In 2011, I sold Karen’s Botanicals, a plant-based herbal products company and I wanted to start a new business. I had been homebrewing for several years, the craft beer revolution was well under way, and I had fallen in love with the unique flavors being created by small, independent breweries. I changed the plant ingredients in my cookpot from oils, nut butters and herbs to barley malt, hops and yeast and started homebrewing. While the business part never panned out, I remain an avid homebrewer.
Of all the products of fermentation that humans love, beer is one of the most widely consumed. It is probably more ancient than bread. 9000 years ago, when the earliest evidence of brewing is found, it would have been easy to see that something funny happened to insects, bees and animals when they drank the fermented nectar of fallen tree fruits and wild grapes, full of alcohol. Imagine finding a pool of rainwater and honey dripping from a beehive into the crotch of a tree. Imagine the flavors, then the feeling of that gentle euphoria. Fermented beverages are as old as civilization. Some even speculate that the production of beer is what caused Stone Age hunter-gatherers to give up their nomadic ways, settle down, and begin to farm.
For thousands of years, brewers used a combination of grains, honey, herbs and fruit to ferment. The differences between beer, wine, cider and mead were not distinct. In many communities, the people who brewed were the midwives who were the herbalists who understood plants and their effects. In Europe during the Middle Ages alcohol production was largely an unregulated cottage industry. However, in 1516 in Bavaria, a law called The Reinheitsgebot was initiated to allow state control over production in order to collect taxes and control vice. The law permitted only three ingredients in beer: water, barley, and hops. Guess what was missing from that list? Yeast. It wasn’t until 1859 that Louis Pasteur discovered the existence of yeast under his microscope.
Since my topic is fermentation, the ingredient in beer that interest me the most is the yeast because, no matter what you ferment- bread, chocolate, tea, coffee, cheese, vegetables, condiments or meat, the active, universal ingredient is the yeast. Today, home and commercial brewers alike can purchase dozens of strains of yeast raised in laboratories. The yeast for each type of beer is different. You can buy London Ale, Czech Pilsner, German Kolsch, American IPA, Mexican Lager…you get the idea.
But some brewers, like myself, get yeast for free, straight out of the air. We call it yeast ranching. Sourdough bread makers do the same thing. You make a batch of beer or bread and instead of adding commercial yeast, you capture the natural, wild yeast and healthy bacteria floating around. The rich, funky, tangy and sour flavors produced by this natural, probiotic fermentation are amazing.
Today, the craft beer revolution is thriving in Berks which was after all, one of the earliest centers of beer production in the United States. We have an astounding number of breweries, all kinds of beer festivals and beer focused restaurants. We also have the Berks County Homebrew Club (www.berkshomebrewclub.org). Membership is free and it is the best local way to learn more about homebrewing. That’s where I found my best teachers.
Karen Palcho is a Berks County artist, educator, gardener and fermenter whose interests are rooted in transforming earth based raw materials and plants into things that are beautiful, tasty and useful. She teaches classes in fermentation, botanicals, and art. For more information, visit www.palchosproducts.com.