Thursday, August 16, 2012

Flights of Fancy

I love doing flights of almost anything. A “flight” usually refers to a set of small samples of wine, but can be beer, whiskey, cola, orange juice, coffee…you get the idea. In general, I differentiate “doing a flight” from a “tasting” since there’s almost always a fun, social aspect involved.  Comparing notes with your slightly-buzzed nearest and dearest across a table strewn with glassware is good times, yo. 

I returned recently from a vacation in Oregon (And there will be future column inches devoted to the delicious wines of the Willamette Valley. Oh yes…). As a day in Portland drew to a close, I realized I’d downed four wildly different sets of liquid tapas:

Flight #1 – The Morning Meditation
After shaking off the previous evening’s revelry, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I left our hotel (the Monaco…a cool place!) for a day-long meander around the city. While Portland has a world-class public transportation system (in the eyes of practically everyone except dillweeds like Ohio’s Governor John Kasich and U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot), the city is eminently walkable. Our plan was to have a look around Old Town and buzz through Chinatown for some lunch before heading over to the Pearl District.
Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland

After an intentionally aimless stroll, we turned a corner on the edge of Chinatown and came upon the Lan Su Chinese Garden. Portland is best known for the Rose Garden and the adjacent Japanese Garden – but we’d read (correctly) that the Chinese Garden was also not to be missed. From the outside, one wouldn’t know just how peaceful and beautiful this place plopped in the middle of a major city was. On one corner of the garden stands the tea house. Since lunchtime was still a bit away, we stopped in to discover that they offer flights of loose leaf teas. Since I had little notion of good tea beyond Celestial Seasonings, I was intrigued.
Ready for takeoff.

Careful now...careful...
Our server, Martin, was very patient and helpful as he explained to us the differences between the various offerings. We opted for a flight of three “old growth” teas – two green teas from different mountain regions in China and a black tea from Vietnam. I drink a fair amount of “normal” tea. I’d never thought much beyond a basic “tea” flavor – and I’d never really associated terroir with tea. But there it was. The flavors of the Chinese teas were quite different – one was earthier, the other a bit more tannic. And the black tea was another beast altogether.

More important was the preparation ritual, which I clumsily attempted to emulate. Quiet, contemplative, peaceful – looking out across lovely intricate patterns of water and stone – we lost ourselves in tea and serenity for over an hour. Marvelous.

(We ended up checking three small ziplocs of the leftover loose tea. We were half-expecting those aromatic little packets to be confiscated by the TSA, but they made it home.)

Flight #2 – Magnificent Midday Mold
Our walk resumed, our delicious Chinatown lunch was at a pan-Asian bistro called Ping. I had a fabulous kuaytiaw pet pha lo (a Thai-Chinese combo of a duck leg stewed in mushroom broth over fat fresh noodles). The SPinC enjoyed her yam yai (“big salad” in Thai). The food was delicious, but I was mesmerized by the discovery that Ping offered flights of shochu, which I’d always wanted to try.

Shochu is a Japanese alcoholic beverage. Like sake, it’s clear and can be served hot or cold. That’s where the similarities end. Sake is generally made from rice, is brewed in a similar process to beer, and is usually around 13-15% alcohol.

"I've smelled moldier in my sock drawer!"
Shochu can be made from basically any substance that contains convertible starch – rice (including leftover grain from sake production), buckwheat, sweet potatoes, molasses, potatoes, and so on. The raw material is steeped in water, steamed, and cooled. The resulting glop is treated with a mold called koji. The koji breaks the starches down into fermentable sugars. After several days of fermentation, the product is distilled, producing clear, 50-ish proof liquor with a distinct flavor.

I did a flight of three shochu: one made from rice, another from buckwheat, and a third from molasses. (I think the idea of a moldy drink scared the SPinC.) How were they? None of them will replace wine in my beverage rotation anytime soon. I did like the one from molasses, which maintained a bit of that blackstrap sweetness. Next time I’ll try the sweet potato shochu. It was still a little early in the day with the Pearl’s breweries still in front of us.

Flight #3 – Beer! At last, Beer!

We hoped to hit the Pearl’s “Brewery Blocks” for afternoon flights of local beers. As my beer drinkers know, there’s some good beer from Oregon. Alas, we discovered that, like the Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, “Brewery Blocks” now apparently refers to the former tenants of those buildings. The former brewery spaces are now largely retail spaces and upscale condos. We went looking for ales. We found Anthropologie.This gentrification was nicely done, mind you – but fantasies of little beer tasting rooms were dampened.

Slightly disheartened, we headed back towards the Monaco. Rounding a corner on our circuitous route, we saw a bar-front for “Tugboat Brewing Company,” but our bubbles burst as we discovered the door locked. Frustrated, we turned around and – to our joy and relief – saw a sign for “Bailey’s Taproom” directly across the street. With a giant flatscreen menu of 20 Oregonian beers on tap, we’d struck gold. We shared a flight – a couple of IPAs, a cask bitter, a hefeweizen, and a framboise. Since we’d been doing a limited-carb diet leading up to the vacation, these were the first beers we’d had in a month. I might have given thumbs up to an Old Style at this point. They just tasted GOOD.
Beer. Glorious Beer.

Flight #4 – The Plan of Attack Comes Into Focus
Before we headed off to dinner at a highly-recommended-but-ultimately-disappointing meal at a Peruvian place, we stopped at Oregon Wines on Broadway, a wine store and tasting. Wine tasting was heavily on the agenda for the remainder of the trip. We had names of a few places from friends and travel guides, but we weren’t as familiar with the geography, which winery specialized in what style of pinot noir, etc. Eager to learn, we bellied up to the tasting bar and our tastress Emily (who sported some of the most stylish body art you’ll ever see) lined up six Oregon pinots for us from producers large and small.

This sloth loves Oregon pinot. Really.
Emily explained (while cracking us up repeatedly) how Oregon wines were more terroir-driven than other domestics. Unlike California’s more consistent weather, Oregon’s changes markedly from year to year. A very warm year like 2009 leads to noticeably fuller and rounder wines than more subtle flavors of a cooler year like 2010 from the same vineyard. (How Euro!) Also, Oregon’s soil varies greatly – from clay to sediment to volcanic ash, all of which can sometimes be found in the same field of grapes. We picked out a couple of samples we particularly liked for flavor and structure -- “Patricia Green” and “Libra.” Emily gave us a map of the Willamette Valley and said, “If you like those – try these!” Within a few minutes, our itinerary was fleshed out. The adventure began…

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