Summer Urban Homestead Failures: Exploding Beer Bottles

Somehow in last week’s roundup of the summer’s failures I blocked out of my memory the most exasperating: exploding beer bottles.

I think I may have had a contaminated siphon hose which passed on some nasty, yeasty bacterial bug to every single bottle of two batches of beer I had made this summer. Three of those bottles over-carbonated to the point that they became beer grenades and exploded. One blew up on the kitchen counter and the other two in the garage. Having had a bottle explode in my hand a few years ago (wild fermented ginger beer–a bad idea) I can tell you that bottle grenades aren’t funny.

So having had three bottles explode and all the other bottles I opened showing signs of over-carbonation, I had the dilemma of what to do next. String my bow and shoot arrows at them from a distance? Call in the homebrew bomb squad?

I decided to don a heavy jacket (in 90ºF + temperatures) and safety goggles and uncap each one in the sink. The second to last bottle gave me a cooling beer shower.

Time to clean our messy kitchen and go on a sanitation campaign.

Side Yard Hops Trellis

A little hard to see in these crapular photos: the new south side hops trellis.

I love looking out our bedroom window in the summer at the hops I’ve trained up the east side of the house. And I also like the beer I’ve made with those hops, so much so that I decided to expand my hops growing project to the south side of the house.

Otherwise useless, the narrow side yard on the south side of the house is the perfect place for a vertical plant like hops. To accommodate the bines (what you call a plant like hops that attaches itself to a support without suckers or tendrils) I put some pulleys on the eaves of the house so that I can lower the bines to harvest the hops without having to climb a ladder.  I attached some twine to metal cables that run through the pulleys. Hops stick to twine like Velcro and grow so fast you can almost watch them climb. I train them into a “V” shape and cut down all but the strongest two bines from each mound in the spring.

Year three of the front porch hops: Cascade and Nugget.

Two years ago I started Cascade and Nugget hops in self watering pots placed by the porch on the east side of the house. This year I transferred those bines to the ground and they seem to be doing well. Cascade, especially, grows like a weed here. While I proved to myself that you can grow hops in self irrigating pots, I think they will do better in the ground.

The new varieties on the side of the house are Golden and Chinook. Since this blog also doubles as my garden diary I’ll note that the Golden is on the southeast and the Chinook on the southwest. It’s important to keep the bines labeled so when it comes time to make beer you know which variety is which. When I planted the Cascade and Nugget in the ground I got them mixed up. They look and smell different when mature so I’m pretty sure I can tell the difference come harvest time. But, never having grown Chinook or Golden, I don’t want to forget which one is which.

Here’s how you have to harvest hops without a fancy pulley system:

Hops in Containers

This spring I set out to answer the question, “can hops be grown in self-irrigating pots?” Answer, as you can see from the photo above: YES! For those of you not familiar with Self-Irrigating Pots or SIPs we have an earlier post on the subject.

Hops rhizomes, planted April 9, 2009

For our hops SIPs I modified a storage bin using Josh Mandel’s instructions (pdf). Back in early April, I obtained four hops rhizomes (two cascade and two nugget) from my local homebrew shop. You can also get rhizomes from many online sources. I chose cascade and nugget because I heard that they are two of the best varieties for Southern California. Both did well, with cascade being the most vigorous. The smell of the maturing cones is heavenly and the plant is quite beautiful, providing some much needed shade for the porch.

Nugget on the right, Cascade on the left

The only suitable place to grow this massive plant at our small house just happened to be by the front porch. This arrangement ended up being ideal–we’re on a hill and I simply attached some twine along the roof and put the SIPs down below the porch. I can simply stroll out on the porch and harvest the blossoms without having to balance on a tall ladder. Having the hops cones at eye level lets me access the cones when they are ready to pick and lets me monitor the health of the plant. I’ll also to be able to continuously harvest rather than having to cut down the entire plant. Alternately I’ve seen hops trellises rigged with pulleys so that you can lower the “bines”, as they are called, for harvesting.

Hops farmers in England demonstrating why you need to think about trellising.

With a western exposure the hops get morning sun and shade in the afternoon, which seems to be perfect in our sunny, dry and hot Southern California climate. The only problem I’ve had is a bit of rust, but it doesn’t seem to have spread too badly. Hops suck up a lot of water and, thanks to the SIPs, I only have to water once a day.

The SIPS are full of potting mix with a ring of organic fertilizer placed on top of the soil as specified in Josh Mandel’s directions. I have periodically added an organic liquid fertilizer to the water reservoirs as hops need a lot of nitrogen.

Cascade cones almost ready to harvest in late July

I don’t know how my hops will do in SIPs the second year, and I’m considering planting them in the ground if I can find a suitable place. I suspect that hops are a good candidate for pairing with a greywater source and I’m thinking about ways to do this.

Now that I’ve grown hops, I’m tempted to go to the next level. The local Rite Aid? How about we replace it with a field of barley? I’m anxious to swing a scythe again.

Stay tuned for info on a hops growing workshop with Boris Price and the folks at Silver Lake Farms to be hosted at the Homegrown Evolution compound this month. Look for the announcement on our blog this week.

Hops in Southern California

From hop rhizome to young vine

Several people have asked a question we were curious about: what varieties of hops are best to grow in warm climates such as Southern California? We asked around and the consensus seems to be Cascade and Nugget among others. Greg Beron, one of the co-owners of Culver City Homebrewing Supply Co., has a couple of different hops rhizomes for sale that he says grow well here in Los Angeles. The shop’s parking lot, in fact, has many small plastic barrels planted with hops vines growing up string attached to the east side of the building.

Homegrown Evolution’s own hop farming experiment ended in the spring of last year after we accidentally plopped some home built scaffolding on top of the tiny vine while undertaking the heinous task of scraping and painting the front of the house. Planting it in terrible soil doomed it to failure anyways. We’re experimenting with growing both Cascade and Nugget hops in a big self irrigating planter with the hope that we can transfer them to the ground next year or the year after. In the meantime we’ll improve our soil with another application of “craptonite“.

Some hops growing links:

Hop Gardening

A list of Hop varieties for all climates

How to build a PVC hops trellis

Brewing Demo

Hogarth’s formula: beer=good, gin=bad

Homegrown Evolution will be conducting an informal beer brewing demo as part of an art opening in Eagle Rock this weekend. Curated by Nate Garcia, Needle in a Haystack brings together an eclectic group of artists exploring community and public space, including our comrade Ari Kletzky of Islands of L.A., with whom we’ll be interacting during the course of the show.

At the opening, on Saturday January 24th we’ll be demonstrating how to make a batch of beer with malt extract, a process that anyone can do in their own kitchen. The beer will ferment in the gallery and be served on February 28th at the closing party. We’ll be setting up around 6 p.m. and we should be finished brewing by 9 p.m. or so. The event is at the Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock which is located at 2225 Colorado Boulevard.

Stay tuned for more fermentation workshops in the near future.

Making Beer in Plain Language

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”
-Guggenheim Fellowship-winning professor of rhetoric and comparative literature Judith Butler via the Bad Writing Contest

Huh? At least the terminology surrounding beer making ain’t that obtuse, but it certainly could use some simplification. For novice home brewers, such as us here at Homegrown Evolution, the terminology creates an unnecessary barrier as impenetrable as a graduate school seminar in the humanities. Let’s see, there’s a mash, a mash tun, a wort, some sparging, malting, all the while specific gravities are measured and hopsing schedules followed. We’ve made beer using kits from a home brew shop and found the process relatively simple, but the thought of making an all grain batch (extracting our own fermentable sugars from the grain rather than using the extracted syrup in a kit) seemed intimidating. Thankfully comrades Ben, Scott and Eddie showed us how to do an all grain batch a few weeks ago. Here, in plain language and crappy pictures is how it works. To the possible horror of beer aficionados, we’ll substitute plain English in the interest of encouraging more folks to try this:

1. Slightly sprouted and roasted grains from a home brew shop (they’ve been sprouted and roasted for you) are soaked in hot water.

2. Music, courtesy of Triple Chicken Foot, kills some time while the grain steeps.

3. After soaking, the liquid is drained off and more hot water is added. The liquid pouring into the pot on the ground contains sugar from the grains.

4. The extracted sugars are boiled with some hops for an hour.

5. After boiling for an hour you cool down the liquid as rapidly as possible. Here comrade Ben uses ice and a coil of copper tubing with water from a garden hose flowing through it, to bring that temperature down.

6. The cooled liquid is poured into a glass carboy and yeast is added. After a week or so this will be transferred with a tube into a second carboy. After about two to three weeks of fermentation some additional sugar is added (for carbonation) and the beer is bottled. After bottling I’ve discovered that it’s best to wait for at least three weeks, to let the carbonation happen and the flavors mellow, before sitting down with a post-structuralist theory tome and popping open a cool one.

From the pictures you can see that brewing from scratch like this takes some special equipment. You can build these items yourself, or you can skip the equipment and brew with an extract kit from your local home brew shop with little more than a large pot and a carboy. Remember that if prisoners can make wine behind bars (recipe for prison “Pruno” here), we all can certainly make an acceptable beer in our kitchens.

For detailed info on how to brew beer and make your own brewing equipment see John Palmer’s free ebook How to Brew.

The New Home Economics

photo above by whiteafrican photo on right by Wayan Vota

So what is this simple, elegantly designed object? It’s a bottle opener from Africa as seen on one of our favorite blogs, AfriGadget. Tough times call for elemental solutions, not to mention popping the cap off a beer.

And speaking of tough times and ingenuity, with our economy continuing to meltdown and unemployment on the rise (check out this youtube interview with author Nasim Nicholas Taleb and mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot for a real scare), we’ve begun to see sudden interest in the long forgotten topic of home economics. A good example of this new home economics is 30 bucks a week, the recipes and strategies of a couple in Brooklyn attempting to limit their grocery bills to, yes, just $30 a week.

But back to that African beer bottle opener pictured above. Yes, it exists in the context of poverty, but it’s also a symbol of hope, of facing adversity with resourcefulness, a sense of style and play.