Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Heirloom Foods: Brewing Beer with Jared

My neighbor Jared brews his own beer.  It’s not beer from a pre-packaged kit either.  Not that I have anything against hobby kits.  In fact, I love hobby kits because they can give a jump-start to any project you might not otherwise take on.  Home brewing kits are growing in popularity and this may be a sign of the growing interest in “real” food you make yourself.  But Jared’s beer is “realer” than a kit.  He’s built and perfected his current brewing set-up over a period of several years, adding new elements and coming up with solutions for problems as they inevitably present themselves.  Jared has the mind of an inventor and he does EVERYTHING by hand.
Jared heats up water in his beer-brewing contraption.
Jared’s interest in beer is deep and intense.  He likes particular kinds of beer that you can’t buy in the corner liquor store.  He’s been brewing beer for five years, and when I asked him if he’d ever consider brewing beer commercially,  he just shook his head.  Jared has a keen appreciation for beer and likes to give classic recipes his own twist.  But there are drawbacks to the idea of perfecting a recipe that produces a unique flavor within the framework of a traditional formula.  First, it takes too much time and labor for such a beer to ever be profitable.  And perhaps more importantly, Jared recognizes a tragic reality of the beer-drinking world—that consumers want, and in fact expect, all beer with the same label to taste exactly the same from bottle to bottle and year to year.  Jared brings up the excellent point that wine-production revolves around the idea that differences in growing conditions each season produce subtle variations in wine that wine connoisseurs appreciate and enjoy.  Beer, on the other hand, is always supposed to taste the same.  And this takes the fun out of the process for Jared, who has a keen appreciation for the ways in which weather, ingredients, and process can create delicious variations from a single recipe.   Jared is aware that he’d never make money producing beer this way, so he does it for love.  This is my definition of an Heirloom Food, although beer may not have been in Jared’s family history.

Jared is SO committed to producing beer that he grows his own hops.  Until I talked to Jared, I had never thought about where hops come from.  Apparently, most hops in the U.S. come from Oregon.  Unless you’re Jared.  Then your hops come from the tiny garden in your own front yard.

Jared told me that there was a massive hops shortage several years ago and he had time a hard time finding his favorite kind of hops.  The hops he did buy were three to four times more expensive than usual.  But Jared was not to be deterred.  He told me he didn't have too many hobbies and he wasn't going to let something like a hops shortage keep him from his quest to brew beer.  I respect this kind of commitment and I feel this way about a number of foods myself.  To me, the best part about Jared deciding to grow his own hops is that he didn't do it out of food snobbery or fetishism, but because of a very practical need.  He needed hops, so he decided to grow them.

On a recent Saturday, Jared invited me over to watch him brew beer.  I arrived at 9 am and Jared handed me a cup of coffee and a delicious homemade peanut butter cookie.  I felt a little guilty knowing that my husband had been up since 4 am and was at that moment dealing with cranky kids, while I was lounging around eating a yummy snack and waiting for water to boil… literally.  Boiling water is the first step in the beer-brewing process and it takes about an hour to boil enough water to brew a batch of beer.  Life was good.  And I was a lucky woman to have married a man who would support this division of labor.
Jared harvests hops, July 2010.

While we waited for the water to boil, Jared began to harvest hops.  There is a lot about hops I didn’t know.  It takes at least three years before hops plants bear fruit and this is the first year that Jared has been able to harvest hops from his own garden.  I've never seen hops grow before and I didn't know they grew on a vine.  I didn't know that that they started out green, or that they had such a vibrant, fresh smell.  I didn't know that they are part of the cannabis family.  Hops are a lot more interesting than I realized.  

Jared says that hops don't tend to grow very well in  Southern California because they need a lot of daylight and that they grow best in places like the Pacific Northwest and Northern Europe, where the days are longest.  He also insists that his hops DIDN'T do well this season, and cites the fact that only one out of four plants produced hops.  But looking at the plant that DID produce hops, it's clear that Jared is doing something right.  His garden plot sits on a little hill that's in full sun from dawn to dusk, giving the hops the chance to soak up every bit of daylight.  I think it must be the combination of the garden's microclimate and the cloudless skies of a SoCal summer that makes Jared's hops grow so well.  That, and the fact that Jared gives them such careful attention.  I know it sounds kooky, but I think these hops appreciate the lavish treatment they receive from Jared and they grow to show their appreciation.  
Hops ready to harvest in Jared's garden, July 2010.

Once Jared harvested the hops, I thought he'd toss them into the batch of beer he was brewing.  But hops are not normally used fresh.  They have to be dried in the sun for a day or two, at least for India Pale Ale, the kind of beer Jared was brewing the day I visited.  According to Jared, the British invented the technique of "dry hopping", which is adding hops to beer in the cask or keg after it has been fermented.  This kept the beer fresh longer and allowed beer to survive the voyage to India via sailing ship.  Dried hops give an extra blast of hop aroma in the beer, and although not every batch of beer is "dry hopped", Jared doesn't like the flavor of using green hops.  He says it's "kinda grassy".  I've never had green hops in beer, at least not to my knowledge, but Jared doesn't make it sound very appealing.  

Jared keeps his home-grown sun-dried hops in the freezer, ready for use.  With the amount of hops he harvested on the day I visited, Jared will be able to make several batches of beer.  And he'll harvest hops a few more times before the end of the season.  It will be interesting to find out what his total production for season will be, and you can be sure that I'll file a report when I find out.  
Hops in Jared's freezer, August, 2010.

It takes commitment to make beer.  Three years to grow hops.  A few days to to dry them.  And two more weeks to brew, ferment, and bottle the beer.  But when Jared poured me a frothy glass of his last batch – a heady “California Steam Ale” – and we drank it together at 10 in the morning… I knew this was the kind of commitment to heirloom food I could get behind.