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!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Verdict Is....[UPDATED TWICE]

Um, yeah.

I don't know whether the difference is this particular beer, or whether it's the fact that we bottled in 22 ounce bottles for the first time (we used to do 12 ounce bottles).

But, for whatever reason, only one week of bottle-conditioning is definitely not enough.

At. All.

The flavor is good. But the fact that it's still flat is making me gag.

So here's the (moral?) dilemma we faced. Do we throw out 22 ounces of flat beer? Or do we man up and drink it, gaggy faces and all?

I'll leave it up to you to guess which road we traveled.

UPDATE (3/8): Slightly better after two weeks, but still not right. We've moved the beer to someplace we think might/maybe/could be warmer than where it was sitting before and we'll wait some more. If we don't have carbonated beer soon, I think we'll have to investigate other options. This has never happened before.....I really dislike new complications.

UPDATE (3/12): We have carbonation! I think it still needs another week to be fully carbonated, but we tried a bottle last night and it was much improved. I think the final lesson with this batch of beer is that higher gravity/alcohol beers may take longer to carbonate. Which is what I found during my research on this problem. But the independent confirmation is nice.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Nut Update and a New Toy

So, as I mentioned before, we are now in the market for a new piece of beer brewing equipment: an aeration system.

Sadly, it's not going to be the fish tank air pump I'd mentioned. I'm a bit disappointed, really. Because the idea that you're using fish equipment in your brewing process just sounds so delightfully ridiculous.

But it turns out that the stuff that works so well for a fish tank isn't the best option for aerating your beer.

Honestly, I think I could have guessed that.

Based on the freakish amount of research that has gone into this, we've determined that this is what we want, and is on its way to our house as we speak:

It's an aeration kit. Only thing missing? The oxygen tank. That's right, friends....we're bringing pure oxygen into our brewing space. Should be legendary.

I just hope no one loses an eye.

(Related to the topic of bodily catastrophes: I did warn Michael, that if at any time he even suggests this thing might explode, we're switching to filtered air rather than O2 tanks. I don't need a single additional thing that he could worry will explode in our faces.)

Here's how it works: That brass-looking/black knobby thing hooks both to the O2 tank and to one end of the plastic hose. The knobby thing is used to regulate the flow of oxygen from the tank. The other end of the hose (with that white thing on the end) goes into the beer. And in 30-60 seconds, you've got yourself some tricked out beer full of oxygen...a perfect environment for healthy yeast growth.

The only problem is we're going to wait until the aeration system gets here to start our next batch, so we won't brew again until next weekend. That's kind of a bummer, but I think the wait will be worth it.

In the meantime, the nut brown ale should be ready to try tomorrow. Okay, technically we're supposed to wait another week (the beer has only been in the bottle for a week, and the "rule" is that it should bottle-condition for two weeks before you try it), but I'm too impatient to wait that long. I'll report back once we've cracked open one of these and let you know whether my haste was, well, too hasty.

I also have a new plan/promise for our next beer. I'm going to document the brewing process all the way through. With photos. And labels.

For those of you who haven't seen this business in action, I thought it might be fun to show what this whole process looks like.

Or, it could just be funny. Because I haven't really thought through the acrobatics of this yet....taking pictures with one hand while stirring/straining/measuring/pouring/etc. with the other. But we'll figure it out. Between us, we've got many years of advanced education, which hopefully will equate to a certain level of manual dexterity.

Because I'm positive that's how that works, right?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Blog Stuff: A New Feature Already!

I decided that trying to add definitions to terms in-line with the post itself is becoming cumbersome.

Seriously. How many sets of parenthetical phrases can be good for the soul, anyway? Plus, those of you who know the definitions of these terms already may not want to be bothered.

To solve that problem, I've added a new feature to the blog: The Unauthorized Glossary. If you look above the day/date stamp for this post, you should see a new tab up there. Click on it. It's fun stuff.

Fair warning: These are my definitions. Which means I try to make them a little more entertaining than your typical Webster's or beginning brewing book definition, but still mostly accurate.

I'll add to this page whenever I use a term I haven't defined for you yet. And add a big bold blue link in the post so you know it's a term in the glossary. Like that. See? I look out for you guys.

And, by the way, have I used a term in a post somewhere and you haven't a clue what it means? Let me know! I'll write you up your very own definition and add it.

Because I'm all about the value-add.

Just In Time for My Birthday

Okay, well, my birthday isn't until June. But whatever....this will give you all plenty of time to score me one of these.

It's an absolutely-necessary-fire-extinguisher-turned-brew-keg:

Read about it here:

Thanks to Neil at for pointing out such awesomeness as this.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Some Good News and the Other News

I'm slow at getting to this, but here's an update on the Imperial Nut Brown Ale.

First, the Good News, Part 1:

1) As of Sunday afternoon, the ale is now at home in fermenter #2. All wrapped up in its black garbage bag. (A well-equipped brewer with all the bling would have a carboy cover in some crazy, statement-making fabric--to keep out the light, as fermenter #2 is clear glass--but since I don't have one, I use a lawn/leaf-sized garbage bag. Very ghetto-chic.)

2) I'm fairly sure the beer will be delicious. You know, once it's done being 72 degrees and flat.

3) We've freed up enough equipment and counter space that we can brew again.

Now the Other News:

1) Um....Imperial ales are HARD to ferment, yo. I've never done one of this style before, and I'm not sure I'm going to do another. At least not until I've recovered from this episode. And replenished my Xanax supply.

2) Our beer never reached its target gravity. Which means something didn't go as expected in the fermentation. We know that everything was spot-on until we pitched the yeast. The suspected culprits are a) not enough yeast, and b) not enough aeration of the wort.

An extra note on b): It turns out that simply sloshing the wort around while you're adding the yeast to get some air in there isn't good enough--especially with higher gravity beers. But never fear.....Mr. Engineer is on it! And no involves a fish tank air pump.

Of course it does.

Good News, Part 2:

1) We've learned a ton while brewing this beer. And since the only flaws in the beer will be that it's a little sweeter and a little less boozy than it's supposed to be, I think it was well worth doing, if only for the educational experience.

2) I bought a couple of new books as a result of this experience. Including a whole book devoted to yeast. Jealous? Come know you are.

3) And, I guess I'll soon be the proud owner of some fish tank equipment. I feel truly blessed.

Friday, February 4, 2011

It's Like We Discovered Fire!

This posting is dedicated to those glorious items, without which, I will not brew.

Not any more, at least. I used to brew without all of them, but I have seen the light, and will wander in darkness no longer. Because each one of the following items is, frankly, beyond brilliant.

And I'm about to tell you why.

Oh, and I brought pictures!

Immersion Wort Chiller
Definition: A contraption made of copper and plastic tubing designed to cool wort to 70 degrees in nothing flat. If you have a bit of skill you can make one of your own. (I don't, and I didn't.)

Approximate price: $65

How It Works: The copper coils sit inside the brew pot, immersed in the beer. One plastic tube gets attached to your kitchen faucet to provide cold water. The cold water swirls through the copper tubing and picks up the heat from the just-boiled beer. The other plastic hose provides an outlet for the hot water (heated by the beer) to pour back into the sink. Once the water coming out of the outlet hose is no longer warm, your beer is ready for the fermenter.

What Life Was Like Before: Insert ridiculously hot (200+ degree) stainless steel brew pot into ice bath. Watch ice immediately melt. Replenish ice while saying many four-letter words. Do not touch plastic ice bags to side of hot brew pot, for they shall melt, causing more obscene language and a damn near impossible clean-up. Measure the temperature of the wort. Exclaim in utter frustration that the temp has only dropped 4 degrees. Lather, rinse, repeat until wort is 70 degrees. Time to completion: 3+ hours. Pounds of ice required: About a million.

What It's Like Now: 15 minutes of cooling time. Tops. And no ice or melting bags. Awesome.

"The Thief"
Definition: A long plastic tube with a widget/plunger thing on the end that allows you to easily take a hydrometer reading (for testing the beer's gravity) without wasting the beer. Easy-in to collect the beer, easy-out to measure the beer, and easy-back-in to waste not that beer you sampled, young Jedi.

Approximate price: $11

How It Works: Insert a hydrometer into the open end of the "Thief." Stick the business end of the tube into the beer until the tube fills and the hydrometer floats. Read the hydrometer. Press the widget/plunger thing against the inside of the fermenter to dump the sample back into the beer. Reading done, and nothing lost because of it!

What Life Was Like Before: Uh, yeah....we didn't take hydrometer readings unless absolutely required. Previous procedures involved, well, wasting beer. Totally unacceptable.

What It's Like Now: We're following our beer's measurements so closely, it'd be justified in getting a restraining order.

Digital Thermometer
Definition: This is not your grandmother's thermometer. This is the baddest of all bad ass thermometers, my friends. A temperature probe (with a handy-dandy clip). A digital readout display. A long cord connecting the two, so the probe can be in the pot on the stove (or in the turkey in the oven) and the display can be on the counter, away from all heat sources. The ability to set alarms when temps go over or under desired readings. Oh, yeah...and it has a timer. (And for those of you who don't brew, but who cook meat/stews/soups or make candy? I'm telling you.....put this on your Christmas list. Now.)

Approximate price: $25

How It Works: Hang the probe in the brew pot. Set your over/under temp alerts. Walk. Away. This Holy Grail of Digital Thermometers requests your presence when you need to attend to something. Let me hear you say, "Freedom!"

What Life Was Like Before: See that 6-gallon pot filled with 4+-gallons of syrupy-sticky-really-crazy-hot stuff? Hold your old thermometer in that until you get your temperature reading....or until your arm skin flakes off. Do that every 10 minutes or so....for hours. And then report back on how that's feelin' right about now.

What It's Like Now: No need to dangle body parts over boiling liquid. there anything else that needs to be said?

The above items are never included in a "beginning brewer's" equipment kit. But I'm telling you, if you brew and don't have these things, you are missing out. Go buy them. Now. In fact, each of the pictures above has a link beneath them that will direct you to some online shop that sells them.



And you're welcome.

Monday, January 31, 2011

A "What Now?" Nut Brown Update

Just a check-in to report on the status of the Imperial Nut Brown ale that should have been racked to the secondary fermenter yesterday.

There's basically no update. But there's a lot of general confusion.

The ale had been bubbling up a storm until sometime on Saturday when, as expected, it slowed to less than one bubble in the airlock per minute (scientific, no?). Yesterday, Michael and I got all ready for the transfer from Fermenter 1 to Fermenter 2. Excitement was in the air.

Until we took our gravity reading. It was too high. For this recipe, the gravity should be around 1.011 - 1.015. Ours was at 1.021. The alcohol by volume should be 7.75-8.25%. Ours sat defiantly at 6.8%. It's still a respectable alcohol level, but not enough for us to declare this brew an unqualified success.

Thinking that there may be a difference between the gravity reading we got by pulling a sample from the bottom of the fermenter and the one we might get by taking a sample from the top, we took another reading to see what was what.

Um, yeah....same stupid reading. (At least now we know top or bottom doesn't make a difference when you're talking samples. Useful info, I guess.)

Much flurrying occurred at this point as we checked every resource at our disposal to see what could be wrong. Books, Internet, prayer, tarot reading, runes, star charts....we consulted it all.

Here's what we found out:
  • The new wisdom seems to be that it's a good idea to let beer (especially "big" beers) sit in the primary fermenter longer than I've ever done before. I usually transfer to the secondary after a week. Everybody now is saying two weeks is better. Okay, I guess. Maybe in the next week something magical will happen (some kind of sneaky, super-secret fermentation) and drop the gravity another .006. Except there doesn't appear to be anything going on in that fermenter. It looks pretty boring in there. So, I'm skeptical there's any magic (secret or not) awaiting us.
  • If our fermentation is indeed "stuck," it could be that our yeast is dead. That can happen with higher alcohol beers, as high alcohol environments can be toxic to yeast. Although, if 6.8% alcohol is toxic to the yeast in our fermenter, I'm fully prepared to proclaim this yeast "The Wimpiest Yeast Ever." It's supposed to be functional in environments that are up to 10% ABV, so I'm not convinced our alcohol level is the problem.
  • One way to get yeast unstuck (in theory anyway) is to "swirl" the fermenter. Just to shake things up a bit and wake up the sleepy yeast. I don't know if any of you ever tried to "swirl" a 1 1/2-foot tall plastic bucket full of 5 gallons of liquid, but let me tell you that this is not an easy feat. Michael gave it the old college try, though....and I'm so very sorry I didn't video it.
So now we have our freshly swirled fermenter sitting in the kitchen where we can just stare at it, waiting for something to happen. So far, there's nothing of interest to report.

We need to take another gravity reading today or tomorrow to see if there's any change. If there is, then I feel better. It means the fermentation isn't done, but the yeast is still doing its thing (although it's doing it invisibly), and I just need to settle down.

If there's no change, that's another story. It may mean fermentation is really done, and it's just time to rack to the secondary and call it good. It also means that the target ABV for this recipe isn't correct and it's time to find a different recipe. Or adjust our expectations.

Or, it may mean the fermentation isn't done but our yeast is shot. In that case, we just need to add more yeast. It means more waiting, but I can deal with that.

Here's the thing, though: In one of the 495 calculations and tests we've done over the lifespan of this beer, we've determined that we have an "apparent attenuation" of about 71%. Which means that our yeast has consumed 71% of the available sugars in the beer. Sounds great, right? It would be fantastic if our alcohol levels were where they should be. The problem (according to our research...again, the star charts, etc.) is that an attenuation of 75% is about the best you're gonna get. There are just some sugars that aren't edible to the yeast (called "non-fermentables"). Which means that we could dump more yeast in there and have it Do. Absolutely. Nothing. Because there's no food available for the yeast to eat. (I guess they could just swim around to pass the time, but that's not really what they're there for.) I guess in that case, we just bottle the stuff, call it a 6.8% ABV beer and be done with it.

It is, after all, just beer.

But it's all the "maybe"s, "I don't know"s, and perplexed shrugging going on around here that is the most frustrating. And all those star charts take up a lot of the much-lacking counterspace, yo.

The good news is that this beer tastes GOOD. Even warm and flat (which is how it should be at this point), it's still darn yummy.

I'll be back with an update after the next reading. And we'll go from there.

UPDATE: Shame on me for doubting the stars. Or the stuff we read on the Internet. Whichever.

The gravity reading tonight was 1.019. Fermentation ain't over, y'all. The house ruling? Let 'er sit until the weekend. And in the meantime? Chill. Out.

Oh, and in the name of all that's holy...stop opening the fermenter.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Get the Party Started

While I've shared a bit of info about how I got started brewing and the fact that Michael and I are certifiably insane on brew day, I haven't really said much about what's cooking in the back room here.

And I'm very pleased to tell you that it's a Nut Brown Ale.

But it's not just any old nut brown. Oh, no. It's an Imperial Nut Brown.

Let the good times roll.

For those of you unfamilar with beer "code," Imperial (or Double) means BIG. Big in every way. Big ingredients list, big taste, big(ger) money to spend whether you brew it at home or buy it at the bar or store.

But more than anything else, Imperial is code for Big Alcohol. Big Alcohol makes for a Bad Ass beer that will knock you on yours, if you're not careful.

In case you're curious about how brewers start with one beer style and then take it up about 20 notches to make a Big Version of that style, it's because Imperial/Double recipes call for far more grain than their non-Imperial counterparts. In some cases, the recipes call for more hops too, but that's more about brewing a beer that'll make you pucker your beer-drinking lips than about greater alcohol. Hops don't affect alcohol content--they have other things to attend to.

Nope, it's all about the grains here--because with more grain you get more sugar. And with more sugar you get more yummy treats for your yeasty friends. Yeasty friends that will eventually give you alcohol and carbon dioxide in exchange for your sugary offering. Now there's a waste product you can get excited about!

Take for example, the difference between the alcohol content (also known as ABV, or alcohol by volume) in a Stout. You know, that really dark beer that looks like it could be mistaken for motor oil? Well, a "regular" Stout--Guinness is the best known example--is about 4-5% alcohol. Pretty low ABV. (Surprising eh?) In fact, it's about the same alcohol content as Bud Light.

Except Guinness is actually drinkable.

A quick aside: Dark, by the way, has nothing to do with alcohol content. Color is not an indicator of how drunk you could get when drinking it. That's a myth. Just sayin'.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh, the Imperial version of a Stout? Anywhere between 8-12+% ABV. That's 2-3 times more alcohol than its non-Imperial cousin. And just to put this in perspective, at the higher end of that spectrum, we're getting into Merlot-like ABV territory here.

Another aside: An Imperial Stout I highly recommend is Storm King by Victory Brewing Company from Downingtown, PA. It's a brilliant beer. But be careful. At 9.1% ABV, this bad boy can sneak up on you but quick!

So, anyway, all this is to say, Michael and I have our own Imperial Bad Boy rockin' it in our back room. We brewed on Sunday and we still have active fermentation today (Friday.) That's pretty freaking awesome. Assuming fermentation finishes up in time, we'll move the beer this weekend from the primary fermenter to a secondary fermenter where it can sit for a couple of weeks to mellow and mature before bottling.

Which means our Imperial friend should be coming up by the end of February/beginning of March. Now that's what I'm talkin' about!

And on that note, have a great weekend. Here's a little thematically-appropriate P!nk action to get your weekend off on the right foot!

"Get The Party Started" Official Video- P!nk

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Brew Day Crazies

Don't get me wrong. Brewing is a good time. But there are also moments in the process that can be anxiety-provoking.

Take, for example, the time between the end of the boil and the sealing of the fermenter. Boiling protects the beer from all kinds of nasties that can find its way into--and screw up--your beer. (Well, except for hair. Even boiled, sanitary hair in your beer bottle would be all kinds of gross upon discovery.) Once that boil is done, beer is defenseless against bacteria, wild (unwanted) yeasts, and other such undesirables. I never really breathe much once the heat is off, not until the fermenter lid is firmly in place and I can sit back and wait for the liquid (rum, actually) in that air lock to start doing its burbling thing. Once that lid is locked down tight, only then can I take a big, sweet, relaxed breath.

But until then, I worry about a lot of things.

Such as any and all of the following: 
  • Is my water too hot too early?
  • Is everything that's going to touch my beer in its vulnerable state all squeaky clean and sanitized? 
  • Have I checked for the 100th time that the yeast smack-pack is expanding like it should?
  • Do I smell chlorine in that water?
  • Is it time to add the bittering hops? Now? Now? Now?
  • How much liquid have I lost because I have to test the sugar levels in the unfermented beer (and that wastes some, don't you know)?
  • Oh, hell...the open fermenter is sitting on the floor and we're standing over it...whatever you do, Don't Sneeze!
  • Am I having an aneurysm?
And so on....

But brewing with a partner, while chock-full-o-benefits, can present some interesting new challenges in the Nervous Nelly department. 

Because a partner can think of things to worry about that you never even dreamed of. 

Seriously, the concern that something may explode during a brew session never entered my mind. Until last weekend. But apparently, no fewer than fifteen different things involved in the brewing process have the potential to detonate.

Says Michael. In fact, he said it a lot.

And no amount of "Honey, it's never done that before," or "I swear there is no pyrotechnics segment in the brew schedule, not even in the fine print," or "You know you're crazy, right?" would satisfy him. 

'Cause he's a guy who understands physics, y'all. 

I guess that's what can happen when you brew with an engineer. You can end up with six hours of regular reassurance that something in that kitchen is going to prove (or violate) some physical law. (And it's probably gonna be messy to boot.) 

So, after hearing such gloom/doom repeatedly prophesied, you can't help but wonder, "Could that [insert practically anything here] really explode?" And, "How have I avoided such a catastrophe before?"

The good news is nothing ever did explode. (Although the smoke detector did go off. First sign of the apocalypse, I'm sure.)

Last weekend's concerns regarding the Sodom and Gomorrah-like decimation of our kitchen notwithstanding, we generally seem to offset each other's anxieties on brew day. So, it's all good in the end. And pretty funny in the interim.

Plus, since he's the guy who gets "the physics," he's also the guy who gets the math formulas and the Excel calculations. (Yes, Virginia, brewing can involve math and spreadsheet applications.) So, this former English major is extremely grateful for the hard-science brain power.

And the company.

Even if that company is no less crazy than I am. But I'm guessing that's one of the things that makes it all the more fun.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The End of My Hobby Crisis

Welcome to my new blog, devoted to the joyous topic of homebrewing!

A bit of exposition to help get us going, and then we're off like a prom dress.

I started brewing circa 2005. I was living in Oregon at the time and had just discovered craft beer. (You can't help but experience craft beer in the Pacific NW.) Once I figured out what good beer tasted like--because that's something I hadn't learned during my MGD/Michelob/college-drinking days--my ex thought I might like to brew my own. So, for Christmas one year he bought me one of those beer-kit-complete-with-its-own-plastic-keg monstrosities. He also bought me poker chips. You'd think he was married to a dude, eh? Awesome Christmas gifts that year, let me tell ya! (No sarcasm there....they really were awesome.)

I never did do anything with that keg/kit. It sat on a shelf, untouched, until we moved (at which point, I think I threw it out). But it did get me thinking about brewing as a hobby. After thoroughly reading "Homebrewing for Dummies" (yes, laugh as you should!), I purchased the basic homebrewing equipment and some real homebrewing books (I'm looking at you, Charlie Papazian and John Palmer).

After a couple of years of some steady brew activity, life kinda got in the way. A divorce, a remarriage, several major job changes, two complicated location changes (from East Coast to Midwest to New England), and a string of some pretty sub-standard kitchens all put a dent in my brewing pursuits.

But, I realized quite recently that I needed to start brewing again. I'd done a couple of batches in 2009-2010 with my husband, Michael, and he'd really enjoyed it too. So, despite our current crappy kitchen, we decided it was time to dust off the fermenters (we'd be using them as fan stands--no lie) and get to brewing again. We figured we couldn't go wrong with the following equation:

Quality "us" time + beer ingredients = BEER!

We found a great homebrew store close by, loaded up our shopping cart, and got to work.

Ahem...last weekend.

Just to keep things even more interesting this time, I thought I'd write about it. Right here. Combining my love of brewing with my love of writing. It's the perfect lineup.

What do I want from this blog? I'm hoping to share experiences and revelations (and some failures, I'm sure), get wisdom from other homebrewers, and just generally document my rediscovered homebrewing life. And it's about time. If I had let my hiatus go on much longer, I would no longer be able to legitimately tell people that I brew my own beer!

(Fair warning: I may write about other things once in a while. But I'll give you a heads-up if that's the case.)

Anyfermentation, I'm pleased to say that our first brew is bubbling up a storm in the other room, and I'm happy as a clam about it.

Details to follow. Because our first brew day in over a year was inspiring, funny, stress-inducing (at times), but a glorious time was had by all (two of us). And so far, at the risk of being too optimistic, we've been ridiculously successful. We have the Excel spreadsheets to prove it. Yes, Michael and I make for a highly geeky brew team.

That's my intro for you. I'll be back with something more content that this first post is put to bed.

Slàinte mhòr!