Monthly Archives: November 2012

You win some, you lose some

We’re continuing to gain both experience and enthusiasm with our Slow Happy Brewing project! After the positive comments from our homebrew peers, we opened our next batch with high hopes and we were not disappointed. Dare I say it, Grand Festivus XII is an awesome winter beer — perfect for sipping in front of the fire if I only had a working fireplace (a chimney sweep is on my to-call list).

For our next batch, we thought we’d dip our toes into the wild and wooly world of IPAs (India Pale Ales). Neither one of us is a hophead, but it’s such a hugely popular style that we have to give it a go.

I fiddled with recipes, tweaked a few ingredients, and came up with something that I thought would nicely fit the style guidelines. We bought the ingredients and scheduled a brew day for last Saturday.

Everything went perfectly. We brewed outdoors on a propane burner for the first time. This allowed us better temperature control and we were confident that we’d gotten all the potential fermentables out of our grains and into the wort. We got the wort cooled relatively quickly. We were all ready to pitch the yeast (put it into the carboy with the cooled wort) and let it do its magic.

CFL decided to dip the thermometer in the carboy one more time to double-check that it was exactly 68 degrees.

He dropped the thermometer into the carboy.

It broke. The tip broke right off.

We looked at each other and immediately agreed that this beer was history.

We dumped the carboy and went out for pizza! No worries, no finger pointing. Good pizza.

So yesterday we went out and bought the same ingredients again. Today we brewed again, using an expensive new digital thermometer with a metal probe. It registers quickly and precisely. With its help, we successfully steeped our grains at a more or less exact 150 degrees for 30 minutes. Then, after an hour of boiling, we cooled our wort to 68 degrees in a record (and just about ideal) 20 minutes.

You win some, you lose some, and sometimes you even learn from your mistakes!

The next batch on our schedule to be opened is another porter, which we weren’t impressed with on brew day two weeks ago — it seemed a bit watery. But we have big hopes for today’s IPA take 2. We’ll see how we did, about a month from now.

Meanwhile I’m going to relax and have a homebrew.

The tasting of the beers!

Filled with hope, a dash or two of quiet pride, and a good bit of trepidation, CFL and I took two of our homebrews — the Angeles Porter and our just-debuted Up the Elwha ESB — to yesterday’s monthly meeting of our local homebrew club.

We were feeling semi-confident of our porter, as several of our friends have tasted it and pronounced it good, yet we were nervous about what our fellow brewers might have to say about it. We were on shakier ground with the ESB. When we opened the first bottles Saturday evening, I was pleased but CFL was unsure and a tad uneasy. I have many fond memories of drinking “bitter” during my year as a university student in Scotland, but it’s not a style that CFL knows well and I didn’t have a bottle of Bass Ale handy for an easy comparison tasting.

We’ve been to enough brewclub meetings now to know how these things work. Most everyone brings a couple of bottles of at least one homebrew to share with the group. Everyone gets a few ounces of beer in a plastic cup. For the first couple of rounds, each beer gets presented in an orderly fashion, we’re all attentive, and we try to provide some feedback to the brewer. After the third or fourth round everything descends into chaos with multiple bottles on the counter and everyone talking at once.

CFL and I were bringing a relatively “light” beer as homebrews go. An ESB (Extra Special Bitter) is supposed to be golden to copper with low to medium bitterness/hoppiness and a moderate level of alcohol — ours is 5.5%. Here in the Pacific Northwest, which is one of the great hop-growing regions of the world, everyone wants to brew an IPA (India Pale Ale). An IPA is basically a higher-alcohol ESB with as many hops as the brewer can force into the brew kettle — it’s a “bitter” ale on steroids. A more traditional English-style ale like our ESB can seem mild and bland by comparison. Knowing that, we hoped to be early in line so that people could actually TASTE our beer instead of losing it in the aftermath of something with a more robust flavor.

Well, that didn’t happen.

The meeting began with a mini-lecture on porters, complete with several demonstration rounds. We looked at each other, shrugged, and added our porter to the line-up on the counter.

Many porters (including those in the demonstration rounds) have heavy roasted or smoky flavors; ours is a bit on the sweeter side but still within the style guidelines. So we weren’t surprised when several people told us ours was a bit too sweet… but then we began to get some very positive comments, along with constructive suggestions for making it “even better,” from some of the more experienced brewers. A few people even asked for a second pour — a good sign that we’re on the right track!

With our confidence bolstered just a bit, we cautiously brought out the ESB. We initially offered it only to those few who’d been so helpful with their feedback on the porter. We were immediately rewarded with our highest praise yet: “This is a good example of the style, and there are no off flavors at all. You did a good job!” That gave us the courage to pass the bottle on to others. Given everything else that was being tasted at that moment, we weren’t surprised when we got a few raised eyebrows. By then we knew that we’d achieved what we’d set out to do with this beer.

As a further quality control check, we picked up a couple bottles of Bass Ale after the meeting and treated each other to a blind, eyes-closed tasting yesterday evening. I correctly distinguished our ESB from the archetype of the style, but CFL got it wrong. The two beers are that close in aroma, taste, and mouthfeel. With eyes opened, ours is cloudier visually because it is bottle-conditioned with residual yeast still in the bottle, but the color is almost identical.

We did well, and we’re pleased.

It’s a good thing we’re pleased with this batch (#3) because brew day for batch 6 did not go as planned on Saturday. We were making another porter… I had researched and tweaked ingredients to create a recipe that I thought would be an improvement on our first porter. But something happened, and the wort that went into the fermenter was a medium brown, several shades too light to be a porter. The worst part is I have no idea what went wrong. We figure we’ll ferment it, bottle it, and age it as planned — and then figure out what to call it… assuming it’s drinkable at all. I guess we are all allowed a bad batch now and then.

It’s bubbling away happily in the carboy right now, so I guess the yeast don’t care what color it is! And as long as they’re busily and contentedly creating alcohol, who am I to complain about the details?

Slow happy dining extravaganza

Tonight I sat down to a simple but very meaningful meal: homemade sauerkraut (six weeks in the making after months of growing the cabbage), homemade 100% rye sourdough bread (a week and a half from beginning the sourdough starter to baking the bread), and a couple of nice cheeses (not local but excellent), all topped off with an Angeles Porter from Slow Happy Brewing (now about a seven weeks since brew date).

Is this slow happy dining or what?

While CFL and I do carefully control the ingredients and environmental conditions for our beer, the sauerkraut and bread are wild and crazy!

The cabbage fermented on its own in a crock, happily doing its thing on whatever wild yeasts had chosen to inhabit our cabbage. When we finally tasted it, we were amazed at how crisp and crunchy it is! Really flavorful too — it’s not like the limp store-bought stuff at all.

I kicked off the sourdough starter with whatever wild yeasts happened to be hanging out on an apple from a tree in my front yard. My first attempt a month ago failed because I got lax about feeding the starter more flour after it began to bubble. I kept a close eye on my second attempt at a starter and caught it at its prime, just in time to start my first loaf of bread. It then took me about two days to get a lively bread dough going in my cool kitchen. When baking day finally came, I used a brand new cast iron loaf pan and held my breath.

The bread came out perfect! CFL and I consumed almost half of it in the first half hour, and then we had another large chunk of it at dinner.

The bread, sauerkraut, and beer complemented one another perfectly, with the cheese adding a few nice notes as well. CFL tells me his pastrami completed the ensemble nicely; I’ll take his word for that.

I forgot to photograph my plate, but here is a photo of our Angeles Porter. In contrast to our first batch, this beer has an impressive head! This particular bottle was actually a tad more exuberant than most — which is why I’d grabbed my phone to capture that moment.

There is something immensely satisfying about eating a meal that you not only prepared yourself, but waited a loooooonnnng time for! As I write this, the second batch of cabbage is aging in my pantry, to be enjoyed beginning about two weeks from now. It will be a lovely shade of pink, as it’s two-thirds red cabbage.

Two batches of beer are aging in my upstairs loft, to be debuted this weekend (Up the Elwha ESB) and next weekend (Grand Festivus XII). The still-unnamed strong Scotch ale is downstairs in a carboy, enjoying a long cozy relationship with a bunch of oak chips before it will be bottled (probably next week) and then aged another 45 days. Today we bought the ingredients for our second porter. It’s a recipe that I invented based on a lot of reading and my determination to create something as true to the “robust porter” style as possible. We’ll brew that one this weekend and plan to debut it just before New Years.

I think I’ll wake up the sourdough starter and begin another loaf of bread tomorrow morning… and maybe bake on Sunday.

Although CFL and I are committed to living one day at a time and enjoying each moment as much as we possibly can, I’m coming to love the long slow happy rhythm that fermenting requires. Especially this time of year, as the nights get longer and colder, it’s good to know that there is genuine, living, local, healthy food growing all around me. It’s good to mark the calendar and anticipate the first tastes. It’s good to plan a couple of batches out and realize that I’ll be eating or drinking them next year.

We’d both lost so much — we’d both lost the person whom we hoped and expected we’d spend the rest of our lives with. Somehow, when we create the slowest of slow foods together, it’s an affirmation that for us, life will indeed go on.

Slowly and happily.

Riding to the Elwha

I keep coming back to the Elwha River, it seems.

And why not? It’s a beautiful place in the midst of an astonishing transformation, as the two century-old dams are being taken down and removed.

I’ve written here several times about our hikes up the Elwha, upstream from the dams where the river has always run free. I’ve written elsewhere about the changes already taking place at the former Lake Aldwell after the lower dam was removed earlier this year. The removal of the upper dam has been slower and more painstaking due to the immense amount of silt that has accumulated behind the dam in Lake Mills. I have not been able to show you photos of the process of draining this lake because the construction company has kept the site well shielded from the public. I have managed to catch glimpses through trees and construction barriers, however, so I have had a general sense of the declining water level.

A week or so ago they announced that the river was finally falling free over the last few remaining feet of the dam, and that the silt would soon be flowing downstream and muddying the lower reaches of the Elwha.

This sounded like an interesting thing to go and see. Yesterday we decided to ride our bikes to the Elwha. We started a mile or so west of downtown, at an access point to a newly-paved section of the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT). We guessed it would be about five miles each way, but were surprised to see a sign indicating it was only 3.3 miles! Given that we had the afternoon free, we decided to ride at a leisurely pace and enjoy the sights.

This new section of the trail was absolutely beautiful, nearly flat and mostly straight through fields and groves of big leaf maples. Once I got over my initial caution, it was great fun to aim my bicycle wheel toward the biggest piles of leaves I could find!

This being the rainy, wet Pacific Northwest, we got to cross another stream on our way to the Elwha. I couldn’t get a decent shot of the oddly-named Dry Creek — it was running freely but was almost hidden by the thick trees. Maybe that’s the joke? In any case, the bridge was terrific! This style of bridge is typical of most of the small stream crossings on the ODT.

After Dry Creek the trail headed gently downhill toward the Elwha, but it never got steep because it follows an old railway grade and crosses the Elwha at the top of the ravine. I was able to relax and not worry about having to ride up steep hills on the way back!

The bridge is very impressive. It’s a new double-deck bridge with a road on top and the ODT below. CFL laments the loss of a beautiful old bridge that was taken out when this one was built. I remember that bridge — I even drove over it once or twice. It was a bit scary! I’m glad the new bridge is there and I appreciate its human-friendly design that encourages leisurely river watching. Doesn’t this beautiful bridge make you want to ride your bike across it — stopping along the way for a long slow look?

As for the Elwha, yes it is muddy!

Looking upstream straight into the sun the view was difficult to photograph, but the river looked like a roiling cauldron of mud. We spent a long time watching the patterns that emerged in and moved through the cross-currents. The flows, ebbs, and whirlpools are somehow easier to see than they would be in clear water.

In contrast, the view downstream seemed serene. Even here, however, the water was obviously thick and murky. I like the shadow of the bridge in this photo. If you look closely you can see us standing there!

The silt flow is expected to continue for weeks to months. The dam removals were planned as a slow and careful process to prevent too much silt rushing out all at once — but no matter how slowly you take down a 100-year-old dam, everything behind it does get up and move downstream eventually.

We plan to keep coming back to check on the river’s ongoing transformation. We’ve heard that the stark lakebed of the former Lake Aldwell, which we last visited in May, is now lush with new growth as the forest comes to reclaim it. It’s definitely time for a return visit!

Further upstream, perhaps once the leaves are fully off the trees, I hope to be able to sneak a peek-a-boo photo of the former Lake Mills.

You can expect to read more here about the Elwha River… It is a place/time event that does, indeed, keep me coming back.

The naming of the beers

Somewhere along the rambling way of my life, I (LKS) developed a penchant for naming things. I have given names to favorite places, childhood toys, items of furniture, cars, plants, and a large array of cats, dogs, finches, and koi. Naming is an act of respectful objectification — what was once undifferentiated is now called out from the whole, made distinct, unique, separated from other things and from nothing.

Sometimes I have to name things just to keep them all straight in my mind.

For me, one of the joys of creating is finding the perfect words to describe just what it is — whatever it is — that I have created. Therefore, a batch of homebrew isn’t really completed until it has been named.

Five batches into our adventures in home brewing, it is becoming necesssary to call a beer by its name. Yesterday we bottled Up the Elwha ESB, moved Grand Festivus XII from the primary fermenter to the secondary fermenter, and brewed our next batch. This still-nameless beer is a strong Scotch ale, so I’m mulling the possibilities of names with a connection that is both local and faraway. There is an area up in the mountains that I have not yet seen but CFL tells me I will love (it’s on the hiking list for next summer) called Heather Park. I’m liking that connection and it may be the name I’m looking for… but choosing the name is so final and it needs to be just right.

When we’d finished brewing yesterday, we both sat down with a homebrew. CFL enjoyed one of our last few Call 911 Amber Ales (batch 1) and I luxuriated with an Angeles Porter (batch 2).

After three straight brewing weekends in a row, I’m ready to go to an every-other-week schedule — or start recruiting a lot of friends to share our beer with! Next weekend we’re bottling Grand Festivus XII, and racking the Scotch ale to secondary. The week after next we’ll be ready to brew another batch… just as we’re settling down to enjoy our first bottles of Up the Elwha ESB.

Meanwhile, if you have any suggestions for what to name a strong Scotch ale, I’d love to hear them. Cheers!