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When eating local, start with your booze

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Sure, eating local is very good for the environment, your health, your chakra and your ability to shame people at sushi bars and curry shops. It's a positive step toward a better future. Let's do all of those things, okay? Great. Settled.

Now I'm going to talk to you about alcohol.

Yes, yes. Your bearded friend in the Filson Mackinaw Cruiser with the rolled up chinos has told you all about the microbrewery and brewpub scene. Maybe you're into nanos now. Congratulations. Maybe you've been drinking at Dieu de Ciel in Montreal or the Alibi Room in Vancouver for a decade now. Well done. That's pretty local. But I know that the latest Pacific Northewest Saison does not assuage the deep sadness in the hollow of your soul where it swims withal.

For that, comrade, you need to brew your own.

I'm going to tell you a secret: it is so easy to make your own delicious alcoholic beverages. Whoever you are, whether you live in a one-room apartment or on a vast acreage where you grow your own barley, you can make the best damn cider or beer you've ever tasted.

Let's start simple: cider. It's the season for it too. I'm not talking about cheap syrupy fizz the sell in plastic jugs (although you can make that too, you won't learn how from me). I'm talking about elegant, dry, Herefordshire cider that lets the fruit shine. You can make it with just apples, just pears (pear cider is referred to as perry), a mix of the two, or, if you want to get fancy, add some other fruit like raspberries, blackberries, melon, and so on. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

What you need:

You can make the cider in anything, but you will want to drink a lot of it so I suggest picking up a 19-litre carboy off Craigslist (remember: buy local!). If you're wary of the investment, you can use any one gallon glass jug or even a food-grade bucket. Next you'll need an airlock, which you can probably get for free off the guy who sold you the carboy, but you can pick one up for about a buck at any beer and winemaking store (most of them look like this).

Next you need the apples. Ideally, you buy a bushel of apples or pears from a local farmer and run it through a cider press that you keep for just such an occasion. But you can use any apple juice that hasn't been pasteurized. You'll need 19 litres. Pour it into your carboy. You can fill it all the way up if you like.

I like to add about two pounds of dextrose or corn sugar to add a bit extra kick to my apple cider, knocking it up to German Apfelwein territory. This won't change the flavour but it will up the alcohol content (from about 4-5% ABV to 8%). Just make sure it gets dissolved in your juice.

Finally, you'll need yeast. I prefer to use champagne or Montrachet yeast, but you can use virtually anything. Ale or cider yeast (again, available at your local wine or homebrew shop) will yield a slightly sweeter final product, but try a couple to see what you like. You will need only one packet, which will run you another dollar or so. Open the packet and dump it in the carboy. Pop the airlock on it and wait.

Step 2: Make cider

It's happening, actually. Yeast is pretty amazing stuff and it will just do its thing for years if you let it. Your airlock will bubble away furiously at first and then gradually slow down. But even when it stops, fermentation is still happening. The dead yeast cells will begin to drop out, your cider will clear and you'll have a golden liquid ready to drink.

The yeast will convert all the available sugars to alcohol in about two weeks, but the flavour will still be raw. You want to leave it at least a month but six months is best. The raw alcohol flavour will subside and the apple and yeast flavours will begin to express themselves. Whenever you get tired of waiting, siphon (don't pour) the cider out into jugs, swing-top bottles and jars and store in a cool place. You'll have a dry, spicy, fruity and slightly effervescent cider that will knock your socks off.

You can carbonate the stuff, but that will take a bit more equipment and a bit more time. Talk to your local homebrew store to get the scoop if you prefer bubbly.

Next: Blackberry Wine

When I moved to Vancouver for the first time I was blown away by the endless blackberry brambles that festooned the city and surrounding countryside in late summer. Such delicious fruit, and as much as you can carry. But what do you make with it? After jams, pies and fools I was out of ideas. But then I came across a recipe that should have been first on my list: queue up the Canned Heat: it's time to whip up a batch of blackberry wine.

What you need:

You need your carboy and airlock -- although since it's probably aging your cider, you may need to procure a second one. You need something in the vicinity of four pounds of blackberries (although this will only fill up about one third of your carboy, so plan accordingly). Put the fruit in a crock pot or food-grade bucket and pour two litres of boiling water over top. Stir and mash the blackberries to release their juices. Pour the mixture into the carboy or fermentation vessel (don't worry about seeds or skins, everything will settle out as it ages).

You need eight cups of corn sugar or caster sugar (the latter will be a sweeter wine, the former drier) dissolved in 2.5 litres of water. Add the juice and zest of one lemon and one orange. Then add this mixture to the blackberry juice.

Finally, you need the magic ingredient: the yeast. Choose any kind of wine yeast you like -- the strain is not as important to wine as it is to cider since it will be the fruit talking to you late at night as you re-tell Flannery O'Connor stories to your would-be beau over candlelight. Just open the packet and dump it into the carboy. Congratulations, you've made wine.

You'll probably want to age this wine for more than six months -- but after about a month you should "rack it" (siphon the liquid) into another clean and sterilized carboy. It can stay there until you're ready to bottle it. Don't drink blackberry wine as a cheap substitute for Bordeaux -- drink it for its direct, charming and rustic flavour. You won't be disappointed!

Last: Beer

I'm not going to tell you how to make beer -- I'm only going to tell you that it's easier than you think. Unlike your uncle's homemade Pinot, which can't source the high-quality and distinctive vines used by leading commercial vineyards, homebrewers can access the same ingredients and recipes used by the world's best breweries: malted barley, fresh noble hops and unique yeast strains. As shown above, making booze is exceedingly easy -- what's hard is consistency. And that takes paractice (another reason why homebrewing is a fantastic hobby).

So I encourage you to visit your local homebrew shop and talk about trying out a startup kit. (Vancouverites should visit Strathcona institution Dan's Homebrewing to pay homage to the recent passing of shop founder and homebrew pioneer Dan Small).

Apart from being much easier on the pocketbook than overpriced and overhyped microbreweries (often just subsidaries of multi-national beverage conglomorates), making your own alcoholic beverages at home is a growing take on the locally sourced food challenge and a vastly rewarding hobby. Bottom's up!

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