adventures in craft beer and real food

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dies irae, dies illa

If I was dumbfounded when I was invited to join the Facebook group "Petition to Keep Starbucks in Marshfield, WI," I shouldn't have been. There is a whole movement at work called Save Our Starbucks that seeks to prevent impending store closings. I've never been one to cheer as people lose their jobs and as businesses close their doors for the last time, but I've had mixed feelings about the Starbucks in my hometown since it opened several years ago.

For those who haven't heard, Starbucks announced on July 1 that they would close 600 of their "underperforming" stores. Six locations in Wisconsin are on the list, including the one in Marshfield (PDF, 84 kb).

At the time of this posting, the Facebook group has 373 members who presumably support the group's mission. It was founded by Stephanie Weyerts. In particular, they encourage people to call a Starbucks customer service number to ask the company to reconsider closing store 9808. There is also, apparently, a petition that is available to be signed at the store itself.

One could point out fairly mundane flaws with this group's raison d'etre. For example, in the "Description" field for the group, they say:
So my Mom called the main office at 1-800-235-2883... (the store # is 9808)

And what they told her is amazingly great news if you are addicted to Starbucks like me lol. If enough people call and complain about it closing they will consider keeping it OPEN!!!
Starbucks, as a company that's interested in making more money than less money, undoubtedly based its store closures on financial data and is therefore highly unlikely to change its mind because of customer complaints. Since the corporate decision was based on data rather than spite, the proper response should be to frequent it more often and/or spend more money per visit. Mere complaints do not change the basic calculus at play.

Moreover, the description seems to contradict itself when it says:
BESIDES I DON'T WANT THE ONE IN TARGET! I LOVE THE DRVE-THRU! Just the whole experiance of hanging out at the store and being able to read or play on your laptop is something you couldn't really do at the target one.
If Ms. Weyerts just goes through the drive-through, does the store's ambience actually matter?

Rather, I'm more interested in the Starbucks-centricity of the group's mission, the impact on the Marshfield community, and what a coffee shop should be.

The author of the description says:
You know how long I had to wait for a Starbucks to open when we moved here from Washington state??? And now they are trying to take it away?
Marshfield has other coffee shops, such as the Daily Grind and the Coffee Cabin. The perception of coffee quality is subjective in practice, but I've long considered the coffee at the Daily Grind to be of very high quality. I may find fault with the fact that the Daily Grind serves flavored coffees in addition to regular and decaffeinated selections, but this objection is more philosophical than practical (I believe food should taste like what it is, and coffee never has a strong fake raspberry flavor naturally). To the best of my ability to discern differences in quality, I disagree with claims that Starbucks coffee is superior to the quality at other coffee shops in Marshfield.

In addition to considerations of quality alone, the Daily Grind and the Coffee Cabin are local coffee shops. When you spend money there, more of your money stays in the community; it doesn't get sent to some corporate headquarters. This means that the owner and staff of these local coffee shops can invest this money back into the community, both directly (by sourcing items locally) and indirectly (by spending paychecks at local businesses).

The Daily Grind opened shop in Marshfield years ahead of the Starbucks at a time when most of us thought of coffee as a hot, bitter beverage made by mixing hot water and Folgers Instant Coffee Crystals. The opening of the Grind opened our eyes to the world of coffee by brewing the coffees of the world. In the early 90s, there was a certain audacity in having a chalk board that said what coffee was being brewed that day. More often than not, they were labeled by place. It never occured to me back then that there was such a thing as kinds of coffee, but I began to notice that the coffee from New Guinea was very different from the coffee from Columbia. As such, the Daily Grind stands at the forefront of a local coffee revolution to many people in Marshfield. Without this pioneering work, it would be inconceivable that Starbucks would even consider opening shop in town.

Given the fondness I have for the Grind, I worry about the consequences of Starbucks closing on other coffee shops. On face value, the loss of a major competitor would seem to be a benefit to the remaining businesses. However, a much-discussed article in Slate last year argued that Starbucks in general has a positive impact on local coffee shops. The idea is that Starbucks, with its elite image and megalithic advertising capabilities, spreads and serves as a magnet for coffee culture wherever it expands. When people approach a Starbucks and see a local alternative next-door, they are likely to choose the alternative.

Anecdotally, something similar could be at play here. The Coffee Cabin moved closer to the Starbucks and has remained in business for several years despite being less than a quarter mile down the road from a Starbucks drive-through. I have no data to support such a claim, but it is reasonable to think that for people want a latte on the way to work they are simply choosing the less expensive option at the Coffee Cabin. It is also possible that the change of location was designed to place it on the right-side of the road on the way into Marshfield, making it a more convenient stop for people on their way to work.

The real price of coffee is probably closer to the prices at Starbucks than many of its competitors. Despite the high prices we pay for "black gold" (the coffee I buy from Alterra via Barriques Market sells for about $9/pound), little of that money goes to the people who produce the coffee (10-50/lb cents is typical, or a minimum of $1.26/lb for Fair Trade). In an ideal world, the high prices paid at a coffee shop would go to better trained baristas and more ethical sourcing of coffee. At Starbucks, however, neither of these factors seem to be applicable. Starbucks, in an effort to standardize quality, uses a machine to make its espresso drinks, meaning that the quality of their latte isn't related to the training of the barista. Also, as only 6% of their coffee is fair trade their sourcing is inferior to regional roasters such as Alterra, Just Coffee, and Intelligentsia despite having higher or similar prices.

To be honest, I don't know who roasts coffee for the Daily Grind or the Coffee Cabin. It may well turn out that none of it is sourced through Fair Trade standards. If that's the case, it would be better for growers to have the increased sales from Starbucks than the alternatives but the difference in 6% and 0% in a town of Marshfield's size may not be significant.

In a market where mere competition was the arbiter of success or failure of a coffee shop, the Slate model may be more applicable. But the main reason that Starbucks is downsizing is that with rising energy and food costs, people have less discretionary income. So instead of going out for coffee five times a week, people may be choosing to go once a week. Again, I have no data to back up any such claims but it is reasonable to think that something like this is going on. The same market forces which are having a deleterious effect on Starbucks is going to have an impact on local coffee shops as well. So while the remaining coffee shops in Marshfield may have bigger slices of the pie, the pie itself is becoming smaller.

Finally, I wonder if the closure of the Marshfield Starbucks says anything about what a coffee shop should be. Starbucks has been very open about its ambition to create a third place for people, as demonstrated in an interview with Howard Schultz of Starbucks on NPR last year. They hope to establish a space outside of home and work that people spend time. This is evidenced by the layout of a typical Starbucks: comfortable chairs (often described as "comfy"), seats positioned for individuals instead of groups, free electricity, and Wi-Fi access.

The difference between the Starbucks vision of the third space and the version offered by the Daily Grind could not be more stark. The Daily Grind has antique wooden chairs that are arranged for groups and intermittant Wi-Fi access (they have it, but has been unavailable every time I've tried to use it). Go into any Starbucks and it's as quiet as a library. If you wanted to talk to somone, you're likely to be shushed at by someone who has made a table their personal office. A Starbucks is a place where many people connect to the internet by themselves. In contrast, the Grind is as noisy as a bar as it's full of people talking to each other. Some people read, study, and use laptops at the Daily Grind, sure, but it's a minority and no one seems to make it their office. The Grind's approach is far more observant of the political nature of coffee than Starbucks. That Starbucks is closing while the Daily Grind is remaining in business seems to reflect an interesting rejection of the Starbucks idea of the third space.

This opinion is also philosophical rather than practical. I like the idea of a coffee shop as a place that people can go to talk and discuss great and minor things alike, but ideally there would be the option of both styles of coffee shop in Marshfield.

I am not mourning the loss of the Starbucks in Marshfield as I didn't consider it to sell a superior product, was underwhelmed by its sourcing practices, and disliked the atmosphere. At the same time, I worry that this could create a ripple effect on other, local coffee purveyors in Marshfield and may represent a trend toward coffee pricing that is out-of-sync with the real value of the product.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Prelude to pi

Happy pi day everyone!

Sorry for the tease yesterday, but the pie has some stage fright.

Actually I'm going to Chicago on Saturday and I need to wake up very early...  and the pie hasn't finished setting yet.  I'll give the pie a proper right-up tomorrow after I get back.

In the meantime, here's a picture of Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence Pie.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Thank you!

Thank you, Lisa, for adding a link to Pint and Fork from your blog Champaign Taste.

And welcome to any new readers!

Stay tuned for a special Friday pi day contribution! I'll be serving up a porter pie.

... or maybe a surprise!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Television notes: Dinner Impossible

Just after coming out with the Dinner Impossible cookbook, Mission Cook, the Food Network has decided to not renew Robert Irvine's contract. This has been all over the blogs and forums, so I don't want to rehash old news. But for those of you who haven't heard yet, he's been accused of embellishing his resume as follows:
• On Dinner Impossible, he says that he is a knight. In one news story, he claimed that he was a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order -- the highest level of knighthood. An article in the Saint Petersburg Times quotes Buckingham Palace press officer as saying, "He is not a KCVO Knight Commander of the Victorian Order and he wasn't given a castle by the queen of England."
•On Dinner Impossible, he says that he cooked for the royal family. He says that he was in school when a cake was being made for Princess Diana. In the same article, he said that his role was "picking fruit and things like that."
•Robert Irvine's webpage said that he had a degree in food and nutrition from the University of Leeds. But Sarah Spiller, a press officer at the University of Leeds said that "we cannot find any connection in our records between Robert and the university."
In fairness, Robert Irvine issued a statement apologizing for unspecified "embellishments" to his resume. Despite that he has been much maligned on the internet for his predictable, traditional cooking, the fact of the matter is that Robert Irvine is a tasteful and competent chef. He's the kind of guy that you want around when you have to feed the 5000.

Still, the mind wonders what kind of hiring process the Food Network has. Do they even bother calling references?

This places the Food Network in a very odd position. As Project Runway Season 4 winds to a close this week, Bravo has been running advertisements for Top Chef Chicago that say flatly that it's the "#1 food show on cable." The Food Network must undoubtedly be sour that the "#1 food show on cable" isn't on their network. They even tried to copy the Top Chef model in the next Iron Chef competition, and it didn't even come close to the quality of Top Chef. Shows like Ace of Cakes, and – you guessed it – Dinner Impossible, are promising shows that offer a glimmer of hope about the future of the Food Network and food television in general. It won't be the "chop like this" show that's become entrenched from everyone between Julia Child and Rachel Ray. It'll be entertainment. Unlike older shows which require the elevation of the host to some level of celebrity status to be compelling, or more recently have some tacky quirk to them (I won't name names), these shows highlight hardworking and skilled professionals. The Food Network's "we don't need Emeril or Mario" attitude takes the network in a direction opposite the kind of food seriousness I expect. For the sake of the Food Network, I hope it embraces these shows and doesn't drive them from the temple.

The Food Network has announced that they would seek a new host for Dinner Impossible after the conclusion of the second season. Unfortunately, Robert Irvine's personality and manly derring-do is what makes the show worthwhile. It's really a show about time management and planning more than it is about cooking, and Irvine explains why he's making choices to meet the requirements of the challenge. It just wouldn't be the same to see some cleanly prepackaged made for tv persona like Bobby Flay take it over, for example (not that he would, but you know what I mean). I'm sure Flay could feed 2700 people in 8 hours, too, and maybe could create more creative dishes. But I think what makes Dinner Impossible so remarkable is that Robert Irvine, while being a skilled chef, isn't Bobby Flay. He's not some famous television personality, or known for being a master technician. But you get the sense that he's real, and somehow authentic. He's got a chef's temper. Hell, he doesn't even look like any other chef I've ever seen.

Since the Food Network needs Dinner Impossible, and since Dinner Impossible needs Robert Irvine, and since Robert Irvine has apologized for his actions, the Food Network should seriously consider renewing his contract for a third season.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tasting notes: Mr. Mephisto Imperial Stout

I have to confess something.  I have an enormous amount of respect, and some jealousy, for Tom Porter, the one-man brewing juggernaut behind Lake Louie beers.  From what I've heard, he's the man.  He's the man that brews the beer.  He's the man that bottles the beer.  He's the man that sweeps the floors, and keeps the books.  He's the man that delivers the beer.  I can't even imagine how much work that must be, though at least he doesn't have much of a commute (he lives on the same property on which he brews in Arena, Wisconsin).  In other words, he's living every homebrewers' dream.

And each of his beers are of superlative quality!

That said, I swear that I'll be as objective as possible in my tasting notes for Mr. Mephisto Imperial Stout.  I had a bottle left over from the previous release last year, but I saw it on the shelves at Steve's the other day and decided it would be a good time to post some tasting notes.

Mr. Mephisto pours completely black, but raises an unusually large tan head (3/4 inch).  As time passed, the head became smaller but stayed for the entire time I drank the beer.  And it left excellent, beautiful lacing in its wake.  The head was so robust that I wonder if some wheat is used to aid in head retention.  The beer is completely opaque even when held up to the brightest light I could find in my apartment.

The aroma offers a pleasant roastiness, with some smoke and fresh raspberry notes.  It smells sweet, but has a slightly sour edge to it.  Upon tasting it, the first thing that struck me is how amazingly smooth and creamy this beer is.  If you put a pint of this beer in front of me, I would think that it was served using a nitrogen tap.  Seriously, the viscosity reminds me of drinking a stout milk shake (which is one of my favorite treats).  Some fruity esters that offer peach and raspberry flavors stick out in the very front of the profile, but quickly give way as an intense roasty flavor continues to build after each sip.  Some apple-wood smoke flavors are in there as well.  After the roastiness fades, a bread-like flavor is left as the aftertaste.  There was no perceived ethanol flavor.

As the beer warms, I noticed that the esters become more harsh and more distracting.  It also became sweeter, almost cloying to my taste, which caused me to drink it really slowly.  Although Mr. Mephisto comes close to being one dimensional, in that every other flavor is subtle compared to the pervasive roastiness of this imperial stout, it shows enormous control and restraint.

Unlike some imperial stouts that I've had that were so bitter that they were practically undrinkable, so alcoholic that it didn't taste like a stout, or so roasty that there was no room for any other flavor at all, Mr. Mephisto is an imperial stout done the right way.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tasting notes: Imperial Weizen

After the Capital Brewery discontinued production of Kloster Weizen in 2006, I've admittedly struggled with my hefeweizen addiction.  I went through some rough patches where wailing and gnashing of teeth may or may not have been involved.  I've given serious thought to taking up a twelve step program to deal with my problem, but I couldn't find a support group for hefeweizen addicts.

Which is amazing to me because, as one of my very favorite styles, it embodies much of my attitude toward beer.  Hefeweizen is a beverage that's tied by memory and association to a specific time and place; the mere act of drinking it teleports me to some Bavarian beer garden on a warm summer afternoon.  It is a social beverage.  It's not hard to imagine sitting around a table at that beer garden talking with friends.  It quenches the thirst, and does amazing things with food.  Hefeweizen isn't a beer that's going to get you drunk (unless you drink liters of it), so it leaves you fully ready to deal with the daily grind.  The yeast is largely responsible for the remarkable range of flavors that you can expect in a hefeweizen (everything from banana, clove, bubble gum, and smoke).

Suffice it to say that I'm a hefeweizen junkie.  So when New Glarus came out with an imperial weizen as the latest installment in their "unplugged" series of beers, I fell off the bandwagon and got my fix.

This beer raises a huge head.  Although the picture at the bottom doesn't reflect well on my weizen-pouring aptitude, I swear that the first time I tried to pour the beer into my glass I only got about half of it in before the head started billowing out the top.  This, my second bottle, went to the other extreme and I didn't develop enough of a head.  Still, any beer that pours a 1 1/2 inch head when you're trying your hardest not to develop too much head is pretty substantial.  This beer is impressively carbonated, and I imagine that it would do wonders with all sorts of foods.  It left elegant lacing in my glass as I drank it.

But it was enough of a head to release the impossibly aromatic qualities of this beer.  Honestly, I've never tasted anything like it.  The nose bursts with grapefruit and to a lesser extent lime and some lemon flavors.  The cinnamon and clove aroma is less obvious, but contributes pleasantly to the nose.  There were also some floral highlights in the background that I had trouble identifying.

The flavor profile was similarly explosive.  The first thing you get is a huge hit of grapefruit that I can only assume set up a homestead on my tongue.  As the citrus flavor gradually recedes, the clove flavor becomes more noticeable.  There's also a cinnamon contribution in the flavor profile that I felt only at the very back of my mouth, but seemingly less than in the aroma.  The malt flavor reminded me of croissant, although it isn't nearly as obvious as the pervasive citrus aroma of this beer.  The citrus flavors may be the result of the yeast, but it's so robust and so multidimensional that I suspect that dry hopping with cascade hops was involved.  The problem I have with this explanation is that I've never tasted that much grapefruit from cascade hops before (although it is a characteristic of the cultivar).

With so much going on, it would be easy to miss what wasn't tasting.  Compared to other hefeweizens, there is very little to no banana flavor in this beer.  I chalk that up to either fermentation conditions or the "special strain of Bavarian Weiss yeast" mentioned on the bottle.  Second, at 20 degrees Plato (i.e. approximately 1.080 original gravity!) there was no ethanol flavor.  I readily felt the presence of ethanol, as its unusually warming for a hefeweizen.

Above all else, though, this beer is pleasant.  Unlike so many imperial concoctions, this is a beer that retains a sense of where it comes from, despite being elevated to a whole new level of deliciousness.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Milking Roger Clemens

Due to reasons that are largely irrelevant to this blog, I've had some time on my hands recently. It probably says something really bad about me, but I've spent my lunches watching C-SPAN lately. If you've been following the news over the last couple of weeks, you know that baseball player Roger Clemens has been accused of using performance enhancing drugs including human growth hormone. Since this isn't a legal or sports blog, it's not really relevant to Pint and Fork whether he did or did not use HGH contrary to MLB regulations, US law, and his own health.

When I was watching the other day, some doctor said something I found incredibly interesting. He said that detecting abuse of HGH poses an extremely difficult analytical challenge because it's literally the same hormone that is present in every single human. So to determine abuse, laboratory analysis requires looking at sharp changes in HGH levels over time. The problem with that is that players are not tested often enough to do that typically, and that somatic HGH levels covariate with dietary and other environmental factors.

En passant, he suggested that the US government could require all HGH chemical formulation to contain an inert chemical tracer. That is, a chemical that has no physiological, medicinal, or any other business being in the human body that doesn't help or harm it in any way. Preferably, it would be something that would persist in the body for some time after receiving a dose of HGH.

Now, do understand that I have no idea what a suitable tracer chemical would be. But I have a feeling that there are smart people in this world who would be able to figure out just that kind of problem.

So... Let's get this straight. It's illegal to label milk as being free of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) because it's analytically impossible to prove whether an animal contained rBGH as opposed to natural BGH (because they're chemically identical).

However, if the government required that an inert tracer were included in rBGH we would be able to solve that problem.

But please bear with me as I go into a little more detail.

The use of rBGH (also known as bovine somatotropin or bST) was made possible by Monsanto in the early 1980s. It was quickly shown to increase milk production in cows by ten to twenty percent, and due to industry pressure was approved by the FDA for use in 1993. The FDA's short-sighted "science-based approach" to such matters also contributed to the relatively rapid approval of rBGH. At any rate, the FDA reviewed 130 industry-funded studies that involved testing 21,000 cows and determined that rBGH was safe for human consumption and does not affect human health (i.e. it doesn't stimulate human growth).

Two problems. First, cows that are treated with rBGH develop mastitis more frequently than non-rBGH treated cows. This requires the extensive use of antibiotics, which are positively known to enter the milk of treated animals. The FDA has a mandate to test for antibiotics in milk, but in practice it does not even come close to having the resources to do so.

Second, the use of rBGH increases levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Unlike rBGH which is a different chemical entirely from HGH and therefore has no biological activity, bovine-derived IGF-1 is chemically identical to human IGF-1. And IGF-1 may well stimulate unnatural growth in infancy and may increase the risk of cancer for adults. This risk is mitigated somewhat by the denaturation (biologically deactivated for non-chemists) of the protein in gastric fluid, however some has been demonstrated to be absorbed before it can become denatured.

(For completeness, research has shown reduced casein levels, reduced short-chain fatty acid, increased long-chain fatty acid, increased concentration of thyroid hormone triiodothyronine enzyme, frequent contamination with unapproved drugs for treating mastitis, and increased somatic cell counts due to mastitis.) (PDF, 645.3 kb)

Anyway because rBGH is chemically indistinguishable from natural BGH the FDA determined that it's illegal to label dairy products as being rBGH free. I personally think that given the two risks noted above, I -- as the consumer -- should be given the ability to make a choice. And I can't make a choice without adequate labeling. But, hey, maybe that's just me.

The relevant FDA guidance document discusses this matter explicitly. It says that
FDA is concerned that the term ``rbST free'' may imply a compositional
difference between milk from treated and untreated cows rather than a
difference in the way the milk is produced.
So you can't label milk as "rBST free" unless you provide what the FDA considers "proper context":
FDA believes such misleading implications could best be avoided by the
use of accompanying information that puts the statement in a proper
context. Proper context could be achieved in a number of different
ways. For example, accompanying the statement ``from cows not treated
with rbST'' with the statement that ``No significant difference has
been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated
cows'' would put the claim in proper context. Proper context could also
be achieved by conveying the firm's reasons (other than safety or quality)
for choosing not to use milk from cows treated with rbST, as long as
the label is truthful and nonmisleading.
(Bold type added by Pint and Fork for emphasis.)
In other words, you can give your reasons for not using rBGH right on the package, as long as it doesn't imply that your product is safer (as good science has shown) or is of higher quality (which is common sense to this observer).

So clearly, an FDA-mandated inclusion of an inert tracer in rBGH formulations could overcome this hurdle with a techno fix. That is to say, with the least amount of effort because it requires no changes in the way things are done. But some facts, I think, undercut the need for rBGH in the first place.

First of all, it cannot be argued that American farmers need rBGH to keep pace with foreign demands. For one thing, milk is fresh only briefly and it cannot be effectively frozen. rBGH has been banned in the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. So at first glance, it would seem that we could increase the sell-ability of US milk if we rendered rBGH illegal because then we could sell it in Canada.

Second, there has always been a surplus of milk -- even during the Great Depression. There is no reason why we would want to produce more of it. In fact, more of a product will devalue the commercial value of that product and hurt the small-scale operations the most.

Third, there are a finite number of antibiotics in our pharmacopoeia. We should be trying to limit their use to the greatest extent possible for only cases where the need is warranted. The use of antibiotics in cattle for meat production has been demonstrated to lead to an increase of antibiotic resistant pathogens. This is a very bad thing. If we can reduce the use of antibiotics by not using rBGH, then so much the better.

Fourth, the FDA itself opened up the door of certification programs. That is, a third party could conduct regular inspections and audit paper records to verify that rBGH was not used in raising cows. In an FDA interim guidance document on the subject, they clarify that this can be done not to address safety concerns but to defend the farmer against claims that the label is misleading. To quote the FDA document:
States should consider requiring that firms that use statements indicating
that their product is ``certified'' as not from cowstreated with rbST be
participants in a third party certification program to verify that the cows
have not been injected with rbST. States could seek to ensure that
certification programs contain thefollowing elements: Participating dairy
herds should consist of animals that have not been supplemented with rbST.
The program should be able to track each cow in the herd over time. Milk
from non-rbST herds should be kept separate from other milk by a physical
segregation, verifiable by a valid paper trail, throughout the transportation
and processing steps until the finished milk or dairy product is in final
packaged form in a labeled container. The physical handling and recordkeeping
provisions of such a program would be necessary not because of any safety
concerns about milk from treated cows but to ensure that the labeling of
the milk is not false or misleading.
Unfortunately, farmers are very rarely responsible for the distribution of their product. That means that physically separating certified rBGH free milk on the way to the packaging facility is often impossible as a matter of practice.

At any rate, there is the kind of technical fix the food industry so much adores in the form of inert tracers. This completely invalidates the argument that dairy products cannot be labeled "rBGH free" because there's no chemical difference. With this in mind, the FDA should revisit their guidance document and allow such designations to be included.

And I thought nothing good would ever come of watching C-SPAN.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Blog commentary

My friend xenobiologista recently made an interesting post about inefficient packing of organic versus conventional products, and practices of Whole Foods and Wal-Mart.

Issue 1. My friend recently purchased salmon burgers at Whole Foods. The salmon burgers were wrapped in plastic-coated paper that was meant to look like news paper.

I don't think that you can fault them for not using real newspaper as the ink rubs off the pages too easily, and the ink is not approved for human consumption by the FDA. In other words, it would be illegal to use real newspaper. They're presumably using a plastic-coated paper because it creates a hydrophobic surface, which prevents the juices from your salmon burgers from soaking the head of garlic that's also sitting in your basket.

I agree that, all things being equal, it would be great if Whole Foods used paper without ink.

I feel that Whole Foods is doing more than other companies in this area. They're eliminating plastic bags at the checkouts by April 22, 2008. Sure they will still offer paper bags at the checkout and there will presumably still be plastic bags used in the produce section. But this is an important step in the right direct, and hopefully one that will reduce the use of plastics. Moreover, they have a fairly progressive list of unacceptable food ingredients that will disqualify an item from being sold at Whole Foods. This list includes such chemicals as aspartame, EDTA, bleached/bromated flours, MSG, FD&C colors, and sucralose. This list limits the extent to which items can be processed, which presumably saves energy and decreases dependence upon unsavory chemical additives. (Note: I disagree with the inclusion of foie gras on this list. Foie gras production is an ancient tradition, produces wholesome food, and is humane.)

But there are some reasonable points that can be made here. They probably would have been happy to not wrap the salmon burgers at all if you had brought your own reusable container. Second, yes it's a waste of ink to make the paper look like a newspaper. But I'm not certain how significant this inefficiency is in the scheme of things. Do you buy new books or do you only buy used books or (even better) only check books out from the library? When you are afraid that you're going to forget your eye exam next Thursday at 1:30 PM with Dr. Robinson, do you write a reminder on a post-it note or do you reuse scrap paper? The point being that people waste a lot of ink all the time. Singling out the ink on the paper at the meat counter seems inappropriate unless you intend to address the issue comprehensively to reduce ink use across the board.

Issue 2. Extra packaging on organic foods. My friend noticed that organic cabbage was wrapped in plastic while conventional cabbage wasn't. She also noticed the long standing head-scratcher with egg packaging: the organic, vegetarian, "free range" (cough cough) eggs are usually in plastic containers while conventional eggs are usually in cardboard containers.

Just some background, though. While organic eggs have to comply with USDA organic standards, there is no regulation of the term free range in the United States (unlike in the European Union and Japan). In many cases, it just means that the farmer bought a cage that's a couple of inches larger and installed a window in the hen house. The organic standards require that livestock have (21 CFR title 7 205.239)
(1) Access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment;
To be clear, this standard prohibits the use of battery cages which most experts believe is strictly inhumane. Unlike the European Union and Canada, the US has no plan and no time line to legally prohibit the use of battery cages.

Unfortunately, there is currently much abuse of the federal code's lack of specificity. For example, it's perfectly acceptable for a farmer to theoretically allow his animals to roam freely but exert psychological control of them so that the animals naturally eschew the outdoors. Studies have shown that most farm animals, when raised indoors prefer to remain indoors and eat feed even when given the option to go outdoors and eat natural foods. Come to think of it, this sounds applicable to humans as well. Other common ways around this are providing only very small outdoor areas for a large number of animals, or an outdoor area that's covered in concrete or gravel or dirt (i.e. not covered with vegetation).

Federal regulations also require that organic animals must be fed organically. This prohibits the use of less-savory industrial by-products such as animal blood, slaughter house waste, ground up male chickens (high speed maceration), and feces.

So organic-certified eggs may be better than conventional eggs in terms of access to the outdoors and what they're fed. But even the organic label is no guarantee.

But my friend's original point was that organic eggs tend to be packaged with less sustainable materials than conventional eggs. Good point! But there are some things you can do about it.

For one thing, you can always buy eggs directly from a local farmer (e.g. Pecatonica Valley Farm) or through an intermediary (e.g. Artisan Foods Delivered). Such small scale farmers generally use cardboard packaging and actually want the cardboard back so it can be reused. The eggs also don't travel as far, which reduces the energy cost associated with transporation.

It's not realistic that large numbers of people will switch to buying local eggs. In the interest of completeness, Organic Valley does sell organic eggs in cardboard containers. Unfortunately, even these eggs have a plastic label glued onto the cardboard which adds up to more packaging than conventional eggs. I have heard that Organic Valley doesn't allow farms to enter its cooperative that have fewer than 2000 laying hens and really prefer that a farm have at least 5000 hens. Given how large these numbers are, it's likely that these farms live up the lofty goals Organic Valley purports to hold -- although, to their credit, they are open about their standards and even post them on their website.

So, in summary, yes it's bad that most organic, vegetarian, and free-range eggs are sold in plastic containers. But you can choose to buy ones that are not sold in plastic or -- which may involve buying eggs locally.

Issue 3. Wal-Mart has been criticized for its entry into the organic foods market.

It's great that Wal Mart wants to get into the organic foods business. For as many short cuts and half-hearted attempts to be green as some companies take, organic practices are generally more environmentally friendly all other things being equal. If you don't use pesticides, you don't have to pay to have them shipped to your farm, there's less demand for industrial chemicals, and you're putting fewer chemicals into our water supply. If you use natural fertilizers, you're not less dependent upon the Haber-Bosch cycle which is extremely energy demanding even with the use of a catalyst.

It's unfortunate, however, that many companies including Wal-Mart are continually lobbying the federal government to relax organic standards. The other issue here, as far as I'm concerned, is that there are now organic versions of many processed foods (check our your local breakfast cereal aisle). Yes it's great that these foods probably have lower environmental costs, but you're still supporting the processing of the food product which is environmentally inefficient.

Moreover, organic practices are only one part of a larger picture; eating organically is great, but not sufficient. Food should also be local and seasonal to the greatest extent possible. The environmental gains from not using pesticides are readily lost if the product has to be shipped a much farther distance to market.

Beyond placing value on organic, local, and seasonal products, one should also hope that the people intimately involved in the production of said food will be fairly rewarded for their labor. As the saying goes, farming is the only job where everything you buy is at retail and everything you sell is at wholesale. Wal-Mart's mantra of "low prices always" is largely incompatible with proper compensation of farmers, and instead creates a system that can achieve no more than the bottom line. Indeed it brings the bottom line down across the board as even stores like Whole Foods and the Willy Street Co-op offer prices to farmers that are only marginally greater than at conventional stores (i.e. that the added dividend to the farmer is less than the premium paid by the shopper). In the absence of cooperative bargaining, the Nash equilibrium is readily established. The current approach is a great way to deliver large amounts of food to market cheaply, and I hope that basic food shouldn't be so expensive as to be a privilege. But it's a crummy way to deliver food that meets the standards that many consumers expect. The quantity issue would also be more sensible if we weren't producing a significant excess of food already.

I think the closing chapter of Fast Food Nation resonates with a lot of people. Schlosser talks about the German city of Plauen, which had the misfortune of being a part of the DDR. Even though the city was occupied by Russian troops, who largely maintained political control due to a network of Stasi informants, over twenty thousand people rose up against their government on October 7, 1989 in the first of many mass demonstrations. The crowd demanded the "freedoms of their forefathers" and remained largely non-violent despite government efforts to break up the demonstration. Just over a month later, on November 9, the Berliner Mauer fell.

This is an extreme example, yes. But it demonstrates the ability of individuals to effect large-scale social change. I know it's likely a pipe dream but I hold out the hope that the more people taste real food that's skillfully prepared, the more these people will demand honest, delicious food. And they will come to accept nothing less in much the same way that many craft beer drinkers would never "lower themselves" to drinking BMC.

We should expect more from our food's supply chain, whether the point-of-purchase is Wal-Mart or Whole Foods.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Tasting notes: 120 Minute IPA

I couldn't help it.

Compared to its promiscuous 60 and flirty 90 minute sisters, this beer definitely plays hard-to-get. And I may have been distracted by its 20% alcohol content.

At any rate I'm still basking in the afterglow.

The Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA is -- to quote a commercial recently airing in the Madison area -- "unique, one of a kind, and impossible to find anywhere else." And the 20% ethanol content is just the beginning.

Hops were added to it continuously over 120 minutes using Dogfish Head's signature hopping regime whereby a shaker adds hops continuously over the time of the boil. Most beer is boiled for only sixty minutes and may have anywhere from two to five hop additions. The traditional hop addition method results in quantized hop flavors: the sensation of hop bitterness, the hop flavor, and the hop aroma. Dogfish Head's IPAs, hopped continuously, have a beguiling hop character that stands apart from every other beer I've ever tasted. Someone with excellent calculus skills figured out that it adds up to 120 IBUs. Which is insane.

It was also dry hopped every day for a month and then aged on a bed of whole leaf hops for another month. Given the hop shortage, this beer is perhaps somewhere between extravagant and wasteful. But the hops are so expertly employed that they really deliver. If it weren't for the solid use of hops, any beer of this size would be cloying and undrinkable.

The beer has also inspired an internet phenomenon whereby people chug 120 Minute IPA and post videos of it on YouTube. Name one other beer that's gotten that kind of attention. I recommend the one at Should I Drink That? ("even if it's crappy, we drink it so you don't have to"). The video is not necessarily family or work friendly, if that's a concern for you. The guy downs an entire bottle in about three seconds, which I can only assume is unhealthy -- it's only 71 mL of pure ethanol. That's more than four shots of vodka.

The beer also draws righteous indignation from people who gasp at the >$9/12 ounce bottle price tag (I think I paid $12 for it a year ago, but I have seen bottles for as low as $9). As far as I know, Dogfish Head doesn't sell packs of 120 Minute IPA. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not ($9/bottle * 6 bottles/6-pack = $54/6-pack), but aside from price I find that this highlights the uniqueness of the beer.

I'm not sure how they hit 20% alcohol content -- whether they use what could only be described as a "crap load" of malted barley or excessive amounts of adjuncts. At any rate, their yeast must have a high alcohol tolerance. Given the limitations of conventional yeast strains, the ale character of the beer comes through surprisingly cleanly.

When I opened the lime green cap, an intense and rich sweet aroma burst forth that reminded me somewhat of sticking my head in a jar of honey like Winnie the Pooh. There's some roastiness to it, and a slight poppy seed aroma to it as well. And of course there's definitely ethanol, but a lot less than I expected.

It poured in my glass with plenty of carbonation, raising a respectable head (about five millimeters) that lasted as long as there was beer in my glass. The amount of lacing was excellent. This beer is for kissing -- not making out -- and as such is pretty much the ultimate brandy snifter beer, and I would have used more appropriate glassware if I had it. It was initially quite hazy, again like honey, but the haze disappeared as the beer warmed. The beer had a rich reddish-gold color.

The flavor is enormously vivacious. It is complex and surprisingly smooth. The initial taste is surprisingly sweet, and it's only later that you taste the intense bitterness. The flavor mellows into a sourdough-like bread flavor, with biscuit-like highlights. Like the 60 and 90 minute versions, it has a slightly horse blanket maltiness. Given the fact that I aged this bottle for about a year, there's very little distinct hop aroma or flavor. But it does have a very floral flavor. There's an underlying mealy apple flavor, which may not sound appealing but it matches with the malt character perfectly. The ethanol hits the palate with impossible warmth that is something like sweaty middle-of-summer sex.

Dogfish Head's 120 Minute IPA is seductive and intoxicating. Bring one home, treat it with the respect it deserves, and savor every moment with it. Like the perfect partner, it's perfectly fulfilling in every regard but leaves you thirsty for more.

I couldn't help loving this beer.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Second and Third Tastes: Capital Vintage Ale

I've got too much on my mind
I think of everything to be discovered
I hope there's something to find
Searching for the time that has gone so fast
The time that I thought would last
-Paul McCartney from "Ever Present Past"

It's hard to believe how the time has flown! On December 28, 2006, I cracked open the first bottle in a four pack of Capital's Vintage Ale. The verdict: harsh and tastes like booze. But it showed potential.

At the time, I suggested that I would open the next bottle on the first day of spring in 2007. Only five days late (can't be drinking a strong ale when you have to work the next day), and three months after my first taste, I opened my second bottle on March 26, 2007. A couple of things changed. For one thing, the first bottle I had was crystal clear; the second bottle I had showed significant turbidity. While the first bottle showed little carbonation, the second bottle raised a more robust head. This could be caused by glassware cleanliness, but I keep my beer glasses very clean so I have to discount that as unlikely. The first bottle was bursting with Kent goldings and cascade hop aroma, the second had a much more muted -- but more complex -- aroma. Instead of discrete hop aromas, the aroma was slightly floral behind a dominant maltiness. The second bottle was very smooth, and didn't have the harsh ethanol flavor of the first bottle. At the time, I also thought it was sweeter and more viscous than the first bottle.

Tonight, ten months after my last taste, I cracked open the third bottle. When I opened the bottle, the aroma has definitely developed since the second tasting. It smells fruity, like grape fruit, and like the inside of a flower shop. The taste is still smooth with little ethanol flavor. There is a strong maltiness to the flavor like sourdough bread, only much stronger. As a result, the flavor is very sweet and seems out of balance until the bittering hops hit relatively late in the progression of flavors. As it warms, the grapefruit flavors become more pronounced. It definitely takes on some complexity like port or sherry. The beer is even more turbid than it was in the second tasting.

As a side note, reading reviews of this beer on Beer Advocate has been an interesting experience. One reviewer gave it a D+, another described it as a "trainwreck." As one reads reviews that become increasingly current, the grades improve. Maybe this is because of sampling bias, that people who took the effort to find bottles of it are more likely the kind who would give Vintage Ale the attention it deserves. I prefer to think it reflects well on its potential to get better over time.

I'm not sure when I'll get around to cracking my final bottle of the 2006 Vintage Ale. It has proven itself as a great beer for aging. If I was worried that there was nothing else to find in this aging experiment, I shouldn't have been; I've had three distinct beers so far, two of them sublime. I do find myself searching for time, wishing it would last like this fine contribution from the Capital Brewery.