Category Archives: DIY

Brewing Software: Non-intimidating, Practical Homebrewer Tool

As I mentioned in the post about the saison I recently made, I’ve started using brewing software as a sort of preparation/planning tool for making my beers. I’d always (i.e., since I’d started brewing) heard of brewing software and, not being much of a computer guy, was pretty dismissive of the entire idea. So then finally on a lark I downloaded some open-source brewing software, Brewtarget, and fooled around with it for a little while. Again, I’m not much of a computer whiz so my fooling around on the computer usually resembles the opening scene of 2001–after a few days of slapping and backing away, nudging and backing away, I figure out how the damn thing works. Just with no Also Sprach Zarathustra playing in the background.

Full disclosure: I watched a youtube video tutorial on how to use Brewtarget. It doesn’t have sound, but it is pretty helpful.

So but here’s why I’m telling you about Brewtarget: if you don’t use brewing software, you should. Regardless of what level you’re brewing at–all-grain 10 gallons batches or beginner 5 gallon extract batches–brewing software comes in pretty handy. Let me clarify in the most unconcise way possible.

Brewing software is fuckin neat.

It can help you plan a beer and keep a consistent record of your brewing process, but it will do this only if you are attentive to the data you put in the program. It is still just a computer program. So you have to make sure that you input the temp. you mash at, or the temp. you steep specialty grains at if you’re extract brewing. You still have to input the amount of extract/grains and hops you use. Basically, the software can be a great record of the beers you make, but you still have to have a certain amount of record-keeping bones in your body for it to be worth it.

basic brewtarget screenshot--overview of the beer up top and fermentables down low. I know this is way too small to see what the hell is going on, so click on it to see it in legible form

Also, brewing software, when used correctly, can help you do the math of beer making. That is to say that you can input variables (i.e., mash temp., amount of extract or hops, boil time, & c.) and it will calculate how much water you need to start the mash, how bitter the beer will be, how caloric the beer will be, and how much wort you’ll have after an hour boil. Now these are all values that are less than hard to derive without this software, but for the mathematically disinclined, having a calculator to do the work is pretty handy. If you’re at all interested in creating your own beer recipes, this software will knock some of the guesswork out.

Brewing software also will formulate your recipe and brewday instructions so you can print them out and use them as a guide while making beer. It’s just like getting instructions with a kit, except that you made the instructions and picked out the ingredients. Even though you might not really need instructions, they’re not a bad fall-back crutch to have around. Especially if you like to start cracking open homebrews when you start homebrewing.

There are lots of options for brewing software out there on the ole’ internet, and I’ve only really played around with Brewtarget. Which it’s an open-source software (and to me, if you can get something open-source, all the better (for more reasons than just it being free (which most aren’t germane here), open-source seems like the best option for software, to me)), and you can grab up, for not too many bucks, lots of those other options. I’d figure that most of the other options operate comparably to Brewtarget–there’re probably a few perks/conveniences depending on which one you get, but they all do basically the same thing. And at the end of the brewday, you make the beer, not your computer (i.e., your computer doesn’t make the beer, not that you don’t make your computer).

I’ll be honest, I’d always thought brew software was dorky, unnecessary computer antics that just complicated what didn’t need complication. I’m now a fan. This software can be as complicated or simple as you want it to be. You can use it as much or as little as you like. In short, it’s just the same as any computer software–the software itself isn’t what makes or breaks the end result, the user does.

So until the robot apocalypse arrives, your computer is still just a helping hand you can make do your bidding. Make it do your homebrewing bidding.

Brewed Slowly: #13 Petite Saison

I’ve been interested in Saisons lately, so I figured I’d try to make one as my second all-grain batch of beer. I looked over a few recipes for lower gravity saisons, and kind of mixed and matched what I liked about a few of them to get a single recipe that I liked.

From what I understand, saisons are sometimes called farmhouse ales, and they can be French or Belgian. Sam Adams has a Rustic Saison that you might be able to find at restaurants now, and it’s an OK beer–I’ve had better, but I still like it pretty good. Technically, I guess, I brewed a French saison because I used a French saison yeast (there’s probably more to it being French or Belgian than that, but that’s what I’m going to guess).

Couple of other points to mention about this beer. I’ve gotten a few new toys to make the all-grain brewing easier. First, I built the mash-tun (which I’m sure you read all about here), then I picked up a plate heat exchanger (wort chiller) from Dudadiesel, and I also downloaded some open-source brew software called Brewtarget. While batch number lucky thirteen didn’t exactly go as planned, these new equipment additions made it much more enjoyable and ensured, as much as anything can with me, that the beer will come out good.

Before I get into the recipe, I should talk a little about Brewtarget. This software (I am completely aware of how nerdish it sounds to talk about beer making software) allows you to put in information about your recipe, desired mash temps., etc. and then does much of the math for you. It even puts together a recipe page you can print off and a ‘brewday’ instruction sheet that you can print off and follow. Pretty damn neat. Leave it to computer geeks to come up with a program that helps you make beer. So even though I’d heard about brew software before and thought it was kind of lame, I’m completely into it now. It certainly doesn’t make or break the beer, and you can easily get along without it, but it is an easy way to calculate (without doing lots of math on your own (which is pretty much not an option for me for more reasons than are germane here)) stuff such as mash efficiency, beer bitterness, original and estimated final gravities, and even estimated calories per 12 oz. beer. Shazaam.

So now for the recipe (i.e., the Software):

7 lbs. Belgian 2 row Pale malt

2 lbs. Fawcett Optic Pale malt (also 2 row)

3 oz. Czech Saaz hops (whole leaf–cause it was cheaper to get 8 oz leaf than pellets and I hadn’t used leaf hops in a while)

Wyeast 3711 French Saison yeast

the Leoneian (sp?) Showdown:

1. Brought 2.2 gallons of water to 170 F and added to mash-tun (MT).

2. Added grain to MT and held at 154 F for an hour. (Full-disclosure: it was my first time using the MT and I (actually Brewtarget) calculated the water temp a little low–ended up mashing just below 150 for an hour. Will know better next time.)

stirring in the mash

3. Added approx. 5.5 gallons of water at 180 F to mash and held for 15 minutes.

4. Batch sparged and drained into brew kettle.

5. Brought wort to boil and added 1 oz. hops.

6. With 10 minutes left in 60 minute boil, added another 1 oz. hops.

7. With 2 minutes left in boil, added one more 1 oz. hops.

And here’s where it got wonked-up. I hadn’t exactly figured out all the fittings and/the operation of the heat exchanger I got, and so running the boiling wort through the plate chiller took a little improvisation and brewing assistant help. To spare you the boring details (that just also happen to make me look like a dumbass), I’ll just say that the wort was only about half-chilled coming out of the plate chiller. Which means that the wort was still pretty warm, way above the goal 70-80 F, when it went into the carboy. Which also meant that I ended up plugging the carboy with a bung and covering that with plastic wrap to sit overnight.

But wait, that means that I’ve got a Wyeast smack pack that is by now (i.e., about 6 hours in) completely expanded and waiting to be pitched. Well, I made a starter (not without its own problems) from about a quart of wort that collected in the MT while the beer boiled, put that qt. of wort in a small jug, and pitched the yeast into it to sit over night.

8. Next morning around 8 am, I pitched the yeast and starter, plugged up the carboy with an airlock, and was witnessing bubbling beer about 10 hours later.

So what was so problematic about lucky number 13? I’ll only give you the most dramatic obstacle of the day. It stormed pretty much all day, and we had about 5 (this is a conservative estimate) tornado warnings during the time I started to mash till I put the carboy away. So just when the mash was close to being done, I, and my buddy Ben who was helping, had to come inside and hide out in the bathroom until the sirens were done and the TV said the storm had passed us. This was not the only tornado siren we heard while brewing, but after we’d had about 45 minutes of the past 2 hours filled with sirens, we took our chances and stayed outside with the beer. We lived to tempt another nader.

Brewtarget has the original gravity coming out to 1.040, and I didn’t take a reading, so I’m trusting that I got somewhere relatively close to this. (If you are learned in mashing, this will probably seem optimistic to you given the amount of grain. I set out for an efficiency of 78% instead of 75 or 72, mainly because both my grains were rated for 80% efficiency. This could very easily be faulty logic. It wouldn’t be the first time.)

about 3.5 days after pitching yeast. still bubbling.

I’ll be making a steam beer this weekend, and by then I intend to have all (read: some (actually, probably just a few)) of the kinks in the new toys worked out so that this batch goes easily and ferments with confidence.

Converting A Cooler To A Mash-tun

Since I’ve started all-grain brewing, and because my first batch came out less than good, I’ve started acquiring more advanced brewing equipment. I got the converted keg as brew pot and have already used it on this beer, and since then I’ve converted a Coleman cooler into a mash-tun (MT). I had seen pictures of converted cooler MTs, and it seemed like a pretty simple DIY project after reading several people explain the process. So I got a 48 qt. cooler and some plumbing parts and built myself a MT this past Saturday morning. And now I’m going to tell you how I did it.

(Don’t think that just because there are like a million blogs and websites that explain how to do this that I’m going to pass up the chance to tell you how I did it. And I will try to be clearer and more detailed in places than other how-to’s I read were.)

Also, I’ve opened up a BrewDog Punk IPA (which I got in Atlanta), and I’ll give it a short review at the end of the post–kind of a Drinking It All subplot.

So first, I’ll cover what a MT is and does just in case you don’t really know. Basically a MT is a vessel (could be a cooler, bucket, or pot) that you steep grain in to get the wort you’ll boil as the second part of the brewing process. If you are familiar with extract brewing, the MT is what you’ll use to make your own extract (although, technically, it’s like extract but diluted so that it’s about 6-7 gallons vs. the 7-9 lbs of extract/syrup). The cooler (in my case) is fitted with a spigot so the wort can be drained into the brewpot and has some kind of false bottom or screen on the inside to keep the grains from coming out with the wort (I’m using a screen sock type thing, sometimes called a bazooka screen (no idea)).

Here’s what I used:

(1) 48 qt. Coleman cooler w/ spigot (mine’s blue)

(2) 1/2″ brass ball valve

(3) 3/4″ flat washers X 4

(4) 3/4″ rubber washers X 2

(5) #15 o-ring (it’s got a 3/4″ inner diameter)

(6) rubber seal from factory spigot

(7) 2.5″ brass pipe nipple

(8) 1/2″ barb w/ female thread

(9) 4′ stainless steel water supply hose

(10) 1/2″ x 3/8″ brass pipe bushing w/ male thread

(11) 3/8″ barb w/ female thread

And here’s a couple pictures with the plumbing fixtures:

(l-r) (not pictured: 1/2" barb) flat washer, factory spigot seal, 2.5" pipe nipple, (on top) factory spigot, #15 o-ring, another flat washer, rubber washer

2 flat washers, brass ball valve, bushing, 3/8" barb

Here’s what I did:

1. Removed the factory spigot from the cooler. At first, I couldn’t figure out how to do this, but then I looked at this video and felt like an idiot. You just hold onto the little circular collar that surrounds the spigot on the outside (it’s attached to the cap) and unscrew the piece on the inside of the cooler.

2.  Next, I put together half of the new spigot, in this order: (a) rolled the #15 o-ring onto the pipe nipple (from the right) (b) screwed on a flat washer, then both rubber washers, then 2 more flat washers (c) wrapped the exposed thread of the pipe nipple with teflon tape (d) screwed on the ball valve (e) wrapped the bushing with teflon tape and attached the 3/8″ barb.

It should look like this (minus the ball valve, bushing, and barb):

pipe nipple with o-ring, flat washer, 2 rubber washers, 2 flat washers, teflon tape

3. I put this part through the hole in the cooler where I removed the spigot.

4. I pushed the factory spigot seal onto the pipe nipple inside the cooler.

5. I pushed a flat washer on behind the factory seal.

6. Then I screwed on the 1/2″ barb (no teflon tape this time because it doesn’t matter to me if this leaks–it’s inside the cooler).

7. Finally I attached the screen sock/bazooka screen* to the barb with a 1/2″ metal hose clamp.

*Here’s how I made the screen sock/bazooka screen: (a) cut one end off the water supply hose with a hacksaw (b) scrunched the steel screen up away from the cut (the screen covers a rubber hose and if you try to pull the hose out, the screen will tighten on the hose like a Chinese finger trap so you have to scrunch the screen up and the hose will come right out.) (c) cut off a length of the screen about 7 inches long (d) crimped one open end of the screen.

It looked like this:

homemade bazooka screen. the left end is crimped, and the right end is attached to the 1/2" barb

And that’s all there is to it. I put some water in to check from leaks, and there were none, so hopefully, when I make the next beer later this week my MT will make the mashing process much easier than my mash-in-a-bag method from the London Pride clone.

Also, like I mentioned earlier, I’ve been drinking a BrewDog Punk IPA while writing this post so here’s the most concise (although maybe not the most detailed) review of a beer I’ve done yet.

Colored like a pale ale (e.g., Liberty Ale, Sierra Nevada PA). Bitter like a pale ale but not floral or citrusy. 6% ABV like a pale ale. Not sure what makes this an IPA. I’m giving it a thumbs down, if for no other reason than the label calls this beer a ‘postmodern classic pale ale.’ I’m not even going to try to unpack what that label might mean, especially for a just better than OK pale ale.

Oh, and here’s a picture of the MT all finished up:

finished mash-tun


Brewed Slowly: Kegging

When I posted about the advantages of kegging over bottling, I promised to later go into more detail about the kegging process itself. Now I’m keeping my promise. Today I kegged the fall brown ale (w/pumpkin, butternut squash, and acorn squash), and so now I’ll tell you about it.

Like I mentioned in the earlier kegging post, about the only tedious part of kegging is the cleaning and sanitizing. If you’ve brewed your own beer, then you’re probably used to this emphasis on cleanliness. Here it’s no different. I cleaned my keg with TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) then sanitized with the basic sanitizer that usually comes with starter brew kits.

The cleaning:

1. I took apart the keg. So the lid comes off, the in- and out-posts have to be unscrewed and removed, the long and short dip tubes come out, and all the o-rings (lid, posts, tubes) were removed.

2. Once the keg is disassembled (this Johnny-5 is not alive), I put the small parts (basically everything but the keg itself) in a tub to soak in a dilution of TSP and warm water–about a tbsp of TSP per gallon of water. Then I filled up the keg with the same dilution of TSP/water.

3. After about 3o min.-1 hour, I brushed around the inside of the keg, with a carboy brush, and then dumped out the solution. For the small parts, I just rinsed them off well.

And that’s the cleaning. (Cleaning is different from sanitizing, and both are necessary. Cleaning aims to get off any visible dirt, residue, nasty shit you don’t want in the beer. Sanitizing’s purpose is to bring the equipment as close to sterile as possible. So an item can be clean but not sanitized, and vice versa.)

The sanitizing:

1. I took all the small parts and soaked them in a tub with a dilution of the brew sanitizer, and I filled up the keg with the same dilution. (Basically following the steps of cleansing, but with a sanitizer.)

2. After letting everything soak for about an hour, I dumped out the solutions and rinsed off everything well.

3. I let all the small parts dry off for a while.

Note: I used a sanitizer instead of bleach, which is what (the bleach) I usually use to sanitize when brewing. The reasoning is that bleach can be corrosive to stainless steel over longish periods of time–and the keg is stainless steel.

After I had a clean and sanitized keg, I put all its parts back where I found them (i.e., assembled). Then I got out the fermented beer. From here, the process is exactly like bottling, except that it is, like, unquantifiably easier and less a pain in the ass. I chose to force carbonate the beer today, so I skipped the bottling bucket and corn sugar addition.

from fermentor to keg

I put the fermentor on the counter and the keg on the ground below. Then it was as simple as siphoning the beer into the keg. Fin.

After the beer’s in the keg, I closed it up and pressurized it with 5 PSI CO2 to make sure that the seals all seated well.

Forced carbonation: Like I said, I force carbonated this beer. This means that I basically pumped a good bit of CO2 into the keg and ‘force carbonated’ it. Simple. I let the keg get cold in the refrigerator for most of the day, and then put about 20 PSI into the keg and shook it for a good while. After letting it sit for another hour or so, the beer’s carbonated and ready to drink.

Of course the beer would benefit from a longer aging period and natural carbonation, but I was feeling like seriously impatient today so I took a shortcut.

On a mostly unrelated note, I’ve been listening to Probot while writing this post. This record basically just kicks ass all over the place and right into your ears.

Things To Do With Beer: Customization

We, as individuals proud of our individuality, are wont to make things our own (individually). Some people like to add noisemakers/pipes to their big-ass, ridiculous trucks that sound as though there’s a microphone set up next to the engine (but, you know, they do it for the improved gas mileage). Some people set up in-home surround sound so they can pretend they’re in a movie theater when they’re actually in their living rooms (remember, one of the key elements of entertainment is always suspension of disbelief). Some people have tattoos, and some people have tailored suits. So the point here is that we like to make things our own. And there’s no reason why we can’t make the beer we buy our own as well.

People add lime to the Mexican beer of their choice. People put orange slices in Blue Moons and Abita Purple Hazes. So it would follow that customization is possible for you, at home, with your store-bought beer.

Naturally, I like to do a little customization here and there. Specifically when I’m trying to figure out a recipe for a beer. And so tomorrow I’m planning on making a mad-scientist (of sorts) beer. And so but today I had to do some beer science.

It’s now fall, and fall beers typically are made with pumpkin (or some other fall vegetable/fruit) and spices. I’ve not made a fall seasonal beer yet, but I’ve got what I need to make a brown ale and I’m thinking about what additions to a brown ale might a good fall beer make.

Obvious: pumpkin.

Less obvious: butternut squash

Somewhat less obvious: acorn squash

Crazy: dried leaves

fuck a v8. put your vegetables in a beer.

I was thinking that either pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash, or a combination of all three might be good additions to a brown ale that would work together to produce the kind of earthy, spicy flavor that would compliment late afternoons on the back porch, watching the sun fall down earlier in the day with each day.

So all these 335 words of introduction should have briefly just said that today I bought a six-pack of brown ale, a pumpkin, a butternut squash, and an acorn squash and made (customized) my own fall beers out of some store-bought beer.

What I did:

First I cut up the vegetables into slices, dusted them with a small amount of cinnamon, and put them in the oven at 450 F for 20 minutes.

While this was happening, I got out 4 beer glasses.

After the vegetables were done in the oven, and had cooled down, I put one slice of each vegetable in a beer glass–which, if you’re keeping count, means I had a glass left. Guess what went into the last glass. Slices of all three. All glasses were labeled and put into the refrigerator to steep. Then I went out to mow the grass.

like looking into the cabinet in biology lab--except that you shouldn't have to be dared/paid to drink what's in them.

Understand that the beer was undeniably a little flatter than usual since it’d been sitting in a glass for about an hour and a half–but we’re after the taste which isn’t necessarily affected by the carbonation here. So after tasting each of the beers, I came to a fairly reasonable decision about what to put into my fall beer.

And you’ll just have to wait to hear about it. I’m making the beer tomorrow, so it’s possible you’ll find out then.

Mystery. MYSTERY!