January 31, 2013

Smoking Grains at Home

Smoked beers are among the dated styles being revived and resuscitated by craft brewers (save for the Bamburg rauchbier brewers). For quite some time brewers were limited to the Bamburg-style beechwood-smoked rauch malt with it's bacon flavor or peat malt, the swampy and overpowering malt rarely used in beer. These malts show up everywhere from traditional rauchbier to scotch ales, porters, stouts and anywhere else brewers can think to put smoke. In recent years other variants have shown up, such as cherry and alder, and Weyermann has kindly revived oak-smoked wheat malt to allow brewers to revive Gratzer/Grodziskie (depending on whether you prefer the German or Polish name, respectively). However, before Weyermann brought oak-smoked wheat malt back to the market, the only way to make a traditional Gratzer/Grodziskie was to smoke wheat malt yourself.

Smoking malts at home is not limited to traditional styles, you can smoke grains over any kind of wood and pick up unique flavors from those woods. Nor do you have to limit the grains smoked to pilsner or wheat malt. Any grain can be smoked. By smoking different grains over differernt woods (either a single type or multiple types of wood) you can produce unique flavors that will make a smoked beer stand out as something unique, even in the smoked beer category. San Antonio brewery (and distillery) Ranger Creek makes a couple unique smoked beers. One is a Mesquite Smoked Porter with smoked maris otter. The other, easily their best beer, is Small Batch #2: a saison with spelt smoked over peach, apricot, plum and apple woods. It is complex with interested fruit and smoke flavor without bowling you over with smoke (a reason many people rate it poorly).

The issue home-smoked malt is often criticized for is the lack of predictable and repeatable results. Certainly one's home smoking process is likely less consistent than a professional maltster (or even a brewery) that smoked huge amounts of grain at a time. Still, like with brewing, if you understand your equipment and process you can reduce the margin of error considerably. Personally I don't mind a little variance in my beer so if one batch turns out a little more or less smoky than the next it's not the end of the world. However, the variance across batches of beer will also diminish by smoking enough grain to use in several batches so each has the same smoke profile. The process for smoking grain is easy and requires no more special equipment than what you would already use for smoking meats.

Home Smoking Grains Process

Step one is obviously to obtain access to a smoker. It doesn't really matter what kind of smoker you have, you just need one. It can be a home-built drum smoker, a vertical smoker, a horizontal smoker, a green egg, etc. If you do not own a smoker, see if a friend or relative has one available. Personally I own the cheapest of the cheapest: the Brinkman smoke 'n grill. It works fine although it is not the best smoker on the market.

Some people prefer the electric smokers over the fire pit style smokers like this. You can use an electric smoker to smoke grains but you want a good thick smoke to smoke grains so make sure you can get enough wood smoking to create a thick fire. I don't think I've ever seen any electric smokers pour out smoke like a traditional smoker but then again I haven't seen that many in action.

If you are new to smoking I would recommend using the smoker a few times to learn how to control the temperature. Smoking meat is all about low and slow cooking with a very low temperature (for a fire). Similarly, when you smoke grains at home you are smoking grain that has already been kilned so it is dried out and already been hit with heat. If you smoke it under too hot of conditions you will continue to kiln the grains and develop a more toasted and darker flavor. It's not necessarily bad but you may not want your smoked beer to taste like toast and smoke. (Although bread that has been smoked and then toasted is tasty.)

Once you feel ready to smoke some grains you just want to follow the same process as starting your smoker for meats. My process is to start the fire with a mix of charcoal and dry wood to create a sustainable and low heat fire. I soak more wood in water for an hour or so and then add that wood to the fire. The water-smoked wood will smoke better and also will keep the heat lower. Your process may be different. Follow the process you are familiar with.

A note about wood choice: not all woods are safe or desirable for smoking. Some wood and other vegetative material contains chemicals that are toxic when consumed and those chemicals are released in a fire and end up in your smoked grains. The safest thing to do is to limit yourself to smoking woods you buy at the store that is sold specifically for smoking meats. Lumber and woods for other hobbies often contain preservatives that are toxic and the woods may be unsafe for smoking. If you are eyeballing trees on your property (or maybe you already cut up trees for firewood or smoking) still to the kinds of wood sold for smoking or at least do some research online in smoking/BBQ groups to make sure it is safe. Also, you will want to season the wood (meaning, age it in dry conditions for around a year or dry it in a kiln) because fresh wood can be very harsh and is generally not used for smoking meats for that reason.

You want your fire as low of a temperature as you can keep it while creating a healthy amount of smoke. Try to keep the temperature in the smoker at 120F or lower, if you can. Remember, you are not trying to kiln or cook the grains, just attach smoke. You will just want to keep lots of smoke and low temperature while you are smoking.

Preparing the grain for smoking is simple. Before smoking, you should soak the grain in a minimal amount of water. Like the wood, this will help keep the grain cool and the water helps the smoke stick to the grain. You really only need to soak it for thirty minutes or so. Some people soak for much longer but I find that is sufficient. The grain should be damp but not dripping water. It's not disastrous for the grain to be more than damp but you want the grain to dry out completely so it doesn't mold or stale after smoking and the more wet it is the more time it has to stay on the smoker. You can always add more water with a spray bottle but you cannot easily take it back out. I've never noticed a bad flavor from using too much water but if the grain gets too dry there will be more of a toasty flavor to it.

Then you want to spread the grain on whatever cooking surface you plan on using. Depending on your smoker, you may be able to use a cooking sheet like you would an oven. If you have a barrel-shaped smoker you probably need to use something else. A pie pan is a good alternative. If you don't have anything else, aluminum foil will work just fine. Create a shallow pan out of the foil by rolling up four sides of a sheet of foil and twisting the corners to create a wide and shallow box. You will need a more stable surface to transport the foil "pan" to the smoker and back off but it will work fine in the smoker.

The grain should be as spread out as possible. The deeper the layer of grain, the less the smoke will reach the grain on the bottom. You can mix the grain periodically to get even smoke but each time you open the smoker you vent out the smoke and change the temperature. It will also take more time to smoke all the grain so you're applying more heat to the grain, potentially toasting it more than necessary. An inch deep layer of grain is as much as I would recommend.

The length of time the grain will need to stay in the smoker will depend on several factors. The density of smoke in the smoker will affect how quickly the smoke penetrates the grain. The amount of grain and depth of the layer of grain will also affect how efficiently the smoke sticks to all the grain. The intensity of the smoke flavor from the wood will also make a difference. Some woods, like oak, have a milder smoke flavor and will take longer to reach the right intensity in the grain. Additionally, the amount of smoked character you desire in the grain will affect how long you leave it on the smoker. I like to smoke the grain to get a really intense flavor. It usually takes a couple hours to get a good smoke flavor and aroma in the grain although it may take longer depending on the above factors.

You can smoke other things while the grain is smoking although you should be mindful that temperatures as low as you want for smoking grains may be too low for most meats. However it is perfectly fine if you are smoking other foods, like vegetables. (Smoked jalapeno is delicious, even if you don't smoke them down to chipotles.) If you do have other foods, especially meats, on the smoker, make sure other food is not above the grains. Other foods dripping juices into your grain may cause off flavors. If meat is dripping into your grain it can not only carry off flavors and fat into your grain but since the meat is not at a safe temperature at that point you might get unwanted bacteria in the grains. Just another safety concern.

Once you're happy with the level of smoky character in the grain (and it's best to smell and taste it away from the smoker) just remove the grain from the smoker and let it cool. Some people insist it's necessary to put it in a bag and let it sit for a week. I don't find that necessary although the smoke character does mellow a little once the grain has cooled completely. You can let it sit for a few days or a week if you think it makes the grain taste better. Then use it in your beer as you prefer.

My random tips

  • Assume that the diastatic power of any smoked base malt is now zero. Since you are adding additional heat to the grain, you are likely denaturing some of the enzymes used in conversion. If you can keep the heat extremely low you may not denature the enzymes but if you are smoking alongside meat in the upper 100s (or even in the low 200s) you definitely are denaturing enzymes. This means you probably cannot do a 100% home-smoked grain beer (unless you separately add enzymes, which you can) but you can still treat your smoked grain as a specialty malt.
  • Choose the right kind of grains to smoke. It is very common to see base malts smoked, including pale malt/maris otter/2 row/6 row, pilsner, wheat malt and munich. It is not necessary to chose one of these malts although munich is a fantastic smoked grain. You can also smoke unmalted grains, such as unmalted wheat, unmalted barley, buckwheat, unmalted rye, etc. You can smoke them in either whole or flaked forms. Be careful about smoking specialty malts. Specialty malts are kilned to a particular temperature to produce a particular flavor profile. Adding more heat can change that flavor profile in a good or bad way. I would definitely avoid smoking any grain over 200 SRM to prevent adding additional kilning and making the grain too acrid. Sticking with base malts or unmalted grains is probably the best approach.
  • Choose the wood or woods based upon the desired smoke flavor profile. Each wood has unique character and will impart completely different flavor in your beer. Fruit woods, for example, will produce some fruit flavors and a mild smoke. Oak smoke is slightly harsh but contains some citrus notes. I really enjoy mesquite flavor in both beer and food, so it is the wood I use the most. It has a delicious sweet, caramel flavor but it burns very hot so it's hard to keep a cool fire with it. Hickory also has a rich flavor but can easily overwhelm. You can mix woods to create a custom flavor profile. Hickory and beechwood would create a bacon-like flavor that might be more interesting than the straight beechwood rauch malt. 
  • An efficient way to smoke grain is to tack it on to the end of a day smoking meats. If you've used a smoker you know the smoker will stay warm for hours, even days, after you run out of food to put on it. Rather than trying to keep a low heat from a fresh fire, let the heat cool down after smoking meats and then put your grain on the smoker with a little fresh, water-soaked wood. 
  • Use the smoked grains in a reasonable amount of time. Smoke does not last forever, either on the grain or in the beer. The smoke flavor will fade, so keep the grains in your fridge if you can to extend their life if you aren't using them immediately. The flavor of well-faded smoke is not that pleasant so if you find some old smoked grains you probably want to toss them, although I have had some success re-smoking them. I would definitely use within six months if kept at room temperature and within a year if kept in the fridge.
  • I would not use a grill as an alternative if you lack access to a smoker. Grills are meant to cook hot and fast so they would toast the grain faster than you could get a good smoke flavor. I guess depending on your grill you could start a very small fire with a lot of wood and keep it cool but that doesn't sound like it would work very well. 

January 28, 2013

Wakey Wakey Coffee Oatmeal Stout

Today is "vacation day" for bar prep, which means it's the one day in nine weeks they don't schedule additional learning and we are encouraged to take the day off. It's a nice idea but I've been sick twice during my class and feel I'm a bit behind so I'm not taking the day off, I'm just going to take the day to try to get caught up. However, I do need some time to think about something other than the rule against perpetuities and the M'Naghten rule for criminal insanity defense. So I'm going to brew a one gallon batch of beer that I have been trying to find time to brew since late December when I first got sick.

I conceptualized this beer while hiking in the Rockies last summer with my wife and a couple friends. I was thinking about some of the breakfast stouts out there and how we have zero breakfast stouts available locally in Dallas so it would be interesting to try, especially since I've never played with adding coffee to beer although I love coffee and I love coffee beers.

You burned it you donkey!
My wife and I are big fans of Gordon Ramsay and his shows. After Hell's Kitchen has been on for like a million seasons I still find it entertaining enough to watch. Actually, the English versions of his shows are the best. He is both funny and acrid but also the shows focus a lot more on the food than the Fox versions of the shows that focus more on the interpersonal drama. There are many good Ramsay quotes but one thing I really enjoy is when he wants somebody to focus he tells them, "wakey wakey" which I thought was a great name for a breakfast stout. One of our friends pointed out that "wakey wakey, hands of snakey" is also a common line from the My Name is Earl sitcom.

I thought up this beer being slightly different than the typical breakfast stouts in a couple ways. First, many breakfast stouts tend to be bigger beers but I'm on a solid session(ish) beer run so I wanted to make this beer a little smaller than those but bigger than the very sessionable Guinness-style dry Irish stouts. Second, many breakfast stouts employ chocolate along with oats and coffee but I thought I would leave the chocolate out and see how the beer works without it. A future rendition might bring in the chocolate. I've also seen some of these beers enjoy the presence of vanilla and other additions but I thought starting simple made the most sense.

I struggled to pick a method for adding coffee to this beer. There are many methods out there that range from adding coffee or coffee beans to the boil at flameout to adding cold coffee or hot coffee to the bottling bucket and just about every way imaginable to add coffee to the fermentor. I want good, fresh coffee flavor but I also want to make sure I'm not allowing the coffee to be a vessel for infections to enter my beer. So I took a combination of steps to try to meet both goals. The Mad Fermentationist recently posted a similar breakfast stout where he added the coffee beans directly to the fermentor prior to kegging and indicated that was a good way to get long lasting, fresh coffee flavor. (Who am I to disagree with him?) I decided before adding the coffee I would give them a soak in a small amount of vodka for about four hours prior to adding them to the fermentor just as a preventative measure to reduce the likelihood of infection. I will let the beer sit on coarsely chopped coffee beans for twenty four hours and then bottle.

So with that in mind, here comes the recipe:

Wakey Wakey Coffee Oatmeal Stout

Batch size: one gallon
Est. ABV: 4.83%
Est. OG: 1.050
Est. FG: 1.013
IBU: 18.2
SRM: 35.7

Grain Bill:

72.13% 1.32lb. Maris Otter
10.93% 0.20lb Quick Oats
6.56% 0.12lb Chocholate malt (450 SRM)
6.56% 0.12lb Roasted Barley (300 SRM)
3.83% 0.07lb Crystal 120

The Mash:

Single infusion of 0.57 gallons at 165F for a 154F 60 minute mash
Sparge with 0.71 gallons of water at 174F

Water profile: London (ish)

Calcium: 69
Magnesium: 22
Sodium: 85
Chloride: 50
Sulfate: 40
Alkalinity: 235

(RO water plus 0.5 grams of chalk, calcium chloride and 1.5 grams baking soda)

The Boil: 60 minutes

0.20oz EKG (5% AA)

The Fermentation:

Yeast: Safale S-04 slurry

Pitch at 65F and remain at 65F for one week, raise to 70F for two days.
On day nine, prepare 0.30oz coffee beans by hand chopping with knife. Soak in small amount of vodka for four hours then add vodka and beans to fermentor for 24 hours.

Bottle with 0.95oz priming sugar for 2.6 volumes of carbonation. Bottle condition for 2-3 weeks.


I neglected to use a mid-range crystal malt here because I wanted the grains to give more presence to the chocolately character and less to the sweeter, caramel notes a mid-range crystal malt will provide. Additionally, I chose a coffee with a lighter roast that carries a sweeter, nutty flavor, so I wanted to leave an open space in the flavor profile for the coffee to come through without getting tangled up in crystal malts. I am not always a fan of really dark roasts because they can be a little too acrid and miss some of the more gentle toffee/nut/caramel/vanilla flavors you can find in a medium or mild roast. I think most brewers tend to use a darker roast coffee in their beers but it can lend an acridness and acidity to the beer I don't always enjoy.

The coffee I chose is one of my favorites and almost always found in my house. I am using Coffee Beanery's Beanery Blend. Coffee Beanery is a chain coffee house that sadly was squeezed out of the area by Starbucks. The only way I can get the coffee is by ordering it, so I order it quite a bit. They make really good flavored and non-flavored coffee beans. I might be biased after years and years of drinking their coffee but I generally prefer them over most of the local coffee houses because they seem to take the approach that more extreme is better (similar to the IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIPA or 8000% ABV stout trends in beer) and end up making coffee that has an assertive but single note flavor with too much acidity. Sorry, not trying to turn this into a coffee rant. Just explaining the choice of coffee.

January 22, 2013

Yeast Project: Tasting RAM 1, 2 and 10

I know I've been posting a lot of tasting posts but this one relates to my yeast project so hopefully it's a little more interesting. I haven't had a chance to put more strains through the fermentation process but I did finally get around to tasting the first three strains I fermented. For the first three strains I used some left over runnings from a porter hopped and boiled down to a useful gravity. Unfortunately I ended up with a really bitter beer but it produced some interesting data so all was not lost. I definitely plan on using some DME for the other tests to get a more neutral beer to let the yeast shine through. Anyway, here's the skinny on these strains:

RAM-1 (WLP 300)

RAM-1 tasted pretty much the way you expect it to. At 65F it was extremely clovely with little banana. It did not taste very good in a hoppy porter. Not really a surprise there. I've already used this strain in a dunkelweizen with good success. Not really much more that needs to be said about this strain since it's a common homebrewing strain.

RAM-2 (Stroh)

The aroma from the strain was strongly caramel, which was probably driven by the porter but did not have such an obvious aroma with RAM-1. The flavor was also strongly of caramel with slight apricot notes and a little diacetyl buttery flavor in the background. The hop bitterness was particularly accentuated in this beer. Overall I wasn't terribly fond of it. I didn't think the sharp hop bitterness and caramel played particularly well together but maybe in a lighter beer it would work better.

RAM-10 (Blatz)

This strain was similar to RAM-2 with the caramel notes but unlike RAM-2 there was a really strong apricot presence. The aroma was prevalently apricot with some caramel and bready notes. It smelled a lot like an apricot cobbler or pie. Really good, actually. The flavor was slightly different. Very malt forward and the hop bitterness was subdued. The apricot was more restrained in the flavor but still present. Hints of diacetyl and sulfur in the background. Definitely the best of the three.

RAM-2 and RAM-10 were strains I initially hypothesized to be lager strains but after watching their very ale-like fermentations with thick krausen, I shifted to the hypothesis that these strains were actually ale strains. After tasting both, I am fairly confident each are lager strains. The apricot esters were very different from anything I have tasted or read about from ale strains but does relate more to the flavors of steam beer and some things I have read about lager strains. However, while my present hypothesis for both strains is that they are lager strains, I will have to do some follow up experiments in the future by fermenting at lager temperatures to see if they ferment out or stall like an ale strain would. I suspect I have another lager strain or two out there so I might hold off on that experiment until I have the chance to play with each strain so I can do one lager experiment with all the suspected lager strains at once.
January 18, 2013

Skeet Skeet Skeet Mesquite Porter Tasting

Porter plus studying...I say it's a good idea!
I put this porter together at the end of October 2012 to unveil for company in December as a bottle conditioned, ready to drink beer. I used a molasses-ish stuff made from mesquite pods. It's definitely an interesting brew. The mesquite pods gives it a flavor not entirely like anything I've ever had in a beer.

Sadly I ended up way overcalculating my boil volume and ended up with about half a gallon of extra beer which is normally not a bad thing but ended up watering down the beer more than I expected and thinned the beer out to a lighter body than I had hoped for. I'm pretty sure my error was slightly miscalculating boil evaporation (an ongoing issue I am trying to dial in) and the rest not calculating the additional volume of the mesquite molasses.

Anyway, here's the review:

Appearance: Beer has a nice ruby color. It is very clear and maybe a little too light of a color, due to the extra volume. Still, it has an inviting color and clarity. It's actually quite a bit lighter than it looks in the picture. The head is thin but lasting. I undercarbonated this beer around two volumes to give it more of a cask-like feel. The head is creamy and as you see in the picture, creates some decent lacing.

Mouthfeel: The beer is a little thinner than I expected but with the low carbonation and adjuncts it isn't an unpleasant drink. There is a slight astringency from the mesquite that would probably scrub off with more carbonation but isn't any worse than a well-oaked beer.

Smell: The smell has a little of the unique mesquite character. There's the usual bready character along with sweet caramel aromas and a hint of stonefruit but the aroma is overwhelmingly from the mesquite. There's strong aromas of toffee, coffee, vanilla, chocolate, a whiff of smoke and a woody character that is very different but again, not unpleasant.

Flavor: This porter is definitely unique. It isn't chocolatey like my usual preference for porter but the flavor is really delicious. It's malty and some of the chocolate malt comes through with the caramel malts but the real player in the flavor is again, the mesquite. It tastes exactly like it smells but in the taste it really comes together as something very unique. It's almost like a coffee porter but a coffee porter made with a really different kind of coffee. I'm not sure exactly what coffee it's most like. The flavor is quite smooth, there isn't any acrid character from the mesquite.

Drinkability: It's a porter, it's really easy to drink. It's malty and if you just chugged it you would probably miss most of the mesquite flavor. If you savor it, you can really get a lot out of it without hunting for flavors. I will probably brew this again in the future since my street is full of mesquite trees but I think I will increase the chocolate malt a little to get more chocolate character. I'd also like to experiment with using a lighter or darker molasses for different flavor contributions.

Overall, pretty happy with it and glad I still have 21 bottles left.
January 17, 2013

And an update on my Petrus Aged Pale Clone

My Petrus Aged Pale Clone began life in September 2012 based on the recipe in Wild Brews and went into a corny for long term aging with the dregs of a couple bottles of the real deal by October. I've mostly left it alone with the occasional peeking just to see what's going on. I decided to give it a taste today to see how it's moving along. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to have much activity going on over the past three months. It tastes pretty much the same as it did when I racked to secondary (which is very tasty) although the oak I added in the corny is giving the beer a lot of astringency. I'm not concerned about the astringency because it will mellow with age.

I know I shouldn't be too concerned about the speed of activity but I am concerned the dregs were not viable and I won't get any souring at all. I'm still committed to letting it ride as is but if I don't see activity in another three months or so I'll probably commit to giving it some supplemental dregs. I don't want to hit it with some of my lambic because I suspect it would end up very similar. I'd like a different flavor profile here so I might resort to using the dregs of my lone Jolly Pumpkin beer in my "cellar" or a Jester King sour. I should be making my way down to Freetail in San Antonio in March so I might be able to bring back one of their sours to use instead. Not too worried now but worth keeping my eye on it.
January 16, 2013

Wild Ale 2.0 -- Six months

I decided to give the beer a little taste and see how it was going, since this was about the oldest I ever tasted the first run of the beer when it was incredibly bretty and full of diacetyl. This time around it was very dry with a lot of yeast character, somewhere in between a Belgian abbey/trappist strain and a saison strain but without any phenolic character. There was some funky elements that came across initially as skunky. Interestingly, there is zero diacetyl and none of the cherry pie character I was hoping for.

It's possible that whatever gave the slurry I pitched from the first batch that sour and cherry pie character didn't survive the freezing process and what I have is all I am going to have but I don't have anything to lose by letting it go another 12-18 months. If there's still nothing interesting going on I'll probably toss in some dregs and let it sour with some help.
January 14, 2013

Thinking about a massive realignment of my brew house

This bar exam preparation is whipping my ass. It's an enormous amount of information to slurp down in ten weeks to regurgitate in a three day exam that determines whether the six figures of debt I accrued to get my Juris Doctor can be shaped into a career or just the most expensive piece of paper I'll ever own. So unfortunately I'm a little behind on my brewing to post a new recipe or do some research to write about something innovative. However, I have some sparse ideas percolating and I'm trying to squeak out a few sentences here and there as a mental break although most of my break time is sleep or staring zombie-like at the wall. Even my workouts have become an opportunity to try to memorize the rule against perpetuities or the M'Naghten rule for insanity defenses. After the bar, however, I'll spend the two months waiting for exam results (two of the three days are written exams that must be hand graded) learning the practical elements of the legal practice and business before [hopefully] opening my own firm. I plan on trying to get caught up on my brewing during that time as well. Anyway, here's something I've been turning over in my mind the past few months.

Like a lot of homebrewers, I brew on a loose schedule of what I want to drink for the next several months or even, as I do, for the next year. If you brew sour/funky beers you have beers quietly aging for a year or more. In addition to beers I think will be neat to consume I have a few long term projects going, such as my lambic solera, wild ale, and Petrus clone. Since I booked up my 2013 brewing schedule I'm pretty well locked in to my schedule this year with grains and hops purchased. However, I have a couple of bigger picture projects I've been toying with for a while that I'm considering for 2014.

One of those projects is to brew a lot of saison. I love saison, it's probably my favorite non-sour style (lambic wins overall). It's a diverse style and it lends incredibly well to experimentation, especially if you can manipulate the yeast into giving you a complementary flavor profile. So I have a lengthy list of saisons in mind to brew ranging from the pedestrian to hoppy to using some really crazy ingredients. I'm still working on the list and shaping those recipes, albeit very slowly. I might brew some of these saisons this year should I find myself chugging down my other 2013-scheduled homebrews quicker than I planned. However, I'll table this idea for the time being because it's not really what I wanted to write about today.

The other project I'm contemplating is developing a New Belgium-like system of creating sour-blend beers. New Belgium brews two lagers, a brown and blond, that they use in different proportions to make all their sour and sour-blended beers. Similarly, I could brew a Flanders red or amber ale and a blond ale (maybe a saison or Belgian blond?) and use those beers individually, blended together and blended with clean beers to create a wide array of unique beers. By blending with clean beers I can both stabilize the sour portion to create bottle-stable beers or blend the sour beers with very dry clean beers that can go in the bottle completely alive but without too much residual sugar have minimal risk of bottle bombs. It sounds like a really fun idea but there's several issues I have yet to work out.

The source of all the problems is that it seems like I would have to plan everything really well and dedicate pretty much all of my fermentors (other than the lambic solera) to this project. The problem is that if I brew, say five gallons of each sour beer, that's two large fermentors that get dedicated for at least a year and probably in perpetuity to keep the two sour base beers in supply. I have a couple corny kegs I use for fermentation that could take that role. However, the problem is what to do with the unblended beer after using only part of it for blending? If I blend two of five gallons of the amber sour that leaves three gallons in the fermentor. While I'm not too panicked about headspace, I am slightly concerned with it on a sour beer, especially when it requires moving the fermentor around the house to bottle.

Additionally, if I leave beer behind I can't replenish it with fresh wort because that means I can't take any more beer out until the new wort ferments out and sours. The only solution available to me would be to break down the remaining beer into gallon jugs and then refill the corny with new wort to start over souring for the next year. Well that's a lot of gallon jugs hanging out and I only have so many jugs and so much space. If I exhaust everything I have then there's not much room to ferment clean beers for blending.

Another related issue is unless I want the blended beers to continue to develop in the bottle -- a dangerous idea risking bottle bombs at worst and gushers at least -- I will need still further fermentors available to stabilize the sour portion prior to blending and bottling. All in all, I'm not sure I have the house space and fermentor space available for this idea.

Developing the recipes for the blend will also be a tricky task. Not knowing what the sour beers will taste like and what proportions will make the best beer I am stuck designing recipes and blends blindly and hoping they all turn out ok. Then I will have to adjust the recipe and try again the next year. It could be a long (years) process of tweaking both the clean and sour recipes and tweaking the blend.

I recognize that I could get a CO2 tank, since I don't keg beer, and flush the corny keg out with CO2 to eliminate the headspace issues but with my student loan payments starting up this summer I don't want to be in a position of buying more equipment and even if I had the cash on hand I'm quickly running out of room for homebrew equipment. So it's probably the easiest idea -- and not completely off the table -- but for now not an option. Even if I used the CO2 to flush the headspace, eventually the beer would still have to come out of the fermentor to make room for new beer so the soured portion left over would have to go into another vessel anyway. 

I suppose I could commit the beginning stages of this process to brewing very few beers and blending in large quantities and that would also reduce the need for as many fermentors. For example, I could just blend 1-2 beers with each sour beer and bottle some of the sour base beer straight and do all the bottling at once. That would seem like an easy solution although it takes the fun out of making it a year long process and being able to produce many beers. Still, it is a good starting point.

What do you think? How would you approach these issues?
January 10, 2013

Homebrewing Deconstructed: You Must Leave the Lid Off the Boil

Another thing I read a lot on the homebrew forums is this nonsense about how you have to leave the lid off to prevent DMS from turning your beer into a vegetable-flavored bucket of foulness. While I agree you should not completely cover your kettle during the boil, I often read this "rule" expressed that if the lid is even touching the kettle, you will get DMS.

What the heck is DMS?

DMS is dimethyl sulfides, a compound that tastes of cooked vegetables. DMS is formed during the boil from a compound (S-methyl-methionine) that is created in the grain during the germination phase of malting grain. It is easily vaporized so during the boil you want the steam to float off into the air, not get trapped and descend back into your beer. DMS is considered an off flavor in most beers although it is usually always present in light lagers and considered part of the desired flavor, as long as it is not overwhelming. It will give the beer sort of a corn on the cob flavor. DMS can appear in your beer in other ways, such as through bacterial infection or by adding too much vegetation to your beer, such as chiles or dry hopping too long. These flavors are generally never desired.

DMS traditionally has been more of a concern for lager brewers than those of us strictly enjoying ales. Why? Lagers usually employ pilsner malt, which due to the malting process for pilsner malt tends to result in a higher amount of DMS. The usual solution is to boil pilsner malt for ninety minutes instead of the typical sixty minute boil. Recent experiments indicate modern pilsner malt is modified well enough the extended boil is unnecessary.

People have long believed DMS is formed by not cooling wort fast enough post-boil although this has mostly been rebutted by the no-chill brewers. Since DMS is formed at warm temperatures, if it forms at temperatures below boil then there's no vapor to carry it away so it all gets trapped in your beer. That's led to everybody believing you must use a chilling device and cool your beer within minutes. No-chill brewers, however, let their beer go into sanitized plastic containers right off the boil with no chilling at all and let it cool naturally. Yet in spite of their beers taking hours to cool they do not find their beers to taste like the vegetables on a cheap buffet.

For more info about DMS check out here and here.

Using the Lid During the Boil

Out of fear for DMS, people often leave the lid off the boil and instruct others you should never use your lid during the boil. That is not exactly true. Using the lid does trap some of the steam but it also traps heat leaving with the steam. Keeping the lid all the way on the kettle or almost completely enclosing the kettle pre-boil is a good way to accelerate the start of the boil. Similarly, you can keep the lid partially covering the opening of the kettle to help trap some of the heat against the boil. I usually keep the lid almost all the way covering the beer as I wait for boil to begin. I leave it open just enough to see whether it is starting to foam up. Once the boil begins, I set the lid covering about half the pot.

Why do this? Well, if you are boiling on propane, it's not the cheapest method of boiling so using the lid to trap some of the heat in increases the efficiency of your set up and allows you to turn the propane a little lower. I don't know for sure how much propane I save that way but I know I use very little propane for a boil. I do the same thing on my stove top boils. I noticed when I started using the lid during the boil I could turn down the coil one or two numbers on the infinity switch. It's not a huge cost saving but over time you could save yourself a few tanks-worth of propane if you are boiling frequently.

See the chimney on this old copper kettle?
Ok, what about all that steam getting trapped and descending back into the boil? It's ok. Enough steam is getting out that all the DMS will get vaporized and leave the wort. Have I scientifically tested my beer for proof? No, I haven't. I have tasted a lot of it and it never tastes like cooked corn. I don't expect you to believe me. Instead, why not believe pretty much every commercial brewer out there? If you look at commercial brewery kettles, they are not open at the top. Instead, the steam hits a ceiling -- much like your kettle lid -- and only has the chimney to escape through, letting the steam drift away from the brewery. There is no open kettle here with steam billowing into the brewery. If these centuries of kettles with their chimneys are not making cooked vegetable-flavored beers, you can't seriously believe leaving your lid half on is going to do anything worse.

More chimney on a modern system
Next time you take a brewery tour and decide to be the inquisitive homebrewer (isn't there always one on the tour that wants to ask questions to show how smart they are instead of asking questions to learn?) ask the brewer if they fear DMS in their boil system and point to the chimney. Let somebody a lot smarter than me drop some brewing knowledge.

Don't throw the lid on completely, the steam needs to go somewhere. Putting the lid on might give you too little escape for the DMS. It's also a great way to cause boil over and nobody wants to see delicious wort spilling uselessly down the sides of their boil kettle.
January 8, 2013

Homebrewing Deconstructed: Adding too much sugar makes cidery beer

The homebrewing literature and forums alike have a long, silly history of supporting this idea that if you add "too much" sugar to your beer it will taste cidery. What constitutes "too much" isn't standardized among supporters of this myth but I've seen "too much" be anything more than five percent to anything more than twenty percent. However, I've yet to see anybody assert a scientific basis for this conclusion. The myth is usually propounded empty of any basis although it is sometimes asserted along with personal experience, which might be merely observational bias.

Although this particular myth isn't advanced too seriously anymore, it hasn't been that long since people with considerable rank in the community were insistent it was true. Now, certainly there's a point where you don't really get good flavor out of a beer with too much "sugar" and nothing else to provide flavor but nobody really seems to know where that point lies. Just arbitrary numbers drawn somewhere. Personally I've brewed up to 20% of the fermentables from refined sugars added to the boil with zero cider flavor. I've seen recipes, even some older commercial recipes, that go as high as 30% with no reported cider off-flavor. So if there is a threshold where beer starts to taste cider-y just from adding refined sugars, nobody really has an idea what it is. I'll assert if such a threshold even exists, it's well above 50%.

When homebrewers talk about sugar making beer cider-y, they really mean refined sugars like corn sugar/dextrose or table sugar/sucrose. Most variants of the myth don't really explain how these cider flavors are created from dextrose or sucrose. I've seen some suggest the process of breaking down these sugars causes the off flavors so that's why you must invert the sugars first, but that's just more garbage speculation. If the enzymatic process of converting sucrose into simple monosaccharides yeast could consume was responsible for the off flavor than people making country wines adding sucrose as the sole or primary fermentable would always end up with a cider-y wine. They don't. The fact that they are able to ferment out a wine that is 100% or almost 100% sucrose should say enough to discount this whole stupid myth by itself.

If the access to too much simple sugar at once is responsible for this alleged off flavor produced by adding too much sugar in the boil, what about wines that are made from fruit that contain all or almost entirely all simple sugars like fructose? Again, no cider-y off flavor. Also, there's no scientific explanation that could be made why simple sugars produce off flavors but maltose and other more complex sugars, which are broken down to monosaccharides during fermentation, do not.

Maybe some component of beer is the distinction between this mythological off flavor and wines? Well, what about people who add honey to their beers, particularly braggots made of 50% honey? Honey is made of monosaccharides. So, again, no scientific basis is ever advanced why that form of simple sugar is ok but your grocery store table sugar is somehow different.

If you're getting a cider-y off flavor in your beer, the problem is in your process. You aren't treating your yeast properly (under-pitching, under-aerating, etc.) or you are fermenting too warm.
January 5, 2013

Slutty Pumpkin II Tasting

Ok, I know, tasting posts aren't that interesting except I think it's useful (at least for my own purposes) to put up an honest evaluation of a recipe. Slutty Pumpkin II is the name for my pumpkin dunkelweizen which is really just my dunkelweizen plus pumpkin pie spices. I don't have a picture for the beer (and honestly, how bad do you really want to see more of my shitty phone pics?) but I have words and they are neat, too.

This recipe was a few firsts: it was my first real beer run with WLP300 from my yeast experiment (prior weizen beers used WY 3068, essentially the same yeast) and it was the first use of my new two gallon mash tun; it was the first weizen beer to ferment in my fermentation chamber; it was also the first beer I turned out in three weeks total. Overall I think the beer turned out pretty well although I need to tweak a bit with my two gallon mash tun. It produced a slightly different beer than the dunkelweizen on the stove top I had made before but it's just adjusting to new equipment.

Appearance - Beer has a nice dark caramel color typical for a dunkelweizen. Decent amount of head and lacing to produce a good bed for the aroma to release.

Smell - Smell is typical dunkelweizen: slight banana, lots of clove, caramel, wheat and a hint of spice. The pumpkin pie spices don't come through strongly in the aroma.

Taste - Also pretty typical for a dunkelweizen. I fermented this beer slightly cooler than normal so it came through with a lot of clove and little banana which actually works well for the spices. The spices at first let you know there's something unusual here but primarily come through in the aftertaste. Up front I get mostly a standard dunkelweizen but the aftertaste is like a pumpkin pie with a lot of crust flavor. I think the beer could do with more spices, maybe even as much as twice the spicing. I don't want to go overboard with spices but I would like it to come through some in the initial flavor.

Mouthfeel - This is where the beer sort of fell off. It's a little thin which I appropriate to the new equipment and needing to spend less time at 148F in the decoction mash. The spices also add a lot of tannins which can contribute to a thinner mouthfeel in a fuller beer (but in a very thin beer like sours can add the impression of body). Initially the aftertaste was loaded with a lot of rough tannins that made the beer sort of awkward to drink but a couple days later the tannins mellowed out and the rough tannic bite went away. In the future I would add more wheat and/or spend more time in the mash at 158F to get a fuller mouthfeel out of the beer.

Drinkability - The beer is an easy drinker. It's complex enough to drink slowly but smooth enough to be an easy drinking beer if one prefers. It's substantially different from the Lakewood Punkel I took inspiration from but I think that's mostly because their version is an American wheat beer with a lot of chocolate malt and a lot of spice. I'm happy with the way my German weizen version came through minus the mouthfeel issues attributable to learning new equipment.