Brewing Sour Beers Part 3: The Wort and Fermentation

Look at that bad boy without ale yeast added.

Look at that bad boy without ale yeast added.

Here we are, the final step in creating a simple, homemade sour beer. You’ve got a funky looking lacto starter going, per Posts 1 and 2, and you need something (wort) to put it in.

When making these lacto beers, I brew the wort about 36-48 hours after creating the starter. By the time the boil is over and the wort cools, the starter is at its peak. Keep the wort very simple and low gravity. I like somewhere between a 50/50 and 70/30 pils/wheat malt bill. Original gravity might come in at about 1.035 or less, so what I’ll do is brew a 3 gallon batch of regular strength (1.050) wort and then add 2 gallons of cold distilled water after the boil to dilute it to <1.035 and chill it quickly. If you do the math, it works out to just a few pounds of each malt (under $10). Play around with it though. Add sea salt to make a Gose.

Hops should be kept to a minimum, because their antibacterial properties can inhibit lacto growth. We want lacto. So, maybe 0.5 ounces of something mild for bittering, like a noble hop. No hops for flavor or aroma.

The real debate is whether also to pitch an ale yeast with the lacto (and when). Try different combinations; there’s no right way and each with give you different levels of sourness, alcohol, and dryness.

My go-to method is to toss in the lacto starter as soon as the wort is cool, then place it in a warm spot to begin fermenting, like next to a radiator. It will bubble and develop a krausen just like a normal fermentation, but might not last very long (probably in part because the wort is so weak).

Make sure to taste the fermenting wort every day to keep track of the level of sourness that develops. It may taste a bit appley or yeasty, but should have a moderate sourness (not vinegar-like, though). After 2-3 days, I add ale yeast. You could wait longer, but you’ll be risking bacterial infection and overwhelming the ale yeast. Ale yeast will help take the wort through a typical fermentation, so your beer resembles beer.

Wait a few weeks per usual, bottle it, and voila. If all goes well, you’ll have a light, dry, sour beer.

What variations do you recommend?

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Brewing Sour Beers Part 2: Starter Growth

Alright, so you’ve created your starter and put it in a warm place, per Post 1.  What should it start to look like?

sour starter 2

Ropey and ready to rock.

There’s some variation in how the starter will look, but it should start to grow in under 12 hours.  It’ll smell sharply acidic, too.  Some people get a putrid, garbage-like aroma, but I have never smelled that in any of the starters I have made.  Instead, I notice an unmistakeable, clean, lactic aroma.  Not funky, not wild.  Clean and bracing.

I notice that my wort-based starters smell cleaner and sharper than water-based starters.  Water-based generally smell fine, but not as appealing.

As for appearance, you might notice a ropey texture, or just a thick, rocky mass of growth.  Mold? Maybe.I once got a spot of green mold on a water-based starter (see the picture), which went away by the time I pitched it 1 day later (the resulting batch turned out just fine).

sour starter 2

No mold is going to take this starter down.

After a full 24 to 36 hours, the starter will look monstrous and like it’s ready to crawl right out of the jar.  I get what looks like a large bubble under the textured surface.  At this point, it’s ready to pitch.  Until you do, keep the foil on the jar and put it back in its warm place.  I wouldn’t keep a starter more than 2 days before pitching, because at that point it’s much more likely that other microbes have taken up residence, which could very well overpower your lacto.

Look out for Post 3 — pitching and fermenting.

sour starter 3

The final look of a beautiful starter.


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Wet Hop Home Brewing

Nugget hops on the bine

Nugget hops on the bine

I posted a while back about my foray into the world of urban hop farming.  It was a highly successful endeavor which resulted in hop plants the size of a small house.  However, the plants were reluctant to produce actual hop cones.  But then suddenly, almost overnight, hundreds of hop cones sprouted.



So much lupulin

Lupulin Money Shot!

I was unprepared for both the substantial growth and size of the plant, as well as the prodigious hop production.  The guy at the homebrew store that I bought my rhizomes from told me not to expect much the first year.  He was apparently unaware of the potential that my tiny plot of Lancaster city soil had.



In the boil

In the boil

Unequipped to properly dry and store the hops, the only solution was to just go big on a fresh wet hopped IPA.  So that is what I did.  I brewed up a basic pale ale/IPA recipe and added half a bucket of hops in the first 30 minutes of the boil and another half bucket in the last 10 minutes of the boil.



Second harvest for hopping in the secondary

Second harvest for hopping in the secondary

I dont know what this beer will taste like, but I can tell you that fresh nugget hops smell peppery and more vibrant than any other dried hop I have ever smelled.  Im very much looking forward to sharing this beer with the rest of the Big Orca crew, and for that reason I am bottling it like Lacto B Silly suggested.

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Craft Beer Industry – Lifecycle Stage

I’m back with part two of my industry analysis of the craft beer industry. This was a quick analysis of what lifecycle stage the craft beer industry is currently in. Good news for everyone — it’s still growing. It’ll be interesting to see how the industry plays out over the next 10 years. If the craft beer industry can keep on taking market share from the big guys, I think it’ll be looking just fine.

Lifecycle Stage

Lifecycle stage of an industry is a key factor in determining the growth for a particular market. The craft beer industry is still firmly planted in the growth stage. Since 2010, the amount of barrels of craft beer produced has nearly doubled. The growth is not expected to stop any time soon and has opened up the opportunity for many breweries due to the increase in demand for a wider variety of craft beer. (Petrillo, 2013)

Another defining characteristic of a growth stage within an industry is the amount of competitors. Since 2010, the amount of craft breweries in the country has almost doubled from 1,624 to 3,040. (“Brewers Association Reports Sustained Growth for Craft,” n.d.) This indicates there is a huge potential for profit. The growing concern is how long can this exponential growth last? According to the Brewer’s Association quarterly email publication BA Insider, the growth in the craft beer industry is expected to increase on an annual basis till at least 2020. In addition, BA Insider anticipates craft beer to account for a 20% market share of the beer industry by 2020. They attribute this to the fact that many markets are still in the infant stage of adapting craft beer which allows for annualized growth in many regions around the country.(“BA Insider,” n.d.)


BA Insider: Growth in the Craft Beer Segment: Sky Is the Limit. (n.d.). Retrieved October 3, 2014, from

Petrillo, N. (2013). Craft Beer Production in the US (Industry Report No. OD4302). IBIS World.

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El Rojo’s Take on the Craft Beer Industry

craft beer cover

So I started school. I decided to try to master technology and entrepreneurship at University of Maryland. It’s hard trying to get back into the mindset of being inundated with papers and reading while trying to work full time. BUT, I absolutely love it. One of my first big papers was to analyze an industry that I potentially wanted to start a business in. Take a wild guess what I decided on. Yep, you guess it, craft beer. This is the first post in a mini series that I’ll be writing on some interesting points I found about the craft beer industry.

To set the stage, the paper broke down the craft beer industry into the following categories: knowledge conditions, the demand conditions, the lifecycle stage, industry capital, advertising landscape, market environment, and the average size of a company in the market. The knowledge conditions described exactly what it sounds like, the knowledge it takes to enter an industry. Since this blog does a pretty good job of explaining different aspects of brewing, I’m going to skip that section since we all know it takes some creativity, intuition and a solid knowledge of chemistry to make a great brew. This post will break down the demand conditions of the craft beer industry. With so many new breweries opening up, just how high is the demand? Let’s find out…..

Demand Conditions

The demand conditions for the craft beer industry are growing at an exponential rate. Over the past five years the revenue growth has climbed to 19% and the industry has eclipsed over 4 billion in sales. The main factor influencing the high demands conditions for craft beer is the ever-growing sophisticated palate of the majority of beer drinkers across the country. The industry is comprised of eight dominant styles: India Pale Ale, seasonal, amber, lager, wheat, boch and fruit beers. This shows the growing demand for unique styles of beers. The main demand opportunity lies in being able to create unique and creative twists on traditional styles of ales and lagers. (Petrillo, 2013)

Other key drivers of the industry are demand from beer wholesalers and per capita expenditure on alcohol. The demand from beer wholesalers took a hit in 2013 but made a quick bounce back to a 2% annualized growth and expects to hold steady for the foreseeable future. Per capita expenditure on alcohol can be influenced by the economy, personal tastes and cultural preferences. These factors are forecasted to help increase the per capita expenditure on alcohol slightly through 2014. (Petrillo, 2013)

The biggest demand impact set to hit the craft brewing industry by 2020 is the changing dynamic in the adult population. By 2020, millennials are expected to grow 6%, which is the biggest increase out of the rest of the adult population segments. This is a key indicator of demand for craft beer because millennials are the highest consumers of craft beer. Not only do they love craft beer, but as they mature, the more their incomes will increase. This allows for a bigger annual expenditure on craft beer. In addition, millennials were hit hard by the recession, but as the economy begins to pick up, it will allow the per capita expenditure on craft beer to increase. (“BA Insider,” n.d.)


BA Insider: Growth in the Craft Beer Segment: Sky Is the Limit. (n.d.). Retrieved October 3, 2014, from

Petrillo, N. (2013). Craft Beer Production in the US (Industry Report No. OD4302). IBIS World.

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Brewing Sour Beers Part 1: Lacto starter

photo 2 (2)

Looks funky, right?

Sour beers.  They’re divisive: Seems like people either love ‘em or hate ‘em.  They’re subversive: What business does sour have in a beer?  Heck, they cause some peoples’ faces to turn inside out and give others indigestion.  All reasons to stick it to the Fizzy Yellow Man and embrace them.

But, it’s easy to be turned off by them because they can be pricey. Why take a chance on a $12 bottle of 3% Berliner Weisse when that same $12 can get you a 6-pack of great, albeit less adventurous, beer from just about any major or up-and-coming brewery, which might even clock in at 8% or so?

Well, you don’t have to. Beers fermented with home-grown lactic bacteria are some of the easiest to make. They won’t be as complex as some commercial beers fermented with a blend of Brett, Lacto, and possibly other bugs, but for the price, they’re hard to beat.

The science behind sour beers is incredibly dense, so just consider this an introduction to brewing your own (cheaply).  Like, under-$10-for-5-gallons-cheap.

The first step is getting your hands on some Lacto. You could purchase a commercial vial for $7 or so; your homebrew shop carries them. But reviews are mixed. The consensus is that commercial cultures tend not to produce adequate levels of sourness, and are instead best used in combination with other cultures. $7 for the Lacto, $7 for the Brett, $7 for the ale yeast… you get the idea.

Forget that.  In the spirit of DIY, we’ll grow our own. Lactobacillus—the bacteria responsible for lactic acid—naturally resides on malt husks, so all we need to do is create an environment it likes, and mother nature will take care of the rest. Keep in mind that this is the same mother nature that invented jellyfish and mosquitoes, so it’s best to have a few cultures going simultaneously in case one goes bad.

Anyhoo, here’s how to create a Lacto culture:

  1. Clean and sanitize 3 ball jars.
  2. Toss in a handful of crushed or uncrushed malt (it really doesn’t matter, but uncrushed will be easier to filter out later). Use a pale malt, such as pilsner. Darker malts have been kilned at high temperatures, killing off the Lacto.
  3. Add about a cup of warm water OR freshly made, weak wort, with no hops (hops have antimicrobial properties and will inhibit the Lacto). If you choose to add wort, just boil a bit of malt extract for 15 mins, let it cool to about 100F, and add it to the ball jar. Don’t add boiling wort (or boiling tap water); a temperature over 120F or so will kill off the Lacto.
  4. Cover the ball jar loosely with aluminum foil. You want to allow oxygen to enter and escape, but you don’t want other things accidentally getting in. This isn’t foolproof, which is why we have at least 3 going at the same time.
  5. Place the jars somewhere warm. It’s critical for the temperature to be somewhere between 90-110F. Your kitchen counter won’t work. If you have a gas oven, the ambient temperature inside of it is perfect. Or, place the jars in a pan and rest the pan on a radiator (as long as the radiator is pumping heat). The pan will help to evenly distribute heat to the jars and prevent them from falling off.  You can put them all in one place (which has worked for me), or put them in different places.

Voila. That’s it. In 12 hours or so you’ll see activity, which will be the topic of Part #2.

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You like bottling, you just don’t know it yet

Bottling or kegging?

Kegging gives you cold, draft beer any time you want it. But, there’s all that expensive equipment and maintenance. Bottling lets you age bottles, give some away to friends, and enter competitions. But, there’s still plenty of equipment needed, it eats up more time, and storing dozens and dozens (okay, hundreds) of empties in space we apartment dwellers don’t have.

Not everyone at Big Orca is crazy about bottling. And everyone seems to do it just a little bit differently. Running bottles through the dishwasher, heating them in an oven, rinsing by hand in bleach solution in the bathtub, and so on.  (Don’t laugh-you get a clean bathtub when you’re done.)  To me, that spells inefficiency.

There are ways to make it simpler, quicker, and a one-man job. I’ve got my 5gal (~53 standard bottles) time down to 1 hour flat. That ain’t bad, and it’s why I prefer bottling over kegging.

Here’s how:

Continue reading

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Big Orca Brews Big

People like session beers, but people love big beers. They can be tough to brew, so what follows is an outline of issues and tips for successful high gravity brewing.  Appropriately, this post is a big’un.

1. Styles
BJCP substyles in the 7%-and-up range include:

Doppelbock/Eisbock             Baltic Porter         Foreign Extra Stout
Russian Imperial Stout         Imperial IPA        Weizenbock
Dubbel                                      Tripel                     Golden Strong Ale
Dark Strong Ale                      Old Ale                  Barleywine

And of course there’s the Specialty category, which can include any other high gravity or “imperial” beer you might conjure up. Those are always fun.

2. Recipe Design
First things first: Ensure your recipe contains enough fermentables that yeast can convert to alcohol. This will mean using several more pounds of malt (or an extra can or two of malt extract) than you use in a typical average-strength beer recipe.

The bulk of that malt should be composed of base malt(s), like Pale or Pilsner malt. Base malts contribute the greatest amount of enzymatic activity to convert starches into fermentable sugars during the mash. In contrast, specialty malts and adjuncts, like Brown malt or rice, contribute far less—or no—enzymatic activity, and require the enzymes from base malts to convert their starches.

Another method of increasing fermentables and gravity involves adding adjunct sugars during the boil. Common adjunct sugars include honey, maple syrup, molasses, and candi sugar. If overdone, they can impair fermentation and leave behind a phenolic character, so always use in moderation.

Once your recipe is optimized for higher gravity, you’ll need to use enough yeast to actually convert those fermentables into alcohol. A good rule of thumb for high gravity brewing is to use 2 vials or packs of yeast for a 5gal batch. A better rule of thumb is to prepare a few days ahead of time and make a large yeast starter, roughly 3 or 4 liters. An inadequate quantity of yeast will result in those cells being overworked and stressed, which in turn will result in flaws in your beer. Not to mention, you risk not achieving your desired final gravity.

Before pitching yeast, but after chilling, aerate the wort extra thoroughly. High gravity wort, by definition, is dense and yeast will require sufficient oxygen to reproduce and grow without being overwhelmed. There are a few different ways to aerate wort, including vigorous stirring or submerging an oxygen stone.

When choosing a yeast strain, ensure the strain has adequate attenuation and alcohol tolerance. Attenuation refers to the relative amount of fermentables the yeast will consume and its ability to reduce the gravity of the beer. Alcohol tolerance refers to the strain’s ability to continue fermenting in the presence of increasing levels of alcohol. A strain, even if highly attenuative, could begin to die off if it cannot tolerate abv levels above, say, 7 or 8%.

Finally, although hops won’t affect gravity or alcohol content, consider using more hops than your typical average-strength recipe—ales especially. Depending on style and desired characteristics, the added bitterness and hop flavor will help to balance the potential sweetness and intense malt flavors of a high gravity brew.

3. Brewing Process
To create wort that is more highly fermentable, mash between 140 and 149 F. This is the ideal temperature range for beta amylase, which is the enzyme responsible for breaking down starch chains into their most fermentable form. On the other hand, to create wort with higher levels of dextrins, mash in the 150-158 F range. Many brewers mash at 150-152F for a more even balance of dextrins and fermentable sugars, and are still able to achieve a high abv.

Boil volume is one factor many homebrewers overlook when brewing high gravity beers. Many simply calculate water volumes for the mash and sparge like any other recipe, resulting in a boil volume of approximately 6.5gal for a 5gal batch. Nothing wrong with that, but . . .

. . . If you’ve got the equipment, consider boiling 7 or 7.5gal instead, and for as long as it takes to boil down to about 5.5gal. This method lets you collect more fermentables and dextrins from the sparge. By boiling longer and condensing the wort, you’ll develop more complex aromas and flavors.

4. Fermentation
Similar to mashing, you can control temperature during fermentation to create the best conditions for yeast in a high gravity beer. Ferment in the temperature range specified for the yeast strain being used. For ales, this will be around 62-74 F. Lagers will be in the 48-55 F range.

If the temperature is too cold during primary fermentation, yeast will become sluggish or, worse, dormant. In other words, fermentation may slow down or stop altogether.

If the temperature is too hot, yeast may create excessive esters and higher alcohols, resulting in a solvent-like aroma and flavor. Or, yeast may begin to die off, which can result in an incomplete fermentation and off-flavors and -aromas.

5. Time
This final factor could either be the easiest or the hardest thing for a brewer to accomplish: Do nothing. Seriously, leave the beer alone once it has been transferred to the secondary fermenter. High gravity beers take longer to ferment completely, and age can do wonders to the flavor and aroma profiles of a high gravity beer.

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El Gordo drinks beer and goes Steinstossen at GAF, Toledo

Das Boot

Das Boot

Last weekend I went to the German American Festival (GAF) in Toldeo, Ohio.  I was there to drink beer and throw rocks.

The drinking beer makes sense, that’s what we do at Big Orca.  There were several beers to choose from too.  By my guess there was at least 20 or 30 authentic German beers to try, even several I had never had or heard of.  Prices were okay, but they were on a ticket system.  Buy a handful of tickets for $20 and make it rain like you’re throwing monopoly money.  It did make the beer lines faster when no one needed to make change or use one of those bullshit ipad kiosks, but it was hard to keep track of how much funny money you were spending.


German Beer at GAF 2014But whats up with the rocks?  El Gordo was Steinstossen.  From the GAF website: Steinstossen (stone throwing) is a typical Swiss alpine sport that is a leading attraction at festivals in Switzerland, but seldom seen at festivals in the United States.  Contestants in the Men’s division of the Steinstossen hurl a huge stone weighing 138 pounds during two-hour periods beginning at 3:00 on Saturday and Sunday. Contestants begin on a 20 foot runway, hurling the rock into a 4 inch deep sand pit.


Steinstossen 2014That’s me launching a big ass heavy rock.  I unfortunately couldn’t bring Big Orca the glory of winning the event, but I did well enough to get into the top 10.  Not bad for a first try, but I’ll be back next year to do better.

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The hops are growing well would be an understatement

The hops are taking over.  In my earlier post, I shared my concern for their health.

They have gone from this:

Hop trellis

To this:

Out of Control Hops

I’m proud of my farming skills, but also worried that mass at the top might start talking to me like Little Shop of Horrors.  Who knew hops would grow so well in PA?

hops up close

Close up of the vines

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