Food

TOAD's (Not so Wild) Ride to Becoming Oxford's First Distillery

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On our trip to England last August we spent one night in Oxford which didn't give us a lot of time to explore but we did squeeze in a walking tour of the university and then ventured about 1.5 miles beyond the city to a new craft distillery where a talented team of visionaries was launching its first bottled spirits after years of building every aspect of the business from the ground up.

Five years is how long it took Tom Nicolson to lay the ground work and build the team that today is The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD), the first legal distillery ever in Oxford. Nicolson, the founder and CEO of TOAD gave us a tour just days after the distillery released its first bottles of Oxford Dry Gin and Oxford Rye Vodka. TOAD is also in the process of crafting an absinthe made with more than twenty organic botanicals and a rye whiskey that has been laid down but needs to age.

Nicolson, donning a wheat straw pork pie hat, picked us up at our hotel in the center of Oxford to transport us to the distillery just a short drive away. The distillery van was easily recognizable as it pulled in front of our hotel with its TOAD logo and illustration of the distillery's dapper, amphibian mascot, George, wearing a boater hat.

The distillery sits on a site which dates back to the 18th century when it was owned by a local family and the property was known as Cheney Farm. An original threshing barn still stood on the property now known as the Old Depot in South Park and is under the control of the Oxford Preservation Trust which has leased it to TOAD. 

There were a couple of carpenters working on projects around the property and the distillery seemed to be in "soft opening" mode with shipment boxes stacked on the floor and marketing materials laying around. Behind a counter, Chief Operating Officer, Tagore Ramoutar, was unpacking boxes of glassware and stocking the tasting bar where we would later sip the new vodka and gin. Nicolson and Ramoutar met at a networking event for start-ups in 2014 and soon after began working together on detailed plans and a strategy for Oxford's first craft distillery. Unpacking boxes seemed a rather mundane task for an experienced entrepreneur and new venture expert who had already notched many business successes on the global stage but Ramoutar had a relaxed smile on his face and looked as though he was having a great time as part of this distillery venture. 

Nicolson too, came from an impressive business background. His career in the music industry and creating successful recording studios in London had fueled his passion for business and creativity but in 2012 he was ready for a new challenge. That's when the wheels for the inception of TOAD were put in motion. He had become interested in craft distilling and started to investigate the possibility of opening his own distillery. Nicolson had come from a family with a history of working in the wine and whiskey business in Scotland for generations, a tradition that ended when his father left the industry to pursue life as a vicar. Nicolson joked that his father gave up one kind of spirit for another. After talking to people in the industry and doing his own due diligence, Nicolson decided to fully commit himself to opening Oxford's first craft distillery. 

We made our way to the distilling building where two impressive and gleaming copper stills with towering distillation columns were housed. These were not run-of-the-mill stills, they were custom designed and hand made. As Nicolson proudly patted the larger of the two he told us these stills had been designed and built by a man named Paul Pridham, one of England's last great steam engine boiler makers of the South Devon Railway. Nicolson had reached out to Pridham who worked for two years to create these custom, hand-riveted stills. The large 2200-litre still is named Nautilus and the smaller, 500-litre still is named Nemo - a clever nod to the author Jules Verne and his novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

As Nicolson explained the distilling process he told us about the farmer who provides the grains TOAD uses in making its spirits - grains which distinguish TOAD's spirits from those of any other distiller in the world. The story of their origin was quite fascinating.

John Letts, an archaeo-botanist and well known organic farmer from Oxford discovered various ancient grains in the base layer of thatch removed from a medieval house from which he began to develop genetically diverse seed mixes of wheat, rye, oats and barley. Nicolson and Letts first met in 2013 at a farmers' market where the farmer was hoping to attract artisan bakers to buy his flour made from sustainably-grown, ancient and heritage grains. Nicolson was intrigued with Letts' approach to growing grains for this flour but saw another angle. "I think you're missing a trick," he told Letts, suggesting maybe these ancient grains could be used for distilling spirits. The two kept in touch and in 2015 TOAD signed an exclusive contract with Letts to use his populations of ancient heritage grains (in perpetuity) for distilling. All of the heritage grains come from fields within 50 miles of Oxford. TOAD claims to be the only distillery in the world to use populations of these types of grains in is distilling. 

Next, we took a peek inside the 18th century threshing barn where the rye whiskey would eventually be laid down to age after the distilling process. This is the only building from the original farm that is still on the site. Instead of seeing it as a preservation nuisance, Nicolson sees it as an enhancement to the story of TOAD and its historical connection to community of Oxford. 

We made our way to the lab where the work of Cory Mason takes place. It was a modest-sized room filled with beakers, scales, bottles, grain bags and other ingredients. Mason was not on site that day but he, like the other members of TOAD, comes from an impressive background. Nicolson and Mason met back in 2013 when opening a distillery was still just an idea but the two "clicked" and seemed to share the same vision. Mason, an award-winning Master Distiller who made a name for himself in New York City with management roles in bars and restaurants including "Employees Only," (once voted one of the best cocktail bars in the world). He honed his distilling skills at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and his long list of accomplishments include developing more than 15 commercially released spirits. Today he is the Master Distiller of TOAD. 

There is room to grow on the property and Nicolson has plans to add a bar, restaurant and visitor center. He's been busy getting the word out about TOAD and in addition to the regularly scheduled distillery tours, Nicolson has been inviting the local community to a few "Open Days" at the distillery where folks can get a behind-the-scenes look at the operation. Nicolson invites local food purveyors, beer breweries and car clubs to help with the festivities all the while educating his local guests about TOAD. He wants very much for TOAD to be part of the community and he wants the community to be part of TOAD. To prove it, the distillery will open up its shares to the public in an attempt to raise £1million in a crowdfunding campaign some time this fall. We just might buy in too!

We finally made our way back to the tasting room where Ramoutar was waiting to treat us to tastings of the newly bottled Oxford Dry Gin and Oxford Rye Vodka. Both were so smooth and very easy to sip straight up. We could taste a very slight toffee flavor in the vodka which Ramoutar explained was from the ancient grains. We tasted the gin mixed with some tonic, lemon and lime and it really was the best gin and tonic I've ever had. We bought two bottles of gin to take with us to the Cotswolds where we planned to hike for the next few days.  

 

The name of the distillery provided a basis for the apt acronym, TOAD, a happenstance not lost on Nicolson. One of his favorite books as a child was The Wind in the Willows, the story of friendship and adventures of a band of anthropomorphized animals in the English wood including the frolicsome standout character, Toad, who may or may not have been a source of inspiration for the distillery mascot, George. Similar to the characters in the children's book, Nicolson and his colleagues seem to be enjoying their own adventures and camaraderie as they build their distillery business in the English countryside. Cheers to them!

 

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For information about The Oxford Artisan Distillery and tours click here

For information about our four-star accommodations at The Buttery Hotel click here

Lift Your Spirits with a Trip to Alameda Island

 Faction Brewery's 4,000 square-foot deck is kid and dog friendly.

Faction Brewery's 4,000 square-foot deck is kid and dog friendly.

Situated along an abandoned airstrip across the bay from San Francisco, a handful of craft distillers, brewers and wine makers have set their sights on reviving small-batch libations while offering tastings and tours out of WWII-era hangars on the site of Naval Air Station, Alameda which was closed in the 1990s. On a stretch of Monarch Street, dubbed "Spirits Alley," St. George Spirits, Hangar 1 Vodka, Faction Brewery, Building 43 Winery and Rock Wall Wine Company have created a convivial block where wine, beer and spirits enthusiasts can meet up to raise a glass and take in the sweeping view of the San Francisco skyline.

Coincidently, it was a sweeping ocean view in San Diego that had led us to this very spot. After tasting a cocktail made with Hangar 1 Vodka at a restaurant overlooking La Jolla Shores we were intrigued to find out more about the brand and learned about the tasting and tour facility in Alameda. We were already planning to be in the Bay Area for a family gathering and so we booked a tour to visit Hangar 1 for a tasting. We took a scenic 20-minute ferry ride from the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco to Alameda and then made the 15- to 20-minute walk from the ferry landing to Monarch Street. It was then we realized there was a whole craft collaboration happening along Spirits Alley.

In 1982, St. George Spirits was the first small American distillery to open after Prohibition and it was first to occupy space on Monarch Street when it moved its operations in 2002 to the 65,000-square-foot hangar that is now its current location. Its artisanal spirits include gins, vodkas, absinthe, whiskeys, rum, brandies and liqueurs. Unfortunately, its tasting room was closed on the day we were there so we didn't get to have a look inside. We did have time to kill before our tour at Hangar 1 so we redirected our attention across the parking lot to the lively crowd drinking beer at Faction Brewing and made our way over to see what was on tap - we found 27 beers ranging from pale ales and IPAs to porters and stouts. 

 The taproom of Faction Brewery.

The taproom of Faction Brewery.

Open since 2013, Faction Brewing began with just a 6-tap kegerator and a few seats but now boasts a 20-tap direct draw system, a 30-ft. redwood bar and plenty of seating inside and out. A variety of food trucks make appearances to supplement the modest menu of ready-made snacks available for order at the bar. Faction offers pints, tulips and tasters on site as well as 32 oz. and 64 oz. growlers and bottles to go. We found two seats at the end of a community table on Faction's 4,000 square-foot deck to enjoy our beer and made fast friends with others at the table. The brewery is owned by a husband-and-wife team and the place has a family-friendly vibe. Just beyond the deck, kids played games while adults imbibed and there were even a few baby strollers parked tableside. The majority of the crowd looked to be locals meeting up with friends, celebrating family birthdays or taking a day take trip out of the city to catch some sunshine in the East Bay.

The Faction Pilsner and Brixton Pale Ale we tried were very good but when we went inside to get another the line for the bar had grown long and now looked like a queue for an airline flight. So, we went across the street to take a look inside Building 43 Winery with its large metal door welcomingly open. The space was a former locker for military explosives but today it's a tasting room for handcrafted, small-batch wines primarily from the Sierra Foothills. We each ordered a glass of wine and took a seat at one of the high-top bar tables in the lounge area. In keeping with the history of the building, the winery interior is rustic yet refined with art and objects reminiscent of its military roots. You can order wine by the bottle, glass or tasting flight and enjoy it at the bar or in the various lounging areas - inside and outside. The winery was more suited toward couples with its intimate setting but there was also a party going on in a private room. We finished our wine and headed back across the street to Hangar 1 for our tasting tour.

We entered the hangar and checked in for the tour in the tasting room. The previous tour was just wrapping up so we browsed the bottle shop just off the bar. The bottle shop is a necessary adjunct for Hangar 1 to sell its vodka on premise. Due to post-Prohibition laws still in effect, sales of the liquor can only take place through a third-party distributor which they were smart to share hangar space with. We met up with Jacob, our witty and engaging guide and entered the lab to begin the tour. Jacob told us about the master distiller at Hangar 1 Vodka - a women named Caley Shoemaker who began her career in crafting spirits with a whiskey brand in Colorado before bringing her deft hand to Hangar 1 Vodka. She is a professed "spirits nerd" who loves to experiment with the fresh ingredients she sources from local farmers in the Bay Area. Jacob was a bit of a chemistry enthusiast which came through during his explanation of how the distilling process works while the alcohol rises through 18 chambers of two very large, gleaming, copper distilling columns. 

We moved on to my favorite part of the tour which was the "see, smell and taste" curio chest. The botanicals on the cabinet included fruit in jars, stems with fresh leaves, dried chipoltes, pink pepperberries, grains and even a jar of honey - all ingredients used in making Hangar 1 vodkas. . Jacob explained the process of Shoemaker's selection of fruit as he passed around a jar containing Budda's Hand used in making the Hangar 1 Citron vodka. The distiller chose Budda's Hand because it is not as acidic as regular lemons. The Makrut Lime vodka is infused with the leaves of the plant rather than the actual fruit because the leaves offer the most flavor and aroma. The story behind the flavor profile of every vodka was very interesting, especially the Distiller's Exclusives which are only available through the bottle shop at the distillery. Those included Pink Peppercorn, Chipolte and Honeycomb. Hangar 1 even has a vodka made from fog. Its Fog Point Vodka has a very limited run and won't be available again until the fall. It retails for a hefty $129 per bottle but 100% of the profits go back to water conservation efforts. If you don't want to buy the whole bottle you can order a Fog Point Martini for $43 at Epic Steak restaurant in San Francisco made with Hangar 1 Fog Point Vodka.

There is still a lot of available space for expansion and only the vodka bottled in Hangar 1's   signature graduated cylinder-style bottles are filled at the hangar. The bottling area was modest in size and was not in operation during our tour. With the knowledge we had gained we headed to the tasting room for the real reason we were all there - to drink some vodka.

We tasted six different vodkas including the Straight, Citron, Mandarin Blossom, Pink Peppercorn, Chipolte and Honeycomb. As Jacob poured our tastings he also offered ideas for drink recipes we could make with each of the infused vodkas. The tasting room is set up for walk-ins to have tastings at the four-sided, stylish industrial bar too but there are no cocktails available. And don't expect more than six small pours because there are strict laws governing how much alcohol can be served in distillery tasting rooms. However, Bonnie who manages the bottle shop said there are plans in the very near future to have a portable bar outside that would serve cocktails under the separate third-party license. 

At the conclusion of the tour we took a look around the tasting room which was fitted out with a vintage flight yoke, bomber jacket and a retail area with t-shirts, hats and accessories and also left our information so we'd know when the next batch of Fog Point Vodka was available. We ran out of time to visit Rock Wall Wine Company so we'll have to do that on our next visit.

And although Spirits Alley might seem like a great place for a nightcap the area does have a 7p.m. curfew due to a little, politically-connected neighbor named the California Least Tern. In the 1970's the birds decided the former airstrip on Alameda Island was an ideal location to hang out and it has become a very successful breeding site for the species. So much so, the government set aside 624 acres for the birds in 2014. This means the surrounding buildings cannot undergo any refurbishing that would disrupt the birds. So the structures and facades along Monarch Street will maintain their "authenticity" and you won't find electricity bringing light or music to this stretch of road.

Hangar 1 Vodka - 2505 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.871.4951

St. George Spirits - 2601 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.769.1601

Building 43 Winery - 2440 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.263.0399

Rock Wall Wine Company - 2301 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.522.5700

San Jose, Costa Rica - A Tale of Two Tastes

Sometimes when you travel and you're short on time you only get a taste of a place but during a short layover in San Jose we were able to squeeze in two tastes - beer and chocolate. Chocolate has a long and rich history in Latin America dating back to the time of the Mayans and Aztecs but beer didn't emerge on the scene in Costa Rica until the early 1900's and craft beer in this country is practically in its infancy but growing up fast. Costa Rica Craft Beer Company started the craft beer movement in 2010 and now dozens more craft breweries are making quality lagers, ales, IPAs and stouts. 

Our home city, San Diego, is one of the best U.S. cities for craft beers so we're always interested to taste what other brewers around the world are pouring. Costa Rica's craft breweries are producing about 100 different draft and bottled beers and we had read about Stiefel Pub in San Jose and it sounded like a great place to taste the local brews.

We were staying in a hotel in the Heredia Province so we took a cab downtown not realizing the bridge to the city was undergoing major repairs requiring lane closures that turned our ride into a 30-minute, bumper-to-bumper crawl. The traffic downtown wasn't much better so once we got to an area we recognized on our city map we decided to hop out and walk the rest of the way and I'm glad we did because we found San Jose to be a city best explored on foot. As we made our way to the pub, we passed massive souvenir shops and small boutiques, stately buildings with ornate architecture and bland buildings enhanced with murals and many hotels, restaurants and pubs. Some areas looked a little rough and some looked absolutely regal. 

 A statue of Juan Vazquez de Coronado overlooks a fountain in Parque Espana. The Spanish conquistador played a major role in the colonization of Costa Rica and was the province's first appointed Royal Governor.

A statue of Juan Vazquez de Coronado overlooks a fountain in Parque Espana. The Spanish conquistador played a major role in the colonization of Costa Rica and was the province's first appointed Royal Governor.

A few blocks shy of our destination we espied an ornate, domed structure surrounded by lush, green parkland across the street so we crossed over for a closer look. We entered Parque Morazan and learned the structure which caught our eye was the Templo de la Musica  - a concrete bandstand which looked like it had been recently renovated.

 The Templo de la Musica is the work of painter and architect Francisco Salazar. It is believed Salazar was inspired by the temple of love and music in Versailles.

The Templo de la Musica is the work of painter and architect Francisco Salazar. It is believed Salazar was inspired by the temple of love and music in Versailles.

The green space was actually two parks adjoined, Parque Espana and Parque Morazan. It was lunch time so many people were enjoying the shade trees, refreshing fountains and sitting areas. It was a pleasant, sunny day so we spent a little time people watching and enjoying the landmarks throughout both parks. Pleased with ourselves for sneaking some culture into our otherwise indulgently-planned day we headed off to the pub.

 The renovated underside of the Templo de la Musica dome.

The renovated underside of the Templo de la Musica dome.

Stiefel Pub is located in the stylish neighborhood of Otoya, the historical district of the city where wealthy and elite families used to live. Many of the mansions once owned by coffee barons have been converted into boutique hotels, cafes, business offices, and galleries. We spotted the big, beer boot logo on a building with green trim and entered the small but bustling pub.

The bold geometric-patterned tile floor and the walls papered in colorful handbills and posters of beer festivals from all over the world made for a cheery welcome. There were about a dozen tables, all but two were occupied and only two bar stools were open. We settled in at an open table and each ordered the beer sampler and an order of the chicken fajitas lunch special to share. The clientele seemed to be an even mix of locals and tourists.

Our samplers arrived on wooden paddles with the name of each beer, percent of alcohol noted and style written next to each glass in chalk. It had taken a little while to get our beers but when I saw the effort that went into the presentation I was impressed by the attention to detail even during the busy lunch rush. 

Larry and I got different beers so we could sample eight in total. Larry ordered the Calypso, a 7.5% IPA brewed by Costa Rica Craft & Brewing; Temporada, a 4.6% Golden Ale brewed by Primate; Ryd'ing Dirty, a 4.6% Rye Ale also by CR Craft & Brewing; and Perla Negra, a 6% Dry Stout brewed by Daba Daba Brew (my favorite brewery name). I ordered the Horizon, a 6.2% Pale Ale brewed by Bri Bri Spring; Tita, a 4.6% Golden Ale and the Stevie Wonder, a 4.6% Stout, both brewed by Baristas Brothers; and Malinche, a 5% Wheat Beer brewed by C Cimarrona. 

 One of my favorite features in the pub were the four pendant lights fashioned from plastic beer cups.

One of my favorite features in the pub were the four pendant lights fashioned from plastic beer cups.

Stiefel Pub has such a great variety of local draft and bottled beers and of the eight we tried there was only one neither of us cared for - the golden ale. But as I've mentioned in previous posts, Larry and I are just good-natured beer drinkers and not professional tasters. As we were finishing our beer a young couple from Green Bay, Wisconsin came in and the wife inquired about the sampler we had. Her husband suggested they share one and she looked at him like he was mad. "I want my own, " she said. We all had a good laugh at that. 

 The couple from Green Bay, WI. They were waiting to check into their nearby hotel and were already making plans to come back that evening.

The couple from Green Bay, WI. They were waiting to check into their nearby hotel and were already making plans to come back that evening.

We walked to the park to catch a cab to take us back to our hotel across the bridge and the return trip took even longer. Our driver told us the bridge, or "La Platina" as the locals call it, has been the subject of frustration for Costa Ricans for a long time. It is the major route from the capital city to Juan Santamaria Airport and the Alajuela province. If you're planning to travel to San Jose, keep an eye on scheduled closures. Our driver told us that sometimes the bridge is completely closed for 24 hours. On this day, it was only open to public transportation including city buses, tour buses and taxis. There are exceptions during the morning and evening commute hours.

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We had scoped out a quaint chocolate boutique next door to our hotel the night before so I wanted to check it out since we still had some time. Nahua Chocolate was tucked into the back of the Plaza Cariari Shopping Center (between the Country Inn Suites and Doubletree Hotel) in Heredia. It's really just a small tasting room but they do make truffles onsite. The packaged bars of chocolate, nibs and cocoa powder are produced at their nearby factory.

The gentleman behind the counter gave us samples of hot chocolate and dark chocolate chips to nibble on while we selected a couple of truffles from the glass case and looked over the milk and dark chocolate bars for sale. The bars came in a wide array of flavors including passion fruit, cinnamon, sea salt, pineapple, cayenne, mint, orange and several more.

 We bought two truffles - vanilla (left) and lime (right).

We bought two truffles - vanilla (left) and lime (right).

Nahua Chocolate is made from 100% Costa Rican cacao beans from smallholder growers who are held to the highest standards of social and environmental development. Nahua owner, Juan Pablo Buchert has helped implement programs to support sustainable farming practices which in turn has helped rural farmers revitalize their cacao forests, increase productivity and their incomes as well. Although the chocolate was delicious, I wouldn't go out of my way to come here but if your hotel is within easy walking distance it is definitely worth a stop. We bought a few chocolate bars for our family and friends who would be joining us for a Panama Canal cruise the next day.

BREWS AND VIEWS - A BEER TASTING TOUR IN PRAGUE

 Selection of bottled beer for sale at Pipa Beer Story

Selection of bottled beer for sale at Pipa Beer Story

The Czech Republic is a beer-loving nation so we decided there was no better way to immerse ourselves into the country's culture and traditions than with a beer tour of Prague. This city has dozens of beer gardens, beer halls, pubs and breweries to pick from so we decided to enlist the help of Eating Prague Tours and its "Brews and Views Beer Tour." If we were going to do a pub crawl in a foreign city we wanted to do it with a local professional.

Our tour began with meeting our host and fellow guests at the sprawling beer garden in Letna Park which sits above the banks of the Vltava river and offers a sweeping view of Prague's Old Town. Jan, our guide, was trim and fit and not exactly what I anticipated a beer tour leader to look like but he was well informed about beer brewing and beer culture in the Czech Republic. On this tour I had expected we'd get small, tasting-size cups but the bartender at the outdoor bar poured each of us a full pint of Gambrinus, one of the most popular lagers in the country. It's made from 100% malt and Czech hops and is quite similar to the more internationally known Czech brand, Pilsner Urquell.

Our group was small, just seven of us. In additional to Jan, there were four other Americans - a young couple from the midwest and two guys from southern California. We introduced ourselves and took pictures of the view while Jan pointed out the major buildings in the distance and gave us a little history about beer making. On this cold afternoon we donned gloves to hold our plastic beer cups and Jan suggested we begin walking to our next stop to warm up and because walking the streets of Prague with a beer in your hand is perfectly legal. 

The Czech Republic is far and away the #1 country in beer consumption at almost 160 liters per capita. That's nearly double the per capita in the United States. And the Czechs make no apologies. In fact, they are quite proud of the distinction. As Jan explained, "Czechs don't drink beer excessively, they drink it regularly." And they have been brewing beer regularly for centuries as the first beer-brewing textbook was written in this country in the 18th century.

 We made a sweet stop at Pernickuv Sen

We made a sweet stop at Pernickuv Sen

We made two quick stops along the way to our next beer tasting. The first was a quaint, little shop named Pernickuv Sen where traditional Czech gingerbread is made and we were treated to our very own "beer cookies." The other stop was a modest-sized butcher shop in a passageway in the Old Town section of Prague that we would never have found on our own. The efficiently designed Nase Maso is well known for its aged and matured beef and Prestice pork but it also has a fan base for its takeaway hot dogs. Hot dogs were included in the price of our tour and I opted for the spicy paprika dog which came nestled in a roll that had been impaled onto a toasting rod to create a crisp bun within seconds. Our hot dogs dressed with condiments were wrapped in butcher paper so we could take them to go. We exited the passageway onto the elegant Rybna Street and headed toward our next beer tasting at Maso A Kobliha, a pub and butcher shop located in the New Town.  

 Maso A Kobliha

Maso A Kobliha

The English translation of Maso A Kobliha is Meat & Donuts and we got a taste of both in addition to a very good summer-style IPA by Matuska, a microbrewery located in Broumy, about an hour's drive from Prague. Maso A Kobliha always has a craft beer on tap and is a big supporter of the new wave Czech brewing inspired by American craft beer. The pub is bright and has a quirky and nostalgic vibe. Its casual seating area consists mostly of wooden tables and benches which is conducive to larger groups and conversation. The owner, a butcher from England,  brought a bit of the UK's pub fare with him to Prague with his Scotch eggs, which we got to try along with potato fritters with ham and fried pork skins. The platters were laid out family style and we all politely shared the portions until a couple of puffy vanilla custard donuts were set before us. Then, the knives and forks flew wildly as we devoured the famous namesake specialties. I would say if I had to pick only one restaurant to eat at for the rest of my life this would be the place.  Beer. Meat. Donuts.

 Jan explaining brewing styles at Pipa Beer Story.

Jan explaining brewing styles at Pipa Beer Story.

Next on our tour was a glass of Bernard Bohemian Ale at Restaurant U Benedikta, a very traditional beer hall where we were also treated to a typical snack often paired with beer in Prague - cheese marinated in oil and paprika. The beer had a 8.20% ABV (Alcohol by Volume) and was brewed in the Belgian Strong Pale Ale style. It was citrusy and had a little carbonation to it which Jan pointed out was a bit like Champagne so we all raised our glasses and he taught us the Czech toast to good health, "Na zdravi!" An easy way to remember the pronunciation is to say "Nice Driveway."

Next, we headed to T-Anker, which could be Prague's best kept secret - a beer garden on a terrace atop a department store with amazing views of the Prague skyline. We arrived at the "blue hour" - that magical hour after dusk when the sky provides the perfect lighting for photo ops. It was too cold to sit outside but we took advantage of the perfect lighting to take photos and enjoyed the much needed fresh air to give us the gusto we needed to make it to the end of the tour. 

 View from the beer terrace at T-Anker

View from the beer terrace at T-Anker

We settled in at a large communal table inside the restaurant as mugs of T-Anker Light Lager were passed around. The bar featured several Czech microbrews as well as Belgian classics and the place was lively. Here, we were also served a cheese pairing to enjoy with the beer.

 Marinated and baked cheese snack at T-Anker

Marinated and baked cheese snack at T-Anker

As we left T-Anker, half the group took the stairs with Jan and the others took the elevator down to street level to regroup. Jan seemed relieved to see we all made it because by this time, well, let's just say everyone was fully-participating in the beer tour and it would have been easy to lose someone at that moment.

Our happy group walked to the final stop of the tour, Pipa Beer Story located in the basement of the Food Story food hall. This place specializes in beer and food pairings but also offers more than 160 types of bottled beer for sale in their Beertheque. It looks and feels like a tavern and we had the most attentive staff waiting on us. They wanted us to try everything. And we did! We began with a bottle of Permon IPA Sherpa 16˚ which had a creamy, long-lasting head. That was followed by two lagers - one light, one dark, a hefeweizen and we finished with a Primator Stout.

 Permon IPA Sherpa 16˚

Permon IPA Sherpa 16˚

I would classify Larry and I as good-natured beer drinkers and we thoroughly enjoyed the tour with our amicable guide and group. The tour delivered on brews and views and the hearty snacks were a great addition and much appreciated (and needed!). There are certainly many pubs to visit in this beer-drinking city and I'm sure self-proclaimed beer geeks and beer snobs have their own list of must-see places off the tourist trail but for us, this tour was a perfect first taste of the beer scene in Prague. For more information about Eating Prague Tours visit www.eatingpraguetours.com

Puerto Rico Food and Culture Tour

Guided city tours have long been popular with art, architecture, and history buffs but the growing trend of foraging a destination to find its best local fare is trending worldwide.  So, why not skip the typical guided walking tour on your next trip and instead book a culinary adventure with an epicurean host?  We've taken food and cultural tours in Hawaii, Seattle, Lisbon and most recently Puerto Rico.

We find the number of guests on gourmet walking tours tend to be fewer than on typical city walks making it more comfortable to interact with the host and the other guests.  These smaller groups are often welcome at even the coziest of bars and bistros so you find some real hidden gems on these tours.

On our trip to Puerto Rico last April we booked a tour with Flavors of San Juan Food & Culture Tours.  Our guide, Denise, was a young and energetic woman eager to share the history, architecture, and flavors of Old San Juan.  She had two goals for our group of ten - 1) make sure we had fun and,  2) impart an appreciation of the food, culture and history of her island.  If she could accomplish those two things, she assured us we'd leave at the end of the tour with a full belly and happy heart.

During our three hour tour, Denise took us to six places where we sampled a variety of dishes representative of Puerto Rico's diverse food scene featuring  Spanish,  Cuban,  Mexican, African, Taino and American influences.

Rum is the national drink here and Puerto Rico is the world's leading rum producer so it seemed logical that our first stop was rum tasting.  Our group huddled around the Rum Bar, a little kiosk inside the Princesa Gastropub, located on Paseo La Princesa, a main thoroughfare in the La Puntilla section of Old San Juan.  The bartender introduced us to the many types of rum, ranging from complex sipping varieties to simple spirits that would blend well into any tropical cocktail. The small, but well-equipped bar, stocked many light and dark rums - many produced in the gran enejo or super-aged style similar to Tequila or barrel-aged whisky.  A few guys purchased a shot of the high-end stuff but the rest of us enjoyed our complimentary pina colada. We also got our first bite of the tour with servings of Iberian ham croquettes, and breaded eggplant topped with beef stew.

After a brief stop at Señor Paleta to select an all-natural ice pop to go, we took shelter under a sprawling mango tree at small park overlooking the San Juan Bay and enjoyed our cool treats while Denise gave us some history about the island.  We made our way to a local art gallery and craft boutique which also housed our next stop - Cafe El Punto, where we were greeted with trays of fried plantain fritters and a ceviche appetizer made with grouper, avocado and homemade salsa.  We admired the artists' work while we enjoyed our appetizers.  A short walk took us to our next destination, Spicy Caribbee, where we sampled provisions from Puerto Rico and other neighboring Caribbean islands.  The little boutique had an impressive selection of exotic spice blends,  jerk sauces and condiments including banana ketchup and jams featuring guava, pineapple, mango and papaya.  I think everyone purchased something to take home from the vast array of delicacies and gift items like candles, soaps and lotions.

As we strolled the centuries-old cobblestone streets en route to our next stop, Denise made sure we were taking in the Spanish Colonial architectural sights - from the colorful and ornate facades and balconies to secret courtyards and not-so-secret parks like Parque de las Palomas, or Pigeon Park, home to hundreds if not thousands of the meandering birds.  

The next tasting on the tour required some work on our part to make mofongo, a local Afro-Puerto Rican dish.  Once seated at Rosa de Triana (the building was a former jailhouse), we were each given a wooden pilon, also known as mortal and pestle.  Inside were fried plantains (picked green before ripe), garlic, butter and salt.  Our job was to pummel the concoction with the pestle until it was well mashed.  To that, we added creole chicken, rice and beans from a platter served family-style at the table and quenched our thirst with either sangria or the local beer.

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The last stop of the day was bit of a chocoholics dream.  Casa Cortes ChocoBar is an artsy chocolatier with a wildly imaginative menu featuring chocolate in both sweet and savory dishes.  Here you'll find chocolate pastries, cakes and truffles but also entrees like salmon in chocolate butter sauce, sandwiches pairing grilled cheese and chocolate and salads dressed in balsamic chocolate vinaigrette.  Our group was seated in a little alcove where we were treated to cups of decadent hot chocolate served with pieces of dark chocolate atop a small slice of cheddar cheese.  The recommendation of our host was to drop the chocolate and cheese into the cup of hot chocolate and let it melt.  It sounded weird but I did it and liked the slightly tart taste and creaminess it added to the hot chocolate.   Next came warm, mini churros accompanied with a rich chocolate dipping sauce which we all politely devoured.  

Denise walked us back to our starting point where our little group Air Dropped photos, shared email addresses and said our goodbyes with full bellies and happy hearts! 

For more information on Flavors of San Juan Food & Culture Tours visit sanjuanfoodtours.com  To book a culinary tour in San Juan or any other city, contact Putnam Travels.

Wheels and Wine in Napa

On a recent side trip to Napa before heading to a wedding last month we visited a few wonderful vineyards and dined at a couple of great restaurants but our favorite discovery wasn't a winery or an eatery it was a cool tasting room in downtown St. Helena named Velo Vino. You might be familiar with Clif Bar, the energy bars created by a former baker and mountain guide that rode a wave to success during the natural food movement in the early 1990s, but maybe you didn't know that same visionary is now also making wine. The company's creator, Gary Ericskon and his wife, Kit Crawford, owners and co-chief visionary officer's of Clif Bar & Company, started Clif Family Winery and Farm in 2004 on 130 acres in Napa Valley and opened Velo Vino in 2011. Velo Vino is the tasting room for Clif Family Wines but it's also an espresso bar, specialty food store and an excellent hangout for cycling enthusiasts. Former professional cyclist, Levi Leipheimer is a frequent visitor who lives in nearby Santa Rosa. Everyone is welcomed here like a local and the vibe is spontaneous and personal, a refreshing change from so many other structured and scripted wine tasting experiences. Parked just off the Velo Vino patio, is the Clif Family Bruschetteria Food Truck which serves Northern Italian-inspired menu items using the bounty from the Clif Family Farm and ingredients from local purveyors.  

 Cliff Family's Bruschetteria Food Truck

Cliff Family's Bruschetteria Food Truck

Midway through our wine tasting we were asked if we'd like to try a "Tire Patch" which the barista explained was a double-shot of espresso served alongside a tasting of Clif Family 2014 Gewuztraminer, a dry Mendocino wine.  It sounded like a strange pairing but it was really quite good and gave us the picker-upper we needed to continue our Napa Valley adventure.

Velo Vino, 709 Main Street, St. Helena, CA 94574