Category Archives: obsession

Beer Ahoy

The Further Adventures of Attention-Surplus-Disorder Man

If you read my blog for a while you’ll come to understand that I have a pretty serious problem getting fixated on projects, whether it’s brewing, winemaking, cheese, marksmanship, motorcycles, gardening, powerlifting, whatever. It’s gotten particularly bad in recent years with brewing beer: when I find out about a new style or a beer I’ve never heard of, I have to research it and make it until I feel like I have a grasp of it.

With that in mind, I was watching a travel show and the host hit a cafe in Northern Vietnam and sat around drinking something called Bia hơi. At first blush, it looks like a light industrial lager, common in hot countries. But then they poured it over ice and my ears perked up.

Icy cold! Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Street scene. I’m sweaty just looking at it.

It turns out this stuff is a sort of jackleg homebrew, brewed quickly and matured almost not at all, and delivered daily to bars and street-corner dispensing spots in jerry cans and kegs. Production is described as ‘informal’, with no government oversight or monitoring, and it’s meant to be drank absolutely ice cold, or even over ice, and the alcohol content is 3% ABV or less.

All of this makes perfect sense in Vietnam, which is not only incredibly hot but also terribly humid. You could drink rather a lot of beer like this and stay hydrated and refreshed without actually getting blotto, with the added bonus that it sells for something like 15 cents a glass.

After a bit of research on the interwebs, I asked around for people who’d actually been to Vietnam and tasted the beer. I lucked out in that a friend of mine who is a very discerning BJCP judge had been there a few years ago, and he was willing to share his opinion.

“Undrinkable swill full of acetaldehyde, sourness and mostly off-flavours. You’re an idiot if you want to make that.”

I get it: when you’re charging less than a buck a gallon for your beer, Quality Control is way down the list and you can’t throw a batch away just because it’s off–look, there’s a surly tourist, he’ll drink anything, get the bucket! It’s inevitable that the quality would be variable. I wanted to make my own, and I was pretty sure I could do a little better. It would have to be more expensive than fifteen cents a glass, but honestly, not that much more.

I flat-out pulled a recipe out of my butt. I chose to emulate a rice-adjunct lager with a starting gravity below 1.030 and hops around 15 IBU. I immediately ran into an issue: in order to get a moderate hop character I was going to have to either alter my regular brewing style (more on that below) or substantially decrease the amount of hops in the recipe: hop utilisation is affected by the density of the wort (yes, it’s lots more complicated, please don’t write me screeds about it) and a really low gravity beer like this is hard to make without over-bittering for style.

Another issue I contemplated was volume: if this stuff was good, and as low in alcohol as I was planning, I was probably going to enjoy more than one glass a night–it might replace most of my water intake. Making a single 19-litre keg would have me out of beer in ten days at most, and if it was really good, I would then become despondent until my next batch was ready. It’s summer here at Chaos manor, and it’s pretty warm for Canada.

It’s Canada: where’s the snow?

The answer to both quandries lay in the techniques of industrial brewing: high gravity. The beer we mostly see advertised on television is Industrial Lager. Megabreweries make a batch of beer at very high gravities (usually over 1.070 to start), finish fermenting, and then add water to hit their target alcohol content. It’s actually a very intelligent use of resources: you can ferment twice as much beer with the same amount of tanks. This sort of efficiency makes accountants very happy, and it’s not that far off of the parti-gyle brewing systems of olden times. My plan was to brew a 30 litre batch of beer at high gravity and water it back to two batches of 19 litres, then ferment each separately with a different yeast. Not only could I brew a lot of beer quickly, I could use the higher gravity wort to moderate hop utilisation. Or so was my plan . . . I whipped out Beersmith and loaded my Grainfather profile.

Pretty spritely for a Grainfather

If you’ve never used one, it’s an all-in-one mash/lauter/boil unit with a recirculating pump. I’ve had literally every system there is and I like this one because I can brew from home, in my kitchen, while I work at other things. It’s Bluetooth controlled, programmable for step mashes and has timers and such. It’s really pretty amazing.

Sadly, for what I wanted to do the Beersmith profile was a bit crap, so I back-of-the-enveloped it. I figured in Imperial units eight pounds of Pilsner malt, one pound of 10L Crystal malt, two pounds of rice, and two ounces of first wort hops and two ounces for a 20-minute whirlpool, to make around 5.5 gallons of finished wort to be watered back into two four-gallon batches to fill two kegs. If I wasn’t too screwy and my efficiency was low but okay, I should get an OG of 1.025-ish at pitching and get 22.-2.5% ABV and 15-ish IBU’s.

But there were a lot of departures in my plan. Most recipes would use flaked rice, but I wanted to do a cereal mash. That is, I wanted to take plain white rice and cook it to mush, and add that to my grain mash. Why? That’s the way the macro brewers do it, and I had planned on doing a three-step mash for maximum fermentability: 122 F then to 134 F and then to 149, using the boiling rice mush to drive temp to final mash.

You can see, I don’t like the easy way.

Onward to brew day. First step was to cook the rice. I got up early and put the rice on in a huge pot with three gallons of water on low.

Looks like congee, but not as tasty

You have to be really careful wih this step: it’s very easy to scorch starch as it breaks down to moosh. Even the faintest hint of burnt character will completely ruin the beer, so you need way more water than you think you do, and you need to keep it low and slow, and stir frequently, and it’s going to take much, much longer than you think. I started the rice at 8 am and it was just ready for the pot by noon.

As it cooked I milled my grains.

It’s no monster, it’s just misunderstood

I have a three-roller Monster Mill and I can’t recommend it enough. Mine is set to 40 thousandths and it’s perfect as can be.

Perfect and utterly consistent. A good crusher makes a huge difference.

Next step was to set up my Grainfather. With my system, as with everything I do, I did not leave it unmodified. My first step was to throw away the trub/hop filter: it’s useless. In its place I put a Titan false bottom.

Mirror stainless, right angle bend, great engineering.

Nifty fit, too. This picture from a previous batch, thus all the hops and trub.

Not only does this catch goo better than the GF screen, it also has almost no dead space underneath–less than two cups of liquid escapes the pickup on the bottom. The build-up of hops makes the screen tighter and more efficient and the wort coming out is super-clear.

But you can’t use the grain basket from the GF with the false bottom in place unless you use some serious spacers. But, I had a different mod: a bag.

Spring clips work great to hold the bag in place

Yes, my Grainfather is now a Brew In A Bag False Bottom HERMS unit, running off of an Android phone over Bluetooth. 14-year-old me, with an old canning pot and a clapped-out electric stove would be awestruck and envious. (He’d also look at the size of me and ask, “Dude, just how much beer do you drink?”)

To make a long story short, I did my usual short and shoddy brewing methods: I doughed in at 122F, immediately ramped to 134 for twenty minutes, and then added my boiling rice goo to drive everything to 149. I mashed for 30 minutes–I usually do 20 because efficiency is for drones from Sector 7G, but I wanted to clear all of the rice starch. An Iodine test at 20 minutes was clear, so the extra ten was for luck, mostly. I did a bag sparge in another bucket with around 15 litres of water at 170F and topped the GF up and tossed in my first charge of hops as it heated to the boil.

Shot before I topped up with bag sparge

After 20 minutes of vigorous boiling I shut off the, popped on the lid, threw on the heat exchanger and started cooling the wort, recirculating it back into the Grainfather.

Counterflow chiller setup. Works very well, kind of surprisingly so.

When it got below 180F I tossed in the rest of the hops, shut off water to the chiller and left it to recirculate for 20 minutes. Then It was time to run it off to the primaries.

My groundwater is very cold, even in summer.

I took a gravity reading of the wort straight from the chiller.

Temperature corrected to 1.050

I split it into two fermenters, yielding a little under three gallons each, and then topped up with treated water to 5.5 gallons. I treat it by adding metabisulphite powder to plain old tapwater, to bind out any chlorine that my municipality may have added. I have brilliant water–some of the best in the world, and it doesn’t need another thing. After it was topped up I noticed how much protein break I got. Good stuff!

Lookit that break!

When it was divvied up I took it to my fermentation chamber, aka the second bathroom. I forgot to take a picture of the SG reading of the watered back batches, but it was 1.028

It’s a shower stall, very convenient for blow-offs and cleaning.

One of the beers I hit with US-05, and the other I chilled with my groundwater again, by virtue of letting the shower hose dribble into a bucket containing the fermenter run very slowly, getting it down to 62 F overnight, after which I pitched it with Safeale S-189.

Fermentation was vigorous in both, and completed after ten days.

And that’s final.

I let the beers settle and racked them to kegs. I stoppped to take an SG reading and it was corrected to 1.004 This makes a start-finish difference of 18 points. Multiply that by the ABV conversion number and you get 2.36, just under 2.5% ABV, good enough for my purposes.

After they had both chilled to 38F I burst carbonated them and let them carb under pressure for a few days, then tasted them, and shared with some friends. How was it?

Poor man, that beer must be terrible. After two weeks the beer dropped star-bright, looking like it had been filtered.

The lager version is better than the US05, but only subtly so: both beers are incredibly light, have just enough hops to balance the grain character and the crystal malt fights the carbonic acid with great precision.

I drank most of a keg in two weeks, pretty much a record for me. It’s like fabulous Gatorade, refreshing and deliciously beery, and yet the alcohol is so low I can have a pint with my lunch and continue working.

I’ve always disdained macrobrew lagers. They have all kinds of off flavours and aromas and don’t satisfy me in any way. This is different: it’s beer-flavoured beer, and hits the spot without overwhelming. I dare say it’d be easy to screw up, because the style is so light that it would show flaws instantly. But when it works, it’s really great beer. And that is the beauty of homebrewing: I can do whatever I want

Next up, I’m going to make a Belgian Kinderbier, a dark ale at 2% ABV that should have enough roast and caramel to make it richer and more interesting, while still being suitable for lunching.

Hey, if you’re in Vanbrewers and were at the June meeting you may have tried an early version of this recipe without the 10L crystal and with different yeast. That stuff was okay, but this is the bomb, I swear. There won’t be any of this to share at future meetings though, until I work out a brewing schedule that can compensate for me drinking a whole keg every two weeks. 

Grinding Away

cup-of-coffee

As Agent Cooper always said, “Damn fine coffee.”

I don’t always drink wine. Or even beer. I don’t even drink whisky every day, come to think of it. I don’t like soda pop for the most part, and I drink about two quarts of milk per calendar year. There are only two beverages I consume on a daily basis: water, of course, since I am a squishy bag of mostly water by design, and coffee, because it is delicious brain juice that lets me function in society.

punks

Nobody looks cool . . . oh, all right, they look ridiculously cool. Don’t smoke kids, it’s bad.

I started drinking coffee quite young. In retrospect, being in the single digit range for birthdays was probably a little on the youthful side for drinking caffeinated beverages, but if you believe the Coffee Achievers, it was probably the making of me, and there are worse habits.

My taste in coffee has evolved over the years, as has the way I consume it. As a kid I liked it with lots and lots of milk and sugar. I lost my taste for sweets after a while, quit bothering with milk, and started drinking hot, black coffee by the gallon. Keep in mind I was raised by simple prairie folks, and the coffee wasn’t premium or sophisticated. It was pre-ground, canned coffee that was on sale, and made in an automatic drip machine manufactured by a company more known for electric drills and sanders than for food equipment.

Braun_Coffee_Maker

It’s nice to know they never change.

A friend of mine once described this beverage as ‘Lutheran Coffee’, after the kind of brew you find in one of those giant percolators in a church basement. I liken it to hot brown coffee-water. After I left home I started buying beans and getting them ground at the store. Then I bought my own grinder, and one of the most perfect coffee making machines ever invented: the Melitta Cone Drip. That worked for years, until I got a bug in my ear about espresso. Then I had several set-ups, refining how I like my coffee with automated espresso makers, stove top units, et cetera.

green-beans

Seriously, they look like pebbles that aren’t even trying very hard.

I keep experimenting with coffee making, but the final frontier for me has been to seize control over roasting my own beans. Coffee is the seed of a cherry-like fruit, and after gathering and processing, it looks like a little green rock with a cleft in it, and it doesn’t taste of anything special. It’s not until you roast it to a rich, chocolatey brown that it releases that heavenly aroma and beguiling flavour.

beans

Oh baby, you look so good in black.

By this time you should be getting the idea that I never leave well enough alone, and everything in my life is in imminent danger of becoming an obsession. I did some research, fiddled around a bit with primitive methods, including roasting beans over a wood fire in an iron pan like the Ottomans did, but a conversation with a professional coffee roaster made me realise that there was something to having the right piece of equipment for the job: heat ramp-up especially was a thing. There’s a long explanation, but if you heat the beans up too slowly they dry out and lose some of their nuance. Heat ’em up too fast and they just char instead of roasting nicely. A good roasting machine can take that into account. A good machine like the Behmor 1600.

41402-after-dark-behmor-1600-plus-coffee-roasting-starter-kit-1000

The Behmor. The one I got came with a bunch of extras: a nice glass mug, a pound of coffee and a really good scale.

The unit is a masterful design. You can check out the manual here, which is an excellent segue: always read the instructions. With some things, like an ice-cube tray, the stakes are low. If you do it wrong, worst-case, you don’t get ice cubes. Because this machine is using high heat to dry out and subsequently roast cellulosic vegetable matter saturated with oil (coffee), if you overdo it, it can catch fire. Which is bad.

If you’re going to get a roaster, read and pay close attention to those instructions. They’ll make sure you stay safe and that you get a decent cup of coffee from the first try. After that, you can start fiddling around with the time, ramp-ups, drum speed and all that jazz. But start with the basics. To show you those basics, have a look at this overview of roasting basics that I put together in my kitchen.

The manual may be a little intimidating at first, but as you can see, it isn’t rocket surgery: Follow the instructions, don’t leave the Roaster unattended while it’s on, and learn to recognise the difference between first and second crack and you’re in.

A fascinating combination of high tech and established tech.

A fascinating combination of high tech and established tech.

If you’re curious about the coffee making rig shown at the end of the video, it’s an Aeropress, and it’s what I use to make an excellent–just about the best, really–cup of hot coffee I’ve ever had.

But what if you want a bigger thrill? What if you want the ultimate in coffee deliciousness? What if you want . . . this

Cold-brewed coffee is the hottest-cold thing to show up in coffee use in the last ten years. You get flavour extraction by trading the heat of the water for time. Rather than a three or four minute steep with water around 200F (your mileage may vary) you use tepid water and soak overnight, or for 24 hours. This slow, gentle extraction leaves behind a lot of the harsh tannins, while teasing out the smooth, rich flavours that make coffee so wonderfully good.

And Nitrogen dispense is what has made Guinness Stout so popular. Forcing your cold-brewed coffee through a Stout Faucet with medium-pressure nitrogen gives it that creamy, foamy ‘cascade’ of flavour goodness. Honestly, it makes coffee wickedly drinkable, to the point where I have to monitor my intake or I’ll wind up dancing around like wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man.

NITRO! KABLOOEY!

5 pound nitrogen tank, high-pressure regulator, stout faucet and connectors. Not show, 19 litre Cornelius keg and dedicated keg fridge.

Previously, if you wanted to do nitrogen dispensing at home, you needed a full-on setup, with a keg refrigerator (standard homebrew kegs are not fridge-friendly: they crowd out the pot roast), a nitrogen tank, special regulator, and a bunch of other bits and bobs. Not a stretch if your life includes that kind of thing as a hobby, but a bit of a stretch for your average coffee fan.

jacked-up

Everything you need to Jack Up your coffee.

Enter the Jacked-Up™ Nitro Fully-Loaded Cold Brew Starter Kit. It includes everything you need for cold-brewed, insanely delicious cold-brewed-nitro-coffee at home. Two things make it ideal for home use. First, the keg itself. Have a look at mine.

nitro-cannonball

Coffee roaster, check. Coffee grinder, check. Jacked Up Nitro system, check. Gallon of pea-pod beer . . . what?

Pop the tap and the regulator off of it and the whole keg fits onto a shelf in a standard fridge, ready to dispense your coffee at any time. (Don’t tell anyone I told you, but it’ll also dispense Wine like a champ).

jacked-up-nitro-keg-regulator-white

I love good engineering. That regulator is built like a tank.

Second, check out that regulator, with the attached nitrogen cylinder. You don’t need to buy the full-meal-deal nitrogen tank, regulator et cetera, you just screw in a cylinder of nitrogen gas, pop it on the keg and dial up your pour. You can even take the Cannonball keg with you to parties or the back yard, or wherever. This is a brilliant enabler of coffee usage.

Check out how I do it.

I’ve nearly got the whole coffee thing handled. Five, six more years at most and I’ll have my system perfected.

Now, I wonder how you roast your own tea?