The aroma of wood smoke is something that is particularly tied to the fall season for me. Sure, cool air, changing leaves, and pumpkins get me in the fall spirit too but it isn’t until that first whiff of campfire that I’m really there. Here where I live, in the mid-Atlantic, as September heads into October the weather takes a perfect turn for the backyard campfire. In the town where I grew up, you could almost always pick up the scent of burning hardwoods in the air during autumn months, especially if it was coming from the elaborate fire pit my parents constructed in our backyard.
Now, fall already has its fair share of seasonal flavors that like to imbue themselves upon every imaginable edible product. You’ll find caramel apple flavor in all your hot beverages, butternut squash in everything on every restaurant menu, and, of course, pumpkin spice flavors in all food and drink products sold between the months of September and December. But my treasured smoke, on the other hand, gets less attention. Honestly, that’s probably for the best; I don’t think smoked Oreos would go over that well. There is one place, however, where smoky flavors work quite well: within the flavor profile of beer. MORE
A few years back, while I was driving through the States, I passed a hitchhiker holding a sign that read “Hiking for Beer.” This abstruse notice made me wonder. Was he offering drivers beer for their service or if this were the goal of his trip — to hitchhike in search of the best beer across America — did he hope motorists would empathize with his mission? But I also got this idea in my head: I could hike, too, but proper hiking…for beer.
I had trekked a number of impressive trails. They provided a communion with nature; a temporary retreat from modern distractions; an enhancement of necessities, making the simple feel luxurious. A bag of gorp was forest caviar. Tap water from a rusty faucet tasted as if it had flowed from the purest mountain spring.
But after a long walk among green trees or russet mountains, nothing compared to drinking a golden brew; this was a luxury heightened to the libations of royalty. Of course, a beverage of this nature was never actually enjoyed in nature. Typically, after a hike I would have to scrape off the mud from my shoes, scan my body for ticks, and then jump into the car and drive out of the forest if I wanted to end with an ale. MORE
Visiting the Coors Brewery has about the same feel as getting on an amusement park ride. A line forms just outside the main gates of the largest single-site brewery in the world guided by the familiar zig-zag of a metal railing. When you’ve reached the front of the line, a small tour bus driven by an enthusiastic retiree picks you up and gives you a grand tour of the two-stoplight town of Golden, Colorado, from its gold rush heritage to Adolph Coors’ decision to open up a brewery there. The bus then drops you at the visitor’s entrance where you’re greeted by local kids working part-time jobs. They ask you to put on a cowboy hat made of beer cans and pose for a photo in front of a Coors-themed backdrop. From here, you are free to wander through the tour area listening to a self-guided tour recording (not in Sam Elliot’s voice, unfortunately) and getting a peek at some of the inner workings of the brewery.
The company’s chairman, Pete Coors, is having a hard time understanding the recent craft beer boom. In an interview earlier this year with the Denver Post, he states that he’s “baffled” by it. Whereas craft beer brands grew 7% last year, light beers like Coors Light showed no growth and bargain brands like his Keystone showed negative numbers. Coors is then quoted: “In this economy that is difficult to understand.”
In fact, his company has gone to great lengths to show that it’s better to have their beer on tap. “People stay in their seats an average of 18 minutes longer when they have a light premium beer on tap. That means they are spending more money, leaving bigger tips. We have a little algorithm and an app that we give to our distributors to evaluate and analyze these businesses and bars,” he’s quoted as saying. I had these sentiments still fresh in my mind during the tour of Coors’ headquarters I took while on a recent Rocky Mountain beer trip.
For years, apricot brandy occupied a dusty corner of the liquor store that I avoided. It confounded me. Most of what was there wasn’t even brandy, and most of it was awful: cloying and full of artificial flavoring and coloring.
For me, the brandy brought bad associations; it seemed to be the sort of thing people down on their luck bought in pints and drank out of little paper bags. As a young person, I remember classmates buying pints of Jacquin’s Apricot Flavored Brandy for illegal parties in the woods. Later, I had a friend who ordered apricot sours, and I was always vaguely embarrassed when she did that, particularly in dive bars. MORE
Not long ago, the coffee-brewing industry revolved around convenience. It was all about where you could you grab a hot cup of joe on the go, finding the fastest way to extract the caffeine out of those magical beans and inject it into your bloodstream.
Fortunately for all coffee lovers, the coffee culture has greatly evolved since then. Now, some coffee geeks are bravely roasting their own beans at home. The nerdiest are buzzing about the most-expensive beans — like civet coffee (known as “cat poop coffee”), or the newest strange coffee to join the scene, Black Ivory Coffee, which is similarly made using elephants. And others attend regulated coffee cupping rituals to evaluate and discover certain flavors, aromas, and nuances of different coffees.
But it doesn’t matter how fancy, refined, or perfectly-roasted your coffee beans are if you aren’t giving them a proper brew. By not focusing on how your coffee is made, you could be missing out on the beautiful flavors and aromas your specialty beans possess. I recently discovered the difference it makes at a home brewing class at Joe, a rapidly expanding small chain of coffee shops, where I learned of the many kinds of brewing gadgets and devices you can buy in order to make a better cup of coffee at home. Surely you’ve seen them before. They fill counters of high-end coffee shops across the country — various pour-over options and a range of different presses.
In a recent e-mail conversation with Bruce Wright, co-owner of the popular J.K.’s brand of organic cider, the existence of a new product was brought to my attention. “…just read in consumer reports that there is gluten free window cleaner..sigh,” said Wright. Now unless people are drinking window cleaner or rubbing it all over their hands before eating lunch I think there’s been some sort of public misinformation about gluten. Me, however, I’m striving to look at this whole misunderstanding of gluten from a positive angle and I think I’ve found my hook. See, Bruce’s ciders, like all real ciders, are naturally gluten free being that they’re made from just yeast and apple juice. I’d argue that the gluten-free trend has actually helped bring about something very positive to the world of fermented beverages in America (read: not gluten-free beer): a bump in the amount of shelf-space and tap-lines dedicated to cider. MORE
There’s no contending the trend: salt is hip. To be more exact, the addition of saltiness to typically unsalty food items is hip. Falling victim to it is almost unavoidable. Within a recent one-week span, I sampled chocolate sea salt donuts, ordered a cone of salted Oreo ice cream, noticed a salted caramel latte on a café menu, and was tempted to buy salted caramel chocolate squares from a convenience store. To be fair, salting the unsalty isn’t a groundbreaking new idea. There have always been things like melons wrapped in cured pork, or a dash of salt on a breakfast grapefruit, or, perhaps the oldest salted unsalty treat of them all, a beer called gose.
Mentioned in the history books over a millennia ago, this funky beer is brewed with wheat and spiced with coriander and salt. Just like salted caramel ice cream is gracing the menu of every corner ice cream shop, variations on the until now unheard-of gose style are popping up on brewpub tap lists across America. Refreshingly tart, low-in-alcohol, and salty enough to keep you drinking more, gose has become a go-to summer style for craft beer drinkers. But the style didn’t exactly take on easy path to widespread popularity.
“I’m ombibulous,” H.L. Mencken famously wrote. “I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.” Mencken wrote this, of course, during simpler times: Namely, Prohibition. In those dark days, a drink was a drink was a drink. Still, I’ve always appreciated Mencken’s notion of the “ombibulous” person as an ideal drinking companion, someone with an open mind and an open heart.
Nearly a century after Prohibition, we could really use more self-identified ombibulous drinkers. That’s because our era has become the domain of the specialist, the narrow-focused, the geek. In my years of writing about drinks, I have learned one bedrock truth: There are Wine People and there are Cocktail People. And the chasm between the two is wide and deep, with only a shaky rope bridge spanning the divide.
I will never forget, for example, being at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley. I’d been chosen as a fellow and I was anxiously awaiting my first book to be released within months. On the first day, I met one of the well-established wine writers after a panel he’d just led. Someone introduced me to this guy by referring to my book, which was about spirits and cocktails. “Cocktails?” said the esteemed wine writer, with a sniff. “I don’t drink cocktails. I’ve never had a good cocktail in my life. I stick with wine.” He literally waved away the idea of cocktails, banishing it from conversation.
Summer in the world of wine has become the oh-so-cool Summer of Riesling, in which the cognescenti try to convince the average drinker to welcome riesling into their lives. That may seem a tall order, but I am undertaking an even more difficult — and significantly less hip — task: I am going to suggest that you make this summer the Summer of Lambrusco, and pop open the classic fizzy red wine.
I can hear you now: Lambrusco?! Whaaat? Didn’t we leave lambrusco behind in the 1980s, along with those cheesy Riunite commercials — with the jingle “Riunite on ice, Riunite so nice!” and with mustachioed Tom Selleck lookalikes courting bleach blonde Cheryl Tiegs lookalikes over chilled lambrusco?
“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.
Who knew that expressing a warm affection for lovely, drinkable Austrian red wines could be construed as a revolutionary act that threatened civilized wine culture? Or that someone who champions Austrian grape varieties might be viewed as a wild-eyed radical, intent on casting the world of wine into a state of chaos “to the detriment of the wine consumer”?
Well, according to the eminent wine critic Robert Parker, wine writers who enjoy and advocate lesser-known grape varieties are “Euro-elitists” and may as well be espousing ideas comparable to “Kim-Jung-unism.” Blaufränkisch, otherwise known as lemberger and grown mostly in Austria, was singled out by Parker as “virtually unknown” and one of those “godforsaken grapes, that, in hundreds and hundreds of years of viticulture, wine consumption, etc., have never gotten traction because they are rarely of interest.” Recommending that people drink blaufränkisch, according to Parker, was something akin to the “propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes.”
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.
If I say “wine” and “cocktail,” most Americans will jump immediately to one thing: Sangria. In fact, they might even exclaim something like this: “Woohooo, sangria!” No discussion of wine cocktails can truly begin until we discuss sangria. So I may as well start with a full confession: I do not like sangria.
In fact, I do not like it so much that I actually may have put together an ebook on wine cocktails simply in order to convince people to leave their lame old sangria behind. But soon enough, I realized this was silly on my part. I mean, who am I to tell you not to drink sangria? If you happen to like soggy fruit soaked in cheap wine, by all means, enjoy yourself.
My problem with sangria is two-fold. First, it’s almost always made incorrectly. For the record, sangria is not simply chopped fruit dumped into wine. No, true sangria should always have a significant portion of brandy and also possibly a small amount of liqueur. Ask what they put in your sangria at your local happy hour and most likely it will make you sad.