Softland Aleworks

Big Beers Brewed in a Tiny House

Category: Techniques

A Tale of Two Kegs

KegeratorI picked up three cornelius kegs from a buddy in my homebrew club who was downsizing his operation. They were all in pretty good shape, two of them practically mint. At the time I wasn’t in a position to dive into kegging myself, but knew that it was coming down the pike. It seemed so easy, and the idea of having my own beer on draft was just too good to pass up.

Then something occurred that bumped “Get into kegging” higher on my list of homebrew to-do’s: I found a used Sanyo 4912 on craigslist for a song. When I went to pick it up, I explained to the lady (who was utterly baffled by my knowledge of and enthusiasm for this particular model of mini-fridge) that homebrewers scour the Internet looking for these since they have been discontinued — that the 4912 can fit two corny kegs and a CO2 tank perfectly, and since there is no freezer compartment you can drill straight through the top and mount a tap tower. She shrugged and helped me load it into the truck.

Next, to the local welding shop, where I picked up a 5lb CO2 tank: “What you got brewin?” I knew I did not look like a welder, but surely I don’t look that much like a homebrewer. He went on: “My brother-in-law does that stuff. Pretty good, too! I like the dark beers.” I said, “Cheers”, paid my ten bucks, and booked it home: I had just received a package from Austin Homebrew Supply containing my regulator.

I decided to spring for a double regulator, which would allow me to serve beers at different pressures, or to have one carbonating while another is at serving pressure. I figured that this would be useful since I tend to drink a lot of English ales (which traditionally feature lower carbonation) and Belgians (which I like to be pretty effervescent).

There is some debate as to what is the best practice when it comes to carbonating. Some purists say there is nothing better than refermentation in the keg — similar to traditional cask ale. This may be true — I can never wait that long. Some say it is best to hook it up to the gas and let it carbonate slowly over the course of a couple weeks — this way produces a precise serving volume. Again, this may be true, but I can never wait that long. Then, there are those who shake the keg — I am one of those. The practice of shaking the keg consists of putting the beer on gas, but at a high level (think 20-30 psi) and vigorously rocking the keg back and forth, which injects CO2 into the liquid. The trouble with this method (and why some folks don’t recommend it) is that it is very easy to overcarbonate your beer.

To avoid this issue, here is my method, with which I have had good success:

  1. The evening before you want to keg, crash your beer at 34F or as cold as you can get it. If possible, you want it to crash for at least 24 hours. This will aid the clarity of your beer, make it easy to rack off the yeast cake, and chill the beer (which is essential, since CO2 is absorbed much more easily by cold beer than warm).
  2. On the day of kegging, assuming you have washed and sanitized your keg (I wash mine with PBW once every couple brews and sanitize thoroughly every time I keg a beer. I also pressurize the keg and push the starsan through my lines and tap at that time as well), rack your beer into the keg and seal it up.
  3. Hook the keg up to CO2 and “burp” the keg — this refers to letting CO2 fill the headspace of the keg and then releasing it through the pressure-release valve. In so doing, you are ensuring that all the Oxygen (which is bad for beer) has been displaced by CO2 (which has a neutral effect for beer). Once you have done this a few times, your beer is totally safe. I usually turn the keg over a few times and make sure all my seals are intact at this point as well.
  4. Lie the keg on the floor with the “In” post on the bottom side. Place your CO2 tank some place above the keg (so it is elevated and there is no threat of beer travelling up your gas line), connect the gas, and crank it up to 20psi — You will hear the CO2 begin to bubble inside the keg.
  5. Vigorously rock the keg back and forth in sharp, quick movements for 6 minutes (assuming this is a 5 gallon keg). Towards the end of this time you will notice that less and less gas is being absorbed by the beer.
  6. After the time is up, stand the keg back up and disconnect the gas line. What you have on your hands now is akin to a shook-up bottle of beer — it is very agitated. At this point, most folks will put the keg in the fridge and let it settle down for a day or so. What I do, however, is to put a towel over the keg and pull the pressure-release valve. Gas and then a fair amount of foam will spray out, so you will make a bit of a mess (the towel will take care of most of it). Do I waste a bit of beer doing it this way? Yes. But I also get to drink my beer immediately.
  7. Turn down the gas to serving pressure (for me, this is usually in the ballpark of 9-12 psi, at approximately 50F) and connect the lines.
  8. Drink your beer.

This method will get you pretty close to your target carbonation level without putting you over the mark. Some folks recommend shaking the keg at 30psi for 20 minutes, which just seems like way too much to me. Using the method I have illustrated will give you a “head start” towards your target carbonation — your beer will be 100% carbonated withing a few days of being on draft.

*Note: The print featured in the above picture is from a Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project event from a few years back. If you are ever up on the East Coast, it would behoove you to suss out a few of their beers. Send one to me too while you are at it — I miss them terribly.

WLP023: Burton Ale (pt. II)

Old Ale

In my last post, I mentioned brewing a Bitter to build up a yeast cake of the Burton Ale strain from White Labs in preparation for an Old Ale I was planning to brew. This was another attempt at a Big Beer, in this case as a wedding gift for some friends. The idea was to brew an ale that would age well and that they could open on special occasions over the years — anniversaries, moving into a new house, etc.

For this batch, I used a shortcut that I know many homebrewers employ:  pitching onto an existing yeast cake. This practice is kind of poor form for a number of reasons — you are using way too much yeast, you are not washing away the dead yeast cells/break material/etc. — but damn if it isn’t convenient. I can say that for my part, I have not detected any off flavors that resulted from the use of this method in this case. And while I would not necessarily recommend it, it’ll do in a pinch.

The one thing that you will really need to watch for, should you pitch onto a yeast cake, is an explosive fermentation. And I do mean explosive. After about a day of active fermentation I thought I had reached high krausen. The next day, however, I awoke to find that my airlock had blown out of the carboy, hit the ceiling, and landed on top of a cupboard. I spent the morning cleaning up my mess; thankfully, the beer was safe, sound, and bubbling away. Lesson learned: Use a blow-off tube.

In packaging the beer, I decided to cork & cage the bottles in order to give them an extra special presentation. To do this I used the Colonna Corker — I found it to be really easy to work with, and would highly recommend it. I also ordered labels from Grogtag again — this time with better resolution and a crisper image.

Here’s the recipe:

16 lbs Maris Otter
10 oz. Crystal 60
4 oz. Chocolate Malt
10 oz. Dark Molasses (late addition)

3 oz. East Kent Goldings (5.4% AA) – 90 min
2 oz. Fuggles (4.4% AA) – 90 min

Pitched onto the full WLP023 yeast cake

OG: 1.077
FG: 1.020
ABV: 7.5%

Since this was brewed as a gift, I don’t have many bottles for myself. I plan to drink the first one on my friends’ anniversary and will post the notes at that time. One thing I can say after tasting what was left in the bottling bucket, however, is that the strong fruit esters that appeared in the Bitter are not nearly as prominent in this beer. Perhaps it is the gravity, or the fact that I overpitched and thereby subdued any ester formation; or perhaps it is simply that the esters are hidden behind the prominent molasses character. Whatever the case, the beer tasted great and I look forward to drinking it in several months’ time.


Fall Update: Brewing English Ales, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Malt

Time for another catch-all post, this time focusing on a new love of mine: English styles.

English Ales: Tasting Paddle

Special Bitter

I decided that I wanted my first all-grain batch to be a style that was not overly difficult to brew. However, I found that one can always find ways to make a mess of things — but that’s all part of the joy of homebrewing, no? In this case, I was working with Jamil’s recipe for an Ordinary Bitter from Brewing Classic Styles. It is an easy beer to brew and I was curious to try a proper Bitter, which (to my knowledge) I had not had. I went to my LHBS to procure the grains and misreading the scale ended up with much more Special Roast than I had intended. Now, Special Roast imparts a sort of tangy sourdough character to a beer, which when done right lends it an interesting (and, I’m told, authentic) biscuity quality.  However, with it being out of ratio, the sourdough tang easily took over. I suspect that I also miscalculated my other specialty grains, which in conjunction with a surprisingly decent efficiency gave this beer the gravity of a Special Bitter rather than an Ordinary Bitter. Unfortunately, I did not discover my error until after I had bottled and tasted the beer — way too late to adjust the hop schedule.  To my palate, it ended up out of balance and too tangy. Interestingly, the guys at my local homebrew club loved this beer. Go figure.

Lesson learned: Measure twice, crush once.

Spiced Pumpkin Ale

One of the things I look forward to ever year is the oncoming of the holiday spiced ales. Much like Egg Nog, every year I buy up all the Pumpkinator, Punkin’ Ale, Pumking, and whatever else I can get my hands on, and then promptly burn out on the style until next year. This year, I decided to try my hand at brewing my own Pumpkin Ale. After searching around the Internet for recipe ideas, I hit upon one that seemed vetted and successful. It is more or less a clone of Dogfish Head’s Punkin’ Ale, which has a Brown ale as its base (though not technically an English Brown — I am going to sneak it in this post anyway), with additions of baked pumpkin, brown sugar, and pumpkin pie spice. I baked the canned pumpkin the evening before and steeped it in a bag as the water came to strike temp. This seemed to be more than enough time for the pumpkin to produce a rich color and some fermentables too (you don’t get much flavor from the pumpkin itself). Doing it this way also prevents the pumpkin mush from clogging up your brew system. The rest of the brew day went pretty smoothly. When it came time for bottling I found that the 1.5Tbs of spice I added 10 minutes before flameout had mostly boiled off and had produced only a soft hint of spice, where I was looking for a more bold flavor. I simply added another 1.5 Tbs to the bottling sugar as it boiled. In hindsight, this was perhaps a bit overzealous. Next year I think I will move the spice addition in the boil to flameout and cut down the bottling addition to 1 Tbs. I found that the downside to adding spices at bottling is that they tend to lay on top of the other flavors, as opposed to blending and integrating. That being said, I was very pleased with how this beer came out and am inspired to incorporate spices (albeit more subtly) in other brews. More on that below.

Newhouse Porter

I was in New York for a wedding and put in a respectable session at the historic McSorley’s Old Ale House, where you have two options: Light or Dark. The former is an Amber Lager and the latter a Porter (what they call a Stock Ale). They come in small pours, one for $3 or 2 for $5, and are impressively delivered by barmen who carry upwards of two dozen of the small mugs in one go. It’s incredible. The beer is respectable, but it’s not revelatory. The experience, however, is. The place is full of history and it is easy to get swept up in the adopted nostalgia of it all. Afterall, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt drank here! The decorations on the wall are older than your parents. You get the idea.

So it was that after a few mugs of their Stock Ale, I started to ruminate about the pubs of yore that, like McSorley’s, had their house beers and that’s what you drank. No exotic casks. No tap takeovers. No frills. Just beer. It helped that I had recently discovered the variety that exists within the bounds of a Porter and had been reading up on the history of the style. So I decided to give it a go — to design a light, refreshing, yet roasty and fortifying ale that would serve as one of our own “house beers” — something to have on tap year round, a crowd-pleaser.  Brewed in honor of our moving into a new home, the recipe for our Newhouse Porter is all British malt, including a healthy dose of Brown Malt (common in more historical recipes) and a pinch of Black Patent (I’ve read somewhere that one uses Black Patent for Porters, Roasted Barley for Stouts). I mashed at 152F and fermented around 67F.

7# Maris Otter
1.5# Brown Malt
1# Crystal 60
4oz Black Patent

1.5oz EKG (60)
0.5oz EKG (15)
0.5oz EKG (5)


Cardamom Brown Ale

After you have been homebrewing for a while, you start experiencing flavors differently. You might be eating a muffin and think to yourself, “What is that spice? I think I could use that!” After my first spiced ale experiment, I thought it might be fun to see what one could do with these different flavors. I had a hunch that Cardamom could lend an interesting complement to a malty brown ale and decided to give it a try.  As with any spiced ale, the key is restraint. A heavy hand on the spice rack is what gives these beers a bad rap.  Done well, and you offer just a hint in the background; Done poorly, and you will ruin that spice forever after. My hope with this beer was to achieve the balance that one encounters in spicing Saisons: If you can single out or identify the spice, you have added too much.

We just bottled this up last nite, and I’ve got to say it tasted pretty good. Tasting notes to follow in due time.

Fall Update: Sours

Ah, beer, beer, beer… I spend most of my day thinking about recipes, listening to the BN, planning the next brewday; but not nearly enough time writing about it.  I do apologize, dear readers.  It is not for lack of brewing, but indeed because of brewing! So I would like to do a few catch-all posts to hit the high points of what we have been up to in the garage.  The first will look to our sour beers.

ECY Oud Bruin

By now, my love of Belgian ales should be readily apparent.  And so when I had the opportunity to acquire some East Coast Yeast, you had better believe I jumped at the opportunity. [An aside: If you ever find yourself with the opportunity, I suggest you do the same!  Fill up your Internet-shopping-cart and run for the paypal line.  The mistake I made was hemming-and-hawwing over which strains would fit into my brew schedule; meanwhile, yeasts were selling out and being subtracted from my cart.  Don’t overthink it! Select and pay, and figure it out later — these yeasts don’t come around often enough. And word on the street is, they will be a bit further delayed after the heat of the summer and all this Sandy/Nor’easter business.] These yeasts come highly recommended and I was quite excited to try my hand at a sour ale. After consulting the wise interwebs, I dove in and have been gently coaxing my bugs along for several months now. The thing about sour ales is you had better have patience — we are talking months and years, where we normally talk about days and weeks.  I pulled a hydrometer sample yesterday and I think we are in the home stretch on this one.  The FG is down to about 1.019 and it tastes wonderfully complex: A lot of Lactobacillus up front — assertive, but not overpowering or vinegar-y —  followed by a soft, dark fruity malt finish.  I got a bit of an oak character too, which is a nice surprise since there has so far been no oak introduced to this beer. What was it Lisa Simpson said about Jazz — You have to listen to the notes that she is not playing, or something to that effect.

Initially, I thought that I would have to wait quite a while for this beer to finish up. However, after listening to Jamil’s episode on the style, it seems that perhaps that is not necessary?  My takeaway was that it is done whenever it tastes like it is done. Long story short, this may be the best beer I’ve made yet. We will give it another couple months and then bottle and cork it.

Sueur de Cheval: All-Brett Belgian Rye

The second sour ale that I decided to take on was an original recipe, using only Brettanomyces Bruxellensis (WLP650) for fermentation, which I am calling Sueur de Cheval — a wink-and-nudge to Michael Jackson’s all too oft-quoted descriptor of Brett character as “horse blanket”. [Another aside: Do you see many cicerones around stables? riding out on the ranch? What does a horse blanket smell like, pray tell? Furthermore, how does it taste? Can we move on from this meaningless phrase?]  I was inspired to take on this project after reading a wonderful article on Brett in a recent issue of Zymurgy. I decided on Brett B., as it seems to be the most middle-of-the-road.

Here’s the recipe:

8 lbs  Belgian Pilsner
2.5 lbs  Rye
8 oz  Carapils
1 oz  Crystal (5.2%AA) (60)
0.5 oz Crystal (15)
0.5 oz Crystal (5)

I mashed around 152, which is probably a bit high.  However, according to the article, the Brett will eat through just about anything you give it and produce an exceedingly dry beer. So I figured, why not mash a little higher and balance this out a bit. If I had to do it over again, I would also add a bit of acidulated malt, which helps to drop the pH of the mash and provide an ideal environment for the yeast. I was more restrained with the hops than I normally might be, since I am seeking to showcase the Brett character. This was my first time using Crystal hops, which I chose due to their being described as “mild and spicy” — hopefully a good complement to the rye.  As for fermentation, I pitched at ambient temperature (around 74F) and let it free rise.  It has been sitting in the high 70s for about six weeks now.  I pulled a hydrometer sample the other day and found that (although it is far from finished) it already had a mild funk to it and was quite pleasant. I took a look a week or so later and found a beautiful pellicle had formed.

Very excited to see how this one turns out!

Brett Pellicle

The Solera Method

Doing sour beers can be dangerous territory for a number of reasons.  For one thing, you have to be extra careful in your sanitation.  Most folks recommend purchasing a new set of plastic (your glass carboys will clean up just fine), and that is what I did. The second reason is that it ties up your fermenters for months at a time.  Every now and again, the big online stores will have a sale on carboys — I suggest stocking up ahead of time.  But lastly, and most importantly, it is seriously addictive.  I totally get why folks who start brewing wild ales stick with it: It unleashes a certain creativity that demands patience, improvisation, and hopeless optimism.

And then there is the art of blending.  I just don’t think I have it in me to wait several years to drink a beer (yet).  However, I would relish the opportunity to try the Solera method.  In a sense, this is sort of a lazy-man’s way to try blending: First, you fill a barrel with your beer and inoculate it with bugs. After it has soured up and you are satisfied with how it is tasting, you rack off a portion of that beer and then fill the barrel back up with fresh beer.  Then you let that sour up, and repeat ad infinitum. I imagine after a while you develop a feel for what beer will pair well with what is in the barrel and can plan accordingly.  There are a few advantages to this method: One being that you never have to worry about your barrel drying out or going bad.  You also will always have a new, (hopefully) delicious sour ale at your finger tips.  And if you are one of those homebrewers who (like me) is trying to hone in your technique and striving for consistency, it is a refreshing opportunity for inconsistency: You are continually meeting a beer you’ve never met before. And how cool is that?

Swamp Hoppin’

Last week we brewed a sessionable brown porter in preparation for the coming heat. Summertime in Texas demands light, quaffable beers; and with its heavily German/Czech roots, this often appears in the way of pilsners and other lagers, hefeweizens, kolsches  — styles which, incidentally, are on the docket for later this Spring. In the meantime, however, I am holding fast to a love of dark ales and taking the opportunity to try out a few techniques: Using a Swamp Cooler and Dry-Hopping.

A swamp cooler is basically a bucket of water in which you place your fermenter.  By keeping the water cooled, you can control the ambient temperature of your beer and use yeasts that demand a cooler environment year round.  For this beer, we used WLP002 (English Ale Yeast), which is known to be highly flocculant and quickly fermenting.  The suggested temperature range for this yeast is 65-68F, so I knew that I should provide an ambient temperature of about 62F or so.

After poking around on the Internet a bit, I found a very useful guide for the swamp cooler set up on Billy Broas’s blog.  I used a few ice packs and frozen water bottles to get the initial temperature down to about 60F and placed my fermenter in the tub.  The heat produced by the yeast quickly raised the temperature, but I found that by simply changing out a frozen water bottle every 6 hours or so I was able to keep a steady temperature around 62-65F. Hopefully that put the temperature inside the fermenter right where I needed it. As this yeast is known to drop out pretty quickly, I took gravity readings and roused the yeast a couple times throughout the week.  I use a bucket-style primary fermenter, which (owing to its flat bottom) teetered and tottered inside the swamp cooler, never simply sitting upright.  While I have no evidence for this, I would hypothesize that this subtle motion may have helped me keep the yeast in suspension a bit longer — who knows!  As the gravity approached my target FG, I moved the fermenter out of the swamp cooler and let it sit at room temperature (approximately 70-72F) for a few days. As was my hope, I immediately saw an increase in airlock activity, as the warmer environment reinvigorated the yeast that remained in suspension. Ideally, this will finish out the primary, producing a drier beer and eat up most of the residual diacetyl.


I also decided to try my hand at dry hopping on this recipe. Not necessarily something that is “true to style” for a porter, but that’s ok. Adding hops at varying points in your wort’s journey to becoming a delicious beer will contribute different characteristics. For instance, adding hops at the beginning of a boil will add bitterness, and adding them at the end of the boil will add aroma. Dry-hopping is more in line with the latter, and as such, shouldn’t affect the sweet roasty flavor of the porter too much. I racked the beer onto 1 oz. of whole-leaf Fuggles in the secondary. I plan to leave it there for about a week, after which we will be bottling!

About another month before this beer will be ready, but the sample I had tasted pretty good! The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding, however.

Fermentation Temperatures

Next week we will be trying our hand at one of my favorite styles, the Saison. We are planning to use White Labs’ Belgian Style Saison Blend (WLP568), which I’ve come to find out is a somewhat finicky yeast. The suggested fermentation temperature for this blend is listed as 70-80F, which (one would think) should be no problem this time of year in Texas.  However, after a cold snap brought us down to the low 40sF this week, I thought I had better do a bit of research.

One particularly useful resource I came across was an episode of Brewing TV:

Brewing TV – Episode 37: Happiness is a Warm Carboy from Brewing TV on Vimeo.

In it, Chip shows a few helpful DIY alternatives to buying a Brew Belt or FermWrap (Incidentally, we will be using the latter to ramp up the temperature of our carboy during primary fermentation).


Yeast Starters

There is a great article in the March-April 2012 issue of BYO Magazine titled, “Major League Pitching,” written by Terry Foster (of BAR New Haven).  In it, Foster discusses the common problems homebrewers experience with their yeast and how making a proper starter will remedy them:

Is pitching rate really that important? Does it matter if the yeast takes a bit more time to get going, so long as the beer isn’t infected and tastes all right? Well, actually, yes it does matter, because for a start if you consistently have long lag times you will brew infected beer sooner or later. Also, even if it is free of spoilage organisms your beer will not taste “all right,” it will taste like “homebrew.” Ask any professional brewer and he will tell you that the most common mistake made by amateurs is under pitching their yeast, and this is what causes that homebrew tang.

It was this last point that really resonated with me, as the finish on our Extra Pale Ale clone was a bit, er… tangy.

Making a yeast starter is basically the process of making a “mini beer,” where you boil half a cup of Dry Malt Extract (DME) in 2 cups of water, cool, and pitch your yeast.  After two days on a stir plate, you should have doubled or tripled your healthy yeast cells, which will in turn decrease not only the lag time before fermentation begins, but also the chances that your yeast will exhaust itself in the process. It is simple and easy, but does require a little extra planning and some extra gear.

Up to this point, I have directly pitched single vials of White Labs yeasts. At first it was a rookie mistake; however, now that I know better I guess I don’t have an excuse.  I plan my brew days pretty far in advance, so preparing the starter a few days out should be no sweat. Now all that’s holding me back is the gear, and any homebrew shop worth its salt will sell a yeast starter kit.

There are those who simply advise the homebrewer to “double pitch” in beers with a higher OG; however, from what I have read, this does not achieve quite the same thing. Yeah, you have twice the number of yeast cells going into fermentation, but making a starter also prepares the cells to “fight the good fight” by acclimating them to the wort.  A good tool for devising just how many yeast cells you will need can be found at Jamil Zainasheff’s website. There are also lots of useful resources that can be found in the usual places.