Sunday, December 04, 2016

Return of the meadmaker

As I write this, it's been just over four years since I last started a batch of mead. I've made beer/ale since then, but not mead. Considering that batch is what gave me the ice wine metheglin that received favorable reviews at the 2014 Texas Mead Fest. What made that batch successful (at least the ice wine version--plum and pear didn't turn out so well) was the fact that I'd finally learned the need to degas the must daily to release all the dissolved CO2 that can become toxic and stress the yeasts, as well as keep the fermentation temperature low--below 70F at least. I'd gotten into homebrewing by making ales, which ferment normally at high temperatures using (duh) ale yeasts. Put wine yeasts in the same conditions, and they stress greatly, creating fusel alcohols and off-flavors. So it only took me a decade of making mediocre meads to learn this--what can I say? I'm a slow learner.

Now, however, I was ready to put that earned knowledge to work. One problem though--the big, 6-gallon Mr. Beer fermentor (pictured above) was no more. Back this summer, when I brewed up 12 gallons of "In-The-Buff Brown Ale" for my book release party, I discovered the entire bottom of my Mr. Beer was ringed with deep cracks. I learned this when I tried to sanitize it for the wort, and the water I poured in spewed out the bottom almost as quickly. Color me depressed. I had other fermentors for the beer, but the Mr. Beer was special. Follow: Back when The Wife and I were planning the whole wedding thing, I went with her to Target, JC Penney and Dillard's to do the whole bridal registry thing. There's a reason it's called a bridal registry and not a groom's registry. The entire day (it was a Sunday, if memory serves) consisted of her saying "What do you think about these bed sheets?" or "How do you think this silverware would go with the china?" To which my replay was a variation of "Whatever you want." Late in the day, being quite tired and more than a little disinterested, I turned a corner in Dillard's and there it was, a huge Mr. Beer display at the entrance to the Men's section. My eyes lit up. A choir of angels began to sing in the distance. The Wife-To-Be said "Absolutely not." It was a preemptive no before I could say anything but I was not deterred. "Look," I said, "our wedding registry has 597 items picked out on it, of which I've contributed zero. I think I'm entitled." So I took the little barcode scanner and added Mr. Beer to our registry.

The next day, when I got home for work, that Mr. Beer was on the dining room table, waiting for me. Having it on our registry so mortified her that The Wife bought it for me just to keep it from the list. And I've been home brewing ever since. I particularly loved the Mr. Beer because it was clear, PET plastic, which let me watch the fermentation as it happens. That's not the case with opaque buckets. So when Midwestern Supplies had 6-gallon "Big Mouth Bubblers" on sale for Black Friday, including free shipping, I could not resist. These, like Mr. Beer, have a spigot, so there's no need to siphon. That makes racking and bottling very easy. It came in on Thursday. To get it ready, I needed to clean and sanitize it. Many homebrewers look down on using chlorine bleach for sanitizing, but I've had good success in the past. I capped the bung at the bottom with a borrowed spigot from a plastic bucket fermentor I have, and tossed all the other parts into the Big Mouth Bubbler, added a couple cups of bleach and filled up all the way with water in the walk-in shower. After that, I let it sit for the better part of a day.

I decided to put to use all my accumulated knowledge of meadmaking and approached this batch differently than in the past. I've learned a lot more about honey, for starters, and that a disturbing amount of bulk honey--even that labeled as North American sourced--is actually laundered from China and India, and contaminated with pesticides, antibiotics, etc. The way those countries get around bans on their contaminated product is by super-filtering to remove pollen. Honey's place of origin is determined by analyzing the unique pollen found therein, so if all the pollen is filtered out, there's no way to discover where it originated. In light of that, I went semi-local, and bought 7.5 pounds of Walker Honey Farm wildflower honey from HEB. They're based in Rogers, a town I know fairly well, and are the folks behind Dancing Bee Meadery, which produces some pretty decent meads. Also, I planned to make only 3 gallons this time. In the past I've always tried to make 6 gallon batches, and that's a lot of time and money gone to waste if it sucks. I figure 3 gallons is more manageable (one gallon batches are so small they're not really worth the effort).

First up, I had to dissolve the honey in water to make it fermentable. Honey is so dry, so to speak, that yeast and bacteria cannot survive in it. This is why honey is so resistant to spoilage. I heated a gallon or so of tap water on the stove to about 140F. Lots of homebrewers frown on using tap water, but I like New Braunfels tap water. Really, any place that gets its water from the Edwards Aquifer is going to have pleasantly-flavored water. Many meadmakers also frown on heating honey. I've long since passed the stage where I worried about contamination and pasteurized the honey for 30 minutes or more. I just heat the water because the honey dissolves so much more quickly that way. At 140F I cut the heat off, and as I stir in the honey, the temperature of the water drops quickly, so I'm not losing any significant flavors or aroma to boil-off.

Lots of stirring with a sanitized spoon to ensure it's all mixed in well. I keep intending to get a longer, plastic or metal spoon dedicated to homebrew, but have not yet gotten around to it. Again, some other brewers may look upon my use of a wooden spoon with horror, as it could be harboring all types of bacteria and wild yeasts, but it's fresh out of the dish washer and I've not had problems before.

In a tea kettle, I heated up some additional water to approximately 140F. This, I poured into the various jars of honey--now mostly empty--to recover as much honey as possible. There were some pretty thick layers of honey on the sides and bottoms of those jars.

After pouring in the hot water, I screwed the lid on tightly and shook like the dickens. You can see how much honey I recovered from those jars by the yellow hue the water took on. I poured this water in to the main pot and mixed everything together.

By this time, the honey-water mixture had cooled to below 110F, so I covered it and set it aside to continue cooling.

Now here's where things get interesting. The mead recipe I'm following this time is Bray's One Month Mead--known popularly as BOMM online. This did not exist the last time I made mead. It was invented by a fellow named Bray who experimented with using a bunch of different Belgian ale strains that had high gravity and high alcohol tolerances to find which ones might be useful for mead. Most beer yeast is stressed and/or killed by alcohol levels approaching that of wine, making them inappropriate for the most part. But Bray found that Wyeast 1388 Belgian Strong Ale produced a quality mead quickly at relatively high temperatures. The yeast's listed alcohol tolerance of 12 percent is solidly in the lower range of wine, so that's a plus. Until now, I'd only used dry yeasts--liquid was new for me. But I activated the packet as instructed and set it aside for six hours of so for the yeast to build up momentum.

I emptied the fermentor of the bleach water and rinsed it out thoroughly. You don't want to skimp on this part--bleach is not a good addition to mead or beer. Once everything was clean, I assembled the proper spigot in the bung and set up the airlock in the lid. With the honey-water must cooled, I poured that into the fermentor, then added cool water to bring the volume up to a shade over 3 gallons. To this, I added the additional ingredients as called for in Bray's recipe, tripling the dosage for my 3 gallons (his recipe was for 1 gallon): 3/4 tsp of diammonium phosphate (yeast nutrient) and 2-1/4 tsp of Fermaid K (different type of yeast nutrient). I then added 2-1/4 tsp of potassium bicarbonate. The original recipe calls for potassium carbonate, but that's not so easy to come by and I saw that most people online are successfully substituting the common bicarbonate with no ill effects. Shortly after this, I saw that Bray also has a 5-gallon version of his recipe up, which calls for 3/4 tsp of potassium bicarbonate--the same amount the one-gallon recipe called for, which I tripled. Oops. Will this negatively impact my mead? We'll find out. The immediate result was a ph reading of roughly 5 (the winemaking ph tester only went as high as 4.4, and it appears my color was slightly darker than 4.4) which is higher than honey's native acidity. Hopefully this will make the yeasts happy.

After pitching the yeast, I measured the specific gravity at 1.080, adjusted for temperature at 70F. If this is accurate (and it should be--reading a triple scale hydrometer is pretty straightforward--the mead should finish up around 10.4 percent ABV. This is a little lower than I'd intended. I the past, I've used 3 pounds of honey or more in my mead, and they tended to run closer to 14 percent ABV. Using the ale Wyeast 1388, I used just 2.5 pounds per gallon, shooting for a final ABV around 11-11.5. Depending on how the primary ferment goes, I may add a bit more honey in the secondary to boost that some. We'll see. The important thing is, the yeasts are happily fermenting away, and just a short while ago I shook the fermentor vigorously to release any built-up CO2, and was rewarded by a huge foaming eruption. Fortunately, the fermentor being only half-capacity allowed plenty of space for the degassing to rage. Fingers crossed that this one will be a winner.

Now Playing: Benedictine Monks of Sanot Domingo de Silos Chant Noel
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Friday, December 02, 2016

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

No subject has ever made such a popular subject for song as love. As long as humans have been making music, love’s far and away the top choice of lyricists to write about. Writing and discussing Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch, however, got me to thinking. Amid all that blissful romance, the darker flipside beckoned, and prostitution served as the inspiration for more than a few memorable songs. The Greeks and Romans sang about prostitutes, and minstrels in the middle-ages were more than a little bawdy. Cowboys of the American West favored songs so scandalous they could strip the needles from a cactus. It’s no wonder, then, that popular music of the modern era has produced countless songs about prostitution as well.

What follows in the coming weeks is a countdown of the top 10 songs (as compiled by yours truly) about prostitution of the modern era that were not inspired by the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel of La Grange, Texas. Between The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas soundtrack and ZZ Top’s “La Grange” (not to mention works by Willis Alan Ramsey, Billy Joe Shaver, the Austin Lounge Lizards and numerous others), the Chicken Ranch would simply have an unfair advantage.

8. “She Can’t Give It Away” – Barbara Fairchild
A minor hit in 1978 for Barbara Fairchild and later covered by Roy Clark, “She Can’t Give it Away” is a quintessential life-hits-rock-bottom country and western ballad. The song’s subject, a one-time “Southern beauty,” exploited her looks to live the easy, luxury life of a high-end call girl. One can imagine a woman with low self-esteem reveling in the superficial attention lavished upon her by suitors, never thinking that time might not be on her side. Now, decades later, the money’s gone and she’s just “an old and fading sunset/that once lit up the whole Savannah sky” with no home, no trade and no hope. The kicker comes in the next verse, where a man whose honest (but un-moneyed) affections she spurned decades before is now wealthy and prosperous, yet trapped in a loveless marriage. There are no winners here, in true country tradition. Alas, there's no official video, but the song speaks for itself.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Police.

Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse is now available from both Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com. It's also available as an ebook in the following formats: Kindle, Nook, Google Play, iBooks and Kobo.

Now Playing: The Smithereens 11
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Monday, November 28, 2016

Chicken Ranch discounted!

I don't normally post info about sales and such on my blog, but History Press is currently running a 50 percent off Black Friday sale on Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch that is good through midnight, November 30. The book normally retails for $24.99, so ordering a copy during this sale will put you back just $12.49. Let me put that in perspective: That's cheaper than I can get my author copies. So, if you're had my little book on your wish list, or plan to order copies as gifts for 30 or 40 of your closest friends and family members, now's your chance to save big. Note, this discount price is only good through History Press directly--I've got no idea what Amazon, B&N and the rest are doing.

Also, I wanted to give an update on my Waco signing that happened Saturday. It was pretty darn amazing, I have to say. The folks at Barnes & Noble were pretty busy, so I didn't get the relaxed bookstore chit-chat I normally engage in, but they were polite and welcoming in passing. But as soon as I got settled in, folks started arriving. Most of them had read the article, "Chicken Ranch realities: New book tells history of the infamous Central Texas brothel," which appears in the December issue of Waco Today, available now. It's a good write-up, and piqued the interest of more than a few readers. I had old Air Force vets come by and share their memories of visiting the Chicken Ranch while stationed at Bergstrom, and several La Grange ex-pats reminisce about the old days. Two were so interested in the Chicken Ranch that they bought the only two copies of Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch I happened to have with me, out in the car (these make great Christmas gifts as well. Just sayin'). I ended up going beyond my allotted time, which is a pretty good thing to say about a book signing. The B&N people were happy with the turnout, and gladly had me sign the remaining stock on hand. Who'd have thought Waco would become one of the high points of my informal Chicken Ranch signing tour?

Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse is now available from both Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com. It's also available as an ebook in the following formats: Kindle, Nook, Google Play, iBooks and Kobo.

Now Playing: Smithfield Fair Highland Call (Remastered)
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Friday, November 25, 2016

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

No subject has ever made such a popular subject for song as love. As long as humans have been making music, love’s far and away the top choice of lyricists to write about. Writing and discussing Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch, however, got me to thinking. Amid all that blissful romance, the darker flipside beckoned, and prostitution served as the inspiration for more than a few memorable songs. The Greeks and Romans sang about prostitutes, and minstrels in the middle-ages were more than a little bawdy. Cowboys of the American West favored songs so scandalous they could strip the needles from a cactus. It’s no wonder, then, that popular music of the modern era has produced countless songs about prostitution as well.

What follows in the coming weeks is a countdown of the top 10 songs (as compiled by yours truly) about prostitution of the modern era that were not inspired by the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel of La Grange, Texas. Between The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas soundtrack and ZZ Top’s “La Grange” (not to mention works by Willis Alan Ramsey, Billy Joe Shaver, the Austin Lounge Lizards and numerous others), the Chicken Ranch would simply have an unfair advantage.

9. “Roxanne” – The Police
Another low-ranking song because of its ubiquity, “Roxanne” stands out as the British New Wave group The Police’s first hit, despite the fact it failed to chart upon initial release. The song tells the deceptively simple story of a man who falls in love with a prostitute, imploring her to give up the life of a streetwalker. Few songs written by Sting are as simple as they appear at first glance, however, and closer listen reveals a demanding, possessive undercurrent in the singer’s pleas. The unspoken “or else” threat lingers ominously long after the song ends.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Animals.

Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse is now available from both Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com. It's also available as an ebook in the following formats: Kindle, Nook, Google Play, iBooks and Kobo.

Now Playing: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass !Going Places!
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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Who's tired of hearing about the Chicken Ranch?

I'm sure some folks are tired of hearing about the Chicken Ranch, but not too many of them are voicing that concern to me. Take last week, for instance. On Thursday, I found myself in San Antonio speaking at the Stone Oak Rotary Club. What a great bunch of people they were! Dean Bentle had caught my presentation last month at the Woman's Club of San Antonio and was, I suppose, entertained enough to invite me over to regale his Rotarians. They made for an engaged, interested audience and once all was said and done, presented me with the nice certificate there to the right, along with a Rotary emblem made entirely out of chocolate! Do they know how to treat a guy right, or what?

When I wasn't speaking to the Rotarians, it seems I was speaking with Joe Holley at the Houston Chronicle, putting him in touch with various sources for his November 19 column "Will Fayette County ever outlive its Chicken Ranch history?" The short answer: No.

Some people are reporting trouble with the link, so here's my key quote from the write-up:

"I'd say 45 percent of the population think it's part of Texas history, and they should exploit it," [Blaschke] said from his office at Texas State University, where he's director of media relations. "Another 45 percent don't give it any never mind. And maybe 10 percent of the population just about spews blood out of their eyeballs if you even mention it."
The article goes on to quote County Judge Ed Janecka as opposing any public acknowledgement of the Chicken Ranch, any marketing of it as a tourist attraction. Instead, he wants tourists to come to town for the Texas Quilt Museum, Monument Hill and the Krische Brewery State Historic Site. Here's the thing: Although those are all worthy things in and of themselves, a quick Google search turns up dozens of quilt museums across the country. The National Quilt Museum is in Paducah, Kentucky. There are others in Colorado, Nebraska, Virginia, New England... How many of those has Judge Janecka personally visited? That's the thing--very few people are going to visit La Grange specifically for the attractions he and his supporters believe tourists should visit for, rather than the one famous attraction they do visit for. Even though it is long gone, the Chicken Ranch is never going away. Instead of fighting it, that 10 percent should use it as an enticement to tourists. Give them a map to a Historical Marker to look at and make them happy. That's maybe 15 minutes out of the tourist's visit, but what next? Include on that map information about Monument Hill and the Quilt Museum, plus Rohan Meadery and Rosemary's Vinyard. There's excellent dining options in La Grange, plus Weikel's Bakery serves up some pretty darn good kolaches. See where I'm going with this? Instead of complaining for 40-plus years that visitors only come to town to see the Chicken Ranch, use the Chicken Ranch to leverage their interest in all the other great things the town has to offer. It's a piece of history La Grange owns that no other city can touch, and the sooner they get over their faux-shame, the better off everyone will be. Heck, Dallas converted the Texas School Book Depository to a museum a very long time ago, and I guarantee that episode of history cast a far darker shadow over the city than the Chicken Ranch could ever match.

Enough of that soap boxing--I've got more interesting things coming up. In addition to the Houston Chronicle article, I've got another feature scheduled (I am told) to appear in the upcoming issue of Waco Today, due to be published by the Waco Tribune Herald November 23. This just happens to coincide with my book signing at the Waco Barnes and Noble 2-4 p.m. Saturday, November 26. There were some pretty strong ties between Waco and the Chicken Ranch, starting with the fact that the madam Jessie Williams, otherwise known as Fay Stewart, was born and raised in Waco. It should prove to be an entertaining afternoon, and I'm looking forward to having a good turnout. See you there!

Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse is now available from both Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com. It's also available as an ebook in the following formats: Kindle, Nook, Google Play, iBooks and Kobo.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Office build-along, pt. 7

Last time we spoke, I spent an inordinate amount of time discussing how I moved a wall outlet and subsequently attached a piece of paneling to the wall. Today, things get real, because we're going vertical! The upright supports for my bookcase consist of 10--count 'em--2"x12"x10' boards. That's right, I'm using 2"x12"s, which are stout pieces of lumber. The first order of business was to cut them for size. My ceiling is just over 9' tall, which makes the boards too long. But the ceiling isn't consistently 9' tall--I've found the distance between ceiling and floor can vary by as much as a quarter inch or more, so I had to measure each board for each spot. Some I cut just a hair too long to fit, so I had to go back out and sand them down to fit. The one thing I didn't want was to cut too short so they'd be loose. I need stability and shoring up a loose vertical would be a real pain.

Once the verticals were cut for length, I lined them all up in position, along with the cabinets that will make up the base. Only there's a problem. Can anyone spot it?

Oh my! It would appear the width of the cabinets, combined with the width of the 2"x12" boards, is about 2" more than the wall allows. Not only will that end cabinet not fit into the narrow slot there, there is no room for the 2"x12" that goes on the right side of it. You know the saying, "Measure twice and cut once?" Well, I did. And sadly, my measurements predicted this exactly several months back. Those extra-narrow vertical cabinets I ordered special? That's because I knew early on the regular, 12" wide cabinets would never come close to fitting. Even so, I've got more lumber than space for. Fortunately, I'd formulated a plan. I just lined everything up hoping that my estimates were wrong, and everything would miraculously fit. No such luck.

The first thing was to mark each vertical board where it met a cabinet. I had to pull 2" from somewhere, and the vertical boards looked like my best bet.

Earlier I said that for every problem, I come up with the most convoluted solution possible. I fear that's what I did this time, but I worried the problem for a couple months and couldn't hit upon another solution. I used a router to reclaim those missing two inches. I've got five verticals, and figured I could shave half an inch off each one if I set the router bit to cut 1/4" deep. I could only router one side of the vertical flush against the opposite wall, but the remaining boards should've given me more than enough flexibility to reclaim the space I needed.

I set up an adjustable rip fence/cut guide above the line I drew marking where the board met the cabinet, and started grinding away wood from that point down. The biggest problem with this is that router is designed to sit on a flat plane of wood and cut a groove. As I trimmed away more and more wood, there was much less surface area to support it, and my routing grew less and less stable. Eventually, I learned to start at the bottom and work my way back and forth in curved sweeps, keeping the router at least half supported at all times. I can assure you, this was not quick work. It took several evenings to get all of it done, but once the sawdust settled, so to speak, the verticals and cabinets all fit nice and snug in the space available.

There is probably a smarter, faster way to accomplish this goal, but for the life of me I can't figure what it might be. In any event, I'm through with the bulk routing and hope to never do that again. More traditional, groove routing, however, is another story. There's a lot of that coming up. Stay tuned. Now Playing: David Bowie Best of Bowie
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, November 18, 2016

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

No subject has ever made such a popular subject for song as love. As long as humans have been making music, love’s far and away the top choice of lyricists to write about. Writing and discussing Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch, however, got me to thinking. Amid all that blissful romance, the darker flipside beckoned, and prostitution served as the inspiration for more than a few memorable songs. The Greeks and Romans sang about prostitutes, and minstrels in the middle-ages were more than a little bawdy. Cowboys of the American West favored songs so scandalous they could strip the needles from a cactus. It’s no wonder, then, that popular music of the modern era has produced countless songs about prostitution as well.

What follows in the coming weeks is a countdown of the top 10 songs (as compiled by yours truly) about prostitution of the modern era that were not inspired by the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel of La Grange, Texas. Between The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas soundtrack and ZZ Top’s “La Grange” (not to mention works by Willis Alan Ramsey, Billy Joe Shaver, the Austin Lounge Lizards and numerous others), the Chicken Ranch would simply have an unfair advantage.

10. “House of the Rising Sun” – The Animals
This ranks low on the list because, frankly, it’s such an obvious choice. The song itself has murky origins as a British folk ballad dating back as far as the 16th century, but was fairly well established in the U.S. by the first decade of the 20th century. The Animals made “House of the Rising Sun” their major contribution to the British Invasion in 1964, and the ominous guitar chords of their version immediately distinguished it from all those that came before. This version of the song forwards the misogynistic notion that women are the downfall of men--an element not often present in earlier interpretations of the song. The titular New Orleans brothel callously feeds on the lost virtue of men led astray, and all who enter are doomed to become lost souls.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Ariana Savalas.

Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse is now available from both Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com. It's also available as an ebook in the following formats: Kindle, Nook, Google Play, iBooks and Kobo.

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