Newbie Brew Trial and Error Log
Tonight I tasted a Hefeweizen and a dry hopped APA that I brewed. No off-tastes! So this made me very happy because I appreciate how it's not that difficult to brew BAD beer.
I have a super cheap setup. Pre-crushed grains over the internet, tap water treated with camden tablets, unconverted 5 gallon cooler for mashing with strainer bag, 5 gallon stainless steel on electric stove, ice bath cooling, 3 gallon carboy with swamp cooler. But it works. All I had to do was walk through the fire until it was done right. And here is my newbie brewing log:
1 Mr Beer
2 Dubbel with LME; not good beer, still in bottles
3 UK Dark Mild; Good, not great efficiency but good, long gone
4 Dubbel All Grain; good, but too ABV strong, and uninteresting to drink
5 UK Dark Mild; good but over hopped, gone
6 Blueberry Beer; Good, interesting, almost gone
7 SNPA clone; very bad possibly multiple yeast issues with heat and badly dry hopped
8 Witbier; good but conditioning sugar was uneven (some totally flat beer)
9 UK Dark Mild; OK but slight yeast/heat issues that may go away
10 Dark Wheat; good but uneven priming
11 Witbier; unknown
12 Hefeweizen; great but low efficiency (3,3% ABV).
13 SNPA clone; just great, no complaints
14 Hefeweizen; unknown, low efficiency.
If I had to do it all over again I would have taken a break in June and started again now. My next upgrade will be the grain mill. Cheers.
I have to say my hat is off to you for running this setup for so long. I did my first all grain batch with the unconverted cooler / paint strainer setup. It was a PITA. I couldn't fit my 10gal kettle into the sink for an ice bath, nor did I want to carry 5+ gallons of boiling hot wort down the hall into the bath tub, so chilling was a show stopper.
I would strongly advise converting your cooler before getting the grain mill. The biggest win of having your own grain mill is getting better efficiency though a finer crush. You are currently leaving a lot of gravity points on the table with your current system (as evidenced by your many low efficiency batches.) A better mash / sparge system would help you gain those efficiency points.
Check out the cooler bulkhead kits and SS braid from bargainfittings.com It's a cheaper upgrade to the system than a grain mill and it'll help you make better beer, whereas the grain mill really won't. Just my 2 cents.
Thanks imrook for the advice. I hadn't explored the benefits of an upgraded mash tun cooler before.
The reason I want to go with the mill first though is because there is actually a correlation between the amount of time I had the pre-crushed grains in storage and the efficiency. I great decent efficiency if I use the grains right away but the last few batches had been sitting there a few weeks. From what I understand, if the grains hadn't been crushed, the efficiency would have been even through those weeks.
Can you define decent efficiency?
I have also heard that grain keeps longer when uncrushed, however I've never done an experiment so I can't say for sure. Grain storage is important in both cases as oxygen, moisture and temperature are what degrade your grain. How are you storing you grain between batches? I use buckets with gamma seal lids stored in my basement and it works fine.
Don't get me wrong, I think getting your own grain mill is a good idea-I did it myself. I bought the mill thinking my efficiency would skyrocket, but it didn't. What really helped was me paying attention to my process-getting my water volumes measured accurately, adjusting my mash thickness and sparge volume and not oversparging. In the end, the mill allowed me to by my base malt in volume and save some money per batch, but I bet I haven't earned back the $90 it cost yet.
The bottom line here is that the paint strainer technique seemed like a lot of work and a lot of mess to me. Converting your cooler will make your brew day easier and therefore more enjoyable. I think you need to spend the money for grain storage either way (if you haven't already.) In the end, it's your brewing process-do what you're comfortable with.
The very last batch (a simple wheat) had grains crushed 6 or 7 weeks before, kept in a sealed bag (but not vacuum sealed) in a dark cupboard at room temperature, and I think it was about 8 or 10 points below expected gravity (so about 1.028 or so) and I had to add a bit of DME. The previous batch two weeks was also a simple wheat (same grains) and the OG was 6 to 8 points below (but tasted good after conditioning). I was ready with the idea that the very last batch one could have a low gravity, and it did.
It's also true that uncrushed grains have to be kept in optimal conditions or they too will lose vitality. But even in perfect conditions, they will get bad in years like the crushed grains apparently lost some of their mojo to convert in a matter of weeks.
At first I thought buying bulk grain (through a group buy) would be the only time I could save money and justify a grain mill. But getting 6 bags of grain through my favorite online supplier does save some money.
Also, from what you wrote and my recent experience with different sized strainer bags I think I should add something. Strainer bags come in different sizes, even if they all say "5 gallons".. depending on the manufacturer. The larger ones actually allow me to wrap around the lid of my 5 gallon cooler and have the grains sitting at the bottom of the cooler, which is ideal. So the only thing that is inconvenient is perhaps more trub because the grain doesn't act as much like a natural filter as much. But also, there's no need for rice hulls in wheat beers. The smaller strainer bags are a real pain... actually not worth it at all especially after being used to the bigger bags.
I was actually looking for a percentage on the efficiency number. Since you're hitting your targets and most recipes are designed for 75% I'd say that's about where you are-and that's not bad. I had efficiencies in the 50s and 60s when I started.
You don't have to get in on a group buy to save money on grain. You can just buy 50-55 pound bags and it's generally quite a bit cheaper than by the pound.
I think a grain mill as the next step makes sense. I have a simpler setup than you do, just mashing (partial mashes) in a bag in my 5gal brew kettle. I'm able to get very good efficiencies for the mash steps this way, without any extraordinary care. I think the option to buy and store uncrushed grain and not have to make dedicated trips for every brew would be a big win.
I am a very slow upgrader. Right now the only thing in my horizon is
1. a 7lb barley crusher
2. a gas burner (need to move out of the kitchen)
I will have to reassess my needs after that. My 5 gallon cool mash tun has not been the biggest complaint in my system (as long as the strainer bags are big). If my gravity targets are not improved, upgrade the mash tun will be going further up the list. One of the reasons I'm stalling is because the cooler is only 5 gallons.
I'm thinking about using a stainless steel pot for mash tun though, because some of the recipes I've been using have a variety of 'rests' before the sugar conversion rest. I'm blindly following directions at this point.
Somehow I missed that you're using a 5 gallon cooler to mash in. Don't convert that-it's too small. I use a 48qt and it works very good for all types of brews, though I've never tried a barelywine.
I would advise against a stainless mash tun: 1-they are expensive. 2-it's hard to keep your mash temperature consistent for the length of time needed 3-you don't need to be doing step mashes.
I would also advise that you spend some time reading to better understand the brewing process so that you're not just blindly following directions. That will help you to better understand your wants and needs going forward.
I have since reconsidered because I very much enjoying sealing the lid to my cooler and walking away for an hour. But then I consider this experience: I have a wit recipe that reads: mash at 122F for 20 minutes, then bring it up to 152. So for these kinds of directions, the cooler is a pain. I suppose it's possible to use hot water to raise temperature, but then there are other issues out of control, like the ph level changing when you add water.
I was thinking about using a combination, like mashing in a pot (at 122F for twenty minutes, bringing it up to 155F) then transferring to cooler. Open to suggestions.
I read about brewing a lot. I also enjoy my self control with not buying equipment which results in brewing lots of 3 gallon batches of beer. The book I have is Brewing: Science and Practice. The only problem I have encountered with it is that it's not geared for homebrew, a minor flaw really. For homebrew tips, I go directly to the pros (the guys here with the experience have served me perfectly well).
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