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A Toast To … A spunky brewster

Here’s something new I learned this week.

In an article titled “How Did Hops Get In Our Beer?” in the January-February issue of Brew Your Own magazine, author Horst Dornbusch briefly covers the history of hops from ancient Rome to today. About midway through the article he references the medieval natural history text Physica by the noted Benedictine abbess, mystic, musician, scientist and Catholic saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). According to Dornbusch:

Perhaps the most consequential historical reference to hops in beer is a small passage in a book by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess, physician, composer, brewster, and adviser to the German Emperor Frederic Barbarossa … Hildegard describes the medicinal value and beverage application of the “hoppo” plant as “a hot and dry herb, with a bit of moisture,” which “is not of much use for a human being, since it causes his melancholy to increase, gives him a sad mind, and makes his intestines heavy.” Importantly, she observes that hoppo “putredines prohibet in amaritudine sua.” One Latin expert, Pricilla Throop, translates this as “its bitterness inhibits some spoilage in beverages to which it is added making them last longer.”

Hildegard’s name should be familiar to any devotee of medieval history, women’s history, or cultural history. As hinted by Dornbusch, she was an expert in disciplines as diverse as science, theology, philosophy, medicine, poetry, music, and linguistics, and left behind a vast body of writings related to the many subjects she studied. My introduction to her work was many years ago in college, when my girlfriend (now my wife) did extensive research on Hildegard for a senior thesis on medieval women mystics. Upon reading this article, I immediately asked my wife if she knew that Hildegard was a brewster*. She did not, although she was familiar with Hildegard’s scientific work on plants and animals.

I shouldn’t be surprised. The brewer-cum-mystic has been a part of beer culture since the beginning, from the hypothetical prehistoric brewer-shamans described by Dr. Patrick McGovern in his excellent book Uncorking the Past to the ancient Sumerian priestesses of Ninkasi, to the Trappist monastic brewing tradition that lives on today in Belgium and elsewhere. But I was unaware that Hildegard, who’s felt almost like a member of my extended family since my wife’s thesis on her years ago, had been part of that tradition.

Certain that Hildegard’s brewing accomplishments must have been as extensive as her accomplishments in every other field she delved into, I eagerly took to the Internet to find out more. But sadly, there wasn’t much to find. The reference to hops in the Physica is well-documented, and has earned Hildegard a place in inspiring brewers all over the world. But I’ve found nothing conclusive about any further contributions to brewing history: no recipes, descriptions, or anything like that. One questionable printed source credited Hildegard with being the first brewer to put hops in beer, but the BYO article would refute this; Dornbusch found references to hopped beer as early as 827 in the work of Saint Ansegisus of Fontanelle, an adviser to Charlemagne some three centuries before Hildegard was born.

Regardless of how deep her interest in brewing may or may not have gone, Hildegard was a true polymath, making significant contributions to every field she approached – at a time when few women had the opportunity to dabble in even one of these fields. As the new father of a little girl, she’s someone I want my daughter to know about. Honestly, she’s someone that everyone – brewer or beer drinker, woman or man – should know about.

And her testimony to the bitterness and antibacterial properties of hops in beverages should qualify her as an unofficial patron saint of that most revered of styles in the modern beer canon, a beer style as versatile as the great woman herself: the IPA. So next time I pour a glass of IPA, I’m raising a toast to St. Hildegard von Bingen: a Renaissance woman before there was a Renaissance.

*Though it’s generally only heard as a surname today in non-beer history circles, within beer history circles the term brewster is widely known as a traditional English term for a female brewer, though Martyn Cornell pointed out on his blog Zythophile back in 2007 that it’s not quite that simple.

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A Toast To … Space-age Polymers

O vessel clear, with name inscribed
From which my brew I oft imbibed;
From me too soon your life was took
When clumsily, the table I shook.

I miss your sides, I miss your rim,
I miss the lace upon your brim,
I miss the feel of my glass complete
And filled with lager, stout or wheat.

Perhaps, someday, I will replace
Your perfect sides, your perfect base;
But for today, I mourn the loss –
Into the bin, your shards I toss.

Me, “Ode to a Broken Glass”

I wrote that for a fellow member of the HomeBrewTalk.com online community a few years ago when he dropped and broke his favorite beer glass. Since then, I’ve recited it under my breath many times while disposing of the shattered remnants of my own glassware. See, I’m a bit of a klutz. Even sober I have inadvertently sent many innocent pint glasses crashing down to the tile floor of my kitchen (and hydrometers, but that’s a story for another day).

So when I was browsing the shelves at Austin Homebrew Supply recently, looking for last-minute impulse purchases I can’t live without, this caught my eye:

silipint

I’m sick of “good head” jokes too, so let’s just call it a day.

It’s called a Silipint. Although this version is obviously an Austin Homebrew exclusive, a quick dip into the Google pool shows that Silipints are available at tons of online retailers for around $10 each. As the name suggests, it’s a non-breakable silicone pint glass. After the salesperson helping me threw one to the store floor … hard … to demonstrate its durability, I bought two.

I’m sure some of you are laughing it off already. There’s a lot of debate these days about the “best glass” to serve beer in, and the Silipint might seem to have two strikes against it. It’s in the shape of an ordinary straight-sided shaker pint, which has gotten a lot of criticism from the “best glass” gurus. Not only is the Silipint is molded in that controversial shape, it’s also made from an unorthodox material that feels a little weird between your lips.

I’m not about to jump into the “best glass” debate, because many others out there are doing much better research on it than me – and to be honest, I don’t really care that much. I keep a variety of glasses, and I have preferred shapes for a few beer styles, but shaker pints are the foot soldiers of my glassware collection, and almost everything I pour from my kegerator goes into one.

But no matter the shape, glass breaks. Especially when I take it out of the house. So what’s a guy to drink from on a Sunday afternoon in the backyard, hovering over the grill or the brew kettle? Or when he brings a growler of homebrew to a picnic or a favorite BYOB barbecue joint?

Until now, the choice has been clear: red Solo cups. And I hate red Solo cups. And that goddamned song.

For all the spectrum of snobbery one can imagine in response to a drinking vessel that feels like a sex toy, I found that it actually drinks pretty well. Yes, the silicone does feel weird in your mouth, but it has some fortunate side effects in addition to durability. The rough texture is easy to hold onto (the container would survive being dropped, but we don’t want to waste beer, do we?). And during a brewing session on a Texas-hot summer day, the Silipint kept my Berliner Weisse cold enough to nurse for over an hour while I bounced between brewing tasks, longer than glass would have done.

The Silipint is now my vessel of choice to take with me when I bring homebrew out of the home. So I’m raising my glass today to toast the Silipint and the space-age silicone polymers that made it possible.

In other news, this week I ordered parts to build a portable draft system with a 20-ounce paintball CO2 tank. With that and my Silipint, all I’ll need is something to keep it cool and I’ll be able to bring a whole keg of draft homebrew with me wherever I go. The project will be finished a little late for the summer, but autumn in Texas still offers lots of chances for outdoor imbibing.

Tailgating? Not really my scene. But when I take my son for his first trick-or-treat this Halloween, I’d love to be the guy rolling around an ice-cold keg and offering tastes of pumpkin ale to the neighbors. Who wouldn’t?

A Toast To … Single-Serving Friends

The film Fight Club (and I assume the Chuck Palahniuk novel, which I haven’t read yet) introduced the concept of the “single-serving friend”. They’re the people you meet briefly – on a plane, or at a crowded bar in an unfamiliar town – and start talking. You enjoy each other’s company for a few hours, then go your separate ways, never to meet again. In Fight Club, it’s a humorously cynical observation: casual partners for pointless conversation. An illusion of companionship to get you through a few hours of another day on your inexorable way to the grave. A brief distraction, nothing more.

Coming home from a trip to Miami for my day job, I had a 2-hour layover in Atlanta. I stepped off the plane hungry, but mostly thirsty, and beelined to the SweetWater Draft House & Grill (thanks to GateGuru on iPhone for the tip) for some hopefully good beer, and whatever meal they could provide.

The place was small and packed. The line for available seats moved quickly, but by the time I got to the front, no one was about to get up anytime soon. A voice said, “He can sit here if he wants,” to a hostess. As she walked over to relay the message, I realized the voice was referring to me. Why the hell not? I thought, and took him up on the offer.

Before I committed myself to the unorthodox arrangement, I eyed my unexpected dinner companion with the kind of guarded scrutiny that comes from having been in airports too long. He was my age, looked harmless, so I thanked him and sat down. He ordered a pint of 420 Extra Pale Ale and another for me on his tab, then introduced himself as Larry and told me where he was from. He too was on his way home from a business trip, and about to start the last leg of a grueling journey involving multiple connections.

I mentioned where I lived. “Austin! Keepin’ it weird!” he hooted. “What kind of music do you like?” It’s assumed worldwide that all Austinites are music fans (and it seems to be true). I named some of my favorites, and then asked Larry his.

“Gangsta rap,” he said. I nodded and told him how as a teenager I discovered what was left of a tape of N.W.A.’s seminal Straight Outta Compton next to an apartment complex dumpster, and how from that day on it’s been one of my favorite albums. Larry high-fived me enthusiastically across the table. We exchanged some profanity-laden lyrics that frightened the table next to us.

From N.W.A. we moved to Parliament-Funkadelic. Then hoppy ales. We talked about whatever either of us mentioned that excited the other. Larry told stories about the origins of idioms and customs – like toasting before drinking – with the zeal of an elder passing sacred knowledge to his tribe. They might have been good-natured bullshit, but in that moment it didn’t matter; I applauded each one. At some point, he complimented me on my quick wit. But mostly he talked about how much he loved his wife, and how much he was looking forward to holding his baby when he got home. I shared something equally vulnerable and private.

When his plane was boarding, Larry got up. We shook hands and wished each other safe trips. He left. A few minutes later so did I, and boarded my plane going in an opposite direction. Then it occurred to me that I had been speaking with a complete stranger in a way more honest and unguarded than I often do with my real friends, at least on a daily basis.

What was it that loosened our tongues, convinced us to let our guard down so completely? The beer? Doubtful. Two pints in an hour is hardly enough to get me going. No, I think it was the fact of speaking to someone I’d never see again that gave me a sense of liberating anonymity. But it was unlike the shadowy anonymity of the Internet, where faceless alphanumeric handles respond to candor by shitting all over people they’ll never have to look in the eye. This was anonymity with a face, with eyes that glistened and a mouth that curled up or down as the conversation turned: indelible markers of the reality of the human being across the table. It was radiant, like an element that burns too quickly to be viable as a long-term fuel.

We didn’t exchange numbers. We didn’t friend each other on Facebook. I did get a few laughs for the flight home, a fun story to share, and maybe some personality traits that will work their way into some character I write in the future.

But I also got a reminder of the fact that every other person in that airport, whether racing from gate to gate or standing in line for an overpriced beverage, is a real human being. They have names and stories to tell. They have spouses and children waiting for them somewhere. They have favorite songs playing behind those headphones fused to their ears, and they might be the same as yours.

So maybe the key is to appreciate single-serving friends for what they are: short distractions, yes. But distractions that can be enjoyed and remembered, and learned from. Does that make them much different from the books and movies we bury our faces in at the airport, trying desperately not to talk to strangers?

A Toast To … The Second Annual #IPADay

Happy #IPADay 2012! Notice I didn’t say “hoppy”. I can be an awful punster sometimes, but not that awful.

I’ll post the second half of my review of the Real Ale Beer Dinner at Easy Tiger soon. But first, a break to celebrate the second annual IPA Day!

IPA Day started last year as a tribute to this celebrated style. From the IPADay.org website:

Founded in 2011 by beer evangelists and social media personalities Ashley Routson and Ryan Ross, IPA Day is a universal movement created to unite the voices of craft beer enthusiasts, bloggers, and brewers worldwide, using social media as the common arena for connecting the conversation together.

IPA Day is not the brainchild of a corporate marketing machine, nor is it meant to serve any particular beer brand. IPA Day is opportunity for all breweries, bloggers, businesses and consumers to connect and share their love of craft beer. It is an opportunity for the entire craft beer culture to combine forces and advocate craft beer through increased education and global awareness.

India Pale Ale has become one of the surest things in craft brew today. Once an English style, it’s taken the U.S.A. by storm in recent decades as American brewers have taken the concept across the pond and transformed it into something we can now call our own. And having had a few traditional English IPAs last year in England, I can assure you, what we call IPA in the States is a very different animal. Not necessarily better, but different.

I’ll be honest, the first time I tried an IPA I wasn’t a fan. But once I had a few proper examples, it didn’t take me too long to convert. What’s not to love? The smooth, sweet firmness of a solid malt backbone? The fresh, citrusy/floral aroma and flavor of good hops? The refreshing, clean fermentation profile?

Sure, IPA has its roots in nineteenth-century British imperialism (click here for the story if you don’t know it) … but you know what else has its roots in British imperialism? Earl Grey tea. And Freddie Mercury. Who doesn’t love Freddie Mercury? The British Empire doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

I’ll be celebrating IPA Day with a bomber of Deschutes Hop Henge Experimental IPA and a homemade sprouted-bean curry (and a surprise Guild Wars 2 stress test, but that’s unrelated … except that I’ll be drinking IPA while I play it).

If you’re in Austin and looking for something IPAish to do today, the ladies at Bitch Beer have a running list of local IPA events here.

And if you don’t usually drink IPAs, or you don’t think you like them, why not give them another shot today?

Don’t forget to share your IPA celebrations via social media with the hashtag #IPADay. Cheers.

A Toast To … Art for Brewing’s Sake

As Central Texas is plagued by thunderstorms, I'm stuck in the house enjoying the last of a bottle of Mikkeller It's Alive! Belgian Wild Ale. And I'm raising my glass virtually to Dustin Sullivan, a fellow member of the online homebrewing forum HomeBrewTalk.com, and the creator of this awesome pictorial on how to make a yeast starter.

I love brewing. I love comic art. And I love anything that's educational in a novel and interesting way. This pictorial is all three, and I'm thrilled to have stumbled onto it. I wish everything in brewing could have been explained to me so simply when I was starting out. Sure, learning as you go is 50% of the fun of brewing (another 25% is drinking the results, and the last 25% is being able to impress your friends by dropping words like “saccharification” and “attenuate” into everyday conversation) … but I'm a knowledge addict, and I'm also pathologically risk averse. So I read everything I could get my hands on when I was starting my homebrew habit, so I'd have a good idea of each step of every process before I jumped in. Sometimes, it was hard to separate the good info from the bad: to separate the clear and “just-enough” from the over-explanatory, and to separate the simple sharing of helpful information from the vomiting of brewlore all over you by guys who just want to impress you with how much they know.

Now, I love John Palmer's How to Brew and Charlie Papazian's The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. They're phenomenal books, and essential for anyone entering the hobby. But if I'd had something as simple and clear as Dustin's yeast starter pictorial for my first extract brew, my first mash, my first rack to secondary, let alone my first yeast starter, I'd have lost a lot less sleep as a newbie.

Dustin also created a yeast calculator website called YeastCalc at yeastcalc.com. It's one of the most comprehensive pitching rate calculators I've seen online for liquid yeast. It tells you not only how big of a starter to make, but also allows you to dial in a target specific gravity for your starter, and tells you how much dry malt extract to use for that target. It even has options for calculating multiple step-up starters, for that 10-gallon barleywine you've been wanting to make. I'll be using this site next time I make a starter, and I recommend you do the same.

So I’d like to raise my beer glass to Dustin Sullivan, another homebrewer out there doing his part to make brewing a little easier and simpler for the rest of us: newbies and veterans alike. Thanks, Dustin. Prosit!

Also, anyone out there who isn't yet a member of HomeBrewTalk.com, check it out. There's heaps of information there. If you have questions, it's a great place to turn; if you have answers, we always welcome new insights. And it's the most helpful, responsive and engaged online community I've ever been a part of. If you join, look me up. My username is shawnbou and I'd love to hear from you.

A Toast To … De-Pixelated and Blue Goggles Films

Tomorrow I’ll be back to posting about beer, with news of the 2012 Off-Centered Film Fest sponsored by the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Dogfish Head Brewery. But I’d like to take a moment now to celebrate something I’m excited about that’s not beer-related.

For a few years, I’ve been lucky enough to know the talented people at Blue Goggles Films, and to work with them on the production of several of their acclaimed web shorts. Today they announced a new partnership with GameTrailers.com to feature their shorts monthly in a new series called De-Pixelated:

These guys know games, and they also know how to tell a great story. I was thrilled to be involved in the production of the premiere episode, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

So I’d like to raise my beer glass to writer/director Ben Moody and producer Rachel Moody, co-founders of Blue Goggles Films, and to the premiere of De-Pixelated. Watch the first episode Tuesday, April 24 on GameTrailers.com.

Prosit!