feel like I’m going backwards

How I managed to get a couple silver medals in a local homebrew comp a couple years ago not long afterm oving to all-grain brewing is kind of beyond me now. How I managed to brew my Rye IPA recipe 3 times in the past couple years and get VERY consistent results, only to have all my brews in recent months go haywire… I just don’t get it.

In the past 4-5 months, almost all my brew days have been chaotic. My gravities have defied logic. I’ve been very lucky the beers have been drinkable, and a couple actually quite tasty, after all that went wrong.

  • Batch #4 of my Rye IPA was over-sparged resulting in a lower ABV beer than intended. That same beer lost all its hop aroma in the keg after I discovered there was a CO2 leak and the keg was sitting in the kegerator not properly pressurized/carbonated.
  • My Zombie Dust clone attempt ran into poor extract efficiency due to a really course crush using the lhbs’s mill (where I always crushed my grain until a couple batches ago). Scrambled, adding over a pound of dried malt extract (DME) to the boil. I rushed this a bit to the keg (drinking 3 weeks after brewday) for our Labor Day party, and amazingly it came out pretty good. Not as intended, but tasty and enjoyable.
  • My 2nd batch of Mosaic IPA had similar lower-than-anticipated original gravity (OG). Meanwhile, the same recipe (same grist, different hopping schedule) when brewed the first time a few months prior was much more as calculated.
  • My first attempt at a Deshutes’ Black Butte Porter clone had similar low boil-off, low OG results and is currently in it’s 2nd week of fermentation.

In MOST cases I have been hitting near the pre-boil gravity readings my homebrew software (I used BeerAlchemy as it’s made for Mac OS unlike many others) has calculated. The big issue is in the gravity change from pre- ot post-boil. I used to anticipate a 1 gallon loss to the boil. In the middle of freezer Winter temps I found my OG was coming in higher than anticipated, and realized I wasn’t taking into account the seasonal changes (colder temps, drier air, increased loss during the boil as I brew outside only). So I started calculating for 1/5 gallons or more lost to boil. Then I forgot to lessen that when the warmer weather arrived, thus I was using too much sparge water resulting in lower gravities. The weird thing is that for the porter brew as well as my most recent Rye IPA attempt (#5), I went back to the 1 gallon boil-off rate, only to find my gravity increasing about .004 pts form the preboil reading compared to calculations anticipating twice that increase. Hence, more lower than planned OG beers.

I’ve never had a sight glass on my kettle to tell me exact volumes, and I’ve never cared, because my earlier brews always came out very close to my anticipated OG. Also, my grain crush has changed as the lhbs had various issues with it’s mill (inconsistent crushes) and now I have my own mill, which is just another change in my equipment. And a few brews ago I started using a new Blichmann burner as opposed to the burner  that was from an old turkey fryer. The old burner wasn’t a banjo style with lots of jets, but more like a stove-top burner on a gas stove in one’s kitchen. Oddly enough, I haven’t found I get to a boil any faster with the new fancy burner (although the heat is much more evenly distributed along the bottom of the kettle).

I brewed my porter 8 days ago, and brewed Rye IPA #5 tow days ago (I jammed in two brew days knowing with Thanksgiving, both of my daughter’s birthdays in December, Christmas, and New Years, brewing will be hard to schedule until mid January). This time, the brand new lab thermometer (broke my other one dropping it a couple brews ago) screwed me over, drastically misreading my mash temp, causing me to over heat the last gallon or stroke water and end up scorching my mash into the 170s. It continued to show me barely hitting 150 (was aiming for 154) so I grabbed the dial thermometer form the turkey fryer as well as a dial meat thermometer, which showed the super high temp. I scrambled and finally got it down to 155 with ice cubes added to the mash! Supposedly, the high temp needs at least 20 minutes to denature and I got the temp down to 155 in about 15 minutes. But I am still assuming I really screwed up the mash and will not get nearly enough conversion to fermentable sugars to make this beer something other than my first to actually dump. I carried it through the process though. Let it mash for an hour, batch sparged, boiled, and chilled. Actually I chilled it to 63° which is a record low for me using only the immersion chiller. I pitched the S05 dry cal ale yeast and used the fermwrap and temp control to raise it to 66 over night. I have not activity all day Monday. Finally, Tuesday morning I was seeing some bubbling in the airlock. The slow start was either due to the bad mash process, or the fact that I pitched at 63°… or a combination of the two.

So now I wait and see just how low this beer will finish. If it gets under 1.020 I will be amazed. I am expecting that the mash scramble with the ice salvaged it a LITTLE, but not enough, and I end up with a beer that finished way too high to be drinkable due to lack of sugars converted in the mash.

I am really banging my head against the wall lately. I know I’m not paying enough attention to detail. I’ve not been diligent with my boil-off/volume measuring. Just can’t imagine how I got so many beers hitting the numbers in the first almost 2 years of homebrewing, and now suddenly don’t seem to know my ass from my elbow.

Just praying the Porter comes out good, and batch 5 of my Rye IPA comes out drinkable, if not one I would share.


4 comments on “feel like I’m going backwards

  1. I know you mentioned not having a sight glass on your kettle, but what are you using for volume measurements? I have a stainless etched ruler that I use.

    I did a quick measurement of 1 gallon, then two, and measured the difference on the ruler, and now know I can times inches by .76 to get gallons in my kettle.
    I know that I want about 10 inches preboil, and about 8.5 post. If I hit my gravity for combined runnings preboil I know I’m target. Then I’m not fretting about the final hydrometer reading only hitting my correct volume.

    Another thing to consider is what temp are you taking your readings at?
    I don’t have a refractometer, so I’m stuck chilling my wort to get a reading. I don’t trust taking high temp readings and trying to adjust it down.

    My method is; after I’ve gathered full runnings, give it a big stir to make sure I’ve evenly distributed the sugars. Gather a 1/2 cup of wort in a pyrex, and put that into the fridge.
    I continue to boil until it’s at 65,
    Then I make my adjustments as necessary. Based on the preboil volume, to bring it up to the appropraite gravity.

    If you use a refractomer, is your scale correct? (the cheap ones use a simple brix to sg calc that is off. Is it calibrated? Have you done simple sugar tests to see it aligns with your hydrometer?

    All of this however is a function of knowing fairly accurately knowing your volumes and measures.

    Good luck, don’t get frustrated, the more you know, the more you want to control. At least you are still making good beer.

    • Ashamed to say I don’t have a volume measuring stick for my kettle. I think I got lucky initially with rough estimations, was hitting my numbers, and therefore never bothered. I have often wondered what could I use safely to stick into a boiling kettle to get measurements of height, and never followed through. Seems like I’m paying for it now.

      I only recently got a refractometer and only tried using it along side my hydrometer on this past weekends brew. For pre-boil readings I typically stir it up with my SS long handled spoon, scoop up some in a pyrex measuring cup and stick it in the freezer. I never get it cold enough so I record the specific gravity with the hydrometer, takign the temp of the sample wort before and after the hyro. I then use this site to calculate the actual gravity:

      The refractometer I got is a Brix/SG ATC model. I used distilled water to set adjust it before measuring wort. I then used distilled water for my hydrometer to find that it’s a few points off (and possibly always was as i had never tested it with distilled water before).

      Time to find some sort of stainless stick or tube to notch/mark gallon levels on to get accurate measurements. I used to collect wort into the turkey fryer aluminum pot as it had gallon marks notched in the inside so I could see what I was getting for first runnings. But… I used that to boil some lobsters in this summer and that’s then end of using it for anything beer related now. Doh!

      Take aways so far:
      • I need a volume measuring device/method to get accurate boil-off measurments
      • I need a new trusted thermometer and need to calibrate all my measuring devices (hydro, refractometer, etc)
      • unrelated, but something I’ve put off forver: I should get my well-water tested. I did so when we bought the house 10 years ago, but not the homebrewers test

  2. Second day of steady airlock activity. Got it holding around 67-68 with the fermwrap and Johnson controller. Krausen isn’t very thick (maybe 3/4″), but that’s the norm for this recipe. Continue to wait and hope that the initial super high mash temp didn’t ruin it. Taking the activity as a sign that there’s hope at least.

  3. After pitching last Sunday night, and not seeing activity until Tuesday, the RyePA airlock activity slowed to a crawl as of Friday after steady bubbling for a few days. Now, on Saturday, I’ve taken a gravity reading, and it’s down to 1.017 (1.021, but my hydro is .004 off, which I confirmed again today with some distilled water). Given overshooting the mash and getting it into the 170s before realizing and dropping the mash temp by adding ice, I wasn’t sure there was any fermentable sugars in there. Tasted the sample and didn’t notice anything odd. So I’m going to bump up the fermwrap another degree or 2 (currently at 68°) and let it ride for another week before dry-hopping. Hopefully it drops another couple points, but for all I know it’s all done.

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