Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Some Thoughts on Electronic Media

It has been weeks since I last posted on this blog. Fall is a very busy time at Haiku Farm it seems, with trying to get the chickens settled for Winter, another attempt at NaNoWriMo, continuing to help my son, Willy, integrate in American life and my father through his surgery and recovery in October. Throw in the Thanksgiving holiday and other odds and bits, and time flies with amazing speed!

Today's post is prompted by a new article on the web-magazine, The Art of Manliness. I discovered the magazine months ago through the auspices of LifeHacker, a daily blog of tips, shortcuts, and downloads to help make life a bit easier. I was looking for tips on building an efficient fire in our newly purchased wood stove, and LifeHacker directed me to this article.

The artwork and the content were intriguing! I spent part of my lunch hour perusing the site, and soon subscribed to the RSS feed. The Art of Manliness isn't the typical "Man mag", full of pictures of hot women and cool cars, discussing the performance of sports and entertainment figures on and off the world's stage. Instead, in their own words, it is devoted to "helping men be better husbands, better fathers, and better men." I encourage you to follow the link for the full story.

Today's article, "Amusing Ourselves Out of Our Manhood," got my juices flowing. After reading the article, I began a lengthy comment drawing parallels to my own life to contribute to the conversation. Too lengthy; I was writing a whole article, in a space meant for a couple of paragraphs. So, I shortened my footnote appropriately and ask you to indulge my introspection and analysis.

In my personal life, the Internet had become the time-stealer that television was 20 years ago. I believe that one of the larger benefits of moving to the farm is our limited Internet bandwidth. I have learned to be far more selective about content than when I had multi-megabit broadband cable.

Years ago, I chose to live without broadcast television because it subverts human interaction. With the TV playing, there is no need for communication and no room for growth. Everything comes in the bite-sized pre-chewed pap that characterizes more than 90% of video content across the board. Television is design to attract and entrance our predator's eve, with its movement and color. When faced with such shiny moving objects, I believe we are little better than cats with a laser pointer.

For me, if the TV is on when I walk through the room and I happen to look in its direction, I find my purpose compromised. I remember losing several days to mind-numbing entertainment (fishing shows! The Weather Channel!) in my 30's, when I had wanted to go work on my yard or car. The flashing video screen atracted my eye and sucked out my soul whenever we shared the room.

Even public television has been marred by a lack of depth and a pandering to their need for a slice of the audience. It isn't that I don't find British humor funny--I love Monty Python--or fail to see the benefit of programs like Nova. It's the mental Vermiculite that fills the time between programs that really inform me.

Disgusted with the lot, and with the premium I payed to receive drivel, I turned off cable. In the late fall and winter, when Northern nights are long, deep and dreary, we'll share movies, or watch the few series (Firefly, for example) that spark our interest, on DVD. Comes the Spring and Summer, the device gathers dust under its daily cloak.

So, my love affair with broadcast television ended, and I haven't looked back. When confronted with the TV at a relative's house or a restaurant, I find myself easily distracted and lured into its cocoon embrace. Like other addictions, I find avoidance one of the better solutions.

Which brings me to the Internet, and the topic of Brett McKay's article. I hadn't realized it until we moved to the farm, but I had become addicted to surfing the World Wide Web in nearly the same way that I earlier drooled before television. With the advent of Broadband access, with its near Local Area Network speeds, access to media heavy entertainment was too easy.

I spent evenings tied to the computer watching YouTube videos, or perusing Flash and image heavy sites. I sometimes downloaded large videos or games, watch/play them once, and leave them cluttering the hard drive. I'd simultaneously listen to a media stream on Pandora and download the latest development software from Microsoft while viewing funny cat photos.

We have a picture from this period, that our friend Sky took, of Aarene and I seated in our recliners each with a computer on our laps. We never--seriously--got to the point of using Internet Media Chat to speak to one another, but the same kind of interpersonal wall is there.

The Internet had become my jones.

Then we moved to the country. Out in rural Snohomish county, there is neither cable nor DSL. Your choices for accessing the Internet come in two flavors; dial-up or satellite. I opted to connect us to the world using satellite, so strong was my need, my earnest desire, for something--anything--that clipped along faster than a speeding slug.

We connect through at the blazing speeds of 200kpbs up-link and 1.0Mbps down-link through an 18" dish tacked to the side of the house. This is for the slightly more money than we paid the cable company for 8Mbps in each direction, and the speeds really are blazing compared to the 56kbps a modem brings. Additionally, there is a rolling 3GB over 30 day limit. This means that, counting backward from today, you may download 3GB of information; exceed that limit, and you're toast.

OK, that's probably an exaggeration. However, if you exceed the limit WildBlue limits you to modem speeds (56kbps, remember? Almost four time slower uploads and nearly 20 times slower downloads) until the aggregate total reaches 70% of your limit. In real terms for us, that has been about a week. Very painful, indeed.

What this has led me to, then, is the realization that my Internet habit had nearly gotten as bad as the old TV habit. However, I find that with age has come the wisdom to recognize and cope with the problem. Since I know that, for the forseeable future, we're tied to the satellite infrastructure, there's no point in using Skype or Pandora, and I can download movies and software patches at the Public Library--and maybe get a book while I'm there, too.

Between moving to the country and my prodigal son's return, my life and priorities changed. The reduced bandwidth made those changes accessible. By imposing a limit on my Internet access, I have freed more time to spend with people on things that matter.

These days, I spend more time building things. And reading. And talking with real people, like Aarene and Willy. I spend fruitful, contemplative time in the company of animals and pursuing hobbies that engage my mind and body.

The goats believe this is a good thing.

The chickens; not so much.

But then, they are chickens.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

More About Luna Blonde Ale

Yesterday I got you through the brewing process and up to locking the primary, so we'll continue the process today, and get you through the next week or so to bottling.

An important step, and one I actually remembered this time, is taking the gravity of the wort after it has chilled to room temperature. This in no way involves quantum physics, and, although the instrument looks daunting, the process is really simple. What I measure is the Specific Gravity of the wort, which is a measure of how much dissolve sugars are in the brew. It is ultimately used in a simple formula to determine the approximate alcohol content of the end product.

You begin by using a "beer thief" to "steal" some of the wort from the primary. This is not the kind of beer thief pictured here:

Instead, I have used everything from a sanitized turkey baster to another recent acquisition from Homebrew Heaven.

This sample thief is made by a Canadian company, Fermtech, and is possibly the most useful piece of equipment I've purchased for this hobby. Most sample thieves work on capillary action or through siphoning. This nifty device has a small float valve at the bottom. When you push it into the fermenter, the little valve opens and fills the tube, which happens to be just the right size for a brewer's hydrometer. When you're finished, you depress a protruding pin to open the valve, allowing your sample to drain into the fermenter virtually untouched. Cool, eh?

So I sanitized the sample thief and hydrometer with a bleach solution and took the initial gravity. The way I do this is fill the thief and drop the hydrometer into the sample, as on the left. I get the reading from the graduated scale on the long neck of the hydrometer. The numbers run from 0.990 to 2.000, with 1.000 representing the specific gravity of water at 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Higher numbers stand for increasing amounts of dissolved sugar in the wort.

Specific gravity is useful in a couple of ways. One immediately useful way is that you know exactly when your brew is ready to transfer from the primary fermenter to the secondary. Over the long haul, a formula applied to the difference between the initial reading and the final one, taken at bottling, give you the approximate alcohol content of your beer.

Luna's Blonde Ale had an initial specific gravity of 1.046 on September 13th when I pitched the yeast. This was right in keeping with the target of between 1.038 and 1.054. Now, we settle down to wait.

By the morning of the 15th, thirty-six hours from pitching the yeast the airlock was merrily bubbling away. When the bubbles slowed to about 1 a minute or less, it was time to "rack" the ale into the secondary fermenter. The main reason for doing this is to encourage clarity in the brew. As the yeast cells do their job and are spent, they fall to the bottom of the primary, along with silty bits of grain and malt. The sediment, called "trub" for some obscure reason, is fine as long as you don't disturb the brew or leave it in contact too long. Since I'm trying for clarity, I use a secondary fermenter.

The secondary is a five-gallon glass carboy, cleaned sanitized and ready for the job. I rack the beer by putting the primary on the kitchen counter and siphoning the ale into the secondary. The long tube of the siphon ensures minimal splashing to avoid introducing too much oxygen into the mix, yeast preferring an anaerobic environment for their work. Before I do this I record the specific gravity: 1.012--a sure sign the yeast are hard at work converting carbohydrates to alcohol.

All of that lovely trub at the bottom of the primary is goes right onto the compost pile. It adds all kinds of lovely vitamins and minerals to the soil that we'll use in our garden next spring.

From this point I take daily readings, looking for the lowest number. That happened on the 19th, when we reach 1.008, right on target for this particular brew. It's ready to bottle!

First, let's figure out the alcohol content. 1.046 - 1.008 = 0.038. Now, multiply that by the Constant, 105, and we get 3.99% using the specific gravity method. That proves to be at the low end of the range predicted for this brew, so, not bad.

Let's bottle! First, we rack the brew into a clean, sanitized primary. While that's moving, we take a packet of corn sugar, provided with the kit, and mix it with a quart of lukewarm water until it's dissolved. The quart of sugar water is added to the brew, giving the yeast a little more food to make the carbonation in the bottle.

The bottles have been washed in the hottest setting of the dishwasher with the addition of a cup of Clorox bleach. I take a half-dozen bottles at a time and set them on a towel on the floor, located below the ready brew. Prime the siphon, and away we go!

The siphon has an additional attachment for this process; a bottling wand. The wand attaches to the siphon hose at one end, and has a spring-loaded valve at the other. When you press down on the valve, the brew flows. When you release, it stops. Pretty simple.

I fill each bottle to the rim, and when I pull the wand out of the bottle, it leaves exactly the right amount of space. When I've filled six bottles, I cap them with the familiar steel bottle cap. Here is a picture of the bottle-capper I use:

From this batch I produced 48 bottles of Luna's Blonde Ale. We moved them out to the storage shed so the yeast could perform their last chore of producing carbonation, which takes one to two weeks.

Today, September 27th, we had the pleasure of Aarene's parents, Barb and Stormy, and our friend Megan as we popped the caps on this new brew. Yes, it was good.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Luna's Blonde Ale

Wow. It ha been a long and busy summer. I won't try to catch up; you can read a lot of the details on my "sister blog", Haiku Farm. Or maybe that's "mother blog"....

Today we'll talk about another fine brew at Haiku Farm: Luna's Blonde Ale.

Luna's Blonde Ale starts life as the West Coast Blonde kit from Homebrew Heaven. You can cruise over to their web site to read the details. Of course, in keeping with our naming tradition, beverages brewed on the premises honor one of our critters.

Those of you who know Luna understand how well this ale represents our little dog. Blonde ales are characterized as having "a slight fruitiness to them. They are noted for golden, brilliantly clear color and low to medium hop presence." That description can equally apply to Luna: Fruity, silly and not the least bit bitter.

I'm also celebrating an awesome new purchase for the farm--an outdoor cooker. No, I haven't started using the Dragon for heating wort (although it was tempting...), instead I purchased a single burner Bayou Classic Model SQ-14 Square High Pressure Propane Burner.

Purchased at Arlington Hardware, it isn't
some namby-pamby, "polite" little cook stove. Oh no, this, my friends is a small jet engine, perhaps from an F-16, mounted on legs. It roars out 55,000 BTUs of infernal rage at the bottom of whatever hapless pan is

perched above its maw. Boiling three gallons of water, which takes the better part of an hour on a lesser stove, happens in about 15 minutes. I'm in lurv. Sigh.

The rest of the process I'll have to leave to your active imaginations, as I was too occupied to take pictures. Perhaps the next time I'll draft someone to follow me around with a camera, eh?

I put my 4 gallon pot onto the wonder-burner and lit it off. As the water warms a bit, I fill the provided cheese-cloth bag with the specialty grains and plop it in to steep like tea while I monitor the temperature. When it reached the neighborhood of 170 degrees, out comes the bag. That got dropped into the composter right away.

And now we wait for the infant wort comes to a boil. Actually, no, we don't wait. Things to do! I mix up the sanitizer in the big plastic bucket and drop in the various parts we'll use. Die, evil bacteria!

Okay, got carried away there. Sanitizing is an important step in ensuring your end product tastes the way you expect. Sometimes when people find out that I'm home brewing, they'll relate how Uncle Bud or Cousin Phil did that, and it was horrible! Usually the culprit is a lack of sanitation; foreign bugs get into your brew and compete with your good, desirable yeast.

The by-products can ruin what would otherwise be an eminently drinkable brew. So, everything that doesn't actually touch the boiling hot wort goes into the bucket, hereafter referred to as the primary fermenter, or Primary. These things soak until I'm ready for them and include a lid for the Primary and a three-piece airlock. I'll explain the airlock later.

Now that the Primary and its parts are soaking in the sanitizing solution, I head back outside to check on the boil. Once the grain "tea" reaches a good rolling boil, I begin to add a huge package of dry malt and boiling hops, stirring it in slowly to ensure it all dissolves. The wort boils for a total of an hour, so relax until about fifteen minute from the end.

If you do this at home watch out for boil-overs. The malty wort is incredibly high in sugars and is incredibly difficult to clean up. Although I've had no major spills, the few dribbles from the first batch were enough to encourage me to move the operation out of the kitchen.

Around 20 minutes from the end, I'll drain the sanitizer out of the Primary and let every thing drip as dry as it will get. The sanitizer I use at this stage, Idophor, while strong enough to discourage unwanted flora and fauna, is dilute enough to be of no danger to humans (or, more importantly, to the flavor of the product) in the truly minuscule amount that remains on your
tools. Besides, rinsing in the sink will, beyond doubt, introduce the undesirables into your fermenter.

What, you didn't know the average clean kitchen is crawling with more germs than the average gas station restroom?

At T-15 the clarifying agents get dumped into the roiling wort. I popped inside to dump two bags of ice into the Primary. This is a tipped I picked up from a fellow home brewer on one of my trips to Homebrew Heaven. You need to chill your wort as quickly as possible to below 80 degrees so you can pitch the yeast. This goes back to the whole sanitation thing; you only want your yeast to ferment the brew. Two bags of ice do an admirable job.

At T-2 I added the aroma hops, and at the alarm, I turned off the heat. Man it got quiet after more than an hour of jet roar. I had moved the ice-filled primary to a piece of plywood set for the task. I carefully dump the boiling wort into the primary over the ice! By the time I carry the primary into the kitchen and top the level to five gallons, the wort temperature has reached 78 degrees. Perfect! I pitch the yeast and close up the fermenter.

The lid of the primary has an appropriately sized hole to take a rubber stopper drilled out to take the airlock. The airlock looks just like the accompanying picture. It has a cup with a hollow tube that you poke into the stopper, and extends mostly into the cup. you fill the cup part way with water, then you place a smaller cup over the tube, effectively sealing the top of the tube. The third piece is a cap that locks everything in place. Putting this altogether, seals out the bad bugs and starts the fermentation process. And that is where I'll leave you until tomorrow.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Red, Red Wine...

The UB40 hit has been much on my mind in the past 24 hours, ever since I got an e-mail from Aarenex concerning our hyper-productive cherry trees. My immediate thought was, "ferment those suckers!" And I turned to Google and typed ing "Cherry Wine Recipe".

Wow! 728,000 hits! I pulled up a few of the likelier results from the first page and Aarenex and I began to strategize. This was especially important this time, as we leave for a week tomorrow. I decided to hybridize the dry wine recipes from Jack Kellers' collection. By the time I got home with a short list of ingredients and a new primary fermenter, Aarenex and the boy had picked enough cherries to make a gallon of must. So, I did.

I grabbed a pair of scissors and started pitting cherries. This has got to be the most tedious method known, and it wasn't until we had pitted all seven pounds that I found we could have left them in for the dry fvarietal I'm attempting. Sigh.

Nevertheless, I got the watter boiling and dissolved about two pounds of sugar into it. Once the sugar went into solution and the brew was merrily bubbling, I poured it over the mesh bag of fruit. I then reached in with my long plastic spoon and poked it all under water. I let the mess stew over night to pull all the good flavors out of those cherries.

This morning I transferred the must from the pot to the primary fermenter. Then the rest of the ingredients went into the must, except the yeast, per the directions. I left the net bag of cherries in to cotnue to extract the good juices. Then I went about my day; changing fluids in the truck, running errands, and getting ready for our trip.

Tonight I pulled the bag out and got ready to pitch the yeast (must remember pictures next time!). I took the initial gravity of 1.900(!) and then used the sample to activate the yeast. The yeast was VERY happy to activate. I stirred it into the must and sealed the lid. When we get back, we'll siphon into a secondary fermentor to clear the future wine up. Three weeks from now we'll bottle it up, then we wait. This test batch will be ready in December...of next year.

Well, I meant to do this a while ago.

Last week, really. It seemed auspicious to start a blog on the Solstice. Allusions to light and all. Well, and....

Here we are. The launch of Haiku Farm's second blog; the view from the bald dome. It is Asparagus Stalker's opportunity to wax forth on wax beans, discuss home brewing and wine making, and give a little insight into many of the projects that the boys do at Haiku Farm.

Aarenex' original blog will always be there to give a delightful view into the working of the garden and her mind. My purpose is less esoteric. I'll go into details and recipes and instructions on chicken tractors, weed control and home brewing. Sounds exciting, doesn't it?

It could be....