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?


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!).


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.