• Cocktail recipe: Mezcal Margarita

    If you’re looking to conjure up a classic tequila based cocktail then you can’t go far wrong with a Margarita. It’s a drink that, in its basic form, is effortlessly simple and easy to adapt into all sorts of flavour combinations. For this recipe we’re only straying from the classic in one direction, but it’s a fairly major direction: we’re substituting the main ingredient, Tequila, for Mezcal.

    What is mezcal?

    OK, so technically you could argue we’re not deviating from the recipe at all: Mezcal is a spirit made from agave and Tequila is simply a type of Mezcal with restrictions on what kind of agave can be used (blue) and in what part of Mexico it can be made (the state of Jalisco or four other specific regions within Guanajuato, Michoacán, Mayarit and Tamailipas). Mezcals can use any combination of around 30 agaves and are made by a greater variety of production methods so have a wider range of flavours which almost always include some degree of smokiness.

    The Mezcal we’ve chosen for our Margarita, Se Busca Reposado, is a great example of the flavours you can find in a Mezcal with an initial almond sweetness to the distinctive agave flavours, some green pepper and spice hitting mid-sip and just a moderate smokiness that wafts through at the finish of our cocktail. Being labelled a Reposado means it has been aged in oak for between two months and a year (in Se Busca’s case that’s 10 months in French oak barrels) so it has a golden hue along with a few mature woody notes. We think this extra flavour works a treat in a Margarita mix…

    Our easy Mezcal Margarita recipe

    With even the most simple Margarita recipe, folk will argue over the quantities of the three ingredients. The International Bartenders Association prescribe a rather precise 50% Tequila, 29% Cointreau and 21% lime, but we prefer to adopt easier maths and suggest 50%, 25%, 25%.

    Using those sums we’re combining 40ml Mezcal with 20ml Orange Liqueur* and 20ml freshly squeezed lime juice. These ingredients are shaken with a handful of ice and strained into a cocktail glass.** For the full Margarita experience you’ll want to salt your rim: simply rub a bit of lime around the rim of the glass and press it against some salt. A wedge of lime as a garnish completes the piece.

    *Cointreau is usually cited as the orange liqueur of choice but we used the home made orange liqueur from the recipe in our book.

    **There is a variant on the standard cocktail glass that is specially for Margaritas. It has an extra bulge below the main cup. We couldn’t find such an item from our regular glass suppliers – the local charity shops.

    ***I was given some smoked salt ages ago and thought it would work a treat. It didn’t. Unless you think licking a sweaty chain smoker is the ideal way to precede a sip of cocktail. Stick to regular salt instead.

    East Mezcal Margarita Recipe

    Se Busca Reposado + Lime + Orange Liqueur. Mezcal Margaritas made easy

     

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  • Interview: Fermentation revivalist, experimental brewer and booze author Jereme Zimmerman

    Jereme Zimmerman is our kind of home brewer. In his first book, Make Mead Like a Viking, he explores the history of and gives fermentation advice for mead, a booze we’ve had plenty of practice making. And he has now repeated the trick with beer. His latest book, Brew Beer Like a Viking, is partly a historical stroll through the origins of beer, in the days before hops, and partly a recipe book for anyone wishing to brew using methods that are considered unconventional by today’s standards. And there are loads of unusual ingredients to experiment with along the way.

    Eager to find out more about his brewing experiences we rustled up some questions for Jereme and he kindly served up one of the most fascinating set of responses we’ve ever received.

    How did you get into home brewing?
    I started around the year 2000 when I moved from Kentucky to Seattle. I had grown up on a small Kentucky farm and spent my childhood watching my dad make wine (and occasionally sneaking a bottle) in between all of the chores involved in maintaining an old farmhouse and a 40-acre homestead. He mostly made “country wines” from garden produce and fruit he had grown himself. Later in life he told me stories about making corn wine, dandelion wine, sumac wine, and wine from all kinds of other grown and foraged ingredients, including grapes he cultivated himself. From that background I found myself with a yearning for doing some sort of a DIY hobby from my small Seattle apartment. Since I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a brewery or brewpub, and was much more interested in beer than wine at the time, beer seemed the natural choice. So, I headed up the street to a homebrew shop, picked up a brew kit and a copy of Charlie Papazian’s The Joy of Homebrewing, and headed home to brew up a batch. From there, I brewed several kits, often modifying them with my own ingredients (such as adding some Washington Bing cherries my wife and I had picked into a stout). Over time I relied less and less on kits and eventually went to buying the ingredients separately and creating my own recipes.

    Your book is quite unconventional in that it covers alternatives to standard grains, hops and yeasts. Why did you decide to go down this route?
    Well, I suppose I’m just an unconventional person! I’ve always had a tendency to do exactly the opposite of what I’m told to do and to think the opposite of what I’m told to think. In all seriousness though, I didn’t set out with a goal of brewing with and writing about unconventional techniques and ingredients. My current brewing practices stem from my background of growing up living off the land and my interest in history. As I delved deeper into my research in historical brewing I was surprised to find all manner of ingredients and techniques that just don’t exist, or are heavily frowned upon in modern conventional brewing. I started this all in leading up to my first book Make Mead Like a Viking. I had the thought of looking into how people brewed before they had access to homebrew stores and websites and mead seemed the natural starting point since it is likely the oldest fermented beverage due to its simplicity. I initially documented my experiments and research on a now-defunct homesteading website Earthineer, writing under the penname RedHeadedYeti. I quickly found that there was a strong interest in my style of brewing and writing and began travelling to teach about mead, wrote some magazine articles, and eventually wrote a book. In researching for the first book, I discovered a lot more about beer history than I did about mead and felt that information needed to be put into print as well. When Make Mead Like a Viking had been out a couple of years, my publisher Chelsea Green Publishing asked if I had an interest in doing another book. I was itching to get back into beer brewing and looking deeper into the research I had started, so I got started on what would come to be Brew Beer Like a Yeti.

    You advocate that home brewers should ‘have fun and learn from your mistakes’. What are the notable mistakes you’ve learnt from?
    Ha! Too many to list! I’ve made plenty of tasty brews but due to my penchant for extreme experimentation I make a fair share of not-so-tasty ones. Some “mistakes” I look at more as learning experiences. They weren’t necessarily bad, but sometimes a certain ingredient just didn’t work out because I used too much, too little, or didn’t incorporate it into the brew in the best manner. Others I shared with my wife and some friends and they all claimed to like it, so it was more a matter of my peculiar tastes. I always say that if you don’t like a brew, don’t just toss it in the compost. Give it to your wife or unsuspecting friends and they may just thank you for it! “Mistakes” can also be used in cooking as long as it’s not too dismal of a mistake. Mostly I state that because a lot of first-time homebrewers are daunted by all of the things they hear can go wrong. Those things exist for sure but it’s not that hard to avoid them. T

    o answer your question though, an example of a notable mistake would be the time I brewed a five-gallon batch of wormwood ale. I had read in Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers that it was a traditional bittering agent before hops gained prevalence, but he also warned that one would have to be brave to brew with it unless you had a penchant for tongue flagellation. I used what felt like a small amount (half of a one ounce packet from a homebrew supply store) and the result was so bitter it was practically undrinkable. Eventually, I ordered some wormwood from an herbal supplier and decided to brave it again. I compared the taste of the dry herb from the herbal supplier to what was left from the packet from the homebrew store and found that even a tiny amount of the initial packet on my tongue was terrible, while the newly purchased herbs had a noted bitterness but also some floral undertones. I don’t know that this was necessarily a mistake but it was definitely something I learned from. I’ve enjoyed the brews I’ve made with wormwood since that first terrible one. The lesson here is that it’s a good idea to taste (or make a tea from) a new ingredient before brewing with it to make sure you’re going to be able to handle the flavor. 

    And what are the brewing successes you return to time and again?
    When brewing with all grain in particular I like to throw in a lot of adjuncts, but my go-to for a simple, near-foolproof all-grain beer is to just brew with 100% barley pale malt, minimal low-alpha hops (with the occasional herb thrown in), and a British or Belgian ale yeast. I’m pretty much guaranteed a fairly simple brew day and a super tasty beer. When I’m feeling more “ancient” and Scandinavian I do something similar but instead of hops I throw in some juniper branches and berries and ferment with bread yeast. Sometimes I also toss in some meadowsweet and yarrow. These were common ingredients for early Scandinavian beers such as sahti, and are still used in traditional farmhouse brewing in places like Finland and Norway today.

    Besides brewing advice the book is also packed with stories and folklore. Did you have much difficulty in tracking down the historical information?
    Tracking it down wasn’t so much difficult as it was time-consuming. I was an English major in college and have been researching and writing for many years, so I already had a penchant for research. The difficulty was in verifying the information I found. Beer books, even by the most respected of writers, are chock full of myths (the untrue kind, not the storytelling kind) that have been passed down from book to book to the point that they’re accepted as fact. Thankfully I have some friends with similar interests who are dedicated to extreme accuracy in recreating and writing about period brewing who helped me debunk myths and provided me with sources I never would have come across on my own. One in particular is Susan Verberg, a Dutch immigrant who now lives in New York State. She is a historical reenactor and is fluent in Dutch and German. She passed along resources from the Netherlands that were in English, or translated portions for me. She was particularly helpful in researching gruit, although we both find that to be a maddening subject. It originated in the Netherlands and most of what has been written about it very well may not be accurate at all. I touch upon this in Brew Beer Like a Yeti but that’s a subject that needs a lot more solid research… I’m also thankful to a couple of beer blogs I follow religiously, in particular Norway’s Larsblog, Finland’s Brewing Nordic, British beer archeologist Merryn Dineley and British beer writer and beer myth debunker Martyn Cornell’s blog Zythophile. In the end, though, I had to go with what seemed the most accurate. When it comes to history you can never really say for sure and you can drive yourself crazy following what I call rabbit trails. You’ve got to stop at some point!

    If you could drink beer from any time and place in history, where and when would it be?
    I would want to go back as far as possible to when people were first figuring out how to malt grains, crush them with rocks (saddle and quern), and brew by the most rudimentary methods such as heating the wort with hot rocks. I’d really like to know if my attempts at emulating those brews are even remotely close to what they tasted like. Then of course I’d like to fast forward to Viking / Anglo Saxon times and enjoy a good mead hall feast!

    One of your recipes involves using spit as part of the process. Can you briefly explain how that works and how do your friends react when you offer them a taste?
    Yeah, that one tends to gross people out but it’s a very traditional and ancient South American brewing method (and was likely employed by Neolithic man in other periods). It’s really no more gross germ-wise than eating at a restaurant, where you’ll be exposed to many more germs. The spit is involved in the starch conversion process. You boil the wort and ferment it with yeast like you would any other beer, so any spit is long gone by the time you drink it. Although there are many indigenous South American beers brewed this way, chicha is the one most people are familiar with. Chicha can be brewed with standard malted grain (corn instead of barley), but the chicha made by the spit method is chicha de muko (muko are the little spit balls you make from ground up corn). Essentially, human saliva has enzymes that help convert starches to sugars similar to what happens in the malting process. The catalyst for this process is the diastase enzyme (ptyalin), which causes carbohydrates to break down into sugars. I can tell you that it is a very tedious process chewing up all that corn. Even when I soaked the hardened corn kernels in water first, or ground it coarsely it took me a lot of time (and a good amount of Netflix binging) to chew up enough for a one-gallon batch! I could see why this was traditionally done as a communal thing, with everyone sitting in a circle, telling stories and spitting into the same vessel.

    Unfortunately, even the most rustic and adventurous of my friends refused to help. My friend Steve Cole would have, as he’s participated in some of my more extreme brewing adventures, but he had a lot going on in his life at the period I was experimenting with this. I would say I may try it again with Steve someday but to be honest the chicha recipe I have in the book that is made by malting corn kernels the standard way is so delicious I’m not terribly interested in trying the spit thing again! As for offering my friends a taste, well, I’m afraid I drank it all. I may have been able to convince someone but chicha de muko is meant to be drank young while it was still fermenting, as it turns bland and then sour quickly due to the lack of hops or other antiseptic herbs, so I wasn’t waiting around. I can say that it is delicious young. Sweet, flavorful, with just a bit of tang. Some of my friends did try (and enjoy) my chicha made with standard malted corn, malted barley and a hint of hops, though.  

    What are some of the other unusual methods or ingredients readers will come across?
    I would say sahti and other ancient ales are a good example. I found in my research into Scandinavian farmhouse brewing that there was huge range of techniques involving various levels of heating the mash and wort. Some involved little-to-no wort boiling, varying mash temperatures well outside the norm of modern homebrewing, or even boiling the mash and the wort together. Most, but not all, used juniper for bittering, flavoring and disinfecting the brew, and yeast was passed along from brew to brew and from generation to generation. In Finland the same yeast was used for bread baking as beer brewing, hence the use of bread yeast.

    If there’s one ingredient you would encourage home brewers to start experimenting with, what would it be?
    There are so many but one of my new favorites is juniper. Be careful how you source it, though. The juniper used in Scandinavia has edible branches and berries, but there are many forms of juniper that are toxic. They may not kill you but they’ll make you sick. I’m not sure that it is prevalent in the UK so some brewers may need to special order it. If you forage for it in the wild like me, make sure you can 100% positively identify it. There are European varieties that are toxic, usually the ones in shrub form. In the US, it’s best to only use the varieties that are in tree form. Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) are two common edible varieties here, although I understand the flavor may be different than the Scandinavian variety. Juniper is an ingredient that has somehow been nearly completely ignored by brewers and brewing historians. I, and others who are undergoing similar research paths, am finding that it very well may be one of the oldest brewing ingredients and was very likely used much longer than hops. The flavor takes a bit of getting used to but I think it’s a great alternative to hops for its bittering, flavoring and antiseptic qualities. Even better, all I have to do is take a short walk out the back door to gather some!

    Jerem Zimmerman brew beer like a yeti cover

    Jereme Zimmerman’s Brew Beer Like a Yeti (Chelsea Green Publishing, £18.99) is available now

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  • Cocktail recipe: how to make a Dark Rum Daiquiri

    When it comes to rum based cocktails it’s the white rums that receive the call in the majority of recipes. But there are times, particularly when the first autumnal shivers strike, that our eyes glance towards the darker end of our rum range for some toastier, oakier notes in our cocktail creations.

    The Daiquiri is a rum based cocktail, originally designed for the lighter versions of the spirit, that we think works well with darker alternatives. The recipe is little more than a glass of rum that has been sweetened with sugar and soured with lime, so there’s no reason at all why this trick can’t be performed on a few shots of the dark stuff.

    History of the daiquiri

    As with most cocktails the true origins of the Daiquiri are a little hazy and the way it is made and served has changed over the years. It’s a Cuban creation, named after a beach and iron mine, and is claimed to have been invented by an American mining engineer, Jennings Cox, in the early twentieth century.* Over the years it spread in popularity throughout Cuba, eventually making its way to America. J F Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway were both big fans of the drink with the latter having his own variation with grapefruit juice and cherries named after him, one of many alternative servings that have developed over the years.

    The original Daiquiri would’ve been created in a tall glass filled with ice, with the sugar, lime and white rum poured over the top, before evolving into a shake-and-pour drink fit for a classic cocktail glass.

    Our easy Dark Rum Daiquiri recipe

    If you’re using dark rum we think it worth getting a decent one. Our rum of choice is Appleton Estate 12 year old Rare Blend: great in cocktails, good enough to sip neat, and it won’t break the bank account either.

    For our preferred recipe you need, 60ml rum, 20ml freshly squeezed lime juice and 20ml simple syrup.** Pour the ingredients into a shaker with a small handful of ice, give it a quick shake to mix and chill, strain into a cocktail glass and serve with a slice of lime. And make sure to give it a big sniff before sipping – nothing smells more like the Caribbean than rum and lime.

     

    *We reckon he might’ve nicked it from the British Navy who had long been drinking grog made with rum, lemon or lime and sugar. And we reckon the Navy would’ve used dark rum. So perhaps our Dark Rum Daiquiri is the original after all…?

    **Make this yourself by gently heating a small amount of water into which you dissolve the same amount of sugar. Allow to cool before using.

     

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  • How do I know when my hops are ready to pick?

    One of the questions we get asked most is ‘how do I know when my hops are ready to pick?’ Unlike most things we grow in the garden, hop harvest time isn’t obvious. Hop cones are the plant’s flowers, so they don’t ripen like fruit and veg, and the good stuff for beer (the powdery yellow ‘lupulin’) is hidden beneath the petals.

    Thankfully, there’s a relatively long window for hop picking if you’re growing for home consumption and don’t need to worry about maximising yields. As with most harvests, the flowers develop at different rates on the same plant so when some are beginning to fade, and others are just coming up to readiness, most of the flowers in between will be at their best.

    To give you a few clues regarding the best picking time, here are a few tips…

    Picking season
    Most hops in the UK are ready to pick towards the end of August and through September, so you can relax during peak summer and give up when cold weather becomes a bit more common.

    Colour
    As the hops swell they take on a vibrant, fresh green colour. When ready, the vividness begins to fade and you’ll start to see some browning around the edges.

    hops that are ready to pick

    Give it a squeeze

    Texture
    Unripe cones contain quite a lot of moisture so they’ll feel damp and soft to touch. When you squeeze them, they’ll stay squished. Hops that are ready begin to feel drier and more papery – gently rub them between finger and thumb and the petals are more likely to break off and your digits will feel sticky and oily.

    Smell
    After a squeeze of a cone, give your fingers a sniff. If it’s predominantly a green, grassy, vegetal aroma you’re sensing then they’re not ready. If the smell of hoppy beer takes over then it’s time to pick.

    lupulin in hop cones

    Yellow dots of lupulin = beer o’clock

    Check for lupulin
    Break up a cone and at the base of the petals you’ll see the powdery yellow lupulin dotted around. This contains those sticky oils that does the work so a ready hop needs a good smattering of this substance in order for it to produce the goods.

    Overripe is better than underripe
    If you’re still unsure then wait a little longer – overripe hops are better than underripe hops and, once you’ve seen how they look when they reach the overripe stage, it’ll be more obvious next year what an underripe hop looks like.

    Unless you’re making a fresh ‘green hopped’ beer then you’ll need to dry the hops and store them. We’ll put up a separate post about this topic soon…

    If you don’t currently have hops to harvest then you might like this short piece on how to grow hops

    And here’s a post on how to take hop cuttings

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  • Soil crisis! How biochar can help improve our growing conditions

    Did you know there’s a soil crisis going on? We’re all becoming increasingly aware of the damage human activity is causing to our air and our seas but less publicity is given to the degradation of the soil beneath our feet. As gardeners we like to think we know about the importance of good quality soil and do our best to look after it. But is there more that we, and the rest of the world, can do to improve the situation?

    Sacred Earth is an environmental group that connects people with nature and has been looking into the ancient practice of using soil-enhancer ‘biochar’ – an eco-friendly charcoal that can be dug into the soil to improve its fertility. The group has just launched its first biochar product for domestic gardeners so we caught up with Sacred Earth founder Phil Greenwood to find out more about the project.

    Sacred Earth founder Phil Greenwood

    Sacred Earth founder Phil Greenwood

    How did the Sacred Earth project come about and what inspired you to start producing biochar?
    I set up Sacred Earth in 2011, because I believe the ecological crisis we’re facing today is down to humanity’s loss of connection with the natural world. I think if we can revitalise that connection, we can create a positive way forward for our children and the environment in the face of climate change. 

    Sacred Earth has a beautiful 40-acre site near the village of Horam, East Sussex. It’s entirely off-grid. There’s no gas, electricity or even a connection to the water mains. It was once an abandoned brickworks, but under our stewardship, we’re returning it to its natural state, by encouraging biodiversity and helping the local plant, tree, animal and bird life thrive. 

    Our biochar project is about one of the most fundamental things in our whole ecosystem: the soil. The issue of soil health is something that’s been troubling me for a long time. Thanks to the fantastic work of David Attenborough, the general public now understands what a disaster plastic is for our environment. But too few people are aware that another environmental crisis is happening, right beneath our feet. Research from the United Nations shows that a third of all soil on our planet is ‘severely degraded’. Our own government has admitted we only have 40 years until UK farmlands become infertile. Monoculture farming combined with the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers has depleted soils of the mycorrhizal fungi and other beneficial micro-organisms essential to plant and crop health. Much garden soil is unhealthy too, because compost hasn’t been added, weed killer has been applied or it simply hasn’t been tended carefully enough. 

    This is a terrible state of affairs, because all life on Earth is dependent on the thin layer of topsoil that covers our planet. But I don’t want everyone to despair. There is hope – and that’s our message! Adding biochar to soil is just one of the many ways we can turn this situation around. It has amazing benefits, both in terms of soil health and sequestering carbon in the ground. 

    After I’d set up Sacred Earth, it became obvious that I should start making biochar, as I had all the raw materials readily available. Much of our site is woodland. We manage it with the ancient techniques of pollarding and coppicing (which is basically pruning trees to encourage regrowth). I realised I could make biochar with all the leftover wood offcuts. The next step was to get a kiln and I took it from there.

    How is biochar produced?
    We make it by hand in small batches. It’s all very rustic!  Normal charcoal is made by burning wood at high temperatures, but biochar is baked at lower temperatures, in the absence of oxygen – in a process known as ‘pyrolysis’. When it has cooled, we grind it by hand and blend it with our unique recipe of other soil improvers, including comfrey tea, foraged seaweed and biodynamic compost preparations. It’s very labour intensive, but done with great care.

    How would I go about treating my veggie beds with biochar?
    Sacred Earth’s Biochar Soil Booster only needs to be dug into soil once. You have two options. You can dig it into the soil directly, or you can mix it with compost first and then dig it in. If you do the former, there is no set square meterage of soil to which to add biochar. Even tiny amounts can bring about results. However, we’d suggest approximately 1 kg per square metre. If you want to add it to established plants, we’d suggest incorporating a good few handfuls around their roots. You’ll need at least 1kg for a small tree. If you decide to add it to compost first, we would recommend one part Biochar Soil Booster to nine parts compost.

    You can use it all year round, but a good time to think about improving the structure and general health of your soil is in autumn-winter, when the growing season has finished. Soils rest during this period, making it an excellent time to add amendments designed to rejuvenate it.

    What results can I expect from using it?
    There is a growing consensus of scientific research showing that biochar enhances soil health and so improves plant health and crop yields. I have certainly found that in my own garden. 

    You have to be patient though. Sacred Earth’s Biochar Soil Booster is designed to improve soil’s long-term health. One of the key things biochar does is to encourage the revival of microbial systems within the soil. This can take time, depending on the current health and makeup of your soil. You might not see its benefits straight away, but it will greatly improve your soil’s function over time. 

    But here’s the exciting thing: unlike other soil improvers, biochar does not decompose. It will stay in your soil almost indefinitely, enhancing and improving the natural health and fertility of your soil for decades to come. In the Amazon basin there are still incredibly fertile charcoal-based soils that the indigenous people made thousands of years ago.

    Is there a crop that particularly thrives on Biochar?
    No particular one that I’m aware of. I put it on everything! 

    What types of community projects are currently in action at Sacred Earth?
    We specialise in experiential learning. We run courses and events designed to help people establish better relationships with themselves, each other and the natural world. They’re on topics like understanding bird song, mindfulness in nature, animal tracking or rural crafts. We also run a unique year-long programme for teenagers, called the ‘Earth Steward Apprenticeship’ – in which 13 to 17-year-olds come monthly to our site and learn how to make fire, forage and wild camp. It ends with a survival quest, in which they have to fend for themselves off the land. We also have regular community days, which we encourage people to come along to, so they can experience our stunning site and meet our friendly community. All events are listed on the website (https://sacredearthland.co.uk/), although we’re now slowing things down, as we move into autumn.

    What do you have planned for Sacred Earth in the future?
    Oh, we have so many plans! We’re busy organising the creation of a community garden for next year. We’re also going to be expanding our ecotherapy offering, hopefully working with other local community groups and charities. Too many people have lost touch with the natural world and we want them to come to our lovely wilderness and discover its joys. Through our biochar project, we want to get the word out about the global soil health crisis. We plan to start talking to fruit and veg growers and farmers about its benefits. We’re also in talks with a university about doing some biochar research on our land, although I’m not able to reveal any details on that just yet. 

    There’s just so much to do when it comes to the environment, but I remain optimistic. I’m hopeful that lots of small, community-owned eco organisations like ours will pave the way for a new way of doing things.

    A piece of eco-friendly charcoal 'biochar'

    A piece of eco-friendly charcoal ‘biochar’

    Sacred Earth Biochar Soil Booster is available from sacredearthland.co.uk

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  • Are fuchsia berries edible? Yes! We’re thinking booze…

    Last summer I was having a drink in a friend’s garden when she leant over to her hedge, plucked a few fuchsia berries and offered them to me. Until this point I had no idea they were edible. I’ve hardly ever grown fuchsias so hadn’t even considered they might have berries that you can eat. But they are edible, and they were rather nice. Thoughts immediately turned to booze…

    I’m not sure I want a large fuchsia bush in my garden, so this year stuck a plant in a pot instead as a starting point for some berry experimentations. The plant didn’t grow particularly large* and, whereas my friend’s berries have a slight fruity juiciness, mine were lacking in such tempting flavours and, instead, were dominated by the peppery flavours of the skin. Not horrible, but not particularly appealing for a boozy beverage either.

    Following a little research it seems that the different varieties do have varying tastes. According to the excellent Drunken Botanist website it’s the Fuchsia splendens variety that provides the tastiest fruit, suggesting using them in a simple syrup for cocktails as the best way of enjoying them in booze. And having tweeted a picture of my own fuchsia berries Lancashire Mead Co. thought they might make a good addition to mead making.

    If I’m going to run some proper fuchsia-booze experiments then I’ll need to plant a bigger and tastier variety or raid someone else’s bush. But if anyone reading this has already tried a few fuchsia flavoured beverages then let me know.

    you can eat a fuchsia berry

    *It has been partially elbowed out of the way by some self-seeded kale (you can see a few leaves peeking out in the above image) which looked too tasty to cast aside

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  • How do I store wine? We meet the cellar fitting experts

    A few days ago I popped round to Thirsty Rich’s allotment to help out with a few chores. We needed a rake from the shed. It took a while to open the door – hop bines swarmed around the timber slats, fixing it shut much more effectively than the rusty lock on my shed – but once inside I was met with a HORRIFIC SIGHT. Scattered among the tools, buckets and bits of broken wood were bottles of home brew. Ciders, beers and a dusty bottle of my 2012 vintage elderberry wine. Not the best environment for quality booze, especially considering the long, hot summer we’ve just been through.

    To find out more about how precious wines should be kept we caught up with a company called Wine Racks UK. They provide bespoke wine storage solutions, fitting out cellars and supplying some of the finest Wine Racks in the UK and beyond. Besides asking them about ideal storage conditions we were also interested in their ‘dream cellar’ contents – surprisingly, my elderberry wine didn’t get a mention…

    How did your Wine Racks business start out?
    A family-run initiative, Wine Racks began in 1977, before expanding into the thriving business it is today. The company started out when the father of founders Adam and William Moore wanted a wine rack, so Adam decided to make him one. Friends of their parents were impressed and wanted one as well, so Adam donned his best suit and visited catering companies and wine merchants locally. He soon realised that there was a market for his wine racks, so he worked hard and visited companies throughout the UK to get the brand out there. 

    Wine Racks now not only supply private individuals & companies throughout the UK, but regularly export to Europe and other parts of the World. 

    What’s the best way to store wine?
    Ideal home storage conditions is lying the bottle down horizontally, in a cool, humidity-controlled, dimly-lit room which isn’t prone to temperature fluctuations or vibrations. The basement is, therefore, the usual choice and the most popular place for us to fit wine racks or entire cellars. 

    If you’re serious about collecting wine then it’s also a good idea to invest in a wine cellar cooling unit, which keeps the room temperature constant and cools the air gradually, whilst maintaining the humidity in the air.

    You produce bespoke wine racks in various materials – are there any materials that are better than others?
    Yes, certainly. The cheaper wooden materials, such as cedar, fir and poplar are best avoided because they can taint the wine’s natural taste and aroma – a nightmare for any serious collector! 

    Popular wooden materials like pine or oak are used for racks because they’re strong and remain durable in humid conditions which are perfect for cellars and they also don’t tend to crack or produce mildew. However, if your wine storage space is overly damp, wood might not be appropriate and we might recommend using metal racks instead. 

    Metal racks are just as good but they can be difficult to get an exact fit, especially in spaces which are shaped awkwardly.

    What’s the most complicated cellar you’ve fitted out?
    There are a couple that come to mind. The first was an ice house that was circular in shape and had to be accessed from the top, using a scissor lift. The wine racks had to fit around the entire circumference and it was difficult to make the wine racks complete the circle, as you can only work with full bottle holes.  

    The second one was a hexagonal shaped wine cellar and the wine racks had to follow the shape of the cellar. The angles were not consistent, which meant that each angle had to be cut on-site to achieve a perfect fit!

    What’s the oddest thing you’ve found in a cellar?
    We went to fit out one wine cellar and arrived to find three frogs had made it their home and were comfortably living there. As the wine cellar fitter was a bit squeamish, he asked the owner to remove them. The owner then had to ask his daughter to remove them! Luckily, the frogs were rehomed safely in a new environment.

    Name five wines that would be stored in your dream cellar?

    • Jeroboam of Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill Champagne
    • St Emilion Cheval Blanc
    • Chateau Latour
    • Chateau Margaux
    • Taylors 1963 vintage port

     

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  • What is keg beer? We meet the keg makers

    Back in the day, when we paid for pints with £1 notes and still had change for a bag of chips on the way home, ‘keg’ was a swear word. In the battle between cask and keg our allegiances were to the former: the beer we wanted to drink tasted better if it was naturally conditioned in the cask; beer in kegs was a poor imitation of our favourite beverage.

    But times have changed and, although there are still differences between the two methods of storing and serving, only a stuck-in-the-muds would refuse to drink beer from kegs out of principle. We enjoy great beer from casks, and we enjoy great beer from kegs. To find out more about the modern beer keg we caught up with keg makers Petainer, whose products use latest PET materials and technology, to find out more…

    What are the main differences between keg beer and cask beer?
    Cask beer is usually less fizzy and should be served between 11 and 13 degrees Celsius, using a hand-pull. Beer from kegs, on the other hand, is fizzier and should be served at cooler temperatures between 2 to 8 degrees and through a beer front.

    In terms of creation, both are brewed using the same methods, but cask beer is only partly prepared before it is entered into the cask. It isn’t filtered or pasteurised and a second fermentation is needed. This happens once the beer is in the cask, along with sugar, which reacts with the already present yeast and carbonates the beer. 

    Casks must be stored carefully, on their side and in a cool place until this secondary fermentation process is complete. Once cask beer is tapped it should be consumed in a matter of days because it’s already come in contact with oxygen.

    Keg beer is already filtered and sterile before it enters the keg, and then carbonated using CO2 directly into it. It’s then ready to drink.

    In essence, making and serving kegged beer is not as complicated a process as cask beer. Both do require expertise and training to create a lovely tasting beer. 

    How have you seen demand grow in recent years and, if so, why do you think this is the case?
    Demand has certainly grown in recent years and this probably most down to the fact that one-way PET kegs are increasingly being used as an alternative to their steel and glass counterparts. One of the key reasons is because they cut out costly return logistics, as they are simply recycled once empty. This offers considerable supply chain savings to breweries and drinks producers. 

    In addition, PET kegs are just 10% the weight of a traditional steel keg, making handling at the filling plant and on-trade easier.

    Petainer kegs claim to be more sustainable than traditional steel and glass kegs. How is this sustainability achieved?
    PetainerKeg  has a lower total cost of ownership than other packaging formats such as steel and glass, because it can be filled, sent and recycled when it is empty, cutting out the expensive return logistics and the washing processes.

    Moreover, only minimal investment or adjustments to filling lines are required because the keg has been designed to be filled using existing equipment, whether that is carried out manually, or on semi and fully automatic lines.

    The keg can also be sold as a kit and then blown and assembled at the filling plant in the local market, providing cost-efficiencies and helping to improve profits for larger breweries producing high volumes of draught beer. 

    We truly believe in a zero waste methodology and try to carry that through to our products.

    What are the advantages to breweries and consumers of using Petainer kegs?
    There are several benefits, including cost savings, a sustainability approach and logistical advantages. The kegs also offer CO2 and O2 gas barrier properties, helping to protect the quality of the beer, which ensures the freshest product for consumers. 

    VLB taste tests show that after nine months using a Petainer keg, the taste has not been compromised at all, and is on a par with steel kegs.

     

    This is a sponsored post

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  • Five American beers we want to see in the UK

    Most of the beer we drink comes from our patch of the south west. That’s because most of the pubs and retailers we visit sell a lot of local booze and we like supporting our local businesses.

    But we still like to augment our local favourites with beer from the rest of the UK and the occasional sampling of foreign stuff. And not only are we eager to taste what the rest of the world is up to but a steady stream of new beers from overseas keeps our local brewers abreast with global trends, inspiring them to innovate and push their brewing boundaries in new directions.

    A few days ago I was invited to a London lunch hosted by the American Brewers Association, where some of the most exciting new American beers were enjoyed in the company of some of the American brewers that made them. Of the drinks showcased only one had previously been notched on my tastebuds – Hardywood’s VIPA, a Virginian IPA so tasty we gave in a top ten slot in a piece for the Independent – and the others were so impressive that I’ve decided to pick out my five favourites for this blog. So here goes…

    Maui Brewing Company, Bikini Blonde, 5.2%

    Beers from Hawaiian brewery Kona have made an impression on the UK drinks scene, but this was my first tasting of anything from Maui. One of two beers they supplied (the other was the tropical and punchily bitter Big Swell IPA), this lager was my gentle introduction to the event and it quenched my immediate thirst a treat: a very light and easy going beer with a bit of malt character peeping through at the finish.

    Boston brewing IPA

    Boston Beer Company, Samuel Adams New England IPA, 6.8%

    It was inevitable that at least one of the beers on the menu would be an in vogue New England IPA, and this hazy treat packed the requisite hop juiciness and more. Galaxy, Simcoe, Mosaic, Citra and Cascade are the hops that combine to serve up a full-on tropical storm while wheat and oats add some creaminess to the malty base. The Samuel Adams range of beers is always worth investigating and this new offering shows the brewery is still hitting the high notes.

    Fifty Fifty Brewing Company, Barrel Aged Donner Party Porter, 10.9%

    Although a rapidly increasing number of UK breweries are barrel ageing beer (including our local ace experimenters Wild Beer) we don’t think many have quite achieved the consistently brilliant results of their Belgian and American counterparts. This Fifty Fifty porter is brewed with vanilla, coffee and cocoa nibs and all three ingredients are obvious from the outset, mingling nicely with the roasted grains and woody matureness. It has a lovely full bodied feel creating the impression of a boozy ice cream sprinkled with dark chocolate.

    Lickinghole Creek, Enlightened Despot, 11.3%

    I feel massively lucky that I’ve had some of Lickinghole Creek’s barrel aged beers before. They’re of such a luxuriously high standard that the feeling of drinking one must be akin to a wine buff dipping into a cellar for the most expensive old vintage he can find. This Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Russian Stout is immediately boozy, full of oaky alcohol flavours, roasted coffee, bitter chocolate and hints of spicy, fruity sharpness that brings those expensive old red wines to mind. Amazing stuff.

    West Sixth Brewing, Meadoweisse, 4.7%

    Having started with a light lager, before moving through the gears to an imperial stout (all accompanied with some amazing food from restaurant Brat) it was a smart sommelier’s stroke to finish with a light and refreshing Berliner Weisse. West Sixth provided us with a clean, simple example of the style – the sourness had a cidery crisp and acidic bite and it had a nicely satisfying neutral fruitiness to it (undoubtedly fruity but not in a way you could pinpoint a specific fruit likeness). A very satisfying finish.

     

    For more on the American Brewers Association www.brewersassociation.org

    For Jay Rayner’s Guardian review of Brat wander over here

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  • Cocktail recipe: Gin Espresso Martini

    We’ve been experimenting with combinations of booze and chocolate that work well together for another feature on this site and, as part of our thorough endeavours, wanted to suggest the perfect choc-friendly cocktail. Something that had chocolate liqueur as one of the ingredients would be the obvious choice, but with a few chunks of choc on the side that might be confection overkill, so we went with one of our favourite cocoa-compatible flavours instead: coffee.

    There are numerous complicated coffee cocktails that have been conjured by folk eager for a swift hit of booze and caffeine in one mouthful, but we like to keep things simple and wanted a fuss-free recipe, so decided on a basic Espresso Martini.

    This drink tends to be made with vodka as the main spirit, but as it’s such a simple mix of flavours it can also cope with the extra botanicals provided by a good London Dry Gin, so gin is what we used. Another common feature we jettisoned was the use of coffee beans as a garnish – for our Espresso Martini we topped the froth with grated chocolate, giving us a delicious last mouthful of boozy choc to enjoy.

    Trained bartenders may scoff at our diversions from the norm, and they might also frown at our lazy division of the ingredients, but trust us, this cocktail works a treat. Especially if you have a chuck of chocolate on the side.

    How to make a Gin Espresso Martini

    Ingredients
    1 part* gin
    1 part coffee liqueur (for example Kahlua or Conker Coffee Liqueur)
    1 part freshly brewed and chilled espresso
    Ice
    Grated dark chocolate

    Method
    You’ll need to brew your espresso in advance of making this cocktail so it has time to cool down (stick it in the fridge and it won’t take long). When ready, tip it into a cocktail shaker** with the gin, coffee liqueur and a handful of ice. Shake as hard as you can for around 10 minutes – this will thoroughly mix the ingredients, allow the ice to rapidly cool the drink, and create that all important frothy topping. Strain*** into a chilled glass**** and top with grated dark chocolate.

    chocolate coffee gin espresso martini

    *40ml is a good starting point

    **I couldn’t find mine so used a large jam jar instead

    ***Or pick out the ice with a teaspoon

    ****I never remember this bit, hence the lack of frostiness on the glass in the photos

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