No Excuses – Taking Hydrometer Samples

Do you know what this is?


A hydrometer and a funnel, you might say. And 6oz of beer in a hydrometer sample tube.

And you would be correct.

But this isn’t just any sample. This is 6oz of beer being fermented at near-peak krausen, 48 hours after pitch. I had to swing my ladle like a scimitar to clear away the foam. The sample was rife with suspended yeast…and delicious. I pitched on Sunday night and drew off this sample on Tuesday night. All I needed was the ladle, the funnel, and a sample tube thanks to my Speidel fermentor, which has a wide mouth opening.

This is not something I would’ve done when I first started brewing. I would’ve been hesitant for several reasons:

1. I don’t want to infect the beer!

This you shouldn’t worry about if your techniques are sound. Just make sure to sanitize the ladle, funnel, sample tube, and hydrometer, and you’ll be okay to return the sample to the batch afterward. Or you can drink it, which is what I usually do. Use a spray bottle full of StarSan or your sanitizing solution of choice and you’ll be unlikely to grow anything off your equipment. You should make sure everything is clean and free of organic matter before you sanitize or else it won’t be as effective.

2. I don’t want to waste the beer!

What are you crying about? It’s just 6oz. You’ve lost half a bottle. If you’re that precious about your beer, then you might have some dependency issues. And don’t forget Issue 1 above—you can always return the sample to the batch as long as you’ve sanitized well. Or you could brew a slightly larger batch to account for a few bottles worth of samples during the fermentation process. That way you can enjoy tasting the beer as it develops during the fermentation process.

3. I can’t get to my beer, it’s in a carboy!

Just siphon it out! Or pick up a cheap wine thief (also sanitized) that will reach into your carboy. There’s really no excuse for access, especially when wine thieves cost $10 or less.

And never forget the reason why you draw samples: Measuring gravity is the only reliable way to judge whether fermentation is complete.

My Robust Porter started at 1.059 beer, and after two days at 67F it had already dropped to 1.027, which is 4.2%ABV. Not bad. I’m hoping it will drop another 0.010 or so at least. I’ll be measuring it every few days to see where it ends up, and I’ll know when it’s done and ready for the bottle.

If the glove fits…


If the glove fits, you must use it.

I picked up these plastic gloves from Walgreens a few months ago and have been using them regularly during brew day and pre-/post-brew day cleaning. They are a lifesaver. Previously I’d just been dipping my hands straight into buckets of PBW and StarSan solutions and then rinsing them clean. As you can imagine, this did a number on my skin–I guess I felt like I should just “man up” and deal with it.

Think again. These solved the problem and cost less than $3. I recommend these over the single use gloves (which comes in packs of 10 or so). I even use these for washing ordinary dishes sometimes.

Whatever you do, just don’t smell the glove.

One more reason to join the American Homebrewers Association


The American Homebrewers Association is great not only because they put out the magazine Zymurgy (free for members), which is filled with great recipes and interviews with/articles by brewing luminaries. Not only because they lobby on behalf of homebrewers everywhere to make state laws more open to our hobby. Not only because you get generous discounts at many pubs and local homebrew shops.

They are also great because they put on free rallies hosted by local breweries. These events include raffles, brewery tours, and, yes, free beer.

I missed one at Revolution earlier this year, but this past Sunday was my birthday and, as luck had it, the AHA held another rally, this time at the new Lagunitas brewery in Chicago.

They had an open bar with a full lineup of taster-size beers (although they broke out the big cups later on in the afternoon). They took us on a floor tour of the facility (which is just enormous). They fed us BBQ. They gave away three stainless-steel conical fermentors in a raffle (in addition to a huge stack of brewing books and some other goodies).

And they sent us home with vials of Lagunitas yeast.


Quite a party favor. So if you’re not already a member, I recommend joining.

I’m in the middle of brewing a set of English beers, so I’m going to try and freeze this yeast. Currently reading up on that practice and will post more about it here later.

Effect of Mash Out and Sparge on Efficiency

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I just finished brewing a Mild yesterday. It’s in the fermentor bubbling away at about 167F, but the gravity is a bit higher than I was planning. I ended up at 1.039-1.040 when I was aiming for 1.038. Initially I had 1.043 until I added a quarter gallon of water before pitching the yeast.

I thought back through my process and can attribute the higher gravity to two things: 1) I boiled off more water than I expected and 2) my efficiency was higher than the 70% I planned.

After the sparge, I ended up with 4.5 gallons of 1.036 wort, which is a total of 162GU. My expected GU was 152, and the max potential GU was 217.27, so I was closer to 162/217.27 = 75% efficient.

I might have been a few percentage points over 70 during most of my brews, but I close enough, and often I hit my targeted original gravity right on the dot. So I’m pretty sure that two things caused this: I mashed out with hotter water than normal and kept the grain bed at a slightly hotter temperature during the sparge. Rather than dump in water at around 175-180F, I boiled two quarts separately in a small pot and dumped it in at around 210F or so, close to boiling.

I sparged with water at 170-180F or so, which kept the grain bed above 160F. I’m not sure if I ever got close to 170F (the recommended mash out temperature), but I was definitely closer than in previous batches.

I also boiled off .75 gallons, slightly more than the .5 gallons I usually boiled off, which will be important to note in the future.

The key takeaway, though, is this: Raising the temperature of the grain bed with a significant mash out and maintaining that temperature during the sparge will increase your efficiency.

I think it might be time for me to start calculating recipes with 75% efficiency.

In Praise of Small Beer Part 1


$12.38 for four gallons of beer. That’s what it’s going to cost me to brew a Mild this weekend. Target OG of 1.038, but I’d be fine with 1.035. I’m going to try and pitch yeast from my last batch (Wyeast 1469 – West Yorkshire). I just rinsed it and put it into a 2qt batch of wort. We’ll see how it does.

It should produce 40 bottles or so, which works out to 30 cents a bottle. Not bad at all.

Goldilocks Homebrewing

The closest I’ve ever come to having a “Murakami Moment” was during the celebratory dinner after my high school graduation. We went to the Crescent City Brewhouse in the French Quarter. I’m not sure whose genius idea it was to take a bunch of 18-year-olds to a brewpub, but we had dinner (no booze, of course) and then went to Tipitina’s for an all night party: The real goal of the dinner and celebration was to keep us all out together somewhere safe with a moderate level of supervision.

But the damage had been done: As we were leaving the brewpub I caught sight of a giant mural on the wall that depicted the entire brewing process from grain to glass. (I can’t remember what it looked like, but in my mind it’s rendered by Diego Rivera.) I decided then and there that I would brew beer that summer.

Although the Internet was still in its infancy, John Palmer had already uploaded his book How to Brew, which had all the information I needed. Fortunately I also had two friends up for the challenge and a local homebrew shop that was willing to outfit us. (Alas, that homebrew shop did not survive Katrina. RIP Brew Ha Ha.)

We bought kits, boiled them up, threw them in a carboy, and sure enough they fermented for us. We never measured anything and only barely kept the fermentations at reasonable temperatures. That’s how I brewed for a long time until—13 years later—I finally managed to get through Ray Daniels’ Designing Great Beers and upgrade to an all-grain brewing setup.

But going all-grain wasn’t easy. You can still buy all-grain kit beer, but I was determined to brew less blindly than I had been before. It was also frustrating to dig through the resources for building equipment, many of which assume endless supplies of money.

Once I got everything going, I started putting together my own explanations. The result is “Goldilocks Homebrewing.” I’m not a great homebrewer (yet), but I am a good teacher and a decent writer, and if you’re just getting started, I can help you.

Pre-order now, and the book will be out on November 1st, which is conveniently Learn How to Brew Day!

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