My latest batch of home brew, an Oktoberfest that I’m brewing in the traditional way (lagered in March for consumption in September/October), was a combination of experiments: new all-grain equipment and lagering outside.
First, was my own personal switch to all-grain. After brewing with a few people on their equipment for several months and getting to know the process pretty well, I decided to take the plunge. However, being low on funds, I took the plunge in the most cost effective (read: CHEAP!) manner possible: making my own mash tun out of a bottling bucket, a process dubbed the “Zapap” system by homebrewing guru Charlie Papazian.
Before writing about my system I wanted to make sure it worked and that I could get a sufficient batch of home brew from it. Tried and tested on this first batch, I can now say that it does work. Here are my thoughts on the system.
First of all, let me tell you about the upside. This is by far the simplest system money can buy. Assuming you already have a bottling bucket, you buy a second bucket without the bottling spigot (including a lid), and, using a power drill, drill about 200 holes in the bottom of the second bucket. Insert the strainer bucket into the bottling bucket, put your grains in the strainer bucket, and drain your mash through the bottling spigot. There you have a simple mash tun.
Now the downside. Yes, you too can create said mash tun for about $15, but the labor involved in your project will skyrocket. Drilling 200 holes takes about half a second to say and pretty much an entire day to complete. Well, about 5 hours of an entire day. Be prepared for some major repetitive labor.
Then, you should make sure you’ve gotten all of the hanging plastic spirals out of your bucket or you’ll be seeing them in your boil. I soaked my mash bucket for a few hours, once in hot, soapy water, then a couple of times in sanitizing solution to make sure it was clean.
But, after all of that you’re off to the races. A mash tun for under $20!
Now, ideally you need to also add some insulation so that when you’re actually mashing you can keep the temperature stable. I don’t know why but I just can’t get myself to wrap my buckets with a bunch of sweaters and blankets. It just doesn’t seem dignified. So I used a bunch of packaging peanuts, instead. Basically, I found a big cardboard box, put the mash tun inside, and then filled the rest of the space with packaging peanuts. With the lid over the top of the mash bucket, the system worked like a charm. It didn’t lose one degree in one hour. A perfect mash!
Sparging was easy enough. I was nervous about a stuck sparge, but didn’t have any problems. The only thing I didn’t hit was my target gravity. Hoping for something around 1.055 after the boil I ended up at 1.050. I don’t think I was meticulous enough about my sparging technique, though. Next time I’m going to try a batch sparge and let the grains soak a good 15 minutes before draining.
The second part of my experiment was lagering outside. As I said, I have no money and not a lot of space, so I can’t afford a refrigerator solely for lagering. But necessity is the mother invention. I don’t have a garage, either, but decided to lager en plein aire, as they say, right in the out of doors for as long as the cold weather would allow. Reading that a water bath would help keep the temperature somewhat stable, I filled a big red plastic tub with water, and put the carboy in, covering it with a blanket secured by a rubber band. It lived under the deck for 3 weeks that way, through rain and sun.
The beer held its temperature well. I checked it every day for 2 weeks, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day, and it stayed between about 35 at the lowest and 50 at the highest, while the outdoor temperature itself was about 27 at the lowest and 60 at the highest. Ideally the beer would have been level at 40. It was close to about a 40-degree average. And it never froze. Heating the water was easy, too, adding steaming hot water from the tap to the water bath when the temperature dipped particularly low.
I have to say that the rain scared me, though. We had some big thunder showers over the course of 3 weeks and I could feel every drop of rain slipping through the cracks in the deck, dripping onto the airlock of the carboy and sliding through the rubber stopper into my beer. After 2 weeks I tasted it and became extremely discouraged by what I thought was a sour off flavor.
I didn’t know what to do, but decided to keep letting it sit out there. I started to think of things I could add in a secondary to counteract the sour notes–maybe fruit or spices.
A week later I was about to leave on vacation for some time, and leaving the care of the beer with Philosopher #2. Torn between whether to dump it all and cut my losses, or make him duck under the deck every day to check on it, I decided it wasn’t worth it (more for his sake than mine) and that I should just let it go. I decided to take one last sip, though, just to see how it was progressing when lo and behold it had shaped up to a wonderful biscuity and crisp Oktoberfest! All the sour was gone. (My current hypothesis is that I had brushed my teeth too soon before trying the beer the first time and that had affected my palate.)
Grateful for having saved my beer at the last second, I yanked it out from under the deck and moved it into our bathroom (which doubles as the cellar since it stays cool), and Philosopher #2 watched the temperature for the next 2 weeks. As the ambient temperature was now getting warmer, not just in the house, but in southern Illinois in general, it was hard to keep in the 40 range. He kept it an average of 55 while I was away, and I kept it there a week when I got back. In total it was lagered 6 weeks.
I bottled it last week and it had fermented perfectly to a final gravity of 1.014. Hopefully it will be a great session Oktoberfest when the fall months come around. And I am happy to report that both experiments worked, in spite of my deep fears about the rain water seeping in through the airlock. Them things are secure! And now my all-grain addiction has begun…