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Archive for September, 2013

The F Word of Brewing is Methanol

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

Recent incidents with methanol poisoning have hit a nerve with journalists and the result has been a heightened public concern about the danger of brewing alcohol. And there has been a particular focus on that social skulduggery called home brewing. We’re the pirates of the modern suburbs.

Therefore, it seems necessary to post some information on this web page and then direct people here rather than endlessly banter about it in social situations. Because most people we talk to have no idea about methanol – it’s invisible, relatively tasteless and lethal in small(ish) doses. Like white pointer sharks at the local beach. Even though these people probably consume methanol regularly at acceptable levels.

The ABC National radio episodes A drink to die for? Avoiding methanol poisoning and Methanol poisoning: the dangers of distilling spirits at home have enough information for the average drinker (or home brewer). Yes, methanol is something to be aware of when fermenting but the real danger is improper distillation.

If you’re making alcohol below 12% ABV the dangers are low.

That’s to say, methanol and ethanol are produced when fermenting mead. But methanol is also present in the fruit juice in your refrigerator. The real danger is when you push fermented booze through a still to concentrate the alcohol (both methanol and ethanol). Methanol, being lighter, comes through first and should be discarded. In Australia the methanol quantity is heavily regulated in spirits before bottling. Overseas, in places like Bali, can be a different case.

The vast majority of the cases reaching the news have come from outside Australia (the only exception being the three men from Queensland who recently died from drinking grappa). The main culprit lately seems to be locally produced liquor sold in tourist bars in Bali. So beware drinking cocktails in Bali. There’s also the recent case in Cuba where 11 died, but this was from intentional bottling of methanol to be sold as traditional rum. Certainly not a brewing accident.

The Tasmanian case where two men at St Helens died several days apart was widely reported as suspected methanol poisoning. But it was proven false. Both men were sober. However, once a falsehood is reported there is no putting the fact back into the bag. The perception that home brewed alcohol is a death trap perpetuates. Googling the St Helens incident shows that the falsehood reports of methanol poisoning are more widely available, but it’s more difficult to locate the story that revealed both men died of unrelated natural causes. At this point it stopped being news.

One thing to add is that drinkers (and brewers) should be aware of the threat of methanol. But consider how many home and professional brewers there are in the World and how few cases of methanol poisoning occur. It’s only when people don’t research how to use their distilling equipment – or otherwise concentrate alcohol as apple jack cider or honey jack mead – that real danger unfolds.

Jacking is the process of freezing the water content off cider or mead and saving the concentrated alcohol. It can be an awesome drink; but the methanol concentrates along with the ethanol. That’s sailing close to the methanol poisoning wind.

And, if you’re still curious, that’s why honey jacking mead is illegal.

Shooting 120 Roll Medium Format Film

Friday, September 20th, 2013

The Summer walk incites honest beads of sweat to pierce through small pores on my temples. Each drop flinches in open sunshine and evaporates with the ideas running through my creative investigation as a large black brick of an object pulls at my neck from a black synthetic cord. I am shooting slow photography… analogue film.

Bronica ETRS

The camera nests in the upturned palm of my right hand (or screwed into a black octopod) as I walk down Murray Street toward the wharf area.

Each photograph taken is an investment in time and money. The $12 roll of film provides 15 potential photographs and the cost rises to around $18 when I process the negatives in my bathroom (notice I’ve ignored the capital outlay of a developer tank, darkroom bag and supporting articles like a camera tripod and light meter).

Shooting medium format film on a 30 year old camera is what I call slow photography. It’s about getting photography under my fingertips and challenges me to say that I am a photographer. An amateur photographer. One who creates photographs for the love of doing so.

The process of shooting with a Zenza Bronica ETRS, or any old film camera that only operates in manual and requires a light meter, is critical. It’s easy to get excited by the subject and forget to focus or realise after the shutter clicked that you changed the FStop but not the shutter speed. So it’s about slowing down. Creating. Understanding the elements of the photograph before the camera stops time and immortalises the subject.

I see an interesting subject and investigate. I walk around the immediate area looking at the light and assessing the opportunity. It is sometimes about angle and perspective but more often it becomes about what to include or exclude from the photograph. I ask whether it’s an honest framing that depicts the subject in context. I hold the camera to my eye from several vantage points and assess the best shot.

Because the best shot is the one that I’m willing to pay for in time and money. Each shot is one less that remains on the film. Each shot is a lost opportunity cost for something I won’t be able to capture later in the morning. I need to make each photograph count on the film roll and it’s something that I consciously work on with a nagging persistence.

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We Ferment Mead through the Winter

Monday, September 16th, 2013

As a non-commercial mead producer there is a limit to the amount of alcohol we intend to bottle every year. We can’t sell it and we’re not rolling drunk every day.

So, until we can consider licensing and production on a commercial scale (if that ever happens), there’s been no realistic discussion around purchasing the necessary air conditioning equipment or a large cool storage shipping container for fermentation through warmer months. We have no parcel of land. No money. Nothing but mead and a story.

We produce through Winter because it’s a lot easier to blanket carboys of mead from cold than it is to cool the carboys of mead from mid-Summer warmth with water and ice.

Overall this has been a good year and we still have around 100 litres in secondary fermentation – the lime and chilli braggot, a blackberry cyser, an apple and cinnamon melomel and a dark cinnamon cyser (almost ready to bottle). As well as the post-fermentation flavour-infusion experiments of star anise, vanilla or chilli.

The carboy of tart raspberry cyser is half consumed already. It wasn’t perfect but the corrections for next year are reasonably obvious (the blackberry cyser in secondary should retain a honey follow-through). And that cinnamon sack cyser from last year has had explorations in raw chilli, fortification with dark rum, it’s been incorporated into ice cream cocktails and an occasional bottle consumed as toddies.

By far the biggest momentum this year was to explore the potential of mead as a non-wine paradigm – those cocktails, blends and abominations that we mention on Twitter. Mead can be whatever you want it to be – as a mazer, as a consumer or as the recipient of a bottle from a friend. Drink it straight or mixed, warmed or chilled; the bottle is barely a suggestion. Some would even call that mead heresy.

Certainly the most exciting time here is the Winter. We make stuff. We taste stuff. And by September all we have left is to rack and bottle the product for next year’s consumption. We like to think of what we do as making liquor while the bees have their sleep. Amazing little creatures.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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