Monday, August 27, 2012

Is it infected?

No, I'm not talking about the hangnail on your big toe, I'm talking about your beer.

Nearly every new homebrewer I've ever talked with thinks their first beer is infected.  They taste their beer after it's been fermenting a few days, it tastes a little weird to them because they've never tasted such young beer before, and immediately assume something has gone wrong.

 I think this fear is perpetrated, in large part, by experienced homebrewers stressing the importance of cleaning and proper sanitation.  New homebrewers read about the horrors of failing to properly sanitize, and see all the ways the beer can go wrong, and assume that because they've never done this before, they've screwed something up and it's infected.

The truth is, it's actually pretty difficult to unintentionally infect your beer.  Yeast doesn't play very nicely with other microbes.  It eats all the good food and then poisons its environment by giving off alcohol as a waste product, and you're throwing massive amounts of yeast into your wort.  Very few microbes can amicably survive alongside yeast, and those microbes, while they may make the beer taste funky, can't hurt you.

How can you tell if your beer is actually infected?
One of the easiest ways is to taste the beer, but this doesn't work very well if you're a new brewer.  New homebrewers don't actually know what young beer should taste like, and chances are they've underpitched their yeast, haven't properly aerated, and possibly did a poor job of cooling the wort, all of which will give their beer off flavors, but don't mean their beer is infected.

Another way is to look at the beer in the fermenter.  Does it have a thick, white or tan, frothy head?  That's a good thing, probably not infected (a thin head is fine too.)  Does it have what looks like huge soap bubbles that have been sitting there for days?  OK, that might mean it's infected.  Does it have a very thin, milky looking skin over the top?  Yeah, that's probably infected.

Another great way to tell whether or not it's infected is to take gravity readings.  Has the gravity stopped dropping?  Is it reasonably close to where you expected your final gravity to be?  Then it's probably not infected.  If your final gravity is significantly lower than you expected it to be, you might have an infection.  If your final gravity is significantly higher than you expected, you probably just messed something else up, but don't have an infection (and the beer will be fine, just a little sweeter than you'd planned on it being.)

If you think you have an infection, take a picture and show a more experienced homebrewer.  They'll likely be more than happy to assure you whether or not you have an infection (although, even experienced homebrewers don't know everything, I actually ended up taking a picture of one of my recent beers and asked people whether or not they thought it was infected because, while it didn't really look infected to me, it looked pretty weird.  I'm still pretty sure it's not infected.)

Another great way to go is, once you're sure it's done fermenting and the gravity isn't going any lower, even if you think it's infected, go ahead and bottle the beer and let it bottle condition for a while.  Some infections can actually lend an interesting character to the beer.

If you do bottle an infected beer, you might want to put it in a closed box of some sort in case you accidentally end up with bottle bombs though, and if you open a bottle and it starts gushing everywhere, you might want to think about opening the rest of the bottles to at least let the excess CO2 out so you don't end up with bottle bombs.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mr. Beer - Yea or Nay?

Invariable, when anyone decides to try brewing their own beer, they will eventually come across the Mr. Beer kit.  The kit comes with everything you need to brew your first beer for $40, which gives you 2 gallons of finished beer.  A much easier amount to handle than the 5 gallon recipes that are typical in this hobby.  For an extra $15 you also get everything you need to bottle your beer.

So what's not to love?
While the initial cost if the Mr. Beer kit is low, the ingredient kits are fairly expensive, starting around $15 for a 2 gallon batch.  For not much more money, you could be making 5 gallon batches of beer.
The ingredient kits are made in such a way that you can't easily experiment with the recipes.  The kits are typically a can of hopped malt extract, some dry yeast and cleaner.  Because the extract is already hopped, you're limited in the ways you can experiment with different hops.  Sure, you can try dry hopping, or adding additional hops at different parts of the boil, but you can't get any less hoppy, or try different bittering hops.  Also, the extract that comes with the Mr. Beer kits don't really let you play with different specialty grains, because the flavor/color of the specialty grains has already been added to the kits.  

Now, for the yeast, sure, the yeast that comes with the ingredient kits is likely fairly neutral, but you could try buying different yeasts.  Then again, buying different yeast will run you an extra $5 from most suppliers.

I've also never been terribly impressed with the flavor of the beers that are made from the Mr. Beer kits, but a large part of that could come from the person brewing the beer being very new to the hobby, and not brewing the beer in ideal conditions.

But wait, there are redeeming qualities!
The Mr. Beer kit isn't all bad though.  It is a relatively inexpensive, easily approachable way to get into the hobby, and anything that promotes the hobby is good, in my book. 

I know several people that got their start in homebrewing from a Mr. Beer kit they received as a gift, or decided to buy on their own.  I also know a lot of people that have been scared away from the hobby because of how terrible their beer ended up tasting, but I'm guessing they either messed up somewhere, or just don't care for the type of beer they made.  I'm also pretty confident that the people that were scared away from homebrewing because of the beer they made with a Mr. Beer kit, are the same type of people that wouldn't have lasted very long in the hobby to begin with.

I also have a friend that still uses his Mr. Beer kit to brew experimental batches of beer, now that he's moved on to brewing larger scale batches of beer.

Final notes
If you're thinking about getting into homebrewing, I'd suggest finding someone that already homebrews, and ask to help them brew a batch of beer.  I've had people ask me that a few times now, and sometimes they go on to start brewing, and sometimes they decide they'd rather drink my beer than make their own.
If someone bought you a Mr. Beer kit, and it hasn't been sitting around, unused, for too long, give it a try.  Even if you don't end up liking the beer you make, it'll at least give you an idea as to what is involved in brewing beer, and whether or not you'd like to pursue the hobby further.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Wild Rice Brown Ale Recipe

I Brewed a Wild Rice Brown Ale back on the 17th, a little over 2 weeks ago.  I moved it to secondary tonight, not because it needs to secondary, but because I needed the primary fermenter, and I'm not quite ready to keg it yet (I need to clean some kegs.)

I stole a little sample, and it tasted pretty damned good.  My wife and I are really excited about it.  I can't really give you full tasting notes because the beer was warm, uncarbonated and a little young, but it's definitely inline with what I'm going for, which is a slightly roasty brown ale with some of the nutty flavor from the wild rice.  My friends don't seem to taste what I'm tasting when I drink wild rice beers, but I think the wild rice lends sort of a cross between a nutty flavor, and a very slight hint of concord grapes.  I realize it's an odd description, but it's actually quite pleasant.

For those of you unfamiliar with wild rice, wild rice is not actually rice, it's the seed of an aquatic grass native to the midwestern US.  If it's not locally available to you, you can get some here: Wild Rice

Along with being my first time brewing with Wild Rice, this was also the first all-grain beer I've ever brewed, which was further complicated by needing to do a cereal mash as a part of the brew, which added quite a bit of time and complexity to the brew.

The recipe is entirely my own invention, with some help from this Brew Your Own article and Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels.  I also got some help from the fine folks at The Four Firkins in figuring out how much wild rice to actually add.  They tracked down the amount of wild rice used in Schell's Wild Rice Farmhouse Ale

Wild Rice Brown Ale - All-Grain - 5 Gallon Batch
Brewed 7-17-2012

8 lbs. Briess 2-Row
2.8 lbs. Wild Rice
1.6 lbs. Briess Caramel 60L
0.4 lbs. Briess Chocolate Malt
0.2 lbs. Briess Roast Malt
1 oz. Kent Goldings 5.6%AAU (60 min.)
1 oz. Kent Goldings 5.6%AAU (30 min.)
0.5 oz. Fuggles 4.3% AAU (5 min.)
Wyeast 1335 British Ale II

The wild rice isn't malted, so you'll need to do a cereal mash to unlock the starches.
To do the cereal mash, mix the wild rice and 0.5 lbs of the 2-row with about 10 qt. of water.  Heat this in a pot to 155ºf and hold it at that temperature for about 20 minutes.  Then bring it to a boil for about 60 minutes.  After 60 minutes, the water should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. You will need to be pretty diligent in stirring the cereal mash during the boil to keep the wild rice from burning to the bottom of the pot.

Once the cereal mash is done, add it to your main mash.  I was targeting 152ºf for my main mash, I actually ended up at about 148ºf, but had some boiling water waiting just in case and ended up at 153ºf.

I tried to crush my wild rice, but wasn't able to do so.  I don't have a mill, so I was trying some other methods, and nothing worked.  In the end, I don't think it mattered as my mash efficiency ended up at 78%.