Sunday, July 29, 2012

Guest Post: Bro Lo Brews

With much pomp and circumstance, I would like to welcome my brother-in-law (Bro Lo) aboard the Patti Wagon. Bro Lo is a home brewer extraordinaire (Trust me, I've tasted his brews.), and he graciously agreed to write a post for the blog. Bro Lo, you have the floor. 

“Beer,” Ben Franklin reportedly said, “is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Historical accuracy aside, the statement’s meaning rings true; ipso facto making beer is love. Except for Milwaukee’s Best, the taste of pure, naked, hate. Also, Homer Simpson definitely said: “Beer: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” Amen.

My lovely wife, and sister of The Patti Wagon author, bought me a homebrewing kit the Christmas before last, which warrants a nomination for Newlywed Wife of the Year. Thanks to the Soviet-bloc judges, she lost out. And here I thought communism made things fair for everyone; Karl Marx is a buzzkill.

Here’s what I’ve learned from brewing maybe 8 batches over the past year-and-a-half: Making beer is mostly cleaning and waiting. Thus, Homebrewing is a great hobby for beer-lovers who are 1) Patient and, 2) Meticulous neat freaks. I am nothing like No. 2, but as an only child I am very particular and anal about my own stuff.

Despite all the cleaning and sanitizing required, beer (and really all alcoholic treats) is remarkably simply to make at its core. All you really have to do is make some sugar water (called wort in honor of Grog Wort, the first caveman to make beer and a legend in his own prehistoric time), add yeast to the wort, and wait. There are two different types of yeast: ale and lager. Ales ferment at warmer temperatures than lagers and take less time. Most of the best-selling U.S. beers (Budweiser, Miller Lite, even Milwaukee’s Best) are lagers. Almost all craft and microbrews are ales because the faster fermentation time makes them more economical to brew. Ales also ferment at roughly room temperature, making them ideal for the beginning homebrewer as lagers require special fermentation equipment.

Lagers have gotten sort of a bad rap because almost all crimes against taste (the aforementioned Beast, malt liquors, etc.) are lagers. This is not lager yeast’s fault; it is the fault of America’s love of bland, tasteless, inoffensive beer. Look, I enjoy the occasional Miller Lite or 10, but when they challenge me to “Choose Taste”, I’m not choosing Miller Lite.

I digress. Let’s brew. What follows is a very rough outline of a typical brew day for me. Recipes vary, and before brewing on your own, I highly recommend buying a copy of How to Brew. Seriously, beg, borrow or steal (not from me) that book before brewing.

First, you need to clean everything to will come in contact with your wort and sanitize everything that will come in contact with your cooled wort. Homebrew stores sell special no-rinse cleaners and sanitizers. These are worth every penny, and I can’t recommend them enough, but there are other options. Just know that the $20 bottle of Star-San will last you a long time. Fermentation is done in a chamber where bacteria just thrive. The fastest way to ruin a batch of beer (and therefore about 50 bucks, a few hours labor, and eight weeks of waiting) is to skimp on cleaning and sanitizing. Because we’re about to boil the wort in the stock pot, it simply needs to be cleaned.

The biggest component of beer is water, and between making a 5-gallon batch and all the cleaning, prepare to use a lot. Water quality, like accents, vary depending on where you live. Ironically, our town of Badwater, Dakota, has great brewing water, but I like to filter it anyway because I don’t trust the government. Different minerals in water create different flavors, so the same recipe brewed in Badwater will taste different than one brewed in Colorado—where the Rocky Mountain Cold Pure Water apparently renders beer with absolutely zero taste (see: Light, Coors).

First you’ll steep some specialty grains at 150 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit for around 45 minutes (give or take 15). This begins the process of imparting flavor and creating fermentable sugars. I generally use this time to clean and sanitize my other equipment.

When done steeping, bring the wort to a rolling (or is it roiling?) boil. Then add your dried and/or liquid malt extract and flavor hops. You’ll need to stir constantly (the hottest most labor-intensive part of brewing) until it returns to a boil or sticky malt extract and hops will stick to the pot’s bottom and burn. This is bad. Watch out boil-overs during this time as well; just remove from heat and let it settle down, eventually your wort will calm down and boil nicely as you continue adding hops according your recipe’s hops schedule throughout the next hour. Hops add bitterness and aroma. There are a seemingly infinite different hop breeds and a growing hops shortage thanks to the booming craft-brewery industry and some bad weather.

adding malt

stir constantly


When the timer goes off for the last time, it’s time to cool to the wort quick, fast and in a hurry. Unless you have a fancy immersion wort chiller, which *cough* no one has purchased off my Amazon wishlist yet *cough*, this means an ice-water bath. Depending on how big your tub is and how much ice you have (do yourself a favor and pick up a bag at the 7-11), this can take 15 to 30 minutes.

When the wort cools to your fermentation temperature (roughly room temp for ales), it’s time to pour it into your sanitized fermentation chamber, in this case a food-grade plastic bucket. Be sure to splash it around and try to keep from pouring too much of the hop crud from the bottom of the pot. Add more water to bring the total volume to around five gallons, add yeast and seal it up. Fermentation should begin within 24 hours and can be violent at first, sometimes the airlock is just bubbling away.
pouring into sanitized container

Hop crud. Non-potable.

After primary fermentation slows to a crawl (for me it usually seems to be 5 or 6 days), transfer to a secondary fermenter using a siphon to keep oxygen out. This takes the beer off the trub, a nasty collection of spent yeast and hop crud which collect at the bottom. A week or two later, it’s time to bottle. 

primary fermentation

siphoning into secondary fermentation (carboy)

Unless you have fancy kegging equipment, you’ll have to bottle, which means more cleaning and sanitizing. You’ll also have to make some a sugar-water solution and add to the finished wort so the bottles will carbonate themselves. Two weeks to a month later (the more patient you are, the better the beer; six weeks has been a sweet spot for many of my brews), you have many drops of sweet, sweet beer—proof that you love yourself and want yourself to be happy.

Homer Simpson also once thought to himself: “I would kill everyone in this room for one drop of sweet beer.” But if you take up homebrewing, you’ll never have to make that trade, and your family will love you all the more for that. Told you brewing was all about love. Bro Lo

Patti Wagon's back. For some additional reading, check out Sandor Katz's book, The Art of Fermentation. I actually have not read the book, but there is a great Fresh Air interview with the author here. I actually have heard that. 

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