This is one of those rare instances when someone (or some company) trying to do something good has also managed to put out a good product. For some reason, the coffee business seems to include an inordinate number of upstart, rebel companies that make an honest effort toward bettering the industry from the inside out. While it took ten years and 10,000 pages of documents for the U.S. government to define the word "organic" (Bite Me, October 31), roasters and distributors like Allegro and Ruta Maya Coffee out of Austin (I can heartily recommend their beans -- the work of traditional growers in Chiapas, Mexico -- to all you joe junkies out there) fight to improve the system without any laws mandating that they do so. They consistently turn out quality products while paying fair (and often well above-average) prices to farmers, and they do so -- if not entirely out of the goodness of their green and leafy little hearts -- at least partly out of a commitment to inflicting no further damage on the food chain.
Locally, Daz Bog Coffee Company offers certified organic (under the new USDA labeling standards), shade-grown, Fair Trade coffees from every growing region in the world, with over 35 varieties available for sale. And for a taste of the slightly more revolutionary grower, Kerry Appel of Denver's Human Bean Coffee Company offers beans from only one farm (the Mut Vitz co-op in Chiapas), which carry neither the USDA organic nor the Fair Trade labels, but which, according to Appel, exceed the standards of both. "I believe in innocent until proven guilty," says Appel, who adds that the American certification process "is more like guilty until you pay to be proven innocent." And so he refuses to pay for the certification process (and thus the right to use those labels). "TranFair USA [the Fair Trade certifying body] exists for the exploitive coffee companies who've not been Fair Trade, but now want to be called that so they can charge people more per bag of coffee," he continues. "I go on reputation. People who buy from me know that the Human Bean company is doing what they say they're doing."
Granted, there's a nice buck to be made by billing yourself as more friendly, more responsible and more environmentally sound than the big, evil coffee conglomerates, but business is business, right? Even Starbucks has jumped on the bandwagon (under threat of massive protest and boycott by some of those same impish scamps who trashed Seattle during the WTO riots in '99) and started offering a line of "Fair Trade" certified coffee that comes exclusively from small, independent farms and is priced higher -- but with a bigger cut going back to the farmer.
Have you found a great brand of organic, shade-grown, bird-friendly or otherwise politically correct coffee? I'm thinking of setting up an experiment to settle once and for all the question of which tastes better: the honest, traditional sweat of the working man, or that of the oppressed corporate farmer. Or Sanka, which has no politics whatsoever.
Look before you leap: Okay, so last week I expressed skepticism over the organic-labeling standards that went into effect on October 21, but that was before I found an important tidbit while cruising the Web. Apparently, atrazine -- a popular weedkiller and herbicide used all over the world -- could be responsible for causing spontaneous sex changes in certain varieties of frogs.
These hermaphroditic reactions were observed by researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, and published last week in the science journal Nature under the grabbing lead line, "A widely used herbicide is making male frogs grow female gonads in the U.S. Midwest."
I wasn't entirely shocked by this revelation, because I've known for a long time that the music of 'N Sync can do the same thing, but the study went on to note that while atrazine's ability to disrupt sex hormones has caused it to be banned by several European nations, U.S. farmers use an estimated 27,000 tons of atrazine a year. They spray it on their crops; rain washes it into the groundwater; the groundwater pollutes rivers and streams, and the next thing you know, thousands of male leopard frogs in the Midwest start thinking The View is a really interesting show.
While the study didn't make any link between sex-changing amphibians and the possibility of adverse effects of atrazine on humans, it did make me think that maybe this organic thing isn't such a bad idea after all. In checking sites from Iowa to Utah, researchers found that 92 percent of male frogs living in contaminated environments had abnormal gonads. While the results of this study are still hotly debated, I think we already know one thing for sure: The worst job in the world has to be frog-gonad checker.
Another coffee break: Recently, Vail Mountain Coffee Roasters, which has been feeding Colorado's caffeine jones since 1989, changed its name to Vail Mountain Coffee and Tea Company and expanded its selection to include high-quality, loose-leaf teas in addition to java. Over thirty varieties of teas from around the world are available, both in retail size and one-pound bags, and you can find out all you need to know about where to buy them at www.vailcoffee.com.
Or you can just sit in one of Denver's billions of coffeehouses and order a cup of joe. New additions to the lineup include Java Moon, finally open at 1116 Broadway, and Metropolis, now pouring at 300 West 11th Avenue, just two blocks away from relative newcomer Walkups Coffee and Deli, at 920 Speer Boulevard.
Leftovers: This past weekend saw another major closing when Dandelion (1011 Walnut Street, Boulder) was picked off. And it wasn't a pretty scene, either. Before dinner last Thursday, chef-owner Kevin Taylor informed staffers that the seven-year-old Dandelion would be shutting down and asked that they help keep the place open through Saturday. They refused. Although he offered to pay his staff for an additional week while they were out looking for work, "the chefs decided themselves not to open," Taylor says.
Pressed for details, Taylor insists he doesn't want to get into a lot of who-said-what-to-whom-name-calling, but he does add that executive chef Zack Stoughton "just blew up. He was incredibly angry." And that walkout, he says, "was a big 'F-you' to me, but whatever...." Dandelion served its last plate on Thursday; by Friday afternoon, the dining room was dark, with a message on the answering machine noting that "Dandelion is closed" and then giving a number for anyone with billing problems.
Taylor and partner Tony Cardone had debated closing the restaurant for about a year. "We were down about 35 percent over the last eighteen months, and I'm certainly not making a 35 percent profit there," Taylor explains. After Boulder's economy hit the skids in March 2001, he saw a 15-20 percent drop in business over one sixty-day period. And then came September 11. They made attempts to try to save the declining business -- price reductions, adding a happy-hour menu, moving away from the formal-dining feel -- but in the end, none of them made the crucial difference. "We had five and a half really good years, but the last eighteen months were pretty bad," says Taylor. "I'm really proud of the work we did here, and I'm really proud of the staff. I'm just sorry we couldn't make enough changes quick enough."
The closure leaves the acclaimed chef retrenching in Denver with four restaurants remaining in his empire: Nicois (815 17th Street) and Palettes at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway) -- both of which continue to offer that unbeatable, bottomless-wineglass dinner for $35 (Dandelion featured the special, too) -- and Restaurant Kevin Taylor and jou jou (both in the Hotel Teatro, at 1106 14th Street).
Also closing its doors this past Sunday was Nate's Contemporary American Cafe, at the 275 South Logan Street address that had been home to the D.C. Deli. "It has been a wonderful experience and the most difficult year of our lives," wrote owners Dave and Kelli Nicholson -- whose baby son, Nate, made his debut almost simultaneously with his namesake restaurant. "Unfortunately, these hard times have kept us from being able to keep Nate's going."
Red Rocks Grille is now open in Lakewood's Sheraton Denver West. Formerly Rennicks and the Federal Grill -- and not to be confused with the Red Rocks Grill, at 415 Bear Creek Boulevard in Morrison (guess the "e" makes all the difference at the trademark office) -- the space has been redesigned and, like all Sheraton hotel restaurants, has a new menu of comfort foods. "It's just really going back to basics," according to food-and-beverage director Jason Morse. Starting in January, Red Rocks will be offering "food and wine tours," with seasonal menus featuring paired wines, appetizers and entrees.
But no need to wait for that. On Monday, November 18, Vesta Dipping Grill is holding its second annual "small plates for The Spot" benefit, with the net proceeds (and the serving staff's tips) donated to The Spot -- the nonprofit organization/coffeehouse/drop-in center for at-risk youth that's soon merging with Urban Peak. Vesta executive chef Matt Selby and crew will prepare ten unique small plates for participants, ranging from lobster ice cream with domestic-sturgeon caviar and champagne gelée to duck confit, fontina-and-thyme ravioli, lemongrass-coconut-milk pancakes, and chocolate terrine with green-tea ice cream. A silent auction and acid jazz round out the evening. Call Vesta at 303-296-1970 for reservations.