Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Barrel Aged Brett Cyser (Cider + Mead) - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Fact: Americans mostly have pretty awful taste in cider.

Americans tend to like things that are overly, grossly sweet.

This is bad and we should feel bad.

Few things have fallen to such homogeneous victimization of our terrible enthusiasm for crazy sugary shit than cider. Up until very recently, cider was viewed as little more than a gluten-free substitute for beer, or a fruity option that wouldn't get you drunk as fast as wine. Complexity and innovation came later, but fortunately, it is coming. Cider is the fastest growing segment in the drinks business right now, probably because it's a business that grew from virtually nothing, and was able to tap into the same consumers that have already made 'craft' beer a huge phenomenon. For example, if you are like me, and like experimenting with new combinations of flavors, you will probably also be inclined to dabble in cider and mead as extensions to your playground, if not simply additional ingredients for some beer. For others, cider may not be looked at as a possible avenue for weirdness, but as just another interesting and quaff-able beverage that's maybe sometimes barrel-aged or dry-hopped or spiced.

Makers and drinkers are recognizing it as a familiar yet distinct playground. And with this shift, it was only a matter of time until American cider got better.

While most large cider makers tend to produce stuff that tastes like the thin sugary filtered apple juice that I remember my younger sister drinking (and drinking nothing else) for her entire childhood, (despite big cider makers' hilarious attempts to market their juice as if it's some kind of brutal Viking fuel), there are some good American ciders. Places experimenting. And a few making ciders that aren't grossly sweet. The cider market is growing in leaps and bounds, and as it's a much younger movement than 'craft' beer, most folks making good cider are just getting started.

My main gripe, at this point, is the lack of anything with real wildness. Where's the funk?

For all the American cider makers I do enjoy, hardly any of them makes weird, funky cider. This is disappointing. Even our driest ciders are generally clean and relatively tame. Where are the funky Spanish and Basque style ciders, made in America? Apples host yeast in abundance, and many funky European ciders take advantage of this with their native fermentations, their Brett-embracing, over-carbed feral character. Either our apples are just arbitrarily host to cleaner yeast strains here in America (an explanation that may not be as ridiculous as it sounds, actually, as I do know of some cider makers producing native-yeast fermented cider that turns out incredibly clean), or else the widespread embrace of funky beers just hasn't lapsed over to cider yet.

As my grandma always told me, if you want a weird funky cider with Brettanomyces that clocks in above 14% ABV and is aged in an oak barrel for a summer until it ferments to dryness, sometimes you just have do it yourself.

Cyser is a combination of apple cider and honey — a blend of hard cider and mead, depending how you want to view it. The main reason I went this route was simply to build a stronger beverage that would survive for years to come, and boosting the ABV with simple sugars is easy enough. Rather than cheap table sugar or corn sugar, might as well throw in some local honey and make it real Viking fuel. Maybe even let some local microbes hop on board from the diluted honey. Cider and mead are simply two complimentary flavors: cyser is a no-brainer, if you ask me.

So I started with 5 gallons of cider from a local orchard, Fishkill Farms. Fermented that out with champagne yeast, in a carboy. Transferred into a barrel that the gentlemen of the Brewery at Bacchus were kind enough to donate to me. The barrel had gone through a few previous lifetimes, so I didn't expect to get a ton of oak character out of it, which proved to be true. What little I did get just added some nice balance to this hefty beverage and made a home for the Brettanomyces. Fishkill Farms does UV pasteurize their cider, but UV pasteurization is only a stopgap measure against fermentation, in my experience. Most UV treated cider that I've picked up will eventually start to ferment on its own — amazingly, even if you keep it in the fridge. I've set aside many a cider for two weeks only to find the container bulging and ready to erupt. (Side note: I've always wondered what yeast could be native to these apples that is capable of fermenting at chilly fridge temps. Are apples naturally host to lager yeast? Are other Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains able to ferment this cold, and just haven't made their way into brewer's toolboxes?) So, while the champagne yeast that I pitched was probably able to out-compete most of the native stuff, it's likely / possible something already in the cider was left to make its own impression.

Once the fermented-out cider was nestled in its barrel, I kept a steady fermentation going by slowly adding wildflower honey, as well as a few Brettanomyces strains. An alternate method would be to simply ferment the mead and the cider separately, then blend, and that could work fine too. But here was my theory: by fermenting the cider first, I had a nice healthy yeast culture ready for a boost in alcohol. By slowly adding the honey pound by pound, I kept the feast going, creeping up to the high ABV levels without shocking anyone with a big ol' surge of sugar. If you simply blended mead and cider, one of them would have to be high in alcohol on its own to reach a high ABV blended beverage. Here, the creep from 8% to 14% could go slow.

Apparently, this strategy worked incredibly well. Some very experienced drinkers have tried this concoction, and when I ask them to guess the ABV, no one has thought that this would be over 8% ABV. So that's something. The slow trickle of sugar surely helped with that. Honey doesn't ferment out quite as quickly as other simple sugars, either, giving the Brett the opportunity to work on it slowly. And to bring the funk. As dry as this finished, down to essentially zero residual sugar, the Brett still had the opportunity to work up some weirdness.

What this particular weirdness tastes like is pretty hard to describe. There's a big punch of weird funk in the aroma, while the taste is a bit cleaner, and more fruit-forward. As it warms, it shuffles a bit closer to the direction of a clean mead and cider hybrid, with the crisp flavors of both present, complimentary, and actually nicely refreshing for something so big. I think part of the reason the ABV is so well hidden here is the balance. The oak helps, and likely adds some backing to the weirdness, giving it a rich quality despite the dry base. The crisp character helps cut through the weirdness, at the same time; cider and mead are obviously both very tasty when not clouded by distracting excess sugar. And the weirdness does what it does, being weird, because it's just weird, and whatever That Flavor or That Aroma is, it's another layer you don't typically find in American ciders. I enjoy it. I wonder how many Normal cider drinkers would, though.

Weird, or whatever, the character here isn't exactly like that I've gotten from other funky ciders, and fairly unlike the character most commonplace in aged Brett beer. I used mostly the same strains that I've used in beers, so I wonder if that's a result of something lurking in the cider itself, something that took residence in the barrel, or merely a combination of all these things together resulting in something new and odd.

Maybe just the latter. That's why we experiment: you never know when new weirdness will result from recombining old elements.

"Brewed" on 2/22/14
Bottled 7/15/14
0 Plato | 14% ABV

5 gallons cider
Champagne Yeast
Brettanomyces - BKY C2 + BKY C3
Add raw honey until desired ABV is reached (5 lbs-ish)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Nelson Sauvin Dry-Hopped No-Boil Sour Ale / Sour IPA - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Nelson Sauvin Dry-Hopped Sour
All the pictures I took for this photo session came out with this weird hazy quality. Fortunately, this is very thematically appropriate for this particular brew.

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Sour IPA / Gose
Brewed: 11.10.14
Kegged On: 1.17.15
ABV: 4.9%

Appearance: golden yellow, haze, ample head, good retention
Smell: tropical fruit, bright lactic tang, funky citrus, guava, lychee, passion fruit
Taste: star fruit, lychee, 
yellow Gatorade, lactic sour, tropical funk, slightly briny finish
Mouthfeel: med-high carb, light body, crisp, puckering lingering sour in finish

It grows ever harder to label a beer like this without sounding ridiculous. Are names sacred immutable historic markers that shall never be blasphemed, or merely vague markers to give a beer the most context available? Sure, sometimes you'll get yelled at for labeling a beer some nonsensical, contradictory, hybrid style, but if you're not taking things too seriously, there's some effortless fun in the unanswerable questions like "How can an India Pale Ale be black?" Sure, why not.

Recently, a bunch of brewers have finally realized that sours are pretty dope when dry-hopped with some viciously fruity tropical hop varieties. I'm not sure why this took so long, other than, I guess, that sours in general weren't all that commonly made until recently. (New Belgium, as far as I know, set the trend a few years ago with Le Terroir, and it's caught on considerably since). "Dry-hoppped sour" works as a label, because it's descriptive of a process. But it doesn't tell you the full story. What type of sour? Are we talking a sour mash / kettle sour situation, or are we dry-hopping a full-on aged lambic-esque sour? Cause there's quite a bit of difference in those two things. "Sour" in general could be so many things. We could be dealing with a dry-hopped Flanders situation, a sour stout, a sour saison, an IPA that got infected, and so on. This batch, for instance: without the hops, you would call the base a gose.

At least, due to the fact that lambic-esque aged sours are way more time intensive to produce, you can usually assume that such hoppy sours are of the "quick sour" variety. (If it's an aged sour, they'll be sure to let you know). This batch, for example: I soured it quickly (not exactly a kettle sour, but we'll get to that). While it was a no-boil and no-hop batch up until the end, I did then dry hop it with an aggressive 5 ounces of Nelson Sauvin, and it drinks like it. Remarkably so. Is it a hoppy sour? A sour IPA? Or is it still a gose, as the base beer would have been had I never added hops?

Whatever it is, I could live inside this beer.

I love the concept of dry-hopped sours, in general. As I toyed with above, you can go in so many different directions with the concept, and if you're not pulling out bitterness, you have little clash of character to fear. A whole range of hop aromas seem to work well over the base of a sour, but the tropical fruity notes of new-wave modern hops are particularly well suited.

I suspected that Nelson Sauvin would go like gangbusters over a tart juicy gose foundation, and it really, really does. Nelson is one of my all-time favorite hops, but it's so unique and distinct that I find it doesn't always pair well with others. It's one of the few hops that I feel often works best as a single-hop addition, because it's already crazy complex, crazy distinct, and there are just very few other hops that can even squeeze within its realm of flavor. Specifically, I usually get a tart gooseberry fruit character from it, dry and succulent — the reason you hear those white wine descriptors tossed about for it. Since there's no bitterness, there's no clash between the hops and the sourness whatsoever — they work  in perfect harmony, tart and juicy characteristics enhancing the best of each other. I find it interesting how well-preserved and distinct the character of the Nelson remains: in Brett IPAs, the yeast almost always rearranges and chews through the hops, ultimately shaping them into something different. Here, the hops still come out the other end as they were before. Weird old Nelson retains its weird old Nelsonishness.

As with my last batch of gose, which got fruit instead of hops, I did not sour mash this or kettle sour it, the way you typically would. I just pitched my house culture of mixed lactobacillus strains, let those go on their own for two days at room temperature, and then followed up with a pitch of Brettanomyces to ferment the beer to terminal gravity. This one finished low, much lower than my last gose, and so the ABV ended up on the high side of what I was planning for. The cooler temps (room temp is pretty cool compared to what most would sour at), but I find the final result ends up right where I want it. This isn't the most acidic thing ever, but it's got a solid lactic sourness to it, moreso than most gose or Berliner Weisse. While you may not be pumping the lacto up at their max temp for the max effort, the resulting sourness seems a bit smoother and more complex.

Nothing special about how I added the hops. To keep things simple and clean, I didn't run this one through my normal dry hop tank, but I did purge the carboy with CO2 when I added the hops and transferred into the keg. Like I said, the hop character just held up amazingly well, for whatever reason. Nelson Sauvin might be one of my favorite hops, and this might be the best use I've found for it so far.

I don't know that I can pick a favorite between this and my last batch of gose, the kiwi lime zest version that never received any hops at all. Both wildly different beers, both very distinct, but both a wonderful application for the gose base.

As I said with the last one: BRB time for a keg-stand.

5.0 Gal., All Grain
Fermented at room temp, 72 F
OG: 1.040
FG: 1.003
ABV: 4.9%

41.4% [#3] Pilsner malt
41.4% [#3] white wheat malt
13.8% [#1] Cara-Pils
3.4% [4 oz] acidulated malt (pH adjustment)

Hop Schedule-
5 oz Nelson Sauvin dry hop for 6 days

House Lactobacillus cultures
House Brettanomyces cultures

15 g sea salt

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

New Brett Hoodies Plus Restocked Brett Shirts, For All Your Brettanomyces Apparel Needs

As foreseen by the Prophecy, my Black Metal Brettanomyces and Space Metal Brettanomyces shirt designs have returned from the dark void of Outofstock, and made their terrible respawn in the new form of sweet zip-up hoodies. Fly, fly, to the safety of my webstore, so that you may be cloaked in the grim illusion of comfort afforded to your frail humanity by these merciful and sweet Brettanomyces garmets.

I've only ordered a limited quantity of the hoodies to start, to see how they go over, so act fast if you want one. They're light-weight hoodies, zippered, with the design on the back and a blank front.

The same Black Metal and Space Metal designs are also now restocked. They've proven to be by far my most popular designs (I was actually anticipating that the Wild Yeast Appeared! design would be), so I was able to order new variations of these two before any of the others. So, that means there are now some XXL sizes available for these two.

Finally, so that I can sell through them faster, I've marked down my Bear Flavored "Fermenting Bear Skull" design to $15. Get 'em now, because I'll probably sell the blog to AB In-Bev soon, and you'll want to have something to burn in protest.

The link to my store, one last time.

And once again, thanks for being interested in my silly website and silly t-shirts!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Strong Sour Ale with East Coast Yeast Bug Country - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Sour Ale with ECY Bug Country

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Sour Ale
Brewed: 5.27.2013
Bottled On: 7.31.14
ABV: 9%

Introducing any type of wild microbes into a beer always means some big potential departures from the well known and easily controlled, at least the first few times around. Sure, you can learn the habits of semi-domesticated, once-wild microbes  at least, you can learn their habits in those specific contexts. But new cultures can always be expected to carve their own path, like water down a mountain. Sometimes the flow just can't be steered, and your well-worn trail gets washed out. Sometimes it's easy to find a source of nice clean water. Sometimes there's a dead squirrel floating down the stream, and you didn't see that coming, did you?

The two versions of White Manna  a pair of tarts saisons I did the other year with two mixed cultures — remain some of my favorite beers that I've made. The Fantome culture didn't develop the acidity early on of the other version, but more and more over time, a soft berry fruit tartness emerged, quite unique among other saisons I've had. I'm so happy I still have a few bottles of each, because watching them develop over time has been just real neat. Real neat.

When deciding to do this strong sour saison for my 50th batch (and my dad's 50th birthday; happy coincidence), I had to decide among my available cultures what might lend the nicest character to a 9ish percent ABV tart sour saison. The blend of Saison II and Fantome dregs that I had used before seemed as good of a choice as any. And so I let the beer do its thing for four or five months.

One thing about being a homebrewer with a decent pipeline of beers in production and a lot going on in life: that early rush to see your aged beers be ready to drink eventually dissolves into a sort of forgetful patience. Or maybe that's just me. Beers that need more tending-to get it, while beers that I know are fine to age for a while often sit quietly in the corner, going about their business as I remind myself that I should really check on them soon, but maybe not tonight, because all these kegs need cleaned and I'm already a few pints deep. Which is to say, I could have easily turned this batch around much, much faster, in retrospect. Still, the way I went about it returned a very interesting beer. If I had packaged it after four months, it would have been another, different, interesting beer. Just ready much sooner. That's often how it is with, especially, wild beers: whatever path down the mountain the fermentation tends to take, there are many possible outcomes that are all interesting. Just interesting in different ways.

After four months, I added honey and sugar to bring the calculated ABV of the batch up to about 9%. This is an easy trick employed by various Belgian styles to keep a beer dry and drinkable and clean and deceptive in its ABV — elementary stuff, but again, I could have added the sugar much earlier, even in the boil itself. Realistically it wasn't going to make a huge difference either way. Three weeks into fermentation versus four months into fermentation was somewhat arbitrary. However: knowing that I was already taking my sweet time with this batch led to another, more serious editing choice.

Right after adding the sugar to re-initiate fermentation, I decided to add another microbe culture. Having some newly-acquired secondhand dregs of East Coast Yeast Bug Country to play around with, I figured: why not?

With the new dregs added in, I figured this might become more of a full-on sour than just a lightly acidic saison, and so ultimately this batch got almost a year to age. Its lifespan offers up a few glimpses of lessons about, I dare say, the lives of sour beers in general.

Most full-on sours with mixed cultures aren't considered done for at least a year, and this is generally a good baseline if you know you're using lambic-like cultures. That is why my procrastination at bottling this until approximately a year after it was brewed didn't seem extreme. If I had meant it to be a full-sour from the start, this would be the normal timeline anyway. Why not have the patience to wait and see what, if anything, would change?

Flash forward to the beer being ready to drink. Yes, I've not really checked up on it for a few months, but I know it should definitely be done by now. There's no sign of a pellicle or anything. Definitely no activity. I could have bottled a while ago, I'm sure. Oh well. It's not as sour or lambic-like as I expected, but it's... interesting. There's a flavor note I can't quite pinpoint, at first. It certainly doesn't taste like the "strong sour saison" I originally intended this to be.

Rather than a brisk, pale saison, I find a profile I have not encountered in many beers previously: sherry.

It's hard to describe the flavor profile of sherry other than "sherry." At first, I couldn't figure out what was going on. Even the color of the beer was darker, though the recipe was essentially the same as other saisons I had done. But that unique sour note.... The flavor of sherry so particular, I might not have even been able to place it had I not randomly bought a bottle of sherry not too long before I brewed this beer, from my friend who runs the fancy schmancy wine store in town. Maybe it's just this particular region, but I can't say I find sherry to be a particularly oft-consumed beverage. (When was the last time you personally consumed sherry?) The flavor of it, though, is very distinct. It's a profile similar to what you might get with a minor acetic backbone, and both depend on the presence of oxygen, to some extent, to arise. Had I allowed this beer too much oxygen due to its overly-long aging process? And how had excess oxygen gotten into a glass carboy?

Now, as I finish this write-up, I can no longer find the description for East Coast Yeast Bug Country online (the results turn up hits for "Bug County", which I assume is a different, newer blend. Al is changing his offerings all the time). But when I was first trying to solve this riddle, I had pulled up the description for the Bug Country blend release, and noted that it contained sherry flor. Ah-ha. This previously mysterious flavor that I hadn't been able to place, clicked into place. I at least understood what I was tasting, now, if not exactly the path the beer had taken.

Perhaps I favored the flor cultures in the blend unintentionally, by feeding the beer in stages with additional sugars; by giving it so much extra time to age; by allowing it the headspace it had, for the months it had once fermentation was otherwise complete. I'm not entirely sure. This is a beer that I don't know that I could reproduce, if I wanted to brew it exactly like this a second time. Which is kind of a shame.

Ultimately, I'm glad this one came out the way it did. No, it's not lambic-like. It's not quite Flanders like either, though that's the style probably closest to it, with that oxidative, semi-acetic influence. Like I said: I've never had another beer that tasted much like this. And since this is an enjoyable, flavorful, surprisingly-drinkable strong sour beer, that's kind of a shame. A lot of things about this batch fascinate me.

After all the aging-pitfalls it's already handily dodged  and at 9% ABV too  this one is set up to age for quite some time. Good thing, as I donated most of the bottles to my dad for his birthday and told him to open them infrequently. Maybe a couple a year. Maybe, once they're down to a sixpack or so, once a year. A beer like this is meant to take the long, winding path of patience.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Is Iceland's Fermented Shark Meat Really The Most Disgusting Food In The World?

Shark Shack at Bjarnarhöfn
The Shark Shack is a little old place where we can get together.

The following post is an early partial-chapter draft or prototype excerpt from my upcoming book, The Fermented Man. If you enjoy this inspiring and harrowing tale of adventurous shark consumption, please consider buying a copy of my book when it's released in winter 2016. In the meantime, follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Driving around Iceland in winter, you wonder how anyone could have settled such a barren* island before the invention of greenhouses and electricity and reliable international trade. I knew the sun-deprived December landscape would be misleadingly gloomy during my brief visit — they get a concentrated summer full of sun, after all — but Iceland sure doesn't look like a place conducive to salads and fruit smoothies. (*Fun fact: you wouldn't know it now, but the island used to be covered in trees. Humans just broke them all, as we do. Currently, however, Iceland is making up for tree genocide by planting more per person than any other country). Clearly, the diet of such a place was always going to consist largely of meat, fish especially. But even off the snowy glaciers and volcanic highlands, the extreme conditions around the island are gonna make fishing excursions in the dark of winter fairly treacherous. Like any culture around the world — those in equally inhospitable climates and those not — early Icelanders developed methods for preserving precious food through hard times. And mostly, that means fermentation.

But aside from preserving food for lean times, fermentation can pull another, less-known trick: in many foods, the process helps to break down anti-nutrients and toxic chemicals, making foods more nourishing to humans than in its raw form. Sometimes, the fermentation is required to make the food edible and safe to eat at all. 

The first settlers in Iceland to try eating the flesh from the monstrous Greenland Shark, for example, would have shortly thereafter begun vomiting blood.

The Greenland shark is a fascinating beast for many reasons — a genuine prehistoric monster that's adapted to inhabit waters far north of where other sharks can survive. These sharks can also live for some 200 years, giving them plenty of time to practice and refine their inherent badassedness. With an impenetrable sandpaper skin and rotating deathblades of razor teeth capable of sawing prey in half, this beast happens to be about the same size as a Great White and could probably kick the shit out of one in a fight, if the Great White were even capable of bringing it to the Greenland Shark's inhospitable home turf. At the shark museum I visited on my trip, we were shown various animal parts that had been pulled out of the animal's stomach: the leg of a polar bear, for instance; some worm-like deep-sea alien never witnessed alive by human eyes; the skull of a small whale. Elsewhere, a Greenland Shark has been found with the body of an entire reindeer in its stomach.

Contents of Greenland Shark Stomach

One of its many incredible powers stems from the fact that the Greenland Shark lacks kidneys, and is thus constantly excreting urea throughout its own body. (Indeed, a superpower that any young schoolperson might wish for when fantasizing about their favorite heroes). To survive the frigid temperatures in the waters it inhabits, the shark is thus equipped with a natural anti-freeze, trimethylamine oxide. Between the full-body urea and its TMAO, the shark's meat simply can't be eaten without significant modification. Cooking over the ol' Viking bonfire wouldn't cut it. 

And yet some lucky, hungry bastard figured out how to eat the stuff. Fermentation, followed by months of open-air dry curing, reduces the toxins to low enough levels that humans can safely eat the shark's flesh — though the potent smell of ammonia can't be scrubbed out entirely. It's a double whammy of peculiarity; funky rotten fish flesh and the lingering whiffs of once deadly poison. Whatever, Vikings ain't care.

I told people, for weeks before the trip, that I was genuinely excited to try this delicacy, called hákarl by the Icelanders. I was pretty serious: not morbid curiosity here, but genuine interest. It had so much build-up. It had so deep a lore behind it. And so many foodies and cooks better traveled than I had described it as one of the world's most foul foods. I had already tried some pretty weird foods in my year of fermentation, and my gut had already played host to just about every manner of microbe imaginable, so I felt like I was amply prepared. And before we even landed in Reykjavik, I'd even have time for a bit more practice.

While in Oslo for a 22 hour exploratory mission slash layover, I made it a point to try the closest thing to hákarl offered by the Norwegians. That's rakfisk, a fermented trout that seems to follow a similar method of fermentation, albeit minus the months of drying outside in a shack. It's brined in big crates, soured in its own juices, and served as-is, raw. The skin is removed, but not the little bones stitched throughout the meat. Though the process behind it sounds fairly intense, Rakfisk still just looks like fish, retaining its warm pink color, and it's hardly stranger smelling than... well, pickled fish that's maybe been left out for a bit. We sat down to a humble dinner spread of extremely weird cheese, a large boule of bread, and a small slab of fish that frankly wasn't seeming nearly as exotic as we'd imagined.

Norwegian Rakfisk in Oslo
Norwegian Rakfisk in Oslo.

Trying the rakfisk was a bit of a shock. Here's what was totally unexpected about its flavor: it was absolutely delicious. My friend and I briefly expressed our confusion at this development before rapidly devouring the pile of tangy, flavorful flesh. There was really nothing very weird about the stuff at all. If you at all enjoy fish, I don't see how you wouldn't be okay with rakfisk. It wasn't putrid. It wasn't rotten. It was, I swear, just slightly funky fish.

While rakfisk hasn't necessarily picked up the extreme reputation that hákarl has earned, I'd read online that it was, at the least, on that weirdness spectrum. A BBC article from a few years back describes it as "the world's smelliest fish" and the author goes on to describe it as "not unlike a slice of sushi that has been on a rather long bus journey." That the stuff was so extremely tame left me a bit concerned, frankly. Now, rakfisk can be fermented anywhere from a couple months up to a year, so maybe this was just a mild, lightly-fermented example. But if it was any indication of what to expect with hákarl, there was definitely some concern that everyone else in the world was maybe just being a huge bitch about the smellyness of their seafood. And that would be sad.

By the time we skipped over to Iceland and made it to our hostel in Reykjavik the next day, dinner time was around the corner following some limited exploring of the city. We decided there was no point in waiting. It was sharktime.

It is not very hard to find hákarl in Iceland, at least not in Reykjavik. Some basic level hunting is required — I would certainly advise that you do basic Googling before you go exploring Reykjaviks' restaurant scene, just to at least know where your options are. There are many a restaurant with a focus on seafood, as one might expect, but most of them don't serve hákarl (or at least, it's not listed on the menu). We picked out two spots to investigate: Café Loki and Icelander Bar. Café Loki seemed like an obvious first choice, as we were already going to pass it on the way into the center of town from our hostel. The spot is easy enough to find without even trying, as it's just across from the massive Hallgrímskirkja church that dominates the skyline and makes for one of the city's most visited tourist attractions.

The hákarl at Café Loki is served as part of various platters offering combinations of traditional Icelandic foods. Icelandic cuisine is big on Nordic staples like rye bread, preserved fish, butter, and cheese — the rare type of restaurant menu where a great many things were on the spectrum of what I could eat in my year of fermentation.

Hakarl at Cafe Loki, Reykjavik
Hakarl cubes at Cafe Loki.

After our "Icelandic Delicacies II" platter was served, we went right for the hákarl. Obviously. Why wait?

The meat is served in the form of little cubes. It's a small serving size, so your first taste will be only a meager cube of flesh, and if it happens that you can't handle that, you won't be wasting much food. I'd guess that's the idea, anyway.

But what if you like it and want more?

We were confused. After trying the first morsel — which really didn't even smell particularly offensive, I swear — we immediately went for a second. It was fishy, sure. Fish can be an inherently funky and weird food, particularly to anyone who didn't grow up in a coastal town, living off of seafood. I think anyone from a landlocked region (and to be fair, I never ate much seafood growing up) would find a lot of seafood equally as off-putting. This was funkier and fishier than most, but not putrid. It didn't smell like death incarnate. It was just unusual. Actually, after a few bites, the closest analogue I could come up with was simply a smelly cheese — it reminded me a lot of some particularly aromatic German cheeses I'd had recently. Sure, weird, maybe even off-putting, but not horrifying. And definitely nothing to gag over.

It was kind of disappointing how okay we were with the stuff. All in all, it was a delicious meal. One that I would be happy to eat any time. If you're visiting Reykjavik, I certainly recommend the Icelandic Delicacies II at Café Loki.

But this didn't seem right. Had this simply been subpar hákarl? Improperly-made hákarl? A tamer version meant for squeamish but curious tourists?

We asked our server, who assured us it was pretty standard stuff. She was young, and I'd been told that the younger generation in Iceland wasn't quite as fond of the shark as previous generations had been. She did say that she would eat it on occasion, but this seemed more like a hesitant reassurance for our benefit than any genuine fondness.

Still, something didn't seem quite right. Café Loki was a lovely place for a meal, but there was clearly more to learn about the mysteries of rotten shark meat.

Only one way to find out: visit the place where the stuff is made (well, one of the places — there are four or five producers of hákarl in Iceland). The Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum is a 2+ hour drive north of Reykjavik, a drive which we made the following morning through pouring rain and overcast skies. The entire world around us, devoid of a clear horizon line, was soaked in a deep and murky shade of gray that seemed unique to Iceland in winter, where the sun is an afterthought even on a good day. The weather being what I would describe as "aggressively gloomy," there wouldn't have been much point in trying to do any other kind of outdoor activity right then, so really, forcing optimism, I figured this venture to the remote lands host to the farm / museum were wonderfully timed. And to escalate the inhospitably of the day a bit more, when our car skirted the side of a mountain and emerged only kilometers from the ocean once more, the winds had become focused into something like an arctic gale. Immediately, our tiny rental was buffeted like a cow in a tornado.

We stared for a few seconds at one inscrutable digital road sign entirely in Icelandic that seemed primarily concerned with a slew of weather barometers that were not the temperature. It was a while before we realized what the sign foretold: wind was such a Thing here that there were regular roadsigns advising drivers how fast it was moving and from which direction.

Moving very very slowly through this world of infinite gray and sideways rain, we soon found the entrance to Bjarnarhöfn. It would have been difficult to miss even in those conditions; there had been nowhere else to stop for long time, save for one small gas station and coffee shop a number of kilometers back that looked closed. Plus, the road was marked by a large metal fish. We took the gravel road a few more kilometers toward the ocean from there, hugging the side of a mountain that loomed above us despite the increasingly thick rain and clouds. The scene, already, was sufficiently ominous.

Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum Entrance
Nothing ominous about this scene at all.

Eventually, buildings that must have been the shark farm emerged in the near distance, but so did a broad swath of murky white and dirty tan across the road ahead. The car pulled to a stop in silence, and in my head, I was thinking: "Could we really have been thwarted by an actual avalanche?" If I had a dollar for every time my use of a road has been thwarted by an avalanche, I would now have exactly one dollar.

In retrospect, I wonder how the museum could ever handle vanloads of visitors in its busier seasons, as the road at that point was one lane at best, with zero shoulder and a fairly steep drop-off on either side. There was nowhere to really go from there, so we decided to just leave the car where it was, parked in front of the avalanche, and venture forward on foot. I certainly wasn't turning back.

I opened the car door and experienced an overwhelming force something like blowing out the airlock of a spaceship. Our map of Reykjavik and a number of receipts were sucked out into the grey mist instantly, never to be seen again (save possibly by some fishermen in the arctic circle).

I commented on these extreme circumstances calmly and strategically. Something like "**** ******* **** ****!" I was very glad I had worn my heaviest hiking boots this trip.

The headlights from a large truck lit up the road ahead of me as I cleared the snow from the avalanche. At first, I wasn't sure if this vehicle was actually trying to drive through the snowfield somehow, and was just idling there in impatience, as, even if it could clear the other side, our car would then be blocking them in. All I could really make out were the headlights, seeing as the sleet and wind had become so intense that it was physically impossible to look straight ahead without becoming instantly blind. A really pissed-off stream of water ran parallel to the avalanche, jetting water down from the same mountain that had buried the roadway in snow. I crossed over a bridge and had a brief flashing visual of losing my footing and being swept out into the ocean. Working my way toward the truck, I realized that whoever was inside must be waiting specifically for us. The driver motioned for me to come around to the passenger side of the vehicle and open the door.

Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum
Awesome dog, yawning.

An older man in blue overalls sat behind the wheel. I asked if the shark museum was still open, and when after repeated questioning he just kept gesturing at me to get in the truck, it became apparent that he did't speak English. There was no doubt as to who he was, though: he and his dock worker's outfit smelled very, very distinctly of rotten shark. It is not a smell that you would fail to identify.

This was Hildibrandur of Bjarnarhöfn, the very man who performs the sharking. He gave us a ride back to the museum, and led us inside accompanied by a gaggle of cats and a very puffy, very friendly dog. Evidently this was not a busy day at the museum, in spite of the lovely horizontally-blown sleet monsoon raging outside, and Hildibrandur had to walk around turning on all the lights before we could explore.

The museum itself is a fascinating place, full of too many curiosities to describe here. Eventually, Hildibrandur's son Christian wandered in as our guide for the day. (His name wasn't actually 'Christian,' but I couldn't pronounce it for the life of me, and therefore have no idea how to spell it). After some fun show and tell of the various curiosities surrounding us, with explanations of how they actually make the shark, Christian pointed to the slab of hákarl awaiting us on the table in the center of the room.

This was, visibly, far more serious shark business than the previous night's effort. For one, it looked like a piece of meat. There was a dark crust on the outside that appeared as if it could be the sandpaper-tough skin of the shark, but which was actually just a sort of brown rind (formed by microbes, presumably, just like a cheese) as the meat dry-ages in its sharkshack. Unlike the featureless white cubes served at Cafe Loki, the flesh of this slab looked like flesh, with texture, color variation between unblemished white and darker, tougher-looking pink meat, and a general aura of fishyness.

Rotten Shark Meat / Hakarl

This time, it actually looked like I was about to eat a piece of shark.

The most commented-upon feature of hákarl is probably the smell. And yeah, before a chunk of hákarl ever got close to my face, there was no mistaking the fact that this shark meat was some next level shit compared to what we'd eaten prior. Leading up to the trip, this was the only thing that I really expected I might have a hard time with. Most people who consume the stuff remark that it doesn't taste nearly as bad as it smells, and the texture of it in your mouth isn't particularly disturbing, but the aroma will crush your ability to ever again experience joy or contentedness in life. I would argue with this assessment. Yes, this stuff definitely had some funk in its game, but I don't know, guys. Maybe it's because my ability to ever again experience joy or contentedness was thoroughly crushed years and years ago, but I just wasn't getting the sense that hákarl was worth barfing over. Here's the thing, too: everything within hundreds of meters of Bjarnarhöfn already smells deeply and distinctly of rotten shark. So by the time it gets to your face, it's not a totally new sensation, and if you were really that turned off by its particular aromatic qualities, you would long ago be curled up in the fetal position on top of an avalanche hakarling into the snow.

It's very difficult to actually capture what hákarl smells like. Fishy. Weird. Funky. It's not nearly as outright horrifying as I would have expected. It doesn't really smell like death, or full-on rot; you can sort of understand how some starving and confused Viking might have given it a little nibble after accidentally fermenting the world's first Greenland Shark. There's certainly a difference between the particular pungency of hákarl and meat that's really badly gone south. A very important difference.

I took a fairly big piece. I don't know, I was feeling cocky. (And it occurred to me that this was all I was going to have for lunch).

Also unlike the first stuff, this meat was chewy, rubbery, but definitely flesh-like in texture. I tried to bite my chunk in half and realized that I was not going to succeed without extensive gnawing. So I just went for it. Pushed the whole thing in my mouth.

Between chewing, we all agreed: this wasn't so bad. Flavorwise, we still kind of liked it. It definitely fell short of horrifying and possibly within the range of interesting. Just a very unique fish experience. Who doesn't want a very unique fish experience?

I mean, it was weird. It sort of tasted like you were chewing on raw fish and a very very funky cheese at the same time. Like the weirdest of cheeses, there was something thoroughly primal about the flavors, unwashed and bodily. An impression of inherent fleshiness that, for whatever reason, you don't get in domesticated land meat. Beef tastes like it evolved to form a hamburger. Hákarl remains stubbornly attached to being flesh.

It took a long time to chew the large piece. Eventually, I realized: okay, need to get this down.

A strange thing happens as hákarl is in your mouth. (Only from this hákarl, anyway, the flesh off the block; I didn't get any of the subsequent sensation from those mild white cubes). A tingling begins to build in the back of your throat and up your nose. In your nostrils, it's a burning not unlike having taken a large bite of horseradish, but the feeling at the back of the throat is unlike anything I've experienced from any other food. It's a mixed feeling of stinging, burning and tickling that does not quickly dissipate. I imagine it's sort of how it would feel if a bit of acid were dissolving the layer of skin in your esophagus. 

I had a second piece, so I could try the dark meat. That one had a nice pungent flavor. Stronger than the first piece. Richer.

The burning in your throat eventually subsides after some time. The flavor lingers. And lingers. And hangs around after that. It comes in waves. You become intimately familiar with it. You are able to explore every nuance and wrinkle as the flavor of rotten shark meat evolves and unravels to get comfortable in your mouth.

Together you are one; you are become deathshark, the destroyer of worlds.

You really come to understand why it's traditional to wash down the meat with a chaser of brennivin, Iceland's national spirit.

Shark Shack at BjarnarhöfnWe asked if we could see the Shark Shack where the meat hung to dry and cure. Christian pointed us in the direction of the shack, though it had been impossible to miss; he had no interest in venturing outside in this weather. I was eager to reach the shack, though the wind seemed to have, impossibly, picked up even more since the last time we'd been outside. Sheets of ice cover everything all the time in Iceland (it's an aptly named country, you see), and while the Shark Shack was only maybe a hundred meters from the museum (clearly constructed at a distance from all the other buildings for strategic reasons), so much of the road there was a thick sheet of ice demanding tedious navigation over patches of thick frozen water that you had to essentially crawl and or drift your way forward.

The shack, unlike the experience of actually eating hákarl, is probably best summed up in picture. It is a shack full of shark meat. Just chilling. Hanging out there. The most incredible thing is that this shack is open-sided, all but exposed to the considerable elements. There is enough protection that the shark slabs weren't just blowing around in the wind, but not much more. I guess, though, such protection isn't really necessary. There are basically no insects in Iceland. There aren't really wild animals. When I asked Christian if their dog enjoyed the shark meat, he indicated that the pup would eat it if fed to him, but seemed largely indifferent to it otherwise.

I showed Christian a picture of the mucus green, geode-like Century Eggs I'd eaten earlier in the year. He frowned and decided that that was a food he would never touch himself. And to be honest, I was with him: I would eat hákarl again well before I'd ever put another piece of Century Egg in my mouth. I asked Christian if he'd ever tried Surströmming, the Swedish fermented herring tradition that's often mentioned as residing on the same plane of foulness as hákarl. He had, in fact, encountered the stuff: he smelled it, but couldn't bring himself to eat it. So there you go. The man who gives the tours at the rotten shark museum wouldn't eat Surströmming. However weird it is, I think we can safely say that hákarl is definitely not the worst food in the world.  

After the perilous, even-more-icy trip back to our car, which involved a great deal of wind-propelled sliding on the ice, we reversed course tediously, a little nervous that our tiny rental would slide down an embankment and become a permanent feature of the Icelandic tundra. 

Once back on the main roadway, we headed west, toward the town of Grundarfjörður. I was curious to see what an actual small Icelandic town might be like. But by the time we arrived, the sun was already close to setting, and sky remained an indecipherable gray smudge. We were right at the ocean — Grundarfjörður is traditionally a fishing town — but could see the water only when we were crossing over bridges between fjords. We saw no obvious bars or restaurants, and had failed to look for anything in advance on our phones.

This picture was taken the following day, when the sky was nice and clear.

There not being much to the town, and the weather not really being hospitable to just walking around to explore it, we stopped at the first place that looked inviting, figuring we'd hop on the Wi-Fi to conduct further research. The building turned out to be a library with a small cafe, though the cafe was closed. Their Wi-Fi was out all across town, so our phones were useless, still.

"It's been out for an hour but so is the radio, so we can't hear anything to find out why," the librarian explained. "It happens sometimes up here."

"This storm could have knocked it out," I said. "The wind is pretty insane out there."

"Oh no, it wouldn't have been the wind," she said. "The wind is usually much worse than this."

Later, still lacking in brennivin to wash down the flavor that lingered faintly in our throats, we broke out some imperial stout from Borg Brugghús in Reykjavik. Garún Stout Nr. 19 clocks in at 11.5% ABV. When I'd had it previously, it was incredibly rich with heavy flavors of licorice and fig and dark fruit.

We debated a few theories as to why the hákarl from the cafe had been so different — so much tamer — than the hákarl from Bjarnarhöfn. I suspected it was largely down to packaging, not strictly the quality. Both were 'good' in whatever way you want to try to qualify rotten shark meat. But the first stuff had been so much softer, less rubbery, that I guessed maybe it was shipped and stored in some kind of brine before serving, and perhaps that brine softened it up, or even leached out some of the stronger flavors. The first bites we'd had were much, much smaller too, making them go down very quickly. Perhaps, regardless of the packaging of the first cubes, the fact that what we tried in Bjarnarhöfn had been flesh cut fresh made all the difference. That rawness, that fresh-sliced quality, definitely could have affected its pungency.

As I'd find out later, hákarl also comes in two varieties, which were never mentioned when we'd tried it either time: there's the chewy and reddish glerhákarl cut from the belly of the beast, which seemed like it could be what we had at Bjarnarhöfn, and then the white and soft skyrhákarl from the body, which was almost certainly what we'd had the first time. Whatever it was that explains the difference, it's important for adventurous foodies to know: you can't just try hákarl once. You're gonna have to buckle up and eat it from a few sources, friend.

I took a few sips of the stout.

"Is it just me, or does this just taste like shark now?" Sweet, viscous, oily shark stout.

My friend took another sip and contemplated. "Yes. Yes it does."

Hours later, the lingering pungency of hákarl remained more potent than one of the strongest beers ever brewed in Iceland.

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