Rennet reboot

It has been too long since I wrote on this blog.  There are reasons. I’ve not been brewing or making cheese in a while.  It’s complicated, but mostly due to time and space management issues.

A while ago I tried to make feta and it never gelled.  Or congealed. Or coagulated.  It turns out the liquid rennet I had was probably denatured and no longer working.  What a waste of good milk!

So I bought rennet tablets, which are stabler and last longer. The problem is, I don’t know how to use them.  I’ve tried to look this up, but then kind of lost interest because I didn’t really have the time to make much more than cream cheese, and then I’d have to eat it.  I’d love to have the time to make feta or halloumi, but it’s been a busy year.

As for the beer, well, this is both a time issue and a volume issue. The more beer I have at home, the more I drink.  And at some point, one has to look carefully at that latter issue.  So I’ve been trying to drink less and more slowly.  The other thing is I want to move this summer, and I’d rather have a bunch of empty bottles than a bunch of full ones. I also intend, once I move, to begin kegging my beer, which will also help with space.  I figure if I brew immediately after moving, I’ll have a bunch of new house-themed beers on the taps for the autumn. And great pictures for the blog.

So my apologies, if you actually follow this blog and care.

Maybe I’ll post a bunch of pictures of the bread I’ve been making.

Are you keeping score?  Bread, cheese, beer.  Tasty home made products, for sure, but soon I’ll be having to post the pictures of me widening doorways so I can get through…

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A quick gushing update

…not gushing because I have an infected bottle. Not gushing because the beer in my carboy is blowing out the top.  Gushing because: I LOVE BREWING.

Recently I’ve been really busy.  Really really busy.  And little time to brew.  I did a beer in Feb, then one in April. (The gluten free wheat beer, incidentally, is very good.) Then one three weeks ago which is now conditioning.  Sigh.  And I’m right out of my favourites, so it’s getting desperate.

So here is the thing.  So busy, no inclination to brew, but I want to brew because, well, I like drinking my beer.  But I’ve got work to do, I’ve been doing a lot of scuba diving, too, as I train to be a dive master (and truth be told I have a dive buddy who is very persistent and very convincing, so we dive quite a bit). 

Bottom line: I have not been brewing.  And it’s like pulling teeth to get me going.

But then… I begin.  I’m pouring the water into the pot for mashing, before taking my recipe to the grain mill to measure and grain.  And somewhere between opening the 5 gallon bottle of RO water and finishing filling the pot, I enter this meditative state. Now it’s all about the brew. The many little tasks that are simultaneously routine and unique.  Measuring the grain, grinding, always checking the crush to make sure it’s just right. Digging through my bags of hops, measuring them out.  Taking notes, now detailed, now dashed off.  Watching the thermometer rise, doing the iodine test on the conversion… the waiting. the periods of standing around tidying because there is nothing to do, followed by a frenzy of activity as the wort begins to boil… 

It is but minutes before I’m just floating in this giddy state. Focused, but distracted.  My every day work, which has been very immersive lately, is not going anywhere, but I can deal with it tomorrow (literally, I have a lot of work to do tomorrow).  

Today, I’m brewing.  And if you watch carefully, you might just see me, ever so briefly (because I’m a sort of reserved kind of guy) jump up and down in glee.  I love brewing. 

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Bringin it back

This has been a busy year for me. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling for work and research that takes me away from the house. As a result, my brewing activity has been very limited, I’ve made no cheese, and hence no time to post.

At the same time, I have begun experimenting with bread making, and have discovered the wonderful world of No-knead bread. Not only does it satisfy the inherent laziness that comes from doing anything besides my research for work, but it also requires me to put the bread in a pot, thereby satisfying the title of this blog.

I’m not blogging about it today. I’m blogging about the new season.

I am about to take off on another trip. Then, three weeks later, yet another one. Back for five days then off for 16 days. After that, I hope not to travel for two months.

With a schedule like this, I have had everything but brewing on my mind. Yet at the same time, my supply of my go-to session beer, my “Pitt’s Special Fuggles Ordinary Bitter,” (named for my editor and fellow beer traveller who once asked me “what’s a fuggles?” and inspired a Fuggles-forward bitter) is down to the last few bottles. And not to mention summer is coming and I want to be able to have beer with friends on my newly rebuilt front porch. And my mom is turning 70 so there is requisite beer for the party… so much to do.

Last week I planned to brew on the weekend. As the weekend approached, I found myself busy with all sorts of other distractions that stopped me from getting motivated to prepare–didn’t have time to make a starter, to plan the brews, and couldn’t justify setting aside a day for brewing.

This, I suspect, was post-winter lethargy, mixed with my own neuroses. “you have work to do, so what are you doing screwing around with brewing?” argues my superego, adding “you’re getting fat and call your mother she misses you” for good measure.

But then yesterday, I was sitting around with about three hours to kill. I could try to do some work, but felt that would just be going through the motions. Solution? Brew.
Now you may catch some challenges to this decision. First: I had only three hours. Mashing, sparging, boiling, chilling takes longer than that. Even in the BYO magazine’s issue on having an efficient brew day, they got their time down to four hours.
Second: no yeast starter can create some off flavours often characteristic of “that home brew flavour.”
My solution was simple: brew a 3-gallon batch of gluten free wheat beer, using sorghum extract and dry yeast. The extract means no mashing, and they dry yeast provides far more than enough yeast for a batch that size (many say it provides enough for a 5 gallon batch).

Three hours later I was done! In the carboy: a gluten free wheat beer, which is my go-to summer front porch beer anyway (tastes as good as a regular wheat beer and my gluten intolerant friends can enjoy it too). Batch done, kitchen relatively cleaned, and off to other things.

But the best part was this. Halfway through the boil, as I was measuring the next hop charge, or maybe grinding the coriander and pepper (a little flavour experiment) I looked in the rolling boil, and got really excited. I started bouncing up and down, saying “I love brewing! God I love to brew.” I got my brewing mojo back.

Now, if I can only get the time to brew all those other beers I had been thinking of in the depths of winter, while on one of my many trips. That three weeks in May is gonna be busy.

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A moment of what’s in my pot bliss…

Here is my own beer and my cream cheese, which I was enjoying while brewing last week.

I was very happy.

Oh, and the beer I brewed turned out really well, too!

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New toys… er… tools

So I’ve been wanting to rebuild my wort chiller for a while.  If you don’t know, at the end of the brew it’s important to chill the wort quickly so that, among other things, opportunistic infections and other things that cause off flavours don’t have a chance to take hold.

A while ago I built an immersion chiller.  With this you basically drop in a fancy coiled copper tubing arrangement and run cold water through it.  the water does a little heat transfer and drags the heat out of the wort, while not actually mingling unsanitary and sanitary water.

Over time I added another coil, but I wasn’t really thinking about optimum heat exchange.  My chiller, then, began with cold water going in the top of the wort, cooling that wort, then when it coiled down to the bottom of the  chiller, I added another tighter coil in the middle to bring the water back up.

This was actually inefficient, because it meant that the now heated water in the coils at the bottom of the pot would rise slowly and dump that heat back into the newly chilled water that would be dropping (because hot water rises).

Recently I kept going to the Home Depot looking for more copper tubing.  Apparently, copper is at a premium on the markets these days.  that might be why it took me three weeks to get any.

With a fresh coil of 20 feet of copper tubing, I set about dismantling my old chiller, straightening it with a tube straightener thing (really a tighly-wound spring that keeps the shape of the tube when you bend it) and rebuilding the chiller.

Uncoiling the old chiller

There you see the chiller in the process of being disassembled.  Here is what my whole counter top workspace looked like:

At the back there you can see the other side of the chiller.  One chiller goes into the wort, the other goes into a cooler of ice water–the water from the tap goes through the first chiller, gets nice and cold, goes into the wort-side chiller, and then out, hot, into the sink.

I want to get a pump so I can recirculate the water and not use so much, but that is another tricky technical thing I need to figure out.

Finished chillerHere you can see the finished chiller, beside the smaller of the two pots I brew with.  I needed to make sure that it fits in that pot, so I put it inside and…

It fits.

So, then, of course I needed to brew something.  This is the chiller in the pot of wort for a bitter I brewed last week.  BTW, to make sure the chiller is nice and sterilized, you put it in the boiling wort 15 minutes before the end of the boil, and let the boiling kill germs dead.

There it is getting nice and clean.

And here it is doing its stuff:

You can see the cooler with ice in the bottom left corner, and the chiller in the wort.  I don’t know why things on the edge are blurry like that.

It was a success.  This chiller chilled the wort in about 10 minutes.  Crazy fast, given that the previous one could take 1/2 hour (way too slow).

Brewing is great for getting good beer out of the process, but it’s also awesome for the opportunity to get some DIY specialty tools!

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New Year’s Resolution

This is not really a new years resolution.  I just thought, since this is the first post of 2012, I’d make it see topical and suggesting I’m into self improvement, however temporary.  Given my headache and the Robbie Burns Day sized drams I had last night, one might suggest I should be into self improvement, but I don’t really see anything wrong. . .

Nope, this is about plans for the year’s brewing.  Or at least the next few months.  Or weeks, depending upon how busy I get.  And given how meandering my posts are, it could be about any number of other things.

But first, the beer.

I’ve not brewed since before Christmas, when I finished off the year with a Double IPA.  It was a clone of Pliny the Elder, which is apparently the best beer in America (if you go buy the voters in Zymurgy’s annual poll, clearly dominated by hopheads).  It used over 1 lb of hops to make what was supposed to be 5 Gallons but ended up more like 3.75 because so much of the beer was lost to the massive amount of hoppy material and trub at the bottom of the carboy.  It was remarkably good and also quite strong–10%ABV.  Sadly, that level of alcohol was too much for the poor yeast to handle, and it has so far been unable to carbonate.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, when you bottle homebrew you add a tiny bit of sugar so that the yeast will eat it, fart out CO2, and because the bottle is sealed, that CO2 is absorbed into the beer, thereby creating fizz when you pour it.  If the yeast can’t handle the level of alcohol–and 10% is quite strong for beer yeast–you end up with flat beer).

So I need to get some yeast with cajones.

The other beer I brewed was a winter warmer based upon Avery’s winter beer (I can’t remember the name right now but it is probably something beginning with “Old.”)  For this recipe, I needed bullion hops which apparently impart blackberry like flavours.  The guy at the homebrew shop, who is usually pretty good, said since they didn’t have Bullion, I should use Summit, which is similar.  He was wrong.  Summit imparts tropical fruit flavours, which clashed with the malty profile of the beer.  It could have worked–imagine mangoes in some kind of brown sugar syrup. MMM.  But so far it’s a little strange. I know the hops will fade over time and the beer, clocking in at around 8%ABV, will mature to something lovely.  Maybe next winter.

So now I have a few things to plan.  I have wanted to brew a Scotch Ale for a while (really, I should have done that yesterday–Burns Day–but had to work and of course then drink).  My previous scotch ale, a Wee Heavy brewed in 2010, has become remarkably good over time, even though it was a little rough to start.  If I brew this one soon, I’ll be able to let it mellow over the year and next winter it will be very nice.

I also need another lower alcohol session beer.  I tried to brew a Parti-Gyle batch–where you split the batch, using the first runnings of the wort to make a strong Olde Ale, and the later runnings to make a lighter session bitter.  But my calculations were totally fucked up, so I ended up with two strange beers, with lots of off flavours and a very amateurish outcome.  (Even though I’m an amateur brewer, I can do better).  So I want to make something simple, a low alcohol session bitter that I can drink without worrying about one bottle messing me up.  (He says, nurturing a hangover.)

From there, I need to make a new version of my IPA.  I’ve had less than stellar results on this one in the past two batches, so brewing a smaller batch and getting back to basics should be good.

I also have a pack of Trappist Ale yeast in the fridge which I need to put into a decent Dubbel (my last one was a success, but a half batch only goes so far!).  And use the yeast cake to brew something bigger, heavier and maltier, like a Belgian Strong Dark ale.  Again, I’m returning to older recipes, to tweak and rework until I have it perfectly tuned.

Then, it will be time for spring brewing.  I’m tempted to try a lager or pilsner because they’re such different beers to brew (needing colder fermentation temperatures and different flavour profiles).  However, while interesting from a brewing perspective, I don’t find them all that interesting from a drinking perspective!  Maybe a farmhouse ale or wheat beer (or both) to sock away for the summer.

And maybe I’ll share some with my students who I know are creeping me on line (and who have jacked up my blog’s hits).  Last class at the prof’s home/brewery?  Sounds more interesting than it is, actually.

Ok, procrastination over.  Work now, brew later.

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The big stout save

I brewed an oatmeal stout last weekend. I’ve had a lot of trouble brewing stouts. In fact, I’d say I’ve never gotten it right. This was no different, but this time I may have pulled it off in an eleventh hour save…

but let’s recap:

Back in my extract days I brewed a Russian Imperial Stout.  I split the recipe and put half of it on oak chips.  It tasted great, but after I bottled it, one of them didn’t seem to ever want to carbonate.  I added new yeast, put it in warmer conditions, shook it every few days.  Nothing.  I have a sneaking suspicion that I forgot to add the sugar.  The upshot is, it still tastes pretty amazing.  But imperfect, owing to the carbonation.

Then, another extract I attempted a straight oatmeal stout.  It turned out tasting really bad, and certainly not as dark as a stout.  Forget it.

Finally, last week I did my first all grain stout.  It was also the first use of the gas ring I bought a while ago.  Owing to mostly a miscalculation of the equipment (I used a different cooler and pot than I had entered into my brewing software).  I ended up with 2 gallons rather than three, and a gravity that was off the charts.  I diluted it with 1 Gallon of distilled water, after which it still had an original gravity (OG) well above the predicted.  I fermented it with Irish Ale yeast, and it took off like wildfire.

I tried it a few days ago. The beer had fermented down to 1.010 (from 1.070) which is quite a drop.  It apparently means 7.8% abv, which is strong.  It didn’t taste strong. It was thin and rather flavourless.

Well, I thought, here I go again. Another messed up drainpour stout.  However, I did a little reflecting.  Pulled out all the tools of the desperate brewer.  I added 4 oz of maltodextrin (which adds body without much sweetness, and is pretty much non-fermentable), 4 oz lactose (which adds some milky sweetness and body and is also not fermentable) into a quart of water with the priming sugar.   Boiled that to dissolve and sterilize.  Then I dumped in two cups of strong brewed coffee when it had cooled a bit.

When I pulled a sample to test the gravity, I had a grav of 1.016, exactly as I predicted, and when I tasted it, it had body, sweetness and some nice flavour. I’m not sure if the coffee came through so much as roasty tastiness.  I tried a sample of the pre-addition stout, and this was tremendously better.

I’ve gone from another stouty despair to some cautious optimism.

I’ll try to remember to put an update in a few weeks when I try the carbonated finished product.

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