He who controls the spice …

I had to take a break from blogging last week due to the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States, during which I played host to my in-laws for several days of family hijinks to the tune of college football, backyard-fire-pit s’mores, an Eddie Murphy retrospective on BET, and lots and lots of imbibed homebrew. I return with many stories I’ll share in the coming days: a rousing adventure of a non-traditional 3-course Thanksgiving beer dinner, and a saga of a Black Friday brew day so bitter it took six bowls to contain all the hop additions.

But first, an update on Colonial Progress Ale. After nearly 4 weeks in the fermenter, it’s just about finished with a gravity of 1.007. That’s a bit more attenuation than I expected, so it will be higher in alcohol, but that may not be a bad thing for a winter session ale.

I’m pleased to report that as the yeast slowly flocculates out, it’s leaving the beer with a much cleaner taste than I was getting from it even a week ago. When I sampled it on Thanksgiving, it was fruity and a little sulfuric. Now it’s clean tasting and very dry, with only a hint of mineral flavor from the molasses and a burst of herbal bitterness from the late spice addition of sweet gale and juniper berries.

What’s missing is any sign of herb or spice in the aroma/flavor arena. So today, a few days before kegging, I made a “spice potion” with the remaining sweet gale and juniper berries.

What’s a spice potion? Despite sounding like something from a Dune or Harry Potter book (or some sick and unnecessary crossover that I would nevertheless read because I friggin’ love both those series: Harry Potter and the Floating Fat Baron? House Elves of Dune? I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling and Brian Herbert) a spice potion is a method for adding spices or herbs to homebrew without boiling – and thus losing many of the volatile compounds that give those ingredients their distinguishing features – and that’s more elegant than simply throwing them in the fermenter.

It’s simply soaking the herbs/spices in distilled liquor to extract the essence. As I understand it, this works because alcohol is a better solvent than water, so more of the flavor and aroma compounds are extracted than in water steeping, and no heat means the subtler characteristics of the ingredient are retained. And since it’s distilled spirit, it’s safe to add to the beer without fear of infection. Any spirit will do. Vodka is common because of its neutral flavor, but depending on the specific ingredient being extracted, I’ve heard of people using rum, tequila, or whiskey (whose name, incidentally, comes from the Gaelic phrase uisce beatha meaning “water of life”, which is also a solution of pure spice essence in the Dune series – and now we’ve come full geek circle).

I used vodka. And since quality isn’t really important for the small amount that will end up in the beer, I used the cheapest vodka I keep on hand: the stuff that comes in a 1.75-liter bottle for $9, which I use to fill my airlocks (never for drinking). I muddled a quarter ounce of juniper berries with a gram of sweet gale in a mortar and then placed it in a sanitized glass with about 2 ounces of vodka. The resulting mixture wasn’t pretty to look at, but had an herbal/tart aroma pleasantly similar to gin.

Only the Water of Life will free what can save us.

I’ll let the potion steep, covered with sanitized foil, from now until Sunday. Then I’ll strain out the chunks, add the essence to the keg, and rack the beer on top of that. Since the bitterness is already prominent in the brew, I think this is the last little flavor kick the beer needs to make it ready for prime time.

Watch this space for the next few days as I share my stories from Thanksgiving week. Since there’s no turkey or shopping involved in either of them, I’m sure you’ll enjoy them despite the passage of time.

Until then, keep the spice – and the beer – flowing.

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About Shawn M

Writer, podcaster, blogger, and homebrewer in Austin, Texas.

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