12 April 2014

posted by benjy edwards

As a brewer, I find it too easy to take one’s brewing methods and process for granted.  I realised this profoundly today, when my friend Brian and I attempted to brew a couple of extract batches with steeping grains at his house near Portland, Oregon.  Since my brewing equipment is packed up pending a move, we used his newly-purchased brewing gear, including two 15 gallon Megapots, a Blichmann burner, and weldless ball valves and thermometers.

Now, I expected to run into some issues when using new equipment, as I have bought and made so much gear over the years that it is almost inevitable that something won’t work the way you planned and expected, but I have to say that the brew day was even more eventful than I could have conceived.  The first surprise came last night, when we discovered that the regulator Brian had bought was a low-pressure one designed for a gas grill, and it caused a very tepid flame from the Blichmann banjo burner.  He managed to source a high pressure one the morning of brew day though, and it works much better.

The next problem was that all four weldless fittings leaked on the kettles.  Tightening them up even more solved those problems, except for one which must have suffered from the heat of the burner, and it slowly leaked at the thermometer fitting.  Speaking of the heat of the burner, the ball valves from Northern Brewer couldn’t handle it as well, with the plastic coated handles melting.  We removed them, but then the handles got so hot that I managed to burn two fingers when trying to open the valve.  The final issue with the kettles and fittings was that despite calibrating both thermometers with boiling water the night before, the readings were 20 to 30 degrees off when the wort was boiling.  Perhaps again it was  the heat from the burners that affected the gauges.

The first batch was an IPA brewed with 26 pounds of light malt extract and a pound and a half each of crystal 40 and carapils steeped in 160F water.  This part went as planned, and we began the boil with a very full kettle.  My converted kegs are 15.5 gallons, and the extra half gallon over a 15 gallon stainless pot is noticeable.  The plan all along was to use Brian’s homegrown hop harvest from last year, but because of the low alpha-acids compared to commercially-grown hops, we used almost 30 ounces throughout the boil, and the volume in the kettle never really went down, so we had the usual boil-overs.  This situation was not helped by my forgetting to bring any anti-foam for the brew.

One disaster we thankfully averted was brewing with water that tasted like iron.  In my brewery I use water from an outside tap, but like all good brewers, I make sure to taste all of my ingredients before I brew each time.  This includes the water.  Tasting the water from the outside tap at Brian’s house, it was clearly tainted, most likely from the galvanized iron spigot.  The water from the house tastes great, so we used that instead.

The IPA was duly boiled for 90 minutes, with all of those 30 ounces of hops stuffed into the kettle.  Galena and Chinook for bittering, and Cascade and Centennial with more Chinook for flavour and aroma.  The target gravity was 1.068, and actual gravity was 1.072, so the LME has a slightly higher extract than the numbers in my spreadsheet.  This was consistent with the second batch, an American pale ale whose actual gravity was also 4 points higher than target (1.060 instead of 1.056).  We remembered the whirlfloc, and the chill went smoothly.  We waited to pitch the Wyeast 1968 starter until all four fermenters had been filled.

The batch of pale ale got off to a bumpy start by us forgetting to put in the hop screen before we filled the kettle.  Trying to drain it back out is when I burnt myself.  Once the screen was installed, the boil and hopping regime went as planned.  Chinook was the bittering hop, with Mt. Hood, Centennial, Chinook, and Cascade later in the boil.  The final problem we had was forgetting to turn the kitchen burner off after heating the steeping liquor for the pale ale grains, so we ended up boiling the pound of crystal 40, pound of carapils, and .75 pounds of honey malt.  We didn’t intend to decoct this pale ale, but it will be interesting to see what effect this will have!  I considered omitting the malt from the kettle, but I don’t think it will ruin it, and perhaps may lend a pleasant enhanced maltiness and graininess, as proponents of decoction say is the reason to do it.

After a long brew day, which despite the use of extract turned out to be slightly longer than my all-grain double batch days, the wort looked and smelled good when racked to the fermenters, and fermentation was underway in less than 24 hours.  I plan to dry-hop my fermenter of IPA once in the primary and then a second time in the keg.  The pale ale will just be dry-hopped in the keg.  We need to come up with some clever names for the two beers, with references to some of the problems we had with the brew.  I think both will turn out well in the end, and we learned a lot about the new equipment, so future batches should proceed much more smoothly and quickly.