Brunch Beer

When we first saw it listed on the brunch beverage menu at Point Brugge in Pittsburgh we thought it was a crazy, and almost revolting thought. Hec couldn’t help but order it to accompany his eggs benedict al pesto. I preferred a mimosa with my Belgium waffles (the kind with that awesome crystal sugar inside). But what they brought to the table wasn’t at all expected (mind you this was long before my experiences with flavored beers such as blueberry or apricot). Mixed at the table to your liking, the waiter brought a bottle of hoegaarten weisse and a few ounces of lambic framboise. Slightly sweet, but very beer-like. Not lager-ish at all. It felt unseemly appropriate for 10am. I was jealous I hadn’t ordered it, and will admit that I stole many sips.

We recreated the experience a few times before returning to Guatemala: pre-meal cocktails, a replacement for champagne on New Years Eve. But alas, it was back to the traditional Gallo once in Guate.

The beer varieties, as I may or may not have mentioned before, are depressingly slim. Lager is available in three different labels, but they are all (gasp, shall I dare say it?) the same. I never will realize why Guatemalans are so proud of this mild lager. While it is very decent, perhaps better than Coors or Budweiser, it is extraordinarily ordinary.  I suppose I should mention the beer has won first prize in European beer contensts, beating the best german and belguim beers year after year. But it is all that is available. The monopolistic brewery, Cervecería Gallo, owns all of the national labels, and has influenced import laws so that any foreign brew is twice as expensive and hardly worth the buck. The cervecería was kind enough to offer a darker, sweeter brew, Moza, for a bit of variety. It is even available on tap and, although a bit too sweet on its own, we often order the Guatemalan version of a black and tan to add some variation to the daily grind. But I must be honest. Gallo just doesn’t do it for me.

Back in the day I heard rumors of the Irish Pub in Antigua, Reily’s, that sold Guinness. We made a special trip to check it out, and even saved up the Q60 ($7.50) each it would cost for a pint. But the bar tender told us the import regulations had been tightened and they could no longer offer it. We were deeply disappointed. Later we found that in Zone 10 there is a German-owned bar, El Establo, where they offer Tucher, a hefeweizen, or wheat beer.  It goes for Q40 ($5.00) a pint. While it is a delicious and a refreshing option, the price seems absurd next to the Q20 we pay for a Gallo.  Perhaps that is a typical bar price in any US city, but its not a price for a Guatemalan salary. We splurged there a few times, convincing ourselves it evened out with the all-you-can-eat popcorn, relaxing atmosphere, and good music selection.

Once we knew of a wine shop where you could buy cans of Tucher for Q14, a great deal we thought. But a few months later they informed us they were no longer able to import our favorite elixir. That ended a good 6 months ago, and since then we’ve been getting tired of the same old stuff. I’ve been adding lime and salt to my beer, as the locals often do, just to mix it up the taste a little.

But…the other day my cuñado told us  a secret location where we could buy the stuff at Q11 a pint, in cases of 18. !!! It is clearly a secret kept from the brewery, and perhaps it will be shut down in a few months as well as all the others. But in the meanwhile we are exploiting the amazing deal (per ounce it is cheaper than Gallo!!). It’s quite interesting because the store sells bathroom tiles. You have to give a secret code before they let you into the back room, and even there you need to sign in blood for them to admit they have what you are looking for! I’m not going to talk more,  for fear of the operation being cut short. 😉

All I want to say is that we have been enjoying our reasonably priced alternative to Gallo, and we have been able to, in a way, bring back brunch beer: a pint of tucher between two glasses, 2 oz of orange juice a piece, is a perfect accompaniment to pancakes or waffles on a lazy Saturday morning. It isn’t the Point Brugge recipe for sure, but we aren’t about to get greedy, either! Drink up! And don’t take variety for granted.

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Sangria

I’m really big on customer service. I don’t mean that I need people surrounding me all the time, filling my glass of water after every sip, and folding my napkin across my lab when I return from the bathroom. I find that awkward actually. But its nice when you really enjoy a place not only for the food but also for the staff.

We once were patrons of Romano’s pizza, but they ruined a trust we had spent over a year building. We went almost every Thursday. When we would enter the restaurant there would be a bottle of our favorite wine waiting for us at our regular table. One night last summer, after ordering our usual, Elmer brings us the check. The price of the bottle had increased almost doubled, yet we were not informed. We expressed our disappointment that he didn’t at least inform us of the change before opening the bottle. We haven’t returned since. (We’re good at grudges).

La Boqueria de Barcelona Viva has in some ways replaced Romanos. While we can’t afford to go there as frequently, it holds a special spot in our heart, mainly because of Oscar, our waiter. We went to La Boqueria for the first time last year for my birthday. Actually the day after my birthday, because on my actual birthday I had to work. (And it was a Saturday. Yes I’m still bitter.) So Hec took me out the next day. Oscar waited on us, bringing us complementary pan tumaca, made some recommendations on his favorite menu items, and didn’t bother us every second asking if we wanted to order something else when we just came for the sangria and marinated mushrooms. Since this first wonderful expereince, we continued to come back. Usually just for the sangria and pan tumaca, although on special occasions we’ll order the lechón, paté (for Héc, not me!), or one of their unique desserts such as pears in cognac. But even though we don’t always spend $50 (usually its well under $20), Oscar greets us with a huge smile, is glad to see us, and even gives away little cooking tips. He told us what was in the sangria, and also how to prepare pan tumaca. At another Spanish restaurant we visited (thinking it was the same everywhere) we asked the waiter how they prepare the sangria (we didn’t want to pay a lot for wine-flavored juice). “Sorry,” he told us, “it’s a secret of the house”. Which to us meant it was boxed cooking wine with grape juice and sliced up apples and oranges. And thats certainly what it tasted like. We had to order another cup of wine to mix in to the pitcher to take the edge off the sweetness.

When we asked Oscar if the sangria was sweet, he basically recited the recipe, verifying for us that it was not just grape juice. He told us the liquors used, approximate amounts, and the fruit juices. I was surprised, to be honest. We went home immediately and experimented. While it is never the same as at La Boqueria, it is always good…sometimes even better that at the restaurant.

Now Sangria is not an exact science, although I would say it can be an art. (Asá). Use the things you like, and it will turn out delicious. Thats all we do. If you want it light, use less alcohol, add some sparkling water. If you want it heavy, up the brandy and gin. Go white, go red. If you just have rum and nothing else, go for that too. This is what Oscar told us, and this is generally how we base our recipe:

Oscar’s Sangria

Ingredients:
1 bottle wine (we just use a cheap drinkable something red).
2 oz brandy
2 oz gin
1/2 to 1 cup juice (orange or pear are yummy)
1 cup diced fruit (citruses are great, ripe pears, berries, ect)
1/2 lime, sliced

Directions:
Mix all together and let sit at least over night. Sometimes we let it sit a couple days. The fruit really absorbs the wine, and makes a nice snack at the end of the pitcher.

Kefir “Beer”

Kefir - Cell-like pic

I learned to love Kombucha tea while at my internship the last year of gradschool. All of my coworkers were crazy about the stuff, and they frequently walked to a natural foods store nearby in Rogers Park to get it on our lunch break. The first time I tried it I admittedly was disgusted. My co-workers had harassed me into tasting it and I gave in. Peer pressure even affects grown adults. I didn’t like it because, first of all, the flavor labeled on the bottle was “algae” or something. It was green and really did look like algae was growing inside. Secondly it said it had bacteria in it right on the label. I thought to myself “why would anyone advertise that?” This was before I knew much about probiotics or anything like that.

I don’t know why I went out and bought my own bottle. I guess I wanted to try it again, just to make sure I really didn’t like it. And it slowly grew on me. Perhpas my third bottle I was addicted, which wasn’t really that awesome because they ran about $4 a pop. It was certainly not in my budget. But when Whole Foods would have a sale (2 for $6!) I was there to purchase a few bottles. I got a gift certificate to Whole Foods for Christmas, and I’m sure about half of it went towards this expensive health drink.

The flavor is subtle. There are actually quite a few varieties in the store, but my favorite is ginger. Its slightly fizzy, but not overwhelming. The ginger has just enough bite to let you know its doing its job. The drinks are technically a fermented tea, so they contain roughly 0.5% alcohol…but don’t worry…thats not enough to do anything to the most affected individual.

So…for quite a few months I’ve been making my own yogurt, and raving to Hécs family about how healthy and delicious it is, and all the benefits of the cultures of bacteria it contains. When she knew I was interested in this type of “health food”, my suegra was telling me about these “tibicos” (kefir) that her sister had, and how you put them in sugar water and soon they will double in size. I just didn’t understand the point of them. Do you mix them into something to eat them? Do you make a cake from them? What was the deal. I didn’t get it. Until finally I googled “tibicos” and started researching it. As soon as I saw the word Kombucha in the wikipedia article I was sold. It just clicked, and immediately I asked her for a few tablespoons of her batch to begin our own.

Kefir - Ginger Slicespicture: what happens to Trader Joe’s uncrystallized candied ginger when you brew it with a batch of kefir. I couldn’t believe how it grew back it’s original size, nor did I know it had been shrunk down so much in the drying process. I always imagined it being pieces of ginger cut up into cubes…but it was actually entire giant chunks shrunken!
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And thats the cool thing about kefir: they grow! You start out with two tablespoons, and as long as you keep feeding it sugar water they will continue to double in size. Then you can give some to your friends and family.

We researched a bunch of different recipes, discovered you can use it to make a sort of beer (if you can find hops); we went out and by accident found a container specifically for making fermented foods; and we got to work. But its really no work at all. For the last two weeks we have been brewing batches every other day, and enjoying the fizzy health beverage in the mornings and evenings almost every day. We’re about to invest in another container so we can have it twice a day every day. I’m absolutely crazy about this stuff! Its delicious…aparently healthy…it just makes me feel good. And making it yourself is like 400 times cheaper than going to Whole Foods and blowing you paycheck.

I’m really not sure where you could get Kefir in the states….but I imagine that its much easier than in Guatemala. Ask someone at Whole Foods, or perhaps other natural food stores who don’t want to rip you off. I think you can even get them online. Read more on probiotics and health here on this NYTimes article if you’re interested. Maybe they’re really good for you…maybe they’re not that big of a deal. But I just love making it, watching the little guys float up and down like actual living beings in my glass container; drinking the fizzy beverage; and enjoying the fact that they are most likely pretty good for my health 🙂

I really really think they’re fun to make. Anything that you kinda have to nurture I enjoy making. Like herbs, yogurt, yeast breads. This fits right in there. It feels like such an accomplishment when it grows like it is supposed to, and I love knowing its all natural. Not to mention so much cheaper than store bought. Plus I love watching these little guys swim around like little sea monkeys. Its a good feeling! I really encourage you to try it…just for fun, just to try it. Who knows…maybe you’ll become addicted like me!

Kefir - GrainsKefir - Brewing

Kefir “Beer”:
1/4 cup kefir grains
1 liter water
1 lime
1 date or a few raisins or a piece of other dried fruit — I have used candied uncrystallized ginger before (but optional). When the fruit floats you know its fermented enough to drink.
4 tablespoons natural cane sugar or panela

Special equipment: sealed glass jar without metalic lid, or similar container.

Directions:
Dissolve sugar in water. Add lime juice and one of the halves of the lime, the dried fruit, and the kefirKefir - Lime fizzing grains. Seal the jar and leave sitting at room temperature, covered to protect from light, for 24-48 hours.

While we always brew it for 48 hours, technically it is ready when the dried fruit floats. I read that the longer you leave fermenting the more alcoholic it will become, although I have read that (without hops) 1.0% is the highest it can reach. Apparently the hops suppresses the bacteria’s actions, alowing the yeast to do more of the work which will produce the alcohol.

When you are ready to drink it, use a plastic-mesh collandar (the metallic can kill the bacteria), and pour the liquid into you drinking containers of choice, reserving the kefir. Throw our the dried fruit if you used it, and the lime. Rinse the Kefir. This will equalize the yeast-bacteria ratio and keep your drink safe in the future.

Repeat! Do not throw the kefir away! They are still live and good. If you are not ready to brew another batch, put them in a bowl with a little bit of sugar (1 tablespoon for 1/4 cup kefir should be enough) cover with a cloth to keep out the flies, and store in a dark corner of your kitchen at room temperature. When you’re ready, just rinse the kefir again and repeat the recipe above.

When you are finished it will be slightly fizzy. I would prefer more, but so far haven’t been too successful in creating it this way. I still need to research more about it. And find hops in this country!!

Happy Brewin’!

Champaign in Coffee Mugs

Champaigne in a Coffee Mug

This is how I like to celebrate accomplishments…and on a budget. I love champagne for moments like this. Probably because of what it symbolizes more than anything. Champagne is not my drink of choice, necessarily. Generally I prefer dry red wines, unless it is a very warm day, in which I’d go for a cold beer or chilled Sauvignon Blanc, depending on the mood. But when something great happens I really wanna hear that cork pop and see champaign gushing all over the place. It completes the moment I think. A proper climax. And it is the whole experience of drinking champagne: going to the store and picking out a foil-gilded bottle (it doesn’t matter if it only costs 6USD); standing in the checkout line while everyone around, aware of your purchase, is curious about the occasion; and finally…when the cork pops off, glasses overflow, and joyful cheers fill the air. It feels so right and so significant.

And the occasion? I got a job. A job! After 3 months of searching I have finally found an opportunity in Guatemala that I am actually passionate about. A place where I will feel useful and that I am contributing (perhaps a little) to a more just world. And better still, I felt a strong connection with the other team members. They are all passionate young people working on wages a well-educated foreigner would never imagine, yet happy to do it because they are serving others who have far less. I am looking forward to joining them this coming Monday. The job is with Habitat for Humanity, and I will be a “Logistics Coordinator”, organizing groups from North America and Europe who will be coming to build homes, and to act as their liaison to Guatemalan culture. This is something I am very passionate about — to educate foreigners on the facets of Guatemalan culture is so important for the uplift of the country. The problems Guatemalan society faces are very complex and maybe to the naked eye could cause negative images to form in ones mind: unclean public spaces, extreme poverty and malnutrition, inequality, corruption, lack of self-worth. But it is a beautiful place too, and it’s problems do not stem from a sort of inherent evilness of the individuals or culture, but rather from a complex relationship of natural riches, colonial conquest, and exploitation. I am excited to be a window to Guatemala for the volunteers whocome to help this impoverished corner of the world. The hope is that the experience the volunteers have with Habitat will open their minds and impress on their hearts an affection which will keep them caring and working for the improvement of life for the marginalized, the and advancement of equality in this destitute land. Boy, I’m so excited!

My entries will be fewer in the coming weeks, I imagine, and perhaps leaning away from culinary topics and more towards issues in Guatemala, the culture in general, and my experiences with Habitat…although my passion for food will surely weave it’s way through the conversation.

Coming soon, before I head back into the working world, a vacation into the depths of Guatemalan beauty, and a few culinary delights we experienced along the way.

Champagne in a Coffee Mug
Ingredients:
1 bottle of chilled Champagne (we got the cheapest there is, because, well…my job doesn’t pay much. But I’m thankful to have it!)
2 coffee mugs
Directions:
Peel off the foil wrapper. Unwind the wire shell. Using your thumbs, perhaps holding the top of the cork with a towel if you wish to avoid spillage, force out the cork. Serve in mugs, allowing to over-flow for dramatic effect. Toast to accomplishments, and more to come…or whatever you choose. Drink, and be merry.