New Book, New Blog

I’m working on a new book about the history of beer, a guide to the best booze, brewers, and fine drinking establishments of the last ten thousand years. It’s called The Brewer’s Tale, and it will be published by Norton. Follow my adventures through time on my new blog.

Russian Bee

Julia Ioffe’s profile of Russian chef/culinary historian Maksim Syrnikov includes a wonderful segment on distilling samogon, a kind of rye whiskey, with a very Russian-seeming stove-top still, half built by a professional dairy engineer, half jury rigged with a bath towel, nail, and empty desk drawer. A “degustation” sipped from the still, Ioffe writes, “was still warm and smelled of freshly risen dough.” Rowanberry samogon sounds even better, made with frozen fruit plucked after the first frost.

Then there’s myod. Alcohol runs deep through Russian history, but not the kind we think. Tastelesssoulless — vodka is a late-nineteenth-century invention; before that, folks drank “bread wine” like Syrnikov’s samogon, often infused with foraged herbs and berries. Before that, though, they drank mead. In 1476, when Ambrosio Contarini visited from Venice, distilled spirits were rare. “They have no wines,” he wrote home, “but use a drink from honey which they make with hop leaves.”

Past its Prime

Sumerian bappir, reborn. I began with the beginning: the world’s first beer. After baking some Mesopotamian hardtack, I steeped it in hot water, mixed in some dates, added yeast, and forgot about it for a few weeks. A few weeks too long, as it turned out. Sumerian beer is best served fresh. Or better yet, more than fresh: unfinished, even. Unpasteurized, unfiltered, unsanitized—it turned sour fast. Screechingly, cheek-sucking-ly sour. (I’m in good company: Steve Inskeep ran into the same problem in Tunisia. He let his date wine ferment too long, or too hot, or both.)

Before IO-Star, before barrels, before bottles, beer was served straight from the fermenter, sucked through bombilla-like straws to filter out the grain husks and date pits. Think of it like sauerkraut (if you, like me, are the kind of person who thinks about sauerkraut): Beer just sat out, in the open, to be enjoyed as it fermented, and finished before it got too rank. Brewers would whip up a batch and start drinking it as soon as it cooled. The unfermented beer, called wort, was sweet and nutrient-packed. The party picked up over the course of a week or so as wild yeast kicked in and turned those sugars to booze. Thirsty neighbors probably drained the dregs before lactobacteria and other micro-organisms showed up to kill the buzz.

Fresh beer is great; 12,000 years later, it still has its devotees. There’s vinho verde and British cask beer. Kellerbier (flat) and zwickelbier (fresh and foamy) fills Franconian mugs. Bohemians have kvasnicový. The best part of any brewery tour is a sip from the bright tank. The best part of homebrewing is not having to wait.

Bubbly

“adventitious microbial flora”

‘Tis the Saison

Saison, my favorite summertime beer. “It’s a versatile style,” says Ron Jeffries. He’s made rose-hued hibiscus saisons, barrel-aged sour saisons, and roasty, black saisons, to name a few. Stillwater adds sage and other herbs; Stone/Dogfish Head/Victory use the Paul Simon blend. “There aren’t really any rules. Just keep it light, dry, and a little bitter to be more refreshing: A beer you can have a couple glasses of.”

Saisons are easy drinking, brewed crisp and relatively weak so farmers could knock back their per diem at lunch and stay sober enough to swing a scythe. But they don’t skimp on flavor like other so-called lawnmower beers—saisons can be spicy or mellow, rich as whole-grain bread or airy as champagne. Saisons are a beer-maker’s beer, the secret darling of an industry agog over the big and boozy. Ask even the most extreme craft brewer what they think drank with last night’s dinner, and chances are good they’ll drop their eyes and say, “well, saison.” Why did David Logsdon, founder of Full Sail Brewing and the Wyeast brewing yeast company, after twenty-plus years in the biz, move back to the family orchard-cum-cattle ranch to perfect this one style of beer? “I brew saisons because that’s what I like to drink,” he said. Complex enough to keep the pros busy, but rustic enough for the workaday masses, saisons are blue-collar beer done right: all flavor, no pretense, a picnic in a bottle.

We tasted some at a recent beer club, and these are the best we found:

Jolly Pumpkin Bam Bière
Foamy, fresh, and cheek-suckingly tart, this one actually seems to make you thirstier.

Logsdon Seizoen
True to the style’s name, David Logsdon brews his extra-spicy saisons on the family farm, and feeds the used grain to his Scottish highland cattle. This one tastes like a barn on fire: smokey wood and chewy, wet hay.

Yards Saison
Slightly sweet with a bright citrus tang, this picnic-worthy Philly brew is pure summertime, like fizzy orange soda.

Stillwater Stateside Saison
Another new brewery specializing in farmhouse ales, Stillwater makes a beguiling, sage-spiced saison and this unspiced version, smooth, lush, and tropical.

North Coast La Merle
What starts floral and effervescent, like a chilly white wine, finishes with a blooming, fruity fullness.

Who Knuit?

The grocery store was out of mugwort. What’s stranger: that you can buy mugwort from a store—in bulk, too—or that there are enough mugwort shoppers out there to empty a gallon jar of the stuff? Artemisia vulgaris is related to wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) but milder. Or so they say—the comparison isn’t exactly relevant to a novice herbalist. In any case, the wormwood jar was full.

Medieval brewers used mugwort, wormwood, and a pantry full of other herbs, to flavor their beers, add some medicinal, ceremonial, or extra-intoxicating punch, and preserve them (or just mask the taste when they inevitably spoiled). It’s easy to think of gruit as rustic stuff: mysterious herbs, foraged from the bewitched woods, bubbled in cauldrons, sipped from sacred bowls. But gruit was actually the tightly regulated territory of the Catholic church, and its herbal blends were guarded secrets, doled out to the brewers of each town by the monastery-run gruithuis. Hops, some say, were a Protestant attack on the gruit monopoly. Someone needs to name an IPA after Martin Luther.

Still, a foraged beer appeals, especially here and now, when the San Francisco breeze blows fennel, eucalyptus, sage, rosemary… Stay tuned for my attempts. In the meantime, as one anachronistic homebrewer says, “Keep it clean, kick up the alcohol, and don’t stint on the mugwort!”