Sep 142016

My friends, I have strayed…

Over the last few years, my brewing became more and more sporadic, evidenced by the lack of posts on this site. Increased work responsibilities and other interests were competing for my time and energy and brewing became… a chore. I made a handful of batches to try and stay current, but the brewery gradually fell into disarray. My brewday documentation became non-existent. I stopped reading (and writing) beer articles. The beer, while still drinkable, suffered greatly. I had fallen from grace.

But O! I am nothing if not resilient! The fire was rekindled this weekend when I was convinced by The Hammer to enter my first homebrew competition. The only beer I had available was a Heady Topper clone I brewed a few weeks ago. Everything that could’ve gone wrong with this beer did. First I unknowingly bought an extract kit instead of all grain — oh well, roll with it, it’ll cut a couple hours off the brewday, right? Boil and hops additions went well, until I realized I forgot to use my hop spider — a huge mistake when using a plate chiller. When it came time to chill the beer, my chiller got clogged and I was dead in the water (worter?).

Five gallon Torpedo kegI wound up throwing the wort in the fermentor and leaving it in my basement overnight to cool. Pitched the yeast the following day, then ignored the beer for a month. Did not dry hop it, did not take gravity readings, I couldn’t care less about this brew. Until this competition deadline was looming.

Somewhere on Sunday, as I cleaned my kegs and racked the beer and fought a CO2 leak… as I gazed over the dust-covered, neglected collection of my brewing equipment, I got mad. I was pissed that I had let things go like this. Pissed that I let the world take the fun out of brewing. Pissed as I watched the beer world explode around me, breweries opening every day, homebrewing equipment and ingredients and techniques reaching never before seen heights…pissed at myself that I wasn’t a part of it all.

The next day I went online and ordered the ingredients needed to brew one of my favorite old recipes, Engine 57 Steam Beer. They arrived today, along with a gleaming new keg (pictured above). I’ll be brewing that beer this weekend. Next up is my IPA recipe. Then on to some other styles. I’m not stopping until I have all five of my kegs full of beer. I’m entering these beers into competitions, and I’m going to win medals. I’m getting my brewing mojo back, dammit!!

That Heady clone? Not ready to be competitive yet, and it might never be. It has a harsh hop bitterness in the finish that might mellow with time in cold storage, or might be a result of staying on the trub too long and never fade. Don’t get me wrong, it’s tasty, but I don’t expect a high score from it. It doesn’t matter, though — I entered it anyway. It was more of a symbolic act — atoning for my sins, getting back in the scene, and making some amazing beer.

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.

Jun 272008

Every Spring, BYO magazine runs a homebrew label contest, and every year I forget to enter. They just announced the 2008 winners, and I once again kicked myself for missing the deadline. Then I remembered – hey, I have a blog now, and can share my labels with you, my faithful readers. I’m no graphic artist, but I do enjoy messing around with the fine arts – so, without further ado, here are a few labels I’ve made for my homebrew over the years (click any of the labels for a larger picture).

First, my flagship brew, Engine 97 Steam Beer. This beer got its name from an old steam engine running out of Essex, CT. We visited the train once and I took a cool picture of engine #97. It seemed a natural fit for a steam beer, so I put the photo to a Van Gogh backdrop and came up with this:

Engine 97 Steam Beer label

Engine 97 Steam Beer label

Another “production” label I made was for a batch of Joe’s Ancient Orange mead I made for a mother’s day present for a few moms in my life. The label was designed for a 375 mL dessert wine bottle, so it is in portrait orientation instead of the standard landscape. This was done very quickly, so it’s not very sophisticated, but I like to think it captures the fun and simple essence of the mead. Either way, the moms seemed to like it!

Mother\'s Day Mead label

Mother's Day Mead label

Now we get into the labels-in-progress. That’s right, folks, as a special present for frequenting my blog I’m giving you the behind-the-scenes tour of the art studio!

This one was created for my Client #9 Apricot Pale Ale. This beer was brewed as the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke, and I decided to pay homage to my ex-governor by naming the beer after him. I never finished it, since I haven’t bottled any of this recipe yet – I switched to kegging around the same time. I also don’t really like the fonts or the text, but it is ready to be finished as soon as I brew another batch.

Client #9 label draft

Client #9 label draft

Finally, here is something I came up with last year, when I had the idea to brew a boysenberry wheat beer but never got around to it. This beer became reality in a roundabout way when I brewed my Sunset Wheat clone recently and decided to sub in my boysenberry flavoring instead of blueberry like Leinenkugle’s uses. If you haven’t already, check out the June WoT post and drop a comment suggesting a name for this beer. Once I get that nailed down, I’ll put the finishing touches on this label.

Boysenberry Wheat label draft

Boysenberry Wheat label draft

You may have noticed the nautical flags in each label. My brewery is called Harbor Beer Company, and the nautical flags spell out HarborBeerCo. I’m still working on a logo for a bottlecap or neck wrap, probably something with a lighthouse or boat motif.

Well, that’s it! Let me know what you guys think, and if you have any labels of your own to submit, send them in! If we get enough, maybe we’ll do our own label contest!

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 162008

One of the features I’ll be doing every month is What’s on Tap – a discussion of some of the beers I’ve brewed and am enjoying that particular month. This month is the premier of WoT, and I currently have two kegs I’m working on emptying.

Engine 97 Steam Beer
This is one of my house beers and a favorite among my fans. It is brewed in the style of a California Common (BJCP category 7B, Amber Hybrid Beer/California Common Beer), also called steam beer. The quintessential commercial example of a Cal Common is Anchor Brewing’s Anchor Steam. This style calls for a medium-bodied amber to light copper colored ale, with a moderately malty taste and pronounced hop bitterness. The style showcases the Northern Brewer hop variety, which produces woody, rustic, or minty qualities. In addition, light caramel and fruity notes are acceptable.

My version is brewed using one of Jamil Zainasheff’s recipes, and I like it better than Anchor Steam. It adds a nice amount of malt complexity with its varied grain bill, and has that nice hop punch you want from a Cal Common. The batch I am currently drinking was brewed in early April and is conditioning nicely in my beer fridge – however, I doubt it will have time to reach its true peak, since I have been steadily attacking this keg!

Only “problem” with that brew session was that I was adjusting to a bunch of new equipment and missed my original gravity by quite a bit, causing this batch to be lighter in body than I expected. As a result, the caramel notes aren’t really there, the beer tastes a lot hoppier than usual (sort of like a baby IPA), and the alcohol content is low (somewhere around 4% ABV). Of course, these aren’t really problems – the beer still tastes great and the lower ABV makes it a nice session beer. However, these are things which would get me dinged in a competition for straying out of style.

Client #9
This beer was designed to be a clone of Magic Hat’s #9. Magic Hat describes that beer as “not quite pale ale”. Technically, this would fall under the rather broad style of Fruit Beer (BJCP category 20, Fruit Beer). Basically, all the style holds you to is having the fruit you used come through in the aroma and taste, have the fruit flavor be supportive and not artificial or overpowering, and have a well-brewed base beer backing it all up.

I brewed this one in late March, right when the Eliot Spitzer scandal was breaking, so I named it in his honor. This beer was another victim of my new equipment breaking-in period, so the original gravity also came in on the low side. It’s a little lighter-bodied and has a touch less alcohol than planned, but the apricot flavor fills it out nicely. It was racked onto a can’s worth of Oregon apricot puree (Oregon makes seedless, sanitized fruit purees without added sugars or fermentables which are available at homebrew shops and online – they work great. The purees you find in the supermarket should be avoided!) for two weeks and then kegged. The beer turned out very nice – a medium-hopped, unassuming pale ale in the background, complemented by a nice, fresh apricot nose and taste. I have it carbonated on the higher side and it is a nice, refreshing springtime beverage.

This keg is just about done. My girlfriend loves this stuff, preferring it to Magic Hat’s brew. The keg would be kicked already, but we are having company for Memorial Day weekend and they want to try some. I have already been contracted for another batch, but I might try a different flavor, like blackberry.