Oct 142013

Last Saturday was the annual Red Ledge Brewers Iron Brewer competition hosted by The Red Salamander in Grand Ledge, MI.  Each year Karl, the owner of The Red Salamander, selects a secret ingredient and unveils it on the day of the competition.  Then one by one each team is allowed to go into the shop and collect ingredients for the beer that they will make to showcase that ingredient. After that, we brew.

Individually wrapped

Individually wrapped

Almost Enough Adjuncts

Almost Enough Adjuncts

The morning was sunny and temperatures were to climb into the 70s.  A front was moving in and rain was predicted for later in the day but no precipitation would fall on this brew day.  Several minor pieces of equipment had been left in Grand Rapids but we had the grill and sausages to throw on it so all was well.  We brought along any adjunct ingredients we might need.  Nutmeg…check.  Orange peel…check.  Bay leaves…we had almost a pound.  We were ready.


The secret ingredient was announced at 10 am.  This year it was Jolly Ranchers.  Yes.  That’s right.  It was Jolly Ranchers.  I was horrified for the briefest of moments and then it all became clear.  At the same time, Tom and I said, “Purple Nurple.”  It was done.  We were going to make a Belgian Tripel.

We had a few of the members of our team sort out and unwrap about two pounds of grape Jolly Ranchers for the ten gallon batch we were going to make.  Tom and I went inside and collected our ingredients.  Our recipe consisted of pilsner malt, cara pils, and German opal hops.  Additionally we planned on throwing in some orange peel, cardamom, and coriander.  We used our Jolly Ranchers and some cane sugar that I brought in place of Belgian candy sugar and topped it all off with some Abbey Ale yeast.

Just about the right amount of sugar.

Just about the right amount of sugar.

Aside from the difficulties of dissolving two pounds of fake grape flavored corn syrup this 1.081 monstrosity of a beer came together well.  We may have also partially melted an auto siphon into something roughly banana shaped  but we’ve decided to try to forget about that.  At this point either the five gallons of head space in the fermenter is enough or there is grape flavored yeast crawling across the floor of Tom’s dining room as I’m writing this.

Next month we take our beers in for judging.  The team that makes the best beer wins the coveted Iron Brewer trophy.  Then we’ll see how this thing turns out.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever put into a beer?


 Posted by at 6:56 am
Oct 092013


Brewery Vivant, in Grand Rapids’ East Town neighborhood, has been one of my favorite breweries since my first visit a bit more than two years ago.  To say that their examples of Belgian and French beers are outstanding is an understatement.  I’ve been known to spend fifteen minutes or more simply enjoying the aroma of one of their beers before taking my first sip.  After that each sip is a joy as you journey to the bottom of the glass.  In the fall of their inaugural year I attended their first Wood Aged Beer Fest.  I remember being amazed at the uniqueness and flavor of each beer that I tried.  I missed WABF 2012 but in 2013 Jason, Jacob, and the gang have done it again.

Vivant Tasting Glass

What a cute little glass.

Last Saturday was a perfect day for WABF3.  It was overcast and in the 70s.  There was rain to the north and rain to the south but due to what I can only attribute to an effect similar to Daryl Waltrip’s Vortex Theory no rain fell on Brewery Vivant while my wife Serenity, my friend Tom, and myself were there.  The last time I was at this event they hosted it on the restaurant’s patio and it was a bit crowded.  This year they took over the parking lot and there was plenty of room.



Under the tent there were 20+ wood aged beers on tap and each one that I tried was better than the next.  Wandering around with my souvenir tasting glass I was able to try wonderful  barrel aged and sour beers such as Whiskey Rooster, Two Princesses, and Cassandra.  I wish that I had been able to take notes on each of them but what I will say is that if you haven’t been to Vivant, it’s definitely worth the trip.  If you can only make it there once a year, Wood Aged Beer Fest is the time to go.

I’ll see you next year.

 Posted by at 7:08 am
Sep 172013

I started watching Episode 29 of the BeerSmith Podcast the other day.  It’s an episode about Beer Brewing Myths.  In the interview, Denny Conn makes the comment, “It’s a hobby….If it isn’t fun, what’s the point?”

Mash Tun and Hops

Mash Tun and Hops

As I’ve mentioned before, I brew with Two Guys Brewing in Grand Rapids, MI.  There are more than two guys now, but the name stuck.  The club motto is, “It’s just beer.”  I think it’s important to remember that.

Look through brewing forums on line and you’ll see countless posts asking about brewing problems.  Many are simply diagnostic.  That’s great.  It’s wonderful that we have resources like the Internet and homebrew clubs to help us improve our brewing.  I’ve seen more than a few examples though, of people despairing over missing their mash temp by a couple of degrees or missing their original gravity by a few points.  Maybe a hop addition got left out.

I see at least two problems with this.

  1. While there are some homebrewers that have invested thousands to build or acquire very precise brewing systems, most of us are making beer in our back yards with propane burners, picnic coolers, and dairy thermometers.  It’s just not realistic to think that you can be as accurate as Sierra Nevada or Stone.Now I’m certainly not advocating being lazy nor do I think it’s a waste to improve your equipment.  You can however, make spectacular beer with very modest equipment.  My point is that it’s important to be aware of how precise your equipment is and not get stressed out by a mash temp that’s three degrees high on a thermometer that might be off by five or six degrees anyway.
  2. Secondly, I go back to Denny’s comment above.  “It’s a hobby….If it isn’t fun, what’s the point?”  Most of us don’t brew beer to make money.  It’s a hobby.  I’m sure that what we enjoy about brewing varies greatly but regardless of the specifics we brew to have fun.

So remember.  It’s just beer.  If you mess it up, no one is going to die.  Worst case you’re out a little bit of cash.  If you have an issue, learn from it.  In all probability the beer will turn out fine.  It may not be exactly what you were shooting for.  Maybe it will be better.

 Posted by at 8:17 pm
Sep 112013
Brew Day

Ten years ago I started out doing partial wort boils making extract batches on the glass top electric stove in our kitchen.  I brewed my first batch using mostly donated equipment and ingredients along with an IRC transcript from my friend Chris explaining what I should do.  I had bought a copy of the Complete Joy of Home Brewing but hadn’t read it yet.

Tiny Little Pot

Tiny Little Pot on a Propane Burner

I had no clue what I was doing and it definitely was the worst beer I’ve ever made.  It was infected big time.  That’s okay.  We all need to start somewhere.

It got better.  There are many things that have improved my brewing.  These six stick out in my mind as game changers.

1.  A Bigger Pot

Still not big enough....

Still not big enough….

More space is better.  Full wort boils are simpler and lead to better hop extraction due to the lower gravity of the wort at boil time.  A full wort boil should also result in less caramelization in your boil kettle resulting in beers that are probably closer to what you are trying to make.  A huge advantage to a bigger boil kettle is that it allows you to boil harder while being less concerned with boiling over.

2.  A Wort Chiller

Once you are doing full wort boils you’ll realize that cooling off five gallons of 200+ degree liquid takes a long time.  This is pretty annoying.  And while much of life on Earth is grateful that water has a high specific heat, the homebrewer who finishes boiling at 11:30 PM on a week night really doesn’t care whether or not that fish at the bottom of the pond freezes to death in the winter or not.  I’ve tried water baths and I’ve stuck my pot in snow banks but nothing really worked well until I made an immersion chiller.  Not only is chilling your wort to pitching temperature in minutes rather than hours a huge time saver but it also improves the quality of the end product.  First, rapid chilling reduces the chances of an infection.  It also causes cold break proteins to drop out of the wort permanently resulting in a clearer beer.

3.  A Propane Burner

It takes a long time to bring five plus gallons to a boil on your kitchen stove.  Oh, does it take a long time.  A propane burner from a turkey fryer kit or from the homebrew store is worth every penny.  I recommend using one with a 10 PSI regulator.  I used to use a five and it worked but it had a hard time keeping a boil going on a cold and windy day.   If you’re going to switch things up and try some ten gallon or larger batches this is an absolute necessity.

4.  Local Homebrew Store

Your local homebrew store is a phenomenal resource.  It’s not just a place to buy equipment and ingredients.  Typically many of the employees are experienced homebrewers.  And if there’s one thing that brewers like to talk about at length, it’s beer and brewing.  They will help you build recipes, give you tips on techniques and most will taste your beer and give you feedback on it.  Homebrew stores often put on educational events and contests as well.  Get plugged in.  To help find a store near you, White Labs has a homebrew store locator on their website.  Google is your friend as well.

Brew Day

Brew Day

5.  Friends

One of the best things I ever did was start brewing with friends.  I brew primarily with folks from Two Guys Brewing in the Grand Rapids, MI area.  We try and get together at someone’s house every month or two all year round.  We brew.  We eat.  We taste each others previous beers.  Not only is it a fun social event but it gives beginning brewers the opportunity to learn from the veterans and use equipment that they may not have yet.  Usually the veterans also learn a thing or two.  We’ve got a following of non-brewers as well.  We’ve managed to convert a few of them into giving brewing a shot.

6.  Time

In the end, you only get better at something by practicing it.  If you want to be a better piano player, you need to play the piano.  In the same way, if you want to be a better brewer, you need to brew.  If you want to be a better brewer, you need to taste other beers.  Be patient.  If you learn from your successes and your failures and keep moving forward, you will make great beer.

What things have made big changes in the way that you brew?

 Posted by at 6:18 am
Sep 062013

Anyone who has been brewing for any length of time has heard that nothing can wreck your beer faster than poor sanitation.  In order for chemical sanitizers to work however, your equipment needs to be clean.  Star San or BTF work great, but if they can’t make contact with the surface you are trying to sanitize they are mostly useless.

We’ve spent the last several months living with my wife’s family while trying to sell our house.  Consequently I’ve had to change up the way I do a few things in the brewing department. I’ve been storing my equipment in a full bath in the basement.  There isn’t a big sink down there so I had to adapt and use the bath tub instead.  It’s worked well.  Not only is it more roomy than the kitchen sink that I am used to using at our house I’ve also found that I can get things cleaned up much more quickly.

My system has worked like this…

I use two buckets and the bath tub.

Cleaning in the Bath Tub

Cleaning in the Bath Tub

One bucket gets put in the tub and is filled with cleaner.  I’ve been using dish soap from Seventh Generation for many years.  I know that some people don’t care for using dish soap on brewing equipment but this stuff rinses crazy clean.  It doesn’t contain any petroleum and I’ve never had any issues with residue or head retention.

I use the bath tub faucet for rinsing after I wash smaller items in the bucket.  It’s also easy to fill mash tuns, pots, and buckets scrub them right in the tub as well.

The second bucket sits outside the tub and gets filled with a Star San.  Once items are rinsed they go straight into that bucket and are good to go.

After I’m done with a transfer it’s very easy to give things a rinse in the tub, put them in the bucket of soapy water and start the process again.

The addition of a spray hose and a fitting to connect my bottle washer to would make things even better.  At this point however, the over-sized wash basin at floor level has been a vast improvement over using the kitchen sink.

Our house failed to sell so we’re back home now.  I’m working on redesigning the basement a bit to better accommodate my brewing equipment.  I want to take what I learned over the Summer and make a more ideal cleaning station.  That should at least get me out of the kitchen.

How have you had to adapt your brewing practices?

 Posted by at 7:27 am
Aug 302013

A couple of months back my friend Tom’s father picked up a couple of 5 gallon bourbon casks.  I managed to swipe one of them and take it home while no one was looking.

My accomplice

My accomplice

The thing smelled so good that I couldn’t help pulling the cork out and sticking my nose inside nearly every time I walked by.  I had some Cascade IPA in secondary that was begging to have something different done with it so I decided to go for it.

Fill'er up!

Fill’er up!

This was a relatively freshly emptied cask.  It was emptied by the distiller only a few months before and had been kept corked so it wasn’t dried out and was clean inside.

I’ve read various methods of sanitizing and cleaning oak but I hate the idea of purging the woody goodness.  In my albeit inexperienced opinion, the whole point is to infect your beer with the bugs that live in the oak.  As long as the wood has been used recently I don’t really want to use any harsh chemicals to clean it up.

At the end of the day, if I happen to be wrong, it’s just beer and I can make more.  So naturally, I’m all in.

Again, the cask hadn’t been empty for very long and was from a known source.  If you stumble on one in a back alley somewhere and you insist on using it you probably want to clean it out with some kind of barrel cleaning solvent.  They’re out there.  Check with your local home brew store.

In this case, I did want to give the cask a rinse and I didn’t want to introduce anything new into it so I mixed up some Star San just to make sure the water was clean.  I poured it in, swished it around, and dumped it out.  After that, I racked the IPA into the cask, placed an air lock, and let it sit for about four weeks.

What came out tastes beautiful.  The beer has taken on a wonderful oak/bourbon character.  I’ve since put the beer back in glass because I don’t have an empty keg yet.  It will be interesting to see how it changes and if it will sour at all.  I can’t wait to drink it.

Sleep tight!

Sleep tight!

Once emptied, I boiled some water and used it to rinse the cask out.  There was some yeast residue inside that I wanted to get rid of.  Since then I’ve filled it with some nineteen month old vanilla bourbon mead.  It’s coming along nicely.


Something my friend Tom suggested trying is to store the cask with a fifth of bourbon in it between uses.  This will succeed in keeping the wood wet so that it won’t shrink.  We’re hoping it also may “recharge” it with bourbon flavor.  At the very least we should get some excellent tasting bourbon out of it.

What kind of experience have you had with aging your beer with wood?

 Posted by at 5:41 am
Aug 232013

Late last fall I took a stab at a Belgian Tripel.  I’ve been brewing for ten years but had never made one and at the request of a friend decided to go for it.  I wanted to give it plenty of time to “funk up” so I let it sit in secondary until June.  When I kegged it I noticed that it seemed darker than it had originally.  I thought that was strange.

I poured a glass.  It looks like this…

Purple Nurple

It’s a little less pronounced in the picture but the beer has a noticeably purple tinge to it.  It’s especially noticeable in the head.

It’s purple.  Why is it purple?  I’ve never made a purple beer before.  I don’t know how I’d make another.

If you were blindfolded and tried some you’d think that you were drinking a delicious Belgian beer.  It has no hop aroma, is a little spicey, and has a beautiful banana taste to it.

I’ve passed some around to some other homebrewers and the only thing they’ve been able to come up with is that the color change is the result of iodophor sanitizer coming in contact with unconverted starches.  I see two problems with this.

  1. The beer dried out to 1.006.  If I had starches that didn’t convert in the mash I would have expected a higher final gravity given that the O.G was 1.070.
  2. I haven’t used iodine as a sanitizer in a couple of years.  Nothing but Star San has touched this beer.

The beer is purple.  It tastes great and has given me a fun story to tell though, so I’ll take it.

What unexpected turns have your beers taken over the years?  Were they pleasant surprises?

2012-11-11 17.11.42
 Posted by at 5:51 am
Sep 292012

I was fascinated by the idea of making some kind of a pumpkin ale for a number of years.  Interestingly enough I don’t think I’ve ever had a commercial one that really embodied what I envisioned.  The result of my experimentation was my Black Pumpkin Ale.  This recipe continues to be a favorite among those who frequent my basement pub.  I try to make it at least once a year and I think it’s definitely worth focusing on in a future post.

I try to use fresh ingredients in my beer whenever possible.  I love the flavor from fresh whole leaf hops, fresh spices, and fresh fruits and vegetables.  When I started tailoring my pumpkin ale recipe years ago many of the examples I looked at used canned pumpkin.  I knew that wasn’t what I wanted.  I wanted to add freshly harvested pumpkin to the mash.  So I went to the local farmer’s market, selected two bowling ball sized pie pumpkins and brought them home.  I’ve done this almost every year since.

To prepare the pumpkins I start out by halving them and cleaning out the seeds.  If you want to you can save the seeds and roast them later.  They make a tasty snack.

After cleaning the seeds out of the pumpkins the next step is to spice them.  In my recipe I heavily spice them with grated cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice.  The fresher the spices are the better.  Then I pour some water into a cookie sheet or baking stone, place the pumpkin halves skin side up on the cookie sheets and put them in a 350 degree oven and wait.

Roasting the pumpkins takes about 90 to 120 minutes.  The goal is to cook them long enough so that they are cooked all the way through and the skins come off easily.  The skins will start to look deflated and turn dark in color.

Once they’re cooked take them out and let them cool until they can be handled.  At that point you start cutting.  You want to end up with skinless pumpkin cubes that you can throw in your mash tun with your grains.  I’ve also heard of extract brewers steeping their pumpkin like they would specialty grains and my friend Tom prefers to just throw his in the boil.  There’s plenty of room for experimentation.

Once my wort is in the fermentor and the yeast is pitched I’ll typically pick some of it out of the spent grains, rinse it off, and freeze it.  There is still plenty of goodness left for pies, coffee cake, soup, or whatever else you are interested in.


 Posted by at 11:01 pm
Sep 292012

I’ve been brewing beer at home for almost ten years.  During that time I’ve moved from making all extract brews from book recipes, to all grain, to tweaking existing recipes, to coming up with brand new recipes on the fly in the parking lot of the brewing supply store.  I’ve learned a thing or two from some great brewers (some of which may be contributing to this site in the future) and managed a few discoveries on my own.

Like many who brew I spend a fair amount of time sharing what I’ve learned with other new brewers and have had a blast doing it.  I thought it might be neat to take it to the next level and start publishing some thoughts, tips, mistakes, and random musings about beer and making beer.  That’s the purpose of this site.

In addition, I hope that others will share their opinions and experiences as well.

Maybe we can get together for a beer sometime.


 Posted by at 9:37 pm