Sunday, November 14, 2010

Block Party, November 2010

Yesterday was block party day, so of course I brewed a keg to contribute to the festivities. Given the time of year, I decided on a dark beer, Danger Knows No Favorites Dunkel (p.204). Indian Summer was in full swing, so the weather was much warmer than I'd expected, but the dark beer was still a bit hit. The biggest challenge was finding a nice shady spot to keep it reasonably cool.

Actually, the biggest challenge was the brewing itself. I only gave myself two weeks to ferment, which for a dunkel is cutting things dangerously close. This was also the first batch that I've brewed completely on my own — no assistance on brewing day or kegging day. Brewing day was Halloween, so the lack of assistance meant I was also fighting the clock for the arrival of trick-or-treaters.

I'm going to go into more detail on the process than I usually do for this one, complete with photos. First, the substitutions. I used hop pellets instead of my usual whole-leaf. Since I don't usually adjust the quantity of hops for whole-leaf when pellets are called for (pellets have higher surface area, since the hops are powdered), this was a bit hoppier than we've made it previously. Also, the varieties called for in the recipe weren't available. I used two ounces of Mt. Hood for the bittering, and an ounce of Hallertau for the flavor and aroma. The yeast is a German lager yeast (though with only two weeks to ferment I did not lager it).

The fermentables are fairly standard for the recipe. I use a #80 crystal malt. As always, I substitute 3 pounds of DME for 3.3 of LME.

Let's look at the equipment you'll need. I like an Ale Pail as a fermenter, since it makes a number of things much easer, such as pouring and cooling the wort. Sure, glass carboys feel somewhat fancier, but ultimately convenience wins out. If the plastic bucket starts to pick up unwanted flavors, it's not that expensive to chuck it and buy a new one. The pail, and other bits, need to be sanitized before use. I use EZ Clean no-rinse sanitizer, which comes as a powder. One tablespoon of the powder per gallon of water is the ratio to use, and with 5 gallons of sanitizer, I santized the pail, its lid, the gas trap, and a hose with a funnel for filtered water. Once sanitized, these have to dry. This is my unintentional Art Shot

While sanitizing is something you want to do right at the beginning, the actual brewing process begins with your brew pot. This is a 30 quart pot (7.5 gallons). You can get away with a 20 quart pot, which is what I should have done. As it turns out, this pot, with the lid, just clears the fume hood on my stove. The rest of the equipment for the boil is shown here On the left is the sparging rig. This consists of a metal bowl, a colander, and a potato masher. The tongs are used to move the bags around. The bags are in center frame; they're very fine nylon mesh. I haven't used these before, and I have to say they're a welcome addition to my collection, as they make the grain extraction process much faster, and you don't lose heat from the mash. The probe thermometer is essential for temperature control when steeping the grain and determining when the wort is cool enough for the yeast to be pitched. The cheap vodka is food-grade rubbing alcohol for cleaning as needed, and to fill the trap.

Putting milled grain in bags has a drawback: the grain gets less contact with the water. Consequently, I split the grain between the two bags

Brewing started at 3:30. I expected trick-or-treaters to begin arriving around 5, so time was pretty tight, and I was not optimistic about finishing. I filled the pot with two gallons of water filtered through an on-tap Pur system. To do this, I use a length of hose with a funnel attached. Through what I'm going to explain away as Bernoulli's principle, the lower pressure inside the funnel causes it to hold onto the filter by suction, which is handy. At Marco's house, we tend to use bottled water. I prefer the freshly filtered water because it's cheaper, doesn't waste resources for the packaging, and is better aerated (not a concern for the boil, but it will be later). On medium heat, I brought the water up to 150 degrees, and then added the bags of milled grain. The grain steeps (I hesitate to call it "mashing", since we're not converting many starches to fermentable sugar) for half an hour between 150 and 160 degrees. I overshot by a degree or so at one point, but generally kept things well within the desired range.

After steeping comes the extraction and sparging. This is where the nylon bags proved their worth. Extraction is easy using the tongs, though there's always a little dripping. Everything's water soluable, though, so unless it's burnt clean-up is pretty easy. Applying the potato masher, and occasional filtered water, rinses the grains and captures their malty goodness in the bowl, which is then poured back into the pot.

I then added the DME and boiling hops. Since the liquid was still hot, the DME dissolved fairly rapidly. I brought the liquid to a boil over medium-high heat, to reduce the amount of malt that burns to the bottom of the pot. The rest of the boil was just stirring occasionally and adding the flavor and aroma hops at the appropriate times. When the boil was nearly over, I added about half a 7 pound bag of ice to the pail, so that when the boil finished I was able to immediatly begin transfering the wort through a large funnel with a filter. The powdered hops made this very slow going (we usually bag the hops, when we use whole-leaf). But eventually all the wort made it into the pail. More ice (most of the rest of the bag) brought the mixture down to 75 degrees, and then I added enough filtered water to reach a total volume of 5 gallons. Vigorous stirring with the paddle works oxygen into the wort, which the yeast will need in order to reproduce. Plenty of oxygen means your fermentation will start reasonably quickly.

Remarkably, no trick-or-treaters had come by yet, and it was nearly 7. In fact, at about 10 'til, I pitched the yeast into the fermenter, and just as I finished the doorbell rang for the first time. Once I'd given the first set of kids their candy, I returned to the kitchen to seal the lid on the pail and add the vodka-filled trap. There was positive pressure by the morning, and by the next evening it was bubbling happily.

Knowing that dark beers can take up to a month to ferment, I was somewhat worried about it being ready in time for the party. In fact, Saturday morning it was still bubbling, albeit infrequently. I had to get the batch into the keg, though, since the party started at noon, and I couldn't show up empty-handed. To make things more exciting, the previous evening, I discovered that my siphon was broken. It was too late to go to the store, so I had to leave bright and early Saturday (9:30, which is bright and early for a Saturday in my book) to get to the store when they opened.

Once I got home, I sanitized the keg, siphon, and tap. Once those had time to dry a little, I transfered the beer into the keg and force-pressurized it under 30psi, shaking until I couldn't hear any more CO2 going into solution. (Technically, what you hear is gas passing through the regulator.) Unfortunately, I didn't have any time to try to cool down the keg.

I was a bit worried about the beer being too sweet, since there was clearly unfermented sugar left in it. Fortunately, there was very little, and I'm very happy with how this batch turned out. Nice and malty, with a good amount of hop bitterness and a nice mild finish. My neighbors enjoyed it, though they left me at least a third of a keg to enjoy at home.