I had frequently wondered about my fermenting yeast starter I had gurgling away in a clear growler. I thought, “A starter is nothing more than a jug of fermenting beer. Since I know I don’t want to buy beer from a clear bottle because of the ability for light wavelengths to get in there and wreak havoc with the beer, I should also be concerned about my starter.” I researched it a bit on the internet in various forums but found either inconclusive statements, or no one that really thought/cared about it.
So as I made them and let them sit on a high shelf to be in the warm part of the room, I was always a bit worried about how bright the room was. Finally, I had a genius idea- “Why grab the clear growler for my starter when I have a perfectly good and light-impenetrable brown glass growler sitting right next to it?” With this eureka moment I decided this was so obvious I didn’t know why I didn’t think of it before. So I made a yeast starter in my brown jug.
Moments afterwards, I realized the problem. The dark brown glass was so good at keeping light out that I also couldn’t really see in. So as I pitched the yeast and did my frequent vigorous shakes to aerate, I couldn’t see what was going on in the jug. I couldn’t tell if I had any kind of krausen forming, or if I was totally devoid of life. I wouldn’t know if I had a yeast factory going until the day I dumped it in my beer, so I was suddenly feeling not so bright.
Then, since I’m paranoid of extract flavors sneaking into my beer, I always chill my yeast starter in the fridge for a few days to get the yeast to collect at the bottom and then decant off the extract beer water. This is another time when you want to see what’s inside in your growler. The last thing you want to do after nurturing your little crop of yeast over the last few days is to pour some of it down the drain on brew day.
So don’t do it. Do your yeast starter in a clear or see-through container. If you’re worried about the light getting to it (which I never really could find if this was something to be worried about or not), but it in a box or wrap it with a towel or something.
I used to relish opening my beer fridge a couple days before brew day and smelling that sweet aroma of fresh hops waft out as my packages of hops sat chilling in the fridge. But after doing some brief research into hop storage, I found that wasn’t a good thing. Here’s why.
To keep hops from degrading you need to keep them away from oxygen. You can also slow the degradation rate the colder you store them. For every 27 degree drop in storage temperature, you cut the degradation rate in half. Because of this, hop producers recommend you store your hops in the refrigerator or freezer.
Aside from the storage temperature, keeping oxygen out of the packaging is even more effective. If you can smell the hops when you open your fridge, that means the packaging is not airtight. And if you can smell hop aromas coming out, you know that oxygen is getting into the packaging.
The typical Local Home Brew Shop (LHBS) takes bulk pellet hop packages and breaks them down into 1 oz. plastic pouches, “seals” them and labels them to sell. However, Hopunion is one hop supplier that provides a superior package before it even gets to your LHBS. They package in a light-proof, oxygen-barrier bag, and also evacuate the air and fill the bags with nitrogen before sealing. So not only do you get a good barrier to prevent new oxygen from coming in, they make sure you don’t start out with any oxygen.
Of course the downside is you don’t get that fresh aroma when you open your fridge, but you can always use your partially-used hops for that purpose like a sort of homebrewer’s potpourri!
There are a lot of things to do before your brew day to ensure you’re prepared and not scrambling around at the last minute. One of those things is to check the Alpha Acid (AA) % of your hops you’ll be using for bittering.
Most brewers are familiar with the equations, or at least the concept thereof, for how to calculate a beer’s IBU based on the AA of the hops you use and when you add them. As you geek out more into this topic and research it, you can quickly find your eyes glazing over as people are babbling on about chemistry reactions and throwing around terms you’re pretty sure they don’t even know what they mean.
From the higher technical analysis of those more chemistry-smart than I, here’s the takeaway that seems to be of practical use. When trying to substitute hops in a recipe, you should get particular about matching the IBU contribution from your bittering hop additions, and for the flavor & aroma additions, try to match the amount/weight.
Since hops have a range of typical AA% from batch to batch, you should always check the AA% of the hop you bought from the Local Home Brew Shop (LHBS) and tweak your recipe with your brewing software to get the proper amount of hops to add to get the IBU contribution your recipe is aiming for.
And more importantly, it’s a good idea to do this a couple days before brew day. When you find your bittering hop addition that was planned to be 0.7 oz. of 4% AA Hersbrucker, now needs to bump up to 1.4 oz. since the Hersbrucker hops are running at 2% AA from the LHBS, you’re stuck. Your little 1 oz. packet of hops that previously was going to have some leftovers, now is short and you need to get another one. Discover that on brew day and you’ll have no option but to short-change your recipe on the fly and see how it turns out. Sometimes this creates something unexpectedly good. Other times it results in exactly what you would expect, which is not what you were aiming for when you planned the recipe.
My first attempt at a yeast starter was a failure. I didn’t know why at the time, but it was obvious the flat, non-bubbling mixture wasn’t any kind of “starter”- it was completely dead. I made it in an empty, cleaned 2L pop bottle so I could see through the bottle pretty easily. I followed the directions for size, amount of malt extract, etc. I was even frequently shaking it up in order to aerate.
The problem was I was suffocating it. I kept the lid closed tightly, thinking it needed to act as my sort of airlock barrier to keep all the gremlins out that they make you fear as they drill into your head about sanitizing while homebrewing.
However, by keeping the lid on tight, there were 2 problems. First was any CO2 created by the fermentation had nowhere to go. So it would just build up gas inside the bottle and build pressure. Eventually this would stifle out the fermentation reaction.
The second problem was I wasn’t introducing any new oxygen to the hungry yeast process. As I later learned, in the case of the yeast starter, an airlock doesn’t work. It solves problem #1 (pressurization and CO2 build-up), but doesn’t allow any extra oxygen supply to help keep the yeast propagation going.
So I learned the following routine with the lid was the best approach: 1) Keep the lid loose while the bottle/jug is sitting in a warm spot and fermenting, 2) Tighten the lid only when shaking it to aerate the wort (with the oxygen you’ve let in with the loose lid while it was sitting on a shelf. After following this process, I’ve had good luck with my starters fermenting and multiplying yeast.
There are 2 kinds of homebrew competitions- one that has judges rate beers against the specific style guidelines, and the other where it’s a people’s choice, or popularity vote. I entered one that was judged by a group of other homebrewers. Standing by my table serving my Blonde Ale, I overheard a lot of comments by people holding their voting cards. I witnessed a lot of people looking at my little sign saying “Blonde Ale” and walking on by without tasting it. But the guy next to me with the Belgian Sour blah-blah-blah or the Dunkelweiss Dark Peanut Butter Coconut Ale, saw a lot more tasters.
Don’t get me wrong and think that I didn’t have fun talking to the brewers and figuring out how they made a great peanut taste in their beer without it being overpowering. But I definitely noticed that the stranger the ingredients or crazier the style, the more people that were lined up to give it a try.
I would humbly suggest that my beer was very good. Maybe one of the best I’ve brewed, surprisingly. I was limited by the ingredients available, but I lucked out and made something really good. But it wasn’t weird or strange. It didn’t include any unexpected ingredients like peanut butter, black licorice, or gummy bears. So as homebrew judgers walked along figuring out which ones they were going to taste, the plain sounding and ordinary got passed over.
Obviously no one could tell what my beer tasted like from the name. But they could tell it wasn’t anything wild, exotic, or unknown. So what I took away from the experience was that if I was going to win the people’s choice, I needed to have a description that lured people in. And to lure people in, I needed something strange and wild. So the takeaway I had was next time I brewed a Blonde Ale, I should throw some Jalapenos or Sour Patch kids into the mix and that might get people to wander up and give it a try. Some advice for you if you’re entering a hombrew competition.
When you brew outside, there are a number of factors that are entirely dependent on the weather. An important one is your rest temperature. Your recipe/process may call for a rest at a given temperature for 15, 30 minutes, or even as long as an hour. While brewing outside, the ability to hold that temperature is dependent on your weather that day. Brewing in the summer on an 80 degree day, it might be a lot easier to hold 145-degree temperature than when brewing on a 30-degree day.
The ability to hold temperature is largely dependent on the amount of grains being soaked (the more the grain, the more resistant the mash is to the weather outside). The simplest way to stay in control is to wrap your mash tun in layers to keep the heat transfer down. In the summer you may be fine simply turning off the propane heat and waiting the whole mash period, but come fall you probably need a wrap (towels work well), and come winter you definitely need a wrap. An easy solution to this warmth is to get a good winter coat that’s big enough to fit around your mash tun and then throw that over it when you reach your rest temperatures. It’s certainly a lot easier than turning on and off the heat on your burner to try to maintain a fixed temperature!
My first starter homebrew kit came with the standard 3-piece airlock. It always served me well, was easy to use, so I had no reason to question it. But I made a couple of batches that made me realize the blow-off tube method of managing off-gassing has its place as well.
The first instance was a batch I made at a Big Brew Day event at a local brewery (Rochester Mills). As part of the event, they provided everyone with yeast slurry from the production facility. I provided a clean & sanitized growler and they filled it with yeast. After I made my beer and transferred it into the fermenting bucket, I went and retrieved my growler of yeast. It was almost completely full with thick yeast sludge/foam. I dumped the whole thing in there, and had no doubts of this beer’s ability to convert. It was truckloads more yeast than I’ve ever pitched before.
After fermenting for a day in the basement, I went down the next day to see a blowout disaster. The airlock had backed up and filled with yeast/krausen, the pressure built up, and eventually popped the lid off my fermenting bucket and puked mess out around on the bucket and floor.
Thinking I had passed the worst of it, I cleaned things off, cleaned out the airlock and put it back on. Checking again a few hours later, I saw foam starting to creep into the airlock again. At that point I knew I couldn’t contain it, so I improvised and shoved a length of extra hose onto the body of the airlock and ran the hose down into a growler filled with water to keep the hose from being exposed to air. Soon I had giant glugs of air going out through the water. With the size of the hose, I didn’t have any risk of plugging up with foam.
The other instance I found the blow-off tube helpful at avoiding the blowout was a beer where I had my fermenting bucket really full. I was going to be doing a large amount of dry hops, and to counteract the lost volume from all the debris I’d get, I put 5.5 – 6 gallons of wort into my fermenting bucket. Once it started fermenting, I soon saw foam creeping down the tube. It made it all the way to the water jug, but still due to the size of the tube, never plugged and never had the over-pressurization issue. I’m sure if I had an airlock on there I would’ve plugged it and popped the top.
So the airlock has advantages of being simple. But if you’re going to have a really active fermentation, or a large volume in your fermenting bucket, you probably should do the blow-off tube.
I’ve made around 10 batches of homebrew over a couple of years’ time. It’s been difficult to stay motivated. The process in general is great. It’s fun smelling that raw grainy fresh aroma of your grains brewing, and feeling you’re a part of something really unique. Measuring things out, stirring them in, seeing it change colors, change
aromas, watching the clock trying to be precise and sure of what you’re doing- it’s all very exciting. My first couple of batches weren’t anything special, but they weren’t bad.
But after a couple, I grew impatient. I had a beer tasting palate that enjoyed exploring and trying new and different delicious-tasting creations. So to spend the time thinking I was creating something
great, and ending up with something that was fairly boring, got old fast. I foolishly thought I could use my familiarity with tasting tons of different beer and that would directly translate into being able to come up with a great beer recipe. Luckily, it took me only one recipe creation to find those 2 things aren’t necessarily related. I then moved on to clone recipes, trying one of my favorite craft IPAs- Bells Two Hearted Ale. That turned out to be delicious. It tasted even better than Two Hearted to me. After that success, I ran into something in my process that was giving me a distinct and noticeable “homebrew” flavor to it. It wasn’t horrible or anything, but very distinct across several different recipes. So to me, it felt like I was tasting the representation of the words “amateur” whenever I drank it, which of course was disappointing.
I then told myself that it wasn’t worth it. I loved the brewing process, but to end up with 2 cases of a beer that I didn’t enjoy, when every time I went to the grocery store I found 2-3 six packs of some new craft beer I wanted to try, didn’t make sense. I could buy better quality beer, and only commit to a 6-pack at a time. I told myself I would only brew if I could make something I couldn’t find on the market. Specifically a low alcohol IPA, or if I could put something on draft. Before I got around to brewing a low-alcohol IPA, the craft brewers had come to the same conclusion and there were a few good ones on the market. That put off my homebrewing again. But when I bought a kegerator, along with the equipment to keg my own homebrew, I was ready to take the homebrew challenge again. So here’s an overview of homebrew process for anyone that wanted to get an idea of what it’s like. Long intro, huh?
First step is to clean & sterilize all your equipment. This isn’t the exciting part of homebrewing, but it keeps unknowns from getting into the mix and ending up with strange flavors you may regret. Luckily it doesn’t take a lot of time. I guess technically the first step is figuring out the recipe of what you’ll make and then buying the ingredients. Detroit has a few good supply stores that make this pretty simple. There’s fancier/more complicated all-grain brewing, which I don’t do. And there’s super-basic all extract or kit brewing that’s kind of like “open can, mix with water, bottle it”. I do the in-between process called partial mash. It has some parts of working with raw grains, which adds to the coolness factor, but doesn’t involve a lot of equipment or a lot of extra time. So the supplies consist of the malt that’s either in liquid/syrup-y form, or a dried powder form, some raw grains, the hops ground up and formed into pellets, and the yeast.
The next major step is getting your water up to the right temperature for the first grain-soaking. This isn’t complicated, but it takes a while. When I first started, I used my electric stove top to heat the 2-2.5 gallons of water, which took forever. Through some well-spent birthday cash spending, I bought a small burner set-up that hooks up to a BBQ propane tank. You have to upgrade to doing the brewing outdoors, but that’s actually a perk. You get to be outside, sitting in a lawn chair, lazily checking the thermometer on you pot full of water, waiting for it to get to the right temperature for your grain soaking. This is the perfect time to completely relax and have some “me time”- which goes completely undervalued when your single and/or before you have kids. This also is about the right amount of time to enjoy one or two beers. This is the easiest part of the brewing process.
After that you have to soak the grains in the water at a warm, but not boiling temperature. Here’s where the stopwatch first comes into the process. You soak for about 20 minutes, so although you still have some time to sit & relax, you have to keep an eye on the clock, and start getting things ready for your next step, so it’s not as relaxing as the “watching the water heat up” stage. You then dump the grain, and then take that grainy water, add it to some regular water, and your malt extract and then go back to the sit & wait position. This part doesn’t involve watching a stop watch, but it does involve avoiding the terrible occurrence of your malt boiling over. So it can be stressful. If you’re not closely monitoring it, it will quickly boil & bubble up and you’ll
end up spewing some of your malted grain over the edge of your pot. So you have to keep a close eye on it, ready to stir with your giant spoon, and ready to throttle back the temperature at a moment’s notice.
Once you get it to boil, you start your timed 60-minute boil period. This is where the hops are added at different points to make up the bitterness of your beer. The longer the hop boils, the more acid or something it lets go, and different hop flavor it creates. So there are multiple combinations of types of hop added at different points during that 60 minute boil, or all the same hop, just added at different times for different flavors to be extracted. Although this part is more active, it’s one of the great enjoyable creative moments in the process. You see and smell all this great green hoppiness coming up off your steaming cauldron. I probably absorb a bottle of water through my face pores leaning over and letting that delicious steam waft up and envelop my olfactory senses.
After your 60 minutes are up, the fun creativity ends. You then spend time getting the temperature down cool enough for your yeast. Too hot and you kill of the yeast and your beer doesn’t ferment right. Too cool and you end up sitting and waiting a longer time for fermentation to start and wondering if you messed it all up somewhere along the way. Once it’s cool enough, you stir in your yeast, mix it up really good and then put it in a sealed bucket to ferment for about a week. After that, you siphon it off (to leave all the nasty sludge in the bottom of the bucket) and put it into a glass carboy- maybe adding some hops again for “dry hopping”. That sits for another week and you’re ready to bottle or keg it. Since I had my kegerator system this time, I simply dumped it in there and let it sit for about a week before I hooked it up to CO2 and then started enjoying it.
I decided for this first kegging operation, I should go with a recipe that was successful before, so I did the Two Hearted. It came out quite nice. Not as awesome as my one-time miracle of a couple years ago in the bottle, but still good. I didn’t have the telltale “homebrew flavor” that turned me off from brewing previously, so that was good. It had a fresh, raw taste to it, that made it unique and something I couldn’t buy at the store. So all in all, mission accomplished. The brewing day takes up the biggest chunk of time, and for me, I find I need about 6-8 hours to do the sterilizing, brewing, dumping into the brew bucket, and then cleaning up. Not a huge amount of time, but if you can’t devote that amount of time to the task- uninterrupted- it will turn into a stressful event with perhaps bad taste results. It’s not a hobby for everybody, but if you are a bit interested, I’m sure you’ll find it enjoyable- even if you only do it once.
Craft beer and homebrew from a Michigan perspective.