Thursday, March 26, 2015

Rum Running Panamanian Style

Guest Post by Aimee Cebulski

Want to chill with a Cuba Libre on two oceans in one day?  Head for the narrow strip in Central America that links east and west: Panama!

Often a popular vacation destination for those wanting to witness amazing feats of engineering (the canal), adventure seekers (jungle treks and canopy tours) and water lovers (scuba diving and surfing), Panama's unique slender shape makes it possible to actually visit two major oceans within just a few hours.  The Pacific on the southwest coast and the Caribbean on the northeast are easily accessible thanks to a well-developed highway system that runs from Panama City on the Pacific side to Colón on the Caribbean just 40 miles away.

Like much of the region, rum is the go-to liquor of choice here, followed closely by several national beers like Panama, Atlas and Balboa.  With a lightly spiced flavor and flexibility to mix with a variety of tastes, rum has a wide appeal.

Panama's top rum is Ron Abuelo, widely available at all grocery and mini-super shops.  Produced by Varela Hermanos S. A., the first Ron Abuelo rum products were introduced in 1936 and now currently are available in three versions:  Añejo (aged), 7 años (7 years) and 12 años (12 years).  Prices range from about $7 to $30 for a liter-size bottle and rum-based cocktails like a Piña Colada or Cuba Libre are frequently on happy hour promotion from $2.

According to Verla Hermanos, the Añejo version is "richly aged in white oak barrels. Produced from the fermentation of the juice of thousands units of sugarcane, utilizing cutting edge technical procedures and the experience of the rum making tradition in its aging and production. Its unique quality is achieved with time, shadow and silence. Enjoy it alone, on the rocks or with your favorite mixer."

Moving up to the 7 años variety, the distillery describes it as "produced from the fermentation of sugarcane juice, aged for 7 years in small barrels made with white oak, carefully selected for this product.  Under the tropical heat and the strict supervision of a master rum maker this rum develops a refined aroma and an exquisite taste over the years."

The Ron Abuelo 12 años is listed as "the great reserve of the house, reflecting a passion for producing the best aged rum. Sublime distillation, the best selection of white oak barrels and the passing of time under the tropical heat have resulted in this extraordinary product. Its character, softness and complexity will give satisfaction to the most sophisticated and challenging palate."

Perfect for chilling out after a busy day exploring Panama's diverse geographic zones or just lazing on one of the country's many beaches, do like the locals do and grab some rum, ice and your favorite mixer and enjoy!

Contributor Aimee Cebulski has been furiously catching up on lost time as a traveler after a five-year battle with fear of flying grounded her dreams of visiting far-flung destinations in her mid-20s.  Now, she’s proud to have 52 stamps in her passport and considers each new one a triumph over fear.  

She’s worked as a freelance writer and photographer for almost 15 years and currently calls San Diego, California home. Her work has been featured in a number of travel, business and lifestyle magazines, websites and photo galleries.  She recently combined her love of travel, new cultures and writing with the release of The Finding 40 Project, a book about women turning 40-years-old around the world.

Twitter: @Finding40Book

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Celebration of Old New Orleans Rum

New Orleans may be the cocktail capital of the United States.  So many cocktails were invented and are served in this historic city.  There are plenty of bars from which to choose when it comes to drinking the final cocktail product, but New Orleans also offers a place for visitors to see where the cocktail begins, in the distillation process.  Celebration Distillation, the creator of Old New Orleans Rum, provides tours of its New Orleans distillery so visitors can witness the artisanal spirit making process firsthand.

Old New Orleans Rum Spirits
Art surrounds Old New Orleans Rum, even on the inside of the bottle labels.
Old New Orleans Rum was founded by New Orleans artist James Michalopoulas in 1995.  Michalopoulas creates colorful paintings and sculptures and has been commissioned six times to create the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival poster.  His artwork surrounds the Old New Orleans Rum tasting room and also decorates the inside of the rum bottle labels, magnified by the liquid contained within.  Michalopoulas was inspired to go into the distilling business during his international travels when he saw someone making yeast in their backyard with fruit and vegetables.  He returned to New Orleans and collaborated with artists, brew masters, and engineers to create a local consumable work of art, rum.

Old New Orleans Rum Barrel Aging
Old New Orleans Rum barrel aging.
Rum was the alcohol of choice for the distillery because it can be made using Louisiana’s plentiful crop, sugarcane, keeping the product natural and local.  Michalopoulas partnered with Greg Nolan of Lafourche Sugars to make the fresh sugar cane syrup and blackstrap molasses used in Old New Orleans Rum.  This year Celebration Distillation will be straying from their strictly rum lineup with the release of their 20th anniversary sugarcane vodka.

Old New Orleans Rum is distilled in a 150-year-old cotton warehouse on Frenchmen Street.  The distillery is far outside of the tourist district, but Celebration Distillation makes it easy for travelers to visit the distillery by offering complimentary shuttle service from the French Quarter.  The distillery was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  A plaque in the distillery marks the waterline, which reached eight feet.  Because of the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, a significant portion of their product was lost and barrels containing rum were confiscated because swabbing tests confirmed the outside of the barrels that had been floating on the flood waters were contaminated, even though the protected contents inside may have been left unharmed.  The distillery was closed for an entire year after Katrina, but is one of New Orleans' success stories as it opened again in the same preserved historic location.

Old New Orleans Rum Bottling
Bottling of Old New Orleans Rum.
A tour of the distillery starts with a welcome drink of iced tea and Old New Orleans Cajun Spice rum.  Then visitors are walked through the six step process of distilling.  Step one is making the wash, mixing gallons of blackstrap molasses with water and yeast.  The molasses moves through the lines to step two, fermentation, where the added yeast creates alcohol.  The alcohol then moves to step three, pot still distillation, which separates the alcohol into a vapor and creates a stronger bond when the alcohol returns to a more concentrated liquid state.  Step four, column still distillation, concentrates the alcohol even more and purifies the alcohol.  Here the alcohol is separated into four parts: foreshots, heads, hearts, and tails.  Old New Orleans Amber heads to step five, barrel aging, while the rest moves straight to step six, blending and bottling.

Column Still Distillation Product Tasting Old New Orleans Rum
Tasting the results of column still distillation.
Upon completion of the distillery tour guests return to the tasting room where they have the opportunity to taste the results of the distillation process.  Celebration Distillation currently produces four products.  Old New Orleans Crystal is a strong, sweetish white rum, and I don’t suggest drinking much of this rum straight.  Tasters have the option of adding simple syrup with lime juice to the white rum, creating a basic daiquiri and making the strong white rum easier to drink (just to toot my own horn, an idea they got from reading my article about our Kōloa Rum Company tasting).  Old New Orleans Amber, my favorite of the Celebration Distillation rums, is the white rum that has been aged.  The amber rum spends three years in charred American oak barrels which have been used once before to age Makers Mark, and the amber color is achieved using cooked-out molasses as a dye.  The spice of the Old New Orleans Cajun Spice is accomplished with a homemade infusion using cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne, clove, and ginger, perfect for adding to a glass of sweet tea.  The fourth product is not a spirit, but a drink mix.  Gingeroo is a carbonated mixture of ginger puree, cayenne, water, and rum.  If you enjoy ginger and strong flavors, you will enjoy Gingeroo.  The taste of ginger pops at the front of the mouth while the cayenne burns at the back of the throat, and the flavor is reminiscent of homemade gingersnaps.  After tasting, visitors have the option of purchasing some Old New Orleans Rum before departing.

During a trip to New Orleans, which can be filled with history, music, food, and excellent craft cocktails, an Old New Orleans Rum Tour is a fun addition to celebrate the newer history of New Orleans, the art of distilling artisanal spirits using local Louisiana sugarcane crops.

Thank you to Celebration Distillation for hosting our tour of the Old New Orleans Rum distillery and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Get Ploughed in Lincoln, Nebraska at Ploughshare Brewing Company

"There is no place like Nebraska, dear old Nebraska U, where the girls are the fairest, the boys are the squarest, of any school that I knew." Many people may not know those words, but anyone who has had even a mild interest in college football over the last 50 years will know the tune that goes with those words. On Saturdays for 4 months out of the year Lincoln, Nebraska is not only the 2nd largest city in Nebraska, but also the 3rd largest city. Huh? Yes on football Saturdays, Memorial Stadium in Lincoln (see picture above) fills up with more folks than any city in the state outside of Lincoln and Omaha. And on those Saturdays you will understand why the people of this state believe there is no place like Nebraska.

Lincoln as a city though has much more to offer than football (as a Badgers fan they haven't offered up much football lately though...oh zing...I kid because I love). It's the capital city of the great state and is the home of the University of Nebraska (yes not just the football team).  The university is a member of the Big 10, which not only means a large student population, but also plenty of research dollars which in turn means people coming in from all corners of the globe to cure diseases and make crops yield more, well, crops. Being home to a large university also means that Lincoln is home to some great museums and places to have a few drinks. And as the brewing revolution has revved up in the Heartland, it was a no-brainer that Lincoln (college town) would get in on the action (lots of alcohol consumed in a college town). As luck would have it, we slipped in to Lincoln recently and were able to hit the cities newest brewery, Ploughshare Brewing Company.

Welcome to Lincoln's Ploughshare Brewing Company

Ploughshare Brewing Company was opened in July of last year by owner and head brew master Matt Stinchfield. When the doors opened, guests were treated to great locally sourced food and local craft beer, from other breweries, as the brewery operation was still a few months away from being fully operational. The tap room itself was fully functional though. The room itself was adorned floor to ceiling with wood that had been reclaimed from a true Nebraska homestead barn from the 1800's. Wait, homestead? Isn't that like the Oregon Trail? Sort of, but what it makes for is a real pleasing room with Bavarian flags added in to melt ancestral German hearts like my own.

It's the first thing that pops into my head when I hear "Homestead"
We popped into the Ploughshare tap room on a cold March evening for, you guessed it, a warm up. Travel tip- there isn't much resistance from Arctic or Rocky Mountain winds in Nebraska so winter may not be the best time to visit. Spring and fall are great. As luck would have it we were lucky enough to be in the tap room on a night with live music as well (check out the Ploughshare Facebook Page for event announcements because nothing goes better with a good beer than some solid live music).

All lined up, ready to make some tasty suds

Before we dove into some of Ploughshare's finest, I took a quick peek into the brew house itself. One of the great things about local breweries is that none of them look the same. Every brewer has their own set up that works for them and Ploughshare was no different. One thing that struck me about their setup was that it was very bright and clean (which is reassuring when you're about to taste something that comes out of that room). Stainless steel kettles (no copper, but as noted before the cost of importing copper just doesn't work for small breweries) all lined up for brewing and cask barrels stacked for aging made for an impressive room. There was obviously a lot of thought and care put into the entire operation, from reclaimed wood in the tap room to the design of the brewing operation itself, which made me pretty excited to dive into a few beers.

Great atmosphere, including all orders placed true pub style at the bar at Ploughshare

On the night that we stopped into Ploughshare there were 8 house taps and 4 visiting taps from some of the other local craft breweries. Craft beer note- Isn't it nice that instead of taking shots at other breweries, most local craft brewers not only collaborate but also share tap lines at each others breweries. Refreshing! My first choice was the Smithy's Oatmeal Stout. The stout was hard to describe, not in a bad way at all, but it had a combination of stout flavors. Smithy's had a little spice up front, like an imperial stout but without the burnt aftertaste of chewed cigarette that you can get with some imperials. That burnt flavor was replaced hints of chocolate and coffee like a cream stout, almost like a porter. There was plenty of hop kick as well which put Smithy's Oatmeal Stout in almost it's own category of stout. It was excellent and a great start to this cold evening.

The Ploughshare Grand Cru and friends

After I finished my stout I moved on to a beer that I don't see in most places and varies in style and flavor from the people who do brew it , the infamous Grand Cru. By definition, a Grand Cru means something along the lines of "great harvest", or in brewing terms an exceptional batch of brew. Many times a Grand Cru is a higher octane regular brew from a brewery. At Ploughshare, the Grand Cru was a Belgian amber style ale. I cannot express how smooth the Ploughshare Grand Cru was. Unlike an American amber, the Belgian amber has much less bitterness from the hops and much more aroma with a hint of spice. With the kick starter, Ploughshare's Grand Cru had a great alcohol kick to it as well, but because of it's easy drinkability you would have never known you were drinking an 8% plus alcohol beer.

Cream Ale-"Drink me" Stout- "No, drink me" Me- "Don't worry, there's time for both"

While at Ploughshare we also sampled the Farm Boy Cream Ale and Tailgate Red (Irish Red Ale). Like the other 2 brews I had, these 2 were very smooth and easy to drink with an abundance of flavor. Many people still get scared away from micro or craft beer because of the misconception of harsh bitterness or over complexity of the beer. The cream ale and red (along with the other flavors we sampled) at Ploughshare shut down those misconceptions from the first sip. Which brought me to the quick conclusion that all the same care and thought put into the character of the brewery, is also put into the beer. Which for me is 2 thumbs way up.

Bands, beers, Bavarian flags...a tap room triple play!

Like most college towns, Lincoln is a great place to enjoy or relive your youth. 2 distinct area around campus (the Haymarket and "O" Street) are filled with unique bars to enjoy fishbowls with your high tops on (I really had no idea high top tennis shoes were a thing again). But before you hit those bars, you have to make it to "P" street for a few easy drinking, full flavored Ploughshare Brewing beers.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Watering Holes of Historic Downtown Yuma

Yuma is a small agricultural town in the southwest corner of Arizona.  A friend who used to live there jokes that during her time in Yuma the Golden Corral Buffet was the most exciting place in town.  But Yuma is changing, most significantly with the revitalization of historic downtown Yuma, and there are some really good and exciting craft beer and wine bars popping up for locals and travelers alike.

Prison Hill Brewing Company

Prison Hill Brewing Company Beer Flight Yuma Arizona

As we approached Prison Hill Brewing Company we were greeted by the quote, “Every loaf of bread is a tragic tale of grains that could’ve become a beer but didn’t.”  Luckily other grains were saved from such a tragic end and instead made it into Prison Hill Brewing Company’s craft beers.  Prison Hill Brewing Company opened its doors on August 30, 2014, and the brewery is the labor of love of Nathan Heida, Amy Biallas, and Chris Wheeler.  Nathan and Amy previously opened The Pint House Bar & Grill across the street, but decided to take Yuma’s craft beer scene to the next level by working with their friend Chris Wheeler, Prison Hill’s master brewer.  Prison Hill Brewing is the first and only craft brewery in Yuma.  There are no other craft breweries within 110 miles. 

Prison Hill Brewing Company Restaurant and Bar

Clearly Yuma was ready for a craft brewery because Prison Hill is selling their beer as fast as they are brewing.  Prison Hill has three to five of their beers on tap at any one time, along with other craft brands.  Most of the recipes have been tested by Chris Wheeler six to eight times before production for the brewery, and one recipe is 20 years old.  It takes one month for Prison Hill’s beers to go from grain to glass and all are brewed in-house.  The plan is to have five to seven staple beers and rotate additional seasonal brews.  Coming down the pipeline is a session pale ale with a gravity of 1.032.  The label will feature the mug shot of Chris Wheeler’s great-grandfather Jesus Gill Sr. who served three years in the Yuma Territorial Prison.  It seemed like fate considering Gill’s inmate number was 1032.  

During our visit we tasted the three Prison Hill brews available on tap.  Devil Dog Brown was brewed in honor of military appreciation week.  Devil Dog Brown is an IBA (Indian Brown Ale) which starts as a brown, achieved using Belgian candy sugar, and finishes hoppy.  Repeat Offender is a session beer, though the 5.0% ABV is a little higher than what was planned.  My favorite was the Whoop-Ass Winter Ale, which tastes like Christmas in a glass.  When they were brewing the beer people kept stopping by and asking what was cooking because of the aromatic nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and orange peel included in the brewing process.

Yuma’s Main Squeeze

Yuma's Main Squeeze Yuma Arizona

Yuma’s Main Squeeze is Yuma’s only winery.  Yuma does not have the climate to grow grapes, so owner Fred Earle imports grapes from around the world to craft the wine lineup.  Fred’s son is the main wine maker and all the wine is made within the Main Street winery.  Yuma’s Main Squeeze also serves food including panini, pizza, and cheese plates, and sometimes has live music on the weekends.  Patrons can either choose a wine tasting flight of five or purchase wine by the glass. 

During our visit Yuma’s Main Squeeze had ten wines available for tasting: Yuma Crossing Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Australian Shiraz, Dynamic Duo (a Cabernet and Merlot blend), Malbec, Rat Pack (a Cabernet, Syrah, and Zinfandel blend), Strawberry Riesling, Raspberry Rose, Back Cherry Pinot Noir, and After Dinner Coffee Port.  My favorite wines were the Yuma Crossing Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Dynamic Duo.  The Gewurztraminer is bright, smooth, and off-dry.  The Dynamic Duo, a blend of Cabernet and Merlot grapes from California, is a full-bodied red with a fruity aroma reminiscent of jam.  The biggest shocker was the After Dinner Coffee Port.  It smells more like a coffee stout than a dessert wine.  I wouldn’t think that a coffee flavored port would work, but it does.  They make this special port once a year around the holidays and carry it until it runs out, which usually happens in March.

Old Town Wine Cellar

Old Town Wine Cellar Yuma Arizona

Not really a bar, Old Town Wine Cellar is still a place you can go to have a drink.  Old Town Wine Cellar is a wine shop (which also sells some beer) located in part of the old 1920s Sears building on Main Street.  Old Town Wine Cellar opened in 2003 and offers wine tastings Tuesday through Friday as well as monthly Saturday Afternoon Beer Tastings. 

We participated in a Saturday Afternoon Beer Tasting where we got to taste some beers we had tasted before and some we had not.  The beer tasting lineup included Weihenstephaner Krystall-Weissbier from Bavaria, Germany, Malheur “10” Golden Ale from Belgium, Lagunitas IPA from California, Unibrou Maudite Amber Red Ale from Canada, Rogue Brewing Hazelnut Brown Nectar from Oregon, and Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout from England.  The owner Mike Shelhamer obviously has a lot of fun curating his wine and beer selection.  The wines featured in the wine tastings change every week and Mike is the one who will be pouring your tastings.

The Pint House Bar & Grill

The Pint House Bar & Grill Yuma Arizona

Before Prison Hill Brewing Company, there was The Pint House Bar & Grill. Nathan Heida and Amy Biallas opened The Pint House in 2012 in an effort to bring to Yuma what other towns like nearby San Diego and Scottsdale have, craft beer.  There are lots of bars in Yuma selling the usual lineup of big name beers, but the craft beer movement hadn’t really made it to Yuma yet.

After over two years The Pint House is going strong, converting Yuma residents to the craft side and enticing customers not only with its craft beer, but also its great food.  Just to give an example of The Pint House’s varied craft beer lineup, we enjoyed Mudshark Morning Buzz from Lake Havasu, Historic Piehole Porter from Flagstaff, Wasatch Pumpkin Porter from Park City, and Bison Gingerbread Ale from Berkeley.  With so many beers on tap, many of which we hadn’t had before, it’s an added plus that they’ll provide one free taste if you’re unsure of your selection.

While Yuma isn’t a craft beer and wine mecca, it is starting to dip its toes into the craft scene and is so far doing a great job.  Visitors who are used to a plethora of craft bars at home will be happy to find these unique watering holes in Yuma’s historic downtown.

Thank you to the Yuma Convention & Visitors Bureau for hosting our trip to Yuma and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.