Tasting Notes: Sakura Wine


Well, the sakura wine came out. The sweet blushy pink was lost in the fermentation process, and while I was tempted to pink it up again with an adjunct, I also decided I wasn’t actually that invested. Since it was a comparatively low-alcohol wine, and since the flavoring involved was so light, it didn’t seem like a good candidate for aging. Just went right ahead and bottled it up and let it sit for a bit and busted it out on a nice cool evening after a warm late-spring day.

So! Did it suck?


Yeah. It sucked. It tasted like cheap floral deodorant smells. A worthy experiment but not something I’m going to mess with again. The mild acidity was appropriate, the dryness was appropriate, the body was kinda lacking. More or less happy with the recipe overall, with the unfortunate caveat that it was formulated to complement something that makes a sucky wine. Oh well. Win some, lose some.


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Sakura Wine


Tiiiiime for flower wiiiiiiine~

Chez Ape has a couple of flowering cherries right close. Not the ones that have been bred to go off as early as possible, and not ones that make fruit worth anything, but what they can do, really well, is once they get around to it they make vast wads of huge fluffy pink blossoms. Gorgeous. I’ve never tried to make a cherry-petal wine before, so I have no idea how the delicate scent and color will translate to a final brew. Whatever, life’s a mystery, let’s do this.

I’m following a pretty basic “country wine” template: make a tea/decoction, add sugar, add acid (citrus) and tannin (raisins) as appropriate, and go to town. Since the scent is so delicate I’m being pretty gentle with the acid and skipping the tannin entirely.

Here’s what a gallon of cherry blossoms looks like before you cook them.


Here’s what it looks like afterward.


Initial notes: scent is a bit disappointing. It smells more like vegetables than flowers. I’m feeling a little ripped-off by life. I’m feeling like I should have expected this with trying to make brew out of a faintly-scented flower, and also like I kinda WAS expecting it, and disappointed that life has FUCKING FAILED TO SURPRISE AND DELIGHT ME DESPITE MY FONDEST HOPES AND DREAMS.

Screw it, it’s gonna be wine anyway.

So here’s the recipe:

1 gal sakura

1.5 gal water

zest of 1/2 lemon

1/2 tsp malic acid

2lbs sugar

1 packet white wine yeast

Boil water. Turn off burner. Chuck sakura and zest into pot; let the mess sit and fill you with doubts until it’s no longer steaming but still feels warm. Chuck everything else in; stir to dissolve sugar. Pour into a couple of gallon jugs, cap and wait until it’s not warm anymore and then chuck the yeast in and put an airlock on.

Squint at it. Wait.

So that’s where we are now. Waiting. We are waiting to find out that we have basically made lettuce wine and that we should re-think our life choices. We are suspicious. Check back in a couple of weeks.

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I Like to Gruit Gruit (recipe and tasting notes)

Super-quick history lesson: gruit is unhopped beer, and nearly all beer used to be unhopped. Hops became the standard brewing herb for a complicated mess of reasons involving religion, taxes, public health, the rise of commercial vs home brewing, and more taxes. Hops are also very easy to grow in mass quantities and are both pleasingly bitter and antiseptic, a handy one-plant equivalent to the herbal mix that does the same thing in gruit. So there you go.

So why make gruit when you can get hops? BECAUSE IT TASTES AWESOME. It is delicious in its own right. This stuff wasn’t the default state of beer for hundreds of years for nothing.

Here’s my recipe. It’s very, VERY flexible and pretty much any part of it can be tweaked to your taste.

I Like to Gruit Gruit

6lbs DME. That’s it. The type is entirely up to you, I used half pils, half wheat. Make a gruit porter or something. Do it.
1/2 tsp grains of paradise – 20 min
2 oz. yarrow flowers, leaves, stems (fresh) – 10 min
6 oz. mugwort (dried) – 10 min
8 oz. mint leaves, stems, maybe some bugs (fresh) – add at flameout for about 3-5 minutes steeping.
Champagne yeast, why the hell not.

Still got a 60 minute boil here, get your 3 gallons going and do what comes naturally. You can spend some of the time picking bugs off the mint or you can say screw it. Once the boil’s done you get to strain a frankly alarming amount of yard waste out of your wort (and have a fascinatingly bitter and herbal brandywort), top it off with cold water to 5 gal, cool and pitch yeast.

When you bottle it a month later, it might look a little something like this.


Liquid sun, my friends. The yarrow gives it a little extra yellow tint. @#$%$ beautiful.

Tasting notes: Yes, you need all that mint if you want to be able to taste it in the finished product. Mint will boil off, ferment off, and age out. You could probably use twice the mint. As it is, it’s a mild harmonious note in a slightly woody, complicated herbal bitterness. The champagne yeast is better at fermenting sucrose and fructose (fruit sugar) than maltose (barley sugar) so it leaves some sweetness in the beer and makes for a fairly low alcohol content. This is a real farmhouse brew, easy to drink a lot of and still be fine to get useful stuff done. I got pretty much what I was aiming for with this one and I LOVE it.

If you want some more recipes, gruitale.com has some. They are by no means a complete or definitive list. The herbal mix in a gruit is a lot like chili recipes: variable and exquisitely attuned to the cook’s personal taste. Mess around a little. Heed the ape: it’s your bucket, and you can put whatever you want in it.

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Cyser Stout

I’ve been slacking on posting, not brewing: summer brought in a rad heather ale for which I’ve completely lost the recipe, two different batches of plum wine more or less based on the September 23rd Massacre. One of the two carboys of that batch contains 32 lbs of plums and 14 lbs of sugar. #@!$%!# phenomenal.

More recently I’ve gotten this cyser-stout thing in the bucket. I don’t know if this is a thing that people do and I just wasn’t able to find any record of it, or if it’s just a freestyle clusterfuck from beginning to end, but I’ve been wanting to make a hybrid cider-beer for a couple of years now. I’ve had some really excellent hopped ciders but I wanted more of a roasted-apple flavor, so I rigged up a modestly hoppy stout recipe. This recipe is exceptionally well-suited to a partial malt technique; it’s got the fermentables of a full 5-gal batch but keeping the liquid volume down is crucial to leave room for the 3 gallons of cider.

Here’s the stout recipe:

9 lb DME light
1 lb caramel malt
1 lb carafa/black
2oz Warrior hops (60 min)
1 oz Amarillo hops (15 min)
1 oz Cascade/Chinook/Centennial (your choice) (5 min)

Do the usual with mashing and sparging the black/carafa, then top up to about 2.5 gallons for the boil and, again, conduct yourself in the appropriate and accustomed manner for 60 minutes. Rejoice. Strain the wort into your fermenter, save a few tablespoons for a brandywort, and the stout portion of your cyser stout is complete. Alternately, you can top it off with cold water and make a totally acceptable basic stout with the yeast of your choice.

If, on the other hand, you want to kick out the same jam I did, you top it off with 3 gallons of no-preservative cider, cool, and pitch. I’m lucky enough to live pretty close to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula–these same orchards grow heirloom apples for some of Washington’s best damn cideries and what do you know, they’ll sell that stuff to anybody who walks up. (Thanks Annaka!) Trader Joes also sells an excellent preservative-free spiced cider. I used two gallons of orchard cider and one TJ. I wish I could remember what yeasts I used, but the specifics escape me at this point: a packet of dry ale yeast and a packet of dry wine yeast. Not champagne yeast. Use whatever you like best, this recipe’s all over the place anyway. I trust you.

Let me know how it turns out if you try this. It’s been fermenting for a couple of weeks and probably still has another to go before bottling day. The airlock smells amazing.

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Firhti Bottling Day and Tasting Notes

The moment of truth for this fir beer experiment! Will it be godawful or great?


…whatever, I’m just going to kill the suspense right off and say that I love this beer. Flat out love it. As of bottling day it’s an unqualified success; we’ll see how bottle conditioning goes but Pseudomalainen is not giving me much motivation to let it sit around. I would like you to take a moment to look at my firhti.  LOOK AT IT. IT’S BEAUTIFUL.


As a little bit of a digression, I just popped champagne yeast into the wort without having much idea about the difference that would make. Do, then research: it’s the Way of the Ape. There seems to have been a shift in the conventional wisdom on how champagne yeast and beer work out. As of a couple of years ago, there was a very rough consensus that using champagne yeast would make for an unpalatably dry beer, and that its primary use in beermaking was as a secondary fermentation to keep really big beers chugging along on their way to 12-15% ABV. More recently, I’ve seen more people saying that champagne yeast ferments the hell out of sucrose, glucose, and fructose, but isn’t as good at digesting maltose (one of the primary sugars in malt, thus in wort), and therefore giving a kinda paradoxical result–sweeter beer.

I can now weigh in on this. Champagne yeast DOES make a sweeter beer. This firhti has a very gentle sweetness and a similarly gentle tartness, which is likely a combination of the rye, the champagne yeast’s influence, and the resiny tang of the fir. The fir itself is not overpowering–funny thing is, it’s not even especially prominent! Mostly it shows up as a resinous note in the finish and a freshly herbal, long-lasting aftertaste. There’s also a really nice edge of funk. Ingestion testing* suggests something in the neighborhood of 6% ABV (the ape has no actual idea, as her hydrometer is still in its original packaging and will stay there like a naughty puppy).

I seem to have stumbled upon a very well-balanced recipe with this first attempt and gotten lucky with environmental conditions for fermenting (i.e. the weather has hovered around 60-65F of its own free will this whole time). I’m in love with the funk and the resin in the same place. THIS IS A GOOD BEER.

Anybody with access to a fir tree should consider rigging up a batch of this. I think you’ll like it too.





* Ingestion testing is about as scientific as it sounds. In short: I had one.

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Pseudomalainen Firhti (recipe)

Finally, my firhti! I’ve been planning this fir beer for ages and it’s fermenting right now. A bit of background on the name: “suomalainen” is Finn for “Finnish”, pronounced “soo-muh-lye-nen”. I’m messing with sahti, one of the mighty god-kings of low-tech, low-equipment, freestyle shackbrew here, and it behooves me to be a little humble about that.

This is probably the most simple recipe I have ever used. No hops at all. Barely a boil. No chiller. Here it is.

Pseudomalainen Firhti (3-4 gal batch)

6 lbs pilsner DME

1 lb rye malt

About a pound of fir tips and twigs (to filter grain, and also to go in the brewpot)

Yeast (various recipes call for anything from bread yeast to champagne yeast. I went with Red Star Champagne)

Steep the rye in a gallon of water for one hour at 170 (the lowest my oven will go). Layer a bed of fir pieces into your strainer, and strain the mash through that. Squish. Sparge with another hot gallon. Squish again. DO NOT CLEAN YOUR STRAINER. LEAVE THAT JUNK IN THERE.

Go get more fir if you need to. Drop the rest of the fir into your brewpot, top off a bit so most of the fir is in the water–within reason, given the size of your pot and the amount of fir you have. Heat it up to 150-170, a nice steamy sub-boil. The wort will turn a pea-soup yellow and smell like Christmas. Keep it about that warm for 10 or 15 minutes.

Get out your strainer with the rye and the fir needles and decant the wort from your brewpot through that grainbed into your fermenter. You’re basically doing an extra sparge with your wort. Squish. Done!

I didn’t chill my wort at all, I just left the carboy on the counter with a plate over the mouth until the next morning, when I pitched the yeast. I see bubbles as of an hour ago: success!

Thoughts: I wanted my first firhti to be pure fir so I could find out how the flavor worked in isolation. It’s nice, but pretty resinous and a bit acrid–future batches of this will contain a few things to round out the flavor. Since this is an experiment in seeing what sahti would taste like if it had grown up in the Pacific Northwest instead of Finland, I’m thinking mint and hops. I have Saaz and Cascade vines in the backyard; I think Saaz would be a better match.

Since this recipe also has no preservatives (such as hops) other than the alcohol, and since it’s not going to be a high-hooch brew, it’s got to be drunk young. I anticipate that a fair bit of it will go sour before I finish drinking it, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that works out.

Look at this junk. LOOK. I’m so proud of it.

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What am I even doing: Fermented Tears of Failed Human Beings (recipe)

I haven’t started up a new bucket for a while, and a few days ago I was talking to a friend about cocktails. “The ones you like are too sweet,” I groused, because I have a bitter black soul. “Let’s just chug the fermented tears of failed human beings.”

I was joking at the time, but it didn’t take long to remember that I had three pounds of honey sitting around and a spare gallon jug and no reason not to take the joke way too far. It’s in the jug starting up right now. No pictures, because it came together ridiculously fast and now it just looks like a jug. Want a recipe?

Let’s pretend that you do. HERE IT IS!

The Fermented Tears of Failed Human Beings (1 gal)

3 lbs honey

3 oz fresh mint leaves

1 2-inch piece dried kelp for soup (kombu)

1 tsp sea salt

0.5 gallon water, plus more to top off

Boil the water. Add mint, kelp, and salt. Let boil for a minute or two, then turn off heat. Add honey. Strain into jug, top up to 1 gallon. Let cool. Add yeast. Wait a few weeks.

So that’s what’s going on right now. Pre-fermentation tasting tells me that I have the salt just about right–I was aiming for a very soft water with just enough saltiness to be perceptible and emphasize the honey sweetness. Like salted caramels or kettle corn. Like what actual brewers’ salts do for malt, even. The kelp is in there to give it more of that ocean-y trace element goodness, just like human tears. We’re basically bags of ocean walking around, after all. And the mint? I don’t know, it just seemed like a good idea. As though drinking tears straight would somehow be gauche.

If this turns out to somehow not be completely terrible, there are a few other adjuncts that traditionally work well with salt that might be worth a try…I’m thinking lemons or plums. But first this batch has to not suck, so I’ll keep you posted.

Quick science note: ocean water averages around 35 ppt (parts per thousand) of salt. Ape HQ is in Seattle, next to the Puget Sound, which is technically a brackish estuary at 28-30 ppt depending on how much runoff and rainfall we’re having. Human tears are about 9 ppt.

There are 768 teaspoons in a gallon, and roughly 1.5 teaspoons of salt in this recipe, giving it an approximate salinity of 2 parts per thousand. It’s much less salty than actual tears but I’m pretty sure I can fool my friends anyway.

Supplementary research note: A little looking around revealed to me the existence of Gose, an old and nearly-extinct German beer variety that incorporates salt and coriander. Of course it’s not Reinheitsgebot-compliant, which didn’t help it during those more strictly regulated times. But it’s still being brewed, albeit in small quantities. I wasn’t able to find a salt-mead equivalent, so if you know of any I hope you’ll say so. 🙂

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Mak Kimchi

Not brewed, but fermented so it totally counts! My last batch of kimchi just ran out and the weather today is drippy and cold and generally crap, which is pretty much perfect weather for putting things in buckets to ferment.

I wish I could say that I got this recipe from my Korean grandmother. Nana was Swedish. Doesn’t matter! I spent a bit over a year in South Korea and didn’t quite manage to eat all the kimchi but I TRIED–oh how I tried. This recipe is a hybrid of several different ones I found once I came back to the States and messed with until it tasted almost as good as the stuff I remember at the lunch counter in the basement of the building I worked in. I don’t know if they made it in-house or what, but it was always super-garlicky and really sour: apparently I like my kimchi a lot sourer than most. Conventional wisdom says that kimchi the way I like it is past its prime and should be used up in soup and fried dishes but I say PFFFF. You can eat it however you want at any stage of fermentation.

When I’m a Korean grandmother I’m going to make sure my granddaughters make it EXACTLY LIKE THIS.

Here’s  how it goes:

1 medium-sized head napa cabbage, cut into quarters lengthwise then sliced into 1-inch segments

1 c sea salt

1 lb daikon/mu (radish), grated. If you can get green radish, USE THAT. Its peppery, herbal flavor really makes the kimchi perfect.

2 or 3 carrots, grated

1 bunch green onions, cut into 1-inch segments

2 heads worth of peeled garlic cloves, chopped (more, if you want. Maybe you are a garlic-based organism too.)

1 2-inch ginger root, grated

1/2 cup Korean red pepper flakes

1/4 c shrimp paste or fish sauce

Dissolve the salt in 1/2 gallon of water and drop the cabbage in.  Combine all other ingredients (seasoning mix). Go do something else for 3-4 hours and then come back and drain the cabbage. Rinse it well and press it to get as much water out as you can. Combine the cabbage and the seasoning mix, stir it all up very well, and pop it all into a jar or jars–LEAVE THE LIDS LOOSE. You know what fermentation does in a closed container. I have had fizzy kimchi and you probably don’t want that. Probably.

Let it sit out on your counter for 2-4 days or so, stirring daily, until it tastes sour enough for you. Then you can tighten the lid and put it in the fridge. It’ll get more sour and make more juice (which is perfect for soup broth), but slowly.

Yeast is not the primary thing that’s working on the kimchi, but it’s there. Mostly it’s a nice stew of lactobacilluses and acetobacter chugging away to lower the pH in the jar and I kind of love that it’s those same beasties I’m usually trying to keep away from my beer. I wish it was just that simple–give them something else to work on.

Oh well, that’s microflora for you. Now GET TO WORK, MICROFLORA! I made this nice pot of fermentables for you, so no lollygagging.

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Bottling day and tasting notes: Molasses Stout

Standard bottling process, you know how it goes. Sanitize everything, shoo the Morale Octopus off the fermenter, and get busy.

I’m really happy with the Molasses Stout, but you know what I need about a ton more of? MOLASSES. I thought I was overdoing it, but I didn’t even scratch the surface of overdoing it. I may have barely begun to simply do it, and overdoing it will require a tanker truck.

Tasting notes:

Really, really good. I love this beer. Hoppier than expected, but less spicy and less molasses-y. Good balance, will probably be especially super after a few months in the bottle mellow the hops out. There’s a little bit of barleywine-type raisin fruitiness. It’s also pretty strong. As usual I have no idea what the gravity or ABV are, but a test glass suggests that this batch is comfortably in the imperial range.

Recipe notes:

I would happily make this beer again, unaltered. But for a gingerbread molasses stout of the sort I originally intended, the recipe needs about half the hops–and twice the molasses, lactose, and spice mix (leaving juniper at original amount). 8 oz of lactose and nearly a gallon of molasses for a 5-gal batch. That sounds absolutely ridiculous. I’m going to do it anyway–but probably as a 1-gal test run first.

Here’s a look at the actual beer, just after bottling. Looking forward to seeing what kind of head it ends up with once it’s done.

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Beer is friendly, dammit

I recently saw a very new brewer ask a question on a forum I spend some time on: is it okay if I put herbs or fruit in my beer, to add some flavor? Is that a thing I can do? What’s good to use?

It was honestly pretty depressing to see how unanimous the response was: NO. Or, more accurately: HELL NO, NO WEIRD STUFF UNTIL YOU CAN MAKE A GOOD NORMAL BEER.

Believe me, I do understand  where they’re coming from. I love the idea of a standard, old-reliable recipe that can comfortably accommodate a lot of adjuncts. The idea that you should learn the basics before improvising is a very old idea, and definitely a practical one; everybody’s probably got at least one wildly ambitious first project that went terribly wrong, wasted materials, and came out nothing like what they wanted. I know I do. Brewing is a very friendly hobby to people focused on details and procedure and measurements…and people who focus on those things tend to focus on perfecting a foolproof, reliable process they can control all the variables of, or duplicating something they already like. I GET IT.

But you know what? It still pissed me off. An experienced brewer had the gall to give this newbie a homework assignment: make 20 batches the normal way, then you can start messing around. I saw the sad little reply: “okay, you guys give good advice. I guess I’ll just focus on making good beer”.

I wanted to throw things.

I wanted to reach through the internet with a witbier in one hand and a juniper branch in the other and start bludgeoning everyone involved in the exchange.

This person wanted to do something that was good, normal beer–the kind a beginner or anyone else would make. It’s the definition of good, normal beer for most of history and most of the world, in fact. It was unbelievably frustrating to see an idea as unremarkable as socks treated like something dangerous. Our beginner may not make it to twenty brews before trying out some adjuncts, but when s/he does, it will probably be anxiously, tentatively, and with a nagging conviction that they’re going to ruin everything by doing it. IT DOESN’T NEED TO BE THIS WAY.

Beer is forgiving. Beer is tolerant. Beer is not scary, and it’s not waiting for you to mess up so it can laugh at you. Please, please, brewers–remember, and help others to remember. You can get away with more than you think.

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