Brewing American Lager

I just brewed a beer that I rarely drink or think about – an American Lager. Like many of you, my introduction to the world of beer was a pale, mass-produced American Lager. In my case this was a sip of Bud Ice with my family during a tour of the brewery connected to Busch Gardens in Virginia. After that taste, I recall wondering why any of my relatives drank beer at all. So you’ll understand that, like many homebrewers, I was pretty uninterested in trying my hand at the American Lager style.
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Vanilla Porter and More

Vanilla might mean plain when it comes to ice cream, but for beer it is anything but. Similar to coffee or chocolate, vanilla is a complicated blend of flavors just by itself, and while successfully adding it to the flavors of your beer can be a challenge, the result can be greater than the sum of its ingredients. Read more

A Warning About Dogs and Hops

brew-dog-300x225Here at Northern Brewer we love dogs just about as much as we love brewing (maybe more). For many years, dogs accompanied their owners to work at Northern Brewer and freely roamed our offices. And for many of us, brew day is a wonderful opportunity to spend time with our canine friends. So when we heard about a customer’s scary experience after their dog consumed hops we were shaken and wanted to help. For wider education on the issue, we would like echo a very serious warning about dogs and hops.

Though research is not extensive, ingesting hops can be highly toxic to some breeds of dogs (Golden Retrievers and especially Greyhounds have been documented). There are many scary stories on homebrewing forums about dogs eating hops after unsuspecting brewers left unused hops out in a place accessible to their dog, or dumped their kettle trub and hop sediment into the yard, or had a hop plant in their yard that dropped cones on the ground. Some dogs that ingest hops rapidly develop a condition called Malignant Hyperthermia, in which the body temperature rises uncontrollably. This can be very harmful or fatal to the dog. Some symptoms are restlessness, panting, vomiting, abdominal pain, seizures, rapid heart rate, and high temperature. If a dog has possibly ingested hops and exhibits symptoms, they should be taken to an emergency pet hospital immediately for treatment.

This abstract from the National Institute for Biotechnology Information represents one of the few scientific confirmations of the issue.

Keep your dogs safe!

Priming Sugar Calculator

Priming Sugar Calculator

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Sweet and Dry Mead

The big question for mead-makers is “Sweet or Dry?”. Though mead is often thought of as a sweet drink, everyone has their own preference, and you as a mead-maker get to decide what you like. Dry mead can be absolutely spectacular by displaying a very pure representation of the ingredients. Sweet mead has the wonderful honey sweetness that many drinkers are looking for in a mead. A semi-sweet mead is between the two and can have the best of both worlds. There are a few ways to adjust the sweetness of your mead. We’ll start by explaining how the alcohol tolerance of the yeast can be used to make sweet mead.

Though mead is similar to wine in many ways, it differs greatly when it comes to the starting and finishing gravities. Wine is usually limited by the sugar that the grapes can provide, which keeps most wine in the 1.080-1.110 range, or about 12-15% alcohol by volume. Most wine yeast can handle this alcohol content range without trouble, and usually will ferment the wine dry, meaning no or very little sugar remaining. On a hydrometer this is somewhere in the range of 0.994-1.000 or so.

Honey is so concentrated that you can make your starting gravity whatever you’d like. This means that you can easily start out at 1.140, for example. If a mead of this sugar content were to ferment dry, it would be over 19% alcohol! Most wine yeasts, however, cannot withstand this level of alcohol and will stop fermenting before all the sugars are gone. That means that some sugars will be left over, which will make the mead sweet or semi-sweet. By paying attention to your yeast strain’s alcohol tolerance level, you can select a strain and starting gravity that give you the desired level of sweetness remaining. The Lalvin 78-B Narbonnes strain is an excellent one for making sweet meads in this fashion, as it has a relatively low alcohol tolerance and makes a mead that is usually ready to drink relatively quickly.

This method is not an exact science; depending on the conditions yeast can stop before or after their usual alcohol tolerance level. In addition, mead has a finicky way of starting back up again just when you think it’s done fermenting for sure. An alternative method of making sweet mead is to use potassium sorbate, a chemical that prohibits further fermentation. Potassium sorbate cannot stop a fermentation that is in progress, but if you have a completed fermentation, using potassium sorbate allows you to add additional sugars back to the wine without the yeast starting up again. You should still age the mead after sweetening to make sure that all fermentation has stopped (the gravity should remain constant). If you are planning to use potassium sorbate, it is a good idea to use potassium metabisulfite from the beginning of the brewing process. Sulfite will prevent malolactic bateria from getting in your mead, and the combination of potassium sorbate and malolactic bacteria can produce some unwanted, “geranium” like off-flavors.

Sweet meads can be anywhere up to about 1.040 in finishing gravity. Very sweet and strong meads are sometimes called “sack” mead. The sweetness is usually balanced by the alcohol content as well as the acidity. If you wind up with a mead that is too sweet adding some acid can help balance it out, our acid blend is a good option. If you are back-sweetening, or adding sugar/honey to an already fermented mead as in the potassium sorbate method above, you can add honey to taste by adding it in small increments and taking samples.

If you are trying to make carbonated sweet mead, forced carbonation with co2 is the only way to go. Trying to add priming sugar in won’t work, as the yeast cannot consume the remaining sugars. Trying to time the bottling to have just enough sugar remaining to carbonate is a recipe for disaster and potentially very dangerous. Using a kegging system and a co2 tank works quite well, however, and is the easiest way to reliably carbonate any mead.

Beer Style Guide – Sour Beers

Sour beers are one of the most unusual beer styles, but are naturally intriguing for the homebrewer. They range from a gentle sour tinge that helps provide complexity to ragingly mouth-puckering sourness. The organisms that create sour flavors usually contribute other aromas and flavors that are unattainable with normal yeast, such as the “barnyard” or “horse blanket” flavors associated with some Brettanomyces strains. Sound unappetizing? Perhaps to some, but there is no denying the complexity, the wonderful balance, and the simple allure of sour beers.A couple of tips for brewing sour beers: First, best practice is to use separate plastic equipment for beer containing souring organisms. Something like a glass carboy or a stainless kettle can be cleaned without any issue, but more porous plastic could potentially harbor the souring bacteria and infect later batches. Secondly, making sour beer takes some patience, as the slow-acting bacteria can take a year or more to provide the level of sourness present in many styles. Many souring organisms prefer small amounts of oxygen as they work, so you can speed up their activity a bit by keeping the brew in a plastic bucket or wooden barrel, either one of which will slowly let in small amounts of oxygen.

Belgian Sour Beers
For many, sour beer means Belgium. The adventurous brewers of this small nation are definitely the torch bearers of the sour styles, and a direct link to their long traditions. The most famous Belgian sour is the Lambic. Lambics are traditionally made by inoculating the wort with wild yeasts from the air, which generally results in a mixed culture of regular saccharomyces yeast, brettanomyces, pediococcus, and lactobacillus. This results in a complex, wine-like character and a very dry finished beer. Aged, unblended lambics are among the most sour beers.

The Flanders red ale style is similarly intense, but includes some specialty malts that make the color a deep red. Fruit flavors such as plum can often be found along with the characteristic sourness. Oud Bruin (sometimes called Flanders Brown) is even darker and features some maltiness, which is unusual in sour styles. Some caramel flavors and sweetness, as well as fruity notes, can be expected.

Although you can occasionally find Flanders reds and oud bruins with fruit added, the practice is more common with lambic. A lambic with raspberries added is called a framboise, with cherries it is a kriek. The fruit is often added to the secondary fermentor and can remain the in beer for long periods of aging.

German Sour Beers
Germany has a long and celebrated history of sour beers, but few examples have survived to modern times. The most commonly brewed is Berliner Weisse, a very sour, highly carbonated wheat beer. Berliner Weisse is fermented by a blend of normal yeast and lactobacillus, and occasionally brettanomyces as well. The lactic acid character from the lactobacillus dominates, creating a very tangy, tart acidity. Carbonation is normally quite high to provide a very sparkling and refreshing quality. Berliner weisse is sometimes served with fruit or woodruff syrups to cut the acidity.

A very rare and unique beer called Gose is also brewed in Germany. Gose is similar to Berliner weisse in many respects, but also contains coriander and salt. The amount of salt ranges from barely noticeable to quite salty, and the sourness is usually the dominant feature. A mixed culture of normal yeast and lactobacillus is generally used to produce the sourness.

English and other Sour Beers-

English beers are rarely thought of as being sour, but there is a long history of sour beers in England. Traditionally the “old ale” or “stock ale” that was kept in wooden barrels for long periods of time became slightly soured by bacteria such as brettanomyces claussenii and lactic acid producing bacteria. Beers of very high alcohol and gravity were given fruity, sour characteristics by these organisms. Few modern examples survive, but undeterred homebrewers have made fabulous interpretations of the style.

The Kentucky Common is a final sour beer of note. This beer was brewed in America around Louisville, Kentucky. The brewers used a sour mash technique, where the mash was cooled, inoculated with lactobacillus and allowed to rest at about 100 degrees for a couple of days before draining. Then the mash was brought back up to normal temps, drained and sparged as usual, and the sour liquid boiled, cooled, and given normal ale yeast. The result is a sour, refreshing beer that is rendered slightly dark from a small percentage of roasted grains.

Bottle Carbonating

Bottle conditioning is the process of naturally carbonating beer by adding a priming solution (water + some type of sugar) to the flat beer immediately before bottling to initiate a “re-fermentation” in the bottle. The CO2 produced from the re-fermentation in the bottle is absorbed into the beer, creating carbonation. The amount of carbonation in the finished beer can be controlled by adjusting the amount of sugar in the priming solution. After priming and filling, the newly bottled beer should be stored at 70-75F for 2-3 weeks or until fully carbonated. After this time the bottles can be chilled or stored below 60 degrees to stabilize the beer.

Bottle conditioning also has an effect on the flavor and aroma of the beer due to the presence of active yeast in the bottle. The yeast in the bottle is able to reabsorb or process byproducts from fermentation eventually rounding out or mellowing the flavors. It can also extend the shelf life of beer by delaying the staling effects of oxidation.

Many different types of sugar can be used for bottle carbonation, including corn sugar (dextrose), table sugar (sucrose), or dry malt extract. In order to properly determine the amount of sugar to use, you need to take into account the temperature of the beer and the volume as well as the type of sugar and the level of carbonation desired. Northern Brewer’s Priming Sugar Calculator is a good resource for determining the amount of sugar to use.

When a batch of beer fails to carbonate in the bottle there are a few common causes. After fermentation the yeast cells that remain in solution may be too stressed or too few to re-start fermentation in the bottle. The likelihood of this happening increases with the length of secondary fermentation and the alcoholic strength of the beer. To ensure proper re-fermentation, additional yeast can be added to the beer at bottling. You can use a fresh pack of the original yeast or use a neutral fermenting dry yeast such as the Danstar Nottingham ale yeast (y005).

Another common cause for lack of fermentation is storing the bottles in too cool an environment during conditioning. At cooler temperatures the remaining yeast will not be able to re-start fermentation in the bottle. Make sure the bottles are stored above 65F until the beer is fully carbonated. Sometimes warming the bottles and rousing the yeast from the bottom of the bottle get the process started. If that doesn’t work you may have to resort to dosing each bottle with a small amount of dry yeast after opening and then recapping the bottles.

Forgetting to add priming sugar and not getting a good seal on the bottle with the cap can be other reasons for lack of carbonation in the bottle. The easiest solution to these problems is to dose each bottle with additional sugar. The best way to do this is to open each bottle and add the pre-measured conditioning tabs to each bottle. Only dose with more sugar if you are sure that you forgot to add priming sugar or that the caps had a bad seal, otherwise the extra sugar can result in too much carbonation.

For more information on Bottle Conditioning, see our Advanced Guide to Bottle Conditioning.