The yeast did not die in vain

Posted on January 16, 2011


What was I thinking?  The wind came out of Alberta, picking up a bad attitude as it crossed the plains and barreled across Lake Michigan.  Snow fell.  Snow flew.  Snow blew sideways across the ribbon roads.  I was on Kidder Road headed over to the ale brewing workshop at Wagbo (properly the Martha Wagbo Farm and Education Center).  It’s one of my favorite drives, very picturesque.  No photos for you, though.  By the time it dawned on me that I had made a serious error in judgment, it was all white-knuckle all the way.  No stopping, no going back, quantities of steely determination.  You know who else was on the road?  Snowmobilers and tow-truck drivers hauling the mute evidence that other idiots had been there before me.  No pictures of them either.

I crept down the double-S turns from the crest of Kidder to the nice broad valley of M-66 and started to breathe again.  I was at least half an hour late, but I could learn something about brewing ale and it would be warm and safe inside.  And so I did and so it was.  And I have a whole slideshow for you!  While that loads . . .

Keith and Jason and Fischer, our guides for the afternoon, were well into the explanations of wort and bittering and heather tips and pitch yeast and measuring specific gravity with a hydrometer, with frequent digressions into the Importance of Cleanliness.  The little upstairs kitchen at Wagbo was pleasantly steamy and full of intrepid souls.  All of them had done their homework.  They were asking excellent questions.  I was basking in the thrill of being alive in a warm place filled with the fragrance of hops.  They learned how to make ale.  I learned other things:

  • The history of Scotland’s heather ale goes back at least to the time of the Roman occupation, when the Picts gave the Legions what-for.  So yes, a 21st century person ought to be able to make a decent batch at home without killing herself.  Nevertheless, I should probably leave the ale-brewing to people who have more patience for frequent two-step cleaning processes.
  • There are those who practice brewing as a culinary art and those who think of it as a scientific process.  The two groups collaborate perfectly happily, to their mutual benefit.  If they are from Around Here, they hang out at Short’s, as is proper, swapping recipes and lessons learned the hard way.
  • With a little practice, you can make two cases of very good beer for $20-$30 total.  That is a very favorable price.
  • Someone I knew used to say that beer is just liquid bread, and it turns out he was right about that, too.  In both enterprises, blessed little yeast plants work away, turning carbohydrates into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  When their work is done . . . they die.  Food for thought.
  • Gentle, heather-scented steam from a batch of brewing ale is an excellent facial.
  • Responsible brewers must carefully sample and test the batch at numerous stages along the way, just as you are duty-bound to taste the cookie dough.
  • To chill the wort to proper fermenting temperature, plop the covered 5-gallon fermenting vessel (i.e., the cleaned and sanitized food-grade plastic pail) into the snow pile on the flat roof.  If you are trying to brew ale in tropical climes, you will have to invest in a lot of ice.  We feel sorry for you.
  • There are as many recipes for fine ale as there are for any other good thing that people have been making for centuries. 
  • If you ask Fischer where you should begin, he will hand you a dog-eared copy of his beloved Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers and say “On page 1.”  
  • I conclude that I do not need to brew my own beer any more than I need to slaughter my own hog, but it is good to have some understanding of how it works.  There are things I do know how to do, and I can trade those for excellent treats.  Once upon a time . . .  

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I did not stay for the mead-making workshop as I still had to face the long trek back home and the weather wasn’t getting any better.  I did have a wee sample, though, and heard a little not only about fermenting honey into mead, but about making a fermented cider from Antrim County apples and Antrim County maple syrup.  Then I plotted my course back along Essex Road and made the 30-minute trip in less than an hour and a half. 

I picked up a copy of the holiday edition of Edible Grande Traverse magazine at Wagbo.  Nels Veliquette has a good piece in there about growing organic hops out on the Leelanau Peninsula, and Susan Ager’s cover story about her mother’s pierogi will just make you happy.  You can pick up a free copy of the magazine at specialty markets throughout the region, or you can read it online.  (Um, it will take a long time to load the magazine if you are on sloooow dialup, but it is worth it if that is the only way you are going to be able to read it.)