The Trials and Tribulations of the Modern Homebrewer

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Hello my old mash tun. It’s been awhile…we’re both a little rusty…

Thinking back, besides an outdoor group brew with the Ohio Valley Homebrewers Association (OVHA) Bourbon Barrel Project a few weeks ago, I’ve not brewed since late summer 2016. And that batch was a failed experiment using foraged sumac. Here it is nearly April and I’m out of practice and it clearly showed during my brew session last night.

First a little background. I built a half batch size—that’s 2.5 gallons—electric brewery in my small basement bathroom. It’s cramped but works well for what I wanted to do. Mainly, brew indoors in small batches. I’ve got a sink and a standup shower stall that I use for cleaning and as a handy floor drain. It really is a nice setup. My kettle is at a good working height and normally things run very efficiently. Normally.

I’ve not brewed much in the last few years due do a number of factors. Moving houses was a big one. Building this little brewery was supposed to change that. All the equipment would always be set up and ready to go and being a half sized system the heating times are shortened. Heating up gallons and gallons of sugar water takes a great deal of heat and time. I’m using what is known as the “brew in the bag” technique that only uses one pot to do your mashing and boiling. Traditionally these process happen in separate vessels. This equals less cleanup time too. It’s a light and fast system. In theory anyway. But for some reason I still haven’t brewed much on it going on a year after building it.

I committed to change that this year. I’ve planned and purchased ingredients to brew three recipes this spring. This will push me to 100 total batches of beer brewed! This coincides with the 20th anniversary of my home brewing club, the already mentioned OVHA.

First up was last nights brewing of a cream ale. It’s a simple beer with limited ingredients. A good style to brush up on my rusty brewing skills. It’s got pilsner malt and basic US 2-row barley malt with a little flaked corn. A little dash of sugar thins it out a little and ups the alcohol. With only two hop additions it truly is about as uncomplicated as you can get brewing all-grain. Plus it should ferment quickly so It will be ready to serve at one of our many area charitable beer festivals the OVHA helps support. Plus, it will give me an idea of what recipe tweaks I can make to perfect this beer to enter in our yearly club-only homebrew competition this fall.

A dental checkup in the afternoon put me home a little earlier than a normal work day. I took this as a great opportunity to kick off this brewing spree. So off to the brewery I went. First up, heat some water. A little under 5 gallons is what I start with on this system. My pot is only 5.5 gallons so this leaves just a little room to add all the grain for mashing. Water heating, check. Now on to weighing and milling the grains while the water gets up to around 152 F. I fire up my brewing recipe app on my phone. This app is where I store all my recipes and inventory of ingredients. Well, that’s funny, I’m a little short on the pilsner malt. I ordered 4 lbs which should have been plenty. Strange. Not a huge problem as I’ll just compensate with more 2-row since I have plenty on hand since I bought it in a bulk 55-lb sack. In goes 4 lbs of pilsner into the mill and I fire up the drill that runs the it. But it’s not crushing. The second “idle” cylinder of the mill is jammed and the main roller is just spinning. A littler tinkering here and there and still nothing. I’ve never really done any maintenance on my mill. I brush off the grain dust after milling but that is about it. I did add a nice base made of Corian countertop material over the winter as a project on my scratch-build CNC machine but the mill itself just runs and runs so I’ve never disassembled it. I guess my luck ran out. I empty the grain from the hopper and begin tearing it down. It’s really simple with only a few screws. There is a lot of buildup of crud that’s preventing the roller to freely turn. After a scrubbing and wipe down and a little grease we are back in business. Oh crap! The water is still heating! I passed my target of 152 about 20 degrees ago. So I shut off the heat to allow it to cool down while I finally mill the grains in the newly refurbished mill.

Alright, the water has cooled back to about 152 degrees. I start to pour in the grain but as I do the water is creeping ever closer to the top of the pot. I usually run pretty full but now I’m all the way to the top and there is still more grain to add. I pour off some of the liquid to make room. This is odd but I continue on. I note this is an unusually thick mash for a normal alcohol beer. After about 10 minutes I check the temp and it’s a little low. I wanted to rest at 149 for an hour+. This is very easy to fix. I simply turn on the induction plate my brew pot sits on. I do this a couple of times the first half hour to keep the temp right at 169 as read by a cool little wireless remote thermometer I have that is normally used to monitor low and slow BBQ smoking. I give the mash a good stir at 30 minutes and check the temp with my very accurate instant read thermometer. 180 DEGREES! HOLY SHIT! It seems my remote thermometer was in a cool pocket on the side of the pot while the rest was getting over heated. This is very bad news. Too hot a mash temp not only affects the amount of sugars that the enzymes can produce but a really too hot mash temp will destroy the enzymes completely before they can do their job. If you don’t know, their job is to take the starch (a long chain carbohydrate) in the grain and break it up into smaller carbs that the yeast can eat. This is mashing. I run up and grab some ice cubes and throw them in to get the temp down. I only hope not too much damage has been done.

90 minutes have passed and It’s time to pull out the grain so the liquid, now called wort in German brewing parlance, can be boiled. I use a large mesh bag than lines my boil pot for this task. This is the Brew In a Bag (BIAB) system. Once the mashing is done you just lift out the bag like a large tea bag and allow the liquid to drain out. This process goes mostly according to plan except that the remaining liquid level is overly low. All that grain really absorbed a lot more liquid than I anticipated. Even after squeezing the bag of all the liquid I could. While the wort is heating up to boil I go weigh out my hop additions. Well that’s odd, I’m short of hops too. I do have some in stock that are sort of similar so I substitute to make up the difference. While I have time to kill I start thinking and making connections in my head. I go and check to see how much sugar is in the liquid and it is way higher than it should be. I check my recipe and I realize my error. My recipe app has a main recipe and then “batches” you create from the main recipe when you brew. I normally create the main recipes at full scale 5 gallons. Then when I create my batches I can select my 2.5 gallon profile and it does all the math and reduces the amount of grain and hops as needed. I’m sure you can see the problem. I used the full scale recipe. Doh! That’s why I’m short on all these ingredients and why the grain wouldn’t fit in the mash. I’m trying to brew a 5 gallon batch on a 2.5 gallon system. Ouch.

Well. What to do. I decide to press on and just add water here and there to make this work as a full size batch. I start with adding as much water as I can to the boil pot. Once this gets up and going I add in my first hop addition. I usually boil for 60 minutes so now I have some time to get the fermentor ready. I have a couple of nice wide-mouth plastic fermentors. I’m going to use the one I prepped last fall for my last failed sumac batch. That project was a complete failure during the mashing stage so I didn’t use the fermentor at all. It’s been sitting idle still filled with a little sanitizing solution. As I pick it up I see some dark staining near the gaskets on the spigot at the bottom. So I take it apart and the gaskets are full of mold. This is really odd. I scrub and scrub and they are not getting clean. I pull out my second fermentor and get it ready. As I go to pull the airlock—that’s a little plastic gizmo that allows gas pressure to except but does not let the outside contaminated air to enter—out of the cork it shatters in my hand. Somehow I incur no lacerations. I get out a spare airlock. Ok, we’re just about there.

As we near the end of the boil I add in my last hop addition and turn off the heat. I swirl the liquid around in a whirlpool and allow some the proteins the settle in the middle of the pot as I draw off the clear liquid off the side with my spigot. This hot liquid passes though a heat exchanger. Cool water from the faucet passes one way as the hot wort goes the other and into the fermentor. They exchange heat along the way in a sort of car radiator setup. I adjust the flow rates of each liquid with valves to keep the temp around 66 degrees. That’s my intended fermentation temp. I ended up with 3 gallons of 1.075 specific gravity. I should be at 1.054. I do some calculations and add in a gallon of water do dilute. This doesn’t seem correct. I should have more sugar in there to be able to dilute to 5 gallons as the original recipe called for. I chalk it up to the overheated mash not working as it should but then I realize I didn’t add in the sugar I was supposed to. This is still not a critical mistake. I’ll just add it in the next day. The yeast won’t care. They love the stuff.

I add in some pure oxygen from a tank. The long boil drives off most of it and the yeast need it so you must replace it. Then I pour in my yeast. You can now officially call this beer although it will take several days for the yeast to eat all the sugar and turn it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The brewing is done.

After cleanup the clock reads just after 9 p.m. I started close to 5 p.m. so that’s not terrible considering all the extra stuff I needed to do. But this is not nearly the “light and fast” this system is supposed to be. I think I need to upgrade my induction plate. The 110v version I have is underpowered. I really need a 220v version. Right now I have to add in a scary heater I bought off of Amazon to get the temp up faster. It’s like a water heater element you just plug in the wall. If its not covered in liquid it just burns itself up. Like I said, scary.

So all in all a successful brew. I do hope the next batch of American Wheat goes smoother.

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