Back in Black

After a 18 month break from brewing, I’ve finally managed to clear some space in my garage and my schedule so that I could brew. So far, I’ve brewed a Dry Stout, Dunkelweizen, Pilsner, Hobgoblin, and Juleale, mostly 10 gal batches apart from the Hobgoblin. The beers have tasted fine, but the brewdays themselves didn’t go down as smoothly: the march MMP-1 pump stopped working after dismantling for cleaning, the hopscreen in the BoilerMaker got clogged, and trying to correct the mash temp seemed like a wild goose chase of countless infusions, and brewing indoors on a 2.2 kW hob is a bad idea since it takes literally 2 hours to bring the strike water up to temperature. But, some useful lessons learnt:

  1. putting in all the bits back into the pump head is a bad idea, especially a little ferrite washer. Leaving it out is the right thing to do and will make the pump work. (Really!)
  2. recirculating the mash is a good thing – it removes a lot of flour and grain particulate that might otherwise clog the filters the wort meets on it’s way out from the boil kettle.
  3. If you’re going to siphon out the wort from a clogged boil kettle, use a siphon with a plug on the bottom, or you’ll just suck up hops and block the siphon. And really don’t try the same thing again with the auto-siphon.
  4. it’s possible, but unpleasant to live without an auto-siphon.

But this is all part of the fun, and long as some enjoyable beer comes out the other end, I’m happy!



Commercial vs Homebrew – Fight!

In March, I took a trip to the UK, and was back again for 3 weeks this month. I had great time with friends and family and took the opportunity to sample beer where I found it.

At the local pub, they had Bass, Buttcombe, and some other one that I didn’t like much. The Bass was Ok, but not as good as I remembered. (They say, “the older you get, the better you were” – maybe the opposite is true for beer?) My wife tasted some, and she said “I think yours is better.” Isn’t that what every homebrewer wants to hear from their significant other?

The Buttcombe was excellent – assertive hop bitterness but not overly so and nicely offset by the fruitiness and maltiness. Ok, I’m no BJCP judge, but I thought it was really good. Strangely though, a pint in a pub-restaurant some 30 miles down the road produced a much less pleasing variation – the the hop bitterness aggressively so, making it more like an IPA to my taste. There may have even been some strong bitterness from the grain, though I don’t recall exactly. I drank both our pints, with a mental note not to have another pint.

When I started homebrewing, the mantra I heard was “brew beer as good or better than commercial beer”. I never really believed it, thinking rather that it was just a way of reeling in prospective homebrewers. Yet, I came back from both visits to the UK with the feeling that my beer was on par with most the commercial offerings I tasted. In fact, with gall, I’d say most pub beer now tastes bland in comparison to what I usually drink.

This might be old hat to seasoned homebrewers, but it was a surprise to me…and also disspointment, as some of my old favorites are not so favoured any more.

First hit of Nitro

I just got a nitrogen tank from Branntekknikk in Skien. They got me a filled pressure tested nitro tank for the same price as my CO2 tank, ca 1350kr. Unlike the CO2 tank, this one was a converted extinguisher.

I understood that beer gas is circa 30/70 percent CO2/N2, but what are these percentages, weight, volume, pressure? I didn’t know, and I had a hard time working out either of them. (PV=nRT….)

I’ve been told that that the mixed gasses behave inconsistently in the canister, so you start out getting more nitrogen, and then torwards the end, you get more CO2. (Anyone have experience of this?) The final blow for getting mixed gas was when I heard they charged quite a bit more for the work of filling the mixed gasses.

I went for straight N2, due to the uncertainties of getting mixed gas. This allows me to mix my gasses myself in the headspace of the keg. (I don’t have a kegerator yet, and just one regulator, so I disconnect the gas once the dispensing pressure has been reached.)

To mix the gasses, I use relative pressure. To serve at 12 psi, with a 25-75 mix CO2/N2, I’d fill first with CO2 to 3 psi, and then fill with nitrogen up to 12 psi. Initial results are pleasing, with reduced bitterness, thicker mouthfeel and a dense head. I need to try with a fresh batch, as these results are inconclusive due to the beer being already carbonated to 1.7 volumes of CO2 before adding the nitrogen, and at the current cellar temperature of 15C, that was 22 PSI.)

I also got a used restrictor faucet and Guinness handle on ebay for $20. It works a treat, but looks out of place, being stuck on the beer QD of the keg, but I don’t mind, it’s what comes out that’s important!

Gas Canisters

I bought a 10kg CO2 canister last year from branntekknikk, in Skien, Telemark. IIRC, It cost 1350,- kr including gas.

I’m now looking a nitrogen tank to hold beer gas, ca. 25-30/70-75 mixture of CO2 and N2.

I enjoy Stout, particularly Guinness, but my own attempts, while enjoyable, just haven’t quite got the silkyness. (Sure you can fake it in an oatmeal sout, but I’m looking for a dry stout.) The CO2 makes the beer too fizzy with a detectable bite, even if cabornating to low volumes, such as 1.7. Also, using the typical recipe of 65% malted barley, 20% raw barley and 15% roasted or (7/2/1), the beer can come out too bitter. Serving on nitrogen can help with both of these problems.

I haven’t found a reasonably priced tank yet, so was thinking about buying from the UK when I’m there next. I know that the US have gass different fittings, so I wondered about the UK. And, anyway, what is the fitting used in Norway for Nitrogen and CO2?

It seems that norway and many places in europe follow the DIN 477 standard for gas canisters. Different gases have different connectors, to avoid incorrectly using the wrong regulator. In summary,

  • CO2 (and methane, amonia, oxygen) use a W21.80 x 1/14″.
  • Nitrogen (and helium and argon) use W24.30 x 1/14″.

The ‘W’ stands for Whitworth thread (Wikipedia).

The full list is here. Interesting that nitrogen is in the same group as argon and helium, so getting second-hand welding or baloon-filling equipment or is also an option.

For nitrogen, In the US, they use use CGA-580, W24.5×1/14″. UK and Austrailia use use G5/8 – ISO 228.

I found this out from looking at various technical specs for regulators, here, and here.

The nitrogen tank is rated a much higher pressure – up to 200bar (3000PSI). If I can’t find one reasonbly priced, I can instead use a CO2 container, but it will not be filled to the same pressure and so will be used up quicker. (But will it be used up quicker than just pure CO2? I guess not if it’s at the same pressure?)

Gooseneck Siphon

/My first two brews were straight from the tin along with a packet of brew enhancer. I wanted to start brewing with my own choice of ingredients, including hops. A full wort boil is recommended to get a higher hop utilization, and the 6l pot that I was using just couldn’t cut it.

I got a 24l pot from Brouwland. This is really meant for canning, but it can be used as a brew pot and is a good price. As long as the enamel is intact there will be no chance of the metal reacting with the wort and affecting the taste of the beer. Note that the product page says the pot is 29l. I’ve filled it up from my 23l carboy and that comes to a centimeter or two under the rim, so I think 24-25l is a better guess. (The lid is quite deep, some 5-6 cm, so maybe the 29l is including the lid?)

The pot doesn’t have a tap, so I had to figure out how to siphon the wort from the pot into the plate chiller. I could of course have just tried dangling the silicone hose into the pot, but that seemed to be asking for trouble (brewer’s law states that untethered siphon hoses are guaranteed to jump out and spray their contents at you at the least welcome moment. Hot, near-boiling wort, ouch, no thanks.)

Fortunately, Bodensatz Brewing describe how to make a cunningly-named gooseneck siphon that would seem to do the trick. I liked this because:

  1. It solves my problem, nicely. The pot lid has a small hole/steam-vent in it, big enough for the siphon to stick out of, which has worked well.
  2. It’s inexpensive and straightforward to make.
  3. I get the “I made that!” feeling when it’s finished.

I did some calculations, figured out how long the pipe should be, I went to my local plumbers and bought a length of soft copper tubing, 1.25m for about 125 NOK ($20.) They didn’t have the spring to help avoid kinking the tube when bending, so I just had to take it slowly and carefully, and bend by hand.

Bending the main circle that sits at the bottom of the pot was fairly straightforward, with a few rounds of placing in the pot and tweaking needed to get it the right diameter and level. Bending the straight vertical up the side of the pot was harder, and the “head” at the top was hardest. In fact, I didn’t bother with the final kink, it was too difficult to do by hand and the pipe wasn’t long enough for that (I’d made it to size to the pot, not including the lid. Using the lid was an afterthought) – so mine just sticks up, with a slight angle to take it out of the scorching jet of steam that comes out of the lid hole. It clears the top of the lid by about 4 cm, which is long enough to push on the silicon hose.

Call me lazy, but I don’t see the point of walking around the grass when you can walk straight across, so unless there is some clear advice saying something along the lines of “Keep off the grass” or “You must follow all the instructions or risk complete failure, injury or death” then I will cut a few corners and see how little I can get away with doing, in the name of saving a few minutes now to look forward to the humiliation of spending hours later going back and fixing it properly.

So, with my “I know what I’m doing” hat firmly in place, I decided not to make the holes in the gooseneck, but instead fashion a sieve by fixing a fine mesh hop bag to the end of the copper tube using an elastic band. While siphoning started out well, and cool wort was coming out of the chiller, this turned out to be a bad idea the very moment the hop bag was sucked into the tube, blocking the tube and completely stemming the flow of wort into the chiller. Any attempt to pull out the bag just resulted in the siphon sucking harder. Brewers panic set in. Time was running out – deadly bacteria were surely drifting down in to my precious wort, and my hands were starting to be scalded in the hot wort as I desperately tried to evict the lodged hop back from its new home. And that was despite having cast aside my precious little remaining credibility and donned a pair of rubbermaids – ok they’re not that bad, but I’m trying to keep up the intensity!

I stopped, thought a bit, and Doh! To get the rest of the siphon going I had to simply unscrew the hose from the chiller. releasing the partial vacuum, and then defiantly pull the hop bag out of the end of the tube. The hop bag was then repositioned very tightly over the end of the tube and siphoning continued to completion.

With all that faffing about, blowing into the siphon (I first thought it was just blocked hops) and plunging unsanitised rubber gloves into the wort, I was certain I had infected my beer. Yet the beer came out none the worse. I guess near-boiling hot wort can hold it’s own against one or two nasties that come late to the party.

But that was something I would not know until much later, so I was spurred on in the days that followed to do the work needed to complete the gooseneck siphon and avoid a repetition of this brewing bungle.

To complete the siphon I just had to drill many small holes around the base. Well, that shouldn’t be too difficult? I was wrong again. With no clamp holding the tubing or some kind of mount for the drill, this was as good as impossible – the bit on the hand-held electric drill just kept sliding off the round tubing. So, instead of drilling, I resorted instead to punching in the holes with a nail and hammer. The tube was soft copper, and it is soft enough to easily drive a nail through. This worked a treat, and gives surprising control over the size of the hole, due to the tapered end of the nail.

With the holes done, I crimped the end closed with pliers and tested it with water. A few more blows with the hammer to open some very small holes (ok, they were just dents) and the siphon was in business.

During the following brew, the siphon worked a treat, at least for the first 30 seconds. I’ve remembered without fail to bag up my hops and use hop bags ever since.

Mexican Beer, Eventually

In August 2007, I bought a beer kit for “Mexican Lager” from the closest thing I have to a LHBS. I wanted to see what would happen if I took a can and made it up as is, with no extra grain, hops and scant love and attention.

The kit comprised 1.8kg of extract, sachet of unbranded yeast, and a sachet of beer enzyme. Being only a pseudo lager, it was fermented at ale temperatures. I was skeptical about getting anything lager-like at the end.

The extract that was easily poured from the can tasted sweet. I ran my finger down the inside of the can to see if I’d got out all the extract – I hadn’t – and the extract living on the edge had an unbelievably overpowering taste of soap. John Palmer writes this is due to oxidisation

Beer brewed with extract syrup more than a year old will often have a blunt, stale, even soapy flavor to it. This is caused by the oxidation of the fatty acid compounds in the malt.  How to Brew, Ch. 3.

After cringing, wincing and drinking several pints good beer to tone down the effect to less than traumatic, I continued making up the kit.  I boiled up the extract in 3.5l of water for 15 mins and added some Irish moss for the last 10 mins. (Irish moss, damn, I knew I couldn’t stick to just using the kit and following kit instructions.)

Five mins to flamout, I added 150g DME, and 600g of table sugar, fully aware that this is considered by many to produce a cidery taste. This beer was an experiment, and a chance to see how bad things could be. The beer was then chilled in the kitchen sink filled with cold water, dumped in the fermenter, topped up to 23l with cold water from the tap (no boiling etc.) and the yeast and beer enzyme added. SG 1,033.

I was surprised the colour was very pale, especially for an extract brew (I’d guess 8 EBC) and the mouthfeel really thin.

When the beer was ready to bottle, I added some Klarvit clarifier, shook the bucket vigorously for 20s and let it stand for 48h. As I’d not used clarifing agents before, I wanted to see the effect on the beer, and in particular, to find out if there is enough yeast left afterwards to carbonate the beer after priming.

After 48h, I racked off the beer into my bottling bucket contaning 160g of dextrose, boiled in a little water. After racking there was a large gelatinous solid cake at the bottom. I was impressed! All that from just 5ml of clarifier. FG: 1.004 – beer enzymes.

The bottled beer was slighly cloudly, but this cleared up magnificently after a week. Though the beer was not carbonated enough and required a full two weeks before it was adequately carbonated. So it seems there was considerably less yeast than normal, although still enough to get the job done if you’re not in a hurry.

But was the beer any good? Here’s what I thought:

30/08/07 – bottled 23l with 160g corn sugar. Tastes very weak, like watered down beer. Though no unpleasantness, slight bitterness in aftertaste.

31/08/07 – tried a bottle. Not very clear, and quite fruity notes, and something musky/sulphur. Maybe it was the clarifying agents?

03/09/07 –more carbonated and much clearer, though needs more carbonation. Very thin body, and slightly tart. Tastes more like regular light beer, with less musky flavour than before. Poured a 3 finger head which dissipated in a few minutes. Liquorice? Bitter aftertaste that lingers for at least half an hour.

14/09/07 – Aroma: slightly malty, some sulphur. Appearance: clear, watery, medium golden colour. Generous head lasts a few minutes. Flavour: starts sweet, finishes medium-dry with bitter aftertaste. Mouthfeel: light bodied, crisp, assertive carbonation.

Well, the last entry understates the aftertaste. It was dreadful, and lingered for ages. This beer was dubbed “the dirty mexican” and became the booby prize in various games. I couldn’t give it away.

I tasted the occasional bottle in the weeks and months that followed. The aftertaste was still there, altough began to diminish over time. Then after 4 months, the page turned. Well, it was still just OK beer, but now it was at least drinkable. Only a hint of that aftertaste, which blended in with the unreal artificial lime flavouring that tastes like liquorice and smells like gin. But the beer was really clear. I could watch tv through the bottle.

So, a pseudo lager can be brewed, but at least with the can I used, it takes at least as long as doing it the proper way!

An afterthought: It did taste like lager, with fruitiness lessening over time, so I wonder if the unbranded yeast was a dried lager strain?

Magnetic Stirrer

This paper says that magnetic stirrers can give rise to 10-15 times more yeast compared with not stirring. So, I of course wanted one, given that I’ve got a fridge full of smack packs and vials and the glycerin for freezing yeast is on it’s way from

Magnetic stirrers are often available on ebay, particularly in the states, but I then remembered the different voltage requirements and it all seemed a bit too much hassle and cost. The BrewWiki StirPlate page has many links to instructions for building a stirrer, which clearly describs how it is built.After reading, I figured it didn’t seem that hard and decide to give it a go.

I had a cheap 25w soldering iron, a 12 volt PC fan, an old hard drive and a small green lunchbox, but not much else. I bought resistors, breadboard, cables and other electric components from Futurlec. Component prices were lower than anything else I could find in Europe, and shipping to Norway was very reasonable ($5), although it did take several weeks for the order to arrive. It worked out most economical to place two orders, each under $30. The biggest saving was that the order was tax free when imported, as each order was for less than 200 NOK ($30). In fact, in addition to tax at 25% the post office also adds 85kr (ca. $15) for the privillege of charging you the VAT, so paying tax on small orders can make the order very expensive. The components needed for the stirrer could easily have been sent as one package, but I bought some project boxes, prototype board and components needed to build a temperature controller.

The key components in my stirrer are:

Stirrer action

  • A 12v PC fan
  • A beatiful flourescent green lunchbox
  • 1k potentiometer – 1K was the lowest resistance available, so I bought a dual pot in case I needed to halv the resistance by connecting the two sides together.
  • Knob for potentiometer.
  • DC Connector, so the stirrer can be pluged directly into a battery saver.
  • I also needed some lead-free solder and a helping hand.

As most of the articles suggest, I used magnets from an old hard drive. It was difficult to get the magnets off the backing plates, as the magnets break easily if too much force is used. When mounting the magnets on the fan, I had to also use the backing plate or else the magnetic field would stop the fan from spinning freely. (If I had realized this to begin with, I probably wouldn’t have tried getting them off the backing plate first.)

To balance the backing plates and magnets on the fan, I cut out a cardboard disc slightly smaller than the fan and used sticky tape to fix it all together. The tape was secure enough to hold the magnet and backing plates, but flexible enough that I could reposition it to find the balance point.

Some articles recommend balancing the magnets on a pencil to find the center of gravity, but that didn’t work – the magnets and plates were heavy so that even the slightest movement caused it to fall off.Instead I just connected the fan to the power and listened to how much vibration there was. When the assembly close to center and there was no audible vibration, I picked up the fan and held it in my hand to feel how much vibration there was. After a few minutes adjusting, the fan was pretty much center, and it spins silently at the speeds I will be using.

The fan is about 1cm narrower than the bredth of the lunchbox, so it’s wedged in firmly with some folded thin cardboard. This was quick and simple, and acts as a shock absorber for any vibration that might occur. A hole for the DC connector and pot, a few solder joints and we were ready to roll.

I had 3 magnetic PTFE stirbars in different sizes from The medium (7mm) and the large (11mm) work best.

When there is airlock activity, there is a clear correlation between the speed and the frequency of bubbles in the airlock. A quick spin, lots of bubbles – a slow spin, fewer bubbles. Well that was my amusement for the weekend. I wonder if the yeast really are metabolizing faster or if it’s just more CO2 being released from the solution due to the stirring.

I’ve made a couple of lagers which got off to a good start, so it seems 1L is fine for medium gravity beers, but I for the higher gravity beers a 2L starter will be needed, and also for larger batches when I scale up later this year. I will buy some larger Erlenmeyer flasks from