Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book Review - American Spirit: An Exploration of the Craft Distilling Revolution

Just as I did with beer and wine previously, as I get into enjoying more whiskey, gin, and cocktails, I read.  A lot.  I'm always on the look out for a new book on booze, or cocktails, or the history of drinks, etc.  So it was with pleasure that I picked up this book, whose stated purpose was to give a history of the rise of the craft distilling movement.  The book is written by James Rodewald, former drinks edited of Gourmet magazine.
The book is broken into different chapters covering different regional areas, different types of craft distillers, different types of liquor, etc.  There doesn't seem to be a major rhyme or reason to the different chapters, but they work as a whole.  For me the first chapter grabs you right off the bat: Unexpected Texas, and covers great Texas distilleries Balcones, Garrison Brothers, and Ranger Creek.  Each chapter is like this focusing on a few craft distillers of everything from Whiskey and Bourbon to Gin, to eau de vie and everything in between.  There is a brief history of how the distilleries started, the background of those involved, the struggles faced, the booze they make, and their hopes for the future.  While this book covers the entirety of the states, it's interesting to me how similar many of the struggles were: No state licensing for micro distilleries, no city ordnances, no laws regarding tasting rooms, or selling direct to public, etc.
Within each chapter there are always  couple of side bar pieces covering something specific to that story that give even more background on certain issues that may be challenging small craft distilleries.  There are also various cocktail recipes throughout the book each using one of the ingredients from the chapter.
For me I found this to be a very interesting book, especially looking at it from a comparison with the growth of craft beer, something I know a little bit about.  While there are some similarities, as the book specifically points out there is one big difference.  The growth of craft beer was a direct response to the relatively poor product that macro brewers were releasing.  The flavorless liquid in a can, gave rise to people wanting to experience pale ales, IPAs, sours, stouts, etc.  However, in the liquor world, the macro distillers are making some pretty damn good product.  Buffalo Trace is HUGE, but no one would say they are making flavorless swill.  So why is craft distilling growing the way it is?  I think folks these days enjoy something that is made well, local, and by hand, using local ingredients, etc.  And I think that's where craft distilling has found their niche.  That and doing interesting things with flavors in the case of gin and eau de vie.
There's another issue that is brought up again and again throughout the book and that is the definition of craft distillery.  I really want to talk about this, but I am going to make a separate post about it in the coming days as I think it will take some diving into to really explore things.
So if you're interested in better understanding your favorite local micro distillery, or why craft distilling has become as big as it is, check this book out.

Friday, September 05, 2014

New Beer Thursday: Jolly Pumpkin Weizen Bam

A day late, but not a dollar short.  This week's entry into New Beer Thursday comes from a brewery that I am incredibly excited is now in Texas, the great Jolly Pumpkin brewery out of Michigan.  Jolly Pumpkin is known far and wide for making awesome barrel aged sour and wild ales.  They've been doing it for a long time, well before it became THE thing to do.  Not only that, they do it extremely well.
This particular beer is a traditional farmhouse hefeweizen made with local wild and sour cultures and aged for a time in oak barrels.  Now a traditional German Hefeweizen pours a cloudy yellow, with a thick thick white head, and has notes of clove and banana on the nose and palate.  So with that in mind, I poured the beer.
It pours a bright golden sunshine color, not very cloudy at all.  Its capped by a thin white head that quickly dissipates into a thin film covering the surface of the beer.  The first whiff of the beer brings a hint of cloves and banana, the second brings a souring tartness, hints of barnyard, that one should expect from a beer like this.  The mouthfeel is thinner when compared to a traditional hefeweizen.   Good amount of carbonation, very bright flavors, tart, sour, barnyardy.  Some white pepper, and other spices appear as the beer warms.  Maybe cloves?  No banana.  This is a good beer, very enjoyable and drinkable, but what hurts it for me is calling it a hefe.  Right or wrong I have some expectations when I hear that, and this beer as good as it is, doesn't meet the definition of a Hefe for me with its flavors.  Good sour beer though.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

New Beer Thursday: Southern Star Backwoods Lager

This edition of New Beer Thursday, finds me grabbing a beer not at home, but out at a bar.  The one the only Petrol Station, one of the great craft beer bars in the country.  The beer itself is from relatively local Conroe brewery Southern Star and is a beer that has been out for a couple of weeks at least.
Backwoods Lager is Southern Star's take on a Pre-Prohibition Lager.  What's a Pre-Prohibition lager you ask?  Its a lager that is significantly different than the typical American Adjunct lager that many are used to.  Much more malt based (although pre-pro lagers did use some adjuncts, just not as heavily as the mass produced boys do today).   They were traditionally made with six row pale malts and some flaked maize (corn).  But to emphasize, not in the manner of today's mass produced lagers, this ingredient helped give a little bit of flavor and nuance, helping give strength to the beer.  These pre-pro lagers were also much higher gravity, and much more hopped then what we are used to with respect to American Lagers today.
Backwoods Lager weighs in at 5% ABV and was poured into a typical shaker pint glass.  The color was golden with a thin white head.  Golden, but a bit darker then your typical American Lager.  The nose was of cereal grains, pale toasted malts, fruitiness, and a hint of pinkness.  The mouthfeel is mild, maybe not quite medium bodied.  A much bigger hop profile here than what I senses on the nose.  It finishes nicely dry.  Piney, citrus pith up front, with some sweetened cereal grains in the mid-palate, before finishing crisp, clean, and dry like a good lager should.  Good carbonation.  This is a great beer.  It hits all the right notes of a top notch lager, with the hop presence of a good IPA.  Great job by Southern Star.

Friday, August 15, 2014

First Look: Revelry on Richmond

It seems that there is a new place opening up every day in Houston, touting itself as the next "Great Craft Beer bar."  That title belongs to only a few in this city, but when one does open up I want to go check it out.  And so it was, that after hearing both good things and bad, that I went into Revelry on Richmond this last week.  I had heard rumors of frozen Red Bull and Vodkas, and sports bar, and bro-bar, etc, none of these things say 'Best Craft Beer bar' to me, but I wanted to see things first hand.
I'll be honest, I didn't expect much when I went there, and my expectations lowered even more when I got to the parking lot, and saw all the empty spots blocked by cones....mandatory of my pet peeves.  Alas, I found one spot that wasn't blocked by a cone, parked and headed inside.  Once inside, I found the space dominated by a giant U-shaped bar, with a slew of other tables to one side.  TV's all around the joint, which is fine, I love a good beer bar that can second as a good sports bar.  I took a seat at the bar, and perused the menu.
First, non beer stuff.  They have by the looks of the menu a pretty solid cocktail program (I didn't order one so I can't speak to how well they are made), good level of spirits and liquors.  The food menu also looked interesting, grouped by appetizers, salads, burgers, and other things like pot roasts, pork tacos, etc.  All of them looked really good.
My first order of business though, was to get a beer, and I did, Franconia Lager.  Its early evening, and I want something light and crisp.  Also you can never go wrong ordering  german style beer from McKinney's own Franconia Brewery.   The beer was served in a  shaker pint, clean of any residue (you can't imagine the number of places I've been too where the glasses aren't clean).  So no issues with the beer.  The staff itself seems relatively knowledgeable, in fact one staff person is going for their cicerone, (I think there are only 4 in all of Houston).  Additionally, the staff seems eager to recommend something and as all good beer bars should, willing to let you sample anything that is on the tap wall.  There are 40 taps, with a good sprinkling of Texas beers.  The night I went, there wasn't anything incredibly rare, but there were a few sours, IPA's, porters, and stouts.  A pretty good mix actually.  My one complaint with the beer list?  No cask.
Onto the food.  I ordered an appetizer of fried pickled jalepenos.  Let me tell you, this is the perfect bar snack.  Salty, tart, spicy, crunchy, all it does is make you thirsty for more beer.  Plus it came with a cilantro yuzu dipping sauce.  All in all this was a really really good appetizer.  For dinner I ordered their regular burger which came with house pickled onions, pickles, and a pretzel bun.  The meat was cooked perfectly with a nice amount of pink in the middle.  The pretzel bun contained most of the juices so it tended not to run down my hands.  Really well made burger.  I was a little disappointed in the fries however.  They were seasoned nicely, with a good balance of salt and pepper, but they were a bit mushy and limp for my preferences.
I enjoyed the atmosphere of the place, a mix of folks that already seem to be regulars at this joint that is only today celebrating its grand opening, and young people on dates, and folks like me just popping in for a beer or bite to eat.  I can imagine this place will be packed come football season, and rightfully so with well priced beer and decent (not great) food prices.  Which is really one of my few complaints, the food prices can vary from OK, to downright ridiculously high.  Yes they are large plates over all, but I can think that they could knock a dollar or two off of some items and it would make it more palatable in my mind.  The beer prices though seemed spot on.
One of their biggest attributes has to be their staff.  They seem incredibly passionate about beer, and all they do, eager to help, and I received great service.  I watched other tables, and saw great service as well.
I'll be back again, even if I have to deal with the mandatory valet, it's worth it for the good food, good beer, and good sports that are on TV.  Revelry is a good addition to that neighborhood, and I imagine with all the new apartments, and townhouses going in, it will end up being a great joint for those living there to walk to.
As hesitant as I was when I walked into the place, and it's by no means perfect, I give it a thumbs up, and will continue to watch and see how it evolves.  Does it take a step up and truly become what it wants to be, or does it slide down to be a neighborhood 'bro-bar'.  Time will tell and I hope it steps up to its potential.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

New Beer Thursday: New Republic Whipsaw

For this week's edition of New Beer Thursday, I reached for a Texas Brewery that is relatively new to the Houston market.  The beer however, is very new as I believe its only been available for a week or so.
New Republic is from College Station, and Whipsaw is their Double IPA offering. The first thing I notice about the beer is the label and all the great information on it.  For example, ideal serving temp: 54 degrees, parings: carrot cake, late nights, and good friends.  ABV: 8%, IBU: 84.  The final piece of info was the hops used.  There were 4 hops used in total and they were:
Columbus: a very typical hops for DIPA's, with high bittering potential.  Sharp and pungent.
Cascade: gives aromas of floral, citrus, grapefruit and pine needles.
Centennial: A high buttering hops with floral and citrus notes.
Magnum:  High bittering hops, with spice and citrus notes.

The beer pours a reddish copper with a thick taupe colored dense foamy head.  The nose is of pine resin, orange peel, marmalade, white pepper, a sticky smell if that makes sense.  The mouthfeel is medium bodied, but creamy.  It tastes almost sticky, coating the tongue, grapefruit, orange marmalade, tangerine.  Some slight toasty notes from the malts, but this is all hops.  Peppery, spicy, almost a funky astringency at the finish.  Incredibly hop forward, this one is a must to drink fresh as I have to think after the hop flavors go, its going downhill fast.  The finish is a slightly off putting to me, but not something that I wouldn't recommend looking out for.  Good solid DIPA.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bar Review: Julep

One of the most talked about and anticipated cocktail bars of recent memory has got to be newly opened Julep on Washington Avenue.  Julep is the brainchild of the Clumsy Butcher group, the folks behind Anvil, Pastry War, Blacksmith, Hay Merchant, among others.  However, this is really the baby of bartender extradonaire Alba Huerta who has been around the Houston cocktail scene for a few years now.  She helped Bobby Heugel with Pastry War, but as you can tell when you walk into Julep, this is definitely hers.  People have been eagerly anticipating the opening of Julep since it's announcement last year.  However, as with most things, getting the bar ready to open didn't go as planned.  But, they didn't just sit around waiting for things to happen.  Once the bar was built out, and they were just waiting on the city inspections to get finalized, Alba and company were able to use the time to train the staff.  The time and effort that they have taken in training and educating the staff is seen in every aspect of the service.
When you walk inside you notice a few things off the bat: lots of white walls, lace over the windows, lots, and lots of copper.  My first impression, was one of walking into an old Southern kitchen.  A kitchen that is with a lot of booze.
I must say, that in the short time it's been open, I've really fallen in love with this place from a cocktail perspective.  Well a cocktail and food perspective really. As one would expect, the cocktails are all top notch, many with liquor infusions, interesting herbs and spices, or fun takes on classics.  My personal favorite in the latter category is the spiced Julep.  This drink is made by dropping a tea strainer that has been filled with spices, and soaking in bourbon, lighting it on fire, and dropping it into a Julep cup full of the traditional julep ingredients, and then topping it off with a mound of ice.  A showy drink to be sure, but one that tastes amazing with the spices really playing off the bourbon, mint and sugar of the traditional mint julep.  My favorite on the former is probably the Cherry Bounce Sour, made with cherry bounce (a cherry infused liquor), Old Grand Dad, lemon, turbinado, angostura bitters, and egg white.   Truly an exquisite drink.

Make no mistake, while, the cocktails reign supreme, the food is a must try as well.  Unlike other cocktail bars, Julep has a focus on seafood, especially cold servings, so you will see oysters from around the country being served (hopefully some good gulf oysters in a couple of months will show up on the menu), along with smoked trout, smoked salmon and very uniquely, full caviar service.  These are all reasonably priced options, well with the exception of the caviar which runs about $120.00.  However, as good as some of these are, none of them are my favorite on the menu.  That falls to the simple, but wonderful, hush puppies.  For $4 you get a small plate of crispy on the outside, still moist, on the inside, hushpuppies served with a serrano aoli.  The aoli is OK, and maybe the one inconsistency I've noticed. One visit it had no apparent kick, the next, there was just enough heat to keep me interested.  But honestly?  The hushpuppies were perfect by themselves.

Behind the bar is plenty of small batch liquors, a great line up of bourbons, whiskeys and ryes including more of the cult bourbon Pappy Van Winkle than I think I have ever seen in one place.  There is also gins, rums, etc to balance things out.  One of the things that I've appreciated is that I've been able to get some really good old fashions, by just asking a bartender to surprise me with something at the mid level price point (they've hit the price point perfectly both times I've done this, which hasn't necessarily been the case at other places).
Lastly, Julep has a small but interesting wine menu, and promises a draft beer menu soon, but honestly, you aren't going for beer or wine, your going there for the cocktails.

So, sit at the bar, watch the bartenders meticulously make each drink, don't be afraid to ask what a strange ingredient may be, you may get a taste, at the very least, they will be more than happy to talk to you about what they are making, and what's in each cocktail.  That really may be why I enjoy this place so much, so that everyone I have met so far at Julep, is passionate about making good drinks, does it well, and also takes the time to talk to customers, educating them as well.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

New Beer Thursday: Odell Fifty-Niner

Now that I am slowly, but surely getting back into blogging, one thing I am going to start instituting is a weekly (hopefully) New Beer Thursday post.  This will be an opportunity for me to write and review either a beer new to me (maybe a classic beer, that for one reason or another I have never gotten around to drinking), or a beer new to the Houston area.  For the first one, it will be the latter, a beer new to the area.  In fact its  a beer from a brewery that is relatively new to Houston, although one that I have been enjoying for quite sometime, Fort Collins, Colorado's own Odell Brewing.  I can't tell you how excited I was when I heard that Odell was finally coming to Texas.
This particular beer, Fifty-Niner is part of Odell's Cellar Series and celebrates the great Colorado Gold Rush of 1859.  The beer weighs in at 10% ABV, is aged on oak staves and is 100% bottle conditioned with brettanomyces.  Before I get into my review, I need to make a quick comment.  After I had this beer, I was doing some reading of other reviews and many mentioned disappointment over the beer not being sour.  I tend to think there is some confusion from folks when they see the term Brett Beer.  Brett beers are NOT sour beers.  They are two different things (note that brett beers can be sour beers, but that is not due to the brett).  Brett beers are traditionally funky, and dry, not tart, sour, etc.
OK, enough of that onto the beer.
Serving Vessel: Ommegang Chalice.
The beer pours a deep copper color with a thin white head that quickly dissipated into a thin lacy film sitting atop the beer.  The nose is fruity and funky, a bit of pineapple, a bit of barnyard.
The mouthfeel is medium bodied, a bit syrupy.  Sweet up front, almost cloying.  Pineapple, vanilla, hay, again a hint of barnyard or horse blanket (or what I imagine horse blanket to taste like as I've never stuck one in my mouth).  A hint of lemony brightness, before a dry somewhat oaky finish.  I keep going back to that initial syrupy texture and the cloyingness.
This beer really has me struggling.  There are parts of it a I really enjoy.  The beer struggles and sometimes succeeding in finding a balance, but then the next sip is full of cloying syrup.  I really like the finish of the beer, but the up front its just so sweet.  Odell's is a brewery I love, but this one disappoints a bit.  Its OK, but it should be great.  I'm going to buy another bottle and give it a year to see what that does.  I think there is good structure, and with the residual sweetness and ABV, this one should age well.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Craft Spirits Cocktail Class - Pastry War

This past Saturday I took the opportunity to take part in the monthly cocktail classes hosted by Anvil and The Pastry War.  These classes led by owner Bobby Huegel cover many different topics, sometimes specific spirits, sometimes a certain theme.  The latter was the case this last saturday when I showed up in the long shotgun shaped bar Pastry War. The theme, "Craft" spirits.
As each person picked out their spot in the bar, we looked down at a place mat full of booze and one already poured cocktail.  The list of spirits we were to taste:

Ransom Old Tom Gin
Clear Creek Douglas fir Eau de vie
Leopold Brothers New England Cranberry Liquor
Germain-Robin Reserve Brandy
Tempus Fugit Creme de Menthe
Vya Sweet Vermouth
Hudson Single Malt Whiskey
Colonel E. H. Taylor Single Barrel Bourbon
Laird's 12 Year Apple Brandy

As I absorbed the list I could feel a smile spreading across my face, since many of these spirits I hadn't had a chance to try.  Which is one reason I went to the class.  I admit, that although I have ready quite a bit regarding spirits and cocktails, I haven't had as much opportunity to taste a ton of different things and I knew a class like this would give me a great chance to experience new tastes.

The class started with us starting at all those glasses filled with a spirit, and a Last Word cocktail (Gin, Green chartreuse, Maraschino, Lime) to start sipping while folks finished filing in.  Bobby started off introducing the class and discussing what craft meant.  This lead to Bobby getting on a bit of a soapbox (not surprising), of the many times spirits can call themselves "craft" but be far from what one would consider craft.  To me, this sounds just like the craft beer industry, where there is a lot of fake craft beer out there.  In the spirit world this often means labeling a bottle something like "Texas Whiskey" when the whiskey, may only be bottled in Texas, but is distilled and aged somewhere else.

After Bobby's discussion on craft spirits, we began tasting the spirits, starting with the Old Tom Gin.  Old Tom is traditionally a sweeter gin than the Dry British Gins like Beefeater, and this one from Oregon even saw a little time in oak barrels (about 3-6 months).  Bobby recommended using this for a cocktail like the Martinez (Gin, Sweet Vermouth, Maraschino, bitters).
Next up was the Clear Creek Douglas fir Eau De Vie.  First thing was to define Eu De Vie, which is Water of life.   This is a spirit that is infused with fir branches, and wow did it smell like it.  Amazing nose, but incredibly hot.  The one thing I kept thinking about regarding this one was how interesting it would be mixed into a base martini.
We then tried out the Leopold Cranberry liquor.  Leopold Bro's is from Denver, and makes some outstanding spirits. I am a huge fan of their gin, both regular and Navy strength.  Really outstanding stuff.  The cranberry liquor was dangerous.  Not to sweet, very little boozy flavor, and very easy to drink.  I could definitely see drinking this over ice, or in some wintery cocktail.

Next we tried our second cocktail of the night, The Stinger (brandy, Creme De Menthe), which was really interesting combination of flavors, but I did feel the creme de menthe tended to over power the drink.
We then tried the brandy and the creme de menthe separately.  I really enjoyed that aspect of the class.  Getting to taste the spirits independently, then combined helps you see how each spirit imparts their unique personality into a drink.
I am a huge fan of good vermouth, especially as a summer drink, just over ice, maybe with an orange slice, so I enjoyed the next tasting, even though I had tried Vya many times in the past.  One of the new waves of American Vermouths, this is definitely one to seek out.
Next up was the other spirit I had tried before, Hudson Single Malt Whiskey.  This is a good, albeit not cheap whiskey.  Definitely wasn't my favorite, but I've actually been underwhelmed by a lot of the Hudson offerings.  Not bad per se, but not something I would seek out for the price.
Now the last two offerings I was really excited to try, and when I had my first sip of E.H. Taylor's 12 year, I wasn't disappointed as this was a really enjoyable bourbon.  Smooth, just a tad sweet, a little heat, vanilla, oak, very very nice.  Once again, we were then able to try a cocktail that utilized the previously tasted spirit.  The cocktail presented to us was one of my favorites, and frankly one that every home bartender should know: The old fashioned.  In it's simplest form, its spirit, sugar, water (or ice), bitter.  In our specific case we had Weller 107, turbinado syrup, and Angostura, but really you can take most any combination of spirit, sweetener, and bitter and put your own twist on it.
Our final spirit of the day was the Laird's 12 year Apple Brandy.  I've had some Laird Applejack in the past, but never this offering.  All I can say is APPLES!  This was really delicious, and something you could easily sip on over ice, or neat, or put into some interesting cocktails.

All in all the class was incredibly enjoyable.  Bobby is a passionate host, that is more than willing to share some of his knowledge and have open discussions throughout.  I felt I left the class having learned a little knowledge, as well as gaining a lot of taste experiences which was my own personal goal.
The class was $55, included the three cocktails and samples of the spirits above along with a serving of tamales for each table.  I consider the class definitely worth the money, and I will keep my eyes open to attend classes in the future.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I'm Baaaaaacccckkkkkk!!!!

Yeah, I know I've said it before, but this time, I think it might just stick.  I'm getting back in the blogging game, but this time it will be a little different.  During the time I stopped blogging, I actually stopped drinking as much beer (I know, I know hard to believe).  But don't fret, I didn't sit around and do nothing.  Instead I sought out new things, focusing in on cocktails and whiskey, gin and rum.  As I did with beer, I began reading copious amounts of books, buying different bottles of liquor and things to mix with them.  Trying out new combinations.  As I did with beer I sought out things I could do myself, and made a line of bitters that I could add to my cocktails.  This time away from beer, helped give me a greater appreciation for other things, that I had many times for one reason or another turned away from.
It has also given me more things to write about, which is one reason why I am back on here.  And to answer your question, NO, I am not going stop writing about beer, I am just adding things like cocktails, and liquor to the blog.  I may also throw things like reviews of coffee shops, cocktail bars, beer bars, etc into the mix as well.  Houston is seeing an incredible growth of late, in the addition of coffee shops or cafes, and more and more craft beer bars are popping up (it's not surprising that folks are riding the wave, but let's see if they are doing as good a job as some of the original craft beer bars are still doing).  I want to do what I have always done on this blog, write about things I love, whether it's beer, wine, cocktails, whiskey, coffee, food, Houston, whatever.   I'll give you my thoughts, and hope to hear from you as well.  Additionally, I'm going to try to keep track of the things that are going on around Houston with respect to cocktails, and beer on the right hand side of the blog under Happenings in Houston.  Lastly, if you know of good local blogs that I should link to, please let me know.
I'm glad to be back and I hope you enjoy the blog and the new focus.