D.C. snowstorms are the best

Snow and rulerI woke to find about nine inches of snow had accumulated overnight. That’s the most snow we’ve had all season and the most we’ve had in three years–two of which were less like a traditional D.C. winter and more like a colder version of the Bay Area’s rainy season.

As much as I like the Bay Area’s climate, I love living in a place with distinct seasons that include real winters. And no winter is complete to me without a full-on snowstorm that leaves rads impassable, shuts the airports and frees me to play in the snow–because I am basically eight years old at these times.

Today’s snow isn’t in the same league as the historic snowstorms I’ve seen here, but it will have to do.

1996 blizzard headlineJanuary 1996: This remains a sentimental favorite for how it helped bond me to the District. As the snow started falling, I decided I couldn’t watch it from inside the apartment I’d moved into weeks before. I wandered down from Kalorama to Dupont Circle, made my way to Kramerbooks, bought a copy of Edward P. Jones’ “Lost in the City,” and read his stories of wayward Washingtonians at the bar as the snow laid a hush over my beautiful neighborhood. By the next morning, 17.1 inches had fallen, and I was proud to be one of the few Posties who made it into the newsroom–having walked down the middle of Connecticut Avenue to get there.

The effects of the blizzard lingered for years; later in January, a torrent of snowmelt led a swollen Potomac to flood and tear up much of the C&O Canal, and the Park Service didn’t finish repairing the towpath until 1998 or maybe 1999.

Presidents’ Day, 2003: This could have been a lot more fun. We were in West Virginia to go skiing and should have stayed there. Instead, I was on the losing end of a group decision to head home early. After the long drive home in a blizzard, the first two hours involving too many tense moments on twisting mountain roads, I needed a drink. Instead, I realized there was enough snow on the ground (16.7 inches had fallen) and enough elevation changes in the adjacent blocks for me to finish my skiing without paying for a lift ticket. I enjoyed carving turns around parking meters.

December 2009: This was the first time I could make serious use of the cross-country skis I’d picked up a year or two earlier. I enjoyed “Snowpocalypse” by clocking about six miles through the streets of Arlington, finally turning around on the Fairfax Drive onramp to I-66 after I’d spent a few minutes contemplating a snow-covered highway devoid of cars. I ate well that night! The next evening, I took my downhill skis to a nearby park, where the 16.4 inches of snowfall had turned a series of steps into a miniature jump.

This was also the first snowstorm where I both had a digital camera to document the scenery and a choice of social-media sites to share those photos.

Rock Creek Park, February 2010February 2010: Washington’s most epic winter ever continued with a pair of blizzards–one depositing 17.8 inches, the second running up the score with 10.8 inches–not even half a week apart. The first day after “Snowmaggedon,” I spent almost five hours cross-countrying as far into the District as Rock Creek Park–in the process, checking “cross the Key Bridge in a car, on a bus, on a bike, on foot, and on skis” off my bucket list. A day later and considerably more sore, I ventured out again and inspected some impressive snow architecture on the Mall.

I wasn’t the only person doing a lot of urban skiing at the time. Some crazy kids in Pittsburgh put together an amazing video of them skiing and snowboarding down Mount Washington, among other unlikely spots around the city. Seriously, just watch it.

1/16/2014: Now that I finally uploaded a few dozen photos from the 2009 and 2010 snowstorms to Flickr (I’d only shared them on Facebook at the time, for reasons I don’t entirely remember), I embedded a slideshow of them after the jump.

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Homebrewing economics

Wednesday night, I observed Repeal Day by opening the first bottle of a batch of homebrewed beer–the fifth I’ve done since getting into this hobby last year.

HomebrewWhat I didn’t realize until doing the math today, however, was that the almost five gallons of lightly hopped winter ale now  sitting in bottles in my basement also represent a break-even point. My expenses on homebrewing equipment and supplies now about equal what I would have spent to buy the same volume of beer at a store.

I didn’t quite think that would be possible, but the numbers line up. I’ve spent a total of $273.91 at the local homebew shop (called, surprisingly enough, My Local Home Brew Shop), for an average cost of $54.78 for each five-gallon batch. Each yielded about 50 bottles’ worth, or just over two cases.

(Five gallons actually equals just over 53 12-ounce bottles, but I usually pour a little more than 12 ounces into each bottle. Plus, you can’t get everything out of the bottom of a fermenting or bottling bucket–and if you’ve ever seen what collects there, you’ll know why you shouldn’t try.)

My retail alternative, as a beer snob, would be picking up cases of a good, reasonably hoppy ale. You do pay for quality; the cheapest options I could find in a little searching online today were Redhook IPA at $25.99 a case and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for $28.99. The former might be barely cheaper than my homebrew habit (were I repetitive enough to stick with the same beer over a year and change), the latter more expensive.

Homebrewing hardwareAnd from here on out, I could be in the black: The recipe kits I buy–with the grains, malt extracts, hops, yeast, priming sugar and bottle caps all in one box–average around $40. The equation could change if I start buying ingredients separately, something I’ve been thinking of doing. (The White House’s honey ale recipe is apparently pretty good.)

It’s true that I had the advantage of getting three necessary pieces of hardware for free: A five-gallon pot came from my brother as a gift, a friend who had given up homebrewing gave me a fermenting bucket, and I’ve been borrowing a capper from a homebrewing neighbor down the street. And the candy thermometer we got years ago suffices to check the temperature of the wort during the stovetop stage of homebrewing.

But I also probably could have saved money buying the equipment online instead of in a store. (Beyond those three items, you need a long paddle to stir the wort while it’s boiling on the stovetop, an airlock to let carbon dioxide escape from the fermenting bucket, a bottling bucket with a spout to pour the beer into bottles, a siphon to transfer the beer from the fermenting bucket to the bottling bucket, and a test jar and hydrometer to measure the specific gravity before and after fermenting, without which you can’t get an alcohol by volume estimate.)

Sure, if you want to factor in the time homebrewing can take up–about four hours on brewing day, then an hour and change on bottling day–the math might not look so positive. It’s also possible that I’m more likely to pop open a bottle of beer when I’ve got the equivalent of two cases downstairs, much as buying skis and boots eliminates the cost of rentals but then costs you money by leading you to ski more often.

But there’s also this intangible: the look of pleased surprise on friends’ faces when you hand them an unlabeled bottle of beer and they realize who made it.