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.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Curt Nod In The Direction Of 2014, The Hardest Year Of My Life (But Hopefully The Most Productive!)

Having just finished doing the craziest thing that I have ever done, and having lived off of perhaps one of the most extreme diets that someone in the modern day US would ever voluntarily choose to subsist on, I obviously need to comment on the matter now that I'm finely done.

So, yep, that was a thing that happened.

Honestly, I really have no idea what to write for this entry. I debated various posts I could make; a lot of them in the vein of the typical "Top 10 Something of 2014" or formatted Year In Review posts that every blog is basically required to do. But I think I'm going to wait to chronicle my top 10 favorite fermented concoctions or top 7.5 weirdest things I ever put in my mouth until the end of 2015, maybe. Now just doesn't feel like the time.

But anyway, I did it. I'm done! Yes, it was exhausting. For a variety of reasons only 36.2% related to this diet and this book project, 2014 was probably the most anxiety-inducing and sanity-challenging and overall difficult year of my life. The downside of that is that my mind has been and remains a smoldering crater of stress fires for a number of months now, but the upside of that is that the book is going to be very interesting! Only 36.1% due to my resulting insanity, but in large part due to the sheer interestingness of fermented foods, the weird quirks of committing to a pseudo-fad diet, and also sharks.

Mostly, in writing some kind of entry reflecting back on the year, I wonder how much I should really try to encapsulate or summarize my experiences right now, online, before the book is actually done. As I sit here writing, still digesting my first tacos (so many tacos) of the New Year, I realize I need some perspective before I try to boil anything down to a blog post. And anyway, I don't want to spoil my own book, right? So I guess I'll just ask everyone to be kind and give me a little time on that front; finishing the damn manuscript is an increasingly daunting task that's going to require most of my energy for the next couple months.

A few things you may be curious about that I can talk about now:

-Yes, I will be writing about my experience trying rotten shark meat (hakarl) in Iceland. I'm finishing up that post now and will have it posted either later this week or early next week. You will enjoy that tale, I think; it ended up being an absolutely perfect experience and thank you again very much to everyone who contributed to my little pre-order thing to get me there. Stay tuned!

-The book itself is coming along very well. By my rough calculations, I estimate that I have somewhere around 75% of the rough draft written now. Of course, (unfortunately for my sanity) that's far different from the book being 75% done. I'll have a lot of sawing and polishing and trimming and cleanup to do before I even pass the book along to my editor, and then we'll see how much he wants to hack and slash at it for subsequent editing runs. Here's a secret: editing is at least half of good writing... probably more!

-The first thing I ate at 12:00:01 on January 1, 2015 was half a tub of guacamole. Obviously. It was delicious.

-I spent most of the rest of January 1 eating tacos and burgers in NYC. I had hoped for a little more diversity, but even there, most restaurants were closed. Oh well; can't go wrong with tacos. In fact, I just ate some more. (Disclaimer: I have since eaten almost nothing but tacos I can't remember what other food there is).

-No, I am not going to keep doing the diet. There is no sane reason to avoid eating guacamole.

-No, I am not sick of fermented food, and will continue to eat most of the same things I have been eating this last year, just with the addition of guacamole.


-If you're in the Hudson Valley or nearby, check out a club I'm starting up: the Hudson Valley Fermentation Society. I have very poor organizational skills but will hopefully be getting that running more smoothly and regularly in the future.

-Also, butter. I am now obsessed with butter.

-Lots of beer stuff coming up, but I'll hold off on that.

Keep your eyes peeled for #sharkstuff, coming soon!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wyeast De Bom Golden Sour - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Wyeast De Bom

Beer: Wyeast De Bom Golden Sour
Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Sour Beer / Farmhouse Ale
Brewed: 8.21.14
Bottled On: 11.13.14
ABV: 5.7%

Appearance: pale straw yellow, orange hues, moderate head, low retention
Smell: apple cider, candied pear, Belgian esters, hormonal lactic funk, apricot

apple, citrus, candied pear, apricot, clean lactic, mild tangy funk, weird fruit
Mouthfeel: high carb, crisp, med-light body, low bitterness, slight fullness at finish

I'm going to try my hardest to keep this entry short, because holy crap I have a million things I should be working on right now. But before 2014 mercifully draws to an end, I wanted to write about a few experimental beers I brewed much earlier in the year. Plus, this batch doesn't require a lengthy introduction, as the premise is pretty no-duh: Wyeast put out a new sour blend as part of its "Summer Sours" Private Collection, and I was compelled to test it out. Pretty self explanatory.

The De Bom blend appealed to me a lot more than some of the other pre-mixed blends yeast companies release, simply because it was playing to a realm of beer that I've been dabbling with a lot in the last few years: deconstructed, quick-fermenting sours. Full-on sour blends are obviously great fun, but I only really have the space to keep a few of them going at a time — testing out every new re-arranged mix of microbes simply isn't an option. But I'm particularly fond of sour saisons / sour farmhouse ales and the way their simple stacking of flavors can create totally different impressions of balance simply by shifting one corner of the balance pyramid slightly. Lactic punch here instead of there? Different beer. Soft versus sharp? Different beer. Funk-crusted versus bright lemon tartness? Different beer.

I had suspected that De Bom was Wyeast attempting to recreate the character of Cascade's highly regarded sours, which, unlikely as it may sound, are not pitched with Brettanomyces and sour only through the action of lactobacillus. So in addition to simply being another random blend, it promised a possible glimpse into one of America's more interesting sour beer producers. 

Wyeast doesn't give the exact composition of this blend, but they do say that De Bom is intended to create "sour ale profiles but in a fraction of the time required by previous, less manly cultures." A new quick sour blend with some unknown microbial agents: awesome. For best results, they recommend: "no O2/aeration at beginning of fermentation; periodic dosing with O2 during fermentation to stimulate ethyl acetate production; frequent sampling to monitor development and complexity. Under optimum conditions, beers can be ready for consumption in 1-2 months."

The ability to sour quickly with an aggressive strain of bacteria is a nice tool to have. Now, Wyeast also happened to release the lactobacillus Brevis strain as part of its Summer Sours collection, and it is rumored that Brevis is, indeed, the Cascade strain (caveat: this speculation is based on my vague memories of some internet conjecture, and may be entirely false). This could be entirely a coincidence, or, as I took it with some liberal reading between the lines, a clue that Brevis was simply paired with a Saccharomyces strain to make a fast-fermenting De Bom culture. So there you go: with enough conjecture and assumption, it might appear to be the case that De Bom = Cascade culture. Or inspired by it. Maybe.

Then again, now that I'm drinking the results, I might want to rescind that hypothesis. Cascade's sours are notoriously acidic and hard-hitting in the pH department, and this homebrewed trial really doesn't carry much of those traits. The taste is somewhere closer to a mild Berliner Weisse on the spectrum of sour things, with an estery yeast profile that dominates the beer more than the mark from its bacteria. It's fruity and weird, like a Belgian pale with tart undertones. There's just no way to pretend this successfully delivered on the potential of a quick-fermenting but fully complex sour ale, though to be fair, there could be various process reasons for that.

For one, I brewed this at a friend's house and we left it in his basement for three months, which is longer than the time Wyeast says this culture should require. After three months, it was very clearly stable in gravity. But we didn't follow the hand-holding procedure that Wyeast suggests for this, the unorthodox method of "periodic dosing with O2 during fermentation to stimulate ethyl acetate production." I kind of overlooked that advice at the time, but in retrospect, I'm simply confused as to what it's meant to achieve. Ethyl acetate is responsible for solvent and nail polish remover characteristics, which are not desirable qualities so far as I know. Am I having a brain fart, or missing something here? I feel like I must be — frankly, with only two weeks left in 2014, and 2014 being absolutely the most stressful and silly and anxiety-inducing year of my life, this wouldn't be surprising. I'm absolutely fried! And I have read that ethyl acetate can also come across as fruity or pear-like, so maybe there's some chemistry here that I just don't understand. I'm not very good at chemistry even when I'm not fried! If you can educate me on what my cheese-addled mind is failing to grasp here, please do let me know.

Secondly, mixed cultures work very well in aged sours, but I think I prefer to keep cultures separate in the case of beers like this (quick sours). Deconstructed, one could pitch the lactobacillus alone, initially, giving it a head start by a day or two, and with the right equipment, ferment at an elevated temperature favoring the bacteria, before pitching any yeast. Here, with the culture mixed, fermenting at 110 F for 24 hours probably wouldn't be an option.

Since I haven't had any other beer made with De Bom, I don't know if the character could have turned out drastically different given other conditions and process variables, but my intuition is that this is a fairly accurate representation of its profile. Frankly, I can't really decide how much I like it; every sip I go back and forth, from "this is pretty good!" back to "this is kind of weird in a way I can't put my finger on!" Ultimately, the oddest thing about this for me may be that it tastes bizarrely sweet, despite finishing relatively dry and relatively tart. There's a lot of mouthfeel, almost too much slickness in the body, which I blame on my generic sour recipe that uses 30% wheat in the grist. And then the flavor itself is decidedly cidery, which is something I often get in a beer fermented with a fruity yeast (often Belgian yeast) that has just a bit of tartness to it. If the lactobacillus in this blend had pushed out a bit more acidity, or the yeast had dried the beer out more, I think it would come across as more balanced to me, but I can also see the general public really enjoying this one. It's extremely fruity in a unique way, sweet enough to appeal to the American palate, and yet tart enough to become refreshing and multi-dimensional. It works. I can't decide how I personally feel about it, but it works. And its weird in ways that I have a hard time describing, which is cool. Like I said: I find it fascinating that the same basic character elements can stack up in different ways to make a totally different beer. I don't know that this is the way I would prefer to stack them personally, for the type of balance I find most appealing, but whatever arrangement they're in here, it's a nice option to have.

I said before this would be a short entry. I'm really bad at that.

Brewed 8.21.14
Bottled On: 11.13.14
Batch: 5 Gal
Mashed at 148 degrees for 60 minutes
Fermented at basement temp, 74 - 76 F
OG: 1.054
FG: 1.010
ABV: 5.7%

70% [#7] Pilsner malt
30% [#3] white wheat

Hop Schedule-
0.5 oz Nugget @0 min

Wyeast 3203 De Bom Sour Blend

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