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Homebrew Beer and Mead Inventory

I haven’t posted anything recently, primarily because I’ve been too busy and overwhelmed at work to have any free time to write.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been too busy to run.. and this is a ultramarathon blog.

I really miss running; it is the best thing for one’s physical and mental health and well-being. I guess until I start running again, I will try to write about other stuff.

Yesterday, I just assessed the inventory of my homebrew.  All of my carboys are full. This is a serious problem. I can’t brew more until I open up some more fermentation space. I need to get some of this bottled or kegged.

 

Mead Fermenting or Aging In Carboys:

1) Pear Melomelthis will be dry and still- it was aged on medium-toast oak which has given it a delicious creamy vanilla and almost buttery character, which compliments the pear.

2) Raspberry Melomel Honey and raspberries are a classic combination- this will be semisweet and still

3) Berry Pyment Melomel I wanted to make something big and fruity- like a complex red wine. This will also be dry and still.

It is both a pyment because I used wine grapes and also a melomel because I used berries.

I was expecting it to be good so I made 10-gallons instead of the usual 5-gallon batch.  It was made with the juice of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, Merlot grapes, Black Raspberries, Black Cherries, Black Currants, and Elderberries- plus our own home-raised honey of course. I aged it on medium toast oak.

So far, it IS good. I’m glad I made a ten gallon batch.

But it’s probably already down to only 9-gallons because of  taste-testing.

4) Ginger Metheglin my goal with this mead was to create a mead version of an extra spicy ginger ale- but with alcohol- so it will be for grown-ups only.

Right now, I have it aging in the secondary on about a pound of sliced fresh ginger roots. Once the ginger flavor is strong enough, I plan on adding lemon juice and then back-sweetening with honey.

It is a relatively low-alcohol for a mead- ABV only 7%- such a low alcohol mead is called a hydromel. Eventually I will keg it and carbonate it.

 

Beers Fermenting or Aging In Carboys:

That’s it for the meads in my  carboys… I have the following beers in carboys…

5) IPA This will be a stronger than usual version of an IPA, but not quite strong enough to call it a Double IPA.  OG 1.070  I used Warrior hops for bittering and then Cenntenial, Citra and Simcoe for aroma.

Once primary fermentation is over, I will use Citra and Simcoe for dry-hopping.

6) Belgian Saison– this is the same recipe I’ve brewed 3 years in a row.  I’ve won medals for it in homebrewing competitions. Although I frequently  tinker with recipes in pursuit of an even better brew, my Saison recipe is the exception. I’ve continued to brew the same recipe unchanged because it is just so darn good.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Right?

I love the complexity of Belgian Saison yeast. OG 1.059

7) Kolsch– “the ale that’s like a lager.” I brew some version of Kolsch every year. It is a light, smooth crisp brew. It is a perfect beer to enjoy after weeding the garden on a warm summer afternoon. OG 1.048

 

On Tap and Drinkable Now…

8) Munich Helles this is a light lager, it is somewhat lighter and less hoppy than the Kolsch. For years, I’ve struggled to brew a light lager that met my standards. They were good but just didn’t turn out as smooth as I intended them to be.

Finally I realized it was probably the water. Our well water is absolutely delicious right from the tap. It is great water for brewing dark beers such as porters and hoppy, malty beers such as IPAs. But our water is high in minerals and carbonates; which is something to be avoided when brewing lighter beers.

For this recipe, I used 70% distilled water. That seemed to do the trick.

I think I will use distilled or reverse osmosis water for all of my light lagers and ales from now on.

9) Bavarian Doppelbock I have brewed some version of this recipe the last three years. Doppelbock is a malty dark high-alcohol lager.

One can only brew a true Doppelbock by using an all-grain recipe. The reason is because brewing a doppelbock requires a traditional brewing technique known as a “decoction brewing.”

A small amount of the mash (grain and water mixed together) is removed and then heated and boiled before returning back to the main mash. This caramelizes the mash somewhat and adds rich meaty flavors to the beer. Decoction brewing is much more time consuming and traditional brewing. One must also take care that the temperaturre of the main mash stays in target. If the mash is overheated, the naturally occurring amylase enzymes may get denatured before the starch is fully coverted to sugar- interfering with the success of the brew.

The first time I brewed this, I took my time and did five decoctions. Last year I was short of time (and I admit  maybe a little bit impatient)  so I did only three decoctions. Even though it still won a medal, I noticed a difference. This year I did five decoctions; I am much more pleased with the results.

Sometimes good things really do take time and cannot be rushed.

10) Raspberry Sour Weisse I must confess: as a rule, I don’t like most fruit beers. They lack complexity and are often sweet and overly fruity for me.

If I want a beer, then I’ll have a beer.

On the other hand, if I want fruit, then I’ll have a  glass of  wine or a fruit mead, thank you.

However, I do love sour beers. Sour beers have become more trendy as of late. Some people love ’em and other people hate ’em. There seeems to be no middle ground. I’m in the former group. I LOVE sours.

Sours are more challenging to brew because they do not only use the beer yeast Sacchromyces cervisae but also wild yeast and bacteria, that can be less predictable and take more time. The tarness comes from lactic acid and other acids that are made by the wild yeast and bacteria- think sourdough but as a beer.

After having mastered every other brewing technique I finally mustered the courage to venture into making sours. I was cautious, not only did I not want to screw up and entire batch of beer, but I also didn’t want to accidentally infect all of my brew equipment and make 100% sour beers from now on.

For this beer I used a wheat beer recipe as my foundation. There is a sour beer category, “Berliner Weisse.” However, my recipe is technically out of style for a Berliner Weisse because that  is a low alcohol beer- only aobut 3% ABV- whereas my beer is about 5%.

Using a sour mash technique (ever heard of sour mash whiskey?) I had read about in the book “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing,” I added Lactobacillus cultures and let it ferment at about 100 degrees for two days.

Lactobacillus is the same bacteria used to make yogurt- and that is what it smelled like- sour milk. Yuck!

The recipe cautioned to not become too distressed by the smell- and reassured me that it would go away with time- which it did.

I am very familiar with Lactobacillus, I use it when making yogurt and cheese. It is the exact same bacteria that makes Sauerkraut sour and which is also growing in my sourdough culture. Gotta love Lacto!

After the mash was suffiently sour to taste, I sparged and boiled the wort as usual.

I pitched an American Wheat yeast; I avoided Bavarian Wheat yeast because I didn’t think the banana-like esters would go well with the tart fruitness of a sour beer.

Once primary fermentation was done, I added 12 lbs of raspberries. It took about 8 months before  it was ready to keg. It is still slightly cloudy but that is not considered a fault in a sour beer.

Although the Raspberry Sour Weisse is kegged, I have the beer line disconnected most of the time. This beer is SO darn good, it would be very easy to go back for seconds and thirds, and ending drinking the entire batch ourselves after a few months.

I’d really like to have some to share at our Oktoberfest. Thus, I only connect the beer line when drawing off a small glass and then disconnect it again.

11) Mosaic Dry-Hopped Hydromel I love the complexity imparted into Belgian beers by the yeast. This character has been described as spicy, peppery, clove-like and earthy.

With this low-alcohol sparkling mead (hydromel), my goal was to create something remniscent of a thirst-quenching complex Belgian beer- to be enjoyed on a hot summer day- but which wasn’t actually a beer.

I used homegrown honey of course and fermented with Wyeast Belgian Ardennes yeast.

After primary fermentation was over, I added crushed coriander seed and orange peel- just like a Belgian Wit beer.

Then I dry-hopped using the Mosaic hop. Dry hopping is a technique of adding hops to the beer (in this case, the mead) after active fermentation is over. Dry hopping imparts the aroma of the hops but without adding much bitterness, compared to if the hops were boiled. Because there is no maltiness in a mead to balance the bitterness of hops, I decided to dry-hop.

The Mosaic hop is a newer variety of hop known for its complex fruity aroma which has been described as having mango, lemon, citrus, earthy pine, tropical fruit, herbal and stone fruit notes.

The Mosaic Dry-Hopped Hydromel turned out better than expected. It’s really good and quite unlike any mead I’ve ever brewed before. The Belgian yeast and complex hop aroma seem to blend together well.

I have hopes for winning future medals with this mead.

 

Future Brews…

So that’s it for my current inventory.  I do have a variety of meads in the bottle from previous years, as well as my Black Magic Double Imperial Stout.

To my surprise, I won three medals at the Mazer Cup this spring (A Gold and two Bronzes). The Mazer Cup is the international competition for both home and commercial mead-makers. I will write more about that in anothe post.

So what am I thinking about making in the future? Hard to say. I have a few ideas.

The second most fun part of homebrewing is creating and perfecting recipes. (The most fun part is sharing with friends and enjoying a glass yourself).

I have the ingredients and have created a recipe for making a Sour Cherry Braggot. A Braggot is a mead made with barley malt- think of a beer/mead hybrid.

To make this recipe even more complicated than brewing a traditional braggot, I’m planning on making it another sour using the Wyeast Roeselare Ale Blend  culture #3763 . This Lambic style culture consists of a blend of yeast/bacteria cultures including Belgian style ale yeast strain, a sherry yeast strain, two Brettanomyces strains, a Lactobacillus culture, and a Pediococcus culture. It will take 1 to 2 years before it is ready. Good things come to those who wait.

Fermenting a sour mead is not commonly done- why shouldn’t I be one of those few who do? I  love mead and I love sour beers- I expect that a sour braggot will combine the best of both.

However, I cannot brew this recipe or any others until I bottle and/or keg some of my current stock. I don’t have any more empty carboys to ferment and age them in.

Yes, it is a difficult situation: too many ideas of future  brews to make, with too few carboys to store them in.

I guess another option could be to just go out and buy another carboy… or two or three… But our house is already full of carboys lined up in rows and tucked into spare corners.

I think bottling and kegging it will be…

Until next time, be well.

 

Possibilities….

Kegs
Happy New Year!

It’s a beautiful sunny day with clear blue skies but looks are deceiving- it is ten below zero outside right now- and that is straight temp- not wind chill.

I’m taking a break (ie procrastinating) from a review article I’m finalizing for publication next month.

I have continued to be extremely busy at work since the relocation of one of our associates out to the area this summer.

Thus, I haven’t had much free time- and definitely no free time to write or post about personal stuff here.

Whereas most people only see in the photo only some shiny 5-gallon kegs washed and cleaned– in those twelve empty kegs I see endless possibilities…

It’s time for me to plan my brewing year!

Will I repeat a favorite recipe?

Will I try improving upon a brew I’ve made before?

Or will I try something entirely new?

I’ve already got a Bavarian Doppelbock planned- I hope to brew it next weekend or the weekend after that. I’ve won medals with that recipe every time I’ve brewed it. Two years ago, I did 5 decoction mash. Last year I was impatient; I did not want to take the time to do so many decoctions- so I only did 3. Although I won a medal again with it again this year, there was a noticeable difference. This year, I will do 5 decoctions again.

Decoction mash is a multi-step process in which part of the mash is removed to be heated separately. This does several things: it breaks up the starch molecules which permits a higher degree of extraction and allows us to obtain  the crisp, dry maltiness characteristic of many German beers.

When making bocks and Doppelbocks, it is impossible to fully replicate these styles by using malt extract recipes only. All grain brewing with decoction mashing allows the Maillard reaction to occur which is essential to achieve that rich “meatiness” of these styles. (think how flavorful the brown caramelization of roast meat in the oven is- thats the Maillard reaction).

I’ve never made a Munich Helles- so that too is also on my brew list to be made this winter while the weather remains cool enough to brew lagers. Our mountain aquifer water is outstanding for brewing dark beers and IPAs but hard water is not so good for light beers- so some closer attention to adjustment of brewing water will be in order.

As for other beers I will brew this year? I haven’t decided yet.

After brewing for almost 20 years, my own personal preference is for “big” beers- definitely no Bud Light or any other light American lagers for me- I consider those to be beer-flavored carbonated water.

When I say I prefer “big” beers, what I mean is a beer that is memorable, one that stands out from the crowd and which makes an impression. This could be a highly-hopped IPA,  or it could be a rich dark high-ABV (high alcohol) Russian Imperial Stout, or even a complex sour Belgian-style beer.

However, no one wants to drink the same kind of beer all the time- certainly not me- that would be boring. Life is short. The types of beer to be made and sampled are endless.

Someone asked me once, “You brew a lot, what’s your favorite beer?”

My reply: “I don’t have a favorite– but free and cold is always a great place to start.”

Almost more than the brewing itself, I enjoy sharing my creations with family and friends (As you might imagine, I have acquired a many friends who are willing to sample my beer). I try to brew for a wide variety of palates.

Suffice to say, whatever brews I make this year- it will be a wide variety of styles. Every year, I try to brew a couple of lighter ales and lagers, some middle of the road “not-too-dark, not-too-light, not-too-bitter” styles, always always an IPA (the hoppier the better), a complex Belgian or two- then some darker beers, preferably those with a higher ABV.

As a competitive homebrewer, I am always seeking unique recipes to win another medal- or a completely new style I’ve never made before to challenge my brewing skills.

Last year I won a number of medals at our local competition: 1st place Light Ale for my Kolsch, 1st place Dark Lager for my Doppelbock, 1st place Belgian-French for my Saison, 1st place in the Specialty category for my Double Imperial Stout (which went on to get 4th place in best of show) and then 3rd place IPA. I think it is now time for me to think about entering more regional/national competitions.

Our honeybees produced almost 300 lbs of honey this year. It was a amazing year for the bees- the rains did not stop and so the flowers bloomed and bloomed. Our bees were happy- so were we.

Much of the honey will be sold, but some I will use for making mead (honey wine).

I’m planning on making a berry melomel pyment. Melomel is mead made with fruit; pyment is mead made with grape juice. I will use elderberries, blackberries, black currant, and cherries- plus the juice of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes- along with wildflower honey from our bees- and then age long term on oak.  I intend for this to be a mead version of a deep dark red wine . I think I will call it: “Berry Py” but this will be dry and complex- not sweet.

I ‘d also like to make a carbonated hydromel. Hydromel is a low alcohol mead- ABV only 5 to 7%.  I am planning on using a Belgian Saison yeast to add some of those complex phenolic spicy notes which Belgian beers are known for- and then dry hopping it. It will definitely be unique- I hope that it will also be good.

Finally, I’ve never made a metheglin and would like to try.  Metheglin is mead made with herbs, vegetables or spices. I envision making a ginger metheglin, leaving just a touch of residual sweetness and then carbonating it- it would be like an alcoholic ginger ale- but for grown ups only.

I have a pear melomel and a raspberry melomel from last year still bulk aging- a little more time in the carboys will do them some good. There’s no rush to bottle.

If I don’t forget to submit my entries in time (as happened last year); I hope to enter my meads into the International Mazer Cup in Boulder, CO. Not a problem missing the competition last year. Mead, like many wines, improves with age.

It will be an interesting and valuable learning experience to get the feedback of judges. I was hoping to attend in person but because of the flooding from the heavy rains this summer, the venue has been damaged and the public event has had to be postponed until 2015.

Ok enough daydreaming about future brewing and mead-making. It’s time to get back to editing that review article.

I wish you all a happy, safe and prosperous 2014!

A Perfect Autumn Breakfast…

Autumn Breakfast

I haven’t posted anything for months and months.

I’ve been extremely busy with work. In my spare time I’ve been busy planting, weeding and harvesting our vegetable garden, finishing a chicken house for our fifty new pullets, constructing a duck house/tool shed in the garden, working with our honeybees and practicing new songs on my fiddle…

I haven’t had much time to run, but that will change soon. This is an ultrarunning blog after all.

After spending all week in front of a computer at the office, the last thing I’ve wanted to do is sit in front of the computer writing a post when I could be outside actually doing something instead.

This morning I enjoyed the perfect homegrown Autumn breakfast:

Homemade yogurt made from home-produced milk from our dairy cow, Mariah.

Sweetened with honey from our own honeybees…

Then topped with delicious juicy-tart raspberries picked from our garden…

Breakfast can’t get much better than that.

 

She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, When She Comes…

Shell be coming round the mountain...This song needs no introduction. Everyone of us has sung or at least heard “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain…”

The melody for the song was originally an Old Negro spiritual “When the Chariot Comes“, about the second coming of Christ written in the 1800s. The “She” in the song originally refers to the chariot that Christ would be driving.

She’ll be coming ’round the mountain when she comes…
She’ll be coming ’round the mountain when she comes…

She’ll be ridin’ six white horses when she comes……
She’ll be ridin’ six white horses when she comes…..

Oh, we’ll kill the old rooster when she comes……
Oh, we’ll kill the old rooster when she comes……

Oh, we’ll have chickens and dumplings when she comes……
Oh, we’ll have chickens and dumplings when she comes……

Oh, we’ll all come out to meet her when she comes……
Oh, we’ll all come out to meet her when she comes……

We’ll be shoutin’ Hallelujah when she comes……
We’ll be shoutin’ Hallelujah when she comes……

She’ll be coming ’round the mountain, she’ll be coming ’round the mountain,
She’ll be coming ’round the mountain when she comes…

In the late 19th century the song spread to Appalachia where the current lyrics were developed. Later it was sung by railroad work gangs in the across the US. It was first published in print by Carl Sandburg in 1927.

It is now thought of as an old folk song for children.

Click on the photo above or click here  to listen to me playing:

Spring is here (and then it wasn’t)

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The last few weeks we’ve had some sunny warm days in the 60s and 70s.

The bluebirds have returned, as have the robins.

The grass is turning green, the tulips are sprouting, and the daffodil buds are almost ready to bloom.

Spring is here!???????????????????????????????

A week ago, last Monday, I came home to discover the surest sign that spring has arrived: my honeybees were returning to the hive carrying pellets of pale yellow pollen on their legs. They probably found some willow or birch blooming down in our canyon.

I opened the hives to see how they are doing. I  found that one of the queens is already laying eggs and even has some capped brood (baby bees). The other queen hasn’t started laying but gosh did she look plump and fat- she is probably full of eggs. I expect that she will begin laying soon.

My bees are good girls!

Last weekend, I tilled in the composted manure and prepared our raised beds . I planted my peas planted as well as my outside spinach. A slight frost won’t hurt them.

Planting season has begun!

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???????????????????????????????We already have been harvesting fresh salad greens from the hoop greenhouse for several weeks. There is nothing like eating fresh homegrown salad of spinach, arugula, Tai tsoi, lettuce, claytonia, mache, and baby kale.

We’ve also have continued to dig fesh carrots right out of the garden. Last year I planted a variety of orange, yellow and purple carrots.

When cold weather came, I covered the carrots with a foot of straw and then clear plastic to keep in the warm of the sun and prevent the ground from freezing solid. After several weeks of cold weather, the starch in the carrots is converted to sugar.

Carrots wintered underground are the sweetest you’ll ever taste.

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Eating locally grown foods is an emerging trend- well there is nothing more local than eating what we’ve grown ourselves a hundred yards out our back door, now is there?

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My transplants have been started including peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, leeks and onions.

In a few weeks, the leeks, onions and cabbage family will go outside into the garden- they can tolerate a mild frost.

Already I can see the garlic and fava beans I planted last fall beginning to sprout from the ground where they spent all winter.

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The tomatoes. peppers and eggplant will go in the hoop house a couple of weeks before our last frost date (around mid-May).

Then after all of the warm sunny weather we’ve had, this week we had a early spring blizzard. The clinic was closed for two days. Nothing to do but stay home and catch up on inside stuff.

???????????????????????????????Everyone was actually looking forward to the snow. we have been in such a drought, all precipitation is welcome. Plus, the snow from these late winter/early srping storms melts in a day or two.

The Rapid city airport got 25 inches of snow. Unfortunately and as usual, we didn’t get quite as much as everyone else got- we got maybe a foot of snow- if that.

Winter is not over yet, there is still a chance we could get another storm in the next couple of weeks.

To be honest, I’d welcome getting another couple of feet (after our current snow melts).

Wildfire!

Wildfire 2013

My family and I live “up in the trees” as they say here in western South Dakota. We live at 3800+ ft elevation in the Ponderosa Pine forest of the Black Hills.

I find it interesting when I travel across the United States, how often others say when I tell them I live in western South Dakota, “Oh I’m sorry!”

They really have no clue what it is like here.

Last week I was in Kansas City. Someone said, “Oh you should move to Kansas, it’s very beautiful. You’d love it.”

To which I replied, “I’m sure it is very nice, but it is not as beautiful as where I live…”

They tried to convince me otherwise and started listing all the positives of living in Kansas: strong midwestern sense of community, good schools, etc.

We have all that, of course- plus beautiful scenery, countless outdoor recreational opportunities, mild winters (for the Midwest), cool dry summers (without the unbearable humidity of places further east)

It is true; much of the rest of the state of South Dakota is either the Great Plains prairie- or where there is more moisture further east, cultivated farmland.

But that is not how it is where we live.

The Black Hills are mountains and foothills, some approaching almost 7000 ft elevation at their highest. It was the ancestral home of the Lakota and other indigenous people, and remains a special sacred place.

One does not need to be Native American to understand that the Black Hills are special beyond only their physical beauty and unique geography. The connection and love one feels for a place is difficult to describe in words. It is as if this land has become almost an extension of myself. I can only begin to imagine how someone might feel whose family has lived here for generations.

Here, as in much of the mountain west, the Ponderosa Pine is the climax species. The Ponderosa is a species born of fire. The natural history of Ponderosa pine forests is for there to by low intensity brush and grass fires every 5 or 10 years. Pine cones open in the heat of a fire; the seedlings sprout eagerly afterwards.

More recently, with human  intervention, such low intensity fires do not happen as often.

Years of fire suppression combined with years of drought and acres of pines killed by the mountain pine beetles and needle blight- are a recipe for more severe and widespread intense-hot full-canopy fires.

Every place has its share of natural disasters to worry about. There are earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida, tsunamis in Alaska and tornadoes in Oklahoma. Nowhere is completely immune.

Here our greatest fear is forest fire.

Last summer, when smoke drifted in at 2AM from forest fires 100s of miles to the west, I was awakened from sleep. I could not go back to bed until I had walked outside and reassured myself by making sure the glow of flames was not to be seen.

Last year, the first wild fire of the season was in March. Normally our forest fire season does not begin until June or July. The drought is partly to blame.

Well, in 2013 it turns out that the first brush fire of the year in the Black Hills happened to be on our property!

On Monday, the day after Easter, Nathaniel went out to feed the chickens and let them out of their coop. He noticed smoke a few hundred yards away.

He went over to investigate. Fire was burning in the grass and brush. Nathan tried to beat the flames down with a large stick but immediately realized the futility of it.

He ran to our cabin and told Jeanne.

It was right about this time that I called home to talk to Jeanne as I often do over my lunch hour.

Nathan answered the phone.

I asked where Mom was, “Oh she’s out fighting the fire.” He said it as if it were a completely normal and expected thing for her to be out doing on a Monday over the lunch hour.

What?!?! A FIRE?!?!!?” I responded.

Yeah Dad, we have a fire burning.”

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I hung up and called Jeanne on her cell phone. She was out at the brush fire.

The sheriff and fire fighters had been notified but they not yet arrived at the scene.

Jeanne was amazingly calm. She was much calmer than I would have been. My wife is an amazing woman.

Being a work day, none of our neighbors were home. It was fortunate that the fire happened to occur on the day after Easter, Nathan was out of school and at home and he went out to feed the chickens when he did.

It is also fortunate that like his Mom and Dad, Nathan is one of those people who is usually pretty observant of his surroundings.

Many people might have walked outside looking only at the ground and never noticed the smoke rising on the horizon. There is no telling how long this fire could have burned if Nathan had not seen it.

The fire came across our property line from our neighbors. The week before, there were a few inches of snow and they burned their brush as is legally permitted when there is snow on the ground. Most of us stack brush piles from firewood-cutting and brush-thinning waiting for such snowy days so we can safely and legally burn.

The following weekend, they put new dry brush over the same area where they had burned the previous week.

Big mistake.

Hot embers can remain for weeks or even months. The embers caught the brush on fire- then it spread to the neighboring grass.

All told, it burned about a half-acre total before it was extinguished.

We are fortunate to let our horses graze down our late summer pastures in our forest fairly aggressively. We do this on purpose. Grazing off the dead brown grass in the late summer does nothing harmful to the living grass roots underground. It does remove fuel for to minimize the severity of wild fires such as this.

Also fortunately the trees on our land have already been thinned very well by the previous owners.

If the fire had burned another couple hundreds yard onto another neighbors property which has not been thinned, it might have gotten into the trees themselves instead of burning only grass, fallen pine needles and brush. The situation could been an entirely different.

Our neighbors called and apologized. They felt absolutely terrible. I can only imagine how bad I would have felt if it were me who had caused the fire.

Of course, feeling sorry about something that was unintentional and accidental still would not replace a house- or a lost life. Luckily, it was only some grass and brush that burned and nothing else. This fire could definitely could have been much worse- much much worse- it is frightening to think about what it could have happened had the day been windier.

And hey, I just realized that there is a positive side—-at least now we have a nice fire-break already burned to protect us for the next time our neighbors accidentally start any more wild fires….

Ole Joe Clark

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Here’s another fiddle tune which I’ve been learning: “Old Joe Clark.”

Either click on the photo above or click here to listen to the video.  The back up guitar that you hear is from the excellent website “Old Time Jam.”

“Old Joe Clark” is an old mountain ballad from Kentucky and is one of the more popular traditional old time fiddle songs.

There actually was a real-life individual named Joseph Clark.  According to a biography by Lisa Clark, Joe  Clark was born in Clay  County, Kentucky on September 18, 1839. He married Elizabeth (Betty)  Sandlin  when he was 17 and she was 15.

When the  Civil War began, Joe was 22 years old and enlisted but  became ill during  the winter months and was discharged  in 1862. After the war, he  resumed farming  and lived in the log house on Sextons Creek that had been built by his family.

He also operated a country store and ran a  moonshine still, under license from the state. He sold his whiskey from an ox cart as well as at his store.  Joe earned a notorious reputation in the local area, his wife left him around  1864.  There are several stories surrounding his murder around 1885/1886. He is buried in the family cemetery on Sextons Creek.

Around that time there was popular tune which did not  have  lyrics, so some  started making up rhymes to be sung with the tune.  Others claim that the ballad came first and the melody later. There are estimated to now be about 90 stanzas in various versions of the song.

Some of the more popular lyrics are as follows:

Old Joe Clark’s a fine old man
Tell you the reason why
He keeps good likker ’round his house
Good old Rock and Rye

Old Joe Clark, the preacher’s son
Preached all over the plain
The only text he ever knew
Was High, low, Jack and the game

Sixteen horses in my team
The leaders they are blind
And every time the sun goes down
There’s a pretty girl on my mind

Old Joe Clark had a yellow cat
She would neither sing or pray
She stuck her head in the butermilk jar
And washed her sins away

Old Joe Clark had a house
Fifteen stories high
And every story in that house
Was filled with chicken pie

I went down to Old Joe’s house
He invited me to supper
I stumped my toe on the table leg
And stuck my nose in the butter

Fare ye well, Old Joe Clark
Fare ye well, I say
Fare ye well, Old Joe Clark
I’m a going away

If you pay attention, you’ll notice early in the song I get off from where the guitar is and also where my bow slips on the E-string a bit (oops….screeeeech!!!). Later in the song I relax and it sounds a little better. I have a lot to learn about old time fiddle shuffling with my bow.

Considering I began to teach myself this tune only two weeks ago and I’m still a beginner with a great deal to learn- it’s not too bad.

I’ve played guitar and clawhammer banjo for over 20 years. You can see some of them hanging on the wall behind me. I enjoy all of my instruments but I just LOVE the fiddle. It’s a beautiful delicate little instrument with such a lovely expressive voice.

I’ll post more videos of new songs as I learn them. As my fiddling gets better, I might even repost new videos of the same songs so you can see how I’m improving.

Winter Garden, Free Range Hens, Honeybees in February and Playin’ my Fiddle

I haven’t posted lately, or for that matter read or commented on anyone else’s blogs. I’ve been busy with a number of other things, but alas not with running or with posting in this blog. ???????????????????????????????

After I finished our hoop house last fall, I planted spinach, dwarf red flower peas, mache, bok choy, komatsuna, mizuna, tat tsoi, lettuce, claytonia, arugula and a variety of other greens. Most of the seedlings sprouted during the warm winter days.

Then came the deep dark of mid December through January. The soil in our unheated hoop house froze solid. The little seedlings didn’t die but they didn’t grow either. I worried that they would freeze during some of the sub-zero nights.

???????????????????????????????Now the days are just a little longer, the sun is just a little higher.

I barely noticed it but the seedlings have. The seedlings not only survived but they have started growing again slowly. In a few weeks we should have our first late winter home-grown salad.

We are really looking forward to our first taste of the lush-green goodness of spring…

Next year I will plant my winter salad greens much earlier- in September instead of in November as I did this year. That way we’ll be able to harvest homegrown salad greens throughout the winter.

This weekend, I planted my onion and leek seeds in flats to sprout and grow in a sunny south facing window. They will be tranplanted outside in April.

The tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts and other transplants do not need to be planted for several more weeks. They don’t need as long to grow before transplanting as do onions and leeks.

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The outdoor vegetable garden appears to be sleeping quietly under the snow.

It looks like not much is going on… but the microbes and other organisms are still there, still active and still very much alive. The earthworms have burrowed deeper to get below the frost line but will come back up to the surface in a couple of months. I put a layer of horse manure over my raised beds so the garden will be ready to go once spring  and planting time finally comes.

We are very fortunate to live where we do. Although we certainly get our share of cold and snow, it is always short lived. In a day or two, the sun will return. So much the better for warming our hoop house, and for raising our spirits and moods as well.

When we were planning on relocating from Wisconsin to South Dakota a few years ago, I was amazed by how many people said and said with such authority, “Oh yah, you know you’re movin’ to another cold and snowy place just like here!”

When I replied, “Oh no, western South Dakota won’t be at at all like Wisconsin! It’s much warmer in the winter and cooler and less humid in the summer!” I’m pretty sure that none of them believed me.

In the winter we can get a cold front, with low temps overnight dipping down into the below zero range. But then a day or two later it almost always warms back up into the 40s and 50s. 

I  don’t mind some cold weather in the winter, I just prefer not having it for weeks on end.

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As you can see, our flock of laying hens have enjoyed our warm sunny days too. We have a number of customers who love our free range eggs. You cannot purchase eggs like this in the grocery store.

I believe our hens to be among the most spoiled chickens there are. Happy hens lay delicious eggs. Besides feeding them a variety of scratch grains every day, they get any old collard, kale or cabbage plants from the garden, extra winter squash we haven’t gotten around to eating as well as any leftover table scraps.

They also get to eat all of the spent malt grains after I make a batch of beer. Spent malt is basically like a soft cooked whole grain gruel.  It hasn’t been fermented so there’s no alcohol in it- I can only imagine how happy those hens might be if there was!

There is such a demand for our free range eggs that we are thinking of expanding our flock. We’re thinking of getting 50 chicks this spring.

Now I just need to get that chicken coop finished!!!!

Our bees are snug as a bug in their hives. On warm days over 50 degrees they’ll remove any bees that have died and fly out of the hive to empty their bowels. Only a sick bee will poop in the hive. ???????????????????????????????

Some of the older bees, sensing that the end is near, will go on one last flight out of the hive never to return. It will save one of their sisters from having to carry their body out of the hive after they die. It is a final act of self sacrifice for the good of the hive.

A few weeks ago on a warm sunny day, I cracked open the top of two of the hives to take a quick peek.

They buzzed slowly in the cool temperatures. Plenty of honey. Good. There are many reasons why a hive does not survive the winter: parasitic mites, diseases such as Nosema, a failing queen or no apparent reason at all. It’s hard to be a bee. At least this year, our bees won’t starve.

We’re thinking of expanding the number of our hives to ten, the maximum number that can be kept in an apiary (yard where beehives are kept) in South Dakota. If we want to have more hives than that we’ll need to find another location. I’m sure we won’t have any difficulty finding friends who’ll let us keep some hives on their property in exchange for rent honey  ( or mead).

For my Christmas present to myself, I bought a new fiddle. I’ve been practicing,… and practicing… and practicing. I have started to grasp some more advanced techniques including playing double stop (two strings at the same time), using my fourth finger, and vibrato.

Someone asked, “Are you taking any lessons?”

I replied, “No. I’d rather teach myself.”

They were incredulous. They couldn’t believe it is possible to teach oneself how to play a musical intrument without an instructor. When some think , “You just can’t!” I believe: “Yes, I can!”

Plus, the internet is amazing. If you search You Tube, you can find lessons for how to do just about anything, including how to play the fiddle.

I am sure if I had some formal instruction, I’d proceed faster and make fewer mistakes along the way. However, I’ve always been one of those people who’d rather learn by doing than by repetition or memorization.

For example, rather than playing scales over and over- that’s boring!- I just learn several tunes in a certain key. Once I learn those songs well, I find that I have also learned what notes make up the scale of that key.

Learning new songs is much more fun than playing scales!

I found a wonderful website: http://www.oldtimejam.com/Jam.html It was created by an Atlanta neurologist who plays old time music, it has a collection of old time songs with guitar, banjo and/or fiddle. I can practice jamming with other instruments so that when I get a chance to do it with real people, I’ll be able to do it.

Jack o' Diamonds

Well, I will finish out this post with a video of me playing “Jack of Diamonds” also know as “Rye Whiskey” or “Drunken Hiccoughs.”

Click on the photo above or click on the following link to hear and watch it.

It’s an old folk tune, first made popular by Tex Ritter when he recorded it in 1932. However, this song existed in various forms for hundreds of years before that. The melody is believed to be from an old Scottish song “Robie Donadh Gorrach.” There are dozens if not hundreds of variations of the melody and lyrics. 

A version dating back to the Civil War is:

Jack o’ Diamonds, Jack o’ Diamonds, I know you of old

You’ve robbed my poor pockets of silver and gold…

It’s beefsteak when I’m hungry, rye whiskey when I’m dry.

Greenbacks when I’m hard up, sweet heaven when I die…

 Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cry

If I don’t get rye whiskey oh I surely will die…

 

I’ll eat when I’m hungry, I’ll drink when I’m dry

If the Yankees don’t kill me, I’ll live until I die…

You’ll drink your fine brandy, and I will drink my wine,

You can drink to your true love, and I will drink to mine,

 I left my dear old mother to weep and to mourn –

I am a Rebel Soldier and far from my home!

My old worn overalls do give the video a real old-time hill-billy feel, now don’t they?

With everything else I’ve been doing, I haven’t been doing much running. I do miss it but there just isn’t time to do everything I’d like to. I’d like to start running again more consistently- I am sure I will once the weather becomes warmer. I must admit it’s been very nice having more free time to devote to other activities I’ve neglected these past several years.

Maybe instead of running 3 to 5 ultramarathons a year I could cut back to just doing 1 or 2? Maybe I could even just do some regular 26.2 mile marathons or even some halfs? There’s nothing at all wrong with shorter events, nothing at all.

Everyone…. hug your loved ones, live life, dance, smile,  sing, play music, run, be well and and think of spring!

Hoop House Finished! (Almost!)

I have gardened in many regions around the country: Nevada, Wyoming, Wisconsin and now western South Dakota- not to mention participating in my family’s garden as a child on the east coast.

I’ve found that western South Dakota is actually one of the more gardening-friendly climates (except for the hail!)

Although we do get occasional cold blasts from the north in the winter- these usually are only for a few days at the most.

We do not have the relentless wind of Wyoming, the weeks of dreary gray dark days without sun  and also not the fungus growing humidity of the Great Lakes region and the north east. Our summers are arid but not quite as dry as Nevada.

Indeed, some call the Black Hills of South Dakota the “Banana Belt” of the Midwest.

Don’t laugh.

We may not have any bananas growing anywhere near here but we do have peach trees and a number of other plants that one normally would not find unless one traveled hundreds of miles to the south.

The Black Hills blocks the cold winter temperatures and wind only a few miles away. Our microclimate is more similar to the Front Range of Colorado than it is to most other places in South Dakota. There is quite a difference in our microclimate where we live compared to other locations in the Black Hills.

When Lead/Deadwood is getting feet of snow, we might get only an inch or two.

The one thing we are do get here in the winter is sunlight. It is difficult to describe the bright beautiful winter days with clear brilliant blue skies to those who have never experienced them.

In many places, winter is a time of cold, dark gray days…it can be depressing!!!

Here, as in most of the west, even if we get a day or two of cloudy weather, we can take heart in knowing that we will see the sun in a day or two. I cannot recall ever going more than two days in a row without seeing the sun.

A drizzly foggy rainy day is rare, we look forward to such days when we have them.

When we were in Wyoming we built cold frames and subsequently a greenhouse (thanks Pop!)  in which we could grow salads in the winter.

It was fun than to have guests for dinner in January and ask, “Would you like fresh salad with dinner?”

When their answer was “Yes!” To their incredulity, I would invite them outside to trudge outside through the wind and snow.

Their initial look of skepticism became a smile when I opened the door to our green-warm salad-growing paradise.

Some people go on vacation in the mid-winter to southern sunny places-  we would just walk into our greenhouse to get an early taste of spring.

In the summer, we would grow warm weather crops such as tomatoes and eggplant that never did well in the high altitude cool nights of a Wyoming summer.

After we had left Wyoming and relocated to Wisconsin, I dreamed of having another greenhouse. I did not get a chance to build one however before relocating to western South Dakota.

After reading Elliot Coleman’s bible on cold weather gardening, Four Season Harvest, I was inspired to build a hoop house to grow salad greens in the fall and winter and warm weather crops in the summer.

Besides adding a few weeks of warm weather gardening each end of the season, I also wanted protection from the inevitable hail we have a few times every season which decimates our crops. Rather than glass or polycarbonate, my hope is that the hail will simply bounce off of the double wall cushion of polyethelene.

If not, then at least such a covering will be much less expensive to replace that polycarbonate or glass.

I started building our hoop house a couple of years ago. First I built the 12 x 20 ft base, then got a pipe bender to bend the chain link posts into hoops.

We have already been growing our tomatoes, peppers and eggplants there for two summers now- even before I had much else completed other than the base. Our rocky soil is not very conducive to growing vegetables, so I put in about 10 inches of compost and well-rotted manure for the vegetables to grow in.

Later, I constructed the end walls complete with a door and windows. Finally I added a ventilation fan with the ends covered with double poly-carbonate.

Every time I got close to finishing this project, something came up: a new writing project, another ultramarathon to train for, a new series of lecture to prepare for and so on.

After giving up most of my weekends this summer on a few writing and other work-related projects I was working on, I decided “Enough!” I took a few weekends off from doing much else other than catching up on work in our vegetable garden and finishing up the hoop house.

I purchased 6 mil greenhouse-grade UV-protected film from Johnnys Selected Seeds. I used two layers: to better conserve heat and (I hope) better withstand our inevitable hail.

I have a small fan that blows in air to keep the two layers separate. It’s basically a smaller version of the much larger commercial scale hoop greenhouses. The covering is supposed to last at least 4 years before needing to be replaced. We shall see.

Nathan and I got the covering placed last weekend- just in time for the first real snow of this winter. Inside the unheated snow covered structure it is 45 degrees right now- and today is cloudy and cold, in the low 30s. I still need to trim off the excess but I am waiting until the warm weather of spring so I can pull it tight (its easier to hold on the excess material when stretching the covering).

My only regret is that I didn’t get this covered sooner- if I had gotten it done in September I would have been able to plant it with cold resistant vegetables to harvest all winter.

Now, I will be able to plant, but may have to wait until the lengthening days of February and March before I see much growth.

Oh well, I look forward to  salad early next spring and winter salads all winter long in future years.

Some of the greens that I will plant for winter harvesting include: spinach, mache, chicory, winter lettuce, claytonia, arugula and various types of Asian greens including Tat tsoi, Pak choi, Hon Tsai Tai, and Vitamin Green and others.

It is not yet completely finished.

I need to add  a humidstat and misting system along with a plug in thermostat for the fan to keep it cool in the summer, seal the cracks with silicone caulk, plus add permanent electricity and bury the wire in a trench.

But at least now it is complete enough to begin dreaming of future planting…

I ordered some seeds today and will plant them as soon as they arrive.  More to come in the future…

Happy winter gardening!

Here comes the cold weather… farewell garden 2012!

In addition to my running and all of the other things I do,  I grow a HUGE vegetable garden every year.

Even if no one has yet been able to prove that food grown sustainably or organically is not healthier or more nutritious than food grown conventionally, that is not the reason why we grow some of our own food. Although it may be easier (and cheaper) to buy our food in the store like everyone else, I like how gardening keeps my in tune with the seasons.

There is nothing better than vegetables picked fresh from the garden only a few minutes ago.

An emerging trend is locally-grown food.  Well there is nothing more locally grown food than food  grown a hundred yards out your door!

Last weekend was our last warm weekend before the temperatures turned cold. I was busy harvesting the last vegetables and preparing the garden for the winter.

I worked a little bit on our hoop house, a project I began last year, which I haven’t completed yet. One of these years, I will get it finished; then we will be able to harvest cold weather crops and greens all winter long. The ends are up, all that I need to do now is put the covering into place.

I do enjoy those last few weeks of the garden season in the autumn.

In early spring, one dreams of the upcoming season; seeds are ordered and transplants begun. In early summer the first greens are enjoyed, but soon begins a flurry of activity as the garden is prepared and planted.

During the high season of summer, the warm weather crops are enjoyed but the weeding seems endless. In dry years, the need to irrigate is constant. I am grateful for automatic timers to ensure sufficient watering at the optimal time- late evening and in the middle of the night.

At  least once or twice a summer our garden is decimated by hail. My feelings are ambivalent with every summer thunderstorm: I hope for rain and dread the hail.

By the autumn, the days are warm and nights are cool. The need for weeding and irrigating have all but disappeared.

This is the season when cool weather crops are at their best: kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli, beets, carrots, mustard, chicory, arugula, spinach, and Asian greens such as Bok Choi and Tat Tsoi.

All that is left now is to enjoy the end of the season, to bring in the last of the root vegetables, to remove old dead plants from the garden, and to put away hoses and other garden tools.

Sometimes, by the end of the season, it is easy to be ready to be done with the garden and leave it as it is.

But the autumn is an important time; what we do in the autumn will often affect how the garden does the following year. It is a time to prepare the garden to “go to sleep” for the winter so it will be ready to go (ready to grow?)  the following spring.

I have heard it said that gardening is not about growing plants- given the right conditions they will do that pretty much themselves- but rather about building and maintaining the soil. I agree.

I am careful to never allow there to be open or uncovered soil for long. In the growing season, either mulch is applied or new crop planted. Open soil is asking for a weed to sprout, or for the soil health to degrade.

If there is a spot where one crop is harvested but I’m not ready to plant a new one, I make frequent use of green manures. I like buckwheat in the summer because it grows quickly and has a weak root system- plus my honeybees love the flowers. In the late summer/early fall I prefer to plant oats and berseem clover because they winter kill and are good for the tilth of soil.

We make good use of compost. All weeds, kitchen leftovers that the chickens can’t eat and all old spent vegetable plants goes into the compost pile. I make layers alternating with chicken and horse manure.   In our arid climate, we need to add water to our compost pile- in the summer I have a sprinkler system that waters the pile for a few minutes a few times a day.

Our compost pile is full of red worms. Unlike the more common earth worm, red worms do better in manure or compost piles than in the garden soil. I have no idea where they came from but am very glad they are here.

After 6 months or a year, garden waste is converted to rich black gold. I apply it liberally to the garden every spring.

In the fall, I “single dig” parts of the garden. Unlike the more labor intensive and much deeper “double-digging” single digging involves turning over a spadeful of soil at a time and leaving it in place. I’ve tried both and didn’t think the extra effort of double digging is worth it.

We do have a rototiller, an original Troy-bilt. I use the rototiller primarily for mixing compost and manure into the soil, and preparing the seed bed in the spring. I inherited it from my Dad and remember as a child watching and listening to him work the soil with that rototiller every spring.

I love that machine. It is one of the few mechanical devices that I know how to work on and tune up- it makes me feel as if I have some mechanical skills- even though truly I do not. You could say I have worked out sort of a relationship with it.

Our native soil is rocky and calciferous- few things would grow well there.

However, very fortunately dark top soil was placed in our garden spot by the previous owners for which I am grateful. It is the best soil for growing, though a little bit “clayey.” Thus,  I make sure to add organic matter liberally every year to maintian a soft fluffy loam.

Sometimes, if I have extra horse manure, I will apply a few inches in the fall to avoid it being too “hot” or have too much nitrogen for the plants. By spring, the horse manure has decomposed in place enough for the soil to be perfect for planting.

Many cole crops such as kale and brussel sprouts can take a light frost, they even taste better after a frost compared to before.

The carrots can remain in the ground as long as they are protected with a mulch. As long as the ground is not frozen solid, they too can be dug all winter long. the taste of carrots also improves with the cold weather as starch is converted to sugars.

I also plant my garlic and shallots in the fall. They stay underground, covered with a light mulch of straw, developing roots, waiting for the first warm days of spring to sprout.

Garlic does well here, with some of our bulbs growing as large as the “elephant garlic” one occasionally sees in grocery stores- but our garlic has a rich earthy-spicy real garlic flavor that elephant garlic lacks. We grow an heirloom German hardneck garlic and plant cloves every fall from the previous years’ crop.

There are few things as good as roasted homegrown garlic eaten on homemade sourdough bread.

This year I tried something different. I planted my fava beans in the fall. Fava beans are very cold hardy, the plants can tolerate a frost of 10 – 15 degrees.

I thought, why stress about getting the seeds into the ground in the spring?  Why not just plant them in the fall and let them come up in the spring when the weather is right?

There are many other crops that could be potentially be suitable for this: peas, lettuce, radishes, mustard, spinach, some cole crops- basically anything in which the planting instructions say “plant in the spring as early as the ground can be worked.”

For years I have observed seeds come up as “volunteers.” These are seeds that were accidentally dropped or lost on the ground, later to sprout in the spring after spending all winter in the soil. It’s what weed seeds do.

Why not do the same with cold tolerant vegetables to save time and stress in the spring?

However, when I told others of my experiment, it’s amazing how many people told me, “You just can’t do that!”

Well, why the heck not?” I ask.

There is nothing worse than following conventional wisdom, or doing things the way we always do them, because that just the way that we do them.

This is true in gardening.. and also in science and in medicine.

At worst my experiment will be a failure, I’ll be out of the money it cost to buy a few seed packets.  Success or failure, I will learn a valuable lesson either way.

Soon it will be firewood cutting season. We heat our cabin mostly with wood, with propane for backup. Wood is best harvested the year before it will be needed and allowed to dry in the forest before it is brought up to the house to be burned.

There is a saying, “Firewood warms you twice: when you cut it and when you burn it…” more on this later. It’s time to get back outside and finish up the last of the fall garden chores.