March 30, 2013

Book Review: The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz

from Chelsea Green Publishing
Available from:  Amazon , (also on Kindle ), Barnes and Noble (also on Nook)
I tend to avoid old fashioned fermented recipes for a number of reasons; they require specific time requirements, you run the risk of gushing or exploding bottles, they typically have sediment that most people don't like, they can have a yeasty flavor, the fermentation can run away and get too alcoholic, and so on.

For some people, old school is the way to go, so if you've come to this blog in search of fermentable recipes, I apologize for disappointing.  But there are plenty of resources available.  Katz's The Art of Fermentation was published last year as a wonderful reference for all things fermentable.  From beer and wine to pickles and vegetables to yogurt and dairy, if it's fermentable, you'll find it here, or at least something very similar.  There are even non-food applications such as latex paint alternatives and soil remediation.  It's definitely an interesting read.

The section that I had interest in was Chapter 6: Fermenting Sour Tonic Beverages.  Basic fermentation principles are explained along with some cursory discussion of carbonation plus a number of recipes and some troubleshooting tips.  If you're interested in fermenting soda but don't know where to start, this book is for you.  Even if you don't plan to ferment anything there are some interesting recipes that could easily be adapted to force carbonation with a little experimentation.  Some of the recipes such as Kvass and Ginger Beer I've seen before.  I thought the discussion on the Jamaican roots beer (yes, apparently it's plural in Jamaica) was of particular interest.  First, because I've never seen that particular history before or the plural, and second, to see the variation of roots that go into it.  The list included "sarsaprilla root, strongback root, shuteye marker plant, dandelion plant, coconut root, guava root, vervain plant, chainy root, bloodwrist plan, bug-me-close root, tan pan root, jack saga root, long liver, cold tongue, dark tongue, dog's tongue, search-me-heart, soon-on-earth, God's bush, devil has whip, water grass, and raw moon."  And I thought five roots was exotic.  I'm guessing most of these are native to Jamaica.  Another thing that I haven't seen before is a discussion on how to start your own Ginger Beer Plant or Ginger Bug.  The small amount of information I had read on this subject suggested one would have to get a starter culture from someone else first.  Some of the recipes are from around the world, such as Pru -  a botanical/herbal beverage from Cuba, Sweet Potato Fly from Guyana (this one is on my list to try), Smreka - a juniper berry soft drink from Bosnia, along with some discussion on Kombucha, Kefir, and other drinks.

When I say the book contains recipes, it doesn't necessarily give you ingredient amounts as many are accustomed to seeing.  The book is more a guide on how to make fermentables, rather than what fermentables to make.  So a "recipe" might seem more like a discussion on what one would commonly do to make a particular thing, indicating that it's up to the reader to concoct their own recipe according to their individual tastes.  If you're a huge do-it-yourselfer looking to start your own cultures and fermented foods, this book would be an excellent buy to have on hand for a reference.  If you're mildly curious about fermentation, it may be information overload and be something that would be better borrowed from the library on the occasions you might want to whip something up.

March 20, 2013

Recipe 25 - Fruity Banana Soda

This one is for my brother-in-law.  He spent some time in Honduras and he always misses their banana sodas that they apparently have down there.
If you recall, I had tried using an actual banana for flavor, but that just turned out to be such a mess, and had more of a cooked banana flavor once it was finished.  Maybe I'll save that method for a banana-bread type soda flavor if I want to do further development there.

To get more of the fresh fruit flavor, we're going to need to go the extract route.  I used Watkins Banana Flavor because it's a decent banana flavoring, and it's readily available at most Walmart Supercenters.  You can also order it online direct from Watkins or through Amazon.  Another key part to getting a fresh fruit flavor is some added tartness.  You can get that using citric acid or you can add some lemon juice.  If you use lemon juice, try not to use too much because it will carry the lemon flavor with it.

You'll need:
1 tsp Watkins Banana Flavor
1 lb sugar + 1/2 to 1 cup of water for syrup
1 tsp citric acid or 2 tbsp Lemon Juice
top up to 1 gallon with carbonated water

Start by making your syrup, you can add some cream of tarter and boil to 240° to invert the sugar if you would like, or you can use your sugar as is.  Allow your syrup to cool  somewhat before you add the flavor and the citric acid.  One important thing to remember with flavorings is that they are usually mixed with an alcohol base which boils quickly and at a lower temperature than water.  It's not uncommon to pull your syrup off the stove, throw in your flavor and *POOF* it boils right off.  Of course that smells great right away, but it doesn't leave as much to linger in your finished beverage.  You also need to wait to add citric acid because it can burn easily and leave behind a bitter taste.  If you've ever used citric acid but it comes out bitter and you have no tart left, you've let it get too hot at some point.

Once the syrup has cooled, you can add it to the carbonated water by the glass, or in a larger bottle.  You can color it if you wish.  I find that about 4 drops of yellow and 1 drop of neon green looks great for banana.

March 11, 2013

Lessons Learned from a Homebrew Competition

So it’s been a couple weeks since I participated in Brewerie’s Homebrew Frest.  I’ve been tied up with some other things, but I wanted to share my interesting experience on dispensing soda at a beer event. I feel I've come out with a few lessons to learn from for next year, or for any other homebrew competition.

Being so busy pouring, this is the best picture I got of my setup.  Ginger Ale in bottles, kegs of root beer and coconut lime under the table.

Types of People
The event itself was not set up as a competition with judges like some homebrew events, but there were people’s choice awards.  It was $16 for a ticket, which gained you entry to the hall where brewers were set up to let you taste their wares.  With that in mind, there seem to be three types of people that attend a homebrew fest of this nature. 

The Guzzler:  The Guzzler is there to drink as much beer as he can to get the most bang for his buck.  He doesn’t care what variety it is or who is serving it.  He just wants beer.  I even had some Guzzlers come up to my table and just hold out their glass without even looking at what I had available.  I filled up one Guzzler’s glass with my ginger ale while he was talking to someone else, just holding out his glass to me.  It was a little awkward, and I still wonder what his first reaction was when he took that first sip.  I don’t know because he walked off before I could explain what it was. 

Connoisseurs-in-Training: The Connoisseur-in-Training (CIT) is there to explore the different tastes and to enjoy the social atmosphere.  They're the ones who enjoy craft beer, but don't care how it's made.  CITs don’t necessarily care what’s in the recipe, or what makes a certain style into what it is.  All they want to know is what style it is, possibly its ABV, and that's about it.  I would say this encompasses most of the people there.

The Homebrewer: What's a homebrew fest without homebrewers.  Most of the homebrewers there were busy showing of their pride and joy.  But there certainly are plenty there that get around to the other tables.  This being a "festival" rather than a full out "competition" the atmosphere was light and friendly rather than critical.

I guess there was a fourth type there, the Mormon boy in the corner serving sodas.  Yeah, that was me trying to sort of fit in.

Not having attended an event like this, I wasn't sure what to expect.  I've served my soda at church picnics before and have gone through it rather quickly on those occasions, so I wanted to plan for lot's more people.  I had three recipes on the entry form, and I thought that perhaps 10 gallons of each would probably get me through with a little bit left over.  I didn't fully realize that people are there merely to taste, not to drink full glasses.  So each serving was about 1/4 the size that I had in mind, and surprise, I only went through about 1/4 of what I had on hand.  Funny how that works out. 
I took two flavors in kegs, and one flavor bottled.  I would have liked to have had a Draft Box to hook the kegs up to, that would have been much easier, but I didn't want to go through that much expense and I didn’t have much time to build one. 
So the lesson here is make sure you plan your setup well ahead of time.  The bottles were great, and easy to pour from but added a lot more bulk to hauling things around.  The kegs took less trips back and forth from the car, but the picnic taps were drippy and sticky.  I also had to keep fiddling with my gauge to get the serving pressure right on one of the regulators, this could have been better planned.  Make sure you figure these things ahead of time before you go.
It's hard to say which is easier in the end.  I preferred serving from the bottles despite the extra work before with filling and after with cleaning.  If I had a draft box, I might be singing a different tune.

Be Ready for the Aftermath
Getting ready was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it.  However, having only gone through a fraction of what I had made, now I'm stuck with a lot more soda than I'd care to drink by myself in a short period of time.  And without preservatives or that much refrigerator space, I think I may be out of luck.  I hadn't thought about that.  Plus there's the cleaning of all the bottles, kegs, and tap lines.  Be sure you're ready to take care of it all when you're done.

Keep a good supply of CO2
My CO2 gauge took a beating during carbonation, so I thought I had more than I did.  So the lesson here is two-fold: 1)Don’t drop your gauges.  I’m not sure why I haven’t learned this one yet.  Even though I know how to fix them, it’s still a huge pain to deal with.  2) If you’re going to carbonate 7 kegs, make sure you have enough to serve them.  I ended up just barely squeezing by on the tank I had.  I served all that I needed to for the event, but it could have been a problem if I hadn’t

Have Fun
This is sort of a no brainer, but you’re there to enjoy the atmosphere and to share/develop your talent.  This isn’t the Olympics.  You’re not on international TV.  The only person you’re letting down by not winning anything is yourself, and it doesn’t have to be such a downer.  For me, it was fun to see grown people light up like little kids.  Some would timidly approach my table, but then light up when they tasted it, realizing that soda isn’t just for little kids.  Others would almost sneak over with a little smile like a 3yr old going for a cookie car.  A middle aged gentleman commented to me, “This is what ginger ale tasted like 50 years ago.”  He didn’t look much more than 50, and given his smile, I knew that was a quite a nostalgic trip down memory lane.  I couldn’t have hoped for a better compliment.

Be Open to Criticism
I liked the atmosphere that the Brewerie had created by making it a “festival” rather than a “competition.”  It made it feel like people were more appreciative of each other instead of competing against one another.  But I do feel like there is a place for constructive criticism.  Most of the comments I got in that regard were “This would be good with…” But I would have been open to much more.  I felt like this was an opportunity for me to test the waters and see how well my flavors were received.  I went with basic flavors because of the audience, and the fact that they’d never had a homebrewer present soda before.  So in a way, I almost wanted someone to come out and say, “It needs more root beer flavor,” (Because it sure did, unless I wanted to call it cream soda.) or “It’s a little on the sweet side, you may need to cut back a bit.”

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