Friday, April 11, 2008


Bad news, faithful readers. The project has failed. Dysmally.

A few days ago, I was all redy to brew. The Sorghum was malted. The Millet was dried. The plantains were a wonderful shade of black. So my roommates and I began the brewing process by grinding up the millet while starting to remove the stems of the Sorghum (some of my sources said that they were poisonous).

The problem is that one of these processes proceeded far faster than the other. There was no efficient way to remove the stems from the Sorghum, so that hours after the millet was ground and ready to go, we barely had a handful of de-stemmed Sorghum. By this time, it was quite late at night, so we gave it a rest.

Just a day and a bit later, I went back to have another go at the Sorghum, perhaps to find a more efficient means of stem removal. However, one look at the millet told me that my dream of an African beer brewed in Halifax was over. My camera isn't working at the moment, but suffice to say the bag of millet had taken on a particularly nasty shade of teal-green. Not something I would want to drink.

But not all is lost. I have learned things from this project:

1) Malting is not as easy as it sounds. As primitive as some of the cultures that brew this beer may be by European standards, they could not have pull off the malting of the Sorghum and Millet without a substantial amount of craft knowledge.

2) Climate is everything. The grains were meant to be dried in the hot African sun after malting. Maybe this would make the stems easier to remove. Unfortunately, Halifax does not have a hot African sun.

3) This is a very time-consuming style of beer to brew. Clearly a lot of effort goes into its production even in the right conditions.

I am giving up, but only for now. I still have a whole bunch of malted sorghum, and hopefully it will indeed become beer in the future. Until then, I can only hope that Dr. McQuat is merciful.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Harder than I thought...

So it turns out that malting African grains really isn't that simple. There have been some complications, with both of the two grains.

The sorghum to be doing alright for the initial soaking. After a weekend of on and off soaking as per the instructions, I decided it was time to get it out of the bucket and let it dry, so I hung it up in a bag in the furnace room as a temporary solution. Unfortunately, I can be somewhat stupid and/or lazy, and so I left it there a tad too long. When I checked on it a few days later, there were roots and stems sticking through the bag-not a good sign. Turns out the whole thing had overgerminated. Also, there was mold on some of it. It was a tragic discovery. Tears were shed, wails were uttered, and there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Luckily, things weren't as bad as they looked. The moldy part was conveniently stuck together, so it could be discarded, and the inside of all the grains had the chalky, powdery whiteness that malting is meant to produce. So I took those as good reasons to keep most of the grain. I have since been letting it dry out on a tarp, and it seems to be doing alright. The stems and roots are withering, dying and falling off, and it's starting to have a rather pleasant aroma. It should be usable soon enough. Here is a close-up of what it looks like right now:

I hope to be brewing with it soon.

As for the millet, it started to have a sour smell almost as soon as it began soaking. This was quite worrisome, but I kept at it, hoping for the best. However, the more I soaked it, the stronger the sour smell got. While the sorghum was happily malting away, the millet was continually devoured by souring bacteria. I eventually gave up on it, and just left it in the bucket while focusing more on the sorghum until I could buy some more millet.

When I finally did buy a replacement supply (luckily, the stuff is cheap), I had to free up the bucket for soaking purposes. Imagine my surprise then when, upon pouring out the millet (which still looked okay on top), I discovered that it had been rotting from the bottom up. The millet on the bottom had turned gray. I can't describe how bad it smelled. I immediately whisked it outside, lest it stink up my smell-prone basement apartment for weeks to come.

My new strategy for malting the millet is based on the success I had at home with the small amount sitting on the paper towel. I have soaked it once, overnight in a bucket, but now it is spread out on a tarp, being constantly wetted to promote germination. Once it germinates satisfactorily, I will simply stop watering it and let it dry out. I also washed it much more thoroughly (by skimming off all the particulate matter in the water) before I soaked it at all.

I have also made one more purchase to go towards the beer:

These are an ancestor of bananas. They are similar, but more starchy and less sweet. I plan on using them as a source of sugars, flavour and yeast for the beer. Currently, they are ripening on the windowsill. They need to be real good and mushy before I can brew with them.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

It's time for malting...It's malting time!

So the Nebraskan Sorghum finally arrived in the mail, which means that I get to do some malting!

For those not in the know, malting is a process by which grain seeds are allowed to germinate for some time, thus converting all their sugars to a digestable form. Then they are dried out, killing the sprout and leaving a starchy, sugar-packed grain which can be mashed into wort. In Africa, this is traditionally done in a very simple way, often by allowing the Sorghum and Millet to sit in a pot full of water for some time, then drying it in the sun once it has sprouted. Other techniques involve things like letting the grain sit in a bag immersed in running water.

Given my inexperience working with these grains, I am going to need as efficient a malting process as possible. Thus, I am being slightly more sophisticated and using a malting procedure I found at this website.

On the right is my malting set-up. The coarse grain in the bucket on the right is Sorghum. The fine grain in the bucket on the left is Pearl Millet. The pearl millet behaved very bizzarely when I filled the bucket; the water got sudded up! I hope that this doesn't mean anything bad was on the sides of the bucket. I did rinse it several times.

I have placed both buckets next to the radiator so that the water remains somewhat warm. From this point on, it's just a question of waiting and waking up at wierd hours to drain the buckets.

Here's hoping it works!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Great Grain Hunt

Finding the grains has turned out to be one of the biggest challenges in making the traditional African ale. It turns out that Sorghum is pretty hard to come by in the Western world. I've been home in Markham, Ontario for the past few days, and I have been trying to take advantage of the multicultural tapestry that is Toronto to find the necessary African grains. I tried Indian Grocers, African Grocers, Bulk Food stores, even animal fodder suppliers, but none of them had any.

I was about to give up today when, in desparation, I did a google search for "mail order sorghum grain" or something like that. You can imagine my glee when this lead me to, an organic food supplier that sells bulk Sorghum! I stomached the shipping costs (they are based in Nebraska), and bought 10 pounds of Sorghum, which should arrive in Halifax shortly.

While checking a bulk barn, I was fortunate enough to find a nice big bin of bulk, hulled millet, which was nice. My one concern was that, since it was hulled, it might not malt properly. So I did an experiment. I bought 10 cents worth of the stuff, and soaked it with water in a few different ways, to see if I got any germination. It turns out that leaving it on a water soaked paper towel was the best strategy:
This picture is too small to see it, but the millet grains have begun to germinate, so they will malt without hulls. It makes sense, really, the hull is more a protection from the elements than anything else, and the elements on my kitchen counter aren't very harsh.

So as soon as the friendly hippies at manna harvest pull through, I'm set for grains. Excellent. Time for the lighter side of this project.

While doing my shopping, I wound up at the LCBO, as a beer nut such as myself frequently does. While there, I picked up a little treat:

That's a glass of Tusker Finest Qulity Lager, from Kenya Breweries Ltd. In one of the most difficult, painstaking and unwelcome bits of homework I have ever had to do, it was my arduous duty to sample some of this beer.
All sarcasm aside, the beer is...not terribly remarkable. It's incredibly clear in colour-it almost looked like water as I poured it. It is quite fizzy, with mild, American Lager flavours, and a metallic aftertaste. Really not as exotic as I expected, but if nothing else, it certainly was refreshing. I'd probably appreciate it a lot more if I were drinking it in the Kenyan sun, rather than Toronto in February.
It seems like almost all mainstream African beers are, in fact, lagers. This does make sense, due to the refreshment factor, but it makes my life more difficult. Anybody have a mini fridge I can borrow? With some luck, maybe I can clone something a bit like Tusker to contrast with whatever is produced by my painstakingly sought Sorghum and Millet.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Introduction and Preliminary Research

I would like to begin this blog with a few words of thanks to Professor Gordon McQuat, who took it upon himself to organize and teach the best history course the Halifax University Community has seen for quite some time. Also some words of thanks to everyone else involved with HSTC 3611: Brewing Science; notably Dave, Katie and Chris. Seriously, this project is an awesome opportunity.

So here's the deal. As part of a research project into the role of beer in the colonization of Africa, and the affect of colonization on the local drink practices, I am planning on brewing two different types of African Beer. The first will be a traditional Sorghum and Millet beer that was common to many parts of Africa before European colonization. The second will be a clone of a modern, colonial inspired beer, hopefully from the same region that the recipe for the traditional beer comes form. I am going to use a comparison between these two beers, along with my usual stack of hardcover books, to write my paper.

Right now I'm in the research stage. From what I've seen so far, my tratitional recipe will most likely involve equal parts sorghum and millet, with no hops. Some West-African nations have been known to use banana in their beer, so this might be interesting to try. If I was going entirely authentic then it would be an open fermentation, but I'm too much of a wimp for that. I'll probably use a fairly generic ale yeast, or perhaps a lambic blend.

As for the modern beer, I'm having trouble finding a recipe to clone. The issue is that it has to be an ale (I don't have a fridge to ferment a lager in), and most common African beers seem to be lagers. Hopefully a bit more research will find that for me, and then it will be a simple question of deducing a recipe. I'm open to suggestions!

Well, that's all for now. I'm off to find a place to buy some Sorghum and Millet. I'll be back soon, hopefully with some recipes.