La Resaca Gose

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Since we got our new system, I can finally start doing sours again!  Specifically, kettle sours.  If you’re unfamiliar with a kettle sour, it is a process that can be used to make quick, clean sour beers in a controlled manner.  Beers such as Berliner weisse and gose can be made with the kettle sour method, using a bacteria called lactobacillus that creates lactic acid very quickly.

Gose (pronounced goes-suh) is a style I am very interested in exploring.  Our second big batch of gose is coming up.  Resaca Lima is a gose made with limes and pink Himalayan salt.  Gose is an old style of German wheat beer that has a light level of salt, tartness, and clean fermentation character.  The taste is really nice–a lot of refreshing flavor at only 4% ABV.  We’ll have other variations all summer long–Resaca Naranja, made with navel oranges, and Resaca Negra, a dark version.

You may have already tried some commercial goses that have cropped up over the last year.  Some of these beers are made by adding food grade lactic acid to the beer, vs. using lactobacillus to sour.  The difference is that beers soured with lactobacillus have a softer, more complex flavor.  You get less harsh acidity and touches of lemon and white wine.  I think it makes a much better beer.

So, how does the process work?  I’ll explain now in-depth, in case you want to try this at home or on a professional scale.  Whichever the case, I highly suggest that you join the Facebook group Milk the Funk.  It is a great resource of home and pro brewers focused on sour beer production.  There is a fantastic wiki that brings a more scientific approach into an area of brewing that is too often left to random chance.

To kettle sour, you first perform a standard mash and transfer your wort to your boil kettle.  After that, you bring your wort to a boil, then chill to the appropriate temperature for the lactobacillus strain you are using.  Then, you add your lacto, close up your kettle, and let it sit at the correct temperature until you hit your desired PH.  After that, you bring to a boil, chill, and transfer to your fermenter.  The beer is capped at the desired PH, and the lacto is killed so that you don’t run any through your other equipment.

Simple enough.  Some other key information…

First, lactobacillus shouldn’t form a krausen.  If you see one, you probably have an unwanted organism at work, which probably means your beer is wrecked.  If there is a stomach acid or cheesey aroma, it should be dumped.  Number two, it isn’t necessary to purge oxygen from the beer before adding your lacto.  Some people think it prevents isovaleric acid or butyric acid from being formed.  Those are caused by other organisms such as clostridium, not by lactobacillus.  Third, it’s pretty hard to overpitch lacto, but you can underpitch, so a big starter is a good idea.  Lastly, the most important part of a kettle sour is a clean kettle.  Without a sparkling clean kettle, you are running a serious risk of contamination.  Many things will out-compete lacto and ruin your beer, so keeping things as clean as possible is integral.

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Starter with Swanson’s Plantarum Pills

My current favorite lacto strain is plantarum.  It works well at 85-95 degrees, so it’s a good option for homebrewers.  It can even work lower than that.  It’s also easily available in probiotic drinks and supplements such as Goodbelly or Swanson’s probiotic pills.  I’ll take a bottle of 30 Swanson’s pills, and dump it in a 5 liter starter and let it sit for three days before pitching the entire thing in to a 3 BBL batch.  Plantarum will naturally cap out at 3.2-3.4 PH, so no need to worry about it over-souring.  I will go ahead and start to boil when it gets under 3.4.  For a gose, 30 grams of salt per 5 gallons is the perfect amount to add during the boil.

I will do a 15 minute boil to make sure everything is hopefully dead in the beer and drive off a little DMS.  Afterwards, just chill the wort and transfer to your fermenter.  For a gose, you should select  a neutral ale yeast.  US-05 is perfect.

Checking gravity is a bit difficult because lactic acid is dense and interferes with readings.  I still need to look into how to check gravity…I’ve noticed that fermentation appears a bit more sluggish on kettle sours with US-05, maybe since the acidity inhibits the yeast a little bit.  Other strains such as French saison have no problem, though.

I’m really happy with our gose, and I think it is a terrific example of a style that I really enjoy!

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There Is No Craft

The lines between craft and macro are disappearing.  Craft breweries are selling out, and big breweries are starting to throw their weight around.  I am writing this post in response to Devil’s Backbone, one of Virginia’s largest breweries and a very active member in the Virginia Craft Brewer’s Guild, selling to AB-Inbev.

Right now, a lot of people in the industry are too guarded, nice, or afraid to really tell it like it is.  This is my opinion, but these are also the facts.

Yes, it matters that Devil’s Backbone sold to AB.  “But the same people are still making great beer.”  Great, but the same people aren’t in charge of running the business.  Here’s what AB-Inbev is planning to do.  You can read all about it–offering big incentives to distributors that sell 98% of their brands by volume–but that’s pretty much par for the course for what big businesses do.  They use their money to squeeze out smaller competitors.  With AB’s plans to triple yearly growth, it pretty much demands that smaller brands get pushed out.

And that’s just public information.  Other incentives, pay to play, it’s all being done by bigger companies and distributors in the beer game.  And soon, the AB-Inbev SAB-Miller merger is coming.

Also, it’s not just big macrobreweries.  Many larger breweries are opening east coast plants, with welcome arms from area beer fans and sweetheart deals from local lawmakers, but similar motives–cut costs, take taps.

AB-Inbev knows that Bud Light is on its way out, and the only way to succeed is to acquire craft brands.  Larger breweries with craft roots have huge war chests from the craft beer boom, and will put them to use in the same ways that AB-Inbev does.

You have a choice.  I’ll be shelving Vienna Lager from now on.

 

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The Best Setup for Homebrewing

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Since we got our 3 BBL system, we’ve started brewing more ten gallon batches in order to have a greater variety of beers on tap.  I’d like to run through what we use to do these smaller batches, because I think it represents the best and most economical system for homebrewers.  There are better setups available, but in my opinion, there isn’t much of a reason to go beyond these items unless you have money to burn.

Burner: Bayou Classic Double Jet Burner.  This burner sounds like a jet engine, but it is so fast, at nearly double the BTUs of standard burners, if you blink you’ll overshoot your temperature.  This is my favorite item and makes brewing a small batch so much quicker.

Boil Kettle: We use a keggle (kettle made from cutting the top of an old keg off with a plasma cutter).  However, if you don’t have an old keg lying around, please don’t do this with a keg from a store.  Breweries charge a deposit that isn’t even close to the value of the keg, so if someone doesn’t return it, they lose money.  A better choice is just a 15 gallon stainless steel pot.  Avoid aluminum since it shouldn’t be cleaned with caustic cleaners such as PBW.

Hot Liquor Tank: Igloo 10 gallon beverage cooler.  Pretty straightforward.  Take out the spigot, install a weldless bulkhead and ball valve.

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Mash Tun: 70 quart cooler and copper manifold.  This mash tun will allow you to brew higher gravity 10 gallon batches, or super high gravity five gallon batches.  The copper manifold is easy to build with a sawsall and half inch copper pipe, with horizontal slits cut for drainage.  When you need to clean it, just take pop it apart.  We’ve never had a stuck sparge, even with heavy amounts of rye and no rice hulls.

Thermometer: Thermoworks RT301WA digital thermometer.  Accurate, fast, inexpensive.

Pump: Chugger pump.  Not absolutely necessary.  Before, we would lift our mash tun or boil kettle onto the top of the brick wall outside and use gravity to transfer.  However, you need a pump if you don’t have a second person to help with this.  I’ve done it by myself, but usually end up burning myself a bit…having the pump is nice, especially for vorlaufing.  This pump has a steel head and is rated to 250 degrees.  Get yourself some quick disconnects and hoses, and you’re good to go.  An on/off pedal is nice, too.

Fermenter: Speidel 15 gallon plastic fermenter.  We actually use 15 gallon conical fermenters, but that’s just because we can afford to splurge on something that in my opinion just isn’t necessary for homebrewers.  The appeal of the stainless conicals is that you can dump yeast and transfer under CO2 pressure.  However, the limited exposure to oxygen that you will get when transferring the beer out of the Speidel is not really a problem, and isn’t worth spending an extra $400.  The Speidel fermenters are made of a much higher quality HDPE plastic than your run-of-the-mill bucket fermenters.  They are very air tight, and the racking arm works great.  Speidel is a fantastic company that just does a great job on everything they make.

I am not sure if this has finally sunk in with the homebrewer community, but please, skip the secondary fermenter.  Totally unnecessary for anything other than a sour.  You’re just exposing your beer to more oxygen for no reason.  Dry hops, oak chips, etc, can all be added directly to the fermenter.

 

So, there you have it.  That setup will make a nice amount of beer for home consumption quickly, effectively, and for a reasonable price.  You can save your shiny Blichmann stuff–it won’t really help you brew better beer.  I omitted some extras: a good PH meter, oxygen stone, flask and stir plate are all nice things to have as well, but not essential.

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3 BBL System

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In February, we said goodbye to our old 1.5 BBL system and installed our shiny new 3 BBL system.  We’ve been brewing on it for a month now, and I’d like to talk about the experience and what it means.  This is a very useful post for anyone looking to open a nano, because I believe that a 3 BBL is what you really want to start with.

Before I get into the technical details, I just want to talk about what this means for customers.  We’ll be focusing a lot more on our core beers, so our tap list isn’t going to change around as often.  After nearly three years, I think we have really developed a good set of beers that are unique and well-liked, and I’d like to start focusing on keeping them on tap.  For this summer, we’ll be featuring:

Red Kolsch

Peach Habanero and Cherry Cayenne Storm IPA

Achilles Rye IPA and cask Lemon Serrano Achilles

Supernatural Hibiscus Saison

La Resaca Gose (lime, dark, and cucumber variants)

Expect to see these on tap fairly frequently.  However, we’ll still be experimenting, so there will be some different beers thrown in there.

Now, on to the new system.  The system is manufactured by Stout, and uses a Brewmation control panel.  It is an electric system with an insulated mash tun.  HERMS is now available from Stout, but was not at the time I placed my order.  I would prefer HERMS, but I haven’t had any issues hitting my temperatures, and this is good practice for when I move up to our 10 BBL system.

Along with the brewhouse, we opted for some slight changes to make things a bit better.  First, instead of taking both 1/2 HP pumps that Brewmation offers, we bought only one and ordered a 1.5 HP VFD portable pump from CPE systems as our second pump.  The portable pump is a key component at any brewery, and we wanted one in order to clean kegs without a keg washer.  Cleaning kegs can be accomplished by hooking your pump up to a coupler on the beer out side, and running caustic through each keg, then water, then acid sanitizer, then CO2.  A bit more time consuming than a keg washer, but with the limited amount of kegs we need to clean, it works fine.

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Things can get a bit crowded!

In addition to the pump, we ordered some custom hoses instead of the ones Stout offers.  For the wort side, I ordered some sanitary brewers hose from Ace.  These hoses are machine-crimped, so debris and bacteria has less room to hide between the hose and fittings.  Consequently, these hoses are extremely expensive.  On the water side, I got a set of Novaflex band-clamped hoses from Five Star.  I am less concerned with dead spots on the water side, and these hoses are considerably less expensive.

Along with our nice new system, we also have begun upping our game in other areas.  First, we no longer use PBW for CIP.  We switched to Loeffler Chemical’s line of products, specifically Lerapur and Lerasept-O.  These caustic cleaners are relatively expensive, but concentrated, which makes them more economical than competing chemicals.  They are also a world apart from PBW in terms of power.  Five minutes of CIP with both will leave a boil kettle covered in hot break looking like a mirror.  These new chemicals will also do a much better job on the weakest point in any brewery, the wort chiller.  Please remember that if you are using such chemicals, gloves, safety glasses, and proper footwear are absolutely mandatory.   We still use PBW for parts soaking, and Saniclean as a sanitizer.

We also have been taking PH readings at every step in the process.  I’ve had great success with the Milwaukee meter.  Accurate PH testing is critical for sour beer production, which we are about to get back into after a hiatus.  We had stopped doing kettle sours after losing a batch in the kettle due to activity from an unwanted organism which produced a lot of isovaleric acid, ruining the beer.  The old kettle made from a steel drum was too difficult to adequately clean–kettle sours require the utmost care to keep unwanted organisms out.  I am very excited to start producing some tasty goses this summer.

We also purchased a microscope in order to begin plate testing our beer.  I’ll probably do an expanded blog post on this later, but basic tests are fairly easy and inexpensive to perform.  We constructed a basic incubator with a temperature controller.  We also purchased a stove-top pressure cooker to use as a makeshift autoclave.  (Note: fine for this application, but not for anything where incomplete sterilization could cause bodily harm)

Using the new equipment is very satisfying because it is basically a scaled down version of a big system, so if you can brew with it, you can brew on anything.  I have no fear that I can make some good beer on our 10 BBL system, which I ordered last week!

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Boom and Bust, Part 2

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I wrote the first part of this post a few months ago, and I’d like to take a minute to follow up with some more thoughts on the current state and future of the beer industry.  There has been a steady trickle of articles talking about the end-of-times for craft beer, and the lack of quality craft beers being produced.

My reaction is, are you kidding me?  I really have to pipe up here.  First, lack of quality…yes, some breweries aren’t making good beer, even beer with serious off-flavors.  However, this has always been the case, and is less likely to continue going forward with a more educated public and more resources than ever for craft brewers to up their game.

On the pro side, you’ve got free literature on running a lab and QC program, cheap equipment available to do so, and really no reason not to.  At our current space, we do plate tests on any bottled beer, and sensory analysis on our draught beer.  However, with our bigger system we’ll be running some basic tests on all of our beer.

On the reverse side, you have tons of good beer being produced.  There is so much good beer out there…just fantastic examples of traditional styles available both locally and nationwide almost everywhere.  Beyond that, look at the amount of really interesting beer being produced–barrel-aged, sour, spontaneously-fermented beers, and beers that combine culinary arts with brewing.  A few years ago, I thought Allagash Curieux was a really wild concept.  Now, there are barrel-aged beers of almost every style, often combined with brett or lactic acid bacteria.  A few years ago, I thought a cherry stout was something pretty unique.  Now, one of our core beers is a cherry cayenne IPA.  Brewers are exploring every facet of beer production in order to come up with new and exciting stuff.

For further proof, take a look at the top-rated beers via Beer Advocate in 2008.  While these beers are definitely great, it speaks volumes that a lot of these classics would never be considered in the running now.  Not because they are bad, but because they aren’t considered interesting enough.

I have a monthly bottle share with some friends, and I’ve tried a decent amount of whales and really great beers.  My regular feeling is, “wow, another great IPA or another great stout.”  Not in a bad way, but in the way that you might eventually grow tired of great steak and lobster.  Now, I look for the really interesting stuff that is hard to pull off.  Favorites of the last year include a roasted red pepper gose, a pumpkin sour, and a strawberry sour.

Now, let’s talk about the predictions of peak craft.  Do people not realize the moment we are in?  American tastes are changing.  Light macro lager is on its way out, and that resulting market share will continue to be available for years to come.  For most of the last 100 years, light lager has made up 95% of beer sales.  Now, it’s dipped to below 80%.  I don’t see it regaining any ground, but it will definitely lose more.

What’s the take from all of this?  It’s a great time to be a beer drinker, and it’s a great time to be in the beer business.  I am very excited to be moving to higher production, and to start sharing some of the interesting and unique beers we’ve developed over the last three years with the surrounding market.  What a time to be alive!

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Cask Ale

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A lot of customers have asked if we would ever serve cask ale.  Well, now we do!  Every week we offer a new cask version of one of our beers.  Sometimes it is just a straight cask version, but most of the time we use some cool extra ingredients to make a special version of the beer.  So, what exactly is cask beer, and how does it work?

Casks are the traditional English way of serving beer, dating back hundreds of years.  They come in a few different sizes, but they share the same features: shaped like a shorter, fatter keg, they have two openings–one to allow for dispensing the beer, and the other to allow air to displace the beer as it is poured.

Taste-wise, the two main differences with cask ale is that it is served at cellar temperature (55 degrees) and has lower carbonation.  This combination gives the beer a very fluffy, quaff-able quality that is very complimentary to English styles.  If you’ve never had a good cask ale, it is a little bit similar to nitro beer…in fact, nitro beer was created to mimic the profile of a cask beer.

On that note, while good cask ale is fantastic, it takes some skill and knowledge to do it right, and without proper care, it can be pretty terrible.  My first experience with cask was at a bar that had no idea what they were doing.  The beer was warm and very yeasty.   The cask was sitting on the bar, with no means of cooling; 70 degrees is not cellar temperature.  The beer was far from brite, the result of agitating the cask before serving.

So, let’s do a brief rundown of the traditional way to package and serve cask beer.  First, uncarbonated beer from a fermenter or brite tank is used to fill the cask.  Priming sugar is added to naturally carbonate the beer to around 1.2 volumes of CO2.  Here is a handy chart for cask carbonation.  If you use the chart correctly, the carbonation level should be perfect.  The keystone is put in place to seal the cask, which should be left warm for a few days to carbonate.  Then, the cask should be moved to cold storage until ready to serve.

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The night before serving the cask, it should be tapped and moved to whatever position it will be served from.  At Crooked Run, we currently use simple wooden stillage and gravity dispense.  This is the easiest and simplest way to serve cask ale.  After tapping, we put the keg up on the bar and put an ice blanket and insulating jacket on it.  The next day, the beer is ready to serve.  This period of rest is important, because it gives the yeast time to settle.  Moving the cask around is not a good idea.

IMG_4892We put one pin cask of beer on tap every Saturday, and serve it through to Sunday.  You can extend the serving life of cask beer with such extras as a cask widge, caskerator, and/or cask breather, but we currently don’t have the room for these until we get our new draught system.  In any cask, I like the simplicity of stillage and gravity dispense, plus we plan to bring some to some festivals.  I’ve had a lot of fun doing special cask versions of different beers.  So far, I’ve done cherry chocolate and coffee versions of Shadow of Truth, our black tripel, raspberry and vanilla versions of Wishing Well, our Irish stout, and a tangerine version of Lord Logan, our English double IPA.  The last one was my favorite!

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First Bottling Run

We have bottles!  Lee and I have been talking about this for over a year, and I am very happy to say that we will now be doing small runs of some of our bigger beers in 750 ml bottles for sale at the brewery and local bottle shops.  What does it take to bottle?  A lot goes into it.

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First, the bottles themselves.  We chose thick, Belgian-style 750 ml bottles with crown caps.  I really like the bomber format, and I feel it is very conducive to flavorful, high-ABV beers, where you are likely to share the beer with others.  We will only be bottling these styles of our beers, since I want our beers to be able to stand up to a bit of aging in case they linger on shelves.

Second, the labels.  Our very talented graphic design and branding guy worked on our first label along with our logo refresh.  The label is simple, easy to read, and recognizable.  You can go many different directions with a label, but this was always what we wanted.  For the material, we wanted either felt or biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP).  We chose BOPP because it is pretty much waterproof, and a lot easier to apply, unlike felt.  I am very glad that we did–our first run would have been fairly unpleasant with felt labels.

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Now, on to the fun part–the machine!  Lee built this four-head counterpressure filler.  After looking at various youtube videos, we came up with this unique design.  It is built of Unistrut, and uses drawer slides to move the manifold and fillers up and down so that bottles can be placed underneath.  There is a trough underneath that runs to a drip bucket.  Not counting the Unistrut which was free, the total cost for this part of the project was $400 for parts.  Not too bad, considering most similar fillers you can buy run at least $2000.

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Our friend Frank built us this label machine.  It’s hand operated, and works like a charm.  The only change we are going to make is to add a small piece that applies some pressure to the surface of the label/bottle to keep it smooth.  Total cost: some beer for Frank.

Before we bottled, we wanted to get our beer tested to make sure it will be shelf-stable.  This part is very important.  All of our beer comes out clean-tasting, but since we brew and serve beer in a tiny space, I have always had my doubts as to just how clean our beer actually is.  (This is why we never repitch yeast.)  If it’s going to sit around warm for weeks or months, it can’t be at risk for refermenting or souring.  Jasper Akerboom at Bright Yeast Labs took a look at our beer for us.  As it turns out, it was free of microbes or brett, but has a little bit of wild yeast.  Since the beer we are bottling is extremely dry, I am not particularly worried about this, as there is practically nothing left to ferment.  We will keep trying to get our beer to be as clean as possible.

We set up everything on Sunday morning for a small little run: five cases of Shadow of Truth, our black Belgian tripel.  We had two hours budgeted for the run in a very long day that included a double batch, opening the tasting room, and removing our entire grain milling area (more on this later).  Our friends Nicole and Corey came by to assist.  We were done in one hour!  Everything went about as smoothly as it could.  The machine works perfectly–there is practically zero foam.  We can even reduce times in the future with a bit more CO2 pressure to speed up fills.

As I mentioned before, our beer wasn’t 100% clean, but this will hopefully be negligible on a beer like Shadow that has an FG of 1.002/0.5.  One of the ways I believe will improve sanitation was to store and mill our grain off-site, since we lack a partitioned area to mill in, and milling creates a tremendous amount of dust.  We built a small shed in my basement with a dehumidifier, and now all the cluttered piles of grain bags are stored there.  This has three great benefits: reduced dust, looks way neater to customers, and allows us to finally start our barrel program!  More info to come on this.

Next on the bottling list: Valhalla golden stout, Supernatural hibiscus saison, and Machismo smoked chipotle RIS.

 

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