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!