Thursday, October 27, 2011

Exploring Denver and the Great American Beer Festival

The Colorado Tourism Board had scheduled Thursday as my free day to explore and I did just that, taking in as much of Denver as I could and spending some time at the biggest beer festival in the world.

It had been a total coincidence that I ended up in Denver (with an unscheduled day) at the start of the Great American Beer Festival. The truth is, everyone knows about all of the breweries in Colorado and I was there to write about the spirits. There was also one other little detail…. I don’t drink beer. It’s not that I haven’t tried. An unfortunate incident years ago left me unable to even let it get to my lips. I’m working on it (anyone know a good hypnotist?), but despite the fact that I’m not a brew fan, I wasn’t going to miss a chance to check out the Great American Beer Festival, dubbed by everyone I know as the greatest in the world.

Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director for the BrewersAssociation, took me around the convention center before the festival even started. I was amazed at all the distributors from around the country, and impressed with the emphasis on food, including: beer and cheese combos from the American Dairy Society; a Farm to Table Pavilion; and an area devoted to seminars on beer and food pairings. We walked around for a while and I promised her I would return in the evening and check out the open festival.

I had a few hours to kill before I was meeting Moose Koons at a party I had been invited to with a group of beer and spirits makers.  I thought it was about a half mile so I figured I’d check out Denver while I walked over there. A half mile turned into two miles, but I enjoyed the scenery on an unusually warm and sunny day for the fall. I also found a little solace after about a mile at My Favorite Muffin with a Cinnamon Cheesecake Muffin, basically my lunch since the time had passed as I walked.

I finally arrived at Amato’s Ale House, one of the locations belonging to the Breckenridge Brewing family. In addition to 40 beers on tap (available to servers in the kitchen and at all the bars), Amato’s also has Infinite Monkey Wine on tap and I enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc. I finished off with Moose’s Agave Silver (smooth and delicious) from his Peach Street Distillery, and hen took off for a last Great American Beer Festival run, this time happily getting a ride back.

It was quite a difference from the afternoon when there were no spectators, though I have to say it wasn’t overly crowded. The festival had 466 brewers with a total of 2,300 beers. This was certainly in contrast to the 20 exhibitors at the festival’s first event in 1982. The beers are grouped by geography, making them easy to find. I really enjoyed walking around and meeting some of the brewers, as well as talking to participants. I was probably (no, definitely) the only one there not drinking beer, but I was able to balance my camera and notepad better that way! I would also like to mention a few of the charitable events – Pints for Prostates and Beers for Boobs were the biggest ones.

I went back to my hotel and headed to bed for my last night in Colorado. It had been a great week, trying terrific spirits and eating wonderful food. I’m sure I will be back to taste some more.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Colorado Spirits Through Denver

My third day in Colorado was spent tasting a multitude of spirits -- and enjoying more of the state's farm fresh food.

I was picked up in the morning by JoAnne Carrelli-Stevenson, who is in charge of the Colorado Distillers Guild. We had a nice talk on our ride through Denver to Leopold Brothers about the growing distilling industry in Colorado, a state which now has 250 beverage producers. She also filled me in on the Great American Beer Festival, which happened to be starting the next day in Denver. I was thinking that I may just have to stop by there, but first it was spirits time.

The tour at Leopold Brothers had already started as there was a group of distributors from Kansas I was joining. Todd Leopold took us through the fermentation and distillation process, and into both the bottling and barreling rooms.  This company is one of the few that distribute their products out of state and it’s quite a complex production center as they make a huge variety of products.

We went into the conference room for some serious tasting (I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many bottles come out at once). Unfortunately, I was on a tight schedule, but I did get to try a few of Leopold Brothers products: the Maraschino Liqueur was delicious and brandy like; I was not a big fan of their vodka, made from a combo of potatoes and grain and not very noticeable on the nose or the palate;  I really liked their Absinthe and Peach Whiskey, which was sweet and fruit-filled; the one that really impressed me the most was the Three Pins. This herbal liqueur is full of cinnamon and cloves, making it more spicy than sweet.

As much as I liked the Leopold Peach Whiskey, I had been blown away by the cocktails made with Peach Street Distillers Peach Brandy and was excited to be having lunch with one of the owners, Chris “Moose” Koons, whom I had met at the Colorado Harvest event in New York City. We had a fun time talking spirits during lunch at Steubens Restaurant.

Steubens looks like a diner and serves comfort food at its very best (and I enjoyed every last bite). The Macaroni & Cheese with tomato (you can order it with an assortment of other add-ins) was a perfect lunch portion of heaven. Moose did his part on comfort food tasting with a Chili Dog.  We then talked some more about spirits while nibbling on Matty’s Wacky Apple Dessert, basically a cut-up caramel apple topped with ice cream, berries and more caramel. I don’t think I even have to tell you how good that was!

Elysia from Colorado Tourism  picked me up for the evening and our first stop was at Green Russell, named after a Colorado gold miner who struck it big at this location in Denver, now known as Larimer Square.  This place is definitely taking the speak easy concept to a whole new level. Though the renovation isn’t complete, they will actually continue to sell pie, the key to getting yourself inside this beautiful bar.  

Alex was our bartender and she was very hospitable. The philosophy here is to keep the customer happy with drinks they enjoy more than worrying about what’s on the current menu, all twists on classic cocktails. She made me The Patrician, St. Germain, with Cava and Crème Violette. It was delicious, with a little bit of sweetness and lots of floral. Elysia had A French 75, with Cognac and Champagne. All drinks include fresh herbs, which are actually grown in a greenhouse on the premises (you can see some of it when you are sitting at the bar.

I’m not quite sure which was more unique about Euclid Hall, the décor or the menu. Both were ultra-modern. Andy of Downslope Distillery met us there and before we ate we got to sample some of what he has to offer.  His specialty at the moment is a Wine Barrel Aged Rum, which I thought was very whiskey like.

I had some of the Downslope Cane Vodka, which is gluten-free, and really liked the Grain Vodka, a smooth blend of barley and rye, and the Pepper Vodka, the perfect addition to a bloody Mary.  The Double Diamond Whiskey was good, with a sweet smell and a dry, spice-filled finished. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to try more of his products, but I have my eye on the Vanilla Rum, made in small batches to hold the flavor.

We had a delicious dinner at Euclid Hall, starting with Cheese Curds and French Fries for an appetizer. For a main course Elysia and I both had the Camembert and Peach Puree Sandwich, served with Grapes in basil. The menu called it “Grown Up Grilled Cheese,” but I’ll just call it spectacular.

I bid farewell to Elysia for the last time as my final day in Colorado was without her. It was scheduled as a “free day” for me to explore, but I had a feeling it was going to fill up very quickly.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Boulder Spirits to Lingering in Denver

I go on a lot of wine country trips, but my Colorado adventure is based on spirits. On day two it was time to get to some serious sampling of what the area had to offer in food and drinks, but first I had some mountains to check out.

After a good night’s sleep in my beautifully decorated room at Hotel Boulderado, Kim from Boulder’s visitor’s Bureau picked me up and we headed up to Chautauqua Park. It was a clear and warm day and she told me about this beautiful place as we walked the trail. I honestly could have spent the day in the fresh Rocky Mountain air, but I had a job to do and the first course of business was at Boulder Distillery & Clear Spirit Company.

Boulder Distillery is just a bit bigger than most garages, yet you would not believe all the spirits that come out of there. They are most known for their 303 Vodka which is “infused” on the premises with seasonal ingredients. The Colorado liquor laws actually allow for distilleries to not only serve samples, but to act as bars, with cocktail menus and events. This has been taken to the limit at 303 – in a very good way.

First, we have the infused vodkas. On my visit, the choices were Vanilla, Peach, Raspberry Cucumber, Pickle, Strawberry and Olive. I sampled a bit of them all and could certainly tell the difference between these freshly infused libations (with organic fruit) and flavored vodkas in bottle. I was encouraged to try some of the cocktails and before I knew it there was a Pickletini in front of me. Yes, pickle infused vodka with pickle juice and pickles.

When it comes to pickles, I can take them or leave them. Honestly, I stared at the drink for a few minutes with no desire to taste it, but I was encouraged by the knowledge that it was a best seller around here and I have to say it was delicious!  I think I’m still a gin girl, though, and there was someone there to take care of that too. It seems Rob’s Mountain Gin shares this same space and his Formula No. 11 has an ingredient known publically as “angel’s tears” (I will never tell) that really makes it an outstanding product. (For those who like the darker spirits, Boulder Distillery also makes 303 Whiskey, aged in French Oak.)

My last stop in Boulder was at Salt Bistro and it was quite a food and drink extravaganza. Kim and I were joined by the restaurant’s public relations rep, Kuvy, Beverage Manager Evan Faber and my friend Jackie, who works at nearby Babolat. We were quite a large group, but we didn’t have to worry about running out of food as it looked like they brought out everything on the menu! The theme was as I saw it on this trip – fresh and local, with lots of fruits and vegetables.

Before we knew it, the table was filled to the brim with such treats as Quinoa Fritters; Tomato Salad with Mint; Vegetable Tasting (with the best soft polenta I’ve had); Duck Confit Salad (perfectly cooked); Peach Flatbread; and Fried Polenta with honey.

As good as the food was at Salt, I was most impressed with the drink options. Stoddard came up with an ingenious idea: Pick your glass size, add your favorite liquor; chose a flavor; and pick a style.  Patrons are actually given a menu to mark off their choices in each category. I had two small ones – a Gin & Blackberry Martini and a Rum, Mango & White Wine Sangria.

Elysia from Colorado Tourism drove me back to Denver. I had a few hours back at the hotel to try to get my ailing computer to function (and work up an appetite) before Elysia picked me up for dinner. It’s not often you get to have dinner in a mortiuary, or even a former one. That’s exactly what Linger is. It’s a large restaurant with great views of Denver in the home of the former Olinger Mortiary. The restaurant plays on that theme throughout, with everything from menus that look like charts to business cards that look like body tags.

Elysia is a vegetarian and I always welcome meatless nights, so we decided to fill the table with small plates. Linger divides their dishes into the areas the dishes originated and we picked an assortment that covered the bases: Meze Plate with Smokey Eggplant Spread  & Naan from Africa; Saag Paneer Fries with Rhubarb Ketchup & Spinach Puree and Masala Dosa from Southwest Asia; Carrot & Lentil Kofie with Tahini Yogurt wrapped in Lettuce from Eurasia (my favorite); and Cold Peanut Noodles from Asia.

To go with our food, we had Linger’s Bar Manager Anika Zappe mix us up a few specialties from her seasonal cocktail menu. I enjoyed the Pueblo Chili Flip and Elysia had The Last Sunset, with a Colorado Coffee to finish off.

We ended the day on a perfect note, with a freshly made cobbler with Colorado peaches, topped with homemade vanilla ice cream. It was time to call it a night because there were still more spirits to check out in the morning.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Welcome to Colorado

I’ve been trying to remember how long it’s been since I’ve been to Colorado. I don’t think I’ve been there as an adult, but my memories from childhood are definitely good ones.

My family and I frequently drove around the country and though we took various routes so we could see as much as possible, I seem to remember that we always went through Colorado. I know the mountains are beautiful and the air fresh and clean, but I was racking my brain for awhile trying to figure out why it was my father always made Colorado a must stop. Then, I arrived and it hit me the minute I saw it. Coors beer.

You see, years ago, you couldn’t get Coors in New York. It was only available “west of the Rockies” and the Rockies were in Colorado. As much as my dad loved to drive through the Rockies, he also loved a good beer once in awhile and that’s why our yearly cross-country trip would almost always include Colorado!

Beer was only a small consideration in my trip to Colorado. The big draw was actual spirits. The state is still known for its craft breweries (and its Coors), but it’s now becoming known as the home of more than two dozen distilleries, with more coming . I had tasted a bit at the Colorado Harvest event in New York a few weeks ago, but I was excited about coming to Boulder and Denver to check out much more.

The day finally arrived and it started bright and early with a 6:00 am flight to Denver. Elysia, who represents Colorado Tourism, picked me up for the quick ride to Boulder. It reminded me a bit of the college town I lived in, but it had the added bonus of mountain views. After a quick and healthy lunch at Mode Market, Elysia and I headed to the Hotel Boulderado, a Victorian beauty I was looking forward to exploring later on, before we were off to The Bitter Bar with Kim Farrin of the Boulder CVB.

The Bitter Bar is the perfect showcase for Colorado Spirits as bartender (don’t call him “mixologist”) Mark Stoddard loves to mix it up with artisan finds. He’s also a fan of using alternatives to citrus so we hit it off immediately when he presented me with a selection of cocktails using everything from Cap Rock Gin (Hotckiss, CO) to Leopold Brothers Maraschino Liqueur (Denver, CO) that weren't going to make me itch. I also was able to finally taste Sombra, a Mezcal owned by master sommelier and Boulder resident Richard Betts.

I could have talked to Mark and the other bartenders at The Bitter Bar for hours about cocktails and ingredients. Before I saw (and tasted) what they could do, I was amazed to find out – in this small Colorado town – that three of these bartenders had one competitions all over the world, including the Cocktail Cup in New Zealand.

Elysia needed to get back to Denver, but Kim and I walked around Boulder for awhile, taking in the exceptionally warm weather. It’s definitely a foodie town and we must have looked at a dozen places I would have loved to eat before we settled in at The Med.

We had a great selection of Tapas made with fresh local ingredients, including Homemade Zucchini Bread with Concord Grape, Peaches, Kiwi and Peppered Boursin; Wild Boar and Goat Cheddar Cheese Empanadas with Tzatziki; and Crisp Polenta with Midnight Blue Cheese and Sherry Black Pepper Honey. Everything was delicious and we barely had room to left to share a yummy Chocolate Almond Tower with Caramel and Ganache.

Kim and I walked back to the Hotel Boulderado through the Pedestrian Mall, where people were shopping, strolling and enjoying the lovely evening. I was ready to put my first great day in Colorado to bed, and get ready for four more to come. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Midwest Adventure Ends with Michael Jordan in Chicago

It had been quite a week as my friend Lisa and I started in Indianapolis and then went on to Cedar Falls. We had discovered a new spa (Evan Todd), a new fruit (pawpaws) and a new beer (Rockmill Brewery), but nothing quite prepared us for what we would see when we arrived in Chicago.

We had another great breakfast (homemade quiche and blueberry muffins) at the Inn at Cedar Falls before saying goodbye to Hocking Hills and hitting the road. It was a long drive to Chicago, but there was something quite exciting waiting on the other end. I had snagged an exclusive invitation to the Grand Opening of Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse at the Intercontinental Hotel on Michigan Avenue.

I have been to celebrity events before and although this one was a bit more sports oriented in its attendees, it felt more celebratory than any I had seen. As the valet opened the door to my Santa Fe, the cameras started snapping us walking down the red carpet as if we were the stars of the evening! The truth is, it was one of those events where you felt like everyone could be a star and not even the paparazzi wanted to take a chance and miss getting a picture of someone.

It has never been clearer to me just how much of a hero Michael Jordan is to Chicago than at the opening to his restaurant. He is the man who helped the Bulls earn six NBA titles, and even played for the Chicago White Sox minor league baseball team for awhile. Most of all, he is the man everyone wants to see and MJ obliged, putting himself in the middle of the party action. He and Scottie Pippin shook hands, posed for photos and greeted all the guests as if they were still on the basketball court.

Lisa and I mingled through the group of celebrity athletes and even spent some time talking with Jamie Blythe, a former Bachelorette. It was all a bit surreal and so different from the woodsy location we had left in Ohio, where we didn’t even have televisions or phone service in our cabin. Some people don’t understand when I say I liked both experiences equally, but I do. A quiet evening with a friend and a bottle of wine is just as fun as a red carpet event. Variety is the spice of life!

As for the restaurant itself, it’s beautiful, decorated in red and black, just like the Chicago Bulls. The cozy bar on the first floor is inviting. We had some tender lamb chops, but didn’t really sample enough food for me to give a full opinion on the menu of Chef James O’Donnell. I’m hoping to actually have a dinner there in the future.

We spent the night at the Palmer House Hilton before my Midwest adventure with Lisa was over (though I predict we will have more outings in the future) and it was time to head home. After all, I only had a few days before I was heading off to Colorado.

Photos courtesy of Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Learning About Paw Paws and Rockmill in Cedar Falls

One of the major reasons I decided to go to the Inn at Cedar Falls at this time was because it is paw paw season and this Inn has found many ways to take advantage of this tropical fruit grown in Ohio. (Yes, you read that right: tropical fruit in Ohio.) 

I learned a bit about the antioxidant properties of the paw paw from Spa Director Randall Wellman before my massage, but I had yet to taste any. I was excited to learn that my friend Lisa and I would get to taste paw paws as well as cook with them during our time with Chef Anthony Schultz.

Everything we had to eat at the Inn at Cedar Falls was delicious so I felt confident with Chef Schultz, who had previously worked at Eon in the Hamptons, not far from where I had grown up. As much as I love to cook I decided that I would get better notes and pictures as the observer so Lisa got to do the actual preparation.

First, we learned about the paw paw. It really is a tropical fruit, the most northern tropical fruit you will find. It looks a lot like a mango and with similar properties to a papaya or banana. The paw paw does not have a strong flavor so it blends well in many dishes. (Rumor has it that Lewis and Clark lived on paw paws when they traveled through this area.) Lisa learned how to make a crème brulee with the fruit, which would be served at dinner that night. After the porcelain dishes were prepared and put in the oven, Chef Schultz showed us how to muddle some of the fruit for some delicious cocktails.

The concentration of the evening was not on cocktails, but on beer and we had an expert to see us through it. Matt Barbee had spent time in Beverly Hills, Belgium and just about everywhere in between, before returning to his native Ohio. He’s opened up quite an unusual brewery, using the styles of Belgium and Northern France, with production on his family’s Ohio farm. It all sounds amazing and I have heard nothing but raves for the beer at this small production organic brewery and it was time for usto check it out.

Rockmill Brewery’s products will get your attention immediately as it is served in beautiful bottles that resemble what you would pour wine from more than brew. Matt’s love of wine (his grandfather started a winery in Ohio and he worked for awhile as a sommelier) carries this even further as he believe his brews should be savored in wine glasses and paired properly with food, especially cheese. The bottles are actually done in champagne style and even have corks.

Matt makes only four different beers in all – Saison, Tripel, Dubbel and Withbier. They are all varietals grown in Belgium and he gets nearly all of his grain from the state of Washington. Lisa and Matt tasted through most of them and she was quite impressed. The Tripel is golden in color and strong in taste, though sweeter and fruitier than the average beer. The Saison is a low alcohol ale, but is much more rustic and earthy.

We talked for hours about beer, wine and another great dinner at the Inn at Cedar Falls. We finished appropriately with the best chocolate torte I’ve ever tasted and, of course, the Paw Paw Crème Brulee, which Chef Schultz fired up for us before he joined us for a night cap.

It was our final meal at the for now (I’m already searching my schedule for another time to return) because we were heading to a very different place in the morning – Chicago, for the grand opening party of Michael Jordan’s Steak House

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hikes, Candles and Spa at the Inn at Cedar Falls

I woke up fairly early a bit confused. My morning wake up is always a look at the email on my IPhone and I stunned to find it not on my night table until I remembered where I was. I was in a cabin at the Inn at Cedar Falls with no cell phone or internet, but that was alright since we had some fun things to do.

My friend Lisa and I went up to the Inn's restaurant and helped ourselves to some yogurt and fruit (breakfast is included for all guests). The waitress tempted us with French Toast Stuffed with Raspberry Cream Cheese and we were glad she did. Next, we headed on a tour of the property with Stephanie.

Along the way we saw everything from a butterfly in one of the many flowers, to herb, vegetable and fruit gardens. The newest addition to the property is a Rooftop Garden, complete with a swing and a beautiful view of the Hocking Hills area. In addition to the cabins where we were staying, the property has 12 cottages and Inn accommodations. The cabins and cottages are prepared for everything from romantic rendezvous to family vacations (one cabin is pet-friendly, another is handicap accessible) and girls getaways, like the one we were on.

After the tour we were off to Cedar Falls for a hike. We were a bit limited since I'm still on no climbing orders from the doctors, but we had a nice walk and some beautiful views at Ash Cave, which even has a waterfall. From there we headed over to Hocking Hills Candle Works to meet Mike.

Mike and Judy opened up the Candle Shop, which now has an adjacent Christmas Store, as well as a Wind Chime Store. We were there to work with him to make our own candles. There were so many fragrances it was hard to choose. Since you can mix and match, I decided on gingerbread and coffee, a perfect combination for the kitchen.

With Mike's help, we went through the process of making a label, squeezing in the fragrance, pouring into the container with wax he had prepared and mixing it up. We left it with Mike to cool off. It is a lot of fun and something anyone can come to the shop and do.

We went back to the Inn at Cedar Falls for lunch. Everything on the menu sounded great, so Lisa and I settled on sharing two sandwiches -- Pressed Turkey with Pineapple & Swiss Cheese and Chicken Salad with Grapes. They were both good, but we agreed that the Turkey sandwich was incredible.
In the afternoon, I headed over to the Inn at Cedar Falls Spa for a Massage and Paraffin Hand Treatment. The spa is perfectly placed on a cottage in the woods, so you can relax with the quiet and calm scenery. Since I had just had a facial in Indianapolis I didn't get to try the spa's famous Paw Paw Facials. We would learn more about Paw Paws during the cooking lesson, but the Inn at Cedar Falls signature Paw Paw Facial is well-known for its properties as an exfoliator and firmer of the skin.
While I was at the spa, Lisa headed up for one of the longer hikes at Cedar Falls and made it all the way to the lake. She said it was beautiful and I look forward to checking it out myself when my back is better.

I didn't have too much time to enjoy the relaxation. We had a very special dinner planned at the Inn at Cedar Falls restaurant with Matt from Rockmill Brewery, but first we would have to learn how to make Paw Paw Crème Brulee. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Glamping Through the Inn at Cedar Falls

If you've been reading my blog for awhile you probably know that I'm more likely to be found at five star resorts than a five tent camping ground.  I've written a few pieces on glamping, but I never really understood the appeal -- until I arrived at the Inn at Cedar Falls.

I'm sure everyone has their own idea of roughing it. For me, it was a cabin with no phone (cell or landline), no television and no Internet, located acres away from other accommodations. It actually had everything we really needed -- two bedrooms, a kitchen with a dining area, a living room and a porch complete with swing. It was cozy and complete, but definitely rustic. I soon realized that the lack of electronic amenities was the only part of the Inn at Cedar Falls that didn't compare with what I was used t.

After we quickly unpacked, Lisa and I headed up to the restaurant, dodging a deer along the way. The restaurant was stunning, with a combination of woodsy and country charm. I had been told Chef Anthony Schultz was a genius in the kitchen and, by the time dinner was over, I was in total agreement.

We started out with the Wife of the Chef Martinis (Ciroc Vodka, Chocolate Liqueur and Chambord). I had a delicious Champagne Pear Salad while Lisa raved over her first Foie Gras. Dinner was incredible as I had a perfect serving of Butternut Squash Ravioli in a light cream sauce with cranberries, asparagus and pecans. Lisa ordered the scallops. They were very large, pan seared with asparagus, and served with garlic-parsley gnocchi.

For dessert, Lisa picked a Creme Brûlée with Burnt Sugar and honey while I ordered the Berry Cobbler, which was filled with blueberries, raspberries and blackberries and topped with vanilla ice cream. It was the best cobbler I've ever had.  

We spent a few minutes with our smartphones (there is Internet, but no phone service, in the restaurant) before heading back to the cabin. I had brought a bottle of Emeri de Bortoli Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, a new wine sent to me by DeBortoli, a wine family and had the pleasure of spending time with while I was in Australia.  It was light with just enough sparkle, a semi-sweet wine that was full of both peach and lemon.

Lisa went through the games on the table in the very cozy living room and found a copy of Chat Pack: Fun Questions to Spark ConversationsPersonal Transformation Books). The box said, "Pull out a card and let the fun begin." that's just what we did, laughing like teenagers as we talked about everything from politics to our first boyfriends, to our hopes and dreams. We finished the bottle and Lisa headed to her upstairs bedroom and I went in to mine for a good night sleep, realizing that a night without technology could be a lot of fun.  I was more than ready to see what a full day up in Cedar Falls would bring us.

Location:Hocking Hills, Ohio