One Guy Approves All Beer Labels In America

The headline kind of says it all, but seriously? The Daily Beast gives us a short and somewhat oblique profile on Kent “Battle” Martin – “Battle” to those he works with, apparently – an employee at the Federal Tax and Trade Bureau. Battle’s job? To evaluate and approve (or disapprove) every beer label in use in the United States. Seriously. Every label. Something like 30,000 a year.

The best part? The guy’s apparently a massive workaholic. Though opinions of the man’s work run the gamut in the industry, everybody can agree on one thing: At the end of the day, your brew’s artwork is Battle’s call.

Formerly part of ATF, the government wisely decided that gun traffickers needed a different regulatory regime than craft brewers some time after 9/11. The TTB spun off to focus on collecting excise taxes, and now Kent “Battle” Martin, anonymous bureaucrat, quietly oversees the art direction for the entire brewing industry.

Well, not really. Food labels are a highly regulated thing, even at the state level, and I guess somebody has to ensure that the WARNING: portion is the right font, size, and color. Otherwise, people might forget that alcohol isn’t for everybody, and just booze it on up, all unregulated like.

Perhaps I speak for myself….

How Do You Get Sugar From Grain?

Malting allows the extraction of sugar from grain

Fermentation has two critical pieces: An organism, and its food. In the making of beer, the organism is (usually) yeast, and the food is (mostly) sugar derived from grain.

There are several ways for the home brewer to get sugar from grain. In All Grain brewing, the brewer fills a vessel like a cooler with a given number of pounds of grain, then steeps it in a particular volume of water at a given temperature for a set period of time. There are many variations on this step, which is called “mashing.”

“But wait!” You may be saying. “If I steep barley in water, I get something like cooked rice! How are brewers getting sugar from grain?”

Great question! A grain like barley, wheat, rice, corn, and so on, is a seed. Its purpose is to fall to the ground, wait for appropriate conditions, and then absorb a ton of water (relatively speaking) in order to shatter itself open and send a rootlet down into the dirt and a shootlet up into the sky.

That process requires a lot of energy, so various enzymes activate throughout the germination process. They convert the carbohydrate energy stored in the seed into sugars that the germinal plant can access. From the annual plant’s point of view, it’s an adaptation that lets it send its offspring into a future it won’t see.

When a home brewer mashes in an All Grain batch, they steep (mostly) malted grains, that is, grains that have been germinated to the point where their sugars – and the enzymes that convert starch to sugar – are most available, then dried in a kiln. Very few home brewers undertake this step, as it requires days of babying the grains, precise temperatures, and a lot of space. Riverbend Malt House, in Asheville NC, has a really informative website if you’d like to learn more about malting.

Many commercial malters continue to process the malted grains after kilning. They grind them, mash them in to extract the sugar from grain, and then evaporate them to produce liquid malt extract, the syrups that many home brewers use in their brew kettles, and dry malt extract, which is the powdered form of the grain sugars.

So home brewers have a choice – purchase malted grains for mashing, or purchase malt extract that can go straight into the boiling kettle. Both can produce delicious and award winning beers, though All Grain brewers are rightly proud of their extended craftsmanship. Don’t let anybody push you around though. Plenty of great beers are made in kitchens using cans or bags of extract, and for those lacking the space, time, or interest to brew All Grain batches, extracts are ideal.

Foraging Adventures

Foraging Adventures: Mugwort

One of my favorite parts about brewing is the ability to go outside in the warmer months and discover a world of plants that can go straight into the kettle.

Believe it or not, hops are a pretty late addition to the world’s long history of brewing. As a general rule, if a fruit, herb, grain, or even vegetable is edible, someone has used it to create alcohol, and the results are often more than good.

It’s the season for a plant called Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), which grows weedy here. Yesterday I took a walk through a lovely neighborhood nearby where I’d seen a stand of mugwort growing on the roadside. I bypassed it and took a walk along a paved trail instead, coming upon a jumbo sized chicken cook inside a fence whose gate opened onto the trail. The outer gate was unlocked, and hanging on the fence was a petition where neighbors could sign their support for an easement allowing the chickens – which families apparently bring their kids to visit on a regular basis – could stay.

Further up were four or five beehives set back behind a tall fence. They, unfortunately, looked empty.

I headed back to the mugwort patch I knew about, and found it was much larger than I’d realized. It also sits alongside a thick stand of Japanese Knotweed, which was flowering, and kudzu in deep shade, which had also thrown a few blooms despite it being mid-August.

The aroma was amazing, and I pulled flowering heads off the mugwort plants until my hands were full, then headed back to the car. After putting the herbs away, I wandered back to the local community garden, which is blanketed with Ale Hoof (Glechoma hederacea). This mint cousin was a common addition to herbal and gruit beers before hops took over.

In my own yard, crab apples and figs are both ripe for the picking, and my two batches of mulberry wine are at varying stages of development. Everywhere I go, I see goodies fit for the kettle. My Mugwort Ale is bubbling away in primary right this minute.