Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The sound of one needle clacking

Here are photos of some of the most hardcore Booze & Yarn members, taken during a rare daylight gathering last spring for the Knitting Olympics.

The real Knitting Olympians began and completed projects in the time between the opening and closing ceremonies, and then donated them all to a women's shelter. Me, I'm just trying to get points for homemade birthday presents. Right now I am knitting a powder blue mohair straightjacket for my oldest, dearest friend. I have been doing so for a very long time, and the sad thing is that I took it on for the promise its big, loopy brioche stitch (a lace style popular in the Victorian age, says C. the knitting goddess) held for relatively instant gratification.

More than two years ago I got a 1940s pattern book (to which I've lost the first couple of pages so I can't tell you the exact date of publication or quote a few choice bits about virtuous huisvrouwly behavior) and started a handsome sweater vest/hairshirt in a color the husband refers to (happily) as feldgrau. Think brownish-greenish moss. It features a very subtle, elegant 'beehive' pattern of twin knit stitches punctuating a field of purls, and is the kind of thing other knitresses ooo and aaah over but that the general public (including the man for whom it's intended) just can't appreciate because it's not flashy or cable-y and because they've never gone back and forth, back and forth across rows of 160 stitches at 9 rows to the inch. I'm still finishing up the back half right now and hope to have it done in time for our seventh anniversary. Then it will be on to the bellywarmers, just in time for a hip senescence.

Anyhow the really bad news about the straightjacket is that my outside deadline for finishing it was M's birthday two days ago. And about 4 or 5 weeks before that, I lost one of the needles. (I was knitting in church--that'll learn me!) For awhile I just switched back to working on the hairshirt, but then finally stopped into School Products to buy a new mate. There, the size 13 needles looked right, but my instructions said 11, so I left them be. Yesterday I finally went in with the piece itself and discovered that I have indeed been knitting on 13s, never mind the instructions--calling the fit of the whole thing completely into question--and that the 13s in the acrylic needles I find I must have to work with such fine mohair are now out of stock. I looked for awhile at the circular needles because their tips look quite sharp, but decided that that would be lunacy because I'm an old-school armpit knitter--I have to clamp the left needle securely under my arm to get anywhere at all. I came home with wooden needles and a lingering sense of doom.

Meanwhile I'm getting totally backlogged on my DIY projects and this blog because I've suddenly got a pile of real work to do. We're going to be away next week but I hope to update you on the Belgian ale and the IPA, as well as tell you about a tour of Sixpoint Craft Ales before I leave.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Last night was the weekly free tasting night at Bierkraft, a veritable wonderland that up until now I'd managed to miss, despite the fact that it is right around the corner on 5th Avenue from a cooperative writing studio I joined when I first moved here. Come to Brooklyn and I'll take you there, whoever you are. You'll love it: they've got 900 varieties of beer, arranged by country, region, and style; 250 kinds of artisanal cheeses (& sausages too), from a hunk of Gouda aged to the color of papaya to cheeses infused with honeycombs of dark, creamy Porter; and fancy, largely local chocolates with Deco blue stencils or intriguing savory ingredients. It's the kind of place where you realize that there are people all over the place sufficiently fired up about beauty to devote their lives and livelihoods to churning out their own idiosyncratic expressions of that ideal.

Anyhow I was so amped up when I got home that I called the husband (who's traveling this week) to testify to the astonishing beauty and grace with which I'd just parked the car in a tiny little space. (In retrospect I'd probably better take the subway next time.) He is accustomed to these sorts of calls and let it go to voice mail. Then I fried up a bunch of mushroom and sourkraut pierogis with bacon and red onions (& am heating up the leftovers now, which I'll eat with a glob of artichoke dip) and sat down to write but it just didn't work. I have a hard time wrestling words into place without adequate sleep.

So with bright eyes and a clear head I'm now ready to report that the tasting was held in the basement in a narrow corner of the storeroom lined like a chapel or a jetliner with six rows of two seats on either side of a snug center aisle. We were led in the beer discussions by Tim Esnor, the storeroom manager, a skinny guy in a Sonic Youth t-shirt with round glasses and a shock of composer's hair that made me suspect he plays in an alt-Klezmer band in his free time. He'd chosen 6 oak-aged brews with more or less subtle overtones of bourbon or whiskey to complement 6 liquor-infused chocolates from the Brown Paper Chocolate Co., selected and described by Garvin Mitchell. Garvin was another classic Brooklyn type, a kid whose slow and sultry island voice was set off beautifully by the exacting joy with which he spoke about the confectioner's method, the attention to detail that he extended even to the '1960s classic style stamp labeling' of the packaging.

I expected nothing but porters to pair with the fudge-textured chocolates, but in fact had just two stout porters, an Arcadia Shipwreck Porter from Battle Creek and a Weyerbacher Heresy Imperial Stout from Pennsylvania. Both had derived a syrupy smoothness from their aging, which in the case of the Weyerbacher had been in Jack Daniel's barrels that gave the beer a soft whiff of a paper bag, as opposed to the harsh nail polish remover overtones that can plague the style. One of only two imports on the bill was Harviestoun's Old Engine Oil from Scotland, a whiskey barrel aged brew with the salty smack of soy sauce. Garvin paired this one with milk chocolates made with caramels steeped in Jack Daniel's and punctuated with bits of raw cashews. He said that was his favorite chocolate per se, but the best duo, he agreed, would come later with the pairing of dark raspberry-and-macadamia-nut chocolate and the other import, a Belgian sour called Rodenbach Gran Cru ('funky, funky stuff,' cautioned Tim, 'so don't pound it. It's like carbonated vinegar and cherry juice.') I loved the combination and will undoubtedly think of it next time I need a great birthday gift.

My favorite beers? Always, it seems, the sometimes cidery, sometimes creamy Belgian styles. According to Tim, the 'biggest, baddest, nastiest beers possible'--and he meant this in the kindest possible way--are all coming out of the States, thanks to the American penchant for taking a traditional style like a Belgian ale and blowing it out by doing something like aging it in liquor casks. The Weyerbacher Prophecy, for instance, was essentially a fruity Belgian Tripel that had been put into bourbon barrels ('I mean, who does that?!' remarked Tim with obvious appreciation). Best of all was the strong (10% ABV) but very smooth and creamy Allagash Musette from Portland, ME with a mild scent of apples and a nice bit of head.

OK, I've got to get to work now. Tonight I'll be switching gears and knitting and drinking with the lovely ladies and occasional gentlemen of Booze & Wine. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 19, 2007

the most feminine of beverages

From a NYTimes obituary, Feb. 2007:

Mr. Eames called himself a beer anthropologist, a role that allowed him to expound on subjects like what he put forward as the world's oldest beer advertisement, dating to roughly 4000 B.C.

In it a Mesopotamian stone tablet depicted a headless woman with enormous breasts holding goblets of beer in each hand. The tagline, at least in his interpretation, was: ''Drink Elba, the beer with the heart of a lion.''

Mr. Eames, who followed the golden liquid to 44 countries, often told about his perilous trek high in the Andes in pursuit of an ancient brew made from strawberries the size of baseballs. Or about Aztecs forbidding drunkenness except among those 52 years of age or older. Or about accounts that said Norse ale was served with garlic to ward off evil.

Mr. Eames's favorite and perhaps most startling message was that beer is the most feminine of beverages. He said that in almost all ancient societies beer was considered a gift from a goddess, never a male god. Most often, women began the brewing process by chewing grains and spitting them into a pot to form a fermentable mass.

Ah, the resourcefulness of women! I heard from S. this morning that when she was in the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea she'd repurposed government-issued condoms from the medical kit as fermenting vessels for 'wine made out of anything growing from the ground.' When pressed she admitted that they'd exploded (like beer bottles do if you get a little crazy with the priming sugar) for lack of a little hole poked in their tops.

I'm going to stick to kit beers until I get the hang of this. Batch #2 is an IPA. Historically, India Pale Ales were stronger to allow fermentation to continue at sea, with lots of hops to prevent spoilage. After bringing the malt extract and the grains to the boil, I pulled out the muslin bag of sodden English barley and tossed in two kinds of bittering hops. Later came a plug of fuggle hops, first propegated by one Richard Fuggle and known for their soft, resiny, aniseedy, almost tropical notes.

This time I was all set to go and easily strained the wort into the fermenting bucket using my knees to grip the pot, leaving my hands free to hold and swivel the strainer (actually, a splash guard for frying--gotta think about upgrading some of my equipment) so that it wouldn't clog. There's a lot of sediment involved, mainly boiled, greenish-brownish hops that look like wet henna and smell about as bad. (Open up a beer and boil it for yourself to get a sense of how wrong this is. Now imagine that there's a whole lot of plant matter in there that hasn't been strained out yet.)

Fermentation kicked in about 5 hours later; that was about 5 days ago, and in keeping with option #2: finishing hops: dry hopping step described in the kit instructions, I've just put in a muslin bag--you betcha, I sanitized it!--containing a second fuggle plug. Dry hopping, as opposed to adding the finishing hops to the boil about 2 minutes before the pot comes off the stove, apparently produces the aggressively hoppy aroma associated with the best IPAs. Now that I think of it, I think the directions said they were supposed to spend 4 or 5 days in the brew at the start of the primary fermentation, not the secondary fermentation as I've just done. But I'm much calmer following the whole Batch #1 crisis. How bad can it be?

And now, a moment for some tangential ranting

When I began culinary school I got a great gig writing recipes and articles about cooking for people enrolled in grocery store loyalty programs around the country. I still do food writing and recently, my friend S. put me on to a daily news digest specifically covering the grocery industry. That's where I found this post:
A while back you had an article about female bosses and sexism in the workplace. You mentioned a party invitation from your daughter’s middle school, where the girls’ (pink) invitation was for a Sweet Dreams Pajama Party and the boys’ (brown) invitation was for a Poker Party. Obvious gender stereotyping.

My daughter is a high school junior. The other day she received a brochure from the School of Engineering at a major Midwestern university. They are offering separate engineering-oriented summer camps for high school "guys" and "girls." The male version (green block print) was called was called "SURVIVOR: ENGINEERING OUTBACK (Guys-only Engineering Camp)." The female version (pink with curlicues) was called "Project Discovery (it’s a Girl thing)."

The Guys "complete an intensive engineering project including field work led by our professors". The Girls "attend hands-on lab sessions."

The Guys "explore engineering specialties hands-on" while the Girls "gain an understanding of what engineers do."

The Guys "see engineering in action on a mid-week field trip" while the Girls "tour engineering facilities with our faculty."

The Guys go "GPS geocaching, rock climbing, and other fun stuff" while the girls "develop problem-solving skills through team-building exercises."

The contact for the Guys’ Camp was the Director of Recruitment, while the contact for the Girls’ Camp was the Director of Diversity.

Guess which college my daughter crossed off her list!
OK, now here's where things get tangential, but this is a blog about creative endeavors written by a MidWestern girl (who can see 40 looming on the horizon but who actually just rejected the word 'woman' because it sounded uptight, maybe even discreditingly so), after all; please bear with me.

One of my nieces is also a high school junior. Until recently, she's wanted to be an engineer. Now she's not so sure. Likewise, a younger cousin showed tremendous capacity for engineering--her senior project was awarded a U.S. patent and she solved a thorny design problem on one of her first days at a German automotive company by very intuitively correcting a drawing so that a brake part 'looked right'--but quit and became a math teacher, in part because she didn't feel comfortable in a dominantly masculine work environment.

As for me, I've just spent a weekend visiting with a friend who I realized has played a very important role as a model for me over the years. She's half a generation ahead of me and is a teacher, as I was until 2003. She's also a sojourner, a risk-taker, a mother, an entrepreneur, and a tremendous believer in human potential.

My grandmother had to quit school at 14 to help out on the farm. My mother was the first in her family to attend college, and felt she could choose between being a nurse and a teacher. Me, I'm overeducated and underengaged. I taught for 12 years partly out of love and commitment to social justice, but partly because I didn't know what else I could do, and was afraid to find out. Now, four years into that discovery process, I am still my own biggest enemy. It's too easy for me to write off (or more critically, to not write of) my interests and talents as being inconsequential.

As a teacher, I hope that I helped some of my young students to appreciate their worth. I hope that whatever my nieces decide to pursue, they will know the pleasure of being crazily in love with their creative process. I am grateful for friends--and now my husband, too--who keep showing me how it's done and insisting that I do it, too. And to you, if you're still reading this. La la la.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Batch 1: Brewing Basics

Hallelujah! Just had a quick taste and I haven't ruined batch #1. Let me explain:

By all accounts, beer making is a forgiving process. And that makes sense: people brewed beer for centuries because all the boiling made dubious water fit to drink. Around the 12th century, says BrewUnc #1 (who just happens to be a medievalist), brewers around Frankfurt began substituting hops--first described in this employ by Hildegard von Bingen (love her!) I think--for the fennel, juniper, and other herbs commonly used to disguise off tastes, and got themselves a natural preservative to boot. There aren't a lot of beasties that can live in alcohol anyhow.

So why was I worried? Well, after the cooking stage I'd transferred my first 5 gallon batch of Belgian, Westmalle Dubbel-style ale--a purportedly chewy, malty brew that has a nice coffee aroma when kegged--into an obsessively sanitized fermenting bucket equipped with a nifty, Vinty-style airlock. I'd been told to relax repeatedly by BrewUnc#1 during the course of a telephonic play-by-play, and called him back just 3 or 4 hours later, ecstatic to report the CO2 bubbles that were making the airlock's inner, floating cap tick like a metronome. I worried again the next day when those bubbles slowed, then stopped. The husband had opened the window and the temperature in our living room where my beer was fermenting had dropped a good 10 degrees--potentially causing a catastrophic yeast die-off, I figured. "Nope," said BrewUnc#1. "That just means the main fermentation stage is over. What happens when you put a little pressure on the lid?" It burped a bubble into the airlock like Tupperware. "You've forgotten the mantra again," he told me. "Relax, have a homebrew." Easy for him to say. He had two finished batches on tap to choose from.

For the next ten days as my beer clarified and matured, I relaxed. I really did. So much so that when it came time to keg it and put it under pressure for a final aging period, I didn't consult the directions, the BrewUncs, Charlie Papazian, or Jess, the kindly sage at Alternative Beverage: I just poured in a little of the priming sugar and...uh oh. Potentially contaminated my beer. You're supposed to boil it for about 5 minutes first, both to dissolve and pasteurize it. (The addition of priming sugar to bottles just before they are sealed is what carbonates them; the real kicker was that this step is optional when your kegerator has a CO2 tank.) All the aforementioned sources told me that it would probably be OK, unless of course it wasn't, in which case no one would die anyhow because the beer would be completely, unmistakably undrinkable.

...Which brings us at last to the hallelujah part. Jess told me to wait until the weekend, then have a taste. I drew off a glass last night as I was cooking. It had a thick, cream-colored head (the priming sugar is doing its magic!), a fair amount of sediment that will get tossed out with the first couple of glasses when we tap it in earnest next weekend, and a complex caramel-y flavor. No skunk taste. No beasties.

Piece of cake.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Beer Run

The brown cabinet to the left is my new bar, which I inherited from one of three brewing uncles. This particular uncle gave it up out of concern for his blood sugar, and because the current site of fraternal competition seems to be weight loss, and because his brewing son lives a mile away, just far enough that he can use the walk to justify a drink.

The BrewUncs and cousin gave up bottles years ago and claim to have invented these bars, which house two 5-gallon kegs, a CO2 regulator, and the cooling element from a dorm refrigerator. "Oh cool," said my friend K. when I told him what I was driving down to South Carolina to pick up, "a kegerator."

Um, yeah. A kegerator.

Would you believe I fit that thing in the back seat of a Prius? Not a centimeter to spare....

Tomorrow: the first two batches