Thursday, September 27, 2012

It's time to put it in cider

I'm often asked, "What's your favorite thing to put in cider?"
Hmmmmm, that's a hard one.  I really like to put the wood in cider. Spices, fruits or vegetables can all go in cider but if you cram to much in, it can be ruined.  There is also a lot to be said about not putting anything in cider, just taste and enjoy its natural flavors.
With fall comes apples and with apples comes homebrewers carrying bottles of cider which tastes of paint thinner and nail polish.  This is a basic mistake and it doesn't take much to put some great flavors in cider.
To make it good you need to first understand what is going on in there.  With beer, we are breaking down starch into sugar, so the yeast can eat it, but the breakdown is not complete so there is a lot of residual sweetness.  Apples are made up of much simpler sugars so the yeast is able to consume nearly all of it.  The result will be a solventy and dry concoction which is not drinkable.
Here is the way to hear cheers and win awards in cider.  Take your five gallons of fresh juice or cider and freeze two gallons.  Add a Camden tablet and sugar to the other three gallons until you have a OG of around 1.070 to 1.080.
Add your yeast.  I have used ale yeast, cider yeast and wine yeast and the wine yeast has worked best for me.  The others seem to fizzledick around and then crap out before it is finished.  You want a yeast that will get in and get things done in cider.
Then just wait until fermentation is finished and the FG reads 1.000, or around there. Transfer to a boil kettle or a spouted vessel.
At this point the cider will just be a mess.  It will taste absolutely horrible and you will be tempted to dump it.  First, add the two gallons of fresh cider you have saved, this will bring the apple taste you are looking for back.  Give it a stir and taste it, then start adding sugar until it tastes as sweet as you want it.  I like it crisp, but not to tart.  If you want something more like a pie then add apple pie spices.  Everything is done to taste so the sky is the limit.  I guess you could make a carmel appletini cider if it floats your boat.
When the cider tastes exactly how you want it to it is time to arrest fermentation.  Potassium sorbate is supposed to work but I have never had much faith in it.  I normally heat my kettle to pasteurize the cider and then keg it to add the gas back.  If you don't have a keg system then get with the program, or just have still cider.
However, it is not always sunshine and roses in cider.  The juice is stuck inside apples and getting it out is a giant pain in the ass.  Hand presses can be built or purchased for not a ton of money but they have the disadvantages of being slow and hard work.  Luckily for me, my in-laws have an orchard and industrial cider press so I get about as much cider as I want without any real work.  If I didn't have this option I would probably buy cider instead of trying to press it.
Every brewer should keep a stock of cider on hand.  It doesn't count as drinking before noon because it is juice, it's gluten free and lots of people without a real taste for beer will go bonkers over all the things that go in cider.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Brewstand rises with hidious glory

I admit the Curiosity rover is Ok. Sure, it traveled 150 million miles and landed on another celestial body, but it is not going to make beer like my brewstand.  Ultimately, what is more important?  Furthering the cause of science by learning about a place I will probably never visit.  Or getting me drunk.

On the other end of the spectrum is my brewstand.  Rising in my garage with cycloptian grace, it is a HERMS, two tier, double burner, pump driven, rolling brew station.

This was not what I imagined my stand would look like when I started this journey.  I had initially yearned for a tippy dump but there were several factors which led me to the ultimate design.   Dr. Frankenstein also never considered his creation a "monster" until it was finished and laying on the slab.  "Oh crap, I should have taken that home economics sewing class," is what he thought.
Most of the mashes I do are a simple single infusion.  However, I wanted the possibility of doing a step mash and all it took was a retrofit of an old wort chiller.  I can also use it on the cold end by filling my HLT with water and ice and running the wort through my plate chiller and then through the HERMS coil to get down to lager temps when my groundwater is too hot.

I liked the look of a single tier system, like a Brutus 10, but I only wanted to buy one pump.  I have seen three tier systems out there but they are bulkier than I wanted to deal with.

Probably the most daring feature of the stand is it is made of wood. I made this decision because I have all the tools to work with wood, I could make drawers and it is cheaper.  Now I will pause for the inevitable Natty Light drinking troll commenter to point out wood is flammable (Thank you Dr. Science!). 

The wood in questions is 14 inches from the nearest flame source and I don't leave a flame unattended for much longer than it takes to pee.  I've brewed on the stand six times and haven't seen any evidence of scorching.  If it appears to be a problem then a couple of pieces of thin sheet metal can form a heat shield. 

If the wood were to catch fire I'm not sure what I would do.  If only there were three large vessels containing 20, or more, gallons of water sitting on the stand.  To bad it is not as simple as just turning the valve on the hot liquor tank to have water come out. 

So far I am really pleased with my stand.  I have done step mashes and even a decoction and everything works pretty well.  I really like I can fill everything with water in place so I don't have to try to lift 9 gallons of water over my head.

However, everything is not sunshine and unicorn ejaculate.  I purchased the cheaper plastic quick connects from MoreBeer but don't really like them.  They don't seal really well and it is pretty easy for the pump to lose its prime, especially as soon as I dough in.  I would appreciate any tips from someone who knows how to prevent this.

The only other thing is the lag on a Ranco controller makes it pretty easy to overshoot your temps, especially if your hot liquor tank is really hot, so this takes a little bit of attention with cold water. 

Don't fear the wood.  As long as you take some fairly small precautions with set up and design, combined with a basic understanding of how fire works, you aren't going to torch your stand..

Here is the slideshow of more pictures:

Enter the 1,001 Ways to Screw Up Beer brewstand naming contest!

The brewstand needs a name.  Post a comment with your suggestion and I will pick the best, or if I think they are all lame I will taunt you.

Winner will gain the renowned of being mentioned on a beer blog with a global audience, my undying gratitude and a small village deep in the Amazon will be appointed to worship you as a primary deity.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Local guiness to teach brewing class

I was reading the paper this morning and noticed the community college was offering a one day class on the basics of brewing and beer appreciation this weekend.

I thought, "Oh, that is interesting.  I wonder who is teaching it?"

It was me.

I had a mild heart attack when I realized I had agreed to teach something back in November and totally spaced it out.  Hmmmmm, that's odd.  I thought beer was supposed to make you smarter, not make you forget things.

In three days, I need to come up with brewing supplies and figure out what in the hell I am going to say.  It is possible the class will be canceled because of a lack of interest but I don't think it's something I can count on.

So let's pose this question:  What do you wish someone had told you about brewing before you brewed the first time?

For me it is a toss up between the importance of StarSan and temperature control.  I think I ruined more beers with poor sanitation but had more mediocre success by stressing my yeast out.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Death to all hops

I have rode through the world of hops like a Horseman of the Apocalypse, leaving a path of fire and death in my wake.
Hops are widely believed to be a hardy breed and, once established, can be very difficult to remove. I challenge this assumption by offering up the wrecked bodies of numerous hop plants I have killed.
Before you rush out and buy a bunch of hop rhizomes, the big question you need to answer is, what, really, do you want to accomplish with your fresh hops? The advantage to pulling hops right off the bine and tossing them into your wort is you will get a fantastic fresh taste which most commercial beers can't even match. It will also give your brew a sense of terroir which beer does not normally possess.
However, unless you have the equipment, homegrown hops are hard to dry and store. Also, without a lab analysis you are going to have no idea what the alpha acid levels are and so it will be impossible to accurately formulate recipes and calculate IBUs. If you are a better brewer than me you may be able to do all of this by taste but I can't so I like to make one or two fresh hop beer a year and the rest of the time use pellet hops. I can accomplish this with one or two plants.
Many homebrewers dream of having a few extra plants and selling the additional hops to other homebrewers or hop processors. According to Niko from, there is really not much of a market for small production hop farms. If you are interested in selling your hops I would contact your local brewery or homebrew club to see if you can get something going but don't expect to quit your day job to adopt the swanky pimp-like lifestyle of a hop farmer.
Anymore, you can buy hop rhizomes directly from places like or most large online homebrew supply stores. has them. The selection is somewhat limited to open source plants. Varieties like Citra and Simcoe are proprietarily owned so you wont be able to grow your own.
The rhizomes are harvested in February so they will be available for planting in March and April. If you want to expand your own hopyard by splitting apart an existing rootball try to leave the majority of the roots intact. If you just chop it up you will kill the plant.
Once you pick out the hops you are interested in growing, buy two rhizomes. I experience around a 50 percent kill rate. You are supposed to plant the rhizome in sandy soil with the buds pointed up. I never really figured out what this meant because the rhizome looks like a stick and most of the time it doesn't have any noticeable buds. Plant both of the rhizomes in one hole, horizontally. If you don't have a ton of room they can be planted in a five gallon bucket or large pot but this will not give the roots a ton of space and you will not get great yields.
Ideally, hops should be planted in sandy soil to reduce standing water, which will cause downy mold and kill the plant. Hops like lots of sunlight, nutrients, frequent watering and walks on the beach. Pretty much like any other plant.
I have had some issues with aphids and grasshoppers. I normally try to spray everything with soapy water and then give up, when it doesn't work, and switch to the deadliest pesticide modern science can provide.
What not to do
When one has been brewing and drinking all day, it may seem like a good idea to dump your trub on your hop plant. This will kill it. I don't know if it is the change in soil pH, or if hops refuse to cannibalize, but your plant will die a horrible death.
I've done this twice. The first time I dumped hot wort on my hop plant and it was totally dead the next day. The second time I let the wort cool and then poured in on the hops. Then the all the leaves fell off and most of the bines dried out. It did kind of rally but was pretty sick for the rest of the year and never yielded any cones.
On found hops
Nearly every brewer has, at some point or another, come across some random hop plant growing in a friends back yard or along the fence of an abandoned farm. I've done it and gleefully harvested a bushel of hops out of an irrigation ditch, dried them and brewed a beer. Guess what? It tasted catty like I had filtered the beer through a meth whore's merkin. If someone told me they had found a sack of mystery grain in their basement I would politely decline brewing with it. Actually, I would probably taunt them as dipshits because I'm kind of a jerk but the point remains the same. Using fresh hops is difficult enough without adding in the additional complication of having no idea what kind you are dealing with.
Fresh hop beers are great and can be another brew in your seasonal brewing schedule.  But don't expect your backyard hop plant to supply all of your hop needs.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sorry to everybody

So I have been gone for awhile.  I wish I could say I have been drunk in a ditch but I have been moving and painting, which is much less glamorous. 

Coming soon will be a real post about how to kill hops. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

First trainwreck for the new kegs

Breaking in new equipment is a lot like finding a hooker on Craigslist. You know what they look like, but have no idea what kind of wacky shit you're going to run into.

Readers of the blog know I am in the process of totally revamping my brew system. Gone will be the cooler mash tun and old coffee pot hot liquor tank. The end plan is to roll with a 10 gallon 3 keg system in which I am able to perfectly control the temperature of my beer from the moment I dough in until I drink it. Of course, after having an only semi-successful brew day it makes me wax poetic for my cooler because I know how it works.
Taking my kegs, I measured a 10 inch hole in the top and drew out my cut mark with a piece of string and a marker. I also went to a restaurant supply store and purchased a huge stainless steel cookie sheet for $8. I drew a 10 inch circle on that also.
After I had depressurized the kegs I took all of this to a local welding shop and had them make the cuts with a plasma torch because I had heard this would produce a smoother cut than using an dremel or angle grinder. Don't fool yourself. Smoother is a relative term and it still took quite a bit of grinding in order to make the edges not jagged and sharp. This cost about $35.
I decided I needed to clean my kegs. The inside was filled with soot and slag from the cutting process and the outside had a bunch of old stickers and glue residue. So I put a wire brush on my angle grinder and polished the outside of the kegs. This turned out to be a huge mistake. The wire brush generated just enough heat to melt the sticker glue, but not enough to burn it off. It just smeared all this shit around and made everything sticky. I ended up having to scrub them again with GooGone in order to get the black shit off. Then I had to buff everything again in order to get them to shine.
Constructing a false bottom for the mash tun took a little bit of work. I took my 10 inch cookie sheet piece and a dremel to cut one small slit, just big enough for the hook on a paint can opener. Then I used the angle grinder to shape the piece until it dropped perfectly into the concave keg bottom. I drilled one hole in the center of the false bottom big enough for your drop tube and then about a billion little holes to act as the screen. Then I used the wire brush to shine it up.
After drilling and installing the spouts I came to a realization. The fundamental problem with making a kettle out of a keg is the bottom of the keg is concave. So you have to put the spout up where you would be leaving a couple of gallons of wort in the kettle. That shit is unacceptable! The easy fix is to use a bent piece of copper tubing and an $8 compression fitting. This works fine for the mash tun but there are a few issues to be aware of with your boil kettle. After the boil I turned on the valve to run my wort through my plate chiller and the I ended up with about a cup in the carboy before my drop tube sucked up a big wad of hops and clogged the shit out of the plate chiller. Yaaaaayyyyy!
So I had to take everything apart, blow out the clog and re-sanitize. While I was doing this I stirred the boil kettle a little to get a better whirlpool in order to try to keep the trub out of the damn way. It worked better the second time.
There are experts out there who advise changing one item on your brewing system, getting used to the change, and then changing something else. Of course, I am changing everything at once. Balls to the wall. I tried to test it out by filling all my kegs with water to see how things would flow but there is, honestly, no way to test the operation without brewing a batch.
So this is something I did right. I had some legitimate concerns about possible mash efficiency. If I failed to extract enough sugars, or titanically fail as it turned out, it could severely impact the IBUs of my finished beer. Therefore, I needed to pick a recipe which was more malt focused but had a sliding scale of success. I chose to do a Scottish ale because the recipe difference between a wee heavy and a /60 shilling is basically just amount of grain. I ended up getting only about 50 percent efficiency so it is a lot closer to a thin /60 shilling than anything else. Not the worst beer I have ever made, but not something I am super excited about.
Instead of installing a dial thermometer in my mash tun I opted to instead put in a thermowell. The plan is to eventually use my Johnson two way switch temperature controller to run the pump for the HERMS system. This led to to the big fail of brew day. I had mashed in just a touch hot and poured some cold water in my mash to regulate the temp. Nothing happened so I added some more. Then a little more. Suddenly the reading on thermometer dropped 10 degrees. I tried adding back some boiling water but by this time my mash was so thin I couldn't really do anything beside put the lid back on and go drink a beer.
Before the next brewday I plan on putting together a few more pieces of the brew system. I want to get a burner and I have already finished my HERMS coil. Also, I have put a screen around the drop tube on my boil kettle and now I know the temp controller only takes a reading every 20 seconds or so.

Friday, January 27, 2012

What? Brewing supplies can be found on the Internet?

In the year 2000, homebrewing in Idaho was like the Wild West.
I had found a recipe which had been smuggled out of Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia by a beer patriot who had encoded the grain bill and had it tattooed on his chest. I had painstakingly translated it into English and took it down to my local homebrew shop.
"I'm out of pilsner malt," said the red-headed shop owner. "Just use extra pale malt extract. It's pretty much the same thing."
I didn't really know the difference then but now that kind of attitude just drives me crazy. The reason I'm a homebrewer is I want to make the beer I want to make, not whatever is good enough. There is a dichotomy there. A homebrew shop should have every malt, hop and yeast a chubby beer nerd can think of but all of these items have a shelf life and who wants to buy stale supplies. I want to support my local homebrew shop, which is still 100 miles away, but most of the time I end up ordering stuff online anyway.
To the Internet!
In the Internet era, there is no excuse for not being able to source anything your perverted mind can think of. There is a ton of companies out there, each with good and bad attributes.
My current ingredient supplier is I love their BrewBuilder software, which allows you to customize a recipe down to the ounce, then they will fill a bag and ship it for $7. No more buying a pound of specialty grain for 2 ounces, no more measuring and weighing, no more trying to source exotic ingredients because they have a great selection. It is like having a customizable kit where you just mash in and go.
However, I have had a couple of problems with Brewmaster's Warehouse. Once they forgot to put the hops and yeast with the order, once I created a pilsner but when I mashed in it was a dark amber color so I have no idea what they put in there and one time I ended up on back order for three weeks. Also, I'm not sure who they use for a malt extract supplier, but both times I ordered liquid malt extract I could not get anywhere near my OG and the beer had the weird "extract" flavor. They do have very good customer service and have always made things right.
The bottom line is, I love them for all grain ingredients but I look else ware for other stuff.
I used for a long time and had really good luck. They have quality malt extract and are supposed to have good kits. Anytime I have had a shipping screw up it has been my fault and not theirs.
If you are looking for bulk hops, check out You can buy pounds of hops, down to 2 oz. packages. The prices and shipping are cheap. I have not ordered yet but I have talked to the owner and he seems pretty cool. It also looks like the only place you can still get Citra hops this year.
Most of the time when I am looking for equipment I go to The deal of the day can be a pretty good value and gives me an excuse to randomly buy something. They have a big selection of grain but I don't order from them because they only sell in one pound quantities.
These a just a few companies I have used. If you have a personal favorite, or someone who has jacked you around, post a comment.