Wednesday, February 16, 2005

John Barleycorn must die.

Unless your dream job is being a maltster and you've got a few acres to spare, you probably ought to draw the DIY line at growing your own barley. But if you have some time and a little space to spare, you needn't stop at hops if you want to claim full responsibility for the awe or disgust you inspire in your guests when they sip your latest experiment. And in case you think spices are only used in weird brews (grains of paradise in Ommegang? Who said that?), it's worth considering how they could work in your favor, from adding spruce tips to your pale ale for that colonial touch, or cacao nibs to that winter warmer for that dessert-in-a-glass experience.
Brewer Randy Mosher, in his exquisitely-detailed if unfortunately-titled Radical Brewing, points out that there's an extreme quality difference between ingredients sold at brewing supply shops *ahem* and those which were personally crafted. Dried, pre-packaged Curaçao orange peel and coriander are two perfect examples. The nasty bitter pith from the orange - the one flavor you don't want in your beer - seems to be the predominant characteristic of the packaged version. That makes sense when you realize you're just getting huge chunks of chopped-up rind for your $1.79.
I'm not suggesting that everyone go out and start growing their own bitter oranges, but consider this: most all the citrus trees you buy at your local nursery are grafted to Seville orange rootstock. When trees are left unattended for a few years, it's not uncommon for growth from the rootstock to aggressively extend itself as a branch from the base of the tree, at which point it begins to compete with the other branch for the resources of the roots. If my experience is any indication, the bitter orange often wins out. I've met dozens of people who talk about the mysterious "lemon tree" in their backyard that gives them these sour little orange fruits. If you know anyone like that, offer to help take all that inedible fruit off their hands. Take them home, scrub them down, zest them with a microplane peeler into a mason jar topped off with vodka, and voilá! You've just gone and made yourself some darn fancy flavorin' for that next batch of witbier...
Wow, that was a hell of a tangent. But I digress.

Coriander's another one that bears mention. At one point, while we were growing our own coriander (well, it started as cilantro, but I'll get to that) we pulled out a couple spice bags from the cupboard to compare them. What confused us immediately was that the contents of the bag from the *ahem* brewing supply shop varied so much in appearance and flavor from the bulk spices we'd bought at the hippie health food store. Again, brewer Randy Mosher:

"Much of the available coriander reeks strongly of celery seed, which I find very obtrusive in a beer. The type sold at Indian groceries is far superior... This larger, paler type has a softer, fruitier flavor and is better for beer than the ordinary kind, which can taste somewhat vegetal in beer."

And don't even get me started on the difference between both of those and the fresh coriander we collected from the garden. When our cute little culinary cilantro plant went ahead and bolted on us, we decided to skip the Thai meals for a little while and wait to see what we got. The result from one small plant was about 4 oz. of coriander, which we promptly dried and bagged for our next Belgian special. The quality of the aroma so far surpassed that of the packaged version that I'd strongly advise anyone who regularly brews Belgian style ales with even the smallest windowsill garden to splurge on 40 cents worth of seeds to grow their own and compare with what they've been buying.
One last word on spices. I've seen a number of different techniques for adding flavoring, but this one has worked very well for us in the past. Go forth and infuse!


Post a Comment

<< Home