Sunday, December 30, 2012

Try This Before Somebody Decides It's Uncool...

I have a confession to make: I am not interested in being cool. But there I was, standing with a co-worker during a lull in a big event at my job and the subject of Fernet came up. Not just any Fernet -- there are many Fernets on the market -- but Fernet Branca. I had half a bottle of this particular amaro at home and was lamenting not having brought it with me because this particular crew of bartenders would have cleared that space on my shelf in a matter of minutes. Which got me thinking....

Fernet Branca has become so popular that suggesting its powers are less than magical will make the popular crowd think less of you. John Barclay says this, "...[i]t is a class signifier, a secret handshake shared by Mixologists, Artisans, Urban gain entry into their smug underworld." Its popularity began on the West Coast, in San Francisco, where it has taken root so securely that they are alleged to drink more Fernet than any other city on earth.  Its reach stretched across America and settled in the East and has touched down in a certain type of bar, all across the country.  Fashionable Bartenders are ordering up rounds for friends and neophytes alike, talking about their time in San Francisco (or Argentina!), letting everyone in earshot know that they are cooler than you.  

But I can't imagine why this spirit has become the gatekeeper of the Cool Club. Don't get me wrong; it's good enough. I'm sipping some right now. Fernet has a purpose; it is useful to settle the stomach. It is the color of coffee, with a complex bitter-herb profile with a mint-forward flavor and a great deal of saffron. In fact, Fernet Branca controls 75% of the world's saffron.

The formulation is, of course, proprietary, but in addition to the saffron, the recipe includes -- but is definitely not limited to -- chamomile and myrrh, aloe, rhubarb and peppermint oil, all in a base of grape spirit. It tastes like Jagermeister, but not so syrupy. In fact, the "Fernet Face" is a meme so popular I swear I remember a social media campaign centered on it. Bartenders say it affords a burst of energy similar to a double espresso, which is why they can be seen sipping it before a shift or shooting it in the wee hours for a pick-me-up.  

In the age of ubiquitous coffeehouses and such a range of easily-purchased energy drinks (some actually already behind the bar - what could be more convenient?), to claim you drink Fernet for its energetic effects is as unconvincing to me as claiming to drink it for its flavor.  

It is not impossible that guys like Barclay are right, that bartenders are just drinking Fernet to be cool. The Bartender, like the Chef, is susceptible to trends; trends flow through our business.. New products, concepts, designs, recipes, all these things keep us interesting to our guests, ourselves and each other.  Some things, like the invention of the still, are great ideas. Other things, like this, well, we can probably live without.

But I'd like to think we're better than that. I'd like to think that we are not the shallow creatures who would choke down shots of something better sipped after dinner, at a leisurely pace, because we think it makes us look cool. While I am sure there are some who have that motive, I have another theory.

In our business, we are constantly tasting.  We taste new products, new recipes, we uncover old recipes.  Our palates get a workout. It may be that the bartender's palate is rather more elastic than a civilian's.  I would go even further than that, though. I would venture to suggest that, like a child watching televised violence and becoming inured to those images. a bartender is immune to "Karamel" vodka and lusts after the truly authentic, no matter how shocking it might be.

So when you have the chance, raise a glass of Fernet Branca. You might not love it, but it is real and true. There will be big, strange flavors, but they will not be from the Big, Strange Flavor Factory. Even if it should go out of fashion soon, and in a way I hope it does, the fact remains that you are drinking something that has been in production for over 150 years. If only for that reason, you owe yourself this experience. Sip it and decide for yourself what the fuss is about.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

If You Only Try One New Flavor in 2013...

Saffron has a gorgeous color, a subtle flavor and a long history.... Seriously long - how's 50,000 years sound? If you know anything about what makes me tick, you know I am geeked up about the cultural ties that connect us to our ancestors in prehistory. 50,000 years ago, artists in present-day Iran used saffron-based pigments to make paintings in caves. If that doesn't stop you mid-paragraph, nothing will. Now, they were using saffron that long ago, but once our forebears figured out the basics of selection, they stopped settling for collecting saffron and began cultivating it.  Our ancestors began cultivating saffron about three thousand years ago. 

Think about that: 3000 years ago, foodies -- geeks just like ourselves -- valued saffron so much that they chose specific plants (the ones with the longest threads), protected and bred these carefully selected plants with each other. The picture below is of a Bronze Age (3500-1200 BCE) fresco, and it's called The Saffron Gatherers. It shows two women harvesting the threads by hand, just as they are gathered today.

We know that ancient artists valued saffron for its pigment, but it came to be used for many different purposes. Saffron remained important as a colorant, and came to be used as a deodorizer, medicine, and as a flavoring agent. As a fabric dye, it can be used to impart hues from luminous yellow to rich red.  These colors do fade over time, but become no less lovely. Because this usage requires so much saffron, robes dyed in this way were reserved for the upper echelons of ancient society. Alexander the Great used saffron-infused baths to treat battle wounds, and Cleopatra took the baths because she believed they made lovemaking more pleasurable.  

You know that saffron is indigenous to the region near present-day Iran and India, but it can grow on any continent except Antarctica, including our own. Having said that, most saffron is still produced in that same region, gathered by hand and as a result is the world's most expensive spice, made more rare and expensive by the presence of Muslim terrorists in the area of its cultivation. 

It has long been prized by chefs for its color and flavor.  If you've been following along, you know that the bar follows the kitchen in most matters.  Saffron is used in some famous spirits, including the Italian herbal liqueur, Strega and the French Chartreuse. In modern times, Royal Saffron liqueur represents this spice.

Saffron's flavor has been likened to hay or straw, with metallic honey notes.  I have been experimenting with it, and encourage you to so the same to create a complex, unique and luxurious cocktail for yourself and the ones you love.

Saffron Cocktail #1
1.5 oz. Saffron-infused Great Lakes Distillery's Peach Brandy
1 oz. Honey Syrup
1 oz. Lemon Juice
1 oz. Orange Juice
Lemon Twist

(I made this slightly sweet, refreshing drink for a friend who exclaimed, "This tastes like a great breakfast drink!")

Friday, December 7, 2012

Does This Man Have Your Dream Job?

John Harrison is the kind of guy you could stand behind in the grocery store and never know you're inches away from a beer-making rock star.    Beneath the unassuming exterior is an applied intellect that delights palates both personal and professional, and he has created a devoted fan base in a State that knows beer.

If you want to impress beer drinkers in Wisconsin, you better bring your A-Game.  Harrison began making beer about thirty years ago, but his hobby didn't stay a hobby for long. Something about it took root in him and before long, he says, "I couldn't see myself working a Joe job for the rest of my life.... I wanted to make beer."

I met Harrison at the Delafield Brewhaus last week for the first in a series of conversations about beer. He has come a long way from his home setup, including lots of professional brewing, his graduation from the Siebel Institute of Technology. He has designed more than 250 styles of beer, and won some very prestigious awards along the way.

If you don't know, the Siebel Institute was founded in 1872 as America's first brewing school.  Graduation from its World Brewing Academy is enough to confer "expert" status, but to give you an idea of the seriousness of the subject matter, consider some of its course titles: Bier Sommelier, Raw Materials and Wort Production, Sensory Analysis for Flavor Production and Control. It is a beer geek's paradise.

His experience and education came in handy when the Delafield Brewhaus came calling. Harrison had just experienced a career setback in the form of back-to-back floods at his previous location.  Just when things seemed the bleakest, fate lent a hand with the opportunity of a lifetime.

Imagine, for a moment,  the great passion of your life.  Now imagine that you are free to pursue it, full-time.  In fact, you will be paid to pursue your greatest passion precisely as you wish - the project will be your own, down to the last detail.  "I started this project clearing the land... I was the first one they brought on board," Harrison said. He is the architect of the brewery, from its exterior grain silo that feeds the grist mill in the basement, to the taps behind the bar and everything in between.  He even planted the Cascade hops around the Biergarden outside, which he naturally uses in the course of his work.

Harrison's technical expertise, genuine passion and three decades of experience coalesce to make a brewmaster as skilled as he is humble.  Yes, if you ask him, he will tell you incredible stories about the time his beer beat some very well-known brands at a major competition, and how he took 6 beers to the World Beer Championships and came home with 6 medals. For me, the cool thing about John Harrison is, his numerous accolades are not what drives him to pursue excellence. "The people who come in time after time are a better medal than any you could put on a wall," he says.

I have met some of his fans. The ones who are excited to see a new beer on the line, the Mug Club loyalty members, folks who walk in with empty growlers and walk out with their favorite or excited about a new style.  They are mostly men, but Harrison's products definitely appeal to both genders -- certain beers, particularly those involving fruits and berries are especially girl-friendly (in my observation).   

The Delafield Brewhaus hosts Beer-and-Food pairing dinners, and if you have a taste for great beer and delicious food, matched by experts, this is a great event.  If you're out of range, check back here for the next in this series.