Ramble On

Monday, October 27, 2014

Fall Weekender

A group of Mary's classmates organized a fall trip to New Canaan, CT and I tagged along.  We caught the Northeast Regional from Alexandria - the station in Old Town is close enough to the house that we can walk there - and then road without changing trains all the way to Stamford.  It was a nice journey with fall colors just coming into view along the way.

Our destination for the first part of the weekend was Phillip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan.  I'll post more about that this week, but the foliage pictures here were taken on the grounds.

There's always plenty to look at from the window of a train, even though the tracks do pass through some neighborhoods that have seen better times in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.  We had a full train pretty much from BWI to the City, but even so it was a relaxing enough trip.

We switched to a local for the last part, and were met by Mary's classmate Val at the station in New Canaan.  Val had organized the trip, and she and her husband generously invited us to their house for dinner that night.  We stayed at the Roger Sherman Inn up there - and received a brief history lesson while we were at it...Sherman was the only person to sign the Continental Association, Declaration of Independence (he was on the committee that drafted it), the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.

Just a quick post today - we're headed to the station for the trip home and wanted to get the series started.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sunday Brew Chores

Dryhopping the Honey Porter with
frozen Willamette hops.
It's atypical for me to have more than one batch of beer going at any given time, but these days I am in a hurry to use my fresh hops. I remain very worried about how they are stored - I didn't have time to oast them, so I simply froze them fresh.  They are very perishable, so I am worried about the impact to them from this unusual handling - there is a photo below.

I have fresh hops from a couple of sources this year - there is the harvest that Bill gave me, which consists of six batches' worth of Cascades, and there is the small amount of Willamettes that Mary picked from our backyard plant.  

I've been using the Cascades in a series of Black IPA brews, as I've posted in the "Brewing with Fresh Cascades" series.  My plan was to dryhop my latest batch of Honey Porter with the Willamettes.

Here's how the Willamettes looked
coming out of the freezer.  I had to use
them quickly!

The two batches going on right now are a Honey Porter, which is one of my go-to brews, and the Black Widow IPA, which is the recipe I have been using with the frozen Cascades hops.  On Sunday, the Honey Porter had been in primary for just about two weeks, and the Black Widow had been in primary for a week.  My chore was to move them both into secondary.

It's not a difficult process - but process is the key word here.  There is a ton of sanitizing that has to be done, and then careful siphoning between carboys.  A key step is taking a sample to measure fermentation progress - this is done with a thermometer and hydrometer - and record-keeping.

For the Honey Porter batch, since fermentation had progressed pretty far already, I will probably only leave it in secondary for a few days.  The Black Widow will stay in for about two weeks before I bottle it, which is the next step, in fact, washing and sanitizing bottles is another one of the chores I'll be doing today.

The brew record for the current batch
of Black Widow IPA - sitting at about
7.10% ABV on 10/18.
This is the record for the Honey Porter
batch - it's at 5.78% ABV.
Closing the post, here are photos of my records for the two batches, showing both the brew cycle and progress through Sunday.  At bottling time, a final measurement of gravity and temperature takes place, and the I calculate the estimated alcohol by volume, or ABV, for each batch.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Battle of the Species: More Snakes at Work

Back in 2009 or so, I was sampling one of neighbor Dan's harvest brews in October, and I remarked that it seemed like it had been a while since I had seen a snake around Hawksbill Cabin.  Dan said that if it was going to happen that year, it would be right around this time, because, "...the snakes are on the move."

Last Friday I wrote about the little brown snake that we'd seen moving along the sidewalk out front of the office.  That little critter, at no more than five inches long, was barely noticeable - he was even smaller than the ring neck snakes I've seen sometimes at the cabin (that link will take you to a post about them, with a couple of photos)...however, he was the precursor to the monster we found laying across the threshold to our building on Friday - a four-foot black rat snake.

This encounter was typical of my experience with black rat snakes, which are nonvenomous and very common.  The colleague who discovered it didn't even notice the snake as he stepped into the building - he only noticed after he had opened the sliding glass door and it closed behind him, which put the snake on alert.  The raised head and kinked body position seen in the photo above are part of the snake's defensive posture - they won't generally bite, but they will fight by striking and biting if cornered, and that is the next step after the pose seen here.

Since I have a well-earned reputation for chronicling encounters with snakes, my friend came in to tell me about the snake.  We went back out to have a closer look, which resulted in the photo above (readers should understand the photo was taken from at least six feet away and has been enhanced with an iPhone app, lol).

It wasn't long afterwards that the snake figured it had gotten enough attention, and it slithered away.  Eventually it climbed the brick wall near the door, over behind a downspout - headed for some of the vents up there or perhaps to the roof.

Our building is close to the property boundary and some of the adjoining land is owned by the National Park Service - so nature can go pretty wild back there.  That's what I attribute our reptilian population to, anyhow.  This is the fourth time I've seen a snake somewhere in the building, between the brown snake, this black rat snake, and garter snakes on two separate occasions a few years back.

If any of my coworkers are reading this, I'd like to reassure them that all four of the snakes I have seen around were nonvenomous, so really there isn't much to fear, and that is a good explanation for why we don't have rats or mice.  A second important thing to think about is this:  I've seen four snakes...just imagine how many of them we haven't seen and don't know about that are crawling around the place.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Little Brown Snake

My current workplace is located in a residential neighborhood up in Bethesda.  We back up to a plot of National Park Service land, so sometimes we benefit from a unique proximity to wild life.

And so it was that last Thursday I was outside the building making a phone call when I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye.  Looking closer, I found a little brownish colored snake, only about four or five inches long.

The coloring made me look closely - there's a pattern of black dots.  My first worry was that maybe I was looking at a baby copperhead, but further research proved that wrong.

This is a brown snake. There's a link below to the Peterson First Guides book on reptiles and amphibians, where I found this description of the little snake:

This is a small, secretive snake, brown and usually with two parallel rows of blackish spots down its back,  Young ones have a conspicuous yellowish collar and are generally darker than adults...brown snakes frequently turned up in parks, cemeteries, empty lots...they are such good hiders that few people are familiar with them..."

From the description, this tiny little snake is an adult, since the markings behind its head are tan and not yellow.  My photo has it straddling a sidewalk crack, to give a sense of the scale.  The guidebook says they are are often from 9-21 inches in length.

Here's a link to the guidebook I used:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

One for the Berliners - Brewing Memories

While I was busy brewing on Sunday, Mary took Tessie out for a walk.  As it happened, that was during the boil – when the wort begins to give off those wonderful smells mixed in with the steam evaporating from the kettle.  My brewing enterprise is still small scale enough that I can do it in the kitchen, and when I do, I turn on the vent fan over the stove.

Mary came back from the walk and told me that the neighborhood smelled like a brewery.  That was delightful to hear…and of course, it brought back a fond memory of my USAF time at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin – there had been a small Schultheiss brewery nearby, and in the morning we frequently would be greeted by the smell of boiling wort.

Google Earth map of Tempelhof Airport environs, in Berlin, Germany

After a little bit of sleuthing, I came up with additional information from the Google about the little brewery…I was surprised by this first link (note, it is a link to a preview page of the book “Last Flight from Tempelhof” – written by an Air Force friend), coming up as result number 3, which mentions the smell of the nearby brewery.

Here's a photo from Google Earth of the old brewery.
As I navigated the area on Google Earth, I found a few photos of the old brewery.  I remember when I first discovered it when I lived there – on spring mornings I would walk back to Tempelhof from the Mehringdam U-bahn station through the Kruezberg park, and I found the old brewery back there along the cobblestone sidewalk. 

Another Google Earth photo, showing the operations and
trades shops for the brewery.

According to this Wikipedia article, the brewery ceased operations in 1994.  Schultheiss now has a larger modern facility in what used to be East Berlin, actually to the northeast of the old site and Tempelhof field.     

From Google Earth "streetview," here is a photo
of the old Schultheiss malt factory.
Another link I found outlined a walking tour of the Tempelhof District.  That one mentions an old malting factory that was west of the airfield, and south of the brewery.  The presence of this facility was news to me, and I am glad that there was a street view photo of it!

Thus, another connection to brewing is discovered, I guess!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Brewing with Fresh Cascades - Chapter 2

When brewing with "leaf" hops I use poly muslin bags to minimize the
need to filter stray flowers in later stages of brewing.
They say home brewers are creative, and I guess that’s why I consider each batch of beer that I brew with the Cascade hops Bill grew in his backyard an experiment.  The theory is only confirmed by a conversation I had with Dan recently after he told me he planned to use some honey that his dad collected in Alaska and stored years ago in a brown ale.  That batch will be all grain – pretty advanced stuff – in addition to crafty…I’m looking forward to a sample.

Meanwhile, my investigations are moving in parallel, focused on perfecting a couple of different brews so that I can experiment with different hops to see what I get.  So far, I’m on my third batch of Black IPA – which I’ve named the Black Widow series:  

  1. Black Widow IPA #1 – this was brewed according to the Northern Brewer recipe, including Magnum, Chinook, and Centennial hops, then dry hopped with some of Bills Cascade from last year’s crop;
  2.  Black Widow IPA #2 – this was the first batch I brewed with the fresh hops we picked at Bill’s place in August (check out the links at the end of this post), which is dry hopped in secondary with packaged Cascades; and
  3. Here's the first pour of Black Widow IPA #2.
  4. Black Widow IPA #3 – this batch was a weekend project just brewed on Sunday, and currently in primary – the recipe is the same but the difference between batch 2 and batch 3 will be the storage time I had the fresh hops frozen, as I used the hops in batch 2 within three weeks of picking them and in batch 3 about two months afterwards.

Batch 2 has been in conditioned the bottle long enough that I tasted it over the weekend. These batches are fresh hop brews, which reminds me of the efforts by the Old Dominion Hops Co-op to establish a hops industry in Virginia.  Those guys recommend starting small, and since the harvest doesn’t yet have the scale to merit some post-harvest processing, the focus is on selling the fresh hops to local brewers who will use them right away in a seasonal brew.

These are the spent hops from Black Widow IPA #3.
Here’s a quote from an article earlier this year in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

"While brewers want to be supportive of the local product, quality and price are business considerations. Hops straight from the bines, or “wet hops,” must be used quickly — a good thing in capturing flavor and aroma for special brews. But for year-round beers, pellet hops purchased in bulk with analysis of acids and oils go a long way toward ensuring consistency and control costs."

I guess the Black Widow series is my own small-scale experiment with the concept. 

Here are links to those earlier posts about Bill’s hops.

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Brewery Visit - on Business!

The whole reason for my day trip out to Hawksbill Cabin last week was to continue my market research about growing hops in Virginia.  While our history with hops is not as strong as it is elsewhere, like New York on the east coast, and the Pacific Coast from Northern California up to Washington State in the west, there is a growing craft brewing industry that has created an interest in domestic growers.

My association with Dan and Bill, and the rest of the Blue Ridge Brewers Association, introduced me to the hobby of growing hops on a small scale to support home brewing. Gradually I've learned about the Old Dominion Hops Co-operative, and it was my plan to go to one of their outreach events at Corcoran Brewery in Purcellville in the evening after running errands with David in the morning.

That's not a bad thing, having a business meeting in a brewery - especially if the topic is focused on growing a key ingredient - hops!

I also took advantage of being at a brewery to take some photos, and experiment with a new app I have on the phone - so the brewery photos here are the results of that little diversion.

While I've done some significant market research about growing hops, I've been looking forward to meeting with the co-op to learn more.  Evaluating the feasibility of establishing a farm to source hops for local breweries is a key goal of mine, so I had hoped to collect a bit more information from this session - and I did.

The facilitator was Stan, who founded the co-op.  He covered the basics of growing hops - I still have some unanswered questions in this department, but he covered everything he could in the session, which was aimed at a broader population, and maybe not so much me.

Two breweries were there - the host, Corcoran, and Lost Rhino - both of whom buy fresh hops from the local farmers when the harvest comes in.

I spent some time studying the beer offerings at Corcoran, intending to sample a few.  Unfortunately they were out of the Black IPA, but they had a back-up IPA with the name "Hops the Bunny" - apparently alludes to a rodent who used to frequent their old location.  I enjoyed the beer enough to have a second one.

To sum up my takeaways from the event - they'd be a good understanding of what it takes to set up a hop yard, an understanding of the annual cycle for the farm (from planting to marketing), and an introduction to the local hops market as it is evolving in Virginia.  All good info for my next step...whatever that will be!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Taking a Cider Break

You know, my plan for the day was a drive down to the auction to shoot the breeze with David - and he was very patient with me, since he had work to do and here was the city slicker asking a bunch of dumb questions.  I did try to stay out of the way on the farm stops we made, but when we passed the sign for the cidery over in Timberville, I asked him if he wouldn't make a stop for me.

Turns out he knew the folks so he was able to show me around.  Not much going on yet that morning, but there were a bunch of fresh apples (including this crate of Golden Delicious) waiting to be pressed.  I didn't get too close to the other crates, but they were full of red varieties, most likely Valley heirlooms.

The Shenandoah Valley has a great history of apple growing, and this type of agriculture was a source of prosperity for the region over the years.  It seems to be making something of a comeback these days, as an agrotourism attraction when we begin to acknowledge and celebrate traditions like these.

A few years back I read The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World  by Michael Pollan.  He spends a couple of chapters in the book writing about apples and their historic role in the westward expansion of our country.

That book is also where I read about the fascinating connection between Johnny Appleseed, the folk lore character, and cider pressing.  We all know the story of how Johnny Appleseed traveled around young America planting apple trees where ever he went.  As the story is related in Pollan's book, the seeds all came from the discarded pulp at cideries, and he hauled them by flatboat and canoe from Maryland and Pennsylvania out into Ohio and the midwest, planting them on small lots in advance of the onslaught of the population migrating westward.

It's really worth a read - I may pick it up again myself!

Meanwhile, David and I decided to make a stop in the tasting room.  I ended up with three bottles, a traditional variety, a late harvest one, and then one that had a nice dry finish.  Admittedly, I geeked out a little on the discussion of fermentation while we were there.

After the cidery, we headed back to Luray to wrap up the day's driving around.  I still had one more adventure left in me by then - and had to drive up to Purcellville for that.  So it was time for me to let David get on with this work, and for me to get on the road, when we shook hands a parted ways at noon.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Auction Highlights - 2

David led me out to the drive through area so we could check out the large lots that would be coming through.  In the spring and summer seasons, there are plenty of tractors out there, but once the big stuff - watermelons, cantaloupes, and pumpkins start coming in, there are tractors as far as the eye can see out there.

I climbed up on a couple of the trailers for a look around at all the pumpkins - while most of them have a traditional "round and orange" look to them, there was a lot of variation, even amongst the "round and orange" ones.  They varied by how the vine joined or was shaped, whether they were round or elongated, or by how many seeds they contained versus how much flesh there was, as David explained.

One tractor's load caught my eye because it had a couple of alternative types of pumpkins on it.  I was remembering one Halloween when I was a kid and we painted the pumpkins instead of carving them...my mother chose some green tempura paint to highlight the stripes on them, and I can't remember a jack-o-lantern face.  So this lot I saw was almost exactly like the one I remembered.

The last stop we made out on the lot was to have a look at this case of "lunch lady gourds" - as David called them.  These have a hard skin on them and aren't edible, or at least, there's not enough there to make that very worthwhile.  They are truly grown for their decorative appearance - and they were pretty, I'll give you that!

I think that there is enough perspective in the shot for comparison purposes.  These are not the little gourds you see at all the produce stands this time of year.  The pumpkins in the background give away the fact that these big gourds could hold their own in any harvest time tableau you might be setting up around your place.

By now, we'd had our fill of pie and pumpkins, so it was time for David to get on the road for his errands.  While he made two work stops, I had some time to get some good news on a proposal we'd won at work, and then have a bit of an adventure at stop number two.

That's where I'll pick up next post.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Auction Highlights - 1

Once we'd arrived at the auction and checked in - there's not really a lot to this unless you've had a couple of lots up at the previous days - we walked around having a look at the offerings of the day.  There were some incredible baked goods towards the back of the place - a seven-layer red velvet cake was one thing that caught my eye.

It was clear that we were at the very end of tomato season, David told me he still had a few, but not enough to bring, and also a frost was likely by the end of the week so the season would officially be over at that point.

However, the bounty at this place never ceases to amaze.  As we walked the aisles, we came across two pumpkins weighing in at 650+ pounds!  Here's a photo of the first one - David said it had sold for $500, and the second went for $300.

We kept moving and soon came across this lot of watermelons, all weighing more than 100 pounds.  I don't have the sell price on them, but I did remember to put the ball cap on the one for perspective - that one weighed 120 pounds!

Here you can see a couple of flats of tomatoes as well.  They were few and far between...but by now I had started to think about the pie and we were headed out to the drive through area to check out the large lots.

We'll pick it up there tomorrow.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Heading to the Auction

I've been enjoying trips to the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction for a few years now - I've tried to make it into an annual tradition, to get there at least once a year.

So when my schedule cleared up so that I could join David on his errands that would include a stop there - well, that was one good thing.  When he said it was member recognition day and there would be free pie - that's when I truly knew things were going my way last Tuesday.

So off we headed for the drive, over Massanutten and through New Market before getting onto I-81 South for Dayton.  I've been on those roads 10 or 12 times by now but I still couldn't find my way without a Smartphone maps app.

The beauty of the drive through those farms is what gets me - rolling hills planted in verdant rows of corn, the dairy cows milling about waiting for the sun to warm them up, and then all the folks heading out for the day's work in their carts or on their bikes, once you're getting closer to the auction.  I caught this photo of a couple who were likely also headed down there just as we started getting close.

Once we were at the auction, we took a stroll around to check out the offerings - small and large lots.  What's for sale there never ceases to amaze, and it makes me wonder if I couldn't grow some things on a small scale and join in the fun.

But I'd come for the pie.  There was plenty to chose from - and even though I am not a member, they were glad to serve up a slice of the coconut cream when I asked for it.  (I also enjoyed a cup of the broccoli cheese soup, which was totally local - and I left a small donation since I'm not a member of the auction.)

By the way, here's a link to the Produce Auction, in case you'd like to check it out someday:

Thursday, October 2, 2014

King Harvest Has Surely Come

Scarecrow and a yellow moon, 
Pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town... 
King Harvest has surely come.

- Robbie Robertson *

With a couple of planned days off to run some errands at Hawksbill Cabin, one thing in particular I was looking forward to was checking in at Public House Produce.  Work-wise this was a challenging summer for farmers market trips on Saturday morning and I think I missed whole harvests of some of the vegetables - my grilling skills have probably fallen off as well.  In any case, I let David know I'd be out for a few days and we made a plan for me to accompany him on a drive to the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction.

This gave us about 50 minutes each way to shoot the breeze, plus there was free pie at the auction, and he had a few errands himself to run, so we were on the road for four hours.  I've got some blog posts coming on those stops, but today wanted to put up some photos of the grand harvest of pumpkins, winter squash, and gourds that he'd put up under the pole barn and other structures around the farm.  Darrel was there too - he's also part of Page County Grown - dropping off a few bushels of sweet potatoes.  

It's definitely harvest season, and was pretty wonderful to see everything gathered into one place like that.

Although I didn't get to walk around over there much, the new ground is coming along.  Much of it is cleared, the soil has been tested - now that the contours are revealed you can see why this has been a good hunting ground over the years.  I can't wait to see what is next with that patch.

After a short visit to check things out, we were underway for the drive down to Dayton for the auction.  I'll pick it up there tomorrow.