The Beer Watcher: Brewing, part 1

It’s been a pretty darn busy week around here for me with work, but I made some room last night and this morning to write the next entry of my “beer watcher” activities of the previous weekend.

Bill and I were joined for “brewing, part 1” by Steve B., who was MIA last weekend, dealing with family visitors, etc. Actually, I was a little late on Sunday, so by the time I showed up, Steve B. and Bill were heating up the water for what would be the “pre-beer” or “wort.”

Here’s the recipe for what we were making:

Trout River IPA

(A recipe that comes straight from the “Things Beer” folks)
7.5 lbs Muntons light extract syrup
1/2 lb Crystal malt
1/2 lb Aromatic malt
1/2 lb Carapils
2/3 oz Centennial hop pellets
1.25 oz Centennial hop pellets
1.25 oz Centennial hop pellets
1 oz. Centennial whole hops
1 tsp Irish Moss
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale)
2 grain bags
3/4 cup priming sugar and caps

Steep speailty grains in 3 gallons of water at 150 degrees for 45 min. Remove grains, add 7.5 lbs Muntons light extract syrup.

Bring to a boil for 30 minutes, then add the 2/3 oz of hops. Boil 40 min and add 1.25 oz of hops and Irish Moss. Boil 15 min., add 1.25 oz of hops. Boil 5 minutes. Cool to 70 degrees. Transfer to fermenting vessel with yeast. Fement at 68 degrees until complete (7-10 days). Transer to secondary with 1 oz of whole hops. Hold one week, rack into bottels with corn sugar. Age for a few weeks.

So, here’s what happened:

First off, before either Steve B. or I arrived, Bill made a point of sanitizing everything– the pot we were cooking in, the spoon for stirring, the bucket where we’d store the beer, etc., etc. I haven’t spent much (well, any) time reading home brewing books, but Bill claims (and I believe) that a big deal is made out of sanitation.

After we got the water up to 150 degrees (which amounted to standing around and waiting for the thermometer in the water to reach 150), Bill added the grain bag, as seen here:

beer #1

Inexplicably, Steve B. looks pretty pissed.

Here’s a close-up of the grain sack:

beer #2

The comparison between brewing beer and making a big cup of tea is probably pretty clear.

Then, after this stuff steeped for a while (again, like tea), Bill added the malt, as seen here:

beer #3

This was an interesting part of the process for a couple of reasons. First off, the malt is essentially a big ol’ tub of syrup, which, as Bill is fond of pointing out, is why beer is fattening. Second, this is the most potentially problematic stage of the cooking process because if you’re not careful, this sweet gooey stew can boil over, and if it does boil over, you have a big-ass mess on your hands. That didn’t happen.

I was talking about the whole home-brewing thing with my father last weekend– I recall that he went through a stage at one point in my youth where he made some pretty bad home-made wine. He said he never did home-brewing because he heard cooking the stuff stank up the kitchen. Well, based on my very limited experience, I don’t think that’s true. But Bill kept telling Steve B. and I that it smelled like a “malted milk ball shake” at this stage. I don’t think that’s true either. Basically, to me it smelled like cooking beer, like cooking up a batch of raw brats in a broth of a couple of cheap beers and some chopped onions (well, minus the onion and meat smell). This doesn’t smell great, but I’ve cooked stuff a lot more stinky than that in my kitchen.

Anyway, in the course of the cooking process here, we added hops and (of all things!) Irish Moss to the pot.

beer #4

This is when you really start getting a very pleasant (depending on your opinion of the smell of beer in the first place) beer smell happening. I’d go on into more detail of the cooking, but there’s not much to tell. Hops and/or moss were dumped in, it was stirred, a timer was set, and we sat around and watched football until the next step. In other words, as long as the previously mentioned dreaded boil-over was avoided, much of the brewing process seemed to be standing/sitting around. Kind of like many other manly activities, like watching sports or ice fishing or drinking, or, if you’re lucky, doing all three at the same time.

Anyway, after the cooking, the next process was cooling the wort down from a boil to 70 or so degrees, something you want to do as quickly as possible to avoid contamination. Alton Brown had an episode of “Good Eats” where he accomplished this by adding ice to the mix, but Bill thought that was a bad idea for cleanliness reasons. I’m not sure who is right, frankly. What we did is put the pot into an ice bath in the sink:

beer #5

Seven pounds of ice wasn’t quite enough– we had to collect some snow.

Once everything was cooled down, it was time to pour the wort into the fermenter bucket, as Steve B. is doing here.

beer #6

The next step here is to add (or, in brewer lingo, “pitch”) the yeast, which is what changes this mess of steeped grain and malt into “beer.” And this is where we experienced the afternoon’s only “oh shit” moment. Apparently, Bill had not properly activitated the yeast a few hours before. Because the window of opportunity here is not large (though it isn’t that small, either), there was some concern that we’d have to dump not yet activated yeast into the fermenter with the wort and we’d simply have a 5 gallon bucket of crap.

We decided to wait around a bit to give the yeast to activate a bit, and while I had to leave before Bill and Steve B. actually pitched the yeast, I’m happy to report here that Bill says that all signals are positive. The fermenter is parked in Bill’s basement with an airlock in the top– a little do-hickey that allows gases out of the bucket but does not allow air (and potential contaminants) back in– and it’s bubbling away just like it should. In a week or two, Bill will transfer the beer into a different container (he’ll do this by himself– hopefully, I can get him to take some pictures to include here). A week or two after that, we’ll bottle; and a week or two after that, we’ll drink.

So, am I sold on the home brewing experience now? Well, I’m still on the fence, actually. On the one hand, it is clearly not rocket science; in fact, other than the fact that the whole process is spread over several hours and there are specific times in which you have to add specific ingredients, it’s not a whole lot more difficult than heating water and keeping it at a specific temperature.

On the other hand, it still seems a kind of pain in the ass. Sure, there is (and certainly will be when we’re all done here) a certain satisfaction in making your own beer, just as there is satisfaction in baking your own cake or your own bread. But they also sell those products in stores, and in the case of both cake and bread, I can buy much better versions than I can make myself, and it’s a lot less work to give someone money. So we’ll see.

By the way, the name that we’re playing with for the beer now is “Three Asses Pale Ale,” though I thought it might make more sense to suggest “Three Pale Asses Ale.” Bill was thinking of a label based on the five-assed monkey made by Dr. Mephisto on South Park. I can’t imagine something that says fine, drinkable beer better than references to asses.

5 thoughts on “The Beer Watcher: Brewing, part 1”

  1. This is great. I want a sample of this stuff when it’s ready.

    PS Don’t fuck with Benninghoff

    PPS I don’t believe that the green stuff in the baggies is Irish Moss…

  2. Just a public update from the brewmeister…

    Not only is our beer alive (quite literally) and doing well, but my basement is smelling positively hoppy and yeasty. Quite pleasant. Now, this didn’t happen last time I made a batch. That one seemed to have a bit more laid-back fermentation style. So I have to think that we are in for quite a nice experience from our vigorous little brew.

    At racking time, we get to taste to make sure that the wort wasn’t contaminated. That’s in another week and a half or so. I’ll check back in then.

  3. just skimming the critiques of AB’s recipe on the FoodTV page (link in Steve’s post)…and they raise all the same issues I did and a few more besides with his method. Ice is potentially a contaminant, boiling grains releases tannic acid you don’t want in the beer and NOT boiling the hops fails to release tannic acids you DO want in the beer, etc. The only thing I would add, and this is less a necessity than a matter of aesthetics, is that AB strains the wort when it goes into the primary fermenter and bottles right from the primary. I think it is better to leave the particulates in during primary fermenting – more hoppy flavors that way – then rack to a secondary fermenter and again to a bottling bucket to clarify. This way, you don’t sacrifice flavor for clarity….but that’s a couple of extra steps and two extra buckets (and/or a carboy), so I can understand why he showed a single bucket method for a half-hour show

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