Saturday, May 25, 2019

Free-Range Bro Report: Mounted Curl Spotting!

Note: The following observations are best read in David Attenborough's voice.

During my field work today, I was lucky enough to catch a sighting of one of the more-rare and exciting varieties of free range bros. A top-heavy, frosted-tipped, rack-curler! It was an excellent example as well, in color-coordinated track pants and shoes, with an excellent example nipple-barring tank top! Just gorgeous!

Not only that, but I managed to observe it engaged in some truly remarkable behavior, that has been described in the scientific literature, but is not often seen: mounted curl spotting!

No one really knows why the behavior occurs, but there is speculation that, perhaps, it is a way of establishing dominance within the bachelor herds in which free-range bros travel.  The other possibility is that it is a demonstration of the bro's sexual prowess, aimed at the female of the species, by displaying the bro's ability keep his hips moving in coordination with another's hips, while wrapping his arms lovingly around the submissive bro and gently touching his fingertips to the curling forearms of the other.  Regardless of the creature's motivations, it is a remarkable display!

I feel truly honored to have witnessed this, one of the glories of nature on our planet.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The pendulum

Seven fat years and seven lean.

I haven't brewed in a while.  A couple of weeks after my last post, I decided I would start the brew inside by mashing in the kitchen. It was cold outside, and this had the advantage of using the stove to heat the mash liquor, saving on propane.  Typically, I'd do the mash in the kitchen, lauter into a bucket, and ferry the wort to the kettle outside, 3 gallons or so at a time. 

I finished up by mashing out, waited a few minutes, opened the spigot and....nothing. I got about a quart of wort. My mash was stuck.  Looking back, I'm pretty sure my water-supply-hose screen was clogged, but I'm not entirely sure.  It had been slow the last few brews, but I'd check it, run water backwards through it, etc. And now I couldn't get a 100% barley malt mash to lauter.

I attempted to ladle the mash out into a stock pot, with the intent of cleaning out the mash tun, slipped, and ended up spilling mash on the floor and dropping a full saucepan of mash into the tun, which then sent a geyser of mash in my face and over the ceiling and floor.  While I wasn't injured (it was hot enough to be damned uncomfortable, though), I was frustrated enough that I took the whole thing outside and dumped it on the compost pile.  I cleaned most of the kitchen, but there's a stain on the ceiling that tells me a) my wife will never let me brew indoors again and b) it's time to paint the ceiling. The mash tun hasn't moved since I put it away.

Shortly after this, I hurt my knee rolling in jiu jitsu, and needed to take some time off to focus on rehab. This means I needed to eat well and sleep well, which alcohol, even in small amounts for me, hinders.  Once my knee was feeling better, I went into the gym and started lifting again, to get stronger again (I feel that I would not have been hurt, had I been as sturdy as I have been in the past). Lifting weights on a linear progression program requires still more careful attention to recovery, and so beer took a further back seat. 

That was a few months ago, and I've had time to really think about brewing and drinking.  While I love to brew and love to drink, neither is a priority any more.

I started brewing in Mississippi in the dark ages (the late 1990s). It was actually illegal to homebrew in MS at the time, and the closest thing to craft beer (micro breweries, we called them) available was was Michelob dark, Guiness Extra, or Red Stripe and the very occasional dusty bottle of Sierra Nevada (stored warm on the gas station floor, I didn't realize it was a hoppy beer until years later). I brewed in my dorm room and made what was probably the best beer in town, although I don't think it would win any prizes now. I kept brewing over the years because there was almost always something unavailable that I wanted, and because I love the process.

Fast forward to today, and despite living in a small town in a rural community, I have three stores within two miles of my home that sell pretty much any beer you could want, usually in excellent condition. The only thing they are missing are good, fresh pub beers, and there's a small brewery within 15 minutes stuck in the 2000s (good thing to my mind) making a fine 5% abv amber ale (also circa 2004).  I can get bohemian pilsners, Belgo-American monstrosities, Juicy IPAs, well-made stouts, lagers, ales, sours, whatever I want.  Combine this with the fact that I am not drinking enough to justify having 20 gallons of beer on hand at all times, and brewing has not been happening. 

I know the bug will bite again, and I'll brew five batches in a row. For me, brewing is much more about brewing than about drinking. I love the process, I love the experimentation, and I love making something beautiful and better than the last time as I sharpen that process.  But for now I'm fine dropping in for a six pack now and again.

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. 
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