Friday, August 28, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Abby Abbey*


Is this normal?

Lowered expectation warning: The following is a complete cop out.

I don't know if it's the weird muggy heat or the headache that's accompanying it or what, but despite digging as deeply into my smartass as possible, this month's Fermentation Friday isn't happening for me. Sorry to disappoint, Matt. No matter how hard I force it, this baby's not moving out of neutral. While I'm stuck in the driveway here with the engine running, I wonder if I'd been deluding myself in the past in thinking I was witty enough to word my way around any topic, but this one ("I want to know if and why you break away from the norm") has me completely con- and dumbfounded. For the life of me, I can't remember the last time we brewed anything that one might consider "normal". (This should not be taken as boasting: I never said they were any "good".) Years ago, deeply hidden in the ancient mists of my already cloudy memory, I seem to recall brewing up batches that didn't include homegrown herbs, oddly modified grains, obscure hop varieties, unusual sugar sources, or peculiar tinctures, beers that you could matter-of-factly call "a stout" or "a West Coast pale ale". In fact, when joking last week about how we were simultaneously putting up a batch of kombucha while prepping a yeast starter for our holiday ale, and how haha funny would it be were I to swap the two by mistake, I'd be lying if I didn't say that the thought had, yes, momentarily, crossed my mind. Seriously. What if?

So, rather than waste any more of your precious Friday reading time (go out and kiss a girl or pet a dog or vice versa), we'll make our entry simple. Here's the recipe for this year's holiday ale (the original gravity reading of which you see pictured up above), and here's a link to the song that's been stuck in my head all day. And if you need a reminder on how to make the amber candi sugar yourself, here are the instructions. Enjoy.

Many thanks to Matt at A World of Brews  for hosting this month's mind-boggling Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2

*About that title.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Fermentation Friday wrap up - CTRL+C


Thanks to all the folks who showed up on Friday to pitch their tales of beer forgery, counterfeit and deceit. Feel free to add plagiarism to your list of vices as you thieve from the collection of recipes this month's roundup has yielded:

M. Randolph at Just Another Booze Blog uses the "we ain't no stinkin' cover band" analogy to explain why cloning beers isn't part of his regular routine, with the exception of emulating via tribute the cask beers of Britain.

John at Brew Dudes digs out two copycat recipes in his repertoire from opposite ends of the color field that he's looking for some feedback on.

Jason at Brewing the perfect beer ponies up two recipes, one garnered the easy way (thanks to the good folks at Brew Your Own and tips from the brewer in question) and one the hard way: trial and error.

Jimmy at HopWild told of his odyssey of mocking up his version of a beer that he's never had, taking matters into his own hands when tiring of waiting for a wildly popular beer to become available in his neck of the woods.

Jake at Northern Table took this month's topic as an opportunity to do something new, and after having up to this point only brewed out of inspired by, but not in mimicry of commercially available beers, is going to bang out a version of one of his favorite and difficult to acquire beers.

Matt at A World of Brews debates the merit of trying to copy what one can readily get commercially, opting instead for a Frankenstein approach of extracting particular aspects of different beers he likes and recombining them in his own creative way. (Of course, he does eventually admit he'd like to do a 120 Minute IPA clone at some point, so I'll just point him in this direction and see what he comes up with.)

Thanks again to all who played along this month. I'm unclear as to who (if anyone!) is hosting for August, so if you're interested, head on over to Beer Bits 2 and drop Adam, our fearless Fermentation Friday founder, a quick note.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reminders - Italian Modernists & Fermentation Friday

When Jay Brooks went to witness Italian brewer Agostino Arioli brew a batch of La Fleurette with Vinnie Cilurzo and the Russian River Brewing team in Santa Rosa, he summed up the origin of this uniquely peculiar beer quite nicely:
How Agostino’s La Fleurette came about is a romantic tale. Seven years ago, he met a girl and fell in love. Awash with the emotions of new love, he set out to create something that would be “a celebration beer of personal happiness.” So he started experimenting and after a year of trial and error was satisfied with the beer and released it commercially as La Fleurette. To the kettle he adds turbinado raw sugar and orange blossom honey, but he also adds black pepper because, as Agostino puts it, “love is also spicy.” At the end of the boil he dry hops, or rather dry-flowers, the beer with both roses and violets.
This is precisely the vein of artistic spirit running through the current generation of Italian brewers that inspired us to want to host an event celebrating their individuality. Whereas it's arguable that American craft brewing boom was borne of a Wild West approach to re-imagining the ales of the British Isles, there doesn't appear (beyond the slightest Belgian whiff) to be a similar obvious precedent for what the Italians are doing right now. That's not to say that their approach is recklessly improvised: Despite an apparent lack of stylistic benchmarks, the Italian beers we're seeing come stateside have poetic roots, such as beers made with carob and chestnut in memory of the scarcity of food and sweets during World War II, beers modeled after the brewers' lovers, and recipes designed to evoke memories of the exotic foods the brewer had experienced in travels to India and Nepal. Combine that level of soul with with oddball techniques (only adding hops in the last 10 minutes of the boil?), odder ingredients (farro? wormwood? myrrh?) and the Italians' much romanticized love for food, and you have something truly unique emerging out of an area that has never been (and most likely never will be) known for its beer.

That's a rather lengthy way of reminding you that if you're in the SF Bay Area and want to try some of these exceptional creations at a centrally-located, public transit-friendly, private venue alongside some equally tasty food with a lively group of beer enthusiasts, you're in luck, as we've still got a handful of seats free for our dinner on Saturday, August 15. There's more information at the original post here.

On a similar topic, as our Fermentation Friday post will hinge on an inimitably Italian beer, let this also serve as a reminder that we're proudly hosting June's edition this Friday, so if you're a homebrewing blogger or a blogging homebrewer, you owe it to yourself to read the original announcement and get ready to join us on the 31st.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Announcing July's copycat stole a rat put it in her Sunday hat Fermentation Friday


And for my next trick...

As ruthless experimenters, we're loathe to ever admit attempting to clone anything familiar in our brewing endeavors, instead opting to expend most of our efforts on doing something wholly other, whipping to life concoctions of pure imagination, beat out of thin air, pulled from the dark edges of existence over the precipice of possibility into the weird and funny world of the real. Individual, unique, individually unique, singular creations that pay sole allegiance to the imaginations of their creators. But damn, if there aren't some existing beers for which we wouldn't kill to know the alchemical code, turning cheap bunches of slightly rotted grains into bucket after delicious bucket of perfectly crafted copycat elixir. And that's the topic of this month's Fermentation Friday, which we at Pfiff! have the pleasure of hosting this month: Homebrewed doppelgangers. What beers have you attempted to duplicate in your own homes, or which ones have you always wanted to reproduce, but have been wary of attempting? Here's a chance to not only post some recipes for feedback (or secondary counterfeiting) but also a chance to maybe nail the recipe you've always hoped to figure out, but haven't had luck in getting quite right. Got a spot-on Pliny that shames the LongShot version? Can't quite pin down that elusive whatsit character in your wannabe Orval? Submit your post on Friday, July 31, and either comment with a link here on this post or send an email to in order for me to include your submission in the round-up. Who knows? You may get the feedback you've been looking for to finally nail down that dead ringer recipe for Stroh's that you've been honing for the past 10 years...

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Riding the heat wave


The requisite farmhouse accouterments
Night in Day

The night never wants to end, to give itself over
to light. So it traps itself in things: obsidian, crows.
Even on summer solstice, the day of light's great
triumph, where fields of sunflowers guzzle in the sun--
we break open the watermelon and spit out
black seeds, bits of night glistening on the grass.
-Joseph Stroud
With the longest day of the year having just past, the inevitable severe weather alerts warning of impending heat waves have begun to crop up. After an abysmally dry year, the hills are already crackling with dry brush, the deer eerily shedding their typically protective secrecy of their young fawns, bringing the whole family out from under cover in pursuit of green food and fresh water. It's an atmosphere that summons the chef away from the fire of the kitchen, preferring instead to let the heat of cooking to dissipate and mingle with the vapors of evaporate waving off freshly watered plants and heady trimmed grass. To my mind, the activity that aligns best alongside the bbq, the requisite lidded yellowjacket-proof bierstein, and the passive deep tissue massage of mellow, warm humidity, is the act of brewing, throwing yet another funnel of steamy aroma into the cloudless sky.

Ironic, then, isn't it, that while doing a bit of brewing makes for the perfect mid-summer's daydream, those same exceedingly high temperatures can easily spell doom for most beers during the subsequent fermentation stage, what with the yeasts most commonly employed for brewing ales preferring a summer in San Francisco's seemingly static sixty-something degrees. But we don't live in San Francisco anymore, and while yeast character in some brewing styles tend to be more subdued by the use of cooler temperatures, particularly those that employ the use of lager yeasts and long periods of cold storage, yeast itself can actually behave like a secret ingredient in many specialty styles, not the least being saison, a beer that happens to often employ a yeast that thrives at stunningly high temperatures. And with the mercury here hovering in the mid-eighties with the promise of high nineties in the near future, it's the perfect time to let nature take its course, and prepare to get your farmhouse funk on by brewing something where the yeast will truly benefit from being cooked, yielding that otherwise elusive level of orchard fruit, pepper spice, and lingering dryness that helps define how we currently think of saison.

Quite simply put, our response to this month's Fermentation Friday topic could be summed up, oddly, thusly:

Q: "How do you beat the summer heat?"
A: "Why beat it when you can join it?"

Brewed as the third installment in the increasingly ludicrously named Aleumination series, a sort of online collaborative open source brewing experiment, the recipe below [this is our version, mind you, and should in no way implicate the other homebrewers involved or imply anything about their talents at composing recipes] is a unwieldy weird beast, one that I'm not entirely promoting you all rush out to replicate. But for all intensive purposes (ie, that of being imbibed to fend off dehydration and give summer yard/farm work a smeary air of rustic delight), it's working out just fine, taking prime advantage of these long, hot days to work itself into condition.

Admittedly, the grain bill is ludicrously redundant, ill-measured, and disproportionate, but I gave it the green light by convincing myself it's true to (some variation on) the historical nature of saisons for them to consist of a variety of farm grains and little else. The real reason though: An interest in brewing something all-organic led me to purchase our ingredients via Santa Cruz's Seven Bridges co-op, where, as it turns out, they just happened to be having their summer sale, at which they were offering up a nicely discounted 15lb sampler pack of their different malts. Long story short, pretty much everything that seemed to fit the "farmhouse" bill made its merry way into the grist, with little worry for measurements or balance. When it turned out to be a full seven pounds worth of specialty grains, though, I put away my bags of spelt, kamut and oats for another day...

Summer Saison 2009, aka "The Insatiator"

Grains:
4.40 lbs. Generic Liquid Malt Extract (Light)
1.00 lbs. Pilsener
1.00 lbs. White Wheat
1.00 lbs. Wheat Malt
1.00 lbs. Cara-Pils Dextrine Malt
1.00 lbs. Pale Malt (2-row) America
1.00 lbs. Pale Malt (2-row) Great Britain
1.00 lbs. Flaked Soft White Wheat

Hops:
60 min 1.00 oz. Opal
30 min 1.00 oz. Tettnanger Tettnang
10 min 1.00 oz. Opal
0 min 1.00 oz. Tettnanger Tettnang

Yeast:
WLP565 - White Labs Belgian Saison I

Notes: Mash for 60 minutes at 149°. Pitch yeast when wort has cooled to 90°. Allow to ferment in a space where temperature doesn't drop below 75°. Rack onto oak in secondary fermenter and bottle when gravity has dropped to below 1.010.

Have at it, if you're game (and happen to have the Seven Bridges sampler pack in your fridge). Of course, none of this pertains to the "you think it's chocolate milk but it's watered down Belgian imperial stout" which we'll be brewing this weekend (except for it consisting of the remainder of the aforementioned sampler pack), but that's where having a cellar that never gets above 60° comes in awfully handy.

Many thanks to John at Brew Dudes for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Free Improv

Joy is adding hops whenever your kid thinks it'd be fun.

For a length of time I'm reluctant to calculate for fears I'll have to confront quantitative evidence of just how single-minded (and old*) I am, I've been damned near certain my life would be spent as a musician. How exactly, on the other hand, has been a more nebulous decision. There have been numerous iterations defining musicianship over the years [Um, hello - DJ? What the hell was I thinking?], but one constant has remained. Regardless of what was going to define "being a musician", it was bound to reflect the dominant aspect of improvisation. Whether as a guitarist or a composer or an electronic musician or an arranger (or even as a what the hell was I thinking man that's a lot of expensive gear DJ) there has always been a need to incorporate the element of spontaneous musical composition, because ostensibly, it's only when you loosen the reins and allow the truth of the moment to materialize that you can really embrace the livingness of the art form. In the Shona music of Zimbabwe, for instance, regardless of the fact that musicians play known pieces with names and moods associated with them, they often lack specific beginnings and ends as they see the act of performing akin to making a telephone connection to the spiritual world, and that effect of simply "tapping in", much like turning on a tv in mid-show and turning it off just as arbitrarily, along with a degree of a jazz-like spontaneous interpretation, reflects an ethos that embraces the notion of music as a separate animate entity that we have access to and through which we can communicate our emotions, amplified and transmuted. That "it's there if you're listening for it" approach to creating musical sound can lend to a fascinating viewpoint on what level of control one feels they ever truly have over the creation of their own musical art.

Even musicians trained in the most rigid Western classical traditions respect and acknowledge the discrete variations between various performances and aim for - even under the auspices of cohesively following the written instructions of the composer and/or how they're being translated by a conductor - a performance that transcends the printed page, referring to successful interpretations in terms of being alive, of their emotional resonance, and of their ability to "communicate". And outside of that rarefied sphere of purpose-driven musicianship, in the world of popular, blues, jazz, even now including dance and electronic music, the idea of improvisation as a method whereby a musician can actively exploit the use of time as medium and sound as materials to unveil music that already exists, but which simply needs to be tapped into in order to be brought to light, is such commonly understood routine that discussions over what truly defines improvisation are often eclipsed by the more immediately gratifying discussions over how to do it successfully.

The prevailing argument states that there's no such thing as true spontaneity in improvisation. Any music made on the spot is going to be influenced by so many mitigating factors - previous performance experience, muscle memory, preconceived notions about stylistic guidelines, imitative gestures, unconscious mimicry - that outside of a tiny circle of free improvisers who've made it their guiding discipline to try to divorce themselves from those binding detractions and play from a purely ascended level not unlike a state of trance, all improvised music is pre-composed to some certain degree. Where that line is drawn (not to mention how broad or thick or porous or opaque that line is), between what defines a piece of music and what elements of it have been spontaneously manipulated is where the discussion of improvisation - particularly from the point of view of the composer - becomes richly rewarding, far beyond the talk of "who takes a solo when" or "what scale should I use", breathing life into music by opening the door to the chaotic nature of possibility and potential.

It's near certain that my evolving philosophy on the creation of music has rewired the rest of my brain to the extent that it affects the way I approach pretty much anything that comes up in a given day, with understandably mixed results (let us never again speak of the savory French toast experiment). It should come as no surprise, then, that brewing in this house incorporates a good level of improvisation, for good and for bad, and which brings us to the topic of today's Fermentation Friday. Simply said, the thing that brings me the most joy and the most pain is one and the same: the fact that I can't get through a single brewing session, whether it's in the composing of the recipe or the methods used during the brew to last-minute deviations in hopping to fermentation temperature changes to bottling, kegging, or conditioning choices, it's become quite clear that I'm anything but the type who "leaves nothing to chance". That's all I leave it to, most of the time. And you know what? The beer turns out pretty good. Near disasters provide opportunities to get quickly creative, and unintentional moments of brilliance can make an entire session memorable. Ad-libbed triple decoction? Pain. Spontaneous mini-decoction? Joy. Cutting short a boil time without considering full wort evaporation rates? Pain. Deciding to extend a boil for an extra hour because the weather's nice? Joy. In the end, though, my tolerance for pain is pretty low. Which is why we do so much homebrewing around here: It really is quite simply a joy.

Here's tonight's recipe. I'll post back if anything changes.

* Additional criteria of concern: Adding a power carpentry tool to my Amazon wish list alongside completely unironic enjoyment of the piano music of Handel.

Many thanks to Ted at Ted's Homebrew Journal for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Fermentation Friday - But I don't even know her

Note to mom: Hi mom! Now that you've gotten cozy with your new iPhone and are regularly checking this site to see what your son's up to and whether or not there are any photos of (or by) your granddaughter, I thought it was be a good idea to give you a little "heads up" on today's writings. See, on the last Friday of every month, folks all around the globe post their thoughts on a common theme relevant to the hobby of homebrewing. I have a bad habit of writing seriously off topic items on these occasions. With that, consider yourself forewarned: This one gets pretty "inside baseball", if you will. There are no pictures of Mia, either.

When stuck in a particularly pessimistic mood, this whole "writing about beer" arena can come off as mighty insular at times, insular in a "pop will eat itself" sort of way, all Ouroboros-like in its circular back-scratching and back-biting, that pessimism perversely amplified during a week that's seen the beer blogosphere (which I'm beginning to wonder is just one big centrally located beer blog with one singularly big beer blog brain, based off the sheer amount of déjà vu one gets scrolling through their feeds over the morning coffee) all taking sides in a genuinely retarded debate around the cultural significance of a piece of filmwork whose title may remind you of a certain low-budget space opera from the disco era, alongside the near incessant reposting of another video piece that can't help make me think of a certain Nike campaign.

Thankfully it rarely takes more than something like a kit-bashing puddytat to alter one's perspective on things.

And thusly, one can view this little self-congratulatory micocosm of beer obsessives with a bit of charmed affection. Despite how the collective musings of a beer obsessed army can at times display what appears to be an alarming lack of perspective and a dangerous level of short-sightedness, there's an undeniably sunny song in there, one evangelizing the diversity, quality, and culture that the craft brewing movement brings to the table. And if you zoom in on that happy little planet of malt aficionados, you'd see a sub-population, racing across the surface, doing something for themselves, the worker bees, the oft-maligned but dutifully persistent homebrewers. Granted, they're equally - if not more - insularly referential, but unlike the folks taking up my precious "cats playing drums" bandwidth with redundantly embedded videos and press releases copied so quickly out of their email that there's little bits of broken html floating about the edges, homebrewing bloggers actually spend their spare time making stuff. And then when they write about it online, they typically help explain to others how they, too, can make their own stuff. That's pretty much all that's able to pull me out from under the cloak of blogging invisibility today. Proactive thinking. Let's make some booze, people.

And today's roundtable topic concerns the wonderful world of liquor (cue the dancing bottles). Safe to assume that we're not talking about the heated water that's used for rinsing the grains in your mash tun, liquor, better known as "booze that isn't beer" being put into service in brewing in order to add tints, shades, and shadows of other alcoholic beverages is not uncommon. The word "bourbon" alone appears five times on the BeerAdvocate Top 100 list (four times on the RateBeer Top 50), and the concept of reusing castoff whiskey barrels to age beers has become a stereotypical shortcut for brewers looking to cash in on "special edition" versions of their beers. In drawing inspiration from the craft beer world, a homebrewer has little to go on regarding the use of liquor outside of what would appear to be a conspiracy from the all-powerful secret cabal of coopers (yes, all four of them). Simply put, to most folks, liquor in brewing means barrels. We homebrewers soak oak chips in bourbon and brandy and maybe even get our club to all pitch in and try to fill one of those 31 gallon monstrosities, topping off the angel's share every so often while praying that it ends up tasting even close to its namesake.

Far be it from me to preempt what's guaranteed to be a far superior discussion on the topic, bolstered by one presenter's quantitative research, professional experience, and within an arena where one can even get some hands-on experimentation with the matter at this year's National Homebrewers Conference, let me simply say this: Don't limit yourself to attempting to imitate barrel flavors. Fun for a while, but easy to overdo and frankly, if you're a true hipster, it's totally played out. Instead, consider these two gateway scenarios:

- Once you've divorced the barrel character from the source liquor (and if you allow yourself to stretch "liquor" beyond the confines of simple distilled spirits, allowing for a more all-welcoming family of booze), consider what other flavor components exist in different varieties and how they can best complement what you'd like to achieve in your beer. Take a scotch ale, for example, in which you decide you want to add a particularly peaty character. What would happen if you complemented your addition of peated malt with the distinctively Islay aroma of something like Laphroaig? Or what if, in a an old stock ale, you wanted to add a hint of casky oxidization, and added a touch of musky Amontillado sherry? Or if in a stong, dark Belgian style ale, you wanted to emphasize the dark fruit characteristics of the yeast profile by dosing it with a spot of late harvest zinfandel?

- Beyond even that, think of the excellent extraction properties a high-alcohol solution can provide. The spirit you use need not be the end, but also the means by which you add character to your beers. Tinctures (like those pictured above*) offer a measurable, sanitary, and pleasantly controlled vehicle with which to gradually adulterate your beers. We've always sworn by the technique whereby you prepare herbal tinctures in a neutral vodka base, but in the end, many "spirits" that we know are nothing more than neutral grain spirits with various botanicals infused in them, like sloe gin. Consider the "infused vodka" rage: There's no reason why you can't use the exact same technique to add a touch of orange to your citrusy double IPA, some licorice to your Baltic porter, some lemongrass to your wheat beer, or some juniper to your holiday ale.

I hesitate to think of what might become of combining those two concepts into a third, hybrid gateway, but there's little doubt that the more experimental amongst us aren't afraid of crossing the streams. I'll be first to admit a certain stupid fondness for the odd bourbon-aged this or brandy-aged that , but in the meantime, step back for a minute, and just consider what simple, strange, mystical concoctions you could unearth by simply thinking outside the barrel.


* From left to right: saffron and black pepper; ginger, myrrh, white pepper, and curacao orange; and the ubiquitous whiskey-soaked oak.



Congratulations. You've made it this far! More on the topic, from the archives:

- Miscellaneous musings on the boozy tango between beer and liquor.

- Our first foray into reverse-engineered cocktailesque beers, the Old Fashioned. (With a followup here.)

- The story of Tokyo Fog, the beer who loved bourbon.


Many thanks to Northern Table for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Fermentation Friday - From ground to grist


I'm hesitant to mention we've already covered this chapter.
I'm a bit reluctant to admit, I feel like we've been here before. One doesn't have to dig deep into this year's paltry archives to see that as far as "doing things differently" in 2009 is concerned, I'd already declared this to be my "year of the session" (which, admittedly, hasn't begun yet, but more on that next week), and figured that the subject of the new and improved homebrewer Rob 2.0 was one best left to wallow in the same closet as the other broken promises, those charted out under a post-holiday sugar-withdrawal delirium, next to the weights, and the Proust, and the vegetables. But while there's an outward similarity in this month's topic to the recent resolution-themed round of Fermentation Friday, our host for this month's carnival does seem to be searching for a slightly different angle, one pointing towards the notion of spring as rebirth, with a vernal air of optimism rather than the stern, dutifully resolute promises made in the winter. Distracted by a languorous breeze choked with pollen and busy insects and an all around procrastinate, lethargic mood, it's difficult for me to chain my body to my desk and my mind to any concrete thoughts. It's a casualty of the kindness of Nature, one that may inspire some to indulge in some spring cleaning while only convincing others that it's high time to find a nice warm rock and sink deeply into the zone of not-caring-itude.

So I turned to read a little Twain:
"San Francisco is built on sand hills, but they are prolific sand hills. They yield a generous vegetation. All the rare flowers which people in "the States" rear with such patient care in parlor flower-pots and green-houses, flourish luxuriantly in the open air there all the year round. Calla lilies, all sorts of geraniums, passion flowers, moss roses—I do not know the names of a tenth part of them. I only know that while New Yorkers are burdened with banks and drifts of snow, Californians are burdened with banks and drifts of flowers, if they only keep their hands off and let them grow...

I have elsewhere spoken of the endless Winter of Mono, California, and but this moment of the eternal Spring of San Francisco."
And my mind wandered to those very same Calla lilies in abundant bloom in our very own garden at the moment, strange, wild, oddly secret eruptions of white and yellow superflowers that haven't paid the slightest attention to how completely disregarded they've been by human care, returning annually with the wild onions and little clouds of gnats and annual grasses that point their seeds up in arrows for kids to throw at one another, and how funny I thought it was to see waves of plum blossoms shook by the wind, laying like miniature lily pads on the surface of our roiling brew kettle and how oddly appropriate it was that the beer's name was going to refer to Tokyo?

And then I bothered to read some Thoreau:
"MEANWHILE MY BEANS, the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles already planted, were impatient to be hoed, for the earliest had grown considerably before the latest were in the ground; indeed they were not easily to be put off. What was the meaning of this so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor, I knew not. I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antæus. But why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows. This was my curious labor all summer — to make this portion of the earth's surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like, before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse. What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?"
Which, after a quick digression into the words of Edward Abbey, made me think of the peculiar differences in relationships we build with the plants that we sow from seed, for food, and those stowaways that find their way in to disrupt the perfectly aligned rows of life we assume to have control over, and those that just appear as if by magic, through an alchemical confluence of sun, water, wind and food, the wildflowers which come in wicked waves or not at all, and the silly way in which I document the purely ornamental growth of those tenacious weeds in pots in our yard, the ones that climb up the outside railings and banisters, like a lupulin Jolly Roger climbing the mast, flying our homebrewing freak flag high for everyone to see.

And lastly on to a little John Muir:
Father was proud of his garden and seemed always to be trying to make it as much like Eden as possible, and in a corner of it he gave each of us a little bit of ground for our very own in which we planted what we best liked, wondering how the hard dry seeds could change into soft leaves and flowers and find their way out to the light; and, to see how they were coming on, we used to dig up the larger ones, such as peas and beans, every day. My aunt had a corner assigned to her in our garden which she filled with lilies, and we all looked with the utmost respect and admiration at that precious lily-bed and wondered whether when we grew up we should ever be rich enough to own one anything like so grand. We imagined that each lily was worth an enormous sum of money and never dared to touch a single leaf or petal of them. We really stood in awe of them. Far, far was I then from the wild lily gardens of California that I was destined to see in their glory.
And then it hit me. I really need to get outside. And while we've indulged in minor homegrown additions to brews in the past, what better time than right now to really get one's hands dirty, outside, in the garden, with my daughter and a trowel and a misguided set of predictions of how it'll all turn out. We can scheme and plan, shoo away the pesky squirrels and freeze perfectly still when the hummingbirds zip in close, hoping they won't notice us, maybe fly even a little closer. But where to start, if not with the staple hops or grains? Enter this new addition to our DIY library: The Homebrewer's Garden. Don't get me wrong - I have *no* idea what experiments this new indulgence will engender, haven't not even cracked the spine on this one yet (but a hop-free herbal saison does seem appealing). Did I mention it's really quite pleasant out? Like 75 degrees, with a subtle breeze and the hint of apple blossom in the air? Too pleasant to even read, at the moment.

Many thanks to Byron at HomeBrewBeer.net for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Next to godliness, in housewares

Unbeknownst to me prior to becoming a father, there is a near-universal bit of singsong that parents and teachers deploy whenever attempting to make the act of "cleaning up" a positive, enjoyable activity. The lyrics to this paean to orderliness likely vary slightly by geography, as all deeply rooted folklore tends to pick up local variation as it germinates. Hereabouts, it goes a little something like this:
Clean up, clean up
Everybody, everywhere
Clean up, clean up
Everybody do your share
And with a loopable melody optimally composed for (or by) a toddler, it's an insidious earworm that only fades into the background when other, more sinister ones crawl out of the darkness (Moondance, anyone?). Furthermore, if you happen to be blessed with a particularly sonant child, the mere act of trying to shovel a pathway through drifts of Legos often results in being rickrolled out of the blue by the overeager youngster, invariably leading one to either bow down and aquiece to having CUCU permanently embedded in ones auditory cortex, or to succumb to living in complete unkempt squalor in hopes of never invoking another torturous utterance.

In related matters, Matt, enterprising homebrewer that he is, looks to be fishing for tips from the rest of us on improving his sanitation practices under the auspices of this month's Fermentation Friday. Lucky for him, he's also a new dad, which means there's just one piece of invaluable advice that's too fitting to ignore:


I hope that helps. Oh, and never allow soap to touch any brewing materials. Plus, you just can't go wrong with one-step. And the oven and dishwasher can also provide good sterilizing if used correctly. That's about it.

Here's wishing Matt the best in all the adventures he has in store.

Many thanks to A World of Brews for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2. And if you really need to get that song out of your head, feel free to get into a round with your friends with this little drinking song from the late 16th century. You're welcome.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Happy brew year

A remembrance of things past...
It's always refreshing to find that you're not the only one out there who takes a certain sick pleasure in pouncing on painfully obvious puns when spinning titles for discussion topics. So it was with a warming tinge of kinship that I read the theme for this month's Fermentation Friday, having hopefully induced a couple dozen groans of my own with the same retarded wordplay back in December in the the Aleuminati forums. If there comes a time in my life when obviously altering text for wincingly comic effect doesn't entertain me, it'll mean that some small part of me, raised on excessive Jumble and crossword exposure from my youth, has died.

Digression aside, today's topic revolves around homebrewing practices and how we resolve to change and improve upon them in the coming year. The timing couldn't be more appropriate, interestingly enough, as this weekend we'll be hosting a bit of a "homebrew inventory reduction initiative" (also known as a "kegger") in order to make a little space for a new year's worth of experimentation. While certainly not indicative of the range of batches we tried to pull off this past year (the bird being long gone, along with that witwheat and various others, long forgotten), there's a certain undeniable trend that cropped up while I was penning the tasting notes for our little soiree. A pattern emerged when I lined up the offerings, one that led me to consider an alteration to our habits, a habit I hadn't really seen spelled out so clearly:

Old Fashioned Ale – 9.0% abv
Black Lav Winter Saison – 9.5% abv
Early Bird Appelwoi – 9.0% abv
X’08 Holiday Ale – 10.0%
Het Mysterie – 7.5%
The Indoctrinator – 7.5%


Turns out we like to churn out stuff that's got a little kick on it, looks like. So, while I already resolved to make a change in my lazy packaging tendencies, another theme has emerged that may end up a dominating guide for 2009's time around the kettle: The Year of the Session. Strong American beers had long been in the minority not because they're any more difficult to produce, unlike what some marketers might want you to believe. They're in the minority because they're expensive to make, and in many places still, illegal to boot. Strong beers require more time, energy, and ingredients, which in turn demands smaller batches at sometimes prohibitively higher retail prices. As the craft beer scene has evolved, however, strong beer has been the battleground where the top producers have been vying for superiority amongst the burgeoning class of beer drinkers with money and the conceit of heightened taste buds, creating a situation where average alcohol levels (and along with them, cost) have been unceasingly building. Reflecting on our own brewing experiences, it's obvious that we're just as guilty.

And while Jay and I were recently joking that the typical 5%, even 6% beers currently labeled as being "session strength" should really be called "re-session strength" [Get it? See? It's that pun thing. I can't get over it], it seems a prudent time for brewers, along with homebrewers, to focus their skills on sub-5% beers that don't sacrifice flavor, proving they can maintain body and retain a geek's attention, worth savoring, warrant excited opinions... and maybe re-root folks to the simple brilliance of a set of styles so transparent and unshielding of their flaws, demanding of respect via the solid obviousness of its craftsmanship. In other words, to tap into something that's been relatively lacking on US soil ever since Prohibition, but something well understood in places like the UK and Germany: moderate-strength beers need not be watery nor bland nor incidental. They can, in fact, be points of pride.

So that's the plan (once the *ahem* imperial pilsner in the fridge is ready). While the next batch we're likely to tackle falls within the "re-session" band of the strength spectrum, it's a step in the right direction. To mild and helles, and beyond.

Many thanks to lootcorp 3.0 for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2. I also promise to cool it on the goofy Lomo photo filter. Next time you see a high contrast vignette on this site, it'll be from our Holga, I swear.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving thanks for Fermentation Friday... er, Wednesday?

The gracious homebrewer gives thanks this time of year to his family for their love and support, whether it's...
On the bottling line,
With the corking machine,
Or with quality assurance.

Or all of the above. Happy Thanksgiving, all.

(Something a little different for this month's Fermentation Friday.)

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

A spooktacular Fermentation Friday roundup

What better way to nurse a hangover brought on by last night's overindulgence of candy corn and gimmicky Halloween-themed beers than with this, a roundup of these most excellent contributions to yesterday's Fermentation Friday? A bevy of truly inspired pieces of horror nonfiction which left our own entry looking terribly lacking, these tales were penned by some intrepid souls perchance to warn and admonish less educated souls, but more likely simply to frighten them:

Starting with Adam at Beer Bits 2 (the originator of this monthly carnival), we have a serial post of sorts, a type of penny dreadful for the homebrewing set. Part I is here. Part II is here. Part III is here. Part IV is here. Awaiting Part V...

Keith at Brainard Brewing talks about dancing with the devil, and lives to tell the tale without any blown bottles.

Thomas at Geistbear Brewing Blog tells of how an innocent-looking pot of wort can quickly morph into a blubbering, sticky geyser of sweet, sweet horror, and the "rule #1" that came out of his experience. (Des' rule #1 would have also come into play.)

Matt at A World of Brews reminds us all that sometimes, the waiting is the hardest part, an unmatched psychological dread. It's a tale with a happy ending that nevertheless inexplicably made me want to reread The Pit and the Pendulum.

Mel and Ray both chime in over at Bathtub Brewery with their separate trials by fire over the old brew cauldron.

Steph at brew.cook.pair.joy tells of loss, pain, agony, and disaster, all through the filter of a story about a corny keg with sticky poppet valves.

Andy at Rooftop Brew recounts the harrowing tale of encountering a ghost of brewing past, covered with hair nonetheless. (Sounds like you might want to clean out your dryer vent.)

Damon at Life With Beer reminds us that beyond our vision, gremlins are always at work, and with the simplest crack in our defenses, they can get to work, wreaking havok while we wait unawares.

John over Brew Dudes taps into a trope of the horror genre in his tale of woe. In teen slasher films, there's always the cocky, overassured jock who, in the end, gets offed in a wholly ironic way, like being impaled by his state championship trophy or decapitated by his hockey stick or some sort. What if that character were a homebrewer? (And no, nobody dies.)

Marcus at Final Gravity reminds us of another psychological terror at the heart of homebrewing - that of becoming the paranoid mad scientist obsessed with checking readings and measurements until it absolutely possesses you.

Jon at The Brew Site says: IT LIVES. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed to this month's Fermentation Friday! Next up: November 28th, with Dr Joel at The Grain Bill. Let's see if he can avoid a topic surrounding Thanksgiving. Good luck!

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Fermentation Friday - The monster mash

"Scalability" quickly entered the pantheon of flak jargon when companies like Oracle and PeopleSoft were dominating business technology news back in the early 90's, thanks to its futuristic-sounding yet moron-friendly ability to insinuate a system that would never need replacing, but upon which one could build and modify to suit your needs. That caveat aside, admittedly, one of the loveliest things about homebrewing is its stupidly delicious scalability. That one, with the materials on hand in most American kitchens, along with the same simple staple ingredients for making bread, can make beer on one's stovetop, is primally alluring. That one could also delve in to the degree of rocket science, working with a level of complexity of engineering and technique that rivals the largest brewing facilities in the world and still call it homebrewing is nothing shy of mind-boggling. Today's tale comes from that precipitous, barren no-man's-land somewhere between those two extremes, between pure simple impulsive joy and cool, experienced confidence. Today's installment of Fermentation Friday comes from that point when an intrepid yet amateur all-grain homebrewer decides to challenge himself, and fails disastrously, terrifyingly. Today's tale, in the vein of homebrewing horror stories, is about triple decoction mashing. I must warn you! This tale is loaded with geeky terminology that may prove more boring than terrifying.

At it's heart, the concept of decoction mashing is deceptively simple. So simple, in fact, that as a consistent method for extracting stubborn sugars at various discrete temperature stages, one doesn't even need a thermometer to achieve quality results. Using the boiling point of water as a constant, the only measurement that's crucial is the volume of the mash that's being handled. In other words, rather than needing to know that you want to bring your mash up from "Blood-warm" to 140° F, you would need to know that you had to draw off one third of your mash, boil it, and return it to the tun. Want to raise it again? Pull off another third, boil it, and return it. Simple, ingenious, and downright medieval. Of course, there are reasons why hardly anyone uses this technique anymore (to the contrary of what the above link purports). But, in the search for what we deemed a proper, authentic pilsner, we took that path. Like Hansel and Gretel happily wandering into the forest only to come upon a delicious-looking cottage, we delved in while having no idea what wickedness lay ahead, nibbling ignorantly away while our trail of breadcrumbs has been cleared.

For the most part, the whole activity of laying out the proper measurements for the correct volumes of water and weights of grains and the timeline and all that jazz went fairly smoothly. Sure, it all took extra time, but such is the nature of quality craftsmanship, right? Without needing to make any major adjustments, we successfully stepped the temperature up over the course of an hour and then let it rest for another hour. By the time we'd reached that final saccharification rest, though, a more experienced brewer would have noticed that something had already gone horribly wrong. How were we to know that the dense, cement-like porridge we'd created was going to be completely unsuitable for brewing? By the time we started the fly sparge, the mash resembled one of those petrified oat pucks you find in permanent residence next to the cash register at your local FTO coffee dispensary. The liquor began to run, the sparge arm began to spin, we opened the outlet valve... and nothing came out.

Well, not nothing. A weak dribble of whatever cloudy liquid had managed to settle below the false bottom dripped out into the vorlauf pitcher, but nothing more. On the surface of the mash, however, hot liquor was quickly accumulating. Thinking some malt had managed to clog the outlet, I tried blowing back up through the outlet to dislodge it, without any luck. Jamming the mash fork into the grain bed did nothing to help the situation either. Cursing, I closed the sparge valve and dumped all the grains into the kettle so that I could examine the outlet from the inside and try to determine why it was stuck. (Could it be the high-grade imported malt concrete we'd prepared? Nah.) After managing to run some hot water through the outlet to assure that it was functioning, we dumped the mash back into the lauter tun to again try to get the sparge going, trying hard not to think about how badly the results had been compromised by all that handling of the mash.

Again, the sparge arm starts up (after having had to refill and reheat the liquor tun) and the water level again begins to rise. And again, the same steps: blowing into the outlet, mixing it with the fork, dumping it into the kettle and cleaning the outlet from inside. And again, like an interminable tide of despair, the rising water refused to permeate the mash, the outlet wouldn't run, and our hopes for a sunny outcome to the day were quickly diminishing. When I decided to try to blow up through the outlet one last time, delusionally imagining that our efforts were in some way salvageable, the gods of brewing decided they'd had enough fun taunting me and unleashed their final insult. The bulkhead (ours being a simple rubber stopper with copper tubing run through it which has since been replaced), after having been manipulated far more than its design warranted, gave way. All the wort that had collected in the tun while my pathetic rescue attempts had been underway came pouring out, all over me, all over the ground, everywhere except for in the kettle. Like a brewer's caricature of a little Dutch boy, I desperately tried to reattach the bulkhead to stem the outpouring, but it was no use working against the hot and sticky flow of five gallons of liquid gold. We just watched it go. Haarlem would have drowned by my failure.

It was an unmitigated blow to my brewing confidence, seeing a day's work collapse like that, literally watching money pour down the drain. And while it hasn't dimmed my enjoyment of all-grain brewing, we've never again attempted to decoct any of our mashes, a fact that plagues me every time I taste one of our doppelbocks or mãrzens and have that nagging feeling on the periphery of my tastebuds: Could this have been better, if only? If only.

This month, Pfiff! has the privilege of hosting Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2. If you'd care to participate, either post a comment here or send me an email, and I'll include your entry in the roundup that we'll be posting in the next day or so.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Announcing October's inevitably spooktacular Fermentation Friday

That my strange sense of compulsion was deep and overwhelming is shewn by its conquest of my fear. No rational motive could have drawn me on after that hideous suspicion of prints and the creeping dream-memories it excited. Yet my right hand, even as it shook with fright, still twitched rhythmically in its eagerness to turn a lock it hoped to find. Before I knew it I was past the heap of lately fallen cases and running on tiptoe through aisles of utterly unbroken dust toward a point which I seemed to know morbidly, horribly well...*
Your beer cellar, perhaps?

October 31st marks this month's entry in homebrew blogging's monthly Fermentation Friday carnival, one that we're lucky to be hosting here at Pfiff! Lucky, that is, because despite all attempts to otherwise fashion a unique, creative topic around which we could all gather and warm our hands by like some big psychic bonfire of brilliance (attempts that failed, repeatedly), it's of no use anyway. Trying to avoid the obvious was like trying to steer light out of a black hole. Lucky, because it's Halloween, kids. Which leads us to the obvious theme for this month: It's time for y'all to whip out your best homebrewing horror stories. Extra points for tales of woe told in true campfire fashion, and head straight to the front of the class for a bonus handful of candy corn if there's a deliciously ironic twist in the end. If there's one experience we're certain is common to anyone who's ever homebrewed, it's a disastrous tale worth sharing in order to scare the hell out of other homebrewers.

Hopefully we can all learn valuable lessons from these wretched homebrewing legends. Or not. Send along your submissions on Samhain either to or by posting a comment in this here blog post. I'll plan on wrapping up the roundup on Saturday, November 1st in order to provide you with a megadose of terror. Until then, beware!

* H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Out of Time

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Fermentation Friday - Where the wild things are

As someone whose routine for brewing typically involves two powerfully influential variables - nature and sloth - the concept of integrating native ingredients in the mind of adding an "indigenous" quality to our beers could seem a little redundant: We typically brew outside, and I'm also typically too lazy to bother minimizing the potential for something unannounced to make its appearance in the kettle. Just this minute, there's at least one beer quietly fermenting in the basement that had what, bay leaves? Plum leaves? Something seasonally shedding in the space above my brewpot falling into the midst of the boil, which was never discovered, chortling away in an anonymous fermenter. (The California bay laurel is easily denoted as indigenous, but the wild plum, maybe not so much.) Previous batches have had all manner of insect, twig, or airborne miscellany drop into the pot while I was watching - and I don't watch it all that much. "It's boiling," I say. "It's dead, poor thing. Give it an extra couple minutes to make sure it doesn't infect the batch." I never once thought those little bothers could become the topic of a blog carnival, but so it is, this month's Fermentation Friday.

What could a brewer like myself consider for a native element, that hasn't already ostensibly entered the brewing process without my conscious interference? Brian Hunt has already beaten us all to the punch by claiming the most iconic of local flora, the coastal redwood, as his personal hops substitution. I've got a number of oddities cropping up in the yard that, as Mario recently pointed out, make up a goodly percentage of the ingredient list for gruit spices, but that weedy potpourri includes so many invasive species that it hardly qualifies for indigenous status. Besides all that, what? The nanoclimate here on the orographic edge of Mt. Tamalpais is, as my good friend Alex would describe it, Ewok village. That leaves, after you've removed all the redwoods, just some ferns (sadly no fiddlehead), mushrooms, and loads of bugs. But hey, not just insects - we've got other, teensier bugs here, too.

But first, a digression...

Traditional breweries who experiment with wild yeast strains, most notably Brettanomyces, almost invariably include some statement in their marketing materials regarding how they had to utilize a completely separate fermentation facility to avoid any chance of cross-contamination in the main brewhouse. Vinnie Cilurzo, a man quite renowned locally for his dabbling with Brett makes a point to talk about the difficulties of being ostracized by various winemakers of the world-class Sonoma vintner scene, a puritanical and superstitious lot who are so afraid of that particular fungus that they won't even enter his Santa Rosa pub in fear that it'll sneak into the fibers of their clothes for a ride back to the barrelhouse like bacterial gremlins where they'll make themselves at home, all nice and funky like.

At the same time, the term "house character" conjures up such a cozy image, all fireplace glow and creaky porch swings and overstuffed down quilts, that it's favored by folks who want to inspire the taster to reconsider what on first blush might resemble a flaw, and redefine it in their mind's eye as an endearing quirk, a stamp of uniqueness, a symbol of handicraft. In brewing, "house character" is often just that, the character of the building in which the beer is brewed and aged. More so than mashing techniques or choice of malt or hops or anything else, it is often the yeast that delivers the potential to engender a brewery with a certain commonality amongst its beers, that unique stamp I mentioned above. Resident in the barrels where the beer is aged, in the air where the beer is cooled, wild yeasts typically don't have an initial dominance within the bacterial stew of a properly inoculated beer, but over time will come out and show off their true colors, to a point where small bits of Brett alone have been acknowledged for imparting beers (and wines) the impression of age.

Places where beer is truly spontaneously fermented, however, remain anomalies. The image of the Belgian brewhouse, whereupon finishing a day of boiling up a batch of beer they pump the wort up into a shallow cooling vessel on the top floor of the building, when the louvered windows open to the night air and the breeze from Brussels chills the liquor until it's ready for the fermentation tanks, bats and spiders and wild windblown beasties be damned, is not much more than a myth, with seldom exceptions. Even those beers that are cooled in open air for energy efficiency and laziness' sake (which I can totally dig) are then subject to very aggressive inoculation by highly trained house yeast strains which make quick work of the beer and leave little trace of nature's fingerprint.

But why not? Just because it's inefficient, unpredictable, potentially unsavory, and certainly unsanitary, why not throw all care to the literal wind and allow for your indigenous microflora take center stage in your next brewing adventure? The most famous yeast-inhabited zephyrs of the Senne Valley claim the local cherry trees as the sustaining force. Certainly, though, amidst all the laurels, madrones, redwoods and oaks of West Marin (not to mention the huge, locally cultivated, i.e. non-native fruit agriculture) there must be a somewhat decent cocktail of fermentation agents just waiting for the right sweet soup to take a dip in while converting it into some nice, weird beer.

So therein lies our next challenge. While it's arguable that my indolence when it comes to certain sanitizing methods has led to a sort of "house character" all its own, we've never gone truly wild. Before it gets too cold, while the persimmons and apples are still on the trees, while the walnuts are just starting to crack, the chestnuts just starting their homicidal dives off the boughs, the tomatoes and peppers beginning to wilt on the vine, and the pumpkins and squash are spreading their way across the fields in their last gasps, I think we'll cook up a nice, welcome broth of malted sweetness and leave it out for whatever guests may decide to come enjoy it. It doesn't really get more indigenous, after all, than the invisible nature that you breathe every day, that surrounds you and instinctively reminds you when you smell it again for the first time after some time away, that you're home.

Many thanks to Marcus over at FinalGravity for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Fermentation Friday - The best is yet to come


There's a maxim that gets bandied about in homebrewing circles that goes a little something like this: "A batch of homebrew is ready when you've drank the last one." Whereas this smirking quip has its origins in the debate over the proper aging and conditioning of homebrewed beers, it could be taken on a philosophical level to mean something wholly other. What if rather than meaning that most folks often tap into the fruit of their labors while said fruit is still a bit on the green side, it was alluding to the Platonic conceit that exists on the periphery of all best-laid artistic endeavors?

Say, as you work your way through those hand-capped bottles over the course of a few months, that while the beer within those bottles is maturing, that you too are maturing, as an observer of the specific qualities of the beer. And as the facets reveal themselves in different lights like Hokusai's Mt. Fuji, that final sip from that final glass essentially closes the loop on your experience like a freehand outline of the ungraspable soul of the beer. [Note: This analogy has no bearing on the life cycle of the rancid, ropey, freaky infected messes of spoiled nastiness that can occasionally inhabit the homebrewer's domain.] While that outline succeeds in capturing a perfect reflection of the experience of the beer, Magritte would be quick to point out, "Ceci n'est pas une bière." It's but a mere picture of a beer. But could the beer get any closer to being done? Could you be any closer to finishing it? It floats out ahead of you like a faintly glowing ghost, illuminated by its very potential, brought to life by your relationship to its essence. It'll be done once you've finished tasting it, the Form of it up ahead in your mind's eye, perfect.

Now let's step back a moment. What else could finished mean? If we're talking about "the point at which it's reached conditioned maturity and optimal frame of time in which to drink it," we're essentially using it to connote the point at which the beer is at its best. That brings us to this month's Fermentation Friday topic: "What, in the opinion of others, is the best beer you have ever made and why?" In a macro view, taking our stance that a homebrewed beer is at it's best at the point when you've just run out of it (sound of one hand clapping, people!) to the next level, wouldn't the best beer you've ever made then be the next one you make?
With that in mind, it seemed appropriate to head down to the cellar and put a glass under the tap of the last batch of homebrew we've got here, a keg of witbier that managed to sputter and cough one final decent pour of cold, simple, tartly refreshing goodness before giving up its own ghost. When it was done, it was time for the best beer we'd ever made to come into being - if there's one step in the process of making one's own beer that's more enjoyable than tasting the product you've envisioned, it's this, the envisioning process itself.

Summer is on its way out. A beer brewed at this moment, of regular strength and bereft of complex procedures, would be ready for enjoying amidst the heaviest fall of dried leaves, slanting shadows of the oncoming lesser days, whipping winds signaling a change in the seasons, and unpredictably alternating moments of a summer's heated last gasp and winter's northern-borne chill. It's a seasonal season, if anything. The harvest is in full swing, and the thriving bursts of life that surround us in spring are turning into fruit that will either return to the ground, or be picked for our own nourishment. With that in mind, earlier this summer, knowing Des' attraction to the ephemeral nature of nature's olfactory bounty, I got her a still for her birthday. (Granted, the romantic qualities of such a gift are hard to compete with, but it should be noted that it's an essential oil distiller, so the hooch 'n moonshine act is still virgin territory.) One of the first things she distilled was the essential oil of lavender which prolifically blooms here in late June, which also resulted in large amounts of lavender hydrosol. There's a fascinating bit of transmutation that goes on when converting hard, obvious, symbolic items into the sensory element that singles them out in your unconscious mind. And with the seasons passing, catching a whiff of the recently expired elements of summer's headiest moments can be a bit of a timewarp. Bringing lavender into beer, though?

Like I mentioned before, whatever gets brewed at this moment will fall squarely into the hallows of late October's transitional, myth-evoking stage. It's a season, to be sure, but what does that mean in terms of a saison? The Oktoberfest concept is a little played out, and truly more evocotive of saying goodbye to summer than welcoming winter. This saison needs to be black. A black saison, hints of the last dry elements of the waning summer, caught up with hints of the dried flowers that accompany it, prepared to sit alongside a stormy night of power outages and Lovecraft readings or an Indian summer afternoon with quince tarts and farmhouse cheeses. Dry, bitter, not too strong, but not too easy.

So there you go. Here's the recipe.

I'll let you know how it turns out, when it's ready.

Many thanks to the Bunz over at the Panhandle Beer Snob and Redneck Brewery for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Fermentation Friday - Words of advice


Isn't it romantic?*

Embarking on a new hobby oftentimes involves a period of giddy excitement when first acquainting yourself with the lexicon, history, and mountains of reference material that surrounds the adventure of the new. Homebrewing is, not surprisingly, loaded with ample opportunities to immerse yourself in esoteric lingo. Each style has a history. You can get as scientific or as philosophical as you'd like. It has such a welcoming learning curve, you can crack the spine on a 300-page instructional text and make your first successful batch from the notes on the first two pages, getting deeper into the nuances as you eventually dog-ear the next 298.

And as it's a pastime that inspires equal amounts of good-willed advice and spirited debate, the question asked this month of homebrewing bloggers - What one tip would you give a beginner homebrewer before they brew their first batch and why? - caused a rift in this here household. Therefore, we're cheating the awesome power of that italicized "one" and giving our two separate answers to a question that will easily garner many, many more opinions.

That said, my one piece of advice to anyone taking the leap into brewing their own beer at home is simple: Taste more beer, more.

I'll pretend I don't hear the waves of agonized groaning, simpering pleas for mercy, and tormented, piteous whimpers for a compassionate alternative. No. You simply must drink more beer in order to achieve a level of confidence in your level of success, and to assemble your palette of understanding what exactly it is about the beers you enjoy that you yourself would want to capture and recreate. By all means, do not try to take the cheap way out, asking your local homebrew supplier or buddy or dirty old man Internet to write you up a clone recipe of a beer you had recently. It won't come out right, anyway. Instead, what is it exactly about that IPA you had the other day that made you want to take a stab at making your own? Is it something you can taste in another IPA from another brewery? Or is it unique? Do a side-by-side. Make some notes of some of the things you're coming across in the tasting, without editing out any comparisons you think don't make any sense. When you sit down and look at your scribbles, giggling over the part you wrote down about how when you burped, it tasted like you'd had grapefruit for breakfast, you might just come across something in your online research worth remembering when it comes time to make your own.

Getting more acquainted with the elements that make up your taste experience with beer with something like Meilgaard's flavor wheel can be especially eye-opening, more so when you consider the focal object, sitting at the eye of the wheel like the reflective image distiller at the center of an István Orosz anamorphosis, is a collector of all the various disparate, mysterious elements into the single experience we all know as a nice pint of beer. And rather than trying to bone up on stylistic descriptions and memorize the common descriptors for various specialty malts, open up that bottle of Schrödinger's dark ale and find out for yourself why it can coexist in a quantum state as both a porter and a stout. I don't think it's a hard sell to convince you that it's easier to learn about the taste of beer by tasting beer than it is to read about the taste of beer.

Not to mention how much more fun the person writing up the recipe will have, versus being asked to scrabble up a nice "wheat beer". When you've outlined your target flavors and aromas, along with the color, level of carbonation, idea of the level of alcohol involved, then you've got something worth comparing notes against when that first bottle of the batch gets opened. You'll be tasting deeper, likely enjoying it more, and preparing yourself for the slightly more advanced, and not terribly exciting nor worth talking about here, second stage of tasting. Find that hint of Moroccan spice you were looking for hidden amidst the raw cacao overtones first, then feel free to jot in the margins that it also smelled like microwave popcorn.

And there you have it. Shouldn't be too hard. Don't enjoy yourself too much taking this one piece of advice, though. It's all in the name of research, science, and the pursuit of a better life for all. Doing it while playing Rock Band only focus your attention even more.

Des' one piece of advice, on the other hand, being of sound mind and body, comes direct from the all-caps shouty text of the old instruction sheet that SF Brewcraft used to hand out, and can be summed up without need of excess verbiage: WATCH POT CAREFULLY MAY BOIL OVER.

This is especially true if you have a difficult to clean stovetop.

Many thanks to the Brew Dudes for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

* I'll leave it to twenty or so other people to comment on the importance of sterilizing your gear.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Fermentation Friday - 99% pit-free


Admittedly, the answer to this month's homebrew carnival question didn't come quickly or easily for me, something that's difficult to admit as being quick to respond with no shortage of verbosity is the way things are expected to work around here. Digging back through the history of my more creative creations unearthed a series of recipes that revealed I wasn't quite as weird with ingredients or techniques as maybe I'd like to appear, the anarchic individualist improvising artiste to which I aspire. After looking at logs that revealed inclusions of sweet gale, an attempt at decoctions, a locally-picked fresh hop pale ale, and the odd bit of cacao nibs, it was pretty clear that whenever I'd tried to inspire a "whazzis!?" moment in my guinea pig tasters, my formidable brain trust was going to do it through more or less traditional means: extreme fermentation temperatures, oddball grain bills, and esoteric packaging matched with laser light shows synced to the music of King Crimson.

Last week, while dining with my sister-in-law, she commented out of left field, "Mom didn't really understand when you put her cherries in your beer." That's when the proverbial lightbulb went up: To this day, it's safe to say that my mother-in-law probably still doesn't comprehend why I wasted a perfectly good jar of her brandied cherries on a batch of homebrew. My contribution to Fermentation Friday (the brainchild of Beer Bits 2, this month kindly hosted by Travis at CNYBrew.com) was written before I even touched the keyboard.

Backing up... Flathead Lake hosts a local cherry appellation that's an understandable point of pride. Sweet, floral, and late in the season, they're also collected annually by the in-laws in the vicinity of their home in northern Montana and transformed, with the aid of an almost trustworthy pitter in the hands of my father-in-law and the cooking and canning guidance of my mother-in-law, into jars of maroon gold: brandied cherries. Understand, as we're talking about a process that's as involved and time-consuming as, say, homebrewing, they're quite the valued commodity, doled out sparingly to family members deemed worthy of appreciating the fine art of capturing the ephemeral essence of peak season cherries in little time capsules to be enjoyed when the shorter days of winter don't provide.

We all see where this is going, right? Here's the point at which we can divide the readers into two camps: those who see adding these cherries to a batch of homebrew as either as act of love and respect or as a reckless, wasteful sacrifice.

When Des and I discovered we'd be welcoming the arrival of a new member of the household back in 2006, it wasn't long before the brewer brain started pondering the best way to commemorate the occasion. I wanted a beer for sipping, something that could be slowly enjoyed while it aged, to be paired with long, quiet evenings in the rocking chair spent trying to figure out this whole parenting thing. But it also needed to have some soul, some deeper connection. Some heredity, as it were. One barleywine base recipe, some lightly charred oak chips, and one coveted jar of Patty's brandied cherries later, a singularly special, if not rather unconventional, beer was created in honor of this next mysterious chapter of our lives.

And it was good.

PS The recipe as I posted it two weeks before Mia was born doesn't even reference anything about the backstory here, which is interesting in retrospect. Was I so superstitious about talking about Mia before she was born that it warranted being entirely circumspect about the recipe's origin? Why all the shy roundabout "shucks golly" explanations about why I really brewed it? Nothing like discovering proof in your own writing that illustrates the levels of denial you go through in the moments leading up to an enormous, inevitable life change, eh?

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Homebrew Blogging Day #1 - On the origin of cerevisiae

Not just any cerevisiae, mind you, but cerevisiae of the home-brewed persuasion. That's the little blogging Beagle we're boarding, begat by Beer Bits 2, the launch of a new monthly groupthink that's putting the emphasis on the "home" aspect of brewing, a neat parallel to Stan Hieronymus' exponentially popular Session group. And, christening that voyage is the question that lies at the heart of the matter, the question of how we all got around to mucking about with DIY malt fermentation to begin with.

The funny thing about cozying up to scribble out an essay on a topic of someone else's choosing is that you can find yourself experiencing a bit of déjà vu, considerably so if you're as much of a rambling and redundant writer as I am. But the clarion call of the carnival is just too seductive to resist, so I'll try to follow this month's topic with as little repetition as possible from this earlier post. But first, a recipe:

(Click for larger beer-stained image.) My good friend Alex recently informed me that my induction into formal beergeekhood occurred when I caught the homebrew bug, no sooner, no later. Dark, dark years of suffering followed. There was doomsday doppelbock. There was the mysteriously "sweet 'n' sour" beer. There were unidentified floating chunks lurking in carboys. There was rope. On the other end of the tunnel, or the "green grass" side of history, if you will, it all seems worthwhile, as it's now been years since we've made anything other than (dare I say) delicious-ish, pat-yourself-on-the-back, honest-to-goodness, don't-nitpick-the-flaws beer. Had you sampled the "beverage" that resulted from the virgin brewing attempt based off the above recipe, you wouldn't have bet on it.

We still drank it, though.


If you can smile when the food's that burnt,
the beer must be pretty good.*

It's a small, charming coincidence that this subject has arisen with Father's Day on the horizon, as my father can take full blame for the homebrewer in me - if not only for his effective branding on the olfactory development of my impressionable nervous system à la the McDonald's Happy Meal by introducing me to home-brewed beer in my youth, but also for the fact that he presented a bored, bookish kid with a funky little home library to peruse which happened to contain within it my introductory text on the subject. Besides John Barth (Giles Goat Boy, The Sot-Weed Factor), Hunter S. Thompson (Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and Graham Greene (The Quiet American, Brighton Rock), Byron Burch† was in good company with his 1975 edition of Quality Brewing: A Guidebook for the Home Production of Fine Beers‡ nestled neatly betwixt them. Cracking the spine on that delightfully rudimentary and debatable text conjured up distinct (and most likely false) memories of the home-brewed beer I remembered from my earliest youth: the crispness of the carbonation, clarity of bitterness, warm golden hue, and grassy, floral aroma. In retrospect, I'm all but certainly recalling the taste of the first German pilsner I ever tasted as a tiny wee one - not my dad's homebrew - but one can never be sure when it comes to things like that.

My father's inspiration for homebrewing came from his intention to recapture the taste of the German lagers that sustained him for his time stationed in Frankfurt, hence my hybridized recollections. Interestingly, pilsner is one of the only major classic styles we've never attempted, mostly out of reverence to the standard of quality that I'd be embarrassed to approximate (and only slightly due to the chills of terror I still get in remembrance of the sole triple decoction mash fiasco/experiment/failure we endured). Regardless of the differences of between our personal beer preferences, however, there aren't many more ardent supporters of my little hobby than my father, a man who unembarrassedly proclaims each new concoction the new unbeatable best, and who I can also thank for the real reason why I've immersed myself in this subject: for instilling in me a true passion for food, the notion of the kitchen as the soul of the home, and the act of creating and sharing§ food with others as the ultimate act of love. Around here, brewing is part and parcel with cooking, which in turn is inexorably linked to the table, whereby the most primitive, basic, soulful community- and family-buidling exercises take place, through the act of breaking bread. I owe my father for ingraining the importance of the communal table into my psyche, and for reminding me that when you sit at that table, you best be enjoying some damn fine food and drink with your company. So take that as your obligatory (and early) Father's Day toast||.


* And yes, that's a grill loaded up with beer can chicken.

And as for Byron, he's still doing his thing in Santa Rosa with The Beverage People, taking awards for homebrewed mead and selling cheesemaking molds via catalog.

Inside that book was the yellowed business card of one mister Steve Norris (anyone know whatever happened to him?), with the address of a homebrew shop in the Outer Sunset, who guided me through that initial gear-buying spree, recipe formulation, and failsafe instruction guide. And despite a couple items that might induce a chuckle from the more experienced brewers out there ("full" body!), though, there's truly not much that's changed in what goes into making a West Coast pale ale since 1995.

§ If there's a unifying characteristic of the homebrewers I've had the pleasure of meeting, a sense of sharing has got to be it. That's why never make less than 5 gallons at a time...

|| A toast which will this year be raised with glasses of hefeweizen which might break my streak of "unbeatable bests". Beer-and-tear-stained scanned recipe to follow.

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