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You may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything new for a couple of days. The fact is, I haven’t brewed anything in a couple of weeks – mainly because all my fermenters are full and I don’t want to rush my beers (and cider). Also, this week I was out of town visiting a manufacturer for work. While this may not sound like the story is getting exciting any time soon, I promise that beer is involved. One of my co-workers (let’s call him J.) knows that I am a sucker for a good beer so he recommended a local brewpub called Iron Hill Brewery in Lancaster, PA. I trust this kid so the first night we were in town we drove out there.

Below is a basic overview of their current beers. Keep in mind that I didn’t take notes or anything while I was there because I didn’t want to look like a tool. Also, I was – and continue to be – suffering from a pretty bad cold so my senses of taste and smell were (are) dulled. But the place was cool so I think it deserves a review anyway.

So for 7 bucks you can get a sampler which contains a 4 ounce glass of every beer they have on tap. Not just five or six of their pre-selected favorites – but ALL ELEVEN BEERS! That is fucking brilliant. They get an A+ for that alone. But how was the beer, you ask? Here’s a brief rundown of my recollections:

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Let’s stop talking about our (my) problems for a minute and talk about something cool – like gadgets. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I have a problem when it comes to gadgets and tinkering. It could be that I’m an engineer and that’s just the way we work, but I think it’s deeper than that; I think it’s genetic. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a TV repairman back when there were actual vacuum tubes in those things (TV’s not grandfathers). And my father is always building, repairing or modifying something in his house – currently he’s bugging me to get some infrared emitting diodes so he can make a bunch of battery-powered Wii sensor bars…for real. It only makes sense that I’m a tinkerer – and infuse all my hobbies with that tendency. I put together mash tuns from Igloo coolers and made a little wort chiller from some cheap copper tubing from the hardware store. So what would be next? Behold!

You are a blinding brilliant light from heaven.

Now I may be biased, but that has got to be, without hyperbole, the coolest damn thing mankind has ever and will ever know.

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Ever since moving from 2.5 gallon to 3 liter batches my efficiencies have been terrible. I was getting 70% or so on the old system and now can’t get over 55% on the small system. It’s driving me a little crazy. I’ve tried sparging with more water and boiling longer, doing two sparges, crushing past the point of mortal fear (which led to insanely poor run-offs but didn’t help my efficiency at all) and playing around with different mash-out and sparge temperatures. Nothing seems to work.

On Saturday I brewed an IPA targeting an original gravity of 1.066 but got about 1.045 at the end of an hour. So I boiled for a little while longer and got it to 1.050 and called it a beer. That brew was going to get the Pacman yeast that I had just cultured, but since it was so far off target it got some Sixpoint yeast still in the fridge. Still being tormented, I attempted another brew on Monday.

I’m actually an engineer by trade so it surprises even me that I seem to be shooting from the hip in trying to crack this nut. But it’s fun in some bizarre, self-destructive way even if it isn’t always helpful. Monday, however, would be different. Well, not really, but that was the idea going into the brew session. The logic went like this:

For some reason, all my small brews have really low efficiencies even though the larger brews had decent (i.e., livable) efficiencies. Rather than keep trying to figure out why the small brews are different, why not just formulate the recipes around those efficiencies? I can deal with an extra few ounces of grain per beer.

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We have Pacman!

I now have enough Pacman yeast to ferment 3.5 quarts of beer.  Just so you don’t have to read through parts 1 and 2 all over again, here’s the process I went through:

Day 1: Carefully poured (and consumed) all but the last ounce or two of a bomber of Rogue’s Shakespeare Stout. Dumped about 4 ounces of 1.030 wort into the bottle. Covered with foil. Shook like hell every chance I got.
Day 2: Saw a thin krausen. When it dropped the bottle went into the fridge.
Day 3: Decanted the new beer leaving about an ounce or two with the yeast. Dumped about 6 ounces of 1.035 wort into the bottle, covered with foil, shook like hell.
Day 4: Nice thick krausen.
Day 5: Krausen dropped – bottle went into the refrigerator to wait for next step.

This is going to be dumped into a 3.5 quart batch of IPA which is mashing as I type this.  Hurrah!

A quick update on my latest starter experiment:

The morning after making the starter there was a very thin layer of krausen on the beer, which means some yeast stuck around in the bottle and went to town on the wort.  That night the krausen had dropped so I put the bottle in the fridge to crash cool it and get the suspended yeast to drop out.  I don’t really know if that was a good idea or not, but I did it so there’s no use crying over it now.  This evening I decanted the beer in the bottle, which left a small layer of yeast at the bottom – not a lot but definitely more than what was there before.  I added 2 cups of fresh 1.035 wort to that (made using the coffee grinder / thermos method, which I’m going to stick with) and shook the crap out of it again.  With any luck, I’ll have a nice cake at the bottom of the bottle sometime tomorrow and the whole starter can be pitched into a batch of IPA or something.

More updates to come.

Nobody dresses like the guy on that bottle.  Nobody.

I’ll come right out and admit that I’ve tried this experiment before and failed.  But I’ve never tried it in front of an audience so what the hell, here goes nothing.  The idea is to harvest some yeast from an unfiltered / bottle conditioned beer, in this case Rogue’s Shakespeare Stout.  I’ve heard from reliable sources (namely the brewmaster at Rogue) that this can be done with this beer.  This is particularly convenient because I really like the Shakespeare Stout – enough that I would pay 6 bucks for 22 oz of it, which I did earlier this evening.  But if this experiment works out then I actually paid 6 bucks for some Pacman yeast (that’s what they call it, I swear) and the beer was free.  If this works.

Last time I wrote about a tiny starter I was grinding in a mortar and pestle and mashing in a coffee thermos.  Crazy, I know.  The problems with that method were A) it’s hard to maintain 150ish degrees in a coffee thermos for an hour and B) we broke our mortar and pestle.  Actually just the pestle.  So in between then and now there was another, un-blogged starter experiment wherein a coffee grinder was used to crush the grain and a higher quality thermos was pre-heated with boiling water before the mash.  The grinder worked pretty well but the thermos still lost heat too quickly (it’s time to get a better thermos).

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Clockwise starting at the top: American Chocolate Malt, Domestic 2-Row, Victory Malt, and Crystal 40L

I’m tormented by my recent drop in mash efficiency. Tormented I tell you. And since I didn’t have to work today I decided to brew yet again, even though I just brewed last night and I’ll be brewing with my brother-in-law tomorrow. But this time my goal is simply to figure out how to get my 3.5 quart efficiency up to the 70% mark like it usually is for my 2.5 gallon beers. So I’m going to be moving further away from my little experiments and sparging more and boiling longer. As you’ll see, the results, while not perfect, are still encouraging. I hope I didn’t just spoil this post for everybody.

Let’s jump right in with the recipe shall we? I wanted to make more of the brown ale but didn’t have all the grains to replicate it, so I came up with this one instead:

Brown Ale v2.0

Batch size: 0.875 gallons

1.75 lbs Domestic 2-row
1.5 oz Crystal 40L
1 oz American Chocolate Malt
0.75 oz Victory Malt
0.25 oz Willamette @ 60
0.18 oz Fuggles @ 5
American Ale Yeast (I used some of the slurry from the rye ale)

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All that glitters is NOT gold. Sometimes it’s just glitter.

Looking over my notes from the first time-saving experiment, I thought I could improve the process a little. My main problem was the low efficiency, which I attributed to the 20 minute mash. Had I thought about this a bit I would have remembered that all of my recent brews have been coming up really short in the gravity department and the reduced mash time probably had nothing to do with it. But I didn’t think that much about it and so went ahead with my plan of increasing the mashing time a little bit.

But I didn’t want to increase the overall brew session time – remember I’m going for a two hour session, ideally – so I thought I’d make up some time by shortening the boil even more. Clever, I know. I should point out that I haven’t tasted the results of the last experiment, so I don’t know if shortening the boil from 60 to 40 minutes worked out. So much is wrong here that I don’t know why I’m posting this. Maybe as a lesson to others so that they will be more careful in their planning than I have been. Whatever the case may be, my plan was to mash for 30 minutes and boil for 30 minutes so as to keep the overall time about the same as before. I also decided to go for the full sparge on this, rather than the no-sparge technique I tried last time, thinking I could increase efficiency there.

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Peruse the various homebrew forums and you’ll see the topic of secondaries come up with some regularity. Some people say you should use a secondary for just about every beer you make (hefeweizens are an exception), while others will tell you it’s not really necessary. And some of the people in the no-secondary camp are pretty highly respected in the brewing world. I’m personally on the fence at the moment.

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The main event

After sitting in bottles to carbonate for a few weeks the brown ale is ready for prime time.

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There is a man in Jersey City who really loves beer. This is his story.