Apr 172014

A couple of weeks back I was meeting my friend Phil at a local homebrew store here in Grand Rapids. A friend of his is getting married in June and he thought it would be fun to bring a couple of batches of beer to the wedding. Phil is a new brewer who has made a couple of kits that he’s bought online. He has shown interest in all grain brewing so I thought that it would be fun to help him out with this project.

I was late so I set off wandering through the store looking for Phil. I overheard a conversation between the first few people I ran across that piqued my interest. One of the employees was walking a couple of new brewers through the equipment that they would need. I could tell that the new customers were excited about making their first beer. The store employee was equally excited about sharing what he knew about brewing.

After a few minutes I found Phil wandering through the store. It was his first time there and he was impressed. As we put together recipes I explained what the different ingredients were for and showed him the hop and yeast coolers. Like the participants in the conversation above, I had a great time talking about what we were trying to do and I think that Phil had fun learning.

It’s possible to buy any homebrew equipment or ingredient online and have it delivered to your door.  That is incredibly convenient, especially if you live in an area where there is no homebrew store.  It’s great to have a choice but there are some huge benefits to frequenting your local homebrew store. Continue reading »

 Posted by at 8:07 am
Dec 032013

Many homebrewers start brewing with extracts.  It provides a great way for new brewers to get their feet wet while keeping the equipment and time investment lower.  I have written more about the benefits of this here.

Recently I’ve spent some time helping out some non-brewer friends that are working on a product offering for beginning homebrewers. I’ll be posting more about that as it becomes reality. As a part of this they wanted to give  brewing a try to make an extract batch of beer.

2013-11-23 13.39.21

After they acquired a basic equipment kit, a Lemon Coriander Weiss Extract Beer Kit, and some StarSan we got together on a Saturday a bit more than a week ago. We wanted to make the recipe with little more than the contents of the beginner’s kit so we decided on a partial wort boil on the kitchen stove.

Following the example of some friends who make some very fine extract beer and given that the beer is supposed to be rather light in color I decided that boiling all the extract for the full sixty minutes was not the thing to do. Continue reading »

 Posted by at 7:19 am
Nov 192013

Like most homebrewers that use propane, I brew outside.  As the days get colder and shorter this gets less comfortable.  November 9, 2013 was a pleasant exception to this.  It was cloudy and breezy but was in the 50s so it was a perfect day to set up some chairs in a garage in Byron Center and make some beer.2013-11-09 11.31.00

I had decided earlier in the week that I wanted to brew my Black Pumpkin Ale.  This is a beer that I try to make once or twice every fall.  You start out by roasting two bowling ball sized pie pumpkins.  I describe how to prepare them in my article Pumpkin Preparation for a Pumpkin Ale.

Here is the rest of the recipe for a five gallon batch: Continue reading »

 Posted by at 8:05 am
Nov 142013

In my earlier post, Putting Jolly Ranchers in a Beer, I mentioned that we brewed a grape Jolly Rancher Belgian tripel for this year’s Iron Brewer in Grand Ledge, MI.  Judging for this competition took place this past Tuesday and our beer won.  All of the beers presented were well done.  Some were delicious beers that lacked a Jolly Rancher character.  Others tasted like delicious desserts or wine coolers.  The idea behind the Red Salamander’s Iron Brewer competition is to make something that showcases the “secret ingredient” while still being a beer.  This year the judges felt that our entry was best at walking that line.

Myself and Karl from The Red Salamander

Myself and Karl from The Red Salamander

Tom Payne Sr. - Jolly Rancher Unwrapper Extraordinaire

Tom Payne Sr. – Jolly Rancher Unwrapper Extraordinaire










Here’s the recipe for 5 Gallons: Continue reading »

 Posted by at 8:15 am
Nov 062013

I published this article last year before I started posting regularly.  Since I’m making my pumpkin ale this Sunday and plan to post the recipe I thought that it would be worth revisiting.  Enjoy!

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. Continue reading »

 Posted by at 10:13 am
Nov 012013

I find that reading is a great way to broaden your knowledge of a topic. I don’t believe that brewing is an exception. Here are four of my favorite brewing books.

Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Complete Joe of Home BrewingCharlie Papazian is arguably the father of home brewing in the United States.  The first edition of his The Complete Joy of Homebrewing was published in 1984 and is considered by many to be the home brewer’s bible.  I bought the second edition of this book on the day that I bought my first set of brewing equipment.  The fourth edition is due out next year.  Papazian divides this book into beginner, intermediate, and advanced sections doing a great job of giving you the information that you need to get started while also giving you more advanced information to help you improve.  One of the things that I always liked about this book is that you can pretty much get the information you need to know to produce a decent batch of extract beer in the first ten or fifteen pages.

Continue reading »

 Posted by at 9:49 am
Oct 212013

When asked what the most important factor in making good beer is most brewers will put cleaning and sanitizing at the top of their list.  I keep sanitizer handy throughout my brew day and transfers using two methods.

Brew Day

Brew Day

1. The Bucket.  I keep a bucket full of sanitizer within arms reach the whole day.  If a piece of equipment like a thermometer or a spoon aren’t in use at the moment, they are in the sanitizer.  This not only helps to keep things sanitized but makes them easy to find.

2. The Spray Bottle.  I also like to keep a spray bottle of sanitizer handy.  This is useful on brew day but can also be quite nice during fermentation, transferring, and packaging as well for those items you can’t throw in a bucket.

What tips and tricks do you have for making sanitizing easy?

 Posted by at 9:00 am
Oct 162013

Like many homebrewers I started out brewing with extracts.  I brewed more than a few successful batches using this method.  After a few years I began brewing with some friends that were making all grain beers.  The first thing I noticed is that it wasn’t as difficult as it sounded.  To this day I typically mash with a single infusion and a batch sparge.  That method is suitable for most every style that I’m typically interested in brewing and adequate for many others given the quality of ingredients that are available today.

Here are a four reasons to switch to All Grain Brewing.



1. More Control.  Mashing your grains gives you more control over the fermentability of the wort.  Mash cooler and you’ll get a drier beer.  Mash warmer and you’ll get a more full bodied beer.  It’s true that even with extracts you can add refined sugars to dry out your wort or steep specialty grains or add lactose to add residual sugars but I don’t think that these methods give you quite the same results as beginning with your choice of malted grains.

2. More Variety.  Today’s home brewer has an almost overwhelmingly large choice of grains to use.  A quick count on Midwest Supplies’ Website, for example, has ninety-six varieties of grain on the grain page.  Leaving out the hopped varieties I count about twenty-five varieties of extract.  Again, steeping allows you to add crystal and some other malts in your pot prior to boil but there are some grains like wheat, rye, and oats that it’s recommended that you mash rather than steep.

3. Lower Cost Per Batch. A typical all grain batch of beer costs less than the equivalent extract batch.  This makes sense given that the maltster does a bunch of the work for you.  Consider the example below.  Assume that you were going to make a batch of beer that called for 10 lbs of 2-Row Barley.  If you were to make this beer out of extract you would need either 8 lbs of liquid malt extract or 6.4 lbs of dry.  I went to Midwest Supplies, selected the largest quantity that they list for each type of ingredient and used that to calculate the per batch cost.

Item American 2-Row (Briess) Briess Gold Unhopped Liquid Malt Extract Briess Dried Malt Extract- Golden Light
Lbs Needed 10 8 6.4
Package Size (lbs) 50 6 50
$/lb  $1.02  $2.67  $2.70
Batch Cost  $10.20  $21.36  $17.28


Here are some reasons to stick with Extract brewing.

Good Beer

Good Beer

1. Shorter Brew Days.  Brewing a batch of all grain beer makes for a longer brew day.  Extract brewing lets you skip mashing.  That step alone takes at least an hour plus you have to heat up your mash water and you’ve got more to clean up when you’re done.  I know a lot of brewers that love the ritual of the brew day.  If you do, that’s great.  If your goal is to just crank out a batch of good beer, then extract brewing can make things go faster for you.

2. Less Equipment.  While a batch of extract beer is typically more expensive than an equivalent all grain beer, all grain brewing requires you buy or make more equipment.  You need something to mash in and you need to do a full wort boil which requires a pot that is big enough to hold the whole volume.  This alone is why many beginners start out using extracts.  It’s a great way to see if you like the hobby without dropping hundreds of dollars on equipment.

3. You Can Make Great Beer. Don’t let anyone tell you that you need to switch to all grain to make good beer.  There are extract beers that medal in home brewing competitions every year.  There are even some commercial breweries that use extracts, although I don’t know that I’ve ever tried any of them. Sanitation, technique, and the freshness of your ingredients are king using both methods and will have a far greater impact on the final product.

If you enjoy what you make and have fun making it, you win regardless of your brewing method.  It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.

Which brewing methods do you prefer and why?

Note: I have no practical experience with partial mash brewing.  This technique sits between extract and all grain and might be worth looking into if you are interested in using grains that can’t be steeped in your extract recipe.  I think that the biggest advantage over full blown all grain is that you can get away with using a smaller mash/lauter tun.  Like I said though, I’ve never made a partial mash beer so if you know of additional benefits I’d love to hear them.

 Posted by at 6:50 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