Rig Hand Distilling Checks the Pulse of Off-kilter Starch

Protein-rich fava beans proved a tricky ingredient for a local distillery, a project the Alberta Pulse Growers Commission hoped would raise the profile of the crop

Doug Johnson

Rig Hand Distillery’s Geoff Stewart weighs fava bean flowers.
Rig Hand Distillery’s Geoff Stewart weighs fava bean flowers.
Doug Johnson photo

One thing can be said of craft distillers, they’re never quite content with the standard flavours of their hooch and, as a product, they are willing to adopt weird ingredients for the sake of the sometimes mad science they call work.

Take, for instance, the numerous brands touting horseradish vodka, or the dusky pink hues of Alaska Distillery’s smoked salmon-flavoured vodka. On paper, bizarre, perhaps off-putting, but at-home in ambitious savoury cocktails.

Geoff Stewart, co-owner of Nisku-based Rig Hand Distillery, has a few flavour oddities under his belt. He uses sugar beets to make rum and he has tinkered with vodkas infused with garlic or chilli peppers.

But, to date, Stewart’s strangest experiment came last October when the Alberta Pulse Growers Commission (APGC) gave Rig Hand a bushel of fava beans and asked Geoff and his crew to turn the pulses into a drinkable end product.

“I had a friend who made vodka from lentils before, so there’s precedent for it,” Stewart recalls. “It didn’t market well, that’s for sure, but we always like to try new things.”

In all, Stewart and company tried nine times to forge a drinkable adult beverage out of fava beans. Their first attempt was a straightforward one, treating them much like they would the local grains they use to make their basic vodka.

From there, he got a little more ambitious, using processes like protein resting — a preliminary mash at a lower temperature to break down some of the protein chains — before the distilling process.

Each trial ended with the final product smelling like farts and tasting how Stewart imagines farts to taste. In December, they returned to the APGC empty handed.

Michael Gänzle, professor of food and microbiology at the UofA, suspected two reasons for the unfortunately funky bouquet.

“Beans contain a lot more protein than other materials used for alcohol production. Depending on how well the fermentation is controlled, it’s entirely possible that the raw material could produce off odours,” he says, adding, “it’s difficult to give an exact answer without being present for the vodka’s creation.”

While yeast is common in fermentation, there can be other unintended bacteria and microorganisms in the process that, in the presence of proteins, could create sulphur- and nitrogen-containing compounds.

“They (the compounds) are also present,” he pauses, not entirely enthused about the following decidedly unacademic words he’s about to utter, “in farts.”

The second explanation is far more direct. Some of the unfortunately scented compounds in the fava beans may evaporate and condense at similar temperatures to the ethanol. They stick around as unwanted guests.
Stewart hasn’t entirely given up on the fava bean vodka. He plans to borrow a fractionation machine, separate the starches from the relatively heavy proteins in the beans. In the meantime, he and the APGC settled on making a fava bean flower gin.
Alberta’s crop flowered a bit late this year (they usually bloom mid-July) but at the beginning of August, the APGC provided Stewart with eight grams of dried flowers.

Compared to the bushel of raw fava beans the AGPC delivered last year, eight grams seems paltry, but, according to Stewart, all the flowers were hand-picked by the farmer, who needed to ensure no stems or other bits of plant material made their way into the batch. These eight grams produced a trial run of about 80 bottles of gin.

The fermenting fava been vodka.
Fava been vodka in the distiller.
Doug Johnson photo

Normally, dried fava bean flowers are pretty bland, but “alcohol is a potent solvent and drags the oils and flavours from the flowers”, Stewart says, as he places a porous bag containing the botanicals — cardamom, coriander, lemon peel, juniper berries and the flowers — in one chamber of the still.

“The alcohol vapour will pass through the botanicals hundreds and hundreds of times,” he explains. He was originally worried the juniper berries would overpower the flowers, but the latter comes through in the end with fruity and, as one would expect, floral notes.

Whether or not Rig Hand’s fava bean flower gin will make it into stores is a matter of popularity. A few bottles will be sold at Rig Hand, while the rest are going to the APGC for a conference.
The APCG wants more from the experiment than novelty hooch for its members to sip. They hope it will bring attention to pulses in the province. In 2010, Canada produced 32 per cent of the world’s pulses, Pulse Canada’s website said. Around 85 per cent of that is exported to China, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. Of the remaining 15 per cent, much is used as animal feed.

“In Alberta, in Canada, we have a problem. We can grow and export a lot of peas, bean, lentils, because we don’t eat many of them here.” says Don Shepert, APGC director for the eastern part of the province, down from Stettler up to Lac La Biche.

Albertans still tend to favour meat as their primary source of protein, despite Health Canada recommending pulses, with their relatively low glycemic indexes, as a way to combat diabetes; and the United Nations having sent out regular press releases espousing meat-free diets as a means to lower humanity’s impact on carbon and water in the environment.

Younger generations are getting better at rethinking their protein intake, Shepert said, but there’s still a long way to go before Albertans fully embrace pulses.

And, really, what’s a better diplomat than a stiff drink?

Doug Johnson is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who sampled more of the fava bean flower gin than he would care to admit.