Saturday, December 15, 2012

Brew day!

A few months ago I was approached by Spark editor Rob Kalesse, who proposed a challenge: he and I -- two guys with a lot of experience behind the bottle, but none behind the kettle -- would each brew a beer, then have our beers judged by a panel of experts. The whole process would be unflinchingly documented in print and social media.

Some have been surprised to hear that I, a well-known lover of beer, have not taken up homebrewing before now. The fact is that I already have more hobbies than I can pay enough attention to, and I don't want to get into something as time- and equipment-intensive as brewing without being able to do it properly. On top of that, I'm more of a dishwasher than a cook. The mere thought of combining raw ingredients and adding heat fills me with anticipation of failure.

Yet Rob's proposition struck me as an irresistible challenge. Reporting about beer over the last year, I have discovered that homebrewing is booming in popularity right along with the craft beer movement. Almost everyone I've talked to is brewing and loving it. So, in the interest of science, and to feel that my finger is truly on the pulse of local beer culture, I decided that I should take the plunge myself. Well, for those reasons, and for the delectable possibility of mopping the floor with Rob's face.

Through a volley of emails, Rob and I refined our ideas. We would both start with the same recipe (a brown ale), then each team up with a local brewmaster who would advise us. After heavy deliberation, we finally agreed upon a name for the contest: "Kettle to the Medal."

On a Thursday in early November, we met for lunch at Wilmington's Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant to get things kicked off with our brewmaster advisers. Brian Finn, head brewer at the very brewpub where we were gathered, would be teaming up with Rob. In October, his black IPA took a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

My partner would be Ric Hoffman, the head brewer at Stewart's Brewing Company in Bear. He, too, was a recent GABF medalist, winning a silver for his oyster stout.

Over the next few days, Ric and I began to exchange emails, and right up front I let him know my position: I want to learn as much as I can through this experience, and it will be great if our News Journal and Spark readers get some entertainment from it, but the bottom line is, I want my beer to taste better than Rob's, and I to want win that medal. Ric seemed to be OK with that. He sent a stream of suggestions about equipment, ingredients, and... hygiene?

You know that thing about being more of a dishwasher than a cook? Happily, it turns out that dishwashing chops are practically as important to beer making as cooking skills are. Among the first words of advice Ric sent me: "Literally every surface you encounter and every cubic inch of air is inundated with organisms that wish nothing more than to ruin the beautiful wort you brew."

Oh, no you don't, you filthy, conniving organisms! You will not ruin my beautiful wort! I resolved to carefully maintain sterilization throughout the brewing, fermenting, and bottling processes. My reasoning was that if my opponent is anything like the stereotypical guy (which is to say, inclined toward slovenliness), I might gain a slight advantage over him through meticulous hygiene.

Rob picked up our ingredient kits from How Do You Brew, the brewing supply store at The Shoppes at Louviers in Newark. The recipe was for an English brown ale, a classic style that's not too complex, so pretty forgiving to brew. Ric and I gave some thought to gamesmanship: how were Rob and Brian likely to alter the recipe, and what could we do that would be as good or better without adding too much complexity? My idea was to add calcium sulfate to the water, a time-honored method to mimic the waters of Burton-upon-Trent, home of many great English ales. Ric's suggestion was to "Americanize" the beer a bit by increasing the amount of finishing hops.

Recipe in hand, ingredients acquired and equipment borrowed, I swept the fallen leaves from my back patio and set up the propane turkey cooker. I flicked a lighter and heard a concussive rip as flame took hold under the five gallon stainless steel kettle, into which I had poured about two and a half gallons of water. Nearby sat a plastic fermenting bucket filled with disinfectant solution, and inside that soaked a chiller made of coiled copper, a big industrial-strength cooking spoon long enough to reach the bottom of the kettle, and a few other odds and ends that needed to be germ free.

This gray, slightly windy morning felt well-suited to standing beside a roiling cauldron, engaged in a craft of ancient origins. I cut open the plastic bags containing dried malt extract and deeply inhaled the fresh, cereal-like aroma before stirring it a little at a time into the kettle. I wanted to absorb the full sensory experience of each ingredient so I would understand its contribution to the final product. Three pounds of liquid malt extract also went into the pot -- along with the blade of the cheap kitchen spatula I was using to coax the viscous, honey-like extract out of its can. (I recovered the blade intact and made a note use better quality instruments next time.)

Next into the kettle went the intensely pungent Willamette hop pellets. To a lover of hoppy American IPAs, this smell is nearly as mouthwatering as garlic sautéing in olive oil. I stirred in one ounce of pellets with the malt at the start of the boil to provide a balancing bitterness. Another ounce went in after 45 minutes to lend more complex hop flavors. I added one more ounce just before the end of the boil to give the aroma of the finished beer a bit of musty herbal character.

After sixty minutes of boiling and stirring, I killed the flame under the kettle and poured its contents (with a great deal of sloshing) into the fermenting bucket. I immersed the chiller into the steaming wort, connected a garden hose to its feed tube and unfurled its drain tube onto the lawn. I monitored the temperature of the wort with a candy thermometer while cold water coursed through the copper coil. It started near 200F, but after about ten minutes had dropped all the way down to 70F degrees -- the optimum temperature for introducing yeast.

Two days earlier I had made some yeast "starter" by boiling a cup of powdered malt extract in about a quart of water, then cooling it and adding the yeast packet from the kit. "This allows the yeast to start reproducing and increasing in vigor before adding it to the main batch," Ric wrote.

With yeast added to the wort, my brew day was essentially done. I moved the fermenter to my basement laundry room, where it would hold a fairly stable temperature within a few degrees of 70F. I sealed the fermenter's lid and added an airlock, which enables byproduct gasses to escape from the bucket without letting in air saturated with filthy, conniving microorganisms.

At this point the beer's fate is completely in the hands of the yeast, which will quietly digest sugar and excrete alcohol. After a few days with no real role to play in the beer's development, I found myself sitting on the basement floor with a stopwatch in my hand, timing the minutes between bubbles in the fermenter's airlock like a nervous father-to-be timing his wife's labor contractions. Total cessation of bubbles will signal that the beer is ready to be bottled. I'm still not there yet.

This is how I dipped a cautious toe into the waters of homebrewing. (Not literally, of course -- that would be highly unsanitary.) If it starts to look like the first step on the slippery slope towards brewing obsession, I'm sure my wife will do her best to break my fall.

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