Saturday, January 30, 2021

Of Heady Topper and the craft brewery revolution

The OG, Heady Topper.

I expend a lot of digital ink on The Silver Key writing about how my eyes were opened to a new kind of fantasy when I discovered Robert E. Howard, and the great passion and respect I possess for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. But I have a couple of additional passions as well. One of them happens to be beer. And I can say without reservation that my life changed in 2014 when I drank my first can of Heady Topper.

I’m not sure how many of my visitors are from the New England region of the United States, but among the many reasons why I enjoy living here (along with fall, and the mountains of New Hampshire, and the seacoast) is the beer scene. New England gave birth to a style of beer that has become my favorite, the New England India Pale Ale, or NEIPA.

NEIPAs are characterized by their hazy appearance, citrus aroma, and hop-forwardness. Some are double dry hopped, with the likes of Citra, Mosaic, and Galaxy hops added in whole, late in the brewing process, to add even more hoppy goodness and piney bite. In the last decade the NEIPA has exploded in popularity and has become a staple at breweries everywhere. But we largely have Heady Topper, the OG, and the Alchemist Brewery in Vermont to thank.

I’ve never been a beer snob. I started with the likes of Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Coors, and will still drink a cold Coors Lite on a hot summer day. But in the late 90s I began to branch out and discover the joys of smaller breweries and styles beyond Lagers and Pilsners. Sam Adams Boston Lager was an early favorite, as was Harpoon IPA and Long Trail IPA. Blue Moon, a Belgian White, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and Magic Hat #9, another pale, were also early favorites. These were “craft beers” before the true small, local craft beer scene began to emerge in the late 2000s.

As the 21st century rolled around I started hearing about this new beer called Heady Topper. An article in the Boston Globe described Massachusetts residents driving for three hours up to Stowe, then waiting for another 2-3 hours in line, to get it. Who the hell would wait for a beer, when my local packie offers immediate convenience?

How good could it possibly be?

I had the chance to find out in 2014 while up in VT visiting some friends. My friend had picked up some Heady Topper, Focal Banger, and Crusher from the Alchemist, and I finally got to crack a few cans with him, in front of a wood fire in the cold mountains outside of Burlington.

Mind blown. My eyes were opened to what beer could truly be. I didn’t weep, but something inside me was moved, and since then I’ve been all in on the craft beer craze. Later I took a trek up to Stowe to buy a two-case allotment from the Alchemist. My wallet and waistline have paid the price.

Heady Topper is 8% ABV and packs a punch. It’s also very hop forward. You can’t give a new beer drinker a Heady Topper or any of the high IBU IPAs right out of the gate. It’s cruel, like plopping a wobbly new skier on a double black diamond ski run. You need to build up to it, condition your palette, before taking that kind of plunge. I don’t believe I could have enjoyed Heady had not I had a history of drinking Harpoon and Sierra Nevadas and the like.

Since Heady Topper many other amazing NEIPAs have come along with their own takes on the style, and many believe the Alchemist has been surpassed. That could very well be the case. My personal favorite is Bissell Brothers Brewing in Portland, ME, whose Swish (which can only be purchased at the brewery, in limited releases, and for which I have waited nearly 2 hours in line to obtain) is so good that words fail me. I also love their flagship Ale, Substance, as well as Reciprocal. They don’t make a bad beer.

Heavy hitters. From left to right, Trillium Fort Point, Battery 
Steele Flume, Kettlehead The Agent, Swish (Bissell Brothers),
Sip of Sunshine, and Focal Banger (Alchemist)

Other favorite beers and breweries include:

  • Fort Point, Trillium Brewing, Boston MA (actually a pale, but double dry hopped and in same ballpark as the New England IPA
  • Ponyhawk, Resilience Brewing, Littleton NH
  • Flume, Battery Steele Brewing, Portland ME
  • Sip of Sunshine, Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Waitsfield VT (though brewed elsewhere)
  • It’s Complicated Being a Wizard, Burlington Beer Company, Shelburne, VT
  • The Agent, Kettlehead Brewing, Tilton, NH
  • Fiddlehead IPA, Fiddlehead Brewing Company, Shelburne VT

I do like other styles of beer beyond the IPA. There is an amazing brewery about 10 minutes from my house in neighboring Amesbury, Brewery Silvaticus, which makes wonderful German inspired ales and lagers and stouts, amazingly well-balanced beers that are a joy to drink. It’s wonderful to walk into Silvaticus and see the stainless steel brewing tanks set against old brickwork, drink a beer or three, shoot the shit, and watch the world go by.

Today local craft breweries are springing up everywhere. While the pandemic has certainly slowed their growth and put a few out of business, from 2008 through 2016 craft breweries grew sixfold. Their superior product has put a major dent in the goliaths. Over the same period shipments from the likes of Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Heineken, Pabst, fell 14%. Local craft breweries have the advantage of producing fresher, unpasteurized beer, hyper-locally, and often offer great atmosphere and personality. The small breweries of today remind me somewhat of the classic Irish Pubs. Instead of loud music and 20-somethings pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, swilling shit beer, craft breweries gather folks of all ages to gab, and revel in well-made local product.

I’m very glad to be living in this golden age of beer.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021



By Dwalka! This was a fortune to make a man mad.
Gardner Fox is far and away my favorite pastiche author. I love his Kothar and Kyrik books as just plain fun, straight up S&S entertainment, and his two volume Llarn series (Warrior of Llarn, Thief of Llarn) are wonderful examples of sword-and-planet. He won't make you forget Robert E. Howard, but Fox delivers fun, semi tongue-in-cheek adventure.

At right is the complete Kothar series. Below is a period advertisement from Kothar and the Wizard Slayer. It's so cool I think I'll take up smoking.

Smoke up Johnny.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

A review of Tolkien (2019)

I’m currently on a J.R.R. Tolkien kick, having finished both a re-read of The Lord of the Rings and a re-read of Humphrey Carpenter’s outstanding biography. Last night I watched for the first time Tolkien (2019), which I have both managed to (until now) avoid out of some combination of forgetfulness and anticipated dread of ill-treatment of its subject. I’m pleased to say that I found it a good film, not great, but worth the watch.

Tolkien focuses on Tolkien’s early life from roughly age 10, circa 1902, ending with him writing the iconic first line of The Hobbit, in the early 1930s. We get a heavy emphasis on his romance with Edith Bratt, his friendship with the T.C.B.S., four passionate boys who shared a common love of heroic literature, his love of languages, and his experiences with love and war that inspired his great story of the war of the ring and its underlying mythology.

Overall I enjoyed the film, and was moved by a few scenes. It took several dramatic liberties, compressing and magnifying various events to help propel along the sometimes quite ordinary course of about 25 years of his life. Other events I believe were wholly created—sneaking into the storage room of a sold-out concert hall to listen to a performance of the Richard Wagner opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen” with Edith, for example. Normally I would not complain about it, except that Tolkien was not particularly influenced by Wagner’s opera, despite the shared conceit of a ring of power, and a casual viewer of the film might leave thinking that Wagner’s Ring Cycle was the chief influence on The Lord of the Rings (it was not). Tolkien did romantically reunite with Bratt after the latter had gotten engaged to another man, and encouraged her to break off the relationship. But it did not happen in the seconds before Tolkien dramatically boarded a transport ship to France, as was portrayed in Tolkien. But I accept these changes in the spirit of needing to create a dramatic film, which is very different from biography or history.

Tolkien was also surprisingly low on the “cringe” factor. There were no made-up dramatic charges into German machine gun fire, embarrassing sex scenes, or manufactured maudlin T.C.B.S. speeches; rather the genuine friendship and spirit of the four boys was well-portrayed, as was Tolkien’s view of Edith as something akin to an elven princess (for better and for worse, as she often felt alienated by his split personality around her). Tolkien’s life had a great many tragedies and triumphs that required no exaggeration, and the film presented some of these faithfully. I particularly liked that it preserved the 1916 letter from G.B. Smith to Tolkien, in which the former foresaw his own end in the fields of France and implored his old schoolmate to continue the great work the T.C.B.S. had vowed to create:

My God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.

It is heartbreaking to think what came next: T.C.B.S member Rob Gilson died in one of the many suicidal advances across the mud-choked Somme battlefield, straight into German machine-gun fire; Smith suffered shrapnel wounds from an exploding artillery shell and later died of gangrene infection. That left only Wiseman and Tolkien to carry on the T.C.B.S.' promised great work. Tolkien developed trench fever and had to be evacuated back to England, which in all likelihood saved his life. He and Wiseman held up their end of the bargain: Wiseman would go on to become a school headmaster, while Tolkien of course would go on to become an Oxford professor and write the greatest fantasy the world has ever known.

The best account of this period of Tolkien’s life remains John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, which after Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-Earth is one of the best pieces of Tolkien scholarship I have read. But you could do worse on a Saturday night than a viewing of Tolkien.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Happy 115th, REH

On the occasion of what would have been the 115th birthday of Robert E. Howard (had he had the blood of Numenor in his veins, and had not tragically ended his own life at age 30), I thought I would share my favorite presentation of some of his classic Conan stories.

I do regret obtaining these second-hand, as they are shorn of the full-sized pullout Ken Kelly posters that once graced their interior. But they are well-worth obtaining and reading for the great Karl Edward Wagner introductions.

Many enjoy the Tor Conan pastiches (I have mixed feelings about them myself), and if so you may not agree with KEW, who wrote this in the preface to The Hour of the Dragon:

I have written Howard pastiches myself, so I can speak both as a reader and author: Every author leaves his personal mark on whatever he writes; the only man who could write a Robert E. Howard story was Robert E. Howard. Read Howard pastiches as you will--but don't let anyone kid you that you're reading Robert E. Howard. It is far more than a matter of initiating adjective usage or analyzing comma-splices. It is a matter of spirit.

No other author I've read, pastiche or otherwise, could tap into the same heroic spirit of the late, great REH. I'll be drinking a high ABV craft beer or three tonight, to his shade.

Berkley Medallions, in your face.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Great Debate: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard

My latest post for Goodman Games/Tales from the Magician's Skull is up. Check it out here.

My greatest challenge with this post was to try to summarize a 900-page correspondence in 1,000 words. This essay only scratches the surface of the amazing exchange of letters between Lovecraft and Howard from 1930-36, published in the highly recommended A Means to Freedom. Make no mistake, it was a great debate in which Howard formulated and formalized the underlying themes that give his stories much of their power and resonance. Howard rejected fascism and criticized political and industrial "progress" both home and abroad. Today it still remains to be seen whether barbarism will ultimately triumph over civilization.

On a lighter note, kudos to Goodman Games for the wonderful graphic displays they post with these articles. I'm digging the headshots of these two men overlaid on the handwritten letter and dip pen. Fancy.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Swords Against Darkness: Heyday of sword-and-sorcery

.My favorite cover goes to vol 4, I'm digging the mounted barbarian and skulls. On the back is a wicked wyrm.


Today's entry is the Andrew Offutt-edited Swords Against Darkness, a series of five anthologies published between 1977-79. This was still the heyday of sword-and-sorcery, as the subgenre was attracting names like Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, Charles De Lint, and Orson Scott Card, the latter fresh off a John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer. All were published in the pages of Swords Against Darkness, along with many other fine authors. These were all new stories Offutt bought for the anthologies (and/or finished, in the case of the Robert E. Howard story "Nekht Semerkhet,") attesting to the health of sword-and-sorcery during this time period.

A lot of variety, much darkness and horror, and some fun introductions penned by Offutt. Five excellent volumes and I wish there were more.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Tolkien the barbarian

I recently finished a re-read of The Lord of the Rings, which inspired me to revisit Humphrey Carpenter's authorized biography of JRRT. I'm still in the early/pre-Oxford period of Tolkien's life, covering his days at King Edward's School in Birmingham, and encountered this particular scene:

There was a custom at King Edward's of holding a debate entirely in Latin, but that was almost too easy for Tolkien, and in one debate when taking the role of Greek Ambassador to the Senate he spoke entirely in Greek. On another occasion he astonished his schoolfellows when, in the character of a barbarian envoy, he broke into fluent Gothic; and on a third occasion he spoke in Anglo-Saxon.

It makes one wonder again whether Tolkien did in fact enjoy Robert E. Howard's Conan. I like to think he would have, and did.

Flashing Swords: More from the S&S collection

Hardcovers, paperbacks, but a complete collection. Still not sure why Gary Viskupic drew a 
horned-helmeted warrior springing from the head of an otherwise pleasant, oblivious young lass
(Flashing Swords #4).

The five-volume Lin Carter-edited Flashing Swords series (1973-81) is my next selection for gratuitous display. Gotta go with the cover of #1 for best art, but Frazetta's second piece in the series for Flashing Swords #2, featuring iconic warrior, wizard, and angry Ent, draws a close second.

I'd like to also call out the dedications: Carter dedicates the first volume to Robert E. Howard, "without whom we would all probably be writing nothing but science fiction stories," vol. 2 to Henry Kuttner, "one of the best Swordsmen and Sorcerers of 'em all," vol. 3 to Clifford Ball, "one of the first writers of Sword & Sorcery, now, sadly, forgotten and, even more sadly, uncollected," and vol. 4 to Norvell Page, "our late colleague, the chronicler of the saga of Hurricane John." Oddly, vol. 5 does not have a dedication, at least in the Nelson Doubleday Book Club Edition that I own.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Book porn: Pyramid sword-and-sorcery

For no other reason than it brings me great joy, I present you some book porn today: My copies of the L. Sprague de Camp edited four volume sword-and-sorcery series, published by Pyramid (last volume Putnam) between 1963-1971. Classics of the subgenre.

I'm not a collector. I don't particularly value items that are inherently collectable (i.e., rare, highly coveted, mint condition, bagged and as unhandled as possible). I don't care if the books I have are in excellent condition or are worn readers' copies, though obviously given a choice I would prefer the former. I am a man of utility. I buy books for what they contain, in order to read them, enjoy them, and occasionally write about them here and elsewhere. 

That said I am a completist. Not owning a particular volume in a series gnaws at me until I can track it down and add it to the shelf, with a sigh of relief. I've got a few holes that I'm working to fill.

I'm also a lover of print. Outside of a couple digital subscriptions to new publications, I far prefer books over e-pubs/Kindle and the like. I love books for their artwork, their feel, the smell (creepy?), and being able to cast my gaze across a full bookshelf or three, and get lost in the titles and the thought of what I will read next.

I'll do more of these posts

Wonderful covers by Finlay, Gaughan,
Steranko. Favorite cover = The Spell of Seven. 

in the coming days. I won't always have anything to say. The pictures will mostly do the talking. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Boris Vallejo at 80

My first post of 2021 is up on the blog of DMR publishing. Check it out here:

Boris Vallejo is not my favorite artist of all time, but he's produced some amazing pieces over his eight decades on the planet. I share some of them in the essay. 

And he's damned prolific and continues to work to this day.