Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Novemberfest lineup revealed!

As we're now less than two weeks away from Novemberfest 2010, Leah and I figured we might as well let you all know what you'll be drinking. So without further ado, here are our offerings for Saturday the 13th:

Hoar Frost Oktoberfest (5.2% ABV; 26 IBU's)

A fairly traditional interpretation of the German Märzen style, we started with equal parts Pilsner and Munich malts to give it a nice bready backbone and then added a touch of roasted malt to give it a copper color and just a touch of nuttiness. German hops give it just enough bitterness to keep it from being sweet. John Daley, as in Da Mayor's brother, turned down a sample at our church's Oktoberfest (said he had another event to go to; what kind of Irishman turns down a beer because he has to go somewhere else later???) but it was his loss; this beer just took second place in its category at the Chicago Beer Society Spooky Brew Review so it can't be all bad, right?!

Jade Bräu Schwarzbier (4.6% ABV; 28 IBU's)

Ordinarily this is our Bear's Cage Schwarzbier, but our friend Jade lamented earlier this year that nobody's ever named a beer after her before, so we figured we could take care of that. "Schwarzbier" literally means "black beer," but if you don't think you like dark beer you still might want to give it a chance. Most of the grain bill is the same as a traditional German lager, but a small addition of very dark, debittered roasted malt turns the whole thing black. It has some coffee-like notes but is much smoother and lighter than a stout. Even my Mom likes it, and I don't think she ever liked a dark beer before this one.

Great Storm Novemberfest (6.5% ABV; 67 IBU's)

Every year we brew an Oktoberfest beer for Novemberfest. This year it occurred to me that maybe we should come up with our own "Novemberfest" style. I wanted to keep it in the German tradition, so I started with an Altbier, which is a hoppy German ale. Then, since it's for a party, I figured I would make it extra strong (often referred to as a Sticke Altbier). To make it unique, I ditched the dark grains and added 25% malted rye to give it a hint of spiciness. Next I decided not to filter it in the tradition of a Kellerbier. And finally, right before the party I am going to dry-hop the beer with Hallertau hops. The end result actually tastes like a slightly fruity Maibock. It has a lot of hops, but also a really nice malt profile that keeps it in balance. We can't wait to see what people think of it.

In addition to our three beers, we'll have some sort of non-alcoholic offering as well (probably our Swearengen's Old Tyme Root Beer), and we have an assortment of hard liquor for the gluten-intolerant or those who otherwise don't want to drink beer. Hope to see you there!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Brew Day: Snow Squall Christmas Ale

After my musings on mashing earlier in the week, I put those musings into practice yesterday as we brewed our Snow Squall Christmas Ale, which is a Doppelsticke (extra-strong Altbier) that will be spiked with vanilla. I decided to go with an step infusion mash rather than a double decoction, and did rests at 131°F and 158°F. Well, at least that was the idea.

The day got off to an inauspicious start as I seemed to encounter some issues with my Barley Crusher grain mill. As I was milling using an electric drill I suddenly felt a bit of a jolt and then the drill revved up but the mill appeared to stop milling. I dumped the grain out of the hopper, turned on the drill and everything was spinning fine. When I refilled the hopper it did the same thing after a couple minutes. From that point on I added a little grain at a time rather than filling up the entire hopper and it crushed fine. I'm still not sure what was going on but I may shoot the Barley Crusher folks an email; I hear they're good about responding to such inquiries. (As you can see below, Dorrie was happy to supervise the milling process even if it was a little loud for her.)

Once I got the grain milled, the brew day was pretty smooth, if a tad longer with the extra steps. I usually try to only employ one new procedure per brew day, but this time I added a few different wrinkles: I did an infusion step mash as noted above; I also did a mash-out (something I've never really bothered with before); I did multiple additions for my bittering hops rather than adding them all at the beginning of the boil; and I oxygenated with pure oxygen.* So first of all, the step mash... It wasn't too bad. I mashed in at 131°F at a thickness of 0.9 qt./lb. and rested for twenty minutes. It turned out twenty minutes was enough time to get another two gallons of water boiling for the next infusion. I came in a little low for the second rest (155°F instead of 158°F) but I suspect that was because I lost a few degrees during the protein rest that I didn't factor in. I did a half hour saccharafication rest.

During the saccharafication rest, I got 3.5 gallons of water boiling. I used about two gallons of that for my mash-out; the rest I added a little cold water to and used for my sparge water (since the mash was to nearly 2 qt./lb. by the end of the second infusion, I didn't need much sparge water). I also added 1/8 tsp. acid blend to my mash during the mash-out since I like to drop the pH in my sparge water, and I figured the final infusion was basically like sparge water.

I got a little impatient with my sparging and ended up collecting 6.3 gallons in only 45 minutes. I'm usually pretty slow with my sparge so that surprised me; I guess I just wasn't paying close enough attention. I then did a nice, long 90-minute boil that got me down to a little over five gallons of wort. An pre-boil refractometer reading showed I was about five gravity points low, so I cut my bittering hops to get from 70 IBU's to 65. I did four additions, at 90, 65, 55 and 45 minutes because Noonan's lager book suggests this gives a smoother, more rounded bitterness. I didn't do any late addition hops because I found I didn't have any Spalt hops and I figured it would let the vanilla come through better.

While my pre-boil gravity suggested I'd be five points low, I actually ended up three points low, at 1067 instead of 1070. I suspect this was due to a combination of fast sparging, a short sacc rest (next time I might do an actual iodine test when doing a step mash; with a simple infusion mash my rest is always at least 40 minutes because it takes me that long to heat up my sparge water), and possibly high mash pH (I didn't bother to add pH to the mash because I had an ounce and a half of dehusked Carafa III malt, but that may not have been enough to lower the pH). Anyway, three points low isn't a big deal, but seeing that mash-outs are supposed to increase your efficiency it's something I took note of.

I chilled down to about 64°F, oxygenated for sixty seconds with pure O2 and pitched the yeast slurry from our Novemberfest beer (WLP 320 yeast). Here's the awesome part: I got done around 4pm and by the time we got home from dinner at 10pm fermentation had already started!

So that was our brew day. I moved our Novemberfest beer (which I kegged this past Monday) to the garage fridge so it's now officially cold-conditioning. Oh, and speaking of Novemberfest, it's officially Nov. 13th, so if you're in the Chicago area and want to stop by just let me know and I'll hook you up with the details. Cheers!

* Technically, this isn't the first time I used pure oxygen. I borrowed a buddy's O2 setup and did an experiment with this year's Hoar Frost Oktoberfest, using pure oxygen for the 6.5 gallon carboy and aerating one 3-gallon carboy using the basic "shake the hell out of the carboy" method and the other with olive oil. They all finished at the same gravity but the olive oil sample had hints of acetaldehyde (which I also picked up in our Bear's Cage Schwarzbier which was aerated only with olive oil) which is what led me to invest in my own O2 setup.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thinking about mashing

Leah and I brew a lot of lagers (our first major investment, long before going all-grain, was a chest freezer and external thermostat) so my buddy Michael, who heads up our homebrew club's competition team, asked me to talk to the team about lagering. Now, we've made a lot of tasty lagers--including two that have won awards--but I'm not an expert. In fact, our lagering process has evolved over time so I don't really even have a specific method to champion. So I decided to turn to a book I read a long time ago; a quite technical book that I didn't even really understand when I first read it: Greg Noonan's New Brewing Lager Beer.

Re-reading it really got me thinking about mashing... To me, the primary reason to brew lagers is to let the malt shine. After all, if you're just going to make a hop bomb why go through all the effort of lagering? I think most ale brewers don't give much thought to mashing other than the temperature of their infusion because it's just not as important as the hop schedule or the yeast used. But if you're brewing a nice, clean lager, the depth of your malt character is the difference between a so-so beer and an incredible one.

Now I've occasionally employed protein rests and decoctions, but honestly I never really thought that much about them. I just knew that they're traditional, and some people swear by them while others think they're pointless with modern, modified malts. The specific mash schedules I've followed (usually either decocting from protein rest to saccharification rest or decocting from sacc rest to mash-out) were chosen because 1.) somebody said it worked for them and 2.) it wasn't too labor-intensive. But lately I've defaulted to simple infusion mashes because most American breweries do them and I figure if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me. Is it though?

Re-reading Noonan reminded me of one fact: a single saccharification rest around 152°F is a compromise. So is a rest at 148°F or 156°F for that matter. Beta amylase, which breaks down starches to highly-fermentable maltose, works best between 131 and 150°F. Alpha amylase, which also converts starches to maltose but creates unfermentable dextrins (more complex sugars that make malty beers taste malty) in the process, works best between 154 and 162°F. Notice how those two don't overlap? Yeah, when you do a single infusion mash at 153°F (something I do all the time) neither enzyme is in its happy zone.

Anyway, lots of people think the only advantage of a decoction is the boiling, which causes Maillard reactions. However, when you decoct, you step mash, and when you step mash, you're resting at different temperatures and getting more out of your enzymes. And when you decoct, you're taking parts of your rest through various temperatures repeatedly, thereby going through optimal temps for various enzymes at least twice. The end result, according to some, is a fuller maltiness. Maybe you could draw an analogy to adding hops throughout the boil rather than at once?

Now, there are traditional double and triple decoctions, with a double doing protein and sacc rests and a triple doing an acid rest in addition to protein and sacc rests. However, in each of those they still employ one sacc rest that strikes a balance between beta amylase and alpha amylase. However, both Noonan and David Miller mention an alternative double decoction with rests at 131°F and 158°F. The first rest acts as both a protein rest AND a beta amylase rest while the latter is optimal for alpha amylase. In fact, Miller recommends such a schedule--stepping with a hot water infusion rather than a decoction--for Pilsners. Seems like a logical way to go to me.

Tomorrow we'll be brewing our Christmas beer, which once again will be a Vanilla Doppelsticke. I'm thinking of going with a 131°F/158°F step mash. This winter I'm thinking of brewing a Munich Dunkel with 100% Munich malt and doing a double decoction just to see what kind of malt character I can get out of it. Who knows... maybe I'll find it's not worth the trouble. But you never know until you try!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Brew day: Great Storm Novemberfest

As I discussed last week, I decided that for this year's Novemberfest party (Nov. 13th for those of you in the Chicago area) I would create and brew a new style. What I came up with is sort of a light-colored Sticke Altbier with 25% rye. I'm pretty excited to see how it turns out.

I brewed my creation on Saturday. Leah and I had to check out a school fair in the morning (yes, Dorrie will be starting Kindergarten next year) so, since I would be getting a late start, I decided to only brew five gallons. I also decided to go with a simple infusion mash.

I mashed in around 12:30 and noticed I seemed to have a lot of water in the mash tun for only five gallons. I later figured out why... I measure how much liquid I have in my keggle by measuring the distance from the top of the keggle to the top of the liquid. However, I have two different keggles that were cut differently, so the numbers are actually off a little between the two. I accidentally used the wrong number, which meant instead of 1.5 quarts per pound of grain I intended to use, I was actually a little over 1.7 quarter per pound. (On a side note, I usually use 1.25 but with 25% rye I wanted to avoid a stuck sparge; a pound of rice hulls helped too.) I also added 1/4 tsp. acid blend since I didn't have any dark malts.

I was afraid I would end up with poor efficiency since the enzymes would be diluted. I also got impatient and started sparging after only 45 minutes (which is pretty typical for me when using a 1.25 qt./lb. ratio, but a bit short even for 1.5) which wouldn't seem to help things. I recirculated from 1:20-1:30 and collected 6.25 gallons of wort between 1:30 and 2:30. After a 1:25 boil, I ended up with five gallons at a gravity of 1069, three points above my target--so I guess my efficiency wasn't so bad after all. After chilling to 70°F and adding a 1/2-gallon starter of WLP 320, my gravity was diluted to 1066; perfect!

So overall, a quick, relatively non-eventful brew day. I also had the pleasure of being joined by my new neighbor Gustavo, who's interested in learning how to brew. Gustavo's into Belgian beer, so I might use that as an excuse to brew my Worst Case Scenario again. Oh, and as you can see below, despite the chilly October temperatures Dorrie and Jonas were more than happy to help clean the mash tun:

Friday, October 01, 2010

And on the Seventh Day, there was a Great Storm

So when I last posted, I was contemplating a new style of beer for our Novemberfest party. I threw out a couple of ideas, and some commenters had some great ideas as well. In the end, I've decided to go with what I guess I could call a Chicago-style Altbier.

The initial idea I floated in my post was: "Grain bill of 55% pilsner, 25% rye malt, 15% Munich, 5% carapils. Starting gravity around 1048. Around 35 IBU's. Fermented with WLP 029 (German ale-Kölsch yeast)." After some consideration, I decided to change that up a little bit. I decided, in true Festbier style, I should raise the gravity a bit. I suppose if my first idea was based on an Altbier, this one would be based on a Sticke. And of course, if I'm going to jack up the malt I have to jack up the hops as well. Finally, since Uerige dry-hops their Sticke, I figure I'll dry-hop this one too.

So what's the end result? My Great Storm Novemberfest, named after the Great Lakes Storm of November 1913 (I dropped the "Lakes" so it wouldn't sound like something from Great Lakes Brewing Company, which coincidentally has a beer--Edmund Fitzgerald Porter--which is named after a boat shipwrecked in a similar storm). I'll be brewing it up tomorrow, but for now here's my recipe:

7 lb. Pilsner malt (50%)
3.25 lb. Rye malt (23%)
3 lb. Dark Munich (10L) (22%)
0.65 lb. Carapils (5%)
1.9 oz. Horizon hops (12% AA) (67 IBU)
Dry hop to taste
WLP 320 (American Hefe) yeast

I've used WLP 320 with great success with Alts; I generally filter it but this time I'm going to go Kellerbier-style. You know, the funny thing is looking over the recipe now it really looks like a German version of an IPA, but in my head that's not my intention at all. Of course, some consider Altbier to be a German IPA anyway, so I guess it's not that surprising.

So anyway, that's what's on deck for tomorrow. And then on to Novemberfest!