Archive for the ‘Beer Brewing’ Category

The Vortex



Methods of brewing beer at home can vary from the primitive (picture brewing in a 20-gallon plastic garbage can hidden in the closet of a college dorm room) to the HERMScomplex (all-grain brewing with a HERMS—Heat Exchanger Recirculating Mash System). But when I was in college, the principal aim was to make a highly alcoholic beer as fast and as cheap as possible regardless of taste: hence the BIAGC method.garbage can beer

Times have changed. Thanks to the popularity of extract brewing kits and the availability of inexpensive equipment, brewing high quality ales is now within reach of even the most casual of home brewers. Most home brewers, such as myself, start with extract brewing. As I started to learn more about the actual science behind brewing beer, I realized that by moving from extract to all-grain brewing, it was possible to brew even better beer less expensively and without having to spend the exorbitant amounts of money on equipment upgrades that you would expect.

Much of the satisfaction I get from brewing my own beer comes from the satisfaction of coming up with alternatives to the high costs associated with both ingredients and equipment. Why spend more money on extract when I can mash my own grains? Why spend $7.00 on liquid yeast when I can culture my own strain? Specialty malts? Why not save a little money and roast my own? Equipment? Why spend all that money on expensive boil kettles fitted with ball valves, thermometers, and sight glasses when it’s possible to buy a good quality stainless steel pot and just install the valves yourself?

That brings me to the point of this post. To save money on liquid yeast, I decided to culture my own. But I had to spend money on some “lab” equipment: Erlenmeyer flask, stir plate, and a stir-bar. I needed high-quality glassware, so I had to spend money on a flask, and there’s no alternative to the magnetic stir bar. The most expensive piece of equipment is the stir plate itself which could cost anywhere from $100 to $200, depending on quality.  So like a lot of home brewers, I built my own, with help from online sources (of which there are many).

The Hanna Magnetic Stir Plate runs about $99 from morebeer.com, and shipping isHanna Stir Plate free.  My goal was to make something at least as functional as the Hanna plate at a significantly lower cost.  Functional means:  it had to handle at least one liter or more of liquid yeast starter; it had to have some way of controlling speed; it had to, of course, “stir” the contents of the flask adequately; and it had to be contained somehow in a box.

Here’s what I came up with, thanks to internet “hacks”.

I purchased a Thermaltake external USB powered computer cooling fan for $12.38 with free shipping from Amazon. It comes with a VR that allows you to manually adjust fan speed and USB power cable.

1_front of fan

The fan is designed to stand on its own once it’s plugged in to a computer’s USB port.  The VR knob is in the upper-left corner.  Legs and front cage of fan will be removed.

2_flip side of fan

This is the reverse side of the fan showing the cage and the bottom of the VR.  Note how simply the cage and legs are mounted to the fan body.  The screws were long enough to use for mounting the fan body to a piece of thin, wood hard board.

4_stir plate simple box

I built a very basic box using woods scraps I had lying around.  I used 3/4″ plywood for the sides and 1/8″ hardwood for the top and bottom.  I built the top so that it could easily be removed.  Image shows fan body without the front cage and legs mounted to the top.

3_bottom of plate box cover

Close up of fan body mounted to the top using the same fasteners.  I mounted the VR by crudely notching out the box corner then screwing it to the corner.  Simple connection from fan body to VR, but I had to drill an opening for the wiring.

5_plate box with wire notch

Image shows the passage for the wiring, allowing the fan to be easily mounted to the top of the box.

6_side view of fan mount

Fan body mounts easily to the top using the same small bolts and nuts.  I countersunk the bolt holes through the top outside surface so the flask would sit flat on the surface.

7_stir plate from top

Looking down at the top of the stir plate.  Using a hole saw, I drilled a hole large enough to expose the center hub of the computer fan, which is necessary so the fan can spin freely.  Reflecting light in the center is the rare earth magnet from a computer hard drive I had lying around.  I was surprised how easy it was to remove.  The magnet must be exactly centered in the middle of the hub to balance the spinning of the fan.  I used epoxy to glue the magnet to the fan hub.  The four screws are countersunk below the surface so the flask rests directly on wood surface.  The hard board is thick enough to prevent the magnet from coming into contact with the bottom surface of the glass flask.  Removable screws allow me to access the wiring inside.  VR is on the lower right of the stir plate.

8_stir plate mount

Another view of the completed box.  Note VR pigtail and connector.

10_USB and phone connector

Fan comes with a retractable power cable; one end has the USB connector and the other the connector for the VR pigtail.  I used a cell phone power adapter plug to directly power the stir plate.  One end of the adapter plugs into a 120v wall outlet, the USB plugs into the adapter, and the connector plugs into the VR.  Simple and it works.

11_flask mounted on plate

A full liter of yeast starter stirring with an 1 1/8″ stir bar spinning at the bottom.  I had to use a pot holder between stir plate surface and the bottom of the glass flask because even on the lowest VR setting, the stir bar was “spinning out.”  The pot holder in between seemed to give me more control over the spinning action of the stir bar.



Vortex clearly visible in the center of the flask.  I let this spin 36 hours with no spin out.  Once the wort was cooled, I pitched the whole thing without decanting, and within eight hours, I had serious fermentation action.  The yeast I used in this starter came from spent yeast at the bottom of the primary fermentation bucket for a batch of Belgian Wit I brewed.  I recovered about a gallon of slurry that I washed and separated into four pint jars and stored them in the fridge for later yeast starters.

Liquid yeast I used, normally expensive, was free.  Total cost for my stir plate hack was $12.38.  After a few uses, There were a few changes I had to make.  Obviously the VR was not designed for this kind of use, especially the disassembly and reassembly it had to go through.  I did have to re-solder the VR power connections, but I already had a cheap soldering gun lying around.

I still have the occasional magnetic stir bar spin out; I still working on a solution (I’m thinking scientific method again here) to better control the spin action.  Maybe replace pot holder method with attaching rubber washers to raise the flask.  I was also concerned about air circulation around the fan to avoid overheating, so I drilled holes in the box for air, top and sides, and now there is plenty of air circulation.

Brewing beer is all about experimentation. It is science after all: ask a question, research the problem, develop a hypothesis, test the hypothesis with experiments, analyze results and form conclusions, drink a beer.

Oh, by the way, the beer is delicious!
















Read Full Post »

All-Grain Pumpkin Ale

All-Grain Pumpkin Ale

The “Mixed Grist”

A fellow homebrewer friend of mine recently shared a recipe for a Java Stout with me last month and I was anxious to give it a try. His recipe called for grain bill of 8 lbs: pale malt, Maris Otter, two shades of crystal malt, and chocolate malt, plus 8 ozs. cold infused coffee and an oz. of cocoa nibs both added to the last five minutes of the boil.

A week before brew day, I dropped my grain bill off at Mainbrew my favorite home brew supply store in Hillsboro, OR, planning on picking up my crushed grains later in the day. Typically, I order extra grains to have some on hand if needed.  Unfortunately, I failed to mention to the clerk that I wanted the grains crushed separately, so I ended up with 13 lbs. of mixed, crushed grains. My fault.

Normally, brewing with 13 lbs. of grain would not be a problem for a brewer who uses a ten-gallon pot.  Thirteen pounds grain requires on average a big enough brew pot to handle a pre-boil volume of 7 gallons. The boil pot I have now—an old turkey fryer pot—can only handle about 6 gallons depending on the recipe, and I sometimes have to split my wort boil between two pots.

The Cellar Dweller

I used beersmith to design smaller batch recipes using the “mixed grist” grains from my original 13 lbs. Using the program, I whittled the 13 lbs. down to 4 lbs. I also had about 5.5 lbs. of amber liquid malt extract lying around that I wanted to use up, so I thought I would try to brew a Partial-Mash recipe, using both extracted sugars from a mini-mash and and “equal” amount of LME.  Beersmith is an extremely useful program for all-grain recipe designing, though understanding how the program makes basic calculations for things like total water needed for the brew session, for example, is still beyond me. The basic brew math and chemistry I have a handle on, so I understand how beersmith makes most of its calculations, but I couldn’t figure out how to set the program up to build a recipe for brewing with both a grain mash and LME. Clearly there is a way—countless beersmith tutorials on youtube can attest to that.  But thanks to Gash Slugg at cellardweller.net and his Sierra Nevada Pale Ale Clone “mini mash” recipe, I was able to design a recipe using my “mixed grist” grains and the LME, using his brewing technique.  Slugg is an Aussie with punk sensibilities and a proclivity for minimalist brewing techniques, as his many videos demonstrate.

When I first started brewing years ago (I brewed my very first batch in 1978 in Pine Grove, Or), I brewed exclusively with Liquid or Dry Malt Extract as, I’m sure, the majority of beginning brewers do.  The grains in extract recipes or kits were typically not mashed; they were steeped (like tea).  Steeping offset the often excessive sweetness of the mashed grains by adding distinctive non-malted grain flavors.  Also like many like many home brewers who stick with it, I eventually moved to all-grain brewing.  Once I understood the chemistry of brewing (or at least dangerously familiar), I had more control over designing my own recipes.

Every all-grain brewer, at some point, quickly comes to realize that equipment requirements for brewing all-grain recipes can quickly grow out of control.  So what I found particularly useful in partial or mini-mash brewing is that this brewing technique divides the fermentables almost equally between mashed grains and LME (there is, however, math at work here, so it is not always a fifty-fifty division), and this allows the home brewer to consolidate equipment needs (combining brew pot and mash tun, for example), shorten brewing time commitment, and make the tiring process of clean up much quicker. Gash Slugg refers to his partial or mini-mash method as “stove top,” meaning all of the brewing steps can be done strictly on the stove, no external mash-tun or propane burner needed.

I had to give this a whirl using my “mixed grist” recipe.

Brew Day—Yeast Starter

To make my brew day interesting, I decided to use my own cultured yeast.  I’ve been experimenting with “washing yeast,” the technique of harvesting flocculated yeast from the bottom of a primary fermenter by “washing” with sterilized water, storing the resulting slurry in a large jar, letting the yeast settle in suspension, then transferring the yeast only into smaller jars for storage for later use.


Jar of washed yeast with yeast in suspension and trub settling to the bottom.

Once the yeast cake settles to the bottom, it is stored in the refrigerator until needed. The day before my brew day, I removed the jar and made a yeast starter in an an Erlenmeyer flask.

Yeast Starter in Erlenmeyer flask.

Yeast Starter in Erlenmeyer flask.

This is what I eventually pitched into the primary fermenter.

The “Mini-Mash”

Since I wasn’t using a mash tun to extract wort from my grains, instead I used a nylon paint-strainer bag to hold the grains during mash in.

Four lbs. of my "mixed grist" grains and the "brew bag."

Four lbs. of my “mixed grist” grains and the “brew bag.”

I took the nylon bag and stretched it over a plastic container which held the bag in place while I measured out the grains directly into the bag.

Four lbs. of grain in grain bag.

Four lbs. of grain in grain bag.

Here’s a close-up of the “crush.” The aroma is amazing.

Crushed grains.

Crushed grains.


Here’s my stove-top setup:  the pot on the left holds the sparge water (just under two gallons) and the one on the right is a three gallon pot, holding 1.5 gallons of water for the mash in.

Pots for sparge and mash in water.

Pots for sparge and mash in water.

Mashing in the grains is just a matter of heating the required volume of water to mash-in temperature (150° mash-in temp requires 168° to account for temp. loss) and then submerging the grain bag into the heated water.

Grains in nylon bag suspended in mash water.

Grains in nylon bag suspended in mash water.

The grains in the bag are completely soaked by the mash water at proper temp and conversion instantly begins.  The nylon bag holding the grains is stretched over and held in place by the rim of the 3 gallon pot.  The bag that I used is too small for the size of the pot I was using.  Ideally, the bag should be big enough to allow the grains to reach the sides of the pot.  As the above photo shows, because of the smaller bag, the grains are balled together in the center of the pot.  I had to thoroughly stir to distribute the heat through all of the grain since there were hot spots in the mash that had to be dissipated.

Mash temp at 150°

Mash temp at 150°

The trick is to hold the mash temp as close to 150° as possible for, in the case of this recipe, 90 minutes.  I had to closely monitor the temp throughout the 90 minute period, stirring to distribute the heat and turning on the gas burner when necessary to raise the temperature.

Sparging the Grains

After 90 minutes the grain bag is fished out of the wort, dropped into a strainer large enough to hold five lbs. of soaked grains, and allowed to drain off the remaining wort from the soaked grains.

Grain bag draining wort into the pot

Grain bag draining wort into the pot

After emptying the “first runnings” into my boil pot, the grain bag goes back into the original pot for the sparging step.

Grain bag back into the pot for sparging.

Grain bag back into the pot for sparging.

Sparging the grain bag is then just a matter of carefully pouring 168° sparge water from the pot on the left in the photo over the grains.  The grains are then covered and allowed to rest for five minutes, at which time they are again strained and the second runnings poured into the boil pot.  It’s always important to have enough sparge water on hand just in case you come up short.  The wife recently purchased a nifty quick boil induction style electric boil kettle that can boil 1.5 ml of water in a few minutes.

Induction boil kettle.

Induction boil kettle.

The kettle enables me to quickly have heated water on hand whenever I need it.

The Boil

Beginning boil volume of the wort requires adding water up to starting level for the boil—about 2.6 gallons, bringing my total pre-boil volume to about 5.25 gallons.  Flame on.

Five gallons of wort at a galloping boil.

Five gallons of wort in the boil pot at a galloping boil.

The LME is a late addition to the boiling wort.  It was added in the last 15 minutes of the boil.  Once the wort started boiling again, I set the timer for 15 minutes.

The Gravities of the Situation

With a brewing technique like this, there are several pre-boil gravity readings to consider:  after 1st runnings added to the pot; after 2nd runnings added to the pot; after adding water to pre-boil level; after a 45 minute boil, before adding LME; after 60 minute boil, wort is cooled to 65-70°, and added to fermenter before adding yeast.  The OG of cooled wort in the fermenter was 15 Brix or 1.060.  Since the original recipe I followed did not have a target OG, without further research, I had no way of knowing if I hit the OG target.


I pitched the yeast I cultured and within six hours I was seeing fermentation.  Two days later fermentation was dwindling.  After a week I’ll transfer to the secondary, add coffee and nibs, and after another week or so I’ll bottle.  I’ll let you know how it turned out.

Read Full Post »

Chocolate Java Stout

Chocolate Java Stout

Brewed my 25th batch of homebrewed beer yesterday, and that occasion deserves a post… and a brew. The style: a holiday stout. A 5 ½ gallon batch. My grain bill was 13 ½ lbs, using 2-row pale malt, maris otter, crystal, chocolate malt, and roasted barley flakes. Added fresh grated ginger and cinnamon sticks during the last five minutes of the boil and 1 lb. of organic honey at flameout. The batch is bubbling in the fermenter as I write

Mashing in

Mashing in my 60 quart box cooler from Homedepot.  I opted for the box style as opposed to the bright orange round cooler style because of the price difference.  But the lid on this cooler is a pain in the ass:  It’s a two-piece split lid so I had to duct tape the two together on the outside; and the lid closes too easily.  The round orange coolers have screw on lids and don’t have that problem.


Mashing in cooler

Thirteen lbs. of grain doesn’t look like much in the cooler.  Added four gallons of 170° strike water to room temp grains.  Mash cooled to 148° target temp.  Mashed for 90 minutes, then did an iodine test to determine amount of starch to sugar conversion.  This is interesting chemistry.  If you add water heated to a specific temperature—usually in the range of 148°-158°—to crushed, malted grains, the starches in those grains will convert to sugar in the solution.  The goal is always “complete” conversion; the more starches that are converted, the more sugar available to convert to alcohol in the primary fermenter.  What’s interesting is the amount of time required to complete conversion.  Thanks to youtube.com there are some interesting videos that demonstrate how long it actually takes to convert the starches in a mash to fermentable sugars using iodine. One such experiment demonstrated that it can convert in as little as 40 Minutes.  Generally, most of the calculations done on beer brewing software use a mash period of 60 minutes to complete conversion.  How is this significant?  The answer has to include a discussion of mash temperatures because the higher water temperature used, the sweeter and fuller body the beer will be.  Again, this is chemistry the brewer has to learn to understand how unconverted starches at higher strike temperatures can result in a “thicker,” sweeter, and lower in alcohol beer.

The first “runnings” after an hour of mashing.  Iodine test showed complete conversion of starches to sugar.  Wort at this stage is very sweet to the taste.  I poured off four gallons of wort into the white bucket.  Total strike and sparge water needed for this five gallon batch required a total of 8 1/2 gallons.  My boil pot is really too small.  It can handle only 7 1/2 gallons.  So I split the first and second runnings into two separate pots.

As this photo shows, I have already poured off first runnings into the white bucket.  Second runnings are being drained into boil kettle.  While draining off the second running, I thought about John Palmer’s Oak Mild (Shire Beer) recipe.  Oak Mild was originally brewed in the Middle Ages in England from the second runnings, the wort being lighter in color and lower in sugar.  Making a five gallon batch of this style of beer requires a kettle that will boil eight or more gallons of wort,  coming from four gallons of heated strike water, then almost five gallons of heated sparge water.  I mixed the two pots of wort as much as I could and ended up with two pots of wort to boil, the bigger kettle with five gallons and a smaller pot with four.  Note the 1/2 in. ball valve with weld-less kit installed on my pot.  This was originally used as a turkey fryer that I bought from a guy in Portland who specializes in selling housewares out of his house.  Once cleaned, it works satisfactorily to boil wort.  The problem is that as I learn more about brewing, the more I needed to upgrade my equipment.  Hence, the new ball valve that lets me use the kettle as hot liquor tank, mash tun, and a boil pot.  I used the kettle to heat strike water on the stove, then drain the water into the cooler directly below.

Wort boil split between two pots.  Brought wort in both pots to a boil then transferred wort from smaller to larger pot to a volume of seven gallons and continued boil.  Gas stove works surprisingly well for boiling large volumes of liquid.  I’ve been tempted to spend money on single-burner propane stove and a tank of propane, but as long as this works for brewing five gallons of beer, why spend more money?

Wort has a good, rolling boil.  Just added first hop addition—one oz. of Cascade.  This will boil for sixty-plus minutes, depending on boil off.  To get my five gallons of stout to bottle at the end of the fermentation process, I had to have at least 5.75 gallons of wort by the end of the boil.  To keep my boil volume accurate, I added additional wort from the second pot.  After sixty minutes I had just under six gallons, so I extended the boil until I reached that point.  Volumes are tricky.  I could target 5.75 gallons of cooled wort (to 75°), but there is a 4% loss of volume because of cooling.

Photo shows cooled wort shrinkage about a half gallon lower.  My final volume is just about right.  The ball valve allowed me to drain wort directly into fermentation bucket set on a stool just below the kettle of wort.  Draining the wort this way eliminates the need for siphoning equipment.  To filter the sediment at the bottom, is a tube filter.  Final volume to the fermenter (not shown) was 5.1 gallons, giving me enough fermented and conditioned stout to fill about fifty 12 oz. bottles.








Read Full Post »

Older Posts »