Monday, January 30, 2012

Suicide bombers

Today, ladies and gentlemen, I want to write about an issue that has recently hit very close to home in my part of the world: Suicide bottles, a.k.a. Bottle bombs.

We all know that feeling of coming home in the evening and smelling that intoxicating aroma of beer merrily fermenting somewhere about the house. It's a great smell, full of promise and future, and is a fantastic thing to come home to, as I did a couple of nights ago. I stepped into my living room to the smell of fermentation and thought "wow, this IPA in the fridge is going to be great". It was late at night, and I was carrying the miniature brewmisstress in my arms, so I went to sleep and thought nothing of it.

The following morning, yesterday, I woke up with a nagging feeling. I couldn't quite place it. I went through my morning routine and got ready to leave the house when it suddenly hit me: The IPA was done fermenting three days ago! It shouldn't smell like this! I should check on the beer! So I went to the fermentation fridge, and opened the door...

*Crunch...* The sound of grating glass as the fridge door opened to reveal the devastation inside. It Seemed that my entire stock of cider (8 bottles) had decided to commit seppuku together, and take my fridge with it. Well they failed on the last part, as the fridge still worked, but it was coated, and I mean COATED with a fine coat of glass shards stuck onto every available surface with sticky, sticky dried cider. Add to this the dried remains of the latest yeast irruption from the fermentor, and you can only guess at what my fridge looked (and smelled like). It was incredible. And extremely messy.

I wont bore you with the details of the cleanup except to say that it took blood, sweat, and tears (the baby was crying) to clean it up. Not to mention a whole roll of paper towels, some rags that may never be used again, and lots of vinegar water. At the end, though, the fridge was back to it's usual sparkly-clean self (um, yeah, usual) and the beer that survived the explosions wiped down and placed back. I even found some odd bottles I forgot I had.

Of course, this is all my fault. Back when I made the cider I had made it with rather too high a starting gravity (1.079), and in order to avoid having 10% cider I cold crashed it when it still had a good amount of sugar in it. It's been sitting at temps that have been getting slowly higher with the last couple of brews, and finally, with the IPA fermenting at a whopping 20C it could take no more. The yeast had woken up with the heat, found sugar, and got to eating. And the rest is very messy history.. :)

So what have we learned? (I should say, re-learned. I should already know these things..)
- That bottle bombs are real. They are not a myth, and they have quite a spectacular force.
- That when you store beer, you have to be mindful of the temperature it will hit in storage. This is why is a good idea to let the beer carbonate at a rather a ambient temp, btw.
- That cold crashing really doesn't kill the yeast. They're hardy little tikes, and they loooove their sugar.

Luckily there were no casualties other than the cider, which no one was drinking. It was also stored in useless green and clear bottles, so no loss there. I already bought a new can of apple concentrate, and am planning to make cinnamon-spiced cyser when I get the chance. I think this time, I'll aim at OG of 1.055..

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Lite" beer

I brew an IPA last weekend.

Before I brewed the beer I shared my recipe with a fellow homebrewer. Being that it was an IPA I was brewing, the inevitable first question out of his keyboard was "how many IBUs?" I told him I was expecting 50, to which he responded "Ah, an IPA lite!"

Lite! LITE!?! How dare he? I think there not a single homebrewer out there that doesn't take "lite" as an insult (consider Bud Lite, Coorse Lite, Miller Lite, and you'll see why) having one's beer termed "lite" is cause for retribution, and possibly a challenge to a duel (swards, pistols, or beer guns, which ever is handier). But really, it wasn't his fault.

See, 50 IBUs for an IPA is not "lite". It's smack dab in the middle of the range of the guidelines. Only one problem: That guideline applies to English IPAs, and today's homebrewing (and for that matter, craft-brewing) world has been subjugated and contorted by ridiculous American IPAs. (Which should, by all rights, be called APAs, or ABA (American Bitter Ales) but the Americans like the IPA label.) Think of the average English IPA, now think of Dogfish Head 120Min IPA, do you see why I say ridiculous?

The IPA, if one is to believe the legend, was brewed extra-hoppy in order to survive the trip from England to India. But "extra-hoppy" was relative to the low-hop, low alcohol, malty ales that it derived from, and a good portion of that extra hop taste disappeared during those months of travel. It was never, NEVER, even close to being 20 ABV, 120IBU. Those are kinda of numbers you would never find in English beers. Only a nation founded by repressed puritans and fortune seekers could come up with that kind of nonsense.

Seriously, the human palate has a limited capacity for detecting bitterness. It tops out at about 90 to 100 IBUs. Anything above that would taste just as bitter. So what's the point of a 120IBU beer or, for God's sakes, 280?! If you have to write "Theoretical" in front of your IBU rating, nobody will ever know.

Americans have often had this mentality of "Go hard or go home". The problem is that American brewers export this mentality to the rest of the world. Gone are the days of moderation. "Extreme Brewing" is the new mainstream.

But we must remember that extreme is the outlier. That IPAs are suppose to be bitter, but not dissolve your stomach lining. That stouts are suppose to be easy drinking, low alcohol beers. That not every beer style needs an "Imperial" version. And that, above all, beers are not a test of courage, not a testament to the strength of your digestive system. They are somethings to be enjoyed and shared. Cherished for their craft, their feel, and their taste. Remember taste? That's that feeling hiding under all that bitterness in your mouth.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A brewer, on the roof

One of my favorite scenes in the movie "Fiddler on the Roof" is a scene where Tevia's daughter and her secret fiance come to Tevia to confess their love and ask his blessing for the marriage. Tevia, torn between the audacity of the couple's arrangement of the marriage without the family's consent and the desire to see his daughter happily married, goes through this whole internal monologue where he considers the pros and cons. On the one hand, they did so, but on the other hand, they are so, but on the other hand, how dare they, and so on.

I think about this scene whenever I brew. And particularly when I bottle a beer. I look at the rows of neatly stacked bottles and think "On the one hand, this is a good recipe, but on the other hand, I think the grain wasn't quite right. I made new sanitizer solution to try to get things as sanitary as possible, but on the other hand, it did geyser out of the fermentor and blow the lid. I double-rinsed and sanitized the bottles and flamed the tops, but on the other hand, a couple of the caps did slip off before I managed to get them on. And so on, and so forth.

Yesterday I bottled my McGeyser beer, which is a Scotch Ale with an expected aging period of six months to two years. I worked hard on this beer, and given that it was a small batch (12L) it has probably one of the highest work per bottle ratios of any brew I made. I went all out with the sanitation: I made new sanitizer for both the brew and the bottling, I liberally flamed any glass surface I saw (with a blow torch, no less, no dinky lighter for my beer!). I even put hand-sanitizer lotion on my hands before handling the caps. But still, the questions remain... Did I do everything I could? Did I do too much? Will my beer be happy, or did I just make a batch of really expensive vinegar?

Am I just paranoid or do these questions plague everyone?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Cold Crashing

As home-brewers we do not, as a rule, filter our beers. And so it becomes an article of pride for many of us to have beer that is unfiltered, and yet crystal clear. We like the yeast, we use it to turn our wort into beer, and then we would like it to sink down as quickly as possible and leave our beer clear and transparent.

One of the methods that we use to achieve this lofty goal is Cold Crashing.Cold crashing is a process by which we take the beer once it's done fermenting, and abruptly drop the temperature in the fermentor from the blissful 17-21C of ale fermentation to a blistering 4C for about two days. (Lager, being laggered at 4C anyway is not cold crashed. Or if you will, Cold crash is part of its basic process.) The idea is that the yeast will become dormant and flocculate out of the beer, leaving it clear. A secondary use of cold crashing is to stop fermentation before it is complete, in order to leave more sugar in the beer and a lower alcohol content. (This is kind of a misconception, since you don't stop fermentation, you suspend it, and the yeast will take it back up if you raise the temperature again)

Personally, I can never bring myself to cold crash a beer, and instead I prefer a slower process in which I drop the temperature by about 1 degree C every 12 hours, for about a week. This is enough to bring me from 18 degrees to 4. It just takes longer.

The reason I do it this way is because of what happens to yeast when it gets stressed. When yeast gets stressed (such as, when the temperature changes abruptly) it produces a variety of stress compounds in the form of phenols and other off-flavor chemicals. It's rather like a human being that's suddenly been confronted with a stressful situation: These chemicals are the yeast equivalent of cold sweat. By gradually reducing the temperature in small increments I strive to minimize this effect by letting the yeast acclimate and fall asleep gently, rather than shocking them into a comma.

Is this a better approach than cold crashing? I have no idea. I have heard claims that when you cold crash your yeast falls asleep so fast that it doesn't have time to produce off-flavors in significant quantities. I don't know. One of these days I may try this: Take a batch, split it in two, and let half cool in the house fridge (at 4C) while I cool the other half slowly. It will be interesting to see the difference.

My philosophy of brewing is that you can't rush good beer, and therefore you should avoid doing anything abrupt to it. This is a luxury that we, as home brewers, have over commercial brewers. We can afford to wait the extra few days. We can age a beer for a year before we crack open the first bottle. We can experiment much more readily with our 20 liter batches than they can with their 200 or 2000 Liter batches. Given all that, it seems only natural to avoid doing something fast and brutal to your yeast, and prefer instead a slower, gentler process. But then, that may just be me.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Things you see in the light of morn

I brewed a Scotch Wee Heavy over the weekend.
For those who may not be familiar with the style, a Wee Heavy is a ridiculously large beer, with a starting gravity of 1.070 to 1.130, a malty profile, and low bitterness. It is a challenging beer to make balanced. With this much alcohol and sugar, you run a real risk of having cloying, burning, and just plain weird.

One of the biggest issues with this kind of beer is taking care of your yeast. Where as with a 1.040 beer you can get away with under-pitching, under-aerating, or slightly distressed yeast, and still have a decent beer. With a beer that is 1.095, as mine was, you have to hit all your targets.

So I used every trick in my arsenal to get the yeast happy. I used A LOT of yeast, to begin with (well it looked like a lot to me, Mr. Malty said that's what I needed). And I did everything I could to make it happy. I added yeast nutrient. I aerated until my arms hurt, I made a starter with warmth and aeration, I pitched a little warm to let the yeast propagate before it hits target temp. And I played it some good music to boot. :) In short I did everything I could to try to make my yeast happy.

Given all that, I was disheartened to look in on the beer last evening and discover that the temperature, which was suppose to be around 18C, had dropped to 16.5. True, it was still well within the Ale temperature rate, but I knew that especially with this kind of wort, you don't want the kind of under-performance that you'd get with lower temperature. Typically, at this stage, the internal heat produced by the fermentation would be enough to keep the temperature up, but for some reason, it wasn't happening this time. Never daunted, I pulled out my handy-dandy heat wrap and set it on the fermentor. Within the hour the temperature was back were it was suppose to be. Yet my heart was heavy: I had just gotten the heat wrap, and had not yet had a chance to attach the temperature controller to it, so I knew I couldn't leave it in the fermentation fridge over night. I was worried that the temperature would drop again, and the yeast would be unhappy.

Turns out I needn't have worried. When I woke up this morning, the temperature reading was 18.2. Apparently fermentation had started in earnest and the wort was warming itself. I could also tell it was going well because I could smell it from across the room. Delighted, I opened the fridge to look at the beer, and was astounded: The fermentor had turned into a volcanic irruption. There was thick krausen covering the outside of the demijohn on all sides, and the lid had blown completely off and was resting in the corner of the fridge. It was amazing. It gave the words "High Krausen" a whole new meaning. It was a great sight to get up to in the morning (I think only a beer-geek can get excited at the sight of a sticky mess like this. But some messes ARE highly exciting.)

Well, as exciting as it was, it did need to be cleaned up. And given the high gravity of the wort, it was clear that I would not be top cropping this yeast, so preserving it was not much of an issue. I grabber a sterilized ladle (Blow torches are so handy in these cases, aren't they?) and a plastic container and ladled all the stuff of the fermentor. I grabbed the lid, scrubbed it of dried yeast, sanitized it and placed it back on top. And then I cleaned the sides. All in all, I think I collected enough yeast during cleanup to ferment a good size batch of small beer. Sadly, it was all going in the drain, but still pretty amazing to see.

Before I left for work, I took another look in the fridge. There was already a new spur of yeast driving down the side of the fermentor. I'm guessing I'm in for another round of cleaning tonight. I don't mind though. If nothing else, it gave me an idea for a name for this beer. I'm going to call it McGeyzer ;)