Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Christmas Brew – Part One

Each year the week before Thanksgiving I begin brewing two 5 gallon batches of homebrew, each one week apart. The process takes one month from brew to finish. The results are Christmas gifts for clients, family and friends and a few left-over creamy-headed pints for me.

If you really want to understand the difference between your modern bottled beer and appreciate what real beer was before megabreweries took over after prohibition, homebrewing will allow you see the “light”.

I have been homebrewing for fifteen years, the first five with so-so results. Then I discovered Bob at Kenneywood Brewing Supply Co. Kennywood began as an e-commerce site operated by Bob out of his basement brewery. Upon finding his site and realizing he lives within 20 miles away I called him to see if I could save shipping costs by picking up my supplies and he said sure. It also allowed me to pick the brain of an experienced homebrewer.

Bob is a very serious brewing hobbyist who brews a wide variety of styles and recipes for his personal use. His rye beer was by far the best beer I have ever tasted. Recently he opened a retail store in Crown Point Indiana, on the square. Last weekend I paid him a visit at the store for the first time to pick up supplies, talk about brewing, hunting, his new venture as a retailer and anything else that came up.

I settled on my old standby, India Pale Ale (IPA) and bought two kits. These aren’t kits that come in a package from a manufacturer. Bob measures a special combination of 2-row malted barley, malted barley extracts, yeast and palletized hops for me. Bob and most real homebrew hobbyists go the all grain route, no extracts. That’s a lot more work than I have time for so he puts together a sort of hybrid offering. By roasting and milling some barley and adding it to a sparge bag soaked before the boil it adds a bit of that all grain mystique and smoothness. The results are better than most beer you can buy in a store and good as any from a microbrewery. That’s why I prefer to brew my own. I want to give the best to my customers, family and friends at Christmas.

One trick Bob passed on to me early on was to pre-start the yeast culture 24 hours before brewing. Not only does this get the yeast very happy and full of love it ensures the raw beer (wort) will begin churning alcohol ASAP. Pitching in yeast that is too old or less active can ruin a batch. This happened a few times in my early brew years. Quality ingredients are important but without a very fresh, active yeast culture the end results can (and have) been disappointing. I avoid dry yeast and run with the chilled liquid based products from Wyest or White Labs. There are probably hundred different strains made for lager, pilsner, ale, porters and stout. I let Bob make the reco, He's a pro.

The grain is grown in and malt processed by a company in Wisconsin called Briess. The hops are conveniently measured and pelletized. For this IPA recipe it’s one oz. Northern Brewer and one oz. Cascade. IPA is traditionally a very hoppy brew. These hops come from the Pacific northwest. I use purified bottled water from the grocery store.

On brew day the yeast must be cranking in the chemistry flask sealed with a one-way gas lock before proceeding. At this time the most important thing is to sanitize all the equipment to be used before brewing. I use Isophor, an iodine based concentrate. Contaminated equipment promotes mold growth, not unhealthy but any mold would give the entire batch a foul taste.

Using a propane burner (the same one I use to fry turkeys) and a cheap aluminum pot from Wal-Mart I get 2.5 gallons of the water boiling. Tossing in my grain stuffed sparge bag when the water is cold and waiting until the temperature gets to 160 degrees before removing is the rule. Before the boiling point is reached I stir in the liquid and powdered malted barley extracts. This makes for a liquid sugar-bomb perfect for rapid yeast action. This is also where a boil-over hazard may occur. If the boiling point is surpassed by a degree or two the pot will boil over. It’s not a safety hazard, just a sticky, icky mess. This is why I brew in the garage. She would murder me if I boiled over on the kitchen cook top again.

Just before the boil I add the Northern Brewer hops. Boiling brings out their bitter best. The Cascade hops go in at 45 minutes after the initial boil. I could add another ounce of hops when I transfer the brew to the second fermentation but this recipe is hoppy enough. That is what I believe Miller Lite refers to as "triple hopped". Mmm...OK.

After one hour I have 2,5 gallons of “wort” or raw beer.

The wort is added to the fermentation bucket along with the additional 2.5 gallons of cold water and a copper coil. The coil is called a “wort chiller”. With one hose connected to a water source and the other a drain the coil chills down the hot wort in 15 minutes. Using the laundry tub works just fine.

After a one hour boil the 5 gallons of wort must be chilled as rapidly as possible to avoid contamination and bring it down to 70 degrees, perfect for adding the yeast culture. After pitching in the active yeast culture the bucket is ready for sealing topped off with a gas lock.

This weekend, I will be transferring this brew from the fermentation bucket into a 5 gallon glass carboy for a second fermentation and then starting the second batch.


Gerry from Valpo said...

Good rant. Face it, successful college football programs were once the domain of the eastern and midwestern schools. It now belongs to the schools of the south and west.

Dan from Madison said...

I assume you meant this for my Illinois football post. But yes, the recruiting train has left the station and it ain't coming back.

Carl from Chicago said...

Gerry - that beer you brewed and brought the tailgate was fantastic. I loved the touches like the great looking label you created, as well.

Gerry from Valpo said...

Oops. WTF, I been working days, nights and weekends for two months. Approaching burnout. Sorry. Going to bed early tonight. No work next week, just bird hunting and eating. And brewing.

And drinking.