The Making of Calamus Ale

An illustation of Sweet Flag, Acorus calamus.

Well, it finally happened. I have been wanting to try my hand at home brewing ever since fellow contributors Chris Veska and Robert Nagy began exploring the delicious possibilities of starting beers from scratch. Although I was only a taster and occasional observer of the whole process, I fathomed the infinite customization of flavors, textures and ingredients that could be included in one’s own personal recipe.

Both jealous and encouraged by their success, I knew that one day I had to give this a try. However, I knew that I would not want to dive into the strickly conventional, but rather take the leap and test myself with the risks involved in experimenting with an herbal, un-hopped beer reminiscent of our brewing history. For more information on how I feel about uhopped beers that include different herbs that are now mostly extinct in modern breweries, read my earlier post, Historic Ales from Scotland.

So, where was I to start? I am a student, and not a particularly wealthy student. I own no appropriate equipment and was rather hesitant about seeking expert advice from homebrew stores. I knew the knowledge they would provide me with would be incredibly valuable, but I also did not want to be talked into buy some sort of apparatus that was not entirely necessary for brewing. I know that there is a plethora of different brewing equipment out there, but I personally wanted to use only the completely necessary tools, especially if they could be salvaged from ordinary household items if at all possible. It is a good thing that I met a few friendly folks in Lindsay, Ontario who not only had similar attitudes, but optimistic outlooks, some handy tools, a huge capacity for innovation and experimentation, and a free evening to dedicate to some rogue brewing.

1.5 Ounces of Acorus calamus, wieghted and ready to be added to the mixture.

And so, the adventure began. This past Monday (Oct. 24th, 2011) I started the herbal home brewing experience. Together with three of my new Fleming buddies, John, Matt and Susan, we chose a recipe from an incredible book, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, and began the appropriate preparations. The recipe that we deemed suitable given the ingredients that we had on hand was one that included an absolutely incredible plant, one of my personal favorites, Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus). I could go on and on about the nearly endless medicinal significance of this plant and the stories that surround it’s folkflore, but that is another article, on a different blog, for a different time.

The rhizomatic root of Acorus calamus, like the strobiles of the hops vine, is bitter, astringent and contains preserving and antibiotic properties. Therefore, it is a very good subsitute for hops in the brewing process. the herb is also incredibly spicy and wonderfully aromatic, two properties that I love in any good ale. So, how perfect of a marriage is that? I was very excited to begin the brewing process. John generously donated a large 3 pound can of malt extract to use as the initial sugar source. We emptied this can in a large pot (more like a steel drum) filled with approximately 4 gallons of water.

Our 4 gallon pot of water, with 3 pounds of malt extract, 2 pounds of brown sugar and an unspecified amount of honey.

Matt, who is a home brewing expert, used one of his fancy-shmancy devices to continually measure the suspended sugar concentration within the malt extract and water mixture. The device he used is known as a refractometer, and uses only a single drop of the sugar-water mixture and, after gazing through an eyepiece into a bright light, illuminates a scale that can be decifered to provide the future alcohol concentration of the beer after fermentation. Our first reading, with just the 3 pounds of malt extract added, was below the standard 5% alcohol content. The recipe also called for 2 pounds of brown sugar additional to the malt extract, and Brad (another friend of mine who would have loved to have been here to see the whole process) had this on hand. We then added the appropriate amount.

However, even after the collective 5 pounds of sugar added to the 4 gallons of water, the refractometer reading was still not sufficient. So, what is something else that is an excellent sugar source that happened to be lying around the house? Honey, of course. So, in it went, an entire tub that probably wieghted out to about a pound. Matt once again took a refractometer reading and announced that, as long as the yeast is happy and ferments the future brew properly, the resulting Calamus Ale would be about 6 to 6.5% alcohol content. What a punch! A strong beer on the first shot! I had to hold in a girlish shriek of anticipation. I was getting more and more excited with every ingredient that was added.

John stirring the boiling wort outside beside the porch. It was a cold windy day, so we erected plyboard sheets to block the wind.

Now that the malted barley, brown sugar and honey mixture was thoroughly mixed together in our huge sanitized pot, it was time to boil the whole thing together. The pot then made the trip off the kitchen table to outside beside the deck. Matt was prepared, and brought out his massive propane burner that would provide the heat needed for boiling our pot of brown sugar water.  Once fired up, it took about half an hour for it to begin boiling. Once it started, this normal (sort-of) brew consumed it’s most un-orthodox ingredient, 1.5 ounces of dried Sweet Flag root. Near the end of the boiling process, an additional 1 ounce was added for a total of 2.5 ounces of Sweet Flag. Sure the recipe only called for 1.5 ounces, but we had already breached the confines of the recipe by adding honey as an extra sugar source. So, why not some extra bitterness and spiciness to boot? In it went, and the wort now boiling outside omitted the most heavenly scent as the steam curled and floated into the chilling, black October night.

After the one hour of boiling, the wort needed to be chilled to 70 degrees F. In order to do that, Matt inserted a coiled copper tube into the pot of wort  and attached one end to the garden hose. The cold water from the house filled the tube and poured out the other end. This way, as the cold water traveled through the pipe, it would cool down the wort. Engenious method! After this step, the pot of wort was brought inside and carefully poured into a sanitized bucket that would be the fermentation vessel for our herbal brew. Next, the final, magical ingredient was added. Susan expertly sprinkled the yeart thoroughly over the surface of the foamy wort. The top of the bucket was sealed, and placed on the cool concrete floor of the basement and left in peace to begin the metamorphosis from sugary wort into what we all hope to be a delicious, spicy and aromatic reincarnation of an herbal beer that has not been brewed for hundreds of years. At least, certainly not brewed in Lindsay for hundreds of years!

So now we all play the waiting game. In one week, we will open the bucket and pour it through a sieve into another sanitized bucket, removing all the particulate matter such as the malt extract, brown sugar chunks and hunks of Sweet Flag that are still sitting at the bottom of the first bucket. After that, we shall have to wait another week to 10 days for the beer to mellow out and reinforce all of those (hopefully) delicious flavors and aromas. As you would expect of me, I will post another essay in regards to the final product! I am terribly excited, and this is going to make the next few weeks at college even more painful than usual as I have to wait as our herbal child ferments in John’s basement.

***I cannot possibly give enough thanks to John, Matt and Susan for their interest, assistance and support of my idea for experimenting with unhopped, herbal beer styles. You guys are all awesome!! Thanks again for absolutely everything.***

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6 Responses

  1. That’s it?! That’s all there is to making beer? Malt, sugar, a flavor and yeast? Wait a cuppla weeks and bata-boom?! Wowza. Ima gonna spend brain energy on utilizing this exciting bit of info.

    And then…

    “I had to hold in a girlish shriek of anticipation.” Hehehe.

    Ta. 😀

    yazzy:)

  2. Yeah! It is really, really easy. You just need some proper equipment, and it is quite simple to forage that equipment out of stuff that you probably have lying around and could also pick up from second hand places. We didn’t even need an airlock as long as you leave enough room for the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast to have somewhere to collect inside the vessel.

    It is a pretty worth while hobby, the beer makes excellent gifts, and saves you a lot of money because generally alcohol is quite expensive.

  3. Awesome work! This is very interesting – 2.5 oz of sweetflag. Did you taste the cooled wort to see how it tastes? Hows the fermentation going? How does it smell?

  4. Very exciting Thomas, I would love a sippy-sip if perhaps you could save me one. Also, I’m looking for a brew-master at the brewery that I’m opening.. feel free to send me a resume.

  5. We didn’t taste the wort before sealing the bucket that we poured the wort in for it’s primary fermentation, but it smelled incredible. This past Friday, we strained out the sediment (malted barely, brown sugar chucks and sweetflag hunks) and poured it into a carboy so it can mellow out for another week. It was very cloudy, without much of a head, but a nice orange amber color and it smells intense. The premiere day is currently set for Nov 14th! I will definitely be saving you two a bottle to try.

    The Powell River City brewery? Sounds pretty awesome. My resume is the above article and the finished product in a bottle.

  6. […] around 300 years ago, where the true Acorus calamus grows in the wild.  As I mentioned in the Making of Calamus Ale I produced the idea for this beer using a recipe from Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. Along the […]

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