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April 26, 2006

I've had Blak, not sure when I'll go bak

A few days ago I came across Coca-Cola Blak for sale and decided to give it a try. If you haven't heard of it yet, Blak is a new Coca-Cola soft drink combining the flavors of cola and coffee. Carbonated coffee drinks have been tried before without much success, but I was still curious to try this one out.

I like Coke, I like coffee, and I can see how the two could be good together. And Blak does a pretty good job pulling off the combination. It's sweet and the coffee flavor comes through cleanly. It could maybe use a little more carbonation and could drop the aspartame to take away the "diet" taste (it's already sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, perhaps overly so), but all in all, not bad.

The problem is that I'm not sure when I will drink it again. Once is great for novelty, but I can't see it becoming a regular beverage of choice for me. When I want a Coke, I'd rather have a regular Coke. And when I want coffee, I'd rather have fresh coffee. It could be a good option for long drives when I want caffeine without having to resort to gas station brew, though even then I'm not sure I'd choose it over other bottled coffee drinks.

If my reaction is typical, Coca-Cola will have a hard time finding a sizeable market for this stuff and the coffee soda market will be left to niche players like Manhattan Special. Anyone else tried Blak? Love it? Hate it?

April 14, 2006

New magazine for drink lovers

I was in Charlotte last weekend for the Specialty Coffee Association of America 2006 conference and one of the cool things I picked up there is the premiere issue of the new magazine Imbibe. The bimonthly is devoted exclusively to drinks as their own culinary realm, not limiting itself to any one beverage. This first issue includes articles about third wave coffee, the drinks of Oaxaca, introductions to the seven Trappist ale producers, a look at organic wine, and quite a few recipes, profiles of people in the beverage business, and bar recommendations. The layout is stylish and dominated by content, not ads.

One interesting bit I learned from the issue is that in Utah, consumers' wine choices are selected by pretty much just one guy. Direct shipping is illegal and wine sales are limited to state-run liquor stores, only one of which specializes in wine. Thus the wine sold in the state must pass the approval of the "wine czar:"

Utah has a wine czar. Yep, a state employee named Brett Clifford officially works as the "wine coordinator," but his eminence better fits the "czar" moniker. Since 1979, when the state opened its first wine specialty store, Clifford has tasted nearly every wine that has been sold in Utah; it's his job to choose which bottles end up on store shelves and restaurant wine lists. "I believe that Utah has perhaps the only extensive wine tasting and buying program of just about any retailer in the United States," Clifford says. "Most everyone else buys on reputation, publication, and sales record, and pricing incentives. We are very proud to serve the Utah consumer."

Today, he and other state-employed tasters sample about 500 wines a month. On Thursday afternoons, you'll find Clifford and two members of his sampling team evaluating various bottles in an official room used for wine tasting only. All arriving samples are immediately logged into the computer and tracked until the bottles are empty. The samples are stored under lock in a temperature-controlled room next to the tasting room, and both rooms are under constant video surveillance. After all, not even the wine czar imbibes without oversite of the state."

That's a hell of a nice job. Though poking fun at the position a bit, Imbibe is ultimately sanguine about the czar's power, noting that he keeps a lot of bad wines off the shelves. Not mentioned is how many good wines are kept out of consumers' hands by Clifford and the state's illiberal wine laws. For a magazine devoted to celebrating drinks in all their variety, I would have expected a little more criticism.

Actually, a hint of credulity could be the one flaw in an otherwise consistently good magazine. The article on organic wine, for example, includes a sidebar on biodynamic wines. While noting the "inherently spiritual" nature of biodynamic practices, the sidebar treats them as positive step beyond organic farming without mentioning the well-deserved skepticism many hold for their benefits. While I can understand why the editors would want the first issue to be especially genial, I hope they will develop a slightly more critical edge over time.

Those complaints aside, it's a great beginning for this magazine. And for just $15.95 for a charter subscription, I'm definitely willing to take the risk on subsequent issues being just as good. Sign up for a year or two's worth here.

[Update 4/17/06: I didn't notice it until Slashfood pointed it out, but the Imbibe website has a very neat Flash preview of the magazine. It's like virtually flipping through the issue to the lead pages of all the major stories; useful and just fun to play with.]

[Cross-posted on Eternal Recurrence.]

April 10, 2006

SCAA wrap-up

After spending the weekend in Charlotte, NC at the Specialty Coffee Association of America's 2006 conference, I'm catching up with the blogging world at Fowler's Food and Wine in Durham. With it's warm warehouse atmosphere, broad selection of gourmet goods, and free wi-fi, Fowler's is one of my favorite places to stop for coffee when I'm in the area. Today I enjoyed a chocolatey, nutty double shot of Intelligentsia's Black Cat espresso followed by a bright, slightly fruity French press of their Ethiopian harrar. Great stuff!

Of course, there was no shortage of excellent coffee available for the tasting at the conference. I was there volunteering at the Barista Guild of America booth, pulling shots of our sponsors' coffee and encouraging baristi to join us. The BGA is a young trade group of the SCAA, formed to foster communication among baristi throughout the country and encourage the best industry practices. Take a look at the BGA's open forum here and, if you're a barista, do consider signing up.

When I wasn't working in the booth, I was out on the exhibition floor or watching performances at the United States Barista Competition. The latter was dominated by the aforementioned Intelligentsia, with three of the six finalist spots going to the company's competitors. Though I had to depart before the finals, word is that Intelly's Matt Riddle took first. I'll link to more complete information when it's posted.

The exhibition floor was huge, but the one thing people couldn't wait to see was the new model of the Clover. As mentioned here previously, the Clover is a remarkably precise, single-cup coffee brewer. In person it is both larger and faster than it appeared online. The entire brew and clean-up process takes less than a minute and in most of that time the operator's hands are completely free (perhaps to complete a transaction with a customer). I was especially impressed with how easily the controls can be worked via two knobs and a digital display -- if Apple designed a user interface for coffee machines, this would be it. The coffee it produced had a very nice clarity and cleanness in the cup. After seeing it in operation, I find it easier to picture in a retail environment.

The real fun with this machine would come from tasting numerous coffees side by side with it, or tweaking it to get the very best extraction from a particular coffee. There was no time for that on the show floor, however, leaving me with me one more enticement to own one.

April 3, 2006

The new Vivace

Seattle-based espresso expert David Schomer recently opened a new location for his famous coffee company, Espresso Vivace. Pictures of the place are up on Tonx's weblog. Described by Schomer as an "espresso palace," the place is beautiful (though perhaps a bit lacking in coziness -- hard to tell just from the photos). My favorite parts are the latte art mosaics tiled into the floor, lovely representations of a rosetta and heart. Very cool.

Larger shots of the mosaics are available on Tonx's Flickr account here and here.


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