“Good enough for Zeus…good enough for you!” reads the 16-ounce pounder cans of one of the most popular American craft mead producers. This can of carbonated, 8% ABV honey wine represents an increasingly popular fermented beverage that has been raising questions for me of late. Small craft mead producers have been popping up around the country with all sorts of innovations on the genre, from barrel-aged to low-alcohol “session” examples. This newfound popularity makes sense. Mead has the distinction of fitting into two of the most popular trends of the moment: it’s naturally gluten-free and produced from an ingredient that can be sourced locally and organically. If we look into mead’s place in history, it’s clear that this beverage was good enough for the gods of yore, but so was incest and eating your children. What I wanted to know about mead wasn’t whether or not it is “good enough” for me, but rather if the arguably niche beverage has grown beyond an accompaniment to a turkey leg at the local Renaissance fair into a serious contender for space in my, a modern consumer’s, fridge.
My family lived in the Caribbean for several years when I was young. Our house was just a short walk from a local beach. Often, my sister and I would spend our afternoons snorkeling instead of practicing soccer or playing with our American Girl dolls. I loved living on an island, having a little corner of paradise as my backyard and never being too far from the sea.
I now live in a tiny studio apartment in the city, in a neighborhood with high-rise apartment buildings instead of sandcastles, more than an hour’s drive away from the nearest shoreline. Sometimes, I wish I lived closer to the beach. I miss how salty the water makes my lips taste and how refreshed I feel after a long swim. And even more so, I miss being able to access it at any given moment.
Surely, I’m not the only city dweller that aches for a taste of the ocean during sweltering summers. Over the years, though, I’ve found ways to cope with my urban beach drought. Lately, it’s been with glasses of Greek white wine. They’re an especially perfect cure around this time of year — refreshingly crisp, full of minerality, with telltale hints of salinity. A few have even come close to offering a vacation in a bottle — but they’re also much more than that.
It was a hot September evening in Valladolid. I was seated outside a café on the Plaza Mayor, sipping on a glass of verdejo from the nearby Rueda alongside several plates of tapas, surrounded by crowds of people doing the same. In Spain, this time of year feels more like late summer than early autumn, and drinking a crisp white wine was a far more pleasant option than yet another glass of the big, bold Spanish reds I had tasted all day.
I remember the wine being tropical, vibrant, and totally gulpable. It wasn’t the most intellectual or complex wine I had ever tasted. It didn’t change my life forever. But that was more than okay. Sometimes you don’t need a wine that does either of those things. My chilled verdejo was exactly what I needed at the moment, and it was downright cheap — only two euros for a glass. As soon as I finished my first glass, I ordered another.
The Great Margarita Disaster of 2014 is upon us. People are panicking, dipping into their savings accounts, even, to shell out the 50 cents to a dollar it now costs to purchase a single lime. Some, in desperation, have even resorted to using lemons. But just as one devastating crop shortage is reaching its peak, an even more threatening shortage looms on the horizon. Thanks to the explosive growth of the American craft beer industry, it has been forewarned that a shortage of hops is imminent. Yes, that means your favorite pint of hop-heavy IPA could lighten your wallet even more in the near future.
The craft beer industry may only make up 7% of the total U.S. beer market, but it packs over half of the total U.S. hop harvest into its fan-favorite pale ales, IPAs, double IPAs, and countless other styles. The hop farmers of the Pacific Northwest can’t keep up. To make matters worse, the purchasing of hops is mostly done via futures-based contracts. Bigger companies are already staking their hop claims as far into the future as they can afford, leaving the up-and-comers with a questionably hoppy future. Most brewers seem to agree that if the time comes, they’ll adjust financially to compensate for the increased cost or rework recipes to get more out of less hops. But these aren’t the only options.
As the spirits columnist for the New York Times, Robert Simonson is one of the leading chroniclers of the cocktail renaissance. In his new book, The Old-Fashioned, he explores the history of the drink as the “ur-cocktail,” from creation to ascension to corruption to its revival as the star of the contemporary cocktail movement. The Old-Fashioned will be available on May 13th from Ten Speed Press, but we’ve got a sneak peek with 3 recipes below – just in time to change up your Derby Day whiskey routine. Pre-order it today from Amazon or Ten Speed Press.
The post-WWII surge in the Old-Fashioned’s popularity among a new demographic of drinkers rubbed certain people — particularly ancient tipplers who could remember the before-times — the wrong way. By their account, there had been a falling off in quality. As cultural critic Gilbert Seldes put it, “Prohibition has created a nation of men and women who do not know what to do with the liquor they so hardly come by.”
“Consider, for instance, the old-fashioned cocktail,” began an ominous 1936 letter to the editor at the New York Times. “Nowadays the modern or ex-speakeasy bartender drops a spoonful of powdered sugar into a glass, adds a squirt of carbonic to aid dissolution, adds to that a dash or two of some kind of alleged bitters and a lump of ice, regardless of size. Then he proceeds to build up a fruit compote of orange, lemon, pineapple, and cherry, and himself pours in a carefully measured ounce and a half of bar whiskey, usually a blend, and gives one a glass rod to stir it with. Price, 35 to 50 cents. Profanation and extortion.”
Wine can be a complicated language to understand. Forget about the difficulties of tasting and describing it for just a second. When you first set out to learn a thing or two about wine, the first obstacle is getting past the complicated names listed on a label.
I first learned this lesson in a winery’s tasting room in Asti, which lies at the heart of the Italian Piedmont wine region. As I stared at the many bottles before me, I was admittedly a bit confused. Only a few of the names made any sense at all. The one with chardonnay listed on its label was easy enough to understand — my parents had similar looking ones from Napa Valley in their wine rack at home. And I recognized the word Barolo as a nearby town I had seen earlier on my Google Maps app. I wasn’t entirely sure about the moscato d’Asti and was only able to translate half of its meaning, figuring it was somehow related to the sweet moscato wine that was popular at home.
That’s when Roberto Bava, the winery’s manager and winemaker, noticed the puzzled look on my face. “Ah, you are a bit overwhelmed by all of the different names?” he asked.
I visit my local teashop frequently. On my most recent trip, I had a conversation with the owner, a very eccentric woman who appears rather ordinary — until she speaks. Her love for teas flows out in conversation sometimes in a very passionate manner. By now, she knows me as a regular. On this day she was taking the time to show me some of her newer teas, including one Earl Grey variety that had vanilla in it. I kindly dismissed the tea, and told her that I liked staying as close to the original flavor of the tea as possible.
“Oh, you are a tea traditionalist,” she said in a questionable tone.
At first I was a little taken aback; I thought this was an insult. “What does it mean to be a tea traditionalist?”
“Traditionalists are people that stick very close to unadulterated tea varieties: blacks, greens, sometimes whites,” she explained. “They never seem to go for any infusions or flavors that are blended.” She thought it was okay to be a traditionalist, but made it clear that she was not a part of this category. Unlike me, she enjoys her teas infused with different fruits and flavors.
The thought of someone being able to categorize my taste in tea was actually kind of exciting. I had a category that I fit into. It’s true that I’ve never enjoyed infused tea flavors and always prefer a simple green or black tea. Upon further investigation of my traditionalist mentality, I realized that even the way I prepare my tea is relatively simple and shockingly traditional. The woman at the tea shop was correct: There is nothing that irritates me more than the American obsession with adding sugar to tea.
“The beer here is flat and warm!” I overheard this statement being exclaimed by a confused and disappointed patron at my neighborhood craft beer bar recently when greeted by a friend. He was referring to a pour of the recently resurgent “cask ale” — not necessarily a style of beer, but rather, an alternative way to serve it. The once-forgotten serving method results in beer that is indeed warmer and flatter than your typical keg pour, but for good reason. Along with the so-called “nitro” pour, casks have gained traction as a respectable way to serve beer at bars around the globe. These serving styles bring unique characteristics to the texture and flavor profile of beer that can’t be found in standard kegs or bottles.
That isn’t to say that cask or nitro pours are any better or worse than beers from a traditional tap, bottle, or can. Each method, paired with an appropriate style of beer, can enhance the drinking experience. But the first step, so that you don’t end up confused and disappointed like the poor guy above, is to understand what these methods are, why they exist, and, most importantly, why you would want to drink flat, warm beer in the first place.
The first time I visited a sake brewery (or kura, as its called in Japanese) I worried I wouldn’t be able to drive home afterwards. The owner wouldn’t let my glass drain. Every time I thought I could get away with sneaking into the next part of the tour without a refill, he would appear, smiling, generously pouring more liquid into my sample cup.
Later, I discovered he wasn’t just trying to get me drunk, but was following the Japanese tradition called oshaku, where it’s impolite to fill your own glass, and equally as rude for your host to let your glass sit empty. Sake is a social drink, so oshaku is seen as a way of making new friends.
In America, this social custom hasn’t caught fire when it comes to sake consumption (and for future reference, the polite way to refuse additional servings during traditional Japanese social engagements is to leave a tiny bit of sake in your glass, to not encourage refills). In fact, sake has long been considered a cheap, boozy beverage only suitable for sake bombs and cheap sushi dinners — an image many sake enthusiasts and certified specialists are working to change.
The disciplined lifestyle of a Cistercian monk is structured by a steadfast routine. The first prayer starts well before sunrise. A simple breakfast follows, maybe toast and jam, before the next prayer begins. Afterwards, solitary scripture reading occupies the time leading up to the main prayer of the day. By 10 AM or so, it’s time to do some chores. Maybe you’d have a shift doing laundry for the other brothers or performing some repairs around the monastery. Or perhaps, if you resided at one of a select few abbeys of the Trappist sub-group, you’d fill the time between Mass and dinner dumping malted barley into a mash tun full of what will soon become some of the world’s most highly regarded beer. For hundreds of years monks have sustained their way of life financially through the sale of handmade goods, beer included. Unchanged for many years, the Trappist brewing community was content with brewing a select few beers and brewing them well. Through a recent flurry of activity, however, they have made their high-quality ales more relevant than ever before.
“Gimme a lager.” Where I’m from, speaking this phrase at your average neighborhood drinking establishment results in a very specific response: a glass of Yuengling Traditional Lager placed in front of you. No options listed, no questions asked, just lager. To us native Philadelphians, the word lager is just shorthand to refer to the most popular beer from America’s oldest brewery. The real definition and expansive reach of the style are unknown by many.
This isn’t just a Philadelphia problem. Across the country, the word “lager,” and most especially the sub-style pilsner, conjures up images of cheap beer in cans from big name corporate brands. But lager brewing at its full potential is much more. In fact, the lager brewing process has been responsible for some of the most richly flavored, deeply layered, and perfectly balanced beers ever made. But what is a lager, anyway?
You may have noticed that $8 malbec you’ve been buying for years just doesn’t taste as great as it used to. I’ve noticed, too.
Malbec used to be one of every wine drinker’s go-to bargain reds, a section in a wine store where great value was so easily found. You could pick almost any bottle under $10 off the shelf and chances are, you’d be relatively satisfied. But now, malbec is too often hit or miss. The same malbec I loved three years ago tastes too jammy, too oaky, and not at all complex. Finding an enjoyable one for under $10 has become mission impossible.
Of course, when we talk about malbec, we’re almost always talking about malbec from Argentina. The country capitalized on this lost French variety, which was brought over from France in the mid-19th century. It’s still the main grape grown in Cahors and is allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux wines, but it was Argentina that finally put malbec on the map.
Yeast is everywhere. Taking refuge in wall and rafters, on the skins of hanging fruit, and even floating along the breeze, it’s an omnipresent and essential element of any location’s native ecosystem. For centuries, beer relied on this. Left out in the open or stored in a vessel that held the previous batch, fermentation was a process uniquely tied to the environment of the brewer. As science moved forward, however, the invisible yeast cell was discovered and reliable, controllable lab-cultured organisms took over the brewing world.
But, in one small corner of Belgium, this spontaneous fermentation technique persisted. With its intense sourness and layered complexity, the style known as lambic is one of the most prized and desired exports of its native land. And until recently, that native land was the only place where it was made. The risky, time-consuming nature of the brewing process has kept it at home in Belgium’s Pajottenland for much of history. Now, with a perfect storm of adventurous brewers, a changing public palate, and an intense focus on locality hovering over the beer world, the processes used in lambic brewing have found their way across the Atlantic and into the repertoire of today’s most cutting-edge beer producers.
The iconic vessel of the lambic process is the coolship. A large shallow pan usually made of copper, the coolship does exactly what you would expect: it cools things. After the unfermented beer, called wort, is mashed and boiled, it must be chilled down to a more hospitable temperature (generally 60°-75˚F, depending on the strain) so the yeast can begin its alcohol-producing duties. These days, this task is usually performed by a heat exchanger, but before the advent of refrigeration, every brewery had a coolship to get the job done. The hot wort would be pumped up to the coolship on the roof or in the rafters and left overnight, exposed to the wild microorganisms in the night air.
Even the most unrefined palate can tell the difference between a good cup of coffee and a bad cup of coffee. I’m well aware that the fine line between the two can easily affect the outlook of an entire day.
After years of enjoying my store-bought coffee in blissful ignorance, I started to wonder what I was really paying for when I threw down three dollars for a cup of hot bean water. I found that even with hand crafted Japanese kettles, meticulously weighed beans, and the never-ending list of “the best” brewing methodologies, we have little control over our own brew. Not even the most well-equipped coffee connoisseur does.
Sometime between 7,000 and 5,600 BC, along the banks of the Yellow River, an early inhabitant of modern-day China left behind a jug that was once filled with the earliest known example of a fermented grain beverage. With no written recipe or recorded history of the Neolithic concoction, the contents of the vessel were left to evaporate and decay during its long burial, fading into the past. Today, however, roughly 9,000 years later, you can go to your local beer store and walk out with an alcoholic concoction brewed to that seemingly lost ancient recipe. How is that possible? Through the unlikely union of traditional archaeology, modern chemical analysis technology, and the adventurous craft-brewing industry, tasting a 9,000-year-old beer has become as easy as picking it up off the shelf.