Archive for January, 2010

American Amber Ale

Now that I have all of the supplies required to brew 5 gallon batches of beer, and have convinced myself I can follow directions well enough to end up with a drinkable beer, it is time to get started. A trip down to DeFalco’s got me the ingredients I need for my first partial mash beer. Since I like amber ales, I decided that is what I would brew as my 5 gallon brew.

The Ingredients

DeFalco’s happens to have a recipe for that very thing, so here’s the ingredients list for my second homebrew:

  • 6 pounds light malt extract
  • 1.5 pounds pale malt
  • 1 pound medium crystal malt
  • 1 ounce Mt. Hood hops (bittering)
  • .5 ounce Cascades hops (flavoring)
  • .5 ounce Cascades hops (finishing)
  • 1 package Burton water salts
  • 1 vial White Labs California yeast
  • 1 package Bru-Vigor (yeast food)
  • .75 cup corn sugar (priming)

The Process

The first step to any successful endeavor is planning. For brewing, make sure you have all the equipment you will need. If you are using gas, as I am, make sure you have full tanks of propane ready to go. Few things would be less awesome than running out of gas before you hit your boil, or during the boil. Do you have your thermometer(s), hydrometer, a large stirring spoon, an appropriate brew kettle/stock pot, enough water you can actually use? What about a wort chiller (or some means of cooling 5gal of wort from boiling to yeast-pitching temperature as rapidly as possible)? Do you have the lid or stopper for your primary fermentation vessel? What about an airlock? Do you have a fluid you can put in your airlock that will reduce the risk of infection? Are all of your ingredients accounted for? A checklist is useful, and Brewer’s Friend happens to have several of them already made up (wish I’d known that before I made my own)! Anyway, if you answered yes to everything you’re ready to start brewing.

Brewing Supplies

Brewing supplies

To start, clean and sanitize everything. Yes, everything. Sure, much of what you will be using are going to contact boiling water sooner than later but you won’t hurt anything by sanitizing it first. I use a light, fragrance-free, detergent and a 3M sponge/scrubbie to physically clean everything to a smooth and grit-free surface. Rinse, dry, and coat in a mist of 12.5ppm Iodophor solution. It stays like that until use.

Knowing I would need to heat water for steeping my specialty grains and water with which to rinse said grains, I split my water between two kettles. I would steep and sparge in my main brew kettle, a 42 quart stock pot, and use another pot to heat my sparge water. My brew kettle was filled with 3.5 gallons of spring water, to which a packet of Burton water salts was added, and brought up to ~165°F. At the same time, my sparge water was warmed to ~150°F to rinse the grains after 30 minutes of steeping.

Steeping was pretty easy, and rewarding. The clear water turned a deep amber very quickly, and released a great malty aroma. To make sure all of the grain was exposed to the hot water, I continuously bobbed the grain bag in the brew kettle. As soon as the bag hit the water, I started the stopwatch on my iPhone – at least my iPhone does something correctly. When 30 minutes elapsed, I pulled the grain bag from the water and rinsed it with the sparge water I had heating in the house.

Steeping Specialty Grains

Steeping speciality grains

At this point, my brew kettle now had 6 gallons of wort from the specialty grains ready to bring to a boil and have 6 pounds of light malt extract stirred in. The jet burner made quick work of bringing the 6 gallons from ~160°F to a rolling boil. It also dropped the pressure in my propane tank so fast the outside of the tank frosted over. That was pretty cool, literally. When the boil hit I cut back the heat, to avoid scorching, and stirred in the light malt extract.

With the wort as full of sugars and proteins as it was going to get, I went back to full heat on the burner until the hot break. A foam formed over the surface of the wort, and then sunk back in. You could see the hot break particles moving about as solids in the wort. This was my cue to add 1 ounce of Mt. Hood bittering hops, and hit the lap button on the stopwatch. 30 minutes later, I added .5 ounce of Cascade hops for flavor, and 15 minutes after that I added the remaining .5 ounce of Cascade hops to finish for the final 15 minutes of the boil.

Final hop addition

Final hop addition

At the end of the 1 hour of boiling past my first hop addition, I cut the flame and immediately moved the brew kettle to my wort chiller to start cooling. Stirring the wort while the chiller was running made the temperature drop much faster than just letting the cooler run on its own. It only took about 15 minutes to drop the wort from more than 210°F to ~80°F. This could be done even faster if I also had a pre-chiller to drop the water flowing through the immersion chiller down closer to freezing.

Cooling the wort

Cooling the wort

With the wort cooled sufficiently, I took sample and found its gravity using my hydrometer. I also took the temperature so I could correct the hydrometer reading. My target original gravity was 1.050, per the recipe, and my actual original gravity (temperature corrected) is 1.055. Final gravity should be 1.012 when all is said and done. The California yeast is a high attenuation yeast, so it should be able to bring the gravity from 1.055 down to 1.012 without trouble.

The cooled wort was poured into my 6.5 gallon primary fermentation bucket. I splashed it around as much as possible for aeration, but took care to minimize the disturbance of the sediments that fell out of solution during the cooling phase. Another temperature reading verified that my wort was well within the pitching range for the White Labs California yeast, so the vial was shaken and poured into the wort along with the packet of yeast nutrient. I snapped the lid down securely, agitated some more, and put in my airlock.

Everything I’ve read places fermentation temperature control up near the top of the list of things one must have for consistently good beers. My first brew likely suffered some due to 10°F temperature swings in my closet from the heat of the day to the cold of night. Fortunately our house has a very central closet that maintains a very stable temperature day and night. My fermenter, wrapped in towels and topped with a thermometer, found its way to this closet. Some 20 hours later the airlock was bubbling like crazy. A good sign for sure.

In the fermenter

In the fermenter

In a few days, when the bubbles slow in my airlock, I will take a sample of my beer and make another gravity reading. Should this reading be 30% lower than my original gravity, I will prepare to rack into my 5 gallon glass carboy for secondary fermentation to clear the beer more before bottling. When the time comes, I will clean and sanitize my bottling bucket and rack from my secondary fermenter onto a priming solution (.75 cups dextrose in 2 cups of water, boiled and cooled) in the sanitized bottling bucket. Unlike my transfer to my primary fermenter, I will seek to minimize any splashing as much as possible to avoid oxidation problems in my beer later down the line. The majority of this beer will go into standard 12 fluid ounce glass bottles, though I intend to bottle some of the brew into larger containers I can bring with me to share with friends.


In just four short days this beer fermented down all the way to a temperature-corrected 1.009, so I went ahead and racked to secondary. The beer will sit there for a few weeks, and hopefully get super clear for me when I bottle. At any rate, I am looking forward to drinking this one. The sample I took my gravity reading from tasted great.

First brew, ready for consumption

Today the Mr. Beer West Coast Pale Ale I bottled as my first homebrew hit a solid two weeks in bottles. While that seems to be the lower limit of time a beer ought to spend bottle conditioning, I just couldn’t wait any longer.

Pssshhhh. The sound of gas rushing out of a bottle greeted me when I removed the shiny cap I’d crimped in place two weeks ago. At least I got the priming syrup right, and the beer was sufficiently carbonated. Pouring into a glass revealed great clarity, and a nice aroma. A head did form, but head retention was practically non-existent. As I’ve poured many a beer in to these glasses and been met with plenty of retention, I’ll go out on a limb and say the proteins required for head retention just weren’t there.

As for taste, you can taste the sweetness of the malt over any sort of hops Mr. Beer added to their hopped malt extract. For a beer with the words pale ale in the name, there was no hop bite at all. Drinkable? Indeed, but it’s not a recipe I’m likely to make again.

First homebrew

First Homebrew

Homebrew tasting video

I should be sleeping

Instead of sleeping, I will go ahead and update my blog. A few things have happened since my last post, so I’ll just make this an overview of past events and future plans.

Twelve days ago, I bottled my first beer. Patience is one of those things I work hard at exercising, and much of that hard work is applied towards patience with the VA. I will be the first to say I am amazed that I have not yet cracked open a bottle to see what kind of creation I brewed. It will be hard, but I will let that beer sit for at least another week before I crack one open.

School is off to a good start, and is not posing that much of a problem. Only having classes two days a week is quite nice. The five hour gap I have between my physics class and my calculus lab is definitely not fun, but I will survive. At least that gives me time to do some homework, or take a really long nap.

Some new brewing equipment has made its way into my possession. Once I get a large enough stock pot, propane burner, and a wort chiller I will be good to go for 5gal brews. When that is all said and done, hopefully by the end of the week, I will be able to have three different beers going at any given time. A few threads over at prompted me to rethink my brew stand idea, and I’ve come up with a way to eliminate the needs for any pumps and still not have to physically pick up much of anything myself. When I get a chance, I will do a quick sketch up of the idea and start coming up with a build list so I can move to fabricate the stand.


January 8, 2010, I blogged about the start of my first home-brew experience. Today, I continue that tale with the bottling of my very first home-brewed beer. I had intended to wait longer in fermentation, but another hydrometer reading today showed no change from my last reading several days go. Time to bottle.

Since I will ultimately move up to larger 5gal batches, I decided to make another trip to DeFalco’s for a few more odds and ends. While I already had Iodophor for sanitizing my equipment, I did not yet have any way to dry my bottles after cleaning and sanitizing. I also lacked any way to really get a smooth, and controlled, flow of beer into my bottles to avoid aeration. In my last post, I really had no concept of how important any of that is to the final product. Fortunately, I spent about 10 hours in my truck driving across Texas and listening to Brew Strong podcasts. It all makes much more sense now. A bottling bucket, a bottle filler with some tubing, and a bottle tree came home with me.

bottle capper and bottle tree

Bottle capper and sanitized bottles

When I finally got home, it was time to clean and sanitize my equipment and working area. I would hate to make it this far only to infect my beer and have wasted my time. Iodophor should be used at a concentration of 12.5ppm for rinse-free sanitization. That translates to .50 fl. oz. per 5gal of water. Since I do not have much to sanitize, and did not feel like wasting that much solution, I made 2.5gal of solution to sanitize my bottles, the bottle tree, my caps, bottle brush, bottling bucket, bottle filler and hose. About a quart of the solution went into a cleaned and sanitized spray bottle so I could sanitize the outer surfaces of everything as well as the inner surfaces.

Once all of that was done, I made my priming solution. For a 5gal batch I would boil .75 cups of dextrose in 2 cups of water. I cut this in half for my 2.5gal batch, and added it to my sanitized bottling bucket. It was finally time to pour my beer into the bottling bucket, on top of my priming solution. This is when I wished I had gone ahead and purchased a racking cane and siphoning tube. Pouring, with any kind of control, 2.5gal of beer through the mostly useless tap on the front of a Mr. Beer brew-keg was an exercise in patience to say the least. It took forever, and exposed my beer to more air than I would have liked. Now I know. I will use a racking cane next time, for sure.

bottom of the fermenter

the bottom of the fermenter

the beer

The Beer

bottling bucket

Bottling Bucket with my beer inside

First Beer, bottled

My first beer, bottled.

Bottling went quite smoothly. My batch filled 16 12oz glass bottles, plus half another 12oz bottle and two ~33oz plastic bottles. I had my Dad tilt the bottling bucket towards the valve for me so I could get most of the beer out. In the end, only about half a pint was left behind. I can live with that. In a few days, I will check the two plastic bottles and see if they have hardened from carbonation at all. If I managed to make it through this whole process without screwing something up, I will be quite happy. Doubly so if the beer is drinkable.

Spring 2010 tuition and fees status: PAID

The title really says it all. I logged in to my PeopleSoft account at the University of Houston to see if my Fall 2009 payments were finally squared up, and was absolutely shocked to see $0.00 as the balance for both Fall 2009 and Spring 2010. I checked the payment codes for both, and they both said VA GI Bill.

Spring 2010 is still more than a week away, and my payments have already been made. Just. Wow. I’m taking this as the miracle of 2010.

My first brew

Twelve days ago, I started brewing my own beer. Today, I made a stop at DeFalco’s Home Wine & Beer Supplies to pick up a few things I needed to finalize this brewing project. Lacking a hydrometer was making it pretty impossible to know if fermentation had halted or not, so that was number one on my list. I also picked up a floating thermometer, a bottle of Iodophor for sanitizing my equipment, a bottle brush, a case of 12oz. bottles, a few hundred bottle caps, a bottle capper, and a packet of priming sugar (dextrose).

new supplies

Assorted brewing supplies

When I got home from DeFalco’s, I prepared to take the first sample of my West Coast Pale Ale from my Mr. Beer brew keg. Surprisingly enough, what poured out looked, smelled, and even tasted a lot like beer. It may have been a bit on the sweet side, but I am not complaining right now. Once carbonated, it will definitely pass as drinkable in my book.

first sample

First sample, straight from the brew keg

The hydrometer reads right around 1.010 for the specific gravity right now, at 72°F. According to the handy dandy sheet that came with the hydrometer to correct for temperature I add .002. So we’ll call my reading today 1.012. Since I did not have this instrument when I actually made the wort, I have no earthly idea what the original gravity was. That being the case, I will hold off another few days and take a reading again. If nothing has changed, I am going to start bottling. I’ve not quite decided exactly how I plan on doing the priming part but I’m sure I’ll get at least 30 different suggestions before that time comes!

hydrometer reading

Hydrometer reading

I think an Apfelwein is likely to be the next thing my Mr. Beer ferments, while I start gathering the equipment required to step up to 5 gallon all-grain batches of beer. This is definitely a lot of fun, and if the result is drinkable beer, I am all for it.

Another photo challenge – 52 Weeks

Let’s see if I can finish this challenge, one photo per week of a given theme. Starting with the first week of the new decade, and ending on the final week of 2010. I will be working with some friends to come up with different themes, and we’ll each head out and take our photo each week. Maybe when it is all said and done, I’ll whip up some sort of photo slideshow to showcase them all.

For now, I’ll let Flickr do the work.

Patience and persistence required

The title of this post sums up two of the most important tools one must have when dealing with the Department of Veteran Affairs. Filing a claim, to any of the VA’s many departments, is a daunting task. Translating the form-letter responses the VA sends once your claim is received requires mastery of the foreign language spoken by the department. For many veterans, this is too much to handle on their own.

After reading several of the comments on my Post-9/11 GI Bill saga post, I decided a post was necessary to provide some sort of advice to my brothers and sisters at arms. The sort of advice that might give veterans a glimmer of hope in the dark cave that is waiting for the VA to process a claim. The sort of advice nobody gives you when you separate from the service, or decide to file your first claim with the VA.

Rule #1 – Be patient.

We all want our benefits, and we all want them now. That simply is not going to happen, and pacing back and forth hoping tomorrow is the day you get your money is only going to stress you out. If you are like me, you already carry too much stress from your time in the service. Do yourself a favor, and roll with the punches. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease – so squeak on, but do not expect same-day action from the VA.

Rule #2 – Be persistent, and proactive.

You will get mountains of mail from the VA. Most of it has nothing to do with anything. Some of it is crucial to your claim. That means you’re going to have to read it all. Buy a shredder, as most of it belongs there. When the VA makes contact with you, make contact back with them immediately if there are any discrepancies whatsoever. If there is something that does not add up, tell the VA it does not add up. Keep telling them until you receive official notice, that would be more mail if you’re wondering, from the VA that there was a problem on their end and they are correcting it. Never take a “we will take care of this right away” over the phone as resolution. Just like in the service, if it is not on paper it never happened.

Rule #3 – Get assistance.

Whether this is your first claim, or your fifteenth claim, an extra set of eyes is invaluable. Any mistake, no matter how small, will likely result in your claim being delayed even longer and ultimately denied. Many veteran service organizations exist, and most of them have workers dedicated to helping veterans file claims. I am a Life Member of Veterans of Foreign Wars and a member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Both of these organizations can provide important information on filing your claim, and drum up support for you while you fight for approval of your claim. Though you may feel alone, know that you are not.

Rule #4 – Be prepared.

As I said earlier, if it is not on paper it never happened. Hopefully, you kept copies of everything your branch of service ever gave you. That is, if you were lucky enough to get a copy for yourself in the first place. Your official records will be the first thing that is checked. The probability your file is incomplete is about the same as the probability that the sun rises in the east tomorrow.

As an example, my medical records cease to exist past October, 2006. I was not released from active duty until July, 2008. The only award in my OMPF? Parachutist badge. Nothing else made it into my file. Fortunately, I have copies of all but my medical records (since the Army refused to release them to me while I was active, and then refused to release them to me upon separation).

If you do not have your records, do whatever you can to get them. Assuming that fails, as it did with the second half of my medical records, find someone who was there with you. Have them write you “buddy letters” for incidents they witnessed or of which they had direct knowledge. Remember, unless your buddy happened to be the diagnosing physician they need to stick to comments that are strictly within their area of expertise. An infantry friend cannot write that an IED detonation gave you TBI. He is not a medical professional. What he can say, is that an IED detonated on your patrol, he saw you get hit in the head and experience a loss of consciousness for however many minutes. Buddy letters are to establish that an event did in fact occur, and was related to your service. Nothing more.

Rule #5 – Make Congress work for you.

Know who your district representative is, know who your senators are. Have their contact information easily accessible, for both local and Washington D.C. offices. When you file a claim, go ahead and start writing a congressional inquiry. I keep an open file on my computer with the details of any claim I have going. If it becomes clear that the VA simply is not working on my claim, which happens, I print that file, scan it, and email it to the local office of my representative for congressional action. As I said above, if it is not on paper it never happened. This includes your VA claims. You need to keep copies of them, and when you’re filing a congressional you should send everything to them.

Once Congress is involved, you will get some sort of response. Refer again to rule number one, be patient. The response you get may not tell you a single thing you did not already know, but it forces someone at the VA to actually touch your file. Usually, this means it gets worked on shortly thereafter and you get some sort of resolution to your problems. This also establishes a paper trail, and takes away anyone’s ability to claim you never asked for information.

Rule #6 – Use the Internet.

This last one should be a no-brainer, considering it is 2010. When I say to use the internet, I do not mean head to Google and search for forms you need to fill out. While that is one good use of the internet, you have bigger fish to fry.

Consider the following, the VA has shifted some attention to “new media” and now has it’s ear to the ground listening to the buzz on Twitter and blogs. My Post-9/11 GI Bill saga post is ultimately what got my Ch33 claim finalized for Fall 2009. I shared it on my Twitter account, it was retweeted (echoed) by several other veterans online (to include IAVA’s Paul Rieckhoff) and ultimately the VA responded from their accounts.

Twitter is free. Blogs are free. You probably already have a Facebook account. All of these can serve to get your case noticed, and resolved. You just have to use them together, and keep at it. Remember what I said about the squeaky wheel getting the grease? Get your squeaks amplified by the internet and you might get a shiny new set of wheel bearings.

If anyone else has suggestions I left out, feel free to leave them as comments. I’ll add them to the body of the post. Never give up, and never accept defeat. If you earned an honorable discharge, you held up your end of the deal. Do not let the government back out of their end.

Plan B worked

Late in 2009, I posted my concerns that admissions into the Cullen College of Engineering at the University of Houston was going to be impossible without some help. Yesterday, I got that help and left campus knowing my petition to officially declare a major in mechanical engineering had its first signature. Now that I actually have a target, can lock myself down and make sure I hit it.

Retroactive Stop Loss Pay

Just got this most excellent email:


Your claim has been reviewed by a case manager and it will be completed shortly. Your claim was submitted for 12 months. The case manager determined you are eligible for 12 months. This calculation is based on the difference between your ETS, (contractual obligation) and your release from active duty (REFRAD date). It is only for days served on active duty. Additionally, recent legislation concerning re-enlistment bonuses may affect an individual?s eligibility for retroactive stop loss pay. The legislation requires the Army to review all claims, to verify whether or not the soldier received a bonus, prior to delivery to DFAS for payment. Therefore this will require additional time to process all claims. Thank you.

-Stop Loss Case Manager NC

Considering the fact that I took no bonus money, I should be expecting nine months of tax-free stop loss money, and three months of taxed stop loss money (my last three months were outside of a designated combat zone). Good news indeed.

If you are a veteran and fell under stop loss in OIF or OEF, and you do not know what I am talking about you need to go read this now.

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