Sunday, September 27, 2009

(Sort of) Brewing... Finally!

Jenlain Ambrée (or Bière de Garde) in its shimmering copper garb
The original Budweiser (Budvar)

The grandeur of Bordeaux

Strange figures, weird figures in the mist of Bordeaux

I've spent some time in the brewery, and not a moment too soon. Gerolf allowed me into his concoction room last week for the brewing of what I assumed was his blonde. It was a bit like the day of the rabbits; I did a lot of observing and not too much participating, but it was helpful nonetheless.

When I awoke at the usual time, Gerolf had been up for a couple of hours heating the water and "mashing in" the malted barley. He heats the water to a specific degree, adds the grains, and lets them soak at various temperatures to extract the sugars and proteins from the barley. Gerolf's set-up is as follows: two vessels for heating the water (called kettles... I think both have 1000 liters in capacity), a smaller mash tun to soak the malt, four fermenting/conditioning tanks, a filtration system, and a bottling machine that can fill six bottles at once, plus a variety of hoses, tubes, and tools. I stepped into the steamy brewery as he was rinsing the bed of grains to get the last bit of extracted sugars from the malt. This sweet liquid was pumped back into one of the kettles that had heated up the water previously and was further heated to reach a boil. When it boiled, Gerolf added the hops and allowed this "wort" to boil for another 1.5-2 hours. Finally, he pumped this hot wort (it's not "beer" until it has fermented) through the filter and into one of the fermentation tanks, where the added yeast will gobble up all that delicious maltose, maltitriose, and whatever other sugars are yeast-friendly. Pretty much all of this was performed by Gerolf while I hovered over his shoulder, but he did allow me to mop up and clean the mess on the floor.

Yesterday I helped Gerolf clean his bottling machine, which I assume is in preparation for a bottling session. Looking forward to it. I think a total of 10 beers are made on a regular basis here, 6 of which I've tried. He makes a blonde and an ambrée, three fruit blondes (raspberry, blueberry, and peach), a chestnut blonde, a walnut ambrée, a truffle blonde, and a blonde and ambrée with cocoa beans. They are all quite lively with carbonation, fruity on the palate (some mellow tropical fruits), and just ever-so-slightly acidic, which makes them refreshing though I'm not sure if this is intentional. The blonde and ambrée thing is typical of this area, and of France and Belgium in general. It basically means the brewery's light and dark options. The concept of different "styles" of beer is largely an American phenomenon, where the cliché of a melting pot holds true in the brewing world. Without a lenghty brewing history, American brewers have looked to their roots to figure out what to brew, and with the adventurous craft brewing revolution in the 70s and 80s the idea was to provide more and better choices for beer drinkers, hence all the styles we have available. In France, you really just brew beer. It is what it is - it's the French "style".

Anyway, in other news, I took a trip to Bordeaux and spent most of the day on my feet, exploring the beautiful architecture and the riches that were (and still are) the wine trade. I walked up and down the city, entered a wine cave-turned-museum that was a bit over my head because wine is still very foreign to me, and found a lovely market with charcuteries, fromageries, boulangeries, and fruit and vegetable stands. I bought my very own chèvre, a loaf of bread, and an apple and enjoyed a very French picnic in a garden in front of the endless rows of wine merchant houses, facing the Garonne River. I have Erica to thank for the cheese! It was a lightly-aged, creamy, tangy cheese with just a hint of that goatiness that you either love or hate. I happen to enjoy it, and the mini-wheel kept me satiated for the 20 miles I think I walked that day.

This Tuesday, my birthday, is also the day I will be driving to Belgium with Gerolf. I know this won't be the last time I will be in Belgium, but it will certainly be the first and is shaping up to be a whirlwind, life-altering trip. I plan to take full advantage of the couchsurfing site. On the menu: a visit with Urbain Coutteau of De Struise, perhaps a little detour to Westvleteren Abbey, a night with a Belgian couchsurfer, a visit to Picobrouwerij Alvinne, an attempt to convince De Ranke Brouwers and/or Brasserie Thiriez to apprentice me, and puh-LENTY more in and around these destinations. I'm not planning on sleeping for a week.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Beer

Gerolf dresses the rabbit

Perigueux: this dead-end alley fooled me

Finally, I will be posting a few pictures. I've taken so many it's just made the task of choosing which ones to post so much more daunting, hence the stalling.

But first, what have I been doing for the past several days? Well, I've been doing a lot of the usual farmwork: harvesting green beans, planting lettuce and chard, picking apples, getting the knees dirty. I've also helped Gerolf with a couple of very odd property maintenance jobs, like spraying a fields-worth of ferns with some unknown smelly substance, and igniting patches of dead blackberry bushes, creating flames that licked the wispy grey stratus clouds. I've also enjoyed some entertainment. I visited nearby Perigueux, capital of the Dordogne region. It's a beautiful little city, replete with its own rich history that is reflected in some of the beautiful architecture. They even have a few ancient ruins. At the farm, I've been getting in a bunch of solid reading time. My books of choice: Great Beers of Belgium by Michael Jackson (betcha didn't know he was into beer, eh?) and Tim Webb's Good Beer Guide: Belgium.

I'm getting a renewed excitement about my future plans here in Europe. First of all, I should be helping Gerolf brew tomorrow. For a while I was a bit disappointed that he doesn't brew very often. I still would like to brew more, but I'm getting a second wind of enthusiasm for this journey as I plan for the coming months. Gerolf has been extremely helpful in making contacts with brewers and cheesemakers. A friend of his might be able to accommodate me on his sheep's cheese farm in the French Pyrenees, and Gerolf helped me get in contact with one of the owners of Brouwerij De Ranke in Belgium. I plan to meet the owner on a trip to Belgium later this month, and if he likes me (or if I learn French) I might be able to work out an apprenticeship with the brewery. Perhaps a more promising lead is with Brasserie Thiriez in Esquelbecq (northern France). During a visit to Allagash Brewing in Portland, ME, I met the head brewer, Jason Perkins, and heard from him about an American who did a similar trip at Thiriez. I emailed Daniel Thiriez, the owner and brewer, and got a potentially positive reply. Again, he requested that we meet in person, and, again, it would help if I spoke some French. Ah, c'est la vie, non? During this quick trip to Belgium later this month I will also be joining Picobrouwerij Alvinne and Brouwerij Huyghe for their respective brewing days. Huyghe is world-renowned for their head-spinning Delirium Tremens beer. Check it out, it's got a picture of a pink elephant on the bottle. In fact, my head is spinning thinking about this whole experience. I've decided from now on to skirt the easy targets; I'm truly living what I see as the dream of every young brewer. I've been able to speak with and entertain the idea of an apprenticeship with handfuls of the world's absolute best brewers. I'm not even sure what an easy target is, either; nearly every one of these world-class brewers has at least responded to my emails, most of them positively. Of course, I haven't yet set foot into any of their breweries, but patience is a virtue and it's still early. I'm living the dream in theory.

And, speaking of beer, here's what I've been able to try, given that I'm in the middle of nowhere. First, before I stepped onto a plane to leave the country, I took a road trip up to Canada and on the way stopped at an awesome beer bar in Portland, Maine, called Novare Res. There I found it: a beer from De Struise Brouwers. My first from the glorious brewery I might be working at in January. It was a luscious, opaque, creamy black brew called Pannepot. Lightly spiced with a chewy mouthfeel, it made me think for an instant I was rolling tropical fruits (papaya), figs, licorice, and dark chocolate around in my mouth. At the strength of wine, it warmed the soul without being too offensively alcoholic in taste. Wow. What a beer! In France I've tried to sample some local beers. La Nonnette from Brasserie Du Canardou was a lighter (in alcohol) dark beer, with spelt and buckwheat. It reminded me of a robust porter and was very well balanced with pleasant roasty notes and some grainy, spicy flavors from the alternative cereals. Belzebuth from Brasserie Grain D'Orge was a whopper of a beer; its 13% alcohol by volume was certainly apparent - a little too harsh for my tastes. It glowed a deep honey brass and possessed a firm light malt backbone, but it was just too strong and too sweet. Oh, I enjoyed it, don't get me wrong, but I would have brewed it a little differently. If I could brew.

Pannepot, from Struise

With my Couchsurfing buddies

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Watership Down

Today (Tuesday) I received a quick, brutal introduction to the cycle of life on a farm. It was fascinating and absorbing at first, with a tinge of queasiness, but by the end of the morning I had already adapted to the process and the shock had worn off. This morning we slaughtered eight rabbits. Well, Gerolf slaughtered them. I took pictures, held open the trash bag for the skins and guts, and cleaned out the cages.

This post is certainly not for the faint of heart, for lovers of rabbits, or for vegans. So go read People Magazine, Pamela Anderson.

Soon after breakfast, my stomach still churning about a bolus of bread, Nutella, and coffee, Gerolf lead me to the rabbit cages and explained the process of slaughtering the rabbits. He said he used to hit them on the nose first, then the head with his hands; after years of this it became too difficult for him, I suspect both physically and emotionally. Today he used a wooden broomstick to knock the rabbit on the head several times. After the first hit the rabbit is stunned; the second probably kills it; the third is to be sure. Gerolf then grasped the feet and head firmly and pulled to separate the skull from the spine - this makes absolute certain the rabbit is dead and also makes cleaving the head from the body during butchering much easier and cleaner. It was tough to watch all this. The worst were the initial hits on the head, as the rabbits would pump their legs and twitch uncontrollably. Though this was undoubtedly an automatic response from the brain, it was certainly not pleasant to observe. What made me watch was an overpowering curiosity, both of the traditional method of preparing a home-raised meal and of the biological phenomenon of death and the construction of the body of a rabbit.

The next step was to skin and dress the body. Gerolf hung each rabbit by feeding rope through its heels and tying it to a tree limb. the fur and skin was cut at this point and peeled away, very cleanly, down the length of its body; I was told this process was easier when the body was warm. the skin was cut at the head and thrown away (he used to save the pelts and sell them for the price of a beer), along with the eyes. The stomach was then cut open to remove the innards, which were thrown away with the exception of the liver, pancreas, kidneys, lungs, and heart, which were saved for the production of paté. The hands and feet were then cut and the body was bare, pink, and ready for butchering.

In the kitchen Gerolf used a cleaver to separate the two sides of the abdominals (a specialty, he says), the two front legs (his favorite meat), the two hind legs, and the dorsal and ventral halves of the abdomen, or torso. I was on sink duty, using cold water to wash off excess blood and remove the few strands of fur left on the muscles.

And that was half my day. I have to say that, despite the morbidity of the whole thing, I was more fascinated and interested than anything. They are, unfortunately or not (depending on the situation), some very beautiful creatures with sleek, dark coats, long, soft ears, and gentile, handsome faces. The variety is native to the region, Aquitaine, in the department of Dordogne, also known as the Perigord region. The rabbit is known as lapin chèvre in French, "goat rabbit" in English.

I suppose that is life on the farm. It does make a good meal, especially when simmered in Laubicherie Ambrée beer.

First Day in Sarlande

J’ai arrivé! I tumbled into Paris a few moons ago (counting time by nights and days is useless, given the time difference), and the trip was uneventful and full of packaged sandwiches and bad coffee. I will save you most of the details except for the flight from Dublin to Paris during which I met two young, pleasant Parisians who were patient with me as I practiced my French with them; they also suggested I visit downtown Paris (specifically, Luxembourg park) during my five hours of down-time at the airport. My first non-airport meal was a Big Mac. Isn’t it ironic. I had to use the bathroom but the French McDonald’s dude said I had to buy something first.

Anyway, fast-forward to my arrival to Limoges. I had a very good time surfing on a couch at Kris’ apartment in the city. As soon as I lugged my suitcase through the door I was greeted by Kris and two of his friends, who served me some food, too much wine, and a lovely cheese platter. I forgot to take a picture, but the Camembert and an abbey-style cheese were especially luxurious. The next morning I tossed around a football (the American type) with Kris and a friend, and they then drove me directly to La Ferme de Laubicherie. It really is in the middle of nowhere, and I’m not even sure if Kris found his way back. Somehow I doubt it.

Merde, did I eat well that night. The farm is also an inn of sorts, and a Belgian couple was staying for a night. Gerolf, who is Belgian himself, is the man in charge, my boss, and he is also the brewer (and I former cheesemaker, he tells me). His partner in business, Jacqueline, keeps us big boys in check and is a phenomenal (and humble) cook. That night we were served a zucchini pie, baked carrots, potatoes with bacon, chicken, the most tender and flavorful rabbit meat, a cheese plate with Tomme and Coulommiers, among others, apple cake for dessert, and some top-notch Bergerac wine from a wine-making friend of Gerolf’s. Of course, all the vegetables are from the garden here at the farm, which always makes a meal plus spécial. I polished off the night with a sample of one of Gerolf’s beers, one that I wouldn’t have thought would be my first of his selection. I tried the peach blonde ale, and it was quite full of character. Not my favorite type of beer, but certainly tasty nonetheless.

Today I helped Gerolf in the garden, cutting pumpkins, feeding the rabbits some tough zucchini, picking green beans, and clearing the retired patch of pumpkins for winter. We again hosted a (different) Belgian couple tonight and ate just as well: salad with a hard-boiled egg, scalloped potatoes, a tart zucchini dish (almost like ratatoullie), some mouth-watering lamb, another cheese platter, more Bergerac, and leftover apple cake. I love leftovers.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to. Some work and a lot of eating. I will post pictures and more details about the farm soon. Be well, do good work, and keep in touch. Like Garrison Keillor.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Vive La France

As I write this, I’m gently swaying forward and back in a complimentary rocking chair at Logan airport with a bright, clear view of a Boston ‘burb. A cute little marina juts into a marshy mix of blue sea and green grass. When this is published, I will have reached Europe, since I’m writing this in Word because I’m too cheap to buy any internet time. I’m starting to feel the gravity of the situation now: that I’ll be in a strange land, listening to sounds I never thought humans could articulate with their mouths, drinking and eating concoctions my virgin palate couldn’t imagine in its dreams (if palates dream). I’m feeling good, probably because I’m pretty blazed off a giant energy drink I had to guzzle before passing through security. But I’m uncharacteristically relaxed about the trip, and that’s, paradoxically, a little unsettling. Ah well, I’m sure everything will go smoothly.

Most of you already know, but just to reiterate: I’m at the point of no return here on a trip to Europe to both explore a new continent and learn the art and science of brewing beer. I hope to spend some time on a cheese farm or two as well, hence the title of my blog (washed rind cheeses are often bathed in beer). I’ll be starting in France, at La Ferme de Laubicherie, and will possibly find a brewery or cheese farm in Italy or Denmark after that. In January I have a tentative plan to work with De Struise Brouwers in Belgium, a growing brewery with plenty of hype and the tastiest of beers to back it up. After this stay I’m hoping to jig on over to Scotland and Ireland for the spring and summer, where a couple brewery farms accept volunteers. Nearly all of this plan is tentative, and I’m expecting changes of plans. I’ll take what I can get but I’m shooting for the moon.

For my friends, I’m sorry if I didn’t get to see you, but I’ll be back soon enough. Last night I was lucky enough to get a fresh meal from my mom’s garden and some well-wishes from two of the most gorgeous girls around; my sister, Linnet, and my niece, Katya, gave me some Skype time and Katya made my jaw turn to rubber with her cuteness. I’m a lucky uncle. I tucked myself into bed under what seemed to be a full moon, white and glowing with its lunar confidence. Sleep was short but deep.

What Goes With Cheese?

Here it is! The long-awaited Orchard Hill Breadworks blog entry!

This summer I worked three or four days a week at this bakery. It’s a half-minute drive from my house, which was luxurious in a sense because I had to wake up before dawn bent over to show us its crack. I would rise to the most jarring alarm at 3:45 AM on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, force-feed myself a banana or some cereal (to avoid eating too many cookies in the morning) and head up the hill to meet Noah Elbers, the baker. Noah comes from a line of the most hard-working people, a breed that loves its community as hard as it works. That’s why Noah was just finishing the bake as I arrived at 4 in the morning. He’s up all night, throwing loaves into his gloriously handsome, wood-fired Spanish oven (with rotating floor) and keeping himself company, which he seems to do quite well.

I never actually baked anything (many of you were wondering that), but my duties were just as essential to running the operation smoothly and giving Noah some much-needed rest. I packed the still soft and steaming bread into bags for deliveries (which make up most of his sales), packed cookies, lined the bread baskets with cloths, brought in wood, swept, and attended to several other odd jobs. Kurt and Dave were the other regular employees, and they helped with farmer’s market sales and preparing the dough for baking. Kurt is Beavis and Dave is Butthead, and that’s a heartfelt compliment. I’ll miss those guys.

I highly suggest you check out the bakery’s website,, to see pictures, read Noah’s history and philosophy, and buy bread! I think it can be ordered online, and, absolutelycompletelyutterly without any sort of bias at all whatsoever, it’s gotta be the best bread on earth. Sure, Noah’s always looking for ways to achieve greater consistency and quality, but he’s just setting the bar higher and higher, that’s all.

It was an awesome summer. I got to work with, and get to know better, a friend I’ve known since childhood; I got used to working at odd hours (a useful life skill – they don’t teach that in Life Skills class… which I skipped anyway); I became more familiar with how a small business works; and I got to eat all the fresh sourdough bread my stomach could absorb.

I’m hungry.