Posts Tagged how-to

Christmas beer! (And thoughts on ingredients and methods.)

The other day, I bottled my Christmas ale, and it’ll be fizzy and ready to drink this weekend.  It was a success, and I’m excited to drink it.  The concept was a red ale with Pacifica hops and spice and orange peel infusions.  I did a lot with this beer that was a little different than I have done in the past, to try to get a better product and it really worked out for me.

I used Maris Otter base malt for the first time (specifically the Thomas Fawcett MO). I’ve never been much of a fan of American 6-row because I don’t think it really has any flavor.  By contrast, 2-row, especially British 2-row is more complex, and it brings a lot to the beer.  MO is similar to 2-row, but more so.  It’s not powerfully flavored, just complex and grainy, and maybe a bit earthy.  You can tell why it is the traditional base for ales.  The MO flavor carried right through to the final product, and it was a smashing success. 

The funny thing is the main reason I’d never used MO before is that it’s kind of nichey, and I had never seen it in a recipe.  All the ones I’ve read call for 2-row or 6-row, so when I got to designing my own recipes, I fell into that same rut.  So, MO was a pleasant surprise.  It’ll probably be my default base malt for ales in the future.

Traditionally red ales are made with roasted barley, from which they get their red color.  I had to sub black patent, so I didn’t actually get a red color, but rather a pale brown.  It hasn’t made any discernible impact on the flavor, but since the beer is spiced, I may just not be noticing.  I have learned that Beersmith’s color estimates are off, at least for my setup.  My beers always come out paler than estimated, even though the alcohol estimates are always spot-on.

I raved in an earlier post about the Pacific hops, and I’m going to rave about them some more.  They’re fantastic.  They’re low-alpha, so they’re not too bitter, and they’re very, very earthy.  That’s the main flavor I get out of them.  I’ve heard other references say that they are citrusy, but I’m not convinced my sensitivity to citrus is very high.  Maybe others will get that out of them, but I get an earthiness that pairs fantastically with the complexity of the Maris Otter malt and the yeast flavors from British ale yeast.  If SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) brewing is your thing, I’d bet you could make a spectacular Special Bitter with Thomas Fawcett Maris Otter and Pacifica hops.

In the past, I’ve treated orange peel according to the recommendations I’ve read online–boil them for 5 minutes like a late hop addition.  I’ve always been deeply dissatisfied with the results.  I just don’t get much orange flavor coming through.  I did that with this beer, and it was no good.  So, this time, I added orange peel to the secondary for the last 10 days before bottling.  (It was supposed to be 6, but my bottling got delayed.)  I’ve done this with fruit flesh additions in the past with great success.  I was a little concerned that I would get unpleasant bitterness from the whites of the peels, but I really didn’t.  I used an ounce of dried bitter orange peel and an ounce of dried sweet orange peel.  It works well in this beer, but it’s too intense for something like a Belgian white.  If I ever do another one of those (I’m not a big fan of Belgian beers) I’ll probably do a 7-day infusion with a half ounce or two-thirds of an ounce total.  The infusion also included a healthy handful of cloves and a stick of cinnamon.  I’ve heard it from beer judges that you shouldn’t use cloves in beer, because it’s a phenolic off-flavor, so when you drink it, you’ll go, “there’s something wrong with this beer.”  I disagree, at least for my palate.  I think you have to be trained to think of cloves as a beer contaminant, and I haven’t been.  With the orange peel especially, it makes my palate go, “Yum! Christmas!”

So that’s my experience with the 2012 Christmas Ale.  I really hit the ball out of the park with this one, and learned some pretty cool stuff about ingredients. 

You should be able to get Maris Otter at any homebrew store.  Pacifica hops are a bit rarer, but New Zealand hops are getting easier to find all the time.  If your local doesn’t stock them, they’re easy to order online. (But check your local first.)


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Holy Spruce Juice Batman!

I’m making a beer this weekend using spruce extract, so I decided to test it last night to get an idea of the amount to include.  The bottle recommended 1 tsp. per gallon, so I poured a half-liter of light lager and added 1/8 of a tsp.

Holy Christmas Tree!  It was like sucking on a pine.  It was drinkable, but it was piney.  So, I’ll be cutting waaaaaay back on the actual recipe.  I’m thinking about using 5% of the recommended dose, so 1/4 tsp. in a full 5 gallon batch.

It’s always a good idea to test any concentrated flavor extracts before you add them to your beer.  I tried to make a cherry beer once with candy flavoring.

It burned.

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Beginners’ Tuesday–Homebrewing Cask Ale

Cask ales are a big new thing in the American craft beer scene, and a very, very old thing in the beer world in general.  The tannins from the oak used to make the barrels add a layer of complexity to the beer, and can change the flavor in some very pleasant ways.


You’re going to notice more difference between casked and uncasked beers if they’re less hoppy.  Malt flavors are more affected by the oak tannins; hop flavors are almost completely unaffected.
The good news is that you don’t actually need an expensive cask, which is difficult to clean and care for.  In terms of flavor, there is no meaningful difference between adding beer to oak, or adding oak to beer.  You can use oak cubes or chips instead.  In fact, homemade wine kits always come with oak chips that you add to the wine to simulate the flavors of the barrel.


There are two factors that determine how much oak flavor you will get–the surface area of the oak, and the time it is in contact with your beer.  Oak can be overdone, giving you an unpleasant and astringent beer, so you need a plan of action before you begin.  Typically, 1 ounce of oak chips left in contact with the beer 1-2 weeks gives a nice cask flavor.  If you’re using oak cubes, remember that there is a lot of oak in the cube that is nowhere near the surface, so you need more.  3 ounces of cubes is about the equivalent of 1 ounce of chips.


You can use oak in either primary or secondary.  I prefer secondary because I want them in for 2 weeks, and my beer doesn’t live in the primary that long.  Oak commonly comes in packages that are not well-sanitized, so I usually pasteurize them before I put them in the beer.  All that takes is 15 seconds in water over 161 F.


I usually do a 3-week secondary, so I actually add the oak to the secondary after the beer has been in it for a week.  You really don’t want to leave the beer on the oak too long, so if you can’t bottle it within two to two-and-a-half weeks, you’ll need to move it to a tertiary.


Beer is often casked in used barrels, and those barrels may have been used for other beers, for wine, or for whiskey.  To simulate used barrels, try this.  First, wash and sanitize a funnel, a beer bottle and a cap.  Then, pasteurize your oak and put it in the bottle.  Finally, fill the bottle with beer, wine or whiskey and cap it.  Let the oak absorb the flavors for a week, then add it to the beer you are making.  I’ve had great results with this!  Whiskey is so high in alcohol, you can use anything you have, but with wine and beer, you want to open a bottle fresh.  You don’t want any bacteria that have nested in that red wine bottle you opened two days ago to get into your beer.


Making cask ales at home is actually super easy!  Any store that sells winemaking gear will have lots of options, and you can always order online as well.



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Beginners’ Tuesday—Extract Lager recipes

I apologize for the long delay in posting this. Things have been very busy with non-beer things.

I had intended to finish up lager week with a couple of extract lager recipes for you to enjoy. Here are three: Pilsner, Oktoberfest and Doppelbock.

Classic Czech Pilsner

Czech Pilsners are one of the simplest beers going. The classic version has only four ingredients—pilsner malt, Saaz hops, yeast and water. This is one of the hoppiest lager styles, so it’s popular among American craft beer enthusiasts. For best results, brew with distilled water.

7 pounds Liquid Pilsner Extract (or 5.75 lbs. dry pilsner extract)

4 ounces Saaz hops for bittering (60 minute boil)

2 ounces Saaz hops for aroma (5 minute boil)

White Labs Pilsner Lager Yeast

Set your fermenter to 52 F for primary and secondary.

Oktoberfest Lager

Oktoberfests are sweeter, maltier, darker and heavier than pilsners. This is the classic amber German lager beer, and it’s my personal favorite style. Here is an extract recipe based on my award-winning Oberbräu Festbier. Use moderately hard water for best results.

8 pounds liquid pilsner extract (or 6.5 pounds dry pilsner extract)

2 lbs. 40L Crystal Malt (steeping grains)

3.5 ounces Hallertau hops for bittering (60 minute boil)

1 ounce Hallertau hops for flavor (15 minute boil)

1 ounce Hallertau hops for aroma (5 minute boil)

White Labs Oktoberfest yeast

Ferment at 55 F.


Doppelbocks are malty beers, and the hops should be in the background. This recipe uses boiling hops only for that reason. This one is punchy. You’ll get 9% abv or so.

13 pounds of liquid pilsner extract (or 10.5 lbs. dry pilsner extract)

1.25 lbs. 40L Crystal steeping grain

1.25 lbs. 120 L Crystal steeping grain

4 oz. Styrian Goldings for bittering (60 min boil)

White Labs German Lager X Yeast (or German Bock Lager, which will be less creamy)

Ferment at 52 F with Lager X or 50 F with Bock Lager


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Lager Week, Day 5—Yeast Breeding

As we mentioned on Day 3, one packet of yeast is not enough to make lager. Instead of buying several packets, I recommended using a yeast breeder. In homebrew parlance, this is called a “starter.”


Starters are easy to make. I have a two-gallon bucket fermenter I got at my local homebrew store. It fits a standard primary airlock. (“Das Hefewerk” means “the yeast factory” in German.) I use 1.5 gallons of water and 2 pounds of light liquid malt extract to make the starter*. All you need to do is heat the water and stir in the malt extract until it dissolves completely. It is not necessary to do a boil, because you’re not doing a hop extraction, but you do want to pasteurize the mixture to reduce the bacteria present. According to the pasteurization tables, all you need to do is get the mixture over 160 F for 15 seconds. I like to play it safe and I take it up to 190 or so, but that’s almost certainly overkill.

Chill the wort under 80 degrees, pour it into your yeast starter. Add the full vial or packet of yeast, just like you were making beer, and pop the lid on. The yeast will start fermentation shortly, and begin reproducing, which is what you want!

The temperature is still important, so keep your starter near the fermentation temperature you intend to use.

Two days before you plan to brew**, move the starter into your refrigerator, at normal food storage temperature. This will knock your yeast out, and cause them to settle to the bottom.

On brew day, you want to prep the yeast about 3 hours before you will need to add it to your beer. Handle your starter carefully to avoid mixing it up. Open it, and gently pour the liquid off the top, leaving your yeast cake in the bottom. Get as much of the clean liquid out as you are able without losing any significant amount of yeast. Leave just a small amount covering your cake so that it isn’t exposed to the air.

When it’s time to add yeast to your beer, add about a quart of clean water to the starter, swirl it around to get the cake all mixed up in the water, and dump the whole thing into your primary. Voila!

Yeast Starters really kick your fermentation into high gear. I use them with all my beers, not just lagers. When I pitched one vial in a five-gallon batch, I often had to wait 24-36 hours to get a visible fermentation. With a starter, I typically get visible fermentation beginning within 3 hours. That’s awesome, because once the yeast start really going, they muscle out bacteria, and it keeps my beer clean.

When you’re done, you want to kill any leftover yeast so you don’t wind up breeding hybrid Oktoberfest-abbey ale yeast or anything like that. Fill your container with a mixture of 1 cup of bleach per gallon water and let it sit for a minute. Don’t forget to clean your lid.

I love my yeast starter. Since I started using it, I have had no problems with stuck fermentations or infections. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

* If you’re using a one-gallon container as a starter, use 1 pound of liquid extract in 3 quarts of water. You need headspace, or you’ll get a beer geyser! A smaller starter will mean you generate fewer yeast cells. You can also use dry malt extract. Use about 10 percent less by weight.

** If your brewing is delayed, you can still use your starter. Keep it in the fridge until the day before you brew. Then, pour off your clean water as described above, and add it to 1 quart of water, with a quarter pound of malt extract in it (cooled to below 80 F, of course.) Let that sit overnight to wake up the yeast, and pour the whole thing, extract and all, into your beer when it’s time to add yeast.

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Lager Week Part 4, Diacetyl—What it is and how to deal with it.

Diacetyl* is a natural product of yeast, and it tastes buttery. In fact, it is added to artificial butter flavorings to give them their characteristic taste. Needless to say, you don’t want it in your beer any more than you want to float a pat of butter on your foam when you pour.

While the yeast is in the rapid fermentation stage, it is growing and reproducing rapidly, which requires it to make lots of new proteins. Diacetyl is produced in the process of building those new proteins. (Those hoping for more technical information should go read the wiki.) When the yeast is growing quickly, all that diacetyl leaks out of the cells and into the beer. As the fermentation slows down, the yeast will reabsorb all the diacetyl and use it to make more proteins, so in the long run, the beer is diacetyl free.

The cool temperatures of lager making slow all of these chemical processes down. While ale yeast will mop up the extra diacetyl very quickly, so that you rarely have to concern yourself with it, lager yeast may drag their feet a bit. Cold lagering will stop fermentation completely because cranking the temperature down into the 30s will knock out the yeast. If you stop fermentation too soon, you may wind up trapping diacetyl in your beer. You want to check your beer for diacetyl before you drop the temperature at the end of secondary fermentation.

The other sneaky thing about diacetyl is that your beer may have chemicals that aren’t diacetyl yet, but they will be someday. You don’t want those either. Those can be converted to diacetyl instantly at about 180 F. But of course, you don’t want to cook your beer!

So, here’s what you do. Open your carboy and take a small sample of your beer with a wine thief. 2 or 3 ounces is plenty. Microwave it until it starts to boil a little, but don’t boil it all off! Now all of your pre-diacetyl molecules are diacetyl. Let it cool to a safe temperature and take a sip. Warning! This is going to taste terrible! Cooked beer is gross! But, you’re specifically looking for butter flavor. If you taste any butteryness, you have diacetyl that you need to deal with. If the beer is butter-free, you are ready to drop the temperature and begin lagering.

If you have diacetyl, you’ll need to do a diacetyl rest. Bring the temperature up to the mid 60s to speed up the process of absorbing the diacetyl into the yeast. Don’t worry about making esters—at the end of secondary, there’s not much sugar left to do that with. Repeat the diacetyl check every 24 hours until the butter flavor is gone, then drop the beer to the 30s. You should be diacetyl-free in no more than 3 days.

* You can pronounce this die-uh-SEAT-uhl, die-uh-SET-uhl, or di-ass-uh-TEAL. The last option will make you sound British.

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Lager Week Part 3, Brewing Lager Beer

So, you have your lager fridge all set up and ready to go, and you’re ready to brew that epic Doppelbock you’ve always dreamed of. What do you need to do?

Well, the good news is that producing your wort is done exactly as it would be if you were making an ale. If you’re extract brewing, you’ll start with steeping grains, you’ll stir in your extract, you’ll boil your hops, and you’ll chill the wort you’ve produced.

Handling Lager Yeast

Now things get a bit different, because lager yeast doesn’t work like ale yeast. As we discussed before, lager yeast works at much colder temperatures than ale yeast. That means it is also less comfortable with high temperatures. While you can get away with adding yeast to 82 or 84 F wort with at least some ale yeasts, that temperature can kill lager yeast. You need to get your wort temperature below 80. I live in Florida, so my tap water isn’t really cold, but I can consistently chill to 78 with an immersion chiller, and I’ve never hurt my yeast at that temperature.

The colder temperatures at which lager yeast thrive also have the effect of slowing the yeast’s metabolism down pretty significantly. If you’re used to making ales, you’re probably comfortable adding a packet of dry yeast or a vial of liquid yeast and not worrying much. Doing that with a lager yeast tends to lead to fermentations that never really start, and therefore, no beer.

There are three possible solutions to this. The most commonly suggested option is the worst one. Many first-time lager brewers are advised to leave their fermenter at room temperature until fermentation is going along well, then move the fermenter to the lager fridge. Do not do this. DO NOT DO THIS. Your beer ferments fastest in the first two days of fermentation, then gradually slows down. If you leave the beer at room temperature until it’s fermenting well, then begin chilling it, your fermentation may be half over before it’s reached the temperature it’s supposed to be fermenting at. That’s going to produce a lot of fruity esters, and possible nasty compounds from temperature-stressed yeast, and your lager is going to taste like an ale. Possibly like a crappy ale.

What you need to do is pitch much more yeast than are found in one packet or one vial, and begin chilling the beer immediately. This brings us to option number 2—you can buy 3 to 4 packets of yeast and add them all to the wort. This way you have the extra yeast you need to get fermentation going right away at the correct temperature. The obvious disadvantage is that all that yeast is expensive; you could easily add $25 to the price of your batch this way.

Option 3, which is the option I use, is to breed your yeast. I buy a single vial of liquid yeast (though dry works well too, I just don’t use it.) I have a small fermenter I use to make a little batch of beer, which makes the yeast multiply significantly. Then, when I want to make my lager, I have all the yeast I need at the cost of one vial of yeast and about $3 worth of malt extract. The disadvantage to this is that I have to think ahead, because I need to begin breeding yeast a week before brewing beer. I recommend this option strongly, and I am dedicating Friday’s Lager Week post to explaining in detail how to use a yeast breeder.

Primary Fermentation

Ok, so you have wort under 80 degrees in your primary, and using option 2 or 3, you’ve added a whole bunch of yeast. Next, you seal up your primary fermenter, you put it in your lagering fridge, and you set the temperature to a value that is appropriate to your yeast. The ideal temperature is given on the yeast label. If you’ve already thrown that away, you can check the manufacturer’s website. Most lager yeasts work best at 51-52 degrees. I really like White Labs’ Oktoberfest, which prefers about 55, and there are others that are a little abnormal, so just check. Within about 24 hours, you should have a vigorous fermentation at the correct temperature.

Yeast generate heat when they are eating and reproducing, and it’s not unusual for your beer to warm up 2-3 degrees at the most vigorous stage of fermentation. You’ll lose that extra warming as fermentation slows down. You should check your beer morning and evening while it is in primary fermentation to make sure the temperature is correct, and adjust your temperature controller accordingly. I normally have to turn mine down two degrees somewhere around day 3 or 4 to keep everything at a consistent 55 F.

Secondary Fermentation

Lager fermentation is slower than ale fermentation, but you’ll still be all right moving to a secondary after a week. I do this all the time, for the simple fact that Saturday is the day I have available for beermaking. Move your beer to your secondary, as normal, and return it to the lager fridge. Keep your temperature consistent with your primary fermentation (55 for Oktoberfest yeast, 52 for most others).

You’re going to want to keep the lager in secondary longer because of the slower fermentation. While ales can do 10 days-2 weeks in secondary with a good fast yeast, you’re going to want to keep your lager in secondary at least 3 weeks. Even then, you may have a few residual sugars that will still ferment. I typically keep sweeter styles, like Oktoberfest or Doppelbock, in secondary for 3 weeks, and drier styles for 4 weeks.

Diacetyl testing

When you think secondary is complete, you need to check your lager for diacetyl. Diacetyl is the compound used to produce artificial butter flavor in popcorn, and it tastes awful in beer. Lager is particularly susceptible to diacetyl buildup. I’m going to go into detail on dealing with diacetyl tomorrow, but for now, let me assure you that it’s easy to deal with, and there’s a good chance you won’t have any anyway.


After the secondary is complete, and the beer is diacetyl-free, you begin the cold storage, or lagering, that gives lagers their crisp taste. There’s an old homebrewer’s rule of thumb that you should lager 10 degrees F cooler than you ferment. I’ve tried that, and the results sucked.

I prefer to crash cool my lager. I’ll take it down to 31 F, which is as cold as my fridge will go. It won’t freeze because of all the alcohol in the beer. I find that colder lagering gives me a crisper flavor, and it’s certainly faster. I lager at 31 F for 4 weeks, and honestly, that’s probably longer than is necessary.


The lagering process is going to kill a lot of your yeast, so you’ll have to repitch. I have heard that many people use ale yeast when bottling their lager beer. I’m fanatical about keeping esters out of my lagers, so I’ve never tried that. I repitch the same yeast I used to make the beer in the first place, though I don’t bother with a starter this time. After bottling, I return the beer to the lagering fridge, back to fermentation temperature (52 or 55, usually), and leave them there for a week. When it’s done, you have a delicious lager beer!

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