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Thoughts on Quinoa

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As quinoa is one of the least-utilized grains in alcohol production, we thought we'd give it a go.  I thought I'd share some of our experience trying to make a go of it, since so little is out there.

We experimented with quinoa as an adjunct, flavoring grain, in a predominantly corn mash bill.  Even in smaller quantities, quinoa dominates the aroma and flavor.  It has an incredibly distinctive nose, and if you've ever cooked quinoa at home, eaten quinoa, you'll be familiar with it, because that aroma dominates the distillate.  I really need to emphasize this, we talk about tasing and smelling aromas of the underlying base grains in whiskies, corn, wheat, this is an entirely different level.  The distillate is amplified quinoa.  It permeates.  Everything.  Clothes.  Hair.  Quinoa.  Everywhere.

As terrible as it sounds, there is this very redeeming nutty, caramel, chocolate, roasty flavor.  Doing some research, I came across some old brewing articles that referenced 2-pentylfuran as being a key contributor to the quinoa aroma.  2-pentylfuran not very common among conventional grain, but prevalent in some of the ancient grains (Kamut).  Also very common as a Malliard reaction output, common in other roasted items like bread, coffee, chocolate.  It's a really appealing profile.  We tried experimenting a bit with chocolate, coffee - the problem is they amplify the flavor profile to the point at which the distillate starts to get this kind of savory flavor profile (think the savory aspect of a roast).  Very interesting, screws with your mind, because there is something, almost a kind of umami, in the flavor profile of the distillate.

In the end we gave up on trying to build a corn-based mash bill - it was impossible to dial back the quinoa impact without distilling far above 160.  After a few more trials, we started to like distilled far cleaner.  Ultimately we decided to go 100% quinoa, and use the very unpopular light whiskey category, stripping, then distilling it a hair above 180 proof.  It's still choc-ful of quinoa flavor, very, very strong.  However, much more approachable as a whiskey.  Went to sleep in some fresh dump used char-4s.

Operationally, quinoa is incredibly difficult to work with.  The tiny size makes milling very, very difficult.  We couldn't get a tight enough gap on the roller mill to get a good crack, the 1/8th inch screen on the hammer mill really didn't do a good job.  The flour screen we have on the mill is painfully slow, and is a dusty mess.

If you look at the structure of quinoa, it's a little different from a typical cereal grain.  There isn't a big pocket of starch, with the germ off to the end.  The starch is encapsulated at the center of the quinoa seed.

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The tiny size, the grain structure, made the cereal mash among the worst we've ever mashed.  It simply does not mash.  We held it in the 190-195 range for more than 6 hours, impossible to get a negative starch test.  We ended up letting the cook go overnight, yes, overnight.  In the morning, still could not get a negative starch test.  Lots of high temp alpha amylase, glucoamylase, beta glucanase, protease, xylanase - we finally decided to call it quits and cool to pitch.

The best we can surmise is that without milling it to micron-sized flour, the tight pocket of starch gets trapped by the seed structure, and slowly "leaks" out as it hydrolyzes.  Anyone who thinks that protracted cooking will simply cause the seed to expand, burst, and fall apart - nope, sorry, there was still obvious whole quinoa particles in the mash, after nearly 18 hours of cooking.

We didn't notice it so obviously during the test batches, however most of the test batches were corn-predominant, so the lower-yield wasn't as obvious.

Yield was mostly terrible.  1200 pounds of quinoa in, roughly 35 proof gallons out.

We fermented down to about 1.01, on the grain, with active enzyme.

What was really interesting was the amount of bulk that was remaining in the mash.  Attribute this to the much lower starch content of quinoa relative to other grains.

We had another 1200 pounds of quinoa for batch 2, we decided to give it to our farmer as feed.  The effort involved is simply not worth it.  To get any chance of reasonable yield, we'd need to have gone to fine flour, even then I think we'd be dealing with an impossible to dewater stillage/sludge.

We'll see how the distillate ends up, I think there will be fans, but ultimately, it'll be a very polarizing whiskey.  Maybe I'll be wrong, and maybe it'll be fabulous, and maybe I'll regret giving away a metric ton of quinoa as goat feed (they love it by the way).

That said, if you really want to try it, go for it.  You'd probably get enough impact with as little as 5% of the mash bill - given the high price of quinoa, it's a much more cost effective approach.

The most difficult grain we've ever worked with, and we've worked with Millet (Size challenges) and Whole Oats (worse than rye)

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My son owns goats.  They love everything.  The cartoon tin  can is apropos.  As a side comment, if any of my clients want to try quinoa, I'll refer them to this.  As usual, James, you've written something interesting, even to someone who doesn't know squat about distilling. "-) 

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4 hours ago, Silk City Distillers said:

Yield was mostly terrible.  1200 pounds of quinoa in, roughly 35 proof gallons out.

Thank you sir for taking one for the team!

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Thanks for posting this, interesting stuff! 

Do you know if your quinoa was treated to remove saponin (usually it's either abrasive scarification or a wet rinse process)?  Or if it was a low/no-saponin varietal?
I know someone who breeds quinoa (the amazing Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds https://www.wildgardenseed.com/index.php?cPath=50) and attended a seminar about it's production, it's a beautiful plant but seemed like a lot of work. 

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I don't know the method used, but it was a saponin-removed ready-to-cook variation.  I know a co-packer who imports in bulk and repackages for retail and food-service use, he was able to pull in some extra for us.  The mash was not at all bitter.

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