Solera Method–Barry Grass

The other night I opened a bottle of HandFarm, from Tired Hands Brewing Company in Ardmore, PA. It’s a Saison (or Wallonian-style farmhouse ale) that’s been aged in Chardonnay barrels. The base farmhouse ale is tasty enough: chewy grain flavors spiked with flavors of minerality, lemon juice, white pepper (not from the use of actual lemon or pepper; those flavors are some of the thousands of possible flavors created during fermentation). But the time spent in used oak gives it additional notes of vanilla and a slight woodsy astringency. In the barrels the mixed fermentation cultures – brewer’s yeast isolated from rural southern Belgium as well as native microflora & bacteria from Pennslyvania – flourish and multiply, lending a kumquat-like lactic sourness, and a funk that calls to mind horse stables — their smells of sweaty manes, manure, and old hay.

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This is an essay on craft and, rest assured, I do not make drinking part of my process. I’m bringing up alcohol to illustrate a point. While enjoying this farmhouse ale, the sun waving goodbye over rowhome rooftops in South Philly, I began to think about writing in terms of beer. The initial metaphor I was teasing out between sips was that bottling a beer is like publishing an essay. Your thoughts brew and brew over the course of drafting and, of course, you want to end up with your sharpest, most finely crafted version, so you stop drafting at some point, stop thinking. You have a sense of when the essay is as good as it will be, knowing that you can overdraft a piece, can overthink the subject and let slack the tension. You bottle it for distribution when it’s at its peak. HandFarm, however is a bottle conditioned beer, meaning that the yeast is active in the bottle. The beer, quite purposefully, continues to develop in ways commensurate with variables of time and storage. Just as I’m sure you’ve noticed how essays from James Baldwin or Eula Biss have only gained potency with time. Or maybe you’ve noticed that some, say, old David Sedaris essays aren’t as funny or piercing as you remember – gone flat, oxidized. Our relationship to our essayed thoughts, as well as any reader’s relationship to our thoughts & their own thoughts, and everyone’s relationship to the world at large, is quite active. Digesting the sugars around us. Boozing up the place.

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“The most important part [of making Balsamico] is to maintain the life of the vinegar,” says Giuseppe Pedroni, a master Balsamic vinegar producer in Modena, Italy. For him there is no growth or progress, no final product, without the preservation of that initial spark. The first vinegar must inform all others.

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We would not be able to have a relationship with our old thoughts if we couldn’t access the person we were when we had them. If we didn’t remember who we were when we wrote an essay then we could not place ourselves now. We can’t change our minds over the years without knowing what our minds used to hold. This epistemology is holding up an idea I’m trying to access in this essay, which is that retaining an intimacy with the self’s past, any and all past selves, is necessary to age beautifully. While it may be close to impossible to control how any one essay holds up to you or the world it thinks about, you do have more control on how to hold up as an essayist.

For this I return you to HandFarm. This bottle is from the 5th batch of HandFarm, with each new bottling more complex & integrated than the last. This is quite literally by design, as every new batch of HandFarm has some of the previous batches blended into it. This is not like baking bread, where each new loaf is puffed up by literally the same yeast, a mother yeast. HandFarm would be more like if each new loaf of bread contained within it an actual hunk of an old loaf of bread, which itself enveloped an even older piece of bread, and on and on down the line. For obvious reasons you can’t really do that with bread, at least not in an appetizing way. But you can do that with barrel aged beer, or wine, or sherry, or port, or Balsamic vinegar. This process is most commonly called the Solera method. Liquidity hybridizes the old and the new. A fluid becoming. No seams or stitches.

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Most Solera processes involve removing half of an old barrel’s contents to bottle, refilling the barrel with fresh liquid, then doing it again when next they bottle. Sometimes you remove half from the first & largest barrel only to place that siphoned liquid in a second, smaller barrel to age further. Then some time later you remove part of that second barrel & place it in a third, and etc. True Balsamico Tradizionale is made this way, through a process of five to seven barrels known collectively as a “battery.” A fresh battery of barrels is started for major life events, like a wedding or childbirth, and the first bottling from that battery won’t happen for a minimum of twelve years.

According to beer writer and technologist Lars Marius Garshol, it would take about 184 years before the last remaining molecule of the Balsamic vinegar that started a Solera is emptied out, if we define “completely emptied” as some molecular biologists and mathematicians do as “one five octillionth of the original.” Zeno, I’m sure, would regard the Solera method as paradoxical.

***

Time in the barrel will change a thing. I like to over draft my ideas at first and then give a considerable amount of time before I revise them. That’s what works for me. I enjoy seeing how far my thinking has come in the weeks between. I like to feel the influence of new perspectives & experiences tugging on the old text. I tend to prefer the speakers of my essays be “a version of me from a general time in my life” rather than “a version of me on one specific day.”

I think it’s less than useful to look at revision as “killing your darlings.” Even in the act of pressing the delete key I don’t think of it as a killing, a reaping. I think of it as vaporization. I think of it as the Angel’s Share: the phenomenon where some of the water volume of liquid aging in a barrel will evaporate, leaving the barrel filled with something more concentrated, more potent, than before.

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Solera, in Spanish, means “on the ground,” referring to where sherry barrels were quite naturally kept before artisans started experimenting with subterranean and lofted storage. In English, we have plenty of clichés and idioms about the ground. Keeps me grounded; on the ground floor; common ground; break new ground; cut the ground out from under my feet; lose ground; hold your ground; gain some ground; I’m just run down to the ground; old stomping ground; doesn’t know his head from a hole in the ground; what moral ground do you have.        There’s a sense of commonality with the word. We share it, even when we frame it antagonistically (lose/hold/gain). It unites us. Everyone walks upon it. Everyone recognizes it as the starting point – ground level. So if you think of your essays, your body of work as an essayist, as functionally a Solera method, then the process makes sense. We can’t not ground our essays. Our essays can’t help but walk the land they share with each other.

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Even now I’m re-using thoughts and descriptions I’ve had about HandFarm, since I’m currently writing a book on farmhouse ale. It’s partly a memoir of my family’s farming history as a way to access why I love farmhouse ale so much and partly a more journalistic look into why farmhouse ale is sharply rising in popularity in the United States and I’m not saying any of this as a plug to prospective agents (though my email is in my contributor note!) but rather to demonstrate that this beer is working its way into many of my seemingly disparate thoughts, and that’s not a mistake to let the subject of my book project creep into other things I’m working on. The realization I’m having here is that it’s entirely natural.

I try to write about my grandparents escaping a hardscrabble agrarian life and along the way this beer, or another like it, shows up in my essaying, creating tension, trying to smooth away the cracked-earth of a droughtstruck farm with its gestures towards the beauty and romance of the pastoral. I try to write about the craft of essay writing using this beer merely as a way in but it fights me for the focus.

And this is nothing to shy away from or edit out. This is epistemological. This is how we stay connected to our thoughts, how none of our essays are truly written in a vacuum. Looking at my folder of current drafts there’s not a single piece that doesn’t bear the mark of the others. There’s the interviews I did at Boulevard Brewing Company for this Saison book, looking out on the brewery’s big roof towards fields of corn and soy north of Kansas City. There’s the Missouri pastoral coming up in a different essay as evidence of privilege and as contrast for citizen outrage over police fascism across the state in Ferguson. There’s the emotionally draining late nights spent watching livestreams of Ferguson juxtaposed with the elation of the World Series run for my Kansas City Royals in another. There’s the last baseball games my grandfather would see before he passed away, and there’s the news around the time of his passing that my mother got diagnosed with cancer, and there’s the weeks I spent this past semester in something like depression, and there’s the first draft I wrote after weeks of not writing — wherein a jean jacket I bought reminded me of Roger, a poet/teacher/friend, who passed away a few years ago & the memory that Roger introduced me to craft beer in the first place.

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This is a Solera. Somewhere in every essay I write, yours too, is a bit of the previous blended in, which itself had some of the one prior to it, which in turn implies a whole cosmology for every essay. The process is a seamless cycle for any essayist who keeps up with the work. Just because we finish an essay doesn’t mean those thoughts & the emotions they kicked up don’t get blended back in with the next barrel. This is how we think, learn, live. Either we age our thinking and blend it back into new thoughts or we must regularly go back and make current each of our essays, as Montaigne felt the pressure to do. You tell me which feels more natural.

***

In Marsala, Scicily, a solera method is used to make Marsala wine. The term in Italian that the winemakers use is in perpetuum.

***

Steven Church, talking about his essay “Seven Fathoms Down” (DIAGRAM, 13.5), explains “This is the third essay that I’ve written and published about the same event, each one a different essay, exploration, and attempt. I suppose it’s some sort of testament to the lasting power of such things, though not a testament I set out to write. It may seem like bullshit, but the essay found its way to the drowning and I didn’t see it coming. I just followed the pull.”

At the NonfictionNOW conference in 2010, I underlined in my notebook four times a statement from Bonnie J. Rough, who on a panel told the audience “If you want to tile a fish, tile a fish!” That’s great advice. So often I’ll hear someone – a student, a colleague — say that they can’t write about, say, their parents’ divorce again because they’ve “already written The Divorce Essay.” Nah, son. If that divorce keeps wanting to come up in your writing then let it. You don’t get just one shot at any subject. These things are a part of you forever and they are yours to use, to frame with and re-shape and reconsider, forever. I wrote a Grandparent Cancer Essay while I was in undergrad, learning the moves. I revisited the jaundice, the funeral, the anxiety in a different form years later in one of my first published pieces. I find myself revisiting it all again now that all of my grandparents are dead, now that my head is as bald by choice as that grandfather’s head was by nature, now that I’m cleaning his old work cap and wearing it around to protect my scalp.

You carry all of your prior essays with you from new draft to new draft. You just might not be aware of the blend percentage. The first essay you ever published is there in your most recent. Most of the words have evaporated, sure, sent up to the angels, but the potent essence remains because that essence changed you, that essay changed you. To even recognize it means it’s still there.

Barry Grass is originally from Kansas City but now lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches writing at Hussian College. His chapbook, “Collector’s Item,” was released in 2014 by Corgi Snorkel Press. Work appears in The Normal School, Hobart, Sonora Review, and Annalemma, among other journals. If you have a solera going, send samples for judgment to barrygrass@gmail.com

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