Monthly Archives: March 2020

New Toys: Fermentation Control

The shelves in the door were removed so a
fermenter would fit.

The biggest separator between the homebrewer and commercial brewers might be fermentation temperature control. The ability to precisely control the temperature of fermenting beer ensures the beer ferments at the proper temperature for the yeast being pitched. It also allows the brewer to precisely set the temperature within the range of a yeast. Nottingham for example has a range of 50F-72F. At the low end of the range Nottingham is very clean, almost lager-like. At the higher end of the range Nottingham can be quite estery.

Brewing in the apartment, my temperature control was primitive at best. For half of the year our thermostat was set at 66F which is a temperature that works for most ale yeasts. Occasionally I would move my fermenter to a warmer spot if I wanted to give my beer a diacetyl rest. In the spring and fall temperatures could swing quite a bit depending on the weather. From May to September the coolest the temperature would be was 76F. If I brewed in the summer I would have to use a Belgian yeast or a swamp cooler to cool my fermenting beer.

Leveling the fridges on my uneven floors was the biggest

In our house I have had a little bit more control. My basement is fairly cool. In the winter the basement ranges from 50-55F, perfect for brewing lagers. If I want to brew an ales in the winter I will use a heat wrap. In the summer the warmest temperature in the basement is 70F which works for most ales. For the most part I have brewed seasonally. In the winter I brew as many lagers as I can to last during the summer.

Although I can brew almost any style depending on the time of year, , what I haven’t been able to do is have precise temperature control below the ambient temperature. I couldn’t cold crash unless I made room in my keezer. That made achieving brilliant clarity very difficult. I also couldn’t do true lagering where the temperature is slowly ramped down a few degrees at a time until reaching near freezing temperatures. That is until now!

Ray Pickup, the co-founder of Rockport Brewing Company is transitioning from homebrewer to commercial brewer. For his homebrews, Ray modified two mini-fridges to be able to fit fermenters. Ray removed all of the shelving on the doors, and bent the metal freezer compartments down so they pivoted against the back wall of the refrigerators. Now that Ray is starting to brew commercially and will be brewing much larger batches, he had outgrown these fridges and I was able to buy them.

I am able to precisely control the temperature of my beer by:

  1. Plugging the refrigerator into a temperature controller. The controller I have can control both heating and cooling. The refrigerator naturally is plugged into the cooling outlet.
  2. Plugging a heat wrap into the heating outlet
  3. Use a stopper with a stainless steel thermowell which extends into the wort.
  4. Place the temperature probe into the thermowell which will measure the temperature inside the fermenter. This is more accurate than measuring the temperature of the outside of the fermenter.
  5. Set my desired temperature on the controller. 

A six gallon carboy with airlock just fits
The controller displays the current temp and set temp

The hope is that these fridges will allow me to make clearer and more consistent beer. I also like having two separate fridges which allows me to separately control two batches at once. Oh, and I can now brew almost any style I want at any time I want.

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The NHC that probably won’t be

The year 2020 was very busy for me, until all of a sudden it wasn’t. Followers of my Facebook page might have seen that I have made trips to Denver, California, Chicago, New Hampshire, Maine, and a vacation in Florida so far this year.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been brewing so far in 2020. I may as well use this time to update the blog with some of my recent brews. One of my brew year’s resolutions that went out the window pretty quickly was to enter more competitions. I paid entry fees for two competitions, but never managed to bottle and ship my entries.

I’ll have to wait until 2021 to try and win another one of these.

The one competition I did enter and get my entries in was the National Homebrew Competition (NHC). I applied for and received six entries. One entry ended up being Welcome as You Are. I brewed a bunch of other beers for the competition. One batch was frozen, yes frozen. Two were problematic. One of the problematic beers ended up being one of my entries for the simple reason that I had already paid for the entry, and didn’t have any other beers ready to go.

I did manage to brew four fresh beers for NHC that I was happy with. I just managed to bottle off all six of my entries and get them in by the entry deadline. After having one of my beers advance to the final round last year, I was excited to potentially improve on 2019. I was particularly excited for the new Backbeat Brewing Company to be the Boston site for the first round of judging.

At time of posting the First Round of NHC has been cancelled due to Coronavirus. The American Homebrewers Association is still optimistic that they can still have a modified, single-site NHC at HomebrewCon in June. Hopefully there still is a HomebrewCon which is scheduled for June.

All of the suffering caused by the virus puts the importance of a homebrew competition, and a hobby like homebrewing for that matter, into perspective. That doesn’t make it any less disappointing for those of us who look forward to it every year.

Muntons has banned all business travel. Until this blows over I am working from home. Even if I could go out and make sales calls, bringing in new suppliers is probably the last thing brewers want to think about. The brewers I work with that sell most of their beer over the bar at their taprooms are scrambling to fill cans, crowlers and growlers.

Who knows when life will be going back to normal, but this is as good of a time as any to brew. The homebrew industry tends to do well when the economy is struggling. People who are out of work and at home all of a sudden have time to brew. My sense is that homebrew retailers are seeing an uptick in sales as business are closing and people stay home.

If there ever was a good time to be stuck at home, it is when you have four fresh kegs of beer that you are proud of and enjoy drinking. With my keezer full, the last thing I need is more beer any time soon. If I am going to use this newfound free time at home to brew, it makes sense to make beers that require extended aging.

Time to fire up the kettle!

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