Category Archives: alcohol

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! 

 

 

 

A New Leaf

Renewal and redemption

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

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

Out, vile liquor

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

How could you eat something with a face like that?

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

How did I ever think those things were fun?

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

Chad is such a good guru

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

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

Be happy!

Have a blessed day.

 

Exbeerimental Brewing

Exbeerimental Brewing #1: Non-Enzymatic Mashing

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

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

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

The 411

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

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

Like that, but with more hops

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

Step One: Soak Grains in Water

Doughing in at 68F feels so incredibly wrong.

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

Brew Day

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

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

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

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

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

Cloudy as can be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s better

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

Got down to 70 after a minute

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

Best add-on to the GF ever.

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

I checked my SG in the carboy.

That’s low–excellent!

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

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

Pretty!

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

A thing of unearthly beauty.

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

Best Laid Plans

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

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

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

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

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

Mulling Over Winter

patio

My pet raven, Quoth

As Winter rolls in my interest in ice-cold beer, well-chilled white wine or slushy blender drinks wanes. To be sure, I’m lucky enough to live in Canada’s Riviera, where it snows only half as much as cities only a few kilometers away and we average much warmer temperatures than most places in Canada. But winters round here have a humid chill that goes straight to your bones.

typical

Average White Rock resident any time after November 1st

Our winter cold is hard to explain to someone from Alberta, Saskatchewan or Quebec. They don’t really understand cold. After all, they get huge amounts of snow, and temperatures that get so cold exposed flesh will freeze in only moments, so they think their weather is much sterner. But they experience a dry cold: dress well, in insulated layers and throw on a toque, gloves and good boots and you’re going to be toasty. The same layers will leave you chilled and miserable on the Pacific, as the damp, icy tendrils of the monstrous ocean cold permeate your very flesh, leaving your skin blue and pallid, and your spirit weak and trembling.

crash

Sorry, your SUV does not come with a ‘Defiance of Physics’ option

It’s the same with boastful winter drivers from much colder climates. “Hah!” they snort, “People from Vancouver can’t drive in the snow.” Then they try it, and in only seconds they realize that it’s not their snow, crisp, dry and crunchy, able to pack down and supply some friction for driving. No, it’s a layer of wet, compacted ice, topped with slush and a layer of water that has as much friction as a teflon pan full of WD40, and off into the ditch they go in a tangled mess of snow, dinged fenders, and hubris.

What to do? Aside from denning until the spring thaw, or lurking in a hot bath for four months, there has to be a way to get warm in the chill of winter. The answer just might be a steaming mug, delicious and warming—a hot drink. Being as I’m a confirmed wine guy, I like a good winter drink based on mulled red wine, but there are others to consider. But where to start? At the beginning, of course.

Hot Drinks in History

Hot Drinks are not a recent innovation. In fact, cold drinks are the newcomer, with hot drinks the relative norm up until the 20th century and the advent of refrigeration technology. With the majority of North America’s immigrants hailing from Europe and Great Britain, they brought with them their recipes for chasing away the chilly, rainy climates at home.

Because central heating is another relative newcomer, every pub used to have a fireplace with a large hearth, where customers could gather and warm themselves. Propped in the fire were a number of poker-like irons, or ‘loggerheads’. These were used to heat up drinks served by the publican. They were literally dipped, red-hot, into the customers’ drink right at the table, not only heating them, but frothing them to a vigorous boil!

loggerhead

Not sure they had pot lights and central audio in colonial times, but that’s a loggerhead

(A funny aside: our phrase, ‘coming to loggerheads’ or ‘at loggerheads’ has to do with arguments in pubs. Customers wrangling important issues over a few hot drinks sometimes took advantage of the length and weight of the sturdy irons to make more pointed comments to their fellows. A modern establishment should probably avoid leaving a supply of pokers around!)

Coffee Drinks, Toddies, Nogs, and Mulled Wine

Hot drinks can roughly be divided into coffee drinks, Toddies, Nogs and mulled wine.

Coffee

Coffee drinks have wide acceptance everywhere, but they’re really just coffee and booze–I can drink that anytime, but don’t find it particularly warming. Maybe it’s because I drink an awful lot of coffee anyway, to keep my central nervous system functioning. Whatever the reason, I rarely want a coffee drink with alcohol in it. Too confusing for my alertness response.

Hot Toddies

Hot Toddies are mixtures of spices, honey (or sugar) and spirits, warmed with boiling water. The classic is brandy or whiskey with a lemon slice, a cinnamon stick and honey, and is deemed very good for a sore throat. Hot buttered rum is enhanced by a pat of butter, and daring mixologists even use top-shelf tequila with a bit of honey and a lime slice for avant-garde hot drink. Again, however, I don’t associate heating a cocktail with warming up my insides, so not really a fan.

Nogs
posset-pot

Nothing like having a pot to posset in.

Nog used to refer to a drink made from strong ale and eggs, frothed and heated with a loggerhead. Not many people want an egg in their suds these days, so commonly Egg Nog is a mixture of eggs, rum, cream, sugar and nutmeg, served cold. But it doesn’t have to be: hot Egg Nog is a richly satisfying drink, whether made with brandy or rum, and pre-packaged Egg Nog is available in season, so you don’t have to make your own–although you should, because it’s always better.

A note on the weird-looking twin-handled pot above. It’s for posset, which is an English drink that’s closer to a hot sherry custard than a Nog. Some even had a burnt sugar crust on them, much like a creme brûlée.

Mulled Wine

pot

Wine, mulling with fruit

Glogg is the Scandinavian word for mulled wine, and is derived from the German word, Glühwein, ‘Glow-Wine’. I usually call my mulled wine by either of these terms because I think they’re more romantic-sounding.

Made from sugar, cinnamon, water, orange and cloves boiled together with wine Glogg is very popular with European ski fans. Not only is it warming and restorative, it also has a moderate alcohol content—a good thing for the active crowd, but a property lost on a winter sloth like me.

gluhwein

‘Gluh’ means glow: no glue involved

Mulled wine can also be punched up a bit, with the substitution of Cointreau for the orange, and/or Port wine for regular red wine. Another winter alternative is mulled cider, or mulled apple juice: brown sugar, cinnamon, orange and rum come together to make a smell reminiscent of hot apple pie, a wonderfully appetising aroma when the frost is on the leaves.

Glühwein

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 orange

1 bottle of red table wine- Merlot, Cabernet or anything else sturdy and rich. I suggest making your own–check this out.

Mix water, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and the juice of the orange together in a heavy pot. Bring to a boil, turn down and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the orange peel and the wine, bring back to a boil and serve immediately in pre-heated mugs. This mixture can be kept warm in a crockpot, or on a coffee warmer (covered) for several hours, and can be successfully reheated the next day.

scrooge

The only version of A Christmas Carol worth watching

If, like me, you’re a fan of the 1951 Alistar Sim version of A Christmas Carol, you’ll recall when Scrooge tells a suddenly relieved Bob Cratchit that they’ll discuss it ‘over a bowl of smoking Bishop’. Far from a cannibal barbecue, Bishop was one of the code-words for drink used in the 19th century–Dickens knew his drink. The ‘Pope’ recipe used burgundy, ‘Archbishop’ claret (what we call Bordeaux), the ‘Cardinal’ was champagne and Smoking Bishop used port, and was a clove and orange-infused port punch, warmed and mulled with baking spices and another dose of red wine

The recipe takes a few steps, and is suitable for a big gathering. From Punchdrink

Smoking Bishop

Servings: 10-12

  • 750 ml port
  • 750 ml red wine
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger, freshly grated
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice, ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 4 oranges
  • 20 cloves, whole

Garnish: clove-studded orange slice

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Wash and dry oranges. Pierce and stud each orange with five cloves.
  3. Place oranges in a baking dish and roast until lightly browned all over, 60-90 minutes.
  4. Add port, wine, water, sugar and spices to a saucepan, and simmer over low heat.
  5. Slice oranges in half and squeeze juice into the wine and port mixture.
  6. Serve in a punch bowl, and ladle into individual glasses.

Now I’ve got to plan a party where I can try this out on some unsuspecting Scrooges.

Oh dear, it’s started snowing again. Good thing I’ve got a crockpot full of Glühwein to keep me warm. Now where’s my nightshirt and cap?

Fall Cask Festival

pouring cask ale

Rich casky goodness

Wine is my first love, my business, my hobby and my avocation. I’m the man I am today because of a single sip of wine that sent me on a fantastic odyssey of learning, both about grapes, vineyards, winemaking and wine, and about how to write about it, think about it and how to parse the culture and fellowship of wine into my life, and share it with others.

But I also love beer, and I pursue it with as much passion as I do my winemaking. Aside from all-grain brewing and messing about with professional brewers and hanging out in brew clubs, I’m also part of the Tri-Cities Cask Festival Society. We organise beer festivals that are structured around traditional cask-style beers.

fall-2016-13

Glassware and give-aways

What is Cask Beer?

Simply put, cask beer is beer, but it’s beer from another time. Almost all modern beer, whether served in a bottle or on draft, is carefully filtered to remove solids and to make it sparklingly clear, and then carbonated with an addition of CO2 gas to make it fizzy.

Cask beer, by contrast, isn’t filtered: all of the stuff that gives beer body, flavour, aroma and distinct character is left in. In addition to that, cask beer is naturally carbonated–when it goes into the keg it’s primed with a little extra fermentable material and then sealed up. The live yeast in the beer (which we didn’t filter out) eats the fermentable sugars and produces carbon dioxide, which gives the beer a smooth, luscious and creamy mouth-feel, without any of the prickly or ‘scrubby’ character of artificially carbonated beers.

Cask beer is different from standard draft beer, which is kept very cold, and pushed out of the keg under gas pressure, to keep the fizziness high. In a much gentler method, casks are carefully vented and then tapped, and the beer is allowed to flow with great gentleness into the glass–no gas pushing and no numb, ice-cold fizziness, just flavourful, delicious beer nirvana!

fall-2016-09

The Phillips crew, serving up a gummy cola ale–you could really taste the cola!

This means that cask beer doesn’t last: once you tap a cask it typically goes flat and loses character within a day or so. That means most bars and pubs can only serve it at events or special occasions, and then only one or two casks. That’s why cask festivals are awesome: you get to try 10, 15, 20 or even more cask beers at a time (small samples if you’re trying 20!)

fall-2016-16

Brewed by the Tri-Cities Homebrew club, and it was delcious!

Our latest festival was at the Burrard Public House in Port Moody. We not only had cask beers, but also cask-beer based cocktails, great food and a crowd of over 175 people tasting more than 20 wonderful beers. The best part for me? Tapping kegs.

We had our usual crew of volunteers, who did a fabulous job–they’re all amazing hard workers who put in a lot of effort and time. Without them, we wouldn’t have a festival at all, and I’m constantly impressed with their dedication and hard work.

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James, our volunteer coordinator gives the pep talk first thing.

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Women are exempted from the facial-hair rule.

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Happiness is a cool beer

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Dageraad’s first cask beer ever!

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Novia and Sho help our guests sign in.

We also partner with CAMRA Vancouver, who have the Safe Ride Home program that lets cask enthusiasts enjoy the festival, and then take transit home, all for the same ticket price. They’re a great part of every festival.

fall-2016-05

Yay CAMRA!

The TCCFS executive is there as well. It’s a little nail-biting getting everything organised and set up, but once it’s done we’re pretty happy to let it unfold.

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Michael and Steve mind the swag

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Dan either wants peace in our time, or two beers

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This is my glass. There are others like it, but this one is mine.

But the festival is all about the people who come, and at every single festival I have yet to see someone who isn’t having a great time. The only disappointed people are the ones who couldn’t get tickets!

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Wait, have I had this one yet?

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People+beer=happiness

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Sharing a passion for good beer

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Yes, it’s supposed to taste like cola!

If this looks like the kind of thing you’d like to try out, you’re in luck: we’re holding another festival on January 22nd, at the Executive Plaza in Coquitlam. It’s a Pro-Am competition, the only one of its kind in Canada, and will feature local brewing clubs making beer under the license of their community craft brewery, and competing againts all the other casks, professional and amateur, for the title of Best Beer!

Check it out and get tickets here: Tri-Cities Pro-Am Cask Festival. They’re $49.00 and come with ten tasters, a souvenir glass, and you even get a burger and a trip through the custom poutine bar!

Hope to see you there.

 

 

Grinding Away

cup-of-coffee

As Agent Cooper always said, “Damn fine coffee.”

I don’t always drink wine. Or even beer. I don’t even drink whisky every day, come to think of it. I don’t like soda pop for the most part, and I drink about two quarts of milk per calendar year. There are only two beverages I consume on a daily basis: water, of course, since I am a squishy bag of mostly water by design, and coffee, because it is delicious brain juice that lets me function in society.

punks

Nobody looks cool . . . oh, all right, they look ridiculously cool. Don’t smoke kids, it’s bad.

I started drinking coffee quite young. In retrospect, being in the single digit range for birthdays was probably a little on the youthful side for drinking caffeinated beverages, but if you believe the Coffee Achievers, it was probably the making of me, and there are worse habits.

My taste in coffee has evolved over the years, as has the way I consume it. As a kid I liked it with lots and lots of milk and sugar. I lost my taste for sweets after a while, quit bothering with milk, and started drinking hot, black coffee by the gallon. Keep in mind I was raised by simple prairie folks, and the coffee wasn’t premium or sophisticated. It was pre-ground, canned coffee that was on sale, and made in an automatic drip machine manufactured by a company more known for electric drills and sanders than for food equipment.

Braun_Coffee_Maker

It’s nice to know they never change.

A friend of mine once described this beverage as ‘Lutheran Coffee’, after the kind of brew you find in one of those giant percolators in a church basement. I liken it to hot brown coffee-water. After I left home I started buying beans and getting them ground at the store. Then I bought my own grinder, and one of the most perfect coffee making machines ever invented: the Melitta Cone Drip. That worked for years, until I got a bug in my ear about espresso. Then I had several set-ups, refining how I like my coffee with automated espresso makers, stove top units, et cetera.

green-beans

Seriously, they look like pebbles that aren’t even trying very hard.

I keep experimenting with coffee making, but the final frontier for me has been to seize control over roasting my own beans. Coffee is the seed of a cherry-like fruit, and after gathering and processing, it looks like a little green rock with a cleft in it, and it doesn’t taste of anything special. It’s not until you roast it to a rich, chocolatey brown that it releases that heavenly aroma and beguiling flavour.

beans

Oh baby, you look so good in black.

By this time you should be getting the idea that I never leave well enough alone, and everything in my life is in imminent danger of becoming an obsession. I did some research, fiddled around a bit with primitive methods, including roasting beans over a wood fire in an iron pan like the Ottomans did, but a conversation with a professional coffee roaster made me realise that there was something to having the right piece of equipment for the job: heat ramp-up especially was a thing. There’s a long explanation, but if you heat the beans up too slowly they dry out and lose some of their nuance. Heat ’em up too fast and they just char instead of roasting nicely. A good roasting machine can take that into account. A good machine like the Behmor 1600.

41402-after-dark-behmor-1600-plus-coffee-roasting-starter-kit-1000

The Behmor. The one I got came with a bunch of extras: a nice glass mug, a pound of coffee and a really good scale.

The unit is a masterful design. You can check out the manual here, which is an excellent segue: always read the instructions. With some things, like an ice-cube tray, the stakes are low. If you do it wrong, worst-case, you don’t get ice cubes. Because this machine is using high heat to dry out and subsequently roast cellulosic vegetable matter saturated with oil (coffee), if you overdo it, it can catch fire. Which is bad.

If you’re going to get a roaster, read and pay close attention to those instructions. They’ll make sure you stay safe and that you get a decent cup of coffee from the first try. After that, you can start fiddling around with the time, ramp-ups, drum speed and all that jazz. But start with the basics. To show you those basics, have a look at this overview of roasting basics that I put together in my kitchen.

The manual may be a little intimidating at first, but as you can see, it isn’t rocket surgery: Follow the instructions, don’t leave the Roaster unattended while it’s on, and learn to recognise the difference between first and second crack and you’re in.

A fascinating combination of high tech and established tech.

A fascinating combination of high tech and established tech.

If you’re curious about the coffee making rig shown at the end of the video, it’s an Aeropress, and it’s what I use to make an excellent–just about the best, really–cup of hot coffee I’ve ever had.

But what if you want a bigger thrill? What if you want the ultimate in coffee deliciousness? What if you want . . . this

Cold-brewed coffee is the hottest-cold thing to show up in coffee use in the last ten years. You get flavour extraction by trading the heat of the water for time. Rather than a three or four minute steep with water around 200F (your mileage may vary) you use tepid water and soak overnight, or for 24 hours. This slow, gentle extraction leaves behind a lot of the harsh tannins, while teasing out the smooth, rich flavours that make coffee so wonderfully good.

And Nitrogen dispense is what has made Guinness Stout so popular. Forcing your cold-brewed coffee through a Stout Faucet with medium-pressure nitrogen gives it that creamy, foamy ‘cascade’ of flavour goodness. Honestly, it makes coffee wickedly drinkable, to the point where I have to monitor my intake or I’ll wind up dancing around like wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man.

NITRO! KABLOOEY!

5 pound nitrogen tank, high-pressure regulator, stout faucet and connectors. Not show, 19 litre Cornelius keg and dedicated keg fridge.

Previously, if you wanted to do nitrogen dispensing at home, you needed a full-on setup, with a keg refrigerator (standard homebrew kegs are not fridge-friendly: they crowd out the pot roast), a nitrogen tank, special regulator, and a bunch of other bits and bobs. Not a stretch if your life includes that kind of thing as a hobby, but a bit of a stretch for your average coffee fan.

jacked-up

Everything you need to Jack Up your coffee.

Enter the Jacked-Up™ Nitro Fully-Loaded Cold Brew Starter Kit. It includes everything you need for cold-brewed, insanely delicious cold-brewed-nitro-coffee at home. Two things make it ideal for home use. First, the keg itself. Have a look at mine.

nitro-cannonball

Coffee roaster, check. Coffee grinder, check. Jacked Up Nitro system, check. Gallon of pea-pod beer . . . what?

Pop the tap and the regulator off of it and the whole keg fits onto a shelf in a standard fridge, ready to dispense your coffee at any time. (Don’t tell anyone I told you, but it’ll also dispense Wine like a champ).

jacked-up-nitro-keg-regulator-white

I love good engineering. That regulator is built like a tank.

Second, check out that regulator, with the attached nitrogen cylinder. You don’t need to buy the full-meal-deal nitrogen tank, regulator et cetera, you just screw in a cylinder of nitrogen gas, pop it on the keg and dial up your pour. You can even take the Cannonball keg with you to parties or the back yard, or wherever. This is a brilliant enabler of coffee usage.

Check out how I do it.

I’ve nearly got the whole coffee thing handled. Five, six more years at most and I’ll have my system perfected.

Now, I wonder how you roast your own tea?

The Word of the Day is ‘Spunding’

krautI know a little German . . .

I’ve been incredibly busy with my Master Vintner project–have a look at some of the things we’ve got going on over here–making wine, tasting wine, talking about wine, and generally loving the whole Master Vintner concept.

In all my time in the consumer wine kit business I wanted to make a kit that I was completely responsible for, not so much because I’m a shiny-eyed control freak, but because I wanted to share something where everything was done exactly the way I wanted it, at each step. I get to do that now, and it’s a rare privilege in business to make something this good, and then to see people making the kits and loving them.

But, I do have other interests–cooking, gardening, photography, travel, motorcycles, hunting, shooting, hiking, reading and generally messing around learning stuff, and, as it happens, suddenly going into deep geek mode when something catches my imagination (I have been  accused of having ‘Attention Surplus Disorder’).

Which leads me to one of my latest offshoots: I was doing research on the Charmat Method, a process for making sparkling wine in pressure tanks, rather than carbonating in the bottle. It’s an interesting compromise: force carbonating, like the way they get the fizz into most mass-market beers, leaves large bubbles that are described as ‘coarse’, but it’s very inexpensive to do. Bottle conditioning is the traditional method for making champagne, and it uses a dose of sugar and yeast inside a sealed bottle to produce carbon dioxide in situ. That makes for fine, creamy bubbles, but it’s expensive and time-consuming. Do the conditioning in a tank and bottle it from there the theory goes, and you’ve got a decent product at a reasonable price.

The thing is, letting yeast have their way with sugar in a sealed vessel is tricky. Most homebrewers have had, or been present for a ‘bottle-bomb‘, where the carbonation was so high that either the bottle gushed foam like a fountain as soon as it was opened, pouring out until it was empty, or it actually exploded right where it was sitting. Glass is not a flawless choice for pressure applications.

Stainless steel tanks are pretty good, but past a certain point, unless they’re built like scuba tanks, they’re nearly as dangerous as a bottle bomb going off. What you need is a pressure relief valve that you can set accurately to hold in the amount of pressure you want, but will vent anything past that. Sounds easy, and it is, if you’re a gas-fitter or a millwright, but for home beverage applications those things aren’t just lying around.

Except all the bits are there, right in front of you, if you speak German.

A Spundapparat is a pressure relief valve used in the process of krausening (those wacky Germans, it’s like they have a word for everything!). Krausening is exactly the same process as the Charmat method, but more German and less French. Tootling around on the internets gave me a good idea of what the deal was: while the classic use was krausening, spunding valves are also used to ferment beer under pressure, allowing beers to finish faster while producing fewer off flavours and undesirable characters.

I didn’t have any appropriate candidate wine for a Charmat process on hand, but I did have access to a sample of WLP 925 High Pressure yeast, designed to be fermented at 14 PSI, and the ingredients for a Pre-Prohibition Pilsner on hand (didn’t know I made beer? Well, it’s yet another hobby . . .)

A beer? A pressure yeast? An interesting apparatus to play with? What ho! In geek heaven, I hatched a plan and immediately launched it!

And then I immediately stopped because the parts I needed for the spunding assembly wouldn’t arrive for a couple of weeks. Poo. I put out a call to my brewer friends and one of them came through for me. Nathaniel lent me his spunding rig, which he used for transferring beers in his solera (it has to do with soured beers, a fad I’m hopeful will soon go away).  His rig lacked a proper pressure gauge, but it wouldn’t be mission-critical in this application–the pressures were pretty low and I could fiddle around a bit.

Here’s his rig, and a tricksy little blow-off hose I rigged up. I’ll explain that in a second.

nathan's

Simple, yet effective, much like me.

Attached to my blow-off keg (see below).

spundy 3

Very technical

Here’s why the funny transfer hose: the grey disconnect is a gas-in connector. The black is a product-out connector. Product-out posts on the kegs have a stainless steel tube that runs to the bottom of the keg, allowing the liquid inside (wine or beer) to flow upwards, through the tap, into your glass, while the gas-in posts end right at the top of the keg. Makes sense, right?

spundy-5

21st century technology vs. old-school

I got a second keg, and set the whole thing up as a blow-off vessel. The very cool and complicated keg on the left is a Big Mouth™ Modular 5 Gallon Keg. Not only does it go from 1-gallon to 5 gallons with a few turns of a wrench, but also it has a port on top that allows you to hang an oak stave from (and retrieve it at will!) or a dry hop bag to flavour your beer. It’s my favoritest thing right now.

In case any foam-up during fermentation would flow through the gas port and travel down the product port in the smaller keg. Both kegs were sealed and purged, the spunding valve set at 14 PSI and the yeast was pitched.

It worked like a charm. The beer fermented dry in five days, and I heard the faintest of muttering from the valve as it uh, passed gas.  I moved it to my keezer (keg refrigerator made from a converted deep freeze) to drop the yeast and chill down.  The beer is quite good, but the yeast is non-flocculent (it doesn’t want to settle down). It’s not a huge flaw, but next time I’ll filter it to make it shiny and bright.

PPPils

I love a tall blonde . . .

Now I had all sorts of ideas. My last round of winemaking with my Winemaker’s Reserve kits had me kegging a lot of them, in accordance with Vandergrift’s Second Principle of Winemaking  (A winemaker’s desire to bottle wines is in inverse proportion to the number of bottles they have filled in their lifetime). In fact, I had a few kegs in the back of my car . . .

car

“What kind of car is that? ” “It’s a Volkswagen Keggerator.”

I wanted to do a pressure transfer of wine from one of my 10 US-gallon (38 litre) kegs to my awesomely excellent Master Vintner® Cannonball® Wine Keg System and the spunding rig would allow me to do a transfer under nitrogen gas, slowly and carefully. All I had to do was rig up a product-product transfer hose, attach a gas line between the big keg and the Cannonball, attach the spundapparatus to the Cannonball gas out, and then slowly dial back the spunding pressure and it would transfer meek as a mouse.

But I wanted a more accurate pressure gauge. the little direct rig was fine, as far as it goes, but I didn’t really trust it to be accurate. Fortunately, by now all of my parts had arrived, and I put my own special rig together.

spunding-02

I had to order the pressure relief valve on the right, and the two brass connectors on the left, but everything else was just lying around the house. Yes, my house is like that.

spunding-01

Neat as a pin. Doesn’t even look like I did it!

pretty-rig

Mr. Spundy in action!

It worked like a charm! Not only did I transfer wine from one container under inert gas to another, but also I did it without racking or pumping. A professional brewer or winemaker would be rolling their eyes at this point, as both of these are standard operations in the industry, but for a home winemaker it’s a pretty cool step, and it only cost around 25 bucks plus some Teflon tape.

What’s next for my little rig? I think it’s time to grab a Winemaker’s Reserve Pinot Grigio and do a Charmat-process sparkling wine–with good management and a little work I should have it ready to drink by the holiday season this year!

Unless, of course, I get distracted and do something even weirder in the meantime. I’ve been meaning to make a high-gravity Belgian beer with Muscat grape juice in it . . .

Catching Up, Up, and Awaaaay!

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

It’s been a long radio silence from me for reasons varied and sundry, the principle of which is that I’ve been rascally busy for the last two months, with matters professional and personal. I know that professional technically includes ‘keeping my blog updated’, but that’s one of those important-but-not-urgent things that gets pushed back enough that it sometimes disappears altogether.

A few berries short of a sundae

A few berries short of a sundae

Part of my occupation was my community garden plot. We’ve had an extraordinarily good spring and summer–come to think of it, we basically skipped winter as well, with a long, warm period extending from November through to the middle of April, when suddenly it was summer–no spring, no tentative sprouting of plants, just a drop-kick right into full-on heat and sunshine.

That'd be a pretty short elephant

That’d be a pretty short elephant

This is a pretty big contrast to past years when we were joking about ‘Juneuary’, and bemoaning the endless grey rains, conveniently forgetting the fact that we choose to live in an actual rainforest. Normally I’d plant my garden on the May long weekend (the Monday before May 25th) but this year I had a lot of work to do and got it in on the last week of April.

Part of the work was building five new boxes. I have a community garden located on the site of a reclaimed marsh. While it may have been fertile one hundred years ago, the soil is pretty much hardpan clay, with a few inches of topsoil to cover. For a decade I rototilled, added sand, peat moss, compost and other amendments, but the soil quickly ate that up and returned to its peevish ways.

Two years ago I gave up and built some garden boxes. I make them deeper than is usual, and it seemed to work out really well–the results have been beyond what I could have expected. I expanded from three big boxes and three smaller ones, adding four big boxes and one broad but shallow one for vines like zucchini and squash.

Pay no mind to the man behind the kilt

Pay no mind to the man behind the kilt

It was quite a bit of work, between pounding stakes, screwing boxes together and then filling them, wheelbarrow by back-breaking wheelbarrow with soil. As I usually claim, I’m in it for the fresh air and exercise: tasty vegetables are just a by-product. But what a by-product! Between top-quality soil and an early, hot and extended growing season, things have been going crazy.

Gardens gone wild

Gardens gone wild

Unfortunately, the garden is a bit disruptive: it’s on an old farm site, but it borders a nesting sanctuary and a marsh. As such, there are marshy-type creatures there, including some that love fresh garden produce. The worst are beavers: you wouldn’t believe the damage a couple of beavers can do to a garden in only a few hours, especially to grape vines (I’ve lost four over the years) and fruit trees–a decade of growing and poof! It’s part of a dam.

Download these raspberries

Download these raspberries

When the beavers get bad, the wildlife service comes and hauls them away, relocating them. One doesn’t bother beavers without the help of a professional. First, they’re protected and only licensed hunters and trappers can harvest beavers. Second, they’re incredibly dangerous, and routinely kill people who try to interfere with them.

Beavers aren’t the worst, though, as they’re a once in a while animal. I save most of my ire for rats. Sadly, it’s my fault they’re trouble. If you think about it, the average rat is a timid riverbank rodent eating seeds and the occasional bird’s egg. Plunk down eighty or a hundred garden plots next to that riparian paradise and all the rats see is about a trillion calories of easy-to-get deliciousness. They multiply out of proportion to the natural landscape and start raiding. This year I finally took action, netting my corn and setting traps for them. While it worked, I’m not happy with having to murder rodents whose only crime was to recognise an easy meal. Thus is ever the life of an ethical omnivore.

Aside from the garden, I’ve been busy other ways. The building next to me (as in, right up against my suite) burnt to the ground.

fire

Gelato is not supposed to be served hot

That was exciting, especially the part where the flames shot up over the garden wall and incinerated my magnolia tree.

Ashes are good for trees, right?

Ashes are good for trees, right?

Sheesh. Not something you want to see out your bedroom window.

Also, there was the Winemaker Magazine conference in Portland, a delight as always.

workin the booth

Master Vintner! The best winemaking stuff ever!

This year I did a day long boot camp seminar, teaching a class full of people advanced techniques for making wine, demo’ing equipment and doing things like post-fermentation elevage, as well as four other lectures, an author’s round table, and a couple more.

The folks at Winemaker Portland were a happy bunch.

The folks at Winemaker Portland were a happy bunch.

The earlybird winemakers get the wormy old teacher.

The early bird winemakers get the wormy old teacher.

Those people at Winemaker beat me like the family mule sometimes.

Catching up with Gi--always a delight

Catching up with Gi–always a delight

Fortunately there was time to hang out with old friends, enjoy a few noshes

If you're in Portland, I recommend Ox. They have meat.

If you’re in Portland, I recommend Ox. They have meat.

Winemaker was fun, if a bit of a whirlwind. It was really nice to catch up with my pal Wes Hagen. We just don’t get to see each other often enough. As a consequence, we tend to act like ninnies when we do, which is always fun.

In which I corrupt Wes' palate with hoppy hopulence.

In which I corrupt Wes with hoppy hopulence. Photo courtesy of the delightful JT Matherly, a fine new Portland friend.

After Winemaker it was time to gear up for the AHA national conference in San Diego. I’ve wanted to go to an AHA conference for at least 20 years, but always had some corporate drudgery that made it impossible to attend. This year I went under the auspices of my good friends at Northern Brewer, which got me in everywhere and helped me make some new friends.

Yes, that's Wil Wheaton: Tabletop, Titansgrave, Star Trek, Stand By Me and zounds of other things. I felt pretty cool

Yes, that’s Wil Wheaton: Tabletop, Titansgrave, Star Trek, Stand By Me and zounds of other things. I felt pretty cool, hanging with such a chill dude.

Not only did I get to hang out at the NB booth, I got to do some backstagey stuff, like drink a whole keg of Russian Imperial Stout at an afterparty, plus hang out with a thousand-odd homebrewers and taste some of the best dang beers in the whole world, all in one convenient place.

Sessioning the Woot Stout. Whose idea was that?

Sessioning the Woot Stout. Whose idea was that?

Hanging at the Northern Brewer booth with Todd and Chris. Good times!

Hanging at the Northern Brewer booth with Todd and Chris. Good times!

Pro night at the AHA--so much good beer, so little liver capacity!

Pro night at the AHA–so much good beer, so little liver capacity!

As part of the trip I rented a car and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway. If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it. It’s the most beautiful drive you can imagine–and just when you think it can’t possibly get any more gorgeous, it does.

Yawn. Yet another spectacular view.

Yawn. Yet another spectacular view.

I even got in a little whale-watching, when I decided to pull over for the first time in 2 hours and picked the only spot on the coast with a deceased mammal washed up.

Not very lively, but it was easy to keep track of.

Not very lively, but it was easy to keep track of.

I also made my traditional stop at the Tonga Room. It’s the finest Tiki Bar on earth, located in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. There’s something about a restaurant that serves drinks the size of punchbowls, and has a boat floating in the middle of the room, the better to facilitate the occasional indoor rainstorm.

tonga room

Great drinks, excellent food–that really floats my boat.

Returning home, I had a load of projects to get to. First up, a 4th of July barbecue. No, not grilling: a real barbecue.

home barbecue

Ribs, for your pleasure. Along with brisket, chicken and sausage.

Also, there was a seafood boil.

Spot prawns, dungeness crab, white prawns, chorizo, with corn and potatoes from my garden.

Spot prawns, dungeness crab, white prawns, chorizo, with corn and potatoes from my garden.

I was also part of the Tri-Cities Cask Festival, and we really had a great time doing our first beers-from-outside-of-Vancouver-city tasting. I was media man, but managed to get in on the keg tapping action (note: all pictures courtesy of Vancouver Photoworks).

First, drive in the spile.

First, drive in the spile.

Next, drive in the tap.

Next, drive in the tap.

. . . and then the gushing and the shouting and the glayvin!

. . . and then the gushing and the shouting and the glayvin!

I did a little brewing as well, trying to keep my skills sharp.

My ISA with Caliente hops. Fruity yum-yums.

My ISA with Caliente hops. Fruity yum-yums.

Let’s see, what else have I been doing . . . oh yes, I conducted a Scotch tasting.

Scotchy Scotch Scotch

Scotchy Scotch Scotch

Made some epic sandwiches . . .

Garden tomato, home-smoked pork belly, Muenster cheese, double-grilled.

Garden tomato, home-smoked pork belly, Muenster cheese, double-grilled.

Spent some time with my now very old gentleman cat.

He's a very good boy.

He’s a very good boy.

And I worked on my winemaking.

Beards help you taste.

Beards help you taste.

Speaking of which, lots of good things coming up in the Master Vintner winemaking world! But this post is long enough with the catching up already. Tune in soon yet more will be revealed.

Take Two Glasses of Wine and Call me in the Morning

Yes, same name. I'm not quite as saintly.

Yes, same name. I’m not quite as saintly.

“Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” (1 Timothy 5:23)

If even the Bible backs up the health benefits of wine, is it really true that wine isn’t just harmless, but might actually do your health some good? That’s a common suggestion among wine-lovers, and there appear to be some studies that back up the idea. And for a while at least, wine was suspected as a primary cause of the French Paradox.

Those lucky French people, despite a diet that features a high amount of saturated fats, are known to have a lower prevalence of coronary disease than people in other places. When scientists first realized that, one of the most popular suggested explanations for this health benefit was all the red wine the French drink. You can imagine how sales of red wine increased in North America after that theory came out. But despite the known good effects of certain ingredients in the wine, there just didn’t seem to be enough of those ingredients to create such a drastic health effect. And when you realize that on average, a French person drinks only a couple of bottles more per year than a North American, well, there goes that theory. Darn it anyway.

But don’t throw the health effects out with the wine bottle! All is not yet lost. Because despite the crash and burn of red wine as a theoretical cause of the French Paradox, there is still some evidence suggesting health benefits to moderate alcohol intake. And yes, those benefits relate to cardiovascular health. So red wine may be back on the menu after all–maybe.

What you really have to watch is overenthusiastic endorsements of the current scientific studies. Online media outlets have been touting an outrageous headline lately: Is Drinking Wine Better Than Going To The Gym? According To Scientists, Yes! These stories all quote a Unversity of Alberta study that says a glass of red wine is as good as an hour at the gym.

Except, actually: no. According to Jason Dyck, lead author of that study,

Dyck’s study was published more than two years ago. It examined whether resveratrol, a compound found in grapes and other foods, can increase exercise capacity for those already exercising. 

“We didn’t use any red wine in our study nor did we recommend not going to the gym,” said Dyck.

The study did conclude that resveratrol could help maximize exercise benefits for people with restricted exercise capacity, like heart failure patients.

To be effective, the compound would need to be used like a performance-enhancing supplement, with concentrations far beyond a glass of wine.

“To get the same amount that we’re giving patients or rodents you’d have to drink anywhere from 100 to a thousand bottles a day,” said Dyck.

Now get all these drank by lunch: 90.000 more bottles to go!

Now get all these drank by lunch: 90,000 more bottles to go!

In most studies done so far, even taking into account the possibility of moderate drinkers having a better income and healthier lifestyle, and factoring out non-drinkers who had quit because they had already ruined their health with alcoholism, there seems to be a correlation between improved health outcomes for moderate drinkers. They are less prone to heart disease.

Red wine will not solve your problems, kitty.

Red wine will not solve your problems, kitty.

Pay attention to that word, “moderate,” though, and don’t rush out and buy or make an excess of wine or other alcohol “for your health.” Too much of a good thing can reverse all those good effects. And we all know that excessive drinking leads to liver disease, heart failure, and even certain cancers, not to mention accidents and injuries caused by drunkenness. When the biblical writer says “a little wine” rather than “jugs and jugs of the stuff,” he knows what he’s talking about. It’s fine to have a large, well-stocked cellar, but you don’t have to drink the whole thing by next Wednesday.

The effects of moderate amounts of alcohol on the body are many: it helps reduce blood pressure and reduces insulin levels. It increases the levels of good cholesterol (HDL) while reducing the levels of the bad kind (LDL). It contains antioxidants that fight cancer, and it helps prevent blood clotting. But what about that reference to the stomach in the Bible verse? Does wine help the digestive system too?

Studies seem to support that idea also. Wine apparently combats certain food-borne pathogens quite well, either because of the acidity or because of the alcohol itself going to work directly on the bacteria. It even works against the bugs that cause ulcers.

But it’s important not to read too much into the health benefits. After all, something as fun and  delicious as wine shouldn’t be completely perfect.

The Naked and the Deforested: Unoaked Wine

‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’—Sherlock Holmes

‘If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.’ –Jack Handy

From little acorns  . . .

From little acorns . . .

I’ve written many times over the years about oaking your wine, including barrels, oak substitutes and élevage techniques for improvements. This time it’s a little different: it’s all about wine without oak.

Of course, not using oak on wine is a time-honoured tradition for many varietals and styles, and often for good reason. There are few things as disconcerting and deeply weird as a heavily oaked Riesling, and few Rosé wines show better with a heavy layer of deeply toasted oak covering their finish.  Oak just doesn’t make sense with many highly floral-aromatic wines, which is why only a few of them get exposed to it, but there are some reds that are happy without oak as well.

That's some mighty fine barrel action

That’s some mighty fine barrel action

Almost all red wines do get at least some oak exposure, and the trend in the last 30 years has been to over-oak lesser wines to increase their price-point and saleability. This is because oak is such an immensely useful tool. It’s often used in a knee-jerk way, both to bring out the character of wine (élevage) to cover flaws (cheating), to add a bit of glamour and sophistication to an otherwise undistinguished vintage (lipstick on a pig), and sometimes, just because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’ (mechanical winemaking).

Chardonnay? Chardon-YAY!

Chardonnay? Chardon-YAY!

A happy reversal of this state of affairs has come from one of the usual suspects: Chardonnay. Easy to grow, cropping well, and relatively simple to make into drinkable wine, Chardonnay became a target for Oak Abusers in the 1980’s. Like many terrible things, it was caused by Australians. They found that the more oak they added to their heavy, hot-climate Chardonnay wines, the better they sold. A little math showed them that barrels were too expensive for polishing wine in a plonk price category, so they tended to use granulated oak products—by the shovel full.  Throw in more serious wines (many from California) that used barrels like a weapon, and you had a bunch of expensive Chardonnays that were thick, viscous, creamy and woody.

More recently, ‘unwooded’ Chardonnays have shown up. Some are still in the cheap and cheerful category (under $7 in most places) but others have more serious aspirations—Kendall Jackson, makers of one of the most popular and oaky Chardonnays in America have started making an unoaked version, and the tricksiest and most clever winemakers in the New World have discovered that slightly less over-ripe grapes and no oak can not only make a better wine, one more like an old-world white Burgundy, but also that leaving off a brand new barrel means they’re much cheaper to make—and sell.

Oak isn’t the answer to every winemaking question, and to understand the complexity of the varietal character the grape can bring to a finished wine it can be very useful to taste it without any oak at all. What will happen if we peel back the layers of wood and reveal the form of the wine underneath? To figure that out, it’s important to know what oak actually does. As the man once said, if you want to break the rules, you first have to know them.

Why Oak At All?

People have enhanced aromas and flavoured wine with various things over the years, from herbs, fruits and honey to pine resin, seawater and lead-based syrup (yes, really), but in the very beginning, oak was never intended as a flavouring agent. It was a container.

Although coopers were making water-tight wooden buckets nearly five thousand years ago, these were all open-topped and wouldn’t seal airtight or stack well. Around 900 BCE technologies improved, and fully-closed, airtight barrels were available to store not only liquids, but also anything that had to be shipped—barrels are impressively light and strong, stack well, and are easy to move and handle, and keep things in good condition.

A fine stack

A fine stack

It was probably the very first person who kept wine in a barrel for any length of time who noted the amazing changes the liquid inside underwent: wines kept this way would become rich, complex and more flavourful than wines in clay containers (and way less ‘organic’ than wines kept in animal skins!)

Part of this is due to small amounts of oxygen that get introduced into the wine through barrel handling: racking from barrels and topping up (to keep the airspace in the barrel to a minimum, preventing serious oxidation). More importantly from a gross flavour perspective, toasted oak has many complex chemical compounds, each contributing flavours or textural note to wines.

Most familiar of these are vanillins: phenols in the wood interact with the wine to produce sweet, toasty aromas of honey and tobacco, often described as ‘vanilla’. Barrels also have their own tannins, just as grapes do. Not only do they contribute to astringency, mouthfeel and structural complexity, some of them help protect the maturing wine from oxidation.

Aside from the flavour and aroma of fresh-roasted vanilla bookcase, oak also helps decrease ‘green’ or tart young flavours in wine. Oak is like fine-grit sandpaper to a rough surface, levelling unevenness, taking off burrs, and giving a smooth, lustrous finish to a previously lumpy and scratchy wine.

Why and How to Not-Oak Your Wine Kit

Kit manufacturers are already producing kits that declare their wood-free status, all of which are currently Chardonnays. This is a response to the change in the commercial market, which they track very closely. As the man said, if you would plant a seed, follow the plough; you do not walk ahead of it.

If you’d like to try other varietals au naturel, you first need to consider the way wine kits use subtle procedures to achieve commercial character. Many kits require you to add oak directly into the must, before pitching yeast. This might seem a bit odd to non-winemakers, as pre-fermentation new oak is commonly only emphasised in commercial wine in regards to barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, or Chardonnay. It isn’t unique to kits and kit manufacturers didn’t invent this technique. Like many great ideas, they stole it.

40 or 50 years ago, before stainless steel was ubiquitous, wines were mostly fermented much as they had been for centuries, in wooden vessels. Because of the difficulty (real or perceived) of sanitising wooden fermenters, winemakers who could afford to, adopted stainless steel as soon as they could, reaping the added benefit of much simpler temperature control in the bargain.

This changed in the last 20 years, as some commercial winemakers came to feel that wines fermented to dryness in stainless steel had less harmonious fruit character and seemed less complex even after barrel ageing. This is because during fermentation yeast modifies oak characters, sequestering some of the sharper tannins, making the wine easier to drink much earlier, and interactions between wood and wine during fermentation generates furfural compounds, which promote a coffee/tobacco note.

coffee-pipe-tobacco

Please don’t smoke coffee beans

Of course, there are some issues with barrel fermenting red wine: it’s only suited to small lots (if you’ve ever done a red wine from grapes, imagine getting a hundred tons of grapes into and out of your barrels—wow!) and there are difficulties controlling temperature inside the barrels. Fortunately, oak-products are there to rescue the situation: chips, chunks, powders, staves, spirals and beans are used to get oak into wine without having to get the wine into wood, giving the same positive benefits at a much lower cost.  They can be added directly to fermenting musts, even before the yeast, and clean-up is a breeze—they go out with the compost.

Post-fermentation oak has a more direct transfer of wood character, but it has the same outcome: a layer of character on top of the fruit that helps harmonise and smooth the flavour and aroma of the wine and promotes earlier drinking.

Clean, crisp and showing pure fruit

Clean, crisp and showing pure fruit

Summing up: without oak your wine will have disjointed fruit character, less mouthfeel, lower complexity, won’t have any notes of spice, vanilla, coffee, or tobacco and will need longer aging before you can drink it—sounds like a winner, doesn’t it? That assessment is only from the point of view of someone who is already oak-positive; a real fruit-head/oak-negative type is more likely to view it as ‘truer varietal fruit, cleaner flavour profile, a finish free of extraneous wood character, and a wine that rewards aging’, which sounds like a lot more fun, and worth taking a swing at.

Which Wine?

You can de-wood any kit you like—any wine your favorite kit producer oaks can be unoaked, from aromatic whites, big reds and little, and anything in between. You’ll have a completely different flavour experience, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, many reds achieve balance between in fruit character with the help of wood tannins. In the absence of those tannins the fruit that shines through might seem very aggressive—what’s called a fruit bomb. On the other hand, since oak can give sweet, vanilla notes the fruit could be in more balance because the acidity of the red will be easier to perceive in the absence of wood.

Hard to drink at that angle

Hard to drink at that angle

Second, unoaked wine does require more age to come to drinkability. Without the creamy schmear of buttery wood to smooth out aromas and acid, fruit, tannins, alcohol, and any residual sugar, the wine will seem disjointed and jangled long after an oaky version  has knit together. How long? Depends on too many factors to judge, but it’s likely to be 9 to 12 months before it stops being darty and nervous and comes to drinkability.

But when it does turn that corner you’ll be drinking something very different and special: clean and unvarnished varietal fruit, harmonised only by the character the grapes brought to it, the soil it was grown in—and your hand as a winemaker.