Some Lessons from Helles

I love Helles.  Done right, it is the very definition of German beer, pale, refreshing, clean.  And as a brewer, it will break your balls.  There is no place at all to hide any error, your least flaw sticks out like a sore thumb.  Even water adjustments become obvious.  This makes it the perfect brew to perfect the craft, so perfect the Weihenstephan brewing school in Germany teaches only Helles, thinking that if you can brew Helles, you can brew anything.  So I undertook a project:  Brew Helles and learn.

And I’ve learned a number of lessons.  The first lesson is that I wasn’t handling chlorine in my water well.  I was using an RV filter with an activated charcoal element.  It wasn’t sufficient, as evidenced in the band-aid flavor apparent in the Helles version I did using only Vienna malt.  I’ve started dechlorinating my water with sodium metabisulfite, Campden tablets, and the band-aid flavor is gone.  My Saisons are better, too.  The phenolics are not as harsh.  I’ve learned how to manage my water, particularly when it comes to the mash pH and the pH of the final beer.   A beer’s mash should be within 0.2 units of pH 5.4, the wort in the fermentor around 5.2 and the final beer pH, pre-carbonation, should be around 4.2.  Getting the final beer pH too high results in a flat beer, too much too low generates noticeable tartness.  And I discovered this by “spiking” one of my Helles with acid and alkali.  You can determine the effects of brewing salts, too, with the result that I add a small amount of table salt to my beers at bottling.

There’s more I’ve learned such as the effect of starting with relatively pure water and building up the salt content – result was a smooth, malty beer resembling some of the good ones I’ve had in Germany.  I have more to learn from Helles such as the effect of pH on clarity, the tastes of differing malts, varying fermentation temperature and time.  Small-batch brewing helps, I’m not stuck with too much of a failed experiment.  And the homebrew club enjoys my experiments as well.  They can see the effects of varying process and recipe and employ the results in their own brews.  Brewing one simple style repeatedly, varying it slightly from brew to brew, is very educational.  I’d recommend it to anyone.


Measuring Mash pH

Okay, Mr. Wizard is certainly muddying the water when it comes to mash pH.  In October, his sidebar seemed to imply that mash pH readings should be taken at mash temperature.  He cites several sources but the only one I could find that made a definitive statement was Kai Troester at  Reference is here:

So when I read the instructions for my pH meter, a Milwaukee Instruments MW-102, it tells me to cool samples to room temperature to avoid damage to the electrodes.  It’s been a long time since high school and college temperature but I seem to remember we always cooled samples.  So I’m wondering why the wizard at BYO would think otherwise?  I’ve been measuring my mash pH and shooting for the optimum 5.4.  The result has been “brighter” beer flavor, better clarity and higher attenuation.  Hard to argue.  And I’ve been cooling my samples.

The post from Kai pretty much suggested I’d been following the proper procedure.  I take a sample, cool it in the water bath, then take the pH reading.  If my reading is off by 0.1 to 0.2, I won’t worry too much about it.  At that time I can take a gravity reading with the hydrometer, if desired.

It’s confusing.  Most of the classic brewing references do not mention the temperature of the sample.  My guess is that for these masters of brewing chemistry, how to take a pH reading was so trivial it wasn’t worth mentioning:  You cool the sample to the meter’s calibration temperature, then take your reading.  Period.  So I’ll choose to keep to that schedule.  I like the results I’m getting from the “lower” pH than Mr. Wizard would suggest, so I’ll keep taking my readings cool.

And as I like to say, if you like the beer you’re brewing, you’re doing it right.

A Cheesy Disaster and Das Helles – Projekt

I wanted to make a Port-du-Salut today.  I ended up making a pot of slightly curdled milk.  

Due to problems finding un-homogenized milk, I tried something else.  Skim milk is not homogenized, it’s not necessary, and I can find non-homogenized cream.  So I combined the two, and the end result was that listed above.  I can get non-homogenized milk at Natural Grocers for about $8 per gallon, God only knows how old the stuff is, or I can get a cow share for about the same price per gallon.  Pricey for a hobby – I’ve had cheese come out less than great.  I consider that the price of learning and i’m getting better.  My soft and semi-soft cheeses are killer, even with using plain store-bought milk.  But I don’t want okay.  I made a brie using the pricey Natural Grocers milk and it came out wonderful.  So I thought I’d try the skim-cream combo.  To disastrous ends.

I’ll try again this weekend with normal milk.  It’s semi-soft so I should be okay.

Das Helles-Projekt is underway – I brewed the first of the tests today using a Bohemian Floor-Malted Pisner, I think from Weyermann.  The actual first wound up teaching me about my equipment, as did this one to some extent.  I still had a bit too much wort in the kettle – the boil-off rate for my heating plate in the basement is about 3/4 gallon over 2 hours.  So for future batches I’ll cut my water use a bit more but I can use this as the first test.

The Avangard version looks good, I started lagering it today.

Brewing Priorities

I have a wheel of Gruyere in the press, we bottled a white blend and one of the wines in the blend, an Albarino (forgive me, don’t know how to get a tilde on the “n” on my tablet).  The blend:  Albarino (60%), Gewurztraminer (25%) and Muscat (15%).  But the reason for this post:  I got my new copy of “How to Brew” by John Palmer this week.

I’ve always maintained that the recipe was not nearly as important as other factors in brewing.  The same wort can be fermented differently and produce a completely different beer.  John’s priorities match mine so I’ll list them:

1. Sanitation.  Your stuff isn’t clean, your beer gets infected, it will not be good.  Period.  You can’t call an infected beer “Belgian” and get away with it, at least not with anyone who knows what they’re tasting.  Infected beer tastes like infected beer and there’s nothing that can be done to fix it.

2. Fermentation control.  Yeast does not like temperature swings.  The temperature isn’t as important as the stability.  My fermentation controller, an Inkbird two-stage controller that both heats and cools, is accurate to +/- 0.7 C, or about 1 F.  It’s made a great difference in my beer.  If you don’t have that level of control you can still make good beer but look for ways to keep the temperature stable.

3.  Yeast management.  Pitch enough viable yeast.  Period.  Make starters.  Hydrate dry yeast.

4.  The boil.  You can over or undercook your ingredients.  Pay attention to the boil.

5.  The recipe.  Finally, the thing most obsess over.  Obsessing over 1 through 4 will help make better beer.

I had a chance to meet John earlier this year and we had an interesting chat about this very subject.  I didn’t have the boil in my list then, I do now.  Some further factors are oxygen after fermentation, how you package, choice of priming sugar and so forth but these five will do most toward helping you make good beer.

Two Fermentations Underway

I have two fermented foods going at this time (in addition, of course, to the wine and beer fermenting downstairs).  One is a sourdough bread I call “Poop Bread” – it’s very high in fiber due to addition of 200 grams of bran and cooked cereal and the whole-wheat flour that makes up 75% of the flour.  Well, I cheated on the grandkids a bit this time and added some soy flour to punch up the protein in the bread.  I ferment about half of the flour overnight using a starter I caught in Palisade, Colorado.  Maybe it’s my imagination but I detect fruity ester flavors in the sourdough that carry into the bread.  The loaves are currently rising in their bannetons.

Loaves of “Poop Bread” (High-fiber whole-wheat bread) rising in their bannetons.

I’ll bake them in Dutch ovens.  That keeps the humidity very high for the first 20 minutes, developing a very artisan-like, chewy crust.  The loaves smell of vinegar during baking, a tribute to the fermentation process.  Done, the bread is moist, completely hiding the huge amount of fiber in it behind a creamy crumb and chewy crust.  The family loves it and they don’t even have to know the bread is extremely good for them.

Dutch ovens in the oven warming to bake the bread.

The other fermentation is a lactic cheese I started last night.  It’s very simple:  A gallon of milk and a cup of heavy cream warmed to room temperature, calcium chloride, culture and a very small amount of rennet added, left to ripen overnight.  When the curd is ready, that is, it’s firm and covered with about a quarter inch of whey, I cut it into 1 inch columns and let it stand for a few minutes, then ladle it into a cheesecloth-lined colander over a bucket.

Lactic cheese draining

Tomorrow I’ll add truffle oil to half, dill tea to the other half, then mold it for a while.  It’ll “age” for about five days to let the flavors blend, then I’ll serve it.  Yum!

Beer and Wine Tasks

We’re prepping for our annual Kentucky Derby party so I’ve been working the alcoholic refreshments pretty hard.  I have a batch of Kentucky Common and a batch of Agave Blonde made for the party, a batch of “Nutella” Ale made up for a friend and a Belgian Quad made up just for grins.  Bottled the Blonde and finished off a Helles for Das Projekt.  Many disasters brewing the Helles – too much water in the mash tun and the yeast left at the Homebrew Shop.  It won’t do as a test but it told me how to use my “small” system.

On the wine side, we have a few in process, mostly whites.  We have a Gewurztraminer made from genuine Colorado grapes, a kit Moscato and a very special wine, an Albarino (the “n” has the Spanish tilde).  We got the grapes from the state’s grape expert, it’s been through malolactic fermentation and we just got it to clarify.  The flavor is a blend of Riesling and Chardonnay, the Riesling because that was probably the ancestor grape – the name means “white of the Rhein” and the Chardonnay from the malolactic fermentation.  We intend to make a blend of the three but also to keep some “straight”.  All three are outstanding wines.

Cheese – I wrote about cream cheese.  I have milk for a lactic cheese but haven’t had time to start the process.  My Fourme d’Ambert is growing mold, the erroneously processed Wimer Winter has sprung a leak but is delicious.  It’s going well.

Bread:  For the first time in several months we are eating storebought bread.  No time to mix anything up.  More to come….

Cream Cheese Making Part 1: Ripening

For a while, I’ve wanted to make sourdough bagels, the main reason being the recipe and procedure I’m about to share.  I don’t really make cream cheese, rather Neufchatel:  All the flavor and far fewer calories, something I can appreciate at my age!

Cream cheese – I’ll call my Neufchatel that throughout this post – is very easy to make, an excellent starter cheese.  It’s a lactic cheese – acid developed over about 24 hours is the primary coagulation method but it’s helped along by just a bit of rennet.  It requires a couple of things you might not have, a starter culture and rennet.  I use milk and cream from the supermarket, calcium chloride from my brewing supplies.

Ripening the Milk for Cream Cheese

The process takes two full days, one to ripen the milk and another to drain the coagulum – the jelly-like stuff that forms due to acid and rennet action on the milk.  So I’ll split the post into two parts.

Here’s what you’ll need to make the cheese:

  • Some kind of sanitizer.  I use Star San because I have it and it’s easy.   A dilute bleach solution works well, too.
  • A pot large enough to hold a gallon of milk and a pint of cream with room for stirring
  • A spoon to stir with
  • A way to heat the milk without scorching it.  I use the stovetop on low heat, you may want to use a water bath or some other way.
  • Measuring spoons down to 1/8 tsp (or eyeball using a 1/4 tsp measuring spoon)
  • A large colander capable of holding a gallon and a pint
  • About a half square yard of butter muslin (best) or fine cheesecloth (okay)
  • A way to hang the cheese in the butter muslin to drain


  • 1 gallon whole milk.  I use the cheap stuff from King Soopers.
  • 1 pint heavy whipping cream.  I use the cheap stuff for this as well.
  • 1/4 tsp 30% (by weight) calcium chloride solution.  You can buy this or mix it up yourself if you have food-grade CaCl2 around.
  • 1/8 tsp Mesophilic Aroma B starter.  I’ve used 1/4 tsp Flora Danica starter but the cheese didn’t come out as good.
  • 3 drops double strength rennet diluted in 1/4 cup cool, non-chlorinated water.
  • 1/2 tsp salt.  Since there’s no further ripening of this cheese, either iodized or plain salt will do.

Here’s how you make the cheese:

  1. Sanitize everything.  You’re working with milk and know how quickly it can spoil, microbes like it that much.
  2. Heat the milk and cream to 86 degrees Fahrenheit.  Stir in the calcium chloride solution as the milk is warming.
  3. Sprinke the starter over the top of the milk.  Let it rehydrate five minutes.  Then stir in.
  4. Prepare and add the rennet solution.  Stir into the milk for one minute.  Let the milk stand at room temperature for 18-24 hours.  I usually let it go 24.  I’m sure there’s a way to measure the pH to know when the proper acidity has been reached.  I never have tried to find out.

That’s it for Day 1 of the process.  More to come tomorrow….

Rennet, water dechlorinated with a few drops of milk, infrared thermometer