Working Up To Bockbier

I will, one day, brew the full version of my proposed Einbecker Bier (the “original” Bockbier). That day, however, was not today.

Today’s Brew Day, on Saturday as opposed to the normal Sunday due to outside scheduling conflicts, was playing around a bit with the bones of the basic recipe (which can be found in another post–as soon as I get it written and published). I kept the 2/3 barley, 1/3 wheat grits, but scaled it back from a 1.078 SG to a planned mid-1.050’s–and then hit 1.068 anyway. This should bring the ABV down from about 7.5% to a more quaffable not quite 6%. I also stepped away from the Munich malt in favor of Vienna, which should give a breadier maltiness. (In my opinion, Munich can almost get overwhelming when used in large percentages–almost a chewy meatiness, if you will. It’s not bad, but generally needs to be either less than 100% of the malt bill, or hit with a large dose of hops). It also dialed the color back from garnet-amber to somewhere in the gold range, where the original Bockbier was (described in period as “golden”–and more detail will be in the afore-mentioned post).

Low-tech Brew Rig, starting out on Almost Bockbier Brew Day
My trusty, somewhat rusty, Brew Rig, ready to start heating strike water.

I’ve also fooled around with the hop schedule: where the original was all bittering hops all the time, I’m doing FWH and some late hops. This should add a bit of hop complexity, even though it’s still a single-hop beer.

Lastly, I went with White Labs San Francisco Lager yeast. This choice was made to cover a number of issues. First and second, the temps in my cellar have been fluctuating around the low 50’s; too warm for most lagers, but too cold for most ales-and I want this to be more lager-like, which pretty much means Kolsch yeast or San Fran. Third, given the weather has finally turned, everyone is brewing this weekend, and the yeast selection at my LHBS was pretty well decimated. None of my first, second, or third yeast choices were available, so here we are.

As things are wont to do, technical snags abounded. My first propane tank ran out while I was heating the sparge water; when I unscrewed the regulator, its O-ring broke. After quickly scrambling and scrounging out all of the other suitable propane hoses I’ve got, I determined that none of them had functional O-rings. A trip to the hardware store later, and my channel-lock pliers had wandered off–making connecting my second propane tank complex.

But, all things considered, it was a good day. The weather was nice, beer was brewed, and no one was killed in the making of today.

The recipe, for the curious. This is #164, in my Little Black Book.

Almost Bockbier
9 pounds Vienna Malt
3 pounds Wheat Malt
2 ounces Tettnang leaf hops (3.7% AA, FWH)
1 tablet Whirlfloc (15 min. in boil)
1 ounce Tettnang leaf hops (3.7% AA, 10 minutes in boil)
1 packet WLP-810 San Francisco Lager Yeast

Mash at 156 degrees F.  Sparge to 8 gallons pre-boil.  Boil for one hour. OG: 1.068, 5.5 gallons into the fermenter. Ferment at “cellar temps” (currently upper 50’s F).
(Brewed 14 April 2018)

Anatomy of a Project, Part I

Let’s follow a project of mine from (nearly) the beginning, through to as far as I take it.  Since the project is, as yet, barely started, this will be the first of a series.

I’m not really certain when I got interested in making jewelry. I mean, I’ve entertained the notion of taking up silversmithing classes for probably over a decade. I’ve toyed with the notion of casting (starting with pewter, and working my way up to precious metals) for nearly as long. But gems and stones, particularly cutting and polishing, that’s a fairly new one. Maybe two or three years? But I finally decided to act on that one a few months ago.

The root of the idea was wondering how exactly bezel settings worked–probably based on admiring some of the lovely Anglo-Saxon “gold-and-garnet” jewelry that’s been found. It struck me that the garnet pieces were certainly shaped and polished, and I began thinking about that. I know that precious stones are “lapped” (faceted) using fancy setups with spinning abrasive discs, using finely-tuned armatures to ensure the “proper” angles to the various faces. I reasoned that the first faceted stones probably were lapped and polished by hand, with a somewhat more “organic” form. So I set about to figure out how they did it.

YouTube, one of my normal “how would I…” starting points, was rather mum on the subject. There are several videos about lapping gems, all using modern tools. There are a couple of videos about making homemade modern lapping tools… Just when I thought all was lost, I found one video on polishing and faceting gemstones by hand, using no power tools. Not historical, but it was a start, and told me it could be done.

The next typical online stops for this sort of project include Cariadoc’s Miscellany and Stefan’s Florilegium, two great repositories of knowledge, sources, and information. The Miscellany is a series of essays, classes, documents, papers, and such by one of the more famous people in the SCA, Duke Cariadoc of the Bow. The Florilegium, meanwhile, is a curated compilation of email discussions from various SCA forums, dating from the early days of computer bulletin boards and such. Both pointed me at several books; the Miscellany was extra helpful and gave me some quotes.

One of these sources, which I was able to get my hands on fairly quickly, was Theophilus’ treatise On Divers Arts, which in addition to covering all sorts of metalworking has a chapter on polishing gemstones. Theophilus recommends using powdered emery stone and water on a copper plate as the abrasive; the runoff is collected in a basin and allowed to settle and dry. Afterwards, the powder is sprinkled on a flat limewood board and wet with saliva; this is used to polish the gem.

As it happens, I have access to emery powder (available as filler for making pincushions) and a copper plate that I acquired for a different project some time ago. “Limewood” is probably the same wood that we would call “basswood,” and is available in most craft stores.

Iolite and Carnelian Agate for the Faceting Project
Two Iolite on the left, four Carnelian Agate on the right.

Rough gem material is available from many sources on EBay and Amazon; I have some Carnelian Agate, some Fire Quartz, and some Iolite readily at hand, and if I get decent results with these, I’ll get some others.

In the interest of following the guidelines from the YouTube video, I’ve got an assortment of wet/dry sandpaper, and I’ll use that to give it a go.

Sandpaper assortment
Assortment of Wet-Dry Sandpaper

My theory is that they’ll work more quickly than the emery; we’ll see how they go.

Additionally, knowing that some stones–the harder ones, such as any of the corundum (ruby and sapphire), and a few others–are likely to be very slow to polish up, I’ve got some modern sharpening stones, which use diamond powders of various grits. I’m hopeful that they’ll do a quicker job even than the sandpaper.

That pretty well covers the acquisition of inspiration, ideas, and materials for the project; next time around, we’ll give some of the methods a try.

Finding Inspiration for Historical Crafts

Finding the inspiration to pick up a new craft, especially within the SCA, can be challenging. Let’s face it, it’s one of the two most difficult parts of anything in this game we play–the other one being actually getting started!

A good place to start is to take a hard look at your persona, and think about the things they would have used and/or liked. Don’t limit yourself to the things he or she would have known or done; that’s a decent starting point, but is probably a stricter limit than necessary. And don’t worry about trying to contrive a “backstory” as to why you (as your persona) would know how to do such a thing. While our ancestors were content with relatively narrow, focused lanes to live, work, and play in, we’re not bound by those conventions.

I find that inspiration will tend to strike while I’m noodling about on Pinterest. (Back in the Dark Ages, before the Internet, the equivalent was “going to the library,” an option that is still available today…)  Or I’ll be pondering a question like “how did they do X, originally?” Very often, this will lead me down a rabbit-hole of articles, old email fora, YouTube videos, and the like. Sometimes, I don’t get a good answer, and have to set aside that particular thought for a while. Other times, I’ll find myself with a host of new ideas, and usually other avenues to explore later.

Another good place to go for inspiration, especially SCA-related inspiration, is to an event. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be an Arts-and-Sciences specific event, although there tends to be more to look at if it is. (Often times, my wife or I will see something–particularly clothing–and think, “I can make that better…”) If you’re really fortunate, they’ll even have an Artisan’s Row, where you can watch somebody who already knows how to do X, and possibly even who will show you the basics!

But if there’s one thing I’ve found to be definitely the case, it’s that the know-how is out there, somewhere. You may be re-blazing a trail that hasn’t been blazed in hundreds of years, but someone, somewhere, has written something down relative to your goal. Maybe it’s a complete description of the fabrication of the item. More often, it will be references to various steps and stages of it, and it will be on you to “suss out” what they’re talking about. Another good way to go is to find someone who’s already doing what you’re interested in, and ask them to show you some of the basics and/or become a mentor.

The next part to explore is what you need, in order to make the thing. I’ve found that the instructions you find out there tend to assume you’re a professional, and/or you have hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to drop on a project. But let’s face it, we’re just starting off on this. That means that alternatives are in order. If you can determine how things were done in the “early days”, you’ll often find that the tools and equipment become much cheaper–often, to be sure, at the expense of simplicity. Don’t let that stop you, though! And remember the adage of being wary of any venture requiring new clothes; the same applies to tools. If you’ve got any sort of a toolbox (or craft chest, or what have you), you probably already have some workable analogs to the tools you’ll need.

Another thing to think about during the materials and equipment phase is how serious you’ll be taking this new craft. This is worth thinking long and hard about. You probably won’t know how much you enjoy it until after you’ve done it for a while; it’s entirely possible that you’ll find yourself completely unsuited to the job. (Contrariwise, you may find that you enjoy the challenge!) Once you’ve tried it, and gotten a taste of what is involved, do you want to keep it at the “hobby” level, or become a “master of the craft”? How much time do you intend to devote to it?

The biggest fear that people seem to have, and which very often holds them back, is that they’ll suck at it. Well, of course you will. You probably will for the first several tries at a thing, or maybe a little longer. The key is to look at each of the “failures” you produce, think hard about why they’re “bad,” how to go about fixing it next time, make those adjustments, then try it again! And don’t be afraid to show your “failures” to others. It may inspire them to give something new a try. And remember–they think that it’s “too hard” to do what you’ve done; the mere fact that you’ve done it puts your hard-won skills far ahead of theirs!

A Year on the Homestead – Spring

Spring is always an interesting time around the homestead. You’re never really sure what Nature is going to do from one day to the next; all you really know is that things will be growing before long, and there’s too much to do.

Boreas, guarding the homestead
Boreas, guarding the homestead.

The animals, likewise, are of mixed opinions about the weather. Bacchus and Boreas, our two Great Pyrenees, would generally rather be outside than in–we keep the house “too hot” for them, and they don’t mind the snow. The chickens, on the other hand, aren’t fans.

Chickens at their feeders in the snow
Two chickens braving the elements

This year, we’ve managed to get garlic, onions, and peas in thus far–with luck, they’ve had enough time to settle in, before this nice snowstorm. I’ll be curious to see how the asparagus does. My various hops have sent up shoots, as well. Mostly, they’re still covered by plenty of leaves and grass debris, so they should be fine.

Part of the plan for this year is to have a portion of the side field tilled, so that I can sow various grains–wheat, maybe rye, and of course my barley. We’re also having the “North hillside” tilled up, so we can scatter a variety of pollinator-friendly plants–we’ve got any number of packets of “bee forage mix,” plus lots of sunflower seed, and I’m hoping to try out viper’s bugloss. As we get all of that set up and going, we’ll be updating things here. And with luck, this year the bees will thrive and survive–they’ll be worth a series of posts all their own.

But all of that is yet to come, as we wait for the snow to melt and the weather to warm, however slightly. We wait, and watch the earliest blooms come to life, and watch the various trees and shrubs prepare to burst into green…

Spring Flowers
Flowers blooming in the Spring

Fourteen Steps to Brewing Medieval Beer

While sorting through stacks of dusty, old German books, looking for beer recipes that might date to pre-1600, or hints as to where they may be, I stumbled across an interesting series of books: the Oeconomia, oder Hausbuch. They were put into publication beginning in 1563 by Johannes Coler, a German Protestant priest who lived from 1566-1639. He lived in various parts of what is now Germany, including Frankfurt and Parchim, but spent a significant part of his early life in Berlin. Coler’s father, the Provost of Berlin, was the Lutheran theologian Jakob Coler; Jakob authored the books, but was in poor health by 1600, and his son had them printed on Jakob’s behalf.

The topic of the books was a popular one at the time: Household Maintenance. This ran the gauntlet from keeping and maintaining the gardens, hunting, cooking, finances, etc. But the most important chapter, for my purposes, was Chapter 20 of the Second Book. This chapter was entitled: On Brewing. Here’s what it looks like:

One page of the German beer brewing text

To be sure, it’s only one brewing method (“how we do things here in Berlin”), but it’s better than most of the other stuff I’ve seen, which includes more than a little bit of guesswork.  And what’s better, it’s all recognizable! This is all stuff that has equivalents in modern brewing (mostly).  Let’s break it down, with my translation (slightly tweaked for readability, and modern language):

  1. Pour the barley into a butt, and leave it to soak there for three days and nights (in winter, four is as well).
  2. Pour the barley onto a platform, raised into a heap, until it begins to germinate or shoot.
  3. Stir it frequently, separating the grains from each other, until there is a small sprout at its tip.
  4. When enough of it has sprouted, separate the grains from each other, and dry it in the stove-room, in the sun, or in a drying-oven.
  5. Grind the malt coarsely, so that the meal is well-hulled.
  6. In a pot, bring water to “seething;” put the milled malt into the butt, and pour the hot water over it, and stir it together.
  7. Scoop the mash from the butt into the kettle, and stir it well so that it does not burn. If the malt is burned, the beer will taste burnt, as well.
  8. Put wood laths alongside each other in the butt, and pack around them tightly with straw to strain the malt out from the liquid. (The butt needs to have a tap in front.)
  9. Pour the cooked malt into the butt, on the straw, and open the tap, collecting the liquid in another butt. If there is a lot of malt, heat another kettle of water, and pour it onto the grain. (If you want good beer, you pour less water; if you want a lot of beer, but lower quality, you pour a lot of water.)
    The second page of the German beer brewing text
  10. Once you have collected the runoff, pour a little into the kettle, so that it is about one-third full. Add hops–if the beer is going to store for a long time, you need a little more hops; if it is going to be drunk quickly, you need less. Stir the hops in, and bring the liquid to a boil. (The boil duration is as long as you think necessary, which is learned by experience and taste).
  11. When the boil has gone long enough, you add the rest of the liquid to fill the kettle, and bring the whole volume to a boil (without stirring).
  12. After the boil, place a large basket over a butt, and scoop the beer into the butt, straining the hops out in the basket. (If you are making a small beer, re-use these hops in it, straining them out after the boil again.)
  13. Let the beer cool to lukewarm, then add an adequate amount of yeast: more yeast if there is more beer, but less yeast for a smaller volume.
  14. Let the beer ferment for one to three days (or eight days for a Lager Beer), then remove the yeast from the top, and pour the beer into a cask. If it will be drunk soon, let it sit for eight days to clear and carbonate. If it is a Lager Beer, let it sit for longer. Afterwards, tap the cask and drink.

The third page of the German beer brewing text.

That seems like a lot to process, I know, but it’s really not so bad once you unpack what Johann says. At its heart, there are three parts to this.

First, steps one through five take you from raw grain to ground malt. There are a pair of surprises here. The most obvious one is that classically, we’ve thought that brewers purchased “finished” malt from maltsters. According to this, that wasn’t the case, at least in some areas–and if there was a part of the world I’d have bet there were professional maltsters in period, it would have been Germany.

But the really interesting thing to me is the drying of the malt. The most common “thought-experiment” description of medieval beer says it would have tasted smoky, from being dried over wood. Here we have a choice of three methods to dry the malt: “in the stove-room, in the sun, or in a drying-oven.” The drying-oven sounds to me like what we’d call a kiln. While I have issues with the notion that all kilns inherently smoked the malt, I’ll grant that it’s possible.

Drying malt “in the sun,” however, sounds like you’re creating what I’ve seen referred to as “wind-malt.” (I’ll call it “sun-malt,” from here out.) Basically, air-dried. And “in the stove-room” sounds to me like the equivalent of “dry it in a warm, dry place.” While I can come up with a way for the “stove-room” to smoke the malt, however slightly, I can’t really picture sun-malt having any smoke at all. And either of these two would give you an extremely pale malt–easily as pale as the palest of modern ale malts. I’d say at most, you’re probably looking at between 2.5 and 3.5 degrees Lovibond.

Second, from six to about thirteen, you’re taking your malt and brewing beer. Again, there are a few interesting points. First, the “seething” water used in the mash. The German word used is “sieden,” which nowadays can translate as “to boil.” I submit to you, however, that the Berliners knew what they were doing, and knew that if the mash steeped too hot, you wouldn’t get good wort. (Modern science tells us that the malt conversion enzymes denature above about 160 degrees Fahrenheit.) Running the numbers through my brewing calculators, in order to cool a volume of boiling water to mash temperature, you’ve got to have so much grain that your mash wouldn’t work.

If, however, you bring your strike-water to a bit below boiling–seething, or (as the English have so poetically put it) “smiling”–your mash temperature will tend to even out in the 152 to 156 degree range, given a number of other variables. This is perfect mashing temperatures. (William Harrison, in his 1577 Description of England, calls several times for seething water.)

Scooping the mash back into the kettle and presumably heating it (all the while stirring it, to prevent it from scorching) looks to me like either decocting, or heating the mash up to “mash-out” temperatures (stopping the enzymatic activity)–probably the former. If the malt is of uneven quality, this would probably help to bump up the mash efficiency a little bit. I’ll have to do a bit of experimentation here, and update this with my results.

Straining the wort out from the malt is fairly straightforward. Pouring more water onto the grain to increase the volume of beer is sensible, as well. I find it interesting that they’re actually adjusting the quality of beer by adding more or less water–the end volume doesn’t seem as important, here, so much as the quality of the end result.

Then they fill the kettle a third of the way with wort, and boil it with the hops. The odd bit here is that they’re doing a partial-boil initially, then later adding the rest of the hops. I’m not certain the purpose of this–again, some experimentation will be forthcoming. (Another interesting point is re-using the same hops to make a small beer…)

Third, step fourteen, is fermenting, racking, clarifying, and (eventually) drinking the beer. The beer goes through what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call primary fermentation: up to three days, or “eight days for a Lager Beer.” Bear in mind, “lagers” in the modern sense were unheard of, at this time. This is attested to by the notion of “removing the yeast from the top”–skimming off the krauesen, or foam. If this were an English ale, we would call this “top-cropping” the yeast.

Having removed the yeast, the beer is now poured into its serving-cask, where it will sit for eight days, or–again, the interesting bit–longer, if it is a Lager Beer.  Either way, by most modern standards, this is really quite quickly done. Most modern ales are around a month old or more, when you’re able to buy them; lagers (in the modern sense) take at least twice as long.

But they’re calling for the beer to be “clear and carbonated.” So, apparently it works… Yet again, further experimentation will need to take place.

There you have it! How to brew beer, in the style of Berlin, circa 1596. Great! But what’s the recipe? Well, for that, you’ll have to wait for my next post. What do you think? Please comment below…

How, When, and Why I Started Brewing

The things I’m asked most often about when I started brewing are how, when, and why, exactly, I started.  To answer these questions and more, we need to set the way-back machine to 1994, when I was a young Sailor stationed in Hawaii.

At the time, I was in my early 20’s, and a bare novice at all things alcohol. The craft brewery scene hadn’t really launched yet, to say nothing of the homebrewing scene. Oh, I had been ‘introduced’ to beer–I did mention that I was a Sailor, right?–but when I had tried it, it was mass-produced swill, and the low-quality version, at that. (I was young, and the “premium” stuff was too expensive…)

What I was interested in, though, was cooking. I missed home-cooked meals, and the chow hall on base simply wasn’t cutting it. The house I was sharing had a lovely kitchen, but my cooking skills were mostly limited to grilled cheese and soup.  So, seeing an opportunity, I set about learning, by raiding the local bookstores for cookbooks. (I did mention that this was a while ago, right? the Internet was barely in its infancy…)

One fine day, while perusing the shelves in a Borders Bookstore which undoubtedly no longer exists, a book quite literally leapt out at me.  Seriously, it fell off the shelf. That book was The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing, by Charlie Papazian. Intrigued by the promise of learning “to make beer just the way you like it,” the book came home with me, and I devoured its contents in the space of a couple of nights.

It was about the same time that Sam Adams began distributing to the islands, and I had my first taste of the Boston Lager. To put it mildly, I was blown away, and hooked.

It wasn’t for another six months, though, in early 1995, that I put my first batch together. It took a series of things coming together. First, I had found a store that sold homebrew supplies. Second, I moved to a new rental house, with a different roommate. And third, we decided to throw a housewarming party. I scraped together a little extra cash and bought the basics:

  • A 10-quart pot, to serve as my “boil kettle”;
  • A 6-gallon plastic fermenting bucket, with a lid and airlock;
  • A bunch of siphoning gear (tubing, cane, wand); and
  • Two cans of malt extract, two ounces of hops, and a sachet of dry yeast.

I started the batch before we had even finished unpacking. I had my first boilover; we cooled the pot in the sink, and the freshly-pitched batch fermented happily away in the hall closet. I’m not sure exactly what the ingredients were–I was so new at it, that I didn’t even know what was important to record, at the time. I believe that it was Munton and Fisons malt extract (but can’t swear to it); I’m told it was a can each of dark and light extract. The hops were recorded as “one ounce of high-alpha hops, one ounce of low-alpha hops.” As to the yeast, your guess is as good as mine. (Thinking back on the batch, as best I can–this was over twenty years ago–and I’d probably use Nottingham, if I were to try it again.)

Subsequent purchases included bottles and caps, priming sugar, and a bottling wand. Two weeks after the batch was started, it was bottled; about three weeks after that, we had the party.

The beer was extremely well received, with favorable comparisons to Sam Adams. (By this time, I had discovered a local watering hole that carried hundreds of brands of beer, and my tastes had branched out considerably.) Most of it was gone by the next morning, but the feeling of satisfaction from knowing that I had made the beer, and that people liked it, remained.

Many batches followed that one; most of them were less successful. I was still largely flying blind, with just the one guidebook (and the one, very limited, source of ingredients). I had my first infected batch, and more than a couple of “drinkable, but less than tasty” batches. And then I moved back to the mainland; things paused for the duration of one military course, and two years in Japan.

But the urge to brew again never left. The instant I had another place stateside, I went looking for more information–and things had radically changed. There was a homebrewing community, and the Internet had happened (mostly), and craft breweries were popping up seemingly everywhere. And I’ve never really looked back.

Since that first batch, I estimate I’ve brewed nearly 500 batches. I’ve refined my technique, branched into meads and wines, upgraded equipment, shifted to all-grain, and things continue to move. When my wife and I got back into the Society for Creative Anachronism, that opened up the aspect of historical brewing. And things have continued to go, since then.

Let’s see where this all takes us.

Rebuilding a March Pump

Here’s a quick, down-and-dirty on how to rebuild a March Pump with a new head. (This was originally posted in October, 2008, and has been cleaned up a little for its migration to my new web host in 2018.)

As you may recall, I dropped mine, and broke off the intake side of the head:
March pump with broken head assemblyI ordered a new one from MoreBeer, and it arrived shortly, in good order (but for the shipping box…):Replacement polysulfone pump headTo install the new pump head, first you have to take off the old one. This is accomplished by removing four screws, located on the ‘face’ of the head. (Sorry for the blurry picture; the arrows indicate the individual screws’ locations.)Pump screw locationsHaving pulled the head off, you’re faced with another quartet of screws on the inner workings of the head:Inner pump headWith these removed, you can pull things apart. You’re now faced with the impeller assembly:
Pump head dismantledA bit of tugging, and the whole thing will come apart nicely, including the impeller (the spinny bit) and its axle:Pump impeller and axle
A quick inspection revealed a problem for me, however: mold had taken up residence on the impeller!Dirty pump impeller
So, after much washing and scrubbing and sanitizing of the impeller, I was ready to re-assemble. The re-assembly process is identical to the disassembly process, only in reverse. In all, not counting the ‘break’ to clean things, it probably took me about 10 minutes to have the old one off and the new one screwed on.Rebuilt pump head, good as new
Note to self: Run sanitizing solution through the stupid thing during post-brew cleanup, otherwise I’ll be left with the possibility of infected batches…

In 2018, this pump is no longer actively in service–the latest iteration of the brew rig is a simple two-tier, and its placement next to my back stoop allows me to do the “heavy lifting” myself. I’m hoping, before long, to go to a single-tier electric system, eventually, and a pump or two will once again become necessary; I’m thinking going with stainless heads, when the time comes.

But, as you can see, replacing the “working parts” of a March pump isn’t so big a deal, at all.