Cultivating the District’s Unique Essence: Saratoga Zymurgist
Context is everything. In the universe that Reed and Mary Antis have created at the Saratoga Zymurgist, drinking homemade carrot wine and discussing the relative merits of wild yeast at 10am on a Sunday with new friends seems normal.
“You can make a wine from anything,” Reed assures his country winemaking class students, who appear to be somewhat dubious when the bright-orange tincture appears. It does seem to be an audaciously odd tipple, he admits. Before anyone gets to sample and judge the relative merits of carrot wine, he provides a thorough (if inevitably abbreviated) one-hour education on home winemaking: sanitation, basic recipe with variations, fermentation and yeast how-to’s, plus a rough timeline of when to do what. Primarily, though, Reed engages his pupils in the grand drama of transformation.
Reed and Mary are proprietors of the Saratoga Zymurgist, which has existed in its current incarnation since 2012. The store, previously known as the Hoppy Troll, moved from Cambridge to Saratoga in 1992, finally landing in its present location on Excelsior Avenue in 2009, when Reed was hired as the manager. He took it over with Mary in 2012. “I changed the name because I didn’t want anyone calling me ‘hoppy,’” he jokes.
Reed, who has been making his own beer, wine and cider for more than 30 years and is a certified beer judge, handles all of the wine, beer, cider and mead education classes and lines of product. Mary, who doesn’t drink alcohol, handles the kombucha department, though it’s clear that everything they do is a collaboration, an evolving project and a détente, the ruling treaties of which are in danger of dissolution at a moment’s notice.
Officially, a zymurgist studies the science of fermentation. While the Saratoga Zymurgist certainly fulfills its titular obligations, Reed and Mary elevate what could be a humdrum ag store selling empty glass bottles and bacteria into a sociopolitical exploration of the confluence of art, science, history and culture in fermented beverages. Customers become friends, and the shop has evolved from a one-stop shop into a community klatch.
Through their educational classes, encyclopedic knowledge of customers’ families, lifestyles and palates, and patience with members of the Zymurgist community who seek divine intervention with fermentation projects in terrifying states of bacterial contamination, they tap into the spirit of communal creation that is as ancient, deeply satisfying and uniquely human as the practice of fermentation itself.
“The classes are often where we get to know people,” Reed explains. “Someone new will come in and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got all of these grapes growing on the side of my house. What can I do with them?’ Or they’ll come in with a laundry list of questions about how to brew beer. Then they’ll sign up for a class, we’ll get to know each other, and they’ll become part of the community. It’s very tight-knit here. The serious hobbyists all get to know each other, enter competitions together and have parties where they try each other’s stuff. I’m planning to head over to a tasting today.”
In addition to holding bi-monthly seminars for beginners in the store, the cost of which can be credited toward a product purchase, Reed teaches the occasional class at SUNY for experienced brewers and winemakers who want to “take it to the next level,” he says. “Several of our customers and some of our students have gone on to pursue careers in the industry. Some have even opened up local craft breweries.”
Reed and Mary’s community-mindedness and allegiance to local extends to the product lines, but only so far.
“Alcohol is a global product,” Reed says. “You can’t grow certain grapes in upstate New York. And we’re starting to see more grain production, but not on a large enough scale to depend on them for beer grains. We have winemaking kits from critically acclaimed grape-growers and winemakers in California, Australia and beyond. You get the same stuff they use to make their wine, and even if you were buying all new winemaking equipment, you’d end up getting a $30+ bottle of wine for less than half.”
If customers want to explore backyard terroir, there are plenty of options—they don’t even have to involve anything as controversial or brightly hued as carrots. Upstate New York is apple country, and during the fall harvest, Reed and Mary arrange to have 200 gallons of apple juice delivered in one-gallon jugs fresh from Hicks Farm for the hard cider brewing enthusiasts in their customer base. Both Mary and Reed note that customers who come to them to make one product often branch out and start fermenting others. The farm presses a variety of apples for the store, including as many of the heirloom and specifically cider-making varietals as possible.
“Grapes have tannins, which give wine its body and fullness,” Reed explains. “Most other fruits don’t, although some cider-making apples do. So while we love to make country wine and mead using all local fruits, herbs and honey, to make it truly delicious, we sprinkle in tannins in a powdered form.”
It’s hard to imagine that tannin powder (plus Reed’s other potions, including a little pectin, yeast, sweetness, acid, yeast nutrient and, of course, time) could magically transform carrot juice into the sophisticated food-enhancing elixir traditional grape wine is so beloved for. But yet, it is. Carrot wine is surprisingly balanced, with buttery overtones. And it’s a lot more fun.
Carrot wine would be a lovely—and lively—accompaniment for a local cheese, like Argyle’s mild, buttery semi-firm Caerphilly, one that could stand up to carrots’ barnyard funk and sweet, grassy song and bring in some surprising notes of its own. It would also go splendidly with braised cabbage and corned beef.
As Mary says, “Grapes are boring. You’re not really having fun until you throw in something from your backyard.” Rumor has it, dandelion wine may be on the menu this month.
Read more about Saratoga Zymurgist at SaratogaZ.com.