Tag Archives: Beer

A Hard Day’s Work

P3200041-beer and yeastIt is the first day of spring and it is snowing outside, so no better excuse than to make some bread and drink some good beer.  The bread recipe came from Jeffrey Hamelman’s book Bread.  It is an bread made with rolled oats and whole wheat flour, with a little honey, milk, and oil.  It is the first time I have tried this recipe, but it is bread so how bad could it be?

The beer is a simple English bitter that checks in at about 4% ABV, pleasant to drink but very sessionable.  The recipe was a little bit of a cupboard clearer – a little brown malt and crystal malt on top of a load of English malt (Golden Promise and Maris Otter malt). Also a little flaked wheat just because.  I used UK Goldings for bitterness and finished with some homegrown Fuggles.  The yeast was Wyeast’s West Yorkshire variety, which makes for a very enjoyable English Bitter.



And the Results are in…

Recently I conducted an experiment on the topic of when to add dark grains to the mash.  Some recommend holding out the dark roasted grains until the very end of the mash.  A number of reasons are given.  One claim is that by holding out the dark grains one does not need to add any bicarbonate salts to the mash to counteract the acidity of the dark grains.  This is a reasonable claim, especially if your water already contains a significant amount of calcium or sodium.  Since the most common bicarbonate salts are calcium and sodium bicarbonate, adding either salt will increase the levels of sodium and/or calcium.  But my water is already low in calcium, and it does not have much sodium either. I am usually looking to increase my calcium levels, so adding calcium bicarbonate to the mash does not bother me one bit.

A second claim I have heard is that allowing these dark roasted grains to mash for an hour is akin to letting a pot of coffee sit on the burner.  After an hour the nice roast flavor will become burnt and harsh.  If that were true, then waiting to add the dark grains would certainly be a no-brainer.

I just finished the last two bottles from the experiment, and I can say I found no taste difference.  As always, your experience may differ, but I plan to continue to mash dark grains as I always have.


I started brewing in 1997 and man has the beer landscape changed in 17 years.  Craft beer was around but you had to seek it out – you’d be very lucky to even find a Sam Adams at your local chain restaurant.  Finding respectable samples of many styles was tough – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was around but the IPA craze had not hit.  Belgians were a rare breed.  If a home brewer chose to make one of these rare styles, then finding a good quality sample of a classic style was not easy.  That made me seek out information about beer judging and due to the internet the Beer Judge Certification Program was a quick find.  It intrigued me.  So much to learn about styles and brewing methods. I knew I wanted to try and become a judge.

It took awhile, but eventually I found my was to an exam and four years ago this January I took the BJCP exam, and even better I passed it. It was a tough test, 3 solid hours of writing and some beer tasting. And today I am a Certified Beer Judge.

But when I look back on why I originally sought out judging information, it was self-doubt.  I made these beers – but were they flawed?  I read about all of these off flavors – diacetyl, oxidation, acetone.  Were they in my beer? Was I missing something?  Well today I worry much less about such things.  I have a little experience and know what I like – and I make beer to drink what I like.  But judging others’ beers is a different thing.  Not only are you charged with finding flaws, you are charged with picking out the best beers.

The reason I mention this is Robert Hodgson. He happens to be a winemaker and a statistician. And he noticed something about the wines he entered into competitions.  Sometimes a particular wine would do very well, other times it would be judged poorly.  So he proposed an experiment to the California State Fair competition in 2005, and he repeated for eight years.  And what he discovered is that wine judges are pretty inconsistent at what they do.  His bottom line: if a wine wins an award it most probably by chance, not merit.

Hodgson was interviewed on the Science for the People podcast. Check it out.  The same episode includes a great interview with Charlie Bamforth, the professor of brewing at Cal-Davis.  If you have never heard Charlie talk beer you are missing a treat.

So science says that my ability to consistently discern the flavor characteristics of a particular beer is quite low.  I can live with that.  I just hope all the brewers whose beers I have judged can live with it too.

Sugar Sugar

I am thankful for my local homebrew supply shop.  I can stop by and purchase almost anything I need to make a batch of beer.  Yeah, they don’t have everything (Kiln Coffee malt!) but they do a darn good job (even if they only carry White Labs yeast).  With all of that positive vibe, I still cringe when I look at the dark candi sugar at $5 per pound.  Plain white sugar at the grocery store sells for one tenth of that price.  So I feel compelled to just make my own. This is a task that is easy and but takes a little attention and time. Of course, it is always fun to play with your food.

You don’t need too much stuff.  Plain white sugar.  Water.  A thermometer. And a little bit of acid.  I use powdered citric acid but lemon juice might work just as well.

I usually start with a pound or so of sugar.  You can do as much as you want, really, as the only limits are the size of your pot and also how much room you have to spread it out to cool (see the photo below).  The first thing to do is dissolve the sugar into the water.  Since you have to boil off the excess water don’t get too carried away.  I usually add enough cold water to cover the sugar,  then put it on the heat to help it dissolve.  Oh, also add a pinch or two of citric acid.  Table sugar is actually made up of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose.  Adding heat and acid will allow the bond between the molecules to break, thereby making a simpler sugar molecule that is easier for yeast to metabolize.  In theory anyway.

As this solution warms it will reach the boiling point of water (100 °C) and pause there until all of the excess water evaporates.  Don’t fuss with it.  Stirring can only bring misery.  Once the excess water evaporates the temperature of the solution will begin to rise a second time.  Candy makers have special terms for various temperatures – soft ball, hard ball, soft crack, hard crack.  I just let my solution rise to 135 °C and then I add a couple of teaspoons of cold water such that the temperature drops back to 127 °C or so.  This is the bit of pain part of the process. A thermometer with an alarm is very helpful. As the sugar stays on the heat it will get darker and darker.  Continue to monitor the temperature and add water to keep it in the 127 to 135 °C range.  After awhile it looks something like this:

On the Way to Hard Crack

On the Way to Hard Crack

I did not record how long it took the sugar to reach the dark color, but I am sure it was on the flame for a least an hour.  In the above photo  I am allowing the temperature to rise to 150 °C (hard crack for you candy fans) so that we end up with nice hard pieces of sugar and not goo.  Once that temperature is reached carefully pour the hot, molten syrup onto parchment paper or silicone mats to cool.  I put silicone mats into half sheet pans so nothing runs away:

Cooling Down

Cooling Down

The last time I did this I used two pans for cooling.  This goes back to my earlier comment, you can make as much as you want but be sure you have the room to cool it.  It would be a real pain to clean out a saucepan full of hard sugar. Once it cools it can be broken up and stored.  If you start playing with it while it is still malleable you can roll it into little round shapes, or you can wait until it is fully cooled and break it up into little pieces.  You can see samples of both in this photo:

Final Product

Final Product

For longer term storage you can dust the surface with a little powdered sugar or corn starch to minimize sticking, and then put it in bags. In the photo below you can see my haul: a little over one pound of dark sugar:

Bagged and Ready

Bagged and Ready

Stout Experiment – Brewing Details and Results

The recipe target the creation of 5 liters of 10 °P (1.040) wort, post boil.  I used a “brew in a bag” process, though unlike some I choose to mash with only a portion of the water and add the remainder as a sparge or rinse.  My default water to grain ratio is 3.0 liters per kilogram, which is somewhere around 1.5 quarts per pound.

Grains Amount Percent
Maris Otter 0.57 kg 68%
Flaked Barley 0.17 kg 20%
Roasted barley 0.10 kg 12%
Hops Amount Boil Time IBUs
Nugget  6 g 50 min 40

All batches were mashed at 68 °C for an hour.  My 4 gallon brew pot fits into my oven which is easier to control than using a propane burner.  It’s not perfect – my oven’s lowest setting is about 76° C – so I have to monitor the mash temperature with a remote probe and turn the oven off and on a few times during the one hour mash.  Still it was pretty worry free.

I made three separate “brew-in-a-bag” mashes.  The first batch was brewed in the normal manner, all grains mashed together.  The main mash of the next two batches consisted of only the base malt and the flaked barley.  For the second batch I added about 300 grams of water to the roasted barley and let it steep cold, overnight.  About a cup of liquid was drawn from this and added to the wort after mashing was complete.  For the third batch I  added the roast barley just prior to the end of the mash.  I did not write down exactly how long it was in the mash, maybe 3 to 5 minutes at most.

The first full mash achieved an extraction efficiency of 85%; the second two mashes were about 75%.  That is a pretty huge difference but until I can repeat the experiment I am not going to claim it as significant, merely interesting.  All three batches were 2.7 kg in the fermenter and pitched with 2.5 grams of Safale US05 dry yeast.  Thirty seconds of pure oxygen was also added after pitching.  Note I pitched the dry yeast directly on the wort.  While not really a best practice, I felt it would lend the best chance for consistency among the batches.

Interestingly all three batches ended at the same terminal gravity of 3.1 °P (1.012), so that the cold steep batch ended at a slightly lower ABV than the other two.

See Much Difference?

See Much Difference?

But the real question is:  how did they taste? And the simple answer is not much different at all.  The color of the foam on the fully mashed batch was ever so slightly darker than the other two, but the taste differences were simply nil.

My take away from this experiment is: do what works for you.  If your water is naturally high in alkalinity then a full mash with dark grains may be the simplest approach.  If your water is more balanced and you don’t want to fuss with mineral additions then by all means mash your pale grains first and let the starch conversion happen at the correct pH before adding your dark grains.  And if you are like me you can just make a quick water salt adjustment for the dark mashes.

My Water – Application #1

In an earlier post, I began discussing my local water and now I am talking about practical examples of how I treat it, depending on the style.

To recap, here is the typical Pittsburgh area water:

Calcium 30 ppm
Magnesium 10 ppm
Sodium 25 ppm
Chloride 30 ppm
Sulfate 75 ppm
Alkalinity 70 ppm

I like this water profile – the levels of all ions are fairly low.  It is easier to add than to take away!  The only potential problem with this water is the calcium level.  The generally recommended level is 50 to 150 ppm, so I am usually adding calcium in one of the three common ways: calcium carbonate, calcium chloride or calcium sulfate.

Recently I brewed a Kolsch-Style Ale – the beer is mostly pilsener malt and just a touch of wheat malt.  Because this recipe has no dark or roasted malts, and my water has low levels of calcium it is quite likely that the mash pH would end up being too high.  Adding calcium should help a bit, and if I add calcium chloride it helps bring up the chloride to sulfate balance.  Why is that important?  Allegedly, beers with a high sulfate to chloride ratio tend to favor hop expression, whereas the reverse brings out the malt.  I have not confirmed this through experiment, but for now I will extend provisional acceptance.

The other thing I did was a about 3% acidulated malt to the mash.  This malt has been kilned in such a way as to encourage the production of lactic acid.  Chew some – it is sour stuff.  Besides helping to drop the pH, adding acid to food generally brightens the flavor.  I think it works well here.

If you are looking for help in figuring out all of the maths I recommend two sources:  John Palmer’s How to Brew website chapter 15-3 has a nice spreadsheet for entering your water data and looking at the effects of various mineral additions.  John’s spreadsheet calculates a target residual alkalinity value based on beer color.  I have read criticism of this method as being unreliable, but in fairness this is all a bit of a guess.  If you are running a production brewery then you are making the same few beers most of the time and you can nail down your water treatment.  As a homebrewer always trying something new you have to make your best estimations

A more advance calculator designed by Kai Troister can be found at the Brewer’s Friend website.  Kai has done a tremendous amount of investigation and experimentation.  His calculator takes into account you entire grain bill (including the types of malts you choose, not just mash color).  His calculator is a thing of beauty, and if you can soldier through the tedium required to enter all of the information, you will be rewarded!

Mighty, Mighty Head

imageMy favorite saison yeast is Wyeast 3711, French Saison.  I have talked about it before: it has a nice spicy flavor and attenuates without much fuss.  My standing joke is that this yeast will ferment your concrete floor if you let it sit.  The thing is, the saisons I bottle almost always end up a bit over carbonated.  I do not know if this is just the 3711 continuing to work, or if I am picking up a slight infection. The bottles do not gush, but you can only pour about half of the beer before you run out of space.  The flavor is still OK, so if it is infected it is a pretty benign critter.  But when those beers are poured man do they end up with one whipped cream like head.  I am surprised the head is so big and long lasting, as I thought the continuing fermentation would tend to break down components in the beer which contribute to head formation.

My Water

Many words have been written about water in brewing.  Everything about water is pretty much known, how it behaves in the presence of malt, its impact of chemistry and flavor. Unfortunately water is one of those topics that many brewers struggle to understand. In this post I am going to talk about the local water (Southwest Pennsylvania) and how I approach its modification for brewing.

First I want to give credit to two sources that have taught me about 95% of what I know about water.  The first is John Palmer, whose website How to Brew is a fantastic resource and includes a free, simple, water chemistry spreadsheet.  The second in Kai Troester, whose even more detailed website and blog are full not just of information but experiments he has conducted.  My hats off to both, and thanks for the help.

The first thing about water is knowing what is in your brewing water.  When I became interested in the topic there were not many resources available to learn about the local water supply.  A few years back I called the local water company and found a very helpful person who sent me three or four years of local testing records.  While this was very useful, it was explained that some of the parameters were only tested once per year and for some measurement (sulfate, for example) there was some significant variation. But not having access to better information, I did my best with what I had.

Today, with the growing popularity of brewing, water test kits have become much more available.  A simple one that I use is made by API and is sold for use in keeping aquariums.  This kit is available for less than ten dollars and allows for quickly measuring two important parameters: water hardness and carbonate levels.  These two parameters are key to understanding and predicting your mash pH.  There are kits available which also measure sulfate, and places such as Ward Labs will test a sample of your water for a small fee. If you are a serious home brewer there is not much excuse for not knowing your water.

Here is a breakdown of the typical minerals and ions found it Pittsburgh area water:

Calcium 30 ppm
Magnesium 10 ppm
Sodium 25 ppm
Chloride 30 ppm
Sulfate 75 ppm
Alkalinity 70 ppm

This is really nice brewing water, as most of theses levels are at or below the minimum required (and it is always easier to add the required minerals, versus having to dilute with distilled water in order to reduce concentrations).  The other not so obvious but equally import factor is this water’s low residual alkalinity (in the range of 35).  What the heck is residual alkalinity and why should you care?  Here is my quick and dirty explanation:

For a number of reasons, the ideal mash pH is 5.3 to 5.7.  When water and malt are mixed, chemical reactions occur with the calcium and magnesium in the water. These reactions tend to lower the mash pH (make it more acidic, which is a good thing).  Darker roasted and crystal malts tend to lower the pH more than lightly kilned malts. This tendency to a lower pH is offset by the alkalinity of the water.  The residual alkalinity is the measure of a water’s tendency to lower mash pH.  It is calculated from the water’s calcium, magnesium, and alkalinity levels.  Grain bills with high levels of roasted/crystal malts tend to require water with higher residual alkalinity (RA =100 and up) whereas very pale beers needs a lower residual alkalinity to allow the pH to drop low enough (RA less than 0).

One can see that a RA of 35 is a very happy medium, very suitable for pale ales and other medium colored beers.  Only the most pale beers may require acid malt or an acid addition to bring their pH in line.  Compare this to two other extremes in brewing water: Dublin, the home of stout, has a RA >250.  Pilsen, the Czech home of the pilsner beer has a RA of probably about 10.

If there is a downside to this it is the fact that the mineral levels, especially sulfate, are on the low side for hoppier beer styles.  Note this consideration is only about beer flavor and not about mash pH.  Extract brewers should have low concern about residual alkalinity but should pay attention to sulfate, chloride, and sodium levels. Note that besides pH, the calcium can impact the yeast performance.  At 30 ppm the calcium in my water is a little low, and an extract brewer might still benefit from small calcium additions.

In the next post about water I will provide specific examples of how I went about treating my brewing water.

Octoberfest Craft Beer Tasting

Octoberfest Craft Beer tastingMy recent brewing spree, as outlined in a series of posts, culminated in last Saturday’s tasting.  Thanks to friend of the brewer Dick, I had access to a nifty, homemade beer serving station as seen the photo above.  Three taps mounted into a chalk board stand provide for easy labeling.  The extra large trash can held ice and three kegs, plus a 5 pound bottle of carbon dioxide. Lastly a small drip tray on top.  It all worked pretty well, though my Kolsch style ale was a bit of a problem child – a little over carbonated and foamy.  But we muddled through.

There were somewhere near 300 people in attendance.  A number or breweries were represented: Southern Tier, Helltown, East End Brewing, Full Pint, Rivertowne, Penn Brewery and many others. In addition to the Little Boy Brewery, there two other home brewers in attendance. The guests were wonderful and very enthusiastic, but not all were completely aware of my status as a home brewer.  A number asked me where I made my beer (“my garage”) and a few wanted to know where they could buy it (“you can’t”).  But all were very enthusiastic.

I was overwhelmed with the response to the beers that I made.  As I has noted before, my Saison recipe has always proven to be very popular. I did double the amount of coriander from 15 grams to 30 grams, which when you add it to the wort looks like quite a slug.  In the past I have been surprised by how often people fail to note the coriander in a beer when I can smell it a mile away.  That is what expectations can do for you.  For this beer it seemed pretty strong but it did not to seem to put many people off.  Several tasters showed up with their glass in hand and said they were told they should come try my saison.  One lady came up to the booth and inquired about what beer she should try and so I pulled just a sip of the saison for her to try.  Her eyes lit up as she tasted it and, with a big smile, requested a full pour.  That reaction made my night.

I thought the wild card in my beer lineup would be the Russian Imperial Stout.  When planning for this I knew I wanted something that would stand up and stand out against all of the IPAs and other strong beers from the other participants.  I was happy enough with how this beer turned out, though it was a bit strong on the roast and light on the chocolate, at according to what I envisioned.  It did not seem to bother anyone on Saturday night.  In the end, this beer and the Saison ran neck and neck in popularity. And although this is a bit of a sexist observation, there were no shortage of the female sex coming up to try this beer.  This was a pretty intense beer, and I was surprised by the wide love it found.

The afterthought beer was the Kolsch. I brewed it partially as a backup beer but in the end I brought it along. Most of the people were not aware of the heritage of the style, so it gave me a chance to do some education. There were a few that were well aware of the style, though, and I am pleased to report they gave it a thumbs up.  Many other, more timid drinkers chose it as a safe alternative to other, stronger beers.  Unfortunately I spent the night fighting the carbonation level – it was foamy.  But we soldiered through.

It was a great night for craft beer.  it was a great night for home brewing. A couple of people told me they thought the home brews were better than the commercial ones.  While that might have been a bit of hyperbole, I was very happy I participated and really thrilled at the response.

What to Wear ? (Part 3)

Part 1 and 2 of this series highlighted beers that I brewed for an upcoming beer tasting.  The first two beers were a Russian Imperial Stout and a Saison, both good styles for tasting as they have distinct and robust flavors that will stand out after one has sampled other beers.  I decided to make a third beer just in case one of the first two did not turn out as expected (and who knows I might just take all three to the tasting).  My choice for the third beer was a Kölsch. This style is much more mild in flavor than the other two, but I had just brewed one earlier in the summer and it turned out to be exceptionally good, so I thought it was worth presenting.

The BJCP style descriptor says a Kolsch should have “soft, rounded palate comprising of a delicate flavor balance between soft yet attenuated malt, an almost imperceptible fruity sweetness from fermentation, and a medium-low to medium bitterness with a delicate dryness and slight pucker in the finish (but no harsh aftertaste)”. Descriptions such a that really put me off because I do not think the words convey much at all about the flavor. While many who try a Kolsch simply write it off as another light flavored lager, I feel it has a subtle and  distinct flavor that is difficult to describe.  For me it is the flavor of a white Italian bread crust, rich with the flavor of grain but not heavy with bread notes. It has a slight sweetness that adds to the pleasantness of the beer.  Much like riding a bike, once you taste it you cannot forget it.  I have been fortunate that business has taken me to Köln on more than one occasion and I have had the chance to sample Früh, Sion, Gilden and Dom Kölsches (and maybe a few others I forgot). Köln is a wonderful place to visit, go there if you can.

The Big K II

Grains Amount Percent
Pilsener Malt (Weyermann) 3.68 kg 92%
Light Wheat Malt 0.20 kg 5%
Acidulated Malt 0.12 kg 3%
Hops Amount Boil Time IBUs
German Tradition (6.5% AA) 25 g 60 min 18
German Tradition (6.5% AA) 8 g 10 min 2
Original Gravity 12.2º P (1.049)
Final Gravity 1.3º P (1.013)
Apparent Attenuation 73%
Estimated ABV 4.6%

I mashed in at 66 °C but the mash settled to 63 °C at thirty minutes.  I raised it back up with the heat stick and let the mash go for one hour total before raising the temperature to 70 °C and mashing out.  I added calcium chloride, epsom salt, and baking soda to the mash, but only such that the final count was 80 ppm calcium, 44 ppm sodium, 115 ppm chloride and 89 ppm sulfate.

The yeast selected was Wyeast 2565, Kölsch.  Selecting the correct yeast is critical to achieving the correct flavor profile, and based on my effort with this style earlier in the summer this yeast delivers the goods.  I made a one liter starter from a very fresh pack of yeast and ended up with about 100 ml of slurry, which I estimate is about 200 billion cells.  Based on what I know about yeast that is a good number for a 19 liters (5 gallon) of 12 plato beer.  I cooled the wort to 16 °C before pitching and let the temp rise to 18 °C for the commencement of fermentation.  I raised the temperature 0.5 °C per day until it reached 20 °C.  I I further allowed it to rise to 22  °C to assure good diacetyl clean up.  Post fermentation it went into a fridge at 5 °C for some cold aging.  ideally this would age for 4 to 6 weeks, but it will only have 3 weeks before the tasting.  Hopefully it will be OK.