I will admit that when we first started homebrewing I found the process fairly confounding. It’s not that I couldn’t wrap my head around the basic principles of fermentation — the combination of active yeast and sugary treats for said yeast — or that I didn’t enjoy the undertaking, simply that I found it difficult to differentiate between significant and insignificant steps in the affair. With no scientific background (save the two intensive years of highschool chemistry with an ice-queen teacher so terrifying I still have nightmares about her…) I was forced to approach things with the attitude I’ve come to adopt in life generally, one characterized by the fact that everything matters. This is not always the smartest approach.
All this to say we’re not suddenly experts, nor is the process a breeze, but things have become considerably easier, and with each new brew we learn an immense amount of practical knowledge. Almost hilariously now, when we begin a brew day we laugh at the previous one, making fun of how much it sucked when we did that sucky thing! Or many sucky things!
For example, we now have a malt mill so that Patrick isn’t forced to fill Ziploc bags with grain and crush it with an Erdinger bottle employing a rolling pin motion. We also ‘filter’ the beer before it goes into primary so that if we do decide to rack to secondary, the wand doesn’t constantly get plugged up with the swamp muck/bog water/sludge monster that is suspended hops and proteins.
Another reality, and our friend who brews on a commercial level confirmed this too, is that no matter how much prep you think you’ve done, some unforeseen problem always arises. It’s never something you anticipated could go wrong and I imagine that a brewmaster’s ability to troubleshoot these inopportune issues on the spot, without forfeiting or contaminating an entire batch is just one of the deciding factors that separates the good from the okay.
Ultimately though, the point of these blog posts is to refer my meandering ramblings back to OUR beer, so let me talk a little bit about our last few brews. After The Hoppy Adventure (which was a malt extract brew) we did another malt extract beer, a chocolate espresso (from our local cafe Capital) oatmeal imperial stout, that was a disaster. I will talk about it another day though, when we see how well the yeast we re-pitched into it fermented…
The next beer was our first all-grain, a very traditional (read, don’t try to stick any god damn chocolate and oatmeal in there for kicks) german hefeweizen. We called it The Blind Woman and though it was a bit grainy tasting, as far as the efficiency of fermentation goes, it was quite successful. After consulting the two sources I read/listen to most on brew days (John Palmer’s “How To Brew" or podcasts, and The Mad Fermentationist blog) we decided not to rack to secondary, and bottled soon after the first stages of fermentation were complete. The beer was pretty enjoyable fresh and though I had flip flopped back and forth over whether or not I liked it, I just shared a bottle with Patrick and declared it pretty good. It has changed a lot over time. Unfortunately, and for reasons I still don’t fully understand, the head retention was particularly bad, which never looks good on a wheat beer.
The next two beers after that were brewed in close succession (2 beers in 3 days), and though neither are bottled I feel confident about them. The first was a simple gallon batch of India Brown Ale, the second a 5 gallon batch of hoppy saison. Neither have been named, but both are moving along nicely, having been dry hopped last week, ultimately waiting to be bottled this Tuesday. I’m worried less about these guys because I don’t feel that we royally screwed anything up. I would actually go as far as saying we done good. This is progress, folks.
Going forward I know that these batches will one day seem so crappy and unrefined, but I’m totally okay with that. We’re at a certain level right now and everything we’ll learn at school or from our bosses will change that. I suppose all I’m trying to get across is that as a brewer (however amateur), you’re constantly learning how to do things (more) efficiently, creatively, or put quite simply — better. (Don’t worry mom, that wasn’t me saying I want to be ‘more better’, just better).
There are so many variables in brewing that can go awry but I’m trying my best not to ruminate on any one mistake. And let me tell you, [me] not dwelling on mistakes is sort of a huge deal. What is my stupid point anyways, you ask? Am I going to spiral into some sort of self-obsessed period of enlightenment and try to publish a book called “Zen And The Art Of Brewing: My Fermented Path To Self Discovery”? No…
unless I could actually make money off it.
Documenting our successes and failures along the way means we may never get to brag Sam Calagione style and say that our first beer, dry-hopped with lizards was a total success! It also gives us some sort of foundation to build from — one that will, further down the road, (hopefully) help to show how much we’ve improved.
So, I guess that means that one day I’ll have to tell you about the time Patrick tried to carbonate a stout with PopRocks…