Grain-Stuffed Cornish Game Hen on Brown Ale Rice Pudding

I decided to get a little decadently rustic tonight . . . my first full day at home in weeks – and time to prep!  Chocolate Stout Grain-Stuffed Cornish Game Hen on Brown Ale Rice Pudding with Carrots, Cranberries, and Mushrooms.

Roasted Game Hen on Ale Rice Pudding

Roasted Game Hen on Ale Rice Pudding

Okay, so I did this at the beginning of June and never finished the post…just found the unfinished draft (thought it was up weeks ago!)…guess it’s time to finish it up!

As this was a bit of an experiment (and just serving myself), I stuck to a single bird.  Start with thawing and unwrapping your Cornish game hen (really, just a small chicken).  Rinse it thoroughly, inside and out.  Check for giblets (not usually included in a game hen, but often held in plastic if they are there).

Soak the bird in a beer brine for 2-3hrs, tossing or rebasting regularly.  Use 12-16oz brown ale, 2-4 Tbsp malt vinegar, and a few whole cloves and peppercorns with some bay leaves.

Brined Hen in Roast Pan

Brined Hen in Roast Pan

Season inside and out with salt and pepper (I also used some bay leaf, paprika and a small amount of granulated garlic and onion powder).

Seasoned Stuffed Game Hen

Seasoned Stuffed Game Hen

Pin or sew the neck opening shut, upend, and stuff with dried spent grains (I used grains from my Black Imp Quintipple Chocolate Stout).  Pin opening shut (don’t sew this one just yet) and set aside to let rinse water and meat juices start soaking into the grain while the rest is prepped.

Game Hen Stuffed with Spent Grains

Game Hen Stuffed with Spent Grains

I used Basmati rice for this recipe, as it has a nice light, neutral flavor and does not get super-sticky…wild or long-grain domestic rice works quite well too (although more hard and will make more of a rice-side than a rice pudding texture).  Try to avoid super-soft or super-sticky rices, like jasmine…also try to avoid strongly-flavoured ones, such as domestic brown rice (we’ll be adding more than enough flavor).

Measure your rice by pouring it dry into the bottom of your roast pan until 1/4″-3/8″ deep (which will end up coming close to halfway up the side of the bird, when all is said and done).  Mix in some light seasoning, maybe 1-2 tsp.  I used whole black peppercorns, a pinch of Herbes de Provence (a French blend of green herbs mixed with lavender), and a small amount of crushed coriander.  Avoid adding salts to the rice at this point – salt will make the rice “skin up” in the hot liquid and make a harder rice than we want (some salt will come off of the bird, anyway).  I also added 1 Tbsp of brown sugar.  Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly.

Add in 1 can of sliced carrots, perhaps cut in half if large.  I know, I know, canned carrots don’t taste nearly as good as fresh ones (and are missing most of the nutrients), but for soups and quick-bakes, I don’t have the patience to blanch/parboil them ahead.  The canned ones give that nice carrot sweetness and a nice soft texture.  This is primarily a soft-textured dish, so I really didn’t want anything too crunchy involved.  Add 1 can sliced mushrooms or 1/2-3/4c sliced fresh mushrooms.  Throw in a handful or two of dried cranberries for some bits of zip (again, if they are large, you may want to cut them down a bit).  Mince up a fresh garlic clove or two and stir it all together thoroughly with 1-2 Tbsp heavy cream.

Adding Beer Brine

Adding Beer Brine

The first time I made this, I had placed the bird, poured the brine and more beer over it, then added the rice mix back in.  While it worked, I tried it differently the next time and it worked much better.  Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo the second time around.

Push the rice mix into a mound in the center of the baking pan.  Here’s the fun part.  Hold your game hen neck-down over the mound and gently open the stuffing-flap.  Slowly pour the beer brine into the ass end of the chicken so that is flows through the spent grains, drains out the neck hole, and pours down onto the center of the rice mound.  This can take a few minutes, depending on how tightly you packed the grain and how sealed the neck hole is – the slower it goes (as long as it DOES go), the more flavour you will get from it.

When the dripping has (mostly) stopped, set the bird down and sew the buttflap shut.  Push the rice mixture to the edges of the pan and nestle the bird into the center.  Push the rice mix back down to form a fairly level layer all the way around the bird, covering the entire pan bottom that is not in contact with the chicken.  The liquid level should be about halfway up to the level of the top of the rice.  Remember that more liquid will drain from the bird and carrots, while some will be soaked up by the grain and cranberries.  Accounting for this, add a little beer or water if you’re concerned it’s too dry (but remember that if it’s too wet, your rice will be a soggy mess…and if it’s too dry, it’ll burn).

Cover the pan and roast at 375*F for 45 minutes.  Pull the pan out and uncover.  Brush a little melted butter or olive oil over the bird.  Sprinkle on a little smoked paprika or dark chili powder.  Visually inspect the rice.  If it looks like it needs it, lightly fluff with a fork (VERY lightly) and/or add a little water.  (If it looks too wet, there’s not much you can do to fix it, so start thinking about another quick side dish.)

Return to oven uncovered for another 15 minutes (until skin is crisping, juices run clear, and the thickest part of the meat measures at least 165*F).

Game Hen Nicely Crisped

Game Hen Nicely Crisped

Remove from oven.  Lift bird from the rice and set on large cutting board.  Unpin/unsew neck and butt.  Scrape out the spent grains and toss away (we want the flavours and scents, not the crunchies).  Using large chef’s knife or cleaver, Cut bird in half down the breastbone and spine.

Game Hen Split with Grains Removed

Game Hen Split with Grains Removed

With a large fork, lightly toss the rice mixture to break it up and separate it from the bottom (there will generally be a little burned down that you don’t want to mix in).

Place half game hen onto each plate.  Spoon rice pudding on the side.  Drizzle edges of plate with Sriracha.  Accompany with a small dish of Pub Pickles.  Serves 2.

Cornish Game Hen on Brown Ale Rice Pudding with Carrots, Cranberries, and Mushrooms

Cornish Game Hen on Brown Ale Rice Pudding with Carrots, Cranberries, and Mushrooms

Complimentary Pairings:  We need rich, malty ales to enhance earthy root vegetable notes – everything in this dish lives within +/- 8-10 inches of the soil line and we want our compliment to bring out the full, rich darkness of the soil itself and the warmth of the sunshine.  I would serve with an English brown, Vienna/Märzen, Belgian dubbel, Roggenbier/Rauchbier, Scottish ale, or sweet/oatmeal/imperial stout to bring up the caramelly/melanoidin, chocolatey, and roasty/smoky notes, all of which have fairly low carbonation levels to allow the flavours of the beer and the dish to mingle freely.  Be careful of going too far into the same flavour spectrum.  An English mild, alt, or bock would just get lost next to the dish.  A full-on Scotch ale would be sickeningly sweet and cloying after a few bites/sips.  A dry stout or schwarzbier would seem sharp and acrid/astringent next to the umami-heavy flavours and oils in the dish.

Contrasting pairings:  To contrast flavours, we need crisp, light ales/lagers to offset the dark, earthy notes with brightness and palate-scrubbing carbonation to reset the palate.  I would serve with a not-too-hoppy pale ale, Kölsch, Berlinerweisse without syrup, or a Bohemian pilsner.  A Belgian golden strong could be interesting, but the carbonation of a tripel would be more appropriate.  A bready ESB or a malty Belgian singel or English pale ale would not have the right crispness to offset the flavour profile, but too much hoppiness could make for an unpleasant pairing.

Complex Pairings:  This dish could be enhanced by pairing with:  earthy funkiness to let the root veg flavours shine; enhancing spice, roast, or toffee to boost the seasonings; sweet/tart/sour notes to balance the very umami-heavy flavour profile; and some nice carbonation to reset the palate.  I think any of the following pairings would give an attentive diner/imbiber plenty to ponder and experience:  saison/biere de garde (enhancing spice, contrasting citrus, high carbonation), Flanders red (enhancing berry and oak, contrasting sour, low carb but acidity serves similar purpose resetting the palate), gueuze/lambic (earthy funk of course, sour/tart brightness, high carb+acid), barleywines/old ales (each is so uniquely complex….).  The flavours of a dunkelweizen could certainly take the entire dish in a new direction.  I think an oud bruin or weizenbock would run afoul of the same “getting lost” problem of the mild and alt to properly stand out.

Seasonal Pairings:  This would make an excellent dish at any time of year, however, root vegetable flavours are most reminiscent of autumn and winter cooking.  This would pair beautifully for Thanksgiving with any of the autumn seasonal beers such as harvest ales, pumpkin ales, and oktoberfests (avoid the fresh-hop IPAs/IPLs, though) and a side of cranberry sauce instead of the pickles.  Christmas ales provide a rich, dark maltiness and loads of spices and preserved-fruit flavours, which would certainly suit a Christmas dinner (as would a Belgian dark ale).  Likewise, later in the season, the maltiness and spices of winter ales would suit as wonderful pairings without the decadence of the fruits from the Christmas beers.

I hope you enjoy (I certainly did!)

Let me know what you think – if you give it a go yourself, send me tasting notes and a pic of how it came out!


Preparing Hop Boxes

I am an apartment dweller, and am trying to keep my mobility options open, should the right brewing job upgrade suddenly require relocating . . . <whine> but I wanna grow hops!

My first hop bines - Cascade, Willamette, and Fuggles

My first hop bines – Cascade, Willamette, and Fuggles

I previously grew some hops in 24″ round pots on a second-floor west-facing porch with moderate success.  They only got direct light from early afternoon on.  After three years, they were still going great.  Some upheaval and a move and they are gone . . . but I’ve ordered new rhizomes and they have arrived!

Now, I need someplace to grow them.  Hops have a number of needs to grow properly, and I have a few wishes of my own, so my background in engineering has me screaming for a “requirements list” – something no engineering design starts without.  So, let’s see:

  1. Cheap
  2. Large volume
  3. Durable
  4. Potentially portable
  5. Reliable water supply
  6. Good drainage through soil
  7. Enough nutrients
  8. Soil that remains loose
  9. Hop bines must be supported
  10. Pest protection
  11. Mildew/root rot protection
  12. Ground cover

So taking a look at this list, some ideas started to take shape.  I don’t have a lot of extra cash, so would much prefer to scrounge from what I have and put on my Handyman cap.  After getting some Red Green episodes playing in the background for inspiration, I discovered that I had (with minimal dumping/recompacting) several Rubbermaid storage buckets that were not being used (the lids of several were in use under fermentors to protect my hardwood floor).  They were definitely cheap (#1) and larger than the 24″ rounds that I had used before (#2).  As far as durability (#3), they were certainly able to withstand weather and wet conditions – but have you ever filled one to the brim with water and just stepped back?  They tend to bow out and half-collapse (NOT something I wanted to happen to my hops).  Trying to move one (#4) filled with wet soil and fragile roots without flexing it all and snapping roots is also difficult.

Returning to the cheap scrounging, in my woodpile was a large number of narrow slats cut from quality cherrywood.  They were from a project that was not finished when 1/3 of the raw materials were stolen from me (I’d been cutting small cubes for my smoker since, but hadn’t used it for much else).  Using these and a couple of wider planks, I built support frames for each of the buckets.

Wooden support frame for hop buckets

Wooden support frame for hop buckets

Every connection is double-tapped with 2-3″ outdoor-grade drywall screws.  All of the holes were pre-drilled.  I built the frames to be tight just under the rim and the bottom to just brush the ground when empty.  To make it nestle in, I had to cut the handles off of the ends of the bucket (a set of wire cutters made short work of them).

Hop buckets framed up

Hop buckets framed up

Now that I had containers, the next step was to consider their contents.  A huge problem with potted plants of any kind is water management.  Potted plants cannot rely on the root systems of other plants, hidden aquifers, etc. when they get dry – and it is all too easy to forget about them for a few days on the WRONG few days.  It is equally disastrous when potted plants can’t drain and simply sit in a flood of stagnant dirt-water – the plant literally rots right off of its roots.  I’m planning to have these hops in the buckets for a couple of years, so I want this to work right.

My plan is to build is a holding reservoir with a wicking siphon system.  It sounds impressive in engineering terms, but in practice it is quite simple once you understand how it works.  To make sure that my plants don’t go dry, I am setting aside the very bottom of the containers specifically to hold water (#5).  This means that instead of putting my drain holes on the bottoms of the buckets (like most plant pots), I drilled them partway up the sides.  Also, since I am intentionally storing extra water (and will be supplying it back to the soil), I can let new water drain quickly from the soil to the reservoir or out of the bucket – in other words, I can use MUCH bigger drain holes (#6).  There are 2 holes on each side and one on each end – all are 1/2″ diameter and approximately 2″ up.

Drainage holes above water zone

Drainage holes above water zone

To isolate the water reservoir and prevent it being filled with soil, we need some sort of separation.  There are fancy screens and false bottoms (sound familiar?), hydroponic rocks, and expanded stone fillers that all work well and have their strengths . . .  price is not one of them.  However, the kitchen at work had some equipment come in packaged in odd-shaped beadboard (white styrofoam) – an inert buffering substance that does not break down in wet conditions and would otherwise take up space in a landfill . . . and (dum- da-da -dum!) free (#1).  I broke the styrofoam into mid-sized odd-shaped pieces and layered them into the bottoms of the buckets, making sure that there were at least 2-3 layers.  As these layers settle under the weight of wet soil, they will press down without crushing, creating a coral-like network of water caves.

Water zone buffer with cotton rope wicks

Water zone buffer with cotton rope wicks

To seal it off from the soil that wants to drop through, I will be covering the beadboard with a thick layer of peat moss.  The peat moss will act as a filter bed – it is porous enough that it tends to stick to itself and allow the liquid to drip through.  It can also trap some nutrients that the soil can wick back up from direct contact.  However, the soil can’t get to the water at the bottom in the reservoir (#5).  A wick is one of the simplest forms of on-demand siphons.  A rummage through my camping gear (#1!) turned up a chunk of nylon-cored, cotton-wrapped 1/4″ rope.  I cut a few lengths and coiled some across the bottom of each bucket, under the beadboard.  In each bucket, I pulled both ends up through to make two wicks.  The nylon threads at the core will help keep the wicks in place all the way up through the soil while the water will slowly travel along the cotton fibers as the soil drys and absorbs more water from the wick (#5).

Cotton rope wicks

Cotton rope wicks

Once the wicks were in place, as mentioned, a 1-2″ layer of broken-up peat moss was layered over the beadboard and wetted down.  Once the layer was more cohesive and less dusty, alternating layers of soil and peat moss were layed in, always making sure to continue keeping the wicks penetrating each layer (#5).

hops-soilwickBy using good-quality pre-mixed potting soil (on a budget, so I used Miracle-Gro Potting Mix), I ensure that I have a solid set of both quick-use and long-term nutrients in my soil (#7).  Alternating 1-1.5″ layers with peat moss distributes the nutrient-rich soil to all areas for roots, while preventing any compaction or “rocking up” that would present problems for the roots (#8).  Each peat layer creates a buffer drainage zone where over-wet potting soil may find close drainage relief that can transfer it across the layer to a drier area.  The peat also acts as buffer filters, helping to retain more of the nutrients being leeched by drainage or being added with watering later in lifecycle (#7).

Hop bines need to climb and this is a good time to consider how your are going to support them.  If you need to mount a pole, ring, tiedown, etc. to your bucket or frame, it is easier to make those modifications now than when you have a big plant in your way.  I will be letting them climb the railings along the 3-story outdoor stair on my apartment building, so that’s done-and-done (#9).  (I have wool twine ready if I need to direct it more).

Two of the biggest threats to hops are bugs and molds.  In NH, the bugs are relatively a non-issue (for the plants, anyway – we have tons of mosquitos and blackflies).  Some birds munched the first couple of shoots and I think a mouse or squirrel was digging for seeds, but I covered the tops with a thick layer of peat moss as a mulch and that stopped (#10).  Downy and powdery mildew are concerns even here in New England.  Having my plants isolated in pots, starting high above the grass and not near any other shrubs gives them an advantage, as does the steady light breeze (#11).  Once the bines reach a few feet high, it is also good to strip the leaves off of the bottom 1-3′ for further isolation.

Once the bines have become established strongly, I will be adding some ground cover to protect from critters and heavy rains/dry spells.  I have seeds for ground-cover-style thyme and oregano.  Neither of these plants reach down more than a couple of inches, and create an aromatic (i.e. anti-pest) layer of edible greenery that also acts as a mulch (#12).

Quick Lunch: Chicken IPA Salad

I’ve been pretty busy for the last few weeks (hence my recent lack of posts) and my home larder is starting to get a little low.  I suppose that’ll happen when it’s been nearly a month since I did a grocery shop.

As I’m pondering between the merits of the reasonably empty, but instant, gratification of oatmeal or pasta weighed against the time delay of thawing some meat for something more substantial, I spotted a can of chunk chicken in the cabinet.  Far from a favorite, probably loaded with unpleasant things if I dared to read the label, but a handy staple in moments such as these.  On the next shelf sits a box with a few sleeves of saltine-type crackers.  Jackpot!  Quick, easy, and filling…if somewhat flavorless.

Out came some so-so pickles (won’t be buying that brand again, but they’re edible) and sweet onion….to season, to season……  Eureka!  HOPS!  Here is what I came up with, and it’s pretty darn tasty, even if I am saying so myself.

Hopped Chicken Salad

Chicken IPA Salad before Mayonnaise

RECIPE:  Chicken IPA Salad

  • 10oz drained shredded chicken (I used 1 can)
  • equal amount diced sweet onion (1/3-1/2 an onion)
  • equal amount diced sweet pickles
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 3 Tbsp dried parsley
  • 1/8 tsp garlic powder (to taste)
  • 2 Tbsp light brown sugar
  • 1/8-1/2 tsp ground pellet hops (I used Galaxy)
  • sea salt (to taste)
  • 1/4c blue cheese salad dressing
  • 1/2-2c mayonnaise

Drain and shred chicken with a fork in large bowl.  Add pickles and onions to form a mix of equal parts by volume.  Add all spices, sugar, and hops, with an extremely light sprinkle of salt.  Toss thoroughly and allow to rest for ten minutes.  This will let the salt and sugar start to dissolve, which will release the juices from the ingredients to rehydrate the parsley and hops.  Stir in blue cheese and 1/2c mayonnaise.  The hops will accentuate the pepper, garlic, and especially the salt.  Let rest for two minutes before stirring and tasting.  Adjust salt, pepper, garlic, and sugar to taste.  Add more mayonnaise until desired consistency/flavour is reached.

Serve on the cheap with plain crackers, or dress up in a sandwich with lettuce and tomato slices on toasted spent-grain sourdough bread.  Serves 2-4.

The parsley and leafy/grassy notes of the hops serve to enhance one another, as the spices bring forth the spicier notes from the hops.  The rich umami notes from the garlic, chicken, and crackers/bread create an impression of bready hearth warmness.  I am quite pleased, as the overall effect is of a chicken-based IPA with the cracker/chicken standing in for base malts, brown sugar for caramel malts, garlic/onion for slight meaty yeast notes (and the blue cheese/mayo for a light tanginess), and of course the parsley/hop flavors cutting over the top with a complex pickle/vidalia sweetness layering into the garlicy hop-bitter dryness.

Pair with an IPA and you’re rockin’!

Certified Cicerone Exam Day

The morning of Thursday, February 27, I woke up early and had a big breakfast on my way out of town.  Driving into the sunrise, the song “Daybreak” by a friend of mine, Dave Osoff, was a perfect soundtrack.

Arriving at Merrimack Valley Distributors in Danvers, MA, I made my way upstairs to the conference room to find a number of somber-faced people awaiting the start of the exam.

Although there was not much talking going on, a couple of things were quickly apparent:  first, that most of the people there worked for MVD – and second, that the majority of the test-takers were re-taking the exam.  Two were on their third re-take.  Obviously, this is NOT an easy exam.  One examinee had come up from Pennsylvania for the exam!

The sheets on our desks restated the fact that discussing the contents of the exam in any sort of detail is grounds for revoking your certification.  We also had to pick a seven-digit “blind number” to go on each page of our exams.  This unique exam id # lets the graders split up the exams page-by-page to send out around the country for impartial grading.

The written portion of the exam is closed-book and scheduled for three hours.  It is mostly shorter write-in answer questions with a couple of longer ones and three full-length essays to write.  For many of these questions (and especially the essay ones), partials credit is available for imperfect answers . . . but not having taken the exam before, I’m not sure how generous they tend to be.

While I can’t discuss the specifics of what was on the exam, I will say that I was shocked at how much of the exam aligned with the practice exam available on the Cicerone web site.  Yes, there were some of the same questions (and many that were VERY similar), but more than that, the style and type of questions were consistent with the actual exam.  The biggest difficulty of this exam isn’t the individual questions – it’s the breadth of knowledge that you are expected to know in-depth and not knowing which of the details will be asked.

The was one question that actually stumped me – on long-draw draft line troubleshooting.  I’ve asked the question of a few brewers since (without mentioning the source) and they’re stumped too . . . one suggested it is a Kobayashi Maru scenario.   The one that really got me was a simple blank-out.  I’d studied the list of Trappist abbeys and when called upon to name a number of them, I blanked out after writing in Westvleteren and Chimay.

I finished the written portion in a little over two hours, a little less than halfway through the pack.  A couple of the examinees worked right until the last minute.  After a short bathroom break, I amused myself doodling until we were ready to start the tasting portion of the exam.

The Cicerone tasting exam consists of three parts.  You are expected to complete all three parts in 45 minutes.   For the first portion, you are presented with a sample beer that is your undoctored control and four samples of the same beer.  One is a control sample that matches the original and the other three have been doctored with adulterants to mimic common off-flavors in beer.  It was not hard to separate the doctored samples from the control, but the the levels were subtly low and it was difficult to pick out WHICH off-flavor we were tasting.  (We got to talk about the samples in the period after the tasting was over – the same sample had as many as three or four people detecting something different!)

The second portion of the tasting exam involved four more samples.  For each, we were told it was one of two styles and had to select the correct one.

The third portion of the tasting exam was the trickier real-world scenario of evaluating a returned beer.  Each of four samples was given to us.  We we told the brand of beer and whether it was from bottle or draft.  Our task was to decide it was worth serving – and if not, the reason why and probable cause.  This was very tough and it seemed nearly everybody got at least one wrong.

Finally, was the much-mysterious demonstration portion of the exam.  This is the part that had me pretty well freaked out – with the amount of material, I really had no idea what to expect and searched the net exhaustively for hints.  The best I found was a vague comment that it *might* have something to do with draft systems.  Yes, it did, but I won’t tell you what we had to do for our demonstration.

We each had three minutes alone in a small meeting room in front of a recording digital camera to demonstrate and explain our given task.  If you are concerned about this portion of the exam, take a good long look at the Draft Quality Manual – know your systems and parts, their names and what each part does, and ideally you should have taken apart each piece of equipment mentioned.  If you’re comfortable with that material, the demonstration will be a breeze.

Overall, it was a great experience that really tested the limits of my knowledge in the fringe details.  I’m positive that I didn’t ace it, but am equally confident that I didn’t bomb it either. I definitely know that I made some mistakes – with the partial credit possible, I honestly have no idea whether or not I’ll end up with a passing score, but am confident in how I did overall.  Fingers are crossed that I won’t need to re-take, but I’ve got a 1-3 month wait to find out.  At this point, I’m glad I can stop studying so hard every night and can relax a bit more for a while.

Time to brew something!

Brewery Intern: Day 08 (Smoother Runnings)

Today’s brew day proved much smoother (and much shorter) than last week’s for a number of reasons.  Rather than doing a partigyle brew to produce two different beers in half batches, today we were doing a single full-size brew.  It also helped that the kettle burner decided to be cooperative today.

The plan was to re-brew the Milly’s Oatmeal Stout to replace the batch we had drained from the fermentor the day before (which was now serving on tap, replacing the batch that had kicked just a few days before).  This stout is one of the eight flagship beers that will be promoted through the Stark Mills distribution agreement – and will even have its own custom tap handle (we are supposed to see a prototype tomorrow)!

We arrived and got the warm water in the kettle from last night heating up again and positioned our pumps and hoses.  While waiting for the grain delivery truck (actually, our biggest delay of the day), we took apart and cleaned the fittings on a few corny kegs and tested the fittings.  Once the truck arrived, we brought two pallet-loads of grain sacks in by hand, checked them in, and separated the ones that we needed for today.

Once the grain was set, we started moving quickly, getting the mash tun heating up with hot water through the hydrator.  I dropped the grain augur to the floor after the specialty grains were measured out.  Karen and I switched positions this time and she dumped the grain sacks into the augur with Bryan’s help while I stirred the mash and talked with Craig.  That is, until we got through the barleys and the oats started to come up the augur . . . and quickly jam it.  Yee-haw!  The rest of the oats were hauled up to the top and dumped in directly while I stirred.  Then (after disconnecting the power) I unclogged the augur with a screwdriver.  A four-inch diameter pipe was clogged with nearly a foot-long mass of flaked oats compressed into a near-solid cork.  By the time I was done, I had filled nearly half of a brew bucket with oats to stir in.

Milly's Oatmeal Stout in the Boil Kettle

Milly’s Oatmeal Stout in the Boil Kettle

The lovely roasty dark mash settled nicely, recirculated nicely, and (other than a brief near-stick during sparging) lautered evenly until our brew kettle was filled.  We drained off a bunch of the remaining sweet wort to play with while the kettle finished heating up to a boil.  We all had half a glass or more of the syrupy roasty chocolatey malt candy goodness.  I mixed up a chocolate Malt Cola that I passed around. We passed a pitcher off to the kitchen to have fun with – with Bryan reporting hearing the word “marinade” being muttered before he exited the kitchen.

RECIPE: Malt Cola

30-60% sweet wort (bolder British malt flavors work best)
40-70% cola soda (the more citric Coke works better than Pepsi)

Add cooled wort to soda and gently stir before adding ice. Adjust blend to taste.  I like it best with a bit more soda than wort.

Dark roasty worts such as stouts and porters make it more of a chocolate cola, while worts from bitters/milds/browns will be more of a caramel cola. More caramelly worts would also be appropriate blended with a traditional root/birch/ginger beer.

Raking the Spent Grain out the Manway

Raking the Spent Grain out the Manway

I measured out the 75 and 60 minute hop additions, and we got to raking out the now-drained mash tun.  The spent grain was loosened from above with the oar and pulled out of the manway with a heavy-duty garden hoe to fall into plastic 55-gallon drums and trash cans.  The grains were packed down in each bucket to compress them as much as possible.  As each bucket was filled to within inches of the brim, it was loaded on a hand cart and wheeled through the twisting path of ramps and tight corners through the function room, kitchen, and back of the house areas to exit at the back door near the dumpsters.  As the buckets began to pile up, a call was placed to our regular farmer to come collect it for feed for his farm critters.  There is so much heat stored in this amount of grain that even at the below-freezing temperatures that we’ve had lately, it will take days to cool off enough to start to sour.  (We filled about 9 of these big barrels with the heavy, wet, spent grain – which had weighed close to 1,100 pounds while dry before the mash . . . I hope I don’t need to break out the thermodynamics equations for you to get the idea that there’s a LOT of hot mass in each of them.)

I measured out the next additions of hops and put the boxes away before climbing through the top hatch into the mash tun with a bucket, a green scrubby, and the garden hose.  I sort of lost track of time for a while, drenched with sweat and water spray, not able to hear much of anything outside except when I occasionally stuck my head out of the top.  Eventually, I got the four panels of the false bottom turned up and everything inside the tun sparkling and shiny and clambered out with surprising ease.

Top Hatch of Mash Tun

Top Hatch of Mash Tun

Once on the floor, I could see that the others had finished up carting out the spent grain and had gotten the yeast from the Grundy Room to warm up for pitching.  I measured out the Irish Moss and Bryan dumped it in the kettle, along with a couple of gallons of older yeast that we weren’t going to pitch to act as a nutrient.  The final hops went in a bit later and we started the whirlpool.  After the whirlpool was allowed to rest, we started draining into the fermentor.  I opened the manway hatch on the FV and popped the lids off of the two corny kegs of yeast we were to pitch.  The yeast that we had pulled the day before proved much more frothy than we had thought – after overnight settling, the kegs were only half full.  While I was working the yeast loose and dumping it through the hatch, a third keg was retrieved and depressurized to find similar settling.  The third keg also went in before the hatch was sealed up and the blowoff hose was rigged to the top port.

As the kettle drained, we could see that unlike the brew day last week, this brew had formed a nice, solid cone of trub.  Actually, once we had filled the fermenter, drained some to a bucket for gravity readings, and let the rest down the drain, the pile of hops and break was very solid.  It took quite a bit of force to blast it away, layer by layer, with the jet blast from the cleaning hose.  Bryan climbed in this one for the cleaning while we took apart and cleaned the yeast kegs.

Cone of Trub from Whirlpooling

Cone of Trub from Whirlpooling

After everything was cleaned up, we checked on the status of kegs with the bar, replaced the root beer keg, and were done with our brew day.  When possible, we try to have the brewers stay at least through the end of the happy hour.  The staff likes us to be on hand to swap kegs and taps . . . and the management likes us around to answer questions and give brewery tours.  So, dutifully performing my role, I had a pints of the oatmeal stout that we transferred yesterday (decidedly less over-roasted and much more balanced than the previous batch) and mingled amongst the patrons before heading home.

Tomorrow is the Certified Cicerone Exam, time to do some last-minute studying!

Where I’m Comin’ From

If you don’t know me, why should it matter what I’m blathering about?  In other words, not everyone with a voice on the internet is an expert, so how can you tell the difference?  I’ll make it easy for you:  I’m not an expert.  I have a lot of learning, experience, and skill – but I’m not Jamil Zainasheff or Charlie Bamberg.  I like to learn from others and hope that you can learn something from me, or at least be mildly interested and amused.  But I really do know what I’m talking about, and to help you get a feel of “where I’m comin’ from” when I say something, here’s a bit of where I’m at in my brewing exploits:

It’s a fairly common joke that I was born to be a brewer.  My mother was born in Germany to Czech parents and grew up in Brewer, Maine.  My father’s family traces ancestry from Scotland through Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants (from that area of Europe between France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany with very unique beers).  Family rumour has it that my great-grandfather was a moonshiner.  My father’s high school mascot was “The Brewers” and he brewed beer in college and spent some time as a bartender in Seaside Heights.  An awful lot of silly beer-centric coincidences, there, eh?

I grew up on my father’s stories (told sparingly and only on rare occasion) of his post-prohibition college-era lifestyle (something totally at odd with the calm and staid man I saw before me daily).  Stories of the communal pot of stew that was brewed weekly to provide their entire sustenance and the roommate whose response to everything was “Heavy.” and lived a lifestyle that my young mind pictured as looking like PigPen from Peanuts (that was the 60’s).  My favorite stories, though, were of the batches of beer brewed in trash cans made of half table sugar with the basic baking malt extract and topped with bread yeast.  The best was the story of the bottle bombs that they dealt with by crouching behind a sheet of plywood with a small hole and a pellet gun.  For those that have access to Canada’s public broadcasting TV network, these stories may remind you of watching The Red Green Show and the handy-man exploits of the cast.  The oft-quoted sayings of Possum Lodge included such snippets of wisdom as:  “Quondo omni flunkus moritati.”  (the lodge motto, which may or may not be spelled right, and translates to “When all else fails, play dead.”) and the Man’s Prayer (“I’m a man.  But I can change.  If I have to.  I guess.  Amen.”).  But then, of course, was the ultimate observation that explains much of why we men do some of the things that we do:  “If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.”  (If you’ve not seen The Red Green Show, Home Improvement was a poor copy with a lot more network money – find some clips (or entire shows) on YouTube…it’ll be worth it!)

I got into bartending in college, first at private parties, then occasionally subbing in as a temp barback or beertender – I really developed a knack for mixing unique incredible drinks on the fly to suit a customer’s palate-of-the-moment.  I spent a lot of time in bars during the mid-90’s an on, working it in all respects, from serving and bouncing, to working with musicians to help produce and put on shows (booking, artist relations, pr, event security at all levels, sound and light tech, pretty much everything).  I picked up a T.I.P.S. Training certification and a Bartending Certificate in the process.  I’ve always had a bit of a finger on the pulse of good beer from my first illictly-underage taste of Guinness.  Several friends and other college associates opened small breweries or brewpubs during the brief craft beer bubble in the late 90’s that ended up performing as most of them did in that era – lots of passion and no business savvy or businessmen that knew nothing about beer were the norm. In fact, the Main Street Brewing sticker was still on my snowboard when I sold it a few years ago.

When some friends in the same building I was living in started homebrewing, I jumped at the chance to help out and learn what I could (which mostly amounted to crushing the grains with a rolling pin and sanitizing the bottles in the dishwasher).  I helped out with a few batches, got to sample plenty of the results, and learned a lot in the process – including that I couldn’t afford to buy the gear for it as the broke college student that I was.  So a long break ensued.

After many long and diverse pathways, my life led from being a computer programmer to a theatre tech wizard into travelin’ hippy vendor (getting paid to go see live music!).  A bad car accident led into working a bottling line before being a retail sales department manager and natural talents led me into architectural drafting and design (a surveyor, highway builder, railroad engineer, electrical engineer, and an architect all in the immediate family).  That led into structural design and off into surveying, civil design, and even some mechanical and electrical design work.

"The Sails" on custom-built island in the Bay of Gibraltar (one of my structural projects)

“The Sails” on custom-built island in the Bay of Gibraltar (one of my structural projects)

Then the economy crashed and so did my firm, downsizing to survive.  Suddenly skills without credentials meant little.  I looked around at what was happening and all job markets were suckin’ it.  Even construction, the usual safe-zone industry, was down – in fact, worse than most others.  Odds of getting another design job plummeted.  But what always does good in a recession?  ALCOHOL.  And this time around, it was the flavored rums/vodkas and craft beer that were booming.  Time to change modes and rethink my life plan….to provide myself a strong career opportunity doing something that I truly enjoy, that will provide continuous opportunities for both learning and creative release….brewing is one choice that hits all of these things, and it was one of the only industries still expanding right then.

So I bought a brew kit.  And a book.  Okay, lots of books.  I’m a book geek.  I love books.  Well, good books, anyway.  I love books so much, I had glasses in the first grade from reading too much.  And constantly got in trouble for reading during class all through school (well, for reading something other than the class subject matter).  Anyway, the point is, I happily picked up several of the more popular titles.  And read them cover-to-cover.  And researched online.  And made notes.  Lots of notes.  While drinking.  I can’t read most of them.  But I did pick up a lot of great tips and am sure that at least some of the credit for my first batch turning out so well had a lot to do with it.

By the second batch, I was already supplementing the basic recipe kit (Northern Brewer’s Breakfast Stout) with different specialty grains and hops, as well as adding bakers’ chocolate and vanilla beans.  And proceeded to get more off the wall after that.  Always experimenting in some way, whether a new style, new ingredients, new techniques or equipment, even seeing if I could copy a commercial beer or repeat/improve one of my own.

Chocolate-Vanilla Stout

Chocolate-Vanilla Stout

Shortly thereafter, I ended up with a cool part-time job managing a blueberry farm that also had grapes, blackberries, roses, apples, pears, peaches, fields of mustard, and all sorts of other herbs and food crops.  It was inevitable that some of the blueberries found their way into a beer, and then there were a few wines…  All during this summer, my iPod was constantly loaded with all of the brewing podcasts that I could find:  nearly every back episode of every show on the Brewing Network, Basic Brewing, etc., as well as books-on-tape recordings of some of the heavier brewing texts, like those from Charlie Bamberg.  And watched video podcasts at home as well.  And of course, there were more books to read all the time.  With a lot of conflicting information, confusing information, or information that is only accurate if you pay attention to what decade it was written in and adjust for it.



However, I started really studying the industry that I had chosen to get into.  I didn’t want to end up being one of the guys like the ’90s brewers that failed.  Contract breweries, distribution or packaging breweries, or brewpubs, there were a lot of business models.  I noticed two consistent things that were problems/opportunities to succeed.  First, the successful brewers found ways to balance out the issues of sales seasons coming and going, usually by engaging the local population as a large percentage of their customer base.  Second, they had multiple sales models, such as distributing bottles and running a full bar.  The most successful combination that hit everything was the local brewpub that caters to the locals with outstanding quality and balances out sales of beer with sales of food.  I needed to learn restaurant operations!  After the season was up, I started working for a restaurant.  I quickly trained my way up through pretty much every position in the restaurant, as I could see the value in learning the business model from every perspective.  After a few months, I was offered the option of getting into the management track or going into baking if I wanted to.  There were a number a reasons I chose what I did, but baking was a good chance to learn a lot more about the lifecycles of yeast and bacteria (we did a lot of sourdough products too), how they react to temperature, moisture, sugars, etc.  So I spent two years working the night shift and got very very good at it.  (Okay, so I was never fast enough for them to praise, but my quality was outstanding.)

Bread Loaves

Bread Loaves

During this time, I was, of course continuing brewing experiments, reading/listening, and studying different beer styles and classic beers (how?  by sampling, of course!).  I also started experimenting with using spent grains, malt extracts, and hops in my cooking.  I started growing my own hops.  And entered a few beers in contests for the feedback.  What I got was quite helpful and brutally fair – but my first contest entries were still scoring in the mid-20’s to high 30’s (which is the Good to Very Good range), so I wasn’t complaining.  I was also posting regularly to (as DarkBrood) when Ray Daniels announced the celebratory reduced-rate Certified Beer Server exam (the first step in the Cicerone program) for $10.  There’s a fair amount to it, and I had to stop and think a couple of times, but passed it with relative ease (and a tiny bit of sweat).

Hops Growing on my Porch

Hops Growing on my Porch

I brewed my first mead, attended my first homebrewing club meeting and later my first homebrewing event, the New England Homebrewers Jamboree.  Not knowing what to expect, I brought along some homebrews in a cooler and tipped one into a pint glass as soon as I parked the car and walked over to the crowd to see what was going on.  A lot like a beer fest without the restrictions, but I was getting laughed at for the pint pretty quickly with comments of “what is that, your chaser?” and “no, that’s gotta be a palate cleanser”.  It was a fun day and a late night with many bizarre and unique samplings had.  I also got to judge several categories in the competition, which was a great experience.  I judged again at the New England Regional Homebrew Competition.

Through all of this, and continuing now, I also have been working on making more of my photography available for sale.  I specialize in large-format landscapes and natural macro imagery (although I am also available for events and portrait work).  A small gallery with rotating samples is at DigitalGibson Photography.  A selection of images are available for sale through Fine Art America as rolled prints, framed prints, gallery-wrapped canvas, and all-new (super-cool!) metal prints that really bring scenes to life.

Since November, I have been a little busy:

  • Left the restaurant job and started concentrated study on beer styles, cuisine, and industry
  • Started a Twitter feed, updating interested people on my day-today brewing activities:  @DarkBroodBrews
  • Joined the local homebrewing club and gotten actively involved
  • Passed the online BJCP exam and sat for the Beer Judge Tasting Exam.  I am quite confident that I passed, but still waiting for the results to determine my actual ranking.  I am currently a Provisional Beer Judge.
  • I have two different beers entered in the Boston Homebrew Competition and will be judging at the event (my first time judging as an official BJCP Judge) next weekend.
  • Bulk purchasing arrangements let me acquire a large stockpile of grain and ingredients to experiment with.
  • I am registered to sit for the Certified Cicerone exam for the Craft Beer Institute in a couple of weeks.
  • I have three beers and a mead registered to send to the National Hombrew Competition and have registered to judge (but not yet approved) for the Northeast Region in NYC.
  • I am starting a new job on Monday morning as an Assistant Brewer at a local brewpub that is currently expanding into distribution and packaging.  I will be an unpaid intern for 30 days with a full-time option at the end (as long as I don’t suck).  There was also some talk about utilizing my baking background and working some of the spent grains into the kitchen for the restaurant.bulkbuy

So there’s a lot going on right now and it’s all on my plate at once, coming together after a few years of consistent work at all angles and a huge dose of right-time, right-place.    My old website, Dark Brood Homebrewery, has been stagnant for a year, but the content there will migrate here eventually and it’ll be closed anyway (although I’ll be continuing to brew under that name at home).



Yet another good time to resort to RDWHAHB!

Welcome to Brews & Stews!

“Hello, world!”  Thus says every tech guru’s very first computer program, and it is with these words that I welcome you to my brand-spankin’ new blog.  Hi!  Thanks for stumbling your way here across the vast landfill of hidden treasures that is the internet of today!  But why here?  Why now?  I’ll tell you why you are here:

  • You may be interested in learning more about food and beverages in general.
  • You may be looking for neat recipes to try.
  • You may be interested in starting to brew your own beer, wine, or mead.
  • Or ferment your own vinegar, cheese, kombucha, or kraut.
  • You may already be a homebrewer and be looking for technical details about brewing.
  • You may be a homebrew “tinkerer” looking for ideas or plans for building gear.
  • You may be looking for more information about brewing ingredients or processes.
  • You may be interested in better beer appreciation (learning how to evaluate beer).
  • You may be interested in becoming a certified Beer Judge with the BJCP.
  • You may be interested in becoming a Certified Beer Server or Certified Cicerone.
  • You may be interested in becoming a professional brewer or meadmaker.

I will at some point, be touching on all of these things (and more).  Finally, I suppose:

  • You may know me and just be interested in the weird ramblings that spill from my head in between all of the other beer-and-food stuff on this blog.

If this is the case, I can assure you that reading this blog will be much like talking to me in person – I write stream-of-consciousness for the most part and tend to write as if I were speaking.  So, yes, there’ll be those times of dry technical blibber-blabber that only my engineering- and geek-minded friends will want to wade through…and there’ll be those semi-related side anecdotes fill of witty humour or an odd off-the-wall silliness.  You’ll get a bit of all of it…it’ll be like the weather in New England:  “if you don’t like it, just wait a minute….it’ll change.”


So, to sum up:  welcome!  I hope you’re into beer and food!!!