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.

Beer Ahoy

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.

Icy cold! Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Street scene. I’m sweaty just looking at it.

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.

It’s Canada: where’s the snow?

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.

Pretty spritely for a Grainfather

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.

Looks like congee, but not as tasty

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.

It’s no monster, it’s just misunderstood

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.

Perfect and utterly consistent. A good crusher makes a huge difference.

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.

Mirror stainless, right angle bend, great engineering.

Nifty fit, too. This picture from a previous batch, thus all the hops and trub.

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.

Spring clips work great to hold the bag in place

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.

Shot before I topped up with bag sparge

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.

Counterflow chiller setup. Works very well, kind of surprisingly so.

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.

My groundwater is very cold, even in summer.

I took a gravity reading of the wort straight from the chiller.

Temperature corrected to 1.050

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!

Lookit that break!

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

It’s a shower stall, very convenient for blow-offs and cleaning.

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.

And that’s final.

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?

Poor man, that beer must be terrible. After two weeks the beer dropped star-bright, looking like it had been filtered.

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. 

Pretentiousness, Con Jobs, and Wine: Sommeliers

 

Yes, he's the Maitre d', but honestly, he comes off more like a som-doofus

Understanding allows people like us to tolerate a person like yourself

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.

This is where they keep their souls while they work

They tag the most pretentious wine gits with these medallions so you can see them coming from far away

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.

Also useful for stabbing

Razor sharp is important or you’ll never get a really good cross-section. From today’s lunch.

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 Meditation

Flying always in our hearts

Canadian flag

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.

Happy Canada Day.

 

 

 

 

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.