Questions from a “Mr. Beer” buddy

I have a friend who is interested in homebrewing and he got a “Mr. Beer” kit for Christmas. He’s been asking me a bunch of questions, so I thought I might as well post them here.

Q: Hey, how come this thing doesn’t have a place for CO2 to escape? I thought the fermentation process creates lots of CO2.

It absolutely does. If you tried to make beer in a sealed container you’d make a bomb.

The Mr. Beer (we discovered after contacting their customer support line) has grooves in the screw-on lid that allow CO2 to escape. That doesn’t sound like the greatest design to me, but it’s probably good enough.

After his first batch, which was made from the kit that came with the Mr. Beer machine, he said …

Q: My beer is sweet and flat. What did I do wrong?

If it’s too sweet, that means the yeast wasn’t able to ferment enough of the sugar. There could be several causes for that. The most likely are (1) you fermented at the wrong temperature, or (2) the yeast got “stuck” before it finished.

Later I learned that instead of using the recommended 2.5 teaspoons per liter of bottling sugar, he used 2.5 tablespoons. That had me worried. I was imaginging exploding bottles in his basement. (Hey, Charlie Papazian is right about relaxing, not worrying and having a homebrew. But exploding bottles are no joke.)

By my calculations, 2 teaspoons per liter is better. (2 tsp / liter corresponds to 3/4 cup in a traditional 5 gallon batch.)

But anyway — what was the problem? Clearly the excess of bottling sugar would have contributed to sweetness, but why was it flat? Why didn’t he get gushers?

Clearly the yeast didn’t ferment all the sugars. The yeast might not have had enough oxygen at the start of fermentation, but I didn’t consider that too likely. Probably the beer was simply too cold and the yeast never really got going. I recommended that he move the bottles to a warmer spot and keep an eye on them — e.g., open one every couple days to see if they’re getting too carbonated.

Of course it’s better to take a specific gravity reading before you bottle to ensure fermentation is done, but he’s just starting and doesn’t have a way to measure specific gravity. The Mr. Beer instructions have you wait two weeks and then bottle — which is good enough in most cases.

He moved the bottles to a warmer place and he did eventually end up with gushers. I was trying to come up with a solution to that, but he simply poured out the rest of the batch and chalked it up to experience.

On a subsequent attempt we decided to do a batch together. We did a little more than a double batch, and we just siphoned 2 gallons into his Mr. Beer. This time things were off to a better start.

The side of the Mr. Beer is brown, but transparent, so you can see how much foam you’ve got on top of your beer. On his first batch, there wasn’t much foam (supporting the idea that the yeast never had a fighting chance).

My foamy head is now just a small patch of foam floating in the center. Does that sound about right? Can I bottle on Friday?

Ah. Now we have a good fermentation going on. We aerated it well when we siphoned it into his Mr. Beer, and he was using a very good yeast — a whole packet of Safale 05 in a 2-gallon container. If anything’s gonna start a fermentation, that will.

I am looking for a 8 qt. stainless steel pot. The Paula Dean pot is $50, Sears has one for $8. What do I need to spend? Is that big enough? My plan is to boil 5 or 6 quarts then add enough cold water to the keg for the 2 gallons.

Some people recommend a full wort boil — even for an extract batch — but that’s for another day, especially since he’d have to get a wort chiller to make that worthwhile. For now, boiling part of the wort is just fine, and topping off with tap water helps to ensure the beer is oxygenated.

I think 12 or even 16 quarts is the better bet, even if you’re only boiling part of a 2-gallon batch. Boiling wort really foams up, and it’s good to have a little room to expand if he ever wants to make larger batches.

You can get big cooking pots pretty cheap at food stores that cater to Hispanics. They tend to have a pretty good selection of pots at pretty cheap prices. Get stainless steel.

If the fermentation process is done when the yeast consumes all of the sugar then how is more CO2 produced when you add sugar during the bottling process?

The fermentation is done, but the yeast is still there — dormant — waiting for more food. When you add sugar at bottling time the yeast wakes up and ferments that sugar too, creating the CO2 in the bottles.

Some recipes call for adding sugar to the boil. What’s up with that?

Sugar is less expensive than malt, so brewers have often added various kinds of sugar to the boil to get more fermentables at a lower cost. Adding sugar can make a cidery taste, but some styles rely on sugar (like some Belgian beers).

Generally speaking it’s better to use malt extract and skip the sugar, but it’s no crime to add some. Brown sugar or molasses can add an interesting flavor to a beer.

Hey — homebrewing is all about experimentation.

14’er E.S.B.

My son gave me a mixed 6-pack of interesting new (to me) beers for my birthday. That’s one of the consolations of getting older. Your kids can give you more interesting birthday presents!

I’ll be reviewing them here as I get a chance.

First out of the pack is 14’er E.S.B. by Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado.

It was a bit of a gusher, which reminded me of my early days of homebrewing. I popped the top and the ale was a little too eager to get out of the bottle. Perhaps the kids had knocked it around (unlikely) or perhaps it’s a tad over-carbonated.

The beer itself is a copper color, and just slightly cloudy. It has a very nice, pure white, lacy head that endures to the bottom of the glass. It almost reminds you of the snow on the label.

The malt flavor is subdued, but clearly present beneath the rather strong hop profile. It got me to wondering where you draw the line between an E.S.B. and an I.P.A.

I’m no style expert, and if I were I would not want to be a style Nazi. I’m far more concerned about drinkability than taste. But when the label says E.S.B., I expect just slightly more malt flavor and slightly less hops.

Nevertheless, it’s quite drinkable, especially if you prefer the hoppier end of the scale.

Smokey Porter Recipe

This dark porter has a thick, creamy head, and an aroma that hints at chocolate and smoke. The flavor is just a touch more on the burnt side than I was aiming for, but the mouthfeel is absolutely delicious and smooth, with a rich, malty, slightly chocolatey aftertaste. The licorice doesn’t come through at all.

Ingredients for 5 Gallons

4# Golden Promise
4# Brown Malt
1# Crystal 40
0.5# Smoked Malt
0.5# Chocolate Malt
8 oz. Maltodextrin
1 oz. Northern Brewer (8%) (60 minutes)
1 oz. licorice root (60 minutes)
1 oz. Target (10%) (10 minutes)
1 teaspoon Irish Moss (15 minutes)
Nottingham Yeast

Mash schedule: I used a single-infusion mash for this one, with 10 quarts of strike water at 170F. It sat for an hour in my picnic-cooler style mash tun, and then I sparged twice with 9 quarts of 170F water.

The O.G. was 1.054.

Next time I’ll reduce the smoked malt to 0.25# and double the licorice.

Review of Red Sky at Night

I have enormous respect for the Heavy Seas brewery, which is a local company here in Maryland. (In Baltimore.)

If you’re in the area, definitely take their brewery tour. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a small brewery, so it feels like half-way reasonable step up from homebrewing. IOW, you can still understand what’s going on and relate it back to what you do in your basement.

And after the tour you get to sample their wares and talk with the staff.

So yesterday I was at the local totally awesome liquor store (Corridor in Laurel) and saw a new Heavy Seas brew: Red Sky at Night.

You know the old rhyme. Red at morning, sailors take warning. Red at night, sailor’s delight.

Red Sky at Night is labeled a “Belgian Style Saison Ale.”

My interest in farmhouse ales arose from a local homebrew Christmas party, where one of the brewers was kind enough to bring his farmhouse ale. It was fantastic.

So when I saw an article on farmhouse ales in some beer magazine, I dug right in. Unfortunately, the article left me with the impression that the style is a little too broad to mean much of anything. I wasn’t exactly sure what would qualify something as a “farmhouse ale.”

And the southern Maryland homebrewer’s farmhouse ale was nothing like Red Sky at Night.

So I remain somewhat unsure exactly what “farmhouse ale” means. But this isn’t a review of farmhouse ales.

Red Sky at Night strikes me as a mild introduction to the distinctive flavors of Belgian ales. IOW, if you don’t like the subtle tones that distinguish Red Sky at Night from your typical pale ale, you’re not going to like Belgian ales.

Making the jump from your more traditional ale — an English ale, or an American pale ale — to a full-blown Belgian tripel like Westmalle Trappist or Dulle Teve could leave a person thinking he’s left the world of beer and entered some strange new realm or alternate carbonated beverages.

The flavors are so different. There’s a strong wine flavor to a tripel — not entirely unlike a barley wine — but with fruity overtones and a little more yeastiness.

Red Sky at Night is not a tripel. It’s just a Belgian Ale. So if you were to imagine a pale ale as an introduction to a barley wine, then Red Sky at Night is an introduction to a tripel.

It has subtle hints of the flavors you get in the Dulle Teve — they’re just not as pronounced.

So if you’ve never tried a Belgian ale, definitely try Red Sky at Night. And if you love Belgian Ales, Red Sky at Night will be your go-to session beer.