Ultra-Small Batch Experiments
I'm a small batch wine/beer maker to start with, so when I use the phrase title "ultra-small batch experiments" some of my readers might be wondering just how small I mean.
Well, how about one gallon? One gallon glass carboys are useful for a number of things including, storage of overflow volumes, making yeast starters, spirit infusions (Limoncello, anyone?) but they also make a great vessel for small batch experiments. Smaller glassware, canning jars of various sizes as an example, also make great tincture vessels for many kinds of ingredients. A point of clarification. I'm not necessarily advocating making an initial volume of anything of just one gallon unless you only have enough ingredients for that, but rather that you use several smaller containers, both one and three gallons in size, to split up a larger batch for experimentation. Containers smaller than 3-gallons are more broadly recognized for overflow and/or top up vessels, but experimentation is where things really get exciting. Let me explain using several examples.
( Limoncello on day one. )
The use of oak adjuncts during the bulk aging of red wine is common for home and small batch winemakers. There are lots of options out there from chips, cubes, spirals, to powders and liquids, but what about their efficacy? How much is enough or too much and is there a "right" product for your process and more importantly your palate? I experimented to learn the answers first hand. I've settled on oak cubes after trying both powders and chips previously, but which type, French/American/Hungarian did I personally like best, and exactly how much should I use and for how long to achieve the desire outcomes were questions I could only answer by experimentation.
A few years ago I split a five gallon batch of stable wine into one 3-gallon and two 1-gallon carboys using a varying amount of French oak cubes in each. Once they were setup I tasted them a couple of times over the next several months to see how the oak developed. I trialed equal amounts of French oak against American oak in two larger carboys of wine the same year. The experiences proved out that several months is the minimum time for contact of all types of oak cubes, and that the recommended amount can produce a subtle oakiness that might not be enough for some wines or tastes. Using more than the recommended amount is indeed a taste and texture variable, something I specifically tested here as well. In the 1-gallon container that I doubled the recommended amount at that volume I detected a better balance of oak and wine components which led me to add more cubes to the 3-gallon carboy which I used as my "control" container, initially adding just the recommended dose. The other 1-gallon carboy had been given triple the dose, and it was a bit too much after three months. I ultimately blended all the wines together before bottling which resulted in a wine with about a double-the-recommended dose of oak which tasted just about right. Another thing I learned about oak adjuncts during that project was that in some ways they can act like dry-hopping or late flavor additions in beer, they are strong in aroma/flavor initially but fade and mellow with time. Once or twice since these initial experiments I have racked a wine an additional time, adding more oak ahead of a short window before bottling. I feel like I captured the oak components I wanted in the bottle and while they did still fade and integrate, there was more of what I wanted when it came time to drink the finished wine.
More recently both my wife and I have used 1-gallon carboys to flavor beers and meads. The starting volume of the products we flavored was either 5 or 6 gallons so a combination of 3-gallon and 1-gallon carboys was used to store it all during finishing. Not all of these experiments were well designed however. Adding flaked coconut to a still fermenting stout needs to be done in a wide mouthed container with lots of headroom. The release of the coconut oil during the continued fermentation made for an explosive bung/airlock situation, twice! This brings up a good point to keep in mind. When you experiment some things work well and some don't. Losing 1-gallon of a larger batch to a failed experiment is still a loss, but I'm not going to cry over the spilt beer or wine, especially if I have learned something. Repeatedly seeing experiments go wrong will start to weigh on the mind, and the wallet, and if this happens I would recommend taking a step back and try to figure out where things are going wrong.
My recent mead projects have been the most exciting and elaborate use of my collection of 1-gallon carboys. Currently there are ten of them filled with different types of meads that have been infused with an array of adjuncts including, herbs, spices, teas and hops. So how did I build out this experiment?
( 3 flavored meads waiting for bottling. )
Initially I fermented several batches of mead without any flavors for the duration of the fermentation. I started with 9-gallons of wildflower mead and 2-gallons of clover mead. All the mead was started at high gravity, 1.135-1.140, and fermented with a yeas t (Lalvin 71-B) that sputtered out leaving enough residual sweetness such that significant back sweetening was not expected, which has been the case so far. Once the mead was done fermenting I racked it into clean containers, added the stabilizers and then set about determining the various waves of flavoring experiments I would try. This is where the canning jars come in handy, tinctures made with high proof alcohols aren't needed in large quantities when the flavors are concentrated. I recently steeped 1/2 pound of dried rose petals in twenty ounces of 100 proof vodka. It will be used to finish a rose petal wine and mead variant, both from an ongoing project.
Working with small containers does mean that the amount of cleaning work you do stays pretty much the same but in support of a much smaller volume. I usually work with more than one small batch at a time to help offset the productivity drag. And Siphoning wine/cider/mead/beer from 1-gallon carboys doesn't have to be problematic. The Fermtech mini auto-siphon is made specifically for small containers, and works great!
The clover mead was intended for a single experiment, a hopped mead. I chose the clover honey because my experience has taught me that the nose on finished clover honey mead is pretty neutral, some I hope would allow the hops to be the prominent aromatic component. I had two 1-gallon containers full of this mead over the course of several additions of hops. At bottling time the aromas from the Amarillo hops were wonderful!
The wildflower mead has been used in an awesome number of ways. I steeped pineapple sage in some and three kinds of chili peppers, all from the garden of course, in another container. The latest round included infusions with two kinds of black tea, vanilla, and a blend with a blackberry wine made from berries on my family's property in Vermont.
( A Meyer lemon tincture in a 1/2 pint canning jar. )
Determining exactly how much of any ingredient, tincture or structural component (acid, tannin or sugar) should be blended in with the less than 1 gallon of base mead needed is a sensory exercise for me. Few ingredients you infuse or blend with will be fixed entities so using taste & texture trials to get the right balance is necessary. Adding sensory exercises from experiments to change/enhance flavors to that means there aren't a lot of easy-to-follow rules for blending at this small volume. It is also worth noting that scaling up to larger volumes won't necessarily be cost or labor advantageous beyond a certain threshold depending on the added ingredients.
Recently when infusing with the teas I started with 2 ounce additions in the 3/4 of a gallon of mead, tasting between each one. I used about 16 ounces of each tea in their respective containers, creating tannic, sweet meads that taste much like room temperature tea. One of the teas had subtle floral aspects from Chrysanthemum and will likely only need small amount of acid before bottling. The other tea is an intensely earthy black tea to which I added orange peel for a touch of citrus. Topping up both of these was simple.
Just this week in my own blog I shared a recipe for Scrumpy (early drinking hard cider) that was made in a 1-gallon carboy!
At the end of all of this experimentation I end up with lots of different beverages and different flavors to enjoy, some of which I might enjoy enough to scale up to a 5 or 6 gallon batch if I wanted to make it again. If not, I can only say that I will be glad I don't have a lot of it to drink or worry about! The lessons of what to do different or what not to do from the lesser experiments will undoubtedly help you decide how to attempt something new.