I’ve been traveling and haven’t posted much here for a little while. So here’s some Star Jasmine to tide us over.
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Returned to the Bay Area after a while away. I was worried when I heard about a local heat wave while we were gone, but fortunately a neighbor agreed to do some watering. Almost everything came through marvelously, and there are a lot of spring blooms (more on that later).
So much depends upon an orange wheelbarrow, scarred from rough use, beside the green citrus.
Some leafstalks are marked by outgrowths at the base, usually on opposite sides. These were named stipules by Linnaeus, from the Latin word stipula, meaning “straw” or “stalk.” Not all plants have stipules, and among those that do, they vary greatly in appearance “and might appear as glands, scales, hairs, spines, or laminar (leaf-like) structures.” The remarkable, conspicuous stipules of Cunonia capensis, the African Red Alder, or Butterspoon or Butterknife Tree, are a focal point in the garden, almost always remarked upon by people who see them for the first time. The paired stipules are reddish in color and pressed together like cupped hands — or like butterspoons, I guess, whatever those are. (I say “butterknife” rather than “butterspoon.” I can see how the stipules are spoonlike, but I don’t apply my butter with a spoon, do you?)
An evergreen multistemmed perennial shrub or small tree from South Africa, this is one of my favorite specimen plants. I used to have several that I lost in our severe, years-long drought. The plant doesn’t need constant water, but it doesn’t like being dry, and I was careless (or all too responsible a California citizen). It also dislikes heat, and I’m now growing this one in a large container in part shade. While the tree can reach thirty feet in damp forests, it is seldom seen above fifteen feet in the open. Several sources report that it can be kept for many years in a container, and this has been my experience. It grows in zones 9–11 and prefers good drainage.
This brings back memories of my commute to San Francisco’s Civic Center, right down to the honking and passing along the shoulder. The traffic here is just moving a bit faster.
At this South African vineyard, a thousand Indian Runner Ducks keep the vines free of snails. The ducks are probably more enthusiastic workers than most of my fellow commuters. But then, they get paid in snails.
I guess all our garden needs now is a few hundred ducks.
Crabapple, hands down.
This California native mugwort, here growing in a container, is happy after this year’s wet winter. I acquired a couple of specimens last summer, and they looked pretty rangy during those dry months. Like many native plants, mugwort is pretty resilient, tolerating shade and aridity up to a point, but in nature it favors moist locations.
It’s an underappreciated perennial plant for the garden. While top leaves are whole, lower leaves are lobed in a sharply jagged cleft pattern. The evenly-spaced leaves are dark green above and silvery (and a little wooly) below. The plant is aromatic, especially when the leaves are crushed. It attracts butterflies and birds, and is said to be deer resistant. Stems grow erect from runners (which are not too difficult to control); some sources say they get to six feet, but I have never seem this plant above about three feet. Flowers (summer to fall) are insignificant.
Artemsias are in the Asteraceae (sunflower) family. Artemisia douglasiana is sometimes classed as Artemesia vulgaris var. douglasiana, but it is much more bitter and stronger flavored than the European mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) referenced in many herbals. (There is also a Korean variety, which is closer to the European than to this native California mugwort.)
Also known as Dream Plant, the leaves of mugwort contain some of the same substances (notably thujone and cineole) as those of another Atemisia, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). When smoked or drunk as a tea, they are said to produce vivid dreams, and to ward off the spirits of the dead. Native Californians sometimes wore mugwort necklaces for protection against such spirits. In the European tradition it was held that pillows stuffed with mugwort could reveal one’s future in dreams. One herbalist calls mugwort “ the star of any dream pillow.” A reference more to my taste is “The Natural History of Orange County, California and Nearby Places,” which cites several print sources.
Lots of new growth on the Donkeytail Spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites) this mid-March. The new growth is bright green; older leaves are blue-gray. Also called Myrtle Spurge because the Latin word myrsinites alludes to myrtle (Myrtus communis), which the plant was thought to resemble, this is a succulent spurge native to Southern Europe and West Asia. It is a low-growing (to about six inches) evergreen perennial. The “tails” grow to about one to one and a half feet long, spreading radially. The bright new growth resembling flowers is actually a specialized leaf called a bract.
In some respects this spurge can be nasty. It projects seeds quite a distance and can overrun other plants. It is illegal to grow in Colorado, where it is classed as a noxious weed because of its invasive habit, though San Marcos Growers say this is not a problem in Mediterranean climates like ours (I would not recommend it in inland climes, except with caution and vigilance). In addition, like many spurges, it produces a sap that can cause fairly serious skin irritation in some people (and other animals); children are especially susceptible. You don’t want to get the sap in your eyes, that’s for sure. Finally, it is alleopathic, meaning it produces a substance that can prevent other plants from growing nearby. For these reasons I grow mine in containers and use gloves when repotting.
Despite all this, I am fond of this plant, as I am of most spurges (for an opposing take, check out the spurge haters at Dave’s Garden). Annie’s Annuals describes it as “an easy, tough, tidy groundcover that lends marvelous texture to rock gardens and is great trailing over rock walls.” I also have several Honey Spurges (Euphorbia mellifera). Both plants have not only interesting forms but also an almost electric brightness. You feel like this plant knows something. I just don’t know what.
Did the spider that wove this strange web outside one of my dining room windows get into somebody’s stash?
It’s a new one this year. Kind of pretty, but it sends out long tendrils that choke out everything.
Kitazawa, now based in Oakland, offers a two-color (green and black) catalogue printed on yellow paper and illustrated with line drawings. 2017 marks the company’s 100th anniversary. It was founded by Gijiu Kitazawa, an apprentice to a Japanese seed company who immigrated to the U.S. and settled in San Jose, where he sold seeds out of a downtown store.
During the war the Kitazawa family was forcibly interred into relocation camps, and the business had to be abandoned. Because of the internments, many Japanese-American farmers lost their farms, so after the war Kitazawa, having lost its local market, began a mail-order business.
The company features a range of Asian vegetables, not limited to Japanese. I would say that they have the most extensive selection of Asian vegetable seeds of any of the vendors I received catalogues from. Their descriptions are concise but informative.
Besides individual seed packets, priced at $3.69, the company offers packages of several seeds, called “Chef Specialty Gardens,” at a reduced price. I ordered the Stir Fry Garden mix.
I also ordered several other seeds from Kitazawa this year, and the company responded instantly: As I recall, the well-packaged seeds were in my mailbox the very next day! I was astonished.
In keeping with the family-oriented spirit of the company, their catalogue includes some recipes using the vegetables.
Orders can be made by phone, fax, mail, or via a secure web page: order info is here. This is one of my favorite seed vendors. Highly recommended.
After this extraordinarily wet winter, we had to remove some trees from our hillside lot. This gives us more of a view of the valley as well as more sun to the garden. It’s all good.
Speaking of the garden (which once was a swimming pool), looking at this photo I see some work that needs to be done. But things are certainly very green, for here.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that one of the delights of gardening is browsing seed and plant catalogues. I have a handful of vendors I usually buy from, but this year I decided to do a fairly comprehensive survey of vendors and their catalogues. I know it’s late in the season for this, but I think there is still value in comparing the catalogues, if only for preparing for the fall batch (though I still have some spring ordering to do). In subsequent posts I’ll discuss many in detail. For now, here’s a gallery of the covers, together with the location of the vendor, the trim size of the catalogue, and its length. Stay tuned for more (list of vendors below the gallery).
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Missouri, 9 x 10.75 in., 148 pp.
- Bluestone Perennials, Ohio, 8 x 10 in., 92 pp.
- Botanical Interests, Colorado, 8.5 x 10.75 in., 72 pp.
- Bountiful Gardens, California, 8.25 x 10.25 in., 72 pp.
- Grow Organic: Fruit Trees, California, 7.75 x 10 in., 68 pp.
- Grow Organic: Gardening Essentials, California, 7.75 x 10 in., 68 pp.
- Grow Organic: Quality Tools, California, 7.75 x 10 in., 68 pp.
- Grow Organic: Seeds, California, 7.75 x 10 in., 68 pp.
- Growers Supply, Connecticut, 7.75 x 10 in., 138 pp.
- Gurney’s, Indiana, 9.25 x 13 in., 68 pp.
- Harris Seeds: Garden Trends, New York, 7.25 x 10.25, 124 pp.
- J. L. Hudson, Seedsman, California, 5.5 x 8.5 in., 96 pp.
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Maine, 7.75 x 10.25 in., 244 pp.
- Kitazawa Seed Co., California, 8.5 x 11 in., 48 pp.
- Park Seed, South Carolina, 8 x 10 in., 148 pp.
- Pepper Joe’s, Maryland, 5.5 x 8.5 in., 34 pp.
- Pinetree, Maine, 8 x 10 in., 132 pages
- Raintree Nursery, Washington, 8.5 x 10.75 in., 96 pp.
- Richters, Ontario, 6 x 9.5 in., 96 pp.
- Seed Savers Exchange, Iowa, 8.5 x 10.25 in., 116 pp.
- Seeds from Italy, Kansas, 5.5 x 8.5 in., 64 pp.
- Seeds of Change, Minnesota, 7.75 x 10 in., 68 pp.
- Select Seeds, Connecticut, 8 x 10 in., 68 pp.
- Territorial Seeds Co., Oregon, 7.25 x 10.25 in., 164 pp.
- Wayside Gardens, South Carolina, 8 x 10.5 in., 104 pp.
- White Flower Farm, Connecticut, 8 x 10 in., 140 pp.
Trim size is approximate (the edges of some catalogues are rather imprecisely trimmed). Some catalogues have self covers and others have a cover stock around the inside pages. Most number the cover as page 1, but some omit the covers from the page counts. (One, Pinetree, actually numbers the inside front cover as 1, so that their versos are odd and their rectos are even. That’s dumb, and someone should have a word with them.) I have tallied up the pages as best I can, including the cover pages in the count.
After many years of working with color professionally, I know how to remove a color cast. But I like the blue cast here, and decided to leave it.
“All bitters are aromatic,” according to Mark Bitterman in his Field Guide to Bitters and Amari, “but the ones that are called aromatic are so jam-packed with aromas, bitterness, and a lick of sweetness that it is impossible to parse out exactly what we are perceiving.”
Here we are perceiving Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters. These turned out exceptionally well, and can serve as a substitute for Angostura Bitters anywhere those would be used.
The ingredients in Angostura Bitters, as with most old-timey botanical beverage products, are a closely guarded secret. In preparing Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters, I first looked at many websites and publications that speculated on the constituents of Angostura Bitters and other aromatic bitters. Then I looked at several recipes for aromatic bitters, making certain that the phrase was being used in the strict sense, since some people, such as Will Budiaman in Handcrafted Bitters, apply it to all bitters. even those constructed of only a few ingredients. I made a list of all ingredients and noted how many recipes they were used in. This gave me a kind of consensus snapshot of the main flavors.
I ended up using twenty ingredients:
- angelica root
- Seville orange
- star anise
Of these, angelica root, cinchona, gentian, hops, quassia, and wormwood are all bittering agents, while the others are flavors. That’s a lot of different bitters, and this is different from other recipes, but I think it works, once the proportions are balanced out. (Experiment.) Gentian was the primary bitter ingredient. I tinctured each ingredient separately in grain alcohol (most often infusing for about five days) and strained through a gold filter into jam jars.
I wanted some sour cherry flavor in the mix, as well as some sweetness. To provide these qualities I added Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur (needless to say, this is nothing like the nasty bright red cherries; it is clear in color and made not just from sour cherry fruits but from the pits and, I think, twigs as well).
I’m not selling my bitters so I don’t have to measure the volume of alcohol precisely. I follow the guideline of adding 20 percent lower-ABV spirits to the tinctures (the grain alcohol is 151 proof). If the ABV is too high, the alcohol burn will mask out the flavors. In addition to the maraschino, I added brandy as a second spirit. The resulting ABV is probably around 50 percent, which is my target.
Apart from the spirits, the ingredients are natural and mostly organic. For example, the lemons, oranges, and limes are all from my own garden. This is important, because commercial citrus may be sprayed with insecticides and coated with wax.
These bitters have a lovely reddish amber color, and they are GOOD. I am having some now in a Manhattan: 2 oz. bourbon, 1 oz. sweet vermouth, and at least a couple of dashes of Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters. Yep!
This dark-eyed little beauty appears to be a Brown-Headed Cowbird. Despite the finch-like bill, she is a kind of blackbird, the smallest in North America. The males are darker, with a metallic tint.
Like most blackbirds, cowbirds are social. But they have been chided for their seemingly Bohemian lifestyle. First, they are fully promiscuous, not pairing up like many birds. In the spring the female attracts a number of suitors, who hang out on treetops and whistle at her. It’s the avian version of bro culture. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these dudes are “noisy, making a multitude of clicks, whistles and chatter-like calls in addition to a flowing, gurgling song.”
The female will soon need a nest, and she looks around for a nice one, figuring why construct one when there are ready-mades around for the taking. Finding a suitable nest, she removes one of the existing eggs and replaces it with her own. Then she goes on her merry way, leaving the young to be raised by foster parents. Typically larger than the host, the young cowbird will crowd out and starve the other chicks. Meanwhile, the female keeps running around. She may lay three dozen eggs in a season, in as many nests.
I don’t think cowbirds are native to my coastal area. They have expanded from inland grasslands. According to the Audubon guide, “Centuries ago this bird probably followed bison herds on the Great Plains, feeding on insects flushed from the grass by the grazers…. Heavy parasitism by cowbirds has pushed some species to the status of ‘endangered’ and has probably hurt populations of some others.”
The first question about making vermouth, I suppose, is why?* It’s a two-part question, really. Why vermouth? And why homemade?
Vermouth is a fortified wine flavored with fruits and botanicals (herbs and spices). For general online information on vermouth, Vermouth 101 can’t be beat. A good print resource (particularly for the history of vermouth) is Adam Ford’s Vermouth: The revival of the Spirit that Created America’s Cocktail Culture (2015).
The two main types are sweet and dry, the first historically associated with Italy, the second with France. Vermouth is an essential element in cocktails, from the Martini to the Manhattan to the Negroni to countless others. It was also once more popular as something to be drunk neat than seems to be the case today. A palatable vermouth makes possible lowering the alcoholic content of your drinks and cocktails. This can be a good thing.
You can easily find cheap commercial vermouths. Which is actually part of the problem. Vermouth goes bad fairly quickly, and if you start with stale, indifferent ingredients … well, it’s no wonder the drink has been slow to really engage an American audience. Top-quality vermouths, like most cocktail ingredients, will set you back a bit. Part of the fun of vermouth is making it with locally sourced botanicals. Stuff from the garden is the best.
The word vermouth comes from the French vermout, from the German Wermut, “wormwood.” By European law, all vermouth must contain wormwood. This herb, Artemesia absinthium, is one of the bitterest of all bittering agents. Famously, it is a key ingredient in absinthe. Making vermouth is similar to making cocktail bitters, in that it combines bittering and flavoring agents. But whereas cocktail bitters are usually around 60-68% ABV, vermouth is usually between 16 and 18% ABV (wine is usually around 11-14). It is a lightly alcoholic drink in which the main ingredient is wine.
In this post I will summarize some of the wisdom of the internet on making vermouth. In a future post I will discuss my own efforts. Techniques of making DIY vermouth vary considerably, not just in the details of ingredients but even in fundamental approaches. You can do your own search and come up with a lot of results, but I’ve looked at quite a few of them and selected the ones I have found most helpful. So here’s a curated and annotated guide to resources. Let’s begin with a little background about commercial production.
As I mentioned above, check out Vermouth 101.
Alcademics.com, the website of Camper English, is generally a good source of information on alcoholic drinks. One page there offers a pictorial guide to some of the botanicals used in Italian vermouth.
English also visited a French vermouth producer, Noilly Prat. It’s interesting that this producer fortifies its wine with a lemon-raspberry eau de vie. He also discusses the differences among Noilly Prat’s various vermouths, and reveals some of the botanicals they use.
Finally, English gives some of the history and regulation of vermouth, based on a presentation by Giuseppe Gallo.
The Best Guides
Now for some approaches to making your own. A good place to start is with Jack Bevan, winner of the 2014 Young British Foodie Award in the alcohol category. His approach involves infusing botanicals much as one would do for bitters. He uses twenty botanicals in his vermouth, in the following proportions (weight is for the infused essences, not the raw materials): 15g angelica seed, 15g bay, 10g black peppercorn, 1g cardamom, 8.3g cinnamon, 0.5g clove, 15g coriander seed, 2g gentian root, 15g juniper berry, 5g marjoram, 5g nutmeg, 14.6g orange peel, 6g orris root powder, 4g quassia bark, 5g rosemary, 15g sage, 5g star anise, 5g vanilla pods, 4g wormwood, and 2g yarrow. He combines the infusions (he calls them teas) with wine and a caramel made by heating sugar in a fry pan. Bevan’s approach is a little different from many because the fortification of the wine comes entirely from the vodka used to make the herbal infusions. He mixes his materials by weight using kitchen scales so he can determine ABV by arithmetic. Assuming the wine is 12% ABV and the vodka 40% ABV (this is not specified), then 150ml infusions * .4 = 60 and 500ml wine * .12 = 60. and 120/650 = 18.5ABV.
(The Guardian’s guide to making “the perfect vermouth” is virtually identical to Bevan’s.)
Let’s next visit Amy Stewart, the Drunken Botanist (she also has a book of the same name). Rather than a specific recipe, she offers some general advice. For example, for fortifying the wine she recommends “brandy, grape eau-de-vie, cognac, grappa, even port or sherry.” She also adds fruit, such as “berries, peaches, apples, citrus,” which she infuses in brandy or another high-proof spirit for just two days. (Bevan infuses for two weeks.) She boils the fruit infusions in wine. Other ingredient suggestions include “gentian root, angelica root, cardamom pods, star anise, vanilla bean … oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, coriander, and wormwood. She adds caramel for sweet vermouth only, none for dry.
Masa Urushido and Nacho Jimenez, the head bartenders at Manhattan’s Saxon + Parole star in an illustrated vermouth-making guide from Munchies. They use a Riesling wine and infuse the bittering and flavoring botanicals directly in the wine for two weeks. Then they add an (unspecified) eau de vie and finally flavor with sugar and sea salt. This is the only recipe that adds salt. It seems a plausible recipe.
Meghan Boledovich, “staff forager” for Print, a restaurant on 11th avenue in Manhattan, talks about making vermouth based on a recipe from Sebastian Zutant of Proof restaurant in Washington, D.C. Like Stewart, she boils the botanicals in wine. She fortifies with sherry. Like most vermouth makers, she recommends Pinot Grigio or a similar wine, along with some other possibilities, for the wine base. She does not seem to add caramel. Her ingredients include wormwood, gentian root, chamomile, juniper berries, cinnamon, sage, cardamom, coriander, and orange and lemon rind. This is a nice, simple recipe.
Kelly Magyarics at Wine Enthusiast magazine also references the technique of Sebastian Zutant. He boils the botanicals in wine and then steeps the mixture overnight, then fortifies it with sherry. He uses Palo Cortado or Fino sherry for dry vermouth and sweet or cream sherry for sweet vermouth. He does not use caramel. This is a quick and simple method.
Flynn McLennan, Owner/Bartender at Kagura in Surry Hills, Sydney, Australia, combines the botanicals with the wine and vodka all at once and infuses the mixture for a month. His botanicals list is quite long.
J. J. Proville at starchefs.com offers a survey of different approaches to making vermouth. Like Stewart he describes a range of options rather than a particular recipe.
Of Lesser Interest
These links might be of interest, but I would start with the ones above.
Chris Tunstall at abarabove.com adds red wine to his vermouth. This is unusual. He also provides a video, but it’s not a demonstration, it’s just him talking.
Fiveandspice at Food52 offers a few basic tips along the lines of “don’t start with a wine you really don’t like.”
This nicely illustrated guide by home vermouth makers uses the boiling method. But the authors use a cheap chardonnay wine (Two-Buck Chuck), which does not seem a good idea to me.
Food and Wine infuses fruits for two days in brandy and adds the result to caramel. They boil the botanicals in rosé wine and and add to Port. Then they mix it all together.
It’s clear that there is a range of approaches to making vermouth. Of course the recipes differ in ingredients, but they also vary quite widely in how to infuse flavors, what to infuse them in, how to fortify the wine, whether to add caramelized sugar, and other issues. Which approach you choose is probably largely just a matter of personal preference (I’m not aware of any taste test comparing different approaches). But all of them are easily doable.
I’m a little skeptical of infusing with wine, because the low proof would be less effective in extracting the essential oils from the botanicals than higher proof spirits. Still, some may prefer subtle flavoring. For sweet vermouth, if using a sweet sherry to fortify the wine, as Sebastian Zutant does, gives good results, then this seems less fuss and bother than making caramel. I will try that. And as I already have quite a few infused tinctures, my approach will resemble that of Jack Bevan. Stay tuned for more.
Let me know of good resources I have missed so that I can add them.
* Professor Irwin Corey, the world’s foremost authority, on why he wears tennis shoes: “Well, that’s a two-part question,” he began. “First you ask why. Well, why has been plaguing man since time immemorial. Statesman, philosophers, educators, teachers, scientists have been asking the ultimate why. And in these few moments allocated me, it would be ludicrous on my part—for the sake of brevity—to delve into the ultimate why. Do I wear sneakers? Yes.” Return to top of page.
Continuing with our bird theme, we see here a Plain Titmouse, occupying the same iochroma bush that yesterday’s Chestnut-Backed Chickadee was perched on. This poor guy is saddled with the “Plain” moniker because, despite being “the sole titmouse in most of the West,” according to Peterson’s field guide, he is “the only one without distinctive markings.”
Okay, so he’s not all pimped up like some tropical show-off. He’s still a handsome little guy, with his perky head crest. He’s sharp in a range of always fashionable gray tones, set off with just a touch of white highlighting. Plus he’s got personality! Here he is wrestling with a pretty big seed, and you know it’s going to crack, no problem.
He gets along pretty well with the chickadees, but when push comes to shove, he’s the boss of that particular bush. He gets first dibs on the choicest morsels, when he cares to exercise his authority. Maybe that’s because he is, relatively speaking, a bruiser, busting the tape at a little better than five inches in length, maybe a quarter of an inch bigger than the chickadees. Why, he could probably hold his own with a sparrow if he had to! But he’s not pushy about it. I guess there’s plenty for everyone.
A chickadee couple has joined the titmouse outside the study window. This one is on one of the iochromas. Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds says that “the cap, bib, and white cheeks identify it as a chickadee,” while the chestnut back identifies the particular species of chickadee. Both the Peterson and the Audubon guides say it prefers moist habitats, such as Northwest rain forests. As it has rained here most days in January and February this year, I guess the chickadees have determined our drought is over.
Until I complete my greenhouse (still in the fantasy stage) I won’t have a lot of space for plant propagation. But I do have a small but effective system for germinating seeds and rotating them into the garden. The system consists of a flat, a 50-cell tray, a ventilated dome, a heat mat, and small LED grow lights. This is a much smaller system than the ones you often see for sale, but it’s enough to keep me busy potting up seedlings.
I’m using Rapid Rooter plugs, a soilless sponge-like planting medium from General Hydroponics. The plugs have a small hole on the top. According to the manufacturer, they are a “unique matrix of composted materials bonded together with plant-derived polymers. Rapid Rooter provides the optimal air-to-water ratio within the plug matrix resulting in explosive early root growth.” The plugs are said to be organic, and I hope that is so. A main reason that I like these is that they are clean and neat. My tray is in the kitchen, and I like that these do not create any kind of mess. In addition, they seem to germinate seeds more successfully and faster than other media. (They can also be used for cuttings.) The picture below shows the tray just a few days after planting. This tray mainly has Asian vegetables from the Kitizawa Seed Co.; I will have more to say about that later.
The main downsides of the plugs are that they are a bit expensive and can’t really be reused. Instead, once the plant is rooted the entire plug is put into the soil. Also, the plugs sometimes seem to sort of float up in the garden rather than remaining level with the surround soil. I’m thinking about a way to improve that. (BTW, most of the information on the web about these is about growing cannabis. But that is one thing I do not grow.)
The plugs should be watered when they start to dry out. At first I was overwatering, and I started to get mold. Of course, as this is essentially a hydroponic rooting system, you never want the plugs to dry out.
Until the sprouts come up, I run a small heat mat to warm the plugs. It’s supposed to warm the rooting material by about 5 degrees over the ambient temperature. This is helpful for the majority of seeds. After the seedlings come up I turn off the mat.
I had a problem with the seedlings being leggy. This makes them floppy and weak at the base. It’s a sign of insufficient light. To solve this I purchased a small LED grow light. I knew I wanted LED for low heat and low energy usage. Even then the really strong systems are quite bright, large, and expensive (I supposed that’s what you’d want if you had a big operation growing cannabis or something.) For my purposes this little dual-head 10-watt desk clip grow lamp seems to be working fine. It costs less than thirty dollars. It emphasizes the red and blue ranges of the light spectrum because that is what the plants utilize best. As I understand, full-spectrum daylight grow lights, by contrast, are wasteful of energy.
I’m currently using little bamboo plant labels at this stage. For long-lasting labels in the garden I use zinc labels that react chemically with carbon pencils. Everything else eventually fades.
I find a book from the American Horticultural Society a good resource on plant propagation (I also have their excellent garden encyclopedia).
I love ginger beer — “vigorous reviving stuff with an edge to it,” in the judgment of Kingsley Amis. But the commercial kinds can be expensive. What’s more, home-made ginger beer is tastier. It’s wholesome and easy to make. Let’s make some.
What you need
- Ginger (organic, or at least not irradiated)
- Water (chlorine removed)
- A fermentation starter
- Limes (my preference) or lemons
- Spices (plenty of room for experimentation here)
About the ingredients
- CostCo sells a characteristically giant package of organic ginger at a good price. You want organic because supermarket ginger might have been irradiated, killing all the bacteria. Ginger beer is a living thing (and that’s good for your gut). Hard to get good fermentation if all life has been destroyed.
- I have generally just used granulated white cane sugar, but I think you could use pretty much any kind of sugar, depending on your flavor and ingredient preferences, and the state of your pantry. (I will probably try turbinado sugar next time.)
- Chlorinated water is another thing that is harmful to bacteria. If you use tap water you can either let it sit for a while or boil it. Filtered water is probably best. Here in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area we have pretty good water (except sometimes during extreme drought), but I still find the filtered water tastes better.
Ginger beer is essentially fermented ginger syrup. Fermentation can be divided into two types: wild fermentation and cultured fermentation. The former depends on bacteria present in the ingredients and the environment. Cultured fermentation seeks to get better control over the process through the application of standardized yeasts. (My biochemist dad developed and sold frozen coagulated starter cultures for use in making cheese and other products.)
To make ginger beer you have to add a starter to the watery ginger syrup in order to kickstart the fermentation process. You could use things like water kefir, kombucha, or whey as wild cultures, but I have always relied on a little guy who goes by the endearing name of “ginger bug.” It just seems the easiest and most natural way of going about it. I’ve also made ginger beer with a standardized culture, namely champagne yeast. What are the differences, and which is better? As a test, I made one gallon of each. I will describe the process and give my evaluation.
The ginger bug
A ginger bug is a simple and a complex thing. It begins as a more concentrated mixture of ginger, sugar, and water than will be used in the ginger beer itself. Grate or slice some ginger into a canning jar. Some remove the skin, but I leave it: what’s the point of removing it? Add sugar and stir. I use about two or three tablespoons each of ginger and sugar in one and a half or two cups of water. Exact quantities are not critical. Bacteria adore this stuff: leave it out on the counter, and in a few days it will be colonized and start to bubble. The exact amount of time depends on the season and local conditions. It could be ready in two or three days, or it could take a week.
The beneficial bacteria go to town on the ginger and sugar mixture so enthusiastically that you don’t have to worry about any bad little buggers elbowing in, as they will quickly get crowded out. A permeable cover lets the beneficial bacteria into the jar but keep insects out (maggots would be a serious turn-off, I imagine, notwithstanding Sandor Katz, who says they can just be scooped out). I put a coffee filter over the jar, held with a rubber band. Sometimes I have poked a tiny hole or two in the filter with a push pin, but this is kind of silly and not necessary. You could also use a cheesecloth cover. In fact, the bacteria will probably find their way in almost no matter what cover you use.
The bacteria break down the sugar into lactic acid and carbon dioxide. When we get to the ginger beer stage the CO2 will give carbonation, that welcome fizz. The process will ultimately reduce the sweetness from the sugar, converting it to (a small amount of) alcohol.
The ginger bug can, I understand, also be used as a base for home-made root beers and sodas. I haven’t tried this.
Feeding the bug
To keep the bug alive for your next batch of ginger beer you have to feed it. (Of course, you could just whip up a new batch, but that would involve waiting.) You don’t want to starve the bacteria, so you add maybe one or two tablespoons of ginger and the same amount of sugar every day. I try to stir the bug and feed it once or twice a day. After a week or so, when it is bubbling nicely, starts to smell fermented, has ginger floating on the top, and begins to show a white residue on the bottom of the jar, you’re ready to brew.
If you want to hold your bug a while before brewing and reduce the fuss, you can stick it in the refrigerator. This obviates the need for daily feeding, though you should probably add a teaspoon of ginger and a teaspoon of sugar about once a week.
Preparing the brew
To prepare the ginger concoction, I follow the procedure described in Sandor Ellix Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, in which half of the liquid is reserved and added later to speed cooling. This just saves time. I like my ginger beer spicy, and I tend to use about a foot of ginger root per two gallons of water. Some people might want to start with something like a third that amount and work up to taste.
So if I’m making two gallons of ginger beer I will add the ginger to one gallon of water, reserving the other gallon. My technique at this point is to chop the ginger and then blend the brew with an immersion blender. (Grating a lot of ginger is a real pain.) I have a Breville immersion blender that I love. It requires much less clean-up than standard blenders or mixers. You just stick this thing in a bowl, push a button, and go.
Bring the water to a boil, then gently simmer for 15–20 minutes. (This length of time works; I haven’t tested others.) Add sugar and stir until dissolved. I use about a cup and a half per gallon of finished ginger beer, but some people use twice that amount. Now add the other gallon of water to cool the brew. After adding the cool water the result will probably still be too warm for your bug (especially if you don’t transfer to a new vessel), so cover and wait until it’s about body temperature. (I use the baby milk formula method of dropping a little on the back of my hand to judge whether it has cooled enough.)
Adding the Starter
Okay, our brew has cooled to body temperature, so now it’s time to strain the mixture and add the starter. I strained through a sieve into another large pot, then strained again in filling the two one-gallon carboys. I used to always use carboys with airlocks to prevent glass explosions from the pressure of fermentation. They are handy to have, and they work. But increasingly I just let the brew ferment in the same vessel it was mixed in, covered with a kitchen towel. Once the brew is bubbling vigorously (from a few hours to a few days, depending mainly on the potency of the starter), it can be transferred directly to bottles.
For my starter experiment, I brewed one gallon using champagne yeast and another gallon with the ginger bug. What I found is that the champagne yeast fermented the brew more quickly, and it produced more sediment (I’m not sure to what extent this might be a dosage issue).
Tasters agreed unanimously that the ginger bug produced a drink with a fuller and more pleasing taste.
The bug will not tolerate too much alcohol, and it caps off at about 4 percent ABV (I think), while champagne yeast can survive up to more than twice that level of alcohol. In other words, the yeast version is potentially much more alcoholic. As a test, I let some of the yeasted ginger beer go for a while, and it became pretty alcoholic and remarkably dry, as the yeast efficiently reduced the sugar. The result is a sort of ginger country wine that is quite sharp and not to my taste.
You probably won’t get anywhere near the bug’s ABV cap, and the result will most like be only minimally alcoholic. (Commercial ginger beers are said to be around just 0.5 percent ABV, so they are not required to list alcohol as an ingredient.) If you want to minimize the alcohol content, bottle sooner; let it go longer for a higher ABV.
Once the brew is ready — this is determined by tasting — transfer it to bottles. Continued fermentation in the bottle produces the carbonation. It’s very unlikely that your starter has capped out, but in that case carbonation could be started back up through the addition of a pinch of sugar.
Sandor Ellix Katz writes in The Art of Fermentation, “active ferments sealed in bottles when they still have significant sugar to fuel continued fermentation can explode like bombs, with disfiguring and live-threatening results.” Consider yourself warned. Even if you were not in the line of fire when such an explosion happened, at the very least you would have a hell of a mess of broken glass and ginger beer to clean up, so take pains to avoid this. (Hence carboys.)
At this stage you have a couple of choices. Well, three, if you include using bottles that run the risk of exploding, but I think we can agree that it is sensible to eliminate that unnecessary risk.
- Funnel into plastic bottles. Worst that can happen is you forget about them and pop a cap. Still, glass probably gives better flavor.
- Funnel into flip-top (Grolsch style) bottles or other bottles intended to hold fermented beverages (such as prosecco bottles, properly capped). I like these amber 16-ounce Grolsch-style bottles. They come with replacement gaskets.
In funneling I have variously used cheesecloth, a gold coffee filter, and paper coffee filters, in combination with the funnel strainer. The first two are the best choices, as sensitive tasters are said to be able to detect the effect of the paper filters.
Even with the Grolsch bottles, it’s a good idea to do at least one plastic bottle. The point at which the plastic stops giving when squeezed is probably where you want the carbonation (adjust to preference).
Once fermentation is where you like it, refrigerate. The fermentation will be arrested. Well, slowed considerably: best to pop the top occasionally if you leave it in the fridge for a long time.
Ginger beer is best drunk young. Straight up is a fine way to go. You can also use it in cocktails — with citrus added these were historically called bucks or mules — such as the Dark and Stormy (add rum to taste) and the Moscow Mule (a vodka buck). You might also try the drink that Kingsley Amis, that accomplished tippler, rhapsodized: ginger beer, gin, and lots of ice: he considered this an improvement to the gin and tonic. “I would name this one of the great long [tall] drinks of our time,” Amis wrote in Everyday Drinking, “almost worth playing a couple of hours’ cricket before imbibing.”
Almost. In any case, imbibe.
A few days after the election, a young man named Williams Sims was murdered about a mile from my home. Sims, a musician, was well-liked in the community. Police have characterized the murder as a hate crime. One man is in custody and two more are still at large. The murder occurred in or near the Capri Club, a dive bar across from the public library. The library grounds are under construction, and an impromptu memorial has popped up on the site.
Consider donating to the family’s memorial fund at http://bit.ly/2fNaZJd. As of this writing, the gofundme page has raised $18,505 of its $50k goal.