Thursday, February 23, 2012

An Interview with Stillwater Artisan Ales' Brian Strumke

Over on I have a post up that's an interview with Brian Strumke, the brewer/owner/sole employee of Stillwater, a "gypsy" brewing outfit loosely based out of Baltimore. Every beer brewed by Stillwater is made with a farmhouse-style strain of yeast, commonly associated with saisons and biers de garde. Strumke, however, blurs and blends styles, to great effect. The end result is often a series of yeast-dominant beers, an interesting contrast with more common hop-forward styles, like Pale Ales, India and otherwise, and malt-forward ones like brown ales and bocks.

His most recent creation is Stillwater Premium, a beer that doubles as an inside joke since it's based on ingredients used in macro lagers like flaked rice and corn, and hops like Cluster, Northern Brewer, and Saaz. Instead of a lager, however, he's made an ale, and he's used two wild yeast strains in addition to a farmhouse strain to ferment the beer. The result is something like "dirty Bud," or Stella Artois if it was good and not skunked, as has been the case the last few times I've had that beer. Also, at 4.5% alcohol by volume, you can drink a lot of it, if, you know, you're into that sort of thing.

Also also, he used to be a DJ, and so of course I ask him about Skrillex. He's an interesting guy, and his thoughts on beer are worth a read.

I paired the beer with a semi-reasonable approximation of congee, a Chinese rice porridge. The flaked rice in the beer compliments the rice in the dish, and the dryness of the beer on the back end, due to two strains of wild yeast, or Brettanomycnes, kept me coming back for more broth. I also dropped an egg into that bowl, so the slight acidity of the beer plays against that richness.

Friday, February 17, 2012


On February 14th, 2012, the number of Certified Beer Servers (CBS) reached 10,000. As a present to all of us, the next day the exam was $10 instead of the usual $69, which triggered something like an exam stampede as over 700 people took the 60-question multiple choice exam on all things beer. 

Backstory: the word Cicerone® means "guide" in Italian and becoming a Certified Cicerone® is vaguely analogous to being a sommelier, which translates to "wine steward" in French, but for beer. Certified Beer Servers are the first level of credentials handed out, the next being Certified Cicerone®. The final level earns one the title of Master Cicerone®, and the organization is notoriously stringent with its trademarks, which they are entitled to be.

I'm waiting for the final tally, but I know that February 15th was the busiest day ever for the website, which at times wasn't able to handle the traffic. The website allows one to view the number of CBSs by city, so we'll soon find out how DC stacked up among those 700, but an informal tally via twitter reveals that at least 26 people in the #dcbrews community took and passed the exam. Meridian Pint lead the way, as 6 of their staff joined the ranks of Certified Beer Servers. Coming in second as an institution was yours truly,, with 4 CBSs now on staff, including myself.

I took the exam over a period of about 10 minutes, and for the first third of it I was working with a staff member on scheduling, so it wasn't exactly taxing, though there were a few questions that genuinely stumped me. I think of it as a feather in the cap, a sign that my beer knowledge is up to snuff. Ten dollars isn't a lot to pay for that validation, but I am ambivalent about the Cicerone® program. I don't think this is something you need for external validation, and it saddens me when people think that way. Blind item relating to this point: once I interviewed a restaurateur who lied about being a Certified Cicerone®, the next level up. It's mystifying that someone I talked to for several hours, who clearly knew what they were talking about when it came to beer, would misrepresent themselves like that. When I asked this person about being a Certified Cicerone®, I was told
That’s a very interesting question. For me it was mostly a business decision. There are a lot of [redacted] companies in [redacted] and I thought this could really help with marketing and finding a niche, and it did. I think that some people will take you more seriously with these kind of credentials. At the same time, it’s nice to have this piece of paper that shows what I know, what I’ve been working on for a long time.
When I found out (this information is easily accessible on the website), this person confessed via twitter:

Ouch, had always used that as a means of conveying my expertise, never again. Self taught. IAdmire your thoroughness #lifeslessonsinhumility
We haven't spoken since.

There is a tension between making beer accessible to all - and I think most people agree that beer is more accessible than wine, which is one of its appeals - and acting as a gatekeeper to that knowledge, and that dichotomy is inherent in the program. I'm also surprised that Ray Daniels, who runs the organization, is the only person doing this. It strikes me that there's room for more than one of these operations, even though I'm not sure these operations need to exist outside of my, and our, need to validate and codify what we already know. 

What did you think of the exam, or of the Cicerone® program, or of the accreditation of craft beer? Does this make you more likely to sign up for a Certified Cicerone® exam, the next level up? Let me know in the comments, and if you were one of those who passed the exam, congrats!

[UPDATE: approximately 900 people took the CBS exam and passed on February 15th. Approximately 100 of them are from the DC-metro area. DCBeer has written about it. Also, please read JP's comment below, which could be a post on its own.]

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Payola in the Washington, DC Beer Market

If you've ever been to a bar or restaurant and complained, or thought to complain, about the selection of beer there, there's sometimes a nefarious reason for that, as opposed to a lazy one. I put on my journalism hat and delve into the word of payola, the quid pro quo that goes on between the people who make beer, distribute it, and sell it to us. I'll have more to say on this later, as there's going to be some fallout from this post over at DCBeer, especially since it went national. Some of that fallout is already in the comments, where a former Flying Dog employee, this brewery being the alleged victim of payola that got the ball rolling on this piece, adds some nuance to the proceedings in the comments section. In short, craft brewers and their distributors engage in this kind of behavior, too. Everyone does, and it's often hard to tell the difference between an illegal activity and building a business relationship. I'm not sure where the line is on this kind of behavior, and neither are the authorities who are supposed to enforce the law. Give it a read.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Modest Defense of QR Codes in the Library

Last summer, the library where I work began to use QR codes to link our print serials to their electronic counterparts. In short, we created a code for each title, and scanning that code will take one to a site, usually in a database, where one can search issues we don't have in print. I wouldn't say it's tremendously successful, but a large part of that is because few people use our print serials, and our budget reflects that. Since I've been here, our print serials budget has contracted by fifty percent, and that's no accident. I'd rather spend money elsewhere. But we do what we can to promote our resources, and QR codes are a part of that.

In addition, we're linking the stacks, in which books are shelved by subject area, to online resource guides, also using QR codes, and we're going to do something similar for individual books, at least the more popular ones, based on how often they circulate. For these and reserve books, we're going to link to online resource guides and our federated search, via QR code stickers in the books. All of this is trackable, so we'll see how it goes. Just as important, all of this is free. All it costs is time. And so when I see QR codes under attack, I'm a bit confused; healthy skepticism is always a good lens to view technology, but nobody is forcing anyone to use them. Here are some of the (increasingly) popular critiques.

I'll expand on these below, and add two others.
  1. The first two tweets, which come to us via the Handheld Librarian conference and American Library Association Mid-Winter Meeting, Tech Trends, respectively, state that QR codes are a fad.
  2. The third, also from ALA Mid-Winter, refers to QR codes as a prime example of the "garbage can" model of decision-making. 
  3. QR codes are hideously ugly.
  4. The neo-Marxist and/or (post)structuralist critique.
I will tackle these arguments in order.

Calling QR codes a fad is a bit like calling VHS tapes or compact discs a fad. These codes have been employed in Japan for over 15 years. Yes, they probably won't last, but what technology does? Fifteen years is quite a bit of time for a "transitional technology." Moreover, by any metric one chooses, QR code scans are increasing, not decreasing. If this is a fad, it's still on the upswing. 
The second critique is paradoxically both more powerful and less so. Is it the former because I can't disagree with it. It is the latter, because, well, who cares? Yes, QR codes may be a solution in search of a problem, but if one's aims, one's goals, are limited, they are a powerful and elegant solution to a problem. There is a proverb that goes something like, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." And yet, we, as librarians, have many tools in our tool belts. QR codes are one of them. They are not a panacea, nor should they be. Have modest goals and expectations in mind, and they may serve you well. 
The third misses the point completely. If one thinks QR codes are ugly, then make them more attractive. All one needs to do to manipulate a code, turning it into something approximating art, is have a computer, an internet connection, and an imagination. Furthermore, the author of this article, also referenced above at number 3, fails to understand that QR codes differ from writing down a URL (and why not do both, if this is the concern?) because scanning a code is participatory and interactive in ways that writing something down are not. And that brings us to the fourth critique.

QR codes, according to neo-Marxists and/or (post)structuralists, offer the illusion of participation, of interactivity, but nothing more. It is no accident, according to this criticism, that QR codes began as advertisements, and that the barcode itself was popularized to sell Wrigley's gum is another piece of evidence cited in this school(s) of thought. Libraries should be spaces free of the trappings of late 20th- and early-21st century capitalism, a refuse from ads, from otherwise-omnipresent corporate activities. In this critique, scanning a code is not a form of play, it is something more insidious because the codes themselves are inextricably linked to their origins. Thus, the codes function as advertisements, but are cloaked in play, in interactivity. QR codes, to paraphrase Joseph Schumpeter, prepare souls for capitalism.

I admit that this final critique appeals to the academic in me, and as always, discussion is welcomed. I do think it is possible to divorce QR codes from their origins, to make them emancipatory. Again, they are a tool, no more evil than a hammer or a screwdriver. What QR codes serve, what role they play, determine their worth. A counter-argument that takes the neo-Marxists and/or (post)structuralists head on would state that QR codes are a symbol of modernity, a sign and signifier of technological prowess, that the library "gets it," whatever it is, though such an argument would still be structured within a capitalist hegemony.

SOPA Poster QR Code At my place of work, QR codes work. We have limited goals for them, and they suffice. And we're not alone. There's a wiki page devoted to using QR codes in library settings, mentioning what works, and what does. Our most popular library blog post achieved that distinction almost solely because I papered the campus with these flyers on January 17th, 2012. There were 80 views via the QR coded embedded on the flyer, far more than the results for the traditional way of viewing the blog, via a browser and mouse click. All that in 48 hours, on a campus with a full-time enrollment of 2400 students. In part, this is a function of our user population. Many, if not most, do not own a computer, or have internet access, but many, if not most, own a smartphone. In sum, we know our audience and we have limited aims for how we use QR codes. They do what we want them to, no more, and no less. Below is my presentation at the Catholic University of America's School of Library Science Bridging the Spectrum 2012 Symposium (quite a name, yes?), in which I say just this, with funny pictures (image credits in the presentation), some of which are above. Qr Codes Cua-slis

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The #libday8 Post: A Day in the Life of a Library Director

It's rare that I journal my days, though I suspect if I did I'd be more efficient. I try to do this once every Library Day in the Life; check out my less in depth account last year here, and more information on the participants here.

8:30 - Get to work. Drink coffee and eat a muffin (homemade, banana nut).
Answer email, do some social networking, which includes catching up on work-related blogs, and articles that have caught my eye.

9 - Work with consortium partners to get a circulation client up and running, which will continue throughout the day. Eat pineapple, field emails and phone calls regarding patron access to library resources from off-campus thanks to a ridiculous policy forced on me that I'm working to change.

9:30 - Tired of sitting, transition to standing desk, continue to do the same stuff.
Gaze longingly at Hostess Zingers in the vending machine, wonder why Pop Tarts cost both $1 and $1.25. Wonder who might buy them at the higher price, and why.

10 - Attempt to enter a webinar that’s really at 11, realize that after 10 minutes, then go over the January leave reports, due later today, and submit them. Do this while heading over to Pitchfork to check out recent tracks they’ve posted.

10:30 - Trail mix, because, why not. Still working on this circ client networking thing, with the consortium systems administrator on one line, and our IT deptment on the other. Also, do some collection development for the School of Education.

10:45 - Help someone send a fax. Continue to do the above.

11-11:30 - Webinar with someone who wants to sell me something; I find it helpful since it’s a one on one (one of the reasons I agreed to this), so we’re basically talking collection development for business resources. Always nice to get the vendor perspective. I confess to playing one game of Temple Run during it.

11:35 - Someone has locked one of the bathrooms, but as far as I can tell, there’s nobody in there. Call facilities.

11:45-12 - Social networking. You all sure post a lot of interesting stuff

12-12:05 - Look at Gilt. Buy nothing. Sigh.

12:10 - Oh hai, migraine. Adjust my standing desk monitor. Read, meaning delete without reading, various listserv email.

12:30 - 1:30 - Sit back down for lunch: leftover homemade bison burger (1 lb ground bison, tbsp chopped shallots, an egg, salt, pepper, smoked paprika, cumin - makes 5 patties), sourdough bun, pretzels, gold rush apple, social networking, read the paper.

1:30 - 2:30 - Work the front desk. Answer only questions about printing.

2:30-4 - Job/position description, because we hope to be hiring soon. More on that later.

3:15 - The bathroom is still locked. Also, I buy the Zingers. Continue as above.

25- More trail mix, still position description-ing. 

4:25-4:50 - Talking to library staff. Topics include filing taxes, Burger King fries, and the library job market.

5 - The bathroom is now open. There are no cadavers in it.

5:01 - Changing policy definitions so ready reference items now formally circulate. In related news, Voyager ILS stinks. Eat a Zinger.

5:45 - Success. I’m so cool. Also, I should sit down since I’ll be standing while I teach.

5:47-6:25 - Social networking, while sitting.

6:30-7:45 - Library instruction session for a Nursing class.

7:48 - Someone has fallen in front of the library. A patron and I help her up.

8 - Home, to delicious Peruvian rotisserie chicken, and my family.

9 - Blogging, while attempting to get PsychInfo back up and running.