Saturday, March 17, 2007

Batch 1: Brewing Basics

Hallelujah! Just had a quick taste and I haven't ruined batch #1. Let me explain:

By all accounts, beer making is a forgiving process. And that makes sense: people brewed beer for centuries because all the boiling made dubious water fit to drink. Around the 12th century, says BrewUnc #1 (who just happens to be a medievalist), brewers around Frankfurt began substituting hops--first described in this employ by Hildegard von Bingen (love her!) I think--for the fennel, juniper, and other herbs commonly used to disguise off tastes, and got themselves a natural preservative to boot. There aren't a lot of beasties that can live in alcohol anyhow.

So why was I worried? Well, after the cooking stage I'd transferred my first 5 gallon batch of Belgian, Westmalle Dubbel-style ale--a purportedly chewy, malty brew that has a nice coffee aroma when kegged--into an obsessively sanitized fermenting bucket equipped with a nifty, Vinty-style airlock. I'd been told to relax repeatedly by BrewUnc#1 during the course of a telephonic play-by-play, and called him back just 3 or 4 hours later, ecstatic to report the CO2 bubbles that were making the airlock's inner, floating cap tick like a metronome. I worried again the next day when those bubbles slowed, then stopped. The husband had opened the window and the temperature in our living room where my beer was fermenting had dropped a good 10 degrees--potentially causing a catastrophic yeast die-off, I figured. "Nope," said BrewUnc#1. "That just means the main fermentation stage is over. What happens when you put a little pressure on the lid?" It burped a bubble into the airlock like Tupperware. "You've forgotten the mantra again," he told me. "Relax, have a homebrew." Easy for him to say. He had two finished batches on tap to choose from.

For the next ten days as my beer clarified and matured, I relaxed. I really did. So much so that when it came time to keg it and put it under pressure for a final aging period, I didn't consult the directions, the BrewUncs, Charlie Papazian, or Jess, the kindly sage at Alternative Beverage: I just poured in a little of the priming sugar and...uh oh. Potentially contaminated my beer. You're supposed to boil it for about 5 minutes first, both to dissolve and pasteurize it. (The addition of priming sugar to bottles just before they are sealed is what carbonates them; the real kicker was that this step is optional when your kegerator has a CO2 tank.) All the aforementioned sources told me that it would probably be OK, unless of course it wasn't, in which case no one would die anyhow because the beer would be completely, unmistakably undrinkable.

...Which brings us at last to the hallelujah part. Jess told me to wait until the weekend, then have a taste. I drew off a glass last night as I was cooking. It had a thick, cream-colored head (the priming sugar is doing its magic!), a fair amount of sediment that will get tossed out with the first couple of glasses when we tap it in earnest next weekend, and a complex caramel-y flavor. No skunk taste. No beasties.

Piece of cake.

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