What do you do when you work at a winery and harvest is slowing down and you get your first two day weekend in about a month?
Brew beer, of course.
Home brewing has been a hobby of mine for about the last three years. I hadn’t had the time to put down a batch in a while so when I had some free time from harvest I decided to brew it up. Brewing beer at home is far simpler than many people may assume. It’s really like making a big batch of tea. The trick, however, is that this tea needs to be prepared with the utmost attention to sanitation and it needs to be a good environment for yeast to get all happy and multiply resulting in fermentation.
The good folks at Napa Fermentation Supplies helped me out in picking the right ingredients for my brew. My recipe, cobbled together in my mind, was for a light, crisp pale ale with some good and strong hop notes. Hops, a vine like plant, is what gives beer that nice bitterness and flavor. The other key ingredient in brewing is the grain, the basis of the brew. The first step in brewing (at least with a simple home brew set up like mine) is to steep raw grain in hot water. The water draws out the sugars and enzymes that will ultimately ferment and give the beer its malt flavor. After the grain is done steeping, you add the first batch of malt extract and hops. Malt extract is essentially the grain steeping step that’s done in a factory brewery that allows the home brewer to avoid having to buy a whole bunch of extra, and expensive, brewing equipment. (The hard core home brewers don’t use extract, and instead have “all grain” systems that are like miniature, commercial breweries.)
My first batch of hops, known as the “bittering” hops was a British variety that should give the beer a subtle bitterness in the initial taste of the beer. These hops sit in the brew kettle during the entire boil, a key step in brewing when all the ingredients come together. Later in the brew, I added some American hops to give the beer much more of a hoppy finish. I’m hoping for something that’s similar to a Sierra Nevada or Laqunitas pale ale. The wild card, however, is that when I was digging out my brew equipment I discovered that I still had about half a pound of caramel grain. This was much darker than the other grains I was using, but I decided to just use it rather than throw it out. I think it’s going to give the beer a darker color than I had originally envisioned and some caramel notes in the finish.
After the beer is done brewing you have to cool it as quick as possible with a device that’s known as a “wort chiller.” (Wort being the traditional name for unfermented beer.) This device is essentially a copper coil that has an inlet and outlet hose. You attach a cold water hose to the inlet and let the flow of cold water through the coil chill your wort down.
During the boil, the wort will reach temperatures in excess of 200 degrees farenheit, so even with the wort chiller it takes about 40 minutes to chill the wort. This is a key step because if you let the wort chill slowly, bacteria can find a home in your unfinished brew and lead to nasty contamination. Slow chills, also can let various compounds develop in the wort that will turn your finished beer hazy.
I chilled my beer down to about 80 degrees before transferring it to my 7.5 gallon carboy, or large glass bottle. This bottle serves as my primary fermentor, were the yest will turn sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. I pitched the yeast at about 75 degrees and crossed my fingers. I’m a little wary of this first batch because I think there was some contamination and a recent cold snap means the yeast will be working at colder temperatures than is ideal. But, the wonder of home brewing is that sometimes you think your worst mistakes become wonderful surprises. (And conversely, sometimes you think a knock-out brew turns out to be rather mediocre and uninspired.)
Despite the cold temperatures, the yeast are doing their job and I’ve got a nice fermentation going. I’m still worried about the contamination, because beer is particularly sensitive to bacteria causing havoc with the taste, smell and appearance, but we’ll see.
And I’ll be sure to keep you updated about how it goes.