Hawkshead Farm

July 28, 2010

So, this may be somewhat of a personal post, but I wanted to provide some kind of description of the past few months to help me get over the guilt I feel for not posting. I grew up on a medium sized farm in Connecticut. It is beautiful in every way, even the unbelievably messy wood shop, the weed-filled pumpkin patch, the leaky roof on the machine shed, and the peeling paint on the barn – it is all beautiful. Really, if I were to be honest, it is less of a farm, and more of a collection of unfinished projects. And through the past five years, I missed home and working quite a bit. So you can imagine what it is like to be home and hard at work with my Dad and brother.

Typically, I spend my time planting, building, fixing, weeding, string trimming, picking, eating, cooking, shoveling, haying, lifting, digging, and a host of other activities that keep me occupied. I have lists that look nothing like my Dad’s lists that we are trying to check off from. We are working on three gardens, with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, potatoes, corn, beans, asparagus, pumpkins, and squash in all various states ranging from struggling to flourishing. We are trying to get some organization and general cleanliness to the whole place – so far we have half of the barn, and most of the house cleaned done, and we are now waiting on a dumpster. We put up seven hay fields and over 1,000 bales last month, which was spectacular. We have all kinds of animals that practically own the place. We have three trucks that don’t work, but we are working on. We have a leaky roof to fix. We have unsplit wood. And the list could go on forever.

So in the next few weeks I hope to post about at least a few of the things that I have learned and discovered in the past few months, and on some of the projects I am working on.

DIY Still

January 18, 2010

Because Nirav, Chris and I are all interested in anything DIY, we wanted to try out making our own homemade still.  There are countless versions and variations scattered throughout the internet, and we tried to choose some of the best ideas and modify them to our own needs.  There are a number of characteristics that we wanted it to have.  First, we wanted it to be a pot still because we understood the mechanics and principles behind them.  The downside of a pot still is the near complete lack of reflux – meaning that you will end up with less pure alcohol, which tends to be fine for rum where you want some extra flavors, but is not so good for vodka for example, where you want it to be as pure as possible.  Second, it had to be small and adaptable enough to use indoors on a standard kitchen stove instead of a clunky propane stove that you have to use outside.  Third, it had to be relatively cheap.  And fourth, it had to be easy to make.

The hardest part was deciding on a pot.  It needed to be fireproof, it needed to be sealable, and we wanted it to be glass so we could see and control the process as it happened (unlike in our big copper still).  We chose to invest in a pyrex erlenmeyer flask.  We bought the biggest ones we could find on eBay – 4000ml at the time (although 5000ml and 6000ml are also available).  Mine cost about $20 because of a small chip on the top, but generally they run for about $30-40.  This was by far the most expensive part of the entire still.

Everything else was pretty simple.  We bought 8′ of 1/4″ flexible copper tubing from the hardware store, two drilled rubber stoppers, and a small plastic trash can.  With the stopper in the top of the erlenmeyer flask, we ran the tubing out and coiled it into the trash can.  We formed the coil by wrapping it around a roll of paper towels, but you can make it any way you want depending on the size of your trash can.  We then cut a hole near the bottom on the side of the trash can and put the second stopper in where the copper tubing exited.

During operation, we fill the flask with about 3000ml of batch per run and put the trash can in a sink under a faucet.  Using a sink to cycle cold water through the trash can is the easiest option, although Nirav has rigged up an aquarium pump setup to cycle water that works great too.  If gas starts coming out, dump ice cubes in to try to get the water colder.  The advantage to using this still over our big copper one is that you are working with a smaller batch at a time, and you also have more control over the heat, so you can be more efficient and end up with more distillate.  Other than that, it works just like any other still, and can be made for under $30.

Distilling: Part 3

January 15, 2010


So, now that you have a wash and it has stopped bubbling, it is ready to distill.  First you need to rack it, which just involves siphoning most of it out to leaving behind the yeast sediment on the bottom.  Then take it and put it in your still.  

A basic potstill is made up of a few parts.  The pot is what sits over the heat source and where you put the wash.  In the wash, ethanol (alcohol) is evaporated before water because ethanol boils at 173°F vs. 212°F for water.  The now gaseous alcohol travels through the lyne arm, which is a narrow metal tube that comes out of the top of the pot and goes to the condensor coil.  The condensor coil is coiled metal tubing that sits in ice or cold water, where the gas is re-condensed back into a liquid.  The liquid then comes out the end as distilled alcohol.

So, now that you have some terminology down, fire up the still (preferably over a gas stove/heater because they are easier to control) and bring the batch to somewhere around 180°F.  After a tense period of waiting and talking about how the still is not working, you should start seeing clear liquid coming out the end of the still.  If you see gas coming out of the end, it means that your condensor coil is either not long enough or not cold enough, and you need to fix it to avoid losing more alcohol.  The liquid that comes out of the still first is called the foreshot, and contains acetone, methanol, various esters and aldehydes, which are mostly toxic and should be tossed.  Methanol is what causes hangovers in small quantities and blindness in large quantities.  The boiling point of acetone is 133°F, and methanol at 150°F, which is why they come out first.  There are online calculators that can tell you how much to toss based on the size of the batch, and I generally just double that amount to toss.  For a 3 gallon batch, I generally toss 50-100ml.

After that, you should be getting alcohol starting around 140 proof that will lower in concentration as you continue.  You can keep everything that comes out after the foreshot, but it is best to shut the still down when you hit a concentration of about 30% alcohol.  Because it is difficult to measure the alcohol content of hard alcohol, we (we=Nirav) developed a useful trick that gives you good ballpark estimate.  While distilling, periodically set a few drops of collected alcohol aside and see if it will light on fire.  If it does not burn, then you are at a point where you should probably stop the still.  You can also calculate beforehand how much waste and how much distillate you should expect, which is another technique to knowing when to stop.  A third technique is to use hydrometers at all stages of fermentation and distillation to calculate when the batch is done.  Here is a useful calculator for this.

The key to pulling out as much alcohol out of your batch as possible is to keep the water from boiling.  This can be done either with a thermometer or by turning down the heat once it gets going (this gives the alcohol more time to evaporate before the water starts boiling).  The amount of alcohol you end up with can vary drastically depending on how well you kept the temperature and how good your batch was.  I have ended up with anywhere from 2 to 5 wine bottles filled with about 100 proof alcohol from a 3 gallon wash of rum.

While distilling, it is sometimes better to keep the different parts of the batch separate.  Because you get different flavors at different times of the distilling process, if you keep the parts of the distillate separate, you can blend them back together at the end based on taste and smell for a more refined product.

Once you have distilled alcohol, you are nearly done.  All you have to do is water it down to taste (or not) and spice it.  Spicing recipes are totally up to personal preference.  It is best to use solid ingredients over ground ones because you don’t end up with solids at the bottom of the rum that you would have to filter out.  For our rum, we like to add one or two cinnamon sticks, two cloves, two oak chips, and a couple of spoonfuls of molasses and let it sit for about a week before taking the spices out.

Distilling: Part 2

January 10, 2010


The actual process of distilling takes some time to master, but thankfully allows or a fair amount of room to make mistakes.  Conceptually, distilling is the process of purifying or concentrating (due to different boiling points) a liquid by evaporation and condensation.  Making moonshine is really not too much more than that, you just ferment alcohol and then distill it through a still.  There are a million different ways to make moonshine, and the following method is just one way.  Part of the enjoyment of moonshining is that you can adapt the process to reflect the way you want to do it and the kind of alcohol you end up with, so I definitely recommend experimenting.

To make a batch of wash, you need yeast, somewhere to put the yeast, and something for the yeast to eat.  Wash is fermented alcohol that is used for distilling.  If you want to get any kind of results, you need some wine yeast, which generally costs less than $1 a pack.  Any kind works, we typically use Red Star Pasteur Red as a good general purpose yeast.  Pay attention to the % of alcohol the yeast can tolerate – this number is a rough estimate of the final alcohol content of the wash when it is done (assuming there is enough sugar for the yeast to eat).  As for a place to put the yeast, you probably want a glass carboy (although ghetto-rigged batches can go in anything).  Carboys can be bought for around $25 at any wine or homebrew store in different sizes.  You will also need a drilled rubber stopper that fits your carboy and an airlock.  We typically use a 5 gallon carboy with a #6.5 or #7 stopper and a standard carboy airlock.

Airlocks are essential to the fermenting process.  An airlock needs to keep oxygen out while allowing the carbon dioxide to escape.  When the yeast converts sugar to alcohol, the by-product is carbon dioxide.  If CO2 is not let out, it will build up so much pressure that it will explode.  Oxygen cannot be let in because it will promote the growth of bacteria which will contaminate the entire batch and render it useless.  If you don’t have an airlock, another simple way is to have flexible tubing run out of your sealed carboy into a glass of water.  Make sure the tubing and carboy are airtight and that the tubing is submerged in the water.  This will allow CO2 to bubble out freely without allowing any O2 to enter.  If you buy an airlock, make sure to add water or they will not work.

In terms of cleaning your supplies, I don’t recommend using soap because it will mess with the yeast and the resulting flavors.  If you can, use a mixture of 2 oz of potassium metabisulfite in 1 gallon of water and rinse it through everything.  If not, just use water and a clean sponge/brush without soap.

What the yeast will eat will determine what kind of alcohol you produce.  Homedistiller.org has amazing recipes for any kind of alcohol you might want to make, from rum to mead to whiskey.  Each of these is defined by what the yeast eats (ie: molasses=rum, honey=mead, grain=whiskey).  I suggest starting with rum, because the ingredients are easily available and cheap: molasses and brown sugar.  Starting with something like vodka (with potatoes) or whiskey (with grain) can be quite a bit harder because it is tricky to get the quantities right and to process the foods in a way that the yeast can consume it.

If you are using a 5 gallon carboy you should make about 3 gallons of wash to leave room for air and bubbling during the fermentation process.  To make a 3 gallon wash of rum, you need 3 2lb bags of brown sugar and a little under 3 gallons of hot water (for an average recipe of rum, the ratio is about 2lb of brown sugar per gallon of water).  Pour the brown sugar and some extra molasses into the warm water and stir until it is dissolved.  You can also add yeast nutrients, which you can buy at any homebrew store, to help along the process.  Then, pour it into the carboy and let it cool to room temperature.  If it is too hot or too cold when the yeast is added, the yeast will not be able to live.

Next open the yeast and add it to a couple of ounces of room-temperature wash and let it sit for an hour.  You can then add it to the batch and seal the carboy with the airlock.  But, if you are a perfectionist, or it does not look like it is foaming enough, add a few more ounces of wash, cover it, and let it sit overnight.  It should be foaming pretty heavily by the morning.  Place the carboy in a room that will keep a steady temperature (to keep the yeast happy) and will stay undisturbed (also to keep the yeast happy), and keep an eye on it for the first few days to make sure it does not overflow/burst.  It should be bubbling for at least a few weeks, if not one or two months.

Distilling: Part 1

January 3, 2010

Moonshining.  An art that nears extinction, killed by its own obscurity, its inherent difficulty, and the US government.  These are the conclusions that a few friends and I came to a few summers ago when we took our first try at distilling some alcohol.  The first few tries, to put it mildly, were a total disaster.  But with some help and some discoveries in the back of my barn, we managed to make some progress.

It began with Foxfire.  In the first Foxfire book, there is a section on moonshining that is inspiring, but barely helpful for the aspiring moonshiner. But it provides photos and stories of small and large scale stills out in the back woods of the Appalachian that are hard to forget.

So, Nirav Patel, Chris Lombardozzi, and I started out with only some vague ideas of what we were doing and no real leads.  I won’t really get into the failures that resulted from this to save our dignity, but some good did come; namely the discovery of homedistiller.org.  This site is the bible for moonshiners.

The other discovery was finding my grandfather’s still.  On a trip to my dad’s workshop in the back of our barn, which is notorious for being so messy it should be declared a disaster area, we discovered my grandfather’s old still.  It was absolutely amazing.   Here we were, not experienced in building failed stills, and there was a perfect one sitting right under our noses the whole time.  It is a homemade pot still, made out of copper, that was sitting under a few inches of dust.  It has a capacity of about five gallons, with a fuller bulbous head, an optional double-distiller attachment, and a steel worm-condenser with two overflows.  Simply put, this still makes me proud to carry on the family tradition.

The actual process of distilling takes some time to master, but thankfully allows some room for mistakes.  Conceptually, distilling is the evaporation and condensation of a liquid to purify it.  And distilling alcohol is really not too much more than that.  You just ferment alcohol and then distill it through a still.

Soapmaking: Part 3

January 2, 2010

I went all out during my first attempt at making soap.  I only used techniques that were used by homesteaders in the past.  I used potash to leech and collect the lye.  I used natural leaf lard from one of my dad’s pigs for the fat.  I even boiled down the lye to a solid to make for more accurate measurements.  But, as you can see from the pictures from Part 1 and Part 2,  it did not end well.

This time I was determined.  I bought commercial lye from an online store, and bought coconut oil and palm oil instead of using clarified pig fat (which means it is also vegetarian).  When Nirav came over, we sat down and built a recipe with an amazing online soap calculator.  We measured everything out to fractions of a gram.  We called in Helen Finegold and Chris Lombardozzi for reinforcements.  We kept our temperatures almost exact.  And somehow, it actually worked.  It worked so well that we were almost skeptical.  The difference between making soap from scratch and making soap from almost-scratch is incredible.

Our recipe (for 1lb of soap) was pretty simple:
4.8oz Coconut Oil
6.4oz Olive Oil
4.8oz Palm Oil
2.3oz Lye
6.1oz Water

The real quality and individuality of your soap comes from the recipe.  Having the right  ratios and types of oils can make or break a recipe in terms of hardness, cleansing properties, or lathering.  So for example, if you like hard soaps, you can build a recipe to reflect that.  The soap calculator we used is amazing, and allows you to modify everything and see the effects each change creates.

The process itself is pretty simple.  First measure out all of your oils, combine them, and get them to a liquid state with some heat.  They will probably end up at over 120 °F by the time they liquefy, which is fine.  Then measure out the lye and add it to the water.  This should fizz a little and get really hot from the reaction.  Get both mixtures to 110 °F (+/- 5 °F), and when they are both there, add the lye mixture to the oils, and stir – slowly at first, then quicker with either a whisk for about 20 mins as it thickens, or a hand blender for only a few minutes for the same result.  You can add any additives during this time.  It will thicken to the point where it will trace.  Tracing is when it is thick enough that you can dribble some of the soap over itself and it will be able to support the dribbles.  When it traces, you can put it into your molds, cover it up, and let it dry for about a day.  After that, you can take it out of the molds and let it cure for a few weeks.  The you are free to use soap that is totally organic, has no chemicals, and that you made yourself.

Soapmaking: Part 2

December 30, 2009

I wanted to make soap from scratch for two reasons.   The first was already generally discussed – I knew about the ethical and health problems associated commercial soaps and I wanted to try to do something about it.  But the second reason had slightly fuzzier objectives.  I believe that true knowledge is gained from struggle.  And so going through the fundamental processes of soap making was my way of struggling with the problem in order to uncover the fundamental ideas it contained.  I always remind myself that “scientists can explain the world through science, mathematicians can explain the world through mathematics, and sheep-herders can explain the world through sheep-herding”.  Also, I think because I grew up on a farm, I tend to enjoy old-fashioned, do-it-yourself projects.

So, by making soap from scratch, I was attempting to do something that is not done anymore by most people (including myself).  I was attempting to do something the hard way.  While doing it, I spent an entire day just thinking about soap.  I think that is a pretty powerful idea in itself.  Technology gives us width and breadth in our knowledge, but it often has a way of discouraging us to go deep into one particular idea.  But if we never go deep, how will we ever continue to discover those fundamental essences that make up our individual foundations?  How will mathematicians explain the world through mathematics if they are sitting on a computer being bombarded by incalculable amounts of stimuli?  How will the scientists explain the world through science if they are out with their credit cards wading through an endless number of possible shoes to buy?  And how will the sheep-herder explain the world through sheep-herding if Monsanto just bought all of his sheep?

Am I arguing that we should all boycott all commercial soap products and go home and make soap from scratch?  Of course not.  I only argue that we should be educated and aware of the environmental, health, and ethical problems present in modern soap making.

I have to finish by saying that if I was doing this 200 years ago, I would have been laughed out of town.  In the end my attempt was only a partial success.  I managed to create soap, but not nearly the amount or quality it should have been if everything went right.  After going through every step many times in my mind after the fact, I still do not know where exactly I went wrong – it could have been the lye, or the temperature, or the recipes I used, or the purity of the fat.  However, after thinking about it more, I began to appreciate my failure.  Even with all of my technology, my books, thermometers, scales, and electric stoves, my ancestors could still make better soap than I can.

But there will be a part 3.  I am planning on buying commercial lye online to try test and see if it was my lye that was the problem.  I also want to buy some coconut and palm oil and try out some “vegetarian” recipes.

Soapmaking: Part 1

December 29, 2009

Soap began as a simple technology; combine lye leeched from wood ash with water, and then add pure animal fat at the correct temperature to make soap.  But as most things in this world, advancements in technology have told us that we can do it better, faster, and cheaper.  And soap became just that: better at cleaning, easily available at any local grocery store, and cheaper.  But as this shift was taking place, names of unpronounceable chemicals began to be listed on the sides of soap packaging.   “Triclosan” is an FDA approved pesticide.  “Dioxin” is a chemical that was used in Agent Orange.  “Sodium Lauryl Sulfate” is a chemical that has numerous health risks, including cancer and infertility.  And stories of animal testing appeared on local and national news sites.  And some began to question.

Soap is just one small battleground in the larger war faced today.  I decided to make soap because it is often forgotten amongst the “Global Warmings” and the “Stem Cell Researches” that control popular discussion.  And it is a bit funny, “Who would ever bother to make soap?”