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Cat Tales : A Cat's Eye View of Brewing with Extract

Cat Tales : A Cat's Eye View of Brewing with Extract

Webmaster's Note: This article is a reprint from an article written and published in Zymurgy

Editor's Note:We recently asked veteran California homebrewer Jay Ankeney to share his tips for extract brewing with our readers. As it turns out, Jay was swamped with work, so he delegated the article to his favorite feline furperson and assistant brewer, Phoebe the cat. Phoebe has watched Jay brew every batch he's made from when she was old enough to play kitten hockey with his bottle caps. Fortunately, she did a great job and the article that follows is full of new and interesting approaches to homebrewing.

Ever since my household brewmaster Jay wrote the beginners' "Easy Beer" booklet with Dan Dennis 'way back in 1985, he has had three mottos to guide his brewing procedures: A) Keep it simple, B) Keep it fun, and C) Keep it coming! That's why you will notice a marked absence of either hard work or measuring tools in his malt extract and mini-mash techniques. But I hope you don't confuse this with laziness or sloppiness. As a committed extract and mini-mash brewer, Jay has won more than 70 awards in AHA sanctioned competitions over the years using these tips.

Of course, Jay has enjoyed participating in many all grain brews as a member of two homebrew clubs, The Strand Brewers and The Maltose Falcons. He has often mentioned how much respect he has for people who will devote a whole, sweaty, steamy day just to brew up a batch of beer. He's glad somebody has the space and patience to keep up the tradition - just as long as it's somebody else.

So let me share some of the extract brewing tricks Jay and his brew partners have developed over the years as we purr our way through a typical malt extract and mini-mash brewing process. I'll also steal some of the more successful recipes he has developed since, after one of his homebrew students earned a 2nd in a competition in the same style where he was embarrassed to rip off a 1st place, he likes to say he has "pretty much retired from competition" (In truth, I think he's just too lazy to fill out the entry forms).

Countdown to Blast Off

Enter it into the Log

Notice how Captain Kirk always begins an adventure on the Starship Enterprise by logging in the stardate? Well the first thing beginning homebrewers should reach for is not the can of malt extract. They should grab a notebook, even a cheap spiral bound memo book. In fact, the next few steps should be done a few days before you're scheduled to brew.

"Do anything you want, just take notes on it!" is the philosophy behind every brewing session. At least mark down the date of brewing, the ingredients used, the length of the boil, the kind of yeast pitched, and when the batch was bottled. Other details, such as what you were imbibing during the brew, can also be useful. But there is no point in discovering El Dorado if you haven't kept a map.

The notes from Jay's favorite recipe for Porter that took Best of Show at the first L.A. County Fair homebrew competition and a First Place at the Dixie Cup in the same year, read:

1 can (3.3 lbs or 1.5 kg) Coopers Bitter liquid malt extract
1 bag (3 lbs or 1.33 kg) Brewmaster dark dry malt extract (for the wort)

1 cup (0.25 liter) Roast Chocolate grains
1 cup (0.25 liter) Dark Caramel grains (for the mini mash)

2 oz. (57 grams) pelletized Bramlings hops-boiled 30 minutes
1 oz. (28 grams) pelletized Saaz hops-boiled 20 minutes
2 oz (57 grams) pelletized Hallertauer hops-boiled10 minutes

Ale yeast pitched from a friend's cultured starter

Bottled with one cup brewers sugar for priming

That's not a lot of work and the only measurement is the cups of grains and the hops. But notice that even for a beer as dark as a porter, half of the extract used (the Coopers) is actually very light.

Taming the Yeasty Beasties

Yeast can be the most important ingredient in a good extract batch, and with yeast cleanliness is all important. Luckily, today we have many good sources of pure yeast, from the Wyeast smack packs to the White Labs vials. But if you are willing to make a starter, there are other options for generating good pitchable yeast.

Many brewers forget that if you have a great batch of bottled homebrew on the shelf, you can use it as a source of yeast. If the beer tastes good and hasn't been in the bottle for more than six or eight weeks, you can be pretty sure that the yeast in the bottom of the bottles is viable and clean. Start by pouring off most of the beer (Jay likes his in a glass).Then let the remaining beer warm up to room temperature and swirl the contents of the bottle to re-suspend the yeast sediment and dump it all into your starter wort. Using this technique, you can self-perpetuate your favorite yeast.

Also, you can save a lot of money over the regular cost of liquid yeast if you will learn how to make your own yeast starters from agar slants. These are available from some homebrew stores and via mail order. The slants look just like little test tubes with white stuff growing on top of the slanted agar pool inside. All you do is sanitize a small wire loop by holding the tip of the wire over a gas flame and then carefully scrape out a glop of that white stuff. Then swirl the yeasty glop into a jar of sterilized wort, close it and within two to three days and you should have a happily foaming yeast starter.

The Big Mouth

It's very handy to have a few containers of sterilized wort set aside for when you need to make a yeast starter. Sure you could use Grandma's old jelly jars, but we've found that empty Mickey's Big Mouth bottles serve just as well. You can get them anywhere, they are cheap, and recycling the bottle is probably the best thing you can do with Mickey's Big Mouth beer. Just save the screw on cap after you pour out the beer, the fill the bottle one-third full with water and one-third full with wort. Next, put the bottle(s) in a saucepan of boiling water to sterilize. Once cooled, a prepared bottle of sanitized wort can wait patiently in your refrigerator until needed. Make sure to warm each bottle to room temperature before introducing the yeast.

Getting Ready for The Big Chill

Whether using extract or all grains, it is vital to cool the boiling wort down to room temperature or cooler fairly quickly after the end of the boil. Some brewers use immersion chillers, others counter flow devices. Each of these violates another of Jay's dictums that as few outside things as possible should touch the wort to reduce risk of infection.

So before your next brew, try making a sterile ice cube to cool your wort. Take a 6 to 8 cup Tupperware jar and fill it close to the brim with boiling water from a tea kettle. Put on the lid. Then put the lid on again after the steam pops it off. Once it reaches a reasonable temperature stick the plastic container in the freezer and within a day you will have a sterile chunk of ice that will quickly bring your wort down to pitching temperature. No muss, no fuss, and most importantly, no extra equipment to clean.

The Great Day

The Stuff of Dreams

As the brewing day approaches, and you have your yeast starter, your sterile ice cube and that all important notebook ready, it's time to consider the recipe.

You can get as complex as you want, but we've found that 5 pounds (2.26 kg) of light malt extract along with 2 pounds (0.9 kg) of adjuncts makes a good basic recipe for pale ale styles. For darker beers, we go with 6 pounds (2.72 kg) of dark malt extract with 1 to 2 pounds (0.45-0.9 kg) of dark roasted grains. Once you get some experience with different extract brands, you can pretty much go with the style on the label for the brands you've learned to like. However, whether the malt extract claims to be hopped or not, you will probably want to boost the hopping with your own selection. These days some extracts include some hop oil that will give some hop character to the beer if it is made with little or no boiling. But assuming that you will boil your wort for an hour or more, the hop oil included in the extract will be boiling off and have little, if any effect. So do your own thing using the extract as a starting point. Just keep notes!

For example, the recipe for Jay's entry into the 1997 Pacific Brewers Cup that won a 1st Place mug was:
1 can (4 lbs or 1.8 kg) Alexander's Light liquid malt extract
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Coopers Draft liquid malt extract
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Brewmaster Dry Rice extract (for the wort)

2 lbs. (0.9 kg) Munich Light Grains (for the mini mash)

1 oz. (28 grams) pelletized Chinook hops-boiled 30 min.
1 oz. (28 grams)pelletized Hallertauer hops-boiled 20 min.
0.5 oz (14 grams) pelletized Hallertauer hops-boiled 10 minutes
0.5 oz (14 grams) pelletized Hallertauer hops-added at end of boil

Adding "Junk"

Our overall approach to brewing is to use malt extracts as a base and do a mini-mash with grain or rice adjuncts to fine tune things. Most grains, with the main exception of the crystal styles, require a mini mash before adding them to the wort. Standard brewing practice calls for the grains to be mixed with hot water to achieve a mash temperature of 145° F to 155° F (63° C to 68° C).This technique will probably make great beer, however, we prefer a simpler method. Here's what we do: put the grains in a Dutch oven-style pot, cover them completely with tap water, heat the pot to slowly raise the temperature, stopping just before it begins to boil. When this step is complete, put a clean pasta colander or larger strainer over your brew pot and rinse, or "sparge", the grains with water from a boiling tea kettle into the wort. Purists will argue that this has the potential to extract tannins from the husks, but we have never had a problem and find that we get a very acceptable extraction with little effort.

Boil Baby Boil

There's not much of a difference in boiling techniques between extract and all-grain brewing. The only real trick comes in adding the malt extract. Heat the water to boiling before adding the extracts, but make sure that you turn off the burner while you add them in. This way the extract won't caramelize over the hot spot above the stove's burner.

Jay has found a handy dandy little tool that can help prevent boilovers and let you monitor the progress of heating the wort. This is the only piece of high tech equipment he has adopted and may not be available in all areas. It's a nifty little device poetically called a "Kitchen Cooking Thermometer/Timer/Clock" from Timex (model #3379). This "Thermometer/Timer" has a large LCD digital clock face that doubles as a countdown timer which can be pre-set from a duration stored in memory.

But its handiest feature is a 7" probe (that looks like a tiny aluminum cane) on a 3 foot metal chain that you stick into whatever you want to take the temperature. Below the clock face is an area that reads the temperature in either ºF or ºC and next to it-here's the kicker-is a window in which you can set a target temperature. Once your wort reaches the specified degrees, a loud alarm sounds. He usually sets it to 208° to warn him when the wort is about to boil, and then bumps the target up a bit as the heat increases until it sits right above a vigorous boil. That way, if a boil over approaches, the Timex unit beeps loud enough to wake anyone from a cat nap. It costs about $25 and runs on one AAA battery (not included).

A cheap and easy method that can help to control boilovers is to lay two crossed spoons across the top of the pot from rim to rim. These tend to break up and restrain the boilover foam, minimizing the amount of liquid lost.

Divide and Conquer

It usually takes about four hours to leisurely brew up a batch of malt extract beer. But homebrewing should be a constant asset to life, not an occasional chore. Remember Jay's first dictum: A) Keep it simple, B) Keep it fun, and C) Keep it coming? You can make brewing easier by splitting the process into two evening sessions. On the first night, bring the wort to a boil and add your grain adjuncts and the bittering hops. This should take less than an hour. Then cover the pot, turn off the heat, and do something more interesting like petting the cat. The next night, bring the wort to a boil again, add the flavoring and bittering hops at the appropriate time, cool the wort down, transfer it to the carboy and pitch the yeast. Using this split, an activity that used to consume sunset to midnight can be accomplished in two shorter, easier sessions. Just don't take the lid off your brew pot between boils!

Quick! The Ice Cube!!

Once you have complete an approximately one hour boil and added all the hops you are on a race to get the yeast churning up a protective layer of CO2 before any nasty bacteria can infect your beer. First, depending on how big your brew pot is, you can add a bit of cold water to bring the wort down from boiling temperature. The residual heat of the wort should sterilize the additional water. Now is when you grab that sterile ice cube from the freezer. Float the Tupperware jar in some hot water in the sink to release the cube, and plop the ice into the wort. An 8 cup sterile cube should cool 3 to 4 gallons of wort within 15 minutes.

Making the Magic Work

Don't Sterilize Your Carboy

Sure we're concerned about sanitation, but here is one of the best tricks Jay has discovered during his brewing career. He hated handling glass carboys due to the possible hazard they represented through breakage. He tried plastic spring water bottles, but found that they couldn't be reliably sanitized. Then a thunderbolt hit: use the plastic carboy but line it with a low density, FDA-approved polyethylene bag -- the kind that hospital supply firms use to keep medical instruments clean. You can get them from your local plastics company or look in the Yellow Pages under medical supplies. Usually an 18" X 36" bag with a 2 mil thickness will fit nicely inside a plastic carboy.

Let's be very clear about this. You don't want to use garbage liners or "T" shirt bags. We're referring only to low density, polyethylene bags approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use with food. If you wish you can sterilize the bag once it is inside the carboy and that is probably not a bad idea. Even Jay started out rinsing his bags with Iodophor sanitizing solution at the beginning just for insurance. But I've heard him swear to friends that over the past 8 years he has been using the dry bag right out of the manufacturer's pack and has not experienced a single instance of contamination during fermentation. After all, the bags are extruded hot and packaged up by the manufacturer before they have much contact with air. Use your own good judgment to find out what works for you.

Once you've slipped the bag into the carboy and draped it over the lip, slide on a rubber fermentation stopper and encircle the neck with a 2 inch hose clamp to firmly seal it air tight. After fermentation you can use a second bag to line your priming vessel with the same sanitary results. In both cases, once the fermentation or priming is completed, you will have to rock the lip of the bag back and forth to release the air inside in order to pull the liner out.

One significant side benefit of these carboy liners is that you can use them to capture flocculated yeast debris for storage and repitching. After racking the beer from the carboy/bag combo, remove the bag carefully so that you trap the yeast residue inside. Then you can cut off the excess plastic, tie a knot in the neck, and store it in the refrigerator for up to a week before using it to pitch your next batch of beer.

Racking May Ruin

We've been using the "closed single stage" style of fermenting for a decade with great results. Jay's theory is that racking your wort from a primary to a secondary carboy invokes too much of a risk of contamination. With the closed single-stage approach, you brew up about 3 to 4 gallons of wort so your carboy is only three-quarters full when you pitch the yeast. Then wait for the fermenting foam to rise and fall, and top off the carboy with cool water that you have pre-boiled to sterilize. Although this is heresy to traditionalists, my goofy-footed brewmeister companion has never found a direct expression of off flavors from leaving the wort on the original trub base.

So What Is It?

You may notice that we're somewhat cavalier about recipe specifics with Jay's approach. That's because he enjoys experimenting with different malt extracts and usually never tries to make exactly the same batch twice. Many of our all-grain brewer friends spend hours pouring over computers calculating ingredients to predict exactly what style of beer they will end up with. These are fine people and Jay loves rapping with them about their approach because they usually ply him with plenty of homebrew to keep his attention. But his secret is in the note taking that is such an important part of malt extract brewing. Make a batch. Taste it. Get others to taste it. Then use your evaluation to specify exactly which style category it best fits in and log that into your notebook. That becomes the basis of your future recipe formulation.

Earlier in this article, we outlined the recipe that took a First Place at the Pacific Brewers Cup. Well, the truth is Jay thought he was designing a Pale Ale. But after consulting with other members of his homebrew clubs who were BJCP judges he realized he had missed the mark and re-categorized it before submitting it to the tournament. The competition judges apparently concurred because they decided it was the best English Mild entered. That's the style he entered it as and that's the style engraved on the prize mug. All's fair, you know?

Anyway, I hope these brief brewing tales will aid you in making beer better, faster and generally more enjoyably. With the time your save over all-grain beer production you can spend some quality time with your cat.

Phoebe Ankeney is the fuzzfaced, fourpawed, furperson who is currently the brewing assistant living with Jay Ankeney. You may know her feline predecessor, the famous Gizmo, who helped Jay write the "For The Beginner" series of articles for Zymurgy during 1988-89. This year when Zymurgy asked Jay to collect some of his favorite homebrewing tips, he was simply too busy helping to organize this Fall's Pacific Brewers Cup to make the deadline. As a result, Phoebe volunteered to step in, after all, she's got the time - she's a cat! Phoebe has watched Jay brew every batch he's made from when she was old enough to play kitten hockey with his bottle caps.

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