Friday, October 31, 2014

How to brew beer at home

This Saturday is Learn to Homebrew Day. As regular readers of this page will know, we planned on having a Learn to Homebrew Day event, but it was eventually cancelled due to a forecast with a 90% chance of rain and 23 MPH winds.  Kind of makes brewing outside problematic.

The plan was to brew a 10 gallon, all-grain batch of a special beer I came up with last year in honor of our grandfather who died after a long battle with Parkinson's.  We would have been using equipment and techniques including a mash-tun, a large boil kettle, propane burner, grain mill, wort chiller and a huge yeast starter that would be a bit much for a first time brewer. In the spirit of Learn to Homebrew Day, I decided to develop a simplified version of the recipe that requires nothing more than a basic starter kit you can pick up at a local hombrew shop like Beer & Wine Hobby or online, and other items most people have in their kitchen already.

When I started the blog I decided early on not to make this a "how to" type of blog. John Palmer and Charlie Papazian are infinitely more qualified than I am to teach and explain the brewing process. Instead I took a similar approach to James Watt and Martin Dickie on the TV show Brew Dogs. Watt and Dickie brew what they brew, and if there is a process or concept that they feel warrants additional explanation, they will explain it as they go. That is what I have always tried to do considering that the blog is hosted on a newspaper website and most of my Facebook fans aren't homebrewers.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Brew Day: Hot Stove Porter (Robust Porter)

They may not have been the two best beers I had this summer, but they were the two beers that got my wheels spinning as a brewer. Riverwalk Brewing's Screen Door, which I had when I visited the brewery, and Wanderlust by Foundation Brewing in Portland, ME took your traditional summer wheat beer and turned it on its head. Instead of using citrus, these beers tasted like a summer ale using no citrus. Screen Door was dry-hopped with Cascade hops, Wanderlust used citrusy American hops and if I remember correctly saison yeast to give the beer added complexity.

Winter is hot stove season. And I have no pics from this brew day. 

By the time I had these beers it was too late for me to brew another summer beer. Instead what I set out to do was apply these lessons to a winter beer. The winter might be my least favorite season for beer. There are too many beers out there that are too heavy and overly spiced. Thank god for Great Divide's Hibernation Ale, the best Old Ale I've had made in the US, and Celebration Ale which proves a superlative IPA is appropriate in any season.

New toys! Yeast stir plate

Just like my grain mill and wort chiller, this should be a lifetime investment that will improve the quality of my beers immediately and as long as I brew. After doing a couple yeast starters for recent batches, and only using yeast that has never been used in another full batch, I have found that doing it is not as much of an inconvenience as I thought and I think it will lead to better beer.

No more 1 gallon yeast starters!

Let's start at the beginning. Yeast are living beings like us, and as such they need oxygen. The more oxygen they have, the healthier the fermentation, and the more the yeast will reproduce additional cells. For a healthy fermentation of your wort you need to make sure that you pitch (add) enough healthy yeast cells. If you don't have enough yeast you may experience: infected finished beer, higher than normal final gravity, excess production of objectionable flavors caused by fusel alcohols, esters, diacetyl and sulfur compounds. I assure you all that stuff is bad.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

You are only limited by your imagination

When you brew your own beer you are only limited by your imagination. When brewing the beer itself you can use any ingredient you want. A commercial brewer has logistical and legal issues that a home brewer does not. Using 12 types of malt, 10 varieties of hops would be a logistical nightmare for a brewer brewing on a commercial scale. I was able to brew a Ballantine IPA clone using traditional ingredients that Pabst either could not use or chose not to use. You can also use ingredients that a commercial brewer can't use. Do you want to add Jameson to your Irish Stout? You can, but it is illegal for a commercial brewer to add hard alcohol to a beer.


Brewing the actual beer is only the tip of the iceberg. How often in life do you get to name things? The only examples that come to mind right away are boats, pets, and children. The last one could very well grow up and change his/her name anyway. As our first batch fermented, there was a protracted debate as to what our home-brewery would be called. My original idea was Danvers River Brewing. For most of my life I have lived or worked in communities along the Danvers River, so the name felt appropriate. My girlfriend hated it, along with the next ten ideas I came up with. Since we both love baseball we toyed around with baseball themed names until we settled on Bleacher Brewing Company.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Brew Day: The Plinian Legacy (Imperial IPA)

In hindsight we may have started too soon creating our own recipes. None of our early beers were truly bad. We learned by doing, but maybe we could have "learned while doing" more proven recipes. Sometimes you don't know what you don't know. Now, instead of tweaking our early recipes I find myself starting from scratch like I did with my recent brown ale and pale ale.

I may not have used all these hops if I tried to come up with my own IPA recipe.
I may not have used all these hops if I tried to come up with my own IPA recipe.

Kits are a good way for a brewer to try new ingredients and to step out of his/her comfort zone. Last winter I brewed Northern Brewer's Kiwi Express as a way to learn about New Zealand hops. This summer I brewed Speckled Heifer to supplement the Spotted Cow we brought back from Wisconsin. In my latest order I bought the Australian Sparkling Ale kit to brew with Pride of Ringwood hops for the first time. In the future I want to brew one of Beer & Wine Hobby's Mystic Brewing kits.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Brew Day: Essex Extra Pale Ale (American Pale Ale)

Almost every craft brewer has a pale ale. Usually the pale ale is the flagship beer, or it is at least a year-round offering. An extract pale ale was one of the first original recipes I came up with when I started brewing. I benchmarked a few local pale ales that I liked: Samuel Adams Boston Ale, Wachusett Country Pale Ale, and Shipyard Chamberlain's Pale Ale. My first pale ale was a success, but tasted more like an English Pale Ale. Given the beers I benchmarked it in hindsight was to be expected.

Essex Pale Ale is on the left, I have another wort boiling on the right.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines for an American Pale-Ale are incredibly broad. I enjoy the more English-inspired beers like the ones that inspired my first pale ale, but I also enjoy hopper interpretations like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and the excellent Fort Point Pale Ale by Trillium. What I want to do is brew several one gallon pale ales that explore the broad parameters of the style. It helps that I have a ton of leftover hops from previous batches. Experimentation is a good way to put them to use.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Brew Day: Pennant Race Pumpkin Wheat (Autumn Seasonal Beer)

With fresh, local pumpkin finally available it was time to brew our annual pumpkin beer. Last year our pumpkin beer in late October, and the five gallon batch was not ready until almost Thanksgiving. We ended up with a lot of leftover pumpkin beer.

A sugar pumpkin like this has plenty of flesh for pumpkin pie, and throwing into the mash.

This is our third year in a row brewing a pumpkin beer. The Pennant Race Pumpkin Wheat was one of our first batches when we started brewing. The first batch was an extract recipe with specialty grains, where we used the simple steps I outlined to brew a pumpkin beer as easily as possible. As to why we used a wheat beer as a base style? I honestly don't remember. I think we just grabbed a couple cans of wheat liquid malt extract as we threw the recipe together.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Brew Day: Ballantine IPA Clone

When news came out that Pabst was going to resurrect Ballantine IPA I was certainty excited to try it. I was vaguely familiar with the Ballantine brand before the relaunch. As my strong sense of nostalgia took hold I did more research and became intrigued.

The original American IPA

Due in part to mass emigration from Germany, lager became the preeminent style of beer in the US, and internationally for that matter. Based out of Newark and founded by Scottish immigrants, Ballantine was the one major US brewery that lasted well into the 20th century brewing ales and borrowing more from British traditions. Ballantine pushed the envelope in terms of styles and flavor. It was craft beer before craft beer existed. Unfortunately the brewery lost market share and closed in 1972. After a series of corporate transactions Pabst acquired the Ballantine brand.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Sanitation is godliness

Beer is a living thing. If it's not quite a living thing, it is made by living things. I am not talking about human beings either. Our beloved potent potable made from fermented grain would not exist were it not for fragile, single cell organisms called yeast. After the yeast is pitched into the beer they go into a frenzy of constant eating and procreation. Is that living the dream or what?

Always within arm's reach. I wouldn't be shocked if Andy slept with it under his pillow.

As the yeast digest the fermentable sugars and produce alcohol and CO2, it needs to be protected from other organisms that want to do the same thing. Sanitation is how we as brewers protect our friends, the yeast, from other organisms that threaten to crash the party that is fermentation.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Tasting Notes: Andy & Juli's Weddingfest (Octoberfest-style ale)

This is a special surprise beer I made as a wedding gift for my cousin and brewing partner Andy and his lovely new wife Juli. On the oft chance he might read the blog or see it on Facebook, I did not write a brewday post for this beer.
Using a swamp cooler to keep ferm temps on track.

The Weddingfest was a 2 gallon BIAB batch, which was my attempt to brew as close to an Octoberfest as I could without the time or ability to let the beer ferment at lager temperatures (high 40s-low 50s F). Octoberfest is also known as Marzen, which is the German word for March. The beer was traditionally brewed in March, clean lager yeast was used, the beer was then lagered (lager is the German word for store) in caves at cool temperatures during the summer, and then served in the fall.