A Thought On Bottling vs. Kegging

Last night I was reading in the Brewing Elements series, “Water”, that the acceptable oxygen levels in commercially packaged beers were about 50 parts per billion.  Yes, you read the denominator right, billion.  This is to prevent staling of the finished product.  While their supply chain is considerably longer than mine, it got me thinking about the difference between kegging with forced carbonation and bottling.  If you naturally condition in the keg you should be able to consider it bottling for this purpose.

With forced carbonation, you may or may not be driving off all the oxygen.  Henry’s Law states that the partial pressures of gas in solution add up to the pressure on the solution so when forcing carbon dioxide into your beer under pressure, you may not be forcing oxygen out since the pressure is high enough it could allow both gasses to remain.  If oxygen is not forced out, you’re exposing your beer to oxidization and all the nasty flavors that brings, sherry and wet cardboard.  At Homebrewer’s Night I’ve tasted oxidized beers but have never thought to ask if the brewer filled the bottles from kegs so I’m simply guessing here.  But my bottle conditioned beers have never had that distinctive oxidation flavor and I’ve kept some of them upwards of 18 months.

I’m guessing that here, too, yeast is your friend.  It’s alive and respiring down there in the bottom of that bottle, scavenging oxygen from its environment every chance it gets.  So I’m thinking the yeast keep the oxygen level below that which can cause staling.  Of course I don’t have equipment lying around to test this but simply logically, when it comes to oxygen in the beer, the advantage goes to bottle conditioning.

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Experimental Results – Avangard Pilsner

A while back I started an experiment in splitting batches and using different yeasts.  I did a Classic American Pilsner, 75% barley, 25% corn.  I then split the batches and handled each as identically as possible, the only difference was the yeasts.  In one batch I pitched American Lager yeast, in the other Urquell yeast.  And I noticed some differences.

The American Lager yeast took longer to clear, likely less floculant than the Urquell strain.  Even now, carbonated, the Urquell variation is much brighter than the other.  The big difference is the taste.  The American Lager strain produced a good beer, no doubt, nicely malty but it did something wierd to the Saaz hops.  I’m not sure how to describe it but the results are slightly harsh.  The Urquell strain gave me exactly what I wanted, a bright beer with classic Bohemian Pilsner flavor.  It’s a Pilsner Urquell with a slight sweet corn flavor, very tasty!  While I like it this way, I’ll likely do a batch with pure barley and see what comes out.  Results of the experiment:  There is a discernable difference between the yeasts in flavor, brightness, effect on hop flavor and even color.

Conclusion:  Yeast selection is important, particularly when the beer is very light.  But make no mistake, both variations are very flavorful beers!

Updates and Plans

It’s been over a week since the last post and both of its subjects are percolating along nicely.  Both wine and beer are still bubbling away in primary.  I finally got my first taste of the Avangard pilsner tonight, the American Lager version.  Very nice!  I like the malt, it gave a sweet, malty brew, much heavier than a standard American pilsner but very drinkable.  I thought I might have detected a hint of astringency but am not sure:  I’ve detected it in two other beers that were without astringency as well, making me think it’s something to do with my palate and the cold I’ve been fighting the last week. I need to chill one of the Urquell bottles and see if I like them as well.

The “Naked Porter” came out nicely as well, nearly the match of the original.  I need to bottle it but am in no rush, it’s just getting better in the carboy as the edges slowly fall away, leaving the highly flavored, aromatic roasty-toasty porter I so love when the Dry Dock has it.  Aging cures a lot of faults in a beer, rounds off rough edges, makes a mediocre brew better.  I must remember that….

I got closer than I thought on the Lemongrass Ginger Wheat.  I want to do another batch, extract this time, to dial in the spices and up the carbonation to a more moderate level.  Three priming tabs just weren’t enough.  But even that bit of bubbles brings out the lemongrass aroma, citronella, much nicer than lemon zest so I’ll up the lemongrass a bit and add more ginger later in the boil to get a slight bite from it.  The beer itself needs no tweaking, it’s an excellent American Wheat, worthy of brewing on its own.

The final experiment in progress is the Baltic Porter.  I bottled it last week so I’m not quite ready to crack open one and test it.  Last taste prior to bottling, the gravity sample, had some harshness at the end, some almost phenolic flavors that may be more process-related than recipe but we’ll see once it’s carbonated and ready to drink.

Finally, forgive me my sparse postings.  It’s ski season and I’m an aging ski bum.  ‘Nuff said….

Brew Day – Vienna Smash/Valpolicella

Double brew day today, a beer and a wine.  The beer is one I’m toying with, the start of a recipe I think I’d like to perfect.  Vienna Lager was once popular in, you guessed it, Vienna.  The light lager movement, pilsners, pretty much made it extinct in its homeland.  But some Viennese brewers found their way to Mexico so today if you drink a Negra Modello, you’re drinking the descendent of beer Mozart might have quaffed.  If Mozart ever quaffed a beer, which, given his personality and the state of the Danube in the eighteenth century, was highly likely.  If they made lagers back then before commercial refrigeration, which we know they did….

Digression.  I used the simplest of recipes:  11 pounds of Vienna Malt, three additions of Saaz hops at 90 minutes, 20 minutes and 10 minutes for a total of 27 IBU, salts appropriate to my water and the color of the wort, White Labs Oktoberfest yeast.  Apparently the mill at the LHBS isn’t quite set correctly – I can’t get anything I mill on mill #1 to lauter cleanly.  Lots of chunks of grain, flour, so this time I used a single knee-high nylon stocking to catch the crumbs.  Some of the flour got out but it looked like it got bound up in the hot break, the final wort was crystal clear.  I also discovered I’d been calculating my water incorrectly.  I had about a gallon of wort left over in the grains.  I also ended up extending the boil.  My new burner, wind shielded, lets me boil less vigorously than I have.  I get a better hot break but less evaporation.  Haven’t found the factor yet, will have to test….

We stirred up a Valpolicella as well.  It’s a light Italian red blend, a perfect red for a plate of spaghetti on a hot summer day, not heavy, not intensely oaky, fruity and refreshing.  We modified the kit instructions though.  Looking for a 12 percent final wine, we took a projected final gravity of 0.996, used the conversion factor abv/131.25 yields the number of gravity points required, added in the four for below zero to calculate our starting gravity of 1.088.  It was less volume than the instructions called for by a half-gallon.  We also modify fermentation instructions.  The instructions are to make a drinkable wine in four weeks.  We’re not in that kind of hurry.  We ferment cooler and slower, approx. 65 degrees in this case, let everything set at least twice as long as the instructions suggest.  The result is a much better wine.  One we will enjoy drinking this summer when it’s warm.

Experimental Results

Tonight I bottled the Classic American Pilsner made with Avangard Pilsner Malt, split into two batches, fermented with American Lager yeast and Urquell yeast.  The results are in front of me.  The American Lager version is a little darker in color, perhaps because it’s not quite as bright.  Hard to tell on the nose – the beers aren’t carbonated so much of the aroma isn’t rising up out of the beer  The American Lager version is extremely clean, hops come forward, bready flavors, very mild, a long, tart finish.  It will be a wonderful beer once conditioned.  The Urquell version has more malt character yet the hops still come through.  It’s my favorite of the two – I may have to enlist help to tell the difference.  Both are good beers!  Can’t wait until they’re carbonated!

I love doing brewing experiments like this one.  By varying one factor, I get two different beers, if slightly.  I can also be sure of my go-to Pilsner yeast once the test is over.  It allows me to learn as I brew and that is talking to my passion in life, learning.

Lemongrass Ginger Wheat Bottled

Bottling a gallon batch is such a joy.  You only get 10 bottles, I use conditioning tabs to prime, no racking, just put the bottling wand on the siphon hose and go to it!

The Lemongrass Ginger Wheat needs more ginger and a bit more lemongrass.  I want the citronella flavor to be pronounced but not overpowering, just a trace of ginger bite.  I’m happy with the base wheat beer, a stupid-simple recipe of half and half pale ale and wheat malt with a touch of acidulated to bring the mash pH down to appropriate levels, a bit of calcium to offset the deficiency in my tap water.  Once I get the recipe where I want it, I’ll post the recipe here and at Brewer’s Friend.

I must get this dialed in by Summer – may shortcut and do small extract batches to get the spices down, then scale up because I already know my hop rate, hops and base beer are good for this style.

More Skills to Know

Once straight extract brewing has been mastered, you can start branching out.  I encourage all new brewers to learn to brew using a very simple extract recipe consisting of extract, one hop with additions at 60 minutes and 10 minutes, a clean yeast and basic fermentation control.  By brewing this beer until the results are consistent, you can be certain that your process is solid.  You can be sure that changes to recipe will be reflected in the final beer, not variations in your brewing or sanitation processes.  At this point, you’re ready to expand your brewing through the addition of steeping grains.

Base malts such as Pilsner, Pale Ale and even to a large extent Munich or Vienna must be mashed to get their benefits.  The starches in the malt have not been converted.  So-called specialty malts have generally either been converted “in the husk” in the case of Crystals or Caramel Malts, or are so darkened that their sugar contribution to your wort is negligible.  These are prime candidates for a process called “extract and steep.”  You will be brewing an extract beer but you will also be making a “tea” of warm water, 150 to 170 degrees, and your steeping grains.

The process is simple:  Grind and bag your steeping grains in a cheesecloth or muslin bag – you don’t want the grains getting out into your wort.  If you don’t have a mill or aren’t comfortable grinding your own grains, your local homebrew supply shop will usually do this for you free of charge.  Place your brewing liquor (water) in your kettle, add the grains and begin to heat.  Once the temperature reaches 170 degrees F, turn the heat off and let the grains steep in the warm water for a minimum of 15 minutes, up to an hour.  Once in a while, dip the bag or swirl it in the warm water to ensure even wetting and to get some of the sweet wort, yes, it’s wort, out of the bag and into the water.  At the end of the process, pull the grains out of the water, drain – don’t squeeze or you can get some bitter-astringent tannins out of the husks.  Then top off any lost water due to grain absorption and continue the brewing process you’ve already mastered.

Experienced brewers can use the extract-steep process to test the flavors of new malts.  I’ll make a very small batch, one or two gallons, and use the extract-steep process as a test of specialty grains.  You can make some great beers this way, too.  I have a silver medal from the Colorado State Fair for a blonde ale made using extract and steep process.  These days it’s more of a test process for me but there’s no reason it can’t be your main process.  At worst, it’s another step toward all-grain brewing requiring only the addition of a grain bag to what you already are using.