Snapshots from La Colombe Torrefaction, Chicago

Whenever I’m on the road, I try to seek out genuine local coffee shops. I’ve been in Chicago a good bit lately, and that has meant morning espresso from Intelligentsia, or a to-go cup of Dark Matter coffee with my insanely good buttermilk old-fashioned donut from Do-Rite. You can’t go wrong at either of those places. I’ve also hit a Lavazza Espression counter, and a Caffé RoM – two Italian-ish chains that didn’t really impress me as caring enough about their coffee. They both feel a bit too polished, a bit too sterile, and neither could make the kind of espresso that delivers my desired reaction of half “wow,” half “ahhhhhh.” Contented excitement is what I want.

Today I may have found a place to replace Intelligentsia as my go-to in Chicago – I got exactly what I was looking for when I walked in this little shop on W. Randolph next door to a row of produce warehouses. This cafe is actually an outpost of a small chain out of Philadelphia called La Colombe Torrefaction, so it’s not quite local, but clearly not corporate either. La Colombe has a few shops in Philly and New York, but they are known more for their roasting prowess. The Chicago shop does some of its own roasting, and also supplies many restaurants around town with fresh roasted beans.

On my first visit, I got my preferred test of a good barista – a cortado (basically equal parts espresso and steamed milk) – and also picked up a bottle of La Colombe’s cold brewed “Pure Black” coffee. No sugar, no cream, no nothing but water and coffee beans (oh, and a touch of liquid nitrogen to help seal the freshness and produce a satisfying pop upon opening). The cortado was spot on, nice creamy texture, great balance of bitterness and acidity and bright flavor. And the Pure Black? Crazy stuff. The flavors are intense, cocoa-ish, malt-y, both big and soft and laser sharp. How do they do that? A stop at La Colombe, and a bottle of Pure Black, is highly recommended if you happen to be in Philly or New York or Chicago.

A few photos of La Colombe Chicago to leave you with:

Bartender’s Best Friend

With all the awesome new vodka flavors out there (CAKE! WHIPPED CREAM!!! CHOCOLAT RAZBERI!!!!! FLUFFED MARSHMALLOW!!!!!!!!), I’m amazed no one is talking about what surely must be the best friend to any aspiring bottle-juggling-mixologist-in-training. Bitters? No way. Too old school. I’m talking the ultimate flavor enhancer for your cocktail creations. Something that’s smooth and sweet and likely to cause women to swoon in anticipation. Ahh, yeah, break out the Coffee-Mate! What? You’ve never made a Coffee-Mate-ini? If not that, what about sneaking a little bit of vodka or whiskey into your morning Coffee-Mated coffee flavored beverage? No??? Who are you? C’mon, they’ve already got Amaretto and Irish Creme and Eggnog ready to go; you’re halfway there before you even start.

OK, I’ll be honest. I hate the stuff. You will never ever ever find a bottle of Coffee-Mate in my house. The ingredient list is enough to scare the bejeezus out of anyone opposed to consuming large quantities of chemically-modified foodstuffs (actual example: WATER, SUGAR, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN AND/OR COTTONSEED OIL, AND LESS THAN 2% OF NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS, SODIUM CASEINATE (A MILK DERIVATIVE)**, MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES, DIPOTASSIUM PHOSPHATE, CELLULOSE GEL, CELLULOSE GUM, CARAGEENAN, DEXTROSE). Delicious, right? The whole idea of flavoring your coffee with chemically-enhanced “creamer” is antithetical to the whole notion of enjoying COFFEE. Enough ranting, though, let’s get to the cocktails! (There is an actual cocktail at the end of this rant.)

Milk and cream are not entirely foreign to the cocktail bar. There’s the White Russian, of course, and the Irish Coffee. Those are both acceptable uses of dairy behind the bar, if you ask me, but the slope gets very slippery after that, once you head into the land of the Screaming Orgasm (the drink, that is). I did, however, discover another acceptable usage of dairy, particularly the Coffee-Mate “almost dairy” type: when your friends whip up a batch of espresso-bean-infused bourbon during a spring break-induced fit of ingeniuty and invite you to figure out what to do with it. Sure, you can go elegant and play around the robust coffee with aromatic bitters and nut-based liqueurs and even certain dark beers boiled down to a syrup. Or, you can go crass and commercial. Espresso-infused bourbon… meet Fat Free French Vanilla Naturally and Artificially Flavored Coffee Creamer and a few cubes of ice. Magic. You can thank me later. And don’t be surprised next time you show up at your favorite bar and there’s a big shelf full of Coffee-Mate beside the Italian Amaro and Carpano Antica and all that jazz. Just hope they don’t start juggling the bottles, that stuff makes a mess.

A Clever Morning Ritual

Clever Dripper, Boiling Water, Hario Mini Mill, Good Beans

There is something magical in moving an everyday act from a rushed job into a ritual. Coffee is the kind of thing most people want to get to as quickly as possible. Pop in a pod. Push a button. Or, better yet, pull up to a drive-through and have them hand over the completed cup. While I’m no aficionado, but I do prefer something slightly more labor intensive, not to mention cost effective. At home, I’ve been using either a French press or a semi-automatic espresso machine with pretty good, but definitely not optimal, results. But I knew it was time for a change. Time to ramp up the ritual in my coffee making.

Variations on the pourover/drip/Chemex cup of coffee are popping up at a lot of the more progressive coffee shops here in Atlanta and in other cities, which is kinda funny since it is a bit of a step back to more simpler methods. Of course, everything comes down to attention to detail – what type of filter, how fine a grind, how hot the water, grams of coffee to ounces of water, etc. – but it’s nice to see the focus on the ingredients and method rather than technology per se. The Clever Coffee Dripper ($20 on Amazon) manages to be fairly innovative and very basic all at once. It’s a conical drip cup that requires a filter, but it also has a mechanism that holds the water in the cone until you’re ready to let it drip on through. So it’s basically a combo drip/French press.  I recently bought one and have been enjoying playing it with – it makes a great cup of coffee, one cup at a time. The combination of steeping in the cone and dripping through the filter manages to produce a cup that’s both deep and “clean” at once. It’s definitely not as “muddy” as a French press cup, and definitely more nuanced than a basic drip. I personally find that it works best with brighter coffees that have a nice acidic edge rather than deep, dark roasts. But to each his own. I’ve posted some basic instructions below, but the fun in this is playing around with the different steps and variables until you find what suits you best.

Also, when I ordered the Clever, I knew I had to step up to a better grinder. My espresso machine has a built-in burr grinder, but I can’t really use that outside the machine. I knew I wanted quality, but wasn’t ready to drop a couple hundred bucks. My solution? The generally lauded Hario Mini Mill ($30 on Amazon) burr grinder from Japan. It’s compact. It’s manual. The instructions are only in Japanese, which makes for an intriguing challenge. And, yes, you actually are hand grinding your beans each morning, which is a nice little workout and a good reminder of the work that goes into a great cup of coffee. Check out a comparison of the same beans ground in the Hario (on the left) and in a Cuisinart blade coffee grinder (on the right). The Hario produces a more consistent grind. The color is even substantially different – I’m guessing because the Cuisinart just hacks away from the outside rather than actually crushing the bean through a grinder. Pros say it makes a world of difference, and I definitely prefer the Hario grind to the Cuisinart. In any case, the Clever + Hario + good freshly roasted beans combo is a great way to get started on your own morning coffee ritual. Some basic instructions below the photo…

(Thanks to Bold Bean Coffee Roasters for posting the basis for these instructions, which I have plagiarized heavily since I liked them so much!) 

What you’ll need:

Scale, grinder (preferably burr grinder), coffee, filtered water, timer or watch, water kettle or other heating method, Clever coffee dripper, stirring spoon, coffee cup.

Preheat and rinse filter – Get your water boiling, insert a filter into the Clever, then fill Clever within one inch of the top with water just off the boil. Let sit for five or so seconds and then place the Clever on top of your coffee mug and let the water drain into the mug. Keep the hot water in the mug until you are ready to let the coffee drip on in.

Grind – Grind your coffee as close to brewing time as possible. The Hario, if you’re using that, will take a minute or so for once cup’s worth. I like to do this after the rinse. Start with 2 grams of coffee for every ounce of water. I tend to go with a 10 oz cup, so that means 20 grams or about two and a half rounded tablespoons of beans. I’ve heard some folks say to use up to 30 grams for that amount, but I don’t see a need to use that much. The coffee needs to be ground to a medium grind, about the same as for an automatic drip coffee machine. You can play both with the amount of coffee and the fineness of the grind, so these are just starting points.

Water – To ensure great results you need to use filtered water heated to about 200 degrees. Get it boiling and then let it set for a 20 seconds or so off the stove, that should be pretty close. If you’re a real fanatic, you can play with water between 195 and 205 degrees or so and see what works for you. I mainly just get the kettle to a good boil, then let it sit for a bit before pouring in.  Make sure you put your ground coffee into the filter just before your water is ready to go.

Pre-infusion and begin to brew – Once the water is at the correct temperature, measure it out the desired number of ounces and begin brewing immediately. Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll probably be able to do it without measuring since you’ll know it by sight. Set timer for four minutes and hit start just as you pour the first water on your grounds. The first step in brewing is the pre-infusion step. You want to pour just enough water on the grounds to soak them all evenly and completely. This will cause your coffee grounds to bloom. Once the bloom has settled some, 30 seconds or so, pour the remainder of your water on to the grounds taking care to saturate all grounds evenly.

Continue brewing and draw down – Place the lid on the Clever as soon as all water has been added to the brewing chamber to keep heat in and help regulate the brewing temperature. Once the timer is down to about a minute, remove the lid and give the coffee a few gentle stirs so all of the grounds will be evenly extracted during the draw down. After you stir, replace the lid, pour any water that may still be in your mug from preheating out, then go ahead and put the Clever onto your mug (yes, we know the timer is not up yet). Placeing the Clever on top of your coffee mug automatically starts the drip going, so just let it run its course. This should take less than a minute, and if the grind is set right and everything has been timed correctly, the last of your coffee should leave the brew chamber just as your four minute timer expires.

Enjoy your coffee!!!

Clean up – Clean up is very easy with the Clever. Simply remove and dispose of the filter. Rinse the brewer with hot water, drain and repeat

We would love to hear all of your suggestions for brewing a better cup of coffee in the comments section below, as well as any Clever-specific methods you use at home.

The State of the Atlanta Sipping Scene

Thirsty South has been covering the Atlanta drinking scene for a year now, and we must say that the state of the Atlanta sipping scene is STRONG. Whether you care about coffee, beer, wine, or cocktails, the past year has seen many good things. Here’s our take on the latest and greatest, with as many bad puns as we can fit in.

Coffee Is Roasting Hot, Percolating Wildly, Brewing Beautifully

If you need proof of how good, serious coffee is taking hold of this city, just consider that this past week Octane opened up the latest addition to its expanding empire: a new shop in Grant Park (check out their awesome espresso machine), joining the flagship Octane on the Westside and the mini-Octane “Pocket Bar” at the Bank of America Plaza as beacons of light in the haze of not-receding-fast-enough Starbucks-induced coffee coma. Meanwhile, Steady Hand Pour House is rocking and rolling and settling in nicely over in Emory Village. Empire State South is kicking what has to be the best coffee-bar-inside-an-award-winning-restaurant this side of the Mississippi. And Jason Dominy over at Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters is emerging as one of craft coffee’s leading evangelists, with “coffee ambushes” all over town converting unsuspecting onlookers into Clever Coffee Dripping devotees. All praise the bean. On the downside? Why can’t there be at least one great coffee bar in Buckhead? (Octane, here’s your neighborhood for store number four)

Beer Is Hoppin’ and Growling Ferociously

The beer scene, even more than coffee, has truly gone insane (in a good way) over the past year. No one would have guessed a year ago that fresh growler fills would be available all over Atlanta, from Whole Foods to Hop City to Ale Yeah! to The Beer Growler and what seems like another new place every other week or so. The Beer Growler got growlers going in Athens last December and Hop City led the charge here in Atlanta, and there’s no stopping the trend now. It seems inconceivable that Ale Yeah! wasn’t even around this time last year, but now Atlanta has multiple world class beer shops (Ale Yeah! and Hop City in particular) to join its world class beer bars (The Brickstore and The Porter in particular).  And places like Tower and Green’s have continued to step up with great selections of their own. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s bars and restaurants are putting more effort into their beer lists and supporting our local brewers more than ever. Speaking of… Jailhouse, Red Hare, O’Dempsey’s, Wild Heaven, Monday Night Brewing all hopped heavily onto the scene in the past year. Are you serious?!? This is crazy growth, and thankfully a lot of great beer is being churned out by these local upstarts who are standing proud next to stalwarts like Terrapin and SweetWater. Wild Heaven probably made the biggest splash, and their Avondale Estates brewery will be a welcome addition once they get it up and running, but Jailhouse is showing that they can also play with the big boys and make some of Georgia’s most adventurous beers.

GA Wine Is Winning, Atlanta Wine Shops (& Lists) Are Bubbly & Sparkling

The past year has seen some of Georgia’s wineries continue to impress in competitions and tastings, gaining broader awareness for their quality. Yonah Mountain got some great press for kicking Napa butt in a blind tasting. Wolf Mountain and Frogtown picked up a bunch of gold medals in Los Angeles and from the Tasters Guild International competitions, among many others. Closer to home, on the retail front, exciting boutique wine shops seem to be sprouting up all over town. Perrine’s, Le Caveau and H&F Bottle Shop all opened up in the past year, and all offer passionate perspectives and impeccable selections. They are everything that Total Wine is not, thank goodness. On the wine list side of things, Empire State South (again!?) introduced one of Atlanta’s most exciting lists, full of impressive Burgundy, Riesling and grower Champagne. Who could ask for anything more?

Cocktail Culture Is Strong, the Competition Is Stiff & Spirited

Getting a well made drink around town is easier than ever. Again, restaurants have shown that a bit of attention to their bar program can really pay off. And a spirited community of barkeeps (AKA mixologists) is stoking the collective talent and enthusiasm all around town.  H. Harper Station is our pick for the most noteworthy newcomer on the cocktail front, thanks to Jerry Slater and crew’s purposeful punch bowls and bourbon bravado. Barrel-aged cocktails hit the scene at Iberian Pig and Double Zero. And while Greg Best and team continue to set Holeman & Finch apart from the rest, Miller Union, Cakes & Ale, Abattoir, Leon’s, 4th & Swift, The Sound Table and Pura Vida all continue to churn out serious stuff from behind the bar. It’s a great list, but we could probably name ten more right behind them. Oh, and best use of shochu in a cocktail? Miso Izakaya, hands down. The only regret? That Pappy Van Winkle is just too damn hard to keep in stock.

In summary, it’s easy to see that the sipping scene is sizzling in Atlanta. The public is thirsty for excellence in all its forms, and thankfully we have purveyors, brewers, baristas and more ready to quench that thirst. We’ll drink to that.

Java and Spice with Sea Island Rum

Our recent visit to Firefly Distillery in Wadmalaw, South Carolina, was a great experience, and also provided a chance to taste the Sea Island rum that Jim Irvin is crafting there. They have three varieties – the Carolina Gold, the Spice, and the Java, which is a coffee and spice infused bomb of a rum.

The donkey-driven sugarcane press from Guatemala
Rum aging in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels

All of these rums start with Southern sugarcane, sourced from John’s Island near the distillery as well as Louisiana and Florida. There’s a cranky old sugarcane press out in the yard that they found in Guatemela, which, with the help of a donkey, presses out the sugarcane. Distilled in small batches, the rum then sees some time in used bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace, up to three years or so. The high quality sugarcane and the bourbon barrel aging come together to create a distinctive product, and Irvin’s experiments with infusing all-natural flavors and spices into these rums takes it up a notch or two in the “wow” category. They currently have distribution around South Carolina,  and at the distillery itself of course, but are expanding now to Georgia and hopefully beyond. Here’s a taste of what you can expect if you can get your hands on some of the Sea Island Rum.

Sea Island Spice Rum
70 Proof
Approx. $22 Retail
Tasting Date: August 5, 2011 (and prior)

A clear pale straw gold in the glass, with a nice viscosity that clings to the glass. Notes of butterscotch and vanilla jump out on the nose, a hint of nutmeg and baking spice lingering behind, like a warm, buttery cinnamon roll. On the palate, the spice and sweetness of the sugarcane are incredibly well balanced, this is not an overly assertive spiced rum, more like a spiced banana bread with an almost creamy (well, cream ale) presence. Warm lingering finish, a touch of heat that manages to hold the sweet and sharp notes in harmony. The folks at Firefly recommend trying it with an assertive ginger beer or ginger ale like South Carolina’s Blenheim for a spin on the Dark and Stormy, but it works great straight as well.

Excellent* – a great marriage of rum quality and balanced spice, a true treat if you’ve only tried Captain Morgan’s.


Sea Island Java Rhum
70 Proof
Approx. $22 Retail
Tasting Date: August 5, 2011 (and prior)

Dark walnut brown in the glass, nearly impenetrable.  Huge coffee and deep dark chocolate brownie nose (yet again, that bourbon barrel-aged sugarcane rum makes baked good comparisons come naturally), tart dark cherry notes underneath that massive coffee and chocolate, burnt brown sugar as well. Incredibly full when it hits your tongue, warm and deep, obviously coffee driven, but the dark chocolate brownie presence rushes to the front, then subsides under a chewy bite of a finish, which alternates back and forth between coffee, chocolate, dark but bright cherry notes, and the miraculously long lingering pleasantly sweet burn of the rum.

Excellent* – dessert in a glass, an amazing dessert at that, and will blow away comparisons to Kahlua (try it in any cocktail recipe that calls for Kahlua and see what you think).


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck