Friday, December 7, 2018

A Year with the PicoBrew Zymatic

During Black Friday 2017, I was offered the opportunity to purchase a PicoBrew Zymatic at a significant discount. Although I'd already had (and been generally happy with) iMake's The Grainfather, I didn't brew as often as I wanted to with it. Although The Grainfather can produce some great beer (and I've got medals to prove it), the time commitment is hard to take. I pretty much had to stay home and watch over it for 5-8 hours, and attend to it constantly. For me, the Zymatic represented the opportunity to brew at times when I couldn't necessarily be there to change mash temperatures, sparge the grain, or drop things into the brew kettle. It would also mean that I could experiment more. Recipes I'd thought looked interesting (but didn't want to give up a day to try) would suddenly mean a few minutes' work to put together and a few more to load into the machine. Needless to say, I took the deal.

The Zymatic - mid-brew

Can you make good beer in the Zymatic?

In a word, yes. I have a ribbon from the Ohio State Fair to back that claim up. The second beer I ever made in the Zymatic (a Belgian Tripel) took fourth place at the 2018 Ohio State Fair's Homebrewing Competition. Considering how competitive that category is, taking fourth place with a beer brewed on a system I was only beginning to figure out should tell you all you need to know.

What is it Like to Brew in the Zymatic?

The brewing process with the Zymatic is pretty straightforward:

  • Log in to the PicoBrew web site and enter your recipe details, configuring the advanced mash settings if appropriate.
  • Measure and crush your grains, then load them into the Step Filter ("tray")
  • Measure your hops, then load them into the hop baskets.
  • Load the hop "loaf" tray and hop baskets into the Step Filter
  • Put the lid on the Step Filter and insert it into the Zymatic
  • Measure out the appropriate amount of water per the PicoBrew Recipe Crafter online and load that into the insulated keg attached to the Zymatic
  • Turn on the Zymatic and wait for it to connect to the Internet.
  • Using the menu dial/button, select the recipe you want to brew, then press the button to start the brewing process.
  • For the next few hours, the Zymatic will brew the beer according to the recipe you entered online. As it brews, the Zymatic will log temperature information on the web so that you can track the status of the brew.
  • When the brew is finished, the Zymatic transfers the hot wort into the insulated keg and begins beeping.
  • At this point you have to chill the wort to a yeast-safe temperature. There are many ways you can do this:
    • You can wait for the beer to cool naturally, maybe even placing it outside in the winter or into a refrigerator or freezer. This will take a long time and the beer will probably not be clear (if you care about that), but it will work.
    • You can use the PicoBrew recommended approach. This is to remove the insulation from the keg (which is a bit risky since it's filled with near-boiling liquid), dunk it in a bath of ice water, an recirculate the wort in and out of the keg. This will take minutes, and the resulting beer should be relatively clear when finished.
    • I took the approach of pumping the beer into a sanitized kettle, then using a sanitized immersion chiller to cool it. This took at most 5-10 minutes to do, given the cold ground water temperature and the small amount of wort relative to the chiller size.
    • Later, I rigged a counter flow chiller up and used that, pumping wort directly into the fermenter through the chiller. This was also relatively quick, and reduced the chance for infection, but didn't chill the wort quite as well as the immersion chiller.
    • You could probably rig up a number of other options, too, like a plate chiller or an immersion chiller that fits inside the keg the Zymatic uses.
  • With the wort chilled, you transfer it to a fermenter and pitch your yeast. 
Although that process looks pretty long, it doesn't require tons of manual involvement. Recipe entry takes a few minutes, depending on how much tinkering you do. Loading the water, grain, and hops usually took me 10-20 minutes depending on how well organized I was. Chilling the wort usually took me 5-15 minutes. So my hands-on involvement for a batch was easily under an hour in most cases.

Cleanup of the Zymatic

Once you've finished a brew, cleanup of the Zymatic is a bit more involved than brewing, in my opinion. The cleanup process (as I did it) worked something like this:

  • Remove the Step Filter tray from the Zymatic. 
  • Dump the hops basket contents into a vessel for disposal.
  • Scoop the grain out of the tray into the vessel for disposal.
  • Rinse out the tray, hop baskets, and screens using hot water until no visible residue of the hops or grain is present.
  • Place the screens back into the tray and put the tray in the Zymatic.
  • Clean the keg using hot water, PBW, and a brush. Rinse thoroughly so no PBW is left.
  • Load a vessel with hot water and attach the cleaning wands to the Zymatic in and out water lines. 
  • Start a rinse cycle, which takes about 10-12 minutes.
  • Start a second rinse cycle.
  • Dump the water out of the Step Filter and rinse it again.
  • Load a Finish dishwasher detergent tab into the Step Filter, atop the hop compartment screen.
  • Start the "New Clean Beta" cleaning program, which runs for about 2-3 hours. You can leave the machine at this point.
  • When the cleaning program is finished, dump out the keg contents (dirty water), and the Step Filter contents (dirty water).
  • Rinse out the keg and fill it with hot water.
  • Rinse out the Step Filter and put the screens in it.
  • Run the final rinse cycle in the cleaning program.
This process takes about 3 hours of elapsed time. The hands-on involvement is about 15-20 minutes at the start of the cleaning process, and another 15-20 minutes at the end.

The Zymatic documentation (and the PicoBrew web site) gives conflicting information on cleaning processes. The manual suggests doing a cleaning like the above after every 5-6 brews or after a single high-gravity brew. Zymatic support folks will recommend a cleaning cycle every 2-3 brews. My experience was that doing a cleaning cycle every 2-3 brews resulted in some internal clogging after some 25-30 batches. It took a double-digit number of cleaning and soaking cycles after that to get the Zymatic brewing smoothly again. For that reason, I began doing the above after each and every brew, as I wanted to avoid any further clogging issues.

This cleaning process took longer than the cleaning process for The Grainfather. The Grainfather's cleaning process involved rinsing and scrubbing the kettle with PBW, then circulating hot PBW solution through the machine for a while. After that, you rinsed everything and you were pretty much done. It took about 20-30 minutes most of the time, but it was a bit back-breaking because of the bending over and lifting/dumping of the machine.

Why Should You Buy (or Not Buy) the Zymatic?

Just is a Ford Mustang is not the right car for every driver (e.g., a family with lots of kids isn't going to have enough room), the Zymatic is not the right system for every brewer. In my opinion, the following are the reasons you should consider the Zymatic:

  • You're experienced with all-grain brewing. (The Zymatic insulates you from much of the mash and boil process, so you'll learn less brewing with it than you would with a system like The Grainfather, which is more hands-on.)
  • You want to brew, but don't have time to invest in the process. (The Zymatic automates much of the process, so you can do other things while the brew is going on without worrying that you'll ruin the beer.)
  • You can afford it. (It's not a cheap device. If your funds are limited, you may want to consider one of the more-manual but less-expensive systems.)
  • You aren't obsessed with hitting target gravity and volume consistently. (In my opinion, it's hard to properly predict the final volume and gravity. At times it seemed wildly high or low for no obvious reason to me.)
  • You don't generally brew 2.5 gallon batches that need more than 6 ounces of hops added during the boil or make more than four hop additions during the boil. (This is the limit of the four hop baskets in the Zymatic. There are ways around this limitation but they'll require you to do hop additions in the keg, which isn't automated and kind of defeats the purpose of an automated system like this.)
  • You don't generally brew 2.5 gallon batches that need more than 9 pounds of grain. (The Zymatic's upper limit is 9 pounds of grain. There are ways to work around this, like adding malt extract to the starting water or doing iterated mashing, but generally this is a limitation.)
  • You have reliable Internet access in the area where you brew. (The Zymatic needs reliable Internet access to run its brewing process, and may stop brewing if it loses contact with the Internet.)
  • You don't mind low Brewhouse Efficiency. (With the Zymatic, the more grain you use, the less efficient it is at extracting sugar from the grain. At a full 9-pound load, I saw efficiencies in the 49%-62% range. I saw efficiencies in the upper 70% to 80% range with The Grainfather.)
Why you might want to avoid buying the Zymatic:
  • You want as much automation as possible. While the Zymatic automates the mash and boil processes (which are most of the all-grain brewing process), there are systems that also handle loading their own water and chilling the wort.
  • You prefer to do 5 gallon or larger batches. You can get 5-gallon or larger batches out of the Zymatic, but it's really designed to do 2.5 gallons. To get a larger batch, you're going to be resorting to workarounds like brewing a higher-gravity wort and diluting it.
  • You like really clear beer. In my experience with the Zymatic, it was hard to really produce a nice clear beer. Maybe that's a byproduct of it boiling at 207F instead of 212F. Maybe it's just the yeast strains I used. Maybe I didn't give it enough time to cold-crash, or give the finings enough time to work. But the beers I got from the Zymatic were never as clear as the ones I got from The Grainfather or from extract brewing.
  • Money is tight. Even considering the discount I got on it the Zymatic isn't cheap. When you toss in the fact that it's not as efficient (in my experience) extracting sugar from grain as other setups, you'll be using more grain per batch than you might in a more-efficient system.
  • You like brewing a lot of "extreme" beers.  With its limitations on batch size, grain bill, and hop loads, the Zymatic may not produce the more extreme beer styles well. You may find that you're having to use a lot of "workarounds" like iterated mashing, bulking up with malt extract, or things like that. Similarly, if you're a hop-head who likes to brew beers that have many hop additions during the boil, the limit of four automated additions may not suit you.
  • Internet access is a problem.  If you don't have a good WiFi signal or a wired network port in your brewing area, you may find the Zymatic to be troublesome. It needs Internet access to brew, and it won't quite work without it.
  • Noise is an issue.  The Zymatic, to me, is fairly loud. Its diaphragm pumps run constantly during the brewing process, making "rat a tat tat" noises as they do. With it running in my basement, I could hear it from the top of the stairs. In a small apartment or home, I could imagine this being an issue for spouses, roommates, or neighbors.
If, after considering all the above, the Zymatic looks like a good fit for you and your brewing needs - go for it. I found it to generally be easy to use. It produces good beer. It saves you lots of time on the brewing side, and can allow you to try recipes you might not otherwise want to invest the time in. It can also allow you to experiment with subtle changes like doing the same batch with different mash temperatures, different hop addition timings, or different hops loads. I've had a lot of fun with it, except for that period during August where it experienced the clogging problems.

My experience with the support staff at PicoBrew was always great. They were knowledgeable, pleasant to work with, and informative. My only real complaint is that there's no "chat" or "phone" support option. Everything is email. Imagine that you try to brew on a Sunday night and hit a snag. You send an email. They answer on Monday while you're at work, and want you do check something or try something. You go home that night and take the action they recommend, then email them back. The next day you get a response, and so on. That's a large part of why I brewed pretty much nothing during August. I kept getting errors that caused the brew to abort due to a clog inside the system somewhere. They would suggest something, I'd try it and still get the error, and so on. It literally took weeks of this going around to solve the issue. Having a phone number to call might have made things easier.

Overall, I like the Zymatic and am glad I purchased it. That said, I did recently acquire a Brewie+ when it went on Black Friday sale in 2018. It's too soon to properly review that system, but there are a few things I like about it:
  • It produces 5-gallon batches (or smaller).
  • You have control over mash and sparge water amounts, so hitting target volumes and gravities should be easier.
  • It can load its own water from your household supply.
  • It can chill the wort to a yeast-safe temperature, automatically without any workarounds.
  • Its mash and boil vessels are stainless steel and open for cleaning. This also means it's possible to more easily do things like read/adjust mash pH and read the gravity during the boil.
  • Cleanup seems to be much easier and more automated.
  • The touch screen makes interacting with the system easier, and it provides a much more detailed status of the brew in progress (including estimated time of completion).
  • It boils at a temperature closer to 212F, which should help drive off DMS and potentially produce a clearer beer.
  • It does not require Internet access to brew, so it can be used in areas with spotty or no Internet access.
  • It's very quiet. You hear water splash about when it's filling the mash tun or transferring to the boil kettle, and an occasional whirring sound, but you can be standing nearby and hear almost nothing from it.
That's not to say that it's perfect, either. It's a newer system, so there are more software glitches in the interface and the (beta) application for mobile devices. It has limitations on grain bill and hop loads like the Zymatic. And I'm sure I'll discover more as I use it more.

Review: Tilt Hydrometer

What is the Tilt Hydrometer?

In a nutshell, the Tilt Hydrometer is a small plastic tube with electronics inside it for measuring the temperature and gravity of a fermenting beer. It can transmit those readings outside the fermenter (including stainless steel fermenters) via Bluetooth to an Android, iOS, or Raspberry Pi device.

The Tilt measures the gravity of your beer by the angle at which the device floats in the beer. The sensor inside the Tilt is a "military grade" sensor that is extremely sensitive.

The Tilt is powered by a replaceable (and inexpensive) battery that will last a few months, depending on the frequency of use.

If you want to use multiple Tilt devices, the manufacturer offers several different colored devices. Each color is registered differently by the iOS/Android/Pi application and tracked separately from the other colors. This allows you to place (for instance) a red Tilt inside an ESB, a blue Tilt inside an IPA, and a yellow Tilt inside a Belgian Dubbel while still tracking each beer's fermentation individually.

How Do You Use the Tilt Hydrometer?

Using the device is the really beautiful part. It couldn't be much easier. You clean it with dish soap and water before use. Then check the battery level by observing a blinking LED on the circuit board inside the Tilt. If the LED is blinking nice and bright, the battery is good to go.

When you are ready to pitch your yeast into a beer, sanitize the Tilt using Star San or Everclear, and drop it right into the beer. It will begin collecting temperature and gravity readings, which it will transmit via Bluetooth to any device running the Tilt application. An inexpensive and convenient option is to setup a Raspberry Pi with the Tilt Pi software from the vendor's web site and place the Pi near your fermenters.

What Information Do I Get from the Tilt?

As your beer ferments, the application will display the current temperature and gravity readings on the screen in a form resembling the following:

The "Peach" line at the top is a user-defined name for this particular beer. Setting this name is optional but can help you keep track of multiple beers you may have in progress. (I often have 2-3 going so this is a valuable feature for me.)

You then see a "View Cloud Log" link. If you configure the Tilt application to log its readings to the cloud, this link will be present. It will take you to a Google Sheets spreadsheet where the data is automatically posted every 15 minutes. That allows you to see and track your fermentation from outside your home network if you like. Note that this means leaving a device with Internet access (a phone, tablet, or Pi) in the vicinity of the fermenters, so that it can grab the readings from the Tilt and post them to the Internet.

Below the big red bar, you see the "uncalibrated" gravity reading in smaller print and the calibrated reading (which are the same in this particular case) in large print. On the app, this is updated every few seconds. On the cloud spreadsheet, it's updated every 15 minutes (or at some other user-configured interval).

Below the gravity, you see the uncalibrated temperature and the calibrated temperature (in this case they are the same).

Below that in very fine print, you see the current date and time, the last time the app received a reading from that particular sensor, and the signal strength from the Tilt (which is another way to gauge the battery life).

Earlier, I mentioned that the Tilt software can optionally log fermentation data to Google Sheets. If you choose to do this, a Google Sheets spreadsheet is automatically created for you and updated as new readings are recorded.  The sheet has three tabs of information.

The first tab (Report) shows you the overall status of your fermentation:

This gives a quick overview of your fermentation over time. In the example above, you can see that my beer went into the fermenter on December 2, 2018, around 6:30pm. The original gravity at the start of fermentation (the "High" figure) was 1.073 SG. The current reading is 1.018 SG. That current reading represents an apparent attenuation of 75.34% and an ABV of 7.22%. You can also see that the temperature has ranged from a low of 64F to a high of 72.4F, and is currently 70F.

The second tab (Chart) provides a graphical overview of the fermentation:

In the above chart, the blue line represents the gravity of the beer over time. We see it beginning in the range of 1.073 SG and working its way down to the current 1.017 SG range. You can also see that I raised the fermentation temperature from 64 to 72F to help encourage the yeast to produce some esters I wanted.

The last tab (Data) contains the raw data points captured by the Tilt. You can add comments there to indicate things you want to make note of (like adding fermentables, changing fermentation temperatures, etc.).

Is the Tilt Accurate?

There is little benefit to capturing all of this temperature and gravity data if it is not accurate. Fortunately, I've found the Tilt to be very accurate. When I've compared hydrometer and (calibrated) refractometer readings to the the Tilt's values, they're right on target (or at most 1 SG point off). The temperature readings, when compared to a known-accurate thermometer, are accurate as well.

That said, it's important to make sure that you calibrate the device when you change the battery. This is easily done by dropping the device in a glass of water and letting it "settle in". From there, you can compare the readings it provides of gravity (which should be 1.000 SG in plain water) and temperature (comparing to an accurate thermometer). You can use these to adjust the Tilt's reported values within the application or the Raspberry Pi GUI:

To adjust the calibration, select the color of the Tilt you're calibrating from the left-hand drop-down. Enter the correct SG value and the uncalibrated value for gravity. Do the same for temperature if needed. From there, the Tilt will automatically log and report the corrected (and uncalibrated) values.

Other Features

If you prefer to track temperatures in Celsius rather than Fahrenheit, this is an option in the Tilt app and Raspberry Pi GUI. You can also choose to use Plato or Brix rather than SG if you prefer, for tracking the gravity. You can change your time zone as well. If you happen to be in a location where another homebrewer with a Tilt is nearby, or perhaps you have two Tilt devices of the same color, you can have the software filter out weaker signals so that you're monitoring your own fermentation and not someone else's.

Changing the Tilt's Time Zone

Changing the unit types that Tilt records and displays

Filtering out weaker Tilt signals if needed
The logging functionality is also configurable. You can set the beer name displayed in the app, change the cloud logging settings, and log data to a USB flash drive if desired (on the Pi app).

All of this makes the Tilt an accurate way to monitor your fermentation gravity and temperatures without having to open your fermenter or extract wort from it.

Overall Impressions

The Tilt Hydrometer is one of my favorite and most-used brewing gadgets. It's simple to work with, accurate, and valuable. I can track the status of fermentation from wherever I happen to be, simply by pulling up the Google Sheet for that beer and checking the Report tab. The temperature values provide a good sanity check for my temperature control system, too.

The Tilt has allowed me to gain insight into how various yeast strains work. Its constant tracking of gravity and temperature helps me to see how long it takes a particular strain to start fermenting, gauge how active the fermentation is at any given point, and determine if I might need to rouse the yeast, raise the temperature, etc.

It's helping me in another important way, too. In the past, I would either have to guess when the fermentation was finished, or take samples out of the fermenter and test the gravity to see if it was changing from day to day. That guesswork is gone with the Tilt. I can look at the readings over a period of days to see if the gravity has stopped dropping. If so, I know fermentation is finished and it's time to cold-crash and/or bottle.

In practice, I've gotten about 3-4 months of life out of the batteries in the devices. If you brew less often, you might get more. I was able to buy a dozen replacement batteries for a few bucks. Replacing the batteries is a bit of a challenge, in that the cap(s) that are screwed into the ends of the Tilt's outer shell are incredibly tightly screwed on from the factory. Once removed, the circuit board is also pretty snug inside the tube, so you have to take care to push it out with enough strength to get it out of the tube, but not so much that you break the plastic parts inside. That said, I think it maybe took me 10 minutes to change the batteries in three Tilts and recalibrate them, so this is a pretty minor nit in the grand scheme of things.

My only other issue is with the Tilt Pi software itself. About every 3 months or so, it seems to develop issues. It stops logging the readings to the cloud, either for brief periods of time or it just stops altogether. Rebooting the device doesn't seem to make much difference. In the end, I find that the simplest solution is to just wipe and reimage the micro SD card and reconfigure it for my WiFi. Again, this is a pretty minor nit to pick, but it can be frustrating at time.

Is the Tilt helping me brew better beer? That's a little harder to say. It's certainly helping me reduce the number of overcarbonated beers I bottle. I think in the past I would assume that fermentation was complete when it wasn't, then prime the beer, bottle it, and find weeks later that the beer was massively overcarbonated. In fact, in a competition, that fact (plus the fact that I'd laid the bottles on their side while conditioning) cost me some points. The judge thought the residue on the side of the bottle indicated that I hadn't cleaned it thoroughly (not the case) and that the overcarbonation was due to an infection (and not over-priming).

Overall, I find the Tilt to be a very useful and fun home brewing gadget. It's helping me understand yeast better, keep an eye on temperature control, and better gauge when fermentation has actually finished. If you can afford one or more (they're around $130 each), I'd definitely recommend it.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Peach Cobbler Ale 1.0

Earlier this year, my wife and I tasted a Peach Cobbler Ale brewed by one of the Ohio breweries (I cannot recall which one, which is just as well). It was a nice enough beer, but for my taste it was a little dry and thin. The peach flavor took a back seat to malt and hops, making it seem more like a Pale Ale with peach notes than a Peach Cobbler. Still, it inspired me to think about how I might brew my own version of the beer.

For my version, I wanted a sweeter, more full-bodied base, reminiscent of a nice slab of baked peach cobbler. That means a higher mash temperature.

I also want the crackery/biscuity notes of the malt to come through, to help the drinker imagine tasting a bit of crust. I'll use Victory Malt to try to achieve that. Some Honey Malt should help drive home the sweet cobbler illusion as well.

Cinnamon and Nutmeg will be used as well, as these are common spice additions to a peach cobbler.

Last bit not least is the choice of hops. When added late in the boil, Amarillo is said to impart citrus and peach type notes. I'm hoping those flavors will complement the peach puree used, and employing a single late-boil addition means no harsh bitterness and maximum flavor contribution, again helping to further the cobbler/dessert illusion.

To ensure a nice peach flavor, I'll ferment the beer with a very generous dose of peach puree. If I don't get enough peach flavor from that, I may supplement with natural peach flavoring to punch it up.

I'll use a clean-fermenting yeast with this, fermented low to keep it from generating any aromas or flavors that compete with the rest of the beer. US-05 is said by some brewers to be fairly clean, and in cases where it isn't, it tends to impart peach or apricot notes. If that happens, it will be good for this beer (where it might be undesirable in other).


3 pounds Two-Row Pale Malt
3 pounds Munich Light Malt
1 pound Honey Malt
8 ounces Victory Malt
0.70 ounces Amarillo hops @ 8.6% AA (15 min.)
1 tsp. Cinnamon @ 10 min.
1 tsp. Nutmeg @ 10 min.
49 ounce can of peach puree in fermenter
1 packet Safale US-05 yeast
1/2 vial White Labs Clarity Ferm
1/4 tsp. Yeast Nutrient
1.5 tsp. pH 5.2 Stabilizer
2.8 gallons mash water
1.8 gallons sparge water

I'm expecting the beer to have the following characteristics:
  • BJCP Style: 29.C Specialty Fruit Beer
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
  • Original Gravity: 1.090 SG estimated (1.073 SG actual)
  • Final Gravity: 1.008 SG
  • IBUs: 21.7
  • SRM: 14.6
  • ABV: 8.6%
Mash schedule:
  • Mash at 120F for 20 minutes
  • Mash at 158F for 60 minutes
  • Mash out at 168F for 10 minutes
  • Sparge with 168F water
Boil Schedule:
  • 60 minutes: No additions
  • 15 minutes: Add Amarillo, Cinnamon, Yeast Nutrient, and Nutmeg
  • 0 minutes: Chill
Fermentation Schedule:
  • Days 1-3: Gradually rise from 64F to 72F
  • Days 4-7: Rise to 75F until finished with primary fermentation
Once fermentation is finished, the beer will be treated with gelatin and cold-crashed for 3-7 days until bright and clear. Then I'll bottle it with 4 carbonation drops (medium carbonation) until it's ready to serve.
Post-Brew Notes and Observations

12/2/2018: The mash process went smoothly. Using the Brewie+, it was easy to do something I've not done before, which is to check the mash pH. It tended to hover between 4.9 and 5.2 during the mash, when checked periodically with an electronic meter. A gravity check during the mash, before the sparge, registered 1.060. After the sparge and pre-boil, it read 1.063 SG. This beats BeerSmith's estimate of 1.055 SG.

Gravity with the addition of half the can of peach puree came up to 1.070 SG, and volume was shy of 2.5 gallons. With the addition of the rest of the can, gravity increased to 1.072 SG and volume hit the 2.5 gallon estimate. The aroma coming out of the kettle (without the addition of any peach puree) was decidedly peachy already, so I'm hopeful this and the Victory malt "crusty" flavor will blend with the cinnamon and nutmeg to give us a very peach cobbler-like flavor.

12/3/2018: Gravity is now reading 1.064 SG. That represents about 1.18% ABV and attenuation of 12%. I've read that increasing the temperature to 72F may produce some "peachy" notes, so I'm going to start gradually taking the yeast up to that figure. As of this writing, the temp is 65F but I've reset the upper temp to 71F.

12/4/2018: Gravity is down to 1.027 SG, and the temperature is 71F. That's 60.3% attenuation and 5.78% ABV.

12/5/2018: Gravity has dropped to 1.023 SG and the temperature is holding at 71F. That's 6.5% ABV and 65.6% attenuation.

12/6/2018: Gravity is down to 1.019 SG and the temperature is at 72F. I turned off the temperature control tonight to allow the beer to finish out at ambient temperature.

12/8/2018: Gravity is now registering 1.021 SG with a temperature of 66F. That's 76% attenuation and 7.77% ABV according to Brewer's Friend.

12/9/2018: Gravity is holding at 1.021. A sample of the beer from the fermenter revealed a restrained but clear peach note, a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a touch of biscuity/crusty flavor. I'm hopeful that when it is bottled it will still deliver these flavors.

12/10/2018: Gravity is down to 1.019 SG.

12/12/2018: Gravity is now 1.018 SG. That means the beer is at about 7.6% ABV. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018

La Trappe Quad Clone 1.0

I just acquired a Brewie+ automated brewing system. After I've gotten a few brews under my belt with it, I plan to do a compare-and-contrast post between iMake's The Grainfather, PicoBrew's Zymatic, and the Brewie+. For now, I'm working out how to use it properly. I can tell you already that the Brewie+ has a number of advantages over the Zymatic: up to 5 gallon batch size, larger grain bills, direct connection to your water supply, ability to brew offline, ability to sparge the grain, and automated wort chilling. It's also much quieter. On the other hand, recipe editing must be done on the device's touchscreen (until they provide you with access to their Android or iOS app, which isn't freely available online), and you need to do mash and sparge water calculations yourself.

The Brewie running a test brew with water only
I'd been thinking about brewing a purported clone recipe for La Trappe Quadrupel. This is a really delicious Belgian Trappist beer, and one that I enjoy drinking. I just don't find it everywhere. If the purported recipe was close to the real beer, I'd be happy. This seemed like a good test for the Brewie+.


5 pounds Dingeman Pilsen Malt
3 pounds and 2 ounces of 2-row Pale Malt
1 pound Corn Sugar
8 ounces Crystal 60L Malt
2 ounces Aromatic Malt
2 ounces Victory Malt (substituting for Biscuit, which I was out of)
1/2 tsp. crushed Coriander
1/4 tsp. bitter orange peel
1/2 tsp. bitter orange peel
0.80 ounces Styrian Celeia hops @ 2.8% AA (60 min.)
0.60 ounces Styrian Celeia hops @ 2.8% AA (20 min.)
0.60 ounces Styrian Celeia hops @ 2.8% AA (5 min.)
1/8 tsp. Yeast Nutrient
1/2 package Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity Yeast
3.3 gallons of mash water
1.4 gallons of sparge water

BeerSmith estimated the qualities of this beer as:
  • BJCP Style: 26.D Belgian Dark Strong Ale
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons (actual was 2.25 gallons)
  • Original Gravity: 1.105 SG estimated, 1.094 SG actual
  • Final Gravity: 1.012 estimated
  • IBUs: 29.6
  • ABV: 10.9%
  • SRM: 13.7
Mash Schedule

I decided to run a long mash to see if I could coax a really high efficiency out of the machine. The mash schedule used was:
  • Dough In at 102F for 15 minutes
  • Ferulic Acid Rest at 113F for 15 minutes
  • Beta Glucan Rest at 120F for 15 minutes
  • Mash Step 1 at 148F for 30 minutes
  • Mash Step 2 at 158F for 60 minutes
  • Mash Out at 168F for 10 minutes
  • Sparge with 168F water
Brewie estimated that the entire brewing process would take 7 hours to complete, given that. This seemed to be an accurate estimate. (In retrospect, if I was doing this again, I'd leave out the Dough In and first mash step at 148F.) 

Boil Schedule

Since the recipe included Pilsner malt, it seemed worthwhile to have a longer boil to drive off any DMS the malt produced. In addition, this would help concentrate the wort if gravity came up low. I could always dilute with distilled water if it came out high.

The boil schedule:
  • 90 minutes: No additions
  • 60 minutes: 0.80 ounces Styrian Goldings
  • 20 minutes: 0.60 ounces Styrian Goldings, plus yeast nutrient, 1/8 tsp. coriander, and 1/2 tsp. bitter orange peel
  • 5 minutes: 0.60 ounces Styrian Goldings, plus 1/8 tsp. coriander and 1/4 tsp. bitter orange peel
At the end of the brewing process, I asked Brewie to chill the beer to 66F, which is about 9F higher than the tap water in my location. (Brewie managed this with the wort in the boiling compartment, but after pumping out wort from some other parts of the device that were not subject to chilling, the temperature in the fermenter worked out to 73F.)

Fermentation Schedule

The recipe I used called for Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity yeast. This is purported to be the Westmalle yeast strain. Wyeast recommends a temperature range of 64-78F for fermentation, reports medium flocculation, and suggests that attenuation will be in the range of 74-78%. Online forums and reviews suggest that the yeast will be mostly dormant for about 12 hours, then will go crazy enough that a blow-off tube could be needed. It's said to generate a lot of sulfur and needs time to clean that up after fermentation. (I happened to notice a sulfur smell when I opened the smack pack, so I believe that.) It's said that the yeast will generate boozy flavors if it ferments above 74F. Denny Conn in one forum post said that he ferments this yeast at 63F for 4-5 days and then raises the temperatures after that to allow it to finish out.

Given all this, my plan will be:
  • Days 1-5: Start at 64F, raising 1F per day until fermentation slows
  • Days 6-14: Raise to 78F to allow it to finish out
After that, I'll cold-crash it for 3-4 days and then bottle.

Post-Brew Notes

11/30/2018: The volume for this batch came out at 2.25 gallons after I instructed the Brewie to do a full drain including sediment. I suspect the extended boil is partially responsible for the lower volume. The gravity should have come out about 11 points higher according to the calculations I ran before brewing, but perhaps the Brewie isn't as efficient as it's estimated to be. Any time you use a new brewing setup there are always adjustments to be made to the process and calculations. A few more batches and I'll hopefully be able to dial it in and get closer to my expected gravity and volume figures. Brewhouse efficiency on this batch, according to BeerSmith, was 51.4%.

12/1/2018: The gravity has dropped to 1.088 SG but the temperature has held at 64F. That's around 4.6% attenuation, which is not surprising. This yeast is known as a slow starter and it's being held at the low end of its temperature range, so I don't expect major drops in gravity for a while yet.

12/2/2018: The gravity is now down to 1.052 SG. I bumped the temperature up to 65F. This represents approximately 43% attenuation.

12/3/2018: Gravity is now 1.041 SG. I've bumped the temperature up to 67F. That's 54% attenuation and an estimated ABV of 7.76%.

12/4/2018: Gravity is now 1.032 SG, the temperature has been bumped up to 71F. That's 65,6% attenuation and 8% ABV.

12/5/2017: Gravity is now 1.022 SG, and the temperature has been raised to 75F. That's 77.4% attenuation and 9.45% ABV.

12/6/2018: Gravity is now 1.018 SG, and the temperature is up to 76F to encourage the yeast to finish up.

12/8/2018: Gravity is down to 1.014 SG, with temperature holding at 76F. According to Brewer's Friend, that represents attenuation of 84% and an ABV of 11.4%.

The real La Trappe Quadrupel is 10% ABV, has a color of 36 EBC (approximately 18.3 SRM), and a bitterness of 22 IBUs. This version has a color of 13.7 SRM (estimated), bitterness of 29.6 IBUs, and ABV of 11.28%. This one, most likely is going to be a bit lighter-colored, more bitter, and more alcoholic. The real recipe (per the La Trappe web site) contains Munich, Pale, Caramel, and Roasted barley malt, glucose, hops, and yeast. If this doesn't turn out particularly well, it will be time to try mimicking their recipe (rather than relying on this one, which was published somewhere online).

12/9/2018: Gravity is reading 1.015 today, which seems to suggest that fermentation has slowed or stopped.

12/10/2018: Gravity is still 1.015 SG.

12/12/2018: Gravity has held at 1.015 SG now for about 5 days. I think it's safe to say we've hit the final gravity for this batch and will need to bottle the beer soon.