I thought a little ‘year in brewing’ review was probably called for as the end of 2012 will mark my first year as a home brewer. If at the same time it serves to give a few of those currently on the fence about taking up the hobby a bit of a kick in the right direction, all the better. As I said, I started brewing at the start of 2012 after humming and hawing about it (as usual) for quite some time. The whole thing just seemed daunting to the extreme. Ingredients this, process that, mix A & B, heat, stir, the whole thing just seemed like it was food poisoning waiting to happen. Julie provided the voice of sense (as usual) by pointing out that if I can develop slide film, I can brew passable beer. Home brewing seems to be going through a massive revival at the moment, home brew website forums are packed with people taking up the hobby and are an invaluable resource for information and help for both the new brewer and the more seasoned veteran. Thankfully, unlike some social circles, everyone interested in home brewing that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting or speaking to over the last year has been friendly and helpful. It really helps to put you on the right path and steers you away from some potential horrors when you know you can just ask someones advice. So thanks for that.
Yes, I was over complicating it. I started with basic equipment one normally buys when first getting into brewing. I got a lot of stuff for Christmas 2011; a couple of fermenting buckets (large 25 liter food safe plastic buckets with lids), thermometer, hydrometer, crown capper (and a bag of caps), bottling stick, steralising powder (I later started using Starsan instead, much more idiot proof), long spoon, funnels, hose and of course the all important beer kits. The only thing I was missing was bottles but a quick call to a friendly local pub sorted me out with plenty of 500ml brown glass bottles for my first brew.
So as not to go in completely over my head, I started with kits. Kits, that is, where all the ingredients come in a single (or in some case two) can(s). Not to sound like I’m over simplifying the process but all you really need is a tin opener and some hot water to make beer from a kit. With the kit you’ll get a sachet of yeast and sometimes (depending on the beer) you’ll get a sachet of hop extract too. The process I used to go through to make kit beer wasn’t too far from the following.
1. Place can(s) in basin of hot water to soften contents
2. Steralise fermenter
3. Open can(s)
4. Empty can(s) into fermenter
5. Top up with required amount of hot water
6. Top up to final amount with cold water
7. Take gravity reading with hydrometer
8. Add yeast and anything else that was in the kit
9. Put fermenter somewhere with fairly stable temperature for a week or so
10. Bottle finished beer
There are obviously some other minor steps in between 9 and 10, like taking gravity readings to identify that fermentation has finished but I don’t intend turning this into a technical how-to type of blog post. If anyone wants to know that stuff, ask me on twitter. I did three kits. My first attempt was a Coopers wheat beer (drinkable), then a Coopers Irish Stout (very drinkable) and finally a St. Peters Golden Ale (very very drinkable). I got to the stage when drinking the Golden Ale where I began to think about hops and their effect on bitterness, flavour and aroma of the finished beer. The St. Peters kit came with a small sachet of hop extract and while I was fairly pleased with myself when making the kit one evening, I couldn’t help but wonder how I might make it better.
Enter the itchy trigger finger. I sold some camera gear I hadn’t been using and spent the money on what was referred to as a ‘fairly posh’ stainless steel boiler, a wort chiller and a few more bits and pieces to take my brewing to the next level. The logical progression from kit brewing seems to be to go to extract. That is, you purchase either liquid or powder malt extract, heat some water, whack in the extract, put in some hops and after some fermentation, there’s your beer. For some reason I chose to skip that intermediate step and go straight for the big daddy, all grain. Now we’re talking bags of milled (crushed) grain, mash tun and a whole hell of a lot of science that, just like when I had thought about starting brewing in the first place, seemed very daunting. Bear in mind at this stage I was about 5 or 6 months into my brewing hobby.
The way I went was ‘brew in a bag’, a method that’s quite popular in Australia apparently. You get a large muslin or similar bag, big enough to line your brewing boiler with. All the action takes place in the boiler. I won’t go through all that action, a brew day is between 6 to 8 hours after all. When I started all grain brewing, I’ll admit I was horribly naive. I got my huge 36 liter boiler, stuck it up on the kitchen hob, rolled up my sleeves and got into it. Little did I realise or even consider before I began that a piddly electric hob is in no way going to boil anything close to 36 liters of anything. So, my first all grain was bloody awful, a almost complete failure. On the other hand, it was about as drinkable as Miller or similar.
Something needed to be done about this. I looked for advice on the forums. Everyone seemed to be using electric boilers (plastic bucket with a couple of kettle heating elements in it). Had I made a mistake in buying the fairly posh stainless steel boiler? I went the other route, gas. For about €50, I got my hands on a small outdoor gas ring and a regulator for a bottle of propane. I was literally cooking with gas. (Yes I know, I know. I’m sorry alright)
The next attempt which if I remember correctly was a pale ale and was far more successful. It actually tasted reasonably nice. I could be onto something here. I was buying all grain kits from what I now referred to as ‘my local homebrew supplier’, except for the fact that they were about an hour away in Co. Laois. Minor detail. I drank the pale ale all too quickly and next produced a stout which was equally tasty. Getting cocky for a minute and having bought a copy of Beersmith (brewing software) when it was on sale, I made my next brew day a SMaSH day. Single Malt and Single Hop for the uninitiated. Using all Maris Otter (a very popular grain from the UK) and Nelson Sauvin hops (from New Zealand) I produced a God awful beer that even now, several months later, is still practically undrinkable. But, far more importantly than producing good beer, I learned a valuable lesson. The hops I had chosen in my quest to make a mouth numbingly bitter ale were far too strong for use in the rest of the brew. See, generally you’ll add some hops at 60 mins (the start of the boil) which give the brew it’s bitter characteristics. Then, at 45 to 30 min remaining in the boil, you’ll add more hops to give the brew some flavour. Finally, usually when you turn off the heat, you’ll add the last hops which give aroma to the beer. You can also add hops to the second stage of the fermentation process. I did all four with the same crazy strong hop. Lesson learned but I’m hanging onto the remaining bottles of the brew as over time, the flavour has mellowed slightly. Maybe by 2016 it’ll be tasty. Either that or I can sell it to a foreign superpower as a biological weapon.
Undeterred, I soldiered on to another brew. More stout. Except this time I modified the recipe by putting a whole hell of a lot of coffee in it. That’s what I’m drinking at the moment. Literally, right at this very moment. It’ll also be the reason why this blog post is so long. I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again. Maybe less coffee next time.
In the mean time, I was spending more of my hard earned money and invested in some kegs. Then came the gas cylinder. Then some other bits and pieces. Long story short, I now have draught beer at home. First purchase of 2013? A cheap fridge to keep the kegs in. The winter hasn’t been very cold and the keg has been living on the balcony. I’ve sadly ended up with some moderately chilled beer. As I’ve gotten used to drinking cask beer, the temperature isn’t bothering me. That’s another thing I could write an entirely separate blog post about, the emergence of craft beer in Dublin. Since I started brewing only 12 short months ago, it seems like the amount of craft beer on sale and indeed the outlets selling it have increased enormously. There are now dozens of pubs bringing in beer engines (think UK pubs, pumping beer from an unpressurised cask in the cellar) and getting an increasingly large range of cask beers from both Irish and foreign craft breweries. More of this kind of thing please! Now all we need is for people not to make a face when you tell them you’d rather eat the empty pint glass than drink a pint of Heinebergen Guinneweiser. I’ve also tried to introduce a few folks to craft beers over the course of the year but this has mostly been met with similar pained facial expressions. I’m obviously not lecturing them enough while they’re tasting the beer, that must be it.
To go some way towards explaining the series of photos dotted throughout this post, I had an all grain beer kit left over from my last shopping trip to the home brew shop. Was it going to be a 2012 brew or my first brew of 2013? Nobody knew. Not even me, thanks to my entirely unpredictable procrastination. It sat in the hall for weeks waiting for some lovin’. The stars aligned this morning when the sun came out and I worked from home. Yes, I worked. Really I did. Honest. Someone said it recently, possibly on twitter or facebook. “The outdoor brewer has to choose his or her moments very carefully”. Absolutely. I’ve been rained on during a few brews and got a small sprinkling toward the end of today’s brew. But eh, that’s about it. I’ve chosen my days to brew very carefully. Sun comes out, check the rainfall radar on met.ie. Looks good? Brew.
So the kit got made today, if only to have a go with my spanking new mash tun (essentially it’s a picnic cooler with some plumbing in it) that I got for my birthday. Again, long story short, it’s wonderful. I really struggled to keep the temperature right during my last brew. It was damn cold outside and everything went to shit very quickly. I’m amazed I got a drinkable beer out of it. Now that I’ve used a mash tun, I’m converted. I may never brew in a bag again. Sorry Australians. Similarly when I got the kegs, it was revelation. I may never bottle again. Sorry eh, bottling zealots. Brew in a bag was working well for me, it was just the temperature control and the inability for me to get a reasonably clear beer that hacked me off a bit. The wort running out of the mash tun today looked as if it had been filtered by angels. Angels of beer.
I’ll be drinking this in about 4 weeks time all going well. As for 2013? Now that I’m armed with a mash tun, I’ll be unstoppable! Er, maybe not unstoppable but less stoppable than I was previously. I want to do more stouts including a wonderful looking imperial stout recipe I saw in the last couple of weeks. Some porter because, well, why not? Quite high on the list is a hoppy as all hell ale. If you’re a craft beer drinker, think Sierra Nevada bigfoot. Or somewhere between the pale ale and bigfoot. Then rinse and repeat until I’ve gotten so drunk on my own stash that I can’t remember what I was supposed to brew next. That’s what life is all about I suppose. Now, as I appear to have run dangerously low on beer, I best make a trip out to the balcony to pull another pint. To summarise a very long winded and frequently meandering post, just brew. If you’re thinking of getting into it, just get started. If you aren’t thinking of getting into it, think about getting into it. Happy 2013 and may you brew some truly wonderful beer!