Thursday, October 15, 2015

A gigantic IPA and Geueze

The brewing continues (in spite of my silence). I don't feel that most of what I am brewing these days is really noteworthy. I still like to brew English style beers, and lately I've also kept belgian style beers around; I'm especially fond of belgian dubbels.

I typically keep an IPA on tap as well. A recent batch was based on the recipe for a great Portland IPA, Gigantic IPA. It's a terrific and drinkable IPA, and Gigantic Brewing is kind enough to share the recipe here. The recipe is pretty straightforward, but they add a hop rest at burnout. I realize this may seem 'normal' or at least not unusual, but for a homebrewer it is a bit unorthodox. There is so much talk about chilling the wort quickly after the boil and avoiding DMS that it seems pretty dangerous to toss in a bunch of hops and let the beer sit for 45 minutes after burnout. Well, after talking to a couple of brewer friends about this, I decided to do it anyway. Their take was that as long as I do a good long boil (75-90 minutes) with the top off, all of the DMS causing compounds will escape and I shouldn't have to worry about it. So that's what I did, and the result was great. No DMS and it is a great tasting beer. (How close to the original by Gigantic is hard to tell. I don't have one available for a side-by-side.) The only other thing I did differently was in how I clarified the beer. I typically count on a combination of a quick whirlpool and then the submersion chiller to drop the trub before transferring to the fermenter. Due to the rest, this process was not as effective. To counter the haze left in the beer, I simply put the secondary into a wine chiller (once finished with the fermentation and dry-hopping) for a day to knock the haze down. That worked great. What I have now is a crystal-clear, hoppy, great-tasting IPA. It won't last long in my keg.

The other note-worthy project of late is that I finally bottled the gueuze I have been 'working on' for the last 3 years. I ended up blending 3-year, a 1-year, and a 6-month old lambics at equal concentrations and bottling in 750ml belgian bottles with corks and crowns. The night before I bottled, I pulled a sample of each to measure gravity, make sure they weren't bad, and to test different blends (though from the get-go I intended to maximize my final volume by doing an even blend of all - I just wanted to make sure none of them was bad and needed to be dumped). Their gravities all ended up in the 5-6 range, which was expected. Each one tasted different, though.

  • 3yr - The 3-year lambic surprised me. I was expecting very sour but it wasn't really sour at all. It was definitely funky, but in a brett sort of way instead of a sour sort of way. Pleasant to drink, it tasted like an aged funky beer. 
  • 1yr - The 1-year lambic also surprised me. It was very sour. This had the quintessential belgian sour flavor I enjoy in sour beers. Great! I looked back at what I did differently from the 3yr to this beer and the main difference was that the bacteria I had added was from the dregs of a flemish sour I had kegged around the same time as brewing this lambic. So there was a much greater quantity of bacteria critters in this one and they got a hold of the lambic and ran with it. That approach I will repeat.
  • 6mo -  The 6 month didn't surprise me much. A little sour; a little funky. Not very mature. Perfect, really, since I am expecting this one to serve as some fuel for the others to go back to work in the bottle.
On bottling day, I boiled some water in my boil kettle to sterilize it for use in bottling, (my boil kettle is my only 15 gallon vessel) and then transferred each of the lambics to the makeshift bottling bucket. I had some other stuff to do, so I stirred it a bit and then let it rest for a couple of hours until ready to bottle. Bottling was typical, but corking is a bit of a pain. Do they even make belgian-specific corkers? I eventually figured out a good pattern and finished with 65 bottles of geueze.

Now for another year of waiting until I open my first bottle.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The myth of nitro beer.

I like "nitro" beers. I especially like English style bitters on "nitro". A couple of years ago Left Hand Sawtooth Ale started showing up around town being dispensed from nitro spouts. Sometimes the pub simply delivered a standard keg of Sawtooth using nitro gas and spout, which is ok but not that special, but sometimes I come across a Nitro Sawtooth that tastes like it was meant for nitro delivery. By that I mean that the beer is delivered with a relatively low amount of carbonation and a nice creamy head. The nitro sawtooth quickly became my beer of choice, over even my own homebrewed bitters; it was time for action.

Last summer I took the plunge and invested in a nitro system for my upstairs kegerator. This meant acquiring a nitrogen tank and regulator for the gas, two new nitro spouts, and the lines and hardware to connect it all up. I hooked it up and started experimenting with methods of conditioning the beer for service via nitro taps. Through reading, I had learned that nitrogen isn't soluble in beer, so the initial conditioning needs to be done via co2. The strategy was to carbonate the beer to a low pressure with co2 and then serve the beer using higher pressure using beer gas (75% nitro / 25% co2). After a couple of kegs, I got my conditioning figured out and my beer was serving nicely. I carbonate to about 7lbs and would set the beer gas to about 30 lbs.

It all worked pretty well, but I didn't quite understand what it was I liked so much. I had heard and had myself exclaimed that "nitro has smaller bubbles" which contributes to the creaminess. Nitro supposedly makes the beer closer to REAL ale. Nitro.. nitro.. nitro.... The whole "non-soluble" concept bugged me, though. If the nitro didn't dissolve into the beer then how did it get dispensed into the head. What was the point. There must be some mis-information or some magic going on.

This past weekend, we had some friends over to help drink some beer, and my nitro tank ran out about halfway through the evening (I'm thinking my system has a slow leak that is exploited by the high pressure of the nitro tank - but that is for another discussion). Not wanting to put an end to the consumption of those beers, I hooked up my spare co2 tank to those kegs and kept them pouring. I was a little worried about their mouthfeel or how the pour would be without the nitro, but my initial test was fine so I didn't think much more about it that night. People kept drinking it without any negative comments.

A few days later I was curious and decided to check out the beer situation for myself. Again, there seemed to be no major difference from nitro to co2. I was still pouring through the nitro spouts, and the pour was a little slow, but the signature cascade was still there, the thick creamy head was still there, and the beer was still lightly carbonated and smooth to drink. So I went back to read more about it on the internets. There doesn't appear to be a single definitive source of information about serving beer on nitro, but what follows are my conclusions:

  • Nitro beer is smooth because of low carbonation.
  • The nitro creamy head and cascade are a result of the nitro spout and the creamer plate inside that spout. (Perhaps a creamer adapter for a standard stout would do the same thing? I have never used one.)
  • Many pubs have taps that are quite a distance form the kegs, requiring higher pressure to push the beer to the taps and to serve the beer(both for standard and for nitro taps).
  • Beer gas (nitro/co2 mix) allows for higher pressure between the keg and the tap without the danger of increasing the carbonation of the beer.
So it would appear that really the only thing beer gas does for a nitro system is push the beer to and through the tap without changing the carb level. And perhaps the higher pressure helps dispense the beer faster (though with the settling time required for nitro beers does that really matter?). Therefore most homebrewers (and anyone else whose tap is situated in close proximity to the keg) do not actually need to serve the beer using beer gas. Simply carbonate the beer to the desired lower carbonation level and serve that beer at that same pressure. As long as that is enough pressure to push the beer through the spout and its creamer plate, then the final product will be same. At least in my experience this is how it works.  I will be doing further experimentation (with fresh kegs) to test this theory.

(This "theory" has other corollary observations. For one, Left Hand bottles their "nitro" milk stout without a widget or any other obvious bottle addition. Their strategy for creating the cream head and nitro experience is to "pour hard". Anyone who has poured normal beer knows that a hard pour will cause the beer to foam much more than a gentle pour down the side of the glass. Well.. perhaps by filling that bottle with low-carbonated beer, a "hard pour" will cause the limited carbonation to foam up as desired. I poured my first ever bottle of Nitro™ Milk Stout before seeing the "pour hard" instructions and poured it like any other beer, which created essentially no foam, but it was still a low-carbonated beer. A hard pour, on the other hand, did produce more of the desired effect. So I ask you, gimmick? Why don't they call it a low-carb(onation) beer instead of "nitro"?)

I'm not sure there really is such a thing as nitro beer. Only nitro delivered beer. (The exception being Guiness and its British cousins, which really are served with nitrogen that is released from a widget. There is no need to "pour hard" with a Guiness as the nitrogen really is dispensed with the beer and appears to generate the head. Or maybe that really is magic.) Of course, I could be wrong.

Anyone want to buy a nitro tank and regulator?

Edit: For the record, I went home tonight and reminded myself about the pouring/drinking experience of the Left Hand Nitro™ Milk Stout, and it may just have some nitrogen in the bottle. The "pour hard" dispensing did produce a slow cascade effect reminiscent of a nitro spout pour. So somehow they managed to hide some nitro in the beer during the bottling process.  I'm still not convinced, however, that serving a beer on nitro does anything but deliver with higher pressure without over-carbonating the beer.

Monday, November 26, 2012


This weekend I brewed a new beer using a new technique. Ever since going to Belgium a couple years ago and being introduced to non-fruity lambics, I have been a big fan of the style. When I first returned home, I wasn't able to find any gueuze in the local market, but thankfully with the recent uptick of interest in sour beers, they have started to show up at local stores. I really enjoy the sourness and the complexity of the taste of lambic beers and gueuze in particular.

So what is a lambic and more specifically what is gueuze? A lambic is traditionally a spontaneously fermented beer which is both light in color as well as light in hop bitterness/flavor. By 'spontaneously', I mean that the traditional lambic beers were given the opportunity to ferment from the natural yeasts that the beer pulled in from the air immediately after the boil. Traditional brewers will finish the boil and then move the wort into an open-air pool in which it will slowly cool (traditional methods require brewing in the cooler months of the year in order to chill the wort with the cold open air) and absorb both natural yeasts and bacterias. Then the beer is moved into a stainless vessel for the primary fermentation until it is finally transferred into a wooden barrel where it will live typically 1-3 years and continue a long, slow fermentation process. That beer is a lambic beer. To make gueuze, a brewery will  blend different age lambics to produce a special blend that is bottle-aged further before distribution.

I keep using the adjective "traditional" because most brewers are using a different, more controlled process these days. Brewers have figured out what natural yeasts and bacterias create the desired flavors and now brew lambic beers in much more controlled environments. Cantillon, one of the last (maybe the last) traditional lambic breweries still uses the open methods, which is interesting since the brewery is in a relatively dirty and industrial part of Brussels. Using traditional methods, brewers are less concerned about keeping a closed system and keeping their beer from being contaminated because the wildness and bacteria that enters their beer is what makes the beer exceptional. On the other hand, the people at Cantillon also admitted that they lose about 30% of their beer due to wildness that didn't quite work out, creating off flavors that were beyond repair. (By "repair, I mean that Cantillon often uses their less tasty lambics for their fruit beers since the fruit will help mask the off flavors.)

So anyway. I like lambic beers, but they are expensive because of the effort required to brew them. So I figure I may as well brew my own. The recipe for a lambic is quite simple, really: just some pilsner malt and some unmalted wheat. The mash process is what takes much more effort. As I mentioned, a lambic requires much more time to develop in the fermenter than a normal beer, a year typically being the minimum. What this also means is that the yeast and bacterias will need something to eat on over the course of that time period. That is one of the main reasons for the unmalted wheat. By not fully converting the starches to sugars in the usual way, not all of the sugars will end up fermentable and so can be "processed" (by yeast and bacterias) in other ways. There is a lot more science to it that I don't understand, but that's the gist of it as I do understand it. So what that meant for me on brew day was a different mashing process than my normal routine. Typically I just add all of my crushed malt to hot water so that when mixed my mash will end up in the neighborhood of 150 degrees F, and then I just let it rest for an hour for the starch conversion to take place. For this beer, I did what is called a step infusion mash. This is one where I dough-in at a lower temperature and slowly bring the heat up in stages by either adding hot water or removing and heating up some of the mash water at different stages. It ended up taking twice as long to mash, but I ended up in the neighborhood of my target gravity, so maybe it all worked out? Step infusion mashing is a new thing for me, and there are quite a few different techniques out there to achieve similar results, so this is a learning process and I will likely use a different technique next time. It also should be noted that reaching my target gravity is not a guarantee of success since my goal was more complexity in the end product. Only time will tell.

The rest of the brewday process was mostly typical. I did run off a larger volume of wort to allow for a longer boil than usual. Also, I used aged hops in the boil which are primarily used for their preservative effect and not their bittering effect.

Regarding the yeast, I struggled with the approach to take. I was really interested in trying to do truly spontaneous fermentation by putting my wort out on the back porch to allow it to collect natural yeasts and bacterias like they do in Belgium. The Cantillon brewery used to be near orchards and other natural surroundings that provided the natural yeasts to create their beer, but now it appears to be surrounded by city and industry; not exactly the picture of a natural world providing an abundance of yeast and good bacterias. So originally my thinking was that if they can collect the needed yeasts in the middle of the city, then certainly I can in my back yard (which is a wooded valley of sorts). The more I thought about it and read information from Cantillon, though, the more I decided that even though their surroundings may not be ideal, their attic space where they have chilled their wort for decades (centuries?) has a natural history that I don't have. That attic room is like a sanctuary to yeast and bacteria and has a life of it's own. The magic isn't in the air blowing into the windows as much as the wood and dust and history of that room and the brewery in general. That is something I don't have. So in the end, I ended up using some neutral yeast (which had an IPA as a "starter") to do the primary fermentation and when I put the beer in the secondary, I will add in a mixture of magic additives sourced, grown, and standardized from the likes of Cantillon, similar to how the non-traditional lambic breweries make their beer.

So the process has started. I do want to end up making gueuze, so I will likely brew another batch or two this year so that I have some for gueuze and some I can drink as a single vintage lambic. This feels like a whole new world of brewing beer, which I am excited for, but not overly excited since it will be at least a year before I can do anything with this beer, and that's if it ends up ok. At any rate, I need to figure out where to store all of these fermenters.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

New beer

It all started with a desire to brew something new. It's been a while since I have brewed something that wasn't based on my standard set of recipes. Sometimes I switch up the hop profile a little or even try out a new yeast strain with one of my tried and true beers, but most of what I keep around tend to be the same basic styles of beer. I usually keep an ordinary bitter, an IPA, maybe a stout, etc... a good variety, I assure you, and one that prevents me from buying much beer at all, but man cannot live on the standard flight of beers alone.

This week, in my normal online perusal of the writings of others, I came across a recipe for a traditional Scottish ale. 1868 traditional, to be more precise. The recipe is an attempt to duplicate a Youngers 120 shilling ale from around 1868. It looks pretty cool and should lend some different flavors from what I generally keep around. It is also a 120 shilling ale, so it will be perfect as cooler weather sets in. I usually will only use others' recipes as inspiration for concocting my own, but this time I decided to make an exception and brew the recipe as written. So I jotted down the ingredient list and headed to the homebrew store, full of anticipation.

The recipe calls for scottish pale malt and continental pale malt. At the homebrew store, they didn't have any scottish malt, and they suggested german malt as the continental malt. Their suggestion was to use Maris Otter as my base in place of the scottish. This beer was starting to sound like my bitters, where Maris Otter is my base. So I opted for the English pale malt in its stead.

As far as hops, the recipe calls for bittering with fuggle and finishing with some obscure Polish hops; obscure in middle TN, anyway. I picked up my fuggle hops, but had to settle for what the recipe called the closest replacement for the Polish hops, some Czech Saaz hops. I actually also picked up some Sterling hops, which are also supposed to be a close match. My plan is to finish with the Sterling hops and dry hop with some Saaz.

So in the end, my attempt to brew the Younger's reproduction won't really be a Younger's reproduction at all. I am using the yeast they suggest, which is a Wyeast London III yeast. I have never used Wyeast before, so I'm interested in the results of this one, in both the flavor and attenuation (though the recipe calls for a high final gravity). Assuming I get good results, the beer probably won't be too far off of an ESB, except that the German malt and different hops should provide some varied flavors, and the added strength should give it a good malty body. Sounds like a good winter warmer to me.

So the only downside of brewing something out of the norm is added cost. Because I am using hops that I don't ordinarily use, I had to buy them retail instead of using hops from my bulk-purchased supply freezer. In addition, it is very unlikely that I will end up re-using my yeast (mainly from lack of time/beer storage space for another batch right now). So this batch soaks up the total cost of the premium liquid yeast. Total cost of this batch:$38 (including tax). Still cheaper than buying anything better than PBR or Keystone at the beer store. (I guess that doesn't include other costs such as propane, water, and the beer I drink during the brewing process.)

And a brief update of my brewing in the last few months....

I brewed a bunch of beer in the late spring so that I could take the summer off from brewing for travel and because I'm not a fan of hanging outside in the 100 degree weather. I also don't drink as much beer in the summer (due to the heat) so my supply lasted the duration (and I am still working on a couple of the kegs now). Current tapped beers include ordinary bitter, summer stout, milk stout, Inglewood pale ale, and an IPA. The milk stout is actually a small beer created from the second runnings of an imperial stout I brewed in September and which is still sitting in the secondary. The Inglewood pale is my IPA malt bill hopped solely with fresh hops grown about 1/4 mile from my house by my friend Greg, whose hop vines have been growing about ten years now. Every year he gets a healthy crop, and I was the lucky recipent of most of this year's harvest. The IPA is loaded up with a bunch of Columbus, Willamette, and Crystal hops from last year's harvest that I needed to go ahead and use. It rivals about any commercially available highly hopped beer in its hoppiness, but like to think it's a bit smoother drinking than most of the others.


Monday, February 28, 2011

Regular Beer

(This is a post intended for participation in Session #49 "Regular Beer" in which people all over the internet share a beer or three and post about their thoughts on it.)

These days, when I want a regular beer, I think of my own homebrew "Ordinary Bitter". Mine is an attempt to make a beer I want to drink everyday and all night. The ordinary English bitter is a beer that has been somewhat left out of the hop-obsessed craft beer world. There are a few out there, but not many, and especially not many that are drinkable in the way the classic English bitters are.

More specifically, the bitters I write of are typically the basic bitters that is on tap at every pub in the motherland. I mean the beer that is pumped out of the cellar and often has a nice haze in the imperial pint you hold. It is a beer inoffensive enough to down in fit of thirst, but you tend to enjoy casually. It is the beer that you appreciate because it settles into the background of your pub visit. It is also the beer that most inspired me to start homebrewing.

I'm a big fan of beers from Fullers, Greene King, etc., but they aren't always readily available here in Tennessee, nor are they particularly affordable to consume on a daily basis. Besides that, with so far to travel to get to my glass, English bitters aren't the freshest beers available. So I decided to brew my own.

I actually first started with Special Bitters (and I try to keep a keg of that around, too). The problem I found was that after a glass or two of my Special Bitter, at around 7% ABV, the rest of my evening was pretty much shot. The solution was to go the route of an ordinary bitter and attempt to keep my edge. After a few years of brewing and experimentation, I have narrowed my recipe down pretty well, but I still tweak it here and there.

So back to the session and my regular beer. It is the beer I drink when I have 30 minutes to relax before I have somewhere to be. It is the beer I start with when I know I have a long night of drinking. It is the beer I drink when my drinking isn't about the beer. My ordinary bitter is a malty beer with some tasty but subdued hop flavor. It tends to pour with a big head but separates nicely and leaves the history of my imbibing with a healthy layered lacing down the glass, which is typically an imperial pint. My bitter tastes much like the smell of the wort boiling, and I like it that way. My regular beer is cheaper than Schlitz, smoother than Sam Adams, as clear as a Sierra Nevada, and tastier than all of them. Regular beer is better than craft beer when it's homebrew.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Wow. It has been a while. Again.

The highlight of my brewing for the past few months has been acquisitions that allow me to brew more and serve more. So I can now brew 10 gallon batches and I have capacity for 6 kegs to be on tap at any given time.

Back in October, I guess it was, I acquired an additional full-size refrigerator for the basement. There was a fellow down in the Smyrna area that posted an ad on craigslist for a free kegerator fridge for whoever came to get it. So I went and came home with a huge fridge that had already been drilled for a faucet out the front. He had also built a wooden platform at the base of the fridge for kegs to sit level inside. After some cleaning out of the compressor and such, the fridge started working great and I haven't had any issues since. The shank he had installed on the front door was very long such that it actually interfered when i tried to fill the fridge with my corny kegs. (I have since acquired 4 more kegs, too) Last week, I sawed off the shank, though, so now I'm good to go. So now I can fit a 10 lb. co2 tank and 4 5-gal kegs in that fridge. It is currently at capacity, but I have two kegs of the Polo beer; so only one of those is tapped at a time.

In late October, I was the recipient of a pretty awesome gift from my lady friend. She gave me a new 15 gallon Bichmann brewpot. That thing is beautiful and functional, and it came with a thermometer, graduated sight glass, and a 3pc. stainless ball valve. Really nice stuff. So this new pot allows me the boil capacity to brew a 10 gallon batch. The other problem with such a big batch, though, was that it becomes dangerous and mostly impossible for me to move pots full of hot liquid around to use gravity for the sparge and such. So around the holiday I finally ponied up and purchased a pump to move hot liquids around. I have done one ten gallon batch (the hoppy pilsner "polo beer") and that worked out pretty well. But I am still needing to improve my process. So there is still some thinking going on.

All that being said, ten gallon batches do pose another problem. I like to drink my own beer and I do tend to save money over buying beer, but one of the main reasons I brew is because I enjoy it and I enjoy experimenting with styles and variations and such. Brewing ten gallons means more beer from a brew session, which means less brew sessions since I have limited beer storage capacity (and who wants to constantly clean and fill bottles?). So I do plan to brew 10 gallon batches still, but mostly when brewing with others where at the end of the brew session, I only keep 5 gallons for myself.

So anyway, that's what's been going on lately in my brewing world. I have a lot of beer at the house (including some Westvleteren 12 from our November trip to Belgium) that I am trying to wade through. But don't pity me, I'll get through it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Brewing Update

I have been brewing, just not reporting. Currently I have three beers in the fermenters. Two are IPAs and one is an ordinary bitter. The first IPA is my standard recipe which I am exceptionally happy with. The second IPA was an experiment. The malt bill is my normal one (a combination of American 2-row, some Munich, and some special-B) but my hop profile is different. For that beer, I am using warrior and columbus hops, and dry-hopping with columbus. The inspiration for this hop profile came from the Flying Dog IPA, which in my opinion is a great IPA. My third batch, brewed last night, is my tried and true ordinary bitter recipe. I miss having that one on tap.

New to my brewing process is an aeration stone. When hooked up to a canister of oxygen, this should aerate the beer and hopefully aid in the attenuation of my fermentation. I haven't used it enough to see how it is working, but the current beers in the fermenters should provide me with good feedback because I have records from brewing these beers a few times before.

The brewing of my standard IPA brings me to another, more commercially oriented comment. My IPA was inspired by a clone recipe for the Avery IPA. I am not sure if my recipe is much like Avery's, but I think it tastes pretty close and I am a big fan of both. Or I was, anyway. It came to my attention recently that Avery has changed their IPA recipe. I noticed something was different when I saw the IPA with a new label and in the liquor store, where only high-alcohol beers are sold (here in TN). I finally decided to buy a sixer of the new formula to try, and I was disappointed. The new IPA is really good, don't get me wrong, but now it tastes much like many of the other American IPAs on the market. The hop profile is a little brighter and, I would say, a little stronger. The alcohol difference is pretty negligible in my opinion (this isn't an imperial IPA), but it is now missing the signature maltiness that was evident in the old Avery IPA. I am an Avery believer, but I don't see myself buying this IPA. I don't agree with their decision to change the recipe. (To me it is like the experiment Coke did back in the 80s, after which they came out with Coke classic. I would buy an Avery IPA Classic.)

In other news, I have decided to retire one of my own recipes because, frankly, I just don't enjoy it as much as other beers I brew. I have limited brew capacity and limited consumption capacity (if i want to keep my girlish figure), so the Oatmeal Mild is going away.

Last week I was in Chattanooga to run in a race, and the night before the event, my special lady and I had some time to spend in the city, so we tracked down the Terminal Brewery. First off, I should mention that the Terminal is at the end of the free electric shuttle line (at the terminal) so if you are staying anywhere in town, you have free transportation to the brewery and can drink to your heart's content without worrying about driving. Now, as far as the beer they serve, it was nothing short of phenomenal. Their IPA was so good that I opted for a second in lieu of trying another beer. (It was primarily hopped with Magnum hops - possibly my favorite hop variety.) They also had a great German Alt which the lady has now requested that I attempt to brew at home. Looks like the Terminal Brewery has inspired 2 beers for me to brew in the future. Great stuff.

That's all for now, and that's enough. Cheers.