Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010 – The Year We Make Contact With a PID, an SSR, a 60A Panel, and a Shop Vac

(Cue Slim Pickens: “Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!”)

I'm not a real fan of reviewing the past when it's all chronicaled in that “Blog Archive” area to your left. Dig around under the ads, you'll find it. (Click a few ads while you're looking because I need some more grain.) I'll spend my time here looking forward into next year. In a way, what I'm hoping to do in 2010 will address some of the stuff I would have been reviewing, but don't let that stop you from clicking some ads...I mean, reviewing previous posts.

I'd like 2010 to be a year where I improve (a) product quality and (b) consumer popularity.

“Quality is conformance to requirements” and other lies they told you in ISO-9001 school

Let's think about the quality thing first. I know a lot of homebrewers take what they are doing very seriously and are into the whole contest and judging scene. Even among those who don't compete, there's a lot of effort put into creating beer that matches the BJCP guidelines, resulting in a perception of quality as an evaluation of how well a particular beer conforms to the specific elements of those guidelines.

I'm not that picky. What I will define as quality is more akin to consistency from batch to batch than conformance to style. For example, I brewed multiple batches of Geordie-Boy Ale in 2009 and I don't think any two of them were alike. None of them were particularly bad, but I'd like to get down to one consistent result so I can make planned improvements rather than accidental ones. It doesn't concern me one whit if the result matches the BJCP requirements for 11C Northern English Brown Ale as long as I like it, since I'm the one who drinks the vast majority of F&H's produce.

How can I improve consistency from batch to batch? This is a topic that I ought to know a little about, given my day job. In a commercial environment, my answer would be to decompose the process into its components and see where the variations are introduced, looking at things like (in no particular order):
  • Formulation consistency (e.g. bill of materials control)
  • Process repeatability (e.g. proper step execution and sequencing)
  • Raw material variability (e.g. material performance and characteristics consistency from lot to lot)
  • Equipment performance control (e.g. accurate measurement and control of process variables)
If you do click some ads...I mean, review the 2009 archives, you'll see that I didn't manage to achieve very highly in any one of those areas. You have to start somewhere on improvements, so I'm going to address these in particular:
  • Equipment performance control
    • Strike and sparge water temperature control
    • Fermentation temperature monitoring
    • Fermentation temperature control
    • Mash temperature monitoring
    • Mash temperature control
  • Process repeatability
    • Work instructions for production operations
    • Work instructions for cleaning operations
    • Racking process standardization
  • Raw material variability
    • Storage environmental control
    • Local crushing of grain at point of use
    • Large volume stocking of key ingredients
  • Formulation consistency
    • Inventory accuracy
    • Work instructions for weigh/dispense
    • Measurement accuracy for weigh/dispense
If I can see improvement in half of those things it will have been a good 2010. Of course, being a good consultant, if I knock them out before May I'm sure I can find more things to correct.

Actually, I'm already underway with all of the Work Instruction items, as I have been working on building ISA-95 production models in Proficy Workflow for Shaun of the Dead, and once I validate them I will extend them to the other recipes I have and will produce in the future. My approach here is to adapt the process steps that BeerSmith generates on its brew sheets into a set of Workflow forms and workflows. I'm also planning to create a modular weigh/dispense activity that I can reuse in every recipe, with a form that can be attached to a scale via serial connection or OPC, showing live weighment feedback. (A big challenge will be getting an appropriate scale, though. Anybody have an old Sartorius or Mettler-Toledo they'd be willing to part with for some homebrew?)

As far as the equipment performance items are concerned, I intend to address the water temperature control issues with an all-electric hot liquor tank (HLT). I'm going to pull a 60A subpanel out into the garage so I can run a 5500W heating element in the HLT, controlled by a PID temperature controller like this. The PID will switch a solid-state relay (SSR) attached to a heating element. This should allow me to set a precise temperature for strike and sparge water and hit and hold it every time.

Fermentation temperature control will depend on incremental improvements to my current system for now, maybe including the addition of a radiant heater for winter brewing. First, though, I need to start logging temperatures on a continuous basis. I need to finish the Webcontrol project, get my probes built, and get them positioned in the right places: mash tun, HLT, and carboys. (Need some carboy caps for that.)

Finally, with respect to raw materials, I think at some point this year I will buy a grain mill and start getting my grain whole instead of crushed. That will hopefully reduce crush variability from batch to batch, reducing the swings in efficiency. I also think it will help with freshness, as the crushed grain doesn't keep as long as whole kernels. I expect that to allow me to stock more grain so I have more flexibility in my production plans, reducing the length of the supply chain.

I'll address the consumer issues in the next post.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas, now how about that zombie?

Blog entries have been few and far between, but Christmas won't pass without some news.

Kegged: 091102 Shaun of the Dead

When last we left the hapless Shaun, he and his neighbor 091102 Por Favor Carboy #2 had just been rescued from the unheated fermentation freezer and brought inside to finish up. Señor Favor's brother carboy #1 had been kegged at a slightly underattenuated 1.018 and I attributed that to the low fermentation temperature, so I brought Shaun and Por into the house to finish up at 68 F or so.

I took a gravity on Shaun during the move and found him to be at 1.022, which is way higher than expected. When I finally decided to keg, after a week in the house, the gravity was still at 1.020, so I figured it was done and went ahead with the kegging. I will have to think back on this process and see what happened. I still have the second carboy of 091102 to keg so I will be able to see if being inside at this late stage has helped at all with fermenatation.

Tapped: 091103 Geordie-Boy (Keg #2)

Another good batch - I think I'm getting the hang of this one. Maybe just a little too bitter, but otherwise fine, very fine indeed.

2010 Outlook?

I don't have one yet, but I will be doing some planning (!) over the next week and I may even publish a calendar for '10 just to see if I can track to it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The flip side of freezer temperature control is revealed through lousy cabling. LOL WUT

The last couple of weeks have largely been consumed by mundane pursuits unrelated to Fork and Hay. I did make some technical progress in certain areas, learned a little more of the obvious, and harvested a portion of a batch. Let's start with the beer.

Kegged: 091103 Por Favor (half batch)

I want to try filtering. Now that I have some 10 gallon batches underway I feel a little less apprehensive about trying things that have an outside chance of creating loss or waste, and I think Por Favor is a good candidate for filtering. This beer has a tendency to have a yeasty overtone that I hope to drop out in the filtering process, and it would benefit from some additional clarity. With that in mind, I racked one of the two carboys from 091103 into a keg, and left the other carboy intact.

I measured the gravity at 1.018, which is somewhat higher than the expected 1.012. Admittedly, it started higher than expected as well (1.058 vs 1.051), but I still expected this recipe using to attenuate more using US-05. I have a feeling that this is temperature related, because when I went to pull the carboy out of the fermentation freezer the ambient temperature reading was 58 F.

It hit me then, in another one of those insights of mine that are stunningly obvious to everyone else, that...

There's no heater in a chest freezer

I didn't start brewing until May of this year. In Alabama, by May overnight low temperatures already exceed the optimum temperature for ale fermentation, so some type of cooling is needed. I was fortunate enough to have a chest freezer that I could appoint to this task, and it has served me well. However, it's now December and the ambient temperature in my garage overnight is down into the forties.

High fermentation is exothermic, and the fermenting carboys generate enough internal heat to keep the beer at several degrees over its immediate surroundings, provided the wort is warm enough to get the yeast started in the first place. In warmer climates like mine it's necessary to provide some cooling to keep things at the right temperature, and my freezer with its Johnson A419 external temperature controller has worked well. Once the most active fermentation ends the wort temperature reaches equilibrium with its environment. Again, if it's warmer outside the freezer than inside, the cooling circuit will make sure the carboy is held at an appropriate temperature.

It's cold outside the freezer now. As long as the wort is generating its own heat, things are fine, but as soon as that active fermentation phase ends the heat inside takes advantage of imperfections in the insulation and temperatures trend down gradually. It's a freezer, not a Thermos, after all. When I went to get the Por Favor carboy out and saw that the inside temperature was 58 F I realized that I am going to have to find a way to warm my fermenting batches for the next few months.

As The DS18B20 Turns

I probably could have made this observation much more quickly if I had ever completed my quest to instrument things in the brewery. I have made some progress toward the solution while once again confirming how useless I am as a solderer. I'm almost to the point of wanting to switch to conductive epoxy instead of continuing to frustrate myself.

At present I have two probes wired in "powered" mode for the DS18B20, with the devices in the stainless steel probe ends I got at One of these probes has about 15 feet of cable and the other one has about 6.

They have headphone plugs, and I can run them into a Y-adapter and use a single headphone jack for the connection. What I can't do is extend the connection using any of the 50' headphone extension cables I bought. This really frustrates me because I simply haven't been able to figure out why it doesn't work. I have verified the pinouts and corrected the crossovers I found in the cables so that they are straight through. The individual lines are stranded, not solid. Using my multimeter, I can see there's a small resistance in the the cable, on the order of 5-20 ohms. Could that be enough to throw off the timing of the signaling circuit that much?

I bought 100' of six conductor solid telephone wire to run a test. I measured its resistance to be 3 ohms over 100'. I created a simple breadboard to stick 2 DS18B20 sensors at the far end of that cable and wired it into the rest of the stuff I have prototyped. Lo and behold, I can read all four thermometers without issue. Lesson learned: don't expect digital circuit quality out of a $4.99 cable. I will need to rethink my connection strategy now that headphone plugs are not as attractive as they once were.

On a related subject, in order to power these new probes I need to supply them with a 5 VDC circuit. The WebControl board I'm using only sources 3.3 VDC on the connector designated for the temperature probe, but its documentation suggests that the +5V output on the adjacent connector (for a humidity sensor) will be capable of driving probes not connected directly to the board. I tried that and it simply didn't work, so I now use a 7805 voltage regulator device to split the input power and provide a separate regulated 5 VDC supply dedicated to the temperature devices.

I think the experimentation may be coming to an end. I plan to swap out the headphone plugs for RJ45 and use CAT-5 cable for the extensions. New probes will be made out of CAT-5.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

+1 for Liquid Tape, or What Happens When You Forget to Put the Heat Shrink On Before Soldering

I'm starting to put together some new temperature probes. The experience reminds me why I don't do work that requires fine motor skills. Also, it's fortunate that the solder connections are hidden away because I'd have to turn in my nerd card if they had to pass inspection.

The probes I have, containing Dallas Semiconductor DS18B20s, were soldered for me by my friend and Triple Mutt Brewery founder Chuck. (He's getting into the brew controller business himself - watch this space for details.) The probes work fine with my Arduino-based microcontroller and they have become an essential part of the brewday experience, but my continuing frustration with dealing with the serial I/O aspects of that board have taken me in a different direction. I was introduced to the CAI Networks WebControl board by a thread on and it looks like it might be just the device to eliminate my communication challenges.

The challenge I discovered upon receiving the controller is that my existing probes, which are wired for for the "parasite" operating mode of the DS18B20, won't work with the WebControl's OneWire connection port. The board is set up to expect the Dallas Semiconductor devices connected to it to be wired for normal, powered operation. There's no way to correct the manner in which the existing probes are wired, since they are potted into some excellent stainless steel probe ends from, so I am building some new ones with the powered wiring configuration.

I soldered the first of the set yesterday, and this post's headline is a little misleading: I omitted the heat shrink on purpose. I found that I had some difficulty getting the sensor and wire all the way to the bottom of the probe end when I assembled the first set of probes, and that was partially due to the combined diameter of the heat shrink and cabling. It was a very tight fit and frankly I'm not sure I actually got the temperature sensor all the way to the end of the 8" probe, so there might be some dead space in there that slows down the temperature transfer rate from the outside to the chip. I decided this time to omit the heatshrink tubing in favor of the conformal coating insulation provided by Liquid Tape.

There are lots of brands of Liquid Tape available. I used the one I found on the electrical aisle at Lowe's. I'm not particularly worried about it being food-safe or having high heat resistance because it's going to be sealed in the probe end and won't be exposed to the environment. I'm going to use some heatsink compound to ensure a good thermal bond between the stainless and the temperature sensor, then seal around the cable exit with J-B Weld.

One tip: the applicator in my Liquid Tape can was nigh on to useless for getting a good coating of rubber on the leads of the DS18B20. To get a reasonable result, I ended up just making a puddle of Liquid Tape on a paper plate and dipping the assembly's wires into it, letting the excess drip off each time. After a few dips, a 10 minute curing rest and then a few more dips, I had a reasonably uniform thin coating on each connection.

Brewed: 091103 Por Favor - 10 Gallons

As I suspected, the second 10 gallon batch was more straightforward than the first one because I knew what to expect.

When I did the first ten gallon batch I neglected to mention that I initially missed my target mash temperature - low - by a lot. I tried to heat the mash using a heatstick and was eventually able to get it to the right temperature. It was a PITA because I was afraid to leave the heatstick alone, fearing scorching, so I had to constantly stir the thick mash.

I did a post-mortem evaluation of the whole "how hot should the strike water be" thing to back-check the calculated value from BeerSmith. Using the calculator at Brewer's Friend I was able to confirm that the number that BeerSmith proposed was supposed to be correct, even after correcting for a lower than documented grain temperature. Somehow, though, that number wasn't translating into the right mash temperature. I suspected that there was some feature of the mash tun that was sucking the heat out of the water before it could be transferred to the mash.

For this batch, I heated the strike water to 5 F higher than the recommended value and let it sit in the tun for 5 minutes to pre-heat it. Upon examination, I found that the water temperature had dropped to 160 F. Fortunately I was ready with a heatstick, and I used it to raise the water temperature in the tun back to the required value before adding the grain bill. The mash came out right on target when I measured it. A HERMS is moving up the priority list.

I noted that the sparge water requirement was a logistics issue when I wrote about the first 10 gallon batch. Knowing this, I addressed it head-on by using two smaller pots to each heat half of the 10.2 gallons of sparge water required. Just after the mash started, I stuck a heat stick in each pot. This raised the water from ambient (around 60 F) to somewhere in the 110 F range, and as the time to sparge approached, I put one pot, with heatstick, onto the propane to raise its temperature to 168 F. While I sparged with that pot's water, I moved the other pot onto the burner to raise it to sparge temperature as well. That strategy worked great, but 5 gallons of hot water is still a lot to hoist up and dump into the mash tun. An electric HLT is moving up the priority list.

Por Favor's recipe has a larger grain bill than Geordie-Boy, and I very nearly reached the top of the big mash tun with this batch. There was only about a 2 inch headspace left after the sparge water infusion. I need to keep that in mind as I plan new brews.

Luckily, Scotty was home again so I had help transferring the 14 gallons of wort to the burner. With two heatsticks and the burner I got my rolling boil and everything went well thereafter. I scooped off most of the hot break foam in an effort to reduce boilover and clarify the wort before it went into fermentation.

Cooling wort has become increasingly easy as the water and ambient temperatures go down. I think it was less than 15 minutes before I got the wort down to below 80 F, where I put it into carboys and let it sit for a couple of hours to finally hit pitching temperature. (I had to leave for a basketball game or I would have spent the extra 10 minutes to get it down to 60 F with the immersion chiller.)

The gravity for this batch came in at 1.058, which was again higher than the estimated 1.051. I am looking forward to kegging this in a couple of weeks. Speaking of which...

Kegged: 091101 Geordie-Boy

This was my first 10 gallon kegging, and I was able to interleave it with my other brewday activities. In fact, I racked a carboy during each of the sparge cycles for the Por Favor batch. The final gravity for this Geordie-Boy was 1.012, which puts it at an ABV of 4.43%. I'm liking the attenuation of the Nottingham yeast. The sample was good, let's see how the beer tastes when I carbonate one of the two kegs today.

That leads to an interesting point: I don't have room to chill both kegs, or any more kegs for that matter. The second Geordie-Boy keg will be aging at "cellar temperature" in the garage for a while. I wonder what affect that will have on the flavor. A beer cave is moving up on the priority list.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You've got red on you

Ah, a day off before a holiday. What better way to celebrate the harvest and the spirit of cooperation embodied in Thanksgiving than with a brew session for a beer whose name evokes the undead?

Brewed: 091102 Shaun of the Dead

As I mentioned previously, I adapted this recipe from one provided by YooperBrew on It purports to be a Rogue Dead Guy Ale clone. I didn't have any of the specialty Wyeast "Pacman" strain that Rogue uses so I used Safale US-05.

This was the first five gallon batch I made using the heatsticks, and I have to say they made a big difference in the overall elapsed time. I used the propane burner and one heat stick to prepare the strike water, and it reached its temperature way faster than I expected. (That was good, because I had the grain bill ready, and I was able to start the mash before I expected.) The recipe called for a mash out in addition to the sparge, and by using both heat sticks and the propane burner, I was able to have both quantities of water available at the right time with very little effort.

Other than the three separate hop additions, there was nothing remarkable about this brew session. The boil got started well and I had plenty of wort to work with. The only negative from the batch I have noticed so far is that I came in short in the gravity department. The recipe's planned OG was 1.062, but my measured gravity was 1.058.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

For want of a washer the pint was lost

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

During last night's inspection tour (ahem) of the brewery I was surprised to find the bottom of the kegerator awash in Por Favor. I estimate about half the batch volume was there, with a steady running drip coming from the beer line connector. Not from the keg post itself, from the connector housing. Naturally this is my fault, for doing something carelessly but with good intentions.

I have gotten into the practice of disassembling the beer lines every time I change a keg, so as to keep them clean and sanitary. The cobra taps and quick disconnects can be disassembled so that their internals can be cleaned and to provide easy access to the line itself. When doing this disassembly it pays to take note of all the parts which are disassembled, lest one turn up missing later on.

Unbenownst to me, but knownst to the manufacturer and probably every other homebrewer, the parts list for a quick disconnect includes a flat rubber washer. It's black, as is the body of the liquid QD, and it's not obvious upon disassembly as it tends to remain in the QD body when the stopper and spring are removed. However, it evidently can and will come loose, and it did so in two of my beer lines. Since I didn't know it was even there, I didn't notice it was missing when I went to reassemble the line for the Por Favor tapping.

What's odd is that I didn't notice the leaking connector at all on Sunday, so my initial reassembly must have been just tight enough to resist the keg pressure for a while. However, sometime between Sunday evening and yesterday the resistance gave way to a small but persistent leak, which eventually cost me a lot of sweet beer. I managed to cannibalize a washer from an unused CO2 line QD (where it was obvious, against the gray body of that connector) but I will need to replace the set eventually. This HBT post has a suitable replacement part number for a washer available at a hardware store. Guess where I'm going today.

In the meantime I have ordered grain for a 10 gallon batch of Por Favor, which I will make and have ready some time after Thanksgiving. I don't think I can stretch this batch that long though.

Planned: F&H Shaun of the Dead

I asked Tim to place his holiday order and he requested a Rogue Dead Guy Ale. I found a promising recipe by HBT's Yooperbrew that I'm going to adapt for local conditions and brand as "Shaun of the Dead" (a movie which featured numerous rogue dead guys). I'll be brewing it this weekend after a trip to Alabrew for the GRAAAAAIINNNS.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A November (Batch) to Remember

Okay, that's a lame title. I can't help it. They can't all be gems.

RIP: 091001 Geordie Boy

I was ambivalent about this batch. It had sort of a thick, sweet aftertaste to it which I have decided wasn't psychosomatic after all. I drank it, sure, but it wasn't my best effort.

Kegged and Tapped: 091002 Por Favor

Another Por Favor batch that really hits the spot. I am quite fond of this recipe. It has just enough hoppiness so you know it's there but it doesn't hold you up at the gas station with a pellet gun and then escape in a Prius. (No, I don't consider that to be a cheap shot.) I should really make this the next 10 gallon batch, after...

Brewed: 091101 Geordie Boy now in 10 gallon batch size!

I've read that the effort for brewing a ten gallon batch isn't significantly different from that of a five gallon batch. I found that to be generally true, except for "a few small details."

The grain bill for this batch was massive, almost 19 pounds:

My little scale can't weigh more than 8 pounds at a time, so I had to split the 12.5 pounds of two-row malt into smaller weighments. I did get a little break though because I bought the Cara-Pils Dextrine and the three caramel malt additions at Alabrew and they combined them into one sack. That saved a lot of unpacking, weighing, and repacking from inventory.

Liquid handling in a 10 gallon batch has logistical issues that you just don't think about until you try to do the first one. For example, your sparge volume is about 11 gallons, and after sparging you have 14 gallons of wort. At 8 pounds per gallon, that's 88 pounds you have to elevate over the mash tun to sparge, and 112 pounds you have to move to the burner to boil. Good thing Scotty was home this weekend and available to help, or I would never have been able to get the boil pot positioned. I'm starting to understand why there are so many examples of three-tier brewing systems on various forums.

The sparge water issue was one I didn't anticipate, and when it came time to sparge I had to make a quick adjustment in the process. I had heated the entire volume in the big pot, being the only vessel I have that would hold that volume, but I soon recognized that (a) it was too big to hoist, (b) it was too much water to add to the tun all at once, and (c) I needed that big pot to catch wort in so having it partially full of sparge water was going to be an issue. I ended up splitting the mostly-heated volume into two more manageable parts in smaller pots, then heated them individually to strike temperature before adding them.

It's also a good thing I went ahead and built two heatsticks, because there's no way my propane burner would have been able to move enough BTU to heat all the mash and sparge water and boil the wort.

I followed the general plan outlined here. I built two 1500W heatsticks and used them in separate GCFI-protected 15A circuits in the garage. Between the heatsticks and the burner I got acceptable heating performance in the mash water, sparge water and wort. I heated the mash water totally with the heatsticks, and used the combination approach with the sparge water and the wort.

I have another heatstick partially built, with a 2000W element, but it needs a 20A circuit and I don't have one handy in the garage yet. My friend Richard has advised me to just pull a 60A subpanel into the garage for this, and I think I will, but when I do I will bring 240V and switch to an all-electric brewing process. (I'll expound on that, and the heatstick construction, in another post.)

Here are a couple of pictures of the heatsticks in action. In this picture I'm using both sticks and the burner to get the wort to boiling:

Once the boil was achieved, I dropped one heatstick out and was able to maintain a good rolling boil:

Fall weather means more rapid wort cooling. I was able to get this 10 gallon batch down below 70 F in about 35 minutes with the immersion chiller. That's not quite as fast as I was managing before, but it's still acceptable. I could get slightly better performance if I could find a way to immerse the pot but I think I'll just live with this for now.

I used Nottingham yeast for this batch. It's what I wanted to use last time but Alabrew hadn't gotten their replacement shipment after the recall. I'm hoping that the attenuation for this yeast won't leave me hanging like the last batch did. I used the pitching rate calculator at Jamil Zainasheff's website and determined that 2 11g packets of dry yeast were sufficient. (Incidentally that means that I wasted one packet when I brewed the last Por Favor batch because the US-05 is in 11g packets as well. I misread the calculator's results and added two packets, but neglected to notice it called for two 5g packets. Oh well.)

I expect the next 10 gallon batch to be easier now that I have made my mistakes with this one. On the whole it really wasn't that much different from doing five gallons. Having the heatsticks in the process cut down on the overall duration of the brew session by reducing the time to heat the mash and sparge water and get the boil going, and the cleanup was about the same as always after I was done.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Por favor - ¡hace frío!

There's a bit of nip in the fall air now and it has become easier to cool wort.

Brewed: 091001 Por Favor

I laid down another 5 gallon batch of Por Favor. This one came in at 1.060. That might be due to a number of things, but my guess is it was the extra quarter pound of Cara-Pils Dextrine I threw in because the first 2 ounces didn't look like they were crushed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tasty but different

The 091001 Geordie Boy is tapped. I find it to be somewhat different from the previous versions of the recipe, but pretty good nonetheless. (It's no Por Favor though.)

It's obviously more bitter than the previous versions, as I expected with the higher alpha-acid bittering hop addition. The thing that throws it off somewhat is the higher finishing gravity. There's a sweet/thick finish on this brew that was not present in the others. How much of that is psychological, because I know the gravity finished 6 points too high, and how much of that is actual because of the residual unfermented sugars?

I predict it will take several sampling sessions to fully form the hypothesis.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Boil, Float, Keg, Dump

Where does the time go? More to the point, where does the beer go?

First Boil

Yesterday I boiled a little over 16 gallons of water in my new 80 quart pot to season it, and to get an idea of its thermodynamic performance. The first thing I noticed was that it takes a long, long time to put 16 gallons of water in a pot. It takes even longer to bring 16 gallons to a boil. I estimate that it took at least two hours in the conditions that prevailed yesterday. (It was a little cool and a little breezy.)

I did note that I got better heat performance while the pot was covered, but once the boil began I removed the cover (since I wouldn't boil wort that way). Without the covering, the burner couldn't maintain the boil - it could sustain between 205 and 210 F but it couldn't push through the latent heat required to keep boiling. I don't think that's a show stopper because I'm not planning on boiling 16 gallons under normal circumstances, and the lower thermal mass of 10 gallons should be easier to keep heated.

However, I have to find a way to get more heat into the boil faster. I just don't think this burner I have is putting out enough BTU/hr to be effective. I have a few options. I could get a more manly propane burner (like the Bayou Classic banjo burner), but I see a big spike in propane use if I get it. I could switch to an electric immersion heater like this one or mount one through the side of the pot. I could also go with a natural gas burner but there's a plumbing issue involved.

What I may do is go in combination at first, and build a heatstick to assist the propane burner, with an eye on going electric at some point. The all-electric solution seems to require a control system which sounds like fun but I have other software to deal with now and can't be bothered with that additional complexity. (Also, I'm not sure the sidewall of this new kettle is thick enough to survive having the port for the heating element drilled into it.)

RIP: 090902 Por Favor

This was good beer. I have the ingredients to make another 5 gallon batch but I think I may go over to AlaBrew and get some more grain and make another batch of this as my first 10 gallon batch.

Kegged: 091001 Geordie Boy

This is the multiple equations in multiple unknowns version of the Newcastle clone recipe from HBT's Biermuncher. The original post noted that it came up short on volume and high on gravity - in hindsight I should have topped it up with water. The FG was 1.020, which is way higher than it should have finished. I left it in the fermenter for over 3 weeks, so the yeast had plenty of time, but the attenuation wasn't there. The sample tasted OK though, I could tell there was more hop character. We'll see how it tastes when I carb it tomorrow.

DIAF: 090502 Honey-Brew List

I gave up and dumped this batch. It never mellowed to the point of drinkability. I will remake this recipe in the spring but use 1/4 the amendments I used this time. A little goes a LONG way. I just hope I can get the smell out of the keg.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On left-handedness

I think I may have found the source of my CO2 leaks. The tank pressure gauge on my primary regulator looks like it's malfunctioning - the pointer assembly appears to be sprung loose. I suspect that the leak is in there.

I went to Airgas to get my tank refilled (again) and took the gauge with me to see about a replacement. After some searching the guy offered me a welding gauge that has about the same pressure indication range as the original one, and off I went. There was one crucial factor I didn't consider, though: my gauge is left-hand threaded.

I got home after work and went to reassemble the regulator only to discover the thread issue. Obviously I'm going to return the new gauge, but that left my in a jam, since I still didn't have a fully functional regulator. I figured I would just plug the gauge port for the time being with a brass plug and worry about a tank pressure gauge later. (After all, the other one hasn't worked for quite some time, other than as a contributor to global warming.)

Oops. The plug would have to be left-hand threaded too. Guess what? You can't get a left hand threaded anything at Lowe's. Not only that, the gauges they have in the compressor and welder area are all right-hand threaded.

What I ended up doing is packing the gauge orifice with JB Weld to create my own plug. I put a little piece of plastic over the top to spread out the pressure from the tank (stuck in the excess JB Weld), taped it, and screwed it in. So far it appears to be OK. I'm taking the precaution of not leaving the tank valve open and cutting off the shutoff valves in the lines to minimize the leak possibility if I got it wrong. I'll return the gauge at some point.

Monday, October 19, 2009

...and it turned out to be for naught

In another burst of "this should have been obvious in hindsight" I have discovered that you can't assign a physical serial port on a VMWare ESXi server to a serial port in a virtual machine that it's hosting. Evidently this is to cut down on the hardware dependency that would restrict VMs from having full mobility from host to host under VMotion. How that differs from the CDROM drive, which can be physically assigned to a VM, is unclear, but I understand the rationale.

Where does that leave me? I have a dependency to deal with: Proficy Workflow's OPC client can only make local calls, meaning the OPC servers it talks to have to be on the same host. I think what I will have to do is switch the serial I/O to another box and use a web interface to retrieve the data into the OPC server. It's a hack but it's a lot cheaper than going for a serial-over-IP solution since I've already got a bunch of beater hardware I can use for that purpose.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

You down with OPC?

What a weekend. Who knew it was such an issue to work out a serial protocol in Visual Basic? (Actually, as it turned out, it wasn't as big an ordeal as I was trying to make it.)

Let's recap the status quo. I have an Arduino Duemilanove microcontroller board that I'm trying to use as a low-budget PLC. I have three Dallas Semiconductor DS18B20 digital thermometers hooked up via the One-Wire wiring topology. I also have two solid-state relays (SSRs) that I will use to switch line voltage to various devices. I need a way to read the temperatures from the thermometers and modulate the SSRs from a "traditional" manufacturing environment like, for instance, GE Intelligent Platforms' Proficy Workflow.

The best way to do that is to use the industry standard for connecting to devices, namely OPC. The trick is that my homebrew (no pun intended) microcontroller doesn't have a driver for anybody's OPC server environment, so I have to create one. To complicate matters, I have to do it using tools that I can afford.

Lots of vendors offer trial versions of their OPC server toolkits. Most of those trial versions are time limited, in that they either only work for some trial period (like 30 days) or they only work for a short interval without requiring a restart (like 2 hours). Fortunately, has a listing of lots of OPC server vendors, and I found one that had a toolkit with a tag limited demo instead of a time limited one. The software comes from Graybox (at and I would recommend that you check them out if you're looking for a .NET based OPC server solution. (Some of you who know me are probably asking "has the Unix geek turned coat? .NET? Really?" The sad fact of the matter is that OPC is a Windows technology - the organization that controls the standard has "retronymmed" OPC to mean Open Process Connectivity or some such BS but its original name was "OLE for Process Control." So to make it work you have to use a Windows environment, more's the pity.)

Fortunately Graybox provides some sample code with their OPC server toolkit. This is important because I have not had an original thought in my life but I can copy with the best of them. I built the sample server in Visual Studio 2008 and it ran fine, so I moved on to the significant work - making the sample server talk to my controller. To quote a former colleague, "it's just a simple cereal link" - how hard can it be?

Famous last words. In the end it was simple. Getting there was complicated. I struggled for a while with a confusing phenomenon: when I hooked up a terminal emulator to the com port I could get the exact expected results, but when I tried to use Visual Basic I would only get the response about once every four commands. (This was way before I tried to use the OPC software. I was just trying to build a simple command-line based interface to prove I could do the serial I/O correctly.)

After several hours of frustration and debugging, I finally figured it out by having the Arduino echo the commands received from the serial port onto the LCD display I hooked up to it. When I did that, the problem was clear, and in hindsight obvious: Windows terminates a line with a CR-LF pair, and real operating environments only use LF. (Well, let me qualify that. VMS used a different technique for ending records.) The WriteLine() function used in Windows sends a CR-LF, but the I/O reader on the Arduino was only expecting an LF. What was happening was that after the first successful command from the Windows program, it took four iterations for the Arduino's input buffer to realign (because of the extraneous CR in each iteration). Once I realized that, I changed the Windows-side I/O to use Write() instead of WriteLine() and things started working more effectively.

The last challenge was the actual OPC server code itself. The big problem here was a basic misunderstanding on my part concerning the .NET and Windows security models. Evidently you can't do operations in a class constructor if they require privilege. Including things like opening a serial port. My OPC server kept throwing exceptions on the port open command, telling me I didn't have sufficient privilege. I thought that odd considering I was logged in as the local administrator. Something I Googled made me move the Open() command out of the constructor into a separate method, and that resolved the issue.

As of now I have an OPC client running and getting periodic updates from the Arduino. The tags are available, and I'm ready to move the code to the Proficy Workflow server so I can get on with the next phase of the project.

Maybe I should call Jumpin' Jack Flash

It looks like I may have leaked out my CO2 again. The primary regulator is only showing 10 PSI. I suspect there's an issue with the high-pressure gauge in that assembly. It never read 0 PSI even when it was disconnected, and I had to whack it to get it to register the new cylinder's pressure when I changed it last week. I think I will just stick a plug in there. I'd hate to have to buy another regulator. because...

10 gallon batches are coming

I got an 80 quart pot so I can ramp up production to 10 gallon batches. It arrived Friday, but I have yet to boil anything using it to build up its oxide levels. I don't have enough grain on hand to run a 10 gallon batch of anything except Gayle Bait. I will order up some more stuff and brew later this week. (Hopefully.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Resistance is futile

I have more cable fragments and loose parts lying around here now than a Borg knows what to do with, but with a little help I have overcome the issues with the extension cable for my DS18B20-based temperature probes.

Since I could demonstrate that the extension cable was wired right, the issue was down to the added length of the cable changing the electrical characteristics of the circuit enough to screw it up. Having not done any actual, useful circuit work in over 25 years I didn't have an immediate concept of what the change could be or how to fix it, but I figured it was resistance based and related to the small gauge of the signal wires in the extension cable. I tried an experiment in which, instead of 50' of headphone cord, I used 50' of 12 gauge Romex wire (which, as a side note, is pretty difficult to solder to, because it acts as its own heat sink). That did nothing except add more debris to the workspace.

As it turned out I was on the right track but for the wrong reason. Once again, "Triple Mutt" Chuck provided the crucial concept that led to the answer. The added cable length does change the signal characteristics, but the solution isn't to change the wire gauge, it is to lower the pull-up resistor value so that more current is available to the parasite device. Through experimentation I was able to get a 50' extension working using 1.2K of pull-up (4 x 4.7K in parallel on the breadboard, it was easier that way and has that special Fork and Hay quality look).

The circuit now looks like this (obviously simplified):

I ran a preliminary test last night that showed in boiling water the probe read 211.3 F, so I think we are in pretty good shape to move forward now.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The controller rises again, in a disappointing way

Remember that Arduino-based controller I was working on back in the summer? Neither do I. Actually, that is not completely true; I remember it all too well, and remember that I'm stymied trying to figure out what to do next.

I think I have settled on moving most of the control decisions out of the Arduino and into Proficy Workflow. (This is clearly not one of the first or second level use cases for Proficy Workflow, but I think it will be fun and educational.) In order to really leverage the power of Workflow, I need at least one of the temperature probes to have enough cord length so I can use it to monitor the boil kettle temperature during a brew session. I alluded to this in an earlier post but it has been a while.

In that earlier post I recounted how my friend, colleague and unindicted co-conspirator Chuck of Triple Mutt Brewery fame wired the Dallas Semiconductor DS18B20 digital thermometers we're using for temperature probes. Dallas Semiconductor created a topology and communication protocol called OneWire which has two operating modes. One is actively powered with a +5VDC source and requires three conductors to be connected. The other one only requires two conductors and has no external supply voltage requirement. This is referred to as "parasite mode," in which the DS18B20 chips actually steal potential from the signal line and store it in an onboard capacitor for use as needed. Chuck and I decided that parasite mode was good enough for our application, and that's how he wired up all the probes, using a 3.5mm (1/8") mono phone plug to terminate them, with the tip connected to the signal lead for the DS18B20 and the shield connected to the other two leads.

What does that have to do with anything? Well, as I started to get back to the hardware basics this week, it occurred to me that I needed an extension cable for the temperature probe I want to use during boils. Luckily I was able to find some 50' 3.5mm stereo extensions at Amazon for a ridiculous price (like, $2.99 each) and I have Amazon Prime so they shipped free.

You may start to detect the beginning of a problem. If Chuck wired the probes with a mono plug shouldn't you use a mono extension? In theory, yes, but in practice the wiring convention is for the "ring" or middle connection of a TRS plug (tip-ring-sleeve, the stereo version of the plug I'm using) to be shorted to the sleeve when a mono plug is connected. It makes sense from a visual perspective: the ring is carved from the real estate that the mono sleeve occupies. So in theory (he says again) a stereo extension should extend mono without alteration.

Well, theory be damned in this case. I plugged it in and nothing worked. I got no temperature reading at all from the probe when it was connected via the extension. After spending most of the afternoon Saturday trying to troubleshoot the connections (in and around watching football and drinking Por Favor), I finally determined that inside the extension cable, the connectors are crossed. The conductor that is attached to the tip at the jack end is on the ring at the plug end. This is not any kind of standard, it's a manufacturing "feature" that is probably an artifact of the low cost of the finished assembly.

No big deal. I cut the cable and respliced the conductors the right way. However, I still didn't get a reading when the probe was plugged into the extension. I ohmed that cable out 20 times and still couldn't figure out what was going wrong.

I thought the issue might have something to do with the length of the cable. The literature I was able to find seems to indicate that a parasite OneWire bus should be able to support an aggregate "weight" of 300M. The "weight" is a representation of the load and is a function of both distance of cabling and the number and types of devices and splices in the bus. With only one device I thought it was reasonable to have my topology with a cable run of 15M or so.

Maybe the problem is the software. After updating my program to the new version of the DallasTemperature library (which is causing me to refactor it, maybe I'll discuss that later) I could reliably read from the probe cable but not when it was connected via the 50' extension.

Back to the length. I created a 3M extension from some hook-up wire and it worked fine, so I decided to cut the 50' cable approximately in half. Yea verily, this worked. I can have a cable of 25' or so as an extension, provided it's wired correctly, but the 50' length is not going to work in this configuration. I'm guessing, but I bet if we had wired them as active busses and not parasites, the length wouldn't have been an issue. Oh well, it's too late to fix that now since the DS18B20's are potted into the stainless probe ends with JB Weld.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Una momenta, "por favor" - esta es la cerveza más fina

Wow, this Vienna Lager type ale is seriously good. I am really sorry that you, my gentle readers, are not here to appreciate it. (Or not, because that means there's more for me.)

Serving: 090902 Por Favor

It didn't come out as dark as a Negra Modelo. It's more akin to a Dos Equis in its coloration. But whatever the color, me gusta esta cerveza. This is a recipe I think I will be keeping continuously on tap.

That sort of brings me to another question. If I have to have Por Favor on tap, along with Geordie Boy and Gayle Bait, I don't have room for anything else. What to do, what to do?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

New tun, new water, new yeast, new hops, new volume = new beer?

There's a commonly-held belief that you should only change one thing at a time while troubleshooting a problem. My philosophy is more like "let's change things and see how it breaks differently." Saturday's brewing session exemplified that quite well.

Brewed: 091001 Geordie-Boy Ale

Can I even call this Geordie-Boy with all these changes? On the ingredient side, I used all the right grains, but the grind on the 4 ounces of chocolate malt was a little fine - I have it uncrushed, and I used my coffee mill. (Actually, "a little fine" is an understatement - a lot of it was powder. Wonder what that will break?)

I was going to try for the original recipe's hop schedule as well. The IBUs on the finished beer have been a little light because I didn't scale the East Kent Goldings I was using for bittering to take into account the difference in alpha acid percentage between EKG and Target, which is what the recipe actually calls for. I set out to use Target for the bittering, but Alabrew didn't have any so I got Galena instead. It has the same alpha acid percentage (11%) as Target. I used East Kent Goldings as usual for the flavor and aroma addition.

I used different yeast too. Since I don't have any Wyeast 1099 (Whitbread Ale) which is what I had been using, I switched to White Labs WLP005 British Ale yeast. It's the first time I have actually used a White Labs vial. I have two Irish Ale vials that are now expired, from my plan to brew a Guinness recipe that never made it into the pipeline because I didn't invest in the nitrogen system to serve it. The yeast was easy to use (they don't call it "pitchable" for nothing). We'll see how the fermentation goes.

Process changes abounded as well, and some of them were not intentional at all.

I planned from the start to use my newly-constructed larger mash tun, and it worked out fine. I was a little concerned because the grain bed wasn't very deep, being spread over a much larger surface area, but gravity-wise it worked out. As I suspected, I was able to control the heat loss during the mash just by insulating the lid. I used bed pillows, laying them on top of the tun, and I had no measurable temperature loss over the hour of mashing. This tun was large enough to take my entire volume of sparge water at once, and my screen manifold worked just fine. The best part was the convenient rolling of the tun to the back yard to dump the spent grains.

About that water: I constructed a filtering system to provide filtered tap water for brewing instead of using it straight from the Pelham Waterworks. I got a Omni U25 whole-house filter at Walmart. It is intended to be plumbed directly into the 3/4" supply line in your home. The filter housing itself is 3/4" NPT threaded, so I got a female garden hose to 3/4 NPT male adapter for the inlet side, and an threaded hose bibb for the output side, and voila! instant on-demand filtered water in a volume and delivery format I can actually use. I hooked it up to the hose system I was using, drew the mash and sparge water volumes, and disconnected it to store for the next brewing session.

Of course, filtering the water's not much use when you boil it away. Somehow during the boil session I let the boil-off rate get out of control and I ended up with a post-boil volume of 4.6 gallons. I'm not really sure how that happened, to be honest. I actually started with more wort than the batch sheet called for and had to boil some down to the right amount before starting the "timed" 90 minute boil. I flamed out right at 90 minutes and ended up a half gallon short. Guess it's time to recalibrate the boil rate. Maybe it's seasonal - it is a bit cooler now than it has been.

The original gravity for this batch came in at 1.048, which I computed as equivalent to 1.044 in 5 gallons using this great discussion on gravity in wort. The particular calculation I used to determine this is labeled as Equation 7 in that article: SG2(points) = v1/v2 * SG1(points). So in my case it was SG2(points) = 4.6/5 * 0.048 = 0.044 (you only use the fractional part of the gravity in the calculation, see the article for an explanation). That means I had 65% efficiency in the new rig, which is about what I expected.

Kegged: 090902 Por Favor

The Vienna lager-as-ale is in the keg now. It finished at 1.010, for an ABV of 5.74%. The sample tasted pretty good. I put it in the keg under 10 psi and will leave it there to carbonate the "set and forget" way. It should be ready next weekend.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Yeast among evils?

I'm getting ready to brew today with my new mash tun, but the washed yeast I had been planning to use in my batch just isn't any good anymore. It can't possibly be because I left it sitting out in unconditioned space, can it? (Doh!) Fortunately AlaBrew is available to pick me up. I sent Tommy over there to harvest some yeast for me. They didn't have the normal Wyeast strain I have been using in the Geordie family so I'm going to try White Labs WLP005 British Ale for the next iteration. Hopefully I will get to it today.

Interestingly, Tommy was subject to some (good natured) questioning about why he was there to pick up yeast. ("Are you SURE this is for your dad?" kind of stuff.) I thought it was funny because I can't imagine that too many teenagers trying for a quick path to rotgut show up with a list specifying four specific yeast strains by name - and get a response when they text back to "Dad" because the Danstar Nottingham was recalled and he needs to take something else instead. Is it really an issue for an adult who is not of drinking age to buy yeast? I wouldn't have thought so, since there's quite a few tedious steps between having yeast and having beer, but I guess in a state where it's still technically illegal to homebrew, as a supplier you can't afford to take too many chances.

Kegged and carbed: 090901 Gayle Bait

I forgot to mention that I got this into the keg. It's very mild, except for one thing. To me at times it seems to have sort of a yeasty aroma that's reminiscent of the smell of the carboy after I racked it to secondary. The Brewmistress doesn't seem to notice it though, so maybe it's just my imagination, or maybe it's just green and needs to season a little more. Either way, once you get past the aroma (if you're me) it tastes good if a little bland, which is exactly what I was shooting for.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

RDWHAHB - It actually works

That's an acronym for "Relax, don't worry, have a home brew" - advice given by the voices of experience to people like me who encounter a new (to them) adversity while brewing.

When the 090901 Gayle Bait blew out while I was on the road, I sought advice from the HBT forum. The advice was, basically, RDWHAHB - the blowout wasn't going to be a problem. The reasoning was that, because the batch was inside the fermentation freezer the risk of airborne contamination was minimal, and also that the CO2 level inside both the bottle and the freezer would prevent oxidation.

This morning I racked the batch to secondary so I could put some gelatin in and get it out of that nasty bottle. The beer looked really good and there was nothing in it that didn't belong there as far as I could tell. It was already pretty clear but I'm hoping for crystal clear after the gelatin and a cold crash.

I took a gravity and it read out at 1.010, which is lower than BeerSmith predicted. I figure that's because I don't have the right attenuation modeled for the US-05 yeast, because I had to add it to the ingredient list. Edit: here's a thread on US-05 attenuation Anyway, the calculated ABV for this batch is 5.08%. I tasted the sample (of course) and it was very mild indeed. I think this will be a winner. Keg tomorrow and cold crash, carb on Monday or Tuesday.

I may try to brew a Geordie Boy later today, chores permitting. I need to get the cover on the pool before any more leaves drop in.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Blow outs revisited

This is the result of the 090901 Gayle Bait blowout. Note the crusted crud on the neck of the Better Bottle.

Here's what I did with 090902 Por Favor to prevent a similar occurrence.

Tunak Tunak Tun

Daler Mehndi I am not, but I did work on a new mash tun on Sunday in preparation for moving to 10 gallon batches.

I have a rectangular cooler whose manufacturer describes it as a "5 Day" cooler, alleging that it will keep ice frozen for five days under certain conditions. (Presumably these conditions do not include "deploy the cooler in the Arctic.") I purchased it back in March intending to use it as my mash tun but I went with the Gatorade cooler that has featured so prominently here.

I created a manifold for it using essentially the same technique I used for the original tun. The biggest difference was that with the added size of the cooler and the position of the drain hole in the center instead of the end, I used a longer braid (30") and looped it using a nylon tee:

You'll note that I had to use a portion of the braid as an extender from the nipple to the center barb of the tee. I used some copper wire as I did before to stiffen the braid, help it hold its shape, and hopefully avoid crushing. Once again I used nylon ties instead of the stainless clamps called out in the original design. I ran short of ties but I intend to use one about every 2 inches around the perimeter.

The 170 F leak test passed without a drip. However, there was a pretty dramatic temperature drop in the water after an hour or so had passed. I felt around the cooler looking for hotspots, but the only place I could feel heat was at the lid. I guess that stands to reason, as the cooler's primary job is to repel heat from the outside and heated air is not noted for moving downward. I will just have to put a blanket over the top to increase the R-value of the lid.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Rainy day brewing

Brewed: 090902 Por Favor

Today I made my first batch of a Vienna lager-type recipe as an ale that I hope turns out somewhat like Negra Modelo.

The batch came in with a higher OG than BeerSmith predicted based on the recipe (1.054 vs. 1.051). Evidently I managed to get 70% efficiency instead of the 65% I expected (and scaled the grain bill for). That may be due to a better crush than usual - I got the grain at Alabrew for this batch.

I executed the end game of this batch a little differently than I have on previous batches. At the end of the boil I used the immersion chiller to cool the wort down to below 80 F as usual. I transferred the wort to the primary carboy but I didn't immediately pitch the yeast. I put the carboy into the fermenter to cool a little more while the dry yeast was hydrating.

I used the Fermentis Safale US-05 yeast with this batch, as I did with the 090901 Gayle Bait. Having learned from 090901's blowout, I rigged a blow-off tube for this batch. I also used the 6.5 gallon glass carboy instead of a 6 gallon Better Bottle, which means I have a lot more head space available to take up the krausen. A side note: the blow-off tubing I have is not big enough to fit the opening of a Better Bottle, so I couldn't have done anything to prevent the Gayle Bait blowout in any event.

The challenge on the day was the rain. I had to rig a patio umbrella in the garage door opening to have a spot in which to brew. Luckily the rain never came down hard enough to saturate the umbrella and drip into the kettle.

RIP 090801 Geordie Boy

I floated the brown ale. There's no brown ale in the pipeline, demonstrating once again that Fork and Hay's supply chain planning is terrible. Looks like I might be coming up on the first time with three active fermentations underway - I can't possibly wait more than a day or so to get another brown going.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

As Olson Johnson said to Howard...

I have encountered my first official blow out. I'm informed by the Brewmistress that the 090901 Gayle Bait's krausen slipped the surly bonds of carboy and touched the lid of the fermenter. And the walls. And the floor. And pretty much everything else in there.

Since every happening offers a potential teachable moment, let's see what we can learn from this one.

First, know your yeast! This was the first time I had used Fermentis Safale US-05, and I really had no idea how powerful it might or might not be. I should have planned safely. I really had no idea what was going to happen, and I put a regular airlock on the carboy instead of using a blow-out tube.

Second, heed the warning signs! When there was krausen in the airlock after the first 12 hours, I should have rigged a blow-out tube. Instead, I sort of thought "oh, isn't that quaint, krausen in the airlock" and went about my business. (Hell, I even squirted it with Star-San to rinse it off.)

Last, but perhaps most significantly, don't run an unknown product and then skip town assuming everything will be OK.

I have sought advice from HBT and the responses have made me cautiously optimistic that the batch is salvageable. We'll know more tomorrow, and hopefully I can post some "Signal 30" style pictures.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

090901 Gayle Bait

So far, F&H's production schedule has been more about keeping the brown ale flowing than anything else. (Since that's why I started doing this anyway, I'm not apologizing, just making an observation.) Recognizing that the fall will bring more party opportunities at home along with a group of palates more accustomed to, shall we say, "standardized" beer, I need to branch out and introduce some new recipes to the menu.

The home brewing community, like other groups of the like-minded, has a tendency to look down its nose at people who have not converted into true believers in the cause. The unfortunates who risk the ire of home brewers are those who have the temerity to express a liking for what the community disparagingly refers to as "BMC" beers (BMC being an acronym for Bud-Miller-Coors). Home brewers innately believe that every BMC drinker can be brought to the path of righteousness if only they can be introduced to the correct formulation, and that once the BMC drinkers see the light they will forsake their BMC past for more varied and intricate experiences.

It doesn't occur to many of us that the same cultural phenomenon that lets McDonald's thrive when there are better burgers available is at work here as well. Uniformity and convenience are often more important factors in choosing a product than other, more qualitative factors. The average BMC drinker just isn't that into the "beer experience" - he's just thirsty and sociable, and you can get a Miller Lite pretty much anywhere. (Except McDonald's, more's the pity.)

It's important to note that among people who have been in the home brewing world for a while, there's a great deal of respect for the industrial scale brewers like AB InBev, Diageo, and MillerCoors in terms of their ability to execute their processes and achieve the uniform product standards that their beers offer. I've seen many conversations where someone new to the craft requests a clone recipe for Bud Light and is initially hooted down by members of the community with the tired sex-in-a-canoe jokes, only to have a more senior person weigh in with the observation that Bud Light and other light lagers are incredibly difficult to make well because there's no place for an off flavor to hide. Of course the senior brewers have no desire to actually make a light lager, since it's beneath their sensory dignity, but at least they concede that the large brewers know what they are doing.

The point of bringing all this up is that even hard core home brewers know deep down that there's a segment of the population that's not interested in Belgian Dubbels or the results of their "can I get three pounds into a five gallon batch" hop experiments. As a result, there are a number of promising recipes for what are referred to as "lawnmower beers" - that is, the kind of beer you'd like to have after you get done pushing the lawnmower around on a hot day: light, fizzy, refreshing. I figure I should probably have one of these around for guests who just aren't that into beer, like for instance my mother in law.

One of the nice things about frequenting a forum like HBT over time is that one can recognize quality recipes by the number of times they are referenced. I have certainly benefited from the experiences of others and their assessments of various formulations. When I decided to make a "lawnmower beer" it was pretty obvious that HBT members liked this one: Biermuncher's Cream of Three Crops, so I decided to use it as the basis for my first batch of this kind. It's a cream ale - a style that is supposed to be very light and lager-like.


I named this recipe "Gayle Bait" in honor of my mother in law, a confirmed Miller Lite drinker.

First off, I guess it's now a Fork and Hay tradition to use grits instead of flaked corn in recipes, so I altered the base recipe accordingly. (This recipe is actually right down my philosophical alley in this regard, because it not only uses Quick Grits, it uses Minute Rice too.) I tried a different preparation method for these grits - I actually followed the label instructions and added them to boiling water instead of trying to microwave them. That created a challenge at mashing, which I'll get to later.

I have listened to several of Jamil Zainasheff's podcasts at The Brewing Network and I think I am starting to gain a more fundamental understanding of what's supposed to happen when I brew and how to influence it. One of the things I have noticed recently is that I just don't have the consistency that I want in the brown ale, and after listening to Jamil's podcasts I think it's at least partially because I'm not using enough grain and I'm oversparging. Coming into this batch I wanted to make some adjustments to help increase efficiency without sacrificing quality.

In the podcasts, Jamil is adamant that it's not worth trying to wring every point of efficiency out of the process when you can get the proper amount of fermentables from any process if you add enough grain. I am averaging between 65 and 70 percent efficiency in my mashing. The base recipe's grain bill was scaled for an efficiency of 75%, so I decided to apply Jamil's advice and scale the quantities up to provide for more potential fermentables in the hopes that even with my lower efficiency I would end up with the right gravity. After consulting with Brewmistress Dr. Math I scaled the ingredient quantities to account for a lower efficiency, while maintaining their proportions in the overall grain bill.

A long day's brewing into night

David had a game yesterday afternoon so we didn't get back to the house until close to 5:00 PM. The recipe called for a 90 minute mash and a 90 minute boil, so I knew I was looking at at least an additional hour over what I have been managing, but I figured to be done by 10:00 PM. Ha!

First problem: hot grits affect mash temperature. I was trying to hit 152 F for the mash, but after I added the strike water, the non-grits portion of the grain bill, and then the boiled grits, the mash was up around 158 F. That's too high for this style - the higher mash temperature will bring out a malty quality that doesn't really work in this beer. I added some ice to try and reduce the temperature, but went overboard and ended up having to add back some hot water to finally get to 152 F. I guess this process cost me about 20 minutes.

After 90 minutes (at 7:20 PM) the mash temperature was about 145 F, which is probably not too bad considering I didn't wrap the tun in a blanket like I normally do. I sparged slowly (another piece of podcast advice that I have been inconsistently applying). I figure the sparging took 45 minutes, and it took quite a while to get the wort up to boiling temperature.

I finally got the boil going at 8:50 PM. I had a slight boilover and in my haste to contain it I reduced the heat enough that the boil stopped. I got a fan to blow over the top of the boil to keep the boilover down and ramped the heat back up, but I probably lost 15 minutes of clock time in the process.

It was 10:25 before I hit flameout on the boil, and it took a good 20 minutes to get the wort cooled to pitching temperature. I pitched two packets of Safale-05 that I had rehydrated in sterilized water, took my gravity sample, cleaned the equipment, and finally wrapped up after 11:00 PM, which as many of you know is way, way past my bedtime.


I had a temperature and calibration adjusted OG of 1.049, which is actually higher than the BeerSmith model predicted, so the scaling definitely helped. The volume after boiling was 5.6 gallons which I think I am going to find is too much to fit in the keg, so I will probably end up leaving some out when I get to filling time. It smells good. I can't wait to see how it turns out.

Friday, September 4, 2009

If a little is good, a lot is too much

I really need to get that Workflow system set up so I don't make stupid errors of omission in the process.

Overcarbed: 090801 Geordie Boy Ale

Lesson learned: either force-carb it once or let it go slow and steady. Don't do both.

After I let the keg chill overnight I tried the 30 PSI force-carb trick that has worked for me before. (Set the pressure to 30 PSI, shake the keg for 2 minutes, shut off the gas, vent, apply serving pressure, test. Repeat as required.) After the first 2 minute iteration I thought I had gotten the right amount of CO2 into solution, but a couple of pints later it became obvious that it needed more - the beer had a watery feel that I have come to recognize as insufficient carbonation.

It was too late in the evening for me to deal with it, so I left it on 10 PSI overnight. The next evening, without testing it, I ran the CO2 pressure back up to 30 PSI and did another two minute shake. That was a mistake. It was virtually impossible to draw a pint off that keg that wasn't 95% foam.

The only cure is to cut off the gas and vent it periodically to induce the extra CO2 to come out of solution. It's working, albeit slowly. The most recent pints have only been about 50% foam.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The road less traveled... not the road I have been on. It's late and I want to catch up on a few things, but first let me put in a plug for something that helped me as we drove back and forth to the coast for David's game this weekend: The Brewing Network and its podcasts. I highly recommend The Brewing Network both as entertainment and as a way of learning more about both the depth and variety of the craft of homebrewing and about the similarities among what appear to be vastly different brews.

One segment in particular I really liked was the one on Vienna-style lagers. This style is the one for which Dos Equis Amber and Negra Modelo are examples (at extreme ends of the scale). I got to wondering whether I could take the grain bill for a darker Viennese lager and ferment it with an ale yeast and get a Negra Modelo type ale that acts like a lager, much in the way that Biermuncher's Cream of Three Crops acts like a lager while really being a cream ale. I predict an experiment soon.

RIP 090601 Coldwater 420

After having been gone for two weeks, I got home from work today knowing my Geordie Boy was probably ready to keg and that I wasn't in the mood for any of the Honey-Brew List and its spice tones. I went to the trusty right-hand cobra tap where the Coldwater 420 has been patiently waiting for attention, and the first pint I drew was really exquisite. It had all the flavor that the beer had offered when it was originally tapped, but the hoppiness had mellowed to a very drinkable point. I looked eagerly to the next pint, but lo and behold halfway through drawing it - PFFT!SPLAT!PSST! - the !^%!@%^@$^! thing floated on me! Just my luck.

I will definitely brew this recipe again, but I think I'm going to run the local variant of Cream of Three Crops first, to make something more, shall we say, accessible for guests.

Kegged: 090801 Geordie Boy Ale

Did I really only brew once in August? Wow.

Anyway, I kegged it. It finished around 1.014 for an ABV of 3.9%, which is under the style guideline probably because the OG was a little low. We'll see how it tastes tomorrow.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


I was traveling all last week and didn't really accomplish anything. (For Fork and Hay, that is.) I didn't even go on much of a beer walkabout. However, I did sample (and enjoy) some Magic Hat #9 for the first time, and I stopped at Home Brewing Supplies in Lilburn, GA as I passed through on my way back home from North Carolina. I got what I considered to be a pretty good deal on a case of blue glass flip-top bottles.

When I got home I started to fill some of the bottles using the approach recommended in this HBT thread. It worked OK, but the drilled stopper I was using wasn't small enough to fit into the neck of the bottles. I wasn't able to get as secure a seal during the process as I think it really needs for long term storage. However, since I was just bottling some samples to carry to a party Saturday it worked OK, and when the bottles were opened the carbonation was fine.

In bottling, I floated the 090702 Geordie Boy Ale. In fact, I was only able to get a bottle and a half before it started spewing. I filled another bottle with 090502 Honey-Brew List. I obviously could have filled several from that nearly full keg but the purpose was sampling, not storage.

At the moment I'm in the Birmingham airport on my way back out of town. The 090801 Geordie Boy fermenting at home had hit about 1.019 when I tested it Friday afternoon, after only being in the fermenter since Sunday evening. I think it will be ready to go when I get home after next weekend.

The brewmistress and I had a lengthy discussion about the kegerator during our drive to and from David's game in Montgomery today. She thinks that the taps need to be upstairs, and I don't disagree. After discussing the pros and cons of various alternatives, including getting another fridge and making a built-in kegerator in the wet bar area off the living room, running beer lines up into the bar from downstairs, and moving the current box into the closet off the kitchen, we decided to simply put some casters on the existing box and move it upstairs. We're going to put it into the little alcove just in front of the door to the screened-in porch. That will be a project for a couple of weeks from now, because between business travel and soccer travel there won't be a lot of time to brew or build for the near future.

Monday, August 17, 2009

There might be something to this yeast washing thing

On my way out the door this morning I saw the beginnings of fermentation in the 090801 Geordie Boy Ale, which (I suppose) demonstrates the efficacy of the yeast I reused from the 090702 batch. I'm traveling, but I got a report from the brewmistress that there was a foamy krausen layer on top of the brew tonight. I guess I'll wash this cake as well. Need to get some more quart jars and a gallon jug.

Weekend worrier

This weekend we sat out in midday sun and watched David's first game, then packed up Tommy and put him in his dorm at UAB. It was an interesting exercise in sunburn, traffic management and stair climbing. I sure enjoyed having a keg to come home to after all that hot work.

090801 Geordie Boy

I laid down another batch of the grits recipe for northern brown ale on Sunday. I found I was out of chocolate malt (well, I had 1 oz and needed 4) but I compensated with a little extra roasted barley and some 80L crystal malt. I hope it works. The pre-boil volume was higher than planned but not dramatically so, coming in at 7 gallons, so the pre-hop boil-down wasn't too long. The gravity was right on target this time at 1.044. I pitched one of the two containers of washed yeast from 090702 into it, we'll see how it goes. It's in one of the new Better Bottle primaries.

Tapped: 090502 Honey-Brew List

This beer actually turned out all right. It still has a noticeable spice aftertaste but it is so far toned down from the original it's like an extra-strong Blue Moon. It's drinkable but I can see that this would be really good with a smaller coriander addition. I don't think it will ever be my favorite but it's a nice change of pace from brown ale for a pint or two.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Getting the wash done

Two things of significance yesterday:

First, I carbed and tapped 090702 Geordie Boy Ale, my first batch that used grits instead of flaked corn in the brown ale recipe, as well as the first batch with which I reused a yeast cake. This batch is smoother than the 090701 Geordie Ale with much less of the roasted barley overtone. I'd say that the grits and the yeast reuse are here to stay.

So, obviously I had a yeast cake left over after I kegged ol' Geordie Boy. I wasn't ready to start a new batch but I didn't want to waste the yeast, so I undertook to preserve it through a "washing" process. I followed the pictorial tutorial by Bernie Brewer at HBT, more or less. Not having the right number and size of Mason jars and the like, I did the best I could, and ended up with two 20 oz jars full of yeast solution, with most of the trub left behind to be dumped.

The obvious next question is, do I use this as is, or do I make a starter? I need to brew this weekend. If I'm going to use a starter, I need to make it tomorrow night.

Monday, August 10, 2009

And just like that, an opening appears

In the last post I was lamenting the lack of space for the 090502 Honey-Brew List in the kegerator...

RIP 090603 Half Wit

...then I went down and got a pint of Half Wit and it expired on me. This batch was definitely better the longer it sat in the keg. It had a watery tone to it that I now in retrospect attribute to an overabundance of water. (The blindingly obvious comes, just slowly.) It was the filling of this keg that clued me into the fact that my water volume control was lacking, particularly the part where the fill overflowed the keg.

I'm not sure I'll make this one again this year. My next lighter recipe will probably be a variation on Biermuncher's Cream of Three Crops. I need to get the materials ordered for this and get it going.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Long work weekend == batch beer update

I had some network reconfiguration to do at work this week and it carried into the weekend. Here's what happened in the meantime:

RIP 090701 Geordie Ale

I killed this batch sometime during the week but I don't remember exactly when. (That's not a commentary on my sobriety, it's more of an observation on how much external crap I was working on this week.) Luckily, my new production planning process led me to having a batch of brown ale ready to take its place, leading to the next note, namely...

Kegged: 090702 Geordie Boy Ale

I kegged this on Sunday. The FG on this batch was a temperature adjusted 1.011, which when combined with the high OG of 1.048, makes this come in at 4.82% ABV. This is the first of the brown ales that has come in at that low of an FG and I have to think it's because I pitched it onto the cake from the previous batch and had a ton of yeast available to convert all that sugar.

I wasn't ready to start another batch from this cake but I'm (hopefully) going to wash it tonight and save the yeast for the next batch.

Is there hope for 090502 Honey-Brew List?

While I was cleaning up this afternoon, on a whim I plucked the pressure relief on the 090502 Honey-Brew List I have stored in the fermentation chamber to see what was going on. Imagine my surprise when it outgassed rather strongly. What I think we have here is a cask-conditioning experiment going on. As you may recall I have not been terribly optimistic about this batch from the beginning, but maybe patience wins out. The aroma from the venting was quite mild, as if the extra spices have been mellowed or converted by the yeast as it's been carbonating the keg. All that stands in the way of tapping it is a spot in the kegerator...but maybe I should let it age some more...

Monday, August 3, 2009

A slow week

Last week was a little lazy down at Fork and Hay. Here's a quick update on what little actually went on:

090701 Geordie Ale

The Geordie Ale continues to be quality-assured. The roast taste is either tempering down daily or I'm getting used to it. Either way, I'm committed to it for another batch because I used the same grain in the 090702 Geordie Boy. I think next batch, I'll cut that in half and see what if any difference it makes.

Arduino controller repurposing

On the Arduino front: Chuck Toth (co-worker and proprietor of Triple Mutt Brewery) was kind enough to solder my temperature probes together for me. I just can't see that level of detail now without a giant magnifying glass or reading glasses, which I am too cheap and too vain to purchase respectively. In case I missed documenting it, these probes use the Dallas Semiconductor One-Wire DS18B20 digital thermometer IC in parasite mode, and Chuck wired them to a 1/8" phono plug cable so they can easily be attached and detached from the controller.

I have spent many hours working on the control program for this device, and I will be posting the code for reference (and comic relief) at some point. However, the full-featured version of what I wrote in all likelihood won't actually be put into production. Fork and Hay Brewing is going to enter into a partnership with my employer to produce some marketing material that shows off the impressive capabilities of GE Fanuc's Proficy Workflow in an interesting and entertaining manner. (At least we hope it will be interesting and entertaining.)

Proficy Workflow is capable of many things, including sequence control and event based activity management. As a result, I don't need those capabilities in the control program for the Arduino, so I'm shifting its focus to more of a PLC orientation, where it just handles the I/O for the temperature probes and the SSRs to control the fermenter and kegerator. That simplifies the code dramatically and will hopefully alleviate some of the issues I have seen with overrunning the stack and getting lost in interrupt handling.

Monday, July 27, 2009


I carbed and tapped the 090701 Geordie Ale tonight. The flavor is pretty good, but I can taste the influence of that roasted barley in the brew. I'm not sure it's totally what I want in this brew but we'll see how it matures. So far it hasn't stopped me from having a few pints.

This brings me to another issue, one having to do with the sophistication of my palate. (Or lack of same.) As I was tasting this batch and trying to put my finger on what was different in my perception of it versus the previous two batches, I found it hard to pinpoint the flavor I was trying to identify. Eventually I settled on the roasted barley because frankly there's an overtone of "burnt" to it that I recall from handling that barley yesterday.

It's not a bad taste, it's just there to experience and I don't recall it being there before. I think I am going to have to get some sort of training for identifying the flavors in the various brews I'm experiencing. I believe there are some hop-tasting kits out there, maybe something like that that also provides the "malty" and "roasted" tastes as well.

Geordie-Boy: Up with the sun

On my way out the door this morning, I checked on 090702 Geordie-Boy and the krausen was in full swing, so evidently pitching onto the 090701 yeast cake is working just fine.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Good night, Geordie-Boy"

Today was a day of experimentation in the brewing process.

Kegged: 090701 Geordie Ale

I tried something different with the 090701 batch of Geordie Ale. Both previous batches were 7 day primary/4 day secondary (or so) with a gelatin addition at secondary for clarification. This batch went into primary back on July 11, which means it has been a 15 day primary. I decided to take it straight to keg without fining, partly because the tap is empty but also because I want to see if the gelatin makes a difference to me.

The FG came in at 1.019. That is much higher than the recipe prediction, which is 1.013. The flavor of the sample was good though, and remembering that this batch started at 1.046 instead of 1.043 as planned, I think it will be fine. I wonder if not racking to secondary contributed to a stop in fermentation. It's in the keg cooling now, and I'll carb it tomorrow and see what we have.

Brewed: 090702 Geordie-Boy Ale

While we were in Gatlinburg last weekend, there was some discussion of the F&H recipe database and what innovations might be planned as the brewery matures. Amy made an offhand comment about using unusual ingredients as a way of making Fork and Hay a little different. Somehow, that line of conversation resulted in the idea of using grits in a brew. Yes, grits.

I did a little research (read: I Googled it) and found that the idea wasn't very far-fetched at all. Early American brewers used corn grits as a grain in their beer and evidently Yuengling still does. In most homebrew recipes, grits have been replaced by flaked corn, mostly for simplicity's sake: flaked corn is already gelatinized, meaning the starches have been made available for conversion, whereas grits require cooking before they are ready for use in a mash. Some brewers recommended that it would be possible to use instant grits (as they are also gelatinized), but as I was reminded repeatedly, no self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits (even if he is a "yute.") I figured that "quick grits" would be a reasonable compromise between authenticity and convenience, since they pass the "Amy test" of grit acceptability.

The original Geordie Ale recipe calls for 1 pound of flaked corn, so I created a variant of it and substituted 1 pound of quick grits. Something about this idea reminded me of The Waltons, so I named the variant "Geordie-Boy."

I weighed them dry and then added about 6 cups of water to hydrate them. I microwaved the mix for about 6 minutes to get everything going, then added the gelatinous goop to the mash tun before the remaining grain bill:

If this works out and I decide to do it again, I need to add considerably more water to the grits when preparing them. Even after adding them to the 170 F strike water, there were pretty sizable clumps (or maybe "clods" would describe them better) that I struggled to break apart. I got them mostly separated and added the remaining grain as usual. The mash lost about 2 degrees over the hour interval, so there was no unusual thermodynamic impact from the grit usage vis-a-vis flaked corn. In fact I have to believe it was a net positive, since the dry grain went in at ambient, about 78 F, while the goop went in at about 160 F.

Once again I tried to pay more attention to water volumes. I didn't adjust the volumes suggested by BeerSmith based on the experience from my last batch though, because I wanted to see if I got the same behavior. I did. Actually I started the boil with 7 gallons, a little more than the last batch, probably because of the volume of liquid introduced by the prepared grits. I boiled in a similar manner as before, waiting until I was down to the predicted pre-boil volume before starting the clock and adding the hops.

I repeated the wort cooling experiment from the previous batch as well, with even better results. This time I went from flame-out to under 80 F in only 9 minutes. I think the difference was that I agitated the wort with the immersion chiller pretty well constantly, which served to put more wort in contact with the heat exchanger during any interval, while also aerating the wort somewhat. (I really got after it - swirling clockwise then counterclockwise, bouncing the IC up and down, etc.)

Once the wort was around the same temperature as the hose water (78 F) I dumped about a pound of ice into the large pot in which the boil pot was floating. This rapidly took the wort down to below 72 F and made it suitable for pitching. I didn't time it but it wasn't more than about 5 minutes to get there.

The other experiment for 090702 was that instead of using a new yeast smack pack, I pitched directly onto the yeast cake I had remaining from 090701. In fact, I poured the wort directly into the same carboy without washing the yeast or anything. There are conflicting opinions on the best way to reuse yeast, and the method I used is recommended if you're going to make the same recipe again or a darker beer. It's supposed to result in quicker and more vigorous fermentation so I will be keeping a close eye on things this evening.