Sierra Nevada – Tumbler

October 20th, 2010 by Steve Travis
I picked up a six-pack of Tumbler out of a desire to not have to think about what beer I wanted, but still get a seasonal that I knew would probably be good. I know Sierra, I like Sierra, I bought Sierra. I’m sure you’ve done this more than once yourself. Over the past month, I’ve knocked down (with help) three six-packs of this little bad boy and in doing so, figured I really should give it a proper write-up. When I think of Brown Ale, I typically think of Newcastle (meh) and Downtown Brown (yay!), by Lost Coast Brewing. Newcastle being a thin, drinkable English Brown and Downtown being a bit more malt forward in character. Tumbler follows after the
American Brown tradition and like Downtown is a malty, but not cloying. However, being Sierra, they just can’t help themselves and they THROWINASHITTONOFHOPS WEEEEE! Now that’s not to say that it’s over hopped, or extravagantly bitter in nature, but it is just a touch “out of style” for the American Brown Ale category. It’s not really a flaw though. In fact I find that after my initial tasting, I was more than happy to dig in for more. The real test came when my wife, notorious hop hater that she is, tried it and found it quite drinkable. There’s a definite taste of “biscuity”, “roasty” flavor before the hop bombardment and that carries through after the bitterness subsides on your pallet. It makes itself very available to the non-hopheads in your life. As Fall seasonals go, I’ve yet to find another that’s quite so drinkable.

“Letters to a Young Brewer” – Managing You Brew Day

October 18th, 2010 by Steve Travis

A complaint from new brewers when asked why they don’t brew more often, is the time commitment required for the brew day.  If you’re doing all-grain brewing this can be a 4 to 5 hour exercise when setup and breakdown are taken into account.  Extract brews can probably knock off 45 minutes of that, but there’s no getting around that this is a time intensive hobby.  Here’s a few ideas to help mitigate wasted time and help your brew day move along as efficiently as possible:

  1. Get your brewing space set up and try to set up the same way each time you brew.  You’ll be amazed how much time you save when not having to fumble around for gear while you’re brewing.  This also allows you to quickly realize if you’re missing anything (spoons, hoses, thermometers, etc.) when you know where they should be.  I seem to vaguely remember running around looking for my mash paddle, ripping off a stream of obscenities,  because I had just dumped the strike water into the mash tun and the paddle was nowhere to be found.
  2. Build a brew day routine.  This will evolve over time, but if you start out with the idea to maximize the time you spend on any given task, you’ll become very good at spotting time-savers.  For example, the first things I do are set up my burner, kettle and water filter, then I can start measuring out the water needed for the mash.  Since my filter only measures out 1 gallon/minute, I have time to make my bucket of sanitizer and start to clean my mash tun, if needed.  When the water’s measured, I can immediately start the burner and heat it.  While it’s heating, I measure out my grain and mill it.  When that’s all done, I dump the grain into the mash tun and only have a few minutes until the water is at the strike temp. That gives me a time to get my hops together… You get the idea.  I figured out that managing my setup time like this saves me 20+ minutes on the day.  Every bit counts!
  3. Finally, think about your storage space for your brew gear.  Is it easy to get to?  Can you pull your stuff out as you need it, or do you have to unload half the closet/garage before you can dig out your kettle?  Are your small items organized well?  Do you know where your airlocks, stoppers are?  Can you quickly grab your sanitizer or do you have to dig through boxes?  All these little things save not only time, but frustration – the real enemy, in my opinion.

Brewing is such a rewarding hobby but I’ve seen more than my share of potential brewers dump it because there’s “just so much to think about”.  That kills me because while brewing is definitely detail-oriented, it need not be tedious.  I think of all the great beer that I’m not drinking because people who would probably make great brewers feel it’s too much effort.  Don’t deny the people your beer!

Sweet Beer Poster!

October 15th, 2010 by Steve Travis
I think I found some new art for the “Brew House”! Available from Pop Chart Lab. This will either assist me in my “what to brew next” decisions, or completely paralyze it. I might be giving a few of these out this Christmas…

Another Fermentation Oddity

October 12th, 2010 by Steve Travis

I brewed up a pale ale last weekend.  I performed my normal brew day process, with my normal brew day sanitation and my normal brew day mash and boil.  I hit my expected OG and racked to the primary fermenters at 71 degrees – nothing odd there.  I added my yeast, this time opting for Nottingham dry yeast since it did so well for me in my Cascadian Dark Ale.  I put the fermenters in the freezer and set my temp controller to 66F.  I checked on them 24 hours later and there was some action stirring up in one fermenter, but the other seemed a bit sluggish.  No biggie.  48 hours later and fermenter #1 is bombing away as expected, but fermenter #2 is still just getting started, only a small bit of krausen starting to form.  Since I’m seeing some action in #2, I figure I’ll let it go another evening and if it’s still sluggish, I’ll add another pack of Nottingham and be done with it.  Sure enough, there’s only a bit more movement by day 3, so I head down to the homebrew shop, pick up a fresh pack of yeast (and two new airlocks, cuz I keep loosing the tops.  I don’t know why).  By the time I get back, about 2 hours later, I open the freezer and #2 has decided to kick off and go gangbusters, no additional yeast needed.  So what happend?  I have two hypotheses:

  1. I normally fill the fermenter to at least half full before adding the yeast, but this time when filling the second fermenter, I added the yeast at the same time I started adding the wort.  I had drained my Star San sanitizer out before adding anything, but there was still some residue hanging around.  I suppose it could have wiped out some of the yeast cells since the concentration was not yet diluted by the wort, thus forcing the colony to start up from a reduced cell count.
  2. Due to the 71F temperature of the wort, setting my freezer to 66F instead of doing a slower step-down of the temperature from 70, then drop to 69 an hour or two later, etc, until 66F is reached, may have shocked the yeast a bit thus explaining the slower start up.

I lean more toward #1, as that was really the only difference between the two carboys, but it could have been a combination of the factors above.  As it stands today, fermenter #1 has completed most of it’s primary fermentation and fermenter #2 is just winding down.  I’m planing to add oak chips to both this coming Thursday and let sit at 66F for 14 more days before racking to the kegs.  I’m very curious if there will be any noticeable differences between the two?  Stay tuned!

“Letters to a Young Brewer” – Calm Down

October 7th, 2010 by Steve Travis

There’s been a rash of fermentation questions popping up on reddit/r/homebrewing lately and I thought I’d add to my earlier post about getting your fermentation set up for success.  I neglected to mention a vital process in achieving a successful fermentation and bottling – calm the %$#@! down.

“OMG – it’s been 15 hours and NO ACTIVITY in the fermenter!” – After questioning, there’s the start of the krausen forming, but the airlock’s not moving.  This is not “no activity”.   Everyone who’s been brewing for a while has had that wild batch that took off like a rocket and fermented all the way through in 3 days.  The standard is 5 to 7 for ales, so just keep an eye on it.  If you don’t see the krausen form inside 48 hours, you may consider re-pitching some fresh yeast. Until then, “relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew”.

“I waited until it looked like it was done fermenting and moved it to a secondary.  I took a reading and it’s down from 1.060 to 1.030, but not fermenting anymore!” – yeah, you took the beer away from the yeast leaving only the yeast in suspension to try to heavy-lift that bad boy all the way down to 1.012.  Not going to happen.  First, ask yourself why you are racking to a secondary?  If you’re brewing an ale, you can leave it in the primary for over 20+ days without a real danger of autolysis, even in a plastic bucket, though there is a very slight chance of oxidation due to the simi-permeable nature of the plastic.  Pulling the beer off the yeast after 7 days is not a hard and fast rule, it’s a rule of thumb.  Take your gravity readings and decide if the fermentation is complete, then make your move to bottle/keg, or if you must, a secondary.  Note: there are times when a secondary is necessary. If you’re fermenting a big barely wine or the like, you may very well want to age it at fermentation temp for over a month.   That’s a good cause for moving it to a secondary.

In brewing, as with most things in life, you shouldn’t make decisions without looking at the data.  Always take your readings before you make a decision to rack or bottle.  Keep an eye on your fermentation, but don’t freak out unless there’s cause (as indicated by the data).  If you’re in a big hurry, go buy beer at the store.  You can’t rush fermentation.  It’s done when it’s done.  If you bottle too early, you can get gushers from the excess suspended yeast going to town on your bottling sugar.  Or you can get a beer that was “half done” which won’t taste right and you’ll get discouraged.  Patience will be rewarded.  Now go brew!

Slate does homebrew – Slate V

September 24th, 2010 by Steve Travis

I love that “populist” sites like Slate highlight homebrewing with videos like this.  It gives people who wouldn’t otherwise attempt homebrewing a bit of motivation, especially when it’s being done by a cute, quirky girl.  It would have been great if she had mentioned all the information and help you can easily find on the Internet, but we can’t have it all!  Her experience with brewing is the common first-brew story I always hear, and it’s a good one.  “I didn’t know what I was getting into”, “it wasn’t as hard as I thought”, “I’ll probably do it again”, “My beer turned out much better than I thought”, etc.  My only nit pick is that she served the beer in the bottle instead of giving people glasses to drink from.  Classic rookie mistake! 😉  Always serve your homebrew in a glass to give it a moment to breath and open up!

21st Amendment – Back in Black

September 23rd, 2010 by Steve Travis

These tasting notes on the 21A Back in Black come with a bit of an interesting story.  It’s a Friday night in San Francisco and I’m off to see a show at the Great American Music Hall called WootStock.  It’s basically a geekfest nerdcore show staring none other than Wil (Wesley Crusher) Wheaton, Adam (Mythbusters) Savage, and a musical duo called Paul and Storm.  Lolz were had and I was able to meet Wil and Grant Imahara (also of Mythbusters), which was all very cool.  My friend had made Wil a shirt (back story here) and so as thanks he bought us a round.  That’s right, Westley Crusher paid for our beer.  It was awesome.  Nuff said.  By this point you’ve guessed that the beer I selected was the 21A’s Back in Black, Black India Ale.

Other than the fact that I love the 21A and nearly everything they produce, my primary interest here was to try another commercial example of a Black India Ale/Cascadian Dark Ale (whichever you prefer) and compare it to my own attempt at the style, which is now a nicely matured brew of its own. Back in Black has a very nice, but not overbearing roast malt flavor that you would expect from the dark malt additions. It’s a bit more malt forward than the one I brewed, and I admit, I rather liked the upfront dark roast character. As expected, the dark roast quickly gave way to the the hops and it faded fast into a IPA feel and flavor, which I still find somewhat magical and is why I’m so enamored with this style of beer. The hops were exactly what you’d expect from an IPA, I’m guessing
somewhere in the 70-ish IBU range with definite citrus notes of the Pacific Northwest hops. I ended up sucking down 5 of these over the course of the evening, discretion being the only reason I didn’t rage on with more.

As with many of the 21A’s beers, this one came in a can, which is really starting to catch on with the craft brew world, and rightly so. I’ve had their Brew Free or Die IPA and Water Mellon Wheat in both the can and fresh off the tap without noticing much difference between the two. Cans really are mini-kegs.

Letters to a Young Brewer – Equipment

September 21st, 2010 by Steve Travis

When you first start out on the brewing odyssey, you’re first stop is the equipment kit isle at your homebrew shop.  I’ve covered this before in the How To section, but I thought I’d take a different tack on it this time.  See, there are those that will buy a basic kit for around $200, brew once or twice and then unload it on Craig’s List for $50.  Then there are the others of us who will brew on it 5 or 6 times, get the “fever” and then start going bat-shit crazy picking up new gear and upgrading everything until we’re $1000 into it and have no idea where the money went.  It’s that second group of people that I’d like to address.

Truth be told, if you really really knew, deep down, that you wanted to brew and that you were going to do this for the rest of your days no matter what your significant other says, then there’s actually a few ways to get a hold of a totally bitchin’ rig on the cheap.  First, let’s just jump straight to all-grain brewing.  You know you’re gonna do it, so why bother avoiding it?  It’s not like it’s hard, nor does getting a rig that is setup for all-grain exclude the odd extract brew.  Second, skip the kits at the homebrew store.  There’s nothing wrong with them, but they’re priced at a bit of a premium and since you’re just going to go for it, you’ll want to save some dough for larger ingredients purchases you’re going to make.

Option 1: Scan Craig’s List.  There are always people who, for whatever crazy reason, buy in WAY too big and never use the gear.  It ends up taking up space in the garage, and one day they just dump it on CL for 1/3 of what they paid for it.  I see it quite a bit.  If you have around $1000 (sometimes less) you can score a full brew sculpture with pumps and chillers.  The worst thing you may have to do is purchase new high-temp hoses and give the kettles a good scrubbing.  The down-side to this is that it may take some time for one of those super sweet deals to pop up, so some level of patience may be required.  I don’t have that so I went with option 2.

Option 2: Locate a kitchen supply outlet.  There are two kind of these – ones that say they are kitchen outlets and knock off $5, and those that are overstock dumps for importers of stuff from China.  Guess which one you want to find?  The “restaurant supply stores” take the same stuff that you get from the Chinese supply store, but they’re usually not the direct buyer, so there’s not much savings to be had there.  So find the direct importer either near you, or on the intertubes, and get things like kettles, burners, large stainless spoons and digital thermometers from them.  For example, I picked up the exact kettle that my homebrew shop sells for $350 for $180.  No joke.  Same brand name and everything.  Next, if your using coolers for a mash tun, check out Costco.  You can get 75qt coolers for $40.  Pick up your stainless fittings (faucets and hose barbs) from McMaster-Carr.  If you’re putting together a ghetto rig like mine you can do a 10 gallon setup for under $500.

Option 2.5: Can you weld?  Well then you are in business!  Taking the same tack as option 2, you can weld up a free standing brew sculpture with just a few weekends of work. Though I’ve never priced it out, I have it on pretty good authority that you can put a system together for $1000 or less.  There are plenty of plans available on the Internet for you to choose from.  If I had the mad welding skillz, I would be doing this.  Here’s a guy who got one together for under $800!

Perhaps I can save somebody out there some big money.  I know I certainly would have benefited from knowing some of this stuff when I started out.