Tag Archives: Fermentation

Beer and friends

2017 was a year of the rise of fermentations; it’s been a ‘food trend’ for a while now, in products such as kombucha tea or kimchi pickle, or just the general renaissance in pickles and chutneys (presumably because those with a passion can become artisan producers relatively easily) or the growth in cuisines such as Japanese, Malay or Vietnamese. Whatever, there is an alchemical magic to these microscopic transformations: with yeast, with bacteria, with oxygen – and time, always time.

Vinegar is the golden thread for me: the sweet but sharp tang of apple cider vinegar; the bold, cleansing aromatic hit of a good malt vinegar; the sharp astringency of distilled vinegar, or the rounded crispness of a vinegar from wine. And I am drawn to any product with vinegar at its heart: a relish; pickled veg, a spice-infused chutney, dark, sweet, pungent – and in particular mustard.

Yesterday, the news came out that Colman’s, the famous British mustard brand, is leaving its long time home, Norwich, where it’s been made for over 170 years. Behind the move of course, is money and whilst new jobs in new locations are touted and some preserved in the city, more will be lost. One of those beneficiaries will be Burton-upon-Trent where the Marmite production line will have to budge up to make space for Colman’s production. Burton’s local MP is already trumpeting his catalysing powers: he’s as “keen as mustard to meet with Unilever” (Colman’s owner) and presumably even keener to make it look like he was behind the move all along (and claim the credit for the jobs created). Politicians are as Politicians do I suppose – what’s interesting though is how in a small way, Colman’s coming to Burton is more of a return. Time was when the holy trinity of fermentation: beer, vinegar, mustard, would be located on the same road. And Sarsonsstill today the processes are clearly related – look at Sarson’s latest press advertising for instance. Substitute ‘Sarson’s’ for ‘Marston’s’ and the ad would still make sense – you could even try a nip of Pedigree on your chips if you’re game (Sarson’s described themselves as ‘Vinegar Brewers’ for many years).

It was equally common across Europe – a few years ago I visited the small but vibrant Gulpener brewery in the Limburg region of The Netherlands. The brewery, set in cottage-like buildings either side of the main east-west road connecting Germany to Belgium, today houses just a brewery. But previously that brewery had been on one side, a vinegar maker on the other (the width of the road perhaps just enough to guard against the souring acetobacter invading the beer brewhouse) and a hop skip and jump down the road was the mustard production. Chatting to the then gulpener_12448_limburgseManaging Director, Paul Rutten, he was interested in starting collaborating on mustards again, whilst round the corner, in a local bar, the brewery had installed a wild fermentation brew kit to renew brewing a lost beer style local to that area ‘Mestreechs aajt’ – closely related to the wild, sour beers of Belgium today – and if you’re not too careful – to vinegar too.

(I found this image on t’internet. Maybe Paul managed it)

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Fomenting fermentation

It’s been a year of fermentation’s growing influence in my life. Not just beer, that’s been there throughout my adult years, but much wider, much deeper, more frequent. It’s the old ‘Law of Selective Attention’ I think, which says that once something has been pointed out to you, you notice it all the time, whereas prior to that, you didn’t notice at all (even though it was there all the same). And at the moment it’s fermentation.

First it was pickles. I’ve always loved them as tracklements; that particular blend of vinegar and mustard; the acid spiciness; that ability to cut through anything with a sharp tang, an oniony bite, yet not overwhelm. To coax flavours and enhance. To be a wingman perhaps, not over-shadowing the main event. It’s like piccalilli, named after the station in Manchester*, a beautiful yet under-rated condiment. After trying it for the first time, an old Dutch friend of mine once said, “Why is it the English love these strong flavours?”. It blew him away, yet, a few years later he told me that he was secretly taking home pots of Branston and Haywards piccalilli and, “eating them with everything”. It is, we deduced, that partial fermentation, that cold meat umami-ness that just works as a chaperone and proves to be irresistible.

Then it was horseradish. Here’s a root that we Brits have just plopped into a box marked, ‘Ready Made Sauce. Only Serve With Beef.’ which is missing the point entirely. Not so long ago, I was eating it with everything. Pork pie? Natch. Cheese sandwich. Why not? As a spread instead of mayo. Definitely. As a marinade on oily fish. Oh yes. Not convinced? Try it: in-cred-i-ble. Which reminded me that the Germans have got horseradish right. Travelling once across central Germany, my brother and I stayed in Würzburg and in the evening ate in the town’s main restaurant, below the Räthaus. We ate eel, in a creamy, sharp, tangy horseradish sauce and drank first a spicy, yeasty wheat beer and then a gently smoked lager. Both went well with the dish, but not as well as the horseradish went with the eel. Sublime. (My horseradish overdosing only stopped because I moved onto piccalilli)

And so it went on. Chutneys, (we are about to enter the chutney making season here in the Tinted house: the dog lives in fear after smelling of vinegar and vegetables for a week last year), spicy relishes, savoury jams. Mustards aplenty.

The re-emergence of fermentation spreads its wings further however. First was sourdough. There’s a tangy sharp starter in our fridge right now, provoked into creation from a godisgood story that a client told me about – how, like a Tamagotchi, your responsibility is to nurse and tend the starter, to pass it one and expect the recipient to do the same. Some starters are generations old, particularly in countries where baking is still revered – Germany again, Belgium to a degree and some Eastern European countries. That’s my aim – to pass on my starter to friends and family. To have Tinted bread being kneaded and baked 50 years from now. Maybe with a dash of brown ale in there for good measure.

Then there’s pickled veg. Chefs are serving them with everything, and you know it’s mainstreaming when you get them offered as an option in a lunchtime sandwich bar and you can buy different sorts of pickling vinegars (Mirin, balsamic based, red & white wine pickling vinegars) in your local Tesco. But why not? They bring the extra dimension: the lift, the breadth, the wafting of the flavours into new realms. They may be trendy but they’re not new. Foolishly we let our tastes and skills drift; now we’re learning them again.

And of course, there’s beer, where fermentation is assumed and the status of ‘natural bedfellow’ is assured. But what’s glorious about fermentation now is how we’re rolling back the boundaries again. Why ferment with saccharomyces cerevisae alone when you can ferment with brettanomyces for it’s earthy, musty qualities? And why ferment with brett when we can use bacteria from wood or air? Why do we need to use crazy amounts of hop when fermentation can push the boundaries wider (particularly as hop shortages threaten)?

What’s important as brewers and beer lovers is that we don’t lose sight of the scope of fermentation. It’s not just used in making alcohol and vinegar. Chefs and food companies are waking up to where fermentation can take flavour, where the experience of eating can be enhanced still more. If we keep our eyes open, the possibilities are endless.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

*True, that.