Tuesday 8 December 2015

All Grain!

The more you do extract brewing, the more you end up reading recipes and articles and forum posts where all-grain brewers talk enthusiastically about Maris Otter and Carafa Special III and strike temperatures and protein rests, and if you've got anything like my urge to tinker with recipes then you rapidly realize that you're going to have to get around to all-grain sooner rather than later.

I'm not going to write about the generalities of all grain brewing - that's been covered very well elsewhere - but I am going to write about what my setup is and why.

I started off by considering (and rejecting) the following standard options:

  • Brew-in-a-bag - simple, but it seems hard to get reasonable volumes out given the size of pan that I've got to mash and boil in. Also requires a lot of attention and stirring.
  • Pre-converted picnic cooler - these seem like a good idea, but tend to be far too big for my purposes.
  • Home converted picnic cooler - this is probably the Right Thing To Do in the long run, but I'm crap at Making and would probably make a balls of it.

What I've ended up with is a brew-in-a-bag-in-a-picnic-cooler system. The equipment comprises one Igloo 19l picnic cooler and one grain bag. The process is as follows:

  • Put milled grain in bag in picnic cooler.
  • Add strike water, stir well, check / adjust temperature and leave for an hour.
  • Remove the bag slowly and dunk it in some more hot water in the boiling pan.
  • Stir the grain, take bag back out, and leave it somewhere to drain.
  • Add the wort from picnic cooler to the pan, crank up the heat and get boiling.

Since my crappy electric stove can only keep about ten litres at a rolling boil, I'm currently starting the boil at a high gravity and diluting in the fermenter.

This has some downsides - you get limited sparging to keep the pre-boil volume down to ten litres, and unpredictable efficiency as a result - I tend to guess at the amount of grain to use, check the volume and gravity pre-boil, and adjust the hopping and post-boil dilution accordingly. You also can't vorlauf properly. The risk of hot side aeration is higher than if you do everything with spigots and tubes, but opinions seem to be divided as to how much of an issue that is.

In general, though, this approach seems pretty practical and I'd recommend it to anyone who's trying to brew mid-sized all-grain batches without a proper boiler.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Beer Ingredient Difficulty Ratings

Being quick to raid the kitchen cupboard for wacky crap to bung into beer is one of the more easily mocked craft beer tendencies. And to be honest, I tend to a certain purism myself - not religiously, but out of a pragmatic feeling that unless they're very good, brewers are more likely to make a complete hash of a beetroot and smoked paprika Porter than they are of a straightforward American Pale Ale.

But I also don't like to rule things out, because normally whenever I come out with a definitive statement about how X is Always Bad And Wrong, a little voice at the back of my head points out something I love that does exactly X. And hence for my own brewing, rather than define a set of Things I Will Not Use, I've come up with a set of rule-of-thumb "difficulty levels" - roughly, the further down this list something is, the more competent I'll need to feel that I am before I start using it.

This isn't based on decades of brewing experience - for a given ingredient, it's largely down to a) how often I come across decent beers with it in, b) how often I come across awful beers with it in and c) how difficult I find it to imagine what a good beer with it in would taste like. This is all work in progress, though, so if someone wants to come along and tell me that you can't really go wrong with lacto-sour beers then I'll bump that up.

Thus my current list goes:

  1. base malts
  2. hops (pretty much any variety)
  3. character malts
  4. interesting sugars
  5. funky grains and adjuncts (rye, wild rice, spelt, oatmeal etc)
  6. coffee
  7. chocolate
  8. smoked stuff
  9. oak
  10. fruit
  11. vanilla
  12. chilli
  13. spices
  14. brett
  15. lacto-sour
  16. herbs
  17. vegetables


  • Stuff that's used in a totally bang-to-style traditional recipe gets a bit of a pass.
  • I'm annoyed to put brett so far down, as it's one of the things that I'm most interested in using.
  • Barrel aging gets a lot of flack, but apart from the faff involved it seems like one of the harder things to go wrong with.
  • In practice I'll probably use brett before chilli and smoked malt before chocolate nibs because that's the sort of beer that I tend to like more.
  • This list doubles as a buyers' guide of sorts - I'd probably buy a coffee Porter from any random brewery, but a beetroot sour would have to be from someone who I've really got a lot of trust in.

Update - 24/01/16 - after reading this Boak and Bailey post about Mikkeller Spontanbasil, I'm half wondering whether part of the reason that some nontraditional ingredients are easier to get right than others is that some ingredients tend to bump up flavours that you'd already expect to find in beer, while others are pretty much foreign to it. So anticipating what cocoa nibs are going to do to your stout recipe or what grapefruit is going to do to an IPA is pretty easy if you've ever had a chocolatey porter or a grapefruity IPA, but working out whether a packet of cassia bark is going to taste good if you dump it in a batch of raspberry saison takes quite a lot of imagination, and is all too easy to get wrong...


Non-homebrew related thinkpiece alert!

This is partly apropos of Boak and Bailey's recent post about drinkability, and partly apropos of the ongoing attempt by Americans to get their heads around the idea of a session beer and why it doesn't just mean "anything under 5%."

I drank quite a bit of Altbier when we were in Dusseldorf the other week. As a style it's basically like a cleaner, colder version of Best Bitter - brown, not too strong, varies from reasonably herbal-bitter to moderately biscuity-sweet. And like Best Bitter, it can be a truly great session beer.

Really traditional Altbier pubs only sell one beer, and they'll repeatedly bring you a fresh 20cl glass of it as and when you finish the current one until you actually tell them to stop. And for as long as they do keep bringing it, you don't get fed up with it and there aren't any out-of-kilter flavours that gradually get annoying. And for as long as they do keep bringing it, you keep swigging and talking and swigging and talking and barely notice the beer. But every now and then, maybe when there's a lull in the conversation, you stop for a second, look at the glass in your hand, let the beer roll around your mouth and think, no, this stuff really is bloody brilliant.

In short, a great session beer demands no attention at all, but will repay as much as you want to give it.