Alright, I’m going to try again. I’ve relocated to my personal domain (no particular reason except for the action-packed adventure of hosting your own site). I’ve stuck with WordPress as it actually works spectacularly well. Probably as close to painless as you can get (if you just use a page, it really is painless). As to the state of my brewing, I’ve brewed 15 five gallon batches in the past 13 months with increasingly great results.

Let me know if you find part of the site that doesn’t work or something seems weird. If you RSS, there are links in the right column for feeds for both posts and comments. If you don’t RSS (like me), you can sign up to get emailed whenever there are new posts. Just click on the “Email Subscription” link at the top of the page. Let me know if that doesn’t work, too… it seemed unnecessarily obtuse on this side of things.

If there’s anything you’d like to see or if you have questions, shoot them my way. I would like to expand the site into a few new areas, but we’ll see what time allows.

Q&A Time

So people occasionally ask me questions about brewing and beer and occasionally I give them pretty thorough answers. This is one of those second occasions.

Someone was asking me about alcohol content of beers in Mississippi, specifically if standard beers like Budweiser are more alcoholic in other states. What ya know about this?


To give a little background on the question, Mississippi has many archaic blue laws. Here are some of the ones I have experienced in Oxford, Mississippi: no alcohol sales on Sunday; no sale of beer and liquor in the same store (I have also heard it stated as being illegal to sell liquor and wine at the grocery – either way, this amounts to beer in gas stations and groceries, and liquor and wine have their own stores); and no sale of cold beer (this law was circumvented by the local “beer barn.” They kept their beer outside in a drive-through barn, and so during the winter the beer would have been naturally cold without refrigeration). Different versions of these laws may be present in different counties in MS, and some of them may be statewide.

Most pertinently, though, the entire state forbids sale of beer over 5% ABW (alcohol by weight). ABW is an archaic term for measuring the alcohol content of something. It differs from ABV (alcohol by volume – this is what you always see on modern beer labels) because while the specific gravity of water is 1 gram per milliliter (g/mL – specific gravity is the density of a liquid relative to water, so water is 1), the specific gravity of ethanol (drinking alcohol) is 0.79. What this means is that a pint of water and a pint of alcohol will have different weights (16oz versus 12.8oz) even though they are the same volume. So to convert from ABW to ABV, we divide ABW by 0.79. Thus, (5% ABW)/(0.79) = 6.33% ABV.

What this boils down to is that a lot of the world’s beers are illegal to sell in Mississippi (I don’t know if it is technically illegal to possess them, and I don’t care to find out). If you are interested in getting this foolish law overturned and letting Mississippi join the other 49 states in enjoying higher-gravity beers, direct yourself towards Raise Your Pints. RYP is an advocacy group out of Mississippi that is determined to have more reasonable beer laws in place. They also hold special tasting events and hosted the state’s first beer festival last Summer. They are good people, like all craft beer drinkers.

So after my initial rambling, back to Matt’s question:

Someone was asking me about alcohol content of beers in Mississippi, specifically if standard beers like Budweiser are more alcoholic in other states. What ya know about this?

I have heard this rumor perpetuated regarding several states and several beers before. The answer is: not with beers like Budweiser, no. There are some (very few) beers that will ship with two different alcohol contents, but that is usually the exception, not the rule. I can’t even give you an example of one that does, but it is theoretically possible. I think that practice may officially be dead. At 4.2% ABV, Bud Lite doesn’t come close to breaching MS law, nor does regular Budweiser at 5.0% ABV. Off the top of my head, the only beer that Anheuser-Busch InBev brews that does violate the MS law is Wild Blue, which has an ABV of 8% and an unnatural blue tint. From personal experience, I assure you MS is not missing anything.

Anyway, the Bud brewed in FL is the same as the Bud brewed in MO is the same as the Bud brewed in CA. Today, for a mega corporation like Anheuser-Busch InBev, it would be fiscally irresponsible to brew a special beer just for a blue state. It’s also worth noting that if Mississippi were to, say, lower the legal alcohol by volume to 3.9% (Budweiser is 5%, Bud Lite is 4.2%, Michelob Ultra is 4%), AB-IB has the money and power to get that fixed real quick. AB-IB accounts for roughly 45-50% of all beer sales nationwide. Yes, one in every two beers purchased is an Anheuser-Busch InBev product. Miller-Coors is less than that, and I think “everybody else” aka microbrew is 5-10%, but that may be an overestimate for them. As it stands, AB-IB actually has a vested interest in keeping the blue laws on the books because it doesn’t limit any of their products (except Wild Blue) but it keeps over 2/3 of the overall competing beers out there off the shelves in MS. An interesting (though clearly biased) documentary on the subject is Beer Wars.

Over the past century there were more laws on the books limiting the alcohol content in beer (as usual, MS is the last to hold on to tradition… AL and WV were the other last states to have these laws, but they dropped them last year), and so some breweries were brewing different beers for different states. The technology of the day was also something that permitted this because lack of refrigeration was the most limiting factor for most of the past 150 years, so you basically had to brew what you could sell locally. (The ice-harvesting business for transporting beer was actually a significant national employer at one point… I can’t remember the number but it was unbelievable that so many people were harvesting natural ice.) Canning also did not exist for a long time, which was a big help in keeping beer from spoiling over long distances.

As recently as the 1970s, laws and geography were major players in beer distribution. The film Smokey and the Bandit is actually about smuggling a truck full of Coors east of the Mississippi River and into Georgia, where it was illegal. I am wholeheartedly willing to consider it a documentary for this reason.

So a few weeks later I was reading Brew Like a Monk: Trappist, Abbey, and Strong Belgian Ales and How to Brew Them and I learned something interesting. There may be instances where you can find a beer that has a different labeled ABV% in the US versus other countries. One (delicious) example is the Trappist beer Orval, brewed by Orval Abbey in Belgium. It lists a 6.9% ABV in the US, but a 6.2% ABV in Belgium.

The devil? you say.

It has to do with laws regarding label accuracy. In the US, a beer has to be within 0.3% of its listed ABV, but in Belgium, it only has to be within 1%. Due to the way Orval is made and when it is consumed/tested, it may have an unusually varying ABV. It is bottled with Brettanomyces yeast, which is not exactly normal brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae – remember the Spanish word cerveza). The S. cerevisiae has eaten all of the sugars it cares to and so it has gone to secondary and tertiary metabolisms by this time (cleaning up diacetyl and other ‘off’ flavors). The Brettanomyces, however, has a slightly different diet, and will continue to ferment certain sugars into alcohol in the bottle. The additional time it takes to get the beer to the US may mean that it will have a higher ABV than the more recently brewed Orval sold in Belgium. The environment of the bottles may also affect the Brett fermentation, but it is very unlikely that the bottles will encounter extreme heat or cold to the point where it affects fermentation.

Brettanomyces is used as the primary brewer’s yeast in a couple of more esoteric styles – lambics (e.g. framboise), gueuze, kriek, and oud bruin (Flemish Old Brown Ale). The yeast produces a markedly different flavor profile compared to S. cerevisiae. It is noted for its sour fruity flavors due to the production of lactic acid by lactobacillus (bacteria often included with Brett for making these beers) and from Brett. And pediococcus species produce something or another as well. And if you remember the sense of taste, as the prototypical salty taste is sodium chloride, the prototypical sour taste is hydrochloric acid. In the very old days of chemistry, when they were identifying unknown compounds, they would actually dip a finger in and taste it (no joke!) and if it was sour, it was acidic.

So there you go. One beer. I found one beer that has different alcohol labeling. An answer to a yes-or-no question in under 1500 words.

Patersbier Brew Day – Post-Brewing


At the end of 15 minutes, cut the heat. Now is the time to cool. You want to cool the wort as quick as possible to <100 degrees F, preferably <80 degrees F. The faster you are able to cool, the more pronounced the cold break will be. Like the hot break, this is another point where the temperature causes protein to coagulate, and more coagulation is better. The difference is that you won’t have to worry about boil-overs, though, which is quite nice. I learned that cooling 3 gallons of liquid from 212 degrees F to 80 is actually rather difficult. The most basic method is creating an ice bath. I took a hand towel, folded it, and covered the sink drain with it. I used a hand towel primarily because I didn’t have an actual stopper, and secondarily because it slowly drains water. I put the lid on the hot brew pot and place it in the sink on top of the towel. Now I turn on the sink for water and start adding ice. To do it without worries, the 3 gallon cool will require about 40 pounds of ice. Yea. Just start adding the ice to the sink around the pot and let water keep filling it. Repeat until a) out of ice and b) you have a brew pot that is cool to the touch at all points. One modification is to only use water at first and then begin to use ice about halfway through. This is a physics/chemistry thing. Basically, room temperature water will have a similar cooling ability as ice water on a 212 degree pot, but as the temperature of the pot approaches that of the water, water will become much less effective at cooling while ice will remain useful. So you can get away with using less ice this way, which is nice.

There are other, better ways to cool the pot. Another way is to buy an immersion chiller. This is a coiled copper tube that you put in the wort at the end of the boil (last ten minutes or so, to sterilize it). A hose attached to one end of the copper tube attaches to the sink faucet, and a hose attached to the other end can be placed in the drain. This is by far the easiest and most effective way to chill your wort, especially when combined with a pre-chiller, which is essentially the same thing outside of the wort that will further cool the water before it goes in. The problem with these methods is that I don’t really feel the need to drop $60-100 or more on a piece of copper tubing. It is admittedly cost effective if you would otherwise be buying ice from, say, a gas station and plan on brewing ten or more batches of beer. I just don’t have that cash to drop right now. These chillers are a ‘set it and forget it’ solution, definitely a luxury. It will decrease your wort chill time down from 30-45 minutes to 10-15 minutes and you don’t need to baby it, so you’re free to do other things (like clean up).

The cooling stage is one where you are more likely to infect the beer with unwanted bacteria. The cooler the wort gets, the more desirable a home it becomes for bacteria. Keep in mind it is warm and already full of water and sugars, which is exactly what they want. I have read about methods where you freeze water in tightly closed plastic bottles, sanitize the bottles, and then add them to the wort, using the bottles as giant ice cubes. I recommend against this method because the efficacy would not really outweigh the risk of contaminating the wort with foreign bacteria and such. You can also do your cooling with the lid off. The steam action will definitely facilitate quicker cooling. Again, you increase your risk of infection this way, but in my experience so far this is a relatively small increase. I often find myself almost knocking the running water into the wort, and having the lid on has saved me every time (tap water does contain trace bacteria). Off the top of my head, these are all the methods I’ve read about. I find this step to be the most difficult/stressful on brew day.

In the meantime, prepare your carboy. Since you started out with boiling 3 gallons of water, you’ll want to have about 2 gallons of water in the (sanitized) carboy. If you have your water well ahead of time, you can cool it in the fridge, and then it will further cool the wort that tricky few degrees between 75 F and 65 F. Once you’ve got the wort cooled to room temperature, add it to the carboy. You’ll be wanting a funnel to do this, and many people also use a filter to keep solids from going into the carboy, but this isn’t really necessary for beginners. Finally, check your volume to make sure you’ve got about 5 gallons, and if not, add more clean water.

One of the important ingredients for strong fermentation is oxygen. Even though fermentation itself is anaerobic, oxygen is used by the yeast to reproduce. I find it easiest to aerate the water in the carboy before you add the wort to it by way of shaking the hell out of it. Just shake the carboy, or pour the water back and forth between (sanitized) buckets. The more the water is disrupted, the more air is getting in. You can shake it up/pour it back and forth after you add the wort, but if you aerate the wort when it is too warm, you can begin to oxidize the beer (which is the last thing you want). There are also other mechanical methods of aerating the wort, but seriously, what is so hard about shaking up three gallons of water? You don’t need an aquarium pump and oxygen stone or any other complicated system. Just do it. If you don’t properly oxygenate your wort, the yeast may run out of what it needs to keep going and so the whole operation just kind of shuts down (a “stuck” fermentation). You don’t want that, so just shake your dang water.

Finally, you’ve got 5 or so gallons of wort in your carboy at room temperature. You’ve also got an activated yeast smack-pack ready to go. Sanitize the pack and a pair of scissors, cut it open, and pour the yeast into the wort (again, I recommend using the funnel). Put the airlock in the carboy and move it to the cool, dark location where it will sit for the next 2-6 weeks.

Patersbier Brew Day – Brewing


Patersbier is my first brew. Going into it, I tried to plan meticulously. Lots of reading and re-reading. I wrote out my entire plan for brew day beforehand so I would have a guide to follow. Every time I had a niggling question, I had to go and look it up, no matter how trivial. When I write instructions (for lab experiments in the past), I’m extremely thorough, because it turns out that I think of a lot of strange things when I’m actually in the thick of things. That probably doesn’t surprise you, but I don’t want to find out later that I should have held something with my left hand instead of my right in order for the experiment to work. The tediously fastidious nature of growing one type of cell in the absence of all others through dozens of generations taught me that. And when you do screw up… back to the liquid nitrogen, and hope the cells you froze five generations ago weren’t already ruined and you didn’t know it (hint: they were). So here is the brew day process.

Today’s Equipment: 5 gallon stainless steel brew pot (20 quarts), 6.5 gallon glass carboy, hydrometer, thermometer (my kitchen thermometer), grain sack, wort stirrer (a metal spatula), water spray bottle, 2 cup measuring cup, big funnel, scissors, plastic beer thief (a long turkey baster would be better).

Ingredients: 0.5lbs CaraPils, 6lbs Pilsen malt extract syrup, 1oz Tradition hops, 0.5oz Saaz hops, Wyeast 3787 Trappist smack pack. This is all from the previously mentioned Northern Brewer kit. Also, I used 3 gallons of filtered tap water and 3 gallons of unfiltered tap water.

First thing to do is activate the yeast smack pack. Try and shake the pack so as to get the inner yeast nutrient package to the bottom corner. Then just clap your hands forcefully with the pack in the middle. You’ll know in a few hours if it was successful. I usually hit it a number of times to prevent failure. I like to activate the pack the night before brew day. By the next day (or at least 12 hours later), the pack will look like it’s about to burst from all the gas produced by the multiplying yeast (it won’t). This will provide for you a healthy fermentation, reduce stress on the yeast, and shorten lag time. Lag time is the time in between pitching the yeast into the finished wort and the beginning of the rapid yeast growth phase where they furiously ferment your beer. Ideally, you want to pitch enough yeast so that they don’t do much reproducing when they hit the wort – they go straight to fermenting. Shorter lag time is better for us impatient types and for the beer. After three hours you should be able to tell that the pack has puffed up. You just need to know that your yeast is alive and growing before pitching it.

Expanded smack pack

The smack pack after a few hours of growth

Set 3 gallons of water to boil. Leave the top off of your brew pot for the entire brew. It will slow heating, yes, but it will help evaporate undesirable sulfurous compounds. My specialty grain for this batch was 0.5lbs CaraPils. I steeped it in a mesh bag for 20 minutes up to a temperature of 170 degrees F. You’ll notice that I have my grain bag suspended in the pot with my spatula (I am so clever). I’ve seen some people just let their grain bag sit in the water. The problem with this is that the bottom of the pot is much hotter than the water because it is in direct contact with the heat source, and so the grains that are sitting on the bottom will get much hotter than the water whose temperature you’re checking. So a) you don’t actually know how hot your grains are and b) they’re probably over 170 degrees F. Food for thought.

Steeping the specialty grains. Also, note the level of the water.

Steeping the specialty grains.

Following that, I removed the brew pot from the heat and added the 6lbs of Pilsen liquid malt extract (LME). It is now called “wort” (pronounced wert). The purpose of removing it from the heat is to keep any from getting burned to the bottom of the pot (if you have an electric stove, it’ll be in the shape of the coil…). It is a bit slow to dissolve, but not too bad. I’ve seen some people just pour the whole thing in at once and then stir, but I prefer a stable pace for controlled solubility. Once you’ve got that mixed in, put it back on full heat. Once it’s at a rolling boil, add bittering hops. I added 1oz of German Tradition hops in pellet form. Bittering hops are typically boiled for 60 minutes (the entire length of the brew). When you buy hops, they’ll come notated with the percentage of alpha acids they contain. These were 6.9%. The alpha acids are a group of compounds that, under the heat of boiling, isomerizes and solubilize in the beer. The purpose of these hops is to balance the maltiness of the grains and extract.

Addition of liquid malt extract

Addition of liquid malt extract

Now you will want to watch for boil-overs. Despite having 3 gallons of water in a 5 gallon pot, the boil over I encountered during this first brew readily filled that remaining 2 gallons in the time I spent looking in another direction. This is where a spray bottle filled with water comes in handy. A simple spritzing causes the boil over to subside almost instantly. Generous stirring and a close watch can prevent boil-overs, but the spray bottle was definitely worth it to prevent the ridiculous mess I would have otherwise had to deal with. This is called the “hot break.” Certain proteins are coagulating under the high temperature and they rise to the top of the boil, just like boiling too much pasta in too little water. This is a good thing because it makes these proteins easier to remove when the time comes and leaves you with a cleaner, more refined beer.

The wort following the addition of bittering hops. Note a) how green it has become and b) how close it is to the top of the pot

The wort following the addition of bittering hops. Note how much the level has risen

Following the addition of the bittering hops, this recipe calls for 45 minutes of boiling. Then I add the aroma hops. For this beer, they are 0.5oz Czech Saaz pellets. I appear to have neglected to record their alpha acid content. These hops are more for aesthetic appeal, especially aroma. Some sources will even refer to them as ‘aroma hops.’ More hops later in the boil will produce a hoppier beer. The shorter boil time means that fewer volatile oils containing hop essence will evaporate, and thus more will be present in the final beer.

At the end of 15 minutes, cut the heat. Now is the time to cool. I’ll continue next time with what to do post-brewing.

About the brew process, part two

More brewing basics and required (?) knowledge.

The yeast is perhaps the most important ingredient in beer. Yeast turns fermentable sugars in the wort into alcohol (one of our favorite things), carbon dioxide, and various scents and flavors in the form of esters, alcohols, phenolic compounds, and other volatiles. If you were to take on batch of wort, split it into two containers, and add a different yeast to each one, you could wind up with drastically different beers. Yeast practically defines the style of the resulting beer (some styles much more than others), while the other ingredients will handle touches that make it different from other beers in the style. My yeast comes from Wyeast, who sell their yeast in a wonderful package called a smack pack. The package itself contains dormant yeast, and a smaller, sealed nutrient pack. You smack the heck out of the thing with your hand to bust the inner package, and then the yeast feasts on the freed nutrients. After a couple of hours (I leave mine overnight), the pack swells an amount somewhere between ‘noticeable’ and ‘I think it’s going to bust.’ Pitching healthy yeast in the right amount for your wort is absolutely clutch. For an average beer (O.G. <1.060), a single Wyeast smack pack is adequate. For higher gravity (higher alcohol) beers, more yeast is necessary. White Labs is another well-known and respected producer of brewer’s yeast. All my experience has been with Wyeast, and I have been nothing but satisfied with them, so I probably won’t change. White Labs doesn’t sell the smack packs; rather, they ship their yeast in vials. Dry yeast is also available, but not nearly in the wide selection the liquid yeast it.

The fermentables form the backbone of the beer. The most common fermentable is malted barley. Get some malted barley, crush it, and steep it in water to get a sort of barley tea. This leaves behind sugars and enzymes, and controlling the temperature of the steeping will affect what sorts of compounds you will wind up with in the beer. When using specialty grains alongside malt extract, it is commonly said not to steep it for longer than twenty minutes and not to heat it over 170 degrees F. Doing so will release some compounds that will negatively affect the beer’s flavor. You also shouldn’t press your grains while they are steeping (e.g. to ‘squeeze’ out water, or flavor, or whatever you’re trying to do). This will release undesirable astringent tannins into the beer, and they don’t exactly enhance the final product. To simplify the process, small scale homebrewers typically use premade malt extract. You can get extracts from any homebrew shop in a variety of types. To make extract, a base wort is made with appropriate grains and then, instead of moving on to the next brewing step, they just boil it down. You can get liquid extracts (LME) or dry powder extracts (DME), the two of which are equivalent excepting some minor water content present in the liquid extract (6lbs LME = 5lbs DME). Some places also sell pre-hopped extracts, but these are typically recommended against.

Liquid malt extract and vacuum-packed hops

Liquid malt extract and vacuum-packed hops

The hops were not originally in beer thousands of years ago. They used all manner of plants and flowers, but hops only came into use within the last thousand years in Europe. Hops are ubiquitous in beer now for a few reasons. First and foremost, they have an antibacterial effect and keep unwanted microorganisms out of beer while in normal levels not really affecting brewer’s yeast. When shipping beer on long voyages, sailors found hopped beer to keep longer than unhopped beer. Second, their bitterness balances out the sweetness of the malts. An unbalanced, overly malty beer is difficult to drink. Likewise, though, many people find highly hopped beers equally difficult to drink. The most common styles that are high in hops are India Pale Ales (IPAs). The light malts used in IPAs simply can’t overpower big quantities of hops and so the bitter, grassy hop flavor dominates. Big beers, like stouts, porters, etc. have a high amount of hops as well, sometimes surprisingly high, but higher quantity of malt and darker malts balance the bittering effect. The hops are an integral part of balancing the flavor of big beers. For homebrewing purposes, hops come in several forms including whole leaf and pellet. You can even grow your own hops, if you’re that sort of person (though I don’t believe they’ll grow well in the southern US).

Pelleted hops
Pellet hops

Water makes up 85-95% of beer. If you don’t like drinking your tap water, you won’t like the beer you make with it. Go pick up some spring water from the grocery, or invest in a water filter if need be. A $20 filter pitcher or sink attachment will give you 40+ gallons of purified water per $5 filter, while buying jugs of water will cost $0.50-0.75 per gallon. If you invested in some equipment, you’re probably going to be brewing more than one batch of beer. Invest in the filter if your drinking water doesn’t taste that great. There is a fair amount of literature out there on the desired elemental composition of water for brewing purposes, but it is well beyond the scope of me giving a damn right now. Styles like pilsner are actually dependent on water chemistry and came about because of the unique composition of local water (water from Plzen, Czech for example, made a unique beer at the time).