Homebrew Batch 1: Texas Belgian

One of the best things about being out of school for first time in about 6 years is having some time to pursue some new hobbies. Two or three years ago, I got equipment for brewing from J’s parents for xmas, but I’ve never had the time to actually use any of it. Over the summer, I was able to spend some time with my friend Driver 2165 and his wife and finally got to see (and taste) some homebrewing in action. Loaded with knowledge, equipment and time, I finally got my first batch going once I got settled in to my new place. I’d like to qualify that brewing is not for lack of beer in Houston. In fact, in quality, price and quantity it’s got to be one of the best beer cities in the US. Our bar of choice is the Flying Saucer, which has like 80 beers on tap.

For my first batch, I went with a Texas style Belgian recipe from DeFalco’s down in Southwest Houston on Bray’s Bayou. The actual experience of getting to the brew shop car free is quite a story. Leave it to say that after several miles of construction detours, 2 hours of biking in 100 degree heat and 99% humidity, some serious dehydration and almost throwing up in a Popeye’s Chicken bathroom, I’ll be ordering kits online until the temperature falls about 20 degrees.

ANYWAY. I finally got everything home and started a batch. Here’s the wort (the unfermented beer) boiling. As an aside, there’s a second epic bike story: I brought that 5 gallon stainless steel pot home from Target in the Heights strapped to the back of my messenger bag. I looked like a turtle.

Following the boil, the beer ferments for anywhere between 2 weeks and a couple months depending on the style. Here’s it is in the secondary fermenter. It’s kept that nice reddish-brown color. After that, you bottle, and then go through the torturous couple weeks of having 50 perfectly good-looking beers sitting in your closet while you’re waiting for them to carbonate. This one actually took a little longer than a couple of weeks, I think because it’s tough to regulate temperature in an apartment (more specifically, it’s tough to find a temperature that both beer and people can agree on).

And finally, here it is ready to drink. It’s really fun to have created something like beer that you don’t usually think of as something that people make at home. As you can see, it kept a nice color. It’s a very drinkable beer with a hint of citrus (there was orange peel and coriander in the recipe).

In a final bit of fun, J and I have branded our beer (as well as the Houston-centric t-shirts I’ve been designing) Houstopia. Our label for this beer, which pays homage to the Astros rainbow guts uniforms along with the city seal, is above.

We’ve currently got a Nutty Brown Ale from Northern fermenting and an Eskimo IPA to start in a couple days. I’m sure I’ll be posting on those as well in the near future.

Building Houston’s Identity

Texas is an extremely urban state. 86% of Texans are urban dwellers. 3 Texan cities are among the 10 largest in the country and 6 are among the 25 largest. Yet, in the popular imagination, Texas is the embodiment of the west. Cowboys, Indians, Mexicans, the Alamo, the Texas Rangers and “land, lots of land” are the images that Texas conjures. More than once when moving, people told me to enjoy the southwest and I had to let them know that Houston is in a coastal sub-tropical jungle, with a climate (and culture) more akin to Southern Louisiana or Mississippi than Santa Fe. The arid part of the state is about a 10-hour drive west of me.

With all of the investment of the Texan (and American) imagination in a rural state, it’s little wonder that Texan cities seem largely devoid of identity. While (relatively recently) Austin has developed a reputation as the hipster capital of the South and San Antonio is known as the center of Tejano culture, the state’s largest cities aren’t much more than an afterthought on the list of the country’s great urban centers. Dallas is either a primetime soap opera or the place where Kennedy was shot and Houston is where you call when your spaceship breaks down. Neither is the sort of place where you’d want to honeymoon, or even go out of your way to visit if you were in the area. Both are thought of as sprawling, bland corporate centers, if they’re thought of at all.

As Houston looks to surpass Chicago in population and become the third largest city in the country (something that will happen in the next ten years), there’s come a sudden realization that the city does need an identity. Houston is inventing its urban culture right now.

Of course, for many Houstonians, this is nothing new. One of the most fun projects that looks at Houston is “Houston. It’s Worth It,” a series of photo exhibitions and books completely generated by random Houstonians. Interestingly, the project takes some of the things that are potentially the most hideous about the city and invokes them as symbolic, ranging from refineries to sprawl to flying cockroaches. Another is the Rice Design Alliance and their fantastic magazine Cite. Published since 1982, Cite is one of the best design magazines I know. It should be read far and wide, not just in Houston.

For me, this is a very interesting process to watch. I’ve been interested in urban identity for a long time, and Texas, while not separated from the rest of the country by language like Québec, has a fascinating history and “national” identity that’s very distinct from the rest of the country. While doing my research on Montréal, I found an interesting little book that Jane Jacobs wrote on Québec separatism. Like her writings on the economy, Jacobs saw cities at the center of identities. She said, roughly paraphrased, that a people without a metropolis would only survive as a museum piece. So perhaps, like Montréal in the 60s, Houston today is where what it means to be Texan is being worked out.

The Return of Blogging

After two years of mostly sporadic writing I’m going to do my best to finally resurrect this blog.

When I started writing six or seven years ago, it was for two main reasons. First, J and I had moved in fairly rapid succession from MPLS to Berlin, back again and finally to Boston (in the first three years we lived together I think we had six addresses or something crazy like that). For the most part we were living in a different place than most of the people we were closest to. In the pre-Facebook world, blogging was a vehicle for all of us to stay in contact, though, unfortunately, few of those blogs still survive. As ego-filled as blogging can be, I do miss getting more than 140 characters of people’s thoughts. Second, I hadn’t yet returned to school, and blogging was my main vehicle for writing. Like many skills, if you don’t write often, you’ll forget how.

For the same two reasons, I’ve been relatively quite for the past two years. After four or five years in Boston, I had developed a new group of friends, ones that I saw almost every day and probably knew more than they wanted about everything I think about everything (as J says, I tend to inform people against their will). And, as a grad student, I had plenty of assigned writing to take care of to keep me fresh.

And now, here I am again. Back in a new city and once again without writing assignments. My friend Siqi suggested some kind of post-graduate group blog project a few weeks ago. I’m not sure if it’ll happen, but I thought I’d do my part.

As in its previous incarnation, the blog will be a smattering of topics, though mostly about the city, with a little film and baseball and travel thrown in, as those are the things I spend the most time thinking about. I’ve also got a few research projects that I’m taking on with a couple of co-conspirators that I’m excited about. I’m sure they’ll bleed out as they develop.

The biggest change for me in the last couple of months is, of course, Houston. It’s a city I never expected to live in, in a state I never expected to live in, in a half of the country I never expected to live in, but it’s grown on me in many ways. When I was living in Oakland last summer, I had commented to a (young urban planner) friend that I was going to end up here after graduation. He said that when he came to the Bay Area he’d been in a conversation with an older planner who said how unfortunate that so many young, liberal, idealistic planners choose the Bay Area and New York to live in. He said it wasn’t those places that needed them. It was Detroit and Houston.

I wish I could take the feeling of moral superiority and say that’s why I’m here, but, of course, it’s not. Honestly, I probably would have been trying to move to Brooklyn or Oakland post-graduation like everyone else. Even knowing I needed to end up here, half of my job applications went to New Orleans, San Antonio and Austin. Luckily, I was able to find a job here (a job I love, by the way, but more on that later), and started settling in at the beginning of July.

Still, it’s a challenging city for me to be in. For one thing, we decided to continue living car-free, a decision that I’m very happy with morally and philosophically, but one that has consequences in a city like Houston. I like to say that we’re car-free like some people are vegetarians. It’s more than not owning a car; it’s a statement about how I want the world to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if a major theme of what I write here ends up being getting around.

A while ago, I was reading an interview with the sociologist Manuel Castells about his move from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He said that for him, the city is a laboratory, and LA was, quite simply, a more interesting experiment (he followed this up by saying “who wants to live in an experiment”, but we’ll ignore that for now). That’s how I’ve been thinking about Houston. It’s an opportunity to think about kinds of urbanism that I wouldn’t have before. And that’s what I’ll be writing about here.