2011 Chilean Syrah: Crush Day

May 30, 2011

After a three week delay from the originally-scheduled delivery date, on Saturday, May 28th, Jess and I got up a little early to make our way to Consumers Produce in the Strip District to pick up our order of 2011 Chilean Syrah grapes. I ordered 8 lugs, or 144 pounds, of grapes. It’s not an awful lot compared to most home winemakers. But then again I’m totally new to this. I don’t want to make a thousand-dollar mistake. The grapes were delayed a few weeks to allow them to ripen a bit more. More on that later…

I like buying grapes that come packed in 18 pound boxes like this. It’s so much nicer than what we dealt with last fall, where we had to scoop our grapes from a big trough of already-crushed-but-not-on-purpose grape slop.

You can see here how nice the grapes looked. The white stuff isn’t mold, it’s bloom – a naturally-occurring, easily wiped off dust-like substance that helps to protect the ripe fruit from moisture loss.

Here’s one of the bunches, quite nice, yeah?

The grapes looked like bunches of blueberries.

Now compare them with the Noiret grapes we got last fall:

The picture above is how the 2010 noiret grapes looked when we picked them up from the source. We had not yet done anything to them. What a disappointment. I may only purchase grapes that come in boxes in the future.

Back to this spring’s grapes, here they are going through the crusher:

There was some mold on our grapes. Not a ton, but picking through each case to throw out the mold ones did slow us down a bit. Crushing took us about an hour as a result. At the end, we’d chucked aside this many moldy grapes:

I reckon that’s about five pounds out of 144. While no mold is ideal, I can accept this much from grapes that were picked nearly six weeks ago.

De-stemming took us another two hours. We don’t have a destemmer; we did it by hand. Yeah. This is the last time we de-stem by hand. We’ll figure something else out for this fall.

Here we are, all crushed, de-stemmed, and ready for testing and any sugar and/or acid adjustments. Note the cap-punch tool that I built from some PVC I had on hand. It works much better than the kitchen flipper spatula I used last fall:

I ran a cup of the crushed must in a blender for a few seconds, then allowed the juice to drain off through a coffee filter to get some clear juice for testing. It looked like a blueberry smoothie:

It smelled and tasted of blueberries, too. I really hope that characteristic comes through in the wine.

After running the tests, I could see why the grapes were allowed to hang on the vines for a few extra weeks. It’s clear that these grapes were struggling to get their sugar levels up. The numbers were:

Sugar: 21.5° Brix
pH: 3.92
TA: 3.75 g/L
SO2: just a trace

That sugar number is still quite low. Syrah should typically have at least 24% sugar. The High pH and low total acidity tell the tale. These grapes were physiologically ripe, but had low sugar levels. By letting them hang to get the sugar higher, the acid naturally dropped out of the grapes, which caused the pH to rise.

Before fermentation is the time to correct these things, so I did. I chaptilized (added sugar) to get the brix up to 23.5. I also added tartaric acid to get the total acidity up to 6 g/L. I will test pH and TA again tomorrow night when everything will be well blended from the churning of fermentation and all of the cap punching that’s been going on.

Speaking of cap punching, here’s a picture of the very fizzy wine immediately after I punched the cap earlier today:

Fermentation is moving along quickly, with temperatures staying in the mid-eighties – right where they should be. After 48 hours, the must was reading 3.2° Brix. Looks like we’ll be pressing tomorrow night!


Wines #1 & 2: 2010 Lake Erie Noiret & Traminette

May 23, 2011

This coming weekend will be a winemaking weekend for us. The 150 lbs of Chilean Syrah grapes that I ordered will be available for pickup from Consumers Produce. So I guess I should get off my ass and post about the wine we made last year. This post is a short synopsis of what I’ve done so far…

I’ve been brewing off and on for about eight and a half years now. But it wasn’t until last year that the desire to try making wine really hit me. To that end, I spent a lot of time reading books, blogs, and magazines, listening to podcasts, and collecting equipment. I was going to make a wine press like this one, but Jess’s family gave us a brand new one for our wedding anniversary:

I picked up a grape crusher on Craigslist:

And I got a bunch of other gear which, when added to my brewing stuff, meant we were ready to make some wine.

Ultimately my goal is to make wine from grapes that I grow. That’s a long way off, given that we don’t really live where I can plant a vineyard, but knowing this helps to explain why I chose to make Noiret and Traminette instead of, say, Cabernet and Gewürztraminer. Noiret and Traminette are French-American hybrid grapes that should grow well and be fairly easy to cultivate in my climate, at least easier than the finicky Vinifera varieties that prefer to live in Europe or California.

I ordered 125 lbs. each of Traminette and Noiret grapes from Presque Isle Wine Cellars. This was a great year for grapes in the Lake Erie region. Unfortunately, though, the weather took a turn for the cold & rainy during the week these grapes were to be harvested. This meant they had to rush the traminette to processing and I could only buy juice instead of whole grapes. Oh well, it happens. It’s an agricultural product. I think the wine from the juice will be great. As for the noiret – we did actually get whole grapes but they were in absolutely awful condition. I imagined getting clusters of whole grapes. Instead, they had a big bin of grape slop full of whole grapes, crushed grapes, juice, grape leaves, and grape cluster stems with no berries on them. I had to use a bucket to scoop this slop into our containers. Ugh. Oh well, right? I took my 125 lbs of slop and headed home, hoping to do the best I can with them.

We got them home and set up a system where we’d use two bins to collect the grapes. We set the crusher over one bin and scooped saucepanfuls of grape slop into the crusher, allowing the juice to fall through into the bin. Then once the hopper got full, we’d move the crusher to another bin and run the grapes through it. Once we’d processed them all this way, we put on some vinyl gloves and set about getting all the stems, leave, and other junk out of the crushed grapes, one sieve-ful at a time. This process took us a couple of hours.

Once finished, I added SO2 to the crushed grape must and left it for the night, planning to pitch yeast the next morning. The wine had other plans, though, as the next morning I found that a spontaneous fermentation had begun! No worries, though – I pitched my yeast and it took over by the end of the day.

A few days later and the noiret had finished fermenting and it was time to press it. Pressing was fun, but messy! It was allowed to sit in the buckets we press into for two days, then I racked it into carboys, leaving the sludge behind.

A few days after that, the traminette finished fermenting and I was able to get it into carboys, too. I made a big mistake with the Traminette by fermenting it in an open container, adding ice bombs twice daily to keep the temperatures down. I have since learned that white wines, aromatic ones in particluar – and Traminette is certainly an aromatic white – should be fermented in closed carboys under airlock to keep the wonderful aroma from dissipating.

It’s now seven months later and the wines are coming along well. The Noiret has been through two oak additions – medium toast French spirals – and could still use some more oak. The Traminette has been cold stabilized to remove a lot of the tartaric acid. It is currently clarifying before either one more racking or, maybe, bottling.

Watch for future posts about how these wines taste, my winemaking notes, and anything else I do with them in the future.


First Tasting: Raspberry Witbier (Beer #19b)

May 20, 2011

Tonight I popped open the first of the Raspberry Witbiers that I made from half the batch of Witbier I brewed in early April.

Beautiful strawberry pink. Slightly hazy, but rather clear. Bright white two-finger head that slowly falls, leaving a thin layer of bubbles atop the full surface of the beer.

Imagine a witbier. Imagine raspberries. Now imagine raspberries in witbier. That’s what it smells like. The berry flavor is pronounced, but not overwhelming. It’s a natural raspberry smell, not artificial. Think Chambord versus Razzmatazz.

Bright, crisp, dry, piquant, slightly bitter, with pronounced but not overwhelming raspberry. A burst of flavor in the attack, but the mid-palate is fleeting and there is little finish to speak of.

Medium bodied. Very well carbonated. Fizzy, even. Rather acidic, almost biting at the tip of the tongue.

Overall Impression
This is one enjoyable “fun beer.” The body is thinner than I’d like, and it could be a little sweeter, and I’d like a more lingering finish. Still, this is one pleasant beer. It’s not pretentious; it’s nothing but playful. With its dry bit and pink color, it reminds me of an easy-going rosé wine. I’m saddened to think that there are only 18 more of them left after this tasting. (I only got 19 out of the split batch.)

It’s odd for me to note that the body is thinnish, given that in my first tasting of the base witbier I said it had a “creamy, full body.” This is the same beer. Not just the same recipe, but the same batch. I think adding the fruit and letting it ferment out might have made the beer seem dryer and thinner. This was just an experiment to see if it would work out well, and it has. In the future I’ll do full batches of fruited witbier, and I will try to have the base beer finish up a little sweeter to account for the added dryness the fruit brings.



May 17, 2011

I don’t always make labels for beer, but when I do, I prefer to go cheesy.

Making labels is a bit of a pain in the ass. First you need to design the labels. Then you need to get them printed, cut out, and applied to the bottles. Then, if you want to re-use the bottles, you have to remove the labels. For those reasons I never made labels before. On the other hand, labels give you a chance to be creative, clever, what-have-you. The hassle is worth it when you get to unveil them around a group of friends that only gets together once a year these days. So… this year I decided to make some labels for a few beers I was taking to an annual get-together at my old man’s hunting cabin.

First up is the label I made for the IPA I brewed in January, 2011. The picture is one I took a few years back of my dad and my friend, Joe, fishing in their favorite fishing hole along Mill Creek in Jefferson County, PA:

Everybody loves a delicious Portuguese Breakfast Stout:

Well, maybe not everybody.

Finally, my favorite label. My friend’s nickname since middle school has been Rusty. Coupled with the rust-color of the Amber Ale, things just fell into place:

My method for creating & applying the labels worked well; I won’t change anything if I make labels again. I designed the labels in Inkscape – an open source vector graphics editor. I exported the labels as PNG and pasted them, six per page, into a Word document. I took the docs to the UPS store on a USB stick and had them printed on the color laser jet printer there. I cut them out on a paper cutter, then I applied them to the bottles with a bead of glue-stick around the perimeter of each label. They held pefectly, then came off with just a short soak in hot water after the bottles were empty.


My Hop Garden

May 14, 2011

In the winter of 2009-2010 I decided I’d like to try my hand at growing some hops. I’ve been gardening my entire life, so I figured I had the basics down. Plus, according the the all-knowing Internet, hops are ridiculously easy to grow. They grow like weeds, or vines… which they are.

So, I visited Freshops to purchase some rhizomes.

From left to right we have Spalt Select, Kent Golding, Willamette, and Centennial:

This is the second year for these vines. Last year they finished the summer looking about like they do right now. I didn’t get much of a harvest. After drying, I ended up with 1/4 oz of Spalt Select. I also got one hop cone from the Kent Golding vine. That’s right, one. I expect to get an actual harvest this year. From what I’ve read, the first year most of the energy goes towards building a strong root system, and the second year harvest is decent, and from the third year on the harvest is large. Once the plants are mature I should get up to two pounds per vine. Because my vines are only about 10-12′ tall (limited by the height of the shed), I expect about a pound per vine.

When I bought these hop rhizomes I wasn’t really thinking, because Spalt Select is typically used for lagers, and I had no way to ferment lagers. Now that I have the fermentation chamber, I’m looking forward to the hop harvest and brewing a hop-forward Pilsner with them.


First Tasting: Belgian Dubbel (Beer #18)

May 14, 2011

Today we tasted the Belgian Dubbel that Jess brewed back on March 20th. It has finally finished carbonating and is ready to go in for its lagering phase before it’s officially “ready.”

Deep reddish brown. Not as candy red as some dubbels, but still somewhat red-like-you-can’t-get-from-malt-alone. Thick foamy off-white head with nice retention. Slightly hazy.

Raisin, plum, Belgian spiciness. Slightly metallic. Malty with a hint of caramel. Touch of banana. No hop character whatsoever. Aromas are subtle and nuanced, at least for a dubbel. Not big and in your face like some of them on the market, especially the American-made ones.

Very raisiny. Moderate Belgian phenols. Some clove, some banana. Not overly fruity and estery like some examples. Rather, it’s more restrained and subdued, likely due to the moderated fermentation temperature schedule. Slightly metallic. Balanced hop bitterness.

Very carbonated. This was on purpose and to style. Light-to-medium body. A little thinner and dryer than we would have like. Piquant, likely from the carbonation.

Overall Impression
It’s a very drinkable beer, but there are things I would change to make it better. I would brew it again with more (or darker) Belgian candi sugar to try to boost the cherry red color. I would mash at 154°F instead of the 149° that the recipe called for, in an attempt to boost body and raise the finishing gravity. (It finished at 1.008 instead of the expected 1.016.)

Finally, this beer isn’t really ready yet. The recipe says to lager it at 45-50°F for a month after carbonating it but before drinking it. It’s just now finished carbonating and has not yet been lagered. I will be setting the fermentation chamber to 47.5°F today to start the month of lagering. I will post another set of tasting notes after that month is up.


Bottling the Raspberry Witbier

May 14, 2011

Beer #19b, the Raspberry Witbier, was bottled on May 5th, 2011. It’s not yet ready for tasting, but should be in one more week. I felt it would be good to dedicate a post to how I incorporated the raspberry into this beer.

I split a 5.5 gallon batch of witbier, bottling three gallons of it straight-up and racking the remaining 2.5 gallons atop 24 ounces of frozen raspberries (from your grocer’s freezer). I allowed the berries to thaw in their packaging in the refrigerator for 24 hours before working with them. I smooshed them up with my hands before opening the bags. After emptying the bags into a bowl, I pulled off about 1/2 cup of the juice and mixed 0.3g of potassium metabilsulfite into the juice. When making wine from fresh grapes, the crushed grapes are sulfited to about 50ppm to kill any wild yeast and spoilage organisms and to prevent against oxidation. I figured the same thing would work well for the raspberries.

On the left you can see how the juice turned sort of brown after adding the k-meta:

After stirring the sulfited juice into the berries, the fruit browned slightly:

Getting the fruit into the carboy wasn’t exactly simple. I pressed it through the tiny mouth of a funnel with a digital thermometer probe:

(The foam is just Star-San.)

The beer didn’t take on too much color immediately:

But after just eight days, the fruit had lost all of its color and the beer was a beautiful ruby color in the carboy:

With just some of it racked into the bottling bucket, you can see the color is actually strawberry:

The taste of the beer at bottling time was very nice. The raspberry flavor was pronounced but not overwhelming. Because it’s natural raspberry it adds a tart acidity that compliments the witbier style well. The fruit fermented out completely, so it does not add any sweetness to the beer (save for a bit of additional alcohol sweetness).

Unfortunately I only ended up with 19 bottles of this beer. I was hoping to get a full case, maybe a bottle or two more. I ran into trouble getting the beer off of the fruit at bottling time. I thought that wrapping my auto-siphon in a nylon stocking (a new, sanitized one) would filter it well, but I kept getting clogs and losing suction. There was still about three quarts of beer left in the carboy when I could siphon no more due to all the fruit gunk. In the future I will probably strain the beer off of the fruit through a sieve. To combat oxidation I will sulfite the beer to about 35ppm, like you do when racking wine.


First Tasting: Witbier (Beer #19a)

May 14, 2011

This morning I poured a bottle of the witbier I brewed six weeks ago. (That’s right. Morning. Big whoop, wanna fight about it?) I bottled three gallons of it on April 26th, priming it with 2.2 oz. table sugar, aiming for 2.25 volumes of CO2. The rest of it was racked atop raspberries, but that’s another post.

Beautiful pale golden. I’m proud of how light this beer turned out. White 1/4″ head that dissipates after a few minutes, leaving a ring of foam around the glass. Hazy, but the yeast hasn’t totally fallen yet; you can see when holding a bottle to light that the top half is clear, the bottom half is turbid. Also, witbier is supposed to be hazy. Once the yeast falls, this beer might actually turn out to be too clear for the style.

Definitely witbier. Still pretty yeasty & young smelling. It was only in the fridge for 12 hours before pouring it. Four days in the fridge is pretty much required to really clean the beer up. Look past the yeasty breadiness and you get banana and clove, but not overwhelming. Appropriate for the style. The citrus, coriander, and chamomile come noticeably and balanced. There’s a pleasant sweetness to the smell.

Fruity, spicy, and crisp. A bit bready, but that should subside with time. Strong chamomile, but not overwhelming. I said I might back off from four teabagsworth to three, but Jess feels it’s good where it is. Not too dry, not too sweet.

Creamy, full body. Carbonation might be a little light. Will see if that picks up with more time in the bottle. If not, will prime more heavily next time.

Overall Impression
Very good. I’m quite happy with it. I’m sure it will go quickly when friends are over during the summer. Will make a great hammock beer. I’ll probably drink them with a wedge of lemon, but only because that’s now I like witbier. It doesn’t really need it. The only drawback I currently see with this beer is that I only have a case of it since I split the batch.