Tuesday, 8 December 2015

All Grain!

The more you do extract brewing, the more you end up reading recipes and articles and forum posts where all-grain brewers talk enthusiastically about Maris Otter and Carafa Special III and strike temperatures and protein rests, and if you've got anything like my urge to tinker with recipes then you rapidly realize that you're going to have to get around to all-grain sooner rather than later.

I'm not going to write about the generalities of all grain brewing - that's been covered very well elsewhere - but I am going to write about what my setup is and why.

I started off by considering (and rejecting) the following standard options:

  • Brew-in-a-bag - simple, but it seems hard to get reasonable volumes out given the size of pan that I've got to mash and boil in. Also requires a lot of attention and stirring.
  • Pre-converted picnic cooler - these seem like a good idea, but tend to be far too big for my purposes.
  • Home converted picnic cooler - this is probably the Right Thing To Do in the long run, but I'm crap at Making and would probably make a balls of it.

What I've ended up with is a brew-in-a-bag-in-a-picnic-cooler system. The equipment comprises one Igloo 19l picnic cooler and one grain bag. The process is as follows:

  • Put milled grain in bag in picnic cooler.
  • Add strike water, stir well, check / adjust temperature and leave for an hour.
  • Remove the bag slowly and dunk it in some more hot water in the boiling pan.
  • Stir the grain, take bag back out, and leave it somewhere to drain.
  • Add the wort from picnic cooler to the pan, crank up the heat and get boiling.

Since my crappy electric stove can only keep about ten litres at a rolling boil, I'm currently starting the boil at a high gravity and diluting in the fermenter.

This has some downsides - you get limited sparging to keep the pre-boil volume down to ten litres, and unpredictable efficiency as a result - I tend to guess at the amount of grain to use, check the volume and gravity pre-boil, and adjust the hopping and post-boil dilution accordingly. You also can't vorlauf properly. The risk of hot side aeration is higher than if you do everything with spigots and tubes, but opinions seem to be divided as to how much of an issue that is.

In general, though, this approach seems pretty practical and I'd recommend it to anyone who's trying to brew mid-sized all-grain batches without a proper boiler.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Beer Ingredient Difficulty Ratings

Being quick to raid the kitchen cupboard for wacky crap to bung into beer is one of the more easily mocked craft beer tendencies. And to be honest, I tend to a certain purism myself - not religiously, but out of a pragmatic feeling that unless they're very good, brewers are more likely to make a complete hash of a beetroot and smoked paprika Porter than they are of a straightforward American Pale Ale.

But I also don't like to rule things out, because normally whenever I come out with a definitive statement about how X is Always Bad And Wrong, a little voice at the back of my head points out something I love that does exactly X. And hence for my own brewing, rather than define a set of Things I Will Not Use, I've come up with a set of rule-of-thumb "difficulty levels" - roughly, the further down this list something is, the more competent I'll need to feel that I am before I start using it.

This isn't based on decades of brewing experience - for a given ingredient, it's largely down to a) how often I come across decent beers with it in, b) how often I come across awful beers with it in and c) how difficult I find it to imagine what a good beer with it in would taste like. This is all work in progress, though, so if someone wants to come along and tell me that you can't really go wrong with lacto-sour beers then I'll bump that up.

Thus my current list goes:

  1. base malts
  2. hops (pretty much any variety)
  3. character malts
  4. interesting sugars
  5. funky grains and adjuncts (rye, wild rice, spelt, oatmeal etc)
  6. coffee
  7. chocolate
  8. smoked stuff
  9. oak
  10. fruit
  11. vanilla
  12. chilli
  13. spices
  14. brett
  15. lacto-sour
  16. herbs
  17. vegetables


  • Stuff that's used in a totally bang-to-style traditional recipe gets a bit of a pass.
  • I'm annoyed to put brett so far down, as it's one of the things that I'm most interested in using.
  • Barrel aging gets a lot of flack, but apart from the faff involved it seems like one of the harder things to go wrong with.
  • In practice I'll probably use brett before chilli and smoked malt before chocolate nibs because that's the sort of beer that I tend to like more.
  • This list doubles as a buyers' guide of sorts - I'd probably buy a coffee Porter from any random brewery, but a beetroot sour would have to be from someone who I've really got a lot of trust in.

Update - 24/01/16 - after reading this Boak and Bailey post about Mikkeller Spontanbasil, I'm half wondering whether part of the reason that some nontraditional ingredients are easier to get right than others is that some ingredients tend to bump up flavours that you'd already expect to find in beer, while others are pretty much foreign to it. So anticipating what cocoa nibs are going to do to your stout recipe or what grapefruit is going to do to an IPA is pretty easy if you've ever had a chocolatey porter or a grapefruity IPA, but working out whether a packet of cassia bark is going to taste good if you dump it in a batch of raspberry saison takes quite a lot of imagination, and is all too easy to get wrong...


Non-homebrew related thinkpiece alert!

This is partly apropos of Boak and Bailey's recent post about drinkability, and partly apropos of the ongoing attempt by Americans to get their heads around the idea of a session beer and why it doesn't just mean "anything under 5%."

I drank quite a bit of Altbier when we were in Dusseldorf the other week. As a style it's basically like a cleaner, colder version of Best Bitter - brown, not too strong, varies from reasonably herbal-bitter to moderately biscuity-sweet. And like Best Bitter, it can be a truly great session beer.

Really traditional Altbier pubs only sell one beer, and they'll repeatedly bring you a fresh 20cl glass of it as and when you finish the current one until you actually tell them to stop. And for as long as they do keep bringing it, you don't get fed up with it and there aren't any out-of-kilter flavours that gradually get annoying. And for as long as they do keep bringing it, you keep swigging and talking and swigging and talking and barely notice the beer. But every now and then, maybe when there's a lull in the conversation, you stop for a second, look at the glass in your hand, let the beer roll around your mouth and think, no, this stuff really is bloody brilliant.

In short, a great session beer demands no attention at all, but will repay as much as you want to give it.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

First Brew

I wanted to start off with something simple to brew and easy to drink. An APA seemed like a good bet, so I spent five minutes with Google and picked the first decent looking extract APA recipe that I found.

Recipe - simple APA.

10 litre batch

Light DME 1.2kg
Dark Crystal Malt 120g

60 minute boil

Hops - all Cascade, leaf, 5.5% AA
14.9g 60mins
7.5g 30 mins
7.5g 10 mins
7.5g post-boil
7.5g dry hop for 5 days

1 tsp Irish Moss at 15 mins

As you'd expect from a first effort, there are all sorts of things that I've learnt from this. I'll probably expand on some of them in future posts, but here's a list to be getting on with:

  • Everything takes longer than you expect, particularly getting stuff warm and then getting it cool again.
  • It's probably worth bagging the hops when you dry hop, particularly if you don't have a good way of filtering them out when you siphon the beer off to the bottling bucket.
  • It's quite a pain in the arse to keep a fermenter at 18 degrees in winter in Cambridgeshire without some sort of heater.
  • If you boil 10L of water for about an hour, you don't end up with 10L at the end. And if you forget to take account of this then your nice light APA can turn into something a bit more hefty - I ended up with an 8L batch with a theoretical IBU of 57, measured OG of 1.060 and measured FG of 1.015.

The Beer

The finished beer came out mid brown, grapefruity with a hint of caramel. It wasn't super complex or aromatic and there were initially a few funky fruity rough edges that I couldn't pin down the source of, but it smoothened off with a bit more time in the bottle. To be honest, for a first brew I'd have been satisfied to produce anything that was identifiably beer, so getting something that was actually pretty drinkable was a definite bonus.

Update: a bottle of this brew ended up sitting in a friend's kitchen for the best part of six months, and that time turns out to have been really rather kind to it. The rough edges have gone, the fruity hops have basically gone too, and what's left is basically dark crystal malt cut through with a bit of bitterness - nice smooth flavours, sherry, caramel and dried fruit. I'm not sure that I could pull that off again deliberately, but I'd be interested to try!

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Planning and Shopping

Before I get on to the first brew, I'll blather on a bit about some of the decisions that I had to make before starting.

Batch Size

The standard homebrew starter setup tends to be for 5 gallon batches. This involves some fairly hefty kit to fit in a small house - the boiler in particular - and also leaves you with a lot of beer to get through if you brew a below-par batch. Alternatively, it's also possible to start off with one gallon batches. This has the advantage that you can use regular kitchen equipment for a lot more of your setup, but the obvious downside that you don't get much beer at the end of it!

I've decided to split the difference and start off with two or three gallon batches - fifteen pints or so isn't too much of a chore to get through even if it isn't great, but it's also enough that you can share your beer around fairly freely and not have to jealously hoard it. It also means that a lot of the kit is relatively compact and the process is easy to handle, although it needs a bit more stuff than really small batches. It does tend to make everything a bit nonstandard though: recipes need to be adjusted and instructions need to be adapted. A lot of specialist kit will be too big to use, but repurposed kitchen stuff is likely to be too small. Lots of problems need solving from first principles, and part of the reason that I've started writing this stuff up is in the hope that it'll help someone else to deal with the same issues.

Extract vs All Grain Brewing

Starting off brewing with extract was a simple choice. All-grain seems like more control, more fun, more parameters to play with, but on the other hand, brewing with extract plus steeped grain is a lot simpler. On the principle of trying to learn one thing at a time, it's natural to start off with extract brews and then worry about mashing once I'm confident that I'm unlikely to screw up the boil or the fermentation.


I did a lot of umming and ahing about equipment, but at the end of it I seem to have ended up with a working setup. The extract kit is roughly as follows...

Bare essentials:

  • A cheapo 15 litre stock pot. It's hard to keep more than about ten litres at a rolling boil on our crappy electric hob, and the next step up - either to a bigger pan with a standalone gas burner to heat it or to a purpose-made homebrew boiler with a built-in heating element - is a big one in terms of price and space. The limitation it puts on the size of a batch is irrelevant for an extract brew, where you can just bump up the pre-boil gravity and top up the volume later, although it becomes a bit of a constraint on all-grain brews, where your pre-boil gravity is limited to what you can get out of the grain.
  • A 3 gallon fermenting bin with no tap and a bubbler airlock. This is pretty much a no-brainer - plastic buckets are plastic buckets. Demijohns are too small.
  • Muslin bags - useful for steeping grains, holding hops, straining things etc. Cheap, reusable if you can be bothered to clean them, disposable if you can't.
  • A siphon tube. No pump or anything. Easy enough to use once you get used to it, although an autosiphon might be a nice luxury.
  • Bottles - I started off with swingtop bottles, which are great for low faff bottling, but pricey (so you don't want to just hand them out to people) and not entirely bombproof (which means that you can't just bung them in a rucksack or whatever). I've subsequently acquired a crown capper so I can do a mix of bottle types. Using mostly large bottles (500ml and 750ml) seems like a sound plan since it makes bottling easier and less wasteful, assuming that you're happy to drink 750ml of beer at a time or have someone to share it with.
  • A bunch of random crap that you've probably got in your kitchen anyway, eg another big saucepan, a measuring jug (the bigger the better), a wooden spoon, a plastic ladle etc.

Geek Stuff:

  • Thermometers - I've got three: a stick-on one to put on the side of the fermenter, a min / max ambient one to keep track of how warm the room is, and a probey one to accurately check the temperatures of strike water, mashes, wort etc. The latter is the all-in-one type, but if I was buying again I'd probably get one with a separate probe. You could probably do without these and hope for the best, particularly for extract brewing, but they're nice to have around.
  • Hydrometer and tube - again, you could probably do without this in a pinch for extract brews, but I'm a geek and like to measure things. It's small and relatively inexpensive anyway.
  • Digital scales - tiny ones from John Lewis. Useful for measuring hops with reasonable accuracy although with hindsight I'd probably go for a bigger set, since even ten or twenty grams of hops takes up quite a bit of space.


  • 5 gallon fermenting bin with tap. Useful for aerating the wort, but that's about all, and there are probably other ways of doing that. The tap on mine leaks a bit which prevents it being any use for other stuff like using as a secondary fermenter.
  • 2 gallon plastic cask. I've yet to use this - bottling just seems simpler and easier.
  • Bottle brush. Generally I wash bottles straight after using them, and I've very seldom had to deal with crud stuck to the insides.
  • Large pipette / wine stealer. I got this for pulling out samples for the hydrometer, but have always ended up using a sanitized measuring jug instead.

Right, see you next time when I'll actually be making some beer!

Monday, 21 September 2015


I'm Dave, I'm from Cambridge in England, and I'm a homebrewer.

I've been brewing for a bit over six months now, so I'm still very much a beginner. Hopefully this blog is going to reflect the process of learning more about brewing as well as the mistakes I make along the way.

I've found so far that there's a certain tendency for homebrew forums, blogs and books to assume that everyone has a garage or a shed or a basement to fill with boilers, brew-fridges, kegerators and the like. This blog will talk a bit about brewing in a more limited space: my house isn't the bedsitter of the blog name, but I do need kit that can be set up between the kitchen door and the recycling bin, and can be stacked in the corner of the bedroom when it's not in use. There are a few good resources out there for brewing small batches in limited space, but there's more than one way to do anything, and hopefully some people will find my way helpful.

Beyond that, I'd hope that I can write some stuff that people will find useful or interesting in general. And even if I don't then it'll help me to get my own thoughts in order!