Friday, December 25, 2015

The Cider Experiments - Part 1

Years ago, I purchased a kit called "Spike Your Juice" from  The kit included packets of yeast, instructions, labels, and an airlock with stopper.  The instructions suggested buying a pasteurized (non-refrigerated) 100% juice with a high sugar content, then pitching the dry yeast into it and popping on the airlock.  In a few days, the yeast would produce an alcoholic wine or cider.  The results from these fermentations always seemed to range from sour to dry in flavor profile, often tasting like an unripe version of the fruit the juice was made from.  It's not too surprising that I stopped using the kit before I used up all the yeast.

While reading online about that kit, I saw some people suggest that Champagne Yeast would be a good substitute for the stuff the kit included, as it would ferment more of the sugars and give the finished product a bit more fizz.  I tried this with some juices a couple of months ago.  The results were tart and mildly carbonated.  The best of them was a peach mango juice blend which kept the peach aroma and much of the fruit flavors. It was also more dry than the others, and less tart.  It was an interesting experiment but I decided not to repeat it.

I recently picked up a copy of Mary Izett's Speed Brewing: Techniques and Recipes for Fast-Fermenting Beers, Ciders, Meads, and More for my Kindle.  As of this writing in early December, I am still working my way through the book but enjoying it.  Izett has done a nice job organizing the material and explaining what to do.  As the title suggests, it provides information and recipes for brisk beer, short mead, cider, boozy buch and kefir beer, spirited soda, and more.

While reading the chapter on ciders, I saw Izett's table of the different yeast types and how they affect the flavor of an apple cider.  I'll summarize the chart here because I think it's useful stuff.

  • Champagne Yeast:  Gives a tart, clean, almost apple-free aroma.  The flavor is tart with low to medium apple flavor, dry, and clean.
  • American Ale:  Gives a strong apple aroma, hints of candy apple and other fruit.  The flavor is fruity, sweet, and definitely retains the apple.
  • English Ale: The aroma is green apple, bright, fruity, and slightly bubble gum like.  The flavor is bright, clean apple with some green apple and mineral notes.
  • German Wheat Ale Yeast:  Aroma is sulfury, with low to medium apple aroma, and maybe some honey or spice.  The flavor is phenolic, earthy, and applesauce like.
  • Belgian Ale Yeast:  Aroma is sulfury, funky, floral, and lightly apple-like.  The flavor is sulfury, floral, dry, funky, and a little tart.
  • Saison Yeast:  A light apple aroma with some mineral, floral, and herbal elements.  The flavor is balanced, slightly tart, floral, dry, and medium levels of apple.
My experimentation with the Spike Your Juice kit and the Champagne yeast told me that the best result I'd gotten was from the Peach Mango juice blend and apple juice, with a berry blend having a great aroma but simply being too tart.  I wanted something sweet, or at least not so tart.

Izett's chart suggested that American Ale yeast would yield a sweeter cider, and probably a sweeter version of the peach mango blend and berry blend.  When I visited a nearby grocery, I picked up a gallon of 100% apple juice, an Ocean Spray Wave Berry Medley with White Cranberries, and a bottle of peach mango juice blend.

Berry Medley fermenting on the left, Peach Mango in the middle, and a custom recipe cider on the right

Over a week later, the yeast had settled out of the Berry Medley jug.  I put that in five 12-ounce bottles along with a carbonation drop in each to hopefully carbonate the finished product.  I tasted some of the "trub" in the bottle and it was still very sweet.  At this point I don't know if that means the yeast didn't ferment the juice at all, or if Izett is right and the American Ale yeast does leave the cider sweet.  We'll know on December 17 when the stuff is ready to open.

The Welch's Peach Mango stopped bubbling next, and was bottled on December 7.  A sample of the trub showed that it, too, was sweet but also slightly tart.  It was a nice flavor and I'm looking forward to seeing what it's like when it's tested on December 21.

The two plastic jugs in the photo received only Safale S-05 American Ale yeast, sprinkled right on top of the juice in the jug.  A sanitized airlock was immediately placed on each.

The glass jug on the right has a recipe of my own concoction.

I'm tentatively calling it "CRAVE Cider" based on the ingredients (Cinnamon, Raisin, Apple, Vanilla Extract).  The recipe is:

  • 1/2 cup of raisins, chopped into pieces
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon of bourbon bean vanilla extract
  • 1 gallon of pasteurized apple juice
  • 1/8 teaspoon of yeast nutrient

The raisins, cinnamon, yeast nutrient, and vanilla were covered with tap water and boiled for 5-10 minutes on the kitchen stove to sanitize them and release their flavors (and great aroma).  The liquid was strained off of the other ingredients and poured into the sanitized gallon jug.  The jug was then filled with the gallon of pasteurized apple juice and capped with the stopper and airlock you see in the photo.  This was done on approximately November 23, 2015.  As of this writing on December 12, some 19 days later, there are still bubbles going through the airlock about every 45 seconds.  I'm planning to let it ferment until the bubbles seem to have stopped completely, then bottle it.  It remains to be seen/tasted if the concoction lives up to its name.

I'll share tasting notes on these when they're ready to drink.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Chapman Brewing Equipment 7 Gallon Stainless Steel Fermenter

Chapman's 7-Gallon Stainless Fermenter
Recently, I found the Chapman Brewing Equipment 7-gallon SteelTank stainless steel fermenter on sale on Amazon for approximately $110.  That's about half the price of the other stainless steel fermenter I own, Ss Brewing Technology's Brewmaster Bucket.

In fairness to the Brewmaster Bucket, the Chapman fermenter lacks a number of features.  The Chapman has no legs underneath it.  It's not designed to stack multiple fermenters on one another.  It has no thermowell or thermometer.  It doesn't have a conical bottom to catch yeast and sediment.  It also doesn't have a spigot you can use for bottling.  So the extra $100 buys a few features you're not getting here.

That said, there is nothing wrong with this fermenter.  It seems very well made from 304 stainless steel.  There are good strong looking handles.  The gasketed lid can be clamped down for sealing and safety when carrying.  It even ships with a 3-piece airlock.

Bear in mind as you read the rest of this review that I do nearly all of my brewing either as extract batches on the kitchen stove (a technique I am phasing out rapidly) or as all-grain batches in The Grainfather RIMS system.  I transfer directly from the kettle to the fermenter using gravity in the case of extract batches on the stove, or via the Grainfather's excellent counter flow wort chiller and pump in the case of the all-grain batches.  I typically don't transfer from a primary to a secondary fermenter unless I believe the beer will improve in quality and flavor from the transfer, which isn't often.  On some occasions I may bottle directly from the fermenter (using carb drops as the priming sugar) or I may do a gravity transfer from the fermenter to a plastic bottling bucket with priming sugar and possibly rehydrated bottle conditioning yeast.

The ideal fermenter for me will have these features and capabilities:

  • Easy to clean stainless steel
  • Handles to make the fermenter easy to carry
  • The option to install a blow-off tube in the case of very active fermentations or higher gravity brewing
  • A lid that clamps on easily and seals well, so there's little risk of contamination
  • A lid that removes easily for cleaning
  • Ability to monitor fermentation temperatures inside the vessel so that I can apply heat or cooling as appropriate to maintain the desired fermentation temperature
  • A valve that works easily so that gravity transfers and bottling are easy to perform with it
The Chapman meets most of those requirements, so I'm going to focus the rest of this review on three features it doesn't seem to have out of the box.

Thermowell Not Included

First, there is no thermowell on this fermenter.  That means you'll either have to modify it to add one, or do without it.  Right now, I'm doing without.  This is a feature of the Ss Brewing Technologies Brewmaster Bucket that has been a big help when maintaining fermentation temperature using a fermwrap and digital controller.  

The Valve

Next, the valve on this fermenter is designed for a traditional tiered pump-through setup.

Make no mistake, this is a heavy-duty, well-made ball valve.  When it's not connected to the fermenter, it's a hefty item to hold in your hand.  It's attached to the kettle by a threaded fitting and rubber O rings.  As with any weldless design, it's important to avoid over-tightening this valve.  If you over-tighten, you're likely to see leaks.

Note the line of water leaking out from under the valve
Chapman includes Teflon tape to help better seal the valve.  I recommend using that and being careful not to over-tighten. You'll also want to fill the fermenter with tap water deep enough to cover the valve and leave it for a while.  This will tell you if there is a leak before you lose valuable wort.

As I said, it's a nicely made valve.  It's also pretty stiff to turn.  Opening and closing the valve will flex the sides of the fermenter a bit.  I'm betting with lubrication and use you can loosen it up a bit.

The valve allows for a very nice rate of flow, as you can see here:

High rate of flow
Ultimately, though, this valve is overkill for my needs.  I'm actually planning to downgrade it to something better suited to bottling and gravity transfer between vessels.  I tried using one of the same plastic valves I've used on bucket fermenters

Bottling spigot - too large a diameter for the fermenter

The only spigots I had on hand were from bottling buckets and were too large a diameter to be used with the Chapman.  I've ordered a couple from Amazon and hope to try those soon.  I know I could probably have visited a hardware store and gotten fittings to add to the factory ball valve to adapt it to my needs, but I think it would have added to the already bulky nature of the valve.

Update 12/20/2015:  I ordered two spigots from One was a nice metal one, but didn't seal properly due to the rubber gaskets included with it.  The other spigot worked well once I got it to seal properly and has been installed on the fermenter.  I'm hoping it will make bottling easier than the large factory valve pictured above.

Clear, Large Markings

One thing I really do like about the Chapman is the embossed volume marking inside.  They're large, very easy to read, and won't be rubbing off or fading.

Large, easy to read volume markings

There's no question how much wort is in this fermenter and I don't need reading glasses to find out.

The Lid and Handles

Like the Ss Brewing Technologies Brewmaster Bucket, the Chapman has a gasketed stainless steel lid that can be snapped into place with built-in clamps.  This should prevent the lid from coming off accidentally or leaking wort during transport.

Unlike the Brewmaster Bucket, though, the hole in the lid of the Chapman is gasketed and designed exactly to fit a standard plastic airlock.  You won't be adding a large-diameter blow-off tube to this fermenter (unless you choose to modify the lid to accomodate that).  Since I do a fair number of higher-gravity beers (8 to 12% ABV) this could prove problematic for some batches.  Time will tell.

The handles seem strong and solid, and able to carry the bucket when full.

Overall Comments and Conclusion

This is a good quality, well made fermenter.  No question about it.  It feels as well made as my Brewmaster Bucket, and I expect to get a lot of use out of it.  I'd like to see a thermowell, a different valve option, and the ability to install a larger diameter blow-off tube out of the box, but I don't consider those deal-breaking features at the price.

If you're looking to get away from plastic fermenters and are tired of lugging around heavy, breakable carboys, this seems like a good option.  It has an entry-level kind of price, but it's not entry-level quality.  The steel is reasonably thick, the handles seem sturdy, the lid appears to seal well, and the factory ball valve seems to be a good one as well.

I can't say that I like it as well as my Ss Brewing Technologies Brewmaster Bucket, but it's hard to honestly say that I like that fermenter enough to say it's worth twice the price of this one.  I like the Brewmaster Bucket's conical bottom, its valve, its ability to stack on top of another Brewmaster Bucket, and its blow-off tube option... but are those worth $100 more?  I don't know.  

All in all, the Chapman 7-gallon fermenter is a good product and I expect to use it often.  If you're interested in getting one for yourself, they're available on and from the manufacturer's web site.  A 14-gallon model is also available.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Reindeer Beer - A Christmas Gift Idea for the Brewer or Beer Fan on Your List

Last Christmas, my stepchildren (aged 21+, FYI) surprised me with the four-pack of "reindeer beers" pictured at the left.

To create these, they first chose a pack of beer they knew I would like, in this case Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale.  You could use pretty much any other beer that comes in a brown bottle.  (I suppose you could use other colored bottles, but it wouldn't look quite like reindeer.)

Purchase plastic stick-on "googly eyes", red plastic stick-on pom-pom "noses", and pipe cleaners.

Stick the eyes and noses on the bottle necks as seen in the image at the left.

Cut some of the pipe cleaners into small pieces, about 2-3 inches long.  Leave the rest at full length.

Wrap a long pipe cleaner around the neck of the bottle, just below the cap and spread the ends out to make the "antlers".  Then take one of the small pieces of pipe cleaner and tie it around each antler to give it the shape seen above.

It's a craft item that won't take you very long to do and is sure to bring a smile to your favorite beer lover.

Home brewers can use this same technique to decorate their holiday beers for gift-giving.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Brewing Northern Brewer's Northy 12 Belgian Quad Kit

As a fan of Belgian style ales, I've long wanted to try Westvleteren XII.  It's considered to be one of the very best of the Belgian abbey ales, and by most accounts deservedly so.  Unfortunately, it's not offered for sale very often in the US.  Northern Brewer's Northy 12 Belgian Quad is reportedly a close approximation of Westvleteren XII.  I purchased the kit recently and decided to brew it.

Northern Brewer's kits ship as a collection of loose components in bags inside a box.  I'd ordered the kit with some other items, so separating out the components of the kit from the other items in my order took a few minutes of careful examination to make sure I had it all, and wasn't accidentally slipping the wrong thing into my Northy XII ingredients.

The ingredients in the kit include:
  • 8 pounds of Belgian Pilsen malt
  • 7 pounds of Belgian Pale malt
  • 2 pounds of D-180 Candi Syrup
  • 1 oz. Brewer's Gold hops pellets 9.9% AA (60 minutes)
  • 1 oz. Hallertau hops pellets 3.1% AA (30 minutes)
  • 1 oz. Styrian Goldings hops pellets 5.7% AA (15 minutes)
  • Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity yeast or Fermentis Safbrew Abbaye yeast or White Labs WLP530 Abbey Ale yeast
  • 5 oz. priming sugar
  • LD Carlson Yeast Energizer for a 5 gallon batch
The recipe begins with a Saccharine rest at 149F for 60 minutes, followed by a mash out at 168F for 10 minutes.

Once the boil begins, the Brewer's Gold pellets are added first, followed by Hallertau at 30 minutes left.  Styrian Goldings and the Candi Syrup are added with 15 minutes left in the boil.

The wort should then be chilled to an appropriate temperature for the yeast, 64F-72F would work for any of the recommended yeasts.

The beer should hit an original gravity of 1.090.  It should spend 2 weeks in the primary fermenter and 3 months in the secondary, followed by two weeks of bottle conditioning.

Compared to some of the kits I've made, it's relatively simple.

Brew Day Experience

As this was an all-grain brew, I used my Grainfather RIMS system to do the brewing.  I calculated the recommended amount of mash water, then filled the kettle with distilled water.  To this, I added a packet of Accumash water treatment designed to match the beer.  (It came free with the kit at the time I ordered it.)  I'd never used Accumash before, but it's very easy to work with.

I got the water to 149F and began slowly adding the grain, stirring to make sure it all got wet and didn't clump up.  When all 16 pounds were added, the Grainfather's grain basket was relatively full (it's designed to hold 20 pounds maximum, so this was pushing toward its limits).  I got the lid in place over the grain and started the recirculating pump.  A few minutes later, I checked back and the temperature had dropped to 125F.  Apparently the grain contained enough dust or particulate matter that it fell through the basket and onto the bottom of the Grainfather's kettle.  This caused the thermal cut-out switch (designed for scorch protection) to trip.  Repeated attempts to reset the switch failed.  I was eventually forced to lift the grain basket out and set it in a clean steel kettle. Using by brewing spoon (and eventually my hand) I managed to get enough of the sediment off the area of the Grainfather's kettle where the heating element is located.  I could then get the mash water back up to the desired temperature of 149F and reintroduce the grain.  This left a mess on the floor and side of the Grainfather kettle that I had to clean up.  This extended "mash process" took about four hours from beginning to end. 

Because of the issues with particulate matter during the mash, the grain spent around two hours in the 125F range, and a while below that as I cleaned up the kettle.  Once the particulate matter was dealt with, the mash did spend 60 minutes at 149F and 10 at 168F.  

With the mash completed, I began the boil.  Fortunately, my earlier cleanup efforts did the trick and the thermal cut-out switch didn't trigger again for the rest of the brewing session.

From here on, the brewing process was pretty much "textbook".  I completed the 60-minute boil, recirculated wort through the counter flow chiller into the kettle until the kettle temperature dropped to 140F, then pumped it into my fermenter where it arrived at 72F and ready for the yeast.

My original gravity wound up pretty low.  The recipe called for a 5-gallon batch at 1.090.  My hops bags had dropped to the bottom of the kettle during the boil.  At the 60-minute mark, I had almost six gallons of wort at 1.061.  I would have boiled it down to 5 gallons to get the gravity up, but decided not to because I didn't want it turning out too bitter.  I'd rather have a weaker beer I can drink than a stronger one that's too bitter, so I opted to ferment what I had.  (Update:  Since this brew I've learned that I was using the wrong sparge water calculation and probably needed to extend the mash time.  Since making those process changes, I've had much better results.)

At the start of my brew day, I smacked a very fresh pack of Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity ale yeast.  By the time the beer was in the fermenter, the yeast pack had expanded considerably and was ready to pitch.  I took an original gravity reading and volume measurement from the markings in my fermenter, then pitched the yeast.

Fermentation Experience

This was my first experience with Wyeast 3787.  For the first 24 hours, I saw very little activity in the airlock.  In day 2, wort had made its way into the airlock on the fermenter.  On day 3, the airlock was a milky tan color from the wort passing through it, and the holes in the lid of the fermenter were filled with wort.  I quickly sanitized a new lid and blow-off tube, and set up a bucket of Star San.  I was glad I did.  The next time I checked on the fermenter, there was blow-off all through the tube.  Needless to say, I think the yeast was happy...

As I write this and post it on December 3, 2015, the beer is finishing up primary fermentation.  Although the recipe calls for racking the beer to a secondary, my experience has been that I can't tell a difference in the beer when it's not racked to secondary, so I'm planning to leave it in the primary for the full three months.

Update on 12/20/2015:  The beer has been in a plastic fermenter (because my stainless was busy) for about a month.  Concerned about possible autolysis and off-flavors from remaining so long in the plastic bucket, I sanitized by Chapman SteelTank fermenter and transferred the beer to there.  I'm planning to let it condition in that fermenter until it's ready to bottle.

Taste Test

The beer pours a nearly black color with finger thick head that lasts a minute or so and then reincorporates into the beer.  

The aroma mixes malt, dark fruit, and hops.  

Reviews of the real Westvleteren XII describe it as having a good balance between sweetness and hops bitterness.  Reviewers describe flavors like dark fruit, raisin, brown sugar, banana, and clove.  

Given that, I'm almost positive that the troubles I had with the mash, the sparge, and hitting gravity/volume targets have pretty much assured that my finished beer bears little resemblance to what Northern Brewer intended.  It also bears little resemblance to Westvleteren XII based on the reviews I've read of that beer.

The flavor of this beer starts with a mix of hops bitterness, a hint of coffee, and a hint of dark fruit. Probably because of the mash issues, the beer is pretty dry.  There is virtually no sweetness to this one.  Unfortunately, there is also a fairly pronounced tannin presence.  Most likely this means that my sparge water was too hot, or that I used too much of it (or both).  The tannin element gives the beer a drying quality that I don't care for.

Despite the fact that things simply didn't turn out well on this one, it's not a complete loss.  It's definitely not the best beer I've ever made, but it's not one I need to throw out, either.  It's one that I'll keep around and drink occasionally until it's gone.  Is it the Westvleteren clone I was hoping for? Sadly, no.  Would I make the kit again?  Possibly, though there are some other Westvleteren clone recipes I want to try first.  Would I buy another Northern Brewer kit?  Of course.  My failure to brew this properly wasn't their fault or their kit's fault.


Changing from an extract brewing process on my kitchen stove to an all-grain brewing process with The Grainfather was a lot to change at once.  I had issues of varying impact on each batch, with the most common one being what I experienced here - a beer that was well below the recipe gravity and well above the final volume.

Since brewing this batch, I've learned that I was calculating sparge water incorrectly for The Grainfather.  I've also learned that it's a good idea to calculate the "quarts per pound" ratio of mash water to grain.  If it's much above 1.5, I need to extend the mash time to compensate for the thinner mash.  The last batch I made used the correct sparge calculation and an extended mash time.  It came out on target for both volume and gravity.  If I do this beer again, I'll fix that.

Another problem I had with this batch was that once I realized I needed to increase the gravity by boiling down the wort, I couldn't.  I'd used muslin bags for my hops, which dropped to the bottom of the kettle where I was unable to retrieve them.  If I'd extended the boil for another 30-60 minutes to help reduce the volume and increase the gravity, I'd have made the beer a lot more bitter.  I'm not a fan of overly bitter beers.  Since brewing this beer, I've purchased a hop spider from iMake so that if I happen to miss my gravity or volume mark again, I can pull the hops out and continue the boil until I'm closer to the target.

If I were to brew this again, here are the things I'd do differently:

  • Calculate mash and sparge water volumes correctly.
  • If appropriate, extend the mash time to ensure full conversion.
  • Use my new hop spider so that if I needed to extend the boil to hit my gravity and volume targets, I could do so without adding bitterness to the beer (which is bitter enough as-is for my personal tastes).
  • Have some light DME on hand to increase gravity if necessary.
  • Use my temperature controller and fermwrap to ensure that the beer stayed in an optimal temperature range for the yeast.
  • Use candi syrup and CBC-1 yeast to carbonate the beer.  This one came out carbonated but only very lightly.  It really should have been more carbonated.  A couple of bottles I added extra carb drops to were much closer to what I wanted.

If you're looking for another take on a Westvleteren XII clone, check out the recipe section at the Candi Syrup, Inc. web site.  If I make another Westvleteren XII clone, theirs is probably the recipe that I'll try.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Belgian Single Version 1.1

Back in late July, I made an extract-based Belgian Single using a recipe from E.C. Kraus.  The beer turned out to be one of the better ones I've made, and we've gone through (and given away) almost all of it, so I decided to try brewing a second batch.

In my notes from the original version, I noted that I would dial the hops back slightly and add some sugar to dry out a little of the sweetness.  Here is the updated version 1.1 recipe:
  • 1 pound Biscuit Malt
  • 8 ounces Aromatic Malt
  • 3 pounds Golden Light DME (early addition)
  • 3 pounds Golden Light DME (late addition)
  • 1 pound Brewer's Crystals (to boost fermentables)
  • 0.5 ounces Styrian Goldings pellets (6.2% Alpha) - 60 minutes
  • 1.0 ounces Czech Saaz pellets (3.2% Alpha) - 15 minutes
  • 1.0 ounces Czech Saaz pellets (3.2% Alpha) - 5 minutes
  • 1 package of Wyeast Belgian Abbey II yeast (1762)
  • 0.5 ounces of Coriander, crushed
  • 0.5 ounces of Sweet Orange Peel, crushed
  • Yeast nutrient (based on package directions and kettle volume)
  • 1 Whirlfloc tablet
  • 1 vial of White Labs Clarity Ferm
The changes made in this version versus the previous:
  • The first hops addition was switched from a pre-boil addition to a post-boil addition.
  • Hops amounts at the 60-minute and 15 minute levels were dialed back to reduce the undesirable bitterness I perceived last time.
  • Safbrew Abbaye yeast was swapped out for Wyeast 1762 which was in the original Kraus recipe but not available to me when I made version 1.0.
  • Brewer's Crystals (a sugar mix replicating the fermentable sugar in barley malt) were added to boost the alcohol content and maybe dry it out a little.
  • Coriander and Sweet Orange Peel were added to add some complexity to the flavor
Reducing the hops amounts meant that I was going from a calculated 28.8 IBUs down to 21.1 IBUs.  The original beer had a gravity of 61, so its BU:GU ratio was 28.8/61 or 0.47.  The new recipe has an estimated original gravity of 53, so its BU:GU would be 21.1/53 or 0.40.  That's a pretty significant drop but my suspicion is that the Wyeast product might ferment out more of the sugar as I plan to give it more time in the fermenter than I gave the Safbrew Abbaye and will be oxygenating it to help it along.  I'm also using temperature control on the fermenter to keep the yeast at the upper end of its temperature range, which may dry the beer out more and increase ester production.

Brewing Process

Following is the brewing process for this beer:
  • Smacked the Wyeast package to activate the yeast while gathering and measuring ingredients, to ensure it had time to warm up, activate, and become ready to use.
  • Put 3 gallons of water into the Grainfather and heated it to 152F
  • Added the specialty grains in a steeping bag into the water and steeped them for 20 minutes.
  • As the grains steeped, I heated 3 gallons of water on the kitchen stove to near-boiling and removed it from the heat.  I dissolved 3 pounds of DME into it.
  • Discarded the steeping grains.
  • Poured in the 3 gallon batch of dissolved DME and made sure the water level in the Grainfather registered 6 gallons.
  • Set the Grainfather to boiling and brought the wort to a boil.
  • At boil, added the Styrian Goldings pellets in a bag
  • After 45 minutes, added 1 ounce of Czech Saaz pellets in a bag, along with yeast nutrient and sweet orange peel
  • After 50 minutes, hooked up the counterflow chiller and began recirculating wort into the kettle to sterilize the chiller.
  • After 55 minutes, added the last ounce of Czech Saaz pellets in a bag along with the coriander
  • At 60 minutes of boil, turned off the heat.
  • Turned on the cold water supply to the counterflow chiller and continued recirculating wort into the kettle until the Grainfather kettle temperature read 140F.
  • Turned off the pump and moved the cold wort out line into the fermenter.  Turned the pump back on and pumped wort into the fermenter.
  • Fermenter temperature read 70.2F when all the wort was pumped into it, making it an ideal temperature for the Wyeast yeast (which has a range of 65-75F).
  • Using an oxygen tank and stone, oxygenated the wort for 60 seconds.
  • Took an original gravity reading and volume (5.7 gallons at 15 Brix or 61.1 SG).
  • Pitched the yeast packet into the wort and sealed the fermenter.
Now it was up to the yeast.


My primary fermenter for this batch was an SS Brew Tech Brewmaster Bucket.  This is a stainless steel conical fermentation bucket that I recently acquired and think is one of the best pieces of brewing equipment I own.

I wrapped a fermentation heater around the fermenter and attached it to a temperature controller.  The temperature controller was set to keep the fermenter in the 73-75F range.  The temperature probe was inserted into the Brewmaster Bucket's thermowell to get an accurate temperature.  Throughout the first week of fermentation, I periodically checked the temperature against the Brewmaster Bucket's own thermometer and it always matched up to the temperature controller's display.  (I'd never used this temperature controller or wrap before and wanted to be sure that they didn't cook the wort and yeast.)

In the version 1.0 beer, I got a bit more carbonation than I expected and the beer was a little sweeter than I thought it should be.  For that reason, I decided to keep the fermenter at the upper end of the range for the first two weeks of fermentation, then remove the temperature control and allow it to spend an additional week at the basement's ambient temperature of 68F.

Tasting Notes

At the left, you see a glass of the finished beer.  It turned out only very slightly hazy, with a finger-thick white head that lasted several seconds before reincorporating into the beer.

The carbonation level was good, not overly bubbly or particularly flat.  The use of bottle conditioning yeast and fermentation drops seems to have worked well.

The aroma is malty but not sweet, and slightly fruity.

Compared with version 1.0, it's much less sweet and the bitterness from the hops is well-balanced against the malt.  I wondered if the coriander would be an obvious element of the flavor, but it's barely detectable, which is what I'd hoped to accomplish.  The sweet orange peel doesn't come through, however.  There is a roasty element to the flavor, probably from the aromatic malt.

Had this come from a micro brewery in town, I'd have rated it an 8 out of 10, so I am very happy with it.  It's a very easy to drink beer, with a little complexity in the flavor and no serious flaws.

Post Mortem

If I was to brew this beer again, here are changes I think I might make:

  • I would definitely increase the amount of sweet orange peel.  I like the flavor it lends to a beer like this, and I would like it to be just barely detectable in the finished product.
  • Although I like aromatic malt, I think the recipe includes too much of it.  It's a dominant element in the aroma and flavor.  I'd like it to be a bit more subtle.
  • I might consider going back to the Safbrew Abbaye yeast, as it's less expensive and I don't feel like the Wyeast Belgian Abbey II contributed much to the flavor.
  • I might also consider carbonating the beer with a clear or amber candi syrup to increase the Belgian-like flavor a bit more, or adding some late in the boil.
  • I will probably convert to an all-grain recipe next time as well.
All this being said, I'm very happy with how this turned out and I think it's a definite improvement over the original version 1.0.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

How your fermenter can affect your beer

Bob Sandage and Phil Farrell gave a presentation at the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) conference this year entitled "Does the Type of Fermenter Affect Your Homebrew?"

Their experiment revolved around brewing a large commercial-sized batch of Kolsch.  The style was chosen because it would easily show any unexpected fermentation issues or differences, and required no post-fermentation processing that might have affected the flavor of the finished beer.  

The large commercial-sized batch was divided into a variety of different fermenters used by homebrewers, including plastic buckets, carboys, cornelius (corny) kegs, and stainless steel conical fermenters.  Where possible, blow-off tubes and poppet style airlocks were also used to gauge any difference these might make.

Finished beers went through a blind taste-test to determine which tasted the best.  They were also subjected to a laboratory analysis.

The taste test rated the beer fermented in a carboy with a blow-off tube and the beer fermented in a stainless steel conical fermenter with a poppet airlock as the two best.

Laboratory testing rated diacetyl and pentanedione levels highest in the samples fermented (in order) in the carboy with blow-off tube, plastic bucket, corny keg, and carboy with poppet airlock.  Levels were lowest in the commercial unitank fermenter and in the stainless steel conical fermenters.  Levels in the smaller conical fermenters were comparable to those in the large commercial unitank fermenter.

To me, the take-away here was that you'll probably get your best results overall in a stainless steel conical fermenter.  This would seem to minimize unwanted compounds while resulting in a beer that scores well with taste testers.  Fortunately, I recently added an SS Brew Tech Brewmaster Bucket to my setup.  This conical stainless fermenter should help improve my beers.

If a stainless steel conical fermenter is out of your price range, a glass carboy with poppet airlock is your next best bet.  

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Adventures in Homebrewing Peanut Butter Conspiracy Stout

Adventures in Homebrewing makes a number of all-grain and extract recipe kits for homebrewing.  During a sale earlier this year, I picked up their Peanut Butter Conspiracy Stout extract kit (on sale for $26.99 as of this writing in November 2015).  The kit includes:
  • 6 pounds of Pale LME
  • 1 pound of Flaked Barley
  • 1 pound of Carafa II
  • 4 ounces of Black Patent Malt
  • 1 dram of Peanut Butter Flavoring
  • 1 ounce of Willamette Hops (5.4% AA)
It is recommended to use Wyeast 1084 Irish Ale, White Labs 004 Irish Ale, or Danstar Nottingham.  Since I ordered the kit during the warmer months, I settled for Danstar Nottingham dry yeast.

Brew Day

The brewing process was:
  • Heat 2.5 gallons of water to 150-160F.  I used The Grainfather to do this.
  • Drop the bagged grain into the water and steep for 20 minutes.
  • Remove the grain from the water and let it drain, then discard.
  • In my case, while doing the above, I heated 3 gallons of water in a kettle on my kitchen stove and removed it from the heat, I dissolved the 6 pounds of Pale LME into that and made sure it was thoroughly dissolved.
  • I added the dissolved Pale LME to the existing wort and topped it off to 6 gallons with cold water.  Experience has shown me that The Grainfather boils off about a gallon in an hour.
  • I set The Grainfather to boil and stirred to ensure that the wort was well mixed.
  • When the wort reached a boil, I dropped the Willamette hops in a bag into the kettle.
  • While the wort boiled, I rehydrated the yeast packet.
  • After 55 minutes of boiling, I attached the wort chiller and began recirculating wort through it to sterilize it.  The output of the wort chiller went into the kettle to be re-boiled.
  • At the 60 minute mark, I turned off the heat.  I turned on the cold water supply and let the wort flow through the counter flow chiller and back into the kettle.  Past experience has shown me that the wort coming out of the chiller is often around 80F.  I wanted this to come out closer to the recommended 64-72F temperature when it reached the fermenter, so recirculating a bit before pumping into the fermenter would help accomplish that.  When the kettle temperature read 150F, I turned off the pump and put the cold wort out line into the fermenter.
  • The chilled wort was pumped into the fermenter.  The measured temperature in the fermenter was XXF, close to my desired range.
  • I pitched the yeast into the wort and sealed the fermenter, attaching an airlock filled with Star San sanitizer.
AIH's instruction sheet said that my wort should have an Original Gravity of 1.045, a final gravity of 1.012, and an ABV of 4.6%.  My pre-boil gravity was 1.047 SG, but the volume was a little low, so I topped it off with water to hit the right volume.  Post-boil gravity measured with a refractometer was again 11 Brix or 1.047.  My stout would be slightly stronger than designed.

I have to say... if you like chocolate this is a great beer to brew.  The malt combination here gives off a delicious dark chocolate aroma as the beer boils.  The minimal bitterness (estimated 18 IBUs) means that there isn't a strong hops aroma in the boil, either.

Yield was estimated at 5 gallons for the recipe.  I would up with 4.7 gallons in my fermenter at the time I pitched the yeast.

Fermentation Schedule

Because I don't have a fermentation chamber yet, the plastic bucket fermenter was placed in my basement, which maintains a 68F temperature pretty much year-round.

Fermentation didn't seem particularly vigorous.  I checked it a few hours after pitching the yeast and saw nothing happening in the airlock.  A day later, still no visible activity.  Finally, after seeing no airlock activity for two days, I popped open the fermenter lid to see a nice healthy krausen.  The fermentation was going fine and I was just too impatient.  I sealed the lid and left it alone after that.

I took small samples of the wort over the next week or so and watched the gravity gradually decline.  When it seemed to level out, primary fermentation was finished.  This happened on approximately Day X of the fermentation.

The AIH instructions say that the peanut butter flavoring should be added after the beer completes primary fermentation in about two weeks, then let it spend at least a week in secondary.  Since I don't rack off my beer to a secondary, I added the flavoring at the two-week mark and left the beer in the fermenter another week.


I used corn sugar (just under half a cup) and water to prime the beer for bottling.  I boiled the mixture for 5 minutes and then allowed it to cool to room temperature while sanitizing bottles and the bottling bucket.  When the priming sugar was ready, I poured it into the bottling bucket and used gravity to transfer the beer from the fermenter to the bottling bucket.

The fermenter had a thin layer of dead yeast and other material across the top, one of the thinnest I'd encountered to date.  There was also a very thin layer of sediment in the bottom of the fermenter, about an eighth of an inch deep.  The sediment seemed almost stuck to the bottom of the fermenter, allowing me to transfer most of the beer to the bottling bucket.  The wasted beer in the fermenter couldn't have been more than a cup.

I bottled the beer in sanitized, recycled craft beer bottles.  I did only two 22-ounce bombers of this one, figuring that it's probably the kind of beer you won't want to drink a lot of at one sitting.  The beer had a definite peanut butter aroma.  A sample I used for measuring the final gravity 

Tasting Notes

The beer pours a perfect dark brown stout color.  The aroma has a strong peanut butter element, with some roasted malt, chocolate, and coffee behind that.  The flavor is predominantly roasted grain, coffee, and a little chocolate. The peanut butter in the flavor seems fairly subdued. Although stouts aren't overly carbonated, I think this one could do with a little carbonation.

It feels a little watery compared to a couple of stouts I've had recently from local craft breweries.  One of those was a nitro stout, so that's not an entirely fair comparison.  I would consider adding something to give this a little more body if I was going to make it again.

Hops bitterness is nicely balanced in this one.  The fact that it's not sweet or cloying tells you hops bitterness is included, but it's not what you'd call a hoppy brew.  The majority of the bitterness in it seems to come from roasted grain.


AIH rates this an easy kit, and I can't argue with them.  Steep the grains, add the extract, bring to a boil, add the hops, wait a bit, chill it down, pitch the yeast, ferment for a while, add the peanut butter flavoring, wait a week, and bottle. Not too tough if you've been brewing a while.

In terms of the brewing process on this one, the only part that was kind of a nuisance was dealing with the extract - but that's only because I wanted to do the boil in The Grainfather so that I could leverage its fast counterflow wort chiller at the end.  I don't plan to make a habit of using the Grainfather in this way as it's not really designed for it, and I'm planning to go all-grain as soon as I use up my remaining extract kits.  Dissolving the extract in another pot and transferring it to the Grainfather for the boil worked as a solution for dealing with extract and not triggering the Grainfather's scorch protection.

If I was going to make this beer again, I'd start with the all-grain kit instead of the extract. At the time I bought this one, I didn't have the equipment for an all-grain brew.  I would also add some oatmeal or something to improve the body, and perhaps some powdered peanut butter to enhance the peanut butter flavor (the aroma of peanut butter is perfect in this one, but the flavor is hard to detect).

Sunday, October 18, 2015

4 Brothers Bottle Caps

I've been home brewing for a few years now.  I've bottled my beer using a variety of different bottle types, from bombers to plastic bottles with screw-on caps.  I've always treated bottles and caps like a basic commodity.  Bottles are more or less the same, and caps seemed simple enough objects that they didn't require a lot of thought.

With that mindset, when a homebrew site offered 4 Brothers bottle caps at a huge discount (around $1.99 for 144), I jumped at the chance and bought about 600 of them.  It's proven to be one of the worst purchases of the year.  (I am not mentioning the site because everything else I've ever bought from them has been excellent and I don't view this purchase as a failure on their part.  There are reviews on the site of these caps. One of them does mention having trouble capping some bottles with them.

I brewed a Belgian Tripel earlier in the year, which fermented unusually fast and completely.  I had just gotten these caps and decided to use them.  When I opened the first of the bottles, it was completely flat. So was the second, the third, etc.  Since I had used the last of some of my other caps on that batch, I didn't blame the 4 Brothers caps for the problem because other caps from other brands showed the same lack of carbonation.  I think the yeast just flocculated out or went dormant on that batch.

The next batch I used the caps on was an English Bitter.  During the bottling process, several caps were mangled, didn't crimp completely, etc. This was something I hadn't seen before.  I suspected that my capper was wearing out. I completed the batch and bought a replacement capper, and later a bench capper.

Last night, I began bottling a new Belgian Tripel.  The bench capper had an annoying tendency to hold on to the bottles after capping and lift them up, so I set it aside. The plastic "wing" style cappers (I now had three) kept having problems with the 4 Brothers caps, too.  After having five or six "reject" caps in about 20 bottles, I knew something was wrong.  When I grabbed the cap on one of the finished bottles, I found that I could actually TWIST it easily on the bottle. It wasn't sealed properly.  The same was true of several of the others.  Now I knew the problem was the 4 Brothers caps.

I sealed everything up and drove to a local homebrew shop, where I bought two packages of LD Carlson caps.  I uncapped all the bottles I'd just done and re-capped using these new caps.  I didn't have a single mangled reject and every bottle sealed easily.  None of the caps were loose this time.

I'm going to stop short of saying these are bad caps or that they are defective somehow.  It's entirely possible that I unknowingly ordered large 29mm caps.  It's possible I just got a bad batch of them.  It's hard to say, and at this point it doesn't matter.  The bottom line is that these nearly ruined two batches of homebrew for me, and possibly contributed to issues with a third batch.  I don't plan to ever buy or use these again, and I've already tossed the one I purchased.

The caps seem to be the same size as the LD Carlson caps that worked fine.  For example, here is a side-by-side photo of the top of each cap:

4 Brothers cap on the left, LD Carlson on the right
And here is the bottom:

4 Brothers cap on the left, LD Carlson on the right
The rubber seals underneath are different.  The 4 Brothers caps seem to have a larger "gasket" ring than the LD Carlson caps, but otherwise look the same.

Holding them together in my hand, I can't tell that either is larger or dramatically different from the other, so I can't account for the difficulty I had using the 4 Brothers caps.

The lesson I'm taking away from this experience is that when purchasing a new brand or style of bottle caps, I should only use the new caps to do a small percentage of the batch of bottles.  The rest should be done with a "known good" brand.  That way, if the new caps are defective, they'll only ruin a few bottles and not my entire batch.  I'll also be paying closer attention to my capping efforts and cappers to make sure the bottles seem to be sealing properly.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

How to keep an extract based beer lighter in color without getting too bitter

A full wort boil is recommended by most brewers as a good rule of thumb.  A full boil ensures a good hot break, and makes the hops bitterness calculation easier.  There are times, though, that full boil may not be the best option.  Equipment limitation is one of those (e.g., you have only a 4-gallon kettle and are making a 5-gallon batch).  Another is when using extract to produce a lighter-colored beer like a Pilsner, Kolsch, or Wit.

Doing a full boil with all of your extract may cause the extract to darken and ruin the appearance of your beer.  The amount of darkening depends on the boil time and the concentration of the wort.  The longer the boil and the more concentrated the wort, the darker it will be.  To reduce darkening, a partial boil with a late extract addition is a better choice.  Adding extract late in the boil ensures that it's sterilized while minimizing darkening.

Malt extract doesn't need a long boil, as it's already been boiled during manufacture.  A 90-minute boil with an extract based beer may cause it to feel thin or watery (due to protein breakdown).  Extract beers usually benefit from a 60-minute or 45-minute boil.  I've even heard of 20-minute boils being acceptable for the lightest styles.  Regardless of the boil length, a late extract addition can improve the finished beer's body and head retention.

When doing a late extract addition, it's important to first turn off the heat and make sure that the extract has fully dissolved before turning the heat back up.  Otherwise, the extract may accumulate on the bottom of the kettle and cause it to scorch.  This could easily run the color and flavor of the beer.

Doing a late extract addition isn't as simple as just holding back a quantity of the extract to add late into the boil.  The lighter gravity of the wort prior to the extract addition can result in a greater extraction of bittering compounds from the hops, and a much bitter beer.  You'll need to adjust the amount of hops to avoid getting a more-bitter beer than you intended.

If you're using software like BeerSmith or Beer Tools Pro, the bitterness calculations should happen automatically for you as you input the recipe.  If you're working this out without such a tool, there are online calculators that can help.  You basically want to treat the boil as two different boils at different gravities.  If you are doing a 45-minute boil with a single hops addition, with extract added 10 minutes prior to the end of the boil, here's what you'd do.  
  • Calculate the bitterness of the wort based on the gravity at the start of the boil and running for 35 minutes.  
  • Calculate the gravity after the 35 minute mark when the last of the extract is added, and determine the bitterness imparted during the last 10 minutes of tbe boil based on that gravity. 
  • If you're doing multiple hops additions and extract additions, you'll need to calculate the hops quantity, wort gravity, and boil time at each step to best estimate bitterness.
How much does this really mater?  A beer which calculates to an IBU level of 30 IBUs with a full boil and full early extract addition could demonstrate a bitterness level of 50 IBUs by changing only when extract is added to it.  A beer done with less than a full boil, multiple hops additions, and late extract addition could see an even greater difference.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Forrest's On-Call Ale v1.0 Recipe and Notes

For Christmas, I received a book of historic beer recipes.  I ordered the ingredients for an English Bitter that looked interesting because it called for Saaz hops instead of one of the more traditional varieties like UK Goldings.  I decided to make it and ordered the necessary ingredients.

When brew day came around, I learned that either I had ordered the wrong amount of Pale Malt, or the shop had shipped me less than I ordered.  I had only 8 pounds instead of the 10 required.  I decided to substitute two pounds of CaraVienne malt for the missing two pounds of Pale Malt rather than abort the brewing session.  I also overlooked the invert sugar called for in the recipe, and substituted some Brun Fonce sugar I had on-hand, which is similar.

At this point, I realized that what I was making was no longer the ale from the book, but something of my own design.  That being the case, it was no longer the historic beer but something new.  Given that, I decided to experiment a bit more and add some Cherrywood Smoked Malt I has on-hand as well.

My recipe became:
  • 8 pounds of 2-row Pale Malt
  • 2 pounds of CaraVienne Malt
  • 1 ounce of Briess Cherrywood Smoked Malt
  • 8 ounces of Brun Fonce sugar
  • 1 ounce of German Northern Brewer hops
  • 1 ounce of Czech Saaz hops
  • Safale S-04 yeast
The grains were placed in The Grainfather RIMS brewing system with 4.5 gallons of water.  The grain was stirred to ensure it all got wet, then the recirculation pump started.  The mash water was heated to 152F and held there for 60 minutes.  The temperature was then raised to 156F and held there for 20 minutes.  An iodine test came up clean, indicating a good starch conversion.

The grain was sparged with two gallons of water at 170F, and one gallon at 165F.  (This was per the original English recipe I started with.)

For the first 30 minutes of the boil, nothing was added to the wort.

After 30 minutes of boiling, the German Northern Brewer hops were added in a cotton bag.

After 60 minutes, the Czech Saaz hops were added in another bag.

At 80 minutes, the Brun Fonce sugar was added, along with a Whirlfloc tablet and yeast nutrient.

At 90 minutes, the heat was turned off.  The hops bags were removed, and the wort was pumped through a counter flow wort chiller into a santitized stainless fermenter.  The wort left the counter flow chiller at 79.3F.  When it cooled to 76F, I oxygenated it with an oxygen tank and stone, then pitched the yeast.

Estimated Original Gravity: 1.057
Actual Original Gravity: 1.048
Estimated IBUs:  34
Estimated ABV:  5.8%
Actual ABV: 6%

The beer remained in the primary fermenter until bottling, when I transferred it to a sanitized bottling bucket.  Mangrove Jack's carbonation drops were used for priming the beer.  One drop per 12 ounce bottle and two per 22 ounce bottle seemed to work well.

Lessons Learned

This brewing session was actually quite a learning experience.  This was my first full brew using The Grainfather brewing system, and my second all-grain batch ever.  I learned a lot about The Grainfather in this session.  One thing I learned was that the built-in scorch protection can be tripped easily during a brewing session.  The problem with this is that the reset switch is underneath the unit, so you have to tilt the entire device (filled with hot wort) to an angle that allows you to reach underneath it to get to the switch.  My wife had to help me with that on this batch.  Apart from that issue, the brewing session went flawlessly and The Grainfather performed as designed.

I also learned from this experience that it's important to double-check your grain order at the time you order it, when you receive it, and before brewing.  In this case, I don't know if I didn't order the right amount of grain (8 pounds vs. 10) or the supplier shipped the wrong amount.  It doesn't matter at this point, since the beer is made and turned out fine, but I need to remember this for the future.  I also need to double-check my recipes, too, since I somehow missed the invert sugar when I placed the grain order and when I wrote out the first draft of my brewing instructions for the session.

Post-Mortem and Tasting Notes

I don't think the brewing process could have been much improved on.  The Grainfather performed well apart from tripping the scorch protection once.  Since then, I've built a small wooden stand for it to sit on so that I can reach the reset button when brewing.

As for the beer itself, here are my tasting notes:

  • Color: Pours a slightly hazy deep amber to light brown color.  The thin beige head doesn't last long and is for me a disappointing part of this one.
  • Aroma:  Has a hint of fruit to it, and some malt.  Doesn't quite smell like a Belgian beer, but not quite like an English one either.  This could be the Brun Fonce sugar.  Could be the yeast.
  • Flavor:  It's definitely malty.  There's a hint of smoke, but it's hard to detect.  The aftertaste is mildly bitter.  

If I make this beer again, I'll probably make these adjustments:

  • Replace the Brun Fonce sugar with an appropriate invert sugar.
  • Control fermentation temperature better to reduce yeast stress and off-flavors that might have crept into this one.
  • Increase the hops addition.  This one wasn't cloying or sweet, but could do with a bit more hops bitterness and perhaps an aroma addition.
  • Add some dextrine or wheat malt to give it more of a head and better head retention.

All things considered, this was an easily drinkable beer.  It doesn't have much character to it, though.  It's very basic, and even a little bland.  I've definitely made better.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

MoreBeer's Russian River's Pliny the Elder DIPA Kit

Although it may surprise many homebrewers to hear this, I've only brewed one IPA before this.  I would never have brewed that one if it hadn't been part of the Mr. Beer kit I received at the time.  Unlike most craft beer fans these days, especially here in Central Ohio, I'm just not an IPA fan.  I understand what fans of the style like about it.  A good mix of hops can add complexity to the flavor and aroma of a beer.  I just don't care for the bitterness, in the same way many people don't like their food to be very spicy.  So the fact that I purchased and have brewed a recipe kit for a clone of Russian River's famous and well-loved Pliny the Elder DIPA would shock many who know me.

I decided to do this for three reasons.  First, I've never actually tried Pliny.  You can't buy it in Ohio, and I've never bumped into it in my travels out of state.  Since many consider it to be one of the best beers in the world, making a batch would be a way to sample it here at home.  Second, there are members of my family who prefer IPAs or drink only IPAs.  This would give me a beer to offer them when the come to visit.  Finally, I figured brewing a beer with so many hops additions would be an interesting learning experience that could transfer to other beers I might want to make in the future.

MoreBeer's Pliny kit was developed by the brewmaster at Russian River, so it should be as faithful a re-creation as any an homebrewer might make.  When it went on sale recently, I decided to pick it up and try it.  

On August 29, 2015, I opened the package.  It contained:
  • 9 pounds of extra light liquid malt extract
  • 0.5 pounds of light DME
  • 8 ounces of maltodextrin
  • 1 pound of corn sugar
  • 6 ounces of Crystal 40L
  • 2 ounces of whole Cascade hops
  • 2 ounces of Magnum pellet hops (12.6% AA)
  • 3 ounces of Simcoe pellet hops (12.6% AA)
  • 4 ounces of Columbus pellet hops (15.4% AA)
  • 3 ounces of Centennial pellet hops (9.4% AA)
  • 1 Whirlfloc tablet
  • 4 ounces of corn sugar for priming
The recipe sheets provided with the kit were a little confusing.  The main sheet with the ingredient list gave instructions for when the ingredients should be added, but split them into groups of like ingredients.  This meant you would need to bounce around as you looked at the sheet to figure out when to add what to the kettle.  The second sheet contained general brewing instructions for any beer, which had lots of conditional statements like "If the recipe includes X, add this now."  What I followed was this process:
  • Heat 5 gallons of water to 155F.  Steep the 2 ounces of whole Cascade hops and the Crystal 40L in this for 30 minutes.  
  • Remove the grain and hops and bring to a boil.
  • Remove from heat and add the LME, DME, and maltodextrin.  Return to a boil.
  • Add 2 ounces of Magnum hops in a brewing bag
  • After 45 minutes of boil, add 1 ounce of Simcoe hops to the bag
  • After 60 minutes, add 1 ounce of Columbus hops to the bag
  • After 75 minutes, insert the wort chiller into the kettle
  • Rehydrate Lallemand West Coast Ale dry yeast packet per the instructions on their site (boil four ounces of water, cool to 86-92F, and let sit covered for 15 minutes)
  • After 80 minutes, add 1 pound of corn sugar and some yeast nutrient
  • After 85 minutes, drop in the Whirlfloc tablet
  • At 90 minutes of boil, turn off the heat.  Add 2 ounces of Centennial to the bag and 1 ounce of Simcoe.  Remove from the stove.
  • Run cold water through the wort chiller until the temperature is below 80F.
  • Use gravity to transfer the wort through a sanitized rubber tube into the sanitized fermenter.
  • Take initial gravity reading with refractometer
  • Add some wort to the rehydrated yeast to begin acclimating it, and wait 5 minutes
  • Add more wort to get the yeast mixture and fermenter to the same approximate temperature
  • Pitch the yeast into the fermenter and button up the lid
When primary fermentation finishes in approximately 5-7 days, I'll then add 3 ounces of Columbus hops pellets, 1 ounce of Centennial hops pellets, and 1 ounce of Simcoe hops pellets to a sanitized muslin bag and drop into the fermenter for dry-hopping.  These will spend another 5-7 days in the fermenter before bottling.  I'll bottle with carbonation drops rather than the corn sugar supplied with the kit as I've had good results with the drops.

The instruction sheet says that the beer should have the following qualities:
  • Original gravity: 1.070-1.074
  • SRM: 10
  • IBUs: 198-202 (this is a theoretical number, actual is 100)
  • Alcohol by Volume: 8%
  • Suggested fermentation temperature: 68F
My wort registered a gravity of 1.074.  I haven't done a color measurement.  The yeast was very happy with the beer and on the second day of fermentation leaked a bit of beer out the airlock and over the edge of the fermenter.

After seven days in the fermenter, I soaked a muslin bag in Star San and loaded the dry hop pellets into it.  The fermenter was opened and the hops bag dropped in, and the fermenter re-sealed.

According to BYO Magazine, the ideal dry hop timeframe is 3-5 days.  More than this can cause grassy flavors to appear.  On the third day of dry hopping, I transferred the beer to a sanitized bottling bucket and bottled it.  I carbonated with corn sugar and water, which I don't often do.  The yield for the batch ended up being 26 bottles of the 12-ounce size and 12 of the 22-ounce bomber variety.  Estimated ABV was 8.2% (final gravity 1.012).

Post-Mortem and Review

The MoreBeer instruction sheets are decent, but I prefer to have my instructions in a form that shows me the exact order and timing of the brewing steps.  That meant I needed to sift through their general instructions and the recipe-specific instructions to work out what they recommended doing and when.  This took me several minutes to sort out, but made the brewing process much easier to follow.

As for the recipe itself, I've never brewed anything with this much hops in it.  The recipe contains almost a pound of hops in a 5-6 gallon batch, which is an incredible amount to me.  Beer Tools Pro estimated that the beer will be 147 IBUs, 7.78% alcohol by volume, 8.35 SRM, and original gravity of 1.079 (which is higher than my actual OG reading of 1.074).

Given the amount of hops and malt extract in the kit, it's priced reasonably on the MoreBeer web site, and even more so when you can pick it up at a discount.

Taste Test and Post-Mortem

How does it compare to a "real" Pliny? (See update below.)  I can't tell you, because I have never had one.  Looking at the Beer Advocate reviews for the real Pliny the Elder, we see tasters reporting the following flavor and aroma elements:
  • Appearance:  Gold/Amber color with good head retention
  • Aroma:  Pine, grapefruit, tropical fruit, and some malt
  • Taste:  Pine, grapefruit, malts and hops compliment each other. Bitterness is smoother than many other DIPAs.
  • Mouthfeel:  Smooth with good carbonation
Here's how I and others have commented on the clone:
  • Appearance;  long lasting head
  • Aroma:  Pine, grapefruit, and tropical fruit notes with a hint of malt sweetness
  • Taste:  Smooth but bitter, with lots of pine, grapefruit, and tropical fruit coming through
  • Mouthfeel:  Decent carbonation, not watery but not thick, good overall feel
So it looks like the clone can be compared favorably to the original.

I'm not a big fan of the Pale Ale and IPA styles (and their kin) but I found this beer a nice change of pace from the maltier styles I normally drink.  I don't know that I'll ever brew it again, but I've learned to never say "never" in my lifetime.  Perhaps when this batch runs out I'll feel the need to do another hoppy one.

Update 8/6/2016: Thanks to a family member on the west coast, I recently acquired a bottle of the real Pliny the Elder beer. Another family member and I did a side by side taste test of the two. Because my bottle was almost a year old, the hops aroma had decayed almost completely, leaving the clone with a malty, sweet aroma. The real beer's aroma was much more complex, dry, and hoppy. The flavor of the two was extremely close. Neither of the tasters could discern a difference in hops flavor in the beer, though my older clone was understandably a bit sweeter. The main difference between the two was in the color. As you can see in the photo above, the clone beer is very much an amber color, nearly brown. The real beer is a gold color. The color difference, in large part, is probably due to this being an extract based beer and not an all-grain version. I suspect that the More Beer all-grain kit would yield a lighter-colored beer that, when fresh, is very much like the real Pliny the Elder.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

How to Brew Belgian-style Beers, Like a Monk

I recently finished reading Brew Like a Monk by Stan Heironymus, which is a book I strongly recommend if you want to brew a great Belgian-style beer.  The author spoke with many experts in Belgium about their brewing practices, recipes, equipment, ingredients, and history.  As a fan of Belgian beers styles, I learned a lot from the book.  I'll share some of that here.

The most important thing to learn is that Belgian brewers try things that brewers in other parts of the world would not.  They'll experiment with grains, adjuncts, yeast, fermentation chamber geometry, and more, in a quest to make a beer they enjoy.  Many breweries, in fact, create a number of beers that are popular and "pay the bills" while creating a few that are intended only to satisfy the curiosity or taste of the brewmaster.

One interesting point in the book is that the Belgian brewmasters recommend that Americans not try to create a carbon copy of an existing Belgian beer, but instead to brew a beer intended for American beer drinkers that uses elements from the Belgian brewing playbook.  It's not that they view us as competition, but more that this is what they are doing in Belgium - creating beers that match the Belgian palate and sensibility.  They recommend that Americans do the same.

General Brewing Tips for Belgian-Style Beers

As you read the book, you'll see two things.  First, that each Belgian brewery, brewmaster, and beer has some elements to its ingredients, brew process, brewing equipment, etc., that are unique to it. This means that no single set of guidelines and methods will allow you to produce a beer that is identical to your favorite Belgian ale (assuming that is your goal).  Still, as you read the book and consider the recipes and techniques within it, you'll realize that there actually are some generalizations and similarities between the various Belgian breweries and what they do.  Recognizing these could help you produce a much better Belgian-style beer.

Here are some of the patterns I noted in my reading (you might discover more):
  • Belgian brewers tend not to be slaves to specific formulations, mashing schedules, etc.  They treat what they're doing as a form of art and focus more on what they want for an end result (e.g., the flavors, color, mouthfeel, aroma) than what goes into the beer and how it's made.
  • Most bottled Belgian Trappist ales are refermented in the bottle.  The beer is usually given both fresh sugar and fresh yeast during bottling.  In some cases, this yeast is the same as used to brew the beer initially.  In others, it's a different yeast, often a wine yeast.  
  • It's common for yeast to be cropped during high krausen and used to referment and/or to produce the next batch.  The thinking here is that the yeast becomes accustomed to a particular recipe or style and will ferment better.  Eventually though, fresh yeast is used.
  • For lighter-colored beers, sucrose is often used in place of the candi sugar rocks commonly seen in the USA.  Belgian brewers don't believe it changes the flavor.  Sugar is used primarily to "dry out" the beer and offset the malt sweetness to make the beer more "digestible" by consumers, as well as higher in alcohol content.
  • Sucrose (table sugar) adds gravity and lightens the body of a beer.  Caramelized sugar adds dark beer flavors like rum that dark sugar alone can't.  Turbinado sugar can add some of those same notes.
  • Most Belgian brewers start fermentation in a temperature range near 68 degrees Fahrenheit and allow it to climb as high as 84.  Usually they try to pitch on the low end of the yeast's tolerance. While some do put temperature control in place, many let the yeast "go wild" and do what it will, driving temps up or down as it goes.  Brewers who use temperature control generally step the temperature up gradually during fermentation.
  • Many have a secondary fermentation stage that takes place in low temperatures (like 32-50 Fahrenheit) over a period of weeks.
  • The most common hops varieties used are Czech Saaz, Hallertau, Styrian Goldings.  Others appear occasionally, but are far less common.  Brewers generally view the hops as a balancing element in the flavor, not a dominant one as American brewers tend to do.
  • The higher the level of malt extract (LME, DME) in your recipe, the less sugar you should add to the wort.
  • Most Trappist beers have a BU:GU (Bitterness Units to Gravity Units) ratio of 1:2 or less.  It's recommended that you aim for a 3:8 ratio for most beers, higher for a tripel and lower for the darker styles.
  • Most Belgian beers use only noble hops for aroma.  Some don't use aroma hops at all.
As I noted earlier, these are generalities gleaned from reading all the stories in the book about the Belgian breweries.  If you read each case in the book by itself, you'll find that not all of the above statements are true for every brewery and beer discussed in the book.  My goal above is to give you some general suggestions that you can use in any Belgian-style brewing effort.  You'll have to discard or adjust the guidelines based on your needs and results.

More Tips

The following tips from from a BYO Magazine article I read some time after this book.  The following advice comes from Grady Hull at New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado:

  • New Belgium ferments their stronger Belgian style beers in the mid 60's (Fahrenheit) based on the flavor profile of their yeast. High-gravity beers with Belgian yeast strains tend to produce high levels of fruity esters.  High fermentation temperatures and lack of oxygen accentuate that.
  • New Belgium adds oxygen at the time of yeast addition, as well as a small amount of zinc and yeast nutrient.
  • Hull doesn't recommend homebrewers use oxygen stones or bubbling air through the wort unless you have a sterile way to do it.
The following comes from Phil Linehart of Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York:
  • Ommegang tries to keep its fermentations around 79F (26C) because this is the temperature their yeast ferments best at and they want good ester production.  Linehart recommends that homebrewers ferment the beer in a room that is not too cool and remains at a consistent temperature.
  • Linehart recommends yeast starters to ensure good yeast health.
  • Ommegang's recommended pitch rate is 1 million cells per milliliter per degree Plato of original gravity.  For example, if pitching a wort with an OG of 19, pitch 19-20 million cells per milliliter.
  • Linehart says that most of the higher-gravity Belgian style beers are brewed using a large amount of highly fermentable sugars like dextrose or candi sugar.  This boosts fermentability and results in a drier, more drinkable beer.
Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River offers the following tips:
  • The biggest problem Cilurzo sees is that Belgian-style beers don't finish fermenting to a low enough gravity, perhaps due to not enough yeast being pitched or not enough oxygen in the wort.
  • Cilurzo recommends starting with a lower original gravity wort and having the beer finish at a lower gravity to wind up with a drier beer with the same alcohol content it would have had if it started with a higher gravity.
  • Russian River ferments its Belgian style beers at 62F (17C) for the first couple of days and then lets it free rise up to the ambient room temperature.  This keeps fusel alcohol down as well as some of the bigger esters and phenolics.
  • Russian River aerates their wort but doesn't use yeast nutrients.  They use oxygen rather than compressed air.  Cilurzo says that when he was a homebrewer, though, he used an aquarium pimp with a stainless steel carbination stone.
In another article from BYO by Stan Hieronymus (the author of Brew Like a Monk), the following advice is shared:
  • Westmalle, Westvleteren, and Achel all use the same yeast from Westmalle.
  • Achel pitches at 63-64F and increases temperature to 72-73F during fermentation in cylindro-conical tanks.
  • Westmalle pitches at 64F and rises to only 68F during fermentation in closed, square fermenters.
  • Westvleteren pitches at 68F and reaches 82-84F in open fermenters.  If fermentation exceeds 84F, they will try to slow the temperature increase.  Unfortunately, their strain of yeast must be treated carefully as cooling too much causes it to go into a survival mode and shut down. In such cases all you can do is pitch fresh yeast. 
  • Brasserie Caracole pitches at 77F and allow the yeast to ferment as it will, getting as high as 86F in the summer and as low as 68F in the winter.
  • Duvel pitches at 61-64F and lets it rise as high as 84F over 5 days.  They say that starting at a lower temperature leaves some fatty acids behind for ester production which are otherwise used by early yeast growth.
  • Westmalle pitches only 5-6 million cells per milliliter for its 19.6 Plato Tripel, which is just over 0.25 million cells/mL/Plato.
  • Jolly Pumpkin lets fermentation start in the upper 60s (Fahrenheit) and finish in the mid-80s.
  • Allowing fermentation temperatures to gradually rise throughout fermentation helps retain esters and attenuation without getting solventy notes.
  • To increase the amount of air the wort is exposed to, try using multiple fermenters. This reduces the height-to-width ratio of the wort and can reduce fermentation temperature increases.
  • Chris White of White Labs said that when fermenting a Belgian style ale, "I'd go shallow, and I wouldn't even put an airlock on."
  • White also says that Belgian yeasts show a low degree of flocculation and may require filtration or an extended period of conditioning time to get the beer clear.
  • Beers with more than 10% of their fermentables as sugar will tend to attenuate further, and even more so at higher temperatures.
  • Pitching a little less yeast will give more flavor during growth, but pitching too little causes solventy flavors.  It's important to find the right balance.
I may add more notes here as I read more.

Yeast is King

Much of the flavor in Belgian beers comes from the yeast.  Belgian yeast can give off flavors that are mistaken for various fruits and spices, when those fruits and spices are not included in the beer at all.  Therefore, one of the biggest factors in getting the "right" flavor for a Belgian-style beer is getting the yeast to produce the right flavors.  Pitch rates, fermentation temperatures, and the geometry of your fermenter all play a role in this.

Belgian breweries often pitch lower yeast cell counts than American brewers do, which can improve the production of flavors from the yeast.  This stresses the yeast slightly, causing it to generate more flavor compounds.  Cell counts can be as low as 1 million cells per milliliter of wort, This works out to around 19 billion cells in a 5-gallon batch.  A typical vial of White Labs yeast may contain 75-150 billion cells by comparison.  Most U.S. craft brewers making Belgian styles pitch 1 million cells per milliliter of wort per degree Plato, resulting in even higher cell counts.  The Belgian brewers in the book recommend that you play around with pitching rates to find what works for your recipe, but realize that you could have trouble if you under-pitch.  (Low pitch rates can cause solventy flavors or lower ester production.)

Pizza Port, an American brewery known for its Belgian beers, overpitches cell counts and undercuts oxygen at knockout, forcing the yeast to produce esters.  Fermentation starts at 64 degrees Fahrenheit and is allowed to run without any temperature controls.  If you're worried about under-pitching, this could be an option.

Fermenter Shape Influences Beer Flavor

The shape of your fermenter and the depth-to-width ratio also appears to affect ester production.  Most Belgian brewers aim for a 1:1 ratio in order to get the best from their yeast.  Some even incorporate open fermenters.  It's said that at home brewing volumes, fermenter geometry might not play much of a role, as home fermenters tend to be closer to a 1:1 ratio than commercial fermenters.  Still, this is something you could experiment with by splitting a batch into multiple fermenters to get something closer to a 1:1 ratio.

The book also mentions that cylindro-conical fermenters can reduce the production of esters.  If you're not getting the flavors you want in a conical fermenter, it may be time to switch to a bucket, carboy, or other vessel with a flat bottom.

More to Learn

What I've shared in this post is a small subset of what you'll find in this excellent book.  It shares Belgian brewing history, connections between the many famous Belgian breweries, commentary from brewmasters, recipes, analyses of popular Belgian beers like Chimay and Westvleteren, and more.  If you're a fan of Belgian beers and home brewing, you should definitely read the book.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

What to do when your beer doesn't carbonate

In June, I brewed what was probably my fourth batch of Belgian style Tripel ale (I didn't keep good records until last August so I'm not sure how many attempts there have been).  Each batch I've made has gotten a little better.  This one was no exception.  I brewed it from an ingredient kit, supplemented with different yeast, coriander, and sweet orange peel.  When I took the last sample from the fermenter for testing, it smelled and tasted great - though obviously flat.

As I often do, I bottled this beer following my usual process.  I cleaned and sanitized my bottles.  I did the same with my caps.  I dropped a Fermenter's Favorites carbonation drop in each bottle, filled it, and capped it.  The bottles were placed in my basement inside a cooler, to stabilize the temperatures and provide protection should a bottle burst open.  I left them for two weeks and put one bottle in the refrigerator.  The next day, I pulled out the bottle, popped off the cap, and instead of the usual "hiss" I heard... nothing.  The beer was flat.  This really upset me because up to that moment it was the best Tripel I'd made.

Fortunately, this is a beer that still tastes pretty good even when flat.  If I can't fix the carbonation issue, at least I won't have to toss the batch.  I researched options online and reached out to the folks at BYO Magazine for advice.  Here's what I learned.  (Many thanks to BYO Magazine for sharing the information and ideas with me when I asked for help.)

Causes of Failed Carbonation

Carbonation issues have only a few possible causes:
  • Not enough sugar in the bottle for the yeast to use to carbonate the beer
  • The yeast has flocculated out and isn't there to consume the sugar, or has died or gone dormant following a high-gravity fermentation
  • The temperature is too high or low for the yeast to do its job
  • A bad cap seal is preventing carbonation from building up
Solutions for Failed Carbonation

Just as there are only a few causes, there are only a few solutions:
  • Start by moving the bottles to a warmer location, somewhere that tends to stay near the upper limit of the yeast's ideal range.  This will give the yeast the best chance of carbonating your beer as-is.
  • If two weeks in a warm climate (80 degrees F) doesn't help, try making a small amount of a wort strong enough to generate a krausen.  When the yeast begins to generate the krausen, uncap a bottle, inject some of this active yeast from the wort into the bottle, and re-cap.  Give it two or three weeks.
  • If that still doesn't work, try opening the bottles and putting some dry champagne or wine yeast in the bottle, then re-capping.
  • If it still doesn't work, try opening the bottle and adding a carbonation drop to it.  The risk here is that the bottles could burst with the extra sugar.
  • If there is a brew-on-premise facility near you, they may have a force-carbonation system for bottled beers.  If so, you could ask for time to use it to carbonate and re-cap the beer.  You'll probably have to pay for the service.
  • If you have kegging equipment, you could keg the beer and force-carbonate it.
For the options involving adding sugar or fresh wort, I strongly recommend placing the beers inside a cooler or other watertight and sturdy storage box.  This way if you accidentally overcarbonate the beer and cause the bottles to explode, they'll explode inside this watertight box and not all over your walls, floors, and ceilings.  (Glass cleanup will be simplified as well.)

Results and Analysis

Wanting to save one of the tastiest beers I'd made, I began trying each of the suggestions available to me.  Here's how that turned out:
  • Warmer location:  This worked for the last few bottles from the bucket, which probably had the most yeast in them.  (It also told me what the problem most likely was - flocculation.)  All of the bottles from earlier in the process did not yield a result.
  • Adding Yeast:  I tried adding "a few grains" of dry Montrachet wine yeast to some bottles and more in others (enough to cover the top of the beer inside the bottle).  None of those bottles seemed to carbonate, despite being kept in a range of temperatures that the yeast would have tolerated.  So, either there was nothing for the yeast to work on or the yeast didn't activate.
  • Adding an Active Yeast Culture:  I decided not to try this, or adding sugar.
The next time I do a high-gravity batch, I'll try adding an active yeast culture before bottling.  This is what many Belgian brewers do with their high-gravity beers and may be the best option.

Update 09/27/2015:  I thought I had a second batch come out flat, but it turned out to be my mistake and bad brewing journal-keeping.  I thought it had been bottled for two weeks, when it had only been bottled for one.  A bottle opened last night came out properly carbonated. I have a package of CBC-1 Cask and Bottle Conditioning yeast that I may try activating and pitching into a small starter wort to see if dropping a live, active yeast culture into the bottles of the flat tripel makes any difference.

Update 10/08/2017:  I've had another batch fail to carbonate.  I decided to do an experiment in this case to see if I could get that beer to carbonate in the bottle.  See my post on Rescuing an Undercarbonated Beer for more information.