Vaccari Nero is the new black (or blue)

Vaccari Nero, finally available in Oregon. Make it blue!

Blue drinks are back, at least ironically. As Camper English wrote this summer:

Blue drinks have long been a mixologists’ in-joke. When bartenders were getting serious about pre-Prohibition cocktails about five years ago, jet-setting New Zealand bartender Jacob Briars invented the Corpse Reviver Number Blue, a piss-take on the sacrosanct classic Corpse Reviver #2 that was enjoying a major comeback.

Since then, he and other bartenders have been practicing “sabluetage”—spiking the drinks of unwitting victims with blue curaçao when no one is looking. The forbidden liqueur can now be found on the menus of a few of the world’s best cocktail bars, including Jasper’s Corner Tap in San Francisco, PDT in New York City (where it’s mixed with other unfashionable ingredients, such as Frangelico and cream), and London’s Artesian Bar (winner of the World’s Best Hotel Bar award this week), where a new blue drink—called Blue Lagoon—also features Sprite and bubble tea.

I’ve had my own run-ins with blue drinks, including a publisher who put a blue cocktail on the cover of my recipe guide despite my objections and an off-menu Mad Dog Blue Raspberry and aquavit cocktail we served for a while at Metrovino (it was actually pretty good!). Most blue cocktails get their coloration from blue curacao. But there’s another way to do it…

Vaccari Nero is a black sambuca that’s part of the Bols portfolio. I didn’t work with it for a long time because it wasn’t available in Oregon, but on road trips to other states I found that it had the potential to become an enthusiastically embraced spirit. This is in part because it’s a quality sambuca: It’s named after Arturo Vaccari, the creator of Galliano, and gets its extracts and distillates from the same source. It’s also in part due to its rich color, which despite its name is not black, but rather a very deep midnight blue. Mixed in cocktails, it adds a strong anise kick and striking hue.

I’m just beginning to explore the possibilities of this spirit in cocktails. My favorite so far comes from Erik Trickett, barman at the forthcoming Roe Restaurant and Fish Market in Long Beach, California. The drink he came up with is basically a Ramos Gin Fizz substituting Vaccari Nero for gin. Trading sambuca for gin is a counterintuitive stroke of genius that shouldn’t work yet somehow does, resulting in the lovely robin egg colored drink above. And since this drink needs a name, let’s go ahead and call it a Robin’s Egg (a.k.a. the Samblueca Fizz):

1 1/2 oz Vaccari Nero
1 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz Bols Genever
1/2 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz cream
1 egg white
coffee bean, for garnish

Add the sambuca, lemon, genever, simple syrup, cream, and egg white to a shaker. Dry shake to aerate, then add ice and shake again. Give it a good, long, hard shake. Strain into a glass, preferably a champagne flute if you have a tall one. Let the foam settle and top with soda. Finish by grating a bit of coffee bean on top, a nod to the traditional “con mosca” way of serving sambuca.

Vaccari Nero is finally available in Oregon, so I’m looking forward to seeing what local bartenders end up doing with it. To kick things off, I’ll be guest bartending at Portland’s new Italian spot Bar alla Bomba this Thursday, November 29, from 7-10 pm with a menu of cocktails featuring Vaccari Nero, Galliano L’Autentico, and Galliano Ristretto, including the drink above. Come on by to try it out.


Coffee bitters and the Antigua Old-Fashioned


With my dual interests in cocktails and coffee it was only a matter of time before the two collided in the same glass. Most recently I’ve been experimenting with coffee bitters. Many roots and barks can be used as bittering agents, so why not the pleasant bitterness of coffee beans? My friend Lance Mayhew and I have tried out several recipes for coffee bitters and with batch #5 we’ve hit on a combination that I find very satisfying. We use Lemonhart 151-proof rum as a base and add in a few complementary flavors like orange peel and star anise. The final product has a distinct coffee aroma and taste without overpowering the other ingredients; it might be more accurate to call these coffee-orange bitters given the strong orange note they produce. (Coffee geeks will be interested to know that the beans are Stumptown’s Costa Rica Herbazu; how much of a difference origin makes in these bitters is yet to be determined.)

My favorite use for the bitters so far is in a rum Old-Fashioned. I’ve tried this with a number of rums, searching for a spirit to give the drink the right amount sweetness without tipping too far in the direction of strong caramel flavor. My favorite so far is English Harbour, an Antiguan rum with just enough time in barrel to give it depth. It’s well-suited for a classic Old-Fashioned preparation:

2 oz English Harbour rum
.5 tsp superfine sugar
2 dashes coffee bitters

Stir all ingredients to dissolve the sugar, add ice, and stir again. Finish with a strip of orange peel.

The rum Old-Fashioned with coffee bitters has been a popular off the menu item at Carlyle for a couple months now and will be making the jump to prime time later this week.

Update 4/12/10: The recipe for our coffee bitters has been posted here.


Bring on the Frankenbrew

Ron Bailey’s one of my favorite science writers and I’m completely on board with his complaints about alarmist reactions against genetically modified food. Yet in this post of his about a newly passed Hawaiian ban on growing GM coffee, I’m sympathetic to the coffee farmers who supported it. They’ve succeeded in creating an immensely popular brand — rather above its actual quality, in my experience — and their livelihood depends on keeping it intact and protecting their organic certification. Their fears of losing certification in US markets are likely overblown, but I can understand why they have them. (Even so, as Ron has previously written, it’s not at all obvious that organic farmers deserve legal protection against potential contamination.)

If there’s anyone to blame here it’s the USDA’s and Europe’s organic certification programs and the consumers who demand products bearing their labels. It’s weird that certification, which depends mostly on the farming techniques used in production, also addresses the genetic composition of the plants at issue. It would be nice if we could decouple these standards because right now there’s no convenient way to convey to consumers that a product is GM yet otherwise grown under organic conditions. This is especially problematic given that a major aim of genetically modified crops is to make it easier to avoid the pesticide use that drives many people to prefer organics.

Is there a future for GM coffee? Maybe. Trials for pest-resistant varietals have been successful despite attacks from vandals hoping to derail the project. Coffee is an incredibly complex crop though, and it’s hard to predict how a new varietal will taste under different growing conditions. If scientists do create a GM bean that tastes great and makes it easier for farmers to work without pesticides, coffee lovers should welcome it with open arms. Under current regulations, however, we won’t be able to market it as organic no matter how naturally it’s grown.


Precious coffee policies

McDonald’s will ice your espresso for you. Apparently it’s bad enough that they focus their marketing on the iced drinks. (It’s a lame unlinkable Flash site, so click on the “intervention” tab.)

In related news, Starbucks just launched its Clover brewers into San Francisco stores. This gets me neither wi-fi nor good coffee, but would probably solve the electrical problem. I’m almost tempted to check it out and see how nicely the Clover highlights the char notes.

[Via Starbucks Gossip.]

Coffee without comfort
Your precious coffee policy
The Clover rollout


San Francisco wi-fi blues

I’m in San Francisco now, enjoying the city’s abundance of excellent coffee. Yet for such a tech-friendly town, I’m having a hard time pairing it with working wi-fi. The new Four Barrel, where I had a really nice cappuccino this morning, doesn’t offer it. Ritual does, but they’ve removed their electrical outlets. I’m here now and when my battery dies I’ll be unable to catch up on work or give them any more money. Blue Bottle in Hayes Valley serves my favorite espresso in the world, but they’re just a kiosk. Their new store doesn’t have wi-fi either. Is there any place in town that combines great coffee, internet access, and free electrons?


Conservatives and coffee

J. P. Freire reports on a new “Conservative Cafe” in Crowne Point, Indiana:

“No, we don’t carry the New York Times,” [owner David Beckham — not that David Beckham] assures me. They do, however, carry the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. Meanwhile, café televisions are tuned to Fox News from open to close. As he describes his year-old venture, it’s clear that no fan of Starbucks would feel much at home in the Conservative Café. Then again, for Mr. Beckham, that’s the point.

“Nobody’s thought of starting a coffee shop that caters to more conservative thinking,” he stresses. But it’s not the thinking that seems to be at the center of his coffee shop’s experience. It’s the lifestyle. “We get a lot of curious people, but the majority of our clientele are conservatives. We’re in an area of Reagan Democrats. They’re over 30. They come with their families.”

Mr. Beckham’s coffeeshop sells t-shirts that use classic conservative shock-and-awe rhetoric, such as, “Silly Liberal: Paychecks are for workers,” and “Peace through superior firepower.” This comes despite his wife’s initial concerns that he would alienate half of all potential customers. “I told her that beauticians alienate half of their potential customers and they get by just fine.”

I’m all for letting a thousand flowers bloom, ideological diversity, small business, etc., but I’ve got to say: this sounds like an awful place. Just having TVs on in a coffee shop isn’t exactly a sign of vibrant intellectual life. But TVs tuned in constantly to FOX News? Ugh. As J. P. says, “There are no tomes of great philosophical or academic literature in the shop… Indeed, the portrait of TR pretty much precludes it.”

Left-wing shops like DC’s Busboys and Poets might not be much better; oddly, I never made it in. But at least they don’t exhibit this kind of anti-intellectualism. Selling the Wall Street Journal is great, but there’s no need to proudly shut out the New York Times. Sure, its editorials can be terrible, but the paper offers some of the best reporting in the country. A well-informed person ought to read it from time to time, not wear one’s dismissal of it as a badge of honor. (Today’s Republicans learn from the top, I guess.)

If conservatives would look into the soft lefty concern for the world’s poor expressed by many independent coffee companies, they’d see some intelligent commentary bubbling up. You know who offers the smartest critiques of Fair Trade? It’s not the conservatives and libertarians sneering at the label without a clue as to how coffee markets actually work. It’s the bean buyers who can tell you how Fair Trade is often an obstacle to improving farmers’ lives and how their own entrepreneurship has found better ways to reward farmers and raise standards of quality. They’re liberals, but they’re liberal capitalists. Their customers increasingly know this too.

And speaking of coffee, for a coffee shop owner Beckham says little about it. There’s no detail about his beans in the article and the cafe’s website isn’t very descriptive. It says they have four blends and that they are all roasted in Indiana. But the blends all come from individual countries: a Colombian, a Guatemalan, a Kenyan, and a Sumatran. So are they “blends” or are they single origins? And what do the “strength” ratings mean? Beckham doesn’t exactly sound like a coffee lover here: “We know what coffee is for. It’s to start your day. It’s not for sitting on a couch for 8 hours and looking for a friend on MySpace.” Or perhaps it’s for enjoying. Once again, this doesn’t sound like a place for the intellectually curious, in either its politics or its product.

I don’t want to slag this cafe too much. Coffee shops could use more diversity and I like to see small businesses succeed. For all I know, their coffee’s fantastic. Yet what I love about the best coffee shops is that they’re home to lively exchanges of ideas, not walled-off ideological conformity. If conservatives seem under-represented in them, that perhaps says more about conservatives than it does about coffee shops.


Coffee without comfort

Dan Drezner examines the ads for the new “McCafe” coffee counters recently introduced by McDonald’s and finds them wanting. His observations are spot on: while the male ad is predictable and somewhat funny, the female version is insultingly out of touch. Women can’t be knowledgeable about geography? Liking jazz is a pretense? Starbucks still plays anything besides the CDs they’re hawking and the women there don’t sport skirts? It’s as if the marketers who wrote this have never been to a Starbucks or interacted with a woman whose intellect outshines her, um, knees.

The ads really say more about the McDonaldsification of Starbucks than the Starbucksification of McDonald’s. The atmosphere ridiculed in these commercials is part of Starbucks’ aspirational appeal. Starbucks is supposed to be the trendy place to go for great coffee, but consumers are increasingly aware that’s no longer the case. By expanding so rapidly and cutting so many corners in its quest to maximize efficiency, the chain started competing with McDonald’s on the burger joint’s home turf. Now that Mickey D’s is fighting back, Starbucks is in a weak position to respond.

McDonald’s knows that there’s a huge market for decent quality coffee-related beverages (I’m not sure McDonald’s whip cream and sprinkle-laden mochas really count as “espresso drinks”) for people on the go. What McDonald’s can’t duplicate is what it shows in the commercials: the warm and welcoming environment of a coffee shop. Who would want to read a book or hold a leisurely conversation in the sterile confines of a fast food restaurant? You can imagine the advertising agency brainstorming about how to make McDonald’s look inviting, giving up, and deciding to mock the sophistication of its rivals instead. It’s Republican-style advertising brought to the coffee world. Luckily for McDonald’s, Starbucks has already done the hard work of getting people accustomed to paying three bucks for coffee without taking time to enjoy comforting amenities.

Dunkin’ Donuts has shown that a low-brow chain can compete with Starbucks on coffee, so McDonald’s is following suit. Starbucks could potentially respond by refocusing on atmosphere, but investors want bigger in-store sales, not people lazing around in comfy purple chairs. The company is already trying to get back to its roots and focus on quality, but boutique roasters and indie shops have them nailed on that. It’s a bad time to be Howard Schultz.

[Via Kids Prefer Cheese.]


Coffee, sex, and Starbucks

“When a woman gives a man coffee, it is a way of showing her desire.” According to the Economist, that’s the theme of a new novel exploring the intersection of coffee, love, and sex.

For some reason it’s never worked out this way with my girlfriends. Maybe they just don’t appreciate the “constructive criticism.”

In other coffee news, Reason.TV’s Michael Moynihan recently examined the growth of indie shops and the decline of the once unstoppable Starbucks. Pleasant surprise: my friend Jocelyne from Open City’s sister restaurant Tryst explains how the shop has thrived in the face of competition. Click over here to watch it.


Labels for everything

This is a monumentally bad idea:

A universal system of food labelling which takes into account everything from nutritional information to the product’s impact on the environment should be established to guide consumers, according to a food policy analyst.

Tim Lang, of City University, London, said a set of “omni standards” for labels could overcome public confusion over food. The labels could provide information about such things as food miles – the distance an item has covered to reach the shops – and the amount of water used in its production, as well as health information on fat content and nutritional benefits.

It would help to overcome confusing recommendations to the public, such as the health advice to eat more fish, which conflicts with environmental concerns about declining stocks because of overfishing, Professor Lang told the British Association’s science festival at Liverpool University yesterday.

“Whilst governments continue to let the market take its course, ill-informed consumer choices are contributing to massive crises in human health, food security and environmental degradation,” he said.

“Evidence from water use alone suggests that we need to think more about ‘hidden’ impacts. Each bean from Kenya has four litres of potable water embedded – this from a water-stressed country.”

Where to even begin with this? Assuming it’s possible to get accurate numbers for all these things — a huge assumption — there is no way this would help “overcome public confusion over food.” Take the Kenyan coffee example. Yes, Kenya is water stressed. But Kenya is not one big desert. The parts of Kenya where they grow coffee are lush and tropical. That’s why they grow coffee there. A customer at Tesco is in no position to decide if Kenyan rainfall is best used to grow a valuable export or collected and transferred to the more arid parts of the country. So what’s the point in telling him how much water goes into a coffee bean? If the label works, supposedly, he will choose not to buy it. I don’t see how this would be helpful to Kenya.

The same goes for food miles. It’s actually possible to grow coffee in Cornwall. Researchers at the Eden Project managed to coax enough beans for 50 cups out of their greenhouse this year. Going solely by distance traveled, it would seem that British consumers should drop their African coffee and ramp up production at home. But of course that’s ridiculous. It would be far more resource intensive to grow coffee in England than it would be to simply have it shipped from a suitable climate. This an extreme example, but the same logic applies to countless other goods. Putting food miles on a label tells consumers just a very small part of what they would need to know to make an environmentally conscious purchasing decision.

Trying to bombard consumers with all the relevant information they need to make the right choices is a futile effort. There are far too many factors to balance. That’s what prices are for. Rather than putting ever more information on food labels and hoping buyers pay attention, we should try to make the prices better reflect the costs of the inputs. Is water underpriced in Kenya? If so, we can look for ways to improve water markets there. Are greenhouse gases your concern? Fine, tax CO2 emissions. This will be much more accurate than measuring food miles. Declining fish stocks? That’s a tragedy of the commons issue. Assign property rights or enforce caps on harvesting.

Putting all this information on labels might make people feel morally upright, but even if they pay attention to it they likely won’t make the decisions that are truly good for the environment. Markets and pricing get the job done without people even having to think about it. And perhaps that’s the problem: sometimes thinking about doing good is more pleasing than actually doing it.

[Via Coldmud.]


Indie shops take on the green giant

A few years ago it was common to hear lamentations about Starbucks moving in and crushing the neighborhood independent shops. An article in yesterday’s Seattle Times points out that perception is catching up to reality with a more balanced take on Starbucks’ influence:

Collectively, independent and small-chain coffeehouses have the largest share of coffee and doughnut sales in the U.S., with 34 percent of the market in 2006, according to a new report from the Chicago research firm Mintel. Starbucks has the next largest share at 29 percent.

“When you talk to all the detractors whose critique is that Starbucks ruined the culture of coffeehouses, you’d get the impression there were all these coffeehouses and then Starbucks came in and destroyed them,” said Kim Fellner, a longtime national labor and community organizer whose book “Wrestling with Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino” came out last month.

While there are some examples of Starbucks putting independents out of business, she said, “you find far more where people who look at Starbucks and say, ‘They’re being successful. I could be, too.’ ”

The popularity of Starbucks has helped spread coffeehouse culture beyond university communities and Italian neighborhoods, Fellner said.

Starbucks has fallen on hard times lately and lost its focus on coffee quality a long time ago, but the company deserves great credit for raising the bar for American coffee culture and bringing espresso drinks and single origin beans to a mass audience. Many of today’s indie shop customers got their first taste of decent cappuccino at a Starbucks.

I had a similar take on the company in a post titled “A libertarian goes to Starbucks.” For a more in-depth assessment, Taylor Clark’s Starbucked is a fun, informative history.

[Via Pasteboard.]


Good coffee in Chinatown?

This classified ad sounds promising:

New cafe opening in cool part of DC needs a serious barista to help establish and oversee coffee operations. Looking for someone passionate about coffee-coffee making as a craft. We intend on serving the finest ristretto shot in the District. Duties include consulting with owner/operator on equipment purchase, hiring of other talented baristas, and helping to determine overall feel of cafe. not your ordinary coffee shop.

Sounds like my friends at Cato might have an option better than Starbucks in the near future.


Say yes! To M!ch!gan coffee!

Capp at Ugly Mug in Ypsilanti

That’s from Ugly Mug Cafe in Ypsilanti, MI. They roast their own beans, pull shots on a two-group Synesso, and are currently playing Dear Catastrophe Waitress. It’s like I never left DC! Between the coffee wastelands of Columbus and Cedarville, I’m glad to have found the place. The espresso is sweet, the capp smooth, and the barista happy to talk coffee. Thanks, EspressoMap.

I’ll be in the UP by evening. Not sure if I’ll have cell access while up there, but I’m told that we do have wi-fi now, so I should be able to get back to the regularly scheduled blogging.

Back to the road…


Last capp

Classic Capp at Murky

It ends where it begins, with a cappuccino at Murky Coffee. It’s the place where I’ve spent more hours than any other in Virginia, made some of my closest friends, escaped the DC policy scene, and discovered my love of coffee and crafting a quality a drink. Without it, there’s no way I would have lasted five years here, and it’s the community I’ll miss the most while I’m on the road.

Hanging out at ye old green pole

Now, west.


Grape and Bean in The Post

Grape and Bean, Big Bear, and Murky all get coverage in The Washington Post today in an article by Michaele Weissman, author of the new book God in a Cup. Weissman’s book covers the new wave specialty coffee industry from seed to cup, profiling the people at Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and other roasters, along with baristas, farmers, and importers. Though perhaps too personal at times, it’s an interesting and sympathetic look at our sometimes weird and obsessive subculture. Definitely recommended.