Fresh summer beer

Homebrewing is a test of patience. The few hours spent brewing are only the start of the process: after the beer is done fermentation, about a week in most cases, you have to rack it into a secondary fermenter to get the beer off the dead yeast cells to avoid off flavours and also to add dry hops if the beer calls for them, which you then have to allow to sit for another couple of weeks. From there it’s into the bottles, but first you have to add some priming sugar to the beer to allow it to naturally carbonate in the bottles over the course of a couple of weeks. All in all, you’re looking at a good five to six weeks between brewing beer and drinking it, which, when you’re excited about your beer, can be a long time to wait. All of this is to say that I am now drinking the IPA I posted about here and the mild I posted about here.

The IPA is fantastic.  There are some things I would like to tweak on it: it could benefit from having a slightly heavier body, and it finishes really dry, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it could be a little bit sweeter.  That said, it’s a wonderfully refreshing and drinkable beer with a solid but not overwhelming bitterness and a beautifully fresh citrusy aroma.  I had an embarassingly low yield with this–only eighteen bottles from a three gallon batch–which upsets me a little because I wish I had more of it.  I’ll have to make up another batch soon, probably with a couple of changes.

The mild is decent, but I’m less happy with it than I am with the IPA.  The problem with making a mild, as I sort of began to address here, is that while I have some experience drinking mild, it was from too long ago for me to have a very clear idea of what the finished beer should taste like (never mind that I was only in the very beginning stages of my beer education then and didn’t have close to the understanding that I have now), and vague impressions aren’t necessarily the best thing to go on.  I was too heavy-handed with the dark malt and so the beer has a lot of the roasted flavours that you would tend to associate with a style like stout, though it lacks the body of a stout.  It isn’t a bad beer by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t quite what I had hoped and imagined it to be.

I’m not sure what my next brews will be.  I still have some hops left over from the IPA and so I’ll likely brew another, slightly different version of it.  I would also like to get well out of my comfort zone and brew something Belgian-inspired, like a saison, most likely with some sort of fruit. I’ll be sure to post about whatever it is I decide to brew next.


In Praise of Small Beer

My brewing assistant, Susan.

I really love what Anna wrote for this blog about “foodie culture” and the way that it fetishises eating and drinking seemingly without regard for social context. What is true for food is likewise true for beer.  It goes without saying that I love what is usually termed “craft beer”, i.e. distinctive, flavourful, and well-made beers that come from a place of genuine love and passion instead of the dictates of a marketing department. But there is a sense in which the culture surrounding craft beer is, well, too much about the beer itself.

Take, for example,’s “Best Beers 2011” list, and note, along with Stephen Beaumont, that 39 of the top 50 beers are imperials. The beer writer and historian Martyn Cornell worries about how these lists will encourage brewers to focus on “extreme” beers to the “detriment of those of use who want nuance, subtlety and depth in our beers.”  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a beautifully complex 10% abv Russian Imperial Stout every now and again, but this isn’t an everyday kind of beer.  What we have here is craft beer’s “wine envy”: the idea that beer can and should be far more than the industrially-produced fizzy yellow stuff and can have a real depth and complexity that rivals the sophistication of wine. While this is not untrue, the problem with “wine envy” is that it only looks at the elite consumption and appreciation of wine for guidance. Sure, wine can be a perfectly aged bottle of Bordeaux from a good vintage, but it can also be a simple bottle of red table wine, enjoyed with friends over a long and comforting dinner, both of which can be great given the right context and company.  And so it should be with beer: a beer shouldn’t have to be mind-blowing and hammer your tastebuds into submission to be the right beer at the right time. Sometimes a less aggressive, thirst-quenching “session” beer is what you want, and it can be just as beautiful and flavourful as an imperial.

And so, partly because I was thinking of brewing one eventually, and partly because my coworker Julien was trying to push the homebrewers at work to brew milds inspired by CAMRA’s “Celebrate Mild in May” campaign, my latest brew is a mild.  With a couple of exceptions, such as Jester King Brewery’s hopefully not accurately named Commercial Suicide Oaked Dark Mild and some hard to find bottled imports like Moorhouse’s Black Cat, mild is a style of beer very rarely seen in North America.  It’s a traditional low gravity, light bodied, lightly-hopped British style of beer that was once favoured by the working classes because it could be drunk for lunch without interfering with work, but it almost disappeared as kegged lager became popular.  It’s now seeing a revival largely because of CAMRA’s tireless campaigning, but I think a large part of the appeal is that much like a lager, mild is fundamentally a refreshing and thirst quenching beer, though unlike lager it has a lot of depth and flavour.

I can’t claim that my version of a mild will be anything close to authentic.  There is a volume of the Classic Beer Style Series devoted to mild, but I haven’t read it.  My recipe is sort of based around my not very clear recollections of drinking Black Cat, though this is all interpretation with nothing solid to back it.  It will be hoppier than is strictly traditional, but this is because I find a nice hop aroma to add to the refreshing qualities of the beer–and hey, this is homebrew, so I have unlimited creative freedom here. I will let you know how it turns out.


May Day Mild

For a 3 gallon (11.5L) batch

1.25kg Maris Otter malt
0.25kg 40L Crystal malt
0.15kg Amber malt
0.15kg Chocolate malt

20g leaf Fuggles [5.2% AA] (60 min)
15g leaf Fuggles [5.2% AA] (5 min)

Whirlfloc tablet (Boil 15 min)

White Labs #WLP013 London Ale Yeast

Starting gravity: 1.038
Final gravity: 1.010
BU: 25.5
Colour: 22.0 SRM

Chilling wort

Comfort and bitterness

To say I’m unhappy with the results of Monday’s election would be a vast understatement. This isn’t the sort of blog where we’re going to dwell on that sort of thing, but suffice to say that this post is about two simultaneous feelings I’ve been having: bitterness and the need for comfort.

First the comfort:

If roast chicken doesn’t really require a recipe, then this is especially the case with chicken soup, right?  Sure, but since I was threatened with divorce–in the very pages of this blog no less, dear readers!–if I didn’t post about my chicken soup, here it is.   The recipe mainly comes from a cookbook Anna received for her birthday entitled, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily, by Jessica Theroux.  As the title suggests, the author travelled around the various regions of Italy, and met and learned to cook with Italian grandmothers. She talks about them, their lives, where they live, and gives us a sampling of their cooking.  We’ve tried a number of recipes from the book–gnocci, roasted rabbit, a rabbit sauce made from those leftovers, a sumptious chocolate and orange tart–and they’ve all been excellent.  But does chicken soup really require a recipe?  Well, maybe…

Whenever we roast chickens, we save the carcasses and stick them in the freezer, and when I make wings I chop off the wingtips and freeze those because nobody wants to eat those anyway, and they’re great for stocks. So we had a freezer full of chicken bits when I attempted this.  The quality of your stock is going to make or break this recipe.  I didn’t do anything special with mine, but I did arguably overreduce it so it ended up quite thick with a nice gelatinous quality to it that worked really well and turned this into a far more robust soup than I had anticipated.  The book has a recipe for stock that I didn’t look at before making mine, but kind of wish that I did since it calls for lemon juice that in conjunction with a long simmer “pulls the minerals out from the chicken’s bones, delivering them into the broth.”  I imagine that it would also contribute a refreshing lightness and acidity to the broth.  I will have to try this next time.

This broth, strained, and then simmered with garlic and then finished by poaching eggs in it made one of the most delicious chicken soups I’ve ever made.  It was so rich and flavourful and considering that it is basically just broth with an egg in it, was surprisingly filling.  We ate it as an appetizer, but served with some nice bread, or with some pasta in it, it would easily be enough for a full meal.

Chicken Soup with Poached Eggs and Herbs
Serves 4-6


6 cups chicken (preferably bone) broth, lightly salted
3 cloves peeled, whole garlic, finely chopped, or 1 shoot green garlic, finely chopped
4-6 eggs
2 tablespoons chopped marjoram or parsley, or a mixture of both
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

Bring the chicken broth to a boil and add the garlic. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Season to taste; if you used whole garlic cloves, remove them from the broth at this point. Crack the eggs into ramekins or small bowls, and while the broth is at a low simmer add 1 egg at a time to the pot. I find that stirring the broth gently between adding each egg helps to keep the yolk and white united.

Once all the eggs have been added, place the lid on just slightly ajar; be sure the flame is low, otherwise the broth could boil over, disrupting the eggs. If you prefer runny yolks, cook for 3 minutes total. If you like your egg yolks solid, cook for 5 to 6 minutes total.

To serve, spoon an egg into each bowl and ladle the broth over. Garnish with freshly chopped herbs, salt, and black pepper.

And now the bitterness:

While waiting for the CBC’s election night coverage to begin, I racked my IPA into a secondary fermenter.  Like the election results, this beer is bitter.  Unlike them, however, this beer will not only be easy to swallow, but positively enjoyable as well.  I’m really looking forward to bottling this one.  Here I am taking a reading of the beer.  It’s currently at 1.010 gravity (for you non-beer nerds, gravity basically measures the amount of sugar in the liquid.  As the beer ferments the sugars are converted to alcohol and you can calculate the alcoholic strength of the beer based on the difference between the starting and finishing gravity).  My starting gravity was a little lower than I had expected: I was aiming for 1.060, but got 1.054.  The beer is at 5.74% abv right now, which is a little low for the style, but certainly close enough.  It also smells and tastes delicious.  The body is maybe a little bit light, but it’s hard to properly judge that before it’s carbonated.  I’m pleased with it so far.

I threw about an ounce of Centennial leaf hops in the secondary fermentor to give it more aroma.  I’m almost regretting brewing a small batch of this because I don’t think it’s going to staying around the house for long once it’s ready to drink.

I’m planning on brewing a mild this weekend, so stay tuned for more on that.

Back on the brew

Most of my beer education happened when I lived in the UK. I had been working an office job in Glasgow and absolutely loathed it, when I decided to move south to join Anna in England.  I ended up finding a job in a pub–I had no experience working in pubs, though I had plenty on the other side of the bar, but me and the landlord bonded over our mutual love of Captain Beefheart during my interview–which ended up being one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. The pay was bad, sure, and my body wasn’t used to being on my feet for eight or ten hours at a time, so I would finish my shifts absolutely physically exhausted, but the job was for the most part genuinely  fun.  I also learned a tremendous amount about beer.  The pub had four hand pumps for cask conditioned (i.e. “real” or the much-derided “warm and flat”) ale–one was reserved for a local bitter, generally Brakspear Bitter and/or Hook Norton’s Old Hooky, then there was an ever-changing selection of ales from all over Britain. These were the beers I fell in love with.  They were fresh and flavourful, yes, but through them I also really understood the amount of variation there could be within the same beer style.  A bitter from one brewery in Oxfordshire wouldn’t be the same as one from a brewery only a few miles away; neither of those would be like one from Yorkshire.  I also learned a lot about beer handling.  Whereas kegs of CO2 carbonated beer are easy to deal with–you connect the valve to the keg, close it, and you’re done–casks need careful attention and handling. It isn’t difficult to understand why pressurised kegs have largely replaced casks.   I learned to respect beer and how to properly appreciate it.

I really missed British beer when we moved back to Canada.  There are plenty of great breweries and brewpubs around–many of which have recently started serving cask-conditioned beer–but nobody does proper British-style ales.  I guess I had been moaning about this for a while when Anna got me a homebrewing kit for my birthday a few years ago.  I could finally make these beer styles at home.  And I did, with various degrees of success.  The great thing about homebrewing is that if you’re careful enough you can make excellent beer at home and you aren’t limited to what is commercially available.  And then I ended up turning a hobby into a paid job.

The problem for me with working in a brewery–though many of my co-workers haven’t had the same problem–is that I didn’t feel particularly inspired to come home after a day or a week of work and do what is effectively my job for pleasure, though without pay, and without the benefit of machines, pumps, or a staffed bottling line.  And while I could have spent money on ways to to lessen this work–buying heat exchangers, kegging systems, and the like–I chose instead to spend money on guitars and amplifiers.  Plus I get more than enough beer to drink from work.  But I’ve started getting a little bit bored with the beer I’ve been drinking, and there were some hops available at work for the homebrewers, so I thought, hey, I actually enjoy brewing (bottling that beer, not so much), so why not brew a smaller amount?  So off I went to the local homebrew store to pick up a 3 gallon carboy, some new plastics, and some grain.  The hops are all American varieties that will lend themselves well to an India Pale Ale, so that’s what I’ll brew.

First things first, though.  I need a decent selection of music to brew to.  The theme of this beer is apparently DOOM, so here is Winter’s Into Darkness LP, St. Vitus’ Mournful Cries LP, and the self-titled Black Sabbath LP. In reality, this was about enough music to bring me to the start of the boil so there ended up being a little bit of Judas Priest (British Steel) and a few spins of the St. Vitus record.  Will the beer be infused with tremendous riffs?  I hope so.

The first stage in brewing is the mash.  This is basically a thick porridge of crushed malted barley and water held at a given temperature for a length of time.  The mash is important because this is where the starches in the grain are converted to fermentable sugars, and the mash temperature determines the final character of the beer.  I wanted to mash at 149F–a fairly low mash temperature–to make the beer more fermentable because I’d like my IPA to be fairly dry.


The next stage is lautering, which is basically extracting the sweet liquid from the grains.  Here I have a plastic bucket drilled out and fitted with a spigot and lined with a mesh net that is draining into my brew pot. The purpose here is twofold: first, you want to rinse the grains with hot (170F) water to stop the enzymatic conversion of the grains, and you also want to get as much of the barley-sweetened liquid in your brew pot as is possible. I probably should have a length of plastic hose attached to the end of the spigot to reduce aeration…maybe next time.


The next stage is the boil.  Here I am weighing out the hops for it.  I have Summit, Amarillo, and Centennial hop pellets that I’ll use in the kettle, and a bag of Centennial leaf hops that I’ll use later for dry hopping the beer.  I put them in the picture because they look pretty.  These hops have a very typical “American” flavour, which is to say piney and citrusy.  They’ll be perfect with an American-style IPA.


Here’s the boil.  Unlike with, say, wine, the entire volume of beer needs to be boiled.  You can get around this if you’re using malt extracts instead of whole grains–you’ll still need to do a boil, but it can be topped up with water after the fact–and one of the reasons I decided to do a three gallon batch is that it’s possible to do it on a stovetop.  Boiling five or six gallons of beer requires a pretty big pot, which may or may not be convenient to use in your kitchen.  The boil is where you add the hops.  If you add them earlier in the boil, you’ll extract more bitterness from them; later will extract more aroma from them.  I put in Summit near the start and about half way through the boil because it has the highest alpha acids (i.e. bittering potential) of the hops I’m using, then added Centennial and Amarillo later, and then again, just as the boil finished to make the beer as aromatic as possible. Once the boil is finished, the beer needs to be cooled as quickly as possible to prevent bacterial infection.

The boil
My first and only real hiccup of the day was after I’d started the boil and realised that I didn’t have anything to sanitise the carboy I’m fermenting the beer in.  Sanitation is the single most important aspect of brewing.  If your equipment isn’t sanitary, you’re going to have horrible tasting beer.  This isn’t such a big deal before the boil, where simply cleanliness is enough, but once the beer is cooled, things have to be sanitary.  I ran to the store to buy a bottle of bleach.  Small amounts of bleach diluted in water is a cheap and effective sanitiser.  I found that the easiest way to do this was to put my carboy in the shower with a funnel attached to it, pour some bleach into it, and then let the shower fill it, and let it sit for a minimum of half an hour.  And then it is of course thoroughly rinsed.

As I said above, it’s important that the beer is cooled right away to prevent infection, but also to get the beer down to a temperature when you can pitch it with yeast without killing the yeast.  The temperature you pitch the yeast at will influence the flavor of the finished beer.  Warmer temperatures means that there will be more yeasty, estery flavours in the beer; there will be fewer with a lower pitching/fermentation temperature.  There are plenty of ways to chill the beer and homebrewers have devised all sorts of ways to efficiently do this, but because I’m keeping it simple, I immersed the pot in a cold bath.  It took about 45 minutes to cool it down to 71F, I then  transferred the beer from the pot to a six gallon carboy and pitched the yeast.  Here’s how it looks.  There’s a lot of residue from the hops at the bottom of the fermenter, and I tried to avoid this, but it shouldn’t have too much of an effect on the beer.  I will probably have less final volume than I wanted.  Something to work on for next time.

Not yet beer

The beer is happily bubbling away at the moment, but it will be about a month before I can drink it.  Check back for updates!