Sunday, July 15, 2007

in praise of the sturdiness of yeast

In the last meal that food journalist Michael Pollan prepares in Omnivore's Dilemma--the meal assembled of hunted and foraged ingredients--he makes an interesting comment with regards to the bread. It's a sourdough, made from a strain of yeast Pollan captured in his yard. The air around us is teeming with microscopic yeast spores, so all you really have to do to get a starter going is to create an environment with the food and moisture yeast need to thrive and let nature do its thing. Pollan mixes flour and water to make a loose paste and waves the container around in the air for a few seconds before covering it. Within a day, he's got a bubbling, beery smelling sponge, a live culture of yeast that he can use to leaven his bread.

Recalling that incident comforted me yesterday in the moments--OK, not the first moments, but within the first hour--following a long chain of brewing mishaps that culiminated with the discovery that my yeast had not been incubating for the past several hours as I'd thought. I'd been pondering and mixing and boiling rather expensive ingredients all afternoon in my first attempt at beer recipe development, and waiting several hours to properly culture that yeast would put the cooled wort at risk of bacterial infection. I panicked and threw the contents of the yeast packet in cold.

I've been off my game a bit lately, culinarily speaking. Last Monday, in a fit of let me just clear out the refrigerator here before the next CSA pickup frenzy, I'd made a dinner that was nothing short of God awful. In one pan I had Swiss chard with olives and raisins, in another pea pods and garlic, and in a third, hanger steaks with some red wine, mustard and stock that I was trying to use as a braising liquid for mustard greens while still keeping the steaks well left of medium. Oh, and I forgot (then as now), a saucepan full of red lentils on the back burner. Needless to say, the steaks were way overdone and tough; the mustard green "sauce" I'd cooked them in a stringy, disconcertingly greyish mess; the lentils blown apart into so much baby food. Th'usband tried to put on a brave face and assured me that "most people would think of this as a fine, homecooked meal," but though I might have graciously accepted such a meal had Most People in fact made it for me, what with my pride all mixed up in there it was really, really hard to swallow.

To make it worse, a few days earlier, I truly had made that roast chicken I'd been going on about, a lovely meal to warm the kitchen and the cockles of one's heart--in November. Outside and now in our kitchen, it was at least 95 degrees. How was I managing to take all these fresh, locally produced, seasonal ingredients and turn them into such heavy, wintery meals?

But then get this: the day after the steak disaster, needing to pack a lunch for a day at the office, I filled a to go container with arugula, layered it with the swiss chard and olives stuff, and topped it with a few strips of steak. . . and Reader, it was gorgeous: peppery, summery, and light. I repeated that lunch 2 or 3 times before it was all gone, and was sorry to see it go. Sometimes food is merciful like that.

As I learned last night, so is yeast, particularly the Belgian strain I was using for this particular batch of Saison beer. Tim at Bierkraft had introduced me to the style, explaining that it was farmhouse ale traditionally made in the spring to ration out (at the rate of 4 or 5 liters per day) to summer field hands. No one was using fussy, refrigerated yeast cultures; some brewers just left their wort in vats open to the air, and others carried yeast strains from village to village on the end of a stick. (This notion comforts me too, in that lacking a Y chromosome, I don't seem to have the crazed sanitation gene common to most other brewers.) In the words of Erik the Brewmeister--who'd sold me the yeast in the first place, then spent the better part of Friday and Saturday calming me down when I started freaking out about the wisdom of shipping liquid yeast cross country on the hottest week to date of the summer--
Saison yeast is about as bullet proof as anything. After all, Saison's or Farmhouse Ales were made up of just about anything the brewers had that would ferment, and fermented in the barn, so hot temperatures and stressed yeast just adds to the complexity and is normal. Seriously, it will be fruity and estery, but it is that way anyhow.
I really hadn't set out to make a seasonally appropriate beer, but it turns out that I did. And the happy ending to the whole story is that five or six hours later, when th'usband and I returned from a dinner to celebrate the near-completion of his (totally excellent) documentary and keep me from doing violence to myself or flushing the wort down the toilet, fermentation had set in. Tick, tick, tick goes the little bubble in my airlock. Bring on the fruity esterytude! And long live this streak of successful batches brewed in a stuffy 1-BR apartment in the heat of a New York summer!


Ryan W. said...

my beer is very good. I don't know what happened. could it have gotten that much better in just a few days? it had already been sitting in the bottles for 13 days when I first tasted it, and thought it bad. but now it's been sitting for I think 17 days and is good. or maybe I just was initially convinced it wouldn't be good and so I took it to a party and people liked it, so now I think it's good. probably more the former but a little of the latter.

Ryan W. said...

it seems better when I drink it out of the bottle, which is contrary to conventional wisdom.

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