Posts tagged ‘home brewing’

March 26, 2014

A matter of taste?

When tasting beer I’ve made myself I find it difficult to have the same detachment that I do when tasting that made by other people.  And rather than being a case of rose-tinted glasses, of failing to find fault in your own work, if anything it’s the opposite.  There’s a streak of perfectionism in there, for sure, but it is more than that.  I can’t make up my mind if it is just being overly critical to compensate the risk of self-congratulation, or if it is just a product of being to close to the whole thing.  I know that when I make a beer I tend to have a perception beforehand of what it will be like, the target I’m aiming for.  Sometimes that target is missed, not always by a long way, but I end up with something that doesn’t match the expectation, and maybe that’s the problem.  Rather than considering a sample on its own merits or at least to a fairly broad expectation of a style, as you would any other beer, maybe the problem is comparing to a perception of precisely what it was meant to be.

It doesn’t help when my own views on which beers I’ve made have been good and which haven’t aren’t echoed by other people – there are beers I’ve been quite unhappy with that have gone down a storm, and others that have been just what I wanted them to be that have been less popular.  It all adds to the sense of doubt in my ability to critically consider my own beer – am I being unfair? Are others just being polite? Do I even know what I’m talking about??

I had a very early sample of my chilli stout yesterday.  This has been brewed, at least in part, for the Northern Craft Brewers competition in Saltaire.  It was the second attempt due to problems with the first batch – some modifications were made and this attempt went much better. OK, it has only been in the bottle for just over a week so it is still young.  It has a couple more weeks to properly condition before it gets to Saltaire, but already the carbonation was getting there so any concerns I had about that aspect can probably be put to one side. Aroma? Hmmm. Not convinced.  Something seems not right to me, or then again does it, I’m just not sure.  I pass it to Lisa.  “Why did you screw your face up?” is her first question.  It smells great apparently.  I’m still unconvinced.  A taste.  Again, not sure.  Slightly oxidised perhaps?  I hope not, Or am I trying to find faults where there are none? 

Certainly it’s drier than I expected.  Rather than a full-bodied, slightly sweet malty chocolate base it is slightly thinner, more subtly chocolate.  It might even be all the better for it.  But the chilli seems absent.  Another sip – larger this time.  The flavours are reinforced but then, too, suddenly there it is.  Not in your face, but a gentle warming at the back of the throat.  The verdict, again, from the other end of the sofa is all positive, but I’m still not convinced.  It isn’t entirely the way I’d envisaged it turning out, but much of that is “different” not “wrong” – and all part of the learning experience.  The chilli doesn’t dominate, just as I’d hoped, but there is a risk that it is lost altogether in early sips.  Might that cause it to give the wrong impression in a competition tasting?  Hopefully not, the flavour should come through in time to make an impression.  So, there’s just that issue of whether there is something wrong with the overall taste, or if it is just me being harsh.  I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks…

February 23, 2014

Brewday – spicing up a stout

It’s brewday today.  Not as frequent an occurrence as I’d like at the moment.  But I’m on a mission, so the time had to be found.  Actually I’m not even brewing what I had originally got in mind for today.  I should be making an IPA with all English hops for the May meeting of the Midlands Craft Brewers, a motley collection of amateur brewers with which I associate.  But when I last brewed a few weeks ago, well let’s just say it all went a bit pear-shaped.  The end result being that I haven’t ended up with the beer I wanted – quite literally in that the fermentation stopped about half-way through and nothing I tried could get it to do more.  But also in that tasting that half-finished beer, I realised that I hadn’t really achieved the flavours I set out to.  So today I’m having another go.

There’s a slight sense of urgency, because this beer is for entering into a competition – the Northern Craft Brewers annual competition held at Saltaire Brewery.  This is probably the last chance I’ll have to make something in time to enter.  The theme this year is to brew something with an “extra ingredient” – something aside from the usual malt and hops.  I’m going for a stout, flavoured with chocolate and chilli.  There’s also some orange peel in there for added effect.  Last time I tried it there wasn’t enough of any of those flavours, and too much bitterness up front – so this time I’m looking at upping the game a little.  I’m aiming for more of a milk stout base, with lactose adding some sweetness, compared to my previous effort, and as well as adding cocoa nibs and orange peel late in the boil I’ll be looking to add extra once primary fermentation is done along with the chilli which will be in the form of extract to give me an element of control over the strength.

So, the mash is on, the pH is checked (higher than the target but within the acceptable range) and there’s a myriad of jobs waiting for me.  Best get cracking.

January 3, 2013

So long, 2012

Well here we are, at the start of a new year, and for me that also (roughly) marks the start of my second year of this blog. A perfect opportunity perhaps, to take a look back on the past year, and forward to the next.

I actually started this blog on Dec 23rd 2011 with a little pre-Christmas warm up, but blogging proper began in January first with a look at local pubs, and then I asked the question that led to my most popular post (based on number of views, anyway) of the whole year – where is the Birmingham Tap? So, almost a year later, do we have the answer? Well, things have certainly started to change. December saw the long-awaited opening of the new Brewdog bar in Birmingham, which was quite ironic timing for me – two weeks before it opened a change of job caused me to be London-based almost every day and travelling a route that avoids Birmingham, rather then being in London for just part of the week and travelling through New St to get home even on those days. Of course, one of the inspirations for that post was what is perhaps my truest “local” – the Euston Tap, so there’s still a silver lining…

But is Brewdog Birmingham the answer? Well, no, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful by that. Brewdog bars are great, and when I have the chance I’ll be a regular visitor, but they still lack for me the full breadth that places like Euston and Sheffield Taps or the Craft chain provide. So Brewdog is a start, but only that. Fortunately there is more to come! Further new bars are expected to open in the area later this year that should be the perfect compliment to the Brewdog offering and finally bring the breadth of choice that Birmingham hopefully deserves. It has even been hinted at that the operators of the Euston and Sheffield (and other) Taps have been looking for premises. Whether or not there is a “Birmingham Tap”, there should soon be a great range of beer on offer that finally puts Birmingham on a par with other cities.

As I’ve gone through this first year of writing, I’ve perhaps inevitably been trying my hand, and searching our both a style and a purpose in what I write about. Subject matter has included observations on drinking and the bar scene in Birmingham especially, my own brewing endeavours, beer festivals, and various other subjects as they came up. Naturally I hoped that I could look back at the popularity of various posts and determine what worked best for me in order to focus in the future. Well, that didn’t work. My second most popular post was of a completely different subject to the Birmingham Tap – the Saison brewday that recently took place – while in third place was a review of the inaugural Twissup in Birmingham. Three completely different posts on completely different subjects. I guess I’ll have to find other ways of deciding what to focus on in my blogging for the coming year, or just keep up the random approach I’ve had so far…

Going back to that Twissup post, this was a big event in the past year. It brought together a number of bloggers and tweeters in the region, and as a result I’ve got a number of new friends, more than just acquaintances. Saison a’Trois wouldn’t have happened without that initial meeting, and hopefully 2013 will see further developments that can be traced back to that first meeting. Since then, over the Christmas break, the second Birmingham Twissup attracted an even bigger crowd and I’m sure the next one won’t be far away. Twissup wasn’t the only event I attended in the year, and the European Beer Bloggers Convention was another great opportunity to meet more fellow bloggers, drink some great beers, and learn a bit more about this blogging lark.

The autumn saw one of the real highlights of the year drinking-wise with IndyManBeerCon somewhat redefining the beer festival. Is it too soon to be eagerly anticipating this year’s event which will no doubt be bigger and better? Something to aspire to in the Midlands perhaps? We’ll have to see what can be done…

On the home front, brewing progress has finally picked up following a slightly difficult time as new and larger equipment was put together (a task that is far from complete although now advanced enough to be reaping benefits). An exciting possibility of a commercial opportunity arose part way through the year, although all is quiet on that at the moment. It is still potentially on the cards though, and in the meantime I’m focusing on getting the beers I make right, and keeping an eye out for the right opportunities if they should come up.

So that’s the highlights for me. But what of the year to come? Well I have a few plans and ideas. Firstly on the blogging side of things I know I have to get writing more regularly. It has been tricky this year – work often eats up all the available time and the new job gives no respite from that. Although I’ve averaged about two posts every three weeks there have been some big gaps, and even if I don’t write a greater number of posts I’d like to keep more of a steady momentum. I’ve got to keep up with reading other people’s blogs too – there’s been so much good stuff lately and I know I’m missing more than I’m getting to see.

This year the brewing is going to step up a gear too. I think I’m starting to hit my stride now – I just need to get all those irritating little jobs around the place done to make each brewday go that much easier, and now I’ve made the dual steps to fully temperature-controlled fermentation and liquid yeasts I’ll be expanded the beer repertoire accordingly. I’d like to take the opportunity, if opportunities can be found, to get some hands on experience of a commercial brewday (all offers gratefully considered!), but the real challenge I’ve set myself is to get a recipe made commercially, somehow (again all offers considered!) – both of those should give some fantastic experience as well as valuable blogging material!

It’ll be tough to deliver on the challenges I’ve set myself, but it should be fun trying. Hopefully at least some of you will drop by to keep an eye on progress, and thanks for reading during this past year. Here’s to a fabulous 2013!

December 6, 2012

Saison a Trois update – primary fermentation

It’s a bit of a techie update this, and to be honest I got bored writing the first draft, so heaven only knows how you’ll get on with this slightly (I think) improved version. I did think there might be someone, somewhere, out there who has followed the brewing of Saison a Trois and is interested in details of the fermentation, but to be honest I couldn’t find any way to make it even remotely exciting! You take your own chances…

Before embarking on this project there was a fair bit of research done into what yeast to use and how to handle its particular quirks, and with various (mostly internet) sources of information not necessarily all entirely agreeing, here’s our experience to add to the mix. We chose Whitelabs WLP565 Saison I. It is widely suggested that this yeast is one of the several strains that together form the house yeast used for Saison Dupont so it seemed a good basis for our own effort – of course it could be that it was only actually suggested once and then widely replicated around the internet, but I haven’t seen anything saying it isn’t true so I’m prepared to go with it. From this choice two themes emerged from the information available – firstly lots of reports of stuck fermentations and failure to attenuate out to the expected level; and secondly a suggestion that the yeast likes temperatures somewhat higher than the typical ale yeast range. Perhaps even as high as 32°C. So we resolved to go for a warm ferment and see what that resulted in.

Before we go on perhaps I should explain more about how my temperature control for fermentation is set up. It all takes place in a large insulated cupboard into which a fermenter (aka a big blue barrel) is placed. In the cupboard is a heater controlled by a PID that switches the heat on whenever the temperature (according to a sensor within the cupboard) falls below a set temperature and off when it rises above the target. Actually there’s a 1 degree buffer either side of the set temperature so that the heater isn’t constantly switching on or off, but you get the idea. So the fermenting beer sits in an environment at or about the desired temperature, and raising the cupboard temperature will allow* the beer temperature to rise too.

* I’ve found this volume of actively-fermenting beer will naturally rise about 2 degrees above the surrounding air temperature in this set-up due to the heat generated by the process itself.

Cooling is a slightly different arrangement – the FV is wrapped in several loops of beer line connected to a reservoir and pump. When the temperature of the beer (this time monitored by a probe in the FV itself) exceeds the target set on a second PID the pump is switched on. This then circulates water from the reservoir, through a beer line chiller unit and round the FV. This direct cooling is quite effective and can be used to drop the beer down to just a couple of degrees after fermentation is over.

Back to the saison then. At first the temperature limit was set to 24°C and after 24 hours the fermentation was going strong. On day 2 the temperature settings were stepped up to 26°C with gravity already down to 50% attenuation by this stage. On day 3 it was time for another step up to 28°C, and the gravity had further dropped with plenty of signs of continuing activity. I was then away for work overnight but once back on day 5 things were clearly slowing down and we were close to the expected final gravity*. Despite setting temperatures up to 32°C by this stage the cold weather was limiting the heating capacity of the cupboard and the slowing fermentation was no longer producing as much heat itself so we peaked at about 28.5°C.

* actually it appeared to go some way below the expected gravity, but a later check for equipment calibration showed that slightly inaccurate readings were being obtained and adjusting for this the gravity was exactly in the right place at about 90% attenuation.

After another day at that level the temperature was dropped right down ready for transfer to a secondary vessel and on day 8 it was transferred across. This is the point at which fruit was added. 2kg of frozen blackberries were heated to pasteurize them and once cooled enough they were added to the secondary FV and the beer added on top of them.

As I write this that FV is sitting in the cupboard at about 16°C, and the remaining yeast is clearly enjoying the small amount of sugar the fruit has provided. Estimates are that no more than one point of gravity has been added by the fruit, so it won’t significantly change the ABV, but the effect on colour is much more significant, and hopefully will add some great flavour too. We’ll find out in a few days when it is racked off to the wooden cask for ageing.

November 28, 2012

Saison a Trois – the brewday report

I’d be surprised if anyone reading this wasn’t already well aware of what a fabulously sociable thing beer is (notwithstanding all those of us who quite enjoy a solo pint, as The Session a few months back proved!).  Equally it is often remarked that the brewing industry is a pretty friendly world and that seems to be backed up by the various collaborations that seem to be getting more popular these days.  So when an idea began to form (over a few beers, obviously) that myself, @MarbleTim and @ckdsaddlers could brew up a collaboration of our own, well it seemed perfect.

Of course, being a drunken idea, it was never going to be a simple affair.  By the time we parted that evening we’d already settled upon a strong dark saison, which was to be aged in a wooden cask with a helping hand from a little Brettanomyces.  A few days later and we’d added a fruity secondary fermentation on blackberries into the mix and from that point on we never looked back.

It wasn’t without its difficulties though.  For starters we didn’t actually have a wooden cask, and it quickly became apparent that the only way we were going to get one small enough to be any use was to buy new – a second-hand wine or whisky barrel would have added flavour and complexity but at 55 gallons the size just isn’t practical.  Eventually a nice new chestnut (less intensely woody than oak apparently) 30l cask was sourced and so we were well on track.  But to fill a 30l cask you need at least 30l of beer.  Actually you need more, as even over the course of a few months aging there’ll be evaporation – the whisky distiller’s angels’ share – and we really need to top that back up.  And it felt wrong not to have something to bottle when the main batch went into the cask, so we could get an earlier idea of how it would turn out while we were waiting for the aged version to be ready. 

So the target was 50l.  Not a problem in theory, given that I’d already got the makings of a 100l brewery in progress.  But that is the key point – in progress.  Not finished.  Still, nothing like a bit of incentive to get on with a job.  A 60l fermenter complete with a cooling coil, was quickly ready but the real challenge was the mash tun.  There was always the option of mashing twice in my tiny (by comparison) original mash tun, but this wasn’t an ideal solution and even with two mashes it was going to be a tight fit to get enough wort to end up with 50l strong enough to ferment out to around 7% ABV.  Having decided that the only solution was to crack on and get the new mash tun finished, and realising that I needed to get off the fence and either make the last bits I needed or get them bought, I finally put my hand in my pocket and, despite some hiccups along the way, am glad I did.  The insulation may have still been a work in progress on the morning of the brewday, but it did the job and a last minute reconfiguration of the plumbing work didn’t hurt either.  There may have been more satisfaction about making every last bit of it myself, but if I’m really honest, in 12 months time I’d probably still be waiting to get around to it and instead I can now get on with brewing instead.  Or rather, focus on finishing off all the other jobs that are still outstanding…

So, finally, as a result of that slightly drunken conversation back in July, on a cold and frosty morning last weekend we finally got to turn our plans into reality.  By half past 9 the liquor tank was warming up nicely as Chris and Tim turned up raring to go, and so we quickly got underway.

Our planning over the previous months had seen the theme of “three” firmly embedding itself, not least in the chosen name of our brew, “Saison a Trois” (which should explain the regular appearance of that hashtag on Twitter recently!) and so we started off with preparing our grist made up of three different types of grain – barley, wheat and spelt, and before long were mashing in the largest grain bill that the Otherton brewery has faced to date.  The mash was deliberately on the cool side to get a higher than normal level of fermentables – we wanted this to finish on the dry side, while the spelt will hopefully give an increased perception of body to avoid it being too thin. 

The grain bill...

The grain bill…

Mashing in

The start of the sparge saw the christening of the new sparge arm (see my previous post on that subject) which I’m pleased to report was a definite success, and before long we were collecting a lovely dark wort into the copper ready for the boil.


Sparging – or as Chris put it: “swirly thing alert”

By this stage it was becoming apparent that, unlike some of my recent solo efforts, this was going to be a well organised brewday and we were able to relax with some tastings of the last two Otherton efforts – including a porter straight from the fermenter which needed to be emptied before the saison could go in – as well as some bottled treats that Chris and Tim brought along for the occasion.

First runnings

First runnings into the copper

Hop addition


The boil came and went without incident, three hop additions of Bramling Cross to maintain the theme, and before long we were chilling and transferring, and then it was time to pitch the first of the yeasts that will play a part in making this beer.  Allegedly the strain of yeast used in Saison DuPont, or at least the main one of the blend, we had settled for WLP565, and a healthy starter was pitched following transfer.  Two days later and this was already fermented down to half the starting gravity, and another day on it has passed 75% attenuation while still looking lively.  With this yeast strain supposedly favouring warmer temperatures the normal rule book was thrown out and gradually the temperature is being allowed to rise up by a couple of degrees a day, towards a maximum of 32C targeted by the end of the week – fingers crossed this really does work the way it is supposed to, because it feels very unnatural letting the yeast get so warm!


The yeast starter (split between demijohn and flask) alongside a better known example of its heritage.


So that’s it for now, until the target gravity (tests have indicated this should go down to 1006 in primary fermentation) is reached and it can be racked off onto the blackberries for a couple more weeks where it should pick up some fruity flavours and an interesting tinge of colour.  Then it is into the cask for a few months for the majority, where the second yeast addition comes courtesy of a couple of bottles of Orval – a handy way to get a little Brett into the cask and an enjoyable task to empty the majority of the bottles out first.  Tough work, but someone has to do it.

The cask!

Bend from the knees…Fortunately this lifting technique was only demonstrated while the cask was empty!

That cask is currently sitting (almost) ready to go, filled with water to allow the wood to swell and seal.  After an initial bout of incontinence mostly caused by an ill-fitting bung, all is holding well and so we are, quite literally, holding water. 

The final stage, once the beer has aged sufficiently (and I guess there’ll need to be some regular sampling, just to make sure…) will be the final bottling – anything left over when the cask is filled up will go straight to this step too – with a suitable third yeast addition to get them nicely carbonated.  We’re thinking a champagne yeast would suit the style and strength well and some sturdy bottles with cork and cage will provide a nice finishing touch.  Watch out for these next summer, just in time for saison season, when hopefully I can provide an update on what it tastes like and whether all the effort was worthwhile!

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October 30, 2012

Oooh shiny….

It doesn’t take much reading of the most popular brewing forums to realise that for many home brewers the construction of “stuff” for their brewery is almost as absorbing (and in some cases more so) that the actual brewing.  And that the shinier things are the more appealing they seem to be.  I’ll be honest, at the moment I spend much more time building bits of the brewery than I spend making beer. Mostly this is through necessity – having embarked on an exercise to upscale generally I’ve found more and more things that need to be built or modified or generally tinkered with before I can actually get the benefit of the increase in size.  But sometimes, it is very easy to get distracted by something that is more shiny and pleasing to the eye than actually a true necessity.

And so it was this weekend when, amongst a very productive attack on a number of other outstanding jobs, I had my first go at making a nice shiny spinning sparge arm.  For those of you who don’t know, sparging is the process when the mashed grain are slowly washed through with hot liquor (water) to extract all the sugars prior to the boil.  A common method in commercial breweries is a perforated pipe – the sparge arm – which rotates above the mash tun spraying the hot liquor over the top of the grain.  The rotation helps spread the liquor out across the grain rather than creating channels that cause the liquor to run straight through and miss those sugars that we’re trying to rinse through.  At least, that’s my understanding of it all…

In the home brewing world there are a variety of different approaches adopted to achieve the same end.  Sometimes it’s a mimic of the commercial rotating arm, other times it is a static version with more pipe and more holes to get a wider spread.  Watering can roses have been adapted for the purpose too, and then there’s the cruder but still effective sheet of foil with holes punched through.  And some people just gently run the liquor out onto the top.  It is arguable whether one method is actually significantly better than any other, and therefore questionable whether the extra effort makes the more technical solutions worthwhile or not, especially on this scale, but each to their own.

So armed with almost limitless enthusiasm for spending time potentially failing to achieve the more complicated of the various options, on Saturday night I set about building my own shiny spinny thing.  Here’s how I did it.

Parts list:
2 x 300mm lengths of 8mm diameter brass tube
2 x 8mm compression stop ends
1 x 8mm compression tee
1 x 8mm compression / 1/2″ BSP reducer

I should point out to start with that, when it comes to plumbing, I’ve found I’m much more successful when I don’t try soldering things any more than I absolutely have to.  Therefore, I went with compression fittings throughout.  This was slightly risky – they are of course heavier than soldered fittings and so the force (which comes purely from the flow of water through the sparge arm) required to spin the whole thing needs to be greater, so you might want to consider soldered stop ends if you’re copying this.  The tee needed to be compression though, as we’ll see shortly.

First step was to work out how long to make each arm.  My mash tun is 500mm across, but you need to allow for the size of the fittings too, and there’s no benefit in the end of the arms being too close to the edge of the tun, so in the end I went for about 160mm.  This meant, once the fittings were in place there was a total length of about 350mm, and there was a little over 100mm of tube between the fittings on each side.  This, in the event, worked out perfectly.  A piece of the remaining tube then became the downward feed to the whole thing.

Now for the holes.  Ten were marked out on each tube, 10mm apart, but the positions on one tube were offset at 5mm from those on the other tube to spread the spray out more.  The ten marks were in a straight line except for the outermost one, which was about 45 degrees further round so that it would direct the flow directly outwards whereas the others pointed down at about 45 degrees.  This was intended to provide a bit more of a push at the end to help the spinning.

In a rare display of caution I then drilled *half* of these holes, starting with the outermost and then drilling every other one.  I used a 2mm drill bit – it was that or 1mm and I quickly discovered that the 1mm bit is too small to fit in my drill so the choice was easy!  Two tips here: use a centre punch first so the the tube flattens slightly and the drill can get a good purchase; and then push the drill bit as far into the drill as you can, so you have as short a length exposed as possible.  A combination of these two approaches meant I was able to use the drill hand-held without any issues.

So, with 5 holes on each side, 20mm apart, the holes on one arm offset by about 5mm from those on the other arm, I then fitted and tightened the stop ends and fitted the arms into the tee and tightened up the compression joints there too.  The third branch of the tee needed different treatment though – this is the joint that is to provide the free rotation so if the joint is tight it won’t turn.  Instead, using a tip picked up from one of the forums I first fully tightened the compression fitting but with the piece of tube not actually pushed fully home so there was a slight allowance for movement.  Once tight the nut was removed again, and then I applied PTFE tape generously to the thread and refitted the nut.  The PTFE now prevents the nut being tightened up as much, so that once the joint is tight the tube is still free enough within it to spin.  Again using a recommendation from the forums I had also applied a little PTFE around the olive to help it move more freely, although with things being quite a tight fit this restricted the spinning at first, until the tape had worn away a little. 

So holding the one tube vertically, I could now spin the arms round.  So far, so good.  Adding the final fitting gave me a 1/2″BSP connection which I would then be able to connect up to my supply of water for sparging – obviously a different fitting might be more appropriate for a different setup so you’d have to choose what is most appropriate for your own arrangement.  At this point I tried holding the arm under a running tap.  With some effort , precise positioning and a “just so” speed of flow from the tap, we had movement!  The pressure of the water was just enough to start the arm spinning.  Not fast, but enough.

Next test was to connect up to the hot liquor tank and try it for real.  With 70 litres of water above it the flow rate had to be cut right back to prevent the whole thing spinning too fast.  Success!  It remains to be seen just how low the water level in the tank can drop before there isn’t enough force to keep the arm spinning, but it looks good so far.  Also, for the moment it will be suspended over the mash tun using some of the various bits and pieces of wood I’ve got cluttering up the place, but I guess at some point I’ll get round to doing something more permanent, so next time I need distracting from a more important task maybe I’ll put my mind to that…

So there you have it.  A spinning shiny thing.  It may or may not improve the quality of the beer.  It is, on the other hand, a very satisfying accomplishment and will no doubt be a most distracting piece of shinyness as it spins round doing its thing on a brewday.

It wasn’t all that expensive either.  The various fittings cost about £3.60 from an online plumbing supplier, and because these were ordered as part of a larger order there wasn’t any postage.  The brass tube was just over £8.00 delivered from eBay, and to be fair I spent about another £8.00 in order to connect up to my existing outlet on the hot liquor tank, including a quick disconnect fitting.  Still under £20 in total, and depending how it connects in your own system it can probably still be done for less than £15 even if you have to order things in specifically, as long as you shop around.

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September 27, 2012

The eternal upgrade…

It wasn’t planned to be like this.  Just a little bit of fun I thought.  Make some beer, it might even be drinkable.  Of course I wouldn’t be content just throwing some kits together, been there, done that, back in my university days.  No, I need to go full out, do it “properly”.  So I did.  And it was drinkable.  Very much so.  With only limited time available I couldn’t really brew enough.

I know, I thought.  I could expand this.  Make bigger batches, so for pretty much the same amount of time brewing I could get maybe twice as much beer.  I reckon there are a few improvements to make too that will speed things up.  I forget how long ago I decided all this, because it seems like forever that I’ve been working on this expansion plan.  But maybe, just maybe, the end is in sight.*

Having decided to scale up I (sensibly?) chose to set the capacity higher than I need, to prevent having to go through another expansion later (yes, in hindsight, definitely a sensible decision!), while being flexible enough to use at maybe half of capacity quite comfortably.  OK, I thought.  Break it down into simple steps.  One thing at a time, introduce the new equipment into the existing setup item by item, keeping the capability to brew so it won’t matter if it doesn’t all happen at once – after all, time is limited.

I wanted to start with the chiller.  Cooling the boiled wort in the existing copper** took an age, and was a clear candidate for making more efficient.  The problem was there was no way I’d be able to connect any sort of “in line” chiller to the outlet.  There was nothing else for it – the new copper had to come first.  I didn’t realise at the time that this sort of knock-on effect would become a common theme.  So, I got a nice big vessel for the new copper.  A few bits of plumbing, new tools (again, this became a common theme – every job brings with it a new piece of equipment necessary to complete the work), a few peripherals including a mighty gas burner, and hey presto, a nice big boil capacity of 100l+.

Having done this the chiller was now essential rather than desirable, as the old one wouldn’t fit in the new boiler.  So before I could brew anything using this brand new copper that had taken up the available brewing time for the past couple of months I had to make that too.  The first attempt was a bit disasterous but it eventually got there with the Mark II.  At last I could brew again.  Ahhh……

I’m still happy that fitting a sight glass to the copper was the right idea – it gives a good indication of level and I can read the volume off easily.  But at the point the copper was first brought into use with the rest of the existing kit I discovered that the volume at which the liquid first comes into sight is just a little greater volume than I can squeeze out of the current mash tun!  That volume is fine for the finished setup, I won’t be going lower than that, but it means there’s a lot of guesswork in the meantime and the existing mash tun and hot liquor tank (HLT) would have to be stretched to capacity.  Of course that means the output is more than previously, so the fermentation vessels would have to be stretched somewhat too.

Next on the list was the HLT.  In hindsight this should have come first but no matter.  Another of those knock-on effects came into play though.  No point having a nice big HLT unless I had something to stand it on.  Fortunately I decided to put some effort into the design of the stand because once I’d committed to building this it would drive the shape of the rest of the brewery, and space is at a premium.  A van-load of steel later, and after a session with a powerful saw (fortunately borrowed rather than purchased) and a couple of false starts, the nice new stand was in place.  The HLT conversion was relatively easy using the experience, and some of the surplus parts, I’d got from building the copper, and so relatively quickly it took its place on the upper level of the stand.  I say relatively quickly, but by now we were months on from the original decision to start this upgrade.  This wasn’t helped by the increasingly obvious need to fit out the whole space and with a few cupboards acquired second-hand, this work had to slot in around the brewery build too.  All the while, the few brews that could be squeezed in had to take place in the middle of a worksite, which was (and still is) trying to say the least.

Two main jobs remained – the mash tun, and the fermenters.  The latter would be easy to convert – just a tap to be added – but the problem was the bigger barrels wouldn’t fit into my crude temperature-controlled space.  And there was little point scaling up the mash tun until I had a big enough fermenter to transfer into.  Nothing for it then, a new temperature-controlled cupboard needed to come first.  Space was a problem now, so another delivery of some steel and another loan of the saw dealt with that.  The base of a nice new double cupboard was then topped with a wooden frame, insulated, and to date one of the doors has been fitted.  The other side will have to wait, but it isn’t a priorty anymore. 

Now the electronics side of things kicked in.  Lots of research and planning, several tactical purchases, more research and rethinking, more purchases, and finally I reach the point with a fancy little box of electrical wizardry that should, subject to a thorough test in the next week or so, allow me to keep the fermentation at the right temperature, and cool down to very low levels to improve the output and expand the brewing styles  I can dabble in.

So, finally, that leaves the mash tun.  I bought the vessel for this months and months ago, but it has just been sitting there getting in the way ever since while I sorted all the other jobs out.  All the fittings were bought ages ago too, and finally (with yet another new tool purchase) I managed to get the drain hole drilled out ready to fit it all together.  All it needs now is a bit of time to fit everything, seal joints etc.  Oh. And it needs a false bottom.  I’ve been dithering about this for months.  I know what I need to do, it’s just a question of doing it.  Buy an expensive piece of perforated steel, tools to cut it, various fittings, and put the effort in.  Finally, I’ve come to a conclusion though.  Cheat.  Get someone else to do it, because by the time I’ve paid for everything I need it isn’t going to work out much cheaper struggling to do it myself.  I can even get a better spec (thicker steel primarily) that way.  So, one false bottom finally ordered and the mash tun can be brought into use.  Except I planned it with a recirculation system which will help to keep the temperature constant and even allow stepping up of temperatures semi-automatically.  Overkill?  Maybe, but it is what I decided on.  So, back to the electronics, another raid on eBay, and subject to postage times from China for a few key bits, another fancy gizmo will be concocted to control the mash temperature.

So then we’re finished.  Potentially in the next few weeks.  Certainly ready for a big brewday in November.

Well, I say finished.  There’s a sparge arm needed.  And the pipework from copper to chiller to fermenter needs sorting out properly.  As does the plumbing supply into the building.  And the fitting of the sink.  And the permanent electrics.  And the other half of the fermenting cupboard.

And when I’ve done all that I’m sure there’ll be some other jobs that need doing…

Even so, it is quite exciting to be within sight of getting all the main jobs out of the way and to soon be able to spend a bit more time brewing and a lot less time building things.  It’s been much more than 12 months in the making, so far, and I’ve a new-found appreciation of all the different skills you need in order to make the capability to make beer, and I can’t wait to start using it properly.  Hopefully just in time for it to become the pilot plant for a slightly larger setup, but that’s another story of which more another time!

Having started this blog with the intention of recording progress on the brewery I thought it was about time I stopped getting sidetracked with other beer-related issues and actually wrote about the brewery for once.  So there you are, you now know as much as me about it!  Hopefully the next update will be rather sooner, and will be a positive report on the first “full” use of the new kit.  Fingers crossed…

* Strictly speaking, the end will never be in sight.  I quickly learnt that there’s always one more change, one more improvement, no matter how finished you thought you were!

** That’s the boiler, if you didn’t already know that

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June 25, 2012

Some brewing karma restored?

After the utter disaster that was the (supposed) smoked porter – still flat as a pancake but now developing the flavours it was meant to have! – the next brew was approached with trepidation to say the least. A lot of lessons had been learnt however, and changes put into place. Two weeks ago the brewday took place and having just kegged the results I finally feel able to write about it without tempting fate too much.  As a reminder the catalogue of disasters can be found here.

On the day things started out well with the ingredients all accounted for in advance, the HLT in the right place (which was in itself a revised location from original plans) and the newly rewired pump was in and tested. A good early start meant the water heated up in good time for a mash-in before breakfast. Minor failure at this point meant no bacon sandwiches but we can overlook that.

Hoses recirculating hot water all stayed where they were put, the OG pre-boil was in the right ball-park and post-boild was pretty much spot on. So far so good. A minor hiccup with the counterflow chiller meant a slightly warmer transfer than intended but it quickly cooled to an acceptable level ands the yeast was pitched. A good starter saw it off to a flying start.

After a few days it was ready for dry-hopping. Final gravity was a bit high, but OK, and the taste was good.

Another week on and clearly the transfer to secondary for dry-hopping had roused the yeast and the gravity was now exactly where it was supposed to be (minor lesson – need to rouse this yeast! Would have preferred to ferment lower before the dry hops went in). It is tasting good too, and a bit of time in the keg now before serving should complete things nicely.

So, it feels like I’ve had some brewing karma restored. The new bag of grain has performed fine which only reinforces that the previous one was a significant part of the problem. And the biggest lesson of all from the previous brewday was always learn from what went wrong – it may not have produced the beer that was intended but it has certainly helped this latest batch go absolutely swimmingly.

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May 14, 2012

EBBC12 – a personal perspective

As the European Beer Bloggers Conference (EBBC12) in Leeds draws near, I thought I’d do just as quite a few other attendees have, and write a bit of a personal prelude to the event. To be honest, it is all a bit unexpected – three weeks ago I hadn’t even considered going, and yet here I am, now just three days away with conference and hotels booked, and just a train ticket to get (and with no suitable advance purchase tickets available, I can buy that on the day). I’ll make an apology in advance – this post isn’t really much about beer, but there is a link, on a personal note. This post is much more personal than that so feel free to look away now.  And maybe once I’ve got this all off my chest I can go back to writing something far more meaningful that is actually about beer.

While writing my previous post I found my mind drifting slightly off-topic, which to be fair you can tell as you read it! I’d already planned to write something pre-EBBC, and the train of thought I was following kept diverting me from the last post to this one. That, I think, was because I kept touching on the topics that were forming at the back of my mind into a whole different post. I was considering my relationship with beer, and how that has changed over recent months. How much it has changed over the past couple of years. I was trying to show how being a home brewer went hand in hand with drinking more in pubs, rather than less. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how much my relationship with beer has changed, and still is. And I thought about what it meant to have a mid-life crisis.

Now, on the face of it that may sound like to completely separate thoughts. But they kept coming crashing together. Am I saying that I’m having a mid-life crisis, and I’ve turned to drink to help me get through it? Absolutely not. But I think there is a somewhat different connection for me between the two things. And I do wonder if I really am actually having some sort of mid-life crisis. Mention a mid-life crisis and most people, myself included, would instantly think of 40-something men running off with girls half their age, buying sports cars, taking up motorcycling while wearing completely inappropriate leatherwear, that sort of thing. Think a bit more about it and you might also imagine 40-something men leaving their jobs and maybe even families behind and setting off to explore the world. It’ll almost certainly be 40-something men though (do women even have mid-life crises, or are they just better at hiding it? Or is it because men don’t notice because they’re usually too busy having their own?!).

This may be some rather flawed psychology, but to me it seems to be all about the dawning realisation that life is carrying on regardless, taking you along with it, and that if you don’t stop the ride and get off now you quite possibly never will. That job that may have seemed like such a great career choice when you started out is now just the routine you put yourself through every day. Or maybe it wasn’t so much a career decision as a way to make ends meet at the time and it has just carried on that way since. Either way, there seems to be a point where you start to wonder why you’re not doing something else, and sometimes that turns into an effort to make a change. Putting aside the specific details of sports cars and other inappropriateness, that then makes a lot of sense, both in a general, cliched sense but also to me on a personal level. And the cliches of mid-life crisis are surely about making changes where you can, which isn’t necessarily the same as making the changes you really need. I’m not 40-something, but I am approaching it, and while I don’t feel a sense of dread as such at the milestone being less than 3 years away I do feel a sense of frustration at things I want to change but feel unable to.  Frustration at continuing to do things based on a decision made 15 years ago,  because of doing it so long there doesn’t seem to be a way to do anything else. 

This, I think, is where (for me) beer comes in. Not in the sense of turning to drink as a support mechanism, but as a way to make a real change. And not just a superficial one. It’s more than a sports car, because it isn’t a replacement for the changes I’d really like to make, it seems like an opportunity to actually make those changes. To step away from doing something just because it is what you’ve been doing for as long as you can remember.  More than a hobby to escape to, more like a life change to aspire to. An opportunity to be grasped. There’s a long way to go and I have to keep myself firmly rooted in reality by doing “beer things” on the side of family and work life, which isn’t easy, but I don’t actually want a full-blown crisis on my hands, I want a sustainable change. It doesn’t pay to do anything drastic or rash (so the sports car can wait!), but as a result it takes up time on top of all the hours spent doing the other things that still have to be done. That can create its own pressures, especially when you’re relying on the understanding of those who are important to you.

So that is how, I feel, I’ve come to be going to EBBC12. It is part of the gradual immersion in the world of beer and brewing that I’ve been undertaking. I’ve developed a passion for brewing, and another for enjoying the efforts of both myself and others in that field. Through Twitter, and then through this Blog, I’ve found an interest in sharing what I’m experiencing with others, and receiving the benefits of their wisdom and experience. I’ve learnt so much about beer, its ingredients, the process of producing it. I’ve ended up organising a beer festival, with the possibility of more to come, and managing all the publicity around that. I’ve got heavily involved in my local brewing group, taking part in and even running meetings. I’ve even been the after-dinner speaker at the local Rotary. I’ve starting writing regularly, even if not frequently, and am finding more enjoyment in that than I ever thought. And I’ve met some great people – brewers, drinkers, writers and more. All through a shared passion for beer, and for brewing. So with this coming weekend looming close, when I go to Leeds and meet a load more great people who share my interests, I can’t help but be just a little bit excited. If this really is a mid-life crisis, I think I’m going to enjoy it! Anyone want to join with me in drinking to that?

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May 9, 2012

Throwing in my tuppenceworth, and getting change back…

I went to the pub last Saturday – a little trip out for the afternoon to Derby, where I met with a group of about 20 other like-minded people.  The common link between us all?  Home brewing.  The point I’m making?  Well I’ll come back to that later…

The most recent issue of the CAMRA members’ magazine, Beer, contained the latest in a series of debates – two contributors argue for and against a given statement on a beer-related subject.  This time round the topic under discussion was home brewing, and in particular whether an increase in home brewing results in greater presssure on pub profitability.

Even before I’d gone to Derby, I’d very defintely taken one side of the argument, and could see via discussions taking place on Twitter that I wasn’t the only one to come down very firmly in the camp that thinks that more home brewing is a good thing for pubs, not a bad thing.  However I can see how the easy, obvious answer ought to be quite the opposite.  Inevitably the debate in Beer was limited by the space constraints, so I thought I’d add my own thoughts to the argument.

Make and drink your own beer, and you don’t go out to the pub and buy someone else’s.  It’s obvious, right?  And in times of increased hardship through recession, coupled with the increases in the cost of going to the pub, I can see how more people are going to turn to homebrew as a far cheaper alternative to the pub.  But is it really that simple?  I suppose it is in some cases, some people will be happy enough with the results they get from a few kits and the cost benefits will be enough to make up for the time and effort (and please don’t think I’m suggesting that there is anything wrong in only being a kit brewer, it’s all horses for courses) .  However, for most people a drink down the pub is more than just the pint in your hand.  It is a social activity, and even if you’re happy to sit at home drinking your homebrew, your drinking buddies might not be.

And that’s just those who take up home brewing and are happy with the cheap beer they can get quickly and easily from kits.  However, lots of home brewers take the hobby further.  Many home brewers move on to (or even start with) all grain brewing, which involves a much greater investment of time and (usually) money, but gets you far more involved in the process.  At this point it is questionable whether the cheap beer which results is the driving factor any more – certainly all the home brewers I know are far more interested in turning out quality beer than turning out cheap beer.

On a personal level, I’ve found that during the time I began brewing for myself, I’ve also been developing my interest in drinking beer into something of a passion for beer and brewing. Learning how to put together ingredients, flavours, techniques, has given me a new understanding of the raw materials that make up a good (or bad) pint.  That has helped me to better understand the beers I drink at the pub, and to want to seek out more.  It has encouraged me to push back the boundaries, and try a wider and more diverse range of beer styles, utilising my increased understanding and at the same time developing my understanding further.  That has seen me arguably going to pubs more, not less, although there is the obvious counterbalance to that in that I am perhaps also drinking more than I did before I started brewing myself!  As well as pubs I’m also buying more, and more varied, bottled beer too.

Seeing some of the conversations triggered by the debate in Beer, especially those triggered on Twitter by David Bishop (@BroadfordBrewer /, it is clear I’m far from alone in this.  And that takes me right back to my opening paragraph – 20+ homebrewers gathered together in a pub, where between us we must have got through the best part of a firkin of beer in all, maybe more, not to mention the buffet that we bought too.  That seems to me to be a reasonable contribution that home brewers have made to that pub’s takings for the day, and while it is fair to say that was a one-off, it is an example of how an interest in beer, and brewing it for yourself, is far from the end of your interest in drinking in pubs.  How many of us would even have gone to the pub that afternoon if it wasn’t for the meeting?

Another good point made in the Beer debate was that a significant number of the rising stars in commercial brewing have started from home brewing origins.  Again I can relate to this, as a home brewer who is aspiring to brew in a more commercial form, and one for whom the dream has a real chance of making it to reality over the next year or two, if plans work out.  Demonise home brewing as a threat to the survival of professionally-made beer and you risk cutting off at least part of the supply of adventurous and talented brewers who can make a real difference to the commercial brewing scene.  And if you really side with the “Yes” vote in the Beer debate, surely that is saying CAMRA shouldn’t support home brewing – so that’s one regular article to remove from Beer and a few books to stop publishing at the very least!

Finally I’ll pick up a point I recall originally seeing made via Twitter though apologies to whoever it was as I can’t remember or find out who to attribute it to.  Through home brewing, and particularly the level of interest and understanding of quality beer it can generate, as it has for me, surely we raise the profile of good beer, and become more demanding consumers.  We introduce others to good beer, hopefully pass on some of our own passion, and with a bit of luck we create even more interest and demand.  No matter how much beer you brew yourself there is always that need to compare, contrast, explore new beers and old favourites.  Whether it is to see how close you’ve got to that beer you’ve just cloned, to find out what your favourite brewers have done with a style that you’re going to make yourself, or to see what new ideas there are out there to expand your repertoire, there is always a reason to keep seeking out great beer from pubs and shops to keep yourself developing as a home brewer.  If that means that you’re asking more of the pubs you visit, then all this can only help put the pressure on, in a good way, for breweries and pubs to produce and sell the best beer they can.

Now, to be honest I’m not sure that I’ve added a great deal to the arguments in the Beer debate, and when I set out to write this post I had hoped to do more than just reinforce the arguments that had already been made.  I think I’ve been able to give some personal perspective on why I agree with the “No” view, and some practical examples of that.  I do accept of course that for some people brewing at home will result in them drinking less in the pub, but for plenty of others the opposite applies.  But have I really contributed much to what has been said already?  Possibly, possibly not.  But as I wrote this, I found my thinking moving more and more towards the post I was already planning to follow this with, as a precursor to EBBC12 next week.  To the extent that I think now this post has become much more for my own benefit than for that of anyone reading it, so apologies for that.  It’s had the benefit of clearing the mind a little, providing me with some focus that hopefully you’ll get the benefit of in a few days.  I’m afraid that for now you’ve just had the pleasure of sitting here watching my thoughts develop, though I’ve not really told you all that much of what I’m thinking.  This post has to some extent effectively become a scene-setter, part 1 to next week’s part 2, in which I think I’m ready now to delve a little deeper into my own recent surge of interest in beer and brewing and how that has developed.  I hope you enjoy that one when it comes, and forgive me the indulgence that this post became!!

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