Friday, May 8, 2009

Different Times

My daughter came home the other day from her Girl Scout troop meeting and announced she had earned a new badge for food appreciation. When I asked her what was required to earn the badge, she told me they walked down the road to a nearby Chinese food restaurant for dinner. Afterwards they walked through a nearby grocery store discussing how various foodstuffs corresponded to the Food Pyramid. That's right: the Four Basic Food Groups are passée.

When I asked her why they could not do something more scout-like (maybe camping?), she told me that the scout leaders had put it to a vote, and only two in the gaggle wanted to actually camp. The rest would go camping only if they could stay in a hotel! My daughter was one of the two who actually wanted to camp. At least I've done something right! (As for the troop leaders who leave it to a bunch of city-kids to decide what comprises scouting... well maybe their parents did something wrong.)

Then my wife rolled her eyes as I began to tell all of my kids about when I was a kid. I only did a brief stint in boy scouts, but I was well educated in the ways of nature. I explained how my father taught me to hunt, fish, skin wild game, camp, start a fire, and wipe my butt with leaves -- as well as many other macho, outdoorsy skills.

My kids pitched in, and we developed a list of appropriate badges that real scouts should be required to earn. These were the top ten.
  1. Sneak Up on a Sleeping Bear and Smack Him with a Switch Badge
  2. Outrun a Really Ticked Off Bear Badge
  3. Squirt Lemon Juice in Your Eyes to Simulate Cobra Venom Badge
  4. Urinate in Someone's Eyes to Neutralize Cobra Venom Badge
  5. Don't Urinate Upstream from Your Camp Badge
  6. Lance Your Own Boil with a Pocket Knife Badge
  7. Eat a Grasshopper, Mustard and All, Badge
  8. Survive the Dysentery Caused by Grasshopper Mustard Badge
  9. Live with a Pack of Wolves for 30 Days Badge
  10. Kill Something and Eat It Badge
Now, I'm not opposed to children learning something about food appreciation. I appreciate many foods: Domino's Pizza, McDonalds Value Meals, and even the occasional Taco Bell Seven Layer Burrito. And I know all about the four basic food groups: Salt, sugar, cholesterol and saturated fat (or was it beans, bacon, whiskey and lard?). I just think scouting should have something to do with... well, scouting! But then, maybe I'm just passée like the Four Basic Food Groups.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Fermentation Vigorosity Indicator

Since I started making mead in November, 2008, I have approached it with an attitude of experimentation. My goals: 1) Keep it cheap until I know if I want to stick with it; and 2) Try several recipes to discover what kinds of mead I like.

Let's focus on my cheapness goal: So far, the only pieces of equipment I've purchased are clear, plastic tubing to use for racking and a thermometer (which I used once and now realize was unnecessary). I don't have a hydrometer, a real carboy, a fermentation bucket, fancy disinfectants, an airlock, filtration devices, Camden tablets, or dedicated stainless steel crockery. I've gotten by on milk jugs, balloons, my wife's cooking pots and rubber bands (and I've discovered the rubber bands are unnecessary as well).

I like to think of it as "Mead-making: MacGyver Style." It's not a method I invented myself. This guy gets credit for giving me the blueprint and answering my many questions. And a detailed description of the process is here.

If you read the process description, pay special attention to how I use a balloon as an airlock, stretching it over the mouth of my jug. A pin-hole in the balloon allows CO2 from the fermentation process to escape, and the positive pressure inside the balloon keeps contaminants out. This will be important to understand in just a moment.

When making my mead in milk jugs, I would gage the vigorousness of the fermentation with a little device I like to call "my ear." I could walk into my bedroom closet where I keep my brew and listen. The fermentation was quite audible, and it slowly would become less audible as the primary fermentation slowed down. An excellent -- and cheap -- method, if I do say so myself.

However, I recently started a new experiment. Now that I have my base recipe defined, I've decided to scale up to a 5-gallon batch. So, I obtained a 5-gallon plastic water bottle -- the kind that you set upside down on a dispenser. The problem is, this bottle is made of much thicker plastic than the milk jugs, and I can no longer hear the fermentation. This threw a wrench in my methodology. Being unwilling to purchase an actual airlock so that I can count the bubbles or a hydrometer so that I could... um... do whatever you do with a hydrometer, I decided to invent a new way to gage the strength of the fermentation process.

After thirty seconds of intense contemplation, I figured it out. I pulled out my cell phone and, using its handy menu system, navigated to Tools > Stopwatch. Then, I squeezed all the air out of my balloon, started the stopwatch, and waited for the balloon to inflate again. As soon as the it popped upright, I stopped my Fermentation Vigorosity Indicator (FVI).

Now, I can reference my measurement to the ones I take in coming weeks to gage the health and stage of the fermentation process. Also, by comparing previous measurements with future batches, I'll be able to tell if the future batches are on track. Sure, there is still an element of good ol' fashion dead-reckoning going on, but it is a compass of sorts that will suffice until I'm ready to wax sophisticated.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Losses and Gains

I'm on my second glass of homemade cinnamon mead. I can already feel my fingertips and lips getting slightly numb, the telltale sign that a buzz is in the making. So I'm going to stop here.

The words on the wine glass read, "Colorado Mountain Winefest 2004," which is where I first discovered mead. But swirling the mead in the glass and slowly sipping it dredges up some painful memories; memories I've never been able to shake.

My wife and I attended the Winefest with some close friends of ours, Steve and Kathy. Steve was my best friend, and I later went on to start a business with him. Shortly thereafter, everything went terribly south. Our business (though reasonably profitable) was an utter disaster to our friendship. We used to talk about everything, but now we can't stand the sight of each other.

But God has been merciful, and things have worked out -- although I must admit it was difficult to perceive mercy when I was in the midst of turmoil and pain. I take another sip of the mead. There is a sour note to it, but it is mostly sweet -- as life has proven to be.

After parting ways with Steve, I was too depressed and discouraged to look for a job, and I was ready for break from the field I had been working in. So I holed up in a small office and started a copywriting practice. While it wasn't a perfect fit, it was refreshing to create something of my own from the ground up.

Eventually, my mood lightened as I forced myself to focus on the day-to-day challenges of my business. Ultimately, this venture proved to be a nice segway into being hired at a small, but promising, computer company in Denver.

Slowly life seemed to turn around. There have been new opportunities, new friendships, new memories. These can never eradicate memories of the bad experiences in the past, but they do soften the blow and help me to see the past more objectively -- it wasn't all bad. After all, if it weren't for the past, I prwouldn't be here right now. Somehow, as hard as it is to actually say it, I know in my heart the past was somehow worth it.

I'm buying a house for my wife, a dream I'd all but forgotten about. My kids are healthy and happy and growing up well. We're not without problems, but we're not without love and commitment either.

I swallow down the final sip of the mead -- the sour and the sweet. It is good. I hope Steve's life is mostly sweet too.