Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Product Review: Stainless Brewing's Hop Spider

The amount of hops that make it from the boil kettle into the fermenter is something that has always bothered me. I've tried using hop bags, or a 5 gallon paint strainer bag, but they are a pain to clean and bothers me to re-use them. I've also tried going comando and throwing the hops right into the boil then whirlpooling, which has worked fine for me for the last 2+ years but I found that I was carrying a lot of hops into my primary fermenter. Although Trub may not be of great concerns in the final product, I have a desire for clean yeast to harvest from primary for re-pitching.

At the NHC last year in Philadelphia I noticed a relatively (maybe just to me) new product from Stainless Brewing. A hop spider is not a novel idea, homebrewers have been using many variations of this method for quite a while with great success but mostly rely on those nylon bags, which are really a pain to clean and look pretty dingy after a few uses. A stainless mesh basket, however, could be the answer to all my prayers, easy cleaning, virtually infinite uses without significant wear. It seemed perfect, but I was unsure if the mesh would be fine enough to keep pellet hops in, or even too fine and result in loss of hop utilization/aromatics/flavors. 

"Santa" was kind enough to leave one under the tree for me this past year, and I have put it to work on some heavily hopped beers, and some not so heavily hopped as well. The results have been fantastic, I am getting clean and clear hop free wort into my fermenters, I may be getting some break break material in there but with how I whirlpool chill its very minimal. I have noticed no ill effects on hop utilization or loss of hop aromatics/flavor on beers as heavily hopped as Jah-RodBlazing WardsHopWardsWe Talkin 'bout Practice among others. They are bright and hoppy as I would expect them to be. Not a pellet makes it through this fine mesh, even when using up to a pound in the boil/whirlpool.

I also run off the mash into the spider to catch any rogue grain particles I can.
I rinse it out before I boil.
It is solidly built, the basket itself is rigid and yet the mesh seems fine enough to retain the hop debris. It comes with extension arms so you can suspend the basket in the middle of the pot, they can be removed for easy cleaning/storage. The arms have a washer and rubber gasket so you can size it to your kettles specifications (as seen in photo above), to be honest this feels a bit flimsy to me but it does work fine. I have the 6-5/8"x18" and it fits perfectly in the 20 gallon Boilermaker.

Conveniently the strainer fits inside my immersion
chiller. I usually remove the arms at this point.
At first I was just sitting the basket on the bottom of the kettle and letting it lean against the side but I was getting significant kettle caramelization where it sat on the bottom so I have gone back to using the arm attachments so that it rests suspended in the kettle. One thing to note is during the vigorous boil there is not a ton of movement within the basket, it doesn't effect the vigor of the boil but there is very little activity within the basket itself.

Not so much a down side, but more of a needed adjustment in my system since the addition is the displacement caused by the basket giving me a higher then normal reading on the sight glass. This is just something I needed to dial in and figure what volume it is adding to the reading at various times in my 11 gallon batches. Other than that this is a fantastic product and far exceeds the results I have had from the HopBlocker. It is fairly pricey at close to $100, depending on the size you need, but it is well worth it for me over bags or a homemade spider. 

The main reason I wanted to limit the amount of hop debris going into the fermenter was so that I could more easily "wash" yeast and re-use it batch to batch. I have settled on a 2 house sacchromyces strains of late (Wallonian Farmhouse and S-04, still many Bretts and Bacteria though) and want to get the most out of each pitch. This hop spider far exceeded my expectations in that department, I use a whirlpool immersion chiller with this and then pump into my fermenters leaving any break material in a cone on the bottom of my kettle. After I rack the beer off the yeast cake I have thick dense slurry that needs very little washing/rinsing, if at all, to re-pitch into my next batch. This is the biggest reason I love this product so much, and after 12-15 batches I nearly have this thing paid for in yeast savings, more on how I re-use yeast in an upcoming post. It may not be for everyone, but I highly recommend it.

Running off into the basket.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Gueuze Blending 101: And I am the student.

The barrels at Brasserie Cantillon.
The art of blending, specifically Gueuze, is a skill acquired through years of practice, learning what flavor profiles work together and how a certain blend will age over time. You need keen senses to break down the flavor/aromas of each component to build a blend that is satisfying to your pallate, as well as others if selling commercially of course. Traditional Lambic producers have been blending Gueuze for hundreds of years with the goal of a consistent flavorful product, among other reasons, for example Cantillon Classic Gueuze. On a homebrew scale we face an uphill battle when blending Gueuze as it takes years to age the required Lambics, space to store multiple vintage from which to choose from, and then months to years as the beer conditions in the bottle to learn what worked and what did not. There is a reason blenders like Armand De Belder and Jean Van Roy are held in such high regard, it is an art form that not everyone is capable of perfecting. Its requires a great palate and years of experience, among other traits, even with all of that it still may not be enough to be on those fellas level.

"I am a brewer naturally, but I am first a blender"
-Jean Van Roy - Brasserie Cantillon

The point can be argued that in order to craft a world class Lambic/sour beer you must blend, or add fruit, to get a complex well rounded product. We as brewers have very little control over the end result once we pitch our chosen microbes, or when left to the open air of your resident microflora. Stressing over ingredients, mashing regimes, yeast strains etc, is common, and all for good reason because once we add our chosen mixed culture of yeast and bacteria it is no longer under our control. Sure, we can manage fermentation temperatures, age in oak/stainless/or glass in hopes driving the beer in a certain direction, but ultimately every fermentation is different even if you're using the same cultures. 
Lambic in a Bladder, in a box, below a fox.

Over my years of brewing I had always wanted to put a plan in place and build towards a Gueuze but I had hoped I could brew a great mixed fermentation (sour) beer without the need to blend. In part because of my naivety that I thought I could brew a great one without blending and because, well, I was not the best at planning long term aging beers and sticking to that plan but times have changed.

Despite my poor planning in the past, and with some exciting yet to be announced blending projects on the horizon, I wanted to get a jumpstart on building some Gueuze blending skills with a shortcut of not having to wait for multiple years of my own Lambic to mature. On hand I had a Turbid Mashed Lambic that I brewed on big brew day 2013 and my first Lambic that was about two and a half years old sitting in a 3 gallon carboy, but I felt that wasn't enough for a complex blend, I needed more mature Lambic. Then I stumbled across these beauties, could this be what I was looking for?! I really like the idea of using other Lambic to blend with my own, as a lot of traditional blenders do, for similar to Gueuzerie Tilquin who I beleive is solely a blender and not a brewer. 

A friend (Kirk) and I reached out to Kurt (Kirk and Kurt, confusing I know.) from Belgium in a Box with a few questions. We were curious if these were pasteurized or not (This wasn't a deal breaker for me but I prefer living bugs!), and can we get a Cantillon bladder? He didn't seem to want to commit to the first question, but being that I visited some of these Lambic producers I am 99.9% sure they aren't pasteurizing anything. Lambic should always be alive and changing and those facilities are largely not equipped with modern tools, especially to pasteurize Lambic just for these bladders. As for the Cantillion, Kurt said that Jean no longer wanted him to ship the bladders because the product is so volatile that he fears the bag would burst in transport, right, so yea that ones not pasteurized.

From Left: 2.5 yr old Homebrew, 1 yr Turbid mashed, Girardin, Beersel
The Lambic in a Box came in, Kirk (not Kurt from Belgium, don't get confused now) took his portion and used them to set off a new fermentation with success, living bugs! After he took his share I was left with 1 gallon of Beersel and ~1.75 gallons of Girardin Lambics in bladders, which would be plenty to blend with the two homebrewed Lambics I had on hand. I pulled a sample from each to taste and wrote down a few small tasting notes, then I got to working on a blend to suit my tastes. At first I was using a graduated cylinder to measure out blends, but found that using a gram scale was more accurate and required less Lambic to play with blend ratios. I then used my 50lb capacity grain scale to measure the final full volume blended Gueuze. 

Individual tasting notes:
  • Girardin- Amber, sweet, Carmel, unrefined, moderate tartness. No Gravity Taken
  • Beersel- pale straw, sweaty, musty, mildew, drier than Girardin, tart, more refined. No Gravity Taken
  • 2.5 yr Homebrew- Berliner like, lemony, citrus, bright acidity, light funk. FG: 1.004
  • 1yr turbid Homebrew- aroma is very sweet, slight acetone, mild tartness. Lingering big residual sweetness. After taste is not pleasant, this needs more age. FG: 1.011
Racking from the cut open
Girardin bladder.
I came up with 3 different blends based on the characteristics of the Lambics above. The first blend was too heavy on the 1year old homebrewed Lambic, which was very unrefined, so that was set aside quickly. I had a hard time deciding between the two blends I had left, neither of which jumped out at me as THE one but were both tasty despite not being all that different. This where I could have used a second opinion, and in the future I think I will invite a friend over to help as I was getting some palette fatigue by this point. I settled on the one of the two that left the least amount of the commercial Lambic behind, and used the smallest amount of the 1 year Turbid Homebrewed as it was my least favorite, it was just a bit too sweet and in too high of quantities ruined the blend. While at the same time it did add some complexity that was missing when I played with leaving it out entirely, should also add some extra sugars to be broken down in the bottle. 

I found the easiest way to empty the bladders was to put them in a 1 gallon bucket from Loews with the spout on top and then cut the bag open, removing the end with the spout. This left the bladder open to the elements sitting in the bucket and I was able to just use the autosiphon to empty it into my bottling bucket without losing more than an ounce or so. Trying to drain the bladder via the spout is going to oxidize the Lambic far too much, this ended up being a very gentle smooth transfer into a co2 purged bucket.

The final blend ratios:
  • 1.25 gallons of Girardin %29.5
  • 1.00 gallons of Beersel %23.5
  • 1.25 gallons 2.5 yr old Homebrew %29.5
  • 0.75 gallons 1yr Turbid Mashed Homebrew %17.5
  • 4.25 gallons Blended Gueuze 
Sipping on a glass of the final blend. 
I racked all of the above volumes into my bottling bucket, adding priming sugar to achieve 3.0 volumes of co2. Making sure to start the siphon with the tube at the receiving end above the liquid level to minimize aeration, when you start the siphon there are always bubbles in the lines so best to clear them first. There are some residual sugars to work on from the young Lambic, I regretfully did not take a gravity of the final blend, or the commercial Lambic, things to work on for next time. Due to those missteps I am not sure how high the carbonation will go but I used heavy bottles to be safe, I am hoping that it will end up higher than the 3.0 vols I carbonated to, if anything it may be on the low end in the short term. I also added rehydrated EC-1118 Champagne yeast to be sure there was sufficient healthy cells to carbonate the beer, wine and champagne yeast are more capable of handling the low PH environment of sour beer than standard ale yeasts. The champagne yeast should also help to break down some of those remaining complex sugars to help with the carbonation over months to years.

Low PH be damned, Champagne Yeast.
So looking back now there are a few things I learned throughout this process, the biggest mistake I felt I made was not taking a gravity reading of the final blend so I could more accurately predict the final carbonation. Aside from that any other issues I was able to address on the fly, ex: using the gram scale to measure the blend ratios. I will however invite a friend over next time I blend, both because it would be fun to share the experience with someone but also as a second opinion on different blend ratios. I guess I won't know for sure what I did right or wrong until these bottles age and carbonate over the next few months, years even. I don't plan to pass judgement until these bottles have at least 3-4 months to condition. I am open to critiques and criticisms, this of course will be a learning experience for me, as well as others, so if there is something you recommend I change in process I am open to exploring it. I feel there is far to little information on this process out there and I hope to change that with this and subsequent posts.

Until then its time to brew more Lambic, a turbid mashed brewday is coming up soon, I'm not even sure if I am excited about doing that again. For the love of Funk I suppose.
The final product in heavy bottles with 29mm caps! See you in a few months/years, be cool my babies.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Binford Pale Ale Tasting Notes: Azacca Trials

My daughter wanted to get in the photo, don't worry the glass was not knocked over...this time.
This has been a really fun collaboration, from recipe formulation over email, to brewday, and then sharing the three variants at our Homebrew club meeting, it's been a fun and informative experiment for all if us. The beer has gone over well, I think we did a good job in showcasing elements of all three of our brewing styles in the final product. From the bright aromatic hop character to the toasty malt backbone you can definitely pick up on each of our own brewing styles. 

Sean's version of the beer is more "English" (in my opinion) with the malt and hops in proper balance, while John and my own versions are a little bit more tropical and hop forward. We presented the three versions to our Homebrew club and got some great feedback, we discussed what our goals for the beer were and our differences in process. 

Some people preferred anyone one of the three versions depending on their personal tastes. Some people had a hard time differentiating mine (s04) and Johns (Conan) myself included. There were some raised eyebrows that s04 did so well in a hoppy beer like this, especially going head to head with Conan. Not many had heard of Azacca but it seemed to go over well, tropical, Simcoe like, among other descriptors, I think people will be interested in trying the hop. 

A popular topic of conversation was how each of our dry hop procedures differed. We each dry hopped for only 4-5 days, John used a nylon bag right in primary. Sean took the more traditional approach by racking to secondary in glass, adding the dry hops and then transferring to the keg. 

I plan to do a more detailed post on how I dry hop, but the short of it is I rack from primary into a co2 purged keg, add the dry hops in a nylon bag then remove after 4-5 days all at room temp, then into the fridge and force carb. There is a little more to it but that's the gist, and it works to lessen oxidation by only one transfer. I get some very bright aromatic beers this one. The Binford Pale Ale is now different in that regard. 

Binford Pale Ale Tasting notes:
All 3 versions in a blind tasting, prior to presenting to the club.

Appearance: Crimson reddish brown color, hazy, with a slightly off white head that leaves very significant lacing on the glass. 

Aroma: Fruity, slight tropical note that was much more prevalent when it was younger. Now the malt bill and the hop aroma are starting to balance each other out. Almost like an aromatic bread topped with a tropical fruit Mellody (See what I did there?).

Flavor: Clean bitterness, bright sharp Hoppiness, giving way to a toasty malt backbone and a dry finish. This is a very well rounded beer, it's been compared to DogFish 60 min in both the malt character and the hop flavors. Azacca did well alone in this beer. 

Overall: We are all very happy with how this beer turned out, its bright, hoppy, refreshing and has a great malt presence to back it up. I won't hesitate to use Azacca again, and may even go back to this malt bill again. I could see this being a great fall seasonal type beer.