Monday, January 18, 2016

Diacetyl, Plus Some Tips for New Homebrewers

I haven’t had much experience with diacetyl in my beers.  I’ve only brewed one lager, and that’s generally when you see diacetyl, because of the lower fermentation temperatures, and I allowed for a good diacetyl rest on the lager I did do, so I didn’t have any problems with it.  That makes my latest conundrum all the more head-scratching.  Both the bitter I kegged a while back and the dark mild I have in primary are loaded with diacetyl.  In addition, I think both stalled out short of finishing fermentation.  On the bitter, I was expecting a final gravity of around 1.009 and ended up with 1.013.  That’s not terrible, really, though, so I let it go since it was stable.  The dark mild, however, was at 1.019 after the yeast had been dropped out of suspension for a few days.  I was also expecting around a 1.009.  10 points higher than anticipated is way up there.  In addition, both have heavy diacetyl (think movie theater popcorn butter or butterscotch) off-flavors.

Since the bitter is already kegged, it’s off the yeast, so there’s not a ton I can do to it as is.  For the dark mild, I tried rousing the yeast and I bumped the temp up to 74F.  The 1.019 sample was on Friday evening.  Yesterday morning I took another sample, and it was down to 1.016, so that’s progress.  David said his bottomed out at 1.015, so I’m in that ballpark.  He also didn’t have any diacetyl, so I’m hoping that it’s cleaning up now, and will be good to go here soon.  He has his kegged now, and so if it turns out tasting good after carbonation, we’ll go with his for Bluebonnet and I’ll just give mine time and see how it turns out.  For the bitter, I’m either going to make a yeast starter from a neutral dry yeast like US-05 and pitch it in when it hits high krausen, or I might take a couple of pints of yeast from the dark mild when it’s done and pitch it.  Either way, I’m hoping the yeast will clean up the diacetyl left over from the WLP007 fermentation.  My preference is probably to use new, clean yeast.

I’ve also heard that you can hook up your CO2 to your beer out post and let the CO2 bubble up through the beer in the keg while the valve on top is kept open, and this could help “blow-off” the diacetyl.  I’m skeptical that will work, but I might give it a try.  Otherwise, I’m not sure how I’ll have it ready to enter Bluebonnet, since my entries will have to be bottled before I leave on Sunday for Fort Sill.

Even if I can’t enter the bitter, or if we can’t enter my half of the dark mild, I’m still going to work on seeing if they can be fixed up enough where they’re good enough to drink.  I’m confident that I can do that, at the very least.  I used WLP007 that I bought less than a week apart from the same store, so maybe it’s a bad batch of yeast or something, who knows.  I’ll probably avoid that strain from now on, though, since I’ve never had this problem before with other strains, even other English-style strains like WLP002.

In other news, I’ve be seeing lots of new homebrewers on my Facebook feed lately (or maybe not-so-new homebrewers, I just never saw their homebrew posts before, who knows with Facebook).  I think it’s awesome so many people are getting into homebrewing.  It’s a great hobby.  You get to enjoy the process of making something yourself, and you have tons of control over the final product of your labors.  Then, when you’re done, you have great beer to drink!  I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past couple of years, going from total newbie who didn’t know what he was doing, to award-winning homebrewer (it may just be one award so far, but I’m still pretty pumped about it!).

  1. Sanitation.  It gets said over and over by pretty much every experienced home-brewer.  Sanitation is the number one key to making good beer.  I’ve been fortunate in that I have yet to experience first-hand the results of bad sanitation.  I’ve had no infected beers.  I have tasted some infected beers, though, and that’s not something that you want, unless you’re intentionally trying to sour beers, and that’s not something a new homebrewer should be doing, anyway.  Everything…and I mean EVERYTHING…that the beer touches post-boil needs to be sanitized.  A no-rinse sanitizer like StarSan or Iodophor is my recommendation.  Both work very well.
  2. Fermentation temperature control.  If sanitation is the number one key to making good beer, then fermentation temperature control is the number one key to going from good beer to great beer.  My first beer was fermented in the pantry in the middle of summer in Texas.  Even with the A/C running, the temperature in there was mid-to-upper-70s.  Ale yeasts like it in the mid-to-upper-60s to ferment cleanly.  Some Belgian strains can get up into the 80s and be ok, but even then, you generally will start fermentation lower and ramp up once active fermentation is complete.  Higher fermentation temperatures can create all kinds of off flavors.  In my first beer, an Irish Red kit from Northern Brewer, I had some pretty bad fusel alcohols, which give a “hot” or “solvent” type flavor.  While the beer was still enjoyable, I knew it could be better.  In order to attempt to better control my fermentation temperatures, I started using what’s called a swamp cooler setup.  I used a bathroom in our house upstairs that wasn’t used much, if at all, and could be completely dark.  I had a Rubbermaid tub and filled it up with enough water that the water level was even with the beer level in the carboy I was fermenting in.  I would then drape a wet t-shirt over the carboy, with the tail of the shirt in the water.  This would help with evaporative cooling of the carboy.  I also rotated out frozen water or Gatorade bottle to keep the water around 65F, or whatever my target temperature was.  I’d swap the bottles out when I left for work in the morning, when I got home in the afternoon, and before I went to bed at night.  This worked pretty well, and I saw an improvement in the quality of my beer very quickly.  It was still far from perfect, though, as there would be some pretty major temperature swings, especially during the day in the middle of the hot Texas summers.  I knew I wanted to be able to more finely control the temperatures.  Eventually, I moved to the setup I have now.  I got an old, but perfectly working, chest freezer from Craigslist and an STC-1000 temperature controller from Amazon.  Using a couple of different blog posts (here and here), I got the temperature controller wired up.  The heating side goes to a light bulb inside a paint can that sits on the compressor hump inside the freezer, and the cold side goes to the freezer itself, which sits out of the way in the garage.  It works perfectly.  I’m able to keep the temperature within less than a degree of the target temp, even in the heat of the summer or the cold of the winter.  The quality of my beer made another huge jump.  I was able to create a saison with a pretty complex fermentation schedule.  It started at 65F, and stayed there for 3-4 days, until active fermentation completed, then I bumped it up to 75F and let it rise up to there over the course of a couple of days.  I kept it there for another 10 days or so before bringing it up one more time to 78F and letting it finish there.  That’s the beer I won a gold medal for, so you can see the benefits of having good fermentation temperature control.  While I haven’t taken much advantage of the ability to do lagering, I can now do lagers, even in the summer, if I so choose.  The length of this paragraph alone should show how much I think about fermentation temperature control!  It probably should be overall number 1, but without proper sanitation, fermentation temperature won’t get you anywhere!
  3. Yeast.  If you're not pitching enough yeast, you could overwork the little guys, which can also cause some off-flavors.  Generally, you can see increased levels of diacetyl from underpitching, and you can also see stuck fermentations (yes, this did occur to me with my problem describe above).  There are a couple of ways to ensure proper pitching rates.  For most 5 gallon batches, a single pack of dry yeast is going to be more than enough yeast.  If you're using liquid yeast, even if it was produced that day and is 100% viable, you're going to be drastically underpitching.  The best way to pitch liquid yeast is by doing a yeast starter.  A yeast starter is basically a very small batch of unhopped wort.  For every 10ml of starter volume, you'll need 1 gram of DME (dry malt extract).  So, for a 1L starter, you'll need 100g of DME.  I like to use the lightest DME I can find, so you're not adding any color to your wort.  Boil your water and add in the DME.  I usually boil in a seperate pot, then pour the water into my pyrex flask, then add the DME.  Bring the DME/water mixture back to a boil and let it boil for at least 15 minutes.  After you've cooled the starter wort down to 70F (with such a small volume, this is pretty quick in an ice bath in the sink), give it a good shaking to aerate the yeast (or, if you have the setup, you can actively oxygenate the yeast), then add your yeast.  Cover the top with a sanitized piece of foil.  If you have a stir plate, before covering, you'll need to drop in your stir bar as well, then put it on the stir plate.  I use the lowest setting that I get a vortex going at.  If you don't have a stir plate, no problem, you'll just need a bit bigger starter, and will want to shake your starter periodically.  Mr. Malty's starter calculator is a great resource for determining how big of a starter you're going to need based on your batch size, the starting gravity of the beer you're making, how old the yeast is, and whether you're using a stir plate or not.  After 24-48 hours, your starter should be pretty much done.  At this point, you can pitch the whole thing into your wort, or you can put it in your refrigerator to get the yeast to drop out of suspension.  I generally will cold crash for a day or two prior to brew day, then take the starter out of the fridge at the beginning of my brew session and let it warm up to room temperature.  When I'm ready to pitch, I'll decant off most of the liquid, leaving only the yeast cake plus enough liquid to swirl around in the flask and have a slurry to pitch.  It all goes into the wort at that point, and you're only adding a negligible amount of extra wort in.  You do also want to be sure you're not overpitching.  Check the starter calculator to see how many yeast cells you need for adequate pitching.

If you’re doing the three above things, and doing them well, you’ll make great beer.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a 100% extract brewer doing only recipe kits you buy online, or if you have the ultimate 3-tier all grain system and you’re making your own recipes and crushing your own malts.

Happy brewing everyone!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Bottles and Kegs, Oh My!

I finally got my new Last Straw bottle filler working perfectly yesterday, and I was able to bottle everything for Bluebonnet that I have ready as of now.  Got 6 bottle of the saison (3 for entry under Saison, and 3 for entry under New Entrants) and 3 bottles of the quad, which is now just under 6 months old.  I was also able to squeeze out 3 more bottles and about half a growler out of the keg for personal consumption!  I had one of the bottles last night, and man is it good.  I almost wish I hadn’t entered it into Operation Bravo, so I’d have some left to age even longer.  I got some good feedback from people who had it there (including the judges who didn’t get to try the entry bottles), so it was worth it.  I can’t imagine how good it will be in another 6 months.  I’ll try to save at least one bottle that long.  I’m going to have to brew another batch and not touch it for at least 9 months.  I think I’ve said that before, though, so we’ll see.

Anyway, back to the bottle filler.  They advertise that it’s able to fill bottles directly from kegs at serving pressure, but I’ve found that to be totally inaccurate.  Even with pre-chilled bottles, at serving pressure (8-10 PSI), it was almost all foam.  I lowered the keg pressures down to under 5 PSI and purged the head space, and there was only a very small amount of foam.  I was able to completely fill the bottles, then cap on the small amount of foam that came out, leaving the perfect amount of head space in the bottles.  Hopefully they have enough carbonation in them, but I can’t see that they won’t.  A couple of hours later I opened one of the quads, and it had a good amount of carbonation.

Here's the quad after the head had dissipated some
I also kegged The Chestnut Troop (my British best bitter) last night, and I have it on CO2.  Since it’s such a lightly carbonated beer (0.8-2.0 volumes of CO2, compared to around 2.3-3.0 for most "regular" beer styles), it shouldn’t take long.  I also bumped the temperature in the fermentation chamber up a few degrees yesterday before I left for work, so that the yeast in the dark mild can finish cleaning up before kegging this weekend.  I’ll try to force carbonate that one pretty quickly so I can get it into a few bottles, so David and I can meet up and do a quick blind taste test and decide which one we like best, and enter that one into Bluebonnet.  Entries are due by the 28th, but since I’m out starting on the 24th, I’m going to have to get my entries in before then.  Shouldn’t be a problem.

Speaking of the dark mild (named Steel Main, a combination of our brewery names), David has his recap of our brew day up, along with some really cool stuff on Dr. Jekyll’s Beer Lab down in Arlington.  They’re a homebrew store with 40 craft beers on tap, and David is working with them on building an awesome in-house brewing system.  For a small fee (plus the cost of ingredients, of course), you’ll be able to brew a batch in the store, then take the wort home with you to pitch your yeast.  Sounds like an awesome way to get into homebrewing, or, if you’re currently an extract or partial mash brewer, to move up to all grain without the up-front cost of upgrading all of your equipment right away.

Moving forward, I’m about to have 2 more than half full kegs, and 2 completely full kegs (I have to double-check the saison and the dunkelweizen, to see how much is actually left in those), so I need to have a beer-drinking party soon, maybe.  I would like to be able to do a brew day for a new batch of the quad so it can get to aging.  It would then be 9 months old at Operation Bravo, and almost a year for next year’s Bluebonnet.  After that, I’ll work on a beer every couple of months or so to keep the pipeline full.  I’ve been batting around several ideas for new recipes, and also returning to some old favorites.  Some of the new ones include a Rye IPA, a Schwarzbier, and a Helles Bock.  Returnees will probably include Killer Junior and D30.  I might also try some small batches and experiment with ingredients.  I’d also love to try my hand at a sour beer, maybe a Lambic of some kind.  Those take patience, though, and an extra set of fermenting gear just for sour beer.  Of course, I will also take any suggestions in the comments on the blog (which I never seem to get) or on Facebook (I do get some of these).

Unfortunately, we did not win the Powerball drawing last night, so Steel Rain Brewing will stay a homebrew operation, and Erin and I will have to keep our day jobs.

I'm working on adding more recipes to the section on the right, I'm still hoping to eventually have everything I've made on there (serves as a good backup in case I lose my data), and keep it updated as I brew more and more.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Collaboration Day

Brewing beer is fun.  Brewing beer with friends is more fun.  Collaborating to brew a lot of beer with friends is even more fun!  That’s what I learned this weekend.  As you know if you read the last entry, David and Amanda from New Main Brewing came over on Saturday to brew up a double batch of a Dark Mild recipe David and I collaborated on to come up with via email a few weeks ago.  The idea got its genesis when we shared a tent at Operation Bravo back in November.  We wanted to do something we could enter into the Bluebonnet Brew Off, and since the deadline to have entries submitted is Jan 28th, we needed something that would be ready quickly.  A British Dark Mild fits that bill nicely, as it’s pretty routine to go grain to glass in just over a week.

It was a little chilly on Saturday afternoon, but that didn’t stop us, or stop a couple of neighbors who showed up sporting nearly-matching Pittsburgh Steelers jackets from the 90s, I think.  My next-door neighbor, David, even had one of those old beanies from the 70s with the pom-pom ball on the top!  But I digress…With 15 pounds of grain and 14+ gallons of water, it’s a good thing I have the new 20 gallon kettle.  The total mash volume was just over 16 gallons, so with my old one, or with David’s keggle, we would have needed to add a sparge step to make the mash fit.

We doughed in a little warm, but with the cool temperature outside, we got it back down to our target mash temp of 155°F pretty quickly, and wrapped the kettle in blankets to keep it from dropping too much more over the 60 minute mash.  The rest of the day went pretty well, no hiccups to speak of.  We ended up a tad under the goal of 11 gallons, but not by much.  We each had nearly 5.5 gallons to take home.  I pitched a 1L starter of WLP007 and David used a packet of Mangrove Jack M07 dry yeast.  They’re supposedly the same strain, from what I’ve seen, but we’ll see.  We’re planning on meeting up once they’re both done and seeing which one we like better to enter into the competition.  I think we have similar fermentation plans, so it will be interesting to see how much different they actually turn out!

In other news, I think I’ve got the Last Straw bottle filler figured out, as I was able to get a couple of bottles filled with the saison and opened one last night, and it was pretty well carbonated still, and had the correct amount of head space.  Since I’m entering the saison in its category as well as the New Entrant category, I need 6 bottles of it.  I’m not going to enter the dunkelweizen I’ve decided.  While it still tastes good and drinks well, the scorching during the boil (see last blog entry) gave it a bit of a burnt flavor.  I don’t mind the flavor, and it doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of the beer, but it will definitely cost me points, and I’d rather brew it again without the scorching and get comments on it that way.  This way, I know most of the comments are going to be about the burnt flavor, and that’s not really going to be helpful.  I also need to see if I can get three bottle of the quad from the keg.  If not, I’ll just drink the rest to free up the keg and the space in the fridge, since I need to keg the bitter soon, as well as the mild.

Those loyal readers who have been following along for a while will notice that I removed the pages banner from the top and moved the recipes portion over to the right hand side.  I’ll work on adding recipes this week until I’ve got them all up there.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Brew Kettle Down!

May the first part of this blog entry serve as a PSA for all you homebrewers out there, and add something to your “don’t do this” list…

So, I had planned on brewing an English bitter right after Christmas, and had gotten all the ingredients at the new homebrew store up in Denton, Baron’s Brew Works, and got my yeast starter going.  I got a stir plate for Christmas, so I put the starter on that for the rest of that day, then put it in the fridge in the evening to drop all the yeast out of suspension.  Everything was ready to go for brewing the next day.

I got everything setup on Saturday, the 26th, to start around noon.  I called/texted/Facebook messaged all my regular brew day attendees, and I was ready to go.  I started filling up the brew kettle with my mash water and start heating it up.  As it’s heating, I notice that water is dripping from the bottom of the kettle onto the propane burner.  This is odd, since I haven’t had a leak before.  I thought maybe the seal on the spigot wasn’t good, but I checked it, and that’s not where the leak was coming from.  I turned off the heat and let the kettle cool back down, and found the site of the leak was on the underside of the kettle, and the kettle was warped on both the inside and the bottom at the leaking spot.  There wasn’t a clear hole, though, that I could see.  So, brew day was cancelled.

I eventually worked out what happened.  When I brewed the dunkelweizen a few weeks before, I had done what I always do and used the lid from my old 8-gallon aluminum stock pot as a heat shield at the bottle of the kettle during the mash.  I do that so that if I have to heat the mash, I don’t have to worry about melting my BIAB bag.  Well, I totally forgot about it when it came time for the boil, and left it in there.  Big mistake.  Not only did the kettle get pretty badly scorched, but it also apparently caused the warping, which must have caused a small crack to develop in the steel (single ply bottom on this kettle).  So, there would be no brewing on that day.

I considered trying to fix it, as we have some friends with welding equipment and experience, but since I couldn’t pinpoint and exact spot, or see the crack, I thought that might be too difficult, so eventually I just ordered a new brew kettle, this time with a triply bottom.  I got a Concord 20-gallon kettle with 2 welded couplers for a ball valve and a thermometer.  It’s very nice, and it got here on Monday.

So, what did I do?  I brewed, of course!  My efficiency actually jumped up a few points with the new kettle, too.  I also got a Thermapen instant read thermometer for Christmas, so I don’t really need the thermometer on the kettle, but it is nice to have it to know when I’m getting close to hitting my strike temp for the mash, and to check the temp during the mash without removing the lid and whatever I’m using to insulate during the mash (usually a handful of blankets).  I hit my strike temp and mash temp right on the nose, and lost a couple of degrees in the first 30 minutes, so I turned the burner on and stirred the mash with my fancy new mash paddle while it was heating to avoid scorching the wort or melting the bag.  Way better than using a heat shield and possibly forgetting it again.  After I got back to 153°F, I covered the kettle back up and let the mash work its magic.  Another 30 minutes and I started the boil.  No problems at all with the brew day, and with the colder temperatures, I was able to get the wort cooled do to 85°F pretty quickly, and got it into the fermenter and got that into the chest freezer to cool the rest of the way overnight.  I’ve been doing that lately when I’m pressed for time, and haven’t had any ill-effects.  I pitched my yeast starter Tuesday morning before leaving for work, and that afternoon it was happily bubbling away!  I didn’t get quite as much into the fermenter as I wanted, but I’ll figure out the quirks of the new kettle pretty quick and get my volumes dialed in.  The only thing I miss about the old kettle is the volume markings on the side.  I used a tape measure to help calculate my volumes as I went, but that’s probably not the best way to do it.

Here’s the recipe for The Chestnut Troop (the name come from A Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, the senior battery in the Royal Regiment of Artillery, British Army):

7.5lbs Maris Otter
1lb British Crystal 60L
.5lb Flaked Corn
.5lb Flaked Barley

Mash @ 153 for 60 minutes

1.5oz Fuggles (UK) @ 60 minutes
1oz East Kent Goldings @ 15 minutes
.5oz Fuggles (UK) @ 5 minutes

60 minute boil

WLP007, fermenting at 65 for 3 days, then bumping up to 70F until finished.  Probably going to naturally carbonate with priming sugar in the keg to 1.3-1.6 vols of CO2

My OG target was 1.043, but since I got higher than expected efficiency, I hit 1.045.  This might be closer to a Strong Bitter (ESB) than a Best Bitter, but we’ll see what the FG ends up being.

This weekend is going to be my collaboration brew day with David from New Main Brewing.  We’re doing a double batch of a British Dark Mild, and each take half to ferment. Hopefully it turns out well!