To brew or not to brew…

I had to spend about half the day running errands, partly because I lost Tuesday this week – here in Vermont, the first Tuesday of March is Town Meeting Day, the ultimate example of local democracy in action. I got home from my errands today well after noon and by the time I unloaded the truck, checked on the livestock and ate a late lunch, it was almost 2:00. No energy, no motivation, no real urgent need to brew. Oh well, I had a lot of beer in storage, lots of full bottles. I could afford to skip a week.

But it didn’t feel right. I felt empty, unfulfilled. So here I am, almost 9:00 pm, and the kettle is heating up.

At the South Royalton Market, we get our malt extract in 33 lb. bulk jugs. I fill dispensing bins from these jugs, and when I have poured as much of the extract out as I can, I take the jugs themselves home to rinse out and either recycle or reuse. I use them to store raw maple sap prior to boiling, but also to carry water out to the animals, sometimes, and I have even used them as small fermenters on a couple of occasions. But here’s the thing – when I bring them home, they still have a few tablespoons of extract in them, stuck to the sides, inaccessible in their current state. I pour a pint or so of boiling water in to rinse them out and save that “rinse”. Usually I am rinsing out two or three jugs at a time, so I end up with a half-gallon of what is essentially wort – which I save, of course. I boil it for 15 minutes or so, and then can it in Mason jars.

Hard to read, but the hydrometer says 1.100

Tonight I poured 16 quart jars and 10 pint jars of these “dregs” into the brew kettle, 5.25 gallons. I am waiting for it to reach boiling, when I will add 2 oz. of my homegrown Cascade hops. After 15 minutes, I will add 1-1/2 oz. of my homegrown Cluster hops. After another 15 minutes, I will add 2 oz. of homegrown Chinook hops. The boil time will be 60 minutes total, and I will then chill it and pitch a vial of White Labs Super High Gravity Ale yeast (WLP099). What will it be? Not really a barleywine, although certainly in that strength range. Before boiling, the wort measured just about 1100.  I have no way of measuring the actual IBU’s, but guestimating based on the usual % aa of these hops, it should weigh in at something like 95 or so. It’s a little bigger and maybe not quite as bitter, but I expect this to taste something like Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, one of my favorite beers of the last 10 years. So I guess I will call it “Suffering Bastard”, and maybe I will serve it with little paper umbrellas…

Not by Beer alone…

The Guru does not live by beer alone. There are times when another beverage is more appropriate. Therefore, being a multi-dimensional brewer, I do venture into other fermentations occasionally. Today in particular is a momentous day. This morning I made wine, and then bottled last fall’s cyder. How does the process compare? Which would I rather do? Hard to say, but I will say that there are different concerns and different challenges.

The wine I made was from a kit. A friend at work is getting married and asked me to order him a couple of wine kits so he could make the wine for his wedding. I actually had to spend some time researching to find him just the right wines. While doing so, I became intrigued. The last time I made wine from a kit, the must came in concentrate form, in cans, and without a lot of information. I made some OK wines, but nothing I really enjoyed drinking. I have made several attempts at “country wines”, from my own fruit (blackberries, elderberries, even one batch of my own grapes) and frequently add fruit to mead. But after looking over the kits now available, at the variety of styles and so on, I felt the urge to give it a try. So when I ordered the wedding wine kits, I also ordered one for myself. I debated over several of my favorite reds, and finally settled on a Chianti kit from RJ Spagnols. The kit comes in a cubic box. It contains about 2-1/2 gallons of concentrated grape juice, plus yeast, sulphites, bentonite, and a couple of other additives. I’m not sure about some of them but for this time I decided to follow the kit’s instructions to the letter, although I opted to change out the dry yeast provided in the kit and used the White Labs Cabernet Red liquid yeast (WLP760). It took all of about 20 minutes to get the whole thing assembled and sealed up. It made a little bit of a mess, as I splashed bright purple juice all over the floor, but cleaned up relatively quickly. Now I have 5-1/2 gallons of Chianti-to-be in one of my fermenters, which the kit claims will be ready to bottle in about 4 weeks. We’ll see.

The cyder was a much different proposition. I used to buy 6 gallons of juice from a local orchard, Poverty Lane Orchards in West Lebanon, NH. This orchard produces their own excellent hard ciders (or cyder) under the name Farnum Hill, but also sells the same blend of juice in bulk for people who want to ferment their own at home. I have recently been cultivating a field full of apple trees, some wild, some planted, some… well, we’re really not sure where they came from… As I’ve pruned and cleaned up around them, they have yielded ever more and better apples, to the point where I have not bought juice the last two seasons but have pressed exclusively my own apples.

I have a small grinder/press combination that I bought several years ago, a real heavy-duty sucker that takes two people to move.

This past fall my son and his girlfriend came down for the day and helped press (in fact, they did most of the work – I supervised!) and we got almost 7 gallons of juice. I kept 6 for fermentation. I generally add a couple of Campden tablets (a sulfite) and let it sit for 48 hours before I add yeast. This assures that fermentation takes place with a “good” selected yeast and not by a wild, unpredictable “beastie”. I usually use the White Labs English Cider liquid yeast (WLP775), and I sweeten the juice with maple syrup. This batch got a quart of my own syrup added. I racked it to secondary after four weeks of primary fermentation, and I topped it off in the carboy with a little more fresh local sweet cider, about a quart, to fill the headspace. It has been aging in the secondary since mid-November at this point, so some three months. Not quite clear, but it will clear more in the bottles.

I decided this year to put it up in champagne bottles, although capped not corked. My capper has a second “bell” which accomodates the larger (29 mm) “european” champagne caps. So I have approximately 50 champagne bottles of mixed size, color and style, full of the 2009 pressing. Hmm, I think I still have a few bottles of the 2008 around too…