Sunday, April 29, 2007

Beet wine and better days

By all measures, April has been a really unproductive month. Just took a walk with the husband and all we could say for ourselves was that May is coming. With any luck we're through with the chills, the monsoons, the constant cloud cover shrouding our spring. With any gumption I'll shake the tangles out of my head regardless.

I was born 2 months shy of my mother's 30th birthday, so when I'm really in the mood to give myself what for, I compare whatever it is that I'm failing to accomplish with what her daily duties were like--or in an even more extreme mood, those of my grandmother--when she was my age. I grasp the obvious stuff right away--like the fact that I've never had to potty train a toddler, let alone do so in an outhouse in Minnesota in the winter, or follow it up by warming water on the stove for a succession of baths--but a letter from my friend who's still waiting for her mohair straightjacket this past week really gave me insight into how even in the kitchen, where I'm pretty proficient, I can't begin to match what previous generations of women considered routine. M had been out at the farm visiting her elderly mother-in-law, and came across an old recipe box. In it was a recipe that she thought (in the spirit of this blog) I needed for beet wine (& it is true that I was drowning in beets from our weekly CSA farm shares last summer) that goes like this:
5 lbs. beets
3 lbs. sugar
1 lemon sliced
1 orange sliced
1 lb. raisins
1 yeast cake

Cover beets with water and boil until done. Take out beets and add just enough clear water to make a gallon. Put in jar and add sugar, lemon, orange, raisins and yeast. Let stand 28 days. Stir every day. Strain and let stand 4 or 5 more days to settle. Put in jugs or wine bottles.
The real kicker, though, was the list she turned up on another recipe card of what this woman canned as a young bride in 1940. My friend's note puts it mildly: "It makes me tired just to read the list...and she didn't have electricity & the water was hand pumped." In a later conversation she told me that the carrot pickles had apparently been made from the little skinny ones pulled out when thinning the rows, so that truly nothing was wasted. It's a list I'll keep on my desk and read daily in May, if I have to. Onward!

1940 canned:
Beans 25 Qts.
Carrot pickles 8 pts.
Beet pickles 10 pts. 2Qts.
Peas & Carrots 4 pts.
Bean pickles 1 Qt. 2 pts.
Strawberries 20 Qts.
Cherries 10 Qts.
Apricots 12 Qts.
Sauerkraut 5 Gallons
Mixed veg. 12 pts.
Rhubarb 24 Qts.
Strawberry jam 10 jars

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Grandmother's Grief

I started this blog when it looked like I was about to hit a dry spell work-wise, as a means of evading panic and of focusing on the things that keep my heart beating. That dry spell got rained out, and now the trick is finding time to post. Part of the hold up has been that I've been off on an uber-belated luna de miel with the husband in Mexico. While we were away, a letter came from my 97 and a half year old (Nederlands-sprekende) grandmother, whom I adore and who, if you ask me, is the real writer in the family:
I'm interested in your website. Not that I'll ever use it, but you call it "Thuisgemaakt" [ed. note: this means 'homemade']. How did you pick that? Does that have to do with your beer making? I'm horrified that you are into making it....I'm glad [BrewUnc#1] and [BrewUnc#2] finally gave it up. When [BrewUnc#3] comes next week...I'll have a talk with him too.
Oh, Grandma. The beer making continues. A week or so before our trip, the husband and I went on a brewery tour at Sixpoint Craft Ales in Brooklyn. If I didn't already know the basic process, I would have walked out of there pretty confused--our guide, Shane, was an extremely likable, extremely scattered guy who spent a lot of time wrestling with a dubious looking animal he claimed was an Australian Shepherd--but he did take us up into a rooftop storage silo to sample a bunch of different malts, which was helpful.

Unless you really don't drink the stuff, you're probably aware that barley is far and away the foundational beer-making grain within the Western brewing tradition. Malted barley is simply barley that has been moistened and allowed to begin to germinate to tap the rich sugar stores that are within each seed. Before the hull cracks and any sprout emerges, though, the water is drained away and the malted barley is dried, often in the presence of heat. Some temperatures produce just a nice, toasty flavor and warm color; if you pop a few of these seeds in your mouth they taste and crunch a lot like Grape Nuts. To get a darker beer, though, you really have to caramelize those sugars. Seeds of crystal malt, for instance, a key ingredient in black beers, are like sooty little diamonds--but they taste like the sweet crust of creme brulee, not charcoal. These got the husband hankering for something dark, so he suggested I mix up a nice German Bock next, which I did. It fermented while we were away, and last night I kegged it. Attached are pictures of this siphoning process, as well as an important reminder for anyone tempted to ignore the little ones while brewing.

You can see from the side of the fermenter that there's a lot of sediment involved, mostly spent yeast at this point. To get a clearer beer and eliminate that telltale homebrewer's silt, many people siphon the beer off of the sludge and into a second fermenting bucket halfway through the fermentation stage. Then they do it again at kegging time, leaving still more sediment behind. I don't understand this, anymore than I ever understood my friend Carmen's reluctance to leave any stray threads or unbound seam allowance that might betray a garment as homemade. (Granted, Carmen is an exceptional seamstress from a long line of exceptional seamstresses, and like these two-staging brewers probably left the ranks of hobbyists before she hit double digits; still and all, like any other mere mortal I enjoy claiming kudos where kudos are due.)

The upshot is that both of my finished batches have been pretty cloudy so far. The one on the left is the Belgian Dubbel; it's been really fizzy from the beginning and is increasingly so as we near the bottom of the keg. I'd been monkeying around with the CO2 feed in the back of the bar and otherwise jostling the kegs as I hooked up Batch 2 (the IPA) on the right, such that the first post-homecoming glass was almost totally opaque and really pretty disgusting. That made me a little more careful to keep the siphon well clear of the bottom as I kegged the Bock. Then, once I'd finished that, I just barely restrained myself from reaching into the bucket with both hands and smearing the sludge over my face and hair. It is so lush and abundant (and of course yeasty smelling) that it has to be good for you. I'd probably wind up with thick, curly black hair if I was consistent about it. And then life would be sweet.

OK, one last note on the kegging process. Before you set the closed keg aside to age, you first hook it up to the CO2 line. There's a little pressure release valve on the top of the keg which you pull after a minute, repeating this process several times to make sure you've expelled all the oxygen that any intrepid little bacteria that may have made it into the brew need to survive. (Botulism is an anaerobic pathogen, but I'm told I'll live longer if I try to avoid this kind of thinking.) We just got back from Mexico, you remember, so what I thought of this time as I pulled the release and the pressurized air squealed out of the keg was nothing less than my favorite sound: you might be curled up on the couch with a book, or strolling around a sultry square at dusk when a passing camote vendor--selling a freshly steamed kind of sweet potato--pulls a similar kind of release, and the whole cart whistles like a train. And then I defy you not to come running.