alcohol

My Wine Post, Part II

Last week I finally got around to writing a post about wine. I touched on pairings and varietals, and I was getting ready to delve into the best wine region, but I thought I’d hold off. Because I’ve got quite a few things to say about the wine-producing regions of California. And what should, and should not, be considered “wine country.” And this needs a post of its own.

My curling club is called “Wine Country Curling Club.” We were founded in Vacaville, about 30 miles southeast of Napa. But in 2011, the club moved to a suburb of Sacramento. This has occasionally led to some debate. Sacramento, the argument goes, is nowhere near wine country. Sure, there are a few wineries that dot the landscape in and around Sacramento. You can wine taste for an afternoon in Clarksburg, and maybe the better part of the day in Lodi. Midtown Sacramento has a few tasting rooms but no grapes, and  Placer County, where our curling club is actually located, finally threw in the towel and renamed their wine trail a “Wine and Ale Trail,” which includes a microbrew every other block, just like every other city in America these days. It’s great for curlers, who tend more toward beer than wine, anyway.

Some people think we should change our name to avoid confusion or disappointment. And while we’ve unofficially gone with a generic “Curl Sacramento” route, the name that has been floated the most often is “Gold Country Curling Club.” Because gold was discovered in the foothills near here and Sacramento was the main destination for most of the 49ers heading west. The area around highway 49 (named for the gold rushers) from Auburn (about thirty miles northeast of Sacramento) to Placerville (forty miles east of Sacramento) calls itself gold country, and Coloma, where gold was first found, is smack dab in the middle.

But here’s where they lose the argument, and here’s where I get riled up. Because Placerville, old Hangtown, is pretty much the capital of Gold Country. And if we’re naming ourselves after Placerville, then we need to call ourselves Wine Country. Because Placerville is at the north end of what is, in my estimation, one of the best wine regions around. And more than the best wine region, it’s, hands down, the best winery region.

Some people say Amador County is what Napa County was in the eighties. And what Sonoma County was in the nineties. A nice, bucolic masterpiece of rolling hills with wineries who are happy to see you visit and employees who can talk to you about the wine they are pouring beyond the tasting notes that were printed by some conglomerate. Heck, the person pouring your tasting on any particular day might be the winemaker himself.

Last September, we found an out-of-the-way winery near Plymouth, California. Which is a pretty impressive feat, considering that Plymouth itself is already about as out of the way as something can get. You have to go through twelve different dead spots in cell coverage to get there. The town has one restaurant. And, as I found out at my last anniversary, if the one bed and breakfast owner in the town has had a cold in the past month, you’re pretty much sleeping under a tree or hoofing it back to Sacramento for the night.

But this particular winery is even out of the way for Plymouth. It’s not on either of the two or three main winery loops in Amador County. The only reason we found it at all was that we were looking for a back way into Fiddletown. And no, that’s not a euphemism. There’s a town called Fiddletown. Okay, “town” is being generous. There’s a place called Fiddletown. There are only two ways to get there. You can take Fiddletown Road or you can take the back road. And on the back road, way at the top of a hill, hidden from view of just about every human being in existence, is a winery called Distant Cellars. Get it? Distant! As in “no cell service.”

Anyway, when we stopped by this particular winery on a September midday, we were greeted by a spectacle of an employee. Or maybe he was a drifter. Dude was dirty and sweaty, wearing a beat up t-shirt. Wife and I pass a little bit of a look between us. I mean, I don’t need my sommelier to be wearing a tuxedo or anything, especially at a winery that only one customer stumbles upon per day. But Jesus, dude, would it kill you to bathe a little bit before you come into work? We’ve all had those hungover mornings, but you gotta fake it till you make it.

Except this wasn’t a rando employee suffering from too much Friday night. And it wasn’t a hobo, either. This was the owner. Sort of. He was the caretaker, the guy who ran the winery. His sons are firefighters and they bought the winery land as a retirement plan. Only they’re not retired yet, so it’s up to pops to run things in the meantime.

And of course, the reason he was dirty and sweaty and wearing a beater was because it was September, and September is harvest time. He had been up since 5:00 that morning picking two tons of grapes. And now he was preparing for a six-hour stint in the tasting room.

That’s more or less what you can expect from Amador County. Allegedly Napa was this way in the seventies and eighties. I’m not old enough to remember that, but nowadays, the winemaker at a Napa winery is probably housed in some secret bunker behind five layers of computerized and DNA-based security, his child being held at gunpoint until he can verify the proper tannin level of the cabernet-syrah blend.

Oh, and did I mention you don’t pay to taste in Amador? You used to not have to pay in Napa or Sonoma either. I’m old enough to remember that practice, but barely. It started to go by the wayside in the mid-nineties. First it was just a few wineries charging a nominal fee that would be refunded with a purchase. Kinda makes sense. They’d rather have you buy a bottle, but if not, you don’t get something for nothing.

And of course, if you were friendly enough with the pourer, you might not get charged for the tasting fee, anyway. The tasting fee was basically just there to dissuade the people who are only looking to go from winery to winery trying to get a cheap buzz with no interest whatsoever in actually making a purchase. But if you talk to the pourer about wine, or about their lives, or about current events, or pretty much treat them in any way other than, “Hey, fuckface, give me free booze,” then they’d probably “forget” to charge you. Or maybe they’d think you’re purchasing from the other guy. Or maybe they’d legitimately forget, because maybe they’re now splitting their time between you and a group of assholes that have no interest in purchasing.

Regardless, the initial tasting fees were primarily there to discourage douchebags, not a legitimate money-making device. Of course, back then the pourers were usually connoisseurs themselves. They moved to Napa or commuted to the valley for the day, because they wanted to be able to take a sip from time to time and be able to talk to like-minded individuals about oakiness and complexity. Kinda like Amador.

By the turn of the century, a few of the wineries in Napa were starting to charge for tasting whether you purchased any wine or not. I initially assumed they would lose a lot in their wine sales. One of the stories in the original “Freakonomics” book was about a daycare center that started charging people if they picked their kids up late, then were astounded when the number of late pick-ups increased. Because charging took away the guilt of showing up late. Now a parent could justify coming in late. Similarly, I’ve been to plenty of wineries where I thought the wine was mediocre, but bought it anyway out of a general obligation for the hospitality of their few sample pours.

But clearly, bottle sales didn’t drop enough to stop the practice, because by 2005 or so, you couldn’t go anywhere in the Napa Valley without paying for tasting. And they aren’t five dollars anymore. It’s twenty bucks now, and that twenty bucks doesn’t get you closer to purchasing. Not even the fancy cheese they’re all running out of their deli. Sorry, charcuterie. Deli’s aren’t nearly hip enough for Napa.

Now they charge you up front, before they’ve even gotten a glass out for you. Some places, like the Castle, you’re charged by somebody up front before you’ve even met your pourer. And the pourers, in kind, are not interested in making a sale or talking to you about wine or really anything other than pouring the properly-allotted volume of predetermined liquid. Ask them what their favorite is, or how that unopened bottle tastes, and they’ll shrug and tell you it’s not in the script.

In Amador, if you ask how that wine in that bottle back there is, the owner will probably open it right then and there and take a sip of it first before pouring some for you.

And look, I’m not taking anything away from Napa. I mean, if you can charge someone for something or offer it for free and not have your sales impacted enough to matter, then more power to you. And I guess I never realized how many people went wine tasting without purchasing or ever intending to purchase. In my opinion, anyone that gets free tastes with no intention to buy is a piece of shit. If you don’t like their wine, fine. But if you like it, but only want to take it for free, then you’re the one who ruined it for the rest of us.

And Napa absolutely had to do something, because they were becoming a destination for cheap buzzes. Party busses, party limos, party trains. They all descend upon a winery, pushing the rest of the customers off to the side or, more likely, to another winery. Then they spend a half-hour being obnoxious, not engaging the staff nor purchasing any product, then they’re back into the bus or limo or train and on to shill the next winery out of its hard-earned product. Even the Amador wineries have taken to charging these groups, because they are clearly only there for the “experience.” And usually they cost a winery in lost customers. Any time I see a limo out front, I drive to the next winery.

But when a winery charges you to taste, regardless of whether you buy or not, then they’re in the same business as the limo tours. It’s all about the tourists and day trippers, not the wine drinkers. As a result, Napa now markets itself more as an Adult Disneyland experience than a wine region. And the quality of their wine has suffered now that they cater to customers who are there for the experience.

I mentioned the Castello de Amarosa earlier. They are the most egregious and most epitomal example of what Napa has become. It’s a castle. Like, a legitimate castle. Not a replica. The owners purchased a run-down medieval castle from some defunct principality in Germany and paid to move it, brick by brick, to the Napa Valley. It’s… well, I was going to say beautiful, but only fake castles are beautiful. (See above: Disneyland) The real castles were more concerned with “workable for purposes of defense” than beautiful. But the Castello de Amarosa is majestic, if not beautiful.

They charge you to get in. There are a variety of tickets available. One just allows you entrance to see the grounds to peruse on your own.  Another ticket will grant you a guided tour, but still no wine. If you want to actually taste the wine, you have to buy a separate ticket and find your own way to the dungeon tasting room. And no, I’m not being facetious. They literally have the wine tasting in the bowels of the castle, with a ceiling that a six-foot tall person would have to duck under. There’s no ventilation and a lot of people being jostled about as an automaton fills their glasses with all the regularity and grace of an assembly line worker. The Model T only comes in black and the castle only pours four tastings.

How was the wine? Well, as wine tasting goes… they have a very nice castle.

I suppose they’ve done a very wise thing to accentuate the winery itself, and not the wine. Because the wine was quite unpleasant. It was very young. They were serving a red wine with a harvest date two years earlier. And I don’t think they were the only Napa wines I saw that were eighteen months past harvest. Four years used to be the minimum, but now it’s all about turn-and-burn, baby.

Then again, I highly doubt the castle wine was going to cellar well. I’ve tasted some young wines, and done some barrel tasting, that age well. They are usually very smooth, probably even more accessible to a random non-wine drinker. The grape is the dominant flavor early on. The complexity comes with age. The Castle wine, on the other hand, tasted a little bit sour. Like maybe it’s best future would be mixed into a sangria. Or like its average customer has partaken in some of the two hundred wineries that lie closer to the Napa Valley entrance than it. And really, nobody’s here for the wine, anyway. Taste the good stuff first, then come look at our snazzy castle.

But hey, at least I got a good idea for a key scene in my novel, which is great, cause I sure as shit didn’t buy any wine. Nice to know the entry fee wasn’t a complete waste.

And that’s why I’ll also put the Amador wine up against most of what’s coming out of Napa these days. It isn’t just the experience and the hospitality that are better. These days, Napa is catering to Bay Area new-money newbies or travelers from afar, neither of which really want good wine. They might want expensive wine, but they want it to be consumed like craft beer. Chug, motherfucker, chug.

The typical winery in Amador County will have more varietals available for tasting and purchase. Napa’s pretty much doubled down on Cabernet and Chardonnay. Go to an Amador winery and you’ll see Barbera and Zinfandel and Primitivo and Syrah and Petit Syrah and Mouverdre and Grenache and Tempranillo. And there are white wines, too.

Their varietals have variety, too. Last September, we went to a Barbera Festival, where over fifty wineries were literally pouring only one varietal. But it didn’t get tiring, because the babera grape can go in a lot of different directions, especially with all of the micro-climates that occur in volcanic foothills. Far from the Napa Valley (and to a lesser extent, the Pinot-rich central coast), where they try to mimic the agreed-upon flavor as much as possible and the only variance is spectacular, good, mediocre, or castle.

So there you have it. My wine post, parts one and two. Now you can all dismiss my well-informed enlightenment and go back to your tannic cabernet and try to pretend it doesn’t feel like someone just scratched your mouth with a brillo pad. Or your buttery chard with its aftertaste of aftertaste. And hey, I didn’t mention it before, but a lot of pinots taste like Band-aids.

And when you’re done doing all that, check out an Alicante Bouchet from the foothills.

BEER! (Part III)

Okay, so I’ve just spent two posts about the beers I don’t like. So what, you may ask, DO I like in my beer? Well, I’m glad ya asked.

Truthfully, my flavor profile has changed a few times in my life, and are in a bit of a flux right now, too. Perhaps this is why I don’t understand the continuance of the decades-old trends discussed in the previous posts. Then again, I’ve always tended to be along a somewhat tight variance. Browns and reds and pales. Somewhere in the middle of the hoppy vs. malty spectrum. I love me some balance.

Of course, in a begrudging nod to the IPA-philes, over the past few years, my preferred beer has gone farther up the bitterness scale. For a while, I was all about the Amber and Scotch Ales. Alaskan Amber, Kilt Lifter, Nutty Brewnette, Old Chub. Even Newcastle was an occasional go-to in a pinch. The benefit of Newcastle is its ubiquity. Even a bar that only carried the standards is likely to have Newcastle.

Fat Tire was my favorite beer for five years or more. And clearly I wasn’t the only one, because it’s the beer that put New Belgium on the map. The brand barely existed at the turn of the century, but as of now, it’s ranked #11 by volume, just behind powerhouse no-longer-microbreweries Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada. And yeah, I know they’re really pushing their Voodoo Daddy IPA these days, but all of that is on the strength of their flagship.

I’ll still drink Fat Tire. Sometimes I have no choice. When I’m visiting family, it’s the only one they can remember that I drink, as they try desperately to avoid saying “Flat Tire.” I don’t know why it’s such a difficult pronunciation. I know a flat tire is a thing, but it’s not like Fat is some obscure word. Yet every baby boomer I encounter asks me if I want one of those “Fla.. uh.. Fe-ua… Feat Tires?”

But Fat Tire tastes a bit too sweet for me these days. The nutty and caramely and malty beers that I drank for the majority of my thirties just aren’t doing it for me these days. I never liked stouts and porters, because they’re too sweet, and something clicked in me in the past year, making most browns exhibit the same syrupy consistency. Maybe it’s just a hundred degrees in summer kind of thing, or maybe my brain is subconsciously telling my tongue that hops are here to stay, so I’d better get used to it. Now a Fat Tire tastes like a Frappuccino to me. Or an iced coffee when they put all that syrupy crap into it. No, Starbucks barista, I don’t want fucking “room” in my iced coffee. Just black coffee and ice. Someone ordering an actual coffee at your coffee business shouldn’t make you so damned twitchy. 

One fun brew I found many moons ago was Innis and Gunn. On my second trip to Scotland, we asked for a local beer. The waiter described something that we couldn’t understand, because he was speaking Scottish, which bears absolutely no resemblance to English. We nodded our approval and received one of the most wonderful concoctions ever invented. It’s aged in Scotch barrels. But there’s more to it than that, because after tasting Innis and Gunn, I tried a number of other beers that claim such a distinction and none of them have the smooth toffee flavor of Innis and Gunn. I’ve even, since then, tried some other Innis and Gunn flavors, including their rum-aged and Irish whickey-aged. None of them have that je ne sais pas of the original.

When we got back to America, we looked everywhere for Innis and Gunn. At the time, New York was the only place in the United States that carried it, and that seemed a bit far of a drive. But who said we had to purchase it in the United States? Vancouver’s only a fifteen-hour drive! My friend hit the Great North the following summer and brought back a case. Two summers later, I made the trek. The employee at the state-owned liquor store looked at me strangely when I wanted 30 bottles of something they usually sell by the single. But when I flashed the real-live, legitimate, international-standard American dollars, they were willing to do just what I said.

Just kidding. I think I paid with credit card. And I probably insulted the guy when I asked what it cost in “real money.” The guy selling joints in Nelson Park, however, was happy enough to take American cash.

We continued to check the Innis and Gunn website, plotting their progress on a map like they were the Allied army advancing against the Kaiser. First they were spotted in Washington, then Oregon. We went to the city walls waiting to cheer the liberating army as it came within sight. When my wife texted me a picture from the local Total Wine, I knew that life would never be the same.

Then again, at $14 for a 4-pack, the I&G is still going to be reserved for special occasions.

My IBU preference has been creeping up recently. The forties taste fine to me now. Although I suppose that’s where I started. The first beer I was actually able to get through being a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Then I avoided it fro a while, but it’s back in my favored wheelhouse. I can even tolerate beers into the sixties. When I was in Denver recently, I drank quite a few Dale’s Pale Ales, with an IBU of 65. It was fine. But I might’ve been suffering from altitude sickness.

But my favorites of late seem to be reds. Reds tend to add a bit of hoppiness to the typical maltiness of a brown. You know, like what hops were originally meant to do. There’s one here in Northern California called Heretic Evil Twin. The “evil twin” comes from the combination of the two flavors. If you’re a malt fan, the hop is the evil twin; if you’re a hop fan, it’s the malt. And they’re both in there. It’s a solid brew, with an IBU of 45, right in “the middle,” so to speak. But I think it’s ainly available in Northern California, so sorry if I got your hopes up. If you read on, you’ll see I’m right there with you on the torture. .

Let’s talk about Karl Strauss Red Trolley. It’s available everywhere, right? Its crispy nuance makes it my current favorite beer. It’s not that you can taste all the flavors, like in Heretic, but it’s also not all one flavor. Somehow it has an IBU below Fat Tire, which I consider bullshit because it’s definitely not as sweet. Of course now, after a decade of indoctrinating us that IBU is the be-all and end-all of a beer flavorness quotient, they’re saying it’s an incomplete measure. Now they try to distinguish between hazy and juicy and, I don’t know, fluffy IPAs? And New England IPAs, which are basically the same as West Coast Pale Ales. There are also Northwest Pales. It gets really confusing when you need an eight-directional compass just to figure out what the hell you’re drinking.

Or grapefruit. Don’t get me started on grapefruit. How very fitting that Ballast Point would be bought out by Coors.

Although the Grapefruit Sculpin works as a good transition into my most recent beer find. While in San Diego, my hotel bar had a local beer called Coconut Contender. This intrigued me, because I like coconut. Have I mentioned that I like coconut before? And that I worry they are on the cusp of jumping the palm tree shark? I think I have.

Coconut in beer isn’t a new thing. Coconut porters have existed for a while. I’ve had a few of them, and they’re okay in extremely limited quantities. Porters are sweet, coconut is sweet, so what you’re left with is the equivalent of adding caramel syrup to a white chocolate mocha, which is something I’m surprised Starbucks hasn’t done yet. Hell, I had some sort of Iced Vanilla Bean drink there a couple weeks ago, and I can still feel the granules of sugar coursing through my body. Dammit, Barista, I ordered a coffee frappuccino, not a caramel frappuccino. Repeat after me, barista!  Coffee! What the fuck is wrong with just serving me the goddamn product you’re supposed to be known for! Y

Sorry, where was I? Ah yes, the Coconut Contender. What intrigued me about this particular beer was that it was not listed as a coconut porter, but a coconut IPA. So instead of using the sweetness of the coconut to augment the sweetness of a porter, they’re going to counteract the bitterness of the… hmmm…. Why, that sounds brilliant!

Of course, they’ve done this with other flavors. That grapefruit crap is the most famous, but I’ve seen orange and tangerine and raspberry IPAs. But most of those others are tart more than sweet. Plus, did I mention that I like coconut? So I asked for a pint. The bartender asked if I wanted a taste of it first. Maybe he’s had customers that were hoping for a coconut porter and were disappointed by a beer with nuance. I was ninety percent sure I didn’t need a taster of it, that I would drink the whole damn thing. But if I’m about to order sixteen ounces and I can get the seventeenth ounce for free, I’m taking that bargain.

Even better when I discovered it was 21 ounces for the price of 20.

Verdict? It was as sublime as I expected. The coconut was in the background, as was the hoppiness. I didn’t wince from the sweet or chew the bitter. No need to drink five gulps of water to remoisten my palate. (Remoisten my palatte sounds like a dirty book that might be written by the OTHER Tony Kelly, the one who forces Amazon searches for my book to a second page. Go ahead and check, I won’t hold it against you).

I could definitely see myself drinking more of those Coconut Contenders. For instance, I saw myself drinking it again the next night. And the night after that. After all, I was at the hotel for a week-long conference. Unfortunately, the rat bastard behind the bar must have recognized me the rest of the week, because he never gave me that free taster again. Then again, he did “accidentally” pour the wrong drink once, and then gave me the correct pour in a take-home cup. Tip your waitstaff, people!

So of course, the first thing I did when i got home was to hit the local liquor stores to get me some Coconut Contender at home.

BevMo? Nope. Total Wine? Nada.

Dammit, this Coconut IPA is not to be found anywhere in the Sacramento area. Or at least anywhere in the whopping TWO liquor stores I looked in. So I decided to google Coconut IPA. I found that the one I had in San Diego wasn’t the only one. There are at least three  currently being brewed. And Total Wine stocked precisely zero of them. Didn’t double-check back at BevMo for the other two, but I’m not holding my breath.

According to one beer review, it’s the “New taste of summer.” I totally, totally agree. But at participating locations, only.

Oh Life, why must you mock me so?

BEER! (Part II)

Welcome back to Part Two. In Part One, I talked about Coors Light and the rest of its ilk, remnants of an older time that somehow persist in a world of much better options.

Today, I’ll talk about one of those better options that I don’t necessarily feel is a better option. Watch out, hipsters.

If you’ll recall what started this retrospective, I was visiting a new person’s house and he offered me a Coors Light. I declined. Except that Coors Light wasn’t the only thing he had available. He also offered me an IPA. Ugh.

And hey, hipsters? The fact that someone would have only two options of beer, one of which is an IPA and the other of which is Coors Light, should tell you all you need to know about how fancy your brillo-pad of a beer really is.

Now here’s where I know I part from true beer snobs. At their best, India Pale Ales are tolerable. At their worst? Pass me the Coors Light. Or better yet, I’ll just take some water.

Fortunately, in this particular case, it was Lagunitas, which is one of the most tolerable IPAs. In fact, their original IPA wouldn’t even be considered an IPA by today’s standards. It would be like Ronald Reagan in the modern GOP, or JFK trying to make it past two primaries in the 2020 Democratic party. It only has an IBU in the mid-40s. Nowadays if your IPA doesn’t have an IBU above 60, you might as well call it a lager.

For those who don’t know, IBU stands for International Bittering Unit. It measures the amount of hops in the flavor. Hops are those things that smell like really nasty marijuana. When they’re put in the beer, they help offset the sweet, caramelly flavor that comes from the malted barley. So a stout, which has the same bitterness as a bold chocolate milk, will have an IBU below 10. Ambers and browns usually range in the 20s, although some of the “nuttier” ones will be as low as ten. Twenty years ago, when Lagunitas was one of the few IPAs out there, a red or a pale ale was in the thirties and above forty was reserved for an India Pale. These days, if you’re not flirting with triple-digits, the millennials will only roll their pierced eyebrow at you.

India Pale Ales are supposed to have more bitterness because, historically, hops were used as a preservative, so the extra hops would keep the beer from spoiling on those long cruises from England to India. Note it was for preservation, not taste. Because, and me out here, hops taste like crap. They do. I know you there in the back, currently scraping a filmy layer of skin off the top of your arid mouth can’t admit it without worrying you’d have to shave your beard as penance, but it is not at all refreshing. It tastes like you’re drinking cotton. It’s dry, it’s scratchy. And last time I checked, you’re not supposed to consume cotton. Especially cotton that smells like dank weed that’s been left in the bong for a fortnight.

Hey, I think that might be the first combination of “bong” and “fortnight” in the same sentence in the history of the English language. Unless you’re talking about the video game.

On the West Coast, Lagunitas was one of the forebears of the IPA craze. As if on a dare, they started proudicing Double and Triple and Imperial IPAs, pushing that IBU up into the triple digits, just waiting for someone to have the balls to say it tasted crappy, but groupthink’s a hell of a drug. Just ask the Nazis. It’s ironic that Labunitas once had the balssiest IPA, and now their IPA is so tame. It barely even registers as a straight Pale these days. For comparison, Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues (a fun Colorado brewery that comes up with names like Old Chub and Mama’s Yellow Pilsner) has an IBU of 65. Their IPA has a bittering factor of 70, almost double that of Lagunitas.

New Belgium’s IPAs range from 50 to 70. They also have Hemp IPAs. Did I mention dank weed?

And IPAs are just the start. Now breweries have Imperial IPAs, Double IPAs, Triple IPAs, and, I don’t know, a-vine-of-hops-shoved-directly-up-your-ass ale. IBUs of 80 or 90, even triple digits, are starting to become the norm. Colorado and California breweries are now coming out with hemp IPAs. Hell, if it’s gonna taste like headache-inspiring weed, they might as well go to the source. I can only imagine that straight-up marijuana IPAs are on the horizon out here.

And I know I’m in the minority here. The reason I know this is because every brewery or taphouse I go to has a shit-ton of IPAs and their ilk. You’ll have maybe one red or one amber, but not both, one pilsner, and then seventeen beers with IBUs ranging from 65 to 120. Hey, this one has notes of citrus and that one has a whiffs of cotton-swabbed asshole. Oh, and Coors Light is tap #20.

Clearly the market has decided something that is not my cup of Indian tea. A friend of a friend started a brewery. He has a similar taste profile to mine, and was tired of seeing the same varietals at every brewery. He wanted to show what could be done with some of the forgotten flavors. A nutty brown versus a hoppy brown. A light or a dark lager.

But the substantial majority of the customers who came in had one request: more varieties of IPA. So now when I go in there, I’m relegated to my one option, but at least I can commiserate with the brewer.

And I cancross my fingers and hope that more brewers are like he and I. We’re all just waiting for this trend to end. Putting a whole bunch of recipes on the shelf, ready for the moment when hipsters and millennials grow enough balls to admit that the IPA trend has gone too far. Every culinary movement has a backlash at the end, right?

But dammit, I’ve been waiting for this particular pendulum to swing back for a decade now. And my liver ain’t getting any younger.

I know, I know. I don’t like mass-produced beers and I don’t like IPAs. What the hell do I like? Check back on Monday to find out.

BEER! (Part I)

AKA The stuff that doesn’t require fruit added to it.

I’m looking at you, Shock Top and Hefeweizen and Corona.

AKA Just because it’s from Europe doesn’t make it fancier than Budweiser

I’m looking at you, Stella Artois and Heineken.

AKA Don’t even get me started on that piss water that is…

No, you know what? Get me started on that. I’m starting right the fuck there.

A few weeks ago, wife and I were playing nice with the parents of one of my daughter’s “friends,”AKA the only one at her daycare that she seems to remember doing anything with on any given day, even though her teacher (AKA babysitter) swears she is a veritable roamer.

So we take child over to friend’s house for a playdate (AKA running around screaming at the top of their longs), and of course because child is four and we are the helicopter generation, we stay to engage with the parents. It is my firm belief that this did not happen when I was growing up. If my mother and/or father (let’s be honest, mother) took me to a friend’s house to play, I have to imagine she then high-tailed it to… I don’t know, a bar? The Club? Did Bunko exist in the mid-1970s? She probably just went back home to clean, which is probably what wife and I should have done, because I swear there used to be a floor at my house before we had a four-year old whirling dirvish.

Anyway, we showed up and released the kraken that was our two daughters. The other father turned to me and asked if I wanted a beer.

Of course I want a beer. What the hell kind of question is that? Without thinking, I started to respond.

“Yeeeeee-uhhhhh.”

But at this point, halfway through my affirmative response, I saw what was in his hand, which froze my answer in it tracks. Beads of sweat dripping down a dull grey label across a distinctive brown bottle. I’m sure the holder of said bottle considered the label to be bright silver, but it was a dull grey. Screaming red cursive script across a recessed image of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a Coors Light. A C-minus. The Silver Mother-fucking Bullet.

And no, I didn’t here any Jerry Reed music playing. Even worse, Burt Reynolds was nowhere to be seen.

“Yeeeee-ah, no thanks,” I finished my answer. “I’m driving.”

“Aren’t you guys staying?”

“Right. I meant I’m going to be driving. Not tonight. Maybe some time in the future. Better not let any of that one-percent Alcohol-By-Volume elixer touch my lips.”

Before you ask, I didn’t bother to check if the mountains were blue or mauve or fuchsia or chartreuse or whatever-the-fuck color it’s supposed to be to denote that the beer is ready to be consumed. I don’t think it’s a color that occurs in nature, because Coors Light is never drinkable. Note that the label is only supposed to change color when it gets cold. Coors Light really pushes the whole “cold” thing. I mean, I guess if you can’t really talk about the flavor, you might as well extoll the virtues of modern refrigeration technology.

But some people swear by the C-minus. And surprisingly, not all of them live in trailer parks. I know people that fit the description. Each of the last two years at Camptathalon, both of the new attendees prefer it to other beers. One of them has no desire to drink anything else. The rest of us show up to camp with a variety of lagers and ales of all variety. Pale, red, amber, black, India. You name it. John rolled up with 30 cans of Silver Bullet. The rest of us mix and match what we brought with what others brought. Communism at its finest. But John wanted none of the ten other varieties, which was fine because none of us wanted to partake of his.

This year, the new Camptathalon attendee brought the real stuff. Coors “Banquet” Beer. The… um, tan bullet? At least this year’s attendee was capable of drinking non-Golden-based beers. Although maybe that’s not the best for the rest of us. Communism at its worst. The root cause of the 1991 Soviet coup was people bringing Coors but drinking your Karl Strauss was the root cause of the 1991 coup.

Speaking of non-light Coors, they’re really pushing that whole “banquet” moniker these days. Check out this sign from a show at Red Rocks:

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Then again, if you’re only a quarter less than a well-known IPA, you better pull out that “banquet” bullshit.

My cousin also swears by the stuff. As does, clearly, the father of my daughter’s friend. And Burt Reynolds, obvs.

But the Bandit had an excuse. It was the 1970s. Back then, there weren’t a lot of options for beer. We’re talking about a time period where Budweiser and Miller were the good stuff, because they were being compared to the likes of Milwaukee’s Best and Schlitz. I’ve never actually had Schlitz, but I have had the Beast, and I suppose if my only options were variances of that swill, then maybe I’d be willing to smuggle some of that “beer from Texarkana.”

But it’s the 21st Century now, all of those laws that forced beers to stay in one region have been long rescinded. So if they’re thirsty in Atlanta, not only can they have Coors, but they can have Sierra Nevada and Yuengling and Leinenkugil. To say nothing of Stella and Newcastle and Bass and Smithwicks. Which means they’d have to be pretty fucking thirsty in Atlanta to want to drink Coors. Actually, maybe that’s the point. Since Coors is pretty much water, maybe it quenches your thirst more.

In Sacramento, we recently had one of our original microbrews close down. Some people were surprised. Rubicon Brewing Company had its restaurant and brewery open since the late 1980s. At one point in the mid-to-late nineties, it was a solid business, almost a Sacramento institution. Even as late as 2010, their Monkey Knife Fight was readily available at most regional restaurants and stores.

But I wasn’t too surprised. Because Monkey Knife Fight wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t really all that good either. In the mid-1990s, it was a solid drinking option. But back then, most places only had a few beers on tap. And who the hell knew what a red ale was, anyway? But by 2017,Rubicon really didn’t have anything that could compete with the quantity and quality of beer you can get pretty much anywhere. Sacramento now has four or five other breweries just in the downtown area, to say nothing of those taphouses where you can get twenty different flavors from twenty different breweries, with a rotating list that’ll give you twenty brand new options when you come in a fortnight later. In that sort of crowded market, a Rubicon couldn’t do anything to distinguish themselves, and if you can’t compete with quality or quantity, you aren’t going to last.

Which makes me wonder how the Big Three are still in business. Hopefully it’s not for long.

Want to know what else I don’t like? Follow me to Part II.

Juan Valdez was a Hack

I’ve been a wine snob for almost as long as I’ve been drinking alcohol.

I come by it naturally, living in Northern California. There are probably more than 200 wineries within a couple hours’ drive. In my early twenties, even most of the wineries in Napa were free or had a very small tasting fee that went toward the purchase of wine. Until five years ago, Sonoma County was almost entirely free, and even today, most of the wineries in Amador County are free. Amador is closer to my house and even if they’re ignored by the greater zeitgeist, I will put their wines in the Pepsi Challenge against Napa Valley any day of the week.

At these wineries, you can do side-by-side tastings of different varietals. Sometimes you can taste the same varietals from different years. You learn what you like and don’t like pretty quickly. Or, if not, you at least get a decent buzz.

If you pay a little extra (or join the club), you can taste the good shit. The reserves at some wineries aren’t much different than their standard swill, but at other places, there’s a marked difference. Sometimes a run-of-the-mill winery, or a mass producer that you wouldn’t expect to have anything special, like Gallo or Beringer, make some pretty decent $40 wines.

Who knows, maybe Charles Shaw even makes a Twenty Buck Chuck.

In addition to a geographical inclination toward wine snobbery, I spent a good portion of my twenties waiting tables in a nice restaurant. There I learned the difference between truly upper-end wines and the rest. Just as I will put Amador against Napa, there are a ton of excellent substitutes for the Opus Ones and Silver Oaks of the world. I can’t tell you how often I encouraged a customer who wanted something like Silver Oak to try Rodney Strong Symmetry. They loved the change and the $20 they saved was usually redirected to my tip.

But don’t ever suggest any replacement for somebody that wants Opus One. They’ll be none too happy, and it won’t help your tip. I’ve personally never tried Opus One. A lot of people will give their curious server a swig of their specialty wine. One time, when a customer brought in wine from 1974 and I told him that was the year I was born, he refused to let me leave until I had a drink. It was very smooth. Like, almost water smooth. If he had kept it in his cellar another year, it might’ve been water.

But nobody ever lets their server take a sip of Opus One. So I can only assume it tastes like shit. Bitter, sour-grapes, shit.

The biggest secret weapon in my arsenal for anybody that was undecided was Treana Red, a tiny imprint of a small winery in the totally unknown wine region (unless you’ve seen “Sideways”) of Paso Robles. You wouldn’t expect Treana to be good. It calls itself a “red blend,” which brings to mind the horrors of Carlo Rossi jugs and Franzia boxes. But to say no customer complained after I suggested it doesn’t go far enough. Every customer I ever suggested it to thanked me and wondered how such an excellent wine could be so reasonably priced and unknown.

Seriously, go find a bottle of Treana Red. You can probably order one for less than $40 if your state doesn’t suck. Tell ’em The Wombat sent ya. They won’t know what the fuck that means, but it’ll be funny.

While my destiny as cork dork was determined by location, my evolution into a beer snob took an alternate route. For the latter part of my single years, I was a Happy Hour Hound. Needing to be sober and somewhat white-eyed, not to mention ready to teach, by 7:00 in the morning, if I decided to get blotto on a particular evening, or every particular evening, it had to be before 7:00 PM. And the best, cheapest way to get to that particular nirvana is to drink whatever swill is coming out of the middle tap. Did I know about microbrews and IBUs and ABV? Sure. If I drank a beer out at dinner, it would’ve been a Fat Tire or a Sierra Nevada or a Sam Adams. If I was grabbing a six-pack on the way home, it would follow a similar pattern.

But if I was sitting at a bar trying to get drunk, then it’s “Pass the Bud Light.”

There was a point in time I could distinguish between Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coors Light. I was doing a “blind taste test” put on by the Miller Lite girls at a baseball game. I knew which was which right away, so I picked their brand to get better swag. She didn’t believe me. We tried it again. I was right again. She was still skeptical. Whatever, lady, just give me my light-up beads.

When I moved in with my wife, my commute extended to fifty miles. I need to be awake by 5:00 to be out of the house by 5:45. That doesn’t leave a lot of hangover time. I also have a child. The number of beers I drink on a typical day, week, or month seems infinitesimal compared to a decade ago. Drinking alcohol on a weeknight  is a rarity. As a result, on those Fridays and Saturdays where I feel like imbibing, my tolerance is virtually non-existent. Two beers, sixteen hours after I woke up, and I can’t even make it through my one half-hour of grown-up television.

Oh well, at least that episode of Dora the Explorer was especially scintillating.

A six-pack in the fridge will now last me a few weeks, not halfway through a Friday night. And if I’m only having one or two beers, I ain’t wasting them on shit.

It was a casual process, but I remember a moment last year when I met a friend for happy hour before going to a baseball game. I was three good beers in when I got to the game, which happened to be celebrating that most ubiquitous of all minor league promotions, Thirsty Thursday. I figured since I was already three beers in, I could probably switch to shit beer. After all, even Jesus said to drink the good wine before the crappy wine, then you won’t notice it as much.

Maybe wine, Jesus, but not beer. Holy crap, that was the most horrible thing I ever drank. Then I did the unthinkable: I paid for a $9 Sierra Nevada instead of the $1 Bud Light. The 30-year old inside me cringed.

But I make more money and drink less beer than the 30-year old me. So it’s quality over quantity now.

Then again, I’m not the best example of a beer snob, because I don’t like any of the hipster beer movements sweeping every microbrewery in town. Or the fact that every town has a microbrewery now. But that’s probably a story for another time.

What I’m here to talk about today is a third bit of liquid snobbery that I didn’t even know was possible, much less that it applied to me, until recently.

My name is the Wombat. And I am a coffee snob.

Did you know that there are still people in the world that drink Yuban?

Hoo-boy, there are some crappy coffees out there.  I guess I kind of knew they were out there. The coffee aisle at the grocery store is full of them. In fact, now that I mention it, the part of the coffee aisle that I actually shop from is a small portion at the very end. I assumed the rest of the aisle was taken up by, I don’t know, tea and powdered creamer. Maybe filters. But I’ve seen an awful lot of Sanka in my peripheral vision en route to the cereal.

The coffee snob started innocently enough. There’s a hipster in my department who brought in a tea kettle and a pour over kit. We have a fifteen-minute brunch between first and second period, during which we can heat enough water for two people to have a freshly-crafted brew. A couple others can brew theirs during their prep period right before or after, and the pour over spot became the modern-day equivalent of ye olde water cooler. Could we have gone standard coffee maker? Sure, but then we’d come in, pour our cup, and lose the sense of community that comes with the slow, agonizing second-half of the pour over process. Seriously, I bet an opium-molasses hybrid would strain faster than the last few drops going through the waterlogged grounds.

Hold on for a moment while I go patent Opium Molasses.

Unofficially, the “Pour Over Club” brings coffee whenever we’re running low, but it’s pure communism once the goods have been procured. Somebody might be milking the process, but as a general rule, we all need the caffeine enough that we’ll make sure there’s enough coffee. One day, nobody remembered that we ran out the day before and we had to go without. The next day, our prep area looked like this:

coffee

This is when I started to realize I was a bit of a snob. Somebody brought in Lavazza. Sounded interesting. Italian name, so it MUST be good. Turns out I wasn’t much of a fan. I figured it was just a taste thing, like an IPA, which I don’t care for but I know many beer enthusiasts love. Still, I struggled through it, because it was the only thing present and even the ugliest hooker in the whorehouse can service some needs.

Six months later, I accidentally brought some more Lavazza in. It was on sale, and I thought, “Italian name, so it MUST be good.” Maybe a little more caffeine would’ve helped me remember. The next day, two of my co-workers had brought in replacements. Turns out I wasn’t the only one that thought it was subpar. It’s not terrible, just not that great. So we kept it as a backup for the next time we ran out. It lasted most of the semester.

But one day I came in, to my horror, to discover a giant vat of Folgers waiting for me. I thought it was a joke. “Who the fuck brought Folgers?” I demanded of everybody in my department. A few of my fellow teachers don’t really drink coffee, and when they do, they sully it with flavored creamer. I started my accusations there. They all denied it. I went in backward order of who I assumed to be the most kindred coffee spirit. By the time I made it to the other snob, I thought for sure someone had lied. Except the final interogatee admitted that yes, he was the culprit. It was leftover from some function he had gone to over the weekend. One of those get-togethers where they have a huge urn full of drudge. His wife asked if we might use it at work and it was either that or throw it out. He figured, “why not?”

I thought my derision would indicate “why not,” but that wasn’t even the biggest factor. A few days later, he brewed it once to prove a point. Even the non-regulars, with their Irish Creme creamer, took a few sips and opted out. The entire thirty-ounce tub sat patiently at the back of the area until the end of the year before we dumped it. There had been a day or two with no coffee available, yet we still didn’t bust into the red vat of mediocrity. Better to go dry for the day. The headache I have on the way home will remind me to stop off and buy some more coffee.

Incidentally, after we mocked the creamer-user enough, he tried some of our coffee black. It wasn’t the bitter crap he had assumed it to be. A week or two later, he admitted that he was now drinking black coffee at home. And now that he was drinking it black, he couldn’t do the Maxwell House. But the good news was that the money being saved on creamer could go toward buying better coffee.

It’s amazing how, once you actually start tasting the coffee, you want coffee with taste. A good portion of the industry hopes you never discover that coffee can taste good.

Fortunately for me, my snobbery seems to be coming at a perfect time. There’s been a resurgence (or maybe just a surgence) of good coffee shops of late. I wouldn’t have believed it five years ago, when the common narrative was that Starbucks pushing everyone out of business. As much as I love me some gingerbread latte, Starbucks isn’t a coffee business. At best, it’s an espresso business, although with all of the specialty Frappuccinos coming out, even that moniker is faltering. Notice how few of the mermaids, dragons, and Christmas trees have coffee as their base flavor? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered the coffee frappuccino and had to send it back when they gave me a caramel one. “Oh sorry, we’re not used to people ordering coffee flavor.”

I’ve settled on ordering an espresso Frappuccino. They’ll give me an off look, but at least the order will be right. Or better yet, I’ll just get a Javiva at Peet’s.

But I feel like the “as sweet as possible” trend is reversing. Competitors are returning to what we now call “drip coffee,” aka coffee. The mom and pop shops have been replaced with hipster locales where they don’t crinkle their nose after I say “no cream or sugar.” Single origin, French press, Clover, and the pour over are becoming increasingly common. And don’t get me started on the wonderful things they are all doing with cold brew.

My favorite spot in this new trend is Philz Coffee in the Bay Area. Their motto is “One Cup at a Time,” and every single coffee they serve is a pour over. They have about fifteen varietals, each with tasting notes, and you can even blend more than one varietal into a single cup of coffee. After you order it, they grind the beans and “brew it” right there in front of you. When it is handed to you, there is a layer of bubbles on the top, and if you slap that lid on before you have slurped up some of those bubbles, the barista might have a nervous breakdown. How cool is that? They want you to sample the cup of coffee like it’s a bottle of wine. The entryway to snobbery is open and widening.

Unlike beer, where my preferences are very specific, I’m not particular about the coffee varietals. Dark roast, medium roast, light roast. All are fine, especially if the brewer knows that dark roast need not be the consistency of crude oil. Guatemalan? Honduran? Kona Blend and all of its attendant controversies? Sure.

Even decaf.

I’m just kidding. Decaf is a demon-spawn cocktail filtered through the devil’s own anus. Non-alcoholic beer is bad enough, but I can at least get my head around people who want to avoid alcohol. There is no reason on the planet that someone should opt to avoid the wonder that is caffeine.

And I’m not going to lie and say that I can actually taste all of those “notes of” that the descriptors say. Wine? Yeah, I can definitely sense the grapefruit in a sauvignon blanc. With zinfandel, I know I prefer a peppery one over a jammy one. But when the coffee says it tastes of hazelnut and cardamom, I’m just going to have to trust them. Even the very basic flavors or “fruity” or “nutty” doesn’t come through on my palate. I’m skeptical it’s on anybody’s. I wonder what temperature it needs to be at to get that flavor.

Whoever heard of “fruity coffee,” anyway?

But that’s okay. I’ve come to discover that there is only one flavor profile I need my coffee to have. It’s a flavor that might be a rarity in the coffee world but, thankfully, is becoming easier to find.

That flavor is: good.