Thursday, August 5, 2010

Belgian Style India Pale Ale: A style in development

In honor of International Beer Day (August 5th), your host decided it might be useful to address the category of Belgian style IPAs.

For those who are unfamiliar with the category, BeerAdvocate offers the following description:

"Inspired by the American India Pale Ale (IPA) and Double IPA, more and more Belgian brewers are brewing hoppy pale colored ales for the US market (like Chouffe & Urthel), and there's been an increase of Belgian IPAs being brewed by American brewers. Generally, Belgian IPAs are considered too hoppy by Belgian beer drinkers.

Various malts are used, but the beers of the style are finished with Belgian yeast strains (bottle-conditioned) and the hops employed tend to be American. You'll generally find a cleaner bitterness vs. American styles, and a pronounced dry edge (very Belgian), often akin to an IPA crossed with a Belgian Tripel. Alcohol by volume is on the high side. Many examples are quite cloudy, and feature tight lacing, excellent retention, and fantastic billowy heads that mesmerize (thanks, in part, to the hops). "

Belgian IPAs are frequently now being brewed by California Brewers. While they often are seasonal or special offering, a few companies, such as Green Flash located near San Diego, offer a version year round. Green Flash's version, titled Le Freak, has the strong Belgian character of spice and banana, along with a pleasing bitterness in the finish. Stone Brewing also occasional bottles a Belgian style IPA.

Yesterday, your host had the chance to stop by the Rose & Crown Pub in Palo Alto. This bar tends to stock draft beer by local Peninsula brewers such as Palo Alto Brewing, Devil's Canyon, Mayfield, and Firehouse. On tap was "Pete's Support" Belgian IPA from Firehouse. The name being a spoof on the acclaimed "Pizza Port" brew chain in San Diego. This beer was excellent. It had a great spicy flavor, rich color, good lacing, and a pronounced bitterness as a result of additional dry hopping.

BevMo, City Beer, and Jug Shop all have excellent beer selections. You may also be available to find Belgian IPAs at select Whole Foods stores.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Gran Classico...a new bitters in town

It is not a secret that your host is a fan of bitters. Campari, Cynar, Averna, Fernet...all add an alluring bitterness to cocktails and can often balance against sweeter components.

Recently, a new bitter arrived on the San Francisco market, and is making a big impact on the cocktail scene. It's called Gran Classico, an original bitter based on an 1864 recipe from Turin, Italy.

Unlike its cousin Campari (also another bitter in the Turin style), Gran Classico is darker in color, with a pronounced wormwood bite. Enthusiasts of absinthe will recognize that wormwood provides a bitter taste to absinthe and can help balance its licorice overtones. The taste of Gran Classico is different than most other bitters on the market and the wormwood and gentian stand out, as does rhubarb and bitter orange peel. Gentian is one of the main flavoring ingredients in Angostura bitters. Unlike Fernet, there are no minty/menthol overtones. Bottled at 28% abv, Gran Classico packs a punch and makes a flavorful Negroni when combined with gin and a high quality sweet vermouth.

While Gran Classico is now manufactured in Switzerland at a boutique distillery, its U.S. distribution rights are owned by Tempus Fugit spirits, based in Petaluma. Tempus Fugit imports and markets a variety of French and Swiss absinthes. (as well as Voyager Gin from Washington State). During their research, they came across Gran Classico bitter and decided to add it to the catalog due to its unique and wonderful flavor. In addition, the 2007 U.S. legalization of wormwood opened up access to the U.S. market (previously, thujone, a chemical in wormwood was illegal in the U.S. due to perceived hallucinogenic properties).

The bitter can be purchased at K&L Wine & Spirits and retails for $29.99.

Helpful Links:

Select Bars in SF that have Gran Classico cocktails on the menu:

15 Romolo
Comstock Saloon
Cafe Des Amis

Featured Cocktail:

Old Pal
1/2 oz. Gran Classico Bitter
1 oz. dry vermouth
2 oz. bourbon
Stir and serve over ice in a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a flamed orange peel.

Created by Jonny Raglin
Comstock Saloon, San Francisco

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Patriotic Libations: Applejack and the Marconi Wireless Cocktail

Given that today is the 4th of July, it seemed timely to comment on one of America's oldest spirits: applejack.

Applejack was born out of America's early fondness for hard cider. In the 1600 and 1700's, New Jersey apple farmers would leave hard cider out overnight in the winter cold, and would then skim off the ice in the morning. The resulting liquid residue was higher in alcohol, and earned the name New Jersey Lightning. The term "jacking" is another name for freeze distillation. Eventually, producers became more refined and started distilling the hard cider in traditional pot stills. This allowed for a cleaner spirit without excess cogeners and troublesome methanol that could cause blindness and a nasty hangover. While popular in America's early years, applejack waned in popularity over time as bourbon and rye whiskey became more prevalent.

Founded in 1780, Laird and Company is one of America's oldest distilleries and is the main producer of applejack and apple brandy today. Unlike many distilleries that closed down during prohibition, Laird was able to continue distilling apple brandy for "medicinal purposes."

By law, applejack is a blend of 35% apple brandy and 65% grain neutral spirit (at some point post-prohibition the law was changed to distinguish applejack from apple brandy). However, a much better product is Laird's 100 proof bottled-in-bond apple brandy (which is actually much truer to the classic applejack style). The flavor is more concentrated and is perfect for on the rocks sipping or perhaps with a splash of soda water. Some with sensitive palettes may find the spirit a little rough neat. Over 20 lbs of Virginia apples go into a single bottle of the 100 proof version.

Traditional American apple brandy differs significantly from its French counterpart, Calvados. Chiefly, American apple brandy is made from American apples and is aged in charred American oak barrels. This charred oak barrel aging makes the American product have a taste profile and color more in common with bourbon or rye whiskey. Calvados is made from French apples and is aged in French toasted Limousin oak, resulting in a lighter color and more delicate flavor.

In addition to Laird and Company, a number of boutique distilleries have started to make apple brandy including Clear Creek in Portland, OR, Germain-Robin in Ukiah, CA and St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA. However, their products, while excellent, tend to have a flavor and profile more in common with Calvados.

Due to the recent interest in classic and well made cocktails, applejack and apple brandy have seen a revival. An excellent drink that showcases the 100 proof version of Laird's is the Marconi Wireless.

Originally created at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, the Marconi Wireless is essentially an apple brandy Manhattan. It was supposedly named after the wireless genius himself when he came to visit the hotel in the early 1900's.

On this 4th of July, drink to a traditional American spirit!

Marconi Wireless Cocktail

2 oz Laird's 100 proof apple brandy
0.5 oz sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica is best, or to keep the cocktail patriotic, domestically made Vya works too)
Dash of bitters (Angostura works, or continuing on the patriotic theme, use Fee brothers barrel aged bitters)
Orange twist garnish

Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and flame orange twist over the rim. Serve cold. It is important not to add too much vermouth, or the delicate apple flavors will be lost.

Note: Many liquor stores on the West Coast now carry Laird's products. If you must, you can use their more common blended "applejack" product, but it is worth seeking out the pure 100 proof version.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Your host is back! (The Vieux Carre Cocktail)

Well folks, it has been a little longer than expected, but your host is back to share more about liquor and unique sights.

The trip to South America was indeed interesting and well worth while, and the time since then has been filled with career research.

But now, it is time for a drink.

Your host recently went for cocktails at Alembic, a great bar located on Haight Street in San Francisco. On their menu was an usual twist to the Manhattan Cocktail, called the Vieux Carre.

This cocktail was originally developed by Walter Bergeron in New Orleans in 1937. He was the head bartender at the Monteleone Hotel. A boozy combination of cognac, rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, and 2 types of bitters, it is not a cocktail for session drinking.

Traditionally, this cocktail is served in a rocks glass over ice. The Alembic recipe calls for an "up" preparation, complete with a flamed orange peel. This difference in preparation makes a huge difference, as the flavors are deeper and more pronounced.

Also, it is important to use high quality ingredients in this cocktail. Use a 100 proof rye whiskey like Rittenhouse. As for cognac, a decent VSOP or older will add additional complexity. Using Carpano Antica sweet vermouth will ensure the drink does not become too sweet. A cheaper vermouth, as in the type in most well Manhattans, will destroy the drink and give it a syrupy flavor.


Vieux Carre Cocktail

1 oz Rye Whiskey (Use Rittenhouse 100 proof)
1 oz Cognac (Use a V.S.O.P. or older)
1 oz Sweet Vermouth (Use Carpano Antica, or other higher end product)
1/2 oz Benedictine
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Dash of Peychaud's Bitters (A bitters native to New Orleans)

Stir above ingredients with cracked ice. Strain into cocktail glass. Twist and flame orange peel over top of the glass and drop into the drink. The orange oils will float on top providing pleasing aromatics. Shaking this cocktail may lead to excessive dilution. Drink cold.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Your host is in South America.

Hello friends,

I apologize for the lack of recent posts. Your host is in the middle of a six week trip to Bolivia and Argentina, visiting the sights, and sampling the Singani brandy, wine, beer, and local beverages.

Look for new posts in early May!



Friday, March 19, 2010

Takara Sake USA: Immerse yourself in the Japanese Rice Wine

A recent dinner with sake at Betelnut got your host thinking about the beverage and the fact that there is a very good sake factory just across the Bay in Berkeley named Takara Sake USA. A subsidiary of the larger Japanese business, Takara Sake is located in a white industrial building near the railroad tracks and has been producing fine Junmai and Junmai Ginjo sakes from Sacramento Valley rice since 1982. Most know of the company through their flagship "Sho Chiku Bai" brand. Though sake is often known as rice wine in English, often due to its non-carbonated nature and bottle appearance, the manufacturing process is more like beer, in that the rice must first be converted from starch to sugar.

Current students and alums at Cal Berkeley may be well aware of Takara, as their tasting room has historically been popular with the college set. So much so, that the company now limits the quantity one can consume at each visit.

That being said, the visit is still a great way to get acquainted with the Japanese beverage. The museum and tasting room is on the second level of the factory, which allows one to peer down into the fermenting and manufacturing rooms. The potent smell of yeasty rice lingers in the air, a decidedly different aroma than one would find at a winery or brewery. There is a small museum detailing the process of making sake, along with a collection of antique sake making equipment. There is an airy Japanese styled tasting bar where you can choose one of several flights to try, depending on how dry or sweet you like your sake. Each flight costs $5 and allows you to try several products, ranging from milky white unfiltered Nigori sakes to super premium Junmai Dai-Ginjos. The tasting is an excellent chance to try more expensive sakes on the cheap, as a few of the flights contain sake from bottles in the $30 to $50 range. Unfortunately, the staff is strict about limited visitors to one flight (even if you offer to pay another $5), probably to discourage the rowdy group spectacle of years past.

However, there is no limit on how many bottles you can buy and take home and they offer their full range of USA and Japanese made products for sale at attractive prices, including organic and extra fine sakes. For those wanting a crash course in sake making, Takara's webpage offers a good overview of the manufacturing process and sake's differing characteristics, including how the different levels of rice polishing affect taste.

Before or after the visit, a good lunch option is Brennan's, located in the nearby historic mission-style 1913 Southern Pacific Railroad Depot under the University Avenue overpass. Known for its hand-carved sandwiches, Brennan's offers filling and reasonably priced pub fair in a classically detailed environment. Amtrak and freight trains still pass by out front.

Important Information:

Takara Sake USA
708 Addison St.
(Between 3rd and 4th street)
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 540-8250
Mon-Sat 12 p.m. - 6 p.m.
Sun 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Brennan's Restaurant
700 University Ave.
(Between 3rd and 4th street)
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 841-0960
Mon-Wed 11 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Thu-Sat 11 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Bar stays open later.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Little Fun Between the Sheets...

Your host recently returned from a short trip to Honolulu and Waikiki. While Hawaii is more known for blended and umbrella style drinks, there are several bastions of cocktail refinement. One of these is the Lewer's Lounge at the Halekulani Hotel on Waikiki Beach.

According to their bartender, the lounge is the only establishment on Oahu to own its own Kold-Draft style ice machine, which makes special hard ice that melts more slowly. While Lewer's cocktail list is not inventive by SF or Seattle standards, they do make reliable classic drinks without the excessive use of sugary mixers. One drink that appears on the menu is the "Between the Sheets," a variation on the Sidecar, and a drink seldom seen today.

While its origin is unclear, the "Between the Sheets" cocktail actually has two variations, one with white rum, and one with Benedictine, a bitter french liqueur. It is the Benedictine version that is most complex, and the one they serve at Lewer's Lounge. For an extra kick, add a few dashes of Regan's Orange Bitters. The general bitterness matches well to the sweetness of the Cointreau and brandy.

Between the Sheets Cocktail

1.5 oz cognac or fine brandy
1/2 oz Benedictine
1/2 oz Cointreau
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
Few dashes Regan's Orange Bitters #6.

Shake with good quality ice in cocktail shaker. Strain into cocktail glass and garnish with an orange twist.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A New Tequila Cocktail: The Sophisticated Gentleman

Today's post will focus on a great, new tequila cocktail. Readers of this blog may recall that your host spoke favorably in January about Kirkland Brand Extra Anejo Tequila. Most extra anejo tequilas are not priced economically enough to use in everyday cocktails, much like you wouldn't use a nice Macallan for a Rob Roy cocktail. However, the Kirkland brand is a great one to experiment with due to its fair price. After tinkering, your host presents you with The Sophisticated Gentleman Cocktail.

Fans of the Manhattan or other darker, traditionally whiskey-based cocktails may find this new cocktail to their liking. It's also slightly sweeter to appeal to a broader audience. While there may be other cocktails with variations on these ingredients, your host has not seen an exact copy in print. Enjoy!

The Sophisticated Gentleman

2 oz Extra Anejo Tequila
1/2 oz Grand Marnier
1/2 oz Punt e Mes sweet vermouth (a great Italian sweet vermouth that sits between other sweet vermouths and Campari in flavor)
1/4 teaspoon of natural vanilla extract
Several dashes Angostura bitters
Flamed orange twist

In a cocktail glass or shaker, combine ingredients and stir with good quality ice. Strain and serve "up" in a cocktail glass. Flame an orange twist over the rim. As with most dark liquor based cocktails, it is best to stir instead of shake, in order to prevent excessive dilution and a watered-down taste. For fans of a more bitter drink, increase the Punt e Mes and Angostura bitters slightly. In fact, Punt e Mes is an ingredient that ties this cocktail together. Using another sweet vermouth may result in a overly sweet drink. Cocktail enthusiasts with a deep liquor cabinet can substitute Navan for the Grand Marnier and vanilla extract (Navan is a newer product by the Grand Marnier company with natural vanilla essence).

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rustic Charm at Donner Pass: Clair Tappaan Lodge

Your host recently spent a night at the rustic Clair Tappaan lodge in Norden, CA, near the Sugar Bowl ski resort off old Highway 40 at Donner Pass. Owned and operated by the Sierra Club, the lodge is a great place for a no frills budget stay while downhill skiing or pursuing other winter activities.

Built in 1934 by Sierra Club volunteers, the lodge has a friendly and casual atmosphere and is located in an area with a typically deep snow pack (see photo). The lodge is named after a prominent Sierra Club volunteer and chapter chair from the early 1900's.

What makes the lodge particularly attractive is the reasonable price, about $60 per night (cheaper for Sierra Club members), which includes three full family-style meals. There is one male dorm and one female dorm, as well as several group dorms and private rooms for couples and families. Regardless of where you stay, bring your sleeping bag. Though the accommodations are bunk beds, the bathrooms and the male dorms have been recently renovated.

While the amenities are basic, there is a communal hot tub, well-stocked library, and large stone fireplace-appointed social hall with ample board games to provide amusement. Meals are served in the functional dining hall, which may bring back memories of Scout of summer camp.

The atmosphere at the lodge can affect the experience. By going mid-week, your host was fortunate enough to have the large 10 bed dorm room all to himself. In fact, there were only 10 guests at the lodge, including a father and son from Switzerland in the USA for an orienteering competition, a chatty man from Mendocino, and several elderly ladies enjoying the snow shoeing and cross country skiing. It's not typically a party place, and quiet hours start at 10 pm. However, weekends typically are much more crowded and booked out weeks in advance, and it is not uncommon for some of the larger group dorms to be occupied by Cub Scout or church groups. Expect to be conversational with your table-mates at dinner, many of whom will have an eco-political slant. Unless debate is your favorite game, choose your conversation carefully.

The food is decent enough. Our dinner included breaded chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, creamed corn, bread, and chocolate cake. A variety of hot drinks are available. Breakfast was french toast, fruit, and coffee. The cooks set out a rather generous buffet of breads, lunch meats, and cheeses, along with fruit, chips and cookies in order to pack our own lunches. Given the volunteer nature of the Sierra Club, every guest is asked to volunteer for a chore throughout their stay, such as helping prepare food, cleaning, or taking out the trash.

For those that are not skiing, the lodge rents snow-shoes and sleds, and there are several cross country and snow-shoe trails right out the back door.

The lodge is located up a short path from the old Donner Pass Road (Highway 40). Parking is available in a large lot across the highway. While plowed regularly, beware that the lot can be slippery for two-wheel drive sedans. It took your host 2 hours to free the car in the morning, after a wheel fell into an ice rut.

The lodge is staffed by friendly Sierra Club employees, who are able to answer questions. In addition to winter activities, the lodge is open throughout the year for those interested in hiking or checking out the old transcontinental railroad tunnels nearby.


Clair Tappaan Lodge
19940 Donner Pass Road
Norden, CA 95724
fax: 530-426-0742

Price: $59.92 per person per night (tax included). 10% discount for Sierra Club and Military Service members. Reservations are best made on their webpage.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Seelbach Cocktail: A Serious Drink for a Serious Palate

The Seelbach Cocktail is likely unfamiliar to most people, which is a shame, since it's a great way to drink sparkling wine or champagne. It is also significantly different and more aggressive tasting than other champagne cocktails, such as the French 75.

The Seelbach was created at the stately Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, KY in 1917. Unfortunately, the recipe was misplaced during Prohibition, and was not uncovered until 1995, when a hotel manager came across the recipe.

The drink is unique for the generous use of bitters, both Angostura and Peychaud's, and as such, may not appeal to those who dislike some degree of bitterness.

While it will be unusual to see this cocktail on a list in San Francisco, most patient bartenders should be able to easily make one with a little guidance.

The Seelbach Cocktail:

1 oz bourbon (a 100 proof bourbon is a good choice)
1/2 oz Cointreau
7 dashes Angostura bitters
7 dashes Peychaud's bitters
5 oz of chilled brut sparkling wine or champagne (a higher quality sparkler will greatly enhance the drink)
Orange or lemon twist for garnish

Add all ingredients to champagne flute, stir gently, and garnish. For a sweeter drink, increase the Cointreau slightly.

For those that make it to KY, information about the hotel can be found here:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Extra Anejo Tequila without the Extra Anejo Price

Costco is often a great place to buy liquor, especially when stocking up for a party or looking for cocktail basics. While their premium liquor selection is often small, the prices are hard to beat. Recently, Costco has entered the realm of private label spirits under their Kirkland label, starting with a vodka made by the same company that produces Grey Goose. The next spirit in this line is an extra anejo tequila, which hit the shelves late last fall.

The extra anejo category is a new one for tequila, only existing as a classification since 2006. These tequilas have been aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels, more than regular anejo tequila that must be aged for a minimum of 1 year. At 3 years, tequila loses most of its fresh agave flavor, and takes on a taste closer to bourbon. Some well known extra anejo tequilas include the Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia and Don Julio 1942. In addition to the aging requirement, most extra anejo tequilas have in common a premium price. The Reserva de la Familia and the 1942 both retail for $80 to $100 per bottle, a high price for a 3-year old spirit.

Enter Costco. Their recently released Extra Anejo tequila breaks this price barrier and retails for $23.99. It's aged for 3 years in American oak barrels in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, by the Fabrica de Tequilas Finos. This company also makes the upscale Tonala brand. While not as smooth as Reserva de la Familia or Tonala, the Kirkland brand does have nice oakey tones, good vanilla sweetness, and a peppery finish. Though it is drinkable straight, an ice cube or two will tame the slight burn. Overall, it is an excellent bargain at this price, and is cheap enough to use in a margarita or other tequila cocktail. It is also the same price as a decent bourbon, and might be a good way to introduce a bourbon drinker to aged tequila.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Your Brief Guide to Bay Area Cured Meats

If you haven't noticed, the Bay Area culinary scene has become more adventurous over the past few years, especially in regard to meat.

A number of establishments have opened specializing in salumi and charcuterie, salumi being the Italian term for cured meats and meat products, often made from pork. In fact, San Francisco has long had a connection to Italian meats, ever since companies such as Molinari & Sons and Columbus Salame Co. were founded in the early 1900s. Those who are on the “whole hog” bandwagon have probably already known about these new places for some time, but several are worth highlighting.

Founded in late 2007, the Boccalone meat factory in Oakland makes some pretty tasty products under the slogan “Tasty Salted Pig Parts”. Owner Chris Consentino, executive chef at Incanto in Noe Valley, makes a range of products including salami, mortadella, pate, and an addictive soft salami called Nduja. Some of their products, such as the spreadable lard, may not appeal to most, but the Nduja is something unique and different. Native to the Calabria area of Italy, Nduja is a spicy, citrusy, and extremely flavorful spreadable salame. Boccalone is the only U.S. producer making the product, and it is next to impossible to find fresh Nduja imported from Italy. It has a pungent, over the top, meaty flavor and is made from ingredients including pork, salt, citrus pulp, spices and red pepper.

Those who are a fan of strong tasting foods and drinks such as English Stilton, Spanish Queso de Cabrales blue cheese, pickled herring, Double IPAs or Islay Scotch whisky will likely appreciate the flavor and complexity. The sausage comes in a natural pig casing, and is great to spread on toasted bread or crackers. Mixing an ounce or so with scrambled eggs and extra sharp white cheddar makes a particularly pungent and flavorful breakfast dish.

The best place to purchase Nduja is at the Boccalone store in San Francisco, located in the Ferry Building market place. At $11 per chub, it's not cheap, but well worth the money. In addition to Nduja, you can buy their other products and an assortment of sandwiches. Create a lasting impression on a date by buying a “Meat Cone” to share, which consists of a paper cone full of various meat delicacies. For those not in San Francisco, Boccalone sells some of their meat products on its web page. A package of two Nduja chubs is $24, plus shipping. Fans of Boccalone's products will also enjoy charcuterie products from the Fatted Calf, which is based at Napa's Oxbow market, but also has a stall at the Saturday Ferry Building farmer's market.

Another new company is 4505 meats, who have created their own version of chicharones (aka pork rinds). 4505's version has a super light texture and mouth feel, similar to a Japanese shrimp cracker. Chef Ryan Farr created the product, and they are fried in rice bran oil. It's fully priced at $3 per 1/2 oz package, but might appeal to those normally not a fan of puffed pork skin of the super market variety, or the typically greasy, heavier type common in many Latin American butcher shops. For a little fun at your next party, supply a bowl of 4505 meats' chicharones, and once they've been eaten, inform everyone that they weren't eating rice crackers. 4505 Meats operates their own booth at the Thursday Ferry Building farmer's market, but also distributes through other fine purveyors.

Across the Bay in Oakland is Adesso, a restaurant/bar devoted to its own house made line of salume. Go during happy hour when they put out a free buffet of small dishes, some of which include their salumi. Your host is not typically a head cheese fan, but Adesso's version is undeniably savory.


Places Mentioned:

1 Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 433-6500

Fatted Calf Charcuterie
Oxbow Public Market
644 C 1st Street
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 256-3684

4505 Meats
1 Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111
(Thursday market only)

4935 Piedmont Ave.
Oakland, CA 94611
(510) 601-0305
Happy Hour: 5-7 pm Monday through Saturday, and the last hour of business every day
No webpage