Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Ok, here's the thing: ever brewed beer? I have. I do. My first batches were great and they've steadily gotten worse. No big deal. Its the brewing thats fun and if the drinking of swill is a necessary accompanyment, here's the crook of my elbow you bad beer you -- lets go get sloshed together...

So last weekend I decided to try whats called "all-grain brewing". It is the next logical step in brewing from the "beginner" method, which consists of pouring concentrated grain syrup into water and boiling it together with hops. "All grain brewing" involves making your own concentrated syrup from kilned barley. Instead of simply mixing your sweet syrup in the water, you have to extract the sweet stuff from the grains by soaking them at a certain tempurature and then filtering them through a fancily-named but essentially simple device known as a "lauter tun". After filtering you boil the mixture of hops and liquid barley for an hour to sterilize it, then cool it rapidly and bomb it with yeast in a sterile bucket. In a few days the yeast will convert the sugary liquid into...beer. Simple? Yeah, ok. Here's how my evening went:

I started with a venerable old recipe for English Brown Ale which, for you non-beer afficionados is essentially a mild, unbitter, slightly sweet beverage of dark complexion but containing little of the "heaviness" often associated with dark beers.

I mixed my grains with the proper tempurature of water in what is known as the "mash" (converting the starchy raw grains into a soft sweet pulp) but promptly lost control of the tempurature, which fluxuated variously between 130 degrees and 180 degrees. For you non-brewers out there be assured: the fluxuation of tempuratures is very bad at this point as it can result in only part of the desired sugar of the grain to dissolve into the water, or it can result in the sour grain husks imparting their astringent flavor to the beer in the form of what are known as "tannins". Tannins are what make grape skins sour. For more about this refer you to an article entitled "Tannins: Fascinating But Sometimes Dangerous Molecules" on a website that some dedicated individual has produced solely upon that very fascinating subject: http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/toxicagents/tannin/

After letting my mash sit for the proscribed 30 minutes, I performed a highly sophisticated chemical analysis of the wort to see if the starches had converted to sugar. This consisted of placing a moistened thumb in the mash and sucking it to see if it was sweet. It was. I was happy because mash that sits for longer than 30 minutes becomes subject to tannin flavors (see above). But to be certain I performed another highly sophisticated chemical analysis consisting of putting a drop of iodine on a drop of mash. If it remains the same brown color the mash is done. If it turns blue/black, there are too many starches remaining in the beer and it needs to mash longer. I dropped my drop and it turned dark, deep blue. I held it up to the light just to be sure. It was still blue, on the verge of black. I sighed. I would need to mash longer. On no account should beer as mild as mine go longer than 60 minutes in the mash phase. 90 minutes later it was done.

At the end of the mash an expert all-grain brewer will perform what is known as "mashing out" which consists of raising the tempurature of the mash to 170 and letting it sit for 5 minutes to let the enzyme activity to diminish (if I haven't mentioned enzymes specifically up to this point don't worry: they are what convert the starch into sugar). I had already let my mash surpas 170 on several occasions, probably totalling 5 minutes, but I decided to take no chances so I turned the stove on under the mash and decided it was as good of a time as any to play a computer game.

15 minutes later, on the verge of inheriting a mansion in the Carribean in Dope Wars, I became aware of a sickly burnt smell upon my nostrils. Realizing that I had left my precious mash to fend for itself upon the burner, I flew into the kitchen expecting calamity and mayhem. To my relief I immediately ascertained that it was not the mash itself in the pan that was burning, but the mash that had violently boiled out and had fallen from the hood on the stove that was burning. I turned the burner off, stirred my concoction and promptly poured it into my "lauter tun" using two pot-holders and a great deal of muscle (a giant, scalding pot full of water and sodden grain is very cumbersome).

A pause for a word about lauter tuns... They are, in simplest terms, nothing more than mash filters. Steeping grains into warm (in my case scalding hot) water does not dissolve the tough husks, so they must be removed. An expensive lauter tun will be nothing more than a screen in the bottom of a pot with a spigot attached to the bottom. Warm water is then slowly poured over the grains for an hour which yields "wort" -- the sugary beer-water that yeast love. I'm adverse to expensive so I went against the advice of every brew-book I've ever read and decided to do my lauter tun as cheaply as possible. I purchased a $5 bucket, sawed the bottom off with a bread knife, and punched holes in the bottom with a hammer and nail. WIth this simple contraption dropped into another bucket with a spigot -- which is used to bottle beer later in the process -- I was content that I had outsmarted the pros. With that as background, please resume.

Well, I affixed a hose to the bottom of my lauter tun in order to direct the wort into yet another bucket (my fermenter) that I would then be able to tip into the mash pot once I had heated the "sparge" water (about 3 gallons worth) and filtered it through the tun. It was simple, ingenious, and thoroughly practical given my limited resources. There was just one problem...

The lauter tun didn't work. Not even a little bit. The hose dangled flacid and forlorn from the bottom of the tun. The scalding mash steamed merrily away, absorbing more and more tannins by the minute. After ten minutes of fuming I decided to pour the heavy, hot mash back into the mash pot and adjust the spigot. Yet there was a problem: the mash pot was now being used to boil the sparge water. So...I had to transfer the sparge water to the fermenter and then the mash back from the tun into the pot. Then I had to wipe the ceiling because hot mash splatters badly during such an awkward transfer.

I adjusted the spigot, and reversed the transfer process: pouring the mash back from the pot into the tun, pouring the sparge water back into the mash pot, wiping the ceiling and turning the spigot on the tun and...nothing again. Nada. Nil. Zilch. Zero. More tannins leached out into the mash.

I repeated the pot transfer and wiped the requisite surfaces which were by now beginning to resemble a nursury after an infant has OD'd on castor oil. By this time a full hour had been lost.

I decided to alter my tactics. I tried a siphon and was rewarded by a scalding blast of semi-sweet barley juice down the gullet. I altered my tactics yet again. I reasoned that if the spigot were not clogged, it must be that the filter itself that I had created with a nail and a bucket-bottom had holes too small to be effectual. Air needed to be able to escape from underneath the filter so that the space could then be filled with filtered mash and fall out through the spigot.

I unbent a coathanger and prodded down the side of my filter. Nothing happened. I grabbed a wooden spoon and stuffed it down. Still nothing except I lost the wooden spoon between the side of the filter and the side of the bucket (it was pressed against the side by multiple gallons of hot liquid). I retrieved a pair of rusty iron pliers from the cupboard and pried the spoon loose with much force. The pliars slipped as the spoon came free. The pliars tumbled into the mash itself and dissappeared benath the scalding surface like Tarzan into quicksand. Meanwhile, the mash merrily continued to absorb tannins, heedless of the venerable old tool that had just joined it.

In a gesture of heroic futility, I thrust my hand into the brew and managed to escape without exactly third degree burns. I did not escape with the pliars, which were some 15 inches below the surface. The recently freed wooden spoon was only 9 inches long -- too short.

So with a quick glance to the door to be sure my wife was not at that moment walking through, I did what any man in my position would do: I opted NOT to discard the entire batch, but to don protective gear for the wrist and go in again. I looked around desperately, trying not to imagine what rusty beer tasted like. My eyes fell upon an oven mit -- one of two we own. It was a hoary old thing: full of ancient black grease and fuzzy hairs from whatever drawer it usually resided in. Still, it was insulated enough, I thought. I donned it and with a frenzied thrust into the brew three things happened:
1. I managed to grab the pliars.
2. The scalding mash penetrated the cloth quicker than I had thought possible.
3. My arm began to burn.

Even more quickly I pulled my arm out, dropped the pliars (not into the mash again, thank goodness) and flung the oven mit over my shoulder whereupon it produced a spray that would have made Old Faithful seem like a cheap squirt gun.

(Part II later, maybe...)
[Clay Sails can be reached at eventualsilence@hotmail.com]

Friday, August 23, 2002

Washington D.C., August 23, 2002

I'm sitting outside at lunch, smoking a cigar for purely frivolous reasons (as opposed to the long litany of important reasons to smoke a cigar), waiting for anything at all to happen. The corner of 3rd and Pennsylvania Ave always hops about that time with tourists and refugees from government cafaterias. A long string of unimpressive restaurants holds no great interest for anyone -- even the very hungry.

Capitol Hill is a district known for its intrigues and spies. It is haunted by the phantoms of historical murders. Spies have been found munching on stolen onion paper literally inches from my head (well, several thousand, but still inches). Senators dangling nude from fire escapes are occasionally caught by the paparazzi, Missing intern limbs occasionally turn up in the ratatui. Just not today. Not yet anyway.

I thought about it all in great detail, everything that might happen. And then...nothing at all actually happened. No Al Qaida ricin bombs, no diplomatic entourages speeding by in honking limousines, not even the errant manhole explosion or two (which have oddly become routine in this city).

No, none of that happened. More tourists wandered by, though. A lady with a baby swerved violently from my unwholesome vapors. A street hustler thrust a bouquet of roadside weeds wrapped in a muddy magazine into my face. I smiled thinly at a nervous girl with an armful of books.

I was wondering if I should make something happen. Maybe I was the one. I finished my cigar and thought about it, about the potential adventure of the next ten minutes. Then I stood up and left before the time was up.

As I walked, the oppressive humididty finally closed and produced a few desultory drops of rain. It felt like a splash of disdain from a sky hoping for more.

[Clay Sails can now be reached at his new email address: eventualsilence@hotmail.com]