Monday, November 6, 2017

Vintage Fernet Branca Tasting... With Mr. Branca!

Last month I was lucky enough to get the chance to taste some old bottles of Fernet Branca during a promotional event in Portland hosted by a sixth-generation member of the family business, Edoardo Branca.  Mr. Branca pulled bottles of 1970's and 1980's Fernet from the company archives, so we could taste older versions of the liqueur alongside the modern product.  (The rightmost bottle in the picture is actually an unopened antique bottle that someone else brought to the event.)

If you're not familiar with Fernet Branca, it is an inky, delightfully bitter-tasting herbal liqueur.  Fairly sweet, you could simplistically describe Fernet's flavor as medicinal, but there is a lot more going on than that. There is a whole class of these digestive liqueurs that in Italy are called "amari" -- singular "amaro" -- which appropriately means "bitter".  But the concept is not unique to Italy. I have been obsessed with these things since I first tasted Unicum during a trip to Hungary in 1990, then I found out about Gammel Dansk (Denmark) and Rigas Black Balsams (Latvia) before I made my way to amari like Fernet Branca.

Spirits don't benefit from aging in the bottle in the way that beer or wine do.  The point of tasting the 30- and 40-year-old Fernets was to see the subtle variations over time, as ingredients and tastes change.  Here were my impressions from the event:

  • 1970's Fernet: Maybe stronger than today's 78 proof? Serious echinacea bitterness, but a very long finish, with flavors developing on the tongue long after swallowing.
  • 1980's Fernet: More of a chocolate bitterness in this one.  A little dusty in the beginning, with aromatic cedar notes.
  • 2017 Fernet: Mintier, fresher tasting than the older ones.  A little cola-like effervescence on the tongue.
Three cocktails containing Fernet Branca were also shown off at the event.  Personally, I find that a little sacreligious.  Here is a complex herbal recipe with 150 years of history, why are you burying its flavors under a bunch of other stuff?  I asked Edoardo Branca about that, and he said reasonably enough that he doesn't object to someone drinking Fernet however they care to do it, though personally he prefers it either straight up or in a caffè corretto -- espresso with a shot of amaro in it.

He had a good story about his grandfather, Pierluigi Branca.  That gentleman also disapproved of mixing Fernet Branca, and didn't hesitate to chastise anyone he saw adulterating it with anything.  In 1955 or 1956, he happened to be in Cannes for the film festival, and in a hotel bar he overheard the revered opera singer Maria Callas as she ordered a Fernet Branca with sugar and mint added.  As he shouted his disapproval at her, his wife (Edoarado's grandmother) started shouting back at him, "You don't behave like this!".  Edoardo didn't say what Ms. Callas' reaction was, but family legend credits the encounter as the inspiration for the milder, mintier Branca Menta liqueur.

The cocktails we had that night did not do much to change my mind about the impropriety of diluting your Fernet.  In the picture at left, the bartender is making a complicated drink called The Italian Icon, with Fernet, Carpano, rum, and egg white, cleverly finished off with a disk of rice paper bearing the Branca logo.  It seemed like a lot of trouble, especially since hardly any herbal flavor at all remained in the finished product.  Somewhat more to my liking was the Shakerato -- Fernet, cold brew coffee, coffee liqueur, and cream.  The best cocktail served at the event was the Toronto -- basically a Manhattan with Fernet Branca instead of vermouth.  The herbal liqueur played well with the bite of rye whisky.  If you're interested, this article has the recipes for the Toronto, Shakerato, and a couple of other Fernet cocktails.

One more point about mixing Fernet.  The biggest market for Fernet Branca outside of Italy is Argentina, where Fernet con Coca -- Fernet mixed with Coca-Cola -- is something like the national drink.  That is also the only other country where the company produces Fernet Branca, and it is made a little stronger there, 86 proof instead of the 78 proof version made in Italy -- be sure and bring back a couple of bottles next time you find yourself in Buenos Aires.

Fernet Branca is aged in oak barrels for a year.  Since breweries these days are always looking for unique barrels to age beer in, I asked Edoardo if they ever sold their used barrels to anyone to make funky beer with.  He gave me a funny look and a curt "no".  Later I realized that a lot of their aging is done in barrels as large as 17,000 liters, so it's not like the whisky model where a lot of small barrels are used once or twice and then passed on.  No wonder he thought it was a strange question.  I did enjoy a very interesting Odell Brewing Fernet-aged Porter a few years ago, but those barrels were from a Colorado distillery.

Here's another take on the Portland event, with a lot of nice photos.  Many thanks to Edoardo Branca for visiting us in Portland.  The vertical tasting was something I never would have expected to experience, and it was great to hear his personal insights about a classic drink.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sample Tray Stunt 2017

One of the early hits here on It's Pub Night was 2008's Portland Sample Tray Marathon, where Dave and I got hall passes on Father's Day and sampled 78 or so beers that afternoon by biking around and getting the sample trays at 11 breweries. The goal was to only partake of beers brewed at the very places we visited.

Remember 2008?  That year the Oregon Brewers Guild put out a press release (duly posted by portlandbeer.org -- where ya been, Matt?!?) touting the 32 microbreweries in Portland.  So Dave and I were pretty proud to have visited 1/3 of them in one day.  We didn't skip any along our path (Tugboat was closed), and we went to two Lucky Labs.  Ah, those were the days, when we hadn't yet heard of Facebook.  I had only joined Twitter two months before, and I thought since no one followed me on there I would mostly use it to make a note of times I bumped into things so that later I could figure out where I had gotten this or that bruise.

I've always wanted to repeat some variation of the sample tray stunt ("stunt" is a more fitting description than "marathon", though like a marathon it did require a certain amount of mental toughness).  This year Dave and I finally resolved to take another stab at it.  Like the original ride, it would be on Father's Day and we would only sample beers brewed on premises, but this time we would only visit places which had opened since our last adventure.

It wasn't difficult to pick new breweries, since OBG's 2017 press release counts 70 breweries in Portland, more than double the number in 2008.  In fact, this time we would be skipping over a dozen breweries near the route, only a few of which had been on our original tour.  On the other side of that coin:  two of the original stunt's breweries -- Roots and Clinton Street -- had gone out of business, and the beer served at the Lompoc Tavern on 23rd is no longer brewed there.  Here is a map of this year's route:



The other thing we did differently this time was to invite more people along. In fact, we opened it up to the public at large by adding it to the 2017 Pedalpalooza calendar. That could have gone spectacularly wrong if, say, 50 people showed up and we had to order 10 sample trays at every stop.  As it happens, it's a very small Venn diagram of people who are free on Father's Day and want to take 7 hours to bike 7 miles while sipping beer from 100 tiny glasses.  In the end, no one joined us that we didn't already know, so we could have skipped the Pedalpalooza bit entirely.  You bike people don't know what you missed.

Our core group of six biker/tasters hit 8 breweries on a 10-mile ride over the course of 6 hours, sampling 93 beers, for a velocity of 15.5 Beers per Hour (BPH).  Several of us made it to the 9th brewery to notch our 105th beer.  Of the original 6, Tim and I got in 111 beers in 7.5 hours by tacking on Hair of the Dog, with an assist from Lindsey who had joined us at Baerlic.  And though that sounds like a dangerous amount of drinking, let me say that 111 samples shared by 6 people is much more sensible than the 78 beers shared by Dave and me back in 2008.

Here is a diary of our exploits, including the beer at each place that got the most votes as the group favorite (which was rarely my personal favorite):
  1. Ecliptic Brewing: 13 samples. Favorite: Lupulin Nebula IPA.
  2. Ex Novo: 12 samples.  Favorite:  Best Budz Hazy Sour Pale (Great Notion collab).
  3. Back Pedal: 8 samples.  Favorite:  Kumulus Chamomile IPA (Fat Heads collab).
  4. Breakside NW:  7 samples.  Favorite: (tie) Big Ern Texas Pilsner/Precious Snowflake DIPA.
  5. PINTS: 10 samples.  Favorite: Single Hop Pale (oops, forgot to note which hop it was).
  6. Burnside: 19 samples.  Favorite:  Sweet Heat (!).
  7. Commons: 12 samples.  Favorite:  Nocino Brady-barrel aged Pumpernickel Rye Saison.
  8. Baerlic: 12 samples.  Favorite:  Fancy Umbrella Drink Guava Gose.
  9. Grixsen: 12 samples.  Favorite (difficult to choose something we liked here):  IPA.
  10. Hair of the Dog:  6 samples.  Favorite:  Peach Adam from the Wood.
What a thing of beauty, if I do say so myself.  How cool is it that we went from the latest Breakside jam straight to PINTS, whose first head brewer Zach Beckwith conceived of it as the anti-Breakside?  Not to mention the fact that as we sat at Breakside debating whether to hit PINTS or Fat Heads, our server chimed in to say what a hidden treasure he thought PINTS was.  And though the Roots Brewing that we visited in 2008 is justly lamented, it was a delight to sample almost 20 beers at Jason McAdam's Burnside, which shines far brighter than Roots.  Burnside's Sweet Heat -- which was the crowd favorite -- was born as Calypso at Roots, as their 2008 OBF entry.  I can vividly remember the first few times I tried Calypso:  it was so different, wonderful, refreshing, and complete.  Another beautiful connection with the 2008 ride:  the Full Sail beers we had at the harbor that year were brewed by John Harris, who struck out on his own in 2013 to start Ecliptic, which was a brilliant opener for us in 2017.

Thanks to my co-conspirators on this ride!  Stay tuned for more excessive beer adventures.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Words of Wisdom from Fred Eckhardt

Fred's nametag reads: "FRED.  I am not an old drunk!"
At the 2011 Beer Bloggers Conference in Portland, Fred Eckhardt's brief talk was so chock full of humorous quotes that I jotted a bunch of them down, thinking I would make a blog post of them.

I never got around to it, and I probably hoped I would collect up some more and make a bigger post.  But since we won't have any new witticisms from the great man after his passing this morning, I will release them to the world.

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I would be a blogger, but I'm just so damn lazy.

I used to think to myself "If it's the water, why don't they do something about it?" (re: Olympia).

This is the third beer revolution, really it's a counter-revolution.  First was when someone figured out to throw hops into beer; second was when the Germans figured out how to make a clear beer that you would drink from a glass instead of an opaque mug, the cold-fermented lager revolution.  Third is when people decided they wanted more than just those clean lagers.

Lager is good, but after you've been drinking it for 50 years you start to want something else.

If you have to quit after the first beer, what's the point?

I wouldn't want to blame Belgium for that beer.

There I was, minding my own business...

It's great beer if it's in 2-liter mugs, I figure.

Just about everyone that knew which end of the bottle to pour beer from liked that beer.

There I was and there they were and there we were.

Once you start workin' they expect you to keep doing that for the rest of your life.

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Rest in peace, Fred.  Your work is done.

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[Update 2015/08/13]: Found some more Fred quotes in the writeup of Fred Fest 2009:

Technical doesn't taste good.

I don't care so much about style, but about what I like.

My palate isn't what it was last week.