Oatmeal Stout Brewing Tips

Brewing a better Oatmeal Stout is an ever evolving goal of mine.  Oatmeal Stout was the second style I brewed when I first started brewing many many batches ago.  To me Oatmeal Stout should be roasty with a decidedly chocolate like lean.  It should be smooth, silky and balanced.  There should be a well perceived presence of toast bread or biscuit like quality.  There should be a mild caramel that pulls it all together.  Three things come to mind to put you on the path to developing YOUR best Oatmeal Stout.

First of, like so many beers, you have to nail your fermentation.  For the most part this is an English style stout.  You want some supporting fermentation derived ester qualities in the beer.  This is perfectly delivered by most English Ale yeast strains.  Problem is, English style yeasts tend to have medium to ‘less that desireable’ attentuation potential.  These yeasts often ferment fast and fall out a little early.  In order to get the crystal malt, the chocolate malts and the oatmeal to all play well at the front of the stage you have to get all the other residual fermentables fermented out.  For me I accomplish this by starting my fermentations a little cool (62F) for the first 48 hours. Then I set the temp to 66F and let fermentation start to take off for two more days.  Then I ramp it to 69F and let it ride for three more days. After that I set the temp to 72F and let it go for another 7 to 10 days.  By doing it this way you can coax most English Ale strains to go the distance and reach their reported higher end of attenuation.  Of course, a moderate amount of O2 and some yeast nutrient helps too.
I wish I could tell you what my favorite yeast strain is…but I don’t think I am quite there yet.  For the last two years I’ve been have good luck with WLP013, London Ale yeast, but I have used WLP007 when I find myself struggling with temp control.  WLP002 can be perfect if you know you can dial in the fermentability from your mash regime, use great temp control and have a very active kick-ass starter.

Second step is to blend your crystal malts.  My main point here is to develop some interesting caramel background tones and complexity by using two different crystal malts.  Lately I really like a 75/25 split of C40 and C80.  But its often a toss up of C80 v C120; depends on my mood.  You need to explore these combos based on your own palette.  You can start mixing three together but its a tight wire to walk on for sure.  In order to get appreciable flavor from any malt there is a minimum you need to use (again palette dependent). So when you go to three you might find yourself drifting into two much crystal malt which makes the beer harder to get dry enough.  Stick with two in combo seems to have been the best for me.

Lastly, you have to toast your oats.  Not all of them maybe a half to a third.  I have found that I need at least one pound for a typical 5 gallon batch to be just plain oats for the requisite mouthfeel goal.  Toasting an additional 50% seems to have been the magic number to get that biscuit like quality without actually adding yet another malt (i.e. biscuit malt) to the grist.  Adding another malt to the grist then brings us back to point #1 about dryness and fermentation.

Oatmeal Stout has been a fickle beast for me.  Sometimes that first pour of a new batch is just perfect, then others seem off the mark.  But these three points have driven it home for me and seem the common thread when I do get batches that seem close to divinity.


Home Brew Club Plan

The AHA Big Brew Day is coming up on May 3 and Mike and I are going to use the occasion to start our homebrew club.

I think we posted something about this notion a while ago.  Well, it’s time we made some ideas turn into things.

We have at least a couple of other guys who want to join up.  I think there was a guy on Twitter who wanted us to contact him to let him know once we got our stuff together.  Finally I can tweet that guy with a plan.

With this club, we will probably need a catchy name or at least something unique.  Heck, there’s at least a few different brew dudes on the internet.  You’d think we’d be able to come up with something that was our own.

(I think we were first but who’s keeping score?)

There are some things that we will have to do make it a legitimate club.  We’ll probably needs a separate site to keep the official home brew club stuff in its own place, although the insider stuff will probably remain here on this blog.

We’ll have to set regular meeting times and dates to keep it going.  The worst thing that could happen is to have this one event, clink glasses, go home, and never see each other again.  Certainly, the second meeting may be more important than the first, just to prove that the first one wasn’t some fluke.

I am looking forward to sharing ideas with people.  Experiments may be easier to run and better for reporting results when you have more points of data (more people to do the experiment).

We may need to rent a hall or some space to meet.  Once we get rolling, it may be harder to keep having the meetings at somebody’s house.

Outside of that, since not everybody who reads this blog lives near us, I wonder if other clubs have remote members in which the people play along by sending beers to the main location and we converse through Google Hangouts or other free video conferencing services.  I don’t know if anyone would be interested in that, but if you would like to be a remote member of the club – let us know.  You are definitely invited.

So that’s it – that’s the home brew club plan.  We’re going to kick it off on May 3 and we’ll report in this space about it but probably on our social media accounts on the day it happens.

Thanks for reading and brew on.

Sour Blends for Making Sour Beers

Do you ever feel that you get behind in your home brewing because other things need your attention?  There was a dunkelweizen sitting in my basement for three and a half weeks and it was just waiting for me to take it to its final destination.  I finally got around to getting all the things  I needed to get done and it is bottled.

Now, I can focus on brewing a lambic.

Since it will be my first time, I plan to use a sour blend from one of the big yeast providers.  I am not sold on the idea of using dregs from sour beers.  Mike’s less than successful attempt at harvesting bottle dregs convinced me that going down that road was adding too many things I don’t have much experience with to the mix.

The grain bill will be simple and the old hops I have.  The real thing to investigate and learn more about was the sour blends that were available to me.

I like the Roeselare Sour Blend from Wyeast since it name drops the region of the world where these beers are from but also from the list of stuff that is in it:

  • Belgian style ale yeast strain
  • A sherry yeast strain
  • Two Brettanomyces strains
  • A Lactobacillus culture
  • A Pediococcus culture

That’s a quite a group.

With knowing more about the blend, there are two things I’m thinking about and they are related to each other.  I have seen recipes that call for adding a neutral ale strain to get things going and then adding the sour blend after some time has gone by after fermentation has started.  I am not sure if I need to add another strain.

The second thing, that is if I decide to go down the route of adding, say, a California ale yeast strain, is when to add the sour blend. Should I wait three days or a week to add the blend or should I add it all at the beginning?  Does the sour blend get the beer sour enough if I add it later during the fermentation schedule?

The thing is, no matter what I try, I can always do the opposite on a later batch.  The real ingredient to these sour beers is time.  It takes time for a sour beer to mature into something that is really drinkable and also, it takes time to brew multiple batches that you can blend later.  If I can hack it, I will brew a sour beer once a year every year and then blend, blend, blend.

What is Mash Efficiency?

After John got his new mill he began to wonder what other advantages having a mill would deliver, aside from crushing grain.  That leads us to a discussion on mash efficiency, what it is and roughly how you calculate it.

Every grain has a theoretical maximum amount of sugar (post a saccharin conversion from starch) that it will yield.  Brewing chemists and maltsters have devised a test that involves completely crushing malt into powder and seeing how much sugar it will yield.  For the homebrewer, the expectation of that level of yield is unrealistic. Primarily because we don’t crush our grain into super fine powder and get 100% access to the starch and enzymes.  We need to retain some structure to the malt in order to create a filtering mash bed in the form of good husk material.  A good mill attempts to deliver great starch access while preserving malt kernel structures that assist in lautering.

There in we have the loss of 100% sugar recovery from the “ideal” lab standard.  The difference between what the lab gets and what you get from your mash tun post lauter is often converted to a ratio, and expressed as a percent.  On average 70-75% is a very good mash efficiency.  More efficiency in your system means you need less grain to get the same OG from a recipe written with a lower efficiency.  Often magazine articles are written with a lower efficiency than what we call ‘average’.  I am not sure why this is, perhaps its historical.

Why do you want to care about efficiency? Well primarily its necessary for us as brewers to communicate recipes back and forth.  If your process yields a much higher efficiency than mine your recipe will be out of balance.  This becomes big issue when a recipe must be balanced against the IBUs.  Think of producing an IPA at 1.065OG with 65IBUs.  That balance between bitterness and gravity will be way off if you end up only getting an OG of 1.045 and still use enough hops for 65 IBUs.

There are some cost savings as well.  Large commercial breweries strive for very high efficiency because when hundreds of pounds of grain are being mashed every little bit helps the bottom line of the batch.  10% of that size a batch can mean a lot of cost savings.  On the homebrew scale if you were to jump from 70% efficiency to 80% efficiency its like saving 10% in grain.

Lastly, efficiency gets a lot of attention sometimes in this male dominated hobby.   Bettering each other in efficiency is like a pissing match of maleness sometimes.  The important thing is that increase efficiencies often come at a price.  Some brewers report a loss in overall richness or fullness from a malt bill when the efficiency gets close to 85% or more.  This isn’t well understood quantitatively but from a qualitative side is seems right to me.  Higher efficiency often means more water in the sparge, which means more tannin and other flavors.  An interesting way to see what I mean is to do a batch sparge.  Save a little first runnings and take the gravity.  Then measure the gravity of your second runnings.  Dilute your first runnings down to match the gravity of the second and do a side by side taste test.  The first runnings do taste more maltier despite being at the same gravity.  There is something about the desirable malt flavors that we like that seem to concentrate in those early runnings.  The same holds ups with fly sparging.

We don’t talk about how to adjust your efficiency here perhaps that best for a second post.  But if you want help on how to work with gravity points and scaling the sugars in your recipes check out this old post of ours on working with malt PPG.

Buy a PicoBrew Zymatic and Sell Your Homebrewing Soul?

One of the topics I wanted to write about is the PicoBrew Zymatic.  If you haven’t heard about this system, the guys at PicoBrew ran a successful kickstarter campaign to help build a table top device that brews beer with the click of a few buttons.

Part of the story behind the invention was that the hobby of homebrewing is challenging, especially when attempting to the same recipe more than once and expecting the same results (very similar to the folk definition of insanity).  With so many variables in play when homebrewing, many due to basic equipment that makes it difficult to exactly replicate conditions from batch to batch, the solution was to build a system where the variables could be controlled.

The other issue their invention was trying to solve is the time it takes to brew beer at home.  They point out that there is no art or fun in cleaning up a kettle.  A machine that can brew beer in a self contained unit with a wash cycle will eliminate the need to carve out the 30 minutes you need to clean up after yourself.

For people who may not have a lot of space to house homebrewing equipment, this set up takes up less square footage than even a simple kit.  Again, another positive that this invention has going for it.

These are all great issues that, if solved, would make homebrewing more enjoyable than it is following a typical procedure.  The typical brewing at home techniques having progress much since the hobby was legalized in the late 1970s.  We should celebrate the innovations that this device is bringing to homebrewers.

The big drawback is the price.  For us here in the States, it is a $1,700 investment.  Over the 9 years I  have been brewing, I don’t think I have sunk that much money into the hobby.  If time, control, and space are things you want to fix with a one time purchase, there is value to buying the PicoBrew Zymatic.

Of course, the philosophical side of me wonders if the soul of homebrewing is lost with the ability to push a button and make beer. I like the challenge of trying to control conditions with an imperfect system.  I don’t mind scrubbing my equipment when I am done brewing.  Time brewing is time away from the other stuff in my life, which is a good thing.  :)

I am not a purist but certainly someone who has it in his thick head that something worthwhile is something worth working hard to accomplish.  Now if the price came down by 50% and it produced better beer than what I brew with my junk system and manual labor, then there would be no other way to brew but with the Zymatic.

What do you think? 

Is there anything lost with this technology, especially with so many gains?

Comment below, please.