Jun 212011

Alarm clockAfter several very busy weekends, I find myself a couple of kegs short of my July 4th weekend party goal. The party was supposed to feature four styles of beer, which I knew was an ambitious plan. I should be happy I have two styles ready to go – the American IPA I brewed in late May, and a batch of Kölsch brewed a couple of weekends ago which is ready to be kegged.

Most brewers would hang up their mash paddle and enjoy the party, happy to be able to serve 10 gallons of good brew instead of the usual backyard BBQ crappy macroswill. Especially considering that there is still a plethora of party details to take care of in the next week and a half, including a fairly involved food menu. However, I am not like most brewers – I am completely insane. I’m considering trying to go from grain to glass in one week.

Many a brewer has tried to rush a beer along to try and meet some competition or party deadline. Most of the time, the results are disastrous. The dance of yeast and malt is a fickle one, and trying to force the beer to bend to your schedule can lead to a host of issues. Hot fusel alcohol notes from high-temp turbo fermentations, CO2 bite from rushing a forced carbonation (natural carbonation isn’t even an option on this schedule!), and overall green-tasting beer are just a few of the perils that await an impatient brewer.

I do, however, think it can be done. Let’s talk about some assumptions.

Assumption 1: You aren’t doing this with any kind of complex beer. Forget anything with an OG above 1.040 or so. Forget your dry-hopping, your nine-malt grain bills, your oak chips, your bourbon infusions, all of that. We have to go fast here, and any kind of complexity is going to need time to mellow and allow flavors to meld.

Chris Hansen

"Put down that Hefe and have a seat over here"

Assumption 2: Forget any kind of aging/conditioning process. If we had time to lager this beer, we wouldn’t be in this situation. So we need ales that are best enjoyed young. I mean really young. I mean, if these beers were people, you’d have Chris Hansen getting all To Catch a Predator on your ass. A few styles instantly come to mind – witbiers, hefeweizens, English milds, American wheats – all best served at the peak of freshness.

Assumption 3: We need a fast and furious fermentation, but without sacrificing the beer quality by going too hot. Hefeweizen yeast can ferment at higher temps, but I still try and keep things on the cool side to keep the banana esters from becoming too overpowering. Saison is another style that can be fermented on the warm side, but I think it might have too complex a flavor profile to meet our first assumption. So, if we can’t ferment hot, how else can we speed up the process?

Assumption 3a: We are going to need a lot of yeast. This means either using a yeast cake or making a very large starter. You want the yeast to hit the ground running and not waste a single precious moment.

Assumption 3b: We want to use wheat, which is known for extremely active and fast fermentations. Wheat beers offer another advantage as well – they are usually meant to be served with yeast in suspension, meaning we don’t have to worry about filtering or wasting precious time trying to get the beer to drop clear.

OK – so now that we have some ground rules, it’s time to figure out exactly what to brew. This beer will be served next to an IPA and a Kölsch, so I want its flavor profile to be somewhere in the middle. I’m going to use the yeast cake from the Kölsch, so a true hefe is out. That leaves me with a witbier, with its coriander and citrus tang, or an American wheat, which I would probably add some sort of fruit extract to. I plan on fermentation being done by day three or four, leaving me some time to get the beer kegged and carbed in time for the party.

I’ll be making my final decision over the next couple of days, and plan to brew this puppy in a late-night session after work on Friday. I’ll keep you posted.

Jun 082011

Old beer cansI opened up the chest freezer I use as a serving fridge, not really knowing what to expect. It had been almost a year since I had poured any homebrew, and I figured the inside of the freezer would be a mess, full of nasty, empty kegs and some kind of mold/slime combination. I wasn’t looking forward to the cleaning job that surely awaited me.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered a nice, clean interior stocked with three almost-full kegs of beer, and a bottle of champagne to boot! The freezer had been held at a steady 40°F the entire time, and the kegs were all pressurized. Only one question remained – was the beer still drinkable??

It looked like I had about 7 or 8 gallons of a pumpkin spice I had brewed (which had turned out a bit more “imperial” than I had intended) and around 4 gallons of the Kölsch I brewed last August. I poured a few pints, called the wife over, and proceeded to hope for the best…

…and it was good!! All the beer was excellent! The carbonation levels could use some adjustment, but the pumpkin spice ale had mellowed nicely, and the Kölsch didn’t have any off-flavors to speak of! This was great news, since I worry so much about sanitation and the longevity of my beers. I’d love to brew up some special Belgians or barleywines and cellar them for a few years, and this gives me a boost of confidence that my procedures are pretty sound and I might be able to pull that off.

Now, I’m left with a problem I don’t mind having – how to dispose of many gallons of tasty homebrew to make room for many more gallons of tasty homebrew?

Sounds like a party to me!

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.

Jan 282009

Brewpub tanks

Brewpub tanks

We’ve set our wedding date for mid-January 2010, and the first part of planning a wedding is finding the venue. This past weekend we traveled out to Albany, NY to see a prospective place and decided to grab some dinner on the way home. I’m always looking for cool beer bars or brewpubs, so I typed “brew” into the GPS and a few hits popped up.

The one that immediately caught my eye was Brewery Ommegang, that little slice of Belgium in Cooperstown, NY. Unfortunately, there was no way we’d make it there in time for their tastings and tours, so I wiped a tear from my eye and continued down the list. We settled on a nearby brewpub with good reviews – the C.H. Evans Brewing Company at the Albany Pump House. Whew, try saying that after a few beer samplers!

C.H. Evans did not disappoint. We each had a beer sampler, consisting of six delicious 3 oz tasters. My personal favorite was their Hefeweizen, but they also had a very nice Scottish Light and Pale Ale. I was definitely impressed by the brews – all were to style, crisp and clean tasting, and some featured some interesting hop varieties. For dinner I started with a bowl of the beef ragôut, which was delicious – reminiscent of German goulash and served with a corn muffin on top – a pairing that was as unexpected as it was tasty. The main event was the golabki, described on the menu as “choice ground beef, rice, and imported Romano cheese rolled in cabbage leaves, slow roasted with house marinara and served with pierogies.” Different and delicious.

The next day, we had an appointment at another venue in Huntington, NY. We got there early and were passing the town of Melville when I remembered a brewpub I had gone to years and years ago when I worked out in those parts. Maybe we had time? Yup, we had an hour to kill and the Black Forest Brew Haus was right down the street! This place only had four beers listed (and they were out of the one I most wanted to try, called “Heavyweizen”), but they exceeded expectations. We did not try the food, but the Chocolate Dopplebock was almost a meal in itself. The pub is decorated with all manners of German knick-knacks, but it would seem the German connection goes deeper than the decor – from the website: “Privatbrauerei Hoepfner of Karlsruhe, Germany has been brewing in this spirit since 1798 and shares its knowledge and tradition with the Black Forest Brew Haus including materials, recipes, equipment, and even the brewmaster!” Anyone have any info on this interesting blurb? I’ll have to go back there and find out what the exact relationship is…

So, great weekend, right? Well, I decided to push my luck…press my bets…roll the dice one more time… and hit another brewpub up for dinner that night! On the way back from the venue, I set course for the only John Harvard’s in New York State, which happens to be in Lake Grove, NY. I was happy with our visit – I tried the Kölsch and the “Winter Splinter”. The Kölsch was nice, although it was a bit off from the real thing – maybe just a touch too many hops? Not complaining, though, it was good beer! The Winter Splinter, on the other hand, was delicious – a nice malty beer with notes of orange, oak, and vanilla that blended together perfectly. I had one of JH’s signature burgers for dinner, and it was pretty darn good (except I had to switch to a knife and fork halfway through, since the bun just couldn’t keep up).

So, there you have it. No wonder I’m posting about beer being fattening – when you roll like that, you’re gonna pick up a couple of pounds!

Jun 032008

A stormy night and $4.35/gallon gas prices could not keep me from traveling deep into Red Sox territory, almost to the Connecticut/Massachusetts border – yes, I was able to get out to Granby, CT on Saturday to visit The Cambridge House brewpub.
Ozzie Williams and the Marion Street Blues Band
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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 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.