Tuesday, 28 May 2024

Foodie Freak: Home brewing for the holidays

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It’s that gift-giving season again, and are you finished shopping yet? No?


Have you considered a home brewing or wine making kit for that special someone? Well, stop a moment and consider it. This is more than just a gift, it’s a potential hobby that a lot of people would enjoy trying but might not think to get for themselves, and it’s unique enough that it won’t be expected or forgotten. Plus, it saves tons of money over buying wine and beer at the grocery store.


Beer brewers are able to create their own signature brew or create “clone” recipes of their favorite store-bought brew. You should see the look of pride in a person’s eyes when they serve someone a glass of beer or wine that they brewed themselves. They have fun in the making of the brew, then fun in designing a label for the bottles (there are Web sites dedicated to people showing off their personal labels), and they have fun serving and drinking it with others. It’s a pastime that gives a person many different ways to enjoy it.


Yes, I am a home brewer; it’s part of my being a big “do it yourselfer.” But just as you have probably come to expect from me, I do things a little differently. I brew mead, which is essentially wine made from honey. Being a history buff I like the idea of making a beverage with such an ancient and colorful past, and I love the versatility that mead making gives.


Brewing at home is quite simple and not as messy as you might think; my wife has yet to complain. In fact, sanitation is the most important factor in any kind of brewing, so cleanliness is a necessity for brewing.


Home brewing kits vary from idiot-proof countertop kits where you “add water, contents of packet, and *poof!* two weeks later you have beer,” to kits that allow you to control every factor of the process and truly craft your very own distinctive creation.


Another great thing about the process is that most of the equipment is interchangeable so you can easily brew beer this week then switch to making wine a couple weeks later. If you have someone on your gift giving list who already is a home brewer, a new carboy is always a great addition (carboys are big glass or plastic jugs used for fermenting) and they are only about $25 on average. The only thing limiting my own mead making is a lack of carboys. I have two and both of them are in use, and I wish I had many more (my wife reads this column, wink, wink, 6 gallon size, dear).


Since we don’t have a brewer’s supply store here in the county, I’ll point out that you can easily find a brewer’s supply online. Here’s another exception to my usual policy of not mentioning names or brands: my favorite supplier is www.morebeer.com, located down in the Bay Area. They have supplies to make beer, wine, mead, coffee, sake and even soda pop. They also have the technical support and on-line help to assist both the new and the more experienced brewer.


The reason I’m making the exception to mention them by name is that they ship so quickly. If I place an order early in the day the shipment is at my home the very next day. This fantastic and speedy service makes getting that last minute Christmas gift very easy. Their great treatment of me has made me always a happy customer.


There are many stories and myths about how alcohol was discovered. Beer makers like to brag about the existence of writings describing the brewing of beer dating from 6000 B.C.E., and winemakers claim creation of their beverage of preference around the same time, but there is even earlier evidence of mead making going back to 7000 B.C.E..


Despite the disagreements between the factions, mead really is the oldest alcoholic beverage. Mead was the beverage of choice for many millennia, then through the progression of time beer and wine eventually took center stage. But since we mead makers work with sweet honey, we aren’t bitter about it.


The first laws ever written (the Code of Hammurabi) included laws pertaining to daily beer rations. Through much of Europe’s history the water was undrinkable, but the boiling and brewing process of making beer rendered the water it was made with safe to drink and so beer was the beverage that everyone, even children, survived on.


Brewing throughout most of history has been considered woman’s work and brewing equipment was considered the wife’s property in divorces. Not until the last couple of centuries have men really taken the craft into their hands.


When the first Europeans came to America they were greeted by native peoples who offered them wine derived from persimmons and a beer-like drink made from corn. When the Mayflower made its journey to the New World the original destination was to be in the Carolinas, but they ran out of beer and landed on Plymouth Rock in order to build a brewery.


During Prohibition it was still legal to make your own alcohol at home, so America wasn’t as “dry” as some would think. At that time Lake County was just as significant a winegrowing region as Sonoma and Napa were, but instead of switching to making sacramental wines (among other means) in order to continue growing grapes, the winemakers just tore out the vineyards and planted ... you guessed it, walnuts and pears.


Grapevines planted in Lake County have the potential to be much better than those grown in Sonoma and Napa because they are at a much higher altitude, and higher altitude creates better flavors in produce. This fact, in addition to the low cost of Lake County land, has caused our area to undergo the biggest explosion in vineyards in many years. Ten years ago we had only a handful of wineries and now they outnumber my fingers and toes combined!


Being in Northern California makes participation in home brewing a very natural thing. Sure, we live in the middle of the wine country so why not be part of the winemaking community? Some of the local professional winemakers got their start in the industry through home brewing. Just like living on the greatest bass fishing lake west of the Mississippi where there are professionals fishing our lake throughout the entire year doesn’t mean that we the local residents can’t fish in it also.


So try making your own beer or wine, or better yet, give a kit as a gift so that someone can make it for you. The limited creativity “just add water” kits can cost as little as $25, but to set someone up with a nice starter system they can grow with will run about $70.


Lake County features a Home Winemakers Festival; June 2009 will mark the seventh annual presentation, at which I would love to have people sample my own work (if I only had more carboys ... wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more). My Ghirardelli chocolate-flavored mead will be ready to drink in June of 2009, but I only have five gallons of it so sharing might be a little scarce this year. That is, if I can even wrestle a few ounces away from my wife.


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.


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