Texture: What French Fries Can Teach Us about the Bevs We Love

Imagine a plate of really awesome french fries; now imagine a plate of really terrible french fries. What makes the one different from the other?

This is a prompt I’ve started to use when training new baristas to steam milk (and, incidentally, I stole it from James Hoffman). I’ll ask you, too, dear reader: good fries, bad fries—what’s the diff?

Here is a pretty typical answer: “Good french fries are kind of crunchy on the outside, but soft on the inside. Bad fries are mushy or soggy.”

You may notice the presence of words describing texture in this answer. Pretty much every answer to this question will involve descriptions of texture. You may also notice the lack of words describing taste or aroma or anything else about the plate of fries. Many—perhaps most—answers will use only descriptions of texture.

Now to the point: good texture is an integral sensory component not only of enjoyable fries or other solid foods, but of enjoyable beverages, as well. I use the french fry question in barista training because properly textured milk is the most important ingredient in any hot milk beverage a barista can make. It will make or break the drink. This may be obvious if you’ve ever had a cappuccino or latte.

Texture in beverages can be as apparent as the silkiness of steamed milk, or the viscosity of a cocktail made with egg, or the presence of carbonation in beer or wine or soda. It can be as subtle as slight variations in levels of undissolved liquids and solids in wine or beer or brewed coffee. All of these sorts of sensations of texture in the mouth are what we refer to as “mouthfeel.”

I found the word intimidating at first. Mouthfeel. Maybe because I associate it with lists of pricey wines whose flavor profiles are described in terms of fruits I’ve never heard of. But mouthfeel is just this: the feeling in your mouth of something that you are consuming. Is it creamy or heavy or round or watery or oily or chalky? Is it crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside or total mushy bullshit french fries? Whether you are aware of it or not, texture plays a major part in the way you perceive your your beer, wine, coffee, tea, whatevercetera; you may find it worthwhile to give it just a moment of thought on your next sip.

Drinking versus Tasting

We consume a lot of stuff in America—from coffee to computers to cars. We may not be in the era of the moonwalk anymore, but I don’t think that this consumptive, materialistic mentality has left us yet. France produces more wine than any other country in the world, and has the second-largest vineyard area (Spain beats it there). In Germany, beer has its own festival (the well-known Oktoberfest). In China, tea is considered one of the seven necessities to life (the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar). I suppose if we worship any drink here in America, it’s coffee. We consume it in such volume that there are, literally, places in the country where a Starbucks is situated across the street from a Starbucks. (Just ask Lewis Black.) But that’s just what it is—consumption. According to the International Coffee Organization, in 2009, Americans consumed just over 9 pounds of coffee per capita. We might not have anything on Scandinavia, but that’s still a lot of coffee. Yet, most of us still think that a dark roast has more caffeine than a medium roast. Many worship Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks as if they were gods, while ignoring the local cafés that bring us truly great drinks, for just a little added expense.

Luckily, the independent cafés are doing well enough to stick around, and even to open new ones—and I, for one, am grateful. As my bio on this site mentions, I wasn’t always a coffee drinker. It all started one Christmas day, when my uncle wanted me to play Texas Hold ‘Em and I wanted to go to bed. So, I had a cup of Maxwell House—and, for the first time in my life, I didn’t hate it. It took a while from there until I got away from the Folger’s/Dunkin’ Donuts stuff myself and graduated onto grinding my own beans from Trader Joe’s.

What I didn’t realize at first, or even appreciate fully when I first started grinding fresh beans, was the true complexity of flavors available in coffee. If you read the labels on bags of Counter Culture or Stumptown beans, it quickly becomes apparent that people who are serious about their coffee talk about it very similarly to how wine aficionados talk about their favorite merlot or shiraz. You start seeing mentions of floral aromatics, chocolate and butterscotch, cherry jam and toasted nuts. Who knew you could find all of that in a cup o’ Joe?

I’m not a great taster—in fact, I’m terrible at it. On a good day, I’ll be able to pick out something obvious in a wine, like blackberry or nuttiness, but most of the time the best I can do is say, “Hey, I really like this one!” I will never be a sommelier. But I also refuse to believe that tasting is an innate talent, not an acquirable skill. We do a lot of drinking in this country, but not necessarily a lot of tasting. So, this holiday season, take a step back, take a deep breath (literally—so much of tasting is in the nose), and take a sip—of coffee, or wine, or beer, or tea. Don’t just drink it; try to figure out what’s in there. You might be surprised by what you find. And even if you can’t discern any particular flavor, you may at least begin to recognize the complexity of the tastes in your mouth. You may never look at your morning coffee the same way again.

The Mystifying Mysticism of “Dry Hopping”

If you’re like me when it comes to beer, when you pick up a 22 oz or look at a draft list you study the ABV and the style and the origin of the beer and you think about all the little things that go into it. And one of those fine descriptors you will find on the sides of the 22 oz (along with some hilarious anecdotes… check out any Stone Brewery description, they are wonderfully witty) is the term dry hopped.

Now, If you’re also like me and terms such as this sound exotic, like they are drying the hops in the sun as if they were tea leaves or like they dry the beer and then place hops all over it as a form of decoration (which it can’t be, but we’re talking base-level understanding here), then you have no friggin’ idea of what this CRAzYii term could mean when it comes to making beer.

That was me about 12 months ago, when I picked up my favorite beer (Racer 5 by Bear Republic Brewery Big Bear, CA) and saw that on the side. As time moved on and I drank more of this and many other dry-hopped beers, I came up with my own definition. “Oh, its like when they add more hops, right guys?” I’d say to my friends, and they’d all laugh and smile and be merry and, of course, drunk.

Now, this Philistine-like response was actually, as it turns out, half correct. They do add more hops, but not just as an afterthought. Or, so I thought before I went into the Brewer’s Emporium for the first time. While running through the list of beers I wanted to make my first time, the one I cared most for was a Rye Ale. (I was going to name it “The Sun also Ryses.” Come on, that’s hilarious.) Anywho, I picked up the kit and the kind man helping us said, “Oh, that’s intermediate because it has dry hopping involved.” And when Wolfie turned to me and said, “What does that mean, dear?” I responded, “You add more hops in.” And the kind red-headed man said, “Yes.”

Now, why on earth would adding more hops make something more difficult? Well, John J. Palmer’s How to Brew reccomends that you siphon the beer from the fermentation bucket into a second one and dry hop in there. Or put the dry hops in a mesh bag. And that’s all, my friends. That’s as complicated as it gets. And here I was, clamoring around in my wannabe-aficionado world of liking better beer than my ole favorite, PBR, slamming Sierra Nevada Torpedos out of people’s hands and watching the glass shatter because “It’s not a true Imperial if it’s not drop hopped.”

Let’s boil it down to the facts here. Dry hopping:

  • Does not make the beer more bitter. In fact just adds to the aroma and slightly affects the flavor.
  • Does not require some “intermediate” brewing ability.
  • Is not mystifying in any way.
  • Also, is awesome.

And even as I opened the lid on my fermentation bucket and just threw in those hops without a care, I still got excited. Because, why the hell not? Don’t we all still watch Elf even though we know Will Ferrel isn’t real? Sure. So, my only question is, why market this, breweries? So that a young, enthusiastic girl like myself can fawn all over y’all like you’ve got some crazy drying equipment? And the answer is yes!

What a great marketing tool! What a sham! But I love it! It makes my room smell good and will make my beer taste good! But damn you, Bear Republic, Stone, Smuttynose, etc., for making me think you were out-of-this-world IPA innovators with special equipment that only exists in and for your breweries (and many others, obviously).

Just open it up, pour it in, close it, leave it for a few weeks. Just “add more hops.” Intermediate brewing. Just dry hop it.

P.S. I really did think that they were stuffing full stalks of hops plants into a fermenter and leaving it there for weeks, and I told at least ten people that.

P.P.S. I didn’t shatter any Sierra Nevada Torpedos… but I wish I did, and give me time, and it shall be done.

Let’s Throw a Tea Party

In the past few years, the Tea Party has taken on a divisive meaning, one that obscures its origins and applies a proud bit of history to a hot-button issue. If you’re looking for Sarah Palin’s Tea Party, you’ve come to the wrong place.

This Tea Party is one that celebrates Boston’s revolutionary history in a cup. It’s been over 200 years since those standing up to the crown steeped some fine tea in the Boston Harbor, and we people of New England still brew our own. We make our own beer. We roast our own coffee. We grow our own tea. We crush our own grapes. And by God, it’s delicious.

We do not claim to be experts. Sometimes, we will be just as inexperienced and untried as any other. But what we hope to accomplish with this blog is to show people that you do not need some otherworldly talents or education to appreciate distinctions among seemingly mysterious drinks.

Join me and my friends as we explore all that our mugs and glasses have to offer. We’ll share the latest news, our own recipes, and history lessons as we see fit. While some of what you find here may be Boston-centric, I assure you that most of it can be appreciated in any part of the world.

So drink up. We’ve got work to do.