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Crystal Clear 100% Wheat Beer? You Bet!

09/12/2018

Brew a bright, barleyless, 100% wheat beer!

by Roger Jones (Brewing Techniques)

If you are like many home brewers, you don’t like to be told you can’t do something. If you have a taste for wheat beer, you have probably been frustrated that you couldn’t brew an all-wheat, haze-free beer.

If you are set up for all-grain brewing, you can brew an all-wheat beer; and if you have a RIMS system, it will be haze-free. The trick: get your hands on some rice hulls

Sixteen years ago, I used a lot of rice hulls in a business I owned. When I got into home brewing years later, I learned of the function barley husks served in forming a filter bed, making it possible to mash the grain and separate out the sweet, fermentable liquid.

But what do you do if the grain you want to use doesn’t have a husk? The traditional solution has been to use a percentage of the huskless grain in your grain bill, with malted barley rounding out the rest.

Every time I brewed a wheat beer I would think of rice hulls and say, “Rice hulls would work. I could make a 100% wheat beer.” I just never did it, at least not until last October.

People who are unfamiliar with rice hulls might be concerned that while mashing and sparging you would extract tannins and off-flavors. But rice hulls are very hard and have a high silica content. They’re so hard you can’t even burn them. You might scorch them, but you won’t burn them.

FIRST EXPERIMENTAL 100% WHEAT BREW

On 14 October 1994, I decided to quit saying that I could make an all-wheat beer and resolved to do it. I got 9 lb of malted wheat, ¾ oz of 4% Hallertauer Hersbrucker pellets, 2 cups of Wyeast Bavarian lager #2206 yeast, ¼ tsp Irish moss, a little lactic acid, 1 gal of rice hulls, and 1 cup of corn sugar for priming, then fired up my RIMS system.

I ground the wheat once in a roller mill at a typical two-row barley setting. The next order of business was to clean the rice hulls. In my previous use of rice hulls, I hadn’t worried about their cleanliness. This time, when I inspected them for mashing I realized they were really rather dusty.

I ended up putting the hulls in a plastic grocery bag, adding water, and rinsed, poking about 40 holes in the bottom of the bag with a nail and draining off the water. I repeated this process two more times and judged the hulls clean enough to proceed.

The next step was to mix the rice hulls and the ground wheat, so I obtained a plastic bucket, put in about 1 lb of wheat with a handful of cleaned rice hulls, and mixed. I repeated this process until the gallon of damp rice hulls was thoroughly mixed with the 9 lb of ground malted wheat.

Frankly, it did not look like my mixture contained enough rice hulls to form a filter bed. The rice hulls were damp, and the ground wheat was dry, so the combination did not look like there were as many hulls as you would see in an all-barley grain bill. I was surprised when I threw away the spent grain at the end of the sparge. At that point, the mixture appeared to have twice as many hulls per pound of grain as an all-barley mash.

I had concerns about the fermentation of a 100% wheat wort, so I planned a 45-min protein rest at 122 °F (50 °C) using 1 qt water per pound of wheat. I put the mash water in my mash tun, started circulation, and began adding the wheat–rice hull mixture. I had a very stiff mash after all of the grain was added and was concerned that I would have a stuck mash when the wheat fully absorbed the water.

Fortunately I had heated an extra ½ gal of water for strike-in, so I hastily added that water. In retrospect, it appears that a quart would have been sufficient.

Throughout the protein rest I circulated the liquid. I did this because I still had concerns about a stuck mash. With the correct percentage of rice hulls, the chance of a stuck mash is no greater than with an all-barley grain bill — even without a RIMS system — but it’s a little tough to convince yourself of that when you’re doing something that every book you have ever read said could not be done.

I adjusted the pH to 5.4 with lactic-acid 15 min into the protein rest.

At the end of the protein rest, I raised the temperature to 155 °F (68 °C) by adding ½ gal of boiling water and using the heating element of my RIMS system. My temperature calculations were off because of the excessive amount of rice hulls I initially added to the wheat and the extra ½ gal of water added at strike-in.

I maintained the mash temperature of 155 °F (68 °C) at full circulation for 45 min, in spite of the fact that an iodine test showed full starch conversion after 15 min. Long before the 45 min had passed, my circulating wort appeared pale and crystal clear.

With all the improvising of my calculations, I overlooked a need for extra sparge water. While sparging with 168 °F (76 °C) water, I ran out of enough water before getting the full 6½ gal of wort I like for a 90-min vigorous boil.

Because I ran out of sparge water and hastily added another gallon, a gallon of cloudy wort ended up in my brew kettle. Although my bottles contain a little more sediment than I would like, the finished product does not show any adverse effects in either appearance or taste.

I had planned a 90-min boil, but it was after midnight on a weeknight so I cut the boil down to 75 min. At 40 min left in the boil, I added my hop pellets, and with 15 min remaining, I added the Irish moss.

The hot break was fine, and I cooled with an immersion cooler in the brew kettle. When the wort cooled to 78 °F (26 °C), I had a good cold break and racked and aerated into a 6½-gal glass carboy with about 2 cups of Wyeast Bavarian lager yeast #2206 from some Munich Dunkel I had just racked into a secondary fermentor. After temperature correction, I had 5¼ gal of pitched wort at 1.043. By the time I got the carboy in my freezer set at 48 °F (9 °C), it was 2:30 a.m.

RESULTS

Despite the improvisation required in the mashing and sparging, when I finally got to bed I felt pretty good about my brewing session. When my alarm went off the next morning, my first thought was to call in sick. My second thought was whether I would have good fermentation with an all-wheat wort.

It was 6:00 a.m. when I walked to my freezer. What is it Charlie is always saying? “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew.” Well, I worried, did not have a homebrew, and opened the freezer. My wort had a 2-in. head, and the air lock was roaring. Then I relaxed.

When I bottled on 29 October 1994 with 1 cup of corn sugar in 1 pint of water, the corrected specific gravity of my beer was 1.011. I tell myself that I just got busy with nonbeer things and didn’t rack to a secondary fermentor. I don’t really believe that. I think staying up and brewing until three in the morning just took it out of me.

By November 4th, I became anxious and opened the first 100% wheat beer I had ever opened in my life. It wasn’t fully carbonated, but it was virtually crystal clear and about the color of Pilsner Urquell.

My hopping rate gave me a beer with a bitterness rating of 11 IBUs. I think the taste is splendid, without a hint of astringency. Although I like the taste of a traditional, German-style Weizen, the clean lager character and low bitterness make it a very refreshing session beer. I intend to enter it in some competitions as an American-style ale, American Wheat.

TIPS FOR THE ADVENTUROUS

What special tips do I have for those who want to try the rice hull method? Use a nylon grain steeping bag to clean your rice hulls. Put the hulls in your bag, take it outside, shake vigorously, and rinse the hulls two or three times.

In a subsequent 10-gal batch, I used 5 qt of rice hulls with 18 lb of malted wheat and had no trouble at all. For 5-gal batches, I recommend having 1 gal of cleaned rice hulls ready, but use only 3 qt initially; you will have some left in case you run into trouble, but my guess is that 2½ qt is sufficient with most equipment and brewing methods.

I suggest that after you determine the quantity of rice hulls to use with your equipment you add the dry weight of the hulls to the weight of your grain to calculate your water requirements for each step of the mashing and sparging process. Until you work out your exact rice-hull brewing technique, I recommend preparing an extra 2 gal of water at every step. You don’t have to use all the water.

Does this rice hull method have other brewing applications? Sure. I intend to add 1–2 qt to a 15-gal batch of American Pale Ale. This will increase my equipment’s capacity, and avoid the runoff from becoming stuck as a result of compaction of the grain bed.

And who says you can’t use a porter, bitter, or Bock recipe, simply substituting malted wheat and rice hulls for pale barley malt? You won’t end up with a porter, or a bitter, or a Bock, but what the heck — you’re a home brewer. You can do what you want. In fact, you can brew what the commercial breweries can’t: a 100% wheat beer!

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