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Brewjacket Immersion Pro – Great When It Works

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Lager brewers know the pain: how on earth do I keep my wort around 50-54F while fermenting?

For years I used a large plastic tub, which I filled with water and placed the fermenter in it. Then I used frozen blue icepacks to hit the required temperature. It was not pretty. Lucky brewers have a spare fridge and a temperature control unit. Others have given up on exact temp control and ferment their lagers in the 60ies. But there is help!

What is it?

IMG_2109.jpgBrewjacket promises to keep your fermenter up to 35F below the ambient air temperature and that in an exact manner. So how do they do it? According to their website this is how it works:

“At the heart of Immersion is a patented solid state cooling system. Solid state cooling technology relies on dissimilar metals joined in circuit within a microchip. When an electrical current is passed through the metals, heat is moved. The result is an instantaneous transfer of an enormous amount of heat.”

What that comes down to is a massive rod that is immersed in your fermenting wort. Is is attached to a head unit that is located above the fermenter. The head unit contains something that looks like a heat sink and a fan. When it is plugged in, a control board lets the user dial in the temperature and through the heatsink and the fan, heat is drawn out of the beer.

A separate thermometer cable is attached to the fermenter or is placed, through a thermowell, in the wort. It tells the fan when the desired temperature is reached and it turns off. The system  is supported by an insulated jacket that envelops the fermenter and helps keeping the temperature stable.

What do you get?

I was sick and tired of shlepping blue ice blocks, so my wonderful wife bought me a unit for Christmas 2016. To set up the system one needs a head unit, AC adapter, thermometer cable, the rod, and then – depending on the fermenter –  the right tools to seal the unit.

Brewjacket supports several type of fermenters. I opted for a Better Bottle, which needed to come pre-drilled with a hole in the neck. The bottle came with a nipple that would go into that hole and has a blow off tube attached. It became quickly apparent that I was not able to use a bubbler with that setup.

Does it work?

In one word: yes. My first lager turned out fabulous. The unit cooled the beer from 70F to 52F within 48 hrs. Now here comes the warning. It is slow to cool or heat. Your wort must be close to the desired temperature when you start the unit, if you want to see results soon.

According to Brewjacket the unit cools 1F per hr for the first 10F below ambient, then 0.5F/hr for the next 10F below ambient, and finally 0.25 fr the next 10 to 15F below ambient. It worked great for me. It cooled an kept my fermenting baby at 52F.

Along came the failure 

I did not brew much in 2017. Only four beers in all, but the Brewjacket worked. My fifth beer with the Brewjacket happened in 2018. It started out fine. My Pilsner was chugging along at 53F. Then after two weeks, the temperature suddenly rose to 64F. And then 68IMG_2110.jpgF. I turned the unit off and on again. No change.

I contacted Brewjacket and that is where the problems began. I told them that I knew that it would be out of warranty, but asked if a warranty repair was possible, since it has lasted for only 4 brew cycles. When I sent the email, the automated return mail promised a response within 24hrs. That didn’t happen, but I got a reply after 48 hrs. I was asked to submit pictures of my setup to a different address, which I did. And then the waiting game began. 

After a week I started sending reminder emails.  Answers first came not at all, and then very sparingly. What it boiled down to, was that the Brewjacket support was convinced that the insulation in the fermenter cover was doubled over and was not covering the entire fermenter. I checked, and lo and behold it was doubled over. It was sent this way and I thought that this was what is was supposed to look like. 

I unfolded the insulation and argued that this couldn’t be the problem, because I had already fermented four beers successfully with the folded insulation. With the guidance from support I ran some more tests and the head unit still didn’t cool. Finally, support sent an email that I was right, the unit had failed, but that I was out of warranty and just should order the failed part.

The Price

And here comes my main sticking point: an entire unit without the fermenter costs $299 plus shipping. That should last longer than four fermentations. I gave them another chance and ordered the failed headunit, just the bottom, not the control board, for a whopping $150! If that one fails whithin a short time, I am dropping Brewjacket. 

Conclusion

Should you buy it? Difficult to say. When it works, it is fantastic. It’s expensive, but fermenting a beer is as easy as plugging it in and dialing the temperature. If you are sick of your current lager fermenting system and you have $300 dollars lying around, go for it. But use it often within the warranty period, to see how it holds up.

And be prepared for a very tiring support process.

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Headunit with rod

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Headunit and control board disassembled

Update

I received my headunit part. Taking the control board off the failed unit and putting it on the new unit was painless. I will test the repaired brew jacket with a Lemongrass Luau recipe shortly.

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Fermentis Saflager W34/70 Dry Yeast – Death, Taxes, And Fermentation

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Few things are certain in life, and two of them are death and taxes. Thanks to Saflager W34/70 dry yeast from Fermentis, there is a third one. For me, this yeast never failed to show signs of fermentation within 24 hrs. I have directly pitched it and rehydrated it, and it always performed quickly and vigorously.

It is a Weihenstephan strain with an ideal fermentation temperature range from 53F to 59F, high flocculation and medium alcohol tolerance. I would recommend it primarily for malty European lagers. but there is one caveat:

Direct pitching makes using this yeast very easy, but it likes to be pitched warm 73F +/- 6F. If you want to cool the wort first and then bring it up to fermentation temperature, I would rehydrate the yeast. I did that when brewing my Traditional Bock, and the yeast started within 24hrs, but fermented not as vigorous as I have seen before.

It produces a very malty, clean flavor that you want in a European Lager. Use Mr Malty’s pitch calculator to determine how many 11.5 sachets need to be pitched.

WLP802 Czech Budejovice Lager Yeast – Slow Does The Trick

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White Labs produces Lager yeasts with nice malty profiles and WLP802 Czech Budejovice is one of them. As you can probably suspect from the name, it is best suited for Czech lagers. According to White Labs’ webpage, the yeast attenuates at 75-80% and ranks medium in both, flocculation and alcohol tolerance. The optimum fermentation temperature is between 50F and 55F (http://www.whitelabs.com/yeast/wlp802-czech-budejovice-lager-yeast)

The Good

This yeast has never failed me. It tears through a wort in roughly a week and leaves behind a fairly clean, very malty lager. Even without a starter, it never failed to eat the sugars I threw at it.

The Bad

Without a starter, it can be a bit nerve wrecking, because WLP802 takes it own sweet time to get things going. I am averaging between 48 and 60 hrs before I see activity in the fermenter.

Conclusion

For a malty Bohemian lager I can recommend WLP802 any time. Just remind yourself  that Czech Budejovice is a workhorse, but not a race horse.

Brewing a Bohemian (Czech) Pilsner

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Introduction

Sometimes tasks that seem to be overwhelmingly complicated are actually quite simple. And then there is the flipside: tasks that look like a cakewalk, have hidden complications that make us regret our earlier assessment. So what could be easier than take a few pounds of Pilsner malt, some hops, and yeast and brew a Pilsner? Well … brewing a Pilsner is not that difficult, I’ll admit that. Brewing a GOOD Pilsner however, that’s another story.

What makes a good Pilsner? Or better –  what makes a good Bohemian (or Czech in export markets) Pilsner?

Well, there is the robust bitterness, that is not harsh, but very smooth and drinkable. There is the grainy taste of Pilsner malt and thicker, more complex malt character. The color is light, but can lean to golden and the appearance should be clear. The Czech Saaz hops have infused the beer with a light, floral spiciness, that tickles the nose and the tongue, but the bitterness does not linger.

This is a cold beer for a warm summer day, sitting in the shade of a tree on wooden benches, a beer to be enjoyed slowly as

A Munich Biergarten

the wind ruffles the leaves above and the grass below, and conversations turn to anything else but work and mundane worries. Pilsners can very easily be noble dinner beers, but for me, the Bohemian Pilsner, has an unbreakable link to Biergartens and everything that is conveyed by the untranslatable German word “Gemuetlichkeit”.

Brewing a beer that evokes all these images puts a lot of pressure on the brewer. Skill and technique are big factors in achieving the balance between maltiness, bitterness, and drinkability. But it is also a question of  procuring the right raw materials, because Bohemian Pilsner, as many beers, is very much a product of its original environment.

Planning

Constructing a Pilsner means going back to the time and place where it all started. In 1842, Josef Groll brewed the first Pilsner in the city of Plzen (Pilsen) in Bohemia . But more about that in the History of the Bohemian Pilsner. Pilsen water is is especially low in minerals and that softness lowers the harshness of the hop bitterness and rounds out the flavor.

For hops Groll used Red Zatec (or Czech Saaz). These spicy floral hops were so highly priced in former times, that smuggling their rhizomes was punishable by death.

The basemalt was Moravian barley, that was only lightly kilned and made for a light, clear, flavorful beer.

Water

In order to replicate the soft brewing water of the Pilsen area, I dilute Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water, with 50% distilled water. Arrowhead does not give exact water tables for their Mountain Spring Water, but only ranges. By Diluting it with 50% distilled water, I should soften the water enough to come close to the Pilsen water.

Hops

Czech Saaz hops are readily available and I will target a bittering level of 37 IBU. Bohemian Pilsner ranges from 35 to 45 and I am trying to balance the flavor in the middle with an emphasis on the aroma addition.

Malt

Weyermann produces a slightly undermodified Bohemian Floor Malted Pilsner (38 on the Kohlbach index). I could try a step mash without a decoction, but in this case, to emphasize the malt component, I will use a double decoction mash.

In addition I will use 5% light Munich, and 5% Carapils for mouthfeel.

Yeast

I chose White Labs WLP802 Czech Budovice yeast for this Pilsner. It has a malty fermentation profile and should fit a Bohemian Pilsner perfectly.

Recipe

For recipe formulation I am using Beersmith. The volume is scaled from 5 gal to an experimentation batch of 2.5 gal.

The screenshot above shows that I am targeting the upper end of the OG. The bittering units however will be on the lower end. The beer will be malty, but not too bitter.

The mash will be a double decoction:

  1. 145F for the dough in step – hold 20 min
  2. First decoction, raise to 154 – hold 20 min
  3. Boil decoction for 20 min
  4. Add decoction back and raise mash to 154F – hold 30 min
  5. Second decoction boil for 10 minutes
  6. Add second decoction back and raise to 168F for mashout

Brewing

I am using a 10 gal Blichmann Boilermaker as mash tun with a false bottom. The boiling kettle is 8 gallons.

Mashing

  1. 11 qts are  heated in the mash tun to 151F. Dough in settles the temperature at 143F. I raise the temperature to 145F, holding it there for 20 minutes
  2. Within those 20 min I pull a small liquid sample and check the ph with a strip. It is at  5.1.
  3. After 20 min I pull the first decoction (approx. half of the thick mash). The main mash is held at 145F. The grains in the decoction pot are very light.
  4. The decoction is heated to 154F and held there for 20 minutes. The temperature is hard to control in decoction and it escalates to 160F. I turn the heat off and stir it down to 158F.
  5. The decoction is brought to a boil and is boiled for 20 minutes. At the end the grains are noticeably darker and the wort is very sweet from the Maillard reaction
  6. I add the decoction back to the main mash and rise it to 154. The mash is held for 30 minutes.
  7. I pull a second decoction (approx. ¼ of the thick mash). The decoction is boiled for 10 minutes and added back to the main mash. The grains in the decoction are now noticeably darker.
  8. The main mash is raised to 168F for mashout.

Sparging

The sparging water, same as the mash water is diluted 50:50 with distilled water. I recirculate the wort for 5 minutes to settle the grain bed and sparge with 175F water until I have collected 4.3 gal. The ph of the collected wort is at 5.3 and the gravity settles at 1.037.

Boiling

The time for the boil is 90 minutes due to the fact that the majority of the grain bill is Pilsner malt and Dimethylsulfide is present.

4 hop additions are added according to schedule (see Beersmith screenshot above). At 15 minutes before the end 1 tsp of Irish moss is added to the boils and 10 minutes a capsule of yeast nutrients.

Chilling, Settling, Aerating

The wort is chilled for 40 minutes in an icebath, down to 49F. Then I transfer it to a settling bucket and add a gallon of 50% water diluted with distilled water. The OG is now 1.048.  For the next hour, solids precipitate out of the wort. They layer of solids can be easily seen in the picture below as line near the bottom of the bucket.

My fermenter for small batches is a Mr Beer keg. To aerate the wort, I dribble it slowly from the settling bucket into the fermenter. Afterwards the fermenter goes into the fridge to lower the temperature.

Pitching

At 50F I pitch two vials of the liquid yeast. A starter is recommended, but due to time constraints I have to double up on the yeast instead.

The fermenter is now placed in a cooler and held as close to 50F as possible.

Update – Brewday Plus 5

Yeast took 56 hrs to start showing signs of fermentation. Wort now has a tightly laced foam crown on top. Holdeng at 50-53F.

Standby for updates.

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