Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Home Brew Adventure: A Happy Mistake called Red Snow

Although we haven’t posted anything about our home-brewing adventures since March we've been busy brewing more all-grain batches: five of them. We've learned from our experiences and we've had some really useful feedback, which has helped us spot flaws and make some adjustments. For this post we wanted to focus on our third home brewed beer (the second all-grain): Red Snow.

Coming up with a recipe for a beer can be difficult. Especially when you're only starting out with all-grain brewing and your knowledge/experience base is still pretty limited. We'd done quite a bit of background reading at this point – I’d only just finished Randy Mosher's 'Radical Brewing'. We'd also spent a fair bit of time drinking different beers and discussing what kind of beer we should try next. Thinking back to what we had been particularly enjoying at the time, we recalled that Magic Rock's 'Rapture' and 'Big Top' were two beers that we really liked plus Port Brewing's 'Sharkbite Red' which Emma had tried on keg in Craft Beer Co in Islington just before Christmas. You can see where we're going here.

We settled on strong, hoppy red ale, which we guess you could call a Red IPA or maybe an Imperial Red Ale. We decided that we wanted it strong, with plenty of caramel malt character, balanced with a subtle bitterness but also bursting with Pacific North West hop flavour. All these things are good to think about in theory, but with only limited knowledge of how to start formulating a grain/hop bill, we were largely in the dark. The big question was: where do we start?

We’ve never been interested in brewing clone beers, but it doesn't hurt to look at the recipes for commercial examples that are out there. This gave us some idea of what we wanted and didn't want in our beer and allowed us to start thinking about which grains and hops contributed which flavours or characters to the beer. This took a substantial amount of research but utimately the grain/hop bills looked something like this:

Grains: Maris Otter Pale Malt, Munich malt, 30L Crystal Malt, 121L Crystal malt and Carafa III
Hops: Galena, Warrior, Chinook and Citra.

These make your kitchen smell delicious!

We also decided to re-use the Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) that we had ranched from our batch of Declassified Black IPA as we felt it would bring out the hop flavours but still be able to cope with the anticipated high gravity of the beer. We prepared a starter a few days beforehand to get the yeast ready for work. It went a bit mad.

Looks like a mushroom cloud in a conical flask. Yes?

Our total grain bill was over 8kg, much higher than the bill for Declassified - a factor that was lost on us amateur brewers. But we'll return to that later. At this point, we were trying out a number of different brewing software packages to keep track of our ingredients and calculations; however, we've found that BeerSmith 2 is probably the best package providing you enter the information correctly, so we'll use the figures from that for this post.

Lovely mash...but what about the gravity?

The anticipated pre-boil gravity target for the wort was 1.086. After an hour of mashing at a medium body temperature and a sparge, our measured pre-boil gravity was 1.070. Oh dear.  Well off target. We realised what we'd done - we'd drawn far too much out of the mash tun - our pre-boil volume should have been about 25 litres but we estimated that we had around 28 litres or possibly more (we'd no way of measuring it – but we made a measuring stick for our next batch). The wort went on the boil and we settled in for a loooonnng boil. Even though we knew that we'd be doing a 90 minute boil, we expected that we might have to go for longer to try and get that gravity and boil volume down.

Prepare to receive wort! FWH FTW!

Another hurdle we then ran into was measuring the gravity while boiling. A standard brewing hydrometer is designed for measuring gravities at around room temperature. While you can use calculations to adjust for how the density of water changes at different temperatures, it is EXTREMELY unadvisable to put the hydrometer into anything near boiling temperature. Which meant that while our boil was on, our measurements of gravity were always going to be behind as we had to wait for the wort sample to cool so the gravity could be read. We've found a solution to this, something that we'll cover later when we talk about the next batch.

According to BeerSmith, the estimated original gravity (OG) of the Red Snow was 1.102 for a 19 litre batch. After a long boil, the gravity wasn't really increasing that much so we plumped for an OG of 1.074, well below our anticipated target. It was a bit disheartening to say the least.

So we cooled, filtered the hops out and aerated our wort ready to receive the now-settled yeast starter. Pitched, sealed and air-locked, the beer was bubbling away within 3-4 hours while it sat in our spare room. A week in the primary and the gravity was down to 1.020 against our target of 1.019, clearly the 1272 had been VERY active. Racked the beer to the secondary and there it sat for 4 weeks. We dry hopped with lots of Citra and Chinook after two weeks. We tried using sanitised marbles to weigh the hop bags down but this didn't seem to work very well. A problem that we are still struggling with...

After dry-hopping, we bottled. The beer had reached a final gravity (FG) of 1.019 (on target). At least one thing had gone right. We left the beer to condition and waited somewhat glumly for it to be ready to drink.

When we opened our first bottle of Red Snow, it poured a deep, dark red with a fairly decent head. It smelt strongly of the Citra and Chinook hops we'd dry-hopped it with (unsurprisingly!) but what blew us away was the taste. Ok, it wasn't the high gravity monster we'd hoped to brew. Instead what we had was a hoppy red ale that had this burnt caramel flavour just about balanced with the bitterness which stopped it from being too sweet. The more of it we drank, the more we liked it! The only flaw we noticed was a slight touch of alcohol in the aftertaste - not the warming sensation at the back of your throat but a taste of alcohol. We reckoned that could be due to letting the 1272 yeast go crazy without trying to keep the temperature down, enabling the excess production of fusel alcohols. This is something we'd look to fix the next time.

We shared Red Snow with our friends and work colleagues. They also loved it. At first we thought they were just being polite... but when people ask if they can have more then you know you've hit the mark.  We still have a bottle or two of it left if anyone wants to try it but you'd best be quick or we might end up drinking it ourselves first.

The Second Brew

Being the perfectionists we are, we couldn't leave it there. Why only brew a beer once if people enjoyed it? We wanted more of it ourselves and (almost as importantly to us) we wanted to figure out what we'd done wrong with the gravity the first time around.

Firstly, could we figure out what went wrong with the mash. Why was our extract gravity so low? Was it just a careless mistake on the day? Did we not wet the grains enough?

While we were at it, what could be done to improve the flavours and head retention? Given the red colour of the beer, we decided to add some rye malt into the mix plus some wheat to help with head retention. We cut back slightly on the Carafa III to lighten the colour a little. We also upped the bittering charge to try and create a slightly more balanced bitterness with all the different malts.

Again, getting as much done in advance and using a re-cultured starter of 1272, we cracked on with pretty much the same approach as before. In retrospect, we should have done more reading about high gravity beers. It was also ironic that BeerSmith published a podcast about high gravity beers, with the legendary John Palmer, only a week or so later.

So we mashed, sparged, boiled and lo-and-behold we ended up with an OG of 1.074. Again, Well short of our target. Sigh. However, this time we were able to monitor the gravity as we went along – using a refractometer with automatic temperature correction. This piece of kit makes it so much easier to check the gravity 'on-the-fly' while lautering, sparging and boiling. If you're home-brewing seriously, this is a really worthwhile investment.

We completed the rest of the brew day, cleaned up and continued to ponder the gravity while we listened to the 1272 working its way through the wort again. This time the fermenter was in our closet, in a leaky box of cold water, wrapped in a towel with an old fan circulating the air around it. Hopefully that kept the fermentation temperature down and prevented our yeast pumping out too many of those nasty fusel alcohols.

Next batch? Done
Fast forward a few weeks, conditioning and dry hopping done,  we bottled it over the Bank Holiday weekend. Only a week to wait to see if it’s as good as the previous batch. However, we tried a sample that we'd taken to measure the FG (1.019 again, bang on target). Again, packed full of Citra and Chinook hop flavour but this time a spicy rye flavour dominates in the malt. We can't wait to try it when it’s properly ready as the carbonation will bring through other flavours that you can't pick out when it’s flat. Perhaps this will be Red Snow Rye?
Home-brew? Keep being AWESOME!

The Next Brew

So we didn't fix the problem with the gravity in the mash. But we've been doing some reading on the subject and we think we know what to do. We've looked into parti-gyle brewing and splitting the grain bill, so we've got some ideas of what to do. Others might tell us 'just add sugar, that's what the Belgians do!' but we feel like we need to beat this problem without 'cheating'. So watch this space for a further installment when we have another crack at this...


doug said...

Adding sugar is not cheating, but it is a decision that affects other things, such as final gravity and body. Also, adding sugar is historically a very English thing to do as well.

Have you looked into adjusting your efficiency setting in the recipe design page on BeerSmith? It defaults as something like 70% or 75%, but I know any all-grain thing I do ends up in the 60% to 65% on my system (which, admittedly, is a bit of a kluge). Anyway, if you started with the same grain bill both times and got the same OG, that makes it sounds like you can get consistent results but need to modify the efficiency setting to make more accurate predictions. I'm pretty sure the Fermentation tab under a recipe in BeerSmith will tell you your actual efficiency for that batch once you enter the measured OG and FG.

Also, efficiency can drop due to large grain bills (mash tun efficiency) and high hopping rates (wort lost in the hop flowers rather than evaporation, meaning less liquid without the concentration of sugars).

Also also, I want to try this beer. Will bring a bottle of our own hoppy red along to share.

Emma said...

We just wanted to beat what was going on, rather than accept defeat and add sugar. We've got a much better understanding now of our mash efficiency after the two brews that we can properly estimate it using BeerSmith. The other option we're considering is brewing two gyles and mixing them or splitting the grain bill in half, mash the first, lauter and then heat that up to strike temp before using it as the strike water for the second half of the grain bill. Needs a bit of calculation though. We might give the high gravity version a try before your visit.

And don't worry about trying it. We put aside a few bottles (of all of our brews) when we knew both Martha and you were coming. Hopefully they'll still taste good in August!

doug said...

Sweet! Looking forward to trying the brews.

Pretty Things (from Massachusetts) uses the output of the first mash as strike water for the second mash in their barley wine, which starts out around 1.115. I think you can hit 1.100 with a standard mash if you calculate the grain bill at a lower efficiency -- I pulled it off once with a strong dark ale that used 5.3 kg of grain for a 9 L batch.

Also, holy crap, 1.102 is HUGE!

Bioblogist said...

Great name for a red ale :) It's also pretty interesting reading through the process. I feel as though there should be "lab meetings" where local home brewers meet every month and do a powerpoint presentation of their brew with feedback, etc.

Emma said...

Waiting for you will be some of the original Declassified Black IPA, Batch 1 of Red Snow, Smoked Owen Porter, Declassified NZ, Lunch Monkey Saison, Batch 2 Red Snow, an as-yet un-named Belgian IPA and an as-yet un-named Pale Ale. Plus anything else we brew between now and then! There's going to be a lot of beer drunk when you're over!

Unknown said...

Well, there kind of is. We went to the London Amateur Brewers (LAB!) monthly meet for the first time last month and found it fascinating. One of the reasons we'd wanted to go was to get feedback on our own beers. But it was interesting to try other people's beers too. Such a good learning experience.

Are you going to be down (?up) at all before the GBBF?