Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Batch #2 - American Pale Ale (Extract)

What a difference a little experience makes.  Round two was much less intimidating and the process flowed more smoothly.  There were, however, lessons to be learned and questions to be answered.

For batch #2 we decided to go with an American Pale Ale (one of my favorite styles) from Brewer's Best.  To see the recipe and instructions you can go HERE.  This recipe is labeled "Easy" by Brewer's Best in terms of difficulty and compared to the Wit Bier recipe I initially started my beer making hobby with I would agree.  There are simply less ingredients and steps involved in getting to the finished product.

Like my first batch, I took extreme caution to ensure everything was thoroughly sanitized and contamination would not be a factor.  For the most part, the brew session went as planned but I did learn a few things that I will take with me into batch #3 and I would like to share below:
  • Bayou Classic SQ14 Single Burner Outdoor Patio Stove

    A watched pot never boils...  Or so it would seem. In step #4 of the recipe it calls for the wort to be brought to a boil.  For whatever reason, our electric stove simply wouldn't get hot enough to bring the mixture to a rolling boil so it steeped for longer than the recipe called for.  Eventually we resigned ourselves to the fact that it simply wasn't going to get hot enough to achieve the desired temperature.  Fortunately, we had a propane burner similar to this one from Amazon.  We made the transfer and in just a few minutes had the rolling boil we were after.

Airlock seals don't float!  This is one of those seemingly simple lessons but until you have been there a little head scratching takes place.  After I had transferred the wort to my primary fermentation bucket I pitched the yeast, firmly pressed the lid on and went to install the airlock in the rubber seal around the top of the lid.  Unfortunately, I pressed a little hard and the black rubber seal pushed through and quickly sank to the bottom.  I retrieved my mixing spoon to try and fish it out but before doing so I mixed up another gallon of C-Brite to sterilize it before making the plunge.  After  several attempts and coming up empty I had to move on to a second option.  I considered siphoning the liquid into another container until the level was low enough to easily pluck the seal out but was concerned that introducing more air into the wort may contaminate it.  It seemed I was left but with one option.  I took the C-Brite mixture and thoroughly coated my right arm and went fishing.  I located the seal and was in and out in just a few seconds but I couldn't help but wonder if I had contaminated the brew.  As time would tell, the beer ended up just fine but not without a little worry.  Lesson learned - lubricate the end of the airlock with C-Brite solution and use care to gently push  into the seal.

Timing your Hydrometer readings matter.  If you want to ensure your home brew ends up with the intended ABV measurement you need to take your hydrometer readings at the appropriate times.  It is important to take a reading before fermentation begins to establish your original gravity (OG).  In following the brewing directions, I missed a step that would have given me greater control over the final gravity (FG) of my beer.  Step 8 of the brew process reads as follows... "Add enough clean water (approx. 64º - 72ºF) to the fermenter to bring your wort to approximately 5 gallons.  Thoroughly stir the water into the wort."  Simple enough.  I added the water as instructed but I should have read the ENTIRE set of directions because the next bit of information in the directions was important:  "Be careful not to add a volume of water that will cause the wort to fall outside of the OG range."  Unfortunately, I added more water than I should have and missed the intended OG which resulted in a FG less than is ideal for this style of beer.  I could not tell a difference in the taste of the finished product but I would have been happier if I had hit the desired ABV.  Lesson Learned - Add water to the wort slowly and take frequent hydrometer reading until you are at your intended OG reading.  You can always add more if your readings aren't where you want them to be.

Why's my beer cloudy?  After we popped our first beer in batch #2 we quickly noticed that it was cloudy.  This wasn't entirely unexpected.  In fact, some styles are supposed to be cloudy in their finished form such as our wit bier we brewed in batch #1.  The wit bier actually cleared up quite a bit over time while aging in the bottle.  This may prove to be true for our American Pale Ale as well but I think I will experiment with including Irish Moss in my next brewing session with a similar style.  Irish Moss is a clarifying agent commonly used in the home brew process to reduce the cloudiness of the beer and should not affect the taste.  It is purely used for aesthetic reasons.  I will follow-up on this topic with a future post on my results.

Thanks for reading and here's to successful home brewing!

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Batch #1 - Witbier (Extract)

For my inaugural homebrew post I thought what better way than to share my own experiences I encountered brewing my first batch of beer.  I can remember how excited I was to get started but also a little apprehensive and full of questions.

As with anything new, there is no replacement for experience.  The proprietor at my local home brew supply store said one of the best ways to learn the art of home brewing is to take copious amounts of notes as you progress through your brewing tasks.  This allows you to easily recall the questions that arose and what was learned so you repeat your successes and minimize your failures.  This is also a fun way to look back over time and see just how much you have learned throughout your brewing experiences.

Like most home brew virgins, I started with one of the ubiquitous kits that can be found at your local home brew supply store.  For purposes of this post, I am going list the equipment purchased, ingredients and recreate the steps below and add my "Lessons Learned" intermingled in RED.

Home Brew Kit: True Brew by Crosby and Baker, LTD
  1. True Brew Handbook
  2. Fermenting Bucket
  3. Bottling Bucket with hole for Spigot
  4. Spigot for bottom of Bottling Bucket
  5. Brush for cleaning inside of bottles
  6. Adhesive Thermometer for outside of Fermenting Bucket
  7. Glass Hydrometer
  8. 3-piece Airlock for top of Fermenting Bucket
  9. Bottle Capping Tool
  10. Siphon Equipment and Hose
  11. 8 Packets of C-Brite Sanitizing Cleanser
L.L. While I couldn't be more happy with my starter kit, it does lack a few things that are either required to get your first batch made of will at least make the process go a little smoother.
  1. Brew Kettle (Required) - You gotta cook the stuff!  Picking a pot to brew your beer in is actually an important decision.  First of all, DON'T use aluminium.  Off-tasting flavors can leech into the brew and that just isn't acceptable.  Go with a stainless steel kettle and opt for the largest one your budget/kitchen will accommodate (preferably 20 quarts or larger).
  2. Bottles (Required) - You gotta keep it somewhere!  Unless you are kegging it, which is usually beyond the comfort zone for a first time brewer, you have to bottle it after fermentation.  The bottling process also allows the beer to carbonate.
  3. Thermometer (Required) - I'm not sure why my kit didn't contain a kitchen-grade food thermometer because you will need to be relatively precise when you are brewing your beer.  I can only assume that it is expected that most households would already have this kitchen staple.  I'm proud to claim I have a can opener and one reasonable sharp knife in my kitchen drawer.
  4. Carboy (Optional) - A Carboy is a fancy name for a big glass bottle.  It serves the same purpose as the Fermenting Bucket (and can be used in place of if desired) but allows for a secondary fermentation if you choose to employ this option step in your beer making process.  If you decide to add the glass Carboy to your arsenal you will need to make sure you have a stopper with a hole drilled in the top to insert your Airlock.  Any home brew supply store will have these ready available.
  5. Funnel (Optional) - If you decide to do a secondary fermentation step a decent funnel will allow you to easily transfer the beer from the the Fermentation Bucket to the Carboy.  Alternatively (and preferred), you can simply siphon the beer from the Fermentation Bucket to Carboy.  This method will decrease the amount of air that is introduced and cut down on the chances of bacteria entering the brew and possibly spoiling it.
  6. Long Handle Brush (Optional) - Only needed if you use the glass Carboy.  Because the opening at the top is only about two inches or less you will need something to get down inside of the bottle after you are through using it to give it a good scrubbing and thorough cleaning.
Ingredients: Brewer's Best "Witbier" Kit
  1. Fermentables - 3.3 lbs Wheat Liquid Malt Extract (LME), 2 lbs Wheat Dry Malt Extract (DME)
  2. Specialty Grains - 1 lb Pale Malt, .5 lb Wheat, .5 lb Oats
  3. Hops - 1 oz Bittering, 1 oz. Flavoring
  4. Spice Pack - contains dried orange peel and corriander
  5. Yeast - Sachet of dried yeast powder
L.LFor starters, I would not suggest using this kit for your maiden voyage into home brewing.  Not that it didn't turn out well, in fact, it was surprisingly tasty but this is more of an intermediate kit requiring more steps than an "easy" or beginner's kit.  One of the great things about the Brewer's Best kits is that the degree of difficulty is listed on the outside of the box so you know what you are getting into.  The second thing I learned here is that occasionally the dry yeast packets can fail to activate.  Fortunately, I was warned of this at my home brew supply store and sprung for the additional $6 and purchased the liquid variety from White Labs.

Brewing Instructions:  An exact copy of the Brewer's Best Recommended Procedures can be found HERE.  Below I have recreated the steps in what I feel is a more linear process and added my own notes as Lessons Learned.
  1. Sterilize ALL items that will come in contact with your beer using C-brite.  Use one packet per 5 gallons of water.  This equates to 1/2 packet to 1/2 full fermenting container.
  2. Pour 1 gallon of drinking water into your 20 quart (5 gallon) boiling kettle.  You should maintain a 2-1 grain to water ratio.  So for 2 pounds of grain you will use 1 gallon of water.
  3. Bring water to 150 degrees.
  4. Steep-to-convert (this is the extra step I mentioned above that is beyond beginning basics) by pouring your 2 pounds of specialty grains (1 lb. Pale Malt, .5 lb. Wheat, .5 lb. Oats) into the grain bag and tying a knot at the top.  Raise the temperature to 155 degrees and place the grain bag into the pot.  This will cause the water temperature to drop so carefully raise the heat to maintain a constant temperature between 148 - 152 degrees.  Do not exceed 155 degrees.  L.L. - This task was very hard to regulate using an electric stove top.  Use a gas stove if you can or perhaps your gas grill if it has a gas eye.
  5. Steep the grains for 45 minutes.  Remove the bag and allow the excess water to drain back into the pot.  DO NOT SQUEEZE.
  6. Add enough water to bring to total volume to 2.5 gallons.  You now have your "wort" liquid.
  7. Bring the wort up to 180 degrees.
  8. SLOWLY dissolve in the liquid malt extract.  Each 5 gallon batch of beer should have 5-6 pounds of malt extract.  L.L. - Dissolving in slowly will prevent black flaking from occurring which means you have scorched the wort.  Try removing from heat as your stir in to prevent burning.  Yes, mine was slightly scorched but didn't seem to affect the taste.
  9. Bring to a boil and add bittering hops (1 oz. Willamette Bittering Hops)
  10. Boil for 1 full hour.  (After 30 minutes add Dry Malt Extract - DME & Spice Pack.  During the last 15 minutes of the hour add 1/2 of the flavoring/aroma hops - .5 oz Sterling Flavoring Hops.  You can also add the Irish Moss at this time as well for clarity but is optional and not really needed for a wheat beer.  Add remaining 1/2 flavoring/aroma hops - .5 oz Sterling Flavoring Hops in the last 7-10 minutes of the hour.)
  11. Turn off heat and cool wort by putting the boiling kettle in an ice bath.  L.L. - Try adding rock salt to the ice for faster cooling.
  12. Transfer wort to fermenting bucket and add cold water (enough to bring it to the 5 gallon mark on your container) to bring it to 78 degrees or below and stir thoroughly.  L.L. - Don't add all of the water before taking a hydrometer reading.  Add water to about 4 gallons and then slowly add the water while taking hydrometer readings until the desired original is reached.  Too much or too little water will affect the final gravity of your beer meaning the alcohol by volume (ABV) will be off.
  13. Take a hydrometer reading and record the original gravity (OG) and record it for future reference.
  14. Add (pitch) yeast to the wort but make sure it is 78 degrees or below – ideally 70 degrees and stir well.
  15. Ferment for 5 – 7 days.  Fermentation is complete when CO2 bubbling has ceased for 48 hours.  L.L. - I fermented for two weeks because CO2 was still being released in the airlock.
  16. If an OPTIONAL secondary fermentation is desired, transfer to secondary fermentation container (glass carboy) for a minimum of 7 -14 days. L.L. -  Make sure the transfer is completed BEFORE the initial fermentation is complete.
Bottling Process:
  1. Sterilize ALL items that will come in contact with your beer using C-brite.  Use one packet per 5 gallons of water.  This equates to 1/2 packet to 1/2 full fermenting container.
  2. In a small saucepan dissolve priming sugar (3/4 cup suggested) into 1 - 2cups of water.  Boil for 3-5 minutes.  L.L. - I simply used the entire packet that came in the Brewer's Best kit and dissolved into 2 cups of water.  Finished product was carbonated perfectly.
  3. Pour dissolved mixture into bottling bucket.
  4. Siphon beer from primary container (or secondary if employed) into bottling bucket.  Fill bottles to approximately 1” from top.
  5. Cap with sterilized caps using quality capping tool.  Transfer bottles to a dark temperature stable area (approximately 64 – 72 degrees).
  6. Allow beer to naturally carbonate for at least 2 weeks.  Carbonation may take up to 4 weeks.  L.L. - if you refrigerate then the natural carbonization process will cease so make sure your beer is finished carbonating before chilling.
Well, thats it.  My first home brew experience documented.  I sincerely hope you picked up a tip or two that will help ensure your home brew adventures are successful.  I'd like nothing more than to hear your feedback, questions or tips you would like to share.  Thanks for reading and HAPPY HOME BREWING!

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How to use a hydrometer in home brewing

A hydrometer showing the hydrometry principle....Image via WikipediaSo just what is a hydrometer anyway and how is it used in the home brewing process?  Simply put, it is a device that measures the weight of a liquid in relation to water.  Home brewers use hydrometers to determine the "gravity" or amount of alcohol in their beer.

During the home brewing process a hydrometer is used to monitor the change in original gravity (OG) and final gravity (FG).  This measurement, applied to a simple formula, will give you the amount of alcohol by volume (ABV) in your finished beer.

At the beginning of the fermentation process (before the sugar starts to convert to alcohol) you will place your thoroughly sanitized hydrometer into your fermentation bucket and take a reading.  To do this you simply place the hydrometer into the liquid and allow it to float.  You may want to gently spin it to dislodge the bubble around it to see the numbers.  After it stops bobbing you log where the liquid measure on the scale.  Water has a specific gravity of 1.000.  Since your unfermented beer contains levels of fermentable solids it will have a gravity higher than 1.000.  For example, an American Pale Ale I recently made had an OG of 1.051 and a FG of 1.012.

So here comes the part that might seem just a little tricky but if you simply follow the formula it's a snap.  Alcohol by Volume % (ABV) is calculated by taking the Original Gravity and subtracting the Final Gravity and multiplying by 131.25.  For the American Pale Ale example above it would look like this:
  • (1.051 - 1.012) x 131.25 = 5.19% ABV
There are a couple other factors that come into play such as the temperature at which you measure the liquid. For example, the most accurate readings are obtained when the liquid is a 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  For must of us home brewers the temperature may hover around 70 degrees so adding .001 to the calculations will compensate for the difference.

I hope this post was informative and helped take some of the mystery out of this piece of the home brewing puzzle.

To make the process even easier, you can use this ABV calculator.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

11 Sources for Creating Your Own Homebrew Bottle Labels (and caps too!)

We home brewers take a lot of pride in concocting our basement libations and one of the best parts of home brewing is sharing the fruits of our labor with friends and family.  While we know the care and extreme sanitary conditions under which our beer was brewed it can be a little intimidating for the uninitiated to blindly pop open an anonymous brown bottle and hope for the best.

Why not go that extra mile and slap a classy (or completely ridiculous) label on your home brew bottles?  Your friends just may feel like they are drinking the next great craft brew or, at the very least, may get a kick out of your creativity.

Below are some affordable and easy-to-use labeling systems worth consideration.  I welcome your comments and additions to the list.
  1. My Own Labels
    • My Own Labels does much more than just beer labels.  Their site is aimed at anyone that wants to create custom labels for just about anything from homemade preserves to wedding favors but the section exclusively dedicated to beer labels is easy to use and the selection is adequate for most needs plus you can also upload your own images.  I've used their products and am happy with the results.  Fast shipping and great customer service.
  2. Online Labels
    • Online labels is more similar to Avery in terms of business purpose - sell more sheets of labels!  But where I think they separate themselves is in the choice of labels specifically for bottles.  Unlike My Own Labels where you simply choose a style, tweak the colors and add your own text, Online Labels is more about providing you the labels and you taking it from there.  They do, however, provide templates for PDF, EPS and others plus their own exclusive offering - Maestro Label Designer with limited overlay templates.  If you know your way around design software then you will probably prefer Online Labels for the advanced creativity options.
  3. Beer Labelizer
    • Beer Labelizer has by far the coolest interface among all the labeling options I've listed.  It's designs are somewhat limited in number but they are progressive and the best part of all is they are free!  You design the label and print at home.
  4. Bottle Your Brand
    • Bottle Your Brand offers products for a variety of topics from bottled water to bumper stickers. Their selection for beer labels is fairly extensive and each label is fully customizable.
  5. Labels on the Fly
    • Labels on the Fly offers some very nice looking professionally designed labels for beer bottles.  Unfortunately the site lacks the option to simply click on a label and start customizing it and you have to call or e-mail for a price quote.  Nonetheless, the labels are attractive and are worthy of consideration.
  6. Beer on the Wall
    • Beer on the Wall is a beer lovers novelty shop.  They offer all things beer from beer-of-the-month clubs to t-shirts to gift baskets.  Their spin on the customized labels is different than all of the others in this list in that you design the labels but it ships on their bottled private pilsner.  So if you are looking just for labels for your own home brew then this isn't the site for you but would make a nice gift.  A few mouse clicks and you can send a six pack to a friend that is personalized and unique. 
  7. Beer Label Builder
    • Beer Label Builder does one thing and that is provide templates for you to customize and order labels.  They have a selection of 30 labels to choose from so the selection is not as broad as other sites.  The company is located in Australia so be prepared for an additional $10 in shipping costs for all orders outside of the country.
  8. Labeley
    • Labeley is the latest entry into the beer label creation market.  This is a slick tool that is easy to use and gives you tons of flexibility and creativity.  There doesn't seem to be support for standard label formats yet so you are left to print your labels on your own paper.  All that aside, Labeley is a fun tool for creating home brew labels.
  9. Zumula
    • Zumula has both pre-created templates and create from scratch templates to fit your design needs. Best of all, most of their templates allow a user to drop in a photo to personalize the design experience.
  10. BottleMark (Custom bottle caps!)
    • BottleMark is the first company to bring home brewers affordable ($.12/ea.), customized bottle caps.
  11. BeerClings
    • Why didn't I think of this idea?  For the home brewer, one of the most tedious tasks we take on is removing the labels from spent bottles.  With BeerClings that is a thing of the past.  Professional, re-usable, no mess!
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