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Archive for April, 2012

Magic Hat Over The Pils

Browsing the Vermont beer selection at The Beverage Warehouse in Winooski recently, I was surprised when I came across this bottle.  Standing out against the wall of 22 oz bombers, was this tall, elegant, foil capped beauty.  Unfamiliar with the label and graphics I picked up the bottle and was surprised to find it was a bottle of Magic Hat new Humdinger Series, which they describe as “an offering of the rarest of ales for each coming season.  Complex in nature, small in batch and big in character. Humdinger ales are brewed for discriminating palates and are available for a very limited time.”  Magic Hat’s Humdinger Series wasn’t on my beer radar screen when it was previously made, so naturally I scooped this up and trotted off excited for what might pour forth out of the bottle.

The beer poured a fluffy head, with a bready and yeasty nose.  Those qualities translated into the taste as well, with a touch of bitterness at the forefront of the mouth.  The beer was low on carbonation and light in body despite packing a bunch with an 8.1% abv.  My experience with Imperial Pilsners is limited, but the Over the Pils elicited thoughts of some great German beers I’ve enjoyed.  All in all, I thought this was exceptional and I’m thrilled that I came across it.  I’ll also now be anxiously awaiting the next beers in the Humdinger Series, Burn Pile and http://www.magichat.net/humdinger/graupelGraupel, which will debut on August 1st and October 15th respectively.

The Humdinger Series also has me excited about the goings on at Magic Hat.  The brewery gets a bit of a bum rap from the beer cognoscenti.  Magic Hat has served as an introduction to the craft beer world for thousands of beer lovers who previously limited their world view to AB-Inbev or Miller-Coors beer.  As those drinkers have expanded their beer horizons, its practically become vogue to bash Magic Hat.  Sort of like a teenager who says nasty things about the first person they dated after they breakup.  This has come in the form of claims about slipping quality, lack of attention to recipes and other knocks.  Those critiques have only increased with ownership of the brewery shifting to a larger corporation (North American Breweries) and former owner Alan Newman taking some shots at beer geeks.  Hopefully the Humdinger Series will bring those critics back around to Magic Hat and remind them that no matter what great beers they’ve enjoyed since their first craft beer, that Magic Hat still makes innovative and delicious beer.

Verdict: Humdinger indeed. 

Brewed in South Burlington at the Artifactory, we scoured the shelves of the Beverage Warehouse in Winooski to find this bottle at $8.29.  

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La Panciata makes some of the best cookies in Vermont.  You might have a local bakery you’re fond of that has a special cookie.  But I’d put La Panciatas array of traditional Chocolate Chip, Peanut Butter and Oatmeal cookies up against any others sold in local grocery stores.  The cookies are large, fresh tasting (they’re double bagged) with great flavor.  In this case a smooth peanut butter is the basis of a dense delicious cookie.  Some of our tasters expressed a preference for perhaps a slightly moister peanut butter cookie, but all agreed that these were darn tasty.

Verdict: La Panciata’s cookie lineup is one of the best around.  These peanut butter cookies hold their own. 

I’ve expressed my frustration in the past with Vermont products with terrible web presence.  It just isn’t that hard or take that long to get something set up.  La Panciata is a great example, here’s their website which is pretty useless.  http://www.lapanciata.com/ 

 

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Conversation’s about hard cider usually start and end with Vermont’s own Woodchuck cider.  Even as we dub this year a where cider gets its due, I find that only recently are folks aware of other ciders out on the market.  Which makes sense, since Woodchuck holds a dominating 47% share of the cider market.  One of the things I appreciate about Woodchuck is they are not content to rest on their laurels.  They’ve got a core line of products of which you’re probably familiar, but recently have debuted smaller release ciders under both a Private Reserve label and an offering they are calling Farmhouse select.

Woodchuck’s Belgian White feels like a logical expansion of their product line.  Allagash and the Miller Coors owned Blue Moon are big cross over beers for wine drinkers and I think Woodchuck’s Belgian White might play a similar role for beer drinkers who might not have much exposure to cider.  For tasting notes, I’ll let the Woodchuck description speak for itself.

Cloudy, with a rich, golden hue reminiscent of wheat beer, our Belgian White presents a delicate aroma and taste, mirroring the Belgian tradition of a coriander and orange peel profile, laced with the complexity of apple notes and classic Belgian beer yeast.

This is pretty spot on and I don’t have much to add.  This is an incredibly drinkable cider, and at 5.5% abv, its one I’d consider sessionable.

Verdict: Like a Belgian White beer, this is perfect for summer and will be a favorite on hot days. 

Made in Middlebury, we hunted down this sixer of this Woodchuck for $9.99.  Check out Woodchuck’s video description of this cider on youtube, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter @WoodchuckCider

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The Easter Bunny was kind enough to drop by the Sapbucket household with a few Vermont products.  He always brings jelly beans, but this year he had something special in store.  Palmer Lane Maple Jelly Beans.  These beans come in a plump, half-pound bag, with a re-sealable top. A sweet maple flavor practically rushes to escape as you open the bag.  There’s certainly no confusing these with buttered popcorn jelly beans (aka the absolute worst jelly beans in the world).*  The beans are small and have a high quality texture, comparable in size and feel to Jelly Belly beans.  They have a pleasantly sweet maple flavor and will satisfy the maple lover in your family.  You wouldn’t confuse the flavor with pure syrup (the beans are artificially flavored), but they’re still addictive and depending on your mood you might not have a need for the re-sealable bag.

Verdict: The perfect maple product for an Easter basket or jelly bean lover.

Made in Jeffersonville, you’ll have to ask the Easter Bunny where he got them.  You can buy them, and other maple products, online at www.palmerlanemaple.com.  Like them on Facebook.

*I have no idea why they make they make buttered popcorn jelly beans, they’re horrible.  And why are they so hard to distinguish from other jelly beans? You’re picking through a bowl of beans and grab a white one. Perhaps its coconut, or another acceptable flavor, you pop it in your mouth its too late before you realize your horrible mistake.  You want to spit it out or throw up, but that’s not acceptable so you swallow it and quickly down a handful handful of other beans to get rid of the taste.  Yech. Maybe that’s the reason.  Eating a buttered popcorn bean results in additional jelly bean consumption to get rid of the taste.  Net gain = Jelly Belly.

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The recent news that Trader Joe’s is looking to open a South Burlington store kicked off an enthusiastic response from many of the stores local devotees.  That’s not surprising considering the cult-ish following the grocery chain has among shoppers coast to coast.  Amid the enthusiasm, questions about competition to local grocery sellers emerged, specifically the impact of Trader Joe’s aiming for a location next door to Healthy Living.  The confident, almost welcoming, response from the Healthy Living purveyors allayed some fears, but had me wondering:  What are the ramifications to our local food system?

Here are the four primary areas where I see Trader Joe’s impacting the Vermont food system. (1) Growth potential/opportunity cost for local food producers (2) Other local/national store expansion (3) Long term area shopping trends (4) Independent store management and food politics.

(1)    Trader Joe’s has cultivated a loyal following for its low-cost but high quality products.  Their offerings feel on par with products available at natural food store or co-ops; interesting snacks, semi-prepared foods, frozen meals and inexpensive wine.  Their stores fit into neighborhoods, have fun paintings of local landmarks and culture (which often are blended into their sales pitch) but yet one thing they don’t do well is local.  That becomes a problem for local food producers who are looking to grow, and need their products on more shelves.  The lost opportunity isn’t so much that a new store coming in is a chain versus an independent store, it is that there’s no opportunity for local foods to get on the shelf in front of shoppers.  As we grow the pipeline for local producers by increasing commercial kitchen space and food-hubs, we need to increase the outlets for those products at the retail level.  A new store that sucks up local grocery dollars with no local food offerings hurts the growth of the local food system.

(2)    No big surprise that the owners of Healthy Living don’t see TJ’s as a major threat for peeling off their shoppers. They have an established customer base, and if you’re buying local food and organic products from them now, you’re not likely to shift the bulk of your food purchases elsewhere.  Same goes for City Market’s downtown store.  But what is the potential impact on City Market’s planned second location in the South End?  Or on the now dormant Whole Foods plans for a store in the Burlington area?  Assuming that City Market’s plans for the South End store rely on two primary shopping groups – (a) neighborhood residents (b) downtown and area workers that commute from outside of Burlington south on Route 7 – then the impact would be minimal.  But if City Market is factoring in South Burlington/Shelburne/Charlotte weekend shoppers as a significant portion of their base, the Healthy Living/TJ’s co-location then might be an issue.  Same for any resurrection of a Whole Foods proposal.  With the Williston Road option off the table, Shelburne Road and Williston would be the next likely locations for a store.  Putting a TJ’s on Dorset Street has the potential to impact either of those proposals, if the idea got new life.

(3)    We are all creatures of habits.  I’d venture a guess that our shopping habits are at least a little bit, and most likely largely, influenced by the shopping patterns of our parents.  From when you shop, to how many stores you shop at, even to how you navigate the store, many of these habits are formed before you make these decisions for yourself.  From the standpoint of the local food system, this could be an issue for the long term buying habits of young Vermonters.  There’s nothing terribly exciting about shopping at Shaw’s, Hannaford or Price Chopper.  They’ve all worked to create a shopping experience that feels more intimate by imitating the co-op feel in their produce sections and adding natural food sections. That window dressing doesn’t eliminate the fact that you don’t feel a connection to the food when you shop.  Conversely, Vermont’s Co-Ops and natural food stores have a personality.  Product availability and location change, the aisles are close together (creating an intimate shopping experience) there’s the ownership aspect of co-ops, and so on.  While the feel of shopping at Trader Joe’s is different than a co-op, the identity is there.  The connection and loyalty of brand certainly is too.  So the issue for Vermont’s food system again returns to what’s on the shelf.  If shoppers are creating a connection with a store with no local food options, how does that impact their long term buying habits?  Perhaps not at all, I don’t know.  Or perhaps, in a small way, having a Trader Joe’s will be an addition that helps keep young people in Vermont.  Does Vermont adding more chains like Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and Five Guys means it competes better on the great things to offer rather than what it lacks?  Or perhaps it still comes down to jobs and as long as folks believe they can’t find work here, they’ll head elsewhere.

(4)    The thing we import the most in Vermont is food.  What do we export the most of?  Money.  Our main agriculture commodity is dairy, and we don’t manufacture much in the state.  Which means when we buy things we send our money away for other people to decide what to do with it.  Will a Trader Joes be anything but a blip on the register of our receipt for purchase of goods that come from afar?  No.  But it continues a practice of letting others decide what to do with our food dollars.  Compare the success of Trader Joes and City Market/Healthy Living.  The success of Trader Joes in California & Boston (and everywhere else they are) allows them to expand.  They are looking to open stores in Vermont, New Hampshire, Colorado and so on.  City Markey and Healthy Living are planning to expand too, but regionally in a way that will serve both existing and new customers.  Only the latter expansions will help support local farmers and food systems.  This is important because beyond the pipeline for local, it’s the City Market’s and Healthy Livings that are driving (and enabling) the conversation about our food to take place.  Being privately owned may allow Trader Joe’s to be a reasonably good actor on issues like sustainable seafood and GMO’s, but that doesn’t replace the accountability that is inherent in independent stores.  Hanover Co-Op recently pulled Horizon products off their shelves because Horizon milks are no longer organic.  Last year Hunger Mountain Co-Op dropped Cabot butter because of concerns that it wasn’t rBGH-free.  Do you think there was pink slime on the shelves of City Market or Healthy Living before a national outcry?  Nope.

Perhaps Trader Joe’s impact on the local food system will be nil. Time will tell.  And I’m sure I’ll find myself inside their doors at some point.  I’ll be doing my best to buy things I would otherwise have purchased at Hannafords or Shaws, rather than shifting my food dollars from a local store.

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Fiddleheads

I’m constantly amazed at the diverse bounty Vermont has a lot to offer in the way of local food.  We love our farmers, bakers and ice cream makers.  These are all essential to the locavore diet and I’d put these products up against any others around the country.  Every time I buy I local product I’m proud that it is our state and community that’s a leader in the food sovereignty movement.  To me there’s nothing that feels more local than living off the land.  While fishing and foraging make up only a handful of meals on our table each year, every one of them is special.

On a recent foraging trip for ramps where we came up empty, we did come across a small forest of fiddleheads.  Making to sure to harvest sustainably, we collected a few ounces of fiddleheads and headed home.  My two favorite ways to cook them is simply sautéed as a side, or as part of a pasta dish.  On this occasion we made a variation of Shelburne Farms Fiddlehead Tart, which turned out more of a pizza.  The fid dleheads were true to form, nutty, fresh, and earthy, tasting great with some asiago cheese. They worked pretty well on our tart/pizza and I think this would be a great way to introduce them to a less adventurous first timer.  The ferns still had a good crunch and visually were very appealing.

Verdict: A mild winter is still winter so we were thrilled to have these first fiddleheads of 2012.

Foraged from a local watershed, I’d expect to start seeing fiddleheads on grocery store shelves in the next few weeks.  

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We emptied this jar into a small sauce pot and as it started to warm our kitchen filled with an incredible scent of curry.  Expecting a savory flavor, we were caught off guard by the sweetness that jumps out of the soup reminding you that apple is the dominant ingredient here.  The smell of the soup didn’t quite match up with the sweetness, but that mattered less the more we ate.  The soup is a thick (but not creamy) texture, well blended with a nice curry finish that has just a touch of heat at the top and back of your mouth.  The heat is subtle though, and shouldn’t scare off kids or those that aren’t huge fans of spicy heat.  We enjoyed the soup best when accompanied by a grilled cheese for dipping.  That muted some of the sweetness and brought out the curry flavor.

Verdict: You’ll enjoy this soup if you embrace the sweetness and set aside an assumption that hearty means savory.  

Cooked up in Montpelier, we scooped up this jar when it was on sale at City Market for $3.49.  Read more about Two Guys in Vermont, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter @TwoGuysinVT.

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