North Carolina Beers

beer1Proposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

It’s the first of two beer weeks for us. One could argue that is just a way to prove we’re not too savvy about other beverages, but it was intended to give each of us chance to pick out 6 micro-brews for each other and take a short break from cocktails.

This week was my turn to send David those beers and I decided to concentrate on NC brews. Like the regions of Scotland (okay that may be my fantastical view), I divide NC into mountains, piedmont and coast when choosing favorites. There is at least one beer from each area, although the piedmont is overrepresented since more of them are bottled and distributed. In no particular order these are the beers that I sent:

Weeping Radish Ruddy Radish. Weeping Radish is located in the community of Grandy on the coast of NC and is the oldest currently operating brewery in the state. Their beers are hard to get, but luckily folks know I enjoy them and are nice enough to get me some when they are near the Outer Banks. In this case I can’t review Ruddy Radish since the bottle I sent was the only one I had. Most of their beers are German style, but descriptions of this call it either an American Amber or Red Ale. My favorite beer from this brewery is Black Radish which is described as a Schwarzbier. I drank all of those though.

Foothills Torch Pilsner and Cottonwood Frostbite. These beers are together because they are both made at Winston-Salem’s Foothills Brewing since Foothills purchased the Cottonwood brands (that originated in Boone) when they bought brewing equipment from an older craft beer brewer. The pilsner is a true Czech style one and was chosen since David prefers, or at least I think he prefers, less hoppy beer than I do. That said, Frostbite is a seasonal Black IPA made with a roasted malt of barley and wheat. While it has an added bitterness from the hops, that is balanced from the flavors introduced by the roasted malt. Frostbite is my favorite among those I sent.

Big Boss Blanco Diablo. This one is a Witbier with orange peel and coriander added for flavor. Once again this was intended to balance some of the other choices with a lighter flavor and the option to garnish (it would an orange slice in our house even if some folks think that is beer sacrilege) or even make a cocktail of some type with the beer.

Olde Mecklenburg Fat Boy Baltic Porter. Another seasonal beer, Fat Boy is brewed in Charlotte where I live. Olde Mecklenburg follows the German roots of large parts of this area and they adhere to the purity rules of German beer making. Baltic Porter falls under the lager group and is slightly different from the English style porter. In this case, Fat Boy had a surprising amount of different flavors but was smooth like you would expect a porter to be.

Highland Thunderstruck Coffee Porter. Another porter, but in this case the English style with the added benefit of incorporating another beverage love of David’s—coffee. Highland is located in the micro-brew capital of NC, Asheville, and as such is just one of many offerings available from that city. My favorite beers from Highland are the Kashmir IPA and the seasonal Devil’s Britches IPA but both live up to the IPA hoppiness that I was trying to avoid in my selections for David. This porter, like their Oatmeal Stout and Black Mocha Stout, is perfect proof that dark does not mean strong or bitter. Instead it has the flavor of chocolate to complement the coffee.

What is really hard to believe is that even with six selections, I did not send any from two other favorites. Natty Greene’s Brewery in Greensboro has an incredible variety of beers with consistent excellence, and I think Carolina Brewery in Chapel Hill is the best place to sit and enjoy a pint. The last part could be related to a bias towards that certain part of NC, but the bias does not diminish how good their brewing is.

photo-76Here’s David’s Review:

I’m a more savvy beer drinker than cocktailian—I know the styles, read books about their history, understand different ingredients and preparations, and try to try each type at some time or another. I’ve even brewed my own—unfortunately indifferent—beer.

That said, my ability to review beers falls well short of what I read on Beer Advocate, and I apologize. I won’t have fancy terms to apply and won’t make you taste the beer as you read my descriptions. Damn it, Jim, I’m a writer, not a virtual reality engineer.

And, like an art museum visitor—something I do in addition to drinking—I know what I like more than what’s like-able. I’ve put these beers in reverse order, knowing, as Jonathan suggests, some styles don’t resonate with me. Any pleasing beer of some types would be surprising.

Come to think about it, I’m more snob than connoisseur, so value my remarks as you will:

6. Torch Pilsner (Foothills Brewing): I drank this beer with profound prejudice, I’m sorry to admit. I drink ales instead or lagers, and, when I do drink lagers, like the Vienna or Dortmunder style over Pilsner, which seems so restricted in requirements one seldom differs from another. This brew as “drinkable,” which, to be fair, my wife liked best about it.

5. Fat Boy Baltic Porter/ Gefühl Der Freiheit (The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery): Porters are an acquired taste, and I’ve taken the trouble to acquire it. Yet some, like this one, are quite smoky, using heat to release and change the sugar in the barley. This brew seemed quite barley-y to me, burnt without the proper balance of either sweetness of hoppiness.

4. Thunderstruck Coffee Porter (Highland Brewing Company): As much as I love coffee (it’s difficult to express my affection for coffee), I avoid stouts or porters including “coffee” in their name. A lover and a mistress should never meet. Coffee beer evokes charcoal for me, but this one—while certainly intense—was sweeter, pleasantly heavy without the acid push I usually associate with coffee beers. A surprise. Pleasant.

3. Frostbite (Foothills Brewing): What is it with India Pale Ale these days? The style developed more as a way to prevent spoilage, and now beer drinkers have embraced it to such an extent it crowds out everything else. I was pleased that this beer didn’t have the hoppiness generally associated with the style and the word “black” in its name didn’t mean overcooked barley but a welcome depth. A welcome beer.

2. Bianco Diablo (Big Boss Brewing Company): I confess, two issues concerned me right away—the use of “Diablo,” which is usually an unwelcome sign of potency, and the description on the label “Ale Brewed with Spices.” I’m a purist who loves hops, period. Yet, this beer was wonderful—complex in flavor, one moment spicy and another moment dense and malty. I was surprised again. Loved it.

1. Weeping Radish Red Ale (Ruddy Radish): I’m an ESB (Extra Special Bitter) fan and love session beers (those beers light and engaging enough for a long session of drinking). This one fit my preferences squarely, not so hoppy as to seem medicinal, a little on the sour side, the welcome warmth and complexity that comes from developing malt’s smokiness without burning it. Then again, maybe it’s just the echo of my university’s fight song.

David’s Take: What a pleasure, to try so many wonderful (in their own way) beers. Makes me think of the first time I fell in love.

Jonathan’s take: In the middle of assembling this mix, I made a trip to Denver and had one of the best beers I have ever tasted – Denver Brewing’s Graham Cracker Porter. So many beers, and so little time.

Next Week (proposed by David):

My turn! Even if I can’t get Jonathan to visit me in Chicago, I can introduce him to the prominent and pleasing breweries this city offers. I wish I’d been able to match the variety of styles he offered me, but I hope there will be some illuminating choices among the beers I sent.

Advertisements

A Sling of Sorts #2

Sling2Proposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

While I have no idea why this drink is labeled “#2,” the other part of its tail end, “Of Sorts,” seems important. The name needs “Of Sorts” because purists might be upset it’s called a “Sling” at all. A sling isn’t supposed to be a cocktail, as the term “cocktail” originally classified drinks that, unlike slings (and like this drink), contained bitters. The true sling, which predated cocktails, omitted bitters and featured some sort of alcohol (naturally), some sweetener (sugar or simple syrup), and water (bubbly or still). Most slings now contain fruit juices—especially the most famous Singapore Sling—but juices weren’t originally required. One site I visited said a sling must contain nutmeg to be a sling.

It’s a free country, and you purists, if you’re listening, have a perfect right to scoff at my not-so-savvy rube-ish-ness. However, I also have a right to say that attempts to maintain an earlier order often seem desperate, like insisting shorts aren’t really pants because they don’t reach your shoes or that harmonicas aren’t instruments because there’s no fingering. Words shift their meaning and, besides, I didn’t name this drink. All drinks fit under the umbrella of “cocktail” in this new golden age of mixology. My message to purists: get over it and join the modern world.

Still, I have to admit there’s a lot of perverse variation in this sling. It contains not only bitters (the original recipe called for Bolivar bitters, but Angostura is a type of Bolivar bitter), but also Aquavit, hardly your typical spirit, and Port, which probably has no business going near a cocktail, much less something called a sling.

Maybe this drink is yet another demonstration (as if I needed one) of my inner mad-scientist. I like trying stuff. Ask my kids about cookies made on the grill. It’s fun finding out what happens. I figure the worst outcome is discovering what doesn’t work. Ask my kids about cookies made on the grill.

Mistakes are useful. How often do these wild forays into randomness bring positive results? My lifetime success rate, I’d say, is about 30%. Not enough for most, but enough for me. If we’re out to enlarge our mixology palette and have Aquavit in our bars, why not use it? Doesn’t everyone want to brag about drinking something garnished with a fennel frond?

Here’s the recipe (adapted generically):

  • 1.75 oz Aquavit
  • .75 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
  • .75 oz Simple Syrup
  • .5 oz Port
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • 2 oz Seltzer

Instructions: Shake all ingredients but the seltzer over ice. Add seltzer and double strain into collins glass over fresh ice. Garnish with a Fennel Frond.

Sling2aHere’s Jonathan’s Review:

So, here we are back to the traveling Aquavit. Combined with Port and bitters that can’t be found in Charlotte and I had to wonder what David was doing to us. It ends up he was sending a Valentine to Spring and the hope for warmer weather.

I had fled Charlotte this week for the warmer climate of Denver, yes that is in the correct order of places, only to return to the lingering remnants of the storm. Our weather is nothing compared to Chicago, but there has already been enough cold and now snow that I am ready for the longer, warmer days that are hopefully on the way.

This cocktail is a wonderful prelude to those days. It has been written many places that the best drinks are a combination of many ingredients, each enhancing the others. That’s true in this case. The Aquavit stands out, yet the other ingredients don’t disappear. I wish I was able to locate the Bolivar bitters, but the orange bitters I used acted as a perfect counterpoint with the simple syrup and lemon juice. Add a little seltzer and suddenly it was spring, even if my picture this week says otherwise. The final touch was the lovely color which I can only assume David intended to honor Valentine’s Day.

Jonathan’s Take: This could be a staple of spring and summer cocktails even with its odd ingredients.

David’s Take: A great discovery and worth revisiting, especially since I still have plenty of Aquavit.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

We started this project as beer drinkers and will stray from our cocktail mission to send each other samples of micro-brews. I have a cross section of NC beers to send that I will introduce and for which David can provide an opinion.

The Vesper

20140208_175743_resizedProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

There are a few themes to our cocktail choices. Not surprisingly for novices, we have tried a number of classics like last week’s Manhattan. The most common cocktail glass choice has been some variation on the coupe. Odd liqueurs, fortified wines and herbals have all become more commonplace in our combined bars. Cocktails are best matched to the correct setting and situation. Finally, there has been a literary lean in the choices that has included a nod to Hemingway that lead to the author of a book on his drinks visiting and commenting on this site.

This week’s cocktail, the Vesper, combines many of those themes. The drink’s origin, at least the undisputed part, is Ian Fleming’s first James Bond book Casino Royale. It is a variation on the classic martini served in a coupe. The ingredients are gin, vodka and a fortified wine, Kina Lillet, so obscure that it is no longer made although there are recommendations for a substitute.

The recipe that I used is very close to one recommended by Ted Haigh as translated from 007’s precise instructions to a bartender:

3 parts gin (Gordon’s for Bond but Boodles in this case based on Haigh’s recommendation)
1 part vodka (Tito’s since it is grain based which I will explain below)
½ part Lillet Rose’ (Blanc is one substitute, Cocchi Americano another)
Twist of lemon as garnish

Combine liquids, shake with ice (to make sure it is very cold and perhaps slightly diluted by the melt), strain and garnish with the twisted lemon rind.

James Bond dictated the recipe to the bartender in a casino bar. He then tasted it and was so satisfied he decided it would later need a proper naming. His only quibble, consistent with the discernment associated with the character, was that a grain-based vodka would be an improvement over the potato based one the bartender used. That was splitting hairs by Bond’s own assessment, although he used a French expression (“mais n’enculons pas des mouches”) that is much more colorful than splitting hairs. I’ll leave the translation to everyone’s Google skills.

This is a drink that needs a scene like that painted by the author Fleming. He placed it in the casino bar as Bond meets his CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter, for the first time. I felt like it was most appropriate for the waning daylight hours of a warm day. Perfect for sipping while the light slipped away and the cool of the night wandered in.

photo 2-16Here’s David’s Review:

I’m no martini man, classic or otherwise. I’ve had a few—surprisingly many for a person who has never acquired a taste for them—but perhaps I’m simply not dry enough or droll enough or sophisticated enough or just too coarse. I would be the worst Bond ever, worse than Timothy Dalton and much worse than George Lazenby. Gin is wonderful, vodka is—to my taste-buds—flavorless whether it’s grain, potato, or kitchen refuse, and Lillet (I used Blanc) seems quite pleasant. Lemon is good too.

Still, bringing the coupe to my lips and greeted by that familiar solvent smell, I had to hope their sum would be greater than the parts. My experience with martini-type drinks leads me to expect the initial burn of ethanol and the secondary warmth of nearly instant inebriation.

Okay, that’s not so bad, but it’s also not the sort of encounter I seek. Is it wrong to want a more disguised purpose?

The Vesper needed slow and steady sipping and very careful savoring. I tried to detect the separate components and monitor their influences on one another. I invoked all my senses as everyone tells me to and awaited the lift that invariably arrives after the first few swallows.

Still, here’s my verdict: I’m sorry.

Before you sigh and huff, Martini lovers, I want you to know it’s me. One of the only Latin phrases I know by heart is “De gustibus non est disputandum,” or “There’s no disputing matters of taste.” I’m not giving up on martinis—quite the contrary, I mean to figure out at last what others see in them—but I can’t pretend. I’d rather have bourbon on the rocks.

But, hey, a silver lining: I’ve made friends with the spirits expert at my local Plum Market, and she persuaded me to try a different (read: more expensive) type of vodka, Karlsson’s Gold, which is refined exactly once. Most distillers create vodkas refined over and over to the point of clear and clean consistency, but this one actually has a sort of flavor softer than you’d expect, if you can understand that. Granted, it’s potato and not grain (as Bond prefers) and didn’t redeem this drink for me, but it was a good discovery, something I can look forward to using again.

Jonathan’s take: Completely mixed reviews in my household on this one. It is definitely for martini lovers and demands the right setting.

David’s take: It’s me. It’s me. Martinis are just not my thing.

Next Week (proposed by David):

I’ve been feeling guilty about making my brother wander the planet in search of Aquavit and have been thinking about ways to make his search worthwhile. I’ve decided on a cocktail called A Sling of Sorts #2, which seems to me suitably arcane, involving simple syrup, port, and seltzer. As we turn toward spring (a Chicagoan can hope, can’t he?), the light character of this drink might be welcome….

The Manhattan

photo-74Proposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

The colorful but unlikely story of the Manhattan’s origins says that, in the early 1870s, during a banquet in New York hosted by Winston Churchill’s mother (Lady Randolph Churchill), Dr. Iain Marshall invented the cocktail at the Manhattan Club. So popular was the drink that people started ordering it by the name of the club, hence “The Manhattan.”

Honoring Samuel J. Tilden is also in there somehow.

Because Lady Randolph was pregnant and elsewhere, many other stories abound, including one that places it in 1860 at a bar on Houston Street. Whatever. With libations, you begin to believe someone was bound to discover it eventually.

Whatever you guess about the Manhattan, it’s certainly one of America’s basic cocktails, appearing regularly in Mad Men and in bars all over. The New York Times calls it “The boss of all cocktails” (naturally) and says, “Unlike other cocktails that have recently been roused from long hibernation, the Manhattan never really slumbered, having been kept drowsily awake through the lean years of cocktaildom by French-cuffed businessmen and other habitués of old-guard hotel bars and private clubs.”

Sounds awfully snooty. However, here in Chicago we’ve having Manhattan Week (which, Chicago-style, has been going on since January 22nd), with several bars offering their own variations on the classic. I gave the classic to Jonathan, though, like me, he explored a bit.

Here’s the basic recipe:

3/4 oz sweet vermouth
2 1/2 oz bourbon whiskey
1 dash Angostura® bitters
1 maraschino cherry
1 twist orange peel

x
Combine the vermouth, bourbon whiskey, and bitters with 2 – 3 ice cubes in a mixing glass. Stir gently, don’t bruise the spirits and cloud the drink. Place the cherry in a chilled cocktail glass and strain the whiskey mixture over the cherry. Rub the cut edge of the orange peel over the rim of the glass and twist it over the drink to release the oils but don’t drop it in.

The variety I tried (along with the classic… what can I say?) came from the Siena Tavern and replaces the Vermouth with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, which the restaurant calls, “The Rolls Royce of vermouths.” The recipe also adds 2 dashes of Regan’s orange bitters and a garnish of orange peel, but I didn’t have that (and it was snowing hard) so I substituted Scrappy’s Grapefruit Bitters and grapefruit peel. I’m not really sure, after all the changes, whether I had a Manhattan at all, but there it is.

And here’s Jonathan’s review:

-1Sometime back in the dark ages, the laws of North Carolina permitted the purchase of beer at age 18 but restricted hard liquor to those over 21. I was between those ages when I accompanied my friend, Barry, to New York to help his sister move. Not one to miss an opportunity, I ordered a Manhattan in a Manhattan restaurant. The problem was that I had meant to order a Long Island Iced Tea but didn’t know any better. I was also too proud to admit my mistake and slowly, very slowly, sipped the most bitter and strong drink I had tasted up to that point.

This is a cocktail that has continued to intrigue particularly after reading the guide to bitters and their use in cocktails. David’s link to Chicago’s Manhattan Week also piqued interest in all the varieties offered.  I decided that I would keep close to the basic recipe but try a couple of other combinations. The final selection (I shared with others) was the basic recipe using bourbon, the same basic recipe with rye and served on the rocks, and finally a version with wheat whiskey (Bernheim Original) and peach bitters instead of angostura.

All of the options successfully recreated the drink that I remember. It is a sipping drink no matter what your level of sophistication. The mix of spirit and vermouth was somewhat diluted in the rocks version, but those stirred with ice and strained demanded strict pacing to enjoy them. This drink is a classic for a reason, and allows the drinker to savor the base liquor. For that reason, it almost demands that a quality brand be used as opposed to drinks where the other mixers make the use of a basic spirit more than reasonable.

Jonathan’s take: Much better than my first experience with this cocktail. I look forward to a few more variations on the classic.

David’s take: I’m with Jonathan here. I like the idea that a cocktail might have so many iterations, so much potential for improvisation and discovery.

Next week Proposed by Jonathan:

One of my brothers-in-law is the biggest James Bond fan(atic) that I know. The classic Bond line is a vodka martini “shaken not stirred”, but the original drink came from the first book – Casino Royale. It was a cocktail made with gin, vodka and Kina Lillet that was ultimately called the Vesper.