2011 Centennial & Willamette Harvest

July 9, 2011

This morning I was doing my rounds, checking on the gardens, watering things, pruning tomato suckers, pulling some weeds, when I noticed that the Centennial & Willamette hops were mature, ready to harvest. This caught me a bit by surprise because I’d been paying closer attention to the Spalt Select bine, as it was the first one to push buds, so I assumed it would be the first to mature. No, the Spalt Select hops are still green and full of moisture, whereas the Centennial & Willamette were turning dry and papery with lupulin turning gold. A quick squeeze of a cone or two confirmed they were ripe; they gave a slight crispy, papery sound and they sprang back to shape when I let them go. Immature cones take a bit of time to return to shape when you sqeeze them.

So I climbed a ladder and pulled them from the bines. First the Centennial:

I got about five cups of hops. I imagine that will only be maybe 1/2 ounce when dried.

Then the Willamette:

What a pathetic haul, right? The Willamette bines did not grow any laterals. Those few hops grew right on the main trunks. The Centennial hops did grow on laterals, but they weren’t exactly proficient. The Spalt Select bines have laterals out the hoo-hoo and many, many more hops on them. I imagine I’ll be harvesting them in the next week or two, as a few of the cones look to be starting to turn mature.

Right now this mini-harvest is on the Alton Brown dehydrator, making the basement smell great.


Late June Hop Garden Update

June 28, 2011

It is nearing the end of June and the hop garden is coming along nicely. This is how these second-year hop vines looked as of this evening:

From left to right are Spalt Select, East Kent Golding, Willamette, and Centennial.

For reference, here is what they looked like at the beginning of August last year – five weeks further into the growing season – during their first year:

Quite a difference, yeah? Last year I got 1/4 ounce of dried Spalt Select hops and one (yes one) Willamette cone. So far this year the Spalt Select is going nuts with dozens, if not hundreds, of cones. The next-best performer is the Centennial, with a few dozen very large cones. The Willamette vine has some hops close to the main leads, but no later growth (yet?), and the EKG vine is growing slowly and has produced no flowers (yet?).

Here’s the Spalt Select up close:

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with these noble-style hops. I’m thinking either a hoppy Pilsener, or maybe some sort of German rye beer. I kind of want the flavor of my homegrown hops to be showcased, so rye might not be a good idea.

Finally, here are the big Centennial cones up close:

The plan for these hops is obvious: use them for dry-hopping an IPA.

I’ll update again later in the year as it gets closer to harvest.


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.


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.


Gear: Fermentation Chamber Build

March 12, 2011

If you want to make good beer, you need to have precise control over fermentation temperature. Hell, if you want to make lager at all, you need a way to maintain low fermentation temperatures in the 50s. Enter the fermentation chamber:

I based this device on what many homebrewers call a keezer – a kegerator built from a chest freezer. Jess has taken to calling it the FrankenFreezer. The freezer is modified thusly: a wooden collar is installed between the freezer body and the lid to make the collar deeper and provide a place for mounting the electronics, and a temperature controller is added to override the freezer’s thermostat.

With this lightly modified chest freezer, I will be able to:

  1. Precisely control fermentation temperature
  2. Brew lager
  3. Cold-condition beer at temperatures above standard refrigerator temperature, but below cellar temperature
  4. Cold-stabilize wine, causing the potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar) crystals to fall out of solution in the carboy instead of in the bottle

To build this device, first I needed a chest freezer. I was looking for a 7 cubit foot one – the perfect size for holding two carboys. I watched Craigslist for a while, but they were all either too old, too far away, or the sellers were asking too much. I eventually decided just to buy a new one, since a new one isn’t that expensive. I picked up the GE FCM7SUWW from the big box store. This model has good reviews online, and many people on homebrewtalk have used this model to build their keezers.

The other major piece of equipment needed was a temperature controller that would allow me to precisely dial in the temperature inside the freezer. Freezers like to operate in the 0°F range, but I want it to run in the 40-75°F range. The Love TSS2-2100 two-stage controller allows me to do just this. Using a two-stage controller means I can control both the freezer and a heat source. In the winter, my basement is colder than Ale fermentation temperature, so the heat is needed. In the summer, it will use the freezer compressor more. During spring and fall, it will likely vary between which it uses. For heat, I just grabbed a cheap ceramic space heater from Amazon.

Wiring the system was simple and straightforward. I used a diagram from one of the good members on homebrewtalk. Basically, power comes into the controller from a wall plug, and from there it goes out to two receptacles. I replaced the wall outlet the entire thing is plugged into with a GFCI, just to be safe.

I chose to go with a single receptacle, split-wired with one outlet for heat, one for cold. The heater plugs into the top, the freezer plugs into the bottom. Both are set to their maximum setting. The Love controller switches power on and off to whichever device needs it based on the temperature.

In the picture above, you can see that I chose to keep the freezer’s hinges in their factory location and attach them to the wooden collar. Some choose to build keezers such that the collar is fixed and only the lid opens. I chose to have the collar open thinking I’d rather not have to lift a full, 65 pound carboy over the collar.

Lid up:

That’s it. It’s test-running now with a carboy full of water. It will get put to use soon – we have a couple of brews lined up for the next few weeks, then it’s time to cold stabilize the 2010 wine prior to bottling it.

If you have any questions about how I built this, feel free to leave a comment here.