On The Road Again

When I was younger we had this family friend, a polite way of saying an adult that hung around whether I wanted him to or not, named Mike. Now, I didn’t particularly enjoy his company, but one thing he said once has stuck with me for decades. We were working on the deck at my parents house; I was being regularly chastized for the work ethic I was exhibiting. To be clear, this is the same work ethic exhibited by most teenagers when pushed to complete tasks in which they have no interest. There was a mistake in the plans and things had gone awry. Mike told me that the mark of a master is not in his ability to create excellent work, but in his ability to overcome mistakes and continue on to create excellent work. I’ll be honest, the deck ended “comme çi, comme ça”, but the lesson remained.

So, this past week I took the lesson learned and went to consult with the masters at the local homebrew shop. They presented a few solutions. Turns out I used all three. It was likely akin to killing a fly with a sledgehammer, but I think it’ll get it done.

Step 1, toss in another 1.5 tsp of nutrient. It’ll help get the existing yeast going.

Step 2, toss in 1.5 tsp of yeast energizer, it’ll make the yeast feel alive and get them back to work.

Step 3, add more aggressive yeast. Now, this one was interesting to me because, as we discussed, I didn’t really want to go for turbo yeast. I opted for vodka yeast because it should keep a relatively low flavor profile and it’ll keep kicking until about 18% ABV (which will yield an additional 5% to the batch).

I tossed all of these into the fermenter and gave it a stir. The results were immediate and very interesting. The bubbles started firing through the airlock. I assume a lot of this was shaking loose the light carbonation I had noted previously, but it never stopped bubbling (though it has gone down in frequency from the initial push).

I am also throttling up the heat. The lalvin d-47 is happiest in the low 70s. The range on the vodka yeast is between 68 and 90F. I have decided to shoot for the mid 70s to keep it in it’s optimal window.

Not that it really has any bearing on fermentation, but I also swapped out the stainless steel top for a clear plastic piece so that I can observe the inside of the fermenter. For the purists out there concerned that light will inhibit the process, I will add that I’m keeping it gangsta as summer turns into fall up here. The fermenter is being kept warm by a low heating pad bungie strapped to it with blankets over it. No additional light will hit the batch unless I’m peeking.

No plastic top yet, but here’s the gist of the setup.
Freshly sanitized.

So, Where Are We?

It’s been a while, and truth be told it’s not going particularly well. I mean, it’s going…it’s just going slow. Here’s a snapshot of the last little while:

DatepHOG/SGInternal Temp (F)External Temp (F)ABV
July 288.81.11588.3undocumented (UD)0
Aug 1UD1.11074.173.66%
Aug 34.21.10678.1751.18%
Aug 63.81.19475.067.31.44%
Aug 113.81.09971.5722%
Aug 213.71.09568.269.62.6%
Consolidated from observations

Bubbles through the airlock have slowed significantly. It’s still fermenting, but you can see by the numbers that it’s slowing down a fair bit. I read up some more on the Lalvin d-47 and it does seem to prefer colder fermentation temperatures. That being said, we’re not really high. I suspect the ultimate culprit is the fact that the yeast has nothing to chew on. We need to find a way to spike the nutrients. Next stop, my local home brew shop. I will ask them how to solve the problem.

I know what you are thinking, and you’re right. I could have done this BEFORE the fermentation. I’m just obstinate. I will have to solicit help from someone with a bit more experience.

More to come soon.

4 Days In…

Checked in today, almost 96 hours into fermentation. Bubbles are still visible in the airlock about every 1.5 seconds. Ambient temperature is at 71.8 degrees celsius in the basement. The fermenter is sitting at 74.0/73.9. I’m a bit concerned that the low temperature is slowing things down, but progress is evident. ‘

The gravity is down to 1.110, which gives us about .66% ABV. It’s not a lot to show, but I have faith. I pulled some out of the fermenter via the racking arm to test and was surprised to see carbonation.

I am also pleased to report that it’s a-ok on the nose. Nothing untoward is brewing after my irregular sterilization. I tossed a blanket on the fermenter in the hope that I can trap some of the heat that the yeast is throwing off.

I’ll check it out tomorrow morning.

Tequila Mockingbird

See what I did there? Let’s just take a moment to admire my whimsy…

Alright, enough of that.

We are officially about 36 hours into the ferment. Bubbles through the airlock is bubbling steadily, but not rapidly. The fact that it was warm enough to warrant firing up the central air isn’t helping the process any. The temp in the basement dropped to about 68 overnight which certainly created a speedbump (I turned the AC off this morning…such is my commitment). Anyhow, I’m getting ahead of myself. I promised to discussing the process a bit and posting the recipe. Let’s start with the process (which will contain the recipe). The recipe itself will be posted on that page.

Step 1 – Sanitize

Yeah, so I totally lost my sanitizer. I will blame my wife, because it’s convenient and turnabout is fair play. The gist is that I had to sort of wing it, so I winged it with salt water and laundry soap (powder). I got filled it with hot water and stirred in about 2 cups of table salt. Then I dumped laundry powder in. For those of you that don’t know, salt kills just about everything. I’m hoping that the soap will take care of the rest. I let it soak for about 3 hours and then flushed it out. I guess if there is bacteria still in there, it’ll be clean and salty.

Obviously it took a fair bit of rinsing, but I am confident that it’s squeaky clean. I like to remind myself that people have been fermenting since the dawn of time. While we’re more efficient with it now, there’s no reason to suspect that there will be a problem with my not perfectly sanitized tank.

Step 2 – Mix it up

You put the lime in the coconut and mix it all up.

That’s not what I did, but it seemed like a worthy interjection. I put about a gallon of water in the bottom of the fermenter and dropped 2 gallons of agave syrup on top of it. I was surprised at how thin the syrup/nectar was. I was expecting something similar to honey but it was thin and very easy to work with.

Picture for those who are interested. I blacked out the address so that the throngs of adoring fans don’t show up at my place.

Once the agave was in, we filled the jugs part of the way up and shook them (to get most of the remaining nectar). That brought us to about 4.25 gallons. Here I foolishly decided to check the OG with my refractometer. Foolish because I knew there was too much sugar to get a meaningful measurement. Suffice it to say that we topped up the water to just under 7 gallons total (so that’s about 4.7 gallons of water to 2 gallons of syrup). That gave us an OG of 1.115. Something I can work with!

From there, we started the yeast activation. Full disclosure, we could have done this earlier, but didn’t because we weren’t sure what the OG in 7 gallons would be. Our trusty TOSNA calculator on mead made right recommended 2g of yeast (Lalvin d47) to gallon of wash. So we got about 380 mL of water (lukewarm per instructions on the yeast…I think it was about 34 degrees Celsius…and yes, I know my measuring units are all over the place. It’s an expat problem). Anyhow, water and yeast were swirled gently. It’s also important to note that the yeast was brought up to room temperature so as not to create a temperature shock during rehydration or pitching.

With the yeast properly hydrated (we went to play xbox for about 30 minutes) we pitched it in, and locked it up. Now all we have to do is wait and watch.

It’s almost that Time

I know, I know…it’s taken forever. I’ve been talking about CQ for the better part of a month and have nothing to show for it but dashed hopes and excuses. That all ends today, my friends.

That’s right! I am the proud owner of about 12kg of Agave syrup. I was all gearing up to do the fermentation at my place, but my man, Mr. Deluxe, has asked to do it at his place. Since he was kind enough to procure the syrup I can’t break his heart. So here’s the plan.

1. Clean out the fermenter. I am only adding this step to the list in case there are rookies out there who want to try it and don’t want to wreck it. Make sure you’re sanitizing, kids.

2. Toss about 1.5 gallons of clean (boiled but cooled to room temp) water into the bottom of the fermenter. I’m doing this so that I have something to thin the syrup so I can mix it more easily.

3. Add all the syrup. It’s about 2 gallons. I still have some tiny little bottles so I may add that as well…probably not.

4. Make sure the yeast is warming up and get it activated. I want 1g of lalvin D47 per gallon. Since I’m doing 7 gallons, that’s 7g. It’s a pain because it comes in 5g baggies…but whatever, I’ll figure it out. We’ll call it just under 1.5 bags.

5. Approximately 1tsp of ELO per gallon, mix it in room temp water (probably also boiled, but that’s an abundance of caution). I’ll rehydrate with the instructions on the lalvin package.

6. Top up the fermenter to 7 gallons (water).

7. Pitch the yeast and stir.

8. Monitor regularly for 14 days.

Easy peasy, right? The party starts tonight so look for updates in the near future on the any changes to the plan. Once the recipe is in the fermenter I’ll also be adding it to the recipes page (for good or ill).

Damn, starting the first batch since the relaunch. It feels like old times!

Damn it!

Canada Post has updated my tracking information. Wait for it, waaaait for it…..

Item is considered non-mailable matter. Item being returned to sender.

Canada Post, Jul 21, 2022

That’s right. Agave syrup is non-mailable. That likely means that the only agave syrup in Canada must be produced by the rare arctic blue agave. It grows in fields alongside snow peas and iceberg lettuce up in the arctic circle. Yes, that’s bitter sarcasm.

Fortunately, I know a guy who has an in with the elusive arctic agave community. He has saved the day by procuring 10 kg of agave nectar from the restaurant supply company he works with regularly. This batch is pushed back again…

We’re now looking at next week. I’ll keep you posted.

The Only Commercial Woodfired Still in Canada

Yep, still on vacation in scenic eastern Canada. Chasing children, swimming, and working on my tan. About 30 minutes away from some sea caves you’ll find the small, historic town of Lunenburg. It was the birthplace of Bluenose, a sailing ship that’s super famous if you’re into such things. It’s on the Canadian Dime, Google it if you want.

Anyway, after an uneventful 3 hours on a ship looking for whales and holding barf bags for tiny humans (I do not recommend whale watching with small children…live and learn) I found myself at Ironworks Distillery. It’s a microdistillery housed in an old blacksmith shop. The building fits in well with the historic atmosphere. In fact, I almost overlooked it, but the pungent scent of fermentation was as a siren song leading me to an unexpected treasure. In the corner of the tasting room is a beautiful Müller pot still. By now you’re probably thinking, “shut up and show us the goods”. Here you go.

See the little door on the bottom right? Just next to the lady in black’s shoulder? Yeah, believe it or not that’s like a woodstove. I don’t want to say that I wasn’t convinced, but I did ask him to open it. Sure enough, inside was the remnants of a wood fire. Honestly, the woodfire thing threw me for a loop. While I am past (knock on wood) the temperature control issues that plagued my early attempts I am no where near ready to consider moving from propane to wood. Now that I know it’s a thing I am very, very interested.

Having seen the still and discussing it’s operation, I believe that a lot of the control is in the precision of the design and build processes. The still is legit. I was surprised to see the alembic hood on it. Unfortunately, no one was available to walk me through that purchase decision or discuss their fermentation process in any depth (for those who are interested, there is a tour you can do…but I showed up about 30 minutes before closing).

After operating for a while, they decided they needed a little bit more horsepower and purchased “Ruby”. It’s an amazing multi column still complete with whiskey hood.

It’s quite the still. The gentleman walking me through it, Goldie, said that by the time the ethanol hits the top of the second column and moves down the condenser it’s 95% ABV. I buy it, and I am in love with the multi column design. All in all, my trip to Lunenburg was saved by Ironworks Distillery. Seriously, don’t go whale watching with children under 10…it’s awful. The hospitality at Ironworks was fantastic, and you had better believe I picked up a few souvenirs.

I’m headed home momentarily now, and still expecting the agave this week (delivery forecasted between yesterday and EOD tomorrow). I have no set delivery date yet, but I know it’s entered the country having come all the way from Spain. Who knew? I guess the Agave went from Mexico to Spain and on to Canada. If all goes well, I’ll be publishing the fermentation kickoff here in the next 72 hours.

Doing the Research

Well, vacation is officially underway. I’m way outta dodge, but my thoughts are still with my…still. Since the days of fast paced, jet set vacations are in my rearview (for now) I needed to pick up some reading material. I had my eye on How To Distill by Aaron Hyde for a while. It has a pretty good reputation as a beginner text. Good for me, because I’m more than rusty with the soup to nuts process. Sounded like a win-win…and I’m pleased to report that I was absolutely correct.

Sure, a lot of the material covered in the text is stuff that I already know (much of which is also discussed here), but I think that the volume is as good or better than the Guide to Urban Moonshining for beginners. For those who have read most of this blog, you’ll know that’s high praise. I would likely pick this text over the Kings County text because not only because of it’s exhaustive discussion on the processes and equipment required, but also because of the recipe collection contained within a rather slim and very approachable text.

Recipes? You ask. Indeed. What’s more is that there’s a tequila recipe that uses agave syrup. Now, you won’t be shocked to hear that I’ve been doing some research between now and the last time I posted. Sure, I have 7kg (~15.5 pounds) of agave coming, but what’s that actually going to do for me? I had big dreams of gallons and gallons of wash, but…why? There are obvious reasons, like my desire to observe fermentation in the Spike vs. the ol’ Chapman. But, at the end of the day more water is more waste. For christ sake, Jim, I’m a distiller not a brewer. More water means more nonsene to carry, mix, heat up (slowly), and throw away. Why on earth would I go through the extra effort. I changed my focus and want to go for efficiency rather than scale.

To this end, I found some pretty good material by BSG that seems to have been put together for ADI in 2020. I’m way too lazy to link it, but I’m sure you can google “BSG Agave Project” and come up with something. To my surprise, the quantity of Agave was much higher than seemed to be advised by the folks at meadmaderight.com. I sort of had this broad strokes plan to mix agave and water until we hit 24ish bx and then pitch the yeast. Now, I think I’m going to dump 15 pounds of agave into a 5 gallon batch (water added) and pitch the yeast. I’ll still activate with ELO as described below. Because I’ll be in town I’ll also come up with some check points and make sure that the fermentation is proceeding as desired.

Honestly, I’m also interested in how the viscosity will change as the yeasties do their work. I worry about running that much syrup through the still (burnt sugar). I may end up adding water after fermentation to keep the still in ship shape. I guess more to come.

Yes, yes…I will be posting the recipe when I complete it. I am not going to post Aaron Hyde’s because if you’re that interested…buy the book and get in the game :). The fermentation should kick off (with posted recipe) around July 22-24.

Good News and Bad…

Well, the CQ can’t happen this weekend. I was banking on the fact that I had seen agave syrup at Bulk Barn, a Canadian bulk retailer. I’m talking bins and bins and bins of nuts, flour, and just about anything that’ll give you type 2 diabetes. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I called 6 locations and none of them had Agave syrup.

“Not a problem,” says I. I will pay more and go to the grocery. It’s the cost of doing something glorious. I bought out the store…all 1.18 liters. That’s no where near enough to make 7 gallons. It might make just under a gallon, but that’s not nearly enough for a meaningful run on the still. I scoured the city and came up with…nothing. It was with great reluctance that I pulled out the laptop and went shopping. The good news is that I now have 7 kilograms of agave syrup on the way. The bad news is that the timeline has been pushed back by at least 2 weeks. The other bonus here is that I can make well over 7 gallons with 7 kg (about 15.5 pounds). I might be able to get the Chapman and the Spike going. I might also attempt multiple batches in a single fermenter to tweak the recipe. Honestly, I’m leaning towards the latter…but we’ll see. I really am a sucker for instant gratification. I may or may not be interested in doing consecutive batches. I guess I have enough time to consider options and solicit feedback from a few of my friends.

I can also consider a few other things as well. For example, I’m out of copper mesh for the still. Do I want more mesh for the column? Do I want to try to pack it with something else (ceramic, etc)? It’ll also give me the opportunity to carefully consider where I want to do the distillation (not an urban event typically speaking).

I guess every gray cloud does have a silver lining…but every silver lining has a touch of gray. Yeah, that makes no sense.