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DIY: Reject the Cult of Expertise (and Make Your Own Honey Wine)

Everywhere you look there are do-it-yourself projects, websites, how-to, self help, and diet tips. Make your own pasta. Make your own bread. Make your own solar oven, your own spinning wheel, your own rainwater receptacle. DIY is the rage. But what’s behind the do-it-yourself movement is a question of more than simple craftiness. It’s also about ethics. It’s about the practice of self-empowerment, the rejection of systemitized norms, and the reclamation of the notion that we can do it on our own!

Punk. Anarchy. Rock n Roll. Urban Farming. Fermentation.

These are the movements of our time. Doing-it-ourselves means rejecting the cult of the expertise. The idea that we have to buy things, in order to have things, eat things, drink things. Perhaps the collective unconscious of our generation needs a serious dose of empowerment, and knowledge about production within our home. And may I suggest for starters…fermentation. Learn how to make your own Te’j, Ethiopian honey wine, and toast the alcohol conglomerates. Who needs ’em.

The following is an excerpt from Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Elliz Katz

 

There is a mystique surrounding fermented foods that many people find intimidating. Since the uniformity of factory fermentation products depends upon thorough chemical sterilization, exacting temperature controls, and controlled cultures, it is widely assumed that fermentation processes require these things. The beer- and winemaking literature tends to reinforce this misconception.

My advice is to reject the cult of expertise. Do not be afraid. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated. Remember that all fermentation processes predate the technology that has made it possible for them to be made more complicated. Fermentation does not require specialized equipment. Not even a thermometer is necessary (though it can help). Fermentation is easy and exciting. Anyone can do it. Microorganisms are flexible and adaptable. Certainly there is considerable nuance to be learned about any of the fermentation processes, and if you stick with them, they will teach you. But the basic processes are simple and straightforward. You can do it yourself. Here’s an example:

T’ej (Ethiopian-style Honey Wine)

TIMEFRAME: 2 to 4 weeks

SPECIAL EQUIPMENT:

  • 1 gallon/4 liter (or larger) ceramic crock, wide-mouth jar, or plastic bucket
  • 1 gallon/4 liter glass jug (the kind you can buy apple juice in)
  • Airlock (from beer and wine supply shop, under $1; this is helpful but not necessary)

INGREDIENTS (for 1 gallon/4 liters):

  • 3 cups/750 milliliters honey (raw if available)
  • 12 cups/3 liters water

PROCESS:

  1. Mix water and honey in the crock or jar. Stir well, until the honey is thoroughly dissolved. Cover with a towel or cloth and set aside in a warm room for a few days, stirring as often as you think of it, at least twice a day. Trust that the yeast will be drawn to the sweet honey-water from the air.
  2. After 3 or 4 days (more if it’s cold, less if it’s hot), the brew should be bubbly and fragrant. Once it’s bubbly, transfer wine into a clean glass jug. If the jug is not full, you can add water and honey in a 4:1 ratio to fill. Cork with an airlock that lets air out but not in, if you can easily find one. If not, cover the bottle with a balloon, or any jar lid that can rest on it loosely and keep air out without holding pressure in.
  3. Leave for 2 to 4 weeks, until bubbling slows. This is “instant” gratification wine. Drink it now, or age it.

    Delicious, intoxicating wine can be as simple as that.

DO-IT-YOURSELF

Do-it-yourself is an ethic that is practiced by many different people. It is an attitude of self-empowerment and openness to learning. Do-it-yourselfers include folks who garden, cook “from scratch,” make clothes and handcrafts, build and fix things, and practice healing arts, to give just a few examples. Anarchist punk culture uses do-it-yourself, or d.i.y., as a slogan to live by. Publishing a “zine,” being in a band, dumpster diving perfectly good food, squatting, activism, and skillshare events are all manifestations of the d.i.y. attitude.

So is rural homesteading. At Short Mountain, where I live, we create and maintain all our own infrastructure, including solar electricity, phone lines, and water systems. We raise goats and chickens, grow much of our food, and build and maintain the structures we inhabit. Among us are folks who make music, spin and dye yarn, knit, crochet, sew, and fix cars. Rural homesteads are havens for those who wish to develop their breadth as generalists. Moving “back-to-the- land” involves a long process of acquiring skills that are themselves at risk of extinction. I find it tremendously satisfying and empowering to learn techniques for doing just about anything.

Do-it-yourself fermentation is a journey of experimentation and discovery. Rediscovery really, because, like fire or simple tools, these are some of the most basic transformative processes that our ancestors used and that form the basis of human culture. Every ferment yields unique results, influenced not only by ingredients but by environment, season, temperature, humidity, and any other factors affecting the behavior of the microorganisms whose actions make these transformations possible. Some fermentations are complete in a few hours. Some require years.

Fermentation generally requires only a little preparation or work. Most of the time that elapses is spent waiting. Do-it-yourself fermentation is about as far as you can get from fast food. Many ferments get better the longer you leave them. Use this time to observe and ponder the magical actions of invisible allies. The Charoti people of South America view the time of fermentation as “the birth of the good spirit.”1 They attract the good spirit with music and singing, exhorting the spirit to come settle into the home they have prepared. You too can prepare a comfortable environment for the spirit, the organisms, the process, however it suits you to think about it. The force is with you. It will come.

I get so excited every time my crocks start bubbling and the life forces make themselves known. Inevitably, even after a decade of experience, sometimes the process doesn’t go as I’d planned: wines sour, yeasts become exhausted, maggots infest aging crocks. Sometimes it’s just too hot or too cold for the organisms whose flavors we’re after. We are dealing with fickle life forces, in some cases over long periods of time, and though we are making an effort to create conditions favorable to desired outcomes, we do well to remember that we are not, by any measure, in complete control. When your experiments go awry, as some inevitably will, learn from them and try not to be discouraged. Feel free to e-mail me with troubleshooting questions (sandorkraut[at]wildfermentation.com). And remember that the prized cultures of a San Francisco sourdough or the finest bleu cheese have their roots in wild fermentations that took place in someone’s kitchen or farmhouse long ago. Who knows what compelling healing flavors could be floating around in your kitchen?

“Our perfection lies in our imperfection” is one of my mantras in this life. I learned it from my friend Triscuit as we and a couple of other novice carpenters built our house together at the end of Sex Change Ridge, about a quarter-mile through the woods from “downtown” Short Mountain. We used wood that we salvaged from deconstructing an old Coca-Cola bottling plant, resting on piers of black locust wood that we harvested from our land. We learned as we built. If uniformity was what we were after, we would have done better to shop for a double-wide trailer. Luckily, we wanted to live in something funky and woodsy, and that’s what we ended up with. Our mantra certainly holds true in the realm of fermentation, and I repeat it often. “Our perfection lies in our imperfection.”


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