Brewing a Cypress beer

In Norway there is a tradition in a lot of farmhouse brewing to use a juniper infusion for your strike and sparge water. Basically, strike and sparge water are heated in the kettle with juniper boughs. Additionally, juniper boughs are used in the mash vessel as a filter bed/false bottom to aid in lautering.

I don’t have access to much juniper where I live, but I have a bunch of Leyland Cypress trees on my property and the boughs of this tree make a really nice tea. So I thought it would be an interesting experiment to try making beer using cypress infusion in the spirit of traditional Norwegian brewing. It didn’t hurt that I am of Norwegian ancestry either.

So I trimmed a few branches off of a tree and set up my HLT and mash vessel with a bunch of cypress boughs for the brew.

I also took this opportunity to attempt a 15 gallon batch of beer. I have a 19 gallon boil kettle so I can’t quite do a full boil without making a huge mess via boiling over but I can get pretty close. I figured I’d just top up at the end of the boil before chilling, which is what I did.

The strike water had a nice piney aroma to it, I hopped with all glacier hops, which, if you’re not familiar with them, they are described as ‘hoppy’ which seems unhelpful, but it actually fits quite well. I really like these hops and I’d like to get some rhizomes to grow them next spring.

For the 15 gallon recipe I used the following ingredients:

  • Loads of spruce boughs (I didn’t weigh them) for the strike and sparge water, and also in the mashtun.
  • 18lbs Pilsner Malt
  • 2lbs Aromatic Malt
  • 2lbs Cara-pils Malt
  • 2oz Glacier Hops (first wort) @90 Minutes
  • 1oz Glacier Hops @10 Minutes
  • Mute Dog Abbey Yeast
  • Mute Dog Palatki Yeast
  • Brewery Ommegang House Yeast

Each of the three yeasts fermented a separate 5 gallon batch of the beer. I ended up unintentionally mashing a lot lower than I had planned. I think my problem is inaccurate volume measurements when I pour the strike water into the mash vessel. Anyway I mashed at about 148F for an hour and did a 90 minute boil. At flame out I topped my wort up to 15 gallons and chilled it down to 75-80F and drained into 3 separate carboys for fermenting with the three different yeasts. The OG was 1.039, one point higher that BeerSmith calculated.

After 2-3 weeks of fermentation I took some gravity readings and the gravity for each batch was crazy low ~1.001. I sampled all three batches and they were good, very dry somewhat saisony tasting. I kegged the batch that fermented with my Abbey yeast and left the other two batches alone.

After drinking off the keg for a bit, I felt like you couldn’t really taste much in the way of cypress in the beer. There was just a hint of something slightly different about the flavor of the bitterness that maybe might possibly be cypress, but it if you didn’t know about the cypress, you probably would even notice, let alone identify it as cypress.

I decided to try dry cypressing one of the other two batches. The beers had been in primary for about two months by this time. The batch with the palatki yeast looked to be forming some sort of brett pellicle so I figured I’d leave that one alone to get funky and dry cypress the batch with the ommegang yeast. I took another gravity reading and it had gone down to 0.997!

I collected 12oz of additional cypress boughs and added them to a brew bucket, then I racked the beer onto them, sealed up the bucket and put an airlock on. I let them steep for about a week before racking the beer into a keg. The beer has been in the keg for almost a week now and it is just beginning to get fully carbonated. It tastes incredible. I may have overdone the dry cypressing, it is intense in the aroma and flavor of the beer. An earthy, woody, aroma, followed by a fruity, almost christmas tree but not quite, citrusy/ascorbic acid flavor, with some malt and hop bitterness in the background.

I really like it a lot.

I’m not sure what fate lies in store for the last 5 gallon batch, I figure I’ll let it hang out for a few more months and see if the brett does anything interesting to it. I do know that I definitely like this beer and it will likely need to become part of some sort of seasonal rotation or something. I do want to see how the flavor might be different from boughs harvested in the spring vs late summer as my wife tells me she can definitely taste a difference in the tea she’s made recently vs the stuff made in the spring.

View all the photos from the creation of this beer on imgur.

Turmeric Bug

Ginger bug is the term for the wild yeast and (generally lacto) bacteria found on ginger. To get some you grate up some (non-irradiated) ginger root, combine it with some sugar and water in a jar and wait. I was reading in Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation that the same thing could be done with Turmeric and Galangal root. I’d never seen turmeric in root form for sale anywhere, but I happened to notice some the other day at my local highfalutin grocery store. It was pretty expensive so I just bought a tiny piece. I brought it home, grated it up, added a few tablespoons of sugar, a bit of yeast nutrient and some warmish water. A day or so later it was bubbling away rather vigorously!

I’m assuming I have some combination of yeast and lacto bacteria here. It smells like intense turmeric so it’s hard to tell if it is getting sour at all. I’m going to let it go for a week or so while I try to decide what I should do with it. I was thinking I’d like to make a turmeric ‘beer’ like a ginger beer, but the root is pretty expensive. Maybe I’ll just try a gallon batch for starters and see how it is.

More wild yeast

so what else is new? When I made cider last fall from my apples it began fermenting on its own, and in a panic I shoved a bunch of the Hefe strain in on top of whatever was already fermenting in there. So now I have a bunch of flocculated yeast from that batch and I was thinking I should try fermenting something with it and see what it does. Maybe I should try the cider first?

What I should probably do as a responsible yeast owner is to plate all of these cultures up and separate them from their friends. Well until I bother to get the equipment for that I remain in the realm of primitive yeast wrangler, I guess.

Harvesting yeast from honey

This has got to be one of the easiest ways of harvesting wild yeast, at least of the methods I’ve tried it worked on the first try and I’ll be brewing a beer to ferment with this yeast this coming weekend.

As you may know honey is naturally preservative, ie it won’t ever spoil on its own. Honey has some natural anti-bacterial properties in it, bees are pretty awesome that way. Of course one of the main reasons that honey won’t go bad is because sugar is a preservative. Yes, sugar. Ever noticed how the bag of sugar in your pantry also never goes bad? Sugar at very high concentrations is a preservative. Think of the fruit preserves your grandma used to make perhaps.

Anyway just because honey is a preservative doesn’t mean there’s not some of our friendly yeasty pals sleeping dormant in the honey just waiting for it to become diluted enough to get to work on all that glorious sugar. The key to harvesting yeast from honey is to get raw or unpasteurized honey. I was lucky enough to buy a whole bunch from a neighbor of mine that keeps hives in their back yard. So the yeast is a uber-local, yay!

Anyway, what you do is get a sanitized container, like an ehrlenmeyer flask or heck use a clear beer bottle. Add some of the unpasteurized honey, add about 4-5 times as much water as honey, plus a bit of yeast nutrient or energizer. Swirl it all up to dissolve the honey and nutrient in the water and then stick a bung and airlock on and wait. Don’t become discouraged it may take a few days, my concoction sat around doing what looked like nothing for a couple of days before I noticed the beginnings of fermentation.

I’ve only done this once and it worked, and was not contaminated so I’m not sure if that’s typical with harvesting yeast from raw honey or if I’m just lucky. However you will likely be able to tell by sight and smell if you have an infection. if it looks like you’ve just got yeast let it ferment completely and let the yeast settle. Then draw off some of the fermented liquid (which is technically mead) with a thief or baster and give it a taste. Mine had some fruity notes which I’m not sure if they were from the honey or the yeast (the local honey had a really fruity flavor to it) and no off tastes like bandaid or solvents.

If the yeast seems good then on to the next step: ferment a beer with it! which I’ll be doing hopefully this weekend. I put together a simple recipe for a sort of belgian pale ale and I’ll be adding my small starter of wild yeast to it and see what I get.

Is this beer infected? Yes it is.

A lot of threads over on the Homebrewing Subreddit ask if their beer is infected, and 99% of the time it’s not. Well this beer is infected! I infected it myself. Here’s the story:

A while back I harvested two different wild yeasts, one from some juniper berries I picked at the Palatki indian ruins in Sedona, AZ and the other from a date purchased at the local super market, though the date originated in Mexico. Both of these sources provided me with yeast and bacteria when I initially added them to starters. I washed these starters using chlorine dioxide (which I should really write a post about). I’d never washed yeast before and I wasn’t entirely confident that I wouldn’t kill the yeast along with the bacteria, so I saved a bit of each starter aside before I washed. The washing process did work however and I got my yeast sans-bacteria, these two strains became my Palatki Strain and my Fruity Strain respectively.

Since I am lazy I just kinda left the two vials I saved some of each initial strain out (covered of course) in my office for a few months, one of them grew a strange goopy yeast colored sort of pellicle, they both got rather sour (yes I did taste them). I have been wanting to brew up some sort of lambic-like beer and I thought to myself, I will just blend these two infected starter batches together and step that up and put it into a beer. So that is what I did. I won’t know how the beer turns out for a long while yet, but I pulled the beer out of my fermenting fridge today after being in there for 3-4 weeks in preparation to rack it into a new carboy for an extended secondary. and it had the funky pellicle on top. It is definitely infected:

So there you go, if you were wondering what an infected beer looks like. This one is infected and that’s what it looks like. Other infections can look different, but this is how mine looks.

I gave it a whiff after moving it and it has a sour but very fruity aroma, I’m looking forward to this beer, I think it’ll be excellent and I’ll have my very own bug farm for future sours.

Rhubarb Menace

There is a concotion that has been growing in popularity in some homebrew circles, and I’ve even seen something like it being produced by some commercial breweries. It’s called Graff, and it’s a hybrid of beer and cider, though arguably more cider than beer, though I suppose that depends on how you decided to build a recipe. I don’t have access to a lot of apples, however I do have access to a lot of rhubarb. now rhubarb and apples aren’t particularly similar, except they both have malic acid as their predominant acid. I figured this was good enough reason to try making a graff with rhubarb instead of apples.

Thus was born Rhubarb Menace.

Some of the other differences in rhubarb and apples is the amount of sugar. Apple juice will have around 5% sugar, rhubarb has pretty much no sugar to speak of. Rhubarb also has a much stronger concentration of acid compared to apples so I don’t need as much rhubarb to achieve a similar amount of acid/flavor compared to apples. To make up for these differences I added table sugar (sucrose) and water to my recipe to sort of simulate apple juice but made from rhubarb.

As for the grain bill, ‘traditional’ graff has got some wheat to aid in head retention, a bit of crystal malt, and a bunch of light dry malt extract or just pale malt. I kind of wanted to have a red color in my graff so I decided to go with some Carared crystal malt, I also wanted some caramelly flavors so I added a crystal 120, and also a pound of two-row and a pound of wheat.

My recipe ended up as the following:

* 10 Lbs Rhubarb * 3 Lbs Carared * 2 Lbs table sugar * 1 Lb Crystal 120 * 1 Lb malted two-row barley * 1 Lb malted wheat * 8 oz Ginger Syrup (@10 minutes) * 1 oz Cascade Hops (@15 minutes) * 1 Tbsp Calcium Carbonate * 1 Tbsp Pectic Enzyme * 1 tsp Yeast Nutrient * Wyeast Belgian Ardennes yeast

I put the rhubarb in the fermentor with the sugar, calcium carbonate, and pectinase to thaw in the morning.

In the evening I did a fairly large minimash with all the grain in ~2 gallons of water. That went pretty well but it was a bit large for the small pot I was using. Regardless I seemed to get pretty good efficiency.

After the boil I strained out the hops and poured the hot wort over the top of the still partially frozen rhubarb, this worked pretty well to cool the wort down. Then I filled the fermentor with additional water to about the 5.25 gallon line. The temperature was around 72F so I pitched the yeast and sealed the fermentor. OG 1.048

Fermentation took off and it went pretty well. I pressed the rhubarb after a week and left the beer in the primary, it had fermented fairly quickly and a lot further down than I (or hopville) had anticipated; it was at around 1.008 at pressing. It looks like the Ardennes yeast ate pretty much all of the sugar except for the stuff from the Crystal 120. I’d adjust the recipe for future batches to include additional crystal malt (I know carared is crystal but apparently it’s not crystal enough).

Tasting it at pressing I was unimpressed, it didn’t taste bad or anything but it also didn’t taste good, it was a really sort of meh. I knew from some of the talk about graff that age is very important to the beer’s flavor so I held out some small hope.

I left it in primary for another week, then I transferred it to a keg. FG was 1.006 for an ABV of 5.6% it was tasting slightly better after the week but I was still unimpressed.

After 2 weeks in the keg the flavor had improved drastically, the flavors really came out and can be picked out when you taste it as opposed to before when it was just a muddy mess. It is a sour beer (how could it not be?) with a slight fruitiness and some malt in the background, it tastes a lot like a sour red ale, if you like sour beers you will probably like this. I’m quite pleased with how this has come out especially after being fairly concerned with the initial tastes at pressing/transfer.

As I mentioned above, I would adjust the recipe to include a bit more dark crystal malt to leave some additional residual sweetness and boost the malt flavor a bit more, and maybe use a munich malt instead of two-row. I can’t taste the ginger at all so I’d just leave that out and probably increase the hops. Obviously this could use a bit of refining but I’d call this first try a success.

Ahab’s Ruin

With the success of my Dark Cherry Whatever I decided I would brew another beer and ferment it using the leftover pressed fruit from a wine. This time I used the crushed and dessicated grapes from my small grape harvest this year. I had enough grapes this year to make about a gallon of wine, I pressed the grapes and then added the pomace into a batch of Merlot that I made from canned concentrate, then I pressed them again and put them in the freezer until I was ready to make this beer.

After doing some research I found out that Dogfish Head had made a wine-beer hybrid call Red-White which was a Wit style ale with Zinfandel grape juice added. Since I like Wit beers and my grapes were red (they’re Marquette). The name for this beer came from a friend of mine suggesting I call these wine-ale hybrid beers ‘Wale’ so Wit Wale became Ahab’s Ruin which is probably a bit dramatic.

Here you can see the pot starting to heat up and some of my ingredients, including the grape skins and slurry in the plastic bag on the right.

I put together a fairly simple recipe for the beer, basically half wheat extract and half table sugar (to simulate the grape sugar if unfermented grapes had been added) a bit of Crystal 40 for some color and more complex sugars. Instead of the traditional hops, because let’s face it, this beer is already off the map in terms of tradition, I used Cascade hops from my yard (they’re free and I have loads of them) and, of course, coriander and orange peel. Half of the coriander came from my garden, but apparently an ounce of coriander is a lot of coriander seeds and I had to supplement with some store bought seeds.

Once the beer had been brewed and cooled I put in in the fermentor and added in the grape skins, seeds, yeast slurry and whatever other residue was left over from the wine fermentation that I had saved. I poured it into a mesh bag in the fermentor, which I highly recommend doing if you’re going to be doing this sort of thing. The beer/wale fermented fairly well though it took the yeast a little while to get started, I think this is probably because the yeast had been frozen, and maybe because the montrachet yeasts were like, “Hops? What the heck is hops?” But they got the job done in the end, fermenting down to 1.005, I was worried that it might end up being too dry.

Once the beer was done fermenting I kegged it since I recently got some a kegging system set up (which I can’t reccommend enough over bottling). It did not turn out too dry, there’s just enough malt sweetness to balance the spice of the coriander and the fruity sourness from the orange peel and grapes. I’m pretty pleased with how this came out and I’ll be making this again with next year’s grapes.

Dark Cherry Whatever

I dubbed this beer a “whatever” since It’s not really any particular style, maybe Belgian Dark would be the closest, but it doesn’t use a Belgian yeast. I’m not even sure it’s an ale since it fermented with wine yeast (though it did ferment at ale temperatures).

Here’s the story of this beer: There are a couple of cherry trees in the St. Francis Seminary and last summer (summer of 2010) the trees had a bumper crop of cherries on them. This doesn’t happen every year since they don’t prune the trees; this summer there were barely any. But last summer we filled 4-5 gallon ziplock bags with cherries and took them home and put them in the freezer. I’m not totally certain of the variety of cherry but they are bright red, about the size of a nickel and sour.

This spring I thawed the cherries out and made a cherry wine from them. When the wine had just about fermented out I pressed the cherries and saved them. I then mixed up a mead and added the pressed cherries to the mead. The yeast that was still hanging out on the cherries quite happily fermented the mead and then I pressed the cherries once again. And once again I saved the pressed cherries. Then I made some wort.

I used dark malt extract and some left over specialty grains from my Backyard Anarchy experiment. I used 4 ounces of hops, which makes this beer the hoppiest I’ve ever brewed (~41 IBU). The hops came from my friend Steve’s Cascade plant, which my own cascade plant is a child/clone of. I used a hop schedule of 2oz at 50 minutes, 1oz at 5 minutes and 1oz dry hopped. When the wort had been brewed and cooled I added the 1oz of dry hops to a muslin bag and then also added the pressed cherries to the bag and added it to the fermentor. I wasn’t sure how much cherry flavor would be left in the twice (soon to be thrice) fermented cherries but I figured it was worth a shot, even if no cherry flavor came through it’d still be a decent dark beer. After two weeks in the fermentor I took the cherries (and hops) out and pressed the bag (because why not?) in my fruit press, but I was a lot more gentle this time than I was with my other pressings of the cherries. Then I added priming sugar and bottled the beer.

I’m really pleased with how this beer turned out. It is dark, malty, hoppy, and cherry all at the same time. It is surprisingly well balanced considering I was working with some unknowns (how much cherry flavor would be imparted by the cherries, what sorts of flavors would the Montrachet yeast contribute especially after the ‘third’ generation, etc). I’m going to be very sad when this beer is gone because I doubt I will be able to replicate it.

Backyard Anarchy

So after my somewhat successful attempt at a gruit I decided to make a real recipe using grains of my own choosing and quantities of herbs from the yard. I decided I wanted to use the Sweet Cicely and Monarda (Bee Balm) that are growing in the yard. We had also been harvesting a lot of Rasberries at the time so I decided to use some raspberry leaves in the brew as well.

I used the green seeds of the sweet cicely plant, well muddled and added them at the beginning of the boil. I added a handful of raspberry leaves and a lot of monarda (both leaves and flowers) at 30 minutes and then some more monarda leaves and flowers at 5 minutes.

The grain bill consisted mostly of Belgian Pils with a little cara-pils for body (which is stupid when you’re using a wild yeast that most likely contains brett) and some Belgian Special B for color and flavor. Here’s the full recipe on Brewtoad.

The brewing went well enough, the herbs smelled pretty good, obviously the Monarda dominated everything. Once the wort was cooled I pitched my wild yeast that had previously fermented the Backyard Suburban Nightmare and set it aside to ferment.

Then it got hot. I’m pretty sure the beer fermented at over 80F the entire time. I believe it was the hot temp combined with the lack of hops that led to the emergence of the lactobacillus. At least I’m pretty confident it was lacto, though it could simply have been the brett yeast, but it added a lot of lactic acid. It also formed this fun pellicle.

I bottled it anyway, it wasn’t terrible, just fairly sour and tasting/smelling of Monarda.

The beer pours a beautiful reddish hue with little head that dissipates quickly. The aroma is very distinct, smelling of Monarda, and some of the sourness is also detectable here. The taste is very sour and herbal with a slight malt background. I don’t think I’ll brew this again, but I’m glad I tried it. I’m not terribly displeased with the results and I’m sure I will slowly be drinking these beers until they’re gone. The lacto wasn’t intended but I really can’t be upset about it especially when the beer is called Anarchy.

Backyard Suburban Nightmare

I mentioned before that I’m going to label beers fermented with my wild yeast under the name Feral. Well as a sort of sub-Feral line I’m going to label beers hopped/spiced/flavored with items from my yard under the name Backyard. These are currently all very experimental beers (obviously).

The first in the series is called Backyard Suburban Nightmare. I decided I’d make a beer using edible weeds, particularly clover and dandelions. This beer has no hops and it is spiced with Dandelion Root, Clover Blossoms, Ginger Root, and Cardamom.

I made this beer by straining hot water through my not quite spent grain from my Saison (remember I had crap efficiency). That gave me around a gallon and a half of not terribly sweet wort which I added a few cups of table sugar to and boiled with some muddled dandelion roots, a few dandelion leaves, a lot of clover blossoms, a tablespoon of ground ginger and a dash of ground cardamom (because it was there).

Cooled and pitched my Feral yeast onto it the next morning. It fermented like a normal beer and I bottled it. It turned out decent, mostly to me it tastes like an alcoholic ginger beer with a slight astringency. Looking back I wish I hadn’t added the ginger since it dominates the flavor and I can’t really taste the other herbs. There’s a slight lemonyish flavor hiding in the background which may be from the clover and/or possibly the lacto bactria hiding among the yeast in my feral blend.