Morels aren't exactly what come to mind when someone mentions under their breath that they grow mushrooms, particularly when that conversation takes place over homebrews in a grungy warehouse space somewhere in that nondescript area of L.A. just east of downtown. "We don't really tell people what we do because when they hear you grow mushrooms, they make assumptions," says Federico, a quiet, contemplative sort of guy who preferred to keep his last name off the books. You know, for shiitake identity theft concerns.
That, and Federico and his girlfriend, Yuki, came to the Yeastside homebrew club meeting earlier this year to talk about ale, not mushrooms. But when you arrive, as Federico did, sporting a vintage t-shirt covered in various fungi varieties and an army fatigue jacket with a bright orange mushroom hand-sewn on the front, folks like us take notice. Turn the page for more.
At first, Federico and Yuki were reluctant to share much about their mushroom-growing hobby (that we made a beeline for them, beer in hand, as soon as we spotted that army fatigue jacket probably had something to do with it). Once we got past the initial chit chat, and assured them that no, we have no interest in discussing hallucinogenic mushrooms on this fine Saturday, they opened up about the mushroom hobbyist lifestyle. Did we know of the Mycological Society, a local group that organizes meetings, talks and forays for local mushroom lovers, they asked? As a matter of fact, we did not. These are the sort of homebrew-mushroom moments that we love about L.A.
The group is behind the annual Los Angeles Wild Mushroom Fair held in February at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The featured speaker at this year's 27th anniversary (!) event was Elio Schaechter, author of In the Company of Mushrooms: A Biologist's Tale and included guided mushroom walks, cultivation lessons, and cooking demos. Should your interest be peaked, their next meeting is May 16 at the Natural History Museum.
As for Federico and Yuki, they got into mushrooms after going on a few foraging trips, though Federico adds that he has always felt a connection to that which is neither plant nor animal (he sewed the mushroom on his army fatigue jacket on a whim). As Yuki advises, "You really need to go with an expert to forage in the beginning." A wise call, not only as there are so many poisonous mushrooms out there, but finding them can be tricky in a big city, if not always desirable (enter jokes about new emissions mushroom varieties). They made several trips to Northern California on foraging trips when they were starting out. "Mendocino is a really great area, you can just drive around up there and on the side of the road see mushrooms that you just have to stop and check out," says Yuki. These are the sort of people who actually do pull off the highway to check out those mushrooms.
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As far as growing tips, Federico says finding a space that offers the right mushroom "habitat" -- moist and dark -- can be tricky, but he says a kitchen drawer works just fine. They also converted a small space outside their apartment into a mushroom-friendly growing zone. The couple bought their first mushroom growing kit at the L.A. Wild Mushroom Fair, but you can also find mail-order kits whether you're keen on growing shiitakes, Sonoma browns, or going all out on those pricier morel habitats.
As this was a homebrew club meeting, the conversation eventually worked its way from those red-capped amanita muscaria that Yuki so loves back to beer. Federico, who is just getting into homebrewing, says that his next project will likely be growing oyster mushrooms in beer mash, the leftover grains from the brewing process. Will this give the mushrooms a hint of that yeasty beer flavor, we ask? "I don't think so," said Federico, following with some sort of analysis of how mushroom spores grow and develop that we didn't quite follow (some large breweries donate their spent grain to mushroom farmers). And then he smiles for the first time and quietly murmurs that he will have to try out a few beer mash mushrooms and get back to us. Indeed.