Several days ago I celebrated my 37th birthday, which was also the fourth anniversary of the day I became a homebrewer.
The day I became a homebrewer was not the day I brewed my first beer. That day was long ago in the remote fog of memory we call the 1990’s. It was the year I turned 21, and I got a 2-gallon Mr. Beer starter kit for Christmas. It came with a can of prehopped malt extract and called for a pound of table sugar. There was no boil and I think Fleischmann’s baking yeast was involved. At bottling (a week later!) I spooned loose sugar into each bottle for priming as directed.
The beers tasted like cider vinegar. Carbonation varied wildly from bottle to bottle. At the time, I assumed bad taste and inconsistency were inevitable. After all, I made beer at home, dude! I laughed at the comments and pinched faces of the friends drinking with me and enjoyed the buzz. Remember, I was 21.
And despite the results, I had fallen in love with the idea of brewing my own beer.
I was also trying to finish college, and didn’t find time to brew again. When I left home for grad school, Mr. Beer traveled with me. But it stayed in the box, and for years I kept it in the closet of one apartment after another until one day I finally just threw it out, vowing to brew again “someday”.
Four years ago, I got another starter kit on my birthday: the Coopers Micro-Brew Kit. In some ways it was like Mr. Beer grown up. The fermenter was bigger (30 liters/7.9 gallons). It came with proper brewing yeast and sugar drops for consistent priming. But the extract was still canned and prehopped, it still incorporated simple sugar (dextrose boxed with the kit) and recommended no boil. The beer also came out cidery, not how I wanted.
But I also got several books about brewing that birthday. Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and John Palmer’s How to Brew piqued my interest immediately and I read them from cover to cover. My homebrew wasn’t great, but I was reading about how great homebrew could be. I soon understood why extract-and-sugar kits yielded cidery beers. I realized what my own mistakes were. I looked forward to the next batch and considered what I would do better.
I had become a living embodiment of learning, ambition and self-challenge in the pursuit of better beer. I had become a homebrewer.
I brewed four Coopers batches before I ever touched grain or hops. Then I started working with extract, steeping grains and hop pellets. Then partial mashes for a year, and my first mead and cider. Less than two years after I got my Coopers kit, I brewed my first all-grain beer.
Now when I drink a pint of beer made from scratch from my own recipe, I’m often amazed how far I’ve come. And from what humble beginnings.
Extract-and-sugar systems like Coopers or Mr. Beer (which was purchased by Coopers in April 2012) are looked down on by many homebrewers. Some of that contempt is deserved. These systems oversimplify brewing to a fault: by limiting exposure to real ingredients and brewing processes, they take a lot of risk out of brewing, but at the cost of greatness. It’s almost impossible to fail to make beer with them, but equally impossible to make very good beer with them as sold. It’s disheartening to think of how many “homebrew curious” people must walk away from the hobby forever after tasting one batch of Coopers or Mr. Beer and assuming that’s as good as it gets.
There are also those who deride the kits for taking all the brewing out of “brewing”, and compare them to powdered drink mixes or boxed cake mix. Okay, maybe. You can’t just pour tomato sauce out of a jar onto microwaved pasta and say you made spaghetti from scratch (at least not in the Marchese family). You get more out of brewing when you put more of yourself into it, sure, but everyone has to start somewhere. With extract-and-sugar kits, you learn the basics of sanitation, fermentation, and carbonation: three essential skills a new brewer has to master, and for which there is simply no workaround in the home setting.
So extract-and-sugar is “brewing” more so than buying a six-pack is, just like jarred spaghetti sauce is “cooking” more so than going to a restaurant is. To say Coopers/Mr. Beer is “not brewing” implies that there is such a thing a “real homebrewing”, which I find a bit pompous.
Is it any wonder that some people are intimidated by our hobby? Walking into a homebrew shop for the first time can be terrifying for the uninitiated: shelf after shelf of mysterious products, bro-chatter filling the air with arcane jargon, and opinionated staff members with eccentric facial hair. My wife Lisa once ranked the homebrew shop as equal with the neighborhood comic book store as an intimidating bastion of male geekdom (and she lists beer and comics among the things she geeks on).
And there’s the cost. Extract-and-sugar kits offer a reasonably priced entry point into a hobby that can be expensive to break into, with a minimum of specialized equipment and ingredients so that if you don’t get bitten by the bug, you haven’t blown the baby’s college fund on shit you’ll never use again. These days, there are other inexpensive options available such as the Brooklyn Brew Shop 1-gallon all-grain kits that can be found at many non-specialty stores. Those kits didn’t exist when I started brewing, so I don’t know anything about how good they are. I’ll admit they seem cool.
But all-grain brewing introduces a lot of variables. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Brooklyn Brew Shop kits produce better beer than extract-and-sugar kits in a best-case scenario. But if something goes wrong, there’s a lot to troubleshoot. Why not master a few basic techniques first and then learn additional techniques one at a time?
Ultimately, there are many paths to the same goal of making the beer you like in the way you enjoy making it. The point I’m making is just that there’s no shame in the simple extract-and-sugar kits. With a little knowledge, like I had, they can be the start down a road to bigger challenges and better beer. And that, after all, is why we do it.
My Hobbit-inspired Old Took’s Midwinter IPA is now in the keg. If it seems like that happened really quickly, it’s only because of how late I posted my blog post about the brew day. I fermented it for three weeks before dry hopping it for 6 days. All in all, it was about 4 weeks from mash tun to keg.
I dry hopped it with an ounce each of the same finishing hops I used in the boil, hoping to achieve a nice mix of floral and citrus aroma notes to round out the beer:
- 1 oz Willamette (4% AA)
- 1 oz Cascade (6.2% AA)
It’s been in the keg for less than a day, so it’s too early to know for sure how it’s going to turn out. It tastes good, and it’s got more hop character than it did a week ago. So I think it’s going to be good, but I’m a little concerned that this wasn’t my most successful attempt at dry hopping.
In the past, I’ve dry hopped with pellets either tied in a disposable loose-weave muslin bag, or tossed into the fermenter loose. I prefer loose over bagging if possible for maximum contact, but hop particles in the keg are a problem with more than about a half ounce of hop pellets. With 2 oz of loose pellets, I’d be serving up pints of hop debris for a month.
I didn’t have any muslin bags on hand, nor any time to go to Austin Homebrew Supply to buy any. Searching local retailers for a solution, I came across these spice bags at a kitchen store. They’re for chefs making bouquet garnis, but they are muslin (a tighter weave but still porous), and they are advertised as reusable. The biggest drawback I could see was that they were smaller than the bags I usually use, but since I got 4 in a pack I figured I’d use several.
When bagging dry hops – or when using a tea ball-type infuser, which is also popular – the size of the bag or ball is important. Hops shouldn’t be packed too tightly or else you reduce the surface area in contact with the liquid, which decreases the amount of hop goodness that gets into the beer. After sanitizing the bags with boiling water, I split up my 2 oz of hops into 3 bags along with sanitized marbles for ballast. Two thirds of an ounce per bag seemed to provide lots of breathing room, although I knew the hops would expand a little.
I didn’t count on just how much they would expand.
After I racked the beer into the keg, I found my 3 muslin spice bags at the bottom of the fermenter. The hops had expanded so much the bags looked about to burst, like overstuffed pillows. I didn’t worry about it too much until I was cleaning the bags out, in the hopes of maybe reusing them someday. As I emptied the bags into the kitchen sink, I inhaled deeply, smelling the rich, floral-citrus bouquet coming from the green sludge washing down the drain.
And then it hit me: that’s hop aroma going down the drain. Not in my beer.
The hops expanded so much in those small bags that they ended up packed too tightly. Some of the available hop compounds got into the beer, but not all. So the beer is better than it was, but not as good as it could have been. Should have been. And I’m left feeling disappointed at the waste. A spontaneous decision potentially compromised the end result, and that’s going to bother me until I taste the chilled, carbonated beer and know for sure.
If only I had just used my usual bags! Or something else – anything else!
I should breathe deep and repeat the mantra of Charlie Papazian: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. Even if the IPA isn’t perfect, I haven’t ruined it. It’s far from the worst disaster ever to befall a homebrewer, and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve faced. Yes, it was avoidable and it’s annoying, but the beer will be fine.
Then from the back of my brain comes a nagging: Is “fine” really good enough?
It’s not beyond repair. I can still add more dry hops to the keg, if needed. And I probably will. But I’ve learned my lesson. I’m sure I’ll find many other uses for these spice bags in the brewery, such as infusing dry herbs that won’t expand. But I don’t think I’ll be bagging dry hops in anything smaller than a nylon stocking in the future.
Part of the awesomeness of homebrewing is being able to drink a beer that you can’t buy. If you want to make a chocolate mint stout with a little bit of cardamom in it because it reminds you of your groom’s cake, you can. If you want to make a wheat ale inspired by the 13th-century Italian civil war between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, you can (I might). And if you hear about an obscure beer that people are enjoying in another part of the world, instead of shaking your fist at the heavens and cursing the wretched stars for the circumstances of your birth, you can just make the beer yourself.
In February 2011, I saw a vial of White Labs WLP630 Berliner Weisse Blend at my local homebrew shop. I’d read a lot about Berliner Weisse, a refreshing, low-alcohol sour wheat beer fermented with ale yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria. It sounded delicious, and apparently is available everywhere in Northern Germany, even hot dog carts (frankfurterwagens in the vernacular, I believe) and brothels. But it’s hard to come by on this side of the Atlantic. I was stoked to find the necessary yeast blend – all I needed now were some common malts and hops. “At last! You will be mine!” I shouted, and cackled as I slipped the vial containing the precious mix of microbes into my shopping basket.
Then I got home and started reading about brewing sour beers, which I had never done before. The first rule of Sour Club is you need to be very careful to avoid cross-contamination: that is, you don’t want the bacteria in the sour beer to infect equipment you use to make traditional “clean” beers that ferment with just yeast, because they can turn all your “clean” beers sour. Plastic equipment is very susceptible to cross-contamination, because plastic surfaces get tiny scratches over time that harbor bacteria. I use almost exclusively plastic (I’m clumsy, and would so drop a glass carboy filled with 5 gallons of beer), so for me this basically meant that I needed a whole new set of brewing gear. I panicked. I didn’t have the money to invest in a second set of equipment just to make a beer I wasn’t even sure I’d like. So I stuck the vial in the fridge and forgot about it.
The yeast blend expired in May 2011, but I held onto it for weeks. Weeks became months. Soon it was February, and for all I knew, 99% of the yeast blend was probably dead. It was only then, having become a man with nothing to lose, that I found my courage.
I decided to make a 1-gallon batch of Berliner Weisse, my rationale being:
- A new set of small batch gear was cheaper than a new set of 5-gallon gear.
- If most of the yeast blend was dead, I’d have better luck with a smaller volume of wort.
- I wasn’t sure how much Berliner Weisse I’d need around the house anyway.
I brewed it on March 3. The recipe was based on “Saures Biergesicht” from Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer’s Brewing Classic Styles, scaled for smaller volume but lower efficiency:
- 1 lb Bohemian Pilsner malt
- .75 lb White Wheat malt
I mashed at 149°F for 90 minutes in a pot on the stove; brew-in-a-bag, no sparge. I added .22 oz of Hallertau Saphir hops (4.2% AA) and boiled for 15 minutes. I transferred 5.5 quarts of wort with a gravity of 1.035 into a 2-gallon bucket I’d outfitted with a stopper and airlock. Then came the moment of truth: pitching the year-old yeast/lacto blend.
On account of the Teutonic heritage of the style and the unholy act of bringing microbes back from the dead, I named the brew “Bacillusferatu” after my second favorite German expressionist horror film (I plan to honor my favorite one soon with a pyment mead of buckwheat honey and Cab Sauv grape juice called “The Cabernet of Doctor Caligari”). But I never had much hope that my creation would live. Surely there was not enough magic left in that vial.
But man, was I wrong. It took a couple of days to get started, but it did. And it fermented wonderfully.
I racked Bacillusferatu into a small carboy 3 weeks later at gravity 1.006. Now it sleeps quietly, the bacteria continuing to ferment the beer and develop its characteristic tartness. In 6 months or so, it should be ready to emerge from its slumber and be unleashed upon the world …
I still have no idea how this beer will turn out. Right now it tastes good and funky, but with no tartness yet. But I have learned two important lessons from brewing it. #1 – As a homebrewer, I alone control my drinking destiny. #2 – Douglas Adams and Charlie Papazian were right. Don’t panic. Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew. To which I’d add: Never be afraid to try something new.