Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review and Walkthrough: Adventures in Homebrewing Gingerbread Brown Recipe Kit

Adventures in Homebrewing (AIH) is a brewing supply store located in Southeast Michigan.  They offer a full range of homebrewing products, including equipment and ingredients.  I learned about them relatively recently through sales they were doing that the brewing bargain site Homebrew Finds shared.  I decided to check out their Gingerbread Brown Ale kit and their Peanut Butter Conspiracy Stout kit, as both were on sale at the time (priced around $27 each).

AIH shipped the kits very quickly.  I had them only a few days after I ordered them.  They were packaged well and made the trip without harm.  Since it's the summer, I opted for dry yeast with these as there was a good chance that standard yeast packets or tubes would get too warm in shipping.

Ingredient Kit Packaging

The kit arrives in a small box, imprinted with the AIH logo and slogan "I would walk the plank for a homebrew" in back.



The ingredients come sealed in plastic bags, along with the brewing instructions.  (The container used for the liquid malt extract was actually pretty nice quality and I kept it when I was done brewing, as a place to store dry yeast packets.)


Included in this kit:

  • 6 pounds of Pale LME
  • 8 ounces of Chocolate Malt
  • 8 ounces of Special B Malt
  • Gingerbread Spices
  • Priming Sugar
  • Safale S-04 Dry Yeast
  • Instruction Sheet
All of the required ingredients were present in my box.  

The ingredient sheet gives the beer's specifications as:
  • Original Gravity: 1.045
  • Final Gravity: 1.009
  • IBUs: 18
  • Alcohol by Volume:  4.70%
  • Color: Brown
  • Difficulty: Medium
I added to the above a Whirlfloc tablet (to help keep the beer clear) and a few drops of Fermcap S during the boil (to prevent boil-over).  Although AIH's instructions are based on a 2.5 gallon boil, chose to do a full five-gallon boil on this one just to prevent contamination from using tap water to fill the fermenter to five gallons.

It's worth noting that the instructions found online and those packed in the box differ.  The online instructions show 7 pounds of LME rather than 6.  Both show no hops in the ingredient list, but there actually are hops included in the kit (4 HBUs worth, it says on the package).  The hops are specified only as "4 HBUs" worth.  I weighed mine at 0.4 ounces, which some reverse engineering with Beer Tools Pro says makes them probably a 12% alpha acid variety.

Equipment Used But Not Supplied with the Kit

I used my standard home brewing setup.  The kettle is an 8-gallon Mega Pot 1.2 with thermometer and valve installed. The heat source is our Samsung kitchen stove, which as you'll see later provides more than enough heat to bring 5 gallons to a boil.  The wort chiller is a Steel Serpent.  Hops were infused with a steel mesh ball purchased on Amazon.com.  The fermenter is a plastic bucket model from Midwest Supplies.  (I plan to upgrade that to an SS Brew Tech Brewmaster Bucket soon, but for now it's the plastic model, which has served me well so far.)  I'll use a generic airlock filled with Star San on the fermenter. Original Gravity will be measured using an automatic temperature correcting (ATC) refractometer.


The Brewing Process

The instructions tell you to heat 2.5 gallons of water to 150-160 degrees Fahrenheit and steep the grain bag in it for 20 minutes.  After that, remove the grain bag and allow the liquid to drain into the kettle without squeezing the bag (which could release tannins that damage the beer's flavor).

Specialty Grains Steeping in 2.5 gallons of water

Bring the wort to a boil, then remove from the heat.  Add the LME and return it to a boil.

Adding the 6 pounds of Pale LME (kettle removed from heat)
After LME addition, kettle returned to heat and brought to a boil.
Fermcap added moments later to prevent boil-over
If you compare this image of the boil to the one above, you can see the difference adding
Fermcap S can make during your boil.  I've used it for the last 3 batches and plan to continue.
(It's not mentioned in the instructions, but discussed on the AIH web site... you can either add the gingerbread spices during the last 5 minutes of the boil to achieve a more subtle spice flavor, or wait and add them during secondary fermentation to give the beer a more pronounced spiciness.  Since I prefer a more-evident spice flavor, I'm going to save mine until the end of primary fermentation and add them to the fermenter at that time.)

It's also worth noting that I added my hops ball with the provided hops before the boil began.  I'd like this beer to have enough bitterness to offset the malt, but not so much as to compete with the spices.  I've heard that adding the bittering hops prior to the boil can reduce the "bite" they impart without reducing the bitterness.  We'll see how that turns out.

At the 45-minute mark in the boil, I added yeast nutrient and a Whirlfloc tablet, as I like to give the yeast everything they need and make sure the finished beer is as clear as I can brew it (for styles where haze isn't expected).  I also inserted my wort chiller to sterlize it before cooling began.

Adding yeast nutrient and Whirlfloc tablet
Knowing that my kettle (and electric stove for that matter) tends to hold on to heat very well, I actually turned off the stove at the 5-minute mark.  The wort actually had a rolling boil until two minutes were left in the 60, and stayed at 210 degrees+ until I started up the chiller.

According to the instructions in the box, original gravity should be 1.045.  My refractometer read 1.048 or 12 Brix, despite having the correct final volume of 5 gallons.  I think my brewhouse efficiency is a little higher than expected by the makers of ingredient kits, as I'm often a few points higher than the recipe.  Regardless, this isn't a significant enough different to warrant watering the beer down and potentially contaminating it, so I left it alone.

Fermentation

After the 60-minute boil, the wort should be chilled to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and transferred to the fermenter.  I did this using my Silver Serpent chiller, tap water augmented with reusable ice packs, and an aquarium pump (since my current sink faucet doesn't have a threaded end).

When the wort got down to 80 degrees, I transferred it to my fermenter using gravity and a length of flexible tubing.

Transfer of Wort from kettle to fermenter
I then oxygenated the wort with my oxygen tank and stone for 40 seconds.

When the temperature reached a safe level for the yeast I'm using, I sprinkled the provided packet of Safale S-04 yeast on top and gave the concoction a stir with a sanitized spoon.  Between the oxygenation and the yeast nutrient, there is no reason this beer shouldn't ferment to its intended final gravity.

Adding Safale S-04 yeast to the wort

The instructions say that primary fermentation is complete when the beer reaches its Final Gravity of 1.009 or 2.3 Brix.  I reached that gravity a few days in, but allowed the beer to continue fermenting for a full week.  Then I took the gingerbread spice packet and soaked it in Everclear for 30 minutes before adding it into the fermenter.

Fermentation

It will probably shock many readers, but I stopped racking my beers out of the primary fermenter some time ago.  I'd read an article indicating that with today's high-quality ingredients, yeast, and equipment, it wasn't as critical as it was some time ago.  Each time you rack beer from one location to another, you run the risk of infection.  The transfer device or tube might be infected with yeast or bacteria.  The new fermenter might be infected.  Any air that the beer passes through might be infected.  The article indicated that people couldn't tell the difference between beer that had been racked and beer that hadn't.  I tested on a batch or two and agreed with them.  It may be detectable for some brewers, some recipes, and some sets of conditions, but it wasn't for me.

After four days, I took a refractometer reading from the beer.  It registered 6 Brix, which (due to the presence of alcohol in the beer and the design of my refractometer) worked out to an adjusted reading of 1.009 Standard Gravity.  That's the target for this beer, per the instructions.  I allowed the beer to finish seven days in the fermenter.  On that day, I mixed the ingredients of the spice packet with a neutral liquor and allowed the spices to steep in the liquor for 30 minutes before adding the whole mixture into the beer.  I left the spices in the beer for eight days before bottling.

Bottling and Conditioning

AIH doesn't provide bottling instructions, other than "Proceed to bottle/keg, following appropriate procedures" which for an experienced home brewer like me is more than enough information.  A beginner might need to look up the process online or ask a friend.  Having done a batch a month (on average) for a while now, that wasn't an issue for me.

When I opened the fermenter, there were huge clumps of dead yeast and other detritus floating on top of the beer.  I sanitized a kitchen skimmer (kind of like a flat spoon with screen material in the bottom) and used it to remove these clumps before doing a gravity transfer into the sanitized bottling bucket via a sanitized hose.  This allowed me to minimize the amount of yeast and other trub that made it into the bottles later on.  (Those who use a secondary fermenter and bottling bucket may not need to do that step.)

The nearly-finished beer had a nice gingerbread spice aroma.  The flavor seemed rather bland to me.  It wasn't overly spicy, wasn't malty or thick, and wasn't hoppy.  It wasn't unpleasant, either.  It was just "kind of OK" to me.  I made a detour from the AIH instructions at this point.  Instead of using the provided corn sugar to bottle the beer, I used some D-90 Candi Syrup instead.  I'd hoped this dark syrup might contribute some additional flavors during bottling to improve the complexity of the brew.  I measured out 162 grams of candi syrup, added 80 grams of water to it, brought that to a boil, and boiled for five minutes.  This was cooled down and added to the bottling bucket.  A large sanitized spoon was used to mix the syrup into the beer before bottling.

Yield for this particular batch was twelve 22-ounce bomber bottles and twenty-two 12-ounce bottles.  That works out to about 4.13 gallons from the 5-gallon batch.  That should give you some idea how much trub had accumulated in the bottom of the fermenter from the very active fermentation.

Final Thoughts and Conclusion

Compared to a Brewer's Best kit, I found the AIH kit a little easier to work with.  AIH provides a grain bag with the grain in it, but sealed in plastic for freshness.  This made it easy to steep the grains.  All I had to do was heat the water, drop in the bag, monitor the temperature, and wait.  With a Brewer's Best kit, I'd need to provide my own bag and put the grain in that.

My biggest complaint was that the hops pellets in the kit arrived almost pulverized, and wound up leaving a layer of green "scum" on top of the brew kettle that I had to skim off before transferring the wort to the fermeter.  It was also odd that the grain shipped in a bag, but the hops pellets shipped loose. Shipping those in a bag would have been a nice touch.

AIH separates the ingredients into groupings you're going to be using together, which makes it easy to lay things out and keep them in logical groups while brewing.

The AIH brewing instructions are adequate for all but the most inexperienced home brewers.  (To see them, click the Instruction Sheet link in the ingredient list above.)  There are discrepancies between the instructions found online and in the kit, so be sure not to lose the ones in the kit as they're likely to be correct for the contents shipped to you.

The above criticisms are really pretty minor.  My biggest issue in the brewing process was figuring out what to do with the spices.  The instructions show them being added during the boil AND being added in the secondary fermentation step.  Since there was only one packet of spices provided, I had to do some digging online.  Eventually, I decided to add them during secondary to ensure that I got the most aroma and flavor from them.

My point in mentioning these concerns is to say that for a complete novice homebrewer, these might have been very confusing or upsetting issues.  All are easily fixed by adjusting the instructions slightly.  It might also be good to include a hops bag in the kit, too, just to keep things easy.

Overall, I'm very happy with the kit and the ease of using it.  I've got a second kit to review (peanut butter stout), and I envision buying more of AIH's kits in the future.

Post-Mortem and Tasting

As I've noted in previous brew walkthroughs, it's my intention to detail the finished product for each beer recipe shown on this site, discuss how the beer looked and tasted, and finish with my thoughts on how I might improve the beer next time - if any.

As I write this sentence, it is August 10 and I have just bottled the beer.  It will condition for two weeks and be drinkable on August 24.  This review is scheduled to appear online on August 30.   If this paragraph is here when you read the review, it means that I've not yet chilled and tasted the beer.  I'll come back and update the post at that time.



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