Monday, June 28, 2010

Do the Brew

I know it's been a long time. Many of you even probably thought that "Brewer Gene" might have stopped brewing it's been so long. How can he brew? Does he even remember how. Well guess what. This weekend, I brewed me some beer.

And right there is the proof. There's my HERMS kicking ass and taking names. I decided for my inaugural brew I'd keep it simple. I designed and brewed what I'm going to call the "ATOTB: Bleached Blonde Ale". Just some basic grain, and some common American hops. We'll see how it comes out. To brew great beer you have to know where you come from right?

I am ecstatic about how well my HERMS worked. To quote a famous mythbuster, "failure is always an option." But aside from dumping a small amount of hot (hot) wort on my foot, things went perfectly. I'm going to have to do some more tests... but I measured an OG of 1.05 on my hydrometer, and my calculated OG was 1.049... which would leave me to believe that I have 100% brewhouse efficiency. I feel this can't be possible, but I'll be keeping close tabs on the next few brews I make.

Also, dog owners be warned. Dogs love the sweet wort from the mash tun. I was washing mine out in the back yard (the mash tun, not the dog), and I drained what remaining sparge I had in the corner of the yard. No biggie, it's not like it was spent grains or anything... Well, no dog threw up this time, but I did have a pretty sizable hole in my yard where I had drained the tun, and the wort soaked into the dirt. I guess I'm lucky they didn't eat the dirt.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Irish Red Ale - Complete

If you've been following this blog, the riveting story of my first solo batch is now at an end. I won't pull a "Lord of the Rings" on you and post like seventeen different endings. I haven't tasted a fully conditioned bottle though, so there may be one more.

My friend Doug came to help me remove the labels and bottle the brew. We started with that bucket of bottles I showed you in the last post, but I was able to remove the Newcastle and replace them with some proper brown bottles. I won't bore you by repeating the process. Let's just say that it looked good on paper but had a few surprises. Oh and I falsely identified the insect residents as spiders; they were in fact: silverfish.

My memories of removing labels for the last batch is about as fond as memories of my New Years Day hangover. We made all kinds of mistakes last time (soaking the bottles outdoors in dishwasher detergent and vinegar didn't work well at all.) This time, I tried the logical opposites: baking soda and dawn. While this did get the labels to come off in one piece, the glue on the bottles was still a problem. The level of filth in the water made it look like a moldy Coca-Cola so I decided to break out some PBW for a second soak.

PBW worked astoundingly well. All the glue rubbed off with ease; we didn't even need the steel wool. We ended up with pristine clean (although not sterile) bottles. I don't use the word "astounding" lightly, since we were both astounded by how slippery it made our hands. It goes like this, in third person narrative:

"My hands are so slippery, I can't hold on to these bottles!" exclaimed Nick. Doug rolled his eyes and thought Nick was just prattling like a twit, but held his tongue. Moments later upon switching jobs, Doug exclaimed, "My hands are so slippery, I can't hold on to these bottles!" Nick rolled his eyes in amusement.

It's no Shakespeare I know, but I think that gets the idea across. On the torpedo shaped bottles (like Anchor Steam), there was really no way to hold them from the side. When we squeezed they just shot out of our hands like a cartoon banana.

Interestingly enough, a quick dip in Star San makes your hands super grippy. I guess it dissolves the outer layer of skin or something. I still don't know how this stuff is safe to handle. Anyhow, we eventually finished cleaning and sterilizing the bottles. We filled them up from the bottling bucket, and voila! homebrew.

I'll let you know how they taste in two weeks.

Monday, June 21, 2010

HERMit the Frog

Geek alert. Turn around now if the scientific method makes your head hurt, and come back Wednesday.

Today marks the completion of my HERMS system! I performed a boil test today, and I mark it a success. I have a few leaks to tend to, but I'm ready to brew! So here's the setup:

I've got my orange mash/lauter tun, and my hot liquor tank keggle. The burner that I modified to fit the keggle works like a dream. On the initial startup I had a little trouble getting the pump primed, but once I got the air bubbles out of it we were flowing nice and good. I noticed two small leaks, one where the bulkhead fitting goes through the bottom side of the keg, and one where the coil inside the keg connections to my valves. Nothing a little teflon tape wont fix. I'm also planning on covering the insulation that's exposed where i put the hole through the side of my mash tun. I don't want all that foam to get moldy and nasty.

My test for a proof of concept was to bring the mash water from 85 to 100 degrees, and see how long it would take. The hot liquor tank was at 120 when I started the test. and in 6 minutes, I hit my target temperature. Considering the narrow 30 degree temperature differential, I am very pleased. The hotter the hot liquor tank runs, the quicker the response will be. So when my hot liquor tank is running at 200, and I'm going from a mash temp of 130 to 160, It should work in no time flat.

I plan to brew this weekend. I'll keep ya posted!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Finishing the First Batch: Bottling Prep

It's been quite some time since I have posted about the Irish Red that's been living in my bathroom. No, I'm not talking about Lucky (of some notable fame in the cereal industry.) I'm referring to the Brewer's Best Irish Red kit I started about a month and a half ago. As you all know, the blog is primarily about Brewing; it's time to get back to business.

Unless you count drinking the beer, bottling is the last step in the homebrew process. The beer is totally flat when you put it in the bottles and needs to condition for several weeks to reach its full flavor and fizziness (unlike kegs and cans which are carbonated using bottled gas.)

If you rinse your bottles right after using them, this step is pretty simple. You use a little bit of star-san or iodine and can fill the bottles forthwith. Since I seem to make stupid mistakes quite often,  many of my bottles are reclaimed from the recycling (and still have labels.) The ones from the last batch seem to have been a home for spiders and cat hair. Needless to say, they need to be evicted. I probably have enough mold in there to knit a sweater. I'm joking -- I could probably only make baby socks.

What should have been a twenty minute job is going to likely take several hours. To break it down: I need to soak off the labels in hot water and baking soda, rub off the labels with steel wool, scrub them out with soapy water, then sterilize them in some Star-San. Just like dusting, I've been putting this one off way too long. Right now the bottles are soaking in baking soda and soap, creating a foul brine.

As an aside:
Every time somebody puts one of my hand cleaned perfectly label free bottles in the recycling it breaks my heart. We're so used to using a bottle once and discarding it that it seems like second nature. If a homebrewer gives you some beer, kindly save and return the bottles. I'm sure they will appreciate it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dissection: DraughtKeg

I've been itching to cut into the draughtkeg for a while now, but I had a few more important posts to put up. But now the time has come. Lets dive right into it. This is going to be a picture heavy post, but that's the point right? Here we go...
Hmm which tool to pick? Or a scene from Hostel?

 I went with one of my favorite and versatile cutting tools, the pneumatic cut off wheel. Cuts almost anything, with very little vibration (unlike the recip. saw).

 First we remove the valve on top. This is nothing more than a rubber stopper on the inside, and a lever that pushes the dispensing tap down into it, causing it to open (much like the valve on your favorite inflatable pool toy).
 If you cut me, do I not bleed??? Yes. You do. And your blood tastes awesome.

 Ok, we're inside. On the top half is what we would expect. Just like in a homebrew keg, there is a diptube that goes all the way to the bottom so you can get every last drip out of the keg. Note: with this method you can't turn the keg upside down. So no standing kegstands.

Now things start to get weird. In my opinion. On the bottom side, there's a little holster for what I think is a massive CO2 vessel. This surprises me, because you can pressurize a homebrew keg of beer with one of the small CO2 canisters that you'd use in a bb gun or a keyboard duster. We move on...

 CO2 vessel removed from the tank. What's with the white cap? Lets find out.

 Interesting. I'm venturing a guess at saying that I believe it's a mini-regulator for the CO2 in the tank. At full pressure the beer would be over-carbonated, but if left to sit at low pressure the beer would likely go flat.

Now this one really blows my mind. I figure, lets cut the CO2 tank open, just for the hell of it... Well to my surprise, it's comepletely chock full of little black pellets. About the size of a broken tip to a #2 pencil. My only guess is that it's a load of charcoal to keep the CO2 clean. If you have an idea, please send a comment our way.

And finally (and what I originally expected) the inside of the tank minus the black pellets.

I hope you enjoyed this adventure! If you know of anything (disposable) that you would like me to cut into next, let me know!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I Love Flagstaff

Last week I promised I'd devote a post to the breweries in Flagstaff. Since my Las Vegas appraisal was so negative, this review should balance it out a little bit. I love homebrew and I hate having to negatively impact anybody in the industry; I guess culling the herd is usually a good thing. Las Vegas and Sedona were much more high-stress commercialized areas and neither one had very good beer. Makes sense right?

On our honeymoon, Flagstaff was definitely our favorite stop-over. We love college towns and mountain towns so a mountain college town is like hitting the jackpot of quaint liberal artistic young energy. We did more shopping here than anywhere else; there were delightful little nooks with odds and ends, Native American made crafts, and to my surprise, three breweries!

Lumberyard Brewing Company
This was my first stop in the early afternoon. I ordered a Lumberyard Red and a couple samples. The Red was awesome, made with crystal and caramel malts. At 5.8% ABV it was on the higher end with a sweet mildly hoppy taste. It wasn't dry but it wasn't watery either. Very refreshing with a slightly bitter aftertaste, I'd definitely recommend this ale.

The Lumberyard Brewery itself is sort of the companion to the Beaver Street Brewing company. It's less restaurant and more bar; I guess they were just that successful. It's not undeserved.

After chatting with the bartender, I learned that they can most of their beers. No that's not a typo, they put their beer in cans. Apparently this is a lot better for the beer since it is kept in the dark. The cans are also treated with something so they don't leech any metals into the brew. This kind of equipment isn't anything a home-brewer might have since the beer has to be carbonated prior to canning.

I guess this is more of a West Coast thing. I personally like having my beer in a bottle so I can examine it for sediment, color, and dead spiders. Since generally only cheap beer comes in cans, there are also assumptions about quality to overcome. I might change my mind eventually (like I did with Asparagus, Country Music, and New Jersey) but at this time bottles seem better.

Beaver Street Brewing Company
Everything I said about Lumberyard is also true about Beaver Street, except that it is more restaurant and less bar. They share many of the same beers, but they do have a few exclusives. I ordered the Beaver Street Oatmeal Stout. It tasted like chocolate and smoke with some slight hops. It had good lacing and was very dark brown and delicious.

The food at Beaver Street is amazing. They incorporate their beers into a lot of the recipes (which always adds character.) I wanted to eat the entire menu, then order things from it. I settled on something which had two kinds of sausage, the best mashed potatoes I have ever eaten, caramelized onions, and red cabbage. It was like Bangers and Mash ran head first into Sauerbraten with delicious consequences.

Flagstaff Brewing Company
I heard this was more of a tourist trap than a serious brewery, so I skipped it. If we're ever back, I may stop in to see for myself.

So if you're ever in Flagstaff, definitely stop in to Lumberyard or Beaver Street.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Wires coming out my eyeballs

So I'm excited. My HERMS system is almost done. I mean it's really really close. Closer than relatives in West Virginia (too soon?).

However I've had a long weekend, and well, I'm tired. (I'm writing this on Sunday night) I've been soldering for 2 hours now, and my head hurts. I've got the hockey game on in the background, which produces a nice ambiance. I really wanted to be finished with the control box for my post tomorrow (Monday). But it isn't happening. It's coming along really well. But... if I wire for another minute, I'm going cross-eyed.

Here's the summary. My hot liquor tank is done. My mash tun is done. I have to wire connectors to my two thermocouples, and my valves. The high temperature tubing is on its way. I modified my burner so I can use my hot liquor tank on it.  And the control box is near completion. Once the box is wired, the tubes are hooked up, I'll run a test boil, and set the parameters on my PID controllers just right. Then, it's full steam ahead...

In case you dont believe my eye strain, here's my desk right now, parked in front of the tele.

Oh and by the way... THIS IS OUR 100th POST!!! Which I think is pretty frakkin exciting.

Monday morning edit: I went to my second meeting of the Central Florida Homebrewers yesterday. Lots of good beer floating around there. If you wonder what you do at a homebrew meeting, you bring some of yours, and you sample everyone elses. That's a lot of home brewed beer. The CFHB will also ship your beer to competitions for you, which is awesome. That bypasses the whole debate on about the legality of shipping your beer, or "live yeast samples" as they say. Good people too, everyone from people wanting to get into homebrewing, to people with 3 tier HERMS systems. I can't wait for the next meeting!

EDIT Monday Afternoon: It works!!! I almost can't believe, everything works. I've got temperatures, all my switches work, the valves work just as I want them to. Mid-week I should get the high temp hoses, and I'll run my water boil test. AWESOME!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Viva Las Vegas

The names below are in order from right to left.
As I travel, I always try and find interesting home-brew or craft beers along my journey. My honeymoon was no different, although we had an aggressive itinerary. Without going into too much depth, we traveled from Newark to Las Vegas, Flagstaff, Grand Canyon South Rim, Sedona, and finally Phoenix. The beer was so awesome in Flagstaff that it deserves its own post coming next week. Likewise, the beer in Las Vegas is so god-awful-terrible that it deserves its own post right now.

Las Vegas is an interesting town and wasn't at all what I expected. I've heard from others that over the last twenty years the pricing structure has changed greatly, moving away from gambling income and into the more traditional: fleecing of tourists. I really didn't expect everybody to pick my pocket but I digress. Although it is worth mentioning that the restaurants in Treasure Island are all terrible ($20 for severely burned toast, oily wet hash browns, and bacon I could use to scrape gum off my shoes.) This is a beer blog, so lets get back on topic.

Since I refuse to pay $9 for a Bud Light, Coors Light, or Michelob Light (unless it comes with five of its brothers), I felt like the only sober person on the Strip. Nearly all the restaurants cater to the same unenlightened (beer-wise) crowd,  so stadium-esque selection is to be expected. The one exception, the outlier, the oasis of beer in the desert is the Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay.

The Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay has a robust selection including quite a few local beers as well as a figurative magazine of Belgian imports. It's sort of like being a kid in a candy store, except with fewer trips to the dentist and more trips to the gastroenterologist. If you have any money left over after tipping absolutely everybody, definitely check it out. My brew-tour consisted of the following, which I will summarize briefly:

Tenaya Creek Brewery - Seasonal Hefeweizen
This was very good, but a little dry and bitter. The hops are there but not easy to taste.

Delirium - Tremens
Named after alcohol withdrawal symptoms, this one has an exceedingly high ABV. It tastes great and is really what Sam Adams Coastal Wheat should have been. You listening Sam?

Sin City - Amber Lager
This beer was crap. It was very watery and tastes like a poorly implemented kit American Ale. It has literally no smell at all and a slightly spicy taste. Definitely a tourist trap beer.

Dogfish Head - 90 Minute IPA
Sweet and very hoppy. This beer is always excellent.

This tasted a little stale and watery. It was really nothing special; not as good as Hoegaarden but better than Blue Moon.

Van Diest - Früli Strawberry
This was the best strawberry beer I've ever had. It was very sweet but tasted like real fruit. It was just like a great daiquiri or lambic.

That was my tour, but they have tons of beer to sample. If you're in Vegas drowning in expensive flavorless beer definitely check out the Burger Bar. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


So I've been spending some extra time doing a little volunteering. I head over to the Orlando Brewing Company, and they've got a little volunteer program where I can help out in the back. I thought this was great, get to know some people, get some experience, figure out how a brewery really works. What I didn't realize, is they pay you. In beer.

A beer an hour as a matter of fact. You can cash it out immediately, after your shift, or anytime you want. Thing is, I'm not there for the beer. So I've already racked up over ten free beers. That's one hell of a banger.

Day one was on the labeling machine. Easy enough. Next to the machine was a pallet of bottles. Which must have contained over 5000 bottles, stacked 8 feet tall, all wrapped in saran wrap. It looked like something at an abstract art show, except with purpose. And form. On the other side of the labeler was a stack of empty crates, and an empty pallet. All I had to do was fill two pallets. Crates 3 wide, 4 deep, and 5 tall. That's 60 crates per pallet. 25 bottles per crate (for some reason that doesn't sound right to me, feel free to correct me). Times 2 crates. Yeah, that's right,  I labeled 3000 bottles. That's more than you homebrewers. Ha. Did I drink them? No. Still...

Getting geeky for a second, I thought how the machine fed the labels was very interesting. It has a sensor that reads when a bottle passes, then another sensor that detects the break in between the labels. That's cool because it enables the machine to use any different width label that you want. Versatile. Anyway, back to the normal world... 

The other days I spent most of my time helping out bottling beers, all while in awe of this brewing system right next to me. Someday... Someday... So far I've got about 4 pallets of bottle-filling under my belt. If my memory serves me, we bottled a blonde, a pale, and a red. My duty was to wash the cases and wheel them into the refrigerator once they came off the machine (which is adorned with a wizard, had to throw that one in there). Now the warehouse isn't exactly conditioned. So you'd think that in Florida that refrigerator would be nice to walk in and out of. And it is, at first. But once you get all nasty and sweaty, it gets cold as %#@!. Oh well. The pain we edure to help a cause.

On a last note, and I probably should have expected this, but the people working at the brewery are awesome. Cool group of people (and no, I'm not sucking up to them). Where else do you have an owner come over and help you out with the grunt work? In the engineering world you get to staple stuff for your boss.