Thursday, October 30, 2014

Alpha Beer Showcases Local Beer and Brewers in Chicago

As a kid growing up in the Upper Midwest, there was no destination as awe inspiring as Chicago. From the skyline to the traffic to the shabby looking trains, Chicago was the pinnacle of big city living set on the same lake that looked very different north of the Windy City. As an adult still living somewhere in the Midwest, Chicago’s mix of culture, food, architecture, and the arts still ranks it as a top destination for a getaway. But there was one thing that Chicago hadn’t (until recently) done well at all, brew beer.
It’s tough to fault Chicago for their choice of awful cheap beer from their northern neighbors as the city does everything else so well. There ( in my opinion) is nothing better than sharing a Chicago Deep Dish Pizza. The goodness from a cracker crust layered with cheese and sauce ON TOP is equaled by very few other creations. Chicago Dogs, with their combination of mustard, relish, onion, pepper, and pickle, are my favorite late night “4th meal”.  Chicago food, along with that iconic skyline and blue collar attitude, is some of the best (and most unique) in the world. But who wants to wash that down with an Old Style?

It makes me hungry everytime
I have set off multiple times in Chicago in recent years searching for some good local brews. This past summer, while walking through the wonderful Lincoln Park neighborhood, I thought we had finally found a spot that would quench our Chicago thirst. The establishment was a corner bar, with classic charm. We pulled up a stool and looked over the beer menu and were disappointed by a menu full of the regulars from St Louis, Milwaukee, and Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery ( I won’t get in to the whole argument of local not local with Goose Island, but I’m looking for the independent brewers).WHERE WAS ALL THE CHICAGO BEER?!
AJ Hudson's, a must stop for beer lovers
A few months later I finally found Chicago beer at AJ Hudson’s Public House (just up the street from the other Lincoln Park bar that we struck out at) at one of the best beer events that I have attended, Alpha Beer. Alpha Beer, the creation of The Local Tourist, is a world tour of beer from A-Z. This event is a tribute to Theresa’s (the founder of the Local Tourist) mother. Every Friday after work her mom and the passengers on her Metra train would bring a different beer for tasting to finish the work week to eliminate the Ground hogs Day feeling you get with drinking the same old same old every week. Theresa took this ritual and turned it into an event, not only for local and regional craft beer celebration, but also for an introduction to those people who may have otherwise stuck to the bigger brands. Bringing in as many local brewers to explain their craft and answer any questions attendees may have only reinforced the point that this wasn’t all about drinking 26 samples of beer, but also about understanding why drinking local tastes better and supports the community.

The lineup, sorry Z
Alpha Beer is a twice a year event (spring and fall) and just celebrated its 13th tasting. Event number 13 (which I attended) included selections from breweries in Chicago, out state Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and beyond. The offerings from these breweries ranged from pale ale to maibock to pomegranate porter with a cayenne pepper finish. All of the beers on the list were offered in the bar as well as in the event room, making AJ Hudson's a must stop for beer lovers heading out for a night (or morning for Premier League matches) in Lincoln Park. 

What made Alpha Beer special compared to other beer events was the inclusion of brewers as well. 3 local brewers from Berghoff Brewing Company, Temperance Brewery, and Ten Ninety Brewing were on hand to describe their featured brews and answer questions for anyone. They also continued the tradition that we've found nationwide of drinking together and generally caring about each others product. No competition, just collaboration for the betterment of local beer. 

I had finally found and tasted Chicago beer. Yes I could have gone to any of the tasting rooms that have popped up all over town, but unfortunately I have yet to have time to do that. What Alpha Beer did was give me more incentive to fill in that Chicago void for me. Not every beer there was my favorite flavor, but they all did have flavor unlike the beer that Chicagoans have been subjected to since the Great Fire (the way cheap Milwaukee beer made itself regional since everything in Chicago had burned down). If you are looking for a reason to make an escape to Chicago in the fall or spring, make sure you check out the Alpha Beer schedule and get some tickets for a wonderful event. If you're going to the Windy City any other time of the year, say no to the big boys and wash down your deep dish with something local, because Chicago is finally brewing some great beer.

Note: I attended Alpha Beer as a member of the press and therefore entered for free, but as always the opinions expressed are completely my own.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

10 Drinks Around the World

Here at Passports & Cocktails we aim to drink the cocktails that were invented, are popular, or are just plain made well in a destination while traveling around the world.  We’re even more excited when we inspire others to drink around the world too.  We teamed up with our blogger friend Carole Rosenblat, author of the interactive travel writing and reading site Drop Me Anywhere.  Carole’s readers vote on her next destination and she jets off on a journey to the winning spot, all without a plan.  Carole asked us to pull together a list of travel destinations based on some of the world’s best alcoholic beverages.  Following are 10 drinks around the world and the best destinations to have them while traveling.

Belgian Beer 10 Drinks Around the World

Belgian Beer

Beer is brewed around the world and cities and countries fight over who makes the best beer.  But Belgian beer will always hold a special place in my heart because Belgium is where I first experienced really good beer and is where I fell in love with beer.  Belgian beers run the gamut from blonde beers to brown beers, lambic beers, and wheat beers.  In Belgium it is possible to go to a bar with over 100 beers on tap, all wonderfully served in their very own glass.  While in Belgium I was constantly trying to figure out where in the world they kept all those beer glasses.

Cuban Mojito

Everybody loves a good mojito, right?  It seems like no matter where you go there is some sort of mojito on the menu, some using the traditional recipe, and some kicked up a notch with watermelon or other unusual flavors.  But the original mojito is a simple drink from Cuba with five ingredients: white rum, sugar, lime juice, sparkling water, and mint.  In the past it has been almost impossible for Americans to travel to Cuba.  But now there are tour companies that can arrange legal travel for Americans to Cuba so we too can enjoy the freedom to travel to the country of Cuba and, among other things, enjoy a mojito on the island where it was created.

Danish Snaps 10 Drinks Around the World

Danish Snaps

We recently discovered snaps in Denmark.  Snaps is a traditional Scandinavian alcohol, especially popular in Denmark and Sweden.    The most common Danish snaps (also known as aquavit or akvavit) is Aalborg Akvavit, but there are many smaller companies making artisan snaps infused with herbs and other flavorings.  Snaps is always present at Scandinavian festive gatherings, especially Christmas.  A sip of snaps will certainly warm you up on a frosty Scandinavian day.

French Champagne

Most visitors to France go to Paris, but France has so much more to offer than its capital city.  France has a number of wine regions, but perhaps the most famous province is Champagne.  Champagne is a universal term conjuring thoughts of celebrations and New Year’s Eve, but only wine coming from a region 100 miles east of Paris can be called Champagne.

German Glühwein

As the weather starts to grow chilly, warmed drinks start to sound appealing.  One of the most delicious warm cocktails is German Glühwein, mulled wine with citrus, spices, sugar, and a bit of brandy.  The time for German Christmas Markets is just around the corner, the perfect time for enjoying some German Glühwein.  Of course Germany isn’t the only country in which to enjoy Glühwein.  Glühwein is a popular winter beverage in all of the German-speaking countries, including Austria and Switzerland.

Japanese Sake

Sake is an alcohol that originates from Japan and is made from fermented rice.  Sake has been around for over 1,000 years and has been used for everything from religious ceremonies to drinking games.  Sake can be served chilled, at room temperature, or hot, though high-quality sake is not drank hot because the flavors and aromas are masked in the process.  While sake is now brewed around the world (there’s even a sake brewery in Oregon), there’s nothing like drinking old recipe sake in Japan.

Kentucky Bourbon

America has its own native spirit, and that spirit is bourbon.  Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon and 95% of the world’s bourbon is produced in Kentucky, so where better to taste America’s spirit than the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.  There’s even a Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport!  There are nine bourbon distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, including Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey.

Mexican Tequila

Everybody knows Tequila comes from Mexico, but you might not know that like Champagne, tequila is also region specific.  Tequila is made from the blue agave plant and can only be made in the Mexican state of Jalisco and some municipalities of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas.

Puerto Rican Rum

Puerto Rican Rum 10 Drinks Around the World

Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane.  Rum is produced all over the world, but one of the largest producers of rum in the world is Puerto Rico.  According to Wikipedia more than 70% of the rum consumed in the US is produced in Puerto Rico.  Travelers to Puerto Rico can even tour where rum is made at distilleries such as Casa Bacardi.  Then at night taste the wonderful rum cocktail creations being made throughout Old San Juan.

Spanish Sangria 10 Drinks Around the World

Spanish Sangria

One of the most refreshing drinks you can have on a hot day in Spain is sangria.  As of January 2014 only sangria coming from Spain or Portugal can be labeled as such.  Sangria’s main ingredient is wine, usually red, and it also contains chopped fruit, a sweetener, and some brandy.  The best way to enjoy sangria is to find an outdoor table at a café under the Spanish sun.  But beware that all sangria is not made equal.  Avoid the jug-o-sangria.

While all of these regional alcohols and cocktails can be had pretty much anywhere around the world, they always taste that much better when enjoyed in the country of source.  So join us in sending Carole to her next destination.  I’m sure she’ll have a drink for us and send us a cheers, prost, salud, or skål while having one of these 10 drinks from around the world.  Voting ends at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on November 30, 2014.

Update: Carole's voters have spoken and dropped her in Germany!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Learning Lessons and Tasting Mead at Moonstruck Meadery in Bellevue, Nebraska

Remembering to explore our own backyard is a very important aspect of our travel lives. Every metro area around the country has its own hidden gems that can be missed if we only look at travel with the narrow paintbrush of having to step on a plane to discover something new. Up until the last couple of years I have been a criminal when it comes to this law of travel. Exploring the greater Omaha area these past few years has introduced me to some wonderful restaurants, breweries, outdoor spaces, and areas of town that I had once ignored in a quest to see as much of the world outside of the area that I have called home for 11 years.

One of the areas that I had never ventured to until recently is the “Old Towne” area of Bellevue, NE. Bellevue is the oldest city in Nebraska (take that Omaha) and it’s Old Towne, as the name suggests, is the original neighborhood of this city on the river. Old town Bellevue is an area of quirky shops, fun restaurants, cafes, and theatres surrounded by tree lined streets. When visiting the Omaha area (or if you live in Omaha), Old Towne Bellevue is a quick drive for some shopping or a starting point for a Missouri River fall foliage drive. One thing that sets this suburban downtown apart from the rest though, is its local meadery.
Irrational honey fear?


So I tossed the word out there, but what the heck is a meadery?

It’s a place to make mead of course.

What the heck is mead?

(All of these questions are coming from me by the way)

Real mead by definition is liquor distilled with only honey, water, and yeast. The alcohol is only derived from the sugar in the honey, no grains or grapes can be fermented for true mead. Flavors can be added after the mead is fermented to come up with flavored mead, but at its base, the alcohol content in mead can only come from honey. Lucky for me I absolutely HATE honey.

Wait, what? Who hates honey?

This guy dislikes honey to its core. It’s just so sweet, and the whole consistency where it kind of hangs off a spoon, and the color of it where it’s kind of transparent but not…yuck. Maybe for Pooh Bear, but no honey for this guy. But as I planned my trip to Bellevue’s Moonstruck Meadery, I was assured that I wouldn’t even taste the honey.

Variety reigns supreme at Moonstruck Meadery
Moonstruck Meadery

Moonstruck Meadery has been in operation in Bellevue for 3 years. The name “Moonstruck” was derived from the Moonstruck Super Moon of 2011, the same year the meadery was opened. As with most of the craft breweries and distilleries we visit, the founder of Moonstruck was a home brewer of mead before taking mead to the masses. All of the operations of Moonstruck Meadery are in Bellevue in 2 locations, one operates as the distillery and bottling house and the other (where we visited) operates as the tasting room. At any time there are 10 different meads available for bottle purchase (either online in 19 states or from retail liquor stores in Nebraska and Iowa) or for tasting in the mead capital of the heartland, Bellevue. By now everyone knows that we choose straight from the source every time for the atmosphere and the always willing staff to give us the proud story of their craft.

My 6 test subjects, in all of their glory
As I entered the meadery my eyes turned to the big sign that read “Honey”. By this point I had read up on everything mead. Did you know it is considered to be one of the oldest forms of alcohol on earth? I was ready for whatever this drink from the bees had to offer, aversion to honey be damned. 

The setting was very comfortable with a nice bar area and seating for food and mead tasting (Moonstruck also specializes in homemade pizza). As I grabbed my seat the attentive and overly knowledgeable staff answered all of my questions and prepared a flight of 6 meads for me. I would be set up with the Show Mead (original honey with no other flavors added), Cherry Melomel (any mead with fruit added is a Melomel), Apple Cyser (apples and spices for a more fall flavored mead), Peach Melomel, Hoppy Mead (German hops added to the Show Mead) and the world double gold medal winner Capsumel (mead blended with Serrano, Anaheim, and Jalapeno peppers).

Mead Taps! Can we do mead keg stands?
The flight of mead at my table looked like a flight of wine, which is how the mead bottles appeared as well but it is surely not wine. I lifted my first glass (the Show Mead), remembered how much I do like Pooh Bear, and took my first drink of mead. To say I was stunned by the taste would be an understatement. As described above, Show Mead is not an overly complex blend of ingredients (honey, water, yeast). What I tasted was neither overly sweet nor dull. The Show Mead was pleasantly smooth with little dryness. It was actually very crisp, had no bitterness at all, and won me over for the other flavors I would be tasting.

I moved on to the fruit meads after I finished my Show Mead, no need to mix and match and play with flavors. The peach, apple, and cherry all had wonderful flavors of the fruits that were added to flavor the respective mead variations. As I learned from the meadery, all of these flavors are added after fermentation to keep the consistency of the alcohol true to its honey roots. I enjoyed all 3 of the fruit meads,but really liked the Apple Cyser as it has the added holiday spices. I could very much envision heating some up for the holidays.

The wall of mead, my favorite honey wall feature
From the fruits I moved on to the Hoppy Mead and finished off with the Capsumel. The Hoppy mead intrigued me as a craft beer drinker. I was told that Cascade and Hallertau hops are dry hopped into the mead, again after fermentation. The hops added a real citrus flavor and some bitterness to the sweet mead, something I didn’t expect but enjoyed. The Capsumel, or pepper mead, was the gold standard for Moonstruck Meadery that I highly anticipated trying so I saved it for the end. For 2 years running it has won gold medals overseas, the only mead to ever have pulled off that accomplishment. In my life I have had chili beer before, but the Capsumel was a whole different experience. It had an aroma of a fresh pepper garden and a taste all of its. The mead was so fresh that I swore I could taste the individual jalapeno seeds. It had some heat, but it wasn’t overwhelming for people with aversions to spicy food. Of all tried this was my favorite mead, not just because of the status of the mead, but also because of the uniqueness of the flavors in the glass.

I'll make sure there's still some left
I not only survived my encounter with a spirit made from honey, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Though mead is produced at some wineries, the mead from Moonstruck is the only mead in a large part of the Midwest made the proper way and the folks at Moonstruck are very proud of that.  Mead is not wine, but if you like wine you would be well served to try some real mead. The craft of turning honey (local Nebraska honey) into a tasty alcohol that even a honey hater enjoys is alive and well in Bellevue, NE. Come celebrate bees in the Heartland with us, Winnie the Pooh and I will show you the way.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tasting the Spirit of Portland Along Distillery Row

The entire state of Oregon is famous for its craft beer.  The Willamette Valley is often visited for its world-class Pinots and other wines.  But what about spirits?  Oregon’s most recent foray into handcrafted alcohols can be witnessed and tasted along Portland’s Distillery Row, located in an industrial neighborhood of small warehouses in southeast Portland.  Portland’s Distillery Row consists of six distilleries: Eastside Distilling, House Spirits, New Deal Distillery, Rolling River Spirits, Stone Barn Brandyworks, and Vinn Distillery.  During our time in Portland we got the chance to visit a couple of Portland’s distilleries and taste the movement.

House Spirits Distillery

House Spirits Distillery Portland's Distillery Row Oregon
House Spirits Distillery's apothecary library.
House Spirits Distillery was founded in 2004 and is located in Portland’s Distillery Row.  House Spirits’ lineup includes Aviation American Gin, Krogstad Festlig Aquavit, Krogstad Gamle Aquavit, Volstead Vodka, Westward Oregon Straight Malt Whiskey, House Spirits Series Coffee Liqueur, and House Spirits Series White Dog Whiskey.  All are batch-distilled and made with ethically sourced ingredients.

We tasted the gin, vodka, whiskey, and coffee liqueur.  Rome is a whiskey guy and loved House Spirits’ whiskey.  We both really enjoyed the vodka, which is filtered through coconut shells.  The Volstead Vodka is cheekily named after the father of prohibition Andrew Volstead.  The coffee liqueur is made with molasses distilled into rum and then blended with locally roasted coffee.  The liqueur is perfectly flavored and not too sweet or syrupy.

Clear Creek Distillery

Clear Creek Distillery Portland Oregon
Clear Creek Distillery brandies.
Clear Creek Distillery is not part of Portland’s Distillery Row, as it is located across the river.  Clear Creek Distillery was founded in 1985 by Steve McCarthy and is actually a forerunner of Portland’s Distillery Row.  McCarthy started the distillery because he wanted to find a use for the fruit from the family orchard.  The name comes from the creek that runs through McCarthy’s family orchard.  McCarthy discovered traditional European spirits during his travels and knew that the fruit grown in the Pacific Northwest would make exceptional fruit brandies.  Clear Creek Distillery uses traditional techniques and local fruit.  No colors or flavors are added.

Our favorite offerings from Clear Creek Distillery were the Williams Pear Brandy and the Loganberry Liquor.  The Williams Pear Brandy uses Bartlett pears grown in the Hood River Valley.  The pears are crushed, fermented and then distilled.  It takes 30 pounds of pears to make one bottle of Williams Pear Brandy.  The liqueurs are thicker and sweeter than the brandies, perfect for sipping chilled or pouring over ice cream.  Clear Creek Distillery even produces Apple-in-the-Bottle Eau de Vie de Pomme, with apples grown directly inside the bottles.

Oregon is doing great things with alcohol, but it can be hard to experience all the beer, wine, and spirits and still stay sober for enjoying the non-alcohol attractions of the state.  But do try to visit at least one or two of the distilleries of Portland’s Distillery Row.  Luckily, since Oregon is so proud and supportive of its crafts, it is also easy to try Portland’s spirits when eating out at restaurants, so order a cocktail made with locally distilled craft spirits and be part of the Portland spirit movement.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Understanding Current Events in Context....Through Travel

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.
My Thursdays seem to have a very soap opera feel to them lately. Every Thursday we highlight local artisans whom we have met during our travels. Part of those highlights are short stories about where these fine folks are located, showcasing our attitude that one of the best ways to learn about local cultures is through the drinks that are created in towns around the world. Getting to these towns, for most of us anyways, requires some travel….which in this day and age seems to be increasingly more scary, or is it?
We are a 2 pronged website, travel and drinks. Sometimes a post may be heavier on one or the other, but the root of this site is travel. We could sit in our local bar or homes and review drinks (which so many people do well and we respect the hell out of their work) but Katherine and I are both travelholics who like to find new drinks while on the road.
Last December before anyone "knew" Malaysian Airlines
So why am I bringing this up?
It seems like in the past few months ,when I go to publish an article, a travel tragedy or scare pops up making the fun travel words I’m writing seem insensitive or even misplaced. First, as I was promoting an article about my top destination in the world for beer travel, the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 popped up as an alert on my phone and then a few days later in that same posting cycle Ben Gurion International Airport was being targeted and airlines were refusing to fly into Israel. A few weeks later as I was posting about beer in Virginia, the rest of the country was remembering one of the darkest days in American history, 9/11. As I planned my jovial post this week about either the best airlines for beer or a post on award winning mead, a terrifying disease made it’s way to American soil by, you guessed it, an airliner. Like a bad soap opera, Thursday has had me scrambling to make you forget real life and follow my narrative of twisting up these tragic travel plots.
Whoa was me right. That initial reaction quickly subsided though. What I started to think about were all of the times my wife and I have traveled together during the last 10+ years together. A list of different world issues started popping into my head as scary as the ones we see today.
As we sat in London Heathrow waiting for a connecting flight in 2005, we watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to it’s knees…
Paris was gripped by devastating riots the same fall we were there…..
1 week after a plot to bring down Trans-Atlantic airliners in 2006 was thwarted in London, we were ushered through 3 extra sets of security to board flights to the US in Brussels….
A couple months after Stephanie passed through Atocha Station in Madrid, it was bombed….
24 hours after I passed over the 35W bridge on my way home from a northwoods vacation, it collapsed into the Mississippi River….
ETA's response to a Spanish flag
ETA had failed once and successfully set off bombs through Spain while we traveled through the Basque region of Spain (home of ETA) in 2007....
In September 2007 as we traveled through Europe, banks started to collapse around us as customers started to make runs on them….
In June 2008 as we traveled through Central Europe and Italy, the American economy was in such dire straights that restaurants were actually offering US passport holders reduced prices…..
While flying through some of the busiest airports in Europe in January 2004, a major outbreak of bird flu was gripping South East Asia and beyond…..
Wildfires raged through Colorado in the summer of 2013 as we packed up for our annual pilgrimage to the Rocky Mountains…..
We forged on in the face of these threats. We’ve been to New Orleans a couple of times since it was written off by people, traveled to Colorado in the face of wildfire/flood/mountain lion threats, rode double decker busses and the tube since 7/7, traveled over bridges in the US, and used Atocha Station as a hub for Spanish Exploration- all in the face of dire news and commentary.

Don't hold back, even if real life isn't always fun
All of the events above (and many more) were real global issues that needed to be taken seriously, as do the events of today. We live and travel in a truly global society and have to be aware of our surroundings. But we also have the ability to understand global issues with more information at our fingertips. We have the ability to weed through commentary and get to the actual ramifications of an event on the ground and how it could truly affect us. None of these events stopped us from traveling because we cared enough to be conscious citizens (as we care about supporting local economies through breweries, wineries, and distilleries).
I believe that any and all travel (down the street or around the world) for the purpose of trying something new is an act of conscious citizenry. I also believe that travel is real life, not just the tragic things that come across our TVs, but all narratives including the fun ones. Travel stories, guides, and conversations should not be looked at as a break from reality or a distraction, but as ways to understand- the world around us, the events taking place, and maybe even help us find a new favorite beer.
Travel and smile, you'll be glad you did
Many times after we have arrived home from a trip, I am asked the question if I was scared of this, that, or the other by people. Normally this, that, or the other was on a different continent, but if you aren’t a conscious citizen of the world it won't matter if an article comes from the Onion or Der Spiegel. That also leads to comments on articles from our freshest scare in the US such as “Shut down all flights from Africa”, ”Testing every flight in the US for a fever, that should be easy”,  “Don’t travel overseas until this is done”....and on, and on, and on. If more people were conscious citizens of the world, open to cultural travel outside their front door, and just plain curious we would have much less of the “misdirected rage” that we have now and more stories of fun on the road.
Bring on Thursday travel fun, I’ll let the networks handle the plot twists!