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.
I can’t help it. Every time I come over the crest of 148 street down towards the beach I breathe a sigh as I look out over the bay, and marvel over the place I’m privileged to live in. It’s a blessing to be in a place with so much beauty and so many wonderful people.
And there are some great things coming up. I can’t wait to dive right into 2019 and take great big bites of the future.
Man does not live by wine alone. Not even with beer to help him out. No, there are times in a fella’s life when he needs a garden to bring him peace and happiness.
The garden has been really productive this year. Between a stretch of good weather early on, a long dry summer and a new fertilizer regimen I’ve managed to harvest huge volumes of peas, zucchini blossoms and marrows, basil for days, cabbages, cauliflower, artichokes, cilantro, peppers, broccoli, carrots, spinach, currants, apples, et cetera, et cetera.
There is one crop that often eludes me: tomatoes. We’re technically zone 8, but the garden is right on the water just off of Mud Bay in Crescent Beach. This means we get a lot of cool, damp nights in late summer, right at the moment when we need one last push of heat to finish ripening our tomatoes. This usually means blight, right when you’re hoping for a good crop.
The only two cures are 1) planting the earliest-ripening tomatoes you can find, and 2) good luck with the weather. This year we had both, and the tomatoes are coming in thick and fast–and ripe.
First things first, you gotta have some toasted tomato sandwiches.
But after a couple of dozen sandwiches (and so much bacon) with the tomatoes piling up, it was time to make some sauce.
The classic Italian pomodoro is quick tomato sauce that’s ready in less than half an hour, but it it uses canned Roma tomatoes, which are already very well-cooked during processing. For a sauce from fresh tomatoes you need a little more time and planning.
Step one, saute some onions and peppers until completely soft.
This takes a lot longer than cookbooks or internet recipes tell you. I’m not sure why everyone lies: “Cook until soft, 10 minutes or so.” No Debra, it’s more like a good 30-40 minutes to get onions thoroughly soft, and it’s crucial: if the onions aren’t soft before the tomatoes are added, the acid in the tomatoes will set the onions and they’ll stay disconcertingly firm no matter how long you cook the sauce. Olive oil, medium heat, lots of patience.
While they’re cooking down, cut up your tomatoes. They don’t have to be tiny, but you want to get them chunked up to expose their inner liquidity. Most recipes will tell you to remove the skins, but I can’t be bothered: they cook down to nothing, and I usually use this in a very rustic sauce (more on that below). If I was going to make it into tomato soup (easy, with a little cream and herbs) I’d put it through a blender and push it through a strainer. But I’m not, so I won’t, and this is what I got:
Once the onions are completely soft, add them to the pan.
The little brown things that look like Kalamata olives are actually black cherry tomatoes. They’re really bright tasting and very zippy and sweet. Even a few adds a lot of flavour to a sauce. The only other thing needed at this point is a a whole head of garlic chopped fine, and a healthy pinch of kosher salt–about a teaspoon. The salt at this point helps break down the tomatoes and bust cell membranes, releasing juice. It will need more salt before it’s used, but a pinch now is the way.
This has to cook down a long, long time, at least three hours. I was able to roast three batches of coffee, finish my business correspondence, edit an article I was working on, fight with a seagull and do some vacuuming while it cooked. You can tell it’s done when the clear liquid is reduced and the raw tomato taste is replaced by a sweet intensity of flavour.
Then it’s ready to eat or freeze: it’ll keep for about three months tightly sealed in a freezer. As a base tomato sauce it’s fantastic on pizza, in lasagna, or adapted to a soup or any number of others. But for me it shines best in a simple kjilkje. The food of my people, kjilkje is homemade noodles, usually served with bacon or sausage, a tomato sauce and lots of other Mennonites crowded around to eat vast plates of it and chase it down with hot, sweet tea.
This time I diced and fried some of my guanciale (Italian pork jowl bacon that I make) and topped the noodles with that, sauce, a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano and some fresh chopped basil.
The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.
— Michael Pollan
In all the years I lived in my parent’s house, I was a garden slave. My father had back problems and wasn’t able to do heavy work. Throw in the fact that I’m the size of a moose and while poorly inclined to manual labour, was capable of it if pressed, and I spent part of every summer adding endless loads of sand and peat moss to the leaden clay soil of our backyard, digging and shoveling.
When I left home I swore I’d never pick up a shovel in anger again. Gardening? Bah, that’s for chumps.
So, when I settled down in White Rock the very first thing I did was get a community garden plot and set to digging and shoveling.
Gardening doesn’t just get under your fingernails, it gets into your soul. Every year I learn something new, every person I meet in the gardens tells me something important, every season brings challenges and surprises, and wonder of wonders, I really enjoy digging and shoveling. Go figure.
I did take away some lessons from enforced servitude at my parent’s plot: after a few years of amending the heavy clay of my community plot I gave up: even 10 cubic metres of peat and sand didn’t leaven the brick-hard yellowish clay (probably stratified clay related to the Puyallup Interglacial deposits all around the Lower Mainland) so I built boxes and filled them with light, airy topsoil, so friable and free-running it’s like cake mix. It was after that that I made real progress growing crucifers, carrots, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, herbs, lettuces, rhubarb, artichokes, berries, apples, et cetera.
One of the things I’ve learned in the last few years is recognising that not everything you didn’t plant is a weed, and not all weeds are pests. A case in point is purslane. For a decade I cursed the stupid weed, having made the mistake of rototilling it to get rid of it. It can root from a stem, and torn-off stems can remain viable for decades, so a rototiller is the best way to spread it. Oy.
A few year’s back a friend of mine was looking at my garden and openly admired my purslane. When I goggled at this, he goggled right back and asked why I wasn’t harvesting it for the table. Cue the light-bulb: not only did I not have to weed it anymore, I could just go ahead and eat it. That’s my kind of weed. It’s lightly tart, a bit like sorrel that way, and is a rich source of omega-3 oils, as well as a polysaccharide character–that means it’s kind of slimy, but in the same way that okra is, providing a lot of soluble dietary fibre. It wasn’t long before I was tossing purslane into salads and stir fries, and I began looking around for other ways to use it.
One of the dishes is a pork and purslane stew with tomatillos. It was a recipe I found in Taunton’s Fine Cooking magazine, but as with any recipe I ignored the fine print and applied my own cooking preferences to it. It may not be authentic to the original Mexican cook who made it, but it’s a big hit around Chaos Manor.
Step one is to harvest and wash the purslane, and then pick it over. You want mostly the leaves, and the tender little stems near the tip of the plant. You can eat the thicker stems, but they’re a little woody and tend to be bitter.
Step two is to get a big honkin’ pork shoulder roast. It needs to be nice and fatty. Seriously people, stop eating so much lean pork. It doesn’t have good texture and it’s nearly as bland as chicken breast when it’s too lean. Fat is where the flavour and the fat-soluble nutrients are, and eating fat is really good for you. I found a nice-looking four-pounder at my butcher and proceeded to chunk it up in 1.5 inch cubes.
I got a pan smoking hot, tossed the pork cubes with a generous coating of salt and pepper and proceeded to brown it off in small batches.
The trick to getting good flavour out a cut of meat is to brown it well, developing all the richness that Maillard reactions (caramelizing, sort-of) bring to it. That brown goo on the bottom of the pot is rich, tawny gold. The French call it ‘fond’ and it’s the basis for a deeply meaty experience. Don’t waste a speck of it.
While I was browning off the pork I assembled the usual suspects for this dish.
I was in great good luck the day I decided to make this dish: my local greengrocer had fresh tomatillos in stock, for the first time this year. I even had to explain to the nice-but-terribly-young lady at the checkout what they were. No matter, she was truly interested in what the weird old man was cooking up this time.
Onions get sliced up, and the garlic gets finely diced. Because I brown the hell out of my onions (more below) I saved the garlic aside to add after they were done, because garlic gets bitter if it’s the least bit burnt.
I cooked the onions until they were dark brown and completely soft, using the liquid that came out of them to loosen the fond off of the bottom of the pot and bring it to the party. The sugars in the onion will caramelize a long, long way and you can cook the living whee out of them and they’ll add more depth and colour to the stew.
While the onions were cooking way, way down I de-papered and washed the tomatillos. They do look like a really green tomato, but they’re quite different. the flesh is much firmer and less watery, and they’re more citrusy and resiny-sappy than even the greenest tomato.
When the onions had fully submitted to my will, I added about a litre of homemade chicken stock. Getting homemade chickens is the hardest part of making it. I scraped and stirred to make sure the pot was fully deglazed.
With the heat turned to high I slid in the tomatillos and (not shown) the chopped garlic and the toasted and ground cumin.
I added the pork back. I tasted a few pieces and seriously? I could have sat with a fork and a little hot sauce and eaten a pound of that pork, it was so crispy from the fat being well-browned. I could tell even before cooking this was really going to come together.
You can see in this picture that the purslane has been relieved of thick stems and nicely cleaned up. The pot is getting full, but the purslane will cook down and I was planning on boiling off at least 1/3 of the volume.
While the stew was cooking down I put on a pot of rice and prepped plantains. They’re kind of a cross between an actual banana and a starchy vegetable. Fried in butter and hit with salt, a little brown sugar and some lime juice, they’re really tasty. I usually add some allspice and nutmeg and chopped Scotch Bonnet pepper, but this stew is Mexican (ostensibly) not Jamaican, so I held off.
Once the plantains were planted in the pan, it was time to check on the stew.
It had reduced to a wonderfully deep and rich stew, thickened by the purslane. The flavours are complex, but clear. I have a bug about dishes with too many non-complimentary or non-contrasting/counterpointing elements. They seem muddy to me. This stew has the richness and savoury development of the pork cut by the acidity of the tomatillos and the purslane with a bit of a bass note from the cumin and sweetness from the onions, pretty much the way I like my flavour profiles.
Then, to the plate.
A handful of chopped cilantro, a squeeze of lime, a daub of thick yogurt and a dab of habanero sauce and it was a little bit of heaven. There’s enough leftover to freeze for future meals, and I put a bit aside for Hot Tub and Nacho Night. It will make a great topping for nachos, with the addition of some pickled jalapenos to spice it up.
That was the meal that was. Now that I’m back to freelancing again (need a brilliant copywriter? Shoot me an email. I also do education, brand championship, marketing, strategic consulting, and promotions. Let’s talk.) I’ll have time to do more blogging and catch up with some issues and ideas that I have been itching to cover. See you soon.
The grape variety is a cross between Sauvignon Blanc and another non-grape fruit, Pollia Condensata, commonly called the Marble Berry.
Back in 2008, Conjectural Technologies’ lead scientist, Professor Corey Irwin was looking at the reflectivity of wine grapes when he accidentally included a sample of the tropical plant in his magnetic resonance cylcotron.
“Frankly,” says Professor Corey, “They were part of a table arrangement in my office that caught in the sleeve of my lab coat. I didn’t notice them because the berries are tiny and the colour is so strong that they don’t actually look like real fruit, more like crazy ball-bearings.”
But the results from the test showed otherwise, and the fruit’s surface reflects nearly 50% of the light that hits it–vitis vinifera grapes reflect between one and two percent–due to the surface composition of the skin. “It’s as though the fruit is composed of nothing but tiny little mirrors, all over it!” explains the Professor.
Sensing the potential for a revolution in the appearance of wine, the team at Conjectural Technologies launched into a genetic cross-breeding program, using Crispr-Cas 9 genome editing technology. With CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) “spacer” sequences are transcribed into short RNA sequences capable of guiding the system to matching sequences of DNA. When the target DNA is found, Cas9 binds to the DNA and cuts it, activating the targeted gene.
Chief Disruption Officer and Lead winemaker at TVCC-Kitworld, Tim Vandergrift is delighted with the results.
“This is a real game changer. For thousands of years wine has been red, white or pink. Well, brown too, if you forget and leave the top of the fermenter open. But now we have the ability to change its colour, not with dyes or pigments, but with the harnessed power of quantum physics and Genetically Modified Organisms!. By using gene editing and forcing together the sequences of pollia with Sauvignon Blanc and certain key sequences of hagfish and African land snails we were able to produce a grape that not only reflects more light, but has the viscosity to hold the reflectivity in suspension, so it doesn’t just fall out during fining, or settle on the bottom of the glass.”
Vandergrift admits that the wine is slightly different from standard grape wines, including a textural change. “The hagfish and snail genes are there to provide a colloidal gel that keeps the reflective particles from binding to anything else. It does make the wine viscous, but it’s not too gooey–it has exactly the same viscosity as transmission fluid, and once you get used to it, it’s really nice.”
The new wine, tentatively called ‘Quantum White’ will be available for commercial release on April 1, 2019. Expect it to be in high demand, as in addition to providing a pleasing flavour and aroma, it is expected to be an excellent substitute for Dexron III transmission fluid.
The Further Adventures of Attention-Surplus-Disorder Man
If you read my blog for a while you’ll come to understand that I have a pretty serious problem getting fixated on projects, whether it’s brewing, winemaking, cheese, marksmanship, motorcycles, gardening, powerlifting, whatever. It’s gotten particularly bad in recent years with brewing beer: when I find out about a new style or a beer I’ve never heard of, I have to research it and make it until I feel like I have a grasp of it.
With that in mind, I was watching a travel show and the host hit a cafe in Northern Vietnam and sat around drinking something called Bia hơi. At first blush, it looks like a light industrial lager, common in hot countries. But then they poured it over ice and my ears perked up.
It turns out this stuff is a sort of jackleg homebrew, brewed quickly and matured almost not at all, and delivered daily to bars and street-corner dispensing spots in jerry cans and kegs. Production is described as ‘informal’, with no government oversight or monitoring, and it’s meant to be drank absolutely ice cold, or even over ice, and the alcohol content is 3% ABV or less.
All of this makes perfect sense in Vietnam, which is not only incredibly hot but also terribly humid. You could drink rather a lot of beer like this and stay hydrated and refreshed without actually getting blotto, with the added bonus that it sells for something like 15 cents a glass.
After a bit of research on the interwebs, I asked around for people who’d actually been to Vietnam and tasted the beer. I lucked out in that a friend of mine who is a very discerning BJCP judge had been there a few years ago, and he was willing to share his opinion.
“Undrinkable swill full of acetaldehyde, sourness and mostly off-flavours. You’re an idiot if you want to make that.”
I get it: when you’re charging less than a buck a gallon for your beer, Quality Control is way down the list and you can’t throw a batch away just because it’s off–look, there’s a surly tourist, he’ll drink anything, get the bucket! It’s inevitable that the quality would be variable. I wanted to make my own, and I was pretty sure I could do a little better. It would have to be more expensive than fifteen cents a glass, but honestly, not that much more.
I flat-out pulled a recipe out of my butt. I chose to emulate a rice-adjunct lager with a starting gravity below 1.030 and hops around 15 IBU. I immediately ran into an issue: in order to get a moderate hop character I was going to have to either alter my regular brewing style (more on that below) or substantially decrease the amount of hops in the recipe: hop utilisation is affected by the density of the wort (yes, it’s lots more complicated, please don’t write me screeds about it) and a really low gravity beer like this is hard to make without over-bittering for style.
Another issue I contemplated was volume: if this stuff was good, and as low in alcohol as I was planning, I was probably going to enjoy more than one glass a night–it might replace most of my water intake. Making a single 19-litre keg would have me out of beer in ten days at most, and if it was really good, I would then become despondent until my next batch was ready. It’s summer here at Chaos manor, and it’s pretty warm for Canada.
The answer to both quandries lay in the techniques of industrial brewing: high gravity. The beer we mostly see advertised on television is Industrial Lager. Megabreweries make a batch of beer at very high gravities (usually over 1.070 to start), finish fermenting, and then add water to hit their target alcohol content. It’s actually a very intelligent use of resources: you can ferment twice as much beer with the same amount of tanks. This sort of efficiency makes accountants very happy, and it’s not that far off of the parti-gyle brewing systems of olden times. My plan was to brew a 30 litre batch of beer at high gravity and water it back to two batches of 19 litres, then ferment each separately with a different yeast. Not only could I brew a lot of beer quickly, I could use the higher gravity wort to moderate hop utilisation. Or so was my plan . . . I whipped out Beersmith and loaded my Grainfather profile.
If you’ve never used one, it’s an all-in-one mash/lauter/boil unit with a recirculating pump. I’ve had literally every system there is and I like this one because I can brew from home, in my kitchen, while I work at other things. It’s Bluetooth controlled, programmable for step mashes and has timers and such. It’s really pretty amazing.
Sadly, for what I wanted to do the Beersmith profile was a bit crap, so I back-of-the-enveloped it. I figured in Imperial units eight pounds of Pilsner malt, one pound of 10L Crystal malt, two pounds of rice, and two ounces of first wort hops and two ounces for a 20-minute whirlpool, to make around 5.5 gallons of finished wort to be watered back into two four-gallon batches to fill two kegs. If I wasn’t too screwy and my efficiency was low but okay, I should get an OG of 1.025-ish at pitching and get 22.-2.5% ABV and 15-ish IBU’s.
But there were a lot of departures in my plan. Most recipes would use flaked rice, but I wanted to do a cereal mash. That is, I wanted to take plain white rice and cook it to mush, and add that to my grain mash. Why? That’s the way the macro brewers do it, and I had planned on doing a three-step mash for maximum fermentability: 122 F then to 134 F and then to 149, using the boiling rice mush to drive temp to final mash.
You can see, I don’t like the easy way.
Onward to brew day. First step was to cook the rice. I got up early and put the rice on in a huge pot with three gallons of water on low.
You have to be really careful wih this step: it’s very easy to scorch starch as it breaks down to moosh. Even the faintest hint of burnt character will completely ruin the beer, so you need way more water than you think you do, and you need to keep it low and slow, and stir frequently, and it’s going to take much, much longer than you think. I started the rice at 8 am and it was just ready for the pot by noon.
As it cooked I milled my grains.
I have a three-roller Monster Mill and I can’t recommend it enough. Mine is set to 40 thousandths and it’s perfect as can be.
Next step was to set up my Grainfather. With my system, as with everything I do, I did not leave it unmodified. My first step was to throw away the trub/hop filter: it’s useless. In its place I put a Titan false bottom.
Not only does this catch goo better than the GF screen, it also has almost no dead space underneath–less than two cups of liquid escapes the pickup on the bottom. The build-up of hops makes the screen tighter and more efficient and the wort coming out is super-clear.
But you can’t use the grain basket from the GF with the false bottom in place unless you use some serious spacers. But, I had a different mod: a bag.
Yes, my Grainfather is now a Brew In A Bag False Bottom HERMS unit, running off of an Android phone over Bluetooth. 14-year-old me, with an old canning pot and a clapped-out electric stove would be awestruck and envious. (He’d also look at the size of me and ask, “Dude, just how much beer do you drink?”)
To make a long story short, I did my usual short and shoddy brewing methods: I doughed in at 122F, immediately ramped to 134 for twenty minutes, and then added my boiling rice goo to drive everything to 149. I mashed for 30 minutes–I usually do 20 because efficiency is for drones from Sector 7G, but I wanted to clear all of the rice starch. An Iodine test at 20 minutes was clear, so the extra ten was for luck, mostly. I did a bag sparge in another bucket with around 15 litres of water at 170F and topped the GF up and tossed in my first charge of hops as it heated to the boil.
After 20 minutes of vigorous boiling I shut off the, popped on the lid, threw on the heat exchanger and started cooling the wort, recirculating it back into the Grainfather.
When it got below 180F I tossed in the rest of the hops, shut off water to the chiller and left it to recirculate for 20 minutes. Then It was time to run it off to the primaries.
I took a gravity reading of the wort straight from the chiller.
I split it into two fermenters, yielding a little under three gallons each, and then topped up with treated water to 5.5 gallons. I treat it by adding metabisulphite powder to plain old tapwater, to bind out any chlorine that my municipality may have added. I have brilliant water–some of the best in the world, and it doesn’t need another thing. After it was topped up I noticed how much protein break I got. Good stuff!
When it was divvied up I took it to my fermentation chamber, aka the second bathroom. I forgot to take a picture of the SG reading of the watered back batches, but it was 1.028
One of the beers I hit with US-05, and the other I chilled with my groundwater again, by virtue of letting the shower hose dribble into a bucket containing the fermenter run very slowly, getting it down to 62 F overnight, after which I pitched it with Safeale S-189.
Fermentation was vigorous in both, and completed after ten days.
I let the beers settle and racked them to kegs. I stoppped to take an SG reading and it was corrected to 1.004 This makes a start-finish difference of 18 points. Multiply that by the ABV conversion number and you get 2.36, just under 2.5% ABV, good enough for my purposes.
After they had both chilled to 38F I burst carbonated them and let them carb under pressure for a few days, then tasted them, and shared with some friends. How was it?
The lager version is better than the US05, but only subtly so: both beers are incredibly light, have just enough hops to balance the grain character and the crystal malt fights the carbonic acid with great precision.
I drank most of a keg in two weeks, pretty much a record for me. It’s like fabulous Gatorade, refreshing and deliciously beery, and yet the alcohol is so low I can have a pint with my lunch and continue working.
I’ve always disdained macrobrew lagers. They have all kinds of off flavours and aromas and don’t satisfy me in any way. This is different: it’s beer-flavoured beer, and hits the spot without overwhelming. I dare say it’d be easy to screw up, because the style is so light that it would show flaws instantly. But when it works, it’s really great beer. And that is the beauty of homebrewing: I can do whatever I want
Next up, I’m going to make a Belgian Kinderbier, a dark ale at 2% ABV that should have enough roast and caramel to make it richer and more interesting, while still being suitable for lunching.
Hey, if you’re in Vanbrewers and were at the June meeting you may have tried an early version of this recipe without the 10L crystal and with different yeast. That stuff was okay, but this is the bomb, I swear. There won’t be any of this to share at future meetings though, until I work out a brewing schedule that can compensate for me drinking a whole keg every two weeks.
I’ll admit it: I am a victim to clickbait. This headline popped up in my newsfeed:
Are You Making This Big Mistake with Wine Corks?
and like a dope, I fell for it. But you won’t believe what happens next!
What happens is, I’m not going to link to the article. It doesn’t deserve my help generating clicks. You can find it yourself if you like, but I’m going to take some care to interpret it here for you in case you hate clickbait too.
Pimped out as their ‘Wine Wise Guy’, their author wrote an article that illustrates everything wrong with the concept of the modern sommelier and showed himself as a prime example of the self-important, narcissistic jackassery that follows it around like a foul stench.
What’s wrong with sommeliers? Nothing actually. Sommelier is a job description, and it means ‘guy who sells wine in a restaurant’. It’s as descriptive as ‘receptionist’, or ‘usher’, or ‘sanitation engineer’.
It doesn’t mean a damn thing more: guy who sells wine.
Unfortunately, in our celebrity and reality show obsessed culture the concept of sommelier as something ‘other’, something aspirational, something to be revered and worshipped has taken hold. Several things have conspired to create a cult of personality around ‘somms’, not the least of which are the sommeliers themselves. But they’re not the worst offenders: the worst offenders are the schools that offer sommelier ‘courses’, offering to teach everything about wine and to turn you into a wine professional.
These courses force a hapless student to memorise thousands of facts about wine regions and styles, most of which might be interesting in a Jeopardy Daily Double kind of way, but are useless in the real world, and are tarted up as trick questions, the better to exclude people who haven’t paid the tens of thousands of dollars for the course, or memorised a stagnant morass of factoids like an obedient Labrador Retriever doing tricks.
The thing to remember about sommelier programs is that they’re not actually recognised as an official education by anyone who matters. Sure, doing your time in wine prison is like a union card to enter the world of selling wine in a restaurant, but unlike a Red Seal for a Chef (transferable around the world), there is no formal recognition of this nonsense, and different schools of sommelier-dom don’t teach the same things.
Lest any somm-worshipper out there get in a flounce and accuse me of sour grapes (haha, see what I did there?) because I don’t hold that job description, let me reassure you: I am a recovering sommelier. At one point in my life I sold wine in the most overblown, pretentious, expensive restaurant you could name. Back in the early 80’s the soup was twenty-five bucks.
This is the first time I’ve admitted to doing that job in decades, because even back then it was a soiling experience, mainly because the owner was a fraud who kept the wine in a furnace room or a walk-in cooler, and 80% of the bottles that cost more than $40 were at our ‘other cellar’, which was the liquor store down the block, where the owner would sprint down to pick up a bottle as it was ordered. I did the job for a month before I quit in disgust to become a dishwasher instead.
When I had my first gig as GM of a resort hotel I took over the sommelier role and loved it. I got to help people enjoy wine by asking what they wanted and doing my best to give them exactly that. There’s no wrong way to enjoy wine, only the way the customer wants it. If they wanted red Bordeaux over ice, then I brought them ice. If they wanted Port with their fish, I made sure they knew what they were ordering and I served it. I had a bunch of backpackers come in who wanted kalimotxo, and when I found out it was cheap dry red and cola, I made up a pitcher. Why? Because I am not the arbiter of human taste or fashion: I am a service professional!
Which brings us back to the article. In it, the author first waxes his ego by mentioning in order a) how hard the exam was, b) how intimidating the examiners were, c) how obscure the questions were, and d) how much he hated serving wine to stupid peasants who came to the restaurant and expected him to serve wine.
Personally, I bundle most of these maneuvers into what I call “the frippery” of wine service: stuff that makes most people I know slink down in their seats in hopes that the sommelier will call on someone else to taste the wine.
Really? A quaint old ceremony, one that is the essence of the job makes him squirm? I wonder how he feels about the people who are paying him to do the job?
But then I see that person: The Imbiber. He’s the one—and it’s always a man—who relishes the pageantry of it all, the pomp and circumstance, who imagines that everyone else in the room is intently watching this noble ceremony take place. And when the sommelier places the just-pulled cork on the table to the right of the glass, The Imbiber picks it up ceremoniously, rolls it between his thumb and forefinger, and takes a deep, satisfying sniff.
The Imbiber deserves to be dunked in a barrel of wine.
Rolling a cork—which is just a piece of bark from a cork tree, after all—between your thumb and forefinger is just plain silly. And sniffing it? Sillier. That is, unless (and this is an important unless) you’re the person pulling the cork.
Yes, murdering customers because they expect you to do a job, preciously described as being so haaaard is a completely reasonable response. After all, why make them happy when you can measure your manhood against theirs and make fun of them?
Know this: I like corks. I know a lot about corks. In my time in my industry, the companies I worked for made (aggregately) enough wine to fill more than a fifty million bottles per year, and we bought corks for them all. Over the course of a thirty-year career, that’s a lot of metric tonnes of cork. I’ve toured cork forests, cork factories, cork warehouses and dealt with almost every cork manufacturer on the planet. I know more about corks than the author of this article ever will, or can ever hope to. I not only examine, roll and sniff the cork from most bottles of wine that I am served, I habitually carry a razor-sharp knife and cut the cork in half to examine the inside for flaws and density.
Even if I weren’t a professional with a deep interest in the world market, I’d probably still be interested in the cork. It’s the only thing standing between the wine inside the bottle and a harshly cruel environment that wants to spoil it. If the cork looks compromised or has an odour (more on this in a minute) then I’m going to sit up and start paying attention to the process at hand: trying the wine to see if it’s a) what I ordered and b) in good condition.
The author goes on to pontificate why the consumer has no business assessing the cork. First, of course, he has to explain to us peasants what a corkscrew is and how it works, since as a professional, he’s sure that’s quite beyond us. Then he warns that he might not deign to hand you the cork at all:
It might fall apart because it’s too old; it might snap in half because it’s brittle; the center of it might disintegrate, because it’s soaked through and crumbly. If any of those things happen, there’s no cork to present to The Imbiber.
Wrong: if the cork crumbles, you immediately show it to the customer, perhaps carefully assembled on a napkin to keep the bits together. Why? Because he is buying that bottle of wine, and it’s his right as a consumer to see it. But he doesn’t see it that way: the mark he’s sneering at has no right to his own wine, just to the almighty somm’s opinion about it.
If I’m the server, yes, I’ll immediately smell the wet end to see if there are any “off” odors that might indicate the wine is flawed, damaged, or just plain dead. The wet end of a cork is still moist and porous, but the liquid at the tip either absorbs or dissipates pretty quickly. And a few seconds later, the cork smells like… cork.
This is an easily dismissed falsehood: if the wine is contaminated by cork taint, the cork will smell like it, practically forever. This taint is 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole (TCA) and is caused by an interaction between chlorophenol compounds and corks or wood used in elevage, or processing wine. It’s a lot less common since cork producers stopped using chlorine to bleach corks, and started keeping sheets of cork bark off of the ground post-harvest/pre-processing (they can pick up a fungus off the ground that makes TCA contamination a lot more likely). Even in minute amounts (below the microgram level) TCA can ruin a good wine.
To sum up this whole sordid pile, articles like this, written by people who have an overweening, narcissistic view of their own worth and status are why I avoid modern sommeliers and their cult of celebrity. The job is exactly the same as the one done by the person who serves the bread, or the nice lady who takes the reservations.
If the bread guy started rolling his eyes, writing articles about how stupid people who eat bread are for asking for white or rye, or the reservation lady wrote snide blogs about how people who made reservations were dumbasses who really should let her handle things because they’re unqualified, the consumers who patronise those restaurants would lose their collective minds–as they should. But because some people buy into this cult of sommeliers and assume that they are the final word on how to drink wine, they get away with smug, nonsensical crap like this.
What’s the answer? I don’t have one, that’s for sure. However, a good first step is to avoid any restaurant that this guy works for. Also, if there’s a celebrity sommelier in a place you’re thinking of going to, don’t take any guff from them: you are buying that wine, and if you want to drink it out of a coffee mug, or eat the cork with a dab of mustard, you damn well do so.
I have been saying this for thirty straight years, and I’ll say it again: nobody can tell you how to enjoy wine–if they’re offering advice, trying to help you find a good match or something tasty in your price range, then they’re a good person, doing a good job and they deserve thanks. But if someone tries to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, or you’re not qualified to know your own mind and enjoy the things you like, as you like them . . . put your hand on your wallet and back out of the room, because they can’t be trusted.
One last thought, because as the man says, there always is one:
. . . unless you really like having sommeliers think you’re a twit. In that case, go right ahead, smell all the corks you want.
Dude, I’d rather you hated my guts than change anything about the way I enjoy wine to suit you.
All right, here’s the stupid article, if you must. Do me a favour and open it in an incognito browser. I don’t want to get this blog all sticky.
Canada doesn’t look too bad for one hundred and fifty.
It isn’t that it’s a perfect country. It is definitely not: we have a lot of problems, and we have a lot of issues we need to address. Income disparity, social justice, political polarisation, the treatment of indigenous peoples and many other things are part of our national dialogue right now, on this day.
But that’s our strength. That’s where we can be proud: we are having these dialogues–these and more. Just fifty years ago the mere idea of addressing these things would have been the talk of fringe kooks and political outsiders.
I know, because I was there fifty years ago to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the BNA act, which united the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick into a single Dominion within the British Empire called Canada. It was even called ‘Dominion Day’ at the time.
I can remember the excitement of the day: there were ceremonies, marching bands, RCMP members on horses, people in costume, dances, food and fireworks. As a very tiny boy I was terribly impressed by it all, especially the horses, one of which chose to leave a massive load of manure right in front of me. There was literally nothing on that day which could have pleased me more, and that memory is one that fixes my feelings about Canada perfectly. So much beauty, so many people moving in the same direction, wanting the same things, having the same aspirations, sharing the same joys, but there being a completely down-to-earth reality to who we were.
I’ve grown up and grown older in a country that invented the concept of peacekeeping. That has universal health care. That welcomes refugees and immigrants as a source of strength and joyful diversity. That continues to value justice and decency.
But I’m a political creature. I can’t help it. I worry about our economy, our society, our place in the world, our relationship with our partner/neighbour/ally/friend/brothers-and-sisters to the south and I worry about whether we’re doing enough to care for each other and the rest of the world.
That worry is offset every time I look out my front door and I see my friends, my neighbours, my countrymen. We are a broadly decent, open and just society, making our way better every day, with a long way to go before we can rest on any laurels. To paraphrase Dr. King, the moral arc of Canada may be long, but it trends toward justice.
I’m proud of you Canada, and I’m proud of your citizens, your ideals and your national character. And if I am here to see you at 200, I hope to see more of the same, still striving for a better nature and a better country.
May you all be blessed with peace and plenty this day, and family and friends to share it with.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 . . .
. . . 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.
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!
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.
(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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.