Thursday, April 28, 2011

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace

File Under: What I'm Drinking

Since moving to Roselle Park I've had to search out a new liquor store that caters to my sometimes eclectic tastes.  In Montclair I had the ever reliable Amanti Vino on Church Street, which carried a large variety of hard to find and artisanal brews that ranged from interesting to mind blowing to putrid and back again.  I was also lucky enough to live within a stone's throw of Glen Ridge Bottle King, which sported a decent craft brew section that included some of my favorite brands and brews.

After visiting some 'corner' liquor stores in Roselle Park and being thoroughly disappointed with what I saw - nothing more exotic than a Samuel Adams' Boston Ale - I came upon The Wine Depot in Union.  Finally, after a month I found a place that had a respectable craft brew section.

I looked around and found what I consider to be the hallmarks of a quality beer department.  There were local brews from New Jersey Brewing Company, Cricket Hill and Flying Fish.  I found a nice selection of Belgian lambics, a section of hard to find 22 oz. specialty brews and the entire lineup of many of the better known craft breweries such as Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Stone and Brooklyn.

In the 22 oz. specialty section I came across a beer I had only previously heard of, but had never seen in the wild - The elusive Brooklyn Sorachi Ace.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace
Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is a saison style ale, also commonly referred to as a farmhouse ale.  Originating in Belgium, saisons began as traditionally low alcohol ales (3.5% abv) and were mostly consumed by farmhands looking to quench their mid-afternoon thirst.  More recently, saisons are beginning to become staples of American craft brewer's repertoires, and have evolved in terms of flavor, color, ingredients and alcohol content (5% to 8% abv).

Saisons as a group, or subset, of ales are unusual in that they don't share common characteristics within the group, besides the use of Belgian candy sugar as an adjunct.  What they have in common is timing, as they are all traditionally brewed for consumption in the summer months.  The lack of boundaries affords the brewers great freedoms in achieving liquid nirvana, and the Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is the epitome of what a good saison can achieve.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace derives its name from the Sorachi Ace Hop.  Relatively new to the hop scene, the Sorachi Ace Hop offers smooth bitterness with a spicy, lemony flavor.  Another unique aspect of this brew is the use of champagne yeast to referment the brew when it is bottled.  This gives the brew three fingers worth of bright white head and biting carbonation that persists long after the beer is poured.

From a flavor standpoint, the Sorachi Hops balance the +7% abv beverage with bitterness and spiciness that lend a drinkability usually reserved for weak brews and fruit beers.  This can be dangerous!  Halfway through the bottle I did a double take on the label to find out the alcohol content.  My mouth was telling me it was 5% while my brain was thinking it was significantly stronger.  Pale grains, white pepper and lemon dominate, with earthy yeast flavors peeking out here and there.  The only drawback is that it comes off a little sweat, which is nitpicking and could easily be considered a positive trait.

I will most definitely be back at Wine Depot to grab a couple more bottles of this fine brew.  At $9.99 per 22 oz. bottle, it is a little on the pricey side.  But with this flavor, and a sizable alcohol dose it is worth it.

Overall impression: A-


Monday, April 25, 2011

The Winter, The Move, Spring and other Things

File Under:  ...And We're Back

Brewing is more like high school algebra than riding a bike.  While both algebra and biking take considerable time and effort to learn and perfect, once one learns to ride a bike it will never be forgotten.  Algebra, on the other hand, sneaks out of your head as soon as you turn your back on it like some over-sexed teenager with a fake ID and a ground-floor window.  One won’t even realize it’s gone until it is called upon and it doesn’t answer.
Sneaking out!

When the ice begin to melt and plans started to be put into place to restart our brewing operations, I called upon my brewing knowledge and there was no reply.  I called again, and again I was met with silence.  As I searched my mind for any sign of life all I found was a pile of clothes under a blanket made to look like a sleeping child, and an open window.
I could kick myself for getting soft this winter.  My usual emersion in all things brewing was replaced temporarily by other concerns, not the least of which was my move from Montclair in Essex County, NJ to Roselle Park in Union County.  Moving is difficult enough as it is, but purchasing one’s first house is a life-enveloping grind and single-minded determination is required.  Not to make excuses, but there was no time.  No time to brew.  No time to read.  No time to remember.

My New House....Nah!
Hops and barely and water and yeast – they all still make perfect sense to me.  I’m drawing blanks on the specific calculations.  How much water am I supposed to use?  What temperature am I aiming for?  How do I adjust this recipe to get that result?  These questions, when added together, represent a new beginning for us and our entire brewing enterprise, as they are the sum total of all we forgot and must relearn.

The move has afforded us a great many things to look forward to this brewing season.  Our process will be greatly simplified and our total brew time will be reduced significantly.  In Montclair we were constantly dealing with logistical issues related to my apartment’s location on the third floor and our need to brew outdoors.  With no direct access to the backyard, everything needed to be carried down two flights of stairs, out the front door and around the side of the house to the backyard.  The word ‘everything’ includes, but is not limited to, twenty-plus pounds of grain, twenty-five-plus gallons of water, various forty-eight quart coolers, three propane tanks, the Banjo Classic propane burner, various brewer’s pots, camping chairs, a table, at least 5 buckets and other brewing ingredients and equipment.  Once everything was moved out and the brew was completed, everything then needs to be moved back indoors – from the backyard, around to the front of the house, up the two flights and into the apartment.

The new house has two pieces of standard equipment that will eliminate the need to move any materials any great length of distance: a deck and a shed.  Simply move all necessary items from the house or the shed to the deck and viola.  It’s a matter of two feet instead of seventy-five yards.
Annoying Neighbor!
The other thing the move has provided us is a sense of privacy that was largely non-existent in Montclair.  Specifically, we had a neighbor that liked to ‘help’ when we brewed.  He would sit and drink and talk and talk and talk and change the music and offer advice and tell anecdotes upon anecdotes.  It would have been very helpful had our goal been to miss our temperatures and brew bad beer under strenuous conditions.  Brewing, racking, bottling - it didn't matter.  If there was work to be done, he was there to muck us up.  So long, annoying neighbor!  My 7 foot privacy fence will keep all the Roselle Park wannabes from bugging us, and to that I raise my glass.  Cold?  Perhaps, but there is something to be said for operating under optimal conditions and the sense of peace that arises from hard work.  When that feeling ceases, I might as well be at real work.
In any case, both Doug and I are extremely excited to brew in our new digs.  Every aspect of our process will be greatly improved and will be much easier.  Brewing will be easier because of logistical reasons.  Fermentation will be easier because, as luck would have it, my 1900s era basement maintains a perfect fermentation temperature of sixty-eight degrees at all times.  Storage will be easier because it’s my house and I can store things where ever the hell I want!
As much as the new brewing venue has us all jazzed up, nothing has been as invigorating as the changing of the seasons.  Anyone in the North East this winter knows what I am talking about.  It was a winter that we will compare all up-coming winters to for a long time.  Snow, shovel, repeat.  Show, shovel, repeat.  Finally the winter has passed and we can get on with what we do best.  Brew it, drink it, repeat!
So what if I have forgotten the majority of what I learned last year?  Half the fun was in the discovery anyway, so I will gladly get back to the books.  It's beer season again...finally.
Balanced Beer?

Our first brew of the season will be ten gallons of Pershing Pale Ale, named for the street in Roselle Park the beer will be brewed on.  Pershing Pale Ale is brewed with the finest base malt from the UK, generous amounts of Crystal Malt from the US, sweet Munich Malt from Germany and Aromatic Malt from Belgium.  Amber in color, this pale ale is generously hopped with US Golding and Czech Saaz hops, and then dry-hopped with more Saaz for good measure.  Clocking at just over five percent alcohol, Pershing Pale Ale is at once approachable and complicated, malty and hoppy - a session beer and a sipper.  Balanced.
As beer season begins again my mantra becomes balance.  It is as important in life as it is in beer.  Since moving I have done little more than work, paint, build and spend.  This winter I focused on the house and working out and did little else.  I have calloused hands and I feel oddly healthy.  I’d never downplay the importance of a healthy lifestyle, but I will contend that a balanced lifestyle is as important to mental health as diet and exercise are to physical health.  Work balanced with play, rest balanced with activity and malt balanced with hops.  Here's to our health!
Brewing: Pershing Pale Ale 4/30/11
On Deck: Feastbier Toasted Ale ?/?/?
Primary Fermentation: Nothing
Secondary Fermentation: Nada

Friday, January 14, 2011

Winter, or Forced Time Off

FILE UNDER: Brrrrrrrrr!

Winter.  What a bummer!  It's a shame that up here in the Northeast each year begins on such a dissonant note.  I want a BEEP or a BOP or even a BOPE, but all I'm getting is BLARP and BLECH!  I begin every year in a state of suspended animation - a cold-induced coma from which only the thaw of spring can awaken me.

This year, in an attempt to combat the listlessness that conquers me every winter, I will be working out and eating right, playing a bunch of video games, cooking and enjoying the plethora of homebrew quietly aging in my closest.  If spring, summer and fall are for brewing than winter is most definitely for drinking and for thinking.

At first Doug and I thought that we might be able to somehow brew right on through the winter months.  We're tough, we're thought.  We can stand a half-day in the elements.  We can do it.  But, the reality is that we cannot do it, nor do we particularly want to.  Just look at that picture of my backyard.  Brrrrr!

My Backyard, all frozen!
What was once a perfectly functional and extremely convenient backyard brewery is now nothing but a bunch of snow banks and icy patches.

Other than obsessively checking the weather forecast for the odd winter Saturday or Sunday above 50 degrees, there is nothing much to do but wait for the warm spring breezes of April to usher out the cold, snowy, coma-inducing darkness of winter and replace it with the new covenant of spring.  With spring comes new adventures in brewing and the unqualified promise of progress.

What draws us to brewing - what compels us to brew over and over again - are the incremental gains we make with each new batch of beer - progress that can be quantified.  Advances in technique, recipes and process, not to mention simple repetition all lead to a better product.  Over time, all that progress leads to mastery, and mastery is what we desire.

In past blog posts I have been rather critical of our all-grain output, but the truth is that most of the beer we have made has been good.  With the exception of our first Belgian Red Ale, which fell victim to unintelligent hop usage and, sadly, for one reason or another didn't carbonate well, and our Stout, which didn't ferment due to sub-optimal fermentation temperatures, our all-grain output has been just fine.

We're not looking to make our best beer today or tomorrow, but rather to just make beer, and as we make beer to make gains as brewers.

To be sure, we are anxious to brew again.  We are pining and antsy and eager, and at times we are almost crawling out of our skin, but we are also wise enough to know that downtime is an integral part of the process.  If nothing else, it affords us the opportunity to assimilate our past experiences, to study and to gain further wisdom.

Peanuts cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz, once said, “Sometimes I lie awake at night, and ask, 'Where have I gone wrong?' Then a voice says to me, 'This is going to take more than one night.'”  This quote illustrates very clearly that which I am having trouble writing.  There is more to the process of brewing than brewing, but unless you step back and devote an adequate amount of time to figuring out what else there is you'll always have what you've always had.

When we began this adventure we had willpower, lofty dreams and determination.  Along the way we have picked up a good amount of knowledge and practical experience, but we are far from having mastered the art of brewing.  This winter I will ask, 'What can we do to improve?  How can we become more efficiant?  Where are we going wrong?'  Luckily, our forced time off offers us more than one day to comtemplate these questions and to do our best to seek out the answers. 

We will, as John Burroughs suggested in his 1910 essay, The Snow-Walkers, develop the tendinous part of our mind - the bone and sinew built in winter - to which we will add tissue and blood in warmer months.

Stay Warm,


email me here:

Primary - Nothing
Secondary - Nothing
Kegs - Sweet Stout, Belgian Red 2, Toasted Ale
Bottles - Sweet Stout, Belgian Red 1, Belgian Red 2, Toasted Ale, Wheat Beer #8

Friday, December 17, 2010

Another Year Done Gone

FILE UNDER: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Christmas Day, 2008: I'm PJ'd and crusty-eyed, sitting on the floor of my parent's family room.  The television is tuned to 'Sounds of the Season' and the clock reads 7:02 am.  Of all the things in life that create child-like enthusiasm and wonder, Christmas morning is one that has not diminished over time, and thus I am scanning the piles of packages for those baring my name with barely contained excitement.  Buried near the base of the tree, under an avalanche of paper, bows, bags and boxes stood a package that caught my eye - a large, green rectangle with a red bow, and a tag that read "To: Michael From: Eric and Col".

That Christmas morning would be notable for a number of reasons.  It was the first Christmas with my new nephew, Brendan.  It was the last Christmas at my parent's house before we changed venues to my brother's the following year.  And, it was the year that an over-sized, green package from Eric and Col changed my life.  For in that package, buried under the avalanche of paper and boxes and bows was the Mr. Beer Beer Making Kit!

My first impression of the gift was that it would be interesting to try, but that it was most likely something I would use once or twice a year with no great results.  Until that moment I had never considered making beer.  I didn't know what was in it, how it was made or anything about the long and robust history of brewing. 

Late Christmas night, after all the festivities had died down, and everyone went home, I sat in my parents living room and carefully inspected the contents of the Mr. Beer Brewing Kit.  There were a couple cans of liquid malt extract, a bag of primer (basically more sugar), a package of yeast and a large, keg-like container for fermentation.  I don't know if it was lights from the Christmas tree reflecting off the brown plastic of the fermentor or one too many glasses of wine, but there seemed to be some magic in the air.  All of a sudden I could not wait to brew my first batch of beer and I went about planning my first brew session, to take place the very next day.

The rest, as they say, is history.  From that moment forward I began educating myself on the ins and outs of brewing, and found myself oddly preoccupied with yeast life cycles, sanitation methods and the characteristics of noble hops.  That first batch - as the Mr. Beer fermentor sat bubbling under my bed - I must have checked every twenty minutes.  After a day or so a film formed on the top of the liquid in the fermentor.  There were chunks of crud floating in it.  It was nasty and I was in love.

Not too long after I brewed that first batch from the Mr. Beer Brewing Kit, Doug and I were standing on my front porch in Bloomfield and we had the conversation that many home brewers have.  Perhaps we can do this for a living.  After all, it's about time we pick a career!

Since then we have labored with the hopes of one day supplying fresh beer to the masses, but we have never lost sight of what first turned us on to brewing in the first place.  There is a certain amount of child-like enthusiasm and wonder in the process, which serves to approximate the feeling of Christmas morning every time we brew a new batch, pop open a half gallon growler or tap the new keg.

Two years later, as I look back and take stock of our progress, I am amazed at how much Doug and I have learned and how much we have accomplished.  In practical terms, all we have done is brew a couple hundred gallons of mostly drinkable ale.  When approached from a different angle, however, we have done much more.  We have allowed ourselves to dream an almost impossible dream, and we got our dreams and our actions heading in the same direction.

Who knows what the upcoming year will bring.  I am excited to find out, and I hope that you can share a little of that excitement with me through this blog, my Twitter account and Facebook.

Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for a Happy New Year!

Michael Burt

PS.  We have officially named our brewery project and a number of the beers themselves.  Once we legally own the names we will be happy to share them.

In Primary: Nothing
In Secondary: Aromatic Toasted Ale, Belgian Red Ale #3 (Half Batch)
In Kegs: Sweet Stout, Wheat Beer #8, Belgian Red Ale #3 (Half Batch)
In Bottles: Wheat Beer #8, Sweet Stout, Belgian Red Ale #2

Thursday, October 28, 2010

“What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.” -Abe Lincoln-

File Under: Truth In Advertising

It stands to reason that mere weeks after I first started blogging about our adventures in beer-making, all hell would break loose, and all those exciting feelings that build momentum would be replaced with anxieties that sap it.
Lebron knows what I'm saying!

Let this blog post be a testament, as if we needed another, to the validity of Murphy's Law.  Let it also be a warning to all the braggers and showoffs of the world.  Once you start actively publicizing yourself, and walking under a particular banner things are bound to go wrong.  You hear that, Lebron?

Doug and I have recently been confronted with a myriad of problems ranging from STILL not collecting enough beer at the end of the day, to the approaching end of daylight savings time.  Our bottles are moldy, and our brew pot is moldy and our beers won't carbonate and....WAIT!  Hold up!  It's time to stop and reset.

Our exploits in the land of extract brewing, while preparing us for most of the riggers of all-grain brewing, have given us somewhat of a false sense of confidence.  We thought we would switch to all-grain and have more than a running start.  We thought we'd transition easily into the new disciplines and make great beer off the bat.  We thought wrong.

Things have been shaky and there is this voice in my head saying, "The wheels are coming off.  The wheels are coming off.  The wheels are coming off."

We're confused.  We're struggling with the learning curve.  And those voices in my head can't be normal.  Oh wait, the voices just told me they are, in fact, normal so forget it.

Tremendously Interesting Beer
 Anyway, whether or not I am going crazy is not important.  What's important is the lesson we learned.  We do not brew beer with our egos or our good intentions.  We are not guaranteed quality brews because of our fancy new equipment, and we certainly have a long way to go.  We brew good beer with solid brewing practices, high standards for sanitation and the best quality ingredients.  As we have adjusted to the new techniques and the more labor intensive regimens we might have forgotten this.

These lessons can be extrapolated out over the beer industry at large.  These days, while there are plenty of tremendously interesting and quite delicious lagers and ales to choose from, record growth in the "Craft Beer' market has created a banner under which inferior, and sometimes downright disgusting, beers can hide.  These days the simple fact that a brew comes from a small brewery and is branded as being a craft beer is enough of a selling point for that beer to get shelf space in a liquor store.  Never mind what it tastes like.  It is from a small brewery so it must be good, right?  No, no, no...That is so wrong.

Crappy Album
Think back to the early 90s if you will.  There was a phenomenon called Alternative music, thusly named because it was different from what was in the mainstream at that point in time.  After a year or so a very interesting thing happened.  Alternative music was now the mainstream, not the alternative to the mainstream it once had been.  This inspired a million sound-alike bands to jump into the fray, walking proudly under the banner of alternative music.  Suddenly, alternative music was the same shit I had been trying to get away from.  It was meaningless, MOR crap.  The scene collapsed under the weight of itself as more and more people cashed in.

Crappy Beer

Being slightly ahead of the curve in music and beer, I have been able to mostly avoid the trappings of alternative becoming mainstream, although I have to admit to owning that crappy Sponge album from back in the day, and I have to admit to buying some really crappy beer.

What happened in the music mainstream back in the 90s is exactly what is happening in the beer industry as we speak.  People are buying beers just because they are brewed by independent breweries and avoiding beers brewed by large worldwide breweries on those merits alone.  This is dangerous.  How many times does a consumer need to buy a crappy craft beer before they avoid craft beer all together?  Afterall, eventually it will be difficult to tell what's what.

My point is, drink what you like.  Research what's available and make informed choices when you purchase something.  Also, don't dog the mainstream.  As much as I like to brew and drink interesting concoctions, there will never be a day when I am too proud to throw back a couple Buds or Coronas.  In the end, real quality will trump the feeling of being part of a scene.  The scene will fade, but real quality will endure.

So how does this all relate back to our brewing troubles?  I guess I started to believe my own hype.  I've been planning and talking and scheming and bragging and I lost my way.  I forgot that all the hype and talk surrounding what we are doing is, first of all, self perpetuating, and secondly, ultimately meaningless if we don't or can't deliver good beer every time out of the gate.  At the very lease, it can't be flat or have mold in it.  :)


In Primary: Botz Stout #2 - A higher alcohol stout for the cold winter months.

In Secondary: Wheat #8 - Pear infused goodness

Next up: Belgian Red #3 - 11/7/10

In the hole: Toasted Ale #1 - 11/20/10 - Made with home-toasted 2-row barley.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Separating the Good From the Bad

File Under: My favorite kind of beer is the kind with alcohol in it.

Today is exactly one month since we brewed our first all-grain beer - the Belgian Red Ale.  Since then, the sweet wort we produced has gone through a number of significant changes.  First it was dosed with 500ml of Belgian Ale yeast starter.  Then it fermented for ten days.  After that, it sat in secondary fermentation vessels for 2 weeks, conditioning and refining itself.  Finally, last Thursday night we added primer and put the stuff in bottles where it will sit for another two weeks (or longer) before we can finally have a sip.

Tasting a non-carbonated beer is sort of like eating cake batter.  You can get the essence of what it MIGHT be like when it's done, but really it is nothing like eating a cake.  Still, every time Doug and I bottle our beer we put aside a small portion in a pint glass, stare at it for a few minutes, smell it and then taste it, and though it is hard to make the jump from the taste of the non-carbonated version to the finished product there are some very important things we can ascertain from drinking the flat beer.

Bottles, covered with sanitizing residue
First, and most importantly, we can tell right away whether our new beer made it through fermentation without getting infected with the many wild yeasts, bacterias and molds that have been know to ruin a brand new brew.  In the past eighteen months we have dumped nearly forty gallons of new beer due to infection.  Infection comes from some sort of oversight in our sanitation process as we go through the steps of making the beer.  It's a total bummer, mostly because it can be avoided.  Good sanitation practices are the cornerstones for good beer, and probably require their own post to fully explain.  The good news on Thursday was that our beer was not infected.

Second, we can get a good idea about what the hop character is going to be like from A.) the bitterness of the brew, B.) the hops flavor that comes through and C.) the aroma of the brew.  Since this is our second Belgian Red Ale (we made an extract version in the spring) we were interested in making some subtle adjustments to the hops profile.  Belgian Ale yeast will almost certainly give the brew fruity notes - though this particular strain is less fruity then other Belgian's - but it's fruitiness, coupled with our use of the relatively new Citra hop, made the original Belgian Red slightly out of balance.  As it was, it was already a sweet, malty brew, so we dialed up the bitterness and backed off the flavoring hops to hopefully balance out the fruitiness with more bitterness.  Luckily, I think we came close to the mark.

The last thing we can ascertain from the flat brew is whether we achieved our intended color.  There's no use calling it a Belgian Red Ale if it comes out brown.  Seriously, I know this sounds elementary, but we made four amber ales that ended up brown and another black ale that was brown.  Something went seriously wrong with those those beers.  This beer, however, resembled mahogany wood stain and was nearly opaque - sort of like a red stout.  After two more weeks in the bottles, as it continues to condition, it should clear to translucent, but the color itself was spot on!

Bottling beer is by far our least favorite part of the process.  For one thing, it is extremely time consuming.  It is also another opportunity to infect the beer with the many floating bad guys that would love to live in our beer.  But mostly, there is no creative aspect to it.  It's grunt work.  Fill a bottle.  Cap a bottle.  Fill a bottle.  Cap a bottle.  Before we can even get started, however, we need to sanitize all the bottles by filling them with solution and then emptying them out.  Gallons of water are wasted.  The sanitizing solution turns our skin cells to soap.  My kitchen floor gets all wet.

Doug with a growler of the good stuff.
Ten gallons of beer will fill about five cases of twelve ounce bottles.  To help things along a bit we used an assortment of sixty-four ounce growlers, three liter swing tops and green seven-hundred-fifty milliliters bottles.  We only bottled a twelve pack of twelve ounce longnecks.  It really speeds up the process, but at the same time makes it so we need to commit to a least a couple beers every time we pop open a bottle.  I think we can live with that.

Once we had all the beer bottled we cleaned the kitchen from top to bottom and then set about the task of moving our recently brewed wheat beer from primary fermentation to secondary fermentation, or racking.

The main reason for racking the beer is to get it off the yeast before the yeast begins to die and releases byproducts into the beer that would certainly cause off flavors.  It also allows for suspended materials, sulfuric odors and flavors and tannin bitterness to settle out of the beer.

Future Star: Our Wheat Beer
This time we were SURE we had enough beer to fill those carboys to the tippy top without having to suck up any gross sludge off the bottom of the fermenter.  Except, once again, we messed up...

The problem this time was displacement.  Put anything with mass into a volume of water and that volume of water will rise.  Pretty simple.  I think I learned that when I was a child.  It's funny, though, how, under certain pressures, one can forget such a simple thing.

Our wheat beer is brewed with a dozen or so pears.  Pears have mass.  When there is no screen or filtering system in place between the brew pot and the fermenter there is a good chance that 12 pears will pour out into the fermerter, displace the liquid and make four and one half gallons look an awful lot like five gallons.  Once again, we didn't have enough beer.  Noted.

On the positive side, the final gravity of our wheat beer was around 1.012 from an original gravity of 1.048.  That yields an alcohol by volume percentage of 4.7%, which is exactly what we were aiming for.  To read more about gravity and what it all means, click here:

Thanks for reading.

Next Brew: The Botz Stout #2 - A higher alcohol stout to keep us warm this winter. 10/23/10

In Primary Fermentation: Nothing

In Secondary Fermentation: Wheat Beer


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hitting Our Temperatures

FILE UNDER: Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% malted barley.

Here's the scene: It's 9:00 am Sunday morning.  For the past half hour I have been pulling seemingly unrelated pieces of junk out of my house and piling them in the backyard.  A couple buckets, two propane tanks, some coolers, a tightly coiled, highly polished copper whatever-mabob, a very large stainless steal pot and its smaller cousin, plastic bag after plastic bag with unknown payloads and, to top it all off, an oar.  From the neighbor's view, I am either going away to Chemistry Camp or building a bomb.  And I haven't even lit the 210,000 BTU Bayou Classic propane burner yet.

The burner has me a little spooked, to be honest.  Once you hear the hell-fire-hiss and feel the pillows of escaping heat bombarding your face when it does it's thing, it puts a little fear in you, hence my tentative stance as I go to light it in the above photograph.  PssssssssssssssssssssssssssFFFFOOOOOOOOTT!  That's sort of what it sounds like when you're right up next to it and it finally ignites.  Then, it lets out an ungodly HAW that persists until we turn it off.

The Bayou Classic, however scary, is one bad-ass piece of equipment, and something so important to our process that we'd be out of business without it.  210,000 BTUs can boil ten gallons of 50 degree water in ten minutes.  Yes, I know.  That is pretty impressive.

While boiling things super fast, and the hissing blue flames and all are really super cool, self-amusement is not our ultimate goal.  For today we make the eighth iteration of our wheat beer and hitting our temperatures is important.  Wait?  What?  Hitting our what?  OK, here we go...

Bayou Classic 210,000 BTU Burner

A quick lesson in beer making:
1.) Steep cracked malted grains in water to convert starches to sugars
2.) Boil, adding hops for bitterness, flavor and aroma
3.) Cool
4.) Add Yeast
5.) Allow to ferment
6.) Bottle
7.) Allow to carbonate
8.) Drink

When I wrote that little piece of obvious beer-geek jargon, 'hitting our temperatures', I was referring to step #1 - Steeping.  Steeping is much like making a cup of tea.  Add hot water and let sit.  Steep too long and the tea will be bitter.  Steep too short and the tea will be weak.  Timing is extremely important in tea and in beer.

Unlike tea, however, our wheat beer requires that the grains steep at certain temperatures for certain periods of time, and that the temperatures be raised significantly as we go.  Also, instead of a tea cup, we use a converted Coleman Xtreme Cooler that has been retrofitted with a draining system of our own design.  All of these things complicate matters, and can easily trip one up on one's way to making good beer.  Questions such as, "How am I supposed to raise this mash from 104 degrees to 140 degrees if I can't apply direct heat?" might be thrown around.  The answer, of course, is to add a certain volume of boiling water.  That is where the Bayou Classic comes in.

The Mash Tun Covered With Towels
 So our plan was to hit 104 and then rest a half hour, then go to 140 for another half, then to 158 for an hour then 170 for 20 minutes.  Using the numbers I had crunched all week, we added our first volume of water to the grain sitting in our converted Coleman cooler/mash tun and WHAT?!?!?!?  112 degrees!!!  OH NO!!!

We fucked up.  All of our following numbers were based on us hitting 104.  Now what?  This is when Willy Wonka's assertion that invention is mostly perspiration began to ring in my ears.  We are off the script.

Mr. Wonka

We adjusted the volume of boiling water for the next infusion.  Hoping to hit 140, we came up at about 127!

"What's the matter, Mr. Wonka, too hot?"

"Too cold!  Far too cold."

If it were only as easy as adding an old, dusty coat to the brew to raise the temperature!  With no other options, we weighed a gallon of water, boiled it and slowly added it to the mash tun until we hit 140 degrees.  Then we weighed the water again, calculated the difference and realized that we were about 2 quarts ahead of where we should be in total volume.  Fine!  We can live with that.

20 Gallon Brewpot
We hit our next temperatures right on, drained the bad boy into our twenty gallon brew pot, sparged with another 8 gallons of water and were ready for the boil.

The rest of afternoon was easy, but during those uncertain moments when we were bouncing between temperatures and volumes of water - the 93% perspiration part - we learned something.  You have to roll with the punches.  Even the best laid plans can backfire, the most crunched up numbers can be wrong.  When shit goes down, you can either abandon ship or grab the bail bucket.  We managed to bail ourselves out, by using our brains and by not giving up.

I can imagine that some of you readers out there must be wondering just what happens if we don't hit our temperatures.  Well, let me tell you, it would not be pretty.  You ever see that movie 'The Blob'?  Something like that.

Beer gone bad. THE BLOB!!!
In all honesty, not hitting our temperatures can change the character of the beer greatly.  A very malty beer can become a thin, highly alcoholic brew.  A clear beer can become a cloudy one.  Most importantly, though, we need precise practices to allow us to compare one brew to the next, thus allowing us to make good beer better, to constantly improve upon the last one.  We want to make good beer.  Good practices make good beer.  Tighly controlled practices are good practices.

Anyways, after the boil we came upon our second area in dire need of improvement - cooling down the wort.  See you can't just throw yeast into 212 degree wort and expect it to do anything other than gracefully pass away.  In a perfect world, you throw the yeast into about 72 degree wort.  The challenge is to reduce the temperature of the wort by 140 degrees as quickly as possible.  On Sunday it took 40 minutes, which is long enough for a variety of wild yeasts and bacterias to set up shop in our wort, but these are discussions are for another day.

I'll end with this: One of Willy Wonka's lesser known quotes goes like this: "Bubbles, bubbles everywhere, but not a drop to drink - yet."  As our boiling pot continually boiled over last Sunday, leaving green hops residue all over my driveway, and foamy bubbles up and down the sides of the brewpot, I was thinking the same exact thing.  Good call, Willy.