Friday, December 16, 2022

Tenth anniversary brew and reflections on a decade of brewing

September 1, 2012 was when we brewed our first batch. The fact that it was the first of the month is likely the only reason I remember the date. Ten years ago I was still young enough that I would receive cash on my birthday from my parents. Ten years ago I used that birthday money to buy my first starter kit and ingredients for my first batch. 

The ingredients for my first batch were very simple. Two cans of extract, one pound of English Crystal malt to steep, 1.5 ounces of Cascade hop pellets, and a sachet of Muntons ale yeast. The woman at the homebrew shop asked if I wanted light, amber or dark malt extract. I had no idea what the difference was or exactly what malt extract was. When she said the dark extract would make something vaguely like Guinness, I chose dark. 

The kit also came with the 3rd edition of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. After our first brew day, I dug into the book while our beer was fermenting. When Charlie Papazian suggested using half a cup of molasses to prime a five gallon batch of bottle-conditioned beer, we decided it would be a way to add a bit of our own flare to our first batch. 

Jennie and I were so excited to try our first batch. Jennie went as far as to design labels. At the time my PC had Photoshop Elements and we were able to recreate her sketch on the computer and print labels. We hand labeled all 50 bottles and patiently waited for the bottles to condition and carbonate. 

When we opened our first bottles I had no expectations. Over the last ten years I’ve heard all kinds of stories about brewers who hated their first batch. That wasn’t our experience at all. I was completely blown away. I couldn’t have imagined making something so delicious on a cheap electric stove in a tiny apartment. I was hooked. 

For my tenth anniversary I recreated that first batch fairly closely. Instead of using a propane burner or Mash & Boil, I did a stove-top style partial boil on an induction burner.   I used Muntons Dark Malt Extract, Crystal 150 (60L) and Safale S-04 ale yeast. On brew day I was a little short on Cascade hops, so I used a blend of Cascade and Sterling. 

A couple process changes and improvements from that first batch were treating my tap water with a Camden tablet to remove the chlorine before brewing  I also chilled my concentrated wort with an immersion chiller which I didn’t own ten years ago  

Instead of bottle conditioning, I keg conditioned. Priming one five-gallon keg instead of bottles requires half the volume of priming sugar, so this batch was primed with 1/4 cup of molasses. 

Thinking about my start in brewing and those early batches does put into focus how much brewing has changed in the past ten years. In the early days it was easy to buy a commercial craft beer, peel the labels, and use the bottles to package homebrew. Now almost every craft brewer packages in cans. There are some legacy brands like Samuel Adams and Harpoon that still bottle, but they are very much the exception. 

Many new homebrewers go straight to kegging. Similarly many new homebrewers go straight to all grain and don't use malt extract at all. While there are certain advantages to all grain brewing, extract brewing should have an important place in the hobby. This is a hobby and many people only have so much time to dedicate to a hobby. Every time I brew with extract now as an experienced brewer, I really enjoy the shorter brewday and easier cleanup. 

There are many reasons for the decline of extract brewing. Brewing appliances like the Grainfather and Mash & Boil have made all grain brewing as easy as ever. I see two issues that are not spoken about enough. The lack of education there is to brew quality beer with malt extract, and the commodification of malt extract. 

To my first point things like de-chlorinating brewing water and late extract additions should be standard operating procedure for all extract brews and extract recipe kits sold at homebrew shops. It wasn't until I started treating my brewing water with a camden tablet that Jennie said my beer didn't taste like homebrew. When I read Brewing Classic Styles and started doing late extract additions, my beers were no longer overly dark and sweet from kettle caramelization. 

There are large online retailers which sell and pack their recipe kits with the cheapest extract they can get. The belief is that the extract brewer is not sophisticated enough to care where their malt extract comes from.  While a stack it high and sell it cheap approach does work a lot of the time, it doesn't educate or engage the customer. Any business should strive to have their customers more engaged with their product. While selling cheap is easy, it can and does devalue a product. Treating extract as a commodity only reinforces the belief that malt extract produces inferior beer every time. 

Something about molasses gives the 
beer such a creamy and persistent head.

As I tapped my anniversary brew to test my belief that you can make great beer with malt extract, here is my evaluation: