Today in review

Today marked the start of the 2-week Christmas break. I actually managed to get a few things done. First off, I came up with a temporary fix for the house’s grounding system, which faithful readers may recall was interrupted when we had our copper water main replaced with plastic. I realized that we had a copper line running underground from the well room to the old abandoned hand pump by the garage, so I bonded it to the copper water pipe just downstream of the pressure reducing valve. Not sure how good of a ground it is, but it’s definitely better than it was, and it buys me a little time to plan how to do it right.

Next up was the master bathroom sink, which had been out of commission for a couple months. My original attempt at snaking the drain was a rush job and did not work out too well. This time I took my time and pulled out a big plug of hair. Then I put the drain back together and poured several big buckets of hot water down to try to clean things out a bit. Not sure why this drain in particular has so much clogging trouble. I think for starters, I’ll get a strainer for it to keep hair out of it. Then I may see about rerouting the A/C condensate drain, which currently runs into the drain via the attic vent.

Also managed to bag up some leaves for yard waste pickup today. Leaf removal is running behind schedule due to inclement weather. At the rate I’m going, I may be putting leaves out all the way up to January 21, when the pickups end for the winter.

To do for the rest of the week: finish winterizing the tractor, clean the humidifier, caulk the sill plate in the back part of the basement, replace the toilet fill valve in the kids’ bathroom, and work on getting the master bedroom ready for painting.

Beer bottled

I managed to sneak a couple hours this afternoon and bottle the beer, in the hopes that it’ll be carbonated and ready to drink by Christmas Eve. That completes the batch, for better or for worse. Final gravity was around 1.020, so with an initial gravity of 1.070, that translates to about 7.5% alcohol by volume. Should be just the thing to prepare for the Church pageant. 🙂 Total bottle tally was: 21 × 22-ounce bottles and 12 × 12-ounce bottles, plus about 8 extra ounces which I dutifully consumed. It was quite good. Not sure what it is, but the beer always tastes better out of the bottle than out of the hydrometer flask.

Lesson learned for today: I forgot that it’s harder to siphon out of a carboy than a plastic bucket. You can’t reach into the carboy and control the depth of the hose. I lost my suction a couple times because of the hose’s tendency to coil up, and my inability to hold it where I needed it. Next time I will use a racking cane, which should make it a lot easier.

Tax Time Again

You know you’re a financial geek when you’re working on taxes a full 4 months before they’re due, and before the tax year in question has even ended. The People’s Republic of Maryland hasn’t even released its 2007 tax forms yet, so for now, I’m working on fed.

This year, for the first time, I’m taking the true hard-core accounting geek route of using a spreadsheet to do our taxes. It really hasn’t been that hard, and it allows me to play out some “what-if” scenarios that would be hard to do with canned tax software. When it comes time to file, I’ll use TaxACT for federal and Maryland’s iFile for state, both of which are free. When all is said and done, I’ll have a set of spreadsheets I can use every year with only (hopefully) small modifications. The spreadsheets will also help me do more accurate tax planning throughout the year.

Last year’s tax planning appears to have had the desired effect: It looks like we are going to owe money rather than getting a refund. I’ve set aside money to cover the taxes owed, and it’s been spending the year earning interest for us rather than Uncle Sam. We are actually going to owe a little bit more than what I had planned, because of Cathy’s extra income from child care. I think we’re still below the penalty threshold, but for 2008 I may want to increase my withholding just a tad.

Last week, H&R Block sent me a TaxCut 2007 CD in the mail. They want $40 for the “premium” product that includes state, but no free e-file. Unfortunately, TaxCut is not nearly the deal it was up till a couple years ago, when I last used it. Back in the day, it cost $20-$25 and included free federal e-file. When the price jumped last year, I switched to TaxACT and was pretty happy with it. I did notice that Block is now giving away their DeductionPro software, so I grabbed a copy to help tally up all of our non-cash donations.  The software still works OK, but the UI is not as nice as it was in past years (in particular, I couldn’t find a feature to search for an item).  I guess you get what you pay for.  In any case, I do applaud them for making this available for free, as it does save me some work.

Fast Fermentation

I racked the beer into my glass carboy this morning. Specific gravity was an amazingly low 1.025 (give or take a few thousandths), indicating that the beer is already almost finished fermenting. That was really fast, and it also may account for the lack of activity I noted in my post a couple days ago. However, I’m still not convinced that my bucket lid is airtight. I’m much more confident in the carboy, and the carboy is occasionally bubbling, but there’s definitely not much activity. At any rate, it looks like the beer will be ready to bottle before too long. My first good bottling opportunity is coming up in two weeks, on the weekend of the 22nd-23rd, when (by some miracle) we don’t seem to have anything else going on. Barring that, we’ll try to get it done the week after Christmas. With any luck, it’ll be carbonated and ready to drink around my birthday.

Taste-wise.. the sample was nice and smooth with the spices (orange, cloves and cinnamon) dominating the flavor. Strong but not overpowering alcohol taste, with just enough hop flavor to balance things out. Definitely tastes like it’s almost done.

Really happy with these results so far. I’m sure the starter culture contributed to the fast fermentation, so I’m going to try to do one for all of our future batches.

Fermenting away

The beer is fermenting away. I was a little concerned at first because there was no visible activity (bubbling airlock) after more than 48 hours. This seemed a little odd given that I had gone to all the trouble of making a starter, etc. Tonight I popped the lid off the bucket, and the beer was quite obviously fermenting. It turned out that the fermenter was not completely airtight. There was a leak around the little grommet that seals the airlock to the bucket lid. I fixed the grommet and put the lid back on, and the airlock is now bubbling about once per second.

All this reminds me why I’m not crazy about fermenting in plastic buckets. The lids are hard to seal and a pain to put on and take off, and you can’t observe the fermentation through the opaque plastic. If I decide to really get back into the homebrewing thing, I may need to break down and buy a 6.5 gallon glass carboy.

This weekend (or whenever the primary fermentation activity has died down) I’ll rack the beer into the 5 gallon carboy for secondary fermentation. I’ve been letting the beer ferment in the boiler room where it’s around 70°, and I’m inclined to leave it there until I rack the beer. At that point I might move it somewhere slightly cooler, say 65°. White labs recommends a temperature range of 65°-70° for this strain of yeast, so it’s in the range either way.

Brewing Notes

The brewing happened as planned today.  I had forgotten what a mess it makes.  No matter how neat you try to do it, the pot always finds a way to boil over and make a big, sticky mess on the stove.

Straining the beer from the kettle to the fermenter is also a challenge.  I think it must be the hops that clog things up so fast.  We used a handy funnel with built-in strainer, and it took several iterations of:  pour beer into funnel until strainer clogs up, stir up gunk in funnel until funnel slowly drains, repeat.  It’s definitely a two-person job, although I must say it does a fine job of aerating the wort in the process.

Starting gravity of this batch was roughly 1.070, which could be a pretty potent beer, depending on how completely all the stuff ferments out.  I think the starter culture was a good idea.

Stay tuned.

Starter culture

Did my starter culture yesterday (Friday) evening. I brought 1 quart of water to a boil and added ¼ cup Breiss “sparkling amber” dry malt extract, then boiled for 10 minutes. I then chilled the wort to around 78° and got my yeast out of the fridge. It was at that point that I realized I was supposed to let the yeast acclimate at room temperature for 3-6 hours before pitching. Oops. I transferred the wort to my 1 gallon jug and put the jug and the yeast vial in the boiler room, which is the warmest room of the house this time of year. I let the yeast acclimate for an hour and a half. By that time it was 11:30pm, so I went ahead and pitched. I figured what the heck, it’s just a starter culture, not 5 gallons of wort.

The next morning there were signs of fermentation, with the airlock bubbling about once every 20 seconds or so. This continued into the afternoon. By evening it had slowed down quite a bit. Could be that it’s already burned through all the sugars… ¼ cup isn’t very much.

At any rate, we’ll brew tomorrow afternoon and pitch it, and see how it goes.

If this batch goes well, I’m thinking about possibly trying a lager.  The Sun Porch should be at a good temperature for lagering this winter.  I’ve never done a lager before, so it might be fun.  My recipe book has some extract-based recipes for German Dark and Black lager styles, which sound yummy.