This past Sunday, the sun shone down on my back deck like few other winter days. Will and I brewed up Hump’s Vanilla Stout to the tune of the Star Wars original soundtrack (an anthology of four CDs that includes all of the music from the original trilogy). Will has gotten hooked to playing Lego Star Wars on our X-Box, and he now asks to hear the “Lego Man Music.” He actually hasn’t played it much lately because he is only allowed to play as a reward for keeping his underwear clean and dry – a task with which he still finds difficulty. He likes to help me brew. We go outside on the deck, bring out a bowl full of salted cashews, pour some juice for him (a homebrew for me), and then cook up some beer. This weekend was the perfect time to brew because the weather was so great.

I have to go back to the homebrew store tomorrow to pick up some lactose and then to the grocery store to pick up a vanilla bean or two. I’ll add the vanilla to the secondary and then add the lactose just prior to kegging. Adding the lactose at the very end allows me to only add as much as it needs based on how it tastes at that time – just enough to augment the vanilla and give it some residual sweetness and more body. I’m not trying to make a Mackeson clone, so I doubt I’ll need to add much (1/2 pound at most).

I achieved awesome efficiency with my mini-mash this time out: around 75%. The things I changed up were to employ a longer infusion (over an hour instead of only 30-40 minutes) and to use hotter sparge water.

I don’t have the setup to do a true mash-and-sparge. I rely on a single 7-gallon vessel which doubles as the mush tun and the kettle. I put the grains in a big, nylon, mesh bag and then use a medium-thickness mash (about 1.5 quarts of water per pound of grain). After the mash, I put the bag of grain in a big metal pot with perforations all over, and then batch sparge. But, due to the size of that pot/colander and the fact that I don’t have anything big to use as a hot liquor tank, I sparge one gallon at a time (pour in 1 gallon, which rinses the grain and flows into the kettle through the perforations of the pot; repeat until the kettle has the proper pre-boil volume). Because of the equipment I have, I’m limited to around 5 pounds of grain in the mash. This means I only need 3 pounds of dry malt extract for normal strength beers. If I reduce the total volume of the batch to 4 gallons, instead of 5, I can get pretty high-gravity beers using only 6 pounds or less of dry extract.

I was more fastidious in terms of mash temperature control this time than previous mini-mashes. I checked the mash every 10 minutes to make sure the heat was consistent. Unfortunately, with my lack of equipment for all-grain brewing, maintaining temperature can be difficult. I had to apply heat once, but due to a slowly reacting thermometer, I didn’t realize I had recovered the heat until I had actually taken it too far. I was trying to maintain about 150 degrees Fahrenheit. After it dropped to around 148 (after nearly 30 minutes), I applied heat which took it a but too high – to about 155. I then kept the lid off and stirred slowly to allow the cool air to bring the temperature back down to around 150. Once it was back around 150, I put the lid back on and let it continue to mash. Luckily, I didn’t have to apply heat a second time.

When I sparged, I heated the water up on my kitchen stove to around 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Since I had to do this several times, one gallon at a time, there was some variation in temperature – from 165 to 180. In past mini-mashes, I’ve just used hot water straight out of the tap (a little under 140 degrees).

The longer infusion period insures that more of the grains are converted to water soluble carbohydrates and sugars. The hot water does a better job in dissolving/extracting those sugars from the grains. Combined, the two changes in my methods increased my efficiency from around 60% to around 75%.

I’ve been investigating all-grain brewing for quite some time now and feel that I will eventually start doing it – maybe even this year. But I feel confident that I can do a lot, even with my primitive methods, less then ideal equipment, and limit of less than 6 pounds of grain in the mash tun. The beer almost always turns out great, so I’m happy to expand my brewing skills slowly. But I’m certain that once I start all-grain brewing, I won’t likely go back to using extract…

So, speaking of my past mini-mashes and their inefficiency, Hump’s Fiftieth Brew is coming along nicely. After fermentation, I racked it over a half ounce of Centennial hops. I’ve tasted it three times during the course of its dry-hopping adventures. The first, actually prior to its hitting the dry hops, showed a beer that had a decent bitterness and strong flavors of chocolate, but too little in the way of late hops – almost indiscernible in the flavor and aroma. It was also very strong. It didn’t taste solventy, like fusel alcohols – just strong, like ethanol (imagine a shot of vodka mixed into a brown ale). The subsequent two tastings showed marked improvement: the dry hops are really helping with the aroma and some with the hop flavor, and the vodka-like taste of alcohol is greatly diminished. As of tonight, it has been on the dry hops for two weeks, so it’s about time to rack it into a keg. Due to its strength (about 8.3%abv), I’ll probably need to let it sit in a keg for several weeks – perhaps even months – before it is really ready for consumption. We’ll see…