“Let me eat when I am hungry,
Let me drink when I am dry.”
– Bob Dylan, “Moonshiner”
There is one thing in my life I am a bit unapologetic about:
I love beer.
It doesn’t have much to do with the inebriating effects of beer, while I’ll admit I do get a bit relaxed after tying a few down. Rather, what I enjoy about beer is the sheer complexity present in every different style of every different beer you can find on the market. Gone are the days where you only had several different straw colored pilsners to choose from, and in the past ten to fifteen years brewing in America has turned into an entirely different – and more creative – animal.
It’s also a bit of a mad scientist’s experiment, much to my girlfriend’s chagrin.
The idea behind brewing is actually fairly simple. You find fermentable sugars, add yeast to eat those sugars, and the yeast makes alcohol. Through several different methods, you then add carbonation, and eventually you have something resembling beer.
That’s it. Sugar + yeast = alcohol. Simple.
From that point on, it gets a bit complicated. I’ll admit, I do nothing to simplify things for myself – While you can buy the sugar, already extracted, and make your beer by coming up with a quick syrup and a few other simple additions, I decide to go all out and extract the sugars on my own – from pure malted grain – via a I built on my own.
So yes, sugar + yeast = alcohol, but in MY case, malted grain + controlled introductions of water at various quantities/temperatures + time = sugar.
This adds considerably to both the headache and the fun of homebrewing. Luckily, beer brewing also happens to be a wonderful beer drinking project, so in the beginning I cracked open a beer (microbrewed, as my last batch of homemmade beer was long-gone) and came up with a recipe with help from various forums and blog posts online. (Search Google for “beer recipes” and you’ll see tons of results and resources.)
I hope the non-linear nature of my posts hasn’t become too much of a headache, but I’m finding it necessary to go back and inform everyone of an earth-shattering reality:
I’m not perfect.
My last batch of beer ended abruptly and tragically, with my 6.5 gallon glass carboy becoming structurally compromised without my knowledge and shattering while filled with an entire batch of beer – a full day’s work – which overflowed and flooded my kitchen with sticky, sweet, lost potential. I told my girlfriend about this last adventure AFTER she agreed to let me brew at her apartment because I’m smooth like that. I figured, with the holiday season, it was time for a celebration, and a celebration always calls for a celebration ale.
Unfortunately, a celebration ale is impossible to define on this side of the Atlantic. Microbreweries in America – like Sierra Nevada – make an imperial IPA for their celebration ales. However, if you look at Belgian beers, a Noel is a darker, spicier, and highly alcoholic beer reserved for cold nights among friends. Being a romantic, I chose the more romantic Celebration Ale, and I decided to make a Belgian Noel for my renewed interest in homebrewing.
Recognizing my severe limitations as an apartment homebrewer with a finite amount of space, I have to admit I cheated a little bit. I always cheat a little bit because it makes sense to me. Here’s the thing – to truly utilize and extract all the sugar from my grain, I would need to mash and sparge the grain with at least 9-10 gallons of water. My kettle only holds 5.5 gallons, same with my new fermentation carboy. So, instead of worrying about getting all the sugars out from the grain, I simply buy a bit more grain. At $1.89 a pound, it seems simpler to me to buy more grain and do the best you can with your limited space. Then, it all seems a little bit less daunting, and brewing beer becomes even LESS of a headache.
Again, you need to work with your limitations here. Just relax, have a beer, and take it all one step at a time.
So after you come up with your formula, endured several headaches, taken a few Tylenol, and looked through hundreds of recipes, you come up with your formula and buy your grain and use your tun and extract your sugars… but then what?
Then, you boil the heck out of it!
A key step in homebrewing is sanitation. Many brewers at microbreweries across the country will describe themselves as glorified janitors, and it’s truly the case. Yeast needs to be present to eat the sugar and make alcohol, but your kitchen, your living room, and basically your entire house is a breeding ground for wild yeast strains. (Yes, yeast is a fungus. No, this isn’t disgusting.) On top of that, yeast loves nothing more than beer wort. It’s like placing Aunt Bee’s pie out on the sill and expecting Opie to just let it get cold.
My solution for the sanitation issue came in the form of a camp burner that hooks up to a full size propane tank. This thing cost me forty bucks and keeps five and a half gallons at a rolling boil for as long as I need it to. Most beers call for at least sixty minutes of boil time, but this one took ninety, which is typical of your highly alcoholic beers – you basically get rid of as much water as possible, then you have more fermentable sugar per liter.
Believe it or not, I didn’t intend this to become a science experiment, but I have to be honest… the process of brewing is absolutely fascinating, and I only understand what I’m doing a quarter of the time. For instance, I know my process has the benefit of activating alpha and beta-amalyse sugars. I have no damn clue what either of those are.
After you get your beer boiled, you need to completely destroy your last train of thought. Just shut that guy down like he’s late on rent, and instead you make your wort into a habitable environment for the yeast you WANT in your beer – that is, your brewing yeast, which is also available at the homebrew store. So, you cool it down as much as possible as quickly as possible without introducing any dirty equipment. My method is very… ghetto. I take the boiling pot off the burner, put a sanitized lid on it, and place the entire pot into an ice bath. I keep adding ice as it melts and hope for the best over the next 45 minutes, then I do my best not to spill any beer and pour it into my carboy via a funnel. (All this equipment is sanitized, remember.)
If I make it this far, I laugh in relief and quickly drink a beer.
Then, I pitch my yeast.
Now what? Now we get to drink it? NO WAY! Now we wait for two weeks for the yeast to do it’s thing. Then do we get to drink it? NO WAY! Then we bottle it and wait for it to get carbonated. Basically, what I’m saying is… further bulletins as events warrant. But I hope it’s been informative and you all appreciate beer that much more!