So, Wot’s… Uh, the Deal?

Obviously, I haven’t been writing.  Haven’t been brewing, really, either.  Three or four batches in the last year, which is pretty much an all-time low since I started all-grain brewing.

What happened?  As Raoul Duke said, “What’s the score here?  What’s next?”Fear-and-Loathing-in-Las-Vegas

 

*sigh*

I spent much of the summer of 2013 researching what was needed to start a brewery.  I’ll spare you the gory details, or I would if I hadn’t already written them, but the basic answer was obvious:  Money.  More specifically, money I didn’t have.

There are varying levels of investment for various levels of expectation.  I could start a brewery out of the garage for a relatively small investment of time and a few modifications.  My intent, though, was to create a new job for myself, and virtually no one is supporting themselves out of a garage brewery.  Income minus expenses would equal bankruptcy and loss of the brewery.

A real, income-producing brewery involves a much larger scale that I could not afford.  I had no industry experience to bargain with, or borrow against, as it were.  No one was lined up to invest, and even if they were, it would be difficult for me to relinquish any sort of control over the business.

The same was true for the taproom idea.  Leases, build-outs, employees, little cash, and no real experience to work with were not a winning combination.

The real deal breaker, though, was that over the months I had ceased to be income-positive.

So I went back to work.  Having a generalized IT background and years of experience means I can still get a job around here, in most cases, pretty quickly.  As it worked out, I found one within a couple of weeks and am still working there, this time as a supervisor.  Managing a team of six is a great opportunity, and the experience gained should help me when I revisit the brewery and taproom idea a few years down the road.

I’m eager to get back to brewing more regularly.  I brewed a stout and brown ale on back-to-back weekends and it was fun to get back to basics.  I only brewed five gallons, didn’t use the Tower of Power for anything but the hot liquor, and relied entirely on gravity to move the fluids around.  Hit all of my marks on the stout, but flubbed the brown a little.  Nothing fatal, but too hoppy.

Proximity to my LHBS has had an impact on me.  My previous job was less than five minutes from Larry’s.  Now I work a good bit further away, and Larry’s isn’t really on my way to anywhere, so I’m less likely to go.  I need to get over my aversion to ordering ingredients online.

bee and borageAt any rate, this site will probably be changing over the coming months.  I’m spending  time on other projects, like Madera Verde Garden, and I’d like to showcase some of that work (most of which is my wife’s).  I still enjoy writing, and I’m looking forward to presenting some topics for which I have a passion equal to brewing.

In the meantime, support another local brewery, and cheers!

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!

The Tower of Power Saga Continues

I got through a few batches of beer with two fully-functioning Tower of Power controllers.  You don’t need two, but it is nice to set the temp on the HLT and walk away.  For legal reasons, I would not suggest actually walking away but you get the idea.

The system really is awesome and I enjoy brewing with it.  The flowmeter is great and so are the simple controls.  After a few batches to get a feel for how it worked, it was easy to set the temp to maintain the target, and it worked especially well this past weekend when the temperature in the garage was near freezing.

As far as the overall system goes, I still would like to tweak the Autosparge to recirculate the wort and sparge water via an adjustable length tube.  In other words, get these liquids into the mash tun without splashing and introducing oxygen at the surface.  Probably a nit-picky detail, but what do you think?

But recently an issue surfaced with the HLT controller:  When I would touch the connector for the temperature sensor where it plugged into the back of the unit, the temperature readout would fluctuate wildly — by tens and hundred degrees.  When it would stabilize, it was unclear if the reading was correct and I found that, in fact, it wasn’t.

As a troubleshooting measure, I plugged that temperature sensor into my mash controller where it’s reading was rock-solid and accurate.  Applying pressure to the connector when plugged in to the mash controller resulted in no change whatsoever on the readout.

So the HLT controller has once again traveled back to Indiana for refurbishing.  It wasn’t so bad without it this past weekend but I did forget to watch the HLT when it was heating up for the mash out and overshot by a lot.  That would not have happened with the controller.

Sounds like I should get it back next week.  Perfect time to start working on National Homebrew Competition recipes.

Tower of Power, Redux

After weeks of frustration, I finally have an answer regarding the problems I’ve been having connecting my Blichmann Tower of Power controllers to my laptop:  It’s the controllers!

Today I took my laptop and communication cables down to The Beer Essentials (thanks to Bruce and Robert for offering to help) and I connected everything to the demo system they’re using down there.  What do you know?  Everything worked just fine.  Whew!  I had started to worry that I was losing my technical prowess…

Come Monday morning, these controllers will find themselves on the road back to Lafayette, Indiana for a warranty repair or replacement.  In the meantime, tomorrow I’ll be brewing a new beer, this one a clone of a well-known local amber ale.  I’ve had mixed results with ambers in the past, but I’ve been on a roll over my last few batches, so I’m expecting the best results.

Blichmann Therminator and Thrumometer

The Blichmann Therminator was the second investment I made in a Blichmann product, but I’d say it was the most valuable and revolutionary for my brewing process.  For years I used an immersion chiller, and for many of those the chiller was undersized for the 10 gallon batches I was brewing.  The difference was mind-blowing.  I’ll say this:  If you only buy one fancy-schmancy brewing gadget for yourself, make this the one.

The Therminator is a plate chiller.  Cold water circulates across one side of the plates and the hot wort counter-flows across the other side of the plates.  The result is a very effective heat exchanger that can easily cool 11 gallons of hot wort down to 68 degrees F in less than ten minutes and can leave you with all the hot water you need for cleaning up.

When I bought mine, I didn’t choose to include the optional connection accessories, but if I had to do it again I would.  The Blichmann Quick Connectors, which I discussed in another post, are awesome for connecting hoses from the boil kettle to the chiller, and from the chiller to the fermenter.  I’ve never used the back-flush adapter, but I’m not really sure how useful it is.  The spray nozzle on my garden hose fits right over the wort in/out ports, so I just hose it out a few times in each direction, drain it, and store it for the next use.

A regular garden hose will easily connect to the water flowing out of the chiller, but for the flow in it wasn’t as commonsensical.  I went to the local hardware store and bought an adapter that has a female garden hose connection on both sides, each able to rotate independently of the other.  I tighten it on to the chiller first, then connect the hose coming from hose bib in the garage.  If the hot wort is flowing through the chiller at a good clip, you’ll get some extremely hot water that I collect for soaking and rinsing parts and tubes.

I live in an area where the ground water temperature averages about 56 degrees F over the course of the year, which contributes to the efficiency of my system.  The Therminator is so efficient, however, that anyone will benefit. There are relatively easy ways to augment the chilling process to get down to your target, even in places where ground water is much higher in temperature.

You can sanitize the Therminator in one of two ways: Use a sanitizing solution such as StarSan, or boil it in a pot of water.  Originally I soaked mine in StarSan or pumped StarSan through it, but I read somewhere that acid solutions will erode the metals over time.  Accurate or not, that seems reasonable to me, so I’ve gone to boiling The Therminator for at least 15 minutes in my original (now spare) five-gallon boil kettle.  It costs a bit in propane, but I think it will help extend the life of the Therminator.

I used the chiller with a gravity feed for a dozen or so batches and it worked wonderfully.  Because the flow rate drops as the boil kettle drains, I had to regularly alter the cold water flow to maintain the temperature going into the fermenter, but that was really the only drawback.  I will say, though, I really appreciate how a pump accelerates the process and allows me to ignore the cold water flow.

I use whole hops almost exclusively, and in a few situations I’ve had large hop chunks wedge themselves in the chiller, restricting the flow.  Most have come out by “blowing it out” using a garden hose with a trigger nozzle.  There has only been one time where nothing I tried cleared the blockage, including a half-assed attempt to use my air compressor.  Eventually I decided to boil it like I was sanitizing it.  As the water started to boil, the hop plug blew out (not violently, but be careful if you try this!) and I was once again able to run liquids through it.

The Blichmann Thrumometer is a very straightforward product: A solid tube of aluminum with an embedded liquid crystal thermometer.  As wort flows through the tube, the thermometer changes color quickly relative to the temperature of the flow.  A 3/8 inch tube fits nicely over each end, with or without clamps.  It came as a surprise to me that Blichmann offers only this one small bore, but it in retrospect it really hasn’t been an issue.

To sanitize, I soak mine in a StarSan solution for at least five minutes.  I’ve dedicated tubing to the Thrumometer, so I just run the lot into a bucket of sanitizer right before flame out and it’s ready when it’s time to chill.  One end of the tubing connects to a Blichmann 3/8 in. 90 degree connector screwed on to “wort out” of The Therminator, and the other end goes into the fermenter.

The Therminator and Thrumometer are solid investments.  I expect that I’ll have to replace the Thrumometer in time, but it’s already lasted a couple of years and made filling the fermenter much easier.  The Therminator has unquestionably saved me countless hours of time and gallons of water.  I can’t think of a better combination for making a brew day more efficient.

Blichmann Quick Connectors, Auto Sparge and Hop Blocker

I know–it looks like this blog is really just a front for Blichmann Engineering’s PR department, but that’s certainly not the case. I’m writing about the things I’m doing right now, and what I’m doing happens to revolve around Blichmann equipment.  I bought a lot of it recently, and I’m still working through the kinks.

In my previous post, I went over my experiences with the Tower of Power.  I specifically didn’t mention the other Blichmann products that I was using because I wanted to talk about them separately.  The Quick Connectors, Auto Sparge, and Hop Blocker are under review today.

Blichmann Quickconnect Washer

There’s nothing particularly complicated about the Quick Connectors.  Each connector comes with the “nut”, which is a standard 1/2″ female NPT connection.  The outside of the nut, however, is rubberized and ridged, making them comfortable to handle even when hot.  No tools are required to screw them on or off–hand tightening is sufficient.  To keep the connections leak-free, there is a rubber o-ring, or washer, on the inside of the nut.  One of the best benefits of thisdesign, in my opinion, is that it has eliminated my need for teflon tape.  No more scraping off the old crap for cleaning!

The rest of the connector is also stainless.  1/2″ and 3/8″ straight hose barbs, 90-degree elbow options, and a 3/8″ male NPT flare are all available.  I bought a half-dozen of the 1/2″ hose barbs and one of the 3/8″ flares.  Prior to this purchase, I had been using connectors bought from the local hardware store.  They did their job, but they required tools, teflon tape, and were made out of brass, none of which were ideal.

The difference was immediately noticeable: The Quick Connectors can be permanently attached to their hoses because they allow the nut to rotate independently of the hose barb.  The whole kit and caboodle can go into the sanitizing solution without having to fish the connectors off the bottom of the bucket or sanitize them in a different container.

The 3/8″ flare is a huge bonus for beer line cleaning.  I can quickly attach the connector to the pump (did I mention without teflon tape?) and equally quickly attach my beer lines for their 15 minute BLC bath.

The Auto Sparge is the Blichmann answer for simplified sparging.  It mounts to the mash tun through a hole drilled just under the rim of the vessel.  A 1/2″ male NPT connection on the outside of the mash tun allows you to connect the hot liquor tank and/or a recirculation from the mash (see my post about the Tower of Power).  On the inside of the mash tun there is a large adjustable float and a silicon outlet tube that runs through another, smaller float.

The large float is fundamentally the same thing as what you find in your toilet tank–it’s a hollow plastic ball attached to a stainless rod and a brass valve.  When the float comes up, the flow from the outside is restricted.  When it comes down, the flow increases.  Used in conjunction with a flow meter, the Auto Sparge can make the sparging process almost completely touchless, as the flow into the mash tun will automatically match the flow going out.

One complaint about this design is that, when combined with the location of the hole it’s mounted to, there are limitations to how low the volume of the mash can be before the Auto Sparge isn’t effective or efficient anymore.  The issue might be mitigated by a longer stainless rod, but I haven’t yet tried that.

The outlet tube has not worked ideally for me, but I’ve been using a 20 gallon mash tun to brew 11 gallon batches of beer.  With a 15 gallon mash tun, it might work perfectly.  As I’ve used it, the flow tends to be too fast and forceful to leave the top of the grain bed undisturbed.  It creates a crater and a tight recirculation flow that doesn’t really disburse the heated liquid efficiently.  I found myself tending to the top of the grain bed to encourage the flow to be more consistent throughout.  Also, the outlet tube has gotten clogged where it’s constricted by the small float that keeps it on top of the grain bed.

The Hop Blocker is not my favorite piece of equipment, but I’ve been using it regularly.  It looks something like a large tin can with large holes drilled into it from the midline-up, and smaller holes from the midline-down.  It also has a stainless steel “wrap” that can slide up and down the unit via a hook that’s exposed as the kettle drains.

Blichmann says the Hop Blocker is made for filtering pellet hops, and its performance is largely dependent upon whirlpooling to isolate hop material and trub in the center of the kettle before you start the runoff.  As the liquid level in the kettle goes down, you slide the wrap up, exposing the smaller holes at the bottom.  I don’t typically use pellets, but when I do I use a filter bag, so this purchase was not necessarily a logical one for me.  My hope was that it would work even better with whole hops, but that hasn’t been the case.

Over the course of a couple of brewing sessions, in addition to the Hop Blocker, I’ve gone back to stuffing a copper or stainless mesh, like a pot scrubber, under the drain tube as a pre-filter.  This method has proven to keep out most of the larger hop material without having to use a full false bottom.

One of the things I like about Blichmann is that they make equipment that is obviously designed for a specific purpose.  They’ve put thought into their designs, whose form follows their function.  I haven’t even mentioned their ball valves, which are stainless and can be fully disassembled for thorough cleaning.  I had no idea how gunky a ball valve could get until I took one apart after a few uses.

Blichmann Boilermaker Kettles

Boilermaker kettles are another recent addition to my pilot system.  The only models I don’t now own are the 10 and 15 gallon models (and a 15 gallon might be on my list in the near future).  At first I was disappointed with the gauge of the stainless steel used.  For cooking, I appreciate a “sandwich” bottom that consists of alternating layers of stainless and copper that help even out heat distribution.  For the price paid that’s what I expected, but it’s not an option with Blichmann.  So far, though, I haven’t seen any evidence I should miss it.  I’ve experienced no scorching or temperature control problems.

Each kettle comes with a lid, a Blichmann Brewmometer, a port for the thermometer, a Blichmann ball valve, a drain tube, a graduated sight glass protected by a metal surround, a cleaning tool for the sight glass, two allen wrenches for maintenance, and a metal heat deflector (to keep the thermometer cool).

The graduations for the sight glass are actually stamped into one side of the metal protector.  For better visibility, I’d like to see them stamped onto both sides, because on more than one occasion I’ve had to twist and contort to sight my liquid levels.  I have not yet tested the accuracy of these graduations, but I have reason to believe that they are not as accurate as I’d hope.  The cleaning tool for the sight glass is thoughtfully included, as is the allen wrench you’ll need to open the tube.

Update:  I performed an evaporation test with the 20 gallon kettle and as I filled it gallon by gallon, I watched how the water level compared to the graduations stamped into the sight glass surround.  Much to my surprise, it was very accurate!  Half-full at ten gallons the level of the meniscus was only slightly off from the graduation marker. Later I poured the leftover water into a 30 gallon kettle and the results were just as accurate.  Way to go, Blichmann!

Speaking of thoughtful, the kettle’s handles are mounted so that the ball valve and thermometer are not in your way while you’re carrying it.  The lid can hang conveniently on one of the handles, so it’s out of your way but still easy to grab when it’s time to lid up.

The Brewmometer seems to be well made and is graduated with markings that are specific to the brewing process (protein rest, mash, sparge, etc.).  It can be angled for easy viewing from different positions, but I’ve found that the process of adjusting the angle can also adjust the reading.  Truth be told, I don’t rely on these thermometers for more than just a rough swag.  As a matter of fact, I’ve removed them from some of my kettles and installed a Brewmometer plug to take its place.  You can easily calibrate these thermometers, and there’s no good reason not to use them except that I’m a data whore who likes my temps in digital, and preferably log-able, form.

An option when ordering is to have a hole drilled for the Auto Sparge, another Blichmann product I’ll discuss in a different post.  If you own a step drill bit of the right size, paying them to drill the hole is completely unnecessary, and in retrospect, I do wish I’d just bought a bit instead of paying for the service.  When you place your order, you can select one of six different locations around the perimeter of the pot for the hole.

The false bottom is  a single stainless sheet that’s been stamped to create thin, bi-plane, semi-circular slots through which the sweet wort can drain.  It has three pegs welded to the underside to keep it propped up off the bottom, and works in conjunction with the stepped design of the bottom of the kettle.  It’s been mostly effective for barley, but it seemed to be less so for wheat and rice hulls which kept coming out in circulation.  They can be kind of a pain to clean if you have to scrub them by hand because of the dozens of coin-sized surfaces to tend to.

You can buy a false bottom for any kettle size, but you really only need to buy one for your mash tun because they are not recommended for the boil kettle.  For the boil, Blichmann suggests using their Hop Blocker, which I will also discuss in a future post.

As with many mash tuns, the drain valve sits far above the actual bottom of the kettle, so if you don’t want to leave a couple gallons of liquid behind, you need a drain tube to get you down to just off the bottom.  The Blichmann tube works as two pieces: The weldless port that’s mounted into the hole at the bottom of the kettle, and the tube that inserts into it.  I was super-impressed with how effective it is, as only a quart is left behind in an ideal drainage situation.  To work effectively, though, you must maintain a siphon into the next vessel.

The truth is, the Boilermaker kettles don’t strike me as Blichmann’s best products.  They are designed intelligently and work well, I’m just not sure they’re worth the price. If you already have metal drill bits and are comfortable using them to create holes in a stainless kettle, you can probably get similar pots and weldless connections for less money.

What I think makes these worth their cost is Blichmann’s commitment to the quality of its products.  When I found that one of my kettles came with a welding flaw, I sent pics to Blichmann support and they responded with a replacement kettle and a pre-paid return label.  It cost me nothing to return and left me with no down time waiting for a replacement.

I’ve said it before: Blichmann products are not cheap to buy, but their quality and customer service are worth the price.  I’ve gotten nothing but great support from them when I’ve asked for it.  John Blichmann himself has answered almost all of my emails personally.  To me, there is value when the owner of a company takes the time to interact with his customers.

The Blichmann Tower of Power

I’ve implemented a mash recirculation system before.  Recirculation takes the liquid that’s in the mash and, surprise!, circulates it out of and back into the mash tun.  RIMS takes it a step further by heating the liquid during its travels and putting it back into the mash tun at a higher temperature than when it left.  RIMS is a great tool for brewers like me because it helps to keep the mash temperature stable and the sweet wort clear when you’re not luxuriating in a climate controlled environment.

My last recirculation system employed my retired immersion chiller, a pump, and my first-ever five gallon boil pot.  This method is known as HERMS.  I submerged the “chiller” in a pot of hot water and recirculated the mash liquid through it.  It worked, but it wasn’t elegant or consistent.  Keeping the pot of water at the right temperature was difficult, and of course there was plenty of heat loss through the tubing and pump.  It certainly wasn’t “set it and forget it” and ultimately it proved a bit too unwieldy to use regularly, so it was relegated to the realm of experimentation.

So imagine my glee when I saw that Blichmann Engineering was releasing a self-contained RIMS system called the Tower of Power.  ToP is modular, meaning that you can pick and choose from a few different configurations.  You have the controller, an optional second controller, an optional stand with a pump mount and flow meter, and an optional pump.  In its fully decked-out form, you can control the temperature of your liquor tank and mash tun individually, as well as control power to the pump and direct the pump output to three different destinations, all without having to swap hoses.

The controllers are responsible for temperature maintenance. If you just want to automate the HLT you can buy a single controller and not have to futz around with a pump.  Controllers come with a temperature sensor, an igniter, a solenoid valve, and programmable electronics.  The igniter attaches to the burner, and the valve attaches to the gas line.  You don’t even need Blichmann burners — it all works fine hooked up to my unaltered Camp Chef cooker.

If you want to control the mash temperature, you will need a pump to recirculate.  You can buy a March pump through Blichmann, but I already had a couple of Little Giant pumps I’d been using.  Except for differing angles of the intake/output ports, my pumps are basically the same as the March ones.

The controller’s temperature sensor can easily be adapted to any DIY recirculation setup, but I think the tower unit offered by Blichmann is worth it’s price.  If you buy the stand, the pump is mounted low on the tower with a splash guard, and is powered via three wires provided.  The pump is controlled by a single on/off switch with a bonus third position that enables a flow sensor alarm.

ToP FlowmeterA hose connects the pump to the flow meter.  The flow meter is great for timing the sparge and maintaining the proper recirculation speed.  The attached flow sensor is a bonus if you want to walk away but ensure your flow rate doesn’t drop below an acceptable level (like with a stuck mash).

From the flow meter, liquid can be steered to three different destinations using two different valves.  The bi-directional valve offers the ability to plumb your mash recirculation hose on one side and your outlet to the boil kettle on the other side.  The one-way valve can function as a sample port or just another place to direct the flow.

Just above the flow meter, there is a port for the mash temperature sensor.  When the recirculating temperature drops below the target value, the controller sounds an alarm, fires the igniter, and opens the gas valve to the burner under the mash tun.  Once the burner is lit, the igniter stops firing.  If the flame goes out, the igniter fires again automatically.  If a flame isn’t detected within 10 seconds, the system shuts itself off.  Pretty awesome!

You can configure the controller using the input pad on the front, but an optional data cable allows you to program the controller using a PC and Blichmann’s free software.  The software also allows you to save temperture profiles for repeated use, and you can graph your temperatures for monitoring and record keeping.  Being the data whore I am, this has tremendous appeal to me.

It’s pretty slick, I have to admit, but it’s not cheap.  I’ve paid a high price for what I hope will be more consistent beer.  There are also a few issues worth considering.

One problem I encountered was on my first live run with the data cable and controller software.  I’d set up a program and executed it, but the connection between the computer and the controller seemed to keep breaking.  The software would stop responding and the only way to fix it was to kill the application and reopen it.  Fortunately, the controller was designed to deal with communication failures, so it continued to run the program with no fuss.  I, on the other hand, was spending a lot of time starting and stopping the software, which is not how I want to spend my brew day.

A similar issue arose during my last brew session.  As a matter of fact, the complete failure of the software to detect either controller wasted the first two and a half hours of my day.  I tried three different computers, two different operating systems, and both of the controllers, yet was never able to connect.  I assume the issue is with the cable, though I have yet to confirm that.  The cable has a chip-controlled USB connector for the PC and an RJ-12 connector for the controller.  Thanks to the chip, the cable is detected by the Windows operating system regardless of whether or not it’s connected to the Blichmann controllers.  There’s a whole other technical discussion there that I’ll spare you, but suffice to say, there was no computer interface last session.  Update:  The cable does not appear to be the problem.  I ordered a new one and am still experiencing problems connecting to the controllers.  I’m mystified why the software says “COMM established” even when it’s not.  It’s done that since I first installed the software, before I ever connected the controllers, and I was still able to get it to work the first time, but it doesn’t seem right.

As I mentioned above, the communications cable and software is optional.  The controllers function fine without programming them, however, an issue comes up when a controller has already been programmed and you want to clear it when your communications software is no longer working.  I couldn’t figure out how to clear the program from the front panel of the HLT controller and so I was stuck monitoring the temperature and manually turning off the burner when it reached the target.  So, other than a fancy digital temperature readout, I was still using my old process.

My frustration mounted when I couldn’t find any comprehensive support for the controller units.   I watched the Blichmann videos on YouTube.  I searched and searched and re-searched Google for some indication that someone else has already had the same experience.  I even re-read the documentation!  At the very end of the ToP user guide, they provide instructions on how to use the input pad to set the temperature controller for Celsius instead of Farenheit, so it’s clear there are functions that can be performed from the control pad that can further tweak the configuration, but good luck finding any information about that.

Blichmann is very clear that they do not provide support for the unit — questions are supposed to go through the reseller, but I was brewing on a holiday, so my LHBS was closed.  There a couple of ToP posts on the homebrew forums, but they didn’t have anything to do with the functionality of the controllers.  I would be super-impressed with any Blichmann reseller who provide support for one of these controllers.  Aside:  I see a need for a Blichmann community forum.  Perhaps it will start here.

I’ve also found that the flow meter tends to get gunked up easily.  It doesn’t necessarily prevent the liquid from flowing, but it certainly does eliminate precision.  It happens with the mash recirculation, sparge, and when draining the kettle.  I did my best to clarify the mash and the wort before running them through the pump, but ultimately it didn’t prevent the buildup of stuff on the float.  I don’t know how I’m going to mitigate this issue — some sort of pre-filter, I suppose, but I’m concerned that doing that will clog the flow completely.

There are some minor improvements that can be made, too.  With a suggestion from the ToP user guide, I bought a stainless ‘T’ connector to which I attached two hose barbs opposite each other, then attached the whole of that to the Blichmann Auto Sparge mounted on the mash tun. That’s really cool because I can have the hose from the HLT connected to the mash tun at the same time as the hose from the pump.  A turn of the valves is all that’s necessary to switch between doughing-in, recirculating the mash, and sparging.

Another improvement I think Blichmann could make is to offer a stainless tube that can be mounted in the same position as the Auto Sparge, but on the boil kettle instead of the mash tun.  Just like the Auto Sparge, a hose from the pump would connect on the outside of the tank, and a tube would run inside the tank, down to the bottom, and would output “parallel” to the wall of the kettle, directing the flow along the edge to create a whirlpool.

It would also be nice to set up a system that allows both the mash tun and boil kettle to be simultaneously connected to the pump inlet, but individually controlled via valves.  Doing this would push the convenience level over the top.  You could set up the entire sculpture and would not have to connect or disconnect anything until its time to chill the wort, and you could probably engineer around that, too.

All in all, I’m really encouraged by the Tower of Power.  Yes, with some know-how and a lot of time, all of these functions could have been achieved by DIY projects.  I already have a ton of things to do, one of which is actually brew beer, so I’m okay not building an automated system all on my own.

 

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.