Homebrewing made difficult in 72 steps

pitching the yeast

Apparently possession of homebrewing supplies combined with seditious views can now get you charged with terrorism in the USA. I hope the new photoset by Rachel Rawlins documenting my most recent brewing activity will suffice to show that the suspicious-looking bottles currently on my counter are perfectly harmless. The 72 photos clearly show that my level of technological sophistication wouldn’t be enough to produce an effective water balloon, let alone a Molotov cocktail.

For any homebrewers who might be reading this, it’s a new recipe, and a preliminary taste at bottling (before addition of the bottling sugar) suggests that it will be floral and aromatic but possibly not quite bitter enough. It’s an unhopped beer, i.e. a gruit, with alehoof (ground ivy, gill-over-the-ground) as the main antiseptic agent and Norway spruce tips and lemonbalm as the other major herbs, along with juniper berries and coriander seed. Malts included 8 lb. 2-row pale malt, 1 lb. Breiss Victory, 1 lb. Western Munich and 1/2 lb. caramel 120L in a single-step infusion mash. I added about a pound of honey at mash-out.

spruce in wort

This was my first spruce beer, and I was concerned not to let the turpentine flavors come through, so I added only about 2 quarts of fresh, very young spruce tips 15 minutes before the end of the boil. Based on the preliminary tasting, this strategy seems to have succeeded. I’m not proud of using corn sugar at bottling, but I had an old package of it lying around and was all out of dried malt extract. We rushed the fermentation a bit so we could get it in bottles in time for Rachel to bring back a couple in her luggage. So it’ll have to be conditioned in the bottle for a bit longer to compensate.

take maximum practical quantity back to UK

Rachel was a big help, especially at bottling time, and certainly deserved a larger share of the haul. Do watch the slideshow or otherwise browse the complete set, which includes many cultural and natural interludes and I think conveys just how much fun this kind of experimental brewing can be.

UPDATE (May 21): Rachel has written her own blog post about “Brewing with Bonta.”

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

7 Comments


  1. I think this, and the wonderful photo essay, got to me – I was smelling the brew and then went out for lunch at local Indian restaurant and had too much beer to drink, which I don’t normally.

    Actually, the herbs interest me more than the beer as such. Wikipedia says that ‘the Saxons’ brewed with alehoof. Is this your own research, or do you know other people who are brewing from historical recipes? And spruce – oh! Retsina is probably my favourite alcoholic drink, so the thought of a resiny beer is very attractive…

    Reply

    1. Yes, there are a small number of gruit brewers scattered about. And alehoof is mentioned in many sources as a reliable brewing herb, though I’ve never been terribly impressed with it until now. I thought maybe if i picked it young and used it fresh (as opposed to drying) that I’d have better results. Apart from the less-than-amazing taste, though, my sources are unanimous about its antiseptic properties. And there’s a very good chance I’ll acquire a taste for it if the beer is otherwise interesting, as it seems it might be.

      Haven’t had Retsina. It sounds intriguing. Spruce beer is one of the few traditional tree beers still regularly made in the US, I’m not sure why.

      Reply

  2. Gosh, I could smell this! Only probably the smell I’m imagining is wrong because it’s to do with hops. The spruce sounds and looks very appealing.

    Great photos, hope the beer made it back OK…

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    1. Spruce beer is an enduring American style, but I’ve never had one I really liked — hence in part the attraction to brewing my own.

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  3. So very cool! Maybe you should go into business. I just picked up some bottles of ale made by the local Pretty Things “project” — these people rent brewing space once a week to make their brews, which are supposed to be fabulous (saving them for the weekend) and are doing well in the Boston area. You could package yours in hand-knitted stockings. :-)

    Reply

    1. Wow, they do sound as if they’re doing it right. Inspirational! And Boston sounds like a very good place for beer right now:

      “The local brewing scene is really blowing up right now,” says Kate Baker, cofounder with Suzanne Schalow of Belmont’s Craft Beer Cellar, where Jack D’Or has been the No. 1 seller since the store opened a year and a half ago. “With Pretty Things, Night Shift, Backlash, Mystic, Idle Hands, Trillium, Slumbrew, it’s amazing to be living here right now. Everybody talks about the West Coast and New York City and the Northwest, but we’re holding our own thanks to these amazing breweries.”

      Hope you and D. can sample all these beers (and blog about them)!

      Reply

      1. Yeah, that’s the place I bought the beer from, in my town — oddly enough, a town that can hold the likes of Mitt Romney and a pair of lesbian craft beer sellers.

        Reply

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