Sunday, October 14, 2012

Campaign for Real Ale

It's funny, I never cared much for cask conditioned ale when I was a native of England, despite living in the Thames Valley and Kent at various times, two places with strong ale histories.  I did enjoy the odd pint here and there but it wasn't until I returned to visit and spent some time in the Cotswalds that I began to really see what it had to offer.

Cask conditioning at the homebrew scale, like aging in a whole bourbon barrel's worth of beer, is simply not possible.  I did however come across one clever suggestion of storing the beer in screw cap bottles so the build up of carbon dioxide can be periodically released.  My first attempt went really well.  I used a London Ale yeast strain, bottled after about 5 days and let a little carbonation escape every couple of days for about a week.  If anything I overdid it a little and some bottles were too flat.  Nevertheless the result was a delicious bitter.

My second attempt has given me a few problems.  This time I used an ESB yeast.  It was a smack-pack so should have worked well but I didn't check the date on it.  I suspect since it was the last one in the fridge at my LHBS it may have been quite old.  The pack certainly didn't swell as much as they usually do.  As a result, after 5 days when I bottled, the beer had a very bad sulphury smell and taste.  It turns out that this ESB yeast strain can but badly behaved even in the best conditions, so between the old pack and me not aerating sufficiently the fermentation was dirty and left some off flavors.

Luckily, I am 'cask conditioning' this beer!  With beers that don't turn out as expected, patience is the key.  Under the right conditions, the yeast in the bottles will clean up the off flavors and the beer will turn out fine.  How much time that will take is hard to say, but there is plenty more drinkable beer in my house so this one can just hang out for a while.  The fall is here and my house is basically cellar temperature!  I have sacrificed one bottle that I open even now and they to see how it's doing.  So far the smell has improved.  Hopefully the taste will too!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Evolution of the Bronze Chicken

Obviously I am far behind on blogging about my beers as they happen and I will not even try to catch up.  After moving into brewing 5 gallons at a time I have tried to maintain the same approach of incorporating at least one new element into my brewing with each subsequent beer.  One of the most interesting ways to do this is to rebrew a recipe with some modifications and see what difference the changes make.

My first 5 gallon beer was a Belgian Trippel, which is meant to be golden in color and have those delicious fruity, spicy esters that Belgian abbey yeasts tend to impart.  I spent a little time on the internet looking a recipes and made a hybrid of a few to give me a relatively simple malt bill for my first attempt at this scale.

The beer turned out great and had almost the exact flavor profile I was aiming for but the color was much darker than I had intended.  Since the beer tasted remarkably like Victory's Golden Monkey, I christened it Bronze Chicken in honor of our recently acquired yard birds.

The beer takes a while to make.  It's a relatively strong beer, so it's important to make sure fermentation is completed, and that means patience!  The primary runs for about a week and a half, secondary at least three weeks and then it can take at least three to fully carbonate once bottled.  While this isn't a sessionable beer, so my supply was not being drunk too quickly, I was giving a fair amount to friends so wanted to start a rebrew fairly quickly.  I was thinking about the recipe over a beer at Crossroads.  The beer happened to be Curieux, a bourbon barrel aged Trippel by Allagash.  Well, it is just a fantastic beer and I had to take a crack at it.

It is possible to obtain used bourbon barrels and one of these days I'll get one and brew 55 gallons of beer to aged in it!  But in the mean time the homebrewer's cheat is to use toasted oak cubes soaked in bourbon.  This time I brewed 6 gallons a split it between two 3 gallon carboys during secondary.  I had heard that the oak cubes can quickly impart too much oakiness, so I planned to do the bourbon treatment to half the beer then blend the two portions to keep the effect more subtle.  Despite doing closer to a full boil to reduce caramelization the beer still came out several shades darker than golden.  I lost track of how many weeks the bourbon soaked oak cubes spent in the beer, but the effect was almost imperceptible.  While still in the carboy there was a pleasant bourbon aroma, but after transferring to bottling bucket then bottles I'm not sure how much of this will remain.  Still it is a tasty brew and being a little darker makes it more enjoyable in the fast approaching winter months.

I'm also starting to make wine and bought a corker, so some of the Chicken II went in corked Belgian bottles, which I think you'll agree look awesome!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Mr Beer Years

The starter kit came with the ingredients for the West Coast Pale Ale, which is kind of a classic American middle-of-the-road beer. Light in color and body, not too much hop bitterness. The recipe uses one can of a hopped malt extract. Basically, the jobs of extracting the sugars from the malt, and boiling the hops to add bitterness have already been done. Dilute the hopped malt extract to the full volume and you have the wort (the name for unfermented beer). To add a little more body and alcohol, the recipe includes Booster which is basically simple corn sugar. Once all this is mixed together, the yeast is added and fermentation takes place over a period of one or two weeks. I just let mine go two weeks to make sure fermentation went to completion despite the cold temperatures in my house. I put the fermenter in the cloakroom, which tends to be the warmest area of the house in winter.

When the beer is put into bottles, a little extra sugar is added and the beer is left to carbonate. The sugar is fermented as usual and the carbon dioxide produced cannot escape thru the sealed cap so the beer becomes carbonated. This takes another one or two weeks at room temperature, then the beer can be chilled, and drunk.

The West Coast Pale Ale was a success in as much as the beer was drinkable! My next beer was the American Devil IPA which used two cans of hopped malt extract, and skipped the Booster resulting in a slightly stronger brew. That turned out well, but not as hoppy as the name would suggest. I brewed a Vienna Lager which was very popular but wasn't a true lager as it used the same Mr Beer ale yeast as the other brews. I tried an Oatmeal Stout which was good during the cold weather, and a Doppelbock/Brown Ale that came out like a porter and was one of my favorites. From that point I tried to introduce a different element to my brewing with each beer.

I brewed a recipe called KT's Caramel Apple Cider that was half beer, half cider and used a champagne yeast to give the beverage a dry finish. It took a looong time to ferment and condition but ultimately came out really well. I brewed the First Pitch Pilsner which was my first time boiling some hops in the wort to add more hop flavor, and used an actual lager yeast (although I probably didn't ferment at a low enough temperature). The result was again very pleasant but not quite the right style.

My sister-in-law had given us some preserved strawberries so I made a slightly amateurish attempt at a lambic. I had read that lambics are traditionally a brown ale base, but wanted the beer to have some sourness so combined the brown with a red ale, then threw in a couple jars of strawberries. Getting the beer in the bottles without clogging the spigot was a challenge, but I was very pleased with how it turned out. A little sourness and not too much fruitiness, but you could taste the strawberries.

Next I brewed a beer starting only with the unhopped malt extract. I boiled the wort for a full hour with progressive hop additions to create a truer pale ale. I was also able to start with more that the final volume of liquid in the kettle. Some would evaporate during the boil, resulting on the correct volume. My maximizing the volume of liquid, the utilization of bittering compounds in the hops is also maximized, allowing me to really amp up the bitterness. I was really pleased with how that beer came out, although I think I ended up giving a lot away!

I returned to the Vienna Lager but this time used a real lager yeast and kept it at the right temperature (around 50F) but I;m not sure I can honestly say that it came out much better than the first attempt. I also tried to brew a wheat beer (hefewiezen) which came out more like a light ale. I could tell that I was starting to reach the limits of what could be achieved with the Mr Beer setup so began to transition to 5 gallon brews using some slightly more advanced techniques. However, I think the eleven beers I brewed with Mr Beer gave me a solid foundation for my future brewing endeavors.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

How I Started Brewing

Getting into brewing is a daunting prospect.  I had been thinking about brewing for a while and kept mentioning it to my wife, but there were three barriers that held me back.  First is the cost.  I am stingy, and so while the beginners equipment if not very expensive, I had a problem with the fact that a primary fermenter costs about $16, but its just a paint bucket with a few minor alterations.  Surely I would just buy a $5 paint bucket and put a rubber grommet in the lid...but of course I never got around to it.  Second is the possibility of failure.  It takes several weeks to get to a drinkable product, and the process seems full of potential pitfalls.  Was I capable of putting it all together?  And finally was the issue of temperature control.  Like I said, I'm stingy, so my house is cold in the winter and hot in the summer.  Would I only be able to brew in the spring or fall?

Eventually my wife got tired of hearing me talk about it and bought me a Mr Beer kit for my birthday.  Mr Beer have created an entry level brewing system that I'm sure lots of brewers look on with scorn, but I'm going to stand up for them because I think their system is actually quite clever.

The whole concept is based on hitting the correct pitching temperature every time.  Making beer inevitable involves hot water, but at the point the yeast is added the temperature cannot be more than about 80F, preferably lower, or the yeast will instantly die.  What Mr Beer have you do is heat up a set amount of water to boiling, add hopped malt extract, then make up the mixture to the 2 gallon mark with room temperature water.   The resultant volume is always going to be about the right temperature for pitching ale yeast.

The Mr Beer system also compresses the amount of time required to brew, which I think makes it easy to set aside a slot of time and really concentrate on your technique.  One of the most important aspects of brewing is good sanitation, as any contamination from bacteria can ruin a batch.  Good sanitation needs to continue right thru until the beer is drunk, but on brew day it is especially important because you are in the business of preparing a nutrient rich liquid for your yeast to digest.  If anything else gets in at the start it has a chance to compete with the yeast.  After fermentation is in full swing there is less chance of a contaminant being able to gain a foothold.

The Mr Beer kits come with a no-rinse sanitiser which works well because it doesn't create a lot of foam, which can be intimidating for a novice.  While there are many limitations to the Mr Beer setup, they definitely come through on the promise of allowing a complete new-comer to brew a decent beer on the first attempt.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


What can really be said about water?  It's just the vehicle for all the other wonderful components of beer, right?

In fact, water has again a rich story in the history of brewing.  Certain styles of beer developed in the regions that they did because they were a good match for the characteristics of the local water.  Famously, the pure water of Pilsen used for brewing crisp, clear pilsners, and the chalky water of Burton, where many classic British ales are brewed.

For the homebrewer, the biggest challenge is removing chlorine from municipal water supplies.  Chlorine can combine with organic compounds from the malt and produce medicinal off-flavors.  But some brewers take things a step further in adding specific minerals to their water to replicate water profiles from around the world.  In any case, some minerals and ions are vital to ensuring healthy yeast growth.

These post barely scape the surface of what there is to be know about even these four simple components of brewing.  I plan to revisit these posts and update them as I have the time.  For now I hope they will be useful in allowing non-brewers to follow along with my descriptions of my brewing adventures.


Sugar from malt has already been converted to alcohol by yeast.  So why do we need hops?  The hops play two key roles.  Firstly, the residual sweetness of any unfermented sugar is pleasantly balanced by the bitterness provided by hops.  Secondly, the hops have anti-microbial properties that help prevent the beer from spoiling.  Several other plants have been used to the same effect, for example different types of roots in root beer, but for various historical and geographical reasons, hops won out.  Modern-day Germany is the epicenter for hop production as the climate there is suited to their cultivation.  It is not co-incidence that the Germans are then famous for their beer, while their Southern neighbors made wine from the grape vines thriving in the mediterranean regions (and those further north made vodka from whatever they could get to ferment).

The bitter compounds in hops are a class of chemicals called the alpha acids.  These acids are present in the hop cones, which are the female flower clusters of the hop plant.  Interestingly the alpha acids have to go through an isomerization process to become bitter.  Isomers are two different arrangements of the sample atoms.  The isomerization occurs during boiling, so a key process in brewing is the boiling of the hops in water also containing the sugars extracted from the malt.  Isomerization is mostly complete after 1 hour of boiling, so hops boiled for one hour contribute maximum bitterness.  Later hop additions provide other aromatic compounds that contribute to flavor and aroma.


I want to start with malt because the malt provides the raw materials for all the wonderful biochemical processes that occur during brewing and that result in alcohol, of course, but also all the other flavors that form the body of the beer.  But to get to malt we first have to go back to grain.

Grain seed contains the genetic information to grow another plant.  But to have any hope of achieving that aim, it also has to have a large store of energy to get the whole process started.  Until the first leaves emerge, and the plant can start capturing the energy from the sun, it has to completely rely on what it brought with it.  The energy is packaged as starch.  Starch is comprised of long, branched chains of sugar molecules, so it is a space-efficient way to stow the cargo, but the chains have to be broken before that energy can be accessed.  To bust open the chains, the grain also has a supply of enzymes, that can snip apart the starch into its constituent sugars molecules.  When the grain is malted, those enzymes are harnessed to do that exact job: convert the starch into sugars than can be fermented by the yeast into alcohol.

Malting, therefore, is basically playing a trick on the grain.  By warming it up in a moist environment, the grain is fooled into starting the germination process.  The enzymes are activated in those favorable conditions, and they begin to transform the store of starch into useable sugars.  Then, before the grain can get as far as sprouting, the process is abruptly halted by drying, and we are left with malt.

As you will discover with all aspects of brewing, the theory is relatively simple, then you walk in to a homebrew store and see a wall of shelves filled with a massive variety of malts and you realize the many layers of complexity built on top of the basic concept.  So lets think about some of the factors that can alter the properties of the malt.

First of all, consider the type of starting grain.  Barley is the most popular malting grain for making beer and whiskey (the two drinks are closely related).  The reason is that the starches in barley are readily converted to sugar.  In other words, they are relatively easy to malt.  But other grains are used, either on their own on in conjunction with barley to add different characteristics to the beer.  Common examples are wheat, corn, rice and oats.

A second way the malt can be altered is by roasting it.  This is a delicate process since we do not want to completely denature the enzymes that we will later rely on to perform additional conversions.  But different roasting temperatures and times can provide different colors and tastes.  As the malt darkens, nutty, chocolatey, earthy or even smoky flavors begin to be produced.

So now we know that malt is modified grain that provides the sugar for fermentation and contributes to the flavor and color of the beer.


It would make sense to talk about yeast next.  The yeast is going to convert the sugar from the malt into alcohol by fermentation.  Fermentation is an anaerobic process, which means it occurs in the absence of oxygen.  Yeasts are single cell organisms from the kingdom Fungi.  There are two main species of yeasts  used in brewing.  Ale yeasts are usually strains of the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae, while lager yeasts are Saccharomyces pastorianus.

Ale yeasts are 'top-fermenting' yeasts, and prefer warmer temperatures, while lager yeasts are 'bottom-fermenting' yeasts and prefer cooler temperatures.  There are many different strains of yeast, each of which is typically used to brew a particular style of beer.  The strain of yeast used contributes a lot to the overall flavor of the final product.  There are several large commercial yeast labs that produce their version of all the major strains of yeast and label them with the style of beer they are traditionally used for.

How does the yeast contribute so much to the flavor profile?  Well, the yeast is a living organism, so as well as doing the heavy lifting of converting sugar to alcohol there are a variety of other reactions occurring that add to the flavor and mouth feel of the beverage.  There are also other, simpler reasons.  For example we need to consider the attenuation of the yeast.  That is a measure of how completely the yeast uses up the available sugar.  No yeast converts 100% of the available sugar and the remaining sweetness is a big part of the style of the beer (in the same way that wines are classified by being sweet or dry).

One big class of chemical compounds produced by yeasts is the esters.  Esters are notorious as flavoring chemicals, as they have characteristically fruity odors.  Most chemistry students will at some point be introduces to isoamyl acetate, the chemical used to flavor pear drops.  In the brewing world, perhaps the most famous esters are those that give banana flavors to many belgian styles, but there are many beers that benefit from different fruity notes.  The same belgian style yeasts that produce banana flavors also tend to produce phenols, which can be perceived as a clove-like flavor.  Another common by-product is diacetyl, which tastes like butterscotch.  Generally this is considered a bad flavor in beer, but can be a part of certain styles.

Understanding all these side reactions is a big part to understanding the brewing process.  At first it is easy to wonder why the beer isn't finished after a week.  The fermentation is usually complete by then, but it can take several more weeks under particular conditions for some of the other characteristics of the beer to develop.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Crabtree Falls

Crabtree Falls is billed as the tallest waterfall in Virginia, but not in the sense of a single sheer drop.  Instead it cascades in a series of sections.  Still, I was looking for a relatively short hike and this was nearby, and it turned out to be worth visiting.  The falls are within the George Washington National Forest and so the trails has been heavily modified with steps, stairs and hand rails.  The path travels 1.7 miles alongside the falls with several decks built for viewing the more spectacular parts.  Despite the steep climb the walking was never too strenuous and it was nice to take a break regularly and enjoy to cool breeze coming off the falling water.  When you get to the top, the view of the valley is pleasant but the falls themselves are hidden over the ledge.

On the way back down I couldn't help wondering, where does all the water come from?  When you're at the top of the falls you can't be very far from the top of the ridge.  So there isn't much land area to catch rainwater to feed the falls and there also wouldn't seem to be anywhere for a large store of water to build up so that the flow would remain steady for a while after a rain.  There certainly seemed to be a lot of water coming down.  But then it occurred to me that the flow rate must be the same from top to bottom, and at certain points there was just a small stream of water running between a few rocks.  At first it didn't seem possible that the small stream could be carrying the same volume of water in the same time as these large cascades of white foamy water.  But the answer is in the foam.  When the water splashes over the rocks and gets foamed up with air it makes it look like a much larger volume than it really is.  There's also the fact that the width of falls at any point is inversely proportional to the depth of the water there.  When the depth of the water is very shallow (such as when it runs down a steep rock face) it can be spread out over a surprisingly large width.  Finally, I think the water stretches out more when it flows faster, like cars on a highway.  Even though the distance between cars (or water molecules) is large, the overall rate of flow is still high because the cars a moving very quickly.

The upshot of all this is that there probably wasn't as much water flowing down the falls as it initially appeared.  I thought about trying to estimate some depths, widths and speeds.  There was one spot where 'V's of light foam pulsed down the water as it flowed across a large flat rock.  I figured the speed that the 'V's were travelling was probably about equal to the speed of the water.  Speed x cross-sectional area would have given me a rate, and I could have thought about what volume of water would need to be stored at the top of the falls to maintain that kind of flow.  When I got to the parking area again I did look at the map and saw two streams feeding the falls, so maybe the land plateaus a bit and there is more catchment area than I think.

Anyway, I ultimately decided to let go of the maths and just enjoy the beauty of Crabtree Falls

Monday, May 21, 2012

Beer Blogging

As you may be aware, I recently started homebrewing.  It's something I had thought about trying for a while, but wasn't sure if I could pull it off.  Kristal probably got tired of me talking about it and not doing anything, so she bought me a Mr Beer kit for my birthday, which is a fool-proof way to get into brewing. From there, the hobby has grown and along with a few friends I am slowly advancing up the scale of complexity.  There are a lot of good beer blogs out there, but the internet is big enough for all of us.  I by no means want this blog to become exclusively about beer, but brewing is a fairly regular event at my house and so blogging about it will help keep me in the flow of writing.  I also take a very scientific approach to brewing, and want to write not just about what I brewed and how, but why.

To begin with I will be working on a series of posts about the four fundamental ingredients of brewing: Malt, Yeast, Hops and Water.  After that I will probably give a summary of the beers brewed to date, then we will get into more detailed descriptions of the brew days as they occur.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Thule Urban Assault

Today I rode in the Thule Urban Assault mountain bike race.  The event is part of Dominion RiverRock, a weekend festival of outdoor activities.   It is my home course, run on trails in the James River Park System that I regularly ride, so it seemed liked a good occasion for me to enter my first race.  Apparently the event is quite a draw for professional riders on the East Coast.  The pros would be doing two loops of the course, I would be doing just one, ten miles in length.  I think to most non-mountain bikers that doesn't sound very far, but on technical single track - trust me - it's a good distance.

Then send the pros off first, then there is actually an hour wait before the people doing a single loop set off.  This gives enough time for most guys to get around.  Unfortunately it meant sitting around on a hot afternoon waiting to get going.  I guess I could have showed up later but there was supposed to be a 'competitors meeting' at 12.30pm, which I thought might give some useful insight into racing etiquette but actually involved the announcer admonishing us to 'keep the rubber side down'.  So then I had to wait around until my wave start time at 2.11pm.

My wave, the beginner group ages 19-29, only had about 10-15 people in it so I was hoping that the trail wouldn't be too congested.  However, not only were there some people coming around for their second loop and catching up with us, we also had to contend with the fast guys in the 30-39 group that started a few minutes behind us.  My theory is that if you're in the 19-29 range theres a good chance you're in reasonable shape and just want to give it a go.  If you're in the 30-39 range and you've entered this kind of event it means you're a serious mountain biker.  Really, they need to adopt a wave start more like running races based on predicted time, not age.

Some of the more seasoned riders were very nice about trying to pass.  Others were down-right rude.  The biggest issue was that the beginner group had a lot of complete amateurs, so they would stall out on even the less technical hills but not really get out of the way.  If you did pass them they'd then come flying up behind you only to skid off the track at a tight turn.  I had one guy crash into the back of me when I was at the back of a traffic jam.  Basically it was carnage.  It was also exhausting, as it is much harder work to get off and push, then remount the bike and get going again.  I wanted to continue at my own pace but it was difficult to tell when the person behind you was legitimately faster than you rather than just tail gating.  The strange thing was, not matter how often I pulled over to let people by, there was another group on my tail in no time.  I guess I was going pretty slow!

Despite all the traffic, the race was a lot of fun.  There were several groups of spectators at a few of the obstacles, cheering people on and growing nuts when somebody successfully negotiated a technical section.  The course is great and it was awesome to be a part of a race that showcases my favorite trails.  Overall I think I am pleased with my performance.  I rode in one hour, 18 minutes, coming 6th in my age group from a total of 14 finishers, and 51st out of 96 who rode the 10 mile course.  I think I could do better but not sure if I enjoyed it enough to take another crack at it.  Maybe next year I'll marshall this race and run the 10K scramble instead!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Ten Thousand Islands

So like I said, I stopped at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center and was talked into talking a boat tour.  Two different tours are offered.  One goes through the mangroves in a small boat but can be buggy and didn't fit with my schedule.  The other was on a larger covered pontoon boat which suited me because I was still trying to stay out of the sun.  The timing would leave me just enough of the afternoon to get back to the bike shop.  The tour was excellent and the guides gave a lot of information about the ecology, geography and history of the area, some of which I will try to recollect here.

The Ten Thousand Islands are an area where the Everglades meets the Gulf and there is this almost esturine geography as the land breaks up into many small islands of mangrove trees.  They really tried to count the islands on several occasions using aerial or satellite photography, but depending on the height of the tide the number can increase as small channels fill with water and one island becomes many!  But the ten thousand moniker is definitely in the right ball park and may even be an underestimation.

The mangrove tree is the only tree that can tolerate the saline waters of coastal areas, so it has the place to itself.  There are actually three kinds of mangrove, black, white and red, and all three are present on the florida mangroves.  They are an evergreen tree, so they do not lose their leaves in winter but rather they continually  drop leaves into the water.  The leaves contain tannins, so the waters around the mangrove islands are like a tea.  Although the water looks murky because of the decomposing mangrove leaves, it is very healthy and supports the second largest area of oyster beds in the U.S. (behind the Chesapeake Bay - woohoo!).  However, no-one eats the oysters from Florida because the waters stay too warm and bacteria abound.  There is no solid ground on the islands, but in some places there looks like there is a beach.  It is formed by oyster shells.  Since they are not harvested, they build up in large numbers and during a storm are pushed up against the islands.

The ten thousand islands is home to several species of fishing bird.  The osprey is there in large numbers, as well as the snowy egret and several types of heron including the tri-color heron, which I don't think I'd seen before.  The most impressive bird to see is the swallowtailed kite.  Like all kites it is amazingly agile in the air, and it spirals through the tree tops eating bugs off the branches as it goes!  I was really hoping to see a manatee, but had to make do with dolphins.  The dolphin we did see were practicing the art of love. Yes, that's right, copulating dolphins.  Dolphins also engage in coitus for pleasure, like humans and there three seemed to just be enjoying a bit of afternoon love-making.  Three, you ask?  Well, you see their mechanics is the same as ours (they are mammals, not fish) but they don't have arms, or beds, so the male has to get his buddy to lend a flipper and hold the female in position.  The overall result is a writhing mass of sleek grey flesh splashing around in the water with the occasional flash of a large pink member.  We were apparently very lucky to witness this event, but it was a little uncomfortable.  The dolphins were not easily distracted from their task, and we ran out of time before they ran out of steam.

On the way back in one of the guides rambled through some of the history of the area.  Tales of the spanish trying to move in and being beaten back by skilled indian warriors.  Stories of lawless settlement where the villagers meted out justice with a variety of makeshift weaponry according to their own feeling of what the facts might be.  I guess the Everglades has been a good place to dump a body for a long time!

So, if you every get down the the Everglades, definitely take the short detour down 29 and check out the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.  The staff will happily talk you out of your money but it will be totally worth it!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The 'Glades

I had to get the bike back to the shop by 4.30pm and I had no idea what might be in store for the day ahead.  So my plan was to ride most of the distance back to Naples and see how the time was going, then decide what Everglade related activities to engage in.  The ride out of the Keys was fun.  In many ways the area between Key Largo and Miami is the most beautiful.  The waters are an unreal shade of green-blue and fill numerous channels between the wooded islands and peninsulas.  On the way back I managed to find the road that skirts the urban areas back to Tamiami Trail.  I was really glad I did as I got to see another facet of Florida's countryside.  The road was lined with nurseries and orchards growing lemons, oranges, limes and a variety of other fruit that may have been mangos and similar that I'd never seen on the tree before.

I turned onto Tamiami Trail and made short work of the first 50 miles or so.  The road essentially forms a dam across the Everglades than prevents the natural flow of water.  Lake Okeechobee empties into the Everglades and instead of forming a single river channel the water meanders across the entire landscape as a swamp but is inexorably progressing towards the gulf.   Route 41 halts that progress.  To remedy the situation, they are converting an entire section of the road from a dirt mound to a causeway bridge so the water can flow underneath unimpeded.  This is a mammoth task which was bought home as I watch a truck arrive at the work site with a single massive concrete cross beam.  It had driven the 50 plus miles from Miami, but that was just a single component and hundreds like it would be needed to support the roadway.  The point is, the first third of the trail consists of a construction site on one side and a manmade canal on the other, which is basically the ditch left behind when they piled up the earth to put the road on. The you get the the Indian villages which use garish billboards to advertise airboat tours and alligator wrestling.  Finally you get to the Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.  Right before Big Cypress is the Shark Valley Visitor Center.  I pulled over to see what was up but there was and admission fee and I didn't feel like messing with it.  I pull a quick U-turn and stop to check my phone when I realize there is an alligator sitting next to me in a drainage ditch.  Well, that was easy!  Check off 'alligator' on the wildlife spotting list.

I went a little further to the Oasis Visitor Center which serves Big Cypress.  It was kinda small but had a lot of good information about the wildlife and the off road trails you could drive through the 'Glades.  I considered checking one out, but wasn't sure how the rental shop would feel about me going offroad on their shiny Softail.  Plus the trails are rumored to be crawling with alligators than have become accustomed to humans baiting them, and didn't want them to think I was offering my feet as a snack.  Apparently it is quite dangerous to get out of your car.  On I went to Kirby Storter Roadside Park.  I had stopped there on the way down to put my earplugs in and had made a mental note to visit more thoroughly on the way back.  There is a very nice boardwalk out to an alligator hole.  By this point I had seen so many gators that it didn't hold quite the same attraction but I still wanted to check it out.  It's a great way to see the Everglades habitat up close.  The boardwalk goes through a stand of cypress trees, which all have air-plants and orchids growing off of them.  I had heard someone explaining that although people think of the everglades as a big swamp, there is a base of limestone right beneath the surface, and where the boardwalk crossed over grassland you could see patches of the white stone peeking through.

After enjoying a rest in a thatched shelter, I still had plenty of time to kill, and was beginning to get hungry for lunch, so I decided to hit the road and head towards Everglades City.  The city, if you can call it that, is just a few miles south of U.S. 41.  I was expecting something more substantial and had ridden through almost before I realised I had arrived.  I continued on to the end of the road, to the small village of Chokoloskee.  There wasn't a whole lot there either.   The only attraction was some historic local store.  I stuck my head in and could tell it wasn't worth the admission price, so retraced my tracks to EC.  Right on the southern edge of the city is the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, part of Everglades National Park.  I stuck me head it and the lady at the counter got straight to work on me, convincing me to go on a boat tour.  It turned out I had just enough time to fit in a tour of the Ten Thousand Islands.  The islands are comprised completely of mangrove trees.  The boat tour was so excellent I think I might have to dedicate an entire post to it.  See you next time!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Really the Florida Keys

OK, so we just about got the the Keys last time, but what did I do there?  I really only had two activities in mind.  One was a kayak trip and the other was sitting on the beach.  For reasons I will explain in due time, I achieved one of these!  I had a hotel room booking in Marathon, which is about halfway between Key Largo (the first Key) and Key West (at the end of the line).  Right before you arrive in Marathon there is a state park called Curry Hammock.  I had read that you can rent a kayak there, and preferred to do that than try to find a commercial outfitter.

One of the joys of motorcycle travel is getting to change clothes in parking lots.  I had cleverly worn a pair of swim shorts under my jeans, so didn't have to go butt naked to get ready for water sports but the park ranger probably thought I was cuckoo as I stripped out of my riding gear and emerged in shorts and flip-flops ready to hit the beach.  The particularly attractive thing about renting a kayak at this state park was that you could paddle though a mangrove tunnel.  The ranger gave me a laminated map and showed me the best way to go around the island with the current tidal conditions.  Unfortunately I had arrived at the beginning of low tide so it was hard going in shallow water.  I kept scooping up seaweed and flinging it into my hair!  However I was making much better headway that a pair of couples that were in tandem kayaks and drew too much water to negotiate the shallows.  After a period of basically punting myself along I finally reached some deeper water at the back of the island.

You can see in the second photo the entrance to the tunnel.  Other than a small sign you would have no idea there was a path through the trees.  The ranger had set me right, there was a good current flowing through the tunnel and I was able to ride along making small course corrections but not really having to paddle.  A good thing, because there was no room to be swinging the paddle around.  The picture is a more open section were I was able to snap a picture without crashing into the jungle.  The craziest part was that there were thousands of crabs on the mangrove roots.  I mean, they were everywhere!  I feared that if my kayak brushed against a root then an army of crabs would board my vessel and devour me.  This really was one of the coolest experience of my life.  It was like a carnival ride but completely a product of nature.

Once I reached the tunnel exit I was almost back to my starting point.  I had about half of my allotted time left, so paddled out to a sand bar about a quarter mile off shore.   Beaching my kayak on the white sands was like arriving at my own private island.  After relaxing for a few minutes it was time to return.  I did make a short detour down a channel that the ranger had mentioned in relation to iguanas.  Sure enough, on the top of a well weathered telegraph pole was sitting a content iguana.  Apparently they are escaped pets that have started a colony in that particular area.

Once I had returned my kayaking equipment it was about check in time at the hotel so I figured I would go there and take stock of my situation.  I was only a few miles down the road so after swapping my flip-flops for trainers I rode in shorts and a vest feeling very biker.  On arrival at the hotel it became apparent that I may had gotten every so slightly sunburned.  I certainly had a bad case of panda eyes, and my arms were a little tender, but worst off were the backs of my hands from being on the bike with no gloves on.  Anyway, sitting on the beach was definitely out of the question.  I had hoped that some fun activities would be within walking distance but this was not really the case.  Luckily there was a tiki bar right across the street, so I stopped in for my tropical beer of choice, Red Stripe.  After some lounging around it had begun to cool off so I took the bike out to ride some more of the overseas highway.  I wondered if I would be able to make it down to Key West, but didn't really want to ride after dark since without a visor I was relying on sunglasses to keep the bugs out of my eyes.  I got as far as Big Pine Key, maybe a little further, but the sun was sinking fast and it was clear Key West was going to have to wait to another day.  I got back to my seat at the bar in time to watch the sun set and enjoy a dinner of grilled yellowtail and a fruity rum drink.

The Florida Keys

The second part of my adventure involves me, a Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe and the open road.  It has been an ambition of mine to ride a motorcycle along Route 1 in the Keys.  I've never been particularly attracted to the Harley-Davidson brand, but I felt it would be wrong to judge without a proper trial.  A little investigation on the internet led me to Everglades Motorcycle Service in Naples.  I went for the cheapest option of the two bikes they rent, a 2005 Softail Deluxe.  The motor is a 103 cu in V-twin, meaning each cylinder was larger on it's own that any bike I have ever ridden before.

Since the fishing trip wrapped up a little early, I was able to pick up the bike the evening before I had planned to leave.  Not only did that give me a nice early departure in the morning with the paperwork out of the way, it also allowed me some city riding to acquaint myself with this beast.  I was pleasantly surprise with my ability to handle such a large bike, especially since it has been a year or two since I last rode.  The guy at the shop helpfully recommended that I ride down the access road for the industrial estate we were on, and I made a neat U-turn at the end, instantly boosting my confidence.

The vibration from the engine was hardly noticeable, thanks to a counterbalanced twin cam design.  The seat was enormously comfortable.  To be honest I was more embarrassed than exhilerated by the exhaust noise, it just doesn't make sense to me.  Having said that, when you ease off the throttle you get an awesome throaty spluttering sound.  Its very hard to describe, but I confess that I rather enjoyed negotiating the suburbs of South Miami on a joyless road with stoplights every block.  Normally it would be a torment, but with that soundtrack the discomfort of the heat and traffic was almost forgotten.

As I said, I got an early start.  I wasn't sure how long it would really take, nor how many things I would want to do in the Keys, so I motored through the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail.  I made a mental note of places I might like to visit on the way back.  I had not ridden with anything other than a full face helmet before so wasn't sure what a long period at speed would be like.  I was surprised to find that earplugs helped a lot, as I always thought that it was the noise of the wind over the helmet that was loud.  But with my ears open to the air it was actually quite painful after a few miles at 70mph.  I pulled over and stuck the plugs in and was quite comfortable after that.

When I hit the urban sprawl I got a little lost trying to find a way down to the Keys without having to take  the toll road.  Florida has completely done away with cash toll booths on some turnpikes, so you have to stop and buy a pre-paid card or something.  I wasn't really sure how it would work on a rental bike, so just decided to avoid the toll.  Lucky I had my iPhone strapped to my belt, so could stop and check the map.  Not like my previous riding experience which usually involved stopping at a gas station and trying to subtly look at an road atlas without having to buy it!

Before too long I had located Route 1 and was quickly at the start of the Keys.  The nice thing about being on a loud bike is you feel like you have a license to scream your head off because the chances are no one can hear you!  Woohoooooo! I'm in the freakin' Florida Keys!

Thursday, May 10, 2012


I have just returned from a trip to Florida.  Even though it was a relatively short trip I packed a lot in, so I think I will split the vacation into a few episodes.  In this first installment, I will focus on a fishing trip on the Enterprise.  The Enterprise is a 34-foot sport fishing boat captained by Capt. Rich, ably assisted by 1st mate Russell.  We set off out of Marco Island, just South of Naples.  After a short idle to get out of the marina area we were on the open sea and Capt Rich opened up the throttle.   It was amazing how much water is being moved by the bow even when planed out (that is, the boat is moving fast enough to rise partially out of the water, reducing drag).  After a few minutes we had reached the first fishing spot and Russell had the rods ready.

At first we did not even use bait, just a lure.  We were fishing for Spanish Mackerel.  They are a streamlined fish that likes to chase their prey, so one good technique to use is the fast retrieve.  The concept is to cast the line and wait a few seconds for the lure to sink a little so that it is at the depth that the fish are swimming.  To get the attention of your quarry you have to give it some 'action'.  This entails jerking the rod back and forth a couple of times, but you must also keep the line taught by winding the reel a little.  I is a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time.  Sometime I felt I my action was good, other times I was woefully uncoordinated.  Next comes the fast retrieve.  The rod is turned so you have a comfortable angle to reel and you reel like hell.  If you feel a strike, you must pull on the rod to make sure the hook firmly embeds itself.  The Mackerel put up a small fight, enough to make it fun but it is not really a challenge to land the fish.  More difficult is leaving the correct six feet of line so that you don't swing the thrashing fish into the face of the mate as he comes to extract the hook!

The fish came easily for a while.  I was chastised for catching fish that we too small, but wasn't given any useful advice on how to hook larger specimens.  Apparently a good fisherman will be able to tell if it's a small fish and allow it to unhook itself by slackening the line, but I was so excited every time I got a bite I didn't care.  Russell seemed perfectly happy to unhook them and toss them back, so long as I left the requisite 6 feet of line!

All of a sudden, the fish stopped biting.  We would see a few following our lures but they had gotten wise seeing their friends plucked out of the water.  No matter, Captain Rich gunned the engine and in no time had us over another school of willing participants.  When another lull occurred, we tried baiting out lines with shrimp, but this seemed to result only in us catching Jack Crevalles, a pretty fish with yellow highlights but not worth keeping.

It has to be said there is a lot more skill to fishing that first meets the eye.  Obviously there is the talent in finding the fish.  They often school around some underwater object, a reef or wreck for instance, and Captain Rich had a few waypoints in his GPS so was able to put us right on the fish.  But the art of casting a line and getting a bite was clearly more complex than I had initially thought.  We were in a dry spell and frustration is setting in.  Why aren't the fish biting anymore.  Captain Rich comes down from the tower and grabs a line.  Casts.  Hooks a fish and hands the line to me to land it.  Says, 'lemme see that again', cast, strike, another Mackerel.  He shows me the trick: he casts in a certain direction, but the wind is catching the line a preventing the lure from sinking.  So he holds the tip of the rod down by the water so that the line is submerged and cannot be ballooned by the wind.  Well, I copy him exactly but have no more luck.

By this point the rough seas are starting to take their toll.  The tide is running one way and the wind blowing the other so it is difficult to keep the boat from lurching around unpredictably.   Also, my knees are beginning to complain about being braced against the rail, so we decide to call it a day.

Still, I can hardly complain, we have a fine haul of Mackerel.  Once back at the Marina, Captain Rich expertly fillets the fish, feeding the scraps to the attendant pelicans and egrets who know it's feeding time.   It is sublime raw, and delicious when fried up in a light breading.