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.