Category Archives: brewing


A Hoppy Red Ale

Red Ale
To my mind, a hoppy red ale is the quintessential contemporary American beer. This style is influenced by a variety of European styles: the slightly sweet maltiness and caramel hue of a German lager; the hop-forward bitterness and floral bouquet of an English IPA; the clean and subtle yeast character that American pale ales inherited from their British predecessors. Combining these features with the punchy zest of strong American hop varieties gives an entirely different breed of beer that is distinctly American.

My first experience with such a beer was Rogue’s Saint Rogue Red, which is a relatively mild incarnation of the style. Lately, one of my favorites is Green Flash’s Hop Head Red, which has a decidedly more assertive flavor profile. Bear Republic’s Hop Rod Rye incorporates flaked rye to the malt bill for a delightful twist on the style. Having developed a strong taste for the hoppy red ale, I figured it was time to try my hand at making my own variation. Here is the recipe I devised for a 5 gallon batch:


  • 8 lb pale malt (American 2 row)
  • 5 lb Munich malt (light)
  • 1 lb flaked rye
  • 8 oz crystal 60L
  • 2 oz black patent


  • 1.5 oz Chinook (60 min)
  • 1.5 oz Centennial (20 min)
  • 2 oz Cascade (5 min)
  • 2 oz Centennial (dry hop)


Mash 2 temperature infusion

  • Mash in 145 F for 30 min
  • Raise to 154 F for 30 min
  • Sparge at 165 F


  • 2 weeks in the primary at 60 – 65 degrees
  • 2 weeks in the secondary with dry hop

Notes For some reason, my mash in was significantly cooler than expected, so I had to add extra boiling water to hit my target temperature of 145 F. As a result, I ended up adding more hot water, giving about 8 gallons of sweet wort. I let the boil go for about 3 hours to boil off the extra water. I anticipate that this will result in a slightly more intense maltiness and sweetness than otherwise, but there are enough hops in it that it should still be well balanced. I ended up with just over 5 gallons of wort with an initial gravity of around 1.065.

Update I just racked the beer to the secondary fermentor and added the dry hop. The beer had a gravity of 1.011, which corresponds to an abv of around 7%. I snuck a taste, and everything is good so far!


Trying to Brew Like a Monk


After a lot of careful deliberation and diligent research, I think I’ve determined that Orval is my favorite beer. It isn’t the most exciting beer I’ve had. Nor is it the most quaffable. But when I have a hankering for Orval, it seems that no other beer will suffice. Orval is among the most austere Belgian beers I have tried, which may be unsurprising considering it is brewed by Cistercian monks. To me, Orval is the cervisial equivalent of Palestrina’s masses: at once structured and restrained, but with undeniable aesthetic appeal, subtlety, and complexity. The only problem is that Orval can be some work to track down and at around $6 for a 12 ounce bottle, it is a bit pricy for regular consumption. So I decided to try to brew my own. After consulting various sources, here is the (5 gallon) recipe that I settled on as a first approximation:


  • 4.5 lb Belgian pale malt
  • 4.5 lb Belgian Pilsner malt
  • 1.25 lb Caravienne malt (Belgium)
  • 1 lb candi sugar


  • 1.5 oz Hallertau (75 min)
  • 1 oz Styrian Goldings (20 min)
  • 1 oz Styrian Goldings (5 min)
  • 1.5 oz Styrian Goldings (dry hop, 7 days)


  • Belgian Abby II (Wyeast 1762)
  • Cultured dregs from 2 bottles of Orval

Mash Schedule

  • 60 min at 145 F
  • 20 min at 162 F
  • Sparge at 165 F

Fermentation Schedule

  • 1 week in the primary with the abby ale yeast
  • 3+ weeks in secondary with added dregs from Orval
  • Dry hops added during last week of secondary

Orval has an interesting fermentation schedule. Apparently the commercial version is fermented for around 4 days with a standard Belgian strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast. After primary fermentation, the beer is the inoculated with strains of “wild” yeast: Brettanomyces. These yeasts (affectionately referred to in the brewing community as “Brett”) are slower acting than their Saccharomyces cousins, but are capable of digesting a wider range of sugars. The result is a dryer, but decidedly funkier beer. One can purchase commercially cultured Brett, but I decided to try to culture my own from the dregs of a couple bottles of Orval. To do this, I made a quart weak wort (1.035 sg) from my final batch sparge, boiled and cooled it as usual, and pitched the bottom inch or so of a couple bottles of Orval. After a few days of fermenting, it had a nice little krausen that faded after another few days. Here’s a picture of the floating culture:


I brewed my batch last Saturday, and everything went as well as I could have hoped. I ended up with about 4.5 gallons of wart at 1.067 original gravity. This was a bit higher gravity than expected, but I won’t complain. The fermentation took a full 24 hours to start going, but the initial wait was followed by 48 hours of vigorous activity. Today I racked the beer to the secondary and added the cultured Orval yeast. I’m not sure what to expect in terms of a final gravity, but hopefully the Brett will bring the gravity down a few points.


Workman’s Friend Porter

Brewing is alchemy. It is equal parts art and science, steeped in history and suffused in community. For me, brewing is almost more about the process than the finished product. When I brew, I feel I am participating in a dialog that spans scores of generations through the millennia. Of course, the particular techniques I apply in my kitchen are a far cry from the methods of my ancestors, but the basics remain the same. Steep grain. Boil wart. Ferment. Enjoy with friends.

This holiday weekend, I finally have a chance to brew another batch of beer. With Alivia’s encouragement, I decided to make a porter. I’ve spent some time doing my homework on this style of ale to craft a recipe. I found the chapter on porters in Daniels’ Designing Great Beers most helpful. In the grain bill, I am trying to recreate some aspects of the brown malt that was the backbone of porters in the 18th and 19th centuries. Brown malt fell out of favor after the 19th century because of its low yield compared to the combination of pale and roasted malts used in most dark ales today. I am hoping that a combination of pale, caramel, Munich and smoked malts will imbue my brew some of the characteristics of an 18th century British porter.

To contrast the faux-traditional malt profile, I am using a decidedly contemporary west coast hop profile. Inspired by Rogue’s Mocha Porter, I am using American Perle hops for bittering and Sterling for flavor and aroma. Here is the recipe for a 5.5 gallon batch:


  • 8 lb pale malt (2 row)
  • 1 lb caramel 60
  • 1 lb Munich
  • 8 oz chocolate
  • 3 oz black malt
  • 1.5 oz peat smoked malt


  • 1.5 oz American Perle (60 min)
  • 1 oz Sterling (30 min)
  • 1 oz Sterling (5 min)


  • British ale (Wyeast 1098)

I plan on doing a single temperature infusion mash at 152 degrees. If all goes according to plan, I should end up with an original gravity of 1.053 and bitterness of around 45 IBU. I am anticipating a final gravity of around 1.014 for an ABV of 5.1%.

I decided to name this beer The Workman’s Friend after Flann O’Brien’s poem of the same name:

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

In time of trouble and lousey strife,
You have still got a darlint plan
You still can turn to a brighter life –
A pint of plain is your only man.

— Flann O’Brien


Poseidon Double IPA

Hops and hot break looked suspiciously like a Paleozoic earth.
The pattern of hops and hot break in the boil looked suspiciously like a Paleozoic earth.

A couple months ago, a friend of mine drove down from Portland to visit. In exchange for putting him up for a few nights, I asked that he bring down some of those delicious Portland microbrews to share. He arrived with 3 growlers of ale from Hair of the Dog, which is probably my favorite brewery in Portland, if not the country.

One of the growlers contained Blue Dot Double IPA. Since leaving Portland, I had forgotten what a fantastic and unique beer it is. After doing some research, I decided that it was time to attempt to craft a similar beer in my kitchen. As one would expect from a West Coast double IPA, Blue dot contains a boat load of hops. What I think makes this beer special though is the grain bill: it only contains pilsner malt and flaked rye. Not an ounce of pale ale malt to be found. After sifting through some home brew forums, I decided on this recipe for a 5 gallon batch:

Grain Bill

  • 15 lb German Pilsner malt
  • 2.5 lb flaked rye


  • 3.5 oz Warrior (15% AA) 75 minutes
  • 3.5 oz Magnum (German) (14% AA) 30 minutes
  • 3.5 oz Columbus (15% AA) 5 minutes
  • 3 oz Centennial dry hop
  • 3 oz Chinook dry hop


For the mash, I performed a single temperature infusion at 154 F for 90 minutes, followed by 2 batch sparges at 165 F. The result was about 7.5 gallons of wort at a gravity of 1.070. After the boil, I was left with around 7 gallons of wort at 1.074. I lost probably another gallon of liquid which the insane amount of hops absorbed during the boil, so around 5.5 – 6 gallons went into the fermentor.

I finally got a chance to brew a batch of this beer on Sunday. I came home from campus on Monday to find the airlock of my fermentor clogged with hops and the bucket about to burst. I quickly pulled the airlock out of the lid, which resulted in a geyser of hops and beer foam in my dining room. After cleaning up the mess, I rigged a makeshift blow-off tube from the fermentor to relieve the pressure of a decidedly vigorous fermentation. In light of the beer’s tempestuous beginnings, I’ve decided to dub it Poseidon Double IPA. I am expecting a final gravity of around 1.020 for an ABV of 6.8%.


I just racked Poseidon to the secondary fermenter. The final gravity is lower than I had anticipated, about 1.012 as I should have expected from the vigorous primary fermentation. So the ABV should be around 8%. I was going to rack on Friday, but I dropped my glass carboy while I was sanitizing it. Pro tip: buy a carboy handle so you don’t drop your carboy. They are expensive, heavy and when they shatter, they fill your kitchen with about 10 pounds of razor sharp shrapnel.

In case you’ve ever wondered what six ounces of whole leaf hops look like in a 5 gallon batch of beer, here you go:

6 oz of hops!
6 oz of hops!


For the last couple batches of beer that I’ve brewed (since starting to go all grain), I’ve been using the Brewtarget software to keep my recipes in order. Brewtarget keeps a library of recipes for home brewing. Additionally, it handles all of the calculations (target gravity, bitterness, ABV, etc) and even generates instructions for brew day. I’ve found it extremely helpful. Plus it is open source, which is always a bonus.


Finnegan Stout (v 0.1)

This past weekend, I brewed another batch of beer so that I would have something to share during the winter holidays. By popular demand, I decided to brew a stout. I wanted to experiment with my own recipe, so I did some research on stouts. By far the most useful resource was the book Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels. The book goes into great depth about many popular styles of beer and gives a wonderful historical perspective on the styles. It doesn’t contain explicit recipes, but rather serves as a guide to develop one’s own recipes. I highly recommend this book.

I wanted a stout that was a hybrid between a classic dry stout and the bolder American stouts being brewed on the West Coast these days (Bear Republic’s Big Bear Black Stout is my favorite of these right now). I’m hoping that the finished product will be a slightly dryer, lower gravity version of the American stouts I like so much.

Just about every stout uses a pale malt for its base and roasted barley that gives it its characteristic color and rich flavor. In addition to these grains, I decided to use Caramel 60 malt to add some caramel and nutty flavors, black malt for color and burned bitterness, and flaked barley for body and head retention. Typical dry stouts only use a single bittering hop addition, but I wanted to have some hop flavor and aroma in addition to the bittering hops. I decided to use the hops in Big Bear Black Stout: Centennial for bittering and Cascade for flavor. Hopefully these will give the beer a decidedly West Coast flavor profile.

Once I decided on ingredients and ratios, the only thing that remained was choosing a name. I thought naming it after my dog Finnegan was apropos: his pedigree is English, but he is pure Californian mutt. So Finnegan Stout it is. Here is the recipe for my 5.5 gallon batch:

Grain Bill

  • 8 lb pale malt
  • 1 lb Caramel 60
  • 0.5 lb flaked barley
  • 0.5 lb roasted barley
  • 0.5 lb black malt


  • 1 oz Centennial (10% AA) 60 minutes
  • 1 oz Cascade (6% AA) 15 minutes


I performed a single temperature infusion at 152 F for 60 minutes, followed by a batch sparge at 165 F, for a total of 6.5 gallons in the brew pot at a gravity of 1.040. After the hour-long boil, I had around 5.5 gallons of wort at a gravity of 1.045. So my extraction hit my targets assuming 70% efficiency! I am expecting a final gravity of around 1.010 for a final ABV of about 4.5% and a bitterness of 40 IBU. I’m planning on letting the stout ferment in the primary for three weeks, then straight into the bottle. It should be ready to drink just in time for winter break.

Update On Friday, I bottled the batch of Finnegan Stout. It yielded 49 bottles. I measured a final gravity of 1.011, corresponding to an ABV of 4.4%. I snuck a bit of a taste, and though tepid and flat, I thought it tasted pretty promising. It actually smelled a lot like Rogue’s Chocolate Stout. If it ends up to be anything like that, I will be very pleased.

brewing musings

Folklore, Brewing, and Science

I recently came across a piece of brewing folklore that I found quite interesting. Allegedly, when Norse families would brew beer, they had special sticks that they used to stir the wort. They ascribed magical powers to the stirring sticks, as using the family’s stirring stick would ensure that the beer would turn out well. The stirring sticks were thus treated as family heirlooms.

With the hindsight of a couple hundred years of progress in microbiology, we have a scientific explanation for what was going on: the stirring sticks harbored a colony of yeast that inoculated the wort, ensuring that a desirable fermentation occurred.  This method of action, however, was (presumably) completely unknown to the Norsemen. Nonetheless, their method worked. They identified the pattern that using the same stirring stick over and over yielded better beer, developed a theory for the method of action (magic), and as a result had consistent beer.

Although I can’t find a good reference for this piece of folklore (see herehere and here), I think the story is an interesting parable for scientific discovery. Brewers knew how to successfully make beer centuries before a “scientific” explanation of their methods was discovered. But surprisingly little has changed in how beer is actually brewed. Our understanding of the biology and chemistry of brewing has allowed us more control over the finished product, yet the basics of brewing are essentially the techniques discovered over two millennia of trial and error.

In a sense, the scientific method is little more than an explicit protocol for how to use the trial–and–error method effectively. We observe some physical phenomena, guess at a method of action (or theory), deduce from that theory some predicted phenomena, then check if we observe the predicted the phenomena. By iterating this process and refining our hypotheses, we tend to end up with theories that explain a lot of observable phenomena. In this sense, the scientific method is extraordinarily pragmatic.

The scientific method is, I believe, limited in that it does not tell us why nature behaves as it does. There is no reason to believe that a formal theory has any relationship to reality except by analogy — a theoretical prediction corresponds to an experimental measurement. The relative merits of competing theories must be judged on a pragmatic basis. The modern science of zymurgy offers a theoretical framework which gives a brewer great control over their beer. However, whether one ascribes a successful brew to magic, cavorting wee beasties or complex chemical reactions, the methods of brewing don’t seem to be altered in a fundamental way. It seems to me that in many ways, science has changed the way we conceive of brewing more than the way we brew.

Update I realized after reading over this post that it came off as being too critical of science. That wasn’t really my intention in writing the post. Instead, I just wanted to point out that humans tend to be pretty good at recognizing patterns even if we have no clue what the mechanism behind the pattern is. The advantage of the scientific method is that it gives a hypothetical mechanism that accounts for the observed pattern. The hypothetical mechanism may also elucidate other patterns that were not so apparent on their own. In the context of brewing, the mechanism is fermentation by yeast. So in order to ensure a good brew, I should do everything in my power to keep the (good) yeast happy while trying to stifle their competition. Thus science suggests I should sanitize my equipment before putting chilled wort into it, I should make sure the yeast have the nutrients they need to thrive, and I should inoculate the wort with a strain of yeast I know will give good results. My only recourse if I adhere to the “magic stick” mechanism of brewing is to stir and pray. Certainly I would never suggest this as the most viable way to get a consistent brew.

I think the point I was trying to make towards the end of the post is that science only gives a hypothetical mechanism of action that is, a priori, no better than any other explanation of the pattern. The crucial feature of a scientific hypothesis is that it can be disproved: if I hypothesize that yeast turn wort into beer, then you could disprove my hypothesis by showing that some wort turned to beer and throughout the process no yeast were present.

Nonetheless, I want to draw a distinction between theorized mechanisms of action and what might be called physical mechanisms (i.e., the way nature actually works). The difference between these views is that of cause and effect, correlation and causality. Nature doesn’t obey Newton’s (or anyone else’s) laws because these laws accurately describe the way nature works; rather Newton’s laws exist in their present formulation because they accurately predict patterns we see in nature. But that doesn’t mean that competing theories could not be just as successful or that the formalism in which Newton’s laws are expressed has any bearing on why nature behaves as she does. The reason that I think it may be worth belaboring this distinction is that if we only view nature through the lens of some formalism (like classical mechanics, quantum mechanics or general relativity) we potentially miss out on other completely different ways of describing nature that could ultimately be fruitful. I think this idea is implicit (if not explicit) in, for example, Wolfram’s tome A New Kind of Science, although that book is mired in controversy for other reasons.

Ultimately, my point is this: just because a physical theory has been immensely successful in predicting physical phenomena does not mean that it is “correct” in any philosophical or metaphysical sense. More pragmatically, two competing theories can be theoretically incompatible with one another yet still give good (perhaps complimentary) predictions about how nature behaves, so it may be worthwhile to support seemingly contradictory theories. To end with a trite cliche, perhaps it is best if we don’t put all of our eggs into one (theoretical) basket.



Reusing Empty Bottles

When I started home brewing, I naively thought that brewing my own beer would end up costing less than buying beer. It is true that the cost of ingredients for a batch of beer cost less than buying an equivalent number of (fancy) six-packs, but there are other costs associated with brewing. One cost that I didn’t anticipate is the price of empty bottles. At around 75 cents apiece at my local brewing supply shop, the bottles cost as much as the beer I put in them! Using these bottles pushes the cost of a home brew six-pack towards $10, ignoring the startup cost of equipment.

Needless to say, reusing bottles has become a financial necessity. The rinse-scrub-rinse-sanitize cycle is tiresome, but there really isn’t any alternative. After all, brewing beer is 90% about cleaning and only 10% about actually making beer.

Considering the ridiculous cost of empty bottles,  it makes the most sense to just use empty commercial beer bottles. In some cases, full bottles of beer cost less than empty ones — you just need to be sure that the bottles you’re using don’t have screw off caps as these bottles won’t seal properly. The only problem that I ran into with using commercial beer bottles was the labels. I don’t know what glue they use to affix the labels, but they are a pain to get off. I tried soaking and scrubbing and various solvents and detergents. By far the best and easiest option for label removal turned out to be OxiClean. They make a version that is free of perfumes and dyes, and it works perfectly. After soaking the empty bottles in a solution of OxiClean for a few hours, the labels practically fall off.

Using empty commercial bottles for brewing is, I think, the best way to go so long as you’re on top of keeping them clean. Here’s what I do to ensure that my beer goes uncontaminated:

  1. Rinse bottles thoroughly immediately after finishing. I fill them half way with water, shake vigorously, drain and repeat at least 3 times for most beer. If the beer is bottle conditioned, there tends to be some yeast stuck to the bottom of the bottle, in which case the bottles need to be scrubbed at this point with a bottle brush. For bottles that are force-carbonated this step doesn’t seem necessary.
  2. Let the bottles soak in a bucket of OxiClean solution for a few hours. Remove the labels of the beer and scrub the insides of the bottles thoroughly. Rinse each bottle at least 3 times, shaking vigorously.
  3. Let the bottles dry upside down. Once they are completely dry, store them until bottling day. I usually store them upside down so that dust doesn’t settle inside them.
  4. On bottling day, rinse the bottles and let them soak in sanitizing solution until immediately before filling. Empty the bottles and let them drain upside down on a sanitized rack for a few minutes before filling the bottles.

There you have it. Inevitably, some bottles from every batch are given away never to be seen again, but reusing commercial beer bottles can easily  make up the difference.


India Red Ale

Yesterday I started brewing my first all-grain batch of beer. Inspired by my recent interest in hoppy red ales (Saint Rogue Red, Hop Head Red and Free Range Red to name a few favorites) I decided on a recipe from Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing which he calls an “India Red Ale.” I tend to like the hoppy red ales because they have the aggressive hop character of an IPA but the bitterness is tempered by the sweetness of darker malts. The recipe is as follows for a 5.5 gallon batch:

Grain Bill

  • 6.5 lb pale ale malt (American 2 row)
  • 5 lb Munich malt (dark, 8 – 10 L)
  • 0.75 lb crystal 40
  • 0.5 lb crystal 80
  • 1 oz black patent


  • 2 oz Cascade (60 min)
  • 2 oz Cascade (30 min)
  • 2 oz Goldings (5 min)


  • American Ale (Wyeast 1056)

I performed a single infusion mash for 60 minutes at 153 F at a water to grist ratio of 1.25 qt/lb. After a single batch sparge, I obtained a little over 6 gal of wort at a gravity of 1.044. This corresponds to a brewhouse efficiency of about 60%, which was a bit less than I hoped, but is about what I expected for my first all-grain batch. After the boil, I ended up with almost 5 gal of wort at an original gravity of 1.054.

A few hours after pitching the yeast, my fermentor airlock was happily bubbling away; so far so good. I’m hoping for a final gravity of 1.014, 5.3% ABV and about 70 IBU…

Update 1 In light of an imminent heat wave, I’ve had to take measures for keeping the fermenting wort cool (under 70 F). I placed the fermenter in a shallow bucket of water and draped towels over the whole thing. Hopefully some evaporative cooling will do the trick while the temperature in my apartment gets into the upper 70’s.

Update 2 After 18 days of fermenting in the primary at around 70 F, the beer was ready to bottle. I measured a final gravity of 1.010 for an ABV of about 6%. I primed the beer for bottling with 3.5 oz of corn sugar for moderate fizziness.

It’s been three weeks since the bottling, so I’ve tasted a few glasses of the beer. I have to say that I am very pleased with the results: a nice rich malty back with a healthy smack of hops. I’ll give full tasting notes in a future post.