Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's (not) getting hot in here

Aside from the general prerequisites of pots, tuns, ingredients, water, and general mayhem, the The Three Cats Brewery features, well, three cats. Those wild, furry, semi-domesticated predators who love to poke a paw at a running tap of sanitizer and flip over a jar full of yeast. Generally, the cats don't actually impact the brewing process much (aside for extra vigilance about cat hair). But they do have one annoying habit: They go to the bathroom quite a lot, which means that they need to get out to the porch (where the sandbox is located) on a regular basis.

I am telling you all of this as a way of explaining why it is that even at the dead of winter we leave the door to the porch ajar. And why, consequently, the temperature in our house routinely dips into the teens. Ordinarily, this is not much of a problem: We own a large number of blankets and warm cloths, and we keep the young brew-mistress on us regularly, so we all stay warm. But you can't put a blanket on a fermentation bucket (well, you can, but it wont do anything), and at night when we turn the heat off the temperature in the living room where I keep the fermentation fridge does drop substantially. So if I want to maintain my yeast happy and active, I need to use that other function on my temperature controller and warm the beer.

In talking to fellow brewers about this I came up with several ways you can warm a fermenting beer in a fridge. You warm it in a fridge because it's a small and insulated space that you can easily control, and because if you set your heating and cooling at the same place, you don't have to move the beer when the weather changes.

The first method is to use a space-heater or a blow-dryer. You install the thing in your fridge (preferably instead of the vegetable drawer) and plug it into your PID controller. Simple and straight forward. The only problem is that a space-heater, by definition, is not designed to be used in a small confined space (like a fridge) and requires a free flow of air or it gets very overheated. Plus, there's just something about the idea of putting a heater inside my fridge that sets my teeth of edge. I know people do this, and it works, but it still feels like a recipe for trouble.

Second is using a lamp. A regular, 100W light-bulb can produce enough heat to warm an average-sized fridge. There are two problems with this method. One, it is highly inefficient, since the heat is not directed, you must heat the whole volume of the fridge, which means running the bulb for rather a long time every time you open the door of the fridge. The second problem with this method is that the bulb doesn't just produce heat, but also (or rather, mainly) it produces light. Light is bad for beer. (More precisely, it is bad for the hop oils in the beer). And seeing as most of us use buckets or carboys that are light-permeable, long exposure to light is not an optimal solution.

Third is using a heat lamp. Like this: http://www.petplanet.co.il/product.asp?id=654 This is a ceramic terrarium heat lamp that produces the heat without the light. The downside is that it is fairly expensive.

Fourth is using a commercial product, like this one: http://morebeer.com/view_product/16674/102282/The_FermWrap_Heater Nice and elegant. But requires shipping from abroad.

A nice compromise that we came up with during the discussion is to use a regular light bulb (option two) which is mounted instead of the vegetable drawer, and then covering the bottom shelf of the fridge with aluminum foil to keep light from reaching the fermentor. This is definitely a workable option, as it deals with the one major drawback of heating with a light bulb. However, I feel that this is a very wasteful proposition, since the foil will also reflect a certain amount of infrared (heat) radiation, further reducing the efficiency of an already inefficient system. This is an inherent problem of all of the solutions that heat up the whole fridge space: They heat up rather more air than is strictly required to warm the beer, and are therefore inefficient.

At the end, I've decided to go with option four (the heat wrap). It has several important advantages that, in my view, justify the initial investment:
  1. It is efficient. At 40W, this this will nonetheless heat faster than a 100W light-bulb, meaning that it not only draws less power, it will also draw it for shorter times.
  2. It is environmentally independent. I can open the fridge door and let cold air in, and the beer will remain at constant temp. In fact, I can set the fridge temp lower (say to lager fermentation temp) and let a lager ferment in one side of the fridge while an ale is keeping warm right next to it.
  3. It is scalable. I generally only brew one beer at a time, but this product can actually be used to warm two fermentors side-by-side if I so choose.
  4. It is portable. I can take it to the basement (where the temp ranges from 12 to 14 degrees in this time of year) and let it keep a fermenting secondary from getting too cold down there.
  5. It is cheap. At $30 plus free shipping, it is actually cheaper than the terrarium lamp. Luckily I have family who is coming from the States soon and would be able to hand-deliver the thing to my door, so I don't pay for overseas shipping charges.
  6. It is safe to use in small, insulated environments. MoreBeer actually sell carboy bags you can use to insulate this thing. Makes me feel better knowing that this thing is not going to burst into flames.
  7. It is made for this application. This may seem trivial, considering how many times we homebrewers bastardize pieces of equipment that were designed for something else to use in brewing (laundry pumps and wort-chillers made out of copper tubing are just two examples of this). But given a ready-made, reasonably-priced, specifically-engineered, product that is built for our needs, I see no reason not to take advantage of it.
So that's my personal choice. Hopefully I'll get to order the wrap today, and it will get here in a couple of weeks. Until then, I still have to warm my beer somehow... Anyone know how to take a magneto out of a microwave and attach it to a fermentor?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I am the Lord thy G-d... Sorta..

On some level, a brewer is a sort of a yeast god. Taking the infant yeast from their little Eden in a test-tube or packet and casting it into a world flowing with maltose and oxygen with the commandant "be fruitful and multiply!". We seek tribute from our creations in the form of alcohols, CO2, and flavors, and threaten damnation down the drain if they misbehave.

Of course yeast, unlike human, are kinda stupid and simple. Having only a single cell and a mare sixteen sets of chromosomes to the human 23, they haven't quite evolved complex skills such as language and writing. If you want yeast to do something, you have to give them the conditions to do it. One thing we as brewers often want from our yeast is to grow into more yeast. To do this we must give them two main things: Food (in the form of maltose and other complex sugars) and Air (Oxygen). Like most organisms, yeast will use up air long before they ran out of food. So if we are trying to get them to keep growing and multiplying we have to give them more and more Oxygen. In a yeast Starter (the place which we most want the yeast to multiply) we do this by shaking the beaker regularly or, preferably, by putting it on a stir plate where it can have a regular supply.

All of this is by way of long-winded introduction to the fact that I decided that I really want a stir plate at home so I can make good starter. Unfortunately, a basic stir plate in this country costs about 800NIS (over $200US), so I wasn't going to buy one. I decided to build one instead.

Building a stir plat is actually quite easy. All it involves is finding a computer cooling fan, sticking a couple of magnets on it, connecting it to an appropriate power source, and building a housing over the whole thing. I built my stir plate based on a page-long instruction which I found on a brewing forum. I wont share the the link here, as the instructions were not very good. The electronics were overly complicated and it lacked some important details. Instead I will tell you that there are plenty of YouTube videos about this, and they're fairly comprehensive.

This is the finished product. You can see the strong magnets mounted on the computer fan. They are the ones that engage the stir stick inside the Erlenmeyer flask that actually does the stirring. The whole thing is mounted in a makeshift enclosure that I built out of spare wood and clear plastic, and I use a variable resistor to control the speed of the fan and the speed of the stirring. Total cost for this fully functional plate: 6.80Nis for the Teflon-coated stir stick (Just under $2US).

Here's the stir plate in action. Screws all set and balanced, and the stir stick engaged. if you look carefully you can see that the wort inside is spinning and is pulling a nice vortex. Mission accomplished. The yeast can go forth and multiply.

There are a lot of random pieces of equipment involved in our craft. I have seen brewers make fermentors out of some mighty weird containers, build wort chillers out of garden hoses and copper tubing, bastardize laundry machine pumps and use innovation and creativity to create an endless array of useful appliances. It is one of the greatest aspects of our hobby, I think. We don't just make beer, we make the things that make things happen. We create the world in which water, air, and sugar combine to make a little drop of heaven for our yeast, and it rewards us with beer. We are yeast gods.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Liqour, devil be they name!

Homebrewers have a saying. Actually, we have many saying, some of which don't make sense. But this particular one goes: "Never pour a beer down the drain. You never know if it could be good in a month, or a year, or to give to people you don't like. And if all else fails, you can always use it for cooking"

Except that you can't really cook with any beer. It has to be the right beer for the entree, and needs to be of decent quality or it will show. I tried making brown-ale poached salmon for dinner a few nights ago. A culinary experience that was best summed up by my dear wife "You know, I think this might be really good with some Barbeque sauce..." (My wife is a kind and gentle woman :) )

Of course the reason that I was trying to make brown-ale fish is because of this very same saying. I made this ale about a month and a half ago in a period leading up to my daughter's birth, when I wasn't allowed to brew AG because it takes a whole day, so I brewed some extract beers just to keep in shape. It was a fine attempt in making a southern brown English ale that was going beautifully until I tried to make container seal tighter and ended up dropping the O-ring that was suppose to seal the thing, and the silicone ring that was suppose to keep it in place - right into the beer.

Guided by the rule of "never pour out a beer" I proceeded to bottle it on schedule. However, since I was convinced that it will go bad within a week or two of bottling I didn't want to waste "good" bottles on it, so I bottled it in whatever I could find: odd sized bottles, a few halves with resealable tops, clear Corona bottles (a donation), and a empty coffee jar that I kept sanitizer in (figured that made it clean enough). I named it "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" (Baddest beer in the whole damn town...) or BBLB for short.

That was a month and a half ago, and while the beer has actually turned out quite nice (for an extract brew) I'm still trying to get through it as quickly as possible before the infection shoe drops. I drank a bunch, I gave some to friends (admonishing them to drink it quickly) and I've tried cooking with it. Brown Salmon may have not been the greatest brainstorms. But, undettered, I moved on to my next big idea: Brown Ale Deviled Eggs. Those of you of eastern European decent will probably recognize them by their popular name: "Chaminados".

The recipe is quite simple:
- 500 to 660ml Brown Ale (Newcastle Brown is great for this)
- Eggs, fresh
- Some onion peels
- A teaspoon of peppercorns
- Two clove nails.

Dump all the ingredients in a crock pot, add enough warm water until the eggs begin to float, cover, and cook on high for at least six hours (more if you can muster the patience. Twelve is ideal)

The eggs' porous shell will let the beer seep through by slow osmosis, cooking the eggs and imbuing them with the color and tastes of the beer. The result is beautiful brown eggs with a delicious aroma and a very nice flavor. And, you've used up some of that extra, hard-to-drink beer! Mmmmmm, yum!