More Bad Beer History

Yesterday this nonsense was posted on a beer-related Instgram account that nearly18,000 people follow: “The word ‘toast,’ meaning a wish of good health, started in ancient Rome, where a piece of toasted bread was dropped into wine.” What a load of tripe.

While there might be an etymological connection from the latin torrere, to parch, there is no clear connection between a Roman tradition of adding bread to wine and the word “toast” being used in the afore mentioned way.

Bread and wine were staple foods in the ancient world and as such, likely made for decent bed fellows. There is no fundamental objection to saying the two went together in some combination. However, Romans added a lot of things to their wine: water, honey, various herbs and spices. Bread was likely among that list of things, but if you do any amount of reading on the subject you’ll find numerous additives far more common than bread.

What little substantiation there is to be found on the matter indicates that the charcoal on toasted bread was a means of dulling off flavors in wine, like some kind of pre-modern Brita Filter, or that it was meant to cut wine’s acidity. Neither claim about bread’s ability to perform those tasks can be rejected out of hand, but the addition of water was a more likely way of cutting acidity, as was honey and herbs to cover off flavors. Moreover, any historical precedent given as evidence for this to be true cites customs from the 1700s rather than those from classical antiquity.

The word toast (both the food and the action) might well be derived from the original latin verb. But to indicate there is a straight line between that word, and a Roman tradition of adding bread to wine becoming a metonym for honoring someone or something before a drink is a gross oversimplification of things. Rarely is history so linear.

If that were the case, wedding speeches would all started something like this: “I’d like to propose a combination of water and honey and maybe a few herbs? Is that coriander or hyssop? I can’t tell. Anyway, I’ve known Jim for a long time now…”

Here’s to keeping bad history out of beer.

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Ferment Drink Repeat: Brewing Beer and Community

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“How do you make a small fortune in brewing?” It’s early on a Saturday afternoon and Kevin Inglin, brewer of San Francisco’s Ferment Drink Repeat is holding court over a small crowd of people gathered for his Beer Appreciation class, part of SF Beer Week. Inglin looks around the room for a moment, eyes wide, and cracks a friendly grin before answering his own question. “You start with a large fortune.”

Over the next 90 minutes, Inglin, who owns the brewery along with his wife Shae, will take students on a journey through the world of beer, covering the basics of its history, its ingredients, the process of making beer, beer judging, and more. All this, in addition to sampling nine of FDR’s signature brews. It’s part education, part inebriation, and all centered around building a more knowledgeable community of beer drinkers.

Those in attendance agree with a woman, who, when asked why she attended a Beer Appreciation course replied, “the crowds at educational events tend to be less…drunk.” Inglin’s class consists of home brewers, staff from local bars, curious beer-geek types, and local residents. What they will all know after completing the course—in addition to the difference between lager and ale yeasts— is that a visit to Ferment Drink Repeat is an essential stop on the city’s brewery circuit.

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Even if it’s beer school, it’s still school. I came prepared.

Located in San Francisco’s Portola District, on the northern most stretch of San Bruno Avenue, FDR opened last June as part of a diverse, often overlooked neighborhood; it lacks the tech-money cool of SOMA, or the tech-money, warehouse-turned-shabby-chic-eatery-industrial vibe of the Dogpatch. In spite of that, foot traffic is plentiful this sunny Saturday. The sidewalks are alive with people shopping in local produce markets, or looking for something exotic from a spice wholesaler. Others out for an early lunch can choose from cuisines of all stripes: Chinese, Vietnamese, traditional southern food, American, Mexican, and more. Though craft breweries are no longer a rare find, the inclusion of one in this neighborhood comes as a welcome bit of depth to the already mixed enclave.

The people you’ll find drinking in Ferment Drink Repeat’s taproom often live within a few minutes of its doors You’ll not find only bearded guys in Ommegang hats and Insert Brewery Name Here Hoodies who’ve come to the hip part of town, amped to line up for an IPA  can release. The Inglins have forged a community based not on the quest for hops and barrel aged sours, but based on proximity. They’re a local brewery serving those most local to the brewery.

Shae Inglin can most often be found behind the bar pouring beers for thirsty customers, many of whom she knows by name. She engages with patrons comfortably and with the familiarity of an old friend. The atmosphere she fosters is convivial and charming. People bring in food from one of the many neighborhood restaurants to enjoy with their beers. Other sit at the bar playing cards or boardgames over a couple pints. Whether your first time or fiftieth, to walk in the doors of FDR is to join a family.

This welcoming, communal culture is woven into the very fabric of Ferment Drink Repeat. Not having one of those large fortunes Kevin joked about to bankroll opening a brewery, the Inglins chose to crowd-source funds for their venture, utilizing crowbrewed.com., a website much like GoFundMe but dedicated to helping fledgling beer companies get off the ground. By pledging a certain amount of money, investors could get various rewards, from t-shirts and home brewing classes, to free beer for life, or the ultimate prize: being allowed to create and brew a batch of beer at FDR.

Not only did this crowd sourcing provide an immediate sense of connection for those who contributed to the successful campaign, but it has resulted in some of FDR’s tastiest beers, like El Unicorno Mexican White Stout. When a CrowdBrewed supporter came and suggested something resembling a pumpkin spiced beer, Kevin rejected the idea, not wanting brew something so common place. Working together, the two created a recipe that satisfied the patron’s desire for a spiced beer, while avoiding autumn seasonal-beer cliches. The resulting beverage is a wonder; light in color like a pale ale, but with the dark, warm flavors of a stout. Subtle hints of chocolate, coffee, cinnamon, and chiles run throughout but do not overwhelm.

Running a small brewery gives Ferment Drink Repeat the latitude to experiment with flavors and ingredients. Where larger production facilities need to play it safe lest they lose money on a bad batch of new beer, the Inglins are not so heavily restrained; their seven barrel brewing system cuts the potential for loss. With that fear allayed, creativity can flourish. A smoked imperial lager for instance, or a hibiscus tea flavored saison are two more of the unique creations collaborations with financial backers have yielded.

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Brewer and Owner Kevin Inglin leading a tour of the brewhouse at Ferment Drink Repeat.

Not everything, however, is a far flung flavor experiment. Plenty of well balanced, true to style beers can be found on tap, from IPAs and pilsners, to stouts and porters, FDR has beer to accommodate everyone. Their Portola Pilsner is a great bridge for people new to craft beer. It has the familiarity of classic American macro-brews, but with elevated flavors that should intrigue and entice even the most dyed in the wool Budweiser fan.

For those who’ve developed at taste for craft beer, either by way of time bellied-up to the bar or via Kevin’s Beer Appreciation class, Ferment Drink Repeat is also a home-brew supply shop. Their roots being in home-brewing, the Inglins are committed to helping the next generation by stocking their store with everything aspiring brewers might need to try their hand a creating fermentable magic at home.

FDR the president is quoted as saying, “Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.” FDR the brewery echoes that sentiment. The Inglins haven’t gone about their business in a traditional way, nor are they attempting to take over the industry. But they have built a community to be proud of, while being to be true to themselves and their neighborhood, letting principles lead the way, and guiding customers along a similar path.

Playing With My Food: At Home Randall Infusions

Inspired by an article that suggested using a french press for at-home randalling, I recently spent a Saturday evening experimenting with different flavor infusions in my beer. I chose North Coast Brewing Company’s Old Rasputin Imperial Stout as my base; it is big enough to stand up to whatever I put in the press with it, and at twenty minutes recommended steeping time, I wanted a style that didn’t need too much carbonation and wouldn’t suffer from sitting open for so long. The combinations I decide on were: blueberry, mint, and cocoa powder; coffee and bacon; jalapeño and banana; Butterfinger.

Blueberry, mint, and cocoa was the most successful. The mint came through strong, followed by a touch of blueberry. The cocoa powder was negligible; Old Rassy has plenty of  chocolate bitterness on its own and did not need any help in that department. Such strong mint flavor was refreshing, though, and balanced the stout’s heavier qualities, making it easier to drink than normal. 

Bacon and Coffee was a no brainer, and a grossly uninspired choice at that, one mostly made out of economic concerns. A part of this experiment was to use things I already had at home as much as possible. Coffee and cocoa powder I had. Two strips of bacon from the deli counter were less than a dollar.

This was a real mess in the press. I decided to add the bacon grease as well as the meat and coffee, hoping to get as much porky/salty flavor out of it as possible. It was still a little warm and coagulated quickly in the cold beer, turning into gross little globules of fat. The end result was a coffee bomb with maybe a faint bit of smoke from the bacon. That said, if you like coffee stouts, this is a a sure-fire way to get huge java flavor, and maybe a little caffeine, in your beer. And the leftover stout soaked bacon was a relatively tasty by-product.

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Jalapeño and banana was a last minute decision. Jalapeño on its own didn’t seem quite up to the spirit of my undertaking, so I decided a banana might sweeten and soften some of the heat from the chili. It also sounded like an odd-ball combination, which was very much in the spirit of things. My intuition about the banana rounding things out was dead wrong. It was a rush of jalapeño to the head, in brutal fashion, as though the heat of the chili had been condensed and was able to unleash the whole of its power at once. Thankfully it dissipated quickly, and even allowed a little bit of the fruity, floral flavors the the pepper to come through. The banana may as well not even have been there. I should have mashed it instead of just chopping it up.

Butterfinger stout seemed like a beautiful abomination; half stroke-of-fat-kid-genius, half reason-the-rest-of-the-world-hates-America. I had high hopes for my dessert combination, but the Butterfinger flavor wasn’t nearly as strong as I’d hoped it would be. Candy sediment stuck to the edges of my glass and hung in the beer giving it an orange tint, but the stronger flavors of the stout overpowered the sweetness. 

A french press certainly won’t do for you what a randall will, but for some cheap fun at home, it is a good way to impart flavor quickly, easily, and with some tasty results.