Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Subsistence Brewing put to the Test!

You may have noticed that I've been catching up on posts this morning. That's because I was hanging at the house waiting on a roofing contractor to get here.  Welp, he came, he saw, and he's promised a rather large quote to keep my family dry. Look to see more recipes on the subsistence/economizing end of the spectrum!

Tasting the Ordinary Bitter

Gone, but not forgotten. At its peak,
right about a week out of the fermentor.  
So, the idea behind my "brewing the..." and "tasting the.." posts is that I'll have a record of ingredients and techniques and my thoughts on the beers so I can tweak and improve recipes going forward. Unfortunately, time got away from me on this ordinary bitter I brewed to build up some yeast. I took a couple of pictures to track how it went from hazy to clear as the gelatin did its work. Finishing out dryer than expected at 3.8% abv, this was pleasantly malty, hoppy in that herbal EKG way, wonderfully dry, totally crushable, and gone fast. I share beer, and everyone who had one pint went ahead and had two (or three). This was brewed the first weekend in November and we kicked the keg the day after Thanksgiving.

My thoughts at the time were that I would like to back off the mineral content (or go for a more balanced profile), as it was a bit harsh in the first few days and maybe too bitter for how dry it got. Once it cleared that was less of an issue, so it may be that the gelatin pulled out some polyphenols in the haze. I'm sad to see it go, but considering it took all of ten days from grain to crystal clear pints, it won't be long before I have it on tap again. I might also play with the hops. My wife is also not a huge fan of the batch of EKG I've been using, so I'd like to try the same recipe with all fuggles and all cascade.

First pint. This was one day out of the fermentor. 

Top-Cropping, Open Fermentors, and Heritage Homebrewing

It would be a lie to say that I don't pay attention to the firehose of information available to homebrewers today. I am an avid reader of the various Brulosophy experiments, have listened to every episode of Brewing with Style, and long ago worked my way through Noonan, Strong, Zainasheff, and the rest. I've incorporated the current gospel that temperature control is key in my practices (although I think a steady temperature and a rise at the end is more important than a particular temperature), but I long ago decided that many of the practices that seem so important to homebrewers today (I'm looking at you, people who own RO machines, stainless steel conicals, and glycol chillers) are overkill for me. As much as I enjoy the information and equipment available today, I'll always be more Charlie Papazian than Gordon Strong.

A good example of this is my current fermentation set up. I'm fermenting 5.5 gallon batches in a 7.5 gallon PET carboy with a wide mouth with aluminum foil across the top for the first several days. I purposefully bought this fermentor so I could do open fermentations and top crop certain yeast strains (my understanding is that top cropping really only "works" for "true" top cropping strains, whatever that means). The headspace is overkill for most (not all) yeasts, and I'm almost certainly introducing oxygen, dust, and bacteria into the beer when I'm stirring it around and fishing out yeast (that itself is not perfectly clean and will be pitched into another beer under similarly-non-perfect conditions).

But this is where all that information comes in handy. You have to be super careful and pick a lot of nits to make beer that will keep for 4 months on a warm shelf and still taste good. You have to be very careful with oxygen issues when you're making a delicate lager or a hop bomb. I respect folks who aim for those goals (sometimes, I am one of those people). But you can be a lot more relaxed if your beer goes from fermentor to a cold keg that is empty less than a month after brew day. I'm not a commercial brewer, or even a competitive homebrewer. I'm a subsistence brewer. I'm using my yeast up to a couple of generations because shipping is a pain and it saves a couple of bucks. I also like to play with a process with a long tradition of beer that is roused in the fermentor and served out of casks that let in plenty of night air.

Now, I'll pay reasonable attention to cold-side oxidation when aiming for a hoppy IPA, I don't dip into anything german with a spoon mid-ferment, and I certainly go through a fair amount of Star San and Oxiclean. In fact, I'm thinking of getting a separate, smaller PET carboy with a standard opening just for those styles to limit oxygen uptake (it's getting pretty cold in the house, so maybe its time to start looking at lagers). But for an English style ale using a yeast that was born, bred, and conditioned to life in a Yorkshire Square? I think it's okay to RDWHAHB.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Restarting a Sourdough Starter

I tend to bake in waves of a few months (usually the colder ones) and then end up letting that habit lie during other months (usually the warmer months). While a sourdough starter is a pretty resilient thing, and can easily be revived after a month in the fridge, half a year is often just too much. At some point this Summer, last winter's starter lost its mojo and found myself the proud owner of a canning jar of mold. Not tasty. Of course, I could have easily fed it once every few weeks, but things get away from you, right?

Ready to Leaven! 
Luckily, making a starter is super easy.  There are tons of online instructions (nothing original to see here, folks) involving careful measuring, and I encourage you to try one of those (this one is my favorite). But here's the gist of the thing, which has worked for thousands of years, even before the invention of an accurate kitchen scale. Mix wholegrain flour with water until it looks like too-thick pancake batter, occasionally swap out some of the mix for fresh water and flour, and let it sit out until it's bubbly and smells nice.  

Okay, it's a bit more complicated than that.  Here's my process:
  • The starter should be made with equal parts by weight of water and flour. That's 100% hydration in the parlance of our times). I do eyeball it, but you might want to weigh it out until you get a handle on how that looks. 
  • Store the starter in a jar with a lid that isn't airtight (unless you fancy glass shrapnel), and leave it for a day (in hot weather) or two (in cold weather) on that first day you make it. 
  • After you start to notice some activity, you feed it daily (in cold weather) or twice daily (in warm weather) by discarding 2/3 and adding back in equal weights of flour and water (or just eyeball it until it looks like thick pancake batter). 
  • Sometime between a week and a month (10 days seems to be my sweet spot), the yeast and lactic bacteria that are naturally present on whole grains will develop a stable culture that smells good and reliably raises the starter when it's fed. After that, you can be a little more cavalier and keep it for up to a week in the fridge between feedings. 

A couple of miscellaneous points that I think really help:

  • Your water needs to be filtered or otherwise free of chlorine. You're trying to grow up exactly what your municipal water authority is trying to kill. 
  • Use whole grains to build the starter. It's just easier. I've had good luck with whole wheat and whole rye. Rye is easiest to work with because it doesn't develop a lot of gluten, so it's easy to spoon out.  Later on you can up the percentage of white flour (so inexpensive!), but it's much more of a struggle in the beginning. 
  • Don't fiddle with dropping fruit (unwashed grapes, figs, etc.) into the starter to harvest the yeast. It's messy and unnecessary. While it's true that fruit is covered with yeast, so is everything else on the planet. The yeast present on whole grains have evolved the ability to break down the complex starches and proteins in grains, so those are the ones we want to build up, and they'll eventually outcompete anything else you add anyway (except commercial yeasts, which are essentially domesticated versions of the same).  
  • Make the starter tiny to avoid throwing away 10 pounds of delicious and expensive whole grain flour in this process. The recipes that call for a cup at every feeding time are from commercial bakers who buy flour by the sack. My starter is a teensy 30 grams each of flour and water, kept in a 1/2 pint canning jar. 
  • Days 1 through 7 can be...well...gross. While lactic acid bacteria and various yeasts will win the marathon (by poisoning their competition with acid and alcohol), the starter will begin as a rough neighborhood that smells like a dumpster in August. Give it time and regular feeds, and gentrification will happen. When it starts to smell pleasantly sour and rises regularly, you've got a safe food product. 
    Day 3. Looks good. Smells awful. 
  • Acid food is safe food. A freshly fed to 24-hour old starter that smells nice and sour is a safe food. Don't even taste the thing if it smells like hot garbage (duh) or has any fuzzy mold growing on it. When it doubt, throw it out and start over again (or borrow some from a friend). 
  • Finally, you can short-cut this entire process by finding a friend with a starter. They have to discard 2/3 of their starter every time they feed it (unless they are baking that day), so most folks are pretty free with samples. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Homemade Gravlax

This was so, so easy. There are plenty of good recipes for cured salmon to be found online, from super simple to more-complex, to building-a-smoker-level complicated (mine is an amalgam of what I found, although I lean towards the more-minimalist preparations). 

Can't be bothered to pull together a nice picture, as I was busy eating after this. 
Decently fresh salmon.
Equal amounts by weight of kosher salt and light brown sugar (4 oz of each was enough for my filet)
A good bit of crushed black pepper
I also added some lightly crushed fennel seeds, but that's optional. I think dill anything else that tastes good in aquavit would also be fine. 

Cover the fish with the cure, wrap in plastic wrap, leaving the ends open for the fluid the salt will pull out to drain. Put the whole thing on a sheet pan, add another pan with some cans on top, and stick in the fridge for 2-3 days.  Rinse, pat dry, slice thin, and enjoy. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Do it for the Yeast! Brewing an Ordinary Bitter.

New fermentor, just after pitching.
Basically open fermenting this batch
I brewed this beer on National Learn to Homebrew Day and invited some friends over. As such, this ended up being a more-social affair than brewing typically is for me, so there's no photo evidence of the actual brewing.

As I've written before, the whole point of this beer was to grow up a pack of Wyeast 1469 West Yorkshire to be able to reuse the yeast in a number of beers. The general consensus is that a smack pack doesn't have the yeast needed to properly ferment 5 gallons of most beers, so a lot of people make yeast starters. I've done that in the past, but I broke my e flask and sold my stirplate a few years ago. I don't usually mind using dry yeast--they've gotten really good--but sometimes you want something different. One lazy-ish solution is to brew a low-OG beer (this one was aiming for 1.038) and pitch the yeast from that. It's still technically under-pitching, but the yeast isn't very stressed by the experience and the beer turns out just fine in a way a bigger beer might not. Basically, you drink your starter.

The good news is that this works. As of right now, I've harvested about 200 ml of vigorous, top-cropped yeast that I'll pitch into the next beer. The krausen on this thing came back with a vengeance, even after harvesting that yeast, letting it grow back and swirling the fermenter to beat that krausen back into suspension. And, all this is with using Fermcap S. I'll probably harvest a bit more to see how much I can get, and then let it finish up. We'll see whether I've taken too much out too early, but I bet it'll be fine. My only concern is whether, in using Fermcap S instead of just letting the giant krausen from this yeast run rampant, I am selecting for a population of the yeast that is more or less floculant than I want. I'll find out in the next beer, I guess. For now, I'm happy to not have to clean out my fermentor. My last experience with this strain involved a huge mess.

Top-cropped 1469.
This compacted down to about 150 ml of clean yeast slurry.

This was my second brew using the new mashtun and improved volume tracking, and I'm very happy with how it's going.  Beersmith appears to have a cooler mashtun's number, and the beer came out right where it should have. I ended up with a bit more extract than expected (this seems to happen with little beers), so the OG was 1.039 instead of 1.038, pretty inconsequential even assuming my hydrometer is that accurate.
Third Krausen? Fourth? I've lost track. 

BeerSmith 2 Recipe Printout - http://www.beersmith.com
Recipe: Ordinary Bitter (growing up yeast)
Brewer: VAD
Asst Brewer:
Style: Standard/Ordinary Bitter
TYPE: All Grain
Taste: (30.0)

Recipe Specifications
Boil Size: 7.77 gal
Post Boil Volume: 6.77 gal
Batch Size (fermenter): 5.50 gal 
Bottling Volume: 5.00 gal
Estimated OG: 1.038 SG
Estimated Color: 6.4 SRM
Estimated IBU: 30.9 IBUs
Brewhouse Efficiency: 70.00 %
Est Mash Efficiency: 82.7 %
Boil Time: 60 Minutes

Amt                   Name                                                               Type          #        %/IBU       
5.00 g                Gypsum (Calcium Sulfate) (Mash 60.0 mins Water Agent   2        -         
2.00 g                Epsom Salt (MgSO4) (Mash 60.0 mins)        Water Agent   3        -           
1.00 g                Calcium Chloride (Mash 60.0 mins)              Water Agent   4        -           
8 lbs                 Pale Malt (2 Row) UK (3.0 SRM)                    Grain         5        97.0 %     
4.0 oz                Caramel/Crystal Malt -120L (120.0 SRM)     Grain         6        3.0 %       
43 g                  Goldings, East Kent [5.00 %] - Boil 60.0        Hop           7        28.4 IBUs   
14 g                  Goldings, East Kent [5.00 %] - Boil 15.0        Hop           8        2.5 IBUs   
28 g                  Goldings, East Kent [5.00 %] - Boil 0.0          Hop           9        0.0 IBUs   
1.0 pkg               1469 West Yorkshire (Wyeast #)                    Yeast         10       -           

Mash Schedule: Single Infusion, Medium Body, Batch Sparge
Total Grain Weight: 8 lbs 4.0 oz
Name              Description                             Step Temperat Step Time   
Mash In           Add 3.4 gal of water at 161.3 F         152.0 F       60 min     

Sparge: Batch sparge with 2 steps (1.74gal, 4.14gal) of 168.0 F water

Created with BeerSmith 2 - http://www.beersmith.com

Tasting Broke Okra IPA

This one is going fast, so I think I need to get the tasting notes down before it's too late. As much as I profess to be an acolyte of malt, there is something about a well-done IPA that is undeniable. My plan on the brew day was to make an APA, but when I overshot the gravity and went into IPA territory, the only reasonable thing to do was load up on the hops.

It's possible I need to work on my beer photography skills. 
Appearance -  Okay, this I'm truly proud of. Despite 4 ounces of dry hops, this beer turned out to be absolutely crystal clear. To the point that I ended up texting pictures to people of text through the glass. Nothing darker than victory malt (around 8%) so it turned out a nice pale gold.  The head on this thing is just silly, persistent, meringue-like. 

Aroma - This smells great!  There's a citrus fruity floral thing with undertones of pine and danky funk that I can't help but ascribe to the Cascade and Chinook, respectively.  That said, one of the fruitiest hop notes I've ever gotten was from a 100% Chinook beer where the dry hops went in at high krausen, much like this beer. There's also a just-there bit of maltiness that I imagine comes from the biscuit and victory malts.

Mouthfeel and Flavor - Despite finishing dry (certainly dryer than Beersmith expected), this beer has a substantial mouthfeel. The first flavor on tasting is straight citrusy hops with a bracing bitterness. The bitterness is lingering and would be too much, except for a malty sweet backbone that doesn't quite balance it out, but makes it pleasant.  
Still life with microwave warranty through IPA.

Notes - A nicely-done, west-coast-style IPA in the mold of a lot of what we were (or at least I was) drinking ca. 2010, when the likes of Pliny and Firestone Walker filtered in to my consciousness. It finished super dry and clean, so it drinks very easy, which is a little scary at 6.8% abv. My only thought is that I might want to make it dryer and scarier with a touch of sugar to dry it out. The hop combo is classic early microbrew (in a good way). One thing I love about Chinook and Cascade is that you can make a beer with a ton of hops, and it doesn't cost a fortune. That said, it might be worth it to play around with varieties that have come out in the last 20 years (the Mrs., hophead that she is, is partial to Simcoe).

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