Category Archives: Hoptellectual

Hoptellectual: On Picking Your Battles Wisely

Editor’s Note: My old Robocop-in-fighting-crime Todd Stevens (@TossStevens) offers a great perspective on the Ale Asylum/Union debacle. When Todd isn’t hanging out at the Nook in St. Paul or watching the Twins, he runs DVR Overflow. His analysis of Mad Men is spot on.

Last month, my former stomping grounds of Madison, Wis. were rocked by protest. Angry demonstrators brought out signs declaring their rage and demanding concessions for the working class. Battle lines were drawn and polarization was high.

I am referring not to the events surrounding the failed recall attempt of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, but to the scene outside the future home of Madison microbrewery Ale Asylum, the makers of Badger favorites like Hopalicious, Madtown Nutbrown, Bedlam IPA and others. The company has been the subject of a recent informational picket from the local building trades council for using nonunion works in a new construction project.

Despite my dramatic introduction, the hubbub of controversy surrounding Ale Asylum never came close to the anti-Walker protests, though it was an off-shoot of sorts. What the protesters lacked in size and publicity, however, they more than made up for in irrationality.

Some background: Ale Asylum is currently in the process of moving into a new brewery that will offer more space, modern amenities and greater accessibility to the beer drinking public. That’s awesome, because it will mean more delicious Ale Asylum beer for alcohol-loving Wisconsinites, in addition to hopefully aiding the company in their plans to gradually expand their distribution, potentially to the entire upper Midwest at some point.

This new brewery is currently under construction near Madison’s local airport, which means hiring numerous workers to complete everything from the plumbing to the electrical work. And naturally, since a person can’t sneeze in Madison without the issue of unions coming up (“That tissue you just sneezed into better have been made with UNION LABOR, sonny!”), the pro-union crowd got wind that some of the contractors working on the building weren’t unionized. Cue outrage!

Never mind that, according to Vice President Otto Dilba, Ale Asylum was not even directly responsible for hiring the contractors (they do not own the building and the general contractor was in charge of choosing individual sub-contractors). In addition, Dilba released an impassioned post via Facebook regarding his own love of the union cause, detailing why he would never intentionally snub union workers.

Unfortunately for Ale Asylum, nobody bothered to check this out before the protests started—and if they had, based on the unsatisfied response seen in some of the comments on Dilba’s statement, it appears they wouldn’t have been satisfied. This is a crowd that had been so radicalized by the past year of Budget Repair Bill hysteria that any action from anybody that wasn’t 100 percent pro organized labor made them the enemy.

This whole attitude is patently ridiculous. Ale Asylum itself was clearly a few degrees removed from any effrontery toward the union contractors whose bids never received a response. And even if the company had directly chosen nonunion labor, the protest would still strain credulity. Ale Asylum is a locally owned private company—one that pays its own workers good wages and makes a damn good product. You’re going to smear a brewery that otherwise does everything right, simply because it doesn’t follow your single-issue driven ideology in lockstep? Then you’re a fool.

I would also be curious how far the hand of shame is supposed to stretch. If we are to be angry with Ale Asylum for associating with contractors that associate with nonunion subcontractors, should I also be angry with bars that serve Ale Asylum? Should we be angry with organizations that host functions at bars that serve Ale Asylum? After all, if Ale Asylum becomes immoral by extension when they work with the wrong contractor, don’t other establishments then become immoral by extension if they associate with Ale Asylum, and so on and so forth?

Even if their cause is more just, in the end the dejected anti-Walkerites standing outside the shell of Ale Asylum 2.0 are not much different from the bigots boycotting General Mills after that company’s recent opposition to the proposed Minnesota gay marriage ban. Gay marriage has nothing to do with Cheerios. Unionized electricians have nothing to do with Madtown Nutbrown. I like both Cheerios and Madtown Nutbrown, so I will continue to consume both frequently, albeit not together because that would taste somewhat disgusting.

I would suggest that the union protesters of Wisconsin do the same and stop dragging products into political fights where they don’t belong. Ale Asylum, being a private company and not a governmental entity, should be allowed to conduct its business as it sees fit, especially considering it already puts forth every effort to try and act responsibly. Based on the hyper-polarization of my beloved Badger State over the past two years, however, I fully anticipate the angry picketers to ignore my advice and go on attacking the real evil in this world: their local brewery.

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Hoptellectual: A Personal Journey From Ketchup to Catsup

I loathe ketchup. Everything about it. It taints the presentation of a good meal, bathing it in B-level horror blood. It overwhelms natural flavors. It disrupts the cook’s intent for your food, and even stands in nicely as a back-handed compliment. It beckons to the laziness in all of us, much in the same way that Sriracha does.* My respect for a person inversely correlates quite well with how much ketchup they use on anything, even eggs and potatoes. I loathe ketchup and everything it stands for.

This is not a perfunctory thing, I’ve been wrestling with it for quite some time. As a kitchen/food amateur, it started as a mild annoyance, but spread like the mold in my compost bin. Originally, my disgust for ketchup was tied to my geography. In Chicago, you do not put ketchup on a hot dog. You just don’t do it and you don’t ask questions. It’s this cultural thing, very exclusive and Chicago. It confuses a lot of people and others find it apocryphal, but it’s such a Chicago thing. My nine-year old cousin who only eats chicken fingers won’t touch ketchup, and I assume it’s more cultural than anything (you can never be 100 percent confident when surveying someone under the age of thirteen).

Why anyone would put ketchup on this, I do not know.

When I started cooking in college, ketchup and sriracha saved many meals. I lived in a cramped house with a cramped kitchen and an extremely inefficient electric stove. I tried to cook, but I never got anything right. My sauces remained stratified and meat overcooked for fear of undercooking, normal mistakes for someone with no kitchen experience and an overprotective mother to make and label as “dinner.” But like most things, I better with practice. With the help of an incredibly fantastic roommate/chef, I learned a ton about how certain foods were supposed to taste.** I learned that good food was easy to make, you just needed to think about it and use all of your fresh ingredients. Trust your hands, instincts, and most importantly, trust the food. Ketchup only subverts this trust.

A lot of this points back towards America’s culinary history, a story that my mom often relates to my own childhood and discovery of food.*** Ketchup became a part of the American dining experience, to the point of oversaturation. Big brands produced metric tonnes of the stuff and drowned out competition, pairing it with other American favorites. The trend served to homogenize the dining experience, leaving us to rely on ketchup and other mechanized products like spam and Lawry’s seasoning salt rather than the natural flavors.**** When I was a kid, I couldn’t get enough of that stuff. Frozen food and Sweet Baby Ray’s contributed roughly 30% of my total nutrient load. I craved this American experience, heavy on sugars and salt, masking the originality of what’s underneath.

Now that I don’t live in the same city as my parents, I feel sad because I could have been eating my mom’s food the whole time. American dining has followed a similar trend, emphasizing regions and cultures over blanket statements. Similarly, much of my cooking now embraces the lessons I’ve learned from my mother and grandmother, informed primarily by my heritage. My stance on ketchup mirrors my stance on culture: we cannot and should not move away from it. It’s the stuff of memories, and for the most part, it’s all we have.

This post was inspired by Steve Albini’s totally awesome food blog. I hope to be a professional jerk like him someday.

*=I love Sriracha, but it makes me a much worse cook overall. My roommate pointed this out to me over dinner, and now I’m extremely paranoid about my own cooking abilities.
**=My mother and my grandmother are the two most amazing cooks I know, and this is in no way an indictment of any culinary missteps (they don’t make them). It just took me a long time to start thinking about food the way that they did. Nowadays, I consult them on pretty much everything I cook.
***=Unfortunately for everybody, the Smithsonian’s
America Eats exhibit has closed, including the replica of Julia Child’s kitchen. I don’t have sources for this paragraph, but trust me, the information was in this exhibit.
****=I have read that this American diet lead to a country-wide distaste for bold beers, giving rise to the cheaper, more malevalent macrobrew culture that we know today.

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Hoptellectual: On Duty

Summer has set here in the swamp they call Washington, DC. My Pabst immediately starts sweating when I take it out of the fridge, my front stoop feels like the only place to spend an evening and the trees seem to glow green. Also, I saw this yesterday:

I refrain from speculating and writing about movies in general just because there are so many I haven’t seen, and I often have a hard time remaining fluent in conversations about movies not called Star Wars or Terminator. Summer is the time of blockbusters, though, and everyone has a say when it comes to these films.

Needless to say, the boy who grew up reading Batman Detective comics is dying with excitement. From Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween to Frank Miller’s Year One and Paul Pope’s uncanny and epic Batman Year 100, Batman remains the most compelling superhero in my eyes. When Batman crushed Superman in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, I jumped for joy. In Alex Ross’s tour de force, Kingdom Come, I was so excited for the Batman-Superman showdown that the only thing that could calm me down was Blade Runner.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized why Batman fascinated me so much. I identify closely with a lot of superheroes: the patriotism of Captain America, the calm demeanor of Cyclops, the outright nerdiness and awkwardness of Peter Parker. Batman represents the best of them, but he best exemplifies a superhero through his sense of duty and respect for a strict code of honor.

Morality is a tough subject. My more philosophical friends in college would always come back to it and want to debate it endlessly. I always had an incredibly difficult time keeping up with certain assertions, but the one thing I could follow was the assertion that morality can be an individualistic idea. We see Batman’s morality and his code stretched to thinning and maddening extremes in The Dark Knight (“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object”), but he sticks to it. He sticks to it because he’s lost without it, just a vigilante throwing himself out there for an abstract form of justice. With the code, Batman gives himself a duty that needs to be performed and the constraints from which to do it.

We’ve talked about ecological constraints and systems constraints before. The truth is, oftentimes it’s the daily constraints that help all of us thrive. Think about your daily routine and how breaking it just complicates the day. I always admired this about Batman, he lives with a heightened sense of morality and duty. These both come as byproducts of his extreme amount of wealth and, most importantly, his ability to collect and analyze enormous amounts of data (that’s a Hoptellectual for another time…). In the end, Batman is a detective, and this drives both the stories and his somewhat obtuse and cryptic personality.

It’s not that he’s unfeeling or uncaring—he’s feeling and caring to a fault—it’s just that he faces constraints and must make reasoned decisions about how to best use his time. Without his belief in his work, his duty, he would be Bruce Wayne the playboy at all times. I don’t think I want to watch a summer blockbuster about that guy…

As an aside, if you have my Year One or Year 100 comics, please return them. You know who you are.

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Hoptellectual: On Localizing Musical Tastes

Some may remember this video from a couple of Suds ago:

Those who know me know how passionate I get about  music, and I love so many things about this video.* It’s hilarious. It’s awkward. It’s fine slapstick. From the disinterested Malkmus-esque vocals to the Dinosaur Jr. guitar hooks and the oddball lyrics, this video screams out to everyone who grew up in the 90’s but was too young to listen to Pavement (not that anyone is really ever too young for Pavement). The full release, Summer of Punishment, overachieves through underachievement. Half-baked commentary (“Let’s talk of Emerson/ No, let’s not talk of Emerson”) and astute observations (“Sometimes I feel way behind my age group/ Hey man, it’s not cool unless they pay you”) share wax with unbelievably catchy melodies and unassumingly slick guitar work.

For all the praise that I can give, the thing that stands out the most is the Midwestern quality of this music. In “Of Age,” they cover both the ennui and the commercialization of the Midwestern lifestyle, “Come join us out here/ get caught drinking beers in our back yard/ growing up can only be so hard.” Not only does the video feature bearded dudes wearing Badger and Packer apparel playing Madden, but it features cameos from nondescript suburbs and college houses where we’ve all gone to party at some point in our college careers. My friend always makes the point of saying, “These guys are basically a Silver Jews cover band, which is awesome.” The truth is, they’re more than that: they’re our Silver Jews cover band.

I’ve written before about developing complex relationships with music made by other people, but this takes things a step further. The reason I get so much joy from listening to Sleeping in the Aviary, the Hussy, the Midwest Beat and Sat. Nite Duets is because we all occupy the same or similar spheres and all draw from similar backgrounds (or maybe just Mickey’s Tavern in Madison). These are songs about the Midwest, and not always the best parts. They look at the seemingly microscopic nature of things, the small-town triumphs, all while wearing their influences on their sleeve and nobody cares. It’s cool and it’s genuine, which in many ways, is all that matters.

In many ways, the traditional music industry has grown too big to support every type of listener, much in the same way Goose Island grew too big for us beer geeks who used to swear by Honker’s Ale. What about the rest of us who don’t live in Brooklyn or Minneapolis or San Francisco? How do we relate to music crafted based on slightly different experiences?  As music promotion strives to reach the most diverse demographic possible, it leaves out certain groups of listeners who pay money for good music. Smaller, localized bands can fill these holes and make the whole experience more autobiographical.

I don’t know how “big” any of these bands will get. I saw Sleeping in the Aviary play here in DC to a shamefully sparse crowd. While sad, this isn’t what makes these bands who they are. What counts is that I can slot the music into my life and it makes sense, almost completely autobiographical based on the nature of the content. I will gladly pay money for that.

Listen to more Sat. Nite Duets on their bandcamp.

Editor’s Note: Full disclosure, the bass player in Sat. Nite Duets is a friend of Brian and mine from college. This makes them no less awesome.

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Hoptellectual: Brilliant Mind(s) and the Next Big Idea

Working for a minor league baseball team, we are always striving to come up with the next big idea to blow our fans away and possibly garner national media attention. It’s a business that survives by being relevant and unique from all of the other entertainment options in town. When we dig through the piles of abstract thoughts our staff generates during offseason brainstorming sessions and strike a nugget of a golden idea, we begin shaping it, crafting a refined vision out of the raw material. By the time the idea is released to the press, its original source is long lost—no one remembers who came up with it and everyone had a hand in its development. In the end all that matters is the idea itself and its effects on the world. (Take the jump to read on.) Continue reading

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Hoptellectual: Gender, exploration and David Bowie in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic”

Much of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic can be summed up in this clip:

As Brian noted in an earlier, far superior Hoptellectual, much of the film revolves around how characters compartmentalize their feelings and eschew honesty and emotion. In the clip above, Steve takes Ned’s revelation like a punch to the jaw. In typical Wes Anderson fashion, the music plays a much more vital role than any dialogue could. After Ned says “I wanted to meet you,” nothing really needs to be said. Cue the Thin White Duke.

In another earlier Hoptellectual I talked about the function of David Bowie’s music in terms of loneliness. Again, Bowie created these stunning narratives of people who travel the galaxy free from convention. Bowie’s music fits so well into Anderson’s film because at their heart the songs deal primarily with exploration of both external and internal unknowns (and oftentimes, unknowables). “Life On Mars,” in this case, is about Steve confronting a whole new life. In this life, he fathers a child and they adventure together. The hole left by Esteban’s death (“He was bitten?” “Eaten!”) finds a temporary stopgap as Ned helps Steve bail out water as quickly as it rises. Is there life on Mars? Well, what relevance does it hold if we forget about the people and the lives that go on here?

Similar to Bowie’s space exploration and gender themes, Zissou’s crew dives into the great unknown in search of fame—and to a lesser extent, they dive to find some purpose for themselves. Though a wetsuit is fundamentally more sexualized than a spacesuit (you can see curves, after all), the gender indifference still stands out even in Zissou’s overwhelmingly male and faux-macho crew. They all try to organize around the alpha-male, but the crew doesn’t really have one. Steve is lost in his own battle. Ned just climbed aboard. Klaus doesn’t really know what’s going on and Pele just wants to play the guitar.

Is it cold out in space David Bowie?

From Pele’s version of “Rock and Roll Suicide” and “Five Years” to Steve’s sort-of triumphant exit at the end of the film to “Queen Bitch,” Bowie’s music furthers this compartmentalization and distances the characters from one another. The music adds to the confusion associated with so many people operating in unnatural ways.

Known for his flamboyant nature, to Bowie there are no rules besides complete and total honesty (“If she can’t do it/Then she can’t do it/She don’t make false claims”). Steve and his crew don’t handle honesty well and we see the two most honest characters, Ned and Jane, attach briefly in the face of ostracism, pretty much out of necessity. The crew of the Belafonte belong together because they all hide vital parts of themselves—stuck in the wetsuit, so to speak. I find the encounter with the jaguar shark to be so touching because everyone gives up the veil for a minute, defecting to the people they were before all the voyages took them so far from shore.

Though not explicitly used on the soundtrack, Bowie’s “Oh, You Pretty Things,” holds a tacit, yet significant link to the film. In an ode to the most beautiful parts of humanity, Bowie croons “We’ve got to make way for the homo superior.” Steve and his band of misfits seem like an unevolved bunch, a group of scraggly miscreants lost at sea and hungry for belonging. Sure, there are eugenic implications to Bowie’s assertion, but it’s also a reminder that evolution continues to occur outside of traditional selective pressures. While at sea, most of the world passed Steve by, and perhaps that’s the hardest thought to handle.

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Hoptellectual: The Nature of Invasive Species

Two summers ago I went camping along the Mississippi River at Wyalusing State Park. The small park sits on a bluff on the Wisconsin side of the river and looks out towards the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.

One of the oldest state parks in Wisconsin, the whole place serves as a reminder of another time. Off in the distance you can see paddle steamers still coasting along the Mississippi visiting towns like DuBuque in Iowa and Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin while Native American burial mounds dot the bluff. The forest itself is old growth Wisconsin forests. Maple, oak and elm trees  provide a canopy with a bevy of maple saplings and birches jousting for sunlight underneath (Editor’s Note: Morel mushroom season is fast approaching and although instances of morels are rare, most mycologists and ecologists I’ve talked to recommend searching for the fungi under fallen elm trees. Fry in butter with a little bit of beer. Consume the beer alongside. Beware of false morels.). Overall, time and ecological succession have been good to the forest, allowing for steady growth of wildlife and strong nutrient flows. On the ground though, many feel invasive plants are starting to colonize.

It’s hard to go camping in Wisconsin without coming into contact with garlic mustard, the most prevalent invasive in the Upper Midwest, if not the United States. With dangerous looking leaves and a singular delicate flower at the tip, garlic mustard absorbs nutrients faster than most native plants and requires minimal effort for long-distance pollination (wash your dogs and wipe your feet). Though most conservationists treat the plant as a terrible invasive—which by some definitions, it is—the plant was originally used as a spice and the young plants can be used for delicious pesto.

The enemy. Or is it?

When walking through Wyalusing, it’s hard to imagine the park without garlic mustard. It demands on answer to one of the more perplexing questions in conservation biology and restoration ecology: When is an invasive species no longer invasive?

I’ve been working my way through Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden, a book trying to answer exactly that question. I liked the book right away as Marris emphasizes the importance of scaling and definition. It really allows us to see how flux and flow drive ecological systems, especially the academic discipline itself (Clements v. Gleason, the ecological bout of the century). Ecosystems constantly shape-shift, as if to stop is to die. Old gradients dissipate, and new ones form that often provide the nutrients for common invasives. Zebra mussels continue to punish the Great Lakes urban watersheds because they can handle all the nutritious effluents. Some see this as the tarnishing of the oft-idealized and hardly accurate “nature.” To me, it appears to be the next step.

The idea of “restoration ecology” always seemed kind of esoteric and pointless, especially considering the problem of invasives. Restoration ecology makes the assumption that there is some baseline that we can recreate with resources and understanding. Marris walks us through some tremendous and awe-inspiring restoration efforts, but is quick to point out the unnaturalness of these well-defined “natures.” Again, ecology is about changes in energy and nutrient gradients and those that survive are the ones that can make use of a current ecosystems resources. Invasives are often the next part of history, rather than a nuisance meant to be tamed.

I find Marris’ writing of particular interest because of my academic and professional interest in watershed renewal. Not unlike William Cronon, Marris asks us to consider how we can grow with this new nature rather than against it. What can we do as architects of our growth to make sure we make the most of urban green space? How can we use our knowledge of ecosystems and invasive plants to relieve overtaxed storm-water management facilities or clean the air? In an ironic sort of way considering the Clements and Gleason debate, it’s often about making sure everything is in its right place. Not a static right place, but the right place with potential to efficiently flow through a system.

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