For my Ancient Sumerian Happy Juice brewday, I was all set have a relaxed brew day where I just winged everything. After all, I’ve brewed before. I could deal with things on the fly, right? And, the beer I was brewing was my interpretation of the English translation of a poem written by ancient Sumerians. So, no living person — including me — would ever know if my recipe and approach was right or wrong. As it turns out, I rediscovered why I normally never wing things on brew day.
At the beginning of the brew day, I had the fermenting grape wine, beer bread, honey, and malt ready to ready to go. For the malt, I used the grist for my Copper Ale. I had some supermarket honey for the honey. I started to get a bad feeling about things when I started heating the strike water and the propane tank was nearly empty. This is something I normally check, but didn’t this time — partially in the spirit of winging things and partially because I had just refilled one of my tanks recently and had only made two batches of . . . oh wait, it was four batches, wasn’t it? Whoops. I also found out that I had put away a few pieces of equipment after only rinsing them, not thoroughly cleaning them. The last time I brewed was for my book’s photoshoot and I was exhausted afterwards. Oops.
Another thing I usually do before a brew day is go through the process in my head and gather all the equipment I’ll need in one place. I have three different places in my house where brewing equipment sometimes gets stored, so this helps. I also usually check that everything is in working order — something I wished I had done when later that day the wort chiller was squirting water all over since the gasket at the water connection had cracked.
I also decided on one change right as the boil began — to add hops. The ancient Sumerians would not have had access to hop and their recipe doesn’t call for any, but I had some ancient hops on hand. Back in the depths of the hop crisis of 2008, I bought 8.0 lb. (3.6 kg) of hops. Of course, I didn’t use that many that year, and in later years I bought fresh hops. This left slightly less than 8.0 lb. (3.6 kg) of hops sitting happily in the back of my freezer. As hops age, they lose alpha. But their aroma can remain. There’s no way to know how much alpha gets lost, although at it probably at least 50% per year. As such, I estimated my hops had less than 1% alpha acids. However, when I opened the vacuum sealed packed — that had been constantly frozen for the past 9 years, the aroma was of fresh hops. So, I added enough that — if the measured alpha was correct — would make the beer a hoppy pale ale or a mild IPA. With the loss of alpha, however, I expect the hop bitterness will be low. And, since the hops were added at the beginning of the boil, the aroma should not be strong. Why add them at all? I basically added them for their tannins — in the boil, most of these should bind to proteins and fall out of solution, improving the clarity of the beer.
Fortunately, Ninkasi was smiling on me. Although I had a number of minor mishaps, nothing happened that should negatively impact the quality of the wort. The mash, for example, went fine. I stirred the crushed malt into the hot strike water, then stirred in the cookies. Mash temperature was 152 °F (67 °C), which was fine with me as I was winging it. By the end of the mash, the cookies had completely dissolved. Sparging went smoothly — even though, to save propane, I only heated the grain bed and sparge water to 162 °F (72 °C). Still, I ended up with 13 gallons (49 L) of wort around 11 °Plato (SG 1.044) and I boiled this down to 10 gallons of wort with a two-hour boil. The propane held out! I added 3.0 lb. (1.4 kg) of honey at knockout, as planned. (I added the honey at knockout to prevent scorching it and to preserve as much of the aroma as I could.) What wasn’t planned was that I found a 3.0-lb. (1.4-kg) jar of good orange blossom honey while searching for some of my brewing equipment. This was a step up from the fairly old supermarket honey I had planned on using. Score one for winging it.
After chilling and aeration, I pitched the yeast by adding the entire contents of the grape wine — skins and all. The bottom of the wine pot was covered in yeast, so I rinsed this with some wort and added it to the batch. It was fermenting by the next day and smelled good. (Or, you know, it smelled promising as fermentations go.)
As with any spontaneously fermented beverage, the big question mark is if the spontaneous fermentation will add any microbes to the “beer” that lend off flavors. That’s always a risk with any sour beer. However, the wine smelled good and I’ve never ran into a problem with this when making this beer, so I’m cautiously optimistic. Also, I only let the wine spontaneously ferment for one day; then I added some beer yeast.
I did write down the ingredients as I went, so I’ll post a recipe soon. I plan to bottle this as quickly as I can, and I’ll post tasting notes as soon as it’s ready. Despite the minor setbacks on the brewday, it’s still a fun beer to brew and I hope to try it again next year.