December 27, 2012

Homebrewing Deconstructed: That infection looks like...

This is one of those things I read homebrewers say that makes me want to punch babies in the eye. You've seen it before: some homebrewer gets an infection, posts pictures asking what it is and people roll up proclaiming it's X bacteria or yeast based on the way the pellicle looks.

You cannot tell what an infection is by looking at the pellicle with the naked eye.

You cannot.

No. You can't.

There is simply no way to eyeball a pellicle and know what is underneath. Many bacteria and wild yeast create pellicles. They can create pellicles that look the same, especially if your infection is caused by multiple organisms. Lots of bacteria will make white or white-ish pellicles. You cannot just look at that and decide it's lactobacillus. You would have to take a sample, look at it under a microscope and be able to determine exactly what you have (which may be a difficult task itself). If you could, breweries dealing with infections could just brew a batch, wait for a pellicle to appear and then diagnose the problem by looking at it. Ever heard of a brewery doing that? No, I haven't either. They send cultures to a lab to diagnose under a microscope.

Part of what fuels this nonsense is the belief that the only organisms that can live in your beer is saccharomyces cerevisiae, brettanomyces, pediococcus, lactobacillus and acetobacter. This itself is untrue, but people think there's only three things that will form a pellicle and that means you have a one in three chances of guessing correctly. Well, that's not true at all. Lots of other stuff does live in beer and will form a pellicle. Some non-brettanomyces yeast can live in your beer and will form a pellicle. There are lots of bacteria that can also mix it up in your beer. Not just pedio and lacto.

It doesn't really matter whether you think you have a lactobacillus infection or a zymomonas infection. Your sanitation procedure should still be the same. However, you can avoid sounding foolish by not looking at pictures of pellicles and proclaiming to know what it is.

December 22, 2012

"Barley Wine" Book Review

Festive cover
I picked up a couple homebrew books as a Christmas present to myself and Barley Wine by Fal Allen and Dick Cantwell was the first of the two I knocked out. I picked this book up because I didn't feel like I knew enough about barleywines and it would make for some interesting reading. I liked it enough to give it a brief review, so here goes.

Barley Wine is about brewing, obviously, barleywines. It's one of the Classic Beer Style series published in the 1990s by the Brewer's Association. You can definitely tell it's dated material, not only by the absence of discussion of the 2000s but also by a lot of the brewing discussion. There's a lot of debunked homebrewing mythology asserted and just some old school bad advice worth ignoring. Curiously, the book really wants you to use wine yeast in your barleywines so you don't get a stuck fermentation. It never really addresses why you can't just pitch a sufficient amount of ale yeast in the first place, but I guess there just wasn't enough good yeast around at the time. The recipes in the back of the book almost all contain some extract in them which seems standard fare for older homebrewing materials.

All that aside, the book actually is well written and does a good job of detailing the history of barleywines and some of the challenges faced when brewing these larger beers. The historical discussion is about half the book and the homebrewing advice that follows is somewhat more basic than I was expecting. Still, the book was a worthwhile read and does contain some good recipes and general information on some commercial versions. The information on the commercial recipes comes in the less specific recipe descriptions common to the Brewers Publications books published over the past ten years, such as Wild Brews, Brew Like A Monk, Farmhouse Ales and Brewing with Wheat. However, Barley Wine is considerably shorter and less detailed than the four more recent books. For that reason, it's probably over-priced at $14.95 although the books in the Classic Beer Style series often run on sale throughout the year (I picked it up on sale myself) and you can find used copies of all but Lambic cheaply on secondhand book sites.

What probably surprised me the most about the book was how basic most of the commercial barleywine recipes are/were. A lot of the recipes were straight two row or two row with some munich malt or crystal malt. A lot of times barleywines are cast as kitchen sink recipes, with all kinds of specialty malts thrown in. Certainly, there are some of those floating around but it goes to show that even big, complex beers like barleywines don't need enormously long grain bills to produce a good beer.

December 21, 2012

Lambic Solera Update #13 -- One Week into Year Three

I know a week is fairly early to provide an update into an annual brew process but with it being the supposed end of the universe, it may be my last opportunity (true story, I have actually spoken to somebody who genuinely believes 12/21/12 is the end date). Actually, the reason I wanted to go ahead and post is because there's a pretty interesting event already taking place and something I wanted to note.

As far as the note, I realized after filling up the fermentor that I have a bit more headspace than I did before I cleaned out the better bottle. Of course, the obvious explanation is that three to four inches of trub takes up a lot of room. At first I thought I had brewed too little fresh wort but looking back at the first year it seems about right. Next year I should consider brewing an extra quarter gallon or so to try to squeeze in a little extra beer since I don't get a really violent primary fermentation to need the extra headspace. The first year I had tremendous krausen but neither last year nor this year produced the same vigorous krausen.

Early pellicle

The primary fermentation this time produced about an inch of krausen and lots of airlock bubbling, but as usual nothing spectacular occurred. What is surprising is that after just days following primary fermentation a pellicle has already formed and the beer is already starting to get funked up. It's surprising to see the pellicle form so quickly, especially since the headspace should be full of CO2 so that protective biofilm should be less relevant. I didn't open the fermentor or move it around, so I'm somewhat surprised but happy to see it survived the cleaning process and seems to be content providing more fantastic lambic. I would have snapped up more pictures to show the progress but I've been struck down with the flu the past week so I wasn't very functional.







So far, neither the year two reserve nor the blackberry lambic show any sign of pellicle. Also not a problem, but here are pictures of each of the reserve jugs and the blackberry:

Year One Reserve -- Lots of Pellicle
Year Two Reserve -- No Pellicle












































Blackberry Lambic -- No Pellicle






Last Friday I broke open a bottle of lambic from last December's bottling and a bottle of the raspberry lambic bottled over the summer. Both are very good. I like the brighter acidity of the raspberry but I feel like the fruit overpowers the more subtle flavors of the straight lambic that just can't be beat. The acidity in both is much softer which is nice, although I did also enjoy the more bracing acidity after it was freshly bottled about 13 months after the initial brew. Looking forward to tasting a year two bottle against a year one bottle in a few weeks.

I'll probably update the project again in a few weeks as I taste. Hopefully the pellicle will develop some more so I'll have another interesting picture to post.

December 13, 2012

Lambic Solera Update #12 -- Brew #3

The day of reckoning is here. No, it's not the Mayan end of the world, it's time for another play day with the lambic solera. Today I am racking off a gallon for next year's gueuze, racking a gallon onto blackberries, emptying the solera, cleaning it, racking the lambic back in and brewing a new batch of lambic to fill the solera. Quite a busy brew day.

This Year's Recipe

Each year I have added to the recipe as my brewing skills have increased. The first year I did a 60% two row/40% wheat malt recipe with a triple decoction mash. I was happy with it but decided the next year to do the same thing but add some wheat flour towards the end of the boil to make sure plenty of starch gets into the fermenter. This year I am going straight two row and unmalted wheat, which is far more traditional. I know the turbid mash is the appropriate traditional process but so far I've been happy with the decoction process but maybe next year I will switch over when I don't have so many things to do on a single brew day.

Batch size: 3 gallons
SRM: 3.3
IBU: 8.6
ABV: 4.39%
OG: 1.046
Est. FG: 1.012 (pre-souring)

Water profile: Brussels
Five gallons of water, 1.56 gallons in mash, 3.44 gallons sparged

Water additions (mash):
1g chalk
2g calcium chloride
2g epsom salt
1g kosher salt

Grain bill:
3lb Belgian pilsner
2lb Unmalted wheat

Mash schedule:
Dough in 1.56 gallons for 95F rest 30 min
Decoct 1.8 quarts, raise to 156F 10 minutes, then boil 10 minutes
Raise mash to 122F for 60 min
Decoct 2.26 quarts, raise to 156F 10 minutes, boil 10 minutes
Raise mash to 148F for 15 min
Decoct 1.22 quarts, raise to 156 F 10 minutes, boil 5 minutes
Raise mash to 158F for 45 min

Sparge with 3.44 gallons at 178F

Boil volume: 4.5 gallons
90 minute boil
Boil additions: EKG 0.25 ounce at 90

The Brew

My ghetto fabulous milling set up
There's not a lot of exciting stuff to say about the brew. It's very basic, aside from the decoction mash, which I have become fairly proficient at completing. Just lots of cleaning and sanitizing equipment. Since the decoction process is so involved it's hard to get a lot done at the same time but since I've done a few I know where I have free time and where I don't. That said, I really forgot how involved the process is. I usually skip the protein rest these days but with the unmalted wheat I thought a good long sixty minute protein rest was a good idea even though the whole mash process was about two and a half hours, plus milling and sparging.

I had a little boil over on one of the decoctions but I didn't lose very much wort. I'm usually pretty good about catching those but in this case I was caught off guard while cleaning up in the house. Overall, not a bad boil process.


First runnings
Boil bitches!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Racking and Bottling

Nothing really exciting to explain about racking or bottling. It's all very basic stuff. I'm continuing to bottle lambic in champagne bottles. I know the beer is stable enough that I could just use regular long neck 12oz bottles but I like adding a little fanciness. The bottles were bottles with some extra champagne yeast and 1.3 ounces of priming sugar per gallon. I know straight lambic is usually served still or near-still but it's my beer and I'll carb it if I want to. I've been happy with that combination so no reason to make a change. I ended up with four 750ml bottles and two 330ml bottles.

The gallon saved for next year's gueuze was also racked with an ounce of priming sugar. I did this last year to help produce a little CO2 cover for the beer. It seemed to help delay oxygen exposure in the gallon from last year so again, no reason to change the process.

The blackberry gallon was prepared similar to last year's raspberries. The blackberries were already frozen so I thawed them out, hit them with a little pasteurization and dropped them off in the fermentor and added beer on top. Good looking stuff.
Blackberry on the left; lambic for next year's gueuze on the right

Today's Filling

So much trub...
After racking out all the beer I had to clean out the better bottle. Other than my small one gallon jugs that I clean with a bottle brush, I have never had the joy of cleaning out a carboy. What a chore. It was extra fun (read the sarcasm) because it had two years of trub sitting in the bottom plus two years of krausen stuck to the top. I tried to clean as best as I could with a combination of bottle brush and lots of hot water. I gave it a good star-san sanitation just to make sure I wasn't introducing something foul from my water. Then I racked the remaining three gallons back into the better bottle along with the fresh three gallons.

I added some washed yeast from my supply of South Austin Golden Strong yeast. I added it back in to make sure I get decent fermentation since the saccharomyces that came in the lambic blend is no doubt all or almost all dead. This strain does a good job of pumping out esters so it will also help provide some tasty treats for the brett strains to manipulate over time.

Not too bad of a clean up
I also added some oak I had discussed in a post a couple weeks ago. I took an ounce of oak chips and gave them a good boil for several hours over several changes of water to eliminate some of the oak character. I then soaked them in Canadian whiskey for a couple weeks. Now I am one to say adding oak to lambic for the purpose of adding those oaky flavors is not appropriate for the style as one usually does not taste oak in lambic. While oak barrels are used in lambic brewing for aging vessels, lambic brewers use well worn barrels with no oak character remaining. Ok, so what am I doing here?

My goal is not to carry oak flavor into the beer. Instead, I want the oak to supply wood sugars and other flavor compounds that brett will manipulate into other flavors. I don't want the vanillin adding vanilla-like flavor. Instead, I want brett to create funk. That's why I boiled out a lot of the vanillin. I also used liquor to help extract more of the oak character and maybe seep in some of the liquor. I didn't add the liquor, just the chips. I do not expect to be able to taste either. Instead I'd like to see brett manipulate the herbal and smoky flavors in the whisky. Canadian whiskey isn't used in brewing because it's not a particularly bold flavor or highly thought of liquor. However, I have quite a bit of it because it's cheap and goes well into a whiskey and coke. So it was already available and I thought the milder flavor would be more beneficial than a bolder whiskey like bourbon or rye that might come through in the beer but I wanted something for brett to play with so I wanted something less neutral than vodka. I know some people will probably wince at the idea of adding cheap canadian whiskey to lambic and reasonable people will shake their heads at the whole idea but half the fun here is in the experimentation.

The Future

I couldn't help but give the lambic a little a taste. It's funky with a soft sourness. The acidity is a lot less sharp than the first year's pull was when I bottled it. It has since softened a bit as well.

The solera will sit for its usual year slumber until next December. At that time I will have six gallons in the solera plus one gallon of three year old lambic and one gallon of two year old lambic. The two year contains some of the first and second year, so it will actually be a little older than two years. The solera will be about 1.25 years old. I plan on taking three gallons from the solera and blending it with the two and three year old gallons to produce five full gallons of gueuze. After that I will refill the solera and continue as usual.

I am toying with a couple other ideas. I might take out a fourth gallon and beginning the gueuze process all over again. I might restart the same year or wait until the following year. I'm pretty sure I'll want to make another gueuze but I haven't decided which year to start over. If I decide to delay a year I am also toying with the idea of taking a forth gallon and putting it on fruit or maybe even dry hopping it. I'll have twelve months to think on it so no rush.

The gallon I bottled this December will get a few weeks in the bottle to carbonate before sampling but I will post up a tasting on it, probably some time in mid-January. I'll probably do a side-by-side comparison with last year's bottling to see how the lambic has changed between years.

The gallon on blackberries will sit for 5-6 months and get bottled sometime early summer. I'll also let it sit a few weeks to carb up. I'll probably compare it against the raspberry from last year and see how the different berries work. Maybe I'll try a little glass-blending of the two. That could be pretty good. I'll also update this stuff as it occurs.


December 11, 2012

Carburetor -- Stout/Sour Blend

About a year ago I was fortunate enough to sample what I think is one of New Belgium's best beers: Clutch. Clutch is a blend of an imperial stout and the dark sour beer used in other New Belgium sours like La Folie. Clutch is 80% stout, 20% sour. I visited Fort Collins last December and on the New Belgium tour I pestered the tour guide to give me a sample out of the Clutch tap hidden away in the barrel room. It's a delicious blend of flavors. The only time I found it locally in the Dallas/Fort Worth area was on New Years Eve last year at Meddlesome Moth, a gastropub in Dallas owned by the same folks who own the Flying Saucer chain.

Building the Concept


Ever since I tasted those delicious beers I set out to create a beer of my own in the same idea of blending sour and stout. Rather than brew a big 9% version like Clutch I decided I would take it to a more sessionable place, so I opted for a lighter 5.5% Belgian stout and an intensely dark sour beer. The biggest contributor to the decision to create an easier drinking version was at the time I started working on the plan, about a year ago, most of the homebrew in the house was high ABV and I wanted to work on more beers in the 5% and lower range. I wanted something that had the traditional stout flavors with the complex sour flavors and just a hint of Belgian yeast character.

Carburetor...makes you thirsty?
New Belgium named Clutch after a Maryland band and although they are very big into biking I thought if you're going to make a Texan version of the beer you have to look around at our community full of big pick up trucks guzzling down gas like there is no tomorrow. So I gave the beer all auto part names. So the Belgian stout is Motor Oil -- because it's dark and thick -- and the sour portion Battery Acid -- because it's acidic -- to come together as Carburetor. There's no relationship between the beer and carburetor. I just think it's a funny word.

I decided to work off a Belgian stout, rather than something more neutral because I wanted the yeast character to add some flavor complexity to make up for what might be missed not using a bigger stout that would carry more character than your standard Irish or English stout. Sour beers are very thin, which meant the stout needed lots of body so plenty of adjunct and mashing high would help keep some mouthfeel. Having never built a stout recipe, I started looking at a lot of Belgian stout recipes, particularly Boulevard's Dark Truth (which is actually more of an imperial Belgian stout, but I enjoy the flavor enough to use it as a starting point). The end result is Motor Oil. Based on the recipes I looked at I decided to make the grain bill more reliant on an American or British version of a stout than load it up with the typical Belgian specialty grains like caramunich and special B. I didn't want it to taste like a heavy oud bruin by the time it was all blended together.

The sour beer I decided I wanted to sort of go all over the map to put together the flavors I wanted instead of trying to tie it down to a particular style. So Battery Acid ended up with a German Pilsner base, C120, caramunich, carafa III and chocolate wheat. I wanted a grainy base with some raisin and caramel notes but I wanted it really dark without contributing more acrid malt flavors so I opted for carafa III and chocolate wheat for color. That chocolate wheat is good stuff. Very tasty and very smooth. I fermented it with a Belgian strain to get the esters available for brett to work into more complex flavors. I then racked out of primary and pitched the dregs of a bottle of my lambic solera to sour it. I didn't want a funky, lambic-like sourness in the beer but it's the only sour beer I had on hand that I knew would be viable. By racking off the trub I expected more sourness and less funk.

Putting the Pieces Together

I brewed a test run of the stout in early 2012 and although I really liked the flavor I wasn't in love with the mouthfeel. It wasn't thick enough and ultimately it led me to realize I had some temperature control issues with my one gallon system that I have since fixed. I brewed Battery Acid back in February 2012 and pitched the lambic dregs in March. It developed a nice pellicle after a couple weeks and sat quietly getting acidic. I tasted it a couple months ago and it was a fantastic blend of sour, cherry, raisin, caramel and a hint of carafa flavor. It's so good I'm half disappointed I'm going to blend some of it. I rebrewed the stout at the end of November with the plan to complete blending mid-December.

My initial plan had been to blend the entire gallon of stout with half a gallon of sour, so it would be 33% sour to 67% stout. Over the past year I went as far as wanting to blend all of it 50%/50% to as little as 20% sour. Ultimately I decided to go with my initial plan. It will be easiest to divide a gallon of sour beer into two halves. Ideally I would rather be able to take samples of the two beers and make different blends and see which I like but only having a gallon of each means I don't have a lot to lose. So the final plan is blend a gallon of stout with a half gallon of sour and bottle half of Battery Acid straight. It's the best of both worlds.

I will rack out Battery Acid to my bottling bucket and add priming sugar and champagne yeast for carbonation and bottle half straight. Then I will add more priming sugar and Motor Oil, give it a gentle stir and bottle the blended Carburetor. Wait. I know. You're wondering how I will blend live sour beer and unsour beer in a bottle and not create a cataclysmic explosion. I skipped over that part.

When blending a sour beer into a clean beer you have a couple options. You can bottle in really thick bottles and hope you drink your beer fast enough that it doesn't explode on you first. If your clean beer is fairly dry, like a saison, there's not as much leftover sugar or starch to consume but a stout is full of starches and unfermentable sugars so that's not an option here. The other option is to stabilize the sour beer before blending. If you have a fancy set up you can filter the beer and/or pasteurize. That's what New Belgium and many other commercial brewers do. Since I can't flash pasteurize my beers I have to go with more rudimentary methods.

I borrowed a method from Michael Tonsmeire, who writes http://www.themadfermentationist.com/ and appears online frequently under the name Oldsock. He is a brewing genius, especially when it comes to sour beers. It works like this: you take your sour beer, add finings and cold crash. This process tries to knock out as much of the brett as possible. Finings will attract the yeast, making them larger chunks of matter and more likely to fall to the bottom of the fermenter. Once the beer clears at cold temperatures for a few days, rack out to another fermentor and add campden. Let it sit for twenty-four hours, then blend and bottle. The campden will do two things. First, campden does a neat thing to yeast where it prevents them from reproducing. That means any brett coming through won't be able to reproduce and any eating it does will be a very slow process. Second, campden kills bacteria. So all the souring bacteria will die off and leave a more stable beer. I tried this process once before except I didn't have any finings to add. As a result, a bit of brett got into the final beer and has made some very well carbonated but after 18 months, incredibly delicious beer. Fortunately I bottled it in champagne bottles. The finings, it seems, are really important and cannot be skipped.

The easiest way to use finings is gelatin. I've never used post-boil finings before so this was a new one for me. I followed the advice of Greg Noonan in New Brewing Lager Beer to add one gram of gelatin to two ounces of water. Let bloom at room temperature for one hour and then heat to 150-160 and add to beer. Swirl gently for a couple minutes and then cold crash. I followed this process and shoved my sour beer into a fermentation chamber at 42F. I left it there for three days. It's hard to tell on a beer that is midnight black whether it is clear or not. I had to judge based on the increasing thickness of the trub.

Next I racked off the trub into a fresh fermentor and bombed it with campden. Since I only had a gallon of beer and a whole tablet of campden is good for five gallons, I only added a quarter of a tablet I crushed and added to the fermentor. I let the campden sit for another three days even though you really only need one to let the campden dissolve and then degas the sulfur. I let it sit so long just because I had my last final coming up and didn't have time to bottle beforehand. I'm glad I let it wait the extra couple days because there was still a bit of sulfur in the beer I gently stirred to degas. Seemed to work ok.

Bottling was tricky because I wanted to bottle both the sour straight and the blend. I had to reyeast the sour portion and make sure I primed for both bottling runs. I added 1.3oz of priming sugar for the gallon of sour beer. That will carbonate to about three volumes with some extra sugar to make up for the CO2 lost during aging and with all the racking and stirring to get to bottling. I added a slug of champagne yeast from the fridge. Both priming sugar and yeast were added at the beginning of racking out so it would mix well. I ran off five bottles of the sour beer and then stopped. Oddly enough the sour portion seemed really dark in the fermentor during aging but after cold crashing it turned a dark brown and by the time I bottled it was about the color of an oud bruin. I then added another ounce of priming sugar (in boiled water) and racked the stout into the bucket and once it was all in the bucket together I gave it a couple swirls just to be sure it got mixed. I then bottled another fourteen bottles.The stout portion came out of the fermentor a strange purple color but once mixed turned out a nice black color.

The sour portion tasted pretty much the same as it did last week. I'm pretty happy with it. The blend seems right around where I wanted it to be. The coffee and chocolate flavors come through. There's a good hit of acidity on the back -- a little more than Clutch -- and there's a bit of a smack in the face of roast that Clutch doesn't have but I think it very intriguing. I'm excited to see how this beer develops in the bottle after carbonation. I'll update with a tasting on both after each conditions in the bottle for a few weeks.


December 7, 2012

Homebrewing Deconstructed: There is no reason to secondary

One of the common myths rolling around these days is that there is no good reason to use a secondary -- and I mean that in terms of a second vessel to bulk age your beer, not an actual second fermentation. It is the replacement groupthink for the older belief that you must always secondary after a week or your beer will taste like beef broth. In trying to smash the old idols homebrewers inadvertently rebuild the same idea just in reverse.

Why a secondary used to always be "required"


I haven't been brewing long enough to know when or where it started but it the general premise was that you had to do primary fermentation and once that ended you needed to move your beer to another vessel because keeping it in contact with the yeast for a couple weeks would make your beer taste like beef broth from autolysis (after yeast die they release compounds that have a beef broth-like flavor). The major reason given for this belief was that once upon a time homebrewers didn't get access to very good yeast so they died quite quickly. I suspect this is myth itself. People were brewing for thousands of years before the 90s/early 2000s and I've yet to see any ancient text that talk about beef broth-flavored beer.

It's more likely that homebrewers did what they still do: looked at what commercial brewers do and try to emulate it. Commercial brewers do rack to bright tanks after fermentation ends. However, commercial brewers operate on a very different scale. The amount of beer and yeast they have in a fermentor is substantially more than we carry in our buckets and carboys. The pressure from all that weight is different. Using massive cylindro-conical fermenters means all that pressure bears down on a relatively small cone of yeast. The pressure and weight increases the heat in the cone and that accelerates yeast death. There are several other reasons they use secondary vessels that we do not.

Some time in the mid-2000s some homebrewers tried leaving their beer in primary for several weeks and discovered no ill effects. Thus the no-secondary movement began.

Why a secondary is not required

 

Once we agreed that three weeks sitting on the trub would not create a big bucket of vegemite (a British food product actually made from autolyzed yeast that tastes a lot like beef broth), the tide started to swing towards an equally monolithic position that secondary is never, ever required (and its corollary myth that you need to leave your beer in primary for a month). However, there are some good points on why a secondary is usually not required.

Other than the dreaded fear that autolysis occurs almost immediately, a secondary was championed as the best way to get clear beer because somehow not having trub at the bottom of fermentor meant it could get clearer than in primary. That's sort of like saying a lake or river can never be crystal clear because there's rocks, sand and dirt at the bottom. You know that is not true. Similarly, you can clear out your beer in the primary just the same. Once heavy particles like yeast and proteins descend to the bottom of the fermentor they do not have the power to defy gravity nor is there a limit on how much heavy material can stay at the bottom of a fermenter. If that was true, liquids like whole milk would never naturally stratify. Same goes for those crystal clear lakes with miles of dirt and rock beneath it.

Another reason given sometimes was that you needed to transfer to secondary to add post-fermentation additions like dry hopping. Again, there is no basis for this premise other than a lot of people said it. Hops, fruit, oak, etc. work the same way whether there is an inch or a millimeter of trub beneath the beer.

You can produce delicious, clear, healthy beer with only your primary vessel.

Why a secondary is sometimes a good thing


There are a few reasons why you might decide to secondary your beer anyway:

  • You want to yeast wash and add post-fermentation additions but don't want to fight through the additions to get to the yeast. It is a lot easier to yeast wash without fruit hanging on top of it. You also have the benefit of not having to worry about whether your post-fermentation additions might bring an infection. Although proper sanitation usually avoids that problem, it's not really easy to sanitize dry hops and I've seen a few infections related to them. 
  • You are making post-fermentation additions and your primary vessel won't fit the trub, beer and additions. This is pretty easy to do when you're adding fruit, especially if you are using a primary vessel with very little headspace to begin with.
  • You plan on using a particular kind of secondary vessel, like a barrel. You don't usually want to do a primary fermentation in a barrel because you either chose to lose beer to blow off or have more headspace than suggested. Using it as a secondary vessel allows you to fill it full without headspace or blowoff problems.
  • It is a strategic part of a sour or funky beer. Some sour beers are aged on the trub, like lambic, but others are racked to secondary, like Flanders reds. The presence of the trub can increase the funk and the absence can help emphasize a cleaner sourness. A secondary vessel helps limit access to trub.
  • Similarly, it is a strategic decision to split beers and age differently. If you want a beer partially on one fruit and partially on another, again you'll need secondary vessels.
  • You lager or cold crash your beer but then move it to the area you bottle/keg and in the process of moving the fermentor you are swirling trub back into suspension. The whole point of lagering and cold crashing is to get all that crap at the bottom of the vessel. If you are carrying the fermentor around and putting all that stuff back in suspension you're just wasting time and electricity. If that's a problem then consider using a secondary vessel to limit how much stuff can come back into suspension when you move the fermentor. 
  • You think your beer tastes better for it.
You might think, ok these are all really obvious, Captain Obvious. That's true; however, the point of these deconstructed myth posts isn't to say anything groundbreaking. It's just about deconstructing those bumper sticker-style rules where people just throw out a generic rule without applying it to the situation at issue or having a more robust and helpful conversation. Some of these myths get thrown around as absolute rules when that's not the case. I've read more than a few times where somebody has talked about racking to secondary to add post-fermentation additions and here comes multiple people to scream about how there's no benefit to it. Well maybe there is and maybe there isn't.

December 5, 2012

Homebrewing Deconstructed: Four Week Primary

One of the big ideas floated around over the past 3-4 years after people realized transferring to secondary was not necessary was that an extended primary is beneficial and should be done. It was sort of replacing one blindly accepted practice with another. It has started to fade as its most ardent supporters have been challenged to prove up their position and people are embracing the idea that fresher beer is sometimes best. I'll admit, I was hooked on this train as a new brewer and rode it for a while. I've also hopped of that train (sort of).

The idea behind the extended primary is that it gives your yeast time to clean up any undesired fermentation by-products and drop clear. There is a certain logic to it and it seems fairly reasonable given the old belief was the 1-2-3 system of one week in primary, two in secondary and three in the bottle (another belief worth deconstructing itself). If you are spending three weeks between primary and secondary, an additional week in primary isn't that big of a deal. The idea gained steam when some homebrewers left some beers in primary for an extra week or two and decided their beers tasted better that way. Then the whole thing snowballed as the new belief challenging the old primary and secondary paradigm.

The big criticism usually came from the supporters of the secondary-is-a-must camp that if you left the beer on the yeast you will get autolysis and your beer will taste like beef broth. There's a lot of misinformation on autolysis out there but suffice to say I have lambic two years in on the trub and it definitely has no beef broth flavor. I've left big Belgians, with no brett to mask autolysis flavor, in primary for three months with zero beef flavor. I can appreciate that commercial brewers do worry about autolysis. The difference is that they are fermenting in enormous cylindro-conical fermenters with substantially more beer on top of the trub. The combination of pressure from all that beer plus the conical shape results in a greater concentration of pressure and heat that can accelerate yeast death. Lambic brewers ferment right in those barrels and that's a 59 gallon primary where the trub might sit for years. Still a bigger system than an ale pail or carboy. Autolysis isn't necessarily a myth but it's pretty hard to treat brewing yeast so poorly at the homebrewing level you're going to get noticeable flavor from autolysis after a few weeks.

There are a couple reasons why that extended primary is a good thing. First, if you are brewing a bigger beer you need more aging time no matter what vessel it is in. Even a beer in the higher single digit ABV can benefit from some extended aging, whether it is in primary, secondary or lagered. Many commercial brewers do put their bigger beers through some extended aging and/or lagering for clarity and smoothness. Even ales. So there's that. Second, if you are mistreating your beer the extended time will help clean up some off-flavors that never should have been there in the first place. If you are stressing your yeast by under-pitching, under-aerating, or supplying insufficient nutrients, you risk creating off-flavors in your beer. Yeast will continue to take up some of the byproducts over time and fix your problems. So if you are doing that, then yes, you need the extra time. However, the more effective solution is to treat your beer right in the beginning.

Some beers are harmed by the extended aging. This is particularly true of weizen beers because the esters and fresh wheat flavors fade over time and rather than having a good mix of wheat, clove and banana you end up with sort of a bland clovey beer. The same is true for hop flavor/aroma-forward beers. Those late addition hops fade over time so unnecessary aging can drain out some of the flavor and aroma. Some beers, especially lower ABV beers, do have a certain freshness early on that gets lost over time, even week by week.

That's not to say you can't enjoy your beer more as it ages. All us beer snobs cellar beer because the flavors develop over time. Some higher ABV beers, as I said before, really mellow with age. Hell, I just knocked off the end of two 10%+ ABV Belgians that were two and a half years old that didn't mellow for over a year. Jamil Zainasheff had a medal winning BDSA after aging four years. The distinction I draw here is that if you treat your fermentation process properly you don't need to age every beer four or six weeks and some beers will be worse off for it. Don't believe just because somebody copies and pastes pages of bullshit over and over on forums about how you need to wait eight months for your beer to be done makes it truth. 

If you want to do an extended aging because you think it makes your beer taste better, that's ok. It is your beer and you should drink it how you like it. My belief is that you should understand why you are doing it and do it for a particular purpose, not because somebody told you that you should. It is also my belief you should make the best beer possible and do so by employing the best processes out there, not whatever will cover up other mistakes.

December 3, 2012

Random Rambling about 2013

I've been trying to keep a steady pace of posting twice a week on Monday/Tuesday and Thursday and one of the ways I get that done is to write drafts on the other days of the week when I have the free time and inspiration. This post was actually written late Saturday night, while I was being supercool and studying for finals. Did I mention I'm also drinking a little beer? This brief study break will be the most exciting part of my night. I know this is not the most exciting post. I have a couple finals early next week so I don't have time to whip out anything more in depth. I have a lot of beer stuff going on the second half of December so I promise better content soon.

I'm currently drinking a 750ml of the blended brett brown beer that started off as some half-ass idea of an oud bruin. I didn't do a great job of stabilizing the brett portion so over time it has chewed up some of the sugars in the clean portion and made some overcarbed bottles. Fortunately the beer is still pretty good. I brewed the brett portion back in January 2011 and finally blended early June 2011 after I came back from my honeymoon. For a while the beer was really funky. My younger brother said it tasted like how the family dog smells. He wasn't entirely wrong. It was pretty funky, just like the dog. About six months ago I opened a bottle and it was in a weird funky-cherry place. It wasn't terrible but didn't taste "complete" which is a problem for a lot of brett beers when they go through evolutions of change in the bottle. Now the beer has risen to a spectacular place. It's full of funky cherry like a lambic but with the malty character of an oud bruin and no sourness. It's quite tasty. Sadly, while this beer is rocketing up towards deliciousness the dog's health is declining fiercely. It's too bad. She used to be a really entertaining and playful dog. Now she looks like life kinda sucks but she's trying to get better. She's still awesome in my book. So Bitey, this awesome beer deserves your name even if it doesn't taste like you any more.

I posted here about my end of 2012 and 2013 brewing plans. I intend to keep those plans -- at least loosely on that schedule -- but I already have some additions I'd like to add. Obviously I need to do some more work on my yeast project but that's not really making drinkable beer as much as just trying to catalog what I have. I picked up some DME so I can brew some really simple beer and reduce the amount of trub I ended up with in the first round. I have also been playing with the idea of brewing a barleywine and along with it trying another partigyle brew. I am tinkering with a one gallon barleywine/two gallon dark mild partigyle split. The recipe as it is now is mostly about trying to use up odd ounces of different grains I have in my fridge that are 1-2 years old and just need to get used. The mild will go into the party pig as a test run on the cask idea  I wrote about back in September. I planned to try out an ESB for my after-bar exam party in the party pig but I'm thinking a house full of people is the wrong time to see if an experiment is a good idea.

So I'd like to brew the partigyle in January so I'll have time to drink all the mild (a 3% beer is very easy to put down) and fill the ESB and condition it before the party. The problem is that the lambic solera is going to suck up a lot of my gallon fermentors in a couple weeks. Currently I have two committed to the stout-black sour blend and one free gallon fermentor (I will write about this separately next week). I need all three to complete the blending process, which I will do the week after next, but two will go right into service on the lambic the same week. One will house a gallon of lambic for next year's gueuze blending. One gallon is getting blackberries for six or so months. That leaves one fermentor available for all my gallon batches. The barleywine will need to age for many months and I'd like to hit it with oak and some dry hops before bottling, so that will require keeping it in a fermentor so it will be close to ready to drink after bottling so the dry hops can be enjoyed. I'm trying to use up another five liters of jug wine as I can but that's a lot of wine to put into food. So I need another free fermentor available for other beers. The partigyle would use both a jug, for the barleywine, and my bucket fermentor, for the mild. The only fermentor left would be a corny keg and it's really hard to rack out a small batch from a corny keg. I've tried.

Losing the extra gallon fermentor would set me back on the coffee oatmeal stout and losing the bucket will interrupt current plans for brewing the black IPA and American wheat. We are thinking about pushing the party back to April when it will be warm enough to enjoy the outdoors so I may delay the American wheat. That's something we just started discussing. It probably would be helpful to brew a little less while studying for the bar but I don't want to end up not brewing all the beer I would like next year. We'll see.

The next big thing on the horizon is the third brew on my lambic solera. It's going to be a massive brew day. My wife will be off of work to help out, which is good because there is going to be a massive amount of work involved. Of course I will be brewing the new three gallon batch, complete with a triple decoction mash, which will take several hours and the decoction mash will be a busy process by itself. I'm also draining the entire fermentor so I can empty the huge amount of trub (it's 3-4 inches tall) and give the fermentor a good cleaning out. I'm losing a lot of room in the fermentor to trub and I don't know if it will support another year of trub. Plus, after a couple of years it's about time when autolysis might start to be a real concern, especially for the first year's dead yeast trapped under all that trub. I will then siphon off two gallons into the two gallon fermenters and bottle a third gallon. Then sanitize the solera fermentor, add the remaining beer back in and add the fresh wort. I'm also going to give it a helping hand of some fresh saccharomyces. I'm going to hit it with some of the South Austin BGSA yeast I have just to make sure it gets healthy fermentation and the excellent ester profile from that yeast will help add nice flavors for brett to manipulate over the years.

When I first brewed the lambic I added a small amount of oak chips I boiled forever and soaked in some chardonnay. I know, oak flavor is not meant for lambic. I agree. The oak chips were devoid of oak flavor. I added them to give brett another source of food and try to leach out some of those tannins into the beer. Since I've been happy with my lambics so far I felt like the oak was at a minimum doing no harm and at a maximum adding complexity, so I decided I should add more after recleaning. This time I decided to go a little unconventional and after boiling out a lot of the color and flavor from the oak chips I added it to some Canadian whisky.

Okay, if you punched yourself in the face after reading that know there was a deliberate reason. Canadian whisky, unlike Scotch or Bourbon, is a milder blended whisky. I think adding scotch to beer is dumb because you'll miss all the subtle scotch flavors under the beer. Bourbon is simply too sweet to make sense. American rye whisky, like Wild Turkey, would be too much rye character. It's not as smooth as a blended scotch. It often has herbal and smoky notes from the rye but not as much rye character as an American rye whisky. My goal is to really use the whisky as a device to extract more color and flavor out of the oak and impart just a little extra something for brett to play with. I don't expect to taste any of the oak or whisky in the final product. I thought it would be an interesting experiment and I found two 1.5 liter bottles of the stuff in my liquor cabinet so I wouldn't miss a few ounces in the service of lambic.

Who knows, maybe brett and Canadian whisky is an unknown combination of awesome. I plan on extracting the chips for the lambic. The remaining whisky will either go down my gullet or if it tastes pretty good it might go into another homebrew. Maybe a stout. Anyway, I'll write more about the lambic rebrew and the Canadian whisky-oak chips later.