Kind of a specialized interest for a mainly literary blog, but sometimes I can’t help myself. See the Brewing section of my personal website for herbal beer recipes and more.

carboy cozyI have a new homebrew recipe up at my author site: Sassafras-Black Birch Beer. I made it back in early October, but because I keep my house so cold, the bottles are only now becoming ready to drink.

I’m even more excited about another brew that’s still in the fermenter, an African mocha mugwort stout made with six ounces of organic, fair trade, shade-grown Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee, four ounces of organic cacao nibs, and a spice blend suggested by Rachel, based on the Swahili-style coffee she used to drink back when she was a journalist in East Africa: ginger, grains of paradise (a type of African pepper), and black cardamom. It’s sitting in the laundry room wearing the carboy cozy Rachel knitted last year (pictured at left), because the dehumidifier motor keeps the room at a more constant temperature than the main part of the house. Anyway, presuming that that beer also turns out, I’ll post the recipe sometime in December.

I realize it’s a little odd to post things of such narrow, specialized appeal as all-grain homebrew recipes to an author website, but if I posted them here I’m afraid they’d get lost amid Via Negativa’s 5000+ posts. Eventually I’ll probably migrate all my brewing recipes and essays to a dedicated site, but it’s not a high priority. Creating new websites isn’t nearly as big a thrill as it used to be — unlike homebrewing, which is just as exciting now as it was when I got started 15 years ago.

One thing I like about recipes is they can’t be copyrighted, though the writing itself of course can be. They could be patented, I suppose, but otherwise they are fundamentally open source: anyone can copy them or modify a recipe, and they don’t even need to credit the originator. What a relief, in this world where even some genomes are now treated as intellectual property!

I have a new post up at All-grain homebrewing for lazy cheapskates. The heart of it is a detailed list of stuff I’ve found I don’t really need for brewing the kind of ale I like, so it’s too specialized for a post here. But the lengthy intro might be of interest to more general readers. Here’s how it starts:

One of the best books I’ve ever read about gardening was Ruth Stout’s No-Work Garden Book, which advocated the use of a heavy hay or straw mulch and dismissed the idea that gardeners have to cultivate, make compost, or even pull weeds very often. Stout’s system worked for anyone who had enough space to do it in, which included me as a kid. But I found I still enjoyed the strenuous labor of the French-intensive biodynamic system, double-digging raised beds and the whole nine yards. The big problem with Stout’s method, of course, was that it neglected the need many gardeners feel to putter in their gardens.

Read the rest.

Proverbs from around the world, found in the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs; Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher; Yiddish Proverbs by Hanan J. Ayalti; and various compendia on the web

beer bottle-shaped coffin at a coffin workshop in Ghana
beer bottle-shaped coffin at a coffin workshop in Ghana
(Creative Commons-licenced photo by Eleanor Hartzell)

He who drinks beer, thinks beer.
American (attributed to Washington Irving) and Danish

Barley isn’t grown for donkeys.

If you do not have patience you cannot make beer.

Young sugarcane gives no beer.

A fine beer may be judged with one sip, but it’s better to be thoroughly sure.

Froth is no beer.

Drunks are like beer: a lot of foam but little strength.

Better weak beer than an empty cask.

It never rains in the brew hall.

Where beer is brewed, they have it good.

One mouth doesn’t taste the beer.

When the bee comes to your house, let her have beer. You many want to visit the bee’s house someday.

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.
American (sometimes attributed to George Carlin)

Ale sellers should not be tale tellers.

A house full of daughters is a cellar full of sour beer.
Dutch (sour beer—lambic—is highly desirable for blending with other beers in Dutch-speaking parts of Belgium)

The innkeeper loves the drunkard, but not for a son-in-law.

Caution is the parent of delicate beer glasses.

The beer is difficult to strain.
Anyuak (explanation here)

The best brewer sometimes makes bad beer.

That beer’s of your own brewing, and you must drink it.
Dutch and Czech

Beer may warm you up, but it doesn’t dress you.

Life is more than beer and skittles.

Milk for a child, meat for an adult, beer for the old.

Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish.
Proverbs 31:6 (New International Version)

There are more old drunks than old doctors.

He that buys land buys many stones,
He that buys flesh buys many bones,
He that buys eggs buys many shells,
But he who buys good ale buys nothing else.

Beautiful beer can come from an ugly barrel.

Beauty is in the eye of the beerholder.

The rabbi drains the bottle and tells others to be merry.

Turkey, heresy, hops and beer
came into England all in one year.

Man’s way to God is with beer in hand.

The mouth of a perfectly happy man is filled with beer.
Ancient Egyptian


If you know of additional proberbs that belong in this list, please leave them in the comments. I’m not so much interested in sayings about beer as in sayings that use beer or brewing to illuminate life. I’m sure that Africa is especially rich in such proverbs, but I haven’t been able to find very many on the internet.

sweet flag (Acorus calamus)

My friend Lucy’s farmer neighbors, who are named Brown and raise brown cows, have a large colony of sweet flag (Acorus calamus) — a favorite brewing herb of mine — growing in the boggy corner of a pasture, and since the cows weren’t eating it we stopped by to ask if we could dig some.

Nobody was home; they were all out in the barn castrating pigs. One of the Farmers Brown paused long enough to smile and say sure, take all you want. She was young, fit and efficient-looking with frighteningly white teeth.

It was dusk. The closest cows looked enormous as they chewed and steamed. I rolled under the electric fence, dug into the muck with a giant fork and came up with a savory tangle of white roots.

The aroma was unmistakeable, musky and strong, with hints of nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon—the quintessence of spice. It was more than mere imagination that led Walt Whitman to associate it with lust and the Lakota Indians to chew the root and rub it on their faces before going into battle in order to quell fear. Medieval Christians strewed the leaves on the floors of churches during holy week so its incense would rise from underfoot. A strong and complex smell can evoke such a mixture of emotional responses.

To me, sweet flag stands for something holy, too. This I believe: that no matter how crowded the earth gets, it will always have ungrazed corners and so-called vacant lots, feral, unclaimed or neglected places that together constitute an unoffical country whose flags are legion, albeit unrecognized by any government. Even as species disappear and ecosystems collapse, the natural world will remain sovereign and will still harbor inexpressible sweetness and delight.

There must’ve been enough sweet flag in that small corner of the pasture for 100 batches of beer. We stopped when we filled a small bag—if I need more, I know where to get it. The farmers were so good at their work, we never heard a squeal.

yarrow tops in flower
yarrow tops in flower at the beginning of July
You may remember my four-part series of photo-essays on meadow plants and butterflies back at the beginning of July (start here). That first morning I ventured out with my camera, I was feeling especially creative, and I think my photos reflect that to some extent. Half-way along, I happened on the mountain mint, which I intended to harvest a bit of for tea, and noticed it was growing amidst the flowering yarrow—one of my long-time favorite brewing herbs. Why not try brewing with both of them, I thought.

Up until that moment, I’d been intending to make some kind of very standard beer style—an IPA or a porter—and simply substitute yarrow for the usual hops, largely as a proof of concept. I knew from my own experience as well as from the literature that yarrow was an exceedingly reliable hops substitute, and that its leaves were better for bittering and its flowering tops for imparting aroma, but I’d always mixed one or the other in with lots of other things as part of various gruit mixes. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what it could do by itself? But now I had a new and more poetic idea: a summer meadow ale. And the more thought about it, the more fun I thought it might be to try and capture the essence of our flowering meadow—to put its genius loci in a bottle.

I didn’t entirely abandon the first strategy, though. I dried some yarrow leaves to use as one would bittering hops, so I could save the tops for the end of the boil as one would with aroma hops. I found a pint of dried lemon balm from July of last year that I didn’t know I had, so that had to go into the mix, and roasted dandelion roots seemed appropriately meadowy as well. My friend Lucy gave me a pint of dried red raspberry leaves from her garden, and since their flavor is kind of subtle, I decided to add them when most of the fermentation was complete to give them as much of a chance against the mint and yarrow as possible. I also added a cup of fresh wild bergamot leaves from my own garden at the same time, for the same reason.

The beer exceeded my expectations and then some. I’ve posted the recipe in the brewing section of my personal website. To repeat just a bit of what I wrote there: Despite my years of herbal brewing this was, believe it or not, the first I’ve ever brewed with mint, but it won’t be the last. Now I can see why the Russians are so fond of mint-flavored beer. I always figured it would taste too much like chewing gum or mouthwash, but nothing could be further than the truth: malt and mint seem made for each other. Nor does the mint overwhelm the other flavors, which I notice more strongly the farther down I get into a bottle. The earthy, nutty flavor of the dandelion root (or is it the Victory malt?) slowly emerges, as does the bergamot and the yarrow. I’m not sure I can detect the other herbs, but I invited Lucy to stop by this afternoon and give her assessment, since she has particularly acute taste buds. She is, like me, a big fan of mountain mint, and agreed that it went well with the malt. But she said there was also a strong layer of what she described as smokiness or muskiness—a complicated mix of flavors with “something foxy to it.” I’ll drink to that.

I have two new, short posts up in the Brewing section of my eponymous website: “What is gruit?” and — even more basic — “What is beer?” In both cases, I kind of feint and dodge. Beer terminology, like brewing itself, is gloriously imprecise, and that’s one reason why I like it. I tried winemaking for a little while, but the results were not too impressive. It turns out that you need a fanatic attention to detail to make decent wine. With brewing, as I proved to my own satisfaction last October, you can avoid measuring anything, throw in extra ingredients on a whim, and still end up with a drinkable beer.

How are these “big questions”? Let the Raramuri — these guysexplain:

“God taught the Raramuri how to make corn beer,” says Guadalupe Espino Palma, the traditional governor of the Norogachi district. “We make offerings of tesguino to God himself, and He drinks it also. We use tesguino for dancing, and we enjoy drinking it.” Even getting drunk is a spiritual act, he explains.


And during this corn beer communion, in place of “happy Easter,” the Raramuri will say to one another “bosasa” — “fill up, be satisfied, be contented.”

pitching the yeast

Apparently possession of homebrewing supplies combined with seditious views can now get you charged with terrorism in the USA. I hope the new photoset by Rachel Rawlins documenting my most recent brewing activity will suffice to show that the suspicious-looking bottles currently on my counter are perfectly harmless. The 72 photos clearly show that my level of technological sophistication wouldn’t be enough to produce an effective water balloon, let alone a Molotov cocktail.

For any homebrewers who might be reading this, it’s a new recipe, and a preliminary taste at bottling (before addition of the bottling sugar) suggests that it will be floral and aromatic but possibly not quite bitter enough. It’s an unhopped beer, i.e. a gruit, with alehoof (ground ivy, gill-over-the-ground) as the main antiseptic agent and Norway spruce tips and lemonbalm as the other major herbs, along with juniper berries and coriander seed. Malts included 8 lb. 2-row pale malt, 1 lb. Breiss Victory, 1 lb. Western Munich and 1/2 lb. caramel 120L in a single-step infusion mash. I added about a pound of honey at mash-out.

spruce in wort

This was my first spruce beer, and I was concerned not to let the turpentine flavors come through, so I added only about 2 quarts of fresh, very young spruce tips 15 minutes before the end of the boil. Based on the preliminary tasting, this strategy seems to have succeeded. I’m not proud of using corn sugar at bottling, but I had an old package of it lying around and was all out of dried malt extract. We rushed the fermentation a bit so we could get it in bottles in time for Rachel to bring back a couple in her luggage. So it’ll have to be conditioned in the bottle for a bit longer to compensate.

take maximum practical quantity back to UK

Rachel was a big help, especially at bottling time, and certainly deserved a larger share of the haul. Do watch the slideshow or otherwise browse the complete set, which includes many cultural and natural interludes and I think conveys just how much fun this kind of experimental brewing can be.

UPDATE (May 21): Rachel has written her own blog post about “Brewing with Bonta.”

edited excerpt from a chat

—First thing I did when I got back from D.C. was wash all my empties. Because bottling beer is complex enough without having to worry about cleaning all the bottles yet. If they’re already clean, all they need is a soak in sanitizer solution.

See, brewing is a great motivator.

—Heh. So you have a basic set of bottles which you reuse all the time?

—Yes. They’re brown. Too much light can spoil beer.

—Do they have the cloudy shoulders that come with age and jostling?

—I don’t think so. They don’t get jostled much.

—I think all the soft drinks and beer bottles in the various African countries I’ve been to have that.

It shows up more on bottles with a curvier shape and darker glass. Maybe yours don’t have a shoulder.

—Maybe not enough of one.

—Have you ever collected sea glass?

—Only rarely. I don’t get to the sea much, you know.

—Ah, your loss.

But you know what I mean, all rubbed and opaque but with the promise of translucence.


—So if you jostled your beer a bit more (which I don’t recommend, obviously) then you’d get well-worn beer glass with the same quality ’round its shoulders.

If you put sea glass in your mouth it becomes more jewel-like, but only until the spit vanishes. But it tastes of salted sun.

What poets and artists refer to as inspiration, other people tend to call impulse. So it was on impulse — I mean, by inspiration — that I threw together my latest homebrew the other week. I had a gallon of too-sweet cider that I thought I might ferment with a packet of beer yeast, so I began heating it on the stove (to kill competing yeasts and bacteria). Then I thought, if I’m going to use a whole packet of yeast, maybe I should throw in some ancient, rock-hard dried malt extract as well, and make it a two-gallon, hybrid kind of brew. I started adding various spices, the kind you mull cider with: a stick of cinnamon, some cloves, anise seed, etc. Then I looked at the clock, realized I’d just have enough time to mash and sparge before I had to leave at 10:00, so I thought what the heck — might as well use up all the odds and ends of malted barley I have lying around, some of it four years old. I quickly assembled my hand-cranked Corona mill and got to work. By this time I’d added two or three more gallons of water — in my rush, I’d sort of lost count.

The grains ended up being about 2/3 what I normally use for a five-gallon batch of beer, I thought, but with the extra sugars, it should be about enough for four gallons. I brought the water up to the usual temperature, dumped in the grain bag, swirled it around a bit, and put the lid on the pot. I’ve found, by the way, that that’s really all I ever have to do to maintain mash temperature: a large volume of liquid in a lidded steel brewpot doesn’t drop more than a couple of degrees in an hour at room temperature. There’s absolutely no reason to do the usual homebrewer thing and use a picnic cooler mash tun. Since I hadn’t added any wheat or unmalted grains, I didn’t need to go through any complicated step-infusion process. An hour at 150 degrees F should be enough to accomplish the essential magic of converting malt to maltose.

Sparging, for me, consists of lifting the grain bag out and placing it in an enormous colander (from a Swedish vegetable steamer/juicer) over another pot or bucket, and slowly dribbling hot water over it with a soup ladle. It’s kind of meditative, especially if you have some good blues to listen to. I’m sure there are more efficient ways to sparge, but I don’t have much room in this small house for lots of extra gear, and besides, who really cares about efficiency? Getting every last drop of fermentable sugar off the grain is for industrial brewers watching their bottom line. I think that kind of outlook can be damaging to the more generous, experimental and joyful spirit of homebrewing. Besides, I knew I’d be replenishing my honey supply that afternoon, so I could easily spare a couple pounds of that.

When I got back mid-afternoon, I turned the stove back on, brought the wort to a boil, and yes, added some local wildflower honey. That morning I had also remembered to sterilize and refrigerate a gallon of water to add at the very end, to aid in the rapid cooling of the wort. So I boiled the wort for about an hour and a half, until it came down to the three-gallon mark.

As usual, I skipped the hops. Given how quickly the flavor of hops can disintegrate in storage, there’s probably a reason why the majority of American homebrewers can’t afford to be as slack as I am. I did, however, use some quite fresh dried mugwort that I’d gathered just a couple weeks before — somewhere around a pint of it, I guess. That was the primary antimicrobial bittering agent. I scrounged up a few more odds and ends of herbs and spices, I’m not sure exactly what. I remember adding some calamus and licorice root and a handful of coriander seeds, as well as some Indian sarsaparilla, which always goes especially well with mugwort. There might’ve been other things.

I don’t normally brew this way. In fact, this was the first time in many years that I didn’t carefully weigh and measure everything and write it all down for future reference. But I have to say, it felt liberating not to. I wanted to see just how many beermaking rules I could get away with violating and still have a drinkable ale at the end of it. I’ve never owned a hydrometer, so I’m used to not knowing the alcohol content of what I brew. Some brewpubs are so geeky about this, they even list the specific gravities of each beer on their chalkboard menus — as if that’s going to be meaningful to anyone but brewers. But I really think taste and not alcohol content should be our focus. Also, in my regular culinary activities, making meals and baking bread, I like to get away from the written word as much as possible and concentrate on internalizing methods and processes rather than recipes. Why not extend that to beermaking?

Two weeks later, at bottling time, I did attempt to measure the bottling sugar (more dried malt extract). But unfortunately it clumped up and spilled out over my half-cup measure into the brew. I was shooting for 3/4 of a cup, but might’ve ended up with a bit more than that, I thought. I started to worry that the bottles would over-carbonate and foam over when opened.

That was a week ago. This afternoon, I opened the first bottle to see if the stuff was actually O.K. To my delight, it fizzed to just the proper degree. There’s a pretty full mouth-feel, but more importantly, it tastes all right! It’s not the best beer I’ve ever brewed, but it’s far from the worst. In fact, I have to say it’s pretty damn drinkable. I’m having another one right now. The second-quarter moon is shining, and I think it’s just warm enough for some night-time porch sitting…

watch on Vimeowatch on YouTube

My first videopoem to use footage from another, equally fun hobby, homebrewing. The poem by D. H. Lawrence is now in the public domain, and I found it rather quickly because my copy of his complete poems is quite throughly annotated with marginalia by its previous owner — my poetry sensei, Jack McManis. Jack had put a big check-mark beside the title and underlined all the best parts, helping me see past its — to my mind — overly didactic framing.

Here’s the text.

Terra Incognita
by D. H. Lawrence

There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of
vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps,
we know nothing of, within us.
Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement
of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices
there is a marvellous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty
and fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life
and me, and you, and other men and women
and grapes, and ghouls, and ghosts and green moonlight
and ruddy-orange limbs stirring the limbo
of the unknown air, and eyes so soft
softer than the space between the stars,
and all things, and nothing, and being and not-being
alternately palpitant,
when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure
of Know Thyself, knowing we can never know,
we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort
and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight
as the fuchsia does, dangling her reckless drop
of purple after so much putting forth
and slow mounting marvel of a little tree.