First off, a cocktail. Many years ago, when I was still very fresh at my current job, bar manager at the Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant and Lounge, I did much more with cocktails than I do now, long before it became the craze that it currently is. (There are certain bars around the city known for their cocktail culture and creativity that I just never enter, because I fear them looking down on me for ordering a lowly beer. And that's what I almost always what I want to drink.) Once upon a time I was one of those creative cocktail types, but dropped that stuff when I got more serious about beer. (I didn't have a fancy moustache, but I did wear a vest from time to time.)
And one of the things I did way back then was design a way to infuse vodka with berberre, the special spice blend (made up of more than a dozen different chilis and paprikas) that is an essential part of Ethiopian cuisine. It took me months, if I remember correctly, to get the method down perfectly. I read magazine articles and chapters in books, but none of that had a recipe for infusing anything that came in a powdered form. The methodology has never been written down, and in the past 13 years or so since I invented it, only produced by yours truly.
Right from the start, I used this spice-infused vodka to make two drinks, which have always been on our cocktail menu, although sometimes under different names. The bloody mary version is now simply called the Barberre Bloody Mary, and it has had it's share of devotees over the years. One customer could even tell the difference when I hadn't had the infusion steeping for the full week, merely five days, when she ordered it, so I comped her the drink. I've taken care to be well ahead on my batches since then.
The second drink is now known as the Crocodile Smile Martini, after the Nile crocodile, and the menu description ask: "When does a crocodile smile? When it's ready for lunch, and this is the drink that takes a bite out of you!" It's similar to a pepper martini, or cajun martini, any cocktail made with pepper vodka, but instead one using a vodka infusion that tastes just like our food. It's not for everyone, to say the least, and I've strived to warn people on the menu, for I've seen too many return unfinished by people who had no idea who hot, peppery, and incredibly flavorful it was.
Since we never got much attention for our cocktails, I was surprised when an editor at City Pages alerted me to the news that Crocodile Smile would make an appearance as the Drink of the Week, back in May of 2010. The writer didn't bother to contact me or ask any questions, and simply inquired to the bartender on duty, who decided not to call me (it was a day off for me when they decided to take the photo) and just make up stuff. The infusion does not sit for "A whopping two months." That would be undrinkable. Even a batch I made that went a few days too long was too hot, and had to be diluted to be drinkable. I wrote her to inform her that instead it was a mere seven days in the cooler. The bartender explained that he wanted it to sound more impressive. Maybe it's more impressive that only a week's infusion gives such strong flavors?
The press that it received didn't result in any extra fame for the drink. I remember one man who visited the bar because of the article, anxious to try the tastes he's read about, even though he confessed that his favorite cocktail is a bleu cheese-stuffed olive martini. Needless to say, he found it weird and didn't finish it. So, I continue to create batch after batch, just to supply the curious and the diehard fans, and there are some. Including a few who were inspired to make a beer with berberre.
Let's just start out by saying that I have some fans who I never see, even though I serve them. They're in the other room, sitting at tables and booths, ordering their beers and cocktails through the server on duty. Some of them step over to the other side and meet me, though they don't often, or ever, hang out at the bar. Some thank me for doing what I do, some just want to say hi, and I may or may not remember their names, but I'm good with faces. Such is the case with Brad and Katie. One day this summer, Brad came over to the bar, shook my hand and asked if I remembered him. Sure, I said, though not entirely, though his face seemed familiar. And didn't he look like someone who once just wanted to say "hey, good job with the beers here, keep it up." Sure, he was. And then he pulled out a bottle. His wife was a homebrewer, and her experiences drinking Crocodile Smile martinis gave her the idea to buy some berberre (not difficult to do, you can buy it online from WalMart, if you want.) and put it in a beer. They saved a bottle for me to drink. And I was kind of blown away.
|Here's the very plain brown bottle, with a note of explanation tied around the top, identified on the cap with the letters BC for "Bitter Crocodile."|
|The Bitter Crocodile in close-up. Unfiltered and bottle-conditioned, it's color nearly matches that of the drink.|
I decided not to drink this one by myself, and saved it for my next visit to Dave's BrewFarm in early July. David Anderson is a man well known for using unusual ingredients in his beer recipes, although he's not one for going to extremes. And he's an excellent judge of beer, so why not get an expert's opinion?
|Seen here, the note in it's entirety.|
|In Figure 3., we see Farmer Dave pouring out the Bitter Crocodile, one for him, one for me.|
I pulled out some paper and pen, and took notes on it, for posterity, something I don't always do. But when will I have something like this again? Here's a transcription of those notes, verbatim:
"cloudy amber, cream-toned head, low retention.
Big, hot & peppery aroma, all kinds of spice..
Taste: wow, all matter of spice, sitting on top of bready malt, but never too much, not undrinkable in the least. slight malt sweetness, fairly smothered by berberre heat, a manageable complex…(trails off, what?)
---not a summertime quaffer, or a refresher in the smallest way. would work well with food, definitely. after-dinner treat? hops are also hidden, malt holds it's own."
As for Farmer Dave, he found it a bit imbalanced, connoisseur of subtlety that he is. But he found it a well-made beer, all the while, and an interesting experiment.
So, thanks, Brad and Katie, I did enjoy. Don't forget me when you make your next batch, okay?