Brewing Sustenance: Beer and Sourdough

“Bread is the staff of life, but beer is life itself.” – Anonymous

I’m in the process of starting two new hobbies, and as a result, a new periodic series of posts for this blog. Some years ago, after falling in love with a world’s worth of good beers, I tried my hand at home-brewing. It was an ill-fated attempt that never produced so much as a bubble. Later, my dad tried his hand it; as I recall, his wort never quit bubbling, until finally he bottled a brew that tasted a bit like cider vinegar (the good bottles) or worse (the bad ones).

At that point, thanks to a growing variety of craft and micro brews and the increasing ease of purchasing good beer at any reasonably well supplied liquor store, I lost most of my interest in DIY beer. In the intervening years, however, I’ve had the good fortune to encounter a couple really skilled and experienced home-brewers whose beers kept the dream alive, until at last a friend here in Minnesota, named Mike, caught wind of my interest and dusted off his brewing equipment to produce (with my help, in his kitchen and basement) a summertime wheat brew. Unfortunately, we couldn’t connect on bottling, so the task fell to him, in a rush, so the flavor varied from quite good to somewhat pungent and yeasty from one bottle to the next. Still, it was an enormous step forward.

Since then, another friend, Butch, who has at least two avid homebrewers as neighbors, has taken up brewing. I had the pleasure of helping with his first batch over Father’s Day weekend, an early Autumn Amber we brewed in his garage over a propane burner for a turkey fryer, as seems to be the standard approach now.

Last night, his bride handed me a plain brown bottle from the fridge. I poured a beautiful pint, roughly the reddish-brown color of Bass Ale, with a finger’s worth of tight, pale foam at the top. The flavor was refreshing and clean, like a somewhat lighter and fruitier Newcastle. I loved it. Thoroughly.

Butch has two more batches as various stages, and this weekend, we will move them along and start the next one. I’ve nearly acquired all the equipment I need to brew my own (delayed somewhat by the purchase of a beautiful little Browning Buck Mark .22), and this fall, I will join the fray. I plan to chronicle those adventures here, as well as…SOURDOUGH!

I love sourdough bread, and actually enjoy cooking and baking when I have time. So when my dad decided he wanted someone in the family to master sourdough, not only did he sense my natural weakness in this regard, but A) he gave me two books, one with countless wonderful stories and recipes for breads, flapjacks, waffles, and doughnuts, and the other, an account of a man’s quest to travel the globe looking for ancient oven residues that would reveal sourdough recipes of the ancients; and b) he drew the neat parallel in my mind between brewing beer and “brewing” bread. (He also through making cheese into the mix, saying, “It’s all fermentation” – but I’m not quite ready to make that leap yet. Plus we can’t keep a cow or goat in town.)

He played his cards well:

My first batch of starter, created from scratch, looked wetter and slimier than pictured above, and smelled like B.O. This one (my second batch) looked like pancake batter, bubbled almost imperceptibly slowly, and smells slightly yeasty and sour. It worked to create the deliciously sweet and hearty bread above (made with wheat germ, butter, and honey, among other things), but just barely. I’m hoping to coax this started into a higher gear, or I’ll have to start again and try to muster a more vigorous starter. But the entire family agrees: the result of my first sourdough experiment was a resounding success. With a little luck and persistence, hopefully I’ll be posting regular notes on the strange alchemy of brewing sustenance.

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