Kennebec Cider — Traditional Hard Cider

Kennebec Cider Traditional Hard Cider

So, I had a chance to met the owner and cider maker at Kennebec Cider, and of course, I had to try some of his product.  I am very happy that I did.  A little background.  They are a small cider producer, going into their 3rd year, based in Winthrop, ME.  They get apples from the central Maine region, which has a tradition as a great apple growing region going back over 2 centuries.  His process is very interesting.  He gets fresh fruit in the fall, crushes and presses it as it comes in, and then blends it later.  He ferments the cider with wine yeast, but very cold, in the 30’s F, over several months, using the natural cold of winter to essentially lager his cider.  In the spring, he bottles it up, and ships it out.  It is never filtered, and it is bottle conditioned.  He has a small production, about 800 cases a year currently.

Tasting Notes:

Appearance:  Light carbonation that falls quickly.  Rich, golden color, crystal clear.

Aroma:  Intense apple aroma.  It is more like apple juice then sweet cider.  Very clean, no oak.

Taste:  Again, an intense apple taste with a slight sweetness, followed by a nice acidity that gives it some grip.  A light body, but it is a bit more viscous then many ciders I have had, but very pleasant. Nice, tart, tangy aftertaste.

Critique:  This is a very good cider.  Actually, this is one of the best I have had.  It is not super fizzy, it is not overly tart, but you get the acidity, and there is a nice body to it.  The apple flavor and aroma is quite pronounced, but very clean.  I am going to get a few bottles of this years vintage (mine was from 2010, his 2011 was just released) for the cellar.  I e-mailed him after I tried it, and asked him about how he gets the intense apple aroma and flavor, and he said he attributes that to the blend of apples he uses (looks for some very aromatic apples in his blend) as well as using a very estery wine yeast.  Give it a try, you will not be disappointed.


Sourdough Bread — Ramblings on Bread

I love bread.  Not the mushy, squishy doughy soft mess you cut the crust off of from your childhood, but the real, stuff.  The bread with a crisp crust and a crumb that is both moist and chewy.  The bread that is as good by itself as it is with butter or smoked salmon.  Bread that looks like this:

Finshed Sourdough Loaf

Ok, I lied, it is always better with butter, but you get the idea.

It was in Europe that I really developed an appreciation for good bread.  Lunch was often a loaf of something fresh, and some fruit, salami and/or cheese I picked up in the market that I would eat as I wandered around.  Growing up, the company my father worked for was German, and some of their executives would spend prolonged periods of time in the US.  He said that when he asked them what they missed from home, “good brown bread” was usually on the list.  I understand now, as I really enjoyed the breads I had in Germany.  However, it was when I went into a bakery in Paris that I really got to see the breadth of the baker’s craft.  From the classic baguettes to amazing croissants, every shape, color, and flavor were on display.  It looked spectacular, and it tasted better.  Edible art.  When I returned, I started to pay more attention to bread.  I was fortunate in that I had access to a very good bakery in Michigan.  Zingerman’s Deli is an institution in Ann Arbor.  It is pricy, but you get top shelf products.  Part of that experience is their great bread.  The owner wanted good bread to go with their sandwiches, so they started making their own.  Closer to my current home, Standard Baking is the, well, standard here in Maine.  When we go to visit friends in Portland, I will often get up early to procure a breakfast of sticky buns, pain du chocolat, and croissants for breakfast, and a loaf of a rustic french bread for dinner.

I was satisfied to purchase good bread, as when I tried to make it, first in a bread machine, then in the oven, it was ok, but the crust was never right.  I have a large pizza stone that I keep in the oven.  It helps keep the oven temperature more even, and you can leave it in there the whole time.  However, even baking on that, and adding pans of water and spraying the inside of the oven with water, I just could not get the crust right.  The key to good crust is a humid oven, and try as I might, I could not create the correct environment in my home oven.  Commercial bakeries create this perfect climate by having steam ports in the ovens.  Brick and earth ovens do it naturally.  So, as I had neither of these things, I gave up.

Then, about 3-4 years ago, I came across a recipe for no knead bread in Cooks Illustrated.  Taking a concept originally written about in the New York Times,  they tweaked the recipe and published their favorite version, and thus I learned about using time instead of  kneading to develop the gluten in the bread.  Jim Lahey, the owner of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York and the baker in NYT article, later wrote a book about this technique.   However, I feel the key point from these articles was not that I could make bread without kneading it, it was that I learned how to bake bread at home with the right crust.  The secret is baking in a large pot, which mimics the very hot and very humid ovens commercial bakeries use by trapping the steam rising from the dough in a small area to provide the proper humidity.  It gives this incredible crust, just like the best European loafs.

Now that I knew how to make a great crust, I wanted to know how to make a good sourdough.  Sourdough is bread leavened with a hodge podge of yeast and bacteria.  Wild yeast was originally used to make all bread, and it was collected from the environment in various ways, but you can’t get it without collecting bacteria as well.  It is these bacteria, the same things that make sour beers, that makes sourdough.  Sourdough bakers learned that once they got a culture going, it was easier to maintain it then to start from scratch each time.  Thus, they created a starter, which is a mixture of their yeast and and bacteria in flour and water.  This would be kept in a crock or bag.  They would then build up the starter by taking it, and adding more flour and water, and letting it sit for a while, so the fresh flour is inoculated.  Some of the starter is used to leaven a bread, and the rest is put back in the crock or bag for the next days baking.  Some starters date back hundreds of years, having been passed down in families and among friends. You do have to tend and feed a sourdough starter, but the taste they give is wonderfully tangy, deep, and rich.  They vary from region to region, from the mild sourdoughs of the French countryside to the intensely tangy breads of San Francisco, sourdoughs are an expression of their locales, changing and adapting to fit the immediate environment.  Commercial bread yeast just can’t match it.  If you want to learn more about the nitty gritty of how to maintain a starter, King Arthur Flour, which is my wife’s, and thus my, favorite flour, has a great walk-through.   Also their blogs and boards are great, and their professional bakers actually read the posts, and will often respond.  It is a great company with a great product, I highly recommend them.

Homebrew = Omelette

Spent Grain in the Mash Tun


Curious and Hungry Chickens




Hops — Harvest time!

Late August Hops

Well, it is about that time of year.  Hop cones are ready to be harvested from mid August to mid September.  I checked them, and they were a light shade of green, with plenty of lupulin grains at the base of the cones, and have a papery feel to them.  I would have loved to have made a wet hopped beer, and was considering keeping them on the vine right up to the time I was going to toss them in a beer.  However, the remnants of Hurricane Irene was bearing down on the East coast, so I decided to pick them before I lost any in the storm.    I also purchased a dehydrator recently, so I could properly dry the hops before freezing them.

Cascade hops, ready to be picked.


The final tally, 1.6 oz of Golding hops, 6.5 oz of  Nugget, and 7.0 0z of Cascade, dried, vacuum packed, and in the freezer.  The Cascades smelled the best, very piney, and were the most bitter to my taste.  I will have to save them for a proper IPA.  I am pretty happy with the haul, especially since they these are only 2nd year plants and will not be fully mature for another year or two.  I will toss some more compost on the hops in the near future, to get the roots ready for next year.

Mead — My Muse and Nemesis

6th Century Anglo Saxon Drinking horn, British Museum

I love the idea of mead.  The oldest alcoholic drink known to man, it predates farming.  Mead surfaces again and again in historical texts.  It is found in the Rigveda, the ancient texts of India, written in Sanskrit.  It can be found throughout Greek and Roman literature.  Beowulf, the oldest surviving piece of English literature, shows mead being consumed in quantity by its hero.  Mead is the history of civilization, in a glass.

The problem is, I like the idea of mead more then the actual product.    The first mead I ever drank was one I made.  The Complete Joy of Homebrewing had a sizable section on mead, Charlie Papazian was obviously a fan, so I decided to give it a try.  In 1994, I combined honey I got from the grocery store with some tap water, boiled it for about 10 minutes, mixed it with cold water, tossed in about 2-3 bags of frozen raspberries, added dried yeast, and let it go.  About a month later, I bottled it.  It was pink, kind of sweet, about 9% alcohol…and what can I say, the ladies seemed to enjoy it.  I had basically home brewed a winecooler, but the proper term would be a melomel, a mead infused with fruit.   Flush with the success of finding a homebrewed beverage that seemed to draw attention from the coeds, I brewed a second batch.  This time, I used a smaller amount of honey, and more raspberries.  I let it sit longer, and then bottled it with priming sugar.  What I created was a sparkling melomel, dry, tart, and very raspberry.  I enjoyed it.  I am happy to say that I kept one bottle from the batch, and it traveled with me for over 15 years, until I had dinner with one of my college roommates last year around Thanksgiving.  He could not believe I had kept a bottle that long, and he, his girlfriend, my wife and I shared the last bottle over dinner.  It had none of the original color, and had oxidized.  It tasted more like sherry then mead, but I still enjoyed it, probably more for the novelty and the company then for the actual beverage.

The first commercial mead I ever tried was brought back from England by my wife.  She was studying in London, and brought back 2 bottles.  Both were sickly sweet, and despite being poor college kids, we could not choke them down even if they were 14% alcohol.

Life continued on, and I often took long breaks from brewing due to school, life, job, etc.  Mead takes a long time to really get good, and I just did not have the patience or the proper living situation to make it.  I tried a few more meads commercially made, and they were usually too sweet for my palate, or insipid.  However, I kept coming back to the idea of making mead, to see if I could make one that I truly love.  So, I decided to purchase  The Complete Meadmaker by Ken Schramm.  Considered the bible on meadmaking, it took a much more technical approach to the topic.  Much more like wine making the brewing, I was outside of my comfort zone, but the appeal of making mead pushed me forward into experimenting with it again, which I started doing again in 2009.

In subsequent posts, I will outline what I have done and why.  I have decided to do small batches, or to split one large one into different types of mead, to try to find that right combination for me.  I also decided to do one batch a year, as I find that while I enjoy making mead, I have yet to find one that really has knocked my socks off.  As such, it is more of an occasional libation for me, a work in progress, but I am willing to keep experimenting and trying until I get one right for me.  After all, 9000 years of Wassailing can’t be all wrong.

Saison #3 — now with Brett!

Saison #3

I decided to continue my exploration of the Saison style, but this time, adding a touch o’funk.  Saisons are often innoculated/infected by brettanomyces, and the flavors they bring are considered appropriate for this style.  Orval probably best represents this, using brett to bottle condition their beers, it brings that earthy funkiness to the beer, without overpowering the rest of the flavors.  Fantome is also an excellent representation of this, but this beer has much more wildness going on.

As saisons tend to be very dry, fermented with highly attenuating yeast, they don’t leave too much food on which the slower brett can feast.  This tends to give you hints of the brett flavor, without overpowering the other ingredients.  Thus, I decided on this beer to not dryhop, as I wanted to see what the brett would do with the aroma.   To do this, I used East Coast Yeast #3, a strain of ECY that included their 3 strains from their Saison blend, but also includes a strain of Brett, I think from Fantome.  I wanted to get some floral/citrusy notes in this beer, as I knew I was going to be drinking most of it in August and September, when the weather is still bright and warm, and the flavors would be welcome and refreshing.  I have been playing with later hop additions and avoiding full boil hops recently, as I think it brings out the malt more, and smooths out the bitterness despite similar IBU’s.  I enjoy the citrusy notes of Centennial, so I decided to use those as the bittering hop, but at 30 minutes left in the boil.  To help boost the floral/spicy notes, I used Saaz and crystal to finish the beer, and I used honey to lighten the body, but add those floral notes to the beer.  Finally, I had some rye malt on hand, and thought the crispness of the rye would help with the overall impression of dryness with the beer, so the following recipe was born.  This was a 5.25 gal batch with was boiled 90 minutes.

8.00 lb       Pilsner (2 Row) Ger (2.0 SRM)             Grain        64.00 %
1.00 lb       Rye Malt (4.7 SRM)                        Grain        8.00 %
0.50 lb       Caramel/Crystal Malt – 80L (80.0 SRM)     Grain        4.00 %
1.25 oz       Centennial — Farmhouse [10.10 %]  (30 minHops         30.2 IBU
1.00 oz       Crystal [4.30 %]  (10 min)                Hops         4.9 IBU
1.00 oz       Saaz Freshhops [3.80 %]  (1 min)          Hops         0.5 IBU
3.00 lb       Honey (1.0 SRM)                           Sugar        24.00 %
1 Pkgs        Farmhouse Brassiere with Brett (East CoastYeast-Ale

This was mashed at 152 for 60 minutes, single infusion.  I had a OG of 1.065, with a FG of 1.005, ABV of 7.7% with 35.6 IBU’s.  I only had 4.5 gallons going into the primary from the kettle, so I added .75 gallons of boiled water to the primary to dilute it to the OG above.  It went from OG to FG in less then 2 weeks, but I let it sit in primary for 1 month.  This was fermented at  76F using a Fermwrap and a Ranco controller for the first 2 weeks, then left to go to ambient (about 70F) afterwards.  It was bottled with 6.5 oz of corn sugar to shoot for 3.0 Vol of carbonation.

Taste:  pours a hazy orange, nicely carbonated.  The nose on beer has a lot going on.  It  has a spiciness from the hops combined with mango/citrus quality with a that moves more and more towards more of the “funky” grassy/horsey aroma of brettanomyces with some pepper at the back the longer it sits.  Tasting it, it has a crispness to the malt, I think from the rye, rounded out with some more tropical fruit and citrus notes with a nice bitterness and peppery bite at the end.  There is also some of the blue cheese funkiness in the back.  It is very dry, and very easy to drink.

Critique:  The funkiness of this beer is slowly coming out.   You definitely get some in the nose as it warms, and it is coming out more in the taste as well.  It has been fun to taste this, first out of the fermentor, and then into bottles and now.  The brett really develops as it ages.  I think in the future I may dry hop this a bit, or up the aroma hops.  I like the bitterness, and I wanted to not drown out the brett aroma with hops, but I am leaning toward a more hoppy saison on the nose as my preferred version.  I think the dry hop just blends wonderfully with the fruity aromas and taste of the yeast.   I am very eager to see what this tastes like in 6 months.

Mid Summer Hops

Mid Summer Hops

Well, here we are, July 22nd, and the hop vines are starting to flower.  In a few more weeks, probably sometime in September, I will cut down the vines, and dry most of the cones (the flowers).  However, some are destined for a wet hopped English Bitter.  The middle plant is the Nugget, which is the most robust of the 3.  The left is the Golding, which is what I am relying on for the wet hopped bitter.  The flowers at this point look like little spiked balls, which you can see on the picture below.  I am amazed at how fast and large these plants grow.

Early Flowers