Beer mapping done better

I’ve long wished for a better tool than beermapping.com for planning visits to new cities and making sure to hit a couple of the best bars, restaurants, and stores for beer. Of course, it doesn’t care about making any actual recommendations, just listing *everything*:

For recommendations that are usable for planning a trip, I’ve always used the BeerAdvocate city directories, which (if you pay close attention), list the bars, stores, etc in order of ratings. But to properly plan a trip, you need a map, and these guides fall far short.

As a first step towards fixing this, I used a series of tools to make transforming a city’s BeerAdvocate guide into a map less painful. Maybe I’m biased from working on it recently, but I put the final map into Google MapsEngine. Here’s my final beer map for Chicago:

Detail shot:

The map has 2 groups – blue markers for bars/eateries (my biggest wish would be for BeerAdvocate to separate those…) and green markers for bottle stores. Darker icons have higher scores.

Here’s the semi-manual process I used to generate this map in less than a half hour:

  1. Open the BeerAdvocate city guide you want, in my case, Chicago.
  2. Install the Kimono bookmarklet, which will give you a tool to automate the conversion of lists on websites into data feeds (most importantly here, CSV format).
  3. After going through the Kimono tutorial, you should be able to make something like my API – both name and address for the 2 different sections (bars/eateries and bottle stores).

    (one caveat: I had to go into the advanced mode here and tweak the regular expressions to ignore the ” – ” prefix that the addresses have by default.)
  4. Save this API to Kimono, then grab the CSV export, it should look something like mine.
  5. Copy and paste the 2 different sections into 2 different CSV files on your computer, then open them as 2 spreadsheets in a tool that will let you fetch content from the web. I used Google Spreadsheets because I’ve used its ImportXml function before.
  6. Taking the bottle stores list for example, this is the Google Spreadsheet that I made. Note that I added a new column “Score” that I populated with:
    =ImportXML(A2, "//span[@class='BAscore_big']") 
  7. If you want to only map places with scores above a certain value, you can delete those rows now.
  8. Then you can import your spreadsheet into a new Google MapsEngine map. I styled mine by Score, using ranges to automatically assign darker colors to higher numbers. Beware: “100″ sorts below “90″ because it uses alphabetic sorting – I changed my 100s into 99s in the built-in data editor to work around this. As a final note, there were some weird artifacts from the import like duplicate incomplete rows and [#] annotations, but hopefully the MapsEngine folks will fix those – they’re good people.

This is still a pretty manual process, and I might come back to this in the future and use python or javascript/node to build an all-in-one tool that anyone can go to in order to request a map for a city (and I know I’m not the only one thinking about this), but this scratches my itch in the short term. Maybe BeerAdvocate will decide to launch an API, or RateBeer will re-enable theirs. Who knows?

Hopefully this will help some other beer adventurers for now, also.

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Post-Google life

This blog has mostly been about beer stuff, but hopefully that will change now that I have left Google and I can more comfortably do side projects and write about them. For now, I just wanted to post a note that I joined some friends doing a tiny (6 people) health care startup. We’re primarily working on analyzing medical claims right now, but who knows what the future holds. Oh, and the founder (Jini) was on the cover of Time magazine this month for working on the healthcare.gov tech “surge”, so that’s pretty cool.

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How to remove beer labels intact from bottles

I have a penchant for collecting labels from beers (and ciders, wines, meads, …). Some people look at me funny when I take home empty bottles of beer, but it’s for Art! Probably! Sometime! Ok, I guess I’m just a packrat.

Unfortunately, it turns removing labels in good condition can be a tricky business. There are many techniques that can work, depending on the type of label you are working with, and it has taken me years to reach a point of expertise where I can confidently handle most labels that come my way. Hopefully this guide can help other people with their label collecting projects, whether they be beers, wines, or anything else.

Method 1: Hot Water and Oxyclean soak

Most Belgian and German imported beers have a pretty simple glue on their labels. A significant number of these bottles can just be plopped in hot water from a sink faucet for 10 minutes and the labels will just fall off. You’ll get quicker results if you throw in something that can dissolve the glue – I use Oxyclean. This method is the fastest removal method, as you can do several bottles in parallel in your sink, and often 3 or 4 batches of bottles without changing the water.

Some clues to look for to identify these labels include thinness, a paper-y feel, and edges of the label beginning to peel away from the bottle where the glue has gotten old and unsticky.

American and Canadian labels are only sometimes amenable to this method – you should normally assume it’s not the best method until you get some practice and experience. I can vouch for the following breweries generally having good results with the hot water soak, though: Allagash, Deschutes, New Glarus, Founders, Victory, Troegs, Bell’s, He’Brew, Boulevard, Alaskan, Lagunitas, Great Divide, Duck Rabbit, Sam Adams, Holy Mackerel, Dieu de Ciel. Even these accommodating American labels need to be soaked ~3x longer than their Belgian and German counterparts, though, and often need to be manually peeled off the bottle (very carefully, possibly with a razor). I’ve had mixed results with Goose Island, Ommegang, North Coast, New Holland, Terrapin, and Midnight Sun, but I would still recommend using method 3 with these if you want to be more safe than sorry.

A good number of English & Scottish beers like Traquair, Young’s, and Samuel Smith also work well with this method, though I often revert to Method 3 below because of uncertainty with new breweries – I don’t drink as much British Isles beer as I do other regions’ beer.

The only examples of Belgian beers not working with this method (and not being obvious candidates for Method 2 below) are Cantillon and Deus. I can’t think of any German exceptions – their consistency remains impressive.

A word of warning – if the labels don’t come off in 30 minutes, give up. Any longer, and you’ll start to get color bleeding and paper disintegration. If you’re attentive to the labels’ conditions and patient, you can remove the bottles and try a different approach after they dry. Only once did I have a total disaster – a shiny foil-looking label had all the shiny ink dissolve within a couple minutes (a Full Sail special edition, if you’re curious).

Method 2: Razor

Many labels have a very plastic feel. They are literally stickers that have been placed on the bottles, some are even transparent as a dead giveaway. As long as you can recognize these, they are very easy to remove – just take a single edged razor and slowly pry one side away from the bottle. After you have an inch away from the bottle, you can usually just start to pull on that and have it come away very neatly. Often the label will get stuck in little places and the front of the label will separate from the backing that is still on the bottle – you should go slow enough so that you notice this happening and then correct it with the razor blade before it becomes a significant size. After you remove the label, stick it on some black construction paper for a nice backing, then cut it out.

I think a majority of American microbreweries use this kind of sticker label. Some examples that use them almost exclusively: Bruery, Jolly Pumpkin, Cascade, Southern Tier, Lost Abbey / Pizza Port, Russian River, Hair of the Dog.

In Scandinavian breweries, sticker labels are so common that I have come to assume it by default: Nogne, Amager, HaandBryggeriet, etc. Mikkeller also, usually, but since they’re a nomad brewery and use others’ facilities, different brews have different label types.

Occasionally I have seen sticker labels that do not come off smoothly. I remember B Nektar’s mead labels as being particularly stubborn. In such cases, I end up using a combination of this and Method 3.

Occasionally I have seen sticker labels that have a shiny foil backing, like the Porterhouse brewery in Ireland. I haven’t ever managed to successfully remove one intact, but I’m pretty sure the only way would be to *very* slowly razor the entire label. I would recommend skipping these ones.

In some rare instances, dry heat can be used to loosen the label adhesive of stickers. The only examples I’ve seen of bottles preferring this method are the new Italian microbreweries, like Grado Plato, Italiano, Montegioco, and Piccolo. I had some success putting the bottles in my oven and set it to its lowest setting (170F in my case) for 10 minutes. (Unfortunately, one of the best and most widespread Italian brewers, Baladin, has some strange label printing process that often leaves the ink unusably crumbly – I have only rarely removed one of their labels in satisfactory condition, even with Method 3).

Method 3: Label removing stickers

When in any doubt, you should buy some of the large, clear stickers that are marketed for wine label removal. You remove the backing of the sticker, plop it on top of your label (sometimes using 2 is necessary to fully cover a larger label), rub it down thoroughly, then slowly peel it off. You might want to use a razor for the first centimeter of label, and some stickers don’t adhere the best to the sticker, forcing you to razor the whole length of them even with the sticker, but for the most part these stickers are really strong and get the job done. The adhesion gets stronger given some time, so I sometimes let the sticker sit on the bottle for a day before removing it.

I have had good experiences with Oenophilia’s Label Lift and Epic’s Label Off. I found Wine Appeal’s Label Remover Kit to be on the weak side, but still serviceable for many bottles.

Sometimes beer bottle shapes flare out above and below the label, and that can make these labels not lay smoothly. In these situations, I sometimes take an extra minute to cut the sticker to size before placing it on the bottle.

Some breweries where I always use the sticker method instead of method 1: Dogfish Head, Unibroue, Shipyard, Avery, Williams Brothers (Fraoch).

Anytime you really care about a label and aren’t very confident about what method to use, this is a good method to default to. There’s a reason these are marketed as universal wine label removers.

Method 4: Beers without labels

Of course, some bottles just don’t HAVE labels to remove because they have a design painted or etched into the glass itself(Stone, New Belgium’s Lips of Faith series, etc). Screen-printed bottles can actually be some of the most beautiful of labels. There aren’t all THAT many, either, so it’s tempting to just keep them intact and up on the top of some shelves somewhere.

But that wasn’t good enough for me. I decided to cut off the tops and turn them into drinking glasses! The method is to use a bottle cutting kit to etch a line around the bottle, then use alternating cold and boiling water to break the glass along that crack, then sand the edges down. One trick with the sanding is to do it upside-down in water so the tiny shards of glass dissolve into the water and can be more safely disposed.

And then, some microbreweries are now deciding they don’t even want to use bottles at all. Now I have to figure out what to do with the fancy cans of beer from 21st Amendment, Oskar Blues, and more. An packrat lush’s work is never done.

In Conclusion

With any of these methods, it’s always good to try test runs of a method before using it on a bottle that is very special to you. I saved some of my completely unique bottles for 2 years before I felt ready to tackle them.

I’ll be very interested to hear if anyone else has tips that work better than these methods, and on which breweries. I’ve heard rumors of adding ammonia to hot water baths, steaming, filling bottles with hot water, and more, but I’ve been reasonably happy with the above methods.

Here’s another article on the subject, too.

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Supporting Japan through beer

If like me, you’re wondering how you can support the Japanese craft beer industry in recovering from the earthquake. If you’d like to take this opportunity to explore some new Japanese beers, here are my recommendations:

Kiuchi Brewery makes the Hitachino line of beers, which is by far the most available craft beer from Japan. For the most part they are competent and drink-worthy, but not particularly inspiring. The big exception I’ve come across is their Real Ginger Brew, which is fabulous and the only great ginger-flavored beer I’ve ever seen (“ginger beers” don’t count and are not my cup of tea). I respect Kiuchi’s experimentation with other ingredients too, like their red rice beer, and I hope they do more. Kiuchi was damaged a bit by the earthquake (it is 180 miles away from Sendai) and they’ll be losing money for a while as they use their facilities to bottle water for tsunami victims, so they could use some support.

Baird Brewery is relatively new to arrive in the US, but might be the best Japanese beer I’ve tasted. They do a good job on newly popular styles in the US like imperial stouts and imperial IPAs. Even better, they are making great beer with experimental Japanese-specific ingredients like the Natsumikan fruit. Also, their art is my favorite. They were far away from the earthquake and did not slow down their normal operations.

I’ve only seen Coedo Brewery beers twice now, but I’ve been somewhat impressed. They don’t brew particularly interesting styles, but they focus on doing a really quality job on the basics. Their Beniaka sweet potato lager in particular is excellent in its nuance (though beeradvocate seems to disagree with me for once).

I suppose you could also go drink an Asahi, Sapporo, or Kirin to support Japan, but you shouldn’t admit that to me.

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Alphabet Soup for the Soul

The other day I wanted to make a wicked anagram for my name, since all the cool kids are doing it. But the internets gave me crappy “anagram generators” that just spewed out a bunch of gibberish that was impossible to navigate through or customize, so I wrote my own anagram generator.

It’s very simple:

Then you get a clickable list of all the words that can be made from that set of letters. If you put in my name, you get:

Clicking the words uses up those letters and adjusts the list accordingly. Even a little 2 letter word can dramatically reduce the number of options you need to consider:

Furthermore, it becomes clear very quickly if you won’t be able to use that really awesome big word:

And if you DO use all your remaining letters, you get a prize.

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Beer Coaster Framing Project

Beer coaster framing - American coasters

I collect beer coasters (among other beer accoutrements) and I recently completed a project to display a bunch of them nicely in frames on my walls. Here are some of the things I learned along the way.

I decided I would uses some sort of glue dots to stick the coasters onto a nice artsy textured paper background. They were able to fit depth-wise in any frame (except for the really tall ones).

I first tried “removable” glue dots because I wanted the coasters to be repositionable (without damaging the coasters that were really rare) as I expand my collection. Within an hour of being hung on the wall, some of the coasters started falling down. Even plenty of the coasters that I had put 2 glue dots on. Furthermore, within a few days, removing the dots from the coasters ripped parts of some coasters.

Unfortunately, there is no type of glue dot that is able to both support all the coasters and not damage any of them.

I then used “poster” glue dots (2 per coaster), and after a week, they seem to be holding well. I know they will take some damage on the coasters and the background paper when I have to move them, but I’m relying on that being rare enough that it’s ok.

Beer coaster framing - Belgian coasters

For more pictures (including the 2 other framed sets), see my flickr set.

Someone at the craft store suggested another option that I could have tried. He suggested using L-pins or L-screws to simply hold up the coasters, and drill them into a 1/2” thick foam board backing. The foam board fits because most frames have a second channel 1/2” further back from the main edge that you latch the poster backing onto. I could also use the same artsy paper between the coasters and the foam board. This method would definitely not damage the coasters and would leave them basically repositionable, but I decided it was more work than I wanted to continue investing in the project. If anyone out there tries this, I would love to know how it goes.

Have you mounted coasters or something similar in a frame in another way? Please email me – pbarry at this domain.

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Miracle Fruit party report

Miracle fruit berries

I threw a Miracle Fruit tasting party, and it was a success of flavor!

I bought 50 frozen berries and kept them in my freezer until the party. The berries come with instructions on how to best masticate for flavor-tripping optimization – it takes about 2 minutes in your mouth to do a good job of recalibrating your taste buds. The effects last a good 30 minutes, tapering off completely by an hour. Apparently it’s easier to find the processed tablets of the fruit extract, and the couple people who had done that before said that the effects were pretty close to identical.

What worked really well:

  • Limes – This is really the best place to start. There’s a reason every miracle fruit site lists limes first.
  • Lemons – A little sourness still comes through (more than limes), but still fantastic.
  • Grapefruit – Grapefruit may be the only normal-ish food that I loathe, but on miracle fruit, it tastes fantastic!
  • Lemon Juice – Tastes like lemonade.
  • Bloody Mary mix – Unfortunately I forgot to taste this myself, but everyone raved about it.
  • Hoppy/Bitter Beer – I bought Stone Ruination IPA and this was the clear winner of the 3 beers we had. Normally I can’t stand even tame IPAs because of the bitterness, but the miracle fruit really toned down the bitterness while leaving the floral characteristics of the hops.
  • Vinegar – Drinking balsamic vinegar raw was really fun and delicious!
  • Tabasco – Still spicy, but delicious by itself now.
  • Endives – My favorite of the vegetables we tried. The bitterness is gone and it makes a great snack.
  • Mustard – This one surprised me the most. I hadn’t read much about it, but eating raw mustard was fabulous. It tasted like the fanciest sweet mustard I’ve ever had.
  • Wine – Some people disagreed with me, but I loved how the berries made a Malbec wine taste like a madeira or port dessert wine.
  • Umeboshi – Pickled plum paste. The sourness still came through, but it was rendered much more palatable and was fun to eat raw.
  • Update 11/2011: Sour cream – I went to a friend’s Miracle Fruit party recently and this was the one thing that really surprised me. Sour cream is amazing!

Mixed reaction items:

  • Sour beer - I got Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze which is normally nearly excruciatingly sour. It was rendered very sweet, much like a Faro, but I happen to prefer it in its sour form, and I don’t think I heard anyone say they significantly preferred the sweetened form.
  • Normal beer – We drank some homebrewed beer, and it was just a little sweeter, but not in an overly malty way, which I sort of liked, but other folks’ reactions were mixed.
  • Coffee – Coffee is certainly less bitter, but it tastes somewhat like it has a strange sweetener in it. Like stevia, but in a very different way.
  • Blue cheese – Mildly affected, but nothing terribly impressive.
  • Dark chocolate – We tried fancy 85%, 99%, and 100% cacao. The berries only cut a small amount of the bitterness – the 100% was still unpalatable, and the 85% and 99% weren’t much different either.
  • Worcestershire sauce – Mildly affected, but not as fun to drink as tabasco and vinegar.
  • Dill pickles – They tasted kind of like bread and butter pickles, which some people liked and some didn’t.

Not affected:

  • Radicchio – Still way too bitter to eat raw.
  • Brussels sprouts – We only ate them raw, but still unappetizing.
  • Sweet fruits – We tried plums, watermelons, mango, and pineapple, but I don’t think any of them tasted significantly different since they were already sweet.
  • Celery
  • Peanut butter
  • Honey
  • Boiled peanuts
  • Cassava melon

All-in-all, this was a very worthwhile adventure in flavor-land, and I highly recommend it.

(photo credit)

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A Beer Snob’s Manifesto

Similar to the love of food of the hyper-exacting food critic in Ratatouille, I love beer. If I don’t love it, I don’t drink it. In the US, we’re familiar with wine snobs, scotch snobs, bourbon snobs, and more, but rarely beer snobs. This is not ok.

Arrogant Bastard lobs a good volley with their “you’re not worthy” motto, but that’s not actually true. It’s the beers that aren’t worthy, and we need to raise our expectations.

Maybe you think I’m talking about Bud, Miller, and Coors. I’m not. Those aren’t beer. Those aren’t even TRYING to be beer. For that matter neither are Stella Artois, Corona, or anything else found on the menu at 80% of the beer serving establishments I’ve seen.

Something like Blue Moon (still owned by one of those guys) is at least trying. It doesn’t quite make it in my opinion, but I suppose some people can tolerate it. Otherwise great microbreweries are reduced to having staple beers like New Belgium’s Fat Tire, Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, or Anchor Steam at this level of quality to be meat-and-potatoes cash flow providers because of the sorry state of our nation’s beer taste buds. People don’t even know what to ask for – I’ve heard many people think an “ale” or a “lager” is a good enough way to describe what kind of beer they want when it’s actually just a subtle technical difference.

Real beer – beer that is worth drinking – is something like New Belgium’s other beers, Allagash, Dogfish Head, Avery, or lots of good Belgian and German beers. NOW we can start talking about comparative quality levels and taste preferences.

But I don’t just drink real beer. I drink GREAT beer. What is great beer, you ask?

Great beer hard to find. 99% of stores do not carry any. Even fewer restaurants.

Great beer is not an “everyday beer” or a “session beer.” I reject the entire notion. If I’m going to poison my liver, it better be WORTH it.

Great beer almost never comes in a 6 pack. 4 packs are slightly more likely, but in my opinion one doesn’t buy something unique and special in bulk. Brewers making beers intended to be gourmet products have generally adopted wine bottle appearances to market towards people who expect such packaging of high-quality quaffables. If you’ve never bought a 750ml sized bottle of beer, you probably haven’t had great beer.

Great beer costs as much as good wine. If I have to hear one more person whining about paying $10 for a glass of world-class beer at a world-class bar, I will give them a boot to the head. It boggles me how people can be willing to pay so much for smushed grapes and not for something that takes significantly more processing work and cooking skill. I once drank a $200 beer (or rather, a 1 ounce pour from it). It was totally worth it – I’m sure I’ll never drink anything like it again.

Great beer is more varied than any other type of fermented beverage. The differences between a merlot, a zinfandel, and a sauvignon blanc pale next to the differences between an IPA, a doppelbock, and a gueuze. Great beer will often be so malty, bitter, sour, etc that it will be undrinkable to people with different taste preferences (others will of course worship it).

Go drink some great beer. You’re worth it.

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Animating polar coordinates for fun

I made a little artsy mathy thing. It’s a java applet, so you have to click through to see it, and it didn’t work well in Chrome for me, but Firefox and Safari (after enabling Java) did fine.

I used to love playing around with Processing. This was a really fun little project.

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Boutez en Avant

I recently discovered that I have a family motto I was unaware of:

“Boutez en avant” – meaning “push forward” – has apparently been the Barry motto since there were Barry’s, which I discovered is just after the Normans conquered Wales and right before they got into Ireland (wikipedia tells me the history of the De Barry family). There’s even a town in Ireland named for the motto – Buttevant.

I also never noticed the wolf in the coat of arms. Apparently my sister and I were fated to go to North Carolina State:

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