|A display of home-brewed beers. Thinking of the bonfires of Lag b’Omer, a Jewish home brewer suggests a smoked porter. Edmon J. Rodman|
LOS ANGELES – Sit back by the bonfire and pop open a brewski. It’s Lag b’Omer.
Since we have been counting the Omer – a biblical measure of barley that was brought as an offering to the Temple – each evening from the second night of Passover, what better way to mark the coming holiday than by downing a barley beverage, cold and carbonated?
What’s the occasion?
Lag b’Omer marks the ending of a plague during the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century C.E. According to tradition, students and soldiers had been dying – but the plague ended on that day.
|Greg Beron, an owner of the Culver City Home Brewing Supply Co., scoops some barley, a key ingredient in brewing beer. Edmon J. Rodman|
The one-day holiday, which this year begins on the night of April 27, is the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer – in Hebrew, the letters that spell “lag” represent the number 33.
In remembrance of those who died, the Omer season, which lasts 49 days and ends the night before Shavuot, is a period of partial mourning – no dancing, no parties, no weddings, not even any haircuts. It is also a period of study and reflection.
To celebrate the reprieve, the holiday for many has turned into a day to cut loose. Festivals are held, there are rides for the kids, and there are bonfires, especially in Israel.
The bonfire flames are said to represent the light of the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, whose yahrzeit, also called Yom Hillula – day of festivity – is observed on Lag b’Omer. Thousands visit his tomb on Mount Meron, not far from Safed, to pay homage. There it is considered an honor to offer the visitors a Chai rotel – an ancient measurement of about 15 gallons of drink. The choices are non-alcoholic beverages and wine. Why not beer?
In the United States, seeing a barley and beer connection, the college-age cohorts and their older counterparts have found other ways to brew up enthusiasm for this minor holiday. Beginning several years ago at college campus Hillels, such as at the universities of Wisconsin and Washington, the holiday was observed in part by quaffing beer at “Lager b’Omer” events.
Last year, three Boston synagogues brought in seasoned home brewer Aidan Acker for an evening of beer making and talking about the holiday called “Fermenting the Omer,” which made sense because most beer is made by fermenting a brew of malted barley, hops, and yeast.
This year, I was planning a Lag b’Omer bonfire and get-together in my backyard. Wanting in on this new Jewish use of beer, I spoke with Alex Ourieff, a Jewish foodie from southern California’s San Fernando Valley and a self-taught home brewer. Ourieff had tied beer recently to another Jewish holiday, Tu b’Shvat, by brewing a seven species beer at a local Moishe House, a home-based host of Jewish programming mostly for twentysomethings.
“For the seven species brew, I combined pomegranate molasses, barley, wheat, dried figs, green grapes, date sugar, and olive leaf extract,” said Ourieff, 25, who is moving on to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Calif.
“I like layering flavors. It’s a mental exercise,” he added, providing a taste of his creativity.
I wondered if he was planning something special for Lag b’Omer.
Home brewing has grown as a hobby since President Jimmy Carter signed a bill in 1978 allowing up to 100 gallons per adult to be home brewed, tax free. Stores such as the Culver City Home Brewing Supply Company near Los Angeles have bubbled up to supply and educate the hobbyists.
“The Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi is about beer making, and the Code of Hammurabi includes laws about beer,” said Greg Beron, one of the store’s owners, after I had explained to him my Lag b’Omer mission of connecting with barley.
“In recent excavations near the Pyramids in Egypt near where the people who build them were housed, they have found bakery/breweries,” he added, trying to give me a historical connection.
In his shop, filled with more than 30 bins of barley varieties, as well as shelves stocked with the apparatus of home brewing – plastic tubing, thermometers, brushes, yeasts and enzymes, caps and bottles – I wondered if after a hard day in the brick pits of Egypt, our forefathers had enjoyed the brew.
Michael Steinberg, a friend of Beron’s and prize-winning home brewer who had retired and moved to Las Vegas, was a more recent fan of the brew. Steinberg estimates that he has brewed hundreds of gallons since he was given a beer-making kit in 1999.
“I like beer at Chanukah,” Steinberg said. “It goes better with brisket and latkes than wine.”
“I never quite got the omer,” he said of the rabbinic explanations he had heard, though he brightened considerably when I brought up the barley connection.
“Drinking the beer is secondary. It’s about the people you meet and doors that are opened,” Steinberg concluded.
As to a special Lag b’Omer brew? Thinking about the holiday bonfires, Ourieff suggested making a smoked beer by roasting the barley before brewing.
“It will have a dark, smoky flavor,” he said, suddenly making a writer thirsty.
Since the days until Lag b’Omer were few – it takes about five weeks to make beer – Ourieff directed me to several craft breweries that made “smoked porters.”
Sitting by the fire with a smoky barley brew, we could raise our glasses to friendship and to Bar Yochai’s light and drink our omer.
JTA Wire Service