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.

Picking the right beer bottles

Even if you keg your beer, from time to time you’re going to want to bottle some of it. There are a few things you want to look for when selecting your bottles.

Use brown bottles — Light can damage your beer, so don’t use green or clear bottles. Stick with brown.

Don’t use twist-offs — Your caps won’t fit properly. Stick with pry-off tops.

Use returnables, if you can get them — I imagine this varies from state to state, but if you can get returnable bottles, use them. They’re thicker and stronger than regular bottles.


Stick with bottles of the same general size and shape — It helps when you’re stacking cases. Also, note the distance between the lip of the bottle and that little indentation about a half inch down. (I’ve marked in on the photo to the right.)

Stick with bottles that have about the same distance there. On some bottles that distance is really short and the caps don’t go on quite as well.

Use glass — Modern plastics are pretty good, so you shouldn’t get off flavors from good quality plastic bottles, but I know some pretty smart people who say you should avoid eating food out of plastic whenever possible.

The exception here is if you have trouble with your carbonation. If you think your beer might be overcarbonated, by all means use plastic. Bottle bombs with glass are not a joking matter.

Note how well labels come off — Different brands of beer use different methods of securing the label to the bottle. Some of them come off easily after soaking the bottle in water, while some you need a sand blaster to remove.

I don’t particularly care if my homebrew has some old label on it, but … it’s still nice to have a clear bottle.

Avoid bottles with labels around the neck — Some bottles have a label at the top. This gets in your way when you’re filling, because you can’t see how much beer you’ve put in the bottle.

If you’d like more tips about homebrewing, please see my Beginner’s Guide to Home Brewing.

Proper style usage vs. the style Nazis

If somebody hands you a Pale Ale, you have certain expectations about what you’re getting. If it’s the color of a porter, you’re going to have that “this isn’t what I ordered” feeling.

Likewise, if you’re in a bar where they have English Ales on tap, you have a reasonable expectation that the ESB is stronger than the special, which is stronger than the bitter.

Well and good. That’s the right use of styles. Words should mean things.

Some folk seem to take this proper need for defining a style a little too far. In my opinion, there’s usually not a sharp line between one style and the next. There’s some overlap where, for example, a porter could be very like a stout, or it’s a matter of a coin toss whether an ale is a brown ale or a mild.

That is, styles have fuzzy edges — a fact that is recognized in the BJCP style guidelines.

Many styles are quite broad and can encompass multiple stylistically accurate variants.

A few times I’ve run into people who are a little too particular about style definitions. It’s as if they feel the need to show off their beer knowledge and be persnickety about minor things. I find it tiresome.

I like beers to be faithful to their styles (or to come up with a new style, if that’s necessary), but I don’t like to be too precise about it.