“adventitious microbial flora”
wall street journal
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!”
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.
Italian beer can be great, but not always. We tried a lot of bottles when I was working on this article, and they were all interesting, and expensive, but we found a few duds. Some had gone a little sour. Some were old. Inconsistency is expected with such a small industry. The biggest Italian craft brewery, Baladin, is 1/15th the size of Dogfish Head, and Dogfish Head isn’t even that big.
But beer is booming there — Italy had 65 breweries in 2000. Today there are 279. That’s not as explosive as the biggest spike in American craft breweries (200 opened between 1993 and 1994) but it’s something. Both booms produced some sub-par beer, but the difference with Italy is range. A flooded market forced American craft brewers to specialize; Italian brewers are making weird stuff right out of the gate.
“We picked fresh thyme in the hills behind Leo’s brewery, threw it in the brew kettle. I put a jalopy brewery in my truck and drove up to Boston, met the guys at a nondescript warehouse, and fired up some test batches. It all happened in person, over pasta and good beer. Teo doesn’t even use email.”
Leo does. He wrote to me that brewing with Sam went like this: “When I was brewing with Sam I was telling to Sam the idea and Sam went crazy for that!” That’s about how it works in our house, too.
Here’s a peek at our coffee-beer tasting at the Ritual roasting plant. Note: a Chemex is the absolute worst way to serve beer.
We are still deep in the spit-cup experimental stage, but on the right track. Still, after the tasting, the entire Ritual crew retreated to City Beer Store for a palate cleanser. Tough crowd.
Stay tuned for updates and recipes.
Hops come to brewers either as thumb-sized bundles of leaves called cones or flowers (the botanical term is strobilus, and they’re closer to pine cones than actual flowers), or ground up and packed into tiny, rabbit-food-like pellets. The cone-vs.-pellet debate is long and popular.
Lagunitas uses pellets. They have to, because whole cones won’t fit into the air cannon head brewer Jeremy Marshall uses to fire hops at 70 psi into the fermenters. That’s called dry hopping, and Lagunitas dry-hops a lot of their beers. We saw these boxes of hops last time we were up at the brewery. “Sum” is for Summit, a really bitter, grapefruity hop. Fill in the blank for the other one.