Barrel-Aging Without the Barrel

Beer’s relationship with wood goes back hundreds of years, since it was the only reasonable option for bulk storage prior to the adoption of stainless steel. When we think about wood today, though, it’s almost always in the context of adding extra complexity to beer, especially high gravity ales.

At homebrew scale, true wood barrels are often far more trouble than they’re worth. They are expensive, require special care to prevent leaks, and aren’t always available in a convenient size. Wood also loses much of its character after a few uses, requiring longer contact times to impart the same amount of flavor. I don’t bother with barrels for these reasons, but I’ve settled on an alternate method that works well enough that it’s won multiple medals at state-level competitions.

It starts by purchasing a ¾ inch (2 cm) oak dowel rod from a hardware store. Ensure it is untreated wood. Cut it into ½ inch (1.2 cm) lengths. Depending on what kind of flavor you want from the wood, the next step is to toast it. This can be done by spreading the pieces on a baking sheet in the oven for 60 minutes (250°–500°F (121°–260°C), depending on the level of toast) or holding them over an open flame. Bourbon barrels are heavily charred on the inside before use, so if this is the effect you’re after, an open flame (outdoors!) is your best choice.

Spirit barrels, especially bourbon, are a popular choice for wood-aging beer, especially imperial stouts and barleywines. In Kentucky, bourbon is aged in the barrel within rickhouses. These are large, multi-story buildings that are not climate-controlled. They get hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Wood expands and contracts with changes in temperature. The bourbon seeps into the wood when it’s hot and is squeezed out when it’s cold. You can fake this on an accelerated timeline at home.

Put the wood into a glass jar with an airtight lid. Pour in enough bourbon to cover the wood. Every 12 hours, move it in and out of your freezer. I usually leave it on the counter overnight, then put it back in the freezer in the morning for the day. Do this for a week or two and the wood is ready to add to a fermenter. I’ve had success with 2–3 months of aging. You can reuse the wood, but as with barrels, it will take longer to get the same character in the next batch.


What’s New in 1.4

Brewtist 1.4 is now available on the App Store. It’s been a few months since the last release. I’ve been busy with lots of little things in the app, in between holidays and year-end stuff.

One thing that’s been bugging me for a while is the all-or-nothing nature of how unit systems are handled. Since I live in the U.S., pounds and gallons are my reality, but I measure my yeast starters in liters. The app now supports seven different measurement contexts and you can pick whatever unit makes sense for you.

I also learned that while mass measures in the U.K. match those in the U.S., that isn’t true for volumes. A British imperial gallon is nearly a liter more liquid than a U.S. gallon. So, the British units are now available in the app.

Version 1.2 added recipe import from BeerXML and BeerSmith .bsmx formats. 1.4 adds the reverse: you can now export your recipes to BeerXML format and share them from the standard iOS share sheet.

Last on the feature front, the app now supports iOS 14’s App Clips. These are “mini-apps” that can be triggered by web pages and QR codes and show a slice of what the full app can do. For Brewtist, you’ll start to see recipes posted here trigger the App Clip, and can import the recipe to the app with one tap. You can see it in action by checking out Cloning Maduro Brown on your iPhone or iPad.

I also squashed a few bugs:

  • On iPad, the navigation bar would disappear when bringing it back from the background.
  • Fixes issues importing BeerXML files.
  • Fixes issues sorting and numbering batches of a recipe that were brewed on the same day.

Happy brewing! 🍻


Brewtist 1.2

Version 1.2 is available on the App Store. This release is mostly about making it easy to get recipes into the app from other places: Brewtist includes a share extension, which means it’s possible to share content from other apps into Brewtist. Right now, the two recognized formats are BeerXML and BeerSmith’s .bsmx format.

Also included are standard mineral and acid addition ingredients and fixes for a handful of bugs.

Is there something you’d like to see in the app that isn’t there yet? Get in touch on Twitter, Facebook or email (links at the bottom!).


New World Pale Ale

Here is a recipe for a classic American pale ale, designed to highlight a “new world” hop variety. Your new world hop can be anything you want, but practically speaking, it’s meant to highlight the new aroma- and flavor-heavy hops being bred in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa. It’s not a SMaSH, but it serves the same purpose.

My most recent batch used Medusa. I also brewed one using Sabro last fall that was fantastic.

For a 5 gal. (19 L) batch (all grain):
9 lbs. (4 kg) pale malt
1 lb. (450 g) light Munich (10ºL)
Mash for 60 min. at 152ºF (67ºC)
Boil for 60 min.
0.75 oz. (21 g) Magnum (11.4% AA) for 60 min.
2 oz. (57 g) Medusa (3% AA) – whirlpool for 15 min.
2 oz. (57 g) Medusa – dry hop for 4 days
WLP001 California Ale or another clean fermenting American ale yeast
OG 1.051 / FG 1.012 – 5.3% abv

I like using Magnum as a bittering addition, but swap it out for whatever you like. Aim for around 30 IBUs of bitterness. Likewise, look to add another 10 IBUs of bitterness with a whirlpool addition of your flavor/aroma hop, and then add another charge in the dry hop.


Finally, a 1.0

Brewtist for iOS is finally a reality and available on the App Store.

This app has been bouncing around in my head for a very long time. After two false starts and summer’s experimentation with SwiftUI, I’m relatively pleased with this first release. It is certainly not perfect; there are many missing features that I want, not to mention the broader homebrewing world, but it’s good enough to design recipes and guide your brew day.

I’m extremely open to constructive feedback. The app is free to download, with an in-app purchase to unlock more than three recipes or three batches.

What’s next? In no particular order, and with no promise of when: brew day timers, support for BIAB and other mash step techniques, whole leaf hop IBU adjustments, and BeerXML import/export.


The Plaato Keg

Last summer, I backed a Kickstarter for the Plaato Keg. It’s a scale that uses three pressure sensors to measure the weight of a keg in order to determine how much beer remains inside. My order for four of these devices arrived last week and I thought I’d share my initial impressions.

The hardware is quite nice. Each scale is less than an inch tall and barely larger than the footprint of my 5 gallon kegs. Other than an unfortunate placement of the drain plug in my keezer, I had no trouble fitting three scales on the floor and the fourth on the compressor step.

The initial set-up of the kegs in the Plaato app was simple. After powering up a scale, I joined its ad-hoc Wi-Fi network, tapped a few things in the app, and it joined the regular home Wi-Fi. The keezer isn’t that close to my access point, but the signal inside it is plenty strong enough. The only nitpick I can offer for the set-up process is the addition of Bluetooth, so the phone could communicate with the scale without having me join an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network.

Each scale comes with a generously long USB cable for power. They’re long enough to route inside the keezer away from everything else, up the inside wall, under the wooden collar and down the backside, with plenty of slack. A nice touch of these cables is that they are flat, minimizing their height under the collar.

The other, arguably more important, part of the product is the app. Unfortunately, it’s not as nice as the hardware, but, fortunately, it’s software, so I expect it will improve over time. The design of the app is great. The data is presented in a clean way. There is a main list of all devices, with the background acting as a bar graph indicating the beer level in the keg. It’d be nice if more information, such as beer style, were available on the overview screen. There is more on a detail screen, where you can also set up each keg, including its empty weight.

Needing that information is the only minor, but unsurprising, disappointment for first-time use. Of my four kegs, three are different enough that I expect they all weight different amounts when empty. Since they’re all partially full, I used Plaato’s estimate of an empty 5 gallon keg at 10.4 pounds. I’ll have to wait until each keg is empty to take a more accurate measurement.

Other disappointments that I hope are fixed soon are that the temperature appears to measure about 10°F high, even at the bottom of the keezer. The app also mysteriously loses the settings for one or more kegs every few days, switching back to metric units from US customary or changing the maximum volume. While the measure for a single pour looks quite accurate, the graph at the bottom of the detail screen shows what appear to be phantom pours. I also can’t reorder the device list.

I’m happy with the purchase overall. My primary desire was something that helped me know how much was left in a keg without lifting it and guessing. Plaato includes push notifications for low/high temperatures and liquid detection, too, which adds some peace of mind.

Update Feb. 2020: recent app updates have resolved the problem with lost settings, which was my biggest concern. The scales have also received a couple of firmware updates, so I’m confident the whole system will continue to improve over time.


Beer Advent 2018

A few years ago, a friend approached me with an idea: “Would you be interested in a beer advent?” I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but “beer” was in there, so… tell me more.

It’s a pretty simple concept. A traditional advent calendar is this thing with 24 little doors with a chocolate hidden behind each one. Kids open up one door per day, December 1–24. Beer advent is the adult version: a case of 24 beers and you drink one per day.

I did his group for a few years and 2018 is my second year running my own. (The concept is popular enough that I had people asking how they could get in, but there are serious logistical problems with groups bigger than 48 people. Especially if you want to include some homebrew.)

I try to get a mix of styles and things from local breweries only available at their tap room. It’s always a lot of fun to try so many new beers in a short period of time. Here is this year’s line-up:

December 1: Dr. Bunsen, Yellow Springs Brewery, New England IPA
December 2: 30A Beach Blonde, Grayton Beer Co., blonde ale
December 3: Wittekerke, De Brabandere, wit
December 4: Trotwood, Warped Wing, American lager
December 5: Ottermelon, Central State Brewing, gose
December 6: Eos, Land-Grant Brewing, American pale ale
December 7: Motion Lao-tion, Hoof Hearted Brewing, imperial coffee stout
December 8: Qualified, Taxman Brewing, Belgian quad
December 9: Three Hos, Saucy Brew Works, winter/holiday ale
December 10: Pineapple Cider, Wyndridge Farm, cider
December 11: Pecan Brown, Sibling Revelry Brewing, brown ale
December 12: L’Abondance, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, saison
December 13: Claymore, Great Divide, wee heavy
December 14: Barrel-Aged Panic Switch, Platform Beer Co./Wolf’s Ridge collaboration, rye barleywine
December 15: Key Lime Pie, Tallgrass Brewing, sour blonde ale
December 16: Sonic Boom V2, BrewDog, American IPA
December 17: Pilsner, Veltins, German pilsner
December 18: Santa’s Bribe, Taft’s Ale House, winter/holiday
December 19: Pay It Forward, West Sixth Brewing, cocoa porter
December 20: Heavy Hearted Amber, Zaftig Brewing, amber
December 21: Barrel-Aged Imperial Mayan Mocha, Odd Side Ales, Mexican chocolate stout
December 22: Homebrew oak-aged barleywine
December 23: Backwoods Bastard (2017), Founders Brewing, wee heavy
December 24: Barrel-Aged Adoration, Brewery Ommegang, dark winter ale


My Process: November 2018

When I started brewing five years ago, I started with extract. My first brew was actually at a brew-on-premises establishment. I made a full half barrel of a milk stout, yielding about six and a half cases of 12 oz bottles.

I thought it might be interesting over time to detail my process to remember how it changes. I won’t go into all the little things I’ve changed since I started, but this is a snapshot of how I do things in November 2018.

First off, I brew exclusively all-grain these days. It’s not that I dislike extract. I think it’s because I don’t feel like I’ve completely nailed my process yet, and I enjoy the challenge of figuring that out, plus the freedom to use whatever base grain(s) I want.

I typically buy exactly the grain I need at my local homebrew store and ask them to mill it for me. I almost always use White Labs liquid yeast and make a starter the night before brew day. The starter size varies according to BeerSmith’s recommendation, which factors in the OG of the beer and the age of the yeast packet.

Brew day starts with with collecting water and dosing it with some additions to tweak the sulfite to chloride ratio, depending on the style I’m making. I only add enough to bring the numbers in line for the mash water. The sparge water comes straight from my municipal supply, run through a carbon filter.

My mash tun is a 10 gallon Igloo cooler. I use a false bottom, although it’s probably not quite sized correctly, since I often find quite a lot of grain under it when I’m cleaning up, and stuck sparges are frustratingly common.

I boil just inside my garage in a 10 gallon MegaPot, heated by a Bayou “banjo” style propane stove. When it comes time to chill, I use a stainless steel immersion chiller hooked up to a garden hose. Depending on the time of year and the ground water temperature, I can go from boiling to mid-70’s ºF in anywhere from 20-30 minutes.

The kettle has a dip tube now instead of a bazooka filter, which not only makes clean-up easier, but also allows me to get more wort out of the kettle without moving it around and disturbing the settled trub at the bottom. I let gravity drain the kettle into the fermenter, then hit it with anywhere from 40-60 seconds of oxygen.

I recently bought an Ss Brewtech Brew Bucket fermenter after cracking a glass carboy. The Maduro clone is the first batch to use it, and so far I’m pretty happy. I bought the “brewmaster” edition with the thermowell and it’s been interesting to see the rise and fall of temperature during fermentation. I used to use a plastic Big Mouth Bubbler, but I’ve soured on it because the lid just won’t stay on. The silicone ring won’t make a grippy seal and vigorous fermentations have popped it off more than once, leaving krausen everywhere. I’ve also used carboys extensively, but they’re heavy and prone to breaking.

The last step is pitching the yeast. If I’m brewing in the summer months, I may stash the fermenter in the basement for a few hours to let it cool a bit more. I usually pitch around 70 ºF. It’s likely the next equipment purchase will be a small refrigerator so I can better control fermentation temperatures.

Once I determine fermentation is complete with refractometer readings a couple of days apart, I rack the beer into a keg, force carbonate at around 35 PSI for 24 hours, then reduce to serving pressure. It’s usually not fully carbonated yet, but it’s close enough and it stabilizes after a couple more days. I’ve been kegging for about a year and it greatly simplifies the packaging process. Cleaning the lines after each keg is a hassle, but not as much as cleaning and sanitizing a couple of cases of bottles. That said, if I’m brewing a big beer, I still bottle it, as I know I won’t drink it nearly as fast as something in the 4-6% range.

One of the “fun” things about this hobby is that there’s always something else to try. Off the top of my head:

A fermentation chamber, as mentioned above
A way to bottle off the keg, for competition submission
My chilling process feels very inefficient, especially in the summer
The data geek in me loves the idea of a Tilt hydrometer


Cloning Maduro Brown

Tomorrow I’m taking a second stab at cloning Cigar City’s Maduro brown ale. There isn’t a whole lot of guessing involved with this, since Cigar City shared the basic recipe when someone asked. You can find discussion about it on Reddit. So for me, getting this right comes down to process and minor tweaks to the recipe at homebrew (5 gallon) scale.

This is what I’m brewing tomorrow:

9.25 lbs. Maris Otter
1.75 lbs. caramel 60L
1 lb. flaked oats
1 lb. Victory malt
0.75 lbs. brown malt
0.5 lbs. chocolate malt
1 oz. East Kent Goldings (6% AA) for 60 minutes (18 IBUs)
1 oz. Fuggle (4.2% AA) for 15 minutes (6 IBUs)
White Labs WLP002 English Ale yeast

Download the BeerXML Recipe

Mash in with 4.5 gallons of water for 45 minutes at 156°F. Batch sparge with 1 gallon, then 3.75 gallons at 168°F. Boil for 60 minutes, adding the hops as above. Chill, transfer to the fermenter, oxygenate, pitch yeast, etc.

The last time I tried, the amounts were a little more awkward, because I tried to follow the percentage breakdown more closely. I missed my numbers enough that I ended up with a 4.3% ABV beer, instead of the 5.5% predicted by BeerSmith. I’ve rounded the amounts and the prediction for tomorrow’s recipe is closer to 5.8%. The previous batch was a little thin and had a small, but detectable, off-flavor.

I’ll update tomorrow with notes and numbers.

Update Nov. 4:

O.G. 1.058 (BeerSmith estimated 1.068)
5.5 gallons into fermenter (estimated 5.0)

It occurred to me as the fermenter was filling past 5.0 gallons with wort still in the kettle that I need to revisit my equipment profile in BeerSmith. One thing I changed a few months ago was to replace a bazooka filter in the bottom of the kettle with a dip tube. Theoretically, this lets me get more clear wort, but it also saves me the work of cleaning out the filter screen. I’m guessing I need to change up some of the “loss” numbers. Less water volume means I get a bit closer to the estimated original gravity, although my mash efficiency still isn’t great.

Speaking of the mash: sparging continues to be my biggest process time sink. I was probably at it for an hour.

Update Nov. 16:

I took a couple of gravity readings this week and hit FG at 1.020. It went into a keg and will force carbonate at 35 PSI until tomorrow evening, when I’ll reduce it to serving pressure.

Update some weeks later:

I was very happy with this recipe. A friend had a couple of cans of the real Maduro and we did a side-by-side tasting. The differences were very minor and hard to pick out.