Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ring in the new year with your pants on, for once

Like a karaoke singing elephant, with its lipstick smeared and tits hanging out, the new year approaches.

Every year, New Year's Eve produces two things.  There will be neo-prohibitionist jerks treating every responsible adult like a child by trying to convince the world that having a drink is the exact same as committing the crime of drinking and driving. 

Then there will be the small minority of drunk assholes proving the neo-prohibitionist correct.

If you brew you love beer.  You may like the chemistry of the brew, you may dig building cool gadgets to make brewing easier or you get off on the artistry of building the perfect recipe.

However, let's not kid ourselves, hand in hand with the love of making beer is the love of drinking beer.  On an intellectual level we enjoy the taste of beer and appreciate the play of malt and hops across our tongue like rollicking fawns on a spring day.  To love beer is to appreciate the mastery of a well made beer.


Beer contains alcohol, which is one of the reasons we like it.  Alcohol stimulates the pleasure sensors of the brain and makes us feel good, it relaxes us and makes for better dancers.
We have a very peculiar relationship with alcohol in this country.  As an adult, it is perfectly acceptable to drink socially, in designated places, and even go out and drink yourself blind on approved holidays like New Years Eve, St. Patty's Day and Halloween.  Even while this behavior is accepted it is also demonized because of the lack of control.  But if your homebrew club were to meet in a local park on a spring day and trade 2 oz. tasters of beer the party would be shut down fast by jackboot wearing thugs terrified everyone involved would soon lose control and start pooping in the dog run.

There is a very vocal segment of the population who believe, and want everyone to believe, people do not have the ability for self control.  No one has ever been harmed from responsible drinking.  However, every time some drunk gets behind the wheel or makes and ass out of themselves they hand the neo-prohibitionist crusader the ammo to chip away at the rights of responsible adults.

This year lets all make the same resolution:  Don't be a douche bag.

Here are some possible situations from reader questions:

1.  Should I drink and drive?  Is there an exception for a clown car full of jello?
    -Tempting but no.  It would be acceptable to sit in the clown car full of jello and pretend you are driving.

2.  Can I get drunk in front of my disapproving in-laws and piss on their dog?
    -No.  Your in-laws think you are a loser already.  Try not to prove them right.

3.  That girl in the corner, the one sitting on that guys lap, keeps making eyes at me.  Can I send her a drink?
    -Unless you want to guarantee a stranger is going to get laid then probably not.

4.  I keep having the nagging suspicion everyone wants to see my junk and hairy man ass.  Should I lose my pants?
     -No.  No one wants to see that.  The people who would like to see it is probably not the ones you want looking at it.

The bottom line is; have a good time, drink a homebrew, have a happy new year and don't be an asshole.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Once again, I try to kill everyone by brewing.

The wind came screaming out of the west.  It was dirty and bitter, like a truck stop prostitute, and it carried ice and a hard fine snow.  The snow was needle-sharp and could easily pass through the pores of human skin into the soul.
I pressed my nose to the window pane.  The weather mocked me and I could hear an evil cackle on the wind.  It was brew day and the week before Christmas.  My wife and I would be gone for the holidays and I needed to brew while my yeast starter was still worth a shit.
The outside thermometer registered five degrees below zero.  Much to cold for wind or snow, but this was Wyoming, where the laws of God and nature hold no sway.
I was brewing an extract batch of stout so I just set up my camp chef burner in the basement and started brewing.  On some level I knew I should be venting the dangerous gasses generated from burning propane but when I tried opening a basement window the cold wind froze me out.  As with most worries, the concern for proper ventilation eased with the amount of beer I drank.
The brew day went well.  There was no major train wrecks to piss me off and I was able to get my equipment cleaned up and the yeast pitched.  I staggered upstairs, propositioned my wife, and when that failed, I passed out.
The horror began with the sweats.  A sticky ooze drenching the bed and pillow.  My eyes couldn't seem to focus but it was different than normal booze fueled mayhem.  My breathing was shaky.
I had a headache on a biblical scale.  An artillery battery of fighting aneurysms.  A bus full of drummers driving off of a cliff.   A throbbing cacophony of hellish fire exploding right behind my eyeballs.
 I staggered to the bathroom.  My beer buzz had been replaced with a mustard yellow nausea.  My stomach had decided everything was being evicted but was in a serious argument about which was it was heading.  It turned out, up was the winner.
My wife knocked on the door.  "Are you OK?"  I moaned but a few seconds later she said, "You need to get out of there, NOW!"
I crawled into the hallway, getting lightly trampled by my wife, who had not been drinking at all, as she had her own bathroom disaster.
The sickness lasted all night and most of the next day.  At first I thought it was some sort of food poisoning but that didn't explain our headaches.
The sickness turned out to be a case of CO2 poisoning caused from the burning propane.  It wasn't a really bad, but enough to make us sick as shit.  Be warned, improper ventilation is not something to screw around with.  You will regret it seriously if you do.  Be a man and brew outside or, if you have to brew inside, use electric elements or a hood.  I would rather freeze my ass off than puke any day.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Flex your Keggles

There is a tendency to push this brewing shit as far as it will go. From spaghetti pot to kettle to fridges to draft system homebrewers get drawn in. They buy a gadget here and there. Then they start looking through catalogs of brew systems and diddle themselves at the idea of having a Brutus 10 or a tippy dump.
I admire some brewers who have, with Amish resolve, decided, "Piss on it, I stop here with partial mash. No need to go on." Don't they wonder what lies on the next horizon? Don't they realize in some garage out there is a pasty and chubby beer dork, who has dialed a recipe to the single ounce of grain, mashing in an old cooler?
So with willpower common to brew geeks and meth whores I have decided to build a brew system. Regular readers know right now I brew like a common hobo. I use an old coffee pot, a cooler and a kettle on a turkey burner. It turns out pretty good beer but I want more. With a frothy, aching need I want something which will accomplish two things. It needs to heat, boil and move wort with NASA precision and it needs to be easy to clean, store and move. Of course, since I have little disposable income, it has to be obtained a piece at a time.
Last week I took the first steps on this harrowing journey. I had been perusing Craigslist and in two weeks found two different guys unloading tap systems cheap, complete with a few kegs, CO2 tank, regulators, and taps. Suddenly, I had seven stainless steel kegs.
The thing with kegs, is it is illegal to take one from behind a bar or just pay a deposit, drink the beer and keep the keg to make a 15 gallon kettle out of. The brewery still owns the kegs and destroying their property is stealing.
So I loaded up four of the kegs and took them to the local distributor for a multi-national brewing conglomerate. I anticipated turning them in for the deposit, taking the cash and buying a couple of kettles. Just like a damn boy scout.
Upon arrival the employees seemed surprised. Apparently, it is relatively rare someone returns a keg, let along four. They weren't even sure if they wanted them. A couple of the guys from the warehouse acted like total bitches about it. "These kegs are really old," they whined like a 16-year-old.
"Has the structure of kegs changed some way in the last 5 years that I am not aware of?" I asked. It has been awhile since I have purchased a keg of commercial beer. Were they square now?
"No," the warehouse guys said with pouty lower lips. "But they are too old to get a full deposit. Did you know you can make bookshelves out of them?"
I considered for a moment. My wife is very understanding of my brewing/beer drinking hobby/obsession but would she allow a bookcase made of old kegs to become a central keystone of our decor? Could a self-respecting homebrewer even allow a bookshelf made from macro-brew kegs in his house?
The simple truth is I just didn't need these kegs. Even if the distributor for the major beer company was acting like a total bitch I would rather have the 12 bucks a piece than a buttload of old kegs lying around.
Bottom line, don't steal a keg from behind a bar or jack one after paying a deposit. Go your local distributor and ask if they have any old ones because they are, apparently, worth less than ball cheese.
In further episodes, I will cut the kegs apart and install spouts. We will see if this can be accomplished without ruining them.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fear, Loathing and the Case of the Missing Pants

It was somewhere about 9 o'clock when the booze began to kick in.

Was it hubris, which compelled me to attempt to fortify an unremarkable wee heavy with a fifth of cheap scotch? Or was there something else? Had my addiction to experimental beers became so strong I was willing to throw away any inkling of common sense on a KY coated Slip-and-Slide decent into the very depth of what a bad beer could become?

With a mad cackle I kegged the beer, poured the scotch on top and put the gas to it. No thought of blending to taste. No worry about ratios or possible ABV. "Piss on the Reinheitsgebot!," was the battle cry coming from my froth speckled lips.

I'm not sure what I hoped to accomplish. Is there some quality inherent to Highland Stag brand scotch which would lend itself to a beer? The peat-smoke character reminiscent of thousands of Scottish peasants coughing up their emphysema blackened lungs is not a nice flavor anyway; could beer somehow make it better?


The carbonated beer was harsh as a Brillo Pad handjob. Scratchy and unforgiving, it wasn't so sharp as a straight shot but there was something unpleasant there, as if each glass had been personally tea-bagged by Groundskeeper Willy. But at the same time, it was not so unpleasant it was undrinkable. The scotch numbed the throat first, and after the first glass the other senses became lax.

Human trials were needed in order to observe the effect on consciousness. So, I invited a couple of college friends, J.R. and Jack, to have a beer drinking weekend. They prided themselves on being West Coast beer dorks but I had to wonder, "Could they even handle the Scotch-Scotch Ale? Would something like this ruin them on beer forever?"

No use screwing around, so I filled big 30 oz. mugs. Initially, they bitched about the taste; throwing around words like: possible infection, fusel alcohol and crappy. A simple challenge to their masculinity and the guys were chugging beer like a baby fresh to the tit.

By the end of the third mug I heard a roaring in my ears. Like the top two valves of a 4-barrel carburetor taking hold I could feel a sudden shifting in time and space as the scotch began to kick in.

The first noticeable effect was a sudden disintegration of cognitive function. J.R. had been regaling us with some story of Portland when, mid sentence, he lapsed into inane gibberish. With gleeful horror I watched his brain shut down to the point he was unable to form sounds into words.

The next stage was fear. J.R.'s lizard brain function realized he had somehow latched onto something which was beyond his control, the proverbial dog tied to a car bumper. He fought to choose an action. "Bed J.R. go. Sleep time is," he said, taking four steps toward the guest bedroom before he collapsed in the hallway.

For Jack the creeping madness came slower, like a touchy uncle watching from the shadows. He laughed at his apparent triumph over J.R. and drank another half a mug of English Oppression Scotch Ale.

The terror came with the darkness. A spinning bed, a cold sweat and a mouth suddenly filled with saliva; Jack knew the sickness was on him. The panic carried him out of the bedroom, through the kitchen, down the stairs and out into the back yard; his hand pressed against his mouth in a vain attempt to hold back a tidal wave of vomit.

Once in the back yard Jack collapsed in the dirt as his body tried to turn itself inside out. Once the first round of sickness passed he was filled with booze fueled remorse and, using drunk logic, as he crawled back into the house he removed his pants so he wouldn't make a mess.

By tracking his trail of vomit, I found him the next morning. He was asleep in the bathtub, wrapped in the shower curtain, and lacking pants.

I had found what I wanted. The proof my experimentation had gone to far. Just because I could do something didn't mean I should. But on the other hand, if someone offers you free beer there is always a catch.
J.R.  A Portrait of a Hangover

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

To much head can cause deadly explosions

Screw Up Beer's 5th rule of homebrewdynamics: A passionate homebrewer will always produce somewhat more beer than they have room to store. Example: A person in a tiny apartment with a one-gallon system will produce one six pack more than their dorm fridge will handle and a homebrewer with a personal storage cave will always have a truck load of beer they don't have room for.

Beer is a fickle bitch. It loves cool to cold temps, without a lot of light, temperature swings and movement. However, these kind of perfect conditions rarely exist for brewers.

I brewed a raspberry wheat beer while I was living in Missouri, at an elevation of about 800 feet above sea level. The beer was a little over carbonated anyway; but when I moved it to my new apartment in Rock Springs, Wyoming, elevation 6200 feet, I had beer gushing like a college kid having his first lap dance. It is a possibility I also had a small infection, like the college kid a week after his first lap dance. We had no air conditioning and the apartment was hotter than a hot wing poop.

I had the beer packed away in some 12 pack boxes next to the washing machine. Which was a location of constant vibration and agitation. So this is not a perfect beer storage solution.

One night, shortly after we had settled into bed, there was a sound like a gunshot right outside the bedroom. My first thought was, "I wonder if the neighbor has committed suicide?  Poor guy, maybe I should stop stealing his parking space."

I ran out of the bedroom and turned the light on. There was foam coming out of my stack of homebrew boxes like a science-fair volcano. The box had been partially shredded and glass was everywhere.
As luck would have it, the bottle in the middle of the half-rack had reached a terminal pressure level and exploded, which caused the bottles around it to explode.

Glass had embedded in the wall next to the boxes and we found a neck and cap across the living room, about 30 feet away.

I didn't screw around with this shit. I, gently, placed the remaining beers in the dumpster. This actually kind of spooked me. If one of those bottles had blown while I was holding it I could have had my damn arm torn off.

My advice to those brewing places without good storage: drink faster. As long as your beer is brewed well you can still get a few months out of it. Big temperature fluctuations will shorten the shelf life of your beer and can cause over carbonation problems if you have to much priming sugar or a little infection.

Do what you can. A basement or cellar works best but even an interior closet is better than nothing. A dedicated fridge is nice and I have heard of some brewers hacking an AC unit to make a walk in cooler but I would make sure you know something about wiring before you attempt the project.

A seriously over carbonated beer is a big danger and not something to screw around with. If your homebrew tastes funny it will make you hungover but there is no real danger, a bottle bomb can cause major damage.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The first and last comment on me whoring myself out

Regular readers of Screw Up Beer will notice a few advertisements popping up in the last few weeks.  Like all beer bloggers, I am hoping this blog becomes an avenue for wealth, power and an eventual takeover of the world's beer brewing superstructure.  Watch your ass, InBev!

In the meantime, the ads are a way for me to keep brewing, and subsequently, to keep making mistakes so you don't have to.  I have toyed with a couple of different ad options but I have arrived on a policy where I maintain control of the links, so don't worry about clicking on something which will give you a damn virus. 

There is an Amazon button.  If you are going to order from Amazon anyway, just link through this button and it will help me out.  I will also sometimes put up a book or item, with an Amazon link, which I think is, or could be, useful. 

I also have a link to MoreBeer, a company I use and a good place to get brewing supply.  There may be more sponsors later but if my readers have a bad experience with a sponsor let me know and I will reevaluate the relationship.

Random crap and links to shit are not going to show up on my site; or at least will not stay very long.  Everything you see here is something I personally endorse.

This will be the last word on the ads.  Clicking on them helps me out, not my blog provider, so check them out.



Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Boiling water = Fail, Not Burning House Down = Win

Several years ago I was working for a certain famous Idaho ski resort and living in company housing, where the drinking of alcohol was strictly prohibited.  So of course, I was brewing in secret.
I was boiling my wort on the electric stove with an old copper pot I had bought at a yard sale and drinking beer. I was just to the point i had made my first hop addition when I turned around to get a beer.  When I turned back around smoke was spewing out the bottom of the pot like someone had opened the doors to Morodor.  The heat had melted a small hole in the bottom of my kettle.
I try to set my beer down on the table but knock it over, so it is draining on the floor, and grab the handle of the pot; pulling it off of the burner.  Now, instead of smoke coming out from beneath the pot, there is wort pouring out from the pot and flowing on the burner, where it starts to smoke.
So I move the pot to the sink, while trying not to spill boiling wort on myself, but succeed in spraying hot wort all over the kitchen counter and cabinets.
As my precious wort drained away I am using the mop to try to clean the top of the stove off before it catches on fire.  To make matters worse, the fire alarm was going off.  Luckily I was the only one home but some of the buildings at this particular resort were hardwired into the central fire alert system.  It turned out they had never bothered to hook my building up to it so that avoided some awkward questions.
Stupid yard sale pots anyway.
One constant in brewing, no matter what kind of beer you brew, is the boil.  Beer should be boiled vigorously for at least an hour.  This doesn't have to be so hot it is jumping out of the kettle or so light the surface is just barely moving; just a nice rolling boil with the lid off.
There is a lot going on during the boil, which is why it is not something you should ignore or take for granted.  The big things is your wort is becoming sterile. 
Despite what you may wish there is yeast and bacteria living in your tap water, just not in quantities if can hurt the human body.  Also, in order for a bacteria to make you sick it has to survive the stomach acid and white blood cells fighting it.  If you add the same bacteria cell to your wort it will be an environment with nearly unlimited food and perfect conditions for growth.  If you don't have a pot big enough for  a full volume boil, boil some water ahead of time and then set it aside covered.  One of the first things a notice brewer can do to greatly improve their beer is making a full volume boil.
Besides sanitation there is other, science, stuff going on; proteins are forming, hop oils are isomerising, sugars are caramelizing and water is evaporating. 
Many malts, especially pils malt, contain high levels of dimethyl sulfides, or DMS, which will contribute a vegetative or creamed corn flavor to your beer, which you probably don't want.  The DMS will mostly boil out if you leave the lid off during the boil. 
Boiling over
If you have brewed at least one batch of beer you have had a boilover.  You will meticulously watch your boiling wort for 20 minutes and then blink and your beer will gleefully leap from the pot onto the stove.  When you add hops your wort will boil over.  If you are brewing on a windy day the wind will eddy a little and your beer will boil over.
There are a couple of ways to keep from getting a boilover.  The simplest is just buying a bigger pot.  John Palmer, in How to Brew, suggests putting some stainless steal nuts in your pot.
I just try to keep a close eye on my pot, which results in me boiling over about every 3rd brew day.
Saying a brewer needs to master the boiling of water seems redundant, and not very sexy, but getting a nice boil is critical to producing good beer.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Lubing a keg turns out to be not what the Internet said it was

Oh kegs, how you vex me.

This will be an ongoing subject because, for some reason, I keep screwing up my kegging.  This may be because it should be really simple.  Take your fermented beer and put it in a keg.  Put the CO2 to it at the PSI which will result in a perfect level of carbonation.  Drink until keg is empty.

This is what I normally do.  Put fermented beer in keg.  Yell and bitch because keg fails to seal.  Put keg in fridge and then yell and bitch while I try to figure out why my connector is leaking gas.  Once I hook up my gas line I realize I overfilled my keg and the drop of pressure pulls beer up the gas tube into my gas line.  Take all my gas lines apart and clean them so I don't get crap growing in it.  Drink beer for a couple of weeks.  Pull keg out of the fridge because I need the fridge as a fermentation chamber.  Let keg warm up to room temp. CO2 won't stay dissolved in warm beer so now every pour is a foamy mess.  Try to save beer by bottling warm beer off of overpreasurized keg.  Spray ceiling with beer.  Put keg back in fridge and try for a couple of weeks to get the carbonation back where it belongs.  When I lose patience I just bottle the rest of the beer off of the keg and start the whole process again.

Why kegging is awesome

It is very cool to have your own beer on tap in your house.  You can pull a pint, or half a pint if you feel like it (or a liter!)  You feel like a professional.

Your carbonation is perfect.  No more wondering what will happen when you put in the priming sugar.  It turns out just how you want it. 

You can really dial in dry hops, cacao nibs, or oak chips.  Do your after fermentation additions and taste the beer every couple of days.  When it is exactly how you want it then transfer kegs or bottle.

It is faster to get a beer carbonated.  If you crank the pressure up your beer can be carbonated overnight.

Your beer will age better.  You don't have to worry about light skunking and if you purge the keg with CO2 before you put the beer in you won't have any trouble with oxygenation.

 It is way easier to clean one keg verses 50 bottles.  Where bottling used to take a couple of hours putting beer in a keg only takes 15 minutes. 

You can blend beers, make awesome cider and even pasteurize then carbonate a beer.  By controlling how the CO2 is applied you finally gain total control over your beer.

Why kegs bite

Kegs require a special setup to keep cold, either a dedicated fridge or cool room.  A bottle of beer you can store in the cellar and then put a couple of bottles in the kitchen fridge without annoying the wife.  I only have room at my house for one extra fridge, so it has to serve as a kegerator and a fermentation chamber. 

A keg is not very portable.  If you show up to a dinner with a couple bottles of homebrew you are a hero, if you show up with a keg you have a problem.  Or you will be a hero to your friends who have a problem.

With bottles you always have a pretty good idea how many beers you have left.  With a keg there is a tendency to just drink and then suddenly it is gone.

A keg setup is kind of expensive.  You are looking at about $30 a keg, then $75 for a regulator, $75 for a tank, $8 a piece for connectors, and whatever you want to spend on fridges, shanks and faucets.  A well put together keg system can cost as much as an all grain system.

Screw ups ensue

About a year ago I picked up about 8 pin-lock kegs cheap.  This is way more than I have room for but one day I dream of being able to have 10 beers on tap at my house.  The first thing I did was take them all apart and clean them, mixing all of the parts together in a bucket of cleaner.  As I tried to put them all back together I realized they are not all the same.  It took me a couple of hours to figure out which pieces went to which keg, and I don't think I got them all right.  There are still a couple of kegs where the nuts don't fit quite right on the post.

Keg lube is great stuff.  Smear a little bit on all the rubber seals and your keg will seal much better than using dry seals.

However, under NO circumstance should you Google "How to use keg lube?" with your safe search off.  You will see a couple of guys who take the concept of "beer drinking buddy" to the next level.  Not for the faint of heart.

Keeping beer out of the gas lines

The best way to seal a keg is to put your PSI at about 30, which will pop the lid into place.  However, when you carbonate it you will only want the PSI to be between 8 to 11.  This drop in pressure will pull beer into your gas lines, if the bottom of the gas tube is below the surface of the beer.

Probably the simplest way to keep from getting back pull is to not fill the keg so full but this seems morally wrong to me.  I want those last couple of beers, damn it!

What I have done is take my gas tubes and cut them down to about a half an inch.  I am not totally sure this is the right thing to do, but so far I haven't had any problems.  Also, make sure and hook up the gas while the keg is sitting on a flat surface.  Don't tip it so the beer level would be below the gas tube.  (Learned this one the hard way last weekend!)

Fundamentally, kegs rock, with the caveat that they would be a good deal less of a pain in the ass if I had room for a dedicated keg fridge.  If I ever figure out how to use the damn things.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Thigh-high stockings and a trub bukkake

I have, many times, failed to fully think out a plan before I set the plan into motion. I would make a perfect super villain.

A couple of years ago I was facing a dilemma. I wanted to brew a fresh hop beer but I wanted my hops to be loose in my kettle so they would roll around and get better utilization. The kettle I was using was smaller, like a 4 gallon, and didn't have a spout so I needed something to provide a filter between the kettle to the carboy.

I had heard somewhere about using pantyhose as a cheap hop bag. This seemed like a reasonable thing to do and I figured it would work as a filter. So, I went down to Walmart and bought thigh-high stockings in the most masculine way possible.
"They are for beer."
"Yeah, sure buddy," the clerk says.
"They make me feel pretty," I whisper.

The brew day went great. It was an extract steam beer and the fresh Cascade hops, picked right off the bine in my backyard smelled awesome. After the wort had been chilled it was time for the filter/transfer so I stuck about four of five inches of the stockings into the carboy, wrapped a rubber band around it, rested a funnel in the carboy spout and began to just pour the wort into the funnel. What could possibly go wrong?

In my defense, I have never worn pantyhose before.  Not even recreationally.

I had not anticipated the pantyhose's ability to stretch. As the wort flowed down the funnel into the filter it caught all of the hop cones and trub. This caused it to expand at roughly the same rate as the anger-caused aneurysm growing in my brain.

In about three seconds I had a sack of shit the size of a volleyball inside of my glass carboy. The pantyhose did act as a filter, but was so effective it was clogged with small particles and hop flowers and wouldn't let the liquid flow through at more than a trickle.

About the time I set the kettle down the rubber band started to slip and I was able to grab it before the whole mess dropped into the carboy. But now I was stuck, because I couldn't pack the whole carboy around, so I yell for my wife, who up to this point, has been very supporting of my brewing.
"Hey baby, could you come in here for a second?"
Of course, the first thing she said was, "What in the hell are you doing?"
"I'm having a disaster. Can you help me?"

She held the carboy down while I tried to slowly tried to pull the shit ball out of the top. After a couple of tugs the pantyhose began to bulge obscenely on the bottom, but I was making a small amount of progress on the top end.
"Are you sure this is going to work?" my wife asks in a tone which suggested it was not going to work.
"Just hold it," I growl and give another mighty pull.

At this point, several things happened. The pantyhose finally give way by exploding and sending most of the soggy hop cones into my fermenter. I fell backwards, pulling the broken stockings out of the carboy with such force that my wife received a trub bukkake across her shirt, glasses and hair.
"Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh," she yells.

I wish I could say this is the only time my wife has caught it in the face because of brewing, but I don't think it is true. It may not have helped matters that I was laughing really hard.

I gave up and pitched the yeast. Some of the cones floated and some sank during the ferment. It was a giant pain in the ass to rack off because the hops kept clogging my wracking cane.

The final beer really didn't turn out too bad. Not great, because it was pretty vegetative, but I ended up drinking it all.

So with one screw up I learned several lessons. I have not used pantyhose while brewing since. I now have a brew kettle with a spout. If I am using loose hops I use a hop bag. I don't try to filter inside of a carboy. I also do my best to think ahead, but am only somewhat successful with that one.

My wife also learned a lesson. She may be married to an idiot.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Oh my! You caught me learning to use my brew pot!

As any 15-year-old guy can tell you, intimate knowledge of your equipment is very important to discovering how it works.
The same applies to brewing.  All it takes is a little bit of prep and it makes life a whole lot easier.  The whole object of brewing is to have fun and if you are stressing about not making enough beer to fill your carboy, you are not having fun.
It's all pretty basic.  For instance, you should know the capacity of all of your vessels.  My mash tun will hold 8 gallons, my hot liquor tank 4.5 gallons and my brew kettle will hold 9 gallons.  This impacts how I do things.  If I am making something which would normally call for a 5.5 gallon sparge I have to put the extra gallon into my strike water.  I actually forgot to do this on my brew this last weekend and had to run another gallon through my hot liquor tank towards the end of my sparge.  It didn't effect my numbers, but did make me feel like an idiot.
Know where you need to fill your brew kettle in order to get enough finished volume to fill your fermenters.  Otherwise, and I have done this, you will end up with only 4.5 gallons in a 6 gallon fermenter.  I have even put painters tape on my carboys to indicate the volume levels.  It makes it easier for me to know exactly where the 5 gallon mark is, so I can add my yeast starter without getting the fermenter too full.
Know how much volume there is in your kettle below the spout.  If there is 3/4 of a gallon below the spout and you have exactly 5 gallons in your kettle transferring to your fermenter, you are going to be short a good fill level.  Here is something I just did recently, I took my brewing spoon and used permanent marker to mark what the volume of my kettle is at 1/2 gallon increments.  Before doing this, I would fill a gallon jug and pour it in my pot, making just more work for myself. 
I wish I would have thought of marking my spoon years ago.  If I get another brew pot I will just use a different colored marker to mark the measurements on the spoon.
Do all these measurements with water, not wort.  Basically, just set up your brew system and run water through it.  Something else to measure is how much volume you are going to lose because of evaporation.  Depending on the shape of your pot, it can range from one to two gallons, which is a huge range when we are doing 5 gallon batches.
During brew day take good notes.  I try to write everything down.  Stuff like the weather on brew day impacts how the beer heats, how well it boils and the time it takes to get to ferment temps.  If I have some sort of problem, I jot it down.  Not just so I have more info to tell you jokers, but also hopefully I won't make the same mistake again.
Part of taking notes is knowing what you are working with.  I used to just brew, not bothering to take any readings, and just figured the beer would be what it was.  Granted, this is a pretty low key approach and if you don't hit your numbers you don't care because you don't know.  The trouble with doing this is, if you are trying to brew a 1.070 beer with 40 IBUs and you end up with a 1.050 beer, then your IBUs will be about 60.  It may not turn out to be a bad beer, but it will not be the beer you intended to brew.
Homebrewers just starting out can be easily intimidated by the chemistry of brewing, the thousands of possible ingredients and the huge variety of styles.  The volume of a gallon of water is a constant and by taking the simple step of finding out how to measure a gallon on your system you will save a surprising amount of headache.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is this a good idea?

Not every screw up turns out of be an unmitigated disaster.  Some fall more into the "Pleasant surprise from a dumb idea" category, or "What was I thinking?"
            A couple of years ago, as the cooler days of fall turned the palate towards more robust brews my friend Jim and I began to talk about brewing a beer for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.  I had brewed several other beers lately so there was enough of a selection we could try something fairly exotic and it would not be a big deal if it didn't turn out.
            For myself, the best part of Thanksgiving is the pumpkin pie.  Hands down, I would prefer to eat pie and drink beer than mess around with turkey and congealed cranberry shaped like the can it came from.  The natural sweetness of brown ale would work well with the pumpkin pie spice but our revolutionary idea was; rather than put pumpkin in a beer, why not put beer in a pumpkin.
            Getting a big pumpkin turned out not to be that big of an issue, we never weighed it but I would guess it weighed 40 or 50 pounds.  However, once we had it we faced several logistical issues that called for the suspension of certain brewing maxims. 
            What is the volume of a 50 lb. pumpkin?  A pumpkin is hollow, sort of, but without knowing the thickness of the skin there was no way of knowing what kind of carrying capacity a pumpkin has.  In theory, one could calculate the volume by measuring the pumpkin but ours had a non-standard circumference and we didn't have the mathematical skills for such calculations anyway.  So we just guessed and figured it would either be a stronger 5 gallon batch or a slightly weaker six gallons.
            Is it possible to make a pumpkin airtight after cutting the top out to scoop out the seeds, or to use a technical term, pumpkin guts?  While the wort was happily boiling, we cut the top of the pumpkin off with a butcher knife and scooped out what seemed like 20 pounds of seeds and those weird stringy pumpkin intestines.  Since our pumpkin had an odd shape we duct taped it to half a plastic barrel to add stability.   We stuck an airlock in the pumpkin lid to release the pressure but this turned out to just be mainly ornamental, since the top of the pumpkin was in no way airtight.
Can a pumpkin be sterilized?  Short answer, no.  However, my thoughts were, "Hey, what kind of bacteria can live inside a pumpkin anyway?"  With this kind of negative thinking dashed aside, we left our pumpkin vessel alone and drank another beer, adding a can of cooked pumpkin to the wort for a double dose of gourd.
Will a pumpkin hold water? If so, for how long?  This may sound silly but it was a legitimate concern.  Was our pumpkin going to get soggy and precious beer start seeping from its pores?  In this respect, we hedged our bets by only keeping the beer in the pumpkin for 24 hours, and then we moved it to a carboy and proceeded like any other beer.
            I have to say, I was surprised with the way this beer turned out.  I was expecting something nasty, the kind of beer you give to the one beer-mooching friend who is always hanging around, but it developed into a beer with subtlety and depth.  With the first drink, the pumpkin pie spices were on the forefront but as that faded into the ale's sweetness the slow taste of pumpkin floated to the top. 
            However, in just as much as the beer was not horrible, it wasn't really very good either.  After considerable research I realized, while I thought I liked pumpkin pie, I really only like the sugar, whipped cream and spices.  Basically, all of the stuff which hides the taste of pumpkin.  There is a reason you rarely see just pumpkin on a menu, it tastes gross.  The reason I wasn't really excited about my pumpkin ale is I don't like pumpkin.
            I had a similar experience trying to make a good hefewiezen.  I tried a couple of times but eventually realized:  I don't like hefewiezen.  I'm not a huge fan of big Belgian beers and I haven't made one is several years.  I am still searching for a saison I like enough to get me excited about making one.  I used to not care for Scottish beers but after having a few good ones I plan on brewing one this fall.
            Homebrewing is all about experimentation and expanding your beer repertoire.  Just ask yourself if you even like the flavors or styles you are thinking about putting together.  If you don't like broccoli, then don't try to make a beer out of it.  My advise is know what you enjoy.  It is a lot easier to buy a few beers until you know something will work before devoting the time and effort to creating a beer you would never like, even if it is made perfectly.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Is that a subtle touch of "Crack Whore" I'm tasting?

A while ago I was drinking homebrew with a friend and he said, "You know the difference between an amateur and a professional photographer?  An amateur shows you all his pictures and a professional only shows you the ones which are good."
"What the hell do you mean by that?" I said.
What he meant was:  I was presenting a selection of beers, some of which were good, and some which sucked.  He would have rather only drank the good beer.  I thought making him get rid of some of my shitty beer was the price of free drinking.  So, there was a bit of an impasse.
Anybody who has spent much time around homebrewers has been faced with a crappy beer and a moon-faced brewer who claims they want your honest opinion.  Probably, 90 percent of the time they don't and will get all offended if you say, "Are you trying to poison me?"  or "This beer has more infections than the floor of a peepshow booth."
What you need to evaluate is whether or not the brewer really wants feedback or if they just want smoke blown up their ass. 
The best way, I have found, it to let someone evaluate their own beer.  Ask, "What were you trying to accomplish with this beer?"  Most of the time someone has a pretty good idea what they wanted their beer to be:  "A clone of Heineken," or "An oatmeal stout."  Once they reveal what the beer should be they should come to a conclusion on how close they were to the mark.
Brewers, let's be honest with ourselves, not everything we produce is liquid gold.  One of the hardest steps in identifying how you need to improve is learning to be critical of your own product.  It's difficult because you are pouring your heart into crafting something beautiful and it just turns out shitty.  It's like having an ugly kid.
The first step is just asking the questions, "Does this beer taste good?  If I ordered it at a bar and paid $5 for a pint, would I be pissed off?" Sometimes the beer may not be totally what you were anticipating, but still pretty drinkable.  That is the real determination of quality, when you finish your beer you should want to have another one, not switch to a different kind or lick a cat butt to get the taste out of your mouth.
Most of the time, the beer you are brewing has been brewed before.  This gives you a place to start.  If you are trying for an American brown ale, then pickup a brown or two and see how yours compares.  They probably won't taste the same but they should be similar enough to say they are in the same class.
Don't sell yourself short.  Anybody can produce prison hooch, but anybody can also make commercial quality beer with a big pot and a bucket, you just have to stay sanitized, don't be cheap and control temps.  Don't make excuses like:  "It's only homebrew," "Toe cheese is my house flavor," or "It'll get me drunk."  Hold yourself to a standard.
I have made enough crappy beer to fill a hot tub.  To be honest, some of my bad beers were probably better suited as an ass-wash than for drinking.  However, I struggle with just dumping beer, so what do you do with the junk?
Age it.  Some problems will clear themselves up.  Hop bitterness, oak tannins and sharp roastyness will all mellow with age. Occasionally, six months or a year will make a bad beer into a pretty good beer. But like herpes, time will not clear up an infection of bacteria.
Man up and drink it.  Stop being a baby and just choke it down.  This is a way to pay for those mistakes.  You can drink a couple of good beers and then switch to the bad stuff, put it in a beer bong, or mix it with Sprite.  Whatever it takes to put it down.
Give it to goobers.  When people find out you are a homebrewer the first thing they always says is, "I want some!"  If someone is genuinely interested, and I like them, I will put together a mixed six of quality beers for their enjoyment.  However, there is nothing more frustrating than when someone says about an award winning porter, "I didn't like it.  It didn't taste anything like Bud Light."  Give people like this your junk beer.  A Bud Light drinker won't know the difference between a perfectly brewed stout and pond water.
Get feedback.  If a beer didn't turn out and you are just not sure why, take it to a homebrew club meeting and ask people to taste it, but warn them it is off.  Odds are, you are not the first person to screw something up and you might get advise to help out.
Other uses.  Slugs are attracted to beer.  So are wasps.  You can use it to fertilize the garden or rejuvenate brown spots in the grass.
The bottom line is take pride in your beer and try to only show the world your best efforts.  In order to do so, you will need to be critical of your failures but don't get discouraged when a couple of batches go wrong.  Just identify how they went wrong and learn from the mistakes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Getting kinky with the mop

I have something to confess.  I do something which most people would never do, or even would consider weird.  It's something I never did before I became a homebrewer.

I mop ceilings.

The first time I mopped a ceiling I had brewed an American Hefeweizen and, when the primary ferment was mostly done, one evening I added a bunch of crushed raspberries and went to bed.  Around 5 a.m., I heard a pop loud enough to wake me up.
What had happened is the sugars in the raspberries had kicked off fermentation again and the berry pulp had clogged the airlock.  Pressure built and released with a spray of beer big enough to splatter the ceiling.  The foamy shit also got all over the wall, the door, the carboy, the selves next to the carboy and the floor.  The airlock was laying on the ground and the beer was exposed to oxygen.
Apparently, it had never occurred to me raspberries have fermentable sugar also.

I have noticed a direct correlation between how much mess I make while brewing and the level of my wife’s opposition to the hobby.  This makes one of my brewing objectives to reduce the mess as much as possible.
Something which has substantially cut down on spraying yeast all over the place is a blow out tube.  Basically this is a bored carboy bung with three or four feet of tubing coming out of it.  Stick the bung in the carboy and put the tail of the tubing in a jar with a little water or StarSan.  The foam from the ferment will go down the tube and collect in the jar, which is a lot easier to pour out.
One word of caution, if the temp of the carboy goes down it will create negative pressure and pull whatever is in the jar back into the carboy, which is why I just use water or StarSan, not something poisonous like bleach or iodine.  You probably don’t want this to happen, so if you are crash cooling just change out the airlock.
Before I discovered the blowout tube, I preferred the 3-piece cup style airlocks because they were easier to clean when they filled up with crap.  However, now I never get anything in my airlock so I have switched to the S-style.  They have the advantage of working both ways, so when I crash cool it pulls the air through the vodka or sanitizer in the airlock and kills the airborne bacteria.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sanitizing: A lot bigger deal than the Babylonians made it out to be

As my wife can attest, I hate washing dishes, or in general just cleaning up after myself.
What I love about brewing is creating an awesome recipe and taking a bag of grain and turning it into some great beer.What I hate is washing my shit.
In concordance with this, it took me a long, long time to really grasp how important sanitation was. I figured, "Hey, the Sumerians brewed beer 5,000 years before anyone knew anything about proper sanitation. How important can it be, really?"
The truth is there is nothing as important as proper cleaning and sanitation. It is a point which is  belabored in all the brewing literature but bears repeating. However, sometimes stuff just needs to be clean and sometimes you can blow all the sanitizing you have done with a simple screw up.
Brew days all start the same. The first thing I do is haul all of my brewing stuff out of the shed and wash it.
Something that should never leave your mind is the fact that beer is a food. Would you make a sandwich on a dirty plate that had been sitting in your sink for a week? No, that's gross. Would you leave your lunch in a car until 1 p.m. during August and then still eat it? No, it would spoil. You are asking even more from your beer. If property cared for the beer can last months or even years. That is pretty good for a food item, a lot better than the spaghetti in the back of the fridge.
All your brewing stuff needs to be clean enough to eat off of. You wouldn't leave a plate in the garage for a few months and then eat off it without washing it first. Don't do the same thing with your brew pot. You can use regular dishwashing soap, just try for the stuff without a strong smell and make sure it is rinsed off well.
Sort your equipment into two piles, the stuff touching your beer before the boil and after the boil. All the stuff that is pre-boil is clean enough, the stuff post-boil needs to be sanitized.
Now, before you start panicking and pricing an autoclave just relax, sanitizing is not as hard as it sounds. A solution of bleach water will work fine for most things, but is a little hard on some metals like stainless steel. By far the easiest way to sanitize is with StarSan, a base solution which will kill pretty much any bacteria. It is environmentally safe and will not impart any off flavors to your beer.

What you want to do is just put 2.5 gallons of water in a 5 gallon bucket with water and add 1/2 oz of StarSan. Everything that touches the cooled wort needs to be in StarSan 30 seconds to a minute. If something is wet with StarSan it is protected and you don't have to worry about the bubbles or anything. Because beer is a little acidic and StarSan is a base so it becomes inert and won't add any off flavors so dont rinse it. You don't want to add tap water back into the beer even in small amounts because it has bacteria in it. The DEQ monitors what they consider an acceptable amount of fecal mater in water. I would consider none an acceptable amount but your body has enough antibodies to fight a small amount of bacteria. However, your beer does not and until the yeast really gets going it is pretty susceptible.

What is great about StarSan is it will last a little while in a covered bucket. Once it starts to get kind of cloudy and funky colored, toss it and make a new batch. This is so much easier than screwing around with the bleach water or an iodine mixture. I just have the bucket sitting there and everything just gets dipped and it is ready to go. I even dip my hands before I touch anything.

This took me a long time before it really sunk in. I got lucky the first couple of batches I brewed and had some good beers without a lot of effort towards sanitation. I figured, they brewed in ancient Babylon without any sanitation, why should I care. You can have that attitude and you will get about the same results I was getting. I brewed about 10 batches a year and 2 would be awesome, 5 would be ok, and 3 would suck. If you are serious about sanitizing you may still get the occasional off beer but it will set them on a higher bar.

After a long day of brewing, probably with some drinking tossed in, the last thing you want to do is clean your stuff. However, the hop sludge on the edge of your brewpot is a hell of a lot easier to remove when it is wet. If you leave wort in your transfer hoses it will stain them and build up gunk. The wort also gets all sticky and kind of congeals, attracts wasps and ants and is generally gross. Life is just so much easier when you just clean everything up and put it away.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Whoops, I think I just sparged prematurely

Like most brewers, I got into all-grain brewing way before I was intellectually and emotionally ready.  I knew I needed hot water but I didn't understand, or probably care, about the need for precise mash temps, how starch is converted to sugar or sparging.
So I bought a 55 lb sack of 2-row and cracked it by running it through an old meat grinder.  Then I tied it up in a sack and put it in an old church coffee pot.  I thought if it sat there while the water was heating it would go through all of the protein rests.
After a while, I didn't have any consistency to how long I would wait, I would pour the wort into my 4.5 gallon pot until it was more or less filled up and then add DME until I hit the target OG.  God, just writing it down makes it sound even more asinine than it was in my head.
I was getting about 30 percent to 40 percent efficiency and beers with a little more depth than straight extract, but not very much, and no body.  In general, a disaster.
All-grain brewing is the holy grail of homebrewers everywhere.  And it should be.  With all-grain you will be able to dial in a recipe perfectly, turn out awesome and complex beers, get crystal clarity and be able to truly say you crafted this beer from the ground up.
However, before you jump into all-grain you need to consistently make good beer using extract.  To paraphrase Jamil Zainasheff, knowing and understanding fermentation is way more important than knowing how to convert starch to sugar.  The hot side can be pretty forgiving but the cold side won't be.  Otherwise, if your results are inconsistent with extract, you will never know what you are doing wrong when you go all-grain.
 So your extract beers are good and you decide to make the plunge.  To do so, you need to understand what is going on during the process, you need to get used to your equipment and understand how it works.
So what is going on.
A kernel of barley is contains starch, which is a long series of sugar molecules stuck together in a line.  What you want to do is break the long chain of sugar molecules up so yeast can eat them.  It is kind of like going to a movie and sharing a three foot long licorice rope with a friend but you have a cold and so neither one of you can just bite pieces off.  The first step is taking the wrapper off, which is the grind of your grain.  Then you need to break it down in to bite sized chunks though either pulling it apart or cutting it, which is essentially what is happening as different enzymes are activated during the mashing process.  For a more intellectual explanation check out How to Brew by John Palmer. 
This may sound complicated but, as a species, we have been making beer for several thousands of years before anyone understood what was going on at the molecular level so don't worry if the chemistry is beyond you.  What we are doing is making barley soup, then straining the barley out to get the wort.
On the most basic level this is what you do.  Heat around 5 gallons of water to about 170 degrees.  Pour this into your grain, hitting a temp of around 153 degrees.  Let this sit for an hour.  Drain the wort and flush the grains, or sparge, with about another 4 or 5 gallons of hot water.  Gather all the liquid and brew just like you used to with extract.
What you need to accomplish.
An all grain system needs to do several things and requires three vessels.  One vessel needs to heat 5-7 gallons of water to your grain.  Then you need a vessel to hold around 20 pounds of grain and  the 5-7 gallons of water at around 150 degrees for an hour.  I use a cooler with a false bottom I make out of Plexiglas and a drain spout.  For the sparge water I use a church sized coffee pot, which has the advantage of being able to just plug it in and forget about it but the disadvantage of not being able to change sparge temps.  The wort is all collected in my boil pot.
This is not a super complicated system and it has the advantages of working fairly well and being cheap.  Like everyone else who all-grain brews I would love to have a computer controlled Blichmann system.  However, those kind of systems cost over $3,000 and, if you don't know how to ferment a beer, they are not going to make a damn bit of difference, you will still be producing shit beer.
Of course, when adding another complicated procedure to your brew day there is a ton of ways to screw things up.  Here are a few mistakes I have made and how to do it right.
Blowing the strike temp.
You will want to have control over the temperature your mash is sitting at for an hour.  The first time I brewed all-grain I heated my water to 153 degrees, because that is what I wanted my grain bed to be.  Then I put the hot water in a cooler filled with 15 pounds of grain, which was all at room temps.  Had I a basic understanding of thermodynamics I would have realized this was dumb.
Predictably, my mash temp was only 140 degrees and I was running around in a wild panic trying to boil a gallon or two of water so I can raise the temps before I wrecked my beer.
So this is what you should do.  Heat your strike water to around 170 degrees and have a gallon of cold water on hand.  When you mash in take a thermometer reading and add a little cold water, slowly, until you hit your temp.  Stir your mash up really well to make sure everything is wet and leave it alone for an hour.  The malted grains you are buying right now are of very high quality so, for the most part, you won't have to worry about malt not converting.  Just let it be.
Once I make sure my grain is good and wet and don't screw with it any more.  I have found stirring it up, especially during the sparge, will get a lot of chaff and shit in my boil kettle.  While it is true you can get more fermentables if you stir, I site Brewing Maxim #1, "Don't be a cheapass!"  It is worth the extra pound or so of grain it will take to make up the difference in clear beer or chunky stuff.
If you want to hurry things along a little bit, set up your system so your boil kettle is on your burner, after you get a few gallons in there put a little heat to it.  You probably don't want to bring it to a boil, just pretty close, then when the sparge is done you are just a few minutes away from having boiling wort.
To further clear the beer, take the first gallon or two of the sparge, before you start running sparge water, and poor it back on your grain bed.  I even let my water level get a little below the top of my bed.  This allows the bed to set a little bit and act as a filter.  What I am looking for is a stratification of the sparge water and wort, this will help push all the wort out of your mash instead of diluting it.
Once the grain bed is set and you start your spage water flowing into the mash tun start the output into the boil kettle.  This will be pretty slow, at a rate of about one pint a minute and it can take around an hour to get sparged out.  This is annoying but if you rush things you will either not get as much sugar as you want, or get tannins and chaff in your beer.  Just relax and go have a beer.