Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Spaghetti Westerns as Homebrewing Allegory

The last couple of weeks have been…eventful, on the brewing front. As with most things in life the happenings can be classified as good, bad, and ugly. (Incidentally, I believe that Tuco may be the greatest philosopher of all time, but my argument is too large to be contained in a mere blog post. Just trust me on this one.) I’ve given myself enough time to discuss the bad with an appropriate cognitive disinterest, so I can report all the happenings now. However, let’s start positive…

1. The Good

a)Despite my earlier trepidation, the IPA came through the secondary looking (and if I may be so bold, tasting) excellent. The bottling process went about as well as usual (see positive spin), and I’m really looking forward to trying this one in a couple of weeks.

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Again, there’s not guarantee that my inept siphoning didn’t destroy it in the bottling process, but I’m starting to think that it’s harder to ruin a batch of beer than I had originally supposed. (Note to self: check reference works for entries on “Famous Last Words” and “Counting Poultry Sources Before They Are in Fact Hatched.”)

b) My next batch of Amber (A Fat Tire clone, batch number 5 if you keep track of this kind of thing) seems to be doing well. The airlock is happily chugging away as we speak. This gives me hope that it survived the, um, unpleasantness described in “The Bad.” Ooh, foreshadowing…

2. The Bad

a) Where to begin? Let’s just say that batch number 4 (the Hefeweizen) was where the brewing gods decided to punish my growing beer related hubris. The events of the day went something like this. I polish and clean my shiny new wort chiller to prepare it for its first use. The early part of the process goes swimmingly. Everything’s sanitized, all the ingredients look beautiful, I even manage to not boil anything over. As the boil is finishing, I prepare the chiller…

And uh-oh. I should probably explain that I do all of my brewing in our kitchen. I’d love to have sort of a basement lair, but I just don’t. Our kitchen sink is the type with the pull out hose. This is actually of great use for cleanup, filling up the cooling tub, etc. but the problem is that you can’t remove the little filter thing from the end of the faucet and use the exposed threads. Meaning that the wort chiller cannot be attached as designed. Meaning that my stuff will be done boiling in about 10 minutes and I have no way to cool it. Uh-oh again. To be completely honest, I’d noticed that the attachment wouldn’t quite work as designed before I began the process, but I thought that I could get it on tight enough to approximate the correct usage without too much trouble. Boy was I wrong. When this became apparent, I frantically tried to jury rig a contraption to hold the hose tightly enough to the faucet to force the water through. The resulting whirligig was a repugnant combination of rubber bands, masking tape, and (dear God do I wish I was kidding)…twine. This is almost too embarrassing to honestly describe, let alone photograph, so mercifully no lasting evidence of this monstrosity exists. The real hell of the situation is that the thing didn’t even work (what a shock.) The result was that out of other feasible options, I basically sat there and held the hose to the faucet and even this didn’t work well enough to allow much flow through the chiller. The final result? What should have taken 10-15 minutes instead took about 45 thrilling minutes of standing beside the sink. However, even with the greatly diminished flow, the thing did it’s job and the wort was at about room temperature (74) at the end of the process. So, putting this unpleasantness behind me, I put it in the fermenter, pitched the yeast, secured the airlock and waited. And waited, and waited, and waited. Long story short? Never a single bubble in the airlock (it’s now been 9 days.) I had been worried about contamination due to the longer then expected exposure to the air, but I never expected to have yeast problems especially since I had the temperature closer to ideal than I ever have before. There’s really only one explanation that I can think of, and that’s that I killed the yeast with thermal shock. I used liquid again, and I did let it warm up to what I thought was room temperature (the packaging suggested 3 – 6 hours), but I guess the 3.5 hours that I gave it didn’t do the trick. Needless to say, the lesson for this batch is to always give the yeast at least the full 6 hours. I’m going to do an autopsy on this one today to see if I got any fermentation at all, but I really doubt it. Well, I was bound to ruin one eventually, so I’m doing my best to be philosophical and learn from my mistakes. I immediately resolved to get back on the horse and try again. This brings us to batch number 5…

b) At the behest of my lovely wife, I decided to try an Amber again for my next trick. She even accompanied me to the local homebrew shop and helped me pick out a Fat Tire clone along with a shiny new fermenter. (I’ve now doubled my capacity!) Furthermore, she helped me to devise a much more sophisticated approach to getting the wort chiller to work using actual plumbing supplies such as piping, couplings, etc. to improve upon my earlier Homer Simpson approach to the problem. After getting home, we tested our ingenious scheme, and… it still didn’t work. The problem this time is that the exterior of the faucet is too slick for the coupling to really attach, so that when we try to use it, it either doesn’t generate enough water pressure to force the water through the chiller due to the amount spewing out of the imperfect seal, or it generates so much pressure that the coupling shoots off the faucet, creating a mess on top of not working. Sadly, I decided that I’m just not going to be able to use the chiller with my current setup. Given this, I decided to go all out and purchased 14 lbs. of ice to put in my cooling tub to make it work a little more efficiently. With everything in place (and with my yeast already out of the fridge for 4 hours), I started brewing. Again, everything went great. I’m getting really comfortable with this part of the process. When the boil was finished, I transferred the wort to the new fermenter. So wait, you command. This all sounds good so far, why is this in the “bad” section? Ok, Ok, let me finish, you! After securing the lid, I started to insert the airlock. (In retrospect, I will never do this in this order again for reasons that will soon become apparent.) Whether the lid was poorly manufactured, or I just have the strength of Zeus (I find this to be the most likely explanation), the little rubber ring that holds the airlock in place immediately snapped off and fell…into the wort. Ouch. And it obviously does not float, so there was no recovering it. A few words that would not be acceptable in church were uttered at high volume. I now had two problems. First, there was now a little rubber ring in my beer. Second, I had no way to securely tighten the airlock, making it airtight. After settling down, I decided that the first problem wasn’t that huge. I sanitized the lid along with everything else, so I think the probability of it infecting anything is low. It IS going to be an oh so fun task to dig through the yeast bed to try and find this thing after fermentation, but that’s another story. The second problem was bigger. Luckily, I remembered that I had a shiny new role of silica tape that I had purchased in the attempt to adapt the chiller. I wrapped this around the base of the airlock, making the seal airtight (or so I hoped.) The good news here is that the cooling tub worked much better with the ice. (I had the wort at 75 in about 45 minutes.) After pitching my yeast (which had been out for over 6 hours this time thank you very much), I held my breath and waited. And waited. However, this time the airlock was chugging away in about 14 hours. Phew. This may end up being infected or undrinkable due to the airlock malfunction, but I’m cautiously optimistic. And if it’s not Ok? Well I learned something again and I’ll try batch number 6 next weekend.

3. The Ugly

Due to the yumminess of batch number 2 (the original Amber), we’re out of homebrew! Or very nearly out anyway. Since my IPA won’t be ready for another week at the earliest, I’m actually going to have to buy beer again. I’m strangely disappointed in myself, and vow to never let this travesty happen again. What can I say? You’ve got to have principles.

Incidentally, it’s unfortunate that I don’t know a single member of a homebrewing cabal made up of Michigan graduate students. If I did, and if I were to receive an e-mail from one of them giving me a shipping address, I would be able to ship them a wort chiller that they could use (since I can’t.) But since I don’t know anyone like that, it will continue to occupy a shelf in my house.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Some New Toys, a Second Attempt that Surpassed Expectations, and a Hopefully not DOA IPA.

The good thing about not updating for a long time is that you have lots to report once you do. Ok, so that’s a really sorry rationalization for being lazy, but there HAS been lots of activity on the brewing front.

First of all, I have made two acquisitions to add to the growing pile of brewing doodads.

The first was the best Valentine’s Day present ever courtesy of my lovely wife.

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Ain’t she pretty? No, that’s a picture of my new wort chiller not my lovely wife. If you’re really interested in seeing her, I can tell you about any number of websites on which numerous images of her are available…err, I mean nothing. I kid, I kid. Hi, honey!

I haven’t had a chance to use this yet, but I’m thinking about trying to brew a Hefeweizen this weekend, so it shouldn’t be too long.

In addition, I decided that it was time that I too owned a carboy (of the 5 gallon variety, I’m still small time.)

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This is my carboy. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Her name is Charlene. (Incidentally, that’s an obscure Stanley Kubrick joke. I haven’t really gone crazy and started giving inanimate objects names. Although, for some reason, I suddenly feel the need to give all of my pipes names…)

In addition to the new acquisitions, I am happy to report that the Amber Ale (batch no. 2) is a big hit. Again, I’m not going to win any awards any time soon, but it’s light years better than my first attempt. I’m pretty pleased to be honest.

Now for the bad news (or what may become bad news anyway.) As reported in my last post, I decided to try my hand at the yummiest of all beers (IMHO) an IPA. The good news is that the brewing itself went pretty well.

(See for instance the beautiful results of grain steeping.)

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Now for the bad news. As the purchase of the carboy (and the brewing of an IPA) might suggest, I decided to try a secondary fermentation. Bad idea. Why the problem? I can’t siphon to save my life. Either my siphon starter is a piece of junk, or I’m too stupid to use it. (For what it’s worth, my money’s on the latter.) Yes, I attempted to practice by transferring water from one bucket to another. The problem is that I can’t do that very well either, so I’m forced to rely on my old, high risk technique since I apparently can’t master a new one.

Since starting this hobby, I’ve been absolutely anal about sanitization. That’s a good thing, and the reason that the first two attempts turned out fairly tasty. However, it’s a little frustrating to have all this negated by inept siphoning that potentially exposes my beer to spoiling beasties anyway. This attempt was the worst yet, and I’m really scared that I may have ruined what was on its way to being a good IPA in the process. I guess I can only keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.

In any case, she’s pretty at this point.

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We’ll hope that my rampant stupidity hasn’t ruined it.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

A Good Beer Book and Jon Prepares for Batch Number 3

My recent reading included a non-fiction book about beer that I enjoyed enough to recommend, Travels With Barley: A Journey Through Beer Culture in America by Ken Wells. The author starts out with the premise that he’s searching for “the ultimate beer joint.” However, this aspect of the book never goes very far. (Although he does meet a number of amusing characters in bars at various locations across the country.) No, what makes this book an enjoyable read is the numerous and detailed digressions into specific strata of beer culture such as homebrewers (he judges a major competition at one point), craft brewers, and more esoteric topics such as yeast wrangling and even historical and “extreme” beers. I didn’t enjoy the discussion of the business models of the megabreweries as much (since they’re essentially just like any other gargantuan American company), but this was a small part of the overall book and probably a minor nit to pick. On the whole, I found it a very fun read, I learned a few things about the history and direction of the craft brewing movement, and I got reminded of why I have to take a beercation to Portland one of these days. I would strongly recommend the book if you have the time.

In other news, it’s a big day on the brewing front for Jon. First, I’m going to brew an IPA this afternoon, and I’m really looking forward to it. This is my absolute favorite style, so I’m hoping (or hopping, har har har) to get it right. I’m also going to try liquid yeast for the first time. Second, my amber should be ready to drink, so I may try a bottle of it this evening. It’s good that it’s ready, because I’m down to my last few bottles of the first batch. Pictures and a batch report in the near future. (Try to contain your raging impatience.)

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Simple present, complex future

Logged a few more hours of brewing this weekend. On Saturday, I continued my "apprenticeship" experiences with Joe and Mike as they brewed up a new batch of Oatmeal Stout. In the process we christened Mike's new carboy - he plans to slowly construct a setup of his own over the coming months. Conveniently, they happened to have their previous batch of Stout on tap for us to enjoy while we cooked - it was excellent. They also had a Belgian Ale and a Barley Wine on tap. Joe has a three-tap (2 in-door, 1 hand) kegerator. Good times were most certainly had.

On Sunday, my CO3 (which stands for "cohort 2003" - the year we began the ed psych program) group bottled our ESB and cooked the Cream Ale. We tried something new this time by using filtered water instead of straight tap. We had been given the impression that having a certain amount of minerals in the water is by and large a good thing. However, there are certainly extreme differences in a town/city's water supply. Experienced brewers seem to go to great lengths to ensure the right pH balance and mineral quality of their wort water (e.g., burton-izing). In any event, Georges got it in his head that we should try a batch with filtered water just to see what happens. The virtue of brewing with scientists, I suppose.

Another note on our approach to brewing. We have thus far only attempted "extract+grain" brewing, meaning that we use a base of malted barley extract that we augment by steeping specialty grains for different amounts of time and temperatures depending on the specific recipes. We have not yet, nor do we plan to anytime soon, attempted a partial mash or an all-grain process. Just seems a bit too complicated and messy for us right now. However, as Joe and Mike have informed me, over time the attentive homebrewer will notice that all beers made with the same brand of extract (e.g., Muntons) share a common taste. So it's conceivable that in the future when I have my own setup I'll experiment with some all-grain brewing from time to time. I look with fondness towards that future.

Enough whimsy. I have a full glass of Poor Richard's I.P.A. to enjoy. Cheers.

Friday, January 28, 2005

My Turn

Though Jon and I seem to share some obsessions, he's clearly better disciplined about documenting them. That being said, I think this blog is a terrific idea and I have every intention of chronicling my future brewing experiences here - starting now. A bit of background on my current setup and past brews is probably in order.

Some friends of mine in my UM graduate program became very intrigued last fall when I started talking about brewing beer - my brother's friend Joe had introduced he and I to the glorious process - and shortly thereafter we decided to partner up and share the cost and workload of brewing some beer of our very own. After weeks of hemming and hawing (and a retrospectively hilarious "mispurchase" by Georges and I... more on that later), we finally decided to go with a bottling operation. We promptly ordered a starter brewing kit from Leener's - which came with a "complimentary" box of Red Ale ingredients - and two additional carboys for secondary fermenting (one 5 g, one 3 g). Around this time Joe was kind enough to walk our entire group through a round of coffee stout brewing at his house, where we drank (from his awesome kegerator) and learned quite a lot. Shortly after that, we brewed the Red Ale, which we named Little Red (in Russian). Cooking, pitching, and bottling went off - much to our surprise - without a hitch, and a few weeks later we enjoyed a rather nice tasting beer. For our next round, we borrowed a recipe from Joe and made a dry stout (Lame Ankle). Also turned out great. Really great. For pictures of these two rounds of brewing, check out Jonathan's camera-phone documentation.

Over the holiday break, we brewed an India Pale Ale (Poor Richard's IPA) which we popped open early this week. Turned out really, really nice - hoppy and full, but still rather light. When we sampled the ale, we were in the process of cooking up our 4th wort - an Extra Special Bitter (ESB) Ale chosen by your's truly.

A bit more about our group and our decision-making process. The four of us (Georges, Marina, Jonathan, and myself) decided early on to be democratic while accommodating our respective predilections when choosing beers & beer recipes. Our solution, which has worked well so far, has been to have a rotating brewmaster who suggests 2 or 3 beers with corresponding recipes that we then vote on as a group. For example, I was brewmaster for the ESB and my other suggestion was an amber ale (recipe was a Fat Tire clone). In the event that, say, only half of the group wants to brew, say, an Oatmeal Stout then we will use the 3 g carboy and make a smaller batch. Which is, by the way, exactly what we're going to do next week (I friggin' love me some Oatmeal Stout). Incidentally, the decision to bottle instead of keg was made after we had decided to keg but purchased and moved into a basement what we thought was a fridge but turned out to be a freezer - as I suggested earlier, we can laugh at it only now. The embarrassment and frustration caused us to rethink our plan, and since there are 4 of us who do not all live in Georges' house the practicality of bottling became clear. We may soon, however, be trading our freezer for a fridge in which case kegging may again become possible for us. The decision will be a financial one. We'll see what happens.

A few more tidbits: (1) Our current setup only allows for Ales, because we can't ensure consistent cold temps for fermentation. This is okay... for now. (2) We haven't been worried too much about beer clarity, but we do need to start worrying more about head retension. Apparently there is some debate amongst homebrewers as to the best ways to ensure your beer "gives good head." Joe seems to think the use of crystal malts are important, so that's what we'll go with for the next little while.

Our next batch will be a Cream Ale, selected by Marina. Details to come.

Beer corner. Thank God for Georges' basement. And thank God for Georges letting us use Georges' basement. Posted by Hello


5 gallon stock pot. She's served us well, though I can't help but think she should be used for a huge jambalaya party once in her life. Posted by Hello


Poor Richard's I.P.A. Ain't she pretty? Posted by Hello

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Batch No. 2 – Electric Beeraloo (With a Bonus Epilogue on Batch No. 1!)

There’s a veritable cavalcade of brewing news to report this week. (Or is it merely a stampede of news to report? I can never be sure.)

Monday after work I headed to my most excellent local homebrew shop to pick up supplies for bottling the Amber that I brewed last week. In addition to the bottles. caps, etc. I decided to invest in a siphon starter. The people at this shop have been absolute godsends for these first couple of batches. They never mind answering my innumerable stupid questions, and they, without exception, have provided clear, easy to follow advice for overcoming the many, many problems that I’ve had rather than trying to just sell me a bunch of additional stuff. It has been much appreciated. (Incidentally, they also do a large internet/mail order business and I would obviously highly recommend them to anyone that’s not lucky enough to have a local shop.)

Anyway, on Tuesday it was time for bottling to begin. First, the celebration of cleaning and sanitation commenced. This culminated in an eerily beautiful display of balance…

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Okay, so maybe “eerily beautiful” is a bit strong, but when you’re as big a spaz as I am you take any opportunity to show people that you can balance 48 bottles in neat rows.

Then came the moment of truth. Again, I was almost shocked to see that I hadn’t ruined the batch in the fermenting process. The gravity was very close to specs. I’m once again unsure of the quality, but at least it wasn’t spoiled going into bottling. If I managed to not contaminate the beer in the bottling process again this time, I may have to come to the conclusion that I sort of know what I’m doing at least when it comes to cleaning/sanitization. I’m not sure that anyone could take the shock of that revelation, so let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

However, the bottling process went not as smoothly as last time due to repeated boneheadedness by yours truly. First of all, I once again had problems siphoning. Yes, even with my shiny new siphon starter. Consequently, before the next bottling attempt, I’m going to practice, repeatedly, the transfer of a liquid from one bucket to another bucket, This is just a stupid thing with which to still be struggling. Second, I almost forgot, to sanitize/boil my caps. I realized this, thankfully, before I put any of them on bottles, but I did have to stop in the middle of things to boil them, resulting in the beer being exposed to air longer than I would have liked. We’ll just keep our fingers crossed.

The final result…

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48 bottles this time!

Now form the news pertaining to labor to the news pertaining to the fruits of labor. After letting it carbonate for over 2 weeks, I’ve tried some of my first batch (the “Pilsner.”)

(As an aside, I’m aware that this isn’t a real Pilsner since I didn’t ferment it at very low temperatures. Oddly enough, the recipe called for the standard 68 – 75 degrees F, but I’m aware of the distinction. I’m just not set up for fermenting at these temperatures until I get a fridge. Wait, don’t let Claudia know I’m thinking about buying a brewing fridge. She’s already one step away from scheduling an intervention over all of this.)

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The verdict? It’s actually not half bad believe it or not. Dare I say even a little yummy? It’s very hoppy which is always a big plus for me. I like it, and my gaming buddies didn’t spit it out, so it must be at least drinkable. My one complaint is that the carbonation is a little inconsistent from bottle to bottle, but this may improve by letting it sit a little longer. To be honest, I’m pretty pleased with the quality for my first batch ever.

I know that I’m not going to be winning any awards any time soon, but the bottom line is this:

I have gallons and gallons of decent beer that I brewed myself, and that’s a pretty damn cool thing to be able to say in my book.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Wife’s Out of Town You Say? To Destroy the Kitchen!

A day off? The wife's in DC? Time to try to brew again. The target for the second attempt was an amber ale. (Again, just a kit. It’s going to be a long, long while before I’m good enough at this to try my own recipes.) Overall, things went much smoother (at least I think so.) The good news is that my airlock is chugging away this morning, so I once again know that whatever I get will in fact be fermented. I think that’s the really important thing don’t you? I’m glad that we’re all in agreement.

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1 lb. of grains. Now THAT’S a grain bag.

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My ultra sophistimacted wort chilling apparatus. Yes, the bottles are filled with ice. What else would they be filled with? Come on, give me a little credit. Seriously, this is still the part that’s giving me the most trouble. The ice bottles helped, but the process still took way longer than I think it should based on the stuff I’ve been reading. I may spring for a chiller next time.

The good news is that I can try at least a bottle or two of my Pilsner (the first batch) as early as Monday. That’s the point at which I realize that I contaminated everything during the bottling process and have 46 bottles of sludge, but I can dream until then.

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