Perfection in Five

I’ve been slowly progressing through what I call my “Perfection in Five” series. I haven’t been brewing the same recipes often enough to really dial them in.  By that I mean I haven’t defined a repeatable recipe and process.  Perfection in Five challenges me to produce one perfected recipe within five brewing sessions.

For years I’ve been brewing 10 gallon batches per session.  As I’m sure I’ve said before, it takes the same amount of time to brew five gallons as it does 10, so why not brew 10?  If I make a good beer, I want to drink it and I want other people to try it, so it works out well.  But if I don’t think the beer is good… well… it sticks around too long and becomes a burden.  Since Perfection in Five is an experiment that was meant to be completed quickly, I didn’t want a bunch of beer hanging around, so I decided that five gallon batches made the most sense.

Except I disposed of all of my “small batch” equipment when making room for my new equipment.

I’ve invested in a system where even a 10 gallon batch is small, so trying to produce five gallons really is asking too much.  I understand now that I want the option to scale back, so I decided to buy an industrial 10 gallon Igloo cooler for a mash tun.  This cooler is designed to keep water cold for a few days at a time, which tickles my fancy for mashing in a near-freezing garage.  My assumption is that it will do just as good of a job insulating a hot mash as it would a cold drink.  Yes, temperature control is a fetish.

I wanted another control for this experiment to be the ingredients, so I put together the recipe and calculated how much of everything I would need to produce five 5-gallon batches.  I gathered up enough grain and hops so that every run of my experiment would use the same batches of those ingredients.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough yeast available at my LHBS, so the control is slightly less controlled in that I will be using two different batches of the same yeast.

This is going to be fun for me, and it’s a great time of year to brew the German pils style I’m trying to duplicate with this recipe.

Plans, Vol. 1

Despite my lack of posts, I’ve been keeping an eye on the site traffic and recognize I have a lot of work to do.  I intend to break up a few of my earlier Blichmann posts to provide more thorough reviews and better pictures.  I also have a few reviews I haven’t started yet.

I find myself with more time on my hands than I expected to have right now, so I’ll be out in the garden making improvements and documenting that work.  Next week I’ll be picking up the butchered hog I purchased this year and will be making prosciutto and country ham with it, plus sausage, bacon, pulled-pork, ribs and so much more!

Plus, I have more than a handful of brewing recipes I want to work on, so you’ll see a bit about those in the coming weeks, too!

Anchors Away Ale (v1.0)

A few weeks ago I wanted to explore a pale ale that I hadn’t brewed before.  I decided to take it easy on myself and get the recipe from Brew Your Own’s 150 Classic Clone Recipes edition, and I settled on a steam beer.  Technically I can’t brew a steam beer because I have a direct-fired kettle, but I’ve never been one to let details get in the way of a brew day.

Pretty straightforward ingredients: pale malt, crystal malt, and one hop in three additions.  But then there’s a yeast I’ve never used before, California Lager, and there’s the relatively high fermentation temperature (for a lager yeast) of 64 degrees.

My OG and volume were almost spot-on at 1.052 and 11 gallons, respectively.  I let the temperature of the wort stabilize overnight at around 66 degrees before oxygenating and pitching the yeast starter, which had been been on the stir plate for about two days before I let it settle overnight.  Signs of fermentation were obvious 12 hours later, at which point I moved them into a freezer set to 64 degrees.

I did a forced ferment test on this batch, pouring off some of each carboy into an Erlenmeyer flask and setting on the stir plate, unrefrigerated.  When I checked the gravity after a few days at 80 degrees, it was only down to 1.018, which is far above the expected final gravity.  I wasn’t sure what to think of that.

The bubbles that form on top of the fermenting wort never went away, even weeks after fermentation started.  I let the temp come up to 68 over the course of the third week, but still the bubbles remained.  Finally I racked into serving kegs today and was able to conveniently check the gravities.  One carboy, the one whose bubbles were the “stickiest” and most abundant, was still around 1.018.  That half of the batch was also very clear.  The other carboy was around 1.014, and had a cloudier appearance.

Sampling at different points in the transfer process might have made a difference in clarity, but I wouldn’t expect it to make a difference in attenuation.  Why did the same batch of yeast starter and the same wort produce two different beers?

Nonni’s Molasses Cookie Ale (v1.0)

I don’t know that I can recall ever seeing my grandmother, Nonni, actually consume a beer.  Wine, certainly, but beers were my grandfather’s bailiwick.  When Nonni passed away some weeks ago, I pondered what I could do in memoriam, and of course the idea of a beer came to mind.  Choosing to brew a beer is, by nature, a self-centered decision for me, so I thought hard on how I could connect specifically with my grandmother on this occasion.

The first thing that came to mind was a pizzelle cookie beer.  Pizzelles are a traditional Italian cookie that are made with anise seed and are cooked on the stove using a special waffle iron.  I love them.  I scarf them up whenever they’re around, which is to say, Christmas and the occasional visit with or from my mother.  Drinking a beer with a black licorice flavor didn’t strike me as the best choice, though.  Maybe someday.

Until a recent trip back to Albuquerque, I hadn’t realized that the molasses cookie recipe my mom gave to me years ago actually came from Nonni.  During Nonni’s funeral preparations, more than one person mentioned the cookies, and in retrospect, my father had raved about them, too, so the decision was made organically.

There’s nothing particularly surprising about molasses as an ingredient, and certainly wouldn’t be the first time molasses was used in beer for flavor or fermentables.  The orange glaze on the top of the cookie could also be replicated — orange is regularly added to beer for flavor (Reinheitsgebot be damned).

From there it gets a little more dodgy.  I struggled to come up with something that would put this beer over the top.  As luck would have it, the answer was obvious:  Wheat.  Flour is one of the primary ingredients in a cookie, yeah?  Wheat isn’t uncommon for a beer, either.  If you’ve had a hefeweizen or a weissbeer, you’ve had a beer where wheat was a significant part of the recipe.

Done. Deal.

I threw some numbers into Beersmith and came up with a basic recipe.  Gravity wasn’t going to be too high (1.062 or so).  Wanted to keep the bitterness low (14 IBUs, give or take).  I got hung up on how to make it darker, until I realized that it just didn’t matter.

Despite the ease with which the recipe came together, I was intimidated.  My last foray into wheat brewing resulted in my only batch of beer that never made it into the boil kettle.  I’d read about how wheat tends to stick the mash, and I used rice hulls to help it drain better, but it still got the best of me and I was done with it.  I tossed a lot of raw ingredient that day, and this time had to be different.

Perhaps Nonni was smiling down upon me, but the brew really did work out well.  I added A LOT of rice hulls and had no issues with a stuck mash.  I even used the Blichmann Tower of Power, which recirculates the mash and fires the mash tun to maintain temperature.  I thought for sure I’d be hosed by the recirculation but the rice hulls did their job and I got the sweet wort into the boil kettle surprisingly efficiently.

I chose a single hop for this batch and added them over the course of an hour.  I also threw in the bitter orange peel and molasses towards the end.  Despite boiling for an extra half-hour, I still had excess volume and a correspondingly lower OG of 1.059.  This is an inefficiency that I need to resolve, but it does give me some room to work with to blow off trub and yeast sediment over the next few weeks (conical fermenters, FTW!).

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Barely into September, but recently the temperatures have dropped into the 40s overnight. I was hoping to keep the fermenter out in the garage this time around but the temperature fluctuations would be too much.  Hauled it in and hooked up a temperature controller to a heater to keep it right and it’s bubbling away as I type.

I pitched a Northwest Ale starter I started a couple of days in advance.  I really love how the yeast, when I prep it like this, is ready to go as soon as it hits the wort.  It’s been rare that fermentations have taken more than twelve hours or so to get going.  This isn’t necessarily proof of a great fermentation but it’s been working well.

I tasted the sweet wort and it really did taste like a molasses cookie!  The wheat, molasses and orange were all there.  The yeast will mix things up a bit, though, and I’m curious to see just how it works out.  There will be adjustments, but I’m feeling particularly optimistic with this one.