In my last post, I described the brew day for my Bronze Age-inspired fig beer, which ended with me pitching a yeast starter made from Dogfish Head Midas Touch dregs. I didn’t have an especially good reason for fermenting this brew with Midas Touch dregs, except for thinking that it would be good luck for my ancient ale experiment. Moreover, it was my first time cultivating bottle dregs, and I didn’t really study up on it that much ahead of time. I was making it up as I went.
I watched the fermenter, counting the hours of the lag phase and waiting for signs of fermentation. 24 hours passed. Then 48. The airlock refused to bubble. I didn’t panic, knowing that the lid on the small-batch fermenter I “made myself” (translate: “bought a 2-gallon pail and drilled a hole in the lid to fit a stopper and airlock” – sorry, I’m not exactly Bob Vila) doesn’t always seal perfectly and gas might be escaping from somewhere besides the airlock.
After three days, I picked up the pail and looked through the translucent wall for krauesen. Seeing nothing, I decided it was time to intervene.
When I cracked the lid, it was like looking at the surface of a dead alien planet. The wort was still and clear, reflecting the concerned look on my face like a pane of amber glass. The only blemishes on the surface were a few bits of fig seed that had started to grow mold. Aside from that, there was no sign that anything was living in there.
The first thing I did was remove the moldy fig seeds with sanitized tongs. Well, no – the first thing I did was drop an F-bomb. Then I removed the moldy fig seeds.
I took a sample of the wort and tested the gravity. It was 1.073, 5 points down from original gravity, which I attribute to the fact that the OG was taken before I added a relatively high volume of lower-gravity starter. In other words, fermentation had not commenced.
I tasted the sample, finding it as sweet as the day I made it. I tasted honey, figs and malt. No alcohol, no bready yeast flavor and no transitional fermentation by-products like acetaldehyde. Fortunately, there was no apparent infection flavor, either: no musty mold taste and no sign of bacterial souring. So it was in stasis, not ruined.
There was really nothing to do except to pitch fresh yeast. I had a packet of Fermentis Safbrew T-58 on hand for exactly this emergency, so I measured out 6 grams and pitched it. I attempted to stir it with my drill-mounted whip to re-aerate the wort, but the drill battery was inexplicably dead (I’ve recently deduced that I have a kleptomaniac poltergeist in the house with an eyewear fetish; perhaps it’s fond of power tools as well). No matter, I closed the fermenter back up and within 12 hours the airlock was gurgling like a freshly risen zombie.
To be honest, I wasn’t that surprised that I didn’t get viable yeast from the bottle. I never did see any definite fermentation activity in either the first or the second stage starter. And the second stage starter had me a little nervous all along. I couldn’t say what was wrong with it, but it never looked right.
What did I learn from all this? Quite a lot, actually. Here are the CliffsNotes:
- Leaving something as important as yeast selection to superstition isn’t going to get us anywhere.
- Read up on new techniques before trying them. Always.
- When winging it, expect setbacks and have a Plan B.
- Trust instinct more when something doesn’t seem right.
- Always check the drill battery the night before it might be needed.
There’s one more thing I learned. This was my first infection ever in four years of brewing. It happened in a wort that contained solid fruit and that I essentially didn’t pitch yeast into for 3 days. And the extent of unwanted microbial growth was two mere spots of mold on floating fig seeds, nothing more. That’s evidence that my sanitation practices are legit. I’ll drink to the knowledge that I’m doing something right.
I finally brought to life my Bronze Age Fig Beer, inspired by archaeological findings at Kissonerga-Skalia in Cyprus, in a small-batch brew day that had me flying by the seat of my pants from start to finish.
For small batches, I use the “Brew In a Bag” (BIAB) technique described in the October 2012 issue of Brew Your Own magazine, and also online here. The mash is done directly in the kettle with the grist contained in a nylon mesh bag. BIAB is great for the all-grain brewer looking to save time on brew day, because there’s no sparge. Lautering is as easy as lifting a bag of wet grains (which can admittedly be heavy, if like me, the only workout you get regularly is the ol’ 16-ounce curl). It’s also a great way for extract or partial mash brewers on a budget to explore all-grain brewing without expensive new equipment: just a brew kettle and the same mesh bag you may already be steeping grains in.
Most BIAB brews call for all the brewing liquor up front. The result is a very thin mash – 4 qts/lb in my case – but once the saccharification is done, the bag comes out and the wort can be brought to a boil immediately without sparging. Efficiency suffers, but this can be compensated for with a little extra grain. BIAB works for any batch size, provided the kettle is big enough for the grist and full volume of liquor, but I personally keep it to small batches. This batch was 6 quarts.
The Bronze Age brewer didn’t have a lot of specialty grains to choose from, so I kept my grain bill simple. The only specialty grain was German rauch malt, included to replicate the smoky flavor of malt kilned in a wood-burning oven in a small Bronze Age structure:
- 2 lbs 2-row malt
- 8 oz rauch malt
I mashed in with 10 quarts of water to stabilize the mash at 155 degrees and mashed for an hour, with the kettle wrapped in towels to retain heat. I still had to fire the burner a few times to keep the mash temperature high enough. If you do this, make sure to either take the bag out while the burner is on, or place a plate at the bottom of the kettle to dissipate the direct heat. Nylon mesh bags melt very easily.
Fresh figs are hard to find right now, so I bought dried figs in bulk from the local Whole Foods. I chopped 4 oz, leaving me with a sticky knife, and added them to the kettle to boil for 60 minutes to develop flavor and brown the sugars.
Hops were not used in barley beer until the 11th century CE, so I didn’t use any. Instead, I delved into a fantastic book called The Flavor Bible for inspiration on bittering ingredients that might go well with fig. I settled on a quarter ounce of dried bitter orange peel (a traditional ingredient in Belgian witbiers, and available at most homebrew shops) and 7 sprigs of fresh thyme, and added these to the boil with 5 minutes left, along with another 1.5 oz of chopped figs.
Before boiling, the gravity was a measly 1.026, which would likely have boiled down to something in the 1.030-1.040 range. That’s fine for a session beer, but not for a rustic brew worthy of an ancient Cypriot warrior. To raise the potential alcohol, I added a pound of wildflower honey at flameout. According to Patrick McGovern’s Uncorking the Past (another fantastic book), many ancient brews were “grogs” made by mixing fermentable sugars – malt, grapes, honey, other fruits – so I was still channeling my Bronze Age forebears here, though this could technically qualify as a “braggot” by modern standards.
When all was said and done, with sugars from malt, figs, and honey, the wort at pitching time was 1.078, a fairly big brew. I pitched a 600 mL starter made from Dogfish Head Midas Touch dregs I cultivated from a bottle.
Would the ancient brew gods reward my efforts with the dulcet tones of a gurgling airlock? Find out in my next update.
The May/June 2012 issue of Zymurgy magazine includes an article entitled “Secrets of Gluten-Free Brewing”, by BellaOnline beer and brewing editor, Carolyn Smagalski. In it, she gives tips to homebrewers on ingredients for true gluten-free beers, and reports on gluten-free offerings from a number of commercial breweries including Strange Brewing Company in Denver and Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia. Even Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, ever the zymurgic Rick O’Connell, has adventurously entered the gluten-free ring with Tweason’ale, a champagne-like beer with sorghum, buckwheat honey, molasses, and strawberries.
It’s a great article, and interesting because I’ve always been curious about gluten-free brewing. First of all, I must stress that I am not a physician, nor am I an expert on gluten, gluten-free brewing, or food allergies and I cannot attest to the safety of any ingredient mentioned in this article. Please check with your physician before brewing or drinking a beer made with any ingredient mentioned here.
I don’t suffer from celiac disease, wheat allergies or any other kind of gluten intolerance. But I have friends who do, and I know it must be hard. What if my doctor ever told me I couldn’t drink beer anymore? What would I do? I could always put more energy into cider and mead, but beer is really my passion as a zyme lord. So my empathy glands pulsate to make good beer my gluten-free friends can drink, even though none have asked.
(Let’s ignore the question of “What if my doctor ever told me I couldn’t drink any alcohol anymore?” … but the answer, sadly, is: “Fetch the razor blades while I run the bathwater,” because to quote the immortal Buddy Holly, that’ll be the day when I die.)
Because gluten is present in most common grains, the key to gluten-free brewing is finding alternative sources of fermentable sugar. Barley, wheat, rye, oats and even spelt are off the table. But sorghum, buckwheat, corn, rice, millet, and quinoa are recommended alternatives. These grains may not yield as much sugar as brewers are used to, so it’s common to add other fermentables as well, such as honey or corn syrup. Hops are gluten-free, but yeast should be carefully selected, since most of them are grown in traditional barley wort (Lallemand’s Danstar beer yeast and Lalvin wine yeast product lines are listed by Smagalski as gluten-free, being grown in potato starch).
While sorghum has been used in gluten-free beers for years now, it’s notorious for being kinda … well, awful. I’ve never had one, but I’ve also never heard of anyone drinking a sorghum beer by choice. But other grains Smagalski listed were inspirations to me. I eat quinoa about twice a week, and would love to try it in beer. I don’t know much about buckwheat, but have been thinking about buckwheat honey in a mead: why not a gluten-free braggot of buckwheat and buckwheat honey?
There’s also a recipe for a chestnut beer in the article. Apparently chestnut starch can be converted to sugar, but must be “mashed” for 12 hours with added amylase enzyme powder – they don’t have enough diastatic power on their own. 12 hours is a long mash to start a brew day, but this might be a worth while experiment. Even without a specific need in my household for gluten-free beer, I smell a possible holiday brew in the cards. “Chestnuts Steeping in an Open Mash Tun Holiday Ale”? It’s catchy.
Anyone out there brewing gluten-free beers? I’d love to hear from you, as this is something I really want to explore. Who’s up for an adventure?