Jun 4, 2014

Begin with the Soil

He that would treat exactly of Cider must lay his Foundation so deep as to begin with the Soil.

So wrote rector, traveler, Hartlib Circle member, amateur book designer, and cider maker John Beale. To Beale and his seventeenth-century drinking buddies, beer had been corrupted by hops; wine by the hand of the winemaker. In his treatise on cider, John Evelyn wrote that hops, “rather a Medical, than Alimental Vegetable,” temper their gift of keeping beer fresh by inflicting its drinker “with tormenting Diseases, and a shorter life.” Cider, he hoped, will “quite vanquish Hopps, and banish all other Drogues of that nature.”

Wine was not much better. Either a foreign import or, worse, laced with adjuncts and additives. (Little has changed.):

I wish our Admirers of Wines, to the prejudice of Cider, beheld but the Cheat themselves; the Sophistications, Transformations, Transmutations, Adulterations, Bastardizings, Trickings, not to say even Artificial Compassings of the God they adore, and that they had as true as Inspection into those Arcana Lucifera which the Priests of his Temples (our Vintners in their Taverns) do practice.

But we needn’t fear, ”so long as our Native Soil does supply us with such excellent Necessities” as Evelyn’s beloved redstreak cider apple. Homegrown, all-natural, hop-free cider was a balm for all that ailed Britain, from foreign influence (Dutch hops, French wine) to medical quackery. ”To sum up all,” Evelyn says, “Give me good Cider.”

Fast forward.

These days, cider is the gluten-free option. Scared of hops? Scared of grain? Cider is now, as then, the light, sweet, healthy alternative. As they invariably told my girlfriend in England, “like beer, for girls.”

And yet… Cider can be so much more. If we’d only go back to the dirt. If we’d only, in a word, make it scary again.

True cider is special, like lambics, for what it leaves out — store-bought yeast, controlled fermentations — and for the wild unknown that seeps into those gaps, like a night wind through the shingles. Terroir, says Evelyn:

The very Dews and Rain, by various and mutable Seasons, and even the Air itself (which operates beyond vulgar perception) create almost infinite alterations.

Taste the magic. Last week I climbed a plum tree on my street and filled a shopping bag. Plum trees grow all over San Francisco, but not all of them set fruit. I’d been eying this one for a few weeks — in the sun, the plums glint pink against the brown leaves, fresh skin on a scab. When plucked they’re dark as black cherries, juicy, tart, a Sour-Warhead burst. Neighbors passed by below, oblivious. Some didn’t notice. Some had known the tree for years and never dared taste its fruit — “wash it first,” a dad advised his daughter, used to fruit that comes with stickers, not a stem.

The only one who knew the plums was the postman. He’s worked this block for 20 years. Things have changed. “That Bill Gates kid bought a house over there,” he said. Zuckerberg can buy the buildings, Google can command the streets, but the plums are still free. The night air blows through, meanwhile.

Plums bend the Trees with their Burdens, and their expedite growth makes it cheap enough.

May 18, 2014

Australian for Beer

When James Cook sailed to Australia in 1768 to map the transit of Venus, he brought 250 barrels of beer onboard the Endeavor as an anti-scorbutic, and supplies for making more when that ran out. Nathaniel Hulme, president of the Medical Society of London, advised Joseph Banks to stock ”a quantity of Molasses and Turpentine, in order to brew Beer with, for your daily drink, when your Water becomes bad. Brewing Beer at sea will be peculiarly useful in case you should have stinking water on board; for I find by Experience that the smell of stinking water will be entirely destroyed by the process of fermentation.” The smell of turpentine-molasses beer couldn’t have been much better. But it beat scurvy.

On land, rum reigned. The first brewery was a government operation built by Lord Hobart to provide some alternative to hard liquor.

The introduction of beer into general use among the inhabitants would certainly lessen the consumption of spirituous liquors. I have therefore taken measures for furnishing the colony with a supply of ten tons of Porter, six bags of hops, and two complete sets of brewing materials.

A convict named James Squire stole some of those hops to flavor his homebrew, and was given the lash. After the government brewery shut down, he planted his own vines to keep the beer flowing — and the government thanked him with a cow.

Then in 1795, a guy named John Boston came to Sydney claiming he was a brilliant salt-farmer. The colony was short on salt and needed something to preserve its fish and meat (no fridges, obviously) so they hired Boston. He turned out to be a better liar than salt maker. It took him a month to make three bushels, so the governor fired him. Boston started brewing instead.

Beer made at Sydney 1 shilling 6 pence [about $5.80 today] brewed from Indian corn, properly malted, and bittered with the leaves and stalks of the love-apple.

"Love apple" is an old term for a tomato, but I think it probably refers to the Cape gooseberry, or ground cherry, which was brought from Peru, via Britain, to the colony around that time. It looks like a small, orange tomatillo and tastes like a lime-spritzed apricot. The beer is white plum sweet (meaning, not very), with a fluffy cornbead middle and wispry smoky crown. It’s incredible.

Times have changed. Today, while most Aussies shun Fosters, they stock their eskies with its brethren — easy drinking barbecue beers. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, the cream of the light lager crop is surprisingly good. So good that my girlfriend’s cousin, hearing a little wine shop in SF was the only place in the US that imported VB, made us ship a case to him in Michigan. That’s thanks to a unique strain of local grain called Schooner — a dextrinous malt like Maris Otter, Schooner is full of rich, mouthfeel-boosting unfermentables. Thinned with a bit of corn, and you get a beer with all the body and none of the weight. Wonder Bread. Pass the Marmite.

Apr 24, 2014

Of the most sovereign virtue, though rank of smell.

It’s true. They don’t smell great. My bag still has a funk from carrying a sack of them to the brewery. But elderberries are powerful little nubbins. I’ve knocked out many a flu with spoonfuls of elderberry syrup.

The plant is heavy with magic, from Danish tree spirits to Judas’s ghost (the traitor was supposedly hung from an elder tree; Jesus’s cross was elder too). Hearse drivers used elder whips. Gypsies said prayers before cutting the hollow boughs to make pipes and flutes.

Elder bark makes a black dye, elder leaves keep aphids off of garden plants. But best are the flowers — hay-field-fresh, blueberry tart, honey-sweet (the plant is related to honeysuckle). Take it away, John Evelyn:

If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark, and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness, or wounds. Small ale in which Elder flowers have been infused is esteemed by many so salubrious that this is to be had in most of the eating houses about our town.

Salubrious indeed — our elderflower wheat beer is delicious. Will it get rid of my freckles, improve my eyesight, and cure my sore throat? We’ll see.

Feb 26, 2014
… but the type on the left is badass.

… but the type on the left is badass.

Feb 20, 2014

Fortune Favors the Bland

From Champagne to macaroni salad to this: Miller Fortune, a new “sophisticated” beer, made strong (well, at 6.9%, stronger) and targeted at hip, whisky-sipping millennials.

To offer cues associated more with liquor than beer, Miller Fortune comes in a black bottle; the first commercials are set at night, in gritty, urban landscapes; and ads will suggest pouring it into rocks glasses rather than beer glasses. (via New York Times)

Miller has always seemed more concerned with the bottle than with what’s inside it. From the Vortex to the punch-top can to the new Lite bottle "Inspired by form and design" (??) to, now, a bottle that, they say, "evokes a guy in a tapered, athletic-cut suit—designed to stand out among other bottles on a store shelf or crowded bar."

Bud already tried that.

Michelob premiered in 1896 as Anheuser-Busch’s upscale offering — draft only, and one of the most expensive around. Twenty-five cents a glass! Some clever bartenders marked it up even higher, saying it was imported, named after Bavarian braumeister Michelob Michelob. When they finally bottled it in the early ’60s, A-B played up the class, using specially made “teardrop” bottles with foil-wrapped necks designed, they said, to be more easily recognizable in the dim light of smoky lounges. (more here)

The idea with Michelob was that it wasn’t just beer, it was foreign beer. The idea with Fortune is that it’s not just beer, it’s fancy beer.

The rocks glasses bartenders will be encouraged to use are intended to set Miller Fortune apart the same way the orange slice has made Blue Moon one of the company’s fastest-growing brews and its answer to craft beer’s popularity. (via Businessweek)

Or perhaps the idea is that it’s not beer at all. Big breweries are scrambling for marketshare in moves that echo Prohibition, making anything they can think of, anything but beer. In the ’30s they made eggnog and chocolate, ice cream and cheese. Today, they make cider (Miller launched Redd’s with a $23.1 million campaign, more than they spent advertising any of their beer), Cran-Brrr-Itas, or or odd hybrids, dolling up beer with fruit flavors like Lime Cactus, Tuscan Orange Grapefruit, Dragon Fruit Peach, and… clam juice. Even Redd’s isn’t really cider, it’s “crisp like an apple, brewed like an ale.”

Sounds familiar.

C’est Cidre. Not Cider.
It’s a chalice, not a glass.
It’s not a beer, it’s a story.

And with Fortune, it’s not beer, it’s liquor.

“We asked, ‘How would Jack Daniel’s or Maker’s Mark do a beer and why?’ ” says David Kroll, who was recruited from appliance maker Dyson in 2012 to shake things up as MillerCoors’s head of innovation. “We tortured every aspect to say, ‘Are we falling back on what beer would do?’ because this brand [Miller Fortune] is intended to play in a spirits occasion.”

As Fortune’s brand manager Ben Feeney put it: “Let’s be proud to be a beer, but if another beer is doing it, then let’s not.”

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