27 October 2009

Tragedy Tamarillo

The sad remains of our newest Tamarillo/Tree Tomato after strong winds yesterday. I was so looking forward to propagating this one, as it is a new strain -- much taller than the other strain we already have, and bearing much larger fruit.

In other, better, news, the Spelt is forming beautiful heads and flowering. The tallest stalks are shoulder high, and so far (knock on wood) the pesky Finches have shown not the slightest interest. On the other hand they have uncanny knack for sensing when seeds are 3 days short of fully-ripe!

20 October 2009

Wort Happens

Adrian commented rather extensively on my First Brew with the new rig, and, rather than just reply privately or in an additional comment (where it'll just be lost in the noise), I thought I'd reply more fully here.

Adrian wrote:

Your low extraction might not be the fault of the crush - it could be the grain mix. You didn't mention what proportion of pale malt you'd had in with your home made crystal. I've found my home kilning for crystal doesn't always convert all the starches to sugar in-situ so a good proportion of enzymes are required from the pale malt. Also - upping the steep time and good 'flushing' of the grist will help.
Naaahhh... it was the crush, followed by too-fast sparging. I ran the second brew last Saturday with the help of the latest addition to the arsenal: The Crushinator Mk 2!

The Crushinator works like a charm, though I will adjust the gap between the rollers down by perhaps 0.1mm next time. A little too much paranoia about stuck sparges, I guess. ;-) Sparging took almost a full hour this time around, and I ended up with 19l of 1.042 gravity wort now sitting in primary ferment. Actually first fermentation is almost done. Already! I washed and re-used the yeast from the first batch, and it seems to have worked out fine.

The aim of the first brew was really to shake down the entire system and iron out some of the (inevitable) bugs. The goal for the 2nd brew was to establish what I'm calling the Baseline Ale: a very plain, simple, straightforward Pale Ale that will serve as a "standard" against which I can compare other experiments and recipes. For example, I'm planning a series of brews where I vary only the water and its constituents. Then another series where I can play around with various hopping techniques. (No! Not "jumping up and down on one leg"!) Then maybe some brews where I play with different yeasts. But changing only a single factor at a time, so that I can compare the result against Baseline Ale and know exactly what is going on.

As a result of the brew being about Baseline Ale I used bought Crystal Malt for both brews, and not my own homemade; that will await a future experiment: I need to be able to taste the differences between my own Crystal and "professionally made". Conversion was almost certainly not part of the problem: my recipe was 95% Pale Malt and only 5% Crystal (guessing that it's 60L) in a single-step infusion mash at 68ºC for a tad over an hour. I will probably extend the mash time a little the next time around.

Are you taking pics of your rig, if so.. are they online anywhere? I'd love to see your setup.

Most of the pics of the rig (and its construction) are now up at http://picasaweb.google.com/mikro2nd/BraamekraalBrauhaus02?feat=directlink

It's a long shot (and some way from you) but when I was down there I did visit a small brewery near Hermanus (Birkenhead Brewery) and I think they malted their own grains from memory - they might flog a few sacks to you if you're passing.

Birkenhead Brewery is still going strong after changing hands and brewmasters (a couple of times?) The current brewmaster is very helpful to homebrewers - one friend regularly buys Crystal Malt from them. They don't currently malt their own grain, though. Pale Malt is all sourced from SAB Maltings in Caledon, and (as far as I know) they import specialty grains directly themselves. We go down to that part of the world fairly frequently, as we have a bunch of family who live in that region, and I am definitely planning to drop by and visit with Andy when next we go down there.

Here in Knysna we have the famous Mitchells Brewery. I went to visit Dave who runs the show there last week, and he, too, is very willing to help out; he offered transport from Caledon for my Pale Malt supplies, and I plan to take him up on that offer!

11 October 2009

Spring Planting

Planted out yesterday: Chiles - 9 or 10 varieties. Some of them only one or two plants each. This is something that's been puzzling me for a while: Many of the seeds I acquire from the North show very poor germination. I wondered whether this was due to their not getting enough after-ripening time, missing out on some cold dormancy, or something similar. I think that Patrick's suggestion is most likely correct: The seeds are probably going through some pretty obnoxious X-rays (or even irradiation) whilst at the tender mercies of the SA post office.

I've had particularly bad luck with Jalapeños this year. Two sowings have been nailed by some creature. Grasshoppers are the most likely suspect. So I only have about 6 plants at this stage ;-) Probably too late for another sowing this year, but I may just give it a go anyway. And here I was planning to try some crosses between them and various other Chiles. Guess I'll have to try crossing them by hand, then.

Also planted out more of the Tomatoes: about a dozen Lime Green Salad, since I know they're particularly sellable. I've been asked ("begged" might be more accurate) for lettuce and other produce by a couple of local restaurants, and, since no other work has been forthcoming this year, am of a mind to give it a go. I've never been mad about the idea of selling produce at markets -- done my time at markets (selling candles!) But I do sorta fancy the idea of growing produce in a dialogue with a chef who appreciates what they're getting, and who can make it part of their "story".

A few days ago I grafted Potato shoots onto some Tomato rootstocks in the hope that this will force them to produce true seed. None of the Potatoes I can grow here have ever produced fruits, and I'm really, really keen to do some breeding work with Potatoes. We get such pathetic crap for Potatoes here... So far the grafts are doing quite well in their plastic bag. At least, none of them have died yet! It's my first attempt at grafting anything, so I'm not really expecting too much. I'm wondering when/how I'll know whether the graft has taken and I can/should remove the plastic tape holding the graft together. Fun experiment, though!

08 October 2009

More Rain Delays Play

More rain.  The trouble is that I have to wait a day or two after rain for the soil to drain enough to work safely without damaging soil structure.

Most of my early planting seems to have paid off, though not by much, I think.  Most of the seeds planted have come up, but are showing such slow progress that plantings made later are likely to catch them up.

I have in mind to start selling (organic) veggie seeds.  I don't know of any organic seed suppliers in SA, and I love growing things all the way to seed.  I usually have to make a conscious effort to rip out plants that have grown past their prime and "should" come out to make space for more productive crops, but I seldom have the heart for it.

Together with the many heirloom and unusual varieties I have, I think this could be a nice little income.  And I love doing it, unlike my feelings about computing these days!  I'll start small, especially since I have some varieties that cannot technically be called "organic" - I simply haven't grown them to seed for enough generations to satisfy purists.  To me it smells of "politics and ego" when I get told that a variety has to have been grown organically for three generations before it can really be considered "organic seed".  I suppose there really has to be a line drawn somewhere, especially since there are so many bullshit artists and fly-by-nights in the local organic scene, but it really is just arb.

I would love some feedback on this idea - what sort of vegetables, what varieties, quantities and pricing...  especially from South African organic growers.

First Wort

Ran the new rig through its first complete brew today. A delight! Everything went very smoothly, with only minor hiccups.

The mashtun's heat-retention was probably the biggest question of the day. Happy to report that it's brilliant. Less than 1º temperature drop over the full hour of mashing!

Burners are fine, though I may try swapping them around for a brew sometime, just as an experiment. I'm pretty sure the 2 burners are pretty unequal, and I don't need such a massive flame under the boiler; once it's reached a rolling boil, only a very tiny flame is needed to maintain the boil.

Pump behaved admirably. The drainage plumbing bits I added are unnecessary: Once the mashtun-drain is disconnected it works just fine as a drain.

The only thing that went wrong was an unexpected leak of coolant-water from the chiller! This after testing it 3 times and not experiencing a problem yet. The only challenge was to keep the leak-water out of the cool wort, since it is dam-water, so something I definitely don't want landing in the wort.

The crush was terrible, though, so very poor extraction. OG 1.030! OK, so I have a week to solve the crusher issue while this batch ferments out.

All done, including cleanup, in a fraction over 4 hours. Pretty good going for a first run, and possibly the most relaxed brew day I've ever had.

05 October 2009

Malting: First Attempt

few days ago, I decided to try my hand at malting barley. Why not jump in at the deep end? I'll go straight for a Crystal Malt. After all, Pale Malt is easy enough to obtain; it's the specialised malts that are more difficult to get hold of.

I bought a 5kg bag of Barley from the local farm-supply store, and put 1kg into a bucket, covered with water, and soaked overnight.

Mistake 1: I should have pre-screened the grain first. There was a fair quantity of undersized grains, chaff and bits of stalk. I doubt that this grain would have been allowed into the silos at Caledon, but, after all, it is being sold as bird-food, not as malting-quality Barley.

After soaking, I kept the grain moist by wetting it twice a day, just as I would do for any salad-sprouts. After 24 hours most of the grains were putting out little rootlets, and after 36 hours I could see the acrospire growing by dismantling individual grains. On average grains were about 30% converted at around 48 hours -- that is: the acrospire was about 30% of the length of the kernel.

By this morning -- 3½ days -- quite a number of the grains were "overconverted" -- thay had already started sprouting. Ideally I wanted to catch them when they were 75 to 100% converted. Actually, I probably did get close to that for the majority of the grains, and, no doubt, some are still a little under my target.

Learning 2: The vertical turning of the grain is extremely important. Happily I figured this one out quite early in the soaking, so not too much harm done. The grains at the bottom of the bucket stay wetter, but get less air; the grains at the top tend to dry out, but end-up growing more quickly. So the vertical turning is important to try and even-out the germination rate of the grain population. I think that 3 turnings a day would be optimal. More than than would only increase the risk of damaging the tender growing grains.

Now, since I want to make a Crystal Malt, then next step is to wet-roast the grain, and hold it at a saccharification rest (69 or 70°C) for (I guessed!) about 50 minutes. Essentially we want to conduct a normal mashing process -- turning starches into sugars -- but keep the sugars inside each little kernel instead of dissolving the sugars out into wort.I just plonked the malted barley into a big pot and put it on the stove at a very low heat with a bit of hot water in the bottom of the pot to keep things steamy and moist. This gave me a bit of trouble in maintaining the correct temperature. Were I to try malting on a regular basis, this is one of the steps I would bear down on to get better; I think that a steam-driven warming might be more controllable, or perhaps a simple double-boiler setup. 30 Minutes into the mashing/roasting step I could clearly (though not strongly) taste the sweetness developing, so I couldn't have missed the temperature window too badly.

Learning 3: Even using the biggest cooking-pot we have I don't think we could comfortably roast more than about 1½kg of malt at a time. One would certainly need/want to handle larger volumes than that, and even more so if I want to produce a Pale Malt.

The final step -- kilning -- was done in the oven. I spread the malt out on a couple of baking trays so that the grain-bed is not too thick, and stuck them in the oven at about 130°C -- or as close to that as the oven thermostat will manage. The grain was turned and mixed roughly every 30 minutes to try and ensure even toasting. After 30 minutes the grain bed was starting to dry out, and a delicious, honey-ish, caramel aroma started wafting through the house. At 60 minutes, there is still some moisture in the individual grains, but the kernels have developed distinctly tough skins. Rootlets have mostly dried out. 90 minutes: Grains are developing a crunchy outer coat. Some are getting distinctly chewey inside, and the roasting pans are gaining a small amount of caramelly deposit on them. I see some challenging washing-up in my future! I originally -- based on reading and thumbsuck -- planned to kiln the grain for 2 hours, but at that stage the grain still didn't get that really Crystal crunchy texture, so I kilned for an additional ½hour, and then left the trays in the oven while it cooled. Turns out to have (maybe!) been a mistake to add the extra ½hour.

After cooling, the malt is dentalwork endangeringly crunchy. Flavour is really good, tending almost to the Dark Side (burnt sugar flavour), but strongly well of Caramel. Colour: I would guess at a 60 to 80L range somewhere. 1kg of Barley resulted in 690g Crystal Malt, though I certainly lost a bit during a accident whilst rinsing the sprouts, and a bit more to tasting at every stage of the process.

I have subsequently tripped across another homebrewer's account of trying to malt barley at home. Sadly the blog lacks an account of how it turned out. That process mentions a couple of air-drying steps between soaking and mashing, and after mashing, but before roasting. I think this would probably be a good idea, and might help to reduce the kilning time.

Lessons for next time: Better temperature control at the mashing/roasting stage! And perhaps mashing for longer.

All-in-all I would call it a success, but the final test awaits: Trying it out in a brew!

01 October 2009


I'm fed up with the useless South African internet/mail-order homebrew suppliers. Essentially there are only 3, and they're all pretty useless in my experience. Orders fail to pitch up for months. Ingredients that I'm  told are in stock, mysteriously become out-of-stock upon ordering. Websites that list fairly common-use grains as out-of-stock -- since March 2008!

It makes me want to set up my own internet brewshop. The buggers are ripe for some competition!

There are some challenges to the thing, I admit. Firstly, I think that most (all?) of the online suppliers are under capitalised. I suspect that running a brew-supply business needs quite a lot of working capital: you have to stock quite a significant range of yeasts, malts, hops and adjuncts, not to mention expensive kits, in order to really "be in business", even if you only carry a quite restricted product range. That all ties up quite a lot of money in eminently perishable products that you hope you might sell before they're stale. Then, too, I don't know that there are enough home- / craft- / nano- / micro-breweries in SA to really sustain such a business. Maybe there are, but I suspect that it is very borderline.

And to think, all I want is some specialty malts and a couple of yeasts.

Suddenly I was struck by a passing Thought Particle! A few weeks ago we were treated to a  tour of the Caledon Maltings, arranged by the SouthYeasters brew-club. (And I'm very remiss in blogging that fascinating tour!)  And we learned a bit about the malting process, didn't we? (At least, as practised on an industrial scale!) Why not try my hand at a bit of malting?

So, this afternoon I bought 5 kilos of barley from the local farm co-op. Bunged 1kg into a bucket of water to soak overnight, and let's see how it goes! After all, stage one is only sprouting grains, no? And we've certainly done that plenty times. I'll probably leap in at the deep-end and try for a Caramel Malt straight-off. Why stick to something simple, eh? So the roasting process might catch me out... what's the risk? A whole kilo of Barley! If I manage to figure the process out in a tiny batch (though 1kg still gives me a decent amount of malt to use for brewing if it does work out OK) then I'll worry about scaling the process up a bit.

Hmmmmm... maybe -- between the home-brewers and the microbreweries -- there's enough of a market for a local specialty-grain maltings locally ;-)

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