May 24, 2013 and Murpy’s Law

Honeysuckle wine…well, mead…

Yesterday Kim informed me that there was no visible bubbling in the fermentation bucket, but that there was a “citrusy funkiness.” But the prospects look better as of this morning, based on her “Bubbling this morning!” comment on facebook. That’s all I know. And it will be late Sunday before I have a better view.

As for Murphy’s Law, if I can trust Mr. Palmer of How To Brew – and I have no reason to believe I can’t – then this (from p. 84) is an interesting little aside:

Did you ever wonder where Murphy’s Law came from? Well, back at work there was a photocopy of a short article from one of the aerospace trade journals on the wall of my friend’s cubicle. It went something like this:

Captain Murphy was part of an engineering team out at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Their team was investigating the effects of high-gravity decelerations on jet pilots back in the 1950s. One of their tests involved strapping a test pilot into a rocket chair equipped with strain gauges and other sensors to help them quantify the effects of high-G stopping. The responsibility for the placement of the various sensors was Murphy’s. Well, the test was run (subjecting the pilot to something like 100 G’s of deceleration), and he got pretty banged up.

Only after it was over did the team realize that of all the possible combinations of placing those sensors, Murphy had done it in the one configuration that resulted in useless data. They would have to run the test again. Upon realizing this, Murphy stated, “If there are two or more ways of doing something, and one of them can result in catastrophe, someone will do it that way.” Upon hearing this the team leader said, “That’s Murphy’s Law.” The next day at the test debriefing the team leader shortened it to the now famous, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

Murphy still likes his version better.

“If there are two or more ways of doing something…”, doesn’t quite roll of the tongue, but I must agree with Murphy that these two quips don’t exactly say the same thing. In any case, Palmer was just being cute, trying to reinforce that brewing leaves plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong when you don’t actively do something to stop them from going wrong.

And an additional side-note, every single physics teacher I have ever had would cringe at the word “deceleration”, I think. I was repeatedly told, “It’s still acceleration,” since vectors include both direction and magnitude. Inner geek out…


May 22, 2012

I had some time on my hands, as I and another gentleman drove our kids to Michigan for the 2013 World Finals of Odyssey of the Mind. Long drive from home to East Lansing, Michigan. Long drive.

So today I began How To Brew by John Palmer. The success of the braggot to this point has got me interested in the process, techniques and science behind beer, grain and mash. No, I have no interest in cloning Budweiser, Corona, or the like. Not to offend if you are partial to these, but yuck. Nevertheless, I do like the depth it seems many brewers will go to understand what they are doing. I’ve seen at least one brewer complain that wine-makers seem little interested in really “knowing” their craft, and while it isn’t universally true, I’ve been through enough blogs and user forums looking for help to know that it does seem that many simply want a recipe to follow, not knowledge or experience.

So far, I am enjoying it. Appears that sanitation is a huge concern for beer-making. More so than in wine-making, as I’ve gathered from wine-/mead-makers and brewers alike. Wine makers tend to speak of cleanliness, and suggest sanitation at various points. I’ve seen various reasons.

For those curious about how the honeysuckle wine is going…join the crowd. I’m afraid I had to leave before adding the yeast to the must, leaving that task to Kim. My wife has heretofore had little physical involvement in the process of fermentation, so I was very happy when she agreed to follow the directions on the back of the package to get the honeysuckle going. Of course, when I texted her this morning to see if she had applied the yeast and how it went, I received a one word answer, “yes”. I may have to get some more information…

May 20, 2013: Honeysuckle

Yesterday, while we were out planting muscadine vines, my kids noticed we had honeysuckle growing in the yard. They promptly took to tasting the liquid in the blossom, and then started picking way more of the blossoms than they could possibly eat. The flowers are quite fragrant, and the small amount of liquid in each is super sweet.

And it dawned on me. I bet I could flavor a wine with that.

And I’m not the first person to have this epiphany, apparently. I began searching online, and found a number of different recipes with a lot of variation between them. Anywhere from 2 to 3.5 pounds of honey or other sugar. Steeping 4 to 6 cups of the blossoms in somewhere between 1 and 2 quarts of water for somewhere between 1 and 4 hours. Some recipes call for orange, some for lemon, some for an acid blend. One I saw added raisins to the must, reducing the sugar.

My oldest daughter was nice enough to suggest to the other children that they ought to give me a large amount of what they had collected, assuring them they would be able to collect more. So it looks like I am going to make a Honeysuckle Wine (or mead, rather)! Terry Garey makes only a passing reference to honeysuckle as she describes and lists some of the herbs and flowers that can be used as flavor components to make wine. But my familiarity with Garey’s book The Joy of Home Winemaking makes me lean towards the “Basic Flower or Herb Recipe” for this batch. I am modifying it slightly, based on some of the ideas elsewhere in that book, and the recipes I saw online.

So this afternoon, I started the process. I placed 6 cups of loosely packed honeysuckle blossoms in a pan, and covered them with one quart of water. I brought that to a simmer, and then took it off the heat and covered it tightly. I left it to steep for 3 hours. I went and did my normal Monday night routine.

Once the steep was complete, I strained the blossoms out and put the remaining liquid in a fermentation bucket. I added enough water to make up the quart (about a half cup or so). I then poured out two other measures of water – 2 quarts of cold water which I set aside, and 1 quart which I put in another pot, and that on the stove to heat. To this pot I added about 3.5 pounds of honey. I then heated it up, and used some of the liquid to clean out the honey jars entirely. I then took the honey-water and added it to the fermentation bucket. I added the juice of one medium orange and one large lemon, rather than do an acid blend. To the building must I added the remaining 2 quarts of water, an 1/8 tsp of tannin, a tsp of yeast nutrient, and a half tsp of yeast energizer.

1 Smidgen = 1/20 tsp

1 Smidgen = 1/20 tsp

Unfortunately, the water I set aside was not quite cool enough to bring the temperature of the must down enough to immediately add potassium metabisulfite. But that did give me time to do some experimentation. The normal directions state to use 1/4 tsp for 5 gallons. That means 1/20 of a tsp for 1 gallon, I suppose. I myself have never seen a measuring spoon labeled 1/20 tsp. But I do have some clever little scoops labeled things like “pinch” and “smidgen”. And It appears that the smidgen is a perfect match – 1/5 of 1/4 tsp (tested by measuring out 5 smidgens into a 1/4 tsp measure)!

Still not cooled enough, I went away to type up this post. I just now checked, about an hour later, and it has gone down from 104°F to about 90. I’ll let it go down a little more before adding my smidgen of sulphite, and before taking a good gravity reading.

The intention is to use a half-packet of Pasteur Champagne yeast (24 hours after adding the potassium metabisulfite, of course). But that probably won’t actually be added until Wednesday morning, since it’s already so late this evening!

May 19, 2013

Today was great day. We started the day celebrating the ministry of a good friend. I am especially touched by her ministry as it set the precedent for my own primary ministry focus, along lines of work with internationals, especially conversation English ministry (ESL). Service was followed by a community lunch (methinks it not a bad way to honor Pentecost Sunday, either).

Coming home, Kim and I set to work putting muscadine vine in the ground, as suggested in my post yesterday. We have two dark-skinned muscadines (a Cowart and a Southland), and one light skinned (a Dixie). Since we planned to have one 40 foot row and one 20 foot row, for the time being (that’s 10 feet either side of each muscadine), we decided it would be best to separate the darks so that it would be clear where the vines differ in the future. So along the 40 foot row, we placed the Cowart and the Dixie (at 10 and 30 feet), and on the other row we placed the Southland. We didn’t add the trellis wires/poles today, so that will be a job for another day, soon preferably. Mostly, we wanted to make sure to get the vines in the ground, before they over-extended their stay in the pots.

We had scheduled plans for a dinner-and-a-movie date, but those plans fell through. We spent the evening watching episodes from the third season of White Collar. Quite enjoyable.

Bing Cherry Wine, Not Quite Mature

Bing Cherry Wine, Not Quite Mature

Adding to the enjoyment was a lovely Bing Cherry wine. It has not quite reached “maturity” on my schedule, but I thought it would be nice to benchmark taste before it actually got there (October?!). And no reason to wait forever before seeing if it is at all pleasant, right?

This particular wine started as an experiment. After a number of quite failed attempts at “natural” fermentation with honey, i.e. without adding yeast, I was desperate to see something, anything, work. I had a whole bunch of Bing cherries purchased for eating. I had sugar. And I picked up a bunch of cheap bread yeast. I hadn’t quite figured out where the local wine supply shops were. I knew bread yeast wouldn’t yield the best product. But I wasn’t so interested in something drinkable. I just wanted to see fermentation happen in a semi-controlled environment. And that is exactly what I got.

I marked out a spreadsheet with varying levels of sugar water, cherry weight and yeast ratios. I then proceeded to watch cherry do a vigorous ferment under bread yeast. The smells were lovely, and as could be expected, bready – but in a very good way. In the end, I aborted the experiment. The excessive amounts of bread yeast had probably made useless the results. I picked the best of the jars (based on watching them ferment, and overall color), and combined to make 1G. I then let this run its course through secondary fermentation. I can’t recall if I did, but I seem to have in the back of my mind that I added a wine-yeast. But I may simply be remembering a thought I had at the time. My notes seem lost on the subject. I’m leaning towards it being a false-memory.

I know that the secondary fermentation took forever, it seemed, before the little bubbles ceased. Well, that is my memory of the situation, anyway. Looking at the notes I do have still, it looks like primary fermentation only lasted 2 days before I gave up on the experiment and removed the cherries, which had lost most of their color to the boiled distilled water and sugar concoction). The secondary fermentation lasted just 9 weeks, actually much quicker than most of the batches I have attempted. But memory is one of those weird things, altered by surrounding circumstances, among other things. Which is why I at least try to be regular in keeping notes now as I test, taste, watch and build my ferments.

In any case, the end result of all that madness is a crystal clear, sediment-less (surprised me!), semi-sweet cherry wine. It is a stunning dark red. It has a bite, and is quite “hot” in my opinion. It has not even a remnant of the bready-ness so noticeable when it was an experiment. I didn’t think it was strongly “cherry” flavored, though there was some hint in the aftertaste. It certainly had nothing resembling the sickeningly-sweet cherry-like flavor in a cherry Jolly Rancher or similar candy. But combined with a nice dark chocolate, my wife and I both noted how similar the taste was to a really good chocolate-covered cherry. Overall, it’s something I would be interested in making again (maybe without going through all the same process). And I’m definitely looking forward to the results when it has completed its aging in the bottle!

And it was quite good on a Netflix date with my wife.

Kim Makes The Glass Sing

Kim Makes The Glass Sing

The Last Two Weeks of Fermentation

Fermentation Station

Fermentation Station

In the last weeks, my new braggot went from a specific gravity of 1.101 to somewhere below 1.020; I haven’t checked the SG in a couple days, but it is certainly lower. The sweet mead is at this point somewhere below 1.023 (which is already lower than the recipe expected – 1.025, having started at ~1.135). So, today I racked each to its own 5G carboy. Probably should have done so half a week ago, as the bubbling through the airlocks had reduced dramatically. But I hadn’t really had the spare moment.

The braggot, much as I feared, has a slight burnt aftertaste, which hopefully will mellow or even disappear (hey, one can hope). The sulfur/egg smell through the airlock was much stronger than any other fermentation I have done, but not unbearable, nor even unexpected. It is quite pretty. A beautiful dark brown, with hints of red. It is certainly not transparent, but doesn’t seem thick. It looks like it will clear nicely. Then we will see if it is keep-able.

The sweet mead, on the other hand, smells delicious – sweet, floral and fruity. It is a quite-opaque yellow.

Both had quite the bed of lees, and required more water to top-up than I have done before (~1/4 G for the braggot, ~1/5 G for the sweet mead).

Earlier this week I racked my metheglins, the vanilla and nutmeg, and the lavender, one gallon apiece. I received a bit of a scare with the vanilla/nutmeg, finding a large blue mark in the bag of ground nutmeg. Once out of the jug, I could see clearly it was simply a glass bead used to weight down the bag. Had completely forgotten about that… At an earlier “testing” I had worried the lavender was going to be too strong, but the smell is heavenly…and the taste strikingly fruity, more so than floral, as I might have expected from the smell. Both still need quite a bit of clearing (as does their parent mead, which still seems to be doing little but slowly clearing).

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In the picture at the top, you can see what I have “in-work”. On the top shelf, far left is the pomegranate wine, with a quite muddy look rather than its original darkness. A couple bottles of apple wine which have blown corks sit to its right, followed by the lavender and vanilla/nutmeg metheglin (racked, and herbs/spices removed). On the floor sit the newly-racked sweet mead (front-left), the newly-racked braggot (front-right), the strawberry melomel which continues to bubble ever-so-slowly (back left) and the mid-sweet mead, parent to the metheglins above (back-right).

Friday evening I picked up enough barley and hops to make another braggot, this time following an all-grain brewing process. I also picked up a book on brewing process. Thought I should get a little more detail if I was going to be using the ingredients this often. Anyway, this recipe has way more barley and hops than the original braggot, and I read that the end-result should be quite wonderful on a cold night, or with a meaty or spicy dish. May have to wait to actually get it started until next weekend, as I am out of town most of next week, and not sure I want to start a new batch that I can’t be giving my attention to. My other ferments should plod along nicely in my absence.

Oh, and I started an experiment. The mint is running wild in the front bed, and we are going to take care of that. But I thought, with all that mint, I ought to try doing something like I did with the fig leaves. But, I don’t have a recipe; and rather than go online, I decided to just test out some different proportions. So I put together some varying amounts of mint leaf (0.3, 0.5, and 0.7 ounces), with static amounts of sugar, water, and alcohol (1.5 cups of each). For alcohol, I tested with both gin and vodka. Hopefully beginning of June I can give a feel for what would be a “good” proportion, realizing that is a rather subjective thing. Then again, I doubt that I will get the “best” results. I think all my samples are under-playing the mint. But we shall see. They are all now hiding away in the dark of our “room-under-the-stairs”, awaiting the day they can be tasted, along with their cousins, the bottles of fig leaf liquor.

I think that is about it. Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

So, So Busy…

I’ve been meaning to post for a while now; can’t believe it’s been almost two weeks since my last post! What’s been going on? Lots!

For starters, we have been planting a lot of fruit trees/bushes and vegetables, as well as caring for what was already there:

As you can see from the pictures, we’ve planted peppers (some “chili”, some Italian roasting-style, some Thai chili), tomatoes (a couple very different varieties, thanks to the provision of a friend), a pomegranate tree (awww…), numerous blueberry bushes of varying sizes and a cherry tree (still need another one for best fruit production). But we’ve added much more I simply lack pictures of, including a dwarf-raspberry bush, a blackberry bush, cucumbers (varieties both for eating and for fermenting), squash, zucchini, watermelons, cantaloupe, and cabbage (purple and traditional). We also potted some lemon thyme and a purple basil, and added leeks to the herb garden. I’m sure there are some other edible plants we have put in ground that I am not thinking of. And Kim has been busily planting ornamentals and shrubs as well. I’ll stick with highlighting the things that can be turned into tastiness, thank you very much.

Last years plantings are already paying off, with Kim and I enjoying some sporadic asparagus (probably nearing the end of that for our garden this season). A few strawberry plants overwintered just fine. And the herbs in the garden are mostly doing okay. The rosemary looks the best, the basil and dill look iffy. Hope they pull through!

While digging up the vegetable garden we found a couple of fungi-like things, which based on my research I believe are Mutinus elegans:

No concerns really, but something I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before.

We still have some purchases not quite in ground, namely the three self-pollinating muscadine vines. But I think we know just where in the back-yard to place them. Kim and I spent some time this evening figuring that out, in fact.

Looking forward to harvest. And to planting more vegetables this fall/winter (and maybe even more this summer)! Have in mind some experimentation with non-alcoholic fermentation (kimchi? sauerkraut? etc.) Plain eating of course. And maybe some jellies and jams.

Well, a lot has been going on inside the house as well, but I believe I’ll leave that for another post…

May 5, 2013: Braggot, Take 2

This evening, I began the process of putting together another braggot. I’d love to say everything went as planned, but no.

I started by throwing 2.5G of water into a primary fermentation bucket (having first sanitized with my saved solution of potassium metabisulfite) and putting it in the freezer to quickly cool down. I then set two pans of water on the stove to heat. To the first I added 4.5 quarts of water, and I brought it to 170°F. The second received only a gallon, and it was destined to reach a not-quite-boiling 185°F.

To the 4.5 quarts of water, I added the mesh bag full of the grains. I used 4 pounds of crushed pale malt and 0.5 pounds of caramel malt. Last time I used crystal malt per the recipe, but this time I went with the caramel, which should cut the sweetness a little bit, adding complexity of flavor in place of the bitterness the hops provided in the last batch. The temperature of the mash, as expected, dropped into the range of of 145-155 and I held it there for 30 minutes. Then I began the sparging process, made much simpler this time by the use of the bag, which fit nicely in a colander allowing me to pour water over top.

Okay – that last paragraph was the intention, at the very least. I did get the water going, but then I added the grain early, distracted and losing order of operations as I made the kids some tapioca pudding simultaneously. No problem, the temp didn’t take too long to get to its expected 170°F, then I reduced the heat and let it settle down to the 150-ish point. But in retrospect – and I questioned this last time as well – I think that the 30 minutes would be better done off the burner altogether. For thirty minutes a kept a vigilant eye, as the temperature would not seem to stay constant, sitting for a moment at 150°F, then jumping into the 160’s.

But 30 minutes eventually elapsed, and so I went to begin sparging. That was when I discovered that the bag had burned to the bottom of the pan. Ugh. Now, I honestly dislike this pan. I’m not sure what is with it – maybe it’s just too thin. I always seem to have problems keeping the contents from sticking to the bottom. But I didn’t expect such an issue with the mash. It’s my biggest pot, my next two reasonably sized pans being 1) on loan to friends and 2) used to heat the other gallon. So I threw out the bag, and moved the mash to a new bag.

Now at this point I did have a decision. I could just make a semi-sweet mead and discard the mash. It is a lot of honey to waste. But the mash didn’t smell worse for the wear. It was slightly darker than the last time, but only slightly, and this could just as easily be the effect of the caramel rather than the crystal malt. So I went ahead and sparged, and everything turned out fine as far as I can tell. Very little of the barley was stuck to the bottom – looks like mostly just the bag itself crisped. Sparging was uneventful, and definitely easier than last time when I did not use a bag to contain the soaked barley.

Having finished sparging, I ran and got the water out of the freezer. Not frozen. Whew! I added all the honey I could get out of the jars to the fermentation bucket, then used the sparged mash (still quite a bit hot) to rinse out the honey jars so I got all the honey. The recipe called for 10 pounds of honey, so I used four 2.5 lb honey jars. I then added the rest of the sparged liquid and stirred up the must to evenly distribute the honey. That was followed by 2 tsp each of yeast energizer and yeast nutrient, and then a little more stirring.

Finally, I rehydrated the yeast. The recipe called for 10 grams of Lalvin D-47, i.e. two packets. Before adding the yeast (while it waited the direct 15 minutes), I checked the gravity of my must (a respectable 1.101). The time complete, I tossed the yeast in, and then stirred some more to mix and incorporate oxygen.

So, not my best work. I think everything still looks very hopeful, but I’d just as soon not burn the bag to the pan it is cooking in next time. The must itself is darker, if only in my imagination. I’ll definitely be able to compare final results with the last batch. The major difference this time is the lack of hops (and I also didn’t boil the sparged liquid another hour, but I believe this is specifically for introducing the hops). Hopefully the burnt bag doesn’t make the comparison to the hopped braggot meaningless.


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