January 16, 2015

THE DCSCENE: Beer, fast and furious

Washington, DC: Our Nation’s Capitol. Home of the Lincoln Memorial, Sasha and Malia Obama and me. Because home is where you fork over 90% of your income to rent every month, right!?!

Welcome to Washington.

DC is truly one of this country’s weirdest cities. With a population just under 650,000, this pretty little town set upon the banks of the Potomac looks and acts like a big deal. JFK said it best: “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”

Screenwriter and author Nora Ephron - ex-wife of the famed Carl Bernstein - once said that the thing about DC is that no one in DC thinks there is anything going on outside DC. All you have to do to affirm that theory is go to any bar in the city and wait for some d-bag who thinks he’s going to be the next Paul Ryan shove a drink in your face, have you reject it and watch him short circuit while screaming, “BUT I WORK ON THE HILL!!!” (Translation: I answer phones for a congressman you’ve never heard of, but who will resign over a sexting scandal momentarily).

All this aside, Washington is my home. Actually, Washington is in my blood. They say no one is really “from” DC, but my family is the exception to that rule. We are seventh generation Washingtonians, and my great-grandmother was even Miss District of Columbia in the 1920s. Despite that I’m a Boston gal originally, a piece of me has always felt that DC is home, and regardless of the constant eye-rolling that one has to do to survive in this town, DC has some pretty cool stuff going on.

One of these cool things is the beer scene. DC does not have a historical precedent of breweries like Milwaukee or Boston does. Part of this is due to Virginia and DC pint laws. Previously, breweries could not sell full pints of beer in their tasting rooms. Once the law was repealed (in 2012 in Virginia and 2014 in DC), entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to expand their businesses. Like the city’s residents, this new scene is young, ambitious and somewhat transient. Three breweries have opened up in the last two years, but not without burnout. For example, Chocolate City recently closed its doors in December, just a month after Hellbender Brewing opened its for the first time. I took to the streets to explore two of the Beltway’s very different breweries. 

BLUEJACKET

Photo credit: Megan Bailey, Neighborhood Restaurant Group

My first brewery is a new kid on the block, but comes from pedigreed parents. Bluejacket is located in the previously shady and now yuppie Navy Yard, a neighborhood that’s just recently become up-and-coming. You needn’t search far for signs of gentrification here. Just in the last year, this place has become home to perfectly manicured dog parks, fro-yo shops and dads carrying babies in those stomach-sack things. But I gotta admit, it’s a pretty pleasant place to be.

The Navy Yard: Not so bad, eh?

When the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (parents of such beertopias as Churchkey, GBD, and Birch and Barley) began to search for their next venture, it’s no surprise they settled on building a brewery in an abandoned warehouse a couple blocks from the new Nationals Stadium.

Before...

...And after. Ta-da!

Photo credit: Megan Bailey, Neighborhood Restaurant Group

Bluejacket is just so DC. Industrial farmhouse d├ęcor, an ever-changing beer menu and a clientele that ranges from defense contractors to Hill staffers to awk sauce first Tinder dates. Every time I’m there, I’m convinced Frank Underwood is lurking in one of the darkened corner booths, seducing a young Politico reporter. This place even has a kale-toting restaurant inside and a bakery attached next door. Talk about synergy.

Clientele aside, there are some strange and exotic flavors to behold in this corner of the District. Things to know:
  • They do not skimp on the ABV. You do get your moneys worth in most of these beers, so be wary of trying to drive your drunk ass home from Southeast (good news: the Metro is a block away). 
  • A lot of the beers have a sweetness in flavor, so this place is a sugar addict’s dream (perhaps a result of it being literally attached to a bakery). 
  • Go cask, or go home! One of the best parts of Bluejacket is that they serve cask ales. Cask ales mature in a cask. They are unfiltered and thus said to be “true ales.” The strongest cask ales age in the cask for months. On my last visit, I tried the Macaroon. It lived up to its name. It had toasted coconut, cacao and vanilla beans thrown in the cask, which made this brown ale basically the equivalent of drinking a boozy cupcake. Mama like. 
  • Too shy to go cask? Fine. My recommendation is the classic Mexican Radio. This is one of the few beers that stays on the menu year-round. This stout is inspired by mole, and it has a full, creamy body, a spicy cinnamon kick and a smoky, chili pepper aftertaste. If you really don’t have a sweet tooth (aka you don’t have a soul) try the Sailor for a jolt of peppery flavor, or the Duchamp for a nice farmhouse ale. 

Some tasty samplers. Mexican Radio in the center.

In a city like this, it’s all about the next new thing. Bluejacket is a small brewery with the resources of a big fish. Because of this, they have the ability to adapt to the ever-changing, eternally-bored population of DC. Bluejacket has made 115 beers in a single year, including 40 collaborations with other small breweries, and nothing there lasts for too long. 


The extensive (and fleeting) menu.  

Photo credit: Megan Bailey, Neighborhood Restaurant Group

All in all, if you want to be where DC’s cool kids are, Bluejacket is your spot.


PORT CITY BREWING COMPANY

Photo credit: Virginia Tourism Corporation/Sarah Hauser

Despite DC’s big attitude, very few Washingtonians actually live in Washington. Most of DC’s “residents” really live in Virginia or Maryland. Port City Brewing Company sits right outside Washington in historic Alexandria, an old port city (get it!?) on the Potomac River that is now a bougey suburb of DC. In fact, George and Martha themselves had an apartment in town  – a mere nine miles from their estate at Mount Vernon – to crash at after nights of presidential partying.

Mount Vernon: The original party pad.

The brewery itself is in the middle of nowhere, buried behind a quiet, residential neighborhood. However, once you find it, it’s well worth the search. Port City was founded in 2011 by owner Bill Butcher as an effort to convince his wife that craft beer - like wine - should be taken seriously. The mission here is transform beer's image from frat guys crushing cans on their heads to beer connoisseurs creating quality and craft. Hence, the brewery’s slogan: “Elevating craft beer.”


The vibe here is low-key, befitting of the 'burbs. When I arrived on a Friday night, there were about thirty or so folks merrily drinking at picnic tables set up around the tap room, with a local food truck parked outside for snacks. However, the camaraderie here is incredible. The brewers are friendly and fun, and several who were not even on shift showed up just to hang out. The staff have no problem popping a squat right next to you and sharing a beer.

Port City’s whole attitude is that good things come in small batches. Quality over quantity is the rule of the day, so if you’re looking for a big selection, this is not the spot for you. The brewery has five steadies, five seasonals and five “occasionals.” The place is still in start-up mode, and the brewers are quick to let you know that things fly fast and loose here. 

“We’re pretty punk rock,” said Jonathan, the head brewer. Innovation is one of the brewery’s strengths, especially when it comes to sustainability. For example, all the bottles are made from sea glass from Virginia beaches. Additionally, the trademarked Hopzooka is one of their major innovations, and a big coup for the brewing industry. This patent pending device uses CO2 to force hops into the fermenter without exposing the beer inside to oxygen. Pretty groovy. 

Hopzooka baby!

Now, onto the beer:
  • My first recommendation is the Optimal Wit. It’s a Belgian “Wit Bier,” which means it has that carb-a-licious wheat taste, but with the faintest hint of orange in here. This is a solid kitchen table beer - one to add to your weekly grocery list for sure. And if you need more proof of its tastiness, Optimal Wit won the Gold Medal at The 2013 Great American Beer Festival. 
  • My second recommendation is a seasonal called Long Black Veil. Prepare to be spooked: Long Black Veil is a dark, dark beer full of dark malt, hops and an even darker back story. The beer was inspired by a local ghost story about a bizarre woman called the “Female Stranger.” As the story goes, in 1816 a ship arrived from the West Indies in the port of Alexandria with a British man and his wife aboard. The couple had fallen ill, and for an unknown reason, the woman wore a thick black veil to hide her face. Having crossed the town looking for shelter, the couple moved into the local inn. For two whole months, the husband never left his wife’s bedside, and no one in the town ever found out who she was. She died on October 14th, and her husband fled in the night, without a soul ever knowing the woman’s identity. Some say it was Theodosia Burr, daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr. Some say it was Napoleon Bonaparte, escaping exile. The truth remains a mystery, and the Female Stranger’s grave lies in Alexandria’s St. Paul’s Cemetery, a stone’s throw away from the brewery itself. Have chills yet? If that doesn’t give it to you, the bite in this hoppy beer sure will! 

The five essentials at Port City. 

Photo credit: Virginia Tourism Corporation/Sarah Hauser


There you have it. Two very different breweries, each with its own distinctly Washingtonian charm. That's two down and seven to go here in the District. In the meantime, I’m off to grab a beer. Cheers from our Nation’s Capitol! 



Love,
Marley


October 18, 2014

SICILY: The Mediterranean Diet

Dear Marlz,

If the island of Sicily were a human organ, it would be the stomach. The root of unforgiving desire, the persistent awareness that even after a binge there is STILL more space to fill.

I ate entirely too much food in Sicily.



Of course, it was GOOD food. And when I say GOOD I mean regional, fresh, natural, traditional. In line with rationalizing the act of consuming more calories than I could hope to burn in a triathlon, I will now give you the highs and lows of my cucina siciliana experience, in hopes that you all can save a few inches on your waistline thanks to my tested methods:

Il Cannolo
Where should I begin with cannoli. I’ll begin with grammar. In the United States, people refer to a single pastry as ‘cannoli’… possibly because we’re already thinking about inhaling the second and third delicacy into our greedy little mouths. More probably is the fact that we often refer to Italian foods in the plural tense (think “panini”), when we are speaking about a singular item. This is one of those things that makes Americans great. Keep doing you, America.




The origin of cannoli is open to interpretation, however it’s generally agreed that the pastries were first made near Sicily’s capital city, Palermo, during the Arab rule some thousand years ago. Stuffed with sweet fresh ricotta and sugary, chocolate toppings, these flaky fried pastry-shelled beauties were offered in celebration of Carnevale. I enjoyed my first Sicilian cannolo on the eve after my 25th birthday, in celebration of finding out just how much formaggio I could consume in one sitting, as well as losing the festering worry that such life pursuits could be a bad idea. 

Il Calzone
In my hometown of Cortland, New York, there’s a calzone shop called D.P. Dough. It’s target customers are drunk college students with dead taste buds, but I’d like to pay homage to my roots - because damn it all if I didn’t start my love for calzoni here. But time marches on and one day you find yourself eye to eye with a deep fried, tuma cheese-filled monster and you think - my goodness - nothing could have prepared me for this. 

In the Catania region these babies come DEEP FRIED. That's right. And you thought only Americans did that.
La birra
So to pull you back down to the fertile but jagged soils of the Sicilian earth, I’ll attempt to explain the beer. In short - it’s awful. Keep in mind I have been fortunate to live kiddy corner to Lagunitas Brewing Company in California, as well as frequent Berlin’s most deliciously fermented east side bars in the last years. So maybe this is just another righteous critique of an island that truly yielded passionate culinary abandon to much of Western Europe, South America, and everyone’s favorite NEW YORK NEW YORK, but it must be said. Don’t go to Sicily for the Italian beer. Go to Sicily to drink Belgian beer while drooling into a margarita pizza, like any good traveler could hope to do.


Arriving back to mainland Italy, I found Roma exactly as I had left it - in beautiful chaos. I borrow this term from my friend who resided here for years, but who moved north to Belgium where transportation maintains a plausible sense of a schedule. ‘Coming home’ to Roma reawakened my adventurous spirit - an energy that had been draining as the summer drew to a close, burst with a renewed sense that, yes, there is more space to fill.

With good fortune I've come into great friendships with people here in Roma, locals and travelers alike, to share in the discoveries of beer opportunities in our little town of crazy. It turns out the brew scene in Roma is molto buona. A couple recent finds:

It’s a wall of microbrew bottles. It’s overwhelming. It’s expensive. It’s ROMA. I drank a Saranac Legacy IPA both in the name of my homeland of upstate New York, and my profound obsession with hoppy brews that make my head spin after 7 minutes.

BONUS: Beerland pours your specialty crafted brew from the pretty labeled bottles into plastic cups so you can get the hell out of their shop and go drink on the fountain steps without threat of broken glass in your shoes at the end of the night. Berlin, take notice!


Porto Fluviale
Rumored to be one of the best new neighborhoods to drink in, I’ve naturally become a frequent visitor. I suggest two spots: Bibere Bistrot and.. the place next to it. I cannot for the life of me remember the name (do we see a pattern forming from previous posts?). Luckily my senile ways do not prevent me from recalling the brew-consumption memories: All of the following are IPA local brews- when I find an Italian place that brews their own American IPA I just melt (and become very intoxicated). I'd like to highlight  another NY favorite, Brooklyn Brewery. This here is sheer hoppy bliss. With a side of bread and honey.





Finally, to leave you on a yeasty note:

Making pizza dough is easier than I had originally thought. All you need to do is find a capable Italian friend, tell them you are hungry, and supply him with flour, salt, sugar, yeast, oil and a bit of warm water. Watch, appreciate, devour. Repeat.


Buon appetito, and remember: Rome was not built in a day, but in a day you can set yourself back thousands of calories and give yourself two weeks worth of guilt just from eating ricotta cheese. It is always worth it. Always.

Indulgent love and warm greetings from Roma <3

- Elizabeth

September 23, 2014

ALASKA: The Last Frontier

HELP ME, LIZ.

I’m flying in a tiny plane over Mount McKinley, and I’m about to die.


YIKES.


This was not exactly what I had in mind when I decided to strap on my hiking boots and forge my way into the wild a la Cheryl Strayed, but as I soon learned: You make plans, and then Alaska makes plans.

For years now, I’ve been dreaming of venturing to Alaska. Whales, bears, guys that look like the outdoorsy section of the J. Crew catalog; I’ve been mentally packing my backpack since I was in third grade, which is when I told Mrs. Klein that when I grew up, I was going to live on a mountain in Alaska and be pulled around by a fleet of 20 snow white dogs like some C.S. Lewis Ice Queen. #divastatus

So you see, Alaska has been calling to me for a very long time. Finally, at 25 years old, I was able to answer.

Here was the plan: first to Juneau, where we would board a small boat that would take us to see Glacier Bay. Next, we’d fly North to Anchorage, and board a seven hour train through the forests and a five hour bus ride through the mountains, all to experience North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley. Or, as the natives call it, Denali. The great one.


Our route.

It seemed like such a good plan.

We arrived in Juneau in the pouring rain. Juneau may be the state capitol, but it still feels like a small town. Nestled at the foot of looming, foggy mountains, Juneau is built on a series of hills, giving it a miniature San Fran-ish feel. There is only one major road leading into Juneau, and most of the city’s traffic is by boat. Like all true explorers, my first stop was the bar. Within minutes, we were on our way to a brewery.







Our bus driver to the Alaskan Brewing Company was a strapping young lad named Jedediah, who looked like the Brawny Man if the Brawny Man also played acoustic guitar and volunteered at a shelter for abused dogs. *Cue the violins* After several minutes of serious flirting, I asked him if he grew up in Alaska. He turned to me with his piercing blue eyes, ruffled his raven black hair, and said, “No, but I came up here one summer for a job, and just fell in love.” Sigh.

As I journeyed further into Alaska, I realized that this was not an uncommon response. Barely anyone I met was born in the state. In fact, most Alaskans are from the lower 48. However, there was a common theme: this pull to Alaska. There was something they could not quite explain waiting for them here, and they had come to claim it for their own. As one local told me, “I’ve dreamed of Alaska since kindergarten. When I turned 18, I got in my car and drove straight from Alabama to Anchorage, and I’ve never looked back.”

We arrived at the Alaskan Brewing Company in the early morning for the breakfast tour. Because technically, breakfast is anything you eat in the morning, and by that standard, it was time for #beerforbreakfast. So, I bid farewell to my newest boyfriend and headed to the brewery floor.



We began tasting. I gotta say, the stuff was good. That crisp glacial water really affects the taste of the beer, and you notice the difference right away. Our first was the Amber, which has since become my new steady. Based on an old townie recipe, it was light, smooth, and easy - your classic beer. Then came the White, a Belgian-style wheat beer - nothing to write home about. Next, we tried a malty, German-style seasonal Summer and a wicked double IPA called a Hop-o-thermia which made me pucker like a baby eating a lemon in a YouTube montage.

Finally, our bartender Lydia poured us a long, dark glass of the Smoked Porter, and my life was changed forever. It was like drinking in a campfire. As I downed the thick, dark liquid, I could taste the rising smoke and the blackened alder wood. The Smoked Porter is one of ABC’s limited editions, inspired by smoked salmon (so Alaska) and produced only on November 1 of each year. Like wine, the beer gets better with age, making it a collector’s item around the region - though I have no idea how anyone could resist drinking it for more than ten minutes, nevertheless ten years.






As for the brewery itself - I just liked the vibe, man. Women in hiking boots and bandanas and big burly men with long white beards clamored around pumps and valves, twisting levers and pouring kegs. Everyone wore plaid, everyone had messy hair, and everyone looked like they neither knew nor cared who Kim Kardashian was.

Like most places in Alaska, there was a pioneer spirit to ABC. The brewers exuded a toughness that befits a people who endure seven months of winter blackout, but there was also a soft, hippie-ish aspect to them. Like all mountain folk, they loved nature, and its influences were clear in their work, such as the Icy Bay IPA, a cool, malty beer inspired by the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Ice Fields. I was also impressed at the level of innovation in the brewery, from pilot series brews like the Jalapeno IPA to their state-of-the-art, sustainable CO2 Reclamation System. Company policy allows any employee, from packaging to accounting, to test out their ideas in specialized 1-barrel systems. When I was there, they were trying out three ales: Alaskan Gold Creek, Taku River Red, and Sentinel Rye. Most of these experiments will never leave the floor, but a select few will be chosen for the ultimate honor of bottling.

Eventually, I was dragged away from the brewery to spend seven days sailing the seas of the Inside Passage, a network of islands and inlets that weave through the Pacific Coast. Part of our voyage included exploring Glacier Bay National Park, a 3.3 million acre span of icy glaciers, temperate rainforest, and long narrow fjords.









I don't know about you, but sometimes I become pretty skeptical of our government and their ability to do good stuff (or any stuff). Especially when they start wars, or raise my Metro fare. But every so often, they have decent ideas. One of these good ideas is conservation. In addition to providing a safe haven for the often hunted whales and other animals that call this place home, another reason we need these parks is that unlike us, this place is timeless. Its very existence reminds us that the Starbucks lines out the door or that broken escalator are not really what matter. There's more at play here. A naturalist I met at the park told me that wilderness is officially defined as “a place where man is only a visitor.” As a visitor here, I began to truly understand the importance of these protected places, which have lived long and will survive long past you or me. As Henry David Thoreau said, “We can never have enough of nature.” I think he was right.









Which brings us to our next phase of the trip: the part where I die.

Well, almost.

You know that I am not a good flier. The only reason I survived half my travels with you on Ryan Air (the only airline where the flight attendants enthusiastically clap and shout through bloodshot eyes when you land) was that we were usually too hungover to focus on anything but not barfing all over the luxe pleather seating. However, since Alaska is massive, our only way out of the wild involved a flight in a small, one-engine plane, otherwise known as a bush plane.

Now, I get nervous in a 747, so the idea of a “small” plane was not appealing to me. When I inquired as to how small we were talkin’ here, the locals said, “Oh, you'll be fine! It's a little cozy, but good fun." When we got to our plane, which looked like a relic from World War II, I assumed it was some adorable antique prop that the airfield put there to be cutesy. To my surprise, our pilot Greg opened its doors. “Jump on in!" he said, after crushing a cigarette under his foot on the tarmac. I peered inside, skeptically. Upon closer inspection, the plane had a very familiar interior: that of a taxi cab.

The propeller began to furiously spin.

“Wait! Do we need any safety instructions?!" I anxiously asked.

Greg shrugged.

“Pull that red handle if we crash, I guess," he replied.

There was literally nowhere to go but up, so I strapped myself into the seat, put my ID in my bra so they could identify my body, and began my Hail Marys.

Up, up we rose over snow peaked mountains, glacial blue rivers, and hundred-mile forests. It was beautiful, and terrifying. Every little cloud induced me to bargain with God.

I will never not recycle again.

Bump.

And I'll volunteer tutor at that school I took the brochure for but haven't followed up on.

Bump.

AND I will stop swearing!

BUMP.

ERMAGERHD.

Suddenly, the plane became deathly cold. Like, the-dementors-are-coming kind of cold. “There she is," Greg said. “Denali." I peered out of the window, and saw the huge mountain face. It was magnificent - all 20,322 feet of it. Because of the testy weather here, only 30% of park visitors get to even see the mountain. “Welcome to the 30% club," Greg said.


Denali: The great one.
You would think that the majesty of the mountain would calm me, that this rare privilege would soothe me, that I'd have some spiritual awakening and suddenly have the grace of Amelia Earhart.

You'd be wrong.

Because shortly after clearing the mountain, Greg flew us right into a massive gray cloud. The rain was pounding on the windows, steaming past me in thousands of small, angry rivers. The plane rose and fell like a yo-yo, tilting right and left with every gust of wind as the skies blackened around us. After several bouts of circling, Greg said, “Well ladies, it seems like the weather has turned on us. I guess we'll have to head to Fairbanks."

I looked to the skies and frowned. I said I'd do the tutoring thing! 

Greg had mentioned a survival kit in the back. I wondered if it had a gun in it, because I was going to need to shoot bears since I was going to have to become a wild woman now, living in post wreckage rags, making a hut out of the remains of the plane, and domesticating a timber wolf as a hunting companion. By the time I had picked out a suitable name for my wolf bestie (McNugget), we were in Fairbanks.

“That was super fun!" my Mother squealed after we landed, jumping giddily out of the plane. I scanned the airfield for a trash can to barf in.


Human for scale of death trap.
Despite the abject horror I felt for those three hours, I do feel a sense of accomplishment. I survived, and now I can cross this feat off the bucket list I never had nor wish to do again. I mean, I would. If I had to. But please don't make me.

I’ve since returned to the East Coast, and gone back to a life where I no longer carry bear spray in my pocket. However, I somehow know that this Alaskan adventure was not my last. After all, as John Muir said, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”