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strawberry mezcal joy

By on Jun 22, 2015 in experimenting, fail... or not, libations, love | 0 comments

Once upon a time, a tall, cold-loving woman went to Austin, Texas. She left Chicago one abnormally chilly summer morning (and it secretly made her happy it was that chilly,) boarding a plane wearing a light sweatshirt, and two hours later when she strode forth through the sliding doors of the Austin airport, the heat and humidity hit her like a fist. And it technically was not even that bad. But this woman, this woman hated heat and humidity. But she embraced it, because inside this heat was a lovely, vibrant little city, surrounded by beautiful hill country. And of course… there was food. And that woman was me. And OH did I eat that food. There was the beet hummus that looked like a painting, found at Launderette. There was straight up family style BBQ at the Salt Lick, where I spent the entire meal dancing in my seat with joy. My Wisconsin heart leapt with joy at the prevalence of queso, almost always served with homemade tortilla chips. But my primary purpose was to celebrate the impending 40th birthday of a dear friend whom I have known for 15 years. And after I told her I felt the need to create a custom cocktail in her honor, even though libations are still not my forte, she jumped and sent a list of things she wanted to experiment with. Naturally, my eye lit upon strawberry, because, well, it said strawberry. Another was mezcal. Now this gave me pause. Mezcal. While this is by no means a new spirit, it is definitely new to me. And my head always associates it with tequila, which jumps straight to an unfortunate night in college that may or may not have involved swigging Jose Cuervo straight out of the bottle, and the subsequent morning which basically sealed the notion that I would never drink tequila again. Ever. Most people have that one thing. You know you do. But the nice thing about being a grown up is that you learn, and not just how to not get drunk because LORD you can not do the hangovers anymore. I have learned that there is tequila out there that is so smooth and lovely you want nothing more than to kick back with a little tipple, get a smidge tipsy, and watch life float by. And now… mezcal. Tequila comes specifically from the blue agave, but mezcal does not. It comes from the pina, the mature heart at the center of a maguey or agave plant, and it has quite the history. In reading up on it, I realized that it is traditionally served straight, not as a part of a cocktail. It has this incredibly complex smoky flavor, which is apparently best left appreciated for what it is. There was mention of topping with ground dried larvae. That… was not going to happen. I dithered about the internet, and of course found those who, like me, were about to profane the mezcal and make it a part of the cocktail. My friend bought just a ridiculously good bottle of mezcal (it is her birthday, after all,) and we set to it. First we tried it straight up, and it was indeed a revelation. It had this smoke that just rolled right back through the palate and released, letting a deep sweetness find its way to the surface. I had found references to strawberry and mezcal, using other splashes of ingredients to deepen the strawberry so it could play nice with the smoke of mezcal. And so it began. I chopped fresh strawberries, taking in their floral scent, as I always do. I minced up basil, since it pairs so beautifully with the berry, and I thought a hint of herbaceous flavor might be nice. And I needed to sweeten it just a hair, so I added sugar. But I added brown sugar, so I could keep some darker molasses in there, something to complement the smoke. A splash of balsamic, because I always add a splash of balsamic to strawberry anything, and a generous application of heat. More than generous. I placed the pot over the burner and stirred and stirred, watching that magical event where strawberries under heat collapse into sweet, lurid red goo. And then I realized I was making jam. A judicious quantity of water was added, in an attempt to make a thick syrup. When I was fairly sure I could not get it any more saucy, I painstakingly scraped the entire thing through a strainer, so we would not have to contend with seeds or the now black little scraps of basil. And then… the mix. I wish I had used a cocktail shaker, because really, James Bond had it right with “shaken, not stirred.” Trying to mix things in the glass was… messy. The strawberry conconction kept settling. I spanked a leaf of basil. (No really, this is a thing, spanking herbs.) I carefully balanced a slice of strawberry on the edge of the wondrous glasses my friend had procured. And it was… OK. We kept added a bit here, a dab there, and ultimately discovered it got WAY better when the ice had melted a bit and things were allowed to mingle. Then suddenly that round sweetness of the strawberry basil brown sugar syrup goodness actually showed up and started getting all friendly with the mezcal,...

a most refreshing syndicate

By on Aug 2, 2014 in craft, libations | 0 comments

If you drive west on Diversey Avenue in Chicago, you might be looking for the on-ramp to the Kennedy. And as you madly look around trying to figure out where on earth the actual lanes are, you might clap your eyes upon a low brick building, nestled against the embankment shoring up the sides of an old train track that used to run at this same place. Once upon a time, it was a station for the trains that used to chug through. At one point, it was an auto parts store. And now it houses Ale Syndicate, a lovely little craft brewer here in Chicago, founded by brothers Jesse and Samuel Evans. I know, I know. You hear “syndicate” in association with Chicago, and your mind goes all Al Capone. Mine certainly did, and I blunderingly asked Samuel about the name. He looked a little pained at the question, and rightfully so. He began to explain that it had nothing to do with mafia stuff at all, and was in reference to a syndicate being a collection of people working together to create something, and then had to run off to chat with one of the collection of people he and his brother are working with. Which was likely the best definition of their name I could have gotten. I showed up late in the morning at their brand new space on Diversey. They have been brewing for a while, but always in other locations, using other people’s equipment, but as of June they now have their own space with shiny new fermenters (and a slightly older mash tun they used a lot of elbow grease on to get into shape for their brews.) They have been brewing for about a week in this new space, a space filled with air and light, which is something I have not experienced in a brewery yet. Samuel pointed out the walls of windows and how golden light would pour in both morning and evening, the best of both worlds. Jesse broadly swept an arm out to a bank of windows, showing me where they plan to put in a tap room. I imagined sipping their glorious Van de Velde beer in that golden evening light they spoke of. It seems blissful. But I digress. When I first arrived, before I even asked the question about the derivation of the name, Jesse and Samuel were meeting with a couple of restauranteurs, discussing future plans, I believe this was regarding the future tap room space and possible food options. Walking in the door, I was swiftly introduced to Bryan, the head brewer, who was working on a collaboration brew with a Welsh brewery, a double IPA to be dubbed Seven Flowers I greatly anticipate tasting. He then talked about another brew they were working on, a collaboration creating a Thai Belgian ale. You heard me. Thai Belgian. I think my eyes bulged a little, because he and Abigail (the marketing manager who was kindly letting me hang out with her for the day) started listing the ingredients. I think I drifted off dreaming about a mellow malty brew scented with kaffir lime leaves. So even before I saw any of their usual line of beers hanging about, there were collaborators, members of the syndicate, abounding, with delicious ideas being slung about. Bryan was even so kind as to pull me a small taste of the first beer they brewed here straight out of the fermenting tank (but pre-carbonation.) Even without the bubbles, it had a mellow malty quality that spoke to the soft beams of light permeating the space. Or maybe I’m just projecting. Either way, it was a tasty little sample. After tooling around their new space, Abigail took me with her to Lakeshore Beverage, one of the big beverage distributors in the Chicago area, and she talked about all the complexities of distributing craft beer when you are still on a small scale in this market. She had to grab a few cases of beer for a truffle tasting later that evening (and we will get to that part later.) Even something as simple as a couple of kegs involves a process of logging and paperwork. For any who think craft brewers have a rockin’ job just hanging out and brewing all day, let me disabuse you of this notion. These people work hard and non-stop. There is a mind-boggling array of paperwork and laws and licensing that they have to slog through on a daily basis. Enough that would bring me to my knees weeping in a matter of days. And they do it every day. It’s part of the syndicate. The folks at Lakeshore Beverage appear to deal with a ton of local craft brewers, or so it appeared as I peeked at a small section of their massive warehouse with over 200,000 cases of beer stacked high over my head. And for as huge as they are, there was personable chatter, they knew what was going on. And Abigail chatted with him about another bit of syndicate business, how to transport two kegs for yet another collaboration, this time with Bad Apple, a local gastro-pub that commissioned many local brewers to create a custom brew to celebrate their year anniversary next week. The caveat? All the beer had to be brewed using cardamom as an ingredient. I...

distilled

By on Apr 28, 2014 in craft, libations | 0 comments

Back in October, Koval Distillery here in Chicago let me come on over, but unlike my other local craft food things, this has become a bigger operation, so I did not have the luxury of hanging out and chatting with the few people there that day (there was a lot of whiskey quietly aging in barrels that day, so not a lot of activity.) But I did get a few pictures, and then promptly forgot to write about them. So my apologies to you and Koval, but I have no write-up, no waxing poetic over the almost mythic sounding combination of “heads, hearts, and tails” that comprise all distilling, that I first learned about at a Koval Distillery tour years ago before they expanded into the operation they are now. No pithy little homage to their way of looking at a grain and saying “I can distill that!”, resulting in whiskeys very specifically based on a single grain, like oat, millet, or rye, each with a distinctly different profile and range of flavors. No sad moment of remembering that bottle of dark millet whiskey that graced my shelf for a while. No mention of the distiller showing me how they take hearts (or was it the tails?) from one round and steep rose hips in them to create their sublime rosehips liqueur. No no, none of that. Just a few pictures of some very shiny stills and some lovely barrels, being disturbed from their rest by a nosy...

sweet, sweet snow

By on Nov 25, 2013 in craft food, libations, process | 0 comments

Once upon a time, on a sunny fall day on a quiet street in Chicago, a food blogger walked up to the gate of a long and low brick building. Before her was an aging metal panel of buzzers, and a tattered piece of paper taped over half of them with alternate instructions for only certain parts of the building. After a brief head scratch, the food blogger decided to move onto more modern technology and call the person she was meeting. A minute later, a tall woman with cropped red hair and improbably merry round black glasses popped out of a door a half block down the long and low brick building and yelled “RACHEL!” One would somehow like to think all this craft and local food happens in fabulously rustic kitchens or perfect retro factories with just the right amount of hipster grunge, but really? Sometimes it happens in a long and low brick building, and frankly, I don’t give a damn, because the end result is delicious. The tall woman in question is Melissa Yen, creator of Jo Snow Syrups. I had seen her out and about at the Chicago street festivals, doling out snow cones using what appeared to be a vintage ice shaver (it’s not vintage, it’s just a Japanese company that happens to make them look vintage.) On a particularly hot day at one of the festivals, I circled her booth like a parched vulture until finally the line was short enough, and dove in. My first experience was the tangerine lavender honey syrup drizzled over shaved ice in the classic little paper cone we all know from childhood. But this was no purple flavor or blue flavor. This was that smooth round sweet of tangerines, that little tang of honey and undercurrent of lavender rolling about, and I swear my core temperature dropped 10 degrees while my eyes rolled backwards from the pleasure of cooling down in such a scrumptious manner. A couple of months later, on a chillier September day, I encountered her again at a fair and tried the cantaloupe cardamom (which she thought was a bit too cardamom-y,) and I spied a bottle of woodruff syrup, a wonder I had encountered at a bar in Brooklyn a month before. I chatted with her a bit about how she was so much more than a fancy snow cone purveyor, and she graciously agreed to come have me hang out for a bit one fine day. And finally that fine day arrived. I made my way down to the door at the end of the long and low brick building, and upon entering, the first thing that hit me was the scent. Of granola. She uses part of the kitchen that Milk & Honey Granola uses, and there were several ovens full of granola roasting away, letting loose a homey scent of oats and sugar. We donned some very fashionable hairnets and went into the corner where she and two women were working away. Despite the proximity to the ovens full of tempting granola, I was drawn like a cartoon following an animated scent trail to her giant “tilt skillet” (a giant vat where they actually cook the syrup in enormous quantities that has this crazy motor setup that will slowly tilt the skillet over so they can empty it out into kettles for bottling.) Inside she was steeping cardamom rose water syrup. Let me pause here a moment. When I usually think of flavored syrups, it usually involves flavors hatched by a chemistry lab somewhere in New Jersey, bearing little resemblance to the flavor of the object in question. Purple flavor is purple flavor, not really grape. So when I say Melissa was steeping cardamom rose water syrup, I mean I was staring at a vat of syrup with an incredible quantity of whole cardamom pods and some cinnamon sticks steaming away, releasing a scent that really was within a hair’s breadth of causing me to float up and along in a state of ecstasy like a Looney Tunes character of old. Apparently the little old ladies at the Middle Eastern market look at her like she is insane when she buys 22 pounds of cardamom pods at a time. Fair enough. But this is totally my type of mad scientist insanity. On the table was a bin of figs from the day before, when she had been working on syrup for cream soda, for Farmhouse, a local restaurant. Actual figs, no weird chemicals involved. This is not to say there is no chemistry. Of course there is! It’s food, there is always chemistry involved, but not necessarily chemistry involving strange foreign substances emerging from a lab. Right when I got there she was testing the pH level of the cardamom rose water deliciousness to make sure it was at the right level, since it has to be at a certain level to ensure shelf stability. The only thing she uses to alter the pH is citric acid. Earlier in the day they had made and bottled some of the concord grape syrup, which is definitively not purple flavor. In fact, it isn’t even really all that purple. Sort of a glowing purply-red, like the best parts of a sunset, leaving me to occasionally just gaze at it wistfully. While waiting for the cardamom to be ready, Melissa pulled out...

shhhhhh… science is happening here

By on Sep 25, 2013 in craft, libations | 0 comments

“If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it…” Long have I been entranced by the entrapments of brewing and distilling, all the gizmos and whirlygigs, bits of tubing glinting in the light as they curl round and round, shiny metal vats holding the promise of future cocktails, all of it making me reference “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Every single time. But never have the lyrics to my favorite song from the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka movie actually popped into my head while gazing at all the equipment. Until now. Enter CH Distillery. Founders Tremaine Atkinson and Mark Lucas were kind enough to let me come into their shining new distillery, the latest entry into the craft spirits world, and hang about. They are brand spanking new, having only been open for a few months. When you first walk by, you see the giant plate glass windows, with the words “Witness the Science of Alcohol” running along just underneath eyeline. If you look up, to the right you can peer directly at the magical copper and stainless steel vessels lined neatly up against the wall, with Kevin McDonald, one of the two distillers, diligently working amidst the tall stills. To the left, you will see their plush bar, and you will want to walk in and sink down into a couch to order vodka, straight, with a side of rye bread and pickles. You will. It’s on the menu. (I should point out this picture of the bar is before they were open for business that day, so the lone figure is Mark, working away.) On a fine Friday afternoon, well before the onslaught of thirsty people in dire need of one of their delicious cocktails, I entered the bar for CH Distillery, greeted warmly by Mark Lucas. He took me around the space, pointing out a fascinating photograph that shows them putting in the stills. They actually had to hire art riggers to install the stills, because the floor of the building could not take the weight of a forklift. They built structural supports under the floor to hold the weight of the stills one in place. “Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.” I’m telling you, it’s really Willy Wonka. But for grown-ups. The stills are so new the shine practically glows. Considering how much effort it takes to keep my few shiny stainless pans spotless, I can only imagine the effort it takes to keep these so utterly beautiful. And they really are beautiful. When I was there, though, it was really about what was on the inside, because as we were all raised to know, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. In this case, vodka and gin. Kevin, the co-distiller alongside Tremaine Atkinson, was monitoring vodka as it went through the final stages of distilling and poured out into a giant vat, eventually destined for bottling. The gentle sound of the vodka and gin as it came pouring out of the last of the stills was soothing, like a pair of 90 proof babbling brooks. He kept checking taste, measuring out bits of it to test for quality and density, all these little things that go into making a fine liquor. The sign on the outside windows “Witness the Science of Alcohol” is no joke. Kevin was explaining the basic process of what everything goes through, gesturing to the stills that towered high above us as the vodka vapour rose and fell, condensing away. I was briefly distracted by the beauty of the stills. These have lights shining into them, so you can see brilliant jeweled splashes as the liquor condenses, then up to the top of the next and back down, increasing in proof with every step. The copper still right in the very front window had a London Dry Gin was burbling away. The curves of this still were particularly voluptuous. Kevin explained how the shape was actually very purposeful, and in some schools of distilling, you hang all the goodies that flavor your gin up top, and as the liquor vapours move up through them, that is where you get the flavor. If I recall, they don’t do it that way. The flavors are right in the mix, burbling away. There was a steady stream of the final product draining out into a steel vat. I got to swipe a finger underneath the stream really quickly to taste it. For the record, I am not a huge gin person. Most people have had bad gin experiences. Does it make you think “clear liquid with overtones of turpentine”? It very well might. This… had citrus. A little later on, juniper and cardamom floated magically across my palate. Nary a nasty bite anywhere. There is an obvious joke in here about how I could just sit under the draining tap and drink, but that would cheapen the experience of sipping this, slowly, closing my eyes to let the various notes played around my tongue. And that is just straight up. Imagine what this gin could do in a well-crafted cocktail. Fortunately, you can. Right there in their bar. They have a simple but intriguing menu of cocktails, including one named “Cease and Desist,” due to a rather humorous story involving them naming the cocktail originally after a certain pharmaceutical drug...

a half acre of beer

By on Sep 9, 2013 in craft, libations, love | 0 comments

OK, not literally a half acre of beer. That would be ludicrous. It would go flat far, far too quickly. Imagine, if you will, it is a sleepy Saturday morning, and you find yourself strolling around the quiet of Chicago’s Lincoln Square. You round a corner and suddenly come across a crowd buzzing with anticipatory energy. A few more steps and it seems like they are all excited about… a giant garage door. A deep rumble, and the door opens, everyone surging gently forward in anticipation. A gentleman steps out and shouts directions, dependent on if you want the tour or the tap room. You have found Half Acre Brewery.   Gabriel Magliaro and Maurizio Fiore of Half Acre were kind enough to let me come in on two occasions to take in the brewing process. The first time involved the tour of their facilities. While they are bigger than some of the craft brewers around town, this is still a relatively petite facility; the giant fermentation tanks nestled in every available space. You know which ones are fermenting deliciousness by the sight of the buckets filled with water next to them, tubes snaking out of the tank into the bucket to let carbon dioxide out, and no oxygen gets back in. The tanks all have names to help keep it easy to identify, but they won my heart when I noticed the one named Franklin, as in the totally politically incorrect puppet from Arrested Development. And of course the tank that actually has its own bling (never did get the story behind that one.) And the lauter tun has a giant walrus on it. What’s not to love? The tour consistently draws a crowd, and while I am sure some are definitely interested in the history of this company, most are probably in it for the beer. If I was counting correctly, there were at least two beers poured per person on this tour. So what if it starts at 11AM? Beer has grain in it. It’s like liquid cereal, right? But I digress. The tour, led by the highly entertaining Adam, doled out several interesting bits of information, such as: Half Acre was one of the first Chicago craft breweries. They originally contracted with a brewery in Wisconsin (of course,) but once they had the ability to bring it all to Chicago, they did. They have never paid for an ad. And if you have ever had one of their beers, they do not need to. In fact, their artwork is some of the craziest I’ve seen for a beer, and all of it is done by one fellow, Octophant. They are absolutely a neighborhood brewery. Some breweries are off in an industrial complex, but these folks are genuinely plunked down in the middle of the neighborhood, right around the corner from house upon house. Apparently the Midwest was slow to catch on to the craft beer movement, but now that we have, we are voracious. Being a native Wisconsin girl, this does not surprise me one bit. (And I am SO GLAD we busted out of the Miller/Budweiser rut.) For all the local aspects of their business, the name is definitely not. You can read about the origin here. And if you really want to know more, by all means go on the tour. And have a beer. Or two. And then stop in their beautiful tap room and have another, and maybe play a game or two. While you are at it, buy a growler to take home. I was really there to watch them do the actual brewing, and so on another quiet Thursday morning, I went in to watch as they went about their business. They run almost 24 hours a day, with three shifts of people. While they started with a master brewer, most of the people there have had no formal brewing training. They have learned while being there, and perhaps it is this lack of formal training that leads to some interesting results. Even the founders have no formal beer training. They started with simply a love of the beer and the passion to get it rolling. In talking with a few of the gents on the brew floor, I found that one was a former engineer, one was getting his masters in art history, and yet another had just finished his degree in physiology. And pretty much all just loved working there, and clearly appreciated their beer. All of them were more than happy to explain what was going on at every step of the process, and all were clearly dedicated to doing things neatly and efficiently. Even the hoses were always neatly coiled in figure 8s. Nothing seemed out of place. I got a chance to chat with the gent setting up brews that morning, carefully weighing out hops for their most popular brew, Daisy Cutter Ale. He let me dip my head in and sniff the individual hops before blending them together, and later on when I drank a Daisy Cutter I swear that led me to have a beer-version moment of that scene in the movie “French Kiss” where Meg Ryan’s character sniffs individual components and can then taste them in the wine (yes, I like that movie, what of it?).  He explained how most hops are straight up one variety, but occasionally there are blends,...