Friday, December 25, 2009

SR1: It's alive!

Wow, yeast sure do produce a lot of carbonation. I mean a lot.
I popped my SR1 batch of Whitey's Pale Ale (if I play with the recipe, I'll rename it Honkey's) into the basement closet with an overflow hose and bucket. Following Charlie Papazian's instructions, I swapped the hose and bucket for the bubbler three days later. The yeast was a little slow to get started, but 48 hours after going into the closet, the fermenter was
belching excess foam and carbonation into the Ale Pale. So all seemed on pace when I stuck the bubbler on.
Well, sort of. As I was swapping the hose for the bubbler, I wondered how you knew whether the beer was finished foaming. Clearly there will be a lot more carbonation produced, thus the bubbler, but when will the foaming die down?
I didn't know, and still don't, so I followed Charlie's instructions. I should have gone with my gut. Although I technically didn't need to check the beer until Jan. 11, when it's due to be ready, I decided to look in on it today. Good thing I did, the foam had forced its way through the bubbler and was spitting all over the closet. So I quickly sanitized the overflow hose and stuck it back
on. I'll check it again in another 24 hours to see if the yeast are going to slow down a bit.
I think that's the lesson here: the beer will tell you when it's ready to move on to the next step. When the yeast were still dormant at 24 hours, I should have waited at least an extra day to swap the overflow hose for the bubbler. Depending on what I find in the morning, I may give it another 12 to 24 hours.
I'm sure that Papazian is generally right about the time frames. And given how precise this process seems, it pays to stick fairly close to the instructions. On the other hand, yeast is a living organism and therefore not subject to rules or instructions. They will eat and fart foam for as long as they like. I have to wait on them.
Also, my pale ale is looking a bit darker than I expected. Maybe the color will lighten as fermentation continues, but if it doesn't (and it ends up being darker than Whitey intended) I have a theory. I think a little of the malt extract caramelized on the bottom of the pot while I was making the wort. The caramelizing in turn darkened the wort, which has darkened the beer. Again, the color might lighten up and all will be well. If it doesn't, I think I know why.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lesson of SR1? Chill the damn wort

The first batch of beer is under way.
I followed Charlie Papazain's recipe for "Whitey's Gone Fishin' Pale Ale" (though it does sound a little racist), which I figured would be easy enough for a novice, but allow me to play with the ingredients. For the most part, that's about how it went, but there were some lessons learned.
First and foremost: use cold water. That alone would have saved me about four hours.
I swung by Yes Mart yesterday and picked up five gallons of Culligan filtered water. Two gallons were needed for the boiling wort, the rest went to the fermenter.
Now, if I knew what I was doing, I would've stuck those three gallons of water into the fridge while I futzed around sanitizing everything and making the wort. That way, when I added the wort to the fermenter, I would've spent a lot less time trying to get the temperature down to 75 degrees, which is about the top of the range for ale yeast. Because I kept the three gallons of water on the counter, I spent about four hours trying to drop the temperature from 110 degrees to 75 degrees (76 degrees actually, but by then I was ready to move on). After an hour in the kitchen and an hour in my cool laundry room, I finally surrendered and placed my fermenter outside where the ambient temperature was about 25 degrees. Even still, it took just over two hours to finish cooling off that five gallon container.
Sticking the fermenter outside exacerbated my other major concern: bacteria.
Everything I've read about brewing, including Papazain, has been
emphatic about the need for proper sanitation to prevent bacteria from entering the beer. Fair enough. I sanitized everything I used yesterday, and initially everything went well. But when I had to keep opening the fermenter to check the temperature (first in the kitchen and eventually in the back yard), I started thinking about all the hungry bacteria drifting in and feasting on my sweet wort.
So at this point, I have to hope that exposure was minimal and the only organism in the fermenter is the ale yeast I added around 11 p.m. last night. I'm going to check the fermenter on Thursday to see how the yeast are progressing and swap out the overflow hose for the bubbler (By the way, for all the talk about maintaining a bacteria-free environment, I didn't see anything about submerging the end of the overflow hose into water to prevent unwanted organisms from wandering up the hose and into the wort. Odd.). After that, it's a matter of being patient. The beer is scheduled to finish on Jan. 11.
The other thing I learned was that I need a beaker. To take the hydrometer reading (to determine the density and eventually the alcohol content of the beer), I had to lower the hydrometer into the fermenter (exposing it to more bacteria). The neck of the fermenter is pretty narrow, so I had to MacGyver a twist tie and rubber band contraption together to hold on to the top of the hydrometer so it wouldn't get stuck in the jug. I eventually got the reading (1.037), but a beaker would make the task a whole lot easier.
Besides, I need to pick up some corn sugar or dried malt extract for bottling. It turns out the guy at the home brew supply store didn't give me everything I needed, which just shows that I should've carefully checked my order rather than trusting that he pulled everything together for me. Live and learn.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Reset: The homebrew revolution will be broadcast

It's been months since I bothered to dial into the old Gastronomy blog. Stories on DC Foodies have come and gone. I've traveled. I've cooked. I've met more brewers. Got food poisoning. Attended openings and plugged along with the food thing, all of which I chronicled on DC Foodies and to a much lesser extent, Facebook.
In the meantime, this blog sat. I started it to give me a space to add more information about the food columns I wrote for the Times-News. With DC Foodies, I didn't really need it. So posts became more and more forced.
Well, no more. No, now Gastronomy has a new purpose. This will be my new platform to share my efforts with you (and myself) to homebrew my very own beer. I'm psyched.
Once I got into craft beer, cooking and teaching beer classes, homebrewing was probably inevitable. Technically, I've already brewed one batch. One big, God damn batch at Shenandoah Brewing. Listen, I love beer, but five cases of mediocre hoppy brown ale is a lot of beer to go through. I brewed that beer in March and finally killed the last one in early December, and
that was after giving my buddy Tim a case for helping me brew.
Thanks to my lovely wife, I no longer need Shenandoah. She gave me my very own homebrew kit for Christmas. It's all the fun and excitement of a Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle, without the danger of shooting my eye out. Instead of
being forced to brew several cases of beer, each batch will average about 50 beers, which is still a good amount. And smaller amounts mean I can tinker with recipes much more frequently.
I think that's going to be key to learning how to do this properly: repetition. Not only will I be able to play with recipes, but I will also gain a better idea of why the ingredients react the way they do during the various stages of the brewing process.
With any luck, I'll occasionally end up with a few beers I can and want to drink. That's my first goal. Once I get there, I'll start worrying how to make that kind of beer again and again.
Instead of starting off with a weird and tart brown ale, as I did at Shenandoah, I picked up the ingredients for a traditional American pale ale (Amarillo, Sterling and Spalt hops) at myLMBS (My Local Home Brew Supply Shop) in Falls Church. And despite the urging of the guy at the homebrew supply store,
I skipped the beer kit and purchased all the individual ingredients for the beer. Although the beer kits may be quite good these days, I need to learn how to handle the indiviudal ingredients. I may end up regretting that, but I doubt it. With my copy of Charlie Papazian's Joy of Home Brewing at the ready (which I referred to no less than 13 times while talking to the homebrew guy), I think I can handle the process.
So as I go through these recipes and figure out how to be a homebrewer, I'll maintain a running log here. It'll give those of you who are interested a sneak peak into what homebrewing involves, it'll warn my friends when I plan to foist my latest creations on them, and it will help me keep track of my efforts and experiments.
As I said, I'm psyched.