A Year of Beer #1: Yuengling Lager

The thing about Yuengling is, it’s my desert island beer. I love the stuff. Not because it’s the most amazing, world-altering brew out there, but because it’s solid, consistent, and drinkable. And, it’s one of the first things out of my home state of Pennsylvania that I was legitimately proud of.

Side story: in my early days at Syracuse, I was a little bit of a fish out of water; being from the most rural part of a rural state, I didn’t think my home turf had much to offer my more sophisticated, worldly classmates. That all changed the time I brought a case of Lager to school after a break. I had to hold most of my friends strictly to a single bottle each, and the whole case still vanished in a flash. I think the appeal was that it wasn’t a highfalutin fancy beer like Guinness, but neither was it the Milwaukee’s Best to which we were accustomed. It was a good, inexpensive, no-frills beer that everyone loved, yet nobody had heard of. And it came from back home.

It’s a beer best served on the cold side. The first sip from the bottle is unquestionably funky, almost skunky. There’s fruit in there: dried apricots, something like what lemon would taste like if you could remove the citrus bite. Imbibe and savor like you were tasting wine and you’ll end up with a mouthful of foam that will take you back to your own college days, filled with damp basements and sophomores who couldn’t pour a pitcher that wasn’t at least three-quarters head.

Yuengling is German in origin, but as the oldest continuously operating American brewery, they’ve had 184 years and counting to get rid of that typical Beck’s/Heineken German/Dutch Lager flavor. It’s much, much milder, which you might take as a bad thing–after all, most people who criticize American beers usually point to the blandness of our mass-produced Pilsners as the smoking gun, and most who counter that argument do so by bringing up more exciting, flavorful craft brewed options.

They’re right, but that doesn’t change my opinion of Yuengling Lager. For me, the mildness makes it the ultimate session beer–a term used by hardcore beer aficionados to describe a beer that you can drink a bunch of without becoming either a) sick of the beer, or b) sick, period.

So, yeah, you can say that there are lot of more interesting beers out there. You can say that Yuengling is playing it safe, producing a mediocre beer that relies on word of mouth, limited availability, nostalgia, familiarity and/or a sort of “secret menu at the In-And-Out Burger” mystique to move cases and kegs. You’d be right. But then I’d tell you to shut up and open up a couple more bottles, and there is zero chance you’d argue. Whatever Yuengling Lager is not, what it is is a great beer for when you just want to drink, you know…a beer beer.

Nicely done, PA.

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A Year of Beer

If this year had a theme, it might be “back to basics,” or, “stick with what works.” I find myself surveying the storage space in the basement, clubs stacked on racquets stacked on bicycles stacked on Rubbermaid containers full of candlemaking equipment, woodworking tools, camping gear and the odd case of paintballs. The condo is no different.

The point is, I’ve tried a lot of, well, stuff. Hobbies. Activities. Variety has spiced my life almost to the point of inedibility. And yet, in some things, I’ve become altogether boring.

Take trips to the local beer mart, for example. I am greeted by an exhilarating, almost bewildering array of craft beers that would make my younger self swoon. I scan the shelf–yet another overhopped IPA; an elderberry-kumquat stout; a microbrew naturally fermented in a basement in Oregon. I shake my head and select a cold 30-rack of Coors Lite. Unexciting, refreshing when cold, about as challenging to the palate as Katy Perry to the ear, but, eh. Why not? It’s like I’ve lost my love of interesting beer.

Enough! It’s time to rediscover that younger me who enjoyed variety and exploration. It’s time to grab a–four-pack, apparently, which is a thing now–of something obscure. Or, to drink a PBR, unironically, and consider the merits of a beverage preferred by both my hipster brother and retiree uncle. I came up with this idea: why not attempt to drink, document and discover 365 beers over the course of the next 365 days? Not one beer every single day, of course, but I’ll try to average it out so my year–and yours–is full of delicious beverages.

Of course, not every beer will be completely new to me; part of the reason I stopped drinking such a variety was actually that I’d tried so many, I was getting tired of being disappointed of all the “me too” brews. Not everything will be craft, and I can tell you right now that my old standby–the Silver Bullet–is going to be an entry somewhere along the line. This experiment will be as much about trying the new and different as documenting the tried and true–beers that “work” for me.

Why now? Why July 12th? Simple: because yesterday was the day before, tomorrow is the next, and there’s no time like the present. So grab your favorite coozie, select a comfortable bottle opener, and let’s crack into some beer!

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3 Steak Tips

For a long time, steak intimidated me. It’s a lot like wine in that there’s a lot of potential for snobbery: all the different cuts and grades, marinades, dry rubs, sauces, overcooking, undercooking, grilled and pan-seared and who knows what else. “How would you like that cooked, sir? Really? No pink at all? Seriously?” It’s like pouring a $40 chard into a sippy cup and throwing in a few ice cubes–the ice may be nice, but you’re asking for some severe judgery from the waitstaff.

Not to mention that steak is an expensive protein. Given that it’s also very easy to screw up (and given all the different methods of judging done-ness, some more complicated than others–does this feel more like my earlobe or my cheek?), it’s easy to just skip right to the ground beef.

I made some steak tips last night, and man, have I come a long way. I still love going out for my annual birthday meat feast, and I still love hamburger (especially when you grind it yourself–more on that later), but I feel like I’ve spent enough time doing the whole steak thing that I’m qualified to offer a few tips to people who might feel a bit overwhelmed.

  1. Get a meat thermometer. I have this one: Weber 6419 6-1/2-Inch Digital Pocket Thermometer. I hear two arguments against meat thermometers: “if you pierce the outside, the juice will run out and you’ll have dry steak, and anyway, you can just feel the meat and tell how done it is based on comparing it to parts of your own skin.” To refute the first, yes, you may have some juice leakage, but a) a steak is not a balloon and one little hole is not going to turn it instantly to shoe leather, b) searing steak does NOT “seal in the juices” and c) knowing the temperature means you won’t overcook it, and if you lose a few milliliters of liquid as a result, I think it’s a fair trade. As far as the whole “touch test”, yes, you can eventually get good enough to tell doneness by touch. Professional cooks do it. They also cook dozens and dozens of steaks every single night, so they get more practice, and they can afford the occasional mistake. You’re not going to throw out $20-worth of filet because it’s medium-well instead of medium. So get a meat thermometer.

  2. Here’s how to prep the steak: take it out of the package as soon as you get home from the grocery store. Put it in a plastic bag (preferably a thicker freezer bag with one of the zippers on top). Dump in some olive oil, sea salt, fresh ground black pepper, and some onion powder. Seal and try to squeeze out the air when you do it. Squish the meat around inside the bag and get it nice and coated with the spices and the oil. Put it in the fridge for at least a few hours, overnight if possible. Occasionally take it out and squish it around some more. It’ll taste pretty close to what you get at a nice steak restaurant. If your marinade has more than 4 or 5 ingredients, it’s going to taste like a mishmash of flavors and your mouth isn’t going to know what to do. Steak sauce is ok if you have really cheap steak and you like the taste of steak sauce. But the idea here is to taste steak as opposed to tasting marinade. The salt helps to tenderize the meat, the pepper adds just a little kick, and the onion powder…well, I had been using just the olive oil with salt and pepper, and something was missing, and onion powder turned out to be it. The olive oil helps you put a good sear on the steak when you grill it–I said searing doesn’t lock in the juices, but it does create a great-tasting crust.

  3. I really like steak tips. They’re basically the trimmings from the better cuts of meat. So while you might pay maybe $10 a pound or whatever for a cut that looks like something you’d get at a restaurant, for maybe $5 a pound you can get the edges that got trimmed off of that cut. They’re just as tender, but they’re more irregular in size, so you have a variety. I like this for a few reasons: first, you’re getting tender meat at a bargain, so you don’t feel quite as much shock if you completely incinerate a 2-pound and $10 package of meat versus the psychological trauma of destroying a couple little $20 filet mignons. Second, if people have different done-ness preferences, you can put everything on the grill for the same amount of time and end up with thinner/smaller pieces being more well-done and the larger/thicker pieces being more rare. Third, you have potentially smaller portions for less hungry people, and bigger portions for bigger appetites, all in the same package. Fourth, even within the same piece of meat, the thinner edges are going to get a great sear while you’re going to have thicker bits that are really juicy and tender; I feel like you get a nice cross-spectrum of flavors when you’ve got basically little pieces of fond at the edges of every piece of more center-cut meat.

There’s lots of other fun stuff you can do. Try slicing the tips up into chunks and putting them on skewers, especially if you have a lot of guests with differing appetites…you take as many or as few pieces as you want. Pre-cut, even! It’s also easy to move the skewers into different areas of the grill depending on how well-done you want them. If you really want to go nuts with flavor (and fat), wrap those suckers in bacon and then grill ‘em. Sublime.

Bottom line, have fun with it. Even if you’re skeeved out by rare meat, I really think it’s worth giving pink a try…believe me, nothing is going to get into the middle parts, and you’re going to vaporize any nasties on the outside. But, if not, cook it like you want it cooked, and don’t be intimidated.

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time for a comeback

I think I’ll start this thing up again.

More to come.

(No…really. This time.)

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road warrior tips: frequent flying part 1

Oh, the joys of being a road warrior. I’m on a remote client right now, so I tend to get on an airplane just about every week. It’s just Boston to Philly, so I’m generally only in the air long enough for them to sling a few Diet Cokes down the aisle before we’re heading into that most poorly-named phase of flight: the “final descent”. I mean, honestly. Doesn’t that sound a little fatalistic? Why don’t we call it the “final descent followed by a very safe and pleasant landing and then there is cake”?

At any rate, I’ve picked up a few things along the way that I wish I had known at the start. I’ll try to share absolutely every possible tip I know about air travel over a few entries.

Let’s start by talking status. There are two main ways airlines reward you for business: frequent flier miles, and status.

Frequent flier miles are the air travel equivalent of Skeeball tickets at an arcade. You collect them, and collect them, and collect them, and eventually, you are hypothetically able to trade them for something of value. I honestly have never used frequent flier miles for anything other than magazine subscriptions (thanks for Esquire, American Airlines!), but I am sure that you can eventually use them for a flight to some destination, provided you are not trying to fly to a popular place during a popular time, e.g. a “blackout date”, e.g. a “time when normal people typically travel.”

And then, there’s status. Status means, “I get on your particular brand of airplanes very frequently, or at least I fly long and expensive distances on them, and therefore, you should respect me and give me stuff, because these airborne cigar tubes of yours aren’t exactly the Four Seasons.” You get status by flying a certain number of trips on an airline’s plane (“segments”), or by flying a ton of total miles on one airline. For US Airways’ first status rank of Silver, it’s 30 segments or 25,000 total miles. If you’re flying back and forth from Boston to Baltimore every week, you’ll probably get status based on segments, but if you’re doing New York to LA, you’ll hit status on miles.

If you’re flying every week on a commuter flight with lots of other business folks, status is key. It’s going to get you in and out of the plane (and airport) faster, it’s going to get you more bonus miles to use towards vacations and trips, it gets you access to other little freebies and perks, and it even gets you the occasional upgrade to first class.

Let’s start with getting on the plane first, which is, by far, the most important status perk. This might seem like a bad thing–after all, wouldn’t you want to relax in the terminal a bit longer rather than cramming into your seat right away?

The issue here is that frequent fliers have roll-aboard suitcases. At the best of times, a business-heavy flight is going to have lots of people bringing their luggage with them, and now that many airlines charge for checked luggage, frugal fliers have increased the quantity of roll-aboards well beyond capacity. That means there are always going to be more roll-aboards than there are spaces in the overhead compartment. If your bag doesn’t fit, it gets checked. You don’t pay for it, but it slows you down after you get off the plane, and there’s still the off chance that it’ll get lost–about 50% less chance than not checking at the gate (you leave it at the door of the plane, essentially eliminating the chance that it gets lost on a baggage cart during boarding, but leaving the chance of loss at your destination). Could happen, but not likely.

Now, many flights these days do zone-based boarding, meaning that the people who do the most flying with that airline get on the plane first. With my main airline, US Airways, the Chairman’s, Platinum, and Gold members get on during Zone 1 boarding, right after First Class. Since I’m Gold, I’m pretty much guaranteed to find overhead space right above or in front of my row. When I was Silver, I got on during Zone 2, which meant that I had a pretty good chance of finding space above or in front of my row–provided I sat far enough back in the plane.

A quick digression here: there are times when the only space for your roll-aboard is in a space behind your seat, which means that, even though you’re sitting in Row 8, your bag is back in Row 12. This means that you have to go past your seat when you’re boarding and go against traffic to sit down, but even worse, you’re swimming upstream when you’re trying to get off the plane.

In some ways, I almost prefer to check my bag rather than have it behind me. And, when I was Zone 4 or Zone 5, I almost always had to check…sometimes they’ll do you the favor of announcing it before you get on the plane: “If you’re in Zone 5, come to the podium to check your bag.” You get the privilege of carting it down the jetway yourself and handing it off to be hurled into the belly of the beast.

If you have status, you also get to choose reserved seats at the front of the plane. But, you have to be cautious: if you’re only Silver, there are going to be a lot of people still getting on the plane before you, and if you’re too far forward, you’re going to be stowing your bag behind you and making like a salmon when it’s time to get off the plane. On a 26-row Airbus A320 (3×3 seats in coach), the sweet spot for Silver is row 8 or row 9…no farther forward!

Your mileage may vary, and it’s going to take you some time to figure out the best place to sit. For example, the Embraer (2×2 seats in coach) 190 has a tiny overhead compartment where you’re only going to be able to fit your suitcase turned longways, rather than wheels-in. That means overhead space is going to fill up even faster.

Next entry, we’ll talk about the joys of airport security, and how to avoid being stabbed to death by your annoyed fellow travelers before you even get your liquids and gels out of your suitcase.

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out of exile

Well, here I am.

If something is your sole source of income, it’s your job. If it doesn’t make you any money and/or costs you money, it’s a hobby. Profit-generating hobbies are somewhere in-between. I think most blogs fall on the “hobby” side of the equation; you could argue that active blogging improves your writing skills and helps you market yourself, thus leading to better jobs and indirectly influencing revenue, but let’s not split hairs on this one. I don’t make a dime on this, so I think it’s ok for me to take an informal hiatus if I have a concern that my hobby might actually have a negative impact on my current job.

But after 8 months, I think I’m more comfortable knowing where the line is. For those who don’t know, my job hunt–which ramped up in earnest back in January–landed me a position with a mega-huge international consulting company in February. I don’t believe we have any specific prohibition against blogging, but it is 2011, and anything you post online is going to stay online, forever, and I decided to play it safe by not writing anything at all.

I miss it, though. While the work is interesting, I don’t always get a chance to shoot the bull on topics I really enjoy, like high-level strategy or positioning or the value of one approach over another. Frankly, we’re all pretty busy just keeping the wheels on.

So I’m bringing the blog back…not that it was ever gone. Just on vacation.

Rules of the road:

  • No talking about the specifics of my employer
  • No talking about the specifics of my client, either
  • No specifics of any methodologies or guidelines or best practices that are internal to either my employer or any of my clients
  • Probably no case studies, either…nothing that could be construed as either an endorsement or condemnation of any particular action, strategy, or lack thereof
  • Definitely no criticism or complaints (at least, none that are work-related)

That said, I’m still gonna talk about business and technology, because that’s what I do. I am certainly going to talk about life on the road, because I frequently commute between Boston and my client in Philadelphia. Chances are, I’ll throw some fun entries about french fries and beer in there too. It’s been nearly 10 months since my last entry. I’ve had a lot of time to think–in airplanes, in rental cars, at the hotel bar’s karaoke night and sitting in my chair in Brighton during work-from-home days.

It’s good to be back.

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happy 2010!

I hope everybody had a great holiday and new year celebration! I’m back in Boston after a relaxing visit to family in PA and a raucous New Year’s evening (and early morning) in NYC.

Santa was quite generous; we now have a Blu Ray player, a subscription to Netflix, and Kara is taking the two of us to a cooking class in February, to say nothing of many books, video games, clothes, toys, and, of course, Legos. I just got done watching Inception (I managed to avoid spoilers!) and my mind is still reeling. Battlestar: Galactica streams flawlessly over wi-fi. I am nothing if not entertained.

But back to business. I formally wrapped up my relationship with my last consulting client before Christmas, and I’m in the middle stages of the job hunt. It’s going well and I hope to have something to report before long.

One of my major goals for the new year is to get back to blogging, so expect more content in the immediate future!

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long-term jobs

My dad retired from his job of 35 years on Friday. He’s still quite young, but when he ran the numbers, the differential in retirement benefits between retiring today and retiring in 5-7 years simply didn’t add up. He’d be better off hanging up his hat right now and taking on almost any other job instead of staying on at his current position, given the relatively small increase in pension percentage. It’s not an uncommon scenario, and while I’ve (obviously) never gone through it myself, I’ve seen known quite a few senior-level people who have followed a similar path.

Two things interesting about that previous paragraph: first, yes, he actually draws that thing they used to call a “pension” but which is now called “mind your 401k, get a good financial planner and diversify your portfolio.” Second, he’s been at the same job for over 3 decades. I recall being told in one of my classes that the average tenure for a college grad today is something like 18 months (which, admittedly, I think may be based on misinterpretation/misquoting of this report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

However, according to that same report, the median tenure for someone in my age group–25 to 34 years–is only 3.1 years as of January 2010. Even if you go all the way up to the 55-64 age group, we’re still only talking a median of 10 years at a given job. Now, somebody in my age group is a lot less likely to have had the opportunity to work for the same company for 10 years–that would mean I’d have had the same employer since finishing my undergrad, and I would propose that even a relatively stable employee is likely to change jobs at least once in his or her twenties. But it also shows that having a truly long-term job is uncommon even if given the opportunity: in my dad’s age group, only about 28% stay in one place for over 20 years. I would imagine that keeping one job for life is practically a statistical anomaly.

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freelancing lessons: part 1

I’ve been promising to share some of the lessons learned from my year of freelancing. Here’s one: you can’t put each of your fingers in a separate pie and expect to just eat the most delicious one.

When I started freelancing, my end goal was to do a startup, but I wasn’t keen on just dropping everything to run after somebody’s unproven (and unfunded) concept–and I certainly didn’t have a million-dollar idea of my own. So I figured, I’d do freelance consulting, working with any existing startup that would have me, building some client-facing skills and looking for a killer idea to hitch my wagon to.

In practice, what ended up happening was that my efforts were divided in 5 different directions at once: my main client was well beyond the “startup” phase and into the “sustainable” phase, but they were paying the bills, so I couldn’t ignore them. Some opportunities weren’t looking for a partner, some ceased operations, and some seemed like a good idea initially but ended up not being as appealing as I thought. My own project, doing iPhone development, soon fell by the wayside.

So, a few lessons out of this: first, if your goal is to be part of a startup, do your research up-front, then commit 150%. Early-stage ventures need someone who can be completely invested in just that venture, and any distraction may bring disaster. Second, you have to be incredibly self-disciplined to do solo freelancing work: if I were more focused, there’s no reason I couldn’t have been successful in running a number of completely unrelated projects, including my own development projects. Third, keep your exit in mind: my goal was not to end up with a sustainable freelance consultancy, but to be part of the founding team of a startup. Again, if you want to do a startup, do a startup.

Now, I don’t think that freelancing was time wasted–I’m taking some specific lessons from my consulting experiences that are going to be very valuable in any of the several directions I may go next. And, freelancing is a great way to explore skills and industries that you’re on the fence about, without making a long-term commitment. But you do need to be careful about your endgame.

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certified!

It’s official: I’m a Salesforce.com Certified Administrator!

The last time I got a certification for a particular technology was way back in 2001, when I went to NYC to learn about DoubleClick’s advertising management system. It was my first-ever business trip. I took the train up from DC, stayed in a slightly dodgy Manhattan hotel, and met up with some college friends in-between training sessions. The training itself was two days of PowerPoint and occasional hands-on exercises, and involved about a half a day of stuff relevant to the parts of DoubleClick that we used. It was an interesting illustration of the difference between the way a software system was supposed to be used, and the way the end user actually used it.

I’ve seen much the same thing with Salesforce.com. It’s CRM, designed to help people sell products, or handle customer service. But it’s capable of so much more than that; I’ve been using it chiefly as a platform for a business process wholly unrelated to tracking leads and campaigns, dealing with customizations that turn some of the Salesforce.com best practices right on their heads. I’m not going to lie: the exam was tougher than I thought it was going to be, simply because I don’t do “core” SFDC CRM on a day-to-day basis.

I take two things away from the experience. First, expertise in general is contextual. Second, if you’re using a platform or a framework that can do things in multiple ways or be used for broad range of activities, expertise becomes even more specialized. Just as you wouldn’t go to an orthopedic surgeon for an open-heart procedure, you’ve got to be cautious with general certifications.

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