Category: History

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.

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!”

Mouthfeel

I made bappir, a grain-and-honey dough patty (“bread” would be too generous) and brewed a beer with it. Baked for a few hours, the loaves turned brown as mahogany, and just as hard. Tastier, though. My friend Aaron said it tasted like health food, and for the Sumerians, it was. We worry about beer pairings—what goes with IPA? should a taquería serve Belgians?—and forget that beer was, and is, food.

Mixed Feelings

Before beer was beer, it was blended. The first fermented drinks were mixes of fruit, honey, and grains. Sugar was scarce; anything sweet went into the pot. Even when brewers figured out how to malt and mash barley effectively enough to make wort, fermentation remained a mystery, and sluggish batches were jump-started with fresh wine or mead. The Hymn to Ninkasi mentions “brewing a wort with honey and wine.” In the Kalevala, Osmotar’s beer—a dud—is saved by a bee.

Today the lines are blurring again, even as the TTB struggles to keep up with style names like wheatwine. We had an excellent braggot from Atlantic Brewing Company at their roadside barbecue shack on MDI—sweet, but in a rich, barrel-aged sort of way. Dogfish Head’s Noble Rot is a mix of beer and wine; soon they’ll release a blend of beer and cider. Avery makes some grape-grain hybrids too, though barrel herder Andy Parker doesn’t like the term. The Sumerians called it kaš-geštin, a combination of their pictograms for beer and wine. I don’t know how to pronounce it either.

Beer cocktails are trending and beer-beer blends are catching on. But Pils in your Pinot? Samuel Pepys, who’d try anything, was unconvinced.

…and to Mr. Hollyard, and took some pills of him and a note under his hand to drink wine with my beere…

[later]

They gone, I to my office, and there my head being a little troubled with the little wine I drank, though mixed with beer, but it may be a little more than I used to do, and yet I cannot say so…