Hops in Pots – 2014/15 harvest

Posted: October 31, 2015 in Growing Hops

I just realised I’d posted nothing about my second year experiences with growing hops in pots.  So here’s a quick summary…

After making a huge fuss over my first year hops, with all the watering, feeding, bine training etc etc…and then getting less than 100 grams out of them, I was probably a little disenchanted by the whole thing.  So in year 2 I only bothered putting my “trellis” up on the Cascade, as I didn’t really have a need for Hersbrucker flowers even if I was to get any.  Mind you, being the hardy little buggers they are, the Hersbrucker grew without my assistance, climbing up the pool fence instead!

On to the Cascade, it sprouted promisingly, and by early February looked really healthy:

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Roll onto mid-March and the bines were overflowing with flowers, they were feeling quite dry and papery, with a couple starting to turn brown.  So off they came:

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Picking them all off took ages, and resulted in this:

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1.2kg worth!  Pretty impressive given I gave them very little attention, no plant food, and only occasional water.  Onto screens they went to dry:

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I ended up with just under half a kilogram (~1lb) dried.  And they ended up going into a Merri Mashers collaboration beer we did with Thunder Road Brewing known as “Red Man Walking”.  So I still haven’t ever brewed with actual hop flowers!

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“Turbo Soured” Berliner Weisse

Posted: January 16, 2015 in Brew Blog

Following hot on the heels of my buddy and fellow masher over at brewrr.com, I’ve knocked out a raspberry berliner weisse.  This is actually my second attempt at a berliner, after a less-than-stellar effort I had using a different method with version 1.  It wasn’t until after I made version 1 that I found out the method I’d used (pitching a starter of lactobacillus culture after a standard mash/boil/chill regime) can take 6 months or more to truly sour the beer.  I was trying to get it up and running for a club event in about 6 weeks, so that didn’t work.  I served it at the event regardless, using a variety of syrups/flavourings (e.g. raspberry, lime, elderflower, and even mango margarita mix) just for kicks.

Anyway, for version 2 I’d found an article that talked about kettle souring, or “turbo souring” as I’ve since heard it called.  It’s a method where you use acidulated malt and/or lactic acid post-mash, in order to bring the pH of the wort down into the mid/low 4’s.  You then keep this wort at around 40C, and pitch lacto (in my case via two handfuls of un-milled pilsner malt) into the mix, then leave it for between 8-48 hours, measuring the pH occasionally.  Once the wort drops to a pH of around 3.3, you transfer it to your kettle, start the boil and add hops.  You only need a short boil, 15 minutes or so, which is just enough time to kill off any still-living bugs, and add a few IBU’s to the beer.  I haven’t worked out yet why you can get away with such a short boil on a berliner weisse, given it’s 50% wheat, 50% pils…when “expert opinion” seems to insist any beer using a lot of pilsner malt must be boiled 90 minutes to drive away DMS.  Does sour beat creamed corn??

Here’s the fermenter, after I kegged the beer.  I left the raspberries in for a total of 8 days, 5 at fermentation temps, then 3 days during crash chilling.  I probably could have left them on for less time, it just took me that long to get around to kegging the beer.

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As you can see, there’s not a lot of colour left in the raspberries, and the beer has a ripping red hue.  I force carbed the beer in the keg (‘coz I’m an impatient bastard), and here’s the first pull, 6 hours later:

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The taste is BIG on raspberry, and the beer is certainly tart.  Not “bracingly” sour by any means, but it’s a hell of an improvement over version 1!  I’m already looking forward to version 3, where I’ll make a few more tweaks.

A big 2014

Posted: January 8, 2015 in Brew Blog

It’s been too long, I know…but there’s just not as much to write about these days.  And it’s hard to stay motivated when you don’t even know if anyone’s reading!

It has been a big year though, I became the inaugural President of a new home brew club in my local area.  We’ve grown quickly from a dozen or so blokes to around 40 members in our first year.  We’ve brewed beer in an ex-prison during a beer festival, which went on to win an award at the Australian Home Brew Conference in Canberra.  And we’re planning to start our own annual home brew competition in mid-2015, based on the new (still in draft) BJCP IPA style guidelines.

On my own brewing front, I’m regularly making beer that I really enjoy drinking, with Citra and Centennial joining Amarillo as my hops of preference.  I’ve also started experimenting with sour beer, using (rather unsuccessfully) a commercial Lactobacillus culture for my first Berliner Weisse, and more recently the “Sour Worting” or “Turbo Sour” process for my latest version, which seems to have worked a lot better.  I’ve racked beer onto fruit, and very soon will be trying to make something remotely in the style of La Sirene’s Praline, by racking a Belgian Chocolate Ale onto organic vanilla pods, cacao nibs and hazelnuts.

I also brewed my biggest beer yet, a 9.8% abv Russian Imperial Stout.  I did this brew with a mate, and we quickly discovered just how much your efficiency suffers when trying to produce such a massive beer.  Expecting mid/high 60’s, we were surprised to have achieved more like 55%.  We had to use sugar to make up the shortfall, as it’s all we had on hand, but the result was less than spectacular, so lesson learned!

And the other “brew” I’ve been churning out regularly is my “Shagwell” ginger beer.  It’s proved to be a huge hit with my missus, her mum, and especially my own mum.  So it’s found its way into high rotation, with me having to churn out a batch every couple of months to keep up supply.  It’s nothing too fancy, just a 4%ish kit ginger beer topped up with various combinations of brown sugar, raw sugar and DME…but the ladies love it!

Who said lagers take longer?

Posted: May 19, 2014 in Brew Blog

I finally got around to brewing my first lager, after all these years.  I’d done a Kolsch, which is a lager-like as any ale you’ll try, but I’d always avoided lagers.  Why?  I think it’s two things…firstly, I tend to associate lager with the horrible mega-swill rubbish I’d been forcing into myself for more than a couple of decades.  One of the first things I learned when I started researching beer brewing was that VB, Carlton Draught, Toohey’s New and Budweiser are all pale, bland lagers.  So it seemed strange to want to brew the very style of beer I’d learned to shun.  The beers that I’d occasionally gotten to enjoy, such as Coopers Pale Ale, Schofferhoffer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and the like were of course ales.

Secondly, once I got into home brewing, I’d always read that lagers were harder to brew.  The malt is notorious for producing DMS during the boil, then they need a LOT more yeast, cooler temperatures, longer fermentation times, diacetyl rests, and can throw all sorts of horrible sulphur smells off during fermentation.  And even if you made it through all of that, you had to “lager” them for many weeks to allow the off flavours to be removed from the beer.  Who needs that trouble, when I can brew, ferment and keg a ripping hefeweizen inside of a week?

But I still have a lot of mates who enjoy their bland, megaswill lagers.  Not so much the Aussie stuff, but beers such as Stella Artois, Becks and Heineken.  It’s the main reason I brewed the Kolsch, I’ve got 3 taps so figured it would be a way to keep that lot happy.  Once the Kolsch keg blew, I figured it was time I gave lager brewing a go.  I decided on a classic Bohemian Pilsner, as I’ve had a few Pilsners in my time that I’ve enjoyed.  A pretty basic recipe, 95% German Pilsner malt, and 5% Carapils (for a bit of body and better head retention).  I figured I’d aim for 5.2% and 45 IBU.  Most recipes call for nothing but Czech Saaz hops, but due to the low alpha acids in Saaz, and the high IBU of this beer, I’d need 120 grams of it to achieve the right result.  I only had an 80gm bag, so I figured I’d cheat a bit, and bitter this with Hallertauer Mitt, of which I have plenty due to my love of weissbeir.  With a tame noble hop such as Hallertau at 60m, and then 80 grams of Saaz spread across 30m, 10m and flameout additions, I figured this should work out ok.

I decided on using Wyeast 2001 (Urquell Lager), and grabbed a pack early on so I could start working on my starter.  For my 17l planned batch, Yeastcalc told me I’d need a substantial 340 billion cells.  Of course a Wyeast pack only has 100b when it’s brand new, and it was more like 60b by the time I got it, so I knew I was in for a major starter.  In the end I did it in 2 steps, as I wanted to produce around 100b extra cells so I could store this away in my yeast bank for future use.  So with ‘intermittent shaking’ in my 4 litre plastic vege oil container, I did 2 litres for step 1, and 2.8 litres for step 2, resulting in 440b cells.

So brew day arrived, and as per popular advice I did a 90m mash and 90m boil, and chilled the wort post boil.  I planned to ferment at 10C, but it was taking the wort a long time to get down that far, and I always get nervous about leaving my cooled wort exposed to the elements, so I ended up pitching the yeast at 14C.  A few hours later it had settled down to 10C in the fermenter.  I was expecting a long lag time, but interestingly enough the next morning, around 12 hours after pitching, I could see a healthy krausen forming.  I decided to take a gravity check just to see what was happening, and sure enough the beer had already dropped from 1054 to 1050 in the first 12 hours.  Very unexpected.

I kept an eye on it over the next couple of days, and could see the colour lightening substantially as fermentation progressed.  After 4 days, the beer had already reached 1.020, which was about the point I had planned to start the D-Rest.  I also noticed that there was nothing in the way of off-aromas coming from the ferment, in fact far from the rotten egg/sulphur compounds I’d read to expect, it smelled pretty good inside my fermentation fridge.  And the gravity samples smelled fine, and even tasted pretty good considering how young the beer was.

So I dug around and did some more research on the web, and managed to find a couple of references that spoke of the ‘myths’ of lager brewing.  It seems some brewers out there believe that not all lagers will have long fermentation times and produce terrible smells, as long as you pitch the right amount of healthy, viable yeast.  And they went on to argue that a diacetyl rest is not always necessary, again depending on the pitch rate, yeast type and other factors.  But, it did seem they were doing d-rests as a matter of habit regardless, so I went back out and upped my temperature to 16C.

I left it there a couple of days, then took another gravity check.  After only 6 days in the fermenter, my lager was at my expected final gravity of 1013, and it smelled and tasted pretty bloody good.  I was stunned, this fast turnaround was completely unexpected, and where was all the butterscotch and rotten egg?  I dropped the temp back down to 10C, and left the beer another week, before I could work up the courage to start my crash-chill.  It just didn’t feel right crash-chilling a lager so soon after pitching!  I left it chilling for 3 days, then kegged the beer (onto gelatin), with a plan to lager it in my keg fridge for a few weeks.  I snuck a little taster with a mate yesterday, after only 2 days in the keg, and despite being under-carbed, it’s already clearing really well, and tasting pretty good.  We both agreed we can taste that classic Pilsner flavour, and can’t pick up anything nasty, so it will be interesting to see how this beer develops further over the coming days/weeks.  I’ll be testing it often…in the name of science of course!

Now, if you’ve made it this far, well done.  I always figure these posts will be much shorter than they turn out to be.  I will sign off by saying this is obviously my first ever lager, so maybe I just got lucky, perhaps the malt and yeast I used helped (as well as going to the trouble of pitching at the optimal rate), so I’m not naive enough to say none of the old rules apply.  But I can say that in this case, it turned out to be a hell of a lot easier than I ever thought possible.  And it won’t be long before I do another one.

Ok, I’ll apologise straight up for the blog title, but surely it’s better than “Fenomenal Fermentations”?  I suppose I could have gone with “Fabulous Fermentations”, but as an adjective it does seem to have been somewhat hijacked these days…

Perhaps as a subtitle I could use “You can ferment a lager in only 5 days!”, as that’s pretty much the driving reason behind this update.  I have been enjoying the success of my fermentations lately, probably for the last 4 months or so.  My lag times have been significantly reduced, with most of my brews showing activity and producing krausen only 6-8 hours after pitching.  And I’m reaching final gravity in 3-5 days, depending on the strain of yeast I’m using and the original gravity of the wort.

And most importantly, I believe the quality of my beer has noticeably improved as a result.  I’m convinced there’s a number of different factors at play here, each of which is playing their part in the success.  I’ll list each component in detail;

Dry v Liquid Yeast:

I’ll discuss this in more detail below, but basically dry yeast has a significantly longer lag time than liquid yeast…as long as they’re both pitched at the correct rate (again see below).

Aerating the Wort:

This is not something I did much (if any) of early on in my brewing.  I didn’t even know it was a “thing” until I’d made quite a few batches, and even once I did, all I started doing was to splash my cooled wort as much as possible when transferring it into my primary fermenter.  I’d also read that you didn’t need to aerate when using dry yeast, as they were manufactured in such a way that they had all the oxygen they needed already.  To quote Fermentis: “As the yeast is grown aerobically, the yeast is less sensitive on first pitch“.  And Danstar: ” Most commercially produced Active Dry Beer yeast actually require no O2 addition for a successful average gravity wort fermentation

But then I started to move to liquid yeast, and around the same time I started no-chilling a lot of my beers.  And I realised that I could use the no-chill cube to vigorously shake the wort (after pouring off the first few litres) and add some oxygen that way.  And then it struck me that I could also use my power drill and mash paddle to agitate the wort even further, so I started doing exactly that.  Power drill on its highest speed, mash paddle sprayed down with Starsan, and have at it!  It does a surprisingly good job of frothing everything up, and while I’m sure it’s not as effective as using an oxygen stone, it has definitely helped.

Yeast Pitch Rate:

I guess in hindsight this one should be pretty obvious, but it’s definitely something that’s hard for new brewers to get right.  Especially when using dry yeast, as nobody seems to pay much attention as to how many viable cells are contained in a pack of dry yeast…it’s rarely even written on the pack, and of course packs come in varying sizes too.  And then there’s the whole argument about hydrating yeast vs sprinkling it dry….I’ve done both and couldn’t really tell any difference in lag time or fermentation quality.

I understand that the ‘normal’ 11.5gm packs of dry yeast from places such as Fermentis and Danstar have 200b cells at the time of packaging, and if they’ve been handled correctly (i.e. refrigerated) they should have lost very little viability by the time you pitch it.  So because the “average” 19 litres of 1.048 gravity wort needs about 170b cells, pitching a pack of dry yeast on that means you should be getting it pretty right.  Of course that all changes when you decide to make 23 litres of 6.5% IPA, which would need something like 250b cells for an ‘optimal’ fermentation.  Conversely you might decide to make a small 10 litre batch of something as an experiment, it seems most brewers elect to pitch an entire pack regardless, as you can’t easily (and hygienically) measure out portions of dry yeast…and what would you do with the leftovers anyway?

This is one of the reasons I moved to liquid yeast…once I’d become more comfortable with yeast handling, after a few top cropping and yeast rinsing experiments, I realised that liquid yeast would give me the opportunity to start a bit of a yeast bank.  Despite the fact that liquid yeast is roughly twice as expensive, for half the amount ($10 for 100b liquid cells vs $5 for 200b dry cells), you can use the “yeast starter” process to grow your yeast into more than what you need for your batch, and save the extra for another brew down the track.  For example, if I need 160b cells of 3068 for a hefe, then I make a starter with my pack of 3068 that results in 260b cells, then pitch 60% of that into my hefe, and store the remaining 40% (~100b) away for next time (labelling the container with the amount and date the starter was complete).  Then I can repeat that process many more times, spreading the cost of the original packet over many batches ( I’ll probably stop after 4 or 5 batches and start again with a brand new pack).

So the use of liquid yeast now allows me to more accurately control how much yeast I’m pitching on each batch, with the help of my favourite yeast pitch rate calculator.  This is important not just for ensuring optimal fermentation, but also allows you to control the flavours driven by some yeast strains.  The perfect example is the 3068 I mentioned above, Wyeast’s “Weihenstephan Weizen“.  I have found deliberately underpitching this yeast by around 20%, in combination with fermenting at 17C, leads to the exact flavour profile I get from my favourite commercial weizens.

Fermentation Temperature:

This is one of the first things serious home brewers discover on their journey to make better beer, and I’ve discussed it on this blog before, so I won’t go into much detail.  Just a reminder that the ability to temperature control your fermentation is a critical part of the process.  An old fridge coupled with an STC-1000 and a 100w floodlight (or some other heat source) is all it takes.

Hops in Pots – Harvest Time

Posted: March 23, 2014 in Growing Hops

In late January I was really pleased to see the beginnings of some flowers starting to sprout on both of my potted hop plants.  I understand these early growths are known as “burrs”.  Here’s a pic:

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Burrs

And sure enough over the next month these continued to grow, mostly on the top half or so of the bines on each plant.  I watched with much interest through most of February as fellow home growers around Australia posted about harvesting their hops, all the while keeping a keen eye on the maturity of my plants.  It seems the warmer the climate, the earlier you harvest, with guys in Brisbane, Perth and Sydney all harvesting in late Jan/early Feb.  Us Melbourne-based growers looked on enviously as pic after pic was posted of gorgeous green cones!  Our turn eventually came in late Feb/early March, which seems to be the “normal” time for the best growing regions to perform their harvests across the Southern Hemisphere.

I was tempted to harvest my crop a few times, but kept waiting for this signature ‘dryness’ everyone told me to look for.  In the end, I was referred to a Youtube video which does a great job of showing when your hops are ready: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlsT-x19III

I was glad I saw that before I picked my hops, as they weren’t as dry as shown in the video.  A couple of weeks later though, on March 7, I decided my Hersbrucker needing harvesting.  Here’s what I got:

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Small sure, but pretty impressive for a first year plant, and wholly satisfying I must say!  I got a similar amount off my Cascade plant a few days later….roughly 130 grams (4oz) wet from each.  I laid them out on a screen window in my brew-cave to dry:

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The portion at the back inside my fermenter’s O-ring was a little idea I had to help work out when they’d finished drying.  I’d read that storing them before they’re fully dried could cause them to rot, so removing as much moisture as possible is really important.  So I sectioned off a cup-ful inside the O-ring, and every 6 hours or so I’d weigh them, to see if the weight continued to drop as they dried.  Sure enough after about a day and a half, the weight stopped dropping, and they were ready to vac-seal and freeze.  They lost a fair bit of weight through drying, around 40% or so.

So they’re now tucked away in my freezer while I think about what to do with them!  Next year I expect to get significantly more from each plant, so I’ll plan to use them in a “wet hop ale” pretty much as soon as they’re picked.  This year’s crop though, I’m not so sure…maybe I’ll link up with some fellow growers and look to do an experimental brew with them.

So all in all a great result, and I learnt a lot while doing it.  The other varieties I planted at the front of my house, in the ground, didn’t perform anywhere near as well.  I think for a variety of reasons…firstly I didn’t dig big enough holes, and their ability to lay down roots in the hard soil was no doubt hampered.  Also, despite my front yard facing north, there’s some very large trees that block the sun for large periods of the day, and I imagine that didn’t help.  So I think next year I’ll just have a couple of varieties in my pots (eco-kegs) out the back, where I’ve found a good, sunny spot for them.  I’m thinking just Cascade and Chinook, maybe Columbus if I can fit.  I’m not sure I need to grow any nobles such as Hersbrucker and Hallertau, as I don’t see much of a need to use them in my beers.

Kegs!

Posted: January 31, 2014 in Kegging

I distinctly recall saying, perhaps early last year some time, that “I can’t see myself ever moving to kegging”.  I’m one of those (seemingly rare) guys who doesn’t despise bottling, perhaps because I don’t brew all that often or all that much?  A lot of the beers I brewed in the last 6 months or so were ‘small volume’, anywhere between 8 and 14 litres, rather than the ‘usual’ 19-23 litres a lot of home brewers do.  A slab (24) of 330ml stubbies is about 8 litres, and I would normally use some 750ml ‘long necks’ and 500ml european-style  bottles as well, so I was rarely using more than 30 bottles or so for each batch.  And because I’m diligent on cleaning my bottles soon after drinking from them, all they need is a quick squirt of star san on bottling day and they’re ready to fill.

So it wasn’t really convenience behind my recent decision to buy a 3-tap kegerator setup, although I know that drives a lot of home brewers to kegging.  For me, to be perfectly honest, it was pretty much all about the “wow” factor.  It’s just bloody cool having your beer on tap, and even cooler when you can have 3 of your favourites on tap at once.  It all happened pretty quickly…I emailed a couple of my favourite home brew shops, that I knew offered keg setups, and asked them to provide a list of everything I needed.  Interestingly one didn’t even reply, but I wasn’t that worried because their equipment always seems to be 10-20% more expensive than the well priced stores, so I was confident I wouldn’t end up using them anyway.

A couple of stores got back to me within a week or so, and with a bit of back and forth, and a LOT of research via the web, I settled on what I wanted.  A kegerator (basically just a bar fridge big enough to fit three 19l ball lock/Pepsi “corny” kegs), supplied with a premium stainless steel font, and 3 x Perlick 545PC Flow Control taps.  Then a bunch of other necessary accessories to make it all work, such as a 6.8kg co2 cylinder, beer/gas line, clamps and the like.  Here’s a picture of it all set up on my back deck:
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See, I told you it was cool eh?  So far, much to the disgust of many home brewers and beer drinkers alike I’m sure, I’ve only managed to hook up a keg full of water, and carbonate it to about 10psi, so that I have delicious cold soda water on tap.  Now that might not sound like much to you lot, but it does prove to me that my system works, and I know how to successfully carbonate liquid in a keg….so I’m counting it as a win dammit!

My main problem is of course I didn’t plan this out very well, and I ended up with a schmick new kegerator, and no beer to put in it.  Fear not though, I very quickly brewed up 23 litres of an all grain Kölsch, which is currently fermenting brilliantly at 16C in my brew fridge.  I’ve decided my first three beers on tap will be a Kölsch, a Hefeweizen and an American IPA.  Or more specifically of course, keeping with my tradition of naming all my brews after characters from Austin Powers movies, my “Kensington Kölsch”, my “Frau Farbissina Dunkelweizen”, and my “Random Task IPA”.  I’m doing the Kölsch not only because I’ve always been interested in the style, but also because I’ve read that it’s a great “gateway beer” for European megaswill lager drinkers to move to….and I have a few mates coming over in early March for our fantasy footy (CarnieBowl) draft that are well into Becks/Stella and the like.  The hefe and IPA are ‘coz I bloody love ’em.  The IPA won’t be all that big, I’ll be sticking with “Hop Hog” style numbers of around 5.8% abv, and 50 IBU, which makes it a lot more “sessionable”.

That’s it for now, I’ll update further after kegging the Kölsch, which should be around mid-Feb.