Safe Seed Pledges Are Bunk

In the early spring, seed catalogs will start arriving. I always enjoy the new year’s set of catalogs although one thing in most of them bugs me — safe seed pledges. You’ve likely seen them, a promise that the nursery does not sell seeds for GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Sometimes there’s a little badge that goes along with it. I’m very pro-science and, given the title of this article, you might expect me to launch into a defense of GM plants. But I’m not going to. There’s no need to. Whether you believe GMOs are harmful or have a reasonable grasp of genetics, safe seed pledges are complete rubbish.

We pledge not to sell you GMO seeds. We offer you this heap of complete rubbish instead.

Why? Because GM seeds are not available to the public. No nursery anywhere sells GM seeds to private individuals. If you are a farmer, you can purchase GM field corn, soy, alfalfa, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and . . .  that’s basically it. There are a couple other GM crops available, but they are mostly grown outside the US. (Wikipedia maintains a list of what GM crops are available as well as how much of each is being grown.) There certainly are not GM varieties for the vast majority of garden vegetables and flowers. What about the Flavr Savr tomato, you might ask? It’s not being produced anymore.

. . . just like every other nursery.

Nurseries participating in the official Safe Seed Pledge are pledging not to sell you something they don’t have, cannot sell, and in the vast majority of cases doesn’t exist. If you believe that GMOs are a distinct class of organisms that are harmful to humans or the environment, they are treating you like a gullible rube. Some even go so far as to say, “We will not knowingly buy or sell and genetically modified seeds or plants,” as if there are unscrupulous seed suppliers out there selling GMO rutabagas to unsuspecting nurseries on the sly. Farmers have to sign contracts specifying what they can and cannot do with their seed when they buy GMO crops. There’s no way a nursery could unknowingly buy GM seed. And they know this. Safe seed pledges are “protecting” you from something that doesn’t exist. It’s like Old Spice certifying that Krakengärd shampoo will keep you safe from krakens.

An alternative to what, exactly?

Understanding GMOs requires you to know a bit of genetics and molecular biology. How they fit into our food choices requires you to understand a little about plant breeding and the history of agriculture. For those who are acquainted with these things, it’s annoying to see nurseries flog for an anti-science position at a time when conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” are having a large negative effect on our country. For a while, almost everything in the supermarket was labelled gluten-free. You could buy gluten-free sugar and gluten-free salt. You could also buy gluten-free vegetables, gluten-free fruits, gluten-free eggs and — I am not kidding —  gluten-free water. Were the companies selling these products making life better for people avoiding gluten? No, none of those items ever contained gluten. Gluten comes from wheat (and some gluten-like compounds, that can cause problems for celiacs, come from related cereals). A lot of companies preyed on the scientific ignorance of people to make a buck, just as nurseries tauting their pledges not to sell GMO seeds are.

So that’s my first gardening post of the Beer and Gardening phase of this website. I hope you like it. This is not the most popular sentiment among gardeners, but I am not alone in holding it. And finally, I solemnly pledge to all my readers to supply the type of gardening knowledge that will keep you safe from kraken attacks, which kill the exact same number of people as GMOs do each year. (What a coincidence, huh?) I care that much about you.

Krakengärd is manning the front lines of the battle against kraken. Like the sea monster it has sworn to fight, Krakengärd is gluten-free and not genetically modified.

Contest Karate (II)

Yesterday, I started a discussion of how to use “contest karate” to win medals at homebrew contests. And, I gave the two most obvious pieces of advice — brew high-quality beer and brew as many entries as you can manage. Today, let’s begin to delve into some slightly less obvious aspects. Keep in mind that nothing in this article is the equivalent of a knock-out blow that works every time under every circumstance. Rather, this is a set of advice that — if heeded — puts you in a position where you have a better opportunity to seize victory.   [Read more…]

70% Ethanol as a Sanitizer

I learned to homebrew back in graduate school. At first, I used bleach as a sanitizer because it was cheap and effective. Later, as I became aware of bleach’s potential to cause off flavors (and pit stainless steel), I switched to iodophor and later Star San. In my lab, however, as in biology labs worldwide, there was a sanitizer I used almost every day — 70% ethanol (sometimes written 70% EtOH). It didn’t occur to me until recently that this could be used in a brewery.

Ethanol, combined with a little water, is an effective sanitizer. Scientists have figured out that it is most effective at a concentration of 70% ethanol (v/v, with the remaining 30% being water) — although it is almost as effective throughout the entire range of 40–95%. The water helps the ethanol penetrate bacterial cells better. In biology laboratories, 70% ethanol is most often used to wipe down lab benches. (Glassware is generally sterilized by being autoclaved.) When sprayed on a clean surface, it kills bacteria in a manner of seconds. [Read more…]

The Sad Path to Happiness

The grist of this batch included around 10 lb. (4.5 kg) of malt and roughy 8 lb. (3.6 kg) of beer bread (bappir) made from crushed malt and honey. 3.0 lb. (1.4 kg) of honey was also added to the boil.

For my Ancient Sumerian Happy Juice brewday, I was all set have a relaxed brew day where I just winged everything. After all, I’ve brewed before. I could deal with things on the fly, right?  And, the beer I was brewing was my interpretation of the English translation of a poem written by ancient Sumerians. So, no living person — including me — would ever know if my recipe and approach was right or wrong. As it turns out, I rediscovered why I normally never wing things on brew day. [Read more…]

Beer is Bread. Bread is Beer.

Cookies! Actually, “logs” of bappir (beer bread).

The first step in making Ancient Sumerian Happy Juice is making the wine. I’ve done that, it’s bubbling away, and it smells like wine. I also added some beer yeast to the mix, just to cover all the bases. The second step in brewing “the juice” is baking the beer bread, called bappir.  [Read more…]

20 Brewing Answers

Here are the answers to the quiz I posted on Tuesday.

[Read more…]

Convert Extract Recipes to Partial Mash

Recipe formulation software can do the math for you.

Partial mashing is a great method of wort production, but not a lot of homebrew recipes exist for partial mashers to choose from. (This website has quite a few, though.) However, if you’d like to convert an existing extract-based recipe to partial mash, you’re in luck. The majority of extract recipes can easily be converted in two steps. If you have an extract recipe that uses mostly unhopped light malt extract (liquid or dried) — or something similar such as pale or Pilsner malt extract — for most of the fermentables, just follow these following steps. [Read more…]

Thoughts on Cleaning and Sanitation (II. Other Variables Including the Pitching Rate)

DSCN0716In the previous installment of this article, I advocated that brewers keep their wort or beer covered whenever it is not in a sealed vessel and to minimize the amount of time that it is exposed to the open air. Both of these things should reduce— although not eliminate — the amount of airborne contamination in your beer. It’s my contention that, even when you normally produce beer that does not taste overtly contaminated, further reducing the level of contaminants further benefits your beer. In this post, I’ll cover a couple of minor details, and one important — but frequently overlooked — aspect of sanitation. [Read more…]

Beer Foam (4: Foam Negative Elements)

DSCN2673Just as there are elements that contribute to the formation and stability of beer foam, there are also elements that accelerate the rate at which foam collapses. Brewers tend to think of these foam negative elements as something to be avoided. If they are in excess, they are — of course — undesirable. However, if beer contained no foam negative elements, foam would continue to form as the beer released carbon dioxide bubbles. And if this foam were not collapsable, it would soon be an impediment to drinking the beer. As such, I would argue that foam negative elements are just as important to foam as foam negative elements, when present in the right quantities. [Read more…]

NHC Round One Judging (2016, Austin)


Judging Pilsners with Corey Martin.

On Friday and Saturday of last week, the Austin NHC site held its first round judging. I, along with many other Austin ZEALOTS and other Austin area homebrewers, descended upon 4th Tap Brewing and judged over 700 beers, finishing the task a day ahead of schedule.

Every year I judge, I try to think of the bigger picture afterwards and see if I can identify any trends or find anything worth writing about from the experience. Then I write about it anyway.

Judging at a large competition, you get to sample a lot of beers. This year, I judged 6 flights over the two days, ranging from 5 to 12 beers in a flight, with 7 or 8 being the median number (IIRC). Plus, there’s always the “holy crap, you have got to try this” moments when another judge finds a particularly spectacular beer and shares it. And of course, there’s the groans when judges encounter a real stinker. So, each judge gets to sample a fair amount of beer and gets some idea of what the other judges are encountering. On the other hand, one judge’s experience can’t be taken as a statistically valid sample, so these are just my observations.  [Read more…]