A Brief Encounter with Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck from The Bitter Truth
Last week I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck from The Bitter Truth in Germany, who were visiting San Francisco as part of a nationwide promotion tour. Folks in the cocktail scene will be quite familiar with their outstanding and up until recently hard to find line of cocktail bitters. Stephan and Alex have recently completed a distribution deal with Domaine Select Wine Estates which means their products will now be more widely and consistently available in the US. The first shipments destined for stores on the west coast are now arriving. I met up with Stephan and Alex at Cask last Thursday afternoon and then again the following evening at Bourbon & Branch where they were guest bartending in Russell’s Room. Here are a few notes from those meetings.
Unsurprisingly, both Stephan and Alexander started out as bartenders. Stephan began his work making bitters while still working behind the stick, partially in response to the lack of product available outside of the United States. (Aside: This conversation made me quite aware of how, in many ways, we here in the US take our access to cocktail bitters, commercial and artisanal, somewhat for granted. The world looks quite a bit different across the Atlantic and the Pacific.) When Stephan met Alexander in the final rounds of a big cocktail competition, the idea of The Bitter Truth was formed. Their first products were an orange bitters and an “Old Time” aromatic bitters (somewhat ala Angostura).
Bottles of TBT products have been showing up sporadically in the US for the past three or so years when they were brought back from Germany by visiting cocktailans or when purchased directly via the TBT web store. In some cases these web purchases were made by liquor stores, such as Cask in San Francisco, who then marked them up and resold them. Regardless of how the product found its way here, it was hard to come by and dear.
Last year TBT announced that they would be producing bitters from recipes created by Avery Glasser of Bittermen’s. Glasser had tried to make a go of having his cult products, a grapefruit and a chocolate bitters, made here in the US but ultimately decided on a deal with TBT. That was good news and bad news for us here in the US. Good because these great bitters would now be commercially available and bad because they’d have to be brought in from Germany, priced in Euros.
The entire landscape changed in the fall of 2009 when TBT announced a US distribution deal with Domain Select. Both the original TBT product line and the Bittermen’s would be available commencing in early 2010.
About bringing bitters into the US…
Stephan decided to bring the TBT bitters into US as a spirit and not as a flavoring (food). This makes it much easier to get necessary approvals from various US regulatory agencies and for distributors to handle to product. However, it does mean the bitters can only be sold only in stores with retail liquor permits. In some markets this is a critical distinction. In NYC, for example, this means stores without liquor resale permits will not be able to sell TBT products. (Conversely, as I learned last year, liquor stores in NYC cannot sell bitters like Fee’s because they are considered to be food.)
Comments on pricing and value…
Stephan said that most artisanal bitters on the market today are generally way underpriced. He thinks this a result of trying to match the price point established by the market leader, Angostura, and doesn’t reflect the real costs involved in making these products. He suspects that Angostura must make almost nothing on a bottle of bitters after taking into account shipping and import duties. This might be OK for a company that produces bitters on the scale of Angostura but he also imagines some of the price is offset by their rum business. [Aside: As many people know, Angostura has found itself caught in some financial problems and there hasn’t been any product made or imported into the US for well over a year. When I asked Stephan about this it was clear he understood the opportunity this represented to him as he entered into the US market.]
Today, TBT bitters are more expensive than pretty much anything else on the market. Stephan feels his price is reasonable given the quality and complexity of the product and it will ensure he doesn’t wind up going bankrupt. Folks who’ve been following this story for a while should also note that the bottle being sold in the US contains an additional 50 ml. more than the original bottles.
[Photo by Jay Hepburn]
A new TBT bitters has just been made available in Germany and will be on its way to the US soon. These are the Creole bitters, based on a recipe developed after sampling pre-prohibition Peychaud’s. (Yes, some of this is still floating about.) After getting a chance to taste this new product, both ‘neat’ and in a Sazerac, I predict this is going to give (artificially colored) Peychaud’s a run for its money. (Note: The development of Creole bitters by TBT was something of a practical decision since Peychaud’s has horrible distribution outside of US. The fact that it may prove to be superior to Peychaud’s will be interesting, to say the least. A product to keep an eye on.)
We should also start to see the sloe gin, a product that’s been available in Germany for a while, sometime before the end of the year.
Looking down the road, Stephan thinks he may make a Boker’s bitters. He says he has an old bottle from the beginning of the 20th century to use for reference. The recipe will be a little different than original because that used Virgina Snakeroot (which is both poisonous and apparently endangered). He says he already knows how to work around that. He would like to package this in a custom made bottle with a period style label.
[Sorry there are no photos of Misters Berg and Hauck during their visit. My camera was acting up at Bourbon & Branch.]