Author Archives: Tim Vandergrift

About Tim Vandergrift

I’m an authority on consumer-produced alcohol beverages, what most folks refer to as ‘homemade’ wine, beer, mead, sake. For more than two decades I helmed the Technical Services department for first one and then the other of the world’s largest consumer beverage companies (RJ Spagnol’s and Global Vintners). ‘Technical Services’ makes it sound like I was in IT, but it was the only title that really fit the job I did. Mainly I talked, lectured and wrote about wine and beer making, wine, kit wine technology and applications, and anything else that people will sit still and listen to, and I did promotions and marketing and helped design and set up homebrew shops and On-Premise operations across Canada and the USA. Nowadays I’m an independent consultant to the industry, doing much the same things as before, but as a freelance type guy–I’m always late for work and my boss is a slave-driver. My usual writing style is pretty loose, and I can never stay on topic (my wife says I have undiagnosed ADD) so if you’re reading here, please join me in hoping for the best. I’ll be blogging about stuff I’m doing, beer, wine, food, cooking, drinking, eating . . . come to think of it, if you can ferment it, cook it, eat it, or drink it, I’ll pretty much be interested in it. Label me a professional hedonist, I think it fits.

Making Mad Mead Part 5: Judgment(al) Day

For those following along at home, you can check out my mead series here

After initial hostilities and threats to my person, traditional mead makers seem to have accepted my presence in their midst, and I have come to see the interplay of their dominance battles within the tribe and the constant quest for honey  and authenticity with the detachment of a rational anthropologist. I can only hope to retain the trust of these gentle, beautiful creatures in the future. 

Jewel on the Columbia

With my mead clear, stable, sweet and carbonated to deliciousness, it was time to pack up the station wagon and head down to the Pacific Northwest Homebrew Conference. You may recall I was on the hook for a seminar on Meadmaking, one I chose to title, “Mead: Delicious Historic Beverage or Spoiled Bee Vomit?

It’s held in Vancouver Washington, which is immediately north of Portland Oregon, where most of the brewing clubs and a lot of the brewing action in the Pacific Northwest happens.

Why hold it in Washington if Portland is so darn awesome? Money: doing it in Portland would probably double costs as with popularity comes great price tags. Still, although Vancouver is a tiny little burg it’s not a bad place at all. Best of all it’s only about a 5-1/2 hour drive from Chaos Manor, just over the border from Washington in Canada. With a car full of jockey boxes, CO2 apparatus, kegs and bottles, I wedged a suitcase and a spouse in there for the journey.

That much happiness can only occur in the presence of donuts

Portland is not without its charms, and I killed a couple of days hitting Voodoo donuts, parks, museums and shopping. I was also lucky enough to have time for my friends Emily and JT, a delightful couple of Oregonians who not only make great beer, but are also cool in many other ways. That’s pretty much the best part of working in the industry I’m in: you meet so many wonderful, gracious and lovely people, and long after businesses are gone and deals are done, they’re the ones you remember.

Eventually I had to put the beer down and go to work. The seminar was a success, with a couple of dozen folks listening to my lecture (you can check out a copy of my presentation here), enjoying Ancient Fire Mead and my own creations. Everyone agreed that Ancient Fire‘s meads (generously donated, if you recall, by Jason and Margot Phelps) were superior examples of the craft, while my bone-standard traditional mead was (generously) described as ‘icky’.

The Barkshack was very well-received, with some participants asking for thirds, a very gratifying circumstance. I had a lot of really great questions from the crowd, who were keen to make their own mead, authentic and drinkable. While I’m only a winemaker trying to understand all kind of fermentation, I hope my message that mead–heck, any fermented beverage, for that matter–doesn’t exist in a vacuum on it’s own, but needs to be seen as part of the family of fermented drinks that we can all share, whether it’s dandelion wine, Russian Imperial Stout, or Cabernet Sauvignon. Tradition is great, because it teaches us where we come from and how we got to where we are, but it’s innovation and sharing ideas that will take us where we’re going next.

After the lecture was done, it was time for club night. If you’ve never been to a brewing conference club night, you’re really missing out. If you’ve been to the one at BrewCon (I was there the last time it was in San Diego) it’s a glorious riot of beer craziness. PNWHC club night is smaller, but they go all-out crazy with beautifully decorated booth, some of which are more like small brewpubs than little club gatherings.

Tim, Alvaro and Nathaniel, representing Vanbrewers and the Tri-Cities brewing clubs. Seems legit.

Our own booth was a bit more modest, as it was me straddling the fence for the Tri-Cities Brewing Club and for Vanbrewers, along with Alvaro and Nathaniel. We’d like to make a big show of it, but with the US exchange rate and transportation costs all of us were combining it with business trips or vacation time. We were up 50% in attendance year-over-year, a trend we hope will continue.

We were pouring Nathaniel’s Vickie’s Smoked Porter, a really solid porter made with Miss Vickie’s smoked potato chips, Alvaro’s Pisco Sour (I think it was a Saison base, but boy howdy was it delicious) as well as his new world Pilsner with modern German hop varieties, as well as my Barkshack Ginger mead.

My own prediction was that while the blockbuster Imperials and Double IPA’s were going to be early favorites with the crowd, the mead, balanced to off-dry, fruity and refreshing, would get more popular as the night progressed.

In the spirit of the thing! Glad you enjoyed it, Wendy!

Turns out I was right. By the end of the evening most of my keg was gone, with the folks enjoying it coming back for fourths and fifths (not to worry: everything took place in the hotel and nobody was driving anywhere, and there wasn’t anyone overserved–lots of little samples instead).

Straight-up legends, Mike ‘Tasty’ McDole and Denny Conn

Two very welcome visitors were Denny Conn and Mike McDole, who both tried the Barkshack and appeared to enjoy it. Denny’s comment was that it was the first mead he’d tasted in years, and that he didn’t mind it was the highest praise I could have asked for.

Obligatory fanboy picture

After that it was all over but for the packing and tidying and tripping back up to Canada. I’d like to think I learned something on my mead journey, both from making it, teaching people about the history of fermented honey, and the fallout from a tiny minority of mead makers who really took offense at me approaching ‘their’ beverage with humor and cynicism.

People love what they love. And we beer geeks, wine dorks and mead maniacs love what we do so passionately that we’re willing to share both our brews and our knowledge with others, so they can catch the bug and make it a part of their lives–or at least so they can understand something we consider amazing and wonderful.

That’s a thing worth investing your time, your passion and your self-identity into. And I’ll drink to that.

Cheers to you! 

 

 

 

Making Mad Mead Part 4: Post-Fermentation Processing

For those following along at home, you can check out my mead series here

The generalized clamour for my head (preserved in a jar of honey) has died down, but I’m hopeful that with my descriptions of filtration and preservatives (as well as lots more sugar) will stir that all up again. 

When We Last Left the Barkshack . . .

Very organic . . .

. . . it was fermenting strongly fizzing away for five days. I had a look at it every day, and when the vigorous fermentation dropped off, I took a specific gravity reading.

That’s very done

The first reading was 1.044 and now it was at 0.994, indicating complete dryness and an alcohol by volume of around 6.5%. That was a little more than I was expecting, as it had fermented out very low–the Saison yeast appears to have had a powerful and thorough effect!

Upsy-downsy

The colour was great, the aroma was fantastic, but the flavour was dry beyond words. It wasn’t overly acidic, and the tannins derived from the raspberry seeds weren’t overwhelming (on the contrary, they were a like a backbone running through the mead) but it wanted some sweetness to bring out the character of the fruit. Interestingly, it had a light but definite honey aroma and flavour. I was pleased that it carried over the fruit, ginger and lemon notes as it really added to the character of the mead.

Adding Mad Adds

I hit it with my standard winemaking processing addition for fruit wines that I wanted to clear in a hurry, sorbate, sulphite, and finings. The three need to be done to any wine that’s going to be back-sweetened and not Pasteurized or sterile-filtered.

Sulphite stuns yeast and forces some cells to dormancy while preventing oxidative damage. Without sulpite additions the mead would lose that gorgeous colour and start losing flavour pretty rapidly, especially after getting exposed to oxygen like I was planning to do with it (more on that below). Since the mead was at a pH of 3.2 I settled on a single dose to bring it up to 50 PPM FSO2, counting that some would get burned off in processing and absorbed by oxygen extant in the mead already.

The magic white powder that makes everything better

(If you’re not a fan of sulphite, I don’t actually care. If you’d like to argue with me about it, I don’t do that because there’s no defensible argument against correct sulphite usage. Sulphite is wonderful, and everyone should eat some every single day–oh wait, you do, because it’s in everything, including wines labeled ‘No Sulphite Added’. Want more info? Check out my awesome blog over at Master Vintner: Lies, Damned Lies, And Sulfites: The Facts)

Yeast cells. Note the daughter cells budding off

The finings remove colloids, proteins and other material from solution, making it clear, but more importantly from a stability standpoint, they remove yeast cells, and that’s part of the strategy to get the mead stable enough to bottle. A good fining regime can reduce the yeast population to the point where they will no longer make alcohol and carbon dioxide, even if there is enough nutrients and food for them to do so.

This is because yeast has two different schemes that are in operation in an alcohol fermentation. First, they breed up to culture strength, which is on the order of 10 to 20 million live yeast cells per millilitre of wine (or beer or whatever). When they hit that mark the population levels are too high, so they stop breeding. It happens all at once, and while it’s got to be some kind of chemical signal that does it, nobody has caught them at it yet.

After they stop breeding, they change their metabolic pathways and start turning sugars and nutrients into carbon dioxide and alcohol, rather than into millions more daughters. They’re ruthless, but practical.  When they run out of food, they mostly go dormant, and a good percentage of them die. Between the sulphite stunning them and the finings pancaking most of them down to the bottom, they cease most activity.

But in the next stage, when we add back sugar to balance the flavour, if there are any yeast cells present, they will start breeding again, and when they hit that magic 10-20 million mark, the wine will go cloudy and re-ferment. And that’s where sorbate comes in.

What is Sorbate? What Does It Do?

Sorbate is a polysaturated fat in the form of sorbic acid (it’s made into potassium sorbate by reacting it with potassium). It’s found in blueberries, huckleberries and mountain ash berries in large amounts. It’s a food additive recognized by Health and Welfare Canada, and it’s classified as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) meaning it’s pretty darn benign. One of the more thorough studies I’ve read showed that the only side-effect to large-dose feeding of sorbate to rats was a slight extension in life span (attributed to a protection against lung infections engendered by the sorbate).

Here’s the fun thing about sorbate: it doesn’t kill yeast. It doesn’t even make it late for work. What it does, is prevent yeast cells from budding off new daughters. It’s birth-control for yeast. That’s why it’s so useful. When you get the yeast population below the fermentation level, then add sorbate, the yeast can’t climb back up to the point where they can start making carbon dioxide and alcohol, and they leave the sugar and nutrients alone, so the wine doesn’t change character or flavour/aroma.

The Additions

After the sulphite, I added 250 PPM of sorbate and a dose of gelatin finings. I chose gelatin because it’s relatively strong as a fining agent, and because it reacts strongly with tannins, meaning it would tame the raspberry seed tannins a little, and work with them to clear the mead. I let the wine settle for ten days, and then went to the filter.

Filtering and Back-Sweetening

The mead wasn’t completely clear, but it was Friday, and I was heading down to the Pacific Northwest Homebrew Conference on Monday, so I rammed it through my filter anyway. I don’t recommend this: filtering should only be performed on clear wine/beer/mead in order to polish the appearance. Being as I was in an all-fired hurry, I did it anyway.

I did achieve a beautiful, sparkling clarity, but more importantly I reduced the yeast cell populations to a very low level, ensuring that with proper care I wouldn’t get re-fermentation.

The mead was still very tart and crisp, but what I was shooting for was lively, crisp and luscious. I dissolved a kilogram of sugar in 500 ml of water, along with a pinch of citric acid, to make invert syrup. I’d like to tell you how much I used, but I did it to taste and some of the invert went into another project, so I can’t be sure how much went where. I’d say about 2/3 of it went into a 19 litre Corny keg, gently stirred.

I banged the keg into my keezer and attached it to my CO2 system at 30 PSI and left it until Sunday afternoon, when I grabbed a glass to see if it was going to pass muster.

Frothy shiny goodness

Oh yeah. The glass looks cloudy, but that’s condensate: the mead is perfectly clear. It was slightly overcarbonated, but that was handled by blowing the pressure down and leaving it to stabilize on its own. It was fresh, crisp, lightly but positively gingery and redolent of raspberry, lemon and honey.

Next step, off to Portland to talk to a roomful of eager meadmakers.

 

Making Mead Part 3: The Meadening

Stalwart collectivist female forages my borage

If you’ve just tuned in, be sure to read Making Mad Mead Part One and Part Two. As we return to our story, I am still a persona non grata with certain elements of the mead making subculture. Still, it’s nice to get mail from angry strangers, even if they can’t spell ‘nincompoop’. 

Part three logically would be about processing my fermented Barkshack Ginger Mead. But first, a dark confession: I had already made a batch of mead, well before the delicious pink juice you saw in part one and two . . . 

I was counting on my pal Jason to supply the attendees with great examples of well-made, modern mead done with the sensibility of someone who had a background both in wine and beer making, and who was good enough to sell mead commercially. He came through in a big way, with a generous shipment of his excellent meads.

I had commercial mead, I had my disruptive interpretation, and I also had a dark secret: I had already made an authentic prehistoric mead (sort of).

A couple of years ago I went on a hike in the Mayan jungles. After many amusing misadventures, including falling down a cenote and losing a car, I came across a little rural stand, way off the beaten path, that was selling honey. The folks in charge had only a modicum of English, so one of their kids explained to me that they gathered honey from wild hives in the jungle and sold it to tourists. They also traded it to folks in Oaxaca for coffee beans, which they roasted over wood fires–they made me the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life.

Bee wings, legs, guts, wax, pollen, et cetera–all good things

I brought that bottle of honey home and tucked it into the cupboard, mainly as a curiosity: it was dark as the Coca-Cola that had previously occupied the bottle it came in, with a deeply aromatic caramel note and quite a lot of detritus from being an unfiltered product, as well as being unpasteurized unregulated and untouched by modern methodology. One day, however, I decided it was time to confront mead on its own turf, and formulated a plan to replicate the ancient ways. What can I say? It’s my attention surplus disorder leading me down every possible path.

The unusual suspects

By itself my Mayan honey wouldn’t be enough to make a satisfactory gallon of mead. Fortunately, I had a little bit more honey around that fit the bill. The first was a jar of Cuban honey (relax, I’m Canadian, we can trade with them), a gift from a friend. Low-tech processing ensured it was minimally altered from the natural state, although I’m pretty sure it got at least some filtering. There was finally a small dribble of honey from a jar of unpasteurized Elias organic honey that my wife may have used in a dessert without telling me. They’re a producer from Prince George British Columbia that’s got a very good reputation for quality. Together all of these honeys fit the bill for an old-style of honey, and would help me make a roughly traditional mead.

With just over three pounds of honey, I was ready to make a gallon of  mead. I diluted the honeys with half a gallon of 55C/130F water, stirred to thoroughly mix, and cooled it to 24C/75F, then topped up with dechlorinated water to 4 litres/one gallon. Predicted SG on this would be around 1.100, so if it fermented completely dry it would make around 13-14% ABV. In keeping with primitive methods I didn’t bother with a hydrometer reading. If it was off there was no way to correct it in any case: I had no more honey suitable for the recipe.

Looks like a gallon of espresso

I chose to add yeast nutrient and a commercial yeast strain, because I wanted to give the fermentation a fighting chance. I used Fermaid K and Lalvin EC1118 Champagne yeast. If you’ve never used EC 1118, it’s . . . it’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk of yeast. It’s the strongest yeast, kills other yeast casually, ferments everything, and tolerates most conditions without producing off flavours. I could have left it outside to get a wild yeast, but we have hummingbirds. I could also have used bread yeast, but if you’re gonna add a commercial culture, you don’t bench the champ.

Finished. Looks like strong iced tea

I pitched, fermented at 24C/75F, racked to two half-gallon jugs after four weeks of (very slow) fermentation and tucked it into my cellar to get a couple of months of age.

Mmm, smells great

It wound up very nice and clear, and smelled awful, kind of like a combination of raisins and Porta-Potty: not in the enteric bacteria sense, but in the sense that I really wanted to do everything I could to avoid it. When the call came in from the PNWHC to do the seminar, I bottled up half of it and put it aside to age and left the rest under an airlock to do it’s thing for a year or two. We’ll see what it tastes like in 2018.

Snapping back in the present, in the next installment well get on with my Barkshack Ginger Mead. Processing that is going to involve fining, sterile filtering, stabilising with sulfite and sorbate, and back-sweetening with inverted sugar, and finally artificially carbonating in a keg with CO2. I’m hopeful that further explanations of what I’ve done will help mollify some of the mead makers who were concerned that I was going off half-cocked. I can assure all of them that I’ve never gone off more than one-quarter cocked in my life. 

Making Mad Mead Part Two: Honey, I’m Home

Note: Part one of this blog has attracted a rather startling amount of pushback from Internet commenters and via email. Turns out that if you speak about mead in anything but hushed, reverent tones, mead traditionalists get all soggy and hard to light, and will brand you a “hater”. 

 I’m not trying to disrupt for disruption’s sake, I’m here as a non-mead drinker trying to figure out how to make mead I’ll enjoy. The fact that anyone who doesn’t adore and love mead with their heart, soul, and passion would speak about it shouldn’t sadden mead lovers. Maybe the takeaway is that there are different points of view out there that keep mead from being a mainstream beverage, despite its potential: why not learn about them?

Anyway, who cares. Let’s talk about mead. 

Honey

As a non-consumer of honey, I wanted to give my mead a fair shake by getting the best bee-juice that I could lay my hands on. Costco sells buckets of honey quite cheaply, and there’s a popular honey outlet not too far from where I live, but I was hopeful that I could do a little better than mass-market stuff. I heard from an apiarist friend that the BCB Honey Farm was run by fanatics who took honey extremely seriously, to the point of treating it like a sacrament and a medicine as opposed to a foodstuff.

Honey evangelist

I thought he was exaggerating, but it turns out that was the truth: Dr. Iman Tabari came to Canada to produce medicinal honey and help reverse the decline of honey bees. Entering his shop I got a lecture on how most honey was not worth the money, how his stuff was almost perfectly monocultural, and how it was processed to preserve a whole host of innate qualities that were destroyed by traditional methods.

My woo-meter was off the chart, but I noticed something interesting. All of his honey samples, even ones from crops that got a lot of colour in them, were much lighter in hue than I was used to. One of my issues with most honey is a dismal cooked-sugar character that made it taste blandly caramel-like. Could he be on to something with his processing? The only way to find out was to (gulp) taste the honey.

So I did.

I ran the table. They were all excellent.

The honey was delicious. Far from the bland, caramelised goo I was expecting, it had a light, nectarous and floral character with a very clean, pleasant aftertaste. Not only did I buy a big jar for my mead, I bought another for the house, and I’ve even eaten some on toast.

One other thing about this honey: it is absurdly expensive, $50 for a four-pound jar. The proprietor averred that mass-market honeys were cheaper because of issues with what the bees were fed, and some were perhaps adulterated to an extent. I can’t comment on that because I have zero knowledge about the honey trade, but given the difference in quality between his honey and every other I’d ever tried, I had to concede that there was something going on.

The Other Ingredients

The unusual suspects

In addition to my jar of honey and sugar to boost the gravity, I rousted the freezer and turned up some rhubarb and raspberries, both from my garden from last year. Hitting the produce store I got a few stalks of lemongrass, lemons and some ginger. I sanitised all of my equipment and got to work.

Just belt it hard

I washed the lemongrass and bashed it to open the stems and tossed it into the fermenter.

Normally I’m more of a Mary-Anne guy

I hacked my ginger into medallions and they went in too.

Zesty!

I zested a whole lemon and tossed it in.

When life hands you lemons, establish dominance

I squished the lemon and tossed that in.

The smell was fantastic

With those things in, it was time to concentrate on the fruit and sugar.

The magic ingredient

I prepped the sugar by dissolving it in boiling water that had 20 grams of tartaric acid in it. Acidulating the water causes the sugar to invert. This has a bunch of effects (principally that the sugar won’t crystallize out of solution after that) but I did it because I wanted to put it there so I didn’t forget to add it to the bucket–the acid was there to balance flavour and reduce pH.

That’s funny-looking soup

I brought the water back up to a boil and added my raspberries and rhubarb. I left it on the heat to bring it back up to 160F. The fruit was previously frozen and then thawed, which helps break down the cell walls and release the juices. If I was making a higher-alcohol beverage I would have simply dumped ten pounds of sugar onto the frozen fruit and left it for a week. The sugar acts like brine, drawing liquid out of the fruit and bursting the cells through osmotic pressure differential, while the high sugar levels prevent bacterial growth. As I was shooting for around 1.050 in starting gravity, I couldn’t use that much sugar, so I took this route.

Lightly seasoned

After a few minutes of stirring the mixture hit 160F and I took it off the heat and stirred in a tablespoon of Fermaid K, my favorite nutrient. No real reason to add it at this point except that I had it handy and it was easy to dissolve in the watery fruit soup. Without letting it cool, I poured it into my fermenting pail.

Getting closer . . .

At this point it smelled really good, as the hot liquid release the fragrance from the lemon and ginger.

Fifty bucks in ten seconds.

I added the jar of honey and rinsed it out with boiled water.

A departure in yeast choices

I topped up the fermenter to 21 litres/5.5 US-gallons with lukewarm water. If I’d been using a standard wine yeast I would have used cold water to bring the temperature down, to reduce ester production. However, I chose to use Belle Saison yeast, which has a spicy, somewhat estery profile  which shows off even more when it’s fermented above 80F. Yeast like this is what gives Saison and Farmhouse ales their peppery-spicy zing.

Corrected for temperature, just about right.

Just before I pitched the yeast I took a hydrometer reading. Honey adds about 35 points of gravity per pound, per gallon. I couldn’t be sure that this honey was as dense as normal: it seemed to flow pretty freely, but 35 is close enough for back-of-the-envelope.

Sucrose adds about 46 points of gravity per pound, per gallon.

I added 4 pounds of honey: 4 x .035 / 5.5 gallons = 1.025

I added three pounds of sugar: 3 x .046/5.5 gallons = 1.025

Therefore, at 60F/15C, my starting SG should be around 1.050. A reading of 1.044 at 80 F corrects to . . . exactly 1.050.

Those numbers are so close it’s spooky. I probably did something wrong.

Down for the count of five

After that, I pitched that yeast, sealed the fermenter and put it aside for five days. It started fermenting within four hours and was fizzing angrily within 12, putting out a really great smell.

Next Blog: stabilizing, clearing, back-sweetening, filtering and carbonating. Still a ways to go to the mead seminar.

 

Making Mad Mead Part One

 

Technically not vegan . . .

It may come as a surprise to some people, but I have a few strongly-held opinions, among them that 90% of sour beers are awful, no country music worth listening to has been made since 1977, and that honey is disgusting.

It’s not that I don’t like bees: I have an organic community garden and help support a half-dozen hives, planting flowers and borage to keep the girls in nectar and pollen. But honey . . . what do you call something an animal swallows, adds a bunch of body fluids and enzymes to, and then pukes back up?

BLARRRRRRRF!

In addition to the queasy aspects of eating something that’s already been eaten once, there’s the whole idea of exploiting the labour of indentured workers:  2 million flowers must be visited by bees who have to fly 55,000 miles to produce a single pound of honey and an average worker bee makes only about 1/2 teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

So between my feelings on this and my repeated statements that I despise mead, I was asked by the organisers of the Pacific Northwest Homebrew Conference to give a lecture on making mead.

What is Mead?

Mead is a fermented beverage made from  honey.  In its most basic form it’s just honey diluted with water, with yeast to convert the sugars to alcohol. It’s a very old beverage. Archaeometric evidence suggests that it might be the earliest fermented beverage.

Mmm, sanitary!

Mead has a big share of historical imagination about beverages. The saga of Beowulf features mead and when Vikings died honourably in battle they were thought to wake up in a great mead hall (the mead came from the udder of a goat . . .) In addition, ‘honeymoon’ describes a gift of mead that newlyweds were given. It was believed their consumption of it over the following month would increase fertility.

Why Historical Mead is Awful (A Rant)

He’s doing a thing he loves. More power to him. But mead sucks.

All of this romanticism about mead has made it popular with a certain class of enthusiast. Now, I’m not one to criticize Renn Faire devotees, but their uncritical devotion to mead as some kind of special beverage has left little room for the truth about it: most historical mead tastes exactly like other historical drinks: oxidised, poorly fermented, and badly balanced towards excessive sweetness and alcohol levels.

Think about it: mead came before wine, and co-existed with early cereal beverages. Beer made with ancient grains would rarely have been higher in alcohol  than four or five percent, and would have been consumed at least in part for the rich, porridgey calories it gave. Fermented honey could exceed 10% ABV, sometimes even higher, intoxicating drinkers with a swiftness that nothing else did. It deserved the reputation it had.

But just as we no longer drink bowls of murky porridge through a filtering straw (true story) we no longer have to drink overstrong bee-juice for kicks. Modern brewers use a variety of recipes, techniques and post-fermentation interventions to achieve clear, stable beers that have more-or-less subtle and well-balanced flavours. If beer brewing was stuck where most amateur mead-making seems to want to stay, we’d all be crumbling up biscuits into clay pots on brew day, and drinking it three days later, before ‘demons spoiled it’.

In short, despite having judged mead many times, and tasting one truly, epically great mead, I had very little respect for it as a beverage, even if you left out the bee vomit.

Enter the PNWHC and An Ally

The Pacific Northwest Homebrew Conference is a riot. Much smaller than the NHC, it’s also easy to navigate, and the attendees are seriously enthusiastic and friendly to a fault. I attended the first year and had a great time, so when they contacted me to ask if I’d give a seminar, I gladly agreed. When they told me they needed a lecture on mead making, I instantly agreed, because this was my chance to see if I could influence meadmakers in a positive way.

Funny enough, in talking to my peers in the beverage industry they all agreed I was the perfect man for the job–or maybe they just thought it was delightful that a man who didn’t even eat honey should be forced to make mead and teach others how to do it. I contacted my old friend Jason Phelps for some advice and support.

Jason and his lovely wife Margot. Did I mention that he’s a first-class mensch?

Jason is a colleague from my days at Winemaker Magazine and founder of Ancient Fire Mead & Cider. He makes beer, wine and a lot of really excellent mead. Not only did he lend me his PowerPoint presentation, he also sent along a case of mead for my class to taste. That left me with making a couple of batches of mead of my own, to demonstrate my theories of ancient vs. new techniques, and the advantages of approaching mead like a winemaker rather than a brewer.

Don’t Make Mead Like a Brewer

Brewing is a craft derived from empirical observations, while winemaking is a science influenced by serendipity. The difference is subtle, but for me it comes down to the fact that brewers can control the starting conditions of their beers more-or-less completely by manipulating the grain bill, the mash schedule, the water chemistry, the hop additions, the yeast choice, etc. However, once they’ve pitched the yeast the number and kind of interventions they make to their brew drops off pretty steeply.

In winemaking on the other hand, the vintner is always at the mercy of his ingredients. some part of weather, climate, terroir, late rain, mold, bird attacks, et cetera, will influence the raw materials coming into the winery. Important interventions can be made to ensure a clean and healthy fermentation, but how all of the factors that go into a wine will eventually meld together can’t be completely predicted.

Venn you’ve got it, flaunt it

But it’s post-fermentation where a winemaker can work magic. The process of taking a wine after primary fermentation to being finished is called elevage. It’s a French term that means ‘raising’ or ‘upbringing’ and it’s applied to both children and livestock to mean the same thing: doing what you can to ensure the best outcome for something in your care. Acid balancing, adjusting sweetness and alcohol, fining and filtering adding tannins (or taking them out) preventing oxidation or re-fermentation, sur lie, battonage, barrel-ageing . . . the host of techniques goes on. Mead makers needn’t avail themselves of all of these, but approaching a mead like a winemaker who is shaping it as they go is an important distinction that separates us from the ancient ways.

Getting My Recipe On

Mostly complete

The last time I had made mead was back in about 1984 (don’t laugh, I’m old) from a wadded-up photocopy of The Joy of Homebrewing. As a lark, and to make a friend happy, I followed the Barkshack Gingermead recipe from out of the book. My hazy memory of the drink was that it was extremely well-received, and I never made it again, because honey.

I hauled it out and inspected the recipe with the eye of thirty years as a winemaker.

  • 7 lb Light honey
  • 1 1/2 lb Corn sugar
  • 1 oz To 6 oz fresh ginger root
  • 1 1/2 ts Gypsum
  • 3 tsp Yeast nutrient
  • 1/4 tps Irish moss powder
  • 1 lb To 6 lbs crushed fruit
  • 3 oz Lemongrass, or other spices
  • 1 pk Champagne yeast

Not bad, but there were some weird things in there, like gypsum (calcium sulfate) and Irish moss (seaweed) that didn’t make sense to a winemaker. Sure, gypsum would drop the pH, but there are more subtle ways to do that. Also, it was a lot of honey for what I was shooting for. My revised recipe looked more like this

  • 4 lb really Light honey
  • 3 lb sugar
  •  6 oz fresh ginger root
  • Zest and juice of one lemon
  • 20 grams of tartaric acid
  • 10 grams Yeast nutrient
  • 5 lbs crushed fruit (rhubarb, raspberries)
  • 6 stalks bruised Lemongrass
  • 1 pk Belle Saison yeast

With a little luck, it would barely taste like honey at all.

Part Two: Assembling the Ingredients and Making the Mead

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Brewer Canada

When you’re this Vintner, they call you Master

Since 2015 I’ve been working on the Master Vintner project for Northern Brewer/Midwest Supplies. As Technical Winemaking Advisor I’ve been incredibly happy putting my skills to good use, bringing out the first new kit introduced into the home winemaking in more than a decade. First we launched our Small Batch kits, along with Winemaker’s Reserve and Tropical Bliss, and now we’ve added Limited Edition and Sommelier Select.

After 25 years in the wine business, it’s immensely gratifying to be in a position where I don’t have compromise on anything. The vineyards I work with, the grapes I get, the winemakers who do the blending and packaging for me, they’re all the product of a process that has one straightforward goal–help people make great wine, every time.

It’s important to assert dominance.

Throw in a customer service team that really, truly gets what it’s all about (one bad experience and people never come back, so do your best always, and fix everything, every time)  and I’ve been in pretty much a state of work-related bliss. Heck, I’ve only worn a suit three times since I’ve been with the team–that’s bliss in itself. Plus, I now get to actually get back to beer, something that I couldn’t do for over 15 years. Oh beer, I’m sorry I was gone so long: I’ll never leave you again!

New Things

But there’s something coming. Something big, cool, exciting and wonderful: Northern Brewer Canada.

Putting the North into Northern Brewer

NB Canada is a full-service home beer and winemaking supply site. Soon we’ll have most of Northern Brewer USA‘s wonderful content and products, along with Master Vintner winemaking supplies and some special additions as well (mainly me!)

Will There Be a Local Shop?

Notice I said ‘site’: we’re mostly internetting it. Northern Brewer USA has some very nice brick and mortar stores, but they grew organically from local shops. Here we’re starting fresh and e-commerce is the goal.

But that doesn’t mean we’re an interwebs discount house. A lot of people in the industry who own consumer wine and beer making shops will have heard my lecture: “Don’t discount: a race to the bottom on prices hurts you, your business, your employees and ultimately your consumer when you can’t afford to expand or improve your selection and service.” (Actually, I usually said it a lot more colourfully, and with more emphasis.)

Not only do I stand by those words as staunchly as ever, so does Northern Brewer. From their company philosophy:

The future of homebrewing

We didn’t open six months ago to make a quick buck off a hobby that’s trendy right now; we are interested in the long-term health of homebrewing (. . .) . We dedicate a significant percentage of our profits to give back to the community and to create new homebrewers. When you shop with Northern Brewer, you are helping to make an investment in the future of homebrewing.

Fair prices

Northern Brewer has been serving homebrewers and winemakers for over 22 years, and we aren’t going anywhere. Rock-bottom, fire-sale price structures are unsustainable and create an uneven playing field that ultimately hurts the industry, hobby, and the community. Our price structure is competitive but built around sustainability, because our goal is to grow homebrewing as a hobby and industry, which will benefit the consumer by sustainable lower prices and improved selection through increased demand.

You can see how that suits the criteria of my value system. I know a lot of people in the industry, I helped quite a number of them open their stores, others I’ve simply enjoyed as peers and friends. I’m pleased to be in the boat with them, and not as a discounter just out to grab market share.

What’s Next

Yep, that’s how happy I get when I have beer. Unless I get happier.

Next, we get Northern Brewer Canada fully stocked. We keep adding products and content and give you great service and excellent value on innovative products. After that, you let me know: we’ve got a Limited Edition program, we’ll be bringing in some kick-butt clone recipe kits for beer (how do you feel about having a Pliny the Elder clone as your house beer?)

I’m looking forward to a great time bringing Northern Brewer to Canada and keeping Master Vintner hopping as well. Check out the Master Vintner blog and tune into our Instagram (@Nbrewcanada) and Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/northernbrewercanada/

Non-Enzymatically Mashed Beer: Update

The first beer worked out well, but with the very low levels of dextrins even the small amount of hops I put in have it out of balance. It’s not bad (in fact it tastes exactly like most of the IPA’s I used to brew!) but I corrected that in the next batch, and also managed to execute my double-brew strategy, incorporating the used grains from the NE batch to make an imperial version of the same recipe.

Check out my results (so far) below.

A New Leaf

Renewal and redemption

Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.
–The Buddha

They say things never stay the same, and they’re right. I’ve made some recent changes in my life, and I’m eager to share them with you. After a long period of self-reflection I realized that my carefree days of spreading the word about making your own wine and brewing your own beer are just a phase I was going through, and those days and many others needed to end.

Out, vile liquor

Accordingly, I’ve emptied out my barrels, taken all of my cases of wine to the dump, poured my kegs down the drain and had all of my brewing equipment crushed at a scrapyard, so it could never again be used to make alcohol.

How could you eat something with a face like that?

In addition to this, I’ve discarded my unhealthy addiction to eating meat, and my entire diet is now Paleo-Vegan. Tofu tastes better than steak! I’ve also stopped using caffeine, and I’ve gotten all of the chemicals and GMO’s out of my house, because I don’t want to catch autism.

How did I ever think those things were fun?

I’ve also gotten rid of all of my guns, my motorcycle, and my gardening tools–those pursuits are vanity, and gardens should grow wild, free of the hand of man.

Chad is such a good guru

My next steps? I’m going to a ashram to get tested for Gluten poisoning, and then I’m getting my vaccinations reversed. When that’s done, I’ll be a leaf on the wind, watch me soar!

I’ll also be converting this blog into an information centre for how you too can change your life, and I’ll be deleting all of my previous posts that deal with the vanity of the world and praising the eightfold path to righteousness all day long. I invite you to join me: discard all of your wine, beer, steaks, whisky, fancy toys and clothes and cars, and live simply, as nature intended. There is plenty of space here in my new home under the bridge.

Be happy!

Have a blessed day.

 

Exbeerimental Brewing

Exbeerimental Brewing #1: Non-Enzymatic Mashing

I have two traits that cross over hard in my life. One is a love of DIY, particularly if it’s to do with food or beverages. I brew, make wine, cheese, sausage, pickles, smoke meat, make bacon, hunt, gather, garden and cook (a lot). The second trait is Attention Surplus Disorder. When a new idea comes my way, I am not constitutionally capable of leaving it alone.

I attended the Pacific Northwest Homebrewing Conference over Saint Patrick’s Day this year and had an absolutely rocking time. Seriously, it’s like a smaller, more intimate version of NHC. I was there to give a seminar, but also to attend a bunch of them. One that I was sad to have missed was one entitled ‘The New Technique of Non-Enzymatic Mashing’ by Aaron Hyde, Director or Homebrew for Briess Malting. It seemed like it might be a New Idea.

Fortunately, I was at the same table as him at lunch and got the gist of his hour-long seminar in five minutes. Note that this was my fault, and beer’s: the conference is pretty packed with tasting opportunities . . . if I’d taken more time to listen to him, or been smart enough to attend his lecture, I wouldn’t have made the mistakes which I’m going to chronicle below.

The 411

According to Dan Bies, Technical Services rep for Briess and the guy who seems to have first proposed it, N-E mashing is cold-soaking your grains in water either overnight at low temperature, or in a recirculation mash at low temp. When you do it right it

. . . gives the brewer the ability to capture color and flavor from specialty malts while limiting the extraction of complex carbohydrates (. . .) it provides refined malt components including aroma (flavor), color, FAN, smaller proteins (foam) and enzymes. What you don’t get are coarse starch binding structures including dextrines, beta glucans, and larger proteins (haze). It can be used in various applications including boosting color and flavor in big beers without the cloying and viscous effects of dextrins and beta glucans – thus, making a cleaner and dryer stout, strong ale, or big lager. NEM also creates great foam and mouthfeel in low alcohol beers and concentrates enzymes for high adjunct brews. Another benefit of this method, the spent grain from NEM can be used as an all grain adjunct to make a low color, estery beer, such as Belgian-Style Golden Ale.

Like that, but with more hops

This is telling me I could make a full-coloured and flavoured beer in the mold of an IPA with an alcohol content below 2%? Include me in! The day after I got home from the conference, I got my brew on. My original plan involved a couple of recipes I had on hand: Beerie Smalls, a NE IPA clone. Already at a sessionable strength, the recipe includes 8 lbs of Rahr 2-row, 1.5 lbs Munich 10L and 12 oz of flaked oats, along with an utterly ludicrous amount of hops, most of them in hop stands, and the balance split between primary and secondary fermentation. I had two of these, and my plan was to do a sort-of parti-gyle thingy where I made one with the N-E mash, and the second with the grains added back for a crazy Imperial version. That went awry, but it’s back on the menu in the future. Here’s what I did the first time out.

Step One: Soak Grains in Water

Doughing in at 68F feels so incredibly wrong.

Usually I assemble all of my brewing gear and ingredients, then sanitise All The Things, then start. Since I was going to soak the grains overnight, I started there. I ran tap water until it was as cold as it gets (around 55F this time of year) and adjusted it to 100 PPM of chloride and 150 PPM of sulphate, for a more Northeastern juicy profile. I poured 20 litres (5.25-US gallons) into a sanitised bucket that had a grain bag and all of my crushed grains in it, stirred the beans out of it, popped the lid on and left it sitting.

Brew Day

Next morning I assembled my brewing gear, sanitised everything I could lift, and laid out my hops (there was a lot of them). I went with my Grainfather for this brew. I have a bunch of different rigs for brewing, but I had a lot of other things to attend to during the day, and the Grainfather is a pretty forgiving setup: it never runs out of gas, holds the temperature when you forget to look at it because your busy, and best of all you can use it indoors, where you’re working.

Not shown: honking culture of yeast and lots of other things.

The first thing I noticed about the bucket of grains was how dark and rich the liquid in the mash looked, and how much fine material had settled out.

Clear, non-enzymatic wort above a layer of floury fines

I got busy, pulled and squeezed the grain bag and cold-sparged into the bucket.

Cloudy as can be.

Here’s where I made a technical error that would have been prevented by 90 seconds of search time or a less impulsive personality. After pouring the hazy goop into the Grainfather . . .

I noticed that the bottom of the bucket had a lot of stuff in it. “Hmm”, I thought to myself, “That stuff is probably good things that need to go into the wort for when it goes through mashing temperature!”

That looks like concrete! I should pour it into the kettle immediately!

Yeah, no. I set the controller to ramp up to 152F to hit my mash temp and left to do some errands. This is the beauty of this setup: no danger in leaving it unattended during the mash, because it will take care of itself. The bad news is, when I got back, the temperature was just over 100F and the breaker had popped on the unit. I popped it back on, and it promptly clicked off again. Any electrician will tell you that if a breaker pops right back after you reset it, you have an issue that can’t be dealt with my tying the breaker down with duct tape or a bungee cord.

I realised that this situation was why the unit has a breaker in the first place: material had built up on the bottom and was preventing heat from transferring into the rest of the wort. It was scorching, in fact, and that was tripping the breaker. I decanted the wort out of the unit, and sure enough:

Nothing a quick scrub with a Scotch-Brite pad didn’t take care of in a minute.

Well, phoo. Obviously those fines were like flour and cooked onto the bottom like library paste. I let the bucket settle for a half hour and wound up with this:

That’s better

I racked the settled wort back into the Grainfather, re-set the program, mashed the liquid to 152F, punched the afterburners and boiled for an hour. At flame-out there were hop additions, and after the wort dropped to 180F, more hop additions. Seriously, there were ridiculous hop additions. Luckily, I had used my favourite Grainfather trick, slipping a Titan False Bottom into the unit before the wort went in. After a proper rest for the hops, I ran it off as chilly as possible.

Got down to 70 after a minute

Here’s the Titan False Bottom holding back all of those hops.

Best add-on to the GF ever.

You may ask why I didn’t just do the soak in the Grainfather if the false bottom is so great? Those fines would have clogged it up like crazy: it holds back hop particles and delivers a beautifully clear wort, but gums straight up with floury grain particles.

I checked my SG in the carboy.

That’s low–excellent!

Corrected for temperature, that’s an SG of 1.024. With the Beerie Smalls grain bill and my usual efficiency I would have expected an SG in the range of 1.047–1.049. If the beer ferments down to 1.010 (the usual, again) I’m going to wind up with a beer just under 2% ABV!

If it retains the grain/malt character, this could be terrifically interesting. I’m even having trouble wrapping my head around it. I pitched a stonkin’ great culture of yeast and let ‘er rip.

Pretty!

Less than two hours later I had a great krausen going, and by the next morning the foam on top was solid as a rock.

A thing of unearthly beauty.

I wish you could smell it: it’s so insanely peachy-fruity-juicy and lush I can barely stand it. My only concern is that this particular style of beer might have too much bitterness for the relatively low level of sweetness in this beer–we’ll just have to see.

Best Laid Plans

As for my plan of making a second Beerie Smalls clone and lumping the spent N-E mash grain into it, I wound up burning so much time fiddling with the breaker on the Grainfather and cleaning it, racking off the fines, etc. I didn’t have time to make a second batch.

HOWEVER, I do have two batches of a relatively low-gravity Oatmeal Stout recipe right at hand. Not only does it have a starting gravity of 1.042, it also has a fairly low hop rate. I’m going to run this again, and make a session Oatmeal Stout and an Imperial, all out of two recipes!

I’ll throw in a quick update on this beer when I rack it in a day or so (and add more hops!) and if you’re in the Vancouver area, I’ll be bringing it to the next Vanbrewers meeting and to the Tri-Cities Brew Club as well.

If this is your first time reading my blog, consider following me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Linked-In, Pinterest and home from the bar. I swear everything I do has a reason. Sometimes that reason is I’m weird and make poor choices. 

If you like wine, check me out at Master Vintner. It’s all cool.

Into the Air!

Airplane not shown actual size

I’m off to World Headquarters of Master Vintner. Great things are brewing (ha ha, see what I did there?) and I’m catching up with everyone at the Fortress of Solitude.

Very good!

As I said, there’s big news brewing, As soon as I can share it with you I will: there’s going to be a big splash, and it looks like a real soaker! In the meantime, have you got your Sommelier Select kits yet? They’re the best!