In the pursuit of perfect homebrew, failure still makes beer.

A textual revolution

I just very recently had a birthday (hooray me!), and for my family’s gifts I asked for one of a number of beer-brewing topic texts. Of all people, my 70-something-year-old Nana decided to show her support for my habit, although faux pax by old-fashioned terms. With a blessing of “I won’t drink any of it, I’m more of a Manhattan gal” I received into my hands a shiny new copy of John P. Palmer’s How to Brew. If C. Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing is regarded as the homebrewer’s bible, Palmer’s book is equivalent to the expanded, annotated, prize-inside-the-box version of the bible. You know, for enthusiastic fans of religion.

Probably available at your local beer supply store, or online at howtobrew.com!

Even though my family doesn’t understand how I could READ anything so monotonous, I dove right in. I’m constantly looking for ways to improve my brewing skills. Just because I have a good batch or two doesn’t mean I’m Sam Caliglione (Dogfish Head). My most recent beer, WeizGuy Weizenbock, could definitely be improved. Instead of tasting dark, fruity, and handsome, it tasted like chewing on a piece of 12-grain bread and was a little rough around the edges. Luckily for me, I have 6 bottle-conditioning bombers ready for the test of time.

Even if the beer I just made was great, I still always have room to improve in my process. J. Palmer helps me learn the whats, hows, and whys. Here’s a list of a few things that I plan to change / make for my next batch, hopefully to come in a week’s time.

  • Cleaning and Sanitization – it’s every bit as important as I always thought it was. But I’ve been having some trouble with cleaning itty bits of equipment, namely small-diameter hoses (beerstone residue) and racking canes. How to Brew recommends percarbonate solutions, or OxyClean-like products, for their removal. Soaking the parts overnight in OxyClean, bleach solution (hypochlorite), or even something like CLR (oxalic acidic cleaner with phosphoric and/or nitric acid) can help prevent stains and deposits on anything from hoses to brewpots.
  • Record keeping – I’ve done a decent job keeping up with record keeping using this blog, BrewPal for iPhone iOS (seriously well-spent $0.99), and various little notebooks and napkins. However, in the future it would be nice to have an Excel-based spreadsheet recipe record. If I create this, I’ll make sure I attach it to a post so you ALL can have it (all my fans out there… chirp chirp…).
  • Extract Brewing – I haven’t done enough of this. I’m an habitual partial extract brewer with hopes and dreams of going all-grain in the future, but that takes time, space, and money. Because I’m moving into apartments on at longest a 12-month basis, maybe all-grain isn’t the best way to go for now. Extract brewing is also cheaper by far – I usually pay about $1.10 a beer on a basis of roughly  48 bottles per 5-gallon batch – and much quicker. It could also allow process-centric practice for all the little brewery its-and-bits. Any opportunity for homebrew practice is a good opportunity.
  • Hops and AAU/IBU calculations – I LOVE MATH. Especially Beer Math. I’ve always paid half-attention to alpha-acid percent in hops, and I like using whole-cone hops in my brews when financially possible. But getting down to the nitty-gritty math of it all can be a little bit overwhelming for the bro-tacular brewer. Here’s a few simple rules of thumb, taken directly from J. Palmer:
    • Alpha Acid Units (AAUs) are the standard unit of stating hop additions to your brew. It’s a system that allows for substitution of different hops for flavor without sacrificing bitterness, and it also allows for variable hop oil bitterness ratings for yearly hop crops (a.k.a., Centential 2011 may be more fruitful in oil than Centential 2012). To keep consistency, AAUs are used to describe how much alpha your beer gets from the hops.AAU = (%alpha)(weight in oz)For Example: 1.5oz of Cascade hops (5% alpha) in AAU: (5)(1.5) = 7.5 AAUs.
    • International Bittering Units (IBUs) are more commonly used in describing the actual beer as to how bitter it is. IBU is actually a measurement of how isomerized the alpha acids in the wort become as you boil it, which is also affected by the gravity (sugar content) of the initial wort boil. Isomerized alpha acids impart bitterness, ergo the more IBUs the more bitterness. These equations are complicated, and mostly empirical (fit to lots of test data) according to a scientist named Greg Tinseth who loves him some hops. If you want these equations, you can look up the tables on Google because I’m too lazy to type them. Or, you could just buy the damn book and look for yourself.
  • Fermeting conditions – I learned a lot here that can make my brewing SO much better.
    • The Hot Break– feared and respected, boilovers are a real thing. They don’t have to happen. The break is caused by the precipitation and coagulation of large proteins, which if you’re not careful will precipitate onto your stove or your pot. You can put a few copper pennies in the pot to act as nucleation sites and create more even, controlled boiling.Once these proteins do their egg-drop-soup thing and sink back into the wort, you can whirlpool them into the center of your finished wort and suck them out with a sanitized turkey baster. This will clarify your beer and reduce the size of the trub in the carboy. It’s not a bad thing if a little bit of hot break gets into the fermentor, but not the whole goddamn thing. I made this mistake with WeizGuy.
    • Wort cooling – quick wort cooling is very important apparently. Longer wort cooling times expose the wort to more chance for contamination and for dimethyl sulfoxide (DMS) precursors to be produced in the wort, which will become DMS given enough time and heat. Chilling quickly also makes the “cold break,” yet another protein precipitation. These proteins don’t necessarily affect the flavor of the beer, but create a haze when chilled in the final product and contribute to early staleing reactions. You can cool quickly with an ice bath, or a cooling coil (made from copper tubing and hose parts), or by bringing it to the FreezeMizer – whichever is most convenient. With ManofSteele’s hefeweizen, we left it overnight in the basement to cool – which I guess wasn’t a good idea. Oh well, chalk it up to the adventure.
    • Yeast pitching – higher gravity beers (1.060 and over) can benefit from a double-pitch of yeast for assurance that all healthy cells necessary are available for sugar conversion. I can grow my starter a couple of days in advance for this purpose.
    • Mid-summer brewing – the temperature in my basement is around 76-78F. My fermentors are brewing consistently around 76F in the summer, which is almost the “orgy of fermentation” that Palmer describes as too-high-temperature-fermenting. Lots of little metabolites (by-products) can be produced by yeast if it’s kept too warm. In the case of hefeweizen this is OK, since we’re looking for those banana & clove flavors – so our Hefe is safe – but in most beers this is bad. WeizGuy just got a little dumber. I need to look into a cooling system for my fermentors in the mid-summer months, which may just consist of putting them in front of the air conditioner. Classy and inexpensive, plus the whole house will smell of fermentation! Yum. (not so much for my roommate…)

I’m only a third of the way through this book. Lets hope I don’t become addicted.

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3 responses

  1. Jill

    Addicted to the alcohol or the book/brewing??

    July 21, 2011 at 9:13 am

  2. Jill

    I would thoroughly enjoy a brewing obsession.. Just saying.

    July 21, 2011 at 9:14 am

    • Cool! I’ll invite you to my next brewing ob-session. (I see what you did there)

      July 27, 2011 at 4:20 pm

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