1st Lambic brew day

The Big System

The Big System

We all knew that this was going to be a trying brew day going into it. We were going to be using a big brewing system we’d never used before, and there were any number of unknowns at the start that we’d have to sort out throughout the course of the day. But no one knew how trying this day would be by the end.

On one hand, I think all things considered it went pretty well as far as beer making goes. We produced exactly the amount we needed, and the wort gravities ended up pretty close to where we needed them. Oh but getting there, that was the rough part.

We were a tad late getting started, but soon everyone was heating water, and the grain was getting ground for each batch. It being the first time I’d use my March 809 pump, I had some stuff with the fittings to work out, which was no big deal. Off to a decent start I’d say…

Broken pump

Broken pump

Right up until we began pumping water to dough in on the big system, and then everything began to leak. Pretty much every connection on the pump was trickling water, and this is when I made a mistake I’ve made 1000x before; instead of just stopping everything and fixing it properly, and then beginning again, I spazzed. I grabbed a wrench and started bearing down on all the leaking connections. The first few went ok, but the last was being a complete bastard, so I put my weight into it, and SNAAAP!!! There went my pumps out port! $%&#@!!! Looking at the broken off fitting laying on the ground, I was pretty pissed at myself, but I’m not the kind to flip out when this sort of thing happens, thankfully. After some conferring, and apologizing to my compatriots, we decided we’d just have to run out an buy another pump. Good thing for us the LHBS is only a 10 minute drive away. For anyone who’s still debating, Chugger and March are pretty much interchangeable, I had the pump heads swapped and the thing running in 5 minutes. Back on track…

Dead mash paddle

Dead mash paddle

We got the pump primed and the water flowing into the mash, when we were struck with a more minor calamity. Commish had been stirring the mash as the water ran in with my prized home-made mash paddle, and again, SNAAAAPPP!!! Off with it’s head. Not a huge deal, but it was close to me. So long little buddy, it’s been a good ride!

A lot of hops are needed for a brew this big

A lot of hops are needed for a brew this big

With a new pump running, and the mash starting on the big system, everything seemed to be going pretty well. The mash temp as a little low… we corrected it, onwards and upwards. Til about an hour later.

Our mash calls for a near boiling water addition about midway through to adjust temperature. Al, was pouring it in one of his two mashes, when SLIIIPP, there goes a hot pad, right off the handle, and that near-boiling water, all over his leg and foot. He howled and wrenched his shoe off, and we started filling a bucket of water for him, but it was too late, and the damage was done. Without going into too much gory detail, he burnt his foot pretty bad, and over the course of the day it went from red, to swollen, to blistered. A pretty gnarly sight. Al chose to stick it out though, for which he gets medal of honor for the day, and so somewhat broken and maimed, we carried on.

Wort running into the kettle

Wort running into the kettle

You might think that this is the worst brew day ever, and it’s certainly up there. But though some bad things did happen up to this point, none of them delayed things that much. We were all concerned for Al’s foot, but he was carrying on, and it wasn’t really holding him back. No, the thing that really killed us had nothing to do with any of this…

Boil-off rate. It’s that number that until now, I’ve hardly even thought about. 10%/hour doesn’t even sound like much really. Well, it is when your actual boil off rate is about 4%/hour! Especially when that means you need to boil off around 15 gallons! I had certainly considered that maybe on a bad day it could be as low as 7%, but 4!?!? We ended up having to boil for 5 hours to hit our target. Of course, then chilling 35g of boiling wort is no party either, so all said and done we ended up being at Hatchy’s until 12am. Midnight. 4 hours later than any worst case scenario I had thought up. Luckily this was the end of our troubles. While it is tedious to wait so long while a pot boils it’s not hard work.

Barrel filling, in the wee hours

Barrel filling

Still, we were all pretty wiped, frustrated, and run-down by the end of the chill. Still, it couldn’t stop us from smiling when we saw that beautiful wort running into the barrel. It turns out we ended up with just enough. Some of our gravities were a bit on the low side, so I’d put the whole 5g starter Lambic in the barrel to start things off, knowing it was at the right gravity. We ended up being able to re-fill the starter carboy at the end. Now we have extra to top off with if we need it. Score.

A full barrel and one waiting

A full barrel and one waiting

Looking at the barrel at the end of the night, and the second one we’d be filling 2 weeks later, it hit me just how ambitious this project is. Sometimes I feel a little crazy for taking on a project so big and time-consuming, but everything about this just feels right. It’s going to take years to truly pay off, but if you want to play with Lambic, you have to be willing to wait.

Here’s to the next brew day being a whole lot easier…


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