June 29, 2011

Brewing when it is en fuego outside

Living in Texas we get some rough summers that makes brewing a challenge without a dedicated fermentation chamber to keep fermentation temperatures down. It creates a real problem producing beers that aren't fusel-y or too estery to enjoy. I know much of the country is staring down some serious heat this summer and many places, like Texas, do not have basements to shelter our brews from the heat.

One thing people suggest if you do not have/cannot afford some electrical fermentation chamber is the swamp cooler. A simple construction, you place your fermenter in a water bath, throw a shirt or towel over it to create a wick for the water to rise up, and then you throw a fan blowing on it. The moving air will cool against the water on the shirt and blow cold air against the fermenter, cooling it. The problem with this method is that you have to burn a lot of electricity operating the fan all the time and in humid climates, like Texas, the swamp cooler is less effective. (It relies on evaporation but evaporation doesn't occur when the air is already saturated with moisture. So instead of cooling your fermenter you just blow around humidity.)

In the alternative, you can toss the fermenter in a water bath and add ice packs or (plastic) bottles of frozen water and change out the bottles/ice packs throughout the day. You can also toss a fan on it to blow hot air away from the water and fermenter. Personally I do this strategy, especially on smaller batches because it usually only requires switching out the bottles 2-3 times in a 24 hour period. The major downside is that you get temperature swings as the water cools the fermenter very fast when you add the ice and then warms up over time up until you add more ice. It works well on more forgiving yeast strains but for temperature sensitive strains, such as weizen strains, it can really mess up your flavor profile. Also, if you don't change out the bottles/ice packs frequently enough your beer will reach into temperatures beyond what you really want in a beer.

Depending on how warm you keep your home during the day, you may be able to get away with brewing beer styles that appreciate warmer weather. This typically includes Belgian abbey/trappist/saison/wit styles where some strains actually benefit from warmer weather. Many of these strains produce desireable esters in the upper 70s to low 80s. So that's definitely an option. If you can get the wort down to the mid-upper 60s when you pitch and let it rise to ambient temperatures, that can really help your beer get desireable esters in palatable amounts without getting a lot of off flavors from fermenting too warm.

Something to think about is that your beer really only needs to be kept in the 60s or low 70s during primary fermentation, so typically the first 3-4 days. After that you can pretty much let it go to ambient temperatures once fermentation ends and the yeasts are doing clean up. Of course, a bigger beer is going to take longer so you'll need to adjust for your beer's needs.

That brings up another subject. A lower ABV beer is more likely to produce fermentation quicker and at a cooler temperature than a big beer, so not only will you need to worry about running a fan or switching ice bottles or whatever for fewer days but you produce an easier environment for the yeast to work, which will help reduce the likelihood of off flavors. (In bigger beers the high sugar and then high alcohol environment puts pressure on the yeast to perform, resulting in a greater likelihood of producing off flavors due to the stress.)

To keep riding that train of thought, it may even be beneficial to look at brewing your summer and fall beers at the end of spring and allow them to age into and through the summer so during those hot summer months you can kick back and enjoy some beer while you swim, BBQ, etc. You could spend May filling all your fermenters and drain them out into bottles as the summer progresses. That's most likely the easiest route to take (for those of us without the fermentation chambers).

Last summer I brewed some great beers in the cooler June and only threw down a couple big Belgians in the mid-late summer. As it was, I found it really difficult to keep those June beers cool enough and ended up accidentally knocking my wife's phone off the sofa into the ice bath. That was a pricey mishap. This summer, I haven't brewed anything at all. It's been incredibly hot and I've been gone 11-12 hours a day at an internship so I don't have any way to keep the beer cool. As much as I really want to brew up the watermelon wheat for the summer, I don't want to let it go to 80F during the day and end up with that nasty bubblegum taste wheat strains get when they ferment too warmly. And since a fruit beer will ferment twice, that's a lot of time to create bubblegum juice. I'll probably do it later in the summer when my internship ends and I am back to studying at home all day.

I also haven't been brewing because I just bottled 5 gallon of oud bruin which brings my total reserve of beer at home to close to 25 gallons. I have beers that are over a year old that I need to drink up to make room for new beers. That doesn't even include the 7 gallons of sour beer I have sitting in fermenters right now. (6 gallons of lambic, 1 of my brett-saison Christmas beer.) Some of those beers, like the two big Belgians, the cherry wheat sour, the oud bruin, the wheat wine and the scotch ale are fine to age and continue to improve, but the handful of bottles left of various session beers need to be finished off. So until I'm able to trim down my beer supply (it has taken over a LOT of the house!) I won't be doing too much brewing. I have about 9 gallons of beer waiting to be brewed up that I already have the grains for and that will probably be all my brewing until I get out to refilling the lambic solera in December. So not too much brewing for me this year. However, I'll probably do some test runs on some longer aged brews -- maybe another mead or cider -- just to keep something in the fermenter without having to produce more bottles of beer.

We'll see.

June 16, 2011

Lambic Solera Update #3

This marks the 6ish month mark for the solera. I haven't been posting much about it since it hasn't really changed much over time and I don't want to disturb the pellicle by getting in there for samples. I did take a look this morning and saw a  big change. Gone is the white-ish bubbling from before. Now it is covered in a cream-colored pellicle that has the appearance of being somewhat ribbed. This might be the ropy texture of pedio coming out. It's about that time for pedio and brett to really start getting to work so I wouldn't be surprised. It smelled about the same as it did before the pellicle changed (tart/sour with a hint of cherry) but definitely a new summer look to go along with the rise in heat. We are already hitting 100F for the year so it's definitely getting warmer in the fermentation area of my house.

Here is my typically crappy photo.

June 13, 2011

Brewing of an Oud Bruin -- Part 8: Blending and Bottling

This process was not terribly complex but it was quite a few steps more than the usual bottling process. Unfortunately, I was under a time crunch this weekend and didn't have time to take pictures during the process.

The first thing I needed to do was to take out the brett so when I blended in the sweet brown ale the brett wouldn't chew up all the sugars and blow up the bottles. The author of http://themadfermentationist.com/ (also Oldsock on HBT) suggested he had good luck cold crashing and using campden on a sour beer before blending with a non-sour portion. Since he's quite the expert at sour beers, I decided to follow his advice.

On Thursday I put the one gallon jug of the sour portion in the fridge to cold crash it, the idea being to drop as much of the brett out of the solution. On Saturday morning there was a new, thin layer of freshly crashed yeast and the cake was nice and firm. I proceeded to rack the beer off the cake into the bottling bucket (I was running short on available fermenters to use). I crushed up one campden tablet and added it to the beer before covering the bucket with a fermentation bucket lid. Campden is often used in beer making to break down chlorine/chloramine from water sources but it is also used, mostly in wine production, to halt fermentation before the beverage gets too dry. Here, the campden is used to halt fermentation by brett. Campden mostly deactivates after about 24 hours so it requires some time before new beer can be blended in and bottle conditioned. Cold crashing helps reduce the number of yeast cells in the beer, making the campden more effective simply as a matter of the number of cells available to survive the campden treatment.

One Sunday evening I uncovered the brett portion and siphoned in the brown ale portion. The brett portion by itself was incredibly sour-smelling but when the two were blended it had a very noticeable Petrus oud bruin-like smell. Unfortunately the brown ale was under the full four gallons so I ended up with 4.5 gallons of oud bruin once mixed but that's still a good run. I bottled it in champagne bottles, just in case it starts to overcarb, and ended up with about 23 750ml bottles (I used some 330ml bottles I had).

My next -- and final -- post on this subject for the time being will be a tasting in a few weeks when I pop one open. I may revive this line of threads later in the year if I decide to do another batch and change things up, like adding fruit to it.

June 6, 2011

Drinking on the honeymoon

We stayed for six glorious nights in an all-inclusive resort on Playa Mujeres in Mexico, which is just a hint north from Cancun. It was really great and I had tons of fun relaxing and enjoying the beach. Although it was a five star resort it lacked a proper beer list. I had committed myself to drinking liquor the whole week. When we arrived and I asked what beers they had and was given the usual list of Mexican beers. They had Victoria, which I had recently read about in an issue of All About Beer (or maybe Draft), but had never tried. I ordered two and gave it a taste. I was really, really shocked. It was definitely Mexican lager but with more of a malt backbone. It is billed as a Vienna-style lager but it's definitely different from Negro Modelo. Personally I found it more enjoyable than Negro Modelo (except when it was on tap). I definitely drank my share.

I saw online that it has only made its way to the US in the past year or so. It's already getting pissy ratings on beeradvocate.com because well, it's not a IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIPA or a sour. Look, it's a great session beer when it's hot. It was sweet and thirst quenching without being sticky-sweet or cloying in the hot, slightly humid environment. I haven't tried it in the states yet so I'm not sure how the import version compares to the Mexican versions. It's worth trying as long as you are willing to drink it for what it is.

I also put down a lot of scotch. I had never had scotch before. I tried both Johnny Walker red and black. I liked the black a lot more because it was more complex and smoky. Both were good. It's good to have a snotty drink as a soon to be lawyer so I'm glad me and scotch went together. Yeah, when you're having a double of scotch on the rocks at 10:30AM it's a good day. Too bad scotch is so expensive.

Ok, enough non-homebrewing chatter. I'm going to wrap up my wheat wine and oud bruin this weekend so I'll have some good updates coming up within the next week or so.