Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mission Gastroclub Session 17: Spice

It seems I've been running in to Eric all over the place lately. I first met him at the Simply Beer tasting at Elizabeth Street Brewery. Then I ran into him at Bender's when the twitsphere was competing to see who could kill their surprise keg of Younger. We ran into one another yet again that night at Pi Bar. In that hazy, hazy night (which my friend Jeff would describe the next day as "I don't feel any Younger..."), Eric told us about Mission Gastroclub. A week later, the invite popped up and Harry and I snagged four of the fourteen spots. The other ten were gone within seven minutes of the email going out. Then Jesse posted about them. The invite list is expanding by the day. I'm a little afraid I'll never be able to go to one again.

Mission Gastroclub is the type of place I'll be bragging to other people's grandchildren about fifty years from now when I'm trying to reclaim my youth. They won't understand twitter, and of course we won't have email anymore, but I have a feeling that the concept will still resonate and the kids will think their adopted great aunt was really cool. Eric maintains an email invite list, an email goes out, and you claim your spots. There are 14 seats per dinner, and trust me, they go quickly. A second session of last night's dinner will be happening tomorrow, and those 14 seats were gone within 5 minutes. Dinners are held in Eric's Mission District apartment, an unassuming ground floor space with a kitchen big enough to cook for and seat a large group of people. Dinners are shockingly inexpensive - last night's four paired courses cost $31 each. That's four pints of good (very good) beer and four courses of good (very good) food. I can't come up with this kind of food and beer for this kind of price at home. It's an absolute steal.

Apologies in advance for the cell phone photos - I had decided it would probably be too dark to take photos, and then learned that the light would have been perfect.

The theme for the night was Spice. The first course was a samosa, paired with Death and Taxes. If only all samosas were like this - fresh ingredients tumbling out of a light, flaky dough when you cut into it. Every ingredient stood well on its own, but the combination was lovely. Not terribly spicy, but a good introduction of things to come.

The second course was a small salad of sauteed bok choy with spicy, spicy, spicy squid. Whole thai chiles were abundant, but few people at my table were daring enough to eat them whole. I've been sick for a few days now, so I was grateful for the palate cleanser. The squid was fantastically seasoned.

The third course was the best fried chicken I've ever had, coupled with kimchi and delicata squash. Harry, who doesn't care for squash at all, nearly licked his plate, and while I rarely care for fried chicken, I did the same. This was far and away the best dish of the night for me - filling and balanced. The mildness of the squash offset the spice from the kimchi, and the fried chicken, while not "spicy", was seasoned very well.

It was paired with Eric's imperial red homebrew. My table got very, very excited about this beer. I'm not much for red beers, but imperials are a different story. Full without being heavy, it was a really nice pairing with the chicken in particular.

Smoked Porter. Beautifully smoked porter. I am a huge fan of this style of beer. It's not what I would sit around and drink every day, but sometimes the mood strikes and I have to have one. I love Alaskan's rendition, but it often comes off as too smoky. Eric's version is just right - there's no denying it's a smoked beer, but the smokiness just compliments everything else that's happening rather than knocking you over. Needless to say, I had a second one.

It was paired with a tres leches cake and Mexican chocolate ice cream. I missed a little bit of spice in the ice cream, and I wish the cake had been just a little lighter, but overall I was pleased.

Everyone left full, a little tipsy and happy. This is exactly what I'd like to see more of: events that bring people together (we made quick friends with our tablemates), get people excited about beer, and aren't afraid to try new things. I can't wait to see what this develops into. If it stays as it is, it'll still be just perfect, but I think they've got a concept really worth developing. Hopefully I'll make the five minute invite cutoff to jump in on another session soon!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Our homebrew operation

For years, I've flirted with the idea of homebrewing. I'm a pretty serious cook, and I love beer, and it would seem that getting in the kitchen, boiling something up, creating a learning experience and getting rewarded with beer would be right up my alley. Somehow, though, I never got around to it. You can blame my 42 square foot kitchen, you can blame my lack of a car (carrying a glass carboy down Geary on the back of a bicycle is not quite what I have in mind for a fun Saturday), or you can just call me lazy.

Either way, when we moved into this apartment a year ago, we learned that our neighbor right across the hall had just gotten into homebrewing. We've both got 500 square foot apartments, but he lives alone, and in place of my bedroom, he has a full-size kitchen. Over the past year, I've watched him grow as a homebrewer, and have had the pleasure of tasting enough of his beers that I can safely say he's gotten the hang of it. When he invited me to come along to San Francisco Brewcraft with him, I knew it was time to stop talking and start doing.

Plus, we're clearly running out of beer. (Fridges not pictured.)

I won't provide terribly accurate instructions here, for a few reasons. One, I'm not very good at brewing yet. I haven't even tried this one to know if it's a success, and I won't get to for another 54 days or so. Two, the good folks over at Brewcraft are much smarter than me and will provide you with fantastic information on the step-by-step process.

And if you're not in San Francisco, there is so much advice on the internet and in well-written books that I wouldn't possibly want to lead you astray. But if you're looking for a little inspiration and convincing that you can be your own one-person brewery, here we go.

Step one: Boil water. Seen here is about two gallons.

Step two: Add grains. A couple pounds of barley for me.

Step three: Pulling out the grains and letting as much of the remaining liquid as possible drain into your brewpot. Helps to have a buddy, because you will stand there obsessively moving your grains around so you can get the laaaaast bit out of there, and those wet grains get heavy. This justifies the homebrewer skipping the gym and drinking another beer.

Step four: Malt extract. We're a partial mash sort of household for now, though Justin is making some very strong moves to get to all-grain brewing. We're not there yet, so here's my bucket of incredibly sticky malt extract. You will think this looks like caramel and want to stick your fingers in it and eat it. You should probably resist this urge.

Step five: The boil. You'll add your hops according to a schedule (and while this is certainly something you can figure out on your own, the gentlemen at Brewcraft wrote mine for me based on the type of beer I'm striving to make with the hops I've chosen to use), over the course of an hour.

You should probably drink one of these. An hour is a really long time.

When all is said and done, you'll want to cool that puppy down. No pictures of this part, but for us, it involves throwing that big pot into a bathtub filled with water and ice, and me running back and forth between the living room and the bathroom for the next 45 minutes constantly, obsessively checking the temperature.

Now you'll get to the last part that substantially makes a difference in your beer recipe, and happens to be my favorite variable: adding your yeast. Your brew needs to be cool enough to not kill the yeast, which is why the very impatient pot-in-bathtub step is so terribly important. Pour it into your primary fermenter, pour in the yeast, throw an airlock on that little guy, and resist the urge to touch it for 6-7 days or so, even if it stops bubbling and you're getting really worried about it. I promise.

It certainly does help to homebrew with a friend, for no other reason than you will potentially get quite bored, and/or distracted by college football, because it's a fairly lengthy process. All in all it probably takes us around 4 hours to get a beer from water to yeasty. While one of you is stirring and watching the clock (or watching football and letting an iPhone timer go off), though, the other one of you can be handling all of the other in-home brewery operations. And trust me, you want to have other home brewery operations.

It's been such an inspiration over the past two weeks to talk to brewers that started just like this. I'm not sure where we're going yet, and I can't imagine either of us will quit our jobs any time soon, but it does make such a difference in being able to talk to other people about what they're doing. When it's your hands pouring in the grains and sprinkling in the hops and shoveling giant glass jars around, you feel so much more connected to your beer. And, beer-is-love discussion aside, we're about to have five gallons of English IPA in our home for less than $50 total. Cheers to that!