Wednesday, November 28, 2012

First Beer Started

Today I went back to Vintner's Cellar to get a spare pail which I plan to use for cleaning my equipment in.
While I was there I decided to pick up one of the Bottle Brew beer kits he had on display. They claim to be the world's easiest beer kit, and it was cheap ($5) so I thought "why not?"

The kit is a 2L pop bottle. It comes full of malt (in wine making that would be the must) and has a second cap shrink wrapped to the bottle cap.

The second cap has a hole drilled in it and you can see a little bit of red inside the cap. This is called the pressure cap.
Also stored in the pressure cap are 1 or 2 gelcap pills. My choice, the Brown Ale, came with 2. The first, cream coloured gelcap is the yeast. The second (if there is one), green pill is hops. The Brown Ale I chose has the hops pill as an optional ingredient.

The process is as simple as it gets.
  • Open the bottle.
  • Drop in the yeast pill (whole, or open the capsule and pour in just the yeast) It shouldn't matter which way you do it, the capsule will dissolve in a couple of hours once it is wet, and it is of course, completely safe to consume. Opening the capsule and pouring the yeast would give the yeast a bit of a head start over making it wait for the pill to dissolve. [Update: they have switched from Gelcaps to plastic vials. Do not drop the plastic vials into the bottle they will not dissolve.]
  • Put the pressure cap on the bottle
  • Wait 1-2 weeks.  In a warm room during the summer (24-28 degrees Celsius room temperature) it should be finished in 8-9 days. In 20-24 degrees normal room temperature, it should take 10-12 days. at a cool room temperature of 18-20 degrees it could take 16-18 days.If you aren't sure if it is done fermenting, just leave it. It will finish on it's own and can stand to sit at room temperature for  up to 3 months. The manufacturer says "You’ll know it’s ready when you lift the bottle (do not shake or tilt) up to a light source and look through it. It should look almost as clear as when you bought it. If it is still cloudy it is not done. Leave it another day or two and check again."
  • Refrigerate for 12 hours.
  • Serve
Interesting notes: this is a commercial kit that advertises no preservatives, and that you simply add yeast and wait till it's clear. There is no indication of What the F.G. (Final gravity) should be, so there is not much point in taking hydrometer readings. They have obviously chosen the yeast to die out when the beer reaches a specific alcohol content. It should yield a 5% alcohol content.

There is truly nothing to brewing this. Just pitch the yeast dry into the bottle and wait. Everything else was already done in craft brewery style in Woodbridge, Ontario, then just at the point where you'd add yeast to the malt they stop, bottle it and let you finish the job. For that tiny investment of 2 weeks of patience, you get 2 L of premium brew. ...or so the theory goes.
The proprietor of Vintner's Cellar told me it should end up being something between a Kilkenny  and a Guinness in flavour.  We shall see.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Maple Mead Started

After a short delay because the wine stores in the area were experiencing a shortage of yeast nutrients... my maple mead (AKA Acerglyn) is started.

Boy does the maple must smell nice!

I used 6kg of honey (just the Loblaws No-Name pasteurized honey because it was on sale cheap) and 2 L of maple syrup. 1L from my mom's friend's sugar bush, and 1L of Amber syrup from Purple Woods. The Purple Woods Amber is amazing syrup. Anna says she regrets saying I could use it in the mead. I hope that when the mead is done she'll feel less regretful. :)

I spent all evening last night sanitizing equipment and cooking my must (raising the temp to 160+F to pasteurize) and then cooling it off to a temp suitable for introduction of the yeast. The house smelled fantastic!

I can't wait till March when the Purple Woods Heritage Store opens again, I love their syrup.

Because of the cost of maple syrup, this is going to be my most expensive batch yet. At a grand total of just under $90 in ingredients and consumable supplies (sanitizer, corks, etc). Still way cheaper and more fun for me than buying it at the liquor store or even brewing on-premise at a wine kit store.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Batch #3 - Maple Mead (Acerglyn) To Start This Weekend

The thing about brewing is it takes a lot of time from beginning to end. That means you will probably find yourself starting a new batch before you've bottled the previous one.

After buying and beginning reading "The Compleat Meadmaker" by Ken Schramm, and taking the lessons learned with my low nutrient, slow ferments (and eventual stalled ferment at 1.058 SG on the second batch) I am still going ahead with batch #3. But batch #3 will be a whole different story. For starters, following what I've learned, I am making the following changes to my process:

2 packets of yeast instead of just 1
2 tsp yeast nutrient (Di-Ammonium Phosphate)
2 tsp yeast energizer (yeast hulls)
(or 5 g of Lalvin Fermaid K in place of nutrient and energizer... depending on which I can get at a good price at Wine Kitz tomorrow)

Starting in a plastic fermenting bucket rather than directly in a carboy

With these changes I think this batch will ferment much faster and reach a higher alcohol content.
Mead needs a lot of help in the nutrient department, and the fermenting bucket will be easier to oxygenate at the beginning. Giving the yeast all the extra help should make this go much better than the first 2 batches.
Tasty as that first batch was, it never made it to the alcohol content I wanted and ended up much sweeter than I wanted. (and I like my mead sweet)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Stocking Up For The Next Batch

Went to the wine store (Vintner's Cellar) today to stock up on Potassium Metabisulphite for my next batch, and get a new fermenting bucket. I decided on that store for today's shopping because he sells kits, but he has a bunch of stuff (clarifiers and oak chips) that if his customers don't use, he gives away with any purchase.

Every kit also comes with a bucket, and if the customer doesn't use the bucket he sells the unused buckets cheap.

While I was there I asked about a filter because I want to give my future batches an even more polished look. The Siligel worked well on it's own, and if I combine it with Isinglass I am sure I will always have a nice clear mead, but filtering will make it really crystal clear and sparkly.  I am still wary of using Liquigel rather than Isinglass because it is made from shrimp and I don't trust that it won't trigger reactions in people with shrimp and shellfish allergies. Since even the folks at are undecided on that issue I won't risk it.

Anyway, in the end I walked out with:
1  23L (6 gallon) food grade fermenting bucket
          (It has a solid lid, but for the price I don't mind drilling the hole for the airlock myself)
1 used Hexter brand gravity feed wine filter (used once) made by D. Repol Enterprises in Whitby, ON
          (yay local manufacturers!)
1 used electric air pump
1 used bottle filler
2 used racking canes
1 used carboy blow-off cap
2 used hose shutoff clamps
1 used Y adapter for hose
1 packet of isinglass
7 packets of siligel
7 30g packets of charred oak chips
4 30g packets of natural oak chips
and 5 tablespoons of Potassium Metabisulphite

total cost: $49
Given that the MSRP for that filter is $80 I think today's shopping trip was a success.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dictionary Of Terms And Links To Resources

This post will be updated on an ongoing basis. If you too are new to brewing it might be a good idea to bookmark this one.

General Terminology

Campden (tablets or powder) : Potassium MetaBiSulphite - a sanitizer that is safe for food. Used to sanitize equipment and to stop fermentation (stabilize) and to help fend off bacteria and other infection in your brew as it ages. It is also an antioxidant, so it will help prevent oxidization of your brew after fermentation while it sits in the carboy to clear.  Note, while sulphite is very effective at fighting bacteria, yeast is somewhat resistant to it and therefore potassium sorbate or sodium benzoate are also needed to stabilize. Campden in tablet for is added at a rate of 1 tablet per gallon (4 litres) every month after the end of fermentation until bottling. Tablets contain binders to hold it together in a tablet form, so they are not as strong as the pure powder. Note: some people have allergies to Sulpites. Sulphites are also part of what causes over-indulgence headaches, so do not over do the Sulphite use, stick to directions.

Campden (tablets or powder) : Sodium MetaBiSulphite - hah! they are trying to trick you already. That's right there are 2 kinds of campden. The sodium one should only be used for cleaning equipment as the sodium version tends to lend an unpleasant flavour to the brew.

KMeta : Potassium MetaBiSulphite - Wait. Wasn't that already called campden? Yup. Same stuff different name. The K comes from the chemical notation for Potassium.

KMBS : another way to say Potassium Metabisulphite.

Sorbate : Potassium Sorbate - a chemical additive known as a stabilizer used in combination with campden to definitively end fermentation. Excessive amounts of sorbate can adversely affect the flavour, requiring longer aging before the brew is drinkable.

Stabilizing Tablets : sodium benzoate - another stabilizer that can be used in place of Potassium Sorbate at a rate of 1 tablet per gallon (4 litres).

Wine Conditioner : a mixture of potassium sorbate, potassium metabisulphite, and a non fermenting sugar. This is used to simultaneously stabilize and sweeten.

SO2 : more properly, SO2 sulphur dioxide, the gas given off by campden sulphites.

Fermentation : the conversion of carbohydrates such as sugars to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions. Yes, it can be done with bacteria, but please stick to yeast.  :)

Fermax : a brand of yeast nutrient that contains diammonium phosphate, dipotassium phosphate, magnesium sulfate, and autolyzed yeast.  This is used to provide the nutrients that yeast needs to grow rapidly to have your fermentation finish in a shorter period of time. Almost all wine/beer kits use a yeast nutrient of some sort.

Yeast Nutrient : This can refer to a number of chemicals that the yeast needs to grow rapidly and finish your fermentation more quickly. A popular nutrient is Di-Ammonium Phosphate.

DAP : An abbreviation for Di-Ammonium Phosphate (see yeast nutrient) the basic nitrogen source in nearly all wine yeast nutrients.
Yeast Energizer : Super Ferment or Fermaid -  more nutrients, often Yeast hulls, DAP, Magnesium Sulphite, Tricalcium Phosphate, and vitamin B complex.

Ghostex : a brand name for yeast hulls

Hydrometer: a device for measuring Specific gravity to determine alcohol by volume and state of fermentation. (are we done yet?)
ABV : Alcohol by volume - that number you see on every beer and wine bottle that tells you how quickly you'll get drunk drinking it.  :)
SG : Specific Gravity - a measurement of density of the liquid (your brew) needed to determine how much sugar you have in your initial must, and both when the fermentation is finished and how much alcohol by volume you have in the end. By comparing the density vs. water you can get an estimate of how much sugar you have, by comparing that first measurement to a final measurement you can determine how much sugar was converted to alcohol and therefor what the final alcohol content of the brew is.
OG : Original Gravity - the SG at the very beginning of fermentation
FG : Final Gravity - the SG at the end of your fermentation

Fining Agents : Clarifying agents - additives that help to clarify your wine/mead by clinging to particulate and dragging it down to the bottom. There are agents with an ionic (static) charge either positive or negative. Both are useful and used one after the other will cling to different particulate in the brew, each helping to clear up the foggy look of your brew faster than just waiting for gravity to do it's work.

Bentonite : a clay based fining agent. Bentonite has a negative charge and clings to positively charged particulate.

Isinglass :  a fining agent obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish (originally sturgeon, but sometimes other fish). Isinglass has a positive charge and is attracted to negatively charged particulate. (like yeast)

SiliGel : Kieselsol (Silica gel) - this is a gel produced from sand. It is used as a clearing (fining) agent to help take a foggy wine and make it nice and sparkling clear. SiliGel is negatively charged and statically attracted particulate with a positive charge.

LiquiGel: Chitsosan (gelatin) - this is a gel produced by treating shrimp and other crustacean shells with the alkali sodium hydroxide. It is used as a fining agent and also to help prevent spoilage, and ensure the end of fermentation as it is an anti-fungal (yeast is a fungus) Note: Doctors are unsure about whether it might be a problem for people with shellfish allergies Liquigel is positively charged and statically attracted to negatively charged particulate. (like yeast)

Racking : the process of siphoning the brew from one container to another, leaving behind the dead yeast and other particulate (called lees) at the bottom of the carboy you transferred it from. 

Racking Cane : a long glass or plastic tube that connects to your rubber siphon hose (clear rubber tubing) so that it is easy to get the end down to the bottom of the carboy. Rubber tubing tends to want to coil itself back up, so without a stiff tube you will never reach the bottom.

Autosiphon : a racking cane with another racking cane inside it that you can pump a couple of times to start the siphon action without any fuss. Don't suck on the end of your siphon hose. Your mouth is full of germs!

Mead Specific Terms

Acerglyn: mead made with honey and maple syrup
Balche: A native Mexican version of mead
Black mead: mead made from honey and black currants
Bochet: mead where the honey is caramelized or burned separately before adding the water. Yields toffee, chocolate and marshmallow flavors.
AKA bracket or brackett. mead brewed with honey and hops, or honey and malt. Welsh origin (bragawd)
Capsicumel: mead flavored with chili peppers.
Cyser: A blend of honey and apple juice fermented together (part mead, part cider)
Melomel: mead made from honey and any fruit.
Metheglin: traditional mead with herbs and/or spices added
Morat: mead made from honey and mulberries
Mulsum: not a true mead. Unfermented honey blended with a high-alcohol wine
Oxymel: mead made from honey and wine vinegar
Pyment: a honey and grapes melomel. Pyment made with white grape juice is sometimes called "white mead".
Rhodomel: mead made from honey, rose hips, rose petals or rose attar, and water
Sack mead: mead that is made with more honey than is typically used, and contains a higher than average alcohol concentration (at or above 14% ABV) and often also retains a high specific gravity and elevated levels of sweetness
Short Mead: AKA quick mead, a mead that is intended to age quickly. 
Show mead: "plain" mead
Viking blood: mead made of honey and cherry juice.
White mead: A mead that is colored white with herbs, fruit or, sometimes, egg whites. Or, sometimes a white grape pyment.

Links to online resources I find useful:

Brewer's Friend Alcohol by Volume Calculator - there are lots of online ABV calculators, but this one just gives the calculation I want the most. Given my starting specific gravity (OG) and the current SG, what is the alcohol content now?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Starting Brewing

In May 2012 I attended Wellspring, an annual festival and Annual General Meeting of my church, Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) There I sat in on a workshop by the preceptor of ADF's Brewer's Guild, Rev. Robert Lewis.

Robb showed the basic process of brewing a batch of beer from a kit, and afterward I asked him a few questions on getting started, what to try first (beer, wine or mead?) and settled on trying mead.

I was so motivated that on May 30th I joined the brewer's guild, and started reading everything I could get my hands on to do with brewing, but especially mead (honey wine) making. Mead is one of my favorite drinks in the world, but it is very hard to come by in Ontario because the provincial liquor store monopoly, LCBO does not usually carry any, and when they do there is only one brand. That one brand is Moniack. While I am a big fan of mead I am not as big a fan of Moniack mead. it will do in a pinch, but meads of more interesting flavours have to be sought out from home brewers who are very rarely willing to part with their favorite drinks as a gift to a stranger, (home brewers cannot ever sell their brew) or from small farm based brewers, who are required by law to use ingredients they grew themselves and are limited in the quantity they can brew. Understandably these brewers run out of stock often. The favorite in my community is Applewood Farm in Stouffville, Ontario.

On July 18 I started my very first batch of mead. Being new and gullible I believed the recipe book I had when it said that most of the recipes could be finished in 3-5 months, so I set my sights on bottling something on Oct 31, and foolishly announced that that was the plan.

For the first batch I decided to go very simple with it. I wanted to minimize the ways it could go wrong and by sticking with the simplest honey and water recipe I could find, I knew pretty well what the flavour should be like, and therefore knew that any unexpected and unexplainable variation would mean a failed batch. This also had the shortest brewing time according to the book. (Ha! honey and water has the least nutrients for the yeast compared to a must that also contains fruit juice of some kind, therefore, it should take the longest.)

My attitude on this first batch of mead was "Go big or go home!" there would be no messing around with small test batches. I was going to do one big 6 gallon (23 litre) batch if this was going to be successful. If I was going to have to wait many months to years, I was not going to have only a few bottles to show for it. This meant a bigger risk in terms of a more costly investment in ingredients, but I could get 9kg (20lbs for my American friends, and yes I know I'm not being consistent with which measurement system I write in parenthesis, deal with it) of honey for $60. With that much honey and a few other ingredients I could produce 20-30 bottles, depending on the bottle size, of mead and have honey left over... or for the same money I could buy 4 bottles of finished mead. Why cheap out and do small batches? Time is the big investment, honey is expensive, but that comparison put it into perspective.

Having announced my intention, I asked friends to look for used brewing equipment for me and save their used wine bottles. One friend found a suitable carboy at Value Village (a used clothing and housewares store) once that was acquired, I decided to start batch #1. I decided to forgo the plastic bucket fermenter that most home brewers use these days as a primary fermenter and begin fermentation in the carboy, with the plan to acquire a second carboy later for the secondary ferment and be able to rack back and forth between them as required. 

While this seemed like a sound plan, future batches will almost certainly be started in a plastic fermenting bucket purchased new from a wine kit store. Fermenting in the carboy is safe, the glass container is easy to sterilize, but it is not ideal. The bucket does make cleaning somewhat easier with it's wide mouth, and while you don't want oxygen in contact with your brew once fermentation is done and you are waiting for it to clear, it is pretty crucial to the initial breeding of the yeast. (that was mistake #2, not giving the yeast enough breathing room. Mistake #1 was not providing the yeast enough nutrients, which was a flaw in my recipe and initial instructions obtained from a low priced e-book I had purchased from on the subject).

On August 21 I racked the bunch of it over to another, smaller, 5 gallon (19 L) carboy that I bought for $10 from a beer guy who had obviously been told to sell off some of his equipment for space reasons. I took the remainder, put it into plastic bottles as I was going to be using it immediately. Plastic bottles are NOT recommended for storage of any brew (with the exception of plastic beer bottles designed for that purpose). I had a ritual to run and wanted to use some of my unfinished mead as offerings to the kindred and ancestors. ...and of course this allowed me to take a hydrometer reading, and a taste. I should have taken a reading at the very start so that I could properly calculate my alcohol content, but that was not a priority at the time. If I'd known how cheap a good hydrometer would be I would have bought one right away, but it was not absolutely necessary until time to determine if the fermentation was stopped yet, so I skipped the OG (original gravity) reading.

At the time of this racking it was only at 1.072 (for reference, this would have started at about 1.092, and fully fermented would be down around 1.000) This was the first sign that the batch was not going well, and at this point I should have clued in that the yeast was not doing well and been able to correct it, but it seemed on schedule according to how I thought this recipe was supposed to go, but really it was not. By this point I should have been at or close to the finished point of the primary ferment.

The act of racking it over to the other container of course stirred up the yeast and in a couple of days, despite the low nutrient level, the yeast kicked into action at a higher rate of fermentation than before, also the gas trapped in the must began to degas a little.

Even at this early stage when the alcohol content was only around 2-3% by my estimation, it was starting to taste like mead. It is my practice now, as I have started to learn more, to take the mead I steal from the batch for hydrometer readings and drink that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with drinking honey water or fruit juice with live yeast in it.(unless you have certain health problems, or you consume large quantities > 3 tablespoons of yeast /day) and no, it won't give you a yeast infection. That's a different kind of yeast. By tasting about 1/2 a glass each time, I can get a better feel for how the batch is doing, and what a waste if I took it out for a reading and then threw it away. I would never, put it back into the batch. If you are going to do that you have to make sure that the hydrometer and the container that it comes with is absolutely sterile, and that you don't accidentally contaminate it in the process, which means wearing sterile gloves since you'd be touching the hydrometer. It is much easier to just sterilize the wine thief or baster that you use to take the sample out if you are sampling when not racking also, by boiling it in a pot of water for 10 minutes. If you are taking a sample while racking, your siphon should be sterilized anyway, or else you are ruining your batch.

The small amount removed during secondary and clearing phases when it is in a carboy should be replaced with water to top up the carboy making sure that there is minimal surface area for the mead in the batch  to come in contact with oxygenated air.  A little room in the neck of the carboy is ok as it will fill with carbon dioxide if the brew is still gassing.

On Sept 18, Caroline W. (an acquaintance) posted to her blog about a 17th C. mead recipe that she saw at  I commented on that and she noticed my posting on Facebook about my mead and reminded me that after stabilizing, unless I let new yeast in before bottling I should  have no worries about pressurized bottles even with plenty of sugar still in it. Although I suspect she mistook my comments about it still bubbling away steadily and not having taken an OG reading as meaning I was not monitoring it at all, and so, I suspect that I think I may be one of her "stupid mazers" in her follow up article of Oct. 4.

Needless to say after giving up the wait and stabilizing it with still plenty of sugar to go, in order to feel comfortable that I was not going to ruin the whole lot by getting it infected with bacteria, and to give me enough time after stabilizing it to ensure it was indeed stopped fermenting before bottling, I added some silica gel from wine kits that the fellow over at Vintner's Cellar gave to me for free because many of his clients don't bother with it. I waited and racked and added more silica, and repeated a few times. adding a little potassium metabisulphite every second racking to keep it sanitized and stable.

I bottled that first batch on Oct 31, and shared some with my friends. Yes, without even aging it!
I was told that that batch was quite impressive for a first batch, and encouraged to enter a contest next summer. My wife tells me she prefers it to the Mac Meade (cyser) from Applewood. But she's biased, I think. I gave some bottles as gifts to friends who had contributed to the effort in finding equipment and bottles for me. When I gave one to one friend, I recommended he age it, and his reaction was "If the sample we tried the other night is an indication, then I don't think it needs it."

An acquaintance who heard I was about to unveil my first batch, and my concern that the fact that I had ended the ferment with lots of sugar still there to convert meant that it would be a weak and unsatisfactory batch, assured me that the first batch was sure to be a failure as most mazers he knew took 4 years or so to get something drinkable. After tasting it, he wanted to buy some of it from me (remember, that's not allowed)

So, despite my disappointment with having to end the ferment early in terms of potential alcohol,  I believe that I ended up with a successful first batch and learned a lot in the process.

The recipe as used in this batch:

Bring 3 quarts (12 cups) water to a boil
Reduce heat to 160F (71C) as you
Slowly stir in 9lbs (4kg) honey
Top up to 3 gallons with more water (Brita filtered) and cook for 10 minutes at 160F or higher. If it takes a while to get back up to 160F after adding the honey then start your timer at the point when it reaches 160F, any time at lower temperatures doesn't count.
Add 1/2 cup Lemon juice   1 whole lemon cut into wedges to carboy for citric acid
Add 2 cups Lady Grey Decaf tea to carboy for tannins
Cool pot in sink of cool water (ice helps) to 80-90F (27-32C)
Transfer to Carboy (which I was using as primary fermenter)
Make another batch as above. (because I only have a 3 gallon stock pot)
Add Yeast to carboy and agitate to oxygenate mixture.

Yeast Used: LALVIN EC-1118 Gluten-free champagne yeast

If I were to do this recipe again I'd at least add some raisins for additional nutrients.