How It All Started

Bob Phillips

The title of this blog was inspired by one of my Spanish professor's at Miami University of Ohio, Dr. Robert Phillips, who died in the e...

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Attaining Ginger

Three years ago, when I was a younger man, my sweetheart noticed that my birthday is not just the birthday of Miss Audrey Hepburn and Randy Travis and anniversary of Kent State and other events both notable and regrettable. It is also National Home Brew Day, which inspired her to gift me a starter kit from Northern Brewer. We have since become home brewers and also home vintners, creating a variety of beers and wines in batches of 48 bottles of beer or 30 bottles of wine every couple of months. We still enjoy beer and wine from other sources, but this has come to provide about half our wine and most of our beer, at a relatively low cost for relatively high quality.

I do not think of myself as a real brewer yet, however, since most of these projects are essentially the paint-by-number equivalent of what really is a complex craft. We simply follow directions from kits, and we do not even usually need to measure anything. My first venture into a more creative beer was about a year ago, when I made a raspberry-wheat beer. In that case, a former student working at The Homebrew Emporium in South Weymouth advised me to use a simple wheat-beer kit and a raspberry flavor concentrate. The idea was to use a simple beer as a "flavor base" (a term I am borrowing from the coffee industry) so to avoid competition with the fruit flavor. Though I am not a fan of fruit beers -- this was mainly brewed as a gift to Pam -- I think the result was quite good.

I was reminded of this a couple of months back, when someone shared a ginger ale with me. I do not mean ginger ale in the common sense, or even ginger beer in the common sense, the latter seeming to mean simply ginger ale with real ginger. Rather, it was a beer with ginger flavoring. I realized that I might be able to use the same strategy that had worked for the raspberry ale, and I further realized that if I acted with alacrity, we could have some ready in time for my fiftieth birthday.on May 4.

I am from a demographic group that cannot hear the word "ginger" without thinking of that age-old question: "Ginger or Maryann?" Although I am not averse to the piquant root and agree that the fictional starlet was easy on the eyes, if pressed, I would side with my island colleague, the Professor, on this one. The famous pair are rendered here by artist Natalie Lynn Cunial, whose work is also rife with mermaids.
I picked up a True Brew American Wheat Kit and a knob of ginger. I followed the directions, putting in the rather generic bittering hops at the beginning of the boil. The recipe does not call for flavoring hops -- those distinctive hops that are put in the brew just a minute or two before the boiling stops and yeast is added. I decided that a couple tablespoons of minced garlic would serve as the equivalent of flavoring hops. A few weeks later, on bottling day, I took one more step to ensure some ginger flavor. When bottling beer, a small amount of sugar -- five ounces for five gallons -- is added just before filling and capping the bottles. The idea is to give the yeast just a bit more flavor, so that a small amount of carbon dioxide will be released within each bottle. Without this step, the beer is flat. I always dissolve the priming sugar in boiling water to make sure it is distributed evenly among the bottles, and having made a ginger syrup for our Valentine's dessert this year, I knew that I could infuse ginger into this priming-sugar mix.

Knowing we would have a few friends over for a birthday dinner, we decided to give the new concoction a try on the day before, which is known as Attainment Day. These are celebrated in our house, and according to the federal government, I was already 50, so it was a good excuse to try a special beer anyway. Mainly, to be honest, I wanted to make sure it was drinkable before springing it on company. Readers of this blog know that we are not always so cautious, often serving guests food we have never tried before, and in fact we would do that on my birthday itself -- stay tuned.

Results -- this wheat-ginger ale is a winner! It is lighter than most of our home brews and had just the right amount of zing!


Lest folks think that only hetero men who grew up in the Golden Age of U.S. sitcom television waste their time on shallow, binary choices between the Gingers and the Maryanns of their imaginations, I recommend Dona Flor, her two husbands, and the various remakes of this Bruno Bareto tale.

Fortunately, as the New York Times recently reported on our own marriage, neither of us had to choose between sizzle, as it were, and steak.

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