Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bottle Bombs Part II ft. The Souring of the IPA


It appears to me that what bore fruit in batch #9 (Scottish Ale) had its origins in batch #8 (Cherry Stout). My first indication was a few days ago when I had a tasting at my Aunt's Day of the Dead party...

...The scene was set. It was over 2 months since I made it, personal tastings had been a roaring success and I too had the highest of hopes for people's enjoyment of my stout endeavors. But alas, the best laid schemes or mice and men go oft awry. I did tastings of the Cherry Stout along with the Sour IPA (batch #10) and that itself was something of a chaotic experience. Much like its predecessor, the IPA had clearly suffered from infection, though in place of excessive carbonation this one had soured like so many new age sours one might procure from several cutting edge micro/nano breweries these days. I personally am not a fan so this one has been hard to have tastings for. I seem to provide it from a position of apology, which sours (pun intended) the experience in some ways. Some loved it, some hated it and still others were indifferent and yet appreciative of the development and the sampling of new things.

And then the tasting of the stout.

I've been romanticizing this for some time it must be said. Meandering treatises on the pros and cons of aging and fanciful yarns of harsh winter nights being warmed by a feisty fruity stout holding the night at bay notwithstanding, it has been something of a disappointment.

The party in full swing, I announced the tasting of the stout and friends and family gathered around in eager anticipation of the fruit of my labor. The textbook bottle-opener hiss... and then more. Much more. A fully bonafide gusher. This wasn't meant to be. The stout was supposed to be different. It was the Scottish that was the aberration. But alas it seems it wasn't to be, the Scottish was a victim of the Stout's intransigence.

When cooled sufficiently they are palatable, pretty darn good to be honest, and some are more explosive than others. A perfect example of this was coming home from work last night to the smell of dried stale beer from an unknown location. After a bit of investigation it turned out it was coming from everything in the brewing closet!

What goes up...

...must come down.

An oddly cool looking configuration.
For some reason the peripheral bottles were untouched

This was the real deal Holyfield ladies and gentlemen. None of this subtle cracking and leaking and sitting straight up belying its shattered nature. If not for the box it was in we would have been digging shards of glass out of pretty much every surface in the closet. 

This experience leaves me feeling rather sanguine nonetheless. I kind of enjoy the clean up as it is a task a brewer would undertake and by doing it I feel like more of a brewer. We can chalk batch #8, #9, #10 up as mistakes (in part, it must be said, truly beautiful mistakes) but the scare of #9 gave birth to a much more thorough cleaning and sanitization routine. Batch #11 (Winter's Discontent Spiced Ale) is looking pretty clean and tasting good. It'll be going into the bottle sometime this week and the ginger is starting to ease off allowing for a more complex flavor profile.

Looking to the future, I think its time to dust off the old favorite, the genesis of endeavors. I think next on the docket is to be the good ol' Pistachio Porter. And lets not forget that just on the horizon is an all grain paradise...

The Bayou Classics are in and testing well!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

To let it be or not to let it be... that is the question?

The question of age and conditioning in beer is as important and potentially contentious as it is in wine (and people). The very act and method of brewing is a study in time and patience. It is a commonly held belief that the IPA is the beer of youth. A young IPA holds more of its hoppy and bitter edge, and this will mellow out over long periods of aging. So as the theory goes, taste early and taste often! I must admit to having been ignorant of this at the outset, and the first two IPAs I made suffered the whole 3-4 week bottle conditioning process without a sampling. However, do not misunderstand me here, they were fine beers, and have done naught but spur me on in my forthcoming brewing endeavors. But can I go forward living with the doubt? What of their status at week 1 or week 2? As I learn more about this style (and rationalize my process) I see that there's little to be lost in having the complete experience of each beer one makes. I'm currently only brewing 5 gallon batches, and whilst that doesn't leave huge tracts of room for waste, one or two bottles in the early weeks of conditioning probably wouldn't impact things too much. After all this remains an exploratory phase.

We all have our own barrel warehouse right? 

Which brings me to a current conundrum, which I am going to say is providing an exciting learning curve! As summer has faded and the foreboding clouds and ominous nights are drawing in, one seeks greater comfort than can be found in the arms of a crisp lager or summery hefeweizen. I seek now instead the velvety security blanket of the stout to ward off winter's chill. In a seemingly prescient move, I actually made my stout in the depths of August's summer reign; reasoning that I'd miss it were it not to be ready until the following spring (I made it a cherry stout to afford a fond reminiscence of Summer's glory). And in truth I've been as patient and faithful as I could have hoped. It was bottled and primed two months to the day after it had been tucked in for fermentation, and now I sit here musing after 20 days conditioning.

I'll level with you here and now; I have tasted it and not just at hydrometer readings. I had a glass that somehow(!) got left over from bottling, and after about 18 days in conditioning I cracked one open to try it. Perhaps somewhat predictably it has proved delectable. The sourness of the cherries (more about them another time) really offsets the sweetness and cuts the heaviness. But now I research the style more and more and am left with one stark realization: conventional wisdom dictates that stouts (and particularly Imperial Stouts - this bad boy clocks in at a burly 9.6% ABV) are aged for near implausible* lengths of time. I feel I should probably go anywhere up to and beyond a year for a truly well aged stout, which gives me pause. I want to live this stout now and enjoy it over the winter months, but in such small batch size this would surely belie its true character. Approaching 3 months aged it would seem silly to go on a spree of consumption and polish it all off before the year is out, but it is so good! The better parts of myself will have to be disciplined and maybe I should trick myself into stowing 2-4 bottles somewhere that I cannot get at to afford the true stout experience. Where an IPA can pass you by fleetingly if you linger overlong, hubris can have you chasing things in a stout that are yet to be. A study in wistfulness if ever there was one. Is patience the ultimate virtue?

*At least for this eager new brewer

Friday, October 12, 2012

The New Rig - Part #1: Keg Procurement (Incl. a short discourse on All-Grain brewing and morality)

First of all, major shout out to Scott Kaczorowski - he put together the most viable looking guide for making my own All-Grain brewing system. I looked at many and found the 3 tier, gravity-fed system to be the best use of my means and level of expertise. As such I see this as most homebrewers probably do, as a stepping stone. I'll probably always want to add things and simplify/sophisticate my set up, but Scott made this brilliant set up seem achievable for even this metal and wood shop novice.

At the heart of this system is the time-honored and brutal simplicity of man vs. nature. Harnessing the awesome natural power of gravity to produce delicious and life-affirming results. Also, you might get a bit of a buzz for your trouble ;). In its most basic form, a 3 tier gravity-fed system has a vessel for each of the imperative steps of all-grain brewing:

  1. The top Keg - Hot Liquor Tank (HLT) - this is where the water for the Mash is heated to the required temperature.
  2. The middle Keg - Mash/Lauter Tun (MLT) - this is where said heated water Mashes the grains by virtue of its temperature creating enzymatic activity enough to convert malt starches into delicious fermentables. This vessel also serves the double purpose of being where Lautering takes place. This is the process of flushing water through to extract said fermentables from the spent grains 
  3. The bottom Keg - Boil Kettle - does exactly what it says on the tin. This is where the extracted fermentables (aka wort - pronounced wert*) are boiled and any hop and special late additions are made.
So I made my decision to make keggles, as that is obviously the most aesthetically pleasing route one can take here (chicks just don't dig the cooler man!). It seemed like a cheaper and more fun way to go about things, and the idea of building it myself is and was appealing.

The first question was how to go about it, as I'd read many articles on the shady business of the keg black market. I guess there's a whole ethical question about where resold kegs come from and how they are acquired. I used craigslist to get mine, and some transactions were not without moral ambiguity. For instance, the first one I ended up with was plastered with stickers from nearby paragon of craft ales, Fremont Brewing. This stank to high heaven of course, but I bought it anyway (I had driven all the way up to Snohomish for it after all). A couple hours on the drive home spent wrangling on the morality of cutting it up and stripping the stickers and I knew what I had to do. I returned the keg to Fremont Brewing at the next business hour opportunity and asking for nothing was gratefully treated to a growler of my choice on the house (gotta love their Interurban IPA). The beer was good, but the feeling of having done the right thing was even more satisfying. I like to think I notched a couple of brew-karma points that day.

After this episode my searches were a little more careful and I was more thorough in finding out the origins of my purchase. In the end I have 3 units which are of satisfactory origin. I have one Anheuser-Busch one, which was already converted before I bought it, one Heilemann one (a now defunct mega-brewery) and one Coors one (I mean come on... Coors? Really?).

Keggley goodness!
Also pictured: a 7.75gal Sanke Keg I got ahold of (which I'm still scratching my head over using), my weldless Mash-Conversion kit and obviously a drill. And that gives me a excellent segue to...

...Coming Soon - Part #2 - Cutting & Drilling! Gotta run folks, I have a Spiced Winter Ale that's calling to me with its Siren Song and thankfully for me won't make itself! 

*I know you're probably excited about the fun and arbitrary brewing jargon being thrown around here. I know I always have a hard time explaining to people whys and wherefores behind brewing terms. My favorite exchange was when it came time to pitch the yeast on one batch. My girlfriend asked me, "What does 'pitch' mean?" and my lame response: "Putting it in."  This and much more bizarre wordsmithery (that's right, I said it!) awaits the inquisitive new homebrewer!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Batch #8 - Cherry Stout Bottling Day

28 bottles all sanitized and ready to go

This is one that I've tried to age for a while. I made it on 8/6/12 from a Papazian recipe base, and I have been waiting with bated breath for it whilst also trying to age it as long as possible. In the end I bulk aged it for exactly 2 months, bottling on 10/6/12. This one had been a challenge to find the required cherries. I had wanted to get fresh ones, but it seemed that was not to be. A devastated sour cherry harvest and grocery stores' general proclivity toward sweet cherries meant I had to find other options. I guess I could have gone to the source to try and get the fresh stuff, but I was getting itchy brewing hands and so I opted for Oregon Fruits Canned Sour Cherries. I used the whole 8-pack and as they were already pitted and in water I was able to just put them all in the primary for a week.
I'm going to try and condition this one for a month or so. There was enough for 21 bottles, and nearly a pint left over. I decided to just celebrate and drink it. It was pretty glorious, leaving potential for something stellar post carbonation. I carbonated with 3.5oz. corn sugar in a pint of boiling water. I was sure to mix it evenly to avoid disproportionate carbing.

There was still a little yeast activity, but it was time.
O.G. 1.102
F.G. 1.029
Proj. ABW - 7.7%
Proj. ABV - 9.6%

Bottle Bombs!

Not looking bad...
Unfortunately batch #9 contracted some kind of infection between primary and secondary fermentation (we've since gone nuclear on all our equipment with Star San). Based on the research I've done it seems this was some kind of Lacto Bacillus infection. While not a show stopper it does render this batch somewhat... experimental shall we say. Some of them are turning out fine, others very heavy with sediment, and yet others gushing multiple feet in the air upon opening.

This seems pretty rare but I've read stories, some sounded pretty dangerous and messy - especially this one. So one day we hear a thudding sound and search the whole apartment looking for something that had presumably fallen off a shelf or similar. Finding nothing we continued our regular evening. Later when coming to check on a batch in our brew closet I found a small pool of beer in the top of our primary fermentation bucket. My first thought was that the primary had blown out of the fermentation lock, but a cursory taste didn't gel with the IPA I'd recently tucked away. Eventually I noticed that the beer was dripping down from the shelf above, the bottle shelf. All the bottles looked fine from the top down, but all were sitting in a puddle of beer. I ended up having to remove the lot to check each one.

See the odd one out?
How about now?
Looks like this one broke clean
Really something of a lucky near miss

So one of these bottles had the bottom shear clean off and split in half, with the upper portion sitting in the newly widened base. It was a hassle to clean up the whole closet, two fermenters and 20-30 bottles, but I was glad to have dodged a bullet in terms of injury and property damage.

Lesson learned: mix the priming sugar more thoroughly. I'm not sure if this would have helped what with the Lacto infection, but its good practice anyway and I have had uneven conditioning with less deadly consequences. As for #9, I think I'm going to put it away and see if it sours up. But it might be a lost cause depending on my ongoing bottle needs. Either way there will be kegging in my future.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

9/19/12 - Batch #7 comes to fruition

On the 14th of July our Abbey Singel was born. Based on a Papazian recipe, this was a mini-mash/extract with Pale DME and Aromatic & Crystal Malts and mix of Challenger (Bittering), Saaz/Northdown (Flavoring) and Saaz (aroma) in a 60 minute boil. It was a 5 gallon batch pitched with Wyeast Belgian Abbey Ale liquid yeast starter pack at an O.G. of 1.053. With an F.G. of 1.012 we bottled 8/25/12 for a projected ABV of 5.4%.

#7 - Abbey Singel. Delicious

Looking back at the time lines this seems longer than I'd planned, but this brew wasn't unleashed until 9/19/12. I'm a bit sad we won't know how it tasted in the early days but it sure delights now!

The Original Rig

A new brewer's tools
Thar she blows! My original setup was procured on 1/21/12 from one of the fabulous Local Homebrew Stores in Seattle - Bob's Homebrew Supply. It's been a trusty format for learning the ropes and making some mighty fine brews in the process. It was also fun carrying all the gear home on the bus - we got some great attention and knowing glances. People in Seattle know their homebrew kit.  I'm essentially still brewing with it (pending the new build). Batch #10 just went into the fermenter last Sunday, its an experimental IPA which I have high hopes for - more later.

I've loved the convenience of brewing in my kitchen, but an ever increasing vision, a burning desire for learning and expansion and a recent introduction to the boil-over have me yearning for a bigger and better system. I've got a 3 tier gravity-fed keggle system in the works and I'll post about that soon. Maybe it will come out as a multi-post affair for ease of digestion.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Journal Entry #1: The Test Batch - 1/22/2012 (ft. a fond reminiscence)

As a cautious beginner I wanted something in the way of hand holding for my first batch. But my intrepid sense of adventure wouldn't allow for just any cookie cutter step-by-step guide. As a brewer I've found myself reading all manner of instructional books, articles and forum posts (the first of many shout outs to Homebrew Talk). It is great to launch yourself into a new hobby obviously, and thanks to the likes of Charlie PapazianJohn Palmer and myriad other pioneers and associations there's an embarrassment of riches for the new homebrewer to draw from.

I had previously skimmed parts of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing Vol. 3, Papazian's legendary tome, a few years ago, following a misguided attempt at a Victoria Bitter kit from my Local Homebrew Store. Now don't get me wrong here, I've nothing against homebrew kits; they are a great gateway for new brewers. But I was young. I was impatient and I was sloppy. I remember fondly hoping (in vain it turned out) that my mother's stock pot would have enough capacity for our boil. I remember how cavalier we were about cleanliness and near ignorant we were about sanitation. We did it though, me and my mate Pete made 'our' beer. It didn't matter at the time that we oxygenated the inoculated wort or that we primed each bottle with a dry and very roughly estimated teaspoon of regular white sugar. It was fun, it was new, it was 5 gallons of beer all for ourselves!

It turned out pretty OK. I remember thinking it was the best ever, but in truth it was exactly the sum of its parts. You could say it was the results of a beer kit put together by amateurs without proper regard to procedure. But in truth it was something more, it was a harbinger of things to come, an early warning of an all consuming passion. In many ways, it was destiny. I don't really remember how it tasted, and I've still never had a real VB. Perhaps I never should...

Notwithstanding these digressions, in stepped Randy Mosher and Radical Brewing in the form of a timely anniversary gift. Mosher puts an interesting slant on brewing, with an engaging brief history laden with off-beat facts and a daringly atypical recipe list incorporating unconventional and exotic ingredients such as habanero peppers,  chai, cardamom and henbane. More important for my needs at that juncture however, was the style of the first timer's guide it contained. Entitled "Your First Radical Brew", Mosher gives the novice a helping hand, but wide margins within which to work. Instead of an ironclad recipe, you get a ranges of ingredient amounts and the freedom to toy in between the lines to create your first golden/dark American ale.

Mine ended up something of a dark porter. I felt like going all out on dark ingredients and plumped for 6.6lb Thomas Cooper's Dark Liquid Malt Extract, added after steeping 12oz Crystal Malt 135-160 Lovibond up to 200°F. I also decided to get local and hop it up with 8oz of 8.8% Alpha Acid Cascade hops added in quantities of 1/4 at 60 minutes, 1/4 at 20 minutes and 1/2 at the end of the boil. A direct pitch Wyeast activator was used to inoculate the wort once temperature was between 70-80°F. Cooling time was and remains one of the more contentious parts of my brew days (until the impending purchase of an appropriate heat exchange device is made) and my process is pretty much an ice bath. This method is both frustratingly slow and a contamination risk. I am looking forward to adding some form of wort chiller to my set up at the nearest convenience. The yeast was pitched at room temperature onto a wort of 1.040 gravity, giving it ample opportunity to produce a tasty and mid-range alcoholic dark ale.

My first brew was a great experience, and I enjoyed taking on what I then perceived as the ultimate nuts and bolts of brewing so soon after deciding it would be a cool thing to get into. I revelled in the timing, the method and the thoroughness of sanitizing (all my gear was new so it was just a case of a quick rinse and then a soak in my newly-acquired one-step sanitizer). It all seemed so involved and in a real sense a daunting exercise full of imperative steps that I would eventually learn (the hard way) to find ways not to omit.

A somewhat humorous incident occurred during gravity testing to assess the end of fermentation. On 2/5/2012 and 2/6/2012 I got steady readings of 1.009, indicating the end of fermentation. Unfortunately prior to my third, and to be final reading - 2/7/2012, I made the error of resting my hydrometer horizontally on the counter. Either the hydrometer came alive or the rumors of my counter-top's level have been greatly exaggerated as it deigned to roll off onto the ground and break in half. I was stricken, how could this have gone so wrong? After some agonizing (where does one acquire a new hydrometer at 9pm on a Tuesday?), I employed the time tested Papazian mantra. I relaxed, didn't worry and had... well not a homebrew as Papazian so rightly suggests, but the only thing on hand; presumably one of the plentiful and incomparable craft ales of the Pacific Northwest. This was after all my first batch. The next day another hydrometer was procured, and I don't know if hydrometers vary in their accuracy but this one read 1.011 as of 2/8/2012. I chalked it up to experience, assuming that as long as I was measuring on the same instrument, all that mattered was the difference between OG and FG. As long as I didn't break this new hydrometer, things should be fine. It was the first of many lesson's I have learned, and I know there will continue to be more and more as long as I care to go on creating the great libation.

I primed the whole batch with 3/4 cup of corn sugar dissolved in 1 US pint of water and bottled on 2/11/2012. I projected the ABV at 4.07%, which in retrospect seems remarkably specific considering how many things went awry. After a patient 10 day wait, I tasted on 2/22/12. This gave way to another hilarious mistake. When bottling we ended up with one overspill, half-full 22oz bottle. This being non-standard, we decided to leave this one in the fridge. Needless to say,  I learned a lot about yeast inhibition at lower temperatures that month. After a few minutes panic that conditioning had been a complete failure I relaxed, didn't worry and cracked open one of the bottles that had been fermenting in the closet. The satisfying release of CO2 upon removing the cap was all I needed to know this had been a success. It was dark, rich and if a little over-carbonated and diacetyl laden (lending a sweet butterscotch overtone), an otherwise excellent stab at a porter style, which would inform my next batch and give weight to my original recipe intention.

Friends and family loved it and were intrigued. Perhaps this was partly because of the identity crisis it had; it was pretty hoppy and carbonated for a porter. But it was fun and encouraging and everyone wanted more. And perhaps most importantly, I knew I could do better.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I bet every home brewer has some quirky story about how they got into the hobby, and I'm no different. Although less a story than merely a strange and unexpected call to action, there's still a little quirk in there.

Brewing Journal
My original brewing journal - Pistachio Porter
Somewhere in the region of five months ago (sadly I don't recall the exact day and locale) I was supping on a much favored tipple, Rogue Ales' delectable Hazelnut Brown Nectar. The conversation of the polite company in which I found myself naturally turned to gelato. This in turn led to me extolling the virtues of my favorite gelato flavor, pistachio. Zzzzap! My mind instantly leapt from the enjoyable conversation to the delicious nutty beer in my hand.

There was some discussion as to people's knowledge of any kind of pistachio beer on the market. No one could think of any and a cursory Internet search (thank you smart phones!) yielded a negative. We pondered what beer would be best to complement pistachio. Obviously the gauntlet was down, and your lexically minded brew master made the snappy observation of  the alliterative supremacy of a conceptual 'Pistachio Porter'. And thus a legendary quest was born, and here I am 5 months later with one revision of my Pistachio Porter down, and 7 other delectable creations having provided delight and succor for my friends and family.

Now that I'm growing as a brewer (both in myself and my brewery) I am going to be moved to revisit and refine this original brew. Even if only by converting the recipe to all grain, I'd like to pay some tribute to the idea that inspired it all and who knows, maybe even create myself a flagship recipe in the process.

The Journal
The Pistachio Porter was but the second brew I attempted (the first being a strictly by the book newbie affair from a homebrew tome) and the recipe for it lives in my humble brewing journal. I've enjoyed my journal writing as a process of codifying my efforts, and I imagine its only going to be an advantage when I officially make the leap to the new brewing system I'm building (more on that in future posts). There's something to be said for the 'old' ways and it really has helped me order my thoughts and my brew day process. I'd like to take the time to share with you my experiences in extract brewing, so stay tuned for the odd post on each of my extract brewing endeavors in the coming weeks and months.


I guess I'm a Puget Sound man at heart. There's something about the comfortable majesty and yet unforgiving, uncaring brutality of the body of water and its surroundings that speaks to me. There's something good and true about the act of hoisting a swarthy ale in celebration of its myriad charms, both gentle and raw. And what better ale to hoist than that made by mine own hand?

To that end, I'm embarking on a journey into the realms of brewing finesse. I'm graduating out of the kitchen and onto a pilot 12 gallon system of my own making. I hope you'll join me, both in narrative, in spirit and for a well earned (and hopefully well made) beer as I set sail into uncharted waters and lose myself in the art of the perfect brew.

Stay tuned for brewery build updates, brew day tales and batch information. I know I'm going to enjoy this, and I hope you will too. Drink the drink that I have made!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Post the First

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, 
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, 
To the last syllable of recorded time; 
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools 
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! 
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player 
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage 
And then is heard no more. It is a tale 
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury 
Signifying nothing. — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 19-28)