Sunday, October 24, 2010

Planting the future

Loaded up the car and took the family on a trip back to my hometown of Acushnet to share in the Luc QT and to get some trillium rhizomes in the ground. For about 15 years now, my parents have graciously allowed their frustrated landscaper of a son to cut new garden beds around the entire property and grow up pretty much anything I might want (Pop Tetreault : "whatever you like, as long as its not a willow tree...those roots get in to everything...I don't want anything destroying the septic system"). Most of the early plantings are now mature groups of Peony, iris japonica, allium giganteum or many multiples of the Pee Gee and oak leaf ydrangea.

Despite my fascination with this beautiful North American woodland wildflower, there was still one species that had not worked its way in to the soil until now.

The eponymous Trillium.

Five rhizomes of trillium grandiflorum (Great White), five of trillium erectum (purple/red), and three trillium luteum (a mottled-leaf yellow) were on the docket for the day, so I snuck away for 30 minutes to have a bit of fun in the dirt.

I selected a site in a garden bed that is best suited for these spring time ephemerals, and with some expected dapple shaded neighbors. A mix of native: marsh ferns (Thelypteris palustris) and tall/limbed up golden birch trees (species?) and introduced plants: a flowering japanese cherry and a collection of japanese maples (some named purchased cultivars, some originally seedlings now in their awkward youth from underneath mature specimen trees back in the city.

Unfortunately the soil in this section of the parents property is mostly glacial clay; a soggy root suffocating mess in the late winter/early spring and a parched solidified brick in the inevitable dry spells of the summer. The antithesis of the 'well drained, moisture retaining and high in organic soil' that trillium require.

Thankfully, my parents kept up the heaping compost pile, feeding it regularly with kitchen and yard waste. Pop will turn it a few times a year with the big kubota front loader and supplement it with some manure from my uncle's farm. Really beautiful, well rotted compost. Smells like the forest floor on which it lay. I peel back the outer layer of pulled weeds (unfortuately went to seed) and garden harvest that didn't make Pop's premium measure of quality. The center of the pile is ready to use and the perfect planting soil amendment.
After digging down ~12 inches, I took away 5 wheelbarrow fulls of the dusty, rocky clay coil, which apparently lives in the bizzaro world (it rained pretty well the night before) and replaced it with 4 of the compost and 1 of screened loam, the combination of which will help with drainage/tilth, nutrients and minerals.
The trillium rhizomes were disappointingly tiny. But they were firm and most had lengthy root systems ready to take hold in their new home. They will get settled this fall putting out a bit of root growth before going dormant for the winter. Pop will lay down an insulating layer of finely shredded leaves from the fall yard cleanup, providing further incentive for the earth worms to pay a visit to this site.

Hopefully the little plants will pop up their tri-lobed sepals in the spring and begin the slow but steady growth that will make this in to sturdy stand for the brewery's eventual forest's edge garden planting.

Walking back to the garage to return the shovel, Pop proudly pointed out a lone and youthful rhubarb ...his own recent propagation success story. He had gotten a bit of root from a friend in August and planted it in his raised boxes. The late summer sun fried the leaves to nothing. But underneath, the compost and soil nurtured, kept the roots cool enough to make it through the harsher days to the cool growing season.
After what some people would probably consider too long to be lingering around, talking about the growth of a single plant, we walked back in to the house, knowing that Pepere would have been happy to take part in the fun, and wishing that he was still around to do so.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Yeast hunting: update

The yeast cultures from the Stonington, Connecticut vineyard hunting trip have all burst to life with some very interesting and encouraging results.

While I was sitting around waiting for things to happen inside those tubes, I found lots of practical and timely reading through Jamil's (just as much Chris White's) yeast book. Had me harkening back about 15 years to my Microbiology 101 class with all of this aseptic technique, plating agar media, incubators talk.

Now, I'm not going to venture off in to selective media, vitality or viability testing or anything too geeky, but rather rely on sensory evaluations and macroscopic techniques.

The first macroscopic observations actually came the evening of the collection, only about 10 or so hours after the cultures were started. I noticed turbidity and some positive pressure on one of the tubes with the Sauvignon Blanc grapes...a little agitation revealed some CO2 production. Interestingly, these are the first grapes to ripen and were harvested a few weeks prior to our visit. There were a few straggler tiny clusters missed by the harvesters, so I was able to snag a few for my effort.

Anyway, I guess I wasn't going to have to sit and stare at these for days on end before at least 1 tube with some growth. A sniff along the cap didn't yield much, so I re-tightened the lids and turned the tubes over on to their caps for the night. The centrifuge tube cone bottoms require a rack, and the cardboard rack would take too much of valuable counter space. I tucked the 11 tubes in to small corner of my cutting board, and went to bed for the night.

Agitated them all again in the AM before shooting out the door in a futile attempt to miss the Monday AM Boston traffic. Came home that evening to see 2 or 3 of them leaking fairly significant amounts of wort (beer?) from the screw threads, mabye as much as 1/3 of their total volume, due to the built up CO2 pressure. Well...duh.

Good news is that the headspace in the tubes was filled with CO2...bad news is that I probably lost lots of viable bacteria and yeast in those, most noticeably in that tube of Sauv. Blanc, which when agitated put forth even more frothy CO2 bubbling, and this time a vinous, white winey lactic and bread yeasty smell.

The open air tube had some strange brown coagulated proteins, which reminded me a lot of the first stages of culturing up the kombucha bugs. No CO2, though. Maybe the clumps are hot/cold break from the DME? All the tubes w/ the white grapes were showing signs of life, while the reds were pretty silent. Oddly, all the tubes with grapes were seemingly devoid of these brown coagulated clumps.

Three days after harvest, all the white grapes were still actively fermenting, and yeast seemed to be floc'ing in the bottom of the tubes in stratified layers. The reds were quickly following suit, just a bit behind the whites. No CO2 production evident from the open air vial, just the brown clumps. Are the brown clumps growing?...maybe a bit more turbid now? (should have take photos in same position/lighting for side by side comparison).

The next step was the following weekend (Day +7) when I took 1 tube of each of the four grape varietals, agitated to get the yeast/bacteria cakes in to suspension (had to shake pretty hard for some of the tubes) and pitched in to ~250ml of starter wort + pinch of nutrient. There was significant turbidity and CO2 production and some leaking at most of the tubes' cap threads.
The Sauv Blanc tube that was the most active from day 1 was very turbid at this point, and and took the blue ribbon yeast production, despite the reduced propagation media volume.
I sniffed each of the vials (too nervous to taste anything yet).
All but the merlot smelled like raw, yeasty fermenting wine. The merlot smelled like raw sewage on a hot summer's day. But just a small tube of it, so thankfully a minimal nostril full didn't leave me reeling, spilling the vile stink all over the kitchen. Guess I got a bloom of Enterobacter? Glad I didn't taste it. It got pitched in to its fair share of starter wort, hoping that the more benevolent creatures start to outcompete this stink stank stunk bacteria. The cultures were topped with foil and rubber bands (to minimize any stank spilling, should one get tipped in the high traffic kitchen) and were swirled to agitate whenever I walked by.
Fast forward one day, and little creamy white growths appeared on all of the cultures. Certainly didn't have the morphology of a mold bloom, most resembled what in my experience looks like yeast (mini) krausen.
The next day I took the 2nd runnings from a batch of belgian strong (gravity read at 1.034) and topped up the cultures with another 250ml of wort.
Fermentation was evident in the AM, with CO2 emerging through the media. These were left to ferment for 5 more days (Day +13) and sufficient yeast was settling at each of the cultures and continued to be very turbid. I've read that lots of wild yeasts can be very dusty, but its not really possible to know whether this was due to dusty yeast or otherwise high and varied bacterial blooms. I chilled the samples down in the fridge in an attempt to crash the yeast out of suspension, in order to repitch a hopefully concentrated yeast cell count in to more starter wort. Uncapping the foil revealed a very similar looking pellicle in each.
Again, certainly no mold, but the aroma profiles have begun to differentiate themselves.
  • Sauv Blanc smelled strongly of fruity kombucha (indicating some acetobacter produced acetic acid)
  • Chardonnay was a softer kombucha/acetic, more raw and yeasty
  • Cab Franc was notably vinous with a smaller, softer background odor of bready yeast
  • I took a very short sniff of the Merlot fearing the worst, but it seems that my hopes were realized...the Enteric poop stink has been mitigated significantly, and is now just a faint background odor. Perhaps just remnant volatile odor compounds from the now outcompeted bacterial population.
The cultures were decanted and added to ~225ml of wort, affixed with an airlock, and now currently sit at room temperature. I neglected to take any gravity readings.

Single tubes of each varietal + the open air tube remained, and signs of fermentation continue on the tubes with grapes. Its like the microbes are slowly gaining access to the sugars/nutrient in the grapes so are slowly chewing away. The color change in the red cultures is obvious. No obvious pellicle forming like in the foil covered larger cultures.
As for the open air tube, we finally have significant CO2 production, first noted at Day +11. You can see the foam leaked around the threads after agitation...smelled raw vinous, yeasty (sorry for the repetitive descriptors...I'll employ far more colorful vocabulary when I act like a man with actual hair on his chest and take a swig).
Stay tuned for the next exhilarating microbiological installment when I actually make something intended for at least a small taste analysis.

Plans call for making a small batch of a relatively lightly hopped farmhouse style beer, splitting the wort across 4 ~ 1 gallon fermenters and see what kind of primordial beers we end up with on their first generations. I'll grow up the additional 5 samples behind these first 4 to see if there are any significantly different characteristics, and selecting a few that smell the most benevolent. There are also plans for streak out the mixed cultures on some malt agar media, isolate some yeast from the bacteria, then slowly step up in 25, 50, 100, 250, 1000ml erlenmyers to grow up pure cultures to more split wort 1 gallon pitching volumes, but that'll be a story for a future post.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Yeast Hunting near Flanders*

I have been brewing batch after batch of beers with other people's bugs these days, in order to hurry and wait for them to be ready to bottle in 1-2 years. The notion of brewing an american wild ale with truly wild yeast and bacteria that has been nurtured along by my own doing from their primordial beginnings has been growing in romance in my mind for quite some time. I have been reading and re-reading about it. Talking to (at?) anyone who will listen to me go on and on about such things as 'facultative anaerobes'.

Usually starts with a self-indulgently lame lead-in like:
"So, you like sourdough bread, right...? Well, y'know...there are these beers..."

Knowing that some of my favorite beers are created with such wild caught strains, I had to have a hand at it. I know I'm not alone in this, and the chance at finding, creating and learning about beers with as yet undiscovered terroir signature has struck many others before me. Of course, this was (and in the rare case, still is) how beer was brewed for thousands of years, and is experiencing a tremendous revival as of late. Hopefully, I will be able to favor and coax along an otherwise happenstance and motley fungal and bacteria crew (no mold-whammies, no mold-whammies...aaaaaand, STOP!) with some relative simple steps and techniques.

The first step to growing up yeast is the familiar process of making an appropriate medium to capture and grow up the cultures. I started with boiling up a small starter (OG 1.030) with DME and a pinch of wyeast nutrient.
I added 40ml of still hot (~170F+) wort to eleven sterile 50ml centrifuge tubes and re-sealed the threaded caps. Threw them in a gallon ziplock bag the morning before driving down to Saltwater Farm vineyard for their 2010 Chardonnay harvest. Here's a video peek of the place from last year's Halloween Cab Franc harvest.
The mood was considerably more energetic at this year's harvest. Of course the vines are another year older, but the grapes were pushing the brix count north primarily from the long, warm and sunny season, and the tons/acre harvest (I hear) was exceptional. Lots of new french oak barrels (ooooooh boy) lay in waiting for the Chardonnay. I spent a few minutes, alone, in silence, just being near them, smiling widely.
Outside, the surrounding wetlands and fields were thick and lush. Plants that are usually winding down to dormancy this time of year, exhausted from the efforts of flowering and then setting seed, were flagrantly reblooming.
Lots of yeast-feeding nectar was still aplenty, so the yeast conditions were quite good, but not ideal. Both the night and day time temps have been cool, as of late (good), but the rains came through a few days (not so good). I could see that the whitish haze that typically has set up camp on the grapes has been washed off a bit, though still quite visible toward the bottoms of the clusters.

I had big Luc strapped to me, so my harvesting efforts were probably measured in the 10s of pounds, not hundreds, but Esther and Anne-Marie quickly filled the trays in the overcast ~55F weather.
I opened a few vials and pushed 4-6 of those bottom-of-the-cluster grapes in to each. I wandered around the grounds, snagging 4 different varietals: Sauvignon Blanc (3), Chardonnay (3), Cabernet Franc (2) and Merlot (2).
Not so much because I postulated that Id get different strains from the different grapes, but rather there might be micro climates hidden within the micro climates of the vineyard, each yielding some different microbiota. With the 11th vial, big Luc I went for another 20minute stroll through the vines, with the cap off...making our own mini-Lambic. For the record, I too don't really wish to enter in to a debate of the 'proper' use of the appellation...

Our good friends, the vineyard owners, were quite generous to heed my request for 5lbs of the Cabernet Franc, for use in adding to a portion of the strong pale sour beer I brewed not too long ago. When we returned home, Esther took the Luc-handoff, and I went to work destemming these pristine/mold free clusters by hand. In to a washed stainless bowl, then vacuum seal bags, then the freezer. 4lbs, 10oz. I had hoped for 5 on the button. Nuts.

I'll add the grapes after the Sacch/Brett has been knocked back a bit by the lowered pH levels, and give the now stronger pedio something fresh to call dibs on.

It is now already three days later, and I've seen clear signs of fermentation, first on the white grapes, then the red, but nothing too definitive yet in the 'open air' vial. I'll likely chill, then decant the grapes and wort tomorrow evening. A familiar whitish sediment is settling on the bottoms of the most active vials, and bright hints of vinous fermentation gases are sneaking from under the plastic screw tops.

The agar, sterile Petri dishes, inoculation loop, and small scale Erlenmyers are on their way. Meanwhile, I'm only about 1/2 way through Yeast, so I've got some work ahead of me.

And at least I have Luc to let me go on and on (for now, anyway) about my hopes of finding the elegant, yet rustic Tetreault strains, and dreaming about going yeast hunting in own family farmhouse brewery one day.

*Flanders (Road)
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