Category Archives: Homebrew

DIY Hops Trellis

I started growing hops at my parents’ home in Chicago in 2008.  In the summer of 2011 we moved them to Michigan and I built this trellis:

hops trellis
Hops grow from the frames on the right up the lines to the tree on the left

Now that it’s time for the trellis to find a new home, I’m writing up my design for posterity.  Notable aspects include that it can be harvested without ascending a ladder and that the top is mounted on a tree.

Each of the three hop plants (Cascade, Mt. Hood, Centennial) has its own starting frame.  It runs up the yellow chain for 5 feet, then starts climbing a line up into the trees:

closeup of wood hops frame
Overgrown vegetation shows I’ve lost interest

The frames are a 5 foot tall 4″ x 4″ vertical post with a short 2″ x 4″ crossbar at the bottom and a longer one at the top.  The ends of the bottom and top crossbars are connected by chains, allowing the hops to spread laterally as they grow out and up to the top crossbar.  The chains are attached to metal eyelets at the top and hammered in with large galvanized staples at the bottom:

wood frame with chain for hops

From the eyelets on the top crossbar, six synthetic rope lines (two from each base frame) run up to a steel ring hoisted in a tree, where they clip on with carabiners:

rope clipped onto the ring

A pulley wheel is tied around a fork in the tree, and the ring is on a long synthetic line that runs through this pulley wheel.  At harvesting time, the ring can be lowered from the ground, using the pulley, and the carabiners unclipped for transporting the bines to a picking area.  Then the carabiners are reattached and the lines are raised again, all without use of a ladder.

The good and the bad

With 7 years of experience, I can comment on how the design worked.

The good:

  • Ease of raising and lowering: not having to climb a ladder is great.
  • Longevity: the entire system has held up well, including the synthetic lines, which I never took in for the winter.  I don’t think jute or a similar natural twine would have lasted.  One wood staple came out from a frame, which is an easy fix.

The bad:

  • Shallow climbing angle.  I should have mounted the ring higher in a tree, kept the lines tighter, or planted the hops closer to the tree.  As it was, the bottom of the climbing lines flattened out under the weight of the plant and the hops needed some help to grow in the right direction.  Manual training of hop plants is not uncommon, but I think a steeper climb would have avoided this.
  • Mowing around the trellises was tricky, both around the bases and under the lines.  This  meant grass and other unwanted vegetation encroached on the hops.
  • I was afraid I’d get tangled in the lines while sledding in my yard; this never happened, but could have.
Separate from my particular growing setup: I lost interest in growing hops.  I’ve stopped training or harvesting them.  A fresh hop beer is fun to make, but not worth (to me) the hassle of training and maintaining the bines.  And trying to preserve and package hops for use throughout the year is tedious.  They won’t stay good as long as professionally-packed hops from the store (I know: in one season before I had kids, I spent hours and hours  drying my hops and turning them into plugs).  Once the charm of growing them wore off, it made no sense to spend my time on growing instead of buying pounds in bulk.

Batch 79: 2016 Dry-Hopped Plymouth Orchards Cider

Started with 5 gallons of juice from Plymouth Orchards, fermented (and left on the lees) for 2 years before tweaking what was a boring final product.

  • 2016-10-08: Pitched D47 yeast.  Can’t remember if I used sulfite/Campden tablets to knock back wild yeasts.  OG 1.050.
  • 2017-03-25: added cinnamon stick, now common practice for all of my ciders.  At low levels, enhances apple perception and does not stand out as cinnamon.
  • 2018-08-18: racked and added:
  • 2018-08-23: kegged.  I hadn’t stirred in the leaf hops and they had formed a thick layer on top, with the top half being dry.  So the practical impact of the dry-hopping will be less than 4 oz for 5 days.

The cider itself was clean but dull before dry-hopping.  To test the idea of dry-hopping, I’d pulled a 1 liter sample and added the equivalent of 4 oz Mosiac per 5 gallons.  The result was fascinating, like a white wine with tropical fruit notes.

I’ve become inconsistent with taking final gravities, especially if the batch is many months old or is being stabilized.  Here it’s both, and I never measured the FG.  Let’s assume it’s 1.000 which would be an ABV of 6.5%.

Batch 78: Belgian Golden Sour II

Our AABG Knob Creek Barrel Project group decided to rebrew our Belgian Golden ale.  This is our first re-brewing of a previous recipe and a testament to how good that beer was.

Brewed 2018-07-18.  Yielded about 21 gallons at 1.071 OG, I was targeting more gallons at lower gravity but this was okay.  I could always add water at the end of the brewday, but it feels wrong.

Recipe was shaped by the convenience of using a full bag of malt.  It’s here on BrewToad.  I omitted the CaraPils because I didn’t have any, but would recommend it if brewing again.

The recipe was as simple as it gets:

  • 55 lbs Pils malt
  • 2 oz Magnum hops (12.5% AA) @ 75 minutes
  • Whirlfloc
  • Repitched the CCYL 129 Eagle River yeast used in Batch 77: Zingibier VI.

Had a boilover, doh.

Quick active fermentation.  Racked about 16 gallons into the barrel a few weeks later, reserving one 5 gallon share to drink clean.

One participant in the barrel project wasn’t able to participate this round, so we covered his share by adding a carboy of 2-year-old Quadrupel ale I had lying around.  It was too dull and boozy to drink and had become slightly oxidized.  This will slightly boost the SRM of the combined beer and the other 90% of the fresh beer should cover up the oxidation notes.

Batch 77: Zingibier VI

I first created Zingibier, a “grand cru” style spiced Belgian ale, in 2010.  With beginner’s luck, it won a gold medal in the 2010 National Homebrew Competition, and the recipe is featured on the American Homebrew Association’s website.

The beer is tough to categorize.  It’s a strong (~8%) wheat beer that uses a Belgian Witbier yeast and spices typically associated with the Witbier style: coriander, bitter orange peel, and chamomile.  It also packs a prominent ginger note, with the ginger sufficiently cooked as to not contribute heat.

This was my 6th time brewing the beer.   Recipe is below as well as on BrewToad. Continue reading Batch 77: Zingibier VI

You don’t need a TrailKeg

Or, “ode to the carbonator cap.”

A homebrewer friend recently brought a $200 TrailKeg to a club meeting. It is shiny and cool and … a thneed.

Instead, you should use a carbonator cap ($8* as of this writing) and some 1 or 2-liter plastic bottles (free after you drink the seltzer water).  While TrailKeg claims superiority over the glass growler, the carbonator-cap-and-PET-bottle (PET = #1 plastic, i.e. a soda bottle) combo delivers in most of the same ways:

  • Unbreakable
  • Lightweight
  • Has CO2 input for carbing the beer and keeping/serving it under CO2.

Here’s where they differ:

Continue reading You don’t need a TrailKeg

AABG Knob Creek Barrel Project

In December 2014, a friend of a friend acquired a 53 gallon barrel that had previously held Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve whiskey for 9 years.  It made its way from Kentucky to Ann Arbor and now lives in my basement.

Staining = spilled beer

Since then we’ve rotated beers through it.  In order of fill date:

  • Imperial Stout
  • Scotch Ale (this beer naturally soured)
  • Oud Bruin (we pitched 8 packs of Blackman Flemish Sour Mix)
  • Tart of Darkness Stout (here we introduced Brett C., actually a strain of Brett Anomalous)
  • Dark Saison
  • Belgian Golden Strong
  • IPA

We empty + refill every six months or so.  The brewers are a rotating cast, with people dropping in and out.  We typically aim to bring 11 shares of 5 gallons each, filling the barrel to the top and leaving some extra to top up the angel’s share.

This barrel has produced consistently good beers, and at this point the sour character is locked in.  Beers from this barrel have won silver and gold medals in the American Wild Ale category at the 2016 & 2017 Michigan Beer Cup.  Brewers often perform a tertiary fermentation on fruit – tart cherries are a favorite, this being Michigan – and sometimes blend with young or clean beers to cut sourness to taste.

How much sorbate and sulfite should you add to stabilize cider?

I re-researched this every fall when it came time to backsweeten the previous year’s cider, so I wrote this guide to future me.

If you add sugar to hard cider and don’t want that addition to restart fermentation (which would increase alcohol and leave the cider even drier), you’ll need to stabilize it.  The most common method in home cidermaking is to add both potassium sorbate and potassium metabisulfite (“K-Meta”).  This guidance from BYO magazine on backsweetening provides background on the approach.

Tl;dr

For each gallon of cider, use 1/2 tsp of potassium sorbate and 1/2 tsp of 10% sulfite solution (an extra step, but worth making – the solution is easier to work with than dry potassium metabisulfite).

Longer version

How much potassium sorbate?

Winemakers say…

Winemakers talk more about sorbic acid, the relevant chemical; potassium sorbate is 74% sorbic acid.  There are legal limits of 0.2 g/L (Europe) and 0.3 g/L (America); the sensory level for perceiving this chemical’s flavor is reported at 0.135 g/L.

Adjusting these from sorbic acid -> potassium sorbate (what a homebrewer weighs) gives legal limits of 0.26 g/L and 0.4 g/L, respectively, with a taste threshold of 0.18 g/L.

Continue reading How much sorbate and sulfite should you add to stabilize cider?

Batch 73: Session Mild

This was simple: the second runnings from Batch 72.  The goal was two-fold:

  1. Have a light, approachable beer on tap for guests who drink “regular” beer
  2. A freebie: extra beer for little effort

Brewed March 24th, OG was ~1.036.  We threw in a partial ounce of random hops for bittering and used S-O4 dry yeast for low attenuation.

By April 7th the FG was 1.013 and I kegged it.  Roughly 3.0% ABV.

I served the beer from my cellar, at around 60 degrees, undercarbonated.  It was a little thin, though great for blending with other beers on tap.  For instance, blending it about 9:1 with my overly-sweet Belgian Dark Strong (~12%) on tap made for a highly drinkable session beer, leaving it slightly below 4% abv.

Like all of my second runnings beers, this keg blew way before the main batch – in this case, before the Imperial Stout was even packaged.

Batch 72: Frank’s Imperial Stout

Having my brother in town as a helper, we decided to brew a partigyle beer: 11 gallons of Imperial Stout and a 2nd-runnings Mild.  I used the same recipe I came up with for the first beer in the Knob Creek barrel.  That beer was outstanding after blending with 10 other people’s beer and barrel-aging; as I recall, mine was pretty good going into the barrel, too.

The recipe was a mix of a few credible recipes.

Continue reading Batch 72: Frank’s Imperial Stout

Batch 71: Scio Pilsner

There’s a closet in my basement that hovers near 50 degrees in the winter.  So before spring arrives, I wanted to take advantage of my natural “temperature control” and brew a lager.  I don’t brew many lagers, but the provocative Brulosophy experiments on lager yeast fermentation temperature gave me peace of mind that if a warm spell comes through and the room gets a little warmer, it’ll be fine.

This was a convenience recipe in other regards.  I used dry yeast to avoid needing a massive starter and I used up half a bag of leftover pils malt.  And I ran off 5 gallons of wort before adding flame-out hops, to ferment with an ale yeast and use to top up the 53 gallon barrel at my house that is mostly full of funky dark saison.  It’s nice to get rid of the headspace in the barrel, and we wager no one will notice 10% of hoppy Belgian ale blended in.

This is one of my favorite parts of using a plate chiller: being able to split batches by running off and chilling part of the brew, then adding and boiling as needed for the remaining share.

Condensation: the price of drinking cold beer in the warm sun

Continue reading Batch 71: Scio Pilsner