Holy Crap!

I saw an ad for another goofy t-shirt site. I’m a sucker for those. So I’m browsing around, and found this…

A frickin’ BAMF t-shirt! The reference in the t-shirt is apparently to Dane Cook (a comedian). The name of our brewery has its roots in something completely different (a brewing experience, in fact, that caused me to shout out a certain exclamation. Mine has more explitives than the t-shirt’s expanded acronym) :-)

I might have to buy one anyway, though, just ‘cos it has the name of our brewery on it.

Updates on beer, and blog!

We’ve been busy. First, I’ll just quickly mention that this is a new blog theme. I may not stick with it. If you have an opinion on it, leave a comment, good or bad.

Now for the beer!

Bamf Beer’s Black Asphalt Stout

First, the Black Asphalt Stout scared the crap out of us both. Everything seemed ok during fermentation, temps were great, the brew day went off without a hitch (mostly), but we both took a taste during the final gravity reading just before we transferred to the kegs, and…. ewww.

It tasted like we brewed it with 100% roasted barley, and then added black patent malt to the fermenter or something. It tasted kinda like coffee when you leave it on the burner and go out to get something real quick but get caught up talking to some chick in the garbage bag aisle and…. um… nevermind. Anyway it was bad.

So we kegged it anyway. We’re doing 10-gallon batches now, so Matt and I each get our own 5-gallon keg of whatever we brew. Matt now has a kegerator, so he brought his home and fired it up. His reports were not promising. On the day I finally got around to stopping by to try it, Matt had kicked up the CO2 on that keg, and guess what.

All of a sudden, the beer was frickin’ heavenly. So, Bamf Black Asphalt Stout is a hit. I love the stuff.

Kegerators all around!

On the kegerator front, my birthday is coming up. Matt got me shanks and bev line. I’m hoping to get the faucets and double gauge I asked for, and then I just need a nice drill bit and some gas line, and I’m in business — and if I get the 10lb CO2 canister on top of all of that, I’m rockin’! I have a spare fridge in the basement that I’ve been using primarily for beer-related activities for years. It’s now going to become a two-tap kegerator. I can serve Black Asphalt Stout and Hacker’s Knuckle ESB at the same time.

Matt got a ready-made kegerator for his birthday, and it’s really nice. Digital controls, room for 3 cornies, and small enough to not be too obtrusive in his apartment. It has a nice chrome tower and a single tap. Good times.

Still Unnamed: Scottish Ale (80~)

In addition to Black Asphalt and Hacker’s Knuckle, we also brewed an 80~ Scottish Ale that’s still fermenting and looking good. I had never brewed one of these, and was surprised by how long the yeast stayed in the primary phase. The airlocks were still bubbling vigorously 4 days after pitching. Even now, a full 7 days after pitching, they’re bubbling a few times per minute, there’s been very little obvious flocculation, and “the darkening” hasn’t happened yet.

As an aside, people will disagree with this, but it works for us: The Darkening is the thing we look for to indicate a complete fermentation. The airlock isn’t the whole story, and we don’t like sticking stuff in our beer to take hydrometer readings, so we don’t. We look at the beer. When a reddish-colored ale is fermenting, it’s cloudy and mud-colored. When it’s done, it darkens dramatically. We either rack to secondary, or we don’t. Usually we don’t. Either way, we give it a few more days and then keg. Once it’s in kegs, Matt likes to kick his full of gas right away and get to drinkin’. However, my palate seems to be really sensitive to some compound in “green beer”, so I kinda need to condition it a little longer in order to be able to make it drinkable for me. I’ve never identified the cause of this flavor.

Stay tuned!

So, now that the blog is moved over to a new host, with a new theme, and a new version of WordPress, we’ll start posting more of the pics, notes and recipes you’ve been accustomed to. Enjoy! We will!

Bamf Black Asphalt Stout Fermenting, And More…

So, we’ve been on a bit of a tear lately. We brewed a follow-up, tweaked version of our Hacker’s Knuckle ESB, and that was just kegged today, and as soon as the carboys were empty, they had to be cleaned and sterilized to hold the Black Asphalt Stout we brewed today.

The astute reader will notice that I said “carboys”. Yes, that’s right folks, we’ve moved up to 10-gallon batches. We have broken through that point of resistance in every home brewer’s life that is the now-infamous 5-gallon batch. We can now do partigyle fermentations without splitting up and measuring yeast. We can each add our own adjuncts. One can dry hop while the other adds apricot. The possibilities are endless.

We are a danger to ourselves and others.

For those that are considering moving to a 10-gallon batch, I have a few words:

  1. It’s not nearly as big of a change as I thought it would be. In fact, it’s just about zero change from a 5-gallon batch.
  2. You really need two people to move things around if you don’t have a 100% pump-driven system or some other setup that means not moving 75+ pound kegs around.
  3. Get a spray bottle, and fill it with water. Your kettle is going to have possibly 14 gallons of liquid in it (we do a 90-minute boil, so we have 14 gallons in our keggle at the start). If it looks like your boil is getting dangerously close to boiling over, spray it furiously 4 or 5 times, and it should settle down. I swear this works. Flawlessly.

We’ll get the recipe stuff up later this week. Hacker’s Knuckle and Black Asphalt are both loosely based on recipes from the book “Brewing Classic Styles”.

Hacker’s Knuckle ESB Gets Nod of Approval

So, I took a couple of 1/2 gallon growlers of the Hacker’s Knuckle ESB to a barbecue on Friday, and Matt gave it the nod of approval. I have to admit I was surprised myself. It was yeasty, but aside from that it was damn good.

The yeasty part will probably subside. What happened was, while it was still in the carboy fermenting, I took a refractometer reading. Don’t do this. Turns out, alcohol greatly affects the readings, which makes perfect sense. I thought I had a stuck fermentation, so I shook up the carboy to wake up the yeast. Then I realized my mistake in using the refractometer, and took another reading with a hydrometer. Turns out I had nailed the final gravity. I kegged it only minutes later… with some yeast still in suspension. This probably explains some of the yeastiness.

Hacker’s Knuckle ESB – Session Notes, and Lessons Learned

After a few batches now, I’m still not where I’d like to be with my brewing process and setup and everything. Things were much simpler when we just had the old Coleman cooler mash tun and used my porch steps to set up an all-gravity system :)

Now I have a converted keg system. I also have a pump. I also have a nice plate chiller, a ‘whirligig’-style sparge arm, a grain mill, a temp control for my fridge… a lot has been added, but I haven’t spent much time getting all of these things put together in such a way that they get set up the same way every time and everything ‘just works’. Hell, I have all this stuff and still don’t even have volume markings on my vessels! I’m still eyeballing all of my volume measurements, and I still, to this day, don’t take any gravity readings during my brew day.

The gods have smiled upon me for a long time. I’ve made some good beer. I’ve made more good beer than bad. And even the beer I didn’t like, others did. But I’m getting less happy with “lucking out” on brew day, and I’m starting to take some steps toward a better process.

This most recent brew day went like this:

12:30 – put 8.5 gal water on burner
12:45 – it’d be nice to cut the entire top off of the hlt so I can pour from it. Dunno how to get 4 gallons into the mash cleanly. Gotta transfer using a 1-gallon pitcher I guess :)

12:50 – windy as hell. Killing the boil times. 20+ minutes, still only ~120.

1:10 – decided to heat strike water to 185F since I’ll lose heat transfering it to the mash

1:33 – struck with 4 gallons. Transfered using 1-gallon pitcher, into the cajun boiler pot, then all 4 gallons at once into the mash. I stirred, and just measured the temperature. I’m hovering near 154F. Target was 152F. Almost as close as I’ve ever come to nailing my strike temp, and it was the process with the most opportunity for error (though the simplest as well – no hoses or pumps were used, so maybe that’s debatable).

2:08 — temps are still just about perfect.

2:40 — forgot to boil sparge water. Just turned the burner back on.

2:48 — with the lid off for the past 8 mins, mash temp only dropped to 148F. Not bad.

3:23 — just put on burner to boil. Not sure what volume I collected. Gravity about 2 mins before I stopped collecting was still around 1.015+

3:45 — wort is now boiling

3:55 — added 1.5oz crystal pellets @ 3.8%AA

4:10 — added 1oz crystal pellets

4:35 — added tsp. irish moss

4:45 — added 1.5oz crystal pellets

4:55 — flame out.

5:08 — all in fermenter. I lost a LOT to the boil. I’m adding a gallon of water to it now.

Ok, so there are some corrections that need making, and I’ve brewed enough batches now that I can see a pattern in where things go haywire, and where I can’t see patterns, I can see other issues :-)

First, there should never be a point at which you have no idea how much fluid is in a vessel, no matter which vessel we’re talking about. Even if it’s the mash tun, you should know that you’ve put in, say, 4 gallons of strike water. You should know that, so far, you’ve added 3 gallons of sparge water by looking at the water level in the HLT, and you should be able to derive the amount in the mash tun at any point during the sparge by looking at the level in the HLT and the kettle. If you have no markings on any of the vessels, doing this becomes difficult.

Second, you should know how much you lose to equipment alone. Today, for the first time, I tested to see how much water I lose to the mash tun, and I learned something really valuable: where you put your spigot matters even if another tube goes all the way to the bottom. Here’s the story:

The Mash Tun Lesson

I have a converted keg with a store-bought false bottom made for converted kegs. The keg holds 15.5 gallons of water, but I don’t need to fill it all the way up to do the test. I put 10 gallons of water in there, and nothing else. I only used that much because I wanted to mark the volumes on the outside of the vessel — not because they’re useful on a mash tun — they aren’t. I did it because my kettle is also a converted keg, so I can be reasonably sure that the measurements are similar (I’ll mark up the kettle separately tomorrow). Anyway, what I wanted to know is “If I put 10 gallons of water in here, how much can I get *out*?” I put the water in, and opened the valve, and let the water run into a 1-gallon pitcher. I did this repeatedly.

When the water level got near the top of the spigot, there was a very noticeable drop-off in pressure from when it was full. Having dealt with my fair share of siphons and various vessels and stuff, I could see what was going to happen, but I was still surprised. My notion had been that, as long as the fluid keeps running, it’ll run all the way to where the bent tubing reaches to, and the placement of the spigot is irrelevant unless you stop the flow at a point below the spigot. This is only half true.

The reality is that the water will keep flowing past the level of the spigot if there is a siphon point below the spigot. It makes absolute crystal-clear sense when you see it, but I hadn’t been picturing it that way in my brain. When I saw the pressure dropping, a light bulb went off, and I went to grab a hose. I stuck it on, bent it upward so the trickle from the spout would fill it with water, and then let it fall downward so the water would flow out, creating a siphon. The pressure increased dramatically, and I got 9.75 gallons out of that vessel.

Why is this important?

Because if I didn’t understand this, and I temporarily stopped the flow out of the mash tun to take a gravity reading toward the end of the flow, turning on that valve again won’t get me much, and I’ll be wondering why I’m 2 gallons short going into my boil! The center of my spigot is right at the 3 gallon mark! Now that I *do* understand this, I can try to avoid this problem, or at least know that I can probably start a siphon again even if I stop the flow when there is less than 3 gallons in the tun. This *will* make a *large* difference.

The Kettle Lesson

The first thing I thought when I was done running off the wort into the kettle was “I have no idea how much that is”. I guesstimated that it was about 6.5 gallons, and after looking at some pics I took during the session, and marking up my mash tun, I think I was pretty close on that guesstimation. The real lesson though had to do with how fluid is lost during and *after* the boil.

For whatever reason, I completely forgot, until I was staring at the bottom of the murky, emptied kettle, that you lose fluid to the kettle itself, over and above evaporation. Some fluid is absorbed by the hops, and plenty is left at the bottom of the kettle because… well… it’s sludge. In the future I’m going to figure in about a half gallon of loss right there.
Also, I lost *a lot* to evaporation. I boiled (I mean, the wort was actually boiling) for 70 minutes. If you consider that I started the boil with ~6.5 gallons of wort, and lost a 1/2 gallon to the bottom of the kettle, and that only roughly 3.5 gallons made it into the fermenter, that would mean that I lost something like 2.5 gallons to evaporation in a 70-minute boil! Of course, this doesn’t mean that I lost 2.5 gallons per hour. In reality, the kettle was on the burner for 90 minutes, and evaporation was taking place for just about the entire time. But even so, it means I was losing at a rate somewhere around 1.5 gallons per hour, and probably better than that during the time that the boil was really rolling.

And the boil was *really* rolling. This is only the 2nd batch with the new burner, and the first batch with it was about a year ago (I had my first child in the interim, so you’ll excuse the lack of brewing activity). The boil was downright violent. Much more rigorous than anything we had with the old burner. Maybe I just shouldn’t be too surprised that I lost so much to the boil.

I’ve learned two things about boiling in general – one I’ve known for a long time, and the other I just learned:

A long time ago I learned that you should *not* put a cover on your boil, because one reason you boil is to get rid of volatiles that can cause off flavors. One that comes to mind is some kind of sulfur compound created by the hops during the boil, but there are others as well. What I only just learned, though, is that there is an actual target to shoot for with evaporation rates, and there is such a thing as over- and under-evaporation, and either situation (in dramatic form, I imagine) can have an impact on your beer. See this.

Tasting lots of beer, brewing… nothing (for now)

A couple of things have happened in the past year that have given me a chance to spend more time tasting beers. The birth of my first child, and the buyout of a local liquor store. I’ll explain.

My wife and I had our first child, our daughter Molly, in May 2007. Since that day, I have not brewed. I haven’t had the time. At all. Really. However, I do find that I’m home a lot more. My wife and I eat at home far more than we used to, and I cook a lot more than I used to (PS – I have always enjoyed cooking). I need something to drink with dinner!

There used to be a liquor store near my house that carried some absurd number of beers that you could buy by the bottle. Unfortunately, their selection was rather inconsistent, and the freshness of the beer was sometimes questionable. After some time, it got so bad that I opted to travel the extra few miles to another place that had a pretty good selection, and was cheaper and fresher. I’m lucky to have two places anywhere near me that have such a good selection of beers.

But now, the old place up the block was taken over, and the guy handling the beer part of the operation (it’s a full-fledged liquor store) really seems to care about beer. Good beer. I’ve tried tons of beers. All of a sudden the shelves were bursting at the seams with beers I had asked about when the old owners had the place, and I got lame excuses about. They’ve also gone back to stocking bottled versions of those British beers that have started going to those pub draught cans that I don’t care for.

I’ve tried tons of stuff, and I’ve come to a few interesting conclusions over the past, say, six months or so:

1. Saison is the only Belgian style of beer that I really like. I’ve tried several over the years, and figured maybe I just wasn’t trying the right ones. Then I tried Chimay Bleue, which scored, like, a 100 on RateBeer, and I don’t like that either. It’s not that they’re not well made – I’m sure they are! The thing is that there’s this flavor in Belgian ales that is sort of a hallmark of Belgian ale, and it so happens that that flavor drives me nuts. I don’t like it. Saison, on the other hand, is unlike any other Belgian I’ve ever had. I’m so glad I found Saison. I only found it a couple of years ago, and I’ve *never* brewed it, but I’d really like to, because it’s probably among the lightest, most refreshing beers you can brew without lagering. While it’s true that it’s kind of a light, fizzy beer, this is a beer with bite, and bold, sometimes peppery flavors. Fantastic.

2. Rogue is not capable of making a bad beer. I tried their XS this year. It pours like old engine oil dripping into the pan. It’s intimidating to witness, but when you drink it, it’s just awesome. It’s amazing how they actually got the hops to pop in a beer like that. I’m also a big fan of their Brutal Bitter, and whatever they called their Christmas beer – I forget the name, but it has a pic of santa claus on it, and it totally rocks, and I’m not someone who normally buys beer with Santa on it :) There *are* beers I’m indifferent toward. Dead Guy Ale and their Hazelnut offering don’t do a whole lot for me, but I wouldn’t turn one down, either. Today I bought another bottle of the Brutal Bitter (very good, British-style, not as hoppy, fizzy, or clean as some of the more pronounced American-style Bitters), and I also noticed the Mocha Porter on the shelf. Because of the label’s coloring, I thought this was Rogue’s Juniper beer, but noticed the word “mocha” at the last second before I passed it by.

3. I”m not as big a hophead as I thought I was. Back in the mid-90′s, I thought I was a hop head. I was the only person I knew who drank anything like a craft beer. I loved (and still do) Sierra Nevada, and occasionally liked an Anchor Steam. If I was in a restaurant I’d try to find some interesting hoppy beer. In the mid-90′s there weren’t a lot of restaurants that had interesting, hoppy beers. I tended bar at a place that did for a while, and I tried dang near every beer in the place (they had about 60 beers there, which was a lot at the time). I loved Geary’s Pale Ale, Harpoon IPA, a couple of the Brooklyn Beers were good, Wild Goose IPA was pretty good too. None of these, however, can really be called “hoppy” anymore, though. Not with Stone Brewing, Dogfish Head, and others who seem to be attempting to see how far they can push their fans. All I have to say is this: when you have cottonmouth after drinking a 12 oz beer, there are too many hops in your beer. :)

4. My palate has matured somewhat. I like a lot of beers now that I didn’t care much for years ago. Malty beers used to *all* seem cloying and chewy to me. Nowadays, I love Belhaven’s Wee Heavy Scottish Ale, Schneider Aventinus Eisbock, and a few other beers on the maltier side of the fence.

5. I’m still not tired of Guinness Extra Stout. No pub draught for me. I still like the beer that, at the tender age of 15, I coined “ol’ rusty pipes”. I’m really happy to see all of the other stouts and porters on the market, because I love stouts and porters, but I’ll just as soon pick up a six pack of Extra Stout. Maybe it’s part nostalgia? As for the newer ones I’m now able to get my hands on, I’m finding that, if it says ‘porter’ on it, I’m probably going to like it. Surprisingly, the same is not true for stout. Black Douglas I found really just boring, for example. Also, Imperial stouts aren’t something I’m going to go out and get a six pack of, though Old Rasputin is pretty good stuff if I’m gonna have one bottle.

6. Germany makes great beers. Used to be I stuck strictly to American and British beers. Adventures into Belgians were sometimes painful (though I’m glad I went through it, because it’s how I found Saison), and I found that diving into the beers of other regions available to me were mostly pretty boring. For example, France doesn’t have much to offer in the way of beer. Again, I’m glad I got adventurous with beer, because I found, for example, that Poland makes lots of beer, and one brewery there even makes a pretty good porter (I’ll have to come back when I remember the name of it). But 99% of the beers I’ve tried from Africa, Japan, France, Slovakia, Russia, etc., are a good bit like Budweiser. Anyway, I’ve added Germany to the list of countries that I am officially a fan of in terms of their beer making. I’m not sure I’ve yet had a bad Hefeweizen, though they differ quite a lot. I’ve also tried the dunkels, and bocks, and lots of other German styles. I have to say that I don’t like all German beers, but the *reason* is that, within each German style, there’s so much variety that it’s almost impossible not to come across something you just don’t care for. I’m not a huge fan of the really heavy doppelbocks I’ve had, but I’ve had some interesting Rye bocks and lighter doppelbocks. The only German style for which I cannot find an example that I like is Marzen (a.k.a Oktoberfest). These beers exhibit that same hallmark flavor as some of the Belgian ales that drives me nuts. If someone knows what ingredient or process causes that flavor, or what chemical is the cause of that flavor, let me know so I can research ways of making sure it never gets into the beer I brew. I just can’t seem to acquire a taste for it!

So, that pretty much catches you up on what’s been going on beer-wise. What you might not know is that Matt got married, and they’re having a huge party in Maine, in July. Between now and then, the plan is to brew 4-6 batches of beer to bring up there with us. It should be quite an interesting early spring! I don’t believe there’s an official list of beers we’re going to brew, but for sure our Red Ale is going to make an appearance. We’ll probably also do a standard bitter. Aside from that, who the heck knows? I’d like to try doing a Saison for those at the party who like lighter beers, and a wheat beer for people who don’t like hops and like to put lemons in their beer and stuff. We haven’t talked about it much, so who knows what Matt has up his sleeve ;-)

Blogged with Flock

New technique: “Beer in a Bag”

BAMF is already an all-grain operation, but some folks down under developed a technique targeted at extract brewers who would like to move to all grain, but either can’t afford it or are confused by all of the extra equipment involved. I was really skeptical when I read this, but have since seen some people post their experiences with the technique, and it looks plausible! It requires only a single vessel to do the entire all-grain brew. See the initial posting about it (pics and lots of details included) here.


I went to the Glendale Liquors store in Kendall Park, NJ yesterday. I spent $23.11 (if memory serves) on beer there. I bought one large bottle each of Bluebird Bitter, Sly Fox Saison, Stone Ruination IPA, and I also bought a six pack of Stone Pale Ale. I bought the Bluebird cold, for sure, but I believe I bought everything else warm. After my purchase I went straight home and opened the Bluebird. It was skunked. I also opened one of the Stone Pale Ales. Also skunked. I gave up for the night, and today opened up the rest of the beers – ALL SKUNKED. However, this is not even the real reason I’m saying not to go to this store or any of its branches.

When I called to see if there was any refund, exchange or any kind of store credit type policy for bad beer purchased at the stores, I was completely lambasted by two different employees there. Note that I wasn’t pissed off or aggressive when I called – I was pretty matter-of-fact about the whole thing. I didn’t even have any expectations when I called because I have never returned beer before, and didn’t think it was something that would be taken back, because if you leave beer sitting on the seat of your car in direct sunlight, it damn well *could* be your fault that the beer got skunked! And why *should* they be held responsible for that?

Anyway, after the first person started telling me that there was no return policy on bad beer, I was abruptly put on hold, and then someone else came on the line and basically accused me of not knowing Stone products. Of course, this doesn’t explain why the Bluebird was bad or the Sly Fox was bad. It also is a little detached from reality because oxidation tastes similar no matter *what* beer you’re drinking. If you know what oxidation tastes like, you can pick it up in things you’ve never had before. However, I’ve had *plenty* of Stone products in my day, and I’ve had it in several locations, I’ve had it on tap, and I’ve had it in bottles.

Nevertheless, I was willing to gamble that there was more bad beer in the store, and so told the guy “look, just go open a bottle of it there in the store. It’s bad”. I figured if nothing else I’d help him get the bad beer off the shelves and avoid more phone calls. I don’t know why I’m doing him favors at this point, but whatever.
So at the end they guy says to bring in the bottles and if *he* thinks they’re bad, he’ll give my money back, and we hung up. Of course, his tone was so overly defensive, and he treated me like I was such total pond scum that I decided to write of the $23 as the cost of finding out where *not* to go for beer.

A few minutes later, the guy calls me back and wants to know when I’m coming and says he wants to call me out because he doesn’t think I know my beer. At this point I couldn’t resist telling him that I BREW BEER! In fact, not only do I brew beer, I have, in the past, brewed beer that has been oxidized during the bottling process, and it tastes (gasp!) just like the bad beer I got at Glendale Liquors.

So the Glendale Liquors representative (he never gave his name) is clearly not buying this whole “I brew my own beer” thing, and tells me I’m a “fucking asshole” and never to come back into the store.

So, I will happily not be returning to the store. Unless you’re buying BMC products in cans, I recommend you stay away as well. These people need to understand that business is not about insulting and berating your customers. They need to realize that I have family, friends, and fellow brewers (who spend *lots* on beer *weekly*) who will *also* not be returning to any of their branches.

Brew Day: Full Sail Amber Clone

First brew of the season, and also the first time I (brian) have brewed completely solo. My wife, Natasha, helped me multitask more effectively by doing lots of the cleaning and temp-reading chores, and generally keeping me company.

Quick Summary

There were a few new additions to the equipment list this time around: new quick disconnects, new burner, new thrumometer, a new hack for the bottom of the boiler, etc. The burner and the quick disconnects worked wonderfully. Couldn’t ask for more. The hack for the boiler was fantastic at getting a lot more of the wort out of the boiler, but it wasn’t the greatest filter I’ve ever seen – still a big improvement over our last batch. Overall, equipment wasn’t bad. I had some pump troubles – I had to reprime the damn thing like 5 times during the sparge, but this was relatively minor compared to issues we’ve had in the past.

The big disappointment for me was that, once again, things went awry during the sparge. I’ve come to loathe sparging, because it is *always* where things go wrong. Once I started running off the wort, and started having trouble repriming the pump, I realized that if I just added some water to the pot, it would increase the siphon pressure and I wouldn’t need to keep repriming the damn pump. But how much to add? And now what? I’m supposed to completely put my sparge on hold while I go heat up some more sparge water?

For the record, whoever got the idea that a pump that a) needs to be primed and b) isn’t drip-safe is good for homebrewing is,(forgive me), a moron. Somebody please find a peristaltic pump that doesn’t cost a million bucks that takes 3/8″ diameter tubing and is food safe to 212F. Please. Really. I’m not kidding.

In the end, I wound up with a pretty dark, heavy beer in my fermenter, and it wasn’t 5 gallons. I added exactly one gallon of tap water to the fermenter just before putting it in the basement. We’ll see how it goes.

All the blood and gore


First, let me give a shout out to my new homebrew supply shop, Wine Hops & Barley, in Feasterville, PA. I’d link to their web site, but there’s really nothing there to see. Aside from that issue, though, it’s a nice, clean place, with great people and a damn fine collection of both ingredients and equipment. There are a few quirky things missing – for example, on the ingredient side, they only carry White Labs yeast. On the equipment side, they had only a 1000ml flask, and they didn’t have any stir plates at all. They *did* have the Johnson Controls temperature control, though, and I got it!

Anyway, I’m including a quick pic of the inside of the place as proof that homebrew supply shop does not need to look like the home of your friendly neighborhood cat lady.

The Mash


We got started early. The grains got wet at 9:54AM. The water was a little above 171F which is what was called for, but I figured it was only a degree or two and we’d be ok. This is based on past experience with out mash tun: it doesn’t really hold a temperature well for very long. However, I had made a new insulating jacket for the mash tun while the strike water was heating up, and as it turns out, that thing made an enormous difference. I overshot the temperature, left it alone for 15 minutes, came back, and hadn’t lost *any* heat! I was in shock. I had to remove the lid and the insulation, and it cooled down pretty quickly. Once it got to the target temp of 150F, I put everything back on and it stayed at 150F the rest of the time. It worked really well.

Oh yeah – if you’re looking to do this to your mash tun, that insulation came from Home Depot or Lowe’s (I don’t remember which). It’s called “Reflectix(tm)”. I got it because it doesn’t have any exposed fiberglass or cotton fiber that can either catch fire, get messy, or get embedded in my skin. This worked really well.

While the mash rests…

So, while the grains were resting at-or-near their target temperature, I was able to think a little more about the boiler. Matt had fashioned some copper tubing into a semi-circle last time around, such that when you looked into the boiler, it had the shape of a question mark. This wasn’t a complete failure, but we weren’t really happy about it. Mostly, we just wanted to get more wort out of the boiler, and we felt like we left a good bit in the boiler last batch using that tube. This time around, I just did the old “z-tube”. I took some tubing, bent it in the shape of a “z”, so the top of the z connected to the weldless fitting, and the bottom of the z sat roughly 1″ above the center of the bottom of the vessel.

IMG_0976.JPGGreat, but what about filtering? Well, I had some copper Chore Boys I bought at the grocery store (near the cleaning solvents and mops and stuff, if memory serves). I took one and played with it for a minute before I realized that this thing can actually be kinda pulled apart to form a little copper mesh pouch! Neat! So I took a hose clamp, and used it to form a neck for the pouch.

Now it was as simple as just sliding this on the copper tube in the bottom of the boiler, and tightening the hose clamp. Keep in mind that you have to use a hose clamp one size up from what you would normally put on the copper tube because you need room for the copper mesh.

This solution actually worked pretty darn well, but just in case, I figured I’d use one of those reusable nylon hop bags instead of letting whole hops just fly around in my boiler. In retrospect, I think it might’ve been better to let the hops run free, and they would’ve acted as a better filter for the finer sediment than the Chore Boy. Maybe next time.

I admit I was a little nervous about using whole hops. We usually use pellets and have never had a problem using pellets, but the selection of whole hops at the LHBS (Local Home Brew Supply) was so good I couldn’t pass it up. They had exactly the hops I wanted, so I just got the whole hops.

The Sparge

Anyway, back to the mash and sparge. My recipe calculator called for sparging with 4.0 gallons of water. This was a single infusion mash, and I had already added about 3.6 gallons to the mash. In the end, sparging with 4 gallons of water should leave me with around 6.25 gallons of wort, but the problem was with my setup…

We have a keg we can use as a hot liquor tank to boil water. However, that’s a big damn vessel to boil 4 gallons of water in. Also, because of the current way it’s configured, you never get *all* of the water out of it… so how much *can* you get? Well, that’s a great question. A question I don’t want to have to think about on brew day. What I really need to do is fashion almost exactly what I did for the boiler bottom and put one in the hot liquor tank. That would rock, especially since I don’t need to worry about filtering with the Chore Boy.

So instead of the keg, I used our old water pot. The one that came with our old turkey fryer. It’s perfectly fine. It’s a smaller vessel – about 7-8 gallons in size, and a little less bulky so it’s a little more easily handled by one person. This, of course, meant I was going to be siphoning, because this pot doesn’t have a spigot. *sigh*.

So, no big deal, I sanitized my racking cane, some tubing, etc. I put the pot on the workbench, I started the siphon (with a tube that I dedicated to starting siphons so I could connect a sanitized one after it was started – I love quick disconnects!), and started pumping.

Now…. check out the setup in the pic. The water is in the smaller pot. It’s siphoned all the way to the ground, where the pump is. The pump is pushing it all the way up to the sparge arm sitting on top of the mash tun. See the tubing going toward the L-connector at the top of the keg? That’s where the water is getting pumped to. Judging by my position in the picture (I’m 5’10″), I’d say the pump has to push the water about 5’2″, almost directly up. The pump’s advertised “head” is 12ft. This all went swimmingly well until roughly half (I’m kinda guessing) of the water was gone.

At that point, things got really sluggish. I don’t care about sluggish. I don’t care about a slow sparge in this scenario. But then it completely stopped. I undid the quick disconnect on the “out” side of the pump, and I was able to basically act as a stand-in peristaltic pump to get the siphon going again. That was really cool to see that work – but I wish I didn’t have to. Anyway, I connected it back up, and it pumped for a minute more and… blech. Stopped again. The more water that left the smaller pot, the more it seemed I had to reprime the pump. Also, it’s worth noting that I use very little spare tubing in my pump setups. The tubing has *some* room so it can be bumped without causing a chain reaction that puts 170F water all over me, but it’s not winding and looping around.

Questions I need to answer now to figure out why the pump needed to be reprimed are:

  1. As the water level in the small pot decreases, does this affect the siphon? Does the pressure change? I didn’t think it should.
  2. Is it possible that a 12ft head measured with water could be cut in *half* by beer (which has a higher specific gravity)?
  3. Is there anything I can look at, monitor, do to figure out why the pump would stop pushing fluid? Sometimes it looks like everything is fine – there’s fluid in the tubes leading into and out of the pump, but no movement. Why would that be?

IMG_0493.JPGOne theory I have is that there’s some resistance to flow caused by the sparge arm. Enough to create an *effective* resistance greater than the head pressure, causing the pump to reach its “shut off” head pressure. I’m not sure how to test this conclusively, but I guess I could do the same sparge setup without the arm and see how it goes. This might make *some* sense if for no other reason there’s a change in the tubing diameter the water is going through. It’s going through 3/8″ ID tubing until it gets to the sparge arm, at which point it’s going into a much smaller diameter tubing before being sprayed onto the mash. Also, it’s being sprayed through very tiny little holes in said small-diameter tubing. In case you’ve never seen a “Phil’s Sparge Arm”, here’s a pic of mine in action. Yes, that arm is rotating.

I like the sparge arm, but it’s not what I’d call “necessary”. I’m sure we could probably build something just as useful. But this is ready-made, and not very expensive, and if you have a steady supply of water, it’ll run all dang day.

So here’s the kicker. At the end of the sparge, I’m looking down into the boiler, I’m seeing that I don’t have enough wort in there. I’m looking at the mash tun, and I’m stressing out. The pump isn’t doing crap at this point, so I started adding some water. Then I realized I’d have no idea how much I was adding (I wasn’t adding any measured amount – I was just tossing some water into the small pot). Then I guess I got really stressed out about how little wort was in the boiler, and how little appeared to be left in the mash tun…. I dumped the rest of the water into the mash tun… all at once. I’ve never done this before, so I figured “it’ll either be fine, or I’ll learn exactly why you don’t ever want to do that”. I drained off the beer, and it looked darker than usual all the way until it stopped, which would seem to me like we left some sugars in the mash tun :-( Meanwhile, even after doing this the wort level in the boiler looked low.

The Boil

The boil went fine! The burner is fantastic. It has a really nice adjustable regulator so you can play with the air/gas mixture, so your flame can always be nice and blue. It’s stronger than our old burner too. I don’t know what our old burner’s rating was, but this one is either 50 or 55,000 BTU. The wort started boiling in record time – even faster than I thought – and I thought it *would* be fast because of the low level!

IMG_0986.JPGI also used a hop bag, as I noted earlier, and that was fine too. For easy removal from the boil I took a straight copper racking tube, and just tangled the drawstring around the spring end of the racking tube to make a little fishing pole.

Doing this changes how I do my hop additions. Generally, if there’s an ounce that gets boiled for 45 minutes, and an ounce that gets boiled for 15 minutes, I’d add my 45 minute hops, wait 30 minutes, and then add the 15 minute hops. Then everything finishes at the same time. With a hop bag, I put the 45 minute hops in the bag for 45 minutes, took them out, and then put in the 15 minute hops. I have to say that, even though it probably sounds like a bit of a headache, it was really surprisingly easy to use the hop bag.

The boil was especially vigorous, and gave off far more steam than usual. I’m sure I lost twice as much volume as we normally do during the boil. This is good news. I had been hoping for this, really, because I had read a good bit about what to expect from a boil, and how it should generally go, and I didn’t feel like our boil was really “there” yet.

Into the fermentor!IMG_0990.JPG

IMG_0996.JPGFinally. This went off without a hitch as well. The way this worked is this: The boiler sat on the work table, and drained from its spigot down to the pump, which is still on the floor. The pump pushes the wort up to the chiller, which is sitting on the work table. From there, it’s out to the thrumometer and into the fermentor.

The thrumometer pic (right) is a good one. In the background you can see the pump on the ground (with a box over the housing because it’s not drip-proof). The tube going to the inlet (left side) of the pump is 212F. then it gets pumped up to the chiller sitting on the workbench and through the thrumometer, by which time it’s 66F. Actually, it was 62F, but I turned down the flow rate of the water on the garden hose (using the hose connector’s adjustor, which you can barely see in the left pic – the hose connector is the black and green one).

IMG_0999.JPGSo, finally, here’s a shot (left) of how much was left in the boiler. Not much, which is great. And since I used the hop bag, there were no hops to worry about. I had to turn the pump off when I started seeing sediment, so the filtering power isn’t great, but if I can get this low before I see any sediment, then that works for me. Including what was left in the tubing and the boiler, I probably wasted a quart or less of actual wort.

On the down side of things, I don’t believe I got enough wort out of the whole process. So I added a gallon of water to the fermentor before I put it in the basement. I’ve never done *that* before either. We’ll see how it goes :-/

Gearing up for first brew of the season

I have ordered a couple of odds and ends, and I’m planning for the changes that need to be made this brewing season. Last year, we added the pump, moved to converted kegs, got a new wort chiller, and added a new sparge arm. With all of the big-ticket, Earth-shattering changes pretty much out of the way, what’s left are things that are more about making those things work together more seamlessly. Less human intervention would also be nice.

I ordered a measuring pitcher, which I’m actually really excited about. It’s a little painful to use the 1 Gallon growler for measuring and marking things. I also ordered a pair of those polysulfone quick disconnects. I’m hoping and praying with all of my might that they’re the right size and they work like I need them to. If they do I’ll be able to achieve another goal I have: a “no knife” brewing system. By “no knife”, I mean no knives are ever required to remove tubing from a brass barb, and (ideally) no tubing ever needs to be cut on-the-fly during a brew session.

We have a little adjustment to make to our kettle. we tried putting this solution in place to get the wort out with as little of the break material getting in. It didn’t work like we wanted it to, so we’re on the lookout for solutions to that. Our kettle is just a standard keg with a weldless fitting. However, because the bottom of the keg extends down a ways beyond where it’s practical to place a hole, there’s probably a good two inches from the hole to the actual bottom of the keg. What’s the best way to get as much beer as possible without getting the break material in there, and without getting frequent clogs? I’ve seen more than one person just take a copper tube, bend it in the shape of a “z”, then attach one end to the fitting and the other end has a screen on it. Seems to work for a few different people, and it’s a dead simple solution (we like those), but I’m happy to hear other ideas and viewpoints! Not surprisingly, the finer points of the brew kettle are rarely bragged about when people post pictures of their brew rigs. :-/

Anyway, once these bits fall into place, the next step would be to build a proper stand, with casters, to sort of “contain” the brewery, so it can be rolled in and out of the garage. Once the setup is stable, we can start shooting for making everything completely stationary, where we don’t ever have to move any of the kegs at all, ever, during the entire brew session. From there, almost everything else is gravy. Move to copper tubing instead of plastic? Add a pump? Whatever.

On the fermentation side, I’m considering getting a temp controller for a refrigerator in my basement, not so much because it’s too warm down there, but because a) it *sometimes* can be too warm down there, and b) the temperature is *not* stable down there at all. Anyone ever use a temp controller to maintain a steady 66F in a refrigerator? It’s just an old, upright, rather small, standard fridge with the freezer on top and fridge on the bottom. Nothing fancy. Advice solicited.

Also on the far end of brew day is what to do about packaging. I’ve bottled every brew I’ve ever made. That’s a lot of bottles. I probably have around 8-10 cases of 22oz brown glass bottles. Maybe more. Kegging might be in the near future, because we’d like to go to 10-gallon batches, and bottles just aren’t gonna cut it – at least not for *all* 10 gallons. I don’t know much about kegging, and the used keg systems all say that the kegs may need work. I know *nothing* about kegs, so I’m tempted to get a new keg, but they’re god awful expensive, and I’m kind of a DIY-er anyway, so I’m not opposed to learning about kegs as long as I’m not opening my beer up to undue risk. Advice and links to howto’s on corny kegs are solicited too  :-)