Saturday, January 3, 2015

Adventures in yeast

I am not a successful home fermenter. I've tried several times over the years to make hard cider, and only in the last month managed to achieve "drinkable." That was by going to Maryland Homebrew and buying apple cider yeast (which, on reflection, seems like a sensible first step). A couple of weeks in a half-gallon jug with an air lock, then off to a flip-top bottle with a little added sugar.

The top two categories are largely theoretical.
When I say "drinkable," I don't mean "good." I mean your eyes don't water and you aren't mostly wondering whether you're poisoning yourself. This last batch of drinkable cider, for example, was a bit sour and a bit sweet but mostly flavorless. And yes, that does make it the best hard cider I've ever made. (If you don't count when the sweet cider gets fizzy after a week in the fridge.)

But mostly flavorless isn't flavorless, and if you need to concentrate flavor what better [legal] way than fractional freezing? So I froze a mason jar of the cider, let half of it thaw, and removed the remaining ice. (Yes, there are better and more careful ways of fractional freezing; like I said, I am not a successful home fermenter.)

With half a mason jar of homemade applejack, I reached for some rye and had a drink. It was okay, but of course the applejack is a lot closer to water than it is to whiskey, so it was more like a highball, or maybe an olde tyme sling (equal parts spirit and water). What's wanted is a hot applejack-and-rye toddy with perhaps a splash of ginger syrup.
With a cask proof rye, this is approaching servable.
Hot Stockade (Applejack-Rye-Ginger Toddy)
  • 3 oz. applejack (jacked hard cider, not Laird's)
  • 1.5 oz. rye whiskey
  • 0.25 oz ginger syrup
To make the ginger syrup, simmer diced candied ginger in water for 20 minutes, then add an equal volume of sugar, stir to dissolve sugar, filter out the ginger (use the re-candied ginger in your next cup of tea). Keep in the refrigerator until it's used up or moldy.

To make the toddy, warm the applejack in the microwave in a small, microwave-safe mug. Add the rye and syrup, stir. Serve with a cinnamon stick.

After I racked off the cider, I had an empty half-gallon jug and an air lock. What to do but try some small beer?

Why small beer? I wasn't prepared to try to make regular beer again (I'm not even prepared to talk about the times I've tried to make regular beer). I'd read about small beer and spruce beer and whatever-you-got-around-your-farmhouse beer in Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England, and I didn't have the patience to wait till I found some sassafras root to try making hard root beer. (Spruce beer, like gin, falls under the law, "Pine trees aren't people food.")

According to the Internet, George Washington is the only person in the world who ever wrote down a recipe for small beer, so I adapted his by steeping molasses, hops, and oat bran in simmering water, then pitching some of the remaining apple cider yeast (not a successful home fermenter) and setting it to ferment. I checked it after several days, reckoned it a failure, and planned to chuck it when I had a few minutes unobserved. I then left it (or "forgot it"; that works in this sentence too) for another two weeks, much longer than the week Washington ordered (not a successful home fermenter).

Taste, schmaste. Admire the color.
When I finally got around to pouring it down the drain, I figured I'd give it a quick sip, and... well, it was drinkable. Imagine my surprise. I poured off a quart or so into an old Four Roses bottle I had lying around, careful not to get the oat bran sediment that had settled to the bottom of the fermenting jug (due to the...imprecision with which I removed the steeping bag from the wort).

The explanation, I think, is that the hops (bought at MD Homebrew with the yeast) make the thing smell, and even sort of taste, like beer. Maybe sort of in the way if you drank vegetable oil you might think of french fries. As a small beer (with, if I had to guess, too little yeast to begin with), it's weak stuff; it's also bitter and cloudy, so... Flip Time!

Small Beer Flip
  • 8 oz small beer (since you don't have small beer, use a porter, which will taste better anyway; just make sure there's no carbonation left before you start flipping it)
  • 2 oz. rum (I'm using my barrel aged rum, but any kind will do)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbs sugar
Warm up the beer until it's steaming but not boiling. Mix egg and sugar in a mixing glass, then add rum and stir. Pour hot beer into mixing glass, then pour back and forth between that glass and another several times until well mixed and smooth. If you want to get fancy, heat a (clean) poker in a fire, then douse it in the flip after you've poured it into a tankard. I heat a small cast iron pot in the oven, then pour the flip into it just before pouring into a mug. Properly made, a flip will have a nice "flannel" foam on top.

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