May 302008

Man, it’s Friday and I can’t wait for the weekend. I’m planning on brewing a clone of Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat tomorrow. Instead of using San Francisco lager yeast like the recipe specifies, I’m going to be using my pack of Wyeast Private Collection Kölsch II yeast. This strain comes direct to us from Germany and I plan on making a nice Kölsch with it in a couple of weeks. The Sunset Wheat clone is essentially going to be a five gallon starter for the Kölsch – lagers require tons of yeast, so instead of stepping up a starter several times, why not make a light beer with it and get five gallons of tasty brew for my efforts? I’ve already made a 1.5 L starter from the smackpack and it should be ready to go for tomorrow’s session.

I’m also planning on visiting The Cambridge House brewpub in Granby, CT on Sunday. I’m truly disappointed by the lack of good brewpubs in Fairfield County – it seems any worth visiting are at least a forty-five minute drive away. However, I’m determined to try them all out, and The Cambridge House is on the top of my list. They just won a bunch of awards in the Hartford Advocate’s Best of Hartford Readers’ poll, including Best Brewpub and Best Overall Bar (also, 3rd place for Best Looking Wait Staff – hmmmm!) They also have a fresh batch of their Copper Hill Kölsch (a 2005 GABF Gold Medal winner) on tap, so this should be a good trip. Look for the review next week.

Finally, I’d like to bring your attention to the Friends of Lootcorp link list on the right sidebar. These are beer and brewing related sites that I enjoy and have exchanged links with. They all add something unique to the beer blogosphere and are worth checking out. Go take a look and kill some time.

Enjoy the weekend, and I’ll be back with reports on my brew session and brewpub experience.


May 282008

Just when I thought I had my system dialed in… When the last brew session had gone well and I’d hit all my numbers… When I could do no wrong…Five gallons down the drain...
Yes, that’s five gallons of Engine 97 being poured down the kitchen sink. I kegged it on Saturday and noticed an interesting aroma – it was a weird fruity scent, not all that unpleasant, but definitely abnormal for this beer.

I tapped the keg for a sample tonight and the beer was just bad. I can’t even properly describe the off flavors – just a sweetish fruity aroma and a nasty taste… too sweet and too bitter all at the same time. It tasted nothing like Engine 97 – I’ve brewed this recipe quite a few times, and it wasn’t even close. I suspect some kind of infection, but where did I pick it up? I noticed the aroma out of the fermentor, so at least it isn’t my kegging gear.

I suspect it was either during cooling (I was rushing because the brew session ran late – perhaps some unsanitary water found its way into the cool wort?) or when I pitched the yeast (I reused yeast slurry from the last batch – it could’ve been contaminated anytime between harvesting and pitching into this batch).

Well, tossing a batch sucks, but it happens to the best of us. Normally, I would agree with those who say never to toss a batch, since age can do wonders for a funky beer. However, this one was definitely beyond salvage. This is only the third batch I’ve tossed in my homebrewing career – usually I can drink my mistakes, but sometimes you have to draw the line and cut your losses.

Oh, well. On the bright side, I was supposed to brew today and had to postpone until this weekend. I was upset at the time, but it was a blessing in disguise – if I’d brewed without knowing this batch was infected, I might’ve made the same mistake again. At least now I can break down and clean the heck out of my equipment, as well as take a closer look at my procedures and sanitation practices. This batch might’ve just been a one-time fluke, but I have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

May 232008

As we head into the long Memorial Day Weekend, I’d like to reflect on this past week of beer and brewing blogging fun and talk about some things I have planned for the site.

First of all, the page layout. I’m using a pre-coded theme to get up and running, but am working on making my own custom layout for the site. I like the clean look, but it is a bit visually boring, so I’m going to try and jazz it up a bit while keeping it clean and simple. I doubt I’ll have anything ready to roll out for quite awhile, but if you detest this layout, relief is on the horizon.

Next, the page needs a logo and more appropriate title (something that indicates that is actually a beer-related site). I’m thinking of running a contest (perhaps giving away the current hottest commodity in brewing, hops?) for a new title and logo design, but until I have some regular readers it’s a pointless endeavor. So, I’ll be working on putting something together, but if a few people leave comments that they’d like to have a go at it, I’ll make an official contest announcement.

I’ve been busy writing some articles covering various brewing topics – you may not have noticed the articles section…it kind of gets lost in the sidebar. Check it out, and I’ll keep adding to it as time goes on.

Finally, if anyone wants to contribute any articles, posts, or other material, I’m certainly open to it. If you’d like to send me some beer you’ve brewed, I’ll review it on the site. If you’re using some clever gadget or interesting technique you’d like to share with other brewers, let me know. If you have a question or comment about the site, I’d love to hear it. Leave a comment or send me an email!

I hope everyone enjoys a safe, happy, healthy, and beer-filled holiday weekend!

May 222008

As I’ve progressed as a homebrewer, I’ve spent a lot of time trying new techniques and tweaking my process. Here are the five changes I’ve made which have had the greatest impact on the quality of the beer I brew.

1. Controlling fermentation temperatures
This is the single most important thing I can recommend to new homebrewers, since it is often overlooked in the beginning and will make an enormous difference in every beer you brew. The first beer I made was fermented in an 80°F ambient room with a brewbelt on the fermentor. It was an awesome beer because I made it, but I don’t think I’d much enjoy a bottle of that today. Fermenting hot can cause all kinds of off flavors and nasty fusel alcohols in the finished product. Fermentation temperatures, with few exceptions, are best kept in the low to mid 60s for ales and even cooler for lagers. A cheap mini-fridge (I got mine on craigslist for $100) and a temperature controller turned my beers from OK to delicious.

2. Pitching the correct amount of yeast
This is another technique that can help all of your beers – extract, partial mash, or all grain. Controlling fermentation is paramount to brewing, and pitching the proper amount of healthy yeast is a big part of that. For every beer you brew, you should be going to Jamil Zainasheff’s Pitching Rate Calculator and figuring out the correct amount of starter, dry yeast, or slurry you should be pitching. If you are using liquid yeast, do yourself a favor and learn how to make a yeast starter (I will have a step-by-step tutorial with pictures posted here soon). Your beer will return the love.

3. Switching to full boils
When I started out, I was constrained to doing partial boils of extract recipes. The size of my brewpot, stove, and apartment dictated the maximum amount of wort I could safely boil at one time. This is a great way to get started in the hobby – you can start off on your household stove, you don’t need a huge kettle, and the boil and cooling phases of the brew are quicker and easier. However, I definitely saw a big difference in quality when I was able to move to full boils. Not only did it prepare me for the leap to all grain, but it produced a better beer – it is almost impossible to produce a light-colored beer with a partial boil due to the concentration of the wort, and full boils allow for proper hop utilization. Even if you never switch to all grain, make the switch to full boils if your circumstances allow.

4a. Switching to all grain
Ahh, the Holy Grail of brewing. Many homebrewers will never attempt all grain – for some it is more trouble than it’s worth, while others may not have the space, time, or money to make the switch. That’s fine – you can make excellent beers using extract, and the many varieties of extract available today gives you a lot of flexibility to brew different styles. However, if you want total, complete control of the brewing process from start to finish, all grain is a must. It’s really not that difficult once you get the hang of it, and, personally, I feel more invested in a beer that I created out of actual grain. My all grain beers taste much better than my first extract brews, but I wouldn’t blame the extract. Rather, switching to all grain forced me to really learn about beer and become a better brewer. All grain may not be for everyone, but I highly recommend it!

4b. Switching to mini-mashes
Even if you never make the switch from extract brewing, learn to do a mini-mash so you can take advantage of the many specialty grains available to you. My first all-extract beers were lacking in depth and flavor. As soon as I started making some mini-mash kits out there, I saw what a difference specialty grain made in the taste of my beer. Mini-mashes are easy and you get a lot of bang for your buck – just be warned, it’s a slippery slope down to all grain!

5. Kegging my beer
Kegging didn’t directly improve my beer, but it has been one of the biggest improvements to my brewery. Aside from the benefit of having cold, tasty homebrew on tap at a moment’s notice, kegging eliminates my least-favorite part of brewing: bottling. I’ve cut my bottling day time down to thirty minutes, and eliminating this tedious chore has led to increased brewery output and brewer happiness. Also, corny kegs make great vessels for lagering or conditioning, and being able to transfer beer under CO2 pressure helps reduce oxygenation concerns during racking.

May 212008

I’ve been toying with the idea of a mash recirculation setup for my system recently. Using some sort of mash recirculation system gives you much finer control over mash temperatures. In an infusion mash, the kind I do now, the temperature of the grain and the ratio of water to grain are plugged into brewing software (or thermodynamics equations if you’re wiggy like that) to calculate how hot your strike water needs to be to achieve your desired mash temp. For example, 10 lb of grain sitting at 72°F with a 1.25 qt/lb ratio would require 166°F strike water to achieve a mash temp of 154°F, according to BeerSmith.

The problem with this process is that it can be pretty tough to hit your mash temperature exactly. If you brew enough on the same system, you can tweak your process until you nail it pretty consistently, but there will always be hot and cold spots in the mash which makes getting an even temperature across the entire mashtun difficult. I’m usually off by a degree or two – not a huge deal, but it does add some variance to my brew sessions. Even if you do manage to hit your desired temperature exactly, the mash is going to cool over time. My mashes typically last one hour, and I’ll see a temperature drop of anywhere from one to five degrees using a converted Coleman cooler as my mashtun – more if the ambient temperature is really cold.

Now, this isn’t the end of the world, and for many homebrewers it won’t even be a concern. However, if you are looking for exacting control over the mash process, recirculation is the way to go. I see several benefits to using a mash recirculation system:

  • the mash temperature can be raised in step mashes without additional water infusions
  • the mashout temperature can be reached without additional water infusions
  • the strike and mash temperatures can be easily reached and accurately maintained throughout the entire mash
  • an even temperature can be maintained across the entire grain bed

However, there are also some drawbacks. Mash recirculation requires extra equipment, like a pump and a heating element. It also makes your setup that much more complicated – the more moving parts and steps in your process, the more likely something will go wrong at some point. So the question seems to be: Do the pros of mash recirculation outweigh the cons? That very debate has been hashed to pieces in brewing forums across the globe.

Personally, I’ve never had any problems doing plain old infusion mashes. To go buy a pump and rig up a heat exchanger seemed like a solution looking for a problem. However, I now own a March pump (which I find indispensable during the brewing process) and I’m always looking for new ways to use it. Also, as I tackle more difficult and delicate beer styles, such as Kölsch and other light lagers, I can appreciate the benefits of more precision during the mash. So, I’ve decided to revisit the idea of recirculation, while trying to keep it as simple as possible.

I’m not sure if this will work the way I hope, and I can’t even take credit for the idea – it came from a thread on Morebeer’s forums, where the author described a method his homebrew club uses to reach mashout temperatures during their brews. Basically, it’s a poor (or lazy) man’s RIMS setup, using the boil kettle to apply direct heat instead of a heating element. The pump pulls wort from the mashtun and pumps it into the heated kettle, with the idea that the whirlpool action the pump’s output creates will keep the wort moving and avoid any scorching. The wort is then gravity-fed from the kettle’s spigot back to the mashtun (see diagram below). Temperature feedback is provided via thermometers placed in the kettle and mashtun, while careful use of the kettle burner heats the wort to the proper temperature. The output flow of the pump can be restricted to match the output flow of the mashtun, keeping the system in balance and the level of wort in the kettle constant.

Diagram of cheap mash circulation idea

This lacks a lot of the automation and precision of a true RIMS or HERMS design, but I think it would be more precise than infusions and doesn’t require any additional equipment. I see a few potential problems that may need ironing out:

  • will I need a sparge arm to evenly distribute the recirculated wort over the grain bed, to prevent channeling and inconsistent temps?
  • any possibility of hot-side aeration? (I don’t really believe it’s a problem on the homebrew level, but can’t pass up the opportunity to freak out the HSA fear mongerers)
  • will a stuck sparge/clogged manifold be more of an issue than usual?
  • how difficult will it really be to maintain a steady temp using the direct heat method?

Obviously, this needs some empirical testing to see how well it works, but I am optimistic. I will perform a few experiments next week and report back with my results. Eventually I’d like to go to a real HERMS system, but I’m a ways off from that and this could be a nice compromise.

Note to novice brewers – don’t worry about all of this yet. Having a recirculation system will not replace actual skill and magically produce great beer, just as not having one will not prevent you from making great beer. In fact, I eschew any kind of automation until you have your basic skills down.

May 202008

I stumbled across this article about the craft brewing industry. The title would have you think it focuses on brewers’ lobbying efforts in Washington, but it seems a bit disjointed to me. It does start off discussing the political concerns of the American craft brewing industry, but then meanders about, touching on beer’s complexity compared to wine, how beer’s perceived status can be elevated, and if the recent growth of the craft beer industry is a flash in the pan. All in all, a fluffy piece saved only by the fact that the questions it posed were answered by Charlie Papazian, homebrewing icon and president of the Brewer’s Association.

I applaud Newsweek for publishing an article about craft beer – even if it is only a “web exclusive” (sort of like this site). They got the timing and location right – after all, last week was American Craft Beer Week and the Brewer’s Association’s SAVOR event drew tons of beer enthusiasts, brewers, and, yes, even lobbyists, to the DC area. However, the article seems so light on substance – where’s the real discussion of the issues facing small breweries in America? Charlie P. is allowed to briefly mention how increased federal excise taxes and label printing requirements threaten to strangle an already over-regulated industry, but there is no follow-up by the interviewer and the article loses its focus.

Don’t get me wrong, I think discussing the status of beer as a beverage and getting the Brewer’s Association’s message out to the public is vital to the continued growth of the industry. However, an article titled “U.S. Brewers Bid for Influence on Capitol Hill” in the politics section of Newsweek should have a bit more meat to it. Was this a poor job by the interviewer, or was the story edited to appeal to a broader segment of the general public?

So, what do you think? Should we be happy as beer enthusiasts and brewers that Newsweek published anything at all? Is any press that doesn’t completely mangle the facts or badmouth beer good press for the craft beer industry? Or are we at the point now where we can demand more from an article like this?

May 192008

Cans of Oregon fruit pureeHere’s a picture of the cans of Oregon fruit puree I use for my fruit beers. They come in 3 lb 1 oz containers and most homebrew shops sell them for $15-20, depending on the flavor. I’ve seen them in cherry, blackberry, blueberry, peach, and apricot varieties. The blackberry is destined for a future wheat beer, while the blueberry will become the secret ingredient in my Leinenkugle’s Sunset Wheat clone planned for this weekend.

They are sanitized and seedless, so I just sanitize the outside of the can, open them up, and pour them into my clean and sanitized secondary fermentor. I rack my fermented beer right on top of the fruit and let it sit for a few weeks (I’ve found two weeks seems to impart a good flavor to a five gallons of a light-bodied beer, but your mileage and taste may differ) before racking off the fruit for kegging/bottling or further conditioning.

May 172008

Well, so far it’s not shaping up to be a great beer weekend. First off, found out just a smidge too late about the 14th Annual CT Craft Brewers’ Beer Festival to attend. Live music, 40 breweries and brewpubs represented, over 135 beers poured…doesn’t sound like fun at all. It was today from 5-8:30PM in Naugatuck, CT – I heard about it around 1PM, but I would’ve had to rearrange the whole weekend and cancel the dog’s vet appointment to go. Muttered “C’est la vie!” and moved on.

I was getting over that disappointment when I learned I had also missed the 25th Annual Springfest at the Beach, held last night in New London, CT! Chili cook-off, live music, 30 microbreweries represented, over 100 beers poured. WTF??? I need a secretary or something… (If anyone went to either event, drop me a line – I’d love to hear how they were).

To top it all off, my brew session planned for tomorrow (a clone of Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat) is being threatened by a forecast of rain all day.  Yes, the stars have aligned to prevent me from achieving beer nirvana this weekend.

On a positive note, I picked up a third keg today, so I can rack my new batch of Engine 97 out of primary – it’s a bit overdue. Also got another 6 gallon carboy, since it’s time to rack the Sangiovese again – can’t wait to taste a sample. Finally, picked up a can of Oregon Blackberry puree to use for a future batch of wheat beer or pale ale.

It still stings, though.

May 172008

Friday after work, I ran over to Heartland Brewery’s Radio City location (1285 Sixth Avenue @ W51st Street) to grab some growlers for the weekend. One was filled with Indian River Light, one of my favorites. It is one of the few brews I’ve found that is marketed as a “light beer” but still has some flavor to speak of. I took down some tasting notes and proudly present’s first beer review!

The beer has a very inviting aroma – clean with strong orange citrus notes.

Brilliantly clear and very light copper in color. Forms a soft white head when poured, which quickly dissipates.

Very clean taste – low hop bitterness with a clean and light malt background – perhaps pilsner malt? Orange flavor is noticeable without being overpowering – slight pith bitterness tasted, but balances the flavor instead of detracting from it. No off flavors present. Finishes with a clean, slightly tart aftertaste. Heartland mentions it is brewed with coriander, but I was not able to pick that flavor out.

Thin-bodied. Carbonation is on the high side, lending to a crisp bite and accentuating the orange flavor.

All in all, a refreshing light beer. The orange flavor sets it apart from other light beers – it achieves a good flavor balance while keeping a very light hop and grain profile.

Serving type
Growler, poured into standard pint glass

May 162008

Although this is primarily a beer site, I love wine as well (and have just recently vinted my first – a 2008 Italian Sangiovese to be bottled near summer’s end). Therefore, it is with sadness I learned of the passing of a wine icon – Robert Mondavi, who died today at his home in California.

Whether you view Mondavi Winery’s offerings and wine in general with love, hate, or indifference, there’s no denying Robert Mondavi’s impact on the US wine culture. He tirelessly marketed California wines as among the finest in the world, and traveled the world spreading that message. He led by example, encouraging vintners across the world, and especially in California, to raise their standards and focus on making the best wines possible. His career spanned eight decades, during which he established his namesake California winery in 1966 – it was the first new Napa winery since the late 1930s,  and remained one of the most prominent until it was sold in 2004.

Robert Mondavi cultivated a love of wine, travel, fine cuisine, and culture, which he shared with the world. I will be tipping back a bottle in his memory tonight.