Currently Browsing: Brewing

Brewing in the Mid 19th Century

Gun news is pretty slow this week, and what news there is I’ll do in the weekly gun news later today. So today I will talk about my other hobby, namely home brewing. I make a batch of beer about every month, and always try to keep something on both of my taps. These days I rarely buy beer on the open market, and I’ve done enough brewing that some of my home brews can compare to some commercial offerings on the craft market (so I’m told). My next step is probably competition brewing, and seeing how my brews measure up. Not long ago I did a post about finding some mid-19th century squat bottles my 4x great-grandfather made. Since then, I’ve been doing research into 19th century brewing, to learn what ingredients might have gone into the “Brown Stout” that appeared on some of his bottles.

The best reference I found for 19th century brewing is in this book, written in the 1850s, “The Complete Practical Brewer.” The first thing that struck me is how much they actually knew about the science behind brewing, in the age before anyone fully understood the microorganisms at work in the process. Brewing in the 19th century is virtually no different than it is today, except for equipment. I found this passage on yeast from the book interesting, because it’s pretty clear they knew little about it:

Yeast is a frothy substance, of a brownish-gray colour and bitter taste, which is formed on the surface of ale or wine while fermenting. If it be put into sacks, the moisture gradually drops out, and the yeast remains be hind in a solid form. It has very much of the flavour and taste of cheese when in this state; but its colour is still darker. This dried yeast promotes or excites fermentation, but it does not answer quite so well as fresh yeast. From the resemblance which dried yeast has to cheese, we would be naturally inclined to infer that it is a species or variety of gluten. But if we attempt to induce fermentation in wort by adding the gluten of wheat, we will be unsuccessful.

After yeast is kept for some time in a cylindrical glass vessel, a white substance, not unlike curd, separates and swims on the surface. If this substance be removed, the yeast loses the property of exciting fermentation. This white substance possesses many of the properties of gluten, or vegetable fibrin, though it differs from it in others. Its colour is much whiter; it has not the same elasticity, and its particles do not adhere with the same force. In short, it agrees much more nearly, in its properties, with curd of milk, than with gluten of wheat.

Yeah, because when you skimmed the substance off the surface, you were actually skimming off the yeast colony. But they couldn’t have known that. Louis Pasteur wouldn’t publish “Physiological Theory of Fermentation” until 1879, nearly three decades after this book was written. But despite the lack of microbiology knowledge among brewers at the time, the book was a treasure trove, and helped me formulate a recipe. Brown Stouts were essentially strong porters (8-10% ABV), made with brown malt. During the French Revolution, supplies of brown malt were disrupted, so brewers switched to pale malts, and used adjuncts to try to reproduce that porter flavor. Various tricks were developed, including darkening sugar in an iron vessel, and then pounding it apart and throwing it in the boil. In the process of switching to pale malts, brewers of the time discovered pale malts were much more efficient than brown. After the introduction of “Black Patent” malt in 1817, brown malt was doomed, but it still was used through most of the 19th century. In the mid 1800s it was common to use one part brown malt to two parts pale malt, so that’s what I went with.

Licorice root was commonly used in the boil, so I used a little star anise. Instead of scorched sugar, I used Belgian dark Candi Sugar. I added some Carafoam to help with body. Brown Stouts were ridiculously hoppy. I was afraid to go quite as far as they would have. At the time, brewers were still using a lot of imported British hops, so I used 3oz of American Cluster hops as the bittering hops, 1oz Brewer’s Gold at 30 mins, and finished with 1oz British Kent Goldings.

If you were ever try to reproduce an ale like this, be warned that while I was prepared for Brown Malt to be less efficient than pale, it was really less efficient. I used 10lb. of Maris Otter and 5lb. of Thomas Fawcett Brown Malt, thinking that would be plenty to get me to my goal. If I had to do it over again, I would use 12lb. of Maris Otter and 6lb. of Thomas Fawcett. That is a “Yuge” ale, to channel The Donald. I had to make up the shortfall by using the whole pound of Candi Sugar, and throwing in 3/4lb. of dry malt extract (DME) into the boil.

From the book, it looks like mid-19th century brewers didn’t pitch very much yeast into their worts. This would affect the flavors the yeast will give off. Some of these would be considered off flavors today. I was reluctant to do this, so I did a full pitch of an American Ale yeast with a starter. I did allow the fermenter to rise to about 72 degrees to give it a bit more of the flavor it probably would have had at the time.

The end result is still fermenting, but I’m hoping it turns out.

Homebrew Chiller Update

Fermentation ChillerA few weeks ago I mentioned I was working on a home brew setup to act as a fermentation chamber, and a few people asked for updates, so here’s one. Typically a fermentation chamber is done with a deep freeze or dorm refrigerator using a separate thermostat for temperature control. The gold standard for dorm fridge setups was the Sayno 4912, which sadly has been discontinued, and are now difficult to come by. I’m lucky enough to have one, but it is currently set up as a kegerator. While the 4912 will take a full 6.5 gallon carboy, and works great as a fermentation chamber, as long as I’m using it for fermentation I’m not using it to keep beer on tap, and I consider that to be a big problem.


What’s With the Cheap, Expensive Whiskey Trend?

Sitting inside while watching the snow come down through the window I’m convinced is why man invented whiskey. Now that rye whiskey has made a resurgence, I can enjoy the weather the same way my Pennsylvania ancestors did, before that failed nanny state experiment known as Prohibition nearly killed this local style forever. But when it comes to rye, there’s some things appearing in the market place I don’t understand.

There’s currently several market attempts to essentially pass off as high-end product something that closely resembles moonshine. The first one I’ve tried recently is Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye. This is a new rye brand that’s made locally right next door in Bristol, and while I think this rye has great potential if aged more, my first reaction was that it was bottled before its time. Dad’s Hat also make a white, un-aged whiskey product. I noticed the other day Jack Daniels is making one as well that sells for close to 40 dollars (!!!!) a fifth at the local state store.

I have no issue with the idea un-aged, or little aged whiskey products, but white whiskey is usually referred to as white lightning, or white dog. It is what you end up with after multiple distillations of the mash, but before the whiskey goes into the charred, white oak barrels which is where, over time, it turns from white lightning into whiskey. Whiskeys that were un-aged, or aged too little, were previously relegated to either the bottom shelf, or bottles that said XXX that your Uncle kept hidden out behind the woodshed.

I get nostalgia for the good ol’ days when our alcoholic ancestors drank motor fuel, but I’m just not going to pay a premium for something that’s not far from what grandpa used to store in the bathtub in case the Treasury men came knocking. Old Overholt is a perfectly fine rye whiskey for the price. Bulleit is also making a decent rye for less money. I currently have in the cabinet a Knob Creek rye that I like a lot. There’s a lot of companies starting to manufacture decent rye whiskey. But I don’t get the idea of selling un-aged or poorly aged products and charging top shelf prices for it. Surely this is a fad?

UPDATE: Uncle explains the origins.

UPDATE: The more things change, the more they stay the same:

Besides, the Whiskey Rebellion didn’t really have as disastrous an effect on Monongahela as is often portrayed. It could be argued, in fact, that it was the best thing to happen to American whiskey since the Revolutionary War popularized the substitution of American products for such “loyalist” items as tea and rum. The imposition of the excise tax may have made distilling prohibitive to some individual farmers, but for the commercial distiller the result was the elimination of an entire class of competition, and at a cost that could be simply added as an expense to the final price.

A Short Change of Topic

I’ve been in the office all day, part in meetings, and part at our new warehouse double checking some floor plans I’ve come up with to make sure everything fits in real life like it does on the computer. So since I have no idea what’s going on in the gun world today, I’ll talk about another topic near and dear to my heart: beer.

I’ve been thinking about getting back into brewing beer. I’ve tried the wine thing a few times now, and the time between effort and reward is too long. On the bright side, if you don’t have time for the wine, the wine has time. Unlike beer, if you properly sulfite your wine, it’ll get nothing but better with age. Beer will get better too, but only to a point, and then you better do something with it (drinking it is usually my solution).

As I’m sitting here in the Wegman’s Cafe waiting for rush hour to die down, I’m drinking a Samuel Smith’s India Pale Ale. The IPA, as a style, is one of my favorite ales to brew, and also is one of my favorite ales to drink. While I like a good American IPA, I really like English IPAs, so every time I have an English IPA, like Sammy Smith’s, I get the itch to brew my own. Most of the IPAs you drink in the US are going to be in the American style. What’s the difference? American IPAs are usually run pretty heavy on Cascade hops. The total bouquet may contain a lot more than Cascade, but it’s usually the prominent hop in most American made IPAs. English IPAs are also more heavily hopped than other styles — that’s part of surviving the trip to India, after all — but they generally use more subdued hop varieties. As a result, English IPAs don’t tend to punch you in the face with hops quite as much, and still retain quite a lot of malty body. I like that.

My tap water is medium-hard, so it tends to make really good IPAs and other medium-to-high gravity ales. I’ve had a tougher time with mash efficiency trying to do light bodied pale ales. When I’ve made my IPAs, I’ve always tried to hop them the English way so the maltiness of the ale comes through for a better balance. What’s your favorite beer?


I consider the ability to make alcohol an important skill. Like guns, ammunition, and gold, you’ll probably always be able to trade it for something. Now it’s the time of year when you can get fresh grape juice and grapes out of California. I ordered what’s called “bucket juice,” because it comes in large buckets. You know, the kind that kill kids in drowning accidents more often than guns.

When the season arrives, the local home brew stores put out alerts that you can put in orders for juice or grapes. After the orders are all taken, the stores put in orders to have the juice shipped from Golden State vintners to the store. Obviously this takes a few days from order to delivery, and who knows how long the stuff has been sitting in refrigeration out West. As soon as I got mine in the car, I heard hissing.

“What’s that hissing? I think that juice is already fermenting,” I told Bitter.

So I get the juice back home, and sure enough, it’s fizzing away. Apparently it’s not unusual for bucket juice to arrive fermenting. I’ve even read of cases where people have gotten bucket juice where fermentation has completely finished. We thieved a sample of the juice, and both agreed it tasted excellent. I added a bit of extra sugar, since the specific gravity wasn’t all that high. I could taste no alcohol on the juice, so I’m not sure fermentation had gone that far, but sugar also is very very effective at hiding alcohol. If I added too much, we’ll get a sweeter Burgundy. Wine yeast tends to commit environmental suicide at around 14% alcohol by volume, so if you add too much you will have some residual sweetness. I much prefer dry wines, so hopefully I did not overdo it.

I’ve generally not gotten burned in home brewing or winemaking just going with whatever happens. I’ve never had to toss a batch for being so foul it couldn’t be drunk. The juice tasted good, so even if wild yeast are going at the juice, they seem to be working well so far. I pitched my starter in, so hopefully that will be the dominant strain in a few days. We’ll see how this goes.

The one thing about winemaking vs. home brewing is you put a lot more time into a wine than you do a beer. An all-grain batch of beer might take a whole day to produce, but one racking a week later, then two weeks in secondary, and you’e ready for kegging and drinking. Winemaking never will take a whole day of your time at once, but over time it will take more of your time. It takes more care and you have more invested emotionally in its outcome. On the upside, if you screw up beer, you’re generally screwed, and it’s time to make like Elliot Ness and just dump it in the storm drain. Wine is easier to fix and doctor if you make mistakes. If you’re goal is adult beverage goodness, I can’t really say one path is superior to the other.

A Toast to Dr. Welch

With my first red wine now bottled, I can turn my attention to my next wine making endeavor. I made a few mistakes with my red which I will do my best not to repeat. My main complaint about the first red is that it was lifeless and watery. I racked into my brewing carboy for secondary, and topped off with water to fill the remaining headspace. Then I recalled that the standard winemaking carboy is six gallons, where as my brewing carboy is six and a half. I watered the wine down too much. That also affects how well the wine clarifies. It’s not that the wine is bad, it’s just that it’s not good. Hopefully with a little bottle conditioning, it’ll improve a bit.

What I’m going to try next is a white wine, made from reconstituted Welch’s 100% Niagara Grape Frozen Concentrate. After reading the history of Thomas Bramwell Welch, I decided I had to try this. Welch was the first person to get the idea of applying Dr. Pasteur’s microbe killing process to grape juice. There were many things to admire about Dr. Welch, being an abolitionist and active on the Underground Railroad. But he was also a world class busybody prohibitionist, and it is that particular history that has made me decide to turn some of Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine into a real McCoy. It would probably kill the old man to know the company that he founded, and bears his name, seems to be on relatively friendly terms with the home winemaking community, and willing to answer questions from home winemakers using the Welch’s product to make wine. But I suppose this day in age shouting, “Be gone sinner, and drinker of the demon spirits!” into the phone of people wanting to know the acid additions to their grape juice, or sulfite concentrations, wouldn’t go over too well among the juice buying public, never mind hobby winemakers.

What the body politic did to prohibitionists is a wonderful lesson for our cause. To the extent there even are prohibitionists these days, they are viewed as out of the mainstream and quacky. We almost have the opponents of gun rights there, provided we keep pushing. I’ll drink a toast to Dr. Welch, and his company, and hope in our current struggle, our opponents suffer the same political fate.

Mystery I Didn’t Even Know Was a Mystery Solved

Apparently there’s a strain of yeast in lager yeast that no one has ever been able to identify. Turns out it’s a strain of a wild Patagonian yeast that somehow made its way to Bavaria. The important takeaway from this is that this discovery is “paving the way for new types of designer beers.” Give the strain to the folks at Dogfish Head Brewing in Delaware. If there’s anything good that be made from it, they’ll figure it out.


Tax Cutting I Heartily Approve Of

Congressman Jim Gerlach (R-PA-06) has proposed cutting the federal beer tax. His district has a number of microbreweries. If you haven’t tried any of the breweries mentioned in the article, I would recommend it. Victory and Sly Fox are particularly stellar breweries.

National Coffee Day

According to my favorite state government reporter, it’s National Coffee Day today. Normally, I could care less. The only coffee we ever drink is the stuff from Starbucks that probably has some coffee in it, but you wouldn’t know with all of the other crap they put in it. At least until recently.

When we announced we were headed to the Big Island, a friend from NRA mentioned that her father owned a coffee farm where he grows, processes, and sells his own coffee. We made it out there on our last full day on the island, and indulged in a couple of bags. We bought one to try out ourselves, assuming that we’d use it for things like ice cream or other decidedly non-coffee culinary adventures. Instead, this coffee has turned us into weekend coffee drinkers. We went out and bought a french press since we didn’t have a coffee maker (but we did own a coffee grinder!). Every weekend morning now has a new tradition – getting up and having a cup and a half of delicious Kona coffee.

Something Has Gone Horribly Wrong

PETA and HSUS are gonna love this. For that reason, I should probably approve, but really, it just freaks me out.

« Previous Entries