What the heck is that, you ask? Why, it's a lactobacillus starter. Allow me to explain...
A little over a year ago Leah and I brewed our first all-grain Leipziger Gose. A Gose is a soured wheat beer brewed with salt and coriander. To get an authentic sour quality we use lactobacillus. Lactobacillus is most active around 100°F, and it just so happens that our crock pot set on "warm" creates the perfect bath for keeping our lacto starter at 105°F. We made the starter last night and will complete the first of two brew days tomorrow. (Yeah, this beer requires two brew days: on the first day you mash, sparge, collect in a carboy and pitch the lactobacillus; after two days you then boil your soured wort, add the hops, salt and coriander, cool, and pitch like a regular beer.)
Thanks to the crock pot, keeping the starter warm for two days is a piece of cake. What will be more tricky is keeping the actual beer around 100°F for two days (sadly a 6.5 gallon carboy won't fit in our crock pot). The last time we brewed the Gose it was Labor Day weekend and the weather was nice and hot; we just wrapped the carboy in blankets and it never got below 85°F. This time, however, we're brewing on Christmas Eve in Chicago. So what shall I do?
Well, I picked up a couple new toys. The first is an aquarium heater which is supposed to keep over 30 gallons of water at 91°F. I'll be putting the carboy in a cube cooler filled with water that will--hopefully--be around 90°F thanks to the aquarium pump. I figure if I cool to 110°F and put it in a bath at 90°F it should be a pretty good environment for the lacto to do its thing. Of course, the aquarium pump will also give me flexibility to brew other warm-weather beers like saisons in the winter.
The second thing I got is a bucket water heater. I'm pretty excited about this for two reasons. First, it will allow me to heat up the water in the cooler above 90°F if I want to try to keep the beer closer to 100°F. However, the cooler thing is that I can use it to speed up the heating of my mash and sparge water. In the winter, it can take a while to get water heated--especially when brewing 10-gallon batches. Between this and my propane burner I'm hoping it can shave a half hour or so off of my brew day.
Now will these toys work as planned? If past experience is any indication, probably not. But I really hope so, as it's always fun to have a little more versatility when brewing (and I'd hate to drop over $50 on stuff that doesn't work). Stay tuned to find out how tomorrow's brew day goes.