Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Piece, (Coffee, Beer, Spices) Love & Chocolate

Last week, I was asked, along with a few other writers from Eat Drink Boulder, to go on a local food tour on and around Pearl street. Seeing as how two of my biggest passions in life are food and writing, I was thrilled to oblige. The food tour was put on by the Denver-based start-up Culinary Connectors. Looking at the itinerary for the tour however, I was initially surprised. Instead of stops through the swath of new, chic, urban-vibe restaurants on Pearl, the four places chosen for the tour were Ozo coffeehouse, Piece, Love & Chocolate, Savory Spice, and the Walnut Brewery. These are all places, with the exception of Piece, Love & Chocolate, that are plenty established and already have solid reputations. I already frequent and are very familiar with these places so I couldn’t imagine what we would be “touring” or “tasting”. However, five minutes into the tour, I was glad I had made the decision to go.

The tour started at Ozo. After a few introductions, we were led to a corner of the counter where one of the baristas, Chris, prepared for us, slowly and meticulously, one coffee varieta brewed three different ways. With much instruction and explanation, we tasted the different coffees alongside plates of cut up pastries. What impressed me so much wasn’t the coffee itself- although it was fantastic- but was how knowledgeable and interested the barista was. Going into a coffee shop, I expect for the people behind the counter to be students or post-college wanderers who are there because they need a job, not because they have any interest whatsoever in what they’re doing. At Ozo however this is not the case. Everyone you will find behind the counter is exceptionally well experienced and trained, knowledgeable and better yet, stoked about what they’re doing and stoked about coffee! In the words of Greg Lefcourt, the store manager and a prior barista champion, “Ozo hires people who are taste bud people. Something, anything that has passion involved in it, is what we look for.” The fact that the end product is delicious is merely a perk.

From there, our lovely tour guide and the founder of Culinary Connectors, Becky Creighton, lead us a block and a half away to Piece, Love & Chocolate. Stepping into the shop, we were greeted by the intoxicating smell of chocolate and the owner Sarah Amorese, who showed us around the shop and told us a little about what they do. The store itself is very different from most chocolate shops I have been into. Instead of just selling the most popular chocolates and pastries, Piece, Love & Chocolate takes a full comprehensive tour through the world of chocolate, representing the owner’s long-standing interests. The shop sells both local and imported chocolate, representing many different styles and cultures. They make truffles and bon bons and bake cakes and pastries. They have everything from macaroons to sipping chocolate to a cake baked with locally-brewed stout. The bakers at Piece, Love & Chocolate teach baking and chocolate-making classes and the shop hosts pairing nights in which chocolate is paired with either beers or wines. I was impressed with how multi-faceted the store was and it all felt very fresh and innovative. Sarah knew so much about chocolate and chocolate-making that listening to her speak about chocolate was reminiscent of listening to a sommelier speak of wine. Each stop of the tour and each craft represented showed comparable depth and passion.

Our next stop was Savory Spice on Broadway between Spruce and Pearl, the last of the potently aromatic stops of our tour. Stepping into Savory, we were met by Dan Hayword, the owner of the Boulder store, dividing up chocolate covered candied gingers into little bags. Showing us around the shop and passing around jars of spices to smell and compare, Dan emphasized some of the purposes and benefits of a specialty spice shop alongside store-bought spices. Used to their maximum capacity, most spices’ shelf-lives are much smaller than most think and the preparation and processing of a spice is crucial.

Dan used salt as a good example of this, which has a bad reputation because of the anti-sodium craze. Salt however, is not to blame for this. Rather it’s the over-processing of table salt which takes away its health benefits. Other unrefined salts that are easy to find in specialty shops and which are becoming more and more available in grocery stores, leave the crystal intact, preserving its health benefits and varied flavors. Bigger, mass-producing spice companies on the other hand, leave no room for the individual variance of the product and expression of the plant it came from. Speaking of Savory Spice, Dan said, “we’re the micro-brewery of spices”. A good analogy for a beer-seeking crowd. And a very nice transition to our next stop: the Walnut Brewery.

We got to Walnut before the dinner rush so got the undivided attention of our waitress who met us with a dozen plates of appetizers along with our first round of beer tasters. The appetizers were tasty but definitely brew-pub food; food that goes down easy but doesn’t require too much attention paid to it. And food that it’s really easy to eat way too much of. Speaking from prior experience, they do have many dishes that go well beyond decent pub food, not to mention a ridiculously good slice of carrot cake served in caramel sauce and garnished with mint! (I’m pretty familiar with it actually). At this stop however, the emphasis was on the beer. We went through four beers: the Buffalo Gold, which was easy drinking and light but still very flavorful, the Old Elk Brown which won “best brown in the country” at the 2010 Great American Beer Fest (I won’t bother trying to top it), a Citrus Hop IPA (my personal favorite), and the GFY IPA, aka Good For You IPA. Later on we met Ron, the brew master, who is responsible for every beer that comes out of Walnut’s twelve taps. Beer in hand, his own Pelican Pilsner, and dressed in cargo shorts and flip flops, Ron showed us around the brewing facilities and explained, with deep reverence, the processes that go into each of his beers. All of their beers are Ron’s creation, brewed in house, only available on tap, and growler ready for your pick up. Although I much prefer enjoying them in house, amongst the elk-headed pubby ambiance. Bring your beer loving friends. And ask for Jeromy’s section.

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