The Spoils of Wort: Chamomile Tasting

Awhile ago I made a fermenter out of one of those wine jugs and a universal bung which required a bit of shaving down to actually fit in the neck. Otherwise it works great and the test run was to start making experimental beers with it.

In this case, it was chamomile beer.

The recipe calls for ungodly amounts of table sugar for it’s fermentables. Unfortunately this recipe directly came about from Dune Coons landing in Europe in 800AD or so. They brought with them lemons, bitter orange, and sugarcane and cultivated it locally. By around 1200AD, europe was enjoying sugar at the rate of 16.5p per pound. At todays exchange rates, that’s about 25 cents for a pound of sugar. In other words it was cheap, really cheap. And why chamomile instead of hops? It might have been gruit, but no-one is really sure what gruit was. Unfortunately while sugar was cheap, gruit was pricey and irregular. Hops were restricted to the germanic kingdoms until 1400AD or so, and still didn’t come into common use and distribution until 1600AD or so.

What’s a brewer of lower class to do in the Middle Ages?

Chamomile – 8oz
Lemon – juice of half added at bottling time
White sugar – 1lbs
Water – 1 gal
Wild yeast

This is based on a recipe from Sacredd and Herbal Healing Beers. It’s a flawed book (seriously, if modern medicine really sucked that bad it wouldn’t be the defacto standard today) but an interesting read. For wild yeast he suggests leaving the bucket open and outside, but I would much rather control that part of the process. Instead I used whole grain yeast from the market billed for making “whole grain bread rise quickly!” The fermentation nearly blew the airlock off.

A week in the primary and then racked to a pot for bottling, I added 1 tablespoon table-sugar for priming. I bottled it into a growler and two champaign bottles (it’ll make it easy to dump if it sucked) and let it sit for another week. I cracked one open last night and my first impression was…

Beer soda pop?

It’s not hard cider like woodchuck, but it is cidery. The lemon definitely comes through, but not like sprite. The chamomile lends it a tea like quality without the astringency. It’s really unique stuff. Would I make a 5 gallon batch of it? Absolutely.

Unfortunately it has one really deep flaw – the gravity is a bit low. 4oz of table sugar contributes 10pts of gravity (+0.010) @ one gallon. There’s two cups of sugar in one pound of sugar, so we’ve got 16oz of sugar in our wort. This gives us an OG of 1.040, which by modern beer standard is almost grocery store swill.

However, it’s really pleasant to drink, and the taste is good, even for using a bread yeast. (The bread yeast was surprisingly neutral). The chamomile effect is largely overrated, probably because it’s so diffuse it comes out much more in the aroma and taste but not nearly at sufficient concentration to be intoxicating like tea. Rather then being drunk, you’re relaxed, but it’s not the same feel as alcohol.

All in all I would brew this again, but I think next time I’m doubling the ingredients.

Making an All Grain System

I made the oath I would jump to allgrain sometime in this lifetime. The hobbles always were that it was expensive to buy a “kit”, so I got the brilliant idea to head over to MR2 Beer Home Depot and get the fitting myself. Since the valves are usually around $25 alone on the brewing sites, if I could do it for $25 total, I would consider it a success.

I made it all for $17.

I had bought an eight gallon gatoraide cooler awhile ago on the ebay. I never got around to using it for beer. The previous owner had used it extensively and said the valve would need to be replaced. I picked it up for a penny + S&H. Getting the stupid valve for it would prove to be impossibly hard, so I just waysided it until the light bulb went on one day and I realized Home Depots plastic fittings were all food safe along with the sealant in the plumbing aisle. If you’re playing along at home, now would be a good time to mention that the only food safe plumbing and sealer is the one in the plumbing aisle. Don’t get tempted by the much cheaper pipes in the other aisles (landscaping), or you’ll be wondering why your beer tastes like plastic. And, just to be safe, I plan on running boiling water through the whole thing anyway to make sure it’s water tight and not going to taste like plastic.

A few notes on what we’re building:
* Bazooka Screen, not false bottom.
* Brass is OK so long as it comes from the plumbing aisle.
* Plasic is OK so long as it comes from the plumbing aisle.
* Don’t substitute things from gardening.
* We’re going to use zip ties for fasteners.

Why zip ties? They’re not big enough to cause problems with being “food safe” or not, and I’m worried about making a “metal sandwich” and getting corrosion under there. With the zip ties, we avoid getting a metal sandwich and the possibility of making a battery by accident is reduced. Zip ties also are flexible. Remember, the seal doesn’t have to be perfect and the goal is to smash grain on top, a bit of give in the plumbing will help eliminate grains being squished through your filter.

Now, I would directly link you to the parts, but in fantastic oversights of inventory management, you can’t find the damned parts online. So bear with me, make a list, and go to your own home depot.

* some kind of water cooler, used new or otherwise. These are almost always 3/8ths in. dia. for the spigot.
* 3/8ths inch spigot. You can get the plastic ones which are exactly like their brass counterparts for $8. The brass or stainless ones probably will last longer, but seriously, how many times are you going to use it compared to your sink?
* Brass (trust me) T fitting, also 3/8ths.
* Two stainless steel lint traps. Ask for these, they’re sold in a two pack.
* Beefy zipties. If you have no zipties, stop reading and kill yourself.

The fittings are all color coded but be sure you match “universal” with “universal”. Mixing universal with flared will result in cracked plastic and leakage. The flared ones are crap anyway and should be avoided. Teflon tape is optional, but since we’re not running pressure here it shouldn’t be required. The color for 3/8ths is green. If you’re colorblind, just read the label. I like the quick disconnect spigots so I can just let them hang or attach whatever I want to it after the fact.

There will be a rubber gasket under the nut which keeps the plastic spigot against the bulkhead of the cooler. I would leave it there. You will need an adjustable wrench to get the nut off, it’s some stupid half size to keep people from messing with it, which is exactly what we intend to do.

Do yourself a huge favor and assemble the T junction first. Take your stainless lint traps, unroll them, then zip tie the open end to the T. If you have a round cooler (and I do) you will want to use a knife to loosen a small hole in the folded over portion (careful not to get into the actual tube) and thread a zip tie through that so you can zip tie them together in sort of a circle shape. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Now hold the T portion against the rubber gasket, and screw your plastic spigot through the bulkhead (it will grab the gasket, but this isn’t the thread, don’t be fooled) and into the T. Once it’s snugged up, if the spigot is upside down, back it off. Don’t try to tighten it until its right side up or you will either break the gasket, the bulkhead, or strip the plastic if it’s made of plastic. Remember, we can always add teflon tape.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re done. Make sure the zip ties are tight, fill it up with boiling water and let it sit for however long you feel is safe. Then drain the water through your spigot to get a feel of how far to open the valve for what flow rate. I would suggest making a mark with a black marker on the plastic for “recommended”. Remember, the water is going to flow faster out of the valve than wort will. From here, you can pretty much take this project anywhere you want. If you have a box cooler, for instance, I would buy another few sets of lint trap screens, and a cross instead of a T fitting so you could have even more drainage. Instead of a pipe to the spigot, for instance, cut the end off the screen so you have a “screen pipe” and use that as your pipe.

If you did this from Northern Brewer, it would cost $50 to $100 depending on if you bought the cooler from them, etc. For my project, the cooler was $5 from ebay, and the parts were an additional $17.

The Spoils of Wort: Pumpkin Ale Afterflavoring

You may remember me from such diaries as the last one on pumpkin ale!

The ale continued it’s pace of slow bubbling, and it’s getting on week five in the fermenter. I did start marking down the level of trub on the side and finally realized it wasn’t making more trub. The light fizzing was obviously something else. Infection? Beer-AIDS? What could it be?

I got on the Beer Advocate forums and started looking around. Finally someone suggested that if it’s a Big Brew, it may have a lot of suspended carbonation. Unlike wine, there is no “outgassing” phase since we generally like carbonated beer. But if we have a lot of suspended carbonation, and we have a layer of trub or yeast still suspended in the beer, it creates nucleation sites for the carbonation to be released. It’s the mentos and diet coke effect. Sure enough I took a hydrometer reading and it was down to 1.010, which is where finished beer usually is.

I went to check on my mason jar of spices and was horrified to find all the alcohol had evaporated out and what was left was a disgusting slurry of crap. However, it smelled great! I added a bit more vodka to get it less thick and dumped it into the beer and was met with a bit of fizzing. Yep, suspended carbonation. I tried a shotglass of it and the beer was good, but maybe not as good as it should be. The spices were just a bit disappointed and subdued, but this project also went on twice as long as it should have before bottling. I think for tonight before bottling, I’m going to steep identical levels of spices in hot water to get the aromatics going and dump them in to taste. I may also add a bit of almond.

Is it beer? Yes, and it’s good. It’s dark and malty and there’s enough room left from the mild hopping to let the spices give it some kick without undoing the balance between the malt sweetness and the spicyness of everything else. Is it pumpkiny? Not really. This was the most disappointing part about this brew because I made a royal mess out of a baking sheet to try to get the pumpkin in there. While we missed the target, it’s not a failure either.

The Spoils of Wort: Corks and Bottles

We finally got our first batch of wine done.

Since this was my wife who wanted to make the wine, it’s fruity bullshit. Unlike Arbor Mist, however, it doesn’t seem to give me a hangover and it doesn’t taste like disgusting fruit syrup despite me knowing that there was disgusting fruit syrup added of the watermelon variety.

All things considered, the kits are cheap and it works out to about $2 a bottle.

The not so local homebrew store deserves a big plus for being both knowledgeable about their products and for letting me borrow a bottling device. Basically, the Island Mist is a really well done 28 Day Wine Kit. Instead of secondary fermentation in the bottle or having extremely aggressive tastes which need to mellow out, the wine is ready to bottle in about 28 days. The kit suggests waiting another two months in the fridge before the kit really hits it’s stride and from my sampling (we ended up with only 29.5 bottles after the angel’s share) of the half bottle, it seems about right. The kit itself contains all the correct stuff and doesn’t seem to cut and corners of winemaking including potassium sorbate for preservation. Apparently that’s a popular cost-saver to skip the preservatives. But, I’ve already given the kit good praise so onto other odds and ends.

Bottles – They are entirely your choice of style and color. If you buy the really cheap ones they’re just total crap quality glass and doesn’t feel like it will put up with much use. For an extra dollar per case, I opted to get nicer bottles. My wife specifically requested clear glass bottles, so I asked about UV protection. Unfortunately, the clear bottles offer none. But, since this wine would spend it’s entire life in the fridge lagering, this didn’t concern me nearly as much as beer which sits in a box in the dining room while it ages. The style and color is entirely up to the user and has no effect on the wine. I do recommend making sure the bottoms aren’t flat – not only does this show off any sediment that might be present, it makes it easier to cork the bottles since they will center themselves in the press.

Corking Press – While this seems like the least significant thing you’ll need, trust me you want to spend a little to get a little. Unlike capping beer bottles, you need to put lateral force on the cork to compress it, and downward force on the cork to insert it. The beer bottle style capping devices just don’t cut it, the homebrew store was kind enough to let me try one and it was a total letdown. plunger corkers suck and require almost a hammer to smash the cork in there, which is hard to keep straight, let alone the correct depth while struggling with it. Too much depth means the cork falls into the wine bottle. This looks like it might be decent, you compress the cork in one motion and insert it with another. Keeping it straight might still be a problem. All things considered, the reloading press style corking machine is well worth the money. The bottle gets locked in, the cork is compressed smoothly, and the insertion is consistent. A nod to the Keystone Homebrew Shop – they let me borrow one of theirs with the purchase of bottles and corks. Adjustment is the same as adjusting a reloading die – You set it to be too shallow (the cork would hang out the top) and slowly work the adjustment down. The first cork through gets a little beat up if you don’t eyeball it well, but I only had to try twice to get the depth correct. The little ball on the end of the ram is to keep the cork head from getting marred, so put the cork above the ball and adjust the nut up to the top of the cork to get really close to where it needs to be.

Corks – The least exciting part of the process. There’s three grades of cork, “fine”, “good”, “poor”. Poor cork goes into track shoes, flooring, heat pads, whatever. “Good” cork goes in fishing bobbers and things which need to look decent. “Fine” cork is what we put in wine bottles, unless you can settle for “good” cork. The grading seems to depend on the density of the cork and how well it’s expected to hold together. Cork demand is up, but the process is like harvesting birch but slower. Trees can only be harvested every 12 years or so, and they take 25 years to produce their first usable cork. The “cork problem” in wine is that the cork needs to avoid contaminating the wine while allowing it to breathe a bit. Bacteria and whatnot gets grown into the cork. The newest thing is a quarter inch of fine cork glued to the standard size of good cork. It gives fine cork ends for where the cork touches air and wine, but good cork in the middle. This is what I bought and it seems to work well. Synthetic cork might be better for wines that don’t need to breathe (have been thoroughly degassed) but they were expensive. The cork for a wine bottle comes with a light silicon coating and a quick dip in warm water makes them slide in real easy. Just for paranoid, I rubbed them with vodka and also cleaned the jaws and crusher of the press with vodka also to ensure everything was sterile.

There seems to be some debate among the guys at the homebrew store as to if there should be any space under the cork but above the wine. I’m in the camp that the wine may have some suspended carbonation, and rather then keep that in suspension or have it push the cork out, it’s best to leave an inch under the cork for gas to compress. Since I’m not aging the wine for 25 years or more, having the corks not push out is well worth the slim chance of oxidation.

The final step is to leave the bottles upright for 24 hours to let the corks dry out and any remaining CO2 flush into the cork, then tip the bottles on their side and toss them in the fridge for two months.

The Spoils of Wort: Pumpkin Ale Update

After a good bit of deliberation, I decided to try the mini-mash version of this recipe. The author was kind enough to point me to it and suggest using very soft water. I completed it with WLP565: Saison 1 yeast. But that’s not all! Using sugar-water, I cloned the yeast from a bottle of Saison Dupont, and added that along with the “test tube” yeast. The fun part about yeast cloning is that the water not saturated with yeast has to be poured off. Might as well drink it! The water tastes exactly like Woodchuck hard cider, and if it were more concentrated, it would probably taste spot on. Cloning was done by putting as much sugar into water as it would hold and replacing the contents of the bottle. Every week (it was three weeks) – I would dump out half as the top half of the bottle had no yeast in suspension – and replace this with sugar water. The cloned yeast I dumped in were put in the fridge briefly to try to get a compact yeast bed as possible then after I poured off the liquor I shook the bottle to get everything floating once again and poured it right on in.

Brewing went according to the recipe and I cooked the pumpkin as advertised, which darked it considerably and almost burnt it. The minimash is where things started to come apart. For one, my pot seems to cool incredibly rapidly. Much moreso than I think it should. I started at 155F and by the time I checked on it again it was down to 140F. From 14.1 of the Palmer book entitled How the Mash Works, we can see that the goal is to convert almost all the grain into maltose. This wouldn’t be a very complex beer if it were unspiced, but that’s not the case. Since the mash target temperature was 150F and no more the author is trying to ungel the sugars while getting as much fermentables out of them as possible. Thankfully for this batch this means not having good control over the temperature is OK and more gelled sugars means a bit more body and a bit sweeter beer. The pumpkin, similarly, isn’t going to be hurt by being cooler than it should be since there’s almost nothing convertible in pumpkin.

Where I was victim of my equipment was in the mash-out. I normally put cheesecloth twice across the mouth of a bucket and zip tie it down. Mashing out is accomplished by dumping the pot on top of the bucket and then rinsing the grain mess with hotter (168F) water. I did this and promptly clogged the mesh with the pumpkin, which had become glue to the grains. Figuring I could get away with simply spooning off the pumpkin and squeezing the grains out, I began to push the grains against the cloth. The cloth gave a bit and I got more wort out of the grain filler, but it wasn’t fantastic. Thankfully I have bumped the caramel malt to twice what it was in the recipe figuring I would screw it up. And screw it up I did. After doing this to the majority of the malt – which took quite awhile – I was ready for the last bit. Rather then keep it up, I decided to pour the grain into a largish pile and pick up the cheese cloth. I undid the sides and balled it up just in time to have a corner give up and drop all the remaining grain into the bucket. I ended up pouring it through a metal strainer again and pushing the wort out one last time and I still think it’s going to be starchy.

Finally the last problem was I didn’t realize it was an all-grain recipe when I was at the homebrew store and threw 9.9lbs of dry malt extract into there when it really should have been 6.6lbs. I failed the conversion quite badly and said to my wife “man, why didn’t I get that last bag?” I didn’t get that last bag because I was doing it right the first time through. We’ll see where this goes, it’s going to be some really interesting stuff. It might just be the Halloween version of the Mad Elf clone.

The Spoils of Wort: Aged Beer

Cellaring beer has been around since the invention of beer. Storing it for the year was a requirement, with no refrigeration and a growing season that wasn’t all-year-round for most of the places beer as we know it was brewed, cellaring beer was the norm. It had to taste good now, and it had to taste good later when it was pulled. Belgians are the undisputed King of making this work – the Belgian monks continue this tradition and their system of casking beers or bottle and wire cages is still in use today on almost everything worth drinking. I personally have a growler brewed last year of my Mad Elf clone, and I plan on brewing it again this year and drinking it at exactly the one year mark.

Some beers are only sold aged. Orval is at minimum one year old, most belgians have yeast which makes crazy tastes and if you drank them fresh, it would melt your face (or at least not be delicious). Some people cellar these more to further change the flavor profiles, and some beers just die when you do this. Dogfish, for instance, isn’t supposed to be aged. It’s a really good beer, but it falls apart if you cellar it. It comes out of the fermenter ready to drink.

Stone, on the other hand, makes beers which stick to tradition. Not only are they supposed to be aged, but they also should be served from the cask with a beer engine. IF anyone knows how to build one, I want to know. I love stone.

The Spoils of Wort: Orange Summer Sun

Alright, lets talk about beer! This brew comes from Clone Brews, which is a great jumping off point if you like a beer but think it could be better. The beer is based on Saison Dupont.

So what’s wrong with an A- beer? Not enough fruit. More specifically the complaints seem to be that there’s hints of fruit but it’s too bitter to be a proper belgian beer. So we’re going to fix that.

Process and Ingredients
1) Crush and steep in 150F water for 20 minutes: .5lbs German Vienna Malt. More of this is better, but it’s spendy.
2) Pull bag. Add…
6lbs Muntons extra light DME
1lbs Muntons wheat DME
1lbs Belgian Candi Sugar (rock candy)
1.5oz Goldings hops
Boil for 45 minutes
3) now add…
.5oz Goldings hops
.5oz Curacao bitter orange peel (more is better)
boil for 10 mintues
4) The original in the book calls for .25oz more goldings, I’m substituting .25oz bitter orange peel here. Boil for 5 more minutes.

Yeast is Wyeast 1214 (belgian abbey) but I think has been phased out for Wyeast Belgian Trappist since I couldn’t get the other stuff and saw no difference.

Ferment for two weeks and bottle with 1.25 cup of Muntons extra light DME in place of sugar.

Serving suggestion is a goblet @ 45F, most people seem to report that english tap is the correct serving style.