Aug 182011

Assistant Brewmaster Bella

My trusty assistant

It was a brewing emergency – we had a scant two weeks before some beer-loving guests arrived to spend the weekend at the compound, and our kegs were running critically low! I checked the weather forecast and saw a week of rain – except for Wednesday. Wednesday was forecast to have cloudless skies and plenty of sunshine, an outlier in an otherwise crappy week. I quickly arranged to take the day off of work, grabbed the Assistant Brewmaster Bella, and set out to brew up some witbier.

I’m a big fan of witbiers – they are nice and refreshing on a hot day and are also great bridge beers you can use to expose your macroswill-chugging friends to craft beer without scaring them off. There’s a delicate balance that makes this a challenging brew to pull off correctly. The beer is supposed to have a touch of sweetness (usually present as honey or vanilla notes), moderate citrus fruitiness, some spicy, peppery notes, and a very slight lactic bite in the finish. If any one of these flavors becomes too dominant, the beer will lose the refreshing crispness that wits are known for. Witbiers should also have a somewhat creamy, smooth mouthfeel from the use of wheat and oats in the mash.

Mashing in the kettle

Mashing in the kettle

The recipe I used called for:

  • 5.5# of Pils malt
  • 5# flaked wheat
  • 2# flaked oats
  • 0.25# Munich malt
  • 1.2oz Hallertau hops @ 60 min
  • 43g citrus zest
  • 11g cracked coriander seeds
  • 1g dried chamomile flowers

You don’t need to grind flaked wheat and oats, but I threw them in the mill because I’ve heard of slight increases in efficiency when doing so. I mashed in my kettle, since this was a step mash and it’s much easier to do those with direct heat. I used a protein rest at around 124°F for 20 min or so and then brought the temp up to 158°F. The problem with mashing in my kettle is that it loses heat very quickly. I had to fire the burner several times over the mash to keep the temp up, and in reality it fluctuated anywhere between 160°F and 153°F. It spent the bulk of the time in the 156-159°F range, so hopefully there will be no ill effects on the finished product.

I tried a new technique this time – iodine testing for starch conversion. Basically, you buy a bottle of tincture of iodine (available at any pharmacy) and use it to test your mash. Extract a small sample of mash liquid (there should be no grain particles in the sample) in a bowl or something and add a drop of iodine – if it turns black, conversion is not complete. If it stays tan/reddish, you are good to go. My recipe called for a 90 minute mash due to all of the wheat and oats, but testing at 60 minutes showed conversion was done so I mashed out at 168°F. I then added about a half pound of rice hulls to help avoid a stuck sparge.

Hops and zest

Hallertau hops and citrus zest

I nailed my pre-boil target exactly – 7G of wort @ 1.042 SG. The rest of the brew went very well, except for one mistake – I miscalculated my evaporation rate. I had been doing 60 minute boils and forgot to compensate for the fact that I was using a 90 minute boil for this recipe. Stupid mistake, and I paid the price. What should have been 5.5G of 1.050 SG wort turned out to be ~4.75G of 1.069 SG wort!!

Well…I made two mistakes here. First was not compensating properly for the longer boil. Second was not testing the gravity during the boil. If I had been keeping an eye on things, I could have added water or reduced the boil time to compensate. However, if I’m going to miss on gravity, I always prefer missing to the upside. When my beers miss high, I just throw the “imperial” tag on them and call it a day!

Highlight of the brewday had to be the last five minutes of the boil, when I added in the citrus zest, the chamomile, and the coriander – the wort smelled amazing! I didn’ have time to make a yeast starter for this brew, so I pitched two packs of Wyeast 3944 (Belgian Witbier). Not very cost effective, but the right thing to do in the absence of a proper starter.

All in all, it was a good day and a good brew – I just hope the higher alcohol content doesn’t wreck the balance of the beer. I’ll keep you posted!

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.