Tag Archives: homebrewing

Fermenting Fridge

21 Jan

This barely counts as a project because of how simple it was.

I wanted a fridge I could use for homebrewing in hotter months (keep beer at 60-70F, or cider at 50-60F), that I could use to homebrew lagers for the first time (control temperatures in the 35-55F range at different stages of fermentation), to slowly lacto-ferment vegetables (not really necessary, but to do longer, slower multi-week ferments around 60F even when it’s warmer), or even to retard bagels (rest in a cool place overnight to slow yeast growth while allowing lactobacilli a head start).

I’d read a bit about DIY ways to replace the thermostat on a conventional fridge… and then dug up a much easier way.

img_7744I bought a Danby DAR044 Compact Refrigerator (price varies, about $180 when I bought it) and an Inkbird Temperature Controller ($35).

The Inkbird temperature controller is a simple pre-wired alternative to custom temperature control relay boxes many people build– it has a temperature probe and two outlets, and turns on whatever’s plugged into the “heating” outlet whenever the temperature is below a certain setpoint, and turns on whatever’s plugged into the “cooling” outlet whenever the temperatures above a different setpoint.

I just plugged the mini-fridge into the “cooling” outlet, with the temperature probe threaded up through an existing hole in the back rear of the minifridge that leads into a drip tray. You remove these two screws to remove the drip tray:


And use a drill to slightly enlarge the drip hole from the outside and fish the temperature probe up into the fridge:img_7742

That’s it. It just worked.

It worked so well I set up a second fridge, so I could be fermenting beer or pickles in one (at 60-65F) while lagering or long-term storing fermented vegetables (or keeping beer cool) in the other at 35F.


As one example, here’s the temperature of the fridge over the course of brewing a lager– at 55F for the first few weeks, raised to 65 for a few days, then lowered to lagering temp at 35…


And typical contents: fermenting chiles, preserved lemons, and sauerkraut:


Homebrew #30! with Mugwort

19 Mar

It’s hard to believe I’ve brewed 30 beers (by the time I write this, 32) over the past few years. For this one I continued down the esoteric “sacred and healing herbal beers” route I’d started with the yarrow beer and brewed a gallon of beer with some wild mugwort foraged from the Oakland hills filling the role of the bitter, aromatic, antibacterial(?) herb instead of hops.

It’s related to wormwood (used in absinthe) and has some hints of similarity in taste– and is almost unbearably bitter on its own.

The “ancient beer” recipe I read was basically sugar and mugwort fermented, which didn’t sound pleasant– fermenting sugar is an easy way to get a hot, harsh alcohol. So instead I brewed a basic all-grain beer recipe I’d use for a pale ale (pale malt, a little wheat, a little rye, and a neutral dry ale yeast), mashed at the low end of the temperature range (149F) to hopefully give a dry beer, but replacing the bittering, flavor, and aromatic hop additions with mugwort. I just made one gallon since it’s both simpler to do stovetop and I expected the outcome might be… challenging, and bottled mostly in the 187mL champagne split bottles I’d picked up a few months ago, making it easier to just crack open a half-beer to taste it (in addition, the UV-driven rapid skunking of regular beers in clear bottles shouldn’t be a concern as that’s a reaction with the hops).


Adding mugwort to the boil:


Fermenting in a friend’s basement:


And, a month later, the result, bottled– as usual having some fun with the labels: sunprint paper to expose photograms of some mugwort leaves, filled in with a silver paint pen loosely inspired by 60s psychadelic band posters.


Oh, and the beer? It had a slightly-greenish yellow tint, with a tart slightly lemony and herbal smell– and a distinctive but intensely basically-undrinkable bitter punch in the face. I enjoyed sipping a bit of it like an apertif/digestif or fernet, but I have an unusual love of and tolerance for bitterness. It actually worked well splashed into soda water like a bitters rather than consumed straight, so I’ll save most of them as a cocktail mixer– and if I made it again I’d take a much lighter hand on the mugwort or combine it with other herbs or hops.

Homebrew Tasting

6 Dec

The annual family blind homebrew tasting (the righthand six are mine):

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They ran the gamut of beers (kit, extract, and whole-grain, traditional and not (aged-on-fruit, wild plants in lieu of hops)), and ciders (apple, pear, wild fermented and brewed with controlled ale yeasts).

As usual, I had the strangest and lowest-rated brews (a punishingly bitter vaguely absinthe-like Mugwort ale) but also a few more pleasant ones (both takes on a Grisette were popular). My sister’s apple-pear cider made from a variety of roadside drops was my personal favorite.

Single Malt, Single Hop, Single Gallon (Homebrewing)

4 Oct

I’ve kept homebrewing a low-tech, visceral, hands-on hobby as a contrast to large engineering systems that occupy another part of my life.  Part of this has been focusing on the process, ingredients, and history more than the equipment.

Partial-mash brewing (mashing modest quantities of grain but depending on liquid barley malt extract for more of the sugars) is one way to more easily brew indoors on a small electric stovetop rather than having to manhandle 15lbs of grain through multiple kettles, and I’ve been happy with several of the beers I’ve made using this method.

But I’ve wanted to get down to the simplest kernel of brewing– whole grain, water, hops, and yeast, and try more experiments especially on the grain variety and the mashing process. And 5 gallons of beer goes a long way. So I tried scaling down to single-gallon batches, and it’s been invigorating– it’s unlocked casual weeknight after-work brewing as a possibility (even after-dinner before-bed brewing depending on timing– it’s about three and a half hours from beginning to end including prep and clean-up) and made stovetop all-grain brewing much more practical. Yes, it’s much more work per beer. But it’s still less work per batch, and only getting 8 or 9 beers out is still enough to sip over the following month / share with a few friends.

One week in August, I even brewed two batches in one week (with bottling/cleanup on the same day about a month later to save some time), both very simple / elemental beers to get to know some ingredient and part of the process.

Batch #10 involved only a single grain (Maris Otter, a particular English variety of 2-row barley) and a single hop (East Kent Goldings).

Here’s the “Brew In A Bag” setup: whole grains in cheesecloth soaked in very specific-temperature water (148F-155F depending what you’re trying to get out of the grain), easy to remove and drain after mashing (not shown: the lid and blanket used to insulate and maintain temperature, and the second pot of higher-temperature “sparge water” used to rinse wort off the grains afterwards to increase yield):


For this beer, I mashed at the low end of the temperature range to try to get a drier, less sweet, less complex beer, hitting a post-boil specific gravity of 1.044 (on the low side, meaning I should expect a roughly 4% ABV session ale out of this, though I ended up around 5% ABV because it fermented all the way down to 1.006 — mashing at low temperature means very few of the less fermentable long-chain complex sugars are produced, so the yeast can ferment almost everything present). In this carboy it looks darker in color because of the thickness, but it’s the yellow second beer from the right in the line of glasses another photo down.


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Above, from left to right: two hard ciders I was fermenting at the same time, this all-Maris-Otter batch, and on the right, Batch #11: a reddish Munich-Malt-and-Fuggles (also a one-gallon, single-grain, single-hop) beer.

After bottling both batches a month later (Simple Beer experiments deserve a simple label):



Another few weeks later I tried them. While they weren’t fully carbonated so should condition a few more weeks, they were both already interesting enough to declare this a success:

The Maris Otter ale was a pleasant, very mild beer, with a slight smell of straw, and a light barley/hay/nutty taste. It had almost no bitterness (just enough to give a hint) and no sweetness.

The 100% Munich Malt ale on the other hand had a caramelized malt nose almost reminiscent of a lighter doppelbock (one of my favorite styles), and a robust flavor of caramelized grain– not sweet in a sugary sort of way, but with the mix of flavors you get from Maillard reactions or a brown shiny crust on a nice loaf of bread. Again, it had almost no bitterness or hop flavor (by design), and wasn’t especially complex, but I would happily drink this any day. I’d mashed the malt for this beer at the high end of the typical temperature range (155F), which was supposed to result in “more complex sugars / resulting in lower alcohol content and a full bodied beer with a lot of mouth-feel”. What do you know, chemistry works…