Monday, October 31, 2011

The future is now (but not here)

When you read homebrewing books that were published in the US, you can't but think that we are living in the golden age of home brewing. Material and tools that were previously only available in commercial applications have permeated the home brew market, and resulted in an explosion of styles and creativity. Yeast strains from commercial breweries are readily available; plumbing, fake bottoms, cam locks, and pre-made wort chillers can be easily purchased at reasonable prices; specialty malts and extracts, rice hulls, acids and sugars are stocked by any self-respecting HBS. Life is good.

And then you look at our local market in Israel. I recently found a challenging recipe for a beer from 100% wheat malt. If I were in the States this would not be a problem: I'd get my grain, mix in about half a kilo of rice hulls, and sparge as I always do. But in Israel you can not get rice hulls anywhere, and even if you could, you'd still be limited to the handful of dried yeast varieties we have. You could try to make the beer out of wheat extract instead - it would save you the potential for stuck sparge. But the chances of getting fresh wheat extract in this country depend on fostering a close relationship with your local brew store, and catching them at exactly the right time - the once or twice a year that they order wheat extract. A lot of extra effort, and besides, who wants to brew extract?

Actually, I would love to brew extract. More precisely: I would love to still be brewing extract, and looking forward to moving to All Grain in the future. It's a much gentler introduction to brewing than to jump right into AG from your second brew on like I did, simply because my local store didn't have extract in stock. I later learned that "local" HBS only applies if you live in the Tel Aviv metro area. For everyone else, there's a choice of car or shipping, or just dealing with the limited supplies and low turnover of "sales points".

Some of this deficiency in selection is understandable: Liquid yeast, for example, is hard to transport, expensive, and requires a kosher seal (though I'm not sure why. If you're not satisfied with the kashrut, don't buy it). So it is too much of a pain to import for such a small market as ours. But some of this is the result of a product Catch-22: Nobody imports rice hulls because there's no demand for them. And there's no demand for them because no one uses them in brewing (because no one imports them).

This is where the onus is on our local suppliers to introduce new products to the market even if they don't make money on them right away. Someone should import rice hulls, I will be the first to buy them, I promise you. And because I'm lazy, if I found one store that sales rice hulls I'd order my entire bill grain from there, even if they weren't my regular store. And I'm not alone in that: A store that introduces new products to the market regularly, even at a potential loss, will benefit from more clients and improved sales in the long run. We're not too good at taking the long view in this country, unfortunately, but I'm hoping someone will pick up the glove.

It's not all bad, though. The lack of certain products, tools, and aids forces us to be creative: Someone pointed out to me that BIAB doesn't suffer from stuck sparges. That is something I will keep in mind, and when the day comes when I decide to brew my all-wheat beer this is how I will do it. It's not the regular way I brew, but it is another tool in my brewing toolbox which I can use. When I get tired of using dry yeast, I will turn to culturing my own liquid yeast out of bottles and samples of liquid yeast hand delivered by friends from other countries. It's a lot more of a pain, but ultimately it will make me a better brewer.

And at the end of the day, there's always hope. Twenty years ago home brewing in the States wasn't nearly as easy or prolific as it is today. One can hope that as home brewing in Israel takes off the situation will improve here as well. And it already has: In the last ten years the availability of malts, yeasts, and equipment in this country took a huge leap forward. Hopefully we will eventually catch up the the US in that field. Hopefully it will not take twenty years to do so.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A new brewmaster in the Three Cats Brewery

So the blog is has not been updated lately, and probably will not be updated very often in the near future, due to the arrival of a new Brewmaster (Brewmisstress?) in the Three Cats Brewery house. She's Nitsah Harel, born last Saturday (22nd) at 1:06am at a weight of 3.260kg.

So far, the new brewmisstress has not been actively involved in production aside from producing her own trub-like substances and forcing a delay of the latest batch's bottling. But we predict a great career for her in the business, starting with things like bottling help, and on to brewing her own one day. :)

In the meantime, we would love recipe ideas for a celebration brewing. And names for the beer as well!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Decisions Decisions

I've mentioned about a dozen times already that I'm in the midst of re-designing my brew system and turning it into a full HERMS system. I already have most of the major parts: THe HLT, the silicon tubing, the heating element (one of, at least) the controller and the SSR probe. But I've been going back and forth in my mind about the pump.

On the one hand, I could do just fine on a laundry machine pump. I have one already and it works well. Granted, the one I have only ever pumps cold water, and this one will need to pump hot wort, but that's ok. It'll last for a while. And when it falls apart well.. They're cheap enough to just get another one.

On the other hand, a laundry pump is a second-best solution. For the best in home brewing, there really is only on king: The March 809 brewing pump. Actually, that king had been dethroned by the 815, which is the same pump, but with better performance. If you're going to get a brewing pump to transfer hot liquid, this is the one to get.
It is a thing of beauty.

Except that the March pump is quite expensive. For the price of one March pump I could get about four or five laundry pumps.

One the other hand, a March pump will easily outlast four or five laundry pumps. And is made of food grade material. If I'm going to be pumping hot wort, not just cooling water, that's something to think about.

And so on and so on.

My wife set me on the right track at the end. She said "If you're going into all the work and expense to re-do your system, it should be a system you're really happy with"

So I decided to order the March Pump. To paraphrase Crosby Steels and Nash. "If you can't be with the one you love, look online for it" (Doesn't scan as well, but it's better advice)

So that's it. Pump's on its way. With my father bringing it in a suitcase it would hopefully not be as expensive as having it shipped. Estimated due date: Mid November

Also this week: Avi and I brew a Belgium to inaugurate his new fridge, and I get up in the morning and decide to brew beer from leftovers. But that's a different post.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The 73rd volume

In the first masechta (portion) of Baba Metzia, one of the books of the Jewish Talmud, there's a long and complicated discussion about what to do in the situation when two men are holding on Talit (article of cloth), each claiming ownership of the whole garment. The discussion goes on and on about the different ways to handle this situation, bringing in opinions from several distinguished rabbis, and dissecting the issue in detail. Then it goes on to the next topic of discussion: Two men are holding the same Talit, one claims the whole thing, one claims half of the thing. What do you do then? Then the next topic: Two man are holding the same Talit, each claiming the whole thing, and there's a door between them. What do you do then? Then the next: Two men are holding the same Talit. Each claims all of the thing, and one of them is standing on a boat. What do you do then?

The Talmud is the compendium of Jewish law. But that's actually not true. There are 72 volumes to the Talmud. The amount of actual law in there is probably only about one book's worth. The rest is commentary, and more important, arguments. Lots and lots of them.

I mention all of this because sometimes when I read brewing books, I get the same feeling I got when I use to study the Talmud. Rabbi Palmer says thus shall not use hops for longer than 60 minutes, for they will not contribute any more acids. Rabbi Mosher, on the other hand, gives recipes using hops for 90 minutes, and claims that yeast should rehydrate at warm (41C water). But rabbie Papazian disagrees.

And to make matters worse, you have the local commentaries: The guy who claims that mashout is unnecessary when using HERMS. The dealer that says "I don't have 80L. Take some 60L and 120L and mix them together, it'll work". The guy who cites the Australian brewing rabbinate and claims that the best way to brew is with a bag and a plastic cube, and the guy who disagrees. Seriously. If we take about a dozen active threads on any beer forum, translate them to Aramaic, and put "rabbi" in front of the user names, it would read just like the 73rd of the Talmud. Masechet Mivshulim.

Why am I mentioning all this? Because I have decided to re-vamp my system. In fact, I'm rebuilding it completely to be a full-pledged HERMS system. At least that's the theory. In practice, there is so much information out there, and so many contradictory opinions that one can be stuck in an "information paralysis" - where you're so afraid of doing something wrong that you end up doing nothing at all.

And to that too, Jewish tradition gives an answer. In Pirkai Avot Rabbi Yhosua says "Make yourself a Rabbi" - Pick someone to follow and learn from. So often in Brewing (and Halacha) there are so many contradictory opinions involved that you just have to pick someone who looks like they know what they're doing, and seek their advice. As an interesting side note to that idea, the Rambam adds a commentary to that verse saying "Learning is good, but learning from from his fellow will be more successful and better understood. Even if his fellow is of the same wisdom as he, or below him" IE, every person, no matter how knowledgeable should find a "rabbi" - a person to learn from and learn with, even if he believes that person to be less knowledgeable than himself. Or in other words, no one person knows everything, and you can always learn new things.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

My cider will kick your beer's butt!

I made hard cider a couple of weeks ago.
I made cider because brewing all grain is a lengthy process, and I'm not allowed to do it until the baby comes. I brewed a couple of extract beers in the meantime, which was kinda nice (like going back to a family sedan after a long time or riding a motorcycle) but boring. So I moved on to other alcoholic beverages.

Cider is remarkably easy to make. You mix apple concentrate with enough water, add sugar, boil a bit, cool, and pitch. That's it. Of course, never content to do things the easy way, I ended up adding not quite enough water, and added in all the inverted sugar I had on hand (about half a kilo, to an 8liter batch) and so I ended up with cider that had a starting gravity of 1.079. Given that I could expect it to drop to about 1.005 if I let it ferment all the way, I was looking at almost 10% ABV. A bit high for a fruit drink. It would be better if I could stop the fermentation before it went all the way.

One way to stop the fermentation, or at least to dramatically reduce it, is to keep the drink cold, and remove as much of the yeast as you can. Of course, you can't go in there with a sieve and fish the yeast out, but it turns out that if you cool the liquid, the yeast will go dormant and fall out of suspension. Which is a win win situation, if you can get the thing cold enough. 4-5 degrees C ought to do the trick. This is called "Cold crash".

Ah, but there's a problem: My fridge, which has been the subject of much consternation lately, is nowhere near that cold. And given that it is currently fermenting lager, it shouldn't be that cold. What can you do?

Enter the MLCS-7 Massive Liquid Cooling System. Also known as "my mash tan cooler, with about 7 liters of ice:
I have a pretty small mash tan, but my small fermentator fits in it perfectly. I put it in the middle, put as much ice around it as I could (in re-freezable plastic bottles) and topped it off with cold tap water. To carry the heat better I connected my pump to circulate the water from the bottom of the tan back on top. This turn out to be completely unnecessary as, within 12 hours, the temperature of the water dropped to an incredible 1.3 degrees C - my actual fridge doesn't get that cold!

After about 42 hours the cider was so thoroughly cold crashed that it had virtually gone through the floor. I transferred it to a bottling bucket, leaving behind most yeast, added a bit of sugar (totally unnecessary since after the crash it read 1.025, which meant it still had plenty of sugar in it, but old habits die hard) and bottled about 8 liters of golden goodness. It's sweet, eminently drinkable, girls like it, and at 8% Alcohol By Volume it will kick your butt!

As a side note: Heat is energy, and energy can only be transferred, not destroyed. I got a great illustration of this during the cold crash process. I would rotate the ice bottles in and out of the cooler, taking freshly frozen bottles from the freezer, and putting half-thawed bottles back in. As a result, the temperature in my freezer rose dramatically from about 7-8 degrees below to 1-2 degrees below zero, as the freezer worked to dissipate the heat energy that the ice had gathered. Now that I've finished the process, and the freezer doesn't have to deal with the extra heat, the temperature in there had fallen as low as -8.5C. Which is great for trying to lager my lager in the fridge. But that's a different story.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Newtonian Brewing

A word of warning: I have had a rather broad scientific education, and I like physics. The following is a discussion of Newtonian Thermodynamics, observation, energy exchange, and beer. If you don't have the patience to read it, you can skip to the last paragraph, which contains the actual point.
As brewers, we heat and cool beer regularly. It is part and parcel of the brewing experience, and a major factor in how the beer turns out. It is a most fundamental part of brewing. It is also a lie.

It's a lie because this is not actually what were doing. What we are doing is applying energy to a system in order to affect a change in the energy state of a system. Put simply: We don't heat or cool beer, we do things to the environment the beer is in, in order to make it hotter or colder.

This may seem like a petty distinction, and in the case of heating beer, it generally is: When I put a heating element in a vat of beer and turn it on, I'm heating the beer. (At least in any Newtonian sense of the word). But in the case of cooling the beer, this is actually something worth considering: When I cool beer, I don't take energy out of it. I don't aim a "Cold Ray" at it. I put it in the fridge. I change the temperature around the beer, so that the temperature of the beer changes.

And this is important because when I measure the temperature of the beer, I don't actually measure the beer. I measure the temperature of the environment the beer is in. When I tape a sensor to the fermentation bucket, the reading I get will be an average of the temperature of the bucket, and the temperature around the bucket. It will NOT be the temperature of the beer.

Now presumably if you leave an object in an ambient temperature for long enough, it will end up being in ambient temperature. You can try this with a simple experiment: pour a glass of ice water and leave it on the counter. It will eventually warm to room temperature. So be extension, if you had a thermostat next to the glass that showed the room temperature, it would also show the water temperature, since they end up the same.

But beer doesn't work that way. Beer ferments, and fermentation is an exothermic process - it creates heat. Leave a bucket of fermenting beer on the counter, and it will not reach room temperature, because it makes its own heat.

It gets worse: If you tape the sensor of your thermostat to different spots on the bucket, you will get different readings. This is true because beer, like any liquid, stratifies according to density and thermal layers. Moreover, if you tape your sensor to the lid, which does not come into direct contact with the beer, you will get a reading that's much closer to the ambient temperature than the beer temperature.

Now do a little thought experiment: Lets say that you have beer that is finished fermenting. You fill a bottle with it, put both bottle and fermentation bucket in the fridge, and tape the sensor to the bottle. How close is your reading to the temperature of the beer in the bucket?

The answer is, you don't know. Your bottle may cool faster because it's a smaller thermal mass. It may read cooler because it's further in the back of the fridge, or because glass is a better thermal conductor than plastic. It may read warmer because the curve of a glass bottle is bigger than that of a bucket, so the surface area in contact with the sensor is smaller. You simply don't know.

All of this comes by way of saying something simple: Two days ago, my beer was in secondary fermentation, at temperature of 11.5C. Now it's heading toward lagering, with a temp of 8C and falling. I didn't touch the beer. All I did was to change where the sensor was located. So I don't know what temperature my beer is really in, and what temperature was it before. And it's kind of driving me nuts. :)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Heisenberg Beer Principle. OR: Why tape is important for beermaking

I don't like lagers. In all the lagers I've ever drank (and I've drank quite a few) I've only found one that I really like (Libira's Double Pils, for those wondering). But as a rule, I don't like lagers. The only reason I'm making a lager now is that my wife is nine months pregnant.

Lagers are good for late pregnancy brews because they have two qualities: One, they are meant to be forgotten in a fridge for a while - so if you suddenly find yourself in the hospital on bottling day, no big deal. And two: While the fermentation refrigerator is maintaining lager temperature, the freezer drops well below freezing (not always a guarantee at ale temps) so your wife can store frozen meatloaf and chilli in there to have in the couple of weeks after the birth when no one has energy to cook. So I gladly volunteered my freezer for this, and heroically brewed a lager as my humble contribution to the baby making effort. ;)

Problem is, I have a fairly old fermentation fridge. I got it in the market, probably after it was cast out by someone who decided it wasn't good enough to keep around anymore. On an average day, this is fine. A fridge doesn't have to work as hard to maintain 18C as it does to maintain 4C, so this isn't an issue. But when you make a lager, you ferment it at around 11C and then you let it sit (lager) for about a month at 4C. I did some field testing with the fridge and saw that it can hit about 5-6C. So I figured that would be fine. (Palmer says that you can lager at 7C if you wanted, so OK.)

So I made a lager. And I fermented it. I set the temp at about 11C with a spread of .7 degrees, which gives the lager an average fermentation temperature of about 111.4 or so. A little warm (recommended fermentation temp is 10C) but the important thing about lagering seems to be the difference between fermentation temp and lager temp, and I knew that my lager temp will be a little warm, so I wanted to keep the temp spread.

This is where things started to go wrong.
See, the temperature controller that I (and many others in this country) use works by cutting the electricity to the whole refrigerator based on readings from a sensor. You tape the sensor to your fermenting bucket, and when the controller senses that the sensor is cold enough, it cuts the power so that the beer doesn't get too cold. Great in theory, not so good in practice. In practice, it seemed that my beer never hit that illusive cut-off temperature. It seemed that the fridge simply wasn't getting cold enough.

I consulted with a fellow brewer, who advised me to check my thermostat settings in the fridge. I did, and the results where immediate: Within a day the temperature, which had been hovering around 12C, jumped to 18C. Oh, the horror! Luckily, this was in the end of fermentation, so it wasn't necessarily a bad thing (it's often customary to raise the temperature of a lager at the end of fermentation for a couple of days.) But I needed to bring the temp back down. After much research and googling, I came up with a surprising answer: The colder the freezer gets, the warmer the fridge is.

The reason for this has to do with the way refrigerators are constructed. They work by cooling the freezer section, and then drawing cold air from the freezer to cool the fridge section. The colder you set your freezer to, the more cold air stays in it, and the less gets pulled into the fridge, so it gets warmer. Fantastic. Now all I need is to set the freezer to the warmest setting and the fridge will get cold again. Hurra, hurray!

Except that I have all that frozen meatloaf and chilli in my fridge. And it is thaws, I will be the one who has to cook after the birth. Oh the conundrum. At the end I decided that I'm not sacrificing the little energy I will have left for no stinking lager. I set the freezer to a medium setting. Cold enough to be thoroughly frozen, warm enough that some air actually got pulled into the fridge.

So the temperature in the fridge dropped again, but only as far as about 11.8C, as before. I was back to where I started.

And then I had an epiphany: In my efforts to do whatever I could for the lager, I had moved it to a glass demi-john, which was encased in a plastic basket. Being both a little lazy and not wanting to leave the fridge open, I had put the sensor for the temp controller in the basket, touching the glass, but not actually taped to it. Was it possible that the temperature it was sensing wasn't so much the temp of the beer, but the ambient?!? I decided to to an experiment. I fished a bottle of beer from the back of the fridge, thoroughly taped the sensor to it, and put it back in the back.

An hour later, the temp read 10.7
This morning, it read 9, which was what the controller is actually set for.

So now I have a puzzle: What is the actual temperature of my beer? What was the temprature when I was fermenting? What was it when I moved it to secondary? Will it, in fact, actually be able to reach 4-6, now that I've changed the measurement method.

Questions abound, time will tell. I don't have high hopes for this beer. But then again, it IS a lager...

Monday, October 3, 2011

We've gone global!

I started writing this blog when I first started brewing beer. And then I stopped. Primarily because I was writing in Hebrew and it's just not a language I can type very fast. (Plus the fact that I had a sum total of about two readers, both of which I corresponded with through other means).

Well recently one of those two readers suggested that I take the blog back up. And when I told him that it was too much of a pain to write in Hebrew, he responded that he'd be perfectly happy to read it in English. So Here it is. Re-vamped, and re-launched, ready for the global beer economy. :)

A lot of beer had been brewed in my kitchen since I last wrote in this blog, most of which bad. But I've learned a few things from each batch, and I hope I'll learn more in the future. In upcoming entries I hope to share a few insights and tales of fizzy alcohol. But first, the obligatory list:

Ready to drink:
"Bad Bad Leroy Brown" - A southern Brown ale with a twist (More later)
3% Apple Beer
4% Pomegranate beer
"Plague of the Firstborn Ver 2". - My attempt at making a Belgium Dubble recipe. Also known as "der crappe" (More Later)

Aging and waiting:
Prematurely Bottled HefeWizen - I've been resisting the urge to call this one "Yeast infection", on the hope that it will get better as it ages. (More Later)
8% Kick-your-ass-Apple-cider (A lot more on that one later)
10% Free Beer (A sixpack)
Odds and ends.

Fermenting and waiting:
"HeatBurger" German Lager (More Later)

Lot's more Cider
Brown without a twist
Scottish Ale (more of a hope than an actual plan.)

I hope that over the next few entries I can talk a bit more about some of these beers (especially the ones I labeled "more later") and others I plan to brew or drink. In the meantime, it's time to get off the train, so I'll sign off.