Sunday, January 31, 2010

My Brewery is Closed for the Season

After over a year, I finally gave my brother all of our brewery equipment.  It had been residing at my house as I have had more time to use it.  My brother was getting tired of traveling to my house to brew, and he was starting to brew more with his friend (as I had been doing with mine).  It was time.  Still, I am sad to see it go. The basement storage room seems empty and I have it all straightened up.  It seems lonely down there, but I have 4 batches aging down there to keep me company.

I delivered the brewery to his house and we kicked off his brewing season with a Oktoberfest/Marzen.

The Marzen bier is a German Style Lager that was traditionally brewed in March (Marzen translates to 'March", I think, any German speakers can correct me on any of this) to be stored in caves all Summer to be consumed in September.  Now, don't ask me why Oktoberfest is celebrated in September, that I don't know.  Before refrigeration, the Germans suspended their brewing operations and even passed laws that made it illegal to brew from March until September or October.  Cooler temperatures and long fermentations are favored by the lager yeast and also keeps the wild yeast and other nasty bacterias at bay.  Therefore, in preparation for a long summer without brewing, Germans brewed the higher gravity beers later in the brewing season (March) as they would need to keep the longest.  They would consume the last of these beers in September i.e. at Oktoberfest.  Perhaps Oktoberfest celebrates the start of the brewing season?

We at the family brewery also lack sophisticated temperature control (aka refridgerator dedicated to our hobby) and usually restrict our brewing to ales.  But, my brother started a tradition of brewing one lager a year and putting it in his basement's window well (below grade, in the shade) to ferment and lager (German word for "store").  Therefore, we too, are restricted to the cold weather months for this endeavor of brewing lagers.  We are not brewing in March, as here in Colorado, the weather is somewhat more unpredictable and apt to be warmer than March in Germany (that is a guess on my part, as I have never been to Germany...someday I would like to).  Colorado's Front Range can be cold and snowy, springlike and rainy, or downright hot in the month of March.  Sometimes you get all three in the course of a week.  With a lager, you don't want to swing the fermentation temperatures too much, and you want to keep it from 30 to 45F.  Right now, and for the foreseeable forecast (about a week),  the highs are to be in the mid 40s and the lows in the mid 20s.  I figure the beer itself (below grade and in the shade) will not swing but 5 degrees on any given day.  That is not perfect, but it is as best as we can do.

Our Marzen/Oktoberfest brewing day was uneventful except for the stuck mash (my second in a row now).  Our milling was from my homebrew shop with their new mill.  I received our new mill the day after I bought grain, so I didn't get to try our new toy.  I suspected that this would be the case, but I was not able to do anything to prevent it, mostly because I am lazy.  We will have to devise a better sparging system in the future.  On the plus side, we had a great efficiency so that we were able to add water to the boil to lower to our target gravity.  Officially, our efficiency was 65%, but our yield (number of bottles per batch) will be much greater than usual, which means our real efficiency was above 70%.  Near the end of the sparge, I checked our gravity and noted that we could sparge a lot more sugar out of the grains, but in doing so, we would have needed to boil longer to reduce all of that liquid.

I can't wait to dial in our mill to have some kind of predictability in this process.  If we get better efficiencies, we can use less grain, which saves us money.  Using less grain also allows greater efficiencies and it is easier to prevent a stuck mash.  Less grain means less water and grain weight pressing down on the mash.  Our processes need to have us go slower (not a strong point for us) in sparging and longer boil times to get the most out of our grains.

Oh, and more good news, my home brew shop lowered their bulk base grain prices from $49.99 per 50lb bag to $47.99 (basically, 4 cents a pound), but raised their per pound prices on the same grain to $1.49/lb.   This will lower our break even point for the mill even more.  My original justification had a basic savings of about $64 per year.  That savings is now $85/year without any efficiency gains.  With a 10% efficiency gain, the savings will be over $100.  That is a two year break even at last year's brewing pace.  We brewed twice in January, we are thus far on pace to eclipse last year's. 

Anyway, our Oktoberfest will be ready in the late spring, so strike up the Oompah Band and join us for some rounds of singing German drinking songs in our Colorado Alpine environment with a fresh malty German Oktoberfest Lager.

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