Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

March 18, 2013

Frontier Beer


Root Beer:

Simmer 1 oz. sassafras root bark in 2 q water for 25 min.
Remove from heat
Stir in 1¾ cup brown sugar ‘til dissolved (or more, up to about 2½ cups?)
Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 pinch cinnamon
Let cool ½ hour.
Awaken ale yeast (gently mix a packet of yeast into warm water with a little sugar for 15 min.)
Bring sassafras brew to 1 gallon volume w/ cold water
Add awakened ale yeast, mix.
Pour through small, fine sieve and funnel into plastic pop bottles
Cap tightly
Let ferment 16-48 hours, squeezing the bottles to feel the pressure.
When the bottles are almost totally firm to the hand, refrigerate or pasteurize to cut off fermentation.

(adapted from BethTN’s recipe, and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book “Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers.”)

This is a frontier beer, distinctive of America. You can make it this way to create a soda pop, or you can ferment it fully like beer (for example, ferment for 10 days in a jug under a fermentation lock, then bottle with priming sugar.)

To remind everyone, alcoholic fermentation is what happens when yeast organisms consume the sugar in a watery mixture and convert it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. So, you can ferment for alcohol only and let all of the carbon dioxide escape (to make a non-sparkling wine), or trap some of the carbon dioxide in the bottle for fizziness (champagne or beer), or you can let the yeast just barely get started in a sealed bottle to make carbonated non-alcoholic beverages (the tiny amount of alcohol created compares to the alcohol in “non-alcoholic” juices and pops you would buy at the store, perhaps about 0.5%.) Some people simply mix carbonated water into the recipe, or you could use a whipped cream whipper to crack open a pressurized carbon dioxide cartridge and carbonate the pop mechanically.

Root beer can also include wintergreen or birch sap, sarsaparilla, molasses, spikenard, or whatever you like. (If I were to make one tweak to this recipe I would add wintergreen, perhaps 1 oz. of the fresh green.)

A beer glass full of dark amber rootbeer with a light head.

Here’s to the wilderness and the wild people!

This creative beverage is part of a tradition of herbal beers for fun or medicine, which was almost stamped out in Europe by prohibition laws, but which flourished among free American settlers. Another famous formula is ginger ale, made of ginger, water, and honey. Besides the fun of herbal pop and beer, beer is pretty useful as medicine. Medical plant essences typically dissolve better in water with at least a touch of alcohol in it, and beer keeps for a long time, so herbal beer is an elegant and low-tech drug delivery system (or “dietary supplement” delivery system if you don’t do drugs.) Some beers carried specific remedies but others supported health in a more general way: dandelion greens were brewed to reinvigorate the body in Spring, spruce branch tips were brewed to ward off scurvy in Winter, and sassafras seems to be one of those rare herbs that just makes people feel better, whether they are healthy or ill. Hops is a sedative, makes you pee and blocks male sexual response, and it is a very weird choice of medicine to be included in every standard beer.

All beer must start from sugar. Apples were an option on the frontier, having enough sugar and flavor in them to make hard cider with no additions, although that’s more of a wine than beer. Perhaps you have heard of making beer from malted barley, but that was no option on the fringe. The pioneers came from Europe’s brewing tradition, where “maltsters” developed sprouting, drying and roasting barley into an intricate art form. Americans were generally intimidated away from the specialty. Malt also requires long soaking in hot water (for an enzyme in the sprouted barley grains to finish its job of converting seed starch into fermentable sugar), a “required” step that intimidates some away from brewing.

Root beer generally starts with brown sugar, and sometimes molasses, as its yeast-feeding sugars. Brown sugar and molasses were fairly cheap commodities across much of frontier America, or a family could make their own from sorghum, a sugary cane that grows in the temperate zone. White sugar is not recommended for brewing beer, but it’s probably fine if you are just brewing pop. Birch or maple sap is acceptable — apparently, wintergreen in modern root beers is sort of a substitute for the flavor of birch sap. Birch sap was convenient to people who were “handy” and lived in the woods, but if you are purchasing ingredients in today’s marketplace, wintergreen is going to be a lot easier to come by. Honey is a good source of sugar, with its own distinctive flavor and medicinal action, too. A certain Roger Beverly described America’s home-cobbled beer scene circa 1700: “The richer sort of Americans generally brew their small beer with malt, which they have from England, though they have as good a barley of their own as any in the world, but for want of convenience of malt-houses the inhabitants take no care to sow it. The poorer sort brew their beer with molasses and bran, with Indian corn malted by drying in a stove, with persimmons dried in cakes and baked, with potatoes, with the green stalks of Indian corn cut small and bruised…”

My pop-style root beer is good, but not as sweet as commercial pop. It is frothy and sweet with candy and clove herbal flavors, but on the other hand, it’s not that sweet, lacks body, and it’s a little bit astringent. It tastes like… it tastes like… it tastes like freedom!

Once, America banned all brewing, and the result was a terrible degradation of our brewing culture. Hucksters sold inferior homebrew malt that resulted in a mud-like product, the OTC “bath salts” of beer. Underground brewers stretched their product to the thinnest and cheapest possible, counting on steady black market profits, thus creating America’s anomalously thin style of commercial beer. Many herbal beers were forgotten or survived only as pop. Due to “clerical error,” homebrewing remained illegal from the beginning of Prohibition all the way up until 1978. Since then — since people were once again allowed to develop their brewing skills independently and cheaply at home — our brewing culture has much recovered, and even Coors and Budweiser are selling richer beers these days.

Still, sassafras is illegal to sell as food or drink in its natural form. In 1960, FDA found that the sassafras oil content in root beer is carcinogenic — almost as carcinogenic as the alcohol content in any beer. Genuine root beer is a sort of gray-market thing, something you can pass around at family gatherings but never sell at the farmer’s market. Your average corporate root beer would be artificially flavored for cheapness anyways, so the regulators have no concern about the liberty lost by restricting sassafras. They can’t hear any money complaining at all.

It’s sad that the root beer at the store is sassafras-free or chemically stripped of its best molecule (safrole), but the silver lining is that this restrictive FDA policy inspires some productive explorations by those skirting the law. Reed’s, a California company, makes “Virgil’s Rootbeer” organically, approximating the flavor of sassafras root beer with a combination of many herbs including sarsaparilla and wintergreen. Another response to FDA is seen in the conscientiously patriotic American exploring herbs, pop and beer at home. One can legally homebrew beer containing wormwood, the infamous absinthe ingredient, or medical marijuana (if you are duly licensed), and fall outside of the jurisdiction of the FDA and its various superstitious anti-witchcraft regulations. You don’t even need to know how to make proper beer, if you are willing to experiment with pioneer-style sugar-and-syrup-based hooch. Hazards of crafting your own pioneer beer may include a hypomanic state characterized by euphoria, brief moments of ego inflation and a sudden undue interest in aspects of science, culture and history one had been ignoring until now…

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January 25, 2012

American Music Held Up on African Roots

Filed under: music — Tags: , , , , , — paragardener @ 2:39 am

The best American music combines European techniques (three-note chords, tightly structured songs) with African techniques (freely sliding pitch, polyrhythm). There is a cultural myth that America is the heir to Western Civilization, a torch passed to us through an unbroken line of progression from the wise forefathers of Classical Greece. That’s great and all, but we have also absorbed plenty of culture from the natives we nearly exterminated, the slaves we bought or kidnapped, and the great books of Asia which we’ve been reading translations of over the last 150 or so years. So, here I explore African music and its influence as a partial antidote to Eurocentrism. You may, however, find this post hopelessly Bluecentric (I’m actually looking for musical examples to help me understand passages from Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues ).

One crucible of America’s distinctive music was cosmopolitan New Orleans, where slaves were allowed to participate in drumming parties at Congo Square, and blacks soon got a hold of reed and brass instruments and learned to play them by inventing jazz. I sure wouldn’t condemn it, but I don’t really dig jazz. Every so often, I hear some prig on NPR say that “jazz is the only truly original American art form,” and I want to slap them through the radio. Blues? Rock and roll!?

The blues is jazz’s country cousin. While Jim Crow laws were being passed and white terrorism was raging, railroads and post offices were connecting the rural South to the rest of the country. Blacks could buy a guitar through Sears and Roebuck, then hang out on the front porch singing about “I’m gonna leave my baby, ’cause she mistreats me all the time” (double meaning: “I’m gonna leave this plantation and the shitty white family that runs it.”) The early bluesmen wove together work songs, religious music, white folk/country, and rhythms from a deep memory of Africa.

The earliest wave of slaving had taken many Africans from Senegambia, a dry region of West Africa heavily influenced by Arab culture. The griots there are a caste of professional musicians. Griots might play on the street, or play to coordinate group projects, or play for royalty (singing long, praise-filled histories of the royal family). The satirical songs of a griot scorned are much feared, perhaps especially by the powerful.

Here is griot Lamin Saho singing about peace, love, and unity between the peoples. He’s using the kora, the leader among all the instruments of that region.

You can hear a little of the Arabic tendency to torture a melody in Saho’s singing. Check out how one hand plucks an insistent bass line, while the other indulges in crazy runs of lead notes. Country bluesmen often pick a bass pattern with thumb, and lead notes with fingers. The most intricate country blues players may indeed come from the Southeast, where most of the Senegambian slaves ended up. Also, said slaves almost certainly introduced the banjo to this continent, probably with fretless models.

I wanted to embed a video of a guitar-playing bluesman from the Piedmont region of the Southeast here, but this is too incredible not to take its place: here is North Carolinian George Higgins somehow playing bass and lead parts on the harmonica!

Speaking of harmonica, one can speak through a harmonica, or blend a vocal line into harmonica music almost seamlessly. In old-time black American music, kazoos are not unheard of, and neither is moaning into a jug. Black slaves were mainly denied horns, just like drums, because they were loud enough to serve as a signal for revolt. Still, there may be a tenuous connection between idiosyncratic wind instrument playing here in the States, and the talking horns of Africa. Sometimes made from animal horn, sometimes from a gourd, the talking horn can be played like a brass instrument (by farting with one’s lips), or by singing into it.

Here are some songs utilizing talking horn — I suggest “Humans are Not Food.” I can only assume that the talking horn is that instrument that sounds like a big old kazoo has been shoved up the bell of a trombone. It’s funny that the one example of singing horn I can find is an African band playing American-style jazz!

Here’s the Memphis Jug Band doing “Cocaine Habit Blues,” aka “Take a Whiff on Me.” I’ve been messing with an old brown jug, but I can’t seem to draw a note out of it.

Later waves of slaving moved from Senegambia down the African coast, to the stretch once known as the “slave coast” (it’s that long stretch that faces southwards toward the Atlantic.) As a well-forested land, the slave coast provided big trees for making big drums. The area is a center for African drumming and rhythm. Communal music, involving the whole village, is the thing. Anyone can clap their hands or join in simple harmonies. Slaves taken from here tended to come in later, farther west, and were used more in the field than the house (thus, they had even less opportunity to get ahold of instruments.) Here is just a bitty example of community music-making from Nungua, Ghana.

When I heard this, it seemed instantly familiar. It’s like the fife and drum music of Mississippi. So check out the Ed Young Fife n Drum Corps, rocking a 60’s folk festival.

Properly, a Mississippi fife ‘n’ drum corps would play at a picnic, at night in the middle of a field. Male dancers surround the musicians, maybe getting in a grind with the bass drum, and everyone else hangs around on the dark edges. My favorite part is when a fifer gets down, slaps the ground, and wipes the dust on his forehead… the meaning is lost, though, when you move the action onto stage. On the plus side, ladies such as Sharde Thomas can lately be full participants (you can look up her Rising Star Fife and Drum band, a strong family outfit that has been going on for decades with different players. It rocks, especially because Sharde is a fireball of energy.)

How did blacks keep their excellent rhythmic skills through slavery and the attendant restrictions on instruments? Probably by singing, clapping their hands, and stomping their feet. It was a happy day when some miserable black draftee finally had a snare drum stuck in his hands!

There is one more musical idea I’d like to explore, polyphony. Basically, it means that people are making up melodies as they go, but listening to one another. You can hear it in the scattered “response” part of an old call-and-response work song, or in a Beck track where Beck has overdubbed his voice three or four times. The masters of polyphony are the Aka pygmies. These people were not slaved much (I guess, if I were working slaves, I’d want bigger, tougher-looking slaves), however, their neighbors picked up their polyphonous and yodeling ways. (Yodeling is slipping in and out of falsetto, also called “whooping.”)

Here are some girls singing a lullaby:

That’s what forest people sound like. Take the soul of that music and throw it in a prison:

This topic could go on forever and ever. One thing I’ve definitely learned, is that there is no traditional old “true blues”: the blues was going through changes since it came together and will go on changing as long as someone is playing it. It reflects a world in constant change. Just as dinosaurs faded and birds rose, old music is forgotten and reborn in new forms.

To leave you with, here is a haunting piece of traditional acid jazz, the initiation song of the central African Ongo.

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