Summer Drinks, August 26
Bitters, Ginger Beer, Kombucha – Oh My!
I’ve attended a few Food Connection potlucks over the past 6 months, but August’s potluck is my favorite to date as the workshop focused on two of my favorite things: fermented drinks (ginger beer and kombucha) and bitters (for cocktails or ‘mocktails’ – the non-acoholic variety).
Back in April, Joey and I were chatting and I mentioned that my boyfriend Thomas has a food blog (shameless plug for Shady Morels here: shadymorels.com). I think the seed was planted then for Thomas to be woven into a future potluck somehow. The two emailed back and forth over the summer and so it was decided: Thomas would share about his homemade bitters and Joey’s partner, Ken, would speak about his endeavors in fermentation. Then we would try our hand at mixology and see what fun ‘mocktails’ we could come up with.
Thomas and I were so excited for the August potluck. We are passionate foodies and I couldn’t wait for him to experience the awesomeness that is The Food Connection. Kudos to Tom for leading a workshop at his first Food Connection potluck (brave guy!). It was a full house last Wednesday with lots of new faces. We had our usual round of introductions, followed by a delicious potluck feast. What an incredible spread! My tastebuds are still dreaming about that delicious gazpacho and Nancy’s moist applesauce cake.
Once our bellies were full, we gathered around a table crowded with bottles, dried spices, fermented bubblies, and other goodies. It looked like something out of a Harry Potter movie. What followed was a very fun and engaging workshop into the world of fermentation and bitters brewing. (I should add that, prior to the workshop, the two had created a summer mocktail with ginger beer, lemon, bitters, simple syrup, and sparkling water – delish!)
Here’s what I learned about bitters. It is an alcoholic tincture flavored with natural ingredients such as berries, bark, and spices. Bark is the bittering agent; hence the name ‘bitters’. It is very potent and can last forever. It adds interesting flavors to alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages alike. Thomas demonstrated how to combine the ingredients for apple bitters. He recommends using a better quality spirit (with higher alcohol content). We got to see and smell apple bitters that he had prepared prior to the workshop – a concoction smelling like autumn with hints of cinnamon and allspice. He strained the bitters to separate out the liquid and solids (berries, bark, spices) and explained how to extract more flavor out of the solids by boiling them in a small amount of water. Thomas recommends adding apple bitters to Manhattans and Bourbon Sours.
Ken then shared with us the ins and outs of making your own ginger beer and kombucha. We learned how to make a ginger ‘bug’ (or ‘starter’) and that at the first signs of bubbling we should make our batch. Joey and Ken recommend using organic ginger and to not peel the ginger as the flora (bacteria) on the skin of the ginger is essential for making your ‘bug’. They also recommend using white sugar, as other sugars (especially honey) often are hosts to other bacteria that could make our batch wonky. Something to note is that ginger beer – contrary to its name – is not alcoholic, though it could be if you let it sit (and ferment) at room temperature for a long time.
Next we learned about kombucha, a fermented tea drink. The reactions of the workshop participants when they passed around the gooey mushroom-resembling SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast), or ‘mother’, was priceless.
Ken explained how to create a kombucha batch by steeping black (or green) tea, cooling it to room temperature, then combining with the SCOBY and white sugar. The white sugar feeds the SKOBY, so the longer you let the batch sit at room temperature, the less sweet the batch will be. Herbal or flavored teas are not recommended as the oils from these teas can affect the fermentation process. Ken has, however, experimented with decaffeinated black tea and has had good results (for those folks who don’t like caffeine).
I think the biggest take-home lesson for me is that, though there is a definite science behind fermentation and bitters-making, there is room for some experimentation and trial and error. And though that can be daunting to any first-time dabbler, it’s also kind of exciting. In my experience, the best way to learn is to just start. Few things are more rewarding than sipping a home-brewed drink or giving a friend a bottle of bitters with your own dorky homemade label on it!
Thanks Thomas and Ken for a fun workshop, and thank you to The Food Connection for yet another epic food-inspired gathering! See you all in September!