Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Catching up on re-brews for NHC

My plan for this years National Homebrew Competition (NHC) was to rebrew beers that had done well in previous competitions, or that I really enjoyed and thought would do well.

Employee Orientation 101

I have written a brew day post on this batch. I sent it to be published on another blog and have been waiting for that to go up before publishing here.

The grain bill pushed my mash tun to the limit.
I boiled ten gallons of wort down to less than five. 

With this brew advancing to the final round in 2019, I was always going to rebrew it for 2020. I took the feedback I received from the judges and changed my recipe and process for this batch. The idea was for the malt flavor to be even richer. I increased the amount of Munich Malt to punch up the sweetness and breadiness in the flavor and the aroma.

During my brew day to improve my efficiency and increase the Maillard reaction in the wort, I extended my boil. When on a tour of the barrel room at Goose Island the tour guide said that Bourbon County has a three hour boil. I thought it would be interesting to try the technique at home with my imperial stout. 

The brew day went fairly well. With my extended boil I ended up with around 4.75 gallons of wort and had an SG of 1.116. I pitched a huge amount of yeast from Derby Wharf Porter and fermentation took off right away. This was going to be great! 

Then a few days after the brew day I went on a work trip. I would come to learn the difference between a 1.116 wort like this batch, and a 1.096 wort from the original batch was more significant than I realized. While the 2019 batch was almost fully fermented out and tasted pretty good after only seven days, the 2020 batch had stalled out and was noticeably boozy.

The higher gravity wort had stressed my yeast and resulted in a poor fermentation. The yeast needed added yeast nutrient and oxygen to finish fermenting. I should have added the yeast nutrient and hit the wort with my aquarium pump a couple days post-pitch, and then probably again a couple of days later.

I racked the beer to a secondary hoping the alcohol would mellow and perhaps the wort would pick up some oxygen and frement a bit more. After more time aging, I still wasn't happy with the beer and decided not to enter it at all into NHC.

I do want to brew this again. When I do, I will make sure I am home to add the yeast nutrient and oxygen this wort needs.

Uncommon Harvest

This was a rebrew of a 2018 recipe I made with my first harvest of homegrown hops. That year I planted Willamette, Northern Brewer, Chinook, Cascade, and Centennial rhizomes. Northern Brewer was the one plant that produced more than a few cones that first year. Anchor Steam is known for using Northern Brewer hops, so California Common was a clear choice for style to use those hops in. The beer I made didn't have much in the way of hop flavor, but the malt flavor was outstanding. Even though the lack of hop character made it miss the mark for style, I still thoroughly enjoyed that beer.

When I rebrewed the batch I wanted to use a domestic base malt in this quintessentially American style. I used Mapleton Pale Malt from my friends at Maine Malt House as my base. The specialty malts were all Muntons. To be sure the hop flavor and aroma was to style I used Northern Brewer pellet hops I purchased instead of my homegrown hops. The samples I tasted were if anything too bitter, but the beer could mellow with time.

Before I kegged the beer, I wanted to use my new toy to cold crash the beer. At the same time, I needed a temp controller for another batch. I thought I could just put the beer in one of the fridges, and use the dial thermostat that is built into the fridge. I turned it all the way down that should have gotten my wort to near freezing. I mean this is a mini-refrigerator not a mini-freezer after all. When I went to keg the beer it looked like this:

Yup! Frozen solid
That's two batches that would not have made it to NHC. I froze my California Common a couple weeks before the entry deadline. That gave me just enough time to brew another beer. I brewed a different style that I thought I could turn over quickly. That batch was a new brew and I'll talk about that batch in a separate post.

Fredward Wit

Last year I casually mentioned Fredward Wit took an honorable mention in the New England Regional Homebrew Competition. Fredward Wit, named after our cat, was a beer Jennie and I developed together and brought to the North Shore Brewer's 25th anniversary party.

The grist and hops are loosely similar to my previous Walk-Off White. When I was scooping the base malt brewing the first batch, I noticed that instead of the Pilsner Malt I had intended to use, I was scooping Muntons Super Pale malt. I thought to myself that Super Pale should work just fine. 

Super Pale is a very interesting malt that a lot of brewers aren't familiar with. Lighter in color than even our Pilsner Malt, Super Pale was developed specifically for hoppy beers. With it's light color, the malt flavor is as restrained as possible which allows other flavors in the beer to come through more such as hops in IPAs. Super Pale is also a great choice in yeast-driven beers like saison. In Fredward Wit it really allowed the citrus and spices to come through. Super Pale is going to be my base malt of choice in all of my fruit beers going forward.

Where I did depart from Walk-Off White was the spice blend. For the most part Fredward has a sweet disposition, except when he demands treats, windows to be opened or immediate attention and pets. As such I wanted a sweeter spice blend. I replaced the lemon and grains of paradise with chamomile and vanilla. Jennie and I decided to use bitter orange and decided to use a bit more to balance the vanilla.

The judges feedback from the first batch was they thought the beer was a touch too hoppy. In the re-brew I eliminated the small flavor hop edition from the first batch and kept everything else the same. I think I may have liked the last batch better, but this second batch might be more to style. I can't find any glaring flaws in the second batch. I think it would have done well at NHC. I may have to brew it again for NHC 2021.

Spring Training Stout

Last year I wanted to bring back both of my house Irish beers, Rundown Irish Red and Spring Training Stout. I only had time and space to brew an extract version of Rundown Irish Red. I couldn't have been happier with how that batch came out. It had the complexity and drinkability I have always wanted my Irish Red to have. If I had entered it in competition I also think it would have done well.

While I could have easily rebrewed Rundown for NHC, by 2020 it had been five years since I brewed Spring Training and I missed it! While I thoroughly enjoyed Derby Wharf Porter, after finishing the keg I found myself craving a dryer and roastier stout. 

As I revisited a five year-old recipe, I researched Irish beers and thought about how I would approach brewing Spring Training. Many Irish Stouts are brewed with British Pale Malts like Maris Otter or Planet Pale. Those are both great malts, but they are designed for all-malt brewing or brewing with a small percentage of un-malted adjuncts. Irish stouts can use quite high percentages of un-malted flaked barley to give the beer a full body. I read how one Irish craft brewery that uses a step mash to activate the enzymes they need to achieve full conversion of the flakes in the mash. Several Irish malters make a "Stout Malt" which isn't quite as flavorful as a pale malt, but does have a higher diastatic power than a British pale malt to convert more un-malted flaked barley typically used in Irish stouts.

Revisiting my last batch of Spring Training, the batch was a partial-mash with a base 5lbs of Stout Malt, 2lbs Flaked Barley, and 3.3lbs of Maris Otter Extract. My current batch was all-grain with Planet Pale as my base malt. I didn't want to try a complicated step mash. Being moderately concerned about the Planet Pale converting a large amount Flaked Barley, I replaced 1lb of the Flaked Barley with Wheat Malt. The Wheat Malt will add body, while also bringing it's own enzymes to the party because it is malted.

This change worked perfectly. The finished beer is rich, but drinkable. It is roasty with coffee notes, but not harsh or overly dry like some American-made stouts. That tells me that my water chemistry was on point.

One other change I was forced into was with my yeast. I pitched two jars of my House Irish Blend that I harvested from a prior batch. I didn't make a yeast starter, and the slurry never really took off. I sprinkled a sachet of S-04 which did a perfectly fine job fermenting the beer. In my mind the beer would have been better with my House Irish Blend, even if the beer is enjoyable as it is.

Enjoying my Spring Training stout on St. Patrick's Day while
watching the Dropkick Murphy's.
Similar to Rundown, I think this recipe for Spring Training is perfect. For this batch I benchmarked one of my favorite beers, Guinness Extra Stout. The color is jet black with an off-white head. It has a nice roasty aroma. I am absolutely brewing this for next year's NHC and making a yeast starter for my House Irish yeast.  

Monday, March 30, 2020

New Toys: Fermentation Control

The shelves in the door were removed so a
fermenter would fit.
The biggest separator between the homebrewer and commercial brewers might be fermentation temperature control. The ability to precisely control the temperature of fermenting beer ensures the beer ferments at the proper temperature for the yeast being pitched. It also allows the brewer to precisely set the temperature within the range of a yeast. Nottingham for example has a range of 50F-72F. At the low end of the range Nottingham is very clean, almost lager-like. At the higher end of the range Nottingham can be quite estery.

Brewing in the apartment, my temperature control was primitive at best. For half of the year our thermostat was set at 66F which is a temperature that works for most ale yeasts. Occasionally I would move my fermenter to a warmer spot if I wanted to give my beer a diacetyl rest. In the spring and fall temperatures could swing quite a bit depending on the weather. From May to September the coolest the temperature would be was 76F. If I brewed in the summer I would have to use a Belgian yeast or a swamp cooler to cool my fermenting beer.

Leveling the fridges on my uneven floors was the biggest
In our house I have had a little bit more control. My basement is fairly cool. In the winter the basement ranges from 50-55F, perfect for brewing lagers. If I want to brew an ales in the winter I will use a heat wrap. In the summer the warmest temperature in the basement is 70F which works for most ales. For the most part I have brewed seasonally. In the winter I brew as many lagers as I can to last during the summer.

Although I can brew almost any style depending on the time of year, , what I haven't been able to do is have precise temperature control below the ambient temperature. I couldn't cold crash unless I made room in my keezer. That made achieving brilliant clarity very difficult. I also couldn't do true lagering where the temperature is slowly ramped down a few degrees at a time until reaching near freezing temperatures. That is until now!

Ray Pickup, the co-founder of Rockport Brewing Company is transitioning from homebrewer to commercial brewer. For his homebrews, Ray modified two mini-fridges to be able to fit fermenters. Ray removed all of the shelving on the doors, and bent the metal freezer compartments down so they pivoted against the back wall of the refrigerators. Now that Ray is starting to brew commercially and will be brewing much larger batches, he had outgrown these fridges and I was able to buy them.

I am able to precisely control the temperature of my beer by:

  1. Plugging the refrigerator into a temperature controller. The controller I have can control both heating and cooling. The refrigerator naturally is plugged into the cooling outlet.
  2. Plugging a heat wrap into the heating outlet
  3. Use a stopper with a stainless steel thermowell which extends into the wort.
  4. Place the temperature probe into the thermowell which will measure the temperature inside the fermenter. This is more accurate than measuring the temperature of the outside of the fermenter.
  5. Set my desired temperature on the controller. 

A six gallon carboy with airlock just fits
The controller displays the current temp and set temp

The hope is that these fridges will allow me to make clearer and more consistent beer. I also like having two separate fridges which allows me to separately control two batches at once. Oh, and I can now brew almost any style I want at any time I want.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The NHC that probably won't be

The year 2020 was very busy for me, until all of a sudden it wasn't. Followers of my Facebook page might have seen that I have made trips to Denver, California, Chicago, New Hampshire, Maine, and a vacation in Florida so far this year.

That doesn't mean I haven't been brewing so far in 2020. I may as well use this time to update the blog with some of my recent brews. One of my brew year's resolutions that went out the window pretty quickly was to enter more competitions. I paid entry fees for two competitions, but never managed to bottle and ship my entries.

I'll have to wait until 2021 to try and win another one of these.

The one competition I did enter and get my entries in was the National Homebrew Competition (NHC). I applied for and received six entries. One entry ended up being Welcome as You Are. I brewed a bunch of other beers for the competition. One batch was frozen, yes frozen. Two were problematic. One of the problematic beers ended up being one of my entries for the simple reason that I had already paid for the entry, and didn't have any other beers ready to go.

I did manage to brew four fresh beers for NHC that I was happy with. I just managed to bottle off all six of my entries and get them in by the entry deadline. After having one of my beers advance to the final round last year, I was excited to potentially improve on 2019. I was particularly excited for the new Backbeat Brewing Company to be the Boston site for the first round of judging.

At time of posting the First Round of NHC has been cancelled due to Coronavirus. The American Homebrewers Association is still optimistic that they can still have a modified, single-site NHC at HomebrewCon in June. Hopefully there still is a HomebrewCon which is scheduled for June.

All of the suffering caused by the virus puts the importance of a homebrew competition, and a hobby like homebrewing for that matter, into perspective. That doesn't make it any less disappointing for those of us who look forward to it every year.

Muntons has banned all business travel. Until this blows over I am working from home. Even if I could go out and make sales calls, bringing in new suppliers is probably the last thing brewers want to think about. The brewers I work with that sell most of their beer over the bar at their taprooms are scrambling to fill cans, crowlers and growlers.

Who knows when life will be going back to normal, but this is as good of a time as any to brew. The homebrew industry tends to do well when the economy is struggling. People who are out of work and at home all of a sudden have time to brew. My sense is that homebrew retailers are seeing an uptick in sales as business are closing and people stay home.

If there ever was a good time to be stuck at home, it is when you have four fresh kegs of beer that you are proud of and enjoy drinking. With my keezer full, the last thing I need is more beer any time soon. If I am going to use this newfound free time at home to brew, it makes sense to make beers that require extended aging.

Time to fire up the kettle!

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Friday, January 10, 2020

Brew Years Resolutions for 2020

Another year and another decade in the books! All-in 2019 was a very solid brew year for me. The only hiccup was the beer I brought to Ales over ALS and having to dump eight one-gallon batches.

One of my big resolutions last year was to post more content. I did update this space more. I played around with posting video on YouTube until I realized I don't have the patience for video editing. I also consciously updated my Facebook page regularly. Even it it was something as simple as a link to an article or a photo. My engagement on Facebook has been strong and I've picked up a few new fans.

Dry(ish) January was mostly a success. I made it all the way to January 28th! On that day I was hanging out with the Buck family at Maine Malt House in Mapleton, Maine. There was a bar at the malt house and I may have gone overboard with sampling. From there I was snowed in and was lucky to find a hotel in Presque Isle.

I could do Dry(ish) January again, but I do think I have generally reduced the amount I drink. If my liquid calorie intake becomes an issue there is always Sober October or something else similar.

I never did retake the BJCP exam again in 2019. I didn't have time to study in advance of Homebew Con. After Homebrew Con I didn't see any other exams scheduled in the area. I'm fairly ambivalent about moving up in rank at this point.

My resolutions for 2019 were fairly modest and mostly successful. I brewed the beer I wanted to drink. As it turned out that meant I didn't brew a single IPA in 2019.  I have put some thought into what I want to accomplish in 2020, but not a great deal.

  • Enter more competitions: I have always been in and out in terms of entering competitions. At some times I am all about it, and then I can go months at a time without entering any. After entering two BJCP competitions last year I want to get back into it and see what we can learn. 
  • Enter Masters Championship of Amateur Brewing (MCAB) qualifying events: The MCAB is a competition only open to first place winners at select qualifying events. If I am going to enter more competitions I may as well throw my hat in the ring here.  
  • Go all out for NHC: In 2019 I entered four beers into the National Homebrew Competition. The imperial stout I brewed with Sven advanced to the final round. A batch of Pa's Lager scored well and made it to mini-best of show in the first round which means it almost advanced. For 2020 I will apply for the maximum of five entries into the competition. The plan is to brew beers that I feel have the best chance of advancing and potentially medalling.
  • Win a medal at Jamboree: This one is more about club honor. Mike Shea from the North Shore Brewers cleaned up last year, but as a club we can do better.
  • Brew with my house yeast: One of the things I think that is missing from craft beer is the loss of house character. Breweries could make different brews and different styles, but they had a house character. As a drinker you could tell that the different beers a brewery made were made by that brewery. One way brewers did that was using a house yeast strain. Every beer I have brewed with my "House Irish Ale Blend" has been outstanding. I want to use that yeast in more brews and learn how it ticks. From there maybe my beers will have that house character. 
  • Make more strong ales: This fall I was lucky enough to go to the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer (FOBAB) in Chicago. That rekindled my love of high gravity beers. I brew more of them in 2020 and cellar the bottles in my basement.
  • Work to finish my home brewery: My basement brew area is overdue for tidying up. I need to clear out the clutter and improve organization down there. I spend most of my brew days looking for random items. The big thing I need is a sink. Cleaning with just a hose isn't ideal. Even more inconvenient is not having any place to easily dump waste water. I have watched YouTube videos that make installing a sink easy enough, but it's probably better for everyone if I just hire a plumber. 

That list is a lot longer than I thought it would be!

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