May 11, 2012
I love my mom and all, but I also want to recognize another set of mothers—those blobs of yeast and bacterial cultures found floating in unpasteurized cider, wine vinegar, and other fermented liquids, like cloudy constellations of pond scum. The Dutch have a word for mud and mire (modder) that may have lent its name to these mothers, but given the proliferation of the term across Europe—French mère de vinaigre or Spanish madre del vino—etymologists suspect that these slimy sediments of mother derived from the mother who takes care of you.
Two mothers seemingly at odds, right? Well, thankfully, the Oxford English Dictionary made a valiant, if somewhat perplexingly worded attempt, to tease out exactly why the lees at the bottom of the barrel came to be named for your female parent:
The transition of sense is difficult to explain; but most probably the scum or dregs of distilled waters and the like was regarded as being a portion of the ‘mother’ or original crude substance which had remained mixed with the refined product, from which in course of time it separated itself. (The term may possibly have belonged originally to the vocabulary of alchemy.) An explanation sometimes given, that ‘mother of vinegar’ was so called on account of its effect in promoting acetous fermentation, does not agree with the history of the use. It has been pointed out that ancient Greek γραῦς old woman, is used in the sense ‘scum, as of boiled milk,’ but the coincidence is probably accidental.
Wine left out in the open air will spontaneously ferment into vinegar if the right airborne microbes land on the surface (Acetobacter bacteria and Mycodermi aceti yeast); the oxidation process can also be kick-started by mixing in the cloudy undeﬁned bacterial and fungal cultures left at the bottom of an old vinegar container—an old, yet reliable, mother. These cultures work in much the same way that yeast or sourdough starters give rise to beer and bread (why these cultures are more often called starters and not mothers remains one of the many vagaries of the English language). Perhaps, then, it’s not all surprising that one mother gave birth to another.
November 16, 2011
I have found that one of the keys to harmony in my marriage is clear division of labor. I’m in charge of food acquisition and preparation (except one night a week, when my husband makes either pasta or pizza so I can write), paying bills, and general tidying. My partner is responsible for doing the dishes, most of the heavy housework (like cleaning the floors and bathrooms), and either mowing the lawn in summer or clearing the driveway of snow in winter. I’m pretty sure I got the better end of the bargain—here’s hoping he never develops an interest in cooking.
But sometimes it can be fun to tackle a kitchen project together, as we found this weekend, during our first attempt at brewing our own beer. After my last DIY food adventure, pickling vegetables from my garden, I was glad I didn’t have to go solo this time. As with the pickling, the process took a lot longer than expected—the better part of Sunday—but it went a lot more smoothly having two heads, and two sets of hands, rather than one.
Which is not to say there were no glitches. We followed a porter recipe from a nearby brewer’s supply store where we bought our ingredients. (There has probably never been a better time to take up home brewing—thanks to the explosion in interest in the past decade or so, supplies and information are readily available at bricks-and-mortar stores and online.)
The first step was to steep our specialty grains—a combination of three kinds of malted barley—in hot water, wrapped in cheese cloth like a giant tea bag. We accidentally spilled about a quarter of the grain in the sink while trying to pour it into the cloth. Everyone, from the supply store owner to the guys on the instructional video that came with our brewing kit to the authors of the book we bought on brewing, had drummed the importance of sanitation into my husband’s head. (After reading the book before bedtime, he actually muttered in his sleep, “It’s all about cleanliness.”) We didn’t dare try to salvage the spilled grain, even though the sink was clean. So we decided to compensate for the lost grain by steeping the remainder longer. I’m hoping we don’t end up with two cases of watery porter.
Next we added malt extract, which looks like the sludge left in an engine that’s overdue for an oil change but smells pleasantly, well, malty. This we boiled, along with the hops, for about an hour. Or, it would have taken an hour, if our 1961 stove weren’t so dysfunctional. The large front burner goes on strike about as often as an Italian train worker. At some point we realized our rolling boil had slowed to barely a simmer. And since the five-gallon pot wouldn’t fit on the back burner under the second oven, we had to move it to the small front burner. Again, we added a little extra time to compensate.
Finally we had our wort, which is what gets poured into the fermenter (a glass carboy) along with some yeast. At this point we would have used our hydrometer to measure the original gravity before fermentation—later readings will tell us how fermentation is going, because the reading will get lower as the sugars turn into alcohol—but we didn’t realize until too late that the hydrometer had shipped broken. The supplier sent out a new one and assured us it wasn’t a big deal to not get an original reading.
A couple of days later, our batch appears to be fermenting nicely; it has developed a good mound of foam on top, called Kräusen. By next weekend, it should be ready for racking, or siphoning into another carboy for secondary fermentation without the spent yeast sediment that has settled to the bottom of the first carboy. Once fermentation is complete, we’ll add a little corn sugar to aid carbonation before bottling.
By Christmas, we’ll either have two cases of delicious porter under the tree or 48 bottles to reuse/recycle and some brewing lessons under our belt. Either way, we’ll have a new hobby to share.
September 1, 2011
People have been tossing back beer for thousands of years—the drink is a cornerstone of human civilization—and it’s a potation whose heady qualities come to us by way of yeast. Perhaps most familiar to us in the granulated form stocked on supermarket shelves, yeast is a single-celled microorganism that creates the alcohol and carbon dioxide in beer, in addition to imparting flavors, all of which can vary depending on the type of yeast being used. (More than 800 species of yeast have been documented.) A variety of this fungus commonly used to bake bread and brew ale beers is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which ferments at a warm 70 degrees. But at some point in the 15th century, Bavarian brewers introduced lager, which employed a hybrid yeast that fermented at cooler temperatures. But what the S. cerevisiae was crossed with to craft this type of beer remained a mystery until now.
Scientists from the Argentine National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and elsewhere set out to find where the non-ale portion of the lager yeast came from—and the search took them to Patagonia. Here, in outgrowths on beech trees, they found an undocumented wild yeast—dubbed Saccharomyces eubayanus—whose DNA sequence matched the genome of the unknown half of the lager yeast. They hypothesize that this wild yeast made its way to Europe by way of trans-Atlantic trade and mixed with the baker’s yeast in brewery environments.
But with lagers being brewed before Europeans graced North America, how did this variety of beer initially come to exist? Chris Hittinger, one of the lead scientists on the study, suggests that lagers were made before the arrival of S. eubayanus, and while the beer underwent a long fermentation process in cool temperatures, the resulting brew just didn’t taste very good.
August 30, 2011
People between North Carolina and Vermont are cleaning up after Irene, the storm that destructively tromped along the eastern seaboard this past weekend. Hurricanes in the northeast are pretty rare and can leave people at a loss for how to prepare for extraordinarily severe conditions. At the very least, there are standard pieces of advice you can use to more or less muddle through a nasty situation. But perhaps even rarer are freak events involving food that cause a lot of damage. Those with an appetite for tragic tales might enjoy the following:
London Beer Flood: In the late 18th century, the Meux family brewery attained celebrity status, at least on account of the spectacular size of the vats they used to craft porter—one had the capacity to hold some 20,000 barrels of beer. Unfortunately, the hoops holding one of the vats together had corroded, and on the evening of October 17, 1814, they completely gave out, loosing some 3,500 barrels of beer that knocked down the brewery walls and flooded Tottenham Court, killing eight.
The Great Mill Disaster: Built in 1874, the Washburn “A” Mill along sat along the east bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota and at the time was the largest flour-making facility in the United States. “Was,” unfortunately, is the operative word. On the evening of May 2, 1878, the stones used to grind grain gave off sparks, igniting particles of flour dust in the air and causing a massive explosion. (Flour, a carbohydrate, is made mostly of sugar and burns very easily.) In all, 18 people were killed and the blast started other fires that destroyed six nearby mills.
Boston Molasses Disaster: In Boston’s North End, near the city’s financial district and working class Italian neighborhoods, there stood a molasses tank owned by the Purity Distilling Company. Built in 1915, the vat was capable of holding some 2.5 million gallons; however, by 1919, locals were complaining that it was leaking, and on the afternoon of January 15, it exploded. Flying metal knocked out the supports of nearby elevated train tracks and a 15-foot-high wave of molasses crashed through the streets at some 35 miles per hour, knocking down and enveloping people in its path. Parts of Boston were standing in two to three feet of molasses and the disaster left 21 dead and 150 injured.
Basra Mass Poisoning: In the winter of 1971, shipment of grain arrived in Basra, Iraq; however, it was treated with a methylmercury fungicide and was intended only for use on seed. (If ingested, methylmercury can cause serious neurological damage, and in high doses, can be deadly.) The bags were accordingly marked poison—although only in English and Spanish—and the grains were dyed bright pink to indicate they were not for consumption. Nevertheless, bags of grain were stolen before they could be distributed to farmers, the dye washed off and the grain sold as food. (Another account says that the grain was freely given away and the recipients thought that washing off the dye would rid the grain of mercury, making it safe to eat.) Some 6,500 people were hospitalized, 459 of whom died.
June 29, 2011
In John Steinbeck‘s 1945 novel Cannery Row, the loner marine biologist Doc loves his beer—so much that one of his friends jokingly remarks that one of these days he’ll order a beer milk shake. ”It was a simple piece of foolery, but it had bothered Doc ever since,” Steinbeck writes. “He wondered what a beer milkshake would taste like. The idea gagged him but he couldn’t let it alone. It cropped up every time he had a glass of beer. Would it curdle the milk? Would you add sugar? It was like a shrimp ice cream. Once the thing got into your head you couldn’t forget it…. If a man ordered a beer milk shake, he thought, he’d better do it in a town where he wasn’t known. But then, a man with a beard, ordering a beer milk shake in a town where he wasn’t known—they might call the police.”
Doc eventually gets over his neuroses at an out-of-town diner and orders the shake—half a bottle of beer added to some milk, no sugar—under the pretense that it’s doctor’s orders to help treat an infection. The resulting flavor, described as nothing more than the sum of its dairy and stale ale components, hardly sounds appetizing, and Doc’s post-swig twisted facial expressions pretty much say it all. So from there on out, I’m guessing he probably went back to pairing beer with savory foods, like hamburgers, which is what most of us do. But who’s to say you can’t find beers fit for a dessert course?
Greg Engert, the beer director at Churchkey and Birch and Barley restaurants here in DC, chatted with Smithsonian online reporter Megan Gambino a while back about beers to sub in for New Year’s champagne toasts. It only seemed fitting to pick his brain over e-mail about brews to satisfy the sweet tooth and how to incorporate them into the dessert course of a meal.
When did people start brewing beers meant to appeal to the sweeter part of our palate?
Beer, as a fermented grain-based beverage, has always displayed some degree of residual sweetness. In fact, most beers would have displayed very little “sweetness” as we today comprehend that sensation. Until the technological innovations that began in the early 18th century and culminated in the 19th, beer would have for the most part been much lower in alcohol than today’s variants, had a dark hue, almost always shown some sort of roasty or even smoky quality (both on account of primitive malting techniques), and would have also almost exclusively displayed at least a mild acidity, as well as a sort of earthy, somewhat funky quality we would now mostly associate with Old World wine (due to a lack of yeast science, more rustic brewing techniques and equipment, as well as the affection for such flavors).
I think the larger desire for sweetness is a 20th-century invention, and one only made possible by technological advancements, then instilled in a larger culture with the advent of processed food, as well as with Prohibitionist movements that swept the West with a flurry. I like to remind people that with the United States’ nearly 15 years of the Great Experiment, a generation of young men and women grew up without tasting alcohol, and soft drinks swooped in to ensure that soda-pop, and simplified, concocted—i.e., unnatural—sweetness would remain an indelible part of our world.
What qualities make a beer suitable to serve as (or with) a dessert?
Sweeter, grain-based flavors offer beer as a companion to so much of our foods, as they allow for ales and lagers to complement the sweeter notes that abound in all aspects of cuisine. I am not just talking about sugary sweetness, but starchy sweetness, as well as the sweeter notes inherent in the fatty, protein-laden, buttery tastes we discover in so much of the dishes we enjoy. Beer’s matching with food is extremely complex and many interactions are contained within the felicity of food and beer.
So, when most people think dessert, they think of sweetness, and beer certainly has that covered. Malty beers arrive on the palate showing fantastic notes of toasted bread, biscuits, nuttiness, caramel, butterscotch, toffee. These are all flavors we find in desserts. And beers can very emphatically showcase chocolaty and coffee notes in those darker brews with roasty notes. Fruitier flavors abound in some of the maltier styles already mentioned, but are also seen in the yeast-driven brews, which—through fermentation—produce boldly fruity and spicy notes. These are typically stronger Belgian ales, with those that are lighter in color tasting of apple, pear, peach, orange, lemon, banana, apricot and figs, as well as clove, pepper, cinnamon, vanilla and coriander. The darker varieties offer banana, fig, prune, raisin, cherry, plum and vinous flavors. Spices arrive in the guise of clove, pepper, rose, nutmeg and cinnamon. Some of the funky and sour brews, the Flanders red and brown ales, the fruit lambics, are also excellent for not just showing off fruitier flavors, but reminding us that their acidity is often present in fruit itself. So fresh fruit desserts can work nicely with these drinks that are actually more naturally similar to the fruits themselves. And this is to say nothing of the beers that are brewed with many adjuncts to either establish or heighten the flavors of the beer. We have malty beers brewed with hazelnut nectar, roasty stouts with cacao nibs and sweeter Belgian lambics crafted with fruit, or at least fruit juices.
Can you pair beers with more traditional dessert offerings?
Beers can pair well with so many desserts it is mind-boggling. The ability to identify very emphasized flavors in our beers, like chocolate, fruit or nuttiness, makes it so pairing beer and dessert is quite an approachable endeavor, and one that is instantly rewarding. The easiest approach is to look to mirror the flavors of the dessert with flavors found in certain beers; however, one needs to make sure that the impact of flavors from both are even, otherwise a light and airy dessert will be overwhelmed by a rich and boozy brew, even if they share certain major flavor effects. The same is true for a bold and rich dessert when paired with a lighter and more restrained ale or lager.
Think like a pastry chef and approach your pairings as if you are continuing to craft the dessert. To that end, in addition to looking for complementary flavors, matching fruit with fruit and chocolate with chocolate, one can seek to forge new complimentary relationships on the palate. So perhaps bringing a stronger Belgian dark ale to that chocolate cake, rather than the imperial stout; the Belgian will show some caramel and hints of cocoa to mirror those flavors in the cake, while adding some delicious dark fruit and spice flavors to add a complimentary nuance to the dessert. The same would work for bringing a nutty, toffee sweet barleywine the cake: this dusts the slice with shaved hazelnuts and drizzles of caramel.
What would your top recommendations be for dessert beers and what draws you to these particular brews?
Top styles for dessert beers fall into these categories. They should typically be bolder brews, as dessert comes at the end of the meal and the palate may struggle to fully engage milder flavors. Also, desserts tend to be richer, or at least intensely flavored.
Malty, bready, nutty, caramelized brews: English strong ale, barleywine, Scotch ale (aka Wee Heavy), doppelbock, eisbock
Roasty and chocolaty brews: sweet stout, oatmeal stout, porter, Baltic porter, Belgian stout, brown ale, imperial stout
Fruity, spicy, sweeter brews with brighter notes: sweet fruit beer/sweet fruit lambic (brewed with strawberry, raspberry, cherry, peach, apple, etc.), Belgian strong blond ale, tripel, Belgian strong pale ale, Weizenbock (pale), wheatwine
Fruity, spicy, sweeter brews with darker notes: dubbel, Belgian strong dark ale, Weizenbock (dark), quadrupel
Tart, funky, fruity brews: Flanders red/brown ale, traditional fruit lambic; blond, pale and dark wild ales
So perhaps if Doc were a little more beer-savvy before going into the diner, he could have had a better milk shake. He’s not the only one who has been intrigued by the pairing—and some even find it preferable to enjoying beer on its own.