“Hops are a wicked and pernicious weed” said Henry VIII in 1519—at least according to a t-shirt I bought from the excellent Wicked Weed Brewing of Asheville, NC. Their point being ironic: ole Henry doesn’t know what he’s talking about; they love hops, we all love hops. Except, of course, for those of us who don’t—and not without reason: craft brewers have conspired to beat our taste buds to death with them. I sympathize with the hop haters. For years I counted myself among them, as becomes obvious on paging back through Literary Beers past on how to brew beers bittered with sage, rosemary, alehoof, sweet fern, chamomile, yarrow, wormwood, spruce, chiles and cacao. Inevitably, however, all-encompassing lover of fermented culture that I am, hops brought me back around. Take it from someone who’s devoted years of homebrewing experimentation to figuring out how to brew beer without them: hops are delicious. Thanks to an explosion of new breeds, they’re available in as many varieties and as complex flavors as wine grapes or cider apples. Used with discretion, they’re a balm for every palate. Used with abandon, they possess the palate-killing power to move even the hardcorest of neckbearded hopheads to tears—but this latter proclivity among beer nerds was only half the reason I spent years avoiding hops in my homebrew. The other half was what it took to get them. Hop shortages in the US and UK drove up prices, necessitating the importation of hops, at significant cost in dollars and fossil fuels, from Germany, the Czech Republic, Australia, New Zealand. I want my ingredients as local, low-cost and low-footprint as I can get them. Which motivation found me hunting hop substitutes in the woods, where footprints were literally all I had to give to get them. Once I found myself in possession of a little land, it was only a matter of time before I tried growing my own hops. As it turns out, it’s easy—ridiculously so, as long as you live someplace cool and wet, ideally within a half-dozen degrees of the 42nd parallel.
Follow me to learn how.
(Or, How to Drink Well After the End)
Herein will I tell how I made really delicious alcoholic cider using only time, sweat, $2 worth of yeast, $18 worth of rented local cider mill, and a small mountain of fruit I wild-harvested entirely within biking distance of my house in Southeastern Michigan in the fall of 2013.
The result is in the running for the most delicious fermented beverage I’ve ever made. It has by far the lowest carbon footprint of any fermented beverage I’ve ever made. And it has the lowest cost of any fermented beverage I’ve ever made or tasted ($2 a gallon). It was also fun. And it filled me with profound satisfaction akin to nothing so much as seeing a piece of fiction I wrote appear in print.
Detcon1, this year’s NASFIC convention in Detroit, happens next weekend, July 17 – 20, 2014. Along with fellow Fermented Adventurer Scott H. Andrews, I’m on a panel about beer in fiction that Saturday afternoon, whereat, or perhaps immediately thereafter, I may or may not happen to have a very few bottles of homebrew available for sampling. I’ve also been scheduled to take part in a group reading of Michigan writers–the implication being, I suppose, that I speak for the region. Which–though Detroit does feature briefly in my story in this month’s Ideomancer–I am really not trying to do in my fiction; I’ve only lived here four years, after all.
I am, however, rather more prepared to take up that banner for Michigan beer. I have traveled, I have tasted, I have brewed. So, for those of you making the trip maybe for the first time, I thought I might be of help and interest with a brief beer guide to Detroit.
Part Two: The North Is Coming
“The North is coming!” cry the beer nerds of Scotland and Northern England, in shameless reference to those bold, glory-seeking fictional beer nerds from Beyond the Wall. In the North, I learned, a brewing renaissance is underway. The dominance of CAMRA-established uniformity I talked about in part one cracks steadily under the small but building onslaught of US-influenced, globally inspired nano- and microbreweries. Edinburgh is full of tiny, endlessly cross-pollinating knots of brewing brilliance, a beer microculture not entirely unlike those I’ve found surrounding Boston and Detroit.
Below I review a lot of bars in no particular order, though I did save some of the best for last. One week, fourteen pubs (plus repeats), miles and miles of walking over hill and under dale, too many pints to count, and thanks in great part to all that low ABV I raved about in part one, only one hangover! The fish and chips and bangers and mash blurred together; the beers and the bartenders did not. I prepared an insufficiently researched beer tour map ahead of time; it got thrown to the wind. What I found instead was better. I have updated the map—open it in another window and follow along.
Part 1: Culture Shock
I spent a week in lovely, misty, craggy, beery Edinburgh, Scotland, walking everywhere and drinking everything. This was my first time in the UK as a full-fledged beer nerd, engaging immersively with the beer culture that is perhaps dearest to my heart. I’d visited London and Dublin years before; I’d researched as extensively as might be considered reasonable from the other side of the ocean. So I wasn’t completely oblivious. Indeed, I thought myself quite well-prepared. I thought I knew what to expect.
I’ve needed to get this off my chest for awhile. A bee in my bonnet, so to speak.
Mead is at long last becoming a popular thing in the US, growing in the same way cider has been growing, particularly at brewpubs and among craft brewers in regions otherwise known for prowess in the fermenting arts. The trouble–as with cider, only worse because mead hasn’t had Strongbow and Woodchuck holding it up commercially for the last ten years–is that nobody knows a damn thing about it. Including, it seems to me, a lot of the people brewing it.
Mead is, or should be, a wonderful thing, sublime I dare say, magical even. Mead can be complex with rich mouthfeel like a port, but lighter-bodied and prettier. It can smell delicate and amazing, like all the flowers in the honey it was made from. It can send both palate and pate into flights of hyperbolic fantasy unknown since the age of bards and heroes.
Or it can be sickly-sweet, cough-syrupy, overpowered and unbalanced with ridiculous, unnecessary additives by well-intentioned brewers who as best I can understand don’t actually know what mead is supposed to taste like.
What’s it supposed to taste like?
I bought and saved up beers over a couple months until I had 24 bottles of really good Michigan beer. I muled it (legally) over international lines. Then Scott, Raj and I and a crowd of other writers sampled and shared them all weekend alongside Toronto microbrews liberally provided by con staff, hotel bar and friends.
- Mill Street Organic, Toronto – a yellow lager, meh
- Steam Whistle Pilsener, Canada – very nice, crisp and authentic-tasting
- Frankenmuth Pilsener, Michigan – Not quite as authentically German-style but I like it
- Arcadia Loch Down, Michigan – a very nice scotch ale, 7% alcohol, round, easy drinking
- Bells Double Cream Stout, Michigan – reviewed earlier by Scott, decent but not mind-blowing.
- Growler of IPA from some local Toronto brewpub – spicy, earthy, citrusy, medium bitter, a kitchen sink IPA
- Smithwicks – Not nearly as good as the Arcadia scotch ale.
- Rickard’s Red, Molson – Not bad. Middle o’ the road.
- Bells Cherry Stout – We love the sour/stout combo. This as far as I’m concerned is the exemplar.
- Founders Breakfast Stout, Michigan – the gold standard
- Pilgrim’s Dole Wheat Wine, New Holland, Michigan – a huge 12% alcohol wheat wine with currant, plum flavor notes. Amazing, but would have been 100x better if I’d aged it 3 years first.
- Dark Horse Blueberry Imperial Stout, Michigan – The blueberry is almost all in the nose, so not quite a sour stout but still delicious.
- Mill Street Coffee Porter, Toronto – A tiny bit too much coffee for me in a porter this light.
- Atwater Block Bourbon Barrel Porter, Michigan
- A different growler of IPA from some local Toronto brewpub – Super-citrusy, aggressively bitter, a bit much for me but nice to sample.
- Motor City Brewing Works Hard Cider, Detroit – Best Detroit area cider I’ve had, dry, strongly effervescent, acidic, strong in tannin, with funky earthy notes from the yeast. Must buy more….
- 2012 Hot Pepper Chocolate Stout, my homebrew – This one had a pepper in the bottle, very fiery indeed
- 2011 Sweet Fern Scotch Ale, my homebrew – A 70 shilling ale flavored with a pinch of wild-harvested sweet fern, a spicy, woody perennial
- 2011 Cyser, my homebrew
- 2011 Honey Porter, my homebrew
And that’s just the ones I can remember!
I have finally upgraded to CO2 kegging my homebrew after seven years of doing without. Seven years of other homebrewers hiding amusement behind the bottoms of their imperial pint glasses. Seven years of worry and hardship! Did I use enough priming sugar? Did I clean those bottles well enough? Ok, it wasn’t that much hardship. I still got to drink good beer. But after clawing my way up the initial learning curve (and forking out the startup cash), keg beer already promises to be a huge leap forward in ease, simplicity and quality.
The internet was less helpful on the matter than I expected–a lot of overviews, a lot of filler, not enough detail. Though pretty much every single post I came across assured me I was soon to be “the envy of all your friends”. The most useful resources I came across were the brief but succinct kegging appendix in good old Papazian, the single sheet of instructions that came with the CO2 regulator, and the school of hard knocks.
While I sit back awaiting the fame that must surely accompany maturation, here, for the next person who goes looking, are the details.
Hi all, I’m Michael. If you fit into the same tiny cross-section of sword/pen/pint-slinging we do, maybe you’ve come across Literary Beer, a blog series on homebrewing I used to write for Small Beer Press. Who knows, maybe I’ll write it again. In the meantime, what you need to know about me is that I really, really like cider, mead, cyser, lager, stout, an ancient style of herbed beer known as gruit, tequila, mezcal, bourbon, scotch, and all kinds of weird things in between, and may here subject you to ruminations on any of the above. I hope you enjoy.
I went to the Great Lakes Cider and Perry Festival last weekend. It’s held at Uncle John’s Cider Mill, among the farmlands just north of Lansing, Michigan. I brewed my first batch of Michigan cider, a cyser I bottled in January, with apples from Uncle John’s orchards. This year they lost their entire crop after the freak (read: new normal) 80 degree weather in March. The trees flowered prematurely, then the buds were all killed by frost–a tragedy. Cider made from this year’s crop will come dear, though that won’t stop me. Last year’s crop, anyhow, spent all this year maturing and was present and abundant in all its glory.
My old favorites Farnum Hill, West County and Albemarle were represented. I sampled ciders from Wisconsin, Oregon, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Michigan, Spain, France, the UK. It was awesome.
I got cheery with a British expat cidermaker living in Ohio (that’s him on the right in the silly hat) whose ciders were really satisfying, a classic English style I’d been looking for since I moved out here. Griffin Cider Works is his label–”Burley Man” was my favorite, 7.5-8% alcohol with rich mouthfeel and sweetness to balance.
I tasted a hopped cider from the much-touted Wandering Aengus in Oregon, which I expected to dislike (hops are for beer!) but turned out to be quite a pleasant, gently bitter reprieve from all the sweet and dry.
Maybe the best American cider I tried was a bourbon barrel aged maple cider from Crow’s Hard Cider in Michigan–a single keg made just for this event, not available in stores.
I sampled a whole bunch of Spanish ciders all from one importer, a most eye-opening experience. They were peppery and funky like Belgian farmhouse ales, but light and richly tart, like nothing else I’ve tasted. Of course! Because they’re made from apple varieties I never knew existed. I drool at the thought. I can’t really get excited about wine or hop regions, but something about cider apples does it for me. Comes of once having lived next to Clarkdale Orchards in Deerfield, MA. I will never eat better apples, unless maybe I go to Spain.
I hear after the tastings are over, the orchardists and cidermakers hang around until the next morning boozing and talking shop. That sounds like a pretty good time. Maybe next year I’ll try to crash, if there is a next year. I hope so.
by Michael J. DeLuca
I’m moving to Michigan from Boston. Inside a car on a hot summer day for fourteen hours is about the worst place imaginable to store beer, and glass is dangerous to transport at the best of times, so in advance of the move, I’m giving a way a lot of homebrew. A lot: gallons and gallons of glorious mead, cider, cyser, barleywine, ale and stout. And for the most part, all this wonderful beer I had been hoping to drink in seasons to come is going to non-homebrewers. I worry: my beers are my babies. I want my friends to treat them right, both so they can get the best of their new collection and so if I ever come back to visit I can mooch a bottle or two. Hence this primer.
Read well, and reap the benefits.
It has been a long strange road since the July morning in 2006 I showed up on Small Beer’s doorstep, was bustled inside and found myself crammed into a cool nook between bowed bookshelves, struggling and failing to turn down endless refills of green tea and squares of dark chocolate, making precious little headway with my stack of LCRW submissions due to the caffeine, the basket-hilted pirate letter opener meant to be wielded against envelopes, and the army of windup plastic robots and rubber Cthulus advancing on me from the bookshelves.
I fear I was not the most productive intern those first few months. I shipped books, transcribed Waldrop stories for Howard Who?, did battle with the wireless router, and composed inept ad copy for Mothers & Other Monsters. Somehow I managed not to get fired. Lucky for me I had homebrew in my corner. I think it’s safe to say after that first batch of wee heavy I could do no wrong.
Many uncountable cups of tea, paper cuts, trays of moldy lead type, pints of Bluebird Bitter and BBC River Ale under the bridge, now here it is 2011. Small Beer Press has been putting out amazing, weird books for a decade, and I’ve been “volunteering” here for half of that. All those nice photos of books posed with beer bottles? I took those. I made this website, and this one. Three Messages and a Warning drops in December, featuring my workman’s translations of Karen Chacek’s “The Hour of the Fireflies” and Garbiela Damián Miravete’s “Future Nereid”.
And now I am asked to brew a beer for the SBP tenth anniversary! It shall be my magnum opus. Kevin Huizenga (Peapod Classics, LCRW 16 & 23) did the above awesome artwork. (Ed.: also available on some t-shirts)
A crowd-pleasing pale ale has been requested for the occasion. Here goes.
Gruit—beer brewed with herbs instead of hops—is a lost magic art, thrust into obscurity and near-forgotten. But a few noble beer heroes have rediscovered its secret knowledge and now seek to bring its power back to the world. I’m taking up that banner.
Nobody will ever know exactly what real gruit tasted like, because—like the hypothetical wooly mammoth clone—it went extinct and must be resurrected. (Read about gruit’s checkered history in previous Literary Beer entry The Beer of Alchemists and Witches). There are lots of great, well-educated guesses out there, but the real work lies in experimentation: fresh/dry, boiled/not boiled, quantity, volume vs weight vs exposure time, herb flavors/properties/effects—it boggles the mind. The people who succeed at it have the resources and the patience to try again and again until they work out something great. Cambridge Brewing Company’s Weekapaug Gruit, Vermont Brew Pub’s Absinthe Ale and Amherst Brewing Company’s Heather Ale are examples of this. I’m not at their scale—I have to drink the beer in the bottles I have before I can brew more, if you get me.
I have patience. I’ll get there. But it’ll be a quest.
With me and brewing, the circumstance most likely to cause such a turnaround is the ready, cheap availability of superior ingredients. In January, I went to Guatemala—the cradle of Mayan civilization, and arguably the cradle of chocolate as a human institution. I brought back a half-kilo of cacao “beans”—a form of chocolate two steps removed from the least-processed chocolate you’re ever likely to encounter in this country. “What the hell is a cacao bean?” asked the customs official rummaging through my bags in Houston. I started in on the two-minute explanation; disappointingly, he waved me on before I’d got half started.
Read on for the two-minute explanation—but first, know that when I sat down to brew this beer, it was with the purest of aesthetical intentions in the Small Beer spirit: I strove for a beer that would as closely as possible resemble a bar of 70% raw cacao dark chocolate in liquid form.
Further exploits in my quest to brew surprising, delicious, unhopped beer like it was 1799. Or 999. See more about my anti-hop crusade at The Beer of Alchemists and Witches.
The idea for this beer came from Benjamin Franklin. More directly, it came from Yards Brewing Company’s Poor Richard’s Ale, itself an attempt at a modern recreation of a recipe Franklin penned in French while stationed overseas, which, translated, reads as follows.
“Way of Making Beer with Essence of Spruce:
For a Cask containing 80 bottles, take one pot of Essence and 13 Pounds of Molases. – or the same amount of unrefined Loaf Sugar; mix them well together in 20 pints of hot Water: Stir together until they make a Foam, then pour it into the Cask you will then fill with Water: add a Pint of good Yeast, stir it well together and let it stand 2 or 3 Days to ferment, after which close the Cask, and after a few days it will be ready to be put into Bottles, that must be tightly corked. Leave them 10 or 12 Days in a cool Cellar, after which the Beer will be good to drink.”
Great piece about the only woman beer inspector in the UK (thanks Michael, Erin!). Apparently 80% of women in the UK haven’t tried real ale. How is this possible? Ok, so stout is no longer prescribed when women are pregnant, but still, come on! Next round, here’s some advice:
“The other thing is that women are more sensitive to bitter flavours,” says Annabel, “so if a woman’s first experience of real ale is a very bitter pint, she may never go back to it.” Better to start with something more floral, such as Caledonian Deuchars IPA or Theakston’s Old Peculier.
If you came to the Manual of Detection release party, you may have had the chance to sample my latest brewing experiment, the Legendary Black Beer of Aaaargh!–a first attempt at recreating a long-extinct style of medieval herb beer, flavored, in this case, with rosemary and sage as a substitute for hops. If you were one of the intrepid few, I thank you. It came as quite a shock to me how many compliments the black beer got, considering half the reason for the silly name was the reaction I expected it to get. The experience has given me hope that people are a lot more open-minded about their beer than the world’s brewing industry would have us believe.
That in mind, I’m going to talk some about how and why this style of beer went extinct, and how and why I might go about bringing it back.
This is it, ladies and gentlemen. Until now, all my talk of beer and literature has been just that: talk. Finally, however, the opportunity has arisen to put my barley where my mouth is. Er…not that I haven’t been doing that all along. You know what I mean.
On Friday, February 27th, Jedediah Berry will be at Amherst Books to celebrate the release of The Manual of Dectection, a beautifully complicated novel about a clandestine detective agency and a meticulous clerk thrust unwillingly into a detective’s role. He does not, as would I, resort to drink under pressure… though there’s a fair amount of whiskey swallowed throughout.
I’m brewing beer for the occasion because home distilling happens to be illegal.
“Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities’ confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail.”
—the Reinheitsgebot, a beer purity law, the first of its kind, enacted in Germany in 1516.
And now I’m going to talk about brewing with strawberries.
They’ll take away my homebrew when they pry it from my cold dead hands!
I admit I had to sweat to uncover any “literary” justification for the use of hot chile peppers in beer. I’m always on the lookout for something to top that fragment of Egyptian myth about beer-as-blood and the transformation of Hathor. Trouble is, belief in the mystical power of chiles originates with the Inca, who never bothered writing their myths down. So the best I can find in these latter days are third-hand retellings of the legendary founding of Cuzco, the Inca capital, by an ancestor god known as Ayar Uchu, Lord Chile, or vague hints that Inca priests forbade the use of chiles during funereal rites and initiations, doubtless out of fear that the warding power of chiles would prevent dead souls from reaching the next world.
None of which particularly deters me, the stubborn literary homebrewer, from doing as I darn well please. I like chiles. I like beer. Ipso facto.
Western MA being the land of maple syrup, and spring being the maple sap season, I thought I’d run a couple of experiments brewing beer with maple syrup. This is just the kind of decadent weirdness that homebrewing is perfect for. You’d be hard put to find a maple beer available from even the tiniest and most daring of commercial brewers, but for a homebrewer, all it takes is the will and a bit of thinking.
A record of my first experiments in brewing that most literary of all beer (though not technically a beer), ambrosia to the Greeks, bal-che to the Mayas, the gold of Midas, the honey-wine of gods and heroes—mead.
Let me just get the obligatory reference to a certain great English epic out of the way, and we’ll get down to business.
Then for Geatish tribesmen, close together all,
Was a bench made ready in the wassail-hall
There the stout-in-spirit went to take their seat
Proud of this their prowess. A henchman did as meet,
Mindful he to bear round the figured ale-tankard,
And pour to each the clear mead. Whiles would sing a bard,
Clear of voice in Heorot. Reveled there the thanes,
A host of happy heroes, Wederfolk and Danes.
For the adventurous: try it in the original.
Bottling is technical and tedious, nobody’s favorite part of the brewing process. So I’ll lead with the good stuff.
Ra came to where the beer stood waiting in seven thousand jars, and the gods came with him to see how by his wisdom he would save mankind.
“Mingle the red ochre of Abu with the barley-beer,” said Ra, and it was done, so that the beer gleamed red in the moonlight like the blood of men. “Now take it to the place where Sekhmet proposes to slay men when the sun rises.”
—from this great Egyptian myth retelling of the war-goddess Sekhmet’s transformation, via beer, into Hathor, goddess of fertility. Just pretend that jar of cobras on her head is a jar of blood-colored beer. Like an old timey St. Patrick’s Day!
In which I ramble about the history of beer in New England and demonstrate the process of brewing up a batch of a favorite and storied style.
This is a Dutch family crest hanging in the cathedral in the city of Haarlem, The Netherlands. Note the kegs. And those little golden shapes being carried in the arms of the rampant lions are sheaves of barley. I wish I had taken more pictures of these. There were some with barley, kegs AND beehives.
It seemed I was a mite of sediment
That waited for the bottom to ferment
So I could catch a bubble in ascent.
I rode up on one till the bubble burst,
And when that left me to sink back reversed
I was no worse off than I was at first.
I’d catch another bubble if I waited.
The thing was to get now and then elated.
—Robert Frost, In a Glass of Cider
(For the start of my cider-making exploits, see Episode 1: Traditional Hard Cider)
Today, I noticed that the bubbles of CO2 emerging from the airlock on my jug of cider had slowed to a rate of one per minute, indicating that yeast activity had tapered off and the primary stage of fermentation was complete. Being careful to leave behind as much of the sediment as possible, I siphoned off the clarified cider into a clean glass jug. Mostly, anyway–right at the end I decided I couldn’t help myself and redirected the last ounce or so into a pint glass for testing purposes.