What have we learned?

Like any good children’s programming host, I feel it’s important to summarize what I’ve learned between my last run and the upcoming bourbon run. I’m inclined to summarize for two reasons. First, I hear tell that many people define insanity as doing the same thing multiple times and expecting different results. After all, as my momma would say, “you get what you give”. If you’re giving the same thing, and expecting something different, then you’ve obviously got a screw loose…rattlin’ around inside yo’ head. Ok, so my momma’s not a black woman from the deep south, but I think you’re probably pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down. Secondly, it’s important to note what I’ve learned because that’s the entire point of this blog. I want to make sure that you all know what I know and that you all are able to safely and comfortably make your own ‘shine.

That all being said, here’s the list:

1. Starch is not fermentable. It’s something that home brewers know. However, it seems absent in home distiller webpages. It’s nice to talk about making that, “Good Corn Liquor” as Buck Owens says. It’s another thing to understand how that, “Good Corn Liquor” comes to be. We talked before about, “high adjunct mashes”. Well, corn certainly falls into that category. You wanna make a bourbon? That’s super. I do too…but you need to know that a 50% corn mash is going to take a little TLC. Please note that TLC and THC are not the same thing. If you’re interested in THC, I’m sure there’s another blog for that.

2. It’s all about the enzymes, baby. I know that you probably thought that it’s, “all about the benjamins,” but it’s not. You need enzymes to break those adjuncts down into fermentable sugars. Does DME have the requisite enzymes? No. DME is wonderful, and sugary, and will be food for yeast. However, once the DME is over and done with…there’s nothing more for the yeast to eat. That means that the yeast will stop doing what you need it to do. You add malts to make sure that you have the enzymes required to support the conversion into alcohol.

3. Enzymes Die. That’s right, those beloved little chemicals will die and cease to function if you’re not careful. Seriously, check out recipe 2. It’s written by a man who understands the fragility of life. Do you notice how the instructions tell you to let the mash cool before you toss in your malt? It’s to prevent the enzymes from dying. Perhaps “dying” is the wrong word, but it amounts to the same thing. You need your enzymes to work for you or your yield will be terrible. Remember that fermentation is a large process that’s carried out by tiny little molecules (enzymes) or tiny little one celled organisms (yeast). respect the fragility of those structures and you’ll go far, kid.

4. Those little “L” Scores on Malt Mean Something. Here’s the deal. When you’re buying your grains (malts) you’ll see a range of say, 10L-120+L. You may wonder what that means. It’s the “Lovibond Scale”. Essentially, some dude named Joseph Lovibond was brewing in the 19th century, and he had one of those cheesy watershed moments. He was like, “woah, the longer i toast these malts, the darker they become. Additionally, the longer I toast these malts, their flavor profile keeps changing.”. I’m sure he said something almost exactly like that. Anyhow, the moral of the story is two fold:

  1. The Lovibond Scale will help you reach the desired flavor profile. When you go to buy your malts, you’ll see an (x)L number next to the name of the malt. This is the Lovibond scale. These malts are commonly referred to as “specialty malts”, and for good reason. They don’t provide a lot of fermentable sugars, but they can add a toasty quality to the mash. This toasty quality ranges from more or less neutral (0-30L) to malty (30-60L) to bitter (60+L). Please be aware that the flavor profile is my own and not necessarily indicative of your own preferences. Experiment, dammit…that’s what it’s all about.
  2. Remember that time I told you that enzymes will die? Well. I wasn’t kidding. Anything that you see with an “L” attachment means that it’s been toasted. Toasting Kills the enzymes. Don’t get me wrong, it leaves a little fermentable sugar crystal in its place, but the toasted, specialty malts will  NOT help you ferment corn or other high adjunct mashes. Respect your enzymes, and they’ll work for you. Take a look at your website. You should all know that I use http://www.beergrains.com. I use this site because it makes grains easily available in my area. They have a great product, and great service. Use this as a resource. If it says that a specific grain is a good, “base malt” that means something. Base malts help turn adjuncts into booze which is, after all, exactly what we want.

5. Remember What Game You’re Playing. What are you doing? You’re turning grains into booze. Let’s not even worry about technique beyond that at this point. I’m serious. You can look up recipes, you can look up testimonials. Hell, I’ll even say that you found me…so you must be digging deep. Anything you can do to further your objective is a good thing. I’m not going to lie. I have a Bourbon recipe (recipe 2). That does not mean that I don’t have my ace in the hole. I have a bag of Amylase and a refractometer (not just a hydrometer). If my mash doesn’t come out with sufficient Brix/SG, I will totally and unashamedly add amylase to the mash. I need sugar, dammit, and I will have sugar. It may not be beautiful, it may not be ideal, but it will be successful. There’s always room for improvement, but you need a product to improve upon. Be bold. It’s your still, it’s your time. Go get ’em.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be mashing soon. To all of those mashing, I say, “Good luck”. Please add a comment if you want my advice.

-SR

Making the cut.

Most folks who have done any research into running a still have probably heard of cutting, and there’s certainly a lot of info on the web about how and when and why to make your cuts. For example, anyone who has survived their first batch knows that you need to make a cut at the beginning to make sure that the methanol that heralds the coming of the “good stuff” or you’ll go blind, turn yellow, and probably die. Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point. What many people don’t necessarily understand is that there are more cuts to be made. Knowing when and how to make the cuts will provide you and your comrades with a superior product. Remember that while ethanol may be considered the “active ingredient” in an alcoholic beverage, it’s certainly not the only thing that’s in there. Whiskey for example relies on flavors from what are called key congeners. These include esthers, other alcohols and “fusel oils”. In a nutshell, making the cuts properly will give you the flavor you want without the chemicals (including water) that you don’t.

So, let’s get some terminology straight. The fluid flowing from the still is divided into 4 categories:

  1. Foreshots – This stuff is the absolute garbage that comes out at the beginning of the run.
  2. Heads – This is where the ethanol starts to come out. It’s early on in the process, and the heads will still contain the aforementioned congeners.
  3. Hearts – The hearts is where you’ll find the majority of the ethanol.
  4. Tails – The ethanol tapers off into water and a few other chemicals

But how do you know where and when to make your cuts? That’s a very good question, and one that I can’t answer for you. Cutting is not simply a favorite past time for emotionally repressed teens, it’s also what turns the science of distillation into an art. That politically incorrect sentence is the perfect segue into the experiment I mentioned a couple posts back. Here’s how it will work.

1. I’m going to perform a stripping run. That’s right. I’m going to operate the still (fully clothed, get your minds out of the gutter…pervs) and just separate the alcohol(s) from the wash. I’m not going to toss the methanol, or try to make it good initially. I’m just going to strip the signal from the noise. Allegedly, the guideline here is to strip it until the liquid coming from the hose at the end of the still is the same ABV as the ABV of the wash going into the still. I’ll have to have my tester ready.

2. I’m going to cool everything down, toss the remaining wash from the still, give it a good rinse and get it ready to go for, as my wife would say, “realsies.”

3. I’m going to put about a gallon of water in the still so I don’t boil it dry, and then start over again.

Now, this is where it’s going to get interesting. I’m going to take 16 jars and label each of them. I will leave extra space so I can note the time, temperature at the top of the column, and proof for each jar. In order to make this happen I will, of course, have to proof test the product before dropping it in the jar. I should be able to fill about 16 jars with 150mL each.

Why the change in protocol you ask? Simple, I want to be able to easily split up the foreshots, heads, hearts and tails. I want to be able to experience each of them uniquely (proof, smell, etc.). Once I understand how everything seems, I will mix jars into a final product. The log of times, temps and proofs can start a large table that will track my batches. I can capture the information I use against the recipe and begin building my very own moonshining database. I know, it’s exciting.

The moral of the story here is that you should stay tuned. The next one will be more structured than previous runs and should give us some interesting things. On a very related note, this methodology was taken from a book called The Kings County Distillery’s Guide to Urban Moonshining. It’s a great read if you’re interested.

History lesson.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re correct. I am in no way, shape or form qualified to give anyone a history lesson. Literally, I learned that the 80s cartoon, “Dino Riders”, wasn’t a documentary just last week. To say that I’m a little slow is an understatement, or perhaps it’s just self evident.

Anyway, as many of you no doubt know, I do a fair bit of reading to learn more about distilling, home brewing, wooing women, etc. The other day I stumbled on a story that’s relatively interesting, and I thought I’d pass it along.

It turns out that on the fifteenth of January in the year of our lord 1919 21 people died and 150 people were injured in Boston, MA. Was it by a crazed killer, or a horse and buggy pile up, perhaps? Nope. the casualties were caused by a…wait for it…a tidal wave of molasses from a ruptured vat at the Purity Distilling Company. It turns out that when a tank containing over 2 million gallons of molasses pops, it pops big. It’s estimated that the tidal wave was approximately 30 feet high. Those of you out there who have worked with the sticky substance (either for distillation or for a less nefarious purpose) have to share my shock and awe. Molasses is heavy. Correction. Molasses is heavy as hell. Can you imagine the devastation caused by a 30 foot wave of molasses?

Now you’re thinking, “hey, I don’t have an imagination. Don’t you have any pictures or something?”. I don’t…but, as always, the internet provides.

BostonMolassesDisaster

In true 1919 style, the distillery was quick to blame anarchists for the destruction. Apparently they didn’t understand the deep and abiding love most anarchists have for liquor, and after years of testimony and investigation it turns out that the tank was poorly built and poorly maintained. As many or all of you understand, fermentation will increase pressure on the container (hooray for airlocks). The temperature increase that comes with spring and the natural expansion of fermentation were just too much for the tank.

What’s your take away? Well, funny you should ask. No post of mine would be complete without a list:

  1. Watch your fermenters. You should check all of your equipment before you use it. Also, full means full. While I doubt anything or anyone will drown if you have a rupture, I don’t envy envy the mess you’ll be cleaning.
  2. Should you ever see a 30 foot wave of molasses, you’ll probably die.
  3. No, you can’t surf it.

You can watch this video if you’re interested. If you’re not interested then you’re making bad life decisions.

…And we’re back

That’s right, kids. We’re back. The howling winter winds are singing their swan song, and it can’t come too soon. For those of you that are keeping up, I posted the next recipe this very evening. I’m taking a step away from the vodka initiative to trying something new. I am very interested in the new bourbon recipe. I bet you’re all wondering why I’m excited. Well, it wouldn’t be a blog if I didn’t tell you. I’m interested for a variety of reasons:

  1. Did you even look at the recipe? I dig it. If you’ve done your reading, you’ll know that bourbons are predominantly corn based. What I love about the recipe is that it’s simple. I like the fact that you start, for all intents and purposes, cooling the mash as soon as it starts to boil. You drop the cracked corn in, stir it about 5 times to get the starch nice and distributed through the water, and then…kapow. You drop the malt in to break the starch up into fermentable sugars. It’s simple. It’s elegant, and I really hope that it works as advertised.
  2. I’m using a new yeast. That’s right! I have been using Alotec 48 turbo, and it’s been swell. However, there’s something about a whiskey yeast that appeals to me. If I may toss a simile out there, turbo yeast is like an antipersonnel mine. Sure, it’s gets the job done, but it’s not really elegant. Turbo yeast does one thing, and one thing only. Turbo yeast takes sugar and makes booze. It’s a quantity, not a quality, game.
  3. I have aces in the hole. Again, I’m sure that you’re all avid readers. That means that you already know about my research into high adjunct mash fermentation and the enzyme amylase. You know that, come hell or high water, I will get yield from this run. That all being said I don’t think that I’ll need it.
  4. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I am tweaking things, but that doesn’t mean that i’m reinventing the wheel. All things aside, this is my third distillation. I’m better now than I was then. Perhaps that sounds peculiar, but we all know I’ve made mistakes. I’m not going to make the sames ones again. No, no. This isn’t hubris. This isn’t me thinking that nothing can go wrong. This is me believing that there must be a finite amount of mistakes that can be made, and I, like The Who, won’t be fooled again.

I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but there’s also a cutting experiment coming up. Well, I suppose my scientist friends wouldn’t consider it “An Experiment”. After all, I’m not testing a hypothesis. However, I am going to dissect this batch. I want to get to the core of batch cutting. I want to use the next batch as an exercise in understanding what can turn a whiskey into a good whiskey. That, my friends, is hubris. Humility be damned. I will make a good whiskey. Mark my words.

Regrouping

Like most of the men, women and children living in Canada, I begin watching the weather closely in March. March, after all, should bring the first stretch of days that are consistently above freezing in approximately one million days. That’s right. The 2014-2015 winter season was more of an ice age than a proper season. Those of you keeping up with my projects will no doubt recall that I was sent packing with my tail between my legs in January both because of the unforgiving cold that made the whole experience abysmal, and because the mash was more the consistency of a foul breakfast cereal than anything approaching a proper vodka mash. It seems that the cyclical nature of the seasons is looking to fix the first problem. If mother nature’s going to take care of one of the issues it behooves me to look at taking on the second one.

A careful review of the manifold problems of the Vodka 1 batch has left me with a list of valuable lessons:

1. Don’t operate a still in the cold. For the veterans out there, this is probably a no brainer. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with ‘stilling in the cold. The issue is my personal reaction to the cold. It makes me impatient. Impatience when operating a still isn’t a good thing. I was so agitated by the time my first run was over that I threw in the towel. I won’t tell you that this was all due to the cold…after all, the issues with the thickness of the mash had a lot to do with my malaise. That all being said, last time I ran the still I learned that I’m just wasting my time unless I’ve got my head on straight.

2. There’s no prize for filling your fermenter. That’s right, no prize. Do you know what you get for trying to squeeze a little extra something something into your fermenter? You get an explosion of foul smelling snot all over the place. Perhaps explosion is overly dramatic, but I can tell you that it ain’t pretty. The basin I kept the fermenter in looked rather like the on-set aftermath of a less reputable adult film. In my defense, I thought to myself, “self, this mash is thick. It’s not going to work well so you need to squeeze every drop…or, you know, gelatinous chunk that you can into that fermenter if you’re going to get anything out of it.” Well, self, fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, well, that’s even more shame. There’s a fill line and I intend to use it from now on.

3. WTF is an adjunct? Historically, I’ve thought of adjuncts only as the slave labor of the academic community. However, it turns out that adjunct is also the word for non-malted grains that don’t cleanly break down into fermentable sugars. Don’t get me wrong, I understood that rye and oats (you know…pretty much everything that went into the vodka mash) don’t easily break down the way a distiller wants, but I thought that the problem would be solved with the addition of the DME and the fact that I more or less boiled the grain to death. Ah, the naivete of youth. It turns out that DME is not a magical powder that will solve all of the problems with high adjunct mash.

So, what am I going to do differently? After all, March marks the beginning of the season. I will need to be an industrious ant during the warm months if I am to produce enough to party it up grasshopper style through the winter. I spent the last several weeks doing some casual research and for my next batch, there will be two main differences.

First, I will not be using turbo yeast. I’ve picked up some whiskey distiller’s yeast and my hope is that the different yeast will take away some of the after taste that I experienced with my first batch – the all sugar wash I’ve talked about in the past.

Second, I’ve learned a thing or two about schooling those contemptible adjuncts. How do I intend on doing this? Amylase. It appears that a single teaspoon of the enzyme amylase is enough to take on 5 gallons of thick mash. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to heed the lessons of the past. I don’t think that the last batch could have been solved with amylase. It just means that I’ll have something on hand to increase the fermentable sugar content of the mash so that I can get more of the sweet, sweet ethanol at the end.

Lastly, I learned that I need to be careful when substituting ingredients (e.g. subbing flaked Rye for rye). I need to pay more attention to the consistency of the mash. I can’t simply follow a recipe blindly. I was so focused on doing it right that I ignored my instincts and kept on cooking and adding ingredients.

So, here we go again…onward and upward. I’m looking at bourbon recipes and am going to take that shot (pun intended) in the next few weeks.

The Brewhaus Essential Extractor.

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted, and, to be honest with you, I don’t plan on distilling again for at least a month. It’s too damn cold this time of year to wait around in the cold for hours and hours watching fluid trickle out of a chemically resistant hose. I’ve been meaning to write a little bit about the equipment used. There’s no time like the present.

I mentioned in the links page that I use the Brewhaus essential extractor. I won’t say that it’s a traditional pot still. It’s not the polished copper that pulls the heart strings of nostalgia, but it, in my admittedly limited experience, is a wonderful still. The reasons I like it, in a nutshell are:

  • Pricepoint – If you can find a better still at a lower price, make a comment.
  • Craftsmanship – The welds on this thing are great. The steel is good and thick, and I have every faith that this thing’s going to be with me for the long haul.
  • Reflux flexibility – Pack the column with whatever you like. I use copper mesh to help ferret out impurities, but you can drop in anything from steel wool to ceramic and it’s gonna be great.
  • Simple, straight forward temperature control – The Essential Extractor is everything you’ll need in one kit. This includes a submersible water pump, and enough hose to run not only through the condenser, but through the column itself has pipes welded in that you can, as I say, flood. Flooding the column sends cold water through the pipes and drops the column temperature in a hurry when you need it.

Here’s a picture of my brewhaus extractor fully assembled:

IMG_20150131_132950

It’s an 8 gallon pot (note the wide base to help keep the center of gravity low). Fully assembled (and on the burner) it stands a proud nearly seven feet tall. the wide base also keeps the heat diffusing nicely across the base of the pot, and, in case you have a small burner or hotplate, it even came with a diffuser plate. The other thing you guys should check out is the closeup shot of the column cooling system:

still cooling detail

You can hopefully make out a couple of things here. First, you can see the hoses where the cold water enters the bottom of the condenser and exits the top. You should also note the red valve. The red valve controls the flow of water through the hoses and pipes that cross the top of the column three times. When everything’s going easy you can keep the valve shut so that the water moves back from the condenser directly into the water bucket where it gets recycled. However, when things are perhaps a little bit more intense, you open the valve and the water moves through the column cooling everything down in a hurry.

One last comment regarding Brewhaus (and I swear that I’m not on their payroll) – I really like the fact that they provide everything a novice needs. This includes stills, fermenters, yeast, reading material and all the batch monitoring tools you need. A few folks have asked me where to go to get started. I’m certainly happy that I chose Brewhaus.

Batch Production – Recipe 1

For those of you that have reviewed my reviewed the mash cooking section of the blog, it won’t come as a surprise that the distillation was not as simple or straight forward (read: successful) as I had originally hoped. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while yesterday wasn’t a particularly good distilling day, I learned a whole lot.

Mash Straining

The problems yesterday were first identified when I opened the strainer. The mash, while it did have the trademark fermentation smell, smelled too sweet. It’s safe to say that I knew I was in trouble when I popped the lid on the fermenter and the sweet smell of unfermented sugar hit my nostrils. Needless to say, the mash didn’t thin out much. As I may have mentioned, my inexperience had led me to think that perhaps the DME would work to help break things (starches) down. While I believe that it did help, it’s certain that the breakdown did occur, it certainly didn’t occur to the extent that I had hoped. Take a look at this picture. You will see gigantic globs of rye sitting on top of the cheese cloth. Trying to get it strained was every bit as fun as you might imagine.

too mashy

So, fast forward about 70 minutes and I managed to get about 3 gallons of liquid out of the mash. I was concerned that it was too thick and would burn, so I added about 1.5 gallons of water. I thought, hey…I’m distilling the water out anyway.

Distillation

I’ll be honest and say that I was not in the best of moods by the time the mash was strained and ready to go. However, I was determined to make a go of it despite the projected low production of the mash. I got the still setup and put the heat to it. Here’s where I made a pretty interesting mistake. I’ll be honest, I’m not a student of physics. I’m not sure how it happened, but here it goes anyway. I decided that I didn’t need to start pumping cold water to the jacket that surrounds the condenser until we hit about 140 degrees (F) at the top of the still. The plan was to turn it on when it was at about 140 so that when the methanol started coming out at 150ish that I’d be ready to catch it. The interesting thing is that the temperature at the top of the column spiked like crazy. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we went from 140 to about 205 in the span of 10 seconds. I flooded the column (a neat little brewhaus thing that I’ll explain more in a future post), and took it back down to about 140, but I was less than impressed. The moral of the story here is that moving forward I will keep the condenser cool to prevent any unnecessary temperature fluctuations.

The rest of the distillation went about as expected. From my (approximate) 3 gallons, I got about 500 mL of product. Given the temperature issues that I experienced I will be doing a second distillation to make sure that I get the nasty bits out. I will probably just toss it in with my next attempt at a vodka and distill it with the new mash.

Final Thoughts

All in all, I’m interested in a second attempt at a rye vodka. Hey, it’s tradition. I will do some more checking around for a recipe and compare that with the first attempt (posted on the recipes page.

Recipe 1 Batch Production

To summarize my experience yesterday…nothing’s ever easy. For those of you that are keeping up, the Vodka Recipe (Recipe 1) was my first attempt at a batch using grain rather than a simple sugar wash. I can’t say that it went as I had hoped and dreamed. I’m not sure if the proportions of the recipe were off, or if my ingredients were off, or if I can’t follow simple instructions. I’m going to go with options 1 or 2. I have a high degree of confidence that my wife votes for option 3.

Anyhow, before we get going I should let you know what I used. I used Briess Flaked Rye, Flaked Oats (OIO), Briess Traditional Dark DME, about 4 pounds of generic amber honey, and the usual Alotec 48 turbo yeast.

It looked a lot like this:

Vodka 1 ingredients

There were several “command decisions” that had to be made throughout production. First, I overestimated the size of my pot. Historically, I’ve used a turkey frier pot, and that worked pretty well. However, when I thought about the ingredients I realized that the grains were going to expand and I had to cut the recipe back. So I settled on 6 gallons of water and modded the batch accordingly. However, that was not enough. I should have, in retrospect, gone with about 4.5-5 gallons. That was my mistake.

What I ended up doing was removing about a gallon of mash that was really, really thick (oatmeal thick) and adding some more water so that I could successfully stir the pot and not burn things to the inside of the (or make a mess on the stove). Because I took the grain out, I replaced it with simple syrup to keep the sugar content up. I decided to toss in a few frozen blueberries as well. The final distiller’s sin of the day was neglecting to take original gravity at the end of the process. With all of the other  issues, I was way past late by the time I got it into the fermenter and didn’t have the opportunity to let it cool and take the measurement.

This is what it looks like while it’s cooking away:

delish vodka mash

So the moral of this cautionary tale is that I need to be more aware of the volume increase the grain goes through. I need to be careful to leave more room. Additionally, I’m curious if the fact that I used flaked grains rather than regular grains. I went flaked because I thought it would breakdown into starches easier. I think it worked…but the expansion was remarkable.

I checked on it today, and it’s fermenting away. Hopefully in a week’s time I’ll have something usable. Filtering the mash is going to be quite the experience this time.

All frustration aside, I’m pleased that I took a shot at working directly with the grain. I’ve used the Mr. Beer beer kit before, and I’ve used a sugar wash. Regardless of the outcome, I think that making a move towards the grain was a good step. I think the yield will be odd. I’m sure that we’ll get something to distill (it is fermenting after all), but I’m just not sure what the yield will be. More to come on this, I’m sure.