Brewing up an Iron Brew

As you may have noticed, I took my own sweet time describing our beer geek summer road trip — the trip itself ended on the last day of July, but I only managed to finish writing about it as the autumnal equinox arrived.

But now we move to other matters. Let’s travel back in time to just after Elaine and I arrived home from New England.

As constant readers might recall, I entered the Iron Brewer competition this year — a beer-making competition sponsored by the Master Brewers’ Association of Canada in which each contestant is given an identical bag of ingredients, and must make at least 10 litres of beer using only the ingredients from the bag. There are only 15 spots open in the contest — I was lucky enough to have my name drawn from the hat.

Shortly after we returned, I picked up my bag full of ingredients that were donated to this competition by the various manufacturers. It contained:

Enough of three base malts to produce about 40-50 litres of finished beer:

  • Canada Malting Ontario Select
  • Munton’s Pale Ale
  • Weyermann Vienna

Six specialty malts:

  • Great Western Dextra Pils
  • Briess Victory
  • Franco-Belge Kiln Coffee
  • Weyermann Special W
  • OiO Toasted Rye Flakes
  • Munton’s Roast Barley

Seven types of hops:

  • U.K.: Goldings, First Gold, Target
  • U.S.: Chinook, Columbus, Golding,  Willamette
  • Canada: Bertwell

Three types of dry yeast: Mauribrew Ale, Lager and Weiss yeast

Four other items:

  • 12 cinnamon sticks
  • about 50 grams of Grains of Paradise
  • a 5-inch stick of toasted white ash wood (used to simulate barrel aging)
  • a tablet of Whirlfloc Irish moss (to help coagulate proteins at the end of the boil)

So all you brewers out there, take a moment, look over this list again and decide what type of beer YOU would make.

For my part, I was of two minds. Given the cinnamon, kiln coffee malt, roast barley, Special W and Victory, my first option was a spiced winter ale — strong, dark, a touch sweet, and full-bodied. However, I could also see using Vienna malt, rye flakes and the Weissbier yeast to make a dry rye ale.

In the end, I decided to try to make the winter ale, envisioning a malt-driven barrel-aged full-bodied cinnamon-spiced beer, with hints of coffee, chocolate, some roastiness and a strength of about 6.5%.

I started to work on a recipe and discovered that although the Iron Brewer organizers had been extremely generous with the quantities of ingredients, they had neglected to give us any information about the malt analysis of each grain. (Usually a brewer likes to know how much sugar can be extracted from the grain, what the water content of the grain is and to what degree of colour the grain has been kilned, toasted or roasted.)

Luckily my ingredients had been given to me in the grain bag for the Canada Mailting Ontario Select. With the batch number from the grain bag in hand, I was able to contact Allison Nimik at Canada Malting and at least get the malt analysis of the Ontario Select. (For the record: 79.9% extract, 4.2% moisture, colour = 2.9 degrees Lovibond.)

For the other grains, I had to look on-line for average values and cross my fingers that they were representative.

In the end, since I had the most confidence about the values of the Ontario Select, I used it for 50% of the final grist bill. The other grains I used and their proportions were:

  • Munton’s Pale Ale (35%)
  • Briess Victory (5%)
  • Flaked roast barley (3%)
  • Kiln Coffee (3%)
  • Weyermann Special W (2%)
  • Dextra Pils (2%)

Since I wanted the cinnamon and barrel-aged characteristics to be the main drivers of flavour and aroma, I was very restrained with the hop additions, planning on a bitterness of only 25 IBUs. My plan was to add 4 grams of Target at the start of a 60-minute boil, then 15 grams of First Gold at 30 minutes, and finally 15 grams of U.K. Goldings with 10 minutes left, when I would also add half of the cinnamon (freshly ground) and the Whirlfloc.

Next up was where to brew it? I had been planning on using the pilot system at the Teaching Brewery, but the brewery was undergoing an expansion to triple its size. Luckily my friends at Black Oak agreed to let me use their small pilot system.


Vorlauffing the mash: Is that not a deeply sensual colour?

So, on August 12, I packed up my ingredients and headed over to Black Oak. And here’s what happened when I brewed the wort:

I brewed the wort.

No mistakes, no problems, no technical issues, no stuck lauter, no missing ingredients, no lack of hot water…

No, seriously, that’s a first. It was like building a piece of IKEA furniture and not having to go to IKEA to get one tiny little part that was missing in order to finish the project — it almost never happens, right?

After vorlauffing, sparging and boiling, I ended up with 20 litres of deep chestnut-coloured wort with an original gravity of 1.063 (15.8° Plato).

I transferred it to a 50-litre cornelius keg borrowed from fellow Brewmaster graduate Chris Marconi (now working at Trafalgar Brewing in Oakville), added the ale yeast and waited for the magic to happen.

Here’s where some problems started — and why brewmasters lie awake at night. I hoped the ale yeast would eat enough sugar to bring the gravity down to about 1.012 (3° Plato). The reality was that the ale yeast only took the gravity down to 1.020 (5° Plato) — and then stopped working.


There are several technical strategies I considered using, but in the end, I tried to rouse the somnolent yeast through the simple expedient of shaking the fermentor vigorously while yelling “WAKE UP, YOU LAZY FACULTATIVE ANAEROBIC GOOD FOR NOTHING LOSERS!” (This is a strategy you can use on a 50-litre keg, but is probably not a good plan for a 10-hectolitre fermentor. Well, I suppose you can still yell at the yeast.) I then moved the keg to a warmer room for a few days. It seems to have worked — after another week, the gravity was down to 1.016 (4° Plato), which I could live with. The difference between the original gravity of 1.063 and the final gravity of 1.016 represents an alcoholic strength of 6.1% abv.

I had been planning to add the other six sticks of cinnamon during maturation and aging, but frankly the cinnamon was already very well represented in aroma and taste, so I decided to hold off. I did hang that stick of toasted white ash in the fermentor for four days. (You can add it for up to four weeks, but I just wanted hints of caramel and vanilla from the wood, not the impression it had been sitting in a barrel for a year.)

Last week I packaged the finished beer in 650-mL (22-oz) bottles.

The tasting/judging is this Friday afternoon. My winter ale (currently without a name — suggestions welcome) will be up against creations by 14 of the best brewers in Ontario.

Fingers crossed…


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One Comment on “Brewing up an Iron Brew”

  1. Doug Steele Says:

    Mister Brown’s Ale for Christmas?

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