The Myth of Oxidizing and the Paranoia of Homebrewers

I don’t use a bottling wand (for those who don’t know, a bottling wand is a long tube that allows you to fill bottles from the bottom up). I bottle directly from a spigot attached to my fermenter (above the trub line, see here). So yes, although I do it gently and on an angle, I do get some oxygen in my beer when bottling. Oh my God! Oxidized beer! Cardboard IPA! Ahhhh! Fuck!Cardboard-box-open-lg-1-

Actually, no.

After about 60 batches, I’ve never noticed oxidized beer; that is, stale cardboard flavor. It’s not something I worry about. If I aged beer in the bottle, then I probably would worry about it. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that most homebrewers are like me and drink their beer when it’s ready, within a few months.

All overblown myths and worries are based on a slice of truth. Science says that oxygen can affect your beer. I don’t dispute that. In fact, One Pot Brewing incidentally reduces oxygen by never having to transfer the beer into another vessel (anyone that has used an auto-siphon knows what I’m talking about…they splash). When it comes to oxygen, the question is how much? On what scale? And perhaps most importantly: How long does it take?

The internet for beginning homebrewers is a scary place, a place where everyone seems to have strong opinions that if you don’t buy x, y, or z (in this case, a bottling wand), your beer will suck. Sometimes it’s people showing off what they know, but usually it’s well intentioned advice. To me, it’s an unfriendly environment for a person that just wants to make some cheap beer at home and drink it. I’m not going to pretend to know the science or anything like that, but I do have some educated guesses. I think this paranoia comes from applying commercial brewing science to homebrewing, as the brulospher routinely exposes. Commercial brewing has to worry about oxidizing much more than we do. They are brewing insanely huge batches, storing them, shipping them, etc. Also, people are just overly cautious and like having “insurance” and “peace of mind.” They don’t want to risk ruining a beer over a $4 bottle filler (and the stupid 1 inch tube you have to buy just to attach the damn thing). Good for them.

We need to clam down and stop worrying. And if you don’t have actual experience to back up your claims, then maybe reconsider. Just because you read something on the internet doesn’t make it true in practice. This sounds like a rant but it’s all in good fun. I’m still a young brewer so I have much to learn. I know one thing from experience: bottling wands are not necessary to make good beer. Anyone who disagrees is on crack.

Why Get a Bottling Wand
Having said all this, I’m actually considering getting a bottle filler! I know, funny, right? It would be a decision based on convenience, but I’m actually on the fence about it. First, I’m not sure it would save much time, if any. If I filled them all at once, and then capped all at once, sure that would be more efficient and save time. But if I fill, then cap (like I do), then I’m not sure I”m saving time at all. They seem to fill bottles at the same speed. Second, those bottling wands are super long, making you have to squat down even lower to fill the bottles. It’s not comfortable. Alternately, you could move your beer to a higher location, which isn’t ideal because you don’t want to rouse all the crap from the bottom.

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You Don’t Need to Boil or Mash for 60 Minutes?

clockFor this post, I’m relying completely on two experiments done by the greatest homebrew blogger of all time: the Brulosopher at Brulosophy.com. I consider my blog to be an unscientific version of his (if that’s even possible). Anyway, What he found was that you can made a delicious, hoppy beer with only a 30 minute boil – no off-flavors whatsoever. Furthermore, the same recipe boiled for 60 and 30 minutes are virtually indistinguishable from each other (statistically speaking, it was a null hypothesis). He did the same exact thing with a 30 minute mash, compared to a 60 minute mash, with the same results (null hypothesis…they are basically the same). It turns out that most of the starch-to-sugar conversion happens in the first 15 minutes.

Now this is only one experiment. But needless to say, I cannot wait to test this myself. I plan on brewing my next few batches using both a 30 minute mash and a 30 minute boil. The time-savings would be tremendous.

Update: This weekend, using a 30 minute mash/boil, as well as my usual One Pot Brewing method, I brewed a beer in 1 hour and 47 minutes! I started the clock at the very beginning (getting my equipment from the basement), and ended at the very end (placing fermenter in closet; everything cleaned). Let me just say it was very gratifying to start brewing at 8pm on a Saturday night and be done before 10pm, enough time to watch an episode of Breaking Bad. I also recently brewed an English IPA in roughly the same time (I didn’t use a stop watch, but did keep my eyes on the clock). We shall see how they turned out.

Also, keep in mind that if you boil, say, a Double IPA for only 30 minutes, you will need to add more hops to hit your desired bitterness. For example, in my last Grapefruit DIPA, I used 2 ounces of high-alpha hops for 60 minutes (First Wort Hop). In a 30 minute boil, I would have to use a little more. Is the time-savings worth the cost increase? Good question.

You Don’t Need Star San, Sanitizer (or any other cleaner for that matter)

In my system, that is. One Pot Brewing involves a 7.5 gallon aluminum pot that I clean just like any other pot in my kitchen. Before I used this system, of course I sanitized – keeping a clean brewing environment is the #1 most important thing. However, now I mash, boil, ferment, and bottle in the same pot. When I’m done bottling, I clean it with hot soapy water, rinse, and dry. Because I am doing an extended boil prior to fermentation – which I believe is called sterilization – there is no need to sanitize. One less thing, man, one less thing.

I always thought it was weird that brewers used special cleaning agents like Star San. They are expensive and probably very similar to normal cleaners. Cleaning is important, but I think it has reached paranoia levels.

What about my bottles, you say? Previously, this was a real pain in my ass. I would fill a bathtub with sanitzer, throw the bottles in, and get water all over the fucking kitchen. It sucked. Bottle “trees” didn’t seem like a good option – What do they hold…like 4 bottles? And probably take hours to fuck with – they look like Fisher Price kids’ toys. Anyway, those days are gone. I’m lucky to have fairly new dishwasher that has a “sanitize” feature, which not only cleans bottles but gets them really, really hot. The washer comfortably holds 25 22-oz bottles: exactly what I need. I throw them in, hit the sanitize button, and about  2 hours later they are ready to go. No cleaner needed. I have never had a problem, and it’s very convenient. I take them out, put Carb Drops in each bottle and then bottle (bottling video).

You Don’t Need a Wort Chiller

After 48 batches, I have never used a wort chiller. I chill in my bathtub, which takes from 15-30 minutes. The secret is to stir. When the boil is about to finish, I fill the tub with cold water and ice (the ice that’s already in my freezer; I don’t buy it). To protect the tub from scratches, I throw a towel down. Get wort to 70, pitch yeast, done.

Well, not so fast. Let me backtrack a bit. In full disclosure, many times I chill the wort to 100F, then add cold water, which brings it down to 70ish, then pitch yeast. As you know, those last 10-20 degrees are a real bitch. This method, as you can tell, makes the process even faster. This is called making a “concentrated wort,” and I have done it many times. So, for example, I start with 6 gallons of water to soak the grain in (mash). After squeezing the bag, I’m left with a little over 5 gallons. Then, after a 60 min. boil, I’m left with only 4.8 gallons. So, after chilling, I top it off to 5.5 gallons with some cold water, which leaves me with about 5 gallons to bottle. Is there a downside to this? Well, there is a possibility that the cold water will somehow infect the beer (because the cold water hasn’t been boiled). I’m not sure how possible that is, but it’s something to think about. Also, it effects your hop bitterness a little bit (not enough for me to care about).

Don’t get me wrong: I have thought about getting a copper wort chiller many times. However, I really don’t see the benefit, compared to the cons. I have to clean a wort chiller (they seem to get pretty nasty and I really don’t like cleaning). I don’t have to clean my bathtub. That saves me time and money. Also, I brew outside. In the winter, how do I use a wort chiller outside? The faucets are turned off or frozen. If a wort chiller took only 5 minutes to chill, I would probably get one. I doubt that’s true.

You Don’t Need a Yeast Starter

stir plateIf you have the time, by all means do a yeast starter. It’s not a bad idea. But you don’t need one. I have never used a yeast starter on any of my 50 batches. They have all fermented just fine (well, in full disclosure, I made two rookie mistakes when I started brewing: first, I fermented in a cold basement, which doesn’t work; second, I bottled way to soon once, which produced a very carbonated beer). Other than that, fermenting beer is not that hard. I have made plenty of high alcohol beers (average 7.58%, ranging from 4 to 12%). When it comes to fermenting, the most important thing is to pitch enough yeast into aerated wort around 70 degrees. That’s it. And if you think I’m being anecdotal and unscientific, check out this experiment, which found that a vial vs starter is statistically imperceptible. Usually a packet of yeast is enough, or a liquid tube that you buy at the store; although, for me, I reuse my yeast, so I have the option of pitching as much as I want (just to be safe, I pitch a little more than those liquid tubes). If you are using a packet of dry yeast, just sprinkle it on. I find that dry yeast works better than liquid yeast.

How to Do a Yeast Starter
The day before brewing, you add a little bit of malt extract into boiling water, stir, cool, put into a growler with an airlock, and pitch the yeast into the growler. Sound familiar? You just made a mini-beer without hops! When tomorrow comes, the yeast will be all fired up and ready to go. That’s the concept behind yeast starters. The beer will begin fermenting immediately, and the airlock will bubble faster (instead of waiting 24 hours or so). This minimizes the chance of infection (which won’t happen if you sanitize properly). Brewers also talk about not “shocking” the yeast, by introducing it slowly into a high gravity environment. Okay. Whatever.

To me, it’s a lot of work for a little payoff. I cannot help but think this is another throw-back to days when yeast was not as good, when barley was not as highly modified, mashable and fermentable. However, on super huge barley wines, I admit a yeast starter might actually be a good idea. I have only made two super huge beers, an English barley wine and a Belgian quad. They fermented just fine without a starter; however, they were smaller batches (2.5 gallons) and I pitched well.

You Don’t Need a Hydrometer

image from fermentarium.comI have never used a hydrometer (gasp!). I simply have no use for it. It’s a lot of work for a little payoff, in my humble opinion. How do I know how much alcohol is in my beer? I drink it. That’s one way. Another way is little more scientific: I enter my recipe into free brewing software (brewtoad.com), which tells me the ABV. Sure, it might be off .1, .2 or.3 percent – there are several factors at play – but who cares? Relax, have a homebrew, says Charlie. If you make sure your process is right – mash temp, aerate, fermentation temp – the ABV will turn out just fine. It’s not rocket science. The Egyptians were brewing, for God’s sake! If the conditions are right, it will do it’s thing.

Brewers take “gravity readings” with a hydrometer before, during and after fermentation to make sure the beer is fermenting properly, and that the beer is in fact done fermenting. That’s several ounces of wasted beer, time, effort, and possible infection; but the concept is very important. If the beer is not done fermenting, and you bottle it, then you could have exploding bottles, or over-carbonated beer. Both suck. In full disclosure, I have had one or two over-carbed batches. However, I think those were rookie mistakes. I fermented one in my cold basement, and the other I simply bottled too soon (it wasn’t done fermenting…okay, yes, I realize that a hydrometer would have helped. You got me :).

The real solution is to create the conditions for a good fermentation, to make sure the temperature is around 70 degrees, to make sure you aerate the wort before pitching the yeast, and to watch your airlock activity. Also, my system has a spigot on the fermenter, so I can taste the beer whenever I want. I can tell if a beer is too sweet. I did this a few days about with a DIPA. After 6 days of fermenting, and a few days of no airlock activity, it tasted nice, dry, and bitter. It was done; ready to dry hop. One Pot Brewing could easily accommodate a hydrometer (in fact, I have one. It was given to me as a gift. I tried to use it once).

If you want to use a hydrometer, by all means you should. It will give you a more accurate picture of your beer, how efficient your mashing was, and all that good stuff. I’m just saying you don’t need one.