Sunday, January 30, 2011

Back from beyond

Well, that was a refreshing break. What has happened since last I communicated with the (generously counted) two of you who read this?

Smash Mouth Volume 1 results

The last thing I brewed before the recent hiatus was a SMaSH with Cascade hops. It turned out OK. It wasn't my favorite beer by any means but I can appreciate now what the flavor of Cascade is, and I have started to recognize its aroma in other places. I guess that means that the exercise was a success. I think what I need to do, though, is brew these in smaller batches - like a 1 gallon test batch - so I can turn more of them over and build a flavor baseline. I will have to bottle those smaller batches because (a) I don't have small kegs and (b) even if I did there's no place to serve them from.

Real world brewing

Most of my time since September has been consumed with a work project for a "major brewing company with multiple breweries nationwide."  The project involves the deployment of a procedural system for the packaging side of the operation and uses GE Intelligent Platforms' Proficy SOA and Proficy Workflow. We have had to overcome several challenges along the way, but the project has finally gone live in about half of one brewery with continuing rollouts every week.

I only mention this because this project gave me an opportunity to spend a lot of quality time inside industrial scale breweries, something I haven't had since my college days when I worked as a tour guide at the Memphis Stroh's facility. Of course at the time, the process details were just lines on a page of a script - they didn't have the same meaning to me then that they would now. As a home brewer, that stuff has become a lot more interesting.

As I wrapped up the first go-live at the headquarters brewery, I had the opportunity to briefly visit with the brewer in charge of the company's pilot plant, and I got a quick tour of both the small-scale and large-scale pilot operations. Since I'm covered over with non-disclosure agreements and such I won't list any details, but it was very interesting to see that even the big boys start out with a system not unlike what I aspire to: a three-vessel system that makes 5 gallons. Of course, since they have the resources to do it, theirs is fully piped and valved and controlled by PLCs, but it's the same layout and process. One interesting thing about the larger system is that it uses a mash filtration system instead of a lauter tun, which evidently does a terrific job of clarifying wort without sparging and vorlaufing.

It's somewhat fashionable to crack on macrobrewed American Lager variants, but if you think about what it really requires to be able to produce that style, which has such a mild flavor profile that there's nowhere for imperfections to hide, you can't deny that brewers who sell millions of barrels of the stuff are on top of their processes. What I learned during the tour and discussion with the pilot plant brewer is that they also have the capability to produce different, more complex styles with the same repeatability of quality.

As a souvenir of my tour, I was given some sample bottles from the pilot plant, including a schwartzbier that took top honors at a "prestigious national brewing festival." Sadly, I was unable to take advantage of the samples, because I was on the way to the airport and the UPS Store wouldn't ship them for me. (Something about alcohol laws blah blah blah.)  However, I have it on good authority from Tim that the beers were as good as promised.

Extracting value

Santa Claus was good to Fork and Hay, bringing not one but three extract recipe kits from Homebrew Heaven - namely the Vanilla Weizen, the Wizard's Wheat, and a Belgian Ale. Fork and Hay has heretofore been an all-grain operation, but these kits look pretty good and I'm excited about trying them out. It will be nice to see what comes out when we eliminate half the variables from my process and focus only on the results of fermentation.

Yesterday I brewed up the Wizard's Wheat. I have to say that it was nice not having to sweat the mash temperature, heat sparge water, and handle all the resulting clean-up. Whereas a typical brew session takes me between 5 and 6 hours from nothing to cleaned up afterward, this one was about three, and that included a 30 minute whirlpooling rest after the boil that I normally don't do.

The kits are all dry malt extract kits. The Wizard's Wheat included some steeping grains, which I heated in the boil kettle until it reached about 155F. After that, as the water temperature inched closer and closer to boiling, I gradually added the extract, which also included the bittering hop addition. It was hard to mix in at first, but I got my drill and paint stirring attachment out and soon had a well-dissolved, homogeneous wort.

From that point on the process was familiar - boil, make the flavoring hop additions, cool, transfer, pitch. The kit did have something new to me - it included a Whirlfloc tablet. I have never used Whirlfloc or Irish moss in any brews so far, but after seeing the clarity of this resulting wort I'm certainly going to start.

Speaking of starting, the batch is in the fermenter now, trying to. This is the time of year where I really need a two-stage temperature controller, one to provide heat and one to provide cooling. The freezer fermentation chamber never gets warm enough out in the garage, so I have to ferment inside. Downstairs in the basement the morning ambient temperature is around 60 F. Once fermentation kicks in that will be fine, however I think I need to warm it up just a touch to get it going.

2011 Plans for Fork and Hay

This year I'm going to build a new rig, an all-electric HERMS. I'll start laying out the conceptual drawings (or the pointers to other people whose ideas I'm going to emulate) as we go. I can tell already that The Electric Brewery is going to be a key resource.

First up is securing the power I'm going to need. I figure I need to pull a 50A 240V circuit out to the garage. The heating elements I'm planning to use are 5500W so they will pull less than 30A when operating (only one operates at a time), leaving me capacity for a 15A 120V circuit as well, which will allow me to power the controls. These obviously have to be GFCI protected. It appears that the easiest way to do that is to buy a preconfigured spa disconnect panel to handle the GFCI for the 30A load, and then a separate GFCI outlet for the 15A circuit.

That's all doable. Unfortunately with the price of copper I think I will have to apply for a second mortgage to get the wire. Have you seen what Type NM 6/3 with ground costs per foot these days? It's outrageous! And that doesn't take into account the additional lengths of SJOW cord for the actual power plug connections, or the connectors themselves. Who knew the most expensive part of the whole setup would be the wire?