Mugwort Gruit

Alright, it’s late in the springtime, my yard is bursting with an amazing variety of plants, and I seem to have the gruit bug.

Here’s the grain bill for a one gallon batch of gruit ale. Here’s the herb pack that’ll go in:

Bottom to top, this is Calendula, Cleavers, an ornamental Artemisia, and then three handfuls of Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris).

But wait! There’s more!

This is honeycomb – but notice that it’s open. Ripe honey is stored in these cells underneath an airtight wax cap. When the cells are open like this, it indicates that flower nectar – not yet ripened into honey – is in the cells. You can also see stored pollen in varying colors.

Like an old school brewer, I put it all in – wax, pollen, nectar and all.


I love being a beekeeper. And for an ultimate low-tech milling solution, I use my grandmother’s meat grinder.


I mashed the grains for 90 minutes in a grain bag, with water starting around 155 degrees. It was still around 140 when I started the boil. Did a 60 minute boil, adding calendula, cleavers, and artemisia at 60 min (start), 45 min, and 30 min, then mugwort at 20 min, 10 min, and flameout.

Ended up with a little less volume than I was hoping for, but it should keep the airlock on. I think this is going to be the sort of drink you have six ounces of before bed, then have crazy dreams. This is, by the way, actual kitchen witchery.


Brewing Up Medicine: Gruits and Tinctures

A few weeks ago we had a group brew day with a bunch of people out at Spyke’s and two batches of all grain done up in turkey fryers. I’d never brewed on one before, so that was cool.20130509-175506.jpg

Since I compost, I was sent home with twenty some odd pounds (dry) of soaked grains (very heavy), and the next morning decided to do another running for a few-gallon batch of something.

Heated up some water, poured it in, and let it mash/sparge/whatever for a little while. Took a sample and, temperature adjusted, it clocked around 1.030. I started pulling a gallon or so out, bringing it to a boil, then pouring it back in. Added some molasses. Things lying around. It was a gray Sunday and small beer, so whatever.

I went out to the garden and pulled some yarrow leaves. Yarrow is one of the many bittering herbs in use before hops took over, and I’ve been growing several varieties of it in my front garden for three or four years, some from seed and some from store-bought bunches. I’ve always intended to use it in brewing, but it also has cool medicinal properties for wound healing, earning its botanical name of Achillea millefolium, the many-leaved herb of Achilles, hero of the Trojan Wars in Greek mythology.

Anyway, I grabbed some yarrow, and a touch of parsley, then from the spice cabinet pulled out black pepper, a few coriander seeds, bay leaves, and some other stuff. Just a pinch of this and that, mostly whole leaves or whole seeds. I was out of ale yeast when I put it in the carboy, so I threw in some Lalvin D47, which I like for meads, and let it go for a week or so.

Herbs and spices instead of hops, and a yeast strain better suited for another primitive drink. Yup, that’s what’s called a Gruit – an old school approach to brewing that predates the universal use of hops.

And it’s an interesting approach, because like yarrow, many of the plants that would have appeared in gruit ales have medicinal or psychoactive properties.

In my own garden, I grow a variety of mints (a remedy for gastric complaints), comfrey (excellent for healing soft tissue injuries and even bone breaks), calendula (great antiseptic externally, good for inflammation internally), and a few dozen other things that I cultivate or that volunteer seasonally. I’m amazed by the pharmacopeia that surrounds me just in the form of weeds – add in the stuff I do or am trying to grow, and suddenly anything seems possible.

20130509-175606.jpgHere are herbal tinctures – plants steeping in vodka for several weeks as a way of extracting some useful component. The bright orange one is calendula, tinctured because my asshole cat has a way of inflicting extreme injury on me, but I was thrilled to have it on hand recently when a piece of popcorn kernel jammed itself into my gum, apparently causing a little infection. I woke up the next day with a toothache and started a 3x a day rinse with the ointment. All gone.

Beside it is various things – anise hyssop, mint, maybe some brewing spices, mostly mixed up for flavor. These freeform “bitters” (originally utilized as a medicinal digestive aid) will be splashed into or onto things over time.

Barely in the frame, but probably my favorite, is a tincture of ashwagandha, an Indian herb classified as an adaptogen. Basically, if you’re tired, ashwagandha gives you a boost. If you’re stressed, it helps calm you down. It’s a great herb, and has been part of my mental health medicine cabinet for a few years now. I’ve always brewed it into a tea, which is time consuming (it’s the dried, woody root of the plant, so a certain quantity has to be boiled for a certain length of time….). As a tincture, I can take a half-teaspoon before bed and curl up in full relaxation mode a short time later.

Procedure for making a tincture:

People actually have written tomes on herbs, proportions, dried v. fresh and all that. I – of course – eyeball it. Guess. Use my intuition. Whatever. You should absolutely Google your favorite plant and “tincture” to see how people who know more than I do generally do it.

But basically, put plant matter of your choosing into a small jar. Be generous. Top with vodka or pure grain alcohol. Close it and leave it closed for at least two weeks. Shake it daily, or twice a day. Or all day long. But agitate it a bit so everything can blend.

After a few weeks, strain it out, squeeze as much liquid out of the plant matter as you can, and viola – you have a tincture. A clothesline of herbs in your living room is entirely your choice. 20130509-175530.jpg

Oh, and here are some hops.


Dairy-Free, Totally Vegan, Pretty Darn Close to Whipped Cream

Here’s a recipe everyone can love – whether you delight in dairy or not.

Recently I was looking into ways to curdle non-dairy milk substitutes, and got to experimenting with coconut milk, which I often have on hand (my girlfriend can’t eat almonds, neither of us love the hormone analogues in soy). Completely by accident, I stumbled on an amazingly awesome characteristic of coconut milk: It fakes whipped cream better than anything I’ve come across.

How to do it…

  1. Pour one cup of coconut milk into a saucepan and bring it to a gentle boil. (This is the milk substitute kind you’d find in the dairy case. I don’t know if the canned variety will work – it’s much thicker. Then again, it might be amazing! Leave a comment if you try it!).
  2. Once it’s boiling, the surface will begin to bubble up. Skim that off with a spoon – that’s your whipped cream substitute. Spoon it into a bowl until the foam dies back.
  3. Once you’ve skimmed the solids off, leave the saucepan boiling. Another skin will form and bubble up in a moment. Skim that off too.
  4. Drizzle the skimmings onto something that needs whipped cream! Here, we’ve used strawberries and then shaved a little chocolate. It lacks the puff of Cool Whip and other artificial stuff, but it’s rich, light, and creamy and the flavor and texture hit all those whipped cream buttons.

Simple and so tasty!


Update on HB 314 / SB 174

Not great news on HB 314 / SB 174. Last night, March 7, was so-called “crossover day” in the Georgia legislature.

30 days into the session, any bills that haven’t passed one chamber and “crossed over” into the second are technically dead for the year.

I spoke to Rep. Karla Drenner, who says that a lot can change from here. Over the next ten days, bills will be constructed from the charred remnants of the year’s legislative agenda, and the language of HB 314 / SB 174 can still be added to another bill and become law.

Now we cross our fingers and hope. Thanks to Rep. Drenner for supporting of the initiative – she was a co-sponsor of the original bill.

Please reach out to your Georgia House and Senate members and ask them to support keeping this initiative alive. Imagine owning a business where the state mandates that you can’t sell your product to your customers, instead you have to go through state-approved middlemen regardless of your marketing plan or scale.

Get rid of mandated middlemen in Georgia. Support small business and craft brewing.
Find your representative and senator here:

Is Kombucha Safe?

Recently I met a woman who brews kombucha, and I couldn’t help but ask if she had an extra scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) so I could try my hand at fermenting it myself.


A kombucha scoby is a flat, rubbery disc that floats in a sweetened tea medium. There are a number of organisms in the mix, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll say that there are two classes of critter involved, various yeast species, which ferment the sugars into alcohol, and various vinegar-forming bacteria, which ferment the alcohol into several organic acids, giving the finished drink an apple cider vinegar pucker and a bunch of interesting components that the average American diet likely doesn’t provide.

Some people praise kombucha as a miracle elixir that cures everything from baldness to arthritis to cancer; others insist it is untested and dangerous.

Look, kombucha had me at “fermented by a scoby.” I just can’t pass up what I’m calling a Microbial Village. That said, I want to understand what risks there are so I can minimize them procedurally, or make an informed decision about whether kombucha is safe to drink.

As far as I can tell, the CDC has documented a total of three (3) hospitalizations linked to kombucha – two in Iowa in 1995, where one woman died, and one in 2009. All three were suffering acidosis, in which the body can no longer regulate its pH and the blood becomes acidic.

Those are real data points, and certainly many more people may have had less serious negative reactions that didn’t require medical attention.

That sounds like a pretty tough indictment of kombucha right there, until you consider that caffeine sends thousands of people to the hospital every year, and has been linked in a handful of deaths, especially from products where caffeine is mixed with other stimulants and can create synergistic effects in the body. Admittedly, caffeine is used daily by the vast majority of the population of the US, but still. You’d think that if kombucha were some sort of silent killer, there would be more than three documented cases of serious injury in 18 years.

And then there’s alcohol, which is really the point of this whole blog. It’s a lot of things, but I can say with clear conviction that I don’t drink for my health. How many hospitalizations result from alcohol on an average Saturday night?

So is kombucha safe? Store bought, I’m going to say yes, in that the product will almost certainly be free of contamination. Will your body love a sudden infusion of live culture enzymes and organic acids? That I can’t tell you. Will it impact how your body uses prescription drugs you may take? I can’t tell you that either. I have a friend who hasn’t eaten grapefruit in years because it was preventing proper absorption of certain of his prescription drugs.

What about home brewed kombucha? Is that safe? That’s a more qualified yes – kombucha can’t be airlocked as it ferments because it needs to breathe, and the home brewer is pouring in cooled, heavily sweetened tea that needs some time to develop a pH adequate to ward off pathogens.

So there’s a risk of contamination, and it’s higher than in most contemporary home brewing scenarios. Interestingly, the scoby usually floats at the surface and will grow to the width of its container, so a mature colony acts a little bit like an oxygen barrier, keeping the fermentable liquid submerged (though this is hardly a perfect seal).

And come on, in nature, a sugary solution will usually become alcohol, and an alcohol solution will usually become vinegar. These are not unique processes. These are the normal pathways of sugar decomposition, seen everywhere that fruits ripen or honeycomb becomes damp.

So, I’m having a good time playing with my new kitchen pet and enjoying the tasty drink it produces. I thoroughly wash my hands before interacting with it, and I monitor it carefully for off odors or signs of surface mold. I’m starting additional scobys as a fallback in case mold or other problems develop, and I was inspired to pour some very old live vinegar dregs into a jar with some bad wine to see if I can’t make a vinegar mother, a very similar complex, producing a similar product.

My kitchen may never be the same!

For another take, here’s a good piece from other experienced fermenters who’ve decided to steer clear of kombucha.

We Support Georgia HB 314 / SB 174

There are a lot of changes brewing on the legal front here in the south. Alabama is looking to legalize homebrewing once and for all, while here in Georgia, legislators may roll back one more of the state’s blue laws and allow breweries and brew pubs to sell direct to consumers for off-site consumption.

Yep, you read that right. As the law stands today, if you take a brewery tour at Terrapin, Red Brick, Monday Night, or any of Georgia’s other craft breweries, you can sample beer as part of the tour, but you can’t buy a six pack of your favorite to take home. And if you have a great meal and a great beer at a brewpub like 5 Seasons, Twain’s, or The Wrecking Bar, you can’t buy a growler of their brew to take with you and have with dinner.

It’s a ridiculous prohibition that other states don’t force their businesses to live under, and it needlessly and unfairly penalizes breweries in a way that the vineyards of North Georgia aren’t forced to endure.

This blog proudly joins the Georgia Craft Breweries Guild, John Cochran of Terrapin Beer, Twains, 5 Seasons, and the rest of Georgia’s vibrant and growing craft beer community in supporting passage of HB 314 / SB 174.

If you would like to see one more senseless law rolled back and craft brewers empowered to sell their product more widely, please contact your state House and Senate representatives to let them know you support Georgia’s small business owners and craft beer culture.

Anatomy of a Nelson Sauvin-Calypso Belgian IPA

For months, I shared my home with the most beautiful carboy I’ve ever created, a work of art in red. Hop’s End Belgian IPA was meant to be an experience of the fruitier-grapier end of the hops spectrum, featuring Nelson Sauvin, Calypso, and a touch of Cascade and “Magic Hop Dust” from Austin Homebrew Supply for backbone (full recipe here).

Even the cat thought it was stunning.

Even the cat thought it was stunning.

It went through a true secondary and an additional racking into tertiary, where it dry hopped on yet more Nelson Sauvin, and there it sat for the winter.

Unfortunately, on bottling day, a heavy sulphury aroma greeted us. I’d noticed it in earlier manipulations, but kept hoping it would dissipate. It seems to be DMS, dimethylsulfate, which can hang around if you don’t have a rolling boil happening during the brewing (though I’ve never experienced it before). Fortunately, it seems to be dissipating as the beer bottle conditions, though unevenly.

On bottling day, thus the lack of carbonation.

On bottling day, thus the lack of carbonation.

At its best, this beer has a wonderful, clean bite, with a rounded fruityness and a white grape note that lingers in the aftertaste. It’s a great marriage of the mango-y flavor of Calypso, the clove-banana spectrum of Belgian yeasts, and Nelson’s forthright grape tones. The DMS issue may or may not fully clear, but we were aiming for a big IBU beer – it came in around 100 IBUs – that wouldn’t be bitter, and we hit that mark dead on.

Calypso and Nelson Sauvin are two great hops that taste great together, and I can’t wait to play around with them again.