You know what else chickens can do for you? They can help you make beer at home. No kidding. We have chicken beer all the time--the girls just LOVE helping!
Well... all right, it's not "chicken beer," exactly. It's not beer made from chickens. It's not even beer made FOR chickens. (Is that what you thought? Wow, what an imagination, haha!) What we do instead is brew beer WITH our chickens. Chicken beer, yum.
Even though it's not as exciting as sitting at the bar with your flock sharing a frosty one, all the same our chickens are involved in the beer making process. Even better, when we tell our friends that we're drinking chicken beer, they are much less likely to want some, which means more beer for us---winning! Unfortunately, our friends have recently grown wise to this trick, so we'll have to come up with a new beer preserving tactic, soon.
When it comes to the beer, the first way that the chickens help us is passive. Chickens are very good at making poo! When we clean out the chicken coop, we put all the manure -y droppings and pine shavings into a big compost pile. There it sits for a year or so while it ages and breaks down. You can tell when it's done, because it will be dark, dark brown or black and will have a wonderful, crumbly texture. Plus, it actually smells pleasant. In other words, if you can smell chicken poo, you haven't waited long enough. Chicken manure is "hot," so if you put it on your garden beds before it is properly aged, it can burn your plants.
So first, our chickens help us fertilize our hop bed.
Because we can't accurately calculate the alpha acids in our home grown hops, we don't usually use them for bittering, during the boil, but we do use them for dry hopping the beer; adding aroma at the final step before bottling. We grow a few different kinds of hops, but our favorites for dry hopping are the cascades, classic for American beer.
It's somehow right that the classic American hops should be fertilized by--and protected by--our Rhode Island Reds, classic for American chickens. Our other birds help, mind you, but the Rhode Island Reds seem especially drawn to the few pests that seem to attack the hops. So, the second way the chickens help us is by hunting for pests on the hop plants.
On brew day, the chickens help again. When brewing beer, you "mash" the grains, meaning, more or less, that you soak them in water at a temperature that converts the starches to fermentable sugars for the yeast. When the mash is done, you normally discard the spent grains, because all that good sugar has been extracted. I'm too frugal to really want to discard much of anything, though. So, at our house when we're done with the grains, our chickens help in a third way, by consuming the spent grains.
We don't want to give the girls too much at once, because they need to have a balanced diet! So, we use spent grains in other ways, too. For instance, I love to use them when I make home made black bean burgers---delicious!---and I use them also in our home made spent grain bread.
It's so tasty that recently we've been splitting the grains with the chickens. But the chickens still get most of them, and we also benefit--in eggs--from the grains we give the chickens.
So, the chickens eat the grains... then they poo and make us compost, then they clear the hops bed of pests, then they poo and make us more compost. It all works wonderfully, and appeals to my frugal heart.
It's a beautiful cycle that ends with us relaxing on the porch swing while drinking a fine, hoppy brew and eating a slice of fresh, crusty bread while we watch the chickens. Perfect!