Category Archives: Northern Brewer

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! 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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?

Captain Video!

mv blog face

A face you can trust! A wine you’ll love!

I’ve been busy! The Master Vintner website has launched and we’re busy filling it up with great wine kits, great deals and lots of cool info about making your own wine–and having lots of fun with it. One of the things I’m pursuing is making a bunch of new videos, right here in Chaos Manor.

Before I started making new videos, I went back and reviewed the stuff I’d done before, some of which is on my YouTube channel, with more on Northern Brewer’s channel. Some of it has even been bootlegged by other people, and much to my surprise some of my videos have gotten hundreds of thousands of views–how does that even work?

I thought I’d curate a bunch of them so you could pick and choose right here if you wanted to have a look at what’s going on with home winemaking right now. If you like ’em, go ahead and subscribed to my channel and you’ll get updates when new stuff is uploaded.

Note that some of these videos are of me from previous employers: don’t worry, the information is still good and you can learn just as much.

Winemaking Techniques

Other Winemaking Topics

And some silliness

 

 

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.

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.

Back In the Land of the Living

That's the one, officer

That’s the one that got me, officer. Arrest him! 

It’s been over a month since I posted to this blog. In social media terms, I might as well have left on a voyage for the new world and been captured by Barbary pirates and written off for lost, mourned only by creditors and a disgruntled cat, forgotten by time and tide.

I was originally taking a two-week break to go to Mexico, in order to soak up some Vitamin D (aka, ‘lay in the sun’) and local culture (aka ‘Tequila’). I did that and had some fun, but felt a little off the second week of the trip and by the time I got home, I had a cold.

Only no, it was a case of the H3N2 influenza. In popular culture a lot of folks equate a bad cold with ‘the flu’–I’ve probably been guilty of that myself. But the truth is this: if you can get out of bed, you don’t have the flu. Between a fever that ran over 102F for the better part of a week and the constant feeling that I needed a good solid night of sleep every time I woke up, I was off my feet for a week, recovering for two more and (oh the horror!) I completely lost my sense of smell and taste for nearly a month!

snu

All the happy bottles! 

Happily, that’s all behind me now, so I can get back in the saddle. I’m going to be tasting my Master Vintner series wines! They’re still very young but will have calmed down from bottle shock and be showing their true character.

I’m also hard at work on new projects with my friends at Northern Brewer, so I better get crackin’, and let the disgruntled cat and the Barbary Pirates know that I’m back amongst the living.

 

 

Master Vintner Small Batch Part 5: Bottling Day

One full equipment kit, three extra Big Mouth Bubblers and three extra wine kits!

Where it all started

It’s finally here! After starting my Master Vintner wines, racking them from the primary fermenter, and doing the fining/stabilising steps, bottling day has arrived, and I’m all about getting my Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay into the bottles–well, almost all of it into bottles, along with a little of it into a secret project . . . more on that in a minute.

rack-setup

Time to rack off the sediment.

My first step was to clean and sanitise all of the equipment I’d be using, including my autosiphon, bottle filler, jugs and such–as always, cleanliness is next to goodliness in winemaking.

Next, I set up my racking station by the simple expedient of lifting my Little Big Mouth Bubbler on top of a convenient box on my counter. If you haven’t used one of the Master Vintner Small Batch kits yet, it’s hard to convey just what a joy this is. I’m old-school in many ways, having started off making wine in lots anywhere between 23 litres (6 US gallons) and 650 litres (three 60-US gallon barrels) at a time. With truly huge amounts you need a pump to move the wine around. A standard kit wine batch of 23 litres isn’t nearly as demanding, but lifting full carboys from one shelf to another, or putting them up on a high place so you can rack the wine down into a clean carboy on the floor (which then needs to be lifted back into the winemaking area!) starts to wear on the lower back after a few thousand batches. At only a single gallon, you can easily lift the Small Batch kits onto a convenient box or shelf above your kitchen counter, just as easy as getting a gallon of milk out of the refrigerator!

Once the fermenter was in place I racked the wine off of the sediment. Doing this is really helpful, since there’s a decent chance that the siphon will disturb sediment from the bottom of the carboy while your moving the hose from bottle to bottle. Rather than risk getting cloudy wine, it’s better to move all of the clear wine into a new vessel in one go, and then you can relax from there.

rack-from

Note the siphon rod carefully placed on the far side of the fermenter–this will be important as we get to the bottom.

When the wine gets down to the bottom, the level of sediment needs to be carefully monitored. Remember, the point of racking is to get 100% of the clear wine and leave the muck behind, so don’t leave any of that delicious grape nectar behind.

A careful tilt keeps the end of the autosiphon in the wine.

A careful tilt keeps the end of the autosiphon in the wine.

To get and keep that tilt hands-free I usually improvise some kind of prop or wedge. Because I was making wine in my kitchen (another thing Small Batch Kits makes easy!) my carboy wedge wasn’t around. No matter: I just popped a bung under the front of the carboy and watched the levels as they dropped.

Never leave a man, uh, a drop of wine behind.

Never leave a man, uh, a drop of wine behind.

Just to make sure I was being completely efficient in my racking, I measured the amount of sediment left in the bottom of the Little Big Mouth Bubbler after it racked over. It came to just over couple of tablespoons all in all–which meant I was going to get a total of about 3.75 litres out of my US gallon (3.78 litre) batch, meaning I could fill five bottles, which is exactly what I wanted.

The wine was exceptionally clear on racking.

Limpid and gorgeous.

Limpid and gorgeous.

I could have bottled it right there, but since this was an actual test batch for quality assurance and proof of concept purposes, I pulled out my Buon Vino Minjet filter. Filtering doesn’t actually clear a wine: that’s what fining agents are for. Clearing polishes a wine so that it sparkles with a brilliance like diamonds. A former colleague had the best analogy for wine filtering: it’s the difference between a freshly washed car and a freshly waxed car. Both look great, but your eyes can instantly tell which car was waxed and polished because it glows. Same with wine.

Now that's shiny!

Now that’s shiny!

It’s easy to see this in white wines: you could read the fine print of an EULA through that Chardonnay!

I got all four batches of wine through a single set of Buon Vino #3 pads in about 20 minutes, including sanitising and prep, going from the Chardonnay to the Pinot Noir, then the Merlot and finishing with the Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet another bonus feature of the Small Batch kits: you can make four of them and only need the tiny, convenient BV mini, rather than a much larger filter.

Rest, little filter: you've done a man's work today.

Rest, little filter: you’ve done a man’s work today.

While larger filter systems need a washtub or a laundry sink for cleanup, the Minijet is kitchen sink-friendly for cleanup. Note that the colour you see on those filter pads isn’t anthcyanins (grape pigment) stripped from the wine. It’s suspended material from the wine itself, stained by those pigments. That suspended material, principally yeast cells and colloids, would eventually settle out of the wine on its own. Even though the unfiltered wine was perfectly clear to the eye, after a year or two in the bottle a bit of colour would deposit out on the side or bottom of the bottle. Hurrah for filtering!

Next up, time to fill my wine bottles. I had a mixture of standard wine bottles in Flint (clear) and some swing-tops, also in clear. I like using swing tops for wine that’s going to be analysed and/or destroyed in testing–not because of any technical superiority of swing tops, but because I can never seem to find a dang corkscrew when I’m in the wine lab.

Bottles, autosiphon, siphon tip, impact corker, corks.

Bottles, autosiphon, siphon tip, impact corker, corks and sulphite for sanitising the bottles.

Also shown in the picture above is the Handy corker. It uses a plunger and a compression sleeve to press-fit the corks into the bottles.

Takes a little oomph, but works great.

Takes a little oomph, but works great.

Because of the forces involved, it’s a good idea to use the (included) #8-sized corks and soak them in a bit of warm water before use. While I’ve used the Handy and it’s a fine unit, I had another plan in mind for my bottles. But first, I had to fill them.

Fast, clean and efficient--now that's good winemaking!

Fast, clean and efficient–now that’s good winemaking!

Getting the bottles filed without splashing, spilling or endlessly fiddling to get the right fill level (very bottom of the neck, to leave the width of two fingers below the bottom of the cork) used to be a drag, but a siphon filler (included in your equipment kit!) makes it a snap.

 

The one-way needle valve on the tip of the rod stops the flow of wine as soon as you pull it up, while the volume of the rod displaces exactly the right amount of wine–when you fill the bottle to the top and then pull the rod out, the level of wine is perfect to accommodate a cork!

With the bottles filled, it was time to put corks in. My alternate scheme was to use my Italian bronze-jawed floor corker. This mighty beast has been my faithful companion for 25 years and tens of thousands of bottles of wine.

Industrial Age technology at its finest.

Industrial Age technology at its finest.

The key to how well this thing works is in the amount of leverage it can bring to bear, and how cleverly it compresses and inserts the cork into the bottles. The heart of the matter is the set of bronze jaws. Not brass–brass is too soft, and corks would wear it away in a short time, and this bronze is the same stuff they make steamship propellers out of.

You're in for a squeezy time, Mr. Cork.

You’re in for a squeezy time, Mr. Cork.

The jaws move as the corking arm is pulled, squeezing the cork down to just slightly larger than the size of a pencil. When it’s at is tiniest, the cork finger comes down. pokes it into the bottle and you’re done.

 

It’s as easy as that, every time.

After only a few minutes all of the bottles were filled, corked and swing-capped.

snu

Say, what’s with that pink wine?

Astute observers will notice that there are 15 bottles, a gallon jug and one bottle of pink wine, which doesn’t match up that well with the whole four batches of five bottles each motif I started with. The gallon jug is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I blended it at a rate of 3:2, Cabernet to Merlot, after a few benchtop trials. I’m going to let it marry in the jug for a month or so and taste it before bottling.

The pink wine is slightly notional on my part–it’s my job to do the weird stuff so you don’t have to. Or, more accurately, so I can explain it when you do it without my knowledge! It’s a blend of 4% Pinot Noir into the Chardonnay. That kind of blending is a standard technique in commercial winemaking, and I was curious to see how it would marry up with a little time in the bottle.

How does it taste? Even though it’s very young, it’s everything I’d hoped: good fruit, varietal character, smooth tannin, balanced acid and a long finish, especially for a wine just in the bottle. I’m going to do a more formal taste-test in another three weeks, and then once a month after that to see how it’s progressing.

I’ve already ordered another four kits–I’ve never made wine with so little effort or mess, and I’m going to keep production up. Heck, it’s no more work than keeping a vase of flowers on the counter, with the added bonus, it’s wine!