Sunday, February 15, 2009

Everything in (Low) Moderation, or Home Brew, Cocktails, and the Art of Grilling Sausages

I had never bottled home brew, or really done anything else with home brew other than drink it, until last Saturday. In my experience, when it's good, it's really good, and when it's bad, well, let's just focus on when it's good. Friends of mine got married down in Texas a couple of years ago, and it was full of hoots and hollers. There was an amazing brisket (the guy who made it, a shy, slim, old cowpoke type wouldn't give me any of his secrets or tips other than to use "spices and cook it slowly"--I've had better tips from mushroom foragers) served in an equally mind-blowing rehearsal dinner spot in a clearing by a creek on a huge ranch, complete with longhorn cattle and massive, beautiful, sprawling lightning storms in the huge Texas sky. Then there was a guy I dubbed "Big Tex" who gave instructions in the hotel lobby on how to make a Texas-shaped waffle, and told me, thumbs hooked in belt loops, that the last time he was in Chicago he was arrested 4 times walking up Michigan Avenue because he was just so darn friendly and no one knew how to take it. But perhaps the best part of that wedding was the fact that the bride's brother, as a wedding gift, brewed what must have been hundreds of bottles of 4 styles of his own beer, hand labeled each one with custom labels, and dipped each top in wax. It was mind blowing. And the thing is, the beer was really good. I think I saw several purses being turned into stolen beer carriers, and suit jacket pockets seemed to have much more swing to them going out than coming in. I'm not sure I've ever seen a more amazing wedding gift. And I'm certain that I've never given one that even comes close.

My most recent encounter with home brew was equally as favorable. During my recent trip to San Francisco, one of the many gastronomical stops was at my brother's friend George's house in Oakland. They'd had about 5 gallons of beer going for a couple of months, and time had come to bottle it. Which was perfect timing, as I'd never done this before and was intrigued by the prospect of it. So, we got up bright and early (giving a certain time allowance, of course, to shake the cobwebs loose from the night before and eat a scone or two) and headed across the Bay Bridge into Oakland. My experience with the city is brief; some relatives lived there at one point, and I'd been to the taco trucks on International Boulevard a few nights before (mmm...lovely fish tacos and the carnitas, oh, the carnitas, crispy and soft at once, cooked on a flattop griddle and getting the flavors of the million tacos before it, much like a grandmother's old cast iron pan, and so cheap, eaten on fiberglas benches just outside the truck), just before the obligatory stop at In and Out for a Double-Double (and yes, I did get it animal style, which for some reason had slipped by me over the years, but oh so wonderful--I was lucky enough that my Oakland-based friend insisted I get it that way). And today we'd go to a really nice part of town, and met at my George's house. Apparently Fresno State has some sort of sausage/wine/olive oil making school, and a store that sells the results. Seeing how those are the three ingredients necessary to sustain life, I was hooked as soon as he pulled some of the sausages out of the fridge for us to grill.

BUT, we needed a few things first. Namely, bread for the sausages from the wonderful Arizmendi Bakery, and limes for the margaritas we decided we'd need for proper beer bottling. After all, we couldn't just be drinking slugs of the Old Overholt rye we'd be using to '"sanitize our mouths" before starting the siphon of beer.

Bread and limes taken care of, and one warm cheese roll later, we were back in George's kitchen getting ready to bottle the beer. Thus, the margaritas were in high order. As George squeezed limes (reminding me of a time I staged in a great Chicago restaurant, where lime after lime was juiced, cryovaced, and frozen during peak season in order to have top-notch lime juice for drinks year round) and measured out tequila, orange Patron, and triple sec, his wife Jamie returned from the farmer's market bearing olive-studded bread and wonderfully spicy garlic, which she ground into the aforementioned olive oil, making our mouths burn deliciously with the hot garlic as we waited for the fresh, sour drinks, devoid of any sticky, corn syrupy, inexplicable margarita mix (I mean, why did margarita mix ever happen? Is it that hard to find a lime and squeeze the juice out of it?). George delivered, and the drinks were gone in short order, though Jamie, who surely saved us from drinking-while-bottling-beer mishaps with the super absorbent bread gave us a funny look, and said a bemused "no!" when George asked her if she wanted a margarita at 11:30 am. A respectable decision.

At this point, the bottling was underway, and after plenty of sterilizing of both bottling tubes and swallowing tubes, I was left to man the bottling station. I'll save you the details other than the fact that it became clear that this was the sort of event that isn't quite so much about the actual "event" itself as it is about the activities that surround it. After all, this beer wouldn't be ready to drink until it's final bottle conditioning was complete in another couple of weeks, and all in all, it's a repetitive task, one that I was thrilled to be doing for the first time, and one that just cries for some sort of celebration, ceremonious or not. And that's when the mojitos happened.

As George jumped the fence and borrowed some mint from a neighboring yard (all very stunning to me given the fact that this was in February and I am talking about herbs and fruit from the front yard on the way back from the farmer's market - that's California, I guess), I considered the similarity of this event to that of something like a pig slaughter or a harvest party in France. A smaller scale, sure, but the same spirit and idea; a festive occasion, celebrating the raising, or the growth, or in this case the brewing of something wonderful with food and drink that was created in a similar way. The mojitos were delicious, with a touch of brown sugar adding some welcome depth of flavor. I'd nearly finished the capping of about 4 or 5 dozen bottles, and we were about to light the grill for the sausages. George said, "I was thinking about putting together a whiskey sour. Interested?" I'm not sure I'll ever forget those words, and of course I was interested, and this time he was off to the front yard to get some lemons from his lemon tree. Which is not to be mistaken for his Meyer lemon tree.


The grill was lit, and the whiskey sours decadent. Somehow the topic of Absinthe came up; naturally, as happens with most conversations about Absinthe, a beautiful bottle was produced from the liquor cabinet, made by the nearby St. George Distillery in Alameda. I feel like so many of the absinthes being produced (now that it is back in full swing here in the States) are so floral and almost too pretty to drink. I mean, this one had meadowsweet in it. What on earth is meadowsweet? Who knew? But it was beautiful, and strong, and I'm pretty sure that wormwood or not, Absinthe is capable of driving anyone to the point of cutting off their ear. Luckily, we only had a small taste.

The sausages came off the grill with their accompanying peppers and onions, and we chose 2 of the collection of nearly 20 different mustards in George's cupboard to slather on. I cut mine in half to fit on the asiago roll from the bakery, then piled on the veg and a bunch of green peppercorn mustard. On the side, I ate the other half of the sausage with a porter mustard (by the way, has anyone seen or made this mustard?). All washed down with their last batch of beer called "Jeff", named after the nervous, sweaty manager at a nearby brewery who reluctantly gave them a lot of the bottles they'd use for the batch. (The current batch is called "Axl", due to several Guns n' Roses references made before and during the brewing and bottling.)

Did I mention we were sitting outside during most of this?

Well, I took heart in the fact that summer would be in Chicago in a mere 3 or 4 months, and we departed, happily filled with some new knowledge and a great experience. We drove back over the bridge and I quickly napped; after all, later that evening I'd be at it again, eating good pizza, drinking wine, walking around and getting lost while trying to find the AC/DShe concert I was inexplicably going to, capping the epic and wonderful day and night with a glass of champagne at a wine bar just down the alley from the great Zuni Cafe. I certainly can't say that my rest was well-earned that night, but I slept the satisfied sleep of someone who's been hard at work all day long.