Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Triple cherry smoked fruit beer / My cherry trees

The grain bill (see recipe below).

I have a bit of malt left over from my first major brewing project, and I've been playing around with an online calculator to decide what to do with it.

I've also been enjoying a great blog on the subject of brewing unusual beers (and other food subjects), which inspired me to be a bit more adventurous - although there is something to be said about starting with simple recipes and working your way up, I tend to make what sounds interesting, even if that steepens the learning curve.

I have a thing for smoked beers - at least in theory. I have only tried one, on one occasion (the classic Schlenkerla Rauchbier, at my favourite Mancunian bar, Font). It sure was smoky, which isn't something you'd want in every drink, but it was interesting and not unpleasant. The way smoked beers are made is by smoking some of the malt, often over beech - although any wood you use for smoking food could work. You can buy ready-smoked malt, but since this recipe is made from leftovers, I'm going to smoke my own, using some of the many wood chips I bought last year for barbecues and smoking homemade bacon and suchlike.

I also love fruit beers, especially the two classics, kriek (cherry) and framboise (raspberry). I grow both in my garden - last year I got a single cherry and more than seven kilos of raspberries, but I wasn't brewing, so I used them in other things. I veer towards kriek partly because cherries seem much more luxurious, and partly because those I've had tend to be a little more sophisticated than other fruit beers. It happens that I have a bag of cherry wood chips, so I thought - why not combine the two? I came up with:

Triple cherry smoked fruit beer
for 4.5 litres (one demijohn)
grains and sugars
690g Maris Otter
280g English crystal
150g Amber, smoked over cherry wood chips
100g unrefined cane sugar
70g rolled oats
2g Warrior (18.2% AA)
Hefeweizen (an unfiltered German beer, I poured some into a jug, added water and sugar, and let the yeast grow)/Wyeast Ringwood*
toasted cherry wood chips

I'll mash the grains in the same way as for my first beer - namely by putting them into a big pan with water (I set my variable kettle to 80ºC, which comes down to the right range, 60-65ºC when mixed with the cold malt), then put that in the oven at a little under 70ºC for an hour. I'll boil with the hops for just half an hour - to extract the level of bitterness I've calculated, which should be pretty low, as what I've read suggests high hop levels and fruit don't combine well. I'll ferment in a glass demijohn with an airlock, and when it's done, I'll transfer to another demijohn, and add the wood chips. When the cherries are ripe, around midsummer, I'll transfer again, adding the fruit and probably removing the wood, depending on how woody it's become. The beer will sit on the fruit until autumn sometime, then I'll bottle it. The total time will be at least 9 months.

I really hope that I can use homegrown cherries in this - my schedule is based roughly around when they're ready. I can't count on having enough, or even any - as I'll explain below. In any case, that gives it five months or so on the wood chips - although I'll check to make sure it doesn't become unpleasant-tasting. Otherwise, I'll buy some fresh cherries around midsummer, and add those. As for quantities, I have no idea - but probably 20-30g of wood chips, and 0.5-1kg fruit.

What it ends up tasting like is unknown - I've never had anything like this, and it's rather experimental. But I'm using stuff I already have, so it's not costing me anything. If it's good, I'll have created something really exciting. If not - I now know you can blend beers, so maybe it won't have to be poured away.

*The Hefeweizen showed no signs of activity after a few days, so I added a little of my previous batch of beer, which is fermenting with Ringwood. Hopefully it'll take off soon. Update 25/1 - it's taken off now, bubbling contentedly (but not violently).

Update: 3rd February 2012
Fermentation has finished after ten days. The beer has been transferred to a fresh sterilised demijohn, and 35g toasted cherry wood chips will be added. Gravity measured at 1.015, giving a current abv of over 6% (the accuracy of a hydrometer is not really good enough to give fractions of a percent). Almost no sediment was transferred - a clean racking. Tasting of 80ml used for measuring the gravity: thick body, very little carbonation left. Copper-orange, good taste - I've had many worse beers in the pub. But there's no detectable smoke taste.

My cherry trees
I love fruit trees. They are amongst the most ornamental plants, with gorgeous (often scented) blossom announcing spring, summer verdancy and swelling fruits, edible baubles at harvest time, then bright autumn foliage. They don't need to take up much space - either get a dwarfing variety, or prune them into step-overs, cordons, fans, etc.

Even in my tiny garden, I've squeezed two cherry trees (and a quince). The cherries were from Tesco of all places, and bought on a whim - but I've always hankered after an orchard, so it wasn't unprecedented (I also bought a plum, but it didn't survive). I put one against the fence at the back of the garden - a position in full sun year-round, which gets very warm in spring and summer; the other went in on the other side of the terrace, about twenty feet away, and was left freestanding. I pruned the fence tree into a fan shape, which was held in place with canes. Perhaps because it has been constrained, the branches have grown much longer than the other tree - or perhaps it's the position, or variety.

Freshly-planted in spring 2009, the future fan-trained cherry had just three or four flowers - but put on strong growth through the summer.

In the second year, I added a framework of canes to train the branches into a fan shape. Plenty of blossom, but no fruit.

At the start of its third year, the fan shape was well established - it measured around 7 feet tall by 8 feet wide.

There was plenty of blossom in the spring of 2011, but just a single fruit ripened - most dropped, and the rest were probably eaten by birds (this year I'll put up a net).

At the end of last autumn, the leaves showed off some lovely colours - peach, orange, and gold.

2012 is a make-or-break year for these trees - I expect a harvest, even if it's only a couple of cups. If not, I will assume something is wrong, and try to fix it.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Brewing my first all-grain beer

Crushed Maris Otter malt.

I made my first beer in November. I initially toyed with the idea last spring, reading about the process, and drawing up a list of preferred styles. But then I ordered my camera, and decided I couldn't afford both. I started with a kit instead, albeit a good-quality one, and was pleased with the results. I didn't quite follow the standard practice, in fact - I performed both fermentations in the same container, a pressure barrel, since I didn't want to pay for a separate fermenter at the time. I transferred the beer into sanitised buckets, before returning it to the barrel for the second fermentation after I'd cleaned it. The result, from Woodforde's Norfolk Wherry kit, was good - red-brown, fruity, smoothly carbonated, and very drinkable. Whether it was strong I can't say - I didn't measure the relative densities, but I didn't get particularly drunk even after several pints, so maybe it didn't ferment all the way. Nonetheless, it was a good enough experience to persuade me to revive my original plans, so once Christmas was out of the way, I set to finding a recipe, and giving it a name.

There are thousands of recipes online, and for a beginner it is very hard to determine which is best, and what the differences are. I found one that sounded interesting, then tried to obtain the ingredients. Since it was an American recipe, I had to make one or two substitutions, which means this will be effectively unique, and so I feel I can give it my own name.

The original recipe can be found here. It's an unusual hybrid that combines "the color of an American Brown, the caramel notes of a Scotch Ale, and the hopping regiment of an India Pale Ale", according to the brewer. I had particular difficulty sourcing the hops, and decided to reduce the bitterness a little, as I prefer a slightly sweeter brew.

Here's the recipe. It's converted to metric, which will be easier for me to measure with the equipment I have:

Old Margery's Winter Ale
20.8 litres (a little over 36.5 UK pints)
grain bill
5.443kg Maris Otter malt
340g amber malt
227g English crystal malt
227g chocolate malt
155g light brown sugar*
72g white sugar*
57g roasted unmalted barley
28g Warrior (a very high alpha acid US hop)
14+28g Admiral (a substitution for the Vanguard that was unavailable)
Wyeast Ringwood Ale (1187)

*I needed dark brown sugar, but couldn't get any wherever I looked in my town - so I used what I had.

Crushed amber malt.

method: in theory
The Warrior and 14g Admiral hops will be boiled for 60 and 20 minutes respectively, the remainder being added to the hot wort post-boil. The method I'm going to use for mashing is intended to require as little specialist equipment as possible, so might sound rather unorthodox, but I'm hoping it won't ruin the finished beer. I'll use my stock pot, which I'll pop into the new oven, which can hold a good temperature, between 60 and 70 C (I'll see if I can fine-tune it further). I'll strain it using a chinois and muslin, which seems more manageable than the usual homebrew techniques, especially given my lack of a second large container. If I need to cool the wort, I'll just plunge the pan into a sink of iced water - again, I'm not investing in anything more fancy until I am better acquainted with the process.

Dried Warrior hops. They're flattened because they were vacuum-packed; when rehydrated, they look similar to fresh hop cones. They smell wonderful - the closest I can think of is juniper berries.

method: what happened
So it took much longer than I was expecting, precisely because the capacity of my pan was much less than I thought. I mean, I knew what it was, but the grain swells up, and you sparge (rinse) it with lots more water than I realised, so I ended up doing a continuous multi-batch process, with one smaller pan in the oven (which held the correct temperature well), and the larger stockpot boiling the wort with the hops. It took from 5pm to 1am the first day, which was about half the total, then I restarted 1pm the next day, finishing mid-evening. Luckily, I found it enjoyable, not too stressful, although it did make the most awful mess of anything I've ever done in the kitchen (think sticky brown liquid spilled on the floors, hob, worktops, and lots of washing up). Sadly I broke the new hydrometer I bought, by dropping a mortar on it (I was using the granite mortar to weigh down the grain and extract as much liquid as possible). I've tried weighing the wort to see what the gravity is (in order to work out how much sugar was extracted, and how alcoholic the finished beer will be), but it will be inaccurate. Incidentally, I didn't bother with muslin - it wasn't necessary.

Freshly-boiled wort, before straining into the fermentation vessel.

Using the excellent brew calculator at Beer Calculus, I've determined it should be 6.4% abv, with a bitterness of 47.6 IBU (so fairly bitter), and dark brown to black in colour: a good hearty brew for winter. I've saved a lot of beer bottles, because I don't want it hanging around in the keg for too long, since I may want to do another batch of something fairly soon, and hopefully it will keep longer in bottles.

Update: fermentation
I was worried that the yeast was dead. It comes in a large sachet, that you strike to break an internal pack, and then it's meant to swell up. Well, mine didn't, not even by the next day. So I poured it into a sterilised jug, with some boiled wort and a little sugar. The following day (when I was ready to add it to the main batch, there was still no sign of life. I added it anyway, but contacted the shop who'd sold it to me. They didn't seem concerned, but were very helpful.

The following day, there was a hiss on opening the barrel lid - something was happening. The day after, it had taken off. Indeed, it was such a violent fermentation that I couldn't fully unscrew the lid for a whole day. I researched the yeast online, and found it was often slow to start, but also that it needed high oxygen levels - and that professional brewers use open fermentation vessels to provide that. Once the pressure died down, I left the lid on, but unscrewed, and regularly swilled the liquid around, to reoxygenate it, and prevent too much carbon dioxide buildup.

After around ten days, the fermentation has died down, and I'll set to bottling it in the next week (this yeast produces a lot of diacetyl, a chemical that smells of butter, so it is recommended to rest the beer after fermentation, to allow that to dissipate - buttery notes may be welcome in certain white wines, but apparently hardly ever in beer).

Update 1st February 2012:
I haven't got round to bottling the beer yet, for the simple reason I can't afford to buy a bottle capper yet. It should come to no harm in the sealed fermentation vessel - and some of the buttery notes the yeast has produced will die down. I measured the final gravity as 1.010, which means the alcohol by volume is around 6.7% - slightly stronger than originally predicted. It's rich, complex, bittersweet, and not terribly drinkable just yet.

Chillies: the plan

I've written at length on the many tomatoes I've grown and will be growing, but this year there are other plans (and plants). Chillies are something I've had mixed experiences with in the past; shop-bought plants often thrive, even outdoors - so long as they get lots of sunshine and adequate watering. In fact, you treat them rather like their close relatives tomatoes (and aubergines), in that they are hungry, thirsty, heat-loving plants, but they seem less prone to disease. From seed, however, I've never succeeded, in part because I haven't been careful enough. Last year I concentrated on tomatoes to the detriment of their kin, which I left lingering as seedlings until they gave up, so this time I'm sowing them earlier - also because chillies seem to be much slower to germinate and grow.

There are many advantages to growing chillies. The plants are small, tending to grow to a fixed size, small bushes at most. This means they need no pruning and little support. The fruits aren't juicy, so they need less water and cope better with drought. Many of their fruits are small, but intensely-flavoured, so you can easily grow enough for your needs - whereas self-sufficiency in most crops is beyond the home grower with an small garden, it's not at all unrealistic in this case. Finally, they can be overwintered - at the very least, the fruits will keep well on the plant, even if it dies, and you might get a second flush the following year (in fact, all these plants are perennials in their homeland).

So here are the varieties I'm going to try. Apologies for poor-quality photos; there aren't many available. The heat ratings (﹆﹆﹆, ﹅﹆﹆, ﹅﹅﹆, ﹅﹅﹅ for no heat, mild, medium, and hot respectively) and other info are from The Chileman, an excellent online resource on the subject:

Black Hungarian ﹅﹅﹆

photo: conalloughry

Attractive Hungarian heirloom variety, with red-to-deepest-purple fruits, and purple flowers. Good flavour.

Chocolate beauty ﹆﹆﹆

photo: Gelatobaby

A dark bell pepper, no heat. An F1 (breaking my normal rules, but I didn't know this when I bought the seeds) with deep-red-to-dark-brown, large fruits.

Corno di toro rosso ﹆﹆﹆

Long, often curved, horn-shaped sweet fruits from Italy. Like the long bell peppers sold in supermarkets, I'm hoping, perfect for stuffing with goat cheese.

Costeno amarillo ﹅﹅﹆

Medium-sized, narrow golden fruits, thin-fleshed with complex aroma, used in yellow mole (Mexican chilli) stews.

Habanero mustard ﹅﹅﹅+

Rare; peach-coloured, warped, blunt fruits, extremely hot.

Hungarian yellow wax ﹅﹅﹆

Long, pointed, Hungarian variety, ripening to orange or red, but harvested unripe when pale yellow-green. Good for pickling.

Onza ﹅﹅﹆?

Could be one of two varieties, either Mexican or Italian (I think it more likely I'm growing the Mexican one). Either way, little information is available.

Red cherry ﹅﹆﹆

photo: Scott Hamlin

A number of similar varieties exist; probably mild, small, round, red fruits. Varying heat. Good for pickling or stuffing with cheese.

I'll post an update once they've started growing.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Statement of intent: 2012

I've not been totally inactive this winter. I turned three months' spent coffee grounds into delicious oyster mushrooms.

It's been a while! At first, it was the usual blogger's curse: laziness. I have a few articles lined up from last autumn that I promise to post soon. Then my laptop, which I used as my workstation in planning and updating this blog last year, died temporarily. Strictly speaking, it was the power adapter that died, but the result was the same. Now I've got a replacement, I can return.

Before I get stuck back into writing recipes, garden and kitchen updates, reviews and so on, I thought I'd give an outline of what to expect in the next few months, so you can decide whether or not to bother returning.

First, I will be gardening more than last year. I had goals, few of which I met, but in essence 2011 was about seeing what my garden and I were capable of. This time, I have much more knowledge and experience, so I intend to be more rigorous and disciplined. More salads, tomatoes, roots and greens, flowers, fruit, and herbs. I'll be sowing heat-lovers in January (chillies and aubergines, that take an age to establish this far north), plus hopefully some early salads. Mid-February I'll start on the tomatoes, of which there will be many, again to get a head-start on the season: I'd love to harvest some before the end of June, ideally. March will be full-on, with most flowers and vegetables starting, then in April the tender ones, like pumpkins, melons, and cucumbers. After that, I'll try and keep it going, with later sowings of peas, beans, oriental crops and fast-growing vegetables like turnips and spinach. Overall, I'll be squeezing even more into the small space I have.

Second, I have a few major projects that are starting or continuing this year. I've ordered the ingredients for my first all-grain beer, which is something I'd wanted to do last spring, but decided to postpone it. I've been doing a bit with bacon and sausages - expect more on this. More baking, especially breads, if I get the time, and later in the year, more jams, jellies, and other ways of preserving what I've grown.

Finally, more photography. I'm held back by the current setup (my new kitchen is close, but not ready yet), and my perfectionism: I take hundreds of photos you'll never see. I will try to do better.

It already feels like spring, though we hardly had a winter here this year: it's mild, if stormy, and the light is increasing. I hear birdsong in the mornings again, and soon the spring bulbs will be flowering, the trees budding. It's an exciting time. I hope you'll join me for the best cooking and growing year yet...