Update on Brewing Activities

The blog has been woefully neglected in the last few months, so here is a quick update:

We're still at it!

Yes, we are still brewing up a storm. Since the last brewing update, we sampled the “API Lepirt” Houblon Chouffe Clone and our “Farmhouse Eleven” Saison, both of which turned out very well despite a fairly high final gravity. We were still learning about pitching rates and proper attenuation at the time and assumed that one Wyeast smack-pack would do the trick for any beer.

The St. Bridget’s Stout also turned out quite well and the cocoa nibs imparted a very smooth, chocolatey taste to the beer. It may have been even a little too sweet because, once again, the final gravity was around 1.025. A fuller attenuation would have dried out the mouthfeel considerably, I think. In any case, my colleague Bridget loved the beer and was super-flattered that we named the beer after her.

Hard Lessons

We regressed a bit in our next batch. Liles wanted to make something “quick and easy,” so he chose a Nut Brown Ale kit from Northern Brewer. It wasn’t terribly interesting to brew, so we kind of missed the fact that we used distilled water instead of spring water for the whole process. The beer ended up tasting OK (pretty much like a Newcastle), but it is weird to see a beer foam up out of the bottle, then have the head completely disappear within seconds. Not a great effort, but an interesting learning experience, nonetheless.

If any beer hammered home the lesson of yeast pitching rates, it was our next effort. Jeff decided that he wanted to brew a Strong, Dark Belgian Ale and age it on bourbon-soaked oak chips. We chose Northern Brewer’s seasonal Golden Dragon kit and dubbed it “Jeff the Magic Dragon.” This is a very high gravity brew, with lots of late extract additions, as well as an addition of a pound of beet sugar at high krausen. It isn’t surprising that this beer had a tough time getting started since, again, we used a single smack pack. Jeff ran out and got another smack pack the next day when he saw there was zero activity in the fermenter and ended up saving the batch for the time being. We finally got the krausen going with the extra yeast and were able to add the candi syrup.

Jeff also bought a bottle of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey and some medium toasted oak chips for the bourbon-barrel effect we were looking for (this is now one EXPENSIVE batch of homebrew). After allowing the Magic Dragon to condition for a few weeks in primary, it was racked into a glass carboy for the long secondary fermentation. A few weeks later, the bourbon-soaked chips were added. We thought it would be a good idea to rack the beer again to help clarify it a little, but this may have been a big mistake in retrospect. We bottled the beer, using our normal amount of priming sugar, then waited a couple of weeks. Right out of secondary, the beer tasted very good, with a boozy heat backing it up, so we were excited to taste the final product.

Two weeks later and . . . the beer was still flat. There is a tiny hint of carbonation in the mouthfeel, but we were expecting a much fuller head, or at least some visible carbonation. While this is disappointing, at least it still tastes very good and, with some more aging, could end up being a Lost Abbey Angel’s Share type of beer (maybe not quite as good, though). I think the lessons to take from this batch are:

  1. Always make a yeast starter for big beers
  2. Seriously. Big starter for big beers. No exceptions.
  3. Don’t rack your beer too many times, since you will be taking away the valuable yeast cells needed for carbonation
  4. Only use Stanahan’s chips in beer you already know will be good

If we were to attempt this beer again, we would probably also re-pitch with a packet of yeast at bottling, like you would with a Trappist beer.

Anyone else have similar struggles with brewing big beers? I’d love to get some words of wisdom should we attempt this recipe again.

Up next: Building a better starter and the move to all-grain brewing.