Dispatches From the Road: Bad California Yards and Fruity Beer

The guy at the holiday party raved about my homebrewed porter made with coffee and coconut and told his wife to try it.

A smart man would have known to stop there.

Prickly pear ale. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

“Try this one too. It’s a prickly pear ale. It’s, um, weird. An experiment, but it doesn’t taste anything like you’d expect,” I said.

“I’m not into fruity beers,” he replied.

A halfway intelligent man would have known to take a hint.

“Me neither. Just try it,” I said, and poured a few ounces of the vibrant, garnet-hued ale into a glass.

He took a sip. No reaction. At least he didn’t look disgusted.

“Yeah, not into fruity beers, but you’re right. That’s not what I expected.” He put the glass down.

“You made this?” his wife asked about the porter.

I nodded.

“It’s so smooth,” she said.

Incorrigible, I insisted she try the prickly pear.

“Yep, not what it looks like,” she said and put the glass down after one sip.

They thought I’d sell a lot of the porter if I opened a brewery, but the man wasn’t sure about the cactus beer, which I found kind of him, if disingenuous.

“Yeah, I know. The porter is probably the best thing I’ll create in my life, and the prickly pear is an experiment,” I replied. But they’d lost interest.

For the few purists I haven’t lost yet who think beer should contain only barley, hops, water and yeast, I was once like you.

From a canal-side bar in Amsterdam. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

Sure, I’d sipped fruit Lambic beers at canal-side bars in the Netherlands, but those were mere dalliances, much like my relationship with Germany where I wanted to live long term but left penniless, fading burns on hands and arms from working as a short-order cook in a bar with service awful even by German standards. The only job I’d ever failed at, I deserved to be fired but wasn’t. The owner just stopped scheduling me.

Brewed in and around Brussels, Belgium, yeast is not added to traditional Lambics like it is to other modern beers. Fruit can be added to the liquid extracted during the brewing process, which is left in an open vat to be infected by wild yeast. Possibly apocryphal, my favorite Lambic stories involve a huge cauldron in the attic of an ancient monastery in a tiny village, the brewer forced to filter out spiders, cobwebs and attached prey.

The taste of fruit Lambics is so distinct I always felt I was drinking an alcoholic dessert beverage, not what people think of as beer, a lame justification.

But traditionally beer with fruit or other sacrilegious ingredients? With extremely rare exceptions, a line I would not cross.

Eventually I made an exception for beer made with coffee, then coconut, as discussed in my last dispatch. They don’t taste like what people think of as fruity, a paltry defense at best.

Then I bought a house threatened with foreclosure and devolved.

At the depth of the Great Recession, amid the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis, after years of trying on and off, I finally secured a property of my own, or at least it would be in 30 years.

Yes, dear reader, you are still reading a dispatch about beer. This is not a distracting, random aside.

Squirrel!

Like that.

The yard before the installation of a cactus garden. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

The house on the far edge of the San Francisco Bay Area needed new appliances and lots of work, including on the foundation.

Though they didn’t appear that way the November day I saw the house and made an offer, the yards were a disaster. An early start to the rainy season that year had painted back and front a resplendent green. But what I saw as benign grass turned to foxtails with spikes that are dangerous for rambunctious dogs. The little buggers almost blinded one pup, infected the other’s paws and cost me hundreds in vet fees.

By summer something had to give.

I soaked my front and back yards, rented a rototiller, and turned the earth. I used wood chips from a dead tree I had removed to cover most of the back yard, added in some concrete slabs and left a small patch of grass where I conduct an annual battle to keep the foxtails at bay. Over the years I’ve repurposed a broken-down sink and an old fire pit into planters for cactus and succulents.

After photo of the yard featuring a new cactus garden. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

For the front yard I bought a variety of cacti at a fancy gardening store in a fancy neighboring town, including a particularly spikey type of prickly pear. I then stopped by the local Lowe’s for landscape tarp, mulch and more cacti that caught my eye, including two more prickly pear.

None more than knee high, I spaced out the plants, hoping some would survive and perhaps reach my waist by the time I’d paid off the mortgage.

Facing the setting sun in a part of inland California that approaches desert weather in summer, most of the cacti thrived in ways the foreign grass and some shrubs had not, especially the hardy specimens from Lowe’s, even though I watered them twice a month at most – usually with excess water from the brewing process.

The prickly pear from the fancy store didn’t last long. It grew, but a weak trunk caused it to fall over repeatedly. I’d stand it up, each time coming away with multiple painful quills in my body.

The prickly pear planted just after purchase. (Chris Marshall / CNS

That cactus fell over for the last time one day while I was trimming and got stuck in my leg, resulting in lots of swearing, blood and a cactus thrown into the road.

By the first winter, one prickly pear had grown to almost my height. Vertically challenged as I am, the spurt was impressive.

Now taller than the front of my house and wider than my camper, I’ve resorted to using a motorized saw and ladder to prune the behemoth. I’m beginning to fear it will become sentient and take over the neighborhood.

Since the second year it has borne a large crop of reddish fruit that tastes like the offspring of a cucumber and a strawberry, good with breakfast or as a snack.

Unlike the peaches from a tipped-over and nearly dead tree that a friend and I stood up and convinced to be a tree and grow up, I didn’t feel I could give away bags of the quill-laden prickly pear fruit to unsuspecting neighbors, friends, dog groomers or court clerks.

Fruit of the prickly pear cactus. (Chris Marshall / CNS

Instead I juiced the fruit I couldn’t eat and added it to a hard apple cider recipe. It was a hit, though the apple dominated the subtle cactus flavor.

And I prefer beer.

I tweaked a recipe I found online for a clone of Magic Hat #9, a pale ale made with apricot by a brewery in Vermont, replacing the apricot with prickly pear juice.

Though I’d warmed the juice to kill wild yeast, bubbles sprouted at the top when I combined it with the already fermented ale. Enough viable yeast remained to convert the sugars in the prickly pear juice to alcohol.

While I didn’t want a sweet beer, the result was dryer than intended.

But it was drinkable, and fruity, and it contained the base of what could become a great beer, with some adjustments.

Next time I’ll chill the ale before I combine it to kill any lingering yeast and prevent the prickly pear from fermenting. Alas I must wait until the next harvest.

As for sharing my brew with strangers, maybe one of these years I’ll learn my lesson and follow German statesman Otto von Bismarck’s advice. Like laws and sausage, and news for that matter, perhaps it is better not to see (or discuss) beer being made.

Or, shut up and pour only the good stuff.

Now I’m thirsty.

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