Friday, September 27, 2013

New Batch of Peach Mead

I have a couple friends who are traditional farmers and grow their own vegetables, chickens, sheep, and apples. One of the benefits of this is that they often trade produce for stuff they don't need - namely honey. See, out here in cow town, we tend to share things we grow with others. Not because we expect to receive anything in return, but we typically grow more than we need. As a result, there tends to be a lot of open trading of goods, even if the person may not actually use that produce.

As my friends have no use for raw honey by the gallon, they're willing to pass it off to me. And you better believe I have a good use for it! Recently they gave me some honey that had been sitting in their garage for quite some time... possibly years:

I should probably digress for a moment and explain why honey is a miracle food. It's made primarily from complex carbohydrates, so it's sweet like sugar but contains a large amount of valuable energy, enough for your body to burn for an extended period of time. And like all foods that contain sugars, bacteria absolutely loves it. So why is it that you can keep honey in your room temperature cupboard while your fruit has to be refrigerated?

This is what makes honey so special. Because it's vital for bees to survive (it's their primary food source and the only thing their young can eat), they load it with anti-bacterial protein called defensin-1. This acts as both a natural preservative and powerful antibiotic. How powerful? When applied to antibiotic resistant disease strains, defensin-1 is able to kill the bacteria in a method similar to prescription antibiotics (source). In fact, the protein is so powerful, honey literally has no expiration date - and samples that were discovered in Egyptian tombs were still edible!

Interestingly enough, the connection between honey and antibiotic proteins was only recently discovered, even though honey tinctures have been used in battlefield and bedside medicine for millenia. As honey ages, it becomes more concentrated and crystallized. This is why you often need to warm up honey that has been sitting for a while. The only way to truly ruin honey is to add water to it. This introduce yeast in a partial fermentation process, and yeast provides food for bacteria, eventually to the point that it overwhelms the honey's antibacterial properties.

Ultimately, the art of brewing mead involves dissolving honey into water so that yeast can survive in it, then taking great care in protecting the yeast from bacterial infection. Thankfully, this is much easier to do with honey than with grapes or hops, as the honey helps protect the yeast while it's producing the second natural antibiotic - alcohol.

Anywho, I digress. My newly gifted (and well aged) honey was perfectly fine, though incredibly thick. I warmed some water to 100 degrees to try to soften it up, but in the end, it just took a lot of elbow grease to get it into my fermenting bucket.

Once the honey had been added to 5 gallons of spring water, I goofed and picked out the wrong mug for the yeast. Remember the trick I spoke about my first batch? Well, I accidentally used an insulated mug, so the pot was literally boiling while the yeast's water was still 70 degrees.

I was eventually able to warm it up though. Hopefully I didn't kill it. That would just be a sad day.

Finally, I added peaches, since there were about 8 of them rolling around the bottom of the fridge. They squished easy and were just about to become overripe, so it was the perfect time to clean, core and slice them:

As a result... peach mead has begun! A full 6 gallons! Now I need to get those darn food grade buckets... more on that later!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Expanding Operations

My wife and daughter were out of town this weekend, which meant I had plenty of time to get myself into trouble with new projects, one of which was expanding my brewing capacity.

I had planned on buying some new carboys yesterday anyway, since the rate my wife and I have been drinking through my first few batches of mead means that I need to increase our on hand quantities. I was also interested in expanding my Kombucha operations, so there were a number of pieces of equipment I was on the hunt for. This hunt was unexpectedly aided by my supervisor at work, of all places. We were talking at our weekly meeting about a number of subjects, and my brewing happened to come up. When she heard that I was a homebrewer, she immediately responded "Well, you have to go check out my son's shop! He just opened a beer supply store!" This took me a bit aback, since I had done fairly extensive research on Google for places to buy supplies in Spokane, and had only come up with the one store I mentioned in my last post. Another few searches when I got home determined that his store is not showing up on local searches. Even when I searched for it by name, all I could find was their Facebook page. While I'll have to suggest he work on his Google Adwords, for the moment this is the best I can do to help him: anyone on the east side of Washington state, be sure to go check out Nu Home Brew Supply. They had a good deal of reasonably priced stuff, including a starter kit that was both nicer and cheaper than the one I got Stephen. Grr.

But I digress, I was talking about my operations wasn't I? I'm afraid I don't have any pictures for this post, since I still haven't figured out a decent way to transfer them between my phone and my computer (last time I pulled them from FaceBook, but I didn't upload any of these photos this time), so you'll just have to use your imagination.

I had originally planned to just pick up another 1 gallon carboy, but after I saw that the shop also had a nice looking 3 gallon, I figured that was still small enough to fit somewhere in my apartment. Also, I happened to have just bought another half gallon of honey at the farmer's market, so I could make just enough mead to fill it. It was like a sign from heaven, or something. I'm not an impulse shopper, what are you talking about?

So a little later I had another 1 gallon carboy, a 3 gallon carboy, some airlocks, and a fancy siphon, just because. I also picked up a few bottles of beer that the shop sold from a local brewery down in Pullman that came highly recommended. I waffled over buying a bucket so I wouldn't have to do my yeast gathering entirely in half-gallon mason jars, but given that all the shop sold were fancy buckets meant for making beer, I opted to try a different option.

My next stop was over at Fred Meyer, since I still needed a few supplies for my weekend fermenting projects. While I was there I came across a 5 gallon food grade bucket with a tight fitting lid for $6. This seemed like a reasonably price, so I took it home, cut a hole in the lid, taped some coffee filters over the hole and voila, instant breathable bucket, perfect for gathering yeast, but keeping out flies and infants. On a side note, I also picked up several 5 quart buckets for doing the same with my kombucha, since that has a little quicker turnaround time.

So now I've got 3 gallons brewing in the corner of my apartment, which I'll rack in a week and then see how long I can go before breaking in to drink it. Of course, as soon as that batch is transferred to the carboy I'll start another 3 gallons, two which will go in the my 1 gallon carboys, and the remainder I'll keep for immediate drinking, so it could be quite a while before I need the big batch.

Now, since I have a baby that is trying to use my keyboard, I'll cut this short. Hopefully I'll have some pictures next time!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

First (and second) Racking

I decided to wait only 7 days before the first racking. For those of you who are new to the art of brewing, racking is basically moving your brew from one container to another. This aerates the liquid and leaves behind any garbage from the early fermentation process, such as dead yeast. Because I used so many berries, I was afraid that they would begin to rot and ruin the mead. Since it's my first time brewing, I wasn't sure exactly how long it would take for the berries to actually go bad.

After sanitizing and prepping all my tools and the second bucket, I prepared to siphon off the first bucket. It's been a long time since I've siphoned anything, and I ended up drinking a lot more of the mead in the process than I had expected. The good news is that it definitely has alcohol at this point. It was a light honey and berry flavor with slight carbonation. It certainly needs more time to age, but I'm happy with the way it's going.

Once I finally finished the siphoning process, I packed up the new bucket and put it away. The berry must actually still looked rather good, and didn't show any signs of decay at all. I think the next batch will run for the full 10 days before siphoning. However, the realization that the bucket had a very large amount of oxygen in it weighed heavily in the back of my mind. Oxygen allows the bacteria that secretes vinegar to grow. The reason for using an airlock is to force out excess Oxygen with the Carbon Dioxide the yeast produces. With such a small amount of yeast in a large container, I wasn't confident that the CO2 levels could create enough pressure for this.

As a result, I went ahead and performed the second racking, which is straight into the bottles:

Because I don't have any bungs small enough for the bottles, I had to use a neat trick I read in the The Known World Handbook. Simply put balloons over the top of the bottle and it will fill up with the excess gas. Sadly, I noticed that my balloons weren't inflating. In fact, the mead didn't even appear to be bubbling. I panicked a bit and shook the bottles, trying to aerate them a bit more. Had I exposed it to too much oxygen? Did something infect the batch? Had the yeast been exposed to high temperatures for too long?

Thankfully, a balloon made noise a couple hours later and stood up. Not long after, all the balloons started popping up like they're supposed to, and the mead is currently bubbling right along. 

So now the brew is back on track and my buckets are ready for another batch! I haven't decided fully on how I want to proceed. I'm sure I'll buy a gallon of honey this time and make a much larger batch. All said and done, this mead costs a total of about $6 per gallon to make. Not a bad price!

Monday, August 19, 2013

First Batch Update and Oktobeerfest

Well, it has been nearly 7 days and my must has not begun bubbling very well. There is pressure inside the bucket, and it bubbles when I push down on the lid, but nothing else. But considering I'm only using less than 2 out of the 6.5 gallons of the bucket, this could be entirely expected. There is a lot less carbon dioxide being produce and a lot more room for it to build up.

Thus, tomorrow I am going to perform the first racking. 

Also, I spent the weekend over in Spokane at Blair's place for his daughter's 1st birthday. He broke out his green mead and let us sample it. It's interesting, but the honey was overpowering and very thick. It will, of course, mellow out as honey is converted to alcohol by the yeast. My batch contains more water and berries, so it will be very interesting to see how much difference it makes. The honey was much lighter than his batch as well, though the source was mixed in a similar fashion. The bees are allowed to eat from anywhere, including blackberries, random vegetable flowers, wild flowers, and garden flowers.

Because heating up honey is supposed to also diminish much of the flavor, I may try doing that for a cultured batch, just to see how it effects the final flavor of the mead. Like all alcoholic beverages, it's good to try a fair variety to find what is most palatable for you.

Also, I'd like to mention Oktobeerfest in Enumclaw on the 18th and 19th. It's a yearly Oktoberfest party with lots of beer sampling, a brewing competition, live comedy, and a beer wench competition. Tickets are $15 if you pre-order and $20 at the door. You can volunteer if you'd like to get in free. Enumclaw is one of those small, rustic towns with all the modern amenities disguised as traditional fares. There is plenty of easy parking and light traffic, so it's a great choice for anyone who wants to skip the Seattle/Tacoma drive.

Until next time, happy brewing!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Introductions All Around

Call me Ishmael, er Blair. Apparently I'm the other contributor for this chronicle in mead making and beer brewing. Possibly some wine vinting in the future, but lets not go crazy here right away.

My evolution into brewing is a little different than Stephen's, so I feel some background is in order. I've never had my friend's appreciation (polite way of saying alcohol tolerance) for cultured drinks. I can honestly say I'd never really given much thought to HOW alcohol was made, much less had an interest in making it myself. I have however had an obsession with health and well being for many years now. While this led me down several different paths over the years, eventually I found myself at the foot of the WAPF and the proud owner of a copy of Nourishing Traditions. From this I grew a passion (my wife might say obsession) about inoculating foods with lactic-acid bacteria (LAB). I've spent the last two years making everything from Kimchi to kefir to chutneys. I filled up mason jars and stored them all over the house, baked loaves of sourdough bread during the winter, and sought out all sorts of vegetables during the peak of summer to add variety to my dishes.

Eventually I worked through the limited ideas presented in NT, and started looking to other literary sources for new concoctions. Eventually through a fellow Kombucha brewer I was directed to check out Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation, the predecessor work to the Art of Fermentation that Stephen mentioned earlier. While it did indeed contain a wide variety of LAB recipes, it also had a variety of recommendations for attempting alcoholic brews. I perused the recipes, but didn't commit to trying anything right away. It wasn't until several months later, after I obtained a copy of AoF, that I finally worked up the courage to try some brewing.

Fortunately for me, there happens to be a very well stocked beer and wine supply store here in Spokane, where my family and I currently reside. The store, Jim's Homebrew Supply, helped me get stocked up on some of the basic items that make fermenting oh so much easier, like airlocks. I may prefer to keep things simple, but sometimes its the little things like this that can make your life so much easier.

As Stephen mentioned, there are basically two ways to go about brewing, regardless of whether we're talking about mead, beer, wine, or anything else here. You can either create an environment where yeast is gathered and cultivated naturally, or you can artificially inoculate your product with prepared packets. While I admit I'm partial to the former, I can't really argue for one being superior to another in every way; rather they both have their ups and downs. Adding yeast packets can add more steps and costs, but it also greatly increases the likelihood of a successful product, and can ensure you cultivate specific flavors. When one uses so-called "wild fermentation", one is subject to the whims of the yeast and bacteria that live around us, which may not always be in your favor. I learned this lesson much earlier when trying to cultivate yeast for sourdough, where sometimes I would have a beautiful loaf, and other times the yeast wasn't quite right and my bread would refuse to rise. Since my friend seems to favor more consistent methods, I think I'll limit my posts to talking about the wild ferments that I have been working on, both my perceived advantages and issues.

I picked up a half-gallon of honey at the farmer's market from a group that places bee boxes all over the city, and then goes around periodically collecting the honey. While it is difficult to control the specific sources that bees draw their pollen from without vast monocultures (the wide clover fields of Oregon come to mind), the honey that I can buy here is truly diverse, so much so that they don't even bother labeling their honey as specific types. However, variety is the spice of life, so this suits me just fine.

I started up three batches of mead in some half gallon mason jars I had lying around, with the plan being to drink one of the jars after a week or so, and then rack the other two into a carboy for at least a month. Katz talks about how the honey can be mixed at just about any ratio, so long as the water content is at least 18%, but with most mead being made at a 1:4 ratio of honey to water, with it more diluted if one is adding fruit. I decided this ratio would be a good starting point.

Typically the mead should start to bubble after about 2-3 days of periodic stirring, but by day four I had yet to see any foam building on the surface. I began to panic, checking to make sure the honey I bought was entirely raw (it was), that my water filter hadn't failed (it hadn't), and that I was stirring it enough (I stirred it even more). I even called the city municipal water to make sure there were no chloramines in the Spokane system (a combination of chlorine and ammonia that most water filters cannot remove). Not only did I find out that we don't have them, but apparently our water is some of the least chlorinated in the state. Always good to know.

Fortunately I woke up on day five to lovely frothy mead. I continued stirring it until about 10 days had passed and the bubbles started subsiding, and then bottled and racked it, respectively. while the racked mead hasn't gone long enough for me to pass judgment on it, I have been partaking and sharing the "green" mead, and so far it has been reasonably well received.

So what is next in my brewing future? Buying a few more carboys to increase my production, certainly. While I would like to attempt making beer, it doesn't seem worth the effort in small batches, and with an active one year old daughter I really have no safe place to store a five gallon bucket. Hopefully my residence situation will change in the next few months and I will be able to start in on some larger processes. In the meantime, small batches of mead shall be wonderful accompaniments to the plethora of fall vegetables that are rapidly appearing at the farmers market.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

My First Batch

I've long wanted to brew my own beer, and especially mead. I've generally been either short on time or money and just never picked up a starter kit. In retrospect, I'm not sure what took me so long. Maybe the fear that it would be too difficult, time consuming or maybe take up too much space. I think all first time brewers go through these concerns. Surprisingly, it takes very little space and not even an afternoon of time, though you'll want to set aside more for your first batch. As per usual, there was a lot that I forgot, such as cleaning a stirring implement and I didn't buy enough filtered water for cleaning, so I had to boil some tap water.

Still, I think I did better than average for my first go at it. Except for dropping half of my honey in the driveway on accident. Let me tell you folks, never take more jars than you have hands. Cleaning honey and glass off of pavement is NOT how you want to spend your morning. Regrettable loss of honey aside, nothing overtly terrible happened during the must making process. Before I dive into my procedure, let me explain a few things.

A few days ago my friend Blair gave me a starter brewing kit for my birthday (Like this, but without the glass carboy: Gold Complete Beer Equipment Kit (K6) with 6 Gallon Glass Carboy ). Apparently he had taken up the sport of mead brewing and thought I might enjoy it too. It was a good kit, with all the basics that I needed except for the actually brewing materials (yeast, honey, etc). He mentioned unpasteurized brewing, which I originally took to mean using organic materials. Luckily he loaned me a book on fermenting (and brewing) by a guy named Katz called The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World. Of interest is the idea that you can do a "wild fermentation" which uses yeast that already exists within the honey and in the natural environment. The activator is the normal amount of water, and some ripe fruit supplies to food. Doing this requires a wide mouth container (such as a bucket) for the first stage of fermentation and 7 - 10 days of only loosely covering it with cloth.

The obvious ability for minors to make tankards of hooch with this process aside, it's interesting in that you are expected to only clean your equipment, and not sanitize it entirely. Even the honey needs to be raw and unheated, and the fruit unwashed. When making smaller quantities of mead, it's possible to use mason jars to make the must, then rack them into their serving container to finish up the process.

As much as I'd like to let nature take it's course, this is my first batch of home brewed alcohol ever, so I'm going to get a little help from science. My honey is local and raw from a bee farm about 15 minutes away (living in a cow town has its perks). He said he heats the honey to around 100 degrees to ease the filtering process, which is about the best I can hope for. The other places I called heat the honey to 120 degrees, which technically means its actually pasteurized, not raw. The proper term for this would be organic, though there really is no such thing as organic honey (come now, do you REALLY think they control where the bees eat? The neighbor could be dousing their flowers with pesticides, and that will end up in the honey).

So this honey is good enough for me. It's not separated by type and just mixed wild flower/blackberry because that's what's in season. He sells Quarts for $10, a gallon for $35 and 5 gallons for $125. I decided on 2 quarts, as I don't want to blow a lot of money on honey because I screwed up my first batch. better to learn with a smaller, cheaper batch.

I also picked p 4.5 gallons of purified drinking water and 2 packets of Red Star dry wine yeast that was rather sweet smelling from Larry's Brewing Supply in Kent, Wa (shameless plug). It wasn't until I set about preparing to clean my equipment that I realized I didn't have enough purified water to clean anything. The best suggestion on that topic is to boil tap water to evaporate any chlorine in it, so I promptly did so and spent the next 45 minutes trying to cool it off. Next time I'll just spend a few extra dollars I think. 

I also rounded up some of the available berries to use for yeast food. There are some fresh picked blackberries (no, they aren't from the fruit stand, just in the box for convenience). I also picked some blue berries from out front. Now, I did rinse off the blackberries briefly. Any time you pick something in the wild, you have no way of knowing where it's been, what's been on it or what's been done in it. Blackberries tend to grow near the side of the road, so can have exhaust fumes and pesticides from whoever happens to be spraying in the area. A quick rinse won't hurt anything. I know that the blue berries haven't been sprayed though, so I have no problem dumping them right in.

After everything was cleaned and prepped, I poured in the honey, water, and yeast then shook the bucket quite vigorously. The idea is to both mix up the honey and aerate the yeast. The berries went in next (I was tempted to add a banana, but I don't want to throw too much in before I see how it behaves). I had to use a spatula to thoroughly stir the honey into the water. This is actually where a carboy would be far more useful, as I couldn't really see how well the honey was mixing. I just had to use my best judgement to determine if the honey was mixed well enough.

A brief note on yeast preparation - If you're going to prepare a cultured yeast instead of attempting wild fermentation, put a pot of water on the stove, and then put your purified water in a cleaned (and sanitized) coffee mug with a thermometer. Heat the water in the pot and keep an eye on the thermometer. Remove it and add the yeast at 100 - 105 degrees (or whatever the packet says). This method heats the water much more slowly so you don't risk overheating the water.

My step father has also taken an interest in my mead making interest and gave me his old wine making set, which included some very old porcelain top bottles, 4 airlocks, 2 hydrometers, 6 cork bungs, a large bag of stoppers with wires, and some hoses. I promptly set out to clean the bottles in preparation for usage, but quickly discovered that they will require several stages of cleaning. Their rubber gaskets are the consistency of chewed bubblegum, and the 7th bottle I cleaned was full of wine. Thankfully it was the last bottle I cleaned, since it also had a dead mouse stuck firmly to the bottom. Considering it was last opened in the 70's, the mouse was rather well preserved. That bottle went into the garbage, though.

So now my bucket of hooch mead is sitting under my desk, and I'm eagerly awaiting the air bubbles that will tell me the yeast isn't dead and I didn't completely screw up. If I did, well, it means early scrubbing, more honey, and another packet of yeast. I'll certainly keep everyone updated. And for the charts:

1 Basket of Blackberries
1/2 cup of Blue Berries
3 lbs of honey
6:1 Water:Honey

I'll probably drink the mead at 1 month intervals to see what stage I like it the most at, with 6 - 9 months being the longest I'm likely to wait for an active batch. Though if I start making larger quantities, I'll certainly stash some to try the yearly flavor.