On the Limits of Brewing

If you read about brewing on the internet and elsewhere, you might get the impression that it’s a very exacting process. All those numbers and timetables, odd ingredients and names. It might feel like you ought to be watching for the instant your specific gravity hits the right point or you whole batch will be ruined.

Well, I’m here to tell you that things don’t have to be that precise. For a couple of reasons, my brewing schedule over the past years has gotten more… sporadic, shall we say. And you know what? Most of my beer is turning out fine.

My biggest issue is how easy it is to leave beer in secondary for a long time. But let me give you some examples of what’s happened here that show some limits.

One case was a Scotch ale we brewed on 7/2/11. It moved to secondary after a couple weeks (I still tend to be good about that so beer isn’t resting on two inches of dormant yeast). It sat in the carboy then until 11/4/11–four months–and it still turned out very nice. Now, who knows, maybe I missed the world’s finest Scotch ale by not bottling in a more timely fashion, but it didn’t explode or anything.

There is a limit, though. Another batch was a Red ale on brewed 4/3/11. Unfortunately, when we came to bottle it at the same time as that Scotch ale, it had gone off. So somewhere between 4 and 7 months was the point of no return.

Now don’t misunderstand…. I’m a happier brewer when I’m churning through, bottling up as soon as possible,  the beer flowing steadily. But if like me, your life intrudes, don’t panic! Everything will be all right.

Thai Pale Ale

Amber has been on Andrew and I for some time to make a beer involving ginger, lemongrass and Thai chilies. Needless to say, it sounded a bit too experimental at first.

Then last year at the Oregon Brewers Festival, there was a brew that leaned heavy on the ginger. Spicy, but still definitely beer (not just strong ginger-ale). We sampled it, and our minds were changed.

It took a while before we got to it, but the basic recipe was a pale ale with these added to the boil:

  • 20 stalks of lemongrass (45 minutes)
  • 2 packs of Kafir lime leaves (45 minutes, approximately 30 leaves per pack)
  • 4 large hands of ginger, coined (30 minutes)
  • 10 hot Thai peppers (15 minutes)

The result has been well received. It is very gingery and next go around I think we’ll do something to up the citrus content, as the lemongrass is pretty subtle. It was also a little foamy, which is about the only downside. I’m voting to increase the peppers, but as the hot food fiend I might be the outlier there. We’ll also probably use an amber ale base instead, as the pale ale almost disappears behind the potent ginger in this batch.

In any case, an interesting experiment with great promise for the future.

Ancient Yeast!

Just a quick link to a story I read in Wired. Apparently, a scientist has harvested yeast from an insect trapped in amber, and they’re making a beer out of it. Very interesting, hoping I’ll be able to find it to get a taste.


In other news, have an Amber Ale and a Scottish Strong Ale in the secondary. I’m feeling a whole lotta bottling coming on.

The Four Stages of Homebrewing

So today is a momentous occasion, full of brew-significance. We have beer in (or soon to be in) all four stages of the homebrewing life-cycle.

First off, our 10 gallon batch of Amber ale is ready to make the move from secondary into bottles. I’m a bit wary of this batch, as it turned out unusually light. I don’t want to make no weak beer! But we’ll see how it comes out. One of our other “weaker” brews as the Wit, and lots of other people liked it even if it wasn’t Andrew and my favorite.

Making the jump from primary to secondary is the Thai Pale, put down by my lovely wife Amber and I a couple weeks ago. This is a 5 gallon experiment, spiked with a massive amount of ginger (think head-sized), lemongrass and some spicy chiles that hopefully won’t bite back too much. Those little Thai chiles can be really hot if you’re not careful.

The third beer that’s happening is a porter we’re going to brew. We’re aiming for something with a little more chocolaty notes this time. I know, that’s normally a stout sort of thing, but we don’t like playing by the rulebook here.

So what about the fourth? Well, Amber’s out of town so I’ve invited tons of the guys I know over for a day of brewing, video games (MARIOKART WII!) and chili. And of course, what would a guys’ brewing day be with consuming some beer? Just doesn’t seem like it should be allowed.

There you have it, the four stages of homebrewing, all in one 24 hour period. Life is good.

Long time…

…both since I wrote on the brew blog (or any other blog for that matter), and since we put some beer down. It took several months after my daughter Coraline was born for us to get back into the brewing routine, and when we did the beer languished in secondary for a really long time.

Back in August we started a Russian Imperial Stout. Looking to imitate my favorite beer on Earth–Rogue’s Russian Imperial Stout–it was a spendy batch, with nearly double the ingredients for those voracious yeast to chew on.
With that well under way, we also put an IPA in the works. We’d done one late last year, and it has been among our most popular brews when sharing with friends and family. The intensely hoppy beers of the Northwest have been growing on me, I have to admit. I’m still most fond of the dark beers, but some nice, spicy, hoppy beer doesn’t go down wrong either.
So that got us up until the end of September, with both batches in the secondary when life suddenly exploded. Weeks flew by, we were out of town, swamped around the house, didn’t manage to catch Andrew for ages, and before I knew it I couldn’t exactly remember when we’d made that beer in the secondary. Every once in a while it’d bloop┬áin the corner. There wasn’t anything green or pink or orange growing, but I felt guilty for not treating my beer right. It deserved to be bottled and enjoyed.
This past weekend we finally got together and bottled (along with brewing a rather pale looking batch of Amber–we’ll see how that goes). There was a great deal of tension as we got the first bit of the beer into a glass to sample, then move it on into the bottling bucket. Would it be ruined by the long sit on a small layer of yeast? Would the light and time in the carboy have flushed ten gallons down the drain?
Hallelujah! The Russian was excellent, even flat (we prime in the bottles). The IPA also showed no ill effect from the time in the carboy, although it was a little sweeter than I remember the recipe being before. Hopefully it’ll smooth out in the bottles.
So there’s an answer for those who might be wondering how long you can have a beer sit in secondary. Three or four months doesn’t seem to be an issue, though I’m not likely to try that experiment again.

Carboy Cleaning Dilemma

So I committed the cardinal sin of brewing (apart from not sanitizing properly to begin with). I didn’t clean up properly after myself, and now I’m paying the price.

One of our plastic buckets wasn’t sealing right anymore on our last batch. On an evening brew after the shops were closed, we ended up in a bind with nowhere for half our 10 gallon batch to go. We decided to do our primary fermentation in a carboy we had handy. Tons of people do it, even friends we’ve brewed with. It can’t be a bad idea, right

Well, when I moved to the secondary, I neglected to clean the carboy immediately. Those of you who have brewed before probably know what happened from there. I got me a ring o’ yeast I couldn’t get rid of.

My lovely wife purchased a carboy jet washer, and although it did a great job on the bottom two thirds of the carboy, it didn’t have quite the right angle to up at the top where the worst smears were. With another batch in primary needing a move soon, I needed that carboy back. But even after soaking for days and applying the jet, I couldn’t get it all out.

Come that thar intrawebs to the rescue. I found lots of references to similar tools to my jet, lots of notes to clean things promptly (yeah, I know now), and then I stumbled onto this reference to “super clean carboys”.

The gist is to put a quarter cup of rice, a couple tablespoons of baking soda in, and then add just enough water to slosh around. This agitating mixture has enough grit to get even that stubborn yeast off.

Bingo! With a few minutes worth of elbow grease, the carboy was clean as a whistle. Don’t know quite what I would have done if I hadn’t found that.

So here’s a shout out to the Cross Street Irregulars Brew Club. You saved my brew!

A Year in Brews

Hard to believe, but it’s been over a year since Andrew and I started brewing. Things have gone much better than I had originally imagined, and I’m enjoying myself even more than I would have thought possible.

In celebration, here’s a rundown of the brews we’ve made and how they turned out:

  • Porter (P1) — Our first attempt, 1 1/2 gallons short and a little weird, but drinkable. Ah, sweet success!
  • Stout (S1) — Tasty, and especially excellent after the “passable” port
  • Trappist Ale (T1) — Kit was a Christmas gift. Very nice, with the bubble gum/banana fruitness expected of the variety.
  • Nut Brown (B1) — First real failure… just turned out with a weird flavor, overly foamy.
  • Porter (P2) — Fantastic redux on the porter. One of my favorite batches.
  • Irish Red (R1) — Good red color, nice flavor, a solid entry.
  • West Coast Stout (S2) — Great stout. When I found one more six-pack of it recently in the utility room, I actually cheered.
  • Habanero Amber (H1) — Solid Amber ale + habanero kick. Not kill-your-taste-buds-off hot, but you definitely need another drink by the end of it.
  • Belgian Wit (W1) — Our lightest beer yet. Expected more of a spiciness from the coriander and orange zest, but drinkable.
  • IPA (I1) — Enter the hops! Not quite as light as many IPA’s in color, but good flavor.
  • Stout (S3) — Another good stout. Intended for gift-giving (really, I will give it away soon once it’s rested enough!)
  • Porter (P3) — Ditto the S3. Good porter effort, but not long for my home unfortunately.
  • Porter (PB) –Arg, busted thermometer screwed the batch!
  • Porter (PB’) — Still in the carboys, but it’s the “baby porter” for after my wife can drink again.
  • Stout (SB/S4) — Stout base for a bourbon spiked stout. Still in the primary, but hopes are high!

All in all, far more success on that list than I expected getting into the brewing game. Plenty of other challenges ahead, but then the rewards make it all worthwhile.

Keep brewing out there folks!

From Joy to Devastation

My beloved wife, who not only allows but supports my brewing efforts, got me the top item off my list for Christmas–a 15 gallon brew pot. No more rushing brewing two batches on a weekend to get the 10 gallons of beer down that we want, nay, need.

It’s a fantastic brew pot as well. Converted from an old commercial beer keg (which just plain makes it look cool), the top’s trimmed off and a spigot is welded down low. There’s a second hole for an optional thermometer which we may purchase later. As Amber’s already saying, “You’re ‘spensive.” To top it all off, a special grate and pipe for the bottom keep hops from clogging the drain and enables us to get every last slurp of beer out. Sweet!

So a couple weeks ago Andrew and I came around to our first brew with the new pot. The evening got off to a rocky start. I started assembling the pot with the straining pipe, and found that it wouldn’t quite fit. One of the pipes was too long by about an inch and a half, and with the grate around it there was no way to make it seat properly. Worse, I’d already fitted the bushing and couldn’t get it back off, so we needed a replacement bushing if we were to cut the pipe.

Annoyed but determined to brew, we headed to Home Depot. While looking for the right part, Andrew broke out his Leatherman and managed to work the bushing off. We bought a replacement anyway, but actually ended up using the original.

Having burned so much time on the excursion, we got home, sawed the pipe short, and started. We’d picked up a 15 gallon plastic fermenter from the local brew store, but it came without any holes drilled. We weren’t sure exactly how to drill it, whether we risked getting plastic bits inside, whether the seals on top should come out or not. In the face of this uncertainty, we decided to use our existing brew bucket plus a carboy. It was disappointing to not use the new gear, but the prospect of ruining a batch of beer seemed worse.

By this time, Amber started asking whether we really wanted to brew that night given how late it was already. I missed the subtle undertones and replied “Of course we want to brew!” On we forged into the glory of brewing 10 gallons at once.

It was a cold evening, but Andrew and I mostly hovered outside watching the boil. With the narrower pot than our old one, we got more foaming in the early stages than we’re used to, but nothing serious. Through the boil and on to the cool-down, everything was looking good.

Then I came out to check temperature on our cruise down to 80 degrees, lifted the thermometer from the wort and found broken glass. The thermometer bottom had shattered. Wax impregnated lead pellets even now settled, cozy and happy in the bottom of our new brew pot.

It was 1AM already, my wife was annoyed how late the brewing had gone, and we’d just lost our first batch in a year of brewing.

I felt like crying.

Demoralized and weary, we left the debris for clean-up the next day. What a sad day to pour ten gallons of good porter out, but the idea of drinking a waxy, leaden, glass-tinged brew stalled that idea out.

We’ve successfully used the new pot since, but it was a good reminder that you’ve always got to be prepared for the unexpected when you come to brew.

Taste of the All-Grain Goodness

This post is way overdue (as are many others). The silence on the blog is in no way an indication that the brewing has halted. In fact, we recently brewed just a day off from our one year brewing anniversary. There have been almost a dozen good batches since then, with only a couple missteps.

Andrew and I have been brewing from the start with malt extract. This makes for a much simpler brewing process, but also does give some limitations to the beers–there are only a few varieties of extract. The recipes work around that, providing extra flavor and character by the grain you steep in the water, but there’s only so much you can do.

We had the opportunity a while back to visit with a friend Andy to see how the other side of the brewing world works–all-grain. For us, this is a word that has conjured up fear and trepidation, images of extra work and exotic words like sparging. In all grain brewing, you start off with a huge pile of grain (something like 25 lbs. isn’t odd), grind it, then run hot water through it to make your wort.

The day was a blast, with three different batches running out on the driveway at Andy’s house, ample food and company besides. And we definitely learned a number of things about the all-grain. It’s not as intimidating as we thought.

The basic principle is that you hold water at a certain temperature (~145-150 degrees if I remember right) in the grain for a while. This gets out the sugars that our brewing gets from the extract, but you can vary the mix of your grain to get different results. It was also enlightening how much they relied on the hydrometers in this process to tell them when they’re hit the right mix they wanted in their boil.

Other interesting differences included making 10 gallon batches at a time with old converted kegs as the boiling vessels. While I’ve enjoyed making the 5 gallon batches, now that we’ve got a few recipes that bear repeating, scaling up seems like a good idea.

The last bit that was different was the final stage–Andy has a couple of taps in a fridge down in his basement, and so the beer just goes into 5 gallon kegs at the end. Although it’s a pipe-dream, I can imagine how nice it would be to not have to deal with 50 12 oz. bottles every time we come to bottle a batch of beer.

It’s still a ways out, but I see all-grain brewing in Andrew and my future.

Is it getting chile in here?

Today’s a momentous brewing day. Several weeks ago, Andrew and I did our first double-batch! He’d recently moved into his own home, and since we’ve got two houses, it only makes sense that we’d have two beers brewing.

So it’s bottling day for those next two batches. One is a redux on the stout that we’d done earlier, shooting for a bit more malty, less hoppy take. Turns out the original recipe we were using was more of a West Coast stout, which tends to the hoppiness more than we’d prefer.

The second batch was the more exotic and exciting–a habanero amber ale! We’d finally gotten comfortable enough with the last couple batches to try something a little different. Now one of my favorite beers ever is called the Hot Tamale is only available on tap at the Old Market Pub and Brewery, which I don’t live too close to. I’ve had a lot of chile beers that give you a hint of heat, but this beer was hot!

Given my love for all things spicy, we had to try this concoction ourselves. After talking to the guys at Main Street, we found the procedure was pretty simple. You put the peppers in for the last fifteen minutes of the boil. To test it out before-hand (and you should check it, since peppers vary wildly in heat levels!), just boil 1/20 of the pepper amount you’re considering for fifteen minutes, then let that cool all the way down to room temperature. Then test it out. This is going to be a bit hotter than the final product, and in our case was spicy! It’ll be a few weeks before we can give it a real check, but I’m hugely excited.

And to make matters even better, after bottling today, we’re going over to hang out with some friends who do all-grain brewing. Not sure I can imagine a better brewing day!