Friday, September 27, 2013


Almost any kid on almost any playground across the eastern half of the country has played with helicopters. I know I did. With giant handfuls, we chucked them into the air as hard and as high as we could.........and just watched them spin to the ground. The more in your hands, the better the effect.

Of course, most kids in elementary school aren't going to call them an achene from an Acer species.  That's what they really are, ya know. A winged seed from a maple tree.

The idea is simple. If the seed has little wings, the wind can carry it away from the parent tree.  It's the same idea as cottonwood fuzz and dandelion parachutes.

If you pulled me aside as a kid in the late 1970's and told me "Hey, you're gonna take a picture of one of those helicopters in the park where you work when you're all grown up...", I would have thought you were crazy. 

If you told me, again as a kid, that the black background was simply the shadows in the distance, but the branch and seed, lit from behind by the sun, were properly lit for the image by adjusting the exposure compensation by -2/3, I would have no idea what in the hell you were talkin' about.

That's all kinda neat,  if you ask me. The same exact thing seen two different ways by the same guy at the bookends of his life (so far).  I'm sorry, that's just kinda neat.

Oh, don't be confused here. Sure, I have a biology degree.....

.....but they're still helicopters.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

Bowels Brewery

Here in the Midwest, one of the top breweries is Bell's  Brewery. Starting with 15-gallon kettle in 1985, they have grown to employ over 200 people in 18 states. As any beer guy/gal can tell you, they do well.  As far as I'm concerned, you can't go wrong with their product.

According to this story, a 61-year old Texan was recently getting crocked but he declined the notion that he was drinking.  His wife and others thought he was sneaking sips when no one was around.

His trip to the Emergency Department, where he blew a 0.37, apparently tripped off some medical professionals.  After locking him in a hospital room (and confirmed he had no alcohol hidden on his person), they tested his blood alcohol content over a 24-hour period. 

They confirmed, just by eating, he would end up drunk.

If you had been following along with my last two blog posts (here and here), you would have a simple understanding of brewing.

To summarize, sugars come from grains.  Yeasts eat sugar.  Yeasts burp carbon dioxide.  Yeasts pee alcohol.  Interested parties drink yeast pee.  Interested parties have fun. 

The Texan?  Brewers yeast had set up shop in his guts.  Just the act of eating would make him drunk.  By ingesting starchy foods (like pasta), the sugar was providing food for the yeasts. Its called Auto-brewery Syndrome. There have been a few cases here and there in the medical records.

I don't like that name.  Too technical.

Lets go with Bowels Brewery.   

As an aside, think back to the brewing process.  If this guy's guts were going great guns with alcohol production, were was all that carbon dioxide going.....

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The World's Coolest Chemistry - Part 2

So if you read my last post, you watched Natalie and I brew beer.  Its the real deal on a small scale.  Major breweries, micro-breweries, and home brewers all do this.  We are just doing it one gallon at a time.

As promised, I'm checking in.

During the last 14 days, the sugars have been eaten by the yeasts who, in turn, burp carbon dioxide and pee alcohol.  By the 14th day, the fermentable sugars, as they are officially known, are gone.  (You might think of it as the annoying co-worker who shows up and eats all of the good stuff at the Christmas Party.)

The carbon dioxide, by the way, has escaped (remember the hose with the water bowl?). One could theoretically drink the beer at this point, but it would be flat and the tastes will not have matured.

Let's bring in step 2.

Knowing flat beer sucks, there has to be a way to carbonate it.  But first, one has to get it out of the fermenter.  ( I will at this point apologize for the crappy photos. I left my main camera at home and was taking quick pics with my iPhone (scratched lens and all).)

Notice the layers of sludge at both the top and bottom.  

The top is no big deal.  It is dried-up grunge from the early days in the carboy.  When the yeasts were partyin' hard (days 1-3), this region was all foam. After the party had died back (day 4 and beyond) and the rowdies hauled off to jail, the more laid party-yeasts continued but at a slower pace.

The bottom? Now that can be trouble.  Called "trub" (pronounced by some as "troob"), it is an icky mix of proteins, fats and inactive yeasts, bloated yeasts (I have no idea what that means), and dead yeasts (I understand that one!).  The trick now is to separate the beer from the trub.  

Using the physics of a siphon, the beer is sucked out of the fermenter. Care needs to be taken so as to not disturb the trub.  A simple vessel-to-vessel transfer is all that is needed. (It is worth noting that many brewers keep the trub and use it again for the next batch. We're not doing that.)

But we still haven't solved the carbon dioxide issue.  Where does it come from?  We could keg the beer and simply force the CO2 into the booze.  Okay, fine. But we are not doing that.  

Here is a clue. Not all the yeasts are in the trub. Some are still in the beer and they're alllliiiiiiive.  Like drunken college students on a Friday night, they are wandering. While freshman want cheap alcohol, yeasts want more sugar.  So the brewers trick? Add more sugar.

The trick is to add a bit of sugar, not a ton.  Once the beer is in the second pot, honey or maple syrup are added.  We're talking tablespoons to the gallon here.  Stir the pot and you are ready to bottle.

Again using a siphon, and a bottle wand, beer (with the new sugar) is added to each bottle. The beauty here is that each one can be filled easily, cleanly, and with the same amount. It turns out the gap at the top between the beer and cap (called ullage) is very important. Too big or too small and the carbonation of the beer can go weird.  

Once the beer is in the bottle, capping commences. Using the red "jaws of life", each cap is seated on the bottle and clamped.  Easy stuff.  

With that, you're done.  This entire process is called bottle conditioning.

Speed is off the essence here.  The whole process takes less than 20 minutes if two people are working in tandem and efficiently.    Remember, sterility is key. The  beer is sterile. The caps. The bottles. The siphon.  All equipment (including hands) that touch, or might touch,  the beer must be bacteria-free. Like cooties in an open cut, bacteria lead to infection.  That is a beer term. If you take beer from the fermenter and leave it in the pot on the counter, in the open air for a day and then bottle, you're beer might go sour.  (Of course, some brewers do just that. But that is perhaps a story of another day...)

A neat twist here, by the way. When the sugars are added to the pot, they are officially called priming sugar. There are lots of ways to do this, but this recipe has a story.....

This book lays out the recipe we followed. Called "Prohibition Ale", a suggestion was given the authors of the book by an elderly woman. She claimed that she brewed during Prohibition.  As her priming sugar, she dumped four...not three, not five....four raisins in each bottle.  Per the recipe, we did the same.

So the bottle that you see in the crappy picture above is now being bottle conditioned.  The recipe calls for these bottle to sit for at least three weeks (as opposed to the usual two).  This one, and eight just like it, are currently sitting in a box (lid closed)  on the counter.  We'll bust 'em open in a few weeks.  

If all of this sounds easy, it is.  Part 1 (the brewing) vs. Part 2 (the bottling) are quite different.  Part 1 demands more time. Mashing, boiling and setting up the fermenter will take you at least 3-4 hours but most of it is easy recipe stuff.  Part 2?  As mentioned early, it is not demanding of time but you must have everything clean.  It would certainly suck to have completed Part 1 and then ruin it all because you added to much priming sugar or you did not sterilize the second kettle or the wand (thereby contaminating everything...).

I'll check in again on the subject in two or three weeks......

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The World's Coolest Chemistry - Part 1

The ancient Egyptians did it beginning as far back as the 5th century BC.  The Germans did it (though they complicated it in 1516).  The British did it when they were in charge of India. Its been done all over the globe.  Inside. Outside.  Spring.  Summer. Winter.  Fall.  Kitchens. Backyards.  Tabletops.  Bathtubs.

Natalie and I do it now, too.

Wait a minute. I just read that.

I'm not sure what you were thinking, but I was talking about beer.  No, not drinking it.  

We're brewing it.

Okay, I admit it.  I have been holding out on all of you ("All!"  Hah!  All nine of you!).  We didn't just start doing this. We've been doing it since January.  Courtsey of the coolest gift ever (Thanks Sue!), Nat and I can now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the greatest brewers in the world!

Not really....

We are not exactly sure what we are doing.  We can follow the recipe (and make great beer in the process), but there is so much to learn in the meantime.

This book from the Brooklyn Beer Shop makes brewing so easy.  Real honest to goodness beer made from scratch like folks have been doing for centuries....10 bottles at a time.

Step one is basically like making oatmeal.  With the appropriate ratio of water to grains (usually one quart to one pound), the warm sludge, officially called mash, needs to be kept within a certain temperature range.  Above 152 degrees or below 144 degrees and the whole process can go bad.  Sugars are the target here.  Too low and the sugars in the grains are not released.  Too high?  The sugars are not usable by our little beasty yeasties (more on that later). The end result in either case is a bottle of sucky "beer".

The grains are a key part of any beer.  Often barley, it is sprouted (so the little root comes out like you did in elementary school science) and then roasted. Different roasting times ultimately contribute to body, flavor, color and alcohol content. So when somebody is drinking a Budweiser in a bar (why do they do even do that?) as opposed to a Guiness, the colors of the two beverages are different because of the difference in how the malts were originally roasted.

After an hour (really, that long), the mash is dumped into a strainer.  Water, heated almost to boiling, is poured over the mash.  All fluids are collected.  The whole process, called sparging, is done a second time. 

Now at this point, believe it or not, the grains are done. They have completed their mission - they gave up the sugar.  Sadly, they often find themselves in the garbage. Smart people use them for composting gardens and the like.  However, in the hands of those who are domestic divas (like Natalie), they can live again.  Spent grain banana bread, spent grain crusted chicken, cheddar crackers....holy cow, the list can be endless. 

So what happened to the water that was collected? Well, its not water anymore.  Its "wort".  That's fancy beer speak for "sugar water that will grow up one day to be beer if you don't screw things up".  But first, it has to be hopped and sterlized.

Brought to a low rolling boil, hops are added as described in the recipe.  Not much more than little flowers that grow on a vine, they contribute aroma, flavor, and the bitterness.

Different varieties (from around the globe) impart different tones when added to the boil. Grapefruit, plums, black pepper, and moss are just four of dozens of tones known to be added by hops.  

Some beer styles are hopped like hell. The India Pale Ale is a great example.  When Great Britain ruled India, the Brits in Bombay wanted beer. By the time it got there from jolly old England, the long voyage had killed it.  It was discovered that by adding plenty of extra hops, the beer lasted longer as hops are a natural preservative. The IPA was born.  If you are new to beer and you try an IPA, you will likely die..... (Okay. You won't die.  You'll just pucker up, squint, and look stupid.) 

To make things more cool, the same hops added 15 minutes into a 60-minute boil will provide a different degree of character than if it were added 55 minutes in.  

Some hops can be added straight from the vine and whole. Many are purchased in pellets that look a lot like rabbit chow.

But the boil is not all about adding flavor.  It sterilizes the wort like wiping an alcohol pad on an injection site when you visit the doctor.  The boil is the bullet that kills the cooties. Unwanted ickies will totally wreck all of your efforts when you bust open that bottle a month later. 

Once the boil is done, temps have to drop quickly.  From 212 degrees to 70 degrees, the mission is to do it fast as possible.  If it takes too long, bad tastes can develop or bacteria can sneak in. Either situation is bad - both can ruin the beer. Some folks have fancy gizmos. For our 1-gallon batches, a simple ice bath does the trick.  20-30 minutes max.

Once the wort (its still not beer yet!) is cooled, into the fermenter it goes.  The giant strainer/funnel combo keeps the crap out (wads of proteins and broken-down hop pellets that were leftovers from the boil).  Yummy pre-beer goes in.

The next addition is the one that makes it count.  It's the one that makes the magic happen. The one early beer brewers didn't even know existed...

Yeasts are microscopic fungus.  With over 1,500 species cataloged by scientists, brewers pay attention to just a few.  Saccharomyces cerevisiae often gets the nod.  

Like all yeasts, Saccharomyces has a peculiar diet - sugar. Once the sugars are munched, the little yeasties burp carbon dioxide gas and pee alcohol.  

Is this all making sense?  The wort is now the food for the yeasts.  Over days, carbon dioxide is given off and alcohol is manufactured (that's the part that often gets people in trouble).

It is very interesting to note that early brewers did not know about yeasts.  They knew what to do, but they did not know why it worked. The wort was simply left open to the air. Unknown to them, wild yeasts would drop in and start chowing. As you might imagine, bad yeasts could get established as well as the good ones so quality control by today's standards was rather tough.  It wasn't until the 19th century work of Louis Pasteur that brewers learned what was happening and befriended the little cootie (the yeasts, I mean, not Pasteur.)  

For Natalie and I, we simply ripped open a yeast packet and dumped it in. 

Keep in mind, yeasts also add tones and character to beer (just like the roasted malts and hops).  Each yeast strain adds its own dimension.  Spicy notes, fruit notes, dry finishes and crisp character are all results of the yeast.  

Using different malts, hops, and  yeasts, one can easily see how such a wide variety of beers can be accomplished.  Add to this the crazy ingredients that one can add (chocolate, apples, honey, raspberry, etc) and the road of beer is endless and winding.

(It is here by the way, that I can clear up that 1516 reference from my opening paragraph.  In the year 1516, Germany passed what is now the German Purity Law. In short, beer brewed in Germany can only be made with grains, yeast, hops and water. Nothing more.  So, if Natalie and I were traditionalists, the beer we already bottled a few days back, a blackberry ale, would be in violation of the law as we added blackberries during the ice bath.)

Heaving the 1-ton 1 gallon carboy over my head, a whole lotta shakin' is needed. Stir that wort.  Liven up the yeasts.   

One important detail that CAN'T be over looked is the carbon dioxide.  A long story short, Natalie and I basically created a bomb for the kitchen counter.  Once the yeasts are really eating (and therefore burping and peeing), the gas pressure is tremendous.  A ruptured carboy is possible.  

A blow-off valve is rigged.  Its easy.  A tube is run from the carboy top to a bowl of sanitizing solution (used to clean everything. Remember, bad bugs can wreck a batch).  Gas can leave the carboy but ickies can't enter the tube because the solution blocks them. Its a one-way door.  Gas out. Nothing in.  (Sounds like the brain of a Republican...)

After a day, the yeasts are really burpin'....

So, there is sits.  The burping has died off, and the tube has been replaced with a a simple airlock (a small version of the blowoff tube).  As I type this, it has been a few days since the brewing.  Are we done?  No. It sits for a while.  (The maroon sleeve sits over the carboy like a...,er, condom.  Direct sunlight is bad.)

Then we bottle.  More on that in about 10 days.

(The beer we are brewing, by the way, is called Prohibition Ale.  With three types of grains and two hop varieties, it will clock in at 5.5% alcohol.)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

"B" For Baseball

As some of you know, this blog is all about "B" things.  I guess this post, with scenes from the Detroit Tiger's Comerica Park, is a continuation of that idea.  "B" for baseball.

I could have been a professional ball player. I just lacked skill and determination.  That's it.  Now,  I enjoy watching a game now and then. To be honest, I don't even know who half the players are.  Its just fun to watch.

Getting to the park is certainly fun, too. With time to kill before the recent bout between the Tigers and the Oakland A's, a walk around the 'ole ball field with Nat's mom made for some fun, pre-game shooting.  Nat and her dad stayed behind at the seats. They missed out on the fun, as far as we are concerned!

For no particular reason,  I find black-and-white images more alluring here.