Archive for December, 2011

Seasons Greetings

No snow this year so I’m using a photo from last year. Or was it the year before? Anyway time to relax, sit back and enjoy the warmth of the log fire!  Won’t last long, there is plenty to be done round here so I might as well enjoy it whilst I can, and whilst I’ve got my grumpy old man hat on, remember, Christmas is for spending time with family, but I wish you all a good time in spite of that.


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Mash Up Monday

If you can have ‘Stir up Sunday’ when you make the mixture for the Christmas Cake then I reckon it’s equally important not to forget ‘Mash up Monday’  the last chance to brew a special beer for the festive season!  Yes I’m talking mashing and sparging again.

It does take at least a couple of weeks to finish a brew and mine take longer as they condition at a lower temperature than is usual, so I’m a little late with this reminder and I hope you were busy mashing and sparging a couple of weeks ago as was I.

The ‘mash’ is the mixture of grain heated in liquor (thats water to most of us) to extract the sugars which can be then be fermented.  For the Winter brew I’ve used  a pale malt (bottom of photo), crystal malt (right) and also some roasted barley(left).

One of the great things about making your own brews from scratch is that you can choose exactly the ingredients you would like and increasingly I take an interest in their provenance. Pale malted barley or ‘pale malt’ is the basis for all English ‘real ales’ and it comes in a range of varieties and types. I buy mine in 25kg sacks from the Warminster maltings, one of a very few traditional floor maltings still operating in England.  Malting starts by spraying the grain with water to make it germinate and then halting the germination by kiln drying or heating the barley. The malting process converts the starches in the barley into sugars which can then be extacted by ‘mashing’ the grains.

Normally I buy ‘maris otter’ which is the classic variety for brewing real ales, but recently I’ve been trying out the organic pale malt which is a spring barley variety called ‘Quench’.

The bulk of the grain in the mash is pale malt, approximately 3kg for a 5 gallon (yes I do always mix up imperial and SI units) brew but on its own the beer would lack flavour, body and colour so depending upon the character of the beer you are after you can add small amounts of other types of barley. I’ve added more crystal malted barley than I normally do just to increase the fullness of the flavour for the winter beer and I’ve also added just a little roasted barley to deepen the colour and add that slightly smokey, not to say burnt flavour, but I’ll balance that off with my winter secret weapon later on in the recipe.

All of the grains are added to the brewing water or liquor and mashed at 66 degrees (C) for at least 90 minutes to convert as much of the starch to sugar which is then drawn off as the wort – in reality we’re making malt extract in this phase of the brew, but I get to control exactly how the malt is extracted.

Once the wort is draw off after about 90 minutes you are left with hot sticky grain in the mash tun (a plastic variety in my case) but there is still a lot of good malt sticking to the grains so they are rinsed or ‘sparged’ with near boiling water spraying from a rotating sparging arm which helps extract all of the malt that we can from the grain.

In the second phase of the brew the malt is boiled up and the hops are added. I’ve used Fuggles and East Kent Goldings, two very traditional English varieties in this brew. Depending upon the type of beer being brewed some other ingredients may also be added, sugars for example. Cheap homebrews will often just add white granulated sugars, but they don’t do the beer any favours. Brewers will often use more complicated sugars like malto-dextrose, known as ‘brewing sugar’ which is more like the invert sugars extracted from the grain but as this is a winter brew I’ll be adding my secret weapon – Soft Dark Brown Sugar. Yum!

Once the boiling is done the wort is poured off again through a hop strainer to leave the hops behind and left to cool before pitching in the yeast (I use Safale S04) and the fermentation begins. Perhaps the most magical part of a brew as it can be very hard to believe that this disgusting looking bin of brown crusty bubbling toxic liquid is about to transform itself into a perfect brew – but it really does!

I prefer to bottle my brews which adds an extra stage to the process but it does get around the need to drink 5 gallons in one go and makes it a little easier to give away to those brave enough to try it. Of course I do need to sample the brew regularly just to make sure its upto standard and I’m pleased to say that this one is.

I call this recipe Hammer Special Bitter or HSB and any confusion with ‘HSB’, originally brewed by Gales of Horndean before they were bought out by Fullers and the brewery promptly shut down is Entirely Intentional.

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I get to thinking about firewood quite a lot at this time of year.  Our main heat source in the winter is wood and knowing how to get the most efficient burn makes quite a difference to the temperature in the cottage, and to the amout of wood I need to shift on a daily basis.

There is a lot of folklore around firewood. Not without reason either as in the days before central heating (whats that?), double glazing (must do something about that soon) and cavity wall insulation, having poor firewood could mean freezing to death or even burning your house down rather than sitting next to the fire in a cosy warm room.

The good news is that all wood burns. Even better, all wood delivers about the same heat energy per Kg. It’s just that some woods are less dense so  a 1 tonne pile of  birch will take up twice the volume of 1 tonne of oak, for example. If  you notice that you burn your way through more birch, willow or softwoods than oak then that’s the simple explanation, you need to burn roughly twice as many logs. Most other woods are somewhere in between in terms of density. Since most firewood is delivered in volume – it’s something to be aware of.

Of course it’s not quite that simple as any wood you care to burn will also contain moisture. Even the floors and doors in the house will contain some moisture which is dependent upon the atmospheric moisture content – the wood will adjust which is why things tend to shift through the year from summer to winter as it swells and contracts. When it’s cut wood has a moisture content somewhere between 30 and 60%. Some woods are wetter than others depending upon the season of cutting and the type of tree. Ash has a relatively low moisture content which combined with it’s medium density and a relative lack of tars probably accounts for it’s reputation as the best firewood of all.

Trying to burn water is going to reduce the efficiency of the combustion as heat is diverted to turning water to steam and the wood resists burning when its too wet so you have to increase the amount of air flowing into the fire and up the chimney which only further reduces heat flowing to where you want it. Steam in the flue combines with the unburnt wood products in the partially combusted smoke and can condense as creosote, with the danger of blocking the flue and causing a chimney fire.

Burning the driest wood you can get makes your fire most efficient, reduces the amount of wood you need to cut (or buy in) and store, saves you time and money and releases less emissions into the atmosphere. Most of all on a really cold night you’ll be cosier and warmer.

There are more ways of cutting, splitting, stacking, seasoning and storing firewood than I could possibly cover in a short post that is already getting too long. But if you have the inclination you can find an old post of mine looking at firewood stacks in Southern Germany here – Firewood stacks of Mahringen pt II.

If you don’t happen to have a spare barn to act as a logstore then it’s no problem to stack the wood outside. The key to drying wood outside is to make the most of the sunshine (as I was reminded recently it dries wood for free and with no carbon emissions) and allow the air to circulate through the stack. I have pallets on the top of this stack to provide an air gap between the wood and the ground sheet which is protecting it from the rain, as well as a raft of old posts on the bottom to improve the drainage.

When you come to burn it, if your firewood is not as dry as you’d like then you can do some simple things to help. Make sure you bring firewood into the house before you want to burn it – preferably stack it by the fire for a day or two if you can do so safely. The smaller you chop the wood the quicker it will dry before you burn it – and the more efficiently it will burn once it’s on the fire.

You’ll find that the lower density woods are easier to dry out in a hurry so if you do have to burn wetter wood than you’d like you’ll find chopping up Ash, Birch, Willow etc into small sticks and drying on top of the stove before burning is a better bet than trying to burn green Oak.

To keep a fire working at optimum efficiency you should be continually adding small pieces of firewood to it. But generally that’s a bit like hard work and we all prefer to put a big log on now and then through the evening. If your fire is just for effect then that’s fine but if you are relying on it to heat the room, house or your water then big logs are bad, and big wet logs are the worst.


The combustion is most efficient when just the right amount of air is mixed with the fuel to burn up all of the fuel with the minimum amount of heat escaping through the flue with the water and carbon dioxide. An open fire is normally quite inefficient compared with a stove as it normall draws too much air into the fire and much of the heat is lost into the chimney and more warm air is drawn out of the room. But not all stoves are very efficient and some open fires can be almost as efficient as a stove.

In our living room we have a ‘Jetmaster’ open fire and even though I’ve been using it for 18years I’ve only recently learned that a part of the reason for it’s metal fire box construction is that it has a convector heater built in as room air is drawn under the firebox and up through a void at the back, coming back out through radiating fins at the top of the firebox and into the room as hot air! This, together with the variable damper, can raise the overall efficiency of the fire to 50% – which is exceptionally good for an open fireplace, though nowhere near the 72% of our woodburning stove.

I trust you are all enjoying the warmth of your labours in front of your fires right now!

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After plenty of prevarication I got around to putting lids on the small birch pots I’d been commissioned to make. To my surprise I quite enjoyed making the pots and I can see that I might do some more soon but I’ve never put a lid on before. I spent plenty of time failing to make progress before plunging in and turning them the most obvious way just like the pots, but it went well thanks to plenty of good hints from very talented friends Richard Law (aka Flyingshavings) and Steve Tomlin.

I was quite concerned about getting a good fit with the rebate onto the rim of the pot but in the event a pair of calipers is all thats necessary and then a couple of trial fits – just don’t get carried away right at the end!

Then you’ll get a snug fit.

One down, one to go. It’s a fairly laborious task  and the price will be high because of that  so I don’t forsee going into mass production but I think a couple of these on my stand next year would be a good addition to my range with plenty of uses. These two pots are intended for a GO board set being made by Natalie and I was delighted to hear that the board itself is milled from local birch so she also asked me to make a set of turned feet for the board.

Knowing nothing about GO before I started could have been a problem, but the wonder of Google Image soon solved the problem and I turned the feet one after another on the same spindle to make it easier to match the profile and length.

As with the Pots the feet are my interpretation of what was needed rather than a copy of a commercial product as I am working with the raw material that is to hand in the woodland. So thanks for the challenge Natalie and for adding another use for Birch wood to my extensive list!

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