One of the first Christmas gifts I ever gave him, and to date still my biggest coup, was a homebrewing kit. It was a significant expenditure for me at the time - $50, when I was living on my credit card and working at my geology degree. It consisted of a giant glass bottle of sorts, a bunch of arcane tubing and fittings and things, and a bag filled with other smaller bags, accompanied by a Xeroxed piece of paper telling us in roughest terms what to do with all the stuff. Somehow, in an apartment so primitive we had to light the wall heater (the only heater we had) with a barbecue lighter (which led to some exciting moments from time to time), we managed to brew our first batch of beer - almost entirely wrong, in terms of procedure, but ultimately it came out rather well. Some points on which we erred:
- The first step in beginning brewing tends to be glopping some very thick and preternaturally sticky stuff, malt extract, into a large pot of water - as close to five gallons of water as your pot will hold. You then bring the resulting thin sugar syrup to a boil and keep it there for about an hour, adding various kinds of hops at specific intervals to provide bitterness, flavor, and aroma. Ways to go wrong in this process abound: you can fail to dissolve the malt extract thoroughly and scorch it onto the bottom of your pot, which we did. You can forget to time when you started the boil, which we did. You can boil it over and make a mess the likes of which you've never seen unless you have one child with diarrhea and one with a stomach virus - see my previous post - which we did.
- There is a critter called an "airlock" or "vapor lock" or "fermentation lock" that can be summed up as an S-shaped tube, held vertically so that the S is on its side. One end of the tube fits into a rubber stopper or other type of cap for the carboy, or giant glass bottle (or large plastic bucket, but more on that later). You fill the tube halfway with clean water, and the effect is that bubbles of CO2 that emerge from the wort as it ferments bubble up through it in a one-way fashion, keeping wild yeast and other contaminants out. Well. There's a first stage of fermentation that's very energetic, and requires either a bigger vapor lock than this little guy, more along the lines of a long piece of tubing with one end held down in a tub of bleach solution, or else some gol-danged headspace in the carboy. Otherwise you blow the cap right off, which is what we did. Being scientists, however, we determined that the process of blowing the cap off required - in fact was practically a definition of - positive pressure, so probably no wild yeast had been able to contaminate the pre-beer through the powerful blast of CO2 coming from the carboy. So we popped the cap back on and continued. (I should note that open primary fermentation was the rule in medieval breweries. But they also ended up with a lot of skunky beer, I understand.)
- There is a little plastic cap at the bottom of the racking cane (the link is for a racking cane clamp, but the racking cane is pictured - you use it to "rack" the beer, or transfer it from one container to another by attaching flexible tubing to the hooked end and creating a siphon by means best left to the imagination). This plastic cap serves only one purpose: to keep the sucking-in end of the racking cane out of the trub, or gooey dead yeasties that coat the bottom of the carboy. Unfortunately, while we figured it had only one purpose, we figured that that purpose was to keep the end of the racking cane clean until we needed to use it, so we pulled it off and set it aside while bottling our beer. Consequently, that was one cloudy brew.
- Beer bottles must be sanitized before you put the beer in, or who knows what-all could be living in them. We sanitized our first batch of some 50 bottles about 3 at a time by boiling them in our brewpot. It took forever. More efficient means: toss all the bottles that will fit into a full sink of water containing regular chlorine bleach (no scent, please, and no need for funny gel-like consistency - the cheapest bleach in the store is fine), rinse them in the hottest water your water heater will put out until there's not the slightest whiff of bleach remaining, and drain upside-down. Or, same method but with one of the various sanitizing solutions sold at brew supply stores, which generally have the advantage of not requiring rinsing. The downside is that these solutions are expensive. Or, if you have a dishwasher, put the bottles into it on the "sanitize"cycle if there is one, or just through a hot wash without detergent. (Detergent will pretty much guarantee that your beer will have no head.) With any method, start with at least visibly clean bottles - nothing that once held cigarette butts!
All right. So our first batch, a pilsener, came out pretty tasty in spite of it all. But since then, well over a decade ago, we've learned some things:
- Beer brewed in two stages is better than single-fermentation beer. Besides, accomplishing the first, very bubbly phase in a six-gallon plastic bucket, then racking to a five-gallon carboy for secondary fermentation for the more leisurely phase, eliminates that blowing-the-cap-off problem and makes it a lot easier to clean out the trub, since it's at the bottom of an open-topped container rather than the bottom of a tall bottle with an opening the size of a fifty-cent piece.
- A pull-out faucet is a Godsend. Trying to rinse equipment without one is an exercise in how to splash water all over your kitchen, or wherever you brew.
- Moving from all-extract to partial-grain brewing, which involves the extra steps of steeping a few pounds of crushed grains in very hot water for a while and then sparging (or gently rinsing) the grains with more hot water, and collecting the sugar-water that results, not only makes better-tasting beer but also gives you much more of the sense of having done something - like making a cake from scratch. All-grain brewing, in which you start with nothing but crushed grains and have to come up with all the sugar-water from the steeping and sparging process rather than taking the shortcut of using malt extract - more like making a cake starting with wheat grains and sugar cane and some chickens - apparently requires about twice the time of partial-grain brewing, which many hard-core hobbyists counter by making double batches. I'm just not willing to devote that much of my house to brewing.
Our Beer Book, a ten-year-old beat-up blue spiral notebook in which we've recorded our brewing adventures since 1995, highlights our childlike wonder at actually creating, time after time, really good beer for the price of really bad beer. Even with our slapdash methodology, we've only actually destroyed three batches over a decade. Exclamation points pepper the pages, especially once we moved to Houston and discovered DeFalco's, Houston's one and only beer and wine supply shop, which inexplicably concentrates the nicest people, freshest ingredients, and best recipes in one rather unattractive storefront. Let me recommend the Sugar & Spice & Everything Nice Christmas Ale - like gingerbread in a bottle. Yum! And the Irish Red Ale, a proprietary recipe by one of the employees there (he gets a royalty payment for every batch of ingredients they sell, we were told), that is absolutely the best medium-bodied ale around.