy of Amblin Entertainment, Cappa Films, Tribeca Productions, and Universal Pictures.

Sneaker culture and the Chuck Taylor All Star II

Sneaker culture fascinates and confounds me.

On one hand, I thoroughly enjoy the fact that the average guy has moved beyond the stereotypical idea that “only women care about shoes,” and realizes that if he cares about his hat, shirt, and pants, it only makes sense to pay attention to what slips on his feet. A quality shoe complements and outfit, and in some cases, augments it.

On the other hand, when I see the huddled masses lined outside a Footaction at the crack of dawn to be the first to cop the new Jordans, I weep a little inside. It’s the same disgusted feeling that washes over me when I see people camped outside of an Apple Store, sometimes days at a time, to purchase an iPhone or iPad that’s marginally superior to the ones they currently carry. A culture of out-of-control capitalism has programmed the populace to drool on command, and it’s sickening.

So, sneaker culture is bewildering. Admittedly, I’m way out of the loop, and not at all a member of the club. Besides the odd sneaker I’d buy when I was power-running from 2004 to 2006, I haven’t owned an athletic shoe for casual use since my late-20s.

A few weeks ago, I deep dived into YouTube sneaker videos after reading that Nike owns Converse, the company’s former rival. I also discovered that The House of Jordans created a follow-up to the classic Chuck Taylor All Star sneaker: the appropriately named Chuck Taylor All Star II. This fascinated me.

I was born in the mid-1970s, so I remember a pre-Jordans New York City when Chuck Taylors, Pumas, and shelltop Adidas dominated the New York City urban footwear scene. My older cousins were really into Chucks, which I considered one of the smoothest-looking kicks on the market. I loved the black-and-white color contrast. I dug the cool stitching. I appreciated how you could rock them with anything. But, the shoe’s lack of cushioning meant that walking in a pair of Chucks was mildly better than walking barefoot on concrete. Whenever I tried on my cousin’s Chucks to practice my b-boy stance, I soon tossed them. My tender toes just couldn’t handle the shoe.

However, when I learned that the new Chuck Taylor All Star II leveraged contemporary shoe technology for a more comfortable fit than its predecessor, I immediately pulled out the debit card and pointed my  computer’s Web browser to Converse.com. I needed to try the shoe. I wasn’t disappointed.

  • The sneaker comes bundled with a slip-in Lunarlon insert that offers extra support. YES.
  • There’s better construction on display: the show is softer and has upper support. YES.
  • The classic logo is a sewn-on patch instead of a paint job. KINDA DIG.
  • It lacks the classic stitching and black sole stripe. BOO.
  • A padded, non-slip tongue. YES.

Chuck Taylor All Star 2

Long story short: The Chuck Taylor All Star II is a well-designed sneaker that’s easier on the soles than the original shoe. In fact, they’ve become my official casual footwear as I semi-obsessively try to make 60,000 steps per week. Yes, I’ve joined the church of Fitbit. Hallowed be its name.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon a playground on Houston Street while wearing my Chucks. Men of various ages and races balled hard on the blacktop, as they shot, passed, and jumped in the spring air. Other than my own shoes, there wasn’t a set of Chucks in my immediate vicinity.

It’s 2016, not 1979. Sneaker culture, like society as whole, bends and morphs as the years trot forward. The Chuck Taylor All Star is no longer a b-baller’s shoe, because more comfortable, sports-friendly options exist. That said, the sneakers have transformed into something greater than their original purpose.

The brand is found in the office, the diner, the lab, the class, the club, and the park. The shoe’s classic design makes it acceptable casual wear, as well as a shot of downtown cool while dressed up. But for me, the Chuck Taylor All Star II is improved nostalgia.

“But I am still thirsty”

Frustration is the shriveled hand that quickly lowers our life-blinds and prevents us from enjoying the vistas. The feeling can touch any area of our existences, but it has a particularly wounding sting when it grips our careers. Although I constantly trumpet the idea of divorcing one’s self-worth from one’s job, I recognize that it can be a wickedly difficult course of action; we pour a significant amount of hours into our jobs, after all. I also recognize that I’m not immune to the struggle.

I entered the publishing business at age 30, a time in a writer/editor’s life when s/he is ascending the ladder of success. Not only was I new to the game, I stood on the absolute bottom rung of the ladder—I was an intern. As a result, I reached, stretched, leaped, and scrambled to ascend to a senior-level position and overcome that delayed start. The journey took longer than I’d imagined, and I sacrificed tears, time, sanity, and a relationship to get there. Some would question the journey’s validity if it brought so much strife, and it would be a fair critique. I performed actions that I’d never repeat or encourage others to take, but the many trials proved beneficial in the long run for one simple reason: I learned not to take any of this too seriously.

Still, there are moments when it’s difficult not to feel as though my career would be on another level if I’d pursued editorial during the normal window in a young professional’s life. The thoughts often creep to the forefront during meetings with people above my rank, but I try to drown out regret’s footsteps with happy reflections.

I grew up a poor kid from a single mother. She did a fine job of shielding me from just how poor we were, and put me on the path of learning and dreaming. In my younger days, I wrote before I consciously decided to become a professional writer. I slapped together awful poems. I created and penned an Uncanny X-Men parody that I sold to other 7th graders during lunchtime. I wrote a couple of hacky screenplays that, thankfully, remain on a USB drive for none to see. The projects were mainly a way for me to escape some of the stress that came with growing up in the crime-filled 1980s- and 1990s-era Coney Island.

I was never a troublemaker, but I got into the typical troubles that teens get into in a large, connected metropolis. I grew up in the projects, and ran with peddlers, but the only time steel touched my wrists was when I got caught hopping a train turnstile on West 8th St. I had goals, and knew that getting involved in negative activities would ruin my pursuit of attending CES, covering E3, visiting Japan, and sitting on a panel at a geek-related function to talk nerd stuff.

All of those dreams, and more, eventually became reality. This isn’t a self-high five moment. I simply highlight these accomplishments because those memories comfort me whenever I begin to kick myself. They also inspire me to chase more.

It would be easy to coast on those successes, but now is the time to focus on new goalposts, ones that will serve as the fuel that propels me through the second half of my existence. They represent not just my future, but my personal shift from career goals to life goals.

  • Continue expanding my economic ability to walk away from anything (AKA, “Fuck You Money”)
  • Help even more black people achieve their goals
  • Create a successful podcast
  • Travel more
  • Make art

They’re a mix of passion, financial, and “leaving a legacy” projects. And the best part about the plans? I’m starting them at exactly the right time in my life.

*Image courtesy of Chrysalis/EMI Records 

New York City pizza is a bland concoction of disappointment

Chicago vs. New York is one of the nation’s greatest rivalries. I’m not talking Bulls-Knicks , Bears-Giants, or Cubs-Mets. The true battlefront, the place where the mid-west and east square off in dirty slobberknockers, is in cheese, sauce, and dough.

Pizza. But you knew this from the title.

New York City is my home, but I’m a pizza agnostic. I love deep dish, classic New York-style slice, and Sicilian. Good pizza is just good pizza. But I can say without hesitation that New York pizza has transformed into a bland concoction of disappointment. It wasn’t always this way.

The Big Apple once overflowed with pizza goodness. Not that long ago, say the late-1990s to the  mid-2000s, you could buy a slice for $1 and enjoy a fatty, flavorful, world-renowned plain slice. A large plain slice. One so voluminous that you could use it to tarp Yankee Stadium during a rain delay. A slice so mighty that you’d be required to fold it, so that “you can pour the grease directly into your mouth,” as my colleague Max Eddy described it (albeit in derogatory fashion).

Your buck bought a mouthful of magic that came courtesy of significant amounts of well-flavored sauce and tasty, stretchy cheese. New York City pizza was once the perfect between-meal snack that you could enjoy upon strolling into any old school Italian pie joint. 

Now, we’ve got to put up with heinous $1 pizza. A small slice. Barely any sauce. A smattering of cheese. It resembles a dough-tomato sauce-cheese combo that would look at home emerging from an Easy-Bake Oven. Unfortunately, this hideous mockery of a $1 slice is the current face of New York City pizza and has ruined this great city’s pizza reputation.

It’s not as though there are just a handful of these places—they’re everywhere. Near the Port Authority. On the outskirts of Chinatown. On 125th St. A shop that sells solid pizza, on the other hand, is a bit harder to find, and will set you back between $3 to $5 per slice; a truly delicious, premium bite that caters to discerning palettes pushes the price closer to $5 or more. 

Unfortunately, as The Wall Street Journal points out, mid-range pizza shops, mainly in Manhattan, have slashed their prices in order to compete with the bargain basement shops. Naturally, that means ingredients are the first victims in the Great Pizza War. Some of my favorite places have suffered noticeable quality dips. The bottom end is booming, while the upper-tier is raking in profits. The dependable middle-class slice is vanishing. New York City’s pizza situation couldn’t be any more American.

Brigham Barnes believes that there some gold nuggets lodged in the $1 pizza muck. Barnes’s quest to find the city’s “most adequate dollar slice” has led the writer to several places I’ve frequented in the past, but have no desire to return to in the future. Though, I must admit that the author’s write-up about $1 Pizza Slice (yes, that’s the actual name!) makes the East Harlem shop sound like it sells pizza that embodies the heart of the one-buck slice that I used to love back in the day.

So, until I visit $1 Pizza Slice, I will stick to my usual joints that make delicious pizza, but at high price. The current pizza landscape demands opening your wallet so that you make enjoy the bread, sauce, and cheese combo that has somehow become incredibly simple to muck up in recent years. Desperate times, it seems, call for premium tastes.

Image courtesy of Serious Eats.

The Pumking rules at NYC Craft Beer Festival (Fall 2015)

Hipsters are the one demographic who New Yorkers publicly shame and ridicule without remorse, but I give my bearded, tight-pants-wearing friends credit for delivering the five boroughs from beer hell. The Big Apple once suffered the plague of Budweiser, Michelob, Colt 45, and the like, but it now drifts in a sea of tasty beverages that delights and amazes.

Halloween weekend’s New York City Craft Beer Festival celebrated the renaissance. My $55 general admission ticket granted access to drinks from breweries within city limits, upstate, and across the country, and supplied me with a small, commemorative 2-ounce tasting glass. I initially thought the glass was too diminutive for proper tastings, but when my eyes fell upon the dozens of vendors, and even more drinks, I realized that it was the perfect size to sample suds without getting absolutely hammered within the first 30 minutes.

Southern Tier Imperial Pumking

The Southern Tier Imperial Pumking at the New York City Craft Beer Festival.

There were many delightful brews in Metropolitan West’s two-story space, but the one that I deemed the best of show was Southern Tier Brewing Company’s Imperial Pumking. The seasonal wasn’t the only pumpkin-flavored beer at the festival, but it was the one that instantly made me James Franco.

Imperial Pumking tastes like a liquefied slice of grandma’s pumpkin pie that was given a proper chill. I was shocked by its robust pumpkin flavor during my first tasting; rich and sweet, but not at all a candy-like. Many pumpkin brews taste like they are made with pumpkin spices; Imperial Pumking tastes like it’s made of real pumpkin, and has a consistency to match. It’s a heavy beer, with a heavy flavor.

Pumking is best sipped, not guzzled, as the taste comes in waves. The first is the strong ale flavor; the second is  the delicious pumpkin. Drinking Pumking was not unlike drinking two beers at once, and that is not at all a slight.

I’m not so bold as to say that Imperial Pumking is now one of my all-time favorite beers after sampling just four ounces, but it’s certainly a drink that I’ll be searching out in the very near future. In fact, I may order a case, or five, from a distributor, so that I’ll have the deliciousness at hand throughout the holiday season.

Reflecting on Street Fighter II and arcade ass-kickings

Every summer, as warm weather settles over New York City, newscasters report that violence and crime escalate as the mercury rises. One doctor is likely to state that the high heat indexes are the direct cause of the unruliness; another equally qualified physician is likely to contradict that statement by explaining that people are simply outdoors longer in the summer, thus upping the chance of a confrontation. Regardless, if you were in the New York City arcade scene between 1991 and 1999, you either witnessed, dished out, or received an ass-kicking. As a frequent visitor of nearly every major arcade in New York City during those years, I experienced all three aspects of the phenomena. And Street Fighter II was very often the cause of those ass-kickings almost every  time.

Street Fighter II‘s very premise encourages rising tensions. You control a fighter, and have to beat up the competition to keep your quarter alive.  No matter if you lasted one minute or rattled of 10+ victories in a row, there was always something to boast about. If you got served, you could always boast to your “cheeser”  opponent that your six-hit combo was better than anything that he would’ve dreamed of doing.  If you bodied your opponent, well, that speaks for itself. The typical arcade rat didn’t pose any danger during those mouth-off moments, but if you were playing one of the arcade goons (every game room had at least two), you probably got a knuckle massage against your will.

I remember my first arcade beat down—unfortunately,  I was on the receiving end. I had just finished waxing some cigarette-inhaling punk using Guile’s infamous Jumping Fierce > Standing Fierce > Sonic Boom> Backfist mega-combo in the original Street Fighter II.  The leather-clad bastard got pissed and blew smoke in my face, as he couldn’t handle such a devastating defeat. I, naturally, told the scrub to step off and awaited the next challenger.

What came next was a thunder-clap of pain so severe that I hadn’t felt anything comparable until I ripped my pec in a freak martial arts accident years later. My jaw felt as though it was struck by Mjolnir itself, and my ears rang with as one with tinnitus. It’s hard to say exactly when I recovered from the Fist from Hell, but my most immediate memory was of my homie Abe wiping blood from my lip with a handful of tissue. Was this the price to pay for kicking ass in Street Fighter II?

Yes, apparently. I still get ribbed by the boys for catching such a bad one, but I wear my beat down with pride. Not only did I whip my opponent in-game, but I mentally pushed him to the point of a physical altercation. I owned him.

Kids these day don’t risk a punch in the face with the Xbox Lives and PlayStation Networks providing safe haven for all manner of smack-talkers. But back in the 1990s, mouthing off and Street Fighter II just didn’t mix. Especially during the dog days of summer.

Image courtesy of Capcom.

NYC’s Tenement Museum shows that we’re all history in the making

What is history? A musket shot during America’s colonial era? The Moors’ march into Europe? The construction of Giza’s first awe-inspiring pyramid? Yes, yes, and yes. But history isn’t simply large, globe-changing brushstrokes; its many smaller moments, too.

I, of course, knew that, but The Tenement Museum gave new life to those more intimate happenings. Located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, The Tenement Museum highlights the many peoplesThe Irish, Germans, Italians, and Jewswho immigrated to America in hopes of finding a better life than what could be procured in the old country. Their stories are radically different from my people’s introduction to America, but they are ones that are just as vital to New York City’s culture.

The Tenement Museum, design-wise, isn’t the typical museum in which you simply gawk at items hung on a wall or resting in a sealed, glass case. The museum delivers its educational load via numerous walking tours in which visitors explore and analyze an actual tenement, 97 Orchard St., that’s owned by the institution. You literally walk into the rooms where desperate and hard-working immigrants worked, slept, and played in the first half of the twentieth century.

Shop Life, the thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening 90-minute tour that I dropped my $25 on, took a look inside a German family’s salon and its back-area apartment. The past breathes new life when you can reach out and touch it. I won’t delve into the the details of the tour—it’s best to experience it fresh—but the session explored the gulf that separated the American immigrant dream from what was the laborious, troubled reality.

More importantly, the tour detailed the struggle of maintaining traditions in a new land, the opposition to that from those who crossed the Atlantic earlier, and what it means to be an American. As a person of color in America, those are themes that still resonate; ones that I ponder on a regular basis. In that regard, I felt a connection with a German family that walked the lower Manhattan streets a half century before I was born.

I didn’t expect to be moved by the Schmidt family, but their actions—opening a saloon, participating in neighborhood political clubs, bonding with their group in solidarity, raising children—were everyday activities that helped shape Orchard St. and the Lower East Side. The record of their simple lives demonstrated that even minor movements create change—you just need the will to act.

History comes later.

Image courtesy of The Tenement Museum.

My all-time favorite albums list is shockingly predictable

Every writer-slash-know-it-all with an Internet connection and a keyboard eventually masturbates to their own tastes and egos by crafting definitive lists of…something. I am not above this.

Recently, a drunken friend of a friend asked me about my “desert island albums.” I was well-prepared to answer the question, because, like the idea of creating an all-time best album list, it is something wholly unoriginal. So, I answered the question. And decided shortly thereafter to create this list.

This hideous list.

Now, the music itself isn’t bad my any means, but it’s awfully predictable. I really hoped that I possessed enough cool to name several obscure, indie rap-funk band from Nigeria that “don’t get enough love.” Instead, I came up with this mess.

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WHAT I LEARNED FROM COMPILING THIS LIST

  1. There are many albums I haven’t listened to in their entirety, thus disqualifying them from this list.
  2. There are many albums that I used to dig as a young man that no longer speak to me.
  3. I really need to listen to some albums that were released before my birth.

So, judge. Educate. Recommend. You have my ear.