Monday, February 15, 2010

House Spirits Distillery

On Saturday, January 30th, I visited House Spirits Distillery, the southernmost of the five establishments comprising Portland's "Distillery Row". House Spirits originated as an post-inception partner of Ransom. The distillery was originally right here in Corvallis, operating out of rented space on the backside of the building located at 1025 NW 9th street (the same building that houses Taylor Street Ovens). At the end of 2004 they relocated to the present location in Portland; in 2008, Ransom relocated its distilling operation to Ransom Winery in Sheridan.

The original still, an old-fashioned copper alembic type, still resides at the House Spirits distillery. It's not used much anymore, having been replaced by a shiny new stainless steel unit of much greater capacity and flexibility. I suspect it's kept around mostly for sentimental reasons. Plus it's quaint, just like Corvallis.

The distillery's best known product is Aviation Gin ($28.45), which is technically what's known as a jonge genever. This is a type of gin which uses a more Dutch formula of botanicals (less juniper than a London Dry), but which uses a base of exclusively grain neutral spirits (same as London Dry). Other products include Medoyeff Vodka ($30.45) and Krogstad Aquavit ($24.45). In December of 2009 they released their first whiskey, an unpeated straight barley malt ($49.95)

I was given a tour of the facility by Matt Mount, one of the distillers. Matt, a former bartender, is quite knowledgeable about spirits in general, and provided a great deal of information of the distillery's operation and the processes associated with each of its products. After the tour, I was able to sample most of these.

The vodka is, well, a vodka. Any vodka that manages to avoid smelling like medicinal alcohol is a good one, and the Medoyeff succeeds in that. However, so does Gordon's, and it costs $7.45. The Medoyeff is made from rye, and I think I detected a bit of that on the nose, but if you are looking for a good rye presence, Sobieski does a better job of that and it costs $12.45. The Meydoyeff is also quite smooth, with a bit of minerality to it, but Stolichnaya Gold is better in both respects and even at $24.95 still offers a price advantage.

If anyone feels I'm being unfair to the Medoyeff, you should understand that I consider high price vodkas to be something of a scam. The stuff costs very little to make, and the marketing is really directed at creating a certain image for the product (and the price is part of that). I mean, let's face it; once mixed into a drink, the subtle differences between vodkas disappear. The only people who drink it straight are Russians and college students, and they don't keep it in their mouths long enough to taste it.

I've been told about a high end bar (in another state) the owner of which tops off his bottles of Grey Goose with Smirnoff. His well-heeled customers are utterly clueless, convinced that the GG they think they are getting is the best vodka in the world.

Moving on to the Aviation Gin, I found this to be quite smooth, with just a hint of juniper. For me, the most noticeable botanical was anise, but there are others in the background. It's not that different from a oude genever such as Bols, which are at least 15% lower proof spirit distilled from malted barley. Taken straight, an oude genever is going to be smoother than the Aviation, but in a mixed drink that won't likely make much difference, and the Aviation offers a $20 price advantage over Bols.

Next was the Krogstad Aquavit. This type of spirit is Scandinavian in origin, essentially a gin but flavored with star anise and caraway seed (no juniper). I've had a couple from Denmark, and the House Spirit product is easily their peer. Very smooth, with strong anise aromas and flavor, it would make a good on-the-rocks drink for a warm afternoon on the patio.

The Straight Malt Whiskey is similar to that made by a handful of Scottish distilleries that don't peat their barley malt (Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie, Glengoyne). Unlike those, the House Spirit whiskey is aged in new, charred American oak barrels (the Scots age their malts in ex-bourbon and/or ex-sherry barrels). The current bottling spent two years and eight months in these barrels. It's a nice copper color, with aromas of malt, caramel and a hint of orange. It's a little rough on the palate, with only the barest hint of oak. Finish is short, with some burn. I can't help but feel it would be a lot better with a little more barrel time (say, a total of four years). For my money, a bottle of Glengoyne 10 year old ($46.95) is a better deal.

I also had the opportunity to try a number of experimental spirits, plus some releases that are already sold out. One of the former was an aged aquavit (one year in an barrel that previously held Pinot Noir). This was very interesting; extremely smooth, with the anise actually stronger than the unaged version. Next I tried the rum, which was released last September and is already all sold (except for a small amount still at the distillery). It's unusual in that it's made from refined sugar (most rums are made from molasses or cane juice). The only other one I know of that's made from sugar is Charbay from California. The House Spirit rum was aged 14 months in new, charred American oak. It was nice, smooth with a brown sugar thing going on, but not particularly complex. Matt informed me that the next rum will spend two years in second hand bourbon barrels; I'm hoping to try some of that.

All in all, I was impressed with the operation. This is an outfit clearly dedicated to producing quality products. I'm hoping that with time and an improved financial situation, they'll be able to give their whiskey more time in the barrel. I believe an eight year old version of it would be superb.

Three Seasonal Brews

Once upon a time, European and some of the more traditional American breweries would produce a batch of special beer (i.e., something other than their standard offering) at certain times of the year. The early spring often saw bock beers appearing on the shelves, and in December there might be a number of "winter" brews.

With the advent of the craft brewing movement, many breweries are producing seasonal beers year round, usually a rotation of four types, corresponding with the season. Some are producing as many as seven or eight.

One of these is Sam Adams, which currently produces seven seasonal offerings. It's become fashionable among beer snobs (yes, there is such a thing) to sneer at Sam Adams, but the company deserves a lot of credit for showing that there was a market for craft beers, and demonstrating that they could be distributed at a national level. Plus, they make a number of pretty good products (Sam Adams Light is the only light beer I'm willing to drink).

Available from January through March is their Noble Pils. A light-colored lager made in a classic Czech/German Pilsner style, it features a citrusy nose, flavors of malt and freshly baked bread, a medium hoppiness, a clean finish, and is a good example of what a lager beer should be. Retailing for a little over $9 for a six pack, I picked some up at Fred Meyer on sale for $6.99.

Here in Oregon, Deschutes also has a number of seasonal offerings. From their "Bond Street" series of high-end beers (available only in 22 ounce bottles), is "Hop Henge" IPA. This is a "double" (also called "imperial") IPA, which has more of everything - malt, hops (especially hops) and alcohol (8.75%). Dark amber, with a big, citrusy, piney nose, it treats the palate with biscuits, various citrus fruits, pine, pepper and, of course, hops. It's bitter enough for the hop heads, but there's enough other stuff going on to not scare off those with less extreme tastes. Available from January through April, it's not cheap (about $5 for the 22 ounce bottle), but serious IPA fans consider it worth every penny.

A more reasonably priced offering, again from Deschutes, is the "Red Chair NWPA". Of the three, this is definitely my favorite. Medium amber, with aromas of citrus (grapefruit and a little orange), flowers, and spicy hops, and rich, bold flavors of caramel and toasted malt, along with a bit of orange rind. Perfectly balanced between sweet and bitter, it's a truly great beer. I wish they made it year-round, but it's only available from January through April. Kathy liked it too, so I went back to Fred Meyer and picked up two more six-packs while it was still on sale ($6.99).

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Home Roast Coffee

Back in 1979 Tallahassee's first specialty coffee store opened. I dropped by one afternoon and asked for a recommendation.

"Well, we just got in some Jamaican Blue Mountain," the proprietor replied. "Some say it's the best there is. Plus, we just roasted it this morning."

It was more expensive than their other offerings, but I decided to give it a try. They ground up a pound for me (I didn't have a grinder of my own) and I took it home. Out of curiosity I decided to brew some right away.

It was...ethereal. I'd never had coffee that good.

The next morning I brewed some more. It wasn't as good. The following week (I'm pretty sure it was a Friday) I asked about this at the coffee store. The proprietor told me that coffee loses a lot of its freshness after grinding, and suggested I buy a grinder and wait until just before brewing to grind the beans. I bought one of his grinders and some "Java Mountain Supreme" beans (they were already out of the Blue Mountain). I ground and brewed some the next morning. It was very good, but still not the equal of the Blue Mountain.

I got in the habit of stopping in there at noon on Fridays to buy a half pound of some good beans, treating myself to fresh-ground coffee on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The store occasionally got more of the Blue Mountain, but it never seemed quite as good as my first purchase. I finally decided it was a case of "first timer epiphany", that sense of revelation when you try something that's an order of magnitude better than anything else you'd had before (I'd experienced something similar with wine that same year when I sampled a good Bordeaux).

Anyway, a few years ago I was recounting this to my friend Betty, who had owned and operated a coffee store in Tallahassee for a number of years. "I suspect the fact that the beans had just been roasted had a lot to do with it," she informed me. "Beans are always at their peak between 12 and 24 hours after roasting, and lose most of their quality within 72 hours no matter how well they're packed."

This sounded like useful information, and I mentally filed it away for future reference.

After Kathy and I arrived in Corvallis, it didn't take us long to find Oregon Coffee and Tea, at the corner of 2nd and Monroe. We'd buy our "weekend" beans there, with our weekday coffee being the $4.59/pound Columbian beans from Costco (by this time I was grinding all our coffee just prior to brewing). I noticed that they had a good assortment of green beans. They also had home roasters, cylindrical devices which cost over $400.

Last fall, when Kathy sent me her Christmas list and requested that I send her mine, I started investigating whether there were less expensive roasters available. I soon discovered the Sweet Maria's web site. This site is a great resource for anyone with a serious interest in coffee. Not only do they have a range of roasters, but also grinders, coffee makers, a wide varitey of green coffee beans, and a whole lot of miscellaneous coffee paraphernaila. It also looked like a real "stand up" outfit, because they'd dropped certain products after receiving customer feedback about the lack of support buyers had gotten from manufacturers when trying to resolve problems. The site also has lots of information on coffee roasting and preparation, including their own "tip sheets" to supplement the manufacturer's instructions. They even have an online forum where participants can share their experiences.

After spending some time reviewing the information about roasters, I decided to go with one from Fresh Roast. Their basic model, the +8, cost about $100. People liked it for its ease of operation, consistent roasts and quietness. It's flaws were that it had a very limited capacity and the glass roasting chamber did not actually attach to the base, nor did the chaff collector attach to the roasting chamber. Instead, these pieces simply perch atop each other, meaning if you bump the thing hard enough, it will come apart. If the roasting chamber lands too hard, it will, of course, break.

The description page for this unit featured an announcement that it would soon be replaced by a new version, the Fresh Roast SR-300. This would have a larger capacity roasting chamber (though sticking with the "just don't bump it" School of Design). Additionally there was to be a second model, the SR-500, which features an adjustable fan and three heat settings (the +8 and SR-300 having only a timer to control roasting). The new models were to be available in early December, so I suggested to Kathy that we wait until then to order one.

December rolled around and there was another announcement: the new models were delayed and wouldn't be available until sometime in January. So what I found under the tree was an artfully designed "IOU One Coffee Roaster", along with a copy of Kenneth David's Home Coffee Roasting. This is a great book, a definite "must read" not just for those planning to do their own roasting but for anyone with a passion for coffee.

In mid January the new Fresh Roast models arrived at Sweet Maria's. They'd already tested them and had some recommendations on their operation. We looked these over and decided to go with the SR-500 ($159) rather than the SR-300 ($109). Kathy placed the order and three days later (Friday, January 22) it arrived.

On Saturday I headed over to Oregon Legacy Coffee and bought a pound each of green "Monsooned Malabar" and Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. These are varieties that we've been buying already roasted. The Ethiopian beans are aromatic and flavorful and the Malabar is very smooth (plus it's just fun to say; Monsooned Malabar. Go ahead, try it: Monsooned Malabar. See what I mean?)(by the way, if you want to know what "monsooned" means, read David's book).

Both David's book and the Sweet Maria's site advise you to expect your roasting efforts to be a trial and error process. Variations in roasters, beans and even line voltage all mean that it usually takes several tries to arrive at the right "formula" (fan speed, temperature, duration) for a specific variety of bean. Over the course of the week I would roast beans every other day or so, and by Friday evening I'd reached the point where I could get exactly the results I wanted with both types of bean. After letting them cool, I put them in a jar with a loose top (they will "outgas" for 12 hours or so after roasting). Saturday morning I ground and brewed a blend of the two varieties. The coffee was wonderfully aromatic and beautifully smooth.

As I sat sipping and enjoying it I realized - this was the best cup of coffee I'd had since 1979.