The Futility of Either/Or Thinking

As he is wont to do, Andy Crouch set tongues a-wagging this week with a rant against both beer cocktails and collaboration beers. He received a quick rebuttal from the Wench – or rather a Facebook-driven revival of an older post in defense of beer cocktails – as well as kudos from the inestimable Mr. McL, and who knows how many other yeas and nays.

To explain my position, I must retreat first several years, about twenty or so, in fact.

As a neophyte beer writer, I regularly encountered people who would approach beer of any variety with the simple dismissal of “I don’t like beer.” (I still do hear this, though not nearly as often, but let us leave that matter aside for now.) To these people, or at least the overwhelming majority of them, “beer” was mainstream lager. They had tasted it; they didn’t like it; ipso facto they did not like beer.

My response to these self-depriving souls was the same then as it is today. “Beer is a multi-headed beast,” I say, although not necessarily in those exact words, “Just because you don’t like what you have tried thus far needn’t mean that none of it is to your taste.”

If you have read Mr. Crouch’s self-described “rant,” you may have some idea of where I’m going with this. Having partaken of both beer cocktails and collaboration brews – we know not what sort of quantity of each, since he offers no such information – he declares that he has found both lacking and thus declares “Death” to them.

I’ve made a few beer cocktails in my time, and have sampled the mixology of others, and several, indeed I’d go so far as to say many of the combinations I’ve tasted have been quite delicious. At their best, as I have stated time and again, they are neither better nor an attempted improvement on the original beer, just a flavourful attempt at something equal but different.

And let’s face it, beer cocktails are in their infancy, so there are bound to be any number of sad and ugly ones taking up beer menu space. That’s the way it goes, indeed the way it was in the early days of craft brewing. (Lord knows, at the GABFs and other beer fests of the early 1990’s, and in bars and restaurants and my own tasting cubicle during the same period, many an unbalanced or poorly designed or unintentionally sour or buttery beer crossed my lips.) But the industry improved with time and experience, as beer cocktails are bound to do should the “death to” hoards fail to get their way.

Mr. Crouch’s position on collaboration beers I find much harder to comprehend. For the sin of being the product of two or more brewers working together a beer should be condemned? Really? That makes as much sense to me as do those who scream “anything but chardonnay!” when, in fact, they really mean “I’m tired of over-oaked butter-bombs.”

Granted, Mr. Crouch goes on to proclaim his distaste for “confusing and disjointed…beers,” with which I heartily agree, but why tar all collaborations with a single brush? I have tasted many fine collaborative brews from producers both prodigious – I’m looking at you, Stone Brewing – and selective, and one of the finest beers I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing in my almost seven years on All About Beer Magazine’sBeer Talk” panel was Fritz & Ken’s Ale, an Anchor-Sierra Nevada collaboration. Others have been less successful, but so what? I could say the same about any number of single brewery beers.

So you’ll hear no dismissal or “death to” from this writer. I’ll take each beer or cocktail (or spirit or wine) as it comes and judge accordingly. In fact, the more the merrier!

Sh*t Bar Patrons Do (But Shouldn’t)

Yesterday’s post highlighted a few common bartender sins – and yes, there are still more to come – so in the interest of fairness, and in answer to Couzin Ed’s request from the Comments section, here are a few examples of equally lamentable behaviour by customers.

1. By all means, when business is slow, chat with the bartender. Part of the job description is socializing with the patrons, and assuming that you’re both reasonable people, it’s likely that some common conversational ground can be reached. But remember that when things get busy, your ongoing chat comes in a distant second to the task of getting other people drinks, and when it’s three deep at the bar, well, that may not be the best time to start up a debate over the relative worth of an American versus a British style IPA or the best gin for a barrel-aged Negroni.

2. When you have a specific way you would like a drink mixed and/or served, tell it to the bartender. Do not wait until she serves it to you one way to declare that you’d prefer it differently.

3. Never, ever click your fingers/wave your bills/yell “Hey buddy!” to get the bartender’s attention. Wait your turn, catch his eye, and be pleasant. You’ll get your drink faster.

4. Know what you’re ordering. As per another comment on the previous post, do not order a drink simply because you heard it in a song or saw it on a television show and then try to return it because you don’t like it. You bought it, you’re stuck with it.

5. Treating the bartender like your personal servant is not cool. “Please” and “thank you” go a long way.

Sh*t Bartenders Do (But Shouldn’t), Pt. 1

1. It’s a given, I think, that martinis should be stirred and not shaken, but I understand that some easily influenced souls actually prefer a diluted, cloudy mess in their martini glass. Still, when I specifically ask you to stir rather than shake my martini, please ONLY stir it. Don’t give it a stir and then plop it into one of those precious tiny shakers for a good shaking up at the table.

2. A Manhattan contains sweet vermouth, and a sizable amount of it, at that. Please do not mix my Manhattan as if it were a very dry martini.

3. I accept that you may be a very clean-minded individual who washes their hands regularly, but I don’t know that as fact. So please don’t hold my beer glass by the lip when you’re pouring my draft beer. I have to drink from that thing.

4. And speaking of draft beer, when the foam you have poured off one pint settles in a separate glass, it becomes flat beer, NOT beer that is suitable for using to top up my pint.

5. If I ask for a call brand of booze that I can plainly see on your back bar, please believe me that it’s there and what I want. Do not stare at me as if I’m some sort of idiot because you don’t have enough professionalism to actually know the brands your bar stocks.

Gift Idea #8: The PDT Cocktail Book

Do you really need me to tell you anything more about Jim Meehan’s new PDT Cocktail Book other than Gaz Regan has called it the best book of its kind published thus far this century? You do? Okay then, here’s a bit more.

Let’s start with the fact that it works for amateurs and professionals alike, since in addition to a massive collection of well-laid out drink recipes, a surprisingly large number of which can be easily executed by anyone with a reasonably stocked bar — as opposed to so many cocktail books that call for esoteric ingredients you can only find on the south coast of Bali — there are also sections on bar design and setting up the back bar. Add in the fact that the recipes all call for name brand spirits, an implicit acknowledgement that rums and tequilas and whiskeys can vary greatly. And garnish with a layout so friendly to the eye that it makes you want to read the book like a novel.

That should be enough. If it’s not, how about this? Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff likes it enough to add it to “Recommended” list, the first such addition he’s made since the 2010 publication of Tony Abou-Ganim’s The Modern Mixologist.

Gift Idea #1: A Perlini System

Forgive me for beginning my list of gifts for the drinks enthusiast with something that is: a) Not at all related to beer; and b) Pricey. But believe me when I tell you that anyone with a drinks-focused bent will think you the coolest person in the world if they get this from you.

It is the Perlini Carbonated Cocktail System! And while it’s not cheap at $200 a pop, it is very, very cool.

Imagine being invited to craft some cocktails, either by guests in your own home or by your host elsewhere. You leave the room (or arrive at the door) and return with a silver briefcase. You open it up and assemble your tools. You fill the shaker with the ingredients for, say, three Negronis, adding a little extra vermouth to account for the sweetness that will be lost to the CO2. You carbonate the shaker with your sleek carbon dioxide “gun” and shake. You let it settle for 15 to 30 seconds and then pour three perfect, fizzy cocktails.

Yes, it’s less than essential. Yes, it’s a bit geeky, especially if you set the lock on the briefcase. But did I mention that it is also very, very cool? And highly recommended.


Time Out for a Cocktail

I receive a bunch of spirits and mixology press releases almost every day and, I’ll admit, trash most after a quick scan. This morning’s missive from Leblon Cachaça, however, caught my attention because:

a) I am a big fan of cachaça in general and Leblon Cachaça in particular; and

b) This looks like a great seasonal cocktail, and is one I suspect I’ll be testing out before the week is through!

Camparinha at the Bitter Bar, Boulder, CO

Brazil is obviously the world’s biggest market for cachaça, but few bartenders know that it is also the world’s 2nd biggest market for sake and the biggest market for Campari. Award-winning bartender Mark Stoddard, of Bitter Bar in Boulder, took this useless piece of trivia from our recent Leblon masterclass in Colorado, and used it as the inspiration for this delicious bittersweet cocktail. Like all bartenders, we love the Negroni, but as a first drink of an evening, we’d take the Camparinha’s aromatic and refreshing charms over the faithful Negroni any day. It’s a quick and simple cocktail that is a great way to introduce guests to Leblon Cachaça.

1 oz Leblon Cachaça
1 oz Campari
1/2 oz gomme syrup
3 lime wedges
1 grapefruit wedge

Muddle the lime, grapefruit with gomme syrup in a shaker. Fill the shaker with ice and add Leblon Cachaça and Campari. Shale vigorously, and pour all into a rocks glass. Garnish with a grapefruit wedge

Pubs in the News

The British pub has been in the news a couple of times lately, once for what it’s not, or at least not anymore, and another time for apparently what it is but shouldn’t be.

On the first front, the word “gastropub” has evidently now been exorcised from the vocabulary of the British Good Food Guide. The Independent on Sunday has the details:

But Elizabeth Carter, consultant editor for the guide, believes that the term had become a byword for an establishment’s ambitions and, at a time when pubs have been hit hard by the recession, this inflexible attitude was becoming a thing of the past. “Our feeling with the gastropub was that it was a bit of a bandwagon that a lot of people have jumped on to. A lot of chains have taken that gastropub style.

As usual, Martyn was on this story straight off, and his commentator Curmudgeon has, to my mind, hit the nail right on the head:

Perhaps it is more a case of “we are all gastropubs now” and so the term is no longer needed to distinguish some pubs from the general herd. I certainly don’t see any sign of a swing back towards a more drink-focused offer. If anything the pendulum is still very much swinging the other way.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, however you may feel about resto-wannabe pubs and places – real or imagined! – where drinkers are pushed to the side in favour of diners, the last two decades of the gastropub in the U.K. has resulted in an immeasurable rise in the quality of food offered at the average pub, and for those who might occasionally want a bite with their pint, that is an unqualified positive.

The second reference I’ve come across lately is in the usually reliable pages of Simon Difford’s Class Magazine. The latest issue features a “Hall of Shame” posting on pub cocktails:

While some have clearly upped their game in wines (including Geronimo), we still wouldn’t go near cocktails in most pubs. With the exception of a handful of venues, most pub staff we encounter wouldn’t know one end of a shaker from the other, let alone be able to differentiate a Martinez from a Martini. Apart from the attraction of higher cash margins and GP (our two highballs were £6 each), why they even bother is a mystery to us. The wider problem is they don’t exactly sell the whole cocktail concept to consumers making their first steps into mixology.

The commentary concludes thusly:

Pubs should stick to what they’re good at and leave cocktails to the experts.

Now, when I’m in a pub, I’m generally drinking ale, or occasionally a single malt. But I’m partial to a good cocktail now and again and I don’t for the life of me see why pubs should forego offering the option. You don’t have to be a cocktail “expert” to mix a decent martini or Manhattan or daiquiri, any more than you must be a beer expert to pull a decent pint.

What’s needed is not the abandonment of cocktails, but rather the training of bartenders so that they can mix their wares with precision. And so, in my estimation, rather than dissing the obviously lacking efforts of pubs like the Builder’s Arms, Difford and co. should be busy selling mixology training programs to the companies which own them. Then we can all be happy, cocktailian and beerophile together.

Lifestyle or Problem?

From Gaz Regan’s Ardent Spirits enewsletter:

“The practice is to commence with a brandy or gin ‘cocktail’ before breakfast, by way of an appetizer.  Subsequently, a ‘digester’ will be needed.  Then, in due course and at certain intervals, a ‘refresher,’ a ‘reposer,’ a ‘settler,’ a ‘cooler,’ an ‘invigorator,’ a ‘sparkler,’ and a ‘rouser,’ pending the final ‘nightcap,’ or midnight dram.”  Life and Society in America by Samuel Phillips Day.  Published by Newman and Co., 1880.

And You Thought Barrel-Aged Beer Was Impressive

Unless you’ve been living the last few years with your head buried in the sand, you probably know that in addition to the continuing growth of the craft beer juggernaut, the past hal;f-decade or so has brought with it a renaissance of mixology, with bars and restaurants both embracing classic cocktails and new innovations. Such as, believe it or not, barrel-aged cocktails like Negronis, Manhattans and Blood and Sands.

Seattle bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler was the first to do this, so far as I can figure, and this LA Times article seems to concur on that front. I haven’t been to his or any other barrel-aging bar to date, but the idea has me plenty interested.

Getting a Few Things Off My Chest

I awoke grumpy this morning. Blame the great night I had out cocktailing last night – save for the roof bar at Toronto’s Thompson Hotel, which so desperately needs a cocktail revamp – although I’ve no swollen head or puffy eyes to show for my sins. Or maybe it was the vapidity of the morning news on the radio as I awoke, the main story of which was the death yesterday of the actor who played Uncle Leo on Seinfeld. (I’m sorry for the man’s family and friends, but really, that’s your lead?!) Or perhaps it’s the daunting workload I have staring me in the face yet again this a.m.

But for whatever reason, I’m grumpy. So here are a few grumpy-ish things I need to get off my chest.

1) Stan asks how you compare a pils to an imperial stout? I answer simply, you don’t. I mean, why bother? What is this obsession we have with quantifying one thing over another, saying that this beer, which bears practically no relation to that beer, other than ingredient lists which include barley malt, hops, water and yeast, is nonetheless somehow better than it. I enjoy a good sirloin steak and I savor a fine rack of barbecue ribs, yet I feel no need to say that one is quantifiably superior to the other, even though both are cooked pieces of animal flesh. And as for how they compare on the basis of style guidelines, well, I’ll leave that grumpy answer to Ron.

2) For a publication that will remain nameless, I just reviewed a beer which will also remain nameless, save for bearing the descriptor “Belgian Tripel.” Except that it’s not Belgian at all. It’s Canadian. So stop usurping a nation’s identity already.

3) On the subject of beer styles, the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the so-called “double,” “triple” and – for crying out loud! – “quadruple” IPA styles need to be binned. They are stronger, hoppier versions of simple IPAs, period. Sub-class them if you will – “IPAs over 6% alcohol,” “IPAs over 8.5% alcohol” and so on – but enough with the meaningless adjectives. (And less face it, in the context of these IPAs, “double” and “triple” really are meaningless.)

4) And finally, on a decidedly non-grumpy note, Malt Advocate publisher John Hansell is previewing the magazine’s annual Whisky Awards over at his blog. If you enjoy a drop of amber liquid sunshine as much as I do, you should check them out.