Bottle Washing Day

IMG_0737Last Tuesday, I had an epic bottle washing session. My normal bottle washing routine is to wait until I have about four cases of bottles that need washed and do it the day of or the day before I am bottling a batch. Four cases is enough, give or take a few bottles, for two normal five gallon batches. So I provide bottles for the batch I’m packaging and enough for one more. Between not bottling anything recently and getting a bunch of new bottles, this was not a standard session and I still have more that I didn’t get to.

I ended up washing all of my twelve ounce bottles, a little over seven cases and starting to work on a couple cases of wine bottles that were in less than ideal condition. I have more wine bottles (and the ones I did aren’t actually ready to use yet), a couple cases of twenty two ounce bombers and a bunch of half liter swing tops still waiting to be washed. About two cases of the twelve ounce bottles were still labeled from commercial breweries, another case or so had my (much easier to clean) homebrew labels and the rest were unlabeled. Unlabeled bottles that have been rinsed as soon as they’re emptied are quick and easy to clean. Any part of that not being true adds to the hassle.

Most of the bottles I use have been through this process before and fit the description of easy work. I have amassed a huge collection of all kinds of beer bottles and haven’t been adding to it much lately, but that is starting to change. I’m working on replacing the deteriorating beer cases I keep most of these bottles in with much more durable and all around easier to deal with milk crates. Twenty five twelve ounce long neck bottles fit perfectly, all the oddball bottles (Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Red Hook, etc.) don’t play as nice. I put out the call that I was again on the hunt for beer bottles and got a bunch of new ones to replace all those Torpedo and Celebration bottles I’ve been saving. This is great, but it meant more labels to scrape off.


For the easy bottles, I use a simple two step washing process. I rinse the bottles with a sink attachment designed for just that and then I soak them briefly in a bucket of Star San solution. Star San is an acid sanitizer. Following the instructions on the bottle, I add the appropriate measurement to a five gallon bucket of water. Star San does not require rinsing, so it is ideal for bottles that are already free from dirt and debris that just need sanitized. The bottles from which I’ve drunk my own homebrew are normally in this condition. Soak them briefly and put them straight on the rack for drying. For dirtier bottles and ones that need labels removed, though you need to do more.

In cases where I have bottles with my own homebrew labels, which are normal printer paper I put on with water soluble school glue, I use warm water with dish soap. This takes the labels right off but does require a thorough rinsing before moving on to the Star San bucket.



For bottles that have commercial labels, I’ve found that PBW, another product from Five Star Chemical, the same company that makes Star San is the best solution. PBW is an alkaline cleaner that is used to wash all kinds of brewery equipment, including all that beautiful stainless steel. Given enough time, it will take off even the toughest to remove labels (Tröegs…) as well. Star San is supposed to sanitize almost immediately, but I usually give it a little time to be safe, PBW on the other hand tells you right on the label to give it time to work. For removing labels, thirty to forty minutes of soaking seems to do the trick. Bottles coming out of the PBW solution usually look perfect, but it is a cleaner, not a sanitizer and they should still go through the Star San after they’re clean.


Bottles that were never rinsed and have dirt, yeast residue or whatever other grossness dried on may or may not come out of the PBW clean. If they don’t, you can always break out a bottle brush. Most beginner brewing kits seem to come with bottle brushes and they work well for these soiled bottles. That said, I almost never use them and I doubt that many people ever invest in a second bottle brush when that first one is worn out. When I started out and was still building the castle of beer bottles that now takes up a large portion of my basement, I was forced to tediously wash individual bottles with this tool. Now that I have bottles to spare, the effort does not seem anywhere close to worth it. If a bottle doesn’t come clean from a spray of water after soaking in PBW it goes straight to the recycle bin.

After the bottles are cleaned and sanitized, they need to dry. There are two bottle drying systems that are popular with homebrewers. The old stand by is the bottle tree and the new sensation is called Fast Rack. I have one of each and I’ll post my thoughts on both later this week. Tomorrow is brew day for Elkland Amber Lager and I’ll be posting about how it goes.


Bottling Week

Between several lagers, an old ale and two meads, I’ve been doing a lot of brewing and not a lot of packaging the last couple months. That is all changing now. I’ve already bottled two batches of beer in the last week and I’ll be doing a lot more in the weeks to come.

I don’t keg (yet) and the Party Pig as close as I’ll likely come to cask conditioning, so it’s all bottling for me and that’s what I’ll be posting about this week. I had a huge bottle wash last week. I’ll post about that and what my bottle washing methods are as well as the bottle drying systems I use. I’ll do a batch update, which will include three batches being bottled.

Bottling isn’t the most complex part of the brewing process, so not all my posts this week will be about it. I’m planning to brew my perviously mentioned batch of Elkland Amber Lager this week, so I’ll be posting about that as well.

Water Filter

Every contest I’ve entered, most of the judges remarks have revolved around water quality. I’ve read tons of brewing books and the water chemistry sections always go over my head. This is the biggest part of brewing that I have for the most part ignored.

I’ve always been of the opinion that it was better to pick one thing and really dig in and figure it out rather than trying perfect the entire process at once. Water chemistry, however important, is not the most immediately interesting part of the brewing process. As a result, it has taken me longer than it probably should have to get to it.

I started brewing with extract and specialty grains. Water chemistry becomes a lot more important when mashing. I got a tub of pH stabilizer when I started all grain brewing and started getting my water ready the night before brew day to dechlorinate. It is time to get more serious, though. The first step was getting a water filter. The next step will be doing some testing on my water to see what the rest of the steps will be.

I’d already put off buying a filter for too long, and after some limited research, I decided to just go with this one from Midwest. A lot of the water filters I found came in pieces and required buying hoses separately. This isn’t a big deal, but I just wanted to get it and be done. The price difference was minimal so got the one that was all ready to go.

Last year, I requested a water report and received it from the borough office. I looked at it briefly with a pile of brewing books next to me, but was immediately overwhelmed. If I want to take my beer to the next level, I need to start paying more attention. The carbon filter I bought is an easy first step, but now it’s time to dig in and do the research.

Smoker Thermometer

IMG_0672Measuring the temperature of the mash is something that can cause a lot of headaches for the all grain homebrewer. The more you open and check the temperature in your mash tun, the more likely you are to throw it off. If you’re less neurotic than me, you may be able to trust your cooler mash tun to keep it’s temperature like it should, but if you’re willing to give up that control you may be less likely to try homebrewing in the first place.

Floating thermometers are standard for those of us with coolers converted to mash tuns. They are cheap, easy and accurate, but you still need to open the top and pull the thermometer out to check it, which is inevitably going to drop the temperature of your mash. The solution is a digital cooking thermometer.

These devices usually have a probe to insert into the food you are cooking with a wire connecting to a digital display showing the temperature picked up by the probe. The probe can be placed in your mash tun with the wire coming through the lid without disturbing it’s seal. The only problem is that the wire is usually not safe to submerge in the liquid of the mash. The probe will have to be inserted to a shallow depth, leaving room for heat pockets and for the general rule that your mash is probably hotter in the middle than on the fringes. Your floating thermometer likely suffers from the same problem, though.

The gadget I <a href=”″>picked up</a>, found once again on <a href=””>Homebrew Finds</a>, takes this idea one step further and offers a second, wireless display allowing me to roam the house and backyard while still indulging my OCD side and constantly checking my mash temperature. It is meant to be a thermometer for monitoring a smoker, which is usually outside and left on for very long periods of time.

IMG_0665This model also has a second probe. The first, like the version I mentioned, is sharpened to stick into a piece of meat and check it’s internal temperature while the second is rounded and meant to check the temperature inside the smoker. So far, I’ve been using both probes, the sharpened one stuck into the actual mash and the rounded one just inside the lid of the mash tun. I was interested to see what the difference would be. The variance in temperature is much wider than I expected and it makes me wonder how different various pockets inside the mash may be. In summary, it makes me even more nervous instead of assuaging my fears. Other than stirring the mash thoroughly at the beginning, what can you really do, though? So basically, I’m going to start just skipping the second probe and trust the first one.

Whether or not this any more accurate than my old floating thermometer (I think it is), it is still a lot easier to use. I would definitely recommend it, or something similar, to any all grain brewer. I am still wondering if there is a way to get the probe deeper into the mash, though. Does anyone have a suggestion for a way to submerge it deeper without breaking it? Is there a waterproof equivalent out there?

Using a Refractometer to Find Original Gravity

IMG_0669I recently purchased this refractometer. I’ve been wanting one ever since going to all grain brewing but the price has always pushed it to the back burner. They are $80 at my local homebrew shop and the big mail order places have them a little cheaper, but with shipping it’s not much different. A few weeks ago, though I found this one for around $20. I mentioned Homebrew Finds, but I will again because that is where I saw it and I’m very glad I did.

A refractometer is a tool used to measure the amount of sugar in a liquid solution, something that is often done by homebrewers with a hydrometer. The two instruments work in very different ways. A hydrometer is allowed to float in the liquid. It is calibrated and marked to float at a certain level when in pure water. The denser the water is, the more sugar is in it and the higher the hydrometer will float.


The refractometers that brewers use, there are other more advanced versions used in laboratories for other testing, measure the sugar content of a few drops of liquid over on a lens. Holding the refractometer up to the light and looking in the viewfinder, you can see a chart which shows the sugar content of the sample in Brix. It is measured by reflecting light through the sample and measuring how much the light is bent. Brix is not a scale most homebrewers use, but it can be converted to specific gravity fairly easily.


If you are just looking for a rough idea of the gravity, you can simply multiply your Brix measurement by four. Ten Brix is roughly 1.040 specific gravity. This is not exact and gets less accurate as the gravity is raised. To get an exact conversion there is a slightly more complicated equation. You can find it easily online, or use software to convert it for you.

Unfortunately, refractometer’s do not work the same on liquid that contains alcohol. There are more complicated calculations that you can make to find your final gravity and even find the alcohol content if you don’t know your original gravity. I just got my refractometer and don’t know nearly enough about how this works yet. I hope to learn more and use my refractometer for more in the future, but for now I just want it to check gravity throughout brew day.

With this extra complication, why use a refractometer instead of a hydrometer for your original gravity readings? There are two reasons that make it very handy for all grain brewers. The first and most obvious is that it only takes a few drops of wort. To measure gravity with a hydrometer, you have to fill a flask for it to float in which is usually about a cup of beer you will be losing.

The other reason, which is the main thing that made me want a refractometer is that the wort can be measured right out of the kettle without having to cool down to the appropriate temperature. Within thirty seconds of taking the wort, you can have an accurate gravity reading. This is crucial for all grain brewers during mashing and sparging. Since going all grain, I’ve basically been flying blind during the boil. I normally take a hydrometer sample before starting the boil, but by the time it gets to the right temperature, I’ve already started adding hops.

More experienced brewers may be able to trust their system and skills enough to assume they hit their expected efficiency, but I’m still working on this and, as with my recent batch of Mount Hoodie
, sometimes something goes wrong. If I had this tool on that brew day, I would have known before starting the boil that I didn’t get full conversion and could have either extended the mash to try to convert more, cut my batch size down or at least cut down on my hops to compensate for the lower gravity and keep from throwing the beer off balance.

I’ve only gotten to use my refractometer for two brew days so far, but it has been extremely helpful. It was especially appreciated yesterday while brewing Table Cat as I was returning to the Brew in a Bag method which I hadn’t done in a while. I was not sure what kind of efficiency to expect, but with the refractometer to test along the way for conversion, it was a very smooth brew day.

Table Cat

IMG_0752I wrote on Monday about my first attempt at a Belgian Table Beer. Today, I brewed my second effort. The only problem I had with last year’s version was that it was too bitter. To combat that, I completely skipped bittering hops in this year’s brew. Like last year, I used all Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand, but my first addition this year was fifteen minutes from the end of the boil. I’ve never done this before, but I wanted to keep this a single hop beer and at well over 10% AA, it’s just not practical to measure a small enough amount of these hops to be able to boil them for an hour and not throw off the balance of the beer. With two ounces split into three additions in the last fifteen minutes of the boil, this should be a hoppy and aromatic beer, but with only about fifteen IBU’s, half of what last year’s had.IMG_0750


My malt bill is also significantly different this year. I used rye malt for half of the grist and American 2-row pale malt for the other half. I have never brewed with rye malt before, for some stupid reason. I am a big fan of the rye beers I get to try and I don’t think there are enough of them around, so I’m finally doing my part. I have a couple more planned, but I thought this would be a good first time as I wanted to keep the grain bill simple and it should allow the rye to shine.

In my post about Biere De Table Cat, I mentioned that I was nervous about the various strains of saison yeast and that was the reason I used the one I did. This year I opted for White Labs’ WLP566 Belgian Saison II strain. Similar to the Wyeast French Saison yeast I used last year, this is said to finish quick, not stall out and be generally less finicky than some saison strains. It is also said to give a lot of fruity esters with some light phenol. I am looking for the fruit in this beer, hopefully to compliment the fruity hops. I don’t have a lot of temperature control, but I’m leaving this carboy by a heat vent to keep it as warm as possible and up the esters even more.


All of these elements, a single but exotic type of hop, spicy rye malt and a fruity yeast strain, are my attempt to keep this low gravity beer’s recipe simple and not muddle the elements but still make it interesting. Most of the table beer recipes I found online when researching for last years batch included spices. I wanted to avoid that and keep to the four basic beer ingredients.

In addition to all of these changes, I’ve gone with a slightly higher gravity this year. I don’t think it is necessary, I love the idea of a beer with less than 2% ABV, but I am returning to BIAB for this batch and am using it as sort of a test for future batches. Biere De Table Cat was my first all grain beer. I would like to do more all grain brew in a bag beers. When I was using this method, it was to dip a toe in the mashing water. I did partial mashes for about six months until I built up the courage to splurge on my current all grain setup. Now, I’m hoping to brew some more session beers for the Summer and simplify my process as much as possible. I used eight pounds of malt in this beer, more than I liked to when I was partial mashing, but with my new, bigger boil kettle, it is now easy and, as I learned today, still leaves quite a bit of room to grow. My efficiency wasn’t much better than it was in my original BIAB days, but I hope to improve it with the next couple batches I’m planning. I will post more specifically about my BIAB process as I amend it over the course of a couple more brew days.

Aside from the ingredient changes, I also decided against the extra long boil. Last year, I boiled the wort for over three hours while I brewed another beer. It worked then but any small benefits were not worth the extra time today. It is said that these extended boils will caramelize the sugars in the wort, giving it a more complex flavor and a darker color. I’m not sure how much flavor complexity I picked up, but the beer didn’t seem to gain any color. I don’t think the low gravity prevented it as I didn’t conduct a full volume boil. The wort was a fairly normal gravity. The water added post boil may have negated some of the change, though. My only other guesses are that three hours just isn’t enough for this technique or that it is a very subtle change that I built up expectations for in my head. The long boil certainly didn’t hurt the beer last time, but I’m too busy to bother now.

Despite stepping it up from last year, this is still an extremely low gravity beer. I brewed a six gallon batch because with my eight gallon bucket being tied up with adjunct lagers for the next few weeks, that is the biggest I have room for. Anyway, my basic recipe is below and I’ll post tasting notes when this is ready to drink, which will be only a few weeks away, one of the great advantages of low gravity brewing.

Table Cat
Style: 16E. Belgian Specialty Ale (Table Beer)
Brew Date: 3/26/2014
Estimated Serve Date: April, 2014
OG: 1.024
Expected FG: 1.004
Approximate ABV: 2.6%
IBU: 15

50% American 2-row Pale Malt
50% Rye Malt

10 IBU 15 min Nelson Sauvin, .5 oz 11.4% AA
5 IBU 10 min Nelson Sauvin, .5 oz 11.4% AA
0 IBU 0 min Nelson Sauvin 1 oz 11.4% AA

WLP566: Belgian Saison II Yeast

BIAB: mash at 152º for 75 minutes
One hour boil, three hop additions at 15 min, 10 min and flame out
Ferment warm until activity stops, 10-14 days

Val’s Portly Porter

This was my seventh batch overall and my first fully original recipe. It was also kind of a mess. It is a porter with molasses. A lot of molasses. Way too much molasses. It was not terrible, but the molasses was overpowering. I enjoyed it at first, but got sick of it real quick. I decided to see if the molasses would age out at all. Not much. I still have a few bottles of this sitting around. Once I get through the initial descriptions of all these batches, I will go back and do review posts of the ones that I still have. This should actually be one of the more interesting ones to revisit. The last one I remember drinking was several months ago, but it still mostly tasted like molasses.

I already introduced Grim, so I guess I should mention that this beer is named for my other cat, Valor. It was brewed right around the first anniversary of his adoption day. To be clear… I just have the two cats. I won’t be revealing another one every few weeks.


Val’s Portly Porter
Style: Robust Porter
Brew Date: November 2011
Serve Date: December 2011

1 lb Flaked Oats
.5 lb Flaked Barley
.5 lb Crystal 90L
.5 lb Black Patent Malt
6 lb Dark DME
1 lb Molasses (added at flameout)

.75 oz Pearle @ 60 min
.25 oz Pearle @ 30 min
.25 oz Willamette @ 30 min
.75 oz Willamette @ 2 min

Danstar’s Windsor Dry English Ale Yeast