Apr 152014

Chocolate Caramel Eggs | Southport Grocery

If you’re hunting for the perfect candy to add to your basket, hop over to Southport Grocery. I found these adorable robin’s egg candies that, unfortunately, did not last past the photo-session. Who could resist the sweet crunchy candy shell, smooth chocolate, and chewy caramel combined into a feast of textures? Not me!

Obviously I’ll need to go back for more candy, but perhaps I’d fare better with a bag of Southport’s famous cupcake pancake mix, house-made granola, or a jar of preserved lemons. While not as visually thematic, these items liven up the taste buds while reminding me that spring is around the corner. Again.

Hop, hop!

Robin's Nest

Apr 142014
It's 7AM somewhere

Puck yeah, it’s 7AM somewhere!

Coffee lovers are as passionate about the pursuit of the perfect cup as craft brewers or wine producers are about their beverages. Coffee has more than a thousand volatile compounds and methods of bringing flavors into play than any other drink. There are literally flavors that have never been tasted because the process for preparing a cup of coffee has never been perfected.

At the Zhou B Art Center on Saturday, I was surrounded by roasters, brewers, manufacturers, and coffee enthusiasts of every level of interest. All were in pursuit of that perfect cup.

Comparing coffee flavors

Comparing coffees

The headliner for the event was George Howell, who hosted a premium class for attendees. Howell shared his in-depth knowledge about the farming, preparation, and consumption of coffee, and then encouraged coffee-lovers taste the different flavor profiles. Over the course of two hours, we experienced how terroir, elevation, and even brew temperatures all have an impact on the outcome of a cup of coffee. I found the real value of the class was in mixing lecture with tastings to reinforce concepts.

Afterwards, I sought out the classes offered with general attendance to learn what more I could do, as an at-home brewer, to achieve perfection. There were a great mix of topics that included everything from types of coffee to water quality. I started with the grind.

Coffee Beans

Beans, ready for the grind

A great cup of coffee requires a great grind, and brewer Charles Sarin had plenty to share on what to look for in a grinder and how to get the most out of it. Burr grinders are a must because these create the maximum surface area for brewing. Blade grinders tend to press beans and heat them up, which can cook volatile compounds. Sarin endorsed the Kitchen Aid A9, but preferred the Hobarts that pre-dated them. Most of the coffee vendors there were using or stated a preference for the Breville Conical Burr. Me? I need to upgrade.

He did note that comparing models is tricky, because there is no industry standard for grind fineness. Each manufacturer has their own measure. This can even change on the machine if the burrs are ever swapped out. Which, according to Sarin, should be done periodically or run the risk of inconsistent grinds.

The finer points of grinding beans included using a conical grinder to maximize contact and starting the grinder before adding coffee to give the motor. This gives the grinder a chance to achieve its proper speed and lessens the risk of rogue beans gumming up the works. After that, experiment with length of time to achieve the desired fineness.

Different brewers require different grinding times — French Press uses a course grind, whereas Turkish coffee uses the smallest “fines” a grinder can achieve. BTW, all beans should be given two days before grinding in order to gas off the CO2, darker roasts may need up to four days. Freshness is important but too much and your coffee will foam.

Syphon method

Using the syphon method of brewing coffee.

Joshua Dugue, from Counter Culture Coffee, gave an in-depth session on manual brewing methods including drip cone, kalita wave, espresso press, and siphon. I walked in as he discussed the math behind how to achieve ideal brew weight (1 ounce of coffee to 16 ounces of water), and conversions between volume and weight measures. The amount of information seemed almost too much to consider for a 6AM cup. Do I consistency brew between 195 – 205 degrees every morning? I have the jitters just thinking about it.

While Dugue strives for a perfect cup and can go into excruciating detail about how to achieve it, he also made a point of offering easy and practical advice for the at-home brewer along the way. He also stressed that while the theater of a $400 siphon brewer may bring out the “clarity” in the coffee, a pour-over method would have more body. Not necessarily better, just different.

If you want to go out for a cup of coffee, it’s a great time to be in Chicago. Dugue’s recommendations included Gaslight or Ellipsis, and though you can throw a rock and hit one, Starbucks didn’t make his list because they strive for “consistency” versus a more artisanal approach.

If you want to pick his brains, Dugue offers free coffee classes and tastings for the public every Friday morning at 10AM at 177 North Ada. I recommend bringing your toughest coffee conundrums for him to solve.

Coffee Beans

Discussing the different roasts of Sumutra Coffee Beans

The trade show also offered opportunities to see different pieces of equipment in action, try samples from area roasters, and to learn about the depth and variety of coffee in Chicago.

I was particularly taken with I Have a Bean, a company from Wheaton that emphasizes small-batch, fresh roasted coffee. Not only do they produce fantastic coffee, they also embrace a strong social mission to provide employment opportunities to former felons. I think of it as “warm + fuzzy” rolled up into a cup of coffee.

While some vendors did have chocolate or pastries, if you wanted to balance out your caffeine consumption, there were a number of food trucks in attendance in the parking lot. Tamale Spaceship and Husky Hog with their meaty menus, and Bridgeport Pastry had more sweets. I felt vegetarian coffee drinkers were left out a bit, which was my only complaint about the event.

The venue was great, the speakers were in-depth and knowledgeable, and I left a wee bit shaky. Thanks to CoffeeCon, I’m sure my perfect cup is on the horizon somewhere.

Lunch time Options

Balance caffeine with a little BBQ. Or a taco.

I was not financially compensated for this post. Access was granted to me as a member of the media. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.

Apr 132014

I’ve paired a different craft beer with all 82 regular-season Blackhawks games! Have recommendations for a great playoff beer? Please share. Hopefully I’ll need a lot of suggestions.

On to the recaps…

Space | Half Acre Game 79 vs. Blues, 4-2 W

I tried Space, a seasonal offering from Half Acre Brewing, at their tap room and had to come home with a howler. With big, piney aromas, this beer opens big and delivers bright, citrus hops throughout. I enjoyed it to the end.

I also quite enjoyed the outcome of our final regular season match-up with St. Louis. The team beat our division rivals handily without Toews or Kane in the line-up, which leaves me feeling pretty good about the Blackhawks’ prospects going into the off-season.

If Hitchcock’s hissy fit in the presser was any indication, the Blues know it, too.

Dampf Loc Game 80 vs. Canadiens, 3-2 W

Dampf Loc poured out frothy with a nice yeasty aroma that held a bit of hops. I found the flavor to be bready with a slightly sweet and bitter aftertaste that wasn’t entirely pleasant. I’ve enjoyed other beers from Local Option better.

The outcome of this match-up with the Canadiens, however, was entirely acceptable. Especially the win in overtime — the first of the entire season. We will need this new found skill in the playoffs.

Galactica | Clown Shoes
Game 81 vs. Capitals, 4-0 L

I tried Galactica from Clown Shoes only partly because the name amused the hell out of me, but mostly because I’d drank all the other titles off the beer menu at Endgrain. So it goes. But I’m very glad the bartender had this brew when I pushed him for something different.

Galatica is technically an IPA, though I didn’t find it as hop-forward as I like. More malty though not too sweet, and with a pleasant amount of carbonation. Based on this, I’m interested in trying more from this brewery.

Unfortunately, my dinner plans prevented me from watching the game in real time, and I heard the score before I settled in to watch. I may have fast-forwarded through bits. Like most fans, I tell myself that players were playing not to get hurt before the post-season. Yeah. Yeah, that’s the story.

Guest | Half Acre Game 82 vs. Predators, 7-5 L

Guest Lager is an aptly named collaboration beer between Mikkeller and Half Acre that’s only available in extremely limited quantities. In fact, you may only be able to try the last dregs at the Tap Room. If you’re lucky.

I’m glad I gave it a chance because this beer is amazing. Pungent grapefruit and citrus notes wallop the nose, while the flavor reveals of touch of fruit before coating the tongue with the bitter resin of hops. I love how light and drinkable this beer is given the 8% ABV. Too bad I can’t have any more.

With this loss to the Predators, the Blackhawks end the season with a record of 46-21-15. This was an odd game, and the only thing I want to dwell on is Marian Hossa’s 30th goal. Hoss took the puck from one end of the ice to the other, danced around the D for a wrap-around goal in a graceful demonstration of dominance and beauty. It was stunning.

Seems we’re playing the Blues in the first round. I’ll hoist a pint on Thursday to cheer the Hawks on to victory in the playoffs. I hope you’ll join me!

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