Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I feel flinty.

So let me tell you about where I'm at with the whole brewing-as-creative-outlet thing.

A couple of months ago (and you'll forgive me, please, if I repeat myself--it's been awhile since I've written here) I bought two brewing books, Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels (the former Zymurgy editor and frequent For Geeks Only columnist), and Beer Captured by Tess and Mark Szamatulski, owners of the Maltose Express brewing supply store in Monroe, CT. I thought of these books, not-so-secretly, as Brewing for Poets Who Always Liked Chemistry and Brewing for Lazy Asses, respectively. I thought I knew where I'd shake out. I thought wrong.

Designing Great Beers is a beautiful book in theory, with the first half given over to chapter-length discussions of the basic elements of beer, and the second to detailed profiles of different styles of beer, from bock to bitters. The idea is that with a solid understanding of the elements and how they interact, and a clear picture in your mouth of the characteristics of the beer your wish to create, you don't need to rely on recipes.

My problem with Daniels, as it turns out, is one of intellectual orientation. Basically, he is a judge at the Westminster Dog Show and I am a girl who likes mutts. Or rather, I may happen to like a Weimaraner or an Apricot Poodle, but then mostly for reasons that transcend their adherence to breed standards. Daniels--who, to be fair, wrote this book as a distillation of what he learned from a formal diploma course in brewing, and often does serve as that judge at the Westminsters of the craft beer world--cares a lot not just about water quality (as in: what do I need to add to my tap water to most closely approximate the mineral profile in Burton-on-Trent?), but also about precise calculations of target gravity (chapter 6), Maillard browning reactions and Factors That Can Reduce Color Formation in Pale Beers (chapter 7), and Hop Varieties That Show Changes in Hop Aroma Potential During Aging (chapter 10). It's not that I don't care about these things so much as that I keep breaking my hydrometer and/or forgetting to take a reading on brew day, you know? And when it comes right down to it, how much more do I need to know about the alcohol content of my brews beyond what a sip or th'usband will tell me, i.e. that's a boozy one or a little anemic, hmm?

Anyhow, it turns out that I'm using Designing Great Brews mostly for reference, while my real go-to these past months has been Beer Captured, with its 150 good-to-go recipes that closely cop the moves and mojo of well-known craft beers. The truth is, I don't brew beer out of a burning desire to express the heretofore unexpressed. I just like the process, the smells and the stages and the suspense of that first taste. I like it when friends stop by for a pint and I like having one myself whenever I feel like it. It all makes me feel flinty and resourceful, like a pioneer. It is low-tech and elemental. If the world blows up and I survive it, I may not be able to help the next generation build a toaster, but I will see to it that there is beer.

I am still skill-building, though. These past 4 brews, I've paid particular attention to getting the full benefit from the grains I use in addition to malt extracts in the basic wort. I've been heating a gallon or so of water in a smaller pot on the side, and making sure that the grains spend at least 30 minutes steeping ("mashing") at 150 degrees before straining this water into my brew pot and rinsing ("sparging") the grain with enough 170 degree water to bring the total volume up to the standard 2.5-3 gallon range I use for brewing an eventual 5-gallon batch. This liquid smells nutty and has the rich color of sun tea before I even add in the DME (dried malt extract).

I'm also getting comfortable with improvising. I wound up buying a whole pound of this and two pounds of that on my last stock-up run because I didn't want to wait around for pre-measured kits to be made on my behalf. And due to the aforementioned hop shortage, I came home with what was available, as opposed to what each recipe might have specified. On brew days, I've bumped up or substituted quantities of malt or hops as whim or necessity dictated, and have found that I am as comfortable doing so as I am when cooking. I think that means that I've gotten the hang of it.

And finally, I'm trying new varieties of yeasts that have forced me to try new approaches. Daniels' book confirms that while packets of dry yeast typically yield bigger colonies of yeast cells than the liquid suspensions do, these aren't available in as many varieties. (I just saw that I even could have used NBB's proprietary yeast strain for my recent Fat Tire cloning attempt--dang it!) I got my first Wyeast smackpack when I brewed my Saison d'Etre last summer, and continue to be struck with each batch at how very differently yeasts behave, so I guess I just want to try as many kinds as possible. I've also started filling up Tupperwares with the magical sludge ("trub") left after primary fermentation and storing these in the fridge. What trub amounts to is a lot of fat, sleepy yeast cells that drifted to the bottom of the bucket when exhausted from their orgy of eating sugar and pooping CO2 and alcohol and reproducing like a bunch of drunk bunnies. They're sleepy but they're not dead.

Motivated again by a necessary substitution--I could only get the yeast I needed for a British pale ale recipe in a mini "propegator" pack instead of the full-sized "activator" pack--I made a starter today by boiling about 100 g of malt extract in a liter of water. After it cooled, I poured it into a sanitized growler (read that link--it's cool) and added the yeast. It's fermenting away on the kitchen counter, judging from the bready smell that's filling the apartment, and by tomorrow the colony should have grown enough that I can pitch it into my next brew. I consulted with BrewUnc #1 today, who assured me that I could make a starter from my sludge samples in just the same way. That's how breweries develop and maintain their own signature strains, and it's another very cool and elemental thing to love about brewing. I'll let you know how it goes.

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