A Toast to Your Surroundings
by Emma Young
It’s a pleasure to grow up in a small town. In the evenings my parents’ sailor friends came to sit on our porch, laugh and exchange stories over Rolling Rocks. They traded experience and product. They dug their own wells, and their own clams. They farmed for a living or a hobby, propagating plants for purpose and for beauty. I learned many things in the glimmer and laughter at the end of every day. Small towns are full of resources, and in our case, each town on this Island is a part of a network of skills and knowledge.
This spirit of exchange and maximizing resources followed me. I lived in Maine, hiking the coast with pear schnapps from a northern orchard in my backpack for the end of the day. Foraging for mushrooms and seeking old tourmaline mines. Watching men dive for sea urchin for their roe, then starting in on a meal of Japanese fare from the same cold waters. Opening a delicately aged bottle of white wine to find real crystals on the underside of the cork.
It was a pleasure though, to come home. My first summer back, with a bundle of fresh nettles in hand, a friend, originally from Ireland and now an Islander, asked, “Why don’t you make beer with your nettles?” She tipped me off on the spring’s first perfect plant to brew, though it is feral here, not truly wild. As you start in on your evening with cold fresh oysters, the many benefits of nettle tea can be yours with the luxury of champagne. That was my secret ingredient, I realized, and began to brew all my herbs with champagne yeast. It pairs perfectly with light herbal flavors, and adds multitudes of tiny bubbles.
I had found a way to celebrate my surroundings, filling my glass with foraged ingredients and toasting my town. The process adds many layers to the final drink; forest walks for gathering, trial, error, and patience intensify the satisfaction as you drink. And, very importantly, the medicinal properties of the chosen herb have nuance all their own, that no glass of wine from grapes or no bottle of Rolling Rock can give. In addition to becoming tipsy, one receives herbal nourishment.
I resided for a time in a reconfigured barn at the edge of a magical lily pond, set into historic West Tisbury farmland. Many Islanders had lived there before me, and one had given me the gift of cultivating the wild elder plants that grow in the wetlands. Called the Queen of Herbs, it has scores of medicinal properties. I watched the buds open more each morning, and in early summer, cut them just as the tiny white flowers were at their fullest, their perfume as intoxicating as they would be preserved.
I went wild those summers, gathering everything around: digging sassafras root, plucking mugwort and yarrow, and pruning spruce and juniper. All these plants got a similar treatment of barebones home brewing: I made a tea, added sugar and yeast, and then fermented it. Though I did my best to sanitize everything, living in a barn with no hot water on the edge of wetlands gave every brew the funky character of my specific surroundings. Then, as I primed, bottled, capped, and placed the brews in a shady corner to condition in the humid air, I was setting myself up well for a long and peaceful winter on-Island.
And so, I now have the pleasure to revel, languish, and savor the final strange brews in my cupboard. Just enough, I hope, to get me through the fever of days lengthening and preparing the garden, until the landscape opens up and it all begins again.