Tending to the Apple

For over two years I worked as bartender at a small town whisk(e)y bar, pouring pours, slinging bevy, shaking cocktails, eavesdropping on sordid affairs, and offering unqualified therapy advice. For the most part, I really enjoyed it. The place, the one and only Amherst Coffee, provided me with an exceptional education in whisk(e)y, old world wines, mixology, and beers. I feel confident in saying that I can make a Manhattan that will leave you wondering why you haven’t been buying drinks from me for years. One of my favorite creations, the Goldie Hawn (featuring a Spanish anchovy as the garnish) met with (almost) universal praise. During down time I would chat with my regulars and concoct various drinks to suit their tastes. When it got busy, I had no trouble hauling ass back and forth, always trying to ensure that my bevys were better than any other in town.

I know. You want one... right NOW!

I assumed that when I moved to New York City my well rounded education and experience would make me a prime candidate for any bartending position. I found out, very quickly, that is not the case. In a city that is often considered the cultural center of America, where image and money are often the driving factors, there is an unfortunate absence of quality in the bevy world. That is not to say that this city doesn’t offer some of the worlds finest. It’s just not always as good as you would expect it to be. Hell, sometimes it’s downright shameful what places offer for what they charge.

The standard practice for hiring bartenders in the city seems to be that the applicant will come in and tend for 3-4 hours as the management observes. Bully! In my experience, one of the key elements in the art of bartending has to do with knowing where your ingredients are so you can actually engage in the social element of bartending, instead of swearing under your breath every 5 minutes because you grabbed the wrong bottle. Add to the fact that most bars are dark, labels are illegible, and New Yorkers are thirsty, and you have a recipe for disaster. Knowing where your well liquors are is no trouble. Discerning different wine labels, written conveniently in obnoxious cursive in another language, is just about impossible.

My first experience was in SoHo at a tobacco bar. They gave me a 5 minute run down of the POS (glowing computer register thingy), showed me where everything was, and let me loose. I had spent the past few days studying their drink menu so as to be prepared. Didn’t help to say the least. Considering that the average cocktail price was around $15, I assumed (incorrectly) that they would make an effort to give a shit about what they served. I asked a lot of questions. Too many apparently. “Do you shake or stir your martinis? Do you go heavy on the sweet vermouth in your Manhattans? How big are your wine pours? 6oz? 8oz?” I didn’t really receive any answers so after about 2 hours I just started doing what I do.

About an hour later they told me I could go home and that they would be in touch. I called several times over the next couple days before someone finally picked up.

“Sorry, but we are looking for a “star bartender.” Yup. Those were his exact words. So I asked what I did wrong. “You seem like a nice guy and you seem to know what you’re doing, but… you’re just too slow and you ask too many questions.”

Oh I’m sorry, I just thought you might want me to do things the way you want me to do them. I’m not Tom Cruise and this is not the 80’s.

You should see what I can do for an extra $10

If you expect me to flip a flaming bottle of Stoli Razz in the air while pouring shots, flirting, you can just sit on it. I make drinks, and as much as people go to a bar for atmosphere, company, to forget something, they are also willing to part with $15 for a cocktail. If all they wanted was to get fucked up, I recommend the shot-and-a-beer program, which is cheap and only moderately offensive to the palate. When ordering a cocktail, you want it to be great. Or at the very least good. When no one cares what’s going into it, you’re bound to get screwed more often than not.

My other experience was at an Italian restaurant in the West Village. The Italian guy (a real deal Italian, as in made in Italy) that was training me was clapping the mint he put in his mojitos instead of muddling it with the drink. Wanker. He then served a Manhattan with no bitters. I couldn’t hold my tongue.

“No bitters?” I asked.

“Nope. We don’t have any.”

If you can’t already tell, I love Manhattans and get pissy like a fat kid at Whole Foods when they get abused. Once again, at $15, it should be good. At $15, it should have what it’s supposed to. I couldn’t take it. It suddenly dawned on me that a large portion of the supposedly informed citizens of this great city have no idea what quality as far as bevy is concerned. Also, it seems almost everyone loves Peroni, which is some schwilly Italian beer. Just because it’s Italy’s version of PBR doesn’t make it any good. Worldly hipsters eh? Even worse.

In Italy they only use umbrellas on sunny days.

In Italy they only use umbrellas on sunny days.

Everything in this city is driven by volume. To an extent, I can understand that. The monthly rent at some of these spots is probably more than I make in a year. But c’mon people. Try, for just a minute, to give a shit what you’re serving.

 

Never Noticed Ocean in a Wine Before.

But I have now. And in the most unusual place… you don’t expect a great glass of wine from the Sheraton lobby bar at the Hartford airport. And ok, it’s not a great glass, not a spectacular glass but this 2009 Vistalba Malbec Cab has flavors in it I’ve never tasted in wine.

Like sea breezes. Also something very fresh (can’t figure out what) that reminds me of inexplicably of raising babies. Or of an earlier, baby-raising time. That one’s elusive. Can’t put a finger on it. What I know I taste are cherries, black raspberries, chocolate and pepper for sure, more tanin that I like, maybe slate, some kind of herb. I get a landscape impression from the flavors that involves warmth, salty wind and sunlight on rocks. (Which makes no sense really since Carlos Pulenta Winery is at the foot of this mountain range , far away from the sea, and judging by the photos on the winery website a common feature of the area is snow, not sun. Hey, I taste what I taste.)

Leather, this site informs me. Hmm. Leather. I say, maybe… asparagus.

The Beer Paradox

At Mother Jones, Tom Philpott alerts us to the “beer paradox”:

Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller produce 80 percent of the beer consumed here. That’s four of every five brews. And almost all of them suck! Yet the US beer industry is paradoxical. Even as these giants have lurched their way to market domination, we’ve seen an explosion of excellent local and regional brewers. And the United States, home of such swill as Bud Light and Coors Extra Gold, has emerged as the global standard-bearer for beer innovation and, yes, quality.

For proof of the former, he provides this visualization:

But to demonstrate the strength of the small but growing microbrew market, check this out:

According to Philpott:

What all of this is telling me is that corporations control plenty, but they don’t control everything. Their dominance of US beer is a mile wide but paper thin. Grassroots energy and desire rescued beer from true corporate domination starting in 1980. The same can happen in other areas of the food system.

At Lawyers, Guns and Money, Erik Loomis has a bit about the role of President Carter in deregulating micro-brews in the 70s (which as Philpott explains accounts for the proliferation of small brewers after that time). However please do not be confused by Loomis’ cover art. Rob Farley clarifies:

Tactical Nuclear Penguin: Strongest Beer in the World?

Brewdog makes this incredible beer and claims it is “the strongest beer in the world.” The video above says it all, though at a mere 32% alcohol it’s not entirely clear why it still merits the label since the same company now makes two even stronger beers. (More on those and the politics behind their labels in future posts.)

It’s also more interesting that they would name their allegedly strongest beer “Tactical” Nuclear Penguin since the beer gets its name from the weaker class of nuclear weapons. I chalk this up to the general ignorance of English brewers about the nature of nuclear weapons (exceeded only by the general inability of Americans to pronounce the word ‘nuclear’), though they do seem to understand a good deal about the genetic compatibility of humans with penguins.

As it turned out this was good for me, however, since I first learned of this beer from a weapons expert at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, an organization specializing in getting governments to treat their enemies better in war. The guy had stumbled upon a reference to the beer during his research on nuclear non-proliferation treaties and, being a nerd like myself, thought it cool enough to bear mention in his interview with the American political scientist. (Or perhaps he was simply trying to dodge my pointed questions about the future of battlefield robotics. Yes, that’s right. Check out this bad boy.)

Anyway, Tactical Nuclear Penguin is certainly a fine beer, as I discovered while on a “writing trip” to Portland recently where my buddy had managed to acquire a single bottle over the Internet. (They arrive packed in bubble-wrap. Sweet.) And it’s true what they say about consuming TNP in small doses, like spirits. I can’t abide spirits, but I managed to wash my half of the entire TNP bottle down with a nice crisp Mirror Pond IPA for a chaser.

This resulted in a highly enjoyable evening and an absolutely sickening day to follow in which I got very little writing done on my killer robots case study.

Bad puman.

P.S. My buddy disputes whether I in fact finished my half of the beer. But I definitely finished my share.

Drinking Smart

The more educated a person is, the more money s/he spends on booze.* So says new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Political blogger Matthew Yglesias has a vibrant discussion in his comments thread at ThinkProgress about why. Do ‘smarter’** people drink more because the more you know about the state of the world around you the more you need a drink? Or because it’s socially functional for the over-educated to feel and act a little stupider a little more often in a culture that values street-smarts over book-smarts? Or do more educated folks simply pay more for alcohol?

Well, speaking as a prof who both thinks and drinks too much (at least according to my kids) it’s a bit of both. Continue reading

Beans in the Big Apple

The city that never sleeps.

Sunset from a rooftop in Clinton Hill.

I’m currently in the process of moving to New York City, and part of me thinks no one who lives in New York calls it the big apple. But for now I don’t live in the city, and am therefor a tourist by default and free to represent every obnoxious stereotype. Last week while scouting for housing and employment I tried to hit as many cafe’s as possible. That being said, I tried to skip out on the places that were heavy on the “scene” and were more focused on the quality of their offerings. I was in search of great coffee, and to be sure there is plenty to be had in New York.

 

Blue Bottle Coffee (Williamsburg)

On the Blue Bottle Coffee website they explain that the name Blue Bottle comes from central Europe’s first coffee house. Not sure that matters if the coffees no good. Lucky for them, it’s grand. They go on to explain that their founder opened Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland as a response to schwilly 16 oz. pumpkin spiced hazelnut macchiatos, Starbuck, three pumps of vanilla, and the like. It’s important to note that their is no such thing as a 16 oz. macchiato. The word macchiato is Italian and it means, more or less, marked. Tainted. Maybe stained. But in this case, it only means marked with milk, not drowned in it. It’a ratio thing, and if you’ve got 16 oz. and it’s only “marked” with milk, you’re drinking an obscene amount of espresso which will probably induce severe vomiting. Just saying.

Where Blue Bottle excels is in it’s adventurous methods of coffee preparation. The space looks half like a coffee bar and half like a science lab, with tubes and beakers and all other manner of confusing equipment that makes me think they’re processing Columbian cocaine, not coffee.

http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/

Here we make coffee, mutant soldiers.

I got a pour over (a method of extraction whose sole purpose is made-to-order drip coffee) of the blend named “Three Africans,” comprised of a Ugandan Mt. Elgon, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and Sidama. I tend to enjoy African single-origin coffees, and this did not disappoint. Tasting notes? Nah, just get a cup. Black is beautiful. It was simply tasty. Afterwards, I had to try the espresso. As a barista for a few years, pounding triple ristretto, double shots, and small cups of drip all day every day, I thought I was prepared. The counter person looked at me like I was trying to drink enough coffee to ensure an embarrassing moment on the metro whereby the extra bevy causes extreme loss of bowel control. Anyone who’s had too much coffee (and smokes) knows exactly what I’m talking about. Also anyone who’s ever had to clean a cafe bathroom also knows the potential for disaster where coffee is concerned. Within an hour I was grossly dehydrated and twitching more than I’m comfortable with. My fault, I know.

I liked the fact that there was limited seating real estate. A few laptops littered the place, but otherwise the focus seemed to be on coffee. No plush couches, no visible power outlets, no camping. There’s nothing more frustrating than going to your favorite cafe to meet a friend and talk for a little while and finding that every seat is taken, where everyone in the place has spread out their weeks work and set up shop for what appears to be an indefinite amount of time. Blue Bottle is a place for lovers of coffee. Best try some.

 

RBC Coffee (TriBeCa)

I wanted to like this place, and I did. Sort of. The coffee was good, but not great. The space was small, but not without charm. I settled for a cup of drip, and it had hints of flavor, but ultimately fell flat. I can’t even remember what it was, though they post all of their coffee origins and the roasters on the wall.

Coffee Menu. Sure.

Ultimately, it seemed a decent place to meet and have a decent cup, though if you’re in the city looking for a game-changer, and cup that’ll make you say “HOT DAMN THAT’S GOOD!” look elsewhere. That is all.

 

Kaffe 1668 (TriBeCa)

Business Casual.

This spot was actually a nice synthesis of slick, cushy cafe vibe and boutique coffee bar. They also work with a three-group Synesso, which is the only espresso machine I have ever used, so I was intrigued. I settled on a single origin espresso, an Ethiopian I think (notice a trend here?) and was highly impressed. The barista was down to talk a little shop, which is always a plus when I’m looking for something tasty. He told me “it’s pretty mellow, with some nice floral notes without being a fruit bomb.” And he was right. I’m always flattered when a barista pulls me a shot, looks suspiciously at the demitas, gives it a quick sniff, dumps it out, redials the grinder settings, and makes another go at it. That tells me that the barista is intent on ensuring that each shot makes the grade. Now, maybe when he’s hauling drink after drink, he doesn’t have the time to really perfect each shot, which is fine. Especially where single-origin espresso is concerned, it can be a fickle process to get it just right. It’s why most espresso uses a blend, to create balance in not only taste, but in preparation. I know I’ve had to dump multiple shots trying to dial in my grinders when working with single-origin espresso.

The space was rather unique in that they had traditional cafe seating upstairs, though it was more of a bustling cafe than a writers haven from unpaid heating bills. Downstairs there was more seating, a couch and a couple tables, and it was clearly for the laptop workhorse types who like to lounge and work on their blogs that will hopefully get them some low-paying paying staff job at some equally unheard of internet publication… They also had tons of cheeky artwork, all referencing the cafe. Bordering on kitsch, it was kind of charming.

Before we die, let's get better lighting in here so people can take pictures of this kinda tacky artwork with their iPhones.

Considering it’s New York, I imagine I could cover three cafes a week and never catch up. But for my first foray into city coffee, I was delighted to find that I didn’t have to try to hard to find such fantastic bean based bevy’s. Got a favorite spot? Spill the beans!