American History Beer

In my last entry, I promised to outline some of the similarities between the history of coffee and beer in America. I found that there is a similar progression from low to high quality beverages, but for very different and very interesting reasons. The different movements in coffee came about as a result of changing tastes and preferences, but a lot of the progress made with beer came about by external forces. So, I have no choice but to give you a crazy history lesson.

Beer is really old. I mean really, really, really old. Beer is so old that archeologists believe some of the earliest examples of writing are receipts for beer to be paid to laborers. That’s right—not only has beer been around longer than the written word, but it may have been a contributing factor to writing’s development.

Over time, tastes have changed, and we have the means to drink beer from all parts of the world. Styles of beer from all sorts of countries have influenced other styles, so we have an ever-expanding menu of beers to choose from that is constantly evolving. A lot of American brewers have gone into the world and sampled these beers and returned with inspiration. If you know where to look, you can find nearly every beer-producing nation represented in beers all over America.

But, for some reason, when people think of American beer, they think of Budweiser or Coors or something along those lines. These are all light, golden pilseners, and they don’t taste very good in my opinion. Through a series of events in American history, the light, golden pilsener became the identity of American beer, and only the last 25 years or so have we seen any kind of variety available in domestic beers.

How did it come to this? This is not a country opposed to foreign tastes; the ol’ U.S. of A. has many restaurants featuring food from every inhabitable continent, and they have done quite well. How is it that this took so long to translate to beer? Maybe… just maybe, I’m about to make good on that crazy history lesson I promised. And if you behave, I’ll highlight five American breweries that I feel embody some of the best that American beer has to offer.

And Then There Was Beer

If you want to get literal (and I always do), the history of American beer begins with the Native Americans. The original American brewers made an alcoholic beverage comprised of maize, birch sap, and water. About half a millennium ago, Europeans arrived with British-style ales and took over the place. For a few hundred years, that was the predominant style of beer available in the States.

And then came the Germans! Around the middle of the 19th century, there was an increase of German immigrants coming to America and bringing their delicious lagers with them. For the time and place, this was a beer that was highly profitable and easily transported. While the larger companies began by brewing in distinct styles in the traditions of a select few European countries, the pilsener style was the eventual winner.

Most of the oldest American breweries are known for making pilseners. Just to throw out a few names, there’s Yuengling, Schlitz, Miller, Coors, and Budweiser. They are made with Czech-style hops and a pale, lightly roasted six-row barley. When people think of American beer, they usually think of this.

These large companies made their beer happily and profitably for several decades, until a few upstarts calling themselves the Temperance Movement decided that there was to be no more fun of any kind. Perhaps you’ve heard of Prohibition? That was their fault. For 14 years, the industry was at a standstill while only the largest breweries stayed in business making soft drinks and non-alcoholic beer.

In 1933, everyone chilled out long enough to repeal Prohibition and get back to making all that wonderful beer. And that’s all there is to this story.

Just kidding.

After 14 years of not producing, it’s not like these guys could just walk into the brewery, flip a switch, and be up and running again. It took some time. And in case you weren’t aware, the 1930s were a pretty crazy time for most Americans. We were in the middle of the Depression and at the brink of war. Even though people needed a drink more than ever, supplies and finances may have been slightly limited. The damn Temperance Movement didn’t miss a trick. They figured that even with Prohibition repealed, they could use the war to put the major breweries out of business once and for all.

Still having a powerful and vocal support base, the Temperance Jerks appealed to legislators that commercial brewing squandered precious equipment, grain, and manpower that could be going to the war effort. Brewers were able to quell such concerns by pointing out the obvious health benefits of beer, like vitamin B, and Congress, thankfully, bought it.

So now we have only the largest breweries left, with Prohibitionists looking for any excuse to get them shut down. Those still standing joined forces to come up with a solution. Quality ingredients were scarce and costs had to be low, but they had to sell a lot of beer to stay afloat. Grain was abandoned in favor of corn and rice, which were cheap and could produce alcohol, if not flavor. A successful advertising campaign extolling the need for “little things” to keep life normal helped sell more beer.

And we, the consumer, were left with only a few of the largest breweries churning out a near-identical, low-quality beverage labeled beer, and it was the only thing available for nearly 40 years.

Then a wonderful thing happened. Jimmy Carter was elected President. While he may be best remembered for malaise, gasoline lines, and the Iranian hostage situation, he had good qualities other than not being Richard Nixon. Carter made it legal for people to brew beer in their own home. For the first time in over 50 years, Americans could legally make their own beer. And they realized that it tasted a lot better than the crap they were stuck with all their lives. This was the beginning of the craft-brewing movement.

In the 1980s, small breweries started popping up all over the country. While giants like Anheuser-Busch and Coors were drowning us with light, golden pilsener, these craft brewers were making smaller quantities of high-quality beer in all sorts of styles. Rich Doyle founded Harpoon in 1986 when he returned from Europe and realized all the beer in America sucked. Jim Koch started a brewery with a few friends after he successfully recreated his great-great-grandfather’s old recipe in his kitchen. He later sold that same beer as Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Now Sam Adams is the second-best-selling domestically owned beer company in America.

By the 1990s, even the giants were trying to catch up. They began producing quality beers under subsidiaries, like the Coors-owned Killian’s Irish Red. Some of them simply bought craft breweries and let them keep doing their thing, like Anheuser-Busch did with the Chicago-based Goose Island.

It’s been less than 30 years since the craft brewers hit the scene, but they’re beginning to make their mark. Larger companies have once again joined forces to combat this rising threat. Anheuser-Busch merged with the Belgian company InBev to become Anheuser-Busch InBev, while Molson Coors merged with Miller Brewing to become MillerCoors. While these two monstrosities are trying to outsell one another via outspending in market research and advertising, the newer, littler breweries are seeing an increase in sales by perfecting their craft and introducing Americans to unique and exciting beers. It looks like things are moving in a positive direction for the beer scene in this country, and hopefully it’s a trend that will continue.


If you’re still reading at this point, I suppose you deserve a little treat. So, as promised, here is my selection of five American breweries that have caught my eye as going above and beyond. I do not make any claims that these are better or worse than any other. I just like their stories, and thought I should share them with you.

Dogfish Head Brewery (Milton, DE)

Every time you hear someone say there’s no reason to go to Delaware, pour a Dogfish Head directly into their mouth. I have never had a beer from these guys I didn’t like. I did not care for India pale ales (IPAs) for the longest time, and it wasn’t until I had some a Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA that I changed my mind. This is a beer so alcoholic that you will never see it served more than 8 ounces at a time. They call it the 120 Minute IPA because they make it by adding hops to it every 3 minutes for 2 hours. It is so hoppy that it transcends bitterness and becomes a sweet, delicious thing of magic. And that beer is not even why I decided to highlight them.

In the late 90s, Dogfish Head began a project called Ancient Ales. Working with molecular archeologist, Dr. Patrick McGovern, they recreated a Turkish beer from 8th century BCE by analyzing residue samples from clay jars found in the tomb of King Midas. The recreation was named Midas Touch Golden Elixir, and they have since crafted several other Ancient Ales with origins in Honduras, Egypt, China, and more. You always hear about how long people have been drinking beer, but these guys are actually giving us a chance to taste what it was like in its infancy. Thanks, Dogfish Head!

Samuel Adams (Boston, MA)

Most people have heard of Sam Adams, even if they’ve never tried it. Founded in 1984, Sam Adams has gone from a small local brewery selling an old family recipe to the second-largest American beermaker. I enjoy many of the beers from Sam Adams, but it’s not the taste I’d like to tell you about. While there are many craft breweries that are becoming more and more successful, Sam Adams has become the largest of them all.

While one of the guiding principles of craft beer has been quality over quantity, Sam Adams has done a very good job of finding a balance that maintains excellent standards for their beer while reaching a very large audience. I can only speak for myself, but there are plenty of styles of beer I had never tried before finding them in a Sam Adams seasonal variety pack. I’m not crazy about their spring and summer packs, but when fall and winter come around, I horde these things like a squirrel hordes acorns. You can find winter lagers, pumpkin ales, coffee porters, and chocolate bocks, and they’re all in the same package! Tell me that’s not cool.

Brewery Ommegang (Cooperstown, NY)

I was just introduced to Ommegang this past Christmas when Jackie and I each got a gift set complete with three beers and a tulip-style beer glass. What sets Ommegang apart from other American breweries is not simply their delightful gift sets, but their commitment to producing a high-quality beer in the Belgian style. Don Feinberg opened the brewery in 1997 on a 136 acre hop farm in upstate New York in a Belgian-style farmhouse. How cool is that?

Their dedication to authenticity has gotten noticed. There have been times they have found themselves unable to meet demand. A few years ago, they were so strapped for beer that they had to outsource production to Brouwerij Duval Moortgat in Belgium just to keep up. I have a feeling the good people of Duval wouldn’t do the same favor for the folks over at Budweiser. If you ever find yourself needing to impress a Belgian, hand them an Ommegang.

Anchor Brewing Company (San Francisco, CA)

I’ve had an Anchor Steam Beer once or twice. I can’t complain. I’m not even sure if they technically qualify as a craft beer, so they may not fit well into the theme of this post. I’ve, though, decided to include them because steam beer is the most American beer in origin, and Anchor has been the largest producer of the style for over 100 years.

Steam beer was invented around the time of the gold rush out of necessity. Prospectors came in droves to the west coast with their beards and lager yeasts, but they were unable to refrigerate the beer during the fermentation process. Thinking quickly, they fermented it at higher than normal temperatures, creating California common beer, more popularly known as steam beer. This is an extremely simple way of explaining how it is made, but you get the idea (or Wikipedia can give you an even better idea).

Despite numerous near-bankruptcies and a terrible reputation at different times for different reasons, Anchor Brewing somehow held on for life long enough to make a comeback. Now they are one of the last breweries producing California common beer, and they’re doing a damn good job. Way to go, fellas!

Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project (Somerville, MA)

I know what you’re thinking. Two of the five breweries here are from the Boston area… maybe I’ve got some kind of bias. Maybe I do, and maybe I don’t. The truth is, I can only write about what I know. As a resident of Massachusetts, I have access to a lot of Massachusetts-based beers that probably don’t get sold everywhere else. By the same token, I’m missing out on a lot of other regional craft brews that don’t make it all the way out here. What can you do?

I’ll tell you about Pretty Things, that’s what I’ll do! I was first exposed to Pretty Things sometime last year when I had their quadruppel ale, Baby Tree. Admittedly, I was drawn to the image of a tree filled with babies, but it turned out to be a good buy. Ever since, I’ve tried every beer of theirs I could get my filthy little hands on, and each one is worth getting again.

They stand out for me not just because they are a local brewery making great beer, but because the people making the beer are hardcore into beer. Dann and Martha Paquette are so into brewing their beer that when they couldn’t get their own brewery, they just borrowed other breweries. They brew in the middle of the night so they can be done with their beer in time for the brewery to have their normal hours of operation. I’m reminded of how Kevin Smith filmed Clerks by night while his convenience store was closed. They probably do a better job of cleaning up when they’re done for the day.


Those are my five picks for this particular day! There are many other breweries that make many other things worth mentioning, but I feel like these five are a good sampling for the variety and quality you can find in American beer. Try them out sometime. Try others out and tell me about them. The important thing is to keep trying new and different things, because you never know when a beer you used to hate becomes a beer you love.

The Third Wave of Coffee

Daria and I were at work the other day, looking over our cafe’s new barista certification study guide. Even though I’ve been making coffee for several years at this point, I’m constantly learning new things. Usually, the gist of each lesson is that I know even less about coffee than I thought I did.

The first question of the study guide was, “What do you know about Counter Culture coffee?” I answered, “We get our coffee from Counter Culture, and they typically make light- and medium-roasted coffees.” Daria told me this was correct. I admitted that I didn’t know much more than that, and that there must be something else to say for the lovely people that send us up over one hundred pounds of coffee every week. What else is there to know about Counter Culture?

Daria began by saying, “Counter Culture is a third-wave coffee roaster….” What she was going to say next, I’m not sure, because I had to know—“What’s third-wave coffee?”

To appreciate what third-wave coffee is, you would have to go to the beginning. You know, first-wave coffee. These waves apply to the American coffee-drinking experience, so we don’t have to go all the way back to the goat herder who discovered coffee. First-wave coffee can be best described as what everyone started drinking state-side after the end of World War II.

Young Americans were returning from the cafes of France and Italy, and they wanted to take a little something with them. What they got was freeze-dried coffee in a can. If you’ve seen those old commercials where men belittle their wives for making terrible coffee, try to imagine the context. They went from getting Americanos at a little bistro in Paris to getting coffee that was ground months ago; God only knows when it was roasted. Of course it’s not going to be good! Why are you blaming your wife? She works so hard!

Second-wave coffee took its time coming around, but once it got here, it made one hell of an impression. Second-wave coffee is of a relatively higher quality, with an emphasis on blends of coffee roasted dark. The end result is a coffee that goes well with milk and sugar. Enter Starbucks.

Starbucks turned coffee from something men complained about their wives over and turned it into a multi-billion dollar industry. Their menu includes a variety of recipes with any number of flavor syrups and sugary sweetness. The darker-roast coffee goes well with those kinds of additions, so instead of just milk and sugar, we start seeing things like Cubanos, mochas, and Spanish lattes.

Second-wave coffee was largely comprised of blends rather than single-origins. One pound of coffee could come from one country but several different farms, each with an entirely different method for growing and harvesting their beans. Imagine buying a bottle of wine that was a combination of five different grapes from California, Chile, Australia, and Italy. It mattered less that the coffee was coming from multiple locations, because when you roast a coffee dark enough, you lose those subtleties that make a Kenyan coffee distinct from an Ethiopian one.

What you end up with is a dark-roasted blend that is well complimented with milk, sugar, or flavor syrups. It is this movement that introduced millions of Americans to the latte, the cappucino, and the mocha. Instead of men yelling at their wives for making bad coffee, they have taken to the cafes, to yell at baristas for giving them too little foam.

Some people saw Starbucks popping up on every street corner, and said, no. It doesn’t have to be this way. The coffee doesn’t have to be burnt to be enjoyed. We don’t need enough caramel and vanilla to send us into diabetic comas. We want to know where our coffee comes from.

This is the third wave of coffee.

Third-wave coffee is something of a response to the second wave. While there had been blends of coffees in which a single bag could represent several different regions, single-origin coffees allowed you to say, “this coffee came from this farm from this specific elevation at this specific latitude and longitude.” Several third-wave coffee roasters include this information, along with tasting notes and a personal history of the farmers that grew the coffee in each bag.

Instead of roasting coffee to best accommodate the addition of milk, third-wave roasters try to find the best way to accentuate the flavor of a specific coffee. A lot of African coffees will have a fruity or floral flavor. A good roaster will try to find a way to bring out the best tastes in their coffee—for instance, to highlight a citrus note. When you get down to it, coffee is a lot like wine. Elevation, rainfall, and region have a lot to do with the end result, and what was good one year may not be the next. Third-wave roasters look to take those qualities and turn into some damn good coffee.

We take that damn good coffee and find that a third-wave cafe has a menu similar to but slightly different from a second-wave cafe. We still see a lot of the same drinks, like lattes, cappucinos, and espressos, but we trade the mochas and Spanish lattes for macchiatos and cortados. Instead of drinks being made distinct by flavor additions, they are made distinct by their milk-to-espresso ratio.

This emphasis on single-origin coffee encourages direct trade; instead of large roasters buying lots of coffees from lots of sources, smaller roasters are dealing directly with the farmer and giving them fairer prices. The people who are roasting will know what kind of environment this coffee came from, and that will inform how they roast it. They, in turn, will pass that knowledge on to the barista, who can recognize the distinctions in this coffee that will allow them to pour better espresso.

The third wave has given us not only a new approach in how coffee is grown and roasted, but also a new approach in how we educate ourselves and others on the subject. We start to recognize all the variables that come with a 2 ½ ounce drink and how any number of factors influence that final result. Nothing is certain; there is no standard. No one country can be proclaimed best producer of all, because next year, they might have a drought. Maybe another country’s beans will be roasted by someone who tries something different. Or maybe we’re pouring the espresso really well, but if we grind it just a little finer, it will unlock some magical properties. We recognize that the world of coffee is made up of opinions rather than facts.

In short, there are many elements to these different movements of coffee—far too many for me to go into here. I haven’t even gone into the cup sizes! My aim in this entry is similar to my aim in most of my entries: there is way too much information and knowledge on these subjects, and I can’t possibly write it all here. I can only share with you what I have learned, in the hope it may spark an interest for you, as it has for me.

So, I would like to leave you with some information in the hope that it may inspire you to ask questions about where the coffee you’re drinking came from. I would also like to leave you with the thought that this history of how we approach coffee is not unique to coffee. As I was researching this subject, I couldn’t help but notice how similar this is to the American experience with beer. But that is a topic for another time.

The next time, I hope.

Yerba Mate: Nectar of the Gods

Here in America (and New England!), coffee is the stimulant of choice. Some of our neighbors to the south, however, prefer a drink called yerba mate (pronounced MAH-tay). Mate comes to us much like any other infused beverage (the term “infused” simply means that a plant is steeped in water), but World of Tea has done a nice feature on how yerba mate goes from tree to tea, if you’re interested in this process.

Loose-leaf yerba mate—the key ingredient in a delicious concoction.

Yerba mate is not a true tea, since all true teas are derived from the same plant, Camellia sinensis (spoiler alert—herbal tea isn’t tea, exactly); rather, it comes from a species of holly (Ilex paraguariensis) native to South America. Traditionally a social beverage, yerba mate is served from a calabash gourd through a metal straw called, amongst other things, a bombilla.

On that note, let’s take a step back for a moment and consider the terminology, because it can be a bit confusing:

  • Yerba mate: the plant itself; sometimes also the drink
  • Yerba: dried yerba mate leaves, chopped and ground into powder
  • Mate: the drink; also, the gourd used to serve it
  • Chimarrão: the drink, in Brazil
  • Guampa or cuia: other names for the serving gourd
  • Bombilla, bomba, bombija, or masassa: the metal (traditionally silver) straw used when serving mate in the traditional way

Note: Although “mate” is sometimes accented (“maté”) in English, this is generally considered to be a case hypercorrection, probably intended to indicate the pronunciation. The Yerba Mate Association of the Americas (their site appears to have an error right now, but you can look at older versions via the Wayback Machine) rejects this spelling, since it creates confusion in the Spanish language. Still, an argument can be made for the inclusion of the accent in English, and English dictionaries vary on the preferred spelling; both are often listed, with one as a variant. I’ve chosen “mate” in this article, in line with the Spanish spelling.

Preparation

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s take a brief look at how mate is traditionally served—with the disclaimer that there are minor regional and preferential differences, as you might expect.

  1. Dried yerba mate leaves are placed into the gourd. The person preparing the mate covers the opening of the gourd with his/her hand, turns the gourd upside-down, and shakes it a few times, then tilts it slightly and shakes it some more. This has the effect of removing some of the powder, and it also forces the larger leaves to the top, where they can provide something of an extra filter for the bombilla. The yerba mate leaves should now be sitting in the gourd at a slant.
  2. The bombilla is placed into the gourd, on the emptier side. The gourd can then be tilted slightly to allow some (but not all) of the yerba mate leaves to settle atop the bombilla.
  3. Luke-warm water is poured into the emptier side of the gourd, without flooding the whole thing. The water is allowed to be absorbed into the leaves.
  4. Hot (but not boiling) water is poured into the gap, and the mate is ready for consumption through the bombilla. Even during this portion, some of the leaves in the gourd will remain dry. (After enough re-fillings, this would no longer be the case.) This step is repeated as desired.

There are a ton of videos online about how to drink mate, but this was the most briefly informative one I found that wasn’t in Spanish. Take a look! (If you’re interested in a more thorough description, this video on the Uruguayan method is also quite good.)

That said, here in the States, the process is a bit simpler—we usually prepare mate just like we do a green tea, steeping it in hot (but, again, not boiling) water briefly, or else drinking it as part of a tea latte (I particularly enjoy my mate lattes with soy milk and a touch of vanilla).

Caffeine? Mateine? What?

Many sources claim that rather than caffeine, mate contains a substance called mateine, a related, mild stimulant—and up until I started doing research for this post, this is what I believed to be true. However, my research has turned up a number of reasons to doubt this. Admittedly, I’m no scientist, let alone a chemist, but two articles that I found on The Vaults of Erowid (1, 2) seemed pretty well researched and convincing, and I could find no solid evidence, or even the suggestion of solid evidence, from the other side, other than that which the Erowid articles attempt to debunk.

While the uncomfortable truth may be that there is simply too much misinformation out there and not enough research (let’s face it—finding a cure for cancer is probably more important than figuring out whether mateine is a thing in its own right or just a synonym for caffeine, as some chemical dictionaries seem to suggest), at this point I’m siding with the skeptics: mateine and caffeine are one and the same. I’ll admit that sitting down with a cup of mate has a different effect on me than a cup of coffee does, but more and more I suspect that this is a result of the mindset I have going into it (I expect tea to relax me; I expect coffee to give me the jitters) or else the differing levels of caffeine in the drinks (which I have not researched for this article). The first Erowid article above presents an alternative interpretation to why mate might make people feel different than green tea, as well. The fact is, there’s a lot out there that we don’t know—but that doesn’t mean we should ignore what we do.

So, then, what do I know? (Not much… wocka wocka.) I know that I love yerba mate—hence the title of this post—but I can’t endow it with mythical qualities just because it’s a fun story. Mate is a solid tea that I can enjoy at any time of day, and that, my friends, is good enough for me.

Two Points for Honesty

We’re still alive! Don’t worry. I know it’s been a while since there’s been an update. While Wolfie and Daria were off competing at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition and Jackie was doing research for her next entry (spoiler alert: it’s about tea!), I’ve been looking into an institution that has gone largely unquestioned for the past three decades. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time we start asking questions.

Think about how you pick out a new wine. Maybe you go to the store, ask the people working there about any recommendations they might have, maybe you look for the cool label. Maybe you make your decision based on a wine’s rating. If it’s a 90-point wine, it has to be good, right? We’ve all done this. I’ve done this. Hell, I’ve done this since I started looking into this whole rating thing. It’s a perfectly reasonable way to pick out something you’ve never tried before.

But how do they get this number? I had this idea a few weeks ago and thought a breakdown on how wines are rated would be pretty cool for this blog. After all, this isn’t a five-star rating or a two thumbs up thing. This is a specific number out of 100. There has to be some kind of logic or system behind it, right?

…right?

Wrong. After a little bit of research, I found out that the 100-point scale is entirely subjective and assigned by individual critics working for a select few magazines. I could find no evidence of a formula or guideline as to how any of these critics make their decisions. If anyone reads this and says, “This guy clearly didn’t do enough research, because I know how one guy does it over at that particular magazine,” I would love to hear about it. I will admit that I did not lose sleep looking for an answer. But I found no answer immediately available for the common consumer. And isn’t that what this is all about?

I briefly thought about writing a critique of the 100-point rating system, but I found a few articles that were better informed than anything I could come up with would have been. Gary Rivlin of The New York Times wrote a piece that covers some of the initial pros that rating wines brought to the American market, as well as the continuing cons. Dave DeSimone of Pittsburgh’s Tribune-Review has a delightfully humorous critique of a Wine Spectator piece that is both informative and fun to read. If you have the time and inclination, you should take a look at W. Blake Gray’s “Are Ratings Pointless?” from the San Francisco Chronicle. I know a five-page article on the Internet sounds like a massive tome, but it’s well worth your while.

I still found myself in a predicament. I’d spent all this time wanting to write about the 100-point rating system, but was no closer to a topic than when I started. Then it hit me. I make my own beer. I make my own coffee. I can make my own wine rating system. And I can encourage you, the reader, to do the same.

The fundamental problem with the 100-point rating is that it takes something as subjective as taste, preference, and personal experience and translates it into something objective, like a number. So instead of trying to determine why you liked that 87-point Cabernet more than that 93-point Pinot Noir, you should come up with a system that works for you!

As a rough template, I came up with twelve categories (eight based on taste, four based on less-tangible qualities) that can be turned into a 100-point rating. I would like to note that these are just the things that I think about when I’m evaluating a wine. I’m not even good at recognizing some of these things, but I’m trying. That counts for something, right?

The Taste

For the sake of making a 100-point rating scale, these first eight categories should be rated on a 10-point scale. Assigning a number to something can be daunting, especially if you’re only beginning to discover your own tastes and preferences. Something that may help is to rate everything on a scale of 1 to 5 and just double that number later. Rating something from 1 to 10 is nuanced and specific. Rating something 1 to 5 is terrible, bad, average, good, or great. Double it!

Now for the categories!

Length

The length of a wine can be defined as tasting just as good when it first hits your tongue as it does in the back of your mouth. Some wines will knock your socks off immediately and then become dull and boring, giving you ample time to find your socks again and put them back on. A great first sip followed by a lousy aftertaste can be just as bad as a lousy first sip.

Complexity

Some wines are really simple. They taste really good… they just don’t have much going on. Maybe that’s something you like. Maybe you prefer a more complex wine, something that evolves over the course of a single glass. Maybe there’s an initial smokiness followed by a citrus flavor. This is something that is entirely a personal preference that may very well change over the course of a few months.

Body

When you begin exploring a new drink (wine, coffee, and beer especially come to mind), you will find a dictionary’s worth of words to describe the tastes you’d only been marginally aware of for years. Body is one of those words. The body of a drink is meant to describe whether a drink is light, medium, or full. This is something that may require practice and patience to discern for yourself.

Body is one of those interesting qualities that gets weighted unnecessarily in most professional ratings. A wine with a full body will almost always get more points than its light- or medium-bodied counterpart. As a result, vineyards usually attempt to create wines with a fuller body so they can get a coveted 90-point wine. Think about all the light or medium wines you could be enjoying, but we live in a world ruled by the 90-point scale. Tragic, is it not?

Balance

The taste of a particular wine is made up of several different components. The major things to look for are tannins, acidity, sweetness, and alcohol. What we look for in balance is easy enough to understand… it’s a balance of those qualities. Perhaps you like a sweeter wine. That’s all well and good, but an especially sweet wine may not be as balanced as another.

I’d like for you to take this opportunity to make this rating system your own. Say you like an acidic wine. Then 10 points in the balance category should be a wine that has an accentuated acidity. This is your rating system! Own it!

Finish

Wine is interesting. Sometimes a wine will taste wonderful when it’s in your mouth, activating all those taste buds, but as soon as you swallow it, you feel less wonderful about the whole experience. Whether you’re watching a movie, reading a book, or tasting a wine, the end may be the most important part. No matter how good a wine starts out, that final taste is what’s left in your mouth until you have something else. It’s an important thing to consider.

Pairing

You could pour a glass of the best wine in the world that is best paired with braised lamb shank. But oh no! You don’t like lamb. This might not be the best wine for you. Obviously, a great wine should be able to stand on it’s own, but the pairing of wine and food is important. When grading a wine’s pairing qualities, you may consider how well it pairs with your favorite dish, or how well it pairs with a variety of dishes. The choice is yours.

Consistency

A wine’s consistency can be evaluated a number of ways. Maybe that 2010 vintage doesn’t hold a candle to the 2009. Maybe the second time you bought a bottle of a particular wine, it did not hold up to the standard you set for it. The question to ask yourself is whether this wine holds up the test of time. You may not be able to grade every wine you taste in this category. Maybe you won’t have the same wine twice. Maybe you won’t remember your first impression of it. But if you become serious about evaluating wines, this may be a quality to consider.

Versatility

The versatility of a wine is somewhat linked to its pairing ability, but for me, these are two distinct elements. When considering how well wine pairs with food, the dish should be bringing out a certain taste that wasn’t necessarily there. It should highlight a wine’s strengths. To me, versatility is how well it does with everything. Is this good to cook with? Can I serve this with pasta when my parents come to visit? Will this go well with burgers?

The Aesthetics

This is where I look at some of the other qualities of a bottle of wine. These have little to do with the way a wine tastes, but are still important things to contemplate. I have decided to give these categories 5 points each towards the overall score since (1) they are less relevant to the taste of wine and (2) the scale fits 100 points really nicely that way.

Accessibility

OK. You just drank the best wine you’ve ever tasted. How easy is it to get again? I’d like to share an anecdote, if I may. There is a place called Boston Speed Dog. It is essentially a guy with a truck in a parking lot in the meat-packing district near South Boston. It is not easily accessed by public transit, I have no car, and his hours are subject to change based on the weather. Needless to say, I have rented a Zipcar for the sole purpose of buying a hot dog, only to find that the shop was closed. Sometimes this makes for a frustrating afternoon. Other times it makes for a glorious adventure.

I guess the point is, how convenient is it for you to procure this wine? And if it’s inconvenient, or difficult to come by, is that part of its allure?

Price

This is a no-brainer. Wine can be expensive. Very expensive. Whenever someone tells me they don’t drink wine, this is usually the reason. And if you are working at a cafe while also planning a wedding, price is very important when it comes to choosing wines. It should be graded as a relative. If I have an earth-shattering revelation of a Pinot Noir that cost me less than $20 for a bottle, that’s going to get full marks for price. But so does the $3 Charles Shaw I get from Trader Joe’s. And if I get a $12 bottle that I really don’t like, I would rate that better than an average tasting wine that costs $30.

Socializing

This category combines elements of taste (especially versatility, balance, and pairing) and aesthetics (namely price and accessibility). How good is this wine for a party? Will people like it? Is it affordable to get a case of? Will it go well with what’s being served? Can it accomplish all of these things and still be interesting enough on its own? The next time you drink a wine, you should think about whether you would want to share it with friends or keep it all to yourself.

The Label

I don’t care what anyone says, a fun label is going to get my attention. If I don’t know much about the wines I’m trying to choose from, I will always pick the one with the coolest label. I will remember that wine. I readily admit that I am a slave to effective marketing, but I don’t care. It doesn’t even have to be cool or funny, I’ll give points to a label that is subtle or understated. This is something that matters to me for reasons I cannot adequately explain.

Conclusion

Let me reiterate. This is a formula I have just thrown together. I have not even tried rating a wine with this yet. I am not introducing this formula as an argument to the subjective ratings given by wine critics. I came up with some of the tastes and elements that I appreciate in a good wine and put them in the context of a rating system. There are many other tastes and aspects to consider. I just presented these as some of the possible categories on which to grade wines.

You know something else? You may come up with an extensive, well-thought-out system for rating wines, and your absolute favorite may come up somewhere in the middle. The truth is that taste is entirely subjective and that there will always be factors that cannot be quantified. Your favorite wine is still your favorite wine, no matter how many different ways you attempt to assign a number to it. So go out and drink wine! All different kinds, all different years, from all different countries!

Latte Art 101

Latte art is the creation of a design on a beverage through the skillful pouring of steamed milk over espresso.

Simple, right? No. Wrong. Bad. Latte art is difficult to explain, difficult to teach, difficult to learn. Because I can, I’ve already cheated by limiting my definition above to include only “free-pour” latte art.1 So let’s start with how it’s made, then move on to whether or not it’s cool and/or good.

How It’s Made

The pouring of latte art can be divided into two main phases after the espresso and milk are prepared: (1) the barista sets up the dark background, and (2) the barista pours the design on the surface of the beverage.

In the first phase, a steady stream is poured from higher above the cup into the espresso. The stream of milk falls beneath the surface in the cup, mixing with the espresso and leaving a dark canvas for art at the surface.

In the second phase, the barista brings the pitcher down as close to the surface of the beverage as possible, still pouring a steady stream. Now the white steamed milk from the pitcher doesn’t fall beneath the surface, but flows out across the top, contrasting with the previously solid brown background.

A new barista’s first try might look like this:

Baristas create different designs in bevs by manipulating the pitcher during the second phase. After learning a few moves (shaking back and forth, changing the position over the surface, and lifting to pour back through the design), a barista can pour a heart or a rosetta (“fern”).

Here’s a really awesome Rosetta by Mia at Pavement:

Is It Cool/Good?

“But who cares?” you ask. “Isn’t latte art just an excuse for baristas to show off their technical prowess in the field of aesthetic whimsy-making? Doesn’t it not really guarantee a delicious bev at all? Didn’t the field of aesthetic whimsy-making become obsolete after Dorian Gray or something?”

Right. Or, rather, sort of right. First of all, Dorian Gray is a fictional character; you probably mean Oscar Wilde. As to the rest, it’s true that latte art doesn’t make a beverage taste any better. But, on average at least, the bevs with latte art I’ve been served have tended to be higher quality than those without. It’s one of those causation vs. correlation situations—or, put more fancily as a rhetorical question by David Walsh on his blog The Other Black Stuff:

I might observe that cappuccinos that I have received that have latte art on them tend to taste better on average than those that do not. Does latte art cause the cappuccinos to taste better? Or is it more likely that there is a confounding variable?

It is often pointed out that latte art is a sign of an (at least somewhat) experienced barista. David Walsh’s point is that baristas who pour latte art or manually brew or wear skinny jeans2 may be “more likely to care about the taste of the end product,” but that those factors aren’t the cause of a delicious cup.

More important perhaps is that awesome latte art can’t be poured without awesome milk; attention to detail with latte art requires attention to detail with milk steaming. Milk must be the right texture, with microfoam (tiny air bubbles, as opposed to big frothy “dry” bubbles) incorporated throughout the whole pitcher. Art is also best poured with milk prepared at a good tasting temperature (sorry extra-hot drinkers! Your milk pours weird and tastes weird).

And since all ‘spresso-n-milk bevs cortado-n-larger are mostly milk, the sweetness and texture of the milk are way more important (IMHO) than the quality of the extraction of espresso.


1And because etching is silly and has no place in a cafe where either speed or quality is a priority. After the several extra minutes it takes for a barista to coax the surface of a latte into the image of a teddy bear, or (worse yet) my face, the beverage itself will have cooled and turned old-latte textured.

2The skinny jeans thing is a joke, please no angry pro- or anti-hipster emails to me or Mr. Walsh.

One Great Cup

Think about your favorite drink—be it tea, wine, beer, hot chocolate, or coffee. What was it about that first sip (or third or seventh) that made you love it, that changed the way you thought about that drink from then on?

Taste is preference, and every preference is extremely personal. Hard as you may try, coaxing certain flavor notes out of someone isn’t gonna happen. If they don’t like drinking it, they aren’t going to, and no amount of discussing or educating is going to help.

For a personal example, my favorite beer is Bear Republic’s Racer 5. Well balanced and hoppy, it’s not too hard to get into—it’s just solid beer. However, before I had a Racer 5, my favorite beer was good ol’ P.B.R. Imagine what that first sip did to me, moving from such a light and sugary beer to hop heaven! I hated it! Until sip four or five. I got so into it that I thought, “I’ll never drink anything else!” But, one does need water, so I did have to stop, eventually. I thought about it constantly, though. All the time. Because it changed the way I thought about and drank beer! Thinking about that moment, I get so excited for me! I want to watch that happen to people all over the world. I want to push this beer on everyone and everything, and it could work. It also probably won’t work about 80% of the time, though, because everyone likes different things and different beers, coffee, clothes, music, etc. Everyone tastes differently and has different tastes.

But this excitement, this always gets the best of you, whoever you are and whatever you love, and that’s a super-great thing. What’s life without these preferences? Miller High Life and oatmeal? Blah! (Sidebar: I love oatmeal, I find High Life disgusting, and I love cheap beer, so you know I find this hard to admit.) However, as a barista or a purveyor of any specialty drinks, this is where we run into some trouble with customer service.

Let’s say you have a man. This man, we’ll call him Terrance. Terrance orders an espresso. You, a barista, expected to be as familiar with your coffee as you are with your left hand, carefully pull Terrance a shot. He picks it up, shoots it back, and runs away with a happy and cheerful, newly caffeinated, “Thanks, kid!” (Terrance is 80). You’re left without a hint of how Terrance felt about your espresso except for that he’s a polite man who has some more energy—thanks to you! I say, be happy; you did your job to its acceptable minimum.

Take two: let’s take this idea of baristas being educators and get Terrance back in here for that shot. You’re the host, the waiter, and you have all the answers to the questions he may have. So, you’ve got his ear and he’s the only one at the bar—how to broach it?

First, I’d start with,

Hi, how are you today?! Is this your espresso?

To which he will reply yes. Then you might say,

Awesome to hear! I’m really excited about the espresso today. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how it tastes! Will ya taste with me, T?

Yadda, yadda. Then you ask Terrance about that special tomato taste goin’ on at the finish. T says,

Why, no! I taste savory beets/plums/corn!

No matter what T says, that’s what his palette has picked up on, and that’s so beautiful! You’ll probably say,

Oh f&*$, T! I totally got that corn flavor too! Ya blowin’ my mind!

(You’re 12.)

Both perceptions of these shots have changed. The education happens on both sides of the counter, and something even greater occurs: communication without pretense!

You and T have created a beautiful array of tasting notes, and T has done something different—he talked about his preferences. This is T’s one great cup. This is his first Racer 5 or Baroida or Gen Mai Cha or Caramel Macchiato (whatever, T likes it—so, it’s great!). From now on, when he tastes espresso, he won’t just taste the bitterness of the crema or the acidity—he’ll compare it to that corn flavor and remember why he liked that one (or didn’t; that’s good too!) and be able to distinguish the reasons why. And the only real reason why Terrance does or doesn’t like something is because he just either does or doesn’t—that’s the amazing thing about taste.

Approachability is an issue that comes up a lot in specialty industries, especially coffee. Speciality coffee shops are popping up all over the place, and more and more people are turning to these shops more than chains! So cool, right?! But, your ideal interaction with Terrance doesn’t always happen in high-volume shops; there just isn’t enough time. When these do happen, though—that’s when both the barista and the customer learn.

As baristas, we all have opportunities to impact someone’s day—or give them that one great cup they need to get started on the flavor ride of a lifetime! Now, they don’t even need you for this—they can do it all on their own—but it’s always great to watch people enjoy something. Why else do people procreate but to watch children laugh? (Or, whatever.) The most important parts, though, are that we never stop communicating with each other  about our preferences in drinks and that we never stop getting excited about what we serve. If we do, we may miss that chance to change Terrance’s life with that one great cup.

Raise a Glass

There are three types of beer-drinkers in the world. The first type of drinker will consume his or her beer directly from the can, bottle, or, when they’re feeling fancy, the red cup. The second type is the aggressive millionaire: someone who will drink from a glass, but feels compelled to hurl the glass against the wall once the drink is done. The expense of constantly replacing pint glass makes this lifestyle somewhat unreasonable, so there probably aren’t too many of this category of drinker.

I count myself in the third class of beer drinkers. These are the drinkers who like drinking from the glass to attain the full potential of their beer. These are practical people who take care of the beer glasses so they can spend money on quality beer instead of disposing of broken glass. So let’s talk about how you treat your beer glass.

The first step is obviously choosing a glass for your beer. They come in all different styles and shapes for any number of reasons. Some are traditional glasses (gotta love those Germans!), and some are meant to accentuate certain flavors or attributes of specific beers. If you can afford the space and expense, it’s not a bad idea to get a variety of glasses and choose what you’re drinking from based on what you’re drinking.

As someone who can’t afford the space or the expense, my beer glass of choice is the Sam Adams Boston Lager glass. It’s a hybrid between a pint glass and a tulip glass, so you get a vessel that works well with more styles of beer than your typical glass. Go with what works for you. I’m always drinking different beers and trying new tastes, so I like a versatile glass. If you tend to enjoy a particular beer more than others, you should go with a glass that goes well with it. Choosing a beer glass is a lot like choosing a guitar… maybe it’s the action or the tone or maybe it’s just the one that looks cool.

So you’ve chosen your beer glass. But don’t start knocking ‘em back just yet. First, we have to clean it.

Look, I know what you’re thinking, and I agree. When I come home, open the fridge, and see a delicious beer just sitting on the shelf, I want to drink it right away. I don’t want to clean a glass. Well, sucks to be you. Because a clean glass is an important part of proper beer enjoyment.

I’m not saying the best part of drinking is looking at a glass you just soaped up and rinsed off, nodding to yourself and thinking, “Boy, I sure know how to clean a glass!” I’m saying that dust, oils, dirt, and who knows what else are probably on your glass right now, and those things will interfere with your beer drinking pleasure. You may not taste these things, but they can mask flavors you should be tasting or affect how much head is produced. So take the time to clean your glass with warm to hot water, some liquid soap, and a non-abrasive sponge. It might be obvious, or it might not be, so I’ll just say it. You don’t want to scratch the glass, so use the soft side of the sponge, and if you put a glass through drastic temperature fluctuations, that glass will not be long for this world.

OK. So here we are. We’ve got a clean glass and a delicious beer. Let’s make it happen.

Many different people have many different ideas about producing a good head when pouring a beer. You’re going to want some head, but not too much. There are two pointers I would offer up. The first is to pour at an angle. If you hold the glass at about 45 degrees, and pour beer on the side of the glass instead of the bottom, it won’t foam up too much.

The second piece of advice is something I just picked up a few weeks ago. An old German trick involves leaving just a little bit of water in your glass. I would have thought pouring at an angle is enough for any beer, but my latest batch of homebrew foams up something fierce if you’re not careful. It turns out that a quarter-inch of water and pouring at an angle give the Scarecrow’s Revenge the perfect amount of head. Like I said… gotta love the Germans!

My final bit of advice is to ditch the beer glass every once in a while. You don’t want to be the pretentious jackass cleaning out your glass in the middle of a Mario Kart tournament. Not every beer you drink has to be pondered over and tasted with the utmost attention to detail. Sometimes a beer is just a beer. Grab a bottle and bottoms up. You earned it.

To learn more about glassware, check out the Beer Geek Shop. Most of what I know about glasses, I learned from them. Their article on the Sam Adams glass perfectly reflects what I knew in my heart but couldn’t quite put in to words.

So go find a glass and drink a beer. I know I will.