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Home Brewing Tips

We have a wealth of experience in trying new things with our brews and some work better than others. Learn from our mistakes and our successes and you too can brew some excellent beverages for you and your friends. The following are some tips of the trade that we would like to let you in on.

Spotlight on Technique: Warm Weather Brewing

When the dog days of August are upon us, the summer heat is about to arrive. Sadly, most beer yeasts aren't crazy about the heat. We try to help by featuring recipe kits using yeasts that do thrive in summer heat, but sometimes you've just got to brew something besides wheat beers and Belgians. So what can you do if you want to keep brewing through the hottest days of the year?

Fortunately, there are solutions other than the obvious (and expensive) choice of buying a spare refrigerator and temperature controller. First, set up a water bath. A spare bathtub will work, but for most of us it's easier to get one of those rope-handled plastic tubs, set the fermenter inside it and pour in a few buckets of water. The water will both provide a heat sink for the fermenter and help keep the temperature from fluctuating wildly from night to day.

If the water bath isn't quite enough, pull an old t-shirt over your fermenter and make sure that it extends down into the wate r. The fabric will wick water up into the shirt, where it will evaporate, which provides a cooling effect. For an extra boost, direct a fan onto the shirt to hasten evaporation.

If you live somewhere that gets really hot during the day, you'll have to get serious and use ice. A few half-gallon milk jugs filled 3/4 full of water and frozen provide a convenient colling medium. Keep one or two in the water bath and swap them out for the ones from the freezer once or twice a day. If you use all the techiques above, you'll be able to keep brewing straight through the summer, even if the temperature climbs into the 90s!


Spotlight on Water: What's Your Ideal SRM?

This month's edition of Brew Your Own has one of the best articles I've read on brewing water. Written by well-respected homebrewer Bill Pierce, it clearly explains the importance of pH to your brewing, as well as giving some good practical advice on how to calculate and change your pH. One item that was of great interest to me was the concept of an "ideal SRM" for a given water and how to calculate it.

SRM, if you don't know by now, is a color scale used to describe beer color. A golden Pilsner might be 4-5 SRM, while a brown ale would be 17-20 SRM, and stouts and porters 35+ SRM. The pH of the local brewing water comes into play because the enzymes that convert grain into fermentable sugars work best in a ph range of 5.2-5.6. Water typically falls in the range of 7-8.5 pH and while the grain itself will lower the pH of water, pale malt alone might not be able to reduce the pH of a given water sufficiently to get into the 5.2-5.6 range needed for proper conversion. What keeps this from happening? Most often it's the residual alkalinity (RA) of your local water.

Luckily for us, alkalinity is one of the items listed in the water quality reports available from the local water authority. Less luckily, the alkalinity of water changes at different times of year for various reasons. However, by looking at the highest and lowest values we can determine a range for the RA value. For example, the Culver City water report shows an alkalinity range of 89 to 114. Knowing this, we can apply the formula for determing ideal SRM: (0.14 * RA) + 5.2 = Ideal SRM. Given our example, the calculations would be (0.14 * 89) + 5.2 = 17.7 and (0.14 * 114) + 5.2 = 21.2. So, the ideal SRM range for beers made with untreated city water is 17-21 SRM.

Of course, that doesn't tell the whole story. Obviously, it's still possible to make beers that fall outside this color range without treating the water. But if you've been wondering why some of your beers are more successful than others, you might want to read the full article in Brew your own for the whole story.


Spotlight on Kegging: Carbonation

Most brewers are familiar with using priming sugar to carbonate beer in the bottle, but carbonating a keg is a mystery for many people. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that kegs give brewers far more options.

The simplest way to carbonate a keg is to use priming sugar - just like you were bottling. You even use a little less priming sugar - about 1/2 - 2/3 of the amount you'd use to bottle. But the real key to success is in making sure that your keg is sealed by giving it a little blast of pressure from your CO2 tank after you add the priming sugar.

The next easiest approach is to connect your CO2 tank to your keg and leave it at pressure for a week or so. The correct pressure varies according to the temperature of the beer, but you can find temperature/pressure charts at a number of places on the web, including Carl Townsend's Picobrewery website.

The last approach is a lot more labor-intensive, but it's the quickest. First, you'll need to have your keg chilled to refrigerator temperature (40F). Next, set your CO2 tank on a table and make sure you have a blanket handy because you're going to set the keg across your knees and 40F is cold! Set your regulator to 35 lb/sq. in., sit down and lay the blanket across your knees. Then lay the keg across your knees on the blanket, with the gas connection on the low side. Set a timer to 3-5 minutes, depending on the carbonation level you want, connect the CO2 line and start the timer. You'll be able to hear the gas gurgling through the beer and you should rock the keg gently during the four minutes while the timer is counting down. Once you're done, return the keg to the fridge and leave it for at least 8 hours, or overnight, before bleeding the excess pressure off. If you know you won't be able to bleed off the pressure for a while, rock the keg for one minute less. Your beer will be ready to drink the next day.


Spotlight on Theory: The Importance of Water pH

The pH of water is a shorthand way for indicating it's relative acidity. The value is scaled from 0 (maximum acidity) to 14 (maximum alkalinity). 7 is neutral. Adding grain to the water will lower the pH, hopefully into ideal pH range for a beer mash: 5.2-5.4. Even if you're not mashing, the pH of your water will still affect the flavor and clarity of your finished beer.

Historically, the single most important factor in determining the kind of beer brewed in a certain area has been the pH level of the local water. How does this affect you? Well, if you're content with brewing amber-colored ales, it doesn't. But if you'd like to brew light golden beers that are clear, it does. And if you like to brew dark Stouts or Porters that aren't astringent it does. It doesn't matter if you brew all-grain or with extract, the pH levels of your brewing water has an effect on the beer you brew. Which only makes sense, since water is the biggest ingredient in beer.

The traditional approach to pH adjustment was to adjust the beer to suit the water. The high pH water of London was great for Porters because the dark grains used in Porter would lower pH to just the right level. But when Pale Ale became all the rage, Burton's low pH water made it the brewing capital of England. Europe was no different. Lagers were first brewed in Munich, but they were dark because their high pH (high carbonate) water made it nearly impossible to make a beer that was both light and clear (Helles came along later). Once the lager yeast found its way to Bohemia though, the low pH of the water there made it possible to brew those light-colored, clear beers. In Los Angeles, the pH of our water is slightly to moderately high, depending on the season. While this is great for anything in the middle of the beer color range, it means that we have to make adjustments for anything at the t op or bottom of the color range.

Adjustments can be made in several ways. Some people add Lactic acid to lower pH. Others use naturally occuring minerals to try to approximate the water originally used to brew the style in question. Diluting our local water with distilled water is still another approach. The easiest approach yet may be to use the 5.2 pH Stabilizer from Five Star Chemicals. Reports from those who've tried it have been favorable, so I know I'm looking forward to giving it a try.


Spotlight on Technique: Dry Hopping

If you've been wondering how to get more hop aroma from your brews, dry hopping is a technique you should know more about. The name comes from the fact that the hops aren't added to the kettle during the boil, they're added to the secondary fermenter (or keg) while still dry. This approach extracts maximum aroma while having little to no impact on flavor and bitterness.

To dry hop a batch of beer, you'll need .5 - 1.5 ounce of hops, depending on how much hop aroma you want to add. While you can use hop pellets for dry hopping, I find that the easiest approach is to use whole hops. You don't need a bag, just stuff them down the neck of the carboy - they'll float on top of the beer and you can siphon it out from under them after a week or so.

Another approach is to dry hop in the keg. This approach is commonly used in England for cask-conditioned ales. If you want to try this, you'd be best off using one of the little Sure Screens we sell at the shop. Just slip one over the end of your keg's dip tube and you won't end up with hops in your beer.


Spotlight on Ingredients: Malt Extract

Virtually every brewer uses malt extract in one form or another, but how many know how it is made? For that matter, how many know about its composition? Read on and we'll try to shed a little light on this essential product.

Broadly speaking, malt etract may be divided into two categories, liquid and dry. Each of these can be generally broken down into unhopped or hopped varieties, although we rarely carry hopped extracts at Culver City Home Brewing supply. After that, there are a myriad of different variations. CCHBS typically carries the following varieties of unhopped extract: liquid pale, dark, Munich and wheat; and dry extra-light, light, wheat and dark. Some of these are seasonal. For example, you're more likely to find wheat extract available during the summer months and Munich in the fall and winter.

All malt extracts are manufactured in the same way, initially. Malted barley is mashed, lautered to separate the grain from the wort. The grain bill and mash steps may vary according to the particular type of extract being made, but the main difference takes place after lautering. Liquid extracts are heated under a vacuum in order to reduce the water content to about 20% of the total. Dry malt extract may have some of the liquid reduced in this way, but is also sprayed into a super-heated room. The heat evaporates the water out immediately and the extract is converted into a fine powder.

As you might expect, the manufacturing process also accounts for the difference in potential extract between liquid and dry malt extracts. Since liquid extract consists of 20% water, it is 20% "weaker" than dry extract. This make it easy to convert between liquid and dry extracts in a recipe: to convert a recipe calling for liquid extract to dry extract, reduce the amount called for by 20%; for dry to liquid, incread the amount by 20%. If you like to calculate your recipes from scratch, that's easy too. For a 5 gallon batch, each pound of liquid extract will contribute about 7 points of gravity, while each pound of dry extract contributes 9 points. As an example, let's look at one of our typical 6 lb. recipe kits. 6 lbs. of extract times 7 points = 42, or a gravity of 1.042 (without any conribution from specialty grains). By contrast, the same recipe using dry malt extract would need only about 5 lbs. of dry extract because 5 X 9 = 45.

One final note. It's should be obvious by now that it's possible to combine various amounts of liquid and dry extracts to hit a particular point of gravity. For example, let's say you want to make a beer with a starting gravity of 1.050. A standard 3 lb. jar of liquid extract plus a standard 3 lb. bag of dry extract will give a gravity of 1.048. (3 X 7)+(3 X 9) = 21 + 27 = 48. Or, you could combine a 6 lb. jar of extract with 1 lb. of DME for a starting gravity of 1.051 (6 X 7) + (1 X 9) = 42 + 9 = 51.


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