Monday, April 8, 2013

Thermapen vs. CDN/ProAccurate Thermometer Test

I was at the very end of my last brew day and cleaning up all of my equipment when I shattered my floating glass thermometer. This is the second one I have shattered in 3 years and I always worry about breaking it off in a mash or in a kettle. I was also a little suspect of the accuracy.

Besides the floating glass, I also own a CDN ProAccurate Digital Thermometer. Though I love how quick it gives you reading vs. the glass, I was always suspect of the readings because of the need to constantly recalibrate and sometimes its differences from the glass thermometer (Which one was wrong? Who knows).

I have become tired of the fear of accuracy as well as breaking the glass so I ponied up ($96) and bought a Thermapen. Everyone that has one raves about them so I figured why not. Even though they are supposed to be one of, if not the most accurate thermometer on the market, I ran my own test to verify. While I tested the Thermapen, I decided to do a side by side with the CDN to see if it was also accurate. Thought it would have been nice to test a glass thermometer as well that was not an option.

I made the ice bath just as the Thermapen directions suggested. The estimated temperature of the solution should be very close to 32. The Thermapen gave me a reading of 32.3 in a few seconds. Very happy about that. I put the CDN into the same solution.

Now I knew I'd have to calibrate the CDN for best results and temperature must be in the 32-34 range to do so. Well when I put the CDN into the ice bath, it read 29.6. If you try to calibrate at the temperature you get an error. So right away I was concerned with the accuracy. That almost 3 degrees could make a big difference in an hour mash.

I also had some water boiling. Based on my elevation and air pressure at the time of the test, water would boil at 210.6 degrees. I put the Thermapen into the boiling solution and it read 210.5 degrees. After both test I was now a Thermapen believer! I put the CDN into the boiling water and it read 208. Again, was around 3 degrees off in the same direction.

I then put the Thermapen and CDN back into the ice bath. The Thermapen again read 32.3. The CDN now read 32. That bugged me that it read a different temperature in the same medium. However, I'd now be able to calibrate the CDN. So I did and it read 32.1, very close to the Thermapen and expected temperature of the solution.

The CDN and Thermapen went back into the boiling water. The Thermapen again read 210.5 and the CDN also read 210.5. Interesting results.

So what this tells me in this very limited test is that the Thermapen and the CDN are very close to each other as long as the CDN was calibrated. However, as I said the first time, in the ideal ice bath solution I could not get the CDN to calibrate.

Though the Thermapen is around 5x the price I think over the long term I'd put my faith in it over the CDN. However, if you don't have around $100 laying around the CDN is a viable option as long as you can calibrate it. That's the key!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

5% Better Brewer!

When you are an all grain brewer, besides trying to make tasty beer, you are also judged on how well you convert starches to sugars. This is know as your brewhouse efficiency. According to Brad Smith over at BeerSmith, "Brewhouse efficiency is defined as the percent of potential grain sugars that are converted into sugar in the wort."  I'm not going to reinvent the wheel by writing about efficiency but if you want to learn more about it, here are some resources.

How to Brew

I've historically averaged around 65% efficiency by batch sparging. There have been some batches I've been in closer to 70% and some in the upper 50%.....yes, all over the place! I've been closer to 55%-60% my last few batches and I was starting to talk to some fellow brewers about it. They were also seeing some lower efficiencies and we found the common link was where we got our grains. It appeared that our local homebrew shop was just not giving a good crush (note: last time I was there I looked at the gap on their mill and I think I could fit my wife's mini van through it!). So with post Christmas money/gift cards I decided to buy a mill. 

I opted to go with the Monster Mill MM3. Really nice mill. I'd highly recommend it. On the maiden grind before my last brew I ground 1 lb of my grain bill to see how it worked. And right away I noticed how much finer the crush was compared to what I was getting from the store. I have my mill set at 0.045" gap.

I ground the rest of the grain and I went through my mash process as usual. At the end of the brew day I calculated my efficiency and it was up to 70%. This is the best mash I've had in a while. Yes, it was only 1 test so far and I know 70% isn't wonderful but its a step in the right direction. I'm very hopefully that I can be more consistent now that I'm grinding my own grains. I plan to do a few more batches at the current gap setting and then start to mess with it to see how it impacts my efficiency.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Not so Robust, but Pretty Brown.

A few weeks ago I posted about a Porter I brewed. I think the beer came out well and folks who've tried it have enjoyed it. But its not as robust as I expected based on a previously batch. The first time I made this beer it was pretty roasty and even borderline stoutish. As it aged the roastiness faded some and it became a truer robust porter. A nice beer overall.

To compensate for some of that roastiness this last batch, I decided to add the roasted grains toward the end of my mash to extract the color but maybe not as much roastiness. Mission accomplished. However, I don't believe I have a robust porter anymore.

I plan to enter this beer in my club's next competition . To see if it fit the Robust Porter category, I did a side by side comparision with Smuttynose's Robust Porter. Right off the bat, I can smell that the Smuttynose was much roastier. The head was also much tanner even though the color of the beer was near identiccal. To the BJCP guidelines I went.

On reading the Robust Porter guidelines it was clear to me I should not enter this beer as a Robust Porter. The Brown Porter guidelines though seemed very close. In reading the Comments section of the Brown Porter, it actually highlighted the differences I was seeing in the two beers side by side.

I've learned two very important things from this batch of beer.
  1. Minor tweeks in your mash schedule can have signficant impacts especially when using dark grains.
  2. If entering a competition, be sure to enter a beer into the category of the style the beer finished as, not as the style it was intended .
Having judged several competition, I've seen how people ignore #2 because of either, not knowing, not caring or just being flat out being stubborn since they planned their beer to be a certain style. I've put in the comments section, "would be better in 'X' style category". I've seen it in Porters and with IPAs. Either the Porters are more brown than robust (like in my case) or the IPA's come up short on hop aroma (maybe Pale Ale vs. IPA?).

I know if I entered this beer as a robust porter I'd get dinged for not being roasty enough. So as a competition tip, enter your beer in the category the finished beer as, not in the style you may have intended to brew. Some categories have fine line.

Friday, December 14, 2012

StarSan - Sanitizer and Leak Finder

I'm not sure if its bad luck, carelessness or a combination of both that has caused issues with CO2 the last couple years. I’ve had issues with a keg lid, o-rings and a hairline fracture in a regulator that all lead to leaks in my kegging system. Those I don’t believe I did anything wrong. However, not fully tightening the gas socket on the keg was my fault.  

I went to check on my 10 lbs CO2 tank today since I just filled those Porter kegs and to my disappointment it was empty. I filled it just 2 months ago so I know something was wrong. Now it became a game of find the leak. This is where StarSan comes in! 

Because of how easily StarSan foams up, it’s the perfect medium for looking for leaks because it bubbles like crazy. So I carefully went through each connection on my system looking for leaks. Nothing after 3 kegs. Finally I got to the gas socket on the 4th keg and it started to bubble. I tightened it up and the bubbles stopped. Problem solved. This does teach me to check all of my connections one last time after filling a new keg. 

I learned a trick today when I talked to the guy at the CO2 place about my leak. He said, turn on the CO2 tank, lets it fill the entire system and balance out and then turn off the gas at the CO2 tank. If there is a leak, you’ll see the pressure slowly start to drop on the regulator since you are not forcing in any more pressure from the tank. If there is no leak, it should hold pressure in the regulator.

So I hope I go downstairs later or tomorrow and still find that everything is still OK.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Vanilla Porter

I'm a rather conservative brewer. Because of the amount of time it takes to go from grain to glass, I typically avoid putting "non-grain" flavors into my beers with fear of overdoing it. I decided with this last batch to step out of my comfort zone a little. I like having my Robust Porter around for winter. One of my wife's favorite beers is Breckenridge's Vanilla Porter. So I figured, maybe do a split batch and try putting a fresh vanilla bean in. If I screw it up, its just half a batch. I wasn't going for a clone, but hoping for a smooth vanilla tasting/smelling porter.  

I did some research and a lot of what I read said that you should use 1 whole vanilla bean for every 5 gallons of beer. The impression I get is that a little bit bean goes a long way. Since I was going to split the batch, I only needed half a bean. Too bad they don't sell half beans as it cost me $6 for one bean at Whole Foods! 

For those that have never seen one, here is what a vanilla bean looks like. Sort of like a brown, shriveled up string bean.  

What you want to do is expose as much of the inside of the bean to the beer. That is where all the good stuff is. I cut the bean lengthwise and scrapped out all the contents. It wasn’t what I expected. The inside of the bean is like the consistency of a very fine coffee ground. I cut up the pod too into small pieces to again allow as much of the inside of the pod make contact with the beer.

I dumped the entire bean and it insides into a Better Bottle. I then racked half of the porter right on top. Figured by putting the bean in first that it would help mix it up fully as it racked.

As early as the next day, there was a nice vanilla aroma coming off the beer. I can see how you can easily overdue it though! The plan was to have the beer in contact with the bean for at least 10 days.

I just racked the beer to kegs yesterday so I have yet to taste a fully finished product. But there is a nice, clear vanilla aroma and a slight vanilla in the finish. So far, so good. I’m very interested to see if the flavors changes at all once it is carbed up like does the CO2 enhance or suppress the vanilla.

For those that want the recipe, is pretty much Jamil’s….

10 lb American 2-Row (74.07%)
1.25 lb Crystal 40 (9.26%)
1.25 lb Munich I (9.26%)
0.75 lb Chocolate (5.56%)
0.25 lb Black Patent (1.85%)

1 oz East Kent Golding Pellet @ 60 Minutes
0.5 oz East Kent Golding Pellet @ 10 Minutes
0.5 oz East Kent Golding Pellet @ 5 Minutes

Vanilla bean added after beer was fully fermented and left it in for 10 days.