Sunday, December 18, 2011

My First Batch of Home Brew Ale: A Memoir

Like so many before me, I'm getting into home brewing. It's not necessarily more economical to make your own beer: it's more like a love-of-the-craft kind of thing. You start out with pre-assembled kits, get used to the process, start following complex recipes, trade recipes with your friends, and... I don't know what comes after that. Probably growing your own hops and making your own malt extract. I'm a very long way from that.

A few months ago, I saw a Living Social discount for 50% off the total purchase at Brew & Grow, a home brew (among other things) store. I had to check with my other home brewing friends for what equipment they had: most of what I'm using came from Eric. Later, I started a discussion room on a local BBS and Jarrin, Carlos, and Hedge have provided excellent counsel. Eric's brother Bryan also competes in home brewing and I struck up an e-mail exchange with him. So you'll note there is no dearth of resources for this kind of thing.

My trip to Brew & Grow filled out the parts I was missing, to start a very simple brewing assembly. The staff were friendly and knowledgeable, no question of that. I got their Charlie Brown Ale starter kit, and it turns out it's not uncommon for people to start with a brown ale for their first brew. It's very simple and low-maintenance, so it's good for getting acquainted with the physical practice of all the steps involved.

I started my first batch about two weeks after my trip to the store and after one week of aggressively researching online information for what it entailed. There are so many blogs and websites dedicated to this craft, and you'll find that few of them completely agree with each other. My kit said to boil the wort for 45 minutes; everyone else said 60, but you've got to follow the instructions provided. My instructions said not to squeeze the bag of grains when you pull it from the wort or you'll release the tannins; I attended a beginner's class at Northern Brewer, and the instructor said to give the bag a little squeeze to help it drain completely. Small and big differences from person to person: favorite equipment, favorite cleanser and sanitizer, favorite brewing times and all that good stuff. What the beginner has to do is just plunge into it and be willing to make a lot of mistakes, and learn from that. After that, you can listen to how everyone else does it and start to balance out all the information to a meaningful level for yourself.

Oh yeah, that's important to note: I started my batch before going to the Northern Brewer class. In fact, let me back up: I wanted to check out some of the other brewing supply stores, so we drove down to Barkingside Co. for yeast and Northern Brewer for a hydrometer. Barkingside is just a large room with a lot of shelves and all sorts of starter kits for beer and wine. The owner says he does a lot of mail orders, too. Very friendly guy, he asked about my new hobby and showed me a very cool device, a large 6.5 gallon plastic fermentation bucket that screws on and locks in place! Very easy to open up, don't need any prying tools for the conventional buckets...

And this is a point that always confused me. It's quite common for me to see two large buckets in a starting assembly, but then people turn around and say you can't use that grade of plastic for the first week of fermentation! You can use a plastic carboy, and it's the same plastic, just a different grade of it. The concern is that the bucket is a little more air-permeable than you want for the first week of really dynamic fermentation. I got a glass carboy (for the second week--my error; from now on I'll start in this one) but plenty of people recommend the plastic carboy. Go figure. So I'm guessing the ideal beginner setup, if you really need to do two-stage fermentation, is a five-gallon carboy for primary fermentation, a 6.5-gallon secondary fermenter bucket, and a 6.5-gallon bottling bucket. That's something that no one was really clear about—the contradiction was just accepted and permitted to exist, but I'm here to pass down the Word of God on this point alone.

Anyway. I was really impressed with Northern Brewer—the guy at Barkingside noted with some disappointment that his shop was there first (he moved there from his prior Penn Ave. location because it had no parking) but N.B. set up a mere four blocks up the street from his place. (Brew & Grow's up in Fridley, which is just not convenient for me at all. These other places are 40 blocks south of my place.) And I'll indicate that Barkingside is pretty hard to find even if you're expecting it, like, having located it on Google Maps. If you don't know where you look, you'll never see it: there's just one innocuous little plastic sign on the side of a small one-level brown building, and the actual store is around the corner from it, blocked from street view. I hope he makes brisk trade in mail orders.

But you can't fault Northern Brewer for service, either: the store smells new, the staff are friendly and experienced. They hadn't heard of the screw-top fermenter bucket, though, so Barkingside's got that, at least. Online, I had seen three different hydrometers, ranging from $5-6.50, but Northern Brewer only carried the $6.50 model. Maybe there's no reason to offer a lesser product? That seems to be how they felt. I'm happy with the one I got, at any rate.

Wow, this is a long, rambling entry. Guess I'll have to write two of these.

So, yeah: got the kit at Brew & Grow, started my beer. Fermentation seemed to die, so I bought more yeast at Barkingside, didn't use it. It's sitting in my fridge. Got a nice hydrometer at Northern Brewer, and while I was there they notified me of a beginner class the next week. I signed up and, holy boots, was that a good class. It's very useful to watch a professional (or just a very experienced practitioner) go through the steps of boiling the wort and getting it set up, and I brought my notebook to class and wrote down every new thing I learned or every new question I formed. It was good for me to start my batch first, though, because I could appreciate what was being demonstrated and could frame pertinent questions.

This entry is way too long. I'll post this and follow up with more posts soon, with pictures and stuff. Sorry.


ivanmor said...

Sweven, how did the brew go?

Christian Fredrickson said...

Thanks for asking, ivanmor. It actually turned out very well: it carbonated sufficiently in the bottle and there were no horrible odors or flavors. I saved eight bottles for my friends and they seemed to approve of the results. It was a successful English brown ale by all accounts.

In fact, I'm starting a new batch today and I hope you'll read about it.