Monday, October 20, 2014


I love autumn.

The trees are awash with a palette of my most favorite colors - green and red and rust and orange and gold and brown. I forgot how much I enjoyed being a front row spectator to this most spectacular event.

But it's not just the majestic landscapes that are pleasing to my senses right now.

The trees display an incredible ability to adapt to changing seasons and circumstances. The leaves falling outside my window are a fitting backdrop to our own season of transition. They remind me to take it slow, to be flexible, and to cultivate patience.

So this is us. Here. Now. In flux. Together. Crafting a new story.

And like my friends in the forest, I (try to) embrace the fact that one must shed an old layer to welcome in a new chapter. This process of stretching and sloughing can be uncomfortable and even painful, but without change, there is no growth. So on we go, reminding ourselves to enjoy the journey while scanning the horizon, eager to see what lies ahead.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Research and More Research

When Brian's not crafting hives out of reclaimed materials, building a hive lifter, or tending to the bees, he's researching extensively not only the ins and outs of beekeeping, but also the requirements and logistics of starting a meadery.  Some of the things on this list include finding commercial space for a production facility, licensing and permits, product branding, distribution strategies and sourcing of fermenters.

Some light reading on keeping bees, making wine and starting a winery. 

This treasure from the library is a 1935 copy of 'The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture' by the well known beekeeper and founder of the A.I. Root Candle Co.

Upon finding out the costs of an individual fermenter, Brian set to researching either welding his own or hiring a welder to do the job for him. He needs about a dozen fermenters and he's now found a local company who will fabricate them for us. To be able to provide engineering specs, he set to building these scale models of fermenting tanks out of paper.

Part of the research process had been visiting new and established meaderies. Brian has now been to several meaderies located in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio. He's also been to lots of wineries and breweries to see their operations.  Every visit has been invaluable for providing information on permits, operations and/or handy tricks of the trade. We've been encouraged by how welcoming all of the mead makers have been and how willing they are to share anything they have learned or wished they had done differently.

The most urgent task on our to-do list currently is finding commercial space to house the meadery. Once this is secured he can begin the six to twelve month process of getting federal, state and local permits. Unfortunately, fermentation can't begin until all permits have been secured and since our mead can take up to a year to make, having a product in hand is feeling a long way off as it is.

We're feeling a bit antsy about getting the right commercial space as there is a delicate mix of considerations including whether or not it should include room to expand, whether the space allows for a tasting room and selling of mead on-site and if it will be located in an industrial district or somewhere with foot traffic. All of these factors impact on cost per square foot of course, and we're exploring options all over the city to see where we might find the most optimal space. Thankfully we're able to call on a growing network of friends and contacts in the brewing and sustainability sectors and beyond to meet relevant people, get ideas for location options and help us to remember what an exciting venture this is when it all seems a bit overwhelming!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Yeast Trials

How do different varieties of yeast affect the flavor of a fermented beverage?

For some time now, Brian has been wanting to work out the answer to this challenging question. He's had a long running debate with his father about the impact of yeast and its contributions to the end product. Carl has made all of his mead with a single strain of yeast and the mutations it has spawned over the last fifteen years and Brian has been interested to know if perhaps other yeasts in combination with certain varietal honeys might yield an even better outcome. So, to explore in more detail which flavors come directly from the yeast and which flavors might result from other factors, he has developed a yeast trial to gather information that can only be gleaned by tasting lots of different samples. 

Below are the yeasts that Brian selected for his trials. They include ale, lager, saison, hefeweizen, white wine and red wine, and yeasts specifically marketed as mead yeasts, in both dry and liquid form. The twenty three yeasts include a range of alcohol tolerances and flavor profiles and he decided to try each of them with four different varietal honeys and one cider to compare flavor profiles.

All of the yeasts have different pitching instructions and we carefully followed the instructions provided by the yeast suppliers. Some required rehydration at 40C (104F) and with a scientist in the house we were fortunate to have access to some pretty useful equipment like the machine below. Carl used this shaking incubator to evaluate permeability of fluids through candidate elastomers tested in the development of artificial hearts. Conveniently, it also came in handy for keeping the yeasts happy at a constant 40C.

Disposable pipettes were used to add reproducible amounts of yeast to each bottle and will later be used to take samples for testing with a refractometer without contamination from other yeasts.

Here are some of the leftover rehydrated yeasts.

We color coded the honey/cider variety with balloons and then labeled each bottle with the starting amount of sugar and the kind of yeast used in it.

Some yeasts started to work almost immediately; most started within twelve hours and one took more than a day. Below you can see the balloon start to inflate in one of the early starters. Brian pricked a hole in each balloon once they started to ferment so that they would release the CO2 but still prevent contamination from foreign substances.

Even though Brian started preparing the materials for the trial early in the day, it took us most of the night to prepare all of the bottles and mix in the honey and yeasts. In the morning the boys were very interested in the colored balloons coming alive on the kitchen table.

Below, all have started fermenting.

Once the fermentation process has ended and the balloons deflate we'll work out a systematic way to taste and evaluate the samples.  Won't that be fun!

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Building a Hive Lifter

Once all of Brian's thirty two handmade bee hives were painted and populated, he set to work on building a hive lifter to assist with moving all of them to their more permanent homes.

A hive with multiple boxes can weigh hundreds of pounds when full of honey.  A hive lifter makes it easier to move hives but commercial models are expensive and difficult to find. In his research, Brian found a video of a beekeeper who'd made one for himself using a hand truck (dolly) with rugged wheels suitable for uneven ground. As he'd been wanting to learn to weld for some time, this was a perfect opportunity to learn a new skill and craft something valuable.

As Brian's father already had an oxygen/acetylene cutting torch, all he had to acquire was the welding torch and tips, the steel and filler sticks and some safety clothing. He found that learning to weld wasn't all that difficult and watching the metals melt together was really interesting. The measuring, cutting, grinding, and fitting took the most time and required the most effort. He found the actual welding to be relatively quick and easy. 

The final product has arms that grasp the hive boxes and a hand crank winch for raising and lowering the boxes off of their platforms.

So, as you can see, both the basement and the garage have been buzzing with activity! I sure hope the bees appreciate all this effort and reward us with copious quantities of honey. On second thought, we'll be happy if the bees just survive the winter!

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

How to Make a Beehive from Pallets

Not one to let anything go to waste, Brian recently set about making a bee hive from a pallet. He'd been pondering uses for this ubiquitous waste stream for some time and finally landed on a project with immediate relevance. 

Pallets seem to be everywhere and if they are going unused, they can often be acquired for free. Of course, you need to be careful not to take them from a business that intends to reuse them. We're advocating creative reuse, not theft! 

Of course, you also have to be very careful in selecting individual pallets. Always look for the symbol, IPPC HT (heat treated instead of chemically fumigated) and select only new looking wood that is clean and in good condition.  Colored and painted pallets should usually be avoided. 

The pallets Brian used were delivered to us with a shipment of apiary supplies. Brian planed the wood to remove any surface impurities and to remove the painted layer. Surprisingly (and disturbingly), the pallets were made of high quality hardwood. After planing, some really beautiful wood was revealed and Brian set aside two lovely reddish pieces to make a small jewelry box. I'll be sure to post about that too once it's finished!

Pallets contain lots of nails that have to be removed and it's best to choose ones without the spiral variety of nail. The worst thing about using pallets, besides having to determine if there are chemicals in the wood, is the nails. If you miss one, it will ruin a saw blade instantly. Even though Brian was very thorough in his nail search, he missed several and had to replace the blade on the table saw. Between dull blades and resins present in the hardwood, sawing the pallets created quite a bit of smoke in the basement, so best to cut outside if possible.

Lots of pieces of wood had too many nails to be salvaged. 

This is the pile of usable wood that Brian ended up with.

It took him a long time to disassemble the pallets because he needed the pieces to be as long as possible (at least 20 inches) so he couldn't just cut the middle bits out. He also broke a hammer handle trying to pry the pieces apart!

Next he planed and glued the wood into wider pieces and planed again, using a joiner and wood "biscuits" to make the pieces stronger.

Here are the two boxes with the top and the bottom assembled. Normally he would do inset handles, but this hardwood was actually very dense and it was easier to just nail on the handles instead. He used rabbet joints instead of box joints mostly because it's easier, but the joints aren't quite as strong. Normally he would make screened bottom boards for pest management and ventilation but for this hive he did a solid bottom board so that the whole entire hive would be made from pallets. 

You can see the blackened cuts on the boxes where the table saw blade was actually burning the wood. Brian managed to start a small ember fire in the table saw from all of the heat generated by cutting these boards. A spark from hitting a nail ignited a pile of sawdust but fortunately the fire didn't damage the table saw or result in any flames!

Here are the pieces for the twenty frames that Brian prepared with the saws, router and sander.

Below is an assembled frame. This is a foundation-less frame that has a thin piece of wood at the top that the bees start building their comb on. The main downside to this type of frame is that the bees make more drone cells and they have to expend more energy making the comb from scratch. The upside is that it can be used for cut comb honey if used in the honey box as there are no wires or plastic foundation within the comb.

Brian found that he had just enough wood to also make an inner cover (the part to the far left, below). The boxes now have ten frames in each.

Below is the completed hive that was made from hardwood (mostly oak) scavenged from pallets. It includes a bottom board, two deep boxes, twenty frames, an inner cover and a top.

The final accounting (not including the capital costs of the machinery) was as follows: pallets ($0), replacement table saw blade ($15), replacement hammer ($6), nails ($4), paint ($3), glue and biscuits ($2). Total cost of the hive was $30.00 plus about four days of Brian's time. The costs would have been lower if he didn't ruin a blade or break the hammer of course, but wear and tear on tools is going to be a substantial cost over time and it's easy to miss a nail or two!

Purchasing this hive assembled and painted would have cost about $250.00 and would have been made of pine, not hardwood. The cost to construct a hive from new pine would be approximately $100.00 plus the hours of labor. So I suppose if you have lots of time or access to cheap labor then hives could be profitably made from pallets. I don't expect Brian to craft any more hives from pallets however, because he could make about twenty hives in four days (not including the frames) if buying new wood of standard dimensions.

That said, he is rather pleased to have taken something that would have been thrown away and turned it into a home for some bees that will produce honey for a long time. Now he just needs to catch a swarm to put in the hive or try his hand at bee hunting to make it the ultimate scavenged beekeeping experience!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On the Record: Ari at Three

Two years ago I started a tradition of interviewing Riker on his birthday. Ari has just turned three and this is his first birthday interview!

By asking the children the same questions every year, we'll be able to see how their personalities and interests change (or stay the same).

What are you going to be when you grow up?
Want to be a digger.

What’s that going to be like?
Hm, dig up the road.

What are your favorite toys?
Chocolate cake (laughs).

What is your favorite food?
Chocolate cake.

Who are your best friends?

What makes you happy?
Nothing (laughs).

What makes you sad?
No Mummy or Daddy or Riker or Grammy or Grandpa. And it makes me sad when all of you are gone.

When you dream at night, what do you dream about?
(Laughs) Chocolate cake.

What do you like to do with Daddy?
Go to the playground.

What do you like to do with Mama?
Watch the big TV.

What’s your favorite color?

What’s your favorite book?

What does Daddy do during the day?
Have a chocolate cake. Watch the big TV.

What does Mama do during the day?
Have a chocolate cake.

What do you do during the day?
Watch the garbage truck.

What do you want to learn or do before you turn four?
Mummy, when I turn three I can ride my new bike. Well, not all the way to Gavin and Edwards. When I one hundred I will. One hundred is about this big (shows all fingers).


Riker was fixated on trains in both of his birthday interviews to date and in this particular moment in time for Ari, it's obviously chocolate cake. One of his favorite things to do with his new play kitchen it to mix up the pretend ingredients for a chocolate cake so plenty of talk about that in this interview!

I've shamelessly pilfered the interview idea and the questions from my friend Lauren over at Sparkling Adventures, You can read the birthday interviews of her four darling daughters here.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Aussie Visitor: Take Two

As I might have mentioned once or twice, my colleagues at ANUgreen were all pretty freakin awesome people. So I was delighted to hear that Adam was going to pay us a visit on his year long adventure around North and Central America!

Adam was only here for one full day but we managed to give him a good dose of McMillin hospitality with a giant family dinner and a brief tour of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

On the Ohio and Erie Canal visiting a lock which was once used to raise and lower boats between stretches of water at different levels.

I think it's terrific that our Sustainable Transport officer is able to have such a grand adventure in multi-modal global transport! I also think it's pretty cool that within two months, we've had two Aussie visitors!

Thanks for including us in your itinerary Adam and have safe and amazing travels!

Adam points out that I  forgot to mention that he had to make a McMillin House rite of passage: drinking your body weight in mead!