Today I brewed my 80th batch of beer, One-eyed Squirrel (named after a one-eyed squirrel that showed up at our feeders this fall). I decided to brew beer earlier in the week and last night I got the brewing water from Water Wagon (a coin-operated water depot where many people in Fairbanks go to get their drinking water). It’s more convenient to brew out by the red cabin than near the house, so I haul a 55 gallon drum of water out there. The water is normally around 40°F when it goes into the drum, and that’s a perfect temperature for the cold water supply used in my plate chiller which quickly chills boiling hot wort down to yeast pitching temperatures; around 68°F. When we went to bed last night it was a balmy 2°F outside, so I wasn’t worried about leaving the water out on the red cabin’s deck.
This morning, as you can see in the image on the left, it was -20°F, and the temperature of the water in the 55 gallon drum had dropped to 32°F. As soon as I started pumping it into the pot for the mash it froze in the lines to the pump. I wound up using a heat gun to keep the pipes and lines thawed while I pumped the water into a drum inside the red cabin where it’s warm. Six hours later when I was using the water to chill the wort, the water temperature was still 32°F. There’s a lot of energy between 32°F water that’s frozen and 32°F water that’s about to be 33 degrees, and I had 50 gallons of water somewhere between those two states all day today.
The brew went well. I double-ground the grains last night, and it paid off, giving me an 82% mash efficiency. Hopefully the yeast will take off later tonight or tomorrow and the beer will be good. It’s the first time I’ve used Cascade hops in several years and I’m hoping they don’t disappoint. In the past I’ve found the flavor to be somewhat soapy, but with the worldwide hop shortage, there’s limited selection when it comes to whole leaf hops. I’ll take what I can get.
This is my first batch using our old refrigerator as a fermentation chamber instead of the chamber I built several years ago. We keep the red cabin pretty cold in the winter, so the fridge is set up with an enclosed light bulb as a heater (just like the old fermentation chamber), but using a fridge allows for the possibility of cooling it down if the fermentation heats up the interior too much (a problem I’ve had in the past with the old fermentation chamber). I’ll also use it to brew lagers at some point. After 80 beers, maybe it’s time to give a lager a try.
Last weekend I brewed my favorite beer, Piper’s Irish-American Red Ale. I’m sure the beer will turn out fine, but the brew didn’t go as planned. I’m still struggling to get my mill to consistently produce a good crush, and I think my low yields this time around is almost certainly due to the mill. It’s a three roller mill; the first two rollers do a basic crush at a fixed gap, and then the grains pass between one of the top rollers and a lower roller that’s adjustable. For some reason, the grains sometimes come out between the lower roller and the wrong upper roller and they don’t get crushed a second time. Strange.
The big change with this brew was using Creek water to chill the boiled wort down to fermentation temperature. I’d assumed the Creek would still be very cold, but after pumping up twenty gallons, I discovered it was a balmy 55°F. So I pumped up another ten gallons in the hope that it would be enough to chill the wort. Not quite. I got it down to 72°F, which is pretty amazing, but I would have preferred something between 64–68°F.
Still, it was a nice relaxed brew session, and thus far Piper’s has always come out fantastic. We’ll know in about a month.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that the red cabin is starting to get too warm for primary fermentation. At our old house the garage temperature never got much above 60°F even in the summer, so I’d always do the primary fermentation in my insulated box, heated with a light bulb on a temperature controller. Luckily, we kept the old fridge that was here when we moved in and it’s keeping a nice stable 65°F on the same temperature controller I had been using to heat the fermentation chamber. Now I can ferment in the summer, and even experiment with lagering, which is a whole area of brewing that I’ve never attempted in all these years.
Still on vacation. I just finished brewing my second batch of beer in the last week. It was originally called “Barking Buddy”, named after our biggest sled dog Buddy, but because of the heavy snow we’ve been getting today, I decided to rename it “Barking Buddy Blizzard Bitter.” All this snow is odd because early last week we had daytime highs in the 50s and the snow on the ground was rapidly melting. Suddenly, it looks a lot more like winter than spring. The top photo shows the start of the boil; that’s Buddy in the dog yard in the background of the photo.
Devil Dog Rye IPA fermented nicely over the past week, going from a gravity of 1.086 down to 1.022 at transfer to the secondary fermenter (a keg). I left for a funeral the day after I brewed it and put Andrea in charge of monitoring the temperature and the location of the fermentation chamber’s insulated lid. I removed the lid the morning after brewing because the yeast was going crazy and the wort temperature was up to 75°F. The wort was pitched on top of the yeast cake from the primary fermentation of my previous batch, and that’s why I got such a rapid fermentation and high temperature despite the high starting gravity. I was worried that there might be some off-flavors from the heat, but the beer tasted really good when I transferred it so I think it’ll be OK. Without Andrea’s help, it probably would have either gotten even hotter (if I’d left the lid on) or gotten too cold and I would have returned from Chicago to a stuck fermentation.
Today’s brew was relatively uneventful. I got another very high mash efficiency (85%!) this time around. As I mentioned in my last brewing post, I suspect this is due to my new mill, but it could also be the longer mashing times I’ve used, or the change in base malt (Castle Pale to Crisp Maris Otter). I’m happy that my yields are back up again, but it’s unfortunate that I changed all three variables at the same time so I can’t positively assign a cause to the improvement. I also hit my target pitching temperature of 66°F on the nose this time, so I’m finally getting the hang of the pump I’m using to circulate cold water through the plate chiller. It’s all good.
The second photo shows Kiva’s reaction to the dog beds being occupied. Buddy has a tendency to stretch himself out across two beds, and when Koidern nestled in next to Buddy there was no room for Kiva. But rather than moving to one of the other beds we’ve got, she wedged in behind Koidern. In the photo she’s giving Koidern the stink-eye, trying to get her to move. Didn’t work, and eventually all three went to sleep all packed together on the two beds.
One more day of vacation until the weekend. I’m looking forward to smoking salmon, working on a side table for Andrea, and relaxing.
I’m between jobs right now, so I took advantage of the vacation and spring weather to brew a batch of rye India pale ale, Devil Dog. It’s named after our dog Kiva and is a rich, copper colored beer with lots of alcohol and a nice balance between malt and hops. Three pounds of rye (to twelve pounds of pale malt and a pound and a half of crystal malts) adds a subtle hint of spicy earthiness. This is the third time I’ve brewed it, but I got an unexpectedly good yield, so it’ll be stronger than past incarnations.
My normal brewing efficiency has hovered around 70% for many years, but has been falling over the past five or six batches. I think this was partly due to some bad base malt, and partly due to a worn out mill. I got a new sack of Crisp Maris Otter, and replaced my old mill with a Monster 3-roller Mill. Initially, I was having trouble with whole grains getting stuck between the upper passive roller and the wooden base that supports the mill. When this happened, the mill would seize because the passive roller couldn’t spin. My solution was to cut a piece of sheet metal (a tin can, actually) to span the gap between the base and the passive roller, so that all the grains are fed directly between the two top rollers. So adjusted, the mill is fantastic. My last two batches have had yields of 79 and 81%, and I had no trouble sparging this recipe, even with three pounds of rye malt in the mash.
The top photo shows my current chilling setup. I leave a 55-gallon barrel of water (the barrel up on the deck) out overnight to get cold, and pump this cold water through my plate chiller (on the steps) into a second barrel (the one on the ground). The beer drains by gravity through the other half of the chiller into the fermentation bucket. I monitor the temperature as the wort exits the chiller, and keep an eye on the temperature in the bucket with a digital meat thermometer. In my last batch I had trouble with the chiller cooling the boiling wort to much because the water was very close to freezing. But this time I figured out the correct combination of pump speed and output valve setting so I could adjust the temperature of the chilled wort without stalling the pump. Once the Creek thaws (it’s right behind the cabin), I’ll be able to use it for chilling instead of hauling my own chilling water.
Assuming the yeast is up to the task of this 1.086 gravity wort, I should be enjoying a pint of Devil Dog in six to eight weeks.