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Home Beer Getting cultured: A quest to ferment it all

Getting cultured: A quest to ferment it all

Be it sprouted grains, honey, apples, cabbage, or barley, Brooklyn’s Mary Izett believes she can ferment it.
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Photo by Matt Furman

Photo by Matt Furman

On a sunny February afternoon, a curious thing occurred at a Brooklyn beer fest. That day at graffiti-splashed Arrogant Swine, I’d helped wrangle NYC’s choicest beers, including IPAs from Other Half and Gun Hill’s Void of Light stout. But instead of queuing for cultish brews, attendees clamored for Mary Izett’s peculiar fermentations.

Memories of Mekong was a boozy coconut-lemongrass-ginger green tea, and honey-driven Elvis Sammy Short Mead contained bacon, bananas and peanut butter. Instead of pantry-clearing follies, the drinks were complex and crushable, balanced and refreshing.Surprisingly, they took minutes to make and fermented for fewer than 10 days. That’s astonishingly fast, given that homebrewing can take half a day, and several weeks—minimum—must pass before the beer is potable.

“It seems like cheating to make a sugar-based beverage in 10 minutes,” says Izett, who turned her passion for rapid-fire ferments into “Speed Brewing.” It might become time-crunched DIYers’ boozy bible. “I could put out a short mead before I go to work,” adds Izett, who doesn’t limit herself to the lower-alcohol honey drink. Before showering, she could concoct a cider, spirited soda, kombucha or pineapple rind–powered tepache. “These beverages are delicious, fun and exciting, and I want other people to experience that too.”

Photo by Matt Furman

Photo by Matt Furman

From kimchi to pickles to Finnish sima, few folks are as smitten by the fermentation spectrum as Mary Izett, who’s the NYC beer scene’s busiest, and most beloved, woman—a fact I’d freely admit, even if we weren’t friends. By day she’s a pharmaceutical sales rep. Most other minutes are consumed by creation, education and the pursuit of knowledge. One day she’ll teach mead making and write for beer magazines, while the next she’ll judge beer competitions. Other days, she and brewer-boyfriend Chris Cuzme host the fermentation-focused Fuhmentaboudit! radio show and run gypsy brewery Cuzett Libations. “We called it Cuzett Libations and not Cuzett Brewing because we love cider and mead and everything else,” says Izett, 42, who’s a steady presence at area imbibing events. Attend one, and you’ll spot the Brooklynite in Crayola-bright glasses, keenly sipping beer, taking notes and answering queries from friends and strangers with a smile as free as her advice.

“Her willingness to continue her education, and share it with the rest of us in the fermentation field, has been beneficial to everyone,” says Brooklyn Homebrew co-owner Danielle Cefaro. “She is a true inspiration for me and other women.”

Mary’s life has long been ruled by fixations, be it felting, mosaics or knitting socks. Especially socks. “I was obsessed with the perfect knitted sock,” she says. “Getting obsessed with fermentation follows my typical behavior.” During college in Georgia, where she studied biology and horticulture, Izett fell under the sway of beers from Abita and Anderson Valley. In 2003, upon moving to NYC with her then-husband, she dove headfirst into the city’s social life, drinking in its full potential. “New York is too expensive to not take advantage of it,” says Izett, who started leading beer tastings for friends. “They were like, ‘It’s obvious you need to start homebrewing.’ So I did.”

She joined the Malted Barley Appreciation Society and New York City Homebrewers Guild (she’s since been president of both), studying intently for the Beer Judge Certification Program exam. She aced it, becoming a rare nationally ranked judge. “If she says she really likes a beer and that it’s well made for style, I won’t question her,” says Jimmy’s No. 43 owner Jimmy Carbone. During BJCP classes, Izett met Cuzme, and “our love of pairing beer and food and sharing it with people brought us together,” Cuzme says. The twosome launched a beer-pairing business that, like a slow ferment, steadily evolved. “We spent years as friends and business partners before becoming romantically involved,” says Cuzme. (As head brewer at now-shuttered 508, Cuzme collaborated with Izett on the sour, sessionable Pillow Talk series.) “She has an inherent goodness and kindness. For her, there’s never an excuse to be uncivil.”

Photo by Matt Furman

Photo by Matt Furman

If one thing bothered Izett, it was her brew kettle. After brewing a five-gallon batch, she found it physically impossible to heft the wet grain–filled vessel. Scientific research revealed the streamlined Brew in a Bag technique. The process is adaptable to smaller quantities and, because it only requires a single pot, saves time. “It’s a way for people to brew in an urban environment,” Izett says. Soon, Izett began exploring other fast and easy fermentables such as short meads, flavoring them with the likes of blueberries and nutmeg, mangos and chilis, peaches and thyme. “I love taking inspiration from the seasons to ferment,” she says, citing past tinkering with rhubarb soda, boozy spearmint kombucha and spinach wine, containing lemons and raisins.

In particular, her recipe for strawberry-peppercorn short mead attracted Voyageur Press, which tagged her for “Speed Brewing.” Writing required more research. “For the book, I had 40 different things fermenting simultaneously,” she says. Rose-cardamom soda, Hong Kong lemon tea, Vietnamese bia hoi and tamarind pulque made the cut. Spiced pumpkin soda was nixed. “I thought, ‘People drink pumpkin beer,’” she recalls. “I thought it would be fun, but it did not work out.”

After finishing the book, Izett took a brief fermentation sabbatical. Rejuvenated, she’s experimenting with cashew cheese, raisin water, rejuvelac (it stems from sprouted grains) and sourdough bread. “Chris and I share responsibility for the sourdough culture,” she says. Concerning the future, Izett will keep her day job. She’ll collaborate on Cuzett Libations (next up is Galaxy-hopped Australian sparkling ale), experiment with elixirs like beet mead and passionfruit saison, attempt to make miso and pungent natto and, on the radio show, interview every willing cheesemonger, cider maker, baker, wild-beer wunderkind and pickler. “I would really like to try to ferment almost anything,” she says. Feeding curiosity is crucial, but so is doling out the fruits of her labors. “If you can make something that’s delicious and that you can share with people, it really feeds the soul.”

 

Author
Joshua M. Bernstein is the author of “The Complete Beer Course” and runs homebrew tours in New York City.

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