This past Sunday we took the next step in our Historic Stone Beer/Gruit Brewing for distilling research. Myself, filmogropher D.J. Henderson, Christi Atkinson of The Veil and Distillers Talk, Dayton Barrel works Distillers Bill Hocket and Drew Zarrett , as well as Brian Cushing of the Victorian Barroom and Locust Grove Farm Distillery met at Caleb and Whitney Michalke’s Sugar Creek Malt House in Lebanon Indiana along with their salesman John Beal for a day of brewing with hot rocks, tours of the malthouse and the Sainhouse, shop talk, history, good food, and of course fellowship amongst similar artisans.
This was the latest step in the hypothesis that we laid out previously regarding Aqua Vitae or Uisce Beatha perhaps developing from two separate and mostly unrelated alcohol traditions (Religious and studious monks distilling for medicinal purposes and more isolated folk brewers making use of existing beer to distill whiskey) in Scottland and Ireland. The project has certainly developed its own more unique direction as it has evolved. Moving from a historical hypothesis to a fully functioning distilling methodology with interesting possibilities in regards to new spirits production based on many different cultures and their brewing methodologies. Basically, what might for example have Norse Whiskey have tasted like if such a thing ever existed?
Christi, DJ, and I rode up together making use of the 2-hour drive to listen to music which might inspire the day and perhaps harass other drivers along the route (at heart I think we may all still only be 15 years old) as well as to play a prank on Brian who called on the trip up as D.J. mimicked my conversation with him with a 1-2 second delay making it sound as though the phone were feeding back on Brian’s end of the conversation. This happened not once, but twice during the trip. Christi, or Canadia, the name she earned on this trip, also directed us to miss our exit by about 18 miles, supposedly that was an “accident”, I remain unconvinced. 😊
The day officially started with the trading and tasting of many different spirits amongst the gathered parties. A couple of different Verte Absinthe Varieties, and Purple Absinthe, samples of the previous two Gruit/Stone Beer distillations, a Citrus/Orange Juice based Gin followed by the layout of the day’s work. As this is a true collaboration of mid westerners it was important to us that Caleb would select the malt and to lay out the brewing methodology of the day alongside John Beal. Ultimately a gray alder smoked Stjordal malt was selected as the base and Caleb went off to set up equipment (John already had the stones in the fire and the fire roaring for the process when we arrived) and prepare the grain. We went with John for a quick tour of the malting facilities which I was super impressed with. John was incredibly well versed in malting and brewing as well as in cider production which he is very passionate about. After we toured the main malting facility it was on to the Sainhouse. This was the highlight of Caleb’s malting operation in my opinion. A beautiful building composed of a partially underground concrete foundation to help regulate temperature for germination with a large concrete steep tank, spacious malting floor, and drying room for smoking, drying, and roasting malts with various woods and to various degrees. The malting floor is surrounded with windows for ventilation and cross flow of air as well as light. The fires are kindled on the farm end of the building in a separate room divided from the malting floor by two sliding doors raised a foot and a half or so from the floor to allow the smoke and airflow to permeate the building. Caleb really put some thought and research into this design including traveling to Norway to further study his art and it really shows. This is the only Sainnhus in the Americas operating at this time. The quality of the malt that Caleb is making shows just how worthwhile the investment of time and effort has been. If you have yet to purchase any malt from Caleb there is no better time than the current. The offerings are absolutely gorgeous and the possibilities truly endless. There isn’t much he doesn’t malt or offer to both professionals and home enthusiasts.
Afterwards we were treated to Biscuits and gravy and fresh fruit for breakfast by Whitney. All greatly appreciated on a cold day after a good little road trip.
Just after breakfast we began the process of brewing with John leading the group as Caleb and Whitney prepared two chickens for the rotisserie for the evening meal. The process began with making an infusion of eastern red cedar (traditionally Juniper is used, but as it doesn’t grow well in the Hoosier state, we use our much more common cousin). We started by laying the juniper in the bottom of the small barrel/mash tun who’s drain was on the bottom of the barrel and plugged with a piece of alder wood.
The group took turns retrieving hot stones from the fire down the hill, careful to discard ash and char, and adding them individually to the barrel of juniper infused water. Once the barrel came to a boil, we boiled for around 15 min. Afterwards the drain plug was removed and the infusion water was collected in a stainless-steel boil vessel. The barrel was lined then with alder wood, straw, and cedar yet again and the liquid was added back into the mash tun. I started adding the ground malt into the mash tun as Bill Hocket began to stir. It was cold enough outside that we decided during mashing to go ahead and add a couple more hot rocks in order to raise and maintain a proper conversion temperature. After a 30 min or so conversion time we began adding more hot rocks to the tun in order to lightly boil the wort.
To this Caleb and I decided to boil our botanicals separately upon the hot rocks and remaining fire. This particular brew was intended to be a blend of traditions. Both Norse and Gaelic in nature. Caleb decided to add some bog myrtle he had gathered during a canoe trip in northern Wisconsin as well as some rosemary they grew on the farm. On my end I added more traditional Aqua Vitae Irish fair. Raisins in particular which are often seen in recorded instances of Aqua Vitae manufacture (I suspect because brandy is an older spirit than whiskey and was often tied to medicine as opposed to recreation at that time that the raisins were added during distillation or in a bag at the end of the condenser in order to make the whiskey imitate the qualities and flavor of brandy as much as possible and to somewhat disguise the base malt alcohol) with small proportions of sweet cinnamon, wormwood, anise, fennel, cloves, and cardamom (I highly do not suggest trying to “grind” this mixture in a malt mill!).
We brought the ingredients to a boil for around 20 minutes before adding them to the mash tun with the boiling beer. The aromas were incredible and the color of the finished beer once filtered out of the mash tun was even more remarkable!
As the beer was filtering Caleb took us to the neighboring farm to show us his newest expansion and I can guarantee it will be game changing for not only his business but for craft malt in general!
Christi, DJ, and Myself were able to hang around for super and great conversation including a joke or two about mine and Caleb’s new baby (pictures included) and to plan the next steps. Our specific gravity ended up higher than we expected at 1.080 but only around 3 gallons of beer. We added some water to bring the gravity down to 1.060 and give us some more volume. Ironically Caleb and I both forgot to prepare yeast for this project so we made use of two bottles of his previous Yule beer which included still active Voss Kveick!
The next step is to reconvene everyone in a couple weeks at a secret location and perform a double pot still distillation on this batch and see what kind of spirit we end up with! Will it be entirely historically accurate? Likely not. Will it be similar to what I believe was happening but not documented in the British Isles? Yes, I think very much so. I should add that all of this was filmed by DJ as well for an upcoming documentary and that the distillation process too will be filmed alongside exposition by many of those involved in the project!