Why I’m enamored of Microbrews, Heirloom Vegetables, and Heritage Meats

English Pub

Thank goodness for Budweiser, Miller, and Coors: it’s at least part of the reason underage drinking really wasn’t a problem for me in my undergraduate years at the University (I simply didn’t like the stuff). This was in the mid 1990s and before I was introduced to (or even heard of) microbrew beers. Although, my first experience with underage drinking (if you can call it that) was a shot of vodka the night before the first home football game of the season during my Freshman Year (and it was taken really and truly in hopes of warding off a head cold, and to this day I do believe it worked). Upon arrival in London in January of 1998 at the age of 20, I could legally drink. These circumstances accounted for a very modest 21st birthday abroad, where I was content with kidney pie and a few beers at a local pub with my flatmates: my “chums”. But it’s those beers enjoyed on a semester abroad in Great Britain that began for me a deep appreciation for small, craft beers (microbrews) and would make me woefully susceptible to an encounter with heirloom vegetables and, later, heritage meat (O Felix Culpa!).

What it is that we like so much about mircobrew beers? For one, there’s the romance of them (they often come with a story, don’t they?). But one example is a legendary ale of which I’ve heard told of beer created with a yeast strain recovered from a shipwreck of long ago. Presented with such a tale, the mind is left swimming in images of corked bottles strewn amongst the twisted, quietly decomposing planks of a ill-fated ship on the bed of some great sea while above, gale force winds raise dark waters in tumult. Then there’s the multiplicity of styles, each of which presents a color palate of flavors: lagers and ales; light, crisp beers; dark and smoky ales; some malty and some sweet; others hoppy and bitter but O, so fragrant. Something for every taste, indeed. The craft of the artisan adds another dimension to the love affair with the craft brews: human imagination, skill, and artistry are all brought to bear in creating this carbonated beverage: a meeting–as it were–of the fruit of the earth and the human spirit, from whence comes endless creativity in the beer-making process: this one, aged in sherry casks; that one, brewed with Spanish orange peel; to still another, brettanomyces has been added to impart a tart, sourness to the beer.

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Precisely when the love of craft beer had taken firm hold, I was able to recognize its corollary in heirloom vegetables. Until stumbling upon a a recipe that called for “heirloom” tomatoes, I had never heard of them. They are to vegetables what microbrews are to beer: things of exotic beauty, character, and flavor–richer, fuller flavor; a diversity of flavors. One of this summer’s joys was creating a Caprese Salad with heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market: cutting them up and tossing with fresh mozzarella cheese, basil from our “herb garden”, a garlic-infused olive oil from the Old World Olive Press, sea salt, and cracked pepper. The heirloom varieties of locally produced tomatoes put the dish over the top in terms of its eye-appeal and flavor–thanks to the Green Zebras, Black Krims, and Pink Cherries, all of which are numbered among the many varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

Heritage meats are the meat equivalent of microbrews and heirloom vegetables. The story is the same for all three: until the industrial revolution, food and beer was produced and distributed locally. Foods were full of flavor, complexity, and nutrient-dense. The industrial revolution–which gave us low-cost automobiles and clothing, thanks to economies of scale and division of labor–began to be applied to agriculture, and the factory farm (and macro-breweries) were born. A type of beer was chosen by macrobreweries that would be palatable to most (the lager) and mass-produced, offering beer…inexpensively. A few types of tomatoes were chosen that would appeal to the masses: the Beefcake and Cherry, for example. And cattle was chosen based on its ability to grow quickly and yield the most amount of meat. Later, of course, cattle would be given growth hormones to grow bigger, faster; would be treated with prophylactic antibiotics to ward off ailments that are readily communicable in the tight quarters of feedlots; and would be fed low-cost, genetically-modified grains in the absence of its natural pasture diet. But what works for inanimate objects like the automobile and textiles, it seems, has significant trade-offs when applied to living things: what was gained by applying the industrial model to farming in terms of cost-efficiency was lost in terms flavor, variety, and nutrients. There is one universal way to describe food and beer produced en mass: neutral (i.e. lacking flavor).

Heirloom Tomatoes and Peppers

Enter heritage breeds of livestock and poultry. Regarding heritage cattle, raised in small herds and primarily on open pasture, these animals take years to finish. But, as the axiom goes, “Live imparts flavor”. Allan Nation, the editor of the Stockman Grass Farmer, puts it this way, “Fine wines, whiskies and cheeses all have to have time to age. Exceptional flavor always requires what the wine makers call, ‘the fullness of time.’ This is why older animals taste better than young ones,” (as quoted in Steak by Mark Schatzker, 203 – 04). Just as heirloom apples include such varieties as the White Winter Pearmain, the Winesap, and the Northern Spy, heritage beef includes such breeds such as the Scottish Highland, the Red Poll, and the Pineywoods. While the appearance from one breed to another is simply stunning, it’s the rich history of these breeds that lends them their mythic appeal.  The Scottish Highland: developing over hundreds of years in the northern-most reaches of the British Isles, these hearty beasts took on the characteristics of the people who lived in the region, a terrain and people to which the indomitable Romans yielded, turning back after reaching the Grampain mountains. These were breeds, like the Pineywoods, that arrived in the Americas with the Spanish explorers of the 16th Century or which made their way over with the European immigrants.  They form a part of the rich tapestry of our culture, our heritage.

The raising of these breeds primarily on pasture may require no less skill than that of the craft brewer: “A moron can walk up to a cow and pour a bucket of grain in its feed trough. Grass isn’t so easy. Williams [Allen Williams, meat scientist] likens finishing cattle to playing a guitar. ‘Feeding grain,’ he explained…’is like knowing a few chords and playing an easy song. Finishing on grass is like being a virtuoso,'” (ibid., 204). But it’s ultimately the flavors which are imparted to meat raised in such a way that prevail over conventional (i.e. factory farm) beef, corresponding with those fuller, diverse flavors present in heirloom tomatoes and craft brews, owing not only to the diversity of breeds of heritage meat but especially in the terroir in which these breeds are raised (and in no small part to the skill of the farmer or rancher who raises them).

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