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…