31 December 2018
It’s been an interesting year fermentation-wise. The learning, tasting and experimentation have provided a welcome ongoing alternative to inevitably ineffectual musing on the broader state of the world. And the sharing of the experience–and products–have cemented existing friendships and led to interesting meetings which bring hope and excitement for the future. Thank you microbes, yeasts, and human co-conspirators.
Without a doubt, my main focus in terms of energy through the latter part of the year has been upping my brewing game. Sparked by a discussion with friends and fellow brewers in March, I realised that all the barriers to brewing I thought existed were, in fact, nothing but flimsy mental constructs. From that day, I embarked on a program of regular brews across a number of styles, and the results have (I feel - and have been told) improved over the course. The learning journey reminds me of that of baking bread–there’s a great deal of scattered knowledge to acquire, sift and internalise, and beyond that so much lies in technique, process and attention to detail. Only with brewing the iterations take longer.
That first solo brew of the year back in late March was an English ordinary bitter. I wanted to start simple. Though, as with many such things, simple is often the hardest thing to pull off successfully. A basic grain bill and light hopping leaves nowhere to hide, and plenty of space for technical errors–or indeed blandness/emptiness–to show through. As the year moved into its final month, I was pleased to finally pull off–in a collaborative brew with fellow Sam Sahai–a light, hoppy pale ale that really worked: low abv, but not lacking in body, firmly bitter with good aromatics. A real summer session ale. I’ve finished the year with a bitter and a mild, both brewed with invert sugars (which, it turns out, aren’t too hard to make) in the traditional British way. They’ll be ready in a week or two, closing the loop on this year in ales: 30 solo brews, of which there were 12 bitters/pale ales, six saisons, three stouts, two each of porters, Belgian blonds and IPAs, a brown ale, a kölsch and a mild.
On the baking front, it’s a been a solid year in terms of naturally-leavened output. Nothing too creative or innovative, but I’ve been finding some good consistency in sourdough bakes, with at least a couple of loaves most weekends. And reassuringly few disasters–which probably means I haven’t really being trying hard enough. I built a new starter mid-year after accidentally defenestrating the previous one. The moment I reached in the fridge to pull out the starter for a bake and found nothing was profoundly unsettling, like that feeling of walking in a room to fetch something and then not being able to recall what that something was, an intimation of frailty or the onset of madness.
What has fallen by the wayside somewhat over the last 12 months is lacto ferments and pickles. Partly due to time, partly due to a lack of inspiration. Armed with a copy of The Noma Guide to Fermentation, I’m sure I can overcome the latter moving forward. And the former - well, there’s never really a shortage of time when desire is strong enough, right?
So I’m closing out the year with a simple brined carrot ferment, touched with rosemary and capped with orange, preserving the final moments of 2018 to be enjoyed in 2019. Though perhaps, in the broader picture, much of 2018 would be better left in the past.
23 September 2018
Discovery of a two-week old sourdough loaf at the back of the fridge during a Sunday clearout caused a fermentation synapse to spark. Kvass! I’d never made it. I’m not sure I’d ever drunk it. But I was well aware of it, and now was the time to give it a try.
Cursory research revealed a common pattern with such things - myriad approaches, little consensus. It was already mid-Sunday afternoon, and rather than synthesise a preference I thought I’d dive in with the little learning I had. The only thing I decided as I slid into the experiment was that I’d avoid the temptation to throw dried brewers/bakers yeast at the problem.
My sourdough starter was recently put to rest for the week in the fridge, so I began by taking out a tablespoon or so and mixing it with roughly the same amounts of flour and water, making a loose paste. I set this aside, hoping it would spring back to life in time for work.
Firing up the stove I got 4 litres of water heating up. I roughly sliced the bread and laid it out in the oven which was set on grill and fan at a moderate heat. 10-15 minutes with a few turns created a well-browned pile of dry toast with a few pieces verging on charred.
Meanwhile the water had come to a boil. I turned off the heat, and immersed the toast into the the hot liquor, pushing it down to make sure it was well soaked. The effect was surprising bubbly as the crisp bread released its trapped oxygen into the water. Lid on, I left the pot to rest.
Around six hours later, the temperature was still hovering around 40 degrees. Slightly too hot to pitch. But it was getting late, and I felt I might want to add some colder water anyway to dilute things.
So I passed the bready mulch though a piece of muslin cloth into a bowl, squeezing it well, and tipped the wort into a sanitized 6 litre vessel. I was a little surprised to see only around 2 litres of fluid - I guess a lot was lost to evaporation and the absorbent bread.
I added a good glug of local honey (no measuring today) - around 1/3 of a bottle, so I’d say about 250ml. Then topped up the volume to roughly 5 litres using bottled water. A quick refractometer reading showed 5.5 Brix (roughly 1.021 SG). Temperature was a little over 30 degrees, so I pitched the now reasonably bubbly sourdough starter, careully dripping it through the neck of the fermentation vessel.
After a vigourous shake of the bottle to mix things up, I popped in a bung and airlock and left the potential to do it’s thing.
In around 24 hours, there was some evidence of fermentation on the surface of the liquid, and within 36 hours, the airlock was popping with some slow regularity. Activity built from there. While by no means vigorous, the smallish kreuzen and rising-falling motions of particles indicated reasonable yeast activity. The question was when to package this?
A little more reading suggested that it’s normal to package early, with no priming, and let fermentation continue in the bottle for carbonation. So around 72 hours after inocculation I siphoned the kvass into some flip-top containers. I also made the call to let fermenation continue at room temperature (around 25-32 Celsius) for a further period before refrigeration. At this point, specific gravity was at 1.018 - giving us around 0.4% ABV. And the flavour was quite pleasant - bready, slightly sweet, with a tiny but moreish saltiness.
That was Tuesday. In the end, I let this ferment warm until Friday, when I chilled all the bottles. By Saturday afternoon, I poppped the swing-top on one. Carbonation was only low-medium. But the flavour was quite compelling and refreshing. Notes of honey sweeteness and salt came through the now crisper, sour base, and there was a bready but in no way burnt aroma. That bottle quenched a fermenter’s thirst. It didn’t last long.
16 September 2018
For the first time in four or five months, there was no fruit to pick up prior to mowing the lawn. This absence, this lack of interruption to the task at hand, put me in mind of that fervent brew session which finally pushed me to start these writings. As it happened, that event was exactly two months ago. While not one to succumb to fatalism, the circumstance seemed happy enough to celebrate with a tasting of one of the three remaining bottles. (Did you see that? - one, two, three, four, five…. it’s another sign.)
I selected one which had been conditioning at room temperature since bottling, and chilled it well. The pour was beautiful - radiant, blush colouring, with a full and fine head. The taste was tart and sharp, but refeshing, and the bubbles lent the draft a light, crisp mouthfeel. Something like the taste of cider with the liveliness of a sparkling wine.
I only wish there were more than two bottles left in the world. Still, there’s always next year…
29 July 2018
Apple cider vinegar came up in a few recent conversations. As usual, my head was soon overtaken by a project to make some myself. Maybe even turn it into a regular thing.
Reading and YouTubing around turned up lots of material, much of it conflicting, on the best/correct/absolutely-only way to go from apples to ACV–some people insist that you need to add mother from a previous batch as a starter, others deny this. I finally turned to Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation (where I should probably have started, in all honesty) for assurance that mother was not necessary (sorry, Mum).
The process and science is fairly simple: left to their own devices apples in water (with maybe some sugar) will ferment naturally, producing cider. If the cider is then left open to oxygen, Acetobacter will do the job of converting the alcohol to acetic acid, aka vinegar.
Armed with these basics, I picked up a couple of kilos of apples at the store - one each of a tarter green apple (Granny Smith) and sweeter dappled pink fruit. I roughly chopped enough of these in a 50-50 mix, preparing enough to fill my fermentation jar, leaving skins, pips and all in place. I also dissolved around 70g of sugar in 1/2 litre of water.
Minimal prep complete, I put the apples in a sanitized jar, leaving some head space and filled with the sugar solution, being careful to cover all the fruit. I placed the glass lid of another, smaller, jar atop the apples to weigh them down and keep them submerged. I then improvised a cover/hat from a coffee filter, secured with an elastic band. Practical and cute.
And that was it. I moved the jar to the basement, where there’s a fairly steady temperature of around 24 degrees celsius this time of year, and covered it with a black cloth. Within 24 hours, there were bubbly signs of fermentation which continued for about three days. (There were also signs of ants, no doubt attracted by that sugar, so I placed the jar in a shallow water bath to keep them at bay, until the sugar was gone).
Two weeks later, with alcoholic odours giving way to more acidic vapours, I removed the now very soft apples, straining them in a muslin cloth to extract as much liquid as possible, and returning the liquid to the same jar. I put the jar of budding vinegar back in the basement, again covered it, and let it continue on its journey for a further two weeks.
And, so, a month after chopping apples, the vinegar looked and smelled to be ready. A taste test confirmed good, sharp acidity with a lively, fruity backbone. Atop the vinegar was a gelatinous SCOBY, the missing mother, born from nothing, a good inch think. I transferred the vinegar to a sealable jar (I don’t think it will last long, so I didn’t take many precautions, beyond sanitation, for longer-term storage), and the mother along with some of her liquid progenitor to another jar. Time will tell if we let her help out with a future fermentation.
Retrospective Very pleased with the flavour of this vinegar - it is quite delicious, especially diluted with water as a drink. Keen to make more. It’s an easy process, though given the time it takes certainly worth making larger batches. I also wonder if a finer cut on the apples would allow squeezing more vinegar from the same size vessel?
28 July 2018
Discovered this pellicle on top of a batch of saison which has been sitting on pineapple for a 2 week secondary fermentation. I’m not sure who our friend is. Maybe Brett? Maybe Lacto? Whatever, it is a beautiful bright white, and its textures are almost mesmerizing.
(I bottled the saison, which smelt and tastes just fine. Also cleaned vessels and tubes thoroughly with iodine solution.)
15 July 2018
For a couple of months every year, my lawn-mowing task begins, or is interrupted by, the backbreaking work of picking up krathon fruit (known - if know at all - as santol in English) which the tree in front of our houses liberally sprinkles around. She’s an old tree, and those fruits really don’t taste too good. They’d be almost bearable pickled - but we’re talking about thousands of apple-sized globes per season. I end up dumping them in a pile in a corner of the garden to rot.
There’s always a small pang of guilt at the waste. Particularly given the amount - and the unavoidable fact that removing the fruit takes up far more time and energy than actually mowing the damn lawn. Today, I decided I’d seek some application for these poor fruit.
So, on a whim, I gathered a dozen not-too-bruised specimens and took them in the house. They sat in a stainless steel bowl while laziness almost pushed the abort mission button. Somehow, though, I found myself sat at a table, with three bowls before me, and a podcast playing in the background. I took a fruit from one bowl, peeled and discarded its skin in a second, and slung it’s lightly chopped pith and luscious nuts in a third.
By the end of this endeavour I had the best parts of a kilo of krathon meat. I put it in a pan with 2 kg of water and brought it to a boil. As the boil started, ph was already down to 2.35. These guys were tart.
I let the boil continue for 30 minutes. At that point, I reweighed and added back the 510g of water lost during the boil. That way, we’d be working with the same 2 litres of water, or thereabouts. I cooled a sample and took a hydrometer reading - 1.010. We were going to need more gravity.
I brought 3 litres of water to the boil, added 1lb of rice (please don’t ask about the mixed units - I was thinking on my feet). Once this came back to the boil, I killed the gas and let it steep until the temperature fell to just under 70 deg C. (Mid-way through I decided to switch to a BIAB approach, and tipped the rice into a muslin bag). At that point I added 1lb of Belgian Vienna malt to facilitate the starch conversion. Mash lasted 1 hour. Then I removed the grain and boiled the resulting liquid for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, the krathon juice had been chilling in the freezer. I added this back to the wort (after taking a sample to cool before testing the gravity - a sweet 1.123 as it turned out).
I’d been planning to pitch some dirt-cheap Chinese yeast, which I’ve seen eat through basically anything you throw at it. But the 1/2kg bag has been open for a long time, and a quick test with sugar water suggested it wasn’t viable. So I hydrated 3g of Safale US-05.
Things were coming together. Though I still wasn’t sure what the final volume was. This was a kitchen brew, on regular pots and, and I was using an unfamiliar fermenter. A quick calibration on the side of the fermenter with litre marks gave me a way to measure. Now I just had to wait for everything to cool.
Once the wort had cooled, a final hydrometer reading showed around 1.052. I put the wort into the fermentation vessel (a measly 3 litres after all this work… but it’s an experiment), pitched the yeast and put this baby to bed at 20 degrees.
Update 22 July 2018 Fermentation began within 12 hours, and was going steady for several days. A week later, there’s still a bubble of CO2 coming off every few minutes. But I’ve swapped off the airlock for some sanitised foil (space constraints in the fermentation chamber necessitated it). Will give this another week to mature.
Update 28 July 2018 Primed with dextrose and bottled at 1.016 for an ABV of around 4.7%. Naturally, I couldn’t resist a taste, pre-carbonation - and (somewhat surprisingly) found it to be good enough chilled to enjoy a full bottle. Taste was slighly sour and fruity, with some body, not unlike a medium-dry scrumpy cider. Definitely shows promise beyond expectation.
Update 16 September 2018 Posted some pictures at the two month tasting. It has come along nicely.