Sunday, October 28, 2007

Brew day walk through

On Tuesday, I came home from work to find the smack pack of yeast I'd whacked on Sunday finally swollen to the requisite 2 or so inches, thick enough for the pouch to stand on its own. I haven't been working with liquid yeast for very long and my impression of it is that it's a little fussier and more fragile than dry yeast is--I'd probably still be choosing dry if it were as readily available in specialty varieties like the Belgian Ale yeast that this recipe requires--so I figured I'd brew right away rather than try to put it on hold in the refrigerator. I also figured this would be a good time to find out exactly how long the brew process takes. I estimated 3 hours, but called it about an hour and a half short. Then again, in an effort to continue improving beer quality with each successive batch, I spelled out a couple of steps that I'd abbreviated for many of my previous batches.

I have been brewing for about 8 months now at the rate of 2 or 3 batches a month until the recent career-induced slowdown, and have grown impatient with the kinds of kits that are available at homebrew supply shops. Some are definitely better than others; the good ones identify the hops, malts, and additives that go in at each stage of the boil, and although they rely on dried extracts for most of the malt sugars, they include specialty malts in the form of cracked grains that get soaked in the brewing water prior to the boil. That makes them "partial mash" recipes, and I've learned a lot about what contributes to the flavor profile of a given beer by paying close attention to those ingredients.

You can make very good beer from kits; and because of the exploding interest in brewing and consuming craftbeers, you can probably find a kit to approximate pretty much any beer you've ever heard of. But for me, there are a couple of problems with them. First of all, the whole DIY premise that underpins the hobby seems a bit shaky if someone else is doing all or most of the thinking for you. It's not that the not-so-great kits don't make fine beer--it's just that they have a nasty habit of packaging everything in unmarked foil bags so that when someone raves over your beer you are about as knowledgeable about what's in it as in that cake you made from a mix and frosted from a can. Second, I have the nasty habit of comparing myself to the kind of folks who contribute thousands of posts a year to their favorite brewing community: I don't actually want to be so obsessed with achieving the optimal fermenting temperature that I set up a mini AC system in my closet on brew day, and we'd have a rough time finding room in a New York apartment for the equipment that a truly "from scratch" all-grain operation would require, but secretly I am a bit of a geek. I want to ponder the nose and the optimum timing of the aroma hops, calculate the bitterness and characterize the hue of my finished beer; I want to lower my eyelids and smile modestly when that someone raves about my beer. I want to be able to give it a name, and in order to do that, it has to be mine first.

So I've begun the process of making my beer my own by moving into recipes found in Zymurgy or online and tweaking them ever-so-slightly with the addition of chocolate malt (as in the case of the stout currently on tap) or grains of paradise (as in the current batch I'm about to describe). I'm also trying to improve my technique, whether by adding a second fermenting vessel where the beer can hang out a little longer and clarify, or by adding in a mash phase on brew day, as I did this time.

Here's how brew night proceeded: at 9 p.m., I filled my 5 gallon brew pot about half way up with water and put it on the stove. (Geek option #1: you can get pH testing strips and a set of four chemicals and knock yourself out trying to approximate the well water favored by an ancient brew house. Brooklyn water is fine with me). While it was heating, I snipped open the bags of malted grains--in this case, 2 lbs. of Pilsner, 1 lb. of Cara-pils, 1/2 lb. of Belgian Aromatic, and 1/4 lb. Light Crystal--and poured them into two large muslin bags, knotting off the ends when filled. Malt is grain (usually barley) that was moistened so that it would germinate and the conversion of starch to sugar would begin. Before the seeds could actually sprout, the water was drained off and the barley was heated to dry and toast it. Light beers are made from lightly toasted malts that taste "biscuity," or more or less like grape nuts when you eat them raw; dark beers are made from super heated and caramelized grains that can taste like rich, bittersweet chocolate, caramel, or coffee. In an ideal all-grain world, you'd get all your malt sugars from these grains, crushing and breaking them first, then "mashing" them in a big vat of water maintained at about 150 degrees for an hour or more before "sparging" them with even hotter rinse water to extract every last bit of sweetness from them. Then you'd take the spent malt outside and feet it to your livestock, which would look adoringly at you and reward you with sweet butter and happy-tasting eggs.

Lacking the big huge mash vessel ('tun') and the barnyard, I just put these big muslin tea bags into the 150 degree water and let them soak there for about 30 minutes. I did get fancy and scoop out a 4 quart pot's worth of water, which I heated just short of boiling and used to sparge the bags as I lifted them out of the brew pot. These weighed considerably more than 3.75 lbs. following their soak, and the fact that my efforts to hold them with tongs while I poured scalding water over them didn't land me in a burn unit is something of a miracle. In the past I've just dumped these in at the same time as the malt extract and removed them when the water reached a boil, but higher temperatures can apparently cause bitterness or other off flavors. We'll see if this added step makes a discernible difference in the finished product.

Next came the extract sugars. I turned off the heat under my pot for just a minute to add them in and get them dissolved before bringing the water to a boil and throwing in the first addition of hops, which at this stage of the process add the bitter element that will balance the beer's sweetness. This recipe actually included 3 different kinds of sugar--4 if you make a distinction between the powdered and liquid malt extracts--and I'm hoping that these will add depth of flavor as well as boozy heft to the beer. These sugars are pictured along with a pound of Belgian candi (a.k.a. rock) sugar, a pound of honey, and an ounce each of Cascade and Hillertau Milfreu pellet hops.

After the future beer ("wort") had boiled for 30 minutes, I added a half ounce of Fuggle hops, which will have more of a flavoring effect due to their abbreviated brew time. At 45 minutes, I added some grains of paradise and sweet orange peel. I also put the strainer I'd need in the next step into the pot to boil and sterilize. At 55 minutes, I threw in a Whirlfloc tablet to help clarify the beer (the recipe called for Irish moss, but I've heard that Whirlfloc is more effective) and Czech Saaz hops to give the beer its bouquet. After an hour, I took the pot off the heat and transferred it to a sink of ice water.

I'd already sanitized the pot lid in the iodine solution I was using to prepare the fermenting bucket and a couple of other tools. This went on to the pot at this point to protect the cooling wort from airborne yeasts that could otherwise colonize it. (Note that the Belgian monks who invented the type of beer I was essentially trying to copy relied on wild yeasts alone, but while I'll vouch for Brooklyn water, I'm less sure about the quality of Brooklyn yeast.) For the same reason that you don't want to allow enough time for anything to grow in your nicely sterile pot of boiled wort, you want to cool it as quickly as possible (Geek option #2: you can buy or create a chilling system using a series of chest-sized coolers).

After about 40 minutes, when the wort was cool enough for me to touch (Geek option #3: you probably should use a thermometer a bit more assiduously than I do, but I've baked a lot of bread and know what temperatures make yeast happy), I strained it into my fermenting bucket. With the exception of the bittering hops that went in at the beginning of the boil, I didn't use little mesh bags for my hops this time, which was a mistake considering how messy and slow it made the straining process. I then topped off the wort with enough tap water (which comes pre-sanitized by the city of New York) to make 5 gallons, and would have gone so far as to measure the amount of suspended matter with a hydrometer at this point (so that I could have participated in Geek option #4, which is to compare this figure with the amount of suspended matter left after the yeast has fermented away all the sugar and calculate the percentage of alcohol from this difference) except that I'd managed to break my hydrometer on the counter while struggling to shift and strain the pot. Oh, well.

The last step was to snip open the bag of yeast, pour it in, snap on the lid and fill the attached airlock with enough water to make the little inner cap float. It was by this time about 1:30 in the morning, so I left the whole business in the sink and flopped into bed. In the morning, I tested the lid and saw that pressure was building, and by the time I came home from work that night, the air lock was bubbling and heaving like a lung. My beer was alive and well, and the primary fermenting stage had begun.

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