Friday, December 7, 2018

A Year with the PicoBrew Zymatic

During Black Friday 2017, I was offered the opportunity to purchase a PicoBrew Zymatic at a significant discount. Although I'd already had (and been generally happy with) iMake's The Grainfather, I didn't brew as often as I wanted to with it. Although The Grainfather can produce some great beer (and I've got medals to prove it), the time commitment is hard to take. I pretty much had to stay home and watch over it for 5-8 hours, and attend to it constantly. For me, the Zymatic represented the opportunity to brew at times when I couldn't necessarily be there to change mash temperatures, sparge the grain, or drop things into the brew kettle. It would also mean that I could experiment more. Recipes I'd thought looked interesting (but didn't want to give up a day to try) would suddenly mean a few minutes' work to put together and a few more to load into the machine. Needless to say, I took the deal.

The Zymatic - mid-brew

Can you make good beer in the Zymatic?

In a word, yes. I have a ribbon from the Ohio State Fair to back that claim up. The second beer I ever made in the Zymatic (a Belgian Tripel) took fourth place at the 2018 Ohio State Fair's Homebrewing Competition. Considering how competitive that category is, taking fourth place with a beer brewed on a system I was only beginning to figure out should tell you all you need to know.

What is it Like to Brew in the Zymatic?

The brewing process with the Zymatic is pretty straightforward:

  • Log in to the PicoBrew web site and enter your recipe details, configuring the advanced mash settings if appropriate.
  • Measure and crush your grains, then load them into the Step Filter ("tray")
  • Measure your hops, then load them into the hop baskets.
  • Load the hop "loaf" tray and hop baskets into the Step Filter
  • Put the lid on the Step Filter and insert it into the Zymatic
  • Measure out the appropriate amount of water per the PicoBrew Recipe Crafter online and load that into the insulated keg attached to the Zymatic
  • Turn on the Zymatic and wait for it to connect to the Internet.
  • Using the menu dial/button, select the recipe you want to brew, then press the button to start the brewing process.
  • For the next few hours, the Zymatic will brew the beer according to the recipe you entered online. As it brews, the Zymatic will log temperature information on the web so that you can track the status of the brew.
  • When the brew is finished, the Zymatic transfers the hot wort into the insulated keg and begins beeping.
  • At this point you have to chill the wort to a yeast-safe temperature. There are many ways you can do this:
    • You can wait for the beer to cool naturally, maybe even placing it outside in the winter or into a refrigerator or freezer. This will take a long time and the beer will probably not be clear (if you care about that), but it will work.
    • You can use the PicoBrew recommended approach. This is to remove the insulation from the keg (which is a bit risky since it's filled with near-boiling liquid), dunk it in a bath of ice water, an recirculate the wort in and out of the keg. This will take minutes, and the resulting beer should be relatively clear when finished.
    • I took the approach of pumping the beer into a sanitized kettle, then using a sanitized immersion chiller to cool it. This took at most 5-10 minutes to do, given the cold ground water temperature and the small amount of wort relative to the chiller size.
    • Later, I rigged a counter flow chiller up and used that, pumping wort directly into the fermenter through the chiller. This was also relatively quick, and reduced the chance for infection, but didn't chill the wort quite as well as the immersion chiller.
    • You could probably rig up a number of other options, too, like a plate chiller or an immersion chiller that fits inside the keg the Zymatic uses.
  • With the wort chilled, you transfer it to a fermenter and pitch your yeast. 
Although that process looks pretty long, it doesn't require tons of manual involvement. Recipe entry takes a few minutes, depending on how much tinkering you do. Loading the water, grain, and hops usually took me 10-20 minutes depending on how well organized I was. Chilling the wort usually took me 5-15 minutes. So my hands-on involvement for a batch was easily under an hour in most cases.

Cleanup of the Zymatic

Once you've finished a brew, cleanup of the Zymatic is a bit more involved than brewing, in my opinion. The cleanup process (as I did it) worked something like this:

  • Remove the Step Filter tray from the Zymatic. 
  • Dump the hops basket contents into a vessel for disposal.
  • Scoop the grain out of the tray into the vessel for disposal.
  • Rinse out the tray, hop baskets, and screens using hot water until no visible residue of the hops or grain is present.
  • Place the screens back into the tray and put the tray in the Zymatic.
  • Clean the keg using hot water, PBW, and a brush. Rinse thoroughly so no PBW is left.
  • Load a vessel with hot water and attach the cleaning wands to the Zymatic in and out water lines. 
  • Start a rinse cycle, which takes about 10-12 minutes.
  • Start a second rinse cycle.
  • Dump the water out of the Step Filter and rinse it again.
  • Load a Finish dishwasher detergent tab into the Step Filter, atop the hop compartment screen.
  • Start the "New Clean Beta" cleaning program, which runs for about 2-3 hours. You can leave the machine at this point.
  • When the cleaning program is finished, dump out the keg contents (dirty water), and the Step Filter contents (dirty water).
  • Rinse out the keg and fill it with hot water.
  • Rinse out the Step Filter and put the screens in it.
  • Run the final rinse cycle in the cleaning program.
This process takes about 3 hours of elapsed time. The hands-on involvement is about 15-20 minutes at the start of the cleaning process, and another 15-20 minutes at the end.

The Zymatic documentation (and the PicoBrew web site) gives conflicting information on cleaning processes. The manual suggests doing a cleaning like the above after every 5-6 brews or after a single high-gravity brew. Zymatic support folks will recommend a cleaning cycle every 2-3 brews. My experience was that doing a cleaning cycle every 2-3 brews resulted in some internal clogging after some 25-30 batches. It took a double-digit number of cleaning and soaking cycles after that to get the Zymatic brewing smoothly again. For that reason, I began doing the above after each and every brew, as I wanted to avoid any further clogging issues.

This cleaning process took longer than the cleaning process for The Grainfather. The Grainfather's cleaning process involved rinsing and scrubbing the kettle with PBW, then circulating hot PBW solution through the machine for a while. After that, you rinsed everything and you were pretty much done. It took about 20-30 minutes most of the time, but it was a bit back-breaking because of the bending over and lifting/dumping of the machine.

Why Should You Buy (or Not Buy) the Zymatic?

Just is a Ford Mustang is not the right car for every driver (e.g., a family with lots of kids isn't going to have enough room), the Zymatic is not the right system for every brewer. In my opinion, the following are the reasons you should consider the Zymatic:

  • You're experienced with all-grain brewing. (The Zymatic insulates you from much of the mash and boil process, so you'll learn less brewing with it than you would with a system like The Grainfather, which is more hands-on.)
  • You want to brew, but don't have time to invest in the process. (The Zymatic automates much of the process, so you can do other things while the brew is going on without worrying that you'll ruin the beer.)
  • You can afford it. (It's not a cheap device. If your funds are limited, you may want to consider one of the more-manual but less-expensive systems.)
  • You aren't obsessed with hitting target gravity and volume consistently. (In my opinion, it's hard to properly predict the final volume and gravity. At times it seemed wildly high or low for no obvious reason to me.)
  • You don't generally brew 2.5 gallon batches that need more than 6 ounces of hops added during the boil or make more than four hop additions during the boil. (This is the limit of the four hop baskets in the Zymatic. There are ways around this limitation but they'll require you to do hop additions in the keg, which isn't automated and kind of defeats the purpose of an automated system like this.)
  • You don't generally brew 2.5 gallon batches that need more than 9 pounds of grain. (The Zymatic's upper limit is 9 pounds of grain. There are ways to work around this, like adding malt extract to the starting water or doing iterated mashing, but generally this is a limitation.)
  • You have reliable Internet access in the area where you brew. (The Zymatic needs reliable Internet access to run its brewing process, and may stop brewing if it loses contact with the Internet.)
  • You don't mind low Brewhouse Efficiency. (With the Zymatic, the more grain you use, the less efficient it is at extracting sugar from the grain. At a full 9-pound load, I saw efficiencies in the 49%-62% range. I saw efficiencies in the upper 70% to 80% range with The Grainfather.)
Why you might want to avoid buying the Zymatic:
  • You want as much automation as possible. While the Zymatic automates the mash and boil processes (which are most of the all-grain brewing process), there are systems that also handle loading their own water and chilling the wort.
  • You prefer to do 5 gallon or larger batches. You can get 5-gallon or larger batches out of the Zymatic, but it's really designed to do 2.5 gallons. To get a larger batch, you're going to be resorting to workarounds like brewing a higher-gravity wort and diluting it.
  • You like really clear beer. In my experience with the Zymatic, it was hard to really produce a nice clear beer. Maybe that's a byproduct of it boiling at 207F instead of 212F. Maybe it's just the yeast strains I used. Maybe I didn't give it enough time to cold-crash, or give the finings enough time to work. But the beers I got from the Zymatic were never as clear as the ones I got from The Grainfather or from extract brewing.
  • Money is tight. Even considering the discount I got on it the Zymatic isn't cheap. When you toss in the fact that it's not as efficient (in my experience) extracting sugar from grain as other setups, you'll be using more grain per batch than you might in a more-efficient system.
  • You like brewing a lot of "extreme" beers.  With its limitations on batch size, grain bill, and hop loads, the Zymatic may not produce the more extreme beer styles well. You may find that you're having to use a lot of "workarounds" like iterated mashing, bulking up with malt extract, or things like that. Similarly, if you're a hop-head who likes to brew beers that have many hop additions during the boil, the limit of four automated additions may not suit you.
  • Internet access is a problem.  If you don't have a good WiFi signal or a wired network port in your brewing area, you may find the Zymatic to be troublesome. It needs Internet access to brew, and it won't quite work without it.
  • Noise is an issue.  The Zymatic, to me, is fairly loud. Its diaphragm pumps run constantly during the brewing process, making "rat a tat tat" noises as they do. With it running in my basement, I could hear it from the top of the stairs. In a small apartment or home, I could imagine this being an issue for spouses, roommates, or neighbors.
If, after considering all the above, the Zymatic looks like a good fit for you and your brewing needs - go for it. I found it to generally be easy to use. It produces good beer. It saves you lots of time on the brewing side, and can allow you to try recipes you might not otherwise want to invest the time in. It can also allow you to experiment with subtle changes like doing the same batch with different mash temperatures, different hop addition timings, or different hops loads. I've had a lot of fun with it, except for that period during August where it experienced the clogging problems.

My experience with the support staff at PicoBrew was always great. They were knowledgeable, pleasant to work with, and informative. My only real complaint is that there's no "chat" or "phone" support option. Everything is email. Imagine that you try to brew on a Sunday night and hit a snag. You send an email. They answer on Monday while you're at work, and want you do check something or try something. You go home that night and take the action they recommend, then email them back. The next day you get a response, and so on. That's a large part of why I brewed pretty much nothing during August. I kept getting errors that caused the brew to abort due to a clog inside the system somewhere. They would suggest something, I'd try it and still get the error, and so on. It literally took weeks of this going around to solve the issue. Having a phone number to call might have made things easier.

Overall, I like the Zymatic and am glad I purchased it. That said, I did recently acquire a Brewie+ when it went on Black Friday sale in 2018. It's too soon to properly review that system, but there are a few things I like about it:
  • It produces 5-gallon batches (or smaller).
  • You have control over mash and sparge water amounts, so hitting target volumes and gravities should be easier.
  • It can load its own water from your household supply.
  • It can chill the wort to a yeast-safe temperature, automatically without any workarounds.
  • Its mash and boil vessels are stainless steel and open for cleaning. This also means it's possible to more easily do things like read/adjust mash pH and read the gravity during the boil.
  • Cleanup seems to be much easier and more automated.
  • The touch screen makes interacting with the system easier, and it provides a much more detailed status of the brew in progress (including estimated time of completion).
  • It boils at a temperature closer to 212F, which should help drive off DMS and potentially produce a clearer beer.
  • It does not require Internet access to brew, so it can be used in areas with spotty or no Internet access.
  • It's very quiet. You hear water splash about when it's filling the mash tun or transferring to the boil kettle, and an occasional whirring sound, but you can be standing nearby and hear almost nothing from it.
That's not to say that it's perfect, either. It's a newer system, so there are more software glitches in the interface and the (beta) application for mobile devices. It has limitations on grain bill and hop loads like the Zymatic. And I'm sure I'll discover more as I use it more.

Review: Tilt Hydrometer

What is the Tilt Hydrometer?

In a nutshell, the Tilt Hydrometer is a small plastic tube with electronics inside it for measuring the temperature and gravity of a fermenting beer. It can transmit those readings outside the fermenter (including stainless steel fermenters) via Bluetooth to an Android, iOS, or Raspberry Pi device.

The Tilt measures the gravity of your beer by the angle at which the device floats in the beer. The sensor inside the Tilt is a "military grade" sensor that is extremely sensitive.

The Tilt is powered by a replaceable (and inexpensive) battery that will last a few months, depending on the frequency of use.

If you want to use multiple Tilt devices, the manufacturer offers several different colored devices. Each color is registered differently by the iOS/Android/Pi application and tracked separately from the other colors. This allows you to place (for instance) a red Tilt inside an ESB, a blue Tilt inside an IPA, and a yellow Tilt inside a Belgian Dubbel while still tracking each beer's fermentation individually.

How Do You Use the Tilt Hydrometer?

Using the device is the really beautiful part. It couldn't be much easier. You clean it with dish soap and water before use. Then check the battery level by observing a blinking LED on the circuit board inside the Tilt. If the LED is blinking nice and bright, the battery is good to go.

When you are ready to pitch your yeast into a beer, sanitize the Tilt using Star San or Everclear, and drop it right into the beer. It will begin collecting temperature and gravity readings, which it will transmit via Bluetooth to any device running the Tilt application. An inexpensive and convenient option is to setup a Raspberry Pi with the Tilt Pi software from the vendor's web site and place the Pi near your fermenters.

What Information Do I Get from the Tilt?

As your beer ferments, the application will display the current temperature and gravity readings on the screen in a form resembling the following:

The "Peach" line at the top is a user-defined name for this particular beer. Setting this name is optional but can help you keep track of multiple beers you may have in progress. (I often have 2-3 going so this is a valuable feature for me.)

You then see a "View Cloud Log" link. If you configure the Tilt application to log its readings to the cloud, this link will be present. It will take you to a Google Sheets spreadsheet where the data is automatically posted every 15 minutes. That allows you to see and track your fermentation from outside your home network if you like. Note that this means leaving a device with Internet access (a phone, tablet, or Pi) in the vicinity of the fermenters, so that it can grab the readings from the Tilt and post them to the Internet.

Below the big red bar, you see the "uncalibrated" gravity reading in smaller print and the calibrated reading (which are the same in this particular case) in large print. On the app, this is updated every few seconds. On the cloud spreadsheet, it's updated every 15 minutes (or at some other user-configured interval).

Below the gravity, you see the uncalibrated temperature and the calibrated temperature (in this case they are the same).

Below that in very fine print, you see the current date and time, the last time the app received a reading from that particular sensor, and the signal strength from the Tilt (which is another way to gauge the battery life).

Earlier, I mentioned that the Tilt software can optionally log fermentation data to Google Sheets. If you choose to do this, a Google Sheets spreadsheet is automatically created for you and updated as new readings are recorded.  The sheet has three tabs of information.

The first tab (Report) shows you the overall status of your fermentation:

This gives a quick overview of your fermentation over time. In the example above, you can see that my beer went into the fermenter on December 2, 2018, around 6:30pm. The original gravity at the start of fermentation (the "High" figure) was 1.073 SG. The current reading is 1.018 SG. That current reading represents an apparent attenuation of 75.34% and an ABV of 7.22%. You can also see that the temperature has ranged from a low of 64F to a high of 72.4F, and is currently 70F.

The second tab (Chart) provides a graphical overview of the fermentation:

In the above chart, the blue line represents the gravity of the beer over time. We see it beginning in the range of 1.073 SG and working its way down to the current 1.017 SG range. You can also see that I raised the fermentation temperature from 64 to 72F to help encourage the yeast to produce some esters I wanted.

The last tab (Data) contains the raw data points captured by the Tilt. You can add comments there to indicate things you want to make note of (like adding fermentables, changing fermentation temperatures, etc.).

Is the Tilt Accurate?

There is little benefit to capturing all of this temperature and gravity data if it is not accurate. Fortunately, I've found the Tilt to be very accurate. When I've compared hydrometer and (calibrated) refractometer readings to the the Tilt's values, they're right on target (or at most 1 SG point off). The temperature readings, when compared to a known-accurate thermometer, are accurate as well.

That said, it's important to make sure that you calibrate the device when you change the battery. This is easily done by dropping the device in a glass of water and letting it "settle in". From there, you can compare the readings it provides of gravity (which should be 1.000 SG in plain water) and temperature (comparing to an accurate thermometer). You can use these to adjust the Tilt's reported values within the application or the Raspberry Pi GUI:

To adjust the calibration, select the color of the Tilt you're calibrating from the left-hand drop-down. Enter the correct SG value and the uncalibrated value for gravity. Do the same for temperature if needed. From there, the Tilt will automatically log and report the corrected (and uncalibrated) values.

Other Features

If you prefer to track temperatures in Celsius rather than Fahrenheit, this is an option in the Tilt app and Raspberry Pi GUI. You can also choose to use Plato or Brix rather than SG if you prefer, for tracking the gravity. You can change your time zone as well. If you happen to be in a location where another homebrewer with a Tilt is nearby, or perhaps you have two Tilt devices of the same color, you can have the software filter out weaker signals so that you're monitoring your own fermentation and not someone else's.

Changing the Tilt's Time Zone

Changing the unit types that Tilt records and displays

Filtering out weaker Tilt signals if needed
The logging functionality is also configurable. You can set the beer name displayed in the app, change the cloud logging settings, and log data to a USB flash drive if desired (on the Pi app).

All of this makes the Tilt an accurate way to monitor your fermentation gravity and temperatures without having to open your fermenter or extract wort from it.

Overall Impressions

The Tilt Hydrometer is one of my favorite and most-used brewing gadgets. It's simple to work with, accurate, and valuable. I can track the status of fermentation from wherever I happen to be, simply by pulling up the Google Sheet for that beer and checking the Report tab. The temperature values provide a good sanity check for my temperature control system, too.

The Tilt has allowed me to gain insight into how various yeast strains work. Its constant tracking of gravity and temperature helps me to see how long it takes a particular strain to start fermenting, gauge how active the fermentation is at any given point, and determine if I might need to rouse the yeast, raise the temperature, etc.

It's helping me in another important way, too. In the past, I would either have to guess when the fermentation was finished, or take samples out of the fermenter and test the gravity to see if it was changing from day to day. That guesswork is gone with the Tilt. I can look at the readings over a period of days to see if the gravity has stopped dropping. If so, I know fermentation is finished and it's time to cold-crash and/or bottle.

In practice, I've gotten about 3-4 months of life out of the batteries in the devices. If you brew less often, you might get more. I was able to buy a dozen replacement batteries for a few bucks. Replacing the batteries is a bit of a challenge, in that the cap(s) that are screwed into the ends of the Tilt's outer shell are incredibly tightly screwed on from the factory. Once removed, the circuit board is also pretty snug inside the tube, so you have to take care to push it out with enough strength to get it out of the tube, but not so much that you break the plastic parts inside. That said, I think it maybe took me 10 minutes to change the batteries in three Tilts and recalibrate them, so this is a pretty minor nit in the grand scheme of things.

My only other issue is with the Tilt Pi software itself. About every 3 months or so, it seems to develop issues. It stops logging the readings to the cloud, either for brief periods of time or it just stops altogether. Rebooting the device doesn't seem to make much difference. In the end, I find that the simplest solution is to just wipe and reimage the micro SD card and reconfigure it for my WiFi. Again, this is a pretty minor nit to pick, but it can be frustrating at time.

Is the Tilt helping me brew better beer? That's a little harder to say. It's certainly helping me reduce the number of overcarbonated beers I bottle. I think in the past I would assume that fermentation was complete when it wasn't, then prime the beer, bottle it, and find weeks later that the beer was massively overcarbonated. In fact, in a competition, that fact (plus the fact that I'd laid the bottles on their side while conditioning) cost me some points. The judge thought the residue on the side of the bottle indicated that I hadn't cleaned it thoroughly (not the case) and that the overcarbonation was due to an infection (and not over-priming).

Overall, I find the Tilt to be a very useful and fun home brewing gadget. It's helping me understand yeast better, keep an eye on temperature control, and better gauge when fermentation has actually finished. If you can afford one or more (they're around $130 each), I'd definitely recommend it.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Peach Cobbler Ale 1.0

Earlier this year, my wife and I tasted a Peach Cobbler Ale brewed by one of the Ohio breweries (I cannot recall which one, which is just as well). It was a nice enough beer, but for my taste it was a little dry and thin. The peach flavor took a back seat to malt and hops, making it seem more like a Pale Ale with peach notes than a Peach Cobbler. Still, it inspired me to think about how I might brew my own version of the beer.

For my version, I wanted a sweeter, more full-bodied base, reminiscent of a nice slab of baked peach cobbler. That means a higher mash temperature.

I also want the crackery/biscuity notes of the malt to come through, to help the drinker imagine tasting a bit of crust. I'll use Victory Malt to try to achieve that. Some Honey Malt should help drive home the sweet cobbler illusion as well.

Cinnamon and Nutmeg will be used as well, as these are common spice additions to a peach cobbler.

Last bit not least is the choice of hops. When added late in the boil, Amarillo is said to impart citrus and peach type notes. I'm hoping those flavors will complement the peach puree used, and employing a single late-boil addition means no harsh bitterness and maximum flavor contribution, again helping to further the cobbler/dessert illusion.

To ensure a nice peach flavor, I'll ferment the beer with a very generous dose of peach puree. If I don't get enough peach flavor from that, I may supplement with natural peach flavoring to punch it up.

I'll use a clean-fermenting yeast with this, fermented low to keep it from generating any aromas or flavors that compete with the rest of the beer. US-05 is said by some brewers to be fairly clean, and in cases where it isn't, it tends to impart peach or apricot notes. If that happens, it will be good for this beer (where it might be undesirable in other).


3 pounds Two-Row Pale Malt
3 pounds Munich Light Malt
1 pound Honey Malt
8 ounces Victory Malt
0.70 ounces Amarillo hops @ 8.6% AA (15 min.)
1 tsp. Cinnamon @ 10 min.
1 tsp. Nutmeg @ 10 min.
49 ounce can of peach puree in fermenter
1 packet Safale US-05 yeast
1/2 vial White Labs Clarity Ferm
1/4 tsp. Yeast Nutrient
1.5 tsp. pH 5.2 Stabilizer
2.8 gallons mash water
1.8 gallons sparge water

I'm expecting the beer to have the following characteristics:
  • BJCP Style: 29.C Specialty Fruit Beer
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
  • Original Gravity: 1.090 SG estimated (1.073 SG actual)
  • Final Gravity: 1.008 SG
  • IBUs: 21.7
  • SRM: 14.6
  • ABV: 8.6%
Mash schedule:
  • Mash at 120F for 20 minutes
  • Mash at 158F for 60 minutes
  • Mash out at 168F for 10 minutes
  • Sparge with 168F water
Boil Schedule:
  • 60 minutes: No additions
  • 15 minutes: Add Amarillo, Cinnamon, Yeast Nutrient, and Nutmeg
  • 0 minutes: Chill
Fermentation Schedule:
  • Days 1-3: Gradually rise from 64F to 72F
  • Days 4-7: Rise to 75F until finished with primary fermentation
Once fermentation is finished, the beer will be treated with gelatin and cold-crashed for 3-7 days until bright and clear. Then I'll bottle it with 4 carbonation drops (medium carbonation) until it's ready to serve.
Post-Brew Notes and Observations

12/2/2018: The mash process went smoothly. Using the Brewie+, it was easy to do something I've not done before, which is to check the mash pH. It tended to hover between 4.9 and 5.2 during the mash, when checked periodically with an electronic meter. A gravity check during the mash, before the sparge, registered 1.060. After the sparge and pre-boil, it read 1.063 SG. This beats BeerSmith's estimate of 1.055 SG.

Gravity with the addition of half the can of peach puree came up to 1.070 SG, and volume was shy of 2.5 gallons. With the addition of the rest of the can, gravity increased to 1.072 SG and volume hit the 2.5 gallon estimate. The aroma coming out of the kettle (without the addition of any peach puree) was decidedly peachy already, so I'm hopeful this and the Victory malt "crusty" flavor will blend with the cinnamon and nutmeg to give us a very peach cobbler-like flavor.

12/3/2018: Gravity is now reading 1.064 SG. That represents about 1.18% ABV and attenuation of 12%. I've read that increasing the temperature to 72F may produce some "peachy" notes, so I'm going to start gradually taking the yeast up to that figure. As of this writing, the temp is 65F but I've reset the upper temp to 71F.

12/4/2018: Gravity is down to 1.027 SG, and the temperature is 71F. That's 60.3% attenuation and 5.78% ABV.

12/5/2018: Gravity has dropped to 1.023 SG and the temperature is holding at 71F. That's 6.5% ABV and 65.6% attenuation.

12/6/2018: Gravity is down to 1.019 SG and the temperature is at 72F. I turned off the temperature control tonight to allow the beer to finish out at ambient temperature.

12/8/2018: Gravity is now registering 1.021 SG with a temperature of 66F. That's 76% attenuation and 7.77% ABV according to Brewer's Friend.

12/9/2018: Gravity is holding at 1.021. A sample of the beer from the fermenter revealed a restrained but clear peach note, a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a touch of biscuity/crusty flavor. I'm hopeful that when it is bottled it will still deliver these flavors.

12/10/2018: Gravity is down to 1.019 SG.

12/12/2018: Gravity is now 1.018 SG. That means the beer is at about 7.6% ABV. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018

La Trappe Quad Clone 1.0

I just acquired a Brewie+ automated brewing system. After I've gotten a few brews under my belt with it, I plan to do a compare-and-contrast post between iMake's The Grainfather, PicoBrew's Zymatic, and the Brewie+. For now, I'm working out how to use it properly. I can tell you already that the Brewie+ has a number of advantages over the Zymatic: up to 5 gallon batch size, larger grain bills, direct connection to your water supply, ability to brew offline, ability to sparge the grain, and automated wort chilling. It's also much quieter. On the other hand, recipe editing must be done on the device's touchscreen (until they provide you with access to their Android or iOS app, which isn't freely available online), and you need to do mash and sparge water calculations yourself.

The Brewie running a test brew with water only
I'd been thinking about brewing a purported clone recipe for La Trappe Quadrupel. This is a really delicious Belgian Trappist beer, and one that I enjoy drinking. I just don't find it everywhere. If the purported recipe was close to the real beer, I'd be happy. This seemed like a good test for the Brewie+.


5 pounds Dingeman Pilsen Malt
3 pounds and 2 ounces of 2-row Pale Malt
1 pound Corn Sugar
8 ounces Crystal 60L Malt
2 ounces Aromatic Malt
2 ounces Victory Malt (substituting for Biscuit, which I was out of)
1/2 tsp. crushed Coriander
1/4 tsp. bitter orange peel
1/2 tsp. bitter orange peel
0.80 ounces Styrian Celeia hops @ 2.8% AA (60 min.)
0.60 ounces Styrian Celeia hops @ 2.8% AA (20 min.)
0.60 ounces Styrian Celeia hops @ 2.8% AA (5 min.)
1/8 tsp. Yeast Nutrient
1/2 package Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity Yeast
3.3 gallons of mash water
1.4 gallons of sparge water

BeerSmith estimated the qualities of this beer as:
  • BJCP Style: 26.D Belgian Dark Strong Ale
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons (actual was 2.25 gallons)
  • Original Gravity: 1.105 SG estimated, 1.094 SG actual
  • Final Gravity: 1.012 estimated
  • IBUs: 29.6
  • ABV: 10.9%
  • SRM: 13.7
Mash Schedule

I decided to run a long mash to see if I could coax a really high efficiency out of the machine. The mash schedule used was:
  • Dough In at 102F for 15 minutes
  • Ferulic Acid Rest at 113F for 15 minutes
  • Beta Glucan Rest at 120F for 15 minutes
  • Mash Step 1 at 148F for 30 minutes
  • Mash Step 2 at 158F for 60 minutes
  • Mash Out at 168F for 10 minutes
  • Sparge with 168F water
Brewie estimated that the entire brewing process would take 7 hours to complete, given that. This seemed to be an accurate estimate. (In retrospect, if I was doing this again, I'd leave out the Dough In and first mash step at 148F.) 

Boil Schedule

Since the recipe included Pilsner malt, it seemed worthwhile to have a longer boil to drive off any DMS the malt produced. In addition, this would help concentrate the wort if gravity came up low. I could always dilute with distilled water if it came out high.

The boil schedule:
  • 90 minutes: No additions
  • 60 minutes: 0.80 ounces Styrian Goldings
  • 20 minutes: 0.60 ounces Styrian Goldings, plus yeast nutrient, 1/8 tsp. coriander, and 1/2 tsp. bitter orange peel
  • 5 minutes: 0.60 ounces Styrian Goldings, plus 1/8 tsp. coriander and 1/4 tsp. bitter orange peel
At the end of the brewing process, I asked Brewie to chill the beer to 66F, which is about 9F higher than the tap water in my location. (Brewie managed this with the wort in the boiling compartment, but after pumping out wort from some other parts of the device that were not subject to chilling, the temperature in the fermenter worked out to 73F.)

Fermentation Schedule

The recipe I used called for Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity yeast. This is purported to be the Westmalle yeast strain. Wyeast recommends a temperature range of 64-78F for fermentation, reports medium flocculation, and suggests that attenuation will be in the range of 74-78%. Online forums and reviews suggest that the yeast will be mostly dormant for about 12 hours, then will go crazy enough that a blow-off tube could be needed. It's said to generate a lot of sulfur and needs time to clean that up after fermentation. (I happened to notice a sulfur smell when I opened the smack pack, so I believe that.) It's said that the yeast will generate boozy flavors if it ferments above 74F. Denny Conn in one forum post said that he ferments this yeast at 63F for 4-5 days and then raises the temperatures after that to allow it to finish out.

Given all this, my plan will be:
  • Days 1-5: Start at 64F, raising 1F per day until fermentation slows
  • Days 6-14: Raise to 78F to allow it to finish out
After that, I'll cold-crash it for 3-4 days and then bottle.

Post-Brew Notes

11/30/2018: The volume for this batch came out at 2.25 gallons after I instructed the Brewie to do a full drain including sediment. I suspect the extended boil is partially responsible for the lower volume. The gravity should have come out about 11 points higher according to the calculations I ran before brewing, but perhaps the Brewie isn't as efficient as it's estimated to be. Any time you use a new brewing setup there are always adjustments to be made to the process and calculations. A few more batches and I'll hopefully be able to dial it in and get closer to my expected gravity and volume figures. Brewhouse efficiency on this batch, according to BeerSmith, was 51.4%.

12/1/2018: The gravity has dropped to 1.088 SG but the temperature has held at 64F. That's around 4.6% attenuation, which is not surprising. This yeast is known as a slow starter and it's being held at the low end of its temperature range, so I don't expect major drops in gravity for a while yet.

12/2/2018: The gravity is now down to 1.052 SG. I bumped the temperature up to 65F. This represents approximately 43% attenuation.

12/3/2018: Gravity is now 1.041 SG. I've bumped the temperature up to 67F. That's 54% attenuation and an estimated ABV of 7.76%.

12/4/2018: Gravity is now 1.032 SG, the temperature has been bumped up to 71F. That's 65,6% attenuation and 8% ABV.

12/5/2017: Gravity is now 1.022 SG, and the temperature has been raised to 75F. That's 77.4% attenuation and 9.45% ABV.

12/6/2018: Gravity is now 1.018 SG, and the temperature is up to 76F to encourage the yeast to finish up.

12/8/2018: Gravity is down to 1.014 SG, with temperature holding at 76F. According to Brewer's Friend, that represents attenuation of 84% and an ABV of 11.4%.

The real La Trappe Quadrupel is 10% ABV, has a color of 36 EBC (approximately 18.3 SRM), and a bitterness of 22 IBUs. This version has a color of 13.7 SRM (estimated), bitterness of 29.6 IBUs, and ABV of 11.28%. This one, most likely is going to be a bit lighter-colored, more bitter, and more alcoholic. The real recipe (per the La Trappe web site) contains Munich, Pale, Caramel, and Roasted barley malt, glucose, hops, and yeast. If this doesn't turn out particularly well, it will be time to try mimicking their recipe (rather than relying on this one, which was published somewhere online).

12/9/2018: Gravity is reading 1.015 today, which seems to suggest that fermentation has slowed or stopped.

12/10/2018: Gravity is still 1.015 SG.

12/12/2018: Gravity has held at 1.015 SG now for about 5 days. I think it's safe to say we've hit the final gravity for this batch and will need to bottle the beer soon.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Big and Mead-y Ale 1.0

While enjoying one of Avery Brewing's high-gravity beers recently, I began to wonder just how hard it would be to brew a beer in excess of 16% alcohol by volume. The best I've managed to date has been a Belgian-style dark strong ale that came in at 12.8% ABV. Could I really push yeast to deliver a beer (in this case a hybrid of mead and beer) at 16% or higher ABV? I wanted to find out.

I began by researching what's known and published online about "really high gravity" brewing like this. Below is what I learned:
  • Some sources suggest aiming for an OG of 1.106 initially. Others suggest keeping it to 1.120. White Labs, in its notes for WLP099 Super High Gravity Yeast, suggests a lower gravity - something that would produce a 6-8% beer, and adding fermentables later.
  • Wort pH during the mash should stay between 5.0 and 5.3.
  • Be sure to increase the amount of hops used to offset the higher gravity and sweetness of the alcohol you'll be generating.
  • Add nutrients, adjuncts, and fermentables as the yeast chews through them.
  • Keeping the wort well-aerated during the first 24-48 hours is critical.
  • Pump or agitate the wort during fermentation to keep yeast in suspension, increase oxygen in the wort, and allow CO2 to be released.
  • Adding glucoamylase and/or papain during fermentation can help keep the yeast going and provide additional fermentable sugars.
  • Keep pH between 4.5 and 5.0 during fermentation.
  • When the yeast has attenuated two-thirds of the sugars, stop adding nutrients and oxygen.
I'll be using White Labs WLP099 for this one, and the White Labs web site suggests the following:
  • Beers over 16% will taste more like fortified wines than beers.
  • Fermentations will stall in the 12-16% range without the techniques below.
  • Aerate about four times as much as you would for a beer of normal gravity
  • Pitch 3-4 times as much yeast as normal
  • Aerate intermittently during the first 5 days of fermentation. With air, aerate for 5-10 minutes. With pure oxygen, aerate for 30 seconds.
  • Use twice as much nutrient as normal. Higher nutrient levels allow the yeast to tolerate higher alcohol levels.
  • Do not start with the entire wort sugar at once.
  • Start with a wort that would produce a 6-8% beer, then add concentrated wort and/or sugars daily for 5 days, ideally along with aeration.
In a nutshell, my plan is to begin with a yeast starter to grow the yeast population. Then I'll add the yeast to a strong wort to allow it to start going, adding honey or another fermentable until my target ABV is reached. From there, the yeast will be allowed to finish out on its own without further addition of fermentables, nutrients, or oxygen.

Since the goal here is more to see if I can successfully brew a beer that comes out above 16% ABV than to produce the tastiest high-alcohol beer possible, I'm working to keep the recipe extremely simple. If the experiment is a success, I'll consider how to make a more-tasty beer at this alcohol level.

Preparation and Planning

I knew from my reading that this beer would need more attention during the fermentation stage than any previous beer I'd done. I'd need to keep an eye on temperature and gravity, add nutrients and additional fermentables, periodically aerate it, etc. That meant I could only attempt this experiment when I'd be home for a few days to take care of the beer.

I ordered some liquid glucoamylase enzyme so that I would have it on-hand to add to the wort as needed to help with fermentation.

I planned to be home most of the week of Thanksgiving 2018, so I created my yeast starter on Monday evening after coming home from work. It would be ready to use within 12-24 hours. I would brew the beer on Tuesday, and pitch the yeast when the starter was ready. I'd be home for at least the next five days, so I'd be able to keep it on track if need be.

WLP099 Yeast Starter on the stir plate
For the first 24-48 hours of the beer's "life" I would need to keep an eye on its temperature and gravity, so that I'd know when to add more fermentables and yeast nutrient to the fermenter. Once a 67% attenuation was achieved, I could allow the yeast to finish out on its own.


Initial Brew:
3.3 pounds Briess CBW Pale Ale Malt Extract
0.25 ounces Mandarina Bavaria Hops pellets @ 9.2% AA (60 min.)
0.25 ounces Mandarina Bavaria Hops pellets @ 9.2% AA (10 min.)
0.25 teaspoons Yeast Nutrient
1/8 tsp. Brewtan B
1.25 gallons water

Additions during fermentation:
  • 2 pounds honey (0.9 pounds and 1.1 pounds, in two additions)
  • 0.25 tsp. Glucoamylase Enzyme with each honey addition
  • 0.125 tsp. Yeast Nutrient with each honey addition
My goal for the Initial Brew is to hit the following characteristics:
  • BJCP Style: 34.C Experimental Beer (loosely based on a braggot)
  • Batch Size: 1.0 gallons, revised to 1.25 gallons
  • Estimated Original Gravity: 1.126 SG (before additions during fermentation)
  • Actual Original Gravity: 1.139 SG initially. After dilution with distilled water and adding yeast starter liquid, gravity was estimated to be 1.116 SG and volume 1.20 gallons.
  • Enhanced Original Gravity: 1.170 SG (est., after first and second additions of honey and the added liquid volume were considered)
  • Final Gravity: 1.031 SG estimated (before additions), 1.027 SG (after additions)
  • IBU: 38 before additions, 14.4 after additions
  • SRM: 8.2, 8.8 after additions
  • ABV: 10.3% before additions, 18.87% after additions
You'll note that I've decided to ignore one of White Labs' recommendations and start with a wort in the 1.120 SG range. If the experiment fails, I'll plan to do a second experiment and follow that advice.

No mash schedule and no steeping needed for this batch.

Boil Schedule:
  • 60 minutes: 0.25 ounces Mandarina Bavaria hops
  • 15 minutes: 0.25 tsp. Yeast Nutrient
  • 10 minutes: 0.25 ounces Mandarina Bavaria hops and Brewtan B
  • 0 minutes: Turn off induction cooktop and begin chilling
Since I'm not worrying about this beer going into a competition, or even being especially tasty, I've decided to chill it by placing the fermenter atop an old milk crate and placing it outside in the 36F November weather. Since the yeast starter isn't ready yet anyway, the extra elapsed chilling time should not impact the brewing.

Brewing in progress - hops, yeast nutrient, Brewtan B, and fermenter ready

Fermentation Plan

In line with the various recommendations I've read, here's the fermentation plan:
  • Once the yeast starter is finished and the wort is at an acceptable temperature, I'll decant most of the liquid from the yeast starter, swirl the slurry around to loosen it from the beaker, and pitch the yeast into the fermenter. 
  • A magnetic stir bar and Tilt Hydrometer will be placed into the fermenter as well.
  • Instead of an airlock, I'll use a cotton wad in the fermenter at this early stage to filter out wild yeast and allow the free flow of oxygen into the wort and the expiration of CO2.
  • For at least the first 24-48 hours, I'll have the fermenter atop the magnetic stir plate and have the stir plate running to ensure optimal aeration and degassing during the yeast's initial growth.
  • If the temperature gets too high, I'll move the fermenter (and probably the stir plate) outside to make use of the cold ambient temperatures for temperature management.
  • Periodically, I'll stop the stir plate and check the Tilt Hydrometer's gravity readings.
  • When the gravity is down to approximately 1.063 SG according to the Tilt, I'll pitch in a pound of wildflower honey, 0.25 tsp. of glucoamylase enzyme, and another 0.25 tsp. of yeast nutrient and switch the stir plate on for 10-20 minutes to mix in the new fermentables and yeast, and aerate the wort a bit more.
  • I will periodically switch on the stir plate to ensure off-gassing of CO2 and introduction of oxygen to keep fermentation on track.
  • When the gravity drops down to around 1.050 SG, I'll replace the cotton wad with a sanitized airlock filled with distilled water to allow CO2 to build up on top of the beer and prevent further oxygenation. If the beer's still outside at this point, I'll bring it in to let it finish out at ambient temperatures indoors.
  • Once the airlock is on, I'll do no further stirring or oxygenation unless the fermentation seems to stall.
I'm hopeful that this plan will allow the yeast to bring the wort down to at least 1.031 SG. At that point, we should achieve an ABV of 17.85% or higher - making this the highest-gravity beer I've ever brewed.

Post-Fermentation Plan

From what I've read, beers this high in alcohol content typically don't smell or taste particularly great. They often need 6-12 months to condition and improve. That being the case, I plan to extract a small sample of wort after primary fermentation to check aroma and flavor at that point, and take notes. It will then be time to bottle.

I then plan to take some CBC-1 Cask and Bottle Conditioning yeast and rehydrate it. I'll add in some kind of sugar to kick-start it fermenting. While it's activating, I'll get the beer into bottles and add carbonation drops to prime it. Then I'll inject some of this active yeast slurry into each bottle to give the beer the best chance to carbonate. For the first couple of weeks, I'll invert all the bottles daily to keep the yeast and priming sugar in suspension and (hopefully) carbonate the brew.

Somewhere around Christmas, I'll chill a bottle and pop it open to see where it is in terms of carbonation, aroma, and flavor. From there, I'll make a decision as to whether the beer needs to continue to age. I'll also think about what I might change in a "version 2.0" of the experiment. I'll have time in December to brew that one if I choose to.

Post-Brew Notes and Observations

11/20/2018 1pm: The wort came up a bit short in quantity and high in gravity (which I expected), so I diluted it with some distilled water until I hit the target gravity - or at least as best I could measure. The refractometer read in excess of its 1.120 SG maximum, but judging by the position of the line it appeared to be about where 1.126 SG would have been (had it been marked).  I placed the wort outside in the 36F weather to chill to a yeast-safe temperature. When it's within the Tilt Hydrometer's operating temperature range (32F to 185F) I'll use the Tilt to get a "second opinion"... although the Tilt is reportedly only accurate up to about 1.120 SG as well.

The yeast starter won't be ready for at least 8-10 more hours, so my plan is to chill the wort down below ambient room temperature in the basement, then transfer it into the sanitized glass fermenter I'll be using. The sanitized Tilt Hydrometer and a magnetic stir bar will be placed in the fermenter. The yeast will be decanted from the starter and pitched as well.

5:30pm: The wort is down to 62F and registering 1.139 SG, quite a bit higher than we want. The yeast starter was pitched at 11pm last night, so it's been fermenting for about 18 hours now.

8:00pm: Gravity has been registering 1.137 SG since the wort hit a yeast-safe temperature. I added distilled water to bring the gravity down to 1.120 SG. I tried activating the stir plate in the fermenter but failed to get it in the middle of the fermenter (owing to the shape of the fermenter bottom, which is angled away from the center), which prevented it from stirring as it should. I ended up oxygenating the wort with 90 seconds of pure O2 instead.

1:43am: The yeast starter has had plenty of time to do its work, so I pitched it into the wort. The gravity is reading 1.096 SG, but there are clear "layers" in the fermenter so I'm not certain of the exact gravity. I'll now need to increase the amount of fermentables added later to compensate. If the current reading is correct, ABV will be only 9.7%.

11/22/2018 10:30am: Fermentation has been underway for a while now. A curious thing has happened. The gravity initially read 1.098 SG and dropped down to about 1.077 SG during the night. After that, the gravity started to climb and is currently reading 1.093 SG. I took at a look at the fermenter and it's definitely at high krausen now. My suspicion is that when I pitched the yeast starter into the wort, it did not fully incorporate and remained as a layer atop the rest of the wort. This caused the gravity to read lower than it should have. The Brewer's Friend recipe calculator seems to concur with this, suggesting that the gravity (given the ingredients and volume) should have been around 1.105 SG at the start of fermentation rather than 1.098 SG. I'm guessing that the high rate of fermentation is churning up the wort now and mixing it together more, resulting in increased gravity. It may also be that the krausen foam is affecting how the Tilt Hydrometer is floating.

Regardless, later today I plan to sanitize a stainless steel spoon and stir the wort around to keep the yeast in suspension, off-gas some CO2, and better homogenize the wort's gravity. I'll also probably oxygenate it. When I see the gravity reading, I'll decide if it's time to start adding honey to the fermenter. My goal is to add enough to bring the alcohol content to 17% or more.

11:30am:  I sanitized the stainless steel spoon and stirred the wort thoroughly before and after adding 1/8 tsp. yeast nutrient and 1/4 tsp. glucoamylase enzyme. Then I oxygenated it for a few seconds. The gravity reported by the Tilt Hydrometer dropped briefly after the stirring and then continued its climb, eventually reaching 1.100 SG. For about six hours now the gravity reported by the Tilt has been increasing (from 1.077 SG to 1.100 SG as of this writing). Given how quickly the krausen is rising in the beer, I'm guessing that's probably buoying the Tilt a bit and skewing its reading.

12:30pm: The gravity peaked at 1.100 SG (per the Tilt Hydrometer) at approximately 11:45am. It's now dropping back down and is at 1.096 SG as of this writing.

11/23/2018 9:00am: Over the last 28 hours or so, the gravity readings from the Tilt Hydrometer have been moving upward for several hours, then down again. The current reading is 1.062 SG and the temperature is 66F. That equates to roughly 44.8% attenuation and a current ABV of 6.8%. My plan will be to keep an eye on the measurements today. When attenuation reaches 65% or so, I'll crack open the fermenter, add 1.75 pounds of honey, yeast nutrient, glucoamylase, and stir thoroughly to help release CO2 and incorporate the honey, then oxygenate for a minute or two and reseal the fermenter. From there I won't plan to add anything to the wort again until fermentation finishes.

1:00pm: The gravity dropped down to 1.057 SG. I added almost a pound (0.9 pounds) of honey, 0.125 tsp. yeast nutrient and 0.25 tsp. glucoamylase enzyme, and then oxygenated for 30 seconds. Gravity increased to 1.081 SG and the krausen rose back up quickly after the additions were stirred into the beer. Temperature has held at 65F for some time now thanks to the swamp cooler.

9:00pm:  Gravity is now 1.068 SG and the temperature is holding at 65F. By my best guess, this represents approximately 10.37% ABV. We're not yet at my current record (12.84%) or my goal for this batch (16% or higher) but we're getting closer.

11/24/2018 12:00pm:  Gravity is down to 1.058 SG again, which equates to 11.6% ABV and 60% apparent attenuation. It will be time to add another pound of honey soon, so that the beer can achieve its intended 16% or above ABV.

2:15pm: Added 1.2 pounds of honey, a quarter teaspoon of glucoamylase, and an eighth of a teaspoon of yeast nutrient, then agitated everything in the fermenter. The yeast responded swiftly, with a huge swell in the krausen. This is the last fermentable addition I plan to put in the fermenter, but if the yeast is able to consume all this sugar, the beer should come out in excess of 16% ABV.  Prior to the additions, the Tilt registered the gravity at 1.056 SG. After the additions, it's reading 1.073 SG.

5:15pm: The yeast looked like it might be going dormant, with the gravity having dropped to 1.066 SG. Since I'd wanted oxygenate it earlier but did not, I took a moment to give it 30 seconds of O2 to help keep the yeast healthy. The Brewer's Friend ABV calculator offers two different ABV calculations, a "standard" and an "alternate" version intended for high-gravity beers. The standard calculation rates the beer right now as 13.65% ABV (making it the most-alcoholic I've managed to date), while the alternate calculation (which should be more accurate in this case) shows it as 17.56%. If you figure that reality is perhaps a mix of the two, the beer is around 15.6% ABV. That puts it within spitting distance of my 16%-or-higher goal. It's also still got a fair amount of sugar to ferment out before it's finished. It could end up as high as 18.78% according to Brewer's Friend. It's got to ferment another 35 SG points away to reach that.

11/25/2018 11:15am: The fermentation has definitely slowed. It's currently registering 1.062 SG, down from an adjusted 1.170 SG (which takes into account additions of honey in primary and increased volume). The "standard" Brewer's Friend ABV calculation here says that's 14.17% and 60% apparent attenuation. The "alternate" calculator that's said to be more accurate for high-gravity beers like this reports 18.17% ABV. The average of these is 16.17% - which is my goal for the batch.

My plan at this point is simply to keep an eye on the beer and ensure that it continues to ferment. In a few days, I'll transfer it to a clean and sanitized secondary fermenter to get it off any sediment and dead yeast, and let it continue to rest a bit before I consider bottling it.

Given this success (from the standpoint of reaching my ABV goal), I'm already planning another high-gravity brew. The next one is intended to come out in the 15% range and will probably be based on a British Old Ale recipe, with scaled up gravity and bitterness. Or I might aim for a Belgian Quad, scaled up similarly. We'll see.

11/26/2018 8:50pm:  The gravity has been registering 1.061-1.062 SG for a little over 24 hours. Assuming an initial gravity of 1.170 or thereabouts, that's 18.3% ABV according to the alternate calculator on Brewer's Friend.  Tonight I swirled the fermenter a couple of times really hard to help release CO2 and keep the yeast in suspension to see if it would help reduce the gravity any further. So far, it looks like we might have hit the final gravity on this one. I noticed when doing the last honey additions that the Tilt Hydrometer had lots of "gunk" on it, which may be affecting the reading (by making it tilt more or less than it should). We'll see when I have a chance to transfer the beer to a secondary fermenter and (in the process clean up the Tilt).

11/27/2018 9:20pm: The beer dropped to 1.059 SG overnight, which equates to 18.6% ABV. That makes it by far the most alcoholic beer I've ever brewed. I couldn't resist taking a sample of it with a sanitized pipette to see how it tastes. I have to admit that I was surprised. At first, it strikes you as rather sweet and boozy, but almost immediately a hop bitterness comes up to balance that. It's something you're not going to gulp down, to be sure, but it seems quite drinkable already. I'm looking forward to this one finishing out and going into bottles. With a bit of conditioning time, I suspect it could be really good. Right now it comes across as a fairly boozy pale ale with a mandarin orange note malty sweetness.

12/1/2018: Gravity is continuing to drop, thanks to the mix of champagne and WLP099. It's currently registering at 1.053 SG. Brewer's Friend reports that this represents a 19.5% ABV.

12/2/2018: Gravity is now 1.051 SG. Brewer's Friend reports this as 19.81% ABV and 67% attenuation.

12/3/2018: Gravity is now 1.049 SG. Brewer's Friend reports this as 20.1% ABV and 68% attenuation.

12/4/2018: Gravity is now 1.048 SG, 20.25% ABV.

12/5/2018: Gravity is now 1.047 SG. 20.4% ABV.

12/6/2018: Gravity is now 1.046 SG. 20.54% ABV.

12/8/2018: Gravity is now 1.045 SG (20.69% ABV).

12/9/2018: After swirling the yeast around today, the gravity is reading 1.046 SG now.

12/10/2018: Gravity is holding at 1/046 SG.

12/12/2018: Gravity is reading 1.045 SG (20.69% ABV). That's about 6 days now in the 1.045-1.046 range, so it seems likely that the beer has reached its final gravity. I still plan to give it a few more days to see how it goes.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Christmas Ale 2018

Last year, I brewed a Christmas Ale extract kit from the good folks at Label Peelers. It made a really good Christmas Ale, especially after I dialed down the hops.

This time, I want something more Belgian-like. I'm aiming for a nice malty base with a hint of chocolate. I'll use Magnum hops to bitter it, but Bramling Cross hops for flavor and aroma. Bramling Cross can impart fruity, citrus, blackcurrant, loganberry, gooseberry, and lemon notes to a beer - which I think will blend nicely with the spice mix. I'm planning to use almost the same spice mix as the Label Peelers kit from last year, but doubling the amount of cinnamon stick used to punch that up and dialing back the ginger by half. I'm also adding some nutmeg.

Since I have a packet of Wyeast 3522 Ardennes yeast on hand, I'll use that for fermentation. This yeast is known to produce a balance of fruity esters and spicy phenols which will hopefully go well with the beer. Being a fan of Belgian style beers, I'm curious to see how it will turn out.


7 pounds 2-row Pale Malt
8 ounces Crystal 60L Malt
8 ounces British Pale Chocolate Malt
8 ounces Crystal 80L Malt
0.15 ounces Magnum hops @ 13.5% AA (60 min.)
0.50 ounces Bramling Cross hops @ 6.5% AA (15 min.)
0.50 ounces Bramling Cross hops @ 6.5% AA (5 min.)
1 tsp. Allspice (20 min.)
1/4 tsp. Cardamom, ground (20 min.)
1/4 tsp. Nutmeg (20 min.)
1/2 tsp. Cinnamon, ground (20 min.)
0.65 ounces Sweet Orange Peel (20 min.)
1/8 ounce Ground Ginger (20 min.)
1/2 tsp. Brewtan B (5 min.)
1/2 tsp. Brewtan B (mash)
1/4 tsp. Yeast Nutrient
1/2 vial White Labs Clarity Ferm
1 packet Wyeast 3522 Ardennes ale yeast
3 gallons plus 40 ounces of starting water, carbon filtered

The Picobrew Recipe Crafter estimates that the beer will have the following characteristics:
  • BJCP Style: 30.C Winter Seasonal Beer
  • Original Gravity: 1.082 SG (actual was 1.059 SG, but volume was high)
  • Final Gravity: 1.016 SG
  • IBUs: 20
  • SRM: 27
  • ABV: 8.5%
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons (actual was a little over 3 gallons)
The mash schedule will be:
  • Dough In at 102F for 20 minutes
  • Ferulic Acid rest at 113F for 20 minutes
  • Beta Glucan rest at 120F for 20 minutes
  • Mash at 156F for 30 minutes
  • Mash at 159F for 60 minutes (aiming for a sweeter, full-bodied brew)
  • Mash out at 175F for 10 minutes
Boil Schedule

The boil schedule:
  • 60 minutes: Magnum hops
  • 20 minutes: Allspice, Cardamom, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Orange Peel, Ginger
  • 15 minutes: Bramling Cross
  • 5 minutes: Bramling Cross and Brewtan B
Fermentation and Bottling

The wort will be chilled using a counter-flow chiller to as low a temp as it can get, most likely around 77F given past experience (note: actual temp ended up being 84F). That's a bit hotter than the yeast cares for, but I'll need time for the package to swell up before pitching it anyway, so perhaps by then the beer will have cooled down. If not, I'll wait for it to get down into the yeast's comfort zone before pitching to avoid generating any fusels.

The fermentation plan is:
  • Days 1-3: Hold at 75F (just under the yeast's recommended upper range)
  • Days 4-7 (or until Final Gravity is reached): Increase to 80F (to encourage ester formation, cleanup, and a finished fermentation)
  • Treat with Biofine or Gelatin Finings and cold-crash 3-7 days
I'll plan to bottle with 5 carbonation drops ("high carbonation") per 12-ounce bottle. I'll bottle-condition it at 76F for two weeks, then allow it to spend additional time at ambient basement temperatures until closer to Christmas.

Post-Brew Notes and Observations

11/10/2018:  I must have measured my starting water wrong. The beer went into the fermenter at a gravity of 1.059 SG, a temperature of 84F, and worked out to a little over 3 gallons in volume.

11/11/2018: It's roughly 14 hours since I pitched the yeast into the wort. Gravity has already dropped to 1.046 SG, representing about 22% attenuation and 1..7% ABV. The blow-off tube is burping CO2 off pretty steadily. The temperature control system has held the temp in the 74-75F range since about 3am when the gravity first showed signs of change.

11/12/2018: We're somewhere around 33 hours since pitching as of this update. Gravity is down to 1.017 SG, which is a point above the expected final gravity for the beer - though with the lower starting gravity I expect it will probably go lower for final gravity as well. In any case, the apparent attenuation at this point is 69.5% and the ABV is 5.4%. The yeast reportedly has an attenuation of 72-76% (depending, of course, on the wort and fermentation conditions) so we may see it go lower.

11/14/2018: Gravity seems to be holding in the 1.015-1.017 SG range, which is right at the expected gravity for the batch. It's been at this range for two days so far.

11/17/2018: The gravity has been holding steady at 1.017 SG, so I decided to bottle it today with four small carbonation tablets per bottle (medium carbonation). The beer is sitting in the 76F "hot box" to carbonate. A sample from the fermenter revealed a thin, mildly spiced beer that was certainly pleasant enough to drink but nothing like I hoped. Most likely that is because the beer came out way below the intended original gravity. I'll need to re-brew to see how it "should have " turned out.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

2018 Pumpkin Ale 1.0

My wife and I enjoy a good pumpkin ale. My personal favorite is Hoppin' Frog's Frog Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale. I also enjoy Heavy Seas Great'r Pumpkin (a barrel aged pumpkin ale) and Southern Tier's Pumking. I found a recipe recently that looked promising, so I scaled it down to fit the Zymatic and ordered the ingredients. Tonight, I brewed it.


4.25 pounds of Two-Row Pale Malt
7 ounces of Munich Light Malt
7 ounces of Belgian Caravienne
4 ounces of Carafoam
2 ounces of Biscuit Malt
4.5 ounces of Wildflower Honey added to mash water
15 ounces of canned Organic Pumpkin
0.5 ounces of Crystal hops @ 3.5% AA (60 min.)
0.5 ounces of Crystal hops @ 3.5% AA (20 min.)
0.25 ounces of Crystal hops @ 3.5% AA (10 min.)
5 grams pumpkin pie spice at 20 min.
5 grams pumpkin pie spice at 10 min.
1 packet Safale US-05 yeast
1/4 tsp. Yeast Nutrient
1/8 tsp. Super Irish Moss (20 min.)
1.5 tsp. pH 5.2 Stabilizer in the grain at the start of mash
1.5 tsp. Amylase Enzyme in the grain at the start of mash
1/2 tsp. Brewtan B in the mash
3 gallons plus 16 ounces of starting water with the honey dissolved into it

According to the Zymatic recipe crafter, the beer should have the following characteristics:
  • BJCP Style: 29.B Fruit and Spice Beer
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
  • Original Gravity: 1.060 SG (1.055 SG)
  • Final Gravity: 1.008 SG
  • SRM: 7
  • IBUs: 18
  • Estimated ABV: 6.7% without the addition of pumpkin
The mash schedule was configured to:
  • Dough In at 102F for 20 minutes
  • Mash at 113F for 15 minutes
  • Mash at 120F for 20 minutes
  • Mash at 152F for 30 minutes
  • Mash at 159F for 60 minutes
  • Mash Out at 175F for 10 minutes
My goal is a less-fermentable mash and more residual sugar to balance the spice and squash flavors, with an aim toward tasting more like a pie and less like a beer. We'll see how that goes.

The boil schedule will be:
  • 60 minutes: Crystal hops (0.5 ounces)
  • 20 minutes: Crystal hops (0.5 ounces), yeast nutrient, Super Irish Moss, and spice mix
  • 10 minutes: Crystal hops (0.25 ounces), spice mix
The beer will then be run through my counter flow chiller into a sanitized fermenter. It will be chilled further down to the low end of the range for US-05 yeast, then a full packet of US-05 pitched on top of the wort. 

The fermentation schedule will be at least one week at 66F, waiting until the gravity holds at the same figure for 3+ days, at which point I'll add finings and cold-crash the beer for a few days before bottling. 

Post-Brew Notes and Observations

11/4/2018: This is the first time I've tried doing a pumpkin beer in the Zymatic. The style can sometimes be a challenge in a brewing system when canned pumpkin is used, as it is usually finely pureed and can "gunk up" the brewing system if you don't keep an eye on it. I stirred it in with the dry grain prior to mashing and added some amylase enzyme to help convert more of the pumpkin's starches into sugars to aid in raising the gravity of the beer.

Despite adding amylase and pH 5.2 stabilizer during the mash, the gravity on this batch came out about 5 points lower than expected. Wort came out of the counter flow chiller at approximately 77F. I pitched the yeast at that point, directly onto the wort, as 77F is a recommended rehydration temperature for it. However, I've configured the temperature control system to hold the beer at 66F, so it immediately began cooling the beer.

11/5/2018: It's about 24 hours since the yeast was pitched. Temperature has held at 66F. Gravity has dropped from 1.055 SG down to 1.051. That's 7.3% attenuation and 0.53% ABV so far.

11/6/2018: Gravity is down to 1.032 SG. Temperature holding at 66F.

11/7/2018: Gravity has dropped to 1.018 SG. Temperature at 66F.

11/8/2018: Gravity is now 1.014 SG. I turned the temperature up to 70F to help the beer finish out.

11/9/2018: Gravity is down to 1.013 SG. Temperature control was turned off overnight and the beer is holding at 69F. This represents apparent attenuation of 76.4% and ABV of 5.5%.

11/11/2018: While the gravity and temperature have held steady the last few days, there is still an impressive amount of yeast on top of the beer - perhaps between a half and three-quarters of an inch thick (the fermenter in this case is clear so I can see that without opening it). This suggests that the yeast are still active and working, so I am leaving the fermenter alone for a few more days to see if the yeast drops out of suspension. A sample removed from the fermenter showed a good squash aroma with a mild spice aroma. The flavor was good, but I felt like it could use more spice. I'll probably add more at bottling.

11/14/2018: The gravity has been holding very steady now for for several days, so it was time to bottle. Since I'd hoped to serve this at a family gathering next week, I decided to try force carbonating a gallon of the batch to have ready for that, and bottle the rest. The bottles were primed with four carbonation tablets each (medium carbonation). The forced-carbonation vessel was set to 11 PSI to get approximately 2.5 volumes of CO2 in a day or so.