Thursday, March 27, 2014

Brazil, Caipirinha and the Joys of Cachaca

Guest Post by Elaine Masters

I wasn’t in Brazil 36 hours before being introduced to the many pleasures of Cachaca (pronounced Kah-Cha-Sah), a ubiquitous liquor with a long history. First distilled from sugar cane by slave owners, the liquor has become a symbol of national pride and the main ingredient of Brazil's national cocktail, the Caipirinha.

During the Rio Carnival, at this year’s Sambadrom parade, (a riotous three night party where the top Samba schools present their best in dance, costumes and floats), one school chose to present the history of Cachaca. Hundreds of dancers portrayed trees, slaves, Portuguese pirates, and the King and Queen of the region as they wove past thousands of cheering, bouncing, costumed revelers. It continued from 10 pm until nearly dawn.

Caipirinha made with Cachaca in Brazil
I had no idea about all that on my first afternoon in the country. I was in Brazil to attend a wedding reception and the party was held at a villa outside the main town of Presidente Prudente, northeast of Sao Paolo. While a buffet was being set out, a deep grill roasted skewers of seasoned meat and a kind gentleman waited for me to make my drink selection.

There were bottles of Brahmah and Skol beers in ice buckets on the tables but here a set of large containers filled the countertop. They contained strawberries, passion fruit, pineapple and cashew fruit, but my choice was lime. Turned out that’s the most traditional way to make a Caipirinha (Kai-Pah-Reen-Yah) cocktail – poured on beaches, in bungalows, high rises and homes throughout Brazil.

First, the bartender threw in chunks of freshly sliced lime and two big scoops of sugar and started to mash the mixture vigorously. Next a generous pour of Cachaca followed before tossing it into a cocktail shaker. Within moments he poured it over ice and handed me the glass. It had the tart sweetness I expected, but the Cachaca added a particular smokiness, more rum than whiskey, but just as potent.

I was hooked. It was delicious from start to finish and for each of the subsequent variations I tried before conceding defeat and ending the evening bouncing along to the Samba beat with abandon.

Now at home my souvenir bottle is looking a little low and I’m determined to find a local source for Cachaca; then Brazil will continue to blaze in my memory with every sip.

Elaine Masters is the author of the Trip Wellness Blog, posts conversations about travel on The Gathering Road podcast, is the co-host of Travel Massive San Diego, organizer of the San Diego Travel Festival and likes to keep her suitcase packed, ready to go. An avid scuba diver, she has more than 150 entries in her dive log from waters around the world.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Enjoying the Tavern Culture in Madison, Wisconsin

Bars, pubs, saloons, and taverns all names for places where somebody may know your name. In every culture these places are gathering spots. People tell stories, play cards, watch a game, or just enjoy a drink in a familiar setting. In Wisconsin these gathering spots are some of the most important social places in the state. The tavern culture dominates “America’s Dairyland” so much so that the Tavern League of Wisconsin is one of the most influential lobbying bodies connected with the state government.

In Madison, Wisconsin’s capital and the site of our recent Passports & Cocktails meetup, the tavern culture is thriving. The city offers every type of drinking environment from corner bar to college bar, so anyone and everyone can find a comfortable place to enjoy a local craft beer or a nice brandy cocktail. Because of this it is really easy—and highly recommended—to ditch the chain restaurants when visiting Madison and instead hit the local taverns and eateries. These are a few of the watering holes our group visited that we would love to return to and start another tab:

A beer lovers menu at The Malt House

The Malt House Tavern

Dubbed Madison’s craft beer oasis, The Malt House has a rotation of 18 craft beers/imports and over 150 crafts/imports in bottles. The Malt House is home to many Madison home brew competitions, so you know they support the local scene. I’m not going to lie, when we pulled up to this “East Side” establishment on our first night in town our group did not expect the beer goodness that awaited us inside. On the outside The Malt House looks like a really old and unassuming corner bar. But once you step through their screen door and take a gander at their extensive beer and whiskey menu it becomes clear that this tavern is special. Because of the highly knowledgeable staff who can tell you everything you need to know about beers you may never have heard of, and the extensive drink offerings, I recommend making a stop at this genuine and welcoming tavern on you next trip to Madison.

Porters and Lagers and Ales, OH MY!

The Great Dane

The Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co. is a Madison institution. Serving Madisonians tasty brews and great pub fare for 20 years, the Great Dane is a must when in Madison. We stopped there for our first drinks and dinner as a group when we arrived in Madison. The Great Dane offered us not only quality handcrafted beer on site, it also had a great relaxing setting for us to enjoy those beers. The Great Dane is set in a turn of the century hotel about 2 blocks off the Capitol Square, making the location prime to start or end your night out downtown. Their beer is full range from German and Czech Pils, to stouts and IPAs, and each are worth sampling. The main area is adorned by a full tavern bar and seating for cheese curd devouring, while the basement Rathskellar reminded me of some great underground stone walled bars in Europe. In a world where new brew pubs are opening on a seemingly daily basis, The Great Dane’s charm and true craft beer roots set it apart from the rest.

The Old Fashioned, classic Wisconsin

The Old Fashioned

Truth: Wisconsinites love their brandy. So much so that the state of Wisconsin consumes more brandy than every other state combined. One of the quintessential brandy cocktails of Wisconsin is the Old Fashioned, and in Madison one of the best places to grab this great cocktail is at, you guessed it, The Old Fashioned. Located right on the Capitol Square, The Old Fashioned offers awesome views in another perfect environment to start or end an evening out. We stopped in for their Friday fish fry (a Wisconsin tradition) and to sample some Old Fashioneds before a Badgers hockey game (another Wisconsin tradition). The combination of the fish fry and hockey crowd packed the place full, but as we experienced, the local beer and brandy selection makes even a significant wait at The Old Fashioned tolerable. If an Old Fashioned could be described as “fresh,” then the brandy, muddled cherries, and bitters mixed up here would be the barometer of freshness. Crisp, consistent, and full of flavor, our drinks were truly mixed with the care Wisconsin supper club patrons have come to expect over decades upon decades of consumption. There was nothing fancy, no new tricks or spins on this Wisconsin staple. They were just made the “old fashioned” way, and for us they were the perfect prelude to the evening. The Old Fashioned should be checked out for their Wisconsin fare (cheese curds, perch/walleye fish fry, Madison beers, and brandy drinks) and local accents, der hey!

A happy crew celebrating with a Vintage brew at The Vintage

The Vintage

Every trip to Madison should have an on campus bar included in the itinerary. For many that means hitting one (or more) of the bars on State street. For us it meant a stop at The Vintage, initially because it was an easy walk after the hockey game and it didn’t have a line to get inside. With its on campus location, signature craft beers under their own label, and more relaxed atmosphere The Vintage was the perfect location. This modest bar sits within walking distance of downtown and all the campus sites and arenas. The Vintage has a large bar and drink selection as well. Like at other bars in Madison, we were able to sample a variety of local craft beers including outstanding beer from the Vintage Brewery in Madison. Since it was after the game the crowd was heavy, but there was enough space to have some laughs and enjoy our beers without getting jostled or spilled on. When looking for a youthful atmosphere without plastic cups of Busch Light, The Vintage should be one of your on campus stops in Madison.

These are just four out of many places to enjoy a drink in the Mad City. Each one is distinct and that is the beauty of the tavern scene in Madison. Every neighborhood has its own identity and character. What they all offer are the unique flavors of the area. With a multitude of craft breweries, Madison is a beer drinker’s paradise. If you are a craft beer fan, check out the lineups at each of these establishments as they offer local beer for every palate. And don’t forget the cheese curds.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

San Diego Winter Brew Fest Hits One Out of the Park

With a new brewery opening practically every day, it’s hard to keep up with all the craft beer that’s available.  That’s why events like the recent San Diego Winter Brew Fest are the perfect way to sample the products of a lot of different breweries and find some new favorites.

San Diego had its Winter Brew Fest on February 22, 2014.  The Brew Fest is put on by RightOn Productions, LLC, which first started organizing brew fests in Denver, Colorado, another craft beer mecca.  Summer and Winter Brew Fests are now held annually in Denver, and RightOn expanded to hold Winter Brew Fests in San Diego as well.  When Brad Sandler of RightOn offered to put me on the VIP list for the San Diego Winter Brew Fest, you can guess my response.

The San Diego Winter Brew Fest was held at The San Diego Hall of Champions in Balboa Park.  What better place to hold a beer festival than in a sports museum?  Forty-two breweries were featured throughout the three levels of the museum, amongst displays of jerseys, trophies, racing boats, and all sorts of other sports paraphernalia.  They even had Blazing Saddles playing in the museum’s theater for those who needed a break from beer tasting.

With so many breweries represented, I skipped the ones I had tried before and tasted the new and unusual. 

The first taste occurred with Black Market Brewing Co. based out of Temecula, California.  Black Market was serving four of their beers and I tried the Holiday Porter.  The Holiday Porter is an American style porter interestingly brewed with tangerines and with a pleasantly effervescent feel.

Brew Rebellion San Diego Winter Brew Fest
Brew Rebellion of Yucaipa, California was serving two of their beers and the Chris Martin S’more Porter immediately grabbed my attention and almost blew my mind.  The S’more Porter literally tastes like chocolatey marshmallowy s’mores and is a rich combination made with actual graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows.

Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. of Buellton, California was next, serving their Paradise Pilsner and Stagecoach Stout.  The Paradise Pilsner, while a see-through beer, was very flavorful with a slight bitterness from hops.  The Stagecoach Stout is an oatmeal stout with a refreshing coffee taste.

Oceanside Ale Works of Oceanside, California was pouring their Dude Double IPA and Orange Agave Wheat.  The Dude Double IPA had a front of the mouth taste of citrus while the hops hit in the back.  While I’m not usually a fan of wheat beers, I really enjoyed the Orange Agave Wheat and its pleasant citrus flavor.

Oceanside Ale Works San Diego Winter Brew Fest

The next stand was one of my favorite discoveries of the evening.  2 Towns Ciderhouse is located in Corvallis, Oregon and produces craft hard apple cider.  I tasted three of their hard ciders, The Bad Apple, Bright Cider, and Cherry Poppin Cider.  The Bright Cider tastes very much like biting into a juicy green apple.  The taste was crisp and it is an easy drinking cider.  The Bad Apple was more complex as it is aged in oak.  It had a mellower taste than the Bright Cider.  While The Bad Apple was probably my favorite, I became conflicted when I tasted the Cherry Poppin Cider, made in collaboration with the Cherry Poppin Daddies.  The tartness of the sour cherries added another dimension to 2 Towns Ciderhouse’s delicious cider.

2 Towns Ciderhouse San Diego Winter Brew Fest

Another surprising taste was from Refuge Brewery in Temecula, California.  Refuge Brewery was pouring their Blood Orange Wit, a Belgian Style White Ale.  Again, this is not usually one of my beers of choice, but I was thrown for a loop again by this ale with its strong blood orange aroma and sparkling fruity taste.

Refuge Brewery San Diego Winter Brew Fest

If you live in San Diego or Denver, or are planning a trip to either of these great beer cities, be sure to plan around the Summer or Winter Brew Fest.  Who knows what fun new beer you’ll discover.  The Denver Summer Brew Fest will be held July 25-26, 2014.  Visit the Brew Fest Events website for more information on upcoming events.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Capital Brewery-The Home of Real Wisconsin Beer

The beer culture of Wisconsin can be traced back to the 1800s as a great wave of German settlers invaded the Badger State. Those settlers brought old world beer recipes that kept with the traditional brewing practice of “purity." As the population of the state boomed, so did the number of local breweries in Wisconsin. Practically every town had its own brewery and Milwaukee itself became one of the great beer towns of the world. Prohibition shut all of those beer making operations down. After the repeal of prohibition, the global export economy of the US exploded and only a few of the larger brewery operations re-opened. The small hometown brewer was no match for large scale mass marketing and large distribution channels tied to one or two breweries. For many decades fans of beer in Wisconsin were left with over produced, underwhelming “beer."

The brewing process displayed at Cap Brewery
In the early 1980s, thanks to local Madison entrepreneur Ed Janus, Wisconsinites were re-introduced to real beer. Janus’s idea was to bring traditional pre-prohibition German style lagers with Wisconsin love and craftsmanship to market. With the craft beer boom still far off,  this idea sounded crazy to potential market investors. With this in mind Janus took his idea to the beer drinkers of Wisconsin in a series of town hall meetings and advertisements (much like a politician) looking to raise enough money to start his brewery.  His efforts were rewarded by those great beer drinkers and enthusiasts in Wisconsin (which to this day makes Capital Brewery unique)  and in 1986 Capital Brewery of Middleton, Wisconsin produced its first pure German style lagers. We were lucky enough to tour and taste Ed’s creation and pay homage to one of the original heroes of craft brewing in America.

Summertime means beer in the garden
Our tour of this former egg factory turned brewery began outside before the official tour kicked off. One of the gems of Capital Brewery is its outdoor Bier Garden. Though it wasn’t operational on the frigid January day we were there we were able to take a look around. Standing there you could imagine a great bunch of people sitting out on a warm Wisconsin summer day enjoying great beer and great company. 

From the Bier Garden we moved on to pick up our tour tickets in the gift house. On that particular day the brewery had an extra buzz to it as it was the official first day to pick up tickets to Capital Bockfest. Bockfest is the annual celebration of the limited release return of Capital’s two highly decorated beers the Blond Dopplebock and Maibock for around 2500 lucky beer lovers. To say the mood was festive inside the brewery that day would be selling the mood short.

Start the tour surrounded by beer
After receiving our tour tickets, which were a new flight glass and 4 bottle caps which equaled a free flight after the tour, we moved to the packaging room for our Capital Brewery history lesson. What I loved about the lesson at Capital was the passion and pride that you could feel from our guide. We learned that Capital is one of the few craft brewers to be a majority lager brewery. This fact went back to the story of Ed Janus and why he started the brewery. Capital Brewery set out to be the flavor of Wisconsin, and even though they produce some wonderful ales, the base of the German blood of Wisconsinites is golden lager. And everyone that works there was proud of that heritage.

We moved on through a bottling room and into the brew house. At one end of the brew house were large milk storage tanks. Capital’s beer is stored in these tanks before being shipped offsite to Stevens Point Brewery 90 miles north of Middleton in a partnership with them for bottling and packaging as the Capital site does not have the room for that operation. In an effort to bring that all in house though, Capital Brewery is opening a new larger capacity brewery about 30 minutes outside of Madison. Not only will this bring the bottling and packaging under Capital’s control, it will also expand capacity by three times and leave the original brewery we toured available for more small batch experimentation and limited release beers to have their own home.

Fantastic copper kettles
For me the brew house also offered a glimpse at one of my favorite things in breweries, the copper kettles. I have a real love for the old world kettles. For many new breweries used copper kettles are not worth the cost and aren't very easy to get to the US. As luck would have it though, Capital had constructed their operation around a couple of beautiful kettles from German brewery Hoxter. This gave the brewery tour a real authentic finish.

With the tour of the brewery completed we  migrated to the Bier Stube to enjoy our flights of some of Capital’s finest. Our group was made up of fans of very distinctive beers which gave our tasting a real mix. This allowed us to sample a whole host of what the brewery had to offer. Since Capital Brewery has been so highly decorated around the world including being awarded Grand National Champion at the US Open Beer Championships, we couldn’t go wrong.

The Bier Stube, a fine place to grab a few of Capital's best
One of the flagship brews at Capital is the Wisconsin Amber. It may sound dumb or cliché, but Wisconsin Amber tastes like what beer is supposed to taste like. It’s a rich malty lager with just a bit of a hit of hops at the end. Wisconsin Amber has a moderate ABV and should be drinkable to all palates. I started there and moved on to Capital Jobu, which had just been tapped that day so we were lucky. The Jobu is a Rum Barrel Aged Brown Ale. The beer was dark brown but fairly clear in color. The rum gave this brown a very sweet aroma and taste. For a brown Ale with a decently high ABV , the Jobu was easily drinkable and almost light. With so many flavors and lack of overwhelming “brown” taste I had to grab another Jobu while I could.

As for everyone else in our group, there was a mix of the Capital Island Wheat, Mutiny IPA, Winter Skaal, and Supper Club. The Island Wheat gets its name from Washington Island where, like Death’s Door Distillery, the wheat is grown. The Island Wheat is a smooth American wheat beer easily drinkable in any setting. The Mutiny IPA is Capital’s first IPA and a very recent addition to the lineup. Unlike the IPAs of the coast, Mutiny does not have the bitterness that many IPA junkies crave. For fans of a lighter style of beer Mutiny still has a hop kick to it, yet is still very drinkable with some very nice citrus notes to it.

Support local brewers like Capital at the brewery and at home
From an IPO made up of tavern owners and patrons to a new 100,000 barrel facility there has always been one constant with this brewery. Capital has stuck to their core as a traditional brewer with a degree in craft ingenuity. They make great beer in a place filled with beer lovers. The Madison area and Wisconsin in general are filled with activities all year long.  A stop at Capital Brewery for a look at their kettles and a few of their beers should be one of your activities when you make it to the area. You'll be glad you did.