Pumpkin Ale Update

So my hurry-up Pumpkin ESB is shaping up.  It’s to be racked tonight.  The sample I have here in front of me is very nice, just a hint of pumpkin spice, bitter finish, likely because it’s very very green.  It’s a nice malt backbone with a hint of molasses from the brown sugar.  Diacetyl is minimal, just enough to add a bit of buttery interest to the beer.  I might have overdone the hops just a bit but I think the hint of sweetness I’ll add back will cut that substantially.  Mouthfeel is light due to sugars.  Hop flavor is minimal.

I think I’ll like this beer quite a bit once it’s done.  My plan is to rack, let sit at basement temps for a week, then bottle next week.  At bottling, I’ll add some sweetness in the form of stevia extract, some more spice in the form of a spice tincture and a bit of Madagascar vanilla extract.  Recipe for spice tincture follows:

2 Tsp (about 8 grams) pumpkin pie spice
2 ounces (about 100 ml) vodka

Mix and let stand at least a week at room temperature.  Either add to beer and mix in to taste or add using a measuring pipette to an ounce of beer and scale up.  By the way, the same procedure is used for the stevia and the vanilla.

What Makes Beer Taste Good

Some reflections on my hundredth (or so) batch of beer.  Over time I’ve learned the primary contributors to a beer’s flavor.  Spoiler alert:  If you’re obsessing over recipes and still getting bad beers, you’re going down the wrong rabbit hole.  So here’s my list of the top contributors to beer flavor:

1.  Sanitation.  You don’t get this right, you don’t have a chance.
2.  Fermentation control.  Find a way to keep your fermentation temps relatively stable first, then in the range you want them.  For ales, a redneck swamp cooler works fine for me to keep the temps down a few degrees and the water bath stabilizes the temperature.  For lagers and some ales, I use a temperature controlled refrigerator.  This includes pitch rate:  If your OG is greater than 1.06, use a starter or use two packs/vials of yeast.  It also includes oxygenation.  Make sure you have enough oxygen in the wort.
3.  Time.  Let your beer finish before racking it so the yeast can clean up after themselves.  Give yourself adequate time to let the yeast settle out naturally.  Green beer flavors will subside over time but don’t drink one too early.  Serving time counts here, too.  Most beers are best fresh.
4.  Yeast selection.  Ferment something other than hefeweizen with hefeweizen yeast and you’ll know what I mean.
5.  Recipe formulation.  Once you have all of the above right, it’s time to start looking to the recipe.  Hops, particularly late hops, are very strong flavors and will affect your beer more than malt.  Malt will affect color, probably more important to human taste perception than “flavor”, and sweetness as well as imparting more subtle aromas.  But don’t obsess here.  If your beers are coming out with drinkability problems, it’s more likely something above, unless you’ve made a hop bomb resembling quinine in flavor in which case, it’s personal preference.
6.  Mash control.  Mash control can contribute some off flavors but mostly will affect mouthfeel and sweetness.  Again, this isn’t the place to obsess unless you’re getting a highly dextrinous, oily pilsner.  Again, don’t obsess over a couple of degrees of downward drift in temperature.  The enzymes do most of their work early and downward temperature drift will not affect the enzymes you want active in the next step.  When you heat the mash for the next step, you denature what was working earlier.  So unless you’re doing real precision brewing, downward drift of a couple degrees is mostly irrelevant to the outcome of your beer.
7.  Everything else.

At homebrew scale, making beer relies heavily on process.  We simply can’t measure and control all the variables my friends at MillerCoors can.  So to the beginning homebrewer I recommend picking something simple and light, say a pale ale or a blonde, and brewing it until it’s exactly the same every time.  That way you know your process variables aren’t causing problems.  Armed with this, you can start troubleshooting in the right place.

Speaking of everything else, I hope that lactobacillus brevis I used in my Berliner Weisse stays under control….  I start seeing sour beers, I pretty much know where to look.

Brewing on the Ruby

A few weeks ago Jim Mollohan of Ruby Street Brewing asked me to come up with a recipe for today’s American Homebrewers Association Learn to Brew Day.  What I came up with was a ten-gallon batch of Kottbusser, an extinct German wheat ale I’ve wanted to brew for some time.  First to the beer.  Basically it was a victim of the Reinheitsgebot and of Pilsner’s takeover of the German beer palate.  Ron Pattinson, a beer historian living in the Netherlands, has written about the style and has translated an old text that the enterprising homebrewer can use to generate a new version of this beer fossil.  Grimm Brothers Brewing in Loveland, Colorado brews a version of the beer but to my palate it’s too sweet and cloying to have been a German beer in the mid Nineteenth Century when water in Europe generally would kill you.  So my goal was drier, more drinkable, more refreshing.  I can post the recipe on request.

So I got to brew it on this:


This is Ruby Street’s prototype of a new brew rig.  Left to right are the hot liquor tanks, the mash tun and the boil kettle.  There are two pumps attached to the rack, both remote controlled and on the far left is a digital controller that is the essence of simplicity.  It works like the thermostat in your house, temperature up, temperature down.  This was her maiden voyage, so far all the guys had done was boil water in her.  Operation was semi-automated, requiring movement of hoses and valves by hand to achieve flow rates and boil rates desired.  We put it through its paces.  The mash schedule was a protein rest at 122 degrees F, saccarification at 152 degrees F, mash out and sparge at 170 degrees.

Stepping up used the pump to recirculate mash from underneath the false bottom of the mash tun where the heat was being applied to the top.  There was a lot of wheat in the mash and I made a pretty dumb mistake, forgetting to put the rice hulls in or before the grain.  The stuff set up like glue but we still got the wort out mostly clear.  At one point we lost a pump, surprising, but the guys had a replacement on hand and had the rig back up and running soon.  It was a windy day and I came to love the auto-relight features of the burners.  Once we had the boil going, the mash tun became the cleanup basin a little PBW and hot water got the false bottom pieces cleaned up quickly.

Some of the changes they’ve made over their previous rigs were the burner grates, now including heat shielding to protect the hammered, powder-coating finish.  It’s surprisingly small for a ten-gallon brewery.  I like the semi-automation better than the idea of a fully automated system requiring programming but then I’m a manual brewer.  The rig hasn’t been priced but it’s estimated to run about $3,200 without digital control, which costs an additional $2,000.

I enjoyed the day working on the rig with Brian Mollohan, Jim’s son and one of the chief designers.  All in all, it’s easy to run, everything makes sense and, barring the failed pump, pretty solid.  We got about 10.5 gallons of wort, divided so we each can run our separate fermentation profiles on it.  I’m not sure the “set and forget” option is right for me, there’s something about starting the mash and going to mow the lawn that seems to interfere with my brew day but don’t let my Luddite tendencies get in your way.  This is a nice rig to brew on.

Finally, the results of the day:


Will keep you posted as the beer progresses.