Join with us on our adventure as we build East Alstead's first brewery and what is quite possibly the only off-grid commercial brewery in the United States. We feel that what we brew and how we brew it are equally important. If you would like to help out with this project, contact me at:

The Belgian Mare Says Hello!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Old Houses

Since I was a young child, I have not been able to pass an abandoned house without becoming overcome with a sense of wonder. I could not help but speculate on myriad things: Who lived there? Why did they leave? Were they good people? If I met the former residents, would I like them? How does one come to the decision that an entire house is no longer worth keeping?

Abandoned houses fascinate me. They seem to have so many stories to tell, alas I will never hear them. The stories of every abandoned house are just below the surface, screaming to get out, yet forever beyond our knowledge. Perhaps it is this mystery that draws me in.

In my adult life this fascination continues. Now that I am an avid photographer, I cannot pass an abandoned house with out snapping a few photos. This habit has occasionally lead to a misunderstanding with the local constabulary, but that is another set of stories.

This photo was taken on Bere Island, Ireland. I can provide no facts about this house. We were hiking back from the highland areas toward the ferry when we passed by it. In the gloomy overcast afternoon, with shingles missing, it just seemed sad, yet it was also very compelling. What was its story?

I keep coming back to the idea of an abandoned house's stories. My fascination arises from wanting to learn those stories. Perhaps it is more correct to say that the fascination comes from speculating on those stories. If I were to learn those stories, would I lose the fascination? Perhaps it is best I never learn the stories, for if I lost my fascination, that would truly be a tragedy.

This photo of the Bere Island house has proven quite popular at the shows I have attended. One observer told me that, after seeing the photo, she dreamed of the house. For me as a photographer, that is a triumph: I have successfully passed on my sense of wonder to the viewer.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Growing Our Own Hops

One of the nice things about where I now live is that I have some room to experiment with things I have always wanted to try. One of those things is growing hops. Although from an historical perspective hops are a relative latecomer to the beer scene, they are now well established as a key ingredient for most brews.

Hops are a vine that can be propagated from rhizomes. Rhizomes are a root-like structure. All one needs to do is dig up the rhizomes (hops produce a lot of rhizomes) and cut them into lengths of about 4-6 inches. Plant them where they can get some sun and have something to climb. The book Homebrewer's Garden has some good information on hop growing.

I first planted hops two summers back, just in time for the shortage. I bought rhizomes from an online dealer and got them started indoors. They did well and I transplanted them in late April. Since they were small rhizomes, the first year they only got about 3 feet tall and produced no cones.

The second year, the plants grew with amazing rapidity. My trellis is 13.5 feet tall. The plants topped out in 9 weeks. The biggest problem I experienced was a potassium deficiency which I mistook for verticulum wilt at first. A bit of potash cleared things up.

So far I have tried growing Cascade, Willamette, and Mount Hood hops. The survival to second year has been 50%, 100% and 10%, respectively. Cause of death appeared to be the rhizomes rotting. An interesting thing about hops is that they exhibit quite a bit of variation in leaf morphology, yet I am not aware of any method for identifying varieties based on the appearance of the leaves.

The harvest went well. It can actually be fun getting up on the ladder and picking the hops with the smell of fresh hops all around. I dried the cones by spreading them on large window screens under an awning. This kept the sun off and allowed air to circulate. The drying process took about 24 hours in good weather. Given that it takes three to five years for a hop plant to reach its full potential, I look forward to increasing harvests.

I have now brewed a few beers with my own hops. Since I had no way of knowing the alpha acid content (it is highly variable) and the yield of cones was small, I mixed all the hops together for brewing. The results have been excellent. The flavor is a subdued, spicy earthiness with a mild bitterness.

Our first harvest!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Honey Ale, British Ale & Lager

First, I must apologize for the tardiness of my latest posting. It appears my dial-up connection was knocked askew by the inauguration traffic. Just the same, my experimental efforts continued last weekend with the bottling of the honey and British ales and the brewing of a lager.

The honey ale had finally settled down and was ready to bottle. It tasted a bit like a modern mead, perhaps with a bit more character. The general rule is that if a beer tastes good going in, it is even better coming out; that is if you bottle condition. I look forward to popping one of these open in a few weeks.

Regular readers may remember that with my British ale I suffered a failure of the original yeast culture. I then pitched a second, dry, yeast. That got things going but appears it may have been too late to save the brew. As I prepared to bottle it, I noticed the heart-rending smell of raw corn. Infection!

This was devastating as I had used the last three ounces of hops from my own yard in this brew. Faced with the dilemma of bottling the brew and hoping for the best or pouring it in the hopyard, we opted for bottling. I cannot recall that I have ever had a beer recover from this. However, as my former neighbor Michael said, "If you bottle it, you may get something. If you dump it, you guarantee that you get nothing." Three cheers for optimism.

Finally, last Monday I brewed a lager for the first time in many years. I am not much of a lager fan. In the past, brewing a lager required putting my refrigerator into use for brewing and thus limiting my food supply for the next 16 weeks. The results were excellent, but at what cost?

Now that I live in New Hampshire, in a 150 year old home, my kitchen tends to stay at lagering temperatures for the duration of the winter. So I decided to take advantage of the situation and brewed up a lager. I kept things simple: pale Pearle malt base, 20L crystal malt, Kent hops, and ... something else. The yeast was a Saflager S-23 dry culture that took off and went to work. I have high hopes for this one, as I do for all of my brews.

I will keep you posted.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Our Brewery Vision

We have been receiving quite a few questions about what type of brewery we will be building. So I decided to dedicate this posting to our vision for our brewery. As always, comments and suggestions are welcome and encouraged.

The brewery we are building will be an independently owned brewery built and operated in the tradition of the Colonial and European farmhouse breweries. It is intended to fit into the lifestyle and culture of Alstead. Its primary product will be bottle conditioned “real ale”.

The term “real ale” denotes beers that are brewed in a traditional style and naturally carbonated. This style of production results in a smoothly flavorful and lightly carbonated beverage of low to moderate alcohol content with a character unique to the brewery. Our brewery will be one of the few “real ale” producers in the region.

As a small farmhouse brewery, we do not intend to compete with regional and national breweries; we will offer a locally-produced alternative to their product. Instead of a filtered, pasteurized, and force carbonated beer, we will offer a wholesome traditional product that is unlike anything many customers have ever tasted before. As Alstead’s only brewery, it will have a unique appeal to the local population. Our goal is to establish a strong local customer base and within two years of opening be producing 200-plus barrels of ale per year. This situation is analogous to small winery and maple sugar operations.

The brewery system is designed along traditional lines. The boiler will be wood fired. The majority of fluid transfer will be gravity powered; the remainder by hand pumps. Fermenters will be in an underground cellaring area that will maintain a constant temperature. Thus the brewing apparatus itself will require no electricity or gas. A “green cleaning” system will be used that allows the near complete capture of waste water and its reuse for irrigation.

As an added bonus, the brewery is designed so that it can function as a sugarhouse. So for a few months each year it will be producing maple syrup. Once sugaring season is over, it is back to beer.

Can this business model work? We believe it can.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Horse Blanket

A short time ago, I was reading some beer reviews in a national magazine. In one of the reviews, the statement was made that the subject beer had a "warm and pleasing horse blanket aroma and flavor". I have seem similar statements many times over the years. While this particular reviewer meant their statement as a compliment, it set me to thinking.

I have a long association with horses, currently I own three, and it has never crossed my mind to taste their blankets. In fact I cannot imagine it would be very pleasant at all. Ever see what the water looks like after washing one of those things? This leads me to believe that those who created and continue to propagate this description have never been particularly intimate with a real horse blanket.

Yet why does the description of beer as having horse blanket aroma/taste continue to be used? My best guess is that it was used once and became a catch phrase and, like most catch phrases, became so over used that it lost any association with its origin. No literal meaning remains.

These days the "horse blanket" description is most used in reference to Guinness, which to me tastes nothing like a what I would imagine a horse blanket to taste like. I wonder if the first beer so described really did taste like a horse blanket. If it did, I would bet that is why no one remembers it.

Would you really want to taste my blanket?

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Everyone of us who brews beer tends to think highly of our own product. If we didn't we would not be brewing. We hand out our brew to friends and family, but how often do we allow our beer to face a real test of its quality and authenticity?

Recently I brewed an English dark mild. To my mind it turned out great and I decided to put it to the test. Not a homebrew contest with certified judges. No indeed. I wanted to put it to the toughest test possible. To that end, I brought some to a dinner party hosted by a REAL "I rode to school on a double-decker bus" Englishman. I knew I was sticking my neck out, but this was something I had to do.

With no hint of its content, I poured my offering into a glass. My unwitting judge looked at it a bit quizzically while twisting the glass in his hand. With a quick sniff of the aroma, he downed a monster gulp. He placed the glass back on the table and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Then he took a step back, looked at me and said "That's a mild ale. Its good! You don't find those much in America."

Having never tasted a real English mild ale in my life I managed to brew one that was recognizable by an honest-to-God Englishman. Such moments in life are rare. Savor them.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Existentialism and Beer Update

Over the past two weeks I have been listening to a series of lectures on existentialist philosophy. In the past I have had a bit of antipathy toward existentialism. This arose from my dealings from the few self-proclaimed existentialists I have met. Particularly, a Sartre toting and (mis)quoting fellow in Fairbanks, Alaska, whose constant refrain was "I don't care about my life." I could not brook such a philosophy.

I should have known better. As I wend my way through this series of 24 lectures I am finding a very different meaning of existentialism than that which I had heretofore believed. Freedom to choose and responsibility for oneself are the real character of the philosophy of Camus and Sartre, in its simplest form. They (and others) contend that no matter the situation we still have choices and are responsible for the outcome of those choices. We cannot simply let life happen to us. Thus the old excuse of "I had no choice ..." does not hold. Echos of Socrates here.

It is not hard to envision situations where such philosophy would lead to a very severe judgement upon one. We must not expect too much. After all we are only human. Or is that just an excuse? Based on this interpretation, one could opine that existentialism may well be just the philosophy for our current era.

The irony here was Sartre's support of Stalin and Castro et al. How could one argue for freedom of choice and individual responsibility while supporting a system that sought to eliminate individualism, and those who brutally enforced such a system? Camus couldn't figure that out and it ended his friendship with Sartre.

Beer Update

The honey beer is in its 20 day and still turning over the lock. It has slowed, but is still not quite ready for the bottle. The "Old British Ale" is chuggin' right along.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Yeast Failure!

Oh! The pain!

The yeast I pitched in my last recipe, a knock-off from the Old British Beers book, appears to have failed. It was a Wyeast "smack pack" liquid culture. I got on the company website and it stated that a culture could take up to 36 hours to get going. After about 40 nothing was happening, so I pitched a Nottingham dry yeast. Hopefully this will save things.

Looking back over my brewing notes, I see that of the last four times I have used Wyeast cultures: Two have failed, one underperformed, and one (Scotch Ale) worked excellently. I am not sure what the problem could be. I had made a note that only the Scotch Ale pouch had inflated prior to pitching and that was the only one that I smacked the night before brewing. The others were all smacked the day of brewing but still had 6-8 hours before pitching. Maybe that is the key. However, the Wyeast website does say that the pouch need not be inflated prior to pitching.

I know many people swear by Wyeast products, so if anyone has an idea what went wrong, please pass it on.

Thanks and Cheers!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Old British Beer

Greetings and Happy New Year!

Some time ago I stumbled upon the website of the Durden Park Beer Circle. This group of lads and lasses have been pursuing the recovery of formulas for the great British beers of yesteryear. They have published an excellent book, Old British Beers and How To Make Them, of which I have obtained a copy. Part one of the book contains a brief but fascinating history of how the members went about researching and testing their recipes. The second part of the book discusses brewing such beers and includes 131 recipes.

The recipes are all designed for the production of one imperial gallon (4.54 liters). This is where it gets interesting. Some of these recipes call for up to 10 lbs. of pale malt for one imperial gallon! In most of the recipes, as much malt is used for one imperial gallon as I use for five US gallons. I am not quite ready yet to commit 40 or or more pounds of malt to one five gallon batch of beer, however I was inspired.

The most noteworthy feature of the recipes in this book is their simplicity. Most American recipes have a long list of malts, hops, and other additives, often added in very small amounts and at varying times in the mash or boil. The recipes in this book all follow one of two mash and boil schedules and have only two to four ingredients. That's it.

In this spirit of simplicity, and guided by the Durden Park Beer Circle's fine text, I created my own simple "Old British Beer". I used British pale malt in a ratio of 7/1 lbs. with 60L crystal malt. For hops I used the last three ounces from my own hopyard. The yeast of choice was Wyeast British Ale II.

What will become of this "Old British Beer"? Time will tell, and so will I....