|BeerSmith Equipment Profile|
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.
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.
|Draining the Bag|
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.
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|
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.
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|
BottlingI 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.