Sunday, 13 April 2014

Brew Day: Ordinary Bitter (plus water treatment)

The CHBG group buy wrapped up this week, but the grain probably won’t be delivered until next month, and until then I’m down to my last bucket of Maris Otter.  A few weeks ago I grew up some London Ale III (Wyeast 1318) from a slant, and I’m planning to top-crop it for a series of bitters with the last of this malt.

Ordinary bitters can be tricky to do well as a home-brewer.  I don’t have kegging equipment, let alone casks, and these low gravity bitters often don’t fare all that well with bottle-conditioning.  I brewed quite a few when I first started all-grain, but I had trouble brewing something I was really happy with.  Still, their low gravity also makes them a good choice for the first pitch grown from a slant, since they basically act as a large starter.  It will be interesting to see how this one comes out, given the improvements I’ve made in my process over the past year.

The recipe for this beer comes from Terry Foster’s book Pale Ale.  In my opinion this is one of the best I’ve read of the Classic Beer Styles series, and well worth picking up if you brew this kind of beer.  The recipe in the book is called “Quarter Session Bitter”, and the version below is modified slightly to fit the grains I had lying around.  The original uses only 150L Crystal, but I didn’t have enough so I subbed some Dark Crystal (~80L); I also replaced the wheat malt with torrified wheat.

I also switched the yeast.  London Ale III is a really nice one: it finishes a little sweet, but gives a lovely soft, balanced, and slightly fruity profile to the beer.  It is an excellent top-cropping strain too, and well-suited to open fermentation.  The one trouble I’ve had with it is that it can fail to fully attenuate in the primary, only to start up again after the beer is bottled, leading to over-carbonation (I think this is especially true with open fermentation).  I’m hoping to avoid this by rousing the yeast a few times as fermentation finishes.

An aside on Water Treatment

People seem to agree that water treatment is one of the last things new home-brewers should worry about, but that its also the thing that can transform well-made beer to something excellent.  I’ve followed what I think is a fairly standard trajectory in my home-brewing: taking care of fermentation temperatures first (initially with a swamp cooler, then with a fermentation chamber), then dealing with yeast health and wort oxygenation.  At this point I’m making reliably clean beers, but I think that the flavour profiles of many of them are still a bit muddy, lacking the elegance and structure that I am aiming for.  Water treatment seems to be the obvious next step here.  (In this recent episode of Chop and Brew, John Kimmich emphasizes the importance of mash pH for just this reason.)

In preparation for this brew, I went back and listened to some of the old Brew Strong episodes about water treatment, and started to make my way through the Brewer’s Publications book on water.  I’ve actually looked into it a little before, enough to know that my brewing water here in Chicago has high residual alkalinity and that this would affect my mash pH in pale beers.  So far I’ve been dealing with this my just adding ~3ml of lactic acid to the mash, hoping this would somehow bring the mash pH down into the right range.  Occasionally I would throw in 1/4 tsp of gypsum or calcium chloride as well, depending on the style, but it all felt more superstitious than informed.  Unfortunately it will probably stay that way until I get a pH meter, but these light beers that don’t cost much to make seem like a good place to experiment.

For this beer I sat down with the Bru’n Water spreadsheet and updated the cation and anion amounts to match the numbers on the city’s water reports.  I then played around with the mineral adjustments to get within the range that Foster suggests in his recipe.  I settled on adding 3.6g of gypsum and 0.2g of calcium chloride to my 24 litres of mash water, giving the following profile:

  Finished Profile Foster’s Profile
Calcium 70.6 50-100
Magnesium 11.8  
Sodium 8.4  
Sulfate 111.9 100-200
Chloride 20.3 20

But given the high levels of Residual Alkalinity in my water, this gives me a predicted mash pH outside the ideal range.  To get close I had to add 4.3ml of lactic acid to the mash: enough that it might make a difference to the final flavour profile, especially in such a light beer.  This is where the “farmhouse” style beers I’ve gravitated towards brewing really fit my process: some light tartness from the lactic acid wouldn’t be at all out of place there, whereas it might not fit well with a bitter.

The other option would be to cut my water with some distilled or RO water.  I do live near enough to a store to make this a possibility, but its still awkward walking home with that much water, and it adds to the cost of the brew.  I think I will experiment with it, perhaps when I have a pH meter, but only do it for special beers.  Here I’m looking for a more everyday water profile.

The brew day itself wasn’t my best.  I started late (and slightly hung-over!) and through absent mindedness completely forgot to add the whirlfloc: this will not be a bright beer.  I also missed my O.G. by two points: I don’t know if this is because the malt is getting old, or if I need to readjust my equipment profile on Beersmith (my last few brews have missed their O.G., which suggests the latter).

Since the turnaround on this beer should be pretty quick, I’ll probably post tasting notes in a month or so.  I am going to bottle a few beers this evening, including the Belgian Dry Stout.  I didn’t like the way it tasted  when I transferred it to secondary---too sweet, and not roasty enough---so it will be interesting to see if its improved at all.  I suspect the recipe will need more work.

Update 27/5/14: Tasting Notes.


Estimated O.G. 1.037    
Measured O.G. 1.035 (Low!)  
Measured F.G.      
ABV. 3.6%    
  154°F 75 minutes  
90% Maris Otter      
4% Torrified Wheat      
3.6% Extra Dark Crystal      
2.4% Dark Crystal      
Whitbread Goldings 60 33.8 IBUs (32g @ 5.3%)
Whitbread Goldings 0 0.0 IBUs (10g @ 5.3%)
London Ale III      

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