It has been a while since I brewed beer and I was feeling quite rusty, but I still wanted to set out to boldly attempt to create something special.. a PREMIUM ale if you will!
I’ve always been quite fond of the rich malty tones and easy drinking character of the Irish and Scottish style ales, and thought an Irish Red ale sounded perfect for this time of year, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day! So I set out with hopes of crafting a fine beverage. Make that better than fine actually.. if I am going to sacrifice all this effort and time making beer, I sure hope it’s going to taste at least as good if not better than what anyone could run down to the store and purchase on any given day. Let’s face it, when was the last time you had a good Irish Red from a store anyways?
My goal here is to brew an Irish Red that is simply outstanding. A beer that I would proudly encourage others to indulge in, because I know it is something special. One that if a home brewing contest were going on I would not hesitate to enter it in. An ale worthy of sending across the country to friends knowing they will truly enjoy the finished product. An Irish Red that is better than the Jeremiah Red at BJ’s pizza! Ok well you get the picture, I am going to have some fun and enjoy the process but remain focused on the task at hand and try to do everything within my own knowledge and capabilities to create the best beer I possibly can.
The fermentation phase and pitching the proper amount of yeast is a crucial aspect to brewing that can really make or break a beer, so the focus of today’s session is the yeast starter. Which makes sense as this really is the first step to the process of brewing beer, so were basically taking our first steps on our way to crafting that Irish Red.
The yeast starter is simply a small batch of beer without the hops, brewed with the intent to grow enough yeast for your following 5 gallon batch of real beer! At the high level you simply add malts to water, boil, cool it down, then pitch in the yeast. First you need the recipe for the starter though, meaning the proper amounts of malts and water for the beer you are going to brew. This will determine how much yeast you end up with to pitch into your batch of beer the next day. The stronger the beer, the more yeast you’re going to need to ferment all them sugary malts into alcohol. This Irish Red is probably going to end up around the 5.5-6% abv range. So taking the beer’s estimated starting gravity of 1.060 and looking at an online calculator tells me the yeast starter should come in at only just around 1 liter, since I will be using a stir plate to help accelerate yeast growth.
This means the starter should be at 1 liter total volume including the malts and water mixed together. For the malts I will be using the same malts I plan to use for the beer itself for a couple of reasons. First I already had the malts for the beer, and there was more than the recipe called for so I had extra to make the starter with. Secondly I think that training the yeast for the malts and temps they will be making the ale at sounds like the perfect way to bring up those little yeasties!
The target gravity for the starter should always be between 1.030-1.040, as this range promotes the most efficient yeast growth. Plugging the recipe into the Beersmith tells me that .27lb of the liquid malt extract and a volume of 1 liter added to water should yield a 1.036 which falls into range perfectly.
Another critical area for fermentation is the temperature during the fermentation phase, the yeast need the right climate to grow and multiply and live healthy lives to make fine ale. Ultimately this controls the outcome of the finished product having drinking characteristics you crave. So prior to brewing I have been measuring temperatures in every closet, corner, and pantry in my home multiple times per day to find the perfect spot to maintain that perfect climate for the yeast. I have actually used the thermostat in my house to help regulate temperature as well, making fine adjustments attempting to maintain a 66-67 degrees in the “brew closet” where I determined the beer will be fermenting, and also happens to be where I store all my brewing equipment coincidentally. It’s been on the cooler side lately this February, so I just simply use the house heater to keep the temps from dropping too much, so let’s hope it doesn’t get too hot over the next couple of days!
Once I felt comfortable with the consistency of temperature in the closet being right at or very close to the manufacturer (White Labs) recommended temperature for their Irish Ale yeast strain, it was time to move forward with brewing the yeast starter.
First I poured some water to the same flask it would be boiled and fermented in, then added the .27lb of malt and the rest of the water to bring it to just over 1 liter. The liquid malts are very sticky and still stuck to the bottom of the flask immediately even though I had added water firstly, and shaking it did not mix it up either. So I then placed the flask on the stove to warm it up just a dash. In just about a minute the beaker was warming up, so I quickly snatched it up with my oven mitt and swirled it up vigorously to dissolve all them malts into the water to keep it from burning on the bottom of the flask. Once it all mixed together and I saw no malt stuck on the bottom, I then placed it onto the burner again to let it get to boiling.
As soon as the boil started the foam rose rapidly in the cone shaped flask. I then quickly lowered the flame down to a low flicker, just enough to keep the boil going without any overflow. This worked very well, no boil over and did not make a mess at all! Oh yeah, I tossed in the little magnet for the stir plate with 2 minutes to go so it would sanitize too. As a general rule, you always want everything your wort or yeast comes in contact with to be sanitized to prevent any bacterial infections that could ruin your beer.
After 15 minutes boiling passed the flame was shut down, I grabbed the flask and shook it around a bit and then placed it into an ice bath I prepared in the kitchen sink. I had also sanitized a piece of foil and placed it over the mouth of the flask while it cooled in the ice, again to prevent contamination. I took temps with my infrared gun, aiming at multiple spots on the surface of the flask and sides, and although the temps varied in different spots they were within a few degrees of each other so it gave me a good idea of the temp. As a side note I drained water from the sink as water melted because I noticed the flask would start to float upwards, and I didn’t want it tipping over or breaking. 1 measly liter cooled quite quickly in the ice bath, maybe just 5-10 minutes later and it was around 70 degrees which is just right for pitching yeast for the feast!
As stated the target gravity range for a yeast starter is 1.030-1.040 specific gravity, and this is measured with a hydrometer seen above. This is achieved by balancing the right amount of malts with the water to make that 1 liter starter. The rough formula is about 4 ounces of malts to every 1 liter of water to achieve this gravity reading. I took the gravity reading and it came out as expected right at 1.036. I had thoroughly cleaned and sanitized my hydrometer and sample beaker since I had to pour the liquid back into the flask to have the full volume for the starter.
It was time to add the yeast. I had shaken the WLP004 Irish Ale yeast vial before I opened it to loosen up the little flocculent fellas, and when I went to open it there was a bundle of pressure exploding from the vial! Guess those Irish yeast got real excited when they woke up, and even though I slowly opened the lid to release pressure I could not keep it from over flowing a little bit, and I lost a small line of yeasts that trickled down the back of my hand sadly (moment of silence for those lost). It was a very miniscule amount lost, but in the future maybe I wont shake the vial for this strain, or just shake it up enough to loosen the yeast up and not create too much pressure. Anyhow I didn’t let that slow me down and proceeded to release the rest of the yeast family into their new ecosystem!
After I added the yeast to the flask I gave it a real good shake to get some initial oxygen mixed in there. Then I proceeded to place the flask on to the stir plate, much to my excitement as this was the first time I had actually used this contraption, which is touted to be the fastest way to grow yeast. It was all placed into the brew closet, where it could ferment for the next 24 hours at around 70-71 degrees (a few degrees or so above ambient temperature). The stir plate constantly stirs the liquid, which gives a much needed continuous supply of oxygen to the yeast. The next day the liquids had become very cloudy and whitish, letting me know there was plenty of healthy active yeast alive and well swimming around in the starter.
At this point I was then fully committed to brewing the very next day, as I wanted to pitch the yeast into the batch of beer while they were highly active and ready to make some PREMIUM beer!