Reading Away Preconceptions

Edible-Brooklyn_sized“I went down to the demonstration,” sang the Rolling Stones during the turbulent late 1960s, “to get my fair share of abuse …” It’s in similar quest of a bracing shot of humility that I pick up Edible Brooklyn magazine when I see it stacked in a favorite beer haunt or restaurant, not just because it’s always so nicely put together but because the matter-of-fact tone with which it discusses really arcane foods and beverages provides a salutary reminder that even a guy like me, who makes a living following beverage trends, is lagging a bit behind the curve when it comes to what’s emerging in that artisanal hotbed. Well, not just emerging, but seemingly already taken for granted among the magazine’s presumed readership of foodies, makers, growers, growler-fillers, mixologists, food-fair promoters and other contemporary Brooklyn species. While many of the food and beverage segments discussed in Edible Brooklyn may not stand the test of time, the coverage offers a stark reminder about how quickly new trends are popping up on the radar these days.

It wasn’t so many years ago, of course, that even some of my colleagues on the beer side of the company where I work wondered why I wrote so much about this thing called acai (they pronounced it “ackeye”) in the non-alcoholic letter, Beverage Business Insights, that I produce. And did folks really drink this coconut water thing I seemed so enamored of? And what’s with this kabbucha stuff that’s made from some kind of blob? These days, of course, quite a few consumers, even outside the major coastal metros, can pronounce acai correctly, and find it used as a flavor note even in mainstream drink segments. They can purchase coconut water at the store attached to the gas pump, and can adequately pronounce the word “kombucha” – even if it’s just to pronounce the stuff disgusting – in their coffee shop and bar room banter. (Columnist’s note: most kombucha entries definitely aren’t, any more.)

So what kinds of things are bubbling up in Edible Brooklyn these days? Recent issues include frequent references to items like cold-brewed coffees, juice cleanses and kombuchas in a tone that suggest these segments are so well established that they no longer need explanation (at least in Brooklyn). The latest issue talks up a cold-weather cocktail called the Switchel Toddy served at a place called Montana’s Trail House (in the gentrifying industrial neighborhood of Bushwick, where, until fairly recently, the only trails to be found were the cold trails of professional car theft rings). The toddy, the magazine reports, involves a Kombucha Brooklyn mother working her magic on upstate apple cider in whiskey barrels from Kings County Distillery. (Maybe in their rendition of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on their next tour the Stones should use the updated lyric: “I saw her today at the reception, a glass of Switchel Toddy in her hands …”) Elsewhere in the issue, we get a profile of Port Morris Distillery, which is reviving a Puerto Rican moonshine style called pitorro in a South Bronx neighborhood that is itself reviving, as well as a disquisition on a bartender on Manhattan’s Lower East Side who’s creating elaborate “coffee-forward” cocktails that go far beyond Irish Coffee. Example: The Flamingo, marrying Ethiopian Guji coffee with tequila, cocchi rosso (what, you don’t know what cocchi rosso is?) and apple bitters. “Leave your preconceptions at the door,” advises the writer.

I think that’s solid advice for all of us these days, even if it can be intimidating keeping up with this welter of concepts. If you’re a retailer or distributor, consider this column an exhortation to keep an open mind about some of the odd new categories and hybrids being tossed your way. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that coconut water seemed like a peculiar idea for a sports drink. Now it’s an established category, and igniting in its wake a push to establish aloe vera as the next promoted-from-the-ethnic-ghetto elixir. We’re seeing a wave of other plant-based waters, too, all claimed to have terrific nutritional bona fides, including maple water, cactus water and watermelon water.

Other entrepreneurs are ransacking our nation’s rich culinary past and resurrecting such nearly forgotten styles as switchels and drinking vinegars (whose heritage makes kombucha seem not quite so much of a stretch any more). Still others are happy to latch onto some underappreciated tea or coffee varietal – perhaps puerh didn’t pan out as a ready-to-drink entry for Numi Tea a few years back, but matcha green tea seems to be supporting quite a few innovative RTD entries, most of which downplay the ingredient’s heritage of ceremonial uses in Japan in favor of its potent benefits, which are amped up since you’re ingesting the whole leaf. It’s hard as ever to handicap which of these might jump the shark into mainstream acceptance the way coconut water has, but they all have a compelling story behind them. We need to keep reminding ourselves, then, to leave our preconceptions at the door.

Longtime beverage-watcher Gerry Khermouch
is executive editor of Beverage Business Insights,
a twice-weekly e-newsletter covering the
nonalcoholic beverage sector.