Wisconsin Friday Fish Fry — Japanese Style

Food and Drink
The Spot cobia2

Seared cobia and a snifter of Louie’s Reserve Imperial Scotch Ale

(Before I start, I should mention this isn’t a fried fish review.)

Lately, the Friday fish fry menu has been the draw for us at The Spot. While I enjoyed the fried walleye last week and the grilled salmon the week before that, tonight the seared cobia gets my vote.

Cobia is a firm, fairly fatty, flavorful white fish. The Spot flash sears it: the skin side comes crispy, the meat side, bronzed, and the core, wonderfully raw.

Think sashimi, but add carmelized fat (if you eat the skin) and a more succulent lusciousness. Searing collects the juices and drives them inward, concentrating the moisture and fat to boost the flavor into the realm of the highest-quality toro. The Japanese call seared fish or meat tataki. But rather than pounded flat or sliced thin as in tataki, the Spot’s seared cobia is an inch-and-a-half thick.

What a surprisingly adventurous dish for such a straight-ahead, casual restaurant. Anyone squeamish of sashimi or tartare might want the grilled salmon or fried walleye, instead. But I’m sure the palates of Madison’s Near Eastsiders will take to it, no problem.

I’m not used to any sauce on a seared piece of fish. But the chef adds TWO: a) a pesto cream, which seems a 21st Century update of the traditional mustard-mayo on tuna carpaccio — perfect for this mostly raw fish; and, b) a balsamic reduction. But, wait! There’s more. The fish floats atop a fluffy cloud of Parmesan risotto. Sound like an overwrought train wreck? Nope. It’s an ingenious amalgam of surprising textures and flavors that scores brilliantly. The sweet/tart drizzle of the balsamic reduction weds the rich sauce to the fatty fish perfectly. And the humble Parmesan risotto, which rivals the best I’ve had anywhere, causes no confusion with its only moderately-rich, mildly salty cheesiness. (I actually don’t love the Vegetable Quinoa Risotto elsewhere on the menu.)

Just a side note: at first blush the piece of fish seems small. But one feels that mild disappointment only relative to the portions of restaurants charging twice the price of this dish. There may not be a lot to take home in a doggy bag. But with the risotto and the nice pile of broccoli, it’s plenty substantial, especially at just $17. I actually do have some left over and look forward to my midnight snack.

We then totally enjoy dessert: a savory, pumpkin cheesecake. The muted sweetness of the filling leaves the pumpkin really prominent. The dish gets its sweetness instead from candied pepitas (so flavorful and chewy, they’re clearly fresh-roasted) and a dollop of sugary fresh cream. The bartender tells us the pastry chef is formerly of the fancier restaurants Harvest and Graze.

When we first started eating at The Spot, I was addicted to the burgers. I’ve tried all three of the burgers on the menu and would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. They’re all half-pound (I think) patties, grilled to order on a beautiful roll, with a side of wilted mustard greens (or any side dish). $8 for the basic burger, including the side dish? No wonder I was addicted.

I have tried the pork tenderloin and the sirloin steak. But I return again and again to the fish. I love the salmon from the regular menu. And another standout special has been the escolar.

Fish. That’s the chef’s strong suit.

Check out their menu, here.

Eww: the Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake Ice Cream Bar

Food and Drink, Health

strawberry shortcake

Although I enjoy the cattiness of a scathing New Yorker film review, I myself take no pleasure in calling out bad products on my blog. I generally skip yucky beers or boring sitcoms, choosing to write about things I want to share with others. (My review of cycling rain jackets is a rare exception.) Chalk it up to temperament, I guess.

In this case I’m compelled to warn others away from this quote-unquote “ice cream” bar.

Either the quality of this product has eroded over the past 38 years, or my taste sure has changed since I was eight years old. (It’s probably not an either/or scenario!) Walking home from our neighborhood beer bar last night, I had the munchies and bought one of these babies in a corner store. “Cake-coated vanilla ice cream, with a strawberry flavored center.” That’s how Good Humor describes it on their site. That, and a prolix list of mostly chemical ingredients. The nutrition app Fooducate describes it differently:

“D+ much worse than average.”

good humor Strawberry shortcake D+

That’s about right.

At eight years old, however, I was addicted to them. The Strawberry Shortcake bar led me down the path to my first real scolding from my parents. That summer my family had just joined a country club, whose swimming pool snack bar inexplicably allowed second graders to sign the tab for hot dogs, sodas, and ice cream on a stick.

For four weeks, before my parents would get the first monthly snack bar bill, I ate five or six of them a day. Often, more. The snack bar was like a narcotics sting operation, with a detective undercover behind the counter in an apron and hair net, enticing addicts to come and get it. Technically that would be entrapment–inducing my brother and me into downing hundreds of dollars’ worth of sugary things we wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

The mid-1970s was a hard time for the fifty-year-old Good Humor brand, what with upstart competitors like Mister Softee and the health food craze that spawned frozen yogurt. Could country club snack bars have been a ploy to boost Good Humor sales? The company certainly could no longer ride the coattails of their genius, mid-century, sleeper PR campaigns. Ever heard the urban legend of the hero Good Humor man who rushed a pregnant woman to the hospital in his jingly ice cream truck? I sure had.

At the end of the month when the jig was up, my parents gave me a strong talking to, disappointed I didn’t have better sense. But could I be blamed? Was it not an insane setup:  that hundreds of dollars’ worth of ice cream could be purchased and consumed in a single month by an eight-year-old and his little brother?

[image credit:  Nestle (drumstick.com)]

Beer Roundup #10: Three Coffee Stouts

Food and Drink

Lagunitas Cappucino Stout coffee beer

To Buy or Not to Buy?

1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average
3.5 = good (many better beers out there; won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best

 

A Note on the Style:  Coffee Stout

Coffee Stout is actually not a style you find described in the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program).  A coffee stout is essentially an American stout in which the brewer has added coffee beans or grounds to the boiling wort.  The result is generally a beer of middling alcohol content (say, 5% – 7% ABV), low to middling hop bitterness (30 – 60 IBU), and a pronounced roasted coffee flavor.

Cappuccino Stout, Lagunitas Brewing Co.
Rating:  4.2 / 5
22 oz. bottle, 9.2% ABV, 82 IBU.

This is a double stout, by the way.  The other two beers in this roundup are regular stouts.

A nice looking pour from a bomber into a tulip glass. Somewhat thin-looking, black, to be sure, with a smallish head, and very sticky lacing.

Perhaps this bottle hasn’t benefited from sitting in my cellar for five months. The coffee aroma seems muted.  A lactose smoothness in the nose makes the coffee-and-cream character astonishingly accurate.  (Pretty sure this was not brewed with any lactose, though, so technically it’s not a “sweet stout” or “milk stout.”)  There’s some vanilla, biscuit, unsweetened cocoa, and a grassy bitterness that must be hops.

Coffee flavor in the mouth is highly bitter, a mouth-puckering acid disrupted some by a milky sweetness that renders the burnt flavor a semisweet chocolate. The vanilla comes forward, with lots of dark chocolate and a subtle buttery caramel. Finish dries out a bit . . . No. Scratch that. The finish is pretty dang sweet. Yes, it’s black coffee and sugar.

If not for being a bit watery in body, the lactose-seeming creaminess makes the “capuccino” element awesomely spot-on.

I used to be in love with this beer. I’m wondering, it should be noted, if five months sitting has hurt this beer. I’ll have to wait ’til next year to see if a fresh specimen recaptures that old magic.

Jingle Java, Bent River Brewing Co.
Rating:  4.55 / 5
12-oz. bottle, 6.5% ABV, 29 IBU.

How lucky to have found this winter holiday beer still lingering in the singles cooler of my neighborhood bottle shop.  It’s fabulous.

This is the most stunning coffee flavor I’ve ever had in a beer. It really is an iced-Americano, with carbonation. The aroma is pure cold coffee with milk.

Flavor in the mouth is uncannily straight-up fresh-brewed iced coffee. There’s a tart, tinny hop bitterness that tries to remind one this is beer. But the aggressive French-roast flavor resists such a notion. There’s a nice sweet vanilla in the background that helps a milk chocolate undercurrent emerge from the dark depths.

Best coffee stout I’ve ever had. Blows doors on New Glarus Coffee Stout. While there are better coffee-infused stouts of imperial strength (Central Waters Brewhouse, 8.2%; Southern Tier Mokah, 10%), Jingle Java beats anything in the 6% – 7% alcohol range.

I wonder how much the low bitterness (29 IBU) plays a part in this brew’s success?

Java Lava, Pearl Street Brewing Company
Rating:  3.9 / 5
12 oz. bottle, 6.0% ABV, ? IBU

Wow, a third really good coffee stout in one night. USA! USA!

Earlier I had Jingle Java, by Bent River, out of Rock Island, Illinois. I’ve heard Bent River has an amazing imperial stout festival. The Jingle Java was actually a cut above this one, but this is still rather decent.

It’s not over the top amazing, like the Jingle Java. But this beer has an excellent demitasse essence.   Great creamy mouthfeel, despite the high carbonation.

Hmm.  As the level in my glass recedes, I see it’s actually nowhere near as good as the Jingle Java.  But it’s a solid brew.

New Panniers Even Better Than I Thought

Health

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I’ve actually been using this pair of panniers for almost a year.  I got caught in a downpour last night, which was fine since the bags are waterproof to their interior volumes.  However, the zippers are not water resistant.  The zippered pockets can get pretty damp in heavy rain.  So I’ve never kept anything water sensitive in the pockets.

Until now.

Last night after that torrent of rain, I discovered a hidden feature of the bags:  each bag has a rain “poncho” to cover itself when needed.

2-IMG_3533See that bulge towards the bottom?  That’s the poncho tucked away in a zipper pocket of its own.

3-IMG_3534Not only does the poncho keep the zippered pockets dry.  It also keeps the outer fabric of the bag from getting soaked.

4-IMG_3535

5-IMG_3536These bags are the Bontrager Interchange Urban Commuter Panniers. They’re sold as a set of two, $179. (Bontrager has been one of Trek’s component & accessory divisions since 1995.)   Each bag contains the volume of a paper grocery sack.   http://store.trekbikes.com/product/bontrager+interchange+urban+commuter+pannier.do

Easton Bell Sports: Now That’s Customer Service

Entrepreneurship, Health

Easton Bell $0.00 highlighted

Just wanted to send out some well-deserved praise for a company with excellent customer service.

Last December I damaged my Giro snowboard helmet.  I bent the metal snap of the goggle strap on the rear of the helmet.  (I mean the strap at the rear that clamps down over the strap of ski goggles).  After unsnapping the strap to remove my goggles, I found I could no longer close the snap.

I use this snowboard helmet for winter cycling.  As I don’t have a car, I need it on a daily basis.  This was an especially cold winter here in Madison.  I generally switch from wraparound glasses to ski goggles below 15°F.  While I don’t use goggles everyday, this is Wisconsin!

So, I emailed Giro, asking where I could buy the replacement parts.  I wasn’t optimistic.  In this age of disposable products and terrible customer service (I’m looking at you, AT&T, major airlines, Chase Bank, etc.), I half-expected to be told there are no replacement parts, if I were to be answered, at all.

They actually got back to me the very next day.  It was Customer Service Rep Amber Thomas, from Easton-Bell Sports, the parent company of Giro.  She said she would put the replacement strap in the mail, and I should receive it by the end of the week.  Sure enough, the strap arrived two days later.  I was thrilled to be able to use my goggles the rest of the season, without having to buy a brand new helmet.

(For those of you who say you don’t need the helmet strap to use goggles:  while running errands around town on my bike, I’m constantly removing my goggles and putting them back on.  This is much, much simpler to do with your helmet’s goggle strap latched to your goggles, as if the goggles were an integrated part of your helmet.)

When I wrote Amber back expressing my gratitude, she replied, “We just want you to have a fully functioning helmet.”

What you’re looking at in the image above is the packing list that arrived with the replacement parts.  Notice the figures listed in the “price” columns.  That’s right, “$0.00”

But, wait.  There’s more.

Several years back, I had a great little micro-light for the top of my skating helmet.  This was back in Houston, where the heat and humidity made Rollerblading at night the natural choice.  You need a light to skate at night, obviously.  Some of you may know this micro-light I’m referring to, called The Flea, by Blackburn.  They still make the Flea, but back then the Flea charged off of any battery via a little charging device.  My charger had a wire break loose.  I emailed Blackburn about it.  Same as with my helmet, Easton-Bell Sports, the parent company of Blackburn, sent me a replacement charger at no cost.

We’re talking a company with nearly $1 billion in annual revenue.  So how do they succeed while giving away equipment at no charge?  By making lifelong customers like me.  That’s how.

Just FYI, after selling one of its several manufacturing divisions, the company has recently rebranded itself as BRG Sports.

Beer Roundup #8: Three American Barleywines

Food and Drink

Old Horizontal - Victory

To Buy or Not to Buy?

1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average
3.5 = good (many better beers out there; won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best

 

A Note on the Style:  American Barleywine

(This style note is essentially the same as the one from my post “Beer Roundup #7:  Three Midwest English Barleywines.”)

American breweries produce both types of barleywine, the malty “English” style and the hoppy “American” style.  As I’m more of a malt guy, I prefer the sweeter English style.  The hoppy American style comes with hop bitterness to rival even the most mouth-puckering IPA.    All barleywines have a stiff malt backbone and generous sweetness, but the hop-forward American-style is often so bitter as to be indistinguishable from a high-alcohol double IPA.  Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are double IPA’s; I love me a double IPA when it’s got intense sweetness to offset the high IBU, like Bell’s Hopslam, Dogfish Head 120 Minute, or Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree.  Same with American barleywines:  as long as it’s both bitter and sweet, it’s got my attention.

Bigfoot, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Rating:  4.39 / 5
12 oz. bottle (4-pk), 10.2% abv, 73 IBU.

A glinting copper pour into a tulip glass, with an inch of off-white fluffy head that plasters lace on the glass.

The syrupy viscous feel in the mouth is too wonderful not to mention first. The first sip comes with a short-lived sugar sweetness. Then bitter grapefruit renders the sugar a memory. The citrus morphs to tarry pine. Whoa, this brew is too bitter. I immediately want to throw this in the cellar to teach it some manners.  That said, there is a secondary sweetness that calls out from the bitter abyss, alluding to a caramel malt sweetness that’s promised with a year or two of cellar aging. But the spicy alcohol heat teams up with the bitter hops to silence such rumors.

Stepping back to take in the aroma, a pungent honey and ripe melon seem to confirm the ghost of the sweetness. As the glass warms, the bloated bitterness deflates a bit, and a moist, grainy bread emerges, allowing that original simple syrup sugar to creep back into the room.

Rough-edged and impressively huge, like Greenflash Barleywine, this brew lacks the balance and polish of my favorite American barley wines:  Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale and Alaskan Barley Wine.

Beer Line, Lakefront Brewery
Rating:  3.96/5
12-oz. bottle (4-pk), 12.5% abv, 52 IBU.

Sticky, two-finger creamy head and lacing. Rouge-brown amber fluid.

My least favorite beer aroma hits the nose first:  leather. Milky rice pudding and wonder bread make up the malt bill. Brown sugar and vanilla, plus a mild booziness.  Very little hop bitterness in the aroma.

In the mouth the leather greets the palate, first, unfortunately. There’s a waterlogged driftwood that seems wedded to a chocolate-toffee sweetness and a nice estery burn.  Finishes with a loamy top-soil earthiness and a floral bitterness.

Medium- to full-bodied. Creamy and slick, a sticky, bitter finish.

This afternoon I was overly impulsive, buying two 4-packs of this brew.  Perhaps my judgment was clouded by the joyous memory of two recent Midwest barleywine discoveries:  1) just last month I cellared three four-packs of the enviable Stevens Point Whole Hog Barleywine (Wisconsin); and, 2) last month I was floored by Schell’s Stag Series BW (Minnesota), on tap at Mason Lounge.  Those two are a cut above this Beer Line barleywine (Wisconsin).  I don’t think I’ll be buying anymore of this one.  (Going by my ratings system, 4.0 is the cutoff point for purchasing any beer again.

Still, this is a fairly delicious barleywine, more English-style than American. I’ll throw the remaining seven bottles in the cellar.  Maybe a year might do good things, especially with the 12.5% ABV.

Old Horizontal, Victory Brewing Company
Rating:  4.41 / 5
22-oz. bottle, 11% abv, [85] IBU (estim.)

A bomber poured into a tulip glass creates a seriously handsome, ruddy copper glass of beer. It’s topped by a finger of fluffy off-white head that stays and stays, with sticky lacing.

Hoppy aroma, though quietly so.  An indeterminate spiciness.  Sweet grain. The alcohol is present.

Flavor in the mouth opens with sweet bread and red wine, plus a spicy alcohol.  Becomes instantly bitter from the citrusy hops, which dominate through the middle palate and onward through the finish. The sweetness rings as an echo on the backend, though sweetness here is refracted by the intense, white-grapefruit bitterness.

A medium- to full-bodied, luxurious mouthfeel, with a lively carbonation.

Classic American barley wine, very much like Bigfoot, though even bigger (except for the aroma). Intensely hoppy and spicy. The one drawback might be the near eclipse of malt sweetness by the tannic wine and citric bitterness. Nothing a bit of cellaring won’t cure.

Beautiful New Business Cardholders

Entrepreneurship

IMG_3297

IMG_3301

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all the mind-numbing busywork of starting a new business, certain tasks come with real  emotional rewards.  That’s certainly the case in choosing this new business card holder.  Like practically every other piece of start-up research, this one took time and shoe leather.  After visiting four physical shops and nearly two dozen Etsy stores, I finally settled on this handsome handcrafted wooden piece.

What clinched it for me was the manufacturer, Inelastic Goods, is a one-man operation based right here in Madison.  Steve, the creator of the line, delivered the item himself, eager to show me six or seven different models.  I jumped at the chance to buy two additional cardholders at a discount.

I’m keeping the white oak for myself and have bought two of the darker wenge wood models for gifts.  The wenge wood model is striking in the contrast of two dark planes sandwiching a lighter maple side piece.  The white oak does the opposite, playing up the continuous grain and color, as if the box were carved from a single block of wood.

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All models come with a magnetic closure that clicks shut oh so satisfyingly.  I catch myself playing with it constantly.  Plus, beyond the visual delight of the hand-finished hardwoods, Steve’s execution of the clean, minimalist design is unparalleled.  Each piece feels stunningly smooth in the hand, the joinery, edges, and curves so silky and organic.

By day, Steve works as an engineer for the state of Wisconsin.  On his own time he exercises his entrepreneurial spirit, refining his craft, streamlining his processes and tools, with the aim of not only perfecting the product, but boosting productivity.  His woodshop has become so efficient, he’s recently made good on a private order of sixty business cardholders to a private individual.

Head over to Steve’s Etsy shop for a look at the different models:

https://www.etsy.com/shop/InelasticGoods?ref=l2-shopheader-name

Beer Roundup #7: Three Midwest English Barleywines

Food and Drink, Health

Whole Hog BW

To Buy or Not to Buy?
1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average
3.5 = good (many better beers out there; won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best 

A Note on the Style:  English Barleywine

I prefer the malty “English” style barleywine over the hoppy “American” style.  All barleywines have a stiff malt backbone and generous sweetness, but the hop-forward American-style is often so bitter as to be indistinguishable from a high-alcohol double IPA.  Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are double IPA’s; I love me a double IPA when it’s got intense sweetness to offset the high IBU, like Bell’s Hopslam, Dogfish Head 120 Minute, or Founders Devil Dancer.

Despite my preference for the maltier English barleywine, it’s curious that I’ve found way more good American barley wines than English ones.  

How to explain this?  Is the English style BW less common in the US?  Not really.  Nearly every brewery that produces American barleywines also produces English ones.  The more likely explanation:  brewing a good English barleywine is more of a challenge because it doesn’t have the pronounced hops to balance the jacked-up sweetness.  Hence, many are sickeningly sweet, like Anchor Old Foghorn or Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot.

But all three specimens below are really good.

Stevens Point Barley Wine Style Ale (Whole Hog Series), Stevens Point Brewery

Rating:  4.44 / 5

12 oz. bottle (4-pk)  10.2% abv, 73 IBU.

From a very reasonably priced 4-pack ($7), the first sip has me totally psyched.

It’s not a great looking pour into a tulip glass, with barely a half-finger of white head atop the opaque, red-tinged, brown murk. Sticky lacing, with legs.

Very little in the aroma, probably just too cold. But bready, mildly floral, and of course malty in the nose, plus a grape-like, mildly acid wine character. Even after it warms, the nose remains reserved.

But in the mouth, now this is a provocative surprise. Stevens Point Brewery, for those of you not from Wisconsin, is an old-time adjunct-lager outfit, one of the oldest breweries in the US. My Midwest beer friends rarely say anything nice about SPB, so I wasn’t expecting a lot from this brew. But this is right up my alley. It’s a complex sweetness, like that of my two favorite English BW’s,  JW Lees Harvest Ale and Midnight Sun Arctic Devil. The grainy biscuit flavor is what backstops the sugar-sweetness, not any bitterness. Some will call this cloying. I love it. The sweetness rounds out with an estery, mossy oak. The butter/caramel is of the burnt variety. There’s milk and coconut, too.

The mild to moderate carbonation is a welcome cleanser and leavener of the oily-sticky feel.

I’ve gone back to Riley’s Wines and snatched up the last two 4-packs. One goes in the cellar, the other down my gullet!

Schell’s Barley Wine (Stag Series), August Schell Brewing

Rating:  4.46/5

On tap,  9.5% abv, 80 IBU.

I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, thinking of Schell as merely an adjunct-lager outfit. What an awesome surprise.

On tap at Mason Lounge (Madison).  In a snifter, a handsome pour, a clear coppery amber with a finger of white head and good retention and lacing.

The aroma is a bit reserved.  There’s a diacytel caramel, dried fruit, piney hops, and a bit of sharp ethanol.

Flavor in the mouth offers sweet caramel, stone fruit, a bit of citrus, and a floral hop bitterness on the back end.  Finishes sweet, with a hint of grassy hops.  Alcohol is hardly there.

Upland Winter Warmer, Upland Brewing

Rating:  4.05 / 5

On tap,  8.5% abv, 47 IBU.

Pours a hazy, ruddy copper, topped by a fluffy, two-finger head.

A seriously complex aroma, the sweet swirls with the hops.  The hops come as white grapefruit and a bit of must.  The lovely roasted caramel struggles to dominate and ultimately does.

In the mouth the malt/hop tension from the aroma comes down solidly on the side of the malt.  Simple syrup on the front end, sweet butter and bread in the middle, plus fig and cinnamon-raisin ice cream on the back of the tongue. Goes down with just a rumor of bitter hops.  

Feels like a much bigger beer than it is, chewy, even.

Not nearly as good as the other two in this review, but it gets points for availability, as it’s pretty common to find on tap in Midwest bars in the colder months.

How to Create Pre-Press PDF Files on a Budget

Entrepreneurship, Media
bus-card Adler GRACoL 2006

Need to order a commercial print job from an online printer, but don’t have Adobe Illustrator ($560)?  That’s my situation.  I’ve laid out a nice business card in PowerPoint (above), including the logo I also designed in PowerPoint.  But Powerpoint does not produce vector graphics.   Printers need vector graphics.  They also recommend submitting PDFs that have been “pre-flighted” using certain Adobe Acrobat presets, such as PDF/X-1a.

Huh?

That’s what I said.  What a bear it was to research this.  And for an additional challenge, I wanted to see if I could accomplish all this on a budget.  I assumed I could find some vector-graphics freeware with which to reproduce my designs.  But the question remained:  how to  save the graphics file in the “pre-flighted” PDF  format that online printers specify?

(In case you’re considering skipping the preflighting step, know that preflighting helps avoid printing glitches such as font substitutions and color alterations.)

Turns out, the key to all this is Adobe Acrobat.

Some of this terminology rang a bell, as I used to  own the Adobe Creative Suite (ACS; back then, $1500) when I ran my photo equipment rentals business.  ACS includes all the programs that produce file formats press printers require, such as .ID (InDesign), .EPS (Photoshop), .AI (Illustrator), and of course .PDF (Acrobat).  I needed all four of them to design marketing materials for that business.  But that was four years ago.  For the past four years I’ve been running my healthcare business, with no need for ACS, at all.  Now that I’m starting up my freelance commercial writing business, I’ve been crossing my fingers that I won’t need to spend $1000+ on design software.

The bottom line is, yes, one can create vector graphics using freeware/shareware (I used Inkscape to recreate my PowerPoint designs).  But for press printing, you need to create properly preflighted PDF’s.  For that, you must have Adobe Acrobat (price varies depending on version and how purchased, $100 – $429).

I verified this by downloading the free trial of Acrobat 11.  With Acrobat installed, the Acrobat Virtual Printer will appear in your list of devices and printers.  (This is in Windows, obviously.)  You simply design your graphics in your vector software, then follow these steps to preflight your PDF:

1) “Print” your file (That’s right, “print” not “save”!)
2) In the print dialog, select Adobe PDF as the “printer.”
3) Click preferences (or printer properties).
4) In Preferences, the “Default Settings” area offers a drop-down menu of PDF format presets.  For business card printing, Moo.com specifies the preset PDF/X-1a:2001.  For printing a brochure, Vistaprint.com requires PDF/a-1b:2005 (CMYK).
5) Click okay to get out of preferences.
6) Click print.  You’re done.

Now you have your vector-based,  properly pre-flighted  PDF to upload to your online printer.