Power to the user. Whether it be an uncompromising Keurig replacement, pellet grills that actually grill or guilt-free sodas for instant cocktails, the best food and drink products don't strive to astonish us with their greatness, they solve problems. They respond to changing winds — like acknowledging that Black Lives Matter or committing to transparency in a murky business — in ways that reflect their customers and demand more from their industry peers.
Weathered Souls Brewing Co. Black Is Beautiful
Style: Imperial Stout
Price: $12+ (4-pack)
While driving to brew a collaboration beer with a brewery in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Marcus Baskerville, founder of Weathered Souls Brewing Co. in San Antonio, TX, was listening to Breonna Taylor’s mother recount discovering her daughter had been murdered.
“It was a hard conversation to listen to,” Baskerville said. “I have two young daughters, and you think, ‘What would I do in that situation?’ And the abundance of things that continue to go on in the country, it’s coming to a point where you’re going to do something or you’re going to watch things get worse. I’m not one of those people.”
He went to work. Baskerville planned to release a dark stout and donate proceeds to the Know Your Rights Campaign, an initiative that promotes education and empowerment in Black and Brown communities. It was a Weathered Souls project, until Baskerville spoke with fellow Texas brewer Jeffrey Stuffings of Jester King Brewery, who suggested it could be something more.
Recently, open-sourced beers have become a method for breweries to raise awareness and funds for social issues. Earlier in 2020, Brooklyn’s Other Half launched All Together to raise money for impacted hospitality workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In late 2019, Sierra Nevada's Resilience IPA raised more than $15 million for Camp Fire relief in California. Baskerville took Black Is Beautiful worldwide, urging breweries to spin his recipe — which is available for download in excruciating detail on the Black Is Beautiful website — in whatever way they wish (versions range from Black Lagers to Dark Sour Wild Ales to Pastry Stouts with gold glitter).
As of publication, nearly 1,200 breweries across every state and in 21 different countries have brewed their own versions of Black Is Beautiful, each committing to Baskerville's asks: that participating brewers donate 100 percent of proceeds to foundations that support police- brutality reform and legal defenses for those who have been wronged, and that they commit to the fight for equality over the long haul. The Weathered Souls base recipe is a 10 percent ABV Imperial Stout that exemplifies the many different shades of Black.
“To see this many breweries involve themselves in the initiative and push the message,” Marcus said, “I think it shows we’re in a stage of craft beer where we definitely have the ability to be inclusive and it’s just going to take some work from everyone to get there.”
Temperature Range: 200-600°
Wi-Fi Compatibility: Yes
Hopper Capacity: 22 lbs
Pellet grilling is a misnomer. Pellet grills cannot grill. Since their introduction in 1980, every design — from Traeger's first models to today's smart-tech-filled behemoths — have operated almost entirely off convection heat (like a smoky oven). This is ideal for slow cooking, but convective heat does not effectively sear steaks, burgers and pork chops (unless you like overcooked meat). To sear, you need conductive or radiative heat, like hot steel on a charcoal grill or the extreme heat put off in the interior of a toaster oven.
Weber's SmokeFire is the first pellet grill to pull it off.
Fair warning: grill-design nerdery incoming. The guts of most pellet grills are the same — a hopper holds pellets, the pellets feed into an auger that programmatically pushes the pellets into a fire pot, which is equipped with fans and ignites the pellets, circulating warm, smokey air through the grill. Each moving piece is controlled by built-in computers to keep the temperature as even as possible.
The problem for 99 percent of pellet grills is parked between the grates and the fire pot below; a downward-sloping metal sheet acts as a shield over the fire pot to prevent grease fires by pushing drippings into separate chambers for disposal. This shield does its job and dooms the grill at the same time. Building a solid barrier between a heat source and the food inhibits browning. Weber's solution was comically simple: to copy itself.
The brand's gas grills are equipped with what it calls Flavorizer Bars — upside-down,V-shaped shields that diffuse heat around the grill and protect the flame from dripping grease. Importantly, they are narrow and positioned over each burner so they don't choke the grill of firepower. Weber slapped the same tech in its pellet grill and created the first pellet grill to effectively char a steak. Innovative? Not particularly. Effective? You betcha.
Knob Creek 9-Year-Old Bourbon
Age: At least 9 years
Ten years ago, as demand for bourbon erupted, whiskey makers were presented with a quagmire: adapt or run out of whiskey. By and large, distilleries quietly replaced age statements — the guaranteed minimum number of years spent maturing in a barrel — and bottle transparency with deceptive marketing and vagueness.
Meanwhile, Knob Creek, the largest brand under Jim Beam's Small Batch Collection (which also includes Basil Hayden's and Booker's), saw its whiskey stock depleted in 2009 and decided to run with it. The brand sold screen-printed T-shirts that read, "The Drought of 2009," and even published full-page advertisements in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal with pictures of empty bottles. "We could bottle the next batch of Knob Creek a tad earlier than nine years to satisfy demand, but that just wouldn't be right," said Bill Newlands, the president of the Beam company at the time.
Knob Creek whiskey eventually came back, but the shortage was an omen of what was to come. In 2016, the distillery announced it was removing its 9-year age statement from the bottle, a feature of the label since the whiskey's introduction in 1992. And a brand that had been dedicated to preserving its age statement lost some of its luster, a sign that bourbon had become too hot.
Today, bourbon is a nearly $2 billion business, with its stocks stabilizing, and nothing comes close to telling that story quite like the relaunch of Knob Creek's 9-Year-Old Small Batch Bourbon — age statement and all. And while it requires a deft palate to spot differences between this and the non-age-statement Knob Creek, it's a sign that one of the most prolific whiskey makers in the world hasn't yet given up on transparency (even when it could be argued the whiskey world had largely forgotten the fiasco in the first place).
That's good news for the whiskey drinker, because it means mass allocations, overpricing and bottle shortages may, one day, come to pass.
Flavors: Thai larb, Filipino sisig and Vietnamese lemongrass and BBQ
Servings Per Packet: 2-3
Sisters Vanessa and Kim Pham were always disruptors. Their parents would call them om sòm — a Vietnamese phrase used to describe something loud and intrusive — as kids for causing a commotion in the car’s back seat. Now adults, these daughters of Vietnamese refugees are reclaiming the epithet to start a new commotion in the food industry with Omsom.
“The American palette is rapidly changing, and this so-called ‘ethnic’ aisle — so often filled with diluted flavors and stereotypical branding — isn’t cutting it anymore,” Vanessa says. “Consumers want real-deal flavors now more than ever, and with that comes huge potential. BIPOC brands, Asian-owned included, have the opportunity to build with truth and integrity to help shape narratives and palettes for the better.”
The goal: to produce a range of sauces that distilled Asian dishes into packets for easy at-home cooking. The catch: the sisters insisted that there be no diluting or whitewashing of flavors. They collaborated with New York City chefs who developed the final product over a two-year period, resulting in a product that eschews artificial flavors and preservatives while sourcing as many ingredients as possible from family-run businesses. Since they launched in May (amid a pandemic no less), the sauces have sold out numerous times.
“Beyond the functionality of our products, we’re proud of who we are and the communities from which we arise,” Kim says. “We’re not here to dumb down or dilute, but instead, unapologetically reclaim and proclaim the multitudes within the Asian-American experience.”
In America, ingredients to make Asian dishes are often so inaccessible they’re neglected altogether, the Phams say. Americanized versions of classic Asian sauces are so adulterated that, to those who know the source material, there is little resemblance. Omson successfully integrates those traditional, uncompromising Asian flavors into regular weekday cooking for about what a meal at McDonald's costs.
Oxo 8-cup Coffee Maker
Dimensions: 13.5" x 10.5" x 7"
Brew time: ~6 minutes for eight cups
It’s like a Keurig, but better in every way. Oxo’s latest coffee maker is a push-to-start brewer that dishes out single-serve coffee for the mornings when you can’t be bothered. It's Specialty Coffee Association-certified (a claim few brewers can make), sleekly designed and compact enough to keep out on even the smallest kitchen counters. And yes, it brews full pots, too.
Calories: 100-110 per can
Flavors: Lime, ginger, mango, grapefruit
There's a lot of laziness in the canned-booze world. Companies make "agave seltzers" that allude to a tequila base when, really, they're serving you malt liquor. Others make spiked seltzers with real spirits, but flavor them with bags of sugar. Volley's tequila seltzers, meanwhile, are reasonably priced, crushable and contain no added sugar. They're also made with 100 percent blue agave tequila and actual fruit juice and hover at around 100 calories per can. Buy a pallet of the stuff.
Fellow Ode Grinder
Made for: Drip, immersion and pour over brewing
Motor: Smart Speed PID Motor
Grind Capacity: 80 grams
The Kickstarter campaign for Fellow’s Ode Grinder promised a lot: a quiet coffee grinder with 31 easy-to-adjust grind settings and minimal mess, all housed in a sleek compact machine. Five thousand backers and $1.2 million in support later, and Fellow kept its word. A very satisfying knob makes it easy to fine-tune grind size. A grounds knocker and magnetically aligned catcher reduce chaff and prevent messes on the counter. And those 64mm burrs are quiet enough to let you grind coffee early in the morning without waking up the neighborhood.
Anova Precision Oven
Temperature Range: 77° — 482° Fahrenheit
Size: 22 x 18 x 14 inches
Controls: Smartphone app or manual
The combination steam oven probably won't be this year's Instant Pot or air fryer, but that hasn't stopped Anova from shooting its shot. Its Precision Oven is the first "combi oven" designed for home cooks. Like those used in professional kitchens the world over, it harnesses the conductivity of water (steam) to cook food at significantly lower temperatures without adding extra time. It also guarantees fewer temperature fluctuations. In other words, it's a $600 countertop oven that does what commercial chefs pay $6,000 for.
Sugar: 0-4 grams
Flavors: Yuzu & lime, ginger, grapefruit & pomelo, jalapeño & blood orange and hibiscus & pomegranate
Price: $18 (six-pack)
Avec is soda that's for mixing. The eight-ounce cans are low-sugar, low-calorie and were designed specifically to pair with your favorite spirit. Pair mezcal with a can of jalapeno and blood orange for a fizzy margarita, or bourbon with ginger soda for a variation on a Kentucky Mule. It’s as easy as pouring a double shot over ice and dumping in a whole can of Avec. This is the instant cocktail for those of us who aren't about to invest in cocktail kits or a stash of bitters.
New Belgium The Purist
Carbs: 3 grams
Price: $9 (4-pack)
Writing about The Purist is almost as confusing as drinking it. Despite the stats — 95 calories, three grams of carbs and a measly 3.8 percent ABV — it's full-bodied and heady. It smells like pinot grigio, looks like fizzy cider, tastes like helles lager and, according to the brewers at New Belgium, has established its own beer category; they call it a "clean lager" and, yes, it's organic. Don't be fooled by its slim stature, though. Cody Reif from New Belgium's research and development team considers The Purist "the most technically challenging beer" the brewery's ever made.