A Visit to “Traditionally Irreverent” Laughing Monk Brewery

Laughing Monk Flight

Laughing Monk Brewery, in San Francisco, California, celebrates its first anniversary this year on St. Patrick’s Day. Brewers Jeff Moakler and Andrew Casteel are both avid beer aficionados, having traveled in Belgium and starting out through home brewing. Jeff has several medals under his belt and worked as a Head Brewer for BJ’s Brewhouse. Their idea for Laughing Monk is to brew Californian and Belgian beers using local, in season, ingredients. For those versed in Trappist beers, a few of these will be recognizable styles.

Their building is in the Bayview area of San Francisco — an artistic place to visit. Every building is painted in vivid, bold murals. As expected of a new craft brewery, the room is small but offers a friendly atmosphere. They have a collaborative relationship with their next door neighbor, Seven Stills Distillery. A visit to one will get you $5 off at the other, so why not check out both?

During our visit to the tap room, we tasted all of the below. Thoughts follow.

Midnight Coffee Stout – This is supposed to be a medium body stout, but the body is a dark brown, brewed with Artis cold brew coffee. The ivory head darkens closer to surface. With a strong espresso scent, its heavy coffee taste carries through to the finish, with mild barley and chocolate flavors underneath and a slight acidity. 7.1% abv. A

Laughing Monk BreweryBook of Palms – When coconut and pineapple are first mentioned, many people automatically think “sweet.” However this Berliner Weisse is a sour beer. The pineapple in the scent is fresh, but tart upon taste. The coconut becomes pronounced on 2nd sip. This dry beer has a cloudy, bright yellow body and a light head—typical of a Berliner Weisse. 5.3% abv. B+

Evening Vespers – This is a Belgian Duppel with a reddish-brown body crowned by a white frothy head. The nice dried fruit flavors of plum/prune, raisins, and dates are not overpowering. The sweetness is light as well. 7.1% abv. A

Date With the Devil – The deep red body and thin, white head of this Belgian Quad are appealing. Its date flavor brings a natural sweetness that’s more pronounced than that in Evening Vespers but it’s not syrupy or overpowering. It is certainly not as bold as expected. 9.5 abv. B+

3rd Circle Tripel – Belgian Tripels are traditionally brewed with three times the malt as other beers. 3rd Circle has a nice golden yellow body, and a thick, white head, and slight dryness to it. You can taste a bit of tart hoppiness with acidity following. 8.7% abv. B

Mango Gose – Originally brewed in collaboration with the Pink Boots Society, this Gose won a Bronze medal at the California State Fair Beer competition for session beers. Its body has a bright yellow color and an effervescent head. Mango sweet-tartness fills the nose immediately and then follows through on the tongue. Its mild saltiness comes from sea salt. 4.8% abv. B

Karl the Fog – This is a Vermont (American) IPA. Right off, the grapefruit-like scent of the hops tickles the nose. If you like IPAs, then this golden yellow beer with a white frothy head will please you. It is heavy with Mosaic and El Dorado hops. 6.2% abv. A

laughingmonkbrewing.com

A Visit to Moonlight Brewery’s Tap Room, Santa Rosa, California

Moonlight Brewery is located in Santa Rosa, California. While it is a small brewer, the brewery is best known for its beer Death and Taxes. We recently visited its tap room, which is on the brewery site.

Unfortunately the brewers were not available to interview. However, the hosts of the tap room were very gracious and friendly, and they offered a look at the boiling tank workroom and the massive, covered brewing kettles. Moonlight may be small, but the size of these boys is impressive.

On tap, six beers were offered, so a sample slat of those was in order. From left to right in the above photo, we tasted:

Toast Burnt Lager – This beer, typically brewed for New Year’s celebrations,  is a light amber body color with a creamy head. At first sip, a nice maltiness is noticeable. The burnt flavor comes through on the back end without being harsh. It is dry and not sweet at all. 6% abv A

Tipple Winter Ale – This dark brown ale is a type of “winter warmer,” brewed for fall and winter. It has a nice, rich, tan head. The first pass under the nose has a citrusy hop note which carries through the first sip. The hoppy overtones are more subtle with the second taste. 6% abv. A

Reality Czeck – A pale yellow pilsner, Reality Czeck is a light and refreshing Czech style beer. It does have the traditional floral hops flavors which are stronger after the first taste, but it reminded me a bit of a Budweiser. 4.8% abv. B

Twist of Fate Bitter Ale – Moonlight calls this English style ale ESB-ish, which means it as a touch of the extra special bittering hops that are noticeable in the taste and scent. I agree this is true to its name. Its hoppiness comes through, but it’s not overpowering. 5.6% abv. A

Lunatic Lager – This lager has a bright yellow body (slightly darker than the Reality Czeck) with a light scent revealing a touch of yeast. It is refreshing with a slight lingering aftertaste which was ever so slightly soapy in texture. 5% abv. B

Death and Taxes – It is a San Francisco style black lager–a common style of lager. The dark, chocolate brown body and thick, creamy, tan head are very welcoming. There are chocolaty notes but more of a dark roast coffee taste than anything. This one remains a favorite. 5% abv. A+

All of these are approximately $7 per 16 oz. draft, depending upon where you buy them.

moonlightbrewing.com

Bar Review: The Chandelier Lounge at The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas

Las Vegas has no shortage of high-end drinking establishments, but stepping inside of a three-story-tall chandelier to get your drink on? Well, that’s still something even in an age of overblown glitz.

The Cosmopolitan’s Chandelier Lounge is an opulent temple to shimmering crystal — but it’s also home to some inventive cocktails that those sipping their beers and martinis are missing out on. You needn’t look far to find them. The drinks menu houses a page of seasonal specialties. At present, nine cocktails appear on the list. These clearly rotate based on what’s fresh (and, being Vegas, what’s hot).

Recently we took a quick spin through the menu to hit the highlights and see what The Chandelier’s mixology crew had been up to lately.

Let’s start with some drinks that focus on simpler flavors — though both are clear crowd-pleasers. The Classy Lassi is an award-winning take on the Indian dessert, a mix of Opihr spiced gin, mango, passion fruit, yogurt, coconut, cardamom, ginger, peppercorns, kalamansi (like a kumquat), and “snake oil.” I didn’t ask about the last ingredient, but the rest come together in a milkshake-like, mango-heavy concoction that is sweet and fruity, with no kick to it whatsover. Light herbal notes give the finish a little kiss. This is an easy knock-’em-back cocktail that will surely lead to trouble later in the evening after round three.

Similarly, Old Dogs, New Tricks blends Xante Pear Cognac, Creole shrub, Giffard’s Vanilla, lemon, and ancho chai masala tea into a flute-served refresher that focuses heavily on the vanilla-pear combination, with a finish that plays up the citrus and sugar components. This was maybe my least favorite drink of the night, which is saying something since it was perfectly enjoyable, if a bit less than complex, from start to finish.

Things start to get weird with the Lost in Translation, which is composed of “strange bedfellows” of Yamazaki 12 year old whisky, Giffard’s creme de banana, coconut cream, ceremonial grade matcha tea, lavender honey, ginger, and sesame oil. Rimmed with matcha, the greenish-brown drink is muddy and decidedly homely, but amazingly delicious. Tropical notes play surprisingly well with the whiskey and the honey — with the sesame and matcha enduring on the more savory, aromatic finish. This one is as hard to put down as it is to look at.

Lastly, we turn to one of the most inventive cocktails I’ve ever had, called Schnozberries Taste Like Schnozberries. The description goes like this: “Dragonberry Rum, Sloe Gin, Aperol, Pickled Strawberry Lychee Pink Peppercorn Shrub, over a Miracleberry Ginger Gobstopper Ice Sphere with a scented Lolligarden.” That is a long way of explaining the core of this drink: A miracleberry tablet encased in ice that slowly melts into your drink. Miracleberry is a weird little fruit that binds to enzymes on your taste buds so that you can only taste sweet flavors. As it melts into the drink, the quite sour concoction slowly turns sweeter and sweeter. For good measure, you get a plastic flowerpot with aromatic “flowers” and four sweet-and-sour lollipops that you can suck on to see how impacted your taste buds are. While the effect wasn’t as immersive as I’d hoped, it was amazing to see this drink change before your very eyes. Er, mouth. It’s fun stuff, and worth the visit for this one alone.

cosmopolitanlasvegas.com

Bar Review: The Oakwood, Vancouver B.C.

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Vancouver’s Oakwood is a Canadian Bistro by name, featuring a decent-sized restaurant serving Canadian classics next to a roaring fire. But across the aisle is a bar that’s worthy of your time in its own right.

We picked an auspicious time to visit, as Oakwood’s former bartender recently left and was just replaced by a new fellow, Robert, who’s dismantling the current drinks menu and replacing it with new libations.

We tried one of these new cocktails on the day it was designed — the Exuberant Gaucho, a mix of anejo tequila, Campari, creme de cacao, and cold brew coffee. It’s the dash of chili-infused vodka that gives it the exuberance — and we went back and forth with the bartender on whether one dash or two was the best version. (Our ultimate vote: One dash, plus some chocolate bitters.)

The only cocktail Robert says he plans to keep on the list is the Shrubbery, a complex mix of grilled pineapple-infused tequila, Aperol, pineapple bark shrub, lime juice, pineapple-jalapeno bitters, and a smoked chili salt rim. An easy crowd pleaser that offers an amazing balance among its various flavors, it fires on all cylinders right from the start and goes down incredibly easy.

Keep an eye on the place come January when the new menu should be revealed!

theoakwood.ca

Dining with Sammy Hagar at El Paseo’s Wine Collectors’ Dinner

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What’s better than bringing a bottle of wine to dinner? Bringing about 30 of them, then passing them around so everyone can try a bit of each.

Such is the idea behind the monthly Wine Collectors’ Dinner at Mill Valley, California’s El Paseo, a fine dining establishment perhaps best known for its celebrity ownership, local luminary and legendary rocker Sammy Hagar.

Hagar’s brainchild is organized around themes in the wine world. Each month guests are instructed to bring wines of a particular variety. In March it was pre-2003 Howell Mountain reds. In February, Right Bank Bordeaux. This month, Sonoma Coast and Central Coast pinot noir.

Hagar’s wine collection is legendary, and he always brings exotic offerings to the party. This month was no exception, as he poured a splash of 1980 Chalone for me, which utterly surprised with its amazing longevity and plenty of fruit. Later, he uncorked a magnum of 2012 Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard, which was fun to compare against the 2012 Williams Selyem Peay Vineyard that I brought, both from the Sonoma Coast. Of course, all the guests had wine to share, too — the rule is one bottle per person — which meant ample opportunity to try both classics and obscurities, like a gorgeous pinot from Occidental and an opulent new wine called The Prestige, made by a negociant who was in attendance.

Of course, this is a dinner, and the $125 entry fee gets you a four course meal that I’d describe as rustic French in style. A Wellington-style scallop was a unique highlight, but the tender, roasted veal chop that came after was probably the standout of the night.

Sadly, my picture-taking skills failed me and I forgot to snap a selfie while Hagar and I talked not just wine but also his upcoming spirits projects, which include a spiced rum to round out the Sammy’s Beach Bar line and a hybrid mezcal-tequila he’s calling Mezquila. Both are arriving this fall, so stay tuned… or visit El Paseo during one of the upcoming Wine Collectors’ Dinners and ask him about them yourself.

elpaseomillvalley.com

Bar Review: Whitechapel, San Francisco

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Of all the gin joints in San Francisco, well, you probably walked into this one, the only temple to this classic white spirit in town — in fact, the only one I’ve ever been to at anywhere.

Whitechapel opened in October 2015, part of the resurgence of classy, artisanal, and/or themed cocktail bars sweeping the nation, and particularly the Bay Area.

Whitechapel was dreamed up by Alex Smith, formerly of ThirstyBear, who after years of shopping the idea got Smuggler’s Cove proprietor Martin Cate to come aboard as a partner. The new establishment is a few blocks away from Smuggler’s, located in SF’s otherwise dead-at-night Civic Center district. (The good news: There’s plenty of parking available here.)

Inside, Whitechapel has been painstakingly designed to resemble a “steampunk Victorian era tube station,” though one imagines they were not drinking fancy gin cocktails in the London Underground in the late 1800s. Someone spent a lot of money here to make a really new place look really old.

But the cocktails here, oh my! Yes, they are all built around gin of some form (either straight, barrel-aged, or genever, or a combination of the three), and the dense cocktail menu stretches back to the 1800s. Some absolute classics (from Pink Gin — gin and bitters, served room temperature) are represented, but most drinkers head to the more updated concoctions which are presented at the front of the book and on “cheat sheet” one-pagers handed to every guest.

It’s one of these recipes that has quickly risen to become one of my favorite cocktails ever — it’s also a Whitechapel top-seller — the Narc Angel, a mix of Ford’s gin, orange curacao, maraschino, ginger, mint, and lemon. It’s great like that, but the genius is that it is served with a pipette filled with Campari. You squeeze as little or as much into the drink as you like, and as you drink. It starts off with gorgeous sweet-and-herbal notes in balance, then layers in that bitter edge as you guzzle it down — which is embarrassingly easy to do.

I also tasted the Lamplighter’s Story, a powerful blend of Plymouth Gin, hibiscus, grapefruit marmalade, serrano chili, and bitter orange soda, but felt the floral element was oddly overpowering. The frothy Holmes’ Bonfire is a frothy almond- and licorice-flavored concoction that looks (and tastes) a bit mad scientistish. And there’s the Penny Dreadful, a spirit-heavy drink made with various gins and vermouths, plus bitters and “smoked Islay peat.” The overall effect is a lot like a Manhattan — only made with gin instead of whiskey.

Whitechapel also serves food, with tastes running heavily to the origins of gin, the Netherlands and Britain — with a nod to Bangladesh, whose people now dominate the Whitechapel neighborhood in London. The poffertjes (buckwheat doughnut holes) are a sweet companion to a stout drink, but it’s the $120, 36-ounce tomahawk steak that really turns heads. Built to share, of course, Smith says they are regularly purchased and that the record is sales of eight or nine of the monsters on a single night.

Think gin is just for tonic and martinis? Think again by visiting Whitechapel.

whitechapelsf.com

Bar Review: Pagan Idol, San Francisco

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For years, San Franciscans have had one primary spot for tiki drinks: Smuggler’s Cove. Now a new temple to rum and tropical fruit juices has opened: Pagan Idol.

Pagan Idol is part of the Future Bars group, which owns Rickhouse, Bourbon & Branch, and other high-end bars. Pagan Idol fits right in, taking the tiki theme to its hilt.

Step inside and you enter a shipwreck-themed front room, complete with LCD underwater scenes playing out in the “portholes.” Step up a small staircase and you’re onto the “forbidden island,” complete with spooky totems, a starlit sky, and a flowing, LED volcano.

The focus is of course on drinks, and Pagan Idol has all the classics and then some — many spun with a slight twist. Maybe Grog is a twist on Navy Grog, mixing up three rums, lime, spices, and a rock candy stick into a dangerously drinkable cocktail with a racy edge. The Witch Doctor is served in a classic tiki mug — rum, lime, passion fruit, spices, egg white, and “ancient curse.” Heavy on the spice, the egg white turns it into a sort of pirate slushie.

Banana Life is a fun drink that focuses on, yes, bananas, and is even garnished with plantain chips. As an alternative to a dull banana daiquiri, it’s a nice little concoction. Of course, you can’t go wrong with Pagan Idol’s Mai Tai — nicely heavy on the almond orgeat, with strong orange notes thanks to a good slug of triple sec.

Naturally, Pagan Idol has plenty of “bowl” drinks for groups, and you’ll find many, many people partaking of giant troughs of rum and juice, complete with floating flowers or set on fire. Never have I seen so many grown men walking around with oversized straws… and such big smiles on their faces.

paganidol.com

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