Review of Homebrew con — deciding how much technology you want in your brew system

I’m just back from three days of Homebrew con in Baltimore, and it was a heck of a time. The exhibit hall was full of displays from various homebrew vendors, and most of the booths were serving beer. You could say that the beer flowed pretty much non-stop the whole time, and by the evening of the second day a glass of rootbeer was a welcome change. And I don’t usually drink soda.

The talks were very interesting (and yes, they served beer during the talks), and I got to have a brief word with Charlie Papazian.

My main takeaway from the conference was that every homebrewer has to settle on how deeply he’s going to go into the hobby — not only in the old extract vs. all-grain decision, but in how complicated he wants to make his own brewing setup.

Mine is fairly simple. I do all grain, but I don’t use any pumps or filters, and I don’t have my equipment on a stand. I used an immersion chiller, and I basically pour things from here to there. I’m comfortable with it, I make good beer, and I don’t feel any need to make some Ruby Street sort of set up. Maybe I will one day, but for now I like my method.

When I started homebrewing in 1986, the ingredients and the equipment were very primitive. I would go to restaurants to get used food-grade buckets and I’d rob their trash cans for bottles. The yeasts were awful, the selection of grains and extracts was poor, and beers were often disappointing.

Nowadays, if you follow some simple guidelines, it’s hard not to make a good beer.

But the equipment keeps getting better and better, and you can enter the hobby at lots of different points. There are systems like the grainfather that turns making beer into something about as easy as brewing a big pot of coffee. Then there’s Picobrew, which makes it into a kitchen counter thing, and even Vessi, which is a homebrewing appliance that installs in your kitchen like a dishwasher.

These are extraordinarily cool things, but … I like having my hands in it a little more. I want to craft the beer myself, not just pick a recipe and push some buttons. I like the simpler is better attitude.

More than that, I like learning the craft from the bottom up. I want to try growing my own barley and malting it myself. I’ll let you know how that works out.

In any event, homebrewing is a very different thing these days than when I started, but it’s still a lot of fun.

The two-batch mash

I had let myself become perilously low on homebrew, so I had to replenish the stores. I planned a 3-batch day: one extract (a 5-gallon version of my Kambucha sour) and two all-grain beers. To economize on time I tried to do as much as possible at once — working off both the stove and my propane burner. So I mashed while the extract batch was on the stove, and the mash was enough for both of the other beers.

To 16 pounds American 2 row I added 5.3 gallons of strike water at 164F and let it sit for a little over an hour. That yielded 1st runnings of 3.25 Gallons @ 22.4 brix.

The two beers I wanted to make from this mash were my California Common and my American Brown Ale. The Common is a little stronger than the Brown Ale, so I accounted for that by using different portions of the first and second runnings in each batch. Of the 3.25 gallons in the first runnings, 2 gallons went to the Common and 1.25 to the Brown.

As soon as I had the first runnings separated I started soaking my specialty grains: 1 pound of Crystal 80 in the Common and 1/2 pound each of brown and chocolate malt in the Brown Ale.

If you’re wondering how I separated the wort into the two kettles, the runnings went into my bottling bucket first and from there into the two kettles so I could keep track of the volumes. (My kettles aren’t marked for volume.)

After sparging with 5 gallons, the 2nd runnings yielded 4.75 gallons @ 10 brix. At this point I evened up the volume by putting 2.75 gallons in the Brown and 2 in the Common. The third runnings (5 Gallons @ 6 brix) went equally in both batches.

There’s no point in boiling grains, so I removed the specialty grains when the wort got to 170F in each of the kettles. The hop schedules were as follows.

Common: 1 oz. Northern Brewer (60 min), 1 oz. Northern Brewer (30 min.), 1 oz. Cascade (10 min.)

Brown: 1 oz. Willamette (60 min), 1 oz. Willamette (20 min.)

After an hour boil and cooling them down to 75, my initial gravities were 15.8 brix for the Common and 12.8 for the Brown. Both were a little higher than I expected, but that’s okay.

The failed two barrel experiment

Most of the all-grain brewing systems you hear about have three barrels: a mash tun, a hot liquor tun and a kettle. See What I learned about brew systems a “Big Brew” for more details on how these systems are usually configured.

A little while ago I heard about a two-barrel system, and I wondered how something like that could work. The only thing that made sense to me was that you’d have a kettle and a mash tun. You’d heat up your strike water in your kettle, then add it to the mash tun. Then you’d add all your sparge water to the kettle, and you’d recirculate water between the kettle and the mash tun until you reached the gravity you wanted.

There’s one clear disadvantage to this method. You end up washing your grains with wort that already has dissolved sugars in it, and there’s no way that would be as efficient at extracting sugars from the grains with clear water.

But I decided to give it a try. Since this was just a test, I didn’t go whole hog on the equipment. I set up a very simple, low-tech method for trying out a two-barrel solution.

Since the wort was going to be recirculating through the grains, I figured this was a job for fly sparging, so I pulled out my (very simple) fly sparging setup. The fly sparging arm sits inside the top of my picnic-cooler mash tun, and I pour the sparge water into the funnel on the top.

I’ve used this before, and it works like a charm. You pour the sparge water into the funnel, the fly sparging arm dribbles the water onto the grains, and the wort is slowly extracted from the mash tun.

That brings up one of the problems my two-barrel experiment. When you’re sparging with clear water, the system works great. When you’re recirculating wort, little bits of gunk clog up the the fly sparging arm. I should have filtered the wort before I poured it back through the sparging apparatus.

This happened several times. I had to stop, disassemble the fly sparging arm, clean it out, then put it all back together.

The recirculating process sorta resembles a decoction mash, because you need to keep heat on the brew pot to keep your wort / sparge water at the right temperature.

My goal was to recirculate the same volume I would typically use in a batch sparge, but when I got to that point the gravity wasn’t where I expected it to be, so I kept recirculating / sparging.

I never got close to my target gravity, so this system — at least this time around — was very inefficient. About 80% as efficient as my normal batch-sparging method.

However … the beer turned out great. I was aiming for the higher end of an alt, and I ended up with a pretty mid-range alt. It’s very malty and very good.

I’m going to try this method again sometime and I’ll report on the results.

Don’t boil your grains!

Homebrewing has come a long way since I started in 1987. The ingredients are better (especially the yeasts!), the equipment is better, and the instructions are better. A recent discovery in my mom’s home reminded me of this.

My mother found an old recipe that belonged to my father. I don’t think my father ever brewed beer, and I’m not sure why he had this, but … there it was in his recipe box. It was called “Dr. Brew’s Legendary Number 65.” The recipe included 1/2 cup of Black Patent malt, and the instructions said to boil them for the last 15 minutes.


That’s not a good idea. But looking at that recipe explains something I’ve wondered about for a long time.

The very first batch of beer I brewed was a strong stout. That was a dumb thing to start with, but … what did I know?

I started with a recipe for a stout from an old book I had, then I took all the components that were going to make it dark and I jacked them up, then added some extra black patent malt on top of that.

That could have worked, but the instructions were probably like “legendary #65” above, and probably had me boil the grains.

I was so excited about my first batch of beer that I barely gave it time to condition in the bottle before I tried one.

It was awful. Astringent. Harsh. Just plain nasty. It was everything bad that people who don’t like dark beers say about dark beers. But I like dark beers!

I kept trying it, hoping it would get better with age, but after a couple months of faithfully trying a bottle every few days, I gave up, pushed it into the back of the storage area under my stairs and moved on to something else.

I brewed several successful beers after that, then about a year later I found that old case of stout, gathering dust and cobwebs. I figured I just needed to pour it out and reuse the bottles, but I had to try one first.

It was fantastic. It was everything I had wanted in a stout. Thick, rich, flavorful. Creamy head. Notes of coffee. I loved it. Unfortunately, by that time there was only about a half a case left.

Anyway, now I’m pretty sure I know what went wrong with that first batch. I probably boiled the black patent malt, and it took all that time for the nasty flavors to age out.

Steep your grains, but don’t boil them. In fact, you should probably remove them from your kettle before you get to 170F.

A Belgian Sour with Kambucha?

I like sour beers, so I wanted to try making one, but I wanted to avoid infecting my equipment. I’ve been told that the bacteria you use in a sour beer can get into your plastic and rubber fittings and it’s nearly impossible to get it out.

One way to avoid that problem is to sour some wort first, then boil it to kill the bacteria.

Some people use grain to sour the wort. To do this you just make a small batch of wort, drop some grain in and allow the bacteria that lives on the husks to get to work. I’ve been told that method works, but I hear it’s a pretty smelly process.

A while ago I decided to try my hand at kombucha. You can read a little about that on this page.

Kombucha is fine. I don’t like sweet drinks, like soda, and I try to stay away from too much caffeine, so a batch of decaf kombucha can be nice after work. But I’d rather drink a beer, so I decided to experiment with souring some wort with my kombucha mother and using that in a Belgian-style sour.

Here’s how I did it. These procedures are designed for a 3-gallon batch. I did 3 gallons because I do kombucha in a one gallon jug, and 1 gallon of soured malt in a 3-gallon batch seems to be about the right ratio. Your mileage may vary.

To start you have to have a batch of regular kombucha, which means you’ll need a scoby. You can buy one or you can grow one. Here’s a good page about kombucha.

Assuming you’ve got all that straight, here’s how you make Kombucha Sour Ale.

On the day you’re ready to bottle your kombucha, boil 1.5 cups of amber DME in 13 cups of water and let it cool. When it’s cool, reserve 2 cups of your kombucha and bottle the rest. Inspect your scoby to make sure there’s no black spots, rinse it off and set it on a clean plate.

Rinse out your kombucha jar, add the reserved two cups of kombucha, add the 13 cups of malt you boiled and cooled, then add the scoby. Cover it with a cloth and let it sit for 2 weeks.

On brew day, prepare whatever you’re going to put on your scoby next — whether that’s tea or more malt. Remove the (now soured) malt from the kombucha jar and reserve two cups. You’ll use those for your next batch of kombucha.

Pour all the rest of your soured malt into your kettle then proceed as if you’re doing a very simple extract recipe.

4 pounds amber DME
1 oz. Saaz (60 min.)
1/2 oz. Saaz (30 min)
1/2 oz. Saaz (10 min)
Irish moss (10 min.)

Boil for an hour, cool, add water (if necessary) to get to 3 gallons and pitch Belle Saison Ale Yeast. Ferment and bottle or keg like any other beer. (Since you boiled your soured wort, there’s no risk of infection in your kegging equipment. Also, if you choose to bottle remember to adjust your priming sugar for a 3-gallon batch!)

I’ve tinkered with this recipe a few times — sometimes using a little more DME, sometimes leaving it on the scoby a little longer. But each batch has been very good.