Friday, November 2, 2012

Boozequest goes to Portland

I spent the weekend in Portland, Oregon visiting a friend. And while I was there, I drank some beer. Okay, it was more than some. I drank a lot of beer.

Portland is a beer-lover's paradise, where brewpubs abound and the smell of yeast and hops chases you down the street. My Portland beer adventures started in the airspace above with a complimentary oatmeal stout on my Alaska Airlines flight, and ended with a Laurelwood Brewing Co. Organic Red while I waited for my delayed flight back to San Francisco.

Ninkasi Oatis Oatmeal Stout

And that was just the airport booze...

Beer-related fun to be had in Portland:
1. Fly Alaska Airlines. Complimentary beer and wine. Even at 10AM, not that I'd know.

2. Watch a movie with a pitcher of locally-brewed beer. They have this figured out in PDX, where you can see a new movie on the big screen and enjoy the show from comfy couches and armchairs with a legally obtained glass of beer. I saw The Campaign at The Kennedy School, a delightfully confused mix of a hotel, movie theater, public pool, and event space, where movies are $3 and you can buy a pitcher of locally-brewed McMeniman's on draft.
*Full disclosure: my friend and I actually opted for the PBR. It was $5 cheaper for a pitcher and we're poor...
**Full disclosure x2: I liked The Campaign. I am not usually a fan of Will Farrell's brand of humor, but this was funny. I mean he punched a baby. He PUNCHED a BABY.

3. Taste some local microbrews. All of the breweries I went to were also brewpubs with full food menus, and they all had a very approachable, non-intimidating, friendly vibe, which I really dig. I stopped at: The Mash Tun, Deschutes Brewery, Rogue Brewery, and the Green Dragon.

Mash Tun brewery
The Mash Tun is a cute lil brewpub in the quirky Alberta neighborhood. They brew six beers, none super outstanding, but all were perfectly fine. I did love the literary-inspired names of their beers, like the Watership Brown and Kilgore Stout (Vonnegut, anyone?) They also have board games like bananagrams and Scrabble.

My favorite was Deschutes. These guys are on a bigger scale, and have another brewpub in Bend, OR as well. They have a menu of more than twenty beers at a time, and you can try a pre-selected flight of six or choose your own. All twelve of the ones I tried were tasty. The all-around favorite among my friends was the Jubelale, a winter seasonal spicy caramel-y brew with silky malt, fragrant hops, and a medium-heavy body that'll warm ya right up. Honorable mention at Deschutes was the Fresh Hop River Ale, a pale ale featuring some really interesting sour and fruity and grassy notes. But really everything there gets honorable mention because all the beers were delicious.

Deschutes. Bad pic, but you can sort of see the brewery through the window
At Rogue , also a multi-establishment-within-Oregon kinda brewery with a distilling arm as well, the favorite was the Oregasmic Pale Ale (does the name give it away?), with the Hazelnut Brown Nectar receiving honorable mention- it tasted like an unsweetened hazelnut latte, in a good way. Less honorable mention at Rogue includes the Juniper Pale Ale, which lacked any discernible juniper flavor and differed from a regular pale ale not at all. Also lost a few points in my hugely nerdy book because the waitress didn't really know anything about the spirits so I had no one to geek out with...

*Being the equal opportunity alcoholic that I am, and since Rogue makes spirits, I tried a flight each of beer and liquor. I liked the pink gin, which is their spruce gin lightly aged in pinot noir barrels, which had a smooth, nutty, vanilla taste to it. Definitely not your typical London Dry, but at least they're doing something different. Mostly I thought their other spirits were just meh.

Last up: the Green Dragon,  which is a brewery and craft beer collective, offering a bunch of rotating craft brews on tap (62, says their website). There I headed straight for the seasonally-appropriate Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale. This is a solid pumpkin ale, with a nose of pumpkin pie, a pallet of spice and pure pumpkin, and without the thick syrupy sweetness where some pumpkin beers go terribly wrong.

A noble crusade
4. Go to a dive bar. Which is pretty much any bar. Portland bars all seem to come with dim lighting, well-worn wooden furniture like picnic tables or ancient well-graffitied booths, unadorned outdoor smoking patios, board games, flannel, and facial hair. And jesus christ, coming from San Francisco where a shitty draft beer is often upwards of $6 a pint, the prices in Portland were a welcome change: ~ $3 for a draft local craft brew! Goddammit, SF. Then again it's all relative- Portland locals lament the rising prices and recommend hitting up Vancouver, WA, just across the border, for the really cheap booze.

While in Portland, do NOT:
1. Go to a wine bar. This is the city of beer, not wine. Trust me.
2. Wander around downtown in search of an awesome independent coffee shop without any particular destination in mind. I seriously walked around for like 45 minutes and could only find ONE non-Starbucks coffee shop. And there were no seats, of course, so (*SIGH*) Starbucks it was.
3. Forget waterproof shoes. That would be a mistake. It rained 97% of the time that I was there. Also, do NOT listen to the stuff online about how if you want to blend in with the locals you'll leave your umbrella at home. You know what I want? To not walk around all day in wet jeans.

Pretty Portland!
Other, non-boozy things I learned in Portland: it is the city of bridges, and also of hazelnuts (who knew?). SFMUNI has nothing on PDX TrimMet/MAX. No sales tax is amazing. Such an eclectic city: I was proselytized to at a bar, then on a bus I overheard a group of 15-year-old wannabe gangsters brag about a super cool slash petrifying encounter with an armed associate. I waited in a down-the-street line to see a trendy reggae concert (John Brown's Body, FTW!), and got lost in the enormity of Powell's City of Books. It was a pretty great weekend, all told.

But now I'm back in SF, amd I don't even want to look at beer again for at least a week.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Urban Wineries SF

When I think about going wine tasting, I think grape vines; idyllic country roads; rolling hills; designated drivers. The locavore in me loves the idea of getting a bottle of wine that was made just a few miles from my house- when I was living in Ithaca, the Finger Lakes Wine Trails were right there. The real surprise would be if I were drinking wine made more than 20 miles away. It was also great to be able to be able to go tasting on a whim. Here the hour+ ride to from SF to California wine country makes that less feasible, especially when you're a permanent pedestrian like me. Of course there are the wineries in the East Bay, including the two that I posted about recently ("Wine Tasting in the East Bay"), but again, not having a car makes it a lot more difficult- I got a ride from friends that time.

Good news! As it turns out, there are actually quite a few wineries in San Francisco! Winery, not vineyard, to head off the next question. (*Point of clarification: a vineyard is where the grapes are grown, while a winery is where the grapes are turned into wine, and while they sometimes go together they don't have to!)
Weekend tastings at Sutton Cellars
There are several wineries right in the thick of SF, which is great because if you take MUNI or BART to your tasting, no DD required! Which is important, because the generous pours that I encountered in my urban tastings so far ensure that inebriation comes swiftly...

Starting in Dogpatch, my favorite neighborhood this week, there's Sutton Cellars on 22nd and Illinois, where you can taste hard cider, several red wines, and vermouth made by Carl Sutton from Sonoma grapes and apples. Tastings are $5 on Friday evenings and weekend afternoons, and then you're welcome to buy a glass and hang out around the tables and wine barrels in the the production space, where a makeshift tasting bar is nestled among rows of aging wine casks, carboys, and barrel pumps. Sutton sometimes hosts pop-up events with local businesses and food trucks as well. [For the sake of journalistic full disclosure, I now work at said tastings!]

Across the street is Dogpatch Wine Works, which also hosts weekend wine tastings, as well as art exhibits and other events. [For the sake of journalistic full disclosure, I haven't had a chance to stop in yet because I'm always working across the street when they're open!] Both Dogpatch Wine Works and Sutton Cellars are right on the K/T light rail and the end of the 22 bus line. Don't take the K/T though if you can help it. Just don't do it.

Take the 108 bus just 3 stops from the Embarcadero and you're on Treasure Island, the landfill slash naval base, right in front of The Winery SF. They get their grapes from Napa (NOT from the landfill...). Not too many standout wines, but all perfectly pleasant. Not the kind of place to really geek out about wine, but a fun thing to do with friends. Some tasty red table wines, but the exceptionally good and bad were both whites- I actually liked the Glitter sparkling wine, despite the name (ugh) and loathed the Sauvignon Blanc.

Glitter! (Ugh I really hate that name)
The Winery has a cool, bright, and spacious tasting room strewn with couches and tables that is suspended over the barn-like production space/barrel room, so you can watch the grapes being pressed while you sit around a barrel and enjoy a glass or bottle.
Yep, my friend and I were definitely the last ones here.
A fun tasting experience and beautiful view of the city. Tastings are $10 for 1 pre-selected flight or $15 for 2.
The view from across the street
More public transit-adjacent wineries in San Francisco: In SOMA, there's Bluxome Street Winery, open for wine tastings Tuesday-Sunday, 12-7pm, plus events like lunch and wine pairings, monthly farmers markets, and food truck pop-ups. This one doubles as a bar and serves appetizers as well. Sonoma winery Wattle Creek has a tasting room in Ghirardelli square, open for tastings daily with $10-$20 flights. You can also taste a bunch of local wines in one place, at the Winery Collective, which is exactly what it sounds like. This tasting room is open 12-9pm every day and features wines from many small SF and California wineries. Flights range from $15-$25.

Coming up: I'm taking Boozequest on the road this weekend to Portland, Oregon, so I will return with brewery tasting notes and reviews!

Friday, October 5, 2012

October Events

Of course we all know that this weekend will be a crazy one round the Bay, what with the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park, Fleet Week, and the America's Cup. As it turns out, thanks to the German Oktoberfest and the timing of the grape harvest, there is also a ton going on in the booze biz this whole month. Here's enough events for the next two weeks so you can maintain a nice buzz:


Oaktoberfest- Saturday, October 6, 11AM-6PM, 2 miles from the Fruitvale BART
If you're in the East Bay or thinking about being there, check out Oakland's take on the German festival. The website calls it a "family friendly street fair," but don't let that deter you- there will be beer from 20+ microbreweries, not to mention a homebrew competition, and of course food and live music. Plus an eco kids' fair, but still, you might want to leave the kids at home... Music and street entertainment is free, but if you're gonna go, you probably want to buy a beer ticket. Just a guess.

If you really love your beer and just can't get enough, you're in luck, catch Redwood City's Peninsula Oktoberfest next Saturday, 10/13. SF's was last weekend.


Watch the Blue Angels and drink some wine at The Winery SF, today through Sunday 10/7, 12-5PM. They are celebrating with special Fleet Week Flights for $10, at their spot on Treasure Island.

For more wine on Treasure Island, there's the Best of Lodi California Wines festival, Saturday, 10/6 1-5PM. More than 45 wineries from Lodi, CA will be there with samples of their wares, not to mention a great view of the jets. This one's on the pricier side and requires a $55 (advance) or $65 (at the door) ticket. That includes fancy snacks to soak up the alcohol, of course.

A bit further from the city there's the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, today-Sunday 10/7. This larger wine festival features more than 150 wineries, a grape stomp, and a general celebration of the fall grape harvest. Plus some microbreweries, for the beer drinkers that have been dragged along. Tickets into the event are $10, plus another $15 for tasting. Also the San Carlos Art and Wine Faire (the 'e' on the end really makes it special), 10/6-10/7, is pretty self-explanatory. You know, art, wine, crafts, classic cars, live music, the works. Seems like this one might ACTUALLY be free...

Thursday, 10/11, taste more wine at the Union Street Wine Walk. This street fair in Cow Hollow/Pac Heights will feature crafts, food, and wine tasting from local vineyards and restaurants up and down Union and Fillmore Streets. Once again, this "free" event isn't actually free, since a tasting bracelet and "complimentary" wine glass costs $30. 4-8PM.

Finally, the Wine & Spirits Magazine's Top 100 Tasting Event on Wednesday, 10/17, 6:30-8:30PM in the Financial District. This one broadens the spectrum, featuring not just local wine, but the wineries around the world that were rated most highly by W&S tasting events throughout the year. Tickets are $105. Includes food by local chefs and wine tastings.


Because there aren't enough booze festivals in this town, they're adding another- San Francisco's First Craft Spirits Carnival arrives next weekend, 10/13-10/14, 2-5PM at the Fort Mason Pavilion. The website promises craft spirits from more than 100 distilleries, everything from whiskey to tequila to grappa, plus an "edgy Vaudville-style Carnival Spectacular". For the low low ticket price of $125.

So much to drink, so little time. Better get started.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Gin 101

Alright kids, today's lesson is about the beverage I have been spending lots of time with recently. 

What is gin?

Basically, you take a neutral spirit base, which is essentially vodka, infuse it with herbs and spices, and then re-distill it. And boom, gin.

Juniper berries
Some spirits are defined by their base- as with bourbon, which must be made from a mash of at least 51% corn; or rye, which requires at least 51% rye (for more on whiskey: Whiskey 101). But with gin the base can be made from anything. Most commercial gins use a grain spirit as the base, but you can also find gin made from grapes, like G'Vine or Finger Lakes Distilling's Seneca Drums, and there are craft distilleries making gin from a base spirit of everything from apples to sugar cane to honey. What does define gin is its main flavoring agent, juniper berries, which account for the signature pine-y flavor. 

The use of juniper to flavor booze dates allllll the way back to some thirsty 11th century Italian monks (thanks, wikipedia). It rose to popularity among the English lower class during the 18th century "Gin Craze", when the government allowed unlicensed gin production and simultaneously imposed hefty taxes on imported spirits. So then everyone was drinking gin all over the place, and it was blamed for a bunch of social problems. Womp womp.

William Hogarth's 1751 "Gin Lane"
Gin botanicals, including juniper, citrus peel, cardamom pods and coriander
While juniper is gin's characteristic flavor, it is by no means the only one. Most gin makers these days are all about their top secret, proprietary blends of herbs and spices. Some common ones include cloves, citrus peel, cinnamon, cucumber, anise and nutmeg. 

There are many ways to infuse the base vodka with these flavors, like putting the botanicals into a basket or giant tea bag inside the still, or infusing small batches of gin with each flavor separately and then blending them all together.

Different kinds of gin

London dry style- most of the gin you will encounter is London dry style, meaning that it is clear (un-aged) and dry rather than sweet
Genever (Dutch)- this sweeter, milder gin is lower in proof than its English counterpart and made with malted barley, so that it shares some of the maltier smokier taste of whiskey. It is sometimes lightly aged.
Sloe gin- is actually a liqueur, made by sweetening and infusing gin with sloe berries. Which are apparently similar to plums (thanks again, wiki)

Drinking gin
To really taste the botanical flavors in a gin, I ditch the tonic and mix with club soda instead. Especially because most tonics sold in most grocery stores suck and will make tasty gin much less tasty. And I know it's counter intuitive, but for optimal gin tasting, keep it outta the freezer. Why? Because the farther from body temperature a spirit is, in either direction, the fewer flavors you'll be able to pick out.  

My favorite commercial gin is Hendricks, which I like in more savory cocktails like a simple G&T or martini. Of course there are a million classic gin cocktails, like a Negroni, Last Word or Gimlet, but all you really need with good gin is a splash of something bubbly and a squeeze of whatever citrus fruit you've got on hand. 

When I worked in the tasting room at Finger Lakes Distilling, people were always telling me about that one time in college when they downed 12 shots of gin and then had the worst experience ever (shocker), and have since sworn off the stuff. 

I'm not sure why, but there were definitely far more die-hard anti-gin drinkers out there than anti-anything else I have poured, and I have worked at two distilleries and two wineries. (then again, I've never worked anywhere that made a tequila...) Such a shame, gin is great! Especially the kind that doesn't come from a plastic jug. Give it a second chance people!

No! Wrong!

Monday, September 24, 2012

As promised...

One of my favorite parts of my new job! Also note my Giants sweatshirt. I'm trying to blend in with the locals.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wine Tasting in the East Bay

(One of these days I will actually post about San Francisco...)

Living in the city is nice for the most part, and I love my crazy hectic Mission neighborhood, but it's nice to be able to get away. I got to do that last weekend with a trip to a couple East Bay wineries.
Westover Vineyards
It was my first time going wine tasting outside of my beloved Finger Lakes, and I was happy to learn that the East Bay's Livermore/Castro Valley wineries are just as lovely and unpretentious as the ones in upstate New York.  I have heard that in Napa and Sonoma, you pay upwards of $20 for a tasting with a pretentious wine snob, but in the East Bay, tastings were free, casual, and fun!

Barrels of Port
Once we befriended our Westover Vineyards tasting room pourer, he happily poured us extra samples, including 14 year old tawny port straight from the barrel (retrieved with a turkey baster!). At Westover they specialize in flavored ports, including white chocolate, strawberry, peach, and vanilla. It had never occurred to me to flavor a port, and these were pretty sweet, but some were tasty. My favorites of these were the fruit ones. At Westover tastings are $5 for 7 or 8 pours, but you get that credit back if you buy a bottle. Which I did- a tasty Ballet de Vignes, a red table wine.
Despite a striking resemblance, this is NOT Dionysus, Greek god of intoxication,
but is one of the owners of Westover Vineyards
Sparkling Rose at Westover
Next we went to the Chouinard Winery. The staff here were less friendly than at Westover, but poured free tastings, and a very interesting granny smith apple wine. They also host monthly movies and concerts on their outside patio.
Chouinard Winery Tasting Room
It was really nice to be able to visit some wineries and get a glimpse of the big, bold California reds that elude the Finger Lakes' colder/cloudier climate. Then again, California Gewurtztraminer and Riesling have got nothing on the ones from New York!

Both wineries were not too crowded for a Sunday afternoon and I had a great time. Unfortunately it's not so easy to visit these wineries without a car, which is inconvenient for city mice like myself (oh how I miss my 1999 Honda Civic...).

But hey, that's what friends are for.

Welcome to the Bay: The First Few Weeks

Greetings from the other side [of the country]! I have officially lived in San Francisco for three weeks now, and am a proud resident of the Mission District, which seems to be one of the best neighborhoods for hilarious encounters, people watching, and lucky for me, drinking. This city goes crazy for artisan food and craft booze, making it a haven for such an enthusiast as myself.

The Flagship Gin
I love my new job as assistant at Distillery No. 209- highlights of my first couple weeks include learning how to drive a forklift; calculating the proof-gallons (It's a tax thing...) of several 1,000+ gallon holding tanks; bottling 300 gallons of gin; and even some small time distilling!

I am still settling in to my new life here, but I didn't want to go too long without a post, lest I forget how to write one, so here is a highlight reel of my alcohol adventures so far in the Bay area.

My Quest has so far spanned a good bit of the Bay. Now that I'm writing this all down, it seems appropriate to proclaim East Bay Beer the focus of this post, plus the Honor Bar in Emeryville which has awesome cocktails.

Turns out, there's some good stuff going on in the East Bay...


In downtown Oakland my friend took me to a really cool bar called The Trappist, located right near the 12th Street BART. Belgian beer lovers' paradise, The Trappist has an extensive menu of international draft wheat beers. The interior is dim and stony and feels kind of like a medieval chamber (you know, in a good way). Not too cramped, with a couple different rooms, each with its own bar and music selection, and a comfortable mish mash of short and tall tables and chairs. It's the kind of place you want to hang for awhile with a friend or a date, a bit pricey but with a casual vibe. Sadly I apparently didn't have the wherewithal to take any useful pics...


I made a trip to the Pyramid Brewery in downtown Berkeley. Took a tour of the brewery, which was very big and fluorescent and industrial- tour guests are required to wear big rubba boots and lab glasses inside the factory. It was kinda cool to be able to look inside the mash tuns, filled with churning bubbling grain mash, and the tour was free, which really sold it for me. It ended with a free sampling of a few brews. Unfortunately pictures weren't allowed in the brewery, just in the attached restaurant/bar.  I wasn't super impressed with any of the beers I tasted; overall a "meh" for me. The Inkblot Porter lacked the requisite depth and the Red Wheat Ale With Fig lacked any discernible actual fig flavor, though the Thunderhead IPA was a pretty well-balanced beer, not too hoppy. The free tour and tasting was great though, and the glass facade impressive. Definitely worth a stop.

Their flights are served on hangars! I thought it was really cool...


I couldn't wait to start on mine
Another good booze spot in the East Bay! Honor Bar's unique setup is like nothing I've seen- you walk into a speakeasy with classic rock in the background, and the first thing you see is the central ovular bar with its bright red lighting. Tables line the walls and fill the floor, along with a serve-yourself kitchen- there's no table service, so you order bar food and drinks from the bar and find yourself a spot. Here the idea is that you can grab some things yourself and pay by the honor system, including food and some bottled beers that sit in tubs of ice scattered around the bar. Their booze list features local options, including Gin No. 209, which of course gets them some points in my book :) Talk about interesting cocktails- because I love my flips (cocktails made with raw egg whites) I had the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which has hibiscus-infused gin, grapefruit marmalade, egg white, and ginger beer. My friend ordered the Hollenbeck Cooler- tequila, blood orange liqueur, honey-rosemary shrub, apple cider, pomegranate. I wish I could've tasted more rosemary in the latter, but overall, awesome drinks, awesome vibe, awesome bar.

Finally, San Francisco!

Another spot with an emphasis on Belgian beers! New trend, perhaps?  Schmidt's in the Mission District also features German food, including awesome (but expensive, the other trend...) sausages, spƤtzle , and other German delicacies. Plus a very tasty apple strudel. My favorite of the extensive German draft and bottle beer list was the franziskaner dunkel, a dark wheat beer. The restaurant doubles as a specialty foods market, so don't be surprised by the frozen food cases behind the bar!

These are all places that I stumbled into; none of these cool spots were premeditated for me at all- which is why I think I'm going to love this town. Coming soon: Trivia in the Mission! Cheap wine tasting in the East Bay! Cocktails in SF!

Plus, I promise to post a picture of me driving the forklift. You need no more incentive to keep checking back right??