Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Mystery of Beer

This is going to be a bit of a long post, but I’m okay with that, since I haven’t posted in a year and a half, and it was a year between posts before that. I promise to be more frequent and less longwinded going forward.

A few of years ago, mrs. robertus got me a homebrew starter kit for my birthday. It was really basic set up – a 5-gallon pot, a couple of 5-gallon buckets, various assorted tubes and doodads, and a recipe kit with some powders, syrup, and steeping grains. It ran about 200 bucks, all told, from the homebrew store. Thus began Nolanbrau.
Check the mad phat photoshop skillz, yo!
Brewing, for all the mystery that surrounds it, is a pretty straightforward:
·      Bring a couple gallons of water up to about 155 degrees.
·      Put some crushed up grains into a cheesecloth bag, and steep it in the water for about half an hour, like you were making tea. Afterward, toss the bag.
·      Bring the liquid to a boil, and add your malt extract (the powders and syrup mentioned above). Boil that for an hour.
·      Add hops at various time points (usually right at the start, about halfway through, and with about 10 minutes left).
·      Use an ice bath to cool it down to about 75 degrees.
·      Pour into bucket. Add enough water to make 5 gallons.
·      Add yeast
·      Seal bucket, leave it in dark place
·      Wait
·      Explain to wife why the house smells like wet grass, and why there’s powder all over the stovetop, and that the organic chemistry experiment in the basement is a good thing.

We brewed a couple of batches from kits immediately. The first (an Irish Red) was okay, but our mistakes obvious (it took us a month to get the beer stains off the walls). The second was a much less dramatic affair that yielded a 9% Christmas ale, which we gave away at parties over the holidays.

The third, a porter (“Fat Boris,” after a character in a D&D game), was somehow also cidery. Which is odd for a drink that's supposed to taste like coffee. But, we figured that maybe it was off because we'd burned the bottom of the pot – we didn’t take the pot off the heat before pouring in the Liquid Malt Extract, which caramelized on the bottom of the pot instead of dissolving into the wort. These are rookie mistakes, but we were rookies.

I took a year and a half off after that. We needed a new brew pot, and mrs. robertus, pregnant with Claire, was hypersensitive to smells (like wet grass), and then we had a baby. Last November, I brewed my fourth and fifth batches, a Brown Ale from a kit and from the local homebrew store, respectively. The brown ale was yeasty, which was a terrible result for what should’ve been an easy drinker. The stout had some of the same characteristics, but less pronounced.

The Brown Ale was a kit, we reasoned, and like the kits before it was cidery, fizzy, and sharp. So, obviously, something must be wrong with the kits – old ingredients, maybe, or a bad yeast. But the stout wasn’t from a kit. I’d pulled all the ingredients off the shelf myself, and they were all reasonably fresh. Something else was going awry.

After spending entirely too much time on Homebrew Talk and reading up, we hit on the likely culprit. The instructions with the kit and from the homebrew store had told us to leave the bucket “at room temperature,” when “room temperature” was really 10 degrees warmer than it should have been.

So, thusly informed, I put Batch 6 (an Octoberfest) in the much cooler basement. We’re bottling it next weekend, and should be able to tell whether we’ve solved our problem. 

We’ve put together the materials for a swamp cooler for Batch 7, an Anchor Steam clone that we’re brewing as soon as Batch 6 gets bottled. But that’s a whole nother post.