The Dangers of Drinking and Homebrewing

I thought that I would take this opportunity to voice a little concern over drinking and homebrewing at the same time.  Now, for me, I see that the two go hand-and-hand.  What’s better than kicking off the boil with a nice craft beer or, even better, a beer from your own last batch!?  Two nights ago I was doing just this and let’s just say that by the end of the boil I obviously had lost some of my wits because I nearly made a huge mistake!  I wanted to write this up to highlight an important part of homebrewing:  Don’t panic!  This hobby is very forgiving in a lot of ways and I’ll bet that the beer will still turn out just fine.

This last brew was actually my first partial-mash (I’ll get to all-grain one day!) so I had a little bit more on my plate than I normally do what with the initial mashing steps etc.  I normally don’t add my extract malts in the beginning of the boil, despite the directions, because I had a little issue on one of my first brews that led to me scorching the malt a little bit.  To prevent the scorching I typically add the malt in the last few minutes of the boil or even at flame-off (I know, I know, I probably should avoid this because I might not be sanitizing the extract well enough).  Well I got all the hops in, boiled my wort chiller, added whirlfloc etc, got the wort chilled down to 80 degrees, poured the wort into the fermenter, and even added my top off water before I realized my mistake.

I forgot to add my malt extract!!

In a panic I quickly boiled a little water, stirred in the extract, and looked painfully towards my already nearly full fermenter.  Since I had already added the top off water the jug now contained 5.25 gallons of wort and barely any head space.  I had to remove a little wort with a wine thief to make enough room for the extra liquid and to make matters worse I had used a yeast starter which included even more liquid!  So, with my fermenter filled to the brim and my heart filled with worry I installed the blow-off tube and threw out a quick prayer to the beer gods for a righteous brew despite my mistakes.

As of right now the beer is doing just fine and with a little blowoff during fermentation it’s down to manageable levels once again.

There are a couple of reasons I’m happy that this happened:

  1. Anytime something goes wrong it’s always a learning experience.
  2. I’ve never added too much water before so I will be able to see the effects on taste/mouthfeel.
  3. It was my first time that I was able to use my blow-off tube and it was great timing to have it when there was little to no head space available in the fermenter!
  4. Even if it’s a little watery, more beer is more beer 😉
Hopefully this will be a reminder to always double check your ingredients and keep an eye on your beer glass!
I’ll update this post in a few weeks to let you know how the brew turned out!

2013 Alabama State Legislature to Revisit the Alabama Homebrew Bill

Alabama State House

Spyder Monkey:  Wikimedia Commons:  CC BY-SA 3.0

For any secret homebrewers living in Alabama there might be some good news looming on the horizon that will allow you to become unsecret open homebrewers!

The Alabama Homebrew Bill is Back on the Table!!

If you have followed the state law over the past few years concerning the Homebrew Bill you’ll remember that it has steadily been gaining traction in the legislature due to increasing public support for the hobby.  There was a tough letdown last year as the bill passed both the House and the Senate JC&ED committee before running out of time waiting for a full Senate floor vote.  It was big news for hobbyists all over the state in October when the sponsor and strong supporter Rep. Mac McCutcheon prefiled the bill as HB9 to hopefully ensure an early vote this time around.  Even more exciting news came in November when Rep. McCutcheon was named Rules Committee Chairman thereby allowing him to select the bills up for debate on any given day.  His proactive support of this bill and to a larger extent the whole community involved speaks volumes for the legitimacy of the bill to his voting peers.
The 2013 Alabama Legislative Session started yesterday and everyone in the last remaining state to deprive its people of their natural right to homebrew beer is waiting with nervous excitement!  
If you are too nervous, don’t forget to RDWHAHB 😉

6 Reasons to Start Homebrewing Beer

After brewing for a couple of years myself I think that I can safely comment on the reasons to start getting into the craft.  As hobbies go I think homebrewing is quite rewarding and being able to continue to develop your talents and share great beer with friends is a great motivator!

  1. You love beer – This one is simple and in my opinion the most important reason to ever start this hobby.  If you love the tastes of beer, the smells, and the wonderful culture and history surrounding one of the earth’s oldest beverages then this is the best thing in the world for you.
  2. You love good beer – Let’s face it:  There would be no point in brewing the same old BMC (Budweiser, Miller, Coors) crap beer that you can run down the street and pick up for five bucks.  But if you just drank a Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA and then I told you that you can make that same beer at home in your kitchen given enough patience and drive and you nearly had a heart attack then this hobby is perfect for you.
  3. You love variety – If you love a good wheat or light ale during the hot days of the summer, an oktoberfest in the fall, and a stout in the winter and everything in between given the situation any other time then homebrewing beer is for you.  Given a little planning you can always have a fresh and appropriate beer in the fridge for any occasion.
  4. You love to DIY – Some people have the attitude that the only people that can do anything right are themselves.  Some people are right.  If you have ever looked at a table and thought “I could build that better” or looked at your car repair bill and think “I could do that faster and cheaper” then homebrewing might be the hobby for you.  You can tweak, experiment, and pretty much do whatever you want and the only person you’ll have to blame or thank at the end of the day is yourself.
  5. You are a bit of a geek – Some people are just plain geeky when it comes to projects and hobbies.  Brewing is in essence a science project, albeit a tasty one, that can be appreciated for it’s roots in the physical sciences as well as it’s results.  The process of fermentation is quite a wonder to behold and experimenting with recipes, yeast strains, and temperatures can yield a tremendous amount of variety.
  6. You have odd beer taste or special dietary needs – One of the best parts about making your own beer is that you can put whatever you want into it.  Are you concerned with pesticides and want to use only organic materials in your beer?  It’s possible!  Do you have an allergy to something like gluten, but still want to brew beer?  You can!

Homebrewing Beer – Tips for Beginners

Homebrewing requires a lot of discipline, care, patience, and passion to perfect.  Now Lord knows I’m nowhere near that mark, but the real beauty of this hobby is that given a little research and care you can make a darn tasty beer right out of the gate.  When I first became interested in homebrewing the first thing I did was get on the internet and read, read, read about the process, equipment, ingredient kits, you name it.  I read about it for weeks before I ever bought a kit and started brewing for myself.

What I realized, however, is that all the basic instructions are all essentially the same and that really the most important aspects to master in the beginning are sanitation and temperatures.  

In the beginning it’s not so much about getting everything right as it is minimizing what you get  wrong.

I’m sure we’ve all heard about mastering the basics before moving on to more advanced techniques.  Homebrewing is no different and the reasoning behind this advice comes from the simple fact that some mistakes can ruin a batch of beer outright and some mistakes will just give the beer a little “character”.
What WILL ruin your beer

  • An infection caused by a lack of or improper sanitation (no chiming in from the funk junkies on this one)
  • Fermenting a beer way too hot
  • Bottling a beer before fermentation is complete (not checking final gravity of your beer can cause bottle bombs as fermentation will continue in the bottle and produce more CO2 than the bottle can handle)
What WON’T ruin your beer

  • Not hitting the perfect temp for your steeping or specialty grains
  • Forgetting to put the malt extract in when the directions said to
  • Putting the wrong hops in at the wrong time
  • Boiling for a little too long or too short
  • Drinking too much on brew day and passing out before you pitch your yeast (pitch it first thing in the morning though, slacker!)
The point I’m trying to make here is that you want to develop solid fundamentals within your brewing technique.  Sanitation is important.  Temperatures are important.  Checking your gravities is important.  Master these things before you worry about messing with a 10 hop addition 120 minute boil of a pliny the arrogant left-handed chimay raspberry wheat clone.
Also remember that when you’re stressing out about something brewing related always RDWHAHB!


So I Flooded My Bathroom While Homebrewing

What do you get when you mix a brew day, the 2012 Vice Presidential debates, a few beers, and running water???

A Flooded Bathroom!

I had great plans on this brew day to document the process involved with making a pumpkin infused type of ale that is so popular this time of year, but fate had other plans for me.  Everything started off innocently enough until I brought my cooler into the bathroom to start filling it with water to cool the fermenter later on that night.  I dropped the shower head into the cooler, turned on cold water, and ran back to check my boil. Some time later (20, 30, 45 minutes later???) I was completely engrossed in the debates and boil that I had forgotten all about the water.  I went back to use the bathroom at that point and discovered this:
I don’t know how clear it is in the picture, but that’s half an inch of standing water in the bathroom floor.
It soaked the carpet for several feet just outside the bathroom and even went under the counters into the closet to soak the carpets there.
After a verbal thrashing from the lady we went to work cleaning up, all the while running back and forth to check on my boiling wort and make additions etc.  I broke out the trusty carpet cleaner, set it to suck, and managed to get over 2.5 gallons of water out of the carpet.  We turned the fans on and put towels down.  After a day and a half all the signs of water are gone and I think the carpets are a little cleaner now too 8)
The poor pumpkin ale did not get much attention that night, but I’m only slightly worried about any negative effects from my neglect.  The wonderful thing about homebrewing is that for all of the work we put into perfecting our process it is actually very forgiving in a lot of ways.  I made sure that everything made it into the wort at about the right time and the wort was cooled quickly enough.  My girlfriend monitored me while I adjusted the water level in the cooler and I let the wort cool down to 62 degrees overnight and pitched first thing in the morning.  I’ve been good so far so I haven’t smelled or tasted anything, but I think this brew is going to be a good one.
I guess I’ll have to wait till next year for a pumpkin ale write-up, but hopefully by then it will be an all-grain version!  In the meantime I’ve name my smooth nut brown pumpkin ale the “Drowning Pumpkin”!
Looking back, I’m glad that as always I remembered to RDWHAHB!

Is Homebrewing Beer Cheaper Than Buying It?

Yes, homebrewing beer is almost always cheaper than buying the same thing commercially

Homebrew beer

A major difference between mainstream light beers and more original or local craft beer is the price.  It’s no secret that good beer from good breweries just costs more.  This is largely due to the fact that these breweries use better ingredients, more additions, and brew on a much smaller scale than the major distributors.  You don’t get into homebrewing beer to make a Budweiser, you get into to make a Bell’s, Left Hand, or Dogfish Head kind of beer.

If you look at the average cost of ingredients vs. the average cost of craft beer at the store you’ll normally find that the homebrew is much more cost efficient, but it’s important to keep in mind that these are not the only costs to consider.  When making homebrew the true cost of your 5 gallon batch is broken down into different areas:

  • Ingredients themselves (Grains, malts, hops, yeast, etc)
  • Shipping costs
  • Upfront equipment costs (these will be spread over all of your batches and will eventually cancel out)
  • Water (Don’t forget any filtering systems you have put into place)
  • Time and effort
Let’s take a look at a few commercial examples alongside their closest homebrew counterparts.  For simplicity I will use Austin Homebrew Supply All-Grain kits for the homebrew because they have a large clone recipe section and I will use for the commercial samples.  All prices will be by the bottle and I will assume that your homebrew batch equals exactly two cases (It will probably end up being a few more!)  Also note that All-Grain kits are cheaper than extract, but represent the biggest advantage for homebrewing and is the form in which many brewers ultimately brew.
First, we’ll look at a rather inexpensive beer available in most areas – Fat Tire by New Belgium
Fat Tire Clone from AHS – Price with recommended yeast and nothing else comes to $33.48 at the time of this writing.  Throw in $6.99 for shipping and you have $40.47 as the total “take home” price.  This works out to 84 cents per bottle without including any equipment or miscellaneous costs.
Fat Tire – New Belgium – Price before any discounts is 15.99 per 12pk.  This equals 63.96 for two cases.  Granted, if you could buy a full case somewhere it might be marginally cheaper, but not much.  This works out to $1.33 per bottle.
Next we’ll look at a slightly more expensive beer – Rogue Dead Guy Ale

Rogue Dead Guy Ale Clone from AHS – Price with recommended yeast and nothing else comes to $37.48 at the time of this writing.  Throw in $6.99 for shipping and you have $44.47 as the “take home” price.  This works out to 92 cents per bottle without including any equipment or miscellaneous costs.
Rogue Dead Guy Ale – Price before any discounts is $10.99 per 6-pack.  This equals $87.92 for two cases.   As this price is per 6-pack we could assume the per case price to be moderately lower.  I will give this beer a range of $80-87.92.  This works out to $1.66 to $1.83 per bottle.
For fun, let’s look at what it would cost to produce a common beer such as Budweiser at home

Budweiser type beer at AHS – Price with recommended yeast and nothing else comes to $29.98 at the time of this writing.  Throw in $6.99 for shipping and you have $36.97 as the “take home” price.  This works out to 77 cents per bottle without including any equipment of miscellaneous costs.
Budweiser – Price before any discounts is $22.99 per 30-pack.  This equals $36.78 for two cases.  This works out to 76 cents per bottle without including any shipping.
So as you can see from the above examples in every case it’s at least as cheap and usually much cheaper to homebrew your own clone of a commercial beer than it would be to buy it at the store.  Now, for the Budweiser you really aren’t saving any money and most would argue that the only reason to brew this type of beer at home is to see if you can do it.  Even factoring in the extra costs of homebrewing you are nearly breaking even!

  There are also other ways of saving money:

  • If you starting washing yeasts and harvesting your own then you can save even more money.
  • Buy grain in bulk?  Save even more.
  • Brew bigger batches?  Save even more.
Even if you forget all of the other benefits of homebrewing and look at price alone you’ll see the monetary advantage vs. commercial beers gives you a strong reason to persue the craft.  What are you waiting for?

Successfully Restarted My First Stuck Fermentation!

If you read my recent post you will know that I’ve been battling a stuck fermentation for a couple of weeks.  After a few rounds in the waiting game those wonderful yeasties snapped out of their funk and finished their job!  I was nearly 10 points off my final gravity when I checked it last time and now I’m right on the mark.  A rule to remember when dealing with fermentation in general:

Always check the final gravity before you bottle!  
Hydrometer sample after stuck fermentation

As soon as I saw the thicker yeast cake I almost didn’t even check the OG

Yeast cake after stuck fermentation

This just goes to show that patience is a core virtue in the world of brewing and that sometimes your fermentation won’t just take care of itself.  I’ll be enjoying this oatmeal stout in just a couple of weeks!  The last several batches that I made all hit their gravities with no problems and it got to the point that I almost didn’t even check the gravity on this homebrew.  This is a short path to bottle bombs and potentially bodily injury!  In case you forgot….

Always check the final gravity before you bottle!  

Cleaning a Copper Wort Chiller Used for Homebrew

Today we will learn how to clean that fancy homebrewing wort chiller I talked about in my review.  Sanitation is probably the most important part of beer brewing and your wort chiller is no exception.  This wort chiller is made from copper tubing and as such some traditional cleaning methods cannot be used as they may pit or otherwise mar the surface of the tubing.  Over time copper can get tarnished by dirt and oxidation forming a patina on the exterior of the metal (think old pennies).  I also threw in a picture of my brew kettle as it has also seen better days and this method works on stainless steel as well and this is a great opportunity to clean them up at the same time!

Dirty homebrew wort chiller before cleaning Dirty homebrew boil kettle before cleaning

A little research on the internet will bring you to several household items that work well for cleaning metals.  Most of these “recipes” involve some combination of vinegar, salt, and citrus.

In this post i’ll be using a simple vinegar/salt combo diluted with water.  Most “recipes” call for 1 cup of vinegar to 1 tablespoon salt.

salt and vinegar

I just add these ingredients into my boil kettle and fill with hot water until all of the coils are submerged.

Boiling the homebrew wort chiller

Because the kettle is quite large I will double the recipe to 2 cups and 2 tablespoons to improve the strength.  I told you to use hot water to fill the kettle because we’ll be boiling this liquid to clean the copper and the less wait time the better.

I boiled for about 10 minutes while visually inspecting the copper for improvements.

After it has boiled the dirt loose you can take the wort chiller out of the boil, allow to cool closer to room temperature, and then rinse and spot clean with a washcloth.

As you can see from the before/after pictures even this light tarnish has disappeared leaving a fresh and clean chiller for your next batch of homebrew beer!  You can especially see the difference if you look at the “water line” where the chiller was sitting in the water.  You can also see that after a quick wipe on the right side the kettle came out looking good too!

Clean homebrew wort chillerClean homebrew boil kettle

Take the time to take care of your homebrewing supplies and they will take care of you.  There is nothing worse than spending blood, sweat, and money on a brew only to wait a month and find an infection waiting for you.  Cheers!

Review of Kalamazoo IPA by Austin Homebrew Supply

The homebrew beer up for review today is the Kalamazoo IPA by Austin Homebrew Supply.  In their description they compare it to Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, one of my favorites!  As you can see it has the correct golden hue and looks very nice in the glass.  (It should be noted that this is an extract kit recipe and as such some flaws mentioned in the review could be the fault of the brewer and might not necessarily be indicative of the kit itself.)
Kalamazoo IPA by Austin Homebrew Supply
This is the first IPA I ever brewed and it had a slightly rocky path to the glass you see here.  It was actually brewed at my old house and dry hopped there for too long because with the move I got lazy and didn’t bottle it when I should have.  It made the trek to the new house and became the first one bottled here and because I of that I was able to get good temperatures during bottle conditioning that led me to the discovery that some of my off tastes were being caused by conditioning the bottles too hot.  So basically long story long I’m really glad this beer ended up the way it did!  On to business:
Aroma – If you’ve been around beer long you know exactly how Centennial hops smell.  Wonderful citrus and light floral notes that combine for a deliciously fresh scent on your nose.  These hops are are similar to Cascade which is a west coast favorite for their pales and IPA.
Appearance –  The color is light and clear with no haze at all.  The head pours thin and dissipates quickly and leaves little to no lacing on the glass.
Flavor –  The flavor is balanced with floral coming in through the nose, followed by a mellow malt flavor and ending with a hop rush.  The hop flavor is by no means over the top and I think the recipe only using 1/3 ounce to dry hop coupled with me leaving this beer in the fermenter a little long has weakened the effect slightly.  The flavor remains strong though and I consider the balance to be a nice characteristic of this beer.
Mouthfeel – The mouthfeel is smooth and slightly thin.  Bitterness of the hops produces a slight puckering that ends with a pleasant aftertaste on the palate. 
Overall – This homebrew ranks well for me in the IPA category.  Unfortunately I don’t think the beer I have in my glass could stand up side-by-side to a Bell’s Two Hearted in terms of overall hop intensity and flavor, but honestly the balance keeps me headed to the fridge just as quickly.

How to Bottle Your Homebrew Beer

Once you get your first homebrew into the carboy to ferment your next few days are filled with geeky excitement as you watch the wonder of fermentation through the clear glass or plastic.  Yeast swirls around in violent activity, forms into a cake on top of the ale, and occasionally builds up enough foam or force to blow the airlock off and cause quite a mess as well as a verbal thrashing from your significant other!  After these first days, however, you began to realize that the hardest part of brewing your own beer is the waiting…and waiting….and waiting for the process to finish into a nice clean nectar of the gods.  After a couple of weeks (or longer) your beer will be ready for it’s next bit of excitement:  Bottling!

Once mastered, bottling is a fun and relatively quick part of the homebrewing process.  Some new brewers will be so anxious to jump into kegging that they miss this intimate part of the journey.  There is no feeling in the world like holding a capped bottle of your very own creation that looks just like something the pros down at the real breweries are cranking out (and it really WILL look like it too if you recycle the bottles with the labels still intact).  A few quick tips and instructions below will help you through the process and hopefully minimize any potential problems during bottling.  First things first, you will need all of this equipment to make things as easy as possible.  It’s worth a little time to assemble everything together beforehand so you aren’t frantically searching for a piece of equipment while you work.  If you ferment in a bucket with a spigot then you can go straight to the bottling process.  Otherwise, you should check out my post about How to Siphon Beer into a Bottling Bucket.
Bottling homebrew equipment
  1. Bottles – A five gallon batch typically fills between 46-54 bottles depending on how much beer you leave on the cake and other factors such as blowouts.
  2. Bottle caps – Enough to cover all of your bottles (plus a few extra in case)
  3. Bottle capper – You can spring for the fancy bench capper, but I get along just fine with the standard hand type.
  4. Sanitizer – I use Star-San (Check your dilution as your final product is more sensitive to the amounts used in this stage)
  5. A small container – It is useful to have a small container such as a measuring cup to add sanitizer to and allow your caps to soak until needed.
  6. Bottling bucket with spigot – Make sure the spigot is closed before siphoning the beer over and then open it back up to fill the bottle filler tube once its attached.
  7. Bottle filler tube – This is just a normal plastic tube with a special fitting on the end to allow beer to escape when pressed in by the bottom of the bottle.
Here you can see that I’ve covered the bucket with a sanitized piece of aluminum foil to protect it from airborne bacteria.
bottling bucket and tube

Proceed now to bottling while making sure that all of your bottles are well clean of any debris and also sanitized thoroughly.  If the bottles are not wet from the sanitizer then the sanitizer isn’t doing its job. It’s really helpful to have a partner here and my girlfriend is an excellent helper in exchange for a share of the finished product! Don’t forget to spray the mouth of the bottle!

(If you have a spring-loaded bottling tube as pictured above note that as the beer fills the bottle you’ll want to stop just as the beer reaches the mouth of the bottle.  The tube has been sized such that when you take the tube out the perfect amount of headspace will remain in the bottle.)

Sanitizing the bottles for homebrewSanitizing the bottles for homebrew
Sanitizing the bottles for homebrewSanitizing the bottles for homebrew
Bottling a homebrew beer

Cap your bottles (with sanitized caps…can you tell sanitation is a big deal yet in this post??) and label them with whatever naming scheme works for you.

After just a few short weeks (You’re lucky if you last 1 on your first brew!) you’ll be enjoying your very own bottle conditioned homebrew!