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.

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