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Let's Get Competitive! Or, a Nine Hour Brewday

Posted by homebrewdad on 8/19/2015 at 12:48:44 AM

Competitions. For many homebrewers, competing is the ultimate affirmation of skill; it is a chance to see how you stack up against other talented brewers, to see how well you can brew to a given style, to see find out how people who have never met you (and thus lack the interest of obtaining free beer from you in exchange for their praise) honestly rate your efforts. For some brewers, a beer can never be considered truly great until there is a ribbon attached to it.

Of course, competitions are not for everyone. Many brewers care nothing for brewing to style, or for brewing for anyone but themselves. For these brewers, the external validation of a competition win is unnecessary.

As far as I am concerned, both types of brewers - as well as those who fall anywhere between these two positions - are absolutely correct. One of the truly fantastic things about this hobby is the amazing flexibility it offers; brew what you like, for whatever motivations you may have. There is no absolute "right" or "wrong" in homebrewing.

I myself have never been a big competition guy. For the first couple of years that I brewed, I was painfully aware of my newbishness, and I simply did not see the point in inflicting potentially substandard beer upon a competition I had no chance of doing well in. Then, there was the fact that I live in Alabama - the next to last state in America for homebrewing to become legal - and so, my opportunities to compete were pretty limited unless I shipped my beer out of state.

Last year, I did enter the Alabama Brew Off, though it was a last minute decision that resulted in me simply entering a couple of beers that I had on hand. I had mixed results - largely due to my lack of preparedness; I had no bottles with plain bottle caps, so in an effort to avoid disqualification, I uncapped the beers, added a "wild guess" portion of sugar to make up for the carbonation I lost by uncapping, then recapped the bottles. Unfortunately, this was only a day or two before I had to turn in the beer; the impact from my actions was less than ideal. Oh, well... wait 'till next year.

I managed to miss the NHC deadline this year, but I figured that I'd be ready in plenty of time for the Alabama Brew Off. Only, for some time, it looked like the competition was in serious doubt. I checked their website - nothing. The facebook account was largely silent, then finally posted an announcement that they didn't know if they could do the comp this year. Well, crud.

As you may or may not know, I did get very involved in a different competition - the 2015 BrewUnited Challenge - but that was obviously on the organization side of things, rather than the contestant side. Even so, this took up a lot of my time, and I lost track of the Alabama Brew Off.

Alabama Brew Off

Well, it turned out that they decided to hold the Brew Off after all; on July 7th, the announcement was made that the competition would happen, with registration running August 24th through the 30th. Unfortunately, I missed this announcement until August 1st. And of course, I had no real competition-worthy beer on hand - the last thing I had brewed was my commemorative - and somewhat experimental - hoppy German lager, which didn't fit into any recognized BJCP category (and so would be pointless to enter). Entries had to be turned in no later than September 18th, giving me just over six weeks to get something ready. And seemingly to further push me out of my comfort zone, this year's comp would be using the 2015 BCJP style guidelines, of which I was pretty ignorant.

Rats. So much for having a couple of competition-worthy beers to enter. So much for this year being different...

Still, I hated the idea of skipping the competition altogether. My wife encouraged me to brew something for the event, so I reached out to the BrewUnited community for some ideas on what to brew. This turned out to be a wise decision. What should have been an obvious idea was pointed out to me - why not brew a split batch?

Well, durr. Why not, indeed? I own three two gallon buckets, which I routinely tell people are just perfect for split batches. Why didn't I think of splitting a batch?

What, though, could I brew that would split well enough to effectively enter two different categories?

I hit those 2015 guidelines to see what appealed to me, and 4B Festbier practically leapt off the pages at me. This was a new style category, which seemed fun - and it would give me a chance to make amends for the disaster that was my failed Hofbrau Oktoberfest rendition from last year (see: leaves in the boil, infection in the fermentor, and a sad Olan). I would obviously have to forego the traditional lager process and employ the Brulosopher fast lager method, but by doing so, I could certainly have this beer ready in six weeks.

But what would be a suitable beer to split this batch into?

A little more research led me to an old friend with a new number - 25A Belgian Blond Ale. My simple, light grist with a malty focus would fit that style quite well. All I would need to do would be to ferment at ale temps with an appropriate Belgian strain of yeast - and perhaps add a little simple sugar to dry things out.

And so, a plan was hatched.

My recipe was ridiculously simple - 84% Weyermann floor malted Pilsner malt, 16% Weyermann Munich II. 16 IBUs of Hallertauer @ 60 minutes, 10 IBUs of Hallertauer @ 30 minutes. I would employ a traditional decoction mash, then split four gallons of wort into a carboy to go into my fermentation fridge, hit it with a big starter of WLP820 (Oktoberfest/Marzen - a strain I really enjoy), and call this the Festbier.

After some discussion over yeast strain for the Belgian (and what characteristics I wanted to glean from it), I decided to further split the remaining wort into two small buckets - a gallon and a quarter into both - pitching WLP500 (Trappist ale) into each. I would noticeably underpitch one bucket in the traditional Belgian manner in the hopes of really emphasizing the fruitiness, while giving the other the standard pitch rate. Both buckets would be placed into my backup fermentation chamber (a DIY Son of a Fermentation Chamber), where I would pitch my yeast around 65 degrees F, allow the temperature to free rise up after the first 24 hours or so, then add a table sugar syrup to the buckets for another 8 or 9 points of gravity once activity slowed. I would then employ my heating pad to force that temperature up to close to 80 degrees F to ensure complete attenuation.

With my plan in place, I picked up my order from the LHBS, got my starters going, and planned my brewday.

Ah, brewday. The time for the embodiment of the creative efforts you have applied. A time to revel in the satisfaction of the craft inherent in brewing. If you happen to be me, a time to screw things up in a myriad of never ending (and often silly) ways.

Since they enjoy being involved, I usually try to hold off brewing until my kids are up - and they typically sleep in on the weekends. On this particular brewday, I had chosen to prepare a large breakfast for the family - my wife's requested "kitchen sink" hash browns (potatoes, onions, cheese, tomatoes, jalapenos, chili, ranch dressing), beef bacon (so dubbed "Amazabacon" in my house due to the flavor), and blueberry muffins. I also had a little drywall work to do in the basement that day (fixing a wall in a bedroom that will soon belong to my oldest son); naturally, a shower was required after that. Before I knew it, it was already three PM.

Silas stirring the mash
Who can turn down good help like this?

Now, I have a well deserved reputation for not only making a truly silly amount of mistakes during my brewdays, but also for stretching the process out far longer than it should take. Considering that I was planning to decoct this batch, I understandably grew worried at the time, and briefly considered putting off the brewing... but really, if I was going to do a Festbier, it needed to be done then. Another week delay might lead to me submitting beer that would not be ready in time for judging.

So, I got my strike water heating. I had planned on an acid rest @ 95 degrees F, so I needed to mash in with water just under 98 degrees F. No problem.

American Weigh 100g scale
Fuzzy picture of a superb, inexpensive little scale. Accurate to .01 gram, only costs $10! (pic links to Amazon)

Once the campden, brewing salts, and lactic acid were added, I left the water to warm and prepped my cooler. I would again be using my Brew Bag, but this time, I would employ my wife's idea of hooking bungees through the loops and wrapping them under the cooler. You may recall that my only complaint with the Brew Bag was that it didn't stay in place like I would have liked - well, the bungee idea worked perfectly. Chucklehead me then wandered off for a few minutes; by the time I checked my water, it was around 126 degrees F. No big deal, right?

Brew Bag in cooler, with bungees
The bungees fixed my only issue with the Brew Bag; this thing is indespensable. (pic links to my review)

Wrong. Would you believe that it took me nearly forty-five minutes to get the water down to around 106 degrees F? In frustration, I did some quick homework and discovered that I was within acid rest range, at which point, I gave up and mashed in - I mean, it was already four PM. I could feel the brewing gods chuckle menacingly.

Except, somehow or other, this turned out to be literally the only actual mistake I would make that afternoon. Perhaps the brewing gods were merely chuckling in bemusement at my normal antics, and decided for once to give me a break. Ten minutes into the rest, I pulled my pH sample - it was 5.5, while my target was 5.35. I added one mL of lactic acid, stirred like crazy, and let it sit six minutes. The new reading was 5.39, so I added a half of a mL more, stirred well, and proceeded on my way.

One thing I have learned about decoctions is to pull more than you think that you will need. Beersmith suggested that I would need 8.3 quarts of mash, so I pulled 11 quarts. This was heated to around 153 degrees F (my target was 150-155 degrees F), and let it rest there for twenty minutes to be sure that I let that portion get a good amount of conversion done. I then boiled that first decoction for eight minutes. Mixing about three quarters of my volume into the main mash (with the eager asistance of my four year old son, Silas) got me to 132 degrees F (my target protein rest temp was 131 degrees F), so I called that success. Yes, Beersmith was apparently dead on this time, but I'd rather have a little extra decocted than not enough.

My first decoction
My first decoction at rest

I pulled six or so quarts off of the main mash and added that back to my leftover original decoction, went through the likely unnecessary step of letting it rest for ten minutes at 153 degrees F, then again boiled it for eight minutes. When I added almost all of this back to the main mash, I nailed exactly 146 degrees F, which was my target.

Excited, I pulled another six or so quarts off the main mash, let it rest there at the current temp for ten minutes or so, then boiled it for a final ten minutes. When this was added back to the main mash, I nailed 156 degrees F exactly - which was again my target temperature. I let the entire main mash set for another half hour, then did a little dance around my kitchen - this would be my first decoction where I easily hit every intended target rest temperature.

My third (and final) decoction
My third (and final) decoction just before boil

At this point, I had hungry kids, and my wife was busy with the baby. Being a guy who tries to be a good dad and husband, I rounded the kids up and got them all something to eat, which ended up making my final mash step more like 45 minutes. Oh, well. If nothing else, I should have zero issues with conversion, right?

Old habits die hard; even though the Brew Bag absolutely keeps all grain bits out of the kettle, I still did a vorlauf before a proper lauter. However, I took advantage of my Brew Bag to get every conceivable drop of wort out before I sparged. I repeated both processes at the sparge, even going to far as to squeeze my grain bag a bit with the aid of my mash paddle. In no surprise to anyone with any sense, doing so picked up extra wort.

Somewhere after 7 PM, I got my boil going. Knowing that I had extra wort, I decided to boil for 120 minutes instead of 90, and adjusted my hop addition timing accordingly.

EatSmart digital scale
The scale I use for hops, sugar, extract, etc. Super reliable, costs $20. (pic links to Amazon)

Sure enough, I did boil off a bit too much; I measured a little over six gallons of wort. Meh; I'd top off with a little water and call it good. I brought the kettle inside, put the lid on it, then switched to Daddy mode; kids needed baths and pajamas. Then I sat down and watched an X Files with my wife before heading back to the dining room to get everything split up before bed.

Now, I have Beersmith set up for 74% efficiency, which I can almost set a clock by when doing a single infusion mash; experience tells me that a decoction will usually add around four gravity points. Imagine my surprise when I pulled a gravity reading of 1.076 (after temperature correction) when my target gravity had been 1.061. Even after adding three quarters of a gallon of water back, I was still at 1.068!

Still, I have a difficult time counting stronger flavor as a fault (and who doesn't like a little extra beer?), so I went with it, and stirred everything really well to ensure an even distribution of everything when I split the batch. Four gallons went into my carboy, with about a gallon and a half to each bucket. The carboy then went into the fermentation fridge (not without a little fight, as the freezer had frosted to the point that a carboy and airlock would not fit under it; I had to employ a hammer and chisel to fit it in there) to get down to lager fermentation temps overnight. The buckets went into my SOAFC, but it was now after midnight - I'd split yeast and pitch tomorrow.

Wort split three ways
My wort split three ways. These little buckets are so great for this! (pic links to Amazon)

By the time I had even the most basic cleanup done, it was after one AM. Yep, my brewday - though shockingly mistake free (compared to my usual experience) - had stretched past nine hours.

Wynter, providing moral support
Wynter encouraging me after a long brewday. Let's not talk about bedtimes.

You know, if these beers don't at least score decently (mid thirties or better), I'm going to be unhappy.

Footnote for those who may care:

The following night, I aerated all three fermentors with 60 seconds of pure O2 (man, do I ever love my stainless steel aeration wand!). The Festbier got a big starter of WLP820, and I set it to ferment at 52 degrees F. One of the buckets of the Belgian Blond got ~45B cells of WLP500, while the other got ~70B cells. I will be really interested to see if the two end up with noticeably different character; either way, I will report back. After five days, I allowed the Festbier to free warm to ~67 F for a diacetyl rest, while I added a four ounces of table sugar (boiled as a thin syrup) to each bucket of the Belgian Blond. When that slowed down, the heating pad was employed to ensure full attenuation.

The next step will be a cold crash with gelatin for all of the beer; the Festbier will lager for a week around 33 degrees F. Everything will get about three weeks in bottles before being turned in to the Brew Off. Judging will happen on October 3rd; as soon as I know some results, I'll be sure to share them!

Tags for this post: competition, brewing, beer, festbier, Belgian blond, 2015 BJCP guidelines, decoction, 9 hour

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It is the brave brewer who starts a decoction @3:00 P.M.

posted by nzo on 8/19/2015 at 08:30:58 AM

Dude - subtracting non-brew-day stuff - not such a long day!

Using the bag allows for total capture of wort with no dead space and because you can squeeze the bag and get 100% same gravity volume the total volume calcs can be adjusted.

Grain absorption prior to squeezing is about 18 oz per lb. - squeezing drops that to about 12, so just ten lbs of grain will yield 60 oz difference.

If you do full volume no sparge you can shave 30-45 minutes off your brew day.

Good luck with the competition!

posted by TheBrewBag on 8/19/2015 at 08:50:37 AM

Heads up for next time: most competitions allow you to black-out a cap with a sharpie if they're not blank.

posted by KidMoxie on 8/19/2015 at 02:22:25 PM