Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Maceration: Day 1

So we've finally started a maceration of plants, this time it's Armoise blanche, or sagebrush.  The Latin name is Artemisia herba-alba, which means it's in the same genus as grande absinthe (Artemisia absinthium).

Matilda, Pascal's daughter, and I began the process of preparing for the maceration by cutting out sheets of sheer cloth paper (the same that we used as tablecloths for the party).  I made a makeshift rolling device out of a broom and two barrels, and I pulled the cloth out while Matilda cut it into roughly 6 ft lengths.  The cloth is a very fine mesh and is dual-layered, so the sheet forms a cylinder that's open on both sides.
After washing the sheets over the weekend to remove any remaining fibers or dirt, we used them to weighed the dried plants into them.  Pascal came up with the method involving these sheets after he struggled with to cleaning up and dealing with a bunch of soggy plant matter.  This way everything stays together, and the clean-up is much easier.
We placed a bucket on the scale, lined it with one of the cloth sheets after tying off the bottom end, and pressed the tare button to clear the measurement to zero.  We lifted the blue bag with the dried plants bottom-up and poured 7 kg of plant matter into the bucket, measuring out three separate bags like this.
We tied the bags on the top end in order to make sacks resembling dried-plant-filled sausages.  We placed all three of these bags together into the cuve, which is basically a giant vat, and left them to sit there while we prepared the alcoholic solution in which to soak them.
In order to assure quality control and an accurate mixing content, we had to weigh the entire container of the 97% alcohol.  Pascal used the forklift to lower the container onto the large scale.
You may be wondering why we use weight instead of volume measurements.  We use weight because volume changes under different pressures and temperatures, and later in the process we will have to measure the quantity again at a higher temperature.  Weight stays constant, so we use it in order to have maximum control over the process.

After recording the total weight of the alcohol, we moved another container onto the scale, this time using the hand crank lift.
After taring the scale, Pascal lifted the container with the alcohol high up on the forklift, positioning it over the top of the metal container.  Normally, they use a pump to transfer the alcohol, but Pascal decided that he didn't want to clean the pump out, and this method was a lot more fun anyways.
We attached a hose to the downspout on the container above, allowing gravity to drop the alcohol into the vat below.  We watched the numbers count up on the scale until we reached our target amount.  We tore the scale again, then used a good ol' fashioned hose to dilute the alcohol to our desired 57% level.
After the solution balanced out, Pascal lifted the whole thing on the forklift again, taking it into the adjacent room where we had placed our sacks in the cuve earlier.  We used the same gravity method, lifting the vat containing the solution above the cuve, and attached a hose to the former, letting gravity drain our solution into the latter.
As I looked over the edge of the cuve to monitor the progress of our maceration, it felt like the alcohol was burning out all of the hair in my nose.  I could see the solution already changing color, taking on the flavor of the dried leaves.
After draining the entire solution out of our weighing container, we replaced it on the scale, and attached a pump to the top and bottom of the cuve.  The pump helps the circulation of the solution through the plant material, accelerating the flavor extraction process, although it is only turned on 1-2 hours per day of the maceration.
For most flavors, we would let the extraction sit for about six to eight weeks, but as I mentioned earlier, this plant is in the same genus as grande absinthe, and thus contains the dangerous molecule thujone (commonly known as wormwood).  We are under strict regulations to be under a specific percentage of thujone content in our liquors, so we only let this plant sit for three days.  It also has an extremely powerful flavor, and thus needs little time to infuse the alcohol with its essence.

Absinthe was banned in the early 20th century because of this molecule's reputation.  During the middle of the 19th century, absinthe grew in popularity, and suppliers rushed the distilling process in order to meet such a high demand.  They cut corners in their production, resulting in low-quality absinthe containing high amounts of thujone.  A temperance movement emerged, claiming that absinthe caused people to lose their minds, and they succeeded in banning the drink.  It has now been proven that this molecule is harmless when consumed in small doses, and thus the ban has been lifted.  Still, we have to assure that our extracts contain as little of this compound as possible.

There's more left to this job, and I'm excited to get more experience with it in the week to come.  Check back by the end of the week for another post, hopefully we'll work on this in the next couple days.

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating! I'm surprised to see Pascal himself doing a lot of this. It's really hands-on. I'm delighted you're getting to witness this and share it with us.