Monday, December 2, 2013

Baja California Mexico Craft Beers Featured at San Diego’s ¡LATIN FOOD FEST!

Latin Food Fest

I previously wrote about the Baja wines at San Diego’s ¡LATIN FOOD FEST!  But when I first started researching the event, I was surprised to learn how many craft beers are coming out of Baja.   Before attending the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST!, when I thought of Mexican beer, I thought of brands like Tecate and Corona, pale pilsners and lagers that taste better with a squeeze of lime.  I wondered how good these Baja beers would be.  Could they rival the multitude of craft beers being invented in neighboring San Diego?  I couldn’t wait to find out.

To learn more about Baja craft beers, I first spoke to Stephen Walker of Polaris Beverages, Inc., distributors for Cerveza Cucapá.  Cucapá started in 2002 as a brew pub.  Cucapá’s owner, Mario Garcia, and his father had been following the craft beer movement and had developed a passion for craft beer and wanted to be part of it.  Three years after starting the brew pub they built their current brewery.  Unfortunately the brewery does not have a tasting room.  Apparently Mexico charges a 26.6% luxury tax on the beer that is made, and then would charge that same tax again on any beer sold in a tasting room.  However, they do give tours of the brewery and they have a restaurant near the brewery where the beer can be purchased.

Cucapa Baja Beer Latin Food Fest

Cucapá makes a wide range of beers including blond ales, brown ales, imperial stouts, and more.  Some of Cucapá’s beer names and labels could be viewed as controversial, such as La Migra, Runaway, and Green Card, so I asked Stephen about them.  Stephen explained the beers are born of the border region and the labels reflect the realities of the border and pay homage to those who did whatever it took to succeed in the border region.  In his words, “If you can’t have fun, poke fun, make jokes, etc. while drinking a beer, then maybe you shouldn’t be drinking one!”

At the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST! Kick-Off Party I had the chance to taste two of Cucapá’s beers.  My favorite was Chupacabras, a copper colored American pale ale.  Chupacabras is a medium-full body beer with caramel and nut aromas and a slight citrus taste.  I also tasted Runaway.  Runaway is a hoppy IPA with citrus overtones made with four varieties of hops. I’m not usually a big fan of IPAs, but while the hops were at the forefront, they were not overpowering, and I could also taste the flavorful base malt.  Stephen said Cucapá doesn’t make west coast IPAs, which can be overly hoppy.  He mentioned that craft beer is becoming more like wine in that it is being paired with particular foods, so the slight sweetness of Chupacabras lends itself to pairing well with spicy Mexican dishes.

Cucapá can be found all over Mexico, including WalMart and 7-11.  Cucapá has a limited distribution in the United States.  There is some distribution east of the Mississippi.  In California it can only be found in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Orange County.  The best place to find Cucapá in the States is Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Mexican and Baja Med restaurants.  In San Diego Cucapá is served at restaurants such as Blind Burro, Carnitas Snack Shack (a must visit), Ponce’s, Aqui as Texcoco, Pizza Port, and Romesco’s.

I next tried Funes Hand-Crafted Baja Beer.  Funes’ Saison beer is made once a year with herbs grown in the valley, and I could actually taste the freshness of the herbs in the beer.  I really enjoyed Saison and could imagine enjoying it on a hot summer day or with some spicy Baja Med cuisine.  Funes’ Imperial Mexicana was also excellent.  Imperial Mexicana was a darker beer with a rich malt and brown sugar taste and a touch of spice.  Funes is only available in Mexico at this time, but they are working on making their beers available in the United States.

Funes Baja Beer Latin Food Fest

All of the beers I had tasted thus far were unlike what I imagined Baja beers would be, but I was most surprised by Border Psycho Brewery’s Chipotle Porter.  Porters and stouts are my favorite kinds of beer, so I was interested to taste a Baja porter, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about the addition of chipotle.  I needn’t have worried.  The taste of chipotle was not strong, but was a very pleasant flavor addition that actually made the porter taste a little lighter and refreshing.  It reminded me somewhat of Aztec Brewing Company’s Noche de los Muertos, an imperial stout with a hint of cinnamon that I tasted at the San Diego Brew Festival.  I also tasted Border Psycho Brewery’s Brutal Imperial Stout, another enjoyable dark beer.  Border Psycho Brewery’s beers are also not yet available in the United States, but hopefully will be soon.

Border Psycho Baja Beer Latin Food Fest

I also spoke with Rodrigo Hernandez and Rafael Gonzalez of Cerveza Tres B, Big Bad Brewing Co.  Unfortunately, though originally scheduled to, they were unable to attend the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST! so I did not have a chance to taste their beers.  However, I was still able to learn a little bit about their beers and the emerging Baja craft beer scene.  They feel what makes Baja beers different is how different Baja is from the rest of Mexico and the Spanish speaking world.  The Baja region is a relatively newly populated area and the people are a melting pot from many different areas of Mexico as well as having French, Russian, British, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese descent.  The people of Baja aren’t afraid of change and trying new things and new ideas.  Many Baja breweries grew from home brewers that became nano-microbreweries.  Cerveza Tres B started as a hobby of home brewing.  Baja brewers usually start from little means and have to work extremely hard for any success.  Baja brewers also work together, knowing that in order to grow as an industry they have to help each other out.

Cerveza Tres B makes a range of beers including Hefeweizen, Strong Ale, and Bitter Summer ESB.  They import many of their ingredients from the United States, but get some items such as natural bee honey from the Mexicali Valley and seasonal fruit from organic greenhouses in the San Quintín Valley.  They are creative with their recipes and make beers they think taste good, and hope the market agrees.

Cerveza Tres B’s brewery is in Mexicali and is open for private parties and tours by appointment.  They also host special events, tastings, and brewing lessons.  Their beers can be found throughout Baja.  They are in Mexicali, Rosarito, Tijuana, and Ensenada, and will soon be in Tecate as well.  They are starting to venture further into Mexico and hope to be able to send their beers to specialty beer shops in San Diego.

If you’re wondering how they came up with their name, they originally called themselves The Big Bad Brewing Co., poking fun at the fact that a tiny brewing company was joining the commercial brewing world of the big bad breweries, the monolithic name brands.  The Spanish people started calling them Tres B as it was easier.

If you are at a Mexican or Baja Med restaurant, or visiting the Baja California Mexico region, instead of ordering a bucket of pale bottled beers, try some of Baja’s up and coming craft beers.

I purchased tickets to the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST! Grand Tasting and I was also invited by DIÁLOGO, the producers of the event, to attend the Fest Kick-Off Party.  The next ¡LATIN FOOD FEST! will be in San Antonio March 21-22, 2014, New York June 6-7, 2014, Miami October 17-18, 2014, and returning to San Diego September 12-13, 2014.  Visit the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST! website for more information about the event.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Local Drinks of Madrid

One of my favorite parts of traveling is meeting new people and connecting with old friends from all corners of the world. Lucky for us, we had friends in Madrid before we ever arrived in Spain’s capital city. This meant personal tours of the city vs. our normal guidebook-and-go strategy. It allowed us to enjoy some bars, restaurants and areas of Madrid that we would not have found without the help of our friends. And, it gave us the chance to discover some local drinks that, though I haven’t had since, were so memorable they will forever be synonymous with our time spent in the Spanish capital.

From our group of Spanish friends, our guide on our boozy exploration would be Eloisa Marco. One year earlier, Elo had been part of a Fulbright study abroad program that my wife mentored at our local university. After a day of exploring Madrid’s parks, plazas, and Estadio Santiago Bernebeu on our own, Elo introduced us to drink after drink that we couldn’t spell, could barely pronounce, and certainly had not tried before. She took us from the Malasaña neighborhood where young people (and sometimes hipsters) go to bang their heads and drink local concoctions, to Las Letras, which is near the art triangle and where you can have a Mojtio at 3 am…as long as you don’t mind the risqué after hours TV programming above the bar.

Empty glasses?
We began in the popular Malasaña neighborhood of Madrid. This area was popular and full of positive vibes. It’s near the center of Madrid bordering Grand Via on it’s furthest reaches. The streets were packed with a younger crowd eager to meet friends and share a drink and frequent a bar filled with their choice of music. As this is a very diverse neighborhood, the music being played in each establishment was diverse as well.

Our first stop was El Ray Lagarto (The Lizard King) for our introduction to Kalimotxo. This red wine and Coca Cola concoction has recently made it to the shores of the US, but has been a popular drink in Madrid for many years. It sounds like a frightening combo, even ordered separately. El Ray Lagarto itself was a great bar to start at. The hard rock music, underground setting, and stand up tables lend to movement and conversation instead of that sitting down resting situation. This was perfect after touring all day because resting could have quickly set in.

Kalimotxo itself gave me a couple of reactions. Number one is it’s a must do in Madrid, the when in Rome feeling. Number two is I probably won’t be mixing any up at home. The taste is not bad, but it wasn’t  flavor country either. A little too much sweet, dry, and dark for my regular tastes, but drinkable and a must do in Madrid. I know when I’m there again it will be on the list.

After a few glasses of Kalimotxo, it was time to move on in the Malasaña neighborhood. The history of this neighborhood is rich starting with an uprising against the French in 1808, to the 70′-80′s Movida Madrileña musical movement( pop, rock, punk movement) which still lends to the cross cultural music movement you hear on every street today.

The streets were alive on that September night. The vibe was ultra positive, and very relaxed. The other thing about this neighborhood is it is very “local”. This is where the actual revelers from Madrid revel. As great as Madrid is as a whole (Retiro Park, Puerta del Sol, Grand Via…etc) this seemed more like a hangout place than a people watching place.

Fishbowl of Goodness
On to a very popular bar in the Malasaña for a very popular drink. We headed to the heavy metal/thrash metal bar Diplodocus for the larger than life Leche de Brontosaurio. Not everyone can get into every kind of music. But like the rest of this neighborhood, the vibe was cool. There wasn’t any throwing of tables or sacrificing animals to Ozzy. People were there to hang out and attack this drink of all drinks. Leche de Brontosaurio comes in your general sharing fishbowl and comes packed with flavors. The ingredients are milk( a lot), vodka, cointreau, whiskey, sugar, cinnamon, and grenadine. It’s a strange pink color when you catch it in the light. General reaction, WOW, it’s over the top in size, taste, and booze.  Throwing this in as our 2nd stop of the night insured that we would not be seeing the sun come up, though we did soldier on. In my opinion this is a must try and a Madrid original. Find Diplodocus when you go to Madrid and bring friends, it’s an experience.

Soldiering on from Malasaña (at about 2 am) we headed to the Las Letras neighborhood for late night Mojitos and more fun. Las Letras is in the same area as the Art Triangle. This neighborhood is filled with history and again a wonderful vibe. In the streets in Las Letras you will find fragments of the most important novels in Spanish history. The streets are cobbled and the bars and cafes boom a vibe from Cuba to Costa Rica to Spain. The history of the golden age is everywhere you look, and the rich flavors of colonial and present day Spain emit around every corner.

I'll take one of each in Las Letras
Our destination in Las Letras was El Helecho, a bar specializing in Mojitos. And from Elo’s mouth, these are the best in Madrid. The 2 am crowd was bustling and the service was great. On top of great service the Mojitos were top notch. El Helecho had the most lighting of any place we’d been in so more conversation at our table and across the tables was had. Elo’s words were spot on. These WERE the best Mojitos I’d had. Cool and refreshing with plenty of booze, a necessity to end the evening.

After a few Mojitos and great fun, we had to say adios to our friends for the evening/morning. After a great evening of no Estrella Dam, barely any English spoken, and new drinks discovered we headed back to our hostel. The 4 am revelry still all around us gave me a new perspective on Madrid. I knew that Barcelona partied all night and should have figured that the folks of Madrid carried that same spirit. The Spanish capital packs a punch with museums, parks, shopping, and from my experience nightlife as well.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Mustang Brewery and Craft Beer Deep Thoughts

Having an open forum and the ability to travel is what makes this site possible.   What I find great about what we at Passports & Cocktails have come up with is a great mix. Our stories all tell you about a place and a great drink or drinks we found in that place.

When writing my latest travel destination with beer piece I had to stop. The whole post was a description of the wonderful beer made by the folks at Mustang Brewing in Oklahoma City and the music festival where they were being served. The city itself, the wonderful last frontier town of Guthrie, OK, was not getting a piece of the pie. Unfortunately for Guthrie we sometimes travel for an event instead of the place that event was held, and in doing so don’t get the real feel for the town. Guthrie was a great host city for The Gentleman of The Road Festival, but I wouldn’t be able to do the town justice.

Fortunately for Mustang Brewing they were given a unique opportunity to be the exclusive servers of their fine craft beer at the festival. Fortunately for festival goers as well, because it was a nice change of pace to have to choose between St Louis, Milwaukee, or Golden for once at a large scale event.

As I waxed on about how I wanted to cover this regional beer in the black can, I raised a whole slew of questions in my mind. Am I doing myself a disservice by only writing about the beer and the festival ? I mean this isn’t an every year festival in Oklahoma that people can attend so I’m only covering a single event.

Does craft beer have a destination problem and with that an expansion and bubble problem ? That was a little deep but if you think about wine production there is a certain travel aspect that goes along with it that craft beer in general doesn’t enjoy.

Is the explosion of craft beer a fad like Americans driving Volkswagen’s and at some point will people go back to driving Toyota’s ? You get more flavor and fun, but when the dust settles will the macro producer who can get you a buzz for a little cheaper take back the reigns of the market?
Every concert should have a bar with craft beer
All of these questions from one very well made beer. So I should give them their love. Like I said, Mustang Brewing is a regional brewery in Oklahoma City. They distribute throughout Oklahoma and in select areas in Arkansas as well. I’ve been lucky enough, since my introduction to Mustang, to have a few interactions with the Mustang team.  As their bio describes, I get the feeling that we are much alike in a love for just a good tasting beer. They took it the extra step and created, well, some great tasting and refreshing beer.

I say refreshing as the temperature was well above 100 for the 2 day festival and refreshing was very necessary. They also paired well with the wonderful Oklahoma Open Pit BBQ that I devoured for every meal on the weekend. Eat and drink as the locals right. My favorite of the Mustang selections was the Washita Wheat, made from Oklahoma Washita Red Wheat. This beer packed all the flavor of a great wheat with a little uniqueness and an awesome smoothness. After driving 6 and a half hours and losing air conditioning for half of that time in the heat, this unexpected beer was a welcome treat. Along with that, we finished many Stopover Ale’s which was their specially titled ale for the event. In it’s every day form it’s the Thirty Three Session Ale, which is described by Mustang as a light, crisp American Hybrid Ale. What I describe it as is a very refreshing Ale with a great flavor while not being overly heavy.                                                              

Great slogan, great beer
These 2 offerings made me a giant fan. Having them offered at such a large event also gave me hope. Hope that events nationwide would continue this trend and that news of the craft beer taking on the world of the macro’s would continue as a full fledged trend. All the news you read is doom and gloom for America’s big 3 and I figured that seeing this trend in real life would be the pump your fist moment I was looking for. A major festival not sponsored by Bud, Yippee!!

My giant questions probably can’t be answered yet. I can say though that 2 weeks later my hopes were dashed by the same band playing a regular one off concert in a venue outside Kansas City and the offerings were the same old standard yellow colored water. I can also say that in recent weeks one of my favorite Midwestern breweries has been gobbled up by a larger European brewer that also puts me on edge a little. Let me dig for a second as this does bring travel into the game. I don’t travel for American craft beer. I explore the local offering in my travels but there are very few actual destinations that the traveling public in general would actually mark as a craft beer destination. This may become a problem in the long run for the industry. What Macro’s have in their favor is a whole national network of distributors. You can now find a Coors Light in about any city you go to. Also they are massively produced and just have a solid infrastructure.

It is an uphill battle and with the entry of more and more small batch brewers in local regions comes a bigger struggle for those breweries who already have to battle the big boys. It’s the Yankees vs the Pirates, more money to toss around, bigger market as the Macro’s sell on a national level, more ad dollars and a better distributorship. Any time I hear of a regional brew being sold I worry about who’s next to fall. And unlike wine regions or true beer destinations such as Germany and the Czech Republic, the true tourism dollars for craft beer destinations in America is very slim. There are great destinations with large numbers of small breweries : Portland, Denver to Ft Collins, Southern Wisconsin, San Diego. But even with those, the true impact of craft beer on the travel dollar is a fraction of a percent.

Park that Toyota somewhere else, we're buying great beer
Take a regional brewer with a great product like Mustang and slowly make people believe that even though the Toyota is not engineered in Germany, people have been driving them forever so they must still be good and you could burst your fine craft bubble. I hope to heaven that we fans of fine crafts can continue to push the word that beer has more purpose than just the buzz, and that traveling the craft beer corners will become more popular. I can only hope the work we do here can help that along. Find yourself a reason to go to Oklahoma and toast a Mustang to keep cool in the hot Oklahoma sun. Cheers !

Monday, October 14, 2013

San Diego Brewery Tour with Aall In Limo & Party Bus

Aall In Limo Brewery Tour San Diego California

We have all seen limousines rolling up the drive at wineries, usually with a bachelorette and her party spilling out for another session of wine tasting.  And with the skyrocketing popularity of craft beer breweries, there are a number of companies offering brewery tours, usually in vans or buses.  But what about combining the two and visiting your favorite local breweries in a limo?  I was lucky enough to be one of a small group invited to be guests of Aall In Limo & Party Bus, a limousine company that offers San Diego limo brewery tours. 

As soon as we took off in the limo to our first brewery one of the benefits of taking a limo brewery tour became immediately apparent.  Free champagne!  We had barely hit the freeway when the group voted unanimously to pop open the bottle of champagne that was sitting in the bar begging to be consumed.

Aall In Limo Brewery Tour San Diego California
What better way to start a limo brewery tour than with a round of champagne? Thanks Jeremiah!
(No Tom! Put down that blue bottle! We're on a craft beer brewery tour! Ignore that silver can next to him.)
Our first brewery stop was Mission Brewery, a microbrewery located in downtown San Diego steps away from Petco Park and the Gaslamp District.  I have lived in San Diego my entire life and so am very familiar with the Mission Brewery building, which housed the original Mission Brewery from 1913 to 1919.  The current Mission Brewery started in 2007 and pays tribute to its pre-prohibition predecessor.  Today’s Mission Brewery is located in the old Wonder Bread building built in 1894.

Mission Brewery San Diego California
Our Aall In Limo & Party Bus limousine in front of San Diego's Mission Brewery.
The inside of the brewery is huge and gorgeous, with vaulted wood beamed ceilings, large cast iron chandeliers, a long wood bar, and big shiny fermentation tanks.  I chose a four-taster flight of the Mission Amber, El Conquistador, Mission Dark Seas, and Carrack.  I am a dark beer girl, so the Mission Dark Seas was my favorite.   Mission Dark Seas is a Russian Imperial Stout with a pretty high alcohol content at 9.8%.  It was dark and smooth with a strong coffee taste.  The Carrack, an Imperial Red Ale, was my second favorite.  It also has a high alcohol content at 10.2% and had a rich malt taste.  The Mission Amber, a Dusseldorf-Style Altbier, and El Conquistador Extra Pale Ale, a session-style American Pale Ale, were too light for my taste.

Mission Brewery San Diego California
Everything about the interior of Mission Brewery is beautiful, including the shiny fermentation tanks.
In addition to San Diego’s excellent craft beer scene, there is also a quickly emerging food truck industry, and while many breweries do not or cannot sell food, they arrange for food trucks to provide nourishment for their beer tasting customers.  I accompanied my beer flight with Heavenly Baja Tacos’ hand beer battered fish tacos with pickled red cabbage coleslaw, red hot salsa, and chipotle cream salsa.

Heavenly Baja Tacos San Diego California
The fish tacos from Heavenly Baja Tacos tasted heavenly, especially with my Mission Brewery beer flight.
We left Mission Brewery and drove across the Coronado Bridge to Coronado Brewing Co.  Coronado Brewing Co. has been around since 1996, before the boom of San Diego’s craft beer movement.   Their Coronado location is a brew pub, so also serves food.  You can either order the preselected taster set or build your own.  I chose the CBC Milk Stout, El Borracho Brown, Blue Bridge Coffee Stout, Scallywag Barley Wine, and Black Sails IPA.  My favorite, and in fact a crowd favorite, was the CBC Milk Stout.  This stout is very thick and creamy, not a good choice for a daytime beer, but the best choice for an evening beer.  CBC Milk Stout is like dessert in a glass, with notes of chocolate, brown sugar, and toffee, almost like a beer milkshake in the very best way.  Coming in at a close second was the Blue Bridge Coffee Stout, with a low alcohol content of 5.4% and a fragrant coffee taste, achieved by brewing the beer with dark roasted coffee beans from San Diego’s Café Moto.  This is a refreshing daytime dark beer.  I also enjoyed the El Borracho Brown, which surprisingly had a stronger taste than the coffee stout.  It is a malty ale with mild hops.  While I am not the biggest fan of IPAs, the Black Sails IPA was enjoyable, with a strong but not overwhelming taste of hops.  I decided to try something a little different with the Old Scallywag Barley Wine, a strong English-style ale, but it was too sweet and thick for me with a very strong alcohol taste.

Coronado Brewing Company California
Coronado Brewing Co. Brewing is their middle name.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and that was the end of our limo brewery tour.  The next time you and your friends are planning a night out on the town or a mid-afternoon brewery tour in San Diego, consider touring in style with Aall In Limo & Party Bus.  You can either choose your own brewery route, or they will suggest one for you.

Aall In Limo
James welcomes us back into the Aall In Limo & Party Bus limousine at the end of our San Diego brewery tour.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Baja Wines at San Diego’s ¡LATIN FOOD FEST!

 Latin Food Fest Baja Wine

I recently attended the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST! in San Diego, a four day event featuring Latin culinary personalities as well as wine, beer, and spirit producers.  This was the first of a multi-city event.  (The next ¡LATIN FOOD FEST! will be in Miami starting March 22, 2014.)  I purchased tickets to the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST! Grand Tasting and I was also invited by DIÁLOGO, the producers of the event, to attend the Fest Kick-Off Party.  Wines from the Baja California Mexico region have recently begun to gain recognition, so I was excited to meet some of the wine makers and taste some Baja wines. 


AlXimia is a boutique winery owned by a family of scientists.  AlXimia is a play on the Spanish word for alchemy, the scientific attempt of the Middle Ages to turn ordinary metals into gold.  As scientists, the family is turning the natural elements into something better than gold, wine.  Alvaro Alvarez is the founder and winemaker, and his brothers and parents have various roles in the family business.  I met with Manuel, the brother in charge of sales and marketing, after the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST!, which allowed me to learn a lot more about the winery and wines.

The wines are named for the elements fire, air, water and earth. Most of their wines are blends.   The blends all start with a mixture of Petit Verdot and Zinfandel.  The additional grapes make the difference between the wines.  Petit Verdot, Carignan, Barbera, and Zinfandel grapes are grown in the AlXimia vineyards, which were planted in 2003.  They also buy grapes of 15 to 30 year old vines from other vineyards in the three Baja wine valleys. 

AlXimia Baja Wine Latin Food Fest
Some of AlXimia’s elemental wines.
I was able to taste four of AlXimia’s wines.  My favorite was the Sendero, which means path in Spanish and corresponds with the earth element.  Sendero is a blend of Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tempranillo.  It was a very bold and complex wine with fruit and berry flavors.  The wine can be paired with red meat, cheese, chocolate, mole, and pastas.  My second favorite was Aura, water element, a blend of Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, and Grenache.  This wine was lighter and fruitier and would be good on a hot day when a heartier wine would be too much.  It can be paired with cheese, pasta, and seafood.  I also enjoyed Magma, elements earth and fire, which is a blend of Carignan and Sangiovese.  It can be paired with beef, lamb, deer, and spicy stews.  Pira, element fire, made of 100% Barbera, was not to my personal taste.  It had a very strong, intense one-note flavor.  I imagine it would be better served with hearty meats, rather than on its own, and can be paired with goat, carnitas, deer, rabbit, and venison.

The AlXimia winery in Valle de Guadalupe is a new building with a unique design.  It has the form of a spaceship on the outside and is like a cathedral to wine on the inside.  The design is not only visually pleasing, but also allows the winery to be eco-friendly.  The shape of the roof allows for rain water to be captured for irrigation use.  The multiple roof levels, concrete building, and insulation of casings filled with cement and the dirt from the building area keep the winery cool without the use of air conditioning.  The cavernous interior allows for various phases of wine production to occur on different levels, with de-stemming on the top floor, fermentation on the second floor, and the barrel room on the lowest floor, which is underground, all allowing for the use of gravity to assist with the process, rather than a lot of electricity using machinery.  A visit to the winery will allow you to see the entire process.  The tasting room is currently open from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

AlXimia has just recently started exporting their wine to the United States and five of their eight labels are available in the States.  They also have a wine club that is available to their neighbors north of the border, which not many Baja wineries offer.  AlXimia is working on having their wines available in stores and restaurants in the States, but they currently are only available at Jonathan’s Market in La Jolla, California, and they are more interested in attracting visitors to the winery.  AlXimia wines are available throughout Mexico.

Manuel has also organized a three-day Valle de Guadalupe wine and culinary adventure in October for those who would like to experience Baja’s wine country in a group tour setting.  More information can be found at La Neta Adventures’ Facebook page, and more tours will be planned.

Vinedos Malagon

Joe and Rachel Malagon own Vinedos Malagon in Ensenada, Baja California Mexico.  Vinedos Malagon was originally a ranch in the early 1900s and has vineyards dating back to the 1960s, which is unusual for the region as many of the vines are far newer.  Joe and Rachel purchased the vineyard in 2000 and began making wine in 2005.  Something else that makes Vinedos Malagon unique is their wines are estate wines, meaning they only use their own grapes and do everything in-house, including growing, producing, and bottling.  Their main varietal is 55 year “old vine” Grenache, and their signature wines, Equua and Malagon Reserva de Familia, are blends.  They also have El Grenache, which is 100% old vine Grenache.  At the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST! Kick-Off Party I had a chance to taste the Equua.  I really enjoyed the Equua, which is a blend of Grenache and Petite Sirah with a full, bold taste. 

Vinedos Malagon Baja Wine Latin Food Fest
Joe and Rachel of Vinedos Malagon and their wine Equua.
Vinedos Malagon has a tasting room open Wednesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  They also have a four room bed & breakfast.  More information can be found on their website or obtained by email.  Their wine is available throughout the mainland of Mexico and is sold at local wine stores in Ensenada and Mexicali and served at restaurants throughout the Valle de Guadalupe.  In the United States, their wine is served at one of my favorite restaurants, Romesco’s in Bonita, California.  It can also be found in San Diego at Beckman Wine & Spirits or the Wine Bank, in San Clemente at San Clemente Wine Co. and Bob’s Fine Wines, and in Los Angeles at Beso Hollywood, Wally’s Wines, K&L Wine Merchants, and some restaurants.

Vena Cava

Phil Gregory had been making wine for just over four years when he began Vena Cava in 2007.  As you may have guessed from his name, he is not originally from Mexico.  He actually hails from Manchester, England.  Vena Cava’s wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, a Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache blend, a Reserve blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc.  The Valle de Guadalupe does not get much water, which stresses the vines, so Phil uses a gentle hand when making wine from his grapes.  Phil believes wines should be easy to drink and should pair well with food, transferring from one course to another without having to change wines.

Vena Cava Baja Wine Latin Food Fest
Winemaker Phil Gregory and Vena Cava’s Tempranillo.
At the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST! Grand Tasting I was able to taste the Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which I enjoyed.  The Tempranillo was refreshing with notes of cherry and very easy to drink.  It is recommended to be paired with paella, seafood, and chicken.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was a more complex and heartier wine with spice and berry notes.  It can be paired with meats, stews, mole, pork, and pastas with cream sauces.  Even though the wine was being served in plastic cups, as the event was held outside at San Diego’s Broadway Pier, the Cabernet’s legs were still apparent.

Vena Cava’s tasting room is in a beautiful and unique building with an overturned boat as a roof.  In addition to the tasting room, Vena Cava also has a six room bed & breakfast as well as a restaurant which was just listed as number 30 in the top 50 restaurants in all of Latin America.  On this side of the border, Vena Cava’s wines are served at Romesco’s in Bonita.

Some other excellent wines I had at the ¡LATIN FOOD FEST! were Cava Aragon 126 Madera 5 Tempranillo Cabernet and Atrevida Malbec.

While in the recent past Baja wines did not have much of a reputation, they are quickly becoming contenders in the wine scene.  The Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California Mexico is becoming a popular destination for wine lovers.  There are many wineries to visit, and even a wine museum, Museo de la Vid y el Vino where you can pick up a map of the wineries in the region.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Palm Springs Summer Cocktails

Palm Springs California

Sadly summer is drawing to a close.  If you aren't ready to give up the sun, a seat by the pool, and a frosty beverage, head to Palm Springs where the warm temperatures continue far into autumn and the cocktails always flow.  On a recent girls’ trip to Palm Springs, I had a chance to sample a number of signature cocktails perfect for a hot day, no matter the season.  While Palm Springs does not lack for variety in the alcoholic beverage department, or places to enjoy them, the following were some of our favorites.

We stayed at the lovely Viceroy Palm Springs, which is ideally located in downtown Palm Springs.  The hotel is gorgeous and has two important components, a fully stocked bar with a large and varied cocktail menu, and drink service by the pool.  Our favorite frozen beverage was the Chill Out Limeade, made with Citron Vodka, lemonade, and fresh mint.  Since it was a steamy 120 degrees, this cocktail was a welcome refreshment both day and night.  We also enjoyed the Pomelo Italiano, made with grapefruit vodka, Campari, and a splash of grapefruit juice, with a sugared rim, and the St. Germain Champagne, made with St. Germain Elder Flower Liqueur and champagne.

Viceroy Palm Springs California
The Viceroy Palm Springs' Citron Bar and Chill Out Limeade
We ate dinner one night at Trio, a fun restaurant decorated all in orange.  They have many standard cocktails as well as some more inventive ones.  Their best offering was the Spatini, made with Pearl Cucumber Vodka, agave, and a splash of lime juice. It truly tasted like a day at the spa in a glass.  One sip and all muscles in the body relax.  Some other interesting concoctions on Trio’s menu include the Some Like It Hot, with Stoli Jalapeno Vodka, Triple Sec, agave, lime juice, green Tabasco, and a splash of orange juice, and the Rootbeer Float, with organic root beer liqueur, Pinnacle Whipped Cream Vodka, and whipped cream.

Trio Palm Springs California
Trio's bar and the star of the show, the Spatini
Our last visited location for fun cocktails was SpurLine Video Lounge, a fabulous gay bar with nights set aside strictly for show tunes.  Sure you could order any regular cocktail here, but why would you, when they offer Frozen Bacardi Cherry Bombs, straight from the machine?  Perhaps not the classiest cocktail, but it’s like a slushy for grownups, and if that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right.

SpurLine Video Lounge Palm Springs California
Frozen Bacardi Cherry Bombs
(goes great with sunburn)
I can’t wait to visit Palm Springs again to try more, but I’m afraid it’s going to be hard to beat these excellent combinations.  Luckily Palm Springs has so many months of warm weather there will be ample opportunities to return.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

SakéOne: Oregon’s Saké Brewery


When you think of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, I bet you think of wine, pinot to be specific.  Did you know Oregon also has a saké brewery?  SakéOne is Oregon’s only saké brewery, and there are only six total saké breweries in the United States.

I am actually not a huge saké fan.  To me, many taste like water with a little alcohol and not much flavor.  I am sure there are some fantastic Japanese sakés out there; I just have not had them yet.  However, SakéOne really opened my eyes to the possibilities of saké.  The gentleman who served us our tastings was really excited about sharing with us.  You could see this was not just a job for him, but that he was proud of what they served.  He listened to what we liked and built our tastings around that information.

Our favorites were the g Saké, which is their most popular, and the Moonstone Asian Pear.  The g Saké has a very clean taste, but has more flavor than traditional sakés I have tasted. The Moonstone Asian Pear is perfect for drinking chilled on a hot summer day.  I also enjoyed the Murai Family Sugidama, which had an earthy, mushroom flavor.  They also have a saké of the month club, with the monthly saké on tap, called draft nama.  When we were visiting, the nama was Momokawa Ruby, a berry flavored saké.  It was delicious on tap, but not as good bottled.

Some of the many flavors of saké on offer at SakéOne.

Not only does SakéOne brew quite a variety of delicious sakés, they also have created a number of saké cocktail recipes that are available on their website, including the Master Cleanse-Tini, which I find to be hilarious.  Why not mix your cleanse with a cocktail?

One of Oregon’s resonating themes is to keep everything as local as possible.  SakéOne is no exception.  Saké has two important ingredients, water and rice.  The reason SakéOne was started in Oregon in the first place was because of Oregon’s high quality water, and the rice comes from the nearby Sacramento Valley.

SakéOne is located in Forest Grove, Oregon, not too far from Portland.  The tasting room is open daily, except for select holidays, and they also offer tours.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Great Lakes Distillery Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit

Great Lakes Distillery

So it is already August.  You know what that means, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas paraphernalia will be available in stores any second now.  Instead of fighting it, I’m giving in, and therefore sharing a spirit that must be enjoyed during the holiday season, but can and should be enjoyed year-round.  The delightful spirit of which I speak is Great Lakes Distillery Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit.

My discovery of Great Lakes Distillery Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit involved traveling for work.  I traveled to Edina, Minnesota for work for a quick two night trip.  There was no time for sightseeing or sampling what Minnesota had to offer until the last evening, when four of us were able to take a couple hours to visit one of St. Paul’s restaurants, Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market.  We arrived early for our reservation and grabbed some seats at the bar to enjoy a cocktail.  We had a fantastic bartender and the cocktail list had some very unusual and interesting choices.  The Spiced Old Fashioned, with Great Lakes Distillery Pumpkin Spirit, Minnesota maple syrup, and bitters, caught my fancy.

Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market
Some of the unusual cocktails offered at Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market
The bartender quickly prepared my cocktail with a scoop of ice, a pour of the spirits, a splash of the bitters, and a squeeze of maple syrup, which he explained was better mixed with a little water to thin it out, topped with a curled orange peel.  When I tasted my beverage, I fell in love.  I immediately had visions of my husband and me sitting in front of the fire, him cradling a tumbler of scotch or a snifter of brandy and me holding my brand new tasty cocktail.  My husband loves scotch, whiskey, and brandy, and in our travels I have found some spirits that I can tolerate, but I am by no means a whiskey girl.  Give me a glass of wine, a pint of beer, or a fruity cocktail any day.  Bring a glass of whiskey near me and my nose immediately begins to crinkle.  But this spirit is different.  It starts with Lakefront Brewery’s Pumpkin Lager, which is based on a Thomas Jefferson recipe and contains a blend of spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom, and is distilled and aged in bourbon barrels by Wisconsin’s first small batch distillery.  It is a hard alcohol that I can actually drink without making a screwy face.

Great Lakes Distillery Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit
Pumpkin Old Fashioned made with the last drops of my Great Lakes Distillery Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit
When I came home I ordered myself a bottle of Great Lakes Distillery Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit.  I also found a number of drink recipes, including one similar to the one I had at Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, on Great Lakes Distillery’s website.  I also had to purchase bitters, because who has bitters lying around?  I have made a few of the recipes I found online, all of which have been fantastic.  In addition to the Pumpkin Maple Old Fashioned, I made the Pumpkin Spice Martini, with heavy cream, hazelnut liqueur, and maple syrup, and the Pumpkin Old Fashioned, similar to the maple version, but with a muddled sugar cube and orange slice, a dash of bitters, and a splash of seltzer.  I almost feel like I should be vacuuming the house in a dress, pearls, and heels . . . almost.

Great Lakes Distillery Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit can be purchased online from Binny’s Beverage Depot, Caddell & Williams, or Merwin Liquors.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The St. Goar Wine Festival

What’s the one thing you think of when you hear Germany in late September?  I think great weather, the Bundesliga in full swing, and a great festival dedicated to drinking.  A scenic 3 hour train ride from Munich took us to one of the great festivals of Germany.  Confused? Yes I said train ride from Munich in late September. The St. Goar Wine Festival may not have the hype or attendance of the other great German festival at that time, but what it does have is great wine in a picturesque Rhine hill town with the same festive atmosphere that Germans bring to the table.

As we pulled into this area nestled along the winding Rhine I couldn't help but think how quiet, relaxing, and full of vineyards the hills are. Bacharach and St. Goar pack great views, great wine, and some of the most inviting people in Germany. We had to find out where our delicious Riesling came from, so being there was a real treat. Picking Bacharach as our home base at this particular time was choosing the sleepier of the 2 towns.  No worries though as there are frequent trains and boats running between the 2.

At Fritz's, she gets the good ones and I get the average ones
We also chose Bacharach because of Fritz’s wheel of 16 wines. 16 varieties of Rhine wine in their own individual glass on a wheel for you to sample before settling on your favorite. Being a couple who never likes to waste a drop we did the wheel proud. We forgot half way through which ones we liked, so we had to guess once we made our after wheel choices.  It was an awesome recommendation and a nice change up from the copious amounts of beer downed on the previous legs of this trip in Belgium and Munich. Add the fact that you are in a sleepy town with a choice of 5 streets that your B&B is on and your stumble back is not quite the adventure it is in say Munich.

We feel no shame in the fact that we'll be
trying your friends soon and enjoying it
We also found that the bike ride between the 2 was good for our health and gave us lasting memories of our time on the Rhine. Who knew though that renting a bike for the day would not only lead to a train ticket purchased? Beyond that it also landed us smack dab in the middle of a festival we didn't know existed. We had just left the largest beer festival on Earth and now were right back into another festival. As we rode along the river on our Mary Poppins bikes complete with basket, I soaked up everything that I could. Endless stretches of hills dotted with vines and castles jutting out of those vineyards around every corner.

As we finally arrived in St. Goar the town was buzzing with action. Every café and restaurant was bursting at the seams (oh yeah and no fast food to be found in these 2 towns, major cultural bonus). The distinct sound of Oom-Pah in the distance along with loud people filled the air. This of course is the mating call of people ingesting some sort of spirits. We rode to the town square to find the sign “Annual St. Goar Wine Festival”.  Jackpot, and it was stumbled upon. That’s like having all 6 numbers plus the Powerball.  1 drink to start and we’d come back later as we had a long bike ride back.

Great way to see the Rhine towns
We parked our bikes and went into the local market as we had planned a wonderful Rhine picnic before heading back. A nice lunch including Paprika Pringles (why can’t we have Paprika flavor in the US, they’re the best) and back to our bikes we strolled. And there it was, a flat tire staring right back at me with an hour bike ride also staring at us.  I knew I had consumed too much sausage and Augustiner in Munich. Thank goodness for the frequent milk run trains and the kind gentleman who actually couldn’t stop laughing as I walked the bike in. I had actually blown out the tube, no hole, no leak, just 10 too many pretzels in Munich.

Cheap train ticket to great wine
That night we hopped back on the train. We were greeted by revelers from around the globe plus fireworks, polka, and wine that never stopped. St. Goar Wine Festival is held annually around the 3rd or 4th weekend in September. All the vintners across the region attend, and you must taste and talk to them about the subtle differences they all bring. Beyond the wine you must also sample the other spirits that they provide. From the most amazing Peach Brandy my lips have ever tasted to their own take on the “Pure” Beer recipe. As always in Germany I took down way too much sausage and this time some great wine. We danced and chatted the night away. We Stood and Sing Ein Prosit even though we were not at the great beer festival that song is for, we still wanted to say Cheers to all.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Celebrating Beer at the San Diego Brew Festival

San Diego Brew Festival

San Diego is the craft beer capital of the United States. What better way to celebrate that then to have an annual beer festival? The third annual San Diego Brew Festival occurred on July 6 at Liberty Station, a former naval training center now turned outdoor retail, recreational, and cultural development.

San Diego Brew Festival features local and non-local craft beers. There are also food trucks and live bands to provide food and additional entertainment. This year’s proceeds benefited Noah’s B-ark Pet Rescue, so the money goes to a good cause as well. 

San Diego Brew Festival
Friendly people, live bands, food trucks, beers with funny names,
and a bouncy pub are some of the fun things that can be found at the San Diego Brew Festival.

The festival is three hours, or four hours if you purchase a VIP ticket. That may sound short, but in the end, we were done after an hour and a half. After all, there is just so much beer a person can sample and still remain upright! The price of admission includes all you can drink beer tastings in cute little plastic mugs.

San Diego Brew Festival
Seriously, how cute are these little mugs?!

This year there were 57 breweries in attendance. We tried quite a number of them, and there were a few that really stood out for us. The first beer we tried was from Cismontane Brewing Company and was actually our favorite. I tried the Black’s Dawn, a strong coffee stout, and Romeo had the 3rd Anniversary Belgian Strong, a dark Belgian ale with a slight sweetness and fruitiness, perfect for a summer day, as long as you’re not going anywhere since it does have a 9% alcohol content. Another brewery with some interesting flavor combinations was Aztec Brewing Company. We tried the Noche de los Muertos, which is an imperial stout with a hint of cinnamon. Delicious! We also tried Julian Hard Cider’s Harvest Apple, made using a recipe originating from 1670, which really surprised us with how good it was. We also tried mead from Golden Coast Mead, an alcoholic beverage made from water and honey, which was brilliant and new to us both.

On a non-beer related note, I also had a delicious corndog from The Dog Shack food truck. We also sampled (and purchased) some excellent beef jerky from Cow Bites Jerky. I recommend the Oklahoma Original and Blazin’ Horns varieties.

If you are a beer lover, make sure to plan a trip to San Diego around the summer San Diego Brew Festival. Tickets can be purchased through San Diego Brew Festival’s website and you can also follow them on Facebook to receive notice as soon as the dates are set and to get other updates. Be sure to buy tickets early. General admission tickets sold out this year, and tickets can be obtained at a discount if purchased early. Also, arrange for a taxi, friend or family member to drive.