Monday, January 20, 2020

Strange Roots Hive Alive Inspired Honey Ale 1.0

A couple of months ago, the folks at Tavour offered me a chance to purchase a beer from Strange Roots Experimental Ales in Pittsburgh, PA.  The beer, called Hive Alive, clocked in at 17.3% ABV.  The Tavour folks described it as:
Each velvety mouthful sends your palate fluttering into honey heaven.  That's bee-cause Strange Roots crafted their mead-like Still Ale with copious amounts of real orange blossom honey and malted barley!  And that's drizzled on top of an already-smooth Pilsner malt base, resinous hops, and Pennsylvania wild yeast for a touch of funk... [snip] this brew drips with earth tones, florals, and sugar cookie-like sweetness. All the while, gentle stings of apricot and orange citrus keep the experience from becoming too cloying.

This is the bottle I opened almost two weeks ago. It was really tasty, and inspired me to try my own version of it.

I'm not trying to replicate theirs exactly, which is probably not possible without their wild yeast and knowledge of the hop variety they presumably used.  In fact, I'm planning to leave the hops out of this one.  I'm going to mash it very low so the wort is mostly fermentable (meaning little residual sugar) and the hops may not be missed.  (I could not detect the "resinous hops" mentioned in the Tavour post, or any hops at all.) I'm going to add some bitter orange peel, to dial up the orange note in the flavor.  Although I'm aiming for an ABV close to what they had, we'll see if that's feasible.


9.5 pounds Viking Pale Ale Malt
2.0 pounds Orange Blossom Honey
1 ounce Bitter Orange Peel (15 min.)
1/4 tablet Whirlfloc (15 min.)
0.5 tsp. Yeast Nutrient (15 min.)
1 package Red Star Premier Cuvee champagne yeast
4.75 gallons of mash water
No sparge water

According to Brewfather, the brew should have the following qualities:
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons (2.6 actual)
  • BJCP Style:  M4A. Braggot 
  • Original Gravity: 1.137 estimated (1.096 SG actual)
  • Pre-Boil Gravity: 1.091 at 3.6 gallons estimated (1.044 SG actual at 4.1 gallons)
  • IBUs: 0
  • ABV: 17.8% estimated based on 1.137 SG, 10.8% revised estimate based on 1.096 SG, and 13.6% actual ABV after addition of alpha amylase
  • SRM: 7.8
  • Fermenter:  Rimmer
  • Bottling Wand:  Stainless 1
  • Carbonation Method:  4 small tablets per bottle
Mash schedule:
  • 20 minutes at 120F for Beta Glucan and Protein breakdown
  • 40 minutes at 140F for high fermentability
  • 20 minutes ramping up 5 degrees at a time from 140F to 155F
  • 10 minutes mash out at 168F
Mash pH was measured 2-3 times during the 140F step and stayed at 5.35.

Boil schedule:

  • Although I'd planned a one-hour boil, pre-boil volume registered about 4.1 gallons (and gravity only around 1.044 SG), so I added 45 minutes to the boil to bring the volume down closer to my target of 2.5 gallons in the fermenter and raise the gravity.
  • 105 minutes:  No additions
  • 15 minutes:  Add Whirlfloc, Yeast Nutrient, and Bitter Orange Peel
  • 0 minutes: Chill to yeast-safe temperature
Fermentation schedule:
  • Aerate well with pure O2 prior to pitching
  • Pitch yeast dry atop the wort.  After 30-45 minutes, swirl the sealed fermenter to make sure the yeast goes into suspension.
  • Ferment at ambient basement temperatures (which are well within Premier Cuvee's range) until fermentation is complete.
  • After 2-3 days, if fermentation seems to be slowing, add 0.25 tsp. yeast nutrient and oxygenate again to keep fermentation going.
  • Bottle without any carbonation, as the Strange Roots product was.

Post-Brew Notes and Observations

01/20/2020:  I wanted a 2-quarts-per-gallon mash thickness for this batch, which ended up resulting in so much mash water that a sparge wasn't feasible.  In fact, although I had calculated a pre-boil volume of 3.6 gallons, the actual volume came out closer to 4.1 gallons.  This necessitated increasing the boil time to both eliminate the excess water and concentrate the wort a bit.

Original gravity, even after boiling down the volume, only reached 1.096 SG. That's a far cry below the 1.137 SG originally estimated.  I decided to let it go, to see how this turns out flavor-wise.  If it's good, I'll try re-brewing later with an eye toward hitting the 17.8% ABV like Strange Roots did.  Brewhouse Efficiency on this batch hit a mere 58.51%.  I don't know why it was so low, unless maybe the Viking Pale Ale Malt isn't converting well.  It stayed in a good pH range, it was a thin mash, and it had well over an hour to convert, so there's no reason the gravity should have been so low.

01/21/2020 7:03pm:  There is a thick krausen now where before there was none.  Gravity has dropped from 1.096 down to 1.091 SG and the temperature has dropped from a high of 66F at yeast pitch to a low of 63F an hour ago before rising up to its current 64F level.

01/24/2020:  Gravity has dropped to 1.059 SG and held there for longer than I would expect.  The yeast has pretty much vanished to the bottom of the fermenter. A YouTube video I read recently on sake brewing mentioned that wine yeasts can basically compact themselves in the bottom of a fermenter, trapping in CO2 and to some degree going dormant.  Rousing the yeast and releasing the CO2 can help them continue fermenting.  I swirled the fermenter very hard so that the entire yeast cake was loosened and broken up in the fermenter, which did release a lot of CO2.  But since I couldn't see any evidence of fermentation, I decided to pitch some Crossmyloof Barleywine yeast to see if it would jumpstart a new round of fermentation.

01/26/2020:  Gravity is down to 1.057 SG.  It's been as low as 1.055.  I've added yeast nutrient and amylase, as well as running my degasser through it to get the CO2 released, the yeast back into suspension, and add some oxygen to try to finish up the fermentation.  A taste of it before doing all that yielded a little-too-sweet flavor, but pleasant.  I'd like to get it down closer to 1.021 before calling it quits.

01/27/2020:  Gravity seems to be holding at 1.056-1.057, which suggests a stuck fermentation. I've tried degassing, adding yeast nutrient, and even adding a different yeast strain, to no avail.  That brings me to the next likely candidate here in the Ohio winter, temperature.  Wort temp has been reading 62-63F for days now, so I've swirled the fermenter again to get the yeast back into suspension and placed the fermenter in a temperature control setup that will aim to raise it to 70F over the next few hours to see if this restarts fermentation.  If we hit my target (70F) by morning and there is still no fermentation activity, I'll increase to 75F and swirl the fermenter again to hopefully get it to finish out.

01/28/2020:  The temp held at 69-70F since midnight.  No change in gravity since then.  I'm going to raise it later tonight to around 75F and swirl it again to see if that wakes up the yeast.

01/29/2020:  At 11pm last night, I swirled the fermenter hard and raised the temp to 75F.  Tonight, the gravity is down to 1.055 SG.  Considering that the fermenter contains both champagne and high-gravity beer yeast, I would not expect the gravity to remain so high.  There is a potential for at least 10% ABV, but we're currently sitting at 6%.

02/08/2020:  After increasing the temperature to 85F, the gravity has only dropped to 1.053 SG and held there.  I'm debating what to do about this.  At this gravity, it's way too sweet to drink.  Bottling it introduces the risk of the yeast reactivating later and exploding the bottles.

02/09/2020:  Since the brew has been sitting on the yeast now for about three weeks, I decided that additional action is needed.  I transferred the brew off the yeast cake into a cleaned and sanitized fermenter.  This should prevent any autolysis.  Unfortunately, the gravity is still reading 1.053 SG.  I confirmed this with both a Tilt Hydrometer and a standard glass hydrometer (which both read the same figure).  Tasting the brew from the hydrometer tube proved to be very cloying, so I know that additional fermentation is needed.  I've had pretty good results with Coopers Ale Yeast in the past, being a fairly aggressive fermenter, so I decided to give it a shot.  I created a one liter starter with a can of Propper Starter with about 8 ounces of the existing brew included in it.  This was placed on a stir plate to ensure good oxygenation.  I'm hopeful that by tomorrow or Tuesday I'll have a nice healthy colony of Coopers Ale Yeast that I can pitch into the fermenter.  With any luck, that yeast (perhaps aided by glucoamylase if needed) will get the gravity down into a less-cloying range.

02/10/2020:  I added a few drops of glucoamylase to the fermenter and splashed in a little of the Coopers Ale Yeast starter while I waited on the yeast to settle out of it.  Later, once the yeast has settled out of suspension my plan will be to pitch the lot of it in the fermenter to see if we can get it to final gravity.  If that doesn't work, I may end up having to dump it.

Late in the day, I dumped the liquid off the 1L starter and swirled the yeast layer into suspension. This and a drop of glucoamylase were added to the fermenter.  Gravity has since started dropping, currently reading 1.048 SG, but this could be a result of the added liquid with the yeast.  For that reason, I am cautiously optimistic at this point that fermentation has restarted but uncertain that it has.

02/12/2020:  The enzyme and fresh yeast seem to have done the trick.  Gravity is down to 1.043 and still seems to be dropping. Before the yeast and enzyme addition, the top of the beer in the fermenter was clean.  All of the yeast had dropped out of suspension.  Tonight there is a half-inch layer of krausen atop it, suggesting that fermentation is going again.  Because we are now looking at a mix of three yeast strains potentially in the beer (the original wine yeast, barleywine yeast, and now Coopers Ale Yeast), I think it would be difficult to reproduce this one.

02/13/2020:  The gravity has been slowly working its way down.  It's 1.040 SG now, which Brewfather tells me is 8.2% ABV and 56% attenuation, so we have a way to go yet before we hit bottom.

02/14/2020:  1.036 SG and 62F today.

02/16/2020:  1.031 SG and 64F.

02/18/2020:  1.026 SG and 62F.

02/20/2020:  1.021 SG and 62F.

02/22/2020:  1.018 SG and 62F, 11.2% ABV.  Still showing signs of fermentation.

02/25/2020:  1.011 SG, 63F, and 12.1% ABV.

02/26/2020:  1.009 SG, 62F, and 12.4% ABV.

02/28/2020:  1.005 SG, 62F, and 12.9% ABV.

03/07/2020:  Gravity has held at 1.001 SG (~13.4% ABV) for three days now.  It should be time to bottle this one soon.

03/15/2020:  The brew was bottled today with four small carbonation drops per bottle.  Final ABV 13.6%.

03/21/2020:  The brew is carbonated now.  When chilled and poured into a glass, it's an amber color with no real head but a nice medium level of carbonation.  For something at 13.6% ABV, it's very easy to drink.  It's mildly to moderately sweet, but not cloying.  It's frighteningly easy to drink given the alcohol content.  If I brew it again, though, I'd definitely include late-addition hops to the mix, to balance out the sweetness from the alcohol and residual sugar, and add some complexity. I might use Mandarina Bavaria, Hallertau Mittelfruh, or something with tart citrusy note.

The finished beer

Friday, January 17, 2020

Mandarina Munich SMaSH 1.0

Last weekend, I brewed a SMaSH beer using only Viking Pale Ale Malt, Mandarina Bavaria hops pellets, and Safale US-05 yeast.  As part of my ongoing effort to learn what the various base malts contribute to the flavor of a beer, I'm making this one with Munich Malt.  The main challenge this time is that I'm using 5 pounds of malt instead of the 4 I used last time.  To get the gravity close to the last two batches, I'm bumping the volume up from 2.5 to 3 gallons.


5 pounds Avangard Munich Malt (Munich Avangard - Malz Premium 6L)
1.5 tsp. pH 5.2 Stabilizer
0.25 tsp. Brewtan B (20 min. boil)
1/4 Whirlfloc tablet
3 gallons of mash water
1.75 gallons of sparge water
1 packet Safale US-05 yeast

Brewfather estimates the beer will have the following qualities:
  • Batch size: 3 gallons (estimated and actual)
  • Original Gravity:  1.049 SG estimated (1.055 actual)
  • Pre-Boil Gravity:  1.042 SG estimated (1.039 actual, at 4.25 gallons)
  • Final Gravity:  1.011 SG estimated
  • SRM:  6.2
  • ABV:  4.9%
  • IBUs:  23
  • BU/GU Ratio:  0.47 estimated (0.42 actual)
  • Mash pH:  5.25 (read 2-3 times during the mash)
  • Bottling Wand:  Stainless 1
  • Fermenter:  Anvil stainless 1
  • Carbonation Method:  3 small tablets per 12-ounce bottle
  • Cap color:  Yellow
Mash Schedule:
  • Mash in at 120F
  • Mash at 120F for 15 minutes
  • Mash at 140F for 15 minutes
  • Mash at 156F for 30 minutes
  • Mash out at 168F for 10 minutes
  • Sparge with water at 170F while heating to a boil
Boil Schedule:
  • My pre-boil volume was 4.25 gallons vs. the 3.14 expected, so I boiled it down to that amount before starting my 60-minute countdown.
  • 60 Minutes: No additions
  • 20 Minutes:  Brewtan B
  • 15 Minutes:  Mandarina Bavaria 0.5 ounces plus Whirlfloc
  • 5 minutes:  Mandarina Bavaria 0.7 ounces
  • Chill to 66F
Fermentation Plan:
  • Ferment at ambient temps until finished
Post-Brew Notes and Observations

01/16/2020:  It's become clear to me lately that I need to rework my mash and sparge water calculations.  Before I began using the PicoBrew Zymatic and the Brewie+, my brews with The Grainfather were generally spot-on.  I was rarely more than a few gravity points off the estimated OG with BeerSmith and rarely had to boil longer or add water when I had the beer in the fermenter.  The last two brews have been wildly off.

The Viking Pale Ale SMaSH beer I did last weekend came up about a quart short in the fermenter, but hit my gravity target so I let that go.

This beer had a pre-boil volume of about 4.25 gallons, so I ended up boiling an extra 40 minutes or so to hit the planned pre-boil volume of 3.76 gallons.  Then, after the customary (additional) one-hour boil, I wound up about a half gallon short in the fermenter with a gravity many points higher than intended.  To dial that in a bit, I added distilled water to the fermenter up to the 3-gallon mark, which dropped gravity down to 1.055 SG (which was still six points higher than the 1.049 SG I'd estimated).

Apart from that, the brew went fine. Mash pH stayed in the 5.2-5.4 range throughout the 120F and 140F stages (I didn't measure after that).

Brew House Efficiency on this batch was a bit of a shocker, though. With The Grainfather in the past, I'd achieved a pretty consistent efficiency of 78-83%.  That would be lower on high-gravity beers with a large grain bill, but it was consistent enough that I adjusted my recipes for 80% efficiency and nearly always hit my targets.  The calculator built into Brewfather and the calculator at Brewer's Friend both say that this beer went well past that historic figure.  Brewfather reports my brewhouse efficiency for the batch at 89.12%.  Brewer's Friend calculated 89.19%.  If you think that's wrong, consider that 5 pounds of grain yielded 3 gallons of wort at a gravity of 1.055 SG.

The wort had a nice aroma to it, reminding me of sugar cookies or maybe snickerdoodles baking in the oven.  The color was a mahogany brown and the wort looked extremely clear in the kettle.

I pitched the entire packet of dry US-05 onto the wort after topping up with distilled water.  After I had finished cleaning everything, I swirled the fermenter to help get the yeast fully into suspension.  Basement temps this time of year are pretty low, so I decided not to bother with temperature control on this batch. US-05's optimal temperature range is 59-75F.  My basement's ambient temp ranges between 62F and 65F, which is toward the lower end of that range, so I can't see the beer going over 75F during fermentation.  If it gets a bit warm, I may wrap a wet towel around the fermenter (which is stainless so it should pull the heat out well).

01/17/2020 12:33pm:  There are signs of fermentation.  The gravity is down to 1.053 SG this morning, per the Tilt, and temperature is reading 64.9F.  The temp has remained consistent since yeast pitch around 9:30pm last night.

01/20/2020 1:25am:  The gravity has dropped to 1.029.  Temperature peaked at 68F and is currently down to 66F.  I may need to heat the fermenter up a bit to get the gravity down to something closer to the expected 1.011 SG final gravity.

01/21/2020 6:59pm:   Gravity is now 1.026 SG.  Temperature is 62F.

01/24/2020 4:55pm:  Gravity has been holding at 1.026 now since January 21.  It will be time to bottle this soon, though I am surprised the gravity is this high.  A taste of the beer showed it to be very grainy in flavor, quite bitter, and very dry.

01/26/2020:  The beer was bottled today in a mix of bottle sizes, with 3 small carbonation tablets per 12-ounce bottle, 4 per 16-ounce bottle, and 6 per 22-ounce bottle.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Viking Pale Ale Malt SMaSH 1.1

Late in 2019, I tried to brew a SMaSH beer using Viking Pale Ale malt and a sous vide setup.  The beer ended with the appearance of having kettle soured or getting infected, so I dumped it without attempting to bottle it.

I recently made some modifications to my Grainfather's wort chiller and recirculating pipe connections in the hope that this would make those connections easier to use and more reliable.  Today was my first attempt to test those out.

The goal of this brew session was twofold. First, I wanted to test the modifications to The Grainfather using a simple recipe with ingredients I had on hand in quantity, so that if something went hideously wrong I would only be losing a few bucks' worth of ingredients.  Second, I wanted to see how Viking Pale Ale Malt tasted when brewed by itself.


4 pounds Viking Pale Ale Malt
0.5 tsp. pH 5.2 Stabilizer (mash)
1 capful Phosphoric Acid 10% solution (mash)
0.50 ounces Mandarina Bavaria hops pellets @ 9.6% AA (15 min.)
0.70 ounces Mandarina Bavaria hops pellets @ 9.6% AA (5 min.)
1/8 tsp. Brewtan B (mash)
1/4 tsp. Brewtan B (boil - 20 min.)
1/4 tablet Whirlfloc
1 packet Safale US-05 yeast

2.5 gallons mash water (tap, filtered through whole-house carbon and Brita filters)
  • Note: I recommend using 2.75 gallons next time

1.25 gallons sparge water (filtered the same as the mash water)
  • Note:  I ended up actually using 1.0 gallons, but probably should have used 1.25 since my fermenter volume came up a little low (around 2.3 gallons)
According to the Brewfather app, the beer should have the following qualities:
  • Original Gravity: 1.046 SG estimated (1.045 SG actual)
  • Pre-boil Gravity:  1.038 SG estimated (1.039 SG actual)
  • Final Gravity: 1.009 SG estimated
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
  • SRM: 4.3
  • IBUs:  29
  • ABV: 4.9% estimated
  • Brewhouse Efficiency: 77.5%
  • Fermenter:  Spock
  • Bottling Wand: Stainless 2
  • Cap color: Blue
Mash Schedule:
  • 15 minutes mash in at 120F (Beta Glucan rest)
  • 15 minutes mash at 140F (Alpha Amylase rest)
  • 30 minutes mash at 156F (Beta Amylase rest)
  • 15 minutes mash out at 168F and sparge
Boil Schedule:
  • 60 minutes:  No additions
  • 20 minutes:  Brewtan B
  • 15 minutes:  Mandarina Bavaria (0.5 oz.) and Whirlfloc
  • 5 minutes: Mandarina Bavaria (0.7 oz.)
  • 0 minutes:  Chill to 62F and transfer to fermenter
Fermentation Plan:
  • Days 1-7:  Ferment at ambient temperatures (64-69F)
  • Continue until the gravity holds for four straight days, per Tilt Hydrometer
Post-Brew Notes and Observations

01/12/2020:  I can't say the brew went flawlessly, but it was actually pretty close to textbook.  The only minor hiccup was that I didn't have quite enough mash water, so I shifted a quart from the sparge container to the mash tun and all was well.

The modifications to The Grainfather's recirculation pipe allow for considerably more wort flow than before.  The change to the counterflow chiller's input dripped once from the cooling water side, but that's all.  There appeared to be maybe a few drips from the recirculation pipe, but those could have been a spill changing from recirculation to chiller.

Checking the mash water pH during the first 30 minutes or so proved useful.  The mash was running about 5.7 pH at the start.  I added a capful of 10% Phosphoric Acid, which dropped that down to around 5.25-5.35 pH.  A half-teaspoon of pH 5.2 Stabilizer seemed to keep it close to 5.2 for remainder of the mash.

The Ohio winter weather meant that our tap water temps are pretty low. Coming straight out of the counterflow chiller, my wort was reading 62F... plenty cold enough for Safale US-05.  I pitched the yeast without hydrating it while cleaning everything up, then shook the fermenter to ensure that it all got mixed in and hydrated.

Gravity readings pre-boil and in the fermenter were within a point of the Brewfather calculated amounts so I wasn't upset about that at all.

01/14/2020:  Gravity dropped to 1.040 SG around midnight on 1/13.  As I'm writing this, it's about 11pm on 1/14.  Gravity is reading 1.019 SG and the temperature control system has been holding the temperature at 65F.  I'm expecting to hit a final gravity of around 1.009 SG, so we've fermented off around two-thirds of the sugar between the OG and the estimated FG.

01/15/2020:  Gravity is down to 1.014 SG today, and the temp is continuing to hold at 65F.  That puts me within 5 points of the estimated final gravity.

01/20/2020:  Gravity is down to 1.013 SG today and has held there for the last 2-3 days. I think we may be at the final gravity figure.  I learned that when doing smaller batches, The Grainfather boils off more like 0.67 or 0.68 gallons per hour rather than the documented 0.4.  That explains why I ended up with a lower than expected volume on this recipe.

01/21/2020:  Gravity has dropped to 1.012 SG.  Temperature is 62F.

01/24/2020:  Gravity has held at 1.012-13 SG since January 21.  Temperature is holding at 62F.  It will probably be time to bottle this soon.

01/26/2020:  Gravity has held at 1.012 SG for several days, so today I bottled the beer in 12-ounce bottles with 3 small carbonation tablets per bottle.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019 - My Year in Home Brewing

I like to take some time each year to reflect on my brewing activities for the year, identifying what I've learned, what went especially well, what didn't, and what I'd like to accomplish in the year ahead.  That's what this post is all about.

2019 Brewing, in Numbers

In 2018, I made a whopping 48 batches of home brew.  That figure dropped to 27 batches in 2019.  The drop-off was caused by a number of different factors, including:
  • 2019 saw a number of major family events, including three graduations, a wedding, and others.  Not that I regret participating in those events, but that was time I might otherwise have spent brewing, so it affected the total number of batches.
  • My Brewie+ system failed part-way through the year.  The manufacturer folded shortly afterward, so repair services pretty much died with it.  A good friend spent hours with me trying to get it working, but in the end I could not even get it to power on anymore.  
  • Before the Brewie+ died, I discovered a bacterial infection in a piece of bottling equipment that ruined the majority of batches I had brewed and bottled in 2018 and 2019.  I spent a few weekends identifying and dumping all the infected batches.
  • By about October, I'd seen the death of my brewing system, the destruction of many batches brewed during the past year (including some really good ones), and experienced some (mostly) disappointing competition results.  This made me a bit depressed, to be quite honest, and led me to wonder if I should give up the hobby... as things seemed to have taken a rather extreme and negative dive.
There were only a few really bright spots in my home brewing activity this year:
  • In March, I got to brew my 2018 winning beer "Dark Abbey" at Barley's with brewmaster Angelo Signorino and his team.  That's without a doubt the current high point in my home brewing career - seeing one of my beers brewed on a large-scale professional system and working with one of the most skilled and experienced brewmasters in town.
  • Later in the year, my first attempt at a Dry Irish Stout took third place in the British Stouts category at the 2019 Ohio State Fair.  This was the only beer I made in 2019 that had any success in competition.
  • While my brewing system was down, and before I fell into the period of depression and disenchantment, I spent some time learning to brew mead.  I read about it, watched some videos on YouTube, and then made a few.  A couple of those batches were really good.
  • On a trip to Colorado for one of those graduations I mentioned earlier, I got to meet one of the brewmasters at Avery who is responsible for their barrel-aged beers.  We talked about ways to coax yeast to produce very high-gravity beers.  I learned that I'd been doing pretty much all the same things they had, and maybe one or two more.
In terms of styles brewed in 2019, here's what came out of my home brewery:
  • American Pale Ale: 3 batches
  • American IPA: 2 batches
  • Belgian Dark Strong: 1 (2 if you count the batch at Barley's)

  • Belgian Dubbel: 2 batches
  • Belgian Tripel
  • Christmas Ale
  • Cream Ale
  • Doppelbock
  • Dry Irish Stout (took third place at the state fair)
  • English Bitter
  • English Dark Mild: 2 batches
  • German Pilsner
  • Irish Red Ale: 3 batches
  • Malt Liquor 
  • Mead - Melomel: 2 batches
  • Mead - Elderflower
  • Mint Julep Ale
  • Scottish 80 Shilling
  • Smash Beers: 2 batches
If my math is correct, that's 19 unique styles in the 27 batches I brewed during 2019.  IPAs and Pale Ales dominated the list because I was trying to brew a beer to offer guests at my step-son's wedding, but I never got one I thought would be good enough.

Things I Learned in 2019

Because I brewed a lot fewer batches in 2019 than in 2018, I don't feel that I learned as much this year as in previous years.  Still, I did learn a few things:

  • High-Gravity Brewing:  I've made beers as high as 20% ABV, and meads around 19% ABV.  This has taught me about the resiliency of yeast and how to help coax yeast through brewing high-alcohol beers.  I'm hoping to build on this knowledge in 2020.
  • Kveik Yeast:  I got to brew a couple of batches of beer using Kveik yeast.  It was fascinating to see this yeast work well in what would be insane temperatures for most normal yeast, and yet Kveik yielded no fusels or harsh flavor/aroma elements.  I look forward to doing more with it in 2020 as well.
  • Simpler May Be Better:  I've had the good fortune to have been able to brew on the kitchen stove, using iMake's The Grainfather, PicoBrew's Zymatic, and the Brewie+.  Of all these, using the Brewie was hands-down the easiest and in many ways the most enjoyable.  But the failure of that machine and its manufacturer taught me that a simpler system like The Grainfather may be better.  It's more work to brew with it, for sure, but the small number of parts results in fewer points of failure and hopefully a more reliable brewing experience.
  • Documentation is Important, and The More the Better:  I learned early on that documenting your recipes, the brewing process, fermentation details, etc., can help you reproduce a good recipe and possibly understand where a batch went wrong.  However, my documentation stopped at the point when fermentation completed.  I didn't track which fermenter I used with each batch, which bottling wand, and which priming sugar method (or amount) I used.  When it became clear that I had a problem with infection, it took a lot of time, analysis, and research to figure out where that infection came from (in this case, a bottling wand).  I'll be doing a lot more, and a lot more detailed, documentation in 2020 and beyond.
  • Rotation and Replacement are Important:  The infection issue taught me something else.  Although I own a bunch of fermenters, I was only regularly using a couple.  The same with bottling wands. I felt that my cleaning and sanitizing processes were solid and foolproof, so it didn't really matter, right?  Wrong.  Using the same equipment across lots of batches made it hard to figure out where that infection came from.  Was it one fermenter or the other, one bottling wand or the other, had the wand infected the fermenter(s)?  If it had not been for some photos I took to document a few things in some of the batches, I might not have identified the infection and had to either toss a lot of equipment to experience future infections.  That $5 bottling wand ruined literally dozens of batches and hundreds of bottles of homebrew.  If I had rotated through two or three of them, or just made it a point to replace the wand every six months or so, I might have been able to save hundreds of dollars worth of homebrew.
  • Hoppy Beers are Tougher to Make Than I Realized: If you know me, or you've been reading this blog a while, you'll know that I'm not a big fan of pale ales and IPAs.  Hop-forward styles generally don't excite me the way they do most craft beer fans and home brewers.  Despite a lot of reading and research, I didn't think there was much to brewing those styles and getting a great result.  I was wrong.  Although I made quite a few in 2019, and they were well received by hop-headed family and friends, they seemed muted and and uninteresting to me when compared to many locally-brewed commercial examples.  This is something I'll get around to mastering someday, but part of the problem may be that my heart's just not into it.  I'd rather brew beers I like to drink, or have a strong desire to try.
  • You Can't Always Believe YouTube:  Don't get me wrong, I'm not naive enough to think everything you see on the Internet is real.  But I did watch a number of YouTube videos about mead-making that contained some incredibly bad advice.  I questioned it at the time, but these videos came from channels with a lot of videos and views, so I figured it was maybe a gap in my knowledge.  It wasn't.  Here's one specific example... One video claimed that the way to get residual sweetness in your mead was to identify the alcohol tolerance of the yeast strain and include enough honey to exceed that tolerance by a certain amount.  The yeast would ferment away what it could, burn itself out, and you'd be left with a dry, semi-sweet, or sweet mead depending on the amount of honey you "over added" to the must.  Maybe I'm just really good with yeast, or maybe manufacturers are conservative in reporting alcohol tolerance, but the yeasts I used all blew right past their documented tolerance limits and kept fermenting.  Instead of getting (for example) a sweet 16% ABV mead, I would end up with a very dry 19.8% mead from a yeast rated at 16%.  This led me to learn about stabilizing the yeast and back-sweetening, which is the better way to generate a sweet mead.
  • There are Limits to a Sous Vide Setup:  I've made one-gallon batches of beer using my sous vide cooker, an induction cooktop, and a kettle.  Those have turned out pretty well.  I wondered if you could get a 2-3 gallon batch of beer mashed using a sous video cooker.  The bottom line is that while it may be possible, it's probably more trouble than it's worth.  A sous vide cooker can't circulate water through a grain bed well enough to keep it at an even temperature.  You'll see temperatures vary as much as 10-15 degrees across the grain bed.  That's enough to cause souring and result in a very dry beer.  It's an experiment I don't plan to repeat.  It may be more work to use my Grainfather for a 2.5 gallon batch than to use the sous vide, but you can't get good results with the sous vide... at least not the way I was using it.
  • Mint is Hard to Brew With:  Barley's brewmaster Angelo Signorino told me, when I suggested that I was going to try to brew a Mint Julep Ale, that beer and mint just don't work.  I'd had a chocolate mint stout and even a Mint Julep Ale at now-defunct Fate Brewing in Boulder, Colorado.  Those were good beers with a nice minty element.  But my attempt at a Mint Julep Ale just did not deliver on the mint, despite my adding a lot of mint to it.  Interestingly, a recent mint stout from WeldWerks Brewing in Greeley, Colorado, had the identical muted mint element to it that my Mint Julep Ale did... so even the pros struggle with this.  However, I've had a couple of mint stouts with a bright mint flavor to them, so I know it's doable. I just don't know how yet.
  • I like the BrewFather App:  Initially, I liked Beer Tools Pro.  Then I decided to try BeerSmith, and I liked that a lot more.  Late in 2019, I started tinkering with Brewfather and I'm finding that I like it better, mostly because it's accessible wherever I am and it integrates well with my Tilt Hydrometer.
I'm sure I learned more in 2019, but those are the biggies that stick with me.

Goals for 2020 Learning

As for 2020, I have some goals for my brewing knowledge-gathering in 2020.  These are things I would like to have better mastery of in the coming year:
  • Base Malts:  Before my Brewie died, I had planned (and even started) to brew SMaSH beers using the same hop, same yeast, and same mash schedule across a bunch of different base malts.  Those plans were ruined by the failure of that system.  I hope to restart that work in 2020 and gain a clearer understanding of base malt flavors.
  • Kveik Yeast:  In 2019, I played around with Kveik yeast and found it interesting.  I'd like to grow a bunch of the stuff this year and experiment more with it in a bunch of different styles to see if I can't find a really tasty application for it.
  • High-Gravity Brewing:  I enjoy sipping the high-gravity beers from Avery, and I'd like to come up with some similarly tasty high-gravity brews on my own.  I have in mind a way to build a custom fermenter that would aid in this.  I'd like to try prototyping that in 2020.
  • Irish Red Ale:  I seem to be cursed when it comes to brewing Irish Red Ales.  I've made at least four of them to date.  Two had to be dumped due to infection.  A third was ruined by the introduction of glucoamylase.  The last turned out OK but just didn't taste that good.  I'd like to make a good one in 2020 for once.
  • Dark Fruit Flavor:  I love beers with a pronounced dark fruit flavor.  I know that's possible, because I'd consumed quite a few of them.  I'd like to better understand how to evoke and maximize this flavor in a beer in 2020.
Once my current flu is behind me, I hope to start delivering on some of these wishes in 2020.