The year I turned 18, I tried my hand for the first time at making alcohol. I went about the process energetically and enthusiastically, but without anything more than a very rudimentary idea of the process.
Have you ever cleaned a few quarts of pumpkin juice from the bottom of a bunkbed? Suffice it to say, mistakes were made. Let us draw the soothing veil of time over that episode.
After I got over the initial chastening of failure, I was keener than ever to brew something. But for a long time it seemed that I never hit the sweet spot of having cashflow and a location in which to conduct my endeavors. I had vague childhood memories of my dad keeping a big plastic fermenting bucket under the stairs that I was sternly admonished to not even look at, and those, coupled with a bizarre world of technical terms (wort, primary fermenter, specific gravity) left me with the impression that it was an arcane and complicated process.
Soon after I moved to the United States, I started to move away from lager and cider, (which were almost exclusively what I’d drunk since turning 18) venturing out into the realm of stouts and pale ales and wheat beer. I think that it took my palate a good few years of abuse before it could really start to appreciate what some people call “real beer”.
Then, earlier this year, some friends of mine made mead, and brought some over to my house. Whilst I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of fermented honey flavored with fruit, it got me thinking about brewing, again. So I began reading about the process of making beer.
Everyone who’s done it swears that it couldn’t be easier. At the same time, there are about a million sites out there filled with confusing and conflicting information on brewing. After wading my way through a myriad of forums, I decided to take the plunge, and I convinced my friend Brendan to get in on it with me.
I bought this Maestro Homebrew equipment kit on Amazon (Prime is totally worth it sometimes) which was the cheapest decent looking kit I could find anywhere. I also picked up a cheap 3 gallon stainless steel pot and these bottle caps. We decided to brew a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone to start with. I think Sierra Nevada was the very first pale ale I had that I really, really enjoyed, so it seemed appropriate.
At long last, it was time to brew.
We started by sanitizing all of the equipment we were going to use. According to everyone, using properly sanitized equipment is the number one most important thing about brewing. Like, “investigating Patient Zero’s symptoms” standards of cleanliness. If you don’t make sure everything is spotless on a microscopic level, one night when you’re sleeping, your homebrew will climb the stairs and absorb your body into some kind of awful mutated infection monster. Or something like that.
Once we’d sanitized, we began heating 2 gallons of water to 155ºF, in which to steep the grains for 30 minutes. Once that was done, we removed the grains, brought it to a boil, took it off the stove and added 6lb of Malt Extract. Then we put it back on the heat, and once we saw a boil bubble added the first 1 oz of Perle hops.
What Happened Next Took Us Completely By Surprise. Turns out you want to add the hops a little bit slower than all at once. We had a boilover. Wow. Baby’s first boilover. Such excitement. I wrote it in my brew diary. “Don’t add all the hops at once!!!”
From then on it was a simple enough task of maintaining a rolling boil for an hour, adding the second ounce of Perle hops after 30 minutes, and finishing up with 2 minutes of boiling with Cascade hops, for aroma. At the end of an hour it was time to lower the temperature of the wort as quickly as possible, which we did in an ice bath.
Once we got the temperature down, we added the wort to the primary fermenting bucket along with 3 gallons of water. Then, after shaking the whole thing up like crazy, we added the yeast.
The lid went on the bucket, complete with airlock in order to allow the CO² to escape without letting anything nasty in. Then we stuck it under the stairs in my basement (ambient temperature of 68º — ideal) and we were done.
Apart from the cleaning up, of course.
The agony of uncertainty
The next morning, I checked on the beer. There was no activity in the airlock.
Oh no, our yeast are all dead! Wait, I know that activity in the airlock is only one sign of fermentation. Not all is lost, yet.
That night, I checked again. Still no activity in the airlock. I decided to risk taking a peek at the beer to see if could see any krausen — the thick foam that forms on top of properly fermenting beer. When I cracked the lid there was a foam on top.
Is that krausen?! I have no idea!
It was possibly for the best that my hydrometer hadn’t arrived yet (the kit I ordered was missing one, but they’re sending a replacement). I decided to practice patience instead.
The next day, as soon as I got up, I bounded downstairs anxiously. When I opened the closet door two things hit me. The first was a very pleasant, hoppy, beery smell. The second was the realization that the airlock is bubbling! Success! We have fermentation! Work away, little yeast friends!
So far so good. I’m looking forward to the hydrometer arriving so I can take a specific gravity reading, and in the meantime I’m trying not to check on the beer every 30 minutes when I’m at home…
Published on June 3rd, 2014