From the Bookshelf – ‘Self-Sufficiency Home Brewing’ by John Parkes

While the internet is always a great source of inspiration and information, I wouldn’t be without my eclectic (and ever growing!) personal collection of reference books.  I’ll put my hand up here and admit to having a book ‘problem’.  I love books.  Having all the basic information on a subject in one place, and arranged logically, does make getting a good solid grounding and basic understanding of a subject a lot more accessible than the scattergun depth-first approach you tend to end up with when following links online.

[Full disclosure – I bought this book, myself, with my own money, a couple of years ago. I do not have an amazon affiliate account, any links provided are for interest and convenience, and I don’t profit from them in any way!]

Cover‘Self-sufficiency Home Brewing’, John Parkes.
New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, 2009.
ISBN 978 184773 460 0.  RRP £7.99.
See this book on amazon.co.uk

This was one of the first brewing books I bought, and I would thoroughly recommend it as a basic guide to taking up brewing at home.  It’s a beer book, though it does cover all the basics of sterilisation / sanitisation, equipment, and so forth which would be relevant to brewing other drinks such as ciders, wines and meads.  It’s a convenient paperback format at a really good price, too (with handy folded-back covers for stashing bits and bobs of paperwork in, no less!).  It’s clearly and concisely written, and pleasantly produced & illustrated.

The first part of the book introduces your ingredients – grains, hops, yeasts and of course water – and the different styles of beer you can make with them.  This may be of interest to you if you want to learn more about beers and brewing, even if you’re not planning to make any of your own.

Inside page viewLater sections cover equipment – without suggesting that the first-time home brewer needs to acquire the proverbial ‘moon-onna-stick’ – and techniques for brewing from kits, from extract, and more advanced traditional all-grain techniques.

Finally, there are a good variety of recipes for extract & grain brewing to give you inspiration for creating your very own.  John explains the science behind the brewing processes clearly and logically, which is great if, like me, you feel the need to understand the ‘why’ of a process as well as the ‘what’!

With all my clutterIn summary, this is a great, accessible little book to take you from no home brewing experience at all, well into experimenting with a range of recipes and styles, before you’ll need to buy anything else.  I would heartily recommend it to newbie home-brewers, or simply the beer-positve / beer-curious, it will really expand your understanding and appreciation of your favourite tipple!

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Meet the Family – Dave the dog

This is Dave, our eight year old rough collie.  He’s the ‘face’ of the country skills blog and twitter avatar, too. 🙂

I took this photo yesterday night, while he was ‘hanging out’ on the sofa, enjoying the new sheepskins we brought back recently from Yorkshire.  I should add, he’s not allowed on the sofa, really – but he sprained his elbow a few days ago and is feeling a bit sorry for himself, so has extra privileges just now!  I love how his coat blends and contrasts with the fleeces in this picture.

I hope all of your pets (if you have them) are enjoying good health today, and are as much a source of joy to you as Dave is to us!

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Last of the Harvest – bonus ‘accidental’ elderflower-infused marmalade

Today, I was planning to bottle my elderflower cordial, and make a couple of sourdough loaves for next week.  As if that wasn’t enough for a Sunday, we also had a load of rock to collect.  So of course, I had to find something *else* that needed doing, too!

Elderflower cordial, steeping

After separating the cordial from the fruit and flowers, I was about to chuck them, but suddenly couldn’t bring myself to do it.  I could almost hear my grandmother sighing, ‘all that lovely fruit…’  All that lovely fruit – four whole lemons and oranges.  It was too good to waste, and had been soaking in a sugar syrup of utter deliciousness for three days, which surely had to be a good thing?

It’s been a very long time since I made marmalade, but there’s a long family tradition of doing it – my Mum makes it every year, and Grandma did, before her.  Our ‘family’ marmalade is dark, and rich, and often has hit of whisky or rum in it.  This ‘accidental’ marmalade is nothing like it!  I dug out Pam Corbin’s ‘Preserves’ (in the River Cottage Handbooks series) and realised neither of her recipes really did what I wanted, but perhaps, by using aspects of both, I could get something sensible!

Finely sliced citrus fruitI sliced my rescued fruit slices up quite finely, removing all the pips.  The three days soaking in the sugar syrup had got them some way towards being candied – the skins already a little bit softened and less juice in the flesh than a fresh orange or lemon.

Coming up to the boil

The total weight of sliced up citrus fruit was about 1.3kg (made up of four lemons, and four large sweet oranges), to which I added 2kg of mixed sugar (mostly golden caster & granulated sugars, but with a bit of refined caster sugar to make up the volume) and 1.5l of water.  I also gave the big handful of elderflowers a good squeeze to extract the last of their flavour, before throwing these away.

Return all the ingredients into the big pan they’d been steeping in for the cordial, and bring up to a nice simmer, covered, for about an hour until the peels are nice and tender.   While this is happening, assemble your jam jars and lids (I ended up with ten, mixed sizes, scavenged from my ‘saved jars’ pile) give them a careful wash, and place them in a cold oven ready for sterilising.  I bring mine to 150C and keep them there for ten minutes before I turn the oven off.

At a nice rolling boilWhen you’re happy with the texture of your citrus peel, take the lid off, turn the heat up, and boil it all as hard as you can for about 15 minutes, until it gets to setting point (I favour the cold saucer approach to checking for set – though interestingly for this particular marmalade there was a dramatic increase in the amount of foam produced as setting point was reached, which was a bit of a give away).

Filling jarsOnce you’ve reached a set, take the pan off the heat, and just wait for the bubbles to stop, give it a stir to re-incorporate any froth from the surface, and then ladle into your hot jars fresh from the oven.  I’m really messy at ladling, so I love my wide-mouthed jar funnel. Fit the lid tightly, and up-end the jars a couple of times to make sure the boiling hot jam comes into contact with all the surfaces.

If you’re American, at this point in proceedings you’ll probably feel compelled to do something with a water bath.  I’m afraid our friends over the Atlantic don’t like this way of filling jars, they seem to regard it with great suspicion as being likely to kill you with botulism or other similar nasties.  All I can say is, it’s the only way I, or anyone else in my family, has *ever* filled jam jars, and so far we’ve all lived to tell the tale!  (More seriously, this is a nice sweet, acid concoction, and consequently pretty un-friendly to clostridial species, so you should have very little to worry about!)

Filled marlalade jarsI’m really pleased with these little beauties!  The colour is gorgeous, a real bright rich orange, and the flavour is beautifully balanced.  I’d love to say I can taste the elderflower – if it’s there it’s very subtle – but the mix of oranges and lemons gives a really nice clean crisp flavour.

It’s not an overpoweringly bitter marmalade like some of the Seville orange marmalades can be, but instead has a lovely three way balance between the acidity of the citrus flesh, the sugar sweetness, and a bitter note imparted by the pith and peel.

'Accidental' marmalade

I wish I could offer you a taste – all I can do is encourage you to make your own!  I’m so looking forward to this on a lovely thick slice of my fresh sourdough loaf for tomorrow’s breakfast.

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Last of the Harvest – elderflower ‘champagne’

Elderflower champagne is one of the tastes of summer for me.  It’s quite unlike anything else, and doesn’t keep well, so it’s there, and then it’s gone.  This a really feisty brew which breaks all the rules of home-brewing.  Please, whatever you do, don’t try and generalise from this brew to any other country wines you might like to make!

For a batch of elderflower champagne, you’ll need the following ingredients and equipment –

  • 30-40 good quality elderflowers (depending on the size of the blooms)
  • 2.5kg of unrefined ‘golden’ granulated or caster sugar
  • 5 lemons (unwaxed if possible, otherwise carefully washed in detergent and rinsed before use)
  • 1 lime (as above)
  • 2 tbsp of white wine or cider vinegar
  • 3 – 4 litres of boiling water, plus extra cold
  • Wine yeast & nutrient (optional)
  • Brewing bucket, at least 12l in volume (and a second is very useful – this can double with your spare vessel for the cordial, though!) with lid, or a clean muslin to cover
  • Enough screw-top plastic fizzy drink bottles to contain your brew (10 – 12 litres in total).  Don’t even think about using glass bottles for this brew.

The first rule that gets broken here is sterilisation.  I don’t sterilise my buckets for elderflower brews – I figure I’m about to throw half a hedgerow into it, so sterility is a bit moot!  But do wash and rinse it very very carefully, and if you have any doubt about contamination from a previous dodgy brew then definitely break out the steriliser!

Put all the sugar in the bucket and add enough boiling water from the kettle to dissolve it fully.  Then top the bucket up to about 8l with cold water.  The result should be a blood-warm sugar solution.

Zested citrus & elderflowers

Peel the zest from the lemons and lime with a potato peeler, as thinly as possible (leaving the bitter white pith behind).  Then juice them, and add the zest and juice to the bucket.  Add the two tablespoons of vinegar.

What's left behindNow to the elderflowers.  You’ve selected them carefully, so they’re all lovely and full of nectar and pollen.  You want to add the flowers – but, unlike the elderflower cordial, you don’t just get to shake the bugs off and throw them in, I’m afraid!  This time, you want to add as little of the green stems as you can.  There are several ways of doing this.  I favour just plucking the flowers off pretty roughly with my fingertips.  You could use a fork to ‘comb’ through the little sprigs and pull the flowers off, but you will tend to take quite a lot of fine stem with you.  Or you could snip the flowers off with scissors.

The reason for this bit of faff is to do with a nasty bitter flavour that the stems can impart to your brew, which is what will make it undrinkable, eventually, with storage.  If you’re planning to drink all your elderflower champagne within a couple of weeks of bottling, you probably needn’t bother, but if you’re hoping to get a month or so of drinking out of them, some of the compounds extracted during brewing from the green stems will eventually be converted (by the yeast?  By oxidation? I don’t really know I’m afraid!) into an overpowering bitter note that will make your champagne entirely undrinkable.  If you minimise the stem, you should minimise the taint.

Ready to ferment - elderflower champagne in the bucket

Add all your flowers, then, and you should have an amazing smelling bucket full of flowers & citrus peel.  Top it up to about 11l.  Now add a teaspoon each of yeast and nutrient (if you have some).  Traditionally elderflower champagne is allowed to go on it’s own with the wild yeasts that are expected to be present on the flowers.  I find this unreliable, and want a good predictable outcome.  Loosely cover it with its lid or a double layer of muslin. This is home-brew faux-pas 2 – sorry, no airlock for me!

Signs of fermentation should be evident within a day or so, in the form of bubbles visibly rising to the surface (you may also get a froth, depending on how vigorous your fermentation is).  Watch for a bit, you’ll keep missing them and catching just a little movement in your peripheral vision.  You may also notice the slightly sharp smell of the carbon dioxide.

Leave your champagne to ferment for about five to seven days.  As if we haven’t broken enough rules already, this is where the whole process goes horribly ‘wrong’.  We’re going to make no effort to wait until our brew has ‘fermented out’ (see this cider-making post for discussion if you’re interested), so the brew is still actively fermenting, with the yeasts consuming sugars and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, when it goes into the bottles.  This ‘quick and dirty’ short cut allows us to go from flowers-into-bucket to drinkable-brew in about a fortnight, which is quite remarkable.  It does however carry a pretty serious risk of producing ‘bottle bombs’ – a quick google for ‘elderflower champagne exploding bottles’ will illustrate how widespread a problem this is.

For this reason, I only use screw-top plastic fizzy drink bottles for my elderflower champagne.  Make sure they’re fizzy drink bottles – the 1 litre and half litre bottles seem most ‘stable’ though you can use the 2l cola or lemonade bottles if you like.  Don’t use bottles from non-sparkling water or fruit juices.  Do sterilise these with home-brew steriliser or milton solution, and rinse carefully before use.

After your brew’s been frothing for a week, filter it through a jelly bag or muslin-lined sieve into the second bucket to remove the solids, and syphon into your bottles (or use a jug and funnel, though this is another breach of ‘protocol’!) and screw the lids down tightly.  I was reminded when doing this this year that the filtration process is can be slow and frustrating – the yeast and pollens clog the jelly bag to a remarkable degree – and in future I suspect I’m going to use a much more open filter – I may even experiment with a nylon sieve (the sort you’d use to sift flour for baking) or something similar.  Using the jelly bag to filter my ~10kg batch took well over two hours, which frankly I could have done without!

Bottled elderflower champagneOnce your champagne is *finally* in your bottles, put them at room temperature somewhere secure where you can keep an eye on them (I tend to store the filled bottles in the washed and dried brewing buckets).

Every day or so, give the bottles a squeeze.  As the brew continues to ferment, the bottles will become harder and harder, and may even start to bulge alarmingly.  If you notice this starting to happen, release the pressure by very gently opening the lid a crack to let the carbon dioxide escape.  You may need to do this about once a day for the first week or so!

Under Pressure!You can see from the photo on the right the extent to which pressure can build up in these bottles – for comparison, the ‘donor’ bottle in it’s original state – the elderflower champagne bottles were filled to just below the neck, and the gas produced has inflated the bottles like balloons, producing a really large volume of extra head-room in the process.  Really, folks, don’t risk glass bottles with this brew!

As soon as you have pressure in the bottles, you can start drinking it – though I suggest waiting a week from bottling before taking your first sip.  As time goes by, the champagne will become ‘drier’ in flavour, and higher in alcohol as the sugars are consumed.  Don’t try to store this brew long-term – once you like the flavour of it, drink it and enjoy it!  I find that even with care, after four or five weeks the flavour is starting to deteriorate.

Ready to drink!

Pour, and enjoy this beautiful ephemeral effervescent flavour of summer!

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Last of the Harvest – home-made elderflower cordial

After you’ve picked your elderflowers, it’s time to make some gorgeous drinks with them.  Give them a good look over, and sort through.  Throw out any browning flowers.  Shake out any bugs but do not be tempted to wash them – you’ll wash all the flavour away!  You’ll be straining the ‘bits’ out later anyway, so don’t worry about the odd aphid making it through!

Freshly picked elderflowers

These are the ingredients and equipment you’ll need for the elderflower cordial.  You can scale these quantities up or down to suit yourself, but when I’ve gone to the effort of harvesting the flowers I can’t see the point in making much less than this at a time. –

  • About 70 nice elderflowers
  • 6lb (2.7kg) of un-refined ‘golden’ granulated or caster sugar
  • 6 UK pints (3.4l) of boiling water
  • 4 lemons (ideally unwaxed, failing that washed carefully in detergent & rinsed)
  • 4 oranges (likewise)
  • 4oz / 100g of citric acid (get this from a home-brew supplier, or a chemist’s)
  • Large stainless steel pan or food-grade plastic bucket big enough to hold all the ingredients (if you have a second one of these, this will also come in useful), with lid
  • Jug, jelly bag / fine strainer and muslin
  • Enough bottles to hold your cordial – I use recycled screw-top wine bottles, plastic bottles are also fine and you can freeze cordial in them.
  • Campden tablets / powder (optional – if you’re a wine-maker you probably have these anyway – they’ll allow you to store your cordial for long periods at room temperature, which is very useful!)

3lb of golden granulated sugarWeigh out all your sugar – I know there’s a lot of it, on the plus side you’ll be drinking this watered down so it’s not quite as bad as it looks (hey, who am I kidding?).  I’ve seen it asserted you can make this with ‘Splenda’ rather than sugar if you insist, but I haven’t tried it so can’t vouch for the results!

Dissolve your sugar in the boiling water, and add the citric acid.  Stir until it’s all fully dissolved.  Now wait until it’s cooled down (immersing your pan or bucket carefully in a sink full of cold water can speed this process up greatly).

Sliced lemons and orangesSlice up your citrus fruit into thick slices (about 1cm thick), and add these to the cool sugar syrup.  Then add the elderflowers, one at a time so you can give them a good shake to dislodge any debris or creepy crawlies and discard any substandard flowers.

The smell will be amazing.  Steep for two or three days, covered, at room temperature.

Elderflower cordial, steeping

Straining the cordialOnce all the flavours have infused, it’s time to strain and bottle.  First, strain the cordial through the jelly bag or sieve lined with a layer of muslin.  I was about to discard the fruit with the elderflowers but couldn’t bring myself to do it – instead, I made a batch of ‘accidental’ marmalade, which is really very good!

Check your volume, then crush and add your campden (if using) at the doseage given on the pack – usually 1 tablet per gallon.  For me, the ingredients yielded just over a gallon (or 4.5l) of cordial, which was convenient for bottles, at a smidgen over six full wine bottles worth.

Stir well to dissolve, then allow your strained cordial to settle for at least 3 – 4 hours (or overnight) so that some of the sediment that’s survived the filtering – this will mostly be pollen, which is very small – will settle to the bottom of the bucket.  If you use a good fine jelly bag, there’ll be very little sediment to worry about.

Filling bottlesSterilise your bottles using home-brew steriliser (or in the oven like jam jars, but if so make sure you let them cool completely before filling – cold liquid into hot bottles is a recipe for disaster!).  Then fill them using a jug & funnel – you could use a syphon, and this might reduce your sediment a little, but it seems a lot of faff to me!

Filled bottlesWith campden, the bottles should store for a long while at room temperature (at least until next year’s elderflowers are ready – though I challenge you to save any that long!).  Without, they should keep in the fridge for a month or two, without refrigeration, there’s a significant risk that they start to ferment!  If you’re using plastic bottles, you can always stash them in the bottom of the deep freeze – they’ll keep for ages like that.

It looks lovely in a clear glass bottle, like fresh bottled sunshine (and we’ve had precious little of that this year!).  My favourite way to enjoy this cordial is with plenty of ice, a slice of lemon or lime, and sparkling water, in a tall glass on a hot summer’s afternoon.  But I also cherish it as an amazing taste of summer to remind you of the warmer, brighter days in the depths of a cold damp dark winter!

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Last of the Harvest – finally foraged the elderflowers!

I nearly missed this year’s elderflower season!  We’ve been having mad weather in the UK this year – a late, cold Spring and then so much rain in the past three months.  The elderflowers started late, and then meteorology managed to conspire with work and family commitments to leave me without a warm sunny day to go picking until today.  We’ve had a few heavy downpours in the past few days, with another one yesterday evening, and I was a bit worried there would be nothing left for me to pick.  A 5 mile, two hour foraging walk around the local lanes and byways eventually yielded the hundred good elderflower heads I needed.  They have never been so hard won!

I can’t remember when I started making elderflower cordial – it’s been well over a decade certainly (and before that – elderflower drinks are one of the things I really did learn from my grandmother!).  The desire to make my own elderflower champagne a couple of years ago drove the acquisition of my first small set of home-brew equipment – and what a great hobby (or can of worms, depending on your point of view!) that turned out to be.  Brewing came before curing and smoking and put me on the path to wanting to learn as much as I could about country skills – and hence, in the end, this blog.  So elderflowers and I go way back – they’ve had quite an influence on my life, one way and another!

Elderflowers and citrus fruit

These days I make a batch each of elderflower cordial and champagne, at the same time.  In a good year I’ll do this a couple or three times, but sadly this year it’s a one-shot deal, so I’d better make the best of it!  To make both, in the quantities I make, you need about 100 good blooms.

Different quality elderflowersAn ideal quality elderflower is one where all the little flower heads are open, the petals pure white with a lovely buttery-yellow bloom of pollen on it.  As the blooms age, the pollen (and nectar, and the best of the flavour and scent) dissipates.  The flowers then start to appear whiter – still ok to use, but not quite as flavoursome.  Then they start to brown.  Browning blooms will not contribute the flavour you want, and should not be used.  The photo to the left shows great quality blooms at the back, adequate to front left and sub-standard (discard) to the front right.   There were too many adequate and poor flowers today – earlier in the flowering season it’s much easier to get nice flowers!

Now you’ve picked your flowers, you’ll want the recipes.  Here they are –

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Sinfully Simple Cider – yes, you really can brew this at home!

Home-brew has a bit of a mixed reputation, it’s fair to say!  This is my method for making great, simple, real cider (hard cider, for those of you West of the Atlantic!) with almost no investment in special equipment.  Sounds too good to be true? Follow these instructions, and in just a few weeks time you can be drinking great cider (at least as good as most commercial bottled ciders you can buy!) that you’ve made yourself, and all for only a few pence more than the cost of cheap retail apple juice.  I just wish I’d known how to do this when I was a student – it would have saved me a fortune and quite possibly made me rather popular, too!

Chilled and ready to drink!

Last autumn, I made real ‘Real Cider’ from fresh apples.  I promised then I’d post quicker and simpler instructions for a short-cut brew.  Well, rather belatedly, here they are!

First a brief note on the law – I have no idea if home brewing is legal in your country or jurisdiction, or what restrictions might apply.  If you’re restricted (by age, local religious observance, or otherwise!) from buying, possessing or consuming alcohol, it’s very likely local law enforcement may take an interest in you brewing it yourself, so please take appropriate advice!  In the UK, I believe home brewing is legal for personal consumption, however sale and distilling are tightly restricted.  

The minimum set of ingredients and equipment you require are –

  • The necessary parts5 litres of ‘pure apple juice’ (the clear, cheap, from concentrate variety from your local discount supermarket is fine, but it should contain no additives or preservatives)
  • Half a mug of very strong tea (use two tea bags – plain ones unless you fancy an unusual experimental flavour sensation!)
  • Wine yeast (this is widely available online or from your local friendly home-brew shop, and is cheapest in small pots rather than individual sachets – you could use bakers yeast as an emergency substitute, but it’s prone to producing strange flavours!)
  • A glass demijohn, or an empty 5l mineral water bottle
  • Home-brew steriliser (you could use Milton fluid as an alternative)

In another couple of weeks, you’ll also need to have gathered together –

  • A length of syphon tubing (between 1m and 1.5m or 4ft to 6ft in length)
  • Bottles, sufficient to contain your cider.  These must be able to take pressure.  Empty plastic screw-top fizzy drinks bottles are great for a first effort, and free.  The plastic will be somewhat gas permeable, so the cider won’t keep terribly well in them, but I doubt you’ll be laying down your first brew long-term!  Beer or champagne bottles are fine, but require special capping tools and equipment.  Please note that SCREW TOP GLASS WINE BOTTLES ARE COMPLETELY UNSUITABLE and are very likely to result in dangerously explosive bottles.
  • A few teaspoons each of sugar, and of a non-fermentable sweetener such as ‘Splenda’.

You might also like to add the following, which are not essential but will make the process simpler or more reliable –

  • A drilled rubber bung (or grommet) & bubbler airlock, to fit your bottle or demijohn.  If you don’t have these, you’ll need enough cotton wool to firmly plug the neck of your fermenter. [How to set up and use a bubbler airlock]
  • Yeast nutrient (This contains all the trace elements and minerals required for healthy yeast growth.  Apple juice is already pretty good for these, however, so it shouldn’t be necessary.)
  • A kitchen funnel
  • Bottle brush
  • Hydrometer [How to use a hydrometer]
  • Racking cane and tap or bottler attachment for your syphon tubing.
  • Capping device and / or appropriate caps, gaskets, stoppers and closures, if you prefer to use recycled beer or champagne bottles.

If you’re lucky enough still to have a local home-brew shop, now is the time to go and make friends!  You’ll get tons of helpful advice and guidance, and while the item costs are likely to be higher than from web retailers, you save on postage which can be a big consideration with small purchases.  There are also lots of home-brew suppliers on the Internet, of course.  I tend to use http://www.the-home-brew-shop.co.uk/ for most of my home-brew purchases, Amazon and eBay are also full of useful retailers for odd bits and bobs.  Freecycle is the best source I can find for old-fashioned glass demijohns, and people are often giving away bottles, buckets, and other unwanted brewing items, it’s well worth posting a ‘wanted’ notice, these have served me very well for supplies in the past.

A quick totting up suggests you can get all you need for less than a tenner, and nearly everything except the apple juice is re-usable over and over (or at least, in the case of yeast and steriliser, for a good few batches!).

The process is really very straightforward, and divides neatly into four –

  1. Fermentation
  2. Bottling
  3. Secondary fermentation, and
  4. Drinking!

Stage 1 – Fermentation

First, wash out your demijohn very carefully, and sterilise it following the instructions on your steriliser solution.  Second hand glass demijohns have often been abandonned in a slightly grubby state and will need a little TLC to get back into a usable state (a cranked bottle brush will be helpful if so).  Pay close attention to the instructions that come with your steriliser solution, particularly where it comes to strength, contact time, and rinsing, since lack of attention to sterilisation and rinsing are responsible for most home-brew failures.  While you’re at it, sterilise anything else you’re going to be using – including the bung, bubbler airlock, and a funnel if you think you’ll need it.  Don’t neglect cleanliness, it’s critical to the success of any home-brewing enterprise.  Sometimes I think home-brewing is really just washing up with benefits!

Now I just need my finite improbability generator!Pour four litres of the apple juice carefully into your demijohn.  There will be some bubbly froth on top, this is fine (the juice will be nicely oxygenated).   The demijohn will not be full – this is intentional!  Add your half mug of very strong luke-warm tea, which provides some tannin for the cider, as apple juice intended for drinking will generally be quite poor in tannin.

Apple juice in the demijohn

Add a teaspoon of yeast, and one of yeast nutrient if you have it to hand, and fit the bung and airlock or stopper the bottle with your cotton wool, tightly enough to stop bugs getting in.

Can you see the family resemblance?Now put your demijohn somewhere safe at room temperature (18 – 21 degrees is ideal, warmer temperatures such you’d have in an airing cupboard will certainly speed the process up, but are likely to be too warm and can produce ‘off’ flavours) and wait for the magic.  If you’re lucky, this should start within as little as six hours or so, though this depends on how active your yeasty beasties are, and the prevailing temperature.  While you could put it in a dark cupboard, I think you’ll want to keep it out somewhere where you can see it!

Yeast added and bung & airlock fittedThe first thing you’re likely to notice is the pellets of yeast starting to float around in the juice. Within 24 hours, there will probably be bubbles coming through the airlock.  You can see the meniscus of the airlock water is pushed around in the photo on the left.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel compelled to stand around and watch it go ‘glug’.  The apple juice will become more and more cloudy, ending up rather a murky muddy brown colour, and will form a thick layer of frothy foam on top, which may also include some visible yeasty ‘crud’ – this is why we’ve under-filled the demijohn for now, you don’t want the froth trying to force its way out of the airlock!

Froth and yeast crud on the surface of fermenting ciderIf you’re using an airlock, timing the bubbles as they escape is a great way of gauging how fast your cider is fermenting.  The rate of fermentation will speed up as the yeast population multiplies, and then will start to fall again as the sugars in the mix get used up.  At peak activity, you can expect a bubble every two seconds or possibly even slightly faster.  For me this usually happens about a week after fermentation starts, though it depends on temperature, the sugar content of your apple juice, and how viable your yeast was in the first place.  You will notice a layer of yeast forming on the bottom of the demijohn, too, which is quite normal.

If you’re not using an airlock then you’ll have to rely more on appearances to judge when peak fermentation has passed.  As things start to slow down a little, you’ll notice the frothy crud on the surface reducing and being replaced by a layer of much ‘cleaner’ looking bubbles, and the contents of the demijohn will appear to be ‘fizzing’.

'Cleaner' bubbles on the surface, after topping-upOnce this has happened (and the rate of bubbles through your airlock has reduced to one every four or five seconds) carefully remove the stopper, without contaminating it, and top up with the rest of your apple juice, to half an inch or so below where the shoulder of the demijohn meets the neck, before re-stoppering.  You’re adding a nice dollop of extra sugar, so expect the fermentation to speed up again for a bit, but hopefully it shouldn’t foam the way it did to start with.

Apart from providing a useful gauge of fermentation rate, the airlock serves another important purpose – it allows the waste gas from fermentation out, so that the demijohn doesn’t pressurise (which would be extremely hazardous!), but prevents exchange with the oxygen in the atmosphere.  This keeps the cider bathed in carbon dioxide, which prevents oxidation of your cider – oxidation leads to spoilage, and even allows the accidental creation of cider vinegar if appropriate microorganisms are present.

Why, then, have I suggested you could go ahead without one?  Carbon dioxide, conveniently, is heavier than air, so while the cider is actively fermenting, it will form a protective blanket over the cider and should prevent oxidation.  The key detail here is ‘actively fermenting’.  With an airlock fitted, there’s no rush to do anything once fermentation finishes, as the blanket of carbon dioxide is retained in the demijohn.  This gives the option of a longer period ‘resting’ in the demijohn, either for convenience or maturation, once fermentation is finished.   The cotton wool plug will keep bugs out (at least it will if it’s fitted properly!), but won’t stop the progressive exchange of gasses from the atmosphere once there’s no active CO2 production forcing the air out, so accurate identification of the end of fermentation and rapid bottling at this stage is particularly important.

Fermented outNow you just need to wait for it to finish fermenting.  The rate of bubbles (and fizzing in the cider) should slow down progressively, and eventually stop.  When it does, there should be no visible bubbles rising in the demijohn, no layer of bubbles on the surface, and no activity in the airlock.  The cider will start to ‘drop clear’, that’s to say the yeast in suspension will settle to the bottom and the liquid will be clear again – and look surprisingly like it did in the very beginning. From topping up to dropping clear, in a 4.5 to 5 litre volume, tends to take about a fortnight to three weeks. Be patient here and don’t rush it, but also don’t leave things too long if you’re using a cotton wool plug (if you’re ‘under lock’, you can ignore it for as long as you like – I’ve left cider at this stage for several months before bottling with no ill-effect).  If the end of fermentation coincides with a particularly chilly day, maybe give it a day or two to see if it re-starts when things warm up a little again.

The only cast-iron way of knowing whether your cider has finished fermenting fully (or is ‘fermented out’ in the jargon of brewing, that’s to say, fermented until there are no fermentable sugars left) is with a hydrometer.  In any case hydrometers are really cool-looking, delicate pieces of laboratory glassware and it’s almost worth buying one just because they’re so neat!  Rarely, fermentation can stop before this point, a situation known as a ‘stuck fermentation’ leaving sugars behind that could let fermentation re-start in an unpredictable way in the bottle.  The risk here is that you could accidentally create ‘bottle bombs’ which pressurise excessively during storage and risk exploding (please don’t dismiss the potential hazard of flying shards of glass shrapnel!).  For this same reason, do not under any circumstances be tempted to bottle early in an attempt to achieve a sweeter cider – the only safe approach is to ferment out to get a completely dry cider, and then correct this ‘issue’ (if, that is, a bone-dry cider isn’t to your taste!) later on in the process.

Your finishing gravity, if using a hydrometer, should be near enough 1.000, and be stable for at least 24 hours.  It goes without saying that the hydrometer and jar, like everything you allow into contact with your cider, must be carefully sterilised and rinsed before every use!  For extra brewing-geek credit, if you also take the starting gravity of the apple juice before you start fermenting it, you can work out the alcohol content of your final brew.  There are calculators on various websites to help you with the maths!  To be quite honest, I tend not to bother with the  hydrometer when I’m making this cider – so it’s a bit of ‘do as I say and not as I do’!

When you’re confident your cider has fermented out fully, and it’s dropped clear in the demijohn, it’s time to bottle.

Stage 2 – Bottling

Sterilise all your bottles and caps following the directions with your steriliser, and rinse very carefully.  Also sterilise and rinse your syphon tube and any associated nick-nacks (racking cane, tap / bottling stick etc).  Place your demijohn on the table or kitchen work top, and your bottles on the floor below them.

Into each of the bottles, you want to have added a small amount of sugar, this is to allow secondary fermentation in the bottle – but just a small controlled amount.  This process is known as ‘priming’.  This will produce a little carbon dioxide – in a pressurised container this time – and make your cider sparkling, which is how most people like it!  You can also add some non-fermentable sweetener if you want your cider slightly sweeter.  I favour ‘Splenda’, which seems to lack the bitter back-taste you get with some artificial sweeteners.   If you’re going to use something else check carefully that it really *is* non-ferementable.

I add one teaspoon of sugar per litre of cider (half a teaspoon in a pint bottle, about 3/4rs of a teaspoon in a 750ml).  These should be safe quantities and shouldn’t create any bottle bombs, while providing a nice sparkle.  Do not be tempted to exceed them!  I enjoy quite a dry cider, so I add a matching amount of Splenda – you can adjust this to your taste, though, so experiment.  Put the sugar and sweetener, if using, into your bottles before you start to syphon, since adding it afterwards tends to make everything fizz over (it’s somewhat reminiscent of the Mentos-in-cola trick, but a bit less dramatic!).  If you’d rather avoid artificial sweeteners but don’t enjoy a dry cider, you can top up your cider with a splash of apple juice in the glass at serving time.

Ready for bottlingIf you can secure the use of a glamorous assistant, they will come in very handy for bottling, since you can leave them in control of the top bit of the syphon tube.  [How to syphon your home-brew.]  If you have a racking cane, siphoning can be a one-handed job, as the ‘u-bend’ attachment should stop the yeast sediment being drawn into the syphon.  Without one you’ll need some way of keeping the tube out of the bottom of the demijohn.  In the absence of an assistant, you can rig something up with string and tie the syphon tube to the neck of the demijohn at an appropriate depth.  A spare pair of hands is more reliable, though!

Racking cane in the demijohnYou may well be wondering why the faff with a syphon tube when you could just pour the cider into the bottles with a funnel.  There are two reasons, really – the first is to reduce the amount of yeast sediment disturbed, which in turn will reduce the amount of sediment in your bottles, and in your finished drink.  The second is our old friend oxidation – correctly performed, siphoning minimises the contact between the air and your precious cider.

Filling bottles using a bottling stickSo, carefully syphon your cider into your bottles, leaving about a 1″ space at the top.  A ‘bottling stick’ or a tap in your syphon tube makes controlling the flow a lot easier.  You want to fill the bottles with the end of your syphon tube right at the bottom of your bottle, so that it stays under the fluid level and minimises exposure of the cider to the air.  There’s a bit of a knack to syphon-filling bottles, but you’ll get there eventually.  Do put newspaper or something absorbent down on the floor if it’s not easy to clean!  Try to avoid drawing yeast sediment or crud into your bottles from the demijohn as much as you can, but don’t worry too much about it, it’s not a disaster!  Any extra cider that isn’t a full bottle’s worth?  Drink it – it’s your first taste of your brew, and while it’s not ‘finished’ yet, it’s definitely cider, in a flat, old-fashionned-scrumpy kind of way!

Sanitised bottlesAbout my bottles, incidentally – they’re old lucozade-type inner-threaded fizzy drink bottles with rubber-gasket stoppers, which I was given by a lovely chap on Freecycle.  They’re more or less the perfect home-brew bottles as they’ll take some pressure but don’t require capping equipment, and aren’t gas-porous like plastic, so if you’re offered any, snap them up, even if they need a bit of TLC, new stoppers and gaskets remain available from home-brew suppliers.  Obviously, discard any chipped or cracked bottles, since these are at high risk of explosion!

Stage 3 – Secondary fermentation

Filled bottles ready for conditioningNow seal your bottles tightly, up-end them a few times to dissolve the sugars, and then stash them somewhere, upright, for a couple of weeks for the secondary fermentation to complete.  If they’re clear bottles, you can monitor this – the contents will go slightly cloudy, before clearing again, ‘throwing’ a thin layer of yeast on the bottom of the bottle. Once they’re clear, they’re ready to drink (though they will keep for at least a year – I bet you won’t wait that long though!).

Stage 4 – Drinking!

Chill in the fridge door (keeping the bottle upright will minimise disturbance of the yeast sediment) and then open on a suitable occasion to share with good friends – let’s face it, they’ll *have* to be good friends to be willing to be guinea-pigs for sampling your first home-brew experiment!  The bottle should open with a gentle ‘pssssst!’.  Pour your cider gently, but all in one go, leaving as much of the sediment behind as you can.  Don’t worry if you get some yeast in the glass, though, it looks quite traditional and won’t spoil the flavour – and contains lots of lovely B vitamins!

Share and enjoy!

Sit back and enjoy – your care and patience has hopefully been richly rewarded with a perfect crisp cold glass of home-brewed cider.  Get going now, and you’ll be all set when summer finally arrives!

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 6 – awesome home-made sourdough pizza

I’d heard good things about sourdough pizza bases.  Let me say, I was certainly not disappointed!  The Rowdy Chowgirl’s post on the subject was part of what inspired me to get my own sourdough project underway in the first place, and I followed her lead and went to The Traveller’s Lunchbox ‘The Pizza Project’ for inspiration and guidance.

Sourdough pizza - done!

It all starts with an overnight sponge, as usual.  I made a full two-loaf batch of dough.  I reduced the salt again, now down to 8g in the full batch (so just shy of half what I started out with for my first loaf), and had to use about 100g of wholemeal flour due to running out of white, but otherwise made up my usual dough, dividing it into two uneven halves straight after the balance of the flour and salt were incorporated.  To the smaller half, destined for the pizza crusts, I added a teaspoon of sugar.  I then treated the two balls of dough just the same – stretching and kneeding them every couple of hours between periods of resting –  until I added cheese and sundried tomatoes to the larger half and set it on it’s way to being another gorgeous loaf.

Shaped dough, resting.The pizza dough was divided into two balls for its final proving.  The dough remained very soft and just-handlable, which seemed ideal.  After proving (and after the loaf of cheese and tomato bread had already made its passage through the oven), I gently rolled the dough and then shaped it out by hand into two rough rectangles (I have a rectangular baking tray, and am not averse to funny-shaped pizza!) on baking parchment sheets.  This is a great idea – for which I can’t take the credit! – as the dough is soft and thin and would be nigh-on impossible to handle, I think, even with a peel.  You’ll want quite a lot of flour on the underside of your dough to stop it sticking to the parchment while you’re shaping it.

The tomato sauce for the pizzas is simplicity itself – one finely chopped onion, sweated down with some minced garlic in olive oil until soft, then add a tin of plum tomatoes, a good shake of mixed italian herbs, big pinch of pepper and a sprinkle of dried chilli flakes, a small spoon of vegetable bouillon powder (you could substitute half a stock cube) and a glug of balsamic vinegar.  Squish with a potato masher to get the required consistency, and bubble on the hob for about half an hour before allowing it to cool.  You could blend it, if you prefer a completely smooth sauce, but I like mine with a bit of texture.  Give it a taste, since you might find you want to add a small amount of sugar, depending on how sweet your tomatoes were to start with.

Pizza toppings, ready to go.Be sparing with your toppings – don’t overload the pizza and don’t over-complicate things, you want the great simple flavours to shine through.  I used some finely sliced cherry tomatoes, small pieces of my dry-cured maple bacon, a sliced mozarella ball and some crumbled goat’s cheese. Smear the sauce lightly over both pizza bases and then arrange your toppings over the top.  The quantity was about perfect for two largeish rectangular pizzas.  You’re not trying to plaster the pizza in cheese, since this will stop the moisture escaping from the dough and tomato sauce and turn what should be a glorious crispy crust into a disappointing soggy one.

Pizza, all ready to go into the ovenThe key to baking this pizza is a very very hot oven.  I pre-heated my little non-fan top oven to its highest temperature – allegedly 270 centigrade (I’ve not checked this with an oven thermometer, but it’s certainly reasonably blistering!) with the baking sheet inside.  The thicker and heavier your metal baking sheet, the better.  Getting the pizzas from kitchen counter to oven safely and quickly is really a two-man job, so get your glamorous assistant – wearing the best oven gloves you have at your disposal – to snatch the baking sheet out of the oven, closing the door behind them.

Before they burn their fingers through the gloves, use the baking parchment to slide your pizza off the side and onto the baking sheet.  Return it to the oven as quickly as possible, and watch the magic happen.  Seriously, I was sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor staring into the oven for this bit!  The edges of the pizza will start to rise and brown, and all the while the cheese first melts and then starts to go bubbly and golden.  To encourage it along a little, I put the grill on, too.

The pizza cooked in less than five minutes.  I didn’t remove the baking parchment half way through baking like others have suggested.  The paper did start to scorch a little but didn’t burst into flames.  It did come out of the oven slightly stuck to the underside of the pizza, tearing as I tried to remove it – not a disaster and easy enough to peel off – but I’d used quite lightweight baking parchment and I suspect better quality paper would solve this particular minor difficulty!

This is great pizza, and you should definitely make some.  The sourdough certainly adds a distinctive quality, producing a wonderful crispy crust with holes in, but also a pleasing ‘solidity’ which avoid straying into stodginess.  It’s nothing short of *amazing* fresh from the oven (we ate it standing up in the kitchen!) and is very nearly as good cold for lunch the next day.  The partly wholemeal flour in the dough adds a nice extra texture to the pizza, too.  There’s remarkably little ‘naughty’ here, either – certainly compared to commercial pizza offerings.  Something made out of such great, simple ingredients can’t possibly be bad for you!

So, home-made sourdough pizza crust – Just Do It!  I promise you will not be disappointed!

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 5 – how to look after your starter

Imagine, if you will, someone arriving at your house for a party, and bringing with them as a gift a rather odd looking jar with a label on it which says ‘Feeeeeed meee!’… Congratulations on being the new owner of a bouncing baby sourdough starter.  It’s rather a rude hostess present, I suppose, a bit like giving someone a puppy without asking them first (ok, maybe not *quite* that bad!).  But now you have this living thing someone’s entrusted you with, and you’re stuck having to look after it.

What sort of person would do such a thing, you might ask? Guess what I took to my little sister and her husband yesterday…

Feeeeed mee!

Isn’t it pretty?  I had to promise her a full set of care instructions, so here they are!

I keep my starter in the fridge between uses.  So far I’ve been feeding & baking once a week, so I haven’t tried to extend the gap between feedings more than this, though I believe it may be possible to go two or three weeks.  My starter is a wholemeal starter, but you could convert it to white flour, progressively, if you prefer.

Assuming you’re planning to bake on a Sunday, this would be my schedule –

  • On Friday morning, take your starter out of the fridge, stir in a couple of teaspoons of wholemeal flour, and leave it on the countertop (I like to think the beasties would appreciate a small breakfast snack as they come up to an active temperature).
  • Friday evening, once you’re home from work, it’s time to feed your starter.  In a bowl on your kitchen scales, weigh out equal weights of wholemeal flour and warm water (about blood heat) and combine to form a loose paste.  The starter has been started and fed on cheap bottled water so far, filtered water would be absolutely fine, if you have it, and converting my starters to tap water has also been successful (but might be a bit of a gamble if your water is particularly high in chlorine / chloramine).  I use locally stoneground wholemeal flour – avoid anything bleached or treated.
  • The total weight of the feed should be about equal to the starter that’s in your jar.  I’ve written the weight of the empty jar on the lid for you to simplify working this out!
  • Combine the feed with the starter (you could do this in the jar but I prefer to tip it all out into the bowl to give it a really good energetic mix) and put it back in the jar.  Leave the jar on the countertop for the next 24 hours.
  • Watch in wonder as the whole thing fills with bubbles and doubles in size over about the first 12 – 18 hours, before it settles back down a little.
  • On Saturday evening, take a good ladle-full or two of your starter (about half the total volume) and use it to start your overnight sponge.  Return the rest of the starter to its spot in the fridge.
  • On Sunday morning, let the baking begin!

If you’re not baking this week, do all of this but then discard the ladle-full of active fed starter (or better still, use it to start a new jar of starter to give to a friend?).

When you get your starter out of the fridge next week, you may find a layer of greyish liquid has formed on top, and the smell isn’t quite what you expect.  This doesn’t seem to be a problem, I’ve just been pouring the liquid off the top before going ahead and feeding the starter in the normal way.  I imagine this would be more marked if you went longer between feedings.

I hope you sourdough starter gives you as much baking pleasure as I’ve already had from mine!

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