Adventures in Brewing, Part II

(This is the second in a three part series. Part I.)

I got into brewing this past fall. It seemed inevitable for most of the year, but it was only in September that I finally committed to making my first batch. I bought some gear, did some reading, and made some beer. And then I did it again a few more times for good measure.

If you missed the first part, you’ll likely find it helpful to brush up on the basics because I’m going to skip defining various terms here. Here is what I’ve learned over the course of making four batches (so far).

* Using How to Brew as a guide, I took a few evenings to put together a fairly extensive checklist of all the steps I would run through while brewing. This had the advantage of sorting out in advance any questions that might come up along the way; it took some extra time, but now every time I brew I have a fairly comprehensive to-do list I can follow. I’m relying on it less and less, but for the first few batches it proved invaluable to have something I can reference and adjust as I learn. I’ll post this as the final part of the series soon.

* For my first brew day I planned to start on a Sunday afternoon, giving myself as much time as possible. Good thing too since it took about 6hrs from start to finish including initial sanitation and final cleanup. I’ve since brewed over the course of an evening but it does tend to eat a lot of time.

* Cleaning is the most time-consuming part. Brewing is about 25% making something and 75% doing dishes.

* Even as an extract brewer you can use specialty grain. Some recipes will call for malts that you can’t buy in extract form. No problem; buy the grain and throw it in a muslin bag. Before adding extract, get your brew water up to 71C / 160 F, and dunk the bag. Swirl it around every five minutes or so over the course of a half hour. Remove the bag and give it a squeeze, toss the spent grain, bring the water up to a boil and brew as normal.

* A double IPA is a poor choice of beer to select as your first. In fact, any sort of challenging beer likely is. No matter how prepared you are, and I was, you really need to get a feel for the process before branching out. I’d recommending sticking with a relatively unchallenging pale ale.

* During the boil, sticking a lid on the pot is a bad idea. You can get the boil rolling more vigorously, which is a good thing, but the increased heat makes the wort far more likely to boil over. You don’t want boiling sugar water on your stove and floor, you really don’t. And apparently the water vapour carries off some of the harsher compounds from the malt too.

* A pot of boiling sugar water is a dangerous thing to carry around. Moving from the stove to the sink or tub or wherever you’re going to chill it should be done extremely carefully. Plan ahead, think about the consequences of spilling a few gallons of boiling water, and make sure you have a way to do it safely.

* A regular electric stove is a terrible burner for a brew kettle. Those blessed with gas stoves will have a far easier time of getting their water boiling to a proper degree. Me, I’m stuck considering alternative ways to get a few gallons of water boiling in a reasonable amount of time, because the hour and more it currently takes is painful.

* Whether heating or chilling, a large volume of water takes a lot of time to change temperature. The quicker you can boil, the more time you save brewing. The quicker you can chill, the clearer your beer. Neither is easy.

* Chilling the wort quickly post-boil can be done with a lot of ice. If you don’t have a lot of ice trays, next best thing is a bunch of cheap ice packs from the dollar store. I’ve taken to putting a towel on the drain in the sink and letting the water slowly trickle out as I re-fill with cold tap water. While carefully stirring to avoid introducing contaminants, I’m able to get the wort down to 20 C or less in a half hour.

* It’s important to aerate the wort before pitching yeast. I just slosh the wort around as I pour, then shake the fermentor immediately afterwards. Both risk introducing wild yeast and bacteria from the air, but short of a filtered oxygen pump it’s the best I can do.

* Pitching yeast can be easy. You rip the top off a packet of dry yeast, dump it in, and you’re done. Or you can do it the hard way and buy a liquid starter, pitch it to a starter wort a few days ahead of time and let it build up that way. The latter will likely produce better beer, but obviously takes more time. The middle ground is buying a larger liquid culture. A bit more expensive, but it’s just about as easy as the dry yeast.

* No matter which yeast you’re using, read the instructions. Some people will tell you not to follow the instructions on the yeast package. Don’t listen to those people.

* On a recent batch I way under pitched, freaked out, and tried a few things to correct that didn’t at all work. The beer turned out fine anyway, though differently than I had intended. Yeast is adaptable that way.

* That said, over-pitching is far better than under-pitching. There are yeast calculators online that will tell you just how many billion cells of yeast you need for your batch. When you don’t have enough the yeast have to multiply before they can ferment, and that produces harsher flavours.

* One of the most important things you can do to improve the quality of your beer is control the temperature at which you ferment. My first batch was done in the early fall at ambient room temperature, around 24 C. There was a sweet yeasty off-flavour that I’ve experienced while sampling other home brews. For my follow-up batches I kept the temperature at a cooler 19 C which made for far better beer.

* It’s easy to look at the temperature issue and assume you don’t have the ability to control it, especially in a Vancouver apartment. In my tiny space I don’t have the option of keeping my fermenter in a cold basement or spare fridge. However, dropping it into a larger plastic tub of water increases the thermal mass so that temperatures stay more consistent, and by dropping in ice packs every six hours or so I can chill the fermenter a good 6 or 7 degrees below the ambient temperature.

* A lot of yeast plus a too-warm fermentation temperature is going to mean big problems for your airlock. During my first batch I noticed rapidly-increasing levels of CO2 blowoff after a day or so. At about 30hrs after pitching the yeast it was causing the lid of the fermenter to balloon out, and the fermentation byproducts were starting to clog up the airlock. If I hadn’t intervened I likely would have seen the airlock fly off and a jet of partially-fermented beer coat my walls, but I managed to improvise a blowoff hose and save the paint job.

* For mid- to high-gravity beers I’ll now be using a blowoff hose instead of an airlock every time. One end goes into the fermenter, the other end into a jar of sanitizing solution to prevent air and bacteria from creeping into the hose. No more worries about jammed airlocks because any byproducts will just blow out into the sanitizer.

* Starting a syphon took a bit of practice. You have three basic ways of doing it:

  1. Half-fill the hose with sanitizer, making sure not to dump any into the beer. Open up the other end to drain out the sanitizer into a separate container, causing gravity to get the beer flowing. Pinch off the hose to stop it, move it to the secondary and let ‘er rip.
  2. Buy a relatively cheap auto-pump attachment that will get the syphon started with a couple of quick pumps and no fuss.
  3. Or worse comes to worse, sanitize your mouth with a quick shot of your favourite whiskey and just suck-start the bastard.

I tried the first method more than once and failed every single time, leaving me with no choice but to suck-start. For the second batch I wised up and bought an auto-pump. I’d recommend the same to anyone who thinks they’ll brew more than a few batches.

* I found getting the hang of bottling took some practice. You need to fill more or less to the top to remove as much air as possible, and keep in mind the hose you have inside the bottle displaces the beer — as you pull it out the level will drop.

* Capping with a hand capper also takes practice. I spent a half dozen or so caps on empty bottles figuring out the technique, and even then I was a bit wary the first time I capped. I flipped each bottle upside down to make sure no beer leaked out — don’t do this! All I accomplished was mixing oxygen into the beer and I badly oxidized my first batch. If you pressed down hard and the seal looks even, your cap is fine.

* Any sort of bubbling while transferring is bad. Whether racking (transferring from primary to fermenter) or bottling, you want a nice even surface as the level rises. This one takes practice, but I can say from experience that a bubbling pour equals oxidized, less tasty beer.

* A simple kitchen scale for weighing out hops and malt is handy, but even more valuable for getting the right amount of bottling sugar for the style of beer and weighing out small quantities of gypsum, finings, and other additional additives you may be considering.

* Vancouver water is soft. Extremely so. It may be some of the softest municipal tap water in the world. You don’t want excessively hard water for brewing, but you also want a bit more mineral content than you’ll get straight from the tap. I’ve taken to adding a bit of gypsum, chalk, and table salt to my brew (all available at Dan’s, or in your kitchen). I’m purposely getting my calcium content up over 50 ppm to give the yeast a bit of minerals to work with, and getting the sulphates up to 100 ppm to help with the hop utilization. And a general rule of thumb I’ve been working with is keeping sulphates and chlorides balanced, which is where the chalk comes in.

* Volumes are important. The first few batches I ended up making 6 or more gallons because I diluted my wort with too much water. Now I’m very purposely only making 5 gallons which is helping with flavour, though since I’m not diluting as much anymore it also means my beer is coming out far stronger. Time to scale back the malt and save some money on materials. My hop flavours are improving as well.

* Liquid yeast comes in a few sizes. Some are meant to work with starters, where you add the yeast to a small volume of malt extract and give it a few days to reproduce before you pitch it into your actual wort. Others are meant to be dumped right in. Make sure you know which you have.

* Beer wants to be made. Even if the yeast you pitch is far less than what you need, which I have done, chances are it will ferment out properly if your temperature control is up to speed, and you will end up with something resembling beer. Jury is still out on the batch I tragically under-pitched, but I suspect it’s going to end up drinkable yet.

* Bad batch? Don’t dump it, just give it time. Yeast is wonderfully resilient, and can correct even some of the worst problems. You may not end up with something award-winning, but if you put two or three months of age on a bad batch and try it again then, chances are good that it will have improved greatly.

* Advice you get from your local homebrew shop or online is only as good as the person’s beer is who gave it to you. I’ve learned enough now to start calling BS when I see obvious well-intentioned but patently bad advice. Figuring out when is only going to come with experience.

* Above all, the canonical rule is: you must drink beer while you make beer. No exceptions.

Learning More

The internet being what it is, chances are if you have a question Google will have an answer. That said, there are three sites I’ve been turning to frequently:

  • How to Brew, John Palmer’s book-turned-website. I’d consider the entire first section a must-read if you really want to understand what you’re doing before you get started, although his quick-start guide is good enough to make beer anyway.
  • The Homebrewtalk Forums pop up in most searches when I’m looking for something specific or have a problem. I’m not one to join random sketchy-looking web sites, but this one has been good enough to me that I’ve got an account there.
  • The Brewing Network, a series of podcasts devoted to learning how to make better beer. Brew Strong in particular is solid gold. This one isn’t for the first-time or casual brewer, it’s more for those obsessed enough about making good beer that we don’t mind a bit of science in our playtime. I’d recommend brewing a batch or two before even bothering checking it out, because you need a bit of practical experience under your belt for it to start feeling relevant.

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