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 !