Articles in Drinking
If the heel of the Boot, Apulia — Puglia in Italian — has long lagged behind other Italian regions in terms of modernization, parts of it have nonetheless become havens for the likes of royals, film stars and cognoscenti. How could it be otherwise for a peninsula surrounded by 500 miles of coastline and lapped by the pristine waters of two seas? Still, its heart beats to an ancient tempo, heedless of the increasing tourist invasions. This is Greek Italy, and it is steeped in its past. Nowhere is that more striking than at the Pugliese table.
Once upon a wine
On a recent tour of the region’s wineries with an American delegation of importers eager to learn about the ambitious undertakings of a new breed of producers, I found vintners at once devoted to the preservation of their traditions and determined to make unique world-class wines. Whereas previous generations geared their production toward volume of output for foreign markets (mainly France as well as northern Italy) at the expense of quality — a practice that goes back to the Phoenicians — today’s winemakers tend relatively small vineyards and grow native grape varietals barely known outside the immediate area. The consensus among the dozen buyers in our midst was that the wines were good — some very, very good — while selling for less than other wines in their class.
Terroir, terroir, terroir
Climatic conditions vary throughout Puglia. On the northern plateaus, known collectively as the Murge, the winters are temperate and the temperatures cooler than they are in the Salento, the bottom of the heel, which can be convection-hot in summer, though cooled somewhat by the play of sea currents and breezes blowing across the Adriatic from the Balkans. But overall the region is perhaps the hottest in Italy, baked by the favugno, as the dry wind that blows in from Africa is called here.
In step with their forebears, many of the vintners I met said that, by working with the natural conditions and the native grapes that thrive there — such as Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia — they avoid the soil-punishing practices of modern growing techniques. “We are linked to the traditions of our area,” said Dr. Marina Saponari, sommelier at Valle dell’Asso in Santeramo in Colle, Bari, a limestone plateau in the Murge. “We don’t irrigate or add water at all, because too much humidity causes fungus; we work with the soil, not against it, (plowing) in a horizontal direction to retain the moisture naturally.” “Besides,” said Giuseppe Bino, an oenologist at Vigneto Amastuola in Martina Franca, “organic methods are so much better for your health. And when the wines are aged naturally, you taste real grapes.”
Filippo Montanaro of Vigneto Amastuola, on the Ionian side of the peninsula, described his family’s dedication to organic practices as a way to at once revitalize abandoned agricultural lands and recover an indigenous archeological site that dates to the Bronze Age. Subsequent civilizations inhabited the same high plateau, a strategic point overlooking the Gulf of Taranto from which, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Greece and Calabria. Amastuola’s vines and fruit orchards today carpet the soil in which the Greeks planted grapes and olive trees 2,000 years ago. On the estate, a 15th-century masseria — an ancient Apulian farmhouse where raw ingredients were processed into everything from wine and oil to dairy products, salumi, bread and preserves — is being restored to function as it once did, said Montanaro, whose father, Giuseppe, acquired the 100-hectare estate (almost 250 acres) in 2003. The family has launched an ambitious restoration, including the revitalization of long-neglected 800-year-old olive trees. “Family tradition is very important,” said Giuseppe Sportelli, commercial director and husband of Ilaria (one of three Montanaro siblings that help manage the property), explaining that the monumental project was not just work but a “passione.” Giuseppe Montanaro himself finds that explanation inadequate. “It goes beyond enthusiasm,” he explained, “It is the desperation that the man of the south feels that makes miracles like this happen.”
Food of the ancients
Like these winemakers, local chefs also honor the past, looking to the ancestral cooking of their grandmothers for inspiration. I learned the Pugliese mantra of “homegrown and homemade” early, from my paternal grandparents — poor emigrants to America from the very landscape I have described. Some things have changed since they abandoned the fields of Toritto, in which they had toiled as sharecroppers, for lack of enough food for themselves. And some things have not. “Our cooking is based on a paisana (peasant) tradition,” said Anna Gennari of Conzorzio Produttori Vini Manduria, a 400-partner cooperative of Primitivo grape growers in Manduria. “The cooking was simple and not much different throughout the provinces because Puglia was poor,” said Saponari, who is not only a sommelier but also a well-known cooking teacher in Bari.
Cutting-edge Michelin-starred restaurants have been making headlines in recent years for pioneering menus sourced from their local terroir, but Pugliese chefs have always done so. They are weaned on the ancestral flavors and seductive bitterness of wild dandelion greens, mustards, hyacinth bulbs (Muscari racemosum or lampascioni) and other native plants. Unlike in other regions where the tourist routes are more deeply worn, the heritage foods of Puglia — what the Italians call piatti tipici — persist, whether in hotels, simple trattorie or private homes. These include durum-wheat pasta, either fresh or dried, characteristically flavored with cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), simple tomato sauce, or chickpeas; fava-bean purée eaten alongside cooked bitter greens; the ring-shaped breadsticks called taralli, sweet or savory; calzone-like panzerotti and a panoply of other breads and pastries, baked or fried; vegetables, vegetables, vegetables (but little meat); milky fresh cheeses; and fiery peppers — all dressed, naturally, with the numinous olive oil.
Chefs riding the trend for recycling “trash” food could learn something from these old ways: take the traditional pane arso of the cucina povera (“the poor kitchen”), a dark bread made by blending the flour of charred hard wheat with semolina. The custom of incorporating the two harks back to the feudal-estate system, when peasants collected the scorched grains that remained after the post-harvest burning of the fields. Rich-tasting, with a seductively bitter edge, the bread packs 4,000 years of the people’s history into one bite.
Pranzo della domenica: Sunday supper
It’s on Sunday — a customary day of feasting — when Puglia’s cooks pull out all the stops. This is when the meat dishes come out, and the pasta is sauced with ragù, meatballs and braciole.
Gathering together in Bari with the wine buyers, I ate just these braciole — which the locals call bombette (“little bombs”) in the delightful TerrAnima, a Slow Food-endorsed restaurant dedicated to the dishes of the region (its name translates as “Earth and Soul”). If they sound heavy, perish the thought! They are delicate little rolls of meat, lined with pancetta inside and out and stuffed with cheese, garlic and parsley before they are bundled, tied and roasted.
Here’s to the spirit of the pranzo della domenica. Bring on the bombette and by all means, pour the Primitivo!
Bombette (Little Bombs): Stuffed Meat Rolls
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: About 20 minutes
Total time: About 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Note: These appetizers are traditionally made with horsemeat (not for the likes of former equestrians such as myself), but veal or beef are also used. Whichever you choose, ask the butcher to flatten the meat as thin as possible (1/8 inch is ideal) without tearing it — or pound it yourself if you know how.
1 pound cutlets (scaloppine) from top round of veal, cut into 4 thin slices about 4 inches by 8 inches and pounded to no more than 1/8-inch thick, or 2 half-pound pieces boneless beef top round, pounded to 1/8-inch from 1/4-inch thickness
Extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, peeled and bruised slightly
Fine sea salt
Freshly milled black pepper
16 thin slices of pancetta
2 tablespoons fresh minced parsley leaves
3 ounces fresh, semi-soft caciocavallo cheese, cut into 8 matchsticks
Toothpicks for serving
1. Preheat an oven to 400 F. Select a broiler-proof baking pan large enough to accommodate 8 meat rolls without crowding and grease it lightly with olive oil.
2. Use paper towels to blot the meat dry. Cut each piece horizontally into smaller pieces to yield 8 pieces of meat that are about the same shape and size (about 4 by 4 inches). Rub both sides with the garlic clove (which you can then discard) and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
3. Sandwich 1 piece of meat between two slices of pancetta. Sprinkle one side with some of the parsley and arrange a matchstick of cheese crosswise on the center. Beginning at one end, roll it up, gathering the pancetta along with it as you make the roll and tucking in any meat edges that stick out. Secure the bundle with a toothpick and transfer it to the oiled baking pan. Repeat the procedure with the remaining 7 pieces of meat and place in the pan.
4. Slide the pan onto the middle rack of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and change the setting to broil. Turn the rolls over and place the pan under the broiler to color them lightly, about 2 minutes. Take care to keep the pan juices from flaming. Remove at once, pour any remaining pan juices over the rolls and serve immediately.
Main photo: Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in “The Aeneid.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
Ask a New York history buff about Dorothy Parker or Chief Gowanus and you might hear a discourse on the legendary writer and wit or the leader of the Canarsie Native American tribe. Mention these names to a spirits enthusiast and instead you may be sidling up to a bar and sampling gins from the New York Distilling Company. This Brooklyn-based distillery produces both the Dorothy Parker American and Chief Gowanus New-Netherland gins.
Looking at history
Located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the New York Distilling Company is the brainchild of Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Tom Potter, his son Bill Potter and spirits and cocktails expert Allen Katz. The trio also own the adjacent, 850-square-foot bar and tasting room The Shanty, which overlooks the distillery’s production floor. This full-fledged bar serves mixed drinks made from the New York Distilling Company’s goods as well as other producers’ liquors and beer.
With the New York Distilling Company the men have set out to create exceptional American gins and rye whiskeys. They employ historical recipes for inspiration and the state of New York for their ingredients.
‘Golden era of cocktails’
“Gin and rye are appropriate for the geographic area,” says Bill Potter, master distiller and production manager. He points out that, prior to Prohibition, New York farm distilleries produced these intoxicants from locally grown grains and fruit. He adds, “They are part of the golden era of cocktails, the 1800s.”
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On the 78th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, Dec. 5, 2011, the distillery opened and began selling Dorothy Parker, Chief Gowanus and Perry’s Tot gins. Named for Matthew Calbraith Perry, 1840s commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and a founder of its Navy Lyceum, Perry’s Tot is a traditional navy strength gin.
“So much of what we think of as gin is only one type of gin, the London dry gin,” Potter says.
The juniper-driven London dry gin ranges between 40 to 45 percent alcohol by volume or 80 to 90 proof. Navy strength clocks in at 57 percent or 114 proof. Sometimes referred to as overproof, barrel strength or cask strength, this high alcohol gin imparts both balance and intensity to beverages.
Tapping into craft craze
According to Potter, the plan from day one was to release the gins first. By doing so, the rye whiskey could age for at least three years. To bottle it any sooner would mean that they were proffering a lightly aged, rather than straight, rye. This was not the goal for the distillery.
The timing of their gin and whiskey production couldn’t be better. The U.S. craft cocktail movement is in full swing and nowhere more so than in New York City. With its emphasis on handmade beverages featuring fresh and high quality ingredients, the craft cocktail craze has bartenders reaching for artisanal liquors to feature in their libations.
Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye
Craft producers such as the New York Distilling Company can only profit from this desire for artfully prepared and historically rooted drinks.
Harkening back to the pre-Prohibition period is the distillery’s October 2014 release of Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye. This much-anticipated spirit is the first among the New York Distilling Company’s upcoming rye whiskeys.
Historically, American bartenders created rock and rye by mixing rye whiskey with rock candy sugar syrup and the occasional citrus peel or spice. The goal of this late 19th-century combination was to temper the flavor of a young and unpalatable rye. The outcome was a sweet, amber-colored liquor called rock and rye that quickly became the go-to alcohol “for whatever ails you.”
Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye pays homage to this American standard. Yet, with its tang of sour cherries, warmth of cinnamon and hint of citrus, it stands to become a classic in its own right.
Adding straight rye whiskey
At the Shanty, head bartender Nate Dumas showcases Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye in such house creations as Cave Creek and Martini Robbins. The latter drink pairs Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye with the distillery’s Dorothy Parker American Gin and sweet vermouth. A versatile whiskey, Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye can also be enjoyed neat or on the rocks.
In September, Ragtime Rye will join Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye, Dorothy Parker, Chief Gowanus and Perry’s Tot on the roster of New York Distilling Company originals. Aged for more than three years in upstate New York, Ragtime Rye is the distillery’s first straight rye whiskey.
Recipes created by Nate Dumas, bar director, The Shanty at the New York Distilling Company
1¼ ounces Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye
1 ounce Glenlivet 12-year-old Scotch whisky
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce Real Grenadine
¼ ounce Campari
Shake ingredients over ice and strain into a collins glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with an lemon twist. Serve with a straw.
The Harper’s Ferry
1 ounce Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye
¾ ounce Pierre Ferrand cognac 1840
½ ounce Botran rum
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ oz simple syrup
Shake ingredients over ice and fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Lightly garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.
Main photo: The New York Distilling Company also includes an 850-square-foot bar and tasting room at The Shanty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt
Call it the ideal summer quaff for India Pale Ale lovers: This beer packs hop flavor, yet you can drink a few at a time — and still mow the lawn. Meet Session IPA: It delivers flavor characteristics similar to a standard IPA, but it’s less boozy than American and Imperial IPAs — by as much as half — maxing out at 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). It’s an American phenomenon.
Session IPA is the fastest-growing style in the U.S. craft beer market. At the end of 2010, three Session IPAs were available on U.S. supermarket shelves. By mid-May 2015, that number had grown to 43, market researcher IRI said. What happened? IPA lovers increasingly wanted a beer that delivered lots of hop flavors — but not all the booze. “People were saying: ‘Why does it have to be over 7 percent all the time?’ ” said Jeremy Kosmicki, brewmaster at Founders Brewing Co., a Session IPA pioneer.
By definition, Session IPA ranges from 3.7 to 5 percent ABV. “The trick is to get enough body and backbone to balance out the hop aromas, while keeping the alcohol level down without tasting thin or watery,” said Jack Harris, co-owner of Fort George Brewery.
Click through the following slideshow to find 12 Session IPAs worth trying.
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Main photo: Jeremy Kosmicki, brewmaster at Founders Brewing Co., is a Session IPA pioneer. Credit: Copyright 2015 Founders Brewing Co.
“Oysters are the canaries in the coal mine,” a fourth-generation oysterman once told me as we slogged across the mud flats of Willapa Bay in Washington. The grower was giving me a tour of his vast oyster beds that emerge as if by magic during every low tide. Oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, and the quality of the water they process affects their health … and their flavor. Healthy oysters mean a healthy environment, and when they struggle, they can indicate something dire for the habitat as a whole.
The oyster I swallowed had the precise taste of a clean, deep breath of Pacific Ocean air. It was what a gorgeous coastal landscape photo might taste like were it a flavor of ice cream. I understood why M.F.K. Fisher wrote that they were, “more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world,” and why that is a good thing. Then as I grew to understand that these creatures seemed specifically designed by nature, a benevolent creator or both for the task of pairing with splendid wines, I was hooked.
The only thing that remained was how to open the damn things. If you’re daunted by the process as I was, then this quick-start guide to oysters and wine will help you find, pair, unlock and swallow a magical taste of the marine environment, and then chase it with a sip of the best flavors that terrestrial geography has to offer.
Where to find oysters
You can find them at your local supermarket seafood counter. You buy them live, but given the complexity of unlocking them from their secure and encrusted boxes, how do you tell if they’re fresh and have been handled with care?
“Look for a place that sells fresh fish,” says Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Oyster Social, a pop-up mobile raw bar in Portland, Oregon. Look for a counter that sells fish that look and smell fresh, with no fishy odor or bruised flesh. Whole fish should have clear eyes and bright red or pink gills. If the owners take pride in their fish, then the odds are good they’re selling quality oysters.
Restaurants and seafood purveyors buy oysters in mesh bags that are marked with the date of harvest and the location. Ask to see the tag and snap a phone picture for reference. Like great wines, oysters taste like where they come from, so explore the regional differences. The Pacific Northwest, the Atlantic and Gulf are three broad domestic regions to check out, and there are dozens of locales nestled within these.
Finally, shells of fresh oysters should be sealed tight. No gaps or openings. A good proprietor won’t sell you oysters with open shells. If they’re difficult to open, you’re on the right track. This, of course, presents another problem that we’ll tackle later.
Gather the gear
If you’re serving oysters raw, you can do the work of opening them for your guests or share the fun. A good oyster knife is critical, but a screwdriver will work in a pinch (and the experience will drive you to find a good knife all the sooner). Crushed ice is important: From the moment you buy them at the market to when they’re waiting to be shucked and served, oysters should always be kept cool or on ice. Carry a small cooler bag to the market with you. Your vendor will provide the ice.
Mignonettes — fresh dressings — should be prepared in advanced and ready to roll. They can be as simple as lemon juice or your own creative dressing. A dish towel will help you hold the shell and protect your receiving hand from the dull knife blade. Work gloves on your receiving hand are an option to help you grip the shells, which can be both jagged and slippery.
Add a cutting board and a glass of wine and you’ll be geared up to swallow some sea.
A note on mignonettes
A good mignonette, a sauce or condiment for your oysters that is usually made fresh, can heighten the experience. I recommend avoiding jarred cocktail or hot sauces until you get a handle on the flavors of these slippery little critters as these sauces can overwhelm the freshness, but there’s no reason not to prepare some creative mignonettes. Recipes abound that feature rice wine vinegar, shallots, ginger, juniper, cucumbers, lime and more. A pair of options are included below.
Foster follows the rule of always eating the first oyster of the meal unadorned to experience its inherent flavor grounded in the region where it comes from.
And when it comes to oysters and wine, mignonettes are optional. In fact, a good wine sipped as a chaser can be considered a sort of mignonette in and of itself, and you may pick your wine style specifically for this task.
Find the right wine
If you’re eating the oysters unadorned, then a bracing Alsatian-style Riesling is hard to beat. The eye-watering brightness and acidity can act as a dressing. At a recent oyster workshop led by Oyster Social’s Foster, Jess Pierce of Brooks Winery presented the guests with a selection wines ranging from magnificent dry Rieslings to Pinot Gris and dry Muscadet.
“Oysters show their terroir well, so why not pair them with wines that do the same?” Pierce said as she poured wines framed by views of the vineyards where they were grown. More and more domestic producers are making Rieslings and Gewürztraminers in the dry, acidic Alsatian style, though they’re far from the only wine options.
Champagne and sparkling wines provide a lively way to begin any meal, and their acidity and effervescence complement the fresh earthy, tidal flavor of oysters. A transparent Chardonnay that really shows its minerality, like Chablis, is another great match. Laura Anderson, who runs Local Ocean Seafoods, known for its hyper-fresh menu and location directly across from the fishing fleet in Newport, Oregon, likes to pair half-oak, half-steel Chardonnays from Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge AVA: “I look for a crispness and minerality to balance with the wildness of the oysters,”she says.
The old saw is to drink white wines with shellfish, but there’s no need to limit yourself. Reds can work just fine. A light, slightly under-ripe Pinot Noir from a cool year in Oregon, New Zealand or Burgundy won’t break the bank and a bright, tart swallow is the perfect way to chase a glistening mollusk down your gullet.
Other reds to try include a cru Beaujolais or Gamay. Look for wines from places by the ocean, like Sicily,” Pierce says. Locals there drink their local reds and whites alike with menus largely driven by the sea.
Finally, it’s always good to look to the classics. M.F.K. Fisher claims that an Alsatian Pinot Blanc is the perfect wine match in her gorgeous treatise on bivalves, “Consider the Oyster.”
The art of the shuck
So you’ve got the gear, found your oysters and bought the wine: Now how do you unlock the things without slicing off a thumb or crushing the shell and spilling the flavor-infused liquor?
1. Wrap your passive hand in the dish towel. A glove will improve your grip. Oysters have a top and a bottom, so you want to hold the cup-side facing down.
2. Locate the hinge at the back of the shell if you can’t find a seam along the side. Insert your oyster knife into the hinge and twist like a key. It’ll take a try or three, but you should be able to create a gap and slowly work the two halves of the shell open by twisting the knife and working around the edges.
3. After pulling the top off, slide your knife along the roof of the top shell to cut the oyster’s adductor muscle.
4. Try not to spill the “liquor,” the silky juices inside the shell that pack much of the flavor. You’ll want to swallow that with the oyster.
5. Don’t worry about chips, cracks and bits of shell … you’ll make a mess, especially at first. Practice and plan to spend time tidying up. Study the process by hitting YouTube or state wildlife and extension offices in places where oysters are grown. They all offer plenty of advice to help get you started.
That’s pretty much everything you need to get started with oysters and wine. They’re both amazing natural products that have an unmatched ability to express flavors from where they are grown. Eating a clean, flavorful oyster is a small sort of tribute to ocean health. It is my hope that these tips lead you more quickly to your own oyster epiphany so that you aren’t required to pull on waders and slog after a spry oysterman through the drizzle … mud sucking at your boots until your hips and back ache, the stiff bay breeze whipping you … before you can appreciate the full glory of these tasty little bivalves and begin to care about where they come from.
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Classic Mignonette Sauce
–Enrique Sanchez, chef, Local Ocean Seafoods
Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters
1 tablespoon course ground black pepper
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/2 cup sparkling wine
Salt to taste
Simmer wine in a saucepan to cook out alcohol; take off heat and stir in rest of ingredients; taste, salt, chill, serve.
— Jaret Foster, chef/owner, Oyster Social
Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons yuzukoshō (Japanese fermented chili-citrus paste, available at Asian grocers)
2 tablespoons finely diced daikon radish
Combine all ingredients in a quart jar and just before serving shake well to emulsify; keeps well in the refrigerator for two weeks to a month.
Main photo: Oysters on ice with lemon. Credit: Copyright Serhiy Zavalnyuk/Thinkstock
In the past few years, Denver — joined by its deluxe alter ego, Boulder, Colorado — has been at or near the top of so many national rankings, it would probably top the list ranking the lists themselves. It has consistently been named among the best (and fastest-growing) cities for millennials, for singles, for entrepreneurs, for outdoors enthusiasts, for beer lovers, you name it — and now that Denver is in the spotlight, its long-underrated dynamo of a dining scene is finally getting a chance to shine.
Here are just some of the kicks awaiting visitors in search of a Mile High culinary adventure. Or at least a cure for the munchies. Let’s face it: Marijuana legalization might have something to do with Colorado’s soaring profile.
It has stood at the edge of what’s now known as LoDo (Lower Downtown) since the fin de siècle — and Union Station‘s grand reopening in 2014 after a multimillion-dollar renovation marks the apotheosis of the neighborhood’s own comeback from late-20th century Skid Row into prime real estate.
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Some of the city’s most celebrated restaurateurs have set up shop on all sides of the magnificent Great Hall. At the casual end, there’s funky daytime franchise Snooze — where buttered-popcorn pancakes meet Thai-chili Bloodies — and Next Door, an ethicurean pub known for its beet burgers and kale chips. At the splashier end, Stoic & Genuine revels in a seafood repertoire that skews both wildly original — think miso-cured uni over kimchi granita — and classic, from clam rolls to caviar. Anchored by a gleaming deli and exhibition kitchen, Mercantile Dining & Provision turns out an ever-changing array of contemporary creations: highlights include exquisite pastas and anything featuring products from co-owner Alex Seidel’s Fruition Farms. And The Cooper Lounge, overlooking all the action, is as swanky a setting for cocktails as you’ll find in this dressed-down town.
Think of it as Union Station’s flip side: a gritty-chic urban marketplace that opened in 2013 along a still-gentrifying stretch of Brighton Boulevard with a roster of rising culinary stars and cult vendors. Now arguably the hub of the RiNo (River North) district, The Source is a one-stop shop for extraordinary beans (Boxcar Coffee Roasters), breads (Babettes) and beef (Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe), among other goods, that prove the word “artisanal” hasn’t lost all meaning just yet. It’s home to two beloved restaurants — the globally inspired Acorn and Comida, a modern taqueria/cantina — and ultra-cool cocktail bar RiNo Yacht Club. Capping it all off is the taproom of Crooked Stave, founded by a brewer whose experiments with brettanomyces and barrel aging have put it at the forefront of Denver’s world-class beer scene.
Breweries, breweries and more breweries
Speaking of beer: If ever there were proof that statistics don’t tell the whole truth, consider that Colorado, with about 250 craft breweries (or 6 per 100,000 adults), ranks “only” third in the nation. After all, that figure comes from the Brewers Association, which happens to be located not in California (first) or Washington (second), but in Boulder — the outgrowth of an earlier organization started by association president Charlie Papazian, aka the godfather of American home brewing. Papazian also founded the nation’s largest craft-beer showcase and competition, the Great American Beer Festival, held annually in Denver. It’s worth noting, too, that a fellow local microbrewing pioneer, Wynkoop co-founder John Hickenlooper, is now governor.
Of course, the ultimate metric of achievement becomes evident to anyone who spends even a short time here: the presence of a taproom on every other street corner, each with its own niche. For the most up-to-date and comprehensive information on breweries large and small, check out Westword’s Beer Man column and the Fermentedly Challenged blog. But some of my favorites include Diebolt and Prost for traditional (read: Eurocentric) styles, Former Future and Coda for adventurous tastes, and Renegade and Station 26 for sheer high-energy atmosphere.
One of Colorado’s most renowned (and widely distributed) envelope-pushing brands, Avery Brewing Co., recently opened a state-of-the-art, city-block-sized facility complete with sit-down restaurant and gift shop at the northern edge of Boulder. It’s a must for any suds buff — as are much smaller but no less superb breweries such as the chef-run BRU and the locals’ secret, J Wells — but it’s just the tip of the Berkeley of the Rockies’ gastronomic iceberg. To name some solid candidates for the connoisseurs’ to-do list: splendid sandwiches and specialty goods at gourmet shop Cured. Tea at the jaw-dropping Dushanbe Teahouse, an architectural masterpiece built by Tajikstani craftsmen. Genuine farm-to-table feasts at Blackbelly or Black Cat Bistro — both labors of love by chefs who really do run their own farms. Exquisite Japanese bites at the twinkling izakaya called Amu, wood-fired pies at the mod-rustic Basta, displays of Old World oenophilia at PMG. And as for Frasca Food and Wine — suffice it to say that chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey’s mecca of Friulian cuisine continues to earn the accolades it rakes in nationwide (and beyond).
If it’s teeming diversity you crave — admittedly not Boulder’s strongest suit — Aurora, on Denver’s eastern border, is your destiny (along with Federal Boulevard, thronged with Vietnamese and Mexican kitchens). Though it feels like a suburb, it’s actually Colorado’s third-largest city and a center of immigrant life. Here, sharp-eyed explorers will find Korean, Thai, Middle Eastern, Indian, Sudanese and Hawaiian restaurants lined up in strip malls one after the other; they’ll find ramen and barbecue and tacos galore — and they’ll encounter the most random of surprises to boot, like soul fast food (Kirk’s Soul Kitchen) and a biker bar that serves Chinese eats (Piper Inn).
On that note, long before Denver had a culinary leg to stand on, it boasted watering holes whose potent mix of Wild West grit and urban grime earned them a place in, variously, Jack Kerouac novels, Tom Waits songs and one particularly infamous Playboy article. It still does. And although a whirlwind tour isn’t for everyone, here’s the itinerary any counterculturalist at heart should follow. Start at Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill or My Brother’s Bar to hang out where Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other Beat legends once drank. Catch some live jazz at El Chapultapec, the 80-year-old remnant of an era when the Five Points neighborhood was known as the Harlem of the West. Or simply cruise East Colfax Avenue: Though in the throes of change, it’s still an embarrassment of divey riches. There you’ll find Pete’s Satire Lounge, where an as-yet-undiscovered Bob Dylan used to perform, as did the Smothers Brothers; not far away, PS Lounge illustrates the power of kitsch to bring all walks of life together. Meanwhile, situated at the western end of the 26-mile-long avenue, Casa Bonita may not be a dive, but it’s got cliff divers, among other carnival attractions parodied in a famous “South Park” episode.
Casa Bonita is strictly a sightseers’ stop, but you’ll have no trouble finding terrific Mexican eateries on just about every corner of this city (to pinpoint just a few admittedly downscale gems: El Taco de Mexico, El Original Tacos Jalisco, Tarasco’s, Chili Verde and La Calle Taqueria y Carnitas on West Alameda Avenue). Many of them will offer green chile; the sauce/stew is as traditional here as it is in New Mexico, though the Colorado style is thicker and often includes tomatoes with the chiles, pork, onions, garlic and so on. Cruise down Federal Boulevard in summer and you’ll see the roadside roasting stands hawking Pueblo (as well as Hatch) chiles by the bushel. Of course, Colorado lamb and beef are even more famous, as is Rocky Mountain trout — but locals equally covet Olathe corn, Palisade peaches and Rocky Ford melons in season. For a taste of the bounty, head to farm-centric fixtures such as Beast + Bottle, The Kitchen and Old Major.
Where a local focus and a cosmopolitan outlook come together, you’ll find Denver’s most distinctive dining and drinking spots. Take Beatrice & Woodsley, combining eye-popping decor designed to evoke a mountain cabin with a fascinating menu that simultaneously reflects the agrarian past and a global future. At Lower48 Kitchen, up-and-coming chef-partner Alex Figura takes a similar approach to yield some of the most exciting food around. Visionary restaurateur Justin Cucci is building an empire on extraordinary ambiance as well as consciously sourced contemporary cuisine, with venues housed in a former gas station, mortuary and brothel, respectively; the latter, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, emits a dazzlingly risqué vibe. Jim Pittenger of Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs has rightly garnered national attention for his reindeer, rattlesnake and other wild sausages, with wacky toppings to match. Same goes for Sean Kenyon, bartender-owner of Williams & Graham, a celebrated rendezvous for cocktail aficionados. And then there’s Work & Class: its exuberant yet intimate atmosphere and Latin-influenced comfort food will linger in your mind long after your visit.
The great outdoors
With its enviable high-desert climate (not to mention the Rocky Mountains in its backyard), Denver is an obvious draw for outdoors enthusiasts — and an ideal site for seasonal festivals and markets of all kinds. Food-truck chasers mustn’t miss Civic Center EATS, where mobile specialists in everything from pierogi to Popsicles gather in the namesake park twice a week from May through October. The Big Wonderful is its even-hipper counterpart, bringing to a vacant lot in RiNo not only trucks but also stalls selling gourmet pantry products and household goods, a live-music lineup and a full bar. The Denver Flea hosts similarly massive bashes with food, booze and arts-and-crafts vendors a couple of times a year. In a Larimer Square courtyard, the pop-up Le Jardin Secret proves as charmingly chichi as it sounds. And — to return once again to Denverites’ favorite subject — themed beer festivals are a near-weekly occurrence. But be warned: They often sell out in no time.
Main photo: Stoic & Genuine at Denver’s Union Station. Credit: Copyright 2015 June Cochran
Malt is a fairly mysterious ingredient, but craft beer is about to change that.
Like milling helps turn wheat into bread, malting helps turn barley and other grains into beer. Malting is the process of germinating (sprouting) and then kilning grains, which allows access to the starches and enzymes necessary for fermentation.
The importance of malt
Malt’s job is not strictly functional, though. Different types of malt contribute flavors and other elements to the final product. Malt is to beer what stock is to soup, as brewer John Mallett writes in his book, “Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse.”
“As craft beer has exploded in popularity, hops have often been seen as the sexy ingredient in beer,” he says. Mallett is the director of Bell’s Brewery in Michigan. “On first glance, malt seems kind of dull, but it actually contributes the key attributes that largely define beer, including color, flavor, foam, body and, eventually through fermentation, alcohol.”
Craft malthouses opening
At one time, malting was a domestic chore, same as baking bread. Prohibition and changes in farming helped consolidate the industry and put the production largely out of sight. Now, in response to curiosity about this ingredient, craft malthouses are opening across the nation. New York State has more than its fair share.
This is because New York created a friendly environment for micro and nano brewing with the Farm Brewery Law. This licensing, which went into effect at the beginning of 2013, requires that breweries use a percentage of state-grown products. A revival of hops production was already underway, and the law nudged along the boom in malt. Nine malthouses are in operation across the state, and more are in the works.
Brewing at the local level
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“It’s been exciting learning a whole new skill, one that’s been pretty much forgotten,” says Bob Johnson, who runs Niagara Malt. A professor of plant ecology and biochemistry at Medaille, a small liberal arts college in Buffalo, Johnson also grows hops, and farms and malts barley. “Malting is relegated to big commodity houses, and it’s nice bringing this whole process … to the local level.”
Buffalo had several malthouses, he notes, and three of its mayors were maltsters. Johnson says regional products lend distinctive flavors to beer.
“Plants really have an intimate contact with the soil,” Johnson says. “I’m at the base of the escarpment and all my soils are very limey; sitting at the base of a limestone cliff — my soils are very sweet as they say. That gives a flavor. The microorganisms in soil strongly influence the health and metabolism of plants.”
His adventures in making ingredients began with a taste for fuller flavored beers. “I realized the chemicals I was enjoying so much were from hops,” he says. Intrigued, he started to look into hop farming. Three years ago he planted 1,200 plants but lost half of them to drought. Hearing rumblings of the Farm Brewery Law, he realized there was going to be a programmed demand for hops and malt. This gave him the courage to replant and buy some equipment. His hop yard covers 1 1/2 acres and has 1,400 plants.
Johnson malts in the original malting system designed by pioneering Western Massachusetts maltsters Valley Malt. This system malts 1 ton of grain at a time, carrying out all the procedures, from steeping through germination (sprouting) and kilning in a single tank.
As he explores malting, Johnson also benefits by being a member of The Craft Maltsters Guild, which was formed last year to help shape the burgeoning industry by setting standards for production, performance and sourcing, and building a network for sharing information.
Given the rise of the craft beer market, the potential for growth in small-scale malting is tremendous, and New York has created an economic architecture to help develop that potential.
Private/public partnerships are helping to build momentum. Cornell University is researching what varieties of malting barleys are suited to the climate. Greenmarket Regional Grains Project is pairing farmers, maltsters and brewers for collaborations and otherwise working to raise awareness of the local agricultural products. Entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunities in beer. New York has 210 craft breweries, and 78 of those are farm breweries.
“Farm brewers have to use 20 percent New York ingredients,” says Paul Leone, director of the New York State Brewers Association. (The rate will change as the region’s capacity to produce local products increases.) “The market is there automatically for that group, but beyond the license every brewery in the state would use local ingredients.”
A steep learning curve
For now, use is limited by quality and price. Farming malting barley in a region that hasn’t done so for almost a century is a steep learning curve. Commodity malts cost significantly less than craft malts, and beer is thirsty for grains. Even if there were no difference in price, New York could not supply all its breweries. The largest of the new craft-malting facilities in the state only produce three tons a week. A ton of malt can only make about 13 to 15 barrels of beer, or about 26 to 30 kegs.
“What’s unique about New York State and craft beer is that at one point we owned the hop industry. It’s a natural progression to own it again, or a share of it,” Leone says. “Beer does have a certain terroir. The barley that’s grown here and the way that its malted here is going to be a little different than when it’s from out West, same as the hops. Brewers have an ability to engineer their own flavor profile that’s uniquely New York.”
Main photo: A farmer holds a handful of germinating barley. Credit: Copyright John Mallett
There are more than 3,400 craft breweries in America, with another 10 breweries opening each week. Retail sales of craft beer grew 22 percent in 2014, as overall beer sales stayed flat with the popularity of Budweiser and Miller dropping like a stone. The incredible consumer demand for craft beer makes the failure rate for new craft breweries … effectively zero.
Across the nation, beer lovers are daydreaming about jumping on the craft beer bandwagon and opening their own brewery.
Last fall, Zester contributors fanned out across the country interviewing craft brewers, distillers and cider makers for a book we’d been commissioned to write on how to start these ventures. We had a fabulous time talking with a number of unusual characters working in these fast-growing sectors. Our book — “Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery” — will be released June 30 by Entrepreneur Press.
In the process of writing our book, we read extensively about the craft beer business. Obviously, we think our book is an invaluable addition to the collection, but it tells only part of the story. Our “beer library” is a list of must-read recent releases for everyone interested in craft beer. There is no homework here. These are fun, entertaining reads.
10 beer books reviewed by Zester Daily:
Main photo: Greg Koch, co-founder and CEO of Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, California, and co-author of “The Brewer’s Apprentice.” Credit: Copyright 2011 Quarry Books
The real trick to pairing food with wine is not to take it too seriously, but rather just play with it. When chef Olivier Combe, whose restaurant CO2 is one of the best in Avignon, France, plays this kind of game — pairing his dishes with some of the best wines from nearby Chateauneuf-du-Pape — it’s not only fun, it’s drop dead delicious.
In April, Combe and the producers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape held what you might call a Master Class on food and wine pairing for an international gathering of wine geeks, bloggers, vintners, and journalists.
Wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape are almost never made from one sole grape variety. A palette of 13 different grapes may enter into the blend. For whites, the chief grape is Grenache Blanc, usually blended with different percentages of Bourboulenc, Clairette and/or Roussanne, the last of which is often fermented or aged in oak.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is known for majestic reds which account for most of the production, but the pairings at this event included a majority of whites which are often overlooked. Further, Combe’s menu transitioned from white wine to red and back to white again. I love that kind of freewheeling liberty.
Welcoming us was a glass of 2013 Chateau de Vaudieu, barrel fermented white made primarily from Grenache and Roussanne. Simultaneously plump and fresh, with mild but distinct oak notes, it nicely whet the palate for the organoleptic onslaught.
Melt-in-your mouth food and luscious wine
Combe’s home-cured gravlax was the first dish. Cubes of fleshy salmon sat on a light cream sauce, judiciously seasoned with dill, lemon zest and shallots.
Each of the two whites paired with the gravlax worked beautifully, bridges of flavor joining the salmon and the cream sauce. The 2013 Domaine Giraud Les Gallimardes, a blend of equal parts Grenache, Clairette, Roussanne and Bourboulenc, was fresh, full and gently oaky. The 2013 Domaine Patrice Magni was tight and mouthfilling, with vibrant flavors of lemon and lemon zests.
In another life, Olivier Combe must have been a sushi chef, so deftly did he sear the medallions of superb tuna that followed the gravlax. Essentially raw, only the extreme outer edges of the tuna were blistered with a crust hauntingly scented by Timut pepper. It was almost a pity to mask that purity by combining the tuna with the palate-tingling hot-sweet Thai sauce served alongside.
Enter the first red Chateauneuf-du-Pape of the day, the 1985 Clos du Mont Olivet. Like the appellation’s whites, the reds are almost always made from a blend of grapes, primarily Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The Mont Olivet, for example, was 80% Grenache, assembled with small amounts of Syrah and Mourvèdre. Aging with dignity, it was a smooth and inviting weave of dried fruit and herbs and very much at home with the tuna sans Thai sauce.
Then it was back to white Chateauneuf-du-Pape with the 2011 Clos Saint Paul that accompanied a large slab of melt-in-the-mouth foie gras. A blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Roussanne, the wine was rich and mellow, with notes of oak and faint hints of oxidation. Enjoyable as the wine was, everyone felt that a much, much older white Chateauneuf would have been a better foil for the foie gras — an enticing proposition that earned a round of applause.
The main dish was a toothsome parmentier of long-simmered, minced pig’s cheeks mixed with black olives on a thick gravy seasoned with sage, thyme and red wine, and topped with a succulent mound of creamy potatoes.
Of the two reds served, it was the 2004 Domaine du Bois de Boursan Cuvée des Félix, an organic wine, that won universal acclaim. Chiefly Grenache with some Mourvèdre, it had aged beautifully, presenting a homey tapestry of dried red fruit and herbs which married seamlessly with the parmentier.
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Next, slices of Comté — each from a specific sub-region — were paired with the 2011 Domaine des 3 Cellier Réserve, a white made from pure Roussanne, fermented and aged in barrel. Pale gold, with a hint of butterscotch, it went nicely with the nutty, borderline butterscotch flavors of the cheese, but the wine served with dessert might have been a more vibrant partner.
The dessert finale
Dessert was a chestnut tiramisu made by the chef’s wife, Jeanne. This cloud of froth accented by chestnut was paired with a fascinating wine from Domaine de la Charbonnière. A blend of Clairette and Bourboulenc, harvested late when the grapes were totally shriveled, it was extremely sweet but nicely balanced by acidity. By law, it’s not a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, though this type of wine was historically made for communions and baptisms.
Since my palate does not appreciate sweet-on-sweet, I’d have served this with the foie gras or with the comté and I’d have paired the tiramisu with a good bourbon or Armagnac or an ice-cold iced coffee.
So sure, certain dishes go best with certain wines, but I polished it all off anyway.
Main photo: Parmentier of long-simmered minced pig’s cheeks mixed with black olives on a thick gravy seasoned with sage, thyme and red wine, and topped with creamy potatoes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Federation des Producteurs de Chateauneuf-du-Pape