Saturday, March 30, 2013

First Brew Day

Today is my first brew day.  I was stoked about all the possibilities but a little worried about making any mistakes that would lead to skunky beer and a wasted effort.  I got my burner out and started it up on the front porch so I could access the kitchen as fast as possible.  After filling the 5-gallon kettle with 3-gallons of water, I dumped all the steeping grains in the mesh bag and the brew was underway.

The stout recipe called for steeping the grains for 30 minutes until the temp reached 170.  A few minutes after dropping the bag in I saw where stouts get their dark color.  The kettle turned a dark tannic like something you'd see if you were in a black water swamp.   This is where my first (but not last) rookie mistake occurred.  I had tied the mesh bag to the kettle, but I didn't do a great job of tying up the bag itself, so some of the grains started escaping.  But this was quickly remedied with a slotted spoon.  After reaching boil, it was time for the NASA bag of malt extract.  Since I was worried about caramelization on the bottom I had my wife stir while I squeezed all 7 lbs of extract from the bag.  That stuff was pretty thick.  I basically had to wring the bag to get the last bits.  Then it was time to bring it back up to a boil and add the bittering hops.  I've become a big fan of hops since I helped a friend brew last Saturday.  Hops smell really good to me.  My perception of beer has changed a lot since I started learning about brewing.  Before, yeah I knew beer was made of some grain called malt and some hops, whatever those were.  But it wasn't a full appreciation. It was like going to Publix and grabbing a cellophane wrapped container of meat or fish, or a can of spaghetti sauce.  You're distancing yourself from all the raw materials and hard work that go into making the finished product.  I'm not going to go off on some rant about having a Neanderthal diet (a great idea if your goal is to live until you are 30) or the omnivore's dilemma.  But understanding the raw materials, what quality smells like, makes you better able to detect those same elements in a finished beer.  So to say the least, it's been a real eye opener for me.

The thing all the books, recipes, and friends warn you about is boil over.  It's not the end of the world if it happens, but more of a mess.  Once I got things going I was working on other things like figuring out how to chill the wort, sanitizing stuff, getting the labels off my used bottles.  So I was back and forth pretty regularly.  I left the lid partially closed with the thermometer allowing a little venting.  I was going to grab a chair when I noticed some foam building up.  I quickly popped the lid and cut the burner way down.  Crisis averted.

The Cool Down
This was what I was most concerned about - cooling the wort quickly.  I was really tempted to go out and buy a wort chiller after reading all the reviews about their usefulness, ease, and leading to better beer.  But I also didn't want to blow $50 on something and then turn out to be a terrible brewer and never brew again.  I was planning on getting a bag of ice the night before (and bottled water for the partial boil method) but forgot.  So after the wort was done I filled the sink with ice, dropped the kettle in there and headed to the store.   I got 4 bags of ice.  Which maybe a little overkill after reading online reviews, but it seemed worth it to minimize cooling time and the potential for contamination.  Filling the tub with water and 4 bags of ice worked really well.  I'm not sure of the exact time, but once I got the kettle in there it was less than 30 mins.  I resolved to freeze some water or stock up on homemade fridge ice next time to save on costs.

Here is where I made my second, mostly likely worst, rookie mistake.  The wort was ready to go (actually a little cooler than anticipated after I added 1.5 gallons of cold bottled water), but the yeast was still chill'n in the fridge at 40 degrees F.  I couldn't believe it.  So I ran the tap hot, filled up a large plastic cup that you get from a college or pro stadium, and put the yeast bottle in there.  A little while later, maybe 5-10 minutes, I took it out and pitched it.  When I opened the top of the yeast vial, some air came out so maybe they were started to get active, but I'm pretty sure they had somewhat of a rude awakening.  I'm going to have to consult with some experts like Mr. Splobucket, but I feel like this has the most potential to negatively impact this batch.  Nevertheless, I'll find out in a few days if the yeasts like their new home.

-Brewer Brendan

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Legislative Success!

I don't normally like to talk about politics very much. The tactic of mud slinging just seems crude and, well, muddy.

But this is time for rejoice! Mississippi has legalized homebrewing! (As if they weren't already doing it. Now they can just do it publicly)

That's right. The state famous for moonshine, rednecks, cotton, and a nationwide method for counting time without using a watch, now can home brew beer to their hearts content! The tyranny in the government has come to an end! Alabama is now the only state that declares homebrewing illegal.

Now you have to ask yourself Alabama, "If all your friends went and jumped off a bridge, would you?"

If you were me? I'd say... "HELL YES! I like to think I have smart friends. If every single one of them is jumping off a bridge, than there must be something pretty awful happening on that bridge."

In other news, my digital beer menu is progressing. I went and got my Raspberry Pi (RPi as the cool people call it) and all the little accessories to get it work. I'm loving having it. When I doom this one to eternal displaying of what's on tap, I might just have to get another one. To just... have.

Since purchasing the device, nights have been spent on my little netbook researching ways how to make this thing even more awesome. Funny thing about linux that makes life really easy. If you google "how do I (action) in linux X ( X being the flavor of linux, whether it be Ubuntu, Debian, Gnu, Suse, or whatever other weird name you can think of)?" You will get a long list of 101 different ways to get to where you're going. The challenge is sorting through and find out what works best for you. The thing with the internet is, someone else has already done what you're trying to do, not exactly, but pretty damn close. Close enough that you should be able to take it and tweak to your heart's content.

Turns out my little netbook has a 3rd use (aside from internet browsing and blogging). It's a pretty useful terminal to access my RPi with (SSH into, for the nerds keeping track at home). The linux terminal really brings me back to my Dos days.

Let me know if you have any ideas how to make my digital beer  menu more kick-ass! Also, I hope you all are enjoying Brendan's posts! We'll be adding more authors to the lineup soon for the ATOTB Brew Crew!

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Downtown Brew

Were you at The Downtown Brew this weekend in Orlando? I'm going to guess that you probably weren't. Why? Because even with being told about it, it was near impossible to find. Unless you happened to be a member of the website ChurchStreetDistrict.Com. Which I also didn't know existed until I heard about the downtown brew.

Even with the lack of publicity, the event was a blast. 40 different beers, and several food vendors made this event worth every penny. It may have even been better than the Philly beer fest. Again, why? Because it was at least 40 degrees warmer. And I'm not exaggerating. The weather was gorgeous, and the beer was flowing. The free food was a nice addition as well.

Standouts from the event? I was very happy Goose Island was there. They may be one of my new favorite breweries. Love the tap handles also. Murphy's was at the show with a Red Ale that was fantastic. I hadn't ever heard of anything but their stout. Budweiser managed to make the list of Breweries, and they were giving out their Lime-A-Rita. The girls were cute, but their beer was disgusting. It would have been a lot better with a lot of Tequila added to it.

I've managed to go years without going to a craft beer fest. In the past 2 weeks I've gone to two. Extrapolating the data will make this a very good year.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Homebrew Internet Overload


I’m thoroughly confused about brewing. I read the instructions that came with the kit, skimmed the brewing book from the kit, and googled homebrewing. All have the same basic ideas, but the variations in methods leave me scratching my head. All-grain, malt extract, hops bag, partial boil, wort chiller: the list goes on. I’m looking through the box to see what I’ve got: besides a plastic carboy and 5-gallon bucket, I’ve got a beer kit for a stout with a silvery 7 lb vacuum bag of syrup that looks like something NASA would send up with the astronauts.
The more I read, the more questions I have. But I’m starting to piece some of the basics together. To create beer you need sugars (from malt), hops, yeast, a sterile environment and time. What methods you use to get through that process is where all the differences in homebrew come into play. How involved you want to be in the process (and how much time you want to spend), what equipment you have, and how much money you are willing to spend (on said equipment) will all dictate the method you end up choosing.

Brewing is a lot like cooking: several ingredients, heat, boiling, multi-tasking. Also, just like cooking you don’t have to start from scratch if you don’t want to. So let’s say you have little time, money, and really don’t want to be too involved in the brewing process. You could find the nearest SkyMall and buy a kit where you mix the ingredients with water, place in a plastic container and then wait. It’s the ramen noodles of brewing: it gets the job done, but c’mon we can do better.

The next level up is working with malt extracts. Here you are basically starting with a cake mix so to speak. The sugars have already been extracted from the malt and boiled down into a thick syrup. So all you have to do is dissolve them in a large kettle, boil them (further converting the sugars into a form the yeast like), and bring them back down to room temperature. This method often uses steeping grains too for color and additional flavors.

The highest and most complex method is called all-grain brewing. In this method you extract the sugars from the roasted grain by a process called mashing before you even start your boiling and hopping. There are no short cuts here.

Each of these levels requires more and more equipment. Also within any level there is equipment you can buy to make the tasks easier and potentially, the beer better. A chiller is probably one of the best examples. After you boil everything, getting the solution of malt sugars and hops down to room temperature fast reduces contamination risk and prevents cloudiness. The low cost, low equipment method is icing the sink or tub and putting the pot or kettle in there. The highest end would be a counter flow device (>$150) that cools the wort to room temp as quick as it can go through there. A mid-level solution would be the wort chiller.

Whether I’m grilling or cooking, I like to do things right and don’t mind getting nice equipment and/or ingredients if it will truly lead to better results. But at the same time I don’t want to spend a lot on something when it’s not going to make a difference at my skill level or if I’m not sure if I’m going to become a serious homebrewer. I read a lot of reviews about different equipment that will make your life easier and lead to better beer. But cutting your teeth on the simple equipment, making mistakes and learning, seems the better course here. It’s like playing guitar, sure the expensive Les Paul or Martin sounds better, but if you’re a beginner is it really going to matter? A professional could make a $100 Fender sound amazing. I imagine it’s the same with brewing to a certain extent: a master brewer could brew some great beer with just about any equipment you give them. After you get a few brews under your belt, then you can get the nice stuff and will appreciate it that much more.

-Brewer Brendan

Monday, March 11, 2013

Philly Madness

The Philly Craft Beer Fest was awesome.

You know what wasn't awesome? Highs in the upper 30's. I haven't felt so god damn cold in a long time. My wife and I had a little argument about the levels of layers I was bringing. I saw  no problem bringing a t-shirt, thermal long sleeve, fleece, scarf, shell jacket, and warm hat for the brew fest. She saw it as overkill and a waste of space. I stood my ground. And thank god I did. What's even more crazy? That woman made me run outside that morning. The gym at the hotel was completely packed.

Who uses the gym at the hotel? No one does that!

Well since the gym was occupied Nikki looked at me and said, "Well I guess we run outside."

I looked back at her and said "Are you f*(&ing insane?"

We ran.

When we arrived at the beer fest we waited on line and listened to "Beer Beer Beer" by Darby O Gill. Outside, staring at the entrance, we saw the tents. That's when it dawned on me that this son of a gun is outside. Chris says "no worries, you can hear the heaters running." No. No heaters. Not one. Well I had a beer. After one or two my worries quickly went away. Beer became the focus.

It also dawned on me the inherent problem of a craft beer festival. With all these wonderful beers to drink, you're bound to find a new favorite. I did find new favorites. I found a Imperial Stout and a Double IPA that were amazing. But I can't tell you where the hell they came from. I'm pretty sure one of them was located near the Stone booth (which was also tasty). That would make the brewery either Narrangansett or Oskar Blues. And with 80 breweries giving out 2 oz. samples, if you want to go to each one you're going to end up with ten pints of beer in the 5 hours alotted for the festival. That's a good amount of beer, and not all those beers are under 6% either.

The festival was a blast. Afterwards we retired to our rooms, and after beating the tar out of my brother-in-law (I clearly won, that firefighter aint got nothin on me), we promptly passed out for an hour, then went to dinner. Good times.

On a side note, I hope you all liked the inaugural Brew Crew post by Brendan the other week! We'll have another one by him this week, and in April we should start introducing other authors! Be excited, it'll be some great stuff.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Brendan: Noob

"Welcome to the inaugural posting of the Brew Crew. As I mentioned before, my idea is to get a team of people writing articles from time to time and get a larger spread of knowledge from different parts of the country, different aspects of brewing, and different personalities in general. This first post comes to you from my friend Brendan who is a fellow beer enthusiast who just got his first homebrewing kit. More importantly, he has a beard. Which already advances him to the higher ranks of brewing. Picture a younger looking John Maier. I hope you all enjoy the new section of Brew Crew posts! Welcome Brendan!"
-Brewer Gene

I’m no beer expert. I’m familiar with the basics of brewing: I know malt, hops, water, and yeast are involved. I know there’s a fermentation process that goes on for a certain period, and yeast convert sugars to alcohol. Yep, pretty basic understanding. I do have an appreciation of beer. I don’t know if I’m a beer snob, but I do know I like good beer. Brewing was not something I’d seriously considered. When my wife bought me a starter homebrew kit I smiled widely, but wasn’t entirely sure it was for me.

Several of my friends brew. These guys make quality beers that you could put up against any higher-end beer at the grocery store. Not only can they brew, they have brewing systems far beyond anything I could dream up or execute. Systems requiring serious engineering skills, schematics, soldering and the possibility of third degree burns. When they would explain the brewing process or some equipment they used or manufactured themselves, I got the general gist. But it was like Chuck Norris explaining to the Karate Kid how to block a roundhouse kick to the face and land a counter crotch-punch. They’re working on different levels.

So, brewing seems pretty complicated to me. My wife reminded me that I make my own greek yogurt. While some of the skills do translate, brewing seems to require better sterilization, more equipment, and way more variables that can be the difference between enjoying a homemade stout and homemade skunky beer. As a scientist by profession, I am hoping my basic knowledge of microbiology, chemistry, and math will pay off as I try to brew my first beer. At any rate, telling people you brew your own beer sounds way better than “Yeah, I can make yogurt.”