Breaking into All Grain

Many of my old posts concerned my homebrew hobby. I think I was always pretty clear I was practicing the “extract” method in which you use dehydrated or dried malt to create the foundation of flavors and fermentable sugars for your beer. It’s a pretty simple method in which you’re basically making soup (add ingredients to water, boil for a hour, cool and ferment) but you’re limited in what you can make and your base base ingredients have already been processed so your quality is compromised to a certain degree. The advantages to extract, however, is that the brewing process is quicker, requires less equipment and it’s easier to make higher-alcohol beers like double IPAs.

But there’s a snotty attitude in the homebrew world for those limited to just extract. I remember when I worked at Starmont and was talking about homebrewing with my colleagues in the lab when a winemaker, who was a home brewer, came in and someone mentioned I also made homebrew. He asked me about my setup and when I said it’s a five-gallon extract system, he wasn’t too impressed. “That sucks,” was all he said and our homebrew conversation was over.

Undeterred I stuck with extract making regular batches and steadily improving my methods and sanitation until I was pretty locked in to making my own beers that conformed to BJCP standards. People generally said my homebrew tasted like “real beer” and there were a few instances when people tried my beer without knowing I had made it at home and wanted to know what the name of the brewery was.

I’d basically met the challenge of making quality beer with extract and needed to upgrade to making beer in the “all-grain” process. This involves more equipment to make beer from simply malted and milled grain, water and hops. But a few years ago I got distracted with making wine, and didn’t have much cash after buying a new house so the brewing hobby fell to the wayside.

Matt Noble checking on his boil kettle during the all-grain class in St. Helena.

Matt Noble checking on his boil kettle during the all-grain class in St. Helena.

That changed about two months ago when my mom bought me an “expert brewing” class through the Napa Community College culinary facility in St. Helena. Taught by Matt Noble, a brewer at the excellent Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley. Noble proved to be a relaxed, friendly guy who took us through the all-grain process from start to finish answering detailed questions from folks like me who have fermentation experience and other folks who didn’t seem to know what hops are. The class also featured a delicious lunch of Trumer and Anchor Steam beers served by Alsatian choucroute and sausage cooked by the culinary students.

Based on the class and Noble’s advice on a good start-up kit I visited the guys at J&M Brewing Supplies in Novato, which is just a short trip up 101 from my office in San Rafael. I had learned about these guys by doing a profile on them freelance for a special Marin County publication by the San Francisco Chronicle. It was pretty chill to see the cover of that publication framed on the wall behind their register and one of the owners Marty Wall was real helpful in getting me set up.

I opted for a system based on two 10-gallon insulated water coolers and upgraded my 10-gallon boil kettle with a weld-less thermometer and ball valve. I’ve brewed two IPAs with the set-up so far and am very satisfied. I’ll go into the brewing in more detail in a subsequent post.

I felt a little bad letting my brew kettle gather dust for so long, but it was important for me to invest in new equipment to take on new challenges. When you pursue a hobby to create something, one needs to ensure your tools are balanced with your skill to make the investment in time and money worth it. Everybody knows someone with the means who has dumped a bunch of money into a hobby only to produce something mediocre. In fact, I know a few winery owners whose equipment and tasting rooms are more impressive than their products.

Hombrew disappointment — It’s all flat!

Two weeks of waiting, followed by a day of chilling in the fridge and then the moment of truth.

Opening the first bottle of homebrew.

I’ll admit, this shouldn’t be such a moment fraught with anxiety. If you’re a competent homebrewer you should have consistent success, you methods should be tested and true. Brewing should be a road to success, not a trip marked by pitfalls and wishful thinking.

But alas, for the humber amateur like myself I can never say I don’t have some trepidation as I put the bottle opener to that first 22 ounce bottle. Will it be skunky? Will it have a weird aroma? Will it be — gasp — flat?

Turns out my last batch was the perhaps the worst, flat as can be. It tastes good, it’s a little darker than I hoped but still doesn’t look bad, it has a nice finish but no bubbles. I’ll blame it on two things, waiting to long to bottle condition, not monitoring my fermentation well enough and also using the tabs of sugar rather than dosing out priming sugar.

I now have two cases of flat beer. Like I said, it tastes OK, but it’s flat. I resolve my next batch will receive my utmost attention and care. It shall receive a correct amount of carbonation sugar and I will ensure I still have healthy yeast to make it to the carbonation finish line.

As with all hobbys, one must not be daunted by failures but rather learn from them to achieve future success.

What I’m drinking …

Home made and tasty!

My own homebrew! I’ve been enjoying the fruits of my own labor for about a month now and I feel confident enough to declare this batch a success. You may recall a recent post in which I described a homebrewing experience.

At the time, I had a certain degree of trepidation about the quality of my beer. I was worried about contamination, odd flavor profiles and the dreaded pitfall for most homebrewers: no bubbles.

Many of my friends had told me they’d tried homebrew before only to experience an insipid and uncarbonated beverage that only remotely resembled beer. It’s often the case that a homebrewer can maintain decent sanitation during the brewing process to create a solid foundation for a beer only to see it fall apart in the bottle because the beer just won’t carbonate. There is nothing worse than flat beer.

Carbonation is really an expression of one of the best characteristics of beer: it’s alive. Well, in a sense, it’s alive. “Bottle conditioned” beer is carbonated by the little yeast beasties that have already fermented the beer. During bottling a small amount of sugar is added to the beer. The remaining yeast in the beer will eat up that added sugar and convert it to CO2. That gas will release when the bottle is opened in the form of bubbles and a nice full head of a foam at the top of the glass. The trick with homebrewing is to know how much sugar to add and how long to let that secondary fermentation, or conditioning, last. Most homebrewers bottle condition their beer as it’s an easier process than injecting compressed CO2.

Rule of thumb is two weeks, but I have found that optimal carbonation can sometimes take up to three weeks. That, my friends, is the hardest part of homebrewing. Having cases of bottled beer that you made yourself just waiting to be opened, though you know you can’t because it still hasn’t reached prime carbonation.

My beer? A little flat after two weeks, but after about two and a half weeks it was drinking nice.

I would describe my beer as something akin to an unfiltered Sierra Nevada. A rich, hoppy taste but with a fuller mouth feel and darker color.Thankfully the beer has not exhibited any tastes of bad contamination and has a cleaner and crisper finish than my other beers.

But perhaps the best praise came from my friend Joe who doesn’t brew and prefers to drink — gasp! — Coors Light.

“This really isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” he said after the first sip.

“Actually, it’s not that bad at all.”

Robust praise for the humble homebrewer.