Lot’s A-Brewing

I have not had a lot of time to post. Not just because life is busy, but also because I’ve been too busy brewing my ass off. Tampa Bay Beer Week is about a month away and I’m putting on my second annual Open House party. Which means I need beer ready to quench the thirst of the masses. But here’s a quick list of what I’ve been up to.

1. I brewed a spontaneously fermented ale in December and I’m a few weeks from bottling it. Jury is still out on if this will be drinkable or not. I hedged my bets by putting it into secondary with raspberry puree and a witbier yeast to temper the wildness. I’m planning a full grain-to-glass write-up once it’s ready to drink. It will definitely be educational.

2. Tripel came out pretty nice.

3. Peanut butter chocolate stout came out really nice. I used PB2 in the boil and it gave a good PB flavor.

4. Milk stout and coffee stout. This was a milk stout batch. I bottled half and then added cold pressed espresso to the rest before bottling to make a coffee stout. Surprisingly good.

5. My first Northeast IPA is in primary right now. I’ve never had a proper one. I’ve just read about them. But with all the buzz with this style, I expect nothing less than deliciousness.

6. Bottled and waxed my second batch ever of kriek. Waiting on bottle conditioning before cracking one open. But taste test at bottling was very promising.

7. Made a blonde ale with 20% rye. Very refreshing and clean. By the way, all the new better brewing practices I’ve implemented continue to pay off with very solid beers.

Here’s a picture sampling of the goings-on in my brewery.







The Next Generation of Brews (Brown Ale)

In my previous post, I talked about some of the improvements I was making to my brewing process in order to yield better beer. The first brew with which I implemented these changes was my brown ale. In the rundown, I’ll indicate which steps were different from what I usually did in the past.

Left Nut Brown Ale (brewed on 11/4/16)
5 gallons (anticipated efficiency 70%)

Maris Otter 78.1%
Victory 7.6%
Crystal 120 5.7%
Special Roast 5.7%
Chocolate Malt 2.9%
(Target SRM: 22.44)

Water Profile: Ca 50ppm, Mg 10ppm, Na 22ppm, Sulfate 71ppm, Cl 68ppm, Bicarbonate 58ppm
(Water chemistry was new here. Instead of using unadjusted bottled spring water, I used distilled bottled water and added my additions as noted below).


Strike Water: 5 gallons distilled bottled water. Added 1g gypsum, 2g calcium chloride, 2g epsom salt, and 1.5g baking soda. Dissolved additions and heated to 161F and mashed in.

Mash: Water to grist ratio 1.9. Target temp: 153F, Actual Temp: 152F
Mash Time: 60 minutes, measured pH: 5.5


Sparge: 2.1 gallons distilled bottled water. Added 0.1mL phosphoric acid 10%, 0.4g gypsum, 0.8g calcium chloride, and 0.8g epsom salt. Dissolved additions and heated to 170F before executing sparge.

Boil: 60 minutes


Hops: 1oz Northern Brewer AA 4.9% @ 60 min
1oz East Kent Goldings AA 5.1% @ 15 min
(Target IBUs: 29.5)


I chilled the wort after boil using my copper immersion chiller. I stirred constantly during the cool down where previously I would only stir periodically. I was able to cool it down to 90F in about twenty minutes.

Hydrometer reading (adjusted for temperature): 1.052 (target 1.054)


I then transferred the wort to the fermentor bucket, sealed it and placed it in my chest freezer set at 67F to cool down further. When the wort was down to 67 (5-6 hours later), I pitched 2 packets of Fermentis US-05 dry yeast (previously I would have only pitched one packet and when the wort was 90F or high 80s before putting in the freezer). I let the yeast sit for 30 minutes before vigorously stirring the wort with a sanitized spoon.

After one week, I removed the fermentor from the freezer and placed it inside the house where it is normally 75F and let it sit for an additional week.

After a total of 2 weeks in primary, I took a hydrometer reading (1.010) and then bottled as I normally would, batch priming with cane sugar. The bottles sat at ambient house temperature for two weeks before refrigerating and drinking the first pour.

Below is a summary of my changes:

Before: Used unaltered bottled spring water.
Now: Added minerals/salts to bottled distilled water to achieve a specific water profile. In this case, it was the Brown Balanced profile from the Bru’n Water spreadsheet.

Mash pH
Before: Didn’t pay it any mind. Didn’t measure, didn’t adjust.
Now: Used the Bru’n water spreadsheet to dial in my desired mash pH through the use of minerals, salts and acids. Measured the pH at about 15 minutes into the mash using an inexpensive pH meter to confirm.

Pitching Temperature
Before: Pitched yeast when wort was still in the 80s or 90s (right after finishing the chilling step with the immersion chiller), then placed the fermentor in the chest freezer.
Now: Put the fermentor in the chest freezer first until the wort was at the desired fermentation temperature before pitching yeast.

Yeast amount
Before: 1 packet of yeast
Now: 2 packets of yeast


The final product:
The color is a deep dark brown with an off white head. The carbonation is full and the head is lasting. Aroma is roasty, toasty and clean. The taste is clean, crisp, a little on the dry side but has a nice full roasty flavor. Mouthfeel is a nice medium. Reminds me of why I love browns. It has the crispness and easy drinkability of a lighter beer but contains the darker roasty notes in the realm of a stout. My past attempts at this recipe had left me unsatisfied. There was this unquantifiable offness to it that I couldn’t describe. But this version hits the mark. I must say that whatever I did differently did improve this beer and I’m sold. So I will continue to incorporate these “better brewing practices” moving forward. I have a tripel that’s just about done and I’m about to bottle a milk stout. We’ll see if these beers are also as solid as this brown.

A Change of Heart

A couple of months ago, I posted about what I do “wrong” on purpose in order to simplify my brew process. I reasoned that it didn’t matter because I enjoy what I brew and so do the family and friends that I serve it to. Since that post, I submitted three of my beers to a BJCP-sponsored homebrew competition. Each of them scored approximately 25 out of a possible 50 points. Not the best scores, but I get a gold star for consistency! That type of score indicates that it is a “good” beer but that it missed the mark in style and had flaws. The imperial stout was “hot” (I agree with that) and “vegetal” (only noted by one of two judges and I don’t perceive that). The witbier was phenolic (belgians are supposed to) but they used the terms plastic, rubbery, medicinal. Both judges for the marzen used the terms medicinal, rubbery, bandaid, plastic for both aroma and flavor. Whoa!!!

I went back after I received the scoresheets and tried these beers again. I still think the witbier is really good. The clovey phenolics from the yeast may be covering up the medicinal phenolics that may be there. The imperial stout is still hot. Maybe with age that will mellow. The marzen to me was the eye opener. I had previously thought there was something off that I couldn’t describe or quantify. I thought maybe it was recipe based and my malts were off. But now I’m thinking that the “off-ness” may be what the judges are talking about. I know what a band-aid smells like, but I’ve never smelled it in the context of a beer, where it would be at a lower level.

After stewing for a couple days over the results, I came to an acceptance that my beers are not as good as I thought they were. They are fair and drinkable. But they have flaws. If I wanted to strive to do better, I’d have to change some things. So I came up with a game plan to institute some better brewing practices that I haven’t yet adopted.

1. I need to monitor and adjust my mash pH. To date, I usually write a recipe, mash it and go with it. I’ve never measured the pH of a mash before. Except for maybe my darker beers, my mash pH is probably higher than the recommended 5.2-5.6. I’ve had a pH meter sitting in my closet waiting for the next time I was going to make a berliner weisse. I’m going to start putting it to use every brew day. But pH is also tied into water profile… which leads me to the next one.

2. I’m delving into the world of water chemistry. Up to this point, I’ve only used bottled spring water with no adjustments. There are no water quality reports that pinpoint it’s profile, only broad ranges. Also, my water utility company does not have a recent water report on file to indicate just what’s in my tap water. So I’m going the route of using distilled bottled water (blank slate) and adding my salts/minerals to the desired levels, which will in turn also get me to my proper mash pH in most cases. If not, I can further adjust pH with a little lactic acid. I’ll be using the Bru’n Water spreadsheet to determine my additions for each beer. It’s free and it’s wholeheartedly endorsed by many of the giants of the homebrew world.

3. I’m pitching more yeast. I’ve always just pitched one dry sachet or one smackpack. But maybe the yeast are stressing a bit. I’m not ready to make starters. So I’m taking the baby step of just simply pitching two packets of yeast instead of just one and see where that gets me. Yes it is a little bit more money, but I guess I’m buying a little convenience. It’s simple and doesn’t add any extra work to my brew process.

So my first brew that I’ll be implementing all this with will be my brown ale. In the past, I’ve never been completely happy with it. I’ve sensed the same sort of “off” thing that I couldn’t describe, much like the marzen. So given that it’s a straight forward, non-hoppy, no adjunct brew, I thought it would be a good candidate to see if all of this will improve this beer. To be continued……

More Art Than Science

Back in 2014, I brewed a kriek style cherry ale that I called Bloed Koning, which is Dutch for King’s Blood. The blog posts for that beer can be found here and here and also here.  I was happy with how it came out but next time I wanted to boost the sour and complexity. I figured that by allowing the assorted bugs more time, they’d contribute more of their flavors to the beer.  The fermentation schedule last time was 1 month in primary with Wyeast 3278 Lambic blend, then six months in secondary on cherry puree.  The other thing was there was a bit of headspace in my secondary fermentor during those six months, so I figured if I could rectify that, there would be less possible oxidation.

Well, the time had come to tweak this very difficult beer.  Two months ago, I brewed my second batch and this time I left it in primary for two months.  This was so the lacto, brett and pediococcus would have more time to do their thing before I racked off the trub onto cherry puree in secondary, which I did 3 days ago.  Taste test at transfer was a bit more sour but not bitingly so and the barnyard funk was definitely more pronounced. Last time, when I transferred onto the cherry puree, there was a secondary fermentation, krausen and all, as would be expected.  This time, there were no active signs of fermentation.  It’s been three days.  The cherry should have jump started another round of fermentation but all was quiet. Decision time.  It’s possible that the only viable critters left are brett, and they are slow munchers.  Or it’s possible most everything is hibernating or dead.  I didn’t want to wait any longer due to the whole headspace/oxygen thing.  I needed the cherry sugars fermented, which would use up that oxygen and produce a blanket of CO2 over the beer and protect it.   So I pitched a US-05 last night to get it going.  In a month, I’m going to transfer it to a tertiary 2 gallon bucket where there will be no headspace and will slumber for 5-6 months.

So why did I decide to post about this?  This just brought to mind that sometimes brewing and fermentation are unpredictable.  What happened last time may not happen this time.  And you have to make decisions about what to do when the unexpected happens.  You can science the shit out of your rig, process, water chemistry and so on.  But I like the romantic idea of a brewer.  I think of those belgian master brewers working their magic in the old world on a beautiful hillside in a centuries old building.  They are artists.  They use their senses more than they use analytical equipment to judge how their beer is progressing.  They use their gut and their experience to coax something wonderful out of their kettles, fermentors and barrels.  Now I’m not a master and I don’t have a pedigree. I’m just an American homebrewer, but I like to think that I’ve gained some good experience in the past six years that help me to make decent judgement calls when the living organisms that we manipulate just don’t want to cooperate.  I don’t know if I ultimately made the right call until I’m sipping on the finished product in about 7 months.  But patience is a virtue.

Update:  The US-05 did indeed kick off a secondary fermentation.  After a month, I transferred the beer to a 2 gallon food grade bucket where it will rest for 5-6 months.


The “Wrong” Way

Dogma runs strong in the homebrewing community. Just like in politics and religion, homebrewers hold certain beliefs very strongly and some even get offended if you challenge them, no matter how thoughtfully and delicately. The problem with a lot of these “best brewing practices” is they’ve never been scientifically proven to make much of a difference. Perception of beer through taste, smell, feel, appearance are all subjective measurements. In addition, a lot of these brewing practices were handed down from professional brewers who brew on a much larger scale. Comparing what they do to what we do on a 5 or 10 gallon scale is not exactly apples to apples. I tend to find a little bit of enjoyment in bucking the rules a bit, mainly to save time and trouble on brew day, and still churn out what I think is still pretty darn good beer. So here’s a list of what I do “wrong”…..on purpose.

1. I never propagate and use a yeast starter. If I’m using dry yeast, I sprinkle it on my wort in the fermentor, let it sit for 30 minutes to get acclimated, then stir vigorously. If I’m using a Wyeast smackpack, I smack one pack at the beginning of my brew day, shake it every 30-45 minutes, then pour into my wort in the fermentor and stir vigorously. I’ve never had an issue with stalled fermentations, yeast derived off flavors or getting down to my target final gravity, even with my imperial stout which I’ve brewed twice and have my third batch in the fermentor now. One smackpack of London ESB 1968 brings my OG of 1.100 down to 1.025 with nary a solvent or other off flavor.

2. I don’t mess with water chemistry. Granted there are many homebrewers that use their tap water to brew. Depending on their particular water profile, it probably is necessary to supplement their water with minerals and get rid of any chlorine/chloramines. Then there is the dogma that water chemistry profiles are needed for certain styles. But I’ve decided not to mess with that. I use bottled spring water for every beer. I spend about 70 cents per gallon and I usually need about 8 gallons for a 5 gallon batch. In my opinion, it is worth that small expense to not have to worry about conditioning my water. One less thing I have to mess around with.

3. I don’t wait until my wort is at “pitching temperature” before I pitch my yeast. Dogma states that pitching yeast at elevated temperatures stresses them out, starts fermentation too quickly and throws off flavors. By the time I cool my wort as far as my chiller and groundwater will allow, my wort is in the high 80s by the time I’ve transferred it to my fermentor. Then I pitch away and then put it in my fermentation chamber where it will slowly continue to cool to fermentation temperature (usually about 68 F). I’ve never had an issue with the outcome. What I do believe in is temperature control during fermentation. Some yeasts do not do well when fermenting at elevated temperatures such as the high 70s or 80s (belgian strains excluded). I have experienced this when I used to just let my fermentor sit in my house for the entire duration at whatever my thermostat happened to sit at. The beer just wasn’t as good. But I don’t believe that elevated temps during the first 10 hours or so before fermentation really takes off is that big of a deal.

4. I don’t check or adjust my mash pH. The belief out there is that your mash needs to be ideally around 5.2-5.5 to get full enzymatic activity and starch conversion. There is scientifc evidence to back that up, so I don’t dispute that. But up to this point I’ve never bothered to check what my actual mash pH is for my assorted recipes mainly because I didn’t have a pH meter. But I’ve never had a problem hitting my gravity targets and, again, the beer came out tasting great. I did just recently buy a cheap pH meter mainly because I wanted to get into brewing a berliner weisse and pH monitoring is a bit of a necessity. So now that I have it, I’ll probably start checking my mash pH for information, but I doubt I’ll start doing adjustments.

Don’t get me wrong. All you have to do is peruse my blog to see that from time to time, I have a batch that doesn’t turn out quite right. But they are more the exception than the rule. The majority of my beers come out to my satisfaction using the above listed practices. I guess in a way, I like to keep my process as simple as possible and see what I can get away with. I’d rather focus on recipe formulation and recipe adjustments more than process tweaking. Guys out there love to tweak, expand and improve on their equipment and process. My guess is they are engineers at heart (electrical and otherwise) so they love to build and tinker. I get that and more power to them. But I don’t believe it’s necessary to have things be complicated in order to make good beer.

Jungle Lust Part 4: Final Tasting

After a couple of weeks in bottles, it was time to see what I had wrought.

Appearance:  Pretty much black.  The beer is carbonated and there is a head on the pour, but it quickly dissipates due to residual oil in the beer contributed by the coconut.  I had read about this happening with those who’ve tried using coconut in beer, so this is no real surprise.  Also, some tiny bits of coconut had escaped my paint strainer bag and into the bottled beer.  So at least I can point to that as proof that I used real coconut in this.  But they are so small, you can see them but you can’t feel them in your mouth.

Aroma:  Nice chocolate and coconut undertones coming in with the roastiness of the malt.  Very pleasant.  The solvent/rubbing alcohol aroma had subsided.

Taste:  As with most beers, the taste follows the aroma.  Familiar roast malt profile from my base porter recipe, but the chocolate comes through assertively and the coconut was subtle but noticeable in my early tastings. However, the coconut has totally fallen off in a matter of a week.  The solvent flavor has retreated but you can still detect a little bit on the back end.  But it doesn’t prevent me from enjoying it.  The half pound of lactose has also dialed in a nice level of sweetness to it.

Mouthfeel:  Nice medium mouthfeel, and luckily there is no oily slickness from the coconut.  When I conceptualized this beer, I was thinking of a more velvelty, viscous mouthfeel, which I didn’t attain.  But still not bad.

Aside from the residual solvent note which ended up at a lower drinkable level, I’m kind of pleased with how this came out for a first try.  I was hyper critical when I had my first bottle.  But now as another week has gone by, I’ve had a few more and I’m finding it very drinkable and delicious despite the coconut falling off rather rapidly.  I may consider foregoing the real coconut and just add some coconut flavoring next time around. I do find myself looking forward to the next bottle.  This is the opposite of the bourbon porter I made last year that I still have a good amount of.  That one was not a badly made beer and I know some who really like it, but the taste profile does not click with me and I just don’t enjoy drinking it.  But this coconut porter? Yeah.. I dig it.

Jungle Lust Part 3: Bottling

As luck would have it, the time that I decide to document the making of a beer, there is a possible issue.  But it can be looked an opportunity to learn and share, if I can ultimately determine the cause.  And that’s a big if.  After a week in secondary and soaking the coconut and cacoa nibs in the porter, it was time to bottle.  I did happen take a taste test 2 days in, and it tasted pretty good but the coconut was subtle.  So I let it ride for the remainder of the week.  Prior to transferring the beer to my bottling bucket, I took another taster sample.  There was a prominent “hot solventy” off flavor.  This surprised me quite a bit because the beer tasted great going into secondary (even two days into secondary).  So if something went wrong, it was somewhere in the process after primary.  Zeroing in on that, here are the possible culprits and my current thoughts about each of them.

Autosiphon/tubing:  I’ve used this thing so many times without issue, there is little to no chance this was the cause.

Home Depot 5 gallon paint bucket:  I’ve used this bucket as a secondary vessel for 3 previous batches of different beers with no issue.  It got a fresh cleaning and sanitization before this batch’s use.

Cacao nibs:  In general, there is no way to sanitize cacao nibs and I’ve used them in the past as is.  It has never been an issue, much like the thousands of homebrewers out there that also use nibs.

Coconut: This was an ingredient that I’ve had no prior experience with in homebrewing.  Toasting it did heat the coconut to a great degree which should in theory kill off most of what may be naturally living on it.  Also, I’ve read that various well experienced homebrewers have used coconut in primary or secondary with no issues.

5 gallon paint strainer bag (from Lowes):  These are made of nylon and my thought was that this may have been the most probable candidate.  Maybe there was some sort of chemical extraction going on with the nylon and alcohol.  Or maybe soaking the bag in starsan (an acid) partially broke down the nylon in a non-visually obvious way.  But again, I’ve read in forums of a number of homebrewers using these bags on post-fermentation beer and none reporting issues.  But a lot of them were just using them as filters when they transferred their beer off the trub, which would not be a lot of contact time, whereas mine was 7 days.  So it’s a possibility this may have been the culprit.  Plus a lot of the off flavor guides out there do not attribute solvent flavors to infection.  Usually it’s due to warm fermentation temps or stressed yeast.  But this problem did not show up at the end of primary.   So a chemical extraction would make more sense.

So at the moment there is uncertainty, both due to the cause and the salvageability of the batch.  I decided to bottle it anyway in hopes that the off flavor will recede and, given enough time, the beer will meld together.  So in two weeks, I’ll crack one open and see what’s up.  If anybody out there has had a similar experience or thoughts on this, comment away.