Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Christmas Gifts

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, which means Black Friday is just a day later, so it’s just about time to think about Christmas shopping.  Does your husband or boyfriend (or wife or girlfriend, for that matter) love beer?  Think they’d like to take a stab at homebrewing?  Or, do they already homebrew, and are looking at stepping up their game?  If so, today’s blog entry might be for you.

Let’s start with some gift ideas for people wanting to get into hombrewing for the first time, or for those using smaller systems, like Mr. Beer, wanting to step up to larger and more complex batches.  If you’re a one stop shopper, you can’t go wrong with Northern Brewer’s Deluxe Starter Kit.  The one linked here is the version with the Big Mouth Bubbler fermentors.  I have two of these, and I highly recommend them.  Unfortunately, though, they're not the kind with a spigot on the bottom, so transferring from the fermentor isn't as easy, but they're still great.  It also comes with everything he/she (I'm just going to use "he" from now on for simplicity, but this all applies to anyone of either sex, gotta keep it PC!!) needs to start homebrewing, with a couple of exceptions.  The biggest need is going to be a brew kettle.  I started with an 8 gallon aluminum kettle, which worked fine for extract brewing.  However, it's always a good idea to look ahead, and get something that will allow him to make the leap to all grain down the road.  We'll talk about brew kettles a little later on.  You will also probably want to get an outdoor propane burner, since the kitchen stove will take a very long time to bring 5-10 gallons to a boil, plus, as my wife pointed out after my first (and only) batch on the kitchen stove, "it made the kitchen smell like a brewery!"

Now, if you're not the one-stop-shopping kind, and want to put together your own starter kit, here is what you'll need.  These also provide some great upgrade opportunities for those looking to improve their current equipment.

Brew Kettle
I have a 16 gallon stainless steel Bayou Classic kettle with a ball valve.  It's awesome.  I can easily do 5-6 gallon batches doing all grain Brew in a Bag (more on that later), or even larger extract batches.  It works as a starter kettle, and you won't need to upgrade once you move to all grain brewing.  It also happens to be on a pretty good sale at Amazon right now.  I might have to look at getting a second one, and finding a false bottom for it to use as a mash tun!

There are plenty of other options out there for brew kettles, including keggles (a 1/2 barrel keg converted to use as a brew kettle), but the Bayou Classic is what I have experience with, so that's what I'm going to recommend.

Like I said before, I can't say enough about my Siphonless Big Mouth Bubbler carboys.  I have two of the plastic ones, and love them.  Some reviews I've seen saw they don't seal well, but I haven't had that problem.  To start, you really only need one, but if he plans on knocking out batches back-to-back, it's nice to have a second one.  The kit above comes with one 6.5 gallon, and one 5 gallon.  If you're going with multiple, I'd just stick with all 6.5 gallon.

You'll also want to get a wine thief, or some other device to pull samples from your fermentor, and a hydrometer for testing these samples for gravity readings.  There are many kits that you can buy that come with everything you need, including this one from Northern Brewer.

I, like most homebrewers, started out bottling my homebrewed beer.  And, like most, I've since switched to kegging.  Kegging is much faster and easier, plus you have the cool factor of drinking your hand-crafted beer on tap!  It's not always feasible to go right with kegging, though, so we'll start with the essentials for bottling.

First, you'll need a bottling bucket and bottle filler (you'll also need a length of 3/8" ID plastic tubing).  Once your beer is finished fermenting, it'll go into the bottling bucket, and from there into bottles using the bottle filler.  Of course, you'll need bottles and bottle caps.  For bottles, you can get these anywhere, as long as they're brown and not twist-top, they'll work.  For the longest time, I used Sam Adams bottles from the beers that I drank.  You'll need a bottle capper, to get those bottle caps on tight.  For cleaning and sanitizing bottles, I used a Vinator bottle rinser and a 45-bottle drying tree.

For kegging, there are several places that have good starter kits.  I went with Keg Connection for my starter kit.  Kegs you can get all over the place.  I'd shop around for the lowest prices on reconditioned ball lock kegs.

That's pretty much everything you're going to need to get your man/woman started in their homebrewing adventure.  Next, we'll talk about some upgrades the more experienced homebrewers can make to really up their game.

Proper sanitation is probably the most important aspect of homebrewing, and cleaning is most of what brewing is, really.  You'll want to get plenty of sanitizer.  There are several different ones, and it mostly boils down to preference here.  I use Iodophor, an iodine-based sanitizer, but I know people who swear by Star San.

Fermentation Temperature Control
If your homebrewer is like me, his first few batches will have zero temperature control for fermentation.  In Texas, this generally means that fermentation occurs way too hot, which will lead to some serious off flavors, like fusel alcohols, which will give the beer a "hot" alcohol flavor.  The simplest way to combat this is to use a "swamp cooler" setup.  That's what I did for the longest time.  If you're interested, there are a ton of articles on the Internet that talk about it, so I won't go into it.  Since this blog entry is all about upgrades, we'll talk about one other way to control fermentation temperatures.  The easiest way is to build some sort of fermentation chamber, and the most effective of these is using a chest freezer and a temperature controller.  For the chest freezer, you can buy one new from any one of a hundred places, or you can check Craigslist.  That's what I did, and ended up with a 5 cu. ft. chest freezer.  I can fit one fermentor in it, which is all I need.  You'll also need a temperature controller.  I use an STC-1000, which is very popular with homebrewers.  The only downside to it is that it will require some wiring to be done.  Here's a very good article on how to setup your STC-1000.  He uses a hairdryer for his heating element, I use a light bulb inside a paint can.  They both work.

Wort Chillers
A wort chiller of some kind is a must, especially in Texas in the summer.  Your homebrewer will want to chill his wort as quickly as possible to get nice, clear beer.  There are several different types of chillers: immersion chillers, counter-flow chillers, and plate chillers are just a few of these.  I currently use an immersion chiller, and it can take over an hour in the summer to chill the wort to pitching temperature (around 65F or so).  Plate chillers and counter-flow chillers are both supposed to be faster, but I have no experience with either of these.  If you go with an immersion chiller, make sure you get one that will easily fit into the brew kettle.

Making the Jump to All Grain
There are lots of homebrewers out there who never make the switch from extract or partial mash brewing up to all grain, and they make really good beer.  All Grain doesn't make better beer, necessarily.  The pros of doing extract include that it's cheaper, equipment-wise, and the brew day is much simpler.  The trade-offs, though, are that it is more expensive, ingredient-wise, and you're limited in how creative you can get with your recipes.  The creativity part is why I made the step up to all grain.

The big downside to all grain is that it can require some different equipment than extract brewing.  If you already have a larger (15 gallons+) brew kettle, though, you can make the jump pretty cheaply if you want.  There are really two ways to make the jump, multi-vessel or single-vessel.  Multi-vessel means you have a separate mash tun and boil kettle (and sometimes a separate hot liquor tank).  Some people use two or three kettles for this type of approach, and some use one kettle for the boil, and a combination of coolers for the mash tun and hot liquor tank.  Single-vessel all grain brewing is mostly accomplished with Brew in a Bag.  This is how I brew, so I'm going to spend the most time talking about how to go all grain that way.

As I said before, if you already have a larger brew kettle, you can almost immediately start doing Brew in a Bag, or BIAB.  BIAB uses your brew kettle as a mash tun by using a large bag to contain the grains.  You can make your own bag from voile (or similar) material, or you can buy them custom-made from wilserbrewer.  I bought his "Grand Slam" package, which came with a custom-sized bag (you give him the dimensions of your kettle), a hop sock for boiling, a dry hop sock, and a pulley and rachet system (the bag full of wet grains can be heavy).  For only $32, that's a pretty cheap way to upgrade to all grain.  For an in-depth look at BIAB, check out this blog post on Beersmith.

Some all grain brewers turn their nose up at those of us who do BIAB, but I think my gold medal winning saison, and my friend David's best in show robust porter (both done with BIAB) prove that it makes just as good, if not better, beer than traditional multi-vessel brewing.

Yeast Starters
Dry yeast packets normally have plenty of yeast cells for a 5-6 gallon batch of beer.  Liquid yeast, on the other hand, generally have only 100 million cells, and that number will drop as the package sits in a fridge at the homebrew store.  Thus, you need a way to bump up the number of cells so you're not underpitching (although underpitching is desired in some instances, but that's a totally separate discussion).  Mr Malty has a great calculator that will help you see how many yeast cells you'll need.  For the saison I did a couple of weeks ago, I needed 190 million cells.  The package was about 2 weeks old when I bought it, so it had around 85-90 million viable cells left.  To get that to 190 million, Mr. Malty tells me I need a 2L starter.  That will drop to 1.2L with intermittent shaking, or all the way to 1L with a stir plate.

So, what do you need to make yeast starters?  Well, you need a vessel of some kind for sure.  Erlenmeyer flasks are great for this, since they're Pyrex, and you can boil water in them directly on the stove.  I would get at least a 2L, if not larger, one.  As you can see above, a stir plate will really reduce the size of the starter needed.  These can be either bought or you can try to make your own.

Hopefully this gives anyone out there looking for Christmas gifts for the beer-lover in their life some ideas.  I'll also happily answer any questions people have!  Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bluebonnet Brew Off

With two pretty successful homebrew competitions under my belt, I’m looking at entering the biggest one in Texas, which is also the largest single-site homebrew competition in the United States, the BluebonnetBrew Off.  As far as I can tell, there isn’t a max number of entries a person can have, but last year they cut off total entries at 1525!  That’s a lot of beers!  

I’m going to enter the saison that’s finishing up fermentation for sure, and hopefully I’ll be able to get three bottles’ worth of the quad out of the keg.  We’ll see, it’s feeling pretty empty!  I’m also planning on brewing a Dunkelweizen (German dark wheat beer) this weekend (probably Saturday), and I’d like to get one more in after Christmas (something that’s good fresh, so an IPA or a Pale Ale, most likely).

Here’s the recipe for the Dunkelweizen I’m brewing this weekend:


7lbs Wheat malt
5lbs Munich malt
.25lbs Chocolate malt

Mash @ 149 for 60 minutes

60 minute boil

1oz Tettnanger @ 60 minutes

1L starter of either Wyeast 3068 or WLP300 (supposedly both are the Weihenstephan strain), pitched at 70°F

The Donar is a reference to a German self-propelled 155mm howitzer, named after the Germanic pagan god of thunder (analogous to Thor in Norse mythology).  That’s where the name came from.  Took me a while to figure out an artillery themed name to go with this, but it seems to fit pretty well, and rolls off the tongue pretty well, too!

Also, as you may have noticed, there’s a new Recipes section in the menu bar.  I’m going to be posting my recipes there from now on, so anyone who wants to is welcome to try to duplicate anything I’ve brewed.  Right now, I haven’t added very much, just Fiddler’s Green and Donar.  I’ll add more soon, I promise!

I’ve put a bottle filler on my Christmas, to hopefully make it really easy to fill bottles for competitions, or for taking beer places (tailgates, parties, etc).  That should help me avoid overcabonating problems like I had with Canon de 12 at Operation Bravo earlier this month.  I’m still kicking myself over that.

Anyway, that’s it for now.  Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Operation Bravo

Well, another competition is in the books.  This one didn’t got quite as well for me, but I still had a really good time doing it.  This one was Operation Bravo, held at Shannon Brewing Company in Keller.  It was put on by the good folks at Homebrew for Heroes, and was free for all current and former military, as well as first responders.  This was the first (of hopefully many) annual event, and the turnout was pretty great.  There were about 30 homebrewers or so, and the crowd was great.  I’d bet at least half of the crowd were walkups from Shannon’s normal Saturday open house and tour.

I got there pretty early and got my tent and table all setup with the help of my father-in-law.  I had a good spot, only a few spaces down from the entrance, so I was able to get guests to come by before they had already had a few!  I dropped my entry bottles off and then waited for the crowd to get there.  In the meantime, a homebrewing friend of mine, David with New Main Brewing, showed up a little late, and there wasn’t a lot of room for him to setup anywhere.  Since I wasn’t taking up all that much space, I offered to let him setup under my tent.  It worked pretty well, as we turned out to be a popular stop.

Unfortunately for me, my bottles all turned out to be gushers, so they weren’t able to be judged.  The judges did end up stopping by my booth later on, though, to try out my quad out of the keg, and they were impressed.  The only negative comment that I got was that it needed to be aged/conditioned longer.  So, for next year, if I enter the same beer again, I’ll brew it 9 months or more ahead of time!  I had several people stop and ask if I was the guy with the quad they were told they had to try, so I had some good word of mouth going.  Can’t be too upset about that!  All the other homebrewers that came by and tried it were impressed as well.  It wasn’t all bad news in the competition under the tent, though, as David’s robust porter took first overall!  He’ll be joining Shannon Brewing at some point in the future to brew a batch of it on their system for local release, and to enter into the 2016 Great American Beer Festival in the ProAm category!  I was able to taste a sample of it before it was all gone, and it was damn good.  Well-deserved win, David!

The next competition I’m going to try to enter will probably be next year’s Bluebonnet Brew-off.  Entries are normally due in February, so I’ll probably enter the saison that’s fermenting now into that one.  It’s a competition only, no serving festival to go along with it, so I’ll only need to enter three bottles.  I might try to see if I have three bottles worth of the quad left, too, and save that to enter as well.  It claims to be the largest single-site homebrew competition in the country, so it will be nice to see how my beer stacks up there!  I might also be able to get one or two more brew days in before then.  I don’t want to rush anything, though, so we’ll see.

Up next for me, I thinking of doing a Dunkelweizen.  It’s similar to a hefeweizen, just darker, maltier, and a bit stronger.  It’s a style that’s good for fall brewing and winter drinking.  Of course, half of the fun of homebrewing is being able to brew whatever you want, whenever you want, so seasons don’t really matter, so maybe I’ll try something else.  Apparently I’m getting pretty good at brewing Belgians, so maybe a nice Tripel or Biere de Garde!

I do need to take a quick moment to thank Shawn and the guys at Homebrew for Heroes for putting on an amazing event.  I chatted with Shawn for a bit during the event, and we're all hoping this is the first of many for this.  Also a big thanks to Shannon at Shannon Brewing for hosting us all, and giving all the homebrewers a quick, private, tour of the brewery before the festival started.  It was a great time all afternoon!