Brewday: Rye Witbier

June 3, 2012

As we keep getting closer to the homebrew competition, I had just one beer left to brew for it: the rye beer. The only restriction for the beer is that it has to include rye for at least 30% of the grain used. I’ve brewed a lot of rye beers over the years, and I decided that most entrants would likely use rye pale ales and rye IPAs, so it was time I tried a different approach.

Part of what makes rye so great in a beer is that it adds a bit of dry spicy character, and a bit of an earthy aroma, so I wanted to add it to a non-pale ale style that would really benefit from the heavy use of rye. I figured a witbier would be an interesting and unique experiment. I made a wit recipe with a heavy dose of rye malt replacing a lot of the wheat malt, and was ALMOST tempted to add some peppercorns, but decided against it. So the grain bill for it was:

  • 6.50 lb Pils malt
  • 3.50 lb Rye malt
  • 1.00 lb Flaked wheat

The water additions were pretty light, just 5 grams each of calcium chloride and gypsum. I mashed it on the cool side, around 147F, to try and make sure it attenuated really well. This one should have a nice dry body to accentuate the spicy rye character. Unfortunately, the lautering went really slow for the first two gallons before I realized there was a piece of grain partially clogging the ball valve in my mash tun. After blowing that out and running a vorlauf again, the runoff went as smoothly as it usually does.

The hop and spice schedule on this one was fairly light:

  • 0.75 oz Challenger (60 minutes, 5.6% Alpha Acid)
  • 0.50 oz Challenger (15 minutes)
  • 10 gm Coriander (15 minutes)
  • 0.50 oz Challenger (End of Boil)

The other odd thing about this batch was the yeast I used for it. My previous saison, the peppercorn saison I brewed for my 100th batch last month, had its saison yeast crap out halfway through fermentation. It refused to start back up and was left sitting really thick and sweet, so I made a starter of my Northwest ale yeast that was on hand and poured that in to get fermentation going again. That did the trick, but left me with a blended yeast cake to work with, so I thought that would be interesting to use for this rye witbier. These two yeasts should do pretty well at drying out the body and giving some nice character to the beer.

Also, starting gravity was 1.045, as I was aiming for a nice light session beer for the coming warm months.


A bar in downtown Troy called The Ruck is holding their first annual Extreme Homebrewing Competition in June. It’s focused on six different brews:

  • Rye: grist has to contain 30% rye at least
  • “Funky”: a significant amount of non-grain adjuncts
  • A beer with both fruit and spice
  • Platiunum: a Bud Light Platinum kind of beer with high alcohol and low body (ironically, everyone will likely have the most difficult time with this beer)
  • Black IPA
  • Ahtanum: a single-hop beer using only Ahtanum hops

The competition allows teams of up to three brewers to make the six different beers, so I’ll be working with a couple homebrewing friends in the Capital Region, Bill and Angelos. Those guys have a lot of experience experimenting with all sorts of adjuncts, fruits, and spices, so they’re taking care of the two beers requiring them (the Imperial Honey Amber from a few years ago was absolutely top notch). I’ll be doing the rye beer, given my recent heavy experimentation with those kinds of beers. The other three beers we’ll be collaborating on and brewing together.

As I like to brew four batches successively to fill my four kegs, I’m in the process of putting together the brewing schedule for these next bunch of batches. I have two yeast strains in house that I’m going to use: a Belgian saison yeast, and my standard American yeast.

The first batch with the yeast I have will be a saison with honey and rose hips, and will be my one hundredth batch of homebrew. After that, I’m thinking of doing the other three beers as different rye-based experiments as potential entries for the competition. For the second batch using the saison yeast, I’m highly tempted to my witbier recipe, replace a bunch of the wheat with rye, add peppercorn (not sure which just yet), ferment a bit warmer, and switch to some spicier hops.

With the American yeast my first thought is to go with a rye pale ale and a rye IPA, as per normal. I haven’t had anything hoppy on tap in a while, and I’ve been pretty damn happy with most of the rye pale ales I’ve made. Part of me wants to try an American rye ale, which would be a very light, dry, spicy session beer.

Those are preliminary thoughts. I’m hoping to get the saison brewed sometime this week, then I can start trying to finalize all my other recipes.

Brewday: Belgian Dubbel

February 6, 2012

It’s been ages since I’ve brewed a Belgian dubbel, and none of my recipes have really made me happy. I went through my few previous recipes and tried to figure out what was missing while applying some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years since those batches.

One of the biggest issues from those previous batches was a lower attenuation, so they were thicker than I like for the style. This time I decided I’d bump up the sugar content and drop the dark crystal malt down a little bit. I had been thinking the flavors from the dark crystal malt were a bit much in the other batches, anyway.

Since I began brewing Belgian style beers again recently, my grain stock now includes several forms of aromatic malts, which are kilned to a degree that enhances their flavor and aroma profiles without going too far into the crystal sweetness of the caramel malts. The nice thing about working at a Brewery that does Belgian styles is I’ve seen several of these aromatic malts in action, so I had some idea what to expect from them. In this case a very light aromatic malt was used as a light backup aroma to the dark crystal malt and the dark beet sugar syrup.

So the fermentables in this batch (keeping in mind I run off 8 gallons and boil down to 6.5 gallons) came from:

  • 10.50 lb Pale Malt
  • 1.50 lb Munich Malt
  • 1.00 lb Special Aromatic (from Franco-Belges)
  • 0.50 lb Extra Special (Briess’ version of Special B)
  • 1.00 lb Dark Beet Sugar Syrup
  • 0.75 lb Turbinado Sugar

In this case I’m using the Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity yeast, which is supposed to be Westmalle’s yeast of choice. I love the malt complexity that it leaves, and the character it gives to Westmalle’s beers, so that’s what is fermenting this batch right now.

The hops in this batch were kept restrained and should play no more than a support role to the malt and yeast aromas.

  • 1.25 oz Challenger (60 minutes, 5.6% Alpha Acid)
  • 1.00 oz Hallertauer (15 minutes, 3.0% Alpha Acid)
  • 1.00 oz Hallertauer (End of Boil)

For brewing water I used 10 gallons of spring water from Hannaford. I mashed in with at my standard ratio of 1.25 qt/lb, so 4.25 gallons. The mash was held at 150F for 45 minutes then started vorlaufing to set the grain bed. I’ve started to recirculate the wort before the desired end of the mash cycle because I don’t raise the grain bed temp to stop the enzymes, so any conversion is still happening. I haven’t seen any adverse effects, and it helped me shorten my brewday.

For water chemistry I added 3g of Calcium Sulfate, 2g of Calcium Chloride, and 2g of Calcium Carbonate to the mash water, and 4g/2g/2g of them (respectively) to the wort before boil. This led to a very nice mash pH of 5.46 and a final wort pH of 5.25, both right in line with what I wanted.

The rest of the numbers looked pretty good. I ran off 8 gallons into the kettle, boiled down to 6.60 gallons, transferred 5 gallons to the fermentor (all that wort was crystal clear), and hit 1.067 (76% efficiency on the mash) for a starting gravity. I was mashed in at 2:05 and cleaned up for the day by 6:35. Booyah. 🙂

Homebrew Competition Time

September 20, 2011

After years of homebrewing, I had always been interested in entering a competition to get some feedback on my brewing and maybe actually compete for an award. On the other hand, given how subjective beer tasting can be and how widely different palates can be, I had always been hesitant.

Last year I entered the Knickerbocker Battle of the Brews at the Albany Pump Station to see how the whole experience would be. I wound up entering six beers in the competition, and though I wound up getting a few awards, it’s the feedback that was most important. Of the judges that reviewed my beers, several were professional brewers from brewpubs in the region, some worked at homebrew shops, and a bunch were homebrewers that were certified judges. The experience levels of these people varied drastically from novice judges up to the very experienced ones.

When I read through all of the comments, there definitely seemed to be a divide between the judges that work in the field professionally and the judges that were homebrewers that were staying involved in their hobby by being judges. The homebrewer judges seemed to be a bit more strict and narrow in interpretation of styles, while the judges that were pro brewers tended to be more accepting of the outer edges of the guidelines. That’s just an observation, and I’m not complaining. The differences in the viewpoints and perspectives in the comments were interesting and lead to some ideas on how to alter the recipes if I wanted certain beers to do better in the competition.

The fact that three different judges review each beer is nice in that you get three different levels of experience, three different viewpoints, and three different sets of preferences from which your beers are judged. Given the different perspectives, you kind of have to give the subjective comments on flavor and aroma a wide berth, the comments on technical flaws all seem to be pretty accurate. As I’m not overly experienced at detecting off-flavors (at Siebel I found there are some off-flavors I can’t detect very well even in significant quantity), that’s the aspect of the judging that I really look for, and where competitions can be really helpful to me as a brewer.

All in all, going to the Pump Station in November last year with a couple homebrewing friends to hang out during the competition was an absolute blast. This competition is coming up again this November, and now I’m living much closer so it’s even easier to get out there for it. I have yeast en route that I ordered so I can finally start brewing in my apartment here in Cooperstown (I would use yeast from the brewery, but I don’t plan on making any Belgian styles anytime soon), and hope to have some beers ready to submit to the Battle of the Brews at the end of October.

My goal as a brewer right now, other than continuing to research opening a brewery myself, is to seriously work on tweaking some recipes and getting them to the point where I’m happy with them and can call them finished products. For the competition I’m hoping to be able to submit the next iteration of my Dark Mild Ale, a combined version of last year’s chocolate porter and coffee porter, and a new version of all the Rye Pale Ales I’ve been making. Hopefully I get my yeast in a couple days and can start brewing again this weekend. I’m working on getting all of these recipes finalized, and will post them as I brew them.

Week 3: YEAST!

February 22, 2011

This entire week will focus on the single most important part of the brewing process: yeast. Yeast are critical to beer, and properly handling those tiny little guys will lead to drastic improvements in the beer you make. Of course, all of this is biochemistry, which I have zero experience with, but it’s still all been fascinating so far.

I’ll admit that yeast handling is one aspect of brewing I’ve never put a significant amount of thought into. Though, once I began making starters with my yeast, my beers definitely improved quite a bit. The problem on a homebrew scale is that proper yeast handling involves equipment that costs money for little “perceived gain”. I’ve never invested in an oxygen tank and diffusion stone to aerate the wort before pitching yeast, though that can make a huge difference in fermentation. (sterol production during oxygen uptake is important for alcohol tolerance in the yeast and better stress resistance) I’ve never invested in a fermentation chamber to allow for controlled temperatures, which is also pretty important for beer quality.

The one thing I have done with yeast is that I began propagating yeast in starters a few years ago. That made an immediate impact on my fermentations. Now I want to do more, so I’ll likely be laying out some plans when once I figure out where I’m moving once the course here is over.