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.
UPDATE NOTE: This post describes a failed attempt at cultivating bottle dregs. If you’ve found this page looking for information on how to cultivate bottle dregs for pitching into beer wort, thank you for reading but please do not follow my process below. It didn’t work for me, as you can read in my follow-up here.
After deciding to brew a Bronze Age-inspired fig beer, I quickly went to work on the recipe in the hopes of brewing it on Monday (which I have off from my day job). It’ll be a 1-gallon experiment batch, with 2-row barley and rauch malt for that Bronze Age kiln-smoked flavor. Bitter orange peel will feature as a flavoring, and I haven’t decided yet whether it’ll have minimal hops or none. Honey and figs will round out the flavor and provide additional fermentable sugar. For yeast, I plan to cultivate a 2-step starter from the dregs in a bottle of Dogfish Head Midas Touch.
I’ve never cultivated a starter from bottle dregs before. Why now, and why Midas Touch? One usually hears about brewers cultivating dregs from sour beers like Orval to harvest the unique blend of Brett and bacteria strains that make those beers special, as described in this blog entry from TheMadFermentationist.com. But it should work with clean Saccharomyces as well.
I’m not sure what kind of yeast is used to ferment Midas Touch, though clone recipes online call for Trappist ale strains. I don’t even know if the yeast Dogfish Head bottles Midas Touch on is the same as the yeast that ferments it – many breweries use different yeasts for bottle conditioning. So my decision to use Midas Touch dregs was less about capturing a particular unique yeast than it was about superstition.
Midas Touch is one of Dogfish Head’s “ancient ales” and is based on chemical analysis of bronze vessels found in Gordion in Central Turkey – roughly the same part of the world as Cyprus, where my fig beer has its inspirational roots. I thought the dregs might be a good luck charm for my first foray into ancient brewing: a little piece of the magic from Sam Calagione and Dr. Patrick McGovern, two of the high priests of modern ancient ale reproduction. But really, the main reason I did it was because it sounded like fun and I’ve never done it before.
I made a first-step starter wort of 200 milliliters to bring the bottle yeast back from the dead. When that ferments out, I’ll “step it up” to a second starter of 500 mL. For a full 5-gallon batch I’d continue stepping up to 2 liters, but for a 1-gallon batch, 500 mL should suffice.
I scaled down my usual starter process as well as I could, realizing it’s okay if some the math isn’t exact in a wild-shot experiment. I dissolved 15 grams of extra light dry malt extract in 200 mL of boiling water. Usually I use 1 gram per 10 milliliters, but I’m hoping the lower OG starter will give a little advantage to sleepy yeast.
I also added 3/32 of a teaspoon of yeast nutrient. While that sounds like a strange fraction to use, it’s simply one each of the “pinch” and “smidgen” measuring spoons (or 3 “smidgens”) available at specialty kitchen stores. Those little spoons aren’t all that useful on a day-to-day basis, but I keep them around just for tiny measurements like this. For the record, an exact scaling of my usual 1/2 teaspoon nutrient per liter of starter would have been 1/10 teaspoon.
5 minutes of boiling reduced the starter volume more than expected, so after I cooled it and transferred to a sanitized pint glass, I topped off with pre-boiled water and chilled in the freezer to an acceptable pitching temperature of 84°F. I roused the yeast in the last half-inch of a bottle of Midas Touch (which I had already poured into a glass and was drinking) and pitched it.
As of today, there’s no visible sign of fermentation in the starter, but there is a pleasant boozy smell coming from the glass. There’s no telling how few viable yeast cells were in that bottle, but even a few cells should reproduce given time.
We’ll see how it shakes out by Monday. I never do anything too crazy without a safety net, so I have a packet of Fermentis Safbrew T-58 – a spicy Belgian yeast strain with reported clove notes, which should go well with honey, fig and smoke – on hand just in case I don’t get a usable starter. But that’s Plan B.
Here’s hoping the Bronze Age beer gods smile on my undertaking.