Another Cold Brew Post

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I am sitting at Primo Passo Coffee Co. in sunny Santa Monica, CA1 sipping on some cold brew, pondering the current state of this caffeinated beverage here in the southlands. A year ago, were I writing this post, I would have needed to spend a paragraph explaining what cold brew is. Today, however, cold brew is as ubiquitous bubble tea (i.e. boba), and craft beer. 2 

The proliferation of this upgraded iced-coffee, makes it difficult for a particular coffee shop to stand out in regards to their cold brew. Walk into any hip cafe, and I betcha a cold brew that they will have $5 cold brew.3 This does not mean there are not all-stars when it comes to cold-brew. Demitasse and Balconi — two elite L.A. coffee shops — are evidence that when it comes to cold brew, all the glitter and gold comes not from the beans or grind size, but from the Kyoto drip system.

Kyoto drip is a way of brewing cold brew that embodies everything people hate about coffee snobs. It also yields the best cup of cold coffee you’ll ever have. In most cold brew methods, coffee grounds are immersed in water for 12-14 hours before filtration to create a concentrate. Kyoto drip, however, employs a slow drip system. An egg-timer like contraption (as seen in the photo below) allows water, one drop at a time, to filter through coffee grounds. Initially, it seems like no coffee is being brewed, but after an hour or so the drops of water begin to make their way through the coffee grounds, yielding a coffee concentrate that is sweet, complex and bold.

Because of the precision of this drip system, high-quality batches of cold brew can consistently be produced (provided good beans are being used). It is this consistency that in my opinion justifies the $6 price tag. At a place like Primo Passo, that employ traditional cold brew methods, you may spend a dollar or two less, but the coffee will be hit on miss. For example, this cold brew I am currently sipping on, while made with quality beans, is too bitter for my palate to enjoy. But just last week I had a cold brew here that was excellent. At Demitasse, however, I know that in return for my $6, I will be given a Kyoto drip that taste like perfection. So if you have a hankering for coffee, but don’t want a hot beverage, a cup of Kyoto drip is exactly what you want. And after one sip, you’ll understand how one could write 543 of words about it.

1. Note: at the time of writing it is in fact not sunny here in Santa Monica.
2. This is a topic I explored in great depth a few months ago in “The Summer of Cold Brew.” If you have literally nothing else to do and want to catch up on the state of cold brew, this is the post for you.
3. If you have indeed found a hip coffee shop not offering $5 cold brew, let me know. If you are in L.A., coffee is on me. If you are not in L.A., coffee is still on me, but you provide the plane ticket.

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Road Trippin’ into a Calmer State of Mind

DSC_2386Cruise control at 65, AC on cold, podcasts cranked up all the way. Approaching a slow 18-wheeler, the left blinker is turned on, and cruise control is turned off while passing the dawdling truck at 70 mph. Repeat this process for the next 6-10 hours, with a handful of stops to fuel both the car and body.

This is the core of a road trip, and while often boring, is at the end of the road a rewarding mode of transportation. In addition to acquiring a slew of podcast factoids, road trips instill a sense of patience and purpose into the driver that lasts well beyond the final destination is reached.

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It’s the 21st century, and with thousands of flights each day, getting from Point A to B takes only hours, regardless of where point A and B are in relation to each other. Driving from Point A to B, however, can take days. In addition, driving is more dangerous than flying. This raises the question “why drive?”

For starters, taking a road trip is a great way to see the country. When you fly, it can take less than an hour to pass over a state. This, coupled with being 30,000+ feet in the air, make it hard to get a lay of the land while flying. When road tripping, it can take an entire day to drive through a state, and for good or bad, one gets a glimpse into the rural Nebraskas and northern Oklahomas of the country. Driving also reveals just how big the United States is and will send your head in circles trying to comprehend how much asphalt and concrete were used in the construction of the interstate system.

Not only does driving display the immensity of the U.S., but it also reveals its diversity. As you travel from state to state, gas stations, fast food chains and the landscape are in a constant state of flux. The day may begin in central Iowa, with rolling hills and corn fields and end in the Rocky Mountains, with craggy peaks and conifers. Yet there is no single point where the landscape changes. Rather it transforms gradually, with each exit leading to a slightly different area.

As fast as flying may be, it is an incredibly stressful way to travel. Driving, with all it’s dullness, is comparatively a relaxing way to get from point A to B. If alone, driving provides a great setting to think, and with company, yields to great conversations and ideas. Regardless of whether or not there are other passengers, road trips instill a great mindset into the driver. In addition to teaching patience, driving long distances provides a sense of purpose. Each day the task is simple: drive to the final destination. When that destination is reached, the job is complete. There is no homework. No overtime. No thinking about how the job could have been better. Just a Motel 6, small town restaurants, and unwinding to prepare for the next day of driving.

An Ode to Pilot G-2 .38

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Here I am, in Kauai, on the beach, writing about pens. “What a waste of vacation,” you may say. While I would agree with this statement 99/100 times, I am not writing about any old pen. I am writing about the Pilot G-2 .38, which in my book is the Mona Lisa/Roger Federer of pens. Smooth, precise, bold and consistent, the Pilot G-2 .38 represents thousands of years of writing utensil evolution.

If somebody asks to borrow a pen, never give them a Pilot G-2. When pens are borrowed, rarely are they returned, and Pilot G-2 pens are too fine of a writing utensil to just give away. Coming in four sizes (1 mm, .7 mm, .5 mm and .38 mm) G-2s are all smooth and durable writers. If not misplaced or “loaned” away, a Pilot G-2 will produce results for many moons. And their timeless design lets everybody in the room know you take your pen game seriously.

While all four sizes of the G-2 series are top-shelf pens, it is the .38 that separates itself from the pack. Retaining the smoothness of its larger relatives, the .38 brings to the pad an unprecedented degree of precision. For fellas like me endowed with sloppy handwriting, this precision is essential in the same way H2O is essential for Homo Sapiens. Furthermore, unlike many fine-pointed pens, the G-2 .38 manages to write in a surprisingly bold fashion. In other words, stop messing around with that feeble Bic Round Stic. Do yourself a favor and elevate your pen game. Invest in a pack of G-2 .38s, stick one in your breast pocket, and walk around oozing with the confidence that can only come from possessing a superior writing utensil.

The Summer of Cold Brew

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67 was the Summer of Love. 2007 was the Summer of Crocs. 2016 was the summer LaCroix first made a splash. So what about 2017? What trends will take off this summer? Don’t quote me on this, but we may look back upon these warm days and call it them the Summer of Cold Brew.

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Summer poses a problem for coffee enthusiasts. There is still the same need for coffee, yet warm temperatures make a hot beverage unappealing to many. “Just add ice,” you may retort, but alas satisfying an connoisseur’s palate isn’t that simple. When ice is added to a hot beverage, the melting cubes dilute the coffee. When dealing with a bitter dark roast, this is not an issue, and in many cases actually improves the cup of coffee. With top-shelf beans, however, melting ice becomes a liability in the same way adding water to a fine wine or craft beer is a liability.

Cold brew is the answer to this dilemma. A 12+ hour brewing process creates concentrated coffee. When ice is added to this concentrate, it melts yielding a delightfully balanced cup of cold, refreshing coffee. Insert this cup of coffee into any hot summer setting, and you have a recipe for a great time.

Today cold brew is everywhere and seems to be on everybody’s mind. Last week I was Demitasse, a coffee shop in Santa Monica sippin’ on some cold brew and couldn’t help but notice how many people were also ordering cold brew. I decided to count. Over the course of the next 20 minutes, seven costumers came in and ordered cold brew. To be clear, these people did not come in and order “iced coffee.” They came in and specified that they wanted cold brew.

This cold brew frenzy is a relatively new phenomenon. To illustrate this, lets hop into a time machine and turn the dial to 2007. Step out and find a coffee shop.

“What can I get you?” asks the circa 2007 barista, sporting a snazzy new pair of Crocs.

“A small cold brew please,” you respond. “And make it to go. My time machine is parked in the red.”

The circa 2007 barista looks at you confused. He is puzzled not because you have a time machine and are wearing something other than Crocs on your feet. He is puzzled because it is 2007 and cold brew was not really a thing then. There were some fringe craft coffee establishments scattered throughout cities here and there offering cold brew, but until recently, iced coffee was simply coffee with ice. And people seemed okay with this. As the craft coffee scene began to expand, however, people began to realize their summer coffee game could be taken to a whole new level with cold brew.

And this brings us to the Summer of Cold Brew (i.e. this summer). From the bougiest of coffee shops to the dingiest of convince stores, cold brew is always within an arm’s reach. I will not get into the where/what of cold brew in Los Angeles in the light of keeping this a blog post, not a long read. With that being said, however, if you want the ultimate cold brew experience, head to Demitasse. With two locations in L.A. (Santa Monica and Little Tokyo), Demitasse has perfected the Kyoto drip cold brew system. Again, not going to get into the specifics about Kyoto drip, but you can read this blog post I wrote a few years ago if you have nothing better to do.

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Demitasse is obviously not the only place that serves great cold brew. There are probably thousands of coffee shops throughout the world that make a great cold brew. Whether charging their costumers Dollars, Pesos, Francs, or Yen, what all these places have in common is that they take coffee seriously. More specifically, they all use quality beans.

Places like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts may tout the drinkability of their cold brew, but what they are not touting is that they are using sub-par beans. As a result, their cold brew is bitter. Copious amounts of milk and sugar may mask the bitterness in the same way they mask the diluted nature of normal iced coffee. But soon people will wake up the fact that the cold brew they are drinking at places using yucky beans is no better (and simply more expensive) than the normal iced coffee they had been drinking all along.

This does not mean that there is not a future for cold brew. Places like Demitasse that really care about the taste will continue serve it and look for ways to make it better. I do not think, however, that in ten years from now I will be able to walk into a gas station in Hastings, Nebraska and find an assortment of bottled cold brews to choose from. If I am wrong, contact me and I’ll buy you a cold brew.

Talking ’bout Tacos: Des Moines Edition

DSC_2741If were forced to pick one food to eat everyday for the rest of my life, I would pick tacos. Not hard shell “Tex-Mex” tacos filled with ground beef. Tacos I grew up eating is Los Angeles. Filled with spicy meat — carne asada, carnitas, al pastor, chorizo, lengua, chile verde —wrapped in two fresh tortillas, topped with diced onions, cilantro, a bit of lime and covered in the hottest salsa from the salsa bar.

I went to college in Grinnell, IA, and learned quickly to live without tacos. I realized this while eating at La Cabana, the town’s Mexican restaurant, when my order for “two carnitas taco and one chorizo taco” was met by a look of blank confusion on the waiter’s face. I recently moved to Des Moines to clerk for the Southside State Senator Tony Bisignano, and initially went about life not expecting authentic tacos. A few weeks ago before lunch, however, a similar exchange took place.

TONY: Lets grab some lunch. What do you want?
SAM : I’m fine with anything.
TONY: Come on! Pick anything
SAM: Really good tacos like I grew up eating in L.A.
TONY: Grab your coat, I know of a place on Grand that might satisfy you.

The outside of Raquel’s Pastry (1521 E. Grand) is non-descript; easy to walk past without knowing there are tacos inside. Upon entering, one may think they are in a pastry shop. This would be an accurate assumption: Raquel’s Pastry is in fact a Mexican bakery, as its name suggest. The only thing that that indicates otherwise is a small blackboard saying: “Tacos: Carne Asada, Carnitas, Pollo, Chorizo, Shrimp”

I ordered 3 tacos: carnitas, pastor and asada, and they did not disappoint. The carnitas was crispy and salty on the outside with a juicy and bold finish. The pastor was smoky, spicy and saucy enough to negate the need for salsa. The carne asada was perfection: minimally seasoned, Raquel’s Pastery lets the grilled beef speak for itself. Drizzled with lime and slightly charred, this is how a taco’s supposed to taste.

I find imperfections in even the most perfect dishes. After all, I started a food blog as a way to critique my parent’s cooking. Even though I had great tacos at Raquel’s, I was let down by the tortillas. A great tortilla manages to be simultaneously soft yet firm. The tortilla can then soak up the meat’s juice, while at no point seeming as if it will fall apart under the weight of the toppings. The tortillas at Raquel’s are a little too much on the crunchy side in my opinion. They seem to be fried briefly on a grill, hindering their ability to soak up the juices, leaving one with a plate full of wasted meat drippings and sauce. Overall I would say 7.8/10. At the time, I gave it an 8, because I had not had tacos in months, and I was desperate.

Yirgacheffe Beans and Cascade Hops

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Beans as fresh as they get, roasted by Ted Catanzaro of White Album Coffee.

Craft coffee and craft beer, once fringe enterprises, can today be called mainstream. For a consumer, this is both a blessing and a curse. While it is now possible to find a great mug of coffee or beer in most cities, this abundance makes it hard for a particular roaster, brewery, bar or coffee shop to stand out.

If, however, if somebody came up to me and said:

“Sam, I am forcing you to pick a favorite coffee and a favorite beer,”

I would respond

“Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.”

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This answer is based on a mixture of objective facts and subjective opinions. Lets get the subjective part out of the way first so I can end my argument on solid facts.

Before I discovered Ethiopian Yirgacheffe I was under the assumption that coffee was a bitter beverage. But after hearing about The Refinery, a fancy coffee shop a few blocks from my high school, I paid a visit to this establishment and my opinion on coffee was forever changed. I asked the barista (who’s name I would later learn was Jimmy) to make me his favorite drink. What I was served was a mug of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, brewed via pourover with a Hario V60.2

Drink it black,” Jimmy told me.

It was anything but bitter. With a fruity aroma, this cup of coffee could almost be described as warm juice3 , as the dominant flavors were blueberry and strawberry rather than bitter and more bitter4. This cup of coffee made me realize that — for lack of a better/less-cliche phrase— a cup of coffee could be more than just a cup of coffee. With each bean possessing a unique flavor profile that varies depending on brewing method, I suddenly had been sucked into the world of craft coffee.

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Sierra Nevada: there are many things that make this beer great, but for the sake of keeping both the readers attention and this post under 500 words5,  I’ll keep it short. Sierra Nevada is great because it perfectly balanced. The body is crisp like a pilsner yet substantive like a stout. The Cascade Hops give it a citrus bite and contrasted with a maltiness that is present, the final result is perfectly sweet. It will pair perfectly with most any food or any occasion that calls for beer, from  a summer afternoon to a winter evening.

Like Yirgacheffe, part of my affliation towards Sierra Nevada is in part personal. Growing up it was always the beer my dad drank with dinner if we were having burgers, tacos or pizza. And after going to college and drinking shitty beer like Keystone and Rolling Rock at parties, it was one of the first six packs I bought for myself, and it made me realize that beer, like coffee, did not have to taste bad. They could both be quite enjoyable.

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1. Or, as my girlfriend suggested upon hearing my elevator pitch of this post, “Jerking off to Elitism”.

2. From the words at the folks over at Stumptown coffee: “Nuanced and versatile, the Hario is an elegant brewer for those who want to perfect the pour. It’s great for folks who are looking for complete control over brewing extraction. The key here is to pour slow. The entire brew process for a 10oz mug takes about three minutes.” Click here for a great video if you would like an excuse to dive into the world of craft coffee. 

3. I will refrain from actually claiming it tasted like warm juice because it was not a cup of warm juice, it was a cup of warm coffee.

4. For my reaction to this cup of coffee at the time of the experience, refer to the following blog post: https://samsfoodblog.com/2012/03/25/the-world-is-a-different-place-with-a-5-50-cup-of/

5. Not including  footnotes. 

Two Chains Worth Chaining Yourself To

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I could not chain myself to one coffee shop since there are so many options out there. Nor could I chain myself to one craft beer, as again there is so much I would be missing out on. When it comes to fast food, however, give me the handcuffs and throw away the key. In-N-Out and Jimmy John’s are all I need.

I have written extensively about In-N-Out, so as an exercise I will sum up in one sentence why it’s the best fast food chain in the world. A burger that consistently melts in your mouth and lightens your mood while keeping your wallet heavy. For under $10, you can get a double-double, milkshake and fries. I love the burger’s modesty. With thin patties, it does not try to be a gourmet burger but with grilled onions, it is sure tasty. This separates it from places like Five Guys, who use thicker patties in an attempt to up their burger game, but really just end up serving an $8 pile of overcooked, dry meat. Likewise, their shakes are also modest: vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. No Oreo or Reese’s Peanut Butter shakes, but a shake that is hard to put down once the first drop hits your tongue. But this is not why I would chain myself to In-N-Out, let alone throw away they key. It is the costumer service that makes the commitment worthwhile. No matter how crowded it is, the servers somehow manage to be genuine and friendly to every costumer. What more, the food is prepared freaky fast considering the lack of freezers and microwaves in the restaurant.

Jimmy John’s is nowhere near as good as In-N-Out, but within it’s niche of cheap subs, it is perfection.  My willingness to commit to a life of Jimmy John’s servitude stems again from outstanding costumer service. Walking into a Jimmy John’s, one is greeted by friendly subristas (like a barista but who makes subs) and a welcoming environment. From start to finish, it takes no longer than a minute for them to prepare your sandwich, and while the final product may not impress Anthony Bourdain, it is made with love. On top of this, their claim of “Freaky Fast Delivery” is warranted, never taking more than 10 minutes for a sub to arrive at your door. So next time you are in the midwest, and are at a lost for what to eat, try Jimmy John’s. It may not be a meal worth writing home about, but it will be meal that satisfies the soul.

So here I am, chained without a key to these two chains and perfectly content. This does not mean, however, that a chain-cutter is out of the question. The reason I discovered In-N-Out and Jimmy John’s was my willingness to break out of the I-Only-Eat-Gourmet-Food prison. So if a better option for cheap burgers and subs arrives, by all means send me some chain-cutters but until then, this inmate is staying in prison.