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March 28th, 2012

Tasting Notes with 33 Books

BY Kari Skaflen

We first came across the diminutive little 33 series notebooks at Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine in Chicago, and were immediately smitten. The classic, modern designed exteriors give way to easy to use charts and rating systems. With 33 pages worth of sampling notes, the notebooks are sheer tasting genius. Made to document (and remember) life’s little luxuries: wine, cheese, beer, whiskey, cigars, and even coffee—there’s something for every palate in the series.  We talked with creator, Dave Selden by phone, and got the story behind the little 33 books, which are turning out not to be so small after all.

Kari: How did the idea come to you to make these books?

Dave: Well, I used to be a very active beer blogger. I was kind of one of the earliest ones in Portland along with a bunch of my friends. As our stature grew, or rather as breweries started paying attention, they started inviting us to beer events. Afterwards we’d want to write something about it, and beer plus lots of beer doesn’t usually equal a great memory. So, it was kind of a tool I came up with for myself to help me remember all the beers I was trying. What really precipitated it was [when] I went to the Great American Beer Festival. It’s 2,300 beers on tap in one place, and that was just a scale I hadn’t ever experienced before. And I just gave up when I walked in the door. I thought, there’s no way I’m going to remember this. I came back, and it was inspiration for the first beer book.

Kari: How did you come up with the charts, the flavor wheel?

Dave: The flavor wheel isn’t my invention. It’s called a spider graph or some people call it a radar chart. It’s a chart that not many people know about. I must have seen it somewhere before, and it’s just one of the things that makes it easy to take notes. I wanted it to be more checkboxes, less long form note taking. It was my goal to have this useful device to simplify flavor. I think it  works as a quick way to do something but it’s also a nice memory jog. You kind of tend to go through it and it helps you to identify flavors that you might not be thinking about otherwise.

Kari: You do a journal for beer, cheese, coffee, wine, whiskey, and cigars, that’s a handful!

Dave: I’m working on chocolate now.

Kari: How do you do it all? Are you an aficionado of all of these categories?

Dave: To a greater or lesser extent. When I first have an idea for something, I’ll read a ton of books on the subject. And well, right now I probably have 30 partially eaten chocolate bars in the cupboard. I try and find a wide range of products that span the gamut. In the chocolate example, I have a 100% cacao bar from Madagascar and I have everything all the way down to a Hershey’s bar. I’m just trying to train and educate my palate…. The books are really not intended to be an expert’s tool. They’re intended to be useful for an expert, but also for a novice. I think my innocence and expertise sort of help me figure out the right balance for both ends of the spectrum.

Kari: What’s the most you’ve spent on a chocolate bar?

Dave: At least $10, maybe $15. But you know, you’ve gotta try it and research it. The unfortunate thing is the taste I’ve developed in the research. I can’t drink Starbucks anymore, I can only drink good stuff. Little luxuries….

Kari: There’s cheese in the ink of your cheese book, wine in the ink of the wine book and so forth; how did you get that idea and how does it work?

Dave: That was my lawyer’s suggestion. The first run was 1,000 beer books. It wasn’t a tremendous amount of money, but it was the first time I’d done something like this. It was very educational. And one of the things I learned was that I needed a lawyer for some aspects of it. Like any good collaboration, he had some ideas. One of his was, “Hey you should put a little bit of beer in this.” I said, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.”

Kari: What was it like to go through your first print run?

Dave: I went through the first printing and I thought, oh my god, I’m going to be sitting on a thousand of these for years, trying to hoist them off on friends for Christmases and birthdays. And it turned out pretty differently.  Sometimes I think, how did this crazy idea turn into this?

Kari:  Do you have any great stories from having your book with you at a tasting? Anything funny happen?

Dave: I think early on it was funny that people would tell me about the books as though it was something that I would like to buy. They didn’t know that it was something that I had actually had a role in.  They’d say, “Oh you might really like these little books for notes on beer taking.” And I’d be like, “Oh yeah, I might like those….”

As a man who’s done some serious field research on food topics, we asked Dave to name his favorite beer, cheese, wine, whiskey, coffee and chocolate, so we too could get in on the good stuff. Here’s what he’s digging.

Right now, I have a bottle of Oregon Trail brand beer. I don’t know if you’d call it a hobby brewery, but there’s a guy in Corvallis, Oregon who makes this beer in small quantities. I think only a case or two ever even make it up to Portland. It was aged in Bourbon barrels, I think he only did 2-3 barrels worth of beer, made by hand with love. It all comes off old recycled dairy equipment. I like beers like that are small and intimate, and have a cool story.

My wife is the bigger wine drinker in the house. Her family used to own a winery up in Spokane, WA, Mountain Dome. I like sparkling wine, it’s probably my favorite. I like the bubbles and acidity. It’s not a very manly thing to say, but it’s just fun, it’s kind of a celebration in a bottle.

My wife says I like strong flavors, so anything old and really funky. I had a vintage Irish cheddar recently. The Trader Joes’ Dubliner, I think is a great value. An old, aged gouda, with that melt-in-your-mouth crystal texture is kind of nice.

I like natural processed coffees. I can’t drink them all the time, but they’re really, really fruity flavored, like blueberries. I think the way it works is that the bean in its raw form has this shell on the outside of it. One of the oldest most traditional ways to get that off and get to the inside bean is to let it ferment.  And then when you take it [the shell] off, it gives the beans inside a crazy flavor. Most people who try it are like, “What??” So those are a treat. I don’t drink them everyday.

Oh man… [laughs]. Different day, different tastes. I like everything from the super smoky scotch to old bourbons. So I’m looking at a bottle right now, the brand is Vintage Bourbon. It’s a 17 year-old bourbon, it’s fantastic.

I haven’t been smoking much lately. It is kind of hard to beat Cuban cigars. However, there’s this little new cigar maker, the brand is called Nub Dub, I think. Their marketing schtick has been that the last part of the cigar is the best part because it gets resinated with all the oils and tars and all that good stuff with the smoke that you drew through it beforehand. Anyhow, they’re short, fat little cigars only about 3.5” long. I like it, because I don’t always want to spend an hour and a half smoking a cigar.

I gotta give a little Portland love— there’s a place called Wood Block Chocolates that I really like. I’ve got one here it’s 70% cacao from Costa Rica with a little bit of salt added to it.

Check out www.33books.com  for more.