More beer! My favorite!

The ancient Sumerians were probably the first people to record their beliefs in written word. They settled the Sumer region around 4000BCE and like every other polytheistic religion, they had patron gods for all the major parts of life: sky, sun, moon, stars and of course BEER. Scholars theorize that beer was in fact being made as long ago as 10,000 years ago and has only grown in popularity since.

Now Colin and I are taking part in this long lived tradition and it’s slowly taking over our life. Making beer is a bit like having another pet in the house. It needs to be fed, kept at the right temperature (not too warm or cool), and cleaned up after. And these beasties do make a mess!

Sanitation is critical for healthy fermentation

Cleaning is how every batch of beer starts and ends. All equipment needs to be sanitized meticulously to be sure that foreign bacteria and yeasts don’t infect your brew. Colin and I have been using IO Star to clean our equipment but after a trip to the brewing store with our friend Paul Wheeler (The same lovely fellow with whom I went morel hunting.) we’re considering switching to Star San.

Paul informed us that Star San can be reused for months on end so long as it is still foamy when agitated. While we usually use the iodized water from sanitizing our carboy to them clean our other equipment in a bucket, using Star San, we could then siphon the water from the bucket into another carboy to sanitize weeks later.

The only downside to Star San is that when it is stored in plastic, the container will eventually get a slimy texture and Paul is not sure whether the plastic is dissolving or not so its better to store in glass or metal. For now, we’re still using IO Star because it’s what we have around.

 

Brewing boys prepare the wort

The project we started on August 4th was the second kit that Colin and I purchased last month at MoreBeer! in Los Altos. I am in love with dark malty beers, beer so thick and rich you have to chew them as I like to say. So, while the Honeyweizen that we started with a few weeks ago is a great beer, I am much more excited about the second project: Chocolate Oatmeal Stout! Stout beers are characterized by their dark color and usually by a slightly higher alcohol content. Most stouts carry a coffee, chocolate or molasses flavor from the steeping grains and should have a creamy mouth feel. I added some unsweetened cocoa powder to my mash which will hopefully intensify that chocolate flavor.

Colin diligently takes note of every step.

This kit was a partial mash. What that means is that unlike our last project, part of our flavor and sugar came from whole grains rinsed in sparge water instead of from extracts and though the kit already contained some cocoa, I opted to add an extra ounce because I’m a total chocoholic.

Sparging is rinsing the mash(grains for sugar) slowly to extract the maximum sugar and flavor.

I sparge grains while while Paul heats more water.

There are many sparging methods requiring different types of equipment. The way we did it is the most affordable way of doing it because it uses things found in almost every kitchen. After starting our wort with a 2 gallon mash, we put the bag of mashed grains into a colander over the brew pot. In a separate pot, we heated another 2 gallon of water and used a large cup measure to slowly pour the 170°F water over the grains. The efficiency of extraction with this method is not very good, but we didn’t have the set up for anything more complex.
The product of our brewing was a dark and syrupy wort that smelled mouth-wateringly malty and chocolatey. (After cooling our original gravity came to 1.058 — a little low for the recipe but within the called-for range.)

The Brewing boys supervise the wort chiller.

So, remember last time when we took for freakin’ ever to cool our wort? And we had to do it in a bathtub with 20lbs of ice? Yeah, we fixed that by getting a wort chiller. A wort chiller is a long hose with a copper coil that you set in your hot wort. One end of the hose is screwed onto the tap to run cold water directly through the liquid without diluting it. The other end lets the heated water run back into the sink. It had the happy side effect of roping the brewing boys off into a little corner of the kitchen where I could watch them from the table. Ah, to brew with a view. :]

Colin siphons cooled wort into a clean carboy.

When it came to pitching the yeast, we got pretty caught up in the funky texture of the it. The kit had come with one tube of White Labs English Ale Yeast (WLP002). It seemed to have the texture of curdled milk and wouldn’t dissolve into its liquids no matter how much I shook that little vial. Even Paul, a veteran compared to us newbie brewers, had never seen a yeast look like this. We were worried that perhaps it had spoiled so we did some quick research.
As it turns out, this is characteristic of the strain of English Ale Yeast that White Labs sells. It has a freakishly high flocculation which can make the primary fermentation a little slow, but will mean a very clear beer after racking. So in it went!

Siphoning requires diligent cleanliness to avoid contamination.

Once it was in the carboy and the yeast was pitched, we moved the carboy into the craft room next to the Honeyweizen. Paul showed me a neat trick to get an idea of how your beer is doing; Knocking on the settled beer (Honeyweizen) makes a clear bell ring but the new proto-beer makes a dull clunk because of suspended matter in the liquid. It’s not a perfect measure of how far along your beer is, but I thought it was pretty cool.
Beer was active by second day in fermentation but had no froth unlike the hefe. Yay, Beer!
*NB: It’s one week later and we’re having some trouble very slow fermentation. As it turns out we should have made a yeast starter or pitched two tubes for the gravity in this batch. Brewing Classic Styles has an equation to determine pitching rates on page 289 that we didn’t know about until today, so I’ll be making a run to Oak Barrel to get more yeast and some nutrient to give it a bit of a boost.
One last thing before I sign off. I got some comments from people about how distracting the shirtless man in my last entry was you folks, this last photo is for you!

Gratuitous shirtless hotties!

The Brewing Begins

I’ve been wanting for a long time to brew my own beers. The house I lived in a few years ago was full of students and post grads, several of whom loved brewing beers and ciders (with mixed results). A friend of mine from the renfaire is also a homebrewer, though he’s much more serious about his craft than most of the hobby-brewers I know. Seeing his apartment full of everything brewing, stilling and steeping really got my juices flowing and last week Colin and I finally started our own project.

It took us a while to collect all the supplies: carboy, airlock, racking cane, siphon hose, blow-off tube, grain bag, giant pot, and giant whisk. Brewing takes a bit of an investment. Fortunately Colin is as enthused by the project as I am and he was happy to procure the necessary equipment for us. By the way, Smart and Final sells huge pots for a lot cheaper than any brewing store I’ve seen so far.

Our friend tipped us off to a big sale and brewing event at the MoreBeer! store in Los Altos and we headed down to see what we might learn there. It was very crowded, but the staff was helpful and the firt thing I grabbed was Brewing Classic Styles by Zainasheff and Palmer. The book came highly recommended and was helpful in choosing our first project. Originally we’d been told to choose something easy like an IPA, but becasue neither Colin nor I like IPAs, we started looking for something else. Among the book’s recommendations was to begin with an extract recipe or a partial mash recipe. The shop had a wide variety of interesting kits which included all the necessary ingredients for many different beers and were all rated by difficulty.

Honeyweizen

Colin falling asleep next to our brewing set up.

The batch we have underway now is a Honeyweizen made with grain extracts. The hardest part was honestly cooling thewort without a chiller. We started the project a lot later in the day than we intended and it took us til past midnight to cool our wort to an acceptable temperature for pitching the yeast. Next time we start before 8pm, okay?

Its a week later now and we took a gravity reading- a measure of the dissolved sugars/alcohol. (The wort had an OG: 1.053 and the sample we took at 7 days was at 1.016 for those who care) Fermentation is progressing well and its already pretty tastey. It has a little more of a banana flavor than I’d really like, which might be becasue the temperature is holding closer to 70°F than 68°F like we actually want it to. Reading into wheat beers we’ve found that lower temperatures are supposed to help prevent that, but since we have no cooling for either carboy alone of the room it is in, there’s nothing to be done about it.

Pitching the Yeast: We're almost done for the night!

Since its our first batch we’re not sure if it’ll need to go as long as the recipe calls for if we want a Finishing Gravity of 1.010, but we have a friend coming over on Thursday to take a look at it and help us with our second kit: a partial mash oatmeal stout.

Other projects in the near future are a peach beer, a blackberry melomel, Nocino(also known as walnut wine) and a Mandaricello already on the liquor. Look for an update on this project and others in my next entry. Cheers!