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?

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