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Fermenting Fridge

21 Jan

This barely counts as a project because of how simple it was.

I wanted a fridge I could use for homebrewing in hotter months (keep beer at 60-70F, or cider at 50-60F), that I could use to homebrew lagers for the first time (control temperatures in the 35-55F range at different stages of fermentation), to slowly lacto-ferment vegetables (not really necessary, but to do longer, slower multi-week ferments around 60F even when it’s warmer), or even to retard bagels (rest in a cool place overnight to slow yeast growth while allowing lactobacilli a head start).

I’d read a bit about DIY ways to replace the thermostat on a conventional fridge… and then dug up a much easier way.

img_7744I bought a Danby DAR044 Compact Refrigerator (price varies, about $180 when I bought it) and an Inkbird Temperature Controller ($35).

The Inkbird temperature controller is a simple pre-wired alternative to custom temperature control relay boxes many people build– it has a temperature probe and two outlets, and turns on whatever’s plugged into the “heating” outlet whenever the temperature is below a certain setpoint, and turns on whatever’s plugged into the “cooling” outlet whenever the temperatures above a different setpoint.

I just plugged the mini-fridge into the “cooling” outlet, with the temperature probe threaded up through an existing hole in the back rear of the minifridge that leads into a drip tray. You remove these two screws to remove the drip tray:

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And use a drill to slightly enlarge the drip hole from the outside and fish the temperature probe up into the fridge:img_7742

That’s it. It just worked.

It worked so well I set up a second fridge, so I could be fermenting beer or pickles in one (at 60-65F) while lagering or long-term storing fermented vegetables (or keeping beer cool) in the other at 35F.

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As one example, here’s the temperature of the fridge over the course of brewing a lager– at 55F for the first few weeks, raised to 65 for a few days, then lowered to lagering temp at 35…

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And typical contents: fermenting chiles, preserved lemons, and sauerkraut:

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Homemade Gin from Foraged Sticks, Flowers, and Berries

13 Nov

This summer we spent 5 days backpacking in and around the stunning Caribou Wilderness.

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Inspired by my past brewing with foraged plants (yarrow, mugwort) in lieu of hops, an afternoon vermouth class, and following Pascal Baudar‘s photos– everywhere I looked I saw components for beer, gin, or vermouth– such as sap and wild yeast on freshly-opened pine cones:

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Or juniper branches and berries in gnarled old trees overlooking glacial ponds:

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dscf0944Back home a few days later, I unloaded my foraging bag:

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I decided to try to make both a vermouth (more on that in the future) and a gin, using only alcohol and things collected in the woods. Older methods of gin production involve alcohol that’s distilled so the vapor passes through a basket of botanicals (notably including juniper berries) before re-condensing– but not having a still I decided the simpler approach of a cold infusion into a neutral spirit was good enough.

I submerged eight potential components (coyote mint, pine sap, juniper bark and berries, green manzanita berries, fresh pine tips, not-yet-open pine cones, and yarrow flowers) in both jars of vodka and jars of fortified wine (white wine bumped to 19% ABV with brandy, for vermouth):

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I had no idea what would taste good and what would be distasteful or overly bitter, or how strong a flavor would come from of each component over time, so rather than throwing everything into a jar with vodka and hoping for the best, I decided to infuse each component separately and then blend them to taste later (accepting that I’d throw away some of the vodka from the stronger-tasting components). If I were planning to do this again, I could record the ratio that tasted good and then directly infuse that mix of components– but even then I’d expect every individual pine cone, branch, and handful of berries to be a bit different.

Every few days I smelled and tasted each jar, straining them at anywhere from 3 days to 4 weeks as flavors developed and before they got too bitter. The pine sap smelled and tasted horrible within days so I poured it out, but everything else produced a distinctive and interesting (if sometimes harsh or intense) flavor.

Finally, about three months later, I tasted each of the infused vodkas again side by side. Some had taken on significant color:

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I tried a few different mixtures at thimbleful scale to balance components with powerful aromas and/or tastes, and found a nice ratio that relied heavily on juniper berry and green manzanita berry, with a moderate addition of pine cone, yarrow flowers, and juniper branches, and just a touch of pine needles (harshly pine-y) and coyote mint (a lovely mint but very strongly flavored).

Without a re-distillation step it’s not transparent, but I think this is an attractive bottle of homemade alcohol– and it will always remind me of walking through those woods with a compass:

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Homebrew #30! with Mugwort

19 Mar

It’s hard to believe I’ve brewed 30 beers (by the time I write this, 32) over the past few years. For this one I continued down the esoteric “sacred and healing herbal beers” route I’d started with the yarrow beer and brewed a gallon of beer with some wild mugwort foraged from the Oakland hills filling the role of the bitter, aromatic, antibacterial(?) herb instead of hops.

It’s related to wormwood (used in absinthe) and has some hints of similarity in taste– and is almost unbearably bitter on its own.

The “ancient beer” recipe I read was basically sugar and mugwort fermented, which didn’t sound pleasant– fermenting sugar is an easy way to get a hot, harsh alcohol. So instead I brewed a basic all-grain beer recipe I’d use for a pale ale (pale malt, a little wheat, a little rye, and a neutral dry ale yeast), mashed at the low end of the temperature range (149F) to hopefully give a dry beer, but replacing the bittering, flavor, and aromatic hop additions with mugwort. I just made one gallon since it’s both simpler to do stovetop and I expected the outcome might be… challenging, and bottled mostly in the 187mL champagne split bottles I’d picked up a few months ago, making it easier to just crack open a half-beer to taste it (in addition, the UV-driven rapid skunking of regular beers in clear bottles shouldn’t be a concern as that’s a reaction with the hops).

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Adding mugwort to the boil:

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Fermenting in a friend’s basement:

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And, a month later, the result, bottled– as usual having some fun with the labels: sunprint paper to expose photograms of some mugwort leaves, filled in with a silver paint pen loosely inspired by 60s psychadelic band posters.

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Oh, and the beer? It had a slightly-greenish yellow tint, with a tart slightly lemony and herbal smell– and a distinctive but intensely basically-undrinkable bitter punch in the face. I enjoyed sipping a bit of it like an apertif/digestif or fernet, but I have an unusual love of and tolerance for bitterness. It actually worked well splashed into soda water like a bitters rather than consumed straight, so I’ll save most of them as a cocktail mixer– and if I made it again I’d take a much lighter hand on the mugwort or combine it with other herbs or hops.

Homebrews #31/32: (Caramel) Hard Cider

8 Nov

Unlike last year’s cidering from whole apples, this year I picked up six gallons of fresh-pressed cider (unpasteurized, of course) at a store in Philo. Split into two batches in sanitized bottles– one allowed to ferment with whatever wild yeast and bacteria were on the apples (what causes jugs of unpasterized cider to swell up if let sit), and the other dosed with crushed campden tablets for 48 hours to stun the wild yeast before adding Wyeast 4766.

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Tasting them after a week– the cider with Wyeast had gone pleasantly mildly dry with an apple flavor, while the wild-fermenting cider was going very tart.

I let the wild cider ferment fully dry, without sugar or bottling, yielding a still, sour cider that was a bit intense (“leathery”?) to drink on its own… but which James made into a good cocktail with lemon and fresh ginger.

But the other cider– this is what I had planned for a Halloween party– “caramel apple cider”. First, to make a cup of caramel:

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Then to keg the cider and keep it chilled under pressurized CO2 until the party (leaving it at room temperature would have let the yeast ferment the caramel and turn it back to a dry cider).

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Success– while a bit sweeter than the dry style I like, the aftertaste was definitely caramel, and it was easy-drinking at 4.5% ABV. Along with the tart cider, good accompaniments to a lunch of salami, cheese, bread, and olives:

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Homebrew #27/28: West of Wallonia grisette w/ pluots

13 Sep

During another rare heat wave in SF a few months back, I brewed a small batch of a new saison-like ale– this time a mix of pils, rye, and white wheat malts mashed at a lower temperature for fewer complex sugars, targeting a dry 4% ABV table beer (inspired by reading about Grisette, a miners’ beer from Wallonia), fermented with WLP590 French Saison Ale yeast. After primary fermentation I split the batch and decanted one gallon of it onto a few very ripe pluots from H’s back yard for another few weeks.

After a month and a half I gave this variant a try:

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It poured cloudy and slightly orange/pink, with good head and a lightly funky saison yeast smell but only mild esters. It was tart (probably due to both the wheat and the pluots), dry, refreshing, and effervescent (with just a hint of stonefruit).

Hey, this was quite successful (too bad I only made about 16 beers worth, split between the normal and pluot varieties– I’ll have to try it again some time).

 

Homebrew #29: Yarrow Farmhouse Ale

17 Aug

The result:

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Before hops became a key component of beer around the 14th century, beers were brewed with a range of herbs serving the roles of bittering agents and source of antibacterial / preservative compounds (a broad style, “gruit”, which has been enjoying a very minor revival).

Inspired by a chapter in The Brewer’s Tale, I picked up Stephen Buhner’s book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, which touches on brewing with herbs of various potencies and effects, which in turn inspired me to look for bitter herbs growing wild along local trails (such as mugwort and yarrow pointed out by H). Time to brew a few very small batches with individual local herbs in lieu of hops (whether or not the result was a pleasant beer– I’d be happy with “interesting”…)

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First up was a rustic all-grain light table beer (a mix of pilsner (barley) malt, wheat, and rye, with a target OG of 1.040 for a roughly 4% ABV beer) made with yarrow picked on a hike in the coastal hills North of Santa Cruz:

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Drying and then weighing yarrow flowers for dose:

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I tried using them like hops– with 0.3 oz / gallon 60 minutes for bitterness, plus a similar amount for “dry yarrowing” (e.g. thrown in the primary fermenter after cooling for more flavor/aroma than bitterness).

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The wort going into fermentation wasn’t terrible– a bit tart/herbal from the yarrow, a nice smell — this might not be a total disaster.

About 6 weeks later, after fermenting, cold crashing, bottle-conditioning, and the obligatory label-making (see above), I poured a small glass of the dark straw-colored, very effervescent beer, with a very distinctive woody, spicy smell (like sage? really, something of its own) and a complex herbal, slightly bitter, tart taste– almost like a pile of dry leaves and lemon peel. Fascinating! More than that– I’d even say I like this beer and wouldn’t be disappointed to pay for it. That’s an unexpected success– too bad I only brewed about 9 bottles of it.

 

Homebrew #16 (27): Belgian Ale rested on Pluots, Oak, Rye Whiskey

13 Jul

For my 16th time homebrewing since I first started two years ago (and as I count it, my 26th & 27th brews, as I often brew 2 batches in a day or split a batch into a few different smaller experiments), I wanted to go farther out and play around with the secondary fermentation / infusion and aging steps in a beer inspired by the forest. I decided to make a very strong Belgian-inspired beer with simple malts, caramel, and a small amount of an earthy hop (Saaz) and then age it a few different ways. The result (as always, having a little fun with the label):

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The base beer didn’t really follow any particular style, but it’s probably closest to a dark version of a tripel– it used only base malt (primarily amber malt extract) and caramelized invert sugar* (a.k.a. dark belgian candi sugar), and very minimal hops.

*Invert sugar is a mix of the very simple sugars glucose and fructose, created by heating sucrose (table sugar) in the presence of acid to break it down: C12H22O11 (sucrose) + H2O → C6H12O6 (glucose,) + C6H12O6 (fructose). The idea behind using it in brewing is it’s very easy for yeast to metabolize, making it possible to bump up the alcohol level in the beer without making a heavily malty beer (since almost all of the invert sugar is converted to alcohol).

The brew day began, as usual, with adapting to unplanned issues. The new compact 3 gallon plastic fermenter I’d bought (since I typically only brew 2-gallon batches these days) didn’t have a hole for an airlock:

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Brewing went as planned, but I’d read that to avoid excessive esters, the Belgian yeast I’d bought (WLP500, rumored to be grown from samples taken from the Chimay brewery) behaved best if kept at a lower temperature for the first day or two of fermentation (since the yeast generates so much heat during the rapid initial fermentation– especially working on a wort heavy in easily-fermented sugars– that it can easily raise the wort temperature 10-15 degrees). Lacking any high-tech brewing apparatus, I kept the fermenter below 70F in a sink of cool water for the first two days, then took it out for the rest of the fermentation. It picked up heavily around the third day, and was actively bubbling for the next 7 days — a long primary.

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After two weeks, the wort had fermented down from a specific gravity of 1.090 to 1.011, producing what should be a 10% ABV beer. I tasted it and was a bit concerned– it was a bit “hot” (solventy), with some brown sugar sweetness and bubble gum and clove esters– an exaggeration of the Belgian style. Patience, patience… Belgian-style beers are expected to age for months, and the point of this was to balance it with other flavors.

At this point I siphoned it out into two sanitized glass jugs. One had a pound of ripe pluots (halved, pits and all), and the other had a third of a spiral of toasted oak that had been soaked in rye whiskey for 5 days.

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I let it age another two weeks on these, then bottled it with a bit of sugar (to kick off a bottle conditioning step). The beer aged on oak settled into a clear dark ruby-brown beer, and the beer aged on pluots was a cloudy purple the color of pluot skin (hard to see in this photo):

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I finally tried the carbonated beers for the first time about two and half months after brewing, and they were quite different (and much improved from the primary fermentation sample). Both were strange, interesting, I might even say “not bad” (if not what I think of when I think of beer), and I’ll see how they change over time.

The beer aged on oak was very “umami”– an aroma reminiscent of miso or soy sauce, and a taste that made me think of a brandy infused with shiitake mushrooms and a bit of caramel. The alcohol was clearly there, but the hints of solventy heat were completely gone. I’m glad I’d bottled this in tiny 187mL (7oz) bottles, as this is something I could imagine sipping from a small glass.

The beer aged on pluots was excellent– a powerful sugar-plum aroma, but a taste that was more tart, like a not-too-sweet pluot cordial. It drank well on its own, but also worked well cut with soda water to make a bit more of a spritzer (or, as someone who shall remain nameless said, “wine cooler”).

I don’t think I’ll get tired of this as a set of side projects…