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The Passing of John DeBenedetti

It is with a heavy heart that we write to tell you that John DeBenedetti has passed away.

We mourn him.

John was only the third owner in F. H Steinbart 102 year history. John started working at Steinbarts in 1975 and became the owner after his father passed away.

John as a boy. He grew up around brewing.

John was instrumental in promoting craft and home brewing in the Pacific Northwest. John was also an avid sailor and a member of the Madeleine Parish.

John worked until his death. He enjoyed the daily goings of the shop and interacting with customers. The store will continue to stay open and in the family under the leadership of John’s wife, Mary Kay.

There will be a Mass and Rosary on John’s behalf. Given indoor restriction for gatherings, this will be for a limited group of friends and family. We are planning a remembrance celebration for later in the year when we can enjoy each other’s company in good weather and without restrictions for gatherings. We will make sure that it is well published to all of you that want to share stories of your time with John.

Condolence messages can be left as comments on this post. Flowers can be sent to Madeleine Parish for the May 8th family mass.

 

Left to Right: James DeBenedetti, Mary Kay DeBenedetti, John DeBenedetti, Michele Wonder
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Booch Bouquet Giveaway for World Kombucha Day!

An example booch bouquet showing kombuchas from five different kombucha makers here in Portland, Oregon.

Edit 03/15/21: We decided to give away two more sets of booch bouquets! The rules of this one are the very similar to the rules of the last giveaway, but we will post them, including the changes, below.

The nitty-gritty update:

  • No purchase necessary – from us or any of the kombucha brewers featured.
  • Follow us on Instagram.
  • Follow the kombucha brewers – we will tag all of them in every post.
  • Comment on one or more of the photos labeled “#FHSBoochGiveaway” that we post on March 16th and 17th, 2021 and tag a friend you’d like to introduce or reintroduce to kombucha! Comments on other or older photos and shares of older or other photos are not eligible.
  • Only one comment per photo is eligible, even if you make more than one per photo.
  • You can comment (enter) on each photo, but you can only win one prize.
  • You can gain one (1) extra entry by sharing the contest in your stories and tagging us and the kombucha companies.
  • Winners will be decided at random from those who meet the criteria and we have to be able to see any stories you post and verify that you are following everyone.
  • The giveaway will start at 9:00 am PDT on Tuesday March 16, 2021 and will close Wednesday, March 17, 2021 11:59 pm PDT.
  • Odds of winning will depend on how many people comment/enter.
  • Winners will be contacted by DM on Thursday March 18, 2021.
  • You must be able to pick up your winnings at F.H. Steinbart Company in Portland, Oregon – we cannot ship these.
  • You must pick up your winnings by Saturday March 27, 2021 and only during our normal operating hours of 9:00 am & 4:00 pm (PDT) Monday through Saturdays – we simply don’t have the space to hold winnings longer.
  • Any winnings unclaimed by 4:01 pm on Saturday March 27, 2021 are forfeit.
  • Any surrounding material (i.e. boxes, plants, art) in the photos is not part of the winnings.
  • We cannot promise you exact flavors. The images are and will be examples only.
  • You will get kombucha from each brewer, but (again) we cannot promise specific flavors from any one brewer.
  • The two bouquets will be identical – otherwise, how could you do a video tasting together?

Previously:

World Kombucha Day is TOMORROW, Feb 21st, and we are planning a celebration! We’ve got a couple of things going on, and part of our plans involve giving things away. Fun for everyone.

Over on our Instagram page, we will be giving away one of our deluxe kombucha-making kits, a kombucha-making kit and bottles from our friends at Happy Mountain Kombucha, and four sets of two “booch bouquets” (example image above) — one for you and one for you to give to a friend you want to introduce to kombucha! This way, you can taste together while tasting apart. (Because we still want everyone to stay safe!) All the giveaways will be on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021, also known as #WorldKombuchaDay 2021, from 9:00 am (PST) to 4:00 (PST).

The “booch bouquets” will be comprised of kombucha from five of our customers and friends:

There are, of course, some rules.

The nitty-gritty:

  • No purchase necessary – from us or any of the kombucha brewers featured.
  • Follow us on Instagram.
  • Follow the kombucha brewers – we will tag all of them in every post.
  • Comment on one or more photos we post labeled “#FHSBoochGiveaway” and tag a friend you’d like to introduce or reintroduce to kombucha!
  • Only one comment per photo is eligible, even if you make more than one per photo.
  • You can comment (enter) on each photo, but you can only win one prize.
  • Winners will be decided at random from those who meet the criteria.
  • The caption of each photo will clearly state when comments to win are closed.
  • Each photo giveaway will be about one hour long.
  • Odds of winning will depend on how many people comment/enter.
  • Winners will be announced no later than 12:30 pm (PST) Monday Feb 22, 2021 – our goal is to announce each one before picking the next, but we cannot promise to be able to do so.
  • You must be able to pick up your winnings at F.H. Steinbart Company in Portland, Oregon – we cannot ship these.
  • You must pick up your winnings between Tuesday Feb 23, 2021 and Saturday Feb 27, 2021 during our normal operating hours of 9:00 am & 4:00 pm (PST) – we simply don’t have the space to hold winnings longer.
  • Any winnings unclaimed by 4:01 pm on Saturday Feb 27, 2021 are forfeit.
  • Any surrounding material (i.e. boxes, plants, art) in the photos is not part of the winnings.
For Bouquet winners:
  • We cannot promise you exact flavors. The images are and will be examples only.
  • You will get kombucha from each brewer, but (again) we cannot promise specific flavors from any one brewer.
  • The two bouquets will be identical – otherwise, how could you do a video tasting together?
For Kit winners:
  • Only one kit per winner (unlike the booch bouquets)
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Making Wine: Reflections From a Homebrewer’s 2nd Wine Season – Part 1

Part 1: What to Do with 7 Gallons of Cabernet Franc?

Hello.

I’m Rob. You may have met me if you’ve wandered back to the Draft counter for CO2 refills or for help with your setting up, upgrading, or troubleshooting your draft system. I was a cook and a chef for 20 years before I switched over to working in the world of beer. I started working at Steinbart’s in June of 2019 after my position at a commercial brewery was downsized/eliminated for budget reasons. So 2019 was my first wine season at Steinbart’s

I’ve enjoyed drinking wine much longer than I have enjoyed drinking beer, which is funny, since beer became my career after I retired as a chef for physical and family reasons. I hated beer in college. It turns out that what I really didn’t like at the time was domestic lagers. I found that malty craft ales, preferably on the higher ABV scale, were much more my style and my entry into beer exploration. I’ve been homebrewing for seven years now, with a year and half or work in a professional brewery and going on a year and a half now as a Steinbart Draft Technician.

I started off drinking mostly white wine: Rieslings and and other sweeter varieties. I eventually transitioned into mostly drinking reds, with their added layers of complexity and body once I developed a pallet for their more tannic aspect. After meeting my wife, I was introduced to the weekly wine group she had been a part of for years. The kind of group where people would show up at the wine shop and order some food and the week’s flight of wines, and then line up several bottles brought from people’s wine cellars as “the extras” for everyone to taste. Between that opportunity to sample so many different wines each week (and ones that were a bit out of my own more limited price range), and nine years of working at an Italian inspired restaurant where I would run down the wine lists with the bartenders, owners, and the executive chef, my pallet and wine knowledge increased greatly.

But only from a consumer’s standpoint. I really didn’t know all that much from a vintner’s perspective on how the wine was actually made. I mean, I understood on a very general sense, but only very general. I had a wonderful French chef at culinary college, who was a Sommelier at one of the big downtown hotels in Denver, cover a lot of the background of grape varietals, wine regions, etc., but I didn’t really know much about the mechanics and the chemistry involved in the process.

Which meant that last wine season, when someone forfeited their deposit on 100 pounds of Cabernet Franc grapes, I jumped at the opportunity to switch from a more theoretical/book knowledge of how to make wine to try and actually go from grapes to bottle. I had some help from some other staff members that had plenty of wine experience. I ended up with over eight and a half gallons of juice after pressing, which I fermented with two packets of Vintner’s Harvest R56 – Full Bodied Red yeast. That turned into a 6 gallon carboy, two 1 gallon jugs, and a 1/2 gallon jug for secondary fermentation. There were some learning experiences along the way, like the fact that filling the carboys all the way up to the neck was great for limiting the surface area susceptible to air exposure, but not so great when you realize that you didn’t leave enough room to get two packs of malolactic yeast in with the wine before you got that far up the neck (if you didn’t add malolactic while the grapes were still on the skins). After racking off of the sediment, I now have a 6 gallon carboy full up to the vent bung, which means probably six and a half to seven gallons of wine ready to bottle. Most people bottled back in the spring or summer, but I have a one-and-a-half year old toddler, so my free time for fermentation projects is much more limited than I would ideally prefer. At last taste, it was quite enjoyable as a young, not yet fully ready, medium bodied wine.

Enter the wine season of 2020. We’ll just skip over the rest of 2020. Seriously. Can we move on already? What a year this has been.

Anyway. In talking to Tom earlier in the year, he told me that Cabernet Franc, which is typically a blending grape (this I knew), was usually served as a table wine if bottled as a single varietal, and typically is best within the first two or three years of being bottled (this I didn’t know). It just doesn’t have as much body and acidity as some of the other big red grapes to give it an extended shelf life. So I decided that to give myself more time to enjoy that seven or so gallons of wine (so I’m not drinking the same thing every week when I’m not drinking beer), I would try making another batch of wine this year, with more full-bodied grapes, and I would blend some of the 2020 grapes with my 2019 Cab Franc to be able to store it for a longer period.

Cabernet Franc is often one of the grapes used in French Bordeaux wines, although usually as a smaller percentage of the wine, so I thought I would get other grapes that were typically in Bordeaux blends, ferment everything separately, bottle about a third to half of each grape as a single varietal, and then blend the rest to taste. After doing some research, and seeing which grapes our growers were going to have available, I decided I would get one 34 pound box of Petite Verdot, two 34 pound boxes of Merlot, and two 34 pound boxes of Cabernet Sauvignon. Petite Verdot is sometimes as little as only 2% of a Bordeaux blend, but I was limited to the preset quantities, and I wasn’t going to try and buy several hundred pounds of grapes to get the percentage of the blend lower.

It was a nice plan, while it lasted…

Join me next weekend for Part 2 in this series: Time to Get the Grapes and Start Fermenting Doing Math…

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Learn to Brew Day 2020!

An amber beer in a nonic pint glass/

F.H. Steinbart Company would not exist were it not for the fact that, the world over, people love fermented foods and beverages. More importantly, many people love MAKING fermented foods and beverages. Beer, of course, being one of the most common beverages people decide to tackle. And why not? It’s relatively easy, and it’s often got a much quicker turn-around time than beverages like wine, mead, or saké.

At 102 years old, we have been teaching (and learning!) how to brew for a very long time, and have been enthusiastic supporters of others teaching yet more people to brew for just as long. So when American Homebrewers Association declared in 1999 that the first Saturday in November would be “Learn to Homebrew Day,” we were all in. And, even with covid times, that remains true. It just looks different this year.

This year we’re making it easy for you to join Learn to Brew Day, even though we cannot run demos or teach directly. We are offering the AHA’s 2020 recipe ingredients (extract or all-grain, your choice) for a 5 gallon recipe at 15% off! Get a kit and Learn to Brew!

FHS owner John DeBenetti standing in front of grain bags in his warehouse with a certificate from 2001 thanking him for "founding the modern American homebrew shop" and "savior of the art and craft of homebrewing."

We decided to make up both extract and all-grain kits not just because we know some folks who already know how to brew will want to join in, but because we know learning to brew is a process. Some folks will definitely take this as an opportunity to learn to brew for the first time, and we wanted to invite others to make the jump and “learn to brew” all-grain.

The AHA has excellent pieces (and videos!) on brewing extract, all-grain “brew in a bag”, and all-grain batch sparging. Check them all out, and tackle what looks good to you.

Over the next week, starting tomorrow on Learn to Brew Day, we will share what brought four or five different people to brewing beer, and the sale on these ingredient kits will run until the 14th of November. We hope lots of folks, from beginners to experts, will consider what they want to “learn to brew” and take on those new and fun challenges.

Are you planning to learn (or teach!) brewing? Or, if you’re an expert brewer, are there new challenges you’re looking to take on?

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Wine with Natasha – The Plan(s)

Once I’d decided on Sauvignon Blanc, and mysteriously convinced Chip (pictured below) to join me in this quest, it was time to figure out what the heck to do.

First, I had to commit to the juice before it sold out. From working here last season and paying attention when Tom, John, Mark, and other wine-makers talk wine, I knew I had to commit to six or seven gallons of juice if I wanted to end up five gallons of wine. I decided on six gallons. Juice is expensive, and I was willing to bet six was enough. So, like everyone else who wants/wanted grapes or juice, I put a pre-order in online. I probably could have, since I work here, just let my bosses know I wanted an order, but I really didn’t want to risk it being forgotten. Especially after both my previous disappointment over the Lemberger grapes and having committed to making wine publicly.

My coworkers saw my order come in online and thought I was a little weird. But only a little; we’ve been funneling all orders online to the absolute best of our ability for exactly this sort of thing. It keeps everything organized.

Once my order was in, I pretty much immediately reread Tom’s Tips for Techniques, only to realize that since I was getting juice and not grapes, none of that applied to me. Thus I went off to his post on choosing the right yeast for your wine. I also started reading anything I could find in Wine Maker Magazine that seemed relevant to my future undertaking. Then, I made my plan.

Chip looking at the camera sardonically as Tom explains wine to him.

My Original Plan

Here’s what I thought I was going to do: decide on yeast (with Chip) before the juice came in. When the juice arrived, I would take my six gallons of Sauvignon Blanc juice, treat it with potassium metabisulfite, pectic enzyme, and tartaric acid as needed, then separate out a gallon and freeze it. Only then would I pitch my yeast and ferment the other five gallons. My wine would spend two weeks in primary, then I’d move the five gallons of “green” wine to a five gallon glass carboy to think about what it needs to do for several months. If I needed to top up the carboy to make sure the juice was in the neck of the carboy, I’d add enough of the previously frozen juice to do so.

I’d rack to other carboys basically as often as Tom told me I should, topping up with juice as needed. And, based on a recent Wine Maker Magazine article, I would age all of my wine together and (hopefully) bottle in spring. I’d be drinking my own wine on my own patio come International Sauvignon Blanc Day!

What I Actually Did

First, Chip and I did not manage to collaborate on the yeast plan before the juice arrived. In part because, as I mentioned in the previous post in this series, the grapes ripened far faster than I realized they would and the juice appeared at F.H. Steinbart what felt like the day after the decision. (Time really has been extra fuzzy this year.)

Then, as Chip and I talked to Tom (both together and individually), we realized I’d been correct to buy (and advise him to buy) six gallons of juice, I’d been completely wrong about how to handle that juice. My expectation of freezing a gallon of unfermented juice for top ups was completely wrong. Apparently we need to ferment all the wine at the same time, and top up with the “extra” gallon of wine as we go. I knew adding unfermented juice would rev the yeast back up, but I thought that was the goal. Apparently not.

Phew! Newbie mistake avoided!

After that, we discussed fermentation temperature. Tom said we wanted to keep it fermenting fairly cool and slowly. Too warm a ferment will, apparently, strip the delightful fruity notes I love in Sauvignon Blanc. I’m not sure the biochemical ways the yeasts strip such things out when reproducing more aggressively, but I don’t doubt Mr. Thompson in this. Chip said his plan was to keep his primary fermentor surrounded by ice packs. I said my plan was to hope room temperature in my house was enough. We were aiming, it seems, for 65F-70F.

The acid levels in the juice were a bit low, so we needed to add tartaric acid in addition to our pectic enzyme and potassium metabisulfite. I have since lost the calculations, unfortunately, of how much acid we needed to add. So that’s fun. I mean, I added the right amount because Tom and I did it before I left that day, but I still don’t recall how much.

Bummer! Newbie mistake activated!

Chip selected our yeast, Vintner’s Harvest BV7. I don’t know what drove him to settle there, but I am sure it’s gonna result in a tasty wine. Why did I not help select the yeast? Well, for the same reason I’m writing this post up. I work at F.H. Steinbart! I got called in to help with other customers when Chip and Tom started discussing yeasts. It’s cool, though, because I have complete faith in those two. (Chip, please comment and explain why we’re using this yeast. I trust you, but I’d love to know what we’re optimizing for.)

Anyway, I was able to add my tartaric acid, pectic enzyme, and potassium metabisulfite about the same time Chip did, I suspect. There was a short break in customers at the shop not too long after Chip left, and Tom and I were able to measure out my juice and add the appropriate chemicals.

I pitched my yeast the next day, and considered changing my plan to be more like Chip (have ice packs around my fermentor), but after consulting with Tom* I concluded that the weather had changed enough that my home’s temp was probably just fine.

A hand holding a prepared s-shaped airlock and a packed of BV7 yeast above a genesis fermentor.

Later, when I no longer had the ability to gather the items to chill the fermentor, the weather changed dramatically AND due to the fires I was unable to keep my window A/C unit in, so we’ll see. I may have ended up with a bummer of a wine due to an overly-warm ferment. I’ll let you all know.

I’m going to rack it out of primary in the next few days (probably Sunday). I’ll let you know what the vital stats are, and how it tastes once that’s done. I’ll also already have some “lessons learned” to share in the next post, and I’ll be able to give you an update on last year’s red wine.

Please keep your fingers crossed that my wine is still tasty after the unfortunate spike in heat!

Finally, please don’t forget that October 1st (TOMORROW) is the last day to convince me to ferment wine with you too! If that sounds fun, comment on this post or on our social media links by the first, and reserve your Barbera grapes or Reisling juice ASAP.

*I told y’all I’d be asking Tom a lot of questions.

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Amber Skies – Call for Brewers

Two amber-colored beers in "toast" formation.
If it feels like something is always burning this year, that’s probably because fire has taken over the globe at various times in 2020.

 

Australia entered 2020 on fire and, ten months in, much of the US is on fire as well. Canada and Mexico are not unscathed either, with thousands of hectares each burning as well. Even the Siberian tundra has burned this year; smoke from these fires covered various parts of Alaska.

 

Here in Oregon, where we’re located, almost a million acres have burned. People have died, homes and other structures destroyed, and we will likely not see them all contained, much less put out, before our winter rains.

 

For those who aren’t firefighters or other first responders, it may feel like we can’t do anything but stare in horror at these events.

 

However, we CAN help, and we should never forget this.

 

In the brewing community, we have already seen examples of professional and home brewers stepping forward to find ways to help. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company mapped the course with their “Resilience IPA” to fund raise for the Camp Fire recovery efforts.

 

Next, we had the “Black is Beautiful” project from Weathered Souls. At that point, homebrewer (and former Steinbartonian!) Michele Rider Wonder realized that homebrewers could fund-raise for these causes too. She organized almost 20 homebrewers to make a mixed twelve pack of beers to be distributed to anyone who donated to selected relevant charities, and the brewers raised $5485 for these charities.

 

Brewers, let’s do it again. We can raise funds for a variety of fire-related charities and indulge in our passion for making beer at the same time. And, because this is coming from us, we can be even more creative with our work than if we were following a specific recipe. A variety pack of a variety of beers is also an excellent enticement for donors.

 

We’re taking as many brewers as we can get by October 10th to brew 5 or more gallons of beer. The beer must be bottled or canned and ready for delivery by November 14th.

 

The guidelines for the beer itself are minimal:

 

  1. Amber-colored beer
  2. ABV 6.5% to 9%
  3. Nothing intentionally smoky
  4. Uses your fierce creativity and skill!

 

Bocks, Amber ales, Wee Heavies, Belgian Dubbels, Imperial Brown Ales, Imperial Red Ales, Dark Saisons, Imperial Porters…

 

The list truly could go on forever. The variety of possibilities is breathtaking. And the value of such a twelve pack is mighty high, especially when enticing folks into donating to fire relief efforts.

 

If you’re interested, please email us (info@fhsteinbart.com) with the subject line, “Amber Skies”.  We’ll answer any questions you may have and get you registered.

 

Beer is mostly water, right? Let’s fight fire with beer!

 

Pelton, a Mecca Grade Estate Malt product, in a display bottle.

 

P.S. Not near us (or even in Oregon at all), but want to do something similar for your area? Contact us and we’ll help you set up an “Amber Skies” for your neck of the woods.

 

P.P.S. There may be some specially-for-this-project Mecca Grade Pelton available. No promises, at all, except that we’re working on the possibility.

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Wine with Natasha – The Choice

Wine juice delivery. Four men stand on or near a trailer loaded down with 55 gallon drums of wine grape juice and lug boxes containing wine grapes. The foreground is buckets and scales and things to divide the juice among a number of people.

I’m really feeling the maxim, “if you snooze, you lose” right now. I had been a little hesitant to launch this project, and when I finally decided to just commit…

The grapes I wanted were sold out.

I had to scramble to decide what to go with, as I didn’t really have a second choice lined up. I had been thinking an easy, fruity red for the project and Tom had suggested Lemberger for such a wine. Unfortunately, the Lemberger sold out while I was debating myself. None of the other grapes we had available seemed quite so approachable for a near-total beginner.

So, I went a totally different direction. I looked at our grape juices, and contemplated the possible white wines I could make. I have seriously enjoyed Gewürztraminer since I was introduced to it last year, and there’s nothing more delightful than a rosé* on the patio on a hot summer day. But Riesling can be delicious and is one of the latest grapes to ripen, which would give me more time to dive in and learn tons before I ever have to get sticky.

The Choice

In the end the crisp fruity notes of Sauvignon Blanc won out. It’s absolutely one of my favorite white wines; I’ve loved it from just about every region it’s grown. So why NOT try my hand at it?

I have to admit, I am a bit nervous. I don’t want to totally screw up something I like. But, unlike the Lemberger, I have had Sauvignon Blanc before, so the upside is that I’ll have a much better sense of how well I managed to make my wine.

Thus, it’s decided. I’m making Sauvignon Blanc and I’ll post about it here. Chip, who commented on the last post, is joining me.

Now, given agriculture (and my lack of wine grape knowledge), the Sauvignon Blanc grapes ripened and the juice arrived far before I expected. And due to a variety of other factors, I’m just now getting to share this announcement.

So, two things. First, within the next week, I’ll write up what is up with my Sauvignon Blanc and what yeast Chip and I used, and such like.

Second, since part of the goal here was to invite folks to ferment along with me, I thought I’d ask if anyone else would like to join in with different juice or grapes? I am considering making some of that Riesling, since I do enjoy it and it IS a late ripener. I’m *also* considering making Barbera, which I have never had before but will likely hit the same notes I was looking for when considering the Lemberger.

Both grapes should ripen in early October, so we have a little bit of time to decide. If you are interested in joining me, comment on this post, or on one of our social media channels, by October 1st 2020. But, since this is agriculture and the grapes dictate everything, please know that sooner is better for such a commitment. I could get unlucky again and have the grapes ripen faster than expected.

If someone does wish to make Riesling and/or Barbera with me, I’ll absolutely do some of the wine they are interested in fermenting. If not, I may or may not make more wine, but I won’t write up anything beyond the Sauvignon Blanc if I do decide to make something else.

No matter what, it’s bound to be interesting.

 

*Ok, technically not a white wine, but we’re selling it as juice, so that’s where it’s categorized.

 

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Wine with Natasha – Prologue

A bright & sunny vineyard with ripe red wine grapes. Under the grapes there is text saying "Learning Wine Season 2020."

Introduction

It’s wine time and I work in one of the world’s most amazing wine supply shops in one of the world’s most amazing wine regions. I enjoy wine. So, reasonably, people think I have extensive knowledge of making wine. They assume I make great wine. And they are, sadly, not totally correct. I’ve only attempted to make wine once so far, and I am not confident that wine will be good, much less great. 

I don’t really know how to make wine. Yet.

Last Year

My only experience making wine came last year, when I lucked into enough grapes to make about three gallons of a Malbec and Cabernet Franc blend. I carefully punched down the skins twice a day for ten days, then racked it into a three-gallon glass carboy, and then sat back to wait for the next step. I was pretty sure the next step was malolactic fermentation (“MLF”), but I didn’t know for sure and I didn’t know when to start it if that was the next step.

Then my life got rather topsy-turvy, and in all honesty I didn’t think about that wine again until about January of this year. And our expert, Tom, told me to rack it into a new carboy, sulfite it  and not expect too much. I followed his directions, and (as one always should) I sampled the wine as I moved it.

It isn’t vinegar*. I think that’s the best thing I can say about what I made. I currently have not quite three gallons of flabby, insipid, alcoholic grape juice. Some of this, undoubtedly, is that Cabernet blends require a substantial amount of aging**. But no doubt some is the result of my forgetting the wine for months. (I still haven’t managed the MLF.) Finally, I also think some of that is that I didn’t so much choose a yeast basically because the person who gave me a few grapes shrugged and said, “Use this one,” handed it to me, and wandered off. (I used Red Star Premier Classique.)

Three wine glasses on a stark white backround. The middle is on its side and has red wine gently lying in the bowl of the glass. It is not spilled. The image says "Goals!" in handwriting.

This Year

This year, I’m going to do it differently. This year, I’m going to do it intentionally. This year, I’m doing some research (mostly picking Tom’s brain and reading the things he writes and our copies, new and old, of Wine Maker Magazine) before I buy grapes or juice. Then more research as I work and things ferment. (Tom will be fielding questions from me for months, and I’ll be reading Wine Maker Magazine or the various books we carry) And this year, I’ll document the technique(s) here on the F.H.S. blog. Hopefully this year will be a great deal better.

But I’ll be learning publicly, and so any successes or trip-ups will be documented here.

Socially Distant Together?

I’ll announce the grapes I’m buying next week. I’ll post If anyone wants to do a ferment-a-long, comment here. Anyone who wants to do so is welcome, newbies and experts alike. And it’d be fun, I think, to hear how others’ fermenting is going. Maybe we can build a little wine community and stay safely socially distant. (Thanks 2020.)

Join or not, I hope you’ll follow along. If you have comments, feel free to share them. Or let us know your thoughts on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.

*This is of extra concern for me because my favorite thing to make is actually vinegar.

**I did not know this when I started this project.

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Drop Acid? Raise Acid? Only Testing Can Tell You.

Acid Test Kit, including sodium hydroxide, for testing acidity of wine

Tom is all over this blog right now, as it is absolutely time to talk wine all the time. In this piece, he gives the best tips on how to use an acid test kit and why you absolutely should use one.

The first time I made wine was in 1970 when our very old plum tree put out 12 bushels of ripe fruit.  The previous year had been just as productive and everyone in the family was tired of canned plums and jam. Dad suggested I make wine, as I was the only one in the family who liked wine much. Figuring I might as well, I hit a store called WineArt Oregon on Broadway Blvd. Ann McCullum, the proprietor, insisted I get a hydrometer, air lock, carboy, yeast, acid blend and (importantly) an acid testing kit.  She instructed me this kit was the best way to make sure the acidity in my wine was balanced and flavor enhancing.

I have used an acid test kit regularly since.

Why Acid Matters

Acidity is what gives wine the wonderful, refreshing flavor that makes us desire another glass.  Without acid wine is flat and insipid.  Furthermore, without acidity, wine will not keep as well. The acid level that is required is about 0.5% or higher.  You will need at least 0.6% and above for a good crisp white wine and even more about 0.75% for sweetened dessert wines. All wines run a high risk of spoilage from bacterial contamination. Acidity is key to reducing contamination risk. Finally, if you are considering malolactic fermentation (“MLF”) for your wine, you will need to know the total acidity (“TA”) of your wine. Otherwise you might have too much acid for the malolactic cultures to survive, or so little acid that the cultures strip away the very acid you need.

How do we know just how high or low our wine’s acid is?  By testing it.  Remember, sugar masks acid very well so just tasting the fruit, juice, or must we have will fool us, because they will be at least 20% sugar.

Tips for Acid Testing

The acid test kit we carry is a color change titration type test.  A titration test works roughly in the same way as the iconic “science fair project” volcano; it uses the reaction that ensues when combining acidic and alkaline ingredients, but for decision making instead of volcanic activity. So, when the sodium hydroxide (“NaOH”) from the kit is carefully added to wine, juice, or must in specified amounts a color change happens. When the color becomes either magenta or green (depending on wine type) we are done. The kit itself has very good instructions so I will not go into any further detail.  However, there are a few tips for best practices I would like to pass along, based on my years of experience.

First, make sure your base is fresh for the season.  Replace it with the like kind solution that came with the kit. (Our kits use a .01N NaOH solution.) If the solution is stale, your reading will be way off. The results aren’t pretty. I made a wine once that had over 1.5% acid when I thought it had 0.72% acid. I didn’t catch myself as I kept adding acid blend until I thought, “this just can’t be right” then it was too late. There was no way for me to save it. I had to dump it.

Even when you’ve got totally fresh reagents for your kit, bear in mind that it’s very easy to overshoot the color changes you’re looking for to get proper acidity. To test, you will be adding NaOH in 1 milliliter increments of reagent with a syringe. Swirl and mix in well each addition.

The color change for all white or very light colored musts (including red grape musts that haven’t been on the skins for any time yet) will be a pale pink shade.

For red-colored musts dilute the must with an equal amount of water.  Then look for a change into a grayish purple tint as you add the NaOH. Once there you are done.

Here is an easy way to keep track of color changes in any must: when you make up your beaker of must for testing, make a duplicate in a similar sized glass.  Then you can compare the musts as the color changes. By comparing them you will see the color change more accurately. Small tasting cups  or 100 mL beakers are perfect. You need to be able to swirl them vigorously.  When you’re pretty sure what the acid level is? Test it once more to be sure.

When you’re absolutely sure of your wine’s TA, it’s time to decide what acid adjustments you need to make and how you want to make them. For brevity’s sake, I am not going into much in the way of details in this piece. I will save that for another piece.  What I will say is that many ways of adjusting TA in wine require a small scale that can do fractions of a gram. The adjustments will be all grams per liter, so you need accuracy (and possibly to brush up on metric units!) for the best possible results. An acid test kit is a valuable tool you should use.

Remember:

It is impossible for your grapes to become the best possible wine they can become without you knowing their acid levels from day one. Ann McCullum did not steer me wrong 50 years ago, and now I strive to do the same for you. Use an acid test kit for all your future wines, whether they are grape wines, fruit wines, or honey wines.

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Tom’s Tips for Techniques

A cluster of green grapes for white wine.
Tom wrote a couple handouts for the 2020 wine season and beyond. As useful as handouts are, we know it’s also incredibly helpful to have the information easily accessible online. So, with slight editing, we are putting this information up as resources for everyone. They go in order of when to use them.

Wine Production Techniques Guide

The Cold Soak and the Skin Soak

The cold soak is used on a lot of red grape varieties, as it allows the stubborn skin pigments to become dissolved in the juice and thus provide a richer color. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Pinot Noir is the most prominent grape it’s used for. The skin soak is, in effect, the same technique as the cold soak but is is much shorter, as is appropriate for white wines. Soaking on the skins before pressing is a technique that provides a lot of fruity character, and the must will acquire more tannin. Bonus? The grapes will also give up more juice when pressed.

The grapes must be perfect. Broken skins, mold, bunch rot, or dirt cannot be allowed for a cold or skin soak. Infections will raise their ugly heads. Always use pectic enzyme and sulfite (SO2) your must to at least 30 parts per million (ppm) to avoid any wild fermentation.

For white grapes, once they are crushed and have had the pectic enzyme and SO2 added, simply allow them to sit on their skins for 2 – 12 hours. You can chill this must, but it is not required. However, chilling red must to about 50℉ is vital. Once chilled, allow the must to soak for about three days at 50F or lower.

The easiest way for small-batch winemakers to cold soak is to freeze water in a couple of plastic gallon milk jugs. (Make sure the jugs don’t split, so you don’t dilute the must.) Alternate jugs between the freezer and the must as needed to keep the temperature low. Remember to also punch down the grape skins once or twice a day, as this will not only release CO2 but also help keep the temperature of the must even. Keep your fermentor covered to prevent the escape of the SO2.

If any signs of wild fermentation show up in either soak, immediately cease the cold soak. Pitch your yeast and warm everything up to fermentation temperature.

After the cold soak, slowly raise the temperature to fermentation temperature and proceed.

Warming Up Must

Even though it’s 100℉ as I type this, I know we will receive our grapes in colder weather. (It might be downright icy at times.) Use the method I detailed above to raise the temperature in your fermentor, but use hot tap water instead of frozen jugs. Keep changing the warm jugs until you reach your fermentation temperature. Then wrap the fermentor with a FermWrap or an electric blanket and place it in a warmer room.

Note: If you have more than 100 pounds of must in a single fermentor, it will start to generate noticable heat on its own. Keep an eye on the wine so it does not get over 80℉ and thus ferment too fast. This will reduce the quality of the final wine.

Tips for Pressing Off Juice/Wine

A red #20 yoke-style fruit press with stainless steel basket.
A heavy fruit press in iron and stainless steel. Presses come in many sizes and styles.

Advice abounds on how to avoid excessive tannin when pressing grapes for wine. However when you make small batches of wine at home using the typical basket press, you will not have problems pressing off too much tannin. That said, there are other things to consider.

For example, you may decide to ferment the free flow wine separately from the pressed wine. (“Free flow” is the what flows out of the press before any pressure is applied.) The pressed wine will mature faster than the free flow wine and be much lighter in body and flavor. I don’t think it’s worth the effort unless you can get more than fifteen gallons of free-flow wine. Then you will get about three gallons of pressed wine.

Make sure you have a good-sized sieve that can fit into a one-gallon or two-gallon bucket and will together fit under the press spout. You’ll also want a funnel that will be big enough to handle the flow from the bucket into the carboy. Don’t skimp on funnel size! If you do, there will substantial slop and spills and wine loss.

Related, remember that pressing off is sloppy work no matter your funnel size. So make sure the press and the fermentor are in an area you can clean up easily by hosing it down.

Malolactic Fermentation

Many of the world’s best red wines go through malolactic fermentation (“MLF”). This is not a yeast fermentation but a bacterial one, and little alcohol is produced. MLF occurs when malolactic bacteria convert malic acid to lactic acid. Malic acid is a harsh acid of unripe fruit like green apples, and lactic acid is that softer “tang” found in cheese or yogurt. You will typically want MLF in any red where a finished softness of acidity and an ability to age well is desired.

However if your grapes are overripe and thus have a low acid level to begin with, MLF can make a flaccid and dull tasting wine that ages less well than you desire. What fruitiness was in the wine before MLF will be gone and the stabilizing acidity will be dramatically lowered. At this point, avoid MLF and increase the acidity of the must.

Most red wines will benefit from MLF, but it’s considered an infection in some wines. It’s particularly undesirable if you want a fruit-forward wine like LembergerRiesling, Muscat or most Chardonnays. (Big, buttery Chards can, and often do, undergo MLF but grapes appropriate for that style rarely come from the PNW.)

For MLF to occur the must should have the following characteristics:

  • Total acidity (TA) no less than 0.070 but no more than 1.00
  • pH no less than 3.3 but no more than 3.7
  • a specific gravity (SG) of 1.05 or below
  • SO2 of less than 30ppm

Typically, all of this information should be given to you when you receive your grapes or juice. Sometimes, though, all you get is the TA and pH. In that case, use your hydrometer to get the SG. The SO2 is what you add. Measure carefully.

If you need to adjust your acid up or down, please see our must adjustment handout. If you need to add acid be sure it’s tartaric acid. This is the acid of balanced wines. If your grape juice or must is over 1.00 TA, you got very under ripe grapes that are sour. Even with careful measurement, your TA and SG will be off (at that point, the acid content can mask sugar content). Unless it is or has been a horrifically cold and wet fall, don’t repurchase those grapes. Find a different grower.

Malolactic cultures come in a variety of forms, and you can add them at different times depending on your desires and schedule. You can add them at the tail end of primary fermentation or after the wine is in the carboy for secondary fermentation. Be aware, though, that the longer you delay adding the malolactic bacteria, the harder it will be for MLF to complete. This is because once primary fermentation ends, you will be adding SO2 regularly (up to 50 ppm), and typically your fermentation temperatures will be dropping. MLF occurs best in warm, low oxygen environments. And SO2 is added in large part to prevent bacterial growth, so MLF is caught in that. In a cooler environment with more SO2, MLF will be slow and may take months to finish. This is why if you want to prevent MLF, or any other bacterial invasion, you add SO2 to your wine regularly after every racking and before bottling.