Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Finished products in use.

Tasty, tasty homemade vinegar blended into vinaigrette on greens with sausage and cheese.  The sausage is venison summer sausage courtesy of Shane.

Ma femme in the background using her Christmax present.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ginger Beer w/ Ginger Bug

Alright, let's get started.  This is going to be my version of Ginger Beer with Ginger Bug from Sandor Katz's Art of Fermentation.  Step 1 was to make the starter, which can be found in a previous post.  Step 2 is to grate the ginger:

...lots of Ginger.  The original recommendation is for a 3" - 4" piece of ginger for each gallon of finished ginger beer, but I have got significantly more than that.  I grated it up and put it in my big brewing pot with about 2 1/2 gallons of water and started heating it up.

My stove doesn't quite have the power to get a real boil going in this giant pot, but it gets hot.  Next I added the palm sugar which is in little round pucks.  I bought a 3.3 lb jar from the Asian grocery where I got the ginger.  I don't think that's going to make it very strong from an alcohol perspective, but this is going to be more of a "tonic" beverage than a real beer.  I hope you like ginger...

I gave it about 15 minutes of "almost boiling" after the sugar was fully dissolved, then cut the heat, added another gallon of cool water to start bringing the temperature down, and started draining it into a clean carboy.  As expected, the hose flowed freely for a while, but eventually got clogged with ginger chunks.  Ma femme had a great suggestion to use a strainer/slotted spoon over the intake, and after that, all the liquid drained out with no problem.  We scooped it out into a big strainer:

and poured the rest of the water to make up 6 gallons through the pulp, including a couple rinses in the big pot to get all the sugar.  I had originally intended to put all the ginger in there with it, but there's no good, quick way to get chunks of junk into a carboy... let alone get it out a month from now.

By the end of the night, it had cooled to body temperature (maybe a little higher) so the starter went in, and the air lock went on.  Hopefully it starts bubbling away.  Adventure!

Vinegar Cycle

I can make vinegar!  

Really it's the bacteria.  

I can set up conditions hospitable to the organisms that make vinegar!

On the left is my second(!) batch of Czech Pilsner malt vinegar.  I may have mentioned that this beer tastes like wet newspapers.  That grossness is totally gone in the vinegar.  I made some salad dressing with the first batch and it was really good.  It does not seem as strong as the store-bought 5% vinegar, but I don't know yet whether that's because it's really not as strong or if it's still got some sugars and alcohol in it because it's still young.  Learning!

On the right is the Ginger Bug starter that will go into my Ginger Beer.  It's starting to get actively bubbly, so I think it's time to get on with the brewing for that.  But this post is about vinegar...

Here I'm starting a new batch of malt vinegar using some Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Porter that tastes like ashes from too much black malt.  I started it with 1 bottle of beer, ~6 oz of "finished" malt vinegar with its mother, and 1/4 cup of table sugar.  Degas the beer, stir in the sugar, pour in the vinegar, and plop in the mother.  I put finished in quotes, since the fact that this batch regrew its own mother just a week after being strained from its old mother tells me that it's not completely finished; also, as I mentioned above, it's not as strong as some of the commercial vinegars I have.

The addition of a significant amount of finished vinegar helps acidify the mix right away and prevent the growth of mold until a new colony of bacteria can get established.  I'm starting to get a cycle going, and pretty soon I want to have three or four kinds of vinegar going, one bottle finished in use, and one batch with the mother colony in process.  Then when it's ready, I can split the active batch, strain some for use, and feed the rest with more beer/wine/cider/etc to keep things going.  Vinegar also seems like a great thing to give away once things get going.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Southern Tier

This week I found myself at Sugar Maple where they had Southern Tier's Pumking on Firkin.  I am a big lover and proponent of cask-conditioned beer.  It was so good.  I have said before, if you told me 5 years ago that I would be drooling over flat, room temperature beer, I would have said you were crazy, but it's really the best.

I think it is more difficult to get right, and less tolerant of aging effects and mediocre beer.  It's the kind of thing that's better when it's better and worse when it's not.  It doesn't scale up well, since the casks have to settle in, and yet it requires a certain level of consumption, as the clock starts ticking once you tap it.  It's the kind of dichotomy that I love, any faster or slower, any more or less technology, and it only gets worse.

I have been meaning to compile a list of bars in Milwaukee with an engine, perhaps that's a good idea for a separate page of links and ratings/reviews...

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Ginger Beer Starter

I was reading the Sour Tonic Beverage chapter in The Art of Fermentation on the plane to DC and one of the things that stuck out in my mind was something he called "Ginger Beer with Ginger Bug."   The Ginger Beer is the resulting beverage, and the Ginger Bug is the starter, or probably more accurately the unique combination of yeast and bacteria that populate the surface of ginger roots; which you feed and propagate into the starter; which you feed and propagate into the Ginger Beer.

I went to an Asian grocery that I have driven past many times but never visited to acquire the ginger.  While perusing the isles, I came upon palm sugar which I decided to get as the fermentable portion of this concoction.  It has a roast-y caramel-y taste, which combined with the smooth but grainy texture reminds me of some of my past attempts to make caramel corn topping that crystallized.  It is formed into little half-rounds that must be the shape of some cooling tray it was poured into during processing.  Perhaps it no longer needs to be made that way, but hey, that's how palm sugar comes...

I also bought several pounds of ginger, and I have my fingers crossed, since Katz mentions his suspicions that much of the ginger that comes into the US is irradiated (therefore sterile) and that you need organic to make the starter (once it's going you can use anything for the bulk of it.)  I grated a couple medium-sized nodules and crushed up half a chunk of palm sugar, covered it with water to make a slurry, cheeseclothed it, and into the cupboard it goes.

I also fell victim to the siren song of the roasted pork belly under heat lamps behind the counter at Rhino Foods.  I asked for "one half pound" and walked out with one AND a half pounds.  Luckily it is delicious, and the whole experience is worth it for a taste of the chili-onion-hot-pepper-fish-sauce it came with.

Rhythm of Renewal

I've had my first real success with vinegar.  Other people who talk and write about vinegar make it sound as easy as falling off a log, but it has eluded me.  I got a nice robust new mother to grow on a jar of old beer and it fell the other day, so I tasted it and it's great.   

It's ready to use, but of course it's full of mother and sludge, so pictured below is the following process of filtration and renewal:  on the left is a coffee filter slowly separating the finished vinegar from all the mother and sundry other gunks.  In the center is the remainder of the unfiltered vinegar waiting its turn to be strained, and on the right are two more bottles of beer poured into a gallon tub to degas and receive the solids in the coffee filter and turn into *more vinegar.*

I also added 1/4 cup of sugar to the 24 fl. oz. of beer to give the bacteria something to munch on besides ethanol and hope.  Now the cheese cloth goes back on and the jar goes back on the shelf.  I'm thinking that this batch should go a little faster since I'm putting more mother in (the initial chunk plus what grew this time) and the particular bacteria that did well on this particular diet of beer should be right at home.  For now...  we wait...

Oh. My. Gaah.

We've entered a new era.  One in which I can make awesome Kimchi.  I know it looks like garbage (please do not inquire about how it smells) but it is so good.  The brine is good, the crunch is there but things are definitely "tenderized," the salt level is nice, the spice is just about right-on; it's the whole package, and I'm really proud of it.  

The best part is that my second batch, which I transferred last night from the initial fermenting bucket with jug weight to glass jars, is even better!  I think I don't really like the taste from the daikon in the first batch.  I've never really liked radishes, and while whatever harsh flavor they had is definitely faded, there's still a radish-funk that I'm not totally into.  Totally edible, though.  Totally.  Oh, and a shout out to Susan where I work who grew the napa cabbage (which she called bok choy) for the second batch.  Teamwork.  I need to get her some, but I'll probably put it in a pint jar... it's too good to give away too much.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Never-Ending Story

As ma femme often points out, brewing is not my hobby.  Bottle washing is my hobby.  Taken in manageable chunks it not really ever difficult or tiring, it just consumes a lot of time and it seems like I am always doing it.  At least I get to drink beer while I'm at it.  I am getting close to being caught up with empties in my basement... then I remember the ones in my trunk.  I should bring those in.

In fermenting news, I have transferred the Belgian and started another Pinot Noir:

The Tripel was very cloudy after 2 weeks in primary; it also still tasted pretty sweet.  I'm not in the habit of measuring gravity, but that certainly would have told the tale.  Perhaps a beer this big at temps this low should have had more time.  It just seemed ready to go based on airlock activity.  After just 24 hours in secondary, it is dramatically clearer, there's already an inch of trub on the bottom of the carboy, and there's an inch of really clear beer at the top.  Previous iterations of this beer have been hazy at bottling, but poured very clear from bottles (initially) with lots of loose sediment.

My previous batch of Pinot Noir is apparently a big hit at get-togethers this holiday season, and while I still have plenty of it, good results with wine take 6+ months, so I started another today.  Wine is so much easier than beer, it almost seems like cheating.   I do like all the mixing steps at the beginning, it makes it seem like you are really doing something, and I like all the little packets that come with the kit.  I always just toss the preservatives and clarifying agents, so I could do without those, but all the kits I've had seem to come with bentonite clay and oak chips or powder.  I'm not exactly sure what the clay does, and I think I read somewhere that adding oak in primary helps take out "vegetative" tastes in the juice.  It's worth some more exploration.  For this kit, I put in the Lalvin EC-1118 yeast that came with it, and also supplemented that with two packs of Red Star Montrachet.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Travelling Light

This is less about fermenting things then it is about the madness that is real life, and the boring adventures of air travel.  I am writing and posting this from a Boeing 717 on my way to Washington DC to visit my sister for Thanksgiving, which is the day that it is today.

I got up, finished packing, and got in the car with ma femme, and on the way, i pulled out my phone to discover it had bricked.  We had just finished a conversation about whether I had remembered everything for my trip; I'm so used to having a list, planning and packing everything you could ever need for any contingency, that I always feel like I'm forgetting something.  Now, heck, if you have a smartphone and a credit card, you can pretty much just walk out of your house with the clothes on your back and you'll be fine (even that second thing is increasingly being integrated with the first.)  I'm actually embarrased about how much it's freaking me out not to have it.

Anyway, I got to the airport, pulled out my laptop, and signed up for the introductory trial of airport wifi, which turns out to also work on the plane!  W00t!  So I thought I would write something here just because I could.

I love a window seat, but it's hard to get one that's not just looking at the wing.  I got a pretty good one, behind the wing, but ahead of the engines.  On a 717 the engines are on the side of the fuselage, so the seats in the back (normally a pretty decent view on a 737) are blocked.  I can actually look into the engine, which is pretty cool, and especially awesome today because I can see the first row of stator blades *through* the first row of rotor blades!  That's pretty cool.

I also brought Katz's The Art of Fermentation with me, and I'm reading about ginger beer and kvass, which I definitely want to try.  The ginger beer absolutely sounds like something I'll try, probably sweetened with honey or a honey/sugar mix, fermented to dryness, primed, and bottled.  He bottles his sweet and refrigerates.  The kvass is something I want to try, but will probably be a once-off.

Seat belt light just came on.  See you on the ground.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Updates in Jars

First, the preserved lemons.  I'm not calling these pickled lemons for some reason, I think because they are so salty; but then what's pickling?  There's definitely some bacterial activity going on, because it's building pressure and releasing gas when I loosen the lid.  I did not put it in the refrigerator, as recommended by the recipe, it's been in a cabinet under the counter, in the dark, relatively cool.  I opened it once or twice, and the lemons are definitely softer and somehow "greasier" if that's possible.  Also, now, after a week, they are yellower, too; more "lemon-colored."  The jar is usually pressurized a little when I look at it, and I always open the lid *just* until it vents some gas.  it always heaves a sigh of relief and bubbles a little bit.  Sometimes I think it's just air slowly escaping from the pulp of the rind, but the pressure buildup tells me there's definitely lactic acid bacteria afoot.  I want to rush out and fill another dozen jars with lemons, but not until I cook something that calls for preserved lemons.

Next, Vinegars.  There seem to be conflicting reports out there about exactly how long and under what conditions vinegar is made.  The instructor and several people I talked to in Reedsburg said it took weeks or less.  Some of my vinegars have been going for nearly two months.  Admittedly, they are in my basement which is in the low 60s, but I've got them above my furnace, which is the warmest spot.  I'm just now starting to see what looks like a thin film of mother starting to form on a couple of them.

Other sources indicate that it takes much longer to make vinegar.  The Cooks Illustrated DIY book mentions 3 months in a crock, and talking about it with my mom on the phone over the weekend, she said her grandparents used to make vinegar, and it took all winter in the basement.  She also said they guarded the mother with their lives, I assume until they could get another batch going.  The Kentucky Housewife Cookbook (from 18-who-knows-when) lists a recipe for vinegar something along the lines of: "in the fall, throw all your apple cores into an open topped barrel.  Set it under a tree, out of the sun, but where it fill with rainwater.  By the middle of the next summer, it will be vinegar."  For real.

I think my results are more in line with the second set.  I made some salad dressing with the Concord grape vinegar I got from my Fermentation Fest friend, and it was darn good.  I really hope my batches take off and I can get some real production going.  I have a couple cases of questionable beer bottled that I would *love* to turn into vinegar, and I think I would make a quart of vinegar out of every batch of wine I make.  Come on, acetobacter.

Monday, November 25, 2013

To Port, Mr. Sherry

The Port is in bottles:

It is a syrupy delicious mess.  The original label file had January 2013 on them, so I've thinking about bottling this for at least 11 months.  I tasted it once before when we transferred it and added the oak spiral, and it's even better.  Maybe I would say it's a little sweet, but hey: it's Port.  I don't get much of the oak, but it definitely tastes well aged, and I think it will just get better.  The thing I am most impressed with is the color.  In the glass it's nice and burgundy purple, but when it you tip it or get down to the last bits, it has a gorgeous brown tone.

Moving on, the Belgian looks wonderful in primary: 

with a golden honey color and a kreusen like a cloud.  About 12 hours after this picture, it had pushed a bunch of foam up and out of the blowoff hose and had started to settle back down.  So I added a pound of sugar.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Brew Day

The time has come to brew my Belgian Tripel again. This was my first beer, and that batch is *still* the best beer I've ever made.  Part of me wants to believe that's true, but it can't have been that good.  I mean, c'mon... really?  The story: I brewed it on Dan's electric RIMS system (possibly the 2nd beer ever made on that system?) I bottled it, and started drinking it a week later.  3 *months* later I tried some and it was epic, but I was down to a 6-pack.  So it's a classic story of beginner's luck / rookie mistakes / Murphy's law.  Now it's Jam-Cake Syndrome: now matter how good you make it, it will never be as good as grandma's was in your memory.

It's lovely to see a good boil.  I'm confident that this batch will be awesome.  (I shall post the recipe in a future post.  ...shh, it's a stock Northern Brewer recipe...)

While we were at it, we transferred a cider from The Bucket of Truth.  It's been in primary for more than a year.  It's delicious.  Now it's on oak.

The curious thing is that something so subtlely good can come from a vessel that looks so wrong.  We expected failure, but it tasted so good that we almost just put the Tripel into the bucket.  

To finish off the day we went to Sean's and bottled 10 gallons of gluten-free beer.  It went really fast with 4 people, and it tastes pretty good.

Then we played boardgames, drank meticulously prepared Chemex pour-over coffee, and ate soy chorizo tacos from Corazon.  

Oh, and Dan's going to brew another batch of the Belgian tomorrow to put into The Bucket of Truth.  The Truth will set us all free.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

No Dearth of Beer

The shelves are well stocked.  A little too well.  I like going down to pick out a beer that suits my mood or meal, but geez-loiuse, things have gotten out of hand.  For about 50% of my beers, this is not actually an issue, because the gravity is high enough that they will just keep getting better for years.  I do have some low-gravity lagers and other things that just aren't going to be awesome forever, so I try to drink them first; it keeps me out of the good stuff.  Also, I should stop buying beer.  And making beer.  And wine.

After setting another case and a half out on the shelves, I set the carboy of Malbec pictured here up for transfer.  I don't remember if I've oaked it yet or not.  I'm going to bottle my Port soon (soon...) and when I do, I'll transfer this wine, taste it, and if it needs oak, then oak it shall have.   Otherwise, it will be degassed, and bottled shortly thereafter.  Or I'll leave it indefinitely...  house rules.

If my wine shelf project goes well, then I will need to purchase some wood soon for more shelving over there, and I'll probably get some more shelving for this side as well.  The set on the right is in need of an additional upright and to have the outermost ones moved in a little bit.  It's a little precarious.  I try to make it a little cleaner every time I go down there, but that does not always happen.  When I do clean up and get rid of some junk I've been hoarding, it starts to look really nice.


I have about half dozen mini-batches of vinegar in my basement.  I'm not sure if they are "working."  I met a guy at the Reedsburg Fermentation Fest (not the last time you will hear about that...) and we exchanged some wine of mine for a double vacuum-sealed bag of concord grape vinegar with a big old chunk of mother in it.  

I put the mother in a gallon glass jug, tore off some chunks with a fork and put them into some old beer and wine to see what happens.  The picture above is some Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Porter that turned out with an ashy taste from too much black malt.  I poured 2 bottles into a glass jar and added some mother.  The first one got moldy, and I had to toss it.  With this one, I made sure to thoroughly degas the beer with repeated shaking.  The production of acetic acid is aerobic, so I figure you need to get all the CO2 out and some oxygen in.  I also gave it about 2 Tablespoons of sugar, assuming the bacteria need something to eat.

It's bubbling just a little, and the mother is floating.  I've been shaking it periodically to try and aerate it, I think that's a good idea, anyone know?  The mother keeps coming back to the top.  Vinegar is one of those things that the people who do it all the time talk about how easy it is, and I'm just not getting obvious, quick results.  I think it just takes time...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wine Shelves

So last night I worked on my wine shelf project.  I've got a little nook of the basement that's set back about a foot in the block wall and just a hair over 48" wide.  I've got adjustable shelving rails anchored to the wall, and last night I started making pieces for shelves.  I'm going to do two 48" rails with 3/4" slats on 3" spacing.  I should be able to get 16 wine bottles/shelf; not sure yet how many shelves I can get, until I make at least two and measure the vertical spacing.

I had to stop because my table saw was making a lot of smoke for some reason.  I think it was some thicker poplar that I was ripping down, or maybe the fence is not well aligned.  I'll give it a shot again tonight or tomorrow and see if it still does it on the thinner pine boards I have.

This has been one of those projects that I get stuck on, and everything else kind of gets hung up because of it.  It feels good to get started, and hopefully it will go much faster now that I am started.  At 16 bottles per shelf, I already need like 5 shelves before I am caught up with what I have bottled, not to mention the Malbec and Port waiting to be bottled...

Monday, November 18, 2013

Preserved Lemons

Lemons, salt.  So far that's it.  I'll let the salt suck as much juice as it can out of the lemons overnight, and then I'll top it off with water.  Then the recipe says 6 weeks in the fridge.  I doubt there will be much bacterial action in this case, especially if I chill it the whole time.  If it does ferment, it shouldn't produce much gas, since it's already so acidic and the brine will be nearly saturated.

I'm thinking about putting it in the basement instead (~60 F instead of <40) but I've deviated from the recipe enough already; it called for more lemons to be juiced in and WAY more salt.  It also recommended to keep the lemons just barely whole, cut into wedges but not quite all the way through.  I was never going to get 5 lemons in a quart jar like that.  Maybe if I was making 2 dozen in a bucket for market in Casablanca.

This is not going to be a snack, I think it's meant to be more of a flavoring for a baked meat dish.  But in that context it's going to be amazing.  Also the brine is going to be a trip.  Super-salty 6-month-old lemon juice?  Yes, please.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Roast the Most

Guess what: you can roast coffee with a popcorn popper.  So that's a thing.  I went to Collectivo, bought some green coffee beans (Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, my favorite) and set about to roast.
Of course, the question is: how's the coffee?  It's pretty good, but I don't quite have the pallet for coffee yet.  I'm still in the "I know whether I like it" phase. 

In any case, it's pretty quick and easy; I can roast about three days coffee in 20 to 30 minutes, and I'm looking forward to  comparing my roasts to the professionally roasted stuff with the same beans.  

So many things

Alright!  I've got information that needs an outlet.  I'm doing things and if I'm the only one watching, I don't make notes.  This blog is going to center around beer brewing and other forms of fermentation: pickling, cheesemaking, vinegar, that kind of thing.  But more broadly, it will be about trying something new, making something you didn't know you could make, and the unlimited variety available at every step along the way.

I've tried a lot of new things in the past few months, and I'm just not taking enough pictures and writing enough down about what I did.  So ultimately, this blog is going to be a little bit self-serving and self-indulgent, but I think if things are done with enthusiasm and sincerity, that comes through.  I tend to teach when I have the chance, or at least that's what it sounds like in my head, so I plan for many of these posts to be informative for those who may want to try something, and my #1 piece of advice is to just try it.  So much of this stuff is *so easy* once you've done it or seen it done in person.

Also, somewhere out there is a website called  It's down right now, and I don't know enough about the backend to get it up on my own.  I'm tired of waiting, but if it comes back up, I'll probably be moving there.  For now: au travail.