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The Snakeye Brewery

The Snakeye Brewery in it’s full glory. I had started getting into homebrewing back in 2001 when I graduated college. Back then, it was just the simple stove-top solution: add a bunch of malt syrup (made from barley) into a pot and boil it with a tea-bag of crushed barley grain, cool it in a sink with ice, add yeast and let it sit for a few weeks. It wasn’t until 2005 that a friend influenced me to give all-grain brewing a shot.

All-grain brewing and extract brewing are essentially the same process, except that in all-grain you make the syrup extract as well; it adds maybe 3 hours to the extract process. The beauty of it is that you now have complete control of the ingredients and flavor of the beer. I’ve found much more joy and challenge in brewing from all-grain.

The Snakeye Brewery came about because after I started getting into all-grain using a turkey fryer, I was spilling hot water on myself, busting out my back from lifting 5 gallons of liquid to transfer it to one pot or another, and all the extra moving parts added time to the brewing process. I day-dreamed of owning one of those rigs that you can buy (such as this one), but the price tag was way out of my range. So I came up with my own design and piecemealed it together from there; the actual stand cost about $250 to build at a local tractor repair shop. Since it already took 8 hours to make one 5-gallon batch, I made sure all my containers could hold 10+ gallons. Why not make 10 gallons with 8 hours instead of 5 gallons?

So onto the art of brewing. Once you decide the recipe, the first step is to take all the grain and mill it:

Milling the barley

This makes it easier for the water to convert all the starches in the cracked grain to sugars, the main course for the yeast to flourish. Of course, there’s even variables in milling grain: depending on the size of the grain (wheat is slightly larger than barley), you want an optimum grain-cracking by adjusting the width of space between the milling rollers. I’ve always left my mill at the factory setting, optimized for barley.

For this brew session, we settled on milling the following for a Chocolate Porter:

  • 22 lbs of 2-row base malt
  • 2 lbs of Crystal 40L malt
  • 2 lbs of Munich malt
  • 1½ lbs of Chocolate malt
  • 1 lb of Black Patent malt
  • 1 lb of Cara-Pils malt

Once the grain is milled, you add it to heated water to achieve a soupy-oatmeal consistency. For the above grain bill, about 10 gallons of water was used. On the Snakeye Brewery, the hot water comes from the raised kettle on the left (hot liquor tank), and gets transferred to the lower middle kettle with the grain (the mash tun). To convert the grain to wort (the sugar water that will ultimately make the beer), you ultimately need to hold the concoction between 140°F and 158°F. Favoring the cold end will get you a drier, thinner beer that tends to be more alcoholic, while favoring the warmer end will get you a sweeter, full-bodied beer at the small sacrifice of ABV. I tend to prefer the sweeter, full-bodied beers, so we kept the Chocolate Porter around 153°F for mashing (the process of converting the grain’s starch to sugars):

The mashing process

The Snakeye Brewery loses about 10°F while transferring water from the hot liquor tank to the mash tun, so the water in the hot liquor tank was heated to 165°F to account for this. Also, to ensure there’s minimal heat-loss in the mash tun, we preheat the kettle with boiling water and drain it prior to adding any grain. Let the “oatmeal” mash sit for about an hour, while stirring every 15 minutes to ensure even heat distribution and prevent clumping.

One quick aside: the customization of the mash is what puts all-grain brewing heads and shoulders above extract brewing. You want a Pumpkin Ale? Add in a few pounds of oven-baked pumpkin pulp into the mash. Or mash with oatmeal to obtain an Oatmeal Stout. Throw in some Pecans to make a true Nut Brown Ale. Any starch-based ingredient can be added at this phase.

Sparging out the wort for boilAfter an hour, conversion should be more or less complete. Now you need to sparge the wort from the mash tun to the boil kettle, while leaving all the spent grains behind. Since the grain bed acts as a great filter, you want to be careful not to disturb it while adding water. The key to sparging is to ensure the water level in the mash tun remains the same as you cycle water through the mash tun and out to the boil kettle. I started out using tin foil with holes poked through it to accomplish the sparge without disturbing the grain bed. Since then, a valve was added that distributes the water into the mash tun (pictured at right). Regardless, the flow rates for both the incoming and outgoing water are set to a little more than a trickle to ensure the incoming water picks up as much of the sugar from the converted grains as possible before heading over to the boil kettle (in the foreground of the picture at right). A good, thorough sparge usually will take 60 to 90 minutes for a 10-gallon batch of beer. On top of the 10 gallons of water already in the grain, we added an additional 7 gallons set to 170°F to clear out the remaining sugars. Also, the 170°F temperature will halt the conversion process in its tracks and make for a clearer, cleaner beer.

We were able to collect about 13 gallons of wort for the boil. This is really where you start recognizing the beer, and is also where extract brewing starts off. The wort is brought to a full boil and you start adding hops (the bitter flavor in beer that also acts as a natural preservative). Typically, you design a hop schedule to attain the flavor you’re going after.

For the Chocolate Porter, we used:

  • 2 oz East Kent Goldings hops boiled for 60 minutes
  • 2 oz Williamette hops boiled for 30 minutes
  • 4 oz Williamette hops boiled for 1 minute (close to flameout)

As a rule, hops added earlier in the boil (ie, that boil longer) add to the flavor, while hops added late in the boil (ie, that are added near flameout) add to the aroma and smell of the beer. Your typical beer will call for both at various intervals, though there are some breweries (like Dogfish Head) that add them continuously to achieve an interesting result. Extract brewers typically use pelletized hops that look like rabbit turds, but in using all-grain ingredients I like complimenting them with the full leaf hops (below).

Adding the hops

One of the highlights of brewing is just smelling the hops prior to adding them to the boil kettle. The smell is almost entrancing; I can best identify it to the smell of fresh cut dandelions, but way better.

Adding more hopsAbove are my buddies Jon and Dan adding the final addition of hops with 5 minutes remaining on the boil. The boil stage is another point where you can customize your beer with sugars and other flavoring. Since we’re doing a Chocolate Porter, we actually threw in a pound of Sweetened Cocoa powder at 5 minutes prior to flameout. In the past, I’ve also used Maple Syrup, Lactose and Honey at this stage to add in extra flavors.

After the boil, great care has to be taken to sanitize everything the wort comes into contact with. Prior to this, you can be a little sloppy and just ensure cleanliness of the equipment because the boil will kill any contaminants to the beer.

Turning it into beerThe freshly boiled wort must be cooled down to room temperatures (and even colder if it’s going to use lager yeast) as quickly as possible. The more time it takes, the greater risk of contamination (though it’s still probably low with good sanitization). Ultimately, once the wort is cooled down, it becomes a giant petri dish for any bacteria. The goal is to make sure your bacteria, the yeast, grabs hold first and crowds out anything else with sheer numbers. When I started brewing, I used to throw the 5-gallon pot into an ice-bath in the sink; that took about an hour to cool. I upgraded to all-grain and bought a copper coil that you immerse in the wort with cold hose water running through it; that cut my cooling time to about 30 minutes for 5 gallons. When I built the Snakeye Brewery, I incorporated a brazed-plate chiller into it that acts much like a car’s radiator; I can now cool 10 gallons of boiling wort as fast as I can pump it – usually in about 10 or 15 minutes. The cool wort gets pumped into a 14-gallon stainless steel conical (at right), where the yeast is added to ferment for 1 to 3 weeks. Though expensive, the conical makes it extremely easy to purge the dead yeast (through the bottom valve) for a secondary fermentation. Once the fermentation is complete, the transformed wort (now beer) is then kegged (or bottled) and carbonated for consumption. For the Chocolate Porter, we used White Labs English Ale yeast.

Cheers to brewingPrior to pitching the yeast, you may want to take a sample of the wort and test its density (or gravity) so you can determine what the alcohol-by-volume will be once fermentation is complete; it also gives you an idea of how efficient your setup is as well. And as a reward, I always drink the cooled wort sampling to get an idea of the tastes and flavors. Cheers.

Of course, it isn’t a true brew session without a finished product on-hand to consume throughout the process! Celibacy Nut Cream AleJon and Dan’s inaugural brew on the Snakeye Brewery was my flagship beer: Celibacy Nut Cream Ale. It was kegged and ready to drink just in time to brew the Chocolate Porter, and I think it went down way too easy. It’s a good thing I didn’t type out this post as I was brewing with them, because at this point I think a lot of the words would be slurred.

The completed process

This will be my last brew session for a long while. I don’t know if I’ll have the time or space in Italy to get my “brew on.” Rather than let the Snakeye Brewery sit and rust due to years of dormancy and neglect, I’d rather put it “on loan” to friends that I know enjoy brewing and do it all the time. I sure am going to miss it, but I know it will be getting good use and at some point in the distant future, I’ll be at the helm once again. Good luck with the Brewery guys…

Lights out for the Snakeye Brewery

Lights out for the Snakeye Brewery, at least for my chapter of it for a while.

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