Reactive Brewing – Czech Pils Brewday and Recipe

Hop Union Czech Saaz leaf hops packaged in one ounce nitrogen purged opaque bags.

Hop Union Czech Saaz leaf hops packaged in one ounce nitrogen purged opaque bags.

Most of the time, brewdays go smoothly; there can be a zen-like dance between brewer, equipment, and ingredients  where all marks are hit, stress is minimized, and all is right in the brew-world. This was not one of those days. Learning how to react to the variables thrown at you during the course of a brewday and making intelligent reactions is critical to becoming a better brewer. No matter how much preparation goes into your brewing, things happen; your reactions determine what impact unexpected variables will have on the final beer.

Before I get into the brewday shenanigans, let’s talk about why I’m brewing a Czech Pils.

Blichmann Hop Rocket inline between the pump and plate chiller.

Blichmann Hop Rocket inline between the pump and plate chiller.

First and foremost, Czech Pils is delicious – enough said. Czech Pils also happens to be a clean, hop-forward lager that showcases the Saaz hop. This style would serve as the perfect platform for testing out my new toy – a Blichmann Hop Rocket. This contraption acts as a hop back, sitting in-line on the hot side between pump and chiller. This allows you to run hot wort through a bed of leaf hops and then chill almost immediately. It prevents too much trub from getting into the chiller, but more importantly gives another opportunity to push hop aroma and flavor into your beer. For this recipe, I am specifically interested in seeing how much and what kind of hop character the hop back provides. In formulating the hop bill for this recipe, there is a singular bittering charge with everything else going into the hop back post-boil. I can be reasonably confident that any hop aroma or flavor can be primarily attributed to the hop back addition.

The Brewday

Living on the edge, boiling 4.5-gallons in a 5-gallon kettle.

Living on the edge, boiling 4.5-gallons in a 5-gallon kettle.

Problem 1: Yeast Selection
My problems started three days before the scheduled brewday when I went to pick up ingredients at my local homebrew shop. The recipe I developed originally called for Wyeast 2001- Urquell Lager. Unfortunately, my local shop didn’t have this strain in stock. A quick look at Wyeast’s web site led me to select Wyeast 2278 – Czech Pils as a back up. Luck would have it that they had this in stock, but the packs were 5 months old. The brew shop offered to give me a second pack at no cost, but adding yeast that old to a delicate lager was not an idea I wanted to entertain. I finally ended up selecting Wyeast 2124 – Bohemian Lager. This strain is the work horse used in most commercial lager around the world, and should work well for my beer. Best of all, the pack was only a week old. The lesson to take away is that when it comes to yeast, I’d rather compromise on strain selection and get the freshest yeast I can, rather than risk using yeast that likely has low viability – especially when brewing a lager.

Hop back fully loaded with 2 oz. Czech Saaz hops.

Hop back fully loaded with 2 oz. Czech Saaz hops.

Problem 2: Where’d my Volume Go?
My mash went perfect; all temperatures and steps were hit. The problem occurred when I transferred everything to my kettle. When I measured my pre-boil volume I was about 0.7 gallons short of my target. My initial reaction was to start heating water to add back to my mash tun and collect more runnings. Stepping back and pausing for a moment, I decided to measure the gravity of the runnings I had collected in order to calculate how much sugar I had already extracted. It turned out that while my volume was low, I had the right amount of sugar in solution to hit my projected target gravity. To correct the problem, all I needed to do was simply top up my kettle to the projected pre-boil volume. To avoid this problem in the future, I plan to recalculate my mash tun dead space to better hit my projected volumes.

Spent hops in hop back.

Spent hops in hop back.

Problem 3: Cheesy Saaz Hops
For this recipe, I was working with two lots of Saaz hops that I had acquired from two different shops. The first leaf hops were sealed in clear vacuum bags that had been broken down by the brew shop into smaller lots, and were noticeably brown. The second set of hops were sealed in nitrogen purged Hop Union opaque bags. Since the hops in the clear bags didn’t look great, I had planned to use them to bitter the beer and use the Hop Union sealed hops in the hop back. Once I opened the clear bag hops of dubious provenance, it became clear that they had tell-tale oxidized hop smell of cheese / stinky feet. There was no way I could use these hops in a beer, even for bittering. With the aid of brewing software, I was able to replace the 2 ounces of cheesy Saaz bittering hops with 12 grams of Citra hops; the only other hop I had on hand. This is an extremely unconventional hop to use in a Czech Pils, but in a pinch it should work. There may be some residual American hop character in the background, but I find that preferable to an oxidized hop character.

Problem 4: The Hop Back Drank All My Work
My boil went well. I knew based on the Hop Rocket’s design that it would be difficult to determine how much wort the leaf hops would absorb, and how much wort would be trapped in the Hop Rocket canister. As it turns out, I lost about a half-gallon of wort within the hop back. This lost volume will be taken into account for future beer formulations that use the hop back.

Problem 5: Warm Ground Water
We’ve been riding a heat wave here in Brooklyn with high humidity and temperatures in the mid-90’s. Consequently our ground water has warmed considerably. Even with completely throttling down the wort flow rate through my plate chiller, I was only able to get the wort down to 68° F. With lagers, I like to pitch around 46° F and ferment 48-50° F. After running the wort through my chiller I placed it in my fermentation fridge to bring it down to 46° F before oxygenating and pitching yeast. This took about 4 hours, but should help ensure a clean lager fermentation.

The Recipe

Size: 3.25 gal
Efficiency: 72% (Measured)
Attenuation: 77% (Projected)

Original Gravity: 1.052 (Measured)
Terminal Gravity: 1.012 (Projected)
Color: 5.09 SRM
Alcohol: 5.24% (Projected)
Bitterness: 48.4 IBUs

6.5 lb (91.2%) Bohemian Pilsner Malt (Weyermann)
6 oz (5.3%) Cara-Pils® Malt (Briess)
2 oz (1.8%) Melanoidin Malt (Weyermann)
2 oz (1.8%) Acidulated Malt (Weyermann) – Added for pH Correction

90m       1 oz (29.2%) Czech Saaz Leaf (Hop Union Flushed Bag) (2.4% AA)
90m       12 g (12.4%) Citra™ Pellets (14.1% AA)
15m       0.5 ea Whirlfloc Tablets
10m       0.5 tsp Wyeast Nutrient
0m          2 oz (58.4%) Czech Saaz (Hop Union Flushed Bags) (2.4% AA) – Hop Back

WYeast 2124 Bohemian Lager™

Original Gravity 1.052

Original Gravity 1.052

Mash Regiment:
10m       147 °F
50m       153 °F
10m       168 °F

Final Volume into Fermenter = 2.75 Gallons
Yeast Required =  200 billion (per Mr. Malty)
Yeast Production Date: 7/1/13
Yeast Starter = 1L @ 1.040 on stir plate (per Mr. Malty). Use 1300ml Starter (5.5 oz DME)

1. Chill to 46* F and keep at 48°F until activity slows (1 week+).
2. Raise temp to 58°F 3 days
3. Crash to 32°F and lager 21 days

Back in the Brew House Again

When I first got into brewing, I started small and simple. Very little process control was in place, the equipment was basic and easy to use, and the beer turned out… okay. As time went on, my brewery grew organically to include more and more pieces of specialized equipment whose purposes varied, but generally involved making brewdays easier or giving me a greater degree of control over the process. This is a pretty typical evolution that homebrewers go through, and something that offers the opportunity for your brewhouse to grow in sync with your brewing skills.

After relocating to Brooklyn, I took the opposite approach. Instead of organic growth, I preplanned my system on paper, acquired my parts, and then built-out the brewery over the course of several evenings. This was an exciting and daunting task; not something I’d recommend for someone just learning how to brew.

Acquisition of Parts and Build-Out

For what seemed like weeks, strange and wonderful pieces of stainless steel began arriving at my apartment. Thanks to the folks from places like Bargain Fittings, More Beer, and Williams Brewing, finding the parts I needed was fairly easy. The most difficult item to track down was a thick walled stainless steel kettle with a multi layered bottom in a 5-gallon format. Unfortunately, most 5-gallon kettles are designed for entry level or partial boil extract brewers. I wanted something sturdy that would provide better heat dispersion and retention. I ended up with a great little kettle from Midwest Brewing that fit the bill perfectly.

The actual build-out went simply enough. It was important to diagrammatically layout how all the components were fitted out in order to procure the right fittings, but also have a pseudo installation manual for building. From there, piecing together the components was rather easy and happened quickly. The most difficult task was using a step-bit to place holes into my thick walled kettle. My cordless drill was barely up to the task. It took multiple trials and battery charges, but in the end I successfully placed two holes into my kettle’s walls. Lubricant is your friend when drilling (yes, I said that) and keeps the bit cool while cutting through the kettle walls.

The Build-Out:

Ready to be assembled.

GE water filter ready to be assembled. There isn’t much chlorine in NYC water, but the filter is a relatively easy way to provide some piece of mind.

GE water filter with quick disconnects allows me to quickly fill my kettle with filtered water. Thread onto kitchen faucet.

Quick disconnects allow me to quickly fill my kettle with filtered water. The plastic quick disconnect inlet snaps onto a hose with a threaded adapter for my kitchen faucet. The same hose is used later in the process to connect to the inlet on my my plate chiller. The barbed outlet connects to a hose used to fill my mashtun with strike water.

42 quart Polarware mashtun with stainless steel false bottom, 3-peice ball valve with quick disconnect, and thermometer.

42 quart Polarware mashtun with stainless steel false bottom, 3-piece ball valve with quick disconnect, and thermometer. Strike water is directly fired in the mashtun.

My 5-gallon kettle was installed with an outlet and tangential inlet for whirlpool purposes. All equipment is fitted out with male stainless steel quick disconnects. All hoses are fitted with female stainless quick disconnects. This allows for maximum flexibility when chaining together equipment.

My 5-gallon kettle was installed with an outlet and tangential inlet for whirlpool purposes. Both bulkheads are fitted with 3-piece ball valves allowing for complete disassembly and cleaning. All equipment is fitted out with male stainless steel quick disconnects. All hoses are fitted with female stainless quick disconnects. This allows for maximum flexibility when chaining together equipment. The kettle screen on the outlet valve was a flawed design on my part and has since been removed due to excessive clogging. I know use a simple 90 degree elbow for the pickup and use hop bags to contain most hop material.

Individual fittings ready to go together.

Blichmann Therminator with individual fittings laid out and ready to go together.

Fitted out with plastic quick disconnects on the water side and stainless quick disconnects on the wort side. I iniatially installed an inline O2 stone which has since been removed due to excessive foaming and concerns about sanitation.

Fitted out with plastic quick disconnects on the water side and stainless quick disconnects on the wort side. I initially installed an inline O2 stone which has since been removed due to excessive foaming and concerns about sanitation.

March Pump and fittings. I've installed the output side of the pump with two circuits. One can go straight back to the kettle for whirlpooling. The other circuit goes to the plate chiller and back to the kettle.

March Pump and fittings. I’ve installed the output side of the pump with two circuits for hot liquid. One can go straight back to the kettle for whirlpooling. The other circuit goes to the plate chiller and on to the fermenter. An inline thermometer on the plate chiller outlet tells me the temperature of wort heading to my fermenter.

Brewing in Tight Spaces (and you can too!)

This topic has been on my mind for a long time. It is especially important now as I begin evaluating my old brewing process in the hopes of building a better brewery, customized to fit my new Brooklyn home. This post is meant to be an overview of my previous brewing process, which demonstrates that you can brew award-winning beer in the kitchen on your stovetop. This article is intended for brewers with a basic understanding of the brewing process and the terms associated with it. If you’re completely new to brewing, I highly recommend John Palmer’s book How to Brew to get you started.

The Kitchen Brewery

The Kitchen Brew House

The kitchen brewery

Kitchen brewers are often written off by long-time brewers (with more advanced systems) on the premise that those still working in the kitchen are neophytes producing inferior beer with extract and steeped grains. I agree to a certain extent. If you want to be producing the best beer possible, pre-formulated extracts whose sugar composition and quality is unknown adds an unneeded obstacle to producing great beer. Like cooking, starting with the best quality product in its least adulterated form typically leads to superior results. This is a brief overview of my kitchen brewery and how it worked for me. If you have questions, I’d be happy to elaborate on any part of this in the comments section below. This article is written in the past tense because I haven’t actually brewed this way since June 2012 and my new brewing process, while possessing many of the same procedures and equipment, will be adapted to my new location (as should anyone’s process).


Erlenmeyer Flask Starters

Erlenmeyer flask starters

My brewdays were never a brew day (singular). Each batch always began several days in advance with yeast propagation. The first step was acquiring the freshest yeast I could get, either online or through my local homebrew shop. (Always check the dates on the packages.) In many cases, especially with less-popular strains, the yeast your shop is selling will be well past its prime. Yeast viability drops at alarming rates. Use the freshest yeast you can find, even if that means not supporting your local shop and going online. Once I had acquired fresh yeast, I would then build an appropriate starter–based on the gravity of the beer, its volume, and the freshness of the yeast sample. For ales, 1 million cells per milliliter wort per degree plato is the commercial standard. I could often get by with less than this, but the commercial standard is something to strive for. Erlenmeyer flasks are great for creating sanitary starters because the wort can be mixed and boiled in the heat-resistant flask, cooled, and then pitched with yeast all in the same vessel. I did all of my propagation on a stir plate, which increases the yeast growth curve and limits the volume of wort you need to create to hit your target pitching rate. I always timed my brewdays so I could chill the starter and decant the spent beer off the yeast culture before pitching. has a great pitching rate calculator to help you size your starters.


10-gallon Igloo Mash Tun

10-gallon mash tun with false bottom

Typically a brewday began by filling my 8-gallon stainless steel kettle outfitted with a ball valve and dial thermometer with the mash strike water. Water was dispensed from my kitchen faucet, which had an inline carbon filter installed. The filter removed the chlorine and chloramines found in most municipal water sources and prevented the need for campden tablets or bottled water. The strike water was then heated on a flat ceramic stove top. The flat top stove was nice because I could straddle two burners with my kettle and come up to temperature in a reasonable amount of time. (This is something my new accommodations do not have and is a hurdle my new brewery will need to overcome.) Once the predetermined volume of water was heated to the proper temperature, it was transferred via gravity to a 10-gallon Igloo cooler fitted with a ball valve and stainless steel domed false bottom. In order to save time on my brewday, limit the mess in my kitchen, and limit the amount of equipment I needed, I always bought my grain pre-milled.

Draining the Mash Tun

Draining the mash tun

The milled grain was added to the strike water along with adjustment salts creating my mash. While the mash conversion was happening, I would heat my sparge water in a separate 5-gallon stainless steel kettle to a predetermined temperature; usually high enough to get the grain bed up to mash out temperatures of 168° F or so. After the mash was complete, I recirculated the runnings until they were clear (vorlauf), using a pitcher and then drained the entire mash tun into my 8-gallon kettle. After completely draining the mashtun, I typically did two batch sparges until my preboil volume was hit. It is important to get to know your system and how different mash thicknesses and volumes of sparge water affect your system’s extraction efficiency. Once you have a good idea of what kind of efficiency you should expect with a given recipe, hitting your targeted gravity numbers becomes routine.


Wort Coming to a Boil

Wort coming to a boil

With all of the mash runnings collected in my 8-gallon kettle, I would take a pre-boil gravity reading using a refractometer to see if the amount of extract I achieved was in line with the predicted extract based on the efficiency I used for the recipe. The gravity of the wort can be multiplied by the volume of wort to calculate the total number of gravity units (GUs) in the kettle. This could then be compared to my recipe’s total gravity units (expected gravity x final expected volume) to see whether I had too much or too little sugar extract. From there, I would either add dry malt extract to the wort or revise my boil length (and hop additions) so that at the end of the boil I would be at the proper starting gravity. Ray Daniels, in his excellent book Designing Great Beer, has a chapter on using gravity units as a means to hit your target gravities. Again straddling two burners, my wort was boiled for a predetermined amount of time and hops were added at recipe-determined quantities and intervals. I typically kept the kettle lid on until the boil was achieved in order to save time as the wort came up to temperature.  Additionally, I used a silicone based anti-foam agent to (mostly) prevent boil-overs.


Chilling the Wort with a Copper Chiller

Copper chiller cooling the wort

After the boil was complete, I turned off the stove and placed a copper wort chiller into the boiling wort for 5 minutes to sanitize it. The copper chiller was plumbed to the faucet on my sink using a threaded adapter. During the summer months when the ground water temperatures were too warm to effectively chill the wort to pitching temperatures, I would use a submersible pump and bucket of ice water to circulate chilled water through the copper coil after the wort had been chilled to 130° F with tap water alone. After chilling, I typically let the trub in the kettle (hops and cold break) settle for 45 minutes or so before racking clear wort into a pre-sanitized Better Bottle. I would then hit the wort with 60 seconds of pure oxygen through a diffusion stone and pitch my yeast.


Lid on Fermentation Chamber

Styrofoam lid fabricated for fermentation chamber

Fermentation took place in an Igloo Ice Cube cooler with a custom-fit styrofoam lid that I fabricated. The lid allowed for an airlock or blow-off tube to come through the top while effectively sealing the cooler. The cooler was filled with water (with a touch of bleach) in which I put a floating thermometer and blue ice packs that I’d rotate in and out to achieve a fine degree of temperature control. Fermentation would typically go for about a week depending on the yeast strain, gravity, and fermentation temperature. At the end I would typically crash the fermenter as cold as my setup would allow to encourage any remaining yeast in suspension to flocculate out.


After fermentation I would rack my beers into clean, sanitized, and CO2 purged corny kegs. From there they were placed into a chest freezer controlled by a Johnson A419 temperature controller and force carbonated using pressurized CO2 and a regulator. Beer was dispensed from a two tap kegerator sitting in my living room. Beers needed for competition were filled carbonated using a Blichmann Beer Gun.

Small Doesn’t Mean Sloppy

Hop Additions Ready for Kettle

Hops are carefully weighed and labeled

In some ways, having a small, simple brewery allows you to focus on process rather than the equipment involved. Each step of the brewing process has control points which can be checked along the way to see if the brewday is progressing according to plan. With that in mind, things can always go differently, so it is important to know how to roll with these changes and adjust your brewday to sync with whatever might happen. Expense was not spared in acquiring accurate hydrometers, refractometers, and thermometer–giving me confidence in the numbers I was checking. Additionally, these instruments were frequently calibrated to ensure their accuracy. Pre-boil gravities were checked and adjusted in order to hit the gravities I was targeting. Temperatures on the fermentation side were tightly controlled to insure quality fermentations. Sanitation was of primary importance with all items on the cold side being thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. Recipes were thoroughly researched and designed to achieve the end product I wanted to obtain.

Where My System Worked

My old home in Seattle was small. The only place I was able to brew was in my kitchen as I didn’t have adequate outdoor space. In the end, this made many of my brewdays more pleasant, especially when it was freezing cold or burning hot outside. I literally lived in my brewery and brewing was always on my mind.

Where My System Sucked

Time. Waiting for items to come to a boil. Waiting for items to cool. Waiting for trub to settle. These were all things that dramatically increased my brewday lengths and something I hope to improve on in my new brewery.

Baby-sitting. My fermentation temperature control using a water bath required baby-sitting a couple times a day. I hope to automate this in my new brewery with a temperature controlled mini-fridge.

Labor. 10-gallon mash tuns filled to the brim are heavy. This becomes all the more precarious when you’re lifting it 3 feet from the ground to the kitchen counter. My next brewery design will take advantage of a pump to transfer liquid.

Mash Temperature Control. Correcting a missed mash temperature on my old system involved a frantic and imprecise scramble of either adding boiling water or ice to the mash in order to bring the temperature into line with what the recipe dictated. My next brewery will have some sort of built-in mash temperature control.

A Brewery I Respect

It seems that the homebrewer and DYI gadget crowds often overlap. There is a lot of conversation happening about ways to trick out your brewhouse, improve the quality of your beer, and expand your brewery’s output. A lot of people push these upgrades without really first understanding that technology and final quality are not implicitly connected. They spend more time chasing upgrades than understanding brewing fundamentals. For certain types of personalities, this is fine and represents a big chunk of the joy of the hobby.

At first glance, my friend at Black Alley Brewing might have fit this description.  He has the most technologically advanced homebrew rig I’ve ever seen (in person). The degree of control he has is vastly superior to most commercial brewing systems I’ve seen of less than 30 barrels. That being said, every aspect of his design was well thought-out and had specific reasoning geared towards quality, time, or ease-of-use. Each part of the brewery was designed with purpose and not for the sake of gadget wizardry alone. It is an amazing thing to behold and something I greatly respect as a brewer. You can check out his build, which was thoroughly documented here: Black Alley Brewing.