Spring is in the Air

Violets

I don’t know about anyone else, but sometimes it’s hard for me to get motivated to do much fermentation during the winter. With the longer days, warmer weather, and land turning green again, I have been feeling the urge to get some things brewing.

First Stages of Violet Wine Fermentation

First of all, my yard is covered in lovely violets this time of year. I spent a couple of hours picking some (only about a third. I can’t bear the thought of depriving the bees and butterflies of food) and decided to make violet wine. I didn’t find any real recipes for this, so I’m experimenting. I hope it turns out because I won’t be able to try again for another year.

 

Next, I made two meads: a plain mead made with local sour wood honey and a vanilla metheglin (mead made with spices) made with local wildflower honey. They should be ready to bottle in another month or two.

Boiling Elderflower Must

Third, I went with my hubby to a conference he attended in Knoxville, where I visited a brew shop. There I picked up a couple of bags of dried elderflowers, as well as some other supplies. I tried a friend’s elderflower wine a few years back and it was one of the most amazing wines I’ve ever tasted! Flavor seemed to burst like little bubbles on my palate (and this wasn’t effervescent, mind you), kind of like tiny drops of sunshine on the tongue. He made his with an elderflower drink he picked up at Ikea. I’ve not been to an Ikea in ages, simply because there’s not one very close to me, so I decided to try to make it from scratch. It was going very well at first, but when I transferred the fermenting must to a carboy the fermentation completely stalled. I tried to rescue it by adding more yeast nutrient and yeast energizer along with mixing in more oxygen. When that didn’t work, I pitched a new package of yeast. Nada. Luckily I have more elderflowers, so I’m going to try again. I have no idea what went wrong.

Finally, I have been begging people to let me come to their yards (if they are not treated with herbicides and pesticides) to pick dandelions for dandelion wine. No one was taking me up on my offer of some minor lawn maintenance, but finally, a friend told me about a city park where there were tons of dandelions. She went with me and we picked about a gallon while racing the park employee on his lawnmower. Again, things went great until I put the wine in its fermentation vessel.

I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s starting to annoy me. It’s one thing to have to start over with dried flowers I can easily buy, but picking a gallon of dandelions is backbreaking work. It takes a LOT of flower heads to make a gallon. I’ve never had issues with stalled fermentations before, however, my husband’s beer has been stalling ever since we moved into this new place. Perhaps there’s something in the air that is somehow contaminating our brews. We are pretty thorough in our sanitation practices, especially with the beer (it’s much more susceptible to infection than wine or mead), so I don’t know what’s going on. I guess I will start over with the elderflower wine and be super careful, taking note of every step along the way. Fingers crossed!

My Big Mouth

Antique Pottery Crock Water Cooler
Antique Pottery Crock Water Cooler

When I was in South Carolina, my hubby and I found an old water cooler at an antique store for around $25. It was intact, so I brought it home cleaned it up, replaced the old spigot, and used it for a continuous brewing system for kombucha for a long time. It held about five gallons, but we go through a lot of kombucha. The downside of it was that since it was made of pottery, I could only view things from the top. Eventually my kombucha was turning straight to vinegar almost as soon as the fresh tea was added.

When I pulled my SCOBY out it was about 7″ thick and 14″ across! No wonder I had vinegar! I thinned down the SCOBY (made some yummy SCOBY candy with the part I peeled off), cleaned the crock and let it get back to work. This set up continued until I noticed that it looked like the outside of the crock was sweating. Somehow cracks had formed inside and kombucha was literally seeping through the crock. I was really sad, but I pulled out the first small glass urn I had gotten when I started doing continuous brewing. I turned the leaky crock into a compost tea brewing system to nourish my garden and yard.

Worm Casting Tea Brewing Away
Worm Casting Tea Brewing Away

Since moving to Chattanooga, I’ve struggled to keep my kombucha at the right level of sweet to sour.  I just didn’t like the 1 gallon urn I had it in. I really dislike using Mason jars for kombucha, because we drink so much of it and fooling around with the jars is a pain. As a result, we stopped drinking one of our favorite, healthy, fermented beverages for a while. Then my hubby got in one of his beer brewing catalogs and we found our solution, the Big Mouth Bubbler.

The Big Mouth Bubbler was made initially for beer brewing. When beer is first fermenting it can produce a thick layer of foam on top called a krausen. After a day or two the krausen usually subsides, but it leaves a stubborn film inside the carboy. Beer carboys tend to have a very narrow mouth, so the only way to clean them is with chemicals, a big bottle brush, and patience. The Big Mouth Bubbler was created to help beer brewers clean their equipment by giving the carboy a big mouth, thus the name. At first they only came in plastic (I despise plastic and certainly would never choose to ferment in it), then they upgraded to glass. The latest incarnation came with a spigot so that brewers can bottle directly from the carboy and not have to worry about tubing, siphons, and other stuff. This is what I had been waiting for!!!

Kombucha Brewing in Big Mouth Bubbler
Kombucha Brewing in Big Mouth Bubbler

I recently got my Big Mouth Bubbler and have successfully begun brewing kombucha again! I haven’t managed to get it up to 5 gallons (we keep drinking it) , but I think I might go ahead and try to finish filling it this week. I love that I can see into it to monitor my SCOBY and the level of kombucha I have. My next project is to make a carboy cover. I have made a bunch in the past out of old t-shirts, but I need a new one to accommodate my Big Mouth!

What Have I Been Up To?

Obviously not writing! A few months ago as my hubby and I were visiting the Chattanooga WorkSpace for Open Studio Night, it struck me that I really wanted to have a studio there. I had already been teaching my fermentation classes there for a few months, so I applied and got in! I’m actually sharing a studio with another gal. She’s rarely there (she’s a photographer), so I have the space to myself to do my textile art.

Natural Dyeing and Plant Pounding Items I've Made
Natural Dyeing and Plant Pounding Items I’ve Made

Years ago I had done a good bit of fabric dyeing and have gotten back into it with a vengeance. One of the things I want to try soon is dyeing with prickly pear. The Navajo have used prickly pear for centuries to dye their fabric. Now you may wonder why I’m going on about this on my fermentation blog, but prickly pear dye is fermented! I’ve never eaten prickly pear, but I’ll certainly be looking for them in the grocery store now. When I do this experiment I’ll certainly take photos and post them.

I also completed the Hamilton County Master Gardener course. I’ve been doing organic gardening for four years now, but I learned so much! I’ve completed over half of my volunteer hours required to become a certified Master Gardener. Still over 20 to go!

Despite everything else going on, I’ve continued to teach my fermentation classes and have even added a couple to my repertoire. In March I taught a class called “Kombucha & More.” The “More” was jun and water kefir. It went really well and I’m looking forward to doing that one again in the fall. In June I will be teaching a blackberry wine class. I’ll actually be teaching it in July, as well. My old friend, Kim Hines from Augusta Locally Grown, reached out to me and asked me to come back to Augusta and teach. Then I’ll be racing back the Chattanooga to teach a Bratwurst & Sauerkraut class at the Sweet & Savory Classroom. It will be my first time partnering with this organization, so keep your fingers crossed for me! Then I’ll be teaching a class on Hard Root Beer and Hard Ginger Beer. Then in August I thing I’ll do Veggie Fermentation once again so folks will be ready for their harvest.

So see, I’ve been busy! I’ve neglected my blogging too long, though. I’ll be getting back in the swing of blogging again, so keep your eyes peeled for new posts. Also, if you are into textiles check out my other website. I’ll be teaching various textile classes in the weeks to come.

Wassail, Glühwein, Glögg, and Mulled Wine

mulled-wine-001

‘Tis the season to drink mulled wine, fa la la la, la la la la!

For thousands of years people have been drinking spiced wine. The Romans never drank straight wine, unless they were out of spices and herbs to add to it. They were actually shocked by the Celts who quaffed straight wine, like frat boys at a keg party.

If you look online there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of recipes for mulled wine. I first encountered it while stationed in Germany. This time of year there are Christmas Markets, Weihnacht Markt, in every city with booths selling wonderful mugs of this stuff. I will say though that one must be careful. Between the heat and the sweetness it is easy to drink too much!

The following recipe is for a wonderful and simple Glühwein from The German Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Mastering Authentic German Cooking by Mimi Sheraton. While this is made with red wine, you can also make it with white wine, apple cider (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), or beer.

Ingredients

2 bottles red wine

1 cup sugar

1 stick cinnamon

3 or 4 slices lemon, each studded with 3 or 4 cloves

Directions

Heat all ingredients together until they [nearly] reach the boiling point, but do not boil. Pour into glasses or mugs and serve.

Teaching Classes in Chattanooga

It has taken me some time, but finally I’ve found the right organization to collaborate with so I can teach fermentation and brewing classes in the Chattanooga area. I met with Jennifer Holder of The Chattery recently and she agreed to help coordinate a space for several demos and workshops.

At first we were going to do the classes at Granfalloon’s, but they have unfortunately closed. Jennifer quickly found another place to hold the classes, the Chattanooga Workspace.

The first thing I’ll be doing there is a cross between a demo and speed dating called Speed Learning. There will be several educators there on a range of topics each seated at separate tables. The participants will have seven minutes at each table. I’ll be chatting about kombucha. While I tell you about how it’s made and how easily and cheaply you can do it at home, you can sip this tasty, probiotic beverage.

I’ll also be teaching a class on October 21st on How to Make Mead, Cider & Ciser, so sign up today for classes through The Chattery!

Meditation on Picking Berries

Earlier this summer I could step outside in my yard back in SC and spend nearly an hour a day foraging for wild blackberries. It seemed that no matter how thoroughly I thought I’d looked at a patch of ground, as soon as I took a couple of steps away and looked back I’d see more ripe berries that I hadn’t seen before. Since these were berry vines that were just growing all over the ground, I had to be totally in the moment as I carefully picked (no pun intended) my way across the various berry patches in order not to step on the berries.

A Change in Perspective Reveals Hidden Treasure
A Change in Perspective Reveals Hidden Treasure

Now that I’ve moved to Chattanooga, TN, I’ve gone berry picking at Crabtree Farms for blackberries and blueberries a few times. Their blackberry vines are huge, cultivated giants compared to the wild berries back in SC. Since they opened the picking up to the public, I often would be surrounded by other folks. I think it is interesting that I could come along behind many other people and still be able to find perfectly good berries to pick. Of course, many of those were outside the normal line of sight. I often reached through to the other side of the fence that supports the vines to find beautiful berries untouched. Likewise, by changing my perspective and looking up from below where the vines are thickest I was able to find handfuls of gorgeous berries.

I can’t help but think that we should often change our perspective in order to find the amazing things others have overlooked. And I hope to bring the mindfulness I found in picking berries to other parts of my life.

Rebalancing an Ecosystem

When we bought our house in Aiken three years ago there were bunny rabbits, lots of lizards, birds, and other critters. When we let our cats outside, they soon began hunting and killing whatever they could catch (bringing many a live critter into the house so they could chase the poor creature without it having any real chance of escaping unless one of us humans were around to save and release it).

I have always been allergic to mosquitoes and often joke about how they can smell me from ten miles away. The whole time that we lived in SC we couldn’t figure out where all the mosquitoes in our yard were coming from. We were more than a mile from any natural water source. Our swimming pool was meticulously maintained by my hubby, I kept Dunks in our rain barrel and any other places in our yard that might possibly hold water. I couldn’t see standing water in any of our neighbors’ yards, so I was stumped.

Our kitties are now comfortably lodged in our apartment in Chattanooga, much to their aggravation at not being allowed outside now. Anyhow, we are getting our house ready to sell, so we’ve been driving back every weekend to work on it. We’ve noticed a resurgence in the lizard population the past couple of weeks. This past weekend, however, we also noticed we weren’t being eaten alive by mosquitoes! Our cats had disrupted the ecosystem that had evolved in our yard over the past 70 years that the house has stood there!

So for all the pests that cats dispatch, there are plenty of others allowed to thrive in the absence of their natural predators!

Container Garden

Last year a friend told me about Earth Boxes. She said she had a few of them on her back porch and that she ended up with so many tomatoes she couldn’t preserve them all! Since I have left my large raised beds in Aiken, I knew I had to give them a try.

Raised Garden Beds in Aiken
Raised Garden Beds I left behind in Aiken
Earth Boxes
Earth Boxes planted with tomatoes and a pepper plant.

We had to re-home our chickens when we moved to Chattanooga. Chatt is super cool, but it’s behind the times when it comes to having backyard chickens. Plus, until we sell our SC home we are renting an apartment.

The chickens had always eaten well at our house, since they got almost all of our kitchen scraps. They loved anything that still had seeds, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when tomatoes, peppers, and squash started growing in the yard where the chickipoos had been last year. When we were packing up to move, I dug up a couple of tomatoes and a pepper plant to bring with us.

In the photo above you can see the three plants on the right are pretty big – those were the ones the chickens planted in the ground. The three tiny seedlings on the left are the ones I started a couple of months ago.  Those poor little things suffered from the instability of our lives the past month trying to get moved. I think the only reason they are probably still alive is that I grew them in pure worm castings. Now that they have been transplanted into the Earth Boxes I’m hoping they’ll really start to grow well. I’d love to have a bumper crop of tomatoes! While transplanting my ‘maters & peppers yesterday, I found that one plant had started growing fruit. I hope this is just the start of a great growing season!

First tomato of the season!
First tomato of the season!

Big Life, Small Space

Three years ago my husband and I bought a lovely three-bedroom home on a little more than half an acre of land. If you’ve read my previous posts you know that we have put a lot of work into our land to bring fertility and beauty to an acidic, parched, sandy lot that had been neglected and abused for decades.

Our lovely house today.
Our lovely house today.

We busted our butts clearing scrub brush and overgrown azaleas, and breaking up the compacted soil by tilling almost the entire yard. I planted fruit trees and blueberry bushes, strawberries and asparagus – plants that will produce every year with a little care. I built raised beds and created soil out of yard and kitchen waste, composted manure, and peat moss. I tossed about 100 earthworms in the beds to eat the organic matter in them and turn it into microbe-rich worm dirt, then started heirloom seeds to grow delicious, nutrient-rich food.

Baby Chickipoos
Baby Chickipoos
Chicken Tractor
Chicken Tractor

We went further in our dream of a sustainable life by getting baby chicks and raising them up. We built them a chicken tractor and moved them to a new patch of grass every day or so. We were happily surprised about how much better the yard looked a couple of weeks after the chickipoos had scratched and aerated the soil,  eaten all the plants & bugs, and left a bit of fertilizer behind them. And at the end of the day, we had fresh, delicious eggs! We also built a worm bin. Whatever kitchen waste the chickens wouldn’t eat (coffee grounds, tea leaves, etc) went to the worms. That worked well for a while, but our worms decided to migrate and left the bin one day. It was kinda weird, but other folks I’ve talked to say that worms do that sometimes.

Along the way I discovered fermentation and took to it like a duck to water. I’ve made all kinds of fermented veggies, brined eggs,  soft and hard cheeses, bacon, prosciutto, kombucha, kefir, yoghurt, skyr, clabbered milk, mead, hard cider, beer, and wine.

Lots of fermentation going on!
Lots of fermentation going on!

When we bought our home we thought we’d be there for a very long time, but life happens. Neither of us were successful in finding employment that we were in the least bit happy doing. I spent many months trying to get our business off the ground, but after failing to get financing we came to the conclusion that we were simply in the wrong place. We had chosen our town because of the lovely little downtown area, but you know what they say about books and covers. There was really very little going on in the CSRA that we could do for recreation other than tending our animals and our plot of land. Those things were great, but we had left an amazingly rich life back in the Ozarks before moving to South Carolina.

Last summer my dear friend, Hope, and I had taken a trip to see Rock City. Both of us are fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and had always talked about going together to see where the battle scene in the book took place. I fell in love with Chattanooga! It reminded me of my old hometown of Fayetteville, AR, but it’s even funkier. I knew my hubby would like it because of the mountains and the wonderful local food culture. So when the opportunity presented itself, I encouraged him to apply for a job there and since he’s super awesome, he got it!

Now we’re living between two places: our house in Aiken and our rented apartment in Chattanooga. We realized a few months ago that we have a big house that costs a small fortune to heat and cool, but we only live in three rooms. The whole time we’ve lived there we’ve had one guest that took advantage of our guestroom… one! We have decided that if we want to seriously commit to a sustainable lifestyle and stop spending all our time dealing with household maintenance, we have to make a big change. In a few weeks we’ll have an estate sale where we will be selling off at least 70% of our belongings. It hurts a bit, but it’s just stuff. Then we are going to sell our house. I’m really hoping that someone comes along that wants to garden and falls in love with our property. The hard work has been done already, they just need to plant and tend the garden. Once the house is sold, we are buying at least five acres of property outside of town and we’re going to build a tiny house!

By selling most of our stuff we’re hoping to whittle things down to a much more manageable state. We won’t have room for a dishwasher, so we decided to cut down the number of dishes we have. Instead of a set of eight dishes, we currently have a set of four. We are thinking about cutting that down to a set of two. That way, I will wash each of my dishes when I’m done with it and not have a big pile of dishes to wash everyday. And if we do have company, they will be told ahead of time about our kitchen arraignment and to bring their own dishes.  With less of our time being spent on things that aren’t really important, we can devote ourselves to the things we really love to do: hiking, dancing, brewing, gardening, raising critters, reading, and hanging out with friends. And hopefully, we will start our business in Chattanooga. The culture here is much better for what we want to do.

I’m sad to think about what we are leaving behind. But I’m even more excited about what lies ahead!

Microbes, Microbes Everywhere…

In our household I do all the food fermentation (veggies and dairy, occasionally curing bacon too). I also make mead, wine, cider, and ciser. My hubby primarily makes beer. I’ve brewed beer a couple of times so that I could understand the process, but beer brewing is one of my beloved’s favorite hobbies (and he’s very good at it), so I tend to leave that mostly to him. When he first started out, he brewed kits in our kitchen.

Steven and Mooshi Brewing Beer in the Kitchen
My hubby and his brew kitty, Mooshi, brewing beer in the kitchen

The kits were easy (most, if not all, the malt is in liquid or dry extract form), but I encouraged him to brew all grain beer. In my mind, it is just another type of cooking. After reading many of articles and forums and watching lots of YouTube videos, my hubby built a mash tun, bought a propane fish fryer, a small oxygen tank, and a ten gallon brewing kettle.

Brew Kettle on Fish Fryer
Brew Kettle on Fish Fryer
Mash Tun and Brew Kettle
Mash Tun and Brew Kettle

To brew beer all you must do is put your malted grain into the mash tun, bring about 5-7+ gallons of water to just before boiling and gently pour it into the mash tun with the grain (this is called mashing in). If you look at the mash tun (the modified cooler), you can see a tube with a valve coming out of it. Make sure the valve is closed before pouring the water in, or else it won’t be doing its job properly. After maybe an hour, open the valve and drain the liquid, called wort at this point) into the mash tun. While the grain has been mashing you would have boiled up a bunch more water which you very gently and slowly pour over the grains, this is called sparging. After you’ve collected all the sparged water in the mash tun, you boil the whole thing for about an hour. At certain points in the boil you add hops and/or other herbs and spices to bitter and add various other flavors. After all this you have to cool the wort down so that when you add yeast the heat doesn’t kill them. After various low-tech methods, my hubby bought a wort chiller (a big coil of metal tubing that cold water runs through while it sits in the wort) to cool the wort off quickly.

My hubby using the wort chiller to cool the wort.
My hubby using the wort chiller to cool the wort.

After all that he pours the cooled wort into a sanitized carboy, puts a sanitized tube attached to the oxygen tank into the wort and lets the oxygen flow into the wort for one minute. Adding oxygen is very important because the yeast needs it to multiply and thrive during fermentation. After that he adds his yeast, puts an airlock on it and lets the yeast do the job of multiplying and turning all the sugars extracted from the grain into alcohol. It isn’t until the wort has fermented that it is actually beer.

Now having made mead, wine, and so forth, I knew a good deal about those darling little microbes called yeast. When I first heard Sandor Katz and Michael Pollan talk about the microbes in fermented foods I started reading a good deal about what happens during lacto-fermentation among other kinds of fermenation. I knew that the thing that makes your salted cabbage turn into sauerkraut is that all plant matter is covered in lactic acid bacteria (LAB), also known as lactobacillus. What I didn’t understand is how the vegetables got the microbes to begin with.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a Master Gardening lecture by Dr. Al Bey called Teaming with Nature – Organic Yards and Gardens. Dr. Bey is a retired chemist. When he first moved to South Carolina from Michigan he used chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on his lawn and garden. He’d been a chemist his entire career, so he really didn’t know any better then. But soon enough he realized that the problems he was treating with chemicals were only getting more pervasive and he decided to try something different – organic lawn and garden care.

I’m really glad Dr. Bey does have a background in science, because the handout we all received is 30 pages long! He has done all kinds of research to understand what needs to happen beneath the surface of the soil to produce beautiful, nutritious food and a lush yard. I certainly can’t go through it all here (this post is plenty long enough), but what I took away was the importance that microbes play in the nutritional value of the soil. If you have nutritious soil, you have nutritionally dense food, which in turn makes you healthier when you eat it. One of the richest sources of microbes that you can add to your soil is worm castings.

I remember reading an article a few years ago (I want to say it was in Mother Earth News, but I can’t swear to that) where a couple in the wastes of Australia turned their horribly infertile land into a lush pasture by making worm casting tea and dripping in onto their soil. After hearing Dr. Bey talk about using worm casting and compost tea to enrich your soil it all started coming together in my mind!

1. Make worm casting tea to feed my soil.

2. Continue to feed the microbes throughout the year via dehydrated, non-sulfured molasses.

3. Eat the nutritious food as it ripens. If there’s more than we can eat, ferment it to eat later.

It is so simple, but so intricately complex all at once! Feed the soil microbes and they in turn will feed you AND the microbes in your gut that are so tremendously important for your health.

Now you may wonder what all the talk about beer was to begin with. Well let me show you what I did to start making my worm casting tea. This recipe was from Dr. Alvin E. Bey’s article Teaming with Nature (Article No. 8) – Energizing your Soil with Compost Tea.

1. Fill a cloth bag with four cups worm castings, compost, or a combination of the two. Add four gallons of water (I used rainwater I collected in a rain barrel) and two ounces of non-sulfured molasses as a food source for the microbes (I used locally produced cane syrup). Put it in a bucket or whatever you have to use. I used an old water cooler that I was using as a continuous kombucha brewer, but it has since cracked and the buch started seeping through. It works great for this though!

Fill a cloth bag with four cups worm castings, compost, or a combination of the two.
Bag of worm castings going into the rain water.

2. Aerate with an aquarium pump or fountain pump for 24 hours.

Worm Casting Tea Brewing Away
Worm Casting Tea Brewing Away

After the microbes have had food (cane syrup/molasses) and air, they multiply tremendously and can then be sprayed on your soil. You can see in the picture above, I drained my tea into an old milk pail that my grandparents used when they had dairy cows back in the 50’s and 60’s. After that I pour it into my watering can or a pump sprayer and sprinkle the tea over the soil. It doesn’t take too much in any one place. The idea is to get them into the soil so they can help the plant roots access minerals in a more effective way. I followed the sprinkling with a little bit of spraying with my water hose. I’m sure it was probably unnecessary, but I didn’t want the little critters getting lost.

So in both the beer and with the worm casting/compost tea, the various microbes need air and sugar to reproduce and do their jobs.

Now I am the kind of person that wants to really understand how things work. I’ve decided to audit some classes in the near future on biology and microbiology. I took biology in college, but the poor old instructor was literally senile. We barely learned anything in that class, so I want to go back and learn it properly. I want to see the various microbes under a microscope and see what it is that they do!

While I’ve been ruminating over this whole concept the past few weeks, I started listening to a new podcast (new for me, that is), The People’s Pharmacy. I happened to listen to Episode 959: Farmacology – What Farmers Can Teach Us About Health, which is the title of a book by Daphne Miller, MD. Dr. Miller has done some of the research that I have been so curious about. I sat down this evening and began reading. I got ao excited reading about the connection between nurturing the soil and nurturing our bodies, I had to get out of bed to write about what has been bouncing around my brain!

I know there will be more to follow on this topic, but it’s now 4:01 am and I haven’t gone to sleep yet. Besides, you’ve got to be tired of reading my ramblings by now. 🙂

The Fundamentals of Fermentation