February: How Homebrewing Cures Homesickness

I plunged into the natural wine world somewhat unintentionally. Unlike almost everyone you meet in the natural wine scene, I don't have a story of the bottle that turned me on to natural wines and changed my life forever. I guess I do- but I'm sure it wasn't a cool bottle and if I cited it wine geeks would just politely smile and nod, judging me. I didn't have some revelatory moment over an epic bottle by a mythical winemaker like Jean Foillard or Richard Leroy or Olivier Cousin. I just stumbled upon it.

It was sometime in 2010 and I was at a restaurant in Paris called Les Fines Gueules, which I later found out serves almost exclusively natural wine. I put two and two together and figured that was why I had so enjoyed the bottle of Beaujolais I drank there, from a domain called P-U-R. It was one of the least expensive bottles on the menu and one of the best wines I had ever tasted.

It was during my early years in Paris and I was broke and had been for years, working under the table at a bar and trying to figure out how to get my visa renewed, I don't think I even had a bank account and I can't remember what horrible apartment situation I was in at the time, most likely the illegal sublet in the 9th. In any case, the meal was a special treat, a fancy sit down dinner and the cheapest wine on the menu ended up being the highlight.

I started drinking what I could on a super limited budget, every once and awhile going to restaurants that served natural wines to see what they had on their menu and treat myself to a bottle.

I was only beginning to be curious about the food scene in Paris- I started my blog that very same year- so I didn't have much community to explain the concept of natural wine to me and early internet articles on the subject made it sound so scandalous- does/can organic wine even exist? was the gist of most articles written predominantly by skeptics at the time. I didn't even bother going down that rabbit hole on the internet. Instead, I started drinking what I could on a super limited budget, every once and awhile going to restaurants that served natural wines to see what they had on their menu and treat myself to a bottle. It was at Le Grand 8, a restaurant in the 18th arrondissement, where I first had a bottle of Noëlla's wine. It was her Gamay, Mon Cher.

I started writing a little bit about natural wine, wanting to talk about it in a way that wasn't polemic or overcomplicated or smug, but simple and focused on the work that natural winemakers do. In February 2012, I went to my first Dive Bouteille wine tasting- the woodstock of natural wine which brings devotees from around the world to taste wine made by hundreds of biodynamic vignerons.

I made the rookie mistake of counting on the shuttle bus (which never came) to get me to the tasting- I ended up hopping into a cab with a bunch of strangers, one of whom was a caviste from the South of France who I followed around for most of the tasting, listening to him describe and ask questions about wine.

At the dive bouteille in 2014, distracted from wine tasting by Panache

At the dive bouteille in 2014, distracted from wine tasting by Panache

It was at this tasting that I met Noëlla for first time, I was too shy to talk much and also unsure how to talk about wine at all, I think I managed to go up to her a sheepishly say “I really like your wine” and then run away.

I saw Noëlla in following years at the same tasting and also visited the Loir-et-Cher region, visiting her fellow winemakers in the region, Michel Augé and Christophe Foucher, who took me on tours of their vines and talked with me about their process while we tasted their wines.

I went from girl crush, to boy crush, to crushing Gamay grapes in my front yard.

By 2014 I felt like I needed to know more about how these wines were made in order to better write about them. I asked Noëlla, who still barely knew who I was because I am socially awkward, if I could join her harvest team and she said yes! Then I met Ben and the rest is history. I went from girl crush, to boy crush, to crushing Gamay grapes in my front yard.

So that's how I got here and I often feel like I'm playing catch up because I don't know or understand so many things about the world I live in now. I don't like it when people say they don't have a vocabulary for wine, I love listening to people use all kinds of words and memories to describe a wine they're tasting, but there definitely is a jargon associated with wine, and I'm at a faux débutante level in wine vernacular.

Sometimes, okay a lot of times, I feel left out of wine conversations. I listen so I can learn, but then I get lost. Then my mind wanders to conversations that made me feel like I belong instead of like I'm an outsider. I start missing my Paris friends, my lady lunches at Holybelly, my dance parties with the gays, when we sang Céline Dion at 4am, our arms draped over each other.

California sunshine and craft beer

California sunshine and craft beer

Sometimes the homesickness goes back as far as California, where I remember meeting up with friends in a places that smell like the sea and having a pint of beer. Whenever I have a beer with friends I try to stop and hold that moment for a second before letting it go away, those moments are rare and precious to me.

I can understand Gamay in the present, and I think I’ll get it more in the future, but a sip of beer takes me back.

I don't speak beer jargon, either, but beer speaks to me in a more personal way than wine, probably because I grew up with it. I can understand Gamay in the present, and I think I'll get it more in the future, but a sip of beer takes me back. I haven't had a Miller High Life in over a dozen years- and I'm in no rush to crack one open- but I'm sure once it hit my lips I'd be transported to my early college years, my Wisconsinite college boyfriend, the silly parties, and a whole era that sometimes feels like it belongs to a different life and a different time. Until beer brings it back.

Even with almost unlimited access to great wine, I still crave beer. It's the thing I want to drink after spending a day working outside, it's what I want to celebrate a change in seasons, a fatty green IPA in the winter or a fresh, citrusy Pale Ale in the spring. These flavors excite my palette and never feel redundant- every beer is a surprise.

We have one local craft brewer in the region and recently a Paris based company called HopBuddy has started delivering craft beers anywhere in France, so there are options for getting craft beer here, but I decided it was time I started making my own.

My first home brew. Photo courtesy of Bertrand Celce

My first home brew. Photo courtesy of Bertrand Celce

With ingredients I hauled back from 7 Bridges Organic Brewing Collective during my trip to Santa Cruz and a starter home-brew set I ordered from Belgium I was ready to make my first beer: a double IPA using four different American hop varietals.

I won't go into all the minutia of my first brew day (which was actually a very late brew night), suffice to say I learned a few things for next time and the beer turned out more than ok. But here's what I learned the first time I made beer: Steeped grains that start off your beer smell like Grape Nuts, the morning cereal of my high school days that my brain had forgotten but my nose definitely hadn't. The malts smell like the walk home to a house I had while in college in Olympia, Washington- which took me past the Fish Brewing Company, and this smell, of approaching the brewery on my way home, maybe stopping to glean blackberries on the way if it was the right season, filled my kitchen as I brewed. And then I started adding hops, the color and scent of a Pacific Northwest Forest and so many memories- everywhere from splurging on a six pack from Deschutes Brewery when we were broke college students to happy hours at Le Supercoin in Paris, my favorite beer bar just steps away from my apartment.

Brewin'

Brewin'

Making my own beer felt like a conversation I was a part of, it uncovered memories and made them feel warm and familiar again. It turned the past into something I could almost feel in the present. 

Home brewing is definitely the cure to a shortage of beer, but for me it turned out to be a cure for homesickness, as well.