The Return of the Keg
Let’s hear it for small victories!
This blog has been somewhat neglected for the last year, and in fact, the last several years. No, not neglected; just back-burnered, like a few quarts of extra wort run out from a mash tun into a saucepan to boil in case it’s needed for something, only to be forgotten until the brewer smells evaporated malt syrup burning on the stove seven hours later.
It’s been an adventure for me for the past few years, gradually adjusting, then unadjusting and readjusting to rapid changes in life. As I’ve continually tried to balance the demands of fatherhood, my career, the never-ending project that is my new house (it’s still “my new house” after two years, and I don’t see that changing soon) and now a podcast about the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, something had to fall by the wayside. That something was brewing, because it’s hard to set aside an entire day to brew a batch from all grain, and it’s hard to commit to dry hopping, kegging, and all the rest on schedule to make the best possible beer.
No brewing means no blogging about brewing, and because I don’t want to turn this blog into just a bunch of reviews on commercial beers I’m drinking, I haven’t had much to write about here. But that did change recently. (Woohoo!) I’m not quite certain that I’ve turned the corner and will be brewing regularly again, but it’s worth reporting that I’ve made some progress.
I just kegged for the first time in several months. Almost a year ago, I came up with two new recipes inspired by my family’s growing obsession with Walt Disney World, including a Star Wars-inspired black IPA with Galaxy and Mosaic hops. After months of thinking “By Yoda, that sounds good,” I carved out some time five weeks ago to pull the Grainfather out of the garage and brew the beer I’d been thinking about.
I’m proud (and a bit shocked) to say that I still seem to know what I’m doing. I had no major mishaps on brew day; the biggest speed bump was a half-hour delay caused by me forgetting where I had put away a couple of the many small metal and rubber bits that make up the Grainfather’s pump filter system. After I located them, it was smooth sailing. I missed my target OG by a few points (1.065 instead of my target 1.071) but I’ve never been one to get too upset by missing gravity targets. My FG was on target at 1.017, so I ended up with a more quaffable 6.3% ABV beer than the seven-percenter I was expecting. Even kegging went smoothly. It helped that I had a nice shiny new keg in a box with no leaks ready to receive the brew.
It was nice to have three beers on tap in my three-tap kegerator for about 24 hours. The following day, though, I emptied one of those three kegs, so I once again have an empty slot. Fortunately, I have a plan for that tap: the light, crisp honey wheat with floral East Kent Goldings hops I planned last year will be a wonderful beverage for spring in Texas. I hope to carve out time for another brew day for that recipe in early April.
But for now it’s back to fatherhood, work, and podcasting about Tolkien. So while this isn’t quite the story-ending “Well, I’m back,” of Sam Gamgee in the final chapter of The Return of the King, I can honestly quote Bilbo Baggins in the same chapter by saying, “And now I think I am quite ready to go on another journey.”1
Now if I can just find the time to clean all this equipment.
1 Quote taken from the book, not the Peter Jackson film.
Bottling shortcuts for the bottling-averse homebrewer
No task in homebrewing gives me such mixed feelings as bottling. On one hand, it’s the last leg of the beer’s journey from grain to glass, and when the cap goes on I know the next time I interact with this brew will be when I taste it. On the other hand, it’s involved: boiling priming sugar, sanitizing 55 bottles, racking, filling and capping by hand, then breaking everything down and filling with PBW for an overnight soak takes more steps and time than any other brewing task I do except the brew day itself (and brew day leaves me with a much greater sense of accomplishment).
So when I started kegging over a year ago, I never looked back. It’s just so easy and fast: 30 minutes is about all I need to sanitize and fill a 5-gallon keg, and some homebrewers cut that time in half by keeping kegs full of sanitizing solution when not in use.
But I also make the odd 1-2 gallon test batch from time to time, and I don’t keg those. I could find smaller kegs, I suppose, but that would mean dedicating one of my three taps to small-batch experimental beer, which I’d rather not. So my test batches still get bottled. At least in theory.
In reality, I’ve been putting off bottling test batches for a while now because of the hassle. The two test batches I did over the last year – a Berliner Weisse from March 2012 and a Bronze Age Fig Beer in January – were still in fermenters in the Harry Potter closet, rapidly approaching the point where more additional time wouldn’t help them. I finally had to do what I had been putting off. And since necessity is the mother of invention, I devised ways to make it easier.
First, I got smaller bottling buckets. I used to just use my full 6-gallon bottling bucket regardless of batch size. After all, unlike the fermentation vessel, the bottling bucket is not going to hold beer for more than a couple of hours at the most, so there’s no reason not to just use the biggest one you’ve got, right?
But after thinking, I came up with several reasons why having a smaller bottling bucket would make bottling a small batch easier:
- Less surface area to sanitize
- Narrower vessel = higher fill level in the bucket, making it easier to submerge the outlet of the racking hose
- Narrower vessel = more pressure out of the spigot = faster bottle fills
- Less surface area to clean afterwards
So I made 2-gallon bottling buckets from plastic pails identical to those I use for small-batch fermenters. Instead of drilling a hole in the lid for a stopper and airlock, I drilled a hole near the base for a spigot with a 1″ spade bit:
If you try it at home, keep a firm hand on the bucket and drill and be aware that it will cut through plastic very quickly, so a momentary loss of control can send you back to the store to buy a new bucket and start over. 1″ was the perfect diameter for my spigot, but I slipped and gouged a little extra chunk outside of the intended hole. Fortunately I was able to carefully hand-tighten the spigot to compress the interior gasket enough so that it spread to cover the leak.
The other shortcut I used was Coopers Carbonation Drops instead of bulk priming the entire batch. I’ve used these things on and off since my beginnings as an extract brewer, and I’ve been spoiled. Even now, weighing, boiling and cooling priming sugar is for some reason a huge annoyance to me and ranked among my worst first-world problems. But bulk priming does carbonate a little more consistently than the Coopers drops, so I do it, usually. But not with test batches. I consider them experiments anyway, so I’m not concerned about minute and virtually undetectable carbonation variations from bottle to bottle.
It took me an hour to sanitize two sets of equipment, rack two batches, and package 13 bottles of fig beer and 9 bottles of Berliner Weisse.
I still find kegging to be easier, and I’ll keg full-size batches whenever possible unless I have a reason to bottle them, in which case I’ll have to break out the big bucket and clear a couple of hours on my calendar. I also have a new Blichmann BeerGun I haven’t yet used which can bottle force-carbonated beer from the keg, but I’ll probably limit its use to bottling a few off the keg to give to friends. For test batches, I think I’ve found my process.
And the right equipment makes every process easier. It’s great to know that now, with a few additions to my homebrew arsenal, bottling is no longer a chore to dread, but a milestone to look forward to.
Baggings! We hates it forever!
My Hobbit-inspired Old Took’s Midwinter IPA is now in the keg. If it seems like that happened really quickly, it’s only because of how late I posted my blog post about the brew day. I fermented it for three weeks before dry hopping it for 6 days. All in all, it was about 4 weeks from mash tun to keg.
I dry hopped it with an ounce each of the same finishing hops I used in the boil, hoping to achieve a nice mix of floral and citrus aroma notes to round out the beer:
- 1 oz Willamette (4% AA)
- 1 oz Cascade (6.2% AA)
It’s been in the keg for less than a day, so it’s too early to know for sure how it’s going to turn out. It tastes good, and it’s got more hop character than it did a week ago. So I think it’s going to be good, but I’m a little concerned that this wasn’t my most successful attempt at dry hopping.
In the past, I’ve dry hopped with pellets either tied in a disposable loose-weave muslin bag, or tossed into the fermenter loose. I prefer loose over bagging if possible for maximum contact, but hop particles in the keg are a problem with more than about a half ounce of hop pellets. With 2 oz of loose pellets, I’d be serving up pints of hop debris for a month.
I didn’t have any muslin bags on hand, nor any time to go to Austin Homebrew Supply to buy any. Searching local retailers for a solution, I came across these spice bags at a kitchen store. They’re for chefs making bouquet garnis, but they are muslin (a tighter weave but still porous), and they are advertised as reusable. The biggest drawback I could see was that they were smaller than the bags I usually use, but since I got 4 in a pack I figured I’d use several.
When bagging dry hops – or when using a tea ball-type infuser, which is also popular – the size of the bag or ball is important. Hops shouldn’t be packed too tightly or else you reduce the surface area in contact with the liquid, which decreases the amount of hop goodness that gets into the beer. After sanitizing the bags with boiling water, I split up my 2 oz of hops into 3 bags along with sanitized marbles for ballast. Two thirds of an ounce per bag seemed to provide lots of breathing room, although I knew the hops would expand a little.
I didn’t count on just how much they would expand.
After I racked the beer into the keg, I found my 3 muslin spice bags at the bottom of the fermenter. The hops had expanded so much the bags looked about to burst, like overstuffed pillows. I didn’t worry about it too much until I was cleaning the bags out, in the hopes of maybe reusing them someday. As I emptied the bags into the kitchen sink, I inhaled deeply, smelling the rich, floral-citrus bouquet coming from the green sludge washing down the drain.
And then it hit me: that’s hop aroma going down the drain. Not in my beer.
The hops expanded so much in those small bags that they ended up packed too tightly. Some of the available hop compounds got into the beer, but not all. So the beer is better than it was, but not as good as it could have been. Should have been. And I’m left feeling disappointed at the waste. A spontaneous decision potentially compromised the end result, and that’s going to bother me until I taste the chilled, carbonated beer and know for sure.
If only I had just used my usual bags! Or something else – anything else!
I should breathe deep and repeat the mantra of Charlie Papazian: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. Even if the IPA isn’t perfect, I haven’t ruined it. It’s far from the worst disaster ever to befall a homebrewer, and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve faced. Yes, it was avoidable and it’s annoying, but the beer will be fine.
Then from the back of my brain comes a nagging: Is “fine” really good enough?
It’s not beyond repair. I can still add more dry hops to the keg, if needed. And I probably will. But I’ve learned my lesson. I’m sure I’ll find many other uses for these spice bags in the brewery, such as infusing dry herbs that won’t expand. But I don’t think I’ll be bagging dry hops in anything smaller than a nylon stocking in the future.
My ongoing gas problem
My name is Shawn, and I have a problem with gas.
Specifically, the carbon dioxide tank in my 3-tap homebrew kegerator. About two weeks ago, I noticed that my beers were getting a little overcarbonated. My regulator, it turned out, was set to a very high 14 PSI. I try to keep it at 10 PSI, which produces an acceptable level of carbonation for most beers; not ideal for all, but it’s good enough and a simple round number.
But when my precious beers were suddenly pouring out as 80% head, I knew something was amiss. So I got on my knees, pulled a keg out of the kegerator to get to the 5-pound CO2 tank at its home on the compressor hump, relieved pressure at the tank valve and turned the regulator screw a tiny bit counterclockwise to lower the pressure. It doesn’t take much to get big results: a few degrees of torque on a quarter-inch bolt can result in a difference of 3-4 PSI, and sometimes it takes a day before it stabilizes.
But it seemed like it was going to work, for a few days. Then, by coincidence, the tank ran out of gas (I suspected a leak, but thankfully found none). Unfortunately, it was a Monday and I live too far from Austin Homebrew Supply to go there on a weeknight, so I had to wait 5 days before I could get it refilled. Once done, I happily hooked up the newly filled tank and set the pressure to 8 PSI in the hopes that the pressure differential would bleed out some of the extra carbonation in the beer and equalize at the level I’m looking for.
And bleed it did. I poured a pint of Weiss Blau Weiss a few days later, and it was straight-up flat. The regulator was surprisingly at 3 PSI. I was in full WTF mode by this point, until I realized that I set the pressure before I opened all the valves in my gas manifold. 8 PSI with one valve open to one keg dissipated after I opened the other two valves.
Now I think it’s back to normal. We’ll see in a couple of days. And someday I’ll invest in longer beer lines for the system. Longer beer lines mean more distance for the beer to travel from keg to glass, which means it doesn’t come out so fast and so foamy even when the pressure’s a little high. That’s the next logical step, but I’m hoping to put that project off for a less-busy weekend.
Was there a point to this story? No, mostly I’m just venting. But it’s a solid cautionary tale for any homebrewer out there still slaving over a bottling bucket, manually filling and capping 11 bottles for every gallon of homebrew and thinking, “Once I get my kegging system, all my problems are going to be solved!” I once thought that, too.
Nope. Sorry. There will always be problems. Something can always go wrong. Especially when your hobby’s primary equipment options are mostly Frankensteined together by DIYers from common appliances, picnic gear and plumbing fittings. Problems are a given. You just have to roll with them.
But that’s part of the fun. Anybody can go to the store and buy great beer by the case. What makes homebrewers invest the time and the money in all the constant tinkering? Ingenuity. Creativity. And a morbid, wretched drive to find problems that need solving. It’s the same reason I build my own desktop computers from scratch instead of buying them off the shelf. It’s the same reason I’ve been researching and outlining my novel for an obsessively long eight months, poking holes in my own ideas before I write the first page. Like many men, I may shout and curse and bang my fist when a frustrating problem rears its head, but secretly, I love it when a problem arises, because it’s another chance to prove how smart I am by solving it.
So here’s hoping this problem is solved … for now. A pint is calling my name, so I’ll test it soon. But I’ve got hours to kill before bedtime, and who knows what might be waiting for me in there?