Sunday, March 28, 2010


Brewday #3

I got over to my brother's house to brew our Scottish Ale.  It was the first time using our new grain mill for all of our grains.  We also changed a few process and procedures.  I am happy to report that the brew day went well, and we improved our mash efficiency almost 20%.  The day wasn't without its challenges.

First thing was travel.  One thing you can never count on is the weather in Colorado in March.  It is one of our snowiest months, and we have had alternating days with 70 degrees and sunny and blizzard conditions.  Denver only had rain the night before our brew day, but as I climbed in elevation towards Monument Hill the next morning, I ran smack into a raging spring snowstorm.  Near whiteout conditions, snow-packed roads, and 50 mile per hour winds greeted me as I neared Colorado Springs.  As I descended down the hill to my brother's house, only the wind stuck around, making it cold to be brewing out doors and dealing with cold water.  I am looking forward to brewing in the summer.

We added a few new pieces of equipment as of late, so it was nice to try them out.  First was a new scale for weighing grains and hops.  It is an electronic food scale that weighs up to 11 lbs.  It wasn't our limiting factor, though, in weighing or processing our grains.  The bowl that we were using to hold the grains on the scale held only 7 pounds, and our grain hopper (which feeds grain to the mill) only holds 10 lbs at a time anyway.  The scale was good for weighing grains, but we kept having trouble accurately weighing hops.

The first 7 lbs of grain were the most difficult.  We put the grains in the hopper, hooked up the drill, and 1/4 turn of the drill later, we had smoke (from the drill).  My brother's drill is a basic entry level Black and Decker model that was made in the late 1970's.  He won it at the St. Hedwig's Polish Festival in something like 1979 in Detroit.  This drill has done major duty in home repair and at least one basement construction job for the last 3 decades....but it finally gave up the ghost just as we were getting started.  This caused a trip to first a pawn shop, and then Lowe's to find a decent drill.  We opted for a new $54 replacement that has a 7 Amp motor and a lower maximum speed (950 rpm).  For $10 more we could have gotten an 8 Amp motor, but its maximum speed was 2500 rpm....It was my guess that for brewing (at least), the extra Amp probably was wasted on the higher speed, and what we needed was power (other 7 amp drills also had higher rpm's and cost more) in the form of low end torque.  A higher speed would just over pulverize our grain husks.  As it was, the drill turned the mill with ease (showing just how used up my brother's old drill was) and milled each 7 lb batch of malted barley in seconds, but milling took a full hour including the trip to the store.

Mashing went on uneventfully, and we rigged a gravity fly sparge system using a ladder and one of our old brewing buckets.  No stuck mash this time.  We even remembered to add gypsum to the mash and Irish moss to the boil.

The end result is that we had more wort at a higher gravity than we expected.  In my last 8 batches, our efficiencies varied between 53% and 75%. (averaging in the mid 60's).  Our low numbers occurred when we had stuck mashes, and our highs were when we had grains milled at other home-brew shops.  Yesterday, we clocked in at 82%.  Some of this was our mill, but also some of it was our go slow approach to sparging.  Interestingly,  we did not stir our mash at all once the grain got soaked through and the temperature stabilized.  Usually (and customarility), we will mix up the mash to even out the temperatures and make sure there is even conversion, but we had gotten the temperatures we wanted, and didn't want to mess with it further.

From my reading, 82% is not a really high efficiency, more like average.  90% would be more outstanding with 75%-85% being acceptable.  Efficiency is a balance between time, effort and the quality of the milling.  The more time and effort required to deal with a finer milled grist, the higher the efficiency.  With the ease of our sparging and going a little slower, we were able to get 82%.  I would not mind this efficiency forever based on the relative ease, but I do want to try stirring the mash and a few other tricks I have read about to see if it can be easily improved upon.  I also want to add a recirculating mash system using a pump, more for temperature control and safety concerns, but I think it also has the side effect of improving mash efficiency as well.

I almost forgot, we also switched to using Star San sanitizer rather than bleach.  The concentrated solution cost over $20 (it makes a lot of sanitizer).  I figure we will use it up in a year's time so, perhaps $1.50 to $2 per batch (which is less than the amount of bleach we had been using).  I was pleasantly surprised.  We saved time and water by not having to rinse off our equipment.  We also had some of the solution in a bucket in our brewery to soak our equipment in between uses.  It was very handy, and provided that not rinsing will not harm our beer, and sanitation was adequate, it will get my endorsement as it gains my trust.  I figure that using bleach will work well for most brewers as it did for us for many years.  It is a household item that you are likely to have on hand anyway, so you don't have to count it in your brewery costs.  But when you get more active with the hobby, and start to own a lot of higher cost stainless steel equipment, the lack of chance of corrosion as well as cost and time savings becomes more crucial.  I don't know how many gallons of hot water it saved us (a lot), but certainly it shaved 15-30 minutes off of both prep and end of day clean up.

I am always excited when I finish a brewing session.  I always look forward to the end product and wonder what it is going to be like.  This time, I find myself looking forward to our next brewing day.  I am truly getting away from just brewing because I like to make beer I like.  I actually like to make beer well, and like making it more than consuming it.  I do need more friends (to help me drink this stuff), which shouldn't really be difficult to find.  I still see the need for a few more equipment additions (notably individual Hot Liquor Tank, Mash Tun, and Boiling Tank) over the single multi-use vessel and rag tag containers we currently use) which will both improve the product as well as speed the day along.  And someday soon we will be able to make those purchases.

We will need to bottle in a week or two, and then we need to start our summer brewing schedule (brewing the wheats and summer beers).  I am unsure if we will be able to get another session in before my brother is too busy for the month of May.  Perhaps I will get the brewery back for a spell.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Scottish Ales

I have been researching Scottish Ales since my brother and I decided to brew one during our last bottling session.  I am excited about brewing one, as officially, we never have brewed a Scottish Ale before, but more so, the suggestion to brew the Scottish Ale came after my brother commented that he was thinking that he wanted to brew one, but didn't know what a Scottish Ale was.  I suggested to him that he buy some examples of the style and see what he likes.  I suggested that he try Laughing Lab from Bristol (Colorado Springs), and Claymore from Great Divide (Denver), but also that he try Redhook ESB (Washington State) for a contrast.

Low and behold!  He actually listened to me.  This is a big deal as brothers don't readily listen to each other's advice.  His response:  "Laughing Lab is a Scottish Ale?  I love Laughing Lab."  Bristol is an excellent brewery.  Once a long time ago, my brother and I played hockey with one of the brewers there, and while drinking Bristol's beers remind me of that, this story isn't about that.  My brother and I have been talking a lot about beer styles lately.  He has had an interest in expanding his knowledge about different beer styles and the beers he has been tasting and making.  Until now, he had stuck to the beers that he knows he likes, but often didn't know if he liked a beer until he tasted turns out he loves Scottish Ales and also enjoyed the ESB from Redhook.

To me, beer styles help a beer drinker make good choices about the beer he chooses to drink.  In my case, it helps me choose a beer that suits my mood (since I like so many different styles of beer).  The first level of beer classification for most is by color.  I speak about my friend who often drinks Michelob Ultra or Bud Light.  He thinks he doesn't like dark beers, and mostly sticks to this as a base in his choices (for multiple reasons).  Ten years ago, he would barely try anything but light beer.  I attribute both of these actions to not liking Guinness (or Stout in general) or when American brewers starked doing "Dark" Lagers.  I understand, I don't particularly enjoy Guinness Stout (or Darks), myself (and to a lesser extent most Irish or Dry Stouts), but admit to loving a number of Porters, Sweeter (or Milk) Stouts, Schwartzbiers (Black Beers), and other dark ales and lagers.  I started him out with a refreshing Raspberry Wheat (I forget whose) and moved him into liking many of my reds and ambers.  The truth is, he doesn't like sour or highly bitter or the burnt roast taste of many dark beers (Pale Ales, Bitters, American Style anything, most Belgian and French styles, are out), and who can blame him.  But he might like a Northern English Brown Ales, Irish Reds, some American (or Colorado) Ambers (the starter beers), some varieties of German Lagers and Ales (Kolsch, Pils, perhaps Vienna, Oktoberfest (maybe), Bock or Helles Bock), and American or Bavarian Wheat (not Berliner).  He might learn to like select Porters or Stouts (but this may take to the end of my life).  He might even like a Scottish Ale.

Scottish Ale is everything I really like about beer.  For the longest time, when people asked me what my favorite style of beer is, I have been saying Brown Ales, but I think that my tastes for fuller bodied, malty beers has shifted to the stronger (in ABV and flavor) Scots.  The truth is, the English Brown Ale has a lot in common with its neighbors to the North.  Both beers live in the beer continuum I like to call the Malty Middle.  They are beers that are more tilted toward displaying the malt (malted barley) taste (bready, grainy, perhaps sweet) rather than the hops.  Hops are used as a spice rather than a base ingredient in these beers, balancing the sweetness of the malt (think of the other use for malt in malted milkshakes).  Scottish Ales can come in varying strengths (mostly Alcohol content, but also flavor) and were traditionally classified by the amount of tax or costs (60, 70, 80, 120 Shilling).  The strongest of the Scottish Ales (perhaps 120 Shilling) are simply referred to as Scotch Ale (rather than Scottish) or Wee Heavy.  Don't ask me the Etymology of the Wee Heavy moniker, I haven't gotten that far, yet (but I like it).  Scottish Ales (collectively) are known for their full body, carmelization (color, taste, and smell), lower hop bitterness and almost no hop flavor or aroma.  Once you say it like that, there is not much difference between a 60 or 70 Shilling and a Newcastle Brown Ale (Northern Brown), a Mild Ale (often a brown is just a bottled Mild), or an Irish Ale.  All these styles I have (somewhat unsuccessfully, I might add) been chasing in my brewery.  Scottish Ale may often have a slightly smoky or peat smoked flavor, but most are made without peated or smoked malt.  Peated malt is often used for Scotch Whiskey, but different types of barley grown and made in different regions of Scotland so that it is not likely used in traditional recipes.   Ironically, hops do not grow well in Scotland, so had to be imported from England or elsewhere (not traditionally were the Scots and the English friendly back in the day) and used sparingly.  Traditional Scottish brewing methods called for an extremely high mashing temperature (155 to 158F), which quickly converts starches to sugars that are more complex (dextrinous) and not as easily converted to alcohol, lending a fuller body (more viscous) and sweeter taste (this is the mouth feel that people often talk about).  Lastly, although an ale, the temperatures of fermentation are on the lower range and the attenuation (how much sugar is consumed by yeast) is in the medium range for an ale yeast.

So, my recipe wanting to be somewhat true to style, will have plenty of color, for which I will opt to use crystal malt rather than carmelization via boiling kettle (reduction of a portion of wort until the sugars carmelize.), a traditional Irish or Scottish ale yeast, and a high temperature mash and a lower temperature fermentation.  The questions remain whether to use a smoked or peat smoked malt and what relative strength.  I have never used any peated or smoked malt.  I understand it can be easily overdone (and many people hate that), but I am inclined to use a little (I am tending toward peat smoked for no other reason than wanting the earthiness) to try it for a little differentiation.  I am leaning toward a mid to full strength (70 or 80 shilling) rather than a full on Wee Heavy.  We can call it a nearly almost Wee Heavy.  Laughing Lab is 5.3% ABV, while Claymore (Wee Heavy) clocks in at 7%.  I am leaning in the 5% range for two reasons.  First, it is warming up, but spring time is a good time for a full body beer with a little kick.  Secondly, ironically, my Holiday beer is more like a Scottish Wee Heavy with Oak flavor, aging, and a 7% ABV.  So, my Wee Heavy will someday base off that recipe (someday, perhaps fall when my Holiday runs out)

Another thing my brother recently said: "The more I drink our Holiday beer, the more I like it".  I agree, I have been craving it.  He didn't know he already has a Wee Heavy in his private reserve.  Brewing is next weekend, if we can find a time that works for us.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Getting it Right

You heard me drone on, and on about buying local and seeking quality (especially in the beer world, but apply it to everything in your life, ok), but I am not the only one.  This blogger has it dead right on!  It looks as if he is a beer rep for New Holland Brewing in Michigan (Holland, Michigan that is).  This dude has my dream job (for a brewery in Michigan, to boot).

Check it out

I am sipping on my first Oktoberfest today (bottled only 8 days ago).  It is only needs more lagering, for sure (or something).  It seems a little thin (mouthfeel again), but it has a taste square in the middle that seems off or odd.  We shall see if I can get this to mellow out in the next few weeks and if I can send it to the AHA nationals.

I won't necessarily feel bad if my Oktoberfest doesn't ripen as I would hope.  What the hell, I am an Ale Brewer.

Speaking of Ales, the weather warmed up in Denver last week into the 60's.  Which gave me the opportunity to crack a beer and do some yard work.  I cracked open one of my Red Ales and set it out while I did some work and my kids played in the yard.  I don't know if it got light struck or just warmed to a nice ale temperature, but its malty base came forward in both aroma and taste, and truthfully, I liked it a whole lot better.  It has me wondering if I should enter the end of this batch into one of two upcoming competitions as an Irish Ale.  I have been entering it as an American Amber (which isn't quite right) because of a little more aggressive american hop bittering than I think should be in an Irish, (it scored 26 and 30 of 50 respectively in two comps), but I think now that if served at a more "traditional" temp and the edge of hoppiness aged out of it, maybe it is an Irish after all.  I am curious, for sure, but I hate to waste a beer (on a competition, that is) that I found a new found taste for.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Liberty Street

I got a text message from my friend last night around 9:30pm.  He was trying to send me a picture of his beer from the Liberty Street Brewery.  The reason he was doing this is that when I used to travel for work all over the Western United States, I would finish my work and then stop in some local brewery to sample a beer or two.  While sitting there, I would often send him a picture of the beer via my phone, in essence, saying, "Ha Ha, you are toiling away at work, and I am drinking beer overlooking the San Francisco Bay (and getting paid)."

I didn't get the picture, and am not sure why I got the message, as my phone has texting disabled (or is supposed to).  Crazy, I know, but I don't miss texting and have not had found a good use for it over phoning someone, so I got rid of it.  I will have to see if it shows up as a charge on my bill, and dispute it with the wireless company...another thing to do, what a pain.

Anyway, my friend was at the Liberty Street Brewery  throwing back one of their Pilsners.  He said it was pretty crowded and they had a band going upstairs.  It is nice that they are still doing well.  I believe every town should have its own local brewery, and if Plymouth, Michigan can sustain one, many towns can.  I like to know that more than one of my groups of friends have begun frequenting this brewery on my urging.  Others who live out of town have visited, or make plans to visit this establishment, but it sounds like they don't need me to chat them up, their beer speaks for itself and it has a great crowd and word travels.  Even my friend who likes light beer, he has graduated up to a Bohemian Style Liberty Light Pilsner from Michelob Ultra.  That is a big step for him, but also a reminder that breweries big and small are brewing a variety of beers big and small, dark and light.  There is something for everyone (of drinking age, that is), but sometimes even a delicious home made root beer or soda is also on tap.  If you say you don't like beer, you just haven't found one you like yet.

Local breweries make a fresh product locally, often employ people, buy many of their supplies locally, and even have employed local firms to help construct their brewery.  They have made an investment in your community.  We don't talk about the need to frequent our neighborhood shops enough.  It keeps the money at home.  After all, a dollar spent locally gets re-spent seven times over.  Damn it.  Buy American.  If you can, buy it locally.  Again, if you can, use cash.  It helps improve the local establishments bottom line (using credit costs the company a little as the credit card companies skim off the top...I am guilty, I rarely use cash, but try to when I know I will be at a local business).  Beer choices are vast and often you have to go out of your way to buy it from the brewery, but I promise you, it is so worth it on so many levels.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Lessons of the Lager

It was late January when we brewed our Oktoberfest.  We finally got the beer into bottles in March.  I can truthfully call this beer a Marzen.  It took a full 5 weeks to fully ferment out.  Lagers ferment cold and take longer than ales, this much I know, but I would have been off by a full two weeks if you would have asked me how long it would take.  It just kept going and going.  We had to reschedule our bottling run twice.  Now we have to wait (up to 6 weeks or so) for this beer to be ready to drink.  Wait, wait, and more waiting still.

The beer going into bottles was impressively good (even warmish and flat).  The aroma though, rich and malty, was just crazy good, like fresh baked bread.  It makes me insane with anticipation.  

Now, I just need to find a cool place to store it.  I really need to invest in a beer fridge for all of this beer.  Lagers are supposed to be stored cold after a couple weeks at room temperature to carbonate.  I really don't know how long it is going to last, especially if it is half as good as I hope.  It may not make it to Oktoberfest.....maybe it will make it to Cinco de Mayo.....maybe Memorial Day.

The lager has tied up our brewery and equipment for 5 weeks.  We need to brew again.  After discussions amongst ourselves, we have decided to stay in the "malty middle" of the beer continuum where our favorite beers reside.  We keep threatening to make a brown ale (our favorite is an American Brown), but have decided instead to attempt a Scottish Ale (a Wee Heavy).  There are lots of great examples of Scottish Ales here in Colorado (Bristol's Laughing Lab, O'Dell's 90 Shilling, and Great Divide's Claymore), but I can not think of others from other parts of the country.  Can anyone steer me to another decent example from elsewhere?  I don't even know of any Scottish Ale that is imported from Scotland.  Shame on me.  I have some work to do.

Anyway, our thought process is that it is too early to start brewing the summer beers such as our wheat and another lawnmower ale (we are probably giving up on the recipe we brewed last year).  I wonder if there is a traditional springtime beer.  I am at a loss, but in its absence, or until I figure it out, Scotch Ale is it.  There is a lot to do, though.  I need to figure out if we can buy some new equipment, but I also need to buy some 2 row malt in bulk.  And then there is that pesky chore of taxes along with everything else a change of season brings.