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The Belgian Mare Says Hello!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

To Prime Or Not To Prime?

The instructions that came with my first homebrew kit directed the brewer to spoon a bit of sugar into each bottle before filling to get things working so that the beer would carbonate. Ever since, I have always primed (i.e. added a bit more fermentable material) my beer when bottling. In time, I switched to the more reliable method of boiling up a solution dry malt extract and adding that to the bottling bucket. This gave more consistent results, but the idea was the same: Get the yeast working again so the beer will carbonate. Some brewers even advocate putting the primed and bottled beer in a warm place to “turbo condition” it. I have done that, you are drinking your beer in under a week, but the beer seemed a bit harsh and raw.

Now I sometimes feel like I am one of the last homebrewers who still bottle conditions their beer. Seems everyone owns, and is singing the praises of, CO2 tanks and counter pressure fillers. They do work slick, but perhaps we are losing something in the process.

In my search for new methods and recipes for brewing I came across a copy of the book Brew Your Own British Real Ale by Graham Wheeler and Roger Protz (1998 ed.). The first thing that struck me was how much simpler their recipes were that those in the American homebrewing publications. I tried some of the recipes, employing my usual brewing methods, and had good luck. See my blog post on recognition and mild ale for the result of one particular batch.

I then dug a bit deeper into the text and read the methods they advocated for brewing real ale. To me the most notable item was that they advocated not priming the beer when bottling. They did not advocate bottling the beer while still working (as some have suggested). In fact, they recommended maturing the ale in a barrel for a minimum of three weeks. The barrel should be allowed to vent so that volatile by-products of fermentation can escape. Then bottle without priming. Carbonation would be provided by the slow fermentation of dextrins.

To me this seemed a recipe for a big batch of flat yucky beer. It was too big a risk. So I ignored this advice, until the opportunity to test it presented itself.

It cam to pass that circumstances conspired and I found myself with a batch of beer in the fermenter that I was not able to bottle until three months after brew day. The fermentation lock had long since stopped turning over. Aha! Here was my chance to experiment with the Wheeler/Protz no-prime method. So on bottling day, I bottled the first half of the beer with no priming. The second half was primed as usual.

I am not a very patient person. After one week I opened a bottle of each. Both were flat and I was worried that even the primed bottles would not carbonate. After two weeks, the unprimed bottles had not changed much. The primed bottles had a healthy carbonation. I figured I would get at least half a good batch.

Wondering where I went wrong, I went back and reread Wheeler and Protz. It was then I noticed an important point I had overlooked previously. Unprimed bottle-conditioned beer needs at least a month, often much longer, in the bottle before it is ready to be drunk. That made sense.

So I forced myself to be patient. It paid off. After one month the beer from the unprimed bottles had a nice light carbonation with the traditional small head of real ales. Beer from the primed bottles had a big white head.

The most interesting part was the difference in taste. The unprimed beer was very smooth and earthy with a bitter bite on the back of the tongue. To me it seemed very traditional and pleasing.

In contrast, the beer that had been primed fairly attacked the tongue with a fizzy, bitter hoppiness. I suspect this has something to do with the interaction of the carbonic acid (from the higher CO2 concentration) with the hop resins. It was a great beer; however it bore little resemblance to its unprimed brethren.

In the end, it appears that I got two great beers out of one batch. So to prime or not to prime is not just a matter of convenience. It truly is a matter of taste and style. I have two more beers in the cellar right now, both of which I have left one half of the bottles unprimed. I eagerly await the results. To anyone who has not tried this with one of their beers, I strongly recommend it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Harvest Time

As many of you are already aware, what started out as a promising year for hop production took a decided downturn. Several weeks of non-stop rain played havoc with the plants and in the end half of the third year plants had died. Seeing plants that I had tended for so long wither and die was heart breaking.

However, all was not lost. The remaining plants continued to forge ahead. Even as their brethren (actually they are female, sistern?) turned brown and crispy, they held course and in time the spurs that become cones were visible. I did not dare hope, yet the cones continued to develop.

A few days ago I noticed a few cones that looked good enough to pick. So I got out the ladder and climbed up to see what was developing at the top of the trellis. I was quite surprised to see that a substantial number of cones had developed in the upper reaches of the plants. Many of the cones, though ready to pick, were smaller than normal. Still, a significant number were of good size.

I happened to be brewing that day, so I used some of the fresh picked hops in that brew. I dried the others and there are still more waiting to be picked. While the harvest will be nowhere near what we anticipated in the early spring, I do think it will be bigger than last year. All things considered, that is quite an accomplishment.

One nice thing about hops is that they tend to get stronger every year and spread readily. Given this, I suspect that the remaining plants will be able to fill in the gaps left by the departed. Our first year plants, some of which amazed us all by producing cones, should be on line for a good harvest next year. So let us be thankful for the harvest we got this year and look forward to next year.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

We're In!

At our last meeting with the planning board Lonn's revisions to the site plan were accepted. We have received our signed acceptace from the board. Now it is time to get moving!

Lonn and Larry are working together and we will soon be breaking ground. I need to get out and remove a few trees before then, but that will not be a problem. One is a nice medium sized maple. I hate to cut it. Lonn feels pretty strongly that he cannot dig the cellar hole without risking the tree coming down due to root disturbance. He has more experience than me when it comes to this, so I guess the tree comes down. Bummer.

Let us not lose sight of the good news. We have both the zoning and planning board approval and pre-approval from TTB. So we are in pretty good shape. Thanks to everyone who supports this brewery. We have a long way to go and your support keeps me going.

First Brew In A While

For the first time in too long I brewed. It was a bit of a rush job, but at this point in the game I have a good feel for what works. So I went to my grain box and grabbed a bit of this and that and a German Ale yeast culure that I had never used before. The result is a thick black brew that will, no doubt, be a winner. It felt good to be back brewing after three months. I will keep you posted on the results.