Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Brewing Software Review: beercalculus.com

Freeware website at beercalculus.hopville.com
Free recipe repository at hopville.com
Overall Grade B+

Hopville.com is an online beer recipe site, and Beercalculus is Hopville's online homebrew recipe calculator. You can join for free and save your recipes on the site. They become part of a searchable/browse-able recipe collection. Once you're a member you can save recipes under your own ID, or as 'anonymous.' Or you can just use Beercalculus without saving anything. Surprisingly, the site is not supported by advertising or subscriptions.

One of the big pluses for Beercalculus is that you don't need to install any software. All you need is a reasonably modern browser. The site has been around for a while so the software is fairly mature, and development is fairly active. As this review is written the strike water and other mash calculations are in re-development. Right now, you can enter grain temp and mash thickness in the current version. With any luck, they’ll add the ability to enter a variety of other variables in the next release.

Another plus is the wide selection of predefined ingredients. You can chose from 457 fermentables, 324 yeasts, 143 hops, and a bunch of miscellaneous ingredients. In part this is because there are a lot of options to choose from in real life and in part this is because there are multiple listings for the same ingredients. For instance you'll find "Columbus", "Columbus (Tomahawk)" and just plain "Tomahawk." You can decide whether you want to use "Crystal 60" or "Caramel 60" in your recipe. And so on. You can even add your own by searching for the missing ingredient, then clicking the link to add it. As the site says, "If you'd like to add a missing malt, go for it."

Yet another plus is the ease of use. You start on a page that presents the spectrum of known malts & other fermentables, hops, yeast, and miscellaneous ingredients. You can choose metric or US units. If you go with US, you can add your malt in pounds AND ounces. If you disagree with their values for ppg of °L, you can edit the entry for your malt or extract. If you fail to select a weight it will prompt you before you attempt to save the page. You can adjust the alpha acids if your Cascade hops are 5.7 rather than the default 5.5, and you can select leaf, pellet, or plug. The miscellaneous ingredients can be entered as ounces, pounds, teaspoons, tablespoons, liquid ounces, or gallons. One minor quibble is the lack of an "each" setting for things like Whirfloc tablets.

You start with "No style assigned." It's handy, though, to choose a style early on, because Beercalculus will give you guidance on how to achieve it. With no ingredient selected, the selection of "American Amber Ale" will produce the following guidance for the BJCP American Amber style:
• OG should be at least 1.045
• FG should be at least 1.010
• IBU should be at least 25
• SRM should be at least 10
• ABV should be at least 4.5

If you overshoot on an ingredient, Beercalculus will tell you the recommended maximum. IBU calculations for Garetz, Rager, Tinsleth, and an average are available.

You probably owe it to yourself to do some research as to what ingredients are proper for an American Amber, and Beercalculus will help you with that as well. For example, if you add Biscuit Malt, mouse over your entry, and click the 'info' link you'll see the following:
Use for English ales, brown ales and porters. Adds a biscuit like flavor and aroma. Can be used as a substitute for toasted malt.

For Cascade hops you'll see:
Use for: American ales and lagers Aroma: Strong spicy, floral, grapefruit character Substitutes: Centennial Examples: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Liberty Ale A hops with Northern Brewers Heritage

When you're done adding ingredients, click on the Process tab to add steps to the brewing process. You'll see times for hop additions and so on.

If you've signed up as a Hopville user, you can save your recipe after you've added at least one fermentable and one hop. And you can export your saved recipes as BeerXML. One more minor quibble is that you can only save all your recipes, rather than saving just one recipe at a time if you prefer. I wanted to give Beercalculus an "A" but the recent downgrade on process-related features nets to a B+. Still highly recommended.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

All done with brew day, just cleaning up. Crap...I forgot to get my OG reading.

No problem, I'll just run a bit out of the fermenter into the hydrometer jar. Hmmm...that's a bit frothy, I’ll wait ‘til it settles down to get an exact reading.

[Some time next morning] Crap! Great kräusen, but I'll never get a good reading now. OK…that was approximately .065-ish?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Brewing Software Review: QBrew

Freeware downloadable from www.usermode.org
Overall Grade C-

First, the good news: The program is quick and easy to use. Now the bad: It is at version 0.4.1, so it is far from being complete according to the vision of its creator. Due to being incomplete the fit and finish isn't exactly first-rate from top to bottom. And the last time it was updated was 2008, so it seems unlikely we will ever see Version 1.0, or even Version 0.mostly-done.

QBrew will open its own *.qbrew files, or the ubiquitous BeerXML files created by other programs. Since the last development work for QBrew was done in 2008 it doesn't have the 2008 Style Guidelines, and so a Black IPA recipe I created as a Category 23 Specialty Beer came through as a "Generic Ale." Even after I added "Specialty Beer" to the styles list it didn't show up until I closed and restarted the program. And the recipe I just had open didn't show up on the recent files menu item.

The configuration of the program seems incomplete. Even though I have "US" measurement units and a default batch size of 5 gallons selected under "Configure", my batch size comes up as 20.80 liters for a recipe imported from other software. You can select Tinsleth or Morey for IBU calculations, but neither is selected by default. There is a help selector icon, but almost nothing in the UI is selectable with it.

The UI Is a bit clunky in places but generally it works as expected. There is a calculator for alcohol based on OG/FG, and one for hydrometer correction. The database editor lets you add grains, hops, styles and miscellaneous ingredients, but when you click the plus button to add items they go to the top of the list and are named "Generic." I tried to add one ingredient twice before I figured out what was going on.

This software is OK as far as it goes, but I have a tough time recommending it when there are better options online, or as freeware. And there are better options out there. It's a shame because this project looks like it was off to a great start.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Brewing Software Review: BrewMate

Freeware downloadable from www.brewmate.net
Overall Grade B+

I almost didn’t review this package. The problem was that I tried to install it to the “Program Files “ directory on a Windows 7 PC. Windows 7 has a cow when BrewMate tries to write to the C:\ Program Files\BrewMate directory, and the program crashes at startup. After a PITA uninstall and re-installing to C:\ Brewing\BrewMate, Windows 7 will actually let the program run. You should be fine on any other version of Windows, or Windows 7 if you install to a similar "safe" location.

I’m on the initial settings and liking this program already. I can have my default grain measurement in pounds (like my large scale) and my hops measurement in grams (like my small scale.) IBU can be calculated using Tinsleth, Rager or the Average. Oh, and you can turn the “Style Nazi” on or off. It has default settings for all the standard stuff: Batch size, efficiency, etc, etc. There are a ton of other default settings from boil time to sparge temperature to mash thickness to anticipated system losses.

The program is super-configurable, because you can easily edit the lists of Styles Hops, Fermentables, Yeasts and Miscellaneous ingredients. You can adjust the values for anything already on each list, add your own, and delete the ones you don’t want. It includes all the standard BJCP styles and a few more. The various ingredient lists seem pretty solid. The UI is simple and easy use. You can override any of your default settings for a recipe. The “Style Nazi” feature just puts yellow highlights your values that out of style. That’s not too hard to take – I was expecting search lights and sirens. Along with the calculations that other software provides, BrewMate gives you BU:GU ratio and Balance. Unfortunately, those numbers aren't put into context for the style, so you'll need to look up a bit of info to make sense of them.

BrewMate also includes three timers, one for boil, one for mash and a generic stop watch. As you would expect, you can save your recipes and load them when you need. It stores your recipe in BeerXML and can read Promash files. It will also backup your recipes and settings, export to a text file in regular and “Forum Friendly” mode, and even “Publish” your recipe to the BrewMate website.

There are additional calculators for Carbonation, Refractometers, Boil off/ Evaporation, Hydrometer temperatures, Water Dilution, Gravity Adjustments and Alcohol/Attenuation. I'm hoping that they will add a mash calculator that lets me enter target temp and mash thickness, and gives me a strike water temperature and volume.

Minor annoyances: You can't select pounds AND ounces. Instead you see pounds and decimal fractions of a pound... but this problem isn't unique to BrewMate. BrewMate doesn't keep track of whether or not you've edited a recipe, so it prompts you every time you go from one recipe to another, and the button you need to click is the opposite of the button on the "more intelligent" software that keeps track of what you're doing rather than just nagging.

I haven’t done a side-by side comparison between the outputs of this program and others, and I haven’t made use of the additional calculators yet, but based on my test-drive, BrewMate is Highly Recommended. If this works as well in daily use, I have an new favorite. Just beware of the installation issue on Windows 7.

You can also find BrewMate on Twitter and on Facebook. (And Jamil likes BrewMate.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

South American Homebrew: Chicha (Part 1)

Chicha is a traditional Andean drink made primarily of corn. Some 'modern' interpretations include a bit of barley with the corn. The road to making chicha seems to have many side alleys and local detours, so there are many ways of getting to the end.

There are at least two main types of chicha, alcoholic and non- alcoholic. Within the alcoholic version there are high and low alcohol versions. There are also many varieties of corn that can be used to make Chicha, but the non-alcoholic version tends to be made of purple corn and the alcoholic version tends to be made of yellow corn. The corn tends to have been dried on the cob in the sun before the chicha-making process begins, but fresh corn is probably used in season. Chicha is almost always made by women, because men making chicha might offend the Peruvian goddess of grain Mama Sara (Zaramama.) Men brewing chicha in Andean society would be considered as bad luck and just plain stupid, since men don’t belong in the kitchen. This is an ancient tradition that continues to today. The chicha I drank in Peru was made by a woman.

The first step in making chicha is to make jora. This is the equivalent of making malt before making beer, so the corn kernels are placed in water to soak for a day or two, which will start their germination. The soak water should be changed twice a day or more to maintain the kernel’s freshness. Bacteria may start to work if the corn is kept soaking in stagnant water, and the kernels need oxygen for the germination process. After a couple of days, you should see sprouts start to appear, and inside the corn enzymes are forming that will help convert the starch in the corn to sugar.

The second step is usually to dry the jora. If you're making a bunch of jora you'll want to dry it so it doesn’t go bad before you get a chance to use it. Traditionally the drying is done by laying the jora out in the sun. You could also just make a small batch of jora and crush it for immediate use. Fresh or dried, your jora will need to be crushed before we can go on to the next step: extracting the sugar water. After it is crushed the jora may also be called pachucho, or possibly huinapu.

This third step is equivalent to 'mashing' for beer brewers. I don't have a lot of detail on this but my surmise is that the jora and a suitable amount of water are heated together, about two parts water to one part jora. They are gradually heated to a boil. As the corn and water are heated, they pass through a range of temperatures that help the enzymes created in the jora-making step to convert some of the starch in the corn to sugar. As the temperatures get above 170, those enzymes are destroyed. Cusco Peru is the epicenter for Chicha, and water boils at around 190 degrees in Cusco, rather than 212 degrees at sea level, so they get to a boiling temperature rather quickly. The boil should be continued for several hours.

If you're making non-alcoholic Chicha Morado, you're almost done. Just strain off the boiled liquid, cool it, add some lime juice to balance the sweetness, add a bit of spice and you're all set. The straining process can be accomplished with anything from cheesecloth to layers of straw.

Stay tuned for part two...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

It's a boring old topic: Sanitation

I've always cared a lot about the sanitation aspect of brewing beer. I've been told that I'm a fanatic about it. Not sure if that's true, I haven't ever watched someone else brewing so I don't have much to compare to. I do have several not-so-fond memories of drinking a couple of commercial brews that were infected, so I'm pretty much ever-vigilant.

Back in the olden days (what I will call Finn Hill Brewing v0.1) I was brewing with a combination of extract and malt in the kitchen. With v0.1 everything had to be set up and torn down each time, so I cleaned at teardown and sanitized at setup.

Eventually, I moved on to Finn Hill Brewing v1.0. I was brewing with all malt in the garage. Woot! My wife and and were both jazzed about this - for different reasons. Still, everything had to be set up and torn down each time, so I cleaned at teardown and sanitized at setup.

Finally, my aching back convinced me to move on to Finn Hill Brewing v2.0: Permanent plumbing bits, and a pump. The immersion chiller was replaced by a counter-flow chiller, and various valves directed the wort from Point A to Points B, C and D. Only the hot liquor tank and sparge arm need to be set up and torn down each time. I'm still cleaning at teardown and sanitizing at setup. But I worry more.

I now have more points in the system where the stray hop fragment or barley husk could get trapped, and those points are no longer visible to me. "Back in the day" all my tubing was transparent so I could see everything. I still have some parts of the system composed of translucent tubing, and those have helped me to see potential problems. I see a lot of PBW, Starsan and Iodophor in my future.

I also need to take a second look at the layout because there are low spots that trap liquid. I'm picturing little hidden pools where critters will breed. Or maybe I can figure out a way to hook a CO2 bottle up to the system to blow it out? Things seem to be going well so far, but I still worry.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cream Ale

Cream Ale was one of the few indigenous American beer styles to have survived Prohibition, due in part to its popularity in Canada. Thanks, Canadians! Its name is still a problem, due to the popularity of Cream Soda. At any given point in time there's probably some idiot out there trying to brew a Vanilla Cream Ale based on the name alone - give it up, dude. Tell yourself it's really a pale lager and move on.

After trying a Cream Ale brewed by the Brown Bros., I decided to give it a try. The grist for a cream ale can include a mixture of six-row American pale barley malt and corn adjuncts. I went with two-row and grits. For me the quintessential Cream Ale is Genesee, AKA Genny Cream. Their motto, "While other beers went light and low carb and metrosexual, Genesee Cream Ale bided its time and waited for the world to come to its senses again." The west coast champ is Kiwanda Cream from Pelican. Darron Welch, the head brewer at Pelican provided the recipe in an old issue of BYO.

I went a little different direction (more along the lines of the Brown Bros. beer Hallertauer hops and no specialty malt) and it came out tasty. I brewed it two weeks ago, kegged it two days ago, and I'm drinking it today because I had nothing else on tap. I've never tried a beer this young before, but it's super-drinkable. Despite high attenuation (FG: 1.0005) the taste has a sweet quality. It hasn't cleared entirely yet, but we're getting there. There's a little vegetable quality in the hops, which I hope will drop out as the beer clears up, but otherwise - good stuff!