Sunday, July 5, 2015

Walkthrough: Brewing the Brewer's Best Belgian Tripel Kit

A few weeks ago, I visited a local homebrew shop and decided to support them by picking up a Brewer's Best Belgian Tripel extract brewing ingredient kit.  I'm a big fan of the Belgian Tripel style and have yet to find a recipe that I am happy with.  The ones I've made have come out too sweet, too bitter, and often with a bitterness that doesn't match up to a genuine Belgian Tripel such as Karmeliet.   I decided to try out the Brewer's Best kit.

The ingredients in the box include:

  • 6.6 pounds of light dry liquid malt extract (CBW)
  • 3 pounds of Pilsen light dry malt extract
  • 4 ounces of Aromatic Malt
  • 1 pound of what the instructions says is Belgian Candi Sugar but what was in the box was just a soft white sugar
  • 1 ounce of Northern Brewer hops 9.6% alpha acid
  • 0.5 ounces of UK Golding hops at 4.9% alpha acid
  • 1 sachet of S-33 Fermentis Dry Yeast
  • Muslin bag
  • Bottle caps
  • Priming sugar
The brewing process described in the instructions is:
  • Put the Aromatic Malt in the muslin bag and steep for 20 minutes in 2.5 gallons of water at 150-165 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Start the boil and add the LME, DME, and sugar once at a rolling boil.
  • Add the Northern Brewer hops and boil for 50 minutes
  • Add the UK Goldings hops and boil for 5 minutes
  • Cool the wort to 70 degrees F and transfer to 6.5 gallon fermenter
  • Add enough clean, sterilized water at 64-72 degrees F to bring the wort volume to 5 gallons
  • Sprinkle the yeast on the wort and stir well
  • Apply lid and airlock to fermenter
  • In 4-6 days fermentation will slow down
  • Transfer the wort to the secondary fermeneter to help clarify it and get it off the trub
  • Leave the beer in the secondary for two weeks
  • Bottle the beer
Here are some photos of the included ingredients:

Instructions

Dry Yeast (Fermentis S-33)

Hops Pellets - UK Goldings and Northern Brewer

CBW Golden Light DME (6 pounds)

DME and Sugar (Bananas not used in recipe!)

Off the bat, I decided I needed to change this up.  I once made a tripel using UK Goldings hops and I didn't like it.  The bitterness and flavoring it imparted didn't taste right to me.  It didn't match up to some of my favorite tripels like Unibroue's La Fin Du Monde or Karmeliet Tripel.  Fortunately, I had some Czech Saaz and Styrian Goldings hops around that I could use instead.  A quick check in Beer Tools Pro said that I had enough to achieve the bitterness goal, so I replaced the Goldings with these two other hops that are more traditional in Belgian brewing.  I left the Northern Brewer hops in, because I've had American-made tripels using that variety and they tasted fine to me.  I dialed the amount back, though, because Beer Tools said I'd wind up with an estimated IBU well over 40.  That's too bitter for my taste.

Having made that change, I also decided to follow down the path of La Fin Du Monde a bit more, and added a half ounce of coriander and a half ounce of sweet orange peel into the mix.  

Because I've significantly altered the Brewer's Best recipe, I'm not going to comment on the flavor of the finished beer.  If it turns out badly, perhaps that's because I made a bad choice modifying the provided hops types and amounts (and/or adding the flavoring components).  If it turns out well, maybe it would have with their ingredients, or maybe not.  So for the rest of this post I'm going to comment only on the kit itself and how the brewing experience went.

The instructions tell you to read everything first, which I did. They also have you sanitize everything, which I also did.  (I would do these things anyway.)  

Belgian Aromatic Malt in Grain Bag

The next step is to steep the specialty grains.  In this case, that was 4 ounces of Belgian Aromatic malt.  I took a 2-gallon pot out, filled it with water, and heated it to 155 degrees Fahrenheit.  Then I placed the Aromatic malt in a bag and dropped it into the pot.  I then monitored the pot for the next 20 minutes while the malt steeped.  It gave off a nice biscuit/cracker aroma.  I then removed the grain bag from the water, turned off the heat, and transferred this weak wort to my brew kettle.

The instructions are based on a 2.5 gallon boil.  I wanted to do a full 5-gallon boil, so I added water to the kettle to get it to just below the 5-gallon mark.  I knew that by the time I added LME, DME, sugar, and hops, we'd be well above 5 gallons.  Then this would boil down somewhat, hopefully to very close to 5 gallons.

The instructions tell you to bring the water to a boil and add the LME, DME, sugar, and Northern Brewer hops.  Past experience told me that added the extracts early in the boil was likely to result in a darker beer.  The tripel style is usually a lighter one, yellow or gold in color.  However, trying to give the makers of the kit the benefit of the doubt, I added the extracts as instructed.  I also added the 0.55 ounces of the Northern Brewer hops in a bag.  As you can see below, it does look the right color for a Belgian Tripel at this point.

Wort Boiling
The next step is 50 minutes of boiling.  After this, you're supposed to add the UK Goldings.  In my case, I added an ounce of Czech Saaz hops (3% alpha acid).  I also added yeast nutrients.  I also inserted my Silver Serpent immersion wort chiller to sterilize it before cooling the wort.

Wort chiller inserted, second hops addition in
If you are wondering why the second hops addition is inside the metal ball, it's because I noticed that the original Northern Brewer addition was leaching particulates into the kettle, which I didn't want.  I decided to add the next two additions in the hops balls to be safe.

With 5 minutes left in the boil, I added the coriander seeds, sweet orange peel, and Styrian Goldings hops pellets.  These were all placed in the same hops ball.

Everything's in the kettle now
About a minute before boil time was up, I turned off the burner on the stove.  (It's an electric burner, so there was more than enough residual heat to finish up.)  Then I took the kettle off the stove and started pumping cold water through the immersion chiller.  It took about an hour to drop the temperature from boiling to pitching temperature.

Pitching temperature achieved, time to transfer
I attached a hose to the valve on the kettle and into the fermenter.  I then used natural suction and gravity to transfer the wort.  As you'll see in the image below, I tried to filter out the particulate matter with a hops bag, but this didn't flow enough liquid and I had to abandon the idea.


Eventually, the wort was transferred and the fermenter was filled to about the 4.5 gallon mark.  This was a bit puzzling to me since it had been registering just under 5 gallons on the markings etched into the kettle.  I assume the displacement of the wort chiller and the fact that there is an intentional space under the valve (to avoid picking up particulate matter) accounts for this.

As you can see in the image above, the color of the wort grew considerably darker later in the boil.  This is why I've changed my practice to adding malt extract during the last 15 minutes of the boil for lighter colored beers like this.  Unfortunately, this tripel's going to be a dark one, which knocks it out of the guidelines for the style.  Fortunately, I brewed it to drink, not to compete.

Tripel in the Fermenter

Although not mentioned in the instructions, I took out my oxygenator and gave the wort two minutes of oxygen to ensure that the yeast had plenty to work with in this high-gravity beer.  As mentioned earlier, I also added yeast nutrient to help get the dry yeast working.

My refractometer rated the finished wort at 23.5 Brix or 1.092 Standard Gravity.  That's above the kit's estimated 1.083 to 1.086.  I suspect this is because I didn't estimate the boil-off correctly.  Unfortunately, I didn't have any cool and boiled water available to top off the fermenter with.  I've left it at 4.5 gallons in the fermenter with the hope that the oxygenation and nutrients will help the yeast deal with the additional gravity.  I like my tripels on the stronger side anyway. :)

I finished brewing this beer and transferring it to the fermenter at about 5:30pm today.  As I write this, it's 8pm and there is already activity in the airlock, so I think it's safe to say that the yeast are happy in their new environment.

Post-Mortem - July 27

One of the things I wanted to do with Begin Brewing that's different from some brewing blogs is to go back and tell you about the finished beer.  Too often, brewers get excited about the beer they're working on and say they're coming back to tell you about it when it's done, and don't.  The result is that you have a recipe in front you and no idea if it's good.

It's now late July.  I made the beer in June, and published this post in early July.  The beer has been in bottles now for at least two weeks.  It spent probably four weeks in the fermenter.  It was then bottled using Fementer's Favorites carbonation drops into cleaned and sanitized bottles.

The flavor of the beer is excellent.  It's definitely one of the better tasting brews I've made.  Where this one is falling down (and I want to make it clear that I do NOT believe this is the fault of the Brewer's Best kit) is that it's not carbonating.  I've opened three bottles, one after a week of conditioning and two after two weeks.  All three were flat as the day they were bottled.

My best guesses at "why" were that either the caps were old and didn't seal properly, the yeast had killed itself by generating 11% alcohol by volume during fermentation, or the yeast had simply flocculated into the bottom of the fermenter and almost completely out of suspension in the beer.  To test the flocculation theory, I grabbed the last four bottles to come from the fermenter (which doubled as my bottling bucket) and contained the most yeast post-fermentation.  I moved these to one of the warmer rooms in the house (where I hoped the yeast might activate and carbonate the beer).  I'm planning to wait two weeks before opening them.  Update:  This worked for at least the four bottles I moved upstairs. I also tried a Belgian brewer's technique. I opened most of the bottles and added some dry Montrachet wine yeast.

While waiting, I reached out to the staff at BYO magazine to see if they had any ideas.  They were great, and responded immediately.  They said the caps were unlikely to be the problem.  Flocculation and spent yeast were more likely.  Their suggestions were to move the bottles to a warmer location, something in the 80 degrees Fahrenheit range, and give them two weeks there.  If that didn't work, I could try opening the bottles, putting in a little dry wine or champagne yeast, re-capping, and giving the new yeast a chance to do its thing.  Those are my next steps.  I'll come back and update this post when I know more.

Conclusion

Here are my thoughts on this particular Brewer's Best kit.  I like the fact that everything is included in the box, and that it's all pre-measured to match the needs of the recipe.  When you buy the ingredients online, you're often limited to buying a pound of grain when you need a few ounces, or a whole ounce of hops when you need part of an ounce.  Kits like this minimize the waste or accumulation of extra ingredients around the house.  That's good.

The price was reasonable given what's in the kit.  Pricing the same items out, and adjusting the price so that I'm counting only what would be used in the recipe (e.g., you have to buy an ounce of hops at $2.49 but only need a half ounce, so I counted $1.25), it worked out to a total of $45.23.  Then you have to toss in the priming sugar and bottle caps.  That comes out right about where the kit is priced ($50 plus tax).

The instructions included with the kit are complete.  Tips are provided for several steps, suggesting that you might want to do a larger boil, make sure the grains can move around in the steeping bag, keeping the steeping temperature in range, etc.  I take a small exception to the fact that they tell you there's no real difference between doing a 2.5 gallon boil and adding water in the fermenter, and doing a 5-gallon boil.  Hops utilization is impacted when you have a smaller boil size, so doing a full 5-gallon boil would actually make the beer more bitter than a 2.5 gallon boil.  For a beer style like an IPA, Pale Ale, or Imperial Stout, that extra bitterness might be just fine.  For styles like the Tripel, which generally are not bitter when brewed in Belgium, that difference in bitterness could turn a delicious beer into something a little nasty.

All things considered, I am happy with the kit.  That might sound strange, considering that I swapped out one of the two hops varieties and added a couple of additional ingredients to it.  If this had been the first tripel I'd ever brewed, I would have followed the instructions and used the ingredients in the kit as directed.  I suspect that I'd have had the same results I had with my very first tripel recipe that wasn't made from this kit.  That UK Goldings bitterness would have bothered me, and I'd probably have concluded that an ounce of Northern Brewer hops at 9.6% alpha acid was too much for my taste.  So I'd have bought the ingredients to do it again, swapping out the hops (as I did here) and adding in the coriander and orange peel (which I've learned are used in a favorite pro-brewed tripel).  I don't blame Brewer's Best for not tailoring the kit to my personal taste, and I don't hold it against them that they made choices that perhaps 99% of the other people buying this kit would be happy with.  That said, I won't buy this exact kit again.

When I am ready to brew a new beer style that I've never made before (e.g., a sweet stout), I would certainly consider picking up another Brewer's Best kit.  I would consider these a "starting point" to developing a recipe for the style that matches my taste.  The price is reasonable, there aren't any wasted ingredients, and you have the benefit of any tips or tricks they include in the instructions.  

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