Why you should move to West Chester, PA #5: DOWNTOWN BEER LAB

As Kate, Randy, and I were walking past Iron Hill to get some lunch at Salad Works, I saw a couple of silver kegs lying on their side in Iron Hill’s window. The kegs had rubber, uh… well, I guess, rubber bungs in them. Hoses threaded out through the bungs, with the other end submerged in a plastic pail. Bubbles occasionally popped up through the water.

It looked a little bit like the setup we used to make jug wine in college (and in prison, of course.)

Just then, a fellow walked by holding a pair of long green rubber gloves; I asked him if he was making beer, and he said “Yes! This one (pointing to the keg) is with a pretty weird, funky yeast, so we’re trying a small batch. It has… farmyard notes.” He gestured to the enormous silver tanks filling up the rest of the long, tiled room on the other side of the window. “We don’t want to try making THAT much beer with this yeast.”

Iron Hill Brewmasters It turns out that I was talking to Jean, one of the full-time brewmasters at Iron Hill. We asked if he would show us the inside, and he was happy to take us in. Inside was like a cross between a swimming-pool pump room (with all the big flexible hoses), a sailing ship’s tweendecks (with the ladders going up and down), and a production bakery (with the big sacks of grain.) We got to see pressure casks for holding yeast, the great big filters (pictured) for straining sediment, lots of various banjo valves for removing beer and drawing off yeast starter, and ladders leading up to great big enormous copper kettles where the beer (wort? tun?) is cooked until it’s ready to ferment.

We asked about the big smokestack coming off the copper kettles, leading through the roof — did that make the funky smells that we sometimes get at the corner of Gay and High? Yes! And he pointed out that a lot of people get concerned because “it smells so nasty” — but actually that’s a good thing, because what you’re smelling is what’s LEAVING the beer. There’s an important life lesson there, somewhere.

Iron Hill Brewmasters

I had never really given too much thought to the great big kettles in Iron Hill’s window, but now I’m totally motivated to go DRINK SOME BEER! It was really cool meeting guys whose job it is to turn sacks of grain, batches of yeast, and big sixty-gallon bottles of oxygen into the beer you can drink just five feet away. You also can see Larry and Jean and more Beer Science on Iron Hill West Chester’s blog

Previous reasons why you should move to West Chester:

Why you should move to West Chester, PA #5: DOWNTOWN BEER LAB

Guerilla Drive-In’s Back to the Future: DeLoreans GaLorean!

I can’t even tell you how much fun I had this weekend. But I’m going to try:

The Guerilla Drive-In showed Back to the Future on top of the Bicentennial Garage in West Chester, and the show was an absolute blast for me. A crew of volunteers showed up in the morning to build our first actual, by-God movie screen, and by two PM, we had a beautiful plywood screen eight feet tall by eleven feet wide, braced on a portable sawhorse frame, with two coats of silver paint underneath a coat of flat white latex (Chris Smith’s secret formula for outdoor-screen success, and it looked great.)

From three to six, I noodled around with a team from the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. First, we filmed the MacGuffin at its Secret Location. (While I was leaving, a car full of young people pulled in, faces intent as they listened to the radio. I asked them if they were looking for the MacGuffin: “yes!” they said, their faces brightening, and I told them to go get a hint from the, you know, NATIONAL NEWS MEDIA right over there by the SUV with the tripods. I hope that was an awesome payoff for those kids!) Next, I drove up and down High street while Paul, the camera operator, braced himself in the back of Randy’s pickup truck. Every time I drove by the frat houses across from the Burger King, the shirtless jocks out on the lawn would holler louder and louder, until I was rolling past brandishing my fist in the air like a brutal conquering dictator. Well, a brutal dictator whose subjects go “WOOOOO! YEAH! WOOOOOOO!”

When I made it back to the Bicentennial Garage with Kate at about seven, several DeLoreans had already arrived. We had no less than EIGHT DELOREANS come out from the DeLorean Mid-Atlantic club, and when I came around the last corner to the top of the garage, the little cars were arrayed in a bright silver chevron on either side of the topmost ramp, noses facing in, gull-wing doors open, as if the AWESOMEST CAVALRY IN THE HISTORY OF AWESOMENESS had arrived from the blue sky above.


The DeLorean owners were cordial and friendly. The battery-powered, bottlecap-mounted ninja streetlight put-outers that Mike Lamprinos hacked together in the previous 24 hours worked flawlessly in both daylight tests and nighttime action, keeping the bright streetlights off by shining light directly into their daylight sensors. Eric Lewis handled the projector beautifully. Matt and Kristen carried a white leather couch up to the roof and sat in it, dressed to the nines. The screen did not blow over, the flux capacitor tattoos that Chris Thompson made and Jonathan Ross sprayed were wonderful, the colors were bright, crisp, and vivid on the screen…

gdi_interview.jpg…I was absolutely thrilled, delighted, and amazed by all the cheerful, enthusiastic ingenuity that people in West Chester came up with, and I’m more convinced than ever that this is a very, very special town. We had a lot of people come out (150? 200?), and during the first couple of intermissions between reels, the CBS team prowled around with their cameras and interviewed folks. Jack, the producer, promised to let me know when the story will air (it’s about guerilla drive-ins in general, not just this one), and of course I’ll post that information here.

The thing that made me the happiest was seeing folks introduce themselves to each other, making it clear to me that this was an actual community event, not just a regular movie in a different venue. This was a great time. I may have kicked this event off, but it’s now clear that the lion’s share of the awesomeness is coming from all the other people engaged in the project: Jim Haigney, Ellen Peters, and Michael Estrada, Eric Lewis, Mike Lamprinos, Chris Thompson, Scott McMullen, Randy Schmidt, Toren Peterson, Andy Rodriguez, and Jonathan Ross — thanks to all of you for (literally) putting together such a fun event!

You can see lots more photos:

On July 18th, the Guerilla Drive-In will be taking a break from all the secrecy and going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Colonial Theater. As with all Guerilla Drive-In events, you are very cordially invited; watch the Guerilla Drive-In schedule page for announcements.

UPDATE: I just got this email from the three MacGuffin finders, and it makes me really happy! Especially the part about this being something that siblings across a difficult age gap can enjoy together:

“Maggie, Kevin and CJ… We are 2 brothers and a sister who are bffs and had a seriously awesome day together yesterday. We went on an adventure to find the MacGuffin, saw Texas Longhorns, and drove down a precariously wooded road. Once we found it, we hung out with the cbs guys, then had a spectacular day in west chester, eating bar-b-q and ice cream and buying comic books. Ending our night with our first guerilla drive in was great. Even though we didn’t have chairs; the delorians, the bell tower, and the flux capacitor “tramp stamps” made up for that. Even though we love hanging out, but a noticable age gap (21-16) makes it difficult for us to find things to do together. This is the perfect solution and aready a highlight of our summer’s. Thank you!!”

Guerilla Drive-In’s Back to the Future: DeLoreans GaLorean!

Harold’s Pictures of Shofuso

My next-door neighbor (sadly, now my ex-next-door neighbor) Harold Ross went to Shofuso with his son Jonathan on an early, rainy Father’s Day trip. He sent me the photos that he took, and I asked if I could post a link to them here. Click the image below to see some really great pictures of Fairmount Park’s Japanese house in the rain!


That big juniper veranda at the house must be so great to sit under in the rain. Harold took a lot of wonderful pictures of the garden, too, which I hadn’t really seen in as much detail as Harold did — the photos of the crooked bamboo are really wonderful!

Harold’s Pictures of Shofuso

The Best Curriculum Vitae Ever

At the Chester County Balloon Festival. This is the side of the trailer parked next to the tethered hot-air balloon that’s giving rides.

Upon seeing this, I immediately marched over to the ticket booth and asked for two tethered-ballon ride tickets. While paying, I asked the nice lady behind the desk: "Does the price include the story about the alligator castration?"

She looked deeply startled. I realized she must be a volunteer, not one of the tethered-balloon crew. "Oh", I said, trying to sound noncholant, "you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? You see, the alligator castration…" and I waved feebly over at the trees where the trailer was parked.

"No…" she said uncertainly and visibly edged away from me.

You can see Grant Aiello (the casual hero) wowing the crowd on Flickr here.

Pro-PAAAAANE! "George? The balloon is still tied to the- GEOOOORGE!" The Hot Air Eschaton

UPDATE: We came back at 6AM the next morning for an hour-long balloon ride, but when we got there, the trial balloons they had sent up had gone directly towards the approaching storm front, and all ascensions were canceled. So we hung out at the Balloon Pilot’s Tent, drinking champagne. Of course we drank champagne. I asked the pilots if they had any coffee, and they gave me a blank look. “…We have champagne…” one of them offered helpfully after a brief silence. For balloon pilots, I think champagne is the only liquid that exists. They can’t even see water, or coffee, or milk. Maybe their pancakes always taste awful when they’re cooking at home.

While he was washing last night’s dishes in a big plastic tub filled with Moet, Grant told us lots of great stories about:

  • International balloon races (it’s not speed; you go away at least two miles, then you come back and try to throw a sandbag into the center of a big “X”, with the result that anytime he sees an “X” on the ground anywhere, he has an urge to throw something at it),
  • Whether or not balloon competitions have white-coated heroes and black-hatted villains (Grant assures me that they do), and
  • If Grant would be willing to land his balloon squarely in the middle of the audience at a Guerilla Drive-In showing of “The Great Race”, “Around the World in 80 Days”, or maybe “The Wizard of Oz”. (Grant accepted immediately, especially when I promised to make the biggest, whitest “X” over the audience seating area that he had ever seen.)

Kate and I both told our stories about growing up in Chester County, and how you’d occasionally hear the big dragon WHOO-O-O-OOMP outside, and you’d run out and see a balloon directly over your house. The pilots looked at each other and nodded sagely. “Must be Dave”, they said. This adds a new dimension to my childhood memories — inside that peaceful-looking Gondola was Dave, the Mad Ballooning Daredevil of Chester County, flouting rules and convention in order to buzz the locals and bring them out on their lawns? EXCELLENT. I imagine a leather flight helmet and a billowing white scarf. And, of course, champagne.

The Chester County Balloon Festival will be running again in 2010; according to the site, you should check in January for information on next year’s event. I’ll see you there!

Grant Aiello and his balloon
The Best Curriculum Vitae Ever

Ultimate Water Gun Redux, and iPhone 3.0 app: SUMMON HELICOPTER

Last night, Chris Leonardi let me know that Make:Online had republished the “Head-Mounted Water Cannon” story that I wrote for Make: Volume 7.

Which gave me a chance to marvel all over again at the awesome photos that Julie Gottesman took in 2005 of the World-Famous Pontani Sisters at the American Helicopter Museum in West Chester. I had wanted a Fisher Price Adventure People vibe, with some James Bond and also Evel Nkievel on the side, all in a big cheesecake box, and MAN was I unprepared for what they achieved:

"No, mister Bond, I expect you to ROCK!"

There are some more of Julie’s pictures on Flickr. Tara Pontani rides, and she had a great time zooming the sidecar rig up the runway, then doing a hairpin turn with the wheel in the air and roaring back, power-sliding in front of the camera while Julie snapped the pictures. Well, that’s how I choose to remember it.

And that’s even before we worked up the nerve to approach the fellow that had just landed a blue Jet Ranger II helicopter nearby and asked if we could take some pictures with him. That’s how we met Augie DelCoughlin and Don Johnson’s helicopter!

Augie will power the “Summon Helicopter” iPhone 3.0 app that I want to create, even if it’s just a proof-of-concept. Use case:

  • STEP 1: Open “Summon Helicopter” app and push red button
  • STEP 2: Augie DelCoughlin arrives, hovers, drops ladder
  • OPTIONAL EXTRAS: To be arranged ahead of time. For instance: “sinister men with topknots wearing suits, carrying briefcases and katana”, just like somethingawful described.

I’ve spoken to Augie about this, and as long as you don’t mind some niggling details (it will take Augie several hours to arrive; the list of places where you can drop a ladder is vanishingly small; each pickup would cost several hundred dollars), I think the app will work just fine! Who wants to beta-test?

Ultimate Water Gun Redux, and iPhone 3.0 app: SUMMON HELICOPTER

Ancient and Most Secret Guardians of the MacGuffin

At lunchtime today, I went out to tweak the transmitter settings on the MacGuffin, since people were having trouble understanding the instructions for the secret bonus.

While I was out there, I took a picture of the Ancient and Most Secret Guardians of the MacGuffin, relaxing after a hard day of foiling gentleman archaeologists (and cooking burgers on the outdoor grill, and driving red schoolbuses up and down the Brandywine, packed with schoolkids, and shoveling, and generally working hard):

Ancient and Most Secret Guardians of the MacGuffin

"What should we tell people who ask us: ‘Um… we’re looking for the MacGovern?’"

"Tell them anything you like! Tell them that you’ve never heard of it. Or that it’s floating in the middle of the river. Tell them it was here, but it’s been gone for years."

"Can we make this face [makes grim face] and do this?" [pantomimes pumping a shotgun]

"Yes, absolutely. Think of yourselves as, you know, the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

"Okay, we can totally do that."