Who’s afraid of autolysis?

•February 24, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Beautiful little creatures aren’t they?

This is ale yeast. This is what gives an ale its distinctive flavor… and these little beasties have been sitting in my secondary fermenter for the past 371 days.

I didn’t start off wanting to see if you could keep a beer on the secondary for that long – I had originally planned a 6 week fermentation on the secondary just to see what would happen. At the six week mark, I realized that I had no free keg space in my kegerator – so I decided to let it sit.

Once I had room, there were other recipes to brew and I pretty much forgot about this 5 gallons of potential gut-wrenching ale that had been sitting in my temperature controlled fermentation room. Around the 6 month mark, I decided to check the progress:

  • No visible infection
  • No rotten egg smell
  • Strong yeast cake

I had planned on kegging a few days later, but ended up getting sidetracked (damn you real life and all of it’s foibles).

A few more weeks passed – I checked the brew, everything seemed to be going well. Waited another couple of weeks, no change.

By this point, this batch had become more than just a simple ale I brewed because of some extra grain and hops I had leftover from a big brew-day – it had become my Godot. At this point, I decided to let it go for a full year.

Over the next few months I kept the temperature under control, made sure the airlocks were still in place, kept the lights off – but otherwise left it alone. Until this afternoon.

I gently removed the airlock, and the rush of a freshly opened mellow ale enveloped me. The aroma was incredible. Delicately as possible, I placed a sterilized siphon and pulled a small dram of the golden ale. After about a 2 minute wait, I brought the elixir up to my mouth; expecting either true homebrew nirvana or a gut-wrenching vileness that could possibly stop me from ever drinking another beer.

It tasted like an ale. That’s it. Not the milk of paradise… and definitely no hint of the dreaded autolysis. Autolysis is a scary word for the homebrew community. Basically autolysis occurs when the yeast die off and rupture, releasing “off-flavors” into the beer. As long as you maintain a healthy brew system and watch temperature control, autolysis will rarely (never say never) affect your brew. While this project may have actually started due to procrastination, it actually has become a lesson in biology.

I am kegging it this weekend.


Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow!

•February 24, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Oh Winter, you foul temptress.


Last summer I switched over to AG brewing, which was quickly followed by a switch to brewing outside. Due to the crazy winter weather I have not had a chance to brew in the last few months.

Now that the weather is changing I am looking forward to getting back on the brew-wagon within the next couple of weeks… and hopefully sharing my adventures as my foray into homebrewing becomes a full-fledged journey… perhaps even, a “musical” journey.


Saturday is brew day… part 1

•October 5, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The ferementation room is finished and… empty.

I am down to my last 10 bottles of my first batch.

The wife and kids have left for the day to have lunch and take in a musical down at Fair Park.

Time to brew.

I have spent the past couple of weeks deciding what to brew for my next batch. The plan for the fermentation room was to eventually allow me to brew multiple batches (at multiple stages) at a time – so I thought it might be best to “christen” the room by brewing two batches… that, and I could not make up my mind what I wanted to brew.

After attending the Addison Oktoberfest, I knew I wanted to brew a hefeweizen. The past couple of years, Spaten has been the official sponsor of the Addison Oktoberfest – but I prefer the flavor of the previous sponsor, Paulaner – specifically their
Hefe Weissbier Naturtrüb. Such a brilliant beer – nice clean wheat flavor with a decent ABV.

One of my requirements for my next brew day was that I wanted to move away from kit brewing. I don’t have the ability or the equipment to start in on All Grain brewing, but I knew I wanted to include steeping grains in my next batches… it just seems like the right thing to do. Along these lines, I did a little research on the Homebrew forums and found a Paulaner clone recipe that seemed like it would fit the bill:

  • 4 oz Munich Malt grain
  • 1 lb light Pilsen DME (dry malt extract)
  • 5 lb Bavarian wheat DME
  • 3/4 oz Hallertau hops
  • Wyeast 3068 (pitching yeast)

This would give me the opportunity to try the steeping grain technique, along with a quicker fermentation – the Hefe beers benefit from a shorter primary ferment and go straight to bottling and carbing a little sooner than most beers (although patience is the key in brewing… you can’t argue with drinking a little quicker).

For the second batch, I was considering a hoppier IPA. One of my favorite beers is the DogFish Head 90 minute IPA – it’s an incredibly hopped-up beer with a considerable ABV. The key to the DogFish Head craft beers is the continuous hopping – the beers are hopped on a regular interval over a 60, 90 and even a 120 minute boil. This creates a very strong beer… if you don’t like hops it can be quite a shock to the palate… if you love hops, you’ll never touch another IPA.

I had found a couple of clone recipes for the DogFish Head 60 and 90 minute IPAs – but they all were written for AG brewing… a little bit of a bummer. I decided to try the conversion using Beersmith – but I couldn’t quite wrap my hands around the process. When in doubt, I’ve learned to consult the experts… so with both recipes in hand, I took the short trip down the Dallas North Tollway to my LHBS (local homebrew shop).

Quick aside… if you are interested at all, or at least curious about homebrewing AND live in the DFW area – please make a pilgrimmage to Homebrew Headquarters. This place is fantastic and the staff is both knowledgable and friendly… they have been an immense asset as I’ve gotten started with this obsession.

I walked up to the counter and handed off my recipe requests… the Paulaner was met with a smile and that order was filled quickly. I had left the name off the second recipe, hoping to feign ineptness if called to the carpet on the ambitious DogFish clone. After a few seconds of studying my recipe, the following exchange took place:

Homebrew: Is this a DogFish 90 clone?

Me: Um… yeah.

Homebrew: (eyebrow cocked) How many batches have you brewed?

Me: (sotto voce) This will be my third.

This was met with a gentle laugh, not even close to being condescending.

Homebrew: Hang on… let me check something.

He reached under the counter and pulled out a thick book of recipes.

Homebrew: Let me make you a copy of this…

He turned to make a copy and then presented me with the official DogFish Head 90 minute clone recipe… officially put to paper by the hand of DogFish Head founder/president Sam Calagione.

Score! (see… I told you they were both knowledgable and friendly)

He then proceed to fill the grain bill for the DogFish Head recipe:

  • 1.66 lb British Amber Malt grain
  • 8 lb light Pilsen DME
  • 2 oz Amarillo hops
  • .5 oz Simcoe hops
  • .5 oz Warrior hops
  • 1 oz Amarillo hops (dry hop)
  • .5 oz Simcoe hops (dry hop)
  • .5 oz Warrior hops (dry hop)
  • Safeale #4 (pitching yeast)

Seeing the ingredients stack up on the counter, I experienced a slight bit of anxiety.

Me: (nervously laughing) So… you think this might be a bit much to try at my stage of brewing?

Homebrew: Nah… the first time you make this, will be frustrating. The second time is where the fun begins… you’ll be fine.

I added a couple of extra airlocks, stoppers and my first grain bag to the list… and walked out with all of this:


After a stop by the grocery for spring water and ice… my first non-kit brew day was about to commence.

Fermentation room build-out

•October 4, 2009 • 3 Comments

My first batch of beer was completed, which I christened the Alba Varden IPA (points to anyone who recognizes the name…

alba bottle

Thanks to the fermentation chiller I had built, I was able to keep the temperature of this batch fairly consistent. After a few weeks of bottle conditioning – the flavors had melded and the carbonation was nearly perfect:

alba pour

The bottling process was smooth – I managed to get 48 bottles from this first batch and kept them in a darkened room for a couple of weeks before cold conditioning. The biggest issue I’ve run into, is that the beer disappears too quickly – it was time for me to start brewing again.

The original fermentation chiller did it’s job – but I really needed space for brewing multiple batches, as well as space for holding my equipment and bottles. I wanted to build out a space with a dedicated cooling system that would work for fermenting, minor cold crashing, and bottle/carb storage… and I needed this to fit within the existing space in my house.

My first thought was to re-purpose the built-in “closet” in the single-car garage; it was used for storing almost empty paint cans and parts to tools and toys that didn’t match up with anything else. After a few moments of consideration, I realized it would be too small for a fermentation room, and would be difficult for the temp control I needed.

I then considered taking half of the garage space and building out a bar/brew-room. While intriguing, I realized that most of our junk is stored in this garage and unless we completely converted the garage, there would not be enough room for even a Bourbon Street beerstand in that limited space. I also wanted to do this without spending an enormous amount of money.

To help clear my head, and gain the favor of my wife – I started re-organizing our storage in that garage. While moving items around it suddenly occurred to me that I could use the built-in closet as a jumping-off point… I could simply build out from the closet and create a climate-controlled space to brew, store and bottle. I ran this idea by my wife – and was basically met with a half-hearted, “Yeah… sure… but we need to still be able to keep the stuff in the garage.”

I had my okay.

I measured out the space… drew some plans down on some scrap paper… and then enlisted my father’s assistance (he loves projects, especially if they’re not his) for a weekend build.

We started with the two walls – making sure to measure twice, cut once – which quickly turned into measure twice, cut once, re-measure twice, cut again, curse the measurements and then finally getting it right on the fourth try. Thankfully, we only had to build two walls and tie them in to the existing garage structure. We started with the smaller wall, which we framed to mount the A/C unit that would be used to control the fermentation temperature.


The wall was attached to the existing garage wall and ceiling, as well as bolted into the cement flooring.


The next step was to build the second wall – the one with doorframe. More measuring, cutting, re-measuring, re-cutting, more cursing… until it was finally lifted into place and secured.


After a full day’s work, we had the basic framing completed.


The next day we started off with inserting the pre-hung door. I was dreading this step, worried that our cursing in the previous steps wasn’t enough to make sure that the door would actually fit… but it did… nicely.


It was now time to begin the sheetrock. We decided to sheetrock the interior of the room first, making it easier to insulate from the outside before doing the exterior work. As a side note… I hate sheetrock – I’m not opposed to the “idea” of sheetrock, I just don’t like it. It’s bulky, dusty and a pain-in-the-ass to put up properly. Luckily, my father harbors no such ill will to this building material and it went up rather quickly.

build 7

The insulation went up next – this is definitely a two-man job… and a staple gun. It’s a two-man, one staple gun job.


After verifying that the electrical wiring was still working, we put up the exterior sheetrock and began the arduous process of taping and mudding. I have now determined that I hate taping and mudding more than sheetrock. This took the better part of the next two days.


After letting this dry for 36 hours, I began the rough finish-out of the exterior. Molding was added around the door, walls, and A/C unit and then the walls were painted. The finishing touch was my penguin entry rug (which doubles as an extra insulation barrier under the door).


I had a brewday planned for the upcoming weekend, so I needed to get moving on the clean-up on the inside of the room. I installed the shelving on the existing wall for my fermenting buckets and carboys, and added molding around the A/C unit to match the molding outside.


I now have a 5 x 6 fermentation room with a built-in storage closet. I can currently cool this room down to 64 degrees, and keep a constant temperature up to 76 degrees.

Now all I need to do is brew more beer.

48 hours… and I need a chiller.

•September 2, 2009 • 1 Comment

With an active fermentation running – and the need to reclaim the utility room – I knew I would have to move my brewing out of the house and into the garage.

I have a nice section of the garage where I could store the carboys and other equipment, but I needed a way to control the temperature (garages in North Texas can be fairly warm). I considered a modified “swamp cooler” – basically a rubbermaid container filled with water that you basically chuck iced water bottles into, cover with a wet towel/t-shirt and blow air across it with a box fan – but that seemed a little too messy. I also needed a system to keep it warm in the garage during the winter months.

After a bit of research, I found some plans for a “son of Frankenstein” chiller. This would basically be an insulated box that I could build to regulate the temperature.

The build was pretty straightforward – I built a wooden shell 4.5 feet tall, with a width and depth of 2 feet. It has two chambers – the upper (where the carboys/fermenters are placed), and the lower (where the cooling/heating material is stored).

All three side are insulated with 2″ thick foam insulation sheets that were sealed with expanding foam.

On one corner of the base of the upper chamber I mounted a powerful computer fan which draws air up from the bottom chamber. On the opposite corner I drilled exhaust holes, creating a draft when the fan is running.

In the bottom chamber, I refill a flat pan every morning with an ice bath – along with 4 frozen water bottles. I drilled a hole in the side of the upper chamber that a siphon tube fits through in order to have my blow-off tube outside of the chiller.


I am going to add a permanent wooden door (insulated, of course) – but in the meantime, I am using an extra piece of the insulated foam attached with duct tape as I work on this.

It’s actually doing a fantastic job – the temperature in the garage ranges between 75-90 degrees at this time of the year – and my thermostat inside of the chiller has not surpassed 75 – it’s actually been maintaining a nice range between 70 and 72 degrees.

I should be able to set-up a relay to the fan to let the thermostat control when the fan is running (I’m currently running this manually) – and for the winter months, I will switch over to a heating pad in the lower chamber.

It’s not fancy, but I think it’s somewhat elegant in its simplicity… of course, only time and patience will tell.

Thar she blows!

•September 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

For 48 hours, I had not touched/bothered/acknowledged my primary fermentation. Within a few hours of pitching the yeast, my airlock was bubbling away, so I thought the best thing to do would be to leave it alone and let the little yeast-ies do their business.

Curiosity getting the better of me, I made my way over to the bucket and noticed something was a little off…

The airlock, which had been halfway-filled with sanitized water, was now filled with an amber liquid.

Small sticky circles splattered the top and one side of the opaque white bucket… and the distinct odor of beer hovered above the airlock.

All indications pointed to a very active fermentation – and the last time I would ever use an airlock. Everything looked fine, so I cleaned off the airlock and replaced it with a blow off tube setup.

Small mess, but an active fermentation.

Friday night brewing… my first wort

•September 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I had the equipment setup and sanitized (for the first attempt I used a bleach solution and let everything soak for twenty minutes).

I had read through all of the instructions on boiling and fermenting (at least ten times over).

I was ready to brew…

I had purchased 6 gallons of spring water from my local grocery store – we have good water quality at home, but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. I added the precise amount of water required by the recipe to a stainless steel kettle – warmed the kettle to 170 degrees and then added the IPA kit extract, DME and corn sugar – stirring properly to keep the mixture from burning on the bottom… I was creating my first wort!

wort 1

I then returned the kettle to the heat and proceeded on to a rolling boil… it was at this point that my first minor issue occurred. With the foam forming on top of the wort heating to boil, I was watching in anticipation of a boil-over as the wort reached the hot break. I thought I had it under control, adjusting the temperature to make sure that there would not be a boil-over. I turned away from the stovetop for a moment to grab a sip of iced tea, turning back in time to see the foam rise up and above the kettle edge like a small geyser… spraying a small, yet sticky amount of wort and foam across the right-side burners.

wort 2

Lesson learned: don’t ever turn away from a boiling wort.

While the wort was boiling, I placed a small cup of water in the microwave and brought it to a boil. Once that water was boiling, I covered the cup and placed it aside for my dry yeast (once it cooled down to about 90 degrees).

The wort sat a rolling boil for 15-20 minutes (mind you, this is a simple liquid extract ingredient kit… the next batches will be more intensive) and then I immediately removed it from the heat and sat it in a ice bath to get the wort cooled down below 100 degrees.

While the wort was cooling, I made sure my primary fermenter (which also doubles as my bottling bucket) and equipment was sanitized and rinsed. It was at this time that I took the cup of warm water I had boiled in the microwave and added the dry yeast – letting it soak for at least 10 minutes.

I added 2.5 gallons of cold spring water to the primary and then added my cooled wort, oxygenating the mix my sloshing it gently inside of the fermenter. I topped this off with another gallon of spring water before pitching my yeast.

Once the yeast had been pitched, I sealed up the primary and inserted the stopper and airlock. I placed the primary in a darkened room, making sure the air temperature was around 70 to 72 degrees. I then began the process of returning the kitchen back into a kitchen (and not a brewery, as my wife was calling it).

Satisfied with my first brewing attempt, I pulled an ice-cold Longboard Lager from the beer fridge and settled down for the rest of the evening.