Thursday, August 27, 2015

BBF Travels: Lyon Distilling Co. St. Michaels, MD

On the way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for our annual week at the beach, A. and I made a detour to St. Michaels, on the Eastern shore of Maryland, to revisit some of my old haunts and to check out some new ones. I lived there almost ten years ago (!!), teaching sailing at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Since I left, there's new restaurants, a craft brewery, and even a small distillery, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the crew at the only bar in town is still the same. 

I first tried Lyon Distilling Co.'s rum when I visited Maryland in the spring, heading to two liquor stores in the Baltimore area until we found a bottle of their dark rum in stock. It's a sweeter rum with a rich caramel flavor, and it mixes well with a spicy ginger beer or in a tart Mai Tai. It's also delicious sipped on its own. 

On the day of our visit, we rode our bikes from the maritime museum down the main street to the old mill district - where the brewery, winery, and distillery are conveniently grouped together. I didn't even known about these mill buildings when I lived there, but much like Maine's mill towns, these old buildings have been turned into studio spaces, boutiques, and makers' shops. 

The tasting room of Lyon Distilling has a great industrial feel, and while there's just tastings of the spirits on offer, it would be a lovely spot to hang out for a while and enjoy a drink. There's a library of craft cocktail books - A. picked up a copy of And A Bottle of Rum by Wayne Curtis and I eyed Forgotten Maryland Cocktails: A History of Drinking in the Free State by Gregory and Nicole Priebe (another History Press book!). 

We tasted small sips of the unaged rum, the dark rum, and the Sailors Reserve - rum aged in used Bourbon barrels. The unaged rum is very bright - it's made from cane sugar and molasses, while the dark rum is sweeter, with some homemade caramel stirred into the rum. 

The Sailors Reserve is a higher proof and not as sweet, due to the aging in bourbon barrels. We even tried the corn whiskey, surprisingly sweet for a white unaged whiskey, and were excited to learn of a rye whiskey in the works. 

After the tasting, we were off on a tour of the distillery - and it was the cutest, smallest distillery I've ever seen. 

Our tour guide was Jamie Windon, the very enthusiastic partner of Ben Lyon, and the other distillery owner. Her sister works in the tasting room and the three of them (plus an intern) are the only employees. Windon works on the sales, distribution, and administrative stuff, while Lyon distills - making 5,000 gallons a year - not a lot for a company, but a lot for one man, Windon laughed.

Lyon and his one employee ferment molasses, sugar cane, and water in 55-gallon drums for a few days, then distill the rum wash in a series of small pot stills. These small columns on the stills help to keep lots of flavor in the final spirit, so they're used for whiskey and rum over the taller column stills that help make more neutral spirits like vodka. 

After the rum is distilled, the clear rum is aerated and bottled, while the dark rum has some homemade caramel added to the batch. Lyon melts some of the cane sugar that's used to make the rum and lets it caramel, before dumping it into the rum. The Sailors Reserve is aged in small one or three gallon barrels - the picture below shows the bulk of the barrels that Lyon Distilling uses. 

Right now, Lyon rum is found in D.C. and Maryland, but the bottles sell out frequently, so your best bet is to head to the distillery. We enjoyed a local Dark and Stormy at Eva's in St. Michaels later in the evening, then headed to Carpenter Street Saloon for a few Yuenglings and to watch the preseasons Ravens game. 

Fortunately for my nostalgia, not much has changed in St. Michaels since I lived there, save for the the welcome addition of a fantastic craft rum distillery, and it's hard not to be happy with that kind of growth.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

How to Make Kombucha, Kefir, Kvass - Plus a Workshop!

It is so very nice and warm here in Southern Maine this week. This is my summer sweet spot - super hot out, enough to make the chilly ocean water bearable for a quick dip. 

You know what else loves this hot weather? The microbes that power fermentation! I'm teaching a workshop on fermented beverages at Whole Foods in Portland this Thursday night (sign up here - only $20!) and so I've started a bunch of fermented projects to have as samples in the class. 

I started with kombucha - my favorite fermented beverages (ok, ok, aside from beer - I should say my favorite N/A fermented bev). The only tricky part of making your own kombucha is getting the starter or SCOBY. 

Supplies for growing your own kombucha SCOBY

Since I didn't know anyone who had SCOBY to spare (now I do - they tend to come out of the woodwork when you start talking about fermenting), I had to try to grow my own. I simply brewed one cup of organic, black tea, added two tablespoons of sugar, and a 16 oz. bottle of unflavored, raw kombucha. I used GT's, but the local Urban Farm Fermentory's stuff is probably fresher and less processed. 

Kombucha SCOBY. My apologies. 

The SCOBY seems to love the heat - after four days, there's a thickening layer of, well, gelatinous goo forming on top of the liquid. Kombucha is not for the faint of heart, frankly. 

After about a week, I can transfer my homegrown SCOBY into a new batch of sweet tea with a little more kombucha (to help kick off the fermentation - a process called back slopping) and let it ferment. After a week to ten days, I'll have a big batch of kombucha, ready for flavoring or drinking as is. Buying bottled kombucha can be an expensive habit, but fortunately making your own is crazy inexpensive. 

Kombucha is kinda mainstream these days. Hardcore fermenters are into kefir or even kvass. You may have seen dairy kefir at the grocery store - a commercial product frequently loaded with added sugar and sold as a smoothie-like product. The real stuff is extremely tangy and not very sweet, like yogurt on steroids.

Water kefir - grains are visible in the bottom of the jar 

Water kefir (pronounced kuh-FEAR) is different - a fizzy, mildly sweet beverage that I liken to a fermented lemonade. It's delicious, and can easily be made with some sweetened water and the kefir "grains" - a colony of bacteria and yeast. Dairy and water kefir are produced with different types of grains, so make sure you order accordingly. Either way, order the live grains or get some from a friend - I tried to rehydrate dried grains and they never woke back up. 

I ordered live kefir grains and when they arrived, mixed them into some spring water (my tap water is chlorinated and could kill the bacteria and yeast) with some organic, raw sugar. I added one tablespoon of sugar to one cup of water for every tablespoon of grains that I had (so two cups water, two tablespoons of sugar and grains). Kefir is an anaerobic ferment, meaning it needs to go into an airtight container, as it won't work in the presence of oxygen. 

My first batch of water kefir was ready in two days - it's on its second ferment, the one that amplifies the fizz. The grains have gone into a new batch of sweetened water, this time with a knob of ginger, as I'm hoping to liven up the grains' production a bit. (They're often slow to grow after being shipped across the country. Understandable.) It will be ready to drink in another day, and I'll keep in my fridge. 


Beet kvass was by far the easiest of the beverages - it's simply chopped beets in salt water (two large, organic, peeled beets, roughly chopped and stirred into 8 cups of water with 4 tablespoons of sea salt). 

I'd say, like many fermented beverages, kvass is an acquired taste. It's salty and beety. Americans typically don't drink salty beverages, so at first sip, it's like drinking vegetable broth. I hear one's body begins to crave it, but I've yet to push on through to that point yet. You'll have to whip up your own batch to see if you want to hop on the kvass train. 

If you're interested in learning the specifics of these three fermented beverages, join me at Whole Foods in Portland on Thursday at 6pm. Get your ticket at I'm also teaching a fermented vegetable and a quick pickles and refrigerator/freezer jam workshop there in September and October, so stay tuned for those details. 

So far I'm buoyed by my success in the world of homemade fermented beverages. Give it a whirl - none of these projects are very expensive, and if they work, then you have delicious, healthy drinks for these hot summer days! 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review of Boone's Fish House & Oyster Room, Portland

Business first: Come see me today at Maine Craft Distilling, 101 Fox St. in Portland's East Bayside neighborhood from 3-5pm for your signed copy of DISTILLED IN MAINE!


Now for my recent experience at Boone's... I have to be honest: I have a rather tortured relationship with The Rooms. I've enjoyed several meals at the Grill Room and the Corner Room, but the Front Room always seemed to fall short of the ravings I hear over their brunch.

For those unfamiliar, The Front Room, The Corner Room, The Grill Room, and Boone's Fish House & Oyster Room are all owned by Chef Harding Lee Smith, a polarizing figure in Portland's restaurant community. Despite all the dust-up over the chef's personality and politics that the Bollard aired a few years ago (we don't need to revisit the links; if you missed it, google it), I continued to occasionally visit the Rooms for their happy hour where cheap wine and a free appetizer spread proved difficult to resist. But none of the restaurants ever made my short list; the food always seemed... generic, frankly, and so I never found myself drawn to return very often.

When the boyfriend suggested Boone's for his mom's birthday dinner, my first response was, no way. Then I thought, ugh, don't be such a B, give it a shot. It's a nice restaurant on the water, and I wanted to have an open mind about the food there. I called and made a reservation for a Monday night - I asked to sit outside, but they don't make reservations for the outside decks. So we crossed our fingers and went.

If you want to be all TL;DR about it, the takeaway is that the food is fine, the service was not so fine, and I was unfortunately not impressed despite trying to find a silver lining.

Really the tone was set as soon as we sat at our table. After sorting out the lost reservation mix-up (albeit one with no consequence), we were seated on the deck - it's a busy area with a casual vibe, so perhaps I was on edge, wanting the evening to be a special occasion, not just a weeknight dinner out. But after about ten minutes of waiting with no sign of service, I returned to the host stand to let them know the issue. 

Our server came over a few minutes after I returned to the table, and I am going to try not to exaggerate for sympathy - offered a dismissive comment and poured our waters in silence. No, hi, how are you? Can I get you drinks? Sorry for the wait... She just offered an excuse, I guess? about what she was doing rather than waiting on us. I was frankly flabbergasted. I then was a friendly as possible, wanting the vibe at the table to be a positive one, but inside, I was pretty annoyed. 

Despite the meal getting off to a bad start, the rest of our experience was fine - we enjoyed each others' company and the server didn't offer much more to our table in terms of personality (good or bad). I liked this tomato salad (a special), with balsamic vinegar and fried cheese curds. The Bang Bang shrimp, fried with a spicy creamy sauce, was crunchy but kind of bland for the genre. 

The men enjoyed fish and chips - not the best plating I've ever seen, but again, the food was fine. 

My wood-roasted monkfish over beet puree with potatoes, edamame, bacon lardons, and fingerling potatoes (so succotash, basically) was good - the monkfish is very meaty, almost like a chicken breast. It was smoky and the puree lent a nice sweetness. 

As an aside, the fish at Boone's is served a la carte, so I appreciated this special dish that was already put together. It seems like work to have to assemble fish, sauce, and sides from the menu, where I'd rather see what the chef and cooks thinks goes well together. 

The birthday gal enjoyed the wood-grilled chicken, served over a huge portion of mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach. We didn't stick around for dessert, but headed to Captain Sam's for an ice cream cone and a nice stroll down relatively quiet Commercial Street.

Our meal was probably close to $200 after tip (dinner was on the boyfriend's dad, so I didn't see the check), and I came away disappointed with the experience overall. I believe Boone's bills itself as a relatively finer dining restaurant - at the very least due to the menu prices. But with salt sprinkled on the floors to create traction on the otherwise slippery floors (due to the humidity - it's a waterfront restaurant, so it's pretty much always humid), the state of the bathrooms, and of course the lackluster service, the details that would otherwise make it a fine dining experience were just not there. 

Bottom line: I unfortunately had my low expectations reinforced and believe that if you're looking for local seafood or a fine dining meal, you're better off headed somewhere else in Portland than Boone's. Now I know! 

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