Monday, 25 November 2013

Yeast, Always the Bridesmaid...

I've spotted an interesting blog post doing the rounds on Twitter posted over on Boak and Bailey's Beer Blog, in which they take a look at Brewdog's Unleash the Yeast, a pack of four identical beers fermented with four different yeasts. The idea being to highlight the fact yeast can have as much of an impact on the overall flavour of a beer than just the malt and hops. The overall conclusion was, whilst the base beer wasn't the best, the exercise did clearly show the differences between each yeast. At the premier Macc Homebrew Club meetup Red Willow's Toby McKenzie mentioned he did a similar exercise for a talk at 2012's Indy Man Beer Con. I think in the new year I may look at doing a few micro brews with different yeasts just for my own brewing curiosity...

BIAB #2 - Black Forest Stout...

Now that I've had a bash at making a single malt, single hop brew with my new BIAB kit, it was time to plan my own beer from scratch. With it coming up to Christmas it made sense to brew something festive, but instead of going for the usual spiced Christmas ales, I decided to go for something that might resemble a black forest gateau; something dark, thick and sweet with chocolatey and berry undertones. Mmmm!

I set about scanning various recipes for stouts and porters for the blend of grain types used. This is where The Complete Homebrew Handbook came in handy as I had actually sampled some of the darker beers mentioned in its very pages and so I had a reference to go by. In the end I went for Maris Otter as my base grain, crystal and chocolate malt, with some flaked oats to give the beer a bit of body. Given the black forest gateau theme, I was obviously going to need some cherries. The original plan was to use fresh cherries, that is until I stumbled across these Black Cherries with Kirsch by Opies. Perfect, the hard work had already been done for me (they were pitted) and I figured the addition of Kirsch will give the beer extra richness.

Whilst I was in the planning stages of this beer, Ruthless, a barrel aged sour cherry chocolate stout, popped up on the board at Red Willow. I decided to tap Toby McKenzie for any tips on brewing with cherries, his advice was 'use more than you think is necessary in the boil'. I originally intended to use one jar of the Opie cherries, but with the expert advice I opted for two. Surely nearly 800 grams of cherry goodness would be enough for a 11 litre batch, right?

Now I just needed to source a hop that would complement the fruity beer without overpowering it. I scoured the web reading dozens of hop descriptions and the one that stood out for me was Willamette. Described as spicy and fruity with earthy tones it sounded ideal to me! With ingredients set, I put an order in at The Malt Miller and commenced the fine tuning of the recipe using Beer Engine.

I wanted this to be a strong beer, so I decided to up the grain content a little from my last brew. The two cotton sacks supplied with the stove top kit were quoted to hold 1.5 Kg and I wanted to go for a 4 Kg mash, an extra 500 grams extra per sack. I also decided to lower the water volume a little from 2.5 litres per Kg of grain to 2.4 litres, just to make the wort a little more concentrated. Beer Engine was telling me the projected ABV would be around 8.1%, just the strength I was looking for.

The weekend had arrived and so had my parcel of ingredients, the #brewday was on! With my recipe planned it was time to input some figures into the Massive Calculator and find out  my target volume and strike temperatures. As the grain had been sat on the back of a truck for most of the day I increased it by a couple of degrees for good measure.

The glorious ingredients.
Then, with the aid of my new electronic scales, I began weighing out the grain, but as I started filling up the first sack it soon became apparent that I was probably going to struggle with that extra kilogram. I made a decision to cut 500 grams of the Maris Otter and as the volume of Chocolate Malt looked a bit much, I also scaled this back by 50 grams too. With the recipe changed, I amended the details in Beer Engine which reported that the ABV would now be around 6.9%, still pretty respectable.

With the grain measured out and ready for action, I filled up the stock pot with the required amount of liquor and submerged the sacks, which again highlighted I was maybe pushing it at even 3.5 Kg as it was a pretty tight squeeze in there! I eventually managed to get both sacks settled and gave the grain a good stir, using a large wooden fork instead of a spoon as I didn't want any dried lumps of grain surprising me later on when I emptied the bags out. I think if I'm going large with the mash for future brews I need to invest in some new cotton sacks that are maybe a bit wider.

With the mash on it was a good time to get the rest of my ingredients prepped. I opened the vacuum sealed pack of Willamette and gave it a good sniff, my eyes lit up — I'd definitely made the right choice. My nose was treated to a subtle spicy aroma with fantastic biscuit and currant notes scented in the background. I could have eaten the damn things raw! I weighed two lots of hops, 20 grams for the full boil and a further 10 grams to add five minutes from the end. Time to sort out my main ingredient, the cherries. I emptied the jars into a sieve over a bowl to separate the cherries from the Kirsch with a plan to boil off some of the alcohol as it was pretty potent! To try and maximise the flavour from the cherries I chopped them using scissors and added them to the hop sack along with the first batch of Willamette.

The hops and cherries.
With the mash done I squeezed as much wort out of the grain sacks as possible into the stock pot and did the same with the sparge water in the FV. Unlike my first effort, instead of merging the two, I poured the sparge water into two additional pans on the stove in a effort to get up to the boil before the new year kicked in. This worked a treat as the wort was bubbling away within 30 minutes. I threw in 100g of dark brown sugar, the boiled Kirsch and the first sack of adjuncts. 

With five minutes left on the boil I added a quarter of a Protofloc tablet with the second sack of hops and submerged the chiller coil ready for the cooling process. As with my previous effort I hooked up the chiller to a hose pipe connected to an outside tap, which cooled the wort down to 24 degrees in around 15-20 minutes. Thankfully this time there wasn't a whole lot of sediment so not much wort was lost on the transfer over to the FV. The gravity was a little lower than I initially predicted (1.05, instead of 1.073), which was a little disappointing, but I suppose if the end product tastes great then that was main objective sorted. With nothing left to do I pitched the yeast, good old Safale US-05, and retired the FV to the corner of the kitchen. 

So, as far as my first proper attempt at brewing, it didn't go according to plan. The increase in grain and the tight squeeze in the pot had a knock on effect to the efficiency and thus I ended up with a much lower gravity than expected. Next time, if I want a stronger brew, I will stick to a 3 Kg limit and lower the liquor volume. However, I was massively more efficient throughout the whole process and managed to cut the brew time down by at least a couple of hours. I expect my next attempt will be even tighter...brew #3 here I come!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Top Marks for Brew School...

So, having successfully brewed a kit with acceptable results, it was time for the next stage - the full mash! It's all very well reading everything you possibly can about the brewing process, but becoming hands on was the way forward... oh and maybe a little tutelage from an expert wouldn't go amiss.

With this in mind I decided to see what courses were available, if any. A quick search on the web soon displayed loads of results, but one in particular caught my attention. It was a one day course held by a local(ish) company by the name of Hartingtons, based in Bakewell (of the tart fame), who run a plethora of mouthwatering artisan foodie courses. It's tutored by 'brew meister' Paul Taylor, who heads up the lab at Murphy & Son, a company which, if you don't already know, provides all kinds of kit and services for the brewing industry and home brewers alike. He is also a founding member of the Nottingham Brewers Group and on the judging panel at the SIBA National Beer Championship. There was no denying the guy had credentials, so I slapped down some hard earned cash and booked the missus and I on the course.

My idea was to attend the course, soak up the knowledge and then purchase all the kit required to tackle a full brew. However, my eagerness got the better of me and I ended up buying one of Massive Brewery's stove-top kits and now have a successful brew in the FV doing its thing. Whether or not it turns out OK, I don't know, but at least I wasn't entering the classroom totally green.

Home grown hops...
The day of the course arrived and it was an early start for the drive over the tops of the Peak District to picturesque Bakewell, bleary eyed we made it to Hartingtons in one piece. The course kicked off with an introduction from our tutor, Paul, who spoke about what his job entails at Murphy & Son, his homebrew history and what to expect from the day's proceedings. Before he got stuck into the brew he talked us through the process of making beer -  the equipment, the ingredients and the recipe he was going to follow, which was a pale ale with hops picked from his very own garden. This brought to our attention a handy piece of brew designing software called Beer Engine, which allows you to input your ingredients and it will output your projected ABV, colour, required liquor volumes, etc., and then to save it for future reference. Something I will definitely be making use of for future brews.

With the fine details noted it was time to get a mash on. A volunteer weighed the grain and added it to the mash tun, already filled with the required volume liquor at the correct temperature (increased by a couple of degrees as the grain had been sat in the boot of Paul's car and it was a rather chilly day).

With nothing left to do at this stage, Paul discussed the quality of water, obviously the biggest ingredient of a beer, but one I really hadn't given much thought about. It was interesting to learn how the water supply from your tap can affect the general make up of a beer, and that pretty much water from anywhere in the UK, whether it's soft or hard, will need some kind of chemical assistance to get the most out of it. Alkalinity, Calcium, Chloride, Sulphate... the science is too elaborate to write about here, but it's worth reading up on if you want to tighten up your brews. We were told about a product named DWB, a mixed compound that, according to Murphy & Son, will 'alter the ionic balance and produce beers with the correct flavor and mouth feel', and who doesn't want that from their beers? Furthermore, you can send a sample of your water to their labs and they will advise of the amounts to use. It's relatively inexpensive, for both the service and the DWB, so it will definitely be something I'll look into for future brews.

With the chemistry lesson over it was time to sparge the mash with the recommended volume of water. This wasn't anything elaborate and didn't involve the use of any sparging contraptions, instead just simply adding water to the mash tun, giving it a stir, draining it off, adding it to the kettle and repeating until the target volume was hit. With the kettle now full it was just a case of waiting for it to reach the boil, a perfect time to break for lunch.

Lunch and refreshments were all included in the price of the course, and as you would imagine for a school based around artisan food stuffs, there were a nice selection of cheese, meats, pies and other treats to tuck into. With some time to spare, myself and the missus took a stroll admidst the stunning scenery and more importantly, to buy a Bakewell pudding (not tart!)... it would have been rude not to! This wasn't a particularly difficult endeavour considering where we were, and it turns out the baker who made our pudding also runs a baking class at Hartingtons. Upon our return to the classroom kitchen we were hit by an aromatic wall of malt and hops...Mmmmmm lovely.

With our hunger satisfied it was time to get back to learning. We were getting close to the end of the boil and so it was time to throw the final batch of hops in and immerse the chiller coil, along with a quarter of a Protafloc tablet to assist with the clarity of the beer. There are points of the brewing process where there's not a lot happening so Paul filled this time with anecdotes of malfunctioning immersion coils spraying water around his kitchen ceiling and FVs spilling their malty load on his garage floor leading to a sea of fungus!

With the boil now complete the chiller was attached to the tap and cold water began working it's way around the copper coil, cooling the wort down in preparation for the yeast to be safely pitched. During this time we discussed different yeasts, how they come packaged (dried, live, smackpack, etc.) and how they can affect the flavour of the brew, again something which I hadn't put much thought into yet. Paul was originally going to pitch some Nottingham Ale Yeast, which he told us is the most popular yeast amongst home brewers as it's fast acting and leaves a clear beer. However, this yeast required activating in water before hand which he had forgotten to do, so we went with Safale US-05 (the same yeast I used in my BIAB efforts) which could be pitched directly in the wort. With the beer successfully transferred to the FV and the yeast working its magic, that was the end of that. Time for an afternoon break.

During our break we did some blind taste tests from a handful of commercial beers and made some judging notes. The highlight was Thornbridge's excellent Imperial Russian Stout - St Petersburg, a popular favourite with all the attendees (I saw this one coming as I spied them covering the label up) and we were pretty much united in our distaste of Wychwood's doubt a group with good taste!

Obviously, as we had only just put the beer in the FV it was far from ready for consumption. Luckily for us Paul had the spoils from his previous brew school session, a pale ale with 5 'new world' hops, for us to bottle, label and take home. As you can see from the photo our the labels didn't survive the journey home.

We found the course to be very informative and it was useful for me to watch an experienced homebrewer run through the whole process. All-in-all it was a thoroughly enjoyable day, and what better way to end such a great day in Bakewell than with a slice of pudding and a glass of Thornbridge's Wild Swan! 

The Brew School is a relatively new educational establishment, having only opened its doors in September of this year, but already it seems to be gathering steam, with the likes of Murphy & Son getting on board and the sponsorship of Jim's Beer Kit lending credability. On top of the beer brewing course mentioned in this article, they also run a microbrewery course, which covers everything you would need to know to set up your very own brewery. This has recently been expanded to a three day course to include a tour around the local brewery at Peak Ales and the opportunity to quiz the folk who have already gone through the process of turning professional.

Many thanks to the folk at Hartingtons for the use of the photos!

UPDATE: Since attending the course Hartingtons have expanded their beer brewing courses massively with a dedicated Brew School covering all aspects of brewing and the industry, tutored by some seriously experienced folk! 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

BrewFist MTB: Smacking you up'side the head....

Although it's not long been open, the Red Willow bar is already doing good work for the beer drinking community. Not only is it the venue for the newly formed Macclesfield Homebrew Club, due to commence next week, but it's also going to be hosting numerous Meet The Brewer events throughout the year. The first meet took place on a cold Tuesday night in November with ace Italian brewer BrewFist

The evening kicked off with an introduction of the Italian beer scene by Giulio from Atlas Brands, the British distributor of some of finest brews from a country that is largely known for its wine production. There is a scene there, not a massive one, but it is gathering steam and recently I've sampled some damn fine brews from the likes of Toccalmatto and Birrificio Italiano. With the background set it was time to kick things off with our host - Pietro Di Pilato, founder and head brewer at BrewFist. The plan was to sample six of his beers and he would give a short talk about each one (as is the case with these MTB events). So enough chit-chat, lets get on with the drinking!

Terminal Pale Ale - Pale Ale (3.7% ABV)

Marketed as a session ale due to the low ABV, this little number was very light, with great fruity flavours created by the mix of Citra and Summer hops. The beer was named to keep in theme with the brewery's own airport themed bar - Terminal 1.

Caterpillar - Pale Ale (5.8% ABV) 

This is a collab beer with Danish gypsy brewer Beer Here. Pietro told us that the first attempt at this brew turned into a bit of a mistake, but it ended up selling very well and they stuck with it. If this beer is a mistake then I hope to God I royally screw up my attempts at homebrewing! This is their 2nd bestselling beer after their flagship Spaceman IPA. Apparently they caused some offence with a family-friendly retailer in Australia with regards to the weed smoking caterpillar on the label. I've sampled this beer before and really rated it, everything about it is just so subtle and mellow. There's some slight spiciness that comes through, which we're told comes from the rye rather than the hops.

Czech Norris - Walker Imperial Pils (6.7% ABV)

Apparently the best beer known to man is brewed with a single drop of Chuck Norris' blood, but as it's impossible for him to bleed no one has ever made it. This is BrewFist's vision of what said beer would taste like, and it's probably not far off. The name comes from the use of Czech hop - Saaz, and with a name like that this brew demands to be sampled! They initially had a bit of trouble getting this tipple into the US, not that there were any objections to the Chuck Norris reference, but the fact the label features the Czech flag! Silly Americans! The beer is sweet with honey tones that really start to come through with the more you drink. I'm not normally a pilsner fan, but this was very palatable.

Heimdall - Galaxie Saison (7.6% ABV) 

This is another collab brew, this time with German brewer Freigeist. It's a fresh beer that's more hoppy than an average saison, making good use of the fruity flavours of the galaxy hops, with an essence of spice lurking in the mix too. This one is supposedly very popular in the US of A.

Fear - Chocolate Milk Stout (5.2% ABV)

One of the first four core beers BrewFist started out with. Pietro told us that Italians are afraid of dark beers and the name came from the Iron Maiden track "Fear of the Dark". There's nothing to be afraid of here. It's a lovely, rich, chocolatey stout that holds its own against the other big chocolate stouts already out there. Apparently buying pure lactose (a plain white powder) in any great quantity in Italy arouses suspicion as it's also commonly used to cut cocaine! FACT!

Green Petrol - Black IPA (8.2% ABV)

We end the session with a big hitter. This beauty was as black as my soul and hopped to the max with a real lingering after taste. Once again the guys had problems in the US with the name, as it raised some kind of confusion whether it actually contained petrol or not, but at 8.2% it's probably potent enough to at least power a Lambretta. This is the lowest selling beer in of their range, but then it is a beast of a drink!

. . .

As the session drew to a close Toby of Red Willow announced that he will be working with Pietro on a collab brew the very next day, a Red Pale Ale, which will be available on the bar as soon as it's ready for consumption. I shall be first in line!

Drunken Blurry Cam.
Giulio, Pietro & myself.
What became apparent with the more drinks we consumed was that BrewFist is a very competent brewer that enjoys to put their twist on each style, but at the same time remaining subtle. I spoke with Giulio about this and he stated that because Italy doesn't have a history of beer, no one feels bound down by styles therefore allowing the freedom to run with it without aficionados turning their noses up.

The missus then turned up with a half of Burocracy, another one of their fine ales (a really hoppy IPA), and I seized the chance to have a chat with Pietro. Obviously being a homebrewer I wanted to know if he could offer any advice to someone that might want to brew for a living, but he doesn't have homebrew background, instead learning his trade working for Fullers in the UK, but what he did say is that it's a lot of hard work and there's more cleaning involved that you would imagine!

It was a brilliant night with some fabulous beers from a top brewer, quite an act to follow, but I've already ear wigged who is possibly lined up for the next MTB event and if it comes to fruition, let me tell you, it'll be a doozy! Stay tuned...

Update: Another decent write up on the night can be found over on Beersay.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Small Kit, MASSIVE Brewery...

So I've successfully produced beer from a kit and whilst the results weren't mind blowing, it was alcoholic and tasted like beer, so I was somewhat pleased with my first steps into the brewing world. However, I'm never going to make great beer without getting down to the nitty-gritty with grain and hops. I have a scientific mind and I like to know what all the ingredients are doing and how they interact to produce the finished product. I was itching to get going, but I knew I'd need to invest in some extra equipment. Purely for convenience everything was pointing me in the direction of Brupak's range of homebrew kits, specificially their modified cooler box mash tun and electric boilers. However, being limited on space in the house I did wonder where all this kit was going to live (as did the wife), shame there wasn't a kit out there that was a little more compact. That's when I stumbled upon a couple of blog articles over on broadfordbrewer talking about brew in a bag (BIAB), which brought my attention the "10 LITRE, ALL-GRAIN, STOVE-TOP, BREW KITS" by Massive Brewery

This kit included everything I would need (and more) to do a full grain brew, and all packaged in a 12x12" square box! Bloody perfect! The author of broadfordbrewer is the chap behind Northern Monk's first few beers (for the love of God you must try Strannik!), so with that kind of brewing calibre I felt confident that this was going to be a decent setup and proceeded to place my order. Essentially, what this kit does is allow you to mash and boil in the same vessel as all the ingredients are brewed in bags...simple! Also, as it's half the volume of my other kit, it allows for a quicker turn around, which is ideal for learning and experimental purposes.

It's arrived!
So with order submitted I set about constantly refreshing the Parcel Force tracking page, eagerly awaiting the delivery of my new kit. During this time I decided to refrain from shaving, in an attempt to grow a brewers beard and give myself a fighting chance with my first full grain brew. After much beard stroking my parcel arrived and everything was present and accounted for (check out Massive Brewery for a full list of what's included). The ingredients included in the kit were standard Maris Otter malt and Phoenix hops, a good dual purpose hop, which is perfect for a beginners brew. So with the kit in my possession I decided Sunday was to become my #brewday.

When the fateful day arrived I began preparation for the task ahead. With the aid of the handy spreadsheet put together by Steve at Massive Brewery, I inputted the supplied grain weight and it spat out my target volumes and strike temperatures, very useful for a newbie such as myself. So with a strike temp of 72°C advised, I set about filling up the stock pot with 7 litres of boiling water from the kettle and half a litre of cold water just to knock the temperature down a little. This took it to around 74°C, so a couple of stirs later and it was ready. I threw the grain into the two cotton sacks provided and submerged them in the water, giving the grains a good stir to make sure there were no dry lumps (more on that later!), I again checked the temperature. Steve's calculations were bang on, it was just shy of 65°C. With everything set, there was nothing else to do at this stage, I put the lid on the pot and set the cooker timer for 60 minutes.

We're mashin'
Whilst the mash was mashing, I set about weighing out my glorious hops. Unfortunately I only had a set of standard cheap kitchen scales which aren't particularly acurate for measuring low weights (note to self, buy digital scales). The dial pointed to around 30 grams marks, so I split the hops 16-14 and put them in the two supplied hop sacks ready for throwing into the wort later. With 10 minutes left on the clock I put the kettle on and starting filling up the FV with the recommended volume (6.25ltr at 80°C) of sparge water. Just as I reached the correct volume the cooker chimed and I pulled out my mashed sacks of soggy grain one-by-one, squeezing as much wort out as I could through a collander over the stock pot and then transfered them to the sparge water for another brief soak. At this point I put the hob on under the stock pot in an attempt to give the boil process a bit of a head start. The grain sacks both received another good stir and squeeze and the resultant wort was then poured into the stock pot for the boiling stage of the process. One thing I didn't anticipate was how long it would take this to get this bad boy up to a rolling boil! It tooks hours, and you know what they say about a watched pot? Eventually it started bubbling away and I could throw in my first batch of hops (the 16 gram bag).

Hip-hop, don't stop...
With another hour on the clock it was time to make sure the FV and any equipment I was going to use at the final stage were clean, so I filled up the tub with warm water, plenty of steriliser and threw in a sieve and a pair of metal tongues. This time I was a bit more relaxed about the whole sterilisation process.

The kitchen looked like a bomb site, so I thought I'd better do a bit of clearing up before the wife returned from her travels. I began by emptying my spent grain bags and it was then, like the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, a big ball of dry grain tumbled out into the bin! Argh! I had stirred those grains like I had OCD, but I must have been just moving that lump around, hopefully it won't have too much effect on the final brew. Ahh well, this was always going to be a trial run and I've learnt a valuable lesson!

Five minutes from the end of the boiling process it was time to add the second batch of hops and slowly immerse the cooling coil (so not to stop the boil) so that it is sterilised before the chilling process begins. Having washed the coil earlier I figured it would a bit too cold to put directly into the stock pot, so I filled the sink up with hot water and left it bathing for five minutes beforehand. It's worth mentioning that if you do decide to go with one of these kits, make sure you work out how you're going to connect the chiller to your water supply. It comes supplied with a threaded connector, but with nowhere to attach it, I had to improvise. In the end I plumbed the inlet pipe to a gardening hose, fed through the kitchen window, which was connected to an outside tap! Doing this probably worked in my favour, as I managed to cool the wort down to 20°C in around 15 minutes! 

Brew my beauty!
With the wort now at the desired temperature I removed the hop sacks and placed them in the sieve over the FV and carefully poured the wort over the hops as so to extract any more flavour and to filter out sediment, which is easier said than done with an 11 litre pot full to the brim! Now all that was left was to pitch the yeast (Safale US-05), put the lid on and wait for the magic to happen. Two days in and fermentation appears to be ticking along nicely. 

So what useful lessons have I learnt during this exercise? Definitely on my next brewday I shall be making sure all that grain is separated and wet, probably with the aid of a fork rather than a big stirring spoon. To speed up the boiling stage I will split the wort between a couple of pans and merge them once boiling. Oh and also I will have a brand new set of digital scales to weigh out the hops properly. Bring it on!