Monday, 3 March 2014

A Typical Brew Day

This post documents a typical brew day.  Every brewer has their own process, shaped in various ways by their work-space, equipment, budget, and so on.  My aim here is to give you a sense of how the beers posted on this blog are brewed, and to show how the brew day routine I've settled on fits with my own constraints and aims in brewing.  This is not supposed to be a how-to guide!

BeerSmith Equipment Profile

Recipe Formulation

I use BeerSmith 2 to formulate my recipes.  My standard Equipment Profile is for a 3 gallon batch---or rather, it gives me enough beer to take a hydrometer reading post-primary fermentation and also fill a 3 gallon Better Bottle completely if I transfer to secondary.  I first formulated this profile to minimize oxidation in sour beers that would be sitting in a carboy for many months, but I now use it for almost all beers.

My mash efficiency is typically between 75-80%, but because of the way BeerSmith works out overall efficiency my Brewhouse number is only 53%.  I typically get within a few points of my target O.G., but there is definitely room for improvement here: sometimes I am off by as much as 4 or 5 points, and I need to work out when this happens and why.

Propagating the Yeast

For the past year and a half, I've banked every yeast strain I've used on slants.  Even though I've never had an infection, I am convinced that my aseptic technique is terrible and I'm amazed every time it works out.  A week before brew day, I take a few cells from a slant and begin to grow them up in 10ml of wort.  From here I step them up through a series of starters on my stir-plate: usually 50ml, ~500ml, and then 1-1.5l.  The first beer I pitch into usually has a low O.G. and is never something I really care about; essentially its another extra-large starter.  I have no way of accurately counting pitching rates, so there is a lot of guess work involved in all of this.

Most of the time, I plan a series of beers for a particular pitch of yeast.  Almost all the strains I use regularly are excellent top-croppers:  Wyeast West Yorkshire (1469), London Ale III (1318), Ardennes (3522), Trappist High Gravity (3787).  I harvest all of these directly from the fermenter during active fermentation, but I also wash other strains collected after fermentation is over: in particular, Wyeast French Saison (3711), Lallemand Belle Saison, and any brett strain used for primary fermentation.  There are a few other strains that I use less frequently, and I've recently added some new ones from The Yeast Bay that I'm excited to try out.  I also keep a few dry packets of Nottingham, US-05, and Belle Saison around in case something goes wrong with a starter.  (I have a collection of souring organisms and wild yeast in gallon jugs, but they deserve a separate post.)

Milling the Grain

I purchase grain in bulk through group buys organized by Chicago Home Brewers Group.  Usually I have a Belgian or German pilsner malt, a British base malt, and standard American two-row on hand at all times.  I also buy some adjuncts such as wheat or rye in bulk (usually half sacks), as well as specialty grains like Vienna or Munich.  Once I bought a half sack of Crystal, but most of it is still unused 6 months later.

Corona Grain Mill
I mill all my grain by hand using a Corona Mill.  This is a good example of a place where my process fits the kind of beers I tend to brew.  Since I'm typically doing a 3 gallon batch, and aiming for a low gravity beer, cranking the grist out by hand isn't too difficult; and since I'm doing BIAB, I don't have to worry about stuck sparges caused by milling too finely.  So in a sense the Corona is limiting: milling the grist for high gravity beers is annoying, as is brewing more than 3 gallons at a time.  But, for the most part, I'm not very interested in brewing big beers; and I brew frequently enough that 3 gallons is usually plenty.  (I do sometimes wish that I could brew larger quantities of sour beer, since they take so long to age and tie up fermenters.)

Some people make modifications to improve their mills, but I haven't changed mine at all.  I condition the grain before milling: spraying it with water from a spray bottle, mixing the grain up to make sure the water is absorbed evenly.  This preserves the husks, and slightly reduces the amount of flour in the grist; but even using this technique I still end up with a fair bit of flour, and I try to accommodate this by other steps in my process.

The Mash

I do full volume, single-vessel Brew in a Bag.  I still use the 36-quart pot I used for my four or five extract batches.  Eventually I would like to upgrade to something larger, ideally with a ball-valve and thermometer; but that may take a while given my budget.  When I first moved to BIAB, I used paint-strainer bags, and then cheap mesh bags from my LHBS.  Last year I upgraded to a custom-made bag from wilserbrewer on HBT, and I've been very happy with it so far.  My earlier bags all split at the seams, even after I reinforced them with back-stitches; this one has held up well so far.  The stick is a wooden paint-stirrer with volumes marked onto it. I also place a stainless-steel steamer underneath the bag to avoid scorching the grain when I apply heat to the wort.  

I usually measure out the full volume of water from the tap the night before brewing, add half a campden tablet, and let it sit until the next day.  This deals with any chlorine or chloramines in the water.  I also usually add 3-4 ml of lactic acid for pale beers.  Since I don't have anyway way of testing my mash pH, I don't know if this makes any difference.  (I would like to buy a pH meter, but again its currently outside my budget.)  Sometimes I add 1/4 to 1/2 tsp of gypsum or calcium chloride, based on the kind of beer I am brewing; but again, this is mainly habit and I haven't really paid attention to any difference it might make in the final product.  Sometime soon I will sit down with the copy of Water I got this Christmas and work out something more informed here.

Insulated Kettle
 I typically mash for ~90 minutes.  Sometimes I perform step-mashes, but usually I do a single-infusion mash and leave it undisturbed for the full time.  I insulate my kettle with an old vinyl exercise mat that I cut up to fit around it: one piece for the sides, and one piece for the top.  I also put an old sleeping bag on top of this.  With this insulation, my mash temperature usually only drops by 1-2 °F over the course of 90 minutes.  Occasionally I take the kettle off the stove while I mash, but after suffering a hernia (no doubt in part related to lifting this full kettle up and down!) I'm now much more cautious about moving it, and often leave it wrapped-up on the stove-top.

Draining the Bag
After 90 minutes is up, I raise the temperature of the wort to 168 °F, then immediately remove the bag and place it on an oven-rack above the kettle to allow the wort to drain.  At first I weigh the bag down with any heavy objects that are nearby; after a few minutes, I squeeze it by hand to extract still more wort.  I have never noticed any astringent off-flavours in the final beer that might be related to squeezing the grain, but perhaps someone with a better palette would.

Since the Corona produces a fair bit of flour in the grist, and since I am doing BIAB and do not recirculate, I often have a very cloudy wort at this point.

The Boil

While the bag is draining, I continue to heat the wort up to a boil.  I typically boil for 90 minutes, in part to encourage proteins to coagulate so that I end up with a clear beer (this is one of the step I take to accommodate the fact that I use a Corona and BIAB), and in part because I am often using pilsner malt and want to avoid DMS in the final beer.  I also skim some of the scum that collects as the wort reaches a boil so that it is not in the boil for the whole time.

Kettle Additions
Kettle additions are all measured out pre-boil.  I've already mentioned the lactic acid added to the mash-water.  I also add 1/2 tab of whirlfloc when there is 10 minutes left in the boil.  This is to encourage a good cold break, and is yet another step I take to ensure clear beer given the fact that I start the boil with a fairly cloudy wort.  It seems to work, as I get a good cold break and my final beer is clear.  When I do not add whirlfloc. the beer is very murky.

While the boil is going, I fill the fermenter with 3 gallons of star-san solution, and soak my wort-chiller, tubing, racking cane, etc for the last 15 minutes of the boil.  I then remove all of this to another bucket along with most of the star-san, seal the bucket up, and give it a good shake to make sure all the surfaces are coated with star-san bubbles.  Sometimes I just add my wort-chiller to the kettle for the last 15-20 minutes of the boil.

Cooling the Wort


After the boil is over, I put my wort-chiller into the kettle and fill the sink with cold water.  If I am not performing a hop-stand, I immediately begin to circulate cold-water through the chiller using a cheap sump-pump.  I collect the hot water that comes out the other end in a large tub, add oxy-clean, and use it to soak any empty bottles I have at the time.

One great thing about the cold Chicago winters is the low ground-water temperatures we get for half of the year.  These, combined with the fact that I stir the wort every few minutes, mean that I often reach pitching temperature ( ~64°F) in 20-25 minutes (and get down to 90°F in about 10 minutes).  In the summer, when the water is warmer, everything takes longer and I have to add a bag of ice to get the wort down the final 20°F.

When I'm not stirring the wort, I leave the lid propped on top of the kettle.  One improvement I would like to make here is to recirculate the wort with a pump rather than stirring it by hand.  This would result in faster cooling times, and minimize the risk of infection since I wouldn't have to remove the lid (I've never had one so far, but I do worry about it).  But it would require a ball-valve on my kettle, and a pump that could withstand high-temperatures, and once again both are currently outside my budget.

Once the wort is cool, I take one more step to ensure clear beer: a whirlpool.  I stir the wort in the kettle for a minute or so until a steady whirlpool forms, put the lid back on, and let it sit for between 30-45 minutes.  Even with this step I still end up leaving a fair bit of wort in the kettle, because I end up with a lot of cold-break and it doesn't form a nice cone post-whirlpool like the hops do.

I often reuse this left-over wort.  First I strain it to remove as much of the hops and cold-break material as I can, then leave it to settle for an hour or two, before pouring off the clear wort that results.  This either goes in the fridge to reboil for a starter in the next week, or gets canned in my pressure cooker for future use.

At this point I transfer the wort to a fermenter using an auto-siphon. I do transfer some of the break material across to the fermenter, but for the most part I try to make sure I am transferring clear wort.

Oxygenating Wort
Once the wort has been transferred, I oxygenate it.  Sometimes I do this by transferring the wort through a small piece of racking-cane with a hole in it, exploiting the venturi effect.  About a year ago I bought an oxygenation kit, and I use this when I brewing something with an O.G. above 1.050, or when I want to make sure I end up with a very dry beer.


Finally, I pitch the yeast.  If I am using a new pack of commercial yeast that is relatively fresh, I will pitch it directly.  If the yeast is older, or if I am growing it up from a slant, I will make a series of starters to grow up sufficient quantity of cells.  There is always some guess-work involved here, as I have no reliable way to do cell-counts.  As I said above, I like to top-crop yeast during active fermentation, and if I am brewing frequently enough I will re-pitch this within a couple of days.
Fermentation Chamber

Primary fermentation takes place in my temperature-controlled fermentation chamber.  It is made from a cheap second-hand fridge, extended with an insulated wooden collar.  The temperature is controlled by an aquarium temperature controller purchased from Ebay and wired using instructions on HBT.  A friend helped me build it all, and while its not the most sturdy or well-insulated chamber, it can hold ale fermentation temperatures just fine.  I've also fermented some kolsch-style beers at as low as 55°F in there.

Most of the time my primary fermentation vessel is a bucket.  I like using them because it is easy to top-crop yeasts, and because I can ferment enough wort to fill a 3 gallon Better Bottle post-fermentation.  Sometimes I leave the lid cracked for an open fermentation, and sometimes I ferment directly in a Better Bottle, using fermcap to prevent overflow.

Sours and other wild beers
I don't always bother transferring to secondary, but when I do it is usually in a 3 gallon Better Bottle.  I have ~10 of these at the moment, and I'll probably get more. Sometimes I transfer so that I can cycle other beers through my buckets and crop the resulting yeast, and sometimes I transfer for long term aging.  I have a separate closet (without temperature control) where I store my sours.  I worry about them in the high temperatures of the Chicago summer, but I don't know what to do about it.


I bottle all my beers.  I would love to keg, but once again I don't have space in my budget at the moment.  This does fit with the rest of my process though: I am unlikely to buy new equipment to allow me to brew larger batches until I can do some kegging, as I bottle fairly frequently and doing 5 or 10 gallon batches would be a nuisance.

I have two sets of equipment for this: one for regular beers, and one for sour beers or beers fermented with brettanomyces.  One recent step I added to my process is adding BioFine Clear to my pale beers at bottling.  This is yet another measure to ensure I have crystal clear beer, and it generally works well after a few weeks in the bottle.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it.  As I said, the whole process makes sense to me given my constraints and my aims, and its getting to the point where I feel like any change would have to be quite major. 

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