Sunday, May 22, 2011

What I Should Be Blogging About

I recognize it's been close to a hundred years since I posted anything here, but life has definitely gotten in the way. Whether it has been a too-crazy work schedule or my general laziness during the weekends (as a result of the too-crazy work schedule), I've been neglectful.

By now, I have several posts that need to be written:

1) The photo shoot from the Double IPA bottling day
2) A review of our new brewing toy: the refractometer
3) An update on the Connecticut Craft Brewers' Beer Festival we attended yesterday
4) The adventures resulting from our efforts to brew a Cream Stout

As you can see, I have quite the backlog. I'll start chipping away at this soon.

Once work stops sucking my brain dry.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Double IPA Photo Shoot: Racking Day

This post is the result of our photo shoot for Phase #2 in the brewing process: Racking Day.

Yes, I know. This is the longest, most drawn-out four-part series ever. But I'm getting there. Slowly. Like a herd of turtles.

This is the day in which we move the beer that has been fermenting for a week in its primary fermentation vessel (read: big plastic bucket) to the home it will inhabit for the new two weeks (read: big glass jar).

One of the things we needed to do with this beer (besides moving it off the gunk you'll see later) is to add another round of hops. A process known as dry-hopping. And, as you might guess, the result of this exercise is extra-hoppy beer. Because, you know, there's....more hops. (Ah, there's that liberal arts education shining through right there.)

Starring: A bag of hops, waiting for its debut
Hops. In a bag.

Now it's time to get everything else set.

One nice thing about Phase #2: it's pretty easy. We need to wash and sanitize the new fermenter, of course. But the star of the day is the long tube we use to get the beer from the big bucket into the big glass jar. We also have a siphon that makes the whole suction thing much easier (sadly, I didn't take a picture of it).

Equipment for this stage. Basically, a hose. And another air lock for good measure.
Once all this stuff is clean, we get to the fun part: stuffing a bigger-than-you'd-think bag of hops into a hole with a diameter of a couple of inches.

Yeah, it was more work than we'd thought it'd be. The following photo is the result of a lot of upper body strength, more than several four-letter-words (some newly-invented), much giggling, and a serious conversation about how we're going to get the bag OUT of the fermenter once all this is over.

Add to that a whole ton of commentary about what bodily function could have produced something that looks similar to this (yes, we're fairly juvenile):

Stuffing the hops bag into the secondary fermenter
Once the hops bag has been fully inserted, it's time to add the beer from the primary fermenter, using the tube, the siphon, and a bit of patience (it takes a while for 5 gallons of beer to flow through that little, tiny tube!)

Beer and hops in the secondary fermenter
By the way, in the middle of all this, we did draw off a sample for testing purposes (both gravity measurement and a bit of a taste). Although, I must admit that you have to be pretty serious about your beer brewing craft to look at this and want to drink it:

What beer looks like at this point. That would be mud.
It actually isn't as bad as it looks. There's still a lot of stuff suspended in that beer that will settle out as it ages. That's part of the reason you do a secondary fermentation. If your finished beer looks like this, then that's a look I hope you're trying for. Otherwise....yuck.

But, frankly, it could be worse. Here's what the inside of the primary fermenter looks like after the beer has been siphoned off (and yes, feel free to feel sorry for whichever one of us gets stuck cleaning THIS up):

The aforementioned "gunk"
(Here's a hint: Michael usually handles clean-up. Bonus for Shannon!)
So here's something important to know: beer and light are a bad combo. I don't know if any of you have ever experienced this, but beer that has been exposed to light takes on a definite rotten-egg smell and taste. That has to do with the hops, actually. Once exposed to light, hops start doing funny things that make your beer taste really bad. The official term for this is "light-struck," but most people refer to it as "skunked." If you want to try this for yourself, pour yourself a beer, set it outside in the sun for about 20 minutes, and then try it. Be prepared for some serious stink, y'all. It's NAS-TY.

(Another option is to buy beer that comes in clear bottles and has been stored in a lighted cooler at the liquor store. Pretty much the same effect. This is the main reason most craft brewers and homebrewers put their beer in dark bottles. The more you know.)

Well, anyway, one thing you may have noticed about the glass fermenter in the earlier pictures is that it's clear.

And that's bad.

So, your options are to 1) store your secondary fermenter in a dark place, or 2) cover it with something. You can buy a cover, or you can make your own, assuming you have ANY talent in that area, which I Do. Not. (Not can ask my mom.) But someday, I'd really like to have a decent cover. One can dream. Or, one can enlist the assistance of a mother or husband (yes, really) who sews.

In the meantime, I have no choice but to be all about the lawn-and-leaf-sized garbage bag with a hole cut in the top for the airlock to fit through. I made that hole myself, thankyoumuch. (And I said I had no talent...)

My fermenter cover. Classy, no? I'm all set to brew or to rake leaves.
And so it sits. Just like that. For two weeks.

My final photo shoot installment will be the bottling process. And that's just a crazy day. Mostly because a) we choose to bottle our beer instead of kegging it, and 2) our dumb kitchen can't accommodate anything we're trying to do here.

But we persevere.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Double IPA Photo Shoot: The Brew Day Itself

The length of time it's taking me to complete my photo shoot posts? The Double IPA is going to be ready to drink before I get this done.

But no matter. I press on.

Beer tea
We start with making a sort of "beer tea." The specialty grains (in muslin bags) get soaked in water at 150 degrees for about 30 minutes. But no boiling the grain! Boiling grains leads to lots of bad flavors. Much like boiling tea bags to make tea. 

Although I'm kind of partial to boiling tea bags. That was my Dad's claim to iced-tea-brewing fame. Throw tea bags in a pot of water and then boil the hell out of it. Dad, awesome as he was, made some pretty awful iced tea. So, I don't boil my beer tea bags. Steep, and then get those bags of grain outta there. (Sorry, Dad. You had other strengths, for sure.)

Adding the extract
I mentioned in my previous post that extract is the way that we get most of our fermentable sugars into the beer. Once the grains have steeped, we add the extract. Off the heat so this really sticky stuff doesn't fall to the bottom of the brewpot and burn. That'd be worse than boiling grain bags. 

The boil
Once all that's done, boil it. Boil, baby, boil. At this point, you also start adding the hops. The bittering hops usually go in at around 60 minutes prior to the end of the boil. Flavoring hops get added somewhere in the middle. Aroma hops get added at the end. And yes, I label everything. Each hop bag (muslin again) with the name of the hop and the time we should add it to the brewpot. All on sticky notes stuck on the counter in front of each bag of hops. (I mentioned I'm an OCD brewer, right?)

Boiling the wort chiller
About a half hour in, we throw the wort chiller into the brewpot. The reason for this is to sanitize the chiller. Note the brown pot holder sandwiched between the plastic tubes and the hot brewpot? Melted intake and outtake tubes = bad mess.

Cooling the wort
Boil is over and it's time to cool the wort down to a temperature that won't kill the yeast once we've added it. Cold water comes in, swirls around the copper coils picking up the heat from the wort, and sends the water back out into the sink. Beats the crap out of ice baths to cool the wort. Target temp = about 75 degrees. Time to achieve = ~15 minutes. Pretty awesome.

Straining lots of gunk
Everything is cool now, but it's time to dump the wort into the primary fermenter. One problem? All the gunk that's collected in the wort to this point. So we strain this stuff out. And it's gross. It looks like baby poo.

Adding water
In a perfect world, we'd boil 5+ gallons of wort to give us our 5 gallons of end product. But (with the crappy kitchen/stove and all) we don't have the ability to boil it all. Our stove could NEVER boil 5 gallons of liquid. It takes POWER to boil that much. And power is something this kitchen sorely lacks. So we boil as much wort as we can and then add water to come up to the full 5 gallons required for the full batch. Oh, and it's bottled water, because our tap water sucks.

Adding yeast
Now it's time to add yeast. Lots of it. For this beer, we needed about 200 billion yeast cells. This packet here has about 100 billion. We added two. (We can do math, y'all. Well, Michael can. I just write the blog.)

Bubbles, baby!
Yeast needs lots of O2 in order to be fruitful and multiply. Here's Michael (jammie pants and all--the household's standard brewing uniform) with his O2 tank, adding oxygen to the wort. This is the last time we want air to mix with our beer. At this point, it's all good. Once we pass this point, air in our beer would make it taste like wet cardboard. That would be considered an "off flavor." 

You think?

What "done" looks like--at least for this stage.
Nice and snug in the primary fermenter,
which refers to this big plastic bucket
The lid is on. 

Now the beer sits in the primary fermenter for at least a week. And that air lock on the top? You watch it for bubbles, which is an initial sign that things are fermenting as they should be. The thought is that you should fill the air lock with alcohol (as opposed to water) so that if any of the liquid in it gets pulled into the beer, it's clean. And (BONUS!) a little bit of extra booze doesn't hurt the final amount of alcohol in the beer. Most people use vodka, but I use what I have on hand: rum. 

Yay me.

Next up? After the beer sits here a week and does its fermentation thing, we'll move it to a secondary fermenter for more fun and games. And I'll chronicle some new stuff we haven't done before.

But for right now? It's Thursday night and karaoke calls. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Double IPA Photo Shoot: Brew Day Prep Work

New computer. Check.

New external hard drive installed. Check and check.

This gets two checks because it's a networked drive. The Resident Computer Geek gets bonus points on this one. We can access brewing files from any computer on our network, including our smart phones. Booyah! This brewing operation is nothing if not high-tech.

Now I can proceed as planned. With photos, y'all.

So, where was I? Oh, yes. Brewing a Double IPA.

The effort to brew beer takes several weeks and has a number of phases, marked by exertions on specific days.  By my count, Phase 1 begins with Brewing Day. Phase 2 is Racking to the Secondary Fermenter Day (I really need to get a better name for that....uh...Racking Day?). Phase 3 is Bottling Day. Phase 4 is Drinking Day.

Phase 4 may be the most awesome phase ever. But the others are different kinds of fun.

Brewing Day (the longest of the days, depending on how committed you are to Drinking Day) starts with a collection of various pieces of equipment and ingredients and a vigorous cleaning and sanitizing effort. The Day ends when you have a fermenter full of yeast-fed liquid all sealed off and ready for a week or so of fermentation.

But here's how you start the process of getting from here to there.

We'll start with ingredients:

A mix of specialty malts (mostly for flavor)
An assortment of hops (for bittering and flavoring)
Liquid extract (which provides most of the sugar for the beer and is REALLY sticky) 
and yeast (in cute, smackable pouches called "smack-packs")
Oh, and there's water too. But I didn't take a picture of the water. Water is kind of boring.

In all, there are four basic ingredients for beer: water, yeast, hops and grain. Done.

Well, there's also magic. And fairy dust (the sanitary, non-dusty kind).

More on that later.

A quick word about our brewing process. We do what's called "partial-extract" brewing. Which means that most of our sugars are in pre-prepared liquid form (the brown bottles above). This means that we are cheating a bit, and relying on the makers of the liquid extract to do most of the work of getting fermentable sugar out of grain. Advanced home brewers do that part for themselves, which is called "all-grain" brewing. We're not there yet. That takes a level of expertise and equipment investment that we're just not ready for. Plus, we need a better kitchen before we go that route.

And I'll need a full supply of Xanax. For sure.

"Partial-extract" brewing means that while we use extracts to help get us started, we do add specialty grains that provide added flavor, and we add our own hops. So, it's not "all-extract." Yes, you can make decent beer using just the extract. But what we do is a bit more fun. Because we get to play with recipe ingredients, but we're not 100% responsible for the hard stuff.

Now on to the equipment. Here's an assortment of what we use on Brewing Day:

Assorted pots and pans. The biggest one there is the brewpot.
I'm madly in love with my brewpot, I must say.
(Notice how clean the stovetop is? Pretty much like that only on Brewing Day.)
Michael's computer with his nifty Excel spreadsheet that calculates EVERYTHING.
(He's promised to write a post explaining how this bad boy works.)
Primary fermenter. This is where most of the magic happens.
The thing lying flat there is the hydrometer. The tall thing is the vessel that holds the beer sample.
Then you drop the hydrometer in the vessel and try to read what the stupid hydrometer says.
I put Michael in charge of reading the hydrometer because trying to do it myself makes me stabby.
(We're fixing that, by the way. We've ordered a different tool that will make life easier.
You'll hear about that later, once I've had a chance to try it.)
Oxygen tank. As if that wasn't self-explanatory, right?
Tube and air stone (grey thing at the end) that gets
its one end hooked to the oxygen tank and the other end dropped in the beer.
Makes lots of little bubbles. Makes yeast happy.
Best. Thermometer. Ever.
Assorted widgets. All of which are important.
 But not enough to name or take separate photos of, apparently.
Wort chiller. For cooling down the boiling beer QUICK.
Most of this stuff has to get cleaned and sanitized before it can come into contact with the beer. Especially anything that will touch the beer post-boiling. Here is my cleaner/sanitizer of choice:

Uh, yeah. This is bleach. And I took a picture of it.
You're welcome.
That's basically it for prep. 

Next up: Putting all this stuff to use.

But I need a break first. This photo-journalism thing is hard.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Photo-Less Update

I was really hoping to have pictures to share by this point, but those will still have to wait. I do have a new computer (Michael got it narrowed down to two options and I picked the prettier one), and a neat gizmo that will let me easily load photos onto it. But, the external hard-drive I use for storage-of-all-things doesn't work with Windows 7. So now I need a new external drive that's compatible with the new computer.

If it's not one thing it's another.

Plus, I'm in California right now and won't be home to purchase said hard-drive until Thursday.

In the meantime, though, I have some good news to share about the Double IPA, which is doing its dry-hopping thing in the secondary fermenter.

I mentioned previously that we had some new gadgets and techniques we tried out with this batch to see if we could get better fermentation results. I'm happy to report that all of those new things we tried (and I'll detail those once I can add the photos) paid off. Our last test of the beer shows that we hit the mark on our fermentation and have a beer that is smack-dab in the middle of our target final gravity measurements.

First time, ever.

My final gravities have always been slightly higher than they should be. It's not serious enough that anyone drinking the beer would notice, but it bothered me (from an OCD perspective) that I couldn't get it "just right." According to the official numbers, anyway. Knowing I was slightly off always gave me a touch of heartburn. Especially because I wasn't sure why it was happening or what I could do to fix it.

Problem solved. According to the recipe, this beer is supposed to have a final gravity somewhere between 1.014 and 1.018. We ended up at 1.016. Brilliant.

The fact that we rocked this particular fermentation is pretty darned exciting.

High-fives (yes, literally) all around. There may or may not have been some happy-dance moves too.

No worries, though. I didn't take pictures of any of that.

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Alas, Poor Computer! I Knew Him..."

What a dead computer looks like.
The computer is, in a word, dead.

So says the Resident Nerd.

The good news is that "dead" doesn't seem to mean "explosive."

But in any case, we're shopping for a new computer. Which means my photos of our brew session will have to wait. As well as round two of the photo shoot, which consists of documenting the dry-hopping of our Double IPA.

In another word? Poop.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ready, Set, Brew/Shoot! A Double IPA

Well, I did it.

In a previous post I promised that as we brewed our next beer, I would figure out how to contort my body in such a way that I could be both brewer and photo-journalist. And I was successful!

But I have to tell you, the whole thing would have been far easier with another person in the room whose only job was to take pictures. I seemed to always set the camera down someplace inconvenient. Retrieving it often involved lots of stretching, since my other hand/arm was usually doing time/space-specific brewing activities. (I guess that's one upside to a small, crappy kitchen. Most everything is almost within reach.)

Or Michael and I would be in the middle of pouring something and I'd say, "Wait! Stop pouring....I want a picture of this!" It's a good thing he loves me. Because I'm thinking that otherwise he might have pummeled me with a brew spoon. People with cameras can be just that annoying.

Only problem is, the home computer has died (again). That computer was the easiest way for me to get the photos off the camera. So, my big photo shoot post will have to wait until The Resident Computer Nerd fixes my wayward machine. Bummer.

What's cooking this time? A Double India Pale Ale. I'm very excited about it. We really like beers with a lot of hop flavors, and this one shouldn't fail to impress. It has 4 different kinds of hops, plus a dry-hopping step that we'll do after it ferments a week.

And at some point here, I'll have pictures to prove it!