First Experiment

2 May

I made my first test batch of a new recipe, a braggot, this weekend. I am collaborating on the recipe with my friends, Jason and Natalie. The finished beer will be a gift for the occasion of another friend’s nuptials. My collaborators have given me a ton of suggestions, including using small batches to try each iteration. I used to make mead but have never made this hybrid between it and beer. Some small scale experimenting seems wise.

Scaling my rig down to a half batch took a little thought. I decided that for these reduced batches I would use extract rather than my usual all grain process. That meant I could use just one of my three brewing vessels. I chose to use my mash tun since it has fewer fittings, none of which I’d use anyway. I decided against using any of my pumps because the time to set them up would not save me any additional time. The amount and temperatures of liquids I was dealing with were easy enough to lift and pour.

I used another smaller pot I had on hand to do a low temperature pasteurization of the honey. I enjoyed the results this gave me with mead so decided to use it again for this project. The need for pasteurization still is debated, I think, among mead makers. Since I won my only competition with this process, I figured it was not driving off any noticeable amount of flavor. I think it makes the honey easier to deal with, especially the raw honey I used. The honey was partly crystallized; though not a huge hassle I still found it easier to work with a nicely integrated must.

The small volumes presented another slight challenge. I needed three and a half gallons to boil. I chose to use one gallon for the must. That is about how much I expected to lose during the boil. I realized that the honey was another quart of liquid. I had to run through the numbers a couple of times to make sure everything came out how I needed. I still ended up adding some top up water at the end. I probably boiled off more than expected because of the smaller pot.

Since I chose not to use my pumps, I used my old immersion chiller. There wasn’t enough liquid to cover the coils. I put the chiller into the boil a little earlier than I normally would, to give it more time to sterilize. Despite the small volume it did its job well. I had to lift and hold it out of the pot to stir for the whirlpool, though. That was a pain as the bits sticking out of the kettle were still quite hot. I used a pot holder and even had Andrea, my wife, holding the inflow and outflow tubes to keep them from getting in the way.

After a thorough shoulder workout of about eight minutes of stirring, I let the whirlpool stand for ten minutes. There wasn’t exactly a cone at the center of the kettle but there was a nice collection of trub. As I drained off the cooled wort towards the bottom, the sides were pretty clear. The end of the cane still clogged with some debris but I got pretty close to collecting everything I could. I am encouraged that the practice of creating a whirlpool is worth the effort. I am optimistic that my attempts to do this on my full scale system will yield similar results once fully dialed in.

wp-1462111583981.jpgI was listening to Dr. White of White Labs on a podcast last week. Among other things, he stressed the importance of aerating wort. Sharing his not inconsiderable knowledge he explained how dissolved oxygen is key to early growth of yeast in the fermenter. He made the point to those of us using plain air to oxygenate that we need to work harder since the majority of gas at our disposal isn’t what we are trying to get into solution.

Acting on this advice, I set a timer to help me aerate. I use a drill attachment. Usually I run it maybe two or three minutes, eye balling the result. I planned to run the drill for five minutes, pitch my yeast, then run it for five more. I experimented with how deeply I held the aerator in the wort. I ended up slowly moving it up and down. I figured that at the surface it was pulling gas into the beer and moving it towards the bottom of the fermenter would help distribute that freshly introduced air throughout the volume. After pitching I ended up only running the drill for three minutes and a lower speed. It occurred to me I didn’t know if longer or at a higher speed post innoculation might damage the yeast. Turns out I think I did more than an acceptable job.

For this first half batch, I used one of my older three gallon carboys. There was not a lot of head room left in it. The result of aeration was to fill that space with foam. I should not have been surprised by the mess I found the next morning. The airlock was lying a good six inches from the fermenter so must have popped off with a bit of force. The top of the fermenter, as you can see in the picture, was covered in foam.

I quickly improvised a blow off tube. I found some tubing that fit onto the stem of an air lock. By placing the other end of the tube in a pitcher of water, the gas could more easily escape without putting as much pressure on the stopper in the neck of the carboy. I tried swapping back to an air lock after a few hours because the bubbling seemed to be slowing. After an hour, foam was trickling into the airlock again so I put the blow off back on. When I left this morning, the blow off was still bubbling along.

The braggot going into the fermenter was sweet but the hops were pretty strong. I expect the hops will mellow pretty rapidly. I am curious how the vigorous start of fermentation will affect the result. I hope that means that the yeast will finish strong and there will be more of it to clean up any potential off flavors in the braggot during secondary.

This is a new to me yeast, a seasonal one. I picked it based on its description and how I though it might work with this recipe. I don’t think the blow off was due to this strain, or at least not just that. I think it really was just proper aeration with far too little head space. I am thinking I may try to collect and re-pitch this yeast since it is a seasonal. I am making the final beer in July. I am not sure I can get this yeast again by then. If it works well in the test batches, I will want to use it for the final brew day as well.

Time to do some reading on how best to collect and care for yeast from batch to batch. Expect to see another post in this experimental series sharing how that goes.

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