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While I wouldn't call myself an expert, I've been brewing beer at home for years with decent results. Although the hobby of home brewing is becoming considerably more popular every year, many people still don't realize how fun and easy it can be to brew your own beer. It has also been getting easier to access information and quality ingredients in the past decade as tons of mail order brewing supply websites, local homebrew stores and passionate online brewing communities have sprouted up.
I've been doing my best to learn more about the process and incorporate new techniques and ingredients with every new batch I make. From the first time I saw one of Jason's sous vide cookers, it occurred to me that it could be a valuable brewing tool, but I had never heard of any home brewer using one. It's pretty likely that there are home brewers out there who are sous vide chefs and vice-versa, but I found that aside from a few short forum threads, no one had extensively explored the subject.
I brought the idea up to Jason, who happened to have been pounding homebrews and was pretty drunk at the time, and of course he thought it was "a fabulous idea!" I asked him again later on when he wasn't drunk and he STILL thought it was a good idea. So I started making what is technically considered "a plan" for utilizing the sous vide cooker to brew a batch of all-grain beer. Before we get into the details of our experience, I want to give a brief, generalized explanation of how brewing at a small scale works for anyone who doesn't have experience with the process. If you are an experienced brewer the next couple of paragraphs will not be interesting to you and you can just skip to the beer making.
There are two main methods for home brewing depending on how much time, money and effort you want to put into it: all-grain brewing and extract brewing. There are pre-made ingredient kits available for both methods which are the best way to start because they save you the trouble of trying to figure out the correct proportions of the different ingredients to create the style of beer that you like. The standard batch size for most of the kits on the market is 5 gallons, which will get you about 2 cases of 12 ounce bottles. Kits vary in price, but home brewing typically costs less than half of what it would normally cost to buy the same amount of the same type of beer, so that's a nice bonus.
All-grain brewing mimics the traditional commercial brewing process but on a smaller scale. You start by heating a few gallons of water to approximately 155°F and putting this water into some sort of insulated container to maintain the temperature. Many brewers use converted food-grade Rubbermaid water coolers (with some minor alterations) or buckets/pots with towels wrapped around them to hold in as much heat as possible.
Then you add your malted barley (aka malts, grains) to the water. This mixture of hot water and malted barley and the process of steeping the grains like tea, are referred to as mash and mashing, respectively. Whatever vessel you end up using to hold the mash is referred to as your "mash tun (pronounced like ton)" in brewing terminology. I don't remember why it's called a tun, but it is. Because tradition.
The process of steeping or mashing the malts requires a relatively stable temperature somewhere in the 140-160°F range, depending on the beer style, for about an hour. This temperature range is important because it is the ideal temperature for activating enzymes in barley that magically convert the starches into sugars. If you use water that's too cold, you won't get enough of the sugar out and your beer will end up being weak in alcohol, body and flavor. If you use water that's too hot, you might get a lot of the sugars out, but the barley will start to release other compounds that will make your beer taste like crap. So arguably the single most important stage in all-grain brewing is the mashing process, which relies on having the ability to maintain control of your temperature. For obvious reasons, the sous vide cooker is almost perfectly suited for this.
After the mashing phase, you drain out all of the liquid (called "wort") and set it aside and then run fresh hot water over the grains a few times. This process, called sparging, rinses out any extra fermentable compounds so less is wasted and you can get more of it into your beer. The water that rinses through the grains is added to the wort, which is then heated to a boil. The wort is boiled for several reasons, the two most important of which are 1) to kill off any bacteria or other organisms that could contaminate your beer and 2) to release the flavoring compounds present in the hops. During the boiling process, which takes about an hour, hops are added to the wort one or more times to add bitterness, flavor and aroma to the finished beer.
Once you have boiled your wort for the prescribed amount of time, you cool it down and put it into a fermentation vessel of some kind. Inexpensive plastic food grade buckets and glass carboys are used by probably 99% of home brewers. Then you add yeast and then let it ferment for a couple of weeks before bottling it.
Extract brewing is the process that all beginner brewers should try first. It's a great introduction to the general brewing process that requires less equipment and expertise, but still lets you experience all of the main stages and concepts of brewing. The bulk of the ingredients used in extract brewing are malt extract products, either dried malt extract (DME) or liquid malt extract (LME). Malt extracts are produced at a commercial scale by steeping and sparging massive amounts of grain and then using a process such as boiling or other evaporative means to condense the resulting wort down to a concentrated form that is very dense and composed of probably 95% fermentable sugars and a little bit of water.
Extract brewing follows the same basic formula as all-grain brewing, except instead of mashing and sparging a bunch of malted barley yourself, you utilize the malt extract product to provide the fermentable materials that the yeast needs to make alcohol. You can make excellent tasting beer using malt extracts and it takes significantly less time, effort and equipment than all-grain brewing.
With that being said, when you brew a batch of beer with the extract brewing method, you do lose control over some of the detailed characteristics of your beer that can be better manipulated and adjusted by using specific combinations of grains. Although there are many varieties of malt extract available to customize your beer, all-grain brewing gives you the ability to have much more control over the flavor, body and overall character of your beer by choosing a wider variety of malts to contribute to it.
But for a beginner, it is best to keep it very simple until you've had some experience handling the brewing process and mastering the sanitization of the equipment, for example. If you haven't gotten the hang of the fundamentals of the brewing process, your choice of ingredients won't matter much. Brewing with extracts is still consider to be "legit home brewing" so don't be turned off by the fact that it's easier and uses a little bit of a short-cut.
When I arrived at the Logsdon residence at noon on a chilly Sunday, I was under the impression that this process would take like 4 hours or so. I was mistaken. After bringing in some equipment and the recipe kit from the car, we surveyed our brewing space. Jason, the gem he is, had pre-heated about 4.5 gallons of water up to 155.0°F using his PolyScience Immersion Circulator in a 4.75 gallon Cambro CamWear container.
Jason had also taken the liberty of pre-cleaning the cooker by running the unit at 150°F for 30 minutes in a 10% concentration vinegar solution to remove any mineral deposits or other buildup in the unit. Any brewer will tell you that there are plenty of mistakes that you can recover from when you're brewing, but poor cleaning and sanitization is not one of them. I can't stress enough how important it is to put in the extra effort to clean your cooker and water bath container well. For normal sous vide cooking applications, you don't have food coming into contact with the internal machinations of the cooker or the cook water, but if you have any kind of contamination in your equipment, it can easily screw up your beer. So clean before and after brewing and make sure that your plastic equipment is acceptable food grade just to be safe.
Although brewing can be a pretty time-consuming process, a lot of the time is spent just waiting around for things to heat up and then boil and then cool down again. Having the ability to easily set the sous vide cooker for a specific temperature and then just walk away saves both time and effort because otherwise you have to stand around watching a thermometer in a pot on your stove to make sure you don't overshoot your target temperature. This concern is eliminated by using a sous vide cooker.
Our goal was to make a simple beer that wouldn't be too complex to mask any screw-ups on our part. To hopefully achieve this as easily as possible, I had ordered a highly rated pre-made all-grain 5 gallon kit from Midwest Homebrew Supply called Hex Nut Brown Ale, a clone of Goose Island Hex Nut Brown Ale. We pretty much followed the instructions that came with the kit.
With the strike water (brewing term for the water you steep your grains in) prepared and waiting in the sous vide cooker, the next step was to add the malts and start the mash. Before adding any grains, we thought it would be best to wrap some cheesecloth around the intake of the sous vide cooker to avoid any large chunks of grain getting sucked in and getting stuck in the impeller or heating element. I'm not an electrical engineer or a sous vide cooker expert, but I suspect that such a clog would cause an explosion. While I'm passionate enough about trying innovative brewing techniques to risk personal injury, Jason was all worried about burns and shrapnel wounds and stuff. Or he didn't want his sous vide cooker to break, I guess.
It turns out that the Polyscience circulator doesn't like having a thick, wet sheet of cheesecloth draped over its water intake. Before we could even add any grains, it turned itself off and beeped at us. It seemed like a pretty angry beep. Jason's dog really hated that beep so she got angry too and started barking. It was bedlam. We tried a thinner piece of cheesecloth and then tried adjusting the way it was attached to the cooker. These attempts didn't work either and just resulted in a lot of angry beeping and a lot of angry barking on and off for over 30 minutes.
At that point we had a conversation that went something like this:
Jason: Well should we try it without the cheesecloth and see what happens?
Jim: Yeah... I guess so. The worst thing that can happen is that it continues to not work.
Jason: Or it could explode. I've got to protect the money-maker [gesturing toward his face].
Jim: Yeah... I guess so. The worst thing that can happen is that it continues to not work.
Jason: [disappointed] Fine.
So we took off the cheesecloth, fired the cooker back up and let it run for a couple of minutes. Then we added a scoop of grains. It seemed to be ok so we added another scoop. It stopped being ok almost immediately. The cooker shut itself down. We took it out and examined it and it didn't look like there was anything caught in any of the moving parts of the cooker, so our guess was that it just didn't like the extra turbulence and/or pressure that the grain pieces were causing. So we removed the Polyscience unit and tried a different one.
The SideKIC seemed promising at first. We were pretty confident that this one would definitely need some cheesecloth covering because instead of having an impeller like the PolyScience unit, it has a fan-like propeller used to move the water through the device and over top of the heating element. The propeller initially worked well and had enough power to move the water through the cheese cloth and back out the other side. Things went downhill within about 20 seconds though, as foam started to spray out and the unit started to make an off-putting gurgling sound. Then, either smoke or steam (maybe both?) wafted off of the cooker and we hastily turned it off. Some adjustments were made, since we considered that we may have not had the unit submerged as fully as it should have been but we ultimately had the same result, so we gave up on the SideKIC.
We were at a crossroads now. We had spent about an hour trying to get the two different sous vide cookers to function in our mash with nothing but disappointment to show for it. Well, we also had a Cambro container full of what looked like vomit, but we had a lot more disappointment. Our local homebrew shop is only a few minutes away and fortunately they were open, so we decided to try to put the grains inside a muslin/nylon mesh bag and then put the bag inside of the Cambro container so that the cooker wouldn't have any of the grain pieces running through it and potentially clogging it up. We bought a couple different kinds of bags, and definitely too many of them, just to be safe.
On the way home from the store, Jason had an idea: we might not actually need the bags if we put the sous vide cooker inside of a colander within the mash. We got home and he pulled out a conical colander called a shin-fayn or she-sha or something like that. He put it into the mash and put the cooker inside of it. He fired it up and SUCCESS!
So we finally added in the rest of the grains and we were able to bring the mash up to temperature. To mitigate the fact that we wouldn't be getting great circulation and that we were using an open-topped mash tun, we turned up the set point on the Polyscience cooker to 157.0°F assuming that we'd be losing some heat. And so, the 60 minute mash required by our recipe kit began. Throughout the hour, we moved the colander (I finally looked it up, it's called a Chinois, pronounce shin-wah) around within the mash periodically to try to get even heat distribution and extra circulation.
During this time, we used a cordless drill to put some holes in the bottom of a 6-gallon food grade plastic bucket to make an improvised lauter tun (brewing term for the vessel used for draining and filtering the wort and sparging the grains). Some brewers will use a large stainless steel pot with a false bottom and an outlet tap at the base, but we didn't have any of those things. The bucket setup was way cheaper and serves the same purpose.
We reached our 60 minute goal just as our late lunch arrived and we were pretty hungry because we had been at this for a couple hours already. So we turned off the cooker and had something to eat. About 20 minutes later we were back to business and the mash had dropped down to about 140°F which I figured wouldn't matter too much since we were about to drain and sparge the grains.
Sparge is a funny word. So throughout this process the womenfolk made a lot of inappropriate jokes about the grown men sparging together in the kitchen. For the sake of decency I won't repeat them here. By using an additional sous vide cooker, the Sous Vide Supreme, we had been able to heat the sparge water up to exactly 170.0°F ahead of time, so we didn't have to do anything additional at this point.
We first scooped the mash into the bucket that we had drilled the holes into and let it drain for a bit. The sparging process usually involves recirculating the wort back through the grains in the lauter tun, but frankly, this had been going on long enough already and I couldn't be bothered. The purpose of this recirculation is to filter out debris through the grain bed, but there was very little coming through in our wort so it didn't seem necessary.
So we began the rinse portion of the sparging process by pouring our preheated water through a colander to help disperse it over the top of the grains. We added the water a couple cups at a time and tried to keep a couple inches of water above the grain. We ran a total of 3 gallons through the grains and didn't recirculate any of it because it was free of debris and this was getting boring. We moved on to the boil.
We realized now that we didn't have a cook pot big enough to safely boil more than 5 gallons of wort, so we split it up into two pots (about 2.5 gallons in one and 3.5 into the other) and boiled them side by side. Once they reached a boil, we added the flavoring hops to the larger of the two pots and boiled for 60 minutes. With about 4 minutes left in the boil, we added the aroma hops.
After the boil, we hooked up the immersion wort chiller and put the pots outside in the snow to cool down as quickly as possible. The combination of the chiller and the cold temperature gave us one of the quickest cool-downs I've ever seen which was great. In 20 minutes we were down to about 75°F, so we brought it back into the kitchen and transferred to a 6.5 gallon glass carboy.
Despite having only used the sous vide cooker capacities for the water volumes for the mash and sparge and having not taken any volume measurements throughout, we miraculously ended up with almost exactly 5 gallons of wort going into the carboy after evaporation, grain absorption and transfer losses.
We used a smack pack of Wyeast 1056 American Ale yeast, which I had activated about 24 hours in advance to make sure we had a raging, virile yeast population to start. The yeast was added and we got the airlock onto the carboy just before 7:00 pm. The specific gravity was 1.055, which was above the expected starting gravity range given by the kit manufacturer (1.042 - 1.046). Now all we could do was sit back and hope for the best.
What we got about 36 hours later was not "the best." I got a text from Jason telling me that the airlock had overflowed with thick foam making a substantial mess. He was later fooled into thinking that the worst of it was over and this was the email that he sent me:
I had run into this problem once before when brewing an IPA. Despite having an extra 1.5 gallons of headspace in the primary carboy, the foam called "krausen" because a) Germany and b) why not, had built up and made its way into and through the airlock, causing a clog. It continued to ferment, building additional pressure until it blasted the airlock right out of the airlock with what must have been a pretty impressive blast of air pressure.
The airlock shattered upon impact with my 11 foot ceiling and the pressure knocked several other items off of the table where the carboy was sitting. I had a digital thermometer next to it on the table and that ended up landing about 6 feet away. This all happened while I was at work, but when I came home I had an impressive mess to clean up. In my limited experience, I have had the most foaming in the primary fermenter with hoppier beers, which makes sense since hops contribute to head retention in beer. Skipping the extra recirculation of the wort in the sparging phase probably also helped since it contributed extra grain debris that was carried through into the wort. Lesson learned. Maybe.
Jason cleaned up the mess, sanitized the airlock and reattached it to the carboy and everything seemed to have worked out ok.
On the 8th day after we had started fermentation, we assembled again to transfer the beer to the secondary fermenter. I usually transfer a lot earlier than that, but due to some inclement weather and being busy, we couldn't get together until then. We racked the beer to the secondary fermenter (a 5 gallon glass carboy) and took a small sample for a taste test.
Even at room temperature, un-carbonated and in spite of the exploding foam mishap (maybe because of it actually), there was no question that this was the best tasting beer I have made up to this point. The overflow of foam probably mellowed out the hop character, which seemed like it was going to be a little bit stronger than I'd normally like since the recipe called for 2 ounces of Willamette hops, which I think is more than most previous recipes I've made. The reduced hop bitterness and the sweetness created by the higher mash temperature made this beer taste like my favorite beer in the world: Hofbrau Dunkel lager, specifically the version brewed at the Pittsburgh Hofbrauhaus. I've also had the imported Hofbrau Dunkel from Munich in bottles and on draft, but the flavor of the Pittsburgh Hofbrauhaus version is by far the best, probably due to its freshness since it is brewed on site.
We let it continue in the secondary fermentor for about 2 weeks before bottling. We then let it bottle-condition for 2-3 weeks before sampling. The tastes we had at transfer and bottling were a good indication of what the final product ended up tasting like and everyone who has tasted it has said it is pretty much the best tasting beer I've ever made. I'm usually my own biggest critic, but I have to admit that it came out very well. It is a little bit on the sweet side in my opinion, probably because of the higher end mash temperature, but it is definitely drinkable and I'm hoping that with a little more aging it will dry up a bit.