Once upon a time, in a kitchen in East Van…
Let’s get down to business, my master plan is to recap almost a year of homebrewing trial and error, to bring things speedily, and neatly up to present day, then document the unfolding journey with splashy photographs and crisp pints of beer. I intend to do this over a series of stories, released at times of my choosing. Any effort to discern a pattern to the release schedule will be fruitless, do not attempt.
As you read along, maybe you’ll get inspired to try brewing yourself. If so send me a sample, no seriously send me a sample. I like beer.
So my adventure all began on an average Vancouver night in January. It was raining. Raining a lot.
I had been given a kit for Christmas. I’d already opened up and admired the parts. The smooth, clear glass of the carboy, the sterile plastic of the primary fermenting bucket, and deeply sniffed from all the bags of ingredients. My understanding is that the basic kit runs around $80 (plastic bucket, glass carboy, hydrometer, hydrometer plastic cylinder thingy, siphon, hose, and airlock), and then you’ll need a big stockpot ($40??), and ingredients ($30–50 depending on what you want!). I don’t have a photo of my initial equipment handy, so use your imagination!
My first beer was what I affectionately called the Simple Steve, long after the fact (coming up with beer names is hard!). It was part of the kit I’d received for Christmas. It consisted of a plastic tub filled with 8 lbs of liquid malt extract (LME), which is like a thick, thick, thick syrup. A deep brown colour, yet with a surprising clearness to it. It smelled pretty heavenly (I guess concentrated grain sugars will do that!). Pro tip: warm the bucket up in warm-hot water prior to opening. Gotta get that malty goodness ready to slide right out into your brewpot! No fun trying to struggle with the stuff, and it is super sticky. The rest of the recipe was a bag of grains, encased in clear plastic and close to bursting, with zero labelling. Not super sure what grains it contained, and frankly at the time I wasn’t too worried. Nowadays I’m relatively meticulous with my note-taking (I’ll show you my constantly evolving brewday note template at some point).
Before I forget, I also received a bag in the freezer marked “Casc/gold.” Now I new from the green leafy appearance of the contents that it was hops. I’m assuming Casc was Cascade hops, gold possibly Kent Goldings. They smelled exquisitely delicious, so no worries there!
The process was exceptionally simple. In a saucepan, heat water up, but not to a boil. Steep the miscellaneous grains in this water for 20 minutes or so. Strain the fluid from that into the stockpot. Pour in the comfortably warm and ready to move LME to the pot, and top up with water. Be mindful with the water, as you want to avoid the chlorine it likely contains. This can be achieved simply by leaving it out overnight to degas. There are other methods for quicker results, but just be organized and save yourself some money.
Bring to a boil, and add the hops. Here is where a wealth of choice presents itself. With hops, the sooner you add them during the boil, the greater the bitterness you will receive from the hops. I assume this is due to their anger and upset at being placed in such harsh conditions.
Most boils will go for 60 minutes, however conventional wisdom is shifting on whether that is really necessary or a vestige of brewing history. I digress. Adding the hops later will allow more of the aromatic compounds from the hops to remain in your brew, as they are among the first things to pack their bags and leave town when the going gets rough.
Once the boil is complete (it takes forever sometimes on my stovetop to get to a boil, patience is key young padawan), a rapid cool down to blood warm temperatures is necessary. This can be accomplished by the cold water bath method.
This technique uses a cloth over the drain to allow a slow flow of water out of the sink, while the tap replenishes the lost volume with fresh cold water. Chills decently, but there are superior techniques.
Once appropriate temperatures have been reached, it is time to take a hydrometer reading. The hydrometer is a simple device, that determines based on its buoyancy in the wort, how much sugar is present. Comparing an original specific gravity (hydrometer measurement is called specific gravity, or degrees Plato) and a post fermentation final gravity, allows the calculation of alcohol content.
With that bit of tomfoolery out of the way, it is time to pitch the yeast. No, don’t throw it into the bucket like a fastball, we aren’t barbarians around here. Just open the packet (method may vary if using dry, liquid/smack pack, or having made a starter), and gently introduce into the cooled wort (wort is the fluid generated from steeping grains/adding malt extract to water/mashing), stir vigourously to introduce oxygen into the mixture (yeast gotta breathe too), then close the bucket up, attach airlock, and put it somewhere out of the way (closet, bathroom, wherever). It will hopefully be actively fermenting in 12–24 hrs.
It will ferment from 7–14 days, and then it is time to bottle. You can buy bottles from a homebrew shop, or reuse the ones which already had good beer in them.
Bottling day is relatively straightforward, fresh beer is transferred into a bottling bucket, which will already contain priming sugar.
Then from the bucket it is time to move it into the bottles! Which you have obviously sanitized already. I know I haven’t made a single mention of sanitation prior to this point, but as good citizens of the world, I’m sure your aware of the teeming hordes of bacteria and other unicellular organisms that lurk in every crevice and orifice of our world. Making your equipment as sterile as possible is like paying off a referee in football. Your team is way more likely to win. When it comes to making beer, we are all #TeamYeast.
Sanitation is the simple process of making up a solution of sanitizer, in my case I use one step, which I believe generates peroxide radicals when dissolved in water. The peroxide is radically bad for anything contaminating my equipment and should neutralize all invaders with around 30 seconds of contact time. Even better, you just have to dump it out after, no rinsing required. #Science.
As the bottles are filled, its time to seal ’em up with a crown cap. I tend to enlist the help of a trusty volunteer and #1 supporter.
Once the bottles are filled, you will be treated to a sight like this:
Typically a minimum of two weeks uninterrupted contemplation is required for the bottles to ascend to a higher level of being, an attain a perfect level of carbonation. Once the period of deep introspection, and metabolic happenings are theoretically complete, pop one (or six) bottles in the fridge. Cool it down to a chill temperature, and pop that beauty into a glass. Remember to embrace full hipsterness. Don’t pre-chill the glass, and don’t drink from the bottle. Too cold reduces your ability to perceive flavour, and the narrow opening of the bottle reduces the ability of the aromatics in the beer to reach your nose.
P.S. All the photos and videos are from subsequent beers I’ve made. There is no evidence of Simple Steve’s existence other than some short notes in my notebook, and my vivid memory of BMAC telling me that the beer was actually good, he was hoping it would be bad so he could make fun of me, but jokes on him.
P.S.S. Next time I intend to recap a couple other beers I’ve made, with more accurate recipes, and some other useless thoughts and information! See you then.