No dreaded librarian’s life is complete without a constant thirst for self-education. I spend all day surrounded by thousands of books housing infinite answers to the obscurest reference inquiries imaginable. I love it.
About a year ago my partner stumbled across a fabulous find: a book by the name of “Wild Fermentation,” which both of us had been eying enviously for quite some time. My partner liked the idea of doing some home brewing, and I like the idea of using wild edibles as the basis of these creations. Spring was bursting through the urban seams of this derelict city, so we took a stroll through the neighborhood collecting fresh dandelion blooms from cracked parking lots, newly turned community gardens, sidewalks, and tenant building yards. Following a recipe from the book, we assembled the makings of a fruity dandelion, apricot and honey wine and set it to rest in our closet. It was an easy wine with a 3 month fermentation period followed by 6 months of aging; quick results that we looked forward to enjoying in the depths of winter as a hopeful reminder of spring!
Life at the library continued for nearly a year, with a very snowy winter pounding us with real Maine storms every week until the snowbanks I walk by each morning were taller than my shoulder. I frequently thought of Ray Bradbury’s story in which he refers to dandelion wine as liquid sunshine. After a long, cold day at work, a little liquid sunshine sounded like the perfect stress remedy. I imagined opening the fermentation bucket and smelling aromas of fresh grass and nectar. Over and over I tried to imagine what that first sip would be like—would the apricots burst across my palette? Would it taste like dandelions blossoming on my tongue?
And then one night it happened, quite by chance. We had invited some friends over to help us with our second brewing experiment (beer this time), and as we went to place the second fermentation bucket in the closet, we saw the intentionally neglected, dusty top of the dandelion wine. It had been in there for quite some time (we never siphoned it into bottles because during the fermentation period the closet got too hot and the yeast died, so we had to add more). Our frustrations over our first fermentation experiment had grown: no matter what we did or how long we waited, the hydrometer reading never changed, suggesting that the little yeast babies were not converting all that delicious honey into alcohol. However, with a kitchen full of friends excited about our success with the beer making, we decided to open the dandelion wine barrel and see what we had created.
The lid was pried off and we all leaned a little closer to catch that first aroma—I closed my eyes in anticipation of pleasant perfumes, and imagined tiny green spikes of grass pushing through brown earth in raw sunshine. Suddenly, my friend jumped back from the bucket, sputtering with watery eyes. Everyone else groaned a little or emitted shocked expressions. I soon understood. It smelled like we had made moonshine. Rather, it smelled like we had mixed moonshine with decomposing fruit and stirred in a hefty helping of bread dough. We dished out small portions to everyone and took the first taste with mixed reactions. I knew for certain that the hydrometer reading was meaningless, because regardless of what this was, it was definitely alcoholic!
No wine is complete without a ridiculous description to accompany it. I am a huge fan of wine bottle descriptions: the more ridiculous, the more likely I am to buy it. I know that my personal palette will not be able to tell the difference between “subtle tobacco flavors” and “oak barrel tannins,” so my judgment of the descriptions is based loosely on my warped sense of humor. I must say, even though our wine tasted particularly awful, I felt ever so much more inclined to drink it after finishing the draft of our description:
"Imagine a crisp autumn day in New England picking Granny Smith apples from the orchard. The afternoon sun shines through and BAM, you’re suddenly drinking LIQUID SUNSHINE. Fresh plucked dandelions from Blake Street Garden form the foundation of this crisp wine, with aromas of apples and warm compost. The flavors of fruity bourbon squeezed from the utters of God are best enjoyed in ill-lit kitchens with friends. If the taste doesn’t entice you, the practicality will: you can disinfect a wound with this shit.”
Who isn't enticed by the idea of sipping fruity bourbon squeezed from the utters of God? Ok, ok, perhaps our first fermentation experiment was a failure, but above all it was a learning experience: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.