Brew Day at Black Bridge

Supporting your local brewery can lead to great beer and brewing experiences. Recently the good folks at Black Bridge Brewery let me spend a day with them and brew K-Town, their understated and charming weissbier.

I arrived there on a Friday at approximately 8 am. Kevin was there, transferring some of their old ale into kegs for transport to an event later in the day. Hops, the the fawned-over-feline and possibly official mascot of Black Bridge, peeked around the stage shortly after my arrival to see who was present to worship him. Well, Kevin was there, so …


A little before Tim was to arrive he called and had Kevin start up some mash water, so I followed him over to the vessels and watched him work a couple of valves and, voila, hot water started to fill up one of the tanks. Once Tim arrived with more malt we fed that into the grain mill which had been attached to the mash tun. I’m used to working with around five pounds of malt instead of fifty and I usually purchase mine already cracked and have never milled it myself. There’s nothing complicated about that step in the process, dump the bag in the hopper and let the electric drill attached to the crank do the hard work, but at least I can say I have milled grain now. I’m sure there are other aspects to it, such as determining how fine you want the barley cracked, but that was not part of this brew day.


Once the grain was milled the hot water was transferred to the mash tun and the grains were stirred and temperature reached and …. time to wait, just like brewing at home. While waiting I got to see some new sound equipment that had been delivered and tried to help research a couple of other pieces the brewery was seeking. Around this point, Heather arrived and started going through her routine of opening up for the day.

Then it was time to sparge – rinsing the mashed grains with more hot water to extract all the sugars out of the grains. After recirculating a portion of the mash water a copper ring is attached to the mash tun. Hot water is sprinkled from this arm onto the mash and mash water is transferred to the boiling vessel.  The hot water is added via this sparge arm at the same rate the mash water is transferred into the boil kettle. It was nice to see this method, continuous sparging, in action. I’ve read about it and understood how it was supposed to work. But in my home brewing I’ve used the batch sparging method. So, in a sense, this was new for me, too.

Once the mash tun was drained it was time to clean it out while waiting for the temperature to rise in the boiling vessel. That’s right, cleaning and waiting. Just like home brewing. Oh, and of course there was some beer consumed. K-Town, in fact. I adhered to the head brewer’s pattern of drinking what was being brewed. Good call.

By this time, the doors were open and people were arriving. Tim was mingling with his customers, Heather was pouring beers, Kevin was either playing with Hops or cleaning some fermenting vessels. I think I tried to help him a little, but I may have just had another K-Town.

Speaking of hops, once the boil was reached the hops addition was measured out. I was taught the proper way to tie a string around a mesh bag. The hops, in the properly tied bag, were immersed in the boil. And then there was more waiting. Finally it was time to chill the wort and transfer it to the fermenter. After adding the yeast strain to the fermenting vessel, the wort was transferred through the plate chillers to the fermentation vessel. And we were done.


All this is just an every day routine for brewers, like Tim (and he did keep reminding me about that).  But it was great fun for me. I was able to see some brewing methods at work that I’ve only read about.  Professional nano-brewing is like brewing at home, just on a bigger scale.  There is much waiting and relaxing and drinking.  Sure, maybe there was not pH testing of mash or water treatment or refractometers – but whatever. The end product speaks for itself.

Tim would be a good educator, by the way.  He walked me through his steps, explaining each valve and why he wanted it to do what it did, explained his motors, talked about the equipment he’d like to have and how it would change his process. While eating lunch with his friend and mentor, Jason Fuller (to whom this town owes a debt of beer gratitude), he talked about hops experiments he did and how those did or did not change the bitterness and aroma values of the final beer.  He was encouraged, during his mentoring, to question everything he reads or hears about brewing, test it, and just brew beer that is his.

I learned a thing or two I can incorporate in my brewing.  I also feel a little more invested in the product being served at Black Bridge.  In addition to all that, it was enjoyable getting to know Tim and the crew a little more.  So thanks to all for the day of brewing.  Now I wanna brew more … another beer at B3 and plenty of my own.

Get to know your local, people, you never know what cool things can happen.  And if you are new to home brewing, definitely get to Black Bridge and hang out.

P.S.  The day after the brew day above we checked fermentation on this batch.  Well, that yeast was vibrant and healthy and working away.  Can’t wait to have some of this batch of K-Town!



Home Brew Session: A Scottish Export, Mostly

Pictures last week told the story of the penultimate day of my vacation. It was home brew time and it seemed to go well.

Approximately eight months ago I purchased ingredients for two brews. I made one of them right after I bought the ingredients. It was a smoked porter that was very weak, alcoholically, but very strong, smokily. I was only supposed to use half the smoked malt I bought but accidentally I used the entire amount for the one beer. My mash and sparge calculations were off as well, so I ended up with a dark and diluted mash. The beer finished at around 2% abv. Shortly after that, life happened and I’ve only now gotten around to motivating myself to brew again.

Thus, I had months old grain and no yeast. I decided to order yeast. Because the grains are old and not complete – see, one of the two beers mentioned above was supposed to be a smoked scottish export; well, you know, the smoked malt is gone (possibly some other grains were missing, too; memory is hazy on that point) – and I did not think it would be the beer I originally wanted it to be, I decided to use a French Saison yeast; perhaps that will give it an old, farmhouse character to complement the possibly stale malt.

I calculated the mash water and sparge water much more carefully this time. Essentially, I was going to do a three gallon batch so I determined I would need approximately 4.85 gallons of water in total. Now, during the last brew day I believe I did this calculation, but, at one point I wanted to raise the mash temperature and so I added a few quarts to the mash and did not take this amount out of my sparge water therefore ending up with a few quarts too much volume.

This time, I deducted the three quarts I used to increase my mash temperature three or so degrees. It went from around 147-148 to 150-151. The temp held for a sixty minute mash. I added the rest of my sparge water, about two gallons now, and commenced the batch sparge. I even recirculated twice.

The next obstacle came when it was boil time. See, I was sure that I’d had a packet of hops left over from the last brew day but it was missing. I was in the middle of brew day, and no hops. As Joe at Black Bridge Brewery eloquently put it: “What kind of a train wreck brew day do you have going on?” He was right, it was a wreck. But, I took Papazian’s timeless advice and relaxed. And drank some Wicked Poison.

After this, I decided that a spice mixture would just have to do as a hops substitute. I settled on two teaspoons of cinnamon and one and a half ounces of crushed coriander. By this time the boil was underway. My son, assistant brewer for the day, reminded me that I also needed to find my airlocks. They seemed to have disappeared as well. For nearly thirty minutes we searched. Finally, they were discovered – along with the missing hops! They were US Goldings. I was twenty seconds away from the thirty minute mark of the boil. It seemed perfect timing, so I dumped the hops in and boiled for another thirty. And, since I already had the coriander and cinnamon ready, I put them in towards the end of the boil, 15 minutes prior. Reduced amounts, since I had the hops.

All that was left was chilling, which is always my biggest challenge since I still don’t have a wort chiller! Honestly, the last time it took me a couple of hours. Or more. Today: 53 minutes. I used cold water in the sink and was able to circulate it this time. The circulation, moving the water, helped incredibly. And I also used a wort aerator attached to a length of 3/8 hose. Between these two items, I chilled in record time. The yeast smack pack had swelled perfectly and I pitched at 70 degrees.

The beer looks great. Just needs fermentation time and a name …

Chapter Two: The Yeast Begins It

In chapter one I pointed out that an allure of home brewing is the do-it-yourself culture it engenders. I am in no way “handy” or talented or mechanically inclined, etc., but I am fascinated by the notion of scraping together whatever odds and ends you may have at home and augmenting that with particulars from the hardware store or home brew supply store and forging a piece of equipment through which you can make art.

The Recipe
The same motif transfers to crafting recipes for beers. Each style of beer has its own basic grist bill, a recipe of ingredients, with varying percentages of base malts and crystal malts and roasted malts and wheat malt and amounts of hops and adjuncts – you get the idea.

There are a multitude of published recipes, from personal home brew favorites to clones of popular commercially available beers to award winning competition entries. A brewer is free to choose from these or strike out on his own and make up a totally new recipe. It can be based on the framework of a particular style or it can be a wholly new and Frankensteinian conglomeration.

Or, if you’ve been out of the loop for a time you can look back into your old recipe logs and brew an old favorite. In my case, I looked into that old recipe spreadsheet and found a beer for which I had created a recipe whence thinking about what beers I’d want in my line up for the brewery that I never opened. I had never actually made the beer. It is, I think, a smoked Porter or stout. Honestly I am not positive – but the recipe seemed porterish or stoutish and it contained smoked malt. I shall publish the recipe later and others can chime in on it. Additionally, I found a recipe for a strong scotch ale published in Zymurgy, the journal of the American Homebrewers Association. The beer sounded good and had won a competition.

So I wrote out a side by side comparison. Of the ingredients and tweaked both recipes just a little so that ordering would be easier. I crossed over a few malts here, added one from this beer to that, did the same with the hops. Voila, those beers are mine. Again. For the second time. In one case. Well, anyway, you see the do-it-yourself culture happening even in recipe formulation.

While it is important to get the grist bill correct for whatever style you are seeking to make another, arguably more important, choice is the yeast. Which strain is best for your style? Which one will provide the character you are seeking? And will you have enough of it?

The Yeast
Auspiciously both of the recipes above called for the same yeast strain, White Labs Edinburgh Ale, WLP028. “Scotland is famous for its malty, strong ales,” says the White Labs website. “This yeast can reproduce complex, flavorful Scottish style ales. This yeast can be an everyday strain, similar to WLP001. Hop character is not muted with this strain, as it is with WLP002.” Several porters and stouts are amongst those listed for which this strain is appropriate.

Thus I purchased one vial. Yes, one vial, although I intend to make two beers. Now we come to an important function in home brewing, the propagation of yeast. I was terribly concerned about this part. I’ve not made a starter in years. I was sure I’d get it messed up somehow. But, I took precautions. I cleaned and sanitized the boiling pot. I cleaned and sanitized the flasks. I got out lots of aluminum foil.

The White Labs vials and Wyeast smack packs are designed to be pitched into five gallons of beer. However, sometimes you may be making a rather strong beer that needs more oomph than the vial may have. Or, you just want fermentation to get started right away. In those cases, you can make a yeast starter. Essentially, you do a very small micro-nano-pico brew with some dried malt extract. You Tube has some good videos on yeast starters. The process is the same on all of them, so far. All of this is to be done a day or so before Brew Day.

First, collect your water. If you’re using an Erlenmyer flask use it to measure the water you’ll need. I have two such flasks, one is 500 mL capacity and the other is 1000 mL. So I filled them to those levels and put the water in a pot on the stove.

The White Labs tutorial recommended a ratio of 10:1 for the yeast wort. Thus, since I collected 1500 mL of water I should use 150 grams of extract. Of course, I calculated incorrectly. For some reason I thought the larger flask was 1500 mL; so I thought I had collected 2000 mL of water. Therefore I used 200 grams of DME. I think the yeast starter wort was a bit strong. Oh, and the pot wasn’t big enough. Yeah. Boil over. Cool.

This turned out fine, though. I split the wort into the two flasks after a fifteen minute boil. Yes, I used a properly sanitized funnel to fill the flasks with the hot wort. One cooled in the little beer fridge in the garage and The other cooled in an ice bath in the kitchen sink. It did not take long. Before I knew it the vial was open, it was split between the flasks, they were covered with the aluminum foil, shaken and put out of the way in a cabinet.

As I feared, I did make a couple of mistakes. The first was mentioned above with the water. The second was that I split the vial improperly. I poured a bigger portion of the yeast in the small flask and a smaller bit in the larger flask. I was disconcerted by this. The small flask seemed to be murky and active almost immediately and the large one just stared blankly at me. ’What, you want me to work?’ it seemed to say. ’Didst thou see the piddling amount of yeast ye dumped in me?’

Jerk flask.

However, the yeast in both flasks started working within three hours and now instead of one vial of yeast to pitch I have 1500 mL! There will be sugar conversion! There will be fermentation! I am ready for Brew Day. Now I must decide which vial to use in which batch.

So ends this chapter. Ingredients ordered, yeast starters made, excitement cultivated.