Posted: Oct 27, 2014 10:00am ET
My first taste of Flor de Caña, Nicaragua's famous rum, was poured for me by a Canadian expat.
I was on vacation in Nicaragua, about seven years ago, and I was boogie-boarding the Pacific waves off one of the beaches of Las Peñitas, a small community near León better known as a fishing village than a tourist destination. I caught a great wave and was riding it well when, suddenly, it crested and broke, sending me to the briny depths. Tumbling head-over-heels in the undertow, unable to get my bearings, I fought like hell to break the surface and take a deep breath.
Shocked, I crawled out of the ocean and barfed up what must have been two gallons of Pacific blue. Needless to say, my day of boogie-boarding was over, and I made my way to the beach shack where I had rented my board, dazed and a little embarrassed by what just happened.
"Christ that was a close one, eh?" said the man as he reached for the board and motioned to a barstool. "Looks like you could use this." I sat as he poured two fingers of a brown liquid into a glass. I swallowed the shot in a single gulp without hesitation. (Guess a near-death experience will do that to a guy.) A distinctly sweet taste coated my tongue, and I chewed through the spicy finish that lingered on my lips.
"Damn that's good. What was that?"
"That, my friend," said the expat, grinning, "is Nicaraguan gold." He turned the bottle so I could read the label: Flor de Caña, Gran Reserva 7, Slow Aged.
That first experience with Flor de Caña was all I could think about when I took a sip of the brand's new Centenario 25 ultra-premium rum at a recent release dinner in New York City. The dinner took place in the Gary's Loft event space in Manhattan, and it was not only a celebration of the new rum, which is on sale now, but also the fairly new U.S. distribution partnership between Flor de Caña brand owner Grupo Pellas and spirits distribution giant William Grant & Sons. On hand representing Flor de Caña were many members of the Pellas family, including chairman Carlos Pellas. William Grant & Sons chief executive officer, Stella Julie David, was also at the event.
Posted: Oct 3, 2014 12:00pm ET
The most impressive craft beer bar in Las Vegas isn't inside a hotel or casino along The Strip, but rather in a tiny strip mall near the airport.
Freakin' Frog is the name of the place, and while it may not look like a world-class beer bar from the outside, as the saying goes, it's what inside that counts. And while you won't see any freakin' sharks with freakin' laser beams inside Freakin' Frog, you will find loads of great beer, from the fairly common to the extremely rare.
The bar shares space with a handful of other shops in a tiny retail outlet that is about a 15 minute drive from the Vegas Strip. It's directly across the street from the University of Nevada Las Vegas dorms (a wise business decision). It's a bit difficult to see from S. Maryland Parkway, the bar's official street, as it's tucked behind a vacant lot that's surrounded by a chainlink fence.
Owner Adam Carmer is a gregarious, bespectacled fellow with neatly cropped hair and the type of memory that can only be compared to an encyclopedia. He came to Vegas in the early '90s to work as the maître d'hôtel for Treasure Island and never left. Carmer's worked as a hotel sommelier for the Mirage Resort & Casino and was named Steve Wynn's first hotel sommelier. Aside from owning Freakin' Frog, Carmer also teaches courses at UNLV in beer, wine and spirits. The guy knows his stuff.
What brought me to Freakin' Frog was an invitation from Terence Reilly of Quesada Cigars for a pre-IPCPR gathering. A true beer geek, Reilly and I have traded beer recommendations for some time now, so I knew the bar had to be good.
When I walked through the front door, the standard wood bar greeted me. I'd find out later the bar has a 15-tap draft system that rotates through beers at a steady clip (lines cleaned every time a new keg is tapped). The inside of Freakin' Frog is sparsely furnished with a handful of tables with chairs and booths. A pair of pool tables and a small stage for live bands round out the interior.
Posted: Jul 3, 2014 4:30am ET
Amid the surplus of alabaster buildings that surround the National Mall in Washington D.C. stands proud a pleasant outlier: the Pension Building. Home of the National Building Museum, the massive red-brick structure, a sterling example of Italian Renaissance design, sticks out like a stout in an IPA flight.
And that's a good thing, because at the moment I was a bit lost, nervously meandering along D.C.'s sidewalks, looking for any sense of familiarity. I had left my cab on 11th St. NW because it was stuck in traffic, and I didn't want to miss a minute of Savor 2014, the craft beer festival that took place in the Great Hall of the Pension Building. Just when I was about to ditch my pride and ask for directions, I spotted the venue in the near-distance and guided myself to its entrance.
It feels like a week doesn't go by without a craft beer festival occurring. From obscure, loosely organized gatherings where breweries agree to serve one beer style only to large fetes celebrating the craft industry of an entire city or region, the craft beer festival scene is alive and well in America.
In the plethora of beer bashes, Savor, now in its seventh year, is one of the best for a few reasons. First, more than 70 of the nation's premier craft beer breweries pour at Savor, which is two nights. Many breweries offer extremely limited beers or suds they brewed specifically for the event. Second, it very well could be the owner of the company filling your glass, akin to cigarmakers who hand out cigars at Cigar Aficionado's Big Smoke. Many luminaries of the craft beer world travel to Savor because it's run by the Brewer's Association, the organization created and run by brewers that represents 2,000 breweries and 43,000 homebrewers. Third, these same brewers hold court and speak throughout the night at various themed salons. Fourth, each beer is meticulously paired with its own unique dish by a chef (this year it was Chef Adam Dulye, chef/owner of The Monk's Kettle and The Abbott's Cellar in San Francisco, and Chef Kyle Mendenhall, executive chef at The Kitchen in Boulder and Denver), and then that pairing is approved by an expert tasting panel.
Posted: Feb 28, 2014 4:30am ET
It's been said that there is no better time than now to be a craft beer lover in America, and that sentiment most certainly applies to New York City.
After all, there are now more than 2,400 breweries operating in America, according to the Brewer's Association, the most since the late 19th century, and 16 of those are operating out of The Big Apple as members of the New York City Brewers Guild. In short, it's easier than ever for beer geeks to get their craft fill.
This week, the beer industry has turned its spotlight on Gotham as the city has been celebrating New York City Beer Week, a series of festivals, tastings, menu pairings and beer dinners (more than 100 events in total) that showcase the best of what craft beer has to offer. The event is put on by the New York City Brewers Guild, a nonprofit collective of the city's larger craft breweries whose mission is to spread the gospel of drinking local to Gothamites. The immense population of New York means the event, put on by the Brewers Guild, has grown into one of the country's largest craft beer fetes.
I was fortunate enough to attend the week's opening gala event last Friday, held in Grand Central Terminal's Vanderbilt Hall. For those unfamiliar with the layout of the legendary transportation hub, Vanderbilt Hall is the 12,500 square-foot space on the west side of the building. Normally, the hall is just an empty space that travelers walk through and pay no mind, but not on this night. The space was blocked off and its perimeter was lined with beer offerings, many brewed just for the event, from the 16 members of the Brewers Guild as well as some of the country's more notable craft breweries.
Stand-out beers for me were Quad from the Manhattan-based Heartland Brewery, Kelso Beer Co.'s Rye Aged Rauchbier (Brooklyn), Other Half Brewing Co.'s Imperial Stout (Brooklyn) and Six Point Brewery's Hi-Res (Brooklyn).
Posted: Nov 2, 2013 2:30am ET
While many people know how beer is made and have great respect for the veteran brewmaster, most think the brewing process is too complicated to try at home. The American Homebrewer's Association wants to change this misconception, and so the organization is celebrating its 14th annual Learn to Homebrew Day today.
More than 230 events are scheduled for today, in homebrew shops, breweries and garages throughout America, with one sole purpose: To teach newbies that brewing beer at home is not only fun and rewarding, but easy.
"A lot of people think it's complicated and takes a lot of time," AHA director Gary Glass told me via phone. "And that's really not the case. It's pretty simple. If you have minimal abilities in the kitchen you can still make good beer at home."
While Glass is undoubtedly correct (he is an expert after all), making great beer at home is a bit of a challenge. I can speak from experience on this. My one shot at making my own beer at home ended up producing a stout that tasted more like vinegar than beer. Great beer, however, can be had, but like any other kitchen activities, practice makes perfect.
When I spoke with Glass, the most important factor he emphasized for homebrewing is sanitation. This means making sure any surface that will come in contact with the beer or ingredients needs to be squeaky clean, lest you run the risk of contamination. It's also important that one tries and educate him or herself as much as possible before starting. (The AHA has an incredible website of resources you can peruse to help get you started.)
So what are the benefits of homebrewing? Aside from saving money—ingredients for a typical five-gallon batch, which yields about 24 bottles, costs between $25 to $45—homebrewers get the satisfaction of tasting something they brewed themselves, and can even make a party of it so others can get in on the fun.
Posted: Oct 31, 2013 1:30pm ET
Germany's Oktoberfest may have officially ended on October 6, but for one night last week inside the Nat Sherman Townhouse, the spirit of the sudsy celebration lived on as dozens gathered for plenty of German beer and food, mixed with a few cigars, of course.
The event was Quesada Oktoberfest, and on hand was none other than Manuel Quesada, the patriarch of Manufactura de Tabacos S.A (MATASA), passing out Krone, the newest size in his line of Oktoberfest cigars, along with his nephew Terence Reilly. The duo has been traveling the country since August, hosting beer and cigar pairing events in more than 20 states.
An ardent beer man, Reilly had the great idea to blend a cigar that could pair well with the Märzen-style beers, or just Märzenbier, served in Munich, Germany, during Oktoberfest. In 2011, Oktoberfest the cigar debuted in two vitolas, and since then four more sizes have been added. The cigars, Dominican puros, wrapped in what Reilly calls Dominican Cibao leaf, are the perfect complement to not only the malty flavor profile of a typical Märzenbier, but really any beer that has a healthy malt backbone.
Upon walking into the store, located on 42nd Street in the heart of Manhattan, guests were given a number which they then exchanged for a decorative beer stein with a lid. (A good solution to keep stray ash from falling into one's beer.) The steins were then filled with either Beck's Oktoberfest, Paulaner Oktoberfest-Märzen, or Erdinger Oktoberfest Weissbier. While Paulaner is the only one of the three breweries officially recognized as an Oktoberfest brewery, the other two beers are no slouches.
Most attendees conversed, imbibed and smoked in various social circles, but a few gathered around a flat-screen television to watch the first game of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. Being a Sox fan myself, my eyes were glued to the television for much of the night. Occasionally (i.e. during commercial breaks), I'd make my way to a table filled with typical Oktoberfest fare: doughy, oversized pretzels, cabbage, schnitzel, and plump sausages. Perfect food for the night.
Posted: Oct 25, 2013 10:30am ET
Despite the fact that craft beer continues to surge in sales and consumer popularity, there is still one place where it is shockingly difficult to find great craft beer: fine dining restaurants.
While some high-end establishments recognize that the craft beer "trend" is actually permanent and have adjusted their drink menus accordingly, far too many places lag behind the times. Wine is still the dominant pairing partner in much of the scene, and while that's not likely to change any time soon, more restaurants should be offering a beer pairing menu for those who want the complex flavors of a well-crafted beer matching their meal.
French brasserie Cafe D'Alsace embraced this idea six years ago when it opened with a full-time beer sommelier on staff; someone to expertly pair the hearty, elegant flavors of the Alsatian cuisine that Chef Philippe Roussel, a third-generation chef from Brittany, prepares. Located in Manhattan's Upper East Side, the restaurant does offer a traditional wine list, but the emphasis is on the 125-plus beer offerings, many of which are even aged in an impressive cellar. Broken down by beer style, the menu also states the beer's country of origin, and a separate menu lists the day's draft-line beer.
Guiding diners through the pairing adventure is beer sommelier Gianni Cavicchi. Cavicchi has always impressed me with not only his unsurpassed beer and pairing knowledge, but also for his ability to stay abreast of trends happening within the craft beer world. Evidence of this can be seen by some of the events he has organized for the restaurant: Bastille Day Pig Roast (a celebration of French craft beers); Flying Dog Firkin Friday, in which he tapped what was at the time a brand new unfiltered American IPA from the brewery; and his newest event, Sausage, Cider and Beer Week, going on right now at the restaurant night, which is not just a nifty homage to Oktoberfest, but proof that the cider market is officially #trending towards resurgence.
Posted: Jun 19, 2013 12:30pm ET
Some say it's impossible to pair a premium cigar with an American-style India Pale Ale, and while it pains me to admit it, they are largely right.
Often the crisp, dry finish of a typical American IPA doesn't mesh well with smoke, but instead cuts right through it, acting more like a palate cleanser rather than a flavor partner. Even worse, the normally pleasant, hop-forward bitterness of an IPA can sometimes latch onto the bitter notes of a cigar and overwhelm your palate. (Remember the absurd bitter beer face commercials of the ‘90s? Something like that.) While some IPA and cigar combinations do exist—and work well—largely the two are best left to enjoy on their own.
For those looking to match smoke with a beer featuring a strong hop-profile, Double IPAs, or DIPAs for short, are perhaps the best answer. By definition, based on the Brewers Association 2013 Beer Style Guidelines, DIPAs, also called Imperial IPAs, offer higher hop bitterness, flavor and aroma than American IPAs. However, in order to balance out all those hops, DIPAs possess a higher malt character along with higher alcohol content. It is these two qualities that make them such good candidates to pair with premium smokes.
Recently, Dogfish Head Brewery and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. released a remarkable DIPA called Rhizing Bines. The brew is the first collaboration from the two breweries since they released Life & Limb in 2009. The brew was largely the brainchild of Sam Calagione, president and founder of Delaware-based Dogfish Brewery, and Brian Grossman, son of Sierra Nevada Brewing co-founder Ken Grossman. (The name Rhizing Bines refers to the hop plant, which is often mistakenly called a vine but is technically a bine. While vines use suckers and tendrils to climb, bines have tiny hairs that aid their ascent.)
Rhizing Bines is being billed as an "East-meets-West" DIPA for a slew of reasons. Firstly, the geographic locations of the breweries: Dogfish calls Delaware home while Sierra Nevada is headquartered in Chico, California. Secondly, the beer incorporates ingredients and brewing techniques from both breweries. Thirdly, the tasting profile of Rhizing Bines is something of a cross between the prototypical East-Coast IPA and West-Coast IPA, styles that Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada helped define. Additionally, the name is a nod to Sierra opening up its first East Coast brewery next month.
Posted: Mar 1, 2013 12:00am ET
It’s no secret that the hop-forward taste of India Pale Ales, better known as IPAs, are a big hit with American craft beer lovers. IPA, perfect for showing off the intense flavors and aromas of American-grown hops, is not only now the best-selling craft beer style in the country, according to the Brewers Association, but also the most-entered category at the Great American Beer Festival, the nation’s premier beer festival and competition. In other words, craft beer drinkers love IPAs and brewers enjoy brewing them.
So with all this IPA floating around, it makes sense that Bavarian glassmaker Spiegelau, which has been blowing glass since the 16th century and was bought out by acclaimed wine glass and decanter maker Riedel in 2004, has added an IPA glass to its lauded Beer Classics collection. In short, the thinness and superior materials of the glass, along with its odd shape, enhance an IPA beer drinker’s experience because it maintains the proper temperature, head and carbonation of an IPA for longer.
To aid in the design of the IPA glass, Spiegelau tapped the minds of Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing, and Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, two of the country’s most influential beer men known for concocting stellar IPAs. Adding some punch to the launch, Grossman and Calagione also collaborated on a new IPA called Rhizing Bines, the two’s first joint effort since their celebrated Life & Limb brew in 2009. (More on this, including tasting notes and cigar pairings, in a future blog.)
But first, the glass. Spiegelau unveiled the new IPA glass at a colloquium-style event moderated by company vice president Matt Rutkowski and held in New York City’s NoMad Hotel. On hand was Grossman and Calagione. Rutkowski, who cut his teeth in the restaurant industry as a wine director, caught the craft beer bug in the mid-1990s and studied to become a certified beer sommelier. He’s worked at Spiegelau since 2007. Shortly after he joined the company, it debuted its Beer Classics collection in the form of three vessels: a lager, tulip and wheat beer glass. Essentially, it’s the goal of Rutkowski and Spiegelau to launch a series of glasses that enhance the drinking experience for craft beer lovers, much like what Riedel was able to accomplish in the wine world years ago.