A product review blog primarily focusing on food + drink that is organic, sustainable, wild-harvested, ethical, or otherwise well-produced.

Tag: organic

Wandering Aengus Cider – Golden Russet at 1.5 years

WANDERING-AENGUS

After scouring the country in search of organic craft alcohols of all sorts, we’ve discovered a significantly larger number of ciders than we have anything else. Organic beers are slowly but surely on the rise, as are hard alcohols and wines, but ciders have got them well beat out.

Let us clarify. Speaking purely numbers, wines easily take the cake for the highest organic count, with plenty of certified and non-certified vintners keeping their process clean from field to bottle – Domaine Huet of Vouvray and Domaine Leroy of Bourgogne being prime examples of the latter – but the issue of ‘spoofing’ in the wine industry deeply muddies the debate, and is too big a detour to address properly in this article. That aside, the majority of wines marketed as organic in the United States are simple, mass market table wines, so if we’re talking about alcoholic drinks meant to be paid any kind of serious attention, the numbers quickly become very different.

Even though it’s incredibly satisfying every time we find an unfamiliar organic, biodynamic, or otherwise well-produced alcohol, it is frustratingly difficult to do so*. Most alcohols don’t even list their ingredients, let alone tell you anything about them, so if they don’t make it clear upfront what they’re working with, there’s no way to know without some thorough online investigation or direct contact with the producer, which of course takes quite a bit of commitment. When we’re on the hunt, we literally turn around every unfamiliar bottle desperately searching for any sort of indication.

During a hunt of similar description, we found Wandering Aengus**, specifically this Golden Russet single varietal cider (one of a series of theirs) in the Bend Whole Foods. Even though we’d only had a Golden Russet apple once before (in the hibernal Northeast for those who are curious), the experience was powerful, and to this day it easily tops our favourite apple list. That said, we were justifiably stoked to see a cider made from our very hard-to-find favourite apple.

A cidery based in Salem, Oregon, Wandering Aengus Ciderworks works exclusively with heirloom cider apples. The apples that go into the Golden Russet cider in particular all come from a single orchard in Ashland, Oregon where they are grown using organic methods, and then fermented into cider and bottled by Wandering Aengus. Our bottles are from the October 2014 harvest, and were bottled after a 5-month fermentation period in March 2015. We say bottles plural because we’ve got a second one we’re keeping racked to pull out in a few years after it’s had a chance to age a bit more.

Their single varietal miniseries (others of which have been made from Wickson and Ashmead’s Kernel apples) stands pretty drastically apart from their main line of ciders – all of which are hefty blends, using 20+ different types of apples per bottle. The label design on this series reflects the contrasting simplicity, employing the Celtic trinity knot (meant to represent the interwoven relationship[s] of fruit, cidermaker, and technique) as its only iconography on a single-coloured background.

Golden Russet at 1.5 years:

On the nose, it’s lovely; mellow, light, and clean. It smells like a straightforward, bright cider that one would expect to be relatively accessible. On the palate though, it offered some surprising quirks that for many might be harder to handle, most of which can probably be attributed to the unique character of Golden Russets, but the rest we’d chock up to being opened prematurely. Oddly enough, Wandering Aengus themselves suggest a drinking age of as young as 1 year.

The first thing you’re likely to notice is that this is a deeply sour cider, and a dry one at that, so you won’t find respite for your acidified tongue in an immediate response of sugars as you drink. This profile fairly well represents our experience of Golden Russets as a whole fruit. Sharper than they are sweet, their appeal lies largely in the complex flavours of their skin, particular brightness, and the unique texture of their flesh. These basic characteristics (excepting textural elements, of course) appear to have been transformed by the fermentation only in terms of exaggeration, at least so far. Secondly, there is a wonderfully forward minerality that’s got an electric quality which combined with the strong acids makes for a fun kick; at times tasting almost straight-up salty.

To get more out of the young cider, we ate some strong tasting foods in hopes of knocking out primary aspects of its profile in order to show off more underlying features. Following a quick bite of finger limes, which stifled the brighter notes, we detected the not exactly flattering-sounding but nonetheless interesting scent of ‘cat urine’ most often associated with certain Sauvignon Blancs, and after a bit of extremely (perhaps even overly) ripe Camembert, a vegetal blueberry note was revealed that, though subtle, lingered for quite some time.

Texturally, this cider’s sort-of funny, as the bubbles appear to be largely inactive until they hit your mouth, at which point though, they become blatantly obvious: fairly coarse and medium-large.

Though there may be some things in those past few paragraphs that sound intriguing, we should state that while this was by no means a bad drinking experience, it was also not a particularly good one. Unless you feel like desperately hunting down the sensations listed above, your experience is more likely to be of a fairly one-note, high acidity, moderately dry, minerally cider. If that’s what you’re into, you’ll enjoy it, but we found it to be unbalanced, obnoxious, and lacking depth. Interesting, sure. Enjoyable? Less sure.

Ultimately, 1.5 years just doesn’t seem to have been enough time to do these Golden Russets justice. Only time will tell. As fun as its shocking acidity may be for kids like us who grew up on sour candy, hanging out with this young and overzealous cider for an entire evening proved to be tiresome. Though this first encounter with Wandering Aengus was admittedly underwhelming, we’re not closing ourselves off to future possibilities. Ciders of different apples and vintages could prove more impressive, and you never know, that second Golden Russet could have something exciting in store.

*We suspect that a significant contributor to the difficulty of obtaining organic alcoholic beverages (even in stores which otherwise specialize in sourcing good, organic products) is that too many people assume the belief that drinking alcohol is already unhealthy – a point we’re not going to agree with or debate – and so therefore if they’re going to do it, do not see any reason to drink organic. Unfortunately, this stance completely misses the much more important factors of environmental impact and sustainability. If you take issue with the vast swaths of monoculture corn and wheat that currently dominate our agricultural landscape, it is imperative to consider that those same ears of corn are becoming your whiskey, and the wheat, your beer. Sourcing organic, biodynamic, and heirloom materials is about protecting and supporting biodiversity, reducing soil degradation, and limiting toxic agricultural pollution (among other things) infinitely more than it is about personal health.

**The name Wandering Aengus comes from Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ poem entitled: The Song of Wandering Aengus.

 

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Wild Tonic

This is not the review we expected to be writing about Olinka Kombucha. Yes, Olinka. That was the original name of the now rebranded and reformulated brew known throughout Arizona these days* as Wild Tonic Jun Kombucha.

Arizona Honey Jun

A little over a year ago while driving through Sedona we stopped by chance at what seemed to be nothing more than your average roadside pull-off, albeit a cute one. Inside Indian Gardens Oak Creek Market we were surprised by a selection of food and drink atypical to these sorts of establishments. When we discovered that they served a locally-made kombucha on tap we had to try it. The flavour of the day was Raspberry Goji Rose, and to date it remains one of the best kombuchas we’ve ever had. (So far, its only competition in our book is Mountain Culture Kombucha.) All three named flavours were perfectly recognizable, playing off each other brilliantly, complementing and recontextualizing each other in a delightfully dynamic performance.

Who made this stuff? Not that it’s a rule, but usually these small-town, local kombuchas aren’t much to write home about. Drinkable at best, but very rarely anything approaching exemplary. Not this time. Olinka Kombucha, which upon further research seemed to be little more than a basement side-project, blew us away with its delicacy, balance, and clarity. It was a very memorable experience, one that stuck with us after a year of other kombucha tastings and travels.

When it looked like we might be swinging through Arizona again, we decided to look Olinka up and see how they were doing. After all, it had been a year. We did find them, but not at all in the form we were expecting. They had rebranded, renamed themselves Wild Tonic, and most importantly were now brewing their kombuchas with honey instead of cane sugar – a change that warrants a distinct titular designation; namely that of ‘jun’. As honey enthusiasts, we were curious and looked forward to experiencing the outcome.

Jun isn’t exactly a revolution, but simply a variation. As opposed to kombuchas, juns generally use honey as their source of sugar, green tea instead of black, and ferment for about half as long (about 3-5 days). Their SCOBYs are naturally also a bit different, but not radically. Wild Tonic makes claims** about juns as a whole being characteristically ‘lighter’ and ‘smoother’, but they aren’t exactly true. We’ve found that just as with kombucha, it’s entirely up to the brewer and the culture they nurture what flavoural and textural properties result, and we can attest to having drank both syrupy-sweet juns heavy as soda and kombuchas so light they verged on seltzer.

Our first encounter with the new brews was at the now aggressively expanding Natural Grocers, who are popping up all over the West, in this case at a quiet intersection in Scottsdale, Arizona. We saw that of the flavours they had decided to keep in their lineup, our lost love Raspberry Goji Rose had stayed the change of tides and was here on the shelf waiting for us. Other interesting options were Rosemary Lemon, Lavender Love, Tropical Turmeric, and Spiced Pear.

We’ve spent a few months now with these drinks. We’ve gone through a multitude of batches, both in bottles and on tap. It’s been an interesting process, one that hasn’t gone at all as we’d expected. Olinka and all that it represented for us is no more, but Wild Tonic certainly plays an important role in the increasingly complex narrative that is contemporary kombucha culture.

The primary issue we have with these is their consistently overwhelming honey flavour, which is so prominent that it becomes the line’s defining feature. We understand that it’s a jun, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to experience so much honey with every sip that it takes away from everything else. The same honey seems to be in use throughout the whole line as well, which is a pity, as honey varietals have an enormous amount of variance and fair much better when paired accordingly.

And while the honey is oppressively omnipresent, the line as a whole suffers from inconsistent quality between batches***. With each flavour we found our notes varied measurably from bottle to bottle, bottle to tap, and even tap to tap. Of course, jun cultures are alive and complex, and as such it’s unrealistic to expect their products to ever be exactly the same, but the best brewers have an incredible amount of control over their process and are able to produce a fairly reliable identity with each flavour. This in mind, our notes are an average of our tastings, with things not shared between samples omitted.

Our once-favourite Raspberry Goji Rose is definitely still one of the better flavours, and undoubtedly the most user-friendly, smelling and tasting all at once like bubblegum, watermelon sour candy and a wine cooler. These things, as well as raspberry, goji, and rose. The fact that they captured the ever-so-subtle goji, though, is most impressive. Rose here, as it often does in kombuchas, comes through wonderfully baring resemblance to ruby red grapefruit. Really, our only disappointment is in the addition of honey, the heaviness of which weighs down an otherwise deliciously ebullient flavour.

Tropical Turmeric sort of immediately offends us by its name alone. We aren’t fans of employing the generic ‘tropical’ to connote such a narrow flavour spectrum to begin with. Abbreviating the most biologically diverse region on the planet to a few of its more popular species is grossly unfair, to say the least. Once we ignore the title though, and judge it for what it is… we’re confused at best. The honey overwhelmingly dominates the nose, being far too dark for the bright turmeric and pineapple to come through much at all. On the palette, the turmeric ends up lending a slight smokey quality, which though interesting, like the honey, doesn’t leave room for the pineapple. Hints of the fruit faintly wash around alongside the here surprisingly sheepish ginger, never becoming very present. Peppercorns appear as another nearly undetectable ingredient, likely for their ability to increase the absorption of turmeric into the blood stream, enhancing its anti-inflammatory effects. While appreciated, in this instance the pepper really serves more of a symbolic purpose than anything else, as the quantity of turmeric is far too insignificant for any noticeable therapeutic effects.

Though gaining more and more attention in the culinary sphere, lavender is still a flavour difficult to find done well. While many go overboard into soap territory, Wild Tonic’s Lavender Love pleasantly does not. It actually smells and tastes like flowers, rather than cheap extract, and captures a rich, darker part of the flower that’s almost spice-like. This flavour, by far, pairs best with the line’s uniform honey, melding almost perfectly with its full body. The ingredient list states more than just lavender though, including rose hips, jasmine, hibiscus, and prickly pear. The first two of these provide much needed acidity and richness respectively, but the latter items have with each tasting been completely lost on us and seem like an empty gesture. Delicious, but a bit one-note.

Rosemary Lemon has been the least consistent from batch to batch in our experience, but it may be on average the most interesting, successful flavour Wild Tonic has to offer. To find rosemary in a drink is rare to say the least, and not surprisingly so. Its hyper-herbaceous quality is difficult to tame, but here they’ve done just that, and perfectly – balancing it between the syrupy-sweet depths of the honey and the bright cut of the lemon. Much like with Lavender Love, they’ve captured a very accurate portrait of the plant, and in their unexaggerated and perceptive technique they effectively communicate what otherwise could easily become lost in translation.

Spiced Pear is surely the gravest disappointment of the bunchIt’s a shock to us that it successfully made it to market shelves at all. While it may sound promising, especially in the cooler months, its reality is one smelling and tasting unmistakably of melting plastic. We don’t mean reminiscent of, hinting at, or subtly imbued with, we mean it literally smells and tastes like melting plastic. There’s something resembling olives snuggling up to the plastic too, and somewhere underneath all that it’s possible (kind of) to identify the presence of a pear and some spices. It’s incredibly bland, basically amounting to not much more than mildly fizzy plastic honey water.

With the exception of Spiced Pear, these flavours are far from awful. Remnants of mastery can easily be found throughout the line. The problems that are there might get worked out over time, but why the company felt compelled to rush some of these to market instead of just honing their new craft as they did their old is beyond us. Something about it reeks of a desperate, get-rich-quick sort of scheme. Admittedly, it’s one that seems to be working out for them just fine – as they’re already planning to expand nationally within the year.

As consumers, we’re always sad to see small-scale artisans sell-out as they scale-up. It isn’t at all necessary, as so many before have demonstrated. We hope that fledgling producers choose whose steps they wish to follow in wisely, for even if they both lead to wealth and success, one comes at the expense of both dignity and artistry.

*We have since learned that the founders of Olinka worked with Wild Tonic to reformulate their kombucha recipes into juns and bring them to mass market. Long story short, while the Wild Tonic project has proved to be rather successful, the relationship between the two parties didn’t work out, and the Olinka folks decided to return to their smaller Sedona-local operation with classic cane sugar brews and new flavours.

**They make a number of other claims that are either unfounded, misleading, or entirely untrue. One of them is a widely proliferated myth regarding jun’s origins – see Jenny at Nourished Kitchen‘s findings on the subject.

***As of May 2016, it appears that Wild Tonic has finally resolved their batch inconsistency issues. All recent samples over the past 3 months have been thoroughly consistent.

 

Simply Gum

Simply_Gum_Ginger

If you frequent Whole Foodsyou’ve probably noticed by now these simply designed white square boxes sitting pretty on the displays as you wait by the register. Other health food stores carry them too, but the difference in frequency of appearance is notable.

To be clear, we aren’t gum people. Not even close, really. We’re also not too keen on ingesting glycerin (an ingredient used here to retain moisture), as its antibacterial properties are not welcome in our digestive systems, and neither is its blocking of mineral absorption welcome in our mouths or on our teeth. But considering this is what seems to be the best gum out there so far, we made an exception in the name of research.

Simply_Gum_Fennel

Simply Gumas its name suggests, is an attempt to create a quality chewing gum with as little junk as possible. At first glance, its ingredients might not seem particularly special, and they shouldn’t: organic dried cane juice, all natural chicle*, all natural flavour/s**, organic vegetable glycerin, organic sunflower lecithin, and organic rice flour. That’s really all you need. If you check out the ingredient lists of most other popular gums, however, you’ll find a roster of cryptic components. Chief and most problematic among these is the mysterious ‘gum base’. Where Simply Gum uses chicle (a more traditional base made from several trees of the Manilkara genus), most producers hide beneath the term things such as paraffin wax (most commonly derived from refined petroleum), polyvinyl acetate (literally Elmer’s glue), and hydrogenated vegetable oils (only a molecule away from plastic), to name a few.

You can probably gather that in terms of ingredients, Simply has little to no competition.

Once those ingredients are set aside though, the stakes are much higher. Other than their natural colouring (or lack thereof – however you want to look at it), the pellet shaped pieces they come in are not particularly attractive. The flavoural experience (whether it’s Ginger, Fennel Licorice, Cinnamon, or, we would guess, any of their other three) is also distinctively brief, disappearing almost entirely after about 30 seconds. The bulk of it after about 5. It’s mild while it’s there too, never giving that mouthfilling bigness of flavour (think: Big Red or Winterfresh) that some desire. In a way, its soft-spoken nature is refreshing – it feels honest. The texture is amazing, and by far serves as the most pleasurable part of the experience. A really excellent super-smooth chew that doesn’t overwork your jaw or wind up getting compacted into an unfortunate squishy rock-like substance.

WARNING: Do not attempt to use as bubblegum. Big enough bubbles are sure to pop, and will stick to whatever surface they happen to meet like a motherfucker. Individuals with facial hair of any kind should be especially wary.

Cinnamon_Simply_Gum

On an individual basis, the three flavours we sampled showed substantial variation in quality.

We started with Ginger, which surprised us from the moment we opened its package with the unmistakable scent (and later, taste) of cigarette smoke of all things. It seemed as though it was coming from the darker, duller part of the root – much like some powdered gingers, as opposed to the bright, spicy part we were expecting. Kind of interesting; ultimately, not what we’re looking for in a gum – certainly not breath freshening. Fennel Licorice provided welcome contrast with its happily realistic portrayal of the eponymous ingredients. Almost tangible in its complexity and subtle shading, conjuring up a sense of both traditional licorice chews and fresh-picked fennel, this is by far the most refreshing and our definite favourite. And in Cinnamon, despite being formulated from actual cassia, Simply still ends up leaning on the familiar artificial profile (overly spicy, one-dimensional), albeit a toned down version; sitting somewhere in the potpourri department, hovering between nice and air freshener. Unlike the other two though, cinnamon does indeed build intensity over time. Granted, it is a short period of time, and the max is far from max, but it does so more than the others, which is something.

Overall, Simply Gum’s flavour just doesn’t keep up with its chew. Fennel Licorice does a pretty damn good job, but even that dissipates too quickly. For a gum, their ingredients are fantastic, and though we have some minor quibbles with their packaging (which we aren’t going into) they have a great look that really sets them apart from their competition as much on the outside as their formulas do on the inside. We hope they’ll continue to work on their product, as there is still plenty of room for improvement in the flavour department. Anyone for whom chewability is a high priority though, will most certainly not be disappointed, and at the end of the day, it is chewing gum after all. The flavour is just a fun temporary bonus.

We certainly aren’t going to be purchasing any more of these for reasons we’ve already mentioned, but for folks who just can’t go without their gum, Simply does get our recommendation.

*We’re assuming chicle is one of those difficult to certify ingredients, mostly due to its source. Likely a non-issue.

**Natural flavourants are easy to source organically, so we’re a bit puzzled as to why they cut this little corner.

Yin Yang Hot Sauce

Yin_Yang_Hot_Sauce_HotSauce_Boulder_Colorado

Craft hot sauce exploded in the US over a decade ago. If you’re into heat, it’s almost difficult these days not to find a peppery blend to match your taste. Despite small producers proving to be kind of the norm within the hot sauce sphere, it’s still frustratingly difficult to find many who take their ingredient sourcing seriously. Whether it’s hot sauce’s associated macho mentality or the fact that it’s ‘just a condiment’, to find an organic hot sauce that isn’t one of the few familiar health food store staples is a welcome surprise.

Whatever the reason, we were excited to find the minimalist-styled Yin Yang hot sauce on the shelves of a Denver Whole Foods. A Boulder-based company, they’ve apparently been around for over 10 years now and have yet to distribute outside the state of Colorado. We’re hoping that’s just due to a preference for localism on their part – it certainly isn’t because of a lack of quality.

Like most foods, there are of course already well-established hot sauce styles. But as the craft scene continues its steady growth in production and popularity, so do those sauces which defy easy categorization. Yin Yang, suiting its name, is light and dark, sharp and smoky, intense and simultaneously mild-mannered. It’s even tropical meets Midwestern – calling it just a ‘hot sauce’, might not even be entirely accurate, as it lies very much on the outskirts of traditional ‘hot sauce’ territory, bordering on BBQ and steak sauces as well (even in terms of viscosity). To put things more simply and satisfy curiosity, it’s closest relative is probably Jamaica’s iconic Pickapeppa. But instead of being fruit-heavy and relatively tame in terms of heat, Yin Yang stretches their shared elements in considerably different directions, inventing for itself a singular purposeful identity.

For the most part, this sauce is incredibly consistent – the entire story reveals itself nearly immediately. The tang comes first. Quickly, on its own, the vinegary brightness lays way for the heat which builds up to a point and then plateaus, satisfying the masochism inherent in hot sauce consumption, without leaving one scarred from the experience. The habaneros aren’t simply employed for pure capsaicin content, but also their tropical fruitiness, which binds with the mysterious ‘other’ fruit (their labeling doesn’t divulge any specifics – verifying even the habanero took a bit of research), and meets the smoky low-tones to round it out. You’re then left to ride out the echoing umami waves until the heat completes its quiet diminution.

To see how Yin Yang works, we paired it with a variety of super-simple dishes: fried eggs, hamburgers, mashed potatoes, and collard greens. With the fried eggs and hamburgers, adding only salt, it filled flavoural nooks and crannies that weren’t even necessarily there it was so perfect. The mashed potatoes pleasantly muted its highest parts, leaving the smoky richness to come through, bringing it especially close to its BBQ sauce cousins. And the collards, though they were least appropriate, were also great, simply requiring a bit more zing, for which we used a splash of ume vinegar. It doesn’t have quite the ridiculous flexibility of say, rooster sauce, which people put on or in everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to ice cream, but within certain bounds Yin Yang does have quite a bit of versatility, and in many contexts is even stellar.

Other ideas we had were: with corn on the cob, sautéed mushrooms, in place of chipotle in a chipotle ranch, on a Tex-Mex style salad or burrito, and in some combination with Emmentaler and pineapple.

Literally our one disappointment is that the peppers aren’t organic. For whatever reason, finding organic peppers does seem to be harder than most anything else, so we’re not surprised that they’re the only non-organic ingredients. With that said though, they aren’t impossible to find, and they’re becoming easier and easier to obtain. We hope that eventually Yin Yang’s choices will be reflective of the change.

 Mountain Culture Kombucha

While passing through Virginia recently, we came upon a brand of kombucha we’d never seen before which turned out to come from some local brewers: Mountain Culture Kombucha. Admittedly, the goofy-casual branding on the bottles had us skeptical about the quality of what they might contain, but their ingredients seemed solid and their flavoural aims were intriguing enough. So, we picked up three flavours that covered a decently broad scope and crossed our fingers.

Mountain_Culture_Kombucha_Original_Appalachian_Harvest_Citra_Hops

By the time we had tried the first one, we were already back on the road. If only we’d known while we were still in Virginia how incredible these were! We would have picked up one of every flavour. These are brilliants brews; so far, across the whole line. Our selections were Citra Hops, Original, and Appalachian Harvest. To get a sense of the brewer’s baseline approach when trying new kombuchas, we always make an effort to pick up an ‘original’ if they produce one. It’s an important barometer once you start trying their blends.

We already mentioned that part of what convinced us to give Mountain Culture a try was their unique flavours. Citra Hops? We’d yet to have hops in any kombucha (excluding kombucha beer), and most certainly not such particular, fun varieties of hops (they use centennial hops as well as the eponymous citra hops). With Appalachian Harvest, the name drew us in. It clearly communicated a flavoural impression without relying on explicitly named ingredients or gimmicky-cute titles (e.g. Fred Astaire Pear or Elite Beet). Others we’ve yet to experience include a mixed mint blend that includes one of our favorite mint varieties – chocolate mint, and Sumatra Sunrise, a coffee-infused kombucha and the only one of theirs to use honey.

Extreme balance and delicacy struck us most about Mountain Culture. For having such strong personalities, every one of the varieties we tried was almost weirdly understated, ‘quiet’, and remarkably tasteful, with a physical lightness that nearly lifts you up with it (likely a result of Mountain Culture’s apparent preference for green tea as opposed to black). But that alone doesn’t get close to explaining the miracles these bottles contain. For all their delicateness, they are intensely clear and focused. The two biggest kombucha problems are entirely avoided: it isn’t yeasty, or vinegary. The effervescence is perfect – fine, concentrated, and released gradually and consistently throughout. Not too strong at the outset, and not going flat five minutes after opening. Even their appearance is distinctive, with the colours of all three possessing a glowing quality similar to what you might see in fresh whey from good raw milk.

Despite Mountain Culture’s complexity, these are by far some of the most accessible kombuchas we’ve had. If you’ve yet to successfully convince people that kombucha can be anything other than just a ‘silly health tonic’, these would be a great place to start. Seriously, you could serve these in place of champagne or prosecco at a fancy dinner party and no one would be disappointed, except of course those expecting alcohol.

Citra Hops provides incredibly refreshing perspectives on both kombucha and hops. Dried hops have such a wonderful smell, and making a simple tea from them with lemon juice is lovely. It’s sad that they’re an ingredient so inextricably related to beer for most people, as they’ve got much more going on flavour-wise than the ‘hoppy’ quality generally identified in a typical beer profile. In the context of a kombucha, which is lighter than pretty much any beer you’re likely to find, hops gets to have fun and lend its floral and fruity notes, leaving its bitter baggage behind. Citra Hops explodes at the top end with bright citrus, particularly grapefruit and lime, with a delicate rosewater-like quality balancing out the high end.

Their Original is a radically unique essential kombucha. Especially surprising in relation to Citra Hops, as so much of what seemed to be decoration from the hops was actually coming from the brew itself! The intense lightness, the smooth profile, and excitingly elusive citrus seem to characterize Mountain Culture as a whole, at least what we’ve had of it so far, and for these qualities to come from the kombucha alone is incredible. More than with most kombucha lines, this Original is very much a part of the other flavours – not only tying them together as a series or serving as a carrier, but playing an integral part in their identity. The way it handled sweetness was so perfect it could almost slip by unnoticed; like the temperature outside matching that of the surface of your skin. To craft a kombucha of such piercing, quiet beauty without adulteration shows true artistry on the part of brewmaster Peter Roderick.

Mountain_Culture_Kombucha_Appalachian_Harvest

Though these all blew us away, Appalachian Harvest was especially different, both in appearance and taste. Its color is a distinctive hazy orange, almost unnatural looking before you remember the ingredients. Its flavour is a skillful balancing act of carrot, apple, ginger, and of course kombucha. Though its not unusual to find these three ingredients together, the way it’s done is unlike anything we’ve ever had. Carrot contributes earthy, rooty tones that are somehow light, nonintrusive, and pleasantly avoidant of its typical association with juice bars. Ginger is surprisingly subdued, adding the slightest electric zing without ever getting to its usual point of bite. Apple is almost unidentifiably mild, except as a very gentle supporting sweetness outside the kombucha base’s profile, rounding out the picture perfectly. Appalachian Harvest appreciates aspects of all three flavours that ultimately feel deeply familiar, highlighting by association elements of each that you may have forgotten were even there.

Ingredient wise, it seems as though Mountain Culture is doing everything right, but we can’t say for sure as their labeling is a bit unclear. As is pretty much standard for kombucha at this point, they are organic and unpasteurized. They use spring water, which always gets a plus in our book, and especially so when they’re trying to reflect their regional character by using local water sources. On their site it says they use fresh-pressed juices and ‘raw sugar’, which would be amazing and rare, but on their bottles some juices are labeled ‘fresh-pressed’ and others are simply ‘pressed’ (leading us to think probably cold-pressed but bottled juices), and the sugar is just evaporated cane juice. We’re betting this is probably just a case of a young company that hasn’t gotten their labeling and information unified yet, rather than any sort of purposeful evasiveness on their part.

If you happen to live in Virginia or otherwise find yourself in the area, lucky you! Grab as many as you can get your hands on! Unfortunately for most of us, Mountain Culture is currently keeping close to home, and doesn’t appear to be available in stores outside the state, with D.C. being the one exception. It’s also available by delivery in select parts of North Carolina.

Cacao Prieto – selections from the Criollo series

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Since the Mast Brothers emergence from Brooklyn in 2007, craft chocolatiers have become an integral part of the urban Northeast’s artisanal foods scene. Of course the Mast Brothers are practically a household name at this point, but their former position as ‘those chocolate folks from Brooklyn’ is no longer a tenable title as three other companies also hailing from the area seem to be gaining a strong foothold: Fine & Raw, Raaka, and Cacao Prieto. Being the least familiar with the latter (as their distribution seems to have the smallest radius), we were intrigued when we came upon them recently; first by the nicely typeset, open-framed boxes of their organic, single-origin fruit-and-nut ‘bark bars’, and then by the decadent packaging of their Criollo series. Impressive production standards, including the fact that they own and operate the farm their cacao and sugar both come from, made the decision final.

As now seems to be expected of craft chocolate producers – at least in Brooklyn – Cacao Prieto has a factory/store which offers tours and tastings of both their chocolate and a variety of liquors (many infused with cacao) that they also produce in-house. Their founder, Daniel Prieto Preston, is a former aerospace technologies inventor, a background which after moving into the role of chocolatier he brought to the field in order to invent and improve upon various chocolate-making machines he felt had yet to reach their full technological potential. Chief among these is Prieto Preston’s Vortex Winnower – a custom winnowing machine which is made to separate cacao nib from husk to a degree of exactitude that has until now been otherwise unachievable.

In trying to select two bars which might best represent their general approach, we went with Original and Dominican Spicethough other flavours such as Orchid and Absinthe were also tempting.

You can’t help but take notice of the Criollo series’ packaging. It’s attractive. That said, beyond simple aesthetics it becomes a bit problematic. In this line of bars, the design appears to be directly referencing the Dominican Republic’s colonial history, as well as another popular export from the republic: cigars. Here we find the company’s name ‘hand-written’ on a cigar-style label in a script that feels designed to give the impression of its having been penned by an early colonist-turned-plantation owner. These labels impose themselves on the underlying ‘primitive’ patterning which appears to be very vaguely hinting at the idea of traditional Dominican art or textiles. Then to make things official, the outer label is reinforced with an embossment of the Prieto seal, putting the final stamp on this miniature drama of semiotics. Of course, we aren’t assuming any of these details are intentional, but feel they warrant mentioning.

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Once unwrapped, the two bars appear identical in colour, which makes sense as all their cacao is of the same hyper-specific origin. Their minimalist gridding stands in sharp contrast to their highly stylized exterior packaging. There’s no bas-relief artwork cast on the bar’s top, no geometric texturing of each square, just chocolate effectively divided into rectangular pieces. The background connecting all the pieces is both disarmingly thin and reassuringly sturdy, making for an easy and clean breaking off of each bite, as well as an unaffected minimalism and lightness that feels very contemporary.

Biting into the bars, we were both immediately underwhelmed. Where’s the cacao fruit? Hidden beneath the dark roast perhaps, as that’s most of what we found we were tasting. The roast is, in its own right, lovely, but it definitely makes for a much more uniform flavour profile, one that is far more distanced from its roots than we expected from a company that so touts the distinctiveness of their ‘terroir’. Texturally too, the degree of smoothness, though impressive, didn’t do anything for us. Initially exciting, the silky extremity ultimately felt artificial, similar to ice cream made with a Pacojet. Likely appealing to some, but not to us.

The Original bar was a subtle experience. With none of them being particularly distinctive, most of the flavours we found had to really be reached for. There was an element of dried fruit, specifically one of raisin, which was nicely distributed throughout, giving it a good rounded balance. The high, slightly fruity, pre-bitter part of coffee was present as well. Overall though, it’s just a really well-made, ‘classic’ chocolate. Classic in the sense that it tastes familiar and comforting, favours roast over fruit, and strives for uniformity in its texture. It would make for a really great s’more.

Dominican Spice defied our expectations as well, but in a much more interesting way. Knowing it was to contain allspice, clove, cassia (cinnamon), and nutmeg, we were prepared for the spices to be much more heavy-handed; a ‘flavoured’ chocolate bar. We were instead confronted with a very tastefully balanced ratio of cacao to spice. Achingly restrained, so delicately handled that it felt more like an example of a slightly different varietal than an alteration of the bar we’d just tried. For the most part, none of the spices stood out on their own, but together formed something akin to a mild winter tea or a good eggnog. In different moments, we briefly tasted dried blueberry, chicory, and at one point a spiciness that was difficult to attribute a source to.

It should be said that we have definite preferences in chocolate bar styles. Generally, we like to experience the cacao plant itself in some way, whether that’s by highlighting its true fruitiness, or by leaving enough texture behind to help draw attention to its original seed state. Cacao Prieto produces bars that do neither of these things, but with that said, for a certain and other taste, these could be near ideals.

Despite our indifferences, the bars are undeniably strong from a technical perspective. Nothing is wrong with them, per se. They’re smooth, rich, and incredibly well-balanced. They may not be carving out radically new territory in the field of chocolate bars, but they’re certainly refining aspects of it. There’s a lot of subtlety to their craft, and the basic ingredients are all highly traceable and seem to be coming from an excellent source. Though they’re not our cup of tea, we do appreciate Cacao Prieto’s intended trajectory.

Dupont’s 2011 Organic Cider (Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie)

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We picked this cider up on a sort of hasty whim from a small health food store in Jacksonville, Florida named Grassroots Natural Market that had an uncommonly fantastic selection of beers, wines, and ciders for such a tiny shop (and a natural foods-oriented one at that). For whatever reason, there aren’t a lot of organic ciders and beers out there yet, so when we come across ones we haven’t seen, such as this treasure from French producer Domaine Dupont we feel like we’re obligated to give them a try. It wasn’t until a few days later when we went to photograph and review this bottle that we noticed it was from 2011, which is quite well-aged in cider terms. They can certainly age longer, but even the producers themselves suggest five years is about the end of the curve before potential decline, so this one was definitely peaking by the time we’d gotten to it.

After we popped the cork, but before we started in on sniffs and tastes, the intensity of the cider’s carbonation was more than apparent. Pouring it into our glasses, it was almost unreal how persistent the bubbles were. It looked as though they were being pumped into the glass from beneath the table it was so effervescent. In total, we were sipping for at least half-an-hour, and by the time we were through they were still going pretty strong. The color was a deep ambery-gold, slightly cloudy, with a bit of sediment on the bottom.

The leather hit us right away. Overpowering, touching on suffocating at first, it remained present and up-front the entire time. On the nose, on the tongue, it is off-dry, medium-bodied, carbonated leather extract. Underneath, there was something like the deep syrupy part of overripe pineapple, with the sweet element of tobacco coming in to meet the two in the middle. Very fun blend of flavours. The tobacco-leather quality could even be described as smoked paprika. As it opens up, you can start to catch the apple of the cider for a millisecond as it hits the front of your tongue, then on to the leathery tobacco again, before finishing with black or kalamata olives at the back.

Our favorite effect was perhaps that eventually, if allowed to sit on your tongue for long enough, the warming of the cider in the mouth released the comforting flavour of warm cooked apples, which after such a distinctly non-apple experience was a welcome reminder of this beverage’s origins. Funny that the most present apple taste was one of cooked apples, seeing as the cider is unpasteurized!

We’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for Domaine Dupont from now on, and cannot wait to find out what different vintages might have in store for us.  It shouldn’t be hard to spot them as their labeling is gorgeously minimal, with a nicely textured paper stock on a good heavy bottle. It’s a pity there aren’t more domestically produced unpasteurized ciders made with organic apples. We have no problem reaching overseas for quality, but it seems silly that we should almost have to. We’ll be heading to the Pacific Northwest soon though, and in that area surely we’ll find more ciders along these lines. If you have any recommendations, please let us know!