The Brewing (and Chilling) of Ales

IMG_0258This weekend, I brewed two 10-gallon batches — Religious Liberty Ale and this year’s Christmas Stout (named “The Oliphaunt“). Brewing is always a nice time, but this weekend was more than just brewing for fun, and really a response to a true beer emergency.

I recently read an article in a beer magazine about “no-chill brewing“, which I decided to try with the last few batches of beer. “No-chill” refers to bypassing the step in the beer-making process that occurs after the liquid that becomes beer is boiled. Normally, after boiling, brewers try to bring down the temperature as rapidly as possible to a good target temperature (for ales, somewhere between 65F and 75F).

The process of “wort chilling” should be rapid because once the liquid falls below 130F, it provides a warm environment for bacteria and organisms to grow, and during this time these organisms are unchecked by the yeast cells (yet to be added), which is not what you want. Yeast in the range of fermentation temperature produce good flavors, while other living organisms produce yucky flavors. Brewing is all about keeping things nice and clean until the yeast cells have adequately colonized and can take over.

If you can bring the wort down to a good cool temperature, then you can immediately “pitch” the yeast. An adequate number of active yeast cells will not only begin munching away at all the sugar, converting it to alcohol and CO2, but they will also keep bacterial interlopers at bay and do strong work at helping avoid the proliferation of anything that would produce icky flavors in your beer.

I was attracted to the no-chill approach because it would 1. save time and 2. cut down on water, which is used for most types of conventional “wort chillers”. Water conservation, even for something as important as brewing beer, seems important when California is experiencing a drought.

The idea (if you don’t want to bother with the link above) with no-chill is that you dispense the near-boiling wort into the fermenter (which purportedly sanitizes the vessel), cover and allow to cool gradually over the next 24-36 hours. There is the added benefit that you don’t have to make a “yeast starter”; you can just draw out some of the wort and make the starter while the rest of the wort cools.

IMG_0255Well, after several good attempts, I am disappointed in the results of the no-chill technique. Quite simply, the beer doesn’t taste very good. It doesn’t taste horrible, but it clearly is not on par with beer that is made using the traditional approach. There are definitely off flavors. Some of the flavor tastes organic to me, and I also detect oxidation, especially on the nose. Neither of these are typical problems in my brewing, and they aren’t desirable. While *I* usually consume my bad experiments (and will in this case too) because I’m too cheap to throw “drinkable” beer out, the stuff just isn’t up to par to serve it to anyone else. I gave a sample to Fr. A, who gamely chugged the couple ounces down, clearing the frame for better stuff.

The raw materials

The raw materials

Thus, the emergency. Unless I ramp up brewing right now, there won’t be any holidays around here!

So, figuring that I’m back to chilling wort with water and wanting to use the water most efficiently (and make some really good beer), I decided it was time (because I’ve never done it since converting from 5-gallon to 10-gallon batches) to upgrade the wort chiller. I made it myself, using parts from the hardware store.

There are three primary types of wort chillers available to the home brewer: the very “basic” (like mine, basically, a coil of copper [or other metal capable of good thermal transfer]), counterflow chillers, and plate chillers. Each type increases in cost and complexity, but also provides added efficiency and speed.

Carefully wrap the copper coils around a smaller kettle, and taking care that the diameter of the coils comfortably fit in your brew kettle

Carefully wrap the copper coils around a smaller kettle, and taking care that the diameter of the coils comfortably fit in your brew kettle

I decided that since I was previously using a 25-foot length of quarter-inch copper tubing, which worked adequately well for a 5-gallon batch, that 50 feet of three-eighths inch tubing would provide a nice upgrade at low cost.

The process was easy. Wrap the coils around a smaller kettle (taking care that the diameter of the coils never exceed what will comfortable fit within your brew kettle), attach vinyl tubing and a garden hose barb on one end, and you’re good to go.

Cold water runs through the coils and the heat in the wort “transfers” through the copper into the output water. It is somewhat dependent on the temperature of the water coming from the faucet. In the cooler months, you will see a bump in cooling efficiency. In the summer, you can coil the garden hose in another bucket and fill the bucket with ice and water to make an ersatz “jockey box” that brings the temp of the water down before passing through the copper coils.

IMG_0252If you have to use water, especially in a drought-stricken region, it’s best to make the water count, so improving efficiency seems to be a good thing. This new chiller cooled the wort from 212F (boiling) to 74F in about 24 minutes. I expect that by using cooler water, you can bring the time down to 20 minutes or less.

I expect that these first two batches produced using an upgraded chiller will not suffer from any of the bad effects of no-chill. I have good active fermentations going already in all four fermenters. This coming week, I’ll be brewing my second Pliny the Elder clone, which will pull out all the toys from the toolbox, AND christen my brand new 15.9-gallon Spigel fermenter.

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