Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Nettle Beer - Take One!

It started a long time ago, when I was having a strange confusing week, and I was positively shocked by my horoscope in the Beijing Scene, a free paper that was available at expat frequented junctures around China's capital. All kinds of unlikely events and situations had been coming about at the time. Accidents, near misses, strange gusts of wind. That morning, a lightbulb violently exploded not 20 feet from me, in a lone retro street lamp in silhouette near where I picked up a taxi every morning to go into work. My regular taxi stopped, I got in, and I flipped back to where the horoscopes were.

Scrolling a creamy pink 20 something manicured fingernail down the page to Leo, I read what Rob Brezsny, my horoscopist, says. It began with: "Are street lamps exploding as you walk by?" My eyebrows raised in interest at that point. It was one of those instants that burns into your mind forever even if you don't realize it at the time. Snug in traffic while a pollution pink sunrise beamed past my right shoulder and then slowly panned across the faded interior of that rusty yellow LADA, driver turning north on the second ring road in Beijing on my way to the office, I read that things were going to turn out marvelously alright. And they did.

With that I introduce you to my nettle beer, which did not turn out marvelously alright this time. It was during this famous writing week in which I was supposed to go up to the mountains and turn out a masterpiece. Instead I put on rubber gloves and scrubbed out nooks and crannies with a bucket of savon noir, embarked on spider hunting expeditions, spent inordinate amounts of time squatting in the garden with my reading glasses on searching for signs of life in the dirt, donned my marching boots for long solitary walks by the river and up into the hills, and executed my grand scheme to make nettle beer. In short, anything to avoid writing.

Don't mark a recipe down in your book, my friend. Do take time to reflect on the following message: Turn that which stings into something good. A faithful reader recounted how a weed whacker is NOT the answer for nettles, because even whacked to dust they still find ways to get us. So, while they are young and still tender and flavorful, find your nettle mojo. Pinch off their tender little heads one by one with satisfaction (wear rubber gloves!), putting all of your fury into this delicate repetitive task. Do this until you have a large basket full, preferably while humming something nice in the back of your mind. Then try to make some nettle beer with them.

I followed a recipe gleaned from an English cookbook and boiled the nettles for 15 minutes, but next time I will boil them longer. The longer the nettles spend in the water, the greener the liquid becomes. In another recipient, you mix sugar and the zest and juice of the lemons with cream of tartar. Pour the nettle liquid over this sweet acidic lemon and sugar mixture.

When I pour the nettle tisane into the acidic sugary lemon mix, the green color of the liquid changes like magic to orange, I am not sure why. After stirring it up and letting it cool a little bit, mix a bowl full of this liquid with brewers yeast, then mix that into the whole. You might not try what I did - don't sprinkle a generous pinch from a cake of baker's yeast on top of your brewers yeast for good measure. When the mix is complete, it goes into a large nonreactive container, and the waiting begins for the fermenting magic to take place.

At first, I didn't think anything was happening and wondered if I should dump it. But at the end of 2 days, it began to foam at the top. The recipe states that it should be put in a warm place undisturbed to ferment, but I kept it in corner in the kitchen, which in afterthought I think stays a little bit too cool. So the fermentation didn't kick off with any gusto. At the third day, hell or high water, it was funneled into bottles. You could smell the yeast, and it actually tasted pretty good.

Three days after going into the bottles I just could not wait to see what was going to happen! We'd invited in-laws to a picnic in the mountains! They were going to partake in a sun drenched wood-fire roasted marinated quail fest under the shade of the apple tree. We had gone up early to build a roaring little hickory wood fire in our homemade fireplace in the garden, to let it burn down to glowing embers by lunchtime, and then laid out the delectable birds to roast. They had been marinating 3 days in an herb and mixed fruit vinegar marinade. In a moment of vain hostess glory, I decided that I just had to gild the lily by bringing out a bottle of my nettle beer to display and then pop open and pour around. Me and my pride.

The bottle didn't want to pop open, and I wrestled with it for some time. Everyone was looking on in curiosity, in fact they began to huddle around as if expecting something great, raising the expectation a notch. Then when it did - WHOOSH! A geyser of Beijing sunrise-orange foam shot straight up in the air and spattered down in a sticky mess over the entire table. So much for the nettle beer. There was some hesitation to laugh with me when this happened. After I mopped off my sister in law and turned my attention to what was left in the bottle, I saw that there was enough for everyone to have a taste. Not only was it not fizzy, but it had a funny tinge to it, something that recalled a distant memory of my grandmother's permanent wave solution. But you know what? I am going to give nettle beer another try.

I think the idea to use raw sugar or honey is an important element of this recipe, something I ignored. Another important step is to ensure I have the proper yeast. Third, I should pay heed to the "warm spot" fermentation technique. The brew must be quite far along in the fermentation process before it gets sealed into bottles. In fact, I think it might be worth my while to monitor it closely, if not scientifically. If bottled too early, it can build up enormous pressure - the yeast, which is capable of doing its work in anaerobic conditions, i.e. without air, converts sugar to alcohol and produces gas which will make it spray over everyone in a shower at its most benign and possibly explode a weak bottle at its most dangerous. Last but not least, and I think my horoscopist would agree, I will never, ever make nettle beer when Venus is in retrograde. Finger in the wind, eye on the stars, it will one day turn out marvelously alright. That is when you will get a recipe with good notes and instructions.

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Blogger Judith Klinger said...

Can I just have some of the quail and skip the nettle beer? I hate those damn nettles! We're returning to our orto next week and I know the nettle battle will resume.

Great story and natural fermentation can be really difficult to control. I made an exploding lemon infused olive oil a few years ago and I sincerely do not recommend this. LOL!

5:54 PM, April 16, 2009  
Blogger ArneSalvesen said...

Lucy, you may have avoided writing a masterpiece last week, but this morning your words did more for my day than any horrorscope ever has. Thanks for this.

BTW, how'd the quail turn out?

6:24 PM, April 16, 2009  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Judith, I feel your pain and wish you much happiness as you eat them! Arne, you are such a wonderful friend. Did I tell you that? The quail turned out REALLY GOOD. But I have to find out a way to adapt the recipe because it was made with a special sweetened vinegar that is found in Saint Cyr les Lecques - I have to figure out how to make something similar at home.

8:14 PM, April 16, 2009  
Blogger Nate Cardozo said...

Yeah, it sounds to me like you bottled too early. With (barley) beer, I wait until fermentation is essentially complete and then bottle with just a few ounces of priming sugar in a 5 gal. batch.

You bring up an interesting point though with using natural honey... you could actually do without the brewers' yeast if you used unpasteurized natural honey and rely on its yeasts to ferment. It'd be slow--think months not days--but it would have that great wild-yeast sour taste...

9:34 PM, April 16, 2009  
Anonymous kim said...

your photos and writing are gorgeous and funny. Brezsny is my star reader too, maybe its an LA thing. good luck on the next batch of nettle beer and greetings from Neuchatel, Suisse.

10:18 PM, April 16, 2009  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Hey Nate - do you use a meter of some kind to measure the alcohol content & see if it is ready to bottle?

Kim, I have been following RB's advice since the mid nineties and sometimes it's just plain spooky how close to the mark he is with me.

9:04 AM, April 17, 2009  
Blogger Chip Ahoy said...

Hydrometer, it's a floaty thing, used to check specific gravity. Gussing when a batch is finished can cause problems as you well know. Where problems means hilarity on picnics. I find lessons learned through experience are the most lasting.

Measure starting or original gravity, OG, and measure finishing gravity FG.

Secondary fermentations result in smoother and clearer beer.

Cheers to your efforts.

10:49 PM, April 17, 2009  
Anonymous Claudia said...

I would recommend getting a good book on the subject. I've been making wine for a few years now and don't know what I would have done without Terry Garey's excellent advice and recipes in The Joy of Home Winemaking. Probably a lot of mistakes. I'm sure there are expert directions out there for beer as well.

4:03 AM, April 18, 2009  
Anonymous jann said...

I commend you for your persistence in making the beer~I can't say I would ever attempt such an undertaking by are so talented!!

3:00 AM, April 21, 2009  
Blogger Judith Klinger said...

The nettles are following me! I had a whole nettle newsletter in my inbox this morning. Apparently nettle tea will fix my prostate (!) and my allergies.... Of course I thought of you.

12:51 PM, April 23, 2009  
Anonymous june2 said...

I also have a great book recommendation - The Joy of Homebrewing. It is an entertaining read and very knowledgable and down to earth at the same time, with lots of inspiring recipes, (I made dandelion wine). I read it front to back like a novel.

9:56 PM, May 01, 2009  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Thanks kindly for the visits. I so enjoy your company.

9:30 PM, May 14, 2009  
Blogger DK said...

I think the idea to use raw sugar or honey is an important element of this recipe, something I ignored. Another important step is to ensure I have the proper yeast. Third, I should pay heed to the "warm spot" fermentation technique. The brew must be quite far along in the fermentation process before it gets sealed into bottles.

Hmm :) I am a homebrewer and I give a big YES to all of these. You need to let your beer completely finish fermenting before you bottle it. Carbonation is not caused by main fermentation, but by a tiny amount of sugar added right before bottling for the suspended yeast. Also, make sure you fill only appropriate bottles and with the appropriate amount or they have a chance for exploding.

Honey (and sugars, period) are what make the alcohol, so make sure you add the proper amount according to the recipe. As for yeast, you must get the right kind depending on the gravity of the beer.

I highly recommend going to a local brewing store for help!

1:02 AM, May 15, 2009  
Anonymous zested said...

I've just stumbled on your blog, and I love it - I've added it to my reader. I was just introduced to nettles, and after I spent what seemed like hours washing them, was quite dour about their prospects. But they made a passable pasta and a shockingly good ice cream sauce, so I'm doubly intrigued by this brewing idea. Thanks!

3:07 AM, May 15, 2009  
Blogger L Vanel said...

KCiTN, thank you for the advice!

zested, Whoa, nettle ice cream sauce sounds interesting!

7:39 AM, May 15, 2009  

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