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Editor’s Note: Los Angeles-based pastry chef Shannon Swindle worked at Tom Colicchio’s Craft for more than a decade, where he served guests inventive and satisfying sweets inspired by Southern California’s bounty. This week, he gives us a recipe that relies more on natural sweetness and seasonality than added sugar.
Pears are an unsung hero during the fall season. There is a nuance and complexity to the flavor that adds so much dimension to pastries, such as this caramelized cider pear tart tatin. This dessert really puts the pear in the spotlight, not masking the flavor with any added sugar. The key is working with perfectly ripe pears—ideally warren or bosc—and if you can get them [in the L.A. area], the warren pears from Frog Hollow Farms are the best.
Caramelized Cider Pear Tart Tatin
Serves 8 to 10
8 firm, but ripe pears, peeled, quartered and cored
2 quarts freshly-pressed apple or pear cider (not apple juice)
1 teaspoon whole cloves
2 teaspoons whole allspice berries
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
2 teaspoons green cardamom seeds
1 tablespoon whole juniper berries
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
1 pinch of fine sea salt
6-inch square of cheesecloth or towel
4-inch piece of kitchen twine or string
Pie dough or puff pastry for a 10-inch pie
Toast the spices in a small dry pan until just smoking and fragrant. Wrap the spices in cheesecloth and tie with a string to make a sachet. Place the cider, spice sachet, vanilla bean, seeds, salt and ginger in a pot large enough to hold all the pears.
Add the pear quarters and bring the poaching liquid just to a slight simmer over medium heat.
Reduce the heat, and gently poach the pears until tender, but still intact. Time will vary depending upon varietal and ripeness.
Test for doneness with a small paring knife or cake tester.
Remove pears from the heat and allow them to cool in the liquid.
Remove the pears from the liquid, and set aside on paper toweling to dry off.
Strain the poaching liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a clean pot, and place over medium high heat.
Reduce the liquid to ¾ cup. Pour the reduced poaching liquid into the bottom of a 10-inch cake pan. Do not use a springform pan.
Arrange the 24 pieces of pear on top of the cider reduction in two circles, covering the entire bottom of the cake pan and using all the pears. Cover the pears with a 10-inch round of pie dough or puff pastry, and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until the pastry is completely done and the caramelized cider reduction is bubbling. Remove the tart from the oven and allow it to cool for 10 to 15 minutes before turning it upside down (which is now right side up!) onto a serving platter. Serve warm with crème fraiche or ice cream.
Buttermilk rusks—the hard, dry, slightly sweet, twice-baked South African biscuits (cookies to Americans)—are supreme dunkers. To me, dipping a rusk into a mug of hot tea is a weekend morning, I’m-not-gonna-leave-this-bed-for-a-while ritual. And like all good rituals, this one calls for mindfulness. Losing focus leads to over-dunking, and the ensuing finger-scalding efforts to fish out an overly softened piece of rusk flotsam.
A rusk is worth this sacrifice. And while I’m dipping mine, so are thousands of other South Africans, all partaking in this messy shared national ritual.
“The mission of a rusk is to be dipped,” says Errieda du Toit, a well-known South African writer and researcher currently working on a text about community cookbooks. Out of the ten national dishes she’s selected for her book, karringmelk (buttermilk) rusks are number one. Rusks could be compared to biscotti, but they are, in fact, only distant cousins.
The family of rusks has evolved from early Cape settlement staple to Afrikaans coffee-mate to today’s iconic national bake, and has brought my photographer colleague Claire and I to du Toit’s suburban Cape Town home—this and a rusk master class with Daleen van der Merwe, a retired cookbook and food magazine editor and instructor.
Van der Merwe starts each morning with a homemade rusk. Her everyday rusk is what she calls a “health buttermilk rusk,” the ubiquitous rusk that most South Africans eat today. “It’s been a practice on farms in the Cape to break the fast at day break with mosbeskuit and black coffee, dipping it into the coffee,” du Toit explains. “Similar to the French, with their croissant and coffee.”
South African rusks originated in the Cape Colony, settled by the Dutch East Indies Company as a way-station along the Spice Route in the mid-1600s. “The word beskuit [Afrikaans for biscuit] has its roots in the French biscuit de guerre—an extremely hard, close to inedible rusk of flour and water,” explains du Toit. The etymology reflects an admiration for French culture. “[Locals] took on the French word for rusk rather than their own ‘tweebak’ (literally, ‘twice-bake’). The Dutch brought the term biscuit and the skill to make them to the Cape. Biscuit became beschuit, and later beskuit.”
But the French brought the finesse. Specifically, French Huguenots, who brought winemaking to South Africa, and with it, grape must: the flavorful mash of juice, seeds and stems. Fermented must became the rising agent for rusks.
“The first rusks in the early days of the Cape settlement were made with hops, and the quality of the baking was considered excellent, especially when the settlers started growing their own wheat and became self-sufficient,” says du Toit. “Vast amounts of beskuit were made and bartered with the fleets. They liberated sailors from the terrible dry, hard biscuits they were used to.” Demand for Cape-made biscuits exploded, and a legacy was born.
Over the generations, the family of rusks continued to evolve. “The unsweetened boerbeskuit were made by taking some bread dough and adding to it ingredients like kaiings (pork crackling), raisins, fennel, and anise seeds,” says du Toit. “These weren’t made into balls like mosbeskuit, but rather marked into blocks with a buttered knife in a pan. When they came out of the oven, the pieces were broken off, put back in the dying embers of the oven, and left overnight to dry out,” says du Toit. “The biggest regret in my life was I never asked my mother to show me how she made boerbeskuit. If you’re twelve or twenty-one, what would make you think that one day you’d want to make this? By the time I wanted to taste them again, she’d stopped making them.”
Rusks remained an Afrikaans-only staple until the twentieth century. “After the second World War, many Afrikaners moved to cities, and beskuit migrated with them,” says du Toit. “Afrikaans food culture became part of city life, and Afrikaners began mixing with their English neighbors.” By then, karringmelk rusks had become the norm, with buttermilk always at hand on farms. With no overnight rise required, they were also quicker to make.
In 1939, the commercialization of rusks began when Ouma (Grandma) Greyvenstein from Molteno—a small Eastern Cape town—used a little start-up money from the local pastor to bake her beskuit on a larger scale. By 1941, she’d set up a small factory, which eventually became Ouma Rusks. Now part of a national food corporation, the brand is entrenched in national culture. Which is not to say home cooks don’t make rusks anymore. “Even in our busy lives, people feel they can still make time to make karringmelk beskuit,” says du Toit.
“In the family of rusks, the mosbeskuit and soetbeskuit are the upper echelon—the rusks with a university education,” says du Toit. She continues that their refinement, thanks to added sweetness, “gives them that little bit of luxury to temper the very harsh conditions on a farm—like having cake for breakfast.”
For our lesson, van der Merwe makes sweet rusks—or soetbeskuit—South Africa’s heritage rusk. These are the second generation of rusks: the children of the first mosbeskuit, made from a yeast-risen egg-enriched bread dough that got its rise from fermented grape must. She starts by making a sponge with active yeast, lukewarm water and milk, sugar and flour, and lovingly covers it with a baking cloth. It normally ferments for about an hour. In our case, with the 105˚F degree heat outside, it’s shorter.
She grates cold butter against a floured grater (so it won’t stick) into a mixture of cake and bread flour, then makes a well and pours in the bubbly well-fermented sponge, lemon juice and egg. “The art of making beskuit lies in very, very thorough kneading,” van der Merwe says, but her hands really tell the story. Minutes later, she points to du Toit’s countertop mixer with a smile; it cuts a few more minutes off the knead time. We cover the dough and leave it to rise for what should be six to eight hours (or overnight, preferably). Conveniently, she’s brought pre-risen dough for the next stage.
It’s quite the process, which is why few cooks still make these most traditional rusks, and those who do make them in enormous batches. Normally, van der Merwe bakes them only once a year for the December holidays. It’s no surprise that few bakers today attempt soetbeskuit. What would be considered a major cooking project today was once a regular activity on farms, where on the weekly bakdag (baking day), rusks and other breads were baked in huge quantities.
Another knead, another rise, and then the delightful pinching off of cute little dough balls (bolletjie) with buttered hands, which are then packed closely together and brushed with more butter in a greased bread pan, tilted up at an angle so the bolletjie will snuggle up as they rise again before their first bake.
Our conversation stops when van der Merwe pulls the billowing loaf of soetbeskuit out of the oven to brush the top with a sugar glaze. We wait a few minutes and she turns the bolletjie-crowned loaf out of the pan. It’s pure baking drama. We begin pulling the bolletjies apart into rusks, with the characteristic “feathers,” or flakes, of the warm bread stretching as we slather a few hunks with soft butter.
These are the rusks I adore. Mine are usually store-bought, but they are simple to make; you just need time—hours in fact. A mixture of butter, buttermilk, flour, sugar, and your choice of additions is patted into a baking pan, scored with a knife, and baked. Rusks are broken into fingers and dried again in the oven. “A rusk is like a chameleon that can become anything,” du Toit says as we discuss the possible additions: muesli, bran, seeds, raisins, coconut. I like mine crammed with additions. Maybe that’s just the American in me.
Daleen van der Merwe’s Buttermilk Rusks
Yields 60 rusks
1 lb. butter, melted
2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs, beaten
2 lb. plain or bran-rich self-rising flour
3 tablespoons baking powder
1 ½ cups soft brown sugar
1 ½ cups muesli
1 cup oats
½ cup sunflower or pumpkin seeds
½ cup almond flakes
Generous pinch of salt
These are the rusks I dream of. While quicker to make than traditional soetbeskuit, you should bake these on a day when you’re home for the long haul, as the second bake (when the rusks dry out) takes at least four hours. To this basic recipe, you can add seeds and nuts of your choice, coconut, extra bran, raisins, or other chopped dried fruit.
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Grease two 9” by 12” oven roasting pans.
Let the melted butter cool down slightly, then add the buttermilk and eggs and beat together.
Mix dry ingredients well and add the butter mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon to mix well.
Scoop the mixture into the roasting pans. Press the dough into the pans evenly. With a knife, score the surface of the dough in each pan into 20 fingers.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool in the pans for about 10 minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack. When cooled completely, cut into fingers (using the marked lines as a guide).
Arrange on baking sheets and dry out in the oven at 190˚F to 210˚F (90 to 100 °C). Use a large spoon to prop the oven door open slightly. This allows the moisture to evaporate and will speed up the drying process. If dried this way, the rusks should take about four hours.
In Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Daniel Quezada, the in-house mezcalero for The Cape Hotel and cocktail developer for Manta, gives tips and a recipe for ultimate mezcal enjoyment.
Words and photography by KATRINA FREDERICK
Recipe by Daniel Quezada, Mezcal Curator at The Cape, a Thompson Hotel
When I met Daniel Quezada, the in-house mezcalero for The Cape Hotel in Cabo San Lucas and cocktail developer for Manta, decorated chef Enrique Olvera’s glassed-in restaurant overlooking a surfer’s paradise, the sun was setting over the Sea of Cortez, turning the large glass bottles of mezcal set out for our tasting a buttery pink. Beside the containers waited a tantalizing grid of jicara—small, shallow bowls made from the sun-dried skin of the jicaro fruit. Quezada filled each bowl by sucking mezcal part way through a wooden pipe and dispensing the liquid in a thin silver stream.
Venturing into most liquor stores in the States, you’d be hard pressed to find anything but Espadín—the only agave variety used for mezcal that is farmed. While that’s great for the cocktail recipe Quezada has provided (more on that below), there’s a certain pleasure derived from sipping something wild, unlabeled, unadorned and totally delicious. Each batch teases out the undertones of the environment—grassy, earthy, spicy, citrusy—alongside the characteristic smoke. The agave plant “is like a sponge,” Quezada says, soaking up whatever landscape in which it takes root. You taste the flowers; you taste the rocks.
A native to Oaxaca, the state with the highest production of the spirit, Quezada earned his title through relentless research, visiting pueblos, and developing relationships with traditional distillers. Sitting down with me, he offered a few tips and dispelled a few myths for drinking mezcal like a true Oaxacan.
Tip No. 1 Test the Alcohol the Traditional Way
“We serve [mezcal] in what’s called a jicara, and the process is called venenciar. The [serving] stick has two holes: one on the bottom, one at the top. We suck on the top hole and with our thumb we close it and let it pour into the jicara. The moment the mezcal starts pouring, it makes bubbles. If the bubbles stay, it’s good quality mezcal. It means it doesn’t have water, it doesn’t have chemicals, and the sugar became alcohol. If the bubbles don’t stay it could tell us [either] it’s not a good quality or the mezcal has a [high] percentage of alcohol.”
Tip No. 2 A Cocktail’s Best Friend
“For cocktails, the best mezcal anyone can use is Espadín, because we just want that smokiness. For example, if you use wild agave, [many of] those types of mezcal are meant to be drunk straight. Espadín is an agave that is easy to get, the flavors are neutral, and it tastes like mezcal is supposed to taste.”
Tip No. 3 You’re Drinking It Wrong
Many bars will serve mezcal alongside a selection of orange, chili salt, and occasionally crickets. Quezada explains what may seem like tradition is actually a marketing technique invented to compete with tequila. “It’s not right or wrong, but it’s not the traditional way. In the villages they’ll just serve you the mezcal with probably a glass of water; that’s it. They want you to taste the flavors, taste the difference. If you add something to your mouth, like an orange, it’s going to kill all the flavors that we’re looking for. Most [distillers] would take that as an insult, because it’s hard work to make mezcal.”
Tip No. 4 Buy Locally
“What we are trying to do at the restaurant is help the local producers. We want [the] money [to stay] in Oaxaca. The [mezcals] I like are the ones that are small batch that don’t have a big brand. Because they don’t have a label you won’t be able to find those in [North] America and Europe, only in the [Mexican] community. [The distillers] are not really interested in the fame or the money; they just want to keep making the process how their grandpa taught them.”
Tip No. 5 Timing Is Everything
Quezada loves to let the liquor speak for itself, letting it shine without food. He recommends drinking mezcal “before, by itself, or at the end of any meal.”
When developing the cocktails for Manta, Quezada drew inspiration from the cultures that inspired the cuisine. “We wanted to do something honest, [in keeping] with the philosophy of the restaurant,” he says. “We wanted to make a fusion between Japanese, Mexican and Oaxacan, and Peru. That’s why you see tequila, you see mezcal. We’re using sake, pisco.” For the Frida, he added fresh local watermelon and mint to a base of mezcal, as well as pisco to create a mixture both nuanced and refreshing, and the graduated rosy color of the Sea of Cortez sunset.
— 1 oz. watermelon juice
— 1 oz. cranberry juice
— ¾ oz. Mezcal Espadín from Oaxaca
— ¾ oz. pisco
— ½ oz. lemon juice
— ¾ oz. mint syrup*
— Seasoning for rim**
*Mint Syrup: Mix 1 cup hot water, 1 cup sugar, and 75 grams fresh mint. Let steep until it reaches room temperature.
**Seasoned Rim: Chapulin and hibiscus salt as desired. A good substitute is Tajín seasoning.
Combine all ingredients, shake, and serve with ice in an old fashioned glass with seasoned rim.
The very concept of attacking the wide world of holiday beers is a bit daunting. Unlike red paper coffee cups or pumpkin spiced literally everything, Christmas beers have been around for several millennia. For as long as there has been cause to celebrate, be it the winter solstice or the birthday of an ancient god, there has been beer for the occasion. The Scandinavians have been brewing julebryg beers for seemingly longer than recorded history, using local spruce wood and wild berries to add a flash of seasonal character. The Belgians, famous worldwide for their contribution to beer and brewing, have been serving up high-octane, spiced ales in monasteries for centuries. And Americans, of course, went full steam ahead with the concept. Nearly every one of the six thousand-plus craft breweries around today are making their own variation of a Christmas, or Hanukkah, or non-specific “holiday” ale.
What follows is a breakdown of these beers, divided into categories fitting for the season. Beers that deliver a warm wish for the season, beers that plan ahead for their gift giving, beers that contribute to fiendishly collecting, and, for good measure, one off-the-charts bizarre holiday ale.
The oldest Christmas seasonal still brewed by an American brewer is known by the charming name Merry Christmas & Happy New Year, and it is arguably the ultimate beer to gift as all the holiday wishes you hope to convey are all right there in the name.
First brewed in 1975 by Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, MC&HNY was the first holiday beer brewed post Prohibition, and it has never been the same twice. This Christmas classic is pleasantly malty and sweet and each year the brewers use a different secret blend of spices to add a bit of Christmas flare. Be it spruce tips, nutmeg, cinnamon or allspice, it’s become a favorite Christmas past time for beer aficionados to attempt to decipher the current iteration’s recipe through sips and whiffs. It may not be typical holiday dinner banter, but it drives stirring debate nonetheless.
Beyond the use of different secret ingredients annually, MC&HNY displays a hand-drawn image of a different tree as the focal point of the label each year. These ideas of rotating recipes and labels may seem unremarkable in the current climate of craft brewers who constantly create clever marketing tactics, but it is this kind of imaginative distinction early on that made Anchor Brewing a trailblazing company, and cemented its status as a forefather of the craft beer industry today.
As distinctive as Anchor’s Merry Christmas & Happy New Year has been in the U.S., it is actually rather similar in concept to another superb holiday beer that has been made since 1970 at the famous Brasserie Dupont in Belgium. Avec Les Bons Voeuxde la Brasserie Dupont is a luscious holiday beer whose name translates to “With best wishes from Brasserie Dupont,” making it another perfect gifting beer based on moniker alone.
Quite different in flavor and concept from Anchor’s holiday beer, this is a riff on Dupont’s famous saison, which is typically held as the gold standard in its category. It’s stronger than that flagship beer, and ALBVDLBD is a welcome addition to the colder weather in late December. Similar to a more traditional saison, it holds a lively carbonation attained through bottle-conditioning with live yeast and priming sugars, and the corked top makes it a festive and fitting alternative to champagne. Beyond the joy of popping the top, it’s a versatile drink that pairs well with nearly anything on the Christmas table.
Be it Merry Christmas & Happy New Year or Avec Les Bons Voeuxde la Brasserie Dupont, these are ideal beers to bring as a host gift to a holiday event or stockpile—and you won’t even need a card to go with them.
Gift giving can be a struggle. Many of us wait until the last moment and when we’re forced to rummage through picked-over shelves, fighting traffic across town to be sure we get everything on our lists. Beer purchases are often similar, done without a lot of foresight or intention, simply grabbing whatever happens to be on the endcaps at our local liquor store while picking up last minute needs for the holiday meal. But we can learn from several Christmas beers about the benefits of planning ahead.
First there is the aptly named Christmas by Belgian brewery Het Anker under their Gouden Carolus line of beers. Local beer has been fermenting in this same space since at least 1872 and likely back as far as the late 1400s. Originally a hospital of sorts, Charles The Bold decreed there was no need to pay taxes on beer made for the institution, and thus it can perhaps be said that the brewers behind Het Anker have been planning ahead on this gift to the world ever since wrapping their minds around these tax loopholes. The actual lesson that can be learned from this 10.5-percent alcohol dark brown ale is from the brewing process. Beyond the use of a multitude of hops and six secret herbs and spices that emit holiday warmth and excitement, the beer is actually brewed in August. While most beers are meant to be enjoyed fresh for full flavor, this beer is brewed in the midst of summer and cellared for several months in order to reach peak quality just in time for the end of the year. Imagine if we all planned our Christmas gifts in August?
We can safely recommend this next beer if you do begin your planning that early. Port Brewing Company in San Diego, California, releases an inspired imperial stout each winter that they have dubbed Santa’s Little Helper. It’s a rich, chocolatey roast with notes of well-rounded coffee beans. What’s truly unique about this beer, however, is a portion of the beer brewed for the holiday release is actually held back by the brewers and placed into used whiskey barrels. It ages in these barrels for six months, soaking up all of those vanilla notes from the wood and toffee, as well as spice from the whiskey that is still soaked within the dark char that lines the inside of the oak. Come July, the barrel-aged variation of Santa’s Little Helper is released for sale, ready for those who are doing their holiday shopping in the middle of summer. It’s certainly worth purchasing and saving for the colder weather if you’re able to keep from opening your bottle sooner; but it also doesn’t hurt to have a little Christmas in July.
Collect Them All
For the collectors of the world, be it vinyl records or Santa Claus cookie jars, believe it or not, beer is a handy addition to your habit. There are plenty of breweries that release multiple variations of a beer or, like Anchor Brewing, a beer that changes year over year, making them exciting to collect and eventually enjoy side by side.
This project is sometimes made easier by those brewers who release a myriad of Christmas beers all at once. Virginia-based Hardywood is a perfect example. Their Gingerbread Stout is the sort of beer that Christmas dreams are made of—a milk stout brewed with vanilla beans, cinnamon, fresh baby Hawaiian ginger and wildflower honey. It’s a masterclass in creating a dreamily sweet but well-balanced profile. For the collectors out there, Hardywood releases a variety of barrel-aged versions ideal for hoarding (ahem, collecting). Rye barrel, bourbon barrel, rum barrel, apple brandy barrel-aged variations are worth trying side by side—in small doses, of course.
For the true seekers of rare collectibles willing to put in the time and energy, you may want to seek out the 12 Days of Christmas series by Southern California-based The Bruery, although if you are just starting now, it may be too late to collect the entire set. Starting in 2008 with Partridge In A Pear Tree, the exceedingly creative talent at The Bruery has been putting out a new beer based on the classic carol each year since, now onto Eleven Pipers Piping this year. The recipes vary significantly, attempting to take cue from the line of the song when possible. If you can find bottles of them all—whether through a trade with another collector or a beer seller with strong foresight and a deep cellar—you’ll be one of the lucky ones.
If the ideas thus far haven’t tickled your fancy, we leave you with one last Christmas beer that is as unique to enjoy as it is to understand. Famous Belgian sour beer producer, Liefman’s, has been creating some of the world’s best Flanders style red and brown ales since 1679. If it weren’t for their history in brewing, their holiday beer would likely sound like a joke. Known as Glühkriek, in reference to glühwein, the famous warm mulled wine found across Europe during the holiday season, Liefman’s recommends you drink this beer warm. A slightly tart cherry beer in the base, they add a blend of mulling spices to the beer and recommend warming it on the stove before consuming it out of a mug. It may seem unusual for an industry that today emphasizes “frost-brewed” and other ways to indicate that imbibing should mean nearly freezing your taste buds off your tongue, this is a delightful quaff, something that can turn a relatively normal holiday night into a memorable experience for friends and family. You may never have another holiday meal without your uncle reminiscing, “Do you remember that time we drank the hot beer?”
Whatever your choice this holiday season, drink responsibly and enjoy merrily.
Editor’s Note: Co-founder and executive pastry chef of Pizzana in Los Angeles and Sprinkles Cupcakes, Candace Nelson, knows a thing or two about sugar. And for our Sweets theme, she’s delved into her memory for a little something special to commemorate the holiday season.
Meringues always remind me of my mother and my childhood. She first taught me how to make them when my family was living in Indonesia. I was immediately smitten by their crisp exterior and slightly chewy interior—even though the humidity made them a challenge to perfect. There’s something really magical about how such simple ingredients can come together to create such a delicacy. This version features peppermint, one of my favorite flavors to work with during the holiday season.
Photography by Dane Deaner
Yields 24 meringues
3 large egg whites, room temperature
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1 cup granulated or superfine sugar
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
Pinch of fine sea salt
Red food gel for piping (optional)
Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites and vinegar until foamy, 1 minute.
Add half the sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, then add the vanilla and peppermint extract. Add the remaining sugar ¼ cup at a time and beat until the sugar has dissolved and stiff peaks form, 5 minutes total.
Using a silicone spatula, gently fold in the salt.
Using a spoon, portion 1 heaping tablespoon of meringue at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing them at least 3 inches apart.
Fit a pastry bag with a large round tip. For stripes of color, turn bag inside out and brush on stripes of red food gel with a small paintbrush. Carefully turn it back and fill with meringue. Pipe “kisses” on baking sheets, spacing them 2 inches apart.
Place in the oven and turn off the oven.
Leave the cookies in the oven for 5 hours; they will develop a crisp shell and tender, slightly chewy interior.
That’s how Roberto Serrallés, a sixth generation rum maker, describes the seventeen-year aged spirit we’ve just tapped from an American white oak cask. I’m standing in one of many of the Serrallés’ warehouses, towers of barrels filled with ageing Don Q rum abound, and the Puerto Rican sun is already starting to heat things up. It’s ten a.m., I’m the equivalent of three shots in, and I’m beginning to think this Southern gentleman with a penchant for all things bourbon might soon be a rum swilling convert.
Truth be told, my personal experience with rum had long been relegated to the past—to those spring breaks of yore where too many pirates and captains left me hunting a trash can in the early hours of the morning. But the more I listen to Roberto—and the more I drink—I start to re-open Pandora’s box, but this time, with a different key.
Taking the bull by the horns, I’m getting a first-hand glimpse into the making of this spirit. I make my way from the tourist laden beaches of San Juan, southbound to the town of Ponce (Pahn-Say). There are dark green mountains studded with mist that turn to a pale green, and arid landscape rolls flat like carpet until it reaches the sea. It’s here where the Serrallés family has been making their rums since the 1860s.
“To create rum, we have to start with sugar, or sugar cane,” says Roberto. In the beginning, sugar cane fields ran right up to the distillery, but labor costs have now all but exported the growth of this crop out of Puerto Rican soil.
It’s a sustainable sad truth for Roberto, who left the family business in his twenties to work stateside as a professor, going on to earn a PhD in environmental sciences. But family business is always family business, and one man’s waste is another man’s treasure. You see, wastewater—a major byproduct of distillation—was beginning to cause some serious backup. That’s when Roberto’s father, Felix Juan Serrallés Nevares, called his son back home.
In the past, with sugar cane fields at arm’s length, the nutrient rich wastewater was used to irrigate the cane fields, creating a win-win in the use, re-use mentality. But with the cane fields now gone, many producers began to dump their wastewater in the sea—a cheap, short-sighted solution that wreaks havoc on the marine environment due to the de-oxygenated water.
Seeking transparency and sustainability, the Serrallés patriarch sought a better solution. Roberto was able to devise a wastewater reclamation process allowing the treated water to irrigate farmers’ fields, instead of destroy the marine ecosystem. He’s been climbing the family business ladder ever since.
“In the old days, we used everything,” Roberto says, referring not just to the wastewater, but to the leftover yield of molasses as the starting points for the rum, and the processed cane that was burned to power the boilers for distillation—providing so much energy that the town’s residents power grid was completely paid for during certain parts of the year.
Roberto even went so far to try and revive the sugar cane crop entirely, recently planting nearly a thousand acres, only to have them destroyed by Hurricane Maria. It’s a moment that underscores just how fleeting life and business can be for locals on this island.
Nowadays, Roberto and his flagship brand, Don Q, are the only family owned and operated rum distillery on the island—which speaks volumes when you start to make comparisons. The other big three brands—you know them—occupy nearly sixty percent of the world rum market; yet their share is declining to those, like Roberto who are taking a more artisanal approach to the spirit. I can’t help but relate it to the craft beer phenomenon, but the truth is, making a good rum is damn hard work.
“We start with a blend of high test and blackstrap molasses, two by-products of refined sugar,” says Roberto. This pasteurized molasses then sits in a fermenter, combined with yeast and water, and then goes through a five-pot still for the light rum, coming out at 189-proof. The family still uses the same Vendome stills they purchased from the Louisville bourbon market in the early thirties. For dark rum, it’s roughly the same process, yet it only gets distilled in one pot, yielding a 150-proof heavy rum. Combining the two yields a medium rum.
All this talk of distillation, mixing and creation has my mind spinning. I ask Roberto, “What are the rules that define what can and cannot be rum?” He laughs, quoting Rodney Dangerfield, “I get no respect.”
You see, unlike AOC controls for wine, or the rigid requirements of the bourbon market, rum still remains a bit of the Wild West of the spirits market. At its basic level, it must come from sugar cane in order to be called rum, it cannot be distilled above 189-proof, and it must have the characteristics and tastes of rum. The first two rules make adequate sense, but the third seems to be a politician’s dream; there’s lots of wiggle room.
Puerto Rican rum must be aged for at least one year—outside of that, some producers are known to add coloring to mimic aging, or sweetener to cover up shortcuts. Sweat furls on Roberto’s brow as he explains the lack of accountability and transparency in his industry—something he’s striving to change.
Even more frustrating is just how much of this stuff is lost to the angels’ share during the aging process. Roberto estimates eight to ten percent is lost to evaporation each year, as his barrels sit and swelter in the tropics. Compare that to the bourbon barrels of the mild-temps’ heartland, or the perennially cool Scottish highlands, and you’ll see why aged rums don’t get the respect they deserve.
Admittedly, at this point I’ve garnered plenty of respect for just how much work goes into each bottle—and glass for that matter. What I’m sipping tastes remarkably similar to some of my favorite, twice-the-price bourbons—smooth, smokey, slightly astringent goodness. It’s just fine neat, on the rocks, or yes, perhaps in an old fashioned.
After a few drinks, our conversation turns back to Maria; it’s amazing how some of the most difficult topics become apropos with some liquid courage. Yet it’s hard not to notice how much of the island’s topography has been affected, especially once you depart the re-built areas of San Juan.
One of Roberto’s strongest memories is how quickly our reliance on electronics fails during periods of devastation. Cell phones and ATM networks were completely down, meaning many could not get in touch with loved ones for weeks, much less take care of themselves in a cash economy. Roberto and team were some of the first to keep their employees going by paying them in cash and setting up charitable satellite areas where locals could eat a hot meal, recharge and reconnect—with their electronics and their loved ones. For some, especially those in the mountains, it’s taken over a year to restore power to their homes.
Many Americans never make the trip to meet our southeastern citizen friends. And if you were to rely solely on news reports, you might have made some unfair assumptions about this place. But this island is a place worth visiting, especially beyond the beaches; it’s a place to be cherished. Puerto Ricans are resilient, community driven, and possess a joie de vivre all their own.
In 1999, when Todd Leopold and his elder brother, Scott, decided to launch a sustainable distillery, anyone interested in starting a “green” business was categorically labeled a “hippie.” Yet the namesake Leopold Brothers had more than an idyllic dalliance with the idea of manufacturing spirits in a sustainable manner. Todd had spent the last two years studying brewing in Germany, while Scott pursued a degree in environmental engineering at Stanford. Needless to say, when banks scoffed at the eco-friendly section of their business plan, the pair was somewhat taken aback. “We ended up having to eliminate those details because the banks dismissed us outright. They didn’t realize it makes business sense to use less water or recyclable packaging,” Todd laughs.
Twenty years later, the mainstream is finally catching on. “When you see people just starting to realize the problem of plastic straws, it makes sense that our ideas would have caught people off-guard,” Todd says. “We actually had to downplay the sustainability angle because customers assumed our product was inherently handicapped or that it couldn’t stand up to other bottles on the market. But the secret is—whether it’s straws, coasters, or a more wasteful form of manufacturing—people don’t notice things being gone if you never had them to begin with.”
Even without the added ambition of sustainability, launching a small American distillery in 1999 was already a novel business plan. While craft distilling had deep roots in the United States from the mid-1600s through 1920, a mere thirteen years of Prohibition effectively crippled the industry, erasing countless traditions and methodologies that were never passed down. Todd reflects, “Our country had a giant hiccup no one else had, and the result was that independent distilleries—which were inherently linked to agriculture—never recovered. When American distilling returned, it became an industrial process, sacrificing quality for efficiency.”
What exactly does that “industrial” methodology mean in terms of process? According to Todd, American scotch and bourbon were originally distilled from a five-percent ABV beer, but in the past ninety years, American distillers have tended toward a nine- to ten-percent ABV beer as the input. That higher alcohol brew stresses out yeasts and results in unpleasant esters that “smell like nail polish.” With his training in Germany—a country where more than 1,500 breweries process the historic surplus of thousands of farms—Leopold was willing to take a more traditional approach.
“We’re not in love with being old-timey just for the sake of it,” Todd clarifies. “But fermenting at five percent greatly improves the quality of the distillate. We also make some less traditional choices, like fermenting our stills with all the original grains still in the mix—which makes us twenty percent more efficient than any of the Scottish or Irish distilleries [who perform a lautering step of removing that grain]. It’s all about making the best product, while thinking through how we can prevent the byproduct from hitting the waste stream.”
Onsite at the factory, that thoughtfulness is apparent in every step of the process. In the malting room, the entire space is disinfected not with commercially manufactured cleaner, but with the “heads” of Leopold’s own grain alcohol—an inedible, powerful first cut of the distillate. Next door in the barrel house, there are no overhead electric lights, heating or cooling. And in the onsite tasting room, reclaimed wood and salvaged ship lights help create the cozy, rustic ambiance.
In the distillery itself, visitors can’t ignore the presence of multiple copper stills, predominantly crafted by renowned Kentucky manufacturers Vendome Copper and Brass Works. From rudimentary pot stills to towering multi-chamber copper columns, each still represents a different style or era in distilling, including a three-chamber copper column used for extracting particularly chewy, oily rye whiskeys. Based on drawings the brothers discovered at a historical society in rural Illinois, the three-chamber design harkens to the abandoned heyday of pre-Prohibition distilling. “When cocktail writer David Wondrich heard we were building that still, he immediately booked a plane ticket,” Director of Sales Taryn Kapronica laughs. “No other distillery in the world is currently using this kind of still to make a traditional rye.”
Equally eye-catching on the distilling floor are bubbling vats of toasted umber liquid. These freestanding open fermenters were built by a heritage manufacturer of hot tubs based in Philadelphia and are used for capturing the distinct bacteria and wild yeasts of Leopold’s local climate. On warm days, the team rolls up massive garage-style doors and turns on their “Big Ass Fan” (the actual brand name), inviting a robust onsite wildflower garden to influence the flor of the fermenters. “Our process is all about creating a comfortable space for yeast to thrive and devour sugars, as open-air fermentation helps develop acetic acid—which oxidizes during maturation into a range of fruit aromas,” Todd explains. “We are also known for our long-lasting finishes, and it all starts with encouraging a diverse microbial climate.”
Yet Colorado’s high mountain desert far from resembles the historic whiskey climates you find in the damp, chilly United Kingdom. “For malting, you ideally want to keep about fifty percent humidity and a temperature of fifty to fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit—something very different from our dry, high-altitude environment,” Kapronica explains. “But Scott Leopold has engineered our system to be incredibly energy-efficient, and we have the stats to that back that up. For example, conventional distilleries will go through about six to twelve times the volume of a 750-milliliter spirit bottle to create the product you see on the shelf. Our water waste is just over two-to-one per bottle, and we foresee reducing that further in years to come.”
Another sign of remarkable efficiency you’ll see at Leopold? The wealth of products on offer. Beyond their popular bourbons and rye whiskeys, the distillery currently offers three distinct gins, an amaro, a fernet, and a number of fruit liqueurs. “We have about two dozen products in the market,” Kapronica notes. “And that’s just what we can ensure will be high-quality and shelf stable at scale. Todd has actually created more than eighty products—including this strawberry liqueur I can’t stop thinking about—but we only bottle what makes sense for the market.”
The question of what makes sense for the market is arguably a subjective one, as the spirits industry remains wildly unregulated in terms of what actually ends up in the bottle. “Distilleries are actually reviewed by the TTB—the Alcohol, Tax and Trade Bureau—which is completely separate from the FDA,” Kapronica explains. “We don’t have to list what goes in the bottle, which allows companies—large and small—to add all kinds of chemicals to liquor.” Examples include dyes, like those that give amaros and fruit liqueurs their brilliant hues. At Leopold Bros., the bright red aperitivo is dyed with ethically harvested cochineal beetles from Peru, collected for that purpose only after their natural death. For vegans, that decision might still appear unpalatable, but for the distillery, the choice feels more ethical than using modern chemical alternatives.
“We made sustainability a focus ahead of the curve,” Todd reflects. “And it takes people a long time to understand what you’re doing. But we’re not interested in a ten- or twenty-year business plan. We think about what our business will be in one hundred years. We’re winning people over one customer at a time. But I find it so much more rewarding to see that light bulb come on—to see people in our tasting room get quiet and realize, ‘That’s a world class spirit.’”
Thirty feet beneath the sidewalks of Brooklyn lies a network of tunnels packed with nearly twenty-eight thousand pounds of aging cheese. It’s a scene that hearkens back to a European practice in which cheese was aged locally, a practice into which U.S. cheesemakers never quite bought.
More than 150 years ago, lager beer aged in this particular underground facility. Today it’s home to Crown Finish Caves, a seven-person operation to which ten dairies have entrusted their money-makers for aging. It’s a temporary holding cell for fifteen types of cheeses, each resting there to ripen before going on sale at shops, groceries and restaurants nationwide.
It’s a novel approach to a centuries-old tradition that, until only recently, did not exist in the United States. This move toward more collaborative efforts between American dairies and budding businesses devoted to aging cheese will likely mean more interesting, flavorful, and locally produced products available at grocers in the next decade. And this trend could save small American dairies.
Some experts attribute America’s lack of cave-aging cheese—called affinage—to the popularity of English-style varieties, like clothbound cheddar, which dominated U.S. markets from the 1630s through the 1800s.
Other cheese experts subscribe to the notion that the go-it-alone attitude that typifies American industry and culture permeated U.S. dairies too. At the heart of cheese-aging is a trust built between the cheesemaker and the affineur both dependent on the other to provide a quality product and environment. A bad cheese could infect others in the cheese cave.
“The rugged individualism and ego—pride, if you want to put a positive spin on it—has been a barrier to collaborative efforts,” says cheese historian Paul S. Kindstedt, a professor at the University of Vermont who studies the chemistry, crystallography and structure of cheese. “To get a cheese at its prime is really hard,” Kindstedt says. “You’re seeing more and more cooperative organizations developing … where they take the cheeses and carry it the rest of the way.”
That individualistic attitude is something some industry leaders are working to reverse. “Artisan products tend to see an extension of the ego and identity of the producer. There’s a cult of celebrity around food,” says Mateo Kehler, co-owner of acclaimed Vermont cheese producer Jasper Hill Farm. “We’re really interested in challenging that in a way through collaboration to develop products that have an identity of their own that’s linked to an area and not a producer.”
Over the past decade, a symbiotic relationship between American cheesemakers and emerging affineurs has begun to unfold with some innovative results. U.S. affineurs have taken a note from Europe in developing caves with just the right humidity and airflow, while developing new approaches to aging their products.
At Crown Finish Caves, the affineurs rub wheels of cheese with beer and cider to impart flavor. A creamy goat and cow cheese sold only at the Blue Hill Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York, for example, is rubbed with a thin layer of carbonized lamb and pig bones to confer a barnyard-esque flavor (this is a good thing), thanks to the addition of bone char.
“On a very basic level, what they’re doing isn’t new to the cheese industry, but they’re certainly trying to forge a new path in the United States,” says Alex Ourieff, manager of salumi and formaggi at Eataly’s Los Angeles location.
“There are a handful of people doing it in the United States,” Ourieff says. “[Crown Finish’s] approach, to me, is distinctly American and reminds me a lot of what’s going on in the craft beer industry. They’re very involved in development that reaches beyond traditional flavor methods.”
The tradition of affinage dates back to the Romans conquering much of Europe. In doing so these early conquerors spread two types of simple, traditional cheese: a moist, ready-to-eat cheese and a slightly more aged Pecorino-style cheese. A mixture of colonization by the Romans and environmental factors allowed for the development of more sophisticated, flavorful styles of cheese to emerge throughout Europe. The regions where Romans introduced their culinary staple had cooler micro-environments that were ideal for aging cheese and had abundant caves for storage. With the new microclimates came a shift in the microbiota—or the bacterial composition in the air—paving the way for yellow- and orange-colored varieties.
“It’s really an advantage of this microenvironment that inspired regions of Europe,” Kindstedt says. “That basic Roman technology and that basic moist cheese—with incredibly high relative humidity—inspired and enabled the smear-ripened cheese to be refined.”
With cave aging developed nuanced flavor and varieties of cheese like Roquefort, Muenster and Limburger from northwestern Europe. Cheeses that would otherwise not be possible in the warmer Mediterranean climates of Southern Italy began to proliferate regions of Western Europe starting around the turn of the millennia or about 100 A.D., Kindstedt says.
England, however, developed a hard-pressed style of cheese. By the time the American colonies were settled, the English had refined a style of fifteen-pound hardy cheese that had a rind and prevented rot—the antithesis of creamy cheeses.
“Their descendants for the next two hundred years dominated the type of cheese-making in America,” Kindstedt says. “What was originally a cheshire cheese … came to the forefront and Americans copied the technology in the early nineteenth century—you see cheddar cheese being referred to instead of cheshire cheese.”
It wasn’t until European immigrants began migrating to the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s that smear-ripened styles of cheese began to get a small amount of traction stateside. That narrow foothold was fleeting until the latter half of the twentieth century. With it came a hunger for complex flavors—like the brachybacterium, which imparts a broccoli-like flavor, or geotrichum candidum, which can infuse a cheese with a toasty brioche or mushroom-like flavor, says Ethan Partyka, cave manager at Crown Finish Caves. Aging cheese can take a good cheese and completely change its texture and flavor profile.“Affinage does for cheeses what great coaching does for athletes,” Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of gourmet grocer Zingerman’s Delicatessen, famously wrote in the 2003 book Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating.
Where caves once acted as storage locations with stable-but-imprecise temperature, microbial makeup, and humidity, the aging facilities of today are more akin to refined laboratories than natural geographic features. Seasonal fluctuations, airflow exchange, humidity, and temperature are carefully measured, each playing an integral role in fostering the growth of the right strains of bacteria, yeast and fungi. At Crown Finish Caves the temperature is a constant fifty-three degrees. Humidity hoovers at about ninety-four percent, but is difficult to control, Partyka says. The summer heat in New York means that to cool the cave introduces more airflow. And the fall months typically bring a yellow mold called chrysosporium sulphureum at Crown Finish.
In Greensboro Bend, Vermont, the caves at Jasper Hill Farm can sometimes warm up to three degrees in the heat of summer despite the fact that they’re deeply underground. These slight fluctuations affect the mold-to-bacteria ratio and amount of fungi-to-yeast on the cheeses. In the depths of Vermont’s winter, fungi typically proliferate and yeast growth is inhibited.
To create the perfect environment, each cheese ages in a specially designed environment at Jasper Hill Farm with seven vaulted tunnels reaching back into the underground rock. A Bayley Hazen Blue, for example, could never be housed near Harbison cheese because of cross contamination affecting the product’s flavors.
“What we’re doing is really complicated,” Kehler says. “They’re in environments that are selected for the microbial ecologies we want to see on these cheeses.”
Ultimately, affinage may do more than make an enhanced product, elevating cheese beyond the realm of a commodity. It could sustain the business of cheesemaking and small farms across the U.S.
“This is the direction of the future. It’s going to get harder and harder for small cheesemakers to remain independent to do it all,” says cheese historian Kindstedt. “To milk the cows, raise the crops, age the cheese, ship it, develop relationships with cheesemongers, use distributors—those quality and economic considerations are going to continue this trend of centralized affinage facilities.”
In addition to creating a better product, affinage makes more financial sense for small farmers. “It’s about the economics of it,” says Ourieff. “It’s about saying people should be able to continue raising livestock and produce high-quality products. Everything shouldn’t be a commodity; everything shouldn’t be mass produced. You shouldn’t have to have eight thousand head of cattle to make a living. You should be able to have a small farm and make a living.”
Tuscany may not be the first region that comes to mind when you think about orange wine. Its rolling hills spotted with olive trees and castles lined with pointed cypresses are known best for their classic reds—centuries-old chianti and brunello, and the more recent Super Tuscans—but not for experimental, macerated white wines that challenge expectations and create buzz. But in pockets of Tuscany’s lesser known wine denominations there are producers creating unique orange wines with native grapes, resulting in some very interesting alternatives to the region’s quintessential offerings.
The making of orange wine in Tuscany is part of a bigger movement worldwide; it’s a revival of an age-old winemaking technique—macerating white grapes with their skins and treating white grapes as they would red ones. White wine is typically made by pressing the grapes, separating the juice from skins, and then fermenting the juice. But so-called “orange wine” (also referred to as amber, ramato, macerated, or skin-contact wines) is made by letting the juice and skins ferment together, creating wine that Marco Lami, sommelier of the Four Seasons in Florence, describes as having, “Bigger body, a more complex flavor profile, tannins that you would expect from a red wine and a colour that can range from gold to rust.”
The making of orange wines in Italy originated in the region of Friuli in the northeast, with more winemakers throughout the peninsula embracing it as the movement gained traction, including in Tuscany. “When you are in the most known but least understood region of Italian winemaking, and care about a better life, going back to the ancient winemaking style comes naturally,” says Rome-based sommelier and wine teacher, Hande Leimer.
It’s a winemaking technique that goes hand in hand with “minimal intervention.” In other words, continues Lami, “Any form of what is known as ‘natural’ winemaking, such as using wild yeast for fermentation, no temperature control, and little or no sulphur.”
For the adventurous, the open-minded, and the curious, orange wines have a lot to give. Because of their hybrid nature—not white, not red, but in a way, both—displaying the acidity and fruit of whites and the tannins and body of reds—they are extremely versatile when pairing with food. From hearty bean and farro soups and bistecca alla fiorentina to seafood stews from the coast to delicate truffles, orange wine has its place on the Tuscan table.
Lami, a Tuscan native and orange wine enthusiast, is also a great promoter of local, minimal intervention wine. “Tuscany is suited for orange wines for its range of white grapes varietals, such as Tuscan Trebbiano or Malvasia Bianca, which would otherwise end up being turned into very simple white wines with no real chance of being upheld at the same level of quality as the famous reds,” says Lami. He points to the following as examples of quality orange wines being made in three diverse areas of Tuscany.
Vigneto Altura, Ansonaco Bianco IGT, Giglio Island
Mathematics professor-turned-winemaker Francesco Carfagna found an abandoned vineyard perched on the secluded southern tip of Giglio Island and restored it by hand himself. Here, Giglio’s native ansonaco grape (also known as ansonica or insolia) rambles across the ground in tangles on a cliffside that seemingly drops into the sea. Carfagna uses no chemicals in the vineyard at all, the grapes are hand-picked and carried to the winery in small crates where they are destemmed, pressed, and left to macerate for about a week. With a deep amber tone, the wine is tannic like black tea, with hints of stone fruit, and there’s a savory, salty note reminiscent of the Tyrrhenian sea that the grapes grow so close to. When it comes to drinking it, it’s a wine Lami says to treat as a red—you don’t need to chill it. “It’s elegant and powerful at the same time,” he explains, making it a fine accompaniment to both local seafood and red meat.
Daphné IGT Bianco Toscano, Cosimo Maria Masini, San Miniato
This picturesque winery in the Pisan hills near San Miniato, halfway between Florence and Pisa, is one committed to biodynamic practices with winemaker Francesco de Filippis at the helm. His orange wine, Daphné, is made with eighty percent Trebbiano grapes and twenty percent Malvasia Bianca grapes. After a late harvest (the Trebbiano grape ripens later than usual) the hand-picked grapes are macerated for five days before being fermented in Barrique and Tonneau barrels. De Filippis does the absolute minimum, adding no selected yeasts or other chemicals and leaving the wine unfiltered. It’s a complex, fine, golden-hued wine with delicate notes of herbs and pears that make it ideal for serving with San Miniato’s most treasured food item: white truffles. It is ideal with Asian food too. Lami suggests trying it with Thai-style flavors, while De Filippis goes for an Indian curry.
Almare IGT Toscana Bianco, Calafata, Lucca
Not far from the walled medieval town of Lucca are the vineyards of the social cooperative Calafata, which produces not only wine but olive oil, honey, and fresh vegetables as well—all of it biodynamic. Sitting strategically on a slope that receives a sea breeze surrounded by a landscape of great diversity (quite unlike the usual monocultural wine areas), it is the perfect spot for an environmentally conscious winemaking practice, where native and even forgotten grape varietals of the area are being cared for and brought back to life. Using eighty percent Trebbiano and twenty percent Malvasia and Vermentino grapes macerated with skins for twenty days, Mauro Montanaro produces Almare, an orange wine with “a shy fruit,” as Lami says. A decidedly herbal, balsamic profile tickles at the back of your throat. It would go down well during a meal of pasta with wild mushrooms, followed by roast pork.
“There’s nothing to do in the morning on Thanksgiving,” Charles Babinski, the co-owner of G&B Coffee and Go Get Em Tiger cafés in Los Angeles, says to me. “Everyone wants coffee, but there are no coffee shops open.” We’re discussing the origin story of a now-famous tradition in his spots, in which they take those fancy commercial coffee shop drinks—you know the kind, the ones with such an intense following that they have their own Instagram feeds—and put their own specialty spin on them. “You’re getting ready to spend the rest of the day with your family,” he says of the common holiday agenda—meaning we all could use a way to power up properly. And let’s be real, what better way to do that than with a pumpkin spice latte?
Maybe that’s not where you thought I was going with this third wave coffee story. Stay with me. But before we go further, I should make a statement for the record: I love the pumpkin spice latte. Always have, probably always will. I get a lot of grief for this, but it was the gateway drug for me into the specialty coffee world. The same way I started with cloying cocktails and slowly dialed back on syrups and mixers until I was just drinking whiskey neat, the PSL started me down a path of appreciation for all things caffeinated. But my scandalous truth is, sometimes I still order a frozen piña colada when I’m on the beach, and when September rolls around, I’m always standing there, in line with the rest of the herd for a hyper-spiced sugar bomb masquerading as a coffee drink—a little paranoid of having my food professional credentials revoked.
That is, until I moved to Los Angeles, where I quickly found a home hanging out at Go Get Em Tiger, a third wave café that takes their coffee program very seriously, and the idea of hospitality even more so. They do everything with a focus on quality, in-house, and from-scratch whenever possible, right down to a freshly made macadamia milk—which is reason alone to become a regular—and a buttery, chewy chocolate chip cookie which still rates as my all-time favorite. The place has a playfulness too, from the friendly, they-could-be-siblings vibe of the staff, to the Dodgers bobbleheads hanging around at each table.
Since its founding in 2012, GGET has grown to multiple locations, and you can find that spirit in each shop. But there is no more testament to the intersection between fun and fancy than on the third Thursday of November. With a lineup of holiday-inspired drinks released only on Thanksgiving, GGET allows coffee lovers like me to unleash the inner basic B in a way that still preserves our hipster, high-brow dignity.
Pumpkin Spice Latte (vegan) | Photo courtesy of Go Get Em Tiger
The notion was born back when Babinski and his partner Kyle Glanville were operating as a pop-up out of L.A.’s now legendary breakfast and lunch café, Sqrl. “We thought we’d do something fun for the four or five people [we expected to show] up—a nice respite, or at least a way to charge up before eating a bunch of turkey,” he says, crediting Glanville with the original idea. Turns out, I’m not the only specialty coffee nerd who still craves a nostalgic, sugary fix. “We expected five people to come, and like fifty came. It was far more than we were able to handle at the time. It felt like a total madhouse.”
Babinski says they were experimenting on the fly that first day, but more than five years later, the drinks have come a long way. By the time their second Thanksgiving rolled around, Babinski and Glanville had opened two of their own cafés: G&B Coffee in Grand Central Market in Downtown L.A., and Go Get Em Tiger on Larchmont Boulevard. Having dedicated space and staff gave them an opportunity to be more intentional and strategic. Chelsea Scott also joined the team as Culinary Director in 2014, adding a dimension to what were becoming increasingly complex drinks. Speaking with Scott, she reveals that a hell of a lot more goes into their holiday menu drinks than a squirt from some bottle of off-the-shelf syrup.
Pumpkin Spice Latte (iced)
Peppermint Mocha (iced/vegan) | Photos courtesy of Go Get Em Tiger
“We try to make everything in-house,” Scott explains. “Every single drink, if you break it down, has somewhere between four and six components. It’s not like we’re just making a pumpkin spice syrup [and serving it] with some whipped cream. It’s a house-made syrup that simmers for at least an hour on the stove; [we make] a special caramel infused with nutmeg.”
And GGET’s new classics aren’t just about what goes into the liquid itself, but the way it is presented and paired. “Every single drink has some sort of baked good or confection component,” Scott says. For the PSL, the piece de resistance is an honest-to-gourd freshly baked miniature pumpkin pie that sits in the rim of the glass.
“Each year it becomes more elaborate,” she says of the menu. The peppermint mocha—another favorite from the holiday coffee canon—is served in a cup made of chocolate with a sugar cookie stirring stick. “That entire drink is completely edible,” Scott says.
A toffee nut latte is presented as a “Cup of Toffee” meant to mimic the Cup of Noodles many may recall from college dorm room dinners. “We wrap instant coffee into a little flavor packet so it’s very much like opening a cup of noodles. You open the packet and pour it in, and then you add the steamed milk and stir it up. It’s a fun, interactive drink,” Scott explains.
Instant coffee from a specialty coffee shop—how can that be, you might ask? The GGET team has made their own packaged instant coffee, purchasing a dehydrator to remove the moisture from their coffee and espresso for this express purpose. “There’s a part of me that’s a geek about larger scale equipment and I find that intriguing,” Babinski says of his experiment. “There’s an aspect of the coffee business where the idea of trying to replicate a mass market-style product is really fun.”
Toffee Nut Latte | Photos courtesy of Go Get Em Tiger
The Thanksgiving tradition is as much a testing ground for both the coffee and culinary sides of the business as it is a party; a chance to have fun developing flavors, but also figure out best practices to serve crowds efficiently. “We love retail systems,” Babinski says. “We love figuring out new flows and ways of getting drinks out. Thanksgiving has been an opportunity for us to try out new stuff, incorporate new things into our drinks, and try out new systems.”
Some of those experiments are more successful than others, but the team tries to stay creative and inventive, and the menu isn’t static year over year—even in terms of the mainstay drinks. “The pumpkin spice latte has been refined year in and year out,” Babinski says.
The GGET team doesn’t spend their time staking out the local Starbucks for ideas. Scott admits, “I’ve never tasted those drinks; we just look at the names and try to imagine what that means to GGET, and try to make a super complicated, really fun, tasty, sugary treat,” she laughs. “We try to do something that we’re excited about or interested in at the time.”
As evidence, Scott explains the unusual inspiration behind one of GGET’s iterations for 2018. “This year we’re doing pumpkin spice latte two ways: one is our take on a ‘cheese tea,’” something that was new to her recently at local L.A. boba shops. “It’s basically a liquid frothy cheesecake on top of a boba drink,” she says, and this year customers will get to try her take.
The recipe testing begins as early as the summertime. “The ideas build off of each other,” Babinski says. “Chelsea is a really incredible thinker about these things. You can imagine something and she generally will have a good sense of how to make it happen. That’s always a fun exercise—to have some absurd idea and then try to cover the gulf between idea and reality.”
With the evolution over the years, some hits have been phased out too. “We had a chestnut praline latte, a boba drink I really loved,” Babinski remembers, as well as a creme brûlée latte that appeared the last two years and has since been retired.
Updates have aimed to make more available to non-dairy drinkers, too. “The idea was to have both a hot and a cold pumpkin spice latte and peppermint mocha, and to have one of those beverages be dairy-free and vegan for each one,” Babinski says. “That was our challenge for the year.”
GGET’s mission is to make the holiday experience as inclusive as possible—for their regular customers, and for those who might be from out of town, or can’t find a coffee fix for the holiday. There’s a bridging of the gap between serious drinkers, and those just looking to have a coffee and a little fun to start their holiday season.
But is it possible to both have fun and quality at the same time in the specialty coffee world? “It’s a testament to the refocusing of priorities in specialty coffee that people see anything where you’re having fun, bringing people together as being on mission,” Babinski reflects. It’s not a deviation from the intention of the specialty coffee world, but an extension of it. “The values for us are clear. This is an opportunity for us to do things using great ingredients or really involved prep, or offering other aspects of the service. It never feels like we’re turning our back on anything,” Babinski continues.
Gingerbread Latte | Photos courtesy of Go Get Em Tiger
“It is definitely our one opportunity a year to really go for the over-the-top, sugary, dessert coffee,” says Scott, but she’s quick to note that coffee is still the heart of each drink. The limited-time-only event isn’t commentary on the inspiration. “I throw no shade on fancy holiday drinks,” Babinski tells me.
But given the work involved, it’s clearly a labor of love for the community, and not one that would be sustainable for the business on a regular basis. “[Monday through Wednesday of Thanksgiving week] are the craziest days of the entire year for [the team] because not only are they doing a bunch of prep for these drinks, but they’re also doing a ton of Thanksgiving pies. They all work really, really hard, and it’s incredible to see how much they crank out in such a short period of time. They’re awesome,” Scott says of the GGET staff.
And customers respond in kind. “For the first four or five hours [of Thanksgiving morning], it feels like a relatively infinite amount of people. There was a moment last year when we had maybe a hundred hundred drinks in the queue,” Babinski says.
While they manage the mayhem behind the scenes, customers are treated to a holiday scene they can share with the ones they love. “The coolest thing is when people bring their families,” Babinski says. “We’re trying to make it a community, gathering party vibe.”
Scott echoes that sentiment. “It’s a holiday about coming together and spending time with community or family. And in L.A., not everyone is from here; you’re not necessarily going to be able to spend time with your family on that day.”
Don’t expect these special drinks to make it to the daily GGET menu, but Babinski and company are committed to giving other reasons to come by all year long. “The value you provide in a specialty coffee shop is impossible to scale. It’s about that connection,” he says, continuing to emphasize the work and care that goes into each cup at every stage of the process.
That means that every day, we get the chance to share a cup of coffee with the ones we love—that’s something we can all be grateful for.
Go Get Em Tiger only serves this special holiday drink menu on Thanksgiving day at their Highland Park location, 8AM-2PM.