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.
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.
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!