Category Archives: beer

Northern Brewer Canada

When you’re this Vintner, they call you Master

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

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

It’s important to assert dominance.

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

New Things

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

Putting the North into Northern Brewer

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

Will There Be a Local Shop?

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

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

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

The future of homebrewing

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

Fair prices

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

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

What’s Next

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

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

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

Non-Enzymatically Mashed Beer: Update

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

Check out my results (so far) below.

A New Leaf

Renewal and redemption

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

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

Out, vile liquor

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

How could you eat something with a face like that?

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

How did I ever think those things were fun?

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

Chad is such a good guru

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

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

Be happy!

Have a blessed day.

 

Exbeerimental Brewing

Exbeerimental Brewing #1: Non-Enzymatic Mashing

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

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

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

The 411

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

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

Like that, but with more hops

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

Step One: Soak Grains in Water

Doughing in at 68F feels so incredibly wrong.

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

Brew Day

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

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

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

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

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

Cloudy as can be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s better

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

Got down to 70 after a minute

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

Best add-on to the GF ever.

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

I checked my SG in the carboy.

That’s low–excellent!

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

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

Pretty!

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

A thing of unearthly beauty.

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

Best Laid Plans

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

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

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

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

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

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.

fall-2016-15

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

fall-2016-19

Women are exempted from the facial-hair rule.

fall-2016-02

Happiness is a cool beer

fall-2016-06

Dageraad’s first cask beer ever!

fall-2016-04

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

fall-2016-17

Dan either wants peace in our time, or two beers

fall-2016-18

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!

fall-2016-03

Wait, have I had this one yet?

fall-2016-08

People+beer=happiness

fall-2016-10

Sharing a passion for good beer

fall-2016-11

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.

 

 

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.

The Privilege of Failure

fail·ing

noun: a weakness, especially in character; a shortcoming. “Pride is a terrible failing..”

If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.

–Woody Allen

So much deliciousness crammed in one pint glass

So much deliciousness crammed in one pint glass

I was over at a neighbour’s house a little while ago and brought some of my homebrewed beer with me.  His father, a very experienced brewer, was extremely complimentary about my Saison, a Belgian style of beer that features a low hop rate and a lot of spicy, fruity yeast character. I was momentarily filled with pride, because it was a pretty good beer, and it was the very first time I’d brewed it, and one of my peers was impressed. Yay me!

The next day I was working in my cellar and feeling pretty smug. As I racked a new brew into a keg I thought, “I can’t remember the last time I brewed a bad beer .”

That’s when I realised that I had a problem. Not failing was a sign that I was doing something terribly wrong.

For most people, failure is seen as a universally bad thing. Internet slang has produced a meme that has shortened criticism to the point where one can point to something and shout ‘FAIL!’, and it’s perfectly expressive opprobrium. Calling someone a failure is a pretty cutting insult.

The problem with this attitude is that a lack of failure doesn’t let us grow. Failure isn’t bad. If you want to learn something, really master it, the first thing you need to do is to figure out how not to do it. Thomas Edison made thousands of attempts to make a light bulb filament that would last more than a few seconds under current. When asked about his failure, he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Failure is a great motivator, it not only helps us grow, it also motivates us to try harder, to try again. But there’s an even more important benefit to failing: it frees you of pride–well, not pride precisely, because it’s fine to be proud of an accomplishment. What it really wipes out is hubris.  Hubris, according to the interwebs, often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.

Dang.

I am in theory an ‘authority’ on home fermentation. That’s what my career is based on, anyways, and it’s how I navigate most of my business interactions. I’m an excellent candidate for hubris. Luckily I mostly suffer from Imposter Syndrome, so I’m protected from hubris to some extent.

Image from gamasutra.com

Image from gamasutra.com

Never heard of it? Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you’re not really competent in your given field, that you’ll be found out to be an imposter. This is most common among people who are actually competent, rather than those who are not–they’re covered under the Dunning-Kruger effect  , which is when someone cannot recognise their incompetence in a given area.

I was moping about how I was failing by not failing and generally wondering where to go next when I came across a philosopher who put his finger right on the main nerve. It isn’t the first time he’s put me on the right path when I needed guidance. Meet my spirit guide:

Jake the Dog

Jake the Dog

Yes, I’m perfectly aware he’s a cartoon dog created by Pendleton Ward and voiced by John DiMaggio. He’s also a perfect character to voice subtle wisdom. And here’s the quote that got me.

A more profound koan has not been produced

A more profound koan has not been produced

This works on two levels. First, it’s an acknowledgement that nobody starts out perfect, and it’s practice and effort that makes you better. But more importantly, sucking at something you thought you’d already mastered will open up new levels of complexity and new ways of thinking about what you’re doing.

Jake’s wisdom immediately cheered me up. I went out and brewed a batch of Belgian Witbier. I wanted to do something interesting, so I did a 5-step decoction mash (a complex technique that involves many steps of taking some of the grain mash, heating it and adding it back to raise temperatures, over and over again). I also added two kinds of dried orange peel and two different kinds of coriander, and a Saison yeast strain to kick up the spice.

It turned out terrible. And that’s great.

I learned things about the value of decoction mashing (low, in this case) subtlety with spices, and the lack of crossover between Saison and Wit yeast.

Most of all, I learned that I don’t have a magic touch or a lucky streak, and my beers can really suck when I lose focus, and that any pride I have is misplaced.

I followed that beer up by brewing a proper Saison, an Imperial IPA and a session beer. In every case I used new techniques, ingredients or yeast that I haven’t worked with before. I’m very lucky to have had the privilege of failure, the ability to make mistakes, see what they were, and to correct them. Failure makes me a better brewer, and I’m looking forward to screwing up next time–as long as I don’t run out of beer because of it!

L’Étoile du Nord

City of waters

City of waters

I’m back in the Twin Cities today, working with Northern Brewer. As usual it’s a busy time: meeting with folks, talking about new products, projects, sales, marketing and all the great stuff that goes into being the world’s best supplier of consumer wine and beer making equipment.

I picked a fabulous time to visit. The weather has been spectacular, with temperatures hitting 20C (low 70’s) and bright sunshine. Even the flight in was auspiciously pretty.

Never get tired of watching the world go by.

Never get tired of watching the world go by.

I’ve got a Q&A session with the folks in retail this evening, and they’ve come up with a great list of questions. It’s really the best part of my job, talking to folks about making their own wine, and seeing a really pertinent leading question down on the page is like reaching into the pocket of a coat and finding a $20 bill you forgot you had.

Strapped in and ready for use

Strapped in and ready for use

I’ve been meaning to give a shout-out to Northern Brewer for a while on the Big Mouth Bubblers that I got earlier this year. The idea of a PTFE fermenter with a gasketed lid that takes a bung and airlock seems fine, but when you use one for something that’s really messy, their usefulness snaps into clear relief.

I brewed a very hop-heavy IPA and when it finished fermentation, it looked like this:

Oh those dirty rings!

Oh those dirty rings!

That looks like a terrible job of scrubbing, but with the wide-open top, even a moose with bulky arms like mine can easily stick his mitts right to the bottom and get a good scrub on. What would have taken a long soak for a carboy and the application of a brush and plenty of awkward gyrations to get all the goop off, only took 60 seconds with a soft cloth and some brewing detergent.

Shiny as a new penny

Shiny as a new penny

It’s got a bunch of condensed steam on it, but trust me, that Big Mouth Bubbler is as clean as a whistle. I’m replacing all of my fermenters with them, because I can’t visualise ever wanting to lug around and wash narrow-necked carboys again.

Off for Q&A, and tomorrow video shooting and more fun times.