Tag Archive | Brew Your Own

A Toast To … A spunky brewster

Here’s something new I learned this week.

In an article titled “How Did Hops Get In Our Beer?” in the January-February issue of Brew Your Own magazine, author Horst Dornbusch briefly covers the history of hops from ancient Rome to today. About midway through the article he references the medieval natural history text Physica by the noted Benedictine abbess, mystic, musician, scientist and Catholic saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). According to Dornbusch:

Perhaps the most consequential historical reference to hops in beer is a small passage in a book by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess, physician, composer, brewster, and adviser to the German Emperor Frederic Barbarossa … Hildegard describes the medicinal value and beverage application of the “hoppo” plant as “a hot and dry herb, with a bit of moisture,” which “is not of much use for a human being, since it causes his melancholy to increase, gives him a sad mind, and makes his intestines heavy.” Importantly, she observes that hoppo “putredines prohibet in amaritudine sua.” One Latin expert, Pricilla Throop, translates this as “its bitterness inhibits some spoilage in beverages to which it is added making them last longer.”

Hildegard’s name should be familiar to any devotee of medieval history, women’s history, or cultural history. As hinted by Dornbusch, she was an expert in disciplines as diverse as science, theology, philosophy, medicine, poetry, music, and linguistics, and left behind a vast body of writings related to the many subjects she studied. My introduction to her work was many years ago in college, when my girlfriend (now my wife) did extensive research on Hildegard for a senior thesis on medieval women mystics. Upon reading this article, I immediately asked my wife if she knew that Hildegard was a brewster*. She did not, although she was familiar with Hildegard’s scientific work on plants and animals.

I shouldn’t be surprised. The brewer-cum-mystic has been a part of beer culture since the beginning, from the hypothetical prehistoric brewer-shamans described by Dr. Patrick McGovern in his excellent book Uncorking the Past to the ancient Sumerian priestesses of Ninkasi, to the Trappist monastic brewing tradition that lives on today in Belgium and elsewhere. But I was unaware that Hildegard, who’s felt almost like a member of my extended family since my wife’s thesis on her years ago, had been part of that tradition.

Certain that Hildegard’s brewing accomplishments must have been as extensive as her accomplishments in every other field she delved into, I eagerly took to the Internet to find out more. But sadly, there wasn’t much to find. The reference to hops in the Physica is well-documented, and has earned Hildegard a place in inspiring brewers all over the world. But I’ve found nothing conclusive about any further contributions to brewing history: no recipes, descriptions, or anything like that. One questionable printed source credited Hildegard with being the first brewer to put hops in beer, but the BYO article would refute this; Dornbusch found references to hopped beer as early as 827 in the work of Saint Ansegisus of Fontanelle, an adviser to Charlemagne some three centuries before Hildegard was born.

Regardless of how deep her interest in brewing may or may not have gone, Hildegard was a true polymath, making significant contributions to every field she approached – at a time when few women had the opportunity to dabble in even one of these fields. As the new father of a little girl, she’s someone I want my daughter to know about. Honestly, she’s someone that everyone – brewer or beer drinker, woman or man – should know about.

And her testimony to the bitterness and antibacterial properties of hops in beverages should qualify her as an unofficial patron saint of that most revered of styles in the modern beer canon, a beer style as versatile as the great woman herself: the IPA. So next time I pour a glass of IPA, I’m raising a toast to St. Hildegard von Bingen: a Renaissance woman before there was a Renaissance.

*Though it’s generally only heard as a surname today in non-beer history circles, within beer history circles the term brewster is widely known as a traditional English term for a female brewer, though Martyn Cornell pointed out on his blog Zythophile back in 2007 that it’s not quite that simple.

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The quest for a quicker brewday

Wasting my time
Resting my mind
And I’ll never pine
For the sad days and the bad days
When we was workin’ from nine to five

– Pink Floyd, “Biding My Time”

In February, a friend just starting out with extract brewing came over to observe my all-grain brewday. The hot liquor tank had just been fired up for the mash-in when he arrived at 10 a.m.. I mentioned casually that I would be working until about 5 or 6 p.m.. He looked at me in wonder and said something like, “Wow. I can’t imagine what would take eight hours.”

Of course, he was speaking from his experience with extract. Many all-grain brewers probably can imagine an eight-hour brewday. The mash and sparge – i.e., the very things the extract brewer doesn’t have to contend with – can easily add three hours once you factor in the time to heat water, vorlauf, etc. Not to mention time spent cleaning the extra equipment. But my friend’s curiosity got me thinking about whether I could be doing anything differently to speed up my brewday.

I was reminded of the article “Speeding Up Your All-Grain Day” in the March/April 2012 issue of Brew Your Own magazine by Dave Louw, which applied the Critical Path Method of project management to an all-grain brew day to find the shortest distance between Point A (setting up equipment) and Point Z (putting away clean equipment while yeast happily devour the meal you’ve set for them). The principle Louw applied was to identify the tasks that must be done sequentially and focus on those, working in the other required tasks while those are taking place. If you sanitize your fermenter while wort cools, you’ve got the idea.

By sticking to the Critical Path, Louw illustrates how an all-grain brewday can be begun and done in less than 4 hours, though his example is extreme to illustrate a point. There’s an abbreviated 45-minute mash. A no-sparge lauter. A 60-minute boil. All legitimate techniques, but not “my way”. Yes, my 60-minute mash, double batch sparge, and 90-minute boil make for a nearly nine-hour brewday – ten in summer thanks to slower cooling. But I get consistent results. And I’m happy brewing my way.

Was that the choice I was faced with? Between being happy and being fast? I set out to test this on a recent brewday.

NOTE: The following is about as scientific as I get. Unlike some of you homebrewers with backgrounds in engineering or chemistry, I’ve got a liberal arts degree in English and classical studies. I can’t build an Arduino-controlled HERMS system, but I can identify zymurgic puns in classic works of literature and explain the origin of the word “Saccharomyces”.

The brew was about as simple as it gets: a Maris Otter-Fuggles SMaSH ale. 9 pounds of malt and a handful of rice hulls, 1.25 oz of hops each at 60 and 15 and 1 oz at flameout, and Safale S-04. Nothing fancy, just a vaguely English fast-flocculating pale ale to fill an empty keg in 4 weeks. It seemed right for my experimental “rush brewday”.

I did everything I normally do – no shortcuts – but not wasting any time, either. At no time was I sitting on the porch reading a book and enjoying a beer or coffee. I did little tasks while the Critical Path was running: set gear up while water heated, measured out hops while the mash rested. During the boil I even got a head start on the one task that’s so unpleasant I usually save it until the end, or the next day: cleaning.

I didn’t stop. I was so busy going about the various tasks of my “rush brewday” that I completely forgot to hook up the iPod and listen to some Rush.

And I finished in six hours. My “Critical Path” looked something like this:

Critical Path Other Tasks
11:00 Setup pots, burner, etc.
11:15 Begin heating strike water
11:25 Mill grain
11:45 Preheat MLT with strike water
11:50 Mash in
11:55 Set mash timer for 60 minutes
12:15 Heat sparge water
12:35 Boil water for yeast rehydration
12:55 Vorlauf & first runnings
1:05 Begin batch sparge #1
1:20 Vorlauf & second runnings
1:25 Begin batch sparge #2
1:40 Bring kettle to boil
1:57 Set boil timer for 90 minutes
2:15 Begin cleaning
2:45 Prepare wort chiller
3:25 Sanitize thermometer for cooling
3:27 Start wort chiller
3:58 Stop wort chiller
4:00 Whirlpool cooled wort
4:05 Sanitize fermenter, hoses, etc.
4:30 Transfer wort to fermenter
4:37 Rehydrate yeast
4:40 Aerate with aquarium pump
5:00 Pitch yeast

The one thing I should point out is that I did leave some of the cleaning for the next day. Just the mash tun and brew kettle, which I like to soak overnight with PBW anyway.

The beer isn’t in the keg yet, but it’s going to be great. I hit my target OG and FG perfectly, so consistency was achieved. And I did it all in six hours instead of nine. That’s a pretty definitive result (see note above re: “This is as scientific as I get”). But I was exhausted by the end of the day. And though of course brewing is always better than nine hours at the ol’ day job, my rush brewday was nothing like the relaxing experience I usually get as the other reward for my brewing labors.

And isn’t the fun why we do it? It’s why I do it.

So I’ve done some English-major-level science and answered my own question. Yes, for me it is a choice between happy and fast. And experience has cured me of my desire to brew faster. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to know that by busting my ass, I can get a simple brew done in six hours and still have time to shower before leaving the house if I have evening plans for dinner … or whatever. 

But unless I have to, I’m not gonna.

Une saison à la maison

Saison.

In French, the word means season, as in the seasons of the year. Spring, summer, autumn, or winter. A generic term, a category with specimens so varied that each is the opposite of another.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the beer style we call “saison” is a varied, open-ended style as well. Call it a seasonal beer unattached to a particular season.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Look it up anywhere from Wikipedia to the BJCP Style Guidelines, and you’ll learn that saison has its roots in the farmhouses of the French-speaking Walloons of Belgium who spent the winter brewing spicy, refreshing ales to be consumed in the summer by workers pulling long shifts in the fields. So traditionally it’s a summer beer.

But the Wallonian brewing tradition was highly improvisational and localized. Each farmhouse brewed their own beer with the ingredients available at the time, often raised on their own farms. The resulting beers were, unsurprisingly, vastly different from place to place and from month to month.

So unlike the seasonal beers of, say, Germany – which tend toward profile standards of characteristic Teutonic rigidity, with names easy to mark on your calendar like Märzen, Maibock, and Oktoberfest – this traditional Belgian seasonal can be light or dark, strong or sessiony, and anything in between. A December 2006 Style Profile article from Brew Your Own magazine lists a wide disparity of characteristics for the modern style in regards to color, mouthfeel, residual sweetness, strength, hop profile, and spices. The main common thread is the yeast, descended from traditional Belgian strains that produce a characteristic spiciness, an estery je ne sais quoi that makes these beers decidedly farmhousey, even when made in the (sub)urban backyard.

With that range of profiles, I’d say seasonality goes out the window. A strong, dark, spicy saison would be a great nightcap on a cold winter night. I like light, refreshing saisons in spring (I’m pretty sure spring in Texas feels like summer in Belgium anyway). So I brewed one now to be ready by the last week of March.

There was another reason for my timing besides the oncoming vernal equinox. The last beer my wife and I drank together was a bomber of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, the day before we learned she was pregnant. Our baby is due in April, so what better beer to have on hand to celebrate her return to the world of the ethanol-metabolizing than a hop-forward saison?

I started my brew with a clone recipe of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace from the December 2011 issue of Brew Your Own and a Gallic sense of laissez-faire. The recipe called for 11 lbs (5 kg) of Belgian Pilsner malt, which I increased to 11.75 lbs (5.33 kg) to compensate for lower efficiency on my system (more on that below). This made up the bulk of the fermentables along with 1 lb (453 g) of dextrose in the boil. The recipe also used a 3-step mash, which I did not. I did a single infusion mash at 146°F (63°C). The low mash temperature makes a more fermentable wort, but saccharification takes a little longer so I mashed for 90 minutes instead of my usual 60.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is hopped entirely with Sorachi Ace hops, which I couldn’t get locally. Instead of replacing it with a similar substitute, I took a different path entirely. I used 16% AA Warrior hops for neutral bittering, two additions of .37 oz (10.5 g) each at 60 and 30 minutes (~6 AAU in each addition). At flameout, I added 3 oz (85 g) of 15% AA Summit.

I had prepared a 2-liter starter of White Labs WLP 560, an Austin Homebrew Supply-exclusive Classic Saison Yeast Blend. That starter was decanted and pitched into a wort with an OG of 1.073, eleven points higher than my target OG of 1.062. Eleven points!

Not your grand-père’s farmhouse brewery.

Little mishaps are common in brewing, and usually a good sign. Minor, easily correctable problems during the brew day keep the brewer on his/her toes, and (I think) make us less prone to serious mistakes that can’t be fixed. But overshooting target gravity by this much is a new kind of problem for me.

Is it even a problem? Obviously my efficiency is much higher than I thought – I’m noting the data for future batches – and the extra malt I added was unnecessary: a “problem” many brewers would love to have. I’m not entering any contests, so the fact that my OG landed past the upper limit of the BJCP range for saison doesn’t concern me. If it fails to attenuate completely, I may end up with a beer that’s too sweet. But if I got the kind of fermentability I was shooting for out of my low mash, that extra sugar should ferment out, leaving me with an ABV higher than I intended.

So if I’m lucky, I’ll be welcoming the spring with a dry, high-alcohol saison. Maybe it won’t be strong enough to qualify as an “imperial saison”, but it should be worthy of some noble title. I’d settle for “ducal saison” or better yet, “marchional saison”. With its extra kick, it might be a little too intense for farm work, but it sounds about right for celebrating the birth of a new Marchese.

Bronze Age Fig Beer, Part 2: The Reckoning

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.

Brew in a Bag: Bronze Age Fig Beer

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.

image_4

Every man should learn how to roll and tuck his bag to keep it safely away from open flames.

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.

I meant to say very sticky.

I meant to say really sticky.

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.

Straining out the chunky bits.

Straining out the chunky bits.

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.

image_19

The offering, prepped and ready for sacrifice.

Would the ancient brew gods reward my efforts with the dulcet tones of a gurgling airlock? Find out in my next update.