Fermenting In New Haven: Common Ground Workshop

Today I write about something that is not inherently beer-related, but definitely made me think about the brewing process. This Saturday I spent a relaxing rainy day at what may be the coolest (in my opinion) high school in Connecticut. For those who are unfamiliar, Common Ground is an environmental charter high school in New Haven that was founded in 1997. In addition to core academic subjects such as math and literature, students at Common Ground have a curriculum that is focused on the environment. Classrooms include kitchens, farms, and even state parks. I spoke with one student who is currently raising chickens and learning how to (humanely) butcher them. Definitely not things I knew how to do as a junior in high school.

You don’t have to be a high school student to take advantage of the resources Common Ground offers, though. They have a series of classes offered to both families and adults. This weekend I took a class on Canning and Fermentation, where I learned how to jar food for preservation, and wild fermentation through making sauerkraut. The canning (which is technically called jarring) portion was taught by Common Ground chef Theresa Brooks, and the fermentation section taught by Diane Litwin, who is an educator at Common Ground.

I have family members who have won awards for jams and jellies and other Mason jars full of delicious. So I figured it was time to learn myself. You can’t just put fruit in a Mason jar and call it a preserve. There is a bit more to it than that, but it’s still fairly cheap and not that difficult. The process? Basically, boil, dry, insert pickles/fruit/kim chi/whatever, put the lid on, and boil again. The amount of time a jar must stay submerged in the boiling water seems to be different for each recipe or person making it, but it generally seems to be 10-20 minutes. I think the most important thing I learned was not to re-use the lids on the jars. Apparently you can buy a box of them for a few dollars. Once the are unsealed, you can re-use everything else, but the lid can be dented or damaged once the jar is opened.

Wild fermentation is a totally different animal, and made me think way differently about sour beers. The bacteria that is allowed into the sauerkraut, or beer, or anything else, builds up and allows our bodies to digest food easier. You are adding all the organisms from the atmosphere around you. Plus, as Diane brought up, fermentation has been around for centuries, and continuing to do it is honoring an ancient tradition. Until I can come up with a good place to brew sours and pick up some extra equipment, my homebrews will be bacteria-free (intentionally, anyway) for awhile. But it’s definitely something I would like to pursue more.

Since the Mason jars provided a strong seal, I decided to a bit of research on whether I could bottle my beer in them. The first obvious issue would be the clear glass. I have seen some Mason-style jars in other colors, but they are not as easy to find as the clear variety. I have not seen any in brown, either. So that’s a bit of a problem. The seal is created through high temperatures, almost like a vacuum. You know it’s sealed properly when you hear that signature “pop” sound. However, when you’re carbonating inside the jar, the pressure that builds up could potentially cause the seal (and the jar) to break.

So unlike this article from my favorite news source suggests, you can’t use Mason jars for EVERYTHING. But, you certainly can for lots of things. and I will continue to demand that if I go to a hip (or hipster) bar, I need to drink my pint out of a Mason jar while bathing in the Edison-lightbulb glow of a Mason jar chandelier. It’s only right.

And upon seeing this, I will undoubtedly say “WHAT A GOOD IDEA”.