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.

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11 thoughts on “Update on Brewing Activities

  1. Pingback: Update on Brewing Activities | The North Denver Home Brew Project | Beer Intelligence

  2. Good to see you’re still at it! I’ve been using dry yeast packets and have had no troubles with it. I don’t even need a starter for bigger beers. Of course, the flavor profiles aren’t as varied with dry yeast like it can be with smack packs. Belgian yeasts can also be tricky and pretty particular in regards to temperature. Keep ’em warm. Also, bigger beers sometimes take closer to four weeks to fully carbonate. Good luck!

    • Thanks for the feedback, Zac. Are you just pitching the dry yeast or making a slurry before pitching? We’ve decided to make starters for everything above 1.050, since a higher cell count will really help with the attenuation. It also seems to help get rid of that residual “homebrewy” sweetness I’ve noticed in our early batches. The last couple of sessions we made two variations of the same barley wine recipe and decided to use both a 1000 ml starter AND a packet of dry yeast, based on the advice of a guy working at the local homebrew shop. So far, that seems to have worked out pretty well with a speedy attenuation for both batches.

      I’ll have to crack open another one of our Magic Dragons soon to see if it carbonated any more. I’ll be thrilled if I get even a little more CO2. It would make the beer so much more enjoyable. The taste is there, but the mouthfeel really needs that extra “spark.”

      • I have simply tossed a full packet of dry yeast with no starter. From what I’ve read, you don’t have to make starters with dry yeast packs anymore. My imperial stout was somewhere over 1.090 (maybe ~1.094?) and it went crazy just from adding a whole packet of dry yeast.

        What do you do for aeration? I use a wand I attach to my electric drill.

      • Interesting. I had heard that dry yeast usually needs to be mixed with water before pitching. It’s kind of amazing that there can be such a wide diversity of techniques that still result in good beer. Still, I kind of enjoy making starters and watching the yeast cells multiply. There’s a real mad scientist vibe about the whole process.

        We do our primary fermentation in plastic buckets and shake the hell out of them for about two minutes to aerate before pitching. Your wand/drill combo seems a lot more elegant.

  3. You might want to try White Labs liquid yeast instead of the smack packs. I’ve had mixed results with the smack packs, it does seem like they should come twice the size they are because of all the problems you mentioned. With the White Labs yeast, fermentation starts quickly, I’ve even had one start within an hour of pitching!
    I don’t use refined sugar for priming anymore, instead I’ll use malt extract, 1 1/2 – 2 cups per five gallons does the trick, depending upon what the gravity is when I bottle.

    • I’ve been toying with the idea of using White Labs yeast; maybe we’ll do that for the next batch. Using DME for priming is also an interesting idea. Do you boil it in the same way you would for priming sugar?

      • You boil the extract exactly the same as priming sugar. Two things I forgot to mention about DME: 1) Most people who prefer it over plain sugar, like myself, think the carbonation is smoother and tastes better, less like soda; 2) You may have to condition in the bottles a little longer, depending on temperature, gravity, etc.

  4. Great update Alex as well as some informative comments especially the dme for priming. I’d lime toto try that. Ive noticed on a few forums that white labs is very popular with many home brewers. I did use them for the coffee stout that I brewed but can’t remember which one. I also used the white labs 007 dry English ale for the surley bender kit that I did Sunday (sorry, I new I had some time this weekend to brew and figured we couldn’t get together 2 weeks in a row). Anyway, that ones only a 6 week beer so we should be able to enjoy soon.
    PS, I didn’t buy the distilled water for the brown 🙂

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