October 26, 2012

Mesquite Pods? Yeah, You Can Brew with Them.

Earlier this week I promised to write something more substantial later this week so here's what you get. This is actually the prelude to a porter I plan on brewing (hopefully) next week. I'm sitting on a brand new shipment of grains from Brewmasters Warehouse and my two pounds of Belma hops from HopsDirect and I'm itching to brew something and it might as well be now before the semester starts to wind down into studying for finals and, of course, finals. So I'm going to brew up a new porter that uses a mesquite molasses to create something really unique. Today I'll talk about the mesquite molasses and next week, assuming I brew, I will finish with the actual porter.

What the heck is mesquite molasses?

Mesquite pods among the leaves
Mesquite molasses is a thick syrup made by steeping roasted mesquite pods. What are mesquite pods? Mesquite pods are the seed pods on mesquite trees, which grow in the Sonoran desert in Mexico, the southwest US states and into the plain states. Mesquite is most commonly used as a smoking wood for BBQ and grilling and it's known for it's sweet, smoky flavor. However, mesquite flowers are the source of mesquite honey and the seed pods have been used as a source of food for humans and animals alike. The seed pods, shown to the right, are long and hard (like me). The actual seeds are protein-rich and can be ground into a flour used like any other. However, the seeds are incredibly hard and it requires more than a regular flour mill to break them down. For molasses purposes, the seeds are mostly useless. Instead, we are concerned with the actual pod casing and filler material, which is full of fructose -- sugar. They are 20-50% sugar by weight and very little starch, so it's practically the same as steeping crystal malt. The non-seed material is used to make mesquite molasses. People also make tea/coffee out of it.

If you decide to chomp on some pods, or the seeds inside, be aware that the seeds do contain an enzyme that inhibits conversion of proteins to amino acids so although they are not toxic and eating one or two won't harm you I would not make it a practice to eat them on a regular basis or in any quantity unless they have been cooked, because heat denatures enzymes (just like in a mash).

To make the molasses, which I will go into in greater detail below, you smash and steep the pods in water for an extended period of time to extract the sugars and flavors from the pods. The liquid is then reduced to a syrup. Most people will roast the pods in the oven to develop more complex flavor. The lighter roasts will produce more of a crystal malt/caramel flavor while a darker roast emphasizes more roasty character. Overall, the flavor produced is full of vanilla, caramel and cinnamon.

Mesquite molasses is often used as an alternative sweetener to honey or corn syrup, especially for the gluten-free folks. (The mesquite flour is also a good option for GF folks, if you can find it. It's usually only made in limited quantities in the southwest US.) Fortunately, it can also be used for brewing.

Obtaining Mesquite Pods

Mesquite pods reach maturity during the later part of the summer. If you live in a somewhat rural area in the part of Mexico or the US where mesquite grows, you may be able to forage for them yourself. I'm not an expert in this field, but as I understand it different species have some different flavors and a few are rather bland, so experimentation will be your friend. I didn't realize mesquite grew in my particular area (I live in a suburb of Fort Worth on the outskirts in a developing community and didn't realize the fields were full of mesquite trees) until I saw the pods hanging from the trees this summer. Instead, I arranged to purpose pods from another brewer on homebrewtalk (member GTG) for a very reasonable price. Next summer, you may find him or others selling or trading pods.

Pile of pods -- the small wholes are from Bruchid beetles
The internet may be a good way to track pods down if you lack direct access. If you live in a state where mesquite grows but you can't access any personally, craigslist or facebook might be a good way to find somebody locally who has some trees you can prune for free or on the cheap. Otherwise, you may be able to find pods for sale online away from the brewing community.

If you can pick pods yourself, you want to pick fresh pods off the trees, rather than the ground. The pods are a food source for Bruchid beetles, which are tiny, harmless beetles that consume the same sugars you want. They are more likely to get inside the pods on the ground and eat up the sugars. Do not harvest green pods, wait until late July through September when they are light brown or darker (may turn red). You only need two pounds for a five gallon batch so you don't need to strip an entire field. However, if you end up with too many there are some interesting uses for the syrup you can find online.  

WARNING: mesquite trees often grow in areas with poisonous snakes, like rattlesnakes. In grassy fields you may not see a snake kicking it on the ground beneath or around the tree until you step on it or near it. Be aware of your surroundings and if possible, wear boots or other clothes that can offer some protection from the fangs of an angry snake. Bringing a snake bite care kit might not be a bad idea as well.

Mesquite Molasses Recipe

After a light roast
Unfortunately I neglected to take pictures of the pods pre-roasting, but here's a pic of the roasted pods. I roasted them in two batches, one darker than the other, so I would have a complex flavor. My porter recipe is 2.5 gallons so I am only using one pound of pods. If you are looking at a five gallon batch, use twice as much of everything.

Ingredients:

One pound mesquite pods, roasted
Half gallon of clean water

Equipment:

Oven
Cookie sheet or other flat pan safe for oven use
Stove
Thermometer
Kettle/pot one gallon or larger
Strainer or colander (you may want to use both if you have them)
Slotted spoon or other device to remove pods

Step One - Roast

First thing you want to do is roast those pods to develop deeper flavors. You can roast at different lengths of time to produce darker pods with more roast character. It is a very simple process. Rinse off the pods if you haven't already and spread them out on your cookie sheet. Heat the oven to 350F and put the sheet in the oven. Roast them for at least ten minutes. If you want them to stay light, take them out now. You can leave them as much as thirty minutes for a very dark pod. You'll want to check on them every few minutes after ten minutes to make sure they aren't burning and see when they have reached your desired level of roast. I've read some people say twenty minutes is a good mix of lighter caramel and more roasty character that works well in beer. Once you are happy with them, take them out of the oven and turn it off.

Alternatively, if you wanted to get some smoke in the beer you could smoke the pods.

Step Two - Steeping

The next step is pretty much like mashing. First break up the pods. The pods aren't as hard after roasting so you can break them up with a hammer, potato masher, or meat tenderizer. I found I could break them faster by hand by snapping them in my fingers but depending on how much you do and your process using a device to crush them may be faster. Basically you are just looking to break them up into inch-long pieces so the sugars can be extracted.

About 45 minutes into steeping
Using two quarts to one pound of pods, heat the water to around 150F and add the pods. Research indicates you need to steep between 130-170F but higher temperatures extract more tannins and you don't want that.  Steep for 90-120 minutes, stirring frequently.

Initially the aroma is kind of woody with a hint of vanilla and coffee. After about ten minutes the woody character starts to subside. After thirty minutes the vanilla, caramel and cinnamon really start to come out. Only a hint of woody character remains, which is unsurprising since it is a big pot of water and plant material. After an hour the woody character really disappeared and some roast character started to come out.

The recipes I found said to take the pods out at 90-120 minutes in and break them up and add for another 30 minutes. Then remove the pods, discard and raise the temperature just under boiling until the liquid reduces to a thick syrup. You want to reduce the liquid without creating burnt flavors or extracting tannins from the inevitably present small bits of pod left behind. If you don't get every tiny piece of pod out, it's ok, it will all end up in your trub in the fermentor.

Remaining liquid after removing pods after two hours
I let mine go the full 120 minutes because I had a lot of lightly roasted pods and my research suggests the less roasted they are the longer they need to steep. So I took them out after 120 minutes, tried to mash them up again and put them back for another 30 minutes. I tried to take them out and break them down in the food processor but they didn't process very well since the pods were wet and fibery. They just kept bouncing around in the processor, so I just dumped the pods back in for another 30 minutes of steeping. The extra thirty minutes went a long way towards creating a more intense color and flavor. By the end of the steeping the vanilla was less pronounced and the roast, caramel, coffee and cinnamon flavors become more dominant.


Add to a sturdy plastic container or a preheated glass container (preheat it so it doesn't crack). It's easier to transfer into a storage container when it's hot than when it cools, like any other thick syrup. Cool and refrigerate until ready for use. I do not recommend keeping it refrigerated for more than a few days because, like wort, it's a bowl of sugar ready for bacteria to consume and spoil. The more water you extract the harder it is for bacteria to ferment (like honey and maple syrup) but unless you can test the water content, I would not rely on that. If you need to store it for more than a few days, freeze it in a plastic container. You don't have to reduce it to a thick syrup, you can leave it more liquid-y and just account for the extra liquid in your mash or sparge water volume. If you plan on letting it hang out in your fridge for a few days I would reduce it to avoid creating a more welcoming environment for bacteria to spoil it. So if you oppose reducing it to a syrup, at least freeze it as soon as you can.

If you are an extract brewer, you can do the same process at the beginning of your brewing day and not reduce the liquid to a syrup, just using it as the water you steep your grains in and build your boil from there. The same can be done for an all grain brewer but as mentioned above, account for it in your water volumes.

Wrap Up

Here's the final product in the picture to the right. The overall process from breaking the pods to storage was about four hours (roasting took about another 45-60 minutes), so not a quick process but it's also not a heavily involved process, either. The flavor is full of caramel, cinnamon, coffee, vanilla and some of the darker crystal flavors of C120 and 150, so it seems like an interesting flavor combination for a porter. It's definitely different from the flavor of crystal malt itself. It's good stuff. If you didn't know what it was and the mouthfeel was thinner, it could pass as a really good coffee. You can see in the picture it's gone from light red to very dark.

I actually liked the flavor a little better in the earlier stage where the vanilla was more prominent but I think the end result will be better in a porter where it will play with the chocolate and crystal malt.

2 comments:

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  2. Love your idea of mesquite beer, and found your site because I was thinking of doing the same thing. Please take care in sourcing your mesquite pods. If they are not harvested properly or tested, they can contain aflatoxin, which can cause kidney failure or cancer. Here's one link http://ediblebajaarizona.com/calling-all-mesquiteros

    Cheers!

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