Wulf's Webden

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Wednesday 22 March 2017
by Wulf
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Behind the Mask

Book cover

Behind the Mask

Behind the Mask is an anthology of superhero stories edited by Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson. Setting off on the journey of reading it, I wasn’t sure what to expect; I’ve read plenty of superhero stories but normally they are accompanied by pictures and this is words, words, words. As the title suggests, this is less about heroes battling with amazing strength and energy and more about the people they are when they get time away from the public eye.

The first story didn’t do much for me but the second (‘Destroy the City with Me Tonight’ by Kate Marshall) gave me some impetus to continue – the protagonist finds herself becoming an avatar of a city but ponders how to escape this geas. Overall, I felt it was a mixed bag and I was not as gushingly enthusiastic about all the stories as the editors seem to be. Some just didn’t appeal and others were hard to follow or, on following them, ended up not really going anywhere.

However, there were a few excellent stories in the mix. My favourite was ‘The Beard of Truth’ by Matt Mikalatos. That was on the more comic (ha ha) end of the spectrum but there were also some less flippant contributions that also stuck with me. Having finished it, I’m not convinced to make superhero fiction my new, big thing (and I think options are relatively limited anyway) but it has opened my eyes to a few new names to watch out for and a few moments where my reading imagination could soar through the skies with its cape flowing out behind.

Tuesday 21 March 2017
by Wulf
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Tell Tchaikovsky

I’m out tomorrow night for another Oxford gig with The String Project. We’re playing at The Furry Mic, which is held at The Mad Hatters (43 Iffley Road). The band is due on shortly before 10pm but the evening starts not too long after 8pm and, at our last visit to the event, had a wonderfully diverse collection of performers. Free entry (although expect a collection for a local charity at some point).

If you are a rock’n’roll aficionado, you might have an inkling which song and artist we’re going to nod to (albeit just for a few bars) but most of the set will be our originals, some tried and tested, some quite new but all with a few fresh twists and turns. Anyway, that’s the news!

Monday 20 March 2017
by Wulf
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Hunting Eagle

I have spotted that I’ve dropped a bit behind with my 52photos project so here is an image I took just after Christmas, published in early March and have worked on with the Gimp this evening:

Metal sculpture of an eagle

Hunting Eagle by Roger Davies

It is a sculpture I saw at RHS Rosemoor. I’ve made it a bit brighter and sharper, increased the cyan vignette and cropped it but it isn’t too far off the original.

Sunday 19 March 2017
by Wulf
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Red Lion – March 2017

I’ve been working hard on my latest OU assignment this weekend but it’s time to have a break; I’m back off down to the Red Lion in Brightwell-cum-Sotwell tonight for the monthly jazz jam (7-9pm). Jazz-tastic.

Saturday 18 March 2017
by Wulf
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Bottling Day

After a few days, the yeast will have converted so much sugar to alcohol that it can’t carry on working any more. At this point, the gravity reading will stop falling and the beer is ready to bottle. If working on a small batch, you don’t want to be drawing a fresh sample each day; my set up and choice of yeasts normally takes 4-5 days and I get an indication by monitoring the temperature (lowering yeast activity means the temperature starts falling and the brew belt comes into play more often to keep the level fairly steady). I draw a sample, which is normally near the target final gravity, then leave it next to the fermentor to double check the next day.

You need enough bottles to hold the beer. I normally reckon on getting about 6l of beer to bottle from my 10l of starting water, so I’ll clean and sterilise about 14 500ml bottles to give me a margin of error. Bottle caps sterilised too – and make sure they fit on your bottles (sizes aren’t entirely standardised). Given that volume estimate, you can calculate how much sugar to add for the secondary fermentation inside the bottle. In practise, it works out about 2.5g per bottle for the styles I’m brewing. I dissolve the sugar in my wort sample, put that into my jerry can and siphon the beer out of the fermentor; this time, I do try and minimise the amount of trub that gets in.

The beer can be bottled – a bottling wand is helpful, attached to the siphon – and capped, which can be tricky with only two hands. A dry run with water might not be a bad preparation to work out how to co-ordinate everything without knocking bottles over. Once that’s done, the work is almost over.

Leave the bottles somewhere warm for a week or so; the yeast inside the bottle wants a decent temperature in order to work on that fresh sugar and create some CO2. It is inert, so protects the beer and also gives it a bit of fizz – producing both mouthfeel and the head on top of the glass. Somewhere during that week, you can label the bottles if you want – milk turns out to be perfect for sticking the labels on and you wipe off the excess, so it doesn’t seem to create any sour smells. Put the beer somewhere cool and give it another week or two to condition.

Then enjoy!

Friday 17 March 2017
by Wulf
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Fermenting Day

So the wort is cooled to room temperature. Potentially you could store it like that for a long period, as long as there isn’t too much air floating round in there but you probably want to get on with turning the sweet wort into satisfying beer. The thing that will take longest is rehydrating the yeast, if, like me, you are using dried yeast. Ideally, look up the instructions from the yeast manufacturer online but here is my routine.

Boil a decent amount of water, pour it into a jug and swill it round to cover the whole internal surface. This sterilises it – you can then pour out most of the water, leaving about 50ml, cover with clingfilm and stick in the fridge. You are waiting for water to cool to about 25-30°C, so keep an eye on it. While this is going on, get the VWP out and do some more sanitising. You will want to take a gravity sample, so that’s a sample tube, hydrometer and something to draw out your sample of wort. I use a syringe but, at a push, a suitable glass or jug would work. Also make sure your stockpot is cleaned and sanitised.

The original gravity sample is important if you want to know how strong your beer turns out, so make a note of it. If you aren’t close to the temperature the hydrometer was calibrated for, find an online tool to calculate the actual gravity. If the gravity reading isn’t close to what the recipe expected you can either live with it or make adjustments – dried malt extract or brewing sugar to increase gravity or water to dilute it down. I normally stick to simply making a note of what the gravity is.

By now, the water in the fridge should be approaching temperature so you are almost ready to start on the yeast. Since I normally brew less than the standard 20-25l, I tend to use half of an 11g packet of yeast; this is slightly over-pitching, but is fairly easy to measure if your scales are accurate. Sprinkle over the top of the water but don’t stir. The jug, still covered with the cling film, will now sit outside the fridge. Now you are into a process of gradually getting the yeast used to swimming around in sugary liquid, creating alcohol.

After ten minutes, give it a gentle shake. Wait another ten minutes or so and add about 1/3 of the contents of your sample, with another gentle shake. Repeat after another ten minutes. Ten minutes on and… pour the yeasty liquid into the stockpot. Now pour on the rest of the wort. Don’t worry about most of the kettle trub getting in there – it doesn’t seem to hurt. You are looking for a generous pour which aerates the mixture well.

That’s it. The yeasty magic which turns wort to beer should now be underway (aside: in Medieval times, yeast was sometimes known as God-is-goode). Ideally, you’ll have something like a brew belt to apply some heat and an easy way to monitor the temperature (I use my Raspberry Pi, a temperature probe and a simple bit of software I wrote) but somewhere that keeps a reasonably constant temperature round about 17-20°C would suffice.

Fermenting is underway but, if you followed the instruction, you will still have about 1/3 of the sample left. What to do with that? Go on and sample it. It won’t give you an exact idea of the final taste but it’s a treat you can enjoy!

Thursday 16 March 2017
by Wulf
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Mash Day

Working on Brew-in-a-Bag principles, the first big day is when you ‘mash’ your grains in hot water and then boil the resulting wort with hops. This is the day which is most like cookery and benefits from the kitchen approach known as mise en place (everything in its place). Unless you have a well-stocked ingredients cupboard or live near a decent homebrew shop that probably means starting a few days earlier.

The starting point is the recipe you are going to use, from which you can work out suitable quantities of all the ingredients. Recently I’ve been brewing with 10l of water, so I express all the quantities in terms of grams and use a spreadsheet to identify a suitable factor to multiply them by (typically about 3.5 for Graham Wheeler’s recipes). That reckoning should also include the yeast, even thought that will stay in the packet until the day after mash day. You also need to assemble other items – a large stockpot (to hold all the liquid + 2-3l headroom for coping with the grain bag and boiling), a fine nylon mesh bag, a sealable container that can hold the wort straight after boiling (I use a heavy duty plastic jerry can), various jugs, funnels and utensils, a large bowl and colander, kitchen scales (which can measure to 1 or even 0.5g) and an accurate thermometer. Oh, and some cleaning chemicals, like VWP powder.

Start by giving your brewing area – probably the kitchen – a good tidy up. That means washing up, drying up and putting away! Clear surfaces are easier to clean and mean a safer space to work. Now use the chemicals to clean and sanitise the area and equipment. VWP rehydrated with warm water works well. Remember to wipe down surfaces before you put clean things on them and remember that the VWP solution needs a bit of contact time to work and to be rinsed off after for things that will touch the beer or other food stuffs.

Gather the ingredients together. I normally measure the water first and you can start heating that. Grains need to be measured into the bag (put that in the bowl). Deal with the main volume first (probably pre-crushed pale malt) and then use another bowl or bowls to weigh out the others. Uncrushed grains need breaking up although they don’t need to be turned into flour – a pestle and mortar works for small amounts. Mix all the grains together so different varieties are well distributed.

That’s probably all you need for the first stage so turn back to the water. Typically you will be mashing somewhere round 66°C, as instructed by the recipe, so you be aiming for a strike temperature of about 70°C. My induction hob is quite efficient at heating – otherwise you could extract some of the water, boil in a kettle and return to the pot. There is probably a formula for how much X ml of boiling water will raise the temperature of Y ml of water in the pot – or make an informed guess – in either case measuring the result.

Once at 70°C, gently lower the grain bag into the pot and stir to make sure it is all hydrated. Tweak the heat as required to get close to your mash temperature and start your timer for 60-90 minutes. Wheeler tends to go for 90 minutes; I’ve found 60 is normally sufficient but often split the difference at 75°C. While the clock is ticking, monitor the temperature periodically and keep as close to the mash temperature as possible. There is a small range during which the enzymes which convert grain starch to sugar will be active (about 60-70°C) but different types of enzyme work in narrower ranges and will denature if held above it for too long so, without more precise temperature control or lots of insulation on the pot, you will be taking readings quite often.

In between reading the temperature, measure out the other ingredients. There will be hops and possibly some sugar for the start of the boil and perhaps some more additions at timed stages towards the end and after the boil has finished; get them all lined up now.

Once mashing is done, gently lift the grain bag out. There will be a lot of liquid to drain out. Once it starts to drip rather than pour under gravity, I transfer it to the colander, sitting back in the bowl used earlier. As further wort drains out (and it can be squeezed as it cools), that can be added back to the pot. You might want to wear thick rubber gloves, which will let you squeeze the bag earlier but be very careful not to drop it back into the pot – hot sticky wort is not only potentially hazardous but a pain to clean up (voice of experience from boil over events!).

Turn the hob up to full and watch it come to a rolling boil. Resist the temptation to turn your back as it will make the final transition, with the attendant volume increase, very quickly when it get there. Back off the heat a bit, add your start of boil ingredients and set the timer going. The same considerations apply as for mashing – I make a note of what I did so I can tweak each variable individually in a future batch. However, you might want to time until the next addition rather than to the end of the boil (eg. 65 minutes and then 10 minutes).

You are now getting towards the end of mash day. Stir the pot from time to time – you can scrape down the foam which sticks to the sides – and make sure it keeps at a decent boil rather than a slow simmer. Keep the lid off – evaporation is condensing the wort a little and driving off unwanted volatile compounds. That means a hot and steamy kitchen so crack the windows a little, close doors into the rest of the house and, if you’ve got a dehumidifier, let it prove its worth.

After the boil and any final additions, you need to transfer the wort into a container for overnight cooling. I use that plastic jerry can, which I put in the sink. I put a large funnel in the neck and then use a ladle – both sanitised – to transfer enough wort to act as ballast. I then carefully pour the rest in, fully aware that it is a sticky, scalding liquid. I don’t worry about straining out the trub at the bottom of the pot – there will be some deposits left but most of it goes in. Once the lid is sealed, I swill the contents around so that all the internal surfaces are scalded clean – oven gloves and a lot of care are also applied here.

Set that container aside somewhere cool and it can drop to room temperature overnight. Tidy up the kitchen. Spent grains can go on the compost heap although you can also set some aside if you plan on doing something like baking bread later (they work well to spread over the top of the loaf while it is having its final, pre-oven rest). Oh, and if you haven’t already, treat yourself to a beer!