Misadventures in homebrewing

My leap back into the homebrewing circuit after a 6-month recess is with a style that, naturally, is also a couple months late off the block: the Christmas beer. Throw a few spices in a dark brew and suddenly you can only drink the thing from October to December. Well, I ain’t buying it. As long as the mercury stays below 0˚C – which will be a while, no matter how many outdoor rinks they close – beers like my Spiced Bourbon Oatmeal Stout will serve as ample restoratives.

The brew day started with the toasting of two cups of oatmeal. I first read of this in Randy Mosher’s great book Radical Brewing, who says that when using toasted adjunct grains allow two weeks between toasting and brewing to allow harshly flavored chemicals from the toasting to dissipate. On the other hand, the smell of baking cookies coming from the oven dispelled any worries about this. I follow a general creed that reads, “What’s good for cookies is good for life,” harsh chemicals be damned.

The rest of the recipe also comes from Mosher’s book (the oats being a personal tip-of-the-hat to a local brew I’m quite fond of). I’m confined to extract brewing by small size of Montreal’s apartments and my wallet, but luckily there are plenty of recipes to fit my set-up. Mosher calls for a pound of both black patent and dark crystal malts, which I steeped with the oats at around 65˚C for a half hour.

This is the first time I’ve steeped grains for an extract brew in a separate pot and without a cheesecloth pouch, in order to emulate a proper mash tun. After doughing in at 4:45 p.m., a healthy sparge at about 5:20 p.m. yielded a dark black liquor that was coffee-like, thick and sweet. Very exciting.

Before the boil, I added a kilo of amber liquid malt extract and 1.5 kg of light dried malt extract (DME – which is said to be sweeter). At the beginning of a 60-minute boil, I tossed in 1.5 oz of Fuggles hops in plugs, with another addition of the same size at 15 minutes from the end.

I’ve taken the time I have to consult the robotic brewer that lives in my computer. Beer Alchemy is a tragic little thing. It can tell you what’s wrong with your attenuation or predict the color of your beer in degrees Lovibond, but it has never drunk a drop. I like to run recipes through it so different numbers I get from analysis do not surprise me.

Projections (provided via technology)

Original gravity – 1.059
Final gravity – 1.020
Expected ABV – 5.2%
Expected IBUs – 23.2

At flame out I really wished I had a nice counterflow chiller that makes pitching the yeast less of a gamble. Unfortunately, I could only cross my fingers and fill my carboy with some cold water. That brought the temperature of the wort all the way from 100˚C+ to 27˚C, still too warm for the yeast. Two hours in a chilly mudroom brought it down to pitching temp, but may have allowed mold, wild yeast and other bad guys in the air to find the sugary sweet wort.

Actuality (provided by my hydrometer)

OG – 1.052 (a little low, oh well)
FG – ???
ABV – ???
IBUs – I’ll never know.

Troy graciously supplied me with some reusable yeast from a past stout. I pitched this at around 11 pm. A week or so in primary should do fine, and then some time in secondary with ½ tsp vanilla extract, ¼ tsp allspice, ½ tsp cinnamon, ¼ coriander, 1 whole star anise, .5 g juniper berries and a pinch of black pepper soaked in 6 oz vodka and 2-3 oz bourbon.

UPDATE: Over 18 hours after I pitched the yeast and there’s NO ACTIVITY. I’m a fool for not making a starter. Thinking it might be a fermenting temperature thing, I moved it to a warmer room. It would hurt to have to dump this stuff….

UPDATE 2: Full day after pitching the yeast and still nothing. Tried aeration and temperature shift but I was really worried about all the air space in the 6.5-gallon carboy. I thought the easy thing to do was rack it to a smaller, 20-liter demi-john. After some late-night siphoning, I learned that I didn’t even brew 20 liters of beer; there was about as much air space as before. Gadzooks! I thought, what the hell, why not brew up the difference? About a half-kilo of extract in a liter and a half of water on the stove for a spell and a brand new vial of yeast in the morning and hopefully we’ll make it through this thing.

UPDATE 3: I did a little troubleshooting with Benelux head brewer Benoit Mercier and we decided the yeast I used was bunk. He let me walk out with a jar full of his own yeast and I hoofed it home. To kill anything that grew in it over the last day and a half I boiled all the beer again (which amped up the OG to an awesome 1.062), pitched the new Benelux yeast and ….IT LIVES! Now that it’s fermenting, Drew, you can expect to sample it after a week in primary, 10-14 days in secondary and 10 to condition. About a month.



Filed under Homebrew

2 responses to “Misadventures in homebrewing

  1. drewnelles

    I don’t understand most of what you said here, but you missed the most important part, which is telling me when I can drink some.

    Also: “Beer Alchemy is a tragic little thing. It can tell you what’s wrong with your attenuation or predict the color of your beer in degrees Lovibond, but it has never drunk a drop.” That is a pretty little bit.

  2. Riley


    Was going to drop you a line, one of those ‘hey how ya been/ up to anything good in the beer world’ sorta jams, and found yer site. Good stuff, man; glad to see that you’re still fighting the good fight. Just made a pretty mean honey brown and Dubbel style ale myself, both of which I’m rather pleased with. Making a big ass oatmeal stout next, quite exciting.

    Roight, well, hope all is well man, catch you soon.

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