A busy weekend: today I’ll be teaching a beer brewing class at Beyond the Grape in Port Moody. The last time I taught a class there I had a great time.
The thing that keeps impressing me every time I have a beginners class is how young the new brewers are. I guess I shouldn’t be so startled: I began brewing in my teens, and was as enthusiastic as could be, so it stands to reason it isn’t just old guys who like to make their own suds.
We’ll be making a Brewers Best Belgian Witbier today. It’s a classic wheat beer, an ale that’s lightly hopped, with spicy fruity notes from coriander seed and orange peel added right to the boil. It’ll be perfect, just ready to drink in June when the heat is upon us.
The class itself goes through the entire process, from how to choose equipment, an explanation of ingredients, sanitation (cleanliness is next to goodliness), brewing, racking, bottling and more sanitation (it’s kind of a thing with beer), all in a single class.
If you’re near Beyond the Grape, they hold classes regularly, so give them a call and sign up. If you live in another area, almost all home brew supply stores hold classes–the fee is usually nominal, it’s much easier than you think, and you not only get the knowledge, you get a support network of the store, it’s staff, and a bunch of like-minded brewers who want to do the same things as you.
Look at me: thirty-five years after my first batch I still love to make and drink my own beer.
I understand folk’s chagrin. The Blessed Carl Sagan once wrote a book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, to explain the scientific method and instill skepticism and critical thinking in a wide audience. I’m not Carl Sagan (not even Neil DeGrasse Tyson is, although it’s nice that someone is trying) but I am someone who took Carl’s words to heart. If a thing sounds too good to be true, then you probably need to look very closely at it before you accept it as true. A big fluffy pile of powder that yields a single drink does not equal ‘magic powdered alcohol’.
In order to demonstrate how this works, I ordered some maltodextrin yesterday, so I could give this a shot and show just what an ounce of booze mixed into a pile of fluffy white powder looked like. But lo! Someone at Popular Science has actually gone to the trouble of making their own homemade Palcohol ahead of me.
As I postulated yesterday, the base is maltodextrin. In this case the author used a commercial version called N-Zorbit M, used by molecular gastronomists to adsorb liquids into a compounded powder, typically something like olive oil, which is then sprinkled onto stuff to delight and amaze diners with the juxtaposition of olive oil flavour in a light fluffy powder. Or to bamboozle them into spending nine hundred bucks on a meal with eight bucks worth of ingredients, I always forget how that works with molecular gastronomy . . .
Here’s the process from the PopSci article, emphasis mine:
Weigh out 100 grams of N-Zorbit into a mixing bowl. Because the powder is so fluffy and light, this will be a sizeable mound.
While whisking steadily, drizzle in 30 grams of high-proof spirit. I use Lemon Hart 151-proof rum. After you’ve stirred it in completely, the powder should be dry, but somewhat chunky. If it’s still moist, sprinkle in a little more N-Zorbit.
Sift the dry liquor through a fine sieve to break up the chunks and make a nice powder. If you’re making a larger batch, you can do it in a blender and step 3 won’t be necessary.
At the end of the process you are not only carrying the original amount and volume of alcohol that you started with, you’re also toting along a cup (perhaps more) of extremely fluffy white powder to boot. That’s not what people visualise when they’re being sold ‘powdered alcohol’: everyone wants something that looks like a teaspoon of baking soda that magically turns the liquid it’s dropped in into alcohol. And that’s not happening–it’s just not possible in organic chemistry for that to happen. Once you have pure ethanol, you can’t ‘dehydrate’ it into a powder, no matter how cool that sounds.
In the meantime, people have often tried to package alcohol in low-volume/low packaging, easy-to-conceal formats (which, let’s face it, is the killer app for powdered booze). Many people will be familiar with Shotpak
Those are all dodges to try and circumvent rules about using alcohol in public or in licensed areas. People never want to be told that they can’t have a drink, and putting one over on the man (and maybe saving money on over-priced stadium booze) is very appealing. But powdery alcohol isn’t going to do it.
In my previous life as the go-to technical guy for retailers and consumers, I’ve spent a lot of my time giving answers to questions both simple and complex, about beer and wine making. I’ve spent even more of my time trying to counter misconceptions, folk tales, and outright jiggery-pokery about beverage alcohol. Most of the time it’s a case of imperfect understanding or incomplete information that I’ve dealt with, but every once in a while something perfectly ridiculous shows up. You’d think that the sheer dumbness of an idea would make it easier to debunk, but that isn’t the case. Because clickbait/aggregator sites like Huffington Post, Gawker, Buzzfeed and the like keep sensationalising and promoting dumb ideas with witless, boundless and breathless enthusiasm, it only takes a small number of people not reading critically to keep the very dumbest ideas in circulation, spreading them out like a slick of dumb across the media waters.
Case in point, ‘Powdered Alcohol’. An enterprising self-promoter named Mark Phillips set up a website to promote Palcohol. After as much checking as I can manage, I haven’t found a strong indicator that this is a hoax. There’s a credible-seeming document showing label approval for a distilled spirit under the name Palcohol, and the Lehrman beverage law firm is leading on the story, which has, somewhat predictably, made the aforementioned sensationalist sites go absolutely insane with joy, crowing from both sides of their mouths about the joy of smuggling ‘vodka powder’ into stadiums and the danger of ‘snorting powdered alcohol’. All in all, it’s a fabulously rich tapestry to hang fantasies of danger and intrigue on.
Thing is, it’s total crap. Hooey. Malarkey.
Physics prevents alcohol from becoming a powder. Ethanol (CH3-CH2-OH, the good alcohol that we know and love) is a volatile liquid. ‘Volatile’ refers to a substance that vaporises (evaporates) readily, and ethanol evaporates extremely quickly, far faster than water (that’s why rubbing alcohol feels cool on the skin: it evaporates rapidly). At room temperature pure alcohol doesn’t last, and can’t be made into or ‘converted’ to powder. It just goes away.
You can, however, stabilise it by mixing it into an appropriate powder and sealing it in a vapour-proof package. You could use sugar, or more likely a polysaccharide like maltodextrin, which bulks like sugar and has similar hygroscopic qualities, but would not taste abominably sweet in the amount needed.
Now the key to why ‘powdered alcohol’ is a load of bovine feces: the putative TTB label to Palcohol declares 100 ml of powder at 12% ABV, (never mind the mock-up labels on the Palcohol site. They declare much higher levels, but they’re not legal and not approved–fake or simply erroneous, take your pick) and also states that the product is 58% ABW (alcohol by weight). Running the numbers a little, 12% of 100ml = 12ml of 100% pure ethanol. That doesn’t sound like much, but most spirits are sold at 80 Proof, or 40% ABV. Divide 12 ml by 0.40 and you get 30, or roughly one fluid ounce worth of 80 Proof alcohol.
And confirming this bit of math, the packet is marketed as the equivalent to one cocktail. However, the 58% ABW number tells us that the alcohol is much denser than the powder it is suspended in, making the packet fairly bulky–100 ml is almost exactly the same volume as three standard ping-pong balls. This bulk means you’d need 26 of the packets to make up an entire vodka bottle’s worth of cocktails, which is 2.6 litres of powder or 7/10ths of a US gallon.
Assuming you do make this damp maltodextrin substrate-with-alcohol mix, where does that leave you? With a product that’s only 12% ABV, probably costs more, and bulks much larger than simple beverage alcohol, is tough to dissolve in cold liquid and doesn’t taste like anything without the addition of lots of extra additives. Additionally you’d be consuming some form of unidentified powder in vastly higher quantities than the alcohol you’re seeking. Peachy.
So yeah, it might be a thing, but it’s not the thing people want it to be, which is a tiny pinch of magic powder that will turn water into hard liquor like magic.
And in this, I blame Warner Brothers. Specifically, I blame their employee, Wile E Coyote, and the Acme corporation that he supported so strongly. The technology that was displayed in the cartoons was surreal and magical–holes you could drop things into and then roll up and take away, paintings that you could enter or alternatively smash your face against, gravity that only acted long after you stepped off the cliff, and so on, all examples of magical thinking, where the observed could not always be understood and actions and events had absurd causal relationships.
And really, that’s what human beings want: easy answers that make sense on an emotional level–alcohol is bulky, if it were dried out, you could carry lots with little bulk or weight, hurrah! Only no, reality has to intervene with its fancy college learnin’, laws of physics and general fun-spoiling party-pooper attitude.
I’m not immune to the desire for magic answers. When I was a little kid I was promised moon vacations and a jet car. I’m still waiting for those to be practical, but I know they’ll never come my way. It may make me a cynical curmudgeon now, but on the other hand I save space in my brain for things that are physically possible. Powdered alcohol is a pretty strong marketing hook, but snake oil often is.
Oh, and the danger of ‘snorting’ Palcohol (which Phillips’ coquettishly advises against): if you can snort a volume of sugar/maltodextrin the size of three ping-pong balls to get the stinging equivalent of an ounce of booze up your nose, you’re not human, you’re a vacuum cleaner. Plus, ever get alcohol in your sinuses? It doesn’t stay there: your body won’t let it.
Credit to my friend Peter Cargasacchi for letting me clutter up a Facebook post of his with my immoderate ranting on this topic earlier today. Comments there made me do better math (trust me, as bad as my math is, this is better than it was) and think harder about why we want things like this to be true.
Say ‘decanter’ and every wine drinker will know what you mean. They either visualise the never-used cut-crystal wedding gift on Mom’s china hutch (incidentally useless for decanting) or a stuffy British television show where the characters pass around a glass-stoppered vessel of port while harrumphing to each other about the imminent collapse of society. Whatever the image, the conventional wisdom is that decanting wine is accepted for letting young reds breathe and for getting old gunky reds off their sediment.
Funny thing is, there’s a bit of controversy about decanting. One of the most revered and famous winemakers on the planet (Professor Émile Peynaud) thought that decanting was the worst possible thing you could do, and railed against it. Of course, just being a professional French oenologist who shaped many of our modern ideas of winemaking means nothing: I think he was full of hooey. Who are you gonna trust, some French guy, or good old Tim? Okay, perhaps hooey is a strong word (anyone know what ‘hooey is in French? Sottise?) I confess I’m referring specifically to wine from kits, something on which, as far as I’ve been able to discover, Peynaud never commented.
With home winemaking in mind, let’s have a look at decanting, in history and in practise
Decanting in History
In the past there was always some sort of decanter in any wine drinking household. At first this was because wine was typically stored in large vessels, either giant clay jars, amphorae or barrels, and some sort of carrying vessel was needed to get the wine from the cellar to the drinker’s glass. Until the 17th century wine was never stored, aged or transported in glass bottles, although the ancient Romans did use blown glass decanters to serve their wine. You can tell that the early 17th century bottles were intended for serving wine rather than storing it, because they were often shaped like ‘onions’, with a globular body, flattened bottom, and a very short neck–a shape that would never lie on its’ side in a cellar, even if there were a cork to fit it!
In the 16th century the Venetians rediscovered glass-making technology, and their wares spread across (and were widely copied by) the rest of Europe. Because corks were an exciting and newly emerging technology at the time, nobody had thought of using them to seal wine bottles, so blown or ground glass stoppers were included with some bottles to seal them up, at least temporarily. With a custom made glass stopper for each bottle, it was imperative that the two not be separated–stoppers weren’t interchangeable. To that end, stoppers were wired or tied to each bottle. In order to facilitate this, a ring of glass was applied just below the top of the neck where the string was anchored. You can still see the vestiges of this on the neck of almost every modern bottle in the form of a tiny rim around the top.
Examples of early wine bottles. Simple, rounded shapes are easier to make.
In the early 1700’s people rediscovered something important: vintages mattered, and if you could keep some of your best wines well cellared, they improved dramatically. The best way to store the wine turned out to be in a glass bottle, sealed with that exotic new cutting-edge material, ‘cork’. While cellar ageing was great for improving wine, it also lead to another condition–layers of goo in the bottle. Fining, stabilising and filtration technology was not as advanced then as it is now, and many wines would throw sediment, tartrate crystals (‘wine diamonds’) or a haze during storage. The answer, of course, was decanting the wine into a clean serving vessel for the table, leaving the detritus behind.
Silver bottle tickets
Another benefit of this was the ability of the host or hostess to decant all of the wines being served at a dinner party well before the guests arrived. They could then be displayed on the sideboard or table, ready for each course in turn. This custom is where the practice of using decanter labels (the Victorian name for these is ‘bottle ticket’) came from. These are small metal nameplates hung around the necks of the bottles–it would be a terrible crisis for the party hostess to confuse the Madeira with the Canary before the toast course!
Modern decanter,designed to expose the largest surface area of the wine. It is widest at the point of a 750 ml fill.
While any clean food-safe vessel of sufficient capacity can be used as a decanter, modern folks are usually intent on either separating their wine from sediment or giving it an airing. To this end, most decanters are made of clear glass and are approximately 30-50% larger in volume than a standard bottle of wine. With an eye to the airing thing, the design usually allows for one bottle of wine (25.6 ounces, 750 ml) to fill them exactly to their widest point. This ensures that the wine is presenting the largest surface possible to the air to allow it to pick up oxygen.
There are also cut-glass decanters, more for serving fancy spirits, and some specialty decanters that hold two bottles of wine (for magnums), some very pretty models shaped like Greek pitchers, with handles and pouring spouts, and some decanters even have perfectly rounded bottoms–so they can’t be put down on the table, and have to keep being passed until they are empty!
Decanting Theory and Practice One: Sediment
Bottle showing tartrate crystals and various pigments, tannins and other compounds settled out as a ‘crust’.
Virtually all modern table wine is intended for more-or-less immediate consumption, and will never have the chance to throw any sort of haze or sediment. Vintage Port, however, almost always throws a ‘crust’ in the bottle. This is because it’s bottled very early in its evolution. As many Vintage Ports need 10 or even 20 years before they’re ready to drink, this means that they will continue to evolve not just in flavour and aroma in the bottle, but also in appearance, dropping a thick layer of tartrate crystals, colour compounds and polymerised phenolics (tannins, mostly). If you just poured the Port directly from the bottle, you’d wind up with a pretty hefty layer of goo in the last three or four glasses. In this case, decanting helps present a wine in its best light.
Decanting to separate the wine from sediment is done very carefully. First, the bottle is brought up from the cellar and stood upright for 24 hours, to allow all the sediment to settle. Next, a scrupulously clean decanter is readied, and the Port is very slowly and gently poured into it. This can take as long as three or four minutes. The goal is to disturb as little sediment as possible. Towards the end of the bottle, the sediment will begin to flow down towards the neck. However, Port bottles have a strong drop-shoulder, and by keeping watch, you can stop pouring as soon as the sediment begins to flow towards the neck.
Traditional decanting process in Portugal. In this case the top of the bottle was actually cut off to prevent any residue from the cork touching the wine.
There are some gadgets that are designed to help with the process. The traditional candle held behind the neck of the bottle to help illuminate the flow of sediment has been replaced mostly by strong flashlights, but decanting cradles are still around. This gadget, looking like a cross between a dismembered music-box and a hand-driven apple-corer uses a mechanism to tilt the bottle with glacial slowness, to prevent any sudden tipping that could disturb the sediment. They’re not cheap, and most of the ones around are antiques.
Should you decant your Port before serving? If you’re the kind of person who collects vintage Port, you already have your own opinion on that. If you’re like most of us, making and enjoying Ruby and Tawny-style Ports from kits or home fruit, it’s probably not going to be necessary–but it does look fancy, and won’t hurt a strongly-flavoured, high-alcohol Port in the least.
Decanting Theory and Practice Two: Breathing
The most wide-spread reason for decanting is aeration, giving the wine a chance to soak up some oxygen, to ‘open up’ and express its aromas. On the surface, this sounds pretty good: the wine has been cooped up in the bottle, so letting it out to stretch its legs would make sense, right?
Well, according to some oenologists, wrong. According to these experts, post-fermentation oxygen exposure is virtually always detrimental, and the greater the exposure the more damage it does, driving off delicate aromatics and numbing the wines delicate bouquet. Only heavily sedimented wines should be decanted, they say, and then only at the very last minute before they’re served.
Old wine, trending to brickish-coffee colour as it has aged.
Indeed, for very old wines this is true. I was at a wine tasting in the early 90’s where a very rare bottle of Argentinean Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1950’s was poured. It was amazing at first, a rare and delicate wine with cedar, hints of blackcurrant, dusty cigar box, even rose petals lurking around. As I sniffed and swirled it over the course of four or five minutes the aromas got lighter and thinner until suddenly poof! It smelled of nothing except lightly vinegared water. It was almost like seeing a vampire getting trapped in the sunlight; it decayed away to nothing so rapidly. Decanting this wine would have doomed it to losing its character before the drinkers ever saw it.
Keep in mind, however, that most oenologists don’t make wine at home (hey, it’s their loss–I’m here when they want to try). If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 15 years of working in the consumer wine industry, it’s that people tend to drink their kit wines before they’re actually ready. Not that this is such a terrible thing–some wines taste just fine while they’re fresh and snappy with youth, and others, like the Mist-type fruit and wine beverages are meant to be drunk the day of bottling. However, the bigger, oak-aged whites and many of the reds really benefit from at least a year of age in the bottle, resting quietly and gaining strength for their unveiling. For these underage wines a little airing not only doesn’t detract from them, it also accomplishes the following:
Separates it from any sediment (definitely an ‘oops’ in young wine, but if you decant it, no one will ever know!)
If the wine has a small amount of trapped carbon dioxide (CO2) and is slightly ‘fizzy’, decanting can drive this off, making the wine smoother. Dissolved CO2 in solution forms carbonic acid, giving the wine a sharp ‘bite’. This is an issue that afflicts beginning winemakers quite frequently.
If the wine has an appreciable aroma of sulphite, decanting can oxidise it and drive it off. Most kit wines have a carefully measured amount included, but if you think you can detect it, decanting will disperse the ‘burnt match’ character.
Wines that are heavily oaked will lose some of the ‘Chateau Plywood’ character and show more of their fruit quality.
Highly tannic red wines will lose some of their harsher bite, and present a fruitier, more approachable flavour and aroma.
Indeed, with very young home-made wines the improvement made by decanting the young ones can be quite dramatic. They go from closed, low aroma wines with a character that some people interpret as ‘that taste’ to fully open, approachable wines with a pleasant aroma, and only the characters associated with commercial wine.
Decanting Theory and Practice Three: The Going Gets Weird
If you’re a very serious computer geek, the name Nathan Myhrvold will be familiar. As the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, he was charged with applying his brains strenuously to important science-y stuff. In his retirement he didn’t leave his big brain behind. In addition to spearheading private initiatives on clean nuclear energy and geo-engineering, he wrote the book Modernist Cuisine, a bazillion page tome on applying science to food preparation. He caused quite a stir back in 2011 when he wrote a short article for Bloomberg Businessweek. In it he described a radical idea for decanting:
Wine lovers have known for centuries that decanting wine before serving it often improves its flavor. Whatever the dominant process, the traditional decanter is a rather pathetic tool to accomplish it. A few years ago, I found I could get much better results by using an ordinary kitchen blender. I just pour the wine in, frappé away at the highest power setting for 30 to 60 seconds, and then allow the froth to subside (which happens quickly) before serving. I call it “hyperdecanting.”
Images from Myhrvold’s book, Modernist Cuisine
Your average winegeek will feel faint looking at that. I had my own gadzooks moment on reading about it, but I have since tried it many times. While Myhrvold suggests double-blind triangle tasting to confirm (where you taste three wines, two the same, one different, several times, served by someone who doesn’t know which wine is which, to eliminate bias) it’s such a simple thing to detect that I only bothered the first time.
It works, very well indeed.
Does this mean you should be putting your vintage Bordeaux in the Vita-Mix, as Myhrvold suggests? Not necessarily, as it’s actually very pleasant to allow a wine to open up slowly to enjoy its progression, it’s opening and changing over the minutes or hours. But if you’ve got a very young wine that’s stubbornly clinging to a closed and tenacious nature, and you own a blender . . . I guarantee you’ll notice an immediate change.
My friend Larry pointed out that I’d mentioned a decanting doohickey ‘looking like a cross between a dismembered music-box and a hand-driven apple-corer’. I really should have included a picture to go with that imagery, and courtesy of another chum (thanks Glenn) here’s a shot:
Any questions about it–is it useful, is it relevant, is it necessary–are irrelevant. I need one.
Tim Vandergrift Worldwide Product Development Laboratories
FOR IMMEDIATE DISSEMINATION
TVR (Tim Vandergrift Research–a division of TVCC Worldwide) is excited to announce a completely new product category for consumer wine and beer makers! For thousands of years, people from every walk of life have taken pride and pleasure from fermenting their own wine, beer, mead, sake, etc., not only because of the delicious beverages that result, but also from the sense of accomplishment and purpose that making things with your own hand can bring.
However, while consumers freely share their wine and beer with family and friends, there has always been one member of the family that has been left out: the cat.
Hey, who’s shoe do I have to soil to get a drink around here?
Around the world, over 90 million domestic cats are kept as pets, and in North America one-third of all households have at least one cat. While we lavish our feline companions with soft beds, dangly toys, good quality food and treats, they have never been able to participate in our rituals of wine consumption—until now.
After nearly a decade of research, TVR has produced the first home winemaking kit exclusively for cat owners, Nepeta Cellars ‘Le Chat Mechant’. Available in an easy-to-use format, it allows users to produce 4 litres (one gallon) of an invigorating, stimulating beverage that your cat will find irresistible.
Fragrant and lush, drives cats mad
The base is made from first quality Nepeta Cataria, grown by artisanal farmers in British Columbia. With extremely high levels of cyclopentanoid monoterpenes (the active molecules in catnip) this provides the kick cats desire and crave.
“Cat ‘wine’ cannot be based on alcohol”, says Dr. Stanley Owsley, head researcher. “Even relatively small amounts of alcohol are dangerous to cats. That’s where the specially developed ‘stutter-step’ yeast comes in.”
G.O.O.F.Y, engineered to not make alcohol
“Genetically Obviated Ortho-Flocculant YeastTM, also known as ‘stutter-step’ will ferment the sugars in the base, extracting the active ingredients in the catnip.” Dr. Owsley notes. “ However, as soon as it reaches 1% alcohol, the yeast re-absorbs and breaks down the alcohol, then starts over. In this way the active ingredients are extracted, slowly and smoothly, without any permanent production of alcohol that could harm feline neurological systems.”
Rich, green and fragrant, with aromas of mint, heather and tuna
In addition catnip and the necessary sugars in the base, flavours include tuna, rodent, chicken and turkey with giblets, for the savoury tastes that cats crave.
And crave it they will! Not only are cats are delighted with the flavour, they go bonkers for the effects. According to Feline Attractant, cis,trans-Nepetalactone: Metabolism in the Domestic Cat (Waller, Price and Mitchell 1969), behaviors include sniffing, scratching, rolling, increased motor activity, running, vocalisations, terrorising other pets and spaced-out drooling.
Side effects include agitation, sleepiness, and potential psychotic episodes
And not only is Le Chien Mechant completely safe (Behavioral and toxicological studies of cyclopentanoid monoterpenes from Nepeta cataria. Harney, Barofsky and Leary, 1978) it’s non-addictive and improves cardiac function and blood pressure in exposed cats.
Red with fish, White with fish.
If you love making your own wine and beer, and love your cat, you’ll love making Le Chat Mechant for them! Available April 1st at all good home wine and beer retailers.