What: Old beer recipes
Where: Turin, Park Slope and Union Square
Why: Beer and civilization—they grew up together
I was in Turin, Italy, in the old Olympic Village, last week for the International Slow Food Movement’s annual gathering, Salone del Gusto–a sort of trade show meets Baptist tent revival in the shadow of the Alps and in walking distance of several Mickey D’s.
Beer fits the Slow Food niche. Or is being fitted into it. The gathering featured a few 20-minute workshops on beer, wherein audiences, with glasses arranged before them on long tables, sat before a panel of beerheads and assorted devotees of Slow Food.
Much was made of the laborious process of brewing; and of the from-the-earth grains and flowers necessary for your pale ales, stouts, bocks and bitters. American craft beer celebs were empanelled, including like Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewers Association and author of the prototypal The Joy of Homebrewing, and Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware and the protagonist of the now near-canonical Burkhard Bilger profile in The New Yorker.
The International Slow Food Movement started in the northern Italian wine town of Barolo in the 1980s as a reaction to the incursion of fast food into the country. Advocates held up McDonalds in particular for pillorying, as the Golden Arches became more and more ubiquitous in the land of the five-hour dinner. To protest the first Italian McDonalds, a 450-seat cholesterol geyser near the hallowed Spanish Steps in Rome, opponents staged an eat-in. They set up tables throughout the piazza nearby and ate–slowly, one presumes, though media reports were not entirely clear–bowls of fresh pasta and drank glasses of wine.
There is a certain amount of bullshit involved in the movement. One beer workshop in Turin paired an ale unavailable outside Europe (outside of Italy as far as I could understand) with a boiled potato. The pairing was described by a panelist from the country’s Piedmont as some kind of manifestation of Mother Earth (potatoes grow underground, get it?).
But, take it all and all, and Slow Food appears a noble attempt. And what harm can it do, really? It’s about consuming good, natural ingredients in a convivial setting–the way one should knock back craft beer. The way people have been doing for millennia.
Mr. Calagione of Dogfish Head would know. His plucky brewery has carved a veritable niche in recreating, as much as possible, the beers of antiquity. A recipe on the side of a 2,700-year-old Turkish jar? Craft Midas Touch Golden Elixir ($4.95 for 12 ounces at Park Slope’s Bierkraft). Discover a beverage in clay pots in China from (gasp!) 9,000 years ago? Get the inspiration for Chateau Jiahu ($15.99 for 25 ounces at Bierkraft). There’s also Sah’tea from Dogfish, not quite ancient—it’s their take on a 9th-century Finnish brew—but available at Whole Foods Union Square for $11.99 for 25 ounces.
These are all part of a burgeoning trend in beerworld. These recipes are admirably and literally an attempt to tap (heh) into the visceral, primal nature of beer. What we would know as beer today has been around for at least four millenia—perhaps a lot longer, who knows?—developed, almost by accident, in modern-day Iraq.
Whatever the timeline, a consensus has emerged among those who would study such things—including anthropologists—that the brewing of beer either developed concurrently or soon after that epochal moment when humankind stopped hunting and gathering, and started instead to grow and to harvest food; in other words, beer birthed what we know as civilization or, at the very least, came relatively right after.
And it likely took a long while, the growing of grains and the fermentation of the same, all done amid a species groping toward permanence. We have those today who would remind us of that. New Yorkers have a few options—the fruits, literally, of Mr. Calagione’s imagination and that of a handful of others—but more are likely to follow as the devotion to the ancien regimes of brewing fortifies itself against the incredulous.
But one thing, people: do take it slow.
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Also, just passing along, as it seems a good cause: The Gowanus Canal Conservancy will be hosting its third annual fall beer tasting and fundraiser on Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. The event is presented by chef and Brooklyn native Michael Ayoub and will take place at Fornino Restaurant, at 256 Fifth Avenue between Carroll Street and Garfield Place. Kelso Beer will be providing matched pairings with Fornino’s artisanal pizzas. Tickets are $99.99 and can be purchased online here. Checks, made payable to Gowanus Canal Conservancy, and cash will also be accepted at the door. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. All donations are tax deductible in the year they are made.