Skip to content

Homebrew Stack Exchange

2011 January 21
by Mad Alchemist

A very nice website for getting homebrew questions answered quickly and knowledgeably is Homebrew Stack Exchange. You’ll frequently see some real names in the Homebrewing scene pop up there answering questions. Then there are random folk like me who know enough to pass along some advice and are willing to do so. Check out the site if you have any questions related to homebrewing you want answered.

Mashing the Perfect Sweet Stout

2010 April 15
tags: ,
by Mad Alchemist

Creating the perfect water profile and mash for a sweet stout is an exercise in contradiction. You want the beer to be very dark, sweet, malty, and full-bodied. It should have some roasted and toasty notes without astringency. To me, that translates to the following information concerning the mash and water profile: Keep the pH of the mash fairly high, around 5.6 (at room temperature). Keep the Chloride to Sulfate ratio high, around 3 to 1. Ensure Chloride and Sodium are both above 100, but below 150. Keep the temperature of the mash up around 158°F. It also means a thicker mash of around 1.25 quarts of water per pound of grain.

Where does the contradiction come in? Mostly with the grain bill. You’re looking at 10-15% of your grist being dark, roasted malt, which will drive the pH of the mash down significantly. It’s quite difficult to get a pH of more than 5.2-5.3 (at room temperature) without ending up with too much of something in the final beer (like sodium or bicarbonates). The reason I want to keep the pH up in the 5.4-5.6 range is because I use diastatically weak base malts for sweet stouts (like Munich or Maris Otter), and it’s better for enzymatic activity in that range. It’s also theoretically going to favor alpha amylase in this higher range, while beta amylase is favored a bit lower. Favoring alpha amylase is the same reason I keep the mash temperature up high at around 158°F.

The higher the Chloride to Sulfate ratio, the more malty the final beer is going to be. You need about 100ppm of Chloride before it has significant impact, and the same generally goes for Sodium (which rounds out the beer at that level, and I find that desirable in a sweet stout). You also, of course, need at least 50ppm of Calcium. The problem with the Calcium is that it lowers pH, but you really don’t want too much Bicarbonate in beer (some people believe it creates undesirable flavors, even though a lot of it will precipitate out, so I err on the side of caution here).

Okay, I think that’s enough of the reasoning behind the numbers I aim for with a sweet stout. On to the solution(s).

The first solution I came up with was to only worry about pH during the mash, and add all of the other minerals to the water after the mash. So, I’d add Sodium Bicarbonate and/or Calcium Carbonate during the mash to raise pH, then Calcium Chloride and Magnesium (or Calcium) Sulfate after the mash. Truthfully, this seemed to work out pretty well (and A.J. deLange corroborated), but I believe there is a better, and easier, way.

Don’t mash your roasted-and-kilned grains (e.g. chocolate and black malts). Roasted grains will drive the pH down considerably, so it’s difficult to keep the pH high no matter what fancy solution you use during the mash. Roasted grains have the wonderful benefit of not needing to be mashed. So, the best solution, in my opinion, is to mash everything except for your roasted grains in your MLT, and steep your roasted grains in a separate vessel (below 170 F) simultaneously at around 2 quarts per pound. Then, combine the wort created by the roasted grains with the mashed wort in the brew kettle.

If you don’t want to steep the grains, you can essentially brew a coffee with the dark grains with either a more traditional method (heat) or you can cold brew it overnight to really avoid the astringency as much as possible… it’ll just take longer. If you cold brew, you should probably bring the temperature of the concoction to 170 F after removing the grain to pasteurize it.

Then, you can add the coffee-like brew whenever you want (start of the boil, end of the boil, directly in the fermentation vessel, even just before bottling). All will impart different character, so experiment!

Note that you might not get full extraction from all roasted grains when steeping. According to some experiments run by John Palmer, it looks like Black Patent and Roasted Barley are some of the only roasted malts that have the same yield as mashing when steeped. As such, you might only exclude those from your sweet stout mash, or you can increase the amount of other grains accordingly (e.g. multiply the ounces of Chocolate Malt you use by ~1.5-1.6 to make up for the difference).

I would not recommend sparging with the roasted wort, in part because you’re going to impact the sparge pH pretty significantly, and in part because you’re going to leave some of your flavors behind.

Hitting the ideal concentrations of all ions in the brewing water as well as the ideal pH is very easy when you leave out your roasted malts (and any other malts that don’t need to be mashed, such as caramel/crystal). By steeping the roasted malts (and, optionally, your crystal malts) separate from the mash, you might end up with a much better sweet stout in the end. As someone commented, you could also steep the grains in a bag while you transfer to the boil kettle from your MLT, which sounds like a great idea.

Samuel Adams Boston Ale Clone

2010 April 3
by Mad Alchemist

I attempted to pay homage to Sam Adams Boston Ale recently by brewing what I called New England Stock Ale. It tastes great with all the adjustments I had to make, and I’m taking it in my own direction from here on. That said, it was close enough to Boston Ale for me to believe I’ve just about figured out how to clone it, so here’s my recipe (the previously-linked post has more info in the original post and comments about how I arrived here):

I’m giving percentages and IBUs instead of weights so this can be scaled to any size you want.


  • Rahr Pale Ale (85%)
  • British Crystal 60 (15%)
  • Hops: Fuggles, East Kent Goldings, Spalt
  • Yeast: White Labs WLP008 East Coast Ale Yeast
  • Water: Residual Alkalinity 61, 1.5 Chloride/Sulfate Ratio, 100+ ppm Chloride, 50+ ppm Calcium

Target Profile

  • Original Gravity: 1.053 SG
  • Final Gravity: 1.014 SG
  • Color: 13.2 SRM
  • Bitterness: 25 IBUs
  • Alcohol by Volume (Est): 5.08%
  • Carbonation: 1.8-2.0 Volumes


  • Mash @ 154°F for 60 minutes
  • Boil for 90 minutes
  • Late Hop with equal parts of all varieties @ 10-15 minutes to achieve IBU of ~25
  • Dry Hop with equal parts of all varieties for 3 days (~1.5oz total for 5 gallons)
  • Ferment at 60°F and allow to rise to 68°F after primary fermentation is complete
  • Carbonate to 1.8-2.0 volumes using dried malt extract (ideally, krausen, but DME is fine)
  • Age for 4-6 weeks @ 60°F
  • Drink @ 50°F-55°F

I’m pretty confident that you’ll end up with a beer very close to Boston Ale if you use these methods. As I mentioned, I did attempt to create an homage to Boston Ale before, and it was close enough that the aforementioned recipe should be very similar to a clone of Samuel Adams Boston Ale. Cheers!

Mad Alchemist New England Stock Ale

2010 March 18
by Mad Alchemist

Note: I’ve written a new post entitled Samuel Adams Boston Ale Clone if you’re looking for a Boston Ale recipe. The process of figuring out the clone can still be seen below.

I decided I’d go for a simple recipe for my brew session this weekend. So, I figured it was time to try to pay homage to Samuel Adams Boston Ale, which is a delicious Stock Ale. The lovely thing about trying to clone a Sam Adams recipe is that they provide you with a lot of useful information to start with.

From the website, we know:

Color: Red to Amber
Original Gravity: 13 Plato (1.053 SG)
Alcohol: 5.1% ABV / 4.0% ABW
Malt: Two Row Pale, Caramel 60
Hops: Spalt Spalter, East Kent Goldings, Fuggles
Yeast Strain: “Top-fermenting ale yeast” (theirs is proprietary)

“Keeping with the Stock Ale style, Samuel Adams® Boston Ale is fermented at cooler almost lager like temperatures and conditioned much longer than most ales. It also is Krausened and dry hopped.”

It also has fruit and ester notes with a smooth, round finish.

Okay, time to start paying homage (I’m saying “homage” because I don’t know if it’s a clone just yet)!

We know they krausen (add freshly-fermenting wort to carbonate) and dry hop. We’re going to dry hop this sucker for a week, starting after a week of fermentation (at least a day after primary is complete). This will probably produce more hop flavor and aroma than Boston Ale (which I’d think is more like 3 days), but I want that flavor myself, and this is an “homage.” As for adding freshly-fermenting (or unfermented) wort to carbonate, I don’t want to brew a mini-batch of beer to do it, so I’m using corn sugar or DME.

As for the yeast, we know they ferment at “almost lager like temperatures.” What this means to me is that they ferment around 60 °F using an ale yeast that can handle it, but they probably let the temperature rise to get some additional ester production. So, we’re looking for a yeast strain that has a fruity character and can cover a wide range of temperatures, starting around 60 °F. To me, that means Wyeast American Ale II, which has an impressive range of 60-72 °F and the character we want (I started the search with White Labs East Coast Ale Yeast, but it can’t handle the low temperatures).

On to the malt. To me, it tastes very English on the malt end. So, I’ve chosen Maris Otter and a British Crystal 60. Knowing that I don’t want to go over about 15% on the crystal malt and our target gravity, the proportion was rather quick to determine, especially because Boston Ale looks to be in the 12-16 SRM range. If you want to go darker (15 SRM instead of 12.9 SRM), you could remove 0.5 lb of the base malt and add 0.5 lb of crystal, which brings the crystal malt up to 20% of the grist.

Finally, the water profile. This beer is somewhat malty and has a smooth, round finish, so I’m going for at least 100ppm of chloride and a ratio of around 1.5 chloride/sulfate. Given the color (12.6 SRM), a Residual Alkalinity of ~61 is appropriate. If you decide to go darker (14.7 SRM), you’ll want to hit an RA of ~86.

Without further ado, I give you Mad Alchemist New England Stock Ale (5 gallon all-grain recipe):


  • Maris Otter (8.5 lbs)
  • British Crystal 60 (1.5 lbs)
  • Hops: 1 oz Fuggles, 1 oz East Kent Goldings, 1 oz Spalt
  • Yeast: American Ale II (Wyeast Labs #1272), 2000 ml starter
  • Water: Residual Alkalinity 61, 1.5 Chloride/Sulfate Ratio, 100+ ppm Chloride, 50+ ppm Calcium
  • Alternate (Darker) Prep: 8 lbs Maris Otter, 2 lbs Crystal 60 yields 14.7 SRM instead of 12.6. You might want to adjust your RA to 86 instead of 61 if you do this, but it’s fine if you don’t.

Target Profile

  • Original Gravity: 1.053 SG
  • Final Gravity: 1.013 SG
  • Color: 12.6 SRM
  • Bitterness: 20 IBU
  • Alcohol by Volume (Est): 5.19%
  • Carbonation: 2.3-2.4 volumes

I’m going to do a single step mash at 154 °F for medium body in the beer. I will boil the wort for 90 minutes. The first 0.25 oz of each variety of hops will be added with 45 minutes left in the boil. 0.5 oz of each variety of hops will be added with 10 minutes left in the boil. 0.25 oz of each variety of hops will be added to secondary after one week of fermentation, and will be allowed to dry hop for one week.

When I add the wort to the fermentor, it will be at 60 °F. I’ll allow it to rise naturally to 68 °F. After fermentation is complete, I’ll add 4 oz corn sugar when bottling to achieve carbonation of ~2.35 volumes at 68 °F. I’m going to let this ale age for at least a month before drinking, and more likely two months. I would age it at cooler temperatures (55-60° F) if I had the ability to do so.

I’ll let you know how it turns out!

Craft Brew Action Request

2010 March 15
by Mad Alchemist

The brewing community is asking for our support for America’s small brewers by making a simple request to your U.S. Representative to co-sponsor H.R. 4278. This bill seeks to reduce beer excise tax for small breweries, cutting costs and creating jobs. For those of us who are beer nerds, it also means more variety in beer! I’m proud to say my congressman, James McGovern, is already a sponsor. Find out the details on the Brewer’s Associations H.R. 4278 Action Request.

The Wonders of Fermentation

2010 March 13
by Mad Alchemist

As you might have seen from my previous post, I thought I’d botched my entire last batch of beer. Well, I decided to pull it out of the fermentor after a week and anticipated throwing it out. Instead, I unexpectedly had a two-case bottling session.

Thank you, Belgian Schelde yeast. If you create an appropriate starter (I did) and aerate your wort properly (Also, check–I use an aquarium pump), you’ll get a nice vigorous fermentation. A wort that tasted quite bad (overly bitter, cloudy, chalky, low gravity) turned into a very tasty Belgian Pale. That, my friends, exemplifies the wonders of yeast.

Brew in a Bag in an Electric Fryer

2010 March 6
by Mad Alchemist

I got all of my equipment for my indoor brew-in-a-bag experiment this week. My plan was to wait until Saturday to brew, but the wife wanted to go geocaching so I decided to rush it and brew Friday night. Rushing and failing to check for required equipment lead to one of the worst brew days ever, but I’ll recount some details of the experiment for those of you who are interested.

The main piece of equipment I bought for this experiment was a 30 quart (7.5 gallon) electric fryer with heating element. I insulated the interior pot with Reflectix to improve the boil, which proved a bit difficult because it has a drain valve and snag-inducing screws on the inside. The motivation for this purchase was the desire to move back to full boils. Since I currently live in a third floor apartment with a wood-decked balcony, propane is not an option.

Electric Turkey Fryer

That was really only the first half of my experiment. The second half was trying brew-in-a-bag for the first time (BIAB details here). This essentially requires a large bag with a very fine mesh. The motivation here was to see if I could be lazier on brew day by using one main vessel and just to experiment with the new(er) technique.

The electric fryer has a handy basket to put on top of the element and to put the bag inside. I also used the basket later to put the wort chiller inside so it didn’t touch the heating element. This lent itself well to brewing in a bag–I was able to use the hook on the basket to lift the bag out and let it drip. Next time I try this, I’m rigging something up to make it so the basket can rest on top of the kettle rather than hanging above it.

Let’s walk through the fateful brew day that will probably entertain you, and possibly educate you on what not to do. The first tip: Don’t brew before you’re ready. I usually like to check the day before I brew for all required equipment and ingredients so I can hit my LHBS before I brew if necessary. I didn’t do this since I was rushed, and was missing some things I needed.

Let’s start with the water. I pulled a “smooth” move with my brewing salts. I rushed to get the salts put together and ended up adding the calcium carbonate to the brewing water before the mash, which resulted in undissolved chalk. Note to self, for the third time: Only add calcium carbonate during the mash so the acidity will allow it to dissolve.

As for the mash itself, I got terrible efficiency–my bag was inadequate, to say the least. It didn’t cover the entire kettle (which had a greater circumference than anticipated). I only mashed for 60 minutes because I started so late, and failed to get more Iodine prior to brew session to test for starch conversion. I also suspect that my mash pH was low because of the undissolved chalk, even though my pH strips (yep, economy strips, not the good ones) told me it was right around 5.2. That said, the fryer was nice for applying heat when it failed to hold mash temperature (since the grains were in a bag in the basket that was on top of the heating element, it was safe to use).

Even though I had already essentially failed at brewing the Belgian Pale I set out to brew, I went ahead with it for the sake of experimentation and the wonderful story that I get to tell you.

Moving on to the boil… The electric fryer did not produce a vigorous boil with 5+ gallons of wort. It reached 208-210 F. The wort was turning over inside, so it was truthfully probably enough, but I’ll still see if I can improve the insulation a bit. I put the lid on for a few minutes 3 or 4 times to get the boil going vigorously (first to help precipitate the hot break before adding hops). The significant surface area of the wort in the kettle lead to high evaporation rate–I needed about 7 gallons of distilled water for a 9.00lb (grist) batch @ 90 minutes.

After the boil time was complete, I used my fancy new efficient wort chiller. I put it in my wort like any other chiller, attached it to the sink, and turned it on at the end of the boil. It seemed to be going so I dove into a section of How to Brew for the umpteenth time. I checked the temperature after 5 minutes and it had dropped about 20 degrees, which seemed a bit slow for how cold my water is, but went back to reading. 10 minutes later, I checked again, and it had gone down about another 20. This seemed slow again, so I tilted my pot lid up and found something very distressing…

The chiller was spraying unfiltered, cold tap water into my wort and likely had been for quite some time. Needless to say, MoreBeer got an email from me and I’m planning on getting a replacement from them. If nothing else ruined the batch, this could well have done it.

But, hey, I learned some stuff.

In short, the electric fryer is a little questionable as a complete BIAB vessel. At 30 quarts (and with the need to put the grains in the basket), I suspect once I get over 12 pounds of grain or so, it will be too much to mash. The vigor of the boil was lower than I’d like, so I’m going to have to try to improve that somehow. Maybe I’ll surround the Reflectix with some aluminum tape to make it slightly better.

It was fun in retrospect, though quite stressful and frustrating at the time. But, again, it was a great experiment. Any thoughts for improving BIAB in an Electric Fryer are more than welcome. Or, if you have questions, I might be able to answer them.


The New Brewer: Steeping Specialty Grains

2010 March 3
by Mad Alchemist

One of the biggest early improvements in my homebrews came when I started brewing with more than just extract. Extract kits are extremely easy and take very little time to brew. But, for about 10 minutes more effort and 30 total minutes more time, you can steep specialty grains before boiling the extract and make dramatic improvements in your beer, truly crafting something that is your own and plays to your palette. It’s really as easy as making tea!

What You Need
You don’t need much. You probably have everything you need already, except perhaps for an inexpensive grain bag.

  • Grain Bags: Get yourself either a few disposable muslin bags or some reusable grain bags.
  • Thermometer: You’ll also need a thermometer if you don’t have one. If you’re making beer, you should already have one.
  • Crushed Grains: The grains must be crushed. You can almost always find them pre-crushed at your homebrew shop. If they’re not crushed, you can use a rolling pin and crush the grains in the bag–not to a powder, just crack them up.
  • Water: You’ll need brewing-suitable water to steep your grains in. The ideal ratio here is to use less than 1 gallon of water per pound of specialty grain to prevent extracting astringent tannins (I use a ratio of 3 quarts of water per pound of grain).

The Process
Steeping specialty grains is easy! If you read through this twice and try it once, you’re an expert!

  • Bring your water to anywhere between 150 and 170 degrees F. 160 is the sweet spot right in the middle.
  • Put the crushed grains in your bag(s) and tie them off.
  • Put your grain bags into the water and let them steep for 30 minutes.
  • While the grains are steeping, swirl them around about every 5-10 minutes.
  • After 30 minutes have passed, take the grain bag out and let it drip for a minute (then discard the grains).
  • Crank the temperature up on your brew kettle and proceed with your normal extract-style brewing!

Extract Kits with Specialty Grains
Many of the kits from homebrew shops have specialty grains crushed and ready to go for you. You can find them at places like Northern Brewer, MoreBeer, or your local homebrew shop.

Grains That Can Be Steeped
Here are many of the grains that you can steep to provide more complex and delicious flavors in your beer.

  • Cara-Pils/Dextrine
  • Biscuit Malt
  • Black (Patent) Malt
  • Black Barley (Stout)
  • Caraamber
  • Carafoam
  • Caramel/Crystal Malt – 10L
  • Caramel/Crystal Malt – 20L
  • Caramel/Crystal Malt – 30L
  • Caramel/Crystal Malt – 40L
  • Caramel/Crystal Malt – 60L
  • Caramel/Crystal Malt – 80L
  • Caramel/Crystal Malt -120L
  • Caramunich Malt
  • Carared
  • Caravienne Malt
  • Chocolate Malt
  • Roasted Barley

I took this list from the BeerSmith site (I use BeerSmith as my primary tool for formulating recipes as well). It has descriptions of each of the grains listed as well as considerably more information about them:

Any grain listed on that site that has a “No” under the “Must Mash” column can be steeped. Yeah, you can do a lot of experimentation to find the perfect beer without spending the additional effort of partial mash or all-grain brewing.

Steeping specialty grains before brewing your extract-based beer is quick and easy. It only takes an additional 30 minutes, of which you have to concern yourself with 5-10. And, you’ll be brewing much better, fresher-tasting beer that you’ve crafted yourself and can call your own. Cheers!

Recipe: Hazelmocha Cream Stout (Dry)

2010 February 27
by Mad Alchemist

Since everyone has their own way to brew and the ingredients and targets should reveal all that is necessary, I’m not going to go terribly in-depth about how to brew this beer. What I will give you is a list of ingredients used and a quick description of the final taste.

It’s a dark, sweet, full-bodied, and deceptively dry sweet stout with chocolate, coffee, and hazelnut flavors due in large part to additions in the secondary. The ingredients I’m listing are for a 5 gallon all-grain batch, but it can be easily converted to extract (with specialty grains) by replacing the Maris Otter with an English extract.


  • Maris Otter (7 lbs)
  • Caramel/Crystal Malt 40L (2 lbs)
  • Chocolate Malt (12 oz)
  • Roasted Barley (3 oz)
  • Lactose (1 lb)
  • Hops: East Kent Goldings
  • Yeast: Irish Ale
  • Water: Residual Alkalinity (~200), Bicarbonate (~250), 2 to 1 Chloride/Sulfate

Ingredients in Secondary

  • Cacao Nibs (8 oz)
  • Hazelnuts (8 oz)
  • Coffee Beans (8 oz)

Target Profile

  • Original Gravity: 1.054
  • Final Gravity: 1.014
  • Color: 38 SRM
  • Bitterness: 20 IBU
  • Alcohol: 5.22%
  • Carbonation: 2.0 Volumes

Beer Wars

2010 February 13
by Mad Alchemist

If you appreciate beer and/or brew it yourself, watch Beer Wars. It is an enlightening documentary on the beer industry as a whole, with a focus on the craft brewer trying to make it in the marketplace. It gave me a tremendous amount of respect for all independent brewers, especially Dogfish Head, and unfortunately made me dislike Anheuser–Busch InBev even more than I already do. It’s in about every format imaginable, so watch it.