Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 Year End Thoughts

I'm going to take this opportunity to lay out some of the lessons I've learned as a brewer in 2011.

1. Fermentation temperature control is hugely important. Since I invested in a mini-fridge and a temperature controller, my beers have been more consistent and "cleaner". It's a simple setup - found a mini fridge at Walmart that's big enough for a carboy and invested in a Johnson a4 temperature controller. Total cost: about $150. I hook up the fridge power through the temperature controller, and run a temperature probe into the fridge and tape it to my carboy. I set it so that it doesn't swing more than 2 degrees either direction from whatever my desired temp is (usually in the 60s). It's made a huge difference.

2. Oxygen helps fermentation. I invested in a $50 oxygen aeration system from Williams brewing, and it's also really helped my beers. My friend Jeremy let me use his for my first beer of the year, and I was hooked. it's tough to describe exactly the difference I feel it made, but it's almost a professional taste. I now make beers that don't taste like homebrew - they taste professional.

3. Make sure you have a solid pipeline of beers. If you don't have enough stuff made, you tend to rush the stuff you've made because you are impatient. In my case, I try to make sure I have at least four beers in kegs at any given time. Two of them in the kegerator and two more as backups. This allows me to make sure I have extra beer on hand in case a keg kicks, and it keeps me from rushing things out of the fermenter and into a keg before they are ready.

4. My favorite toy of the year is a carbonator cap. Its a ball lock hookup that screws onto plastic bottles, allowing you to force carbonate things in a 16, 32, or 64oz (2 liter) bottles. I've used it to carbonate samples I've drawn of uncarbonated beers and to make soda for the wife. Pretty good return for a $15 investment. I bought mine from - while I'm not affiliated with them, I highly recommend them. Cheap kegs, fast shipping, and they totally made it right when I had a problem. Solid place.

5. Don't run out of mead! I made a blueberry mead in 2008, and it really hit its stride in the past year. Unfortunately, it's almost gone. I made another batch this May, but I'm going to have about 18 months where I try to ration out the last few bottles of the old batch until the new is ready. Not making that mistake again! I actually made 14 gallons of mead this year, and I have plans for more early next year. I've made 5 gallons of blueberry mead I'm aging in an oak barrel. 5 gallons of orange blossom mead aging on vanilla beans. And a gallon each of hibiscus, pumpkin, blackberry, and raspberry meads. Still, they will probably all need most of next year befo they're high quality.

6. Crush your own grain. You get much greater control over the end product, much higher efficiency (less grain = more alcohol), and cheaper grain when you buy it in bulk. The difference I see between the grain I bought at the local store and what I crushed myself is huge. I can make most batches for $20 or less now, since I can get grain for $1.19 a pound.

Goals for next year:
1. Get a better understanding of how base malts effect beer. I want to try making the same beer with both pilsner malt and 2 row, or Maris otter and 2 row, and see how they influence the flavor.

2. Try to formulate solid pale ale and wheat beer recipes. I feel like I'm close on both, but I want to have that home run beer that people are asking for. A beer that appeals to my non-craft beer drinking friends.

3. Learn more about large scale production. I feel that my recipes can scale up, but I need to research more exactly what the differences will be to make something on a 7 barrel or larger system vs. what I use today.

4. Go to great American beer festival in Denver in October.

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