Friday, June 25, 2010

Release the swarm!


It's been a slow year for my hops. The gray, rainy June stunted the vigorous growth of May, but they seem to be back on track. I also added some more fertilizer, in the form of an organic fertilizer tea, which has helped. I need a bigger pot for my Cascades, they're pretty rootbound. But the Chinooks and Centennials are doing well and the new Tettenanger rhizome is settling in nicely. But as usually, an annual problem has finally arisen.

Hops are fairly easygoing plants overall, but they suffer from a few problems. First among them is everyone's favorite little green bastard: the aphid. Aphids love hops. Left unchecked they will blanket the newly grown leaves and the apical bud, they'll infest the hop cones, and they'll seriously stunt the bine's growth. If you see aphids you really need to get on top of it, ASAP.

Depending on how large the hops have grown you can do several things to fight aphids. Commercially, industrial pesticides are used. And to be fair, there are times when they are really infested that I think "Man, a little Diazinon would show 'em what for!" Which is one of the reasons that organic hops are so hard to come by. It's just so much easier to spray insecticides. But there's a geographical component to the problem too. Three-quarters of the country's hops are grown in the Yakima Valley, and the fields usually touch each other. Organic certification would be difficult for any one field, as the spray from his neighbors would reach his fields. Plus the social flak of "Hey neighbor, I now have to spray my fields more because your organic field is just a nursery for pests and diseases!" Add the economics of it all and you can see why organic hops are somewhat rare. Which is partly why they have been exempted from the Organic certification for beer. Well that, and I imagine that AB-InBev's 'Stone Mill' Organic Pale Ale would use all or most of the country's current production.

But if you are growing at home you can be as organic as you want to be. Not being stuck with an economy of scale, you can use a few more labor intensive methods.
If the plants are small you can just use your hands, crushing and flicking the pests off as best you can. You can use a water jet to blast them off. You can use an insecticidal soap, which works but I've found it's not usually great for the leaves. Or you can set your own biological control in motion: release the swarm!

Ladybugs. Lots of ladybugs. 1500 ladybugs. Picked them up at Swanson's Nursery for about $12. That'll put a dent in the aphid population.

One of the problems with ladybugs though is keeping them around. It doesn't do you any good if they decide the grass is greener in your neighbor's yard and just take off. So you need to encourage them to see the many perks, amenities, tax-breaks, etc. that your yard has to offer.

I started by sticking them in the fridge once I got home. A couple hours cold makes them slow and hungry. Then I released them as it got dark, since they tend to only fly during the daytime. Since it was right around the Solstice, that was about 10:30 at night. I also prepped their new home. First I sprayed the bottoms of the hop plants with the hose a bit. This gives the ladybugs water to drink and also makes them "stick"; they don't tend to fly when they're wet. It helped that it was gray and rainy for a few days too, they explore more on bright, sunny days. I sprinkled them around the base of the hop plants, and a few more around the garden. Then went to bed.
Then next morning they were all over the yard, and especially all over the bines, happily munching away on the aphids. But it's not really about how many they eat the first time around. Yes, the adults will eat lots of aphids but mostly they're thinking about other adult things: are there mates and is this a good place to lay eggs? If there's enough food around, they ladybugs will start getting it on like a tree-full of monkeys on nitrous. And they did. You see, what you really want are the ladybug larvae, which look like little weird alligators . I've heard they can eat 50+ aphids each, a day. And once they pupate into adult ladybugs the next round begins.

They stuck around in noticeable amounts for a good week or so, and I still see a few around. Hopefully the rest laid lots of eggs before they took off to wherever it is ladybugs go.
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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Brewday: BOOM-Sticke!

"All right you primitive screwheads, listen up. See this? This ... is my BOOM-Sticke!"

Oh Army of Darkness, you still rock my small, self-centered universe.

If you are one of the benighted masses sadly unfamiliar with this masterpiece of cinema, here's the full scene.

Two factors combined to inspire my first beer dedicated to The Chin. First off, my last Rye Alt was delicious but needed a bit more work. It had to either go more Alt, or more American Rye, and I went with more Alt. But the rye was excellent; it stays. Gives it just a bit of spiciness that really goes well with the malt backbone and German hop spiciness. Secondly, a couple weeks ago I brought back a growler of Chuckanut's kickass Sticke Alt and was inspired to try my hand at a Sticke.

Alts are basically the IPAs of Germany, or as close as it comes anyway. Alt means "old", as in old-style pre-lager ales. A malty ale, clean fermented, usually lagered, and with a hefty dose of German hops. Sticke Alt is a bigger, stronger version, typically brewed on a small scale and released to loyal customers in small brewpub bars. In its infinite wisdom the BJCP puts Stickes into the catchall Category 23 (Specialty Beer) so it's basically useless for competition. Oh well, more for us! And I'm planning on serving it at BeerStock this year, so more for many of you all too I guess.

Brewday went quite well, proving that having nice weather, no one else around, and drinking coffee not beer makes for successful brewday. Only screwup was that I forgot to add the baking soda during the mash, which may have impacted the chemistry a bit. No other real problems though. My LHS was out of CaraMunich, so I subbed in Crystal 60. Use CaraMunich if you can. Had to use Best Munich and Vienna, but I'd prefer Weyermann. My rye was Briess I think.

Gravity was lower than expected, 1.060 instead of 1.064. If I can get it down to 1.014 or lower it will still be in Sticke range, somewhere between 6-6.5% ABV. Shouldn't be too much trouble. I've had gravity problems these last couple beers, probably need to move the rollers on my mill closer together. Malted rye has been giving me gravity troubles too, next time I'll try flaked and see if I get more yield. For yeast I repitched a bunch of Wyeast Northwest Ale (Hale's Ale's strain). It's become the house strain, I just keep repitching it and culturing it up. But any clean ale would work, either American Ale or one of the actual Alt strains, Wyeast German Ale (not the Kolsch strain) or White Labs Dusseldorf Alt (a great yeast for Alts). Here's the recipe.


5.25 gallon, all grain
Est OG 1.064, Act. OG 1.060
Est FG 1.012-1.014
Est ABV 6-6.25%
55 IBU
15 SRM
  • 5 lbs Munich (Dark Munich, 10L)
  • 4 lbs Vienna
  • 3 lbs Rye Malt
  • 8 oz Crystal 60
  • 2 oz Carafa II Special
Mash Schedule: Protein rest at 122. Sacc rest at 151. Pulled a decoction for a knockout at 168.

Mash water modifications: 1.25 t Chalk, 1/4 t gypsum, 1 t calcium chloride, 1/2 t Epsom salts, 3/4 t baking soda.

Added to the boil: 1/8th gypsum, 1/2 tsp calcium chloride, 1/4 epsom salts. Also, I finally found out that Seattle Public Utilities doesn't use chloramination so I've stopped wasting campden tablets in my brewing water.

90 Minute Boil
  • 1.75 oz Domestic Perle (leaf) @ 7.2% AA @ First Wort Hop.
  • 1 oz Sterling (leaf) @ 8.5% AA 15 min @ 15 min
  • whirlfloc tab @ 15
  • 1 oz Sterling and the remaining Perle @ 1 min
  • Dry hop with Tettengangers for 3-5 days
Fermenting away at 70 degrees with Wyeast Northwest Ale. Once it's done I'll lager it for a couple weeks, carbonate, and tap it at BeerStock.

UPDATE: 7/19/10

So after about two weeks in the fridge I decided to tap the keg. 1st impression: This beer seriously needs to lager. A lot of hazy chunder fell out of solution, and the first couple pints were really quite unpleasant. I was worried for the batch, actually. But over a week of half-pint pours it mellowed out and cleared up. I like it more, but I still am not happy with it. There is a serious raw grainyness to it and it's not as malty as I'd like. The bitterness is a bit harsh too, I may swap out the Perle for about 45 IBU of Magnum. I'm switching the Best Malting Munich and Pilsner out for Weyermann. I'm going to drop the decoction and swap it out for a 15 min kettle caramelization of the first gallon of wort, similar to the All-Aromatic Oktoberfest. That thing is a malt beast. Won't be serving this at Beerstock, I'll serve the Oktoberfest instead.
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Friday, June 11, 2010

Lake Wenatchee: Morels and Spring Kings


So this post is going up late. Late late. Three weeks late. Can't really explain why, just haven't been motivated to write. Which is a bit of a shame, because Spring King season is so short. By the time this gets up these spots will have been completely picked over and spent. Nonetheless it was still a grand day out.

Three weeks ago Meredith, our friend Andy, and I, headed over Stevens Pass to the Lake Wenatchee area. The target: Morels. We'd gone out two weeks earlier and been completely skunked. Hours of walking around forests, up and down hills. We found some nice wildflowers, lots of bear scat, and what used to be an Elk, but no mushrooms. I think most mushroom hunters would agree that Morels can be aggravating and difficult to find. Unless you are on, in which case they are everywhere you look.

They fruit in the Spring, usually in May and June, generally starting at lower elevations and moving higher as the seasons turn and the world warms up. They can be found on our side of the mountains, even in Seattle if you know where and when to look. They sometimes can be found growing on wood chips. But your best bet is the other side of the Cascades. It's drier and warmer, and the conifer forests tend to be more open-floored. They grow around rivers as well, Cle Elum is noted for that. They also like areas that have had recent wildfires, and really big burns will be blanketed with mushroomers when the time is right. Basically, to paraphrase David Arora, they grow where they damn well feel like it.

It should be mentioned that we are still very new to Morel hunting. Last year we were graduating, moving, working on theses, and so on, during May and June and we missed the season. So this was only our second morel trip, and Andy's first mushroom trip ever. We'd waited eagerly for months as Winter slowly plugged along. Watching the weather, waiting expectantly for Spring to give us a flush of fun before Summer bakes the mushrooms off until Fall. We had high hopes, little experience, and only a vague idea of where to go.

The weather was cold and crappy on this side of the mountains. We had freezing rain in the pass. But on the other side the sun broke through and the day turned warm (for May anyway), dry and breezy. But clouds on the horizon warned of thunderstorms to come.

We got lost several times. I'd never been to Lake Wenatchee before, and my GPS is not overly fond of forest roads. We accidentally took a scenic tour of Leavenworth, the quaintest Bavarian village outside a Leni Riefenstahl movie. Eventually we found the lake, then got lost again. As usual we started with a plan, but ended up just pulling over whenever anything looked promising.

The first stop was a trail to an old fire lookout on the North side of the lake. In all honesty we stopped there because we got lost and decided to stretch our legs and just dive right into the woods. Soon we were off trail, heading up a steep slope, keeping an eye out for tiny brown lumps on a brown forest floor.

Nothing. Not a thing. Despite the views and pretty flowers we were a bit dispirited and it was clear that we had to move on. So down the hill we went. Back in the car, a quick look on the GPS, and we headed over to the Eastern side of the lake, where we'd originally intended on starting anyway.

Picking a spot to stop is mostly about luck. We just pulled over on the side of the road at an open and pleasant looking forest. A couple hundred yards of valley floor gave way to a hill which went up another 600' or so. Elevation looked promising for early in the season, starting around 2000' and going up to 2600'. Doug Fir and Ponderosa Pine nicely spaced apart. Signs that it had been logged, then burned to clear the brush and allow the surviving cones to sprout. Criss-crossed by random logging roads too. Promising.

Parked the car and began to walk toward the hill. Within five minutes Meredith spotted the first mushroom. And it wasn't a morel. It was much, much more exciting.

A Spring King.

Meet Boletus rex-veris: the Spring Porcini. Until a couple years ago it was thought to be sub-species of the supremely awesome King Bolete, Boletus edulis, but it has been established as a species in its own right. We began to look around the area and started finding them left and right. Usually you could spot them breaking through the pine duff, and of course the biggest ones were the easiest to spot.

Unfortunately, Spring Kings share the common traits of all boletes. They are putrescent, meaning once picked you have to keep them cold or they turn to goo, and they are prone to larval infestation from various mushroom flies. The bigger they are, the more at risk of nastiness they are. So you have to do some immediate field dressing of any promising looking mushrooms. Cut them in half or in quarters. Look for bugs. Grimace. Trim nasty bits or toss the mushroom if it's too far gone. Better it stays there shedding spores on the forest floor than shedding worms on your counter, I say. We probably lost as many or more boletes than we kept. C'est la vie.

We wandered around for an hour or so, finding many more Kings and unfortunately discarding just as many. I am happy to say that the biggest and best was found by yours truly. But the majority were found by my companions... My Mushroom Blindness kicks in. Anyhow, the majority of the Kings were on the valley floor at around 2000 feet. Once we began to climb the hill they were gone by 2100 feet. We had still not found any morels, so we decided that we'd summit the hill and see what was up on top.

For several hundred vertical feet we found bupkis. Suddenly as Andy and I were climbing the hill, talking about the apparent lack of mushrooms, he said "Hey, isn't that a morel?"

And what a morel. The largest we found the whole day. If it was a snake it would have jumped out and bit us. In retrospect, it was good that it wasn't a snake. There are rattlesnakes on that side of the mountains.

We began to look around. Much, much more carefully this time. Soon we began to find them. Ones and twos, growing in little clusters right out in the open. Hinting that their more bashful friends were in the area, hiding just out of sight. Making you work for them.

I can't remember whether it was Andy or I that dubbed them "Stupid Mushrooms", but soon we were calling them that. Stupid, because that is how you feel when you find one, don't see any others, and then a friend finds one right smack in the middle of the spot you spent two whole minutes staring it. We went around shouting "Durrrrrrr" every time we spent a while looking at the ground, only to finally see one right there in front of us.

But the feeling, the excitement of being on a good flush is really superb. It was a nice day, we were finding mushrooms left and right, life is good.

There certainly is an art to spotting them. Here's an example of one next to it's best friend (and the mushroomer's natural enemy), the pine cone.

We wandered around the crest of the hill, finding Morels scattered throughout. Elevation was probably around 2500'. Here's a photo of the forest floor:

Not the prettiest forest, I'll admit. But it was full of tasty mushrooms, encouraged by the open floor and fairly recent burn. And this style of logging is vastly more sustainable and aesthetically pleasing than clear cutting. So it's ok in my book.

As we crested the hill it began to grow colder, and the wind picked up. Seeing the incoming clouds we decided to call it a day rather than act as lightening rods. Down we went to tally the haul.

Not bad for a day out. All told we brought in over six pounds of Spring Kings and seventy-six Morels, about a pound and a quarter. Once home we got to down to rough cleaning and trimming. Cleaned off the worst parts, and then stuck the mushrooms in the fridge.

Kings don't last very long while fresh. So we ended up drying about four pounds of the Kings with a friend's borrowed dehydrator, which came out to about four ounces of dried porcinis. Yeah, mushrooms are mostly water.

We cooked a variety of things with the mushrooms. Frankly the Kings don't need much other than some oil or butter and a hot pan, but I'll cover all that in future posts. My laptop's running out of juice.

Finally, I'm not a professional mycologist, but I am a lawyer so here's the Disclaimer. Get yourself a good guidebook, or talk to some friends who know what they're doing, before you ever eat a mushroom you have found. I recommend that you join a local mycology society. Don't eat unidentified mushrooms. Don't eat questionably identified mushrooms. When in doubt, toss it out. There are several things that look like Boletes and Morels that can make you sick, so learn to identify them. There are bold mushroom hunters and there are old mushroom hunters, but there are no old bold mushroom hunters.
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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Brewday: Helles Other People

I've got an Oktoberfest going. And I want to build up my lager yeast from the Oktoberfest for a project I have planned. And it's summer, and it's going to be hot by the time a lager is finished. And I wanted another light, low alcohol beer after I broke my "nothing bigger than 5% rule" with my IPA. After a Beer Week chat at Naked City over some tasty beers with Kevin of Chuckanut Brewery, I decided I'd brew a Munich Helles, somewhat aimed at Chuckanut's own excellent version.

The Helles is Munich's response to Pilsner, and a recent one at that. Despite claims to the contrary, most versions appeared as recently as the 1990's. The beer is yellow, malty and light, with a much diminished hop profile compared to a Czech or even German Pilsner. The main difference probably lies in the water as well, Munich's high carbonate profile is very different from the water used in other Pilsner-brewing areas. Hence, the city's fame for darker lagers, Oktoberfests, Dunkels, etc.. So I was shooting for something in the 1.048-50 range, fermented dry, malt forward, with restrained German hop character. Here's what I did.

Helles Other People
All Grain, 5.25 gallons
O.G. Estimate: 1.048, O.G. Actual: 1.044
Est. F.G. 1.010-1.011
IBU: 21
SRM: 5
Est. ABV: 4.8%, Act. probably about 4.4%
  • 7.5 lbs German Pilsner (I wanted Weyermann but only found Best. No one carries Weyermann anymore, what a pain. Yes, it's expensive. But it's GOOD.)
  • 0.5 lbs Munich Malt (again, only Best)
  • 1 lb Carahell (It's true, I loves me some Carahell.)
Mash in at 150 for 90 minutes. Infusion to 168 before sparge.

Mash water modifications for 2.8 gallons: 3 gm Calcium Chloride, 2 gm Epsom Salts, 1 gm Baking Soda. Sparge Modifications for 7.5 gallons: 0.7 ml lactic acid, 8 gm Calcium Chloride, 5 gm Epsom Salt, 3 gm Baking Soda.

If you haven't noticed yet, this is a bit weird. My thinking is this: Seattle is basically rain water. There's nothing in it. Munich has high carbonate water, which is fairly hard to duplicate actually. Too much chalk and the residual alkalinity and calcium levels go too high. Too much baking soda and the sodium level gets too high. And it's supposed to be a malty beer, which the calcium chloride will accentuate. But given that Seattle water has 2, count 'em 2 ppm sulfate, adding a bunch of calcium chloride would make the chloride/sulfate ratio monstrously out of whack. The solution was to build my 100 ppm calcium, add some chloride, and lower the RA using Calcium Chloride. Then add Epsom salts to get at least some sulfate in there, and get the magnesium levels up to help the yeast out. Finally, use baking soda to up the carbonates, but restrain it to keep sodium below 30 ppm. The result is a water profile that is as if a Munich brewery added Calcium Chloride to its water, except that the sodium is much higher and the residual alkalinity is only half that of Munich. Anyhow...

90 minute boil
  • 1.25 gm German Hallertau leaf hops @ 3.8% AA @ 90 minutes
  • 0.5 gm Hallertau @ 30 min
  • whirlfloc at 15
  • 0.25 gm Hallertau @ flameout.
Cool to lager temps and lager with yeast cake of Wyeast Bohemian Lager yeast from the Oktoberfest.

Brewday went spot on, but the gravity ended up 4 points low. Not sure why. May move my grain mill rollers a bit closer. The water from my new Rain Barrel cooled the beer, but only to 66. So I moved it into the fridge to crash it (I needed to rack off the cold break anyway). Fortunately, this time around I finally have a replacement Stopper Thermowell. Unfortunately, I had some issues getting the probe in the well and broke the very tip off the probe. But some swearing quick work with sandpaper narrowed it just enough and it finally slipped right in. I set the thermostat to my pitching temp of 47, hopped on my bike and went to Miro Tea. So it's cooling away as I sit here writing this. Thermowells really illustrate the power of water's heat retention. Hopefully after I come home from checking out the newly opened Noble Fir it will be cool and I'll pitch. But it could be much, much later tonight. Next time I'll get more ice for the cooling water.
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Project: Rain Barrel


So Saturday my friend Al arrived at my doorstep with one of the stranger birthday presents I've ever received, a 55 gallon plastic drum. "This guy was selling them on Craigslist for like $20, so I bought two!" It was from the back dock of some kind of bakery and contained 'Maltitol', a sort of sugar-alcohol artificial sweetener. It was slightly sticky, and smelled of cupcakes.

Actually, as birthday presents go this one is pretty sweet. Part of our renewing out lease was an effort to cut down on our water bills. Get landlord to fix leaky things, put new guts in the toilet, etc.. A rain barrel was also on my mind. So seeing how it was Memorial Day weekend and we had nothing else going, Al and I hopped into the car and sped off to Home Depot.

Rain barrels are actually really easy to build. At its heart you need something to divert your rain gutters into the top, then something to filter leaves and bugs, then a spigot on the bottom. Finally, and most importantly, some kind of overflow setup (more on this later). The goal was to make it modular, so we could fix anything that went bad or was ill-thought-out. I wanted it to cause little or no damage to the existing gutter system, so I can put that back together when I eventually move. I also wanted the water to divert well away from my heating oil bunker, and still allow access to it. So we looked around the yard, looked around the garage, wandered around Home Depot for a while, and came up with this setup.

The gutter diverts (via some duct taped pipe fittings) to a hole on the top. In there is an atrium grate, with window screen rubber banded on to keep bugs out. The spigot is a threaded plastic electrical bulkhead, glued in with a bunch of Plumber's Goop glue. A garden faucet is screwed on that. The overflow is a 2" to 3" ABS coupler, glued in with more Plumber's Goop at a sloping angle. The overflow and main pipes were cut from an 8' section of 3" PVC that I used to protect my fishing rods during the move. The whole thing is propped off the ground by some sections of 4x4 that was left over from building the raised beds in the garden. All told, the barrel cost about $20. (Well, $40 if the barrel itself hadn't been a gift.) But how well does it work?

Do you know how many gallons of water pour off your roof every time it rains? A LOT. The guestimation formula is:

Roof Square Feet x 0.6 = Gallons of Water per Inch of Rain.

Based on City estimates, I'm going to say that rain gutter drains about 1/3 of my 1500 sq. ft. roof space, maybe 500 square feet. Which means that for every inch of rain 300 gallons fall on that part of the roof! Given that it rains about 37 inches annually in Seattle, that's 11,100 potentially useful gallons that otherwise go to the storm drain.

Here's where the overflow comes in. As we finished the project it began to drizzle. Soon we could hear a drip, drip, drip in the barrel. By morning, it was full. Completely full. 50 gallons. The overflow was draining nicely into the blackberries off on the side of the house. Guess this is why people put three or four barrels in series. But since it takes 1/6 of an inch of rain to fill the barrel, and it rains about 150 days a year here, I don't think I'll run out very often. My garden's not huge anyway, and I don't water the lawn in the Summer.

The BIG use I had planned for this was in cutting down on my brewing water use. My plate chiller uses a lot of water, usually 20 gallons or so to cool 5 gallons. Typically I either just drain this off, or use it to water plants if it's Summer. Today though, I used rain! And it worked pretty well, I got a good cooldown to 66. Perfect for ales! Unfortunately, of course I was brewing a lager... Best part though, I just poured the used water back into the barrel. This cut my total brewing water use down by at least half.

Of course, the City charges me about $3.80 for 100 cu. ft. of water (over 700 gallons) so in terms of savings...yeah I saved 11 cents. Wooo! But it's about Green building, and the DIY gratification I guess. My part of the city is under a major stormwater reclamation project right now, as each of those 11,000 gallons would otherwise drain into Shilshole Bay. And once I start watering the garden more often the gallons will start piling up.

Unfortunately the flow from the barrel is pretty slow. I blame drag from the long hose I have attached to the barrel, I'll try a shorter one and see if that changes anything. No way I'll be spraying anything with water pressure from the barrel, but if I get a watering can and maybe a soaker hose I should be set.
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