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.

 

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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.
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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.

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Jungle Lust Part 2: Secondary

After two weeks in primary fermentation, it was time to transfer the porter to a secondary container and add the coconut and cacao nibs.  The nibs are organic ecuador nibs that I got from the homebrew shop.  I acquired the unsweetened coconut from Whole Foods.

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But first I had to check out how the porter was so far.  Gravity reading was 1.023, which brings the ABV to 6.4%, which is right about on target.  Taste wise, it was pretty good.  Solid roast with a bit of sweetness like I wanted.  Mouthfeel was medium, so it had a little body to it.  It would be great as a standalone porter  without further treatment.  I intend to do that in the future.  But not now.  I transferred the beer via autosiphon  to a clean, sanitized 5 gallon bucket.

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To prep the coconut, I lined a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and spread out a little over a pound of the coconut on it.  I lowered the oven rack and set it to low broil.  Then I toasted the coconut (with oven door ajar) for about 5 minutes.  Then I stirred up the coconut with a spatula to expose the untoasted layers and let it toast for another two minutes.  Just so it had a golden color.

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I sanitized a 5 gallon paint strainer bag in Starsan (the same type that I use to brew with), then put the toasted coconut and 4 oz of cacao nibs in it and tied off the bag.  Then I put it in the beer, sealed the bucket and that’s it.  So far, I think I’m on the right track.  I’m going to take a sample in two days to make sure I don’t overdo the flavors, because I have no idea how fast the beer will extract the coconut flavor.  Until next time.

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Jungle Lust Part 1: Brew Day

It’s been a while since I’ve done a recipe based post.  But I’m working on a new beer and thought it would be a good one to document how I’m doing it.  Flavoring beer with adjuncts (cacoa nibs, peanut butter, coconut, citrus peels, etc) can be challenging.  It’s hard to gauge how much and for how long in order to get the flavor you want.  You don’t want it to be so subtle that it’s almost non-existent, but going way overboard can be worse, rendering an otherwise fine beer almost undrinkable.  I’m a sweet tooth, chocolate candy kind of guy.  I just finished a milk stout that kind of met that need.  But I want more.   So I’m going all Mounds on this one and doing a chocolate coconut porter (the title of this post is my tentative name for it).  I’ve taken the base recipe of my Night’s King Bourbon Porter (sans wood and bourbon of course) and tweaked it a bit to get some more sweetness into it.  I’m adding a 1/2 pound of lactose to sweeten it, flaked oats to create a fuller mouthfeel and some roasted barley to give a little chocolate/coffee aroma.  Then I’m going to add cacoa nibs and toasted unsweetened coconut to secondary for about a week to round it off.  I’m treading a fine line here between a porter and stout.  But historically all porters were stouts, but not all stouts were porters.  So I don’t think I’m committing any heresy here.

I got this idea from Funky Buddha’s Last Snow coffee coconut porter.  There’s been a lot of raving about it and I got to taste it a month ago at a Brass Tap.  It was ok but I was anticipating it to be something more.  The coconut was there, but it didn’t have that luxurious dessert feel that I wanted and the mouthfeel was thin.  That’s what’s great about being a homebrewer.  If something isn’t out there and readily available that you want to drink, you can brew it yourself to your exact liking …..hopefully.

Chocolate Coconut Porter

5 Gallons, BIAB,  OG: 1.068

67.1% Maris Otter

6.7% Light Wheat

6.7% Chocolate Malt

3.4% Roasted Barley

3.4% Dark Crystal 80

2.6% Black Patent

6.7% Flaked Oats

3.4% (1/2 lb) Lactose Powder (added 10 min left in the boil)

Strike Water:  5 gallons

Mash:  154 F for 60 minutes

Sparge:  2.4 gallons at 170 F

Boil:  60 min (0.7 oz Chinook @ 60min, 0.5 oz East Kent Goldings @ 15 min and 5 min)

Yeast:  Fermentis Safale US-04 (no starter)

Primary Fermentation:  2 weeks

Brew day went smoothly and I’m in first week of primary.  I keep the fermentor at about 68F for the first week and let it rise up to ambient (74 F) in the final week.  The next step will be adding the nibs and coconut to secondary, which will be part 2.

 

 

CopyCats

Just a bit of a rant.  Though maybe more of an observation, not quite reaching the level of a rant.  And the following is being directed at commercial breweries, not homebrewers.  Copy cat, bandwagon, “me too”, trend, whatever you want to call it.  But it’s happening over and over again.  Here are a few examples.  Barrel aging, sours, session beers, wild ales/spontaneous fermentation, yoga classes at the brewery, brewers with beards, kettle souring.  It is striking to me how quickly breweries will jump on and pretty much copy what they see another brewery or handful of breweries are doing elsewhere.  The majority of breweries can’t seem to come up with any novel ideas on their own.  Or dare I say, just brew some solid beer.  I mean, what brewery these days DOES NOT have a “barrel program”.  What comes first, the beard or the decision to become a brewer?  I suspect the latter.  I mean, are professional brewers that insecure that they feel they need to conform to what everyone else is doing?  “Wow, people really line up at Jester King and Crooked Stave for their wild ales.  We need to really start doing that.”  Maybe it comes down to trying to run a successful business.  They see what other breweries are doing successfully and think that it will help their business if they adopt the same.  That probably happens in many other industries.  Most popular bottle releases are a barrel aged something or other and release sales of “special” beers provide a great cash injection into the business.  But I can’t help but roll my eyes whenever a new brewery posts an FB pic of their first barrels. Isn’t craft beer supposed be less about corporate thinking and more about art and creativity?  How do you push boundaries if all you do is what the next guy is doing?   And what the hell is the connection between beer and yoga anyway?  And don’t get me started on collabs, the meeting of the brewing minds that produce a once in a lifetime (literally) beer that may or may not be any good, but people fucking fall all over themselves to get their hands on it.   Ok, maybe that was a little bit of a rant.