Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My Sunday Brew-venture...Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mash-tun

Well, may not know this about me, but I've actively participating in the making of several homebrew beers. Real homebrewing. Not that kit your grandma got you at Linens and Things.

The level of involvement has varied (you'll see what I mean when you read below), but after my most recent adventure I thought "What a great story for my blog!" Except, I don't really know what any of this beer stuff is... Sometimes I'm the go-to-girl for dicing 10 pounds of beer-destined peaches. Sometimes I'm taken to the Homebrew store, where I wander aimlessly (as much as one can wander in a 500-sq foot store) looking at mysterious bags of grain and thinking disparing thoughts about the ultra-yuppie middle-aged men who come in to buy the "make you own wine" kits. Sometimes I sit on the couch and blog while the guys do all unsavory work...which to me means heavy lifting and/or being outside when it's cold.

Anyway the point is when it comes to homebrew, I don't really know what I'm talking about. So, I've asked my good friend Cody to grace us with a guest post. Fingers crossed it'll become a regular feature here at DC Raconteur. Enjoy!

As a Home Brewer, much like any skilled hobby that results in the creation of something new, your toughest critic will always be yourself. So, there really are no boundaries as to what lengths you will go to to attain that perfectly crafted pint that you have already seen, smelled and tasted in your mind.

My friend Pete and I recently partook in such an adventure to try and capture the essence of a Holiday Ale we both envisioned. We have been home brewing our own beer for almost a year now (and if you’re wondering, YES, it is legal, we just can’t sell it) and have reached a point where we are not only concerned with the ingredients we use, but also the intricate (yet remarkably simple!) process of designing and brewing a good beer.

Water, Malt, Hops and Yeast. That’s all it takes to make a beer, and yet those four ingredients account for (almost) every single batch of home and commercial brew in the world. Just like any food product, variety abounds and types of beers are limited only by the imagination (and equipment, as we were soon to find out) of the brewer.

Past beers we've brewed were derived from malt “extracts” which is a condensed, syrupy version of the grains used in brewing. We've made several solid brews using extract recipes, including our award winning Jalapeno Peach Hefeweizen, which took 2nd prize at the 2010 Brewer’s Association of Maryland Oktoberfest Home brew Competition. Some, including our most venerated apostle, Charlie Papazian (writer of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing), claim that extract brewing is just as valid as brewing with grains. Some brewing aficionados--and aspiring beer snobs--are of the opinion that a true beer can only be derived from “mashing” your own grains.

Pete and I figured a Holiday Ale would be a perfect chance to try out our first all-grain recipe. It would be no small feat--in order to extract enough sugars from the grains, we'd need approximately 14lbs of grains (compared to the usual 6lbs of malt extract we had used in the past). We would also need to design our own mash-tun for the malt.

The mash-tun is basically a giant filter (in our case, made out of a picnic cooler). It is outfitted with a toilet line and plastic tube that runs along the bottom to collect the liquid that holds the fermentable sugars to be used later during the boil. The boil contains most of the ingredients that will go into the the brew, which is later combined with yeast that will eat the sugars and in turn transform it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Without a mash-tun to filter out the crushed husks of your grains, you would be drinking a beer slushy filled with the equivalent of those popcorn husks you get stuck in the back of your throat at the movie theater.

Pete and I make the perfect combo for brewing. Pete is concerned with most of the details, whereas I like to imagine the concepts of the beers. He will usually get together the necessary ingredients for a traditional beer and I’ll try to think of unique ingredients that will compliment that style’s flavor. A perfect example is our Jalapeno Peach Hefe. We first brewed a traditional Hefe that was light-bodied and had notes of clove and banana. A perfect summer ale essentially. Brewers will often add fruits and other ingredients to Hefe’s to make them more citrusy or sweeter. We went a step further and added spicy to the equation. So, once we settled on a recipe found and executed by Pete I designed a tasting experiment to see what peppers and fruit would go well together (note to future home brewers, do NOT use habaneros in your beer unless you include a gallon of milk as a chaser). Despite the vomity/mouldy texture of the brew before we filtered it into bottles, the beer turned out fantastic and bested 33 other salty, old hop heads in Maryland. 
Before setting off for Home Depot we rounded out our brain trust with the DC Raconteur herself (or Strawberry Blond as I like to call her...  don’t worry, a brew to commemorate this bonny lass is in the works) and my Brit friend Emma (Worst case scenario it gives our trust a sophisticated accent). With the help of a few websites ( and a youtube demonstration or two, we set off for the hardware store.

What should have been a ten-minute trip turned into an hour and a half saga. When I mentioned earlier that I’m more of a big picture person, and Pete is the details guy, I meant that both figuratively and literally. I basically just looked at the pictures of the mash tun components without reading the print under them on how they would be used in the fabricated kit. So, when Pete pressed for reasons why a metal toilet hose needed to be chopped up and smashed on one end I didn’t have much of a reasonable explanation except for “that’s what it look like in da purty picture?” So, several minutes of surfing a smart phone later, we were able to get the gist of the necessary components.

Another thing I failed to consider (having not read the directions) was that we would need a hacksaw in order to fabricate our filter to fit onto our cooler. So, rather than shelling out the $12 to get a hacksaw, we skimped on the materials and jerry-rigged a less well-fitting filter onto a piece of hose. FAIL (well, kind of). In the end, we were able to filter the amount of malt we needed to create a wort, but at about the of the rate (add on another 2 hours to our process). It did though give us plenty of time to enjoy an awesome pie from Z Pizza (one of our few successful decisions of the day).

So, with our mash ready for the boil and a veritable meth lab look-a-like contraption in my backyard we managed to boil a wort that looked and smelled just as we had thought it might (a good thing). And since Pete was driving and I was riddled with bronchitis, Strawberry Blond was our de facto siphoner. In order to get the wort from the boil kettle to the fermenting pale you have to siphon it out so you don’t get all of the clumpy sediment (trub) along with it. This requires sanitizing your mouth (with liquor, what else?) and sucking it through a tube. You also get a sweet preview of the pre-fermented brew, which is always a plus. Unfortunately, for this siphoning the only liquor I had around was Brennivin, which is the national liquor of Iceland, also referred to as the Black Death and usually eaten with rotted shark. Think of a vodka (a really shitty vodka), but with more of a licorice/turpentine type taste. After that, we mixed in our yeast and prepped for the hardest part.... waiting, for about 3-4 weeks for our brew to ferment before another 2 week wait during the bottle conditioning (an additional amount of sugar is added when bottled so that the yeast will create some carbonation in the bottle and increase the alcohol content a tad bit).

In the end, our All-Grain experiment felt more like an All-Pain adventure (hold for laughs...), but if the brew turns out well (and I have a premonition that it will) it will have been worth it. Some things we learned this long (oh so long) day:

1) Using fresh, from scratch ingredients instead of extract may take a bit longer, but definitely makes you feel more connected to your brew as well as more knowledgeable of the actual ingredients. Think of it as making a cake using flour and a rolling pin versus making funfetti (although funfetti if EFFING delicious).

2) There’s a reason most DIY manuals contain WORDS and pictures...   if we could learn everything we needed to know through pictures, coloring books would be marketed to more than just children and diners at Red Lobster.

3) If you’re gonna stumble your way through a new project on a lazy Sunday, be sure to include several lovely ladies, your best friend (pause while reader sheds a tear) and of course a well-stocked fridge of Home brew
Editor's Notes: The Black Death was aptly named....Blegh.

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