Beer in the Garden

As humans first started to settle down from nomadic hunter-gatherers into early agricultural societies, they took what must have been an exceedingly keen understanding of the diverse plants in their environment and applied that knowledge to the cultivation of crops. Instead of relying on the bounty provided by nature, these people began to select the most appealing and nutritious plants to work deliberately. In so doing, they actively produced brand new crops and developed an even deeper relationship with the plant world.

And here, at the very dawn of civilization, early agriculturalists took their growing understanding of plants, and perhaps a bit of serendipity, and developed something to rival agriculture itself—beer. Agriculture and brewing developed side-by-side because both required a deepening understanding of the plant world. Today, the increasingly popular hobbies of home gardening and homebrewing can bring us back to this early world thousands of years ago where an appreciation for and knowledge of the plant world translated into intoxicating, frothy, delicious brews.

This past Wednesday I was invited to give a presentation on the intersection between gardening and homebrewing at the wonderful, new(ish) Urban Chestnut bierhall in The Grove. I was invited by Gateway Greening, which runs a monthly seminar series called, appropriately, Pints ‘N’ Plants. Around fifty people came to learn and talk about the understanding of barley and hops that is required to make great beer, and the many plants we can grow right here in St. Louis to brew with.

Bread baking and brewing happened under the same 
roof in ancient Egypt. Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts
Barley of course provides the essence of beer, the sugars that yeast ferment into alcohol and carbon dioxide. But barley kernels straight from the field are full of starch, a form of sugar inaccessible to yeast. To unlock this sugar, maltsters control the germination of barley seeds, the developmental program that converts starch into sugar for the young seedlings. Instead of letting the seed continue to produce a whole new barley plant, maltsters instead dry and roast the sweet malted barley to halt the process and caramelize the sugars.

Fermented malted barley is all that is needed to make an intoxicating beverage, but it will result in a cloyingly sweet, unpalatable beer. Hops, the aromatic female flowers from the hop plant, perform the job of balancing the saccharine barley with bitter hoppiness while flavoring the beer as well. Hops took over from a diverse array of local herbs, fruits, and other plants around a thousand years ago to become the exclusive flavoring of most beer.

These earlier brews—called gruits—also relied on a strong sense of the qualities of local flora to produce drinkable beer that would not poison the drinkers. Hops likely superseded these hundreds or thousands of other plants because of their ability to protect beer from bacterial infections so well, but they also make a damn fine beer. The dozens of different varieties of hops lend distinct flavors and aromas from dry and earthy to bright and citrusy, helping to recover the diversity in flavorings lost with the gruits.

As any would-be usurper of the Busch crown will tell you, beer only requires barley, hops, yeast, and water. However, the craft beer and homebrewing renaissance has helped rediscover the variety of beer flavorings that harken back to an earlier time when all manner of local plants found their way into the brew kettle. Here, gardeners and homebrewers can join together in search of homegrown, quality ale.

Any number of bizarre plants can find their way into homebrewed beer. I covered just a handful to consider and get started in my talk, some I have experience with and some I do not. By far the easiest to grow is cilantro, the herb flavoring a lot of Mexican dishes. Instead of the leaves, however, brewers seek the bright, citrusy seeds called coriander. They have a completely different taste and are used in a very popular style of beer called Belgian witbier. This is the style of Blue Moon and is a very refreshing beer brewed with wheat, bitter orange peel, and coriander. In fact, the witbier is light on hops and calls back to the gruits that were flavored with an array of herbs and spices. Cilantro is so easy to grow it will even reseed itself from year to year, reliably producing pods of brown, crunchy seeds in the summer. Only about five tablespoons are required with an equal weight of orange peel to flavor the beer, an amount easy to acquire from just a plant or two.

I also covered how to grow and brew with pumpkin, chili peppers(!), and potted citrus plants. Perhaps the best plant to get in the ground this spring, however, is hops! A perennial, fast-growing vine, hops do well in community spaces where they can spread out and grow stronger year-over-year, or in the backyard of an enthusiastic gardener-brewer who has enough space for a sturdy trellis. Each spring, homebrew supply stores sell chunks of hop rhizomes, a root-like structure that overwinters to produce vines the next season. This vegetative means of propagation ensures that gardeners get only the female plants and clones of their favorite variety. After growing up to thirty feet high and maturing at the end of summer, the hops are ready to be tossed in the brew kettle for truly homegrown brewing.
My former community garden, Block 1035. Hops growing
on the common space trellis in the background.

To combine gardening and brewing, with an eye for creativity and variety, is truly to travel back in time to eras when most beer was brewed at home alongside the baking of bread, and when a knowledge of local plants was required for making delicious brews. For a time it seemed we had lost both of these skillsets. But now with the ongoing popularity of home and community gardening and the rapid rise in homebrewing, we all have the opportunity to capture again that intrinsic link between the growing of plants and the brewing of beer. Prost!

[I relied heavily on The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing 3rd ed. by Charlie Papazian]

March Garden Plans


Okay, so we're actually in the middle of a(nother) Winter Storm Warning. Albeit one that is, for once, quite a bit lighter than predicted.

But, nonetheless, it is March. And peeking over at my handy vegetable planting guide provided by Gateway Greening, I see lots of activity starting in March. Along with the rest of the country, I am anticipating the explosion of outdoor activities, and happiness, that the highly anticipated spring will bestow upon us. For me, that particularly means making things grow.

This year I expect I’ll have to tack a couple weeks onto the traditional planting dates because of the bitter cold. But that means that very soon, peas go in the ground. They can handle some snow and they hate the heat. With our luck, we’ll transition smoothly and quickly to some freak heat wave like we experienced two years ago. Time will tell.

Peas first. Then lettuces, and the cole crops like broccoli and cabbage. (Side note: I definitely used to think the term was “cold crops” because, you know, they liked the cold.) Beets and carrots. Radishes and turnips. I could be eating fresh salad in 45 days give or take. Just as important, I’ll be digging into fresh, if cold, soil in a couple weeks. There are few things better.

Unlike last year, I am not starting any seeds indoors. I don’t really have the room in my new apartment and I’m planning to move apartments again. The greenhouse at Washington University has traditionally had a seedling sale on Mother’s day and I am hoping to snag some vegetable seedlings there in May. With my move I may have two gardens going on simultaneously, if I am that much of a masochist. I am getting a jump on early spring planting in my current space. But I certainly hope to find another community garden or have access to a yard wherever I move to continue the warm summer crops.

Although maintaining two gardens in two different locations in the city is probably well beyond my organizational skills, it is a good opportunity to learn more about gardening more quickly than I otherwise would be able to. That is one frustrating thing about gardening, you only get one shot each year.

My other outlet will be helping the Bell Demonstration Garden on Saturdays. I started volunteering last summer and hope to do so again starting this spring. Yet another opportunity to learn from people who really know what they’re doing in the garden.

I’ll update on the garden throughout the season and I hope that documenting it will allow me to reflect on what does and does not work!

Labeling GMOs

Labeling of GMOs is a contentious topic that has no doubt crossed your radar. It’s certainly beyond the scope of a single blog post. But I wanted to respond briefly to an article I saw recently in NPR’s food blog, The Salt. The article describes how food manufacturers, led by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, are proposing a voluntary labeling standard to the FDA. The catch? In addition to having labeling of GMOs be voluntary (as it currently is in the United States), it proposes to prevent states from issuing their own regulations.

I do not think that labeling GMOs is a useful exercise. Generally, we want to put labels on foods that provide useful information to consumers about the health and contents of the food. I am of the opinion that labeling something as containing GMOs is not providing information about the health of the food nor meaningful information to separate it from non-GMO food. There are no substantial health concerns over genetically modified foods simply because they have been modified by genetic engineering. This is a stance supported by the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Commission and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

This is all besides the fact that there is effectively a labeling standard in the United States already. It’s called Organic. Foods labeled Organic cannot contain ingredients from genetically modified foods. If you are buying Organic food, it is GMO free. If you are buying any other processed food in the United States made with corn, soy or canola oil—in addition to animals fed these products—you are buying GM food. As of 2010, 85% of corn and 91% of soybeans planted in the U.S. were genetically modified. These are the major ingredients both in animal feed and processed foods that line the middle aisles of grocery stores. It includes the corn syrup that’s in everything, soy oil, and a bunch of those seemingly random ingredients like xanthan gum and dextrose. (Organic meat must come from animals fed Organic feed).

This does not include sweet corn. The corn and soy discussed here are “commodity” crops and not typically meant for direct food consumption.

All that said, I don’t really believe the food manufacturers when they complain about the costs of labeling. There is something to be said for the costs of keeping up with the sources of ingredients. But as I mentioned above, it’s pretty clear that if a major food company (think Kraft) is sourcing corn or soy from the United States, it is GMO.

I have two main concerns with the voluntary standards. First, they’re voluntary. Even coming from the position that GMO labeling does not provide particularly useful information, having an industry regulate itself is just a silly exercise. We all know they won’t. Conflict of interest and all that. 

Second, the idea of imposing a ban against state-specific labeling standards seems premature. Yes, the FDA requires nutritional labeling and states cannot override that. And yes, it would actually be costly to coordinate fifty different labeling standards. But one of the great things about the United States is the federalist system that gives states a significant amount of autonomy. That means states can choose to test new ideas and new regulations. It means that marriage rights are extended to gay citizens much sooner than if the House and Senate had to decide on it. And it means that sometimes states go too far and over-regulate. Or list every damn thing as known-to-the-State-of-California-to-cause-cancer. That’s the price we pay for governmental innovation and trial-and-error.

If people decide they want to label GMOs, do it right. Voluntary standards won’t get you anywhere. Most of the time, I think that labeling GMOs would push the debate in a different direction. I wish it wouldn't come as such a big surprise, but I think a lot of people would be shocked to know they've been eating GMOs for a while now. In the United States, GMOs are just food. And the cotton in your shirts. Almost every Hawaiian papaya. The chicken and beef and bacon you eat. The oil you splash in your pan. Maybe people would see that it’s not as fundamental a shift as it is often portrayed. 

The Changing and Static Nature of GMO Coverage

Over the last couple of years, I have noticed two simultaneous trends about media coverage of GMOs. First, a larger proportion of GMO stories highlight and dispute popular myths surrounding GMOs. Second, the comments on these articles and reasons given to be skeptical or wary of GMOs have not appreciably changed.

A recent New York Times article covered a Hawaiian County Councilman’s decision over a vote to ban GMOs on the big island of Hawaii. Although it was oddly somewhat child-like in its presentation of the process (Claim A is brought up. Claim A is disputed. Claim B is considered. Claim B is disregarded…) the tone of the piece was clearly intended to highlight the value of scientific skepticism. That the councilman, Greggor Ilagan, voted against the ban because it was founded on specious arguments portrayed him as a free thinker among a populism-driven council. Naturally, his side lost and the ban was put into effect.

Many of the comments on the NYTimes article mirrored those of the supporters who attended the council hearings in Hawaii. A minority defend GMOs as safe and useful tools. The majority, however, assert their beliefs that GMOs harm their health or their environment.  Anti-GMO positions usually fall into a few categories: Concerns over the health and safety of eating GMOs. Skepticism of biotech companies (read: Monsanto). Ecological concerns. The benefits of alternative agricultural practices. I hope to spend time with each of these topics over the coming weeks and months. Most are blown out of proportion; many are unfounded. Some, however, do come down to personal stance and belief.

The recent changes in GMO coverage appear to stem from a desire by news organizations to avoid false balance. The standard journalistic practice of neutrally informing the public of both sides of an argument is only valid when there are two even sides. When consensus has yet to be reached. When opinions, morals, or ethics are at stake more than facts. The difficult part of covering GMOs as a topic is that this technology encompasses both broad scientific consensus about its safety and opinions about the proper use of GMOs in agriculture. (And that’s all before we get into misconceptions of the facts that influence people’s opinions.) It is difficult to adequately address these different aspects of the public debate surrounding GMOs because they really lie on different planes.

Plant scientists won’t rest easy until wishy-washy opinions stop influencing scientific policy. GMO skeptics won’t be satisfied as long as their opinions are tossed out even once the facts are agreed upon (which, by the way, rarely happens).

New technologies are messy. My view is that a technological advance is neutral. Our applications of a new technology can be positive or negative. We can split the atom and incinerate cities or fuel them. GMOs have been used fairly conservatively thus far and yet through a combination of pretty terrible PR from biotech companies, an anti-corporate mood throughout the country, and public skepticism driven partly by a false dichotomy between natural and artificial, they remain a pariah in the public eye. Hell, at the end of the day, some would-be opponents say it doesn't even matter. (But ssshhh, don’t tell the commenters that).

The debate surrounding GMOs has lately been described as the left’s own version of climate science denial. Sometimes I use that analogy when trying to drive home how one cannot rely on intuition when assessing a new technology. One has to seek out the facts. Certainly no political party is immune to anti-scientific bias and the progressive left has taken up anti-GMO stances for years now. There is no need to equate GMOs and climate change. But there are similarities in the process by which both global warming and agricultural GMOs are attacked. And process matters.

My own anecdotal contribution to this layman’s media coverage comes from Reddit. Reddit, popularly understood to be largely made up of young, white progressives from North America, has taken a rabid anti-GMO stance for years. (The voting system of Reddit allows one to determine which opinions are most popular, reddiquette be damned.) I've often joined these comment threads to defend the benefits of GMOs or point our popular misconceptions about the technology. Usually I am called out a shill for Monsanto. Lovely.

But over the last couple of years, the top comments have increasingly pointed out misconceptions, biases and untruths in the primary article. More reasonable discussions about the benefits and dangers of GMOs have, slowly, beaten out the vitriol. Perhaps the broader shifts in media coverage of GMOs are in fact slowly trickling through the internet and end up as slightly-more-nuanced discussions rather than ad hominem attacks. If only we could get On The Media to be as interested in this particular topic as they are in asserting that NPR isn't biased!

P.S. If Nathanael Johnson at Grist hadn't beaten me to it, a six month adventure of teasing apart the incredibly intricate issues surrounding GMOs would be right up my alley. I’m still catching up with the coverage, but what I've seen so far suggests it is well worth a read. Check it out.   


Indoor Gardening

For the first time, I'm able to start seedlings indoors before transferring them to the ground for spring. I've been an avid amateur gardener for a couple years now, but last year I was making the move to St. Louis at the end of May. So when we started our garden, Rebecca and I had to largely purchase established seedlings because it was already June. And hot.

But this time around, we're planning on having even more ground space and we're hoping for a milder summer. To take advantage of this, we're starting the seeds off indoors.

What we needed most of all was lights. If you search Amazon for grow light fixtures, you'll find mostly fluorescent fixtures with light bulbs for 50 bucks or more. And even though fluorescent light bulbs are reasonably efficient, we're talking about having these things on 12 hours a day for months. Right away it was clear we wanted LED lights so we didn't run up the meter. We picked up this, a two pack of 2 Watt LEDs with a combination of red and blue diodes for good growth. Less than $30, they'll last forever and I calculated their addition to our electric bill at about 19 cents. Fortunately I found a couple cheap clamp-on light fixtures at Home Depot. The lights give out an eerie pinkish glow that frankly looks unhealthy. But it's supposed to be good for the plants. 
The only place safe from our cats is the laundry room. Fortunately it's also warm because of the furnace, so we set up the lights there. We hobbled together a collection of egg and milk cartons, produce containers and other assorted fiberboard to start the seeds in. We have some small pots laying around we can transfer the bigger seedlings to before taking them outside if needed. 

Although we had a couple seed packets leftover from last season, we had to go on a major seed hunt. Fortunately the Central West End has a fantastic nursery called Bowood Farms whose cafe is good for an exceedingly nice brunch. In fact, we spent our time on the restaurant wait list looking over our seed options.

We may have gone a little overboard. We've got two tomatoes (variety of cherry strains and a regular pole tomato); two varieties of carrots; red onions; beets; broccoli; cauliflower; sweet and hot peppers; Swiss chard, spinach and kale; green beans and snap peas; and too many herbs to count. Oops. Notably absent is a summer squash. We're going to be joining the Lee Farms CSA this summer and think we'll have plenty of zucchini, thank you very much. 

We got home and immediately got started. We've got three egg cartons and a leftover plastic planter going for now. We were already 'behind' schedule on some of the cold-weather crops like broccoli and cauliflower so those went in. We've got a whole 'flat' of onions going and then we used the taller plastic planter for beets. These will go in the ground next month. If we need more space we can probably swing the lights down and grow a bigger group on top of the dryer.

It was a wet and chilly day, but already the days are getting longer and I'm excited to harvest my first-ever spring crop in a couple months. Soon we'll get the warmer crops like tomatoes and peppers going and really take off!

I'll keep posting updates on this project. Already little hypocotyls (the embryonic stem that supports the embryonic leaves, cotyledons) are poking out and they should be turning green soon. 

A (Rainy) Bloody Sunday

Now I'm not a big cocktail guy. I'm a beer guy. I brew beer and love trying all kinds of craft beer. St. Louis is a great city for that because despite living in the giant shadow of Anheuser-Busch, STL has a thriving craft brewery scene. Schlafly of course, Urban Chestnut, 6 Row. Tons of them.

But in thumbing through this book, The Inspired Vegan by Bryant Terry, I found a great recipe for a Bloody Sunday--a Bloody Mary with beet puree instead of tomato juice. And an homage to a violent Civil Rights event.

I just happened to have beets and vodka around so it was super easy to whip up, after marinating the beets overnight. It's spiced up like a Bloody Mary and changeable to your tastes, especially the hot sauce. I might just have to pick up a cocktail shaker. It was a good use of time on a chilly, rainy Sunday. I recommend the book, by the way. I'm certainly not a vegan but the book is cohesively put together and offers great semi-gourmet menus.

Bloody Sunday

  • 1/4 C. beet juice or marinated beet puree
  • 1.5 oz. vodka
  • 1 T. lemon juice
  • 1/4 t. apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 t. hot sauce (or more to taste)
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of pepper
Fill a cocktail shaker (or cup) with ice and the above ingredients and shake into another cup until it's all chilled. Strain into a glass. As recommended by the book, a half-pint mason jar works great.

Marinated Beet Puree

  • 1 C. marinated beets
  • 1.5 C water
Blend until smooth in a blender and strain into a container.

Marinated Beets

  • 4 medium sized beets, scrubbed and trimed
  • Salt
  • 1 T. red wine vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar)
  • 1 t. raw cane sugar (I used brown sugar)
Boil the beets in 3 quarts of cold water and 1 teaspoon of salt until they are easily pierced with a knife, about 25 or 30 minutes. Reserve about half of the cooking liquid and drain, then remove beet skins by scrubbing under cold water. Slice the beets as desired (it doesn't matter if they will all be pureed).

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the vinegar and sugar and enough of the reserved cooking liquid to cover the beets. Stir well to dissolve the sugar and toss with the beets. Refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight.