Limoncello, Part 2

The Limoncello BountyThe limoncello was finished quite awhile ago, and it’s been well enjoyed since then. There are certainly some alterations I would make to the recipe, but first let me state how it was finished.

In mid-June (about two months after I started), I boiled four cups of water and dissolved three cups of sugar into it. In an attempt to reduce the sugar-water a bit, I let it boil for a while, but eventually gave up. It had a somewhat syrup-like consistency. This was added directly to the lemon-alcohol extract, and I let it sit in the cabinet for another couple weeks. I then put it in wine bottles for serving. I got just over two 750 mL bottles out of it (see picture), which means that it is a bit under half the strength of the original 750 mL bottle of everclear–that is, it is now about the strength of most hard liquors (just under 40% ABV).

The color of the limoncello is a bit… browner… than I would like. This I attribute to the sugar: I used unrefined pure cane sugar (or something–I don’t remember exactly but the sugar was a bit darker than typical table sugar), so were I to repeat this I would use refined white sugar. I would also cut the sugar content in half; this is somewhat too sweet for me. It’s only a bit sweeter than what I remember the commercial limoncello of Italy to be, but my personal taste would have it much less sweet.

Limoncello, Served


Armenian Imperial Stout

Stout Top

This is beer number five, stout number two. It’s from Papazian’s Complete Joy of Homebrewing (3rd edition). I don’t know any story behind the name–Papazian gives none and as far as I’m aware there was never any Armenian Empire–so I suppose it’s just a takeoff of “Russian Imperial Stout” because Armenia is (almost) adjacent to Russia. Whatever. The point is that the beer is pretty damn good.

It’s a malt extract recipe, and I got all my supplies from the excellent Oak Barrel Winecraft in Berkeley, Calif. For a 5-gallon batch, the total cost came to about $40, which is a bit under a dollar a beer. This is pretty good by commercial beer standards–you won’t find one this delicious for that price–but a bit much for homebrew, mainly because there’s just a ton of malt extract. If you’re careful you can probably do a bit better (e.g. bring your own containers to fill with extract at the store, etc), but this beer is well worth it.

Stout Zoom

(This is what I used; they’re a bit different from what Papazian calls for but pretty close.)
6.5 lb amber extract
3.25 lb light extract
1/2 lb black patent malt
1/2 lb roasted barley
Boiling hops (60 min): 2 oz Magnum hops + 1/2 oz Cascade hops
Finishing hops (1 min): 1 oz Cascade hops
Yeast Wyeast 1056 American Ale yeast

Comments on the Brewing

This was a pretty standard stove-top malt extract brew. The specialty grain (black patent and roasted barley) was supposed to be steeped at 150-160 C for 30 minutes, but of course the temperature control was a bit wonky in practice. The amount of hops used was a bit of a guess–the recipe calls for hopped malt extract, and instead I put in the extra 1/2 oz Cascade for the boil. The result was not particularly over- or under-hopped, so it worked out. I tried to sparge (strain) the wort, but both the mesh bag and the metal strainer I had just got clogged, so it was about half-sparged. Finally, for various reasons I didn’t have a hydrometer at either the beginning or the end of the process, so I don’t know what the gravity was. (The recipe has O.G. 1.070 – 1.075, F.G. 1.018 – 1.025, which would give it an ABV of about 7%, which seems about right.)

I gave it about three and a half weeks in the carboy (with a blowoff hose for the first 24+ hours, which was an excellent idea), and three weeks in the bottle thereafter. The tasting notes I have in my brew notebook consist only of this: “Absolutely Delicious!!

(I will, however, take the opportunity to add a few more tasting notes here. The ale is quite bitter, but not hoppy, and very malty, but not at all sweet. It also has a very strong burnt or coffee flavor, which I find wonderful. If I were to make it again, this could go quite well with many types of additives: coffee, chocolate, vanilla, even chile would be excellent. Of course, it is also great as it is.)

Stout Full

Limoncello, Part 1


We recently finished the last of the limoncello brought back from our previous Italian adventure. This was a fairly sad occasion, but did give me something to do with the bags of lemons brought down by my father when he came for the wine bottling: make a replacement! (When life gives you lemons, and all that…) I’m sort of following two recipes: one from Rick Steves, and one from Saving the Season. In truth, I haven’t really followed any recipes at all yet, because I’ve only done the first part.

Peeling the lemons

To make limoncello, there are two steps: extracting the flavors from the peel, and mixing the extract with sugar water to make a drink. I’ve done the first. Rather than stick with any particular recipe, I decided just to put in the skins of all the lemons I had (ten or so) into a jar with all of the 750 ml bottle of everclear (151 proof) I picked up at the local BevMo. You’re supposed to be very careful to only get the yellow part of the skins (the zest), as the white stuff (the pith) is bitter.

Lemon peel

It’s been sitting in a cabinet since the second week of April, and has turned quite yellow. I haven’t decided yet how to dilute it–once I figure out what strength I want the final product to be I’ll add water and an appropriate amount of sugar. And then it will probably age for another couple weeks after that.  Updates to follow in part 2.

Lemon peels in alcohol

Milk Chocolate Stout

It’s been long enough since this beer was brewed that I can, despite its many tribulations, declare it a success. In fact, I will go so far as to say that it is my favorite of the beers that I’ve brewed, and, indeed, better than most of the beers that you can buy outside of a specialty beer store–though that is mostly because it’s hard to get a good stout ’round these parts. That, and the bit of mystery surrounding it.

Milk Chocolate Stout

This beer is the product of another malt extract kit from Northern Brewer: the Milk Chocolate Stout. For the uninitiated, I’ll describe a stout as “the darkest kind of beer”–think Guinness. The “milk” part of this comes in the addition of lactose (milk) sugar to the boil, which is left (mostly) unfermented by the beer yeast (Wyeast 1332 Northwest Ale in this case), which results in “residual body and sweetness”–and I will testify that this is definitely noticeable in the end product. The “chocolate” part comes from cacao nibs added to the secondary fermentation–and this, alas, was somewhat less noticeable in the beer.

Milk Chocolate Stout Top

The folks at Northern Brewer will do a much better job with the instructions than I will, so I will only briefly outline my procedure, and focus mainly on the aforementioned tribulations. I had the Wyeast smack-pack for a yeast starter (get it started the day before so the yeast colony is alive and bubbling by the time you pitch), and did a two-stage fermentation (which involved some shuffling with the two carboys of wine also present in the brewing closet at the moment). The cacao nibs were added to the secondary fermentation, but they floated to the top–I’m not sure if this actually reduced the extraction of chocolate flavors but I doubt it helped. I’ve read that some prefer to make an extract by leaving the nibs to soak in vodka during primary fermentation, which is then added to the secondary fermenter instead of the raw nibs.

Milk Chocolate Stout Head

Bottling this batch was quite… exciting. The first problem was that, due to a misunderstanding on my part, too much priming sugar was added. The second problem was that I bottled before the gravity had completely finished dropping (I think). The third problem was that there was no efficient way to remove the nibs from the carboy prior to bottling, resulting in nibs blocking the bottle filler. Repeated cleanings of the bottle filler meant that far too much air was mixed with the beer at bottling. Fortunately, this did not end up making the beer taste stale. Unfortunately, this resulted in the beer being severely overcarbonated. No bottle bombs, but it does require the drinker to pour the beer immediately into a beer mug after opening (as in, within five seconds of opening). And don’t even think about shaking the bottles.

There is a final piece of this brew that I’d like to share, and that concerns my efforts to make part of this batch (about a six pack) non-alcoholic–and it ended up being quite mysterious and to this day I have no explanation for it. I looked around online, and while there was very little information about removing alcohol from homebrew, the general consensus was: “Well, I guess you could try boiling it.” So this is what I did. Distillers, I remember learning from a particularly amusing high school chemistry teacher, boil their product (recondensing the alcohol-laden vapors) and monitor the progress via the solution’s temperature. So I did the same, and that helped me none at all. Turns out that the boiling temperature of a 5-10% ethanol + other stuff solution is basically the same as plain water, and it doesn’t really change much as you boil it. So I stopped after boiling it for about 20 minutes, by which point the volume had reduced by about 20%. I don’t know what fraction of the boiled-off gas was ethanol, but I gather that since pure ethanol has a lower boiling point than water, the boil-off should have been a higher fraction ethanol than the solution. So I’m not sure exactly how much alcohol is remaining, but since the volume reduced by 20%, and presumably the alcohol preferentially boiled off, and only 6% or so of the total volume was alcohol to begin with, I’m going to guess that the remaining beer is significantly less alcoholic than the original. I bottled it, in any event.

And now comes the mysterious part: you’ll notice that I said “I bottled it” without doing anything else. When I talked to a friend in lab, he asked if I added more yeast before bottling, and I immediately slapped my forehead in chagrin. What I understand about yeast is that if you boil it for twenty minutes, you kill it. So, priming sugar or no, I was going to end up with some flat beer. I figured I’d open the beer, add some more yeast (I’ve got spare yeast around for just such an occasion), and let it go for two more weeks in the bottle. And yet–when I opened a bottle of the “non-alcoholic” stuff, it was perfectly carbonated. Not overcarbonated like the main batch, not flat like it should have been, but perfect. And it even tasted great (just like the main batch, in fact).

Now, I don’t pretend to understand what’s happening here. How can yeast survive being boiled for 20 minutes? I’m calling it “the immaculate carbonation”. I’ve been reading a bit of H.P. Lovecraft lately, so I’m tempted to file this under “things mankind was not meant to know”. Maybe we should just leave it at that.

Syrah and a Site Transfer

Hello devoted followers,

It is with heavy heart that I relate to you the passing of the laptop (that is, the laptop that was hosting She has been retired after years of dedicated service. Henceforth, the blog too shall return to meet its maker–that is, it shall be hosted on (whence the blogging software came). The fact that you’re reading this means that the redirection I set up with the nameserver was successful. So, soldier on, brave friend.

In other news, things are quite busy in a non-cooking way around our household. The garden has made its transition to winter–I’m sure Anna will have a post on that sooner or later. The syrah has been pressed and even racked once (though I think it will need another racking soon). My Birthday Beer is currently fermenting–a post on that soon as well.

I’ll leave you with my graph of (syrah) Brix vs time:

Brix vs Time, with fit

I tried an exponential fit, and while I think it captures the qualitative behavior (it being a biological system and all) it doesn’t get the asymptotic value, which is what I was looking for. (I measured it to be about -1 Brix.)



The Zin Begins

Previously I have made, together with another grad student, both strawberry and cherry wine. The strawberry wine has come out at least passably well each time. The cherry wine, not so much–there was a “mis-under-estimation” having to do with the amount of acidity, and it came out quite sour. We managed to salvage the wine by turning it into jelly. Now, however, much bolder plans are afoot: real, honest-to-goodness, made-from-grapes wine. One of the benefits of living right next to wine country (full disclosure: all of California considers itself “wine country”) is that you can get fresh, local, cruelty-free, fair-trade grapes. In my case, through the CCHVA grape-buying coop. So, without a clue as to what I was doing, I placed an order for one hundred pounds of zinfandel grapes and one hundred pounds of syrah grapes. (I should add that my father and I are going into this as partners. He’s the angel investor and I’m the boots on the ground. Yes, yes, it’s soooo cute, I know, and it’s father and son, just make the damn Judd Apatow movie and get over it.)

I’m about 1/3 following a recipe and 2/3 making it up as I go along. The closest thing to a recipe I’m using is the Zinfandel focus article from Winemaker Magazine (the red one). The hard copy issue that my in-laws gave me for my birthday also has been very helpful (thanks, Mary and Taylor!).

I got a call on Monday that we’d be getting the grapes on Thursday, 1pm. (Good thing I don’t have a real job.) The grapes are from Margarita Vineyards, the crush was in Orcutt, CA (i.e. small-town California) and the crusher-destemmer machine was awesome. After removing the stems, I got 90 lbs of must (grapes + juice), or about 8 to 10 gallons. The sugar measurement came to 25 brix at the crush (that’s about 1.106 specific gravity for you beer brewers out there), and I did a little home-titration that measured the acidity at 0.615%. (The coop took some to a lab and got a pH of 3.52 and 0.638% acidity–it appears my home-TA-kit is not that bad.)

Thursday afternoon (once I got home), I added 1/2 tsp potassium metabisulfite (shooting for 50 ppm) to kill any wild yeasts or bacteria (hopefully), and 4 tsp pectic enzyme for a poor-man’s maceration. (Maceration is the process of extracting goodies from the grape skins, i.e. what makes red wine red wine.)

The Primary Fermentation Vessel, aka 20 gallon trash can from Home Depot

After waiting 24 hours for maceration / settling, I pitched the yeast (Friday evening, now). The yeast I got was Wyeast 4946 Zinfandel–it’s got zinfandel in the name, so it’s got to be the right one, right? I measured almost 27 brix (1.114 gravity) right before pitching. So there could be a good amount of alcohol in this wine.

The sugar reading. We are about two ticks past the "10" line. Each tick is 2, so we're at 1,100 + 10 + 4 = 1.114 specific gravity. This is equivalent to 26.8 brix.

Currently I’m at the stage where I have to punch down the cap twice a day with a sanitized cap-punching instrument. I’m going to start taking readings to see how fermentation is going. Wish me luck!

There it is, in all its sickly sweet, sticky glory.

I must finally add a word of thanks to my ever-suffering wife, for being wonderfully accommodating as I bring a trash can full purple sugar-water into our tiny apartment. She’s the best.

Rum Cherries

For my birthday, my lab-friend Ted gave me the makings of his drink-of-the-moment, the Dark and Stormy: a bottle of dark rum (Black Seal Bermuda Black), and a six pack of ginger beer. The drink itself was pretty good, but after we ran out of the ginger beer we didn’t have much call for the rum.

Until, that is, I came home from the farmer’s market with a few too many cherries. Anna suggested making rum cherries, and after a bit of googling I came up with a recipe. I can’t find any of the sites I pulled from, and it doesn’t actually matter that much, I think: I could find no definitive version of rum cherries, and I’m sure you could find a recipe for rum cherries with whatever ingredients you’re desire. Here’s one more to add to the pile.

Rum Cherries

1.2 lbs cherries
2/3 cup sugar
500 ml (2/3 of a bottle) of dark rum
1/2 of a very used vanilla bean

Sterilize the jar and lid by boiling (we used a 3lb honey jar) (I don’t know if sterilization is necessary). Cut the cherries in half and pit them (this was a bit laborious). Mix the sugar into the rum as best you can. Put the cherries in the jar and pour the rum/sugar mixture over, then add the vanilla bean (slice it in half, long-ways, if not done already). Top off with rum until covered, close, and refrigerate. You can then shake to dissolve as much sugar as possible.

We aged it in the fridge for one and a half months. At this point it was pretty darn delicious. Anna invented a great cocktail for it, as well:

Orange Cherry Lazy (so called because she was “too lazy to do anything fancy” and, apparently, too lazy to come up with a real name)

Juice of two squeezed oranges
Several tablespoons rum-cherry sauce
Several rum cherries

Combine and enjoy. Also, once you’ve had enough, “Orange Cherry Lazy” starts to sound like “aren’t you very lazy”.