Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fermentation Friday: Half-assing your way to innovation

Through the centuries, there have been some bizarre things people put in their home brew.  Sometimes to add flavor, sometimes to serve a functional purpose in the alcohol making process.  Some of these additives became part of the standard processes and recipes, and others, well...

I bet you didn't know that if you don't have a lid or bubbler for your primary fermentation vessel, you can float a layer of dried, crumbled horse turds on top.  It forms a layer that will allow gasses created by fermentation to escape, but not allow harmful infections from the air to get to your sweet, sweet horseshit brew.  But make sure the layer is even, you don't want all that nasty stuff in the air to get through your horseturds.

If your fermentation slows or stops before you have enough alcohol in your brew, it can be a bad day.  But there's no need to dump it down the drain and lose all that time and money you put into your batch; simply add something to your brew that will get your yeast going again.  Like a dead mouse.  A decomposing mouse carcass will add yummy yeast food to get things going again.

Or you could throw in... I mean carefully add old, weeping dynamite.  The waxy, crystalline stuff "weeping" out of the stick is pure, unstable, holy-fuck-nobody-move nitroglycerin.  The nitro will act as a chemical catalyst to wake your yeast up like a triple shot of espresso or... um... a stick of dynamite.

Paddy and I like to carry on this tradition of innovation and half-assery.  The weirdest thing I've ever put in a batch of home-brewed beer?  Grass.  Not marijuana, actual lawn clippings.  This was our very first batch of beer ever and we had been very careful to sterilize everything and prevent any and every possibility for infection.  Paddy was upstairs grabbing a bottle of vodka to fill the bubbler, and I was tidying up a bit.  I picked up a rag on the floor and shook it out for no reason I can really figure out.  The rag had grass clippings on it, and they flew into the beer and sank heartrendingly and irretrievably to the bottom.  It didn't seem to hurt the flavor, though; that's still one of the tastiest batches we've made.  But that was an accident, so I don't think that counts.

No, we're talking about things we put in beer on purpose, often with much less successful results.  And Paddy and I often stray quite a bit from the beaten path when making beer.  We like to do drastically different things, often things that a professional or even serious amateur brewer would never ever suggest trying.  When making wine, that usually takes the form of using just about everything but grapes.  But beer isn't as widely varied.  You make a beer out of kiwi fruit instead of grain and... well, it's not really beer anymore.  So what do we do to keep things different?

Rice Sugar
This is the most recent experiment on this list.  Paddy and I like Miller High Life.  No, seriously.  On a sunny, 98º Saturday afternoon in August, do you really want to be swilling down a Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (described as pouring like motor oil and being so sweet and chocolaty that “only the most decadent chocolate dessert can stand up to it”) or do you want an ice cold, thin beer with light taste and large sized bubbles?  If you said you would rather have the stout, you're wrong.  Or clinically insane.  Or maybe you lost your sense of taste in a horrible large-mouth bass fishing accident.

Anyway, we decided to try to make some High Life.  So we set off to the brew shop with a vague idea of what we needed to do.  We knew we needed the lightest grain we could possibly get, but we'd heard of another ingredient that gives High Life its thin body and light, crisp flavor: rice sugar.  Or rice solids.  Maybe it's the same thing, we're not sure.  Like I said, we only had a vague idea.  But they had a big thing labeled rice sugar, so we bought it.  Then we bought some light malt and a random beer yeast.

The result?  High Life.  The color, flavor, and mouth feel were perfect.  The only difference between what we made and real High Life is that our beer had absolutely no carbonation.  Something went wrong when we primed it, and the beer was flatter than something that's really flat.  Oh well.  We'll probably try again last next spring just before the fruit is ready for wine making, so it should be ready to drink on those hot summer days when lunatics and snobs reach for a warm bottle of chocolate syrup.

DME for priming
And speaking of thick beers, they're not all dark.  There are some very light colored beers out there that go down like a triple-thick milkshake.  The best (and only) one I've had that fits into that category?  Old Speckled Hen.  It used to be on (nitrogen) tap at our now defunct favorite bar.  I used to love going there and getting a shot of rye, a bacon-egg-and-cheeseburger, and a tall, cold glass of Old Speckled Hen.  We all loved this beer so much, Paddy and I decided to try to make some ourselves.  We found a clone recipe somewhere, but true to form we showed up to the brew shop without it.  So we winged it, and I thought I remembered reading that a way you could get that rich, foamy head was to prime the beer with DME instead of priming sugar.  Makes sense, in a way.  DME is sticky, so the bubbles should be small and foamy.  Or does that only make sense to me?

At any rate, we picked up an small bag of DME and used it to prime the beer.  And it kinda worked!  We pretty much made Old Speckled Hen, and couldn't resist putting a cock joke on the label.  Ok, a lot of cock jokes.  But that's just how we roll: foamy and cocky.

Cherries and Honey
Another clone of a favorite beer or ours was Mad Elf.  We've made it twice, once with amazing results, once with less than amazing results. To make Mad Elf you need really dark grains, cherries, and honey.  The second time, we forgot the honey, and the lack of honey turned up the suck quite a bit.  This clone recipe was not from some clone brew book; it was based on info from Tröeg's website, some clever thinking on our part, and some help from the guy at the brew shop getting the proportions right.  So it's a pretty original recipe with some pretty different ingredients and some pretty impressive results... when you remember to get the honey.

So we've covered the win, now here comes the fail...

Ah, the Ginger Fail.  I know I've covered this one, so I won't go into too many details.   The short and chubby of it is ginger was the weird additive, and that part worked brilliantly!  We essentially chopped up some ginger and chucked it in with whatever else we were brewing.  After a couple weeks, it seemed like it was on the right track, but it wasn't sweet enough, so we added more sugar when we racked it.  The mistake?  Not boiling the shit out of the sugar.  So what was a bitter gingery brew turned into something that smelled like someone pissed in an old, sweaty gym sock.

We have added sweeteners to our home brew since then, and I'm pleased to say that boiling the shit out of it avoided any more sockpiss incidents.

Then there's the Serious Strawberry Fail.  This was a really half-assed idea.  Coming off our resounding success with the first Mad Elf clone, Paddy and I felt like maybe we knew something about brewing beer and decided to totally wing a recipe.  Once again, we headed off for the brew shop with no idea what we were going to get.  Starting with the recipe for the Elf Clone, we modified it in ways we thought would make an excellent summer beer.  The dark grains were swapped out for light grains, we kept the honey, and changed the fruit from cherries to Strawberries.  What went wrong?  Well, I don't think those ingredients were ever intended to go together.   I can't sum up the end result with anything as simple as "sockpiss", but it was not good.  Not terrible, just... unpleasant.  I think we ended up with some citrus notes, possibly from the yeast, that clashed with the tanginess of the honey and the sweetness of the strawberries.

Guess we should stick to the grass clippings.  But when all is said and done, I've just listed 5 times we tried weird ingredients in our beer, and 3 of those 5 times it turned out ok.  4 out of 6 if you count the grass!  Hell, 3/5 is 60% and that's a passing grade!  So if your idea of mixing things up is switching your brand of priming sugar, I encourage you to take a bigger chance.  Head down to the brew shop with only a vague idea of what you want to do, and don't be afraid to wing it.  Pick some random ingredients, throw in some stuff that probably shouldn't even go in beer.  If you have the same luck we do, there's only a 40% chance whatever you come up with will suck!


  1. Yeah smooth move there , adding sugar won't make the beer'll ferment out..add more alcohol..but it sure as hell wont make it sweeter. Read a book , fer chrissakes!

  2. The Seattle Seahawks continue to defy convention, winning games with a blueprint that differs from the other 31 teams in the league.
    wholesale 2014 new jerseys
    2014 new nike nfl jerseys
    2014 nfl hoodies jerseys
    nhl hoodies jerseys