Aug 182010
 

My first hydrometerWell, it was bound to happen eventually.

That picture is of my very first (and only) hydrometer. I got that in the starter kit I bought over five years ago, when I began this long and crazy descent into brewing madness. Over the years, I’ve treated this thing with kid gloves – especially as the time and brew sessions kept adding up. “How cool would it be,” I mused, “to still have that original hydrometer, that connection to my humble beginnings, forever?”

I had planned to eventually retire it, perhaps mount it and hang it over that bar I’m going to build one day. I daydreamed about its last task being the measurement of my first professional wort’s gravity. It served me very well throughout the years, and today, it is no more.

My dear wife accidentally dropped it today when she was helping me clean up some of my brew gear. She feels horrible about it – she knows how much that hydrometer meant to me – and she’s keeping the pieces to make some sort of tribute or memorial to my trusty friend. Perhaps it will still find its rightful place in my personal brewing museum, as time keeps marching on and I try and make this less of a hobby and more of a profession.

However, as I think about it, I can’t be that sad. After all, it’s just a hydrometer – an easily replaceable tool, and one which I have been considering replacing with a refractometer for some time now anyway. When I stop and think about what’s really valuable, what’s been with me since the very beginnings of my brewing journey and what has always encouraged and supported this passion of mine, it’s my wife.

She took me to my first brewery tour at Harpoon in Boston, and we brewed our first beer together. She came with me to pick up the kit, to learn how to use that tricky hydrometer for the first time, and to drink that brew which was the best beer I’d ever had because I had made it myself. And she has put up with the never-ending array of gadgets, freezers, buckets, and CO2 tanks which have taken over our home. She encourages and inspires me, and I truly think that helps me brew better beer more than any tool could.

So, rest in peace, hydrometer. You served me well, and you will not be forgotten. I raise a glass to you tonight – to brews of the past, and the brews of the future you will not be there to measure. However, I shall not be sad, for I still have the really important things in life, and to lose sight of that would be the real tragedy here.

Aug 162010
 

The flags of Köln and DeutschlandThe good news: I now have ten gallons of Kölsch fermenting in my chest freezer (which just BARELY fits two 6.5G plastic buckets inside).

The bad news: In brewing my first 10G batch, I completely botched my water measurements and had a generally sloppy brewday.

OK, so the good news outweighs the bad news – assuming the beer turns out well! I’m glad I was able to rumble through the day and finish with two fermentors full of beer, but I’m mad at myself for fudging my processes…I know, relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew, right?

I measured the water into my mashtun by weighing it, like I have for the last two brews, in an attempt to pinpoint losses and grain absorbtion rates in my system. My big mistake was not weighing the wort runoff – I figured I could estimate the volume based on how many times I filled the 1/2 gallon pitcher I use, but later found out that pitcher is not exactly accurate and holds a bit more than I thought. I can’t say why I chose not to weigh the runoff, but I think it was a mix of laziness and impatience. I’m kicking myself now.

Long story short, I wound up with 15.3G of wort (which I thought was 14.4G). I was quite confused when my 15G kettle wouldn’t hold all the runoff – I figured I had a smaller kettle than I thought I did. Looking back on my notes today and inspecting the pitcher, it became clear that estimating the runoff volume was a huge mistake.

Just to kick a brewer when he’s down, my pump decided to be a pain in the ass, and my pellet hops turned into a solid sludge at the bottom of the kettle, completely blocking my bazooka screen when I was pumping to the fermentors. I’ve never seen pellet hops clump up like that – it was a pretty solid mass! Not sure if that was a result of whirlpooling while chilling or the specific pellets I used (they were Hallertauer, for what it’s worth). I think I’m going to use a hop bag next time.

So, it was a rough session and all my numbers for this brew are a bit fuzzy, but I’m not going to stress about it. I didn’t miss my OG by much, and the beer should turn out just fine. I just wish I could finally reach the nirvana which is truly knowing my system and hitting my numbers every time. For the next session, I will weigh both water in and wort out of the mashtun, and I will make a dipstick to measure kettle volume before and after the boil. There are a lot of variables to pin down, but I hope being overly precise now will give me the data to churn out consistently great beer down the line. I need repeatability, and I will not allow myself to build or buy an automated brew system until I can get this right manually. It’s a frustrating endeavor, but I will get it one of these days…

…and hey, no matter what, I have TWO buckets of beer happily bubbling away!

Aug 122010
 

In trying to decide what my next brew should be, I contemplated many styles. A pumpkin spice ale is definitely on the list, but I want to wait a few weeks until pumpkins are available before attempting that one. I’d love to do another stout, but I’d rather schedule that for colder weather. I need to make another couple batches of my steam beer, which is my flagship house beer, but I can whip that up anytime and I want to try something new.

Enter the Kölsch. I’ve wanted to brew one of these ever since tasting them in Köln, but never got around to it for whatever reason. I think in the back of my mind I associated them with true lagers, and didn’t want to deal with the huge yeast starter and conditioning times. This style is sort of a hybrid in that it ferments at low ale temperatures, but is best with at least four weeks of lagering after primary – not to worry, though, because at my house, lagering is best conducted with pint-sized samples taken every evening.

So, it’s time. I even have stanges for proper serving and everything. I smacked two very old (two years!) Wyeast 2565 smack packs today, and am picking up two more fresh packs this evening. I plan on making a gallon starter with one fresh and two old packs tonight, and pitching that into a 10 gallon batch brewed on Sunday. I’ll keep the second fresh pack in case of stalled fermentation, or for the next batch.

The recipe is going to be 95% German pilsner malt and 5% Vienna, with light Hallertau hopping. The mash will be low (149°F) and long (90 minutes) with a 90 minute boil. This will be my first 10 gallon batch, and the wort will be split into two primaries and fermented at 60°F. I’ll post an exact recipe once I work out the details in BeerSmith.

Jun 212010
 

Mr. Mashtun

Mr. Mashtun

If you’ve been keeping up with the blog, you know I’ve been trying my hardest to pin down efficiency losses in my system. I started keeping meticulous records on water in and wort out numbers, going as far as weighing the liquid to be as accurate as possible. When my last brew session clocked in with an efficiency in the mid-50’s, I decided to try changing my mill.

Up until now, I’ve been milling my grain with a Corona (aka Victoria) mill. This is a cheap mill made for grinding corn into flour for tortillas, not necessarily for crushing malt for brewing. There are some die-hard Corona mill supporters out there, claiming they can regularly get in the 80% efficiency range, but I never felt it gave me a good crush. In my experience, it was horribly imprecise, either spitting out uncracked grain or pulverizing both husk and kernel into flour. Add to that the small hopper and manual hand-crank operation, and it was time for a change (yes, you can motorize the Corona fairly easily, but I didn’t think it was worth the effort). I’m not doubting that people get good results with the Corona, but for me, it was too little, too late.

I did a bit of research, and wound up ordering a Barley Crusher mill. This is a highly rated, fairly inexpensive grain mill with two knurled steel rollers designed especially for brewing. I took advantage of the discount pricing BeerSmith is offering and ordered the 15 pound hopper model for $154 (with shipping). When the mill arrived this week, I was excited to try it out for this weekend’s brew.

In a word: amazing. The Barley Crusher took a little adjusting to – I ran a half pound of grain through to break it in, per the instructions, with no issues. Using a power drill which easily attached to the crank, it took about three seconds. However, when I loaded the hopper with 10 pounds of pale malt, the rollers wouldn’t grab the grain and just spun uselessly. A quick search online showed this isn’t an uncommon problem, but one that is easily solved – by loading the hopper with one scoop of grain first, I was able to “prime” the rollers and once they caught, I was free to load the hopper to capacity.

What would have taken me the better part of an hour with the Corona took no more than three minutes with my DeWalt drill and the Barley Crusher. More importantly, however, was the look of the crush – the kernels were all cracked nicely, but the husks were still intact – perfect for setting a filter bed in the mashtun. I crossed my fingers, hoping this would boost my numbers a bit.

I noticed a difference during sparging and lautering – my wort ran clear faster, and I had no hint of a stuck sparge. I measured my pre-boil efficiency and came out over 75% – about a 20% boost just from changing one piece of equipment! Now, my brewhouse efficiency (true efficieny, into the fermentor) dropped quite a bit, but that was due to excess wort losses – I had trouble racking into the fermentor due to a clogged bazooka screen in the kettle (using whole leaf hops without a hop bag = dumb). At the end of the brew, I clocked in at 5 gallons of 1.060 OG wort when I was expecting 6 gallons of 1.061. The volume difference killed my brewhouse efficiency, but my recipe was calculated at an estimate of 70%, so it all balanced out in the end. I’m happy – my last brew came in 18 points under gravity, so this is a major improvement!

I will keep chasing my numbers and reporting back here – if I want to start formulating my own recipes and brewing to consistency, I need to dial in my system exactly. That means getting good sugar extraction from my mash, figuring oiut my evaporation rate, and determining exactly how much water/wort is lost to grain absorbtion and tun/kettle deadspace.

The Chocolate Porter is in the fermentor happily bubbling away (at 68°F, innoculated with the WL San Francisco Lager yeast I cultured from the last batch). I used my new Thomas Fawcett & Sons Halcyon pale malt as the base, and I am expecting nothing short of greatness from this batch! I am also proud to announce that during the mash, I grilled up some traditional Wisconsin-style bratwurst. Below is a picture of them simmering in beer and onions before moving to the grill.

Simmering bratwurst

Simmering bratwurst

The wort sample from the porter tasted dead on, the bratwurst were delicious on a toasted hero with raw onion and brown mustard, and it made slaving away over propane burners in the sweltering heat worth it. Nothing says summer like mixing a brewday with some grilling! Next week, I hope to knock out a new version of the California Common recipe while smoking some of my (semi)famous pulled pork. Speaking of smoking, I have plans to smoke some grain to create a cherry-smoked Hefeweizen and a classic Bamberg Rauchbier.

Tell me about your most recent brewday, your battles with efficiency, and your favorite sausages!

Coming soon, on lootcorp: my new chest freezer, why new beer site BrewAdvice.com needs our help, how to wire up a Ranco temperature controller and save some money, and lootcorp.com’s very first iPhone app!

Prost!

Jun 012010
 

Yeast starter

1.25L yeast starter

It all starts with a starter. Saturday night I cooked up a 1.25L starter to get my yeast ready for a Sunday brewday. Usually I make my starters a week or so in advance, letting them ferment out completely and then crash-cooling them, but this time I decided to try something different. I’ve read that making a starter the night before (or even morning of) brewday allows you to pitch the yeast at their most active. The only downside is you are adding the entire starter volume to your wort, but I figured 1.25L wouldn’t hurt the final product in any meaningful way. The starter preparation went down without a hitch, and I readied for brewing the next morning.

The beginning of the brewday went very slowly – I had to do a lot of cleaning and prep work since my brewery had sat dormant for so long. After a few hours of getting organized, washing equipment, and grinding grain, I was ready to mash in. I was using my recipe for Engine 97 Steam Beer, which calls for mashing at 154°F for one hour. I stirred and measured the mash temperature every 15 minutes.

Mashing in

Mashing in

I batch sparged and wound up with a little over 10 gallons of wort. I had measured my water in and out of the mash very carefully (using a scale to weigh it) since I am trying to lock down the loss numbers for my system. This brew lost appx. 1.5 gallons to grain absorption and another half gallon or so to tun deadspace. These numbers were a bit off from my assumptions, and this (along with poor efficiency) caused me to miss my OG by quite a bit. During the next brew, I will try and pin down my efficiency problems, although I have a suspicion that my Corona mill is to blame.

Starting to boil

Starting to boil

After the mash was complete, I transferred the wort to the kettle for boiling. Everything from here on in was pretty textbook – 90 minute boil, with hops additions at 60m, 15m, and flameout (all Northern Brewer pellets).

Northern Brewer hops

Northern Brewer hops

I set up for chilling by adding the IC to the boil with 20m remaining, along with a Whirfloc tablet. I also started recirculating wort through my March pump to sanitize it. The pump is great – it allows me to chill faster by moving the wort around the chiller in the kettle, and then lets me transfer to the fermentor with ease.

I chilled down to about 68°F (took about 20 minutes), racked to the primary, and added the yeast. Set it up in the fermentation fridge to ferment around 58°F. There was airlock activity within 24 hours, and the beer is now happily bubbling away.

Chilling the wort

Chilling the wort

I wound up with an OG of 1.042 (reading taken before adding the starter wort) – my target was 1.055 or so, so this is going to be a bit lighter beer than intended. I wound up with an efficiency of around 55%. I’ll need a few more brew sessions of data before I can really figure out where my losses are occuring, but I am tempted to try the same recipe with malt milled at the homebrew shop to see if I get a big jump. I have a love/hate relationship with my Corona mill, but I just don’t know if it is consistent enough to get a good crush. Seems I am either getting uncracked kernels or flour, and it is very hard to find that middle ground.

I will be using this batch’s yeast cake to brew another few batches of this beer – I have been told the yeast doesn’t reach its peak until the third batch or so. Hopefully I’ll be able to get my system dialed in and have a perfect batch of California Common by that third time around.

Sep 162009
 

Autumn leaf

Fall is here!

Wow – I can’t believe Fall is here already! I had a really crappy summer – the weather ruined just about every weekend I had at home, while wedding planning (T -124 days) took up the rest. I look back now and realize how incredible the odds were that every weekend we planned wedding stuff for would be beautiful, and every other weekend would be raining/hurricaning/fire storming. Yea, I can’t win a scratch off Lottery game, but I can defy the laws of probability when it comes to lost brewing opportunities!

Anyway, with Summer 2009 a bust, we look forward pleadingly towards Autumn to right the wrongs Nature has smacked us with. As previously mentioned, I am planning a nice pumpkin spice ale and a porter with the star anise I picked up a few months ago. A couple of questions for discussion and debate –

1. Pumpkin ale – with or without real pumpkin?
2. Star anise in a rich chocolate porter – yay or nay?
3. Have you ever used cardamom in beer? It goes well with tea…
4. Can I somehow work my avocado fetish into one of these beers?

Also, let me know what you have cooking for the Fall and holiday seasons!

Aug 182009
 

Star Anise

Star Anise

I came across some star anise in an ethnic supermarket the other day, and picked some up on a whim. I’ve been trying to come up with a recipe to try it in, when it occurred to me that it might be tasty in some beer. I’ve seen mention of it being used in some Belgian brews – supposedly it lends a sharp licorice flavor to the beer, and takes awhile to mellow. I’m thinking of using it in a stout or porter recipe – something with enough body and flavor to support this strong spice. Has anyone used this in a similar style? I’m wondering if it would play nice with chocolate, hazelnut, or vanilla – some of my favorite flavors for stouts. I also made a bourbon Russian imperial stout once that I could picture the licorice flavor in. I’m going to play around with some grain bills tonight and try to come up with a sample recipe – if anyone has any feedback or suggestions, leave a comment!

Jul 062009
 

Summer beer

Summer beer

With the Fourth of July officially in the bag, we move into the “dog days of summer” phase of the year. What have you guys been brewing up for the hot months of July and August? Are you still making Hefeweizens, Wits, and light lagers? Anyone bucking the trend and making Imperial Stouts or something? Super organized brewers already planning their pumpkin spice brews for Thanksgiving?

I’ve got one Witbier planned (didn’t get to it this weekend), along with the 5 gallons of my banana wheat beer (which is aging nicely, with the banana becoming a muted tone instead of an attention hog). Then what? Maybe a lager – I’ve had Kölsch on the mind for awhile. Anyone have a good recipe?

Jun 222009
 

Bananas

Bananas

Well, you can’t win them all.

I kegged up the summer wheat beer I brewed up a few weeks ago, and I knew I had a problem as soon as I opened the fermentor and the rich smell of ripe bananas washed over me. My first thought was some sort of infection – I had used Wyeast’s 3333 – German Wheat and expected a nice, clean flavor like an American Wheat (my first yeast choice, which the homebrew shop was out of). However, a little reseach led me to the fact that 3333 can indeed throw out banana esters when fermented a little on the high end of the temperature range. I had fermented this in the kitchen and the ambient temperature probably ranged from 65-75°F. Here is where laziness came back to haunt me – I have a fermenting refrigerator and forgot how important a cool fermentation is for a clean tasting wheat. I should’ve used the fridge and had this beer fermenting in the very low sixties.

Anyway, what’s done is done, and I now have an interesting brew on my hands. There is a definite banana flavor and aroma there – mixed with the citrus notes from the grains of paradise, the flavor reminds me of those Tropicana orange/banana fruit juice blends. The base reminds me a bit of Sam Adams’ Summer, which is sort of what I was aiming for, but the banana really throws it off. It isn’t fully carbonated yet – adding even a touch of carbonation helped the beer even out quite a bit, and I’m hoping some cold conditioning and proper carbonation might save it in the end. It is definitely drinkable at this early stage, but it is certainly not my best work, and a problem which could have been easily avoided. Maybe it will wind up drinking like a slightly weird Hefeweizen – I’m crossing my fingers.

I was hoping this would be my first competition beer – I might enter it just to see what the judges make of the flavor, but I’m not bringing home any Best of Shows with this one…

Jun 012009
 

Blichmann Engineering's BeerGun

Blichmann's BeerGun

With my newfound desire to enter my beer into some competitions, I needed a way to get it out of the kegs and into bottles. I’ve been messing around with filling growlers and trying out a Carbonator Cap for homebrew portability, but I wanted a way to bottle my beer that would preserve the quality and allow me to send some off to the judges. Enter the BeerGun by Blichmann Engineering.

Are any of you using this beast? It’s supposed to be the pinnacle of draft-to-bottle technology.

For those unfamiliar with the issues of going from keg to bottle, beer will foam when exposed to rapid pressure changes – this makes filling bottles from a pressurized keg difficult. The only real solution used to be counter-pressure bottle fillers, which are unwieldy contraptions that pressurize the bottle and allow you to fill it without the beer foaming all over the place. The BeerGun is supposed to be a much more elegant solution, gradually reducing the pressure of the beer and allowing for one-person operation.

It should be here in a couple of days, and I’ll be sure to post a full review once I get a chance to use it. I’ve already missed the NY State Fair competition deadline, so I’ll have to check the AHA/BJCP calendar and see what my next target is.