Things I’ve Learned From Working in a Brewery

Beardlong

Clearly, this man works in a brewery. Just look at his beard!

For the last two and a half years, I’ve worked in a brewery.  I don’t talk about it much because this is a homebrewing blog, and I don’t want my posts and discussions to stray into the world of commercial craft brewing. However, I’ve learned some things from my time in a brewery that translate to the homebrewer’s world.

1) Your hands are filthy!
Wash them, all you want, with anti-bacterial soap.  You can even soak them in your brewing sanitizer solution of choice.  They’re still disgusting carriers of filth and muck. Why?  Because your skin is constantly producing oils and sloughing off dead skin cells. At the brewery, any time we’re about to touch anything that will come in contact with beer, we’re required to wear vinyl gloves — preferably vinyl gloves that we’ve quickly sprayed with Iodophor.  Any time those gloves touch something disgusting (which is essentially anything and everything that isn’t assuredly sanitized), we’re required to change into a new pair of gloves.  Why?  Because your hands are filthy!  And we have the petri swabs to prove it.

2) Lactobacillus can ruin your day…or month
Contamination concerns are always in the back of a brewer’s mind.  Wild yeast and various bacteria are everywhere.  And even if you open your fermenter to find something strange growing in your newest batch of homebrew, Lactobacillus is, by far, the most nightmarish offender.  After my experience dealing with Lacto in a commercial brewery, I’m convinced that if I ever encounter a Lactobacillus contamination in my home brewery, I’ll simply have to burn all my equipment and the apartment, and start over.  It never seems to goes away.  Go head, and sanitize your equipment.  I’ll wait.  Feel better?  Well, don’t get too comfortable.  More than likely, those bastards are somewhere, patiently lying in wait, ready to make contact with something (most likely, you) that will, in turn, make contact with your brewing equipment.  And you’re right back to where you started.

3) Nothing cleans like Sodium Hydroxide
Wait, wait, wait.  Am I talking about the same stuff that’s in Drano?  Yes, I am. Without a doubt, sodium hydroxide is an excellent detergent for getting rid of organic material.  Will it melt your face off?  Absolutely!  But, it will also melt the face off of all that autolyzed yeast, hop trub, and whatever other caked-on gunk is in your fermenter from that double IPA you forgot about 8 months ago.  It will even get rid of the smell.  You needn’t worry about imparting trace odors of roasted barley to your delicate pilsner, right after a monstrous imperial stout. Treat your bucket to a nice sodium hydroxide soak (diluted appropriately, of course), and it’s like you’re working with a brand new bucket!

Take that, un-scented OxyClean!

4) Beards are obligatory?
As a homebrewer, you’ve no doubt thought about working in a brewery in some capacity. If you manage to land an interview with a brewery, apparently it helps if you show up with a beard.  I have absolutely no explanation for this, but it seems consistent.  I don’t mean to suggest that correlation equals causation.  But there’s A LOT of correlation with regards to this “beard = brewery employee” phenomenon.

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Overcoming Homebrew Bottling Exasperation

beer bottles

I have recurring nightmares about endless mobs of empty beer bottles. Please God, make it stop!

I really don’t like bottling my beer.  It’s quite literally my least favorite part of the homebrewing process.  It’s repetitive, tedious, and storing bottles takes up a lot of space. I genuinely look forward to buying a kegging system and blissfully abandoning my massive, yet necessarily evil collection of empties in the recycling dumpster.  However, I don’t want my cantankerous attitude towards bottling to discourage any newbie hombrewers. As such, here are a few good tips on managing your mutinous army of glass.

1) Clean your bottles as you go
Left to their own devices, bottles, much like pigs, are comfortable wallowing in filth.  Every homebrewer has, at one time or another, looked into a bottle only to find a massive colony of fuzzy mold growing on the bottom.  Oh sure, you can always soak it in Oxyclean and use one of those jet spray faucet adapters to try to blast it out.  But if you don’t have any clean bottles for your new 5-gallon batch, that’s going to take a big bite out of your day-drinking time.

Preventive measures are the key to winning the war on mold. The simplest thing to do is rinse your bottles immediately after you’ve poured the beer.  Complications can arise if you’re a few (or a few more than a few) beers into the evening, resulting in relaxed standards. Furthermore, if others are helping themselves to your brew, babysitting your bottles can become a tiresome exercise in futility. But these are your bottles. Nobody else is going to clean them for you once their moldy. So stay on top of it. Rinsing out a bottle only takes a few seconds, and the time you save not fighting with mold is well worth it.

2) Your dishwasher is your friend
When I first started bottling, I had problems trying to figure out a streamlined system for sanitizing bottles.  I tried using a Vinator bottle rinser.  It worked well enough, but the one-at-a-time method was pretty slow.  Eventually I bought a huge tub, and was able to bulk sanitize an entire batch of bottles at once.  This was certainly faster, but once the tub was full of bottles and StarSan, it was really effin’ heavy.  Moving the tub was a messy chore.

Enter the dishwasher.

Certified to Sanitize

Some dishwashers have a high-temperature cycle, capable of sanitizing bottles.

After reading John Palmer’s advice on sanitizing, I learned that the high-temperature wash cycle (preferably combined with the heated dry) on most dishwashers is capable of heat-sanitizing bottles.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll take great pleasure in the idea that you’re literally using heat to force your horrible bottles into bacterial compliance.  Be sure not to use any detergent or rinsing additives like Jet Dry. Also, your dishwasher is not an effective way to clean dirty bottles.  Only use your dishwasher to sanitize clean bottles.

Not only can you use your dishwasher to sanitize, it’s a great bottling station.  Once the bottles are sanitized, you can bottle your beer right on the open door of your dishwasher. This keeps spills off your kitchen floor.  Once you’re done, just close the door and any spilled beer will be washed away with your next load of dishes!  It’s so perfect, I can’t imagine bottling my beer any other way.

Second only to my Autosiphon, my dishwasher is my favorite piece of brewery equipment.

3) When in doubt, throw it out
Clearly, bottles are the root of all evil and are bound and determined to be the death of you.  As such, if you’re ever in doubt about the integrity of a bottle — chips or cracks in the glass, scratches, something dubious growing in or on it, garden variety funkiness, etc. — throw it out!  Some bottles aren’t worth keeping. As a rule of thumb, if you ever hear yourself hesitantly say “It should be ok”, it’s probably not.  At best you’ll ruin some beer. At worst, you could swallow glass. It’s just not worth it.  Trust me, you’ll find a new bottle to replace it.

If nothing else, occasionally throwing out bottles is an extremely cathartic exercise for the bottling-weary homebrewer’s soul. Personally, I enjoy scornfully admonishing the bottles I discard with chiding remarks such as “I never liked you anyway” or “You’re killing your father, behaving like this”.

4) Evoke the spirit of Tom Sawyer
In Mark Twain’s famous novel, Tom Sawyer snookers his buddies into white-washing a fence for him.  It was a brilliant plan that I absolutely admire.

The great thing about homebrewing is that your friends will be curious about it. Leverage this curiosity at bottling time. Let them find out “how cool and fun it is to bottle beer”. Then take a picture of your friends while you sit back and enjoy a cold one.

Bottling sucks -- trick your friends into doing it for you.

Bottling sucks -- trick your friends into doing it for you.

5) Buy a kegging system
Face it, bottling sucks. The sooner you buy a kegging system, the sooner you’ll be done with bottling.

Anyone else got any great tips for overcoming bottling woes?

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Homebrew Bottling Woes: A Haiku

obligatory Japanese print

I hate you, bottles.

All the cool kids are kegging.

This takes way too long.

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Safbrew S-33 Dry Ale Yeast: First Impressions

Safale S-33

Safale S-33: The incorrigibly stubborn prima donna of dry ale yeasts.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of dry yeasts.  I know a lot of homebrewers think dry yeasts are inherently inferior to the various liquid offerings from Wyeast and White Labs. But I’m not one of those guys.  I’ve been consistently happy with the results I get from Danstar Nottingham and Safale US-05 for quite a while.  However, after a friend’s recommendation, I recently tried Safbrew S-33.  So far, I’m not terribly impressed.

The original plan was to brew a Dopplebock.  However, I don’t have access to a proper lagering system.  So after some modifications to the grain bill, we brewed what I think most homebrewers might accept as a Baltic Porter.

The recipe:
8.0 lb. Extra Light DME
1.0 lb. Crystal 10L
1.0 lb. Crystal 40L
0.25 lb. Chocolate Malt
0.25 lb. Roasted Barley
1.0 oz. Northern Brewer @ 60 mins
1 pkg. Fermentis Safbrew S-33 Ale Yeast
SG: 1.072
FG: 1.019

Fermentation started fast.  The airlock was bubbling steadily in less than 12 hours. However, after 3 weeks in primary, our hydrometer indicated that we were still 10 points above our target final gravity.  I was a bit surprised, but I wasn’t particularly concerned yet.  We simply put the lid back on the bucket, carefully roused the yeast back into suspension, and postponed bottling day.  After an additional week, we were 3 points closer, but still too high to start bottling.

More waiting.

After five weeks, we were still 5 points above our target gravity.  However, hydrometer readings indicated no change over the course of 3 days, so we called it “done” and started bottling.  So already I’m frustrated with this yeast.  We gave it 5 weeks in primary to do its job, and it crapped out short of 70% attenuation.

Despite an unusually long primary fermentation, the beer tasted fantastic.  It had a rich, full body with toffee and caramel malt sweetness and subtle nutty/coffee flavor.  Maybe not 100% “according-to-style”, but to hell with that, it was great.  At this point, I was starting to think the wait was worth it.  I couldn’t wait for this to carb up. Little did I know just how long I was going to have to wait.

After 3 weeks of bottle conditioning, and a quick 24-hour cold crash, we popped the top off the first bottle.  I don’t have the vocabulary to explain how frustrated I was to see absolutely flat beer pouring into the pint glass.  And I mean flat — not a touch of carbonation.  Disheveled and heartbroken, we pulled the beers out of the fridge and gave them more time.

Two weeks later, we gave the beer another try.  There was finally some carbonation, but it was mostly just fizzy bubbles, incapable of producing anything that could possibly be interpreted as a head.  The worst part is that all the wonderful flavors that I remembered were gone.  The beer was now overwhelmingly cidery and acidic.  I know we didn’t have problems with fermentation temperatures, and I know we used an appropriate amount of priming sugar.  The only conclusion I can make is that the beer is still very green.  But after five weeks?

You’re killing me, S-33!  It’s been 10 weeks and I’m still waiting on this beer to mature.  If this were some sort of massive barleywine, I would have expected this.  But 1.072 is hardly the type of gravity that should require extensive aging.  I did a little research and found a number of forum discussions indicating that S-33 has a bit of a reputation for being a lazy prima donna — you have to babysit it, pamper it, stroke its ego, etc.  I’m not digging it.

I’m certainly not saying that S-33 is incapable of making great beer.  In fact, I found a number people who love it and use it regularly.  But frankly, I don’t see the point in waiting 3+ months for a 7% beer to finish, when Nottingham or US-05 could have done this in 6 or 8 weeks.  With that in mind, I think this is the last time I’ll be using S-33.

Has anyone else tried this yeast?  How did it work out for you?

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Homebrew Hooligans Facebook Page

A few weeks ago, our Facebook page inexplicably vanished.  I’m sure this was a source of deep tension and frustration for all seven of our “Likers”.  I’m happy to announce that everything is back to normal.

If you haven’t Liked us yet, you really should.  We like you.

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New Mash Paddle

Ever since I started doing all-grain batches, I’ve been using a giant plastic spoon to stir my mash.  While it works fine, it just doesn’t feel as authentic.  So I decided I would try to find a basic wooden paddle, and use my Dremel tool to cut some slots into the paddle’s face.

I found a simple canoe paddle at Amazon, and  it looks like it will work perfectly. Then I noticed the related products section. It’s quite amusing.

It’s pretty obvious who’s buying these paddles.

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Viking Mead: Ragnarök Not Included

Hi, I'm Erik. I enjoy long walks on the beach, planting battle axes in people's skulls, an occasional Hnefatafl match, and a nice glass of mead.

Other than writing a report on Erik the Red in the 3rd grade and owning Led Zeppelin’s entire catalog, I’m not well versed in the rich traditions of Viking Age Norse culture.  In addition to the oft cited raping and pillaging, a quick Google search for “viking hobbies” revealed that they also enjoyed a game called Hnefatafl, which was similar to chess. However, this week Lucas and I embarked on one of the greatest Viking traditions of all:  brewing mead.

Mead is simply honey wine.  I’d never brewed mead before.  So for this first batch, we decided to keep things simple.  Fruit?  No.  Eccentric spices or herbs? No.  We only used 17 pounds of locally produced honey, Lalvin K1-V1116 champagne yeast, and some sort of superpowered multivitamin yeast nutrient to prevent stuck fermentation.

Following a basic recipe we found in Charlie Papazian’s book, we added all 17 pounds of honey to about eight quarts of hot water.  Once everything was boiling, we added 1/4 tsp of Irish Moss and 1.25 tsp yeast nutrients and let everything boil for about 20 minutes. We added enough water to top off at 5 gallons in one of our plastic buckets, shook the hell out of it to oxygenate everything, and finally transfered to a 7-gallon carboy.

Compared to beer, I thought brewing this mead was relatively simple. There was no mashing required, the boil only lasted 20 minutes, and the kettle was almost completely free of any trub.  The downside is that the conditioning timeline is much longer. Most beers are usually ready to drink after about 6 or 8 weeks.  Mead, on the other hand, requires a minimum of 3 months before it’s even palatable, and most of the instructions I found recommended aging the mead for 12 – 18 months.

12 pounds of light wildflower honey and 5 pounds of medium wildflower honey.

Overall this was a refreshingly problem-free brew day.  We didn’t even have any boil overs!  The only issue we ran into was that it took forever to get the must (the wine equivalent to wort) boiling.  I’m not sure if the excessive viscosity slows the boiling process, but it took well over 35 minutes for the pot to get rolling.

Our starting gravity measured 1.126 — just a few points shy of our target gravity of 1.130. But I’m certainly not complaining.  Weighing in at an estimated 13.2% ABV, failure to limit one’s intake of this beverage could result in an uncontrollable urge to wield a wrought iron battle-axe, don a horned Spangenhelm, and raze countryside villages to the ground.

You have been warned.

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