Posts tagged ‘homebrew’

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…

October 12, 2013

Thinking through the process

Last weekend I finally got to break a brewing dry spell and make enough space amongst the clutter left over from Birmingham Beer Bash to get a brew on. As has been typical of my last few brews various stages of the process involved last minute tinkering and modifcation of the still-evolving kit, and the inevitable hiccups minor and not-so-minor (full jug of yeast knocked to the floor just before pitching for example…).

This got me thinking, most particularly about “process”. Regardless of the art / craft of brewing that sits hand-in-hand with the underlying science (and depending on the setup, engineering too), brewing is very much a process industry, and in the home environment there is no reason for the same not to apply. Having a stable and consistent process should make for a happier brewday. Less time flapping over forgotten ingredients or things not being in the right place at the right time; much more time just enjoying the activity, improving things rather than just fixing them, and perhaps even sampling the fruits of previous labours.

Things go wrong from time to time at every brewery, and I’ll bet that most times this will be caused by something distracting from the usual process. Brewing at home somewhat less regularly it is harder to get the process embedded as second nature, especially when parts of the brewing kit are changing from brew to brew as is the case for me.

So I’m resolving to get better organised. Get my process sorted, and hopefully get a smoother brewday next time. I just need to work out what that process is…

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