Zack Harold

writer/editor

Coffee keeps friendships warm

This column originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on January 2, 2015.

I remember the day I became a coffee drinker.

I stayed home from school with a blazing sore throat. That afternoon, as I laid on my grandmother’s couch in misery, I got an idea.

I went to the kitchen, grabbed one of her green plastic mugs and poured myself a steaming cup of black coffee.

My sore throat was instantly soothed but the relief didn’t last long. I drank another cup and another and another.

Momaw cut me off after I downed a whole pot and started to make another one.

My dad was never much of a coffee fan — his beverage of choice is Pepsi in a can, not a bottle thank you very much — but my mom always seems to have a cup nearby.

I always liked the way it smelled (who doesn’t?) but never understood the appeal of the bitter brew… until that day I stayed home from school. The bitterness didn’t offend my taste buds any more. Now, it held a strange attraction.

My relationship with coffee has changed over the years.

At first, I drank it when I craved it. Then, in college, I drank it to keep me awake through early-morning classes.

I didn’t develop a full-blown dependency on the stuff I began working at the Daily Mail.

The old movies portray journalists as whiskey drinkers and cigarette smokers. That stuff isn’t allowed in the newsroom anymore, but reporters have more than made up for it with their caffeine habits.

But coffee is more than just a morning pick-me-up. It has become one of my central excuses for getting together with people.

As much as I enjoy social media, there is nothing like a face-to-face conversation with a friend. But asking someone to lunch feels like a commitment.

Asking someone for coffee, however, feels like a fun errand. It’s something you can slip out of the office to complete without feeling guilty.

And drinking coffee, unlike eating, leaves lots of time for conversation. No need to worry about talking with your mouth full. If there’s a lull in the conversation, just take a swig and continue on.

In 2012, comedian Jerry Seinfeld started a web video series called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

The title says it all. In each episode, Seinfeld picks up his guest in a special car — his most recent two-part episode with Jimmy Fallon featured both a 1956 Chevrolet Corvette and a 1994 Land Rover Defender 90 — and takes them to get coffee.

Seinfeld did not begin drinking coffee until middle age but, once he did, discovered something that avowed caffeine addicts already knew.

“Meeting someone for coffee suddenly seemed like a wonderful, compact, accessible and portable social interaction,” he told National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” in 2013. “You don’t even really need a place. But you feel like you’re doing something. That is what coffee is.”

I suspect I will come to rely on these “portable social interactions” more frequently in the coming months.

Today marks my last day at the Charleston Daily Mail. And while I am very excited for my next job, I will really miss all the friends I have made at this newspaper.

When I first arrived in the newsroom back in 2009, it didn’t take me long to realize this newspaper’s staff are more than just co-workers. The Daily Mail is a family.

I have celebrated my co-workers’ marriages and new births, mourned with them, laughed, argued and marveled with them as we watched history unfold before our eyes.

I count every one of the people here as a dear friend and I know they feel the same way about me.

So, now that we will work in separate offices, we will need an excuse to get together. And if I know one thing about newspaper reporters, they won’t pass up a cup of coffee.

The next one’s on me.

Appalachian Distillery makes moonshine, legally

 

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, August 27, 2014.

RIPLEY — Dwayne Freeman makes his moonshine almost the same way as the old-timers. He uses big sacks of corn and a kettle connected to shiny copper lines.

There are a few minor differences, however. First, Freeman doesn’t make his whiskey in the moonlight. In fact, he usually works the day shift.

He also did not hide his moonshine distillery very well. It’s pretty easy to find, right off Interstate 77 between the Jackson County Livestock Market and the I-77 Raceway Park.

And even though his grandfather once went to jail for moonshining, Freeman doesn’t worry when the police drive by. He doesn’t have to.

His company Appalachian Distillery is part of a new generation of Appalachian moonshiners, making high-octane whiskey on the right side of the law.

Freeman first got the idea to open a moonshine distillery about five years ago, after the West Virginia Legislature legalized the small-scale manufacture of whiskey in the state.

At the time Freeman was working as a purchasing agent at a coal mine.

He started crunching the numbers and realized, much to his surprise, that he could make money in the whiskey business.

“I said, ‘There’s got to be something wrong.’”

He took the idea to James Hager, a contractor friend who also worked for the mines.

Hager looked at Freeman’s business plan and agreed it might work. He also agreed to come aboard as Freeman’s business partner.

“I said ‘I’ll make it, you sell it,’” Freeman said. “He took the plunge.”

Freeman decided to move forward with his plans after being laid off from the mines.

He signed a lease on a former grocery store in Ravenswood, but quickly realized the building would require lots of work before the distillery could begin operating.

Then a nearby church convinced city leaders to yank the distillery’s permit over a zoning error.

Freeman didn’t mind. Losing his license freed him from the lease, allowing him to move his distillery into a brand-new building on Cedar Lakes Drive near Ripley.

The building was custom designed for the distillery with tall ceilings and drains in the concrete floor. It also proved to be good for business.

The distillery hasn’t done much advertising, but Freeman said the word-of-mouth buzz has been enough to drive flocks of visitors to the distillery.

Freeman said when he started out, he worried he would not be able to produce legal moonshine that tasted as good as the illegal whiskey he had tasted.

Then he ran the still for the first time.

“It was better,” Freeman said. “Everybody says it’s some of the best they’ve tasted.”

Cooking moonshine in larger batches, it turns out, brings out more flavor in the finished product.

The process starts with corn. And lots of it.

Each run of the moonshine still requires between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds of cracked corn, which Appalachian Distillery buys from a man in Sissonville, who grinds the grain himself.

The corn goes into a large vat of water, where it cooks for four hours until it takes on an oatmeal-like consistency.

This “mash” also contains barley, which converts the starch in the corn into sugar.

The corn mash is now pumped into one of the distillery’s five fermenting tanks.

Workers pitch yeast on top of the corn. Over the next five to seven days, the bacteria in the yeast will turn the sugars in the mash into alcohol.

That alcohol will then be extracted from the mash using the moonshine still.

Appalachian Distillery’s still looks just like the illegal backwoods pot stills you see in the movies, except much larger.

The fermented mash is pumped into a big stainless steel pot, where it is heated. The heat releases alcohol vapor. The vapor then floats up through the copper “onion head” and into a copper line.

The copper is more than just tradition. Fermenting yeast creates sulfur, which would ruin the taste of the final product.

Copper binds with the sulfur, causing it to collect on the inside of the lines like big pepper flakes. Meanwhile, the vapor continues through the still and re-condenses into liquid alcohol.

Freeman’s moonshine still does an especially good job of removing sulfur from the alcohol, thanks to its special “reflux column” filled with copper plates.

The alcohol makes several passes through the chamber, condensing and evaporating over and over. The copper plates remove more sulfur with each pass.

This is where Appalachian Distillery departs from moonshining tradition. The old timers didn’t have reflux columns. They just made seven or eight batches of whiskey and ran it all back through the still.

The resulting whiskey wasn’t nearly as clean as Appalachian Distillery’s moonshine, however.

“The taste is extraordinarily cleaner,” master distiller Darrell Lee said.

Each run of the still produces about 80 gallons of 175- to 180-proof alcohol.

The liquid is transferred to a “spirit safe” where some of the alcohol is allowed to evaporate, causing the proof to drop.

Workers then pour the moonshine into big blue food-safe barrels, where they mix it with water and further reduce the proof.

Appalachian Distillery’s flagship product is 90-proof “original moonshine.”

They also offer four flavored versions, a 70-proof cinnamon drink called “Spitfire” and three 40-proof flavors: apple pie, “orange stuff” and pawpaw.

These flavors are added in a large mixer, where workers mix the alcohol with pre-mixed flavors.

Lee said pawpaw moonshine, flavored like West Virginia’s indigenous “hillbilly banana,” has been the most popular item so far.

“Just because it’s something unique,” he said.

Each flavor is available in two sizes, a 750-milliliter bottle and a 375-milliliter bottle, and can be purchased at Rite Aid and CVS stores around the state.

Freeman and Hager are working to get Appalachian Distillery moonshine into every liquor store in the state and eventually hope to branch out to stores in Kentucky and Ohio, too.

Freeman also is planning additional flavors — including blackberry, strawberry, strawberry lemonade and limited-run holiday flavors like peppermint — and he eventually hopes to produce barrel-aged moonshine.

Sushi and exotic fish shop makes for odd but apt combo

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 28, 2014.

It could be an uncomfortable experience, enjoying sushi in the middle of an aquarium shop.

There are all those very-alive fish, just bubbling along while you enjoy a dish of very-recently-alive fish.

But Yuichi Fujita, 59, has made it work.

He is the owner of Fuji’s Sushi and Teriyaki along Jefferson Road in South Charleston. The tiny restaurant shares the building with Fujita’s other business, Fuji’s Reef Shop.

On one side of the small space, there are lights, tanks and chemicals for maintaining saltwater fish tanks, along with several tanks filled with exotic fish.

On the other, there’s a kitchen and a small seating area, including a four-seat counter where diners can eat in the blue light of a large burbling saltwater tank filled with colorful fish and swaying underwater plants.

“Japanese food, one thing that’s good, they put food and nature together,” Fujita said.

He keeps a folder of pictures ripped from Japanese-language museums, depicting restaurants with elaborate gardens or those built into picturesque landscapes. Fujita admires those restaurants and has captured some of that vibe with his shop.

When he opened the business in 2005, it was only supposed to be an aquarium store.

Fujita spent years working in kitchens before opening his own sushi restaurant, Fujita Express, in downtown Charleston. He grew tired of the restaurant business, however, and wanted to switch gears.

Some years before, he saw a saltwater tank in a pet shop and immediately fell in love.

He began researching the hobby, and although the Internet was a much smaller place in the early 2000s, Fujita was soon a self-made expert.

“I’m the kind of person, when you get in, that’s it.”

He installed a saltwater tank in his home, and then another and another.

His wife, Dawn, began to grow impatient with the fishtanks that were taking over their home—there were eventually so many aquariums they had to bring in contractors to upgrade the wiring—so Fujita decided to spin off his hobby into a business.

Things went swimmingly for a few years but business dropped off dramatically after the economy crashed in 2008, as people began cutting back on luxuries.

So Fujita decided to get back into the restaurant business. He built a kitchen in his shop and started doing to-go orders.

He soon had a sizable group of regular customers.

“Then people said, ‘why don’t you open a few seats?’”

Fujita added a few tables and a counter last year but kept the seating capacity low.

The restaurant is a small operation—Fujita and his wife, Dawn, who comes in around 5 p.m. after she leaves her day job, are the store’s only employees—but Fujita keeps it that way on purpose.

“I don’t want to deal with employees. I do everything. Lot of work, but less headaches.”

It gives him a close relationship with his customers.

“Pretty much every customer, I remember.”

He knows which flavors they like and those they do not. There’s a lawyer who doesn’t want anything green on his plate. There’s another customer that can’t stand green onions or anything with a similarly strong taste.

Some regulars trust Fujita so implicitly they don’t even order.

“Some customers, they’ll just say ’make me something,'” he said.

Fujita doesn’t think he’s that impressive, however. It’s part of his job to have a good relationship with his clientele. He used to work with a bartender who could remember the usual drinks for a few hundred regular customers.

“If you do it a long time, that’s your skill,” he said. “I have a good long-term memory.”

Running a small shop also gives Fujita the freedom to take time off. The store is closed this week while he goes fly fishing in Pocahontas County.

Fujita says he didn’t have any hobbies when he first arrived in West Virginia about 20 years ago but wanted something to occupy his time outside the restaurant.

“I didn’t want to be like my father. Work, work, work,” he said. “You want to enjoy your life.”

He saw a travel brochure with photos of fly fishermen and was intrigued. It wasn’t long before his obsessive nature took hold. He drove to Pocahontas County every week to practice casting in the trout-filled Cranberry River. He learned to tie his own flies.

“It’s a beautiful way to catch fish.”

He enjoys stepping into his waders and standing in the middle of a river, witnessing nature from a vantage point few people take time to enjoy.

You could say it’s another way to appreciate the balance between food and nature, except . . .

“I’m 100 percent catch and release,” Fujita said.

 

Swiftwater Cafe adds catering, general store

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

Last Friday morning, the folks at Swiftwater Cafe were already hard at work on lunch.

The long metal prep table in the restaurant’s new catering kitchen was filled with fruit, sandwich and cookie trays as employees rushed to fill orders.

The space—located on the first floor of the Daniel Boone Building on Capitol Street—was formerly a beauty salon, but when the salon’s owner retired earlier this year, Swiftwater owner Teddy Queen purchased the space and had it completely renovated.

The walls are painted bright green to match the restaurant’s color scheme, and a big window decal announces “Swiftwater Catering is open for business.”

Queen, 39, started doing small breakfast and lunch catering orders as soon as Swiftwater opened in 2003, although the workspace wasn’t ideal.

He and his employees were trying to prepare large numbers of sandwiches and wraps in the same small kitchen where they fixed lunch orders.

“It was very crowded,” he said.

After a few years he expanded the operation into a small closet-like space in the back of the beauty salon next door. That allowed a little more room for catering, but the space was not equipped for large orders.

Then earlier this year, the hair salon went out of business and Queen had the chance to buy the space.

He hadn’t planned to expand just yet. Last year, he opened the Swiftwater General Store on Capitol Street and purchased a new van for the business. But he decided to take the leap anyway.

“I said ‘Well, we’re stretched a little thin but let’s go for it.’ I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and the demand was there,” he said.

He opened the catering kitchen in early April.

The storefront gives Swiftwater a larger presence on Washington St., which Queen hopes will catch peoples’ attention and bring in more business. His catering operation is mostly limited to downtown Charleston right now but he wants to expand into Kanawha City and South Charleston, too.

The expanded catering business also has allowed Swiftwater to hire more employees.

While the cafe once had just three employees, plus Queen, the restaurant now has 12 people on staff, including two at the Swiftwater General Store on Capitol St.

Queen originally wanted to build a country store in Fayetteville, and even bought a piece of property and had architects draw up some blueprints. But there were problems with the land’s septic permits and Queen couldn’t seem to get any help from county officials. Then his wife, Lisa, got a new job she really enjoyed, and the couple was hesitant about moving their children.

“I said, ‘Too many factors are building up.’”

He decided to put his plans on hold for a while. Then, last year, a storefront opened across from Davis Park on Capitol Street and Queen jumped at the opportunity.

The Swiftwater General Store opened in September 2013.

“It’s been an immediate success,” he said. “I get thanked 15 times a day for putting it there.”

The store’s interior evokes an old-timey general store, which was partly inspired by Queen’s family history. His great-grandparents ran a coal company store in Fayette County, and one of his grandfathers ran a grocery store in Matewan.

In addition to snack cakes, potato chips and other convenience store fare, the wood shelves along the left wall of the store are stocked with essentials: canned food, toilet paper, paper towels, toiletries, a big jar of pickled eggs. Just about anything customers might need in a pinch.

The opposite wall is lined with coolers. The grab-and-go cooler is stocked with sandwiches, wraps, salads and other quick, healthy lunch offerings. There are pop coolers and a few beer coolers stocked with craft brews. Customers are welcome to build their own six packs.

The store has a steady stream of regulars, who pop in to pick up a cup of fresh coffee or a cinnamon roll from the bakery case. Queen said the store is perfectly positioned to attract business from surrounding office buildings as well as Davis Park.

“It’s going to be the best decision I’ve made long-term,” he said.

He’s bringing a new flavor to town

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, February 19, 2014.

In the last few weeks, chef Paco Aceves has auditioned for a new job, landed that job, packed up his wife and children and all their earthly possessions, moved everything across the country, only to take the helm in his new kitchen and cook dinner for hundreds of hungry guests on Valentine’s Day weekend.

And he did it all with a bad back.

Aceves — known as “Chef Paco” to his fans — is the new executive chef at the Berry Hills Country Club, but he’s not new to the Charleston dining scene. He first came to West Virginia back in 2007. Although he was fresh out of culinary school, he quickly gained a following at the Bridge Road Bistro, where chef Robert Wong took Aceves under his wing.

He later went to work at the Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, W.Va., before moving his family to Albuquerque, N.M., where he and wife Brandi opened a gourmet barbecue restaurant, “Paco’s Smoked International Cuisine,” in 2012. The couple closed that restaurant after almost two years when their business partner backed out, and began to consider relocating to West Virginia to be closer to Brandi’s

Aceves wanted to get back to cooking, too, but realized he was tired of working in restaurants or hotel. He had previously worked as a sous chef at the Houston Country Club in Houston, Texas, and wanted to find another job in a private club.

He called up his friend Paul Smith, executive chef at Charleston’s Buzz Food Service, to talk about his plans. As serendipity would have it, Berry Hills general manager J. Eric Stacy had called Smith earlier that day and mentioned the club was looking for a new executive chef.

Smith connected Stacy with Aceves, who set up an audition for the chef with some of Berry Hills’ members.

“The response was `get him up here.’ There was only one contingency. He has to let us buy him a smoker,” Stacy said.

The building that housed Paco’s Smoked International Cuisine had once been a barbecue joint, and came with a giant wood-fired smoker. Aceves put the smoker to good use, cooking both meats and vegetables for a variety of Mediterranean-inspired entrees and side dishes. Although his operation at Berry Hills will likely be significantly smaller, he plans to bring many of the dishes from his

He’s not reinventing the wheel, however. Some member favorites at Berry Hills, like the club’s 14-ounce rib-eye, crab cakes and certain salads and sandwiches, will remain on the menu.

“Everybody has their favorites. You can’t change everything,” he said. “They’re already telling me what they want and I’m a good listener.”

Aceves said private clubs allow chefs a stronger bond with their patrons. And since the restaurant isn’t the club’s primary source of income, he also is able to spend a little more money on ingredients without having to pass the cost along to customers.

He’s currently looking at ways to bring grass-fed beef and locally-raised produce on the menus. Aceves said he’s worked in restaurants that attempted a “farm to table” approach to its ingredients, but the endeavor always proved too costly to make good business sense.

At Berry Hills, he has a little more freedom.

“I can have better quality ingredients and a fresh approach,” he said. “I’m allowed to not make as much money.”

Word is spreading that Chef Paco is back in town. He said some former Berry Hills members are coming back, and fans from his Bridge Road Bistro days are considering joining the club.

He made his debut in Berry Hills’ kitchen over Valentine’s Day weekend and said he was impressed with how well the staff worked together. Aceves couldn’t do a lot of the heavy lifting, having wrenched his back while moving his family from New Mexico to West Virginia.

“Basically I just came in and orchestrated things. It was a lot of fun,” he said.