Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Last Tripel of 2017 (Tripel Turbinado)

The finished beer, poured into a glass
I've been trying much of the year to find a Belgian Tripel recipe that matches up to my ideal. What I'm looking for would be mildly sweet, balanced slightly toward the malt, with a touch of citrus flavor, fruity/spicy notes, and a nice effervescence.  So far, all I seem to have managed are dry versions that are not terribly flavorful or aromatic.  Today I decided to give it one more try for 2017.  I'm not entirely sure of the origins of this recipe, other than that it probably started as one of the recipes on the American Homebrewing Association web site - with modifications by me.  It was another opportunity to work with the Picobrew Zymatic, too.


6 pounds Belgian Pilsen Malt
0.25 pounds Cara-Pils/Dextrine Malt
2 ounces Biscuit Malt
2 ounces Aromatic Malt
2 ounces Honey Malt
18 ounces of Turbinado Sugar
0.55 ounces of Styrian Goldings hops @ 6.3% AA (60 min.)
1.00 ounces of Tettnanger hops @ 3.4% AA (15 min.)
0.35 ounces of Czech Saaz hops @ 3.0% AA (10 min.)
0.35 ounces of Czech Saaz hops @ 3.0% AA (1 min.)
1/8 tsp. Yeast Nutrient (10 min.)
1/4 tablet Whirlfloc (10 min.)
1/2 packet Mangrove Jack's M31 Tripel dry yeast

According to the Picobrew Recipe Crafter, this beer should have the following characteristics:
  • Original Gravity: 1.080 SG
  • Final Gravity: 1.010 SG
  • IBUs: 27
  • SRM: 6
  • ABV: 9%
  • Starting Water: 3.3 gallons
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
The beer was brewed in the Picobrew Zymatic.


The High-Efficiency Mash Schedule was used for this batch. This means a 20 minute dough in at 102F, a 30 minute Mash at 152F, and a 60 minute mash at 154F, followed by a mash out for 10 minutes at 175F.

The refractometer read 18.0 Brix at the end of the mash, which (when adjusted for this device's inaccuracy) equates to a gravity of 1.076 SG.


A 60-minute boil was configured, with the following schedule:
  • 60 minutes: Styrian Goldings added
  • 15 minutes: Tettnanger added, along with yeast nutrient
  • 10 minutes: Saaz and Whirlfloc added
  • 1 minute: Saaz added
At the completion of the boil, the Zymatic pumped the wort into the keg and shut down as designed.

Chilling and Fermenting

I left the beer in the keg for a few hours while spending time with family. When I returned, the beer had cooled to 140F.  I used my sanitized immersion chiller to drop that to 67F, transferred it into a sanitized fermenter, then pitched the yeast.

Original gravity for the batch after the boil registered in the 18.5 to 19.0 Brix range, so I'll call it 18.8.  That works out to a gravity of 1.080 SG, which is exactly what the recipe called for.

Post-Mortem and Other Notes

It appeared that during the mash some air was trapped under the step filter screen and underneath the grain bed itself.  This seemed to contribute to foaming on top of the screen because it forced the screen closer to the fluid arm. While there was a significant amount of foam generated during this brew, it never pushed out the lid of the step filter and made a mess. At one point during the mash, there was a "burp" of air from under the grain bed. This resulted in the screen settling into its proper position and the accumulated foam being almost instantly reincorporated. Foaming stopped immediately and never returned for the remainder of the mash. (I added a few extra ounces of water to this batch, which may also have helped reduce foaming.)

This is the (I think) the tenth Tripel I've ever brewed. While I have liked all of them to some degree, I have also been unhappy with all of them to a greater degree.  Perhaps this one will be different. Perhaps not. I'm beginning to think I may need to build my own recipe from the ground up to hit the flavors I'm looking for.  We'll see.

01/02/2018:  The beer has been in the fermenter for 3 days now. There is still airlock activity at this point, though it's declined a bit. The temperature, owing to the cold winter and its effect on ambient basement temperatures, has kept the beer well within the yeast's temperature range when I've looked. I don't think it's gone beyond 69F at any point.  To get some good flavor out of the Belgian yeast, I may need to increase the heat on it.

01/04/2018:  A sample pulled from the fermenter was a pale yellow. It was cloudy, which isn't unusual at this stage. it has a nice balance of malt and citrus, and a subtle sweetness. Airlock activity seems to have ceased at this point.

01/21/2018:  Last week I dosed the beer with gelatin finings and took it out to our screened-in porch to sit in the winter temperatures, in lieu of refrigeration.  Today the temps were back up in the 40s, so it seemed like a good time to bottle it.  I ended up with 2 gallons in the bottling bucket, primed with 2.55 ounces of corn sugar, which should result in carbonation around 3.4 volumes of CO2.  The bottles were placed in a 74F "hot box" to carbonate for a week or two. Once carbonation is achieved, I plan to give them a week or more in a refrigerator to clarify further.  Right now the beer has a slight haze to it, which is fine for the style but I'd like to see it drop clearer if I can.  The leftover sample from the bottling bucket has a nice flavor, and I'm hopeful it will be a good Tripel when finished.

01/31/2018:  I chilled a bottle of the beer tonight and poured it. It poured very clear, with plenty of carbonation and a very thick head.  The head was creamy, long lasting, and left behind characteristic Belgian style lacing in the glass.  I still detect a hint of diacetyl, so I'm giving it more time in the hot box to finish out.  It's a better tripel than most I've made, and may be worth doing again.

02/04/2018:  The beer is extremely well carbonated now, often pouring into a glass as more foam than beer.  The flavor is good, though a touch more bitter than I prefer. Aroma is mildly citrusy with a Belgian fruitiness to it.  It's definitely a good tripel.  If I make it again, I need to dial the carbonation back quite a bit. I used 2.55 ounces of corn sugar in this batch, and probably should have used much less, perhaps 2 ounces or 2.25 ounces.

04/09/2018:  Three bottles of the beer were left at Barley's Ale House for their annual home brewing competition. I should have the results in a couple of weeks.

04/24/2018:  The judges scored this beer a 34 and a 37.  That's in line with my own estimated 35 score.  The individual scores and comments were:
  • Aroma (scores 4 and 10)
    • Head impermeable to aroma, aroma low even when head fell, mostly malt, no off aromas
    • Chamomile, spice, bready
  • Appearance (scores 2 and 3)
    • Massive (inappropriate) head - 2.5" persists. Steady fine bubbles supporting. Pale gold. Very light haze. Too full to see lace.
    • Golden. Clear. Lotsa carbonation
  • Flavor (scores 13 and 16)
    • Floral, honey, black tea, red peppercorn, boozy
    • Full malty base with solid hop spiciness. Alcohol especially warm and clean.
  • Mouthfeel (scores 3 and 4)
    • Full, carbonic/spicy. Carbonic/Alcohol warmth in finish. 
    • Clean, bubbly
  • Overall Impression (scores 9 and 7)
    • Dangerous but delicious. Carbonation got in the way a bit but otherwise it was a good well-brewed example.
Carbonation has been an issue for me since moving over to the Zymatic. That's because the volumes have been unpredictable.  Two recipes with roughly the same amount of grain and water will sometimes yield very different finished volumes (sometimes 25% less than you expect). This is something I am starting to nail down by using carbonation drops on the smaller batches.

Aroma seems to be damaged by too much carbonation, just based on the feedback I'm seeing in the competitions. A really dense head seems to lock in the aromatics.

For this one, if I brew it again I think these changes are needed:
  • Control fermentation temps, especially at the upper end of the range, to hold down the warming note the judges noted.
  • Dial back the carbonation sugar.
  • See about adding citrus peel, coriander, or something else to improve the aroma.1
Overall, given the flaws I knew this had, I'm very happy with the 34/37 scores.

06/03/2018:  The beer was entered into the Ohio State Fair and took fourth place in the Trappist Ales category. It was my only win of the year at the fair. It scored an average of 36.5 at the fair, which is slightly higher than it scored at Barley's in April.

Here are the first judge's comments:

  • Aroma (10/12): Fruity, slightly spicy, and evidence of phenolic character. Slightly grainy and honey sweet. Gentle alcohol.
  • Appearance (3/3): Effervescent. Thick lasting head. Slightly off-gold color.
  • Flavor (12/20): Alcohols are a bit harsh. Bitterness is a bit harsh. Residual saccharine taste.
  • Mouthfeel (4/5): Medium body per style, appearing light.
  • Overall Impression (6/10): Components of beer do not integrate harmoniously, bit there are other aspects that are excellent.
  • Total: 35/50
The second judge's comments:
  • Aroma (8/12): Medium-high spicy phenols supported by medium-low soft malt. Light pear esters. Very low floral hops.
  • Appearance (3/3): Golden with some haze. Huge, frothy off-white head with excellent retention. Light lacing on glass. Bear clears as it warms.
  • Flavor (15/20): Medium, clean, lightly grainy malt base supports high spice phenols. Low floral hops. Medium perfumy alcohol. Medium-high bitterness lasts log into aftertaste. Very dry finish. Balance to bitterness/phenols.
  • Mouthfeel (4/5): Medium body with very high carbonation. Medium-high warmth. No creaminess. No astringency or other palate sensations.
  • Overall Impression (8/10): Really delicious example of the style. Phenols and alcohol showcased here. Beautiful appearance and mouthfeel. A little more body and malt flavor would improve the base underneath this beer. Thanks - and good luck!
  • Total: 38/50
Here's what I'm taking away from these comments to improve the next iteration:
  • A larger aroma hop addition might help.
  • Temperature control might dial back the phenolic and warming notes.
  • Dialing the bitterness back a little would improve it.
  • A slightly higher mash temperature, or less sugar, would increase the body and improve it.
  • Switching to a different variation of sugar (e.g., golden candi syrup) might remove what was described as a saccharine note to the aftertaste... though it could have come from the hops.
I'll definitely brew this again in the future.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Olde Fortran Malt Liquor

I've been a fan of the now-defunct (again) series Futurama since it first aired. In that series, the alcohol-fueled robot Bender B. Rodriguez was often seen guzzling bottles of a beer named Olde Fortran Malt Liquor.

While there is no way to know what a fictional cartoon beer might taste like, the name of the brew is similar to Olde English, an American Malt Liquor that is produced by the Miller Brewing Company.

The American Homebrewers Association lists a recipe for a hypothetical clone of Olde English.  I decided to brew that with the Zymatic and see how it turned out.  I scaled the recipe down to 1.2 gallons to match one of my small glass fermenters and got to work...


15 ounces 2-row Pale Malt
14 ounces 6-row Pale Malt
13 ounces Flaked Corn
0.1 ounces of Cluster hops @ 7.7% AA (105 min.)
0.1 ounces of Nugget whole hops @ 14% AA est. (10 minutes)
1/4 Whirlfloc tablet
1/2 packet Safale K-97 dry yeast

1.5 gallons plus 13 ounces of water were placed in the Zymatic keg, then the grain, hops, and Whirlfloc were loaded into the hop bins. The brewing program was downloaded and started on the device.

According to the Picobrew web site, the beer should have the following characteristics:
  • Original Gravity: 1.056 SG
  • Final Gravity: 1.008 SG
  • IBUs: 15
  • SRM: 3
  • ABV: 6.2%
  • BU/GU Ratio: 0.27
  • Starting Water: 1.6 gallons
  • Batch Size: 1.2 gallons

In actuality, I ended up with about 1.67 gallons and ended up boiling it down to about 1.2 gallons and a final gravity in the 1.061 range - outside the Zymatic.


The high-efficiency mash program for the Zymatic was modified using the Advanced recipe editor to the following specifications:
  • Dough in at 102F for 20 minutes
  • Mash at 122F for 30 minutes
  • Mash at 150F for 66 minutes
  • Mash out at 175 for 10 minutes
During the mash, the Zymatic seemed to run low on water in the keg. As a result, it began sucking in air and foaming up such that I lost quite a bit of wort to foam. I ended up pausing the program and adding more water to the keg to stop the air intake. I also cleaned up as much foam as I could from the lid of the tray and applied some anti-foam.  The rest of the mash finished without incident.

Gravity post-mash registered at approximately 1.037 SG.  Considering I was aiming for 1.055, that seemed pretty low, but adding a lot of water to the keg certainly diluted it. I probably over-did it.


A 105 minute boil began, with the following schedule:
  • 105 minutes: Add Cluster hops
  • 10 minutes:  Add Whirlfloc and whole Nugget hops
When the beer finished boiling, I took another gravity reading. This time around it was still well below the estimated 1.055 SG I expected, so I transferred it into a kettle and boiled it down. Quantity at that point was about 1.7 gallons (approximately), which was far more than expected.

With about 30-40 minutes of boil time, I reduced the wort quantity down to about 1.2 gallons and the wort gravity increased to 1.061 SG - higher than expected but close enough to suit me.  I chilled the wort with an immersion chiller and transferred it to the fermenter.


A half-packet of Safale K-97 (Kolsch) yeast was added to the beer before sealing up the fermenter.  Although Olde English is reportedly fermented with lager yeast, I didn't want to deal with a lager this close to Christmas.

K-97 will reportedly brew with lower esters than US-05 (which I was out of anyway), less superior alcohols, and less residual sugar.  It's also supposed to flocculate well after fermentation is over.  Hopefully the low level of esters will make a for a beer that's "close enough" to a lager, especially fermenter in the cool basement temperatures.

I had already used the other half of the packet for the Blonde Ale I brewed earlier in the day, so I used the rest with Olde Fortran.  The yeast reportedly works ideally in the temperature range of 59-68F, which is about the ambient temperature in my basement this time of the year.

Post-Brewing Other Notes

Although the Zymatic is billed as a "set it and forget it" device, I'm finding that it's important to keep an eye on it during the first 30 minutes or so of the mash process. If you don't do that, it seems prone to generating a lot of foam that will push its way out of the tray (or "step filter") and possibly outside the unit (onto the floor).  After the main mash is well underway, if it's not foaming at that point it is probably going to finish fine. So far, I've had no issues with foam during the boil.

01/02/2018: A look in the fermenter shows that the K-97 yeast made a massive and thick krausen that made a real mess of the sides of the glass fermenter. Fortunately it's a big-mouth fermenter so cleanup won't be an issue.  The krausen appears to mostly be gone now, so I suspect fermentation has ceased. I'm debating transferring to a clean secondary and pitching some gelatin, then refrigerating it.

01/06/2018:  The beer was bottled today. The one-gallon batch actually yielded 11 bottles. The beer is a hazy gold color. Coopers Carbonation Drops were used to prime the beer at bottling.  The bottles were then placed in my "hot box" which will keep them at 80F until I remove them, probably next weekend. A sample left in the bottling bucket was light-tasting and moderately bitter.  Nothing to write home about, being neither particularly good or particularly bad.

02/10/2018: The beer has had a while to condition and clarify, so today is the official taste test. As you can see in the image below, it's a nice gold color with thick white head that lasts about a minute before reincorporating into the beer. It's not crystal clear, but only slightly hazy. The aroma is malty with a touch of corn. The flavor is malty, slightly sweet, with just enough hops bitterness to balance it out. I've never had an Olde English, but given how much this reminds me of a mass-produced American beer, I have to think it's close. Is it what Bender would have guzzled on Futurama?  Maybe, though I'd imagine Bender drinking something with a much higher alcohol content.

Maximizing Mash Efficiency

Given that the Picobrew Zymatic is less efficient than some other brewing setups, I began doing some research into how to get the most out of it.  The Braukaiser web site has a very detailed discussion of their experiments into maximizing the attenuation of a beer.  A by-product of this experiment is a series of parameters that can improve mash efficiency.

Specifically, the following things are believed to positively increase brew house efficiency based on their experiments:

  • A mash length of 66 minutes yielded the highest efficiency, with efficiency dropping off above 66 minutes
  • Attenuation maxed out at an average mash temperature of 150-151F, but efficiency maxed out around a mash temp of 173F
  • Efficiency maxed out at a pH of 5.2
  • Efficiency of thinner mashes was higher than thicker, with 2.4 quarts per pound delivering the highest efficiency

With respect to the Zymatic, there is nothing you can really do about thinning the mash.  However, there are some things you can do to get more out of your grain bill, depending on what is appropriate for the style of beer you're brewing:

  • Increasing the mash time to at least 66 minutes from the usual 60 minutes is an easy way to increase efficiency and gravity without using additional grain, DME, or adjuncts.
  • If a sweeter, more full-bodied beer is appropriate for the style being brewed, mashing the grain at a higher temperature will help increase efficiency.  
  • If a more dry, well-attenuated beer is desired, mashing at 150-151F for 66 minutes should yield a very well-attenuated beer (assuming the yeast strain used for fermentation does its job).
  • Checking and adjusting pH to keep it in the 5.2 range will help improve efficiency.
This is all theoretical, but something I can test out in future brews by using the Advanced recipe editor to program in the appropriate times and temperatures.  If you don't want to go to that trouble, you may at least want to extend the mash time (especially with the single-step mash option in the recipe editor) to help further convert the grain.

Late-Hopped Blonde Ale

The finished beer, poured a little too hard
Earlier this year, I built from scratch a recipe designed to be a vehicle to deliver orange flavor in a beer. I created a blonde ale recipe, adding sweet and bitter orange peel, orange blossom honey, and hopping with Mandarina Bavaria hops - known to impart a mandarin orange flavor.  That beer took second place in the 2017 Ohio State Fair's Fruit Beer category.  The judge mentioned in the notes that the base beer probably tasted great, too.  I decided to find that out.

I stripped the recipe down to the malts, hops, water, and yeast, then scaled it to a 1.2 gallon batch for the Zymatic.

At right, you see a glass of the finished beer. It's a slightly hazy gold color with thick, white, long-lasting head that leaves behind tiny clouds of lacing. Aroma is mildly hoppy. The flavor is malty with a moderate bitterness with hints of orange and grapefruit.


1 pound plus 14 ounces of 2-row Brewer's Malt
9 ounces of Munich Malt
2 ounces of Cara-Pils/Dextrine Malt
0.5 ounces of Mandarina Bavaria hops @ 6.8% AA (10 minutes)
0.25 ounces of El Dorado hops @ 12.8% AA (5 minutes)
1.62 gallons of tap water in the Zymatic keg

The Picobrew web site predicts the following characteristics for the finished beer:
  • Original Gravity: 1.054 SG
  • Final Gravity: 1.008 SG
  • IBUs: 23
  • SRM: 5
  • ABV: 6%
  • Batch Size: 1.2 gallons (the approximate size of my smaller fermenters)

I used the high-efficiency mash parameters in the Picobrew recipe editor, as these were the closest to what I had done to make the original beer in The Grainfather.  This means a mash schedule of:
  • Dough in: 102F for 20 minutes
  • Mash step 1: 152F for 30 minutes
  • Mash step 2: 154F for 60 minutes
  • Mash out: 175F for 10 minutes
A sample of wort tested at 1.050 SG after the mash, and before the boil, so I think it should be no problem to hit the gravity target of 1.054 SG after the boil.


A 75-minute boil was scheduled:
  • 75 minutes: No hops additions
  • 10 minutes: Mandarina Bavaria hops added
  • 5 minutes: El Dorado hops added
Despite there being no hops additions for the first hour of the boil, the beer should still finish out at 23 IBUs and a BU:GU ratio in the vicinity of 0.42.

After the boil, the wort was pumped into a kettle and an immersion chiller used to reduce the temperature to yeast-pitching levels.  


The wort was then poured hard into a little Big Mouth Bubbler and the yeast pitched into it.  The beer was allowed to ferment out at ambient basement temperatures, which are 60-65F this time of year at my house.  Following fermentation, the beer will be bottled with carbonation drops and allowed to bottle condition for two weeks before taste-testing.

Post-Mortem and Other Notes

The Zymatic is definitely unleashing my brewing creativity.  It's great to be able to formulate a recipe, scale it down to a 1-gallon size, measure the grain and hops, crush the grain, measure the water, load the Zymatic, and set it to work.  I don't have to worry that I will screw up the mash schedule, miss a hop addition, or make other timing-related mistakes that could alter the finished beer's flavor.  

So far, the biggest drawback to the Zymatic for me has been the 9-pound grain hopper size limitation.  If you make a full-size 2.5 gallon batch, even when using the high-efficiency mash schedule, you have a definite upper limit to gravity that is much lower than The Grainfather.  This gravity limit can be compensated for by adding malt extract to the brew, but this means it will be difficult to scale the batch up for an all-grain brew in The Grainfather or another system - since malt extract contains an unknown mix of malts and an unknown mash schedule.  This means I will probably still use The Grainfather for my high-gravity brews like Belgian Quads and the like.

I'll be back to discuss the beer more when it's been bottled.

12/24/2017:  A quick check this morning showed a thick, healthy-looking krausen atop the beer, and plenty of airlock activity.

01/02/2018:  The K-97 yeast did a number on the fermenter, creating a very thick krausen that left a mess on the inside of the fermenter. Fortunately, it'll clean up easily enough. There is little or no krausen left on the beer right now, so primary fermentation seems to be finished. The question now is whether I bother to transfer it to a secondary fermenter, hit it with gelatin, and chill it.  For a batch this small that is mostly experimental, I'm not sure the effort is warranted.

01/06/2018:  The beer was bottled. Yield was ten 12-ounce bottles. Each bottle was primed with a Coopers Carbonation Drop before capping, rinsed off and dried, labeled, and placed into my 80F "hot box" to finish carbonating. I expect the beer to be drinkable as soon as next weekend.  A taste left over in the bottling bucket was very interesting. Intense fruit aroma from the El Dorado and Mandarina Bavaria hops, moderate bitterness, and hits of cantaloupe and orange to the flavor.  I'm looking forward to trying it when it is ready. The refractometer measured the final gravity at 5.9 Brix, which (after adjustment and correction for alcohol) works out to 1.005 SG and an alcohol content of 6.5%. That's a bit more attenuation than I expected and a slightly higher alcohol content. According to BeerSmith, it's 90.3% apparent attenuation and 74% Real Attentuation.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Belgian Dubbel v4.0

First bottle of the Dubbel
After brewing the Pico Pale Ale in the Zymatic on Wednesday, I decided to try another recipe today.  There is a clone recipe for Chimay Red (a Belgian Dubbel) on the American Homebrewing Association web site that I've wanted to try.  The thing I've always disliked about Chimay lies in the hop flavor it has.  The clone recipe used East Kent Goldings, which rarely agrees with my palate. I decided to substitute Styrian Celeia for the EKG and finish with Czech Saaz.  I like that combination in Belgian ales.  At brew time, I discovered I did not have any Crystal 100L but did have Crystal 80L, so I decided to use that instead.


5 pounds, 2 ounces Belgian Pale Ale Malt
9 ounces Aromatic Malt
5 ounces Crystal 80L
5 ounces Corn Sugar dissolved into mash water
0.70 ounces Styrian Celeia hops @ 2.8% AA (60 min.)
0.50 ounces Styrian Celeia hops @ 2.8% AA (30 min.)
0.25 ounces Czech Saaz hops @ 3% AA (10 min.)
1/8 tsp. Yeast Nutrient added with Saaz
1/4 Whirlfloc tablet added with Saaz
1 packet of T-58 dry yeast

The Picobrew Recipe Crafter estimates the following characteristics for the brew:
  • OG: 1.064
  • FG: 1.0147
  • IBU: 20
  • SRM: 12
  • ABV: 6.4%
  • Starting Water: 3.14 gallons
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
After brewing, my actual result was an original gravity of 17.5 Brix which, when adjusted for the refractometer's correction factor, works out to 1.074 SG or 18.0 "actual" Brix.  That works out to an efficiency of about 79% for the brew.

Mash Schedule

Place 3 gallons plus 18 ounces water to Zymatic Corny Keg
Dough in at 102F for 20 minutes
Mash Step 1 at 152F for 30 minutes
Mash Step 2 at 154F for 60 minutes
Mash Out at 175F for 10 minutes
Boil at 207F for 60 minutes

Boil Schedule

60 minutes: Add 0.7 ounces Styrian Celeia
30 minutes: Add 0.5 ounces Styrian Celeia
10 minutes: Add 0.25 ounces Czech Saaz, Yeast Nutrient, and Whirlfloc

After the boil, I set the controls to "Chill" the wort, but actually pumped it out and into a 4-gallon kettle.  I carried the kettle to my sink and inserted an immersion chiller.  Running the cold December tap water through the immersion chiller allowed me to get the wort down to 68F in a few minutes.  I'll probably use this method going forward, as it worked very well.


I then used a hard pour to get the wort into a fermenter and pitched the yeast immediately.  As I tend to do for Belgian ales, I'm going to let this one free-rise until it's finished fermenting.  I may apply a fermwrap late in primary fermentation to stress the yeast a bit, but we'll see.

Post-Mortem and Other Notes

After the mess I found yesterday, I decided to monitor today's process from end to end.  I learned that about two-thirds of the way through the mash, the wort began to generate a lot of foam. It took multiple doses of Anti-foam to keep it from spilling out of the tray and wasting beer.  I suspect the lines are picking up air somewhere, but I am unsure where.  I hear what might be air-slurping sounds in the in-line filter, so that's my best guess at this point.

I'd like the beer to have a bit more of a reddish color, but that didn't happen. Next time around, if this is a decent brew, I'd do Crystal 100L or 120L.

Although it increases the Zymatic's run time, I think step mashing with a mash out step makes a lot of sense.  The device's efficiency with a single infusion mash (based on the Pico Pale Ale recipe) is in the vicinity of 60%.  With a step mash, that increases to 79%.

I'll also be doing some digging to see if I can identify the source of the air leak in the lines, as that seems to be kicking up a lot of foam during the mash. Hopefully it's something I can find and fix.

Display showing the mash step underway

Grain at the start of the mash

Notice all the dried foam on top of the tray - this batch generated a lot!
12/22/2017:  After doing some research in the Zymatic forums last night, I discovered that there are a number of places where an air leak could occur. Some of these can be fixed by the owner of the device, while others would require service by the manufacturer.  The manufacturer-required problems would be internal connections between the pump and various water lines within the Zymatic.  (Opening the device voids the warranty.)  The rest of the potential air leaks stem from a finite number of places:
  • If not enough water is loaded into the keg, the pump will suck in air from inside the keg when the water level is below the level of the pipes inside the keg.  This can be solved by making sure you put enough water in the keg at the start of brewing and checking on the level during the brew.
  • If the keg posts are loose, air can seep in when the Zymatic is drawing in water.
  • If the ball lock connectors are not attached properly or are defective, air can be pulled in.
  • Where the lines connect to the ball lock connectors, if the connection is not secure, air can be drawn in.
  • Where the "black" ball lock connector line connects with the in-line filter, air can be drawn in. Similarly, where the line connects to the other side of the in-line filter, air can be drawn in.
  • If the in-line filter itself is cracked, not properly closed, or otherwise defective, the pump could draw air in while pulling liquid through.
  • If the connection between the wort lines and the side of the Zymatic is not complete, air can be drawn in through there.
  • If the washer between the ports on the side of the Zymatic and the wort lines is missing, deformed, cracked, etc., air can be drawn in.
Before the next brew, I'm going to double-check all of these to ensure that they are as secure as possible. I hear what sounds like an air leak during brewing at the in-line wort filter and possibly inside the Zymatic where liquid is drawn inside from that same line.  

On a side note, the airlock on the fermenter for this beer is bubbling away nicely, indicating that the yeast is working hard on the sugar in it.

12/24/2017:  Airlock activity has slowed or stopped at this point, indicating that primary fermentation is over.  I'll let it sit on the yeast cake a few more days before either transferring to secondary or bottling.

12/27/2017:  The final gravity for the beer registered as 1.020 and the final volume appeared to be about 2 gallons.  This works out to about 5.8% ABV instead of the expected 6.4%.  The beer was bottled using carbonation drops (the cough-drop-sized ones) at a rate of 2 drops per 12-ounce bottle, 3 drops per 16-ounce bottle, and 4 drops for a 22-ounce bottle.

01/03/2018:  The first bottle was refrigerated last night and opened today. It was extremely carbonated, generating more foam than beer in the glass despite a slow, careful pour.  The photo at the start of the post was taken after it had settled a bit.  The beer pours a deep orange brown color with some copper to it. The head is very creamy and long-lasting, leaving behind considerable lacing. There is some diacetyl in the aroma, since it is still a relatively "new" beer. This will likely dissipate in time. The flavor is very balanced between malt and hops, with neither dominating. It starts primarily malty and sweet, with a medium body. As you start to swallow, the hops bitterness swells up and becomes clear but not unpleasant. The finish is a lingering malt sweetness and hops bitterness. All things considered, it's not a bad beer, but not my ideal Dubbel.  Better than some I've made but not the best I've ever had.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Picobrew Zymatic and Pico Pale Ale

Pico Pale Ale
I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase a new Picobrew Zymatic automated brewing machine a few weeks ago for myself.  Today, I unboxed it and began brewing the sample kit included with it.  The sample recipe, Pico Pale Ale, was one of the easiest brews I've had in years.

The machine shipped in four boxes.  Two of the boxes contained 5-gallon Cornelius kegs.  One contained the plastic tray, hoses, power cord, and other items, along with the recipe kit.  The last box contained the machine itself.

Setup was fairly easy.  Remove everything from the boxes and confirm that it's all there.  Remove the plastic film covering the stainless steel parts of the Zymatic.  Attach the in and out liquid hoses to the correct fittings on the side of the unit, after inserting a nylon washer.  Attach the ball lock connectors to the appropriate posts on the keg.  Assemble the tray and insert it into the unit.  Register the device on the Zymatic web site, then turn it on.  Connect it to your WiFi or Ethernet network so that it can reach out to Picobrew's servers on the Internet. It's ready to go.

Before the first use, you are advised to rinse the unit.  To do this, you pour 3.5 gallons of hot water into the keg. Disconnect the gray "out" ball lock connector and connect it to the cleaning tube provided.  Drop the tube into a bucket.  Use the menu control to select the Rinse program and allow it to run to completion. This takes about 5 minutes, give or take a couple of minutes.

Pico Pale Ale Recipe

From what I can gather, this is basically a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone recipe.

Pico Pale Ale consists of the following ingredients:
  • 6 pounds, 6.7 ounces of American 2-Row Pale Ale Malt
  • 12.16 ounces of Crystal 60L Malt
  • 0.2 ounces of Magnum hops (unknown AA level) at 60 min.
  • 0.39 ounces of Perle hops (unknown AA level) at 15 min.
  • 0.34 ounces of Cascade hops (unknown AA level) at 10 min.
  • 1.08 ounces of Cascade hops (unknown AA level) at 5 min.
  • Fermentis Safale US-05 yeast
The Picobrew web site reports the following characteristics for this beer:
  • Style: American Pale Ale
  • OG: 1.053 (I achieved 14.5 Brix or 1.061 SG)
  • FG: 1.013
  • IBU: 40
  • SRM: 12
  • Starting water: 3.57 gallons (good luck measuring that exactly)
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
The mash schedule was a single-step infusion mash at 152F for 90 minutes.  There was no mash out and there is no sparging with this device.

The boil was 60 minutes at 207F, and immediately followed the mash.

The instructions recommend chilling to 65F and keeping it there for 10 days before kegging or bottling.

Preparing to Mash

Because this was a kit beer, I didn't have to measure or crush the grain or hops.  I assembled the tray by placing the mesh on the bottom, then the hops/adjunct tray, and the four hop filter boxes.  The grain was placed into the large section of the tray.  Each hops addition was placed in its filter box and the lid snapped onto it.  Another filter covers the grain, then a plastic lid goes above that. The lid has holes cut into it for the water arm to dispense water through.  I doubt it took more then 10 minutes to do this the first time, and I suspect future batches won't even take that long.

You slide the tray full of grain and hops into the unit until it sort of clicks into place.  

Next, you place hot water in the keg.

Then, you visit the Picobrew web site to add the Pico Pale Ale recipe into your collection. It is then transferred to the Zymatic over the Internet.  


Using the menu button, you select the recipe and press the selection button.  The Zymatic begins drawing in the water and heating it to mash temperature.  Once the water is at mash temperature, the Zymatic floods the grain compartment of the tray and circulates the wort between the tray, the keg, and the heating elements inside the Zymatic.

Mashing the Grain

Tray and Menu Display
You can watch the mash temperatures on the Picobrew web site from wherever you are. I was able to do this with an Android phone, Chromebook, and Windows 10 PC equally well.  I have no reason to think you couldn't do it with an iPhone, iPad, Macintosh, Linux, or other device with web access.

Mash temperature, boil temperature, and hops ("boil adjunct") addition timings for the batch

Near the end of the mash, I noticed a drop-off in wort temperature, which concerned me.  I went downstairs to find that a good amount of wort had leaked out of the Zymatic, filled its drip tray, overflowed that, poured across the table, and onto the floor in a large puddle.  It appears that although I thought I had positioned the tray properly, the Zymatic must have had trouble getting the wort pumped into it at some point during the mash.  I'd estimate that I probably lost about 20 ounces of wort without realizing it.

Foaming out of the tray

Puddle of wort visible between left-hand corner of the Zymatic and the corner of the table

Regardless, it was a very easy mash process.


As soon as the Zymatic has removed all the wort from the grain that it can, it begins heating the wort to boiling.  In the context of the Zymatic, a "boil" is 206F rather than the usual 212F.  The creators claim that this is an appropriate temperature and chosen intentionally.  I'm not going to argue until I see the beer coming out of it.

As the Zymatic heats the wort to boiling, it circulates it between the device and the keg.  When the wort reaches boiling temperature, the Zymatic pumps the wort through the hops filter boxes.  To simulate hop additions to a kettle, it flows wort into one filter box, then when the second hops addition is needed, it flows wort through the first two boxes.  When it's time for the third addition, wort flows through three of the four boxes... and so on.

When the boil is over, the Zymatic begins pumping the wort out of itself and into the kettle.  In theory, this should leave you with about 2.5 gallons in the fermenter.

Note:  At this point, the wort is essentially still at 206F (or near that).  The Zymatic does not include any manner of wort chiller with it.  They give you two options.  One is to leave the wort out in the open air until it reaches a yeast-safe temperature (typically overnight).  The other is to dunk the keg in an ice water bath until it chills to a yeast-safe temperature (usually 20-30 minutes they say). 

For this maiden batch, I decided not to bother with an ice bath.  


For fermentation, you have a couple of options.  One is to leave the wort in the keg, attach the rubber lid, and insert an airlock.  The wort can ferment in the keg and you could then pressurize it and serve it from there if you wanted.  If you prefer to bottle your beer, you'll need to rack it to a bottling bucket, prime it, and bottle it.  

Because I wanted to be able to brew again soon, I sanitized two fermenters and poured the wort out of the keg into one of them.  This also helped aerate the wort a bit, which will help the yeast grow.  I left the fermenter sitting on the cold basement floor to chill it a bit.  When it reaches yeast-pitching temperature, I'll pitch the packet of US-05 yeast into it and seal the fermenter tight.

Fermentation is expected to take about 10 days.

Thoughts on the Zymatic

Despite the spilling of a bit of wort, this was one of the easiest brew days I've had in a long time.  Assembling the Zymatic took less time than reading the instructions on how to assemble it.  

Loading the tray went fairly quickly and easily.  

After that, the brewing process was incredibly simple.  Scroll to the recipe, press the button, and wait.  About four hours later you have a keg full of hot wort.

Cleanup was also quite simple. Scoop out the grain area of the tray for disposal.  Remove the hop boxes.  Rinse everything well with PBW and hot water.  Dump out the hops and dispose of them.  Rinse and clean the hop filter boxes.  Load the empty tray back in the unit.  Fill the other keg with hot water and run a rinse cycle, pumping the water into a bucket for disposal.  It probably took me 10-15 minutes at most to complete.

I know there are lots of folks out there who consider a device like this to be "cheating" when brewing.  I get it.  There's a lot more art and skill involved in keeping a mash tun at the right temperature, managing a boil by hand, and so on.  I've been there.  I've done it.  

I suspect that if a brewer from 100-200 years ago saw a modern home brewer with a nice propane flame that heats steadily, lab-accurate thermometers, electric pumps to move the wort, etc., they'd think that home brewer was cheating.  After all, they had no iodine to check for conversion.  They had to use wooden or coal fires to heat the wort, use hot water infusions to keep the mash at temperature, and so on.  

I've reached a point with my home brewing that I'm hitting my gravity and volume targets without any automation. I'm creating beers that have won medals in competition.  What I'm not so good at is recipe formulation.  The Zymatic will allow me to try very subtle recipe changes and see how they affect the beer, without worrying that maybe I mashed a little too hot this time or a little too long because I got distracted.  That will help me be a better brewer overall.  When I get a recipe I love, I'll be able to scale that up and make a bigger batch on The Grainfather or some other system.

If you want to call me a cheater, go ahead.  I just may not share my beer with you.  Or maybe I will anyway. I'm like that.

Apart from the wort spillage, which was most likely due to tray misalignment, this was the most fun I've had doing a batch of beer in a while.  Setup was easy, brewing was easier, and cleanup was a cinch.  It makes me want to brew almost ever day.  That can't be a bad thing, can it?

I will no doubt need to think about wort chilling for a while.  There are a number of approaches that could work well with the Picobrew Zymatic setup.  There is a company that sells a wort chiller designed to fit inside a Corny keg.  That would make chilling the beer easy after brewing.  

There are plate chillers out there, too.  The Zymatic does have a menu setting for chilling wort, where it draws the wort from the keg and pumps it out the other hose to wherever you want it to go.  This could be a counter flow chiller, plate chiller, or some other device.  The catch would be adapting that ball lock connector to push the wort through the chiller.

Two things I'm pretty sure of.  I don't want to leave wort out all night on its own to chill naturally. That will cause chill haze in most beers and could run a risk of contamination.  

I also don't want to deal with ice baths.  Having to remember to get a bag of ice before every brew, store it somewhere until I need it, and deal with lugging the Corny keg in and out of it, does not sound like the "life of ease" the Zymatic is supposed to bring with it.

Post-Mortem and Other Notes

The Zymatic has made me more excited about brewing than I've been for a while. Being able to easily make small batches means I'll have less beer sitting around (though mine tends to disappear pretty quickly with friends and family).  Smaller batches means a faster bottling day.  Automation means being able to brew even when I can't be there to monitor the process to completion.  I'll be able to brew even when I'm on-call for work. That's something I couldn't do before, because a badly-timed call would mean walking away from the mash or kettle at a critical moment - missing a mash step or hop addition.

As for this recipe, I'm not a big Pale Ale fan so I can't say I'm excited to taste it.  I'm happy that it came out higher in gravity than expected.  I'm happy that it was easy and fun to make.  It was also pretty easy to clean up after.  So as long as it turns out drinkable, I'll be happy.

12/24/2017:  A quick taste from the fermenter showed a relatively dry, significantly hoppy aroma and flavor.  Airlock activity has slowed significantly, so I will likely be bottling the beer in about a week.

12/27/2017:  The beer has definitely finished fermentation. The gravity measured 1.013 SG on a hydrometer, which corresponds to 6.3% ABV given the starting gravity. This is a bit higher than the 5.4% expected in the PicoBrew Recipe Crafter software.  The beer was bottled with carbonation drops in the interest of time.

01/03/2018:  Last night I refrigerated the first bottle of the beer. Today I opened it.  It poured with an incredible amount of foam, enough to almost fill the glass. When the foam finally reincorporated, I was able to finish pouring very gently and take the photo at the top of the post.  The beer is a cloudy orange-brown color with a thick, lasting head of foam that is lumpy and whipped-cream-like.  Because the beer hasn't been bottled long, the aroma is a mix of diacetyl and hops.  The flavor starts intensely hoppy, turns sweet malty and a bit buttery (due to the diacetyl), and finishes with a lingering and somewhat harsh bitterness.  As with most Pale Ales, I don't get much from this. The flavor has some very resin-like elements to it, with maybe a touch of pine and grapefruit. I'm sure my friends who love IPAs and Pale Ales will enjoy it. Me, not that that much. Then again, it's mostly a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone and I'm fond of the original beer either.

02/26/2018:  A couple of weeks ago, a friend gave me a case of Sierra Nevada beers which included their Pale Ale. I decided this would be a good time to do a side-by-side comparison of the two.  First, a visual comparison:

The two beers are approximately the same color. The Pico Pale Ale is perhaps a touch darker, but not much.  The Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is clearer, but I made no effort to clarify the Pico Pale Ale with any finings, so that's no surprise.  The head on both beers is the same color, but the head on Sierra Nevada's brew vanished almost immediately, while the head on the Pico Pale Ale lasted for well over a minute before collapsing into the beer.  The Pico brew left behind a cloud of spotty lacing in the glass.

In terms of aroma, the Sierra Nevada brew has a resin and pine aroma.  The Pico Pale Ale is a little yeasty, but has some of the same pine and resin as the Sierra Nevada brew. Had the Pico Pale been dry-hopped, the aromas might have been similar.

Mouthfeel for the Sierra Nevada beer is thinner than the Pico Pale Ale, which comes across more full bodied and creamy.

The flavor of the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is bitter, very slightly sweet.  The Pico Pale Ale is slightly more sweet and slightly less bitter.  That said, if you were not comparing these beers side by side as I am doing right now, it would be difficult to tell the difference.  If you wanted to get the two recipes closer together, consider mashing at a slightly lower temperature, dry hopping the beer before bottling, using gelatin finings to clear it up a bit, reducing the bottling sugar, and maybe increasing the hop load very slightly (though that may not be necessary if the mash temperature is lowered a degree or two).

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Things I've Learned Brewing with The Grainfather, Part 3

In the previous posts, I've talked about The Grainfather in general, then about mashing and sparging with it. This time, I'm going to talk about the boil and post-boil steps.

The boil process in all-grain brewing is intended to accomplish several things:
  • Extract the bittering, flavor, and aroma compounds from the hops
  • Sterilize the wort by destroying any bacteria or wild yeast that may be in it
  • Concentrate the wort to original gravity level
  • Remove dimethyl sulfide (DMS) from the wort, which would impart a cooked corn, cauliflower, or parsnip aroma and flavor in the beer
  • Stop the enzyme activity that converts starches to sugars during the mash
  • Remove proteins that can cause a chill haze to form when the beer is cooled to serving temperature
  • Darken the beer to the level required by the style though the caramelization or Maillard reaction of sugars
The least you should boil a beer to ensure sterilization is ten minutes. Typical boil times are 60-90 minutes, depending on the recipe.

The Grainfather produces a rolling boil that is designed to accomplish all the things described above. It's not as turbulent a boil as you might see from a propane burner or good kitchen stove, but it is sufficient for achieving the brewer's needs.  If you are very fanatical about getting a clear beer from The Grainfather, using gelatin finings and cold-crashing your finished beer before bottling can bring that to reality. 

Tips and Tricks

Below are my tips and tricks related to using The Grainfather throughout the brewing process:

Recipe Adjustment

Recipe adjustment is some of the art and science of brewing, and is in my opinion the thing that will take your home brewing from average to excellent.  It isn't particularly fun, and it can be time consuming.  Still, it makes a huge difference in getting the results you want from a recipe.

Imagine, for example, that you have been handed the actual recipe to one of your favorite commercial beers by a brewmaster for that brewery.  The recipe tells you that it's based on their system's 90% efficiency and 100-barrel batch size.  That's way, way out of line with The Grainfather.  You'll need to scale that recipe down to a 5-8 gallon batch, and account for the fact that a home brewer's efficiency is typically well below 90% (though home brewers can achieve high efficiencies).

In my opinion, the best way to do this is through beer recipe software.  I personally use BeerSmith as my primary recipe software, but Beer Tools Pro, QBrew, and others do exist.  Find one that you are comfortable with and can afford.  Once you've done that, each time you brew a batch, plan to take a bunch of measurements. These should include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Pre-boil volume:  What's left in the kettle after the sparge is finished
  • Pre-boil gravity:  After you sparge the grain and stir the wort vigorously, take a few measurements with a refractometer or hydrometer to determine the gravity of the wort
  • Post-boil volume:  How much is left in the kettle after the boil is over
  • Original gravity:  The gravity of the wort in the fermenter before yeast is added
  • Fermenter volume: How much wort is in the fermenter after pumping it out of the kettle
  • Kettle dead space: Dump the leftover material from the kettle into a measuring pitcher and determine how much wort and trub you were unable to pump out of the kettle into the fermenter

Using these measurements, you will be able to adjust the equipment profile in your recipe software to better estimate the gravity and volume you can expect at the end of the brewing process.  This will enable you to scale a recipe correctly so that you come as close as possible to the intended gravity and volume.  That will ensure that your beer looks and tastes as close as possible to what you intended.

It's worthwhile to note that you'll want to take measurements on every batch you make.  Over time you will notice patterns. For example, batches with a lot of grain may show a lower efficiency than those with a smaller amount.  When you're brewing a high-gravity batch, you will want to account for this in your recipe software so that your beer doesn't come out too weak. 

You might also change parts of your equipment and process.  Perhaps you'll begin milling your own grain and notice that gravity goes way down, or way up.  You'll want to account for that in your next batch. 

Over time, you should find that the results you get from the recipe software are very close to what you measure going into the fermenter. 

During the Mash

Here are things I've noticed about mashing in The Grainfather:
  • Mash and Sparge Calculations:  I've found that the official formula in the Grainfather manual for calculating mash and sparge water will sometimes give you more water than you need, and sometimes not enough water. This is one reason why you will want to measure your pre-boil wort quantity.  You might need to adjust your boil time to reduce the quantity of wort to hit your gravity target or add some water after the sparge to get where you need to be.
  • Wort leaking from the recirculation arm:  Sometimes the pump has trouble getting air out of the recirculating arm and has to push it through the twist on connector that holds the recirculation arm to the check valve. If you don't stick around for the first few minutes of mashing, this can result in wort leaking out of the connector and onto the floor, making a mess and potentially wasting some beer.
  • Air in the recirculation:  Similar to the above, sometimes the pump has trouble getting air out of the line, or perhaps wort is not flowing smoothly through the grain bed. This causes the pump to suck up air.  When the pump sucks in air, you'll sometimes see massive foam build-up on top of the grain bed, like this:

    I believe this probably happens when the wort can't flow as smoothly through the grain bed as it should, leaving an air pocket underneath the grain basket. The pump sucks in some of this air and blows it out into the wort on top of the grain basket, where it gradually creates foam like this. This may also reduce the mash efficiency when it happens.
  • Cleanup:  I strongly recommend that while you are waiting on the wort to reach a boil, you begin removing the spent grain from the grain basket and at least rinse the grain basket components.  This will make final cleanup a lot easier.  If you have time during the boil, I've often found it helpful to mix up some PBW and clean the grain basket and other items (like plastic bins used to store hops or grain) as I go.  That way the final cleanup consists mostly of cleaning The Grainfather kettle and wort chiller.
  • Spent Grain Disposal:  If you have cats, or a friend with cats, the large plastic containers in which some brands of cat litter are shipped will make a good short-term container for spent grain. They're water-tight, mostly-air-tight, and can hold multiple batches' worth of spent grain.  They have a built-in handle with the strength to support a full load.  The spent grain can then be composted, fed to livestock, or disposed however you see fit.
  • Pre-boil Gravity and Volume Readings:  Taking a gravity reading before the boil begins is something I strongly recommend.  Getting a volume reading is important, too.  Looking at these two figures, you can determine if the beer is going to be higher or lower in gravity or volume than you intended.  A higher gravity beer can be corrected by adding water to the kettle.  A lower-gravity beer can be corrected by boiling for a longer period of time (ideally before you add any hops if you want to hit your bitterness target) or by adding dry or liquid malt extract.  If adding malt extract, I would recommend waiting until late in the boil if it's a lighter-colored beer, as malt extract tends (in my experience) to caramelize and darken if boiled too long. I would recommend adding it in the last 10-15 minutes of the boil and taking a new gravity reading at that point to see if you're close enough to your target values.
  • pH 5.2 Stabilizer:  I've read mixed messages on whether the pH 5.2 Stabilizer product does any good during the mash process.  Given the low cost per batch, I've always chosen to use it as a sort of insurance policy.  However, I've noticed (since getting an electronic pH meter and calibrating it) that near the end of the mash my pH has dropped as low as 5.0.  This makes me question whether the product truly lives up to the hype.
  • Don't Remove the Grain Basket During the Mash:  Once I had a problem where a good amount of grain managed to spill into the kettle and outside the grain basket.  Worried that this would cause a problem, I pulled the grain basket out of the kettle and set it aside while I scooped out the offending grain.  What I didn't know in that scenario is that this allowed the grain in the basket to drop to a temperature where "kettle souring" could take place.  The finished beer had a definite, strong sour note to it.  For the style and flavor I was going for, it effectively ruined the batch.  (That said, a friend of the family loved it and took lots of it home with him.)

As I learn more, I'll be back to update this section.

During the Boil

Here are some things I've personally found useful when performing wort boils in The Grainfather:
  • Build a platform that allows for easy access to the thermal reset switch. If you're planning to include any sugars, syrups, or similar materials during the boil, I'd strongly encourage you to build a small wooden platform (mine is vaguely U shaped) to place underneath The Grainfather. This will allow you to reach underneath the device to get to the reset switch. Why is this important? Imagine that you have a boil underway. You begin adding liquid malt extract, candi syrup, candi sugar, table sugar, lactose, etc. as required by your recipe. You add it a little too fast and it accumulates on the bottom of the kettle, above the heating element. The Grainfather's thermal cut-out sensor detects a heat build-up and tries to avoid scorching the wort by tripping the switch. Boiling comes to an immediate halt. To re-arm the switch, you'll have to tilt the entire Grainfather filled with boiling wort enough to reach that switch. This introduces the risk of the kettle slipping out of your hands and dumping sticky boiling liquid all over the floor. At the very least, you'll have a mess to clean up. Worst case, you may dump the boiling wort all over yourself and get severely burned. A simple platform can prevent that.  This is a part of The Grainfather's design that I don't understand. In my opinion the reset switch ought to be easily accessible from the side of the unit. Having to lift or tilt it is simply inviting a catastrophe.
  • If you trip the thermal cut-out, clean the burner area before hitting the reset switch. If the thermal cut-out has been tripped, this invariably means there is material accumulated on the bottom of the kettle where the heating element resides. Use a mash paddle or long spoon to scrape away as much of this accumulated material as possible. If you had just stirred in a syrup or sugar, make sure to stir the wort thoroughly. If you don't do this before hitting the reset switch, it will trip again in a few seconds.
  • Early on, use hops bags and spice bags. If you reach the end of the boil time and find that your kettle includes more wort than you wanted, and at a lower gravity than expected, you'll need to extend the boil to concentrate the wort tot he appropriate gravity. If you tossed in hops and spices without bags, extending the boil means you're going to get a more bitter beer with a different hops and/or spice flavor profile than you expected. Placing the hops and spices in bags (and perhaps even attaching food-safe string to the bags) will allow you to remove those and continue the boil without over-bittering the beer. I currently use a hop spider and bags from Brew Bag to keep my hops, spices, fruits, etc. out of the kettle itself. This helps prevent tripping the thermal cut-out switch and keeps me from clogging the pump filter. (One recipe I made where I accidentally dropped the hops pellets directly in the kettle resulted in a very clogged filter that could barely pump the wort into the fermenter at the end of the boil.)  Because these bags reduce the yield from hops, you may want to adjust your bittering upward by about 10% (in IBUs) to account for that.
  • Avoid boil-over. If you're routinely brewing batches of five gallons or less, the height of The Grainfather's kettle alone will probably prevent boil-over. Still, there are things you can do to ensure that. Sticking around during the first 10 minutes or so of the boil and stirring in any foam you see will do the trick. If that's not feasible, a few drops of Fermcap S at the first sign of foaming will eliminate it. Spraying cold water on the foam will also break it up.  There is also a device on the market called The Brewcolator which works well to prevent boil-over and can increase boil-off as well. I've used all of these techniques effectively.
Post-Boil and Fermentation

Things I've learned about the device and results after the boil:

  • Hops, Spices, etc., and the Kettle Filter:  Although the official Grainfather videos show hops pellets being dropped right into the kettle during the boil, my experience doing that (by accident in one batch) has not been positive.  I've found that as little as an ounce of hops pellets in the kettle has been enough to cover the filter and reduce the flow of wort out of the pump to a trickle. For that reason, I recommend getting a hop spider or hop bags and using those for your hop additions instead of direct kettle addition.  It takes the pump quite a while to push the wort through the counter flow chiller and into the fermenter under good conditions, and when "gunked up" with hops and spices, it takes even longer.  I've even had cases where the flow pretty much stopped completely.  This may be better (or worse) with whole hops vs. pellets, but I haven't used a lot of whole hops so I can't really say.
  • Counter Flow Chiller:  I generally attach this at the start of the boil.  Around 5 minutes from the end of the boil, I'll turn on the pump and run the boiling wort through the chiller (without turning on the cold water supply) to sterilize the inside of the chiller. At the end of the boil I'll turn off the pump and turn the cold water supply on.  This cools the sterilized chiller back down to tap water temperature again after a few minutes.  If you don't do this cooling step before turning the pump back on and pumping your wort into the fermenter, you may find (as I have) that the temperature of the wort in the fermenter will be on the high side - perhaps as high as 80-85F.  If you cool the chiller down first, the temperature under the same circumstances can be as low as 65-68F.
  • Cold water connector:  My cold water connector has pretty much always leaked from day one. I tried using a clamp to hold the hose to the barb. That reduced the leakage but never really stopped it.  I ended up breaking the connector trying to tighten it enough to stop the dripping. In the end, replacing it with a new connector from an old immersion chiller did the trick.  You'll need one that has a 3/8" hose barb on one end, a garden hose thread on the other (if using a garden hose spigot), and a small stainless steel band clamp.
  • Good to the Last Drop:  This is one of those "your experience may differ" things, but I've found that it's worthwhile to tilt the kettle during the pumping of wort to the fermenter. This allows the pump to extract as much wort as possible from the kettle at the end of the boil.  If you're using hops bags (or a hop spider) there won't be a lot of trub in the kettle to pull into the fermenter. Even if you do, there is some research to suggest that this will possibly improve the flavor of the finished beer anyway.  I'm able to reduce the leftover wort in the kettle at the end of a brew to about a quart, which means more beer to bottle and share at the end.  If you try this and your experience differs, do what works for you.
  • Aeration:  If you position the cold wort line high enough in your fermenter when pumping wort into it from The Grainfather, the action of the wort falling into the bottom of the fermenter will naturally aerate it as it goes. For most low-to-medium-gravity brews, this should be sufficient aeration (at least in my experience) to eliminate the need for any significant sloshing afterward. For higher-gravity brews, I've found that an air stone and pure oxygen does the trick... though I have successfully done several high-gravity batches without using oxygen.  This is something you'll want to experiment with.
  • Chill Haze:  In my experience so far, virtually every batch I've made with The Grainfather has had chill haze.  For batches shared with family and friends, I don't worry too much about this.  For batches going into competition, where the style doesn't benefit from haze, I have found that using gelatin finings after fermentation has stopped and chilling the wort before bottling helps a lot.  If possible, an extended refrigeration period before competition will help as well, as chill haze will tend to settle out after a long enough period at refrigeration temperatures.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre Clone v1.0

Back in 2010, Raison D'Etre was reportedly Dogfish Head's best-selling (or at least one of its best-selling) beers.  Today, you rarely see it on store shelves. It was one of my favorite beers they made, so I decided to see if I could brew a clone of it.  Fortunately, what is purportedly the real recipe appears in one of Sam Calagione's books.

I was able to find all the ingredients, except for Vanguard hops.  I substituted Czech Saaz for those, as they're similar.  I also substituted regular raisins for the golden raisins the recipe called for.


12 pounds Belgian Pale Malt
8 ounces Crystal/Caramel 60L Malt
4 ounces Chocolate Malt
8 ounces Clear Candi Syrup
6 ounces Raisins
0.65 ounces Magnum hops pellets @ 13.2% AA (60 min.)
0.55 ounces Czech Saaz hops pellets @ 3.0% AA (20 min. Whirlpool)
1 package Wyeast Belgian Ardennes
1/2 tsp. Yeast Nutrient
1/2 Whirlfloc tablet
1 tsp. Gypsum

BeerSmith estimates the following characteristics for this recipe:
  • Batch Size: 5.3 gallons
  • BH Efficiency: 80%
  • Boil time: 60 minutes
  • Estimated OG: 1.074 SG (or 18.0 Brix)
  • IBUs: 26.1
  • Color: 14.4 SRM
  • Est. ABV: 8.2%
  • Bitterness Ratio:  0.341 (IBU/SG)
  • Estimated Pre-boil Gravity:  1.067 SG
  • Estimated Final Gravity: 1.015 SG

Grainfather calculations required 5.25 gallons of mash water treated with a Campden tablet.

A 60 minute mash at 153F, followed by 10-minute mash out at 168F.

Sparged with 2.5 gallons of water at 168F.

I expected to have 6.25 gallons of wort pre-boil with a gravity of 16.4 Brix or 1.067 SG.  I hit the volume target exactly, but my pre-boil gravity across multiple measurements was 14.1 Brix or 1.057 SG.  That's about 85% of what I thought I'd get.

pH throughout this mash stayed in the 5.2 to 5.3 range, representing ideal mash conditions.


The wort was brought to a boil in The Grainfather and a 60-minute timer started:
  • 60 minutes: Add Magnum hops
  • 30 minutes: Withdraw about 2 cups of wort from the kettle and pour over raisins. Puree the raisins in the wort.
  • 15 minutes: Add yeast nutrient
  • 10 minutes: Add whirlfloc and pureed raisins
  • 3 minutes: Recirculate wort through chiller to sterilize it
  • 0 minutes: Turn off heat, run cold water through chiller to cool it back to room temp
  • Add Saaz hops, then whirlpool/steep for 20 minutes
  • Pump wort through chiller and into sanitized fermenter
Post-boil, I had a hair under 20 Liters or 5.3 gallons. Gravity read 15.8 Brix or 1.065, which is well below the 18.0 Brix or 1.074 I estimated.  BeerSmith calculated my efficiency for the batch at 65.3%.

At these figures, the beer will wind up considerably more bitter than it should be and quite a bit lower in alcohol content.


I pitched a package of Wyeast Ardennes yeast into the fermenter along with a vial of White Labs Clarity Ferm.  The yeast package was dated May 2017, so I am concerned that it might not contain enough viable yeast to ferment the beer. I will check on it in 24 hours and if I'm seeing no indication of fermentation, pitch another Belgian strain to get it going.

The goal is to ferment at ambient/natural temperature for the first 3-4 days, then add a heat wrap to keep it in the 74-75F range for another week until fermentation finishes.  Yeast was pitched on 12/12/2017.

Post-Mortem and Other Notes

Once again, I saw extremely low efficiency for this batch.  It's causing me to question my process.  Across about 20 batches, my average efficiency has been 72.6%.  That's not great, but not terrible for a home brewer.  The real problem is that I'd been seeing consistent efficiencies in the 80% or better range earlier in the year. Now, those figures are almost as consistently in the 65% range.

The only significant changes I can think of during this time are that I've begun using a new motorized grain mill.  While I could blame the mill, one batch I made when using it delivered a 54% efficiency, while another delivered 83%. 

12/13/2017:  I've seen no activity from the airlock as yet, which could indicate that the package of yeast did not contain enough viable cells to ferment the beer.  I'll check again tomorrow and if necessary pitch something else.  I have a package of Omega Belgian Ale W yeast that I could use.

12/14/2017:  The beer shows no signs of fermentation and no krausen. I pitched the Omega yeast.

12/15/2017: Still seeing no signs of life in the airlock, I opened the lid of the fermenter to find a nice high krausen, so I immediately closed it.  Still, with the lower temperatures we're seeing this week in Ohio, I decided to put a heat wrap around the fermenter and set a temperature controller to keep the beer at 70F or higher for the remainder of primary fermentation.

12/17/2017:  Today, after not having seen any visible airlock activity since pitching the yeast, I decided to grab a sample of wort and do a gravity test.  The beer coming out of the airlock was lighter in color than I expected.  The refractometer registered 8.2 Brix. Based on my original hydrometer reading and calibration, BeerSmith estimates the corrected gravity to be 1.004 SG and the ABV to have reached 10.12%.  That is much, much more dry and high in alcohol than I expected, but tasting the sample anecdotally confirmed it. The flavor is dry and slightly astringent, without any hint of sugar to it.  This beer may actually be ready for bottling given how low the gravity has become.

12/24/2017:  The beer has mellowed a bit and seems ready for bottling.  That is something I'll hopefully accomplish this week.

12/27/2017:  The beer was bottled today with enough corn sugar to carbonate it to 2.8 volumes of CO2, which should be about right for an American/Belgian hybrid ale.  The hydrometer measured the gravity as 1.013 SG. The refractometer's uncalibrated reading was 8.2 Brix, which BeerSmith says with calibration should be 1.012 SG.  Given the starting gravity of 1.066 SG and final gravity reading of 1.013 SG, it should be approximately 7.05% ABV.

Boardwalk Belgian Quad v3.0

One of my personal favorites of all the beers I've brewed is the first version of the Boardwalk Belgian Quadrupel I made some time ago. I made a second version for competition earlier this year and was extremely disappointed with it. Despite that, it took third place at Barley's Ale House's annual homebrew competition and received very favorable comments from the judges.

For this version, I reversed a choice I made in version 2.0 (using some high-alpha hops to improve head retention) and dramatically increased the amount of fruit used in the beer. The original version used 4 ounces of chopped raisins. This version uses 6 ounces of raisins and 8 ounces of prunes, pureed with some wort and added to the hop spider.  I also swapped out some of the Belgian Pilsen Malt for Cara-Pils/Dextrine Malt and Melanoidin malt to improve head retention.


10 pounds Belgian Pilsen Malt
1 pound Cara-Pils/Dextrine Malt
1 pound Melanoidin Malt
1 pound Caramel Munich Malt (Belgian 60L)
8 ounces Dark Munich Malt
4 ounces Aromatic Malt
4 ounces Special B Malt
6 ounces Raisins
8 ounces Prunes (Dried Plums)
8 ounces Brun Fonce Candi Sugar
8 ounces Simplicity Candi Syrup
0.5 grams Seeds of Paradise, crushed
0.25 ounces Coriander, crushed
1 tablet Whirlfloc
1 vial White Labs Clarity Ferm
1 ounce Northern Brewer hops pellets @ 10.1% AA (60 min.)
1 package White Labs WLP500 Yeast
1 Tbsp. pH 5.2 Stabilizer

BeerSmith calculated the brew as follows:

  • Boil time: 90 minutes
  • Est. Pre-Boil volume: 6.6 gallons
  • Batch Size: 5.1 gallons
  • BH Efficiency: 74.7% (what I achieved the last time I brewed this)
  • Est. Original Gravity: 1.094 SG
  • Bitterness (IBUs): 25.6
  • Color: 26.1 SRM
  • Est. ABV: 10.2 %
  • Total Grains: 17.06 pounds
  • Total Hops: 1.00 oz.
  • Bitterness Ratio: 0.272 IBU/SG
  • Est. Pre-Boil Gravity: 1.065 SG
  • Est. Final Gravity: 1.018 SG
Mash Schedule

The mash schedule used was:
  • 5.75 gallons of water, treated with Campden Tablet, heated to 131F
  • 10 minute Protein Rest at 131F
  • 90 minute Saccharification Rest at 156F
  • 10 minute Mash out at 168F
  • Sparge with 2.37 gallons (2.25 gallons plus half a quart) of water at 168F
This yielded 6.6 gallons or 25 Liters of wort.  BeerSmith estimated the gravity at 18.0 Brix but I achieved only 13.5 Brix this time around.

Boil Schedule

A 90-minute boil began, with the following schedule:
  • 90 minutes: Boil with no hops, stirring foam back into beer
  • 60 minutes: Add Northern Brewer hops
  • 30 minutes: Extract enough wort to cover prunes and raisins in a container, then puree the mixture with an immersion blender
  • 10 minutes: Add pureed mixture, spices, candi syrups, Brun Fonce sugar, and Whirlfloc
  • 5 minutes: Recirculate wort through chiller for 2 minutes to sterilize it
  • 0 minutes: Turn off heat, cool chiller by running cold water through it, and remove bag with hops, raisins, prunes, spices, etc. from kettle, allowing it to drain normally into kettle
The wort was then pumped through the counter flow chiller into the fermenter.  Temperature was approximately 64F thanks to the very cold tap water.  Approximately 5.5 gallons made it into the fermenter.


A hydrometer measured the wort's gravity at 1.081 SG at 64F.  My refractometer measured the same wort at 18.8 Brix, which is about 1.078 SG.  Pure oxygen was pumped into the wort for 120 seconds and the Clarity Ferm and WLP500 yeast was then pitched into it.  The fermenter was sealed and a blow-off tube attached.

A hot-side-only temperature control system was attached.  The following schedule was set:
  • Days 1-3:  If beer drops below 65F, heat to 67F.  Do not cool regardless of temperature.
  • Days 4-7:  If beer drops below 76F, heat to 76F. Do not cool regardless of temperature.
  • Days 8+:  Keep beer at 80F for up to an additional week. Do not cool.
The yeast packet in this case was manufactured approximately 2 months before brewing. No yeast starter was used. My intention was to stress the yeast a bit to generate flavors, and under-pitching plus free-rise temperatures will help with that.  The high temperatures for the latter half of fermentation should ensure that it ferments out well.

Post-Mortem and Other Notes

Once again, I had a gravity issue.  The last time I made this beer, I hit a post-boil volume of 5.5 gallons at a gravity of 1.065 SG, which I bumped up with Candi Sugar and Brewer's Crystals to 1.085 SG or 22 Brix..  This time around, I hit a fermenter volume of 5.5 gallons with a gravity of 1.080 SG or 19.3 Brix without the Brewer's Crystals.  I had expected 5.1 gallons at 1.094 SG or 22.5 Brix.  Even accounting for the increased fermenter volume this time around, I should have hit a gravity of 1.087 SG if I'd matched my previous brew session results.  

I'm expecting primary fermentation to be complete by approximately 12/20/2017. I should be able to extract a sample for gravity and taste-testing at that time.

12/15/2017:  It took a while for the yeast to get going.  In part that may be because the temperatures in general are low this week. I attached a fermwrap heater to the fermenter and programmed a controller to keep the beer at 68F.  Fermentation finally became obvious in the blow-off bucket today.

12/17/2017:  I took a sample of the wort from the fermenter to check on the gravity. The blow-off tube is burping about twice a second now, and the fermentation temperature is in the 74-76F range.  The sample came up with a gravity of 10.8 Brix, unadjusted.  With the rating adjusted, we're looking at a gravity of about 1.019 SG and a current ABV of about 8.34% according to BeerSmith.  I was estimating final gravity to come in around 10.0 Brix, so there probably isn't a lot of fermenting left for the yeast to do.  The sample tasted good, and I'm looking forward to the finished beer.

12/22/2017:  The blow-off tube has stopped bubbling frequently, but is still bubbling once in a while.  I suspect that it's due to be bottled. I'm hoping to find the time to bottle it before the Christmas holidays get into full swing.  Samples extracted from the fermenter for gravity testing tasted quite good. I'm hopeful the finished beer will be at least as good.

12/24/2017:  There is no more visible action from the blow-off tube, a good indicator that fermentation has ceased. A taste of the beer showed a smooth and easy to drink flavor with some nice Belgian yeast character.  I'm looking forward to getting this bottled and ready to drink.

12/27/2017:  The beer was bottled today with 6 ounces of corn sugar.  This should bring it to 3.0 volumes of CO2, which is on the lower end for some Belgian beers but should be OK in the bottles I have it in.  It should be finished carbonating by approximately January 3 and ready to taste test.  The hydrometer reading for the beer after fermentation was 1.012 SG.  BeerSmith estimated that the 9.8 Brix (uncorrected) refractometer reading worked out to a corrected gravity of 1.013 SG - which is just a hair above the hydrometer reading.  Either way, this works out to about 9% ABV.  That's a bit lower than I intended but within the style.  It's also an apparent attenuation of 84%.  The WLP500 strain is rated at 75-80% attenuation, so I seem to have beaten that slightly.