Q&A: Mary Izett on ‘Speed Brewing,’ Drinking At a Russian Bathhouse in Brooklyn, and More

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Photo courtesy of Mary Izett.

As one half of Cuzett, the newly sovereign supercouple fueled by fermentation and for-realz responsible for the dethroning of Jayoncè, Brooklyn’s former powerfulest pair, Mary Izett co-crushed the competition—Jay & Bey—by deftly implementing the strategy of co-creation with her saxophone-playing sex machine, Chris Cuzme (or since his last name is pronounced Cooze-may, is it Chris Cuzme Z?). In 2012, they launched a weekly program on the Heritage Radio Network called “Fuhmentaboudit!,” and, earlier this year, they formed an emu-worshipping gypsy brewery named Cuzett Libations. But I will stop at those, because today’s spotlight is dedicated solely to Izett and her new book, Speed Brewing.

If you think “speed brewing” refers to the act of vigorously mixing Ecto Cooler and Pop Rocks with a toothbrush in a motel bathtub for 72 consecutive hours after swallowing several hundred amphetamines, you are incorrect. Izett is best suited to explain the term, which is why we chatted on the phone yesterday about her book and her years of homebrewing beer and other, lesser-known alcoholic beverages. She was also gracious enough to share one of her favorite recipes.

Niko Krommydas: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you start homebrewing?

Mary Izett: I started in 2006, beginning like most homebrewers do with an extract kit. I moved to partial mash on my second or third batch and then I was brewing all grain a few batches after that. I was doing it in my shared backyard in South Park Slope at the time because my kitchen stove was too tiny, and I was fermenting everything in my basement which got cramped with carboys fast.

NK: What were you brewing at the time?

MI: Mostly sour beers that would take a year or two until they’re finished fermenting and ready to drink. Sours were a fun challenge and I was digging experimenting with mixed yeast cultures.

NK: And your brewing setup at the time?

MI: I had a very traditional all-grain system: a pair of coolers and a 12-gallon brew pot. When I started I would sparge into my brew pot, which was ground level, and then place the pot onto my burner which was elevated. But I couldn’t physically lift the pot with over six gallons of wort onto the burner by myself, which got frustrating fast. So after a bit of research online, I came across the Brew In A Bag (BIAB) method. That solved the problem.

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NK: What’s the BIAB method?

MI: BIAB is just a different approach to brewing all grain where you do everything in your kettle, from mashing to boiling. You put the grain in a cloth bag during the mash then lift it out and drain it to go into the boil. There’s no sparging involved, which is basically rinsing the grain to obtain maximum sugar, I could do everything in the brew pot on my burner instead. This not only solved the lifting issue, but it was faster, it was easier to clean up, and it took up less storage space. And I got better efficiency than my traditional system and the beers turned out great. That’s how I first entered the world of “speed brewing.”

NK: How would you define “speed brewing” and what should we take away from your book?

MI: I think the willingness to try new things is the most essential thing to take away from my book. At least if you’re coming from traditional homebrewing. Otherwise, “speed brewing” is creating lower alcohol beverages that are easily digestible—by the yeast, that is—and faster to make. For example, I find that juice and sugar-based ferments are fast, really easy, and freaking delicious. Other time-saving techniques are BIAB for beer like we just talked about, making smaller batches, and using materials that are ready to go, like mixed tea bags. A lot of the book focuses on different beverages and the different recipes for them that I’ve created.

NK: Let’s talk about the different alcoholic beverages you feature. I think everyone solely associates beer with the idea of homebrewing.

MI: Yeah. Well, I think the first fermented beverage I ever made was a ginger ale or root beer. That was probably 15 years ago, years before I started homebrewing beer and before I started brewing more small-batch oddball beverages which I started after my friend Molly, she picked up a short mead kit at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival one year. I’ve always been interested in other beverages, both from drinking and brewing perspectives. The other beverages are definitely the reason I wrote the book. There are a lot of great homebrewing articles, books, podcasts, and so on, but not so many that fit in the “other beverage” category. And the other beverages are fantastic to make, regardless if you homebrew or not. For homebrewers in particular, I think they’re great in-between batches, when you don’t have time to brew, when your carboys are full, etc. And they’re also nice as an alternative offering to homebrew for parties and other events. The bottom line is that anyone can ferment a delicious beverage, regardless of time, space, and other constraints. I’m a big DIYer. I knit, felt, and sew in addition to brewing. I love the act of creation and I think that is missing from many people’s lives in our current hectic commercial culture. Handcrafting fermented beverages is a wonderful and tasty way to bring making and creativity into your life. Humans have been fermenting beverages for a very long time, using whatever they had on hand. Let’s keep that up.

NK: Why do you think the lesser-known alcoholic beverages aren’t as popular or even made at all by homebrewers in the U.S.?

MI: I’m not sure why they’re not as popular. Maybe because they’re not as predictable or not to “modern tastes” as beer. Also not many of them are commercially available so that could be another reason as well. A lot of people started homebrewing back in the beginning of the craft-beer renaissance because they couldn’t get the beer that they had in Belgian, Germany, and England. But that’s not the case anymore. We have pretty much everything available to us these days as far as homebrewing goes. But I do think more people are interested in exploring these other beverages and we’re seeing more of them commercially made. Reverend Nat’s makes a delicious tepache, for instance.

NK: What’s your current favorite of the lesser-known beverages to make?

MI: I don’t think I have a current favorite. I’ve always been picking flavors and then matching them to the fermentable base that I think works best. Sugar, apple juice, and honey are currently tied. For instance, for this yesterday’s Summer Solstice event that Chris helped organize at Arrogant Swine, I made three recipes from my book: a Strawberry Sima, a Tooty Fruity Short Mead, and a Rockin’ Rhubarb Ginger Cider. We’ll probably have a jasmine-green tea and a Nelson Sauvin dry-hopped cider on tap at our apartment throughout the summer, as both Chris and I love them. I’ll also be continuing my seasonal ferments series, using ingredients picked up at the GreenMarkets. So yeah, I like to make everything. [Laughs.] It’s all the same philosophy: pick the ingredient or flavor and choose the fermenting substrate that best showcases that ingredient.

NK: I don’t want to give away too much of the book, but you speak about kvass and mention that you were introduced to it in a Russian bathhouse in Brooklyn. Can you talk about that?

MI: I actually think I first had kvass when I was in the USSR way back in the late 1980s on a school trip. And then I picked up a bottle in Boston sometime in the late 1990s. But it was definitely the Russian bathhouse Brooklyn Banya on Coney Island Avenue that got my attention. They sell it and they make it there and don’t always have it because of that. There are actually two types of kvass—bread and beet—and many variations of those. The bread kvass is the one I’m referring to and it’s a good way to use up stale bread to make a tasty and somewhat nutritious beverage. It’s super refreshing after a steam, or a steamy summer day in New York City.

NK: Speaking of the city, you also talk about specialty grocery stores and how you get rare and specific ingredients to brew from them. What are your favorites?

MI: My faves are Kalustyan’s in Manhattan and the Food Bazaars. The Food Bazaar I go to most often is on Manhattan Avenue and Broadway. There are a bunch more places, for sure, but those are my favorites. When I was working on recipes, I would stroll through either place and pick up ingredients to try and ferment. I like Kalustyan’s more for spices, peppers, and teas and Food Bazaar for juices, sugars, fresh produce, and spices. I also love Trader Joe’s for tea mixes and freeze-dried fruits. More and more groceries are carrying international supplies, whether they’re in an urban, suburban or rural area, so there are some fun and interesting items to play with for everyone.

NK: Do you have a take-home message for homebrewers and aspiring homebrewers?

MI: You can make a delicious fermented alcoholic beverage at home, regardless of space and time restraints. Let your creativity flow!

Mary Izett’s Recipe for Strawberry Sima

Yields one gallon

Ingredients:

1 gallon of chlorine-free water
1 ½ cups sugar (white recommended but any combination of sugars may be used)
3-4 lemons
1/2 oz of free-dried strawberries
½ packet of Champagne yeast
1/16 tsp beer yeast nutrient

Directions:

1. Slice off and discard the pithy ends of the lemons. Thinly slice the remaining lemon.

2. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil.

3. Place the sliced lemons, strawberries, 1 ½ cups of sugar and beer yeast nutrient in a heat-resistant pitcher or saucepan. Pour the off-boil water over the lemon slices and sugar and stir until sugar is dissolved.

4. Steep for 5-10 minutes.

5. Cool the lemon-sugar mixture to below 80 degrees F either in an ice bath or by adding chilled chlorine-free water.

6. Pour the lemon-sugar mixture into the sanitized wide-mouth jar (do not strain out lemons), top off with chlorine-free water to a gallon and stir to combine.

7. You may take a gravity reading using a hydrometer or refractometer at this point if you choose. The OG should be in the 1.032 to 1.036 range.

8. Pitch ½ packet of champagne yeast and top with a grommeted lid and filled airlock.

9. Ferment for 4 to 7 days at 65-80 degrees F.

10. Bottle as instructed in Speed Brewing.

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