Monday, May 28, 2018

Cream Ale 1.1

A glass of the finished "Rapid Cream Ale"
Last year, one of my favorite (and shortest-lived) beers was my cream ale. It began as the Kari's Cream Ale recipe on the American Hombrewers Association web site, which had won a gold medal at the national level in 2008. I made some minor changes to it, to bring it more in line with my own tastes. Specifically, I switched from 2-row Pale Malt to 6-row Pale Malt (supplemented with about 6 ounces of 2-row Pale since I didn't have enough 6-row), from WLP001 California Ale Yeast to Safale US-05, from whole Hallertau hops to Hallertau Mittelfruh pellet hops, and added a second mash step at 154F to possibly add some sweetness and body. Bitterness was also decreased slightly to 17 IBUs.

Ingredients

1 pound, 14 ounces 6-row Pale Malt
6 ounces 2-row Pale Malt
2.25 pounds Briess Pilsner Malt
4 ounces Flaked Corn
4 ounces Corn Sugar
0.60 ounces Hallertau Mittelfruh hops @ 3.8% AA (30 min.)
0.75 ounces Hallertau Mittelfruh hops @ 3.8% AA (5 min.)
1.5 tsp pH 5.2 Stabilizer
1/4 tsp. Amylase Enzyme
1/2 vial White Labs Clarity Ferm
1 packet Safale US-05 yeast
3 gallons plus 16 ounces of starting water

The Picobrew recipe crafter estimates the finished beer will have the following characteristics:
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
  • Original Gravity: 1.053 SG (12.7 Brix on my refractometer)
  • Final Gravity: 1.007 SG
  • IBU: 14 (BeerSmith estimates 17 IBUs)
  • SRM: 3
  • ABV: 5.9%
I used the High-Efficiency Mash Profile, but modified it to match how the previous batch was brewed and to reduce the total brew time. I configured the first mash step to 149F for 30 minutes, and a second at 154F for 15 minutes. The boil time was shortened to 30 minutes, with a Hallertau addition at each end. This should be long enough to sanitize the wort, extract the bitterness and flavor from the hops, and result in a tasty brew.  The original recipe called for a 60 minute mash and 60 minute boil.

After brewing, the following measurements were recorded:
  • Batch Size: 2.6 gallons
  • Original Gravity: 13.0 Brix (approximately 1.054 SG)
The beer was chilled to a yeast-safe temperature, and transferred to a sanitized fermenter. The yeast was added, along with the Clarity Ferm. Based on my recent experience with the Tilt Hydrometer in a batch in my basement, I don't think temperature control will be needed. The previous batch also used US-05 yeast, with a similar gravity, and stayed between 69F and 71F throughout primary fermentation without any temperature control. This batch will be in a stainless fermenter in the same ambient environment, so I suspect it will remain within the same temperature range.

Shortening the Brew Session

One of my goals for this batch was to see if I could reduce the brewing time without reducing brew house efficiency or impacting the flavor/appearance of the finished brew.

I shaved the mash time from 90 minutes in the Picobrew High-Efficiency Mash Profile to 45 minutes. Despite that, I still hit (and in fact overshot) my target gravity and volume. I suspect the Dough-In step could be reduced to 15 minutes, and the mash time further reduced from 45 minutes. This is something I'll try with a future brew. Though I don't know that it was necessary, I added some Amylase enzyme to the mash to help accelerate and complete the conversion. This may be a cause of the higher-than-expected gravity.

I reduced boil time to 30 minutes for this batch, with a hop addition at the 30-minute and 5-minute marks. Again, I still hit my gravity and volume targets.  Although I've read that boil times shorter than 30 minutes could introduce DMS, off-flavors, or other issues, I'm not sure that's true either. I recently had a batch accidentally run with a 15-minute boil time. The judges who tasted it did not report any DMS or other off-flavors. This makes me think that reducing boil times to 15-20 minutes might work for at least some beer styles.

Reducing the mash time and boil times for this batch reduced the total brewing time from "go" to "in the fermenter" to about three hours. A typical batch runs for about four hours, with some running much longer. I suspect that additional adjustments could reduce the brewing time by another 20-30 minutes.

Post-Brew Notes

05/28/2018:  There were no foaming problems with this batch. After brewing, the wort registered 13.5 to 14.0 Brix on the refractometer and 2.4 gallons in volume. I added distilled water to lower the gravity down to the target value of 13.0 Brix, ending with a volume estimated at 2.6 gallons.

This batch was brewed from 7:10pm to 10:11pm, approximately 3 hours end to end. Despite the shortened brew time, the original gravity and volume targets were exceeded slightly. This tells me that it should be possible to reduce brewing time with other batches in the future without compromising quality. In this case, a 5-pound grain bill had no problem converting well with a 45-minute step mash. I suspect that might not have been the case if we were talking about a larger grain bill like 8-9 pounds. A grain bill that large might benefit from an extended mash time (2+ hours).

05/29/2018:  A visual check of the airlock showed that an active fermentation is underway. The bubbles coming through the airlock were fairly steady, each "burp" a few seconds from the previous one, so I am confident the yeast are happy in their Cream Ale environment.

06/10/2018: The beer was bottled, using three small carbonation tablets per bottle (low carbonation). The beer was an extremely light color with a great deal of cloudiness. My suspicion is that it will not be as good as the last batch, which means that shortening the brew session on this beer might not have been a good move. That makes sense based on a book I've been reading recently.

06/14/2018: My impatience got the better of me and I placed a bottle of this in the freezer to chill, so that I can gauge flavor and carbonation. The beer is very cloudy at this point, and I suspect it's unlikely to clear up any time soon.

06/17/2018: A bottle of this placed in the fridge last night resulted in a very lightly colored, cloudy beer with a decent head. The aroma spoke of the noble hops in it. The flavor was light, slightly lemony, and very easy to drink. While not the equivalent of the original version of this cream ale recipe, for a beer produced from grain in about three hours, it's pretty good. I'll produce the next version with the usual mash and boil schedules and compare them.

06/24/2018: The beer pours a very hazy yellow with finger-thick white head that lasts quite a while. The aroma is malty, slightly citrus, and slightly yeasty. The flavor starts malty, then turns a tiny bit tart (almost but not quite lemony), then mildly bitter. The finish is mildly bitter and grainy, and lingers a bit. In all, it's drinkable and somewhat summery, but definitely NOT the equal of the original. If you didn't have the time to do the full-length mash and boil, this would be an OK beer to make. If possible, though, I definitely recommend doing a full-length mash and boil.

Christine's Australian Sparkling Ale 1.1

Last year, one of the beers I earned a silver medal for at the Ohio State Fair was an Australian Sparkling Ale. Although I did not enter that beer this year, I did decide to re-brew it. The beer was a hit with friends and family.

This re-brew attempts to reproduce the award-winning beer in the Zymatic instead of The Grainfather. I've attempted to adjust grain volume and hops amounts down to a level that should be equivalent.

Ingredients

1.5 pounds Pilsner Malt
1.5 pounds Pale Ale Malt
4 ounces Caravienne Malt
4 ounces Carapils Malt
1 ounce Roasted Barley
1 pound Corn Sugar
1.5 tsp. pH 5.2 Stabilizer
1/4 tsp. Wyeast Yeast Nutrient
1 packet Coopers Ale Yeast
0.35 ounces Pride of Ringwood hops pellets @ 10% AA (60 min.)
0.15 ounces Pride of Ringwood hops pellets @ 10% AA (5 min.)
3 gallons plus 8 ounces starting water

I added Carapils to this iteration to help maintain a head. The Roasted Barley was added to increase the malt complexity. I'd wanted to add Carafa III Special as I did in the original version, but didn't have any on-hand. Roasted Barley seemed like a good alternative and is often used in British brewing, which in some respects is the spiritual birthplace of Australian brewing. We'll see if this negatively impacts the beer.

All the fermentable ingredients, including the corn sugar and pH 5.2 Stabilizer, were added to the Zymatic's step filter. I programmed a delayed start for the next morning around 7:30am.  I figured it would be humming along by the time I finally woke up. Sure enough, it was.

The Zymatic's high-efficiency mash profile was used.

According to the Picobrew recipe crafter, the beer should have the following characteristics:
  • Estimated Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
  • Estimated Original Gravity: 1.051 SG (11.2 Brix)
  • Final Gravity: 1.014 SG
  • SRM: 8
  • ABV: 4.8%
  • IBU: 23 (BeerSmith estimates 31 IBUs)
After brewing, these measurements were noted:
  • Actual Batch Size: less than 2.5 gallons before diluting, more than 2.5 after
  • Actual Original Gravity: 13.0 Brix before dilution, 11.2 Brix after
As with other beers made in the Zymatic, I've adjusted the hop additions based on BeerSmith's calculation of bitterness. That's because, in this case, I'm trying to reproduce a beer that BeerSmith calculated as having about 31 IBUs. Apparently, Picobrew calculates the same beer as 23 IBUs. Either way, I will hopefully get the same bitterness level as the award-winning beer.

A 60-minute boil was scheduled, with a hops addition at 60 minutes and again at 5 minutes.  

Post-Brew Notes

05/27/2018:  I wanted to test the Delayed Start feature of the Zymatic, so I loaded the ingredients into the Zymatic and selected the Delayed Start option. I calculated the number of hours and minutes between the current time and 7:30am, then told the Zymatic to wait that long before brewing the recipe. It seemed to be working, so I went on to bed.

05/28/2018:  The Zymatic kicked off the brew as expected, at 7:33am.  The brew finished around 11:45am (roughly four hours later).  Owing to the small all-barley grain bill, there was not too much foaming and no overflow from the step filter. That makes this an ideal recipe for a delayed start and an unattended brew, as there is little risk of a mess.

The beer finished brewing and was removed the keg, chilled, then poured into a sanitized fermenter. The yeast and Clarity Ferm were added. It will be allowed to ferment at ambient temperatures without temperature control, just as the medal-winning batch was. That 5-gallon batch experienced a fermentation that was so vigorous that it sent yeast out the blow-off tube, overflowing the blow-off water container (a gallon jug), and spilling several feet across the basement floor. Given that past experience, I put this 2.5-3.0 gallon batch inside a 7.5 gallon fermenter, to ensure that it had plenty of head space for a vigorous fermentation. I'm hoping that's enough...

05/29/2018: While I suspect that fermentation is underway, there was no activity visible in the airlock. Given that the beer has about 4 gallons' worth of head space, this doesn't surprise me. It is more likely that airlock activity will begin tomorrow.

06/10/2018:  Fermentation appears to be finished now.  Gelatin was added, and the beer was moved into the mini-fridge to brighten before bottling.

06/16/2018: Bottling day has arrived.

06/20/2018: A bottle was opened to see how the carbonation and flavor are progressing. The beer still has a hint of diacetyl to it, but a nice amount of carbonation. The flavor when very cold is disappointing. I think the roasted barley offsets the somewhat subtle flavor of the Pride of Ringwood hops, where the Carafa III that I used in the previous version did not. As the beer warms, it sweetens a little, and the contribution from the roasted barley becomes less intense. I still don't think it's as good as last time. I'll re-brew again with the right malts.

06/25/2018: The bottles were labeled tonight, which is the first step toward sharing them with friends and family.

07/18/2018: The beer pours a fairly clear deep gold with thick white head that lasts a while, leaving behind lacing. The aroma is malty, slightly sweet, and a touch fruity. The diacetyl flavor is gone. The roasted barley has mellowed somewhat but still seems to dominate the flavor. Don't get me wrong, it's a drinkable beer, just not the equal of last year's medal-winner. Finish is clean, slightly roasty, and very slightly bitter.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Dark Abbey Ale 1.1

Earlier this year, I won the 23rd Annual Homebrewing Competition at Barley's Ale House across from the Columbus Convention Center. The beer I won it with was a Belgian Dark Strong Ale, a favorite style of mine. There are only a few bottles left of the winning batch, and I have several friends and family who would love to try the beer. That means it's time to re-brew.

I brewed the winning batch in November on The Grainfather. While I could fire up the device and brew a new batch following the old recipe, I'd rather work out how to brew it on the PicoBrew Zymatic, as that would be a much easier and more repeatable way to make it in the future.

I used the Zymatic Recipe Crafter to scale the original recipe to the 2.5 gallon size and match the original beer's gravity. Then, because I've come to believe the Zymatic's recipe crafter drastically underestimates the bitterness of a beer relative to what I see in BeerSmith (where the original recipe was created), I used BeerSmith to help me dial in the bitterness. I'm hoping the result is a beer that closely matches the original flavor and bitterness of the winning batch.

Ingredients

6.5 pounds Belgian Pilsen Malt
1.0 pounds Caramunich Malt
0.5 pounds Melanodin Malt
0.5 pounds Special B Malt
0.25 pounds Carapils/Dextrine Malt
2 ounces Belgian Chocolate Malt
8 ounces D-180 Candi Syrup
1.5 tsp. pH 5.2 Stabilizer
1/2 vial White Labs Clarity Ferm
1/4 tsp. Yeast Nutrient
1 packet White Labs WLP540 Belgian Abbey Ale IV yeast
0.55 ounces Styrian Goldings hops @ 6.2% AA (60 min.)
0.55 ounces Hallertau Mittelfruh hops @ 3.8% (20 min.)
0.30 ounces Hallertau Mittelfruh hops @ 3.8% (5 min.)
3 gallons 48 ounces starting water

According to the Zymatic Recipe Crafter, the beer's characteristics should be:
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
  • Original Gravity: 1.090 SG
  • Final Gravity: 1.020 SG
  • IBUs: 22
  • SRM: 28
  • ABV: 9.1%
I used a modified version of the High-Efficiency mash schedule:
  • 20 minutes of Dough In at 102F
  • 30 minutes mash at 154F
  • 35 minutes mash at 160F
  • 10 minutes Mash Out at 175F
This was followed by a 60-minute boil with Styrian Goldings added at the 60-minute mark, and Hallertau Mittelfruh added at the 20-minute and 5-minute marks.

After the boil, the wort was pumped to a sanitized kettle and the D-180 syrup stirred into it. With the D-180 dissolved, a gravity reading was taken.  It registered 21.2 Brix.  Sterile distilled water was added to try to dilute the beer down to the 20.7 Brix the recipe called for. Unfortunately, I added too much and dropped the gravity down to 19.2, despite not hitting the 2.5 gallon volume.  The wort was then chilled to 71F. Clarity Ferm and the yeast were added.

Post-Brew Notes

05/27/2018:  The grain bill pretty much thoroughly filled the step filter of the Zymatic. There was a minimal amount of foaming during the Dough In stage. More foaming occurred during the first mash step, though not enough to spill over the edge of the lid.

When the brew was finished, I found enough in the drip tray that it almost (but not quite) dripped over the edge onto the table. The beer was apparently "big enough" that it overflowed slightly out of the step filter and into the drip tray.

After brewing and adding the D-180 candi syrup, the beer registered 21.2 Brix. Diluting it with distilled water dropped it lower than intended - down to 19.2 Brix, without reaching the 2.5 gallon volume. I suspect the lost wort from the drip tray might have made a difference.

05/28/2018: The airlock is showing regular activity, so the yeast is clearly doing its job.

05/29/2018: Airlock activity is slowing down, so I decided to sneak a taste of the beer out of the spigot to see if the flavor and bitterness profile match up to the contest-winning version. Although the beer is still young and a little sweet, the flavor profile and bitterness level seem spot on. I'm hopeful that the finished beer will be a good reproduction of the winning batch

06/02/2018: The beer was bottled today with 4 small carbonation tablets ("medium carbonation") per bottle. Yield was 27 bottles. All were placed in the 76F "hot box" to carbonate for a week or two before taste testing. The refractometer reported final gravity of 12.5 Brix before adjustment and conversion to SG. After adjustment, that's a final gravity of 1.030 SG and an ABV in the 7% range.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Mandarina Honey Blonde Ale 1.1

Last year, I created a blonde ale recipe intended to showcase Mandarina Bavaria hops and Orange Blossom Honey. To my surprise, the finished beer took second place (silver medal) at the 2017 Ohio State Fair's homebrewing competition.  When I tried to re-brew that beer using the Picobrew Zymatic, despite their software claiming it would have a fairly low bitterness level, it actually came out so bitter that I entered it this year as a Pale Ale rather than a Blonde Ale. I decided to try again today, scaling the bitterness back to what I hope will match the original 1.0 brew, but using the Zymatic instead of The Grainfather.

Ingredients

3 pounds 2-row Pale Ale Malt
1.25 pounds Munich Malt
3 ounces Carapils/Dextrine Malt
1 ounce Caramel 60L Malt
0.10 ounces Mandarina Bavaria hops @ 9.2% AA (60 min.)
0.20 ounces Mandarina Bavaria hops @ 9.2% AA (15 min.)
0.50 ounces Sweet Orange Peel (10 min.)
1/2 tsp. Irish Moss (10 min.)
1/4 tsp. White Labs Yeast Nutrient (10 min.)
0.35 ounces Mandarina Bavaria hops @ 9.2% AA (5 min.)
0.50 ounces Tangerine Peel (5 min.)
12 ounces Orange Blossom Honey (added prior to chilling)
1/2 vial White Labs Clarity Ferm
1 packet Safale US-05 Yeast
3 gallons, 16 ounces starting water
Distilled water to increase volume to 2.5 gallons

The mash process follows the Zymatic High-Efficiency mash profile, with times and temperatures altered slightly. The first mash step was set to 30 minutes at 152F. The second mash step was set to 156F for 35 minutes. A step was added to the boil to include the 10-minute orange peel, Irish Moss, and yeast nutrient additions.

According to the Zymatic Recipe Crafter, the beer should have the following characteristics:
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons (estimated and actual after dilution with distilled water)
  • Original Gravity (estimated): 1.055 SG (13.5 Brix)
  • Original Gravity (measured): 13.5 Brix (1.056 SG)
  • Final Gravity (estimated): 1.008 SG
  • IBUs: 16 (see below)
  • SRM: 6.5
  • ABV: 6.1% (actual was 6.0%)
  • Attenuation: 81.3% (actual)
While Picobrew's recipe crafter reports that the finished beer should have 16 IBUs, the same recipe entered into BeerSmith predicts a 20.5 IBU value. The last brew showed 24 IBUs in the Picobrew recipe crafter, but tasted considerably more bitter than that. For that reason, I decided to go with hop addition amounts calculated by BeerSmith to see if the finished beer comes out at the right bitterness level this time around.

Another change in this version is the swapping of Bitter Orange Peel (which I was out of) with Tangerine Peel (which I had on hand). I'm hopeful that will improve the orange flavor, but we'll see.

Post-brewing, the wort is pumped to a kettle and the Orange Blossom Honey dissolved into it. Sterile steam-distilled water is added to achieve the volume and gravity targets.  The wort is then chilled to yeast-pitching temperatures and transferred to a sanitized fermenter, where Clarity Ferm and US-05 yeast are added.  The fermenter was then sealed and allowed to ferment at ambient temperatures without any temperature control.

Notes and Observations

05/26/2018:  The Dough-In Process showed a little foaming, but not enough to cause a problem. The mash process showed little foaming, too, so I was able to comfortably leave the machine to finish the brew.

Original gravity after the addition of the honey registered as 15.1 Brix on the refractometer. Volume registered approximately 2.3 gallons. After stirring in distilled water to get the volume up to 2.5 gallons, the gravity registered as 13.5 Brix, as expected.

If the BeerSmith calculation is correct and the beer ends up at 20.5 IBUs (as opposed to the Picobrew crafter calculation that says 16 IBUs), this re-brew should come out very close to the original brew in The Grainfather last year.

I had ordered and received a Tilt Hydrometer earlier in the week. It arrived on the day I brewed the beer. I unpacked it and calibrated it with a glass of water and good thermometer. After this beer was brewed, I sanitized the Tilt Hydrometer and dropped it into the wort before fermentation began. It registered 1.056 SG, the same original gravity I had estimated with the refractometer and BeerSmith earlier, which confirmed that it was reading correctly.

05/27/2018:  I assembled a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ and loaded the Tilt Pi software onto it. The system began recording the gravity and temperature. The data is being logged to a Google Sheets spreadsheet. I'll capture that data and report it here when the fermentation is finished. I'm looking forward to using the Tilt to help determine when fermentation is complete and to identify in near-real-time when a fermentation is exceeding the intended temperature range.

05/28/2018:  According to the Tilt Hydrometer, the gravity of the beer has dropped from 1.056 SG on Saturday night to 1.020 SG today. Wort temperature has been only gradually increasing, going from 69F at the start of fermentation to 71F now. Given the expected final gravity of 1.008 SG, it seems unlikely that the beer will exceed the yeast's ideal upper limit of 77F, so temperature control (as I suspected) appears to be unnecessary.

Additional note: a small sample drawn from the spigot on the fermenter had a pleasing orange aroma and flavor. Unlike the previous batch, it appears to be well-balanced and not bitter. The tangerine note came through very clearly, too. I hope these qualities remain in the finished beer.

05/29/2018:  The Tilt Hydrometer is now registering 1.012 SG as the beer's gravity and 67F as the temperature, essentially the same as the basement's ambient temperature. As noted above, PicoBrew's recipe crafter estimates that this beer will get down to 1.008 SG as a final gravity. Throughout the day today, the gravity has ranged from 1.013 to as low as 1.008 - though it has fluctuated often. (I'm not surprised by that. Any device attempting to turn an analog reading, like the degree of tilt, into a digital numeric reading like SG, is bound to fluctuate a bit due to variations in the wort surface, yeast activity, etc. I have little doubt that in a few days the readings will level out even more and settle in somewhere in the 1.008 SG vicinity. The current readings work out to 83.3% attenuation and 6.1% ABV. Airlock activity has slowed considerably at this point but is still visible.

05/30/2018: The gravity is holding fairly consistently around 1.010 SG and the temperature has held at 67F, the ambient basement temperature. I think it's safe to say fermentation is pretty well finished.

06/01/2018: The gravity has been very steady at 1.010 SG and 67F since May 30, so it's safe to say primary fermentation is over. Now it's time to do a gelatin finings treatment.

06/02/2018: As you can see in the graph below, the beer has held at a gravity of 1.010 SG for approximately 3 days, and the temperature has been a fairly consistent 67F or 68F.


Given that fermentation is now complete, I'm ready to cold-crash and fine the beer using gelatin. I poured a half-cup of distilled water in a container and sprinkled a half-teaspoon of gelatin across the top of it. I allowed the gelatin to bloom for 20 minutes before heating the mixture to the 155F-158F range and adding it to the beer. I then moved the beer to my mini-fridge for chilling. I'll leave it there for a few days until it looks clear.

06/10/2018:  The beer was bottled today, using four small carbonation tablets per bottle (medium carbonation). At the time it was bottled, the Tilt Hydrometer registered 38F as its temperature and 1.009 SG to 1.010 SG as its gravity. This means it reached 6.0% ABV and attenuation was 81.3%.

06/14/2018: Being the impatient sort when it comes to my beer, I've placed a bottle of this in the freezer to chill before doing a taste and carbonation test. The beer was extremely clear in the bottle, which gives me hope that it will pour clear later in the glass. (UPDATE) While the flavor is good and matches that of a natural orange, the beer was still almost totally flat at this point. It will take more time, and possibly some inversion of the bottles, to get the beer carbonated.

06/19/2018:  The beer pours a very slightly hazy gold with thin white head. The flavor starts with a hoppy bitterness, followed by a brief hit of orange, then a mild maltiness. The finish is mildly bitter and lingering. It leaves behind a thin lacing in the glass. It's a bit more bitter than last year's version, but very easy to drink.

06/25/2018: The bottles were labeled tonight, which is the first step toward sharing them with friends and family.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Dragon Stout Clone v2.0

My first attempt at brewing a Dragon Stout clone resulted in a beer that initially tasted pretty good, but began to dry out and lose some of its subtle flavors and nearly all of its sweetness. When entered into competition, it scored extremely low. I might be upset about that if it wasn't for the fact that it was a published recipe, not something I'd come up with on my own.  This version is no different. It's a recipe that did not originate from me, but looked like a closer match to the real beer than the previous one.

Ingredients

5 pounds 6-row Malt
1 pound, 2 ounces Flaked Corn
8 ounces Crystal 120L
4 ounces Chocolate Malt
3 ounces Blackprinz Malt (the recipe called for Black Patent, but it wasn't available)
1 ounce Roasted Barley
4 ounces Turbinado Sugar (the recipe called for brown sugar, but I used this instead)
4 ounces Corn Sugar
0.31 ounces Magnum hops @ 12.2% AA (60 min.)
3.2 gallons of starting water, mixed with the two sugars above
1 package of Lallemand ESB Ale Yeast

Some readers may be wondering why I chose an ale yeast for this batch instead of the lager yeast I used last time.  Although the BJCP says that the style is typically made with warm-fermented lager yeast, I decided that a relatively cool fermentation with ale yeast might achieve the same flavor profile. The ESB strain often produces some fruity notes (typically apple and/or tropical fruit) for which the Tropical Stout style is known.  It may prove a poor choice in the end, but I wanted to try it out.

According to the Zymatic Recipe Crafter, the beer should have the following characteristics:
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
  • Original Gravity: 1.075 SG (17.8 Brix actual)
  • Final Gravity: 1.021 SG (10.2 Brix or 1.019 actual)
  • IBUs: 19
  • ABV: 7.1%
  • SRM: 41
The Zymatic High Efficiency Mash Schedule was used.

The wort did foam out of the top of the step filter starting around the end of the Dough In step of the mash.  During the first step of the mash, it foamed quite a bit more, but didn't seem to flow over the lid or into the drip tray.  Foaming seemed to reduce during the second step of the mash, but never completely quit.  This seems to be just "normal operation" for the Zymatic.

After brewing, there was approximately 2.25 gallons of wort produced.  Adding sterile distilled water to this dropped the gravity down to the expected 17.8 Brix and brought the volume back up to the planned 2.5 gallon amount.

05/12/2018:  The chilled wort was poured into a sanitized fermenter into which the ESB yeast had already been added.  No temperature control will be utilized in this case, as the beer is being kept in an environment with an ambient temperature in the mid-60's Fahrenheit, and the Lallemand ESB yeast is said to work optimally in the 68-72F temperature range.

05/21/2018:  The beer was bottled with a Cooper's carbonation drop in each bottle and placed in my 76F "hot box" to carbonate.

06/02/2018: The beer is now out of the hot box and appears to be fully carbonated. Yield was 24 bottles. A bottle chilled and opened last night was good. I didn't take full tasting notes or a photo yet, but will do so in the near future.

06/14/2018: The beer pours a pitch black color with thin beige/tan head that lasts a little while before reincorporating into the beer. The aroma is chocolate with dark malt, and sweet. The flavor starts sweet and malty, becoming more roasty and chocolatey toward the middle, finish is malty and has a somewhat lactose or artificial sweetener note to it that I'm not crazy about. That might be something from the molasses in the turbinado sugar, or perhaps some combination of residual malt sugars combined with the ESB yeast flavors. Regardless, it's a nice beer but not one I'd enter into competition. I also don't view it as tasting that much like a real Jamaican Dragon Stout.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

PicoBrew Zymatic - Five Months In

I received my PicoBrew Zymatic back in December 2017, and made my first batches right away.  It's now may 2018, and I've had about five months with it.  If you're considering purchasing one, my experiences might help you make your decision.

The Zymatic Has Made Me More Prolific

To date, I've made 22 batches with the Zymatic.  That's about half of what I made all of last year.  I've made a pale ale, two blonde ales, a malt liquor, a couple of Belgian Tripels, three Saisons, a couple of ESBs, three Belgian Dubbels, and some other styles.  Some of these were my own recipes, while others were published somewhere.  I would probably have brewed even more batches if I'd had the free time to do it.

The Zymatic Can Make Good Beer, But It Can Make Bad Beer, Too

Only a few of the beers went into competition. They've gotten scores ranging from an average of 20.6 (a Tropical Stout from a published recipe) to 36.5 (a Kentucky Common, my own recipe).  So if you're wondering whether the machine can produce good beer, the answer is yes - provided you give it a good recipe, ferment it properly, etc.  If you choose a bad recipe, have poor brewing hygiene, etc., you'll get bad beer.  The Zymatic won't make up for recipe issues or your own poor practices.

If you're a fairly new brewer, I would encourage you to use some other brewing systems that require more manual effort during the mash and boil before moving to the Zymatic.  It's important to have an understanding of how mashing, sparging, and boiling work before handing control over to the Zymatic - if you want to produce your best beer. The time I spent brewing on the kitchen stove, using the Grainfather, and cobbling together a sous vide based brewing setup were all helpful to me in understanding the brewing process. 

I had one batch (I forget which) where the Zymatic lost its WiFi connection briefly and decided to just stop running, rather than finish out the batch with the instructions it had.  I find that a bit crazy, and would warn you that if you have "wonky" WiFi or Ethernet at your place not to leave the machine completely unattended, or you could come home to a machine full of soured grain and/or wasted ingredients.

Be Careful With the Plastic Parts

In the five months I've had the Zymatic, the two major plastic parts (the step filter/tray and the sample port) both failed in warranty and had to be replaced.  The sample port cracked in the middle and began dripping wort during brewing.  The step filter developed a crack near the hole between the grain chamber and the hop chamber, which caused it to leak wort under the tray during mashing.  In both cases, PicoBrew support staff took excellent care of me and replaced the parts without hassle and at no charge.  They also provided suggestions to ensure that I wasn't doing anything to cause those parts to fail.

Both of the failed parts use clear acrylic plastic so you can see the liquid in them.  It's important to note that acrylic plastic tends to be fairly brittle and prone to cracking or breaking, so you should always treat these parts as though they could be easily damaged (though they're not truly fragile, it's a good idea to treat them like they are).  You should also never clean the Zymatic or its plastic parts with PBW (Powdered Brewer's Wash) as this will accelerate the deterioration of the plastic. Use PBW only in the metal keg and be sure to rinse it out thoroughly before reattaching it to the Zymatic.

Missing the Mark on Gravity and Volume

The online PicoBrew Recipe Crafter tool makes it fairly easy to "explain" to the Zymatic what you are brewing and how to brew it.  It provides you with calculations of the expected volume, gravity, and bitterness of the beer. 

In all of the batches I've made, the Zymatic has only once generated the exact amount of wort the recipe crafter said it would.  Typically, I will end up with anywhere from 1.8 to 2.3 gallons of wort at the end of the brewing process instead of the 2.5 gallons calculated by the recipe crafter.  The calculated gravity is generally within 10 Standard Gravity points of the calculated value, though it's rarely right on target - probably because of the volume differences.

When I finish brewing a batch, I measure the volume of wort and put a sample in my refractometer to check the gravity.  If volume is low and gravity is high, I'll add sterile distilled water to bring the gravity and volume closer to the calculated values. I do this because I want to ensure the right final flavor and bitterness profile.  If you don't dilute the beer to the intended gravity, you'll find that most of the beers you make in the Zymatic are far more bitter than they should be.  (Think of it as adding the hops needed to properly bitter a 2.5 gallon batch to a 2.0 gallon batch... that will make a fairly balanced brew turn out hop-forward. That might be fine for a Pale Ale or IPA, but it could spell competition disaster for an English, German, or Belgian style.)

Cleanup

Something that's kind of glossed over in the manuals is that you need to fully clean the keg after each brew.  That means using a wrench or socket to remove the keg posts, soak the posts and tubes in PBW, scrub and/or rinse the posts and tubes until the PBW is gone, and then reassemble the keg.  This is probably the most time-consuming part of cleanup with the Zymatic.  Getting residue off the sides of the keg usually means a long soak in hot PBW solution and some "elbow grease" with a keg brush scrubbing the sides of the keg.  This is followed by several rinses with hot water to ensure that the PBW is flushed out fully, so that it doesn't impact the step filter or sample port.  My arms are too thick to reach very far inside the keg, so hand-scrubbing generally isn't an option.

Cleaning the hop baskets is the next tricky bit. It's hard to get the hop particulate matter fully rinsed out of them.  Even then, the baskets tend to pick up some discoloration from the wort and hops. I find that soaking them in hot water and Dawn dish detergent helps reduce the discoloration in the hop baskets and even in the step filter, but completely removing it seems impossible.

Cleaning the step filter is the easy bit.  Dump or scoop out the grain, remove the metal filter screens, the "hop loaf" (as it's referred to), and dump out the leftover wort.  Rinse everything thoroughly in hot water and (after you finish your rinse and/or clean cycles for the machine itself), toss the step filter, screens, hop loaf, and hop baskets into your dishwasher with a Finish detergent tablet. 

Compared with the cleanup I've had in other brewing setups, it's much easier than most, and takes less time. This makes me more inclined to brew on days when my time may be limited.

Overall Impressions

Overall, the Zymatic has been a great purchase. I'm able to brew more often. Brew days are less work.  Cleanup is easier.  The beer produced by the machine is as good as any I've made in other systems.  It encourages me to experiment and re-do recipes.  It's allowed me to focus on recipe formulation and leave the process to the machine.

If I had it to do over again, I might buy the newer PicoBrew Z machines rather than the Zymatic, if only because that model is newer and can scale up modularly to larger batches.  The Z Series model wasn't available until after I'd purchased the Zymatic, though, so I made the best purchase I could at the time.

Apart from the foaming, gravity/volume issues, and some irritating quirks in the recipe crafter software, it's a very nice system and has made it easier to brew (and brew more often).  It won't make up for any shortcomings in the rest of your skill set or process, but if you're a competent brewer already, it will help you produce good beer more easily.