2015’s Homebrew Highlights

My beer of the year, Citra Blonde Ale

Looking back, 2015 was a banner year for my brewing. Speaking immodestly, I produced some excellent beers. Just as importantly, if not more so, I really stretched myself in terms of new styles and techniques.

  • Favorite Batch
    • Citra Blonde Ale
      • This blonde ale nailed every single aspect–in fact, I might say it is one of the best beers I’ve brewed over the years.
  • Least Favorite Batch
    • I didn’t have any batches that totally went south, but I did have some that were just not quite where I wanted them. My Live Long and Porter was squarely mediocre, as was my attempt at an Old Speckled Hen Clone. The former was mostly a result of recipe–the latter was, at least in part, the need to age for way longer than I was willing to give it.
  • Experimental Recipe with Most Potential
    • Pannotia White IPA
      • I’ve done two iterations of this recipe now, and each time have dialed it in just a little closer to my overall goals. One more, and I think I should have it where I want it! This is my “brew to watch” for 2016.
  • Most Fun New Style/Recipe to Try
    • Berliner Weisse
      • I’ve long been hesitant to brew a sour beer (and truth be told, I think that sours are a bit overdone), but I couldn’t pass up a chance to try kettle souring. It was super easy, and the result has been pretty tasty!
  • Best Technique Added to Repertoire
    • I tried a lot of new things this year (different hopping schedules, session IPA’s, kettle souring, brew-in-a-bag, and oaking, to name a few), but I think the biggest addition to my toolkit has been kegging. I absolutely love the convenience–so much less scrounging, scrubbing, and sanitizing–and it also makes hosting people easier (no more piles of bottles on the counter). I’ll admit that the “cool factor” of a few taps on-hand is nice, too. It’s nice to be able to just have a few ounces if that’s all I want, rather than committing to a full 12, 18, or 22 ounce bottle. A win all around!
  • Most Frustrating Technique/Tool to Master
    • I would say that mastering my refractometer has been among the most frustrating aspect of brewing this year. It is a handy little tool, but wow, is the scale off major time. It took quite a few iterations and the development of an instrument-specific equation to get it to the point where I feel comfortable with it.
  • Best Ingredient Added to Repertoire
    • I have to say that WLP400, White Labs’ Belgian Wit yeast, is probably one of the most enjoyable strains to work with, in terms of quality of the results. I’ve used it in both of my White IPA batches, and I’m hooked.
  • Favorite Book
    • Hands down, it’s Gordon Strong’s Modern Homebrew Recipes. Every single recipe I’ve tried or modified from there has been excellent. It has also helped me to really think about my process, and the effects that process can have on each batch (e.g., late hopping, adding dark grains at the vorlauf, etc.). A close runner-up is Mastering Homebrew by Randy Mosher. Not only is it informative, but it’s got the best (and most helpful) graphics of any homebrew book I’ve seen yet. Strong’s book has pushed my technique the most, but Mosher’s has solidified the basics the most. They are a good duo of publications!

Packrat Porter

Yeast sludge settling out

I’m always interested in expanding my skills and homemade brewing equipment, and it seemed like an opportune time to take a big step forward. I’ve been curious about washing and reusing yeast for some time, but just haven’t made the effort to enact the process. So, when I kegged my Seven Seas Session IPA, I saved the sludge from the bottom of the primary fermenter. I added a bit of boiled and cooled water, and then decanted the slurry into two quart mason jars. Each jar was about 2/3 full (a little too full, in retrospect), and I then topped each up with more cooled and boiled water. I let them sit for awhile, and then decanted the liquid as well as the top layer of sludge into another quart jar. This, too, was topped up with water and then placed in the fridge for a week. Last night, in preparation for today’s batch, I prepared a 1L yeast starter and added the yeast from the bottom of the jar. This stirred overnight and into the afternoon, at which point I was ready to pitch the yeast. The starter looks and smells quite healthy, so I’m optimistic about this little experiment. Next time, I may instead overbuild a primary yeast culture and save that, instead of reusing yeast from a previous batch.

I also decided to try adding the dark grains and crystal malts during the vorlauf, following a technique suggested by Gordon Strong in his recent homebrew recipes book. This was a little tricky when it came time to calculate the various water volumes required, and I missed the target by a little bit (I had done the calculations without the various crystal malts, and I also presume the oats soaked up a bit of extra water). I improvised by washing the grains at the end with a final pulse of water, and that brought me right to my volume and gravity target. Lesson learned!

The final major addition to today’s brew process was the construction of a hop spider. I essentially followed directions from BYO magazine, but instead used a food-grade straining bag instead of a paint-straining bag. It worked quite well during the boil, and will definitely be easier than wrangling multiple bags during more hoppy brews.
Today’s brew was an American(ish) porter, named in honor of a resident of our quarry this summer. It was also appropriately named as the dumping ground for a whole bunch of leftover ingredients and free samples, as well as my first attempt at yeast washing. I am under no illusions that some of the smaller grain additions will have a detectable effect, but I can’t stand the idea of throwing out those little packets, either! Given my experience with the last porter I brewed, which was a touch thin, I beefed up the recipe with a pound of flaked oats.
Packrat Porter
  • 8.55 pounds 2-row malt (Great Westerning Malting Co.)
  • 1 lb. flaked oats
  • 1.4 oz. Borlander Munich Malt (Briess)
  • 1.4 oz. Victory malt (Briess)
  • 1 lb. chocolate malt, added at vorlauf
  • 0.75 lb. 60° caramel Munich malt (Briess), added at vorlauf
  • 0.37 lb. 40° crystal malt, added at vorlauf
  • 1.4 oz. 60° caramel malt (Briess), added at vorlauf
  • 1 oz. Newport hops (10.7% alpha), 60 minute boil
  • 1L starter of English ale yeast, WLP002 (reused)
  • 1 tbs. 5.2 pH stabilizer (in mash)
  • 1 tablet Whirlfloc (10 minute boil)
Hop spider in action
  • I mashed in with 3.1 gallons of water at 168°, which stabilized to around 155°. The mash had dropped to 152° after 60 minutes.
  • After 60 minutes, I added the dark and crystal grains, as well as 1.27 gallons of water at 185°. I let this sit for 15 minutes, vorlaufed, and collected 3.15 gallons of wort. Then, I added 3.65 gallons of water at 180°, which raised the mash bed to 164°. I let this sit, vorlaufed, and collected the remainder of the wort. This totaled 6.1 gallons at a gravity of 1.046. This was a little under my target on both counts, so I added 0.75 gallons of water at 120°. I drained this for the final collection.
  • All told, I collected 6.75 gallons of wort with a gravity of 1.048. This works out to 75% efficiency.
  • Once the wort came to a boil, I added the hops and boiled for 60 minutes. With 10 minutes to go, I added the Whirlfloc.
  • At flame-out, I chilled the wort down to about 80 degrees and then transferred it to the carboy. I placed it in the fermentation chamber and cooled it for an hour or so, and then pitched the yeast.
  • Starting gravity was 1.056, which should result in a final abv of around 5.1%. The unfermented wort has a nice dark color and a good taste. I plan to ferment this for 2 weeks at 68°.

DIY Stir Plate

Stir plate in action

As I continue to expand my home microbiology lab, a stir plate seemed like a logical addition. Good laboratory grade ones are reliable, but expensive ($75 on up). Cheap kits and cheaply made stir plates are easy to find on-line, but often only have middling reviews. So, I decided to make my own.

Not being an electrical engineer, I wasn’t entirely in love with the idea of soldering wires and the like, so I elected to use one of the builds that modifies a computer cooling fan. A project posted at Homebrew Finds gave basic directions, some designs for a 3D printed magnet mount, and a list of parts easily found on Amazon. A little more searching on Thingiverse found this base for the Ehrelenmeyer flask, which I shrank slightly in the Z-axis (subtracting ~5 mm, but leaving the X and Y dimensions unchanged) before printing in order to move the magnets closer to the stir bar. I also added some silicone feet under the fan, to give a little air circulation as well as to prevent movement of the stir plate when in use.

Parts list:

All told, it cost about $40 in materials to put this together. I assembled the stir plate this weekend, and ran a test with about 1.5 L of water in my 2 L flask. The setup works pretty well, and I’ll be putting it into use for my next batch.

The finished stir plate

Advice for the New Homebrewer

This post is intended as a “sticky note” for friends, acquaintances, and general internet inhabitants who ask how to get into home brewing. It is based on my own personal experience and opinion. If there is anything that home brewers are, it’s opinionated. So, you may hear drastically different advice on some points (e.g., extract versus all-grain), but I suspect most would at least partly agree on what I have to say here.

My starting assumption here is that the reader is at least passingly familiar with basic terms such as “extract brewing” or “all-grain brewing” or “sparging.” If not, a quick internet search will turn up better definitions than I could provide.

General Advice

    • “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Home Brew.” I really like Charlie Papazian’s philosophy. Papazian is in many ways a founder of homebrewing culture, and his book “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing” is a legitimate classic. Although I’ve since learned that the corners of some content in the book are a little outdated or have better alternatives, Papazian’s “Relax” mantra is a healthy one to keep in mind. Most minor mistakes in brewing (and even some major ones) won’t completely kill a batch of beer! As I tell friends who are just starting out–“The worst thing that usually can happen is that you will get beer.”
    • You will not get Bud Light style lager through 99% of all home brewing efforts. If that is your goal, you are far better off just picking up a case of the cheap stuff at the store. The light American lagers–despite their bad reputation among beer snobs–are technically quite difficult to achieve by most homebrew setups. That said, you are not restricted to just stouts and porters. You can fairly easily make a really tasty blonde ale, for instance–light, refreshing, and quite achievable!
    • If your intent is to save money on beer, find another hobby. In terms of raw ingredients for a batch, yes, you might save money in the long run. But once you factor in time and equipment, this is not by any means a money-saving proposition. Quite frankly, there are better ways to save money–like cutting back on your beer drinking.
    • You know what your own tastes are. Trust them. If the beer tastes good to you, it’s good beer. That said, do be open to constructive critique from those who have practiced taste buds. As a corollary to that, though, remember that we all pick up on different things in beer. Beware relentlessly negative tasting critiques from beer snobs. There are always those who will find fault no matter what; learn to identify them and (politely) ignore them.

  • The goal is not (or isn’t always) high alcohol or maximum hoppage. Those things can be nice in some beers, but get boring after awhile. There is an unfortunate “macho” philosophy prevalent among some home brewers (and even some craft brewers) that the goal is to create the highest alcohol beer that will provide maximum buzz, or the most bitter concoction, or the funkiest Brett brew. This isn’t healthy, nor is it fun, in the long run. Good beer comes in all shapes and sizes; I’ve had great beer with almost no hops character, and lots of hops character. Likewise, I’ve had great beer with 3.2% abv, or 9% abv. Variety is the spice of life.
  • There is a tremendous amount of BS masquerading as brewing advice on various internet forums and websites. There is also a tremendous amount of good knowledge out there. As a scientist, I am a little frustrated at times by the uncritical eye cast towards brewing techniques. I get the sense that there is a vast world of scientific knowledge out there, but it doesn’t often percolate down to home brewers. So, use a bit of common sense when incorporating new techniques into your repertoire. As I said in the intro–home brewers are an opinionated bunch, for better or worse.
  • Start small. You have no idea if you will give up on brewing after two batches, or if you’ll still be brewing strong ten years down the road. Thus, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to drop $1,000 on equipment right from the start. You should be able to brew your first batch of beer for around or under $100 of equipment and supplies.
  • If possible, brew with a friend before committing. If you have a friend who is a homebrewer, ask if you can “ride along” for one of their brewing sessions. It’s a good way to see how the process works. That said, be aware that your friend may have good habits, bad habits, cheap habits, expensive habits, or unnecessary habits built into his or her work flow. Just because they do all-grain with a massively complex sparge setup doesn’t mean that you have to also. Or, if they use iodine-based sanitizers without proper dilution or rinsing, you may want to do something a little different.
  • Start with extract brewing. It requires minimal equipment investment as well as requires the easiest technique. It’s a good way to get your feet wet (or end up completely immersed in the hobby!).
  • Both extract and all-grain brewing can produce good (or bad) beer. Each technique has its advantages and disadvantages, but with care and experience both can produce excellent beer. If you spend your entire career doing extract, and get excellent results, yay! Don’t let all-grain snobs get you down.
  • Take good notes. You will never regret this. What worked in your process? What didn’t work? What did you change from before? What were the starting and finishing gravities? It is hard to improve (or maintain high quality) if you don’t know what happened.
  • You will not get perfect beer at first–but you will almost certainly get drinkable beer. As you learn and practice your technique, your brews will nearly certainly improve.
  • If the beer tastes funny, wait a week or two or three before tossing it. I’ve made a few batches that improved drastically after a few weeks of maturing. Time doesn’t fix all ills in brewing, but it sure can mitigate most.


Looking Back on the News and Brews of 2014

2014 has seen more changes to my brewery and brewing practice than just about any year since I started brewing. In part, this happened because I feel comfortable enough with the hobby–and that I’ll be brewing for the long-term–to invest in more equipment. This in turn was enabled by a move into a new place that had a garage with utility sink, so I was able to get the operation out of the kitchen (with its various space, sanitation, and process limitations) and into a dedicated brewing area. More space meant more equipment…which meant more options for brewing! As a result, I feel like I have really grown and improved as a brewer. This has been challenging at times–the switch to all-grain was like learning to brew all over again! But, the challenges have been mostly fun and solvable; the best kinds of challenges to have.

A handy inscription on my mash tun

Major Changes in Technique / Equipment

  • Changing from partial volume to full volume boils. This was a relatively minor change in the grand scheme of things, but it did pave the way for all-grain brewing.
  • Transitioning into all-grain brewing. This is perhaps the largest and most enjoyable change. As mentioned above, in many ways it was like learning to brew all over again. New equipment, new things to worry about (or relax about). 
  • Improved temperature control. This change has allowed me to extend my brewing season, as well as ensure happier yeast during my previous “usual” brewing season (late fall through early spring).
  • Yeast starters. Where I had been relying largely on dry yeast, I am excited to expand into some new strains in the world of liquid yeast packaging.
  • Beginning the transition into kegging. As I finish out the year, I’ve been building a keezer setup, with anticipated “first draft” in the first week or two of the New Year.
Favorite Brews of 2014
  • Bonedigger Brown Ale. This may be the first recipe I’ve ever designed that turned out perfect on first try. I chalk it up to dumb luck, and will definitely put this into regular rotation!
  • Gondwana Pale Ale. This one took two iterations, but ended up as a nice showcase for Citra hops (my new favorite hop variety–it will be tough to hold back on overusing this one!).
  • Summer Blonde Ale. This ale was my first temperature-controlled brew, and ended up as a quite drinkable warm-weather concoction. This too is going into regular rotation!
Goals for 2015
  • Experiment with new ingredients–yeast, hops, and malts. I have worked a lot with “classics” such as crystal malt, basic American and British yeasts (e.g., Nottingham, various Chico strains, etc.), and Cascade hops. In the upcoming year, I would like to expand into some untouched territory.
  • Perfect kegging and in-keg carbonation of my homebrew, along with small-scale bottling from the keg. I’m thinking about building a bottling gun, just for fun.
  • Develop an in-house white IPA recipe. While I was traveling recently, I got a chance to try an amazing Italian white IPA (Lariano Vergött), and since then have been dreaming about devising one of my own.
  • Brew and/or develop more session beer recipes. Pretty much what it says.
  • Brew a lager. Now that I have good temperature control, I can start to think about lagers and pilsners. This opens up a whole new world of styles and techniques, of course. 
Summer Blonde Ale
Homebrew Roll Call (everything I brewed in 2014)