Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Home Brewing - I Need a Translator

There’s a reason why books like Brewing for Dummies exist – because people like me know nothing about brewing. We should have bought this book. Sure, I had a quick lesson in brewing during the Serious Beer course I took and we brewed a beer recently with our friend Simon, but that didn’t prepare us for all of the questions we’d have. Thankfully, I have a number of home brewer contacts, and Simon’s cell number, and could ask my dumb questions.

First off, brewing is intimidating. The home brewing scene in Vancouver is pretty mature and I clearly hang out with the wrong people as they’re all very experienced and talk absolute gibberish. I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about when they mention crystal (meth?), roach (more drugs), forcing carb (potato feast?), rousing (assuming this means waking something up), pitching two smack packs of 1056 (gee, drugs again?) and other technical garb. Hence, intimidated.

My husband and I talked about brewing for about a year, mostly because we’re into year two of growing hops, but we didn’t take the plunge. We finally decided that we should get in a couple of batches before our hops harvest so we don’t completely screw up a beer with our homegrown babies.

So off to Dan’s Home Brewing we go. However, on the way, we stopped in to see a friend and he lent us his home brewing equipment. Seriously. He hasn’t brewed in a couple of years and as he’s starting up his own brewery, he doesn’t expect to use his equipment anytime soon. How cool is he? We only had to buy minimal supplies at Dan’s and picked up our yeast, hops and malt.

We decided to make a simple (hahaha) malt extract pale ale as our first batch. We used Beersmith to get a recipe, the Cincinnati Pale Ale, and fired up the gas portable burner in the backyard. Keeping the dogs away from the burner was the most challenging part of this exercise – you just let it boil and do its thing. The dumb recipe didn’t tell us what temperature to keep the boil at so this started the winging-it portion of the brewing process. Boil, baby.

Chilling the wort with a 50' copper pipe

Things got more complicated at this point. We forgot to put the cheesecloth in the strainer when pouring the boiling pot into the bucket. Yeah, when we filled the carboy, she looked a little green. Luckily the hops settled at the bottom and it wasn’t an issue in the end.

Picking a pale ale probably wasn’t the best beer to brew in the middle of a heat wave as we had to keep it at 67° F. We live at sea level so there are no basements or crawl spaces in our hood. The carboy found a home for the next two weeks in the laundry tub in a bath of water and ice packs. Those ice packs were swapped out twice a day to try to keep the temperature at 67°. The digital thermometer in the water keep us informed of the temperature but it did fluctuate between 64° - 70°F. Hopefully that didn’t screw it up.

In da tub fermenting away

Luckily, another home brewer friend mentioned that we should put a towel over the carboy to keep the light out. You don’t want skunky light-struck beer. Crisis number two averted.

We bottled it on Aug 17th and almost screwed that up too. I tweeted about bottling and one of the responses I had was about the priming sugar. Ummm what? Yeah, had we actually read our brewing book, we might have figured this out. The book we have, How to Brew by John Palmer, is a great book but not one for first time brewers who don’t already know the process. So when we did look up bottling, “cool the sugar” isn’t descriptive enough for me. Cool to room temperature? Cool to fermentation temperature? I NEED DETAILS! We chose to cool to close to the fermentation temperature.

Transferring into the sugar/water concoction
Cleaning and sanitizing take up a lot of time during brewing, bottling and clean-up after each process. And you don’t want to slack off in this area or you could infect your beer and end up tossing it. Put on those rubber gloves and clean, clean, clean.

We tried our beer (as did Murphy), pre carbonated (that’s what the sugar was for!) and it tasted like beer. Phew. A very boring, low-hopped pale ale, but it was beer. Murphy’s Pale Ale is now bottled and is back in the laundry tub to stay at 65°F for up to a month. I think we need more fridges…

Murphy approved but then again, she eats grass

Will report back when we try the beer in a month. We plan on brewing a saison next, to take advantage of the hotter temperatures it needs to ferment.  I wonder what we’ll screw up this time. Brewing and screwing up seem to go hand-in-hand and is part of learning. I’m glad we have some brewer friends who gave advice and didn’t laugh at us. You home brewers that know what you’re doing are amazing and frighten me. One day I might understand your lingo.

1 comment:

  1. Way to take the plunge! Looks like you have all the right brewing equipment. When pouring the wort into the fermenter I typically use a fine mesh strainer in a dunnel, anything finer and it tends to clog up plus the mesh helps with aeration of the cold wort. Honestly, cheesecloth sounds like a pain to sanitize. I tend to disolve sugar in a bot of preboiled water, and pour into the pot before bottling occasionally dropping right in the bottles as I often forget this step too. Looks like you will have some good beer there!