Tag Archives: spring

Brew day

20 May

Here’s a promise: I’m going to stop complaining about the weather. Because even in a small town in rural Vermont, there are a million and one things to do when everything is sodden and wet.

Take this evening, when I took a walk to return the fiddle I borrowed from a neighbor down the street. I’m not the most observant person on the best of days, but even I noticed that everything — and I mean everything — is green right now. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to come home and find the house covered in a thin film of green moss.

Or take the other day, when I hiked through ankle-deep water to the new rice paddy at Boundbrook Farm, where farmer and bread baker Erik Andrus and 100 students from Vergennes Union High School were busy pushing 20,000 yellow tufted seedlings into clay below the inch-deep water.

Planting the rice

Andrus expects the acre of rice to yield some 4,000 pounds of short-grain brown rice, and he won’t even have to do any weeding: 100 ducklings are nestled in a box in the barn, waiting to head out into the fields. There, they’ll eat the weeds but avoid the rice, and add fertilizer to the groundwater the plants are drawing from.

Needless to say, the high schoolers were over the moon about getting to play in the mud.

Or take last weekend, when I brewed my first batch of beer.

I’ve been saying I was going to throw my hat into the brewing ring for a few years now, more or less seriously. Recently, though, I kept meeting more and more people who brew and started figuring, hey, maybe Ricky was onto something way back in our college days.

Then there’s that do-it-yourself disease that people get when they come to Vermont. It’s like a checklist we all get handed once we cross the border into the state. Canning? Check. Pickling? Yes indeed. Knitting? Yup, I’m a knitting fiend. Breadmaking? Yeah. Gardening? Ayuh. Cheesemaking? Yes, with raw milk (it’s legal here, you know).

But brewing? That was a lingering empty spot on my checklist, right before “raise backyard chickens” and “build a log cabin in the woods.” Don’t worry. I’m working on those, more or less.

Malt, grains, yeast, hops.

And since, a couple weekends ago, I was in Burlington anyway to buy a fiddle, I figured I might as well make the trip doubly worthwhile. So off to Vermont Homebrew Supply I went. Half an hour and more than $100 (yikes!) later, I emerged from the store with malt, grains, hops, yeast, and all the equipment I’d need to brew my first beer.

It is (or it will be, I suppose) a dunkel weizen — like a hefeweizen but darker — and right now it’s sitting in the basement, bubbling happily away.

On Saturday, after a trip across town to borrow a pot large enough to boil 3 gallons of water from Jessie (and try some of her rhubarb pie with lard crust…goodness gracious! Heavenly!), I set to work unwrapping and unpacking my new supplies around 3:00.

I understand now that I had distorted expectations of the brewing process. Honestly, I’d assumed it was a lot harder, and that it would be a lot shorter. I did a whole lot of waiting for the pot to boil, and then to inch its way up to a boil again after my instructions directed me to take it off of the burner. Then there was some stirring of the “tea” (water with steeped grains), and some boiling of the hops, and then an utter failure at trying to cool the water down as quickly as possible (read: not quickly at all).

Boil, boil, toil and trouble.

Meanwhile, I was confounded by the bag of grains. Soak them and then toss them onto the compost heap? Heck no, I wasn’t going to waste perfectly good grains just because they’d gotten a little wet!

Turns out other people feel similarly, which is why they’ve devised recipes for spent grain bread. Turns out adding breadmaking to your agenda fills up more of that time while you’re waiting for the dang pot to boil again.

Around 11, sweaty and aching from lifting the pot, I stirred in the yeast.

They say the skilled homebrewer can whip up a batch of beer in 3 hours, give or take. At eight hours, I guess I’ve got a ways to go.

We're not going to talk about how much of this lovely spent-grain loaf I ate in one afternoon.

But I was finally done. So I popped the cap onto the large plastic bucket, which, like a good little homebrewer, I’d sanitized well beforehand.

Honestly, though (warning! tangential rant ahead), this whole sanitation aspect sucks. I know cleanliness was a huge step forward for public health and all, but come on. Do you really think George Washington used chlorine sanitizer crap of death when he brewed his beer? Um, no. And do you think his beer was awesome anyway? Um, yes.

It kind of makes me wish I lived in the days when it was totally acceptable to bathe once a year, when soap was considered kind of icky.

OK, not really.

So only time will tell whether or not I can get behind an art that requires so much cleanliness.

But considering the 50 bottles worth of liquid libations that await at the end of this fermentation process, my guess is that the answer will be a resounding yes.

And Vermont friends: I think you can guess what my contribution will be to every potluck and gathering this summer.

Let the record show that all 50 of these empty bottles originally held Vermont microbrews. Yep, we're that classy.


Rain, rain, gone away (knock on wood)

11 May

I don’t know where you are, but up here in Vermont spring’s been pretty darned slow in coming.

This means that the floodwaters are up on Lake Champlain — three feet past flood stage, breaking the previous record (set in 1869) by a foot. Roads are closed, homes are flooded, and Federal Emergency Management folks are hanging around the hard-hit areas of the state, evaluating the damage.

And though Middlebury hasn’t been in any immediate danger of flooding, the rain has also meant that our chosen backyard plot has been mucky and not much good for tilling, and we’ve all forgotten a little bit about the whole gardening thing.

A note to the spring season: you exist in order to to bring people out of their winter hibernation. Torrential downpours just don’t cut it.

This weekend we got some nice weather (see, for example, this photograph taken at Abbey Pond. Ominous clouds, but no rain.)

Abbey Pond

Of course, the ground was still to wet to do anything.

Today after work, though, we got a quorum of those willing and able to head out to the garden and take a whack at making those raised beds look less like wooden frames atop the grass.

Tilling began at five, though I was (as usual) late leaving work and didn’t get there till nearly six.

But the great thing about the spring? The sun was slanting across the garden on its downward trajectory, but it was still most definitely out. The air was warm enough for t-shirts, and thanks to our expedition to Agway a few weeks ago (the one that ended with granola pancakes. Yeah, that was it.) we had the shovels and hoes to put everyone to work.


After hacking away at the damp clay earth for the better part of three hours, we ended up with two bare, grassless indentations within our wood frames. Tufts of grass poked in all around, and the ground looked naked and forlorn. Around the beds were piles of torn up grass and sod pieces.

But hey, you’ve got to make a mess to grow a garden.

The sky was darkening by the time we deemed the beds ready for the next step: a layer of gravel, then a truckload of soil and compost to fill the empty space. Those will happen over the next few weeks, before Memorial Day.

On the phone with Senator Leahy today (yeah, we’re tight), he told me the cherry blossoms have come and gone in D.C. already. Weeks ago, he said.

For us, the trees are just beginning to show the faintest little buds. Saturday was the first farmers’ market in Middlebury, but we’ve still got a little while to go before the tables start to fill up with more than early greens.

It’s springtime in Vermont, all right, but Memorial Day weekend will mark the real beginning. That weekend (or shortly thereafter) we’ll put our seedlings into the ground, if we’re lucky, watch them start to grow. After that, all our efforts will come together — the plants we’ve been coaxing to life in our separate apartments and the seed packets we’ve been collecting.

If we’re lucky, they’ll become vegetables that will feed us through the summer and into the fall and winter. Even if we’re not, we’ll still have learned plenty about gardening.

I sort of suspect that this fortune, a result of the Chinese dinner that followed our tilling party, has something to do with what we will gain through these endeavors.

So cryptic

But honestly, I can’t make heads or tails of what it means, so I’m just going to go back to nursing the blisters on my hands and call it a night.