What I Brew, and Why I Brew It

The topic of what and why I brew has come up several times recently, and after a bit of contemplation, I felt that I should express my views.

The reasons I brew are many: I enjoy the actual process. Frequently, brew days are socializing times with friends. The “puzzle” of what style would be good, and what ingredients should go into making it, is enjoyable. And, of course, there’s the end product. I brew beer at least as good as, and often better than, what I can buy. The beer I brew is also less expensive than store-bought, something I’ve put some time into achieving. And, finally, it’s enjoyable to gather a group of my friends together, throw some meat on the grill, and have a good time–lubricated by some of my beer, of course.

Something I don’t care for, however, are those who drink solely to get drunk. Add to that group those who insist on only brewing highly alcoholic beers–constantly striving for over-10% batches. I’ll admit, I’ve made a number of strong batches; I certainly don’t think strong beers are inherently “bad.” But I think that to truly call oneself a brewer, while limiting oneself to a single “style” (if “big” can be called a style), is to define “brewers” somewhat narrowly. There is great variety in smaller beers, and much complexity. They can require significant finesse. And they can be sublime.

All that being said, there is, of course, a place for everything. I’ll be hosting a “Winter Warmer” competition at an event in January; I hope to have a good turn-out, and to see lots of really tasty brews. I may have some of my own to sample, but I won’t be entering anything myself, of course (since I’ll be running the comp). I should think about doing one for lighter, “lawn-mower” beers in the summer…

Brew Day, April 2009

This Sunday, at the request (insistence?) of my Lady Wife, I will be brewing a Cherry Brown Ale. I’m basing the foundation (the Brown Ale) on the Southern English Brown Ale recipe from Brewing Classic Styles: 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew. It looks like a solid brew, as have been every other recipe I’ve tried from the book. The plan is to let it primary as per normal, then rack it onto a can of Oregon Cherry Puree; allow it to re-ferment to completion, then keg. It should be a simple beer, and hopefully it will turn out well.

I also plan to attack the non-alcoholic brews again, trying another root beer. I believe I learned from the last root beer I tried (which ended up a case of gushers). In the grand scheme, as long as the flavor and mouthfeel are there, and there are *only* sufficient fermentables for priming the bottles, it should be OK. Or, it could end up a foul, vile brew. I’ll be boiling up the ‘regular’ ingredients, less the sugar; cooling the ‘tea’ of sassafras root, etc., then adding the entirety of a bag of Splenda. That will give it non-fermentables for sweetness and mouthfeel. Carbtabs will provide sugar for carbonation. A bold experiment? Well, an experiment, at any rate. Time will tell how it turns out. (This recipe will be #82 in Misha’s Little Black Book.)

Halloween Brew Day, 2008

The (inaugural?) Halloween Midnight Brew went nearly without a hitch. Technically, everything went as expected; socially, it went basically as expected, also.

In the social aspect, it ended up being just me doing the brew. Hopefully, next time I can convince a few more people to come over. Still, I often find that doing a solo brew goes more smoothly than doing one with others around. (I’d rather have a few others around, if only so I can chat with them as I go.)

The burners were lit precisely at midnight; by half-past, the grain was being mashed. A hair over 22 pounds of grain, it turns out, is about half of my mash-tun capacity. (Good to know, I think…) I even had room enough that I could have done two infusions, had I wanted. Three might have been stretching it.

Due to the lack of other participants, and looking at the time, and having had a really long day, I decided that I had fulfilled the spirit of my goal, and decided to allow the mash to go overnight. I picked up where I had left off at about 9:30 on Saturday morning, heating water for the sparge.

My experience with ‘big’ brews has shown me that my efficiency tends to suffer; I’m not certain of the mechanics of why, but I accept the ‘fact-of.’ I only got around 68% efficiency, as opposed to my more typical 75%; still, things were well within acceptable norms. The boil was remarkably well-behaved, and I only lost a couple of ounces to boil-over. The re-constructed pump worked well. I even heated up a couple of gallons of plain water to help with clean-up (especially the pump). The yeast had been pitched by noon, and active fermentation was underway by nightfall Saturday. I may tweak the spice blend, should I do this again–maybe ditch the nutmeg, add perhaps a little ginger, bump up the cinnamon. Still, come the end of a year, it will be a nice brew, I’m sure.

I haven’t decided when my next brew day will be; probably the weekend before Thanksgiving. That’s rather late in the month, but it’s the only one I have really free; hopefully, my December brew day will be earlier.

Rebuilding a March Pump

Here’s a quick, down-and-dirty on how to rebuild a March Pump with a new head. (This was originally posted in October, 2008, and has been cleaned up a little for its migration to my new web host in 2018.)

As you may recall, I dropped mine, and broke off the intake side of the head:
March pump with broken head assemblyI ordered a new one from MoreBeer, and it arrived shortly, in good order (but for the shipping box…):Replacement polysulfone pump headTo install the new pump head, first you have to take off the old one. This is accomplished by removing four screws, located on the ‘face’ of the head. (Sorry for the blurry picture; the arrows indicate the individual screws’ locations.)Pump screw locationsHaving pulled the head off, you’re faced with another quartet of screws on the inner workings of the head:Inner pump headWith these removed, you can pull things apart. You’re now faced with the impeller assembly:
Pump head dismantledA bit of tugging, and the whole thing will come apart nicely, including the impeller (the spinny bit) and its axle:Pump impeller and axle
A quick inspection revealed a problem for me, however: mold had taken up residence on the impeller!Dirty pump impeller
So, after much washing and scrubbing and sanitizing of the impeller, I was ready to re-assemble. The re-assembly process is identical to the disassembly process, only in reverse. In all, not counting the ‘break’ to clean things, it probably took me about 10 minutes to have the old one off and the new one screwed on.Rebuilt pump head, good as new
Note to self: Run sanitizing solution through the stupid thing during post-brew cleanup, otherwise I’ll be left with the possibility of infected batches…

In 2018, this pump is no longer actively in service–the latest iteration of the brew rig is a simple two-tier, and its placement next to my back stoop allows me to do the “heavy lifting” myself. I’m hoping, before long, to go to a single-tier electric system, eventually, and a pump or two will once again become necessary; I’m thinking going with stainless heads, when the time comes.

But, as you can see, replacing the “working parts” of a March pump isn’t so big a deal, at all.

University, October 2008

Yesterday was Atlantian University, and I taught my long-awaited Intro to All-Grain Brewing class. (Well, long-awaited by me, anyway.) Things seemed to go pretty well. I think that I’ll stretch the class out to 2 hours next time, as that’s really a *lot* of information to go through in an hour; I felt a little rushed for parts of it. 2 hours would also give me the opportunity to bring in a bit of equipment to help describe what’s going on for the brew.

One thing that the class was good for was creating a number of new contacts. It seems that there are a number of folks both (relatively) locally and within a reasonable driving distance who want to learn to brew. Everyone who was in my class now has the URL for this site, as well as for my webpage; by extension, this means they have my email address, and we can arrange further hands-on classes at a later date. [2018 Edit: Those were my old blog and webpage; everything is here, now. -M]

Also, I let everyone there know about my upcoming Brew Day, a week from today. I believe I’ll try for ‘take two’ of the Kolsch that practically disappeared last weekend. I’ll have to use the Golden Promise malt, rather than the American Pale 2-Row that I used last time, but that should only improve the brew, I would think. Regardless, it’s more beer, which is always a good thing, right?

Tasting Notes, 10/1/08

Tonight, we did a tasting of three of my brews: a Northern English Brown, a Russian White Mead, and an Unoaked Merlot. Tasters were: my Lady Wife and myself.
Northern English Brown Ale tasting
First up: the Brown Ale. This poured from the tap with a moderate white head. (The first pint of the night had a perfect, 3/4-inch head.) The head dissipated within a few minutes, leaving a nice lace, and a ring of foam that chased the top of the beer down the glass. The aroma is of malt and fruity esters, perhaps a bit heavy on the fruit if anything. Visually, the beer is crystal-clear and a light amber-brown in color. The flavor mimics the aroma, with a nice malt forwardness balanced by the hop bitterness and some esters. It’s a touch over-carbonated right now, so tastes a little thinner than it ought; the CO2 also adds a bite from the carbonic acid that really shouldn’t be there. (Oh, the problems of not having independent regulators for the kegs…) It finishes rich, but a little dry. In all, a pleasant brew.

Second: the Russian White Mead. This is the third tasting of this mead; it’s been in the bottle for nearly a year, now. It is scheduled for two more tastings, unless the next one shows vast improvement. This mead is hopped, which changes its aging characteristics drastically, compared to my ‘usual’ brews. It pours smoothly, with perhaps a bit of carbonation; the second glass had some bubbles in the glass, which may have been the result of agitation from the first pour. These dissipated quickly, and were not a factor in the taste. The color is a light gold, comparable to a lightish Chardonnay. Aroma and taste-wise, it is smooth, and not unlike a decent white; there’s a backbone to it which is reminiscent of oak tannins, but not quite the same. Some oak would, in fact, probably benefit this mead immensely. It is definitely a dry mead, but not obtrusively so–it doesn’t suck the water from your mouth like some white wines do. Well-balanced. I would call this good for the white wine drinker who’s looking for something a little off the beaten path. Tasty, but my Lady Wife is put off by the ‘grassiness’ of the hops (which, to be fair, she tastes in nearly anything with hops in it).

Finally for tonight’s tasting, the Merlot. Pours a deep garnet red. No carbonation, which is as it should be. The aroma is fruity and rich, promising a luscious richness. There is a backbone of oak and, yes, mineral, present, but it doesn’t overshadow the sweetness, merely supports it. The flavor is all dark fruit and rich grape, again with the tannin support. It starts sweet and floral, and ends richly; the ‘middle’ leaves a little to be desired. There’s a certain undefinable quality about it that says that it needs something. I had been aiming for the Georgian wines when I started this; it has the sweetness and mouthfeel, but lacks the spiciness and crispness of the Georgian reds. I believe a blend would do wonderfully to remedy this–perhaps 70%/30% Merlot/Gewurztraminer. I believe this one is ready to serve, and will age beautifully over the coming months (years?).

For the curious, the Brown Ale was batch #60 in Misha’s Little Black Book:

Northern English Brown Ale

5 lbs Maris Otter pale malt
4.75 lbs Pale 2-row malt
.75 lb Special Roast malt
.5 lb Victory malt
.5 lb Crystal 40L
.25 lb Pale Chocolate Malt
1.2 oz Kent Goldings pellet hops (5%AA, 60 minutes)
1 Whirlfloc tablet (15 minutes)
.5 oz Kent Goldings pellet hops (5%AA, 5 minutes)
2 packets Nottingham Ale dry yeast

Mash at 152 degrees F for 1 hour. Sparge to 7.5 gallons. Boil 1 hour, hopping as scheduled. OG: 1.053.

My ‘rig’… The BrewStand

All this time, and I just realized that I haven’t really described my brewing system (which I refer to as the ‘rig,’ or just the brewstand, and my Lady Wife calls the ‘monstrosity’–I actually like her term better). I’ll give just a verbal description for now, and in various posts to come, I’ll detail the individual pieces one at a time, the better to explain why I’ve got what I’ve got, and where I’m going with it.

I do almost entirely all-grain brewing at present. (I don’t really count my wines into my brewing, as they’re completely from kits; I’m moving more into doing fruit wines, but going very slowly with them, as I find that they’re finicky.) I started my all-grain adventures fairly recently, back in 2004 (coincidentally, that’s also when I really got into the SCA, after playing off-and-on for a number of years). The first batches were done on the stovetop, using plastic buckets for a mash tun and various things of that nature. My wife was quickly persuaded to allow me a turkey-fryer, the better to move me outside. One fryer became two, and about two years ago I finally built myself a three-tier brewstand (the original Monstrosity).

After a number of brews, and many minor upgrades (bigger burners, kettle upgrades, mash-tun tweaks), I finally (early this year) broke down and converted my three-tier stand to a two-tier. It will remain thus for as long as I own it… I much prefer not having to lift a kettle of water onto an 8-foot-high ‘shelf’ (where the HLT was originally situated).

The rest of my ‘system’ includes a 70-quart Ice Cube cooler for a mash-tun (detailed in an earlier post here)–it replaced a 40-quart Gott-style cooler. My kettle is a 10-gallon Stainless Steel pot purchased from a local restaurant supply warehouse. For a HLT, I use the 8-gallon aluminum pot that came with one of the original turkey fryers. For heat, I’ve got two LP-fired banjo burners, each at present plumbed to its own propane tank. A home-built immersion chiller and a March pump round out the important bits. Again, I’ll detail the parts in later posts.

My brews are kegged (save the *very* rare exception); I’ve got eight 5-gallon ‘Cornelius’ kegs. I lager the occasional brew in a chest-freezer with a temp controller. I’ve got glass carboys enough for seven brews in various stages (eight, if one is getting kegged soon). Plus an assortment of other miscellaneous bits…

All in all, I’d guesstimate that my gear has run me upwards of $2000, probably not much more than $2500. But then, I like my beer just that much.

Brewday, September 2008

Okay, so I’m all prepped (pretty much) for the brewday tomorrow. The plan, for me at least, is to brew up a nice Scottish 70/-; I’m aiming for an OG of about 1.038, but will probably go over. The plan is to go with Golden Promise for the base malt (a Scottish malt for a Scottish ale), and add a bit of roast malt (ground really fine) at the end of the mash–just in time for sparging. That should provide color, without adding a lot of roasty bitterness/astringency. We’ll see how that goes. Not much in the way of hops–3/4 ounce of Kent Goldings at 60 minutes, just for bitterness. Finally, I’ll ferment as cool as I can arrange (I may even empty out the lagering chest)–probably around 60F–with the Edinborough strain of yeast.

Then there’s the second batch: a nice Barleywine. This one looks to be interesting–it’s a ‘guest brew,’ being brewed by/with a friend of mine. The recipe itself is from a friend of hers, and it will be a real test of the new mash tun–it takes a whole lot of grain. It should be interesting.

Also, I’m expecting a couple of friends to show up (other than the Barleywine Brewer mentioned above)–one of whom *may* brew something; he might even be bringing someone new to watch. The other one is interested in beginning to brew himself; I’ve been trying to drag him to a brewing session for about 2 years or so now. Finally, success! My evil plan comes to fruition! (heh heh)

I’ll post more on this tomorrow, after brewing a bit.