Steeped Grains

It’s beer time again.

My last two batches have been attempts at all-grain without the right equipment. I was trying to Brew in a Bag, which is a legitimate technique, but only if you understand how it works. I didn’t, and wound up diluting my wort and supplementing with leftover dry malt extract to get the sugar content back up. This time I did basically the same thing.

But I did it deliberately. 

So it’s fine.


For my recipe I’m following a completely unvetted concoction from the American Homebrewers Association, because I’ve lost control of my life. And because the real recipes are behind a paywall.

It’s a steeped grain recipe, which means you soak a small amount of specialty malted grains in hot water for flavor and color, then you make up for the missing sugar with malt extract.

To start I measured out my specialty malts by weight.


Here we have 8 oz of 20L crystal malt, 4 oz of 80L crystal malt, 4 oz of CaraVienne malt, and 5 oz of wheat malt, stored attractively in fruitcake bowls of Christmases past.


Up until now I’ve been buying grain from the local brew supply store and milling it on site. This leads to a couple of problems, though. For one, I can only use the grains available in the store. For two, I have to mill it all at once, seriously reducing the shelf life of any grain I have leftover. It’s possible to buy milled grain online, but that only solves the first problem. To make things easier on myself, I invested in a grain mill.

I hope to one day be as rugged as the man on the box.


This was my mill’s maiden voyage, and unfortunately it showed. The whole thing had a metallic, oily smell. Upon reading the directions, I learned you’re supposed to give it a good scrubbing first.


So into the sink we went. Only a minor detour.


With my mill fresh and clean, I got it all assembled (in the living room, where the table was thin enough for the clamp).


And I got to milling.


With a nylon sac in a bowl underneath, I ground all my specialty grains into what was probably too fine a powder for what I was doing.


But what are you gonna do? Next time I’ll try to set it to a coarser grind.


I tied off my bag and submerged it in 2 gallons of water at 160F for half an hour. Once the time was up, I squeezed the bag dry and set it aside.


I added 6 pounds of light LME to make up the fermentable sugars the grains couldn’t supply, and I set the whole thing boiling.


For my hops I used Nugget, Cascade, and Nelson Sauvin, a fancy guy all the way from New Zealand that’s supposed to have a well-defined, citrusy quality. My Cascade hops weren’t quite the recommended AA, so I had to do some serious math on the fly.


After an hour of boiling I took the wort off the stove and aerated it by sloshing it back and forth between two pots. The real glory of working with specialty grains is that you can start with a small amount of liquid and dilute later. This meant I could pick it up and fling it around the kitchen all by myself.


With my wort aerated, I pitched the yeast and filled the carboy up to the 5 gallon mark with water. I like to think that this method adds some much needed extra aeration.


After that I sealed it up and left the yeast to do their thing. By the next morning the fermentation was off to a good start. Nine days later I dry hopped with more Cascade and Nelson Sauvin.


I plan on bottling as soon as I can get my act together. I just hope the recent heat hasn’t been doing anything untoward in there.



All-Grain Madness

I got my big pot. It holds eight gallons, which is huge for a pot. And it’s perfect for brewing five gallons of all-grain beer. I inaugurated it with the grain I bought too many weeks ago at the brew supply shop to make an IPA recipe from my John Palmer book. Milled grain is supposed to be good for about two weeks. I’d had this for… longer. But this was a learning experience, so I let it slide.


How big is this new pot, you ask? Big enough that I fit inside the box it came in. You can use this picture as a fun reference for size and for the low quality of the pictures I was taking with my phone.


The pot itself comfortably takes up two burners on the stove. Every pot in the house pitched in for this mission. In the big pot I heated about 5 1/2 gallons for the mash, which is the first mixture of water and grain. Between the two little guys on the right I heated 3 1/2 gallons for the sparge, which is the water flushed through the grain a second time to pick up any sugars the first bunch missed.


It takes a huge amount of grain to brew 5 gallons of beer. The recipe called for 10 pounds of pale ale malt and half a pound each of crystal malt and Munich malt. I managed to find all of these at the brew shop. In fact I chose this recipe because I could find them all.


I heated the big pot of water to 165F. It was at this point that I started to realize the shortcomings of my equipment. My book recommends using a big cooler as a mash tun. I don’t have a big cooler. (Strictly speaking, I do, but we use it for camping and it’s seen too many opened packs of days-old hot dogs for my taste).

The purpose of a mash tun is to hold the mash at a temperature of 152F for one hour. I have a gas stove, so keeping a pot at a more or less constant temperature isn’t a problem. But the book specifies that you should add your water to your grain, and not the other way around. Well, I’d just heated my water in the only stove-worthy container big enough to hold it. So I added the grain to the water, and not the other way around. I just hope I didn’t “thermally shock the enzymes,” as the book warns.


Checking the temperature frequently and strategically turning the burners on and off, I managed to keep the mash at a more or less constant 152F for an hour. After that, it was time to coerce Ben into helping me. Once I had a full batch of all-grain beer in front of me, my worst suspicions were confirmed: There is no way in hell I can move this much weight around on my own. I either have to get to the gym or always brew when someone else is home.

The point of this transfer was to separate the grain from the liquid, which at this point is called wort. I lined my 7.8 gallon bucket with a nylon sack held in place with clothespins. This was an idea hacked together on the spot, and I had no idea if the sack would rip apart or if the clothespins would go flying. Even though I couldn’t lift the pot, I lent a supporting foot.


Surprisingly enough, the sack and clothespin method worked well. Unfortunately at this point I discovered another big thing I was missing. In home brewing a mash tun usually doubles as a lauter tun, meaning it has a screened false bottom and a spigot. Open up the spigot, and the wort drains out slowly through the grain. My nylon sack served more or less as the false bottom, but what about the spigot? I had no way to drain the wort slowly.


What I wound up doing was simply lifting the sack out of the bucket. (Thank God it held). This gave me something like 3 gallons of wort. I think this was more or less fine, but it was the next step that did me in. I’d heated an additional 3.5 gallons of sparge water to 165F, because that’s what the book said to do. What you’re supposed to do next is close your spigot, let your grain sit in the sparge water for fifteen minutes, then open your spigot and let the wort drain out. It’s supposed to take as long as an hour. I didn’t have a spigot, though, so I couldn’t let the wort drain out slowly. Instead I let the grain sit in the sparge water for fifteen minutes, and then I lifted the bag of grain straight out. I effectively eliminated an hour’s worth of sugar extraction. Whoops.


I didn’t realize this, of course, until after I’d combined my first runnings wort with the sparge wort and took a gravity reading with my hydrometer. According to the book, I was to take my gravity points (22), and multiply them by the number of gallons of wort I’d produced (7 – since I’d effectively steeped my grain like tea rather than drip it like coffee, I’d wound up with more than my target 6 gallons). Then I was supposed to divide that number by the pounds of grain I’d used (11).

All this was to determine how much sugar I’d extracted from my grain. According to the book, a good target number was 28, though higher would be better. I got 14. After some initial panic, I remembered that hydrometers are calibrated for 59F. My wort was at about 140F, meaning my reading was something like 12 points lower than it should have been. So if my gravity was actually 34 points, that meant my extraction number was more like 22. Still lower than 28, but not disastrously low.

I still had my big bag of grain, and I probably could have somehow steeped it in the wort for longer. Space was at a real premium, though – I had nothing big enough to hold my seven gallons of wort together with my sack o’ grain. What I did have was some leftover dry malt extract from my last batch. I stirred it gradually into the wort until the hydrometer reached a level that gave me an extraction number of 28. I think I accidentally brewed a partial mash batch.


The despair of my low gravity behind me, I set the wort to boil on the stove. I boiled it for an hour, adding Nugget and East Kent Golding hops along the way. Once the hour was up, I cooled it in an ice bath in the sink. The beauty of brewing in the winter is that you have an endless ice bath supply right outside. Of course, I chose to do this on the coldest night of the year and had to brave temperatures approaching ten below every time I refilled my little snow bowl.


The wort chilled, it was time to find someone big to aerate it. I stole my friend Phil away from whatever he was doing and convinced him nothing would bring him more joy than sloshing a bunch of liquid back and forth between a kettle and a bucket.

I think he bought it.

Once the wort was good and bubbly, we moved it to the carboy. It wasn’t until after the fact that a discovered a piece of an airlock wedged in the the base of the funnel. I swear this happens every time. They must get stuck together soaking in the sanitizer. Someday I’ll use a clear funnel and I’ll be shocked at how easy it is.


I added my rehydrated yeast, stuck the airlock in place, and left it in the middle of the kitchen overnight. By the next morning it was bubbling nicely.


I asked Ben to move it into our closet, where it will be living until it’s time to bottle. He used the hot new carboy handle I ordered and had a much easier time of it than usual. Now all that’s left is to sit back and wait for the yeasts to do their thing.


And maybe get myself a lauter tun.

Too Many Bubbles

Remember my swing-top pale ale? I took some glamour shots of it last night with my fancy new camera. And now, about twelve hours later, one of them is bubbling. A lot.


I bottled these on Monday. They shouldn’t be bubbling like this ever, let alone after five days. I’m heartened by the fact that it’s only the one bottle and not all of them (I have about thirty). Only two of the bottles are swing-top, and I know that I filled those two first. My best guess is that this one was first of all, and it got a little too much trub from the bottom of the fermenter. That trub contained a lot of yeast, and those yeasts are having a field day. That’s what I’m guessing. Because really I have no idea.


Conveniently, this is a swing-top bottle, so I just opened up the top to relieve some pressure. This brought up a whole lot more bubbles. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of this thing and what it means. Are more of these bottles ticking away? What would have happened if I’d taken this down the basement right after its glamour shot? (It would have exploded, that’s what!)

So what’s the plan? I’ve put the delinquent bottle in the fridge to slow it down. I discovered it at 11am, not a time I usually drink a liter of beer, but I’ll try it tonight and see how it is.


And I guess I’ll do a more thorough inspection of the other bottles and hope for the best. Maybe store them wrapped in bubble wrap. Or outside.

Beer Beer Beer

Two weekends ago I set out to bottle my amber ale. The recipe called for ten days of fermentation in the primary fermenter. I’d given it thirteen. If anything, I was worried I was behind. So I scrounged up about fifty bottles and sanitized them, and I found someone big to lift the carboy up onto the counter.

And then I actually looked at the beer.


It was still bubbling. Quite a lot. The krausen had fallen, and there was a lot of trub on the bottom, but there was also a very, very steady upward movement of tiny bubbles. It was just like the mead that I’d decided would be impossible to bottle.

But I wanted so badly to bottle this beer. I’d scrubbed and sanitized the bottles. I’d schlepped the carboy out of the closet. I’d prepared mentally. But it really, really looked like it was still fermenting.

I read the forums – they said to wait. I called my friend Joe who actually knows what he’s doing – he said to wait. I polled my roommates – they didn’t know the specifics, but they were in favor of doing whatever wouldn’t result in exploding bottles. Namely, waiting.

And so, with a heavy heart, I waited. I dumped all the sanitizer and I wedged the carboy back in its corner of the closet, and I waited… until today!


I waited ten more days in all. If anything, I probably should have racked it to a secondary fermenter, but I never anticipated it taking so long. My best guess is that the cold weather is to blame. Since the house is so cold, and we never did get the PID controller space heater working, the yeast may have just been working at a cooler temperature and, therefore, more slowly. At any rate, the extra time seemed to have done it good. There were, if we’re being totally honest, still a few bubbles. But it was nothing like last time, so I declared it to be Good Enough.


The bottles had been biding their time around the sink – I sanitized them and finally reclaimed that counter space for mankind.


One by one I filled the bottles with sanitzer and gave them a good shake. I always use Star San, famed for its sanitizing foam. This was a good instance of that foam coming in handy – only a little bit of liquid (supposedly) sanitizes a whole bottle.


My tall auto siphon had given me so much trouble racking the mead, but I needed to use it again. Thankfully, I managed to find a length of tubing that fit and was not kinked all to hell. With a little cutting and finagling, I managed to fit it onto my auto siphon. It worked like a charm.

I’ve read about methods for racking beer without picking up the trub. These include swirling, starting the siphon in a separate container, and trusting in the raised bottom. I’m sure these all work, but I’ve discovered a certain poetry in just jamming a knife in the top.


With my trusty knife method, the beer flowed smoothly and quickly down into the priming bucket, the bottom of the siphon resting safely just above the trub. As it flowed, I dissolved 2/3 of a cup of sugar in 2 cups of water and poured it gently into the beer. This should get the yeast motivated just enough to carbonate the beer in the bottles.


Once all the beer was in the priming bucket, I gave it a few stirs to incorporate the sugar and hefted it up onto the counter. Onto the other end of my great new tube, I attached a bottling wand. This bottling wand either came from a Craigslist stranger or my dad – I inherited a lot of miscellaneous equipment from both. I’d never used it before because wouldn’t fit with my small auto siphon. I used it today for the first time and Good God Almighty is it convenient. It’s a ten inch stiff plastic tube with the simplest but best little gizmo on the end. If the gizmo is pressed against a hard surface, like the bottom of a bottle, it allows the beer to flow through it freely. If it’s not touching a hard surface, however, it forms a seal that stops the flow. This means the moment a bottle is full, you can lift the wand and stop the flow, only starting it again when it’s in the next bottle. It’s so smooth and simple and I’m never ever going back.


So how many bottles does 5 gallons of beer make? Here we have 50 regular bottles, plus 2 bombers, plus one more I managed to fill from the dregs after this picture was taken. That brings us to a grand total of 55. All that remains is to let them sit in the dark and carbonate.


But how does it taste? Really, genuinely good. I sucked the remains out of the tubing while I was cleaning, and I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s not too sour, and it’s not too boozy. It tastes like a real, very flat beer, which is precisely what it should taste like. Barring some crisis in the next few weeks (of which there could be many) I think I may have a huge amount of perfectly passable beer.


I just hope it doesn’t explode.


Our house is cold. Really, really cold. It’s a combination of bad insulation and windows that never shut quite right. And in a closet with its own window and no radiator, the beer is fermenting in what is probably the coldest corner of all.

My amber ale did not start bubbling its first night. It still wasn’t really bubbling the next morning, either, and I had a sinking feeling it was just too cold for the yeast. Ben, always up for an electronics project, suggested a fix.

Quite a while ago he and our friend Phil made a Sous Vide machine by attaching a slow cooker to a PID (proportional integral derivative) controller. The PID essentially regulates the temperature of the slow cooker, turning it on when it gets too low and shutting it off when it gets too high. This lets you keep the slow cooker at a constant temperature. Fill the thing with water, submerge a bag full of chicken, and you can cook at a low, slow, constant temperature until the meat is almost falling apart. It worked, and the chicken was definitely tender.

Ben had the idea to attach the PID to a space heater and set it to 65F. The closet would be the water bath, and the beer would be the chicken, if you want to keep talking in Sous Vide terms.

He rigged the whole thing up and set it on the floor of the closet, on top of a pizza stone for safety’s sake. It seemed to work, but then it got hot in places it shouldn’t have. Like the electrical cord.

So we unplugged it.

We plugged it back in a week later, and it promptly blew a fuse. So much for hacking.

And the beer started fermenting on its own anyway. Turns out all it needed was some time.

More Beer

I’m making beer now just to move these ingredients out of my cupboard. It’s getting out of hand in there. The real culprit is the twelve pounds of grain I bought last weekend, but I don’t have a pot big enough to handle it yet. There’s an 8 gallon stockpot with my name on it somewhere between China and here, but since it hasn’t arrived yet I’m sticking with extract recipes I can brew in three gallon batches and then dilute.


Of course, when I start working with five or six gallons at a time, I’ll really have no hope of lifting anything by myself. This time, at least, I was smart enough to stop filling at the three gallon mark and was able to schlep water around like the independent woman I am.


The recipe du jour was Cincinnati Pale Ale, the recommended starter beer in John Palmer’s How to Brew. First I dumped in 2.5 pounds of amber dry malt extract (DME to the pros). For whatever reason it didn’t sink into the water as spectacularly as last time, and I was very disappointed. But the show went on.


I mixed in the DME and turned the stove on full blast. As it was heating, I ran a hot bath for 3.3 pounds of amber liquid malt extract (LME). Why 3.3 pounds? Because that’s what the recipe says, and that’s the amount I’ve found it sold in by two separate brands, now. I suspect a conspiracy.

Once it was warmish, I added it to the wort and heated it up to a boil.


Before the boil started, I had to do some high math. The recipe called for 6 AAUs of bittering hops. The recommendation was 12% Nugget. I bought myself some Nugget, but they were 14%. This means they’re just a tad bitterer than the recommended. For my last batch I fudged the amounts, but I thought I’d do it right this time. To calculate how much hop to use, you’re supposed to divide the target AAUs (in this case 6) by the AA percentage of the stuff you’ve bought (in this case 14). This came out to 0.42 oz of 14% hops (as opposed to 0.5 oz if it had been 12%). Perfect.

Here’s the thing. A difference of 0.08 oz is scarcely a difference at all. I should know because I weighed it out. I started with 0.5, then picked the hop pellets off the scale one at a time until it went down to 0.45. Then I kept picking them off until I hit 0.4. My scale doesn’t have the precision for 0.42, it turns out. So I threw a few pellets back on top of 0.4 and called it even.


I added the Nugget hops at the start of the boil. With some time to kill until the next hop addition, I decided to check in on my long-neglected wines. The pear wine from A Sudden Windfall seemed more or less ready, so I took advantage of the already-mixed sanitizer and set to work bottling it. In the end I got twelve bottles of something that tastes a little like pear and a lot like ethanol. The recipe says to let it age in the bottles now for a year – we’ll see if that happens.

I got so caught up in my bottling that I lost track of time and forgot to measure out my carefully calculated 0.9 oz of Cascade hops. At the 45 minute mark, I panicked and just threw the whole 1 oz packet in. So much for math.


I cooled the wort down and pressured Ben into helping me aerate it. The mouth of this carboy was big enough to fit my funnel, so we had a much easier time getting the wort into it. I was a fool, though, and put the extra water in first. This got the wort and foam a little closer to the top than intended. A lot closer, in fact. There were some casualties. I will not do the water first again, and I’m not sure what compelled me to do it this time.


With most of the wort in the carboy, I added my hydrated yeast. I cleaned up the floor and got the hired help to move it into the closet with last weekend’s specimen. That one seems to be doing well – the krausen (pro term for big foamy mass of yeast and gunk on top) has more or less fallen. According to the recipe, I should be bottling it any day now. Maybe I will.


Or maybe I’ll just keep accumulating carboys until my closet is no longer my own.


Too Much Beer

No one in my house likes beer. But for some reason I’m producing gallon upon gallon of the stuff. I made a pilgrimage to the brew supply shop across town, the same place Ben and I got the pile of Merlot grapes. The owner was very friendly, though he did set me to work milling my own grain.


I’ve been reading How to Brew by John Palmer. Its Amazon reviews are filled with nothing but praise. It’s also available (and nicely searchable) online in its first edition form. I discovered this after I’d  bought the paperback and (horribly searchable) Kindle versions. Oh well. It has a nice broad recipe section for any basic type of beer you might want to make with both all-grain and extract options. I bought enough grain to sink a ship, but for my first foray I attempted an amber ale made with a mix of liquid malt extract and dry malt extract.

The recipe called for three kinds of hops: 1/2 oz Centennial at 10%AA, 1 oz Mt. Hood at 7%AA, and 1 oz of Willamette at 5%AA. AA stand for alpha acids, the little guys that make hops so bitter. The shop had Centennial at 10.7%, Mt. Hood at 5.7%, and Willamette at 6%. The owner was of the opinion that the numbers were close enough I could just follow the recipe as-is. That was fine by me.


I was looking to make five gallons of beer, which meant beginning with six gallons of water. I filled up my six gallon carboy and learned two things. First of all, at five foot two and with atrophied noodles for arms, I’m not well equipped for moving huge volumes of water. Thankfully I live with large men who lift things for fun. Once the water started making its way into the pot, however, I learned the second thing. My canner, the volume of which I’d always thought of as infinite, can only comfortably hold three gallons of liquid.



I put the rest of the water aside for later and set to work on the half that made it into the pot. With the water still cold, I dumped in four pounds of amber dry malt extract. I should have stirred to combine. I really should have. But watching the clumps of malt succumb to the water was fascinating.


The water flowed across it along the paths of least resistance and it went down in chunks.


Those clumps turned into a thousand slimy little dumplings that were a real pain to dissolve. The initial sinking was very cool to see, though, and I’d do it again!


I turned the stove on and heated the wort. In the meantime I sat the liquid malt extract in a hot water bath to make it less viscous. Once the water was hot-ish, I poured the extract in. It tasted like a strange union of molasses and pet food. Like a fine dessert in Tudor England.


It took longer than I anticipated to bring the wort to a boil, but we got there. At the start of the boil I added the Centennial hops. After half an hour the Mt. Hood hops went in, and then the Willamette at 45 minutes. I’m looking forward to doing some experiments with hop varieties and timings in the future.


Once the boil was finished, I cooled it in an ice bath that just barely fit in the kitchen sink. When it hit 75F, I coerced Ben into aerating it for me. He poured the wort back and forth between the pot and a bucket from as high a level as seemed safe.


I could probably have managed the three gallons on my own, but this way went a whole lot faster. He also proved indispensable for the next step – pouring the wort into the carboy through a precariously balanced set of funnels. I have no pictures of it because it was all hands on deck to keep the wort off the floor.


Once the wort was transferred, I added my rehydrated yeast and the rest of the water. Disregarding all that foam from the aeration, it comes up roughly to the five gallon mark.


In the end we got the thing muscled into the closet, where it will be living for the next ten days or so. It’s so unwieldy, and its resting time so much shorter than that of the mead (which is STILL fermenting!) that it seemed easier all round to keep it upstairs. I’ve put a big cardboard box over it to keep it out of the light.


Now all that’s left is to wait, bottle, and make some friends who’ll drink it.

A Brewing Operation

I am on a wine kick. I’m not sure where it came from. A year ago my roommate and I made a mostly successful IPA from an ancient graduation gift beer kit. Since then we’ve made two more downright drinkable beers from Brooklyn Brewery kits,20150607_182116 although I think I may have overdone it on the carbonation… Look at that head!

I’ve been itching to make something more homemade, though, and since it’s June, fruit wine seems like a good direction to go. I bought this fabulous 6 gallon carboy off a very nice craigslist man, along with a 6 gallon bucket with a grommeted lid and more supplies than you can shake a stick at, all for $40.20150608_112228

It’s a lot of responsibility, coming up with a wine I can afford and am confident I might like enough to make 5 to 6 gallons of the stuff. I’ve settled on mango wine, mainly because mangoes were on sale and are a heck of a lot cheaper than berries. I will be following this 32-year-old recipe from the Rare Fruit Archives of Australia because it’s the first one I found that sounded doable. And because I like the sound of it.

That will be a separate post, though, as I’m still waiting for the champagne yeast to come in the mail, and I’m typing with my feet drawn up on my chair because there are twenty pounds of mangoes softening in paper grocery bags under my desk. Until then, a quick look around at the operation I’m trying to get going.

No one has lived in the apartment below ours for a year now. 20150607_120427_LLSThis means their basement storage room is unoccupied, apart from all the junk they left behind. Until someone new moves in, I’m appropriating it as my wine cellar! There’s a great, reasonably dark shelf for finished bottles, where I’ve put what’s left of the beer. And another, darker shelf for all that caution tape the neighbors were hoarding…

I’ve also got two wines fermenting20150607_121114 down here already. I brought them out into the light for a photo-op; they’ve been living off to the left of the frame in a dark corner. I’ve read many a forum argument about whether dark is necessary for wine or just an old wives’ tale. The jury appears to be out, but I figure if I’ve got the dark I might as well use it.

The pink fermenter on the right is a strawberry wine. When I transferred it from its primary vessel I had a terrible time separating the liquid from the berry sludge that formed, and now I have a pitifully shallow fermenter that still somehow has a ton of sediment. When I rack it again I’ll have to decide if I make up for the lost space with water or just move it to a half-gallon jug.

The yellow fermenter is mead that I’ll be racking as soon as the bubbling dies down. By the numbers it should be any day now, but the yeast is still going strong.20150607_120859

The bubbles in the airlock have actually formed a very cool honeycomb pattern. For a while I had a half-baked idea that this had something to do with the high honey content. And then I found the same pattern in the strawberry airlock.

And then I realized that idea was ridiculous.